Snatch Me Another
by Mercurio D. Rivera
Lindy sat in her compact pickup truck, took a deep whiff of In–Bliss, and tossed aside the spent plastic inhaler. She rested her forehead against the cold steering wheel.
A blue–tinted circular portal the size of a manhole cover opened up over the passenger seat, and a thin bare arm descended from it. She recognized the limb’s freckled, pale skin, the small scar on the inner wrist. It was her own arm. It groped blindly until it grabbed the inhaler, then retracted. The portal disc closed with a “pop.”
“Ah, take it,” Lindy muttered. “It’s empty anyway.” She stared at the front door of her red–brick Colonial. The buzz started to kick in, and calmness fell over her like a warm shawl. She left the truck door open and staggered down the gravel pathway and up the porch stairs. Lindy jammed her hand into the pocket of her jeans, fumbling for the house key. As she stood on the welcome mat, she heard the television blasting –– frenetic Munchkins singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” –– and the white noise of chattering children. She stabbed at the keyhole and missed three times, but the door swung open.
“Mommy!” Tommy said. He wore a bright blue birthday hat over a patch of curly, red hair. “Look what I got!” He held up two identical GI Joe dolls.
For a second, Lindy felt nothing but pure love. But then the glow faded to a muted sadness. “That’s nice, dear,” she mumbled. “Go play with your friends.” She stepped around him through the throng of shouting six–year–olds, beyond the swinging door that led from the shag–carpeted living room to the bright kitchen. She leaned against the Formica counter to regain her balance.
Kristina sat at the table, scooping strawberry ice cream onto white paper plates. She paused, blew a dangling strand of brown hair out of her eyes, and glanced at Lindy warily. “Nice of you to show up,” Kristina said. “Tommy’s been asking for you.”
How did she slip back into the role of housemom without missing a goddamned beat? Lindy thought. How could it be so easy for her?
“Are you okay?” Kristina asked.
“We need some more plates. Could you snatch me some?” Kristina grabbed a dirty paper dish with a curlicued “Happy Birthday” emblazoned on it, tore off a clean edge, and handed her the slip of cardboard.
Lindy took long, deep breaths.
“You sure you’re okay?” Kristina said.
She snorted her assent. “Why wouldn’t I be? It’s a party! Let’s wear our hats and sing happy birthday until our throats hurt. And let’s not forget to pin the tail on the goddamned donkey.”
Kristina looked away and continued scooping ice cream out of the frosty carton.
Clutching the sliver of cardboard, Lindy lurched through the doorway that led from the kitchen into the garage. The Snatcher sat next to the washing machine. Wide–mouthed and waist–high, it resembled a barrel with a glistening silver coating. If it didn’t weigh so much, if it weren’t so sturdy, she would’ve kicked the goddamned thing on its side and taken an axe to it. But what difference would that have made? Over the past six months, the Black Market had exploded. With a single phone call to Senecal, Kristina could have it replaced within twenty–four hours.
Lindy lifted the heavy metal lid and leaned in, placing the piece of the paper plate –– the honing sample –– at the bottom of the Snatcher. She placed the cover back on and rotated a red dial on the device’s side. Then she heard the familiar rumbling and whooshing deep inside of it, like distant thunder and violent wind gusts, the sounds of dimensional walls crumbling. Lindy lifted the cover. The Snatcher’s maw released a thick, blue mist. She rolled up her sleeve and bent down, sticking her arm in up to her shoulder, groping blindly until she felt the paper plate. She pulled out a whole white plate with the same orange–lettered “Happy Birthday” on it. Placing and removing the lid over and over, she continued reaching in and snatching out one after another. Cake crumbs coated one plate so she let it fall back through the base of the Snatcher. When she reached in again, she felt someone slap her hand. She withdrew her arm and tried again until she had a dozen dishes in hand, perfect replicas, except for a single one with an off–white color. She imagined the reactions in the alternate dimensions. Ruining a few of these parties, she had to admit –– albeit in different universes –– wouldn’t make her lose any sleep.
When she returned to the kitchen, Tommy burst through the swinging door and hugged her leg. “Mommy, Mommy, will you play musical chairs with us?”
The plates fluttered to the floor.
“Mommy? Will you ––”
“Listen, I told you to go play with your friends, okay?” She pushed past the boy and trudged up the stairs.
“Lindy!” Kristina shouted after her.
She paused at the top of the staircase and looked over her shoulder. Kristina crouched down and comforted the crying boy. At that moment, Lindy thought she felt something again –– the remnants of a maternal love so raw, so deep, it threatened to paralyze her, drown her.
She reached into her jacket pocket for another inhaler and slammed the bedroom door behind her.
One week earlier, on a chilly September morning, Lindy had leaned against a tree at the summit of a grassy hill while Father DeMichael delivered a prayer over the white oak casket, which lay wrapped in red roses and white tulips. Across from her, on the other side of the casket, Kristina stood between her mother and a second Father DeMichael, who held her hand and bowed his head. No one could distinguish the “original” Joseph E. DeMichael, the one who had counseled Kristina all her life, from the one pulled over from another reality. Lindy shivered. She’d heard rumors of people crossing over, but she’d never seen these “variants” before. A dozen colleagues from the car shop where Lindy worked surrounded them. Half stared at the casket while the other half raised their eyebrows and whispered to each other, gawking at the two Father DeMichaels.
Lindy turned her attention to Kristina. During their intimate moments together, Lindy always playfully referred to Kristina’s simple, girl–next–door looks as “domestic sexiness.” But on this day Kristina’s blank, bloodshot eyes peered out from behind her tangled and unwashed hair. Until that moment, Lindy hadn’t noticed her pallid face had a too–thoughtful expression, a look with just a slight hint of madness. At home, she’d remained mute and blank–faced, on the prescribed inhalers they were both taking, sleepwalking through her daily routines.
A blue, circular portal appeared in midair over the coffin, and a long, bare arm reached down and plucked away a white tulip.
Everyone pretended it hadn’t happened. The Father DeMichael presiding over the service cleared his throat and continued with the prayer.
Lindy gazed up at two enormous, looming thunderclouds that seemed identical, with just a slit of blue sky separating them. Both appeared thick and dark gray. She focused, trying to detect a difference in the clouds’ size or shape or respective shades of gray, with no success, as they converged.
A light drizzle began to fall. Umbrellas sprouted up around her. She continued looking skyward, enjoying the feel of the cold rain on her face.
After the last of the children left the party and Kristina came to bed, Lindy went into the bathroom and inhaled more In–Bliss. She tried to maintain her equilibrium as she wobbled back to the bed. Kristina lay there with the pillow propped against her back, her reading glasses on the edge of her nose, riffling through the newspaper. “Did you kiss Tommy goodnight?”
Lindy didn’t reply. She pulled back the covers on her side of the bed and lay down.
After a few minutes, Kristina spoke again. “Did you read today’s ‘Dear Annabehl’ column? Apparently someone stole a tiny fragment of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.” She placed the open newspaper on her lap. “There are now over a thousand originals, and the prices are plummeting with each new one that’s retrieved.”
“And what did Dear Annabehl have to say about this?”
“To relax, that we’re living in a brand new world and have to learn to redefine our moral boundaries.”
“Should I call Senecal and order a Starry Night? We can have it delivered first thing in the morning.”
“I suppose it’s irrelevant that Senecal is an illegal dealer or that the Snatcher is illegal or that every damned thing we pull out of the Snatcher is illegal.”
“I think the painting would look fabulous in the living room, centered over the sofa, don’t you?”
“Ever since we got the Snatcher nothing seems to matter any more.”
“Senecal won’t take money any more, by the way. They want unique items they can use as honing samples.”
“Are you even listening?” Lindy asked.
Kristina sighed and pushed her reading glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Look, there’s no point fighting it. Legal or not, everyone has one by now. Even cops have their own Snatchers.”
“We don’t need a snatched painting. There are sometimes slight…differences.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that in a thousand alternate universes, Van Gogh’s original Starry Night is now missing?”
“Why do you have to think about these things?” Kristina frowned. “This is…bigger than us. And all I know is we’re losing things left and right in this house. This morning, my earrings got snatched. And just this afternoon, an arm swiped a twenty–dollar bill off my dresser. If other realities steal from us….”
“Then why shouldn’t we steal from them?”
“Plus, haven’t you read the newspaper?” Kristina said. She lifted the paper from her lap. “We now have all the simian flu vaccine we’ll ever need, and an endless food supply to feed the hungry….”
“What about all the other craziness, the economic crisis? It’s only been six months since the first Snatcher prototype was stolen, and now…everything’s spinning out of control. Can’t you see that?”
“Lindy….” Kristina sighed and put her hand on her shoulder, but Lindy rolled over and wrapped the covers around herself.
After a long pause, Lindy whispered, “How’d the kids’ parents react today?”
“They seemed fine. They were just happy to see Tommy’s feeling better.”
“Don’t kid yourself. They knew. They knew and they were just being polite.”
Kristina turned off the reading light. They lay there, back–to–back, in the darkness, an awkward silence filling the air before Lindy spoke again.
“No Starry Night, okay?”
Kristina inhaled as if to respond.
“Mommy,” Tommy’s voice squeaked from the doorway. “I had a bad dream.”
Kristina turned on the nightstand lamp and sat up. “Come here, baby.”
Tommy ran to her, and she lifted him up onto her lap. “I was lost,” he said, “and I couldn’t find you.”
“It’s okay. You’re safe,” she said, snuggling him.
Lindy stood up and grabbed her pillow.
After a few seconds, Kristina said, “Mommy’s going to read you a story, just like she always does, so you can fall back asleep.” Her eyes drilled into Lindy’s. “Aren’t you, Mommy?”
“Can we read Thunder Bear Adventures?” Tommy asked.
“Honey, there’s no book with that title,” Kristina said.
“But it’s my favorite one! Mommy always reads it to me.”
Lindy and Kristina locked eyes again.
When they had returned from the cemetery Kristina changed into her white nightgown, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. She hovered about the house aimlessly. And there was a lag in her responses to Lindy’s questions, as if communicating via satellite. In a strange, flat voice, Kristina announced she was going upstairs to take a nap.
Lindy sat down on the living room sofa and turned on the news telecast. None of the stories registered –– only random words and phrases penetrated her consciousness: “Snatcher,” “pandemonium,” “markets crashing,” “war,” “variant.” Lindy could only think of those final moments in the hospital, Tommy lying there unconscious, his head wrapped in bandages, his shallow breathing becoming labored and then raspy before finally ceasing. Given the circumstances –– the surgeons’ inability to reach the brain tumor, the odds they’d been given, the potent chemotherapy treatments he’d undergone –– his death shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but at that moment the world had settled into a dull, steady gray that had yet to fade.
An hour later, Kristina stomped down the stairs faster than she had moved the entire day, brandishing a hairbrush like a conductor’s baton.
“What’s the matter?” Lindy asked.
“Tommy was so excited about next week’s birthday party. Kool Aid, cake, ice cream, games, okay? Friday afternoon.” She continued vocalizing scattershot thoughts; her eyes snapped left and right. “Let’s have the party, okay, Lindy? I don’t know why we never thought of it before! The solution is so obvious!” She’d fallen asleep crying; smudged tracks of mascara stained her cheeks. “Let’s celebrate Tommy’s birthday, okay, Lindy? Okay?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It doesn’t have to be…this way…” She waved her hands in the air.
“Honey, he’s gone.” Lindy swept Kristina’s hair back from her forehead.
“But he doesn’t have to be.” She pulled a patch of Tommy’s red hair from the brush and held it between her thumb and index finger.
“Don’t say it,” Lindy said. “Don’t even think it.” She put her hands on Kristina’s shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Listen to me. We’ll get past this, I promise.”
Kristina pushed her hands away and turned around, looking out the window. “I’m not ‘getting past’ anything. We’re bringing him back.” As her determination set in, her shaky voice sounded more coherent. “Don’t you think others have done this? The obituary column gets shorter every day.” She spun around and faced her again. “For his birthday, Lindy. So we can throw him the party he wanted.” Black rivulets began to run down her cheeks again. “What kind of parents are we? We can save him, Lindy! We can save him! How can we not…?” She choked on the final word and sobbed into her hands.
“It wouldn’t be our Tommy,” she replied. Although Lindy had steeled herself during Tommy’s illness and the burial, she found her lower lip quivering. “And we couldn’t do that to another child’s parents.”
“With their Snatcher, they could snatch themselves another Tommy ––”
“He’s dead. That’s it.”
Kristina’s face grew stern, and she paused for a long while before speaking again. Then all at once, her grave expression melted. “I’m sorry, Lindy.” She sighed and collapsed onto the living room couch. “It’s just so hard.”
Lindy sat down next to her. “I understand.”
“I know you’re right,” Kristina said. “I know we’ll find a way to get past this.” She wiped at the corner of her eyes with the sleeve of her flannel nightgown.
Lindy patted her thigh.
“Do you want anything?” Kristina asked. She stood up and headed toward the swinging door to the kitchen.
Lindy shook her head and stared at the framed picture on the coffee table of the three of them in Maui, she and Kristina and Tommy, all in their bathing suits, sporting yellow leis and broad smiles. Tommy wore Lindy’s sunglasses. She felt like an overstretched rubber band; a minute ago she’d been on the verge of tears, but now she found herself smiling.
A blue disc materialized in midair, and a tanned arm with blood–red fingernails snaked out of it. It snatched the framed photograph and retreated back into the portal.
Goddamn it, not that picture, Lindy thought. If she’d just had another second to react, she would have stabbed the goddamned hand with a fork.
A shriek cut through the silence.
Lindy leapt from the couch and ran into the kitchen. The door to the garage was wide open. No…, she hadn’t…, Lindy thought, she didn’t….
Lindy ran to the garage and was confronted with the sight of Kristina leaning over the Snatcher. She had pulled Tommy halfway out. His skin was blue–white and he wore the navy–blue suit in which they had buried him. He was unmistakably dead.
Kristina continued to wail.
“Let go!” Lindy grabbed her arms. “Let him go!”
Kristina released her grip and the cadaver dropped, disappearing into the ethereal blue mist that wafted out of the Snatcher. Her hands shaking, Kristina placed the metal lid back on the Snatcher and then removed it again.
Lindy tried to pull her away from the device, but Kristina surprised her with a shove that sent her sprawling to the floor. Kristina reached into the Snatcher and soon had another variant of Tommy in her grasp, which she tugged upwards. Before long, she cradled another corpse –– this one more decomposed than the first, but still outfitted in the same navy–blue suit –– and let out a high–pitched screech.
“For God’s sake, stop it!” Lindy said.
Kristina dropped the body back into the Snatcher, and turned the red dial on the side all the way right. On her third attempt, she leaned in and pulled out a red–faced Tommy clad in polka–dotted pajamas.
“What’s happening?” he screamed, slapping at her arms. Kristina laughed and kissed his cheeks and hugged him tight. Tommy began to cry. “It’s okay, baby. Your mommies are here.” Kristina rocked him in her arms in an exaggerated motion.
Lindy moved toward them and grabbed the boy around the waist, prying him from Kristina’s embrace.
“What are you doing?” Kristina said.
Lindy carried him back over the mouth of the Snatcher and tried to jam him back in. The boy wailed and splayed his legs, his feet catching on the sides of the Snatcher.
“Mommy!” he sobbed. He wrapped his arms around Lindy’s neck. “Mommy!”
She stopped struggling.
“Tommy,” Lindy said. She hugged him back. “Shhh. It’s okay, it’s okay.”
As Lindy led him back to his room for the bedtime story, Tommy stopped to put on a stray birthday hat, then diverted them to the bathroom. He insisted on brushing his teeth again before going back to sleep –– a classic stalling tactic, for sure –– but she saw no harm in it. She held Tommy from behind while he perched on a stool and brushed his teeth, peering into the bathroom mirror. She took the toothbrush out of his left hand and moved it to his right hand.
“Why can’t we read Thunder Bears?” He drooled toothpaste into the sink when he spoke.
“We’ll read it another night,” she lied. “Just pick another book.”
He shifted the toothbrush back into his left hand and continued brushing.
“Use your other hand, honey. It’ll be easier.” But when Lindy tried to remove the toothbrush from his left hand again, he pulled away and continued brushing. “No, Mommy!”
Lindy focused on the smooth, effortless movements as Tommy brushed up and down with his left hand. And all at once, the hairs on her arms stood on end. She had allowed herself to forget, just for a few minutes, that this boy was not her son. Tommy –– her Tommy –– was right–handed.
She took a step backward.
He rinsed and raced to his bedroom. “I’ll get the book!”
Lindy felt dizzy. Her heart raced; she needed another whiff of In–Bliss. Staggering after the boy, she stood at the doorway to his bedroom –– Tommy’s bedroom –– and watched the imposter look through the books –– Tommy’s books –– on the bottom shelf. “I can’t find Thunder Bears,” he whined.
“Huh?” The words barely registered. Her Tommy deserved better than this, she thought. He deserved to be remembered, to be mourned.
“I want you to read me Thunder Bears.”
“Look, just go to sleep!” she said.
“You promised!” He started to cry. “I want Thunder Bears!” For a split–second, the boy stopped weeping. He winced and brought his hands to his temples. Then the bawling grew louder.
“What’s the matter?”
“My head hurts,” he said, sobbing.
Lindy gasped. Her heart pounded. She leaned back against the wall and found herself sliding to the floor. She stared up at the light fixtures on the ceiling, which were spinning, spinning.
Tommy continued crying for his book, his hands on the sides of his head, until Lindy crawled over to him. She lifted him up and lay him down in the bed.
“Shh. It’s okay, baby. Mommy’s here.” She held him in her arms, massaging his forehead. No, no, no, she thought. We can’t go through this again. Not again.
After a minute, he cried himself to sleep.
She set him down on the bed. The entire room was spinning now.
She stared at her hands. They seemed to move independently from her body, clutching the soft pillow. She moved it an inch away from his face and held it there for a few seconds.
“What are you doing?” Kristina said from the doorway.
Lindy jumped to her feet, dropping the pillow.
Kristina’s eyes widened; her face flushed.
Lindy staggered past her and down the stairs. As she opened the front door, Kristina shouted from the top of the stairway:”What were you doing?”
Lindy slammed the door behind her.
Lindy drove several blocks to the beach and stayed awake all night in the pick–up truck, staring at the ink–black sky. Not a single star was visible behind the dark thundercloud cover. The rhythmic swoosh of the distant waves reminded her of Tommy’s final raspy breaths at the hospital. She blinked and the sky suddenly grayed. A sickly dawn had arrived, illuminating the garbage–strewn sands.
She drove back home and parked at the curbside. After half an hour, she found the energy to sleepwalk down the gravel pathway to the porch of their house, ice–cold, numb.
What had she almost done?
Kristina would forgive her anything, she always thought, but this….
As Lindy moved past the living room window she caught a glimpse of two figures inside. There, on the couch, watching cartoons, lay Tommy. And Kristina sat next to him. Van Gogh’s Starry Night hung on the wall behind them.
And all at once a tremendous wave of relief washed over her, as if yesterday had been nothing more than a drug–induced nightmare, and today she’d been slapped awake to a brand–new, shiny reality. Maybe Kristina felt the same way. Maybe they could both find a way to get past this. This time, she thought, the doctors would catch the tumor early. This time he’d be okay. She’d be a good mother to him. Lindy knew now she’d somehow find a way to adjust, to accept the new Tommy as her own. Dear Annabehl was right; they lived in a different world now.
As she walked toward the front door, Lindy got a full view of the living room. Her heart froze. A third person, a woman, sat next to Kristina, thigh against thigh, laughing along with them. The woman got up and walked behind the couch and tickled Tommy from behind, catching him off guard. As Tommy squealed, Kristina also shrieked with laughter.
The woman was Lindy.
Lindy stepped back from the window and staggered down the walkway. She tripped and fell to her knees, crawling to the pickup truck. There, she fumbled for the inhaler in the glove compartment and took a hit. The sky, the world, was spinning. And as a quietude gradually enveloped her, she imagined an outstretched arm appearing in midair, white and smooth and smelling of Kristina’s perfume, reaching down to take her hand and pull her up through a patch of cobalt–blue sky to a different place, a place where she belonged.
She took another deep whiff.
Mercurio D. Rivera practices law during the day and writes speculative fiction at night. His story about unrequited alien love, Longing for Langalana, won the annual readers’ poll conducted by Interzone for favorite story of 2006. The Scent of Their Arrival, his upcoming story in the February 2008 issue of Interzone, explores science and faith in a post-apocalyptic world conquered by interdimensional vampires. His fiction can also be found in Northwest Passages: A Cascadian Anthology, edited by Cris Dimarco (Windstorm Creative Press), Sybil’s Garage, Sounds of the Night, Dred Tales and elsewhere. He is an Associate Editor of Sybil’s Garage Magazine (sensesfive.com) and a diehard Yankees fan.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish