The bell rang, and I cursed my hangover and my idiot brother's name all the way to the door.
Weeks now since my evil twin exploded at a county fair outside Duluth--injuring dozens and taking five members of a knitting circle and a prize-winning turkey with him--and the FBI and Homeland Security goons had mostly stopped coming around, but the heavy crush of attention remained pressed on me like a flaming eye in the sky, its searing gaze constricting the world around me to where I could only leave the house for a few seconds each day to get the paper. Eventually I was denied even these flirtations with daylight, when one morning I bent over to pick up a copy of the newson my driveway and saw a front page photo of me bending over to pick up a copy of the news on my driveway. I canceled my subscription and started my slow way through the liquor cabinet, growing more and more positive in my drunkenness that my brother had martyred himself for the sole reason of killing me.
I opened the door, ready to slam it in the face of another reporter, and instead saw a delivery man in a gray work shirt and shorts. He stood dignified and tall, taller than I imagined anybody had the right to be, with teak-colored skin and regal blue eyes. Looking at him directly was difficult: maybe it was the light that seemed to be coming from inside him, rippling just under the skin, or maybe it was the cluster of dark moles bridging the side of his nose and cheek, dotted with errant hairs.
"Sign." His voice was a sonorous baritone.
I signed my name. My eyes ached too much in the late afternoon sun to make out what I was signing for. He walked to his box truck and opened the back. A woman in a white sundress stepped out, lithely dropping the few feet to the ground. She was followed by another. And another. One after the other they came, a clown car cavalcade of young women in white with long, long hair, lined up silently at the curb and watching me with solemn eyes.
I stood in my doorway, paralyzed, unable to do anything but feel increasingly ill until the last of them took her place at the end of the line and the delivery man slid the gate down.
I did a quick count of the women. I counted again. Seventy-two.
Something clunked into place in my head. A spark of realization stuttered, hesitant at first, then flared into an incandescent brilliance that rose like an absurd phoenix above the fumes of liquor haze as klaxons screamed across the surface of my brain.
No, I thought. It couldn't be.
I cursed my brother again as I walked over to the delivery man, vaguely aware even in my confusion of the sliver of gratitude I held for the fact that my sleepy, sunny cul-de-sac appeared, for the moment, devoid of witnesses. No flashbulbs going off in the bushes, no big googly glasses and tight buns of platinum hair peeking out from behind curtains, which hopefully meant no forthcoming visits from the friendly neighborhood SWAT team, politely inquiring about any possible human trafficking rings in the area.
"Excuse me," I said. "I think there's been a mistake. My twin brother..."
I trailed off, unable to believe the stupidity of what I was about to say.
"Heaven," the delivery man said in the tone of a harried but dignified man with several more stops to make before home, "does not make mistakes. Now I suggest getting them inside quickly. Not even the Almighty can keep the curious away for long."
And that, somehow, was that. The messenger climbed into the cab and tipped me a tired wink.
"Enjoy your bitches," he said, and drove off.
My brother's wives--the stipulated boon for his self-induced martyrdom--swallowed my house, standing shoulder-to-shoulder all along the walls and hallways; sitting on every chair, sofa, the carpeted steps leading to the second floor and the uncarpeted steps to the basement; spilling a soft fog of white and eye and limb and hair throughout my fortress of alcohol, sopping up the stale booze stink of the past few blackout weeks. The house seemed clean and new by association alone.
They were not the most inclusive bunch: each was willowy and tall, more arms and legs than anything else, with perfectly pretty and identical faces sharing the same slim nose, high cheekbones and large gray eyes. They differed only in the shades of their skin and hair, making them look like they were drawn by a lazy comic book artist with no patience for detail.
I felt my mind drifting in an impossible sea. A woman broke rank and pressed a steaming cup of tea in my hand, then melded back into the others in a movement so fluid and seamless I couldn't tell which one of them had done it.
I drank, fully aware that at no time in my life had I ever had tea in my kitchen. It tasted of raisins covered in earth and pushed back the blackness at the edges of my vision.
I blinked and took a breath. Out of the corner of my eye, a sudden dip of russet hair, a near imperceptible smile spreading across a dusky face.
I turned. "It's delicious. Thank you."
"I am happy it pleases you."
"What's your name?"
"Houri." Clear and ringing, radiating calm like a pill.
"Pretty," I said. "I hope I can remember it."
"They are also Houri."
The convenience of it all was striking. I looked at them, taking in as much as I could of their sameness, their form and function. For all their beauty they may as well have been wearing jumpsuits, the shine of divine craftsmanship unable to conceal the bruising of mundane utility.
I knew then certain facts concerning God: he was straight, he was a man, and we were all fucked.
"Excuse me," I said, opening the French doors to the backyard. "I need to make a call."
The sun was beginning to set. I stood by the pool and stared in. Under the dimming light my reflection was my brother, mocking me from beneath a frozen lake. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine, and in them were smaller copies of us, who held in their eyes even smaller copies; on and on, shrinking smaller and smaller, as though we were both falling down a tunnel into a past where the one still saw the other as himself.
I walked around the pool to the back fence and dialed Andrew.
"Can you get away from Irene tonight?" I asked.
"You need me?"
"I need you."
"Okay. I have to order dinner. A lot of dinner."
The copper-haired Houri was sitting by the pool when I turned back to the house, hands bunching her dress at the knees, tan legs spinning idle circles in the water. Her gaze was fixed on the clutch of clouds and purple-orange light on the horizon, watching the sunset with the dreamy look of someone who had never before seen the sky from below.
Next to me, Andrew rolled onto his side, his outline a wine stain against the soft shadows of the bedroom. I knew he was dying to ask what I would do concerning the seventy-two undocumented handmaidens of paradise sleeping now throughout the house, but he let the question go unvoiced, and my chest swelled with grateful affection.
I let my mind go back to the women. Their conditioning to obey at the forefront of their collective existence, they received my declaration that I would not be taking any of them into my bed with nothing but a ready, programmed grace. Without task, without purpose, they simply waited.
The unwarranted devotion shamed me. Andrew stirred again. His wedding ring caught a stray shaft of moonlight. I reached for his hand and traced my fingers over the engraved band.
"What's it like?" I said.
He sat up and lit a cigarette, breathed deep and exhaled menthol smoke.
"Some of it's good," he said, picking his words with care. "The clichéd stuff. Hurrying home to someone, waking up every morning next to someone, all that, you know? Being able to tell yourself you made it, that you're safe and secure in the middle of the pack, and that life is right on schedule, going exactly the way that's expected of it. Yeah. I like all of that."
His face grew dour in the cigarette glow.
"You concede a lot. Not to her, but to yourself. You think, this can be a good thing or a bad thing and all we have to do is choose, even though you know all along that however it turns out was already decided long before the two of you ever met. That thing with the cat and the box? Sort of like that. You can hope for one way or the other all you want, but it's been out of your hands since the beginning."
I made out a tired smile on his face.
"There you go. A maybe-dead, maybe-not, goddamn cat. That's as good a metaphor for it as any."
I squeezed his hand.
"I meant being with a woman."
"Ha! Got one in mind?"
I thought of hair that was the rusty red-brown of dying trees, skinny legs and ankles breaking the tension of still water; I thought of a cup of tea driving away the darkness.
"Maybe," I said.
But I didn't hear Andrew's reply. I thought of Houri still, and how I could want her and not feel a thing for the others, when nothing separated them but shades of light.
I felt weighted down with helplessness before the hidden rigidity of the universe. The unknown revealed itself as the inescapable.
If, on a small enough level, there was no difference between a live cat and a dead one, and if a live bomb contained the exact same number of atoms as a dud up until the moment of detonation, then there should be nothing distinguishing an intact twin from one dispersed over a hundred-meter radius by fifteen kilograms of acetone peroxide, and whatever violent divergence it was that split our lives off into such contrasting directions became little more than a set of uneventful detours that wound back into one path and led inexorably here, to the Houri and their everlasting arms.
Heaven, I tried reassuring myself, does not make mistakes.
I picked my way through the sleepers spread out over the floors, clumsy in the pre-dawn light. Even before the seclusion and drink of the last several weeks I had never gotten into the habit of getting up before the sun, and more than once I stepped on a hand or a tangle of hair. They were sound sleepers, though, not as delicate as their appearance suggested, and I made it into the kitchen without waking them.
They were healthy eaters as well. Three garbage bags full of Chinese takeout cartons leaned against the French doors, along with one stuffed to bursting with empty toilet paper rolls. Despite their divine pedigree, the handmaidens ate and drank and slept and shat enough like common people that any significant delays in assessing my situation threatened to resolve itself in the form of abrupt penury. As it stood, I could pay the cable bill or get breakfast for everyone.
The worried half-sleep lifted from my mind when I took the garbage into the backyard and saw her sitting by the pool, looking as natural and at home as she would be in Eden, as though it was all the same to her whether water was stinging and chlorinated or ran mad in deep rivers.
"Good morning," she said. "I will make you tea."
She made to get up, but I shook my head.
"Don't," I said. "I'm fine."
"It would please you," she said, smiling.
"Yes. But it pleases me more to see you where you are."
She settled back down, her smile growing in intensity until I could no longer look at it. I piled the bags around the trash bins and walked deliberately to her side. I rolled my pants up to my knees, submerged my legs in the pool. The water was a welcome brace of cold that further woke me and threw the world into greater focus. I had a vague awareness of water everywhere: shot from sprinklers to arc over grass; beaded and slippery on the cobbled footpath and waxy leaves; solid in the air, colliding, swelling clouds with electric charges. The clouds expanded like balloons, like galaxies moving away from each other at incredible speeds.
Not as fast, the first fat drops hit the ground and burst apart.
Without looking at her: "Houri?"
"If I sent the others away, would you stay here with me?"
"Would that please you?"
"Well of course it would."
"Well of course I would."
"And if I sent all of you away? If I sold this house and gave each of you some money and a bus ticket, told you to live for no one but yourself, would you? Would you find your own place, your own life? Would you come back here to me? Or would you just stand clueless in a fucking field somewhere until you fell over and died?"
She barely hesitated. "Would any of that please you?"
The hideous earnestness doused me like a cold bucket perched above a door. I laughed. I doubled over in tearful hysterics, shoulders twitching, almost falling into the pool. When I looked up, Houri was watching me without a trace of puzzlement in her polite smile. I could have kept laughing until all creation unraveled around us into a lightless two-dimensional void, and she'd still be smiling.
I must have yet loved my brother, I knew then, to have spared him from an eternal reward as pointless and sad as the act that merited it.
I was still laughing when the sound of the doorbell floated over the Houri's waking forms into the backyard. I stood up and placed my hand on her shoulder.
"Thank you, Houri," I said. "Very much."
The bell rang a second time as the rain picked up. I went back inside, where the women had cleared a path to the front door, swift and alert, nothing indicating they had just woken up.
The tall messenger waited on the other side, looking bored.
"You did not lie with them," he said.
"Good. There's been a mistake."
"I thought you said--"
"Heaven," he cut in, "does not make mistakes; however, its personnel are overworked and tired and have been running deliveries to you wretched creatures nonstop. And since we are not ineffable, a slip-up here and there is to be expected."
He thrust a rain-streaked tablet and stylus at my face.
"So please sign," he said, "and let me go home to my wife."
I looked over my shoulder into the house. Past the massed wall of white, I saw Andrew standing on the bottom step of the staircase. His hair was a mess and the deep lines on his face stood out even in the low light of the rainy morning. His head was tilted to one side, eyes sleepy but bright, swimmy with amusement.
I grinned at him and scrawled my name on the tablet, not bothering to read what I was signing. It was out of my hands. On a small enough level, it had always been.
Rene is currently writing out of the Ozarks, where he lives in a van and stocks up on gas money by repairing vending machines. "Houri" is his first published work of fiction.