By Antony Buonomo
The orgasm had made a long gouge in the wall above the chest of drawers on one side of the bedroom. On the other side of the room, as it spread in a wide arc, it had dented the edge of a silver picture frame. Travelling, and weakening, the orgasm had then taken some paintwork off the door frame.
Marla had called the builder and now here she was, bending closer to inspect the damaged wall, running her expert, builder's finger through the grooved plaster work.
"All the way through to the brickwork…" She turns to look at Marla, impressed. Then she nods over to the small black box sitting on the bedside table.
"The guy… I'm usually really careful, but… He… He kind of caught me by surprise…" Marla said.
The builder raises her eyebrows, frowning slightly.
Marla shakes her head, "Nothing bad. I mean, he wasn't doing anything I didn't want. Just, to tell the truth, I…" She looks at the builder sheepishly, "I kind of underestimated him."
The builder makes a silent 'oh'.
“Anyway, we were having fun, and then at one point the giggling just stopped. And I realised the guy knew what he was doing. And…" Marla spreads her hands helplessly. “Before I knew it, I just had to let go.”
She shrugs. “Truly didn't think he had it in him.”
“He was kind of small and pudgy…" She trails off, looking into the distance of the night before, puzzled frown on her face. “Truly didn't think he had it in him…”
Then she gestures vaguely towards the Inhibitor. "So anyway, from experience I know I never usually need it, so I didn't bother to turn it on when we got back. And then…" She looks at the builder with a sigh, "then it was just too late."
"And the guy? Is he all right?"
"Well. Luckily. That model has a backup warning mode for the big stuff, so when he heard the alarm, he just dived for cover. It was one of those more focused ones," Marla makes a V with her thumb and forefinger. "Not a complete three-sixty…" She twirls a finger in the air to make a circle. "Think it just scraped his shoulder, but he's gonna be fine. Doubt I'll see him again though. Pity."
"And neither of you were wearing your Personal Inhibitors?"
"Well, yeah. But they weren't on … you know how it is, they don't mix so well with cocktails… I don't really remember."
The builder nods, "Good thing he didn't…” She looks away for a second, searching for the phrase, then she turns back to Marla, eyebrows raised, “Good thing he didn't…get there before you. You really could have got hurt."
"Exactly. Exactly. That's the upside. And I didn't blow his head off. So, all in all, you know, fun evening… "
They both look at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing. Immediately, sunny waves of light emerge from both of them, gently radiating outwards, glinting in the sunlight from the window. They instantly stop laughing.
"Oh shit…" Marla scrambles over the bed, ducking the shiny intersecting waves, and slaps the top of the Inhibitor. A tiny indicator light glows green. There is an almost inaudible hum, and they both grimace slightly. The builder puts a hand to her temple.
Around them, the golden laughter lines start to shrink and die, but not before one of the lines hits a perfume bottle and makes a gentle tinkling sound.
Marla holds her hand up, "I know, I know."
Later, Marla is walking through the park, coffee in hand. She hears a sniffing sound and looks over to see an old man leaning against a tree. His chin is buried deep into his chest, and his shoulders are shaking. He is crying.
Marla looks around. There is no one. She hesitates for a second, then continues walking past.
A huge sob from the man slows her, and she stops. She doesn't turn around to look at him, but she calls out to the old man.
"Hey… Excuse me. Maybe, just wait until you get home…? You know, privacy is maybe the best thing…"
An even louder sob emerges from the hunched and shaking figure.
She takes a deep breath, then turns and looks at him for a moment. She starts edging towards him. "Are you –"
Suddenly, she looks down. Her shoes are sticking in the dark grey ooze seeping from under the man's trouser leg. She jumps back, and automatically looks up trying to find the nearest Public Inhibitor. It's not very close, up on a pole, and its indicator light is glowing red, not green.
She steps around the expanding puddle of grey sorrow and tries to catch the attention of the weeping man.
"Sir? Excuse me. Sir? The Public Inhibitor isn't working… Please, could you try and…"
She looks at the spreading pool, "… It's getting quite messy, do you not have a Personal Inhibitor, is it not…?"
The old man wails. Unlovely stones of grief start to fall from his sleeves and his trouser legs, splashing and mixing with the sticky blobs of misery.
She looks around, but suddenly feels an itching all over her body. Impossibly tiny dark purple spikes start to form on the skin of her hand, then fall to the ground and disappear. She looks at them as they burrow painlessly out of her. They are beautiful and catch the light. She seems to see them as if for the first time. She's shaking slightly.
She realises quickly it's fear. She savours it. She wants to smile, and as her mood changes the spikes start to recede a little, but then the old man gives an animal howl that cuts through her and the spikes come back stronger than before.
She braces herself, closing her eyes for a second, then she reaches up to the elaborately decorated metal pin on her coat and taps it. A small green light starts to glow on the pin. The barest hum fills the air around her. The familiar vague feeling of numbness hits her and she blinks a couple of times. The sludge nearest to her begins to dissolve and the tiny purple spikes disappear from her skin. Slowly she approaches the old man, the grey mess of grief and anguish on the ground melting and parting for her.
As she gets nearer, he turns. A gentle face with big red wet eyes. His mouth and jaw still twitching. He looks hollowed out.
She reaches up and puts her hand on his shoulder, but he leans into her shaking and weeping. She hugs him.
"Okay… Okay…" She says.
In between the wracking sobs, he says, "She's gone… She's gone…"
"I know," Marla says, "I know."
She rocks him gently. They stand like this, in a clear island in the middle of a sea of sadness, for quite some time.
A little later still, Marla is sitting opposite the old man, Carl, in a booth at a small coffee shop.
"I'm sorry if I messed up your shoes." He says.
"My Inhibitor took care of most of it." She looks over his coat. "I don't see… I don't see yours. Are you… Do you have a licence? Like the clubs?"
He shakes his head, and takes a sip of tea.
"We did have them, but we only used them if we had to. Most of the time we didn't need to, we hardly went out, I worked at home, with… with Emma…" His breath catches, and he closes his eyes for a couple of seconds.
Discreetly, Marla checks the overhead Inhibitor and sees the green light. She glances at the floor under the table, at Carl's feet. Nothing new emerging. But some dried, crusty remnants of heartache still cling to the bottom of his trouser legs.
Carl continues, "We never really saw anyone. We had each other." He looks down into his tea.
"Do you know what love looks like? Real, deep, love?" He says.
She shakes her head, "No. That's Level One. I don't see much Level One."
"Warm pillows. Really warm. Pillows. About this big," he spreads his arms wide. "And they glow too. Each one lasts for hours. We didn't need much furniture and I don't think we paid a power bill for years. Maybe just a little for the cooking…"
Marla says, "I was expecting, I don't know, fireworks? Sparks? Some kind of shooting stars…?"
Carl smiles, "That's at the beginning. They're about this big, the sparks." He holds his thumb and finger a short distance apart, "Tiny. They're hot, but they burn out very quickly."
He leans forward, his smile is wider now, "Walking in the rain was the best thing. You can't imagine. When it was going to rain we would race out of town, find some country road, no Inhibitors, then just walk. Hand-in-hand. Naked. These beautiful shimmering sparks would be coming out of us… The rain put them out almost immediately, but they glowed and hissed with every raindrop. A cloud of steam all around us as we went."
He takes a sip of tea again. He looks down into his cup. "That's how I remember her. Young and naked. Walking through a beautiful, glistening cloud…"
"Slowly, there were fewer and fewer sparks. Then one day, while we were lying in bed, nothing, not one. We went to sleep, holding each other, a little scared. I even started producing those little purple spikes…? You know?"
Marla nods. Involuntarily, she rubs the back of her hand.
"But then, when we woke up, we were surrounded by these glowing pillows. At first, they weren't so big, maybe the size of a big book, and they disappeared pretty quickly… But, by the end, by the time Emma… By the time she passed… They were huge. So soft. So warm." He closes his eyes.
Marla says, "I’m sorry."
She takes a drink and looks around. A young couple are sitting in a booth near the door, hands clasped across the table, speaking quickly and feverishly. Their voices rising and falling.
She looks at Carl for a moment, then, "Can I ask you a question?"
He nods his head.
"Quite personal." She says.
"All the better." Carl says.
"You and Emma… You were in love, right? I mean, you loved each other… I mean, you loved each other… Didn't you ever hurt yourselves, or damage anything? "
"Oh yes. Early on. We had bruises, a few scrapes, some scratches. Broke up quite a lot of furniture. Damaged a couple of public bathrooms…" He chuckles mischievously.
"Then we found out."
"Found out what?"
"The pillows. The pillows absorb the… The…" He looks down into his cup again, cheeks reddening.
He goes on, "not only that, the absorbing thing I mean, not only that, but they actually attract the… So, the more in love we were, the safer everything was."
Carl is watching Marla as she drinks some coffee.
The woman of the young couple suddenly shouts a word, piercing the gentle babble of the cafe, and the hairs on the back of Marla’s neck bristle.
"I'm sorry." Carl says.
Marla turns to look at him, "why… About what?"
"I'm sorry you've never seen real love. In fact, I'm sorry you don't see much Level One."
"But most of the Level One stuff is scary. Hatred, anger, grief…" She looks at him, "you scared me a bit today, I got the spikes. A little.”
"But you still came over," he says. "You could see it was at least Level Two, maybe worse, but you still came over."
Behind Marla, the young man slaps the table in anguish.
She resists the urge to turn and look at the couple, but her head twitches with the effort. "I had my PI, I was protected… Nothing could happen to me. You looked like you needed… Someone.”
Another spike in volume from the couple.
Carl nods, but his expression is harder now.
"I hate them. I hate that we need them."
"But you know how dangerous it would be if we didn't have them." Marla says.
"Can't you feel it now? The numbness?" He looks up at the Inhibitor. "I feel like my brain has been wrapped in a wet blanket.”
“I… I'm not sure I really want to see anything real Level One." She says this to Carl, but she can almost feel the heat from the couple arguing. They are speaking in intense whispers, their voices rising.
Now Carl notices them.
The young couple’s voices tumble upward and now Marla's breath is coming shallow and quick as she watches. Carl has put his cup down.
The couple are standing, gripping each other's arms. She begins to shake him.
Marla feels a tingling in her arms and she looks at the back of her hand. No purple spikes yet, but her skin is raised in countless little bumps. She swallows hard, and her insides feel empty and cavernous.
The man's face is screwed up in pain, he begins to shake his head from side to side.
The woman starts to cry, and around her the air begins to vibrate, then hum. The pitch rises and she unleashes a keening that scrapes Marla to the bone. At that second there is a buzzing fizzing noise above Marla's head and she looks up to see the Public Inhibitor go from green to red, and then die.
Marla and Carl stand.
The woman wails. The anger blossoms on her skin, the dark red flowers bloom and pull away from her body. They don't move quickly but they are relentless; boring into wood, denting metal and shattering glass. The woman cries louder, oblivious to everything. The young man yelps in pain as a flower of anger hits him in the neck.
Marla and Carl flinch and duck, and she instinctively reaches out for the old man's hand.
The young man takes the woman's face in his hands, holding it reverently, a beseeching look on his face. His voice goes back down to a whisper; urgent, serious, intense.
She begins to cry, and then so does he. As the tears drop, they form long strands of blue pearl that gently coil onto the table in front of them, each entangling with the other even as the individual spheres slowly shrink, being replaced by new.
Then, as Marla and Carl watch, the couple stop crying. A brief flurry of bright orange sparks soon dies away, and from each of the lovers comes a gentle cloud of shapes that resolve into small glowing pillows. The pillows softly cascade around the café as the couple stare into each other's eyes. They embrace, and then kiss.