Balance

Image by Stephen Di Donato via VisualHunt.com

One difficulty is trying to keep everybody happy. They need meaningful work, but also adequate rest, exercise, and to be engaged in some kind of artistic pursuit or hobby. Balance can be difficult to achieve. If, for example, Amanda spends too much time at the easel producing masterpieces in watercolour, her emotional values will soar, but her finances will suffer because she has forgotten to go to work.

Let this go on too long, and consequences multiply. Amanda might get fired. She may become careless about personal hygiene, forgetting to shower and put on clean clothes. There’s no food in the fridge, no one is doing the laundry, and she and Keith have begun to argue about her lack of interest in the family. One day someone arrives at the door from Children’s Services and takes the kids away. Now Amanda is depressed—the very thing she was trying to avoid by doing all that painting! So there needs to be balance.

***

Her own children lured Sheila into the game. She watched them enjoying themselves, saw how absorbed they were and heard them talking about designing houses and deciding how many kids to have. “Try it,” said Nate. “It’s fun.”

She’d dipped a toe in cautiously. What she’d really wanted was to simply have a turn at playing Nate’s game. But he had said no, his Para family had already become complicated enough with backstory that he had to be at the controls himself. She would have to create her own account. This was a commitment she wasn’t ready for, but eventually her curiosity won out.

She was hooked almost instantly by all the tools available to her, all the possibilities for her Paras. She created a family: Amanda and Keith, both 38, Liam, 11, and Michaela, 9. Then she built them a house, a lovely two-storey suburban home with a pool and three-car garage. The house had a large kitchen, where Amanda and Keith cooked elaborate meals. There was a studio, too, where Amanda set up an easel and began painting. So far, so good.

***

It is clear to Sheila that Amanda is at the centre of things. She is the story’s main character, if you like. For example, it seems to be up to Amanda to organize the children and see that everyone is where they are supposed to be at the right time. She doesn’t (necessarily) have to do all the work, but she does need to be in charge of it.

Sheila wonders if this is true, or if her own bias has created this reality. “Who is really in charge of this family?” Sheila asks.

***

Life ticks along for the virtual family. Amanda and Keith are busy at their jobs, but they make time for hobbies, too. Keith is a marketing specialist at a big manufacturing company. He likes to cook, and he also plays tennis and piano and he’s restoring a vintage car in the garage. Amanda is a real estate agent. She has recently taken up painting, and she reads a lot, too. The children might be watching too much TV.

In all, they seem like a stereotypical family. They get up, get ready for work and school, eat meals together, watch TV and read, talk on the phone, argue, and go to bed. Not every day and not always in that order. This is okay for a while, but Sheila wonders if this is all there is.

The fact that she is playing a sophisticated version of house isn’t lost on Sheila. And, just as it was when she was young and played house with her friends, the game can be boring. Everyone seems to do the same things over and over again, and in place of real conflict the players bicker and squabble. It is a bit like a soap opera. Still, the family is strangely compelling, and Sheila slips into their world regularly, after her own children are in bed. Later she recalls that she’s done this for several months, remembering details from the lives of her Paras, but few from her own.

***

It isn’t long before Sheila notices that much of the family’s energy is devoted to buying things. Having built a big house, her Para family now have the task of filling it. Part of the problem, Sheila realizes, is that she has no talent for architecture or design, and so the house has funny proportions and cavernous rooms that are much too large and out of scale for the furniture. While it was fun to build a living room that’s 30×40 feet, the couch and armchairs look ridiculous huddled in the corner of this mostly empty room.

Conveniently, though, at the bottom of the screen is a BUY button that links to a store where Amanda and Keith can buy anything imaginable for their home. So what if the living room is too big? Just buy more furniture. They go on a bit of a spending spree, purchasing new kitchen appliances (Amanda has always wanted stainless steel), a new TV for the master bedroom, and two sets of patio furniture. When they’ve finished shopping, they throw a party.

***

One day when Amanda is in the shower—taking extra time, letting the jet of hot water massage the base of her skull—a text bubble appears on the screen next to her head. It says, Emotional -2, Life Satisfaction +1, Money +21. Sheila hasn’t seen this before, and she’s puzzled. Until now she’s been managing her family intuitively, clicking and selecting options she hopes will lead to desirable outcomes.

On the Help menu, she learns that her game people are more like her than she’d realized. A positive mood is important, and so is life satisfaction. Unfortunately, so are job satisfaction and financial security. Suddenly, Sheila finds herself responsible for her Paras’ happiness, success, and general wellbeing.

Soon Sheila is spending more time figuring out how to keep their values at the right levels. They are busy and active, but to maintain their satisfaction levels, they need to earn more money and have more stuff. To earn more money, they need better jobs. Eventually this will make them happy, she learns.

The only way to do this effectively and efficiently is to cheat. Sheila learns about cheats from her kids. Yeah, they tell her, it’s not really any fun without the cheats. There’s an internet site that lists codes for the game—money, friends, mood, needs. It’s easy to tweak these values, improve moods and make time for hobbies in just a few clicks. Now there is time for Keith to play the piano to improve his mood, and there’s money to buy the piano, too. Nothing is too extravagant—they install a teleporter to beam them from one floor of their massive home to the next. Soon a text prompt appears onscreen informing Sheila that her virtual family have been approved to adopt a child.

They have a lot of parties. Life is good. But there’s crime, too. Someone breaks in at night. No one is hurt, but they need to install an expensive alarm system. Back to the cheats for more money!

Now mood and satisfaction values are all over the place. Keith works all the time. He receives special commendations for good work, so those values are up. But he’s never at home, and eventually this affects his mood. The kids’ emotional values suffer too. Amanda spends too much time in her studio. The house is a mess. Forget about adopting that child, the social worker tells her.

Sheila is fed up with her high-maintenance family. For fun, she decides they should throw a pool party. After buying a new barbecue, more patio furniture and pool toys, Amanda sends out invitations. Friends and neighbours arrive on a hot Saturday. They splash and play, floating, chatting, eating, and drinking, all afternoon.

Sheila watches them in the pool, swimming and splashing. She waits until there is just one child left in the pool—a teenage boy—and on a whim, she goes to the game settings and takes away all the pool ladders, wondering what he will do.

At first, he doesn’t notice. Then, with accelerating panic, he swims from one edge of the pool to another, looking for a way out. Sheila had thought her Paras might be this doltish—why doesn’t he just climb out on the side of the pool like any normal teenager would? Before long, others have noticed that the boy is in trouble. They are shouting, gesticulating with flailing arms, calling 911, trying frantically to raise the alarm to the person beyond the screen.

But Sheila doesn’t respond. She looks on as everyone tries to help. Then she sees that the boy in the pool has stopped swimming. His posture droops and his colour is tinged grey.

Sheila didn’t expect this, and as she considers why, she notices a figure approach. It enters from behind the fence—moves right through it, in fact—and party guests clear a path for it. Sheila draws a quick breath. It is the Grim Reaper. The boy’s flaccid body floats up into the air and dissolves, and the figure in black exits the way it arrived.

Sheila is stunned, chastened, can feel her cold heart pounding. She leaves the game for a few days, maybe a few weeks, but returns.

Bone

 

Photo credit: Theen … on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA 

He began appearing in different parts of the house. Still in the basement, but now she saw him in a heap on the attic floor, at the top of the narrow, creaky stairway to the space they used only for storage.

He lay face down, one arm pinned under his rib cage, the other by his side. His legs were thrust out as though he’d fallen on his knees and his weight had forced them to straighten. Had he tried to get up? She couldn’t tell.

It was spring, and Sheila was in the attic putting the winter coats away. As always she took inventory, deciding what to keep, what would still fit the children next year, and what to get rid of.

She seldom got beyond this stage. She waffled over the smallest items—scarves she’d received as gifts and never worn, a glove whose mate had been missing for more than a year, the raccoon earmuffs Chloe had refused to wear. In the end she bundled up the parkas and snow pants she should have discarded last year, and stuffed them in a bag.

She turned again to the coats from this winter. She should wash the kids’ ski jackets, she thought. Nate’s was grubby with grass stains and mud on the elbows. Checking the pockets, she found a note: “You didn’t need to be so obvious about it. Fuck. As if she didn’t know already.”

Sheila didn’t think it was Nate’s handwriting. This was neater, more precise, maybe a girl’s.

She wondered what to do with it. She refolded it and put it back in the pocket, then tossed the jacket onto the pile she would take downstairs.

***

When they moved into the house, they had found bones in the basement. It was a cellar, really, barely five feet deep, with an earth floor and lit by a single bare bulb. In the back, below the kitchen, a cement pad for the furnace and water heater and a half door leading out to the crawlspace under the porch.

They’d wondered if they could lower the floor, and Derek was loosening the dirt with a pickaxe, then dumping it a shovelful at a time into a galvanized iron tub.

Sheila found the first one. “Look!” She plucked it from the pile with her thumb and forefinger, and held it up. About nine inches long, decomposed and hollowed, but unmistakably a bone.

She brushed the dirt off to look at it more closely. The porous surface reminded her of sponge toffee or Alka Seltzer. Something solid that would fizz up and dissolve if you added water.

“It’s not human,” Derek said. “Did you think it was?”

She wasn’t sure. She might have hoped it was, but soon realized this was naive. Who did she think she was, Nancy Drew?

And she had the idea to keep it, to scrub it clean, and put it on a shelf.

The Body at the Bottom of the Stairs

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Sheila is afraid of the body at the bottom of the stairs.

One day, about to open the basement door, Sheila sensed that if she went down the stairs she would find a man’s body. At first she imagined only a lumpish human shape. But then she thought about it long enough to flesh out the picture in her mind. He was lying in a modified recovery position, though more face down than on his side. His left arm extended, his head resting on his bicep; his right arm on the floor in front of him, elbow bent, hand near his face. She couldn’t tell how old he was. He wore a brown suit.

Even as a child, Sheila was not afraid of monsters under the bed or in the closet. But the image lingered, and she thought about the man every time she needed something from the basement.

He wasn’t a ghost, poltergeist or demon. He just lay there, stubbornly present, always in the same position, but not threatening in any way she could express.

Who is he, she wondered, increasingly nervous. She found she hesitated at the top of the stairs. He was real to her, but she didn’t tell anyone. She believed he was communicating — or needed to communicate — something to her. Yet his presence also felt like a judgement.

This happened around the time Derek was away from home for longer stretches, travelling for work, often for a week or more at a time. In fact, the same day Sheila first imagined the body, she expected Derek home after a week away. He was due on a late flight, and it was mid-afternoon when the man appeared to her.

But he didn’t actually appear to her. She remembered it that way, but it was just a picture in her head. Though she had quickly conjured up a physical presence. She felt heat rising off his body, a chill in the musty basement air, and there was a faint sour smell, too, of perspiration.

That day she had hesitated only a moment, then took a deep breath and headed down the stairs, stopping once to peek around the corner and scan the space below. Nothing. Only their basement as she had last seen it — a single room with a low ceiling, cobwebs in the joists and everything where she expected it to be. The washer and dryer, an assortment of sports equipment and half-finished projects. The freezer hummed in the corner. Where she had imagined seeing the body was cluttered with boxes of discarded toys and dishes to sort and give away. No room here for a body, she thought, yet she could see that the position and location she imagined him to be in suggested he had fallen down the stairs, or had been pushed. She made her way to the dryer to retrieve a basket of clean clothes, to take upstairs to fold.

Later that evening, Derek called to say his flight had been delayed. It would be past midnight when he landed, and then he’d have to get a cab. It was a bitter cold Friday night in December. She’d just told Chloe and Nate to turn off the TV and get ready for bed. They’d ordered pizza, the empty box still on the dining room table. She shook the crumbs into the garbage and put the box by the basement door to take downstairs for recycling. When the kids were in bed, she took the dog out, turned off all but one light by the front door, then went to bed and read for an hour, restlessly, knowing she wouldn’t retain much.

Expecting to lie awake in the dark, instead she fell into a heavy, woolly sleep, from which she surfaced occasionally to look at the clock and wonder about Derek. But sleep soon carried her off again, it was warm and delicious, and she burrowed into it, and each time she came to, it was more difficult to climb back up.

Very late in the night she heard the key in the door and Derek’s footsteps on the hall carpet. In her mind she followed him up the stairs, noticed the bathroom light turn on and then off, all the time struggling to stay awake. After some time she felt a cold rush of air — he’s turned back the covers, she thought — then his weight press down, and another gust of air as he lifted the blankets over him. Finally, she heard him exhale.

She reached across the short span of the cool white sheet, found his hand, and placed hers over it.  She slid her foot toward him and realized at once he was nearly frozen. She inched over until the length of her body was pressed against his, and waited. She could tell by his breathing he was already asleep. And she could feel her skin absorbing the cold, and her own body throwing off heat, to restore warmth, and some kind of equilibrium.

While You Were Gone

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For the next three days, Sheila tracked him. It was strangely soothing, watching him move from town to town, staying at motels with friendly names like The Pine Grove Inn and eating at roadside restaurants that managed to evoke in her a sense of home. (She realized later that it’s the sense of summer she’s nostalgic for, not home — lakes, rivers, local bakeries and hardware stores, the smell of Hawaiian Tropic, plunging into a cool, silent lake at midnight — things that likely wouldn’t exist anymore if she ventured there to see for herself.)

Soothing, because she’d confirmed he was okay, although what okay meant now was something different than what it had meant a few days ago. Now, it meant he was alive and able to operate a car and a bank card. She didn’t consider that maybe Derek had been taken prisoner and forced into these actions at gunpoint, though it was on her list of possibilities. It didn’t occur to her that the person staying at motels and eating at diners might not be Derek.

She pulled out a map of Ontario and spread it on the dining room table. If he were trying to hide his activities he would be more careful, she thought. He might, in fact, use only his credit card, or make a large withdrawal and pay with cash. That he hadn’t done this told Sheila that either it hadn’t occurred to him that he could be better at hiding, or he wanted to be found.

The days went by. Sheila stayed put, looking after the children, busying herself with cleaning and chores. Tom called twice, worried. He hadn’t been able to reach Derek and was debating whether to call their mother. Sheila asked him to wait, and explained she had the banking transactions that told her Derek was fine. She didn’t confess to her ongoing surveillance.

On Sunday morning she checked the bank balance and saw that Derek had turned south and east. This was how she learned, in a moment of anxious panic, that he was on his way home. Soon he would walk through the door.

L’Appel du Vide

Photo by Gabe Ramos on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Sheila found herself living alone in Toronto, without a job or close friends, in a  bachelor apartment with a futon, a book case, an electric frying pan, and a small kitchen table with two chairs. This wasn’t what she had planned. She had thought all along (albeit vaguely, she realized) that her life would be larger somehow. More friends, parties, a demanding but satisfying job. Weekends at the cottage. Maybe a pet.

Very occasionally Sheila tip-toed to the edge of wondering what had gone wrong. A recent series of disappointments—another unsuccessful job interview; a disastrous second date with a man who said she was not good looking enough; and a failed grad school application caused her to wonder about a pattern. At the same time, she was exploring the city, on foot and by transit, and on long walks and excursions felt the pulse of discovery, of something wondrous around the corner.

At school, Sheila had been called a daydreamer. “Sheila is not paying attention.” “Sheila doesn’t seem to care about her work.” But this wasn’t true. She could pay attention without watching; she cared about some of her work. She was not really daydreaming. At first, she simply wished she were somewhere else.

Later, she became actively engaged in a conjured space, the present, but with a companion, sometimes a friend, and sometimes someone more like a teacher. She did not imagine herself in the future. Later, she would conclude she couldn’t—that this space she visited wasn’t a product of her making, like a fantasy or a dream, but a glimpse into a parallel life, one in which she roamed freely. It was like being in and watching a movie at the same time.

As she got older, this world receded. In her real present was conflict and drama and a predictable level of angst. High school loomed, and then university. She was called on by her parents, her teachers, and her friends to project herself into the future. Where will you go to school? What are you going to do with your life? Effortlessly, she lobbed back convincing answers. “I’m going to take history.” “I’m going to go to law school.” “I’m planning to travel.” In this way, she painted a believable picture of her future self, but at the same time recognized, with increasing unease, that she could not really imagine herself beyond the age of 25. She wondered if this was a vision, a premonition. Yes, it could be that, she thought, but it might also be a simple failure of imagination.

She wasn’t thinking about this on the subway platform when she first thought that she could jump. Her habit, as she explored the city, was to choose a destination for an errand, either to go to the library or to apply for a job, and afterward spend a few hours wandering around. Then she rode the subway back to her apartment. On this day she arrived on the platform just as a train was leaving. She had noticed she liked the smell of diesel and the hot rush of wind as the trains pulled away, creating a vacuum that drew her closer to the edge.

Over the days and weeks, she stood closer to the yellow caution zone, and now boldly stepped onto it, leaning into the tunnel to watch for the next train. When it came whooshing in, she pulled back only slightly, determined to test her tolerance for risk. And to her surprise, what she felt was a small, sensual thrill—a fluttering of her heart and quickening breath, a feeling of being alive for the first time.

It wasn’t long before she sought out these moments, inched to the edge at every opportunity, gauging any movement behind her, aware she might be shunted onto the track. Sometimes she would wait, as two or three trains came and went, basking in the hot fumes.

In her mind, she saw herself leaping forward. But in this mental rehearsal she didn’t hit the tracks or the train. Instead—like in a dream or a nightmare—she woke from the reverie just before the fatal moment.

At home she relived these moments, complete with racing heart. It became a habit, in fact, to visit the platform in her head, and to think about what it meant. If she was suicidal she was not aware of it. Yet the platform beckoned, inviting her somewhere new. To slip beneath the surface, to disappear.

A Drone at the Window

Photo on Visual hunt

Sheila has feared growing old her entire life. She’d seen her parents’—separately, and years apart—long but steady decline, noticing first that they weren’t keeping up with necessities like diet and personal grooming, then realizing with alarm that they didn’t seem to care. They had both ended up in a nursing home where they remained for years, which frightened and depressed her.

At times she thought she still smelled the dour facility—a combination of Pine-Sol, stale urine, and an air-freshener intended to mask these—as if its residue had clung to her. Of course, she wondered how this could be. How could the smell of something linger this long, and do you actually remember an odour or does a similar one trigger the memory? Sometimes the experience felt like a hallucination, but she wasn’t sure what that was like, either.

Old age was the thing that kept her awake at night. The loss of control, of depending on others to understand what she needed and then provide it. She didn’t know if she would be able to stand it. She would rather die.

What her own later years might look like took shape for Sheila when she saw that her children would be useless for anything resembling support. Things with Chloe had unravelled badly, and she hadn’t heard from Nate in more than five years. It wasn’t that she expected or wanted them to look after her. But it would be nice to know, when her mind is unhinged and she’s incoherent (and very likely incontinent), that she’ll be somehow tethered to the next generation, that they might at least hold onto her until it’s time to let go.

She has a plan for the actual end. When she knows it’s time, she’ll overdose on medication she’s saved (or procured) for this purpose. She’ll leave things in order, and a note with instructions, or at least her wishes spelled out. She doesn’t know when this will be, of course. She’s healthy and expects to live for some time.

By the time she’s ready for lift-off (as she’s taken to calling it), she wouldn’t be surprised if many others had firmed up a similar plan. Her generation will have been saving prescription medication, hoarding it, in fact, determined to put their lives (and their deaths) in their own hands.

By this time, old people will be conveniently housed in high-rise geri-dorms, repurposed residences at now-abandoned universities. And the practice of saving meds for the end will not only be common among the elderly, but maybe normalized, possibly even sanctioned (but not yet required) by the government. It might even be yet another innovative service offered by Amazon. You’ll log in to your account, click END, click I AGREE, and within four hours your dose will be delivered by drone to your dorm window. Twenty-four hours later, a recovery team will arrive and your next-of-kin, if you have any, will be notified. In the neighbourhood, kids will place bets on whose window the drone will visit next.

Derek is Missing

 

On a Thursday morning when the kids were quite young, Sheila woke to find Derek in the kitchen, finishing the last of his coffee and placing the empty cup in the sink. She had overslept and rushed out of bed, disoriented. Her mind raced, thinking of all the things she needed to do in the now-reduced time in which she had to do them and still get the kids to school and herself to work on time.

The thing was, Derek almost never got up before her, and certainly wasn’t dressed and ready to go out before she was awake. But he had on a clean shirt and jeans, and his leather jacket. He said, “I have a lot to do today. I’m seeing a new client — or, I hope he’ll be a new client. Not sure how long it’ll take.” Then he left. He didn’t look at her. To Sheila it seemed like he had avoided looking at her. But that might have just been how she remembered it.

It was a cool October morning, and they had quarrelled the night before. She remembered this much later. She had been angry with him but was unable to explain why, even to herself. “You don’t seem to have any interest in life,” she’d said. And she’d had to agree with Derek that this sounded ridiculous, yet it was the closest she could come to describing how she felt. It was like his inertia had a physical form that both attracted and repelled her—a yawning abyss, inviting her to climb inside it and disappear. So when he left, she thought it might be a sign that he’d turned a corner.

Still, she thought she might hear from him at some point in the day, and when he hadn’t called by dinnertime, she felt the first stirrings of worry. He didn’t answer his cell, but it could be dead. He was careless that way. Who would she call? His brother? She thought about what she’d tell him. But then the evening rose up in front of her: homework, dishes, bedtime, a load of laundry into the washer and another one folded. All this before she took out her laptop and opened a half-finished report, due tomorrow.

When do you call the police and hospitals, Sheila wondered. When do you call something a crisis? She searched local news stations for accidents and found nothing. She became more restless, pacing the house and by turns looking out the front window and checking on the children. At 12:30 she decided it was too late to call Derek’s brother, Tom. She went to bed and slept fitfully, waking every hour or so knowing something was wrong, and then remembering what it was.

In the morning she phoned Tom, who agreed it was strange. “But he’s been off lately, hasn’t he?”

Yes, Sheila thought. Off covers it. “I think I should call the police.” But then she didn’t. Tom said he would come over, and she told him not to, that it was good of him to offer but she wanted to get the kids up and to school and try to be normal. Could she call him later, she asked. And could he keep trying to get in touch with Derek himself? Of course, he said. She called work and left a message letting them know she wouldn’t be in but that she’d email the report by the end of the day.

She walked the children to the corner to wait for the bus. “Where’s Dad?” Nate asked. Neither of them had asked at dinner last night.

“He had to go out of town for work. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

“Tonight? Will he be back tonight? For my game?”

“He’ll do his best,” Sheila said, surprising herself with the easy lie.

She should call her mother, she thought, but wanted to put it off for as long as possible. Too many questions. She opened the report again, and added a couple of paragraphs. Really, she could do these in her sleep. She finished it quickly and sent it off. She called Derek’s cell. Still no answer. She thought to call a friend, but again, the thought of questions stopped her. She would give Derek a bit more time.

She made a list of the reasons Derek wasn’t answering his phone.

  • His phone is dead.
  • Derek is dead.
  • He needs to be alone and doesn’t know how to tell her.
  • He is leaving her.
  • He has already left her.
  • He is having an affair.
  • He is having another affair.
  • He has been kidnapped.
  • He has been taken hostage.
  • He has driven his car off a bridge.
  • He is drunk and passed out in a motel room.
  • He is in danger. His car is in the ditch at the side of the road. He has hit his head.
  • He is bleeding from the head.
  • He has amnesia.
  • He has assumed a new identity and disappeared.
  • He has moved to South America.
  • He is hiding in the basement.

Sheila was certain that one of these was the true reason Derek was missing. She started a new list—things she could do to gather information.

  • Call the police.
  • Call Derek’s old boss.
  • Call all of Derek’s former co-workers.
  • Call local hospitals.
  • Call Derek’s mother.

Then she had a better idea. She took out their household bills folder from the desk drawer, and found his most recent Visa statement. She called customer service and asked about recent activity on the card. Politely, the customer service agent explained that she couldn’t discuss any details of the account with Sheila because Sheila was not the primary card holder. Undaunted, Sheila explained the strange circumstances regarding Derek, and asked again if he had used the card in the last day or two. Again, the agent refused.

Mid-morning, and Sheila was pacing the house again, looking out the front window, checking the kids’ rooms, which were empty, of course, because they were at school. She checked them anyway. She called work to make sure the report had arrived and learned there’d been a mix-up in payroll. She went online to see if her pay had been deposited—a new automatic pay system was apparently causing confusion—and there it was. Her pay deposit, yes, but what made her gasp was the $200 withdrawal from their joint account at a branch in a town a three-hour drive from their home. She scrolled down and saw two more entries. One for gas at a service centre 100 miles north-east, and another for $11.55 at a Wendy’s in North Bay.

“Of course,” she said out loud. “The fucker.”