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Phoenix by Chuck Palahniuk

On Monday night, Rachel calls long-distance from a motel in Orlando. Listening to the phone ring on the other end of the line, she picks up the remote control and clicks through television stations with the sound muted. She counts fifteen rings. Sixteen. Ted answers on the twenty-sixth ring, out of breath, and she asks him to pass the receiver to their daughter.

“I’ll go get her,” Ted says, “but I can’t promise any miracles.”

There’s a clunk as he sets the phone on the kitchen counter, and over the line Rachel can hear his voice get louder and fainter as he roves around the house, shouting, “April, honey? Come talk to Mommy!” She hears the squeak of the spring on the screen door. Ted’s footsteps appear and disappear as he moves from the wooden floor of the hallway to the carpeted stairs.

Rachel waits. She sits on the bed. The room’s rug and drapes smell vaguely like a vintage clothing store: a lot of mildewed fabric, a little stale sweat and cigarette smoke. It’s rare that she has to travel with her job; this is the first such trip since April was born three years ago. She clicks through silent football games and music videos without music.

* * *

The house where they live now isn’t their first. Where they lived before, it had burned to the ground, but the fire was nobody’s fault. That much was proven in a court of law. It had been a fabulous freak accident, written up in the annals of homeowners insurance history. They’d lost everything they owned, and then their daughter had been born blind. April was blind, but things could’ve turned out worse. That first house had been Ted’s before they’d even met. Glass block had filled a wall of the dining room, casting a grid like a net over the black-lacquered table and chairs. When you flipped a switch, gas flames danced magically on a bed of crushed granite in the living room fireplace. The bathtubs, toilets, and sinks were black porcelain. Vertical blinds dangled in the windows. Nothing was earth-toned or wood-grained.

But it’d suited Ted, the house had. He owned a cat he’d named Belinda Carlisle and let drink from the black bidets. It was a long-haired sable Burmese, like a bubble of black hair. Ted loved Belinda Carlisle, but he knew enough not to let her get too close. The cat looked clean until you touched her; after that you’d both be covered in greasy dander. To deal with Belinda’s shedding, Ted had one of those robot vacuum cleaners that scoured the floors all day. At least that was the idea. More than once the two had joined forces: The cat had diarrhea, and the robot scooted through it, crossing and crisscrossing the puddle all day, spreading it to every square inch of the black carpet.

When they’d been married almost a year, Rachel had announced that they needed to move. She was pregnant and didn’t want to bring a newborn into this world of filthy rugs and open flames. They’d have to sell the house and give up Belinda Carlisle. Even Ted had to admit the place stunk like a cat box, no matter how often they changed the litter or cleaned the rugs, and you couldn’t be pregnant around a cat box. Over dinner, she explained toxoplasmosis. It was caused by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii and lived in the intestines of cats. It spread by laying its eggs in cat feces and could kill or blind infants.

She was used to explaining the issues to Ted. She knew he’d never be brilliant. That was his chief charm. He was loyal and even-tempered, and Ted was a hard worker if you stayed on top of him and told him what to do. She’d married him for all the reasons she might hire a long-term employee.

She’d spoken slowly, between bites of spaghetti. The only way to mask the smell of cat was to add cilantro to everything. After her speech, Ted sat across the table, the shadows from the glass blocks making a contour map of his face and white shirt. She could hear the bubbles in his mineral water. It didn’t matter what Ted cooked; nothing looked appetizing against his black-glazed china. He blinked. He asked, “What are you saying?”

Slower this time, Rachel said, “We have to find a new house.”

“No,” said Ted, drawing out the word as if playing for time. “Before that.”

Rachel wasn’t annoyed. She’d rehearsed this for days. She could’ve paced it better. It was a lot to spring on him all at once. “I said we need to list this house.”

Ted closed his eyes and shook his head. His brow furrowed, he prompted, “Before that.”

“The part about Belinda Carlisle?” Rachel asked.

“Before that,” Ted coaxed.

It worried Rachel to think that Ted wasn’t stupid—that, instead, he just never listened to anything she said. She rewound their conversation in her mind. “Do you mean the part about being pregnant?”

“You’re pregnant?” Ted asked. He put his black napkin to his lips. To wipe them or hide them, Rachel couldn’t tell.

* * *

It’s still Monday night in Orlando, Rachel is still waiting on the phone. She peels the bedspread down and stretches out to watch the Home Shopping Channel. What she loves most about HSC is that it doesn’t have commercials. Diamond cocktail rings rotate in slow motion, glittering under halogen lights and magnified to one hundred times their actual size. The pitchman always speaks with a down-home drawl and always sounds so excited when he says, “You’d better hurry’n order, folks, we don’t got more’n a couple thousand of these ruby tiaras left …” Emerald solitaires sell for the same price as a jar of cashews from the minibar.

With the TV on mute, over the phone she can hear the neighbor’s dog barking. The barking disappears as if muffled by something. As if April’s put the receiver to her ear. Holding her breath to hear better, Rachel says, “Sweetheart? Boo-Boo? How are you and Daddy getting along without Mommy?” She talks until she feels like an idiot babbling to herself in an empty motel room.

This silence, Rachel suspects, is retribution. The night before her flight, she’d noticed her teeth looked yellow. Too much coffee. After dinner she’d prepared the bleaching trays and let April examine them. Rachel had explained how tightly they fit: Mommy couldn’t answer any questions for at least an hour once the trays were on her teeth. Mommy couldn’t talk at all. If April needed something, she’d need to ask her father. No sooner than Rachel had squirted the expensive bleaching gel into each tray and snapped it into her mouth, April was already tugging at her and asking for a bedtime story.

Ted wasn’t any help. April went to bed in tears, and Rachel’s teeth still looked like hell.

From the sounds that come through the wall, the guests in the next motel room are full-fledged screwing. Rachel cups one hand around the receiver and hopes her daughter won’t overhear. She worries that the line has been disconnected, and keeps asking, “April? Sweetheart, can you hear Mommy?” Resigned, Rachel asks the girl to hand the telephone back to her father. Ted’s voice comes on.

“Don’t stew about it,” he says. “She’s just giving you the silent treatment.” His voice muffled, his mouth pointed somewhere else, he says, “You’re just upset that Mommy’s gone, aren’t you?” A measure of dead air follows. Rachel can hear the carnival music and silly voices of a cartoon playing in the living room. It’s not lost on her that she mostly listens to television with no sound while her daughter watches without visuals.

Still directed elsewhere, Ted’s voice asks, “You still love Mommy, don’t you?”

Another beat of silence follows. Rachel hears nothing until Ted begins to placate: “No, Mommy doesn’t love her job more than she loves you.” He doesn’t sound very convincing. After a pause, he scolds, “Don’t say that, missy! Never say that!” From the tone of his voice, Rachel braces herself for the sound of a slap. She wants to hear a slap. It doesn’t come. Clear, speaking directly into the receiver, Ted says, “What can I say? Our kid can really hold a grudge.”

Rachel’s thrilled. The last thing she wants her daughter to be is a sop like Ted, but she keeps those words in her mouth. That’s Monday’s phone call, done.

* * *

Belinda Carlisle had been Ted’s cat since she was a kitten. She was an old cat when they’d listed her on various websites for adoption. Old and gassy. Only medical researchers might bother. When euthanasia had loomed as their best option, Ted called Rachel into the kitchen and showed her the cat’s fifty-pound bag of kibble. It was still over half full. He said, “Just give me this long to find her a new family.”

To Rachel this had seemed like a good compromise. Every day meant two scoops out of the kibble. The bag became an hourglass counting down their final days with Belinda. After two weeks, Rachel was no longer so sure. The food bag was still half full. In fact, it seemed a little heavier than it had been when she’d first made her bargain. She suspected Ted was smuggling kibble from another source. Perhaps he kept a secret bag stashed in his car or somewhere in the garage and he was using scoops of that to replenish the kitchen bag. To test her theory, she began to dole out double helpings for the cat’s meals. Rachel told herself she was giving the cat a treat, indulging it instead of hurrying it toward its grave.

The increased rations had barely fit in the cat’s bowl, but Belinda ate it all. She was getting fat, but she wasn’t getting any closer to being gone. Like the parable of the loaves and fishes or that lamp in the Temple of David, the big bag of kibble was always half full.

* * *

Tuesday’s call from Orlando doesn’t go any better. Each night, she and Ted make small accountings to each other. He’s raked the first fall of leaves. She’s implemented the initial on-site catalysts for satellite microwave transmission. He’s found a grocer that carries the cheese she likes so much. Rachel reports that she’s re-sequenced the protocol script for the pre-systems recharge matrix. She says Orlando is a terrible place to find oneself without children.

When she stops speaking, there’s a stretch of silence, as if Ted’s paying attention to something else. She listens for the sound of him keyboarding, doing e-mails while she talks. Finally Ted speaks. He says, “What’s going on there?”

He means the sounds. The guests in the next room are screwing, again. Actually, they’ve never stopped, and their constant moaning and shrill cries have disappeared to Rachel’s ears. The sounds have droned on so long, they must be a pornographic film. No one was ever that much in love. It makes her furious to imagine Ted has been listening to strangers humping instead of the progress she’s made.

While a sapphire hovers on television, Ted’s voice says, “Take the phone, April. Tell Mommy goodnight.”

To hear more, Rachel tries to subtract the sound of the freeway outside. She tunes out the hum of the minibar and the endearments grunted from beyond the wall. She hasn’t taken a drink since some Christmas eggnog three years ago, but now Rachel goes to the minibar and surveys the racks of little glass bottles, each priced higher than the diamond pendant on television. A dwindling countdown shows that there are fewer than five thousand of these pendants left. For the price of pearl earrings, Rachel mixes herself a gin and tonic and chugs it down.

Over the phone Rachel hears Ted’s voice. Muffled in the background, he whines, begging, “Tell Mommy about the turtles you liked at the zoo.” Nothing follows. Rachel feels a respect for her daughter that she’s never felt for her husband. For dinner, she tears open a minibar bag of plain M&M’s that costs more than a shopping-channel engagement set. For every bag of potato chips or candy bar she eats, another will appear to replace it as if by magic.

* * *

Rachel had confronted Ted about the bag of cat food, but he’d denied any cheating. Rachel didn’t cop to overfeeding, but she did point out that five weeks had gone by and Belinda Carlisle looked like a watermelon wearing a fur coat. Anymore, Rachel wasn’t much of a skinny Minnie, either. “Are you saying,” she’d asked, pointing to the food bag, “that this is a miracle?”

It didn’t help that the realtor who’d listed the house told them the living room smelled bad. The realtor said their asking price was two hundred grand too high for the current market. Rachel’s hormones didn’t help, either.

Ted and Rachel had argued. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they bickered almost every day. During that time, the level in the food bag rose until kibble was spilling out on the kitchen floor. The cat was so bloated she could hardly drag herself around the living room carpet. That was when their overpriced house caught fire.

* * *

On Wednesday evening, as usual, Rachel calls from Orlando. She half-hopes April won’t speak. That might prove that the girl’s inherited some of Rachel’s own gumption. As a test, Rachel asks, “Don’t you love Mommy?” Under her breath she prays the girl won’t take such obvious bait.

The world is a horrible place. The last thing Rachel wants to create is a kid who bruises like a ripe banana.

As if April needs further testing, Rachel says, “Let Mommy sing you a bedtime song,” and she begins to croon a lullaby she knows will melt her daughter’s resolve. Backing her up are the moans and groans from next door, those sounds without language that weak people make against their will. Rachel intends to sing all of the verses, but she loses her nerve when she hears Ted’s laugh. It sounds too clear. She guesses April has set down the receiver and walked away. That means Rachel has been singing to an empty kitchen. She ends by warning, “If you don’t say goodnight, you’ll make Mommy cry.” If no one is listening, it doesn’t matter what she says. She pretends to cry. She escalates her pretend sobs to wailing. It’s easier than she imagined, and when she finds she can’t stop, Rachel hangs up.

* * *

Rachel hadn’t invented the dangers of toxoplasmosis; she’d gone online and built an airtight case. This wasn’t crazy talk. Neurobiologists had linked T. gondii to suicide and the onset of schizophrenia. All caused by exposure to cat poop. Some studies even suggested that the toxo brain parasites chemically coerced people to adopt more cats. Those crazy cat ladies were actually being controlled by an infection of single-cell invaders.

The problem with educating stupid people was that they didn’t know they were stupid. The same went for curing crazy people. As far as the cat was concerned, Ted was both.

On the last night in their first house, as Rachel had later explained it to the police, they’d gone to a Christmas party in the neighborhood. The two of them were coming home. They’d been drinking eggnog, and as they trudged through the snow, she’d explained to Ted that he didn’t need to be such a softie. She spoke carefully, waiting for her words to stick. The footprints she left were splayed wide apart to balance her new weight.