Author’s note: this story is dedicated to my friends Julie and Kirk and their daughter Matilda, because Matilda arrived in the world with a similar entourage, inspiring me to write this.
Though we live in the Internet Age, Sofia’s birth was announced in the usual way: a voice was heard crying the news from the sacred cave in Damascus (interrupting the congress of lovers in the condominium above); a woman fell down beside the holy well at Chartres (now a cathedral), saying, “She is come!”; and a spirit stood amid the burning lamps of the Pituk gompa’s altar in Tibet, waiting quietly until the monks understood, but since they know to watch for these signs, that didn’t take long.
Perhaps every mother feels—on a good day, for a brief moment—that her child is the Messiah. Only a few know for sure, and the news does not generally please them. Sofia’s parents, both professors at the Università di Roma “La Sapienza,” just looked confused when the angel Gabriel showed up while they were cooking dinner, alighting on the mushroom basket by the door, which never recovered.
“I’m positive I helped with conception,” pointed out her father Rafaelo. “And since we are—were?—atheists, I’m afraid God wasn’t on our minds at the time.”
“Yes yes yes,” Gabriel replied. “If you’ve glanced at your human race lately, you know the Divine does not to do anything the same way twice.”
Sofia’s mother, Catriona, looked down at her belly, where a bump the size of a small pecorino cheese liked to move about, first high, then low and off to the side: Sofia.
“At least that explains the animals, caro,” she said to her husband.
“Animals?” asked Gabriel sharply.
“They follow me around. Cats, dogs, pigeons, hawks, rats, foxes—any creature in the city. I walk to work and by the time I get there I look like a zoo on the move.”
“The odd thing is,” pointed out Rafaelo, “they never eat each other, not even when they disperse.”
“A sign of Universal Peace,” nodded Gabriel.
“That’s very nice, but someone has to clean up all the poop afterwards,” said Catriona.
“Ah! Not unlike having a baby, then,” said Gabriel. He groomed each wing with the air of one who has done his job. “Well! That wraps it up for now. Expect further communications as events warrant.”
“—But,” Catriona began, suddenly realizing how very many questions she had, yet too late, for Gabriel had ascended in golden state, leaving behind only fragments of wicker and footprints in the fungus.
Pandora had not known then what we today take for granted: Our houses are watching us: from the center hole in the ceiling fan, to the constellations of faces and creatures inhabiting spackles in the painted ceiling, to the creatures frolicking among the knots in the wooden paneling. So it was that Pandora was taken completely off-guard by the house’s incisive observations.
Pandora returned from the gym after a half-hour on the stair-master, which somehow felt like her work at Widget Manufacturing, Inc. She stripped to her Underoos and struck muscle-man poses in front of her bedroom mirror. She pinched her gut and slapped her jiggly thighs. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fattest in the mall?”
“Is that a rhetorical question, or do you really want an answer?”
Being self-conscious of her body and her silly underwear, it wasn’t the best of times to hear a strange voice in her bedroom. “Who said that?”
“Rhetorical, then. My father always said I couldn’t keep my reflections to myself.”
“What were you saying?”
“Simply that you have a body-image problem. Just accept yourself.”
Pandora stared into her reflection and nodded at it, slightly. She wrapped herself in a fluffy pink robe and stepped into the bathroom. She undressed in the shower, washed, and wrapped her body in a towel before standing in front of the bathroom mirror. “So,” she asked, “you think I have a body-image problem?”
The mirror snorted. “That’s one way to put it. All you do is primp and preen: Is my hair perfect? How’s this shade of lipstick? Vanity, vanity. I’ve never known anyone so damn self-absorbed.”
Shell-shocked, Pandora stared at her steamy reflection. Then she walked stiffly into the bedroom and laid herself across the bed, face planted in a pillow. After a good cry, she draped her towel across the bedroom mirror, dressed in her pajamas, and lay with the covers up to her chin. She tried to read, she tried to sleep, but her eyes kept leaking.
“Excuse me, Pandora. I couldn’t help noticing your distress.”
“Who said that?”
“Me. The ceiling fan. Look, I know I shouldn’t interfere, but those mirrors don’t see you for who you really are.”
“Thank you.” Pandora smiled up at her ceiling through bleary eyes. “It’s nice to know I have a fan.”
“Sure. Your problem is laziness: All you ever do is lie around.”
A. Portland, Oregon1. Grand adventure is calling! 2. Slide your ass out of bed. 3. Drink a Stumptown or three. 4. Clear IPAs from your head. 5. Gas up the Subie wagon! 6. Put on your old Birks! 7. You’re in Oregon camo. 8. (In the city that works.) 9. Avoid roads with bored cops. 10. (You don’t want to go down.) 11. Stash the weed! Crank some indie! 12. Head straight south out of town.
637 miles later (about 10 hours, 2 minutes):
B. San Francisco, California
1. Cross your choice of big bridges. 2. Pick one – pay the damn toll! 3. Go up and go down. 4. Don’t stop at stop signs – just roll! 5. Go up and go down. 6. Get lost and then again! 7. Do E with a homeless dude. 8. He’ll become your best friend! 9. Good luck finding parking. 10. (Though it helps some to pray.) 11. Kick the homeless dude out. 12. And head south to L.A.
381 miles later (about 6 hours, 26 minutes – up to 7 hours, 50 minutes in traffic):
C. Los Angeles, California
1. Oh! The freeways and cloverleafs! 2. Lots of lights! Lots of cars! 3. Oh! The silicone breast implants! 4. Lots of strip clubs and stars! 5. Don’t turn down the wrong roads. 6. Never trust a valet. 7. Careful snorting while driving. 8. Buy a hands-free coke tray! 9. Party at clubs with ridiculous covers. 10. Drive like you’ve got the heart of a beast! 11. Avoid being on a reality show. 12. Onward, the desert awaits to the east.
792 miles later (about 12 hours, 19 minutes):
D. Albuquerque, New Mexico
1. Take that left turn. 2. (You know that you want to!) 3. Make fun of the town’s name. 4. Just where no one can hear you. 5. It’s a good place for business. 6. And for jobs (Forbes says so). 7. But they drive like they have 8. Nowhere special to go. 9. So just drink some peyote. 10. View the great color fountain! 11. See hot air balloon fiestas. 12. Then head on up the mountain!
449 miles (about 7 hours, 11 minutes):
E. Denver, Colorado
1. Celebrate that you’re here! 2. Your adventure is done. 3. Drink beer and get stoned. 4. Pretend you’re in Oregon! 5. It’s the Mile High City. 6. Snow’s a beautiful scene! 7. Reflect on your adventure. 8. All the places you’ve been! 9. You’ve had traffic and parking. 10. Yes, at times you were vexed. 11. But it’s your destination! 12. Where will you go next?
Laura stood on a kitchen chair and shined the little red flashlight at the top closet shelf, but the only thing she saw was the yellowed contact paper: no light bulbs.
“Angie!” she shouted, stepping down. Angie poked her head in from the home office, formerly a pantry.
Laura walked over and put both her hands on Angie’s cheeks. “Sweetie, did we or didn’t we talk about the light bulbs?”
“Light bulbs … ?”
“About if one of us used the last one, we would write it on the grocery list.”
“Oh that! Sure we did. Do I get to call you anal again?”
“No, you do not. Because one of us–not me–used the last light bulb and didn’t write it on the list.”
Angie took both of Laura’s hands in hers, kissed her, then turned back to her computer. “Not guilty, sorry.”
“It wasn’t me,” Laura said. “I replaced a bulb three days ago, and there were still two left.”
“Still not me.”
“You know you don’t always pay attention to these things–and this is the third time we’ve been out since Christmas!”
“Maybe your Mom cursed the closet. She said she was a witch.”
“My mother is not a witch, she’s mentally ill. Remember when we caught her with that mouse?”
“Relax … your blood pressure! Now, please let me work.”
Laura stood for a moment in stupefaction, then shoved the kitchen chair back into place and shut the closet door with unnecessary force. She left the kitchen with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Blood pressure!” Angie sang out.
Behind the closet door, past the top shelf, through a gap in the ceiling that led to a crawlspace, in a long gallery only a foot high, a mouse sighed in relief. She nosed her two new prizes into place, wrapped bare wire around each of their bases, then connected the terminals. Finally she went back and reconnected a bit of insulated wire. The crawlspace lit up with dozens of light bulbs: Christmas tree bulbs, floods, standard lamp bulbs, frosted globes, and more. Many were masked with bits of colored paper and fabric over toothpick frames, so the mouse was surrounded with glowing colors, varied and warm and mixing subtly where they overlapped. The mouse sighed and lay down to sleep in her fairyland, soothed by the faint tapping of the human woman’s fingers on her computer keyboard below.