written and illustrated by Iron Eater
There was something wrong with Robert and Molly simply couldn’t figure out what.
She was with him, always, because that was one of the terms of their agreement, but usually she was able to keep out of his life when he was out of the house, because that was an important part of letting a person be a person. He’d go to work all by himself. He’d go to the store for groceries and she wouldn’t cling. He’d walk down to the library and she’d leave him be. He’d rent his own video tapes from the store, and sometimes find something for her, too. He’d talk to people, he’d answer the phone, and if he wanted to attend the county fair or a corn maze or whatever sort of thing was going on outside city limits, he’d be energized by his trip. Robert had a nice little life with her that was nonetheless bursting with independence, and that was just the way Molly liked it.
At least up until she realized something was wrong.
The way he moved was off, maybe, like everything he was doing had to go through several layers of cling film before one foot would go in front of the other, or maybe that his head was a radio tuned to a faulty station. It was the strangest thing. Molly took good care of Robert because it was the right thing to do, so it wasn’t unusual for her to help him with certain tasks when he was having an off day. Sometimes his body just didn’t work the way it was supposed to. That was the normal kind of problem Robert had, though, and there was a difference between helping him tie his shoes or scrub up in the shower and what he was going through now.
How are you feeling, Robert? she’d ask him—she tried not to ask him too much, as that was a good way to make someone start lying out of frustration, but it was so hard not to know—and he’d just shrug a little bit.
Must be a cold, he’d say, or perhaps he’d opt for guess it’s the weather, or slept wrong, I reckon. None of that explained why he’d cry out and whimper in his sleep so much. She knew he didn’t want to make her upset. Molly tried not to fret, she really did, but Robert was so special to her. She knew when he was hurting. You didn’t involve yourself with someone the way the two of them were involved and not feel that little tickle whenever things were out of sorts, and since Robert’s usual condition wasn’t the sort of thing that doctors could help with Molly couldn’t exactly ask him to go down to the clinic for a check-up. All she could do was watch and worry; it was starting to chip away at her patience like the story of the bird that sharpened its beak on a mountain. How long could she take living like this until she was nothing but a pebble, herself?
Every weekday Molly would keep the house nice and clean while Robert was out, she’d talk to him during his lunch break, and she’d make sure he had something healthy to eat waiting for him when he got in from work. Between her and Robert’s efforts they kept a tidy household, so even if she spent a few hours on chores every morning she often found herself with a lot of free time. Robert had been the one to suggest the computer for her, which was so sweet of him, so they’d arranged a desk and a nice chair in one corner of the living room and put the big beige box on top so they could have a place to do their books and maybe play a few computer card games. Once the modem situation got figured out, Molly found herself the proud operator of her own little window to the world. Maybe it could help.
The internet, it turned out, was a good place to ask questions but maybe not so useful for finding answers. She spent the first week skimming through newsgroups. Every time she thought she found something that sounded like what was happening with Robert it either turned out to be something else or the trail went cold. If only she’d been exploring on happier terms! They both kept little notebooks in the computer desk drawer and Molly’s was slowly filling up with more and more exciting things she promised herself she’d return to once she knew Robert would be all right. Fun would come later. Her first priority, then and always, would be Robert’s well-being.
Molly was in the middle of another wild goose chase when the phone rang. Getting a second line for the modem had been a little bit of a strain on their finances at first, one Molly hadn’t originally been sure she was okay with them paying every month, but after weighing the options it was the only tenable choice; what it someone called the house while one of them was blissfully chatting away about the vegetables they’d planted in the garden? She got calls during the day, sometimes, some of which weren’t even telemarketers. She couldn’t risk letting it reach the answering machine, either, since what if someone was trying to contact her about Robert, or (even worse!) what if Robert needed to call home for some reason? Her priorities shifted from the ever-nebulous Robert problem to the banana-yellow plastic phone next to the aquarium.
“Robert, it’s me,” said someone on the other line.
Robert was a grown man, and he could make whatever sort of friends he wanted to, they were very clear about that; some days Molly even caught herself fantasizing about him meeting the right little friend of his own and them coming to live in the household to make one big family. Under normal circumstances she would’ve been so happy to hear that syrupy-smoke voice coming down the copper cabling. You never told me you were someone’s gentleman caller! she would’ve said once he came home from his day. He would’ve smiled that quiet-but-proud smile of his and nodded. Molly couldn’t imagine any further than that because the caller kept talking.
“Do what I asked you to or I’ll keep making it worse,” said the voice. Then there was a loud receiver-on-cradle clunk, followed by nothing but a dial tone.
Who was that? Why hadn’t the caller given Molly (or Robert, technically) time to respond? What were they doing to Robert, and how could they make it worse than it already was? Molly found herself weaving her thoughts all into knots and knew she’d be useless at seeking answers until she could calm herself down; the rest of her day found her rereading the same old magazines for the dozen-dozenth time and staying off the computer entirely.
When Robert came home it was at his usual time, the little satchel of library books tucked under one arm belying what his daily adventure had been, and while he had as much of an appetite as usual Molly could tell he was tired. She found herself fussing over him until she realized she was fussing, then she pulled away from bothering him until she realized she’d retreated into herself completely. She came out into the living room to find Robert reading one of his new books with the radio on. He looked up at her with a smile that faded as soon as he saw her.
What’s wrong, Molly? You seem pretty down. Molly wished she could spare the chance to be pleased with his progress. He’d come a long way from his old approach of never speaking unless spoken to.
I guess I’ve just got a little bit of cabin fever, she joked. Jokes could only last so long. She touched Robert on the shoulder and tried to keep her tone even. Someone called today and said some very strange things before hanging up on me.
Robert looked up in sharp concern, like a deer catching the sound of a distant snapping twig. What did she say to you?
Never had Molly said it was a woman on the line, in no small part because she had a poor ear for voices and didn’t want to be rude, so Robert had already told her a great deal without saying much at all. She sighed. She wanted to pull him close and comfort him like she had in the early days, but Robert was a grown-up, and so she’d treat him like one. She said she wants you to do what she said to. She sounded like she knew you. Who is she, Robert?
It’s complicated, he said.
Some people might have been offended by that answer, but Molly was a complicated person, herself. Complicated people tended to add complexity to everything around them; like called to like. Small wonder Robert had ended up mixed up with the phone stranger! That also meant Molly was going to have to ask more pointed questions, though. Does she know where you live?
He wavered a hand. Yes and no. I swear I didn’t share anything you and me talked about keeping private, but she just…figured things out, anyway.
So does she know your condition?
This time Robert didn’t say anything. He wouldn’t even look at her anymore.
Robert? said Molly, drawing closer. I want to help you, but you have to tell me what’s going on. If that person knows where to find you, it means she knows where to find me, too. That’s not anything she has any business having in her brain.
He pressed the heels of his hands against his eye sockets. I know, Molly. I swear, I thought I did everything right, but she still found stuff out somehow. She’s using it to hurt me. Robert’s book slid out of his lap, still open to a page about identifying local birds. The sight struck Molly as sad in a way she had difficulty putting into words, save that she knew Robert didn’t deserve any of this. He should’ve been able to finish his book. He should’ve been able to go out and spot the little flocks that perched in the trees all around the house, then come back in to tell his friends on his birdwatching forum (and Molly) all about it. Now he was getting so worked up it threatened to upset his stomach, and if his stomach was upset in the way it sometimes got he’d need days to recuperate, and if he was laid up in bed for days he’d miss the movie premier he wanted to go to. So many little things that meant so much to him were at risk from the mystery caller. Molly wasn’t going to let it slide.
How is she hurting you?
The scared-deer look on Robert’s face only intensified once he pulled his hands away to look at her once more. Promise you won’t get mad?
Molly had learned to be honest with herself and Robert over the years. I might get upset, she told him, but I’m going to try to be upset at the situation, not at you. Even if you made a mistake somewhere, that doesn’t mean someone has the right to make you feel this way. People are allowed to make mistakes! I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide things from me. She meant every word. Now she just had to follow through with her promise.
It would be foolish to assume Robert would never lie to her, since that was part of being a person; all the same, Molly was startled by how guiltily he held out his hand. At her touch one of his fingernails fell away, connected to the exposed and fleshy bed by a long, ragged tendril of meaty hair, and sticky wisps of the stuff clung to the inside of the wound. Something clear began to bead up along the edges. That shouldn’t have been possible, not with all the progress they’d made together.
Oh, sweetheart, said Molly, why didn’t you tell me sooner?
Robert started to cry. Because I thought Jolene was my friend, he managed to stammer through his dry sobs, and upon spitting out the last syllable he began wailing like his heart had shattered. That was the end of the conversation for quite a while.
After the worst of Robert’s outburst had passed, and in the face of a great deal of convincing, he eventually agreed to let Molly check him over in a way she hadn’t needed to since the accident with the pickup. Parts of him were bruised like he’d been hit with something big and heavy. Those were bad, of course, but they didn’t compare to the chunk of his torso that was trying to fall away; the poor dear had duct-taped it back in place in lieu of telling her about it. Did he not want her to worry? Was he ashamed? Whatever the cause, Molly was going to do something about it. He grudgingly removed the tape when she asked him to and let her get in with some disinfectant. The taped-in piece was rotten as an overripe fruit, there was no helping that, so he’d need some replacement mass until the wound could heal over again. Thank goodness a caretaker for someone in his condition was always prepared.
Upon handling Robert’s largest wound to her satisfaction Molly helped him settle into a warm bath with the kind of fizzing soap-bomb he liked; once he’d gotten himself situated he let her look at his hands again. Every single one his his nails had the same problem. It was like pulling at a long-decayed electrical socket after a flood. Molly knew how to fix this, too—she’d have no business being Robert’s live-in Gal Friday if she didn’t!—but just because she knew how didn’t mean she liked having to do so. She helped wind up the fibers and tuck them back in where they belonged, and a dab of her stickiest effluvium kept things together no matter how much Robert needed to dip his fingers back into the tub water. Save for a little discoloration (and the bruises, and the rotten gobbet she’d replaced) he was already as good as new. Molly gave him some painkillers just in case.
Have yourself a nice long soak, okay? she said to him as she fluffed up a towel and arranged some clean pajamas. I’ll make you some tea once you’re out, and we can talk about what’s happened.
Eyes still bloodshot from crying, Robert nodded to her but said nothing. He always was the kind of man who got quiet when he was upset. Molly considered it a strength of his.
May I use the computer while you relax? she asked him, earning another nod.
His mouth quirked in concern. As me?
I don’t think that would be a good idea without you there. I’ll log in as me for now.
Okay, said Robert, who sank a little ways further under the water. He scratched at the side of his neck. All of his fingernails stayed where they were supposed to be this time. We’re not going to get rid of it, are we? he added with a little frown. I’d miss my computer friends.
Molly smiled as kindly as she could. We’re not going to send it away unless we have to, she said, and that left him in a fine enough mood to leave him be.
It wasn’t the computer’s fault that Jolene—Molly would never hear that song the same way again, which was such a pity, since Robert loved playing her old Dolly Parton records on sleepy weekend days—had done what she’d done. Molly didn’t approve of taking out a bad mood on an inanimate object due to the precedent it set; she and Robert worked to keep a happy home, so what would it say about her if she busted up something that was meant to make her happy? What if Robert thought she might do something to him? No, no, that would never do. She would use all that nervous energy sizzling inside her to look for clues, and when Robert was finished in the bathroom they’d have their talk, and it wouldn’t be fine, but it would be something.
All the gentle self-guidance in the world didn’t mean she didn’t shake when typing in her password.
They both had their own accounts on the computer. Molly had been the one to suggest it so Robert could have more of his own secret space to think in, and he’d been so flattered by the idea that he’d written her a poem. Robert really was the sweetest thing. They took turns so neither of them used it too much or ignored the many other lovely things in the house, and every time the power button went cha-chunk and the monitor’s gray glass began to glow, the whole world came to their door. The modem’s shrilling roar was a familiar sound whenever one of them settled in for an hour or so of time. It was comfortable by now, like the way popcorn rattled in the popper before a video night, and she’d miss it if it was gone. That was all the more reason to get the Jolene problem handled expediently.
Molly knew some of Robert’s preferred online haunts because he told her about them, so that felt like a good place to start looking. Here was a place where people wrote bits of fiction back and forth like a game of literary ping-pong, here was a place where people played chess one move at a time, here were talks about movies and TV and pizza places. Everything felt very nice and normal, the kind of activities she was glad Robert enjoyed doing; if Jolene was in there somewhere, Molly didn’t know how to find her.
Perhaps Molly wasn’t thinking subtly enough. If Jolene had managed to hurt Robert, that meant she had one big bag of tricks of her own, and since Robert liked talking about his life with Molly with his computer friends (in appropriate ways, of course), Jolene probably knew not to say anything suspicious where Molly could easily see. Well then. Molly went back to reread some of what Robert had written before; had he ever let slip something secret, had he ever used the wrong euphemism in a way someone with the wrong kind of knowledge could make use of? Nothing looked that way. All Molly was able to learn that was genuinely new to her was how excited Robert was for the Friday night specials coming back at Lorenzo’s. He used to love ordering Lorenzo’s before the Fridays changed. They’d need to have a pizza party for themselves once they got everything squared away.
She’d just finished writing that down on the kitchen wipe board when she heard Robert padding up behind her in his new autumn slippers. Did you find anything, Molly?
Molly returned her focus to the living room. Not yet. I didn’t expect I would, though. I know you’re always so careful about sharing too much with strangers. She left it at that, since Robert still looked unhappy. Molly wanted to cuddle him gently and call him something cute and nice, to remind him he was her special little fellow and nothing would ever make him less than the apple of her eye, but Robert had told her before he felt like she was treating him like a baby when she did stuff like that, and above all else Robert was not a baby. He was a grown man with a job. He also had lingering injuries that a cuddle would exacerbate. He just had a few extra needs that most other people didn’t, that was all, and Molly put a lot of energy into making sure she respected that every single day. That sweetheart she’d dropped when helping him put himself back together had probably only made him more upset.
Babies didn’t get asked to make decisions more involved than which soft toy they wanted at a given moment, so it was time to use her actions, not just her words, to prove she was serious about treating Robert like the grown-up he was.
I’m going to need your help, she told him, and she logged out of her account so he could take her seat at the keyboard. Jolene’s hiding in places I don’t know how to find, but I think you do. Will you show me where she is?
What if she hurts me again?
Molly touched his shoulder as lightly as she could manage without it feeling like nothing at all. I’m right here, she said. You know I’ll fix you up. And once I know more about her, I’ll be more able to keep you safe.
Robert was so much more than a wounded bird no matter how much her instincts claimed he was. Cross my heart.
He turned the swivel chair to face the screen, turned on the little side-lamp they had so he wouldn’t get eye strain, and typed in his own password while Molly looked away.
The first thing Molly noticed that was different was a little icon in the corner of the screen. Robert played games and liked to toy around with whatever non-game programs he thought were interesting, which was why he’d been able to help with the taxes last year, so lots of unfamiliar icons roaming across his desktop were nothing new to Molly, and yet something about this one was different. She squinted at it.
What is that?
She tapped the screen. She could’ve sworn the icon winced when she did. That. Is it something you’re working on?
Now it was Robert’s turn to squint. I don’t think so, he said. I don’t know what it is, except that I didn’t put it there. I’m careful about what I download. Molly believed him. They’d rented a video from the library about how to safely use the internet back when they were first considering getting a modem, and being careful had been priority one. People like themselves had to be even moreso. He turned around to look up at her. Do you think it’ll hurt the computer? You know, if you do the thing?
Molly chuckled to herself in spite of the seriousness of the situation. It works on people just fine, doesn’t it? She patted his shoulder. I can do it right now if you want me to.
Molly’s personal situation meant she’d never be able to get a job like a typical nine-to-fiver, even if she didn’t have Robert in her life, but back when she was younger she’d still tried, and learning how to “do the thing” had been an all too common part of things before she accepted she’d need to find a different solution. Oh, how she’d worked for a solution! She’d read books about programming and science, about engineering and circuits; while some of that had faded from disuse, their shared computer time meant she was able to cling to some of her knowledge.
She reached out to touch the screen with a gentle caress. It made her feel tingly, like she’d rested on an arm wrong and the feeling in it had yet to decide if it was numbing away or coming back, but the glass stopped her. Technology was so complicated, sometimes! She adjusted the way she was pressing and the screen let her through.
The thing about computers was that at the end of the day they were just a bunch of sand and lightning that somebody had taught to think. You had to remember that when dealing with them; they could only do things they were told to do. Molly was smarter than any given number of ones and zeroes. She felt around inside the computer’s secret inner workings until she felt what she needed and pulled it free back into the living room.
Just like Robert’s fingernails, it, too, trailed sticky fibers in its wake. Molly gave it a final tug and the last of the little strands pulled free from the screen. She crushed the mass without looking at it.
Gross, said Robert. He sounded like he was perking up a little. Do you know what it was?
Molly licked at the smear where the unwanted program used to be. Malware, she said, smacking her lips like a sommelier. But it wasn’t the normal kind. Look.
The monitor clunked and flickered like when they pushed the degauss button on the side, and when the picture came back into focus strange little icon was gone. There weren’t any pop-ups or terminal menus, no degraded pixels or stuttering performance. All there was was Robert’s usual well-kept desktop and the wallpaper he’d picked off the CD of nature photography he’d gotten at the grocery store. Molly suspected that the act had been so subtle she wouldn’t even have interrupted his screensaver.
Will you show me where you talked to Jolene? she asked. That can’t be the only thing she’s done, not if she could hurt you inside your own home.
He nodded and dialed in to the secondary line. The modem’s scream of joyous pain dragged the world to their door through miles of wire, and somewhere in that world was Jolene, making problems.
Do you want me to tell you about her?
Not yet. I’ll ask you later. First I want to see what I can find without knowing anything but her name.
That’s pretty smart, said Robert, and Molly had to use every ounce of restraint in her body to keep from ruffling his hair fondly.
It turned out Jolene was in more places than Molly expected because Jolene was, unsurprisingly, crafty. Being shown all the hidden little side-forums and subscriptions and private messages was proof of that. Jolene knew things. Jolene was smart and funny, and from the way she typed so confidently, Molly was sure she had to be pretty, too, at least in the ways it counted. No wonder Robert liked her. If she hadn’t been hurting him the way she was, Molly would’ve liked her, too.
Jolene had interests, and not just ones connected to Robert. She liked making jewelry. She was another movie buff. She did programming for some company she never named—which was the crafty thing to do—and dropped lots of little hints about being more than a mere code-writer. A few little checks in a few little places told Molly that Jolene was not just crafty bit possibly even witchy on top of things. Well, of course she was. How else would Robert’s nails have fallen out if he’d been living as healthy as always? Robert hadn’t gotten sick like that for a long, long time, and Jolene calling the house to make not-so-empty threats was just the cherry on top.
The messages had started off innocuously: she and Robert had been in the same art appreciation newsgroup, and they’d agreed about Andy Warhol in a lot of ways. They found each other in places they’d started using at different times (Molly checked), and they really did have friendly chemistry together. Maybe not the same kind of friendly chemistry he and Molly had, sure, but it was good for a young man to have all kinds of confidants in his life, and someone who sought him out to talk (and who didn’t already live with him) was a rarer occurrence at that time of Robert’s life. He clearly liked the attention. Jolene was interested in him, that much was obvious! Just because it was more like the interest an entomologist had for an unknown species of spider didn’t make it any less real. One could argue Robert was only really Robert because Molly gave him attention, so why split hairs when someone else got involved?
Robert showed Molly some of their earliest ICQ messages, which contained nothing out of the ordinary: How was work? How were those woodburning classes coming along? Did he see the most recent monster movie on the local UHF station? Did she have any opinions on what was going on in the funnies? Things got slightly more personal and slightly more involved the longer things went, and through it all Robert never once let anything slip that he needed to keep secret. Nothing looked amiss. It was purely friendly chatter, the kind of thing Molly was glad Robert was having even if things had gone sour, and that just made it all the more important that they handle Jolene sooner than later.
Stopping her was going to take understanding her. Molly let the posts and emails and chat logs Robert dug up flow over her like the tide, trying to suss out the mystery that was Jolene. What was it like, being a pretty programmer? Did she get dates from all the boys in her department? Did she want dates with any of the girls, too? Molly wasn’t about to make assumptions, but she’d come to terms with her own private longings years ago, and while it might have been nothing, she thought she could spot some of that same loneliness in Jolene. How she knew was hard to say: the absence of a man in Jolene’s life didn’t mean anything in and of itself, but the way Jolene talked about people with wives or girlfriends felt off in a funny sort of way, the kind where she might’ve been jealous of the women, but moreso that she was jealous of someone having that feminine company. What a shame that a captivating creature like Jolene struggled with a field barren of opportunities! It stung a little to see someone who’d made such awful choices struggling with such familiar pain. Robert was Molly’s everything (and oh, how she did love him for it) except when it came to that. How much worse would it have been without him, though? Maybe the lack of a Robert of her own had pushed Jolene over the edge.
It took hours of combing through logs and posts and all manner of similar things, but Molly was pretty sure she knew what she needed to do next. You caught more flies with vinegar than honey, as the saying went, and Molly was willing to be sweet, even to a person who’d hurt someone so dear to her. Distracting Jolene would hopefully mean Robert would be left alone for a little, and Molly could handle unwanted attention, especially if she knew it was coming for her. Would it be so bad if she could figure out a little more of the mystery that was Jolene in the process?
She squeezed Robert’s shoulder comfortingly. I’d like your permission for something, Robert, she said. It was going to be a bold request. After all of that, Molly was ready to be bold. She finally felt like she was putting together puzzle pieces in her mind instead of staring helplessly at the box.
Robert frowned, already looking uncomfortable before she’d even said anything. What do you want to do?
I want to talk to her.
He glanced at his ICQ window and then back to her. As me?
No, no. I want you to reach out the way you usually would, then tell her you’re giving the keyboard to me. I’ll handle the rest.
What if she hurts me again? His face pulled back, unhappier still. What if she hurts you, Molly?
If she’s smart, she won’t. If she isn’t…well, let’s hope we don’t ever have to find out.
Molly had expected Robert to click on one of the little flower-adorned names on his list, since that’s usually how he went about talking to people directly those days. Instead he opened up a program that looked like one of those cartoon-chat programs that were all the rage—it wasn’t one Molly recognized, which she supposed wasn’t that unreasonable given how much more time Robert spent talking to people during his online hours—and signed in.
It was mere seconds before a smiling picture of a koi accosted them.
Are you going to play along now, Bobby-boy? said the speech bubble that came out of the cartoon fish. Under normal circumstances Molly would’ve found the way its mouth flapped and its whiskers wiggled cute. Nothing felt cute right now.
That’s not my name, said the cartoon bird that Robert used.
Oh yeah? What if I like it better?
She’s trying to make you upset, Robert, said Molly.
He sighed. I know. Would it make it better if I said she wasn’t always like this?
I’m going to let someone else type, said Robert’s bird. She needs to talk to you.
The koi did a little flip. You siccing your girlfriend on me, Bobby? I thought you were tougher stuff. Why is it any of her business what I have to say?
Robert rolled his eyes. She wasn’t always like this, he said, his expression somewhere between exasperated and apologetic. Molly knew all too well what that could feel like. He scooted to the side to give her a better angle on the keyboard.
Hello, Jolene, she typed. This is Molly, Robert’s assistant. We live together. It’s very much my business what happens to him. She regretted sharing her name as soon as she wrote it—someone as smart as Jolene could no doubt do all sorts of damage with that—but reminded herself that that particular cat was already out of the bag. She encouraged Robert to talk about her with other people, after all. If Jolene somehow didn’t know it already, it wouldn’t be hard to learn.
Sure enough, it was Jolene herself who verified that. Right, right, his caretaker. So he’s trying to play invalid instead? Gross. I thought he was bigger than that.
In her younger years Molly might’ve let shit like that wind her up. She was older and wiser now, better able to keep a cool head, and so she refused to acknowledge those hurtful words at all. She might say a lot more ugly things, she told Robert. You don’t have to read along if you don’t want to.
He fidgeted. What if she asks you something only I would know?
Then I can tell you about it, if that happens. Molly hugged him close. Why don’t you go back to the book you were reading, or watch some TV if you can’t concentrate right now? Let me know if anything else feels wrong and I’ll drop everything to help you.
Cross my heart, Robert.
He looked so relieved when he stepped away. Everything about him looked the way it was supposed to, from fresh-scrubbed nose to slipper-covered toes, and when she focused on his hands as he turned the pages of his birding guide it was like he’d never started unraveling at all. He looked like any other young man reading library books while draped in a lap blanket. This was for his sake, Molly reminded herself, so no amount of venomous friends-turned-foes would get in the way of giving Robert a nice life all his own.
Jolene had sniped at her quite a bit while Molly was helping Robert get comfortable again. Molly skimmed the insults for anything important but ultimately let them slide off of her like oil on wax paper. I’d like to know why you put something nasty on his computer, she said. Was it just to prove you could?
You don’t know a damn thing about him, do you? said Jolene’s leering koi.
Molly knew plenty about Robert, for reasons that would’ve been obvious if Jolene had the full story, and she refused to let that comment get to her, either. People wouldn’t understand what they had. They wouldn’t get why it was so important to her that Robert have a calm, healthy life full of good memories and kind people, where he could have days that didn’t have to hurt and nights he could sleep through soundly. Robert no doubt had his secrets, and Molly didn’t mind. That just meant he was an adult. She didn’t have to say any of that to anyone because she had nothing to prove to this viper of a person who’d betrayed his trust.
I know you hurt him, Molly typed, instead. What I don’t know is what you get from it. Someone like Jolene revolved around the rush of others acknowledging them, so she’d need to chum the waters. I’ve barely known about you for a day and I can already tell you have so much going for you. What does making him suffer get you that you didn’t already have?
Power, baby. It’s all about power.
That felt too petty to be the whole truth. What kind of power? Molly thought back to the way the little malware-whatsit had tasted and the film it had left behind on her tongue. The power to make a man with a challenged life suffer? No, that seemed wrong; it might be part of it, but there was something else hovering just on the edge of the idea that reinforced the idea of there being a bigger answer to be found. Robert wasn’t sending her money—at least not beyond the amount found in his personal fun-money stores, which he could do whatever he wanted with, after all—and Jolene wasn’t in town, or she wouldn’t have used the methods she did. What did a probably-pretty programmer lack that a single cinephile who worked at a garden store had?
Molly licked at the air like a snake. Jolene wasn’t someone like her, was she? If Jolene wasn’t able to care for a Robert of her own, that could drive someone to making all sorts of bad decisions.
The keyboard clattered. If you want to share, you could have just asked me, said the cartoon bird at Molly’s behest. It’s not unheard of. Robert liked you as a friend before you turned on him.
I’m not talking about sharing him! All the letters in that chat program came out the same size and in the same typeface, so Molly couldn’t be sure, but it felt like some of that sentence was accented more than the rest of it. She dared not guess which.
He hid what you were doing from me until he couldn’t hide it anymore, you know? said Molly. He really liked you. I think he still does, in spite of everything. That much was true. Jolene had nothing to say to this, so Molly continued. He’s shown me some of your conversations. You seem like someone I’d want to get to know better, myself. You can fix this, Jolene. All you have to do is want to change.
The fish swam in a little circle, its smile never faltering. Do you really know him, though? Do you know the kind of shit he’s into? I told him about magic cookies but he didn’t believe me, so I proved to him how anyone can follow Hansel and Gretel’s trail all the way into their most secret desires. I can prove it to you, too.
One of the ways Molly handled being such a homebody, in addition to books, the TV, and the internet, was having a collection of magazine subscriptions, and one of them was for a tech magazine that had explained the concept of computer cookies in depth. She’d need to let Robert read that article later so he knew what was really going on with them, not whatever Jolene had said. As for the other thing… He’s a grown man who can make his own decisions.
He’s a nasty little boy.
Molly cared more about the boy part of that claim than anything else, so it was important not to let it show. If he’s not hurting anyone or helping someone else hurt people, I don’t care where his heart lies, said the cartoon bird.
Are you sure? said Jolene’s fish, stretching out the U until there were so many they nearly broke the chat window’s frame. Take a look. Then she pasted an address.
It could have gone anywhere. It could have been full of junk and viruses and who knew what else that would make the weird little smudge Molly had taken care of look like so much grape jelly. Molly was passingly familiar with the domain name, though, so she halfway expected what she’d see. If she was going to beat Jolene at her own game, she’d have to know the details. She promised she’d make it up to Robert later if anything bad happened to the computer.
The site had a black background and simple yellow letters in a different language. It was a gallery filled with little grainy pictures, and clicking on them led to a bigger version that took a few seconds to finish downloading. Most of them showed drawings of plain women paired with…well. The other person was someone who looked a little bit like Molly herself, though there were plenty of differences if one was familiar with the real deal. Nothing struck her as particularly deviant. It was unusual, yes, and often rather graphic, and she wished she knew how to read the captions, but Molly failed to have her opinion of Robert changed beyond understanding his tastes a little better. What was she supposed to object to? Was Jolene just afraid of queers? That would be a shame.
It’s just some lesbians, she said. He has good taste. The women are cute and I like the colors.
Just some lesbians!? Did you even look at them? It’s disgusting! Jolene’s fish kept smiling, but Molly suspected she’d hit a nerve, or maybe failed to have one of her own struck. How big would that text have gotten if it wasn’t locked to a single point size?
With Robert not there to defend himself, the onus fell upon Molly to do so, and she was glad to speak for him. It’s natural for a young man to want to look at pictures of things he likes, and if they’re only so much paint on canvas, that’s not even getting real people involved.
You’re a pervert, too!
Being a proper card-carrying deviant would take a lot more energy than I have to spare. Molly was so rarely called a pervert by anyone she chose to savor the novelty of it. After a minute passed with no response, she added, You’ve shared your dirt on my housemate, so will you leave him alone now?
The phone rang, startling her and Robert both. He reached it before she did, and he must’ve had the same suspicions she did because he pressed the big speaker button next to the number pad. A familiar woman’s voice crackled through the air.
“Turns out I didn’t read the tracks I was following for what they really were. Tell your babysitter the hunt is on, Bobby-boy.” She hung up with another plastic clatter.
When Molly looked back to the screen the little fish was gone.
She had to rest against the desk for a minute. She’d been telling the truth when she said being deviant would require circumstances she just didn’t have. Molly’s situation was specific in a way that went beyond needing to avoid allergies or watching for wheelchair ramps, and taking care of Robert filled most of the hole in her heart, but most and all were worlds apart when it came to matters of love and otherwise. For her to find a sweetheart of her own she’d need someone who’d understand her needs, and Robert’s needs, and wasn’t spooked by any of the dozens of other little difficulties with which their household dealt on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone with Jolene’s tenacity ended up at their door, ready to love their little family the way they needed? Wouldn’t it be nice if that person was smart, and funny, and pretty?
An awful thought blossomed in Molly’s heart.
The thing about magic browser cookies was that they did what they said on the box. Steal a shed hair from a woman’s brush to bedevil her, take a man’s cut fingernail and he could be the subject of a hex, and get your hands on someone’s data and you could practically make them bend over backwards. Jolene had figured out how to slip her hand in the cookie jar. Too bad for her Molly knew how to snap it shut.
It was like imagining a spider’s web, or a cat’s cradle, or even the squiggly bends and angles of a circuit board: every little thread led back to the tangle of ideas in the middle, and in the middle of that was Jolene. Molly snipped away the bits that connected Robert to the webby ball, since one of her duties as his assistant was making sure he had a safe home environment. Those loose ends had to go somewhere, so it was as easy as could be to have them lead towards Molly. Most of them, anyway; Jolene seemed like quite the prize, so it was for the best she only have the information Molly wanted her to. One was best served by not being eaten by a tiger before they were done digging a tiger trap.
She scanned the computer (first Robert’s account, then her own) and plucked out a few more hidden nasties before powering it down for the time being. Being online felt like the wrong choice just then. It was getting close to her bedtime, so that would be fine; all she needed to do was finish her duties for the day.
Next up, she and Robert needed to have a little talk.
He’d retreated to his room some time after Jolene had hung up on them, his book still in hand, and he looked up with concern when Molly rapped on the frame of his left-open door.
Molly! Are you okay? Did she say she’d stop? Did anything else happen? he asked, still clearly rattled as his multiple questions blurred into a stream of anxious curiosity.
She sent me a link to an art site.
Robert tensed at that. What kind of art was it?
It was an adult gallery, a very special one. They showed women having a lot of fun sex together. Some of the women had the same kind of bodies as I do. She settled in next to him and put on her best comforting look. It’s okay if you like that sort of thing. Did you feel like you had to keep it a secret?
I didn’t want you to be disappointed with me.
Oh, Robert, how could I be disappointed? It’s healthy to ask yourself questions about what you like or want, and then go looking for things that make your brain light up the right way. She patted his shoulder. That artist is pretty good, aren’t they?
He chuckled weakly. Yeah. They really are. Robert leaned against her and sighed. I didn’t want you to feel gross because I was having sexy thoughts about someone who kind of looked like you. Grimacing like a frog, he added, You’re a big sister to me. Or an auntie or something. We’re a family. Even if you were into men the way you’re into women, I wouldn’t want something like that with us. It’d be weird.
That’s good to know, said Molly with a friendly hug. Would you want something with Jolene, instead?
She felt him try to sit up ramrod straight, her embrace keeping him where he was. What did you say to her? Doesn’t she still want to hurt me? Or does she want to hurt you instead?
Jolene’s angry at the world right now, said Molly. I think she’ll be happier if we can have a proper talk about things. I’ve already invited her over.
But she has our phone number. Doesn’t she already know where we live?
Molly released him from her embrace. Now she knows where she thinks we live, instead. I’ve got everything under control. This way you can keep away from her more easily if she scares you, too.
He nodded. He let her tuck him into bed for the night, leaving his lamp on so he could read until his no doubt whirling thoughts stilled enough to let him sleep, and it wasn’t until she was waiting at the threshold to wish him sweet dreams that he had much more to say.
What are you going to do if Jolene actually shows up?
She sighed wistfully. I can fix her, she said, and then closed the door behind her.
That whole night was a restless one, at least for Molly (Robert was down for the count after a few more pages on how to identify tail feather silhouettes, which was for the best), and as bold as she’d been to Jolene’s face she was now left second-guessing herself. Was Jolene a collector? People like Robert were vulnerable in specific ways, ways that usually weren’t a problem at his job or out with friends or even hiking around on his own to take photographs of local mushrooms, but Molly had found more than the slight bit of witchiness she’d expected when she’d been re-weaving Jolene’s web.
Did Jolene think Robert was something to harvest? Would she look at his bright eyes and sweet smile and just imagine splicing him up for spare parts? Had she planned to lay him low, then break in one night and whisk him away to whatever awful place awful people used to do awful things? She certainly hadn’t had any problems trying to make Robert ache and crumble, and that meant she was either the best actress walking the face of the earth or she was someone who could hurt a close friend. Molly didn’t know which was worse.
It was fixable. Everything was fixable. People could change for the better if they were only given a chance, and Molly was pretty good at giving others chances. That’s why their house was so nice. That’s why Robert was so independent. That’s why there was never a problem asking for odd-jobs workers to come by to fix a sink or help with the electricals (because a house was fixable, too), and that was why they always left well-paid, even if they took so long there was time for Robert to get home and chat with them while he waited for Molly to finish making dinner. That was why she’d given herself permission to make mistakes until she got things right.
In the morning Robert woke up at his usual early hour and did his morning stretches, and since it was a work day he ate a big breakfast before leaving for the garden center. Before he left he promised Molly he’d slept well in spite of it all. She waved goodbye to him and went about her chores. This proved to be an utterly nerve-wracking experience.
Every creak of the house settling, every car driving past, every passing of a cloud that made it look like a shadow fell across a window: Molly kept seeing glimmers of Jolene in them. The phone hadn’t shown the number from whence Jolene had called them, and trying to contact the phone company about it was a lost cause. Pranks, they guessed, or hackers making mischief. Get that caller ID fixed. It was enough to give a woman fits, it really was. Once the chores were done and the phone company proved useless, Molly spent her remaining solo hours preparing to defend her household.
Jolene did not show up that day.
Jolene didn’t show up the day after that, or the day after that, or the day after that, either, and Robert said he never saw her online anymore, not even on the special chat program she’d made. The only phone calls were from the usual sorts of people who called. Had Molly done too good of a job of redrawing the map to their door? That was nice, in that it meant they were left alone, but also a concern, because who knew what Jolene was doing in that time? Idle hands were the devil’s plaything, so they said, but an idle mind had always struck Molly as far more dangerous. Whatever Jolene was up to, Molly couldn’t imagine it had anything to do with changing her mind and doing something more productive with everyone’s time. How long did Molly have before she’d have to do anything truly drastic?
Those questions answered themselves one fine morning a few months later.
It had started off as such a pretty Saturday, so Robert had announced he was going to take pictures of the leaves and the sky out in the yard, then gone out with a sack lunch in his satchel so he could have plenty of daylight to play with. Molly drifted around the house as usual. Every time she looked up from reading, or watching television, or using the computer—Molly liked talking to her own set of long-distance friends, no matter how nasty Jolene had been, and it was easier to play fancy solitaire games with a machine keeping track of the cards for you—she’d peek through one of the big windows that looked out over the lightly wooded land that stretched out behind the house. Every time she looked for him, there was Robert, fit as a fiddle and enjoying life from behind a lens. He was probably going to put the photo lab’s people’s kids through college at the rate he went through film!
One of the shelves in the living room was filling up with nothing but photo albums that Robert kept filling up with the fruits of his labors, each set of pictures neatly labeled with cards he wrote up on the typewriter in the sewing room. Molly took one of the recently completed albums and settled in next to the bay window. She could flip through his collections for hours, and it felt like the kind of day where she’d need to make good on that: Robert had a mission, after all, and she wasn’t about to call him away from it until he got hungry for something a little more substantial than some peanut butter sandwiches and a beer. Molly took one last peek outside before the album could absorb her completely. He’d accuse her of fussing if he caught her, but just as it was his right to complain, it was her right to fuss, given all they’d been through together. Surely he’d forgive her this time.
This time when she looked, there was something wrong with Robert, and not in any way she’d seen before.
His camera hung around his neck limply, like he didn’t know it was there, and while he’d braced himself against the railing all around the back porch she could already see him struggling to support his own weight. Foam bubbled up around his mouth. Thin ribbons of skin peeled away from his limbs where it wasn’t concealed by his clothing, each strip trailing the fleshy fibers that had shown themselves when he’d had the trouble with his fingernails, and while the same clear fluid as before wept from them, this time it oozed faster and was mixed with blood. His clothing bloomed with stains as she watched. It was like his whole body started falling apart at once, like he’d caught some vital thread on a cosmic doornail and taken one step too far. Her thoughts flashed back to his bruises, to the taped-up wound she’d seen in the bathtub. For once, Molly was glad Robert caught her checking up on him. He looked in at her with eyes filled with terror and pain.
“Molly,” he said, using his outside voice, and then he was so much meat on the ground, and then he wasn’t even that. His precious camera went with him.
Robert! screamed Molly. She nearly struck the window in her panic. Robert, Robert, say something, please! The album slid from her abandoned window seat as she rushed out the door to where he’d last stood. It wasn’t good for her to be outside for long but she couldn’t bring herself to care, not when her dear friend (something like a brother and something like a son, though not really either of those) was missing or hurt or any of a number of other fates she refused to think about for long. Birds erupted from the trees at the sound of her cries. Maybe it was good they lived alone out here, just far enough away from town for nobody to risk seeing Molly in such a state. Maybe having a neighbor to hear her howls of sorrow would have been nice. Maybe this, maybe that. Maybe maybe maybe. It was so hard to think. What had happened to Robert?
The phone was ringing.
Molly dashed back inside and scrabbled for the receiver, even though she knew she’d regret answering it. The caller ID was bedeviled in a way she recognized all too clearly. The voice on the line was equally familiar. “I’ve helped myself to your little Bobby-boy, Molly,” said Jolene, because sure as sugar it’d been her calling. “He’s all mine now.” She was gloating, once again that primordial mean little girl who’d never stop picking on the softer kids. It would’ve been a surprise if she’d sounded any other way.
“Why are you doing this?” said Molly. Phone voices, outside voices, whatever you wanted to call them, they were all so loud, and she’d tired hers out speaking to the pet store man on Friday. Raspy or not, she had to try.
Mean-spirited laughter crackled from the phone. “That’s what you sound like? Goddamn, girl, no wonder he only likes you as a friend.”
He loved Molly as a friend, he’d said as much earlier that very week. It was a distraction, an attempt to get Molly’s goat. She couldn’t fall for it. Jolene was right there, Jolene was talking, and Molly had to focus. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I told you. It’s all about power.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Molly. “We’re not wealthy people. We keep to ourselves. We don’t owe anyone favors or have ties to important families. We don’t have anything somebody else would want.”
Jolene laughed again. It could’ve been such a nice sound if it wasn’t for everything else. “That’s not the point, you weird old bitch. It’s happening because I can do it and because you can’t do anything to stop me. All you can do is hope I get bored and go away. How’s that for power?”
The longer they talked, the closer Jolene drew to springing the trap Molly had set all those days ago. Molly was vulnerable and she was scared—no matter what happened, she had to try to help Robert, and she couldn’t dwell on whether there was anything left of him to help—and that made her look oh-so-juicy to someone who, as near as Molly had been able to gather, got her witchy start by shoplifting books that talked about how to put curses on girls she didn’t like at school. Some people never grew out of thoughtless childish cruelty. Some people took learning something special as an excuse to make life miserable for anyone who didn’t share that special something. Some people never got taught to stop pulling on pigtails. It wasn’t anything Molly couldn’t fix.
More questions were necessary. It didn’t matter how Jolene answered them, since that wasn’t the part Molly needed to know. The truth would sneak out between the lines. Until that happened, Molly would dance the social dance.
“Couldn’t you use all that power you have for something better?”
Jolene scoffed. “That’s always a sticking point with you people, isn’t it? If I’m not doing what you want, I’m just wasting my gifts.”
“But you could be doing so much good for the world with them, if only you wanted.”
“Too bad for the world. I’m not here for anybody but myself.”
It fit with the conundrum of being a pretty programmer, Molly supposed, in that Jolene could have her colleagues eating out of her hand by barely raising a finger, but they wouldn’t be looking at how smart she was or how clean her code ran. She could turn in work identical to theirs or better, and yet it would always have to be filtered through that lens of “girl” (never woman, always “girl”) before anything else. From the bits and pieces Molly had picked up from Jolene and Robert’s conversations, she’d tried to be sweet, once, and just ended up curdled for it. Molly could sympathize. It was such a shame about her being a monster of a person, since they could’ve had so much to talk about.
“Didn’t Robert’s friendship mean anything to you?”
“Who says it didn’t?”
“You’re hurting him! He just wanted someone to talk to, someone who understands his little quirks, and he trusted you enough to get close! You took that and you did what you did, instead.”
“Then that’s his fault for getting in my way.”
Robert was the catalyst because he and Molly were so close. Jolene must’ve smelled it on him somehow; for all Molly knew, Jolene was the sort of person who never talked to anyone without seeing how she might be able to use them later. Maybe Jolene had known just how special Robert was from the start and maybe she didn’t. Maybe Robert had known she was trouble but felt compelled to try to reenact the fable of the frog and the scorpion. He’d always been the sort to make friends with the friendless, after all.
“Why do you care so much about what others do in the privacy of their own homes, anyway?” Near as Molly had been able to tell, Jolene’s behavior had turned for the worse once she’d caught Robert looking at sites like the one with which she’d tried to scandalize Molly, and maybe it was just the first convenient excuse that had arisen, but maybe it wasn’t. Given how much Jolene hated that question, it had to be the smoking gun Molly had been looking for! She didn’t like hearing the jokes made in some of her communities about how Senator This-and-That or Pastor Such-and-Such were actually queers themselves, whipping others into a homophobic frenzy either as a cover or out of sheer self-hatred, because that had all manner of connotations Molly didn’t like thrown into the hurtful mix; sometimes, though, the call really was coming from inside the house.
“Are you jealous of Robert?”
Right up to that point Jolene had been on a roll. She’d been gloating as Molly cried, which wasn’t nice, as Molly’s tears were genuine. She’d hinted at things she might reveal if only Molly would play along more, moving the goalposts with every shiver or crumble of Molly’s fortitude. She’d been the puppet master holding Molly’s strings. She’d been eating from that sneaky little cookie jar and hadn’t once thought someone might have suspected, right up until evidence to the contrary had ended up in her lap. Molly could almost hear her expression go blank.
“You don’t have to be,” said Molly. “We could work something out between us. He really likes you. I think I could like you, too, if you’d be willing to change.”
Jolene growled. “You keep saying that. Who are you to say what I should or shouldn’t do?”
“All I’m saying is that it’s not a big house, but there’s room for one more, and I wouldn’t mind another lady’s company.”
There it was. A flicker of doubt, a little spark of wonder, a hesitant hope-against-hope. Once everything was all over Molly would let her heart sing at what she overheard between the lines. Now, though? It was all about business. It was all about Robert.
“So all I have to do is say I’d be willing to play along, promise to eat you out, and hand over the invalid, and you’d claim everything’s good between us? What’s in it for me? You’ve forgotten I’m the one holding all the cards, here.”
“Oh, honey, that’s not how it works,” said Molly. Then she rammed an arm down the phone line.
Jolene did not come along easily. That was to be expected, really, since from what Molly could tell Jolene had gone through a lot of trouble to make a perfect little space-outside-of-space where she could hide and make threatening phone calls, and Molly had to grab all of that and pull it somewhere more accessible so she and Jolene could talk like reasonable people, woman to woman. It would’ve been quite a feat even if she didn’t have someone resisting the whole time! Physical objects just didn’t like being in the same place as other physical objects. Figuring out how to make that happen without breaking anything had been quite the learning process back in the day.
The walls of the living room shuddered and pulled away into a void that replaced the once-sunny sky. Other walls remained, sad things covered with papers and notes, and Molly recognized some of Robert’s photos among them; whether he’d mailed them as a gift or Jolene had helped herself through other means didn’t matter, as they’d no doubt come in quite handy when it came to causing him harm. A computer so big and involved it looked like a living thing sprawled across one of the fragmented walls, the duct-taped roller chair before it making a perfect throne for a pretty programmer. The space was lit without a source. It wasn’t the living room, and so the aquarium was probably fine, but since it wasn’t the living room it also meant Molly was completely out in the open for the first time in a long, long while.
“What the fuck are you…?” said Jolene as she tried to break out of Molly’s slimy grip.
I’m Robert’s caretaker, said Molly, since her inside voice would surely carry in such an environment. The other way was just too tiring to keep up for long. Just a simple woman trying to get by while helping someone else. No more and no less.
Her frankness didn’t look to impress Jolene, who had yet to escape no matter how much she thrashed. “You’re one of those things from that nasty site he was looking at,” she spat.
Molly shrugged. I’m not the only woman like me in the world.
“You’re no woman at all!”
There’s no need to be hurtful, said Molly, who’d had enough of that kind of talk long before she started helping Robert keep house.
“Let me go!” said Jolene.
I’d be happy to, if you promise to have a reasonable conversation. I don’t want to hurt you, added Molly, who meant it. Who wouldn’t, in the face of such loveliness?
Jolene was just as pretty as Molly had suspected, and save for her dark brown eyes she looked so much like the woman in her namesake song: auburn hair pulled back in a messy bun, light skin that looked soft and clear where it hadn’t been smeared with effluvium, a stocky frame that could probably support fixing a table as easily as fixing buggy code, and oh, that face, so sweet behind her dirty glasses. What a heartbreaker! What a peach! If only she hadn’t been so horrible to Robert…
Please give Robert back, said Molly once Jolene had nodded a promise of dubious reliability.
Rubbing at the bruised, sticky spot on her arm, Jolene hissed a response through her teeth. “He wasn’t supposed to fall apart like that. That’s not…that’s not what happens. He was supposed to—”
Right now it doesn’t matter what was supposed to happen. Please give Robert back.
“Oh Jesus, I can’t, okay? I pulled him in but what I got was this.” She slid a heavy black garbage bag over to Molly with her foot. It moved like it was both very heavy but weighed nothing at all.
When Molly opened it, there was just a pile of filament inside, like fiberglass drenched in blood, interspersed with a few rotten-tomato hunks of gory pulp that were already half-black with rot. It stank. Poor, poor Robert, and he was always so careful about his appearance, too.
Disheartening as it was to see, Molly still had a job to do. Caretaking didn’t stop when one’s charge unraveled before one’s eyes. She leaned in close to stroke at the plastic, as touching things directly might’ve been too much. Can you hear me? she murmured.
The garbage bag rustled. …m…oll-y-y-y…?
I’m here, sweetheart. I found you. It’s going to be okay.
Hurts, said what was left of Robert.
Do you want to go back inside to rest while I talk to Jolene?
He whimpered, and somewhere inside that whimper was a pained, affirmative sound. Molly didn’t need to question him further.
Robert was his own person, a unique individual with his own needs and dreams and opinions, and while that was true sometimes he needed to not be his own person for a little bit. He’d needed to do so once before, when some hunters had thought they could get away with doing a little poaching in the backyard; the gunshot might have been fixable at the doctor’s, but when they’d hit him with their truck he wasn’t so lucky. He’d been able to crawl back just in the nick of time. Molly considered it a sign of good moral fiber that the incident hadn’t scared her into keeping him home all the time. That was no way for a young man to spend the prime of his life, not at all, and so she’d spun him back into herself, called his work to tell them there was a family emergency, and then hibernated in the basement for a little bit. When she disgorged him again he was good as new. She’d just have to do the same thing again, this time handling whatever surprises Jolene’s meddling had thrown into the mix. Once he was better, she’d make sure Robert’s camera was fixed. He deserved nothing less.
Soon he was back where he belonged, safe and sound and stretched all along the lattice of her own flesh and fluids to recuperate. She could feel him dreaming. When Molly looked back up at Jolene she was mildly surprised to find herself the subject of that sloe-eyed gaze.
You hurt him, said Molly, matter-of-factly. It seemed like the right way to talk while she was juggling so many emotions at once.
“I didn’t mean to!”
I don’t believe you, but that’s all right. Molly sighed wearily and adjusted how she held herself; healing Robert was going to require her to be a lot more careful over the next few days. At least his job would take her at her word when she told them he was going to be unavailable again. He loved that job. Just because he’d fallen to pieces for a little bit was no reason they should fire such a good, passionate worker. Will you tell me the truth about why you came all this way?
Jolene’s eyes darted around, but kept coming back to rest on Molly’s gleaming center mass. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That gallery you tried to upset me with, said Molly, it bothered you, didn’t it?
“It was disgusting!”
I suppose someone could say that. But that’s not the only reason you couldn’t stop thinking about it, was it? She reached forward to touch Jolene’s cheek. Jolene startled, but was reluctant to actually move away from the curl at the end of Molly’s arm. Molly had been learning so much about her and Robert’s biggest fan. It’s easier to think about wanting another woman if she doesn’t remind you of the mean girls you grew up around, isn’t it?
“That’s, I, it’s not natural…!”
Molly booped Jolene’s cute little nose with another pseudopod. People say that about all sorts of things they’d rather not think about.
“You’re some kind of monster, you’re wearing a whole fucking house like a hermit crab’s shell!”
We all have to hide from the Bible-thumpers somehow.
“Maybe they’ve got good reason to come after you,” said Jolene, the hurt in her voice almost palpable.
Just for existing? And minding my own business? We both know that’s not true.
“Maybe it should be! Maybe it’d be easier if freaks like us didn’t exist.” Her words were sharp but the fight was starting to drain out of her. Molly had never held someone’s hair back while they were sick—Robert kept his short, and Robert was the only person she’d ever kept so close, much less helped build—but she couldn’t help but draw a parallel between that and the current conversation, especially not with hearing like us instead of like you. She just had to keep Jolene talking and get the worst of that built-up festering vileness out. The boil needed lancing.
Are you ashamed of something?
She glanced askance again. “I don’t like myself for what I want.”
It’s all right, said Molly. A few strands of hair stuck to her skin as she draped an arm around Jolene’s shoulders. Jolene remained pinned in place. Nobody’s here to judge you. You can want whatever you please, so long as you’re honest about it. Molly stroked Jolene’s cheek. Do you feel like being honest yet?
Jolene shivered. “I didn’t know someone like you could be real, not until I started trying to mess with Bobby,” she said, her voice small and uncertain. It didn’t suit her.
His name’s Robert, dear.
Jolene ignored the correction. “I read somewhere that if you like the monster better than the hero in a movie, it means you’re a queer,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I never looked at a big-name actor and wanted him to sweep me off my feet. I didn’t want that from the leading ladies, either, though they were a little less bad. Sometimes, though, I’d see some shitty old rubber-suit creature feature carrying off a no-name scream queen, and I’d think about what if that thing was a she-monster, instead, and that was different from anything else. But even the she-monsters leave the ugly girls alone.”
She was opening up so easily. How long had Jolene been drifting through life in search of someone she could talk to, someone who wouldn’t see her true self and get scared off? She should have been swimming in compliments each and every day, no matter how many people she terrorized through a modem. I think you’re very pretty, said Molly, and it felt good to get that out in the open.
“Christ alive, I’m being flirted with by a flesh wall.”
Are you not used to being liked back?
“Look at you! What am I supposed to do when a, a, an undescribable nightmare thing starts feeling me up?”
Molly paused. Would you like me to stop?
The breath caught in Jolene’s throat and she struggled to voice an answer. “No,” she said after long moments of being unable to look directly at Molly again. “Keep going.”
How long had it been since Molly had heard someone speak to her this way? Was it years, decades? Had it ever happened at all? It was so hard to remember. Jolene was a viper, and she didn’t know how to be around people without causing them pain, and what she’d done to Robert was the sort of thing that one might forgive but never forget. None of that changed how nice it was to have a visitor who’d look at Molly the way she really was on the inside, at the parts she kept inside the walls. She let herself enjoy feeling special for once in her life.
Jolene took a step closer. She reached out and touched Molly’s front, only recoiling a little bit when she rested her hand against the warmth and moisture there. Molly was not the kind of woman who ended up on the cover of beauty magazines—she had too many of some parts and not enough of others, at least if she wasn’t trying to make herself presentable for guests, which seemed like a hard sell for most publications on the newsstand—which made for quite the novel experience as Jolene’s eyes roamed across her expanse of white-banded red. For once Molly felt naked, not simply unclothed. It was a little tricky keeping her thoughts together in such a state.
Thankfully, Jolene was the kind of person who was talkative when exploring a new lover. “Why me?” she asked as she continued to run her hands across Molly.
“You’re beautiful,” said Jolene, which made Molly’s whole body shiver happily even if Jolene looked disgusted with herself to say so out loud. “You’re kind. You have your act together. I’m just a shitty, jealous nobody, I’ve done things, awful things, and you still said you thought I was pretty. You’re still letting me touch you.” She swallowed hard. Were those tears welling in her eyes, all over the gentlest of compliments? Poor thing. “I’m fucked-up and broken and you’re letting me touch you.”
Don’t worry, said Molly, sweetly. I can fix you.
Molly chuckled. Do you know how to make love to another woman?
Jolene glared at her through smudged glasses. “I don’t think that’s going to help me here,” she said, kneading at Molly’s featureless flesh like a cat trying to bed down for a nap. “Even assuming I knew where to start with you. Sex isn’t some fairy-tale cure-all. You’re not going to solve all my problems just by making me come.”
She had a point. Acknowledging that point would spoil the mood, though, so Molly deflected by pulling Jolene closer with a few more arms. Wouldn’t it be fun to try, though?
“Maybe.” Jolene shrugged off a friendly limb when it got a little too close for comfort. “You’re not putting anything in me,” she added, side-eyeing the pseudopod fumbling with her belt buckle, “but if you tell me where to lick or finger, I’ll try.”
The thought of putting part of herself inside another woman wasn’t completely foreign to Molly’s mind—it wasn’t like the gallery Robert had found was the first time she’d seen art of women getting intimate with what the layman might not-so-correctly refer to as tentacles—and yet she’d always slightly dreaded someone asking it of her. It felt like being asked to wear a shoe as a hat. To think even a homebody like herself would dare to be picky in such a situation! Jolene declaring she wanted nothing of the sort was a breath of fresh air. No need to make excuses, no need to grin and bear it, just permission to let another obliging lady in her company do whatever she wanted to. Life could be a dream.
Jolene tugged at a fold of Molly’s body. “Is this your cunt? Do you have a cunt?”
What a good question; Molly had never given it thought before, not when she’d first assembled a body for Robert nor when she’d longingly read stories of beautiful women in beautiful settings. She’d certainly gotten herself off before, but how could she translate such a delicate internal process to something another person could do? She didn’t have a traditional face and she certainly didn’t have breasts, not unless she was trying to make herself presentable for company. The smart thing would be to spin a bunch of nerve fibers in place near the surface and make that an erogenous zone for the day. Molly always liked working smart instead of the alternative, and so this is what she did.
Here, she said, gently blooming a set of layered meat petals she hoped looked tantalizing, this will do.
Hot breath preceded the touch of Jolene’s thumbs as she spread open the not-quite-orifice. Molly had taken care to make it at a comfortable height, as if it was too high or too low it might be awkward for Jolene to reach, and Molly couldn’t well lie down in her current state. This had been the right call; the brush of a tongue against her surface was electrifying, and either Jolene hadn’t had as lonely a life as she’d made hers out to be or she was an excellent student of visual examples. For having had a reasonable facsimile of a vulva for all of a minute or two, Molly was sure she’d think back on Jolene’s technique with fondness. After a little more time it was difficult to imagine thinking at all.
Outside of town, up on a hill, was a little geology laboratory that worked with the local community college. They kept a seismograph running for the sake of education. The nearest fault was miles away, after all, and there wasn’t so much as a sinkhole or cave system in the vicinity. Why their tools reported a sudden rumble, gone as soon as it appeared, remained a mystery for years; the utilities people checked the pipes, but neither sewer nor gas lines looked touched, and there hadn’t been so much as a truck backfiring that time of day. It was eventually marked down as an equipment error. To this day, the people who actually maintain the thing aren’t so sure.
All of Molly’s myriad body parts relaxed. It felt like gently returning to earth on the back of a fluffy storybook cloud. Oh my…
Jolene wiped her mouth on her sleeve. Her clothes would need to be put through the washer for one devil of a rinse cycle before they would be suitable for mixed company again. “Think you can top that?” she asked with a smirk.
I’d love to, said Molly, and she could almost taste the mischief in her own voice.
Her whole body was slick, which meant it was effortless to slip a limb inside Jolene’s loosened button fly, nudge it between the lips of her pussy, and stroke without any unwanted excess friction. Molly started with long and drawn-out motions, some of them lasting whole seconds at a time, and the way Jolene sighed into her skin was proof enough this was a good decision to make; when she could feel Jolene spread around her, Molly put a little more energy into it. Where Molly was by nature a very wet creature, Jolene was soaking by then. She didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. She didn’t seem to know what to do with her mouth, either, or much of anything else. All Jolene could manage was kissing and groping at whatever flesh she was able to get near as she shivered in Molly’s many-armed embrace. Molly didn’t mind. Sometimes the best way to do things was knowing when to take turns.
Molly’s limb burrowed deeper into Jolene’s pants until she could wrap it a few times around one leg. Thusly braced, she was all the more able to please Jolene with her touch, grinding and writhing against her with the more mobile part of that arm, and each stroke felt like it pushed Jolene just a little further. She trembled against Molly. Had she ever imagined she might find herself in such a place back when she’d first started manipulating people through a modem? Did she know this was something she wanted until she’d dug through someone else’s private life, finding out there was a hole in her heart she’d never thought existed? You could buy all manner of things from all manner of places, and as Molly felt Jolene’s breathing come faster with every passing moment, she felt secure that none of those clever artisans could ever give Jolene quite the same thing with which Molly was now gracing her.
When Jolene came it was with a groan and a series of bucking hip spasms. Any reasonable person might have left it at that, or perhaps waited a little before going in again just in case she was too sensitive to touch, and either of those would have been a thoughtful thing to do. Molly didn’t feel like being thoughtful. She had Jolene quite literally in her clutches; who knew when this kind of opportunity would present itself again? No, Molly was going to make it count, and so she kept going, mercilessly alternating direction against Jolene’s clit and lips with all the force of an exceptionally well-lubricated belt sander. Jolene came again, and then again, and then closer together with decreasing force. Molly kept going until she could hear Jolene hiss in displeasure. Overstimulation had its place, and its place was in giving someone a memorable time, not in rubbing their clitoris clean off. Now she would stop.
The ordeal had not been easy on Jolene. Her hair was a mess and her exposed chest was covered in love-bruises and effluvium, while her face was shiny with sweat, tears, and more of Molly’s fluids. She didn’t say anything as she lay helpless in Molly’s arms. A small smile found its way to her lips—oh, how sweet she looked like that, all sexually destroyed and spiritually fulfilled—and she took off her glasses to rest on a nearby side table. Tucking herself into the folds of Molly’s body, she left one last kiss on a patch of tissue, and made no attempt to pull Molly’s limb from where it still looped around one thigh inside of her jeans. Molly held her gently. She needed to savor this.
It would be easy to end things right there, in the little room-outside-a-room, leaving no outside traces of Jolene or her computer or anything else and letting the world forget that there had ever been a pretty programmer with witchy inclinations. Molly could dispose of the problem like she’d disposed of the poachers and their truck. It wouldn’t take long, even feeling as sleepy and wooly-headed as she did, and it would mean all Molly would have to do for the remainder of the weekend was rest, which she’d need to do a lot while she still held Robert woven all through her. No muss, no fuss. Just another bit of problem-solving for a dedicated caregiver who only wanted the best for her housemate.
A little bubble of Robert’s consciousness rose from the mire of his sleeping mind. Thank goodness he’d kept to himself while Molly and Jolene were busy! Can we still be friends with Jolene? he asked, dreamily. I really like her, when she’s not being awful…
Bless his sweet, strong heart and all ten of his toes. Molly brushed Jolene’s hair away from her forehead—it stuck to Molly’s skin again—and smiled down at her. A little spot on Jolene’s temple had already begun to twist itself into a wet length of fiber that cried out to be woven. I think I can arrange something.
The little house on the outskirts of town wasn’t that far away from everyone else, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes on a bike and far less by car, but it was just far away enough that when people learned another one was built next door to the first it came as a surprise. They were just like Robert and Molly, folks said, with both of them caring for each other in different ways; nobody actually saw them in person, but they believed Robert once he got back from that second family emergency of his, and he had nothing but nice things to say. They’re good people, he’d tell anyone who asked. Word on the wind was that they were eccentrics, or disabled, or disabled eccentrics, and since those terms could all describe Robert and Molly themselves, the locals felt it was probably a good match. The bills got paid and the mail and paper got taken in, which was good enough for most anyone who had reason to care.
Sometimes kids would sneak out there at night to see what was really going on out there, since depending on who you talked to they were cannibals or a weird cult, or maybe aliens, and no one of a certain age and level of curiosity in a sleepy town like theirs could let that kind of claim lie. Usually they didn’t see anything. Sometimes Molly would appear at the window to shoo them away if they made too much of a ruckus; the kids would claim they’d neither seen nor heard anyone until right then, like someone had a puppet of a middle-aged woman in a nightie waiting just inside for such an occasion, but that didn’t make sense. Most people only saw boring home-life things and snippets of TV shows when they spied on Robert and Molly’s house, and that was assuming anyone was awake. Get there too late and all you’d find were closed curtains.
If you were smart, though, and brave, and thought to check the other house, some kids swore up and down you could see figures moving in the dark like a weird puppet show. Others said it was like the whole place was full up with wet black yarn that moved in the darkness. Sometimes there was even a shimmer in the grass between the houses the way it looked when something had been digging underground, but if you tried to touch it, you wouldn’t feel anything. Nobody ever saw cannibals. Nobody ever saw a cult. Nobody ever saw aliens. Nobody even saw the neighbors at all, not in those days, and yet most visitors chose to leave that house alone no matter how much toilet paper and eggs they’d brought with them, and nobody ever took a baseball bat to the mailbox all painted up with koi fish, because even the invulnerability of youth knew its limits.
They didn’t need to interrupt anyone’s personal time, anyway.