Short Story Contest Finalist: The Mourning Dove

By March 14, 2016 No Comments

Written by L.E. Grabowski-Cotton

When Emily entered the kitchen that evening, she wasn’t surprised to see newspapers spread all over the floor, the counters, the table. There seemed to be less than yesterday. Then again, yesterday was Sunday so that wasn’t saying much.

Neil was at the table, immersed in The Times, slathering butter onto a piece of French bread. Emily didn’t say hello to him. After all, she was the one who had walked in – shouldn’t he be the one to say hello first? Or if he was too involved in his reading to speak, couldn’t he at least nod in her direction, acknowledge her presence? Emily pretended that Neil nodded at her. She nodded back. She opened the fridge and took out a container of spinach, a tomato, and a cucumber, and placed everything on the chopping block. She grabbed a knife out of the utensil drawer and sliced the tomato, making a salad.

The silence was unbearable.

“How was your day?” Emily asked.

“Awful,” Neil answered, offering no further explanation. Neil often gave one-word answers now. It was ironic, really, that a man who spent so much time filling his mind with sentences could supply so few of his own.

“What happened?” She stopped chopping, took a plate out of the cabinet and placed the salad on it. The lettuce was turning brown at the edges and the tomatoes had wrinkles in them, but maybe they would taste better than they looked. Emily grabbed a container of sesame seeds from the cupboard, a fork and knife from out of the utensil drawer, and sat down at the table across from Neil.

Neil continued to read, his eyes scanning the page in front of him. “A bus crashed last night. Right in the middle of Times Square.”

“That’s horrible. Was everyone alright?” Emily took a bite of her salad, then picked up the sesame seeds and sprinkled them on top of her lettuce.  

“No.” He didn’t offer anything more and Emily decided not to ask. He would only hand her the article in response anyway.

“You canceled your philosophy class, didn’t you?” Neil was both a scholar and a lawyer. He held a law degree and a Masters in philosophy and he always taught at least one night class each semester at NYU. Today was the first day of the spring semester.

“Of course.”

“Because of the bus accident?”

Neil frowned, but he still didn’t lift his eyes from the paper. “People are dying.”

“You mean the people in the accident?”

“I mean people in general.” He handed Emily a piece of the newspaper. She glanced at it. It was the obituary section. “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living… Marcus Tulius Cicero.”

Emily nodded. She decided a long time ago that Neil’s habit of quoting philosophers was a defense mechanism and, unless she wanted to engage in a two to three hour discussion, it was best to pretend he didn’t say anything at all. “But you can’t just cancel your class… can you?”

“Why not? Besides, what’s the point? You teach someone something and then that someone is replaced with someone else who doesn’t know that same something. And then you do the whole thing all over again.”

Emily nodded again. “Do you have another prospect?”


“But you’re going to start looking?”

“Em, please. Can’t we talk about this later? There’s a large fold-out section in here about long-term investments in infrastructure spending and if I don’t finish it in less than ten minutes, I’ll have to postpone my seven o’clock Newsday.”

“But Neil, you haven’t left the house in over five months.”


“So this isn’t normal!” She heard the high-pitched tone of hysteria entering into her voice. Hysteria was never a good way to react to Neil – he tended not to respond to hysteria – but she couldn’t help it.  

Neil didn’t respond.

“I’m concerned about us.” Perhaps if she took some of the blame and used terms like “us” and “we” she might elicit a better response. “We barely talk anymore. And when we do, you’re usually just giving me an update on what’s happening in Afghanistan.”

“That’s because we’re at war in Afghanistan… Or didn’t you know?”

So much for a better response. “And what about our plans?” asked Emily, unable to resist bringing up the topic that had been on her mind for months. “I thought we were saving up to buy a house and have a-”

“That was before.”  He held his paper in front of him so that Emily couldn’t see his face.

“Before what?”

Neil didn’t answer. But Emily knew what he meant. Before September 11th.

On the morning of September 11th, Neil had gone to work as usual. He was an attorney for David Peterson Law Offices, which was located on the eighty-fourth floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. It had been Emily who had found Neil his job at David Peterson. She met Neil three years ago when she was vacationing in Disneyland. Somehow or another, the rollercoaster that she was riding got stuck, and it took over three hours for the engineers to fix the problem. Emily and Neil were sitting next to each other and Neil struck up a conversation with her. While everyone else was complaining, Emily and Neil talked non-stop, sharing intimate details about their lives. Neil told Emily that he was looking for a new job and she gave him the business card of a friend of hers that worked at David Peterson. Within four months, he had contacted her friend, got a job at David Peterson, left Los Angeles to move to New York, and married Emily.

Emily was also at work on September 11th. She was a receptionist at Allure Day Spa located on Church Street, three blocks away from the Twin Towers. Since she and Neil lived in Brooklyn, Emily rode the subway every day to get to the spa. Her job wasn’t exciting or well-paying, but it was easy and it allowed Emily a flexible schedule so that she could pursue her studies. Emily was a Master’s student, studying Ornithology at Cornell. Since the university was five hours from Brooklyn, Emily would wake up at four a.m., drive to the university, take three graduate courses, and then drive back in the evening. Her dream was to work for National Geographic someday, traveling the world and aiding endangered birds.

On that particular morning, Emily was on the phone, in the middle of booking a pedicure, when her boss strutted up to the desk. Emily’s boss was a glamorous middle-aged woman who resembled a Peahen, or a female peacock. Her peacock boss paraded from one employee to the next in colorful designer dresses and four inch heels, her head held higher than necessary as she squawked out advice that no one needed or wanted.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” her boss announced, turning on one of the many televisions hanging on the wall.

“What?” asked Emily, gazing up at the television in confusion.

A shot of the Twin Towers was on the screen. Much to Emily’s horror, there was a humongous cloud of dark smoke billowing out of the North Tower, polluting the air above it and blackening the sky.

The next shot was of an elderly newscaster sitting behind his desk. With his sharp black eyes, dark skin, thick neck, and long nose, he reminded Emily of a raven. A bird of ill omens, thought Emily, remembering what she learned last semester in her Ancient Ornithology course. According to Native American folklore, ravens are messenger spirits who represent mystery, magic, and the unknown.

“What you are looking at is the World Trade Center where a large commercial airplane just crashed into the North Tower,” said the raven in a deep, authoritative voice. The Twin Towers were shown again. “We don’t have any type of relief up there yet – what in the – there’s a second plane!” A second airplane rammed straight into the South Tower, causing several floors of the building to burst into flames. “A second plane just hit! Now it’s obvious – we have a terrorist attack.”

This can’t be happening. Closing her eyes, Emily attempted to block out what she had seen. The tears came then, running down Emily’s face one-by-one, as if each waited to take its own turn. She couldn’t think, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

“Neil,” she heard her boss say, awakening her from her thoughts. She opened her eyes. Oh my god! Neil.

Emily disconnected the woman waiting on her to book a pedicure and dialed Neil’s office number. His phone rang several times, then went to voice mail. She pressed the automatic redial button, trying again. And again. And again. No answer.

A few minutes later, the spa was shut-down and evacuated. Even though it was against protocol, Emily was one of the first to leave. She pulled open the heavy gold-tinted door and was greeted by the pungent fumes of burnt fuel. Pinching her nostrils, she attempted to breathe through her mouth. It didn’t work. The smell seeped into Emily’s lungs, causing her to cough and wheeze. She released her nose and looked around. Lower Manhattan was enveloped in grey dust and massive crowds tramped through it. Emily had lived in New York for five years now, but she had never seen so many people at one time. There were working professionals carrying briefcases, old people on walkers or using canes, students lugging laptops, tourists hauling luggage, and small children clutching onto their mother’s or father’s hands. Treading through the smog in unison, they resembled living ghosts.

Pushing her way through the crowd, Emily attempted to move in the opposite direction, towards the Twin Towers. She needed to see which floors the planes hit so that she could determine if Neil could still be alive. But every time she took a step forward, she also had to take a step back to move around someone, or to get out of someone’s away. She felt like she was in the middle of an ocean, the waves of people crashing into her over and over again, pulling her away from Neil and towards an unknown shore.

A police officer wearing a face mask approached her. With his pudgy stomach, thick white hair, and red cheeks, he reminded Emily of a White Red-tailed Hawk.

Hawks feed primarily on small, weak mammals, recalled Emily. They attack from the air, diving straight into their prey and disorienting it before consumption.

Emily shuddered and took a step back, away from the officer.

“You can’t go this way!” the hawk shouted, blocking Emily’s path.

“I have to find my husband!” Emily yelled back, coughing in between words. “He works in one of the towers!”

“The towers have collapsed! You have to go that way!” He pointed in the direction of the crowd.

The towers have collapsed?!  Chills ran down Emily’s spine. Surely, he was mistaken. If the towers collapsed, hundreds of people were likely to be dead or injured. She tilted her head and looked up towards the direction of where the towers should be, but the smoke was too thick for her to see anything besides what was immediately in front of her. At least five more officers had appeared on the scene, and all of them were urging people to “Keep moving, keep walking!” Emily had no choice but to turn around and join the crowd.  

After Emily walked a few blocks, the smoke lessened. It was easier for people to speak to one another. By overhearing snippets of various conversations, Emily learned that the subways had been shut down and that the city was in a state of emergency. She would have to walk all the way back to her apartment in Brooklyn.

In an attempt to calm her mind, she gave herself the task of thinking of as many facts as she could about various birds. The first bird that came to Emily’s mind was the Mourning Dove.

The Mourning Dove is a slender, feminine bird. The plumage is brown and light grey with a long pointed tail and equally pointed wings. The Mourning Dove is monogamous and pairs often mate for life. Upon first hearing the bird’s song, some people will say that it resembles that of an owl, but the more meticulous listener can easily discern between the two. While an owl’s hoot is rhythmic and repetitive, the Mourning Dove’s song is higher pitched and less predictable.  

Unfortunately, thinking about the Mourning Dove didn’t make Emily feel any better. She decided she would stop thinking altogether and focus on walking faster. Gasping, she crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. She was out of the smog now, but she could still taste the remnants of fuel in her mouth. Her legs started to ache so she stopped running and tried to speed walk instead. An old man offered her a sip from his water bottle and she accepted, something she never would have done normally.

Three hours later, Emily reached her apartment. As she put her key in the lock, her hand trembled so much that it was like a tiny earthquake had occurred inside of it. Just as she began to turn the key, the door was opened for her.

Neil stood in the doorway, his lanky frame looking much thinner and taller than she remembered. It was like he had been elongated to resemble the shape of the towers. White ash was in his hair and on the navy suit Emily bought him for his birthday, a gift he requested more out of necessity than desire.

 “You’re alive!” Emily exclaimed, throwing her arms around Neil. He didn’t hug her back. His body felt cold and unfamiliar. “Why didn’t you answer? I was going out of my mind! I thought that you were-”

“He’s gone.” Without speaking his name, Emily knew who Neil meant. Brian. He was Neil’s younger brother and he also worked in one of the towers, as an investment banker for Daehan Trust Company. Two years ago, Neil had found out that they were hiring and suggested Brian who had just graduated from UCLA with his finance degree. Upon interviewing Brian, the company fell in love with him and hired him immediately.

“You called him?”
“I don’t need to. I saw him.”

Emily studied Neil. Normally she associated Neil with a Great Horned Owl – a highly intelligent, powerful bird – but today, with the snowy white ash in his hair and the distant look in his hazel eyes, he reminded Emily of a Bald Eagle.

“You saw him where?” asked Emily. The Bald Eagle’s eyesight is five to six times sharper than a human’s eyesight, recalled Emily.

“I saw him jump.” Neil turned away from Emily and trudged down the hall, towards his office. Emily tagged after him.  

“What do you mean?”

Neil didn’t answer. He stepped into his office and shut the door in Emily’s face.

“Neil?! Please come out. I’m really scared.”

She tried his doorknob. Locked.

“Neil? Please! I need you!”

Not knowing what else to do, Emily left Neil’s door. She wandered back to the living room and collapsed onto the couch. For a few moments, her thoughts were so incoherent that she couldn’t even make sense of them. She turned on the television. Every channel showed the same video of the planes hitting the towers and the towers burning, smoking, and eventually collapsing.

She paused on a channel with a female newscaster speaking in a somber tone over the footage. “In our review of the coverage this morning, it has become evident that there were people who jumped from the towers. We don’t have any information on how many jumpers there were and we are still uncertain as to the total number of causalities resulting from these attacks. An emergency evacuation of Lower Manhattan is in effect and all efforts are being made-”

Emily switched off the television. When she was calm enough to think clearly, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse. Seven new voice messages. After about fifteen tries, she was finally able to retrieve them. Most were just friends calling to check on her and Neil. Male or female, all their voices sounded like the cry of a Lark, lisping chirps proceeded by a rapid rising warble. No one had called who would have any information on Brian. For a moment, Emily considered phoning Neil’s mother and asking her if she knew anything, but just as she was about to dial her number, she stopped herself. Neil’s mother hated her. She was a Duck Hawk, a widowed cosmopolitan woman of prey who lived in Los Angeles. She used her sons as surrogate husbands and blamed Emily for causing Neil and Brian to move away from her. If Brian was missing or dead, the last person she would want to hear from today would be Emily.

In the end, she called the one person she knew who could provide some comfort, her best friend, Anna. Emily’s parents were killed in a car crash when she was two years old and the grandparents that raised her were now deceased. Thus, aside from Neil and a few distant cousins, Anna was the closest thing to family that Emily had.

“Emily? Thank god! I’ve been going out of my mind!” Anna exclaimed before Emily even had a chance to speak. Her voice was congested. “Are you okay? Is Neil okay?”

Emily couldn’t answer. She let out a long, low wail. Anna cried back in a higher pitched, staccato rhythm accompanied by quick sniffles. Emily responded with a raspy whimper.

“What did you see?” asked Anna.

Emily told Anna what she had witnessed, about the dust, the smoke, and the silence. She told her how Neil had been cold and distant to her, and how she didn’t know what to do. And she told her what he said about Brian.

“What do you think happened?” asked Emily.
“I don’t know,” said Anna, her voice becoming so quiet that Emily could barely hear her. “But if Neil says he saw him jump, he probably did.”

Now, five months later as she watched Neil switch from his six o’clock New York Times to his seven o’clock Newsday, Emily wished she had demanded Neil answer her questions. She was still unclear on what had happened that day and he refused to talk about it. The more she thought about it, the more she wondered if Neil’s inability to resume a normal life was her fault. Maybe Neil needed closure. Maybe she should have insisted that she and Neil attend the service for Brian’s death. Assuming there was a service. She had never received an invitation for a service, but she figured that Neil’s mother would have had one, and if Neil wanted to attend he would have done so.

Emily took a big bite of her salad. Enough was enough. Someone had to help Neil embrace life again and that someone was going to be Emily.


“What you need is a little feminine magic,” suggested Anna, when Emily called her from the office the next morning to ask for advice. After September 11th, Emily had quit her job at the spa. She was now an administrative assistant for Flat Glass, a Brooklyn-based company that manufactured window panes. It was even easier than her spa job had been, and Emily found herself with plenty of free-time.

“Feminine magic?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Oh, right,” Emily said with a knowing laugh. Actually, she hadn’t the slightest idea what feminine magic meant. Sex? Something better than sex? She considered asking for more details, but Anna was a Yellow-breasted Chat, and much like the name implies, prone to chit-chatting with Emily for hours on-end. Besides, “feminine magic” sounded like something that she could easily read about in a woman’s magazine.

As soon as Emily got off from work, she stopped in the supermarket and purchased the most recent issue of Happily Ever After, a popular marriage magazine. Then she came home, sat down on the living room couch across from Neil (who was in the middle of reading his five o’clock Wall Street Journal) and read it from cover to cover. There was only one article that seemed relevant to Emily’s predicament and it was entitled “Recipe for Love – Three Ingredients guaranteed to spice up your marriage.” The three ingredients were wear sexy lingerie, take an interest in his hobbies, and cook romantic meals.

Wear sexy lingerie? Emily glanced over at Neil.  It seemed implausible that after three months of suffering all of her marriage problems could be solved if she simply wore the right bra. Neil turned the page of his paper, unaware that she was staring at him. Emily shut the magazine and made a decision: At this point, anything was worth a shot.

An hour later, Emily stood in front of the sales rack in Adeline’s Confession, a French lingerie store on the Upper East Side. With its neon colored bras and panties, its wide range of see-through shirts and shorts, and its blaring techno music, Emily thought a better name for the store might be Adeline’s Indiscretion. She picked up a bra with green and yellow polka dots on it. Who on earth would wear such a monstrosity?

“Welcome to Adeline’s Confession,” said a peppy female voice. Emily looked up. A twenty-something salesgirl stood in front of her, her tweezed eyebrows raised in an inquisitive expression, her head tilted to the side. Underneath a see-through pink top, she wore the exact same bra Emily had in her hands.

“That bra is so comfortable,” said the salesgirl, “that once you try it on, you will never take it off. I mean, never ever ever.” She drummed her fuchsia fingernails against the clothing rack and tilted her head to the other side. A Common Flicker, Emily couldn’t resist thinking. A colorful woodpecker who feeds on ants.

“Yes, it’s very nice,” said Emily, quickly putting the bra down. “But it’s a little too wild for me.”

“Are you shopping for work or pleasure?”

“My husband,” answered Emily, deciding that the flicker could draw her own conclusions.  

“What’s your husband’s favorite color?”

That was easy. “Black. Black and white.”

“Does he prefer solids or prints?”

Even easier. “Prints.”  

“Okay, I know this is gonna sound strange, but I have to ask… Does your husband prefer breasts or butts?”  

Headlines, Emily wanted to answer. But instead she said, “Breasts.” Did anyone ever say butts?

A sly smile appeared on the flicker’s face. “I have just the thing.”

That evening, at precisely seven-fifty-six sharp, (a time Emily selected because it was towards the end of Neil’s seven o’clock reading of Newsday but before his eight o’clock New York Post) Emily strolled into the living room wearing a zebra striped bra, matching panties, and red four-and-a-half-inch heels.

“Notice anything different?”

Neil glanced up at Emily and nodded.

Wow. This was amazing! Anna had been right, the writer of Recipe for Love had been right, even the Common Flicker had been right. To think all this time, all she needed was zebra striped lingerie.

“Did you move the furniture again? Because this lamp is really bothering my eyes.”

Emily didn’t answer. She peeled off her heels and retreated up the stairs, back to the bedroom. She removed her bra and panties, folded them neatly, and placed them back into the Adeline’s Confession shopping bag with the receipt. She should have known better. Newsprint beats zebra print every time.

Even though the lingerie had failed, Emily decided that she might as well go ahead and try the second ingredient cited in Recipe for Love – take an interest in his hobbies. After all, Neil was always telling her that she should be more aware of what was going on in the world.

That afternoon, after she got home from work, Emily gathered several of Neil’s already-read newspapers, stuck them into two paper bags, and hauled them into the living room. Then she picked a few papers out of her bag and settled down in the armchair across from Neil.

“What are you doing?” asked Neil, momentarily raising his eyes from his four-thirty Chicago Tribune.

“Reading.” Emily motioned towards a schedule which she had posted on the wall next to her chair. “Right now I’m going to read USA Today. Then at five I’m going to read New York Daily News. Then at six, I’m going to read World News Daily. Then at seven-”

“Is this a joke? Or are you just trying to get me to hate you?”

“I’m trying to become more informed,” said Emily, in what she hoped was a calm voice. Although she couldn’t say for sure, she didn’t think the writer for Recipe for Love would recommend arguing as a way to reconnect with your spouse. “Like you.”

Neil didn’t reply, which Emily decided to take as a sign of approval. She picked up her stack of newspapers and was just about to start reading when she realized she had already forgotten which paper she was supposed to read first. No wonder Neil was always so grumpy. Reading newspapers all day was harder than it looked. She checked the schedule on the wall, then opened USA Today and read an article in the Life section.   

“I read an interesting article on animals just now,” said Emily. In actuality, the article wasn’t that interesting, but she didn’t think that saying that she “read a dull article on animals just now” would attract Neil’s attention. “It was about men and women who look like their pets. Or maybe it was about how their pets look like them. Do you think there’s a difference?”

No response.

“I wonder if we got a dog if it would look like you or if it would look like me.” Emily didn’t want a dog, she didn’t even like dogs, but the idea was entertaining. “Maybe it would look like both of us. It would have your nose and my eyes. Or maybe it would have your mouth and my hair. Of course, a dog doesn’t have hair, does it? It has fur. But it could have my color fur. I mean hair.”

Neil still didn’t answer. It was like he wasn’t even there.

Emily spent the next hour reading articles and attempting to talk about them with Neil, but he only mumbled in reply. Finally, after Emily asked whether he would consider purchasing life insurance, because, after all, it was better to be safe than sorry, Neil stood up and, without speaking a single word, pried the newspaper out of her hands.

“I was reading that!”

“Not anymore.” Neil picked up his huge stack of newspapers and trudged out of the room, leaving Emily alone to ponder whether Neil had any other hobbies she could emulate. No, she decided, after a mere three seconds. He did not.

Despite the fact that Emily’s first two attempts to engage Neil’s attention had failed, she was determined not to give up. Since “cook romantic meals” was the third piece of advice in the magazine article, Emily enrolled in a class at L’Academie Francais, a prestigious cooking academy on the Upper East Side. Since the class was on a Friday night, no one else registered, and it ended up being a private lesson.

“What would you like to learn?” asked the instructor, leaning up against a large wooden chopping block. With his thick black hair, tan skin, broad shoulders, and red shirt, he reminded Emily of a Red–winged Blackbird. An attractive Red-winged Blackbird.

Emily wasn’t used to interacting with attractive blackbirds and he made her feel uneasy. Perhaps after class she should go online to the academy website and submit a review. Beware of handsome blackbird teaching evening classes, Emily would write. Blackbirds are polygynous, with territorial males mating with up to 10 females.  She smiled to herself, enjoying the ridiculousness of this idea.  

The blackbird stared at her, waiting for some sort of response.

“I’m sorry. Did you say something?”

“I said, what would you like to learn?”

Emily thought for a few moments. “I’d like to learn how to make a meal that is almost impossible to eat. A meal that requires all of your energy, both mental and physical, but that is so delicious you can’t resist it. Something that forces you to be entirely in the moment so that nothing else, not even a front page article on the war in Afghanistan, can distract you.”

The blackbird blinked a few times, a baffled expression appearing on his face. “Usually people just ask me how to flame broil a steak.” He thought for a moment. “But I’m sure I can think of something.”

“What have you done?!”

Upon hearing Neil holler, Emily threw open the door adjoining the kitchen to the dining room and surveyed the room. She had been in the middle of cooking, and she wore a stained apron, potholders on both of her hands, and her hair was tied back in a hairnet. Aside from the agitated expression on Neil’s face, everything seemed normal.

“What’s wrong?”

Neil didn’t answer. Instead, he just raised his arm and pointed at the table, which was covered in newspaper and set with their finest china. There were also two glasses of red wine, a bowl of steaming linguine, a large green salad, and a ceramic pot covered in tin-foil.

“Oh, are you upset about the paper?”

Neil let out a huge huff in response.

“I needed it,” Emily said. “The meal’s kinda messy. I didn’t think you’d mind.” She had used Neil’s least favorite section, the Style section of The Washington Post.

“Of course I mind!”

“You can have it back after dinner.”

Neil glared at her, but sat down at the table. He unfolded the World News section of the Times he had brought in with him and started reading it. Since this was the section he always read before dinner, Emily knew this was his way of saying he was ready to eat.

“The food isn’t quite done yet.” Actually, everything was done, but she wanted to change and clean herself up. “Why don’t you come back in ten minutes?”

As if he knew she was lying, Neil picked up a fork, leaned forward, and stuck it into the ceramic pot. “What is this?” He pulled his fork out and examined the gooey orange substance now on it.

“Fondue. But if you don’t mind, I need to change so -”  

Neil grabbed some tongs and used them to place some linguine on his plate. “Is this all there is?”

Emily scowled at him. Honestly, sometimes Neil acted as though he was three instead of thirty-three. “Hold on.” She turned around and went back into the kitchen. A moment later she reappeared, carrying a plate containing shelled crabs and lobsters in her right hand and two mallets in her left hand.

“It’s lobster linguine and crab fondue,” said Emily. Using the tongs, she placed a lobster on top of Neil’s linguine and a crab on Neil’s plate. She smiled brightly. “Then again, it could be crab linguine and lobster fondue. Depending on what you put in what.”

Neil’s attention was fully on his paper now so he didn’t respond. Emily placed a mallet next to his silverware. Neil looked up and stared at it, momentarily dumbfounded.  

“It’s for cracking the shells.” Emily picked up her mallet and hit her lobster with it, demonstrating. “See?” Under Neil’s unfamiliar gaze, she suddenly felt awkward and shy.  

Neil picked up the mallet and hit his lobster. He kept turning his head from his newspaper back to his lobster back to his paper again. His rhythmic manner reminded Emily of a wind-up toy and she had to restrain herself from laughing.

“This is too difficult,” Neil said, throwing down his mallet.

“It’s really not. The problem is you can’t read and do it at the same time.”

Neil eyed her suspiciously. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”

“What? Made you a special dinner?”

Neil stood up and pushed open the door connecting the dining room to the kitchen.

“Where are you going?”

Neil disappeared into the kitchen. A few moments later, he emerged holding a frying pan and a large cloth napkin.

“Neil? What’s going on?”

Neil placed the frying pan on the table. Then he unfolded the cloth napkin and put his lobster on top of it.


Neil picked up the frying pan so that the flat side was facing the lobster and held it up, close to his shoulder. Then he slammed it down on top of the lobster. The entire table shook and the china vibrated, creating a dinging sound that reverberated through the room.

“Neil! Stop! You’re going to break something!”

Neil hit the lobster again. The center of its shell broke open, exposing its milky white flesh.  

“Stop it!” Emily leaned forward and tried to pull the cloth napkin away from Neil. Her elbow knocked into her wine glass. The dark red liquid spilled all over the newspapers on the table.

Neil gasped. He staggered backwards as if he had been struck.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-“

Neil stepped forward, reached down, and grabbed the edge of one of the newspapers. Then he yanked it out, pulling at it like a magician performing a trick. The china plates and glasses clattered to the floor, breaking into millions of tiny pieces.

Emily covered her ears and let out a small shriek. She watched in horror as Neil grabbed the edge of another newspaper, repeating the exact same “trick” three times until all of the newspaper pages had been removed from the table.

“Neil! Have you completely lost it?”

Neil didn’t seem to notice Emily’s distress. With his newspapers firmly in hand, he tramped out of the room. Moments later, Emily heard his office door slam. He didn’t come out for the rest of the night.

According to the writer of Recipe for Love, “If all three attempts to reconnect with your husband fail, you have two options – either give up and find someone new (in which case you should turn to page 43 for an article on online dating) or do something unexpected. Something bold that will bring him back to life.”

Emily shut the magazine and placed it on the coffee table. She had no idea what to make of this advice. No wonder the divorce rate was so high. Women all over the country were probably reading articles like this every day, getting frustrated by their lack of direction, and turning to page 43. She was tempted to turn to page 43 herself.

She glanced over at Neil, who was in front of her, reading his three-fifteen Houston Chronicle while he ran on the treadmill. Drops of sweat dripped down his forehead and occasionally he would tear off a tiny corner of the newspaper and use it to wipe his face.

Emily sighed. Neil was a lost cause. He had always been a lost cause. It was time to face it. As she reached for the magazine, her fingers accidentally brushed a picture frame. In it was a picture of her and Neil, taken when they went to North Carolina last summer. Neil took the picture himself, holding the camera up over their faces while they lay on their backs, snuggling next to each other on a beach towel. It wasn’t a good picture – Neil’s mouth was open, Emily’s eyes were shut, and they were both red from too much sun – but Neil said that she looked very attractive in it. He had even made the frame for it, constructing it out of a piece of barbed wire and decorating it with some of Emily’s old hair ribbons.

Emily repositioned the picture frame so that it had a more prominent place on the table. Then she picked up the magazine and turned to page 43. Without reading a single word, she ripped out the page, crumpled it into a small ball, and tossed it in the trash.

The next morning, Emily awoke to the sound of light tapping. She turned over towards the direction of the sound. Neil sat at her desk, typing frantically on her computer. The Boston Globe was open on the seat next to him and occasionally he would look down at it, trying to read and type at the same time.

“Something terrible happened,” said Neil.  

“Oh good.” That didn’t come out right. “I mean, oh god.” Emily sat up and rubbed her eyes. “What is it? Did your computer break?”

Neil shook his head. “I’m just using yours because it’s faster.” He picked a folded piece of paper up off her desk and handed it to her. “It’s serious.”

Emily took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. Someone was dead. Or missing. Or sick. Or maybe all three. But if this was the case, why was the information being conveyed in a letter?

She unfolded the letter and read it aloud. “Your subscription to the Zanprocity has expired. Zanprocity? What’s Zanprocity?”

“It’s a small esoteric paper for left-wing intellectuals with high IQs.”

“Oh,” said Emily, trying to restrain herself. “I should have guessed.”

“This isn’t funny, Em. Access to Zanprocity is tightly regulated. You have to submit a copy of your IQ scores to even receive it. And I miscalculated. I thought I had three more months left, but I neglected to factor in the price increase after they had switched from being a weekly to a daily.”

“I don’t understand.” Neil’s newspeak never made any sense to her.

Zanprocity has a small circulation,” said Neil, annunciating each word slowly, as if Emily was a dim-witted child. “It’s only sold at three locations in the entire state of New York.”

“That hardly seems like a tragedy.”

“Here are the locations,” said Neil, handing her several computer print-outs. “The first place you should go is Murray’s. It’s four hours away, so you’ll need to leave right now to make it back in time for my two o’clock reading.” He opened Emily’s bureau, took out one of Emily’s sweaters and a pair of her jeans, and tossed them onto the bed. “The clerk there says he has it, but just in case he’s wrong, I map-quested directions for you to get to Beyond Books, which is only an hour and a half away from Murray’s.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I know. You lucked out. Originally, I thought Beyond Books was two hours away, but I was able to reduce it when I selected the “no highways” tab in Mapquest.” He pulled a piece of paper off of her printer and handed it to Emily. “Here’s my IQ score. Make sure that you show it before you try to purchase Zanprocity. I’ve heard that sometimes stores lie and say they don’t carry the paper if you don’t show them your score first.”  

Emily stared at Neil, speechless. She wasn’t sure what disturbed her more: the magnitude of Neil’s addiction or that there was a newspaper that required proof of a high IQ score in order to gain access to it.

“But as I said, you need to leave now.”

Emily folded her arms across her chest and settled back into her pillows. “I’m not going anywhere.”  

“What! Why?”

“Because this is ridiculous, that’s why. You need help, Neil. You have a serious psychological problem.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Madness need not be all break-down. It may also be break-through.” He paused the way he always did when he quoted someone. “R.D. Laing. The Politics of Experience.”

Emily shook her head. “You’re avoiding the issue.”

Neil said nothing, but his blue eyes pierced her face with such a marked intensity that Emily couldn’t help but feel guilty. For the first time in months, she thought about how Neil had looked on September 11th. Like a Bald Eagle, she remembered. A bird that prefers solitude and wide open spaces.

“You could just go out and get it yourself,” she said, her tone softening.

“I can’t.”  

“Why not?”

Neil didn’t answer.

“Maybe you could you read it online.”

“Read it online?!” Neil’s eyes widened and his face turned red. Then he started breathing faster and faster, hyperventilating.

“Neil?! Are you alright?”

Neil nodded. He sat back down at Emily’s desk. A few moments passed. His breathing slowly assumed a normal rate. Finally, Emily broke the silence.

“What’s so awful about reading online?”

“First of all, you know that reading online gives me migraines. Second of all, the articles are constantly being updated. What’s the point of reading something if it’s just going to change a half-hour later?”

“So you’d rather just pretend that the news is static? That it doesn’t change?”

“Of course I know it changes, Em. It changes every god-damn day! Why do you think I read all these papers?”

“You tell me! I’ve been wondering that for months!”
“Because I want to know what’s going on!”

“But why does it matter? You never go out anyway, so what difference does it make?”

“Because Em. If I had been more aware of what was going on, then maybe -”

“Maybe what?”

Neil didn’t answer.

“Maybe you could have prevented Brian’s death? Prevented September 11th?” The words “September 11th” lingered in her mouth, bringing back olfactory memories of burning fuel.

“I don’t have time for this.” Neil stood up and stomped out of the room. Emily considered following him, but decided it would be better to leave him alone.

A few moments later, Emily heard the front door slam and the sound of a car starting. It sounded too close to be her neighbor’s car. Alarmed, she hopped up and scurried out of the room, into the hallway towards the windows in the foyer. She made it just in time to see Neil disappear down the street in his green Toyota Camry.

Without Neil’s presence the house suddenly felt cold and empty. What had she been thinking? Emily turned away from the window and slowly plodded back to the living room. This was a huge mistake. Neil wasn’t ready to take a long drive by himself. What if he got into an accident? Or, and this was a far more likely scenario, what if he tried to read a newspaper and drive at the same time? She pictured herself opening the front door to retrieve Neil’s newspapers in the morning and discovering that all the newspapers had the same headline, “Man resembling Bald Eagle dies in car crash. Suspected cause of death: The New York Times.” Normally she would have disregarded that type of daydream, deeming it as the result of an overactive imagination, but today it seemed like a real possibility.

Four hours passed. Emily spent most of this time sitting at the kitchen table, reading Birds of a Feather, one of her favorite ornithology books, and glancing at her cell phone. She kept expecting Neil to call and tell her that everything was fine, that it had taken him longer to find the paper than he had expected, and that he was on his way home. But he didn’t.

“I should have gone with him,” Emily told Anna, after she called and told her what happened.

“But how could you have gone with him if you didn’t know he was going to leave?” asked Anna.

Two days later, Emily found herself sitting in a tiny, overheated office, talking to a finch. Technically, he was a police officer, but his wide-set eyes, compact body, blonde-brown hair, and widow’s peak reminded Emily of a finch. An American Goldfinch, to be exact. There was nothing wrong with American Goldfinches, in fact, Emily liked them. They were often referred to as “guard birds” because they had specific calls that they used to defend their territory. The problem was that this particular American Goldfinch was only about twenty. It was just her luck that she would get the youngest, most inexperienced finch on the force.

“He’s never disappeared like this before,” Emily told the finch. He nodded, but didn’t look up from his typing. This small, inconsiderate act made her miss Neil even more.

“And he went out to do what exactly?”

“Buy a newspaper.” Hearing herself speak those words, she realized how pathetic they sounded.

“And how would you describe your husband?”  

He looks like an eagle, she wanted to say. But she doubted that was the kind of response the finch had in mind.

Back at home, Emily spent several hours staring mindlessly at the flashing images on her television screen; then gave herself the task of organizing Neil’s newspapers. In the two days since his disappearance, Neil had received over two hundred papers from places all over the country. When he came home he would be overwhelmed. Organizing the papers would alleviate some of his stress. She piled the newspapers on top of the living room couch and sorted through them, placing them in order of Neil’s reading schedule. Neil’s eight o’clock New York Daily News should go on the bottom, then his nine o’clock Neward Star Ledger, then his nine-forty-five Philadelphia Inquirer, then his ten-thirty –

The doorbell rang, startling Emily. She put down the newspapers and hurried through the hall to the front door. Standing on her tiptoes, she looked through the peep hole.

The finch stood on her stoop, a somber expression taking over his delicate features. He looked older than Emily remembered: his hair was thinner and the lines around his eyes were more prevalent. Swaying back and forth, he shifted his weight as if he had an invisible pendulum operating inside of his body.

Emily opened the door. “What’s going on? Did you find something?”

The finch studied Emily, as if trying to assess something. “Listen, Ma’am. I don’t know how to say this, but…”

“But what?”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “This is a list of names of people who were reported missing last year on September 11th.”

“I don’t understand.” Why would he bring her a list of people who disappeared on September 11th? Why bring that up in a time like this?

“Your husband’s name is on it.”

“No,” said Emily, shaking her head. What a frustrating finch! He had managed to get everything all wrong and make Emily look like a crazy person in the process. “Didn’t you write down what I told you? Neil disappeared two days ago.”

“I talked to Neil’s mother. She said she invited you to a service for both Neil and his brother Brian on October 17th, but you didn’t come.”

“She’s lying. She probably thinks it’s my fault Neil is gone and now she’s trying to punish me.” Then again, this time her mother-in-law was right. It was her fault Neil was gone and she probably did deserve some sort of punishment.

The finch nodded, but Emily could tell from the skeptical gleam in his eyes that he didn’t believe her. “Can you offer any proof that Neil lived here during the past year? A bill he signed? A picture you took? Anything?”

Emily thought for a moment. “What about that class I told you he was going to teach? Intro to Philosophy? His name would have been on the roster!”

“I thought of that. I’m afraid that the only Intro to Philosophy class the university offered was canceled.”

“There you go! It’s just like I said. Neil canceled it.”

“It was canceled due to low enrollment.”

Emily opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. It was bad enough having a missing husband. But what do you say when someone accuses you of having an imaginary one?