Mercury

by: Nathan Willis

A story that attests to the fact that thresholds, hypothetical and actual, are crossed all the time…

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As the light fell, time slowed enough that I should have been able to reach out and keep it from breaking. But as it fell further my body froze and my mind began to race.

I thought about the theory that any distance can be split in half, like the distance between the light bulb and the carpet, and because of this it will, at an infinite level, never reach the ground – it will never shatter. I don’t remember the name of the theory. I remember learning about it, trying to reason it out, because it seemed to make sense. Anything could be halved. But at the same time I knew this theory to be irrational. Thresholds, hypothetical and actual, are crossed all the time.

I thought about the video I’d watched earlier that day. It was one that gets passed around online every few months – a compilation of “Dad Saves.” Basically, dad’s catching or pulling their kids out of danger at the absolute last second aided by some preternatural instinct bestowed upon them by parenthood. I wanted to do the same thing with the light. I needed the instinct or the power to be able to move through time in slow motion. I just didn’t have it.

Finally, I thought about when we first got these lights. They were part of a home photography studio set I got Jenny for Christmas the year before. We had marveled at how they were the biggest bulbs either of us had ever seen. There were two of them, each a little bigger than a half-gallon milk jug. They screwed into tall telescoping rods that were supported by short little tripods, like enormous heads on precarious stick figures. As we put them together I worried it was only a matter of time before we knocked one over and it would be a disaster because they weren’t just regular gigantic light bulbs, they were those phosphorescent curlicue bulbs. I told Jenny how careful we had to be to make sure they didn’t break because they were dangerous. I couldn’t remember exactly why, but I knew they were.

Then almost a year later the day finally came. We were still living in our little apartment and had been keeping the backdrops and lights against our back wall in the dining room. I’d gone in there to get a crock-pot and as I walked away the cord went taut. It had gotten tangled around one of the tripods. I turned around just in time to see the stick figure give up on regaining its footing and the light shatter on the carpet. In an instant there were shards of glass everywhere. Jenny was in the kitchen and moved to get a better look and help clean up.

“Don’t.” I held up my hand. “You need to get out of here. I’ll get your shoes. Just don’t move. The glass is everywhere and you can’t be around this. There’s something about these bulbs. It’s dangerous if they break because they’re full of gas or something. There’s something harmful about them. I don’t know what. I just know you can’t be here right now.” I took measured steps to the door, got her shoes, put on my own and took equally deliberate steps to meet her on the linoleum.

“Do you want gloves?” Jenny opened the cupboard under the sink to show me the gloves we’d gotten to protect her from chemicals in the dish soap.

I told her I was fine and to just go to the bedroom. I got a plastic shopping bag from the closet to collect all the broken pieces.

It might have just been in my head but after I picked up the first few pieces, my fingertips had a rubbery coating and slight burning sensation. I went to the sink, washed my hands and got the gloves.

I picked up the biggest pieces and vacuumed the impact spot then worked my way out repeating the same process; picking up pieces then vacuuming, each time making sure to cover everything I had already been over.

There were a few pieces of glass that had made it onto the table so I moved our perpetual stacks of bills and advertisements to the kitchen counter. We had a fruit bowl that was usually just an empty decoration but we’d gone to the grocery store that day and for whatever reason, had been compelled to buy pomegranates, apples, and kiwis. I think we were afraid these were the last good ones we would get because it was so late in the season.

I picked up an apple and turned it over in in my hand looking for evidence of contamination. I didn’t see anything but it wasn’t worth the risk. I dumped the bowl into the shopping bag, wiped down the table, emptied the vacuum canister on top of the fruit and took it out to the trash.

Back inside, I went to check on Jenny. She was laying in bed telling someone on the phone how we were waiting to go back to the doctor so they could tell us what our options were since the first round didn’t work. She was explaining how the other embryos hadn’t made it far enough to be frozen when she saw me in the doorway.

“Oh my god. You’re so sweaty. How is it? Are you done?”

“Almost. You ok?”

“It’s your sister.” Jenny turned back to the phone. “A light bulb broke in the dining room and he’s cleaning it up. I asked him if he wanted me to help but he said no.”

“Tell her it was one of those curly light bulbs. And tell her how big it was. That it was as big as a milk jug.” I thought my sister might be more familiar with the dangers involved and reinforce or at least validate my having escalated the situation to a quarantine level event.

“It was a curly light bulb. Yeah. One of those. Anyway. Since then we’ve just been waiting to go back to the doctor. It’s been hard. It’s been hard on both of us.”

I went back to the dining room and moved the table and other furniture we have in there to get any stray shards of glass that made their way underneath, around or behind things. I put everything back in place, vacuumed once more, took off my shoes and socks and walked concentric circles around the table. I would need to do this over and over until I had covered every square inch to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

When I heard Jenny get off the phone I told her it was safe to come out and waited for her in the entranceway between the living room and dining room.

Before she could say anything I told her how bad it had been. “The glass was everywhere. Even up on the table. I think I got it all though.”

“It looks great out here.”

Infinite divisibility. That’s what it’s called when things never end because they keep getting divided into smaller halves.

We stood there looking over the room and she was right. It did look great. With everything wiped off and all the clutter cleared off the table, it looked like a dining room in a model home and for a second everything went into slow motion again.

I imagined a small child in the room, scooting and clambering around on all fours, pretending the table is a fort, on the lookout for an inevitable legion of bad guys while we sit on the couch lazily asking who he’s fighting and how he’s going to defend himself. Then he lets out a scream and starts crying. We rush over and Jenny sees the blood and screams too. We look at his hand and see a deep paper-thin slice in his palm, a tiny piece of glass sticking out, punctuating the end of the cut. I see us trying to explain this to the kid’s parents but I can’t find enough words to make it sound like it’s not our fault – like it’s not my fault.

Whoever they are, they won’t care how long I vacuumed. They won’t care how much furniture I moved and they won’t care how many barefoot laps I’ve walked around the room. The child will look at us and Jenny and I will stand there, unmoving as we are divided into smaller and smaller halves, every part of us, even the parts we can’t see.

I thought about the next doctor’s appointment and everything we already knew she was going to say; all the options she would lay out for us and how I won’t be able to bring myself to say anything from the list of Angry and Devastated Reasons This Should Have Worked The First Time that I’d been mentally stockpiling for the last month.

And I thought about the pictures Jenny took before we got the home photography studio set; selfies where we’re laughing more than smiling, neither of us ever centered in the frame. Then we got the studio and for a while we took amazing portraits of each other, recording ourselves getting older by the day in shots both candid and staged until our smiles looked as fragile as the broken bulb. After that we stopped taking pictures altogether.

Everything speeds back up to normal and we walk through the dining room doing our best to act like we’re safe from harm, hypothetical or actual.

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