Eve rolled over, and in a fluid, well-practiced motion brought her hand down, squelching the alarm. Her eyes drifted open as she swung her legs off the side of the bed, feet sliding into the slippers waiting for them, their green plush molded to the shape of her toes. She walked down the narrow hall to the bathroom, eyes still half shut, legs leading her to the toilet where she sat, stood, flushed, and paused in front of the mirror, brushing her teeth left to right, top to bottom. She spit, rinsed her toothbrush, and headed back down the hall, seven paces and then a little half step, stopping in the doorway to flick on the light switch.
It was 8:21 a.m. on Wednesday, February 24, 2016, and Eve was six minutes and fifteen seconds into the routine that she had maintained almost unerringly for the past two years and fifty-seven days. The morning routine was simple, and therefore sustainable. After returning to her room and turning on the light, she would make the bed, pulling the corners taut, before dressing herself in one of the business-casual blouses from the closet and a pair of professional slacks from the dresser in the corner. She would pull a brush through her dark brown hair that fell halfway down her back, teasing out any snarls that had materialized in her sleep. Then she would peek out around the shade that remained firmly drawn, make certain that all was usual, and float downstairs to eat breakfast and read the newspaper that lay waiting on her top step, only requiring her to sneak one pale arm outside, up to the elbow, pat around for the blue plastic bag, and retreat back into the sheltered shadows of her kitchen. It would be exactly 8:30 a.m.
Eve snapped the light on, but on this day it emitted a loud buzzing sound and after a moment began to flicker. Eve frowned, her body tensing. As she stood frozen in the doorway, finger still on the light switch, the phone on her nightstand began to ring. Her eyes flashed from the flickering bulb to the obtrusive pealing coming from the phone, focusing on the blinking red light. She glanced at her watch. 8:22 a.m.—she should have been putting on the navy button-down hanging readily in her closet, blankets tucked tightly into the corners of her bed.
Eve had not answered the telephone in two hundred and seventy-three days—the last time was to talk to her mother on her birthday. She conducted all of her communication by mail or online. In fact, Eve had not spoken to anyone out loud since this phone call, only clearing her throat once in a while to assure herself that she still could emit sound.
Still rattled by the flickering light, Eve hummed to herself, the sound reverberating from her throat through her chest. This had a calming effect, and as the sound passed through her, into her stomach, and expanded, Eve’s body lost some of its tension. The telephone was ringing. It needed to be answered. Eve remembered how to do this.
As the phone began its fourth round of rings, Eve started suddenly, scampering forward in an awkward movement that her body was unused to, and grabbed the receiver. She lifted it slowly to her ear.
“Hello, is this Eve Semmes?”
“Ye—yes?” she had to clear her throat a bit to get the words out and when they did come they were barely audible; it was a struggle to push them out of her mouth.
“Hello Eve, this is Detective Martin Walker from the 56th precinct speaking. I’m calling to talk to you regarding your presence at the scene of a crime on December…”
Eve’s arm holding the phone slowly fell to her lap, her face remained blank but her eyes were wide, as if trying to find a way out of the confines of their sockets. Without moving her gaze from its blank stare into the empty space in front of her, she dazedly lowered the phone into its cradle, until the click of the interaction shook her back into motion. She checked her watch again—8:24—and moved into gear, rushing to get back on schedule, pulling her pants on, yanking the brush through her hair, and hurrying down the steps, in a double-timed version of her usual quiet, methodical manner.
* * *
Eve slammed the front door shut, fumbling in her purse for her car keys.
“Fuck,” she muttered, a visible huff of air slipping out of her mouth as a bundle of photos slid from her grip, sprinkling the ground of her driveway like confetti. Eve finally snagged her key ring, and, scooping up the prints haphazardly, hopped into her silver 2007 Honda Civic.
It was an early December morning in Flushing, Queens and the air had a quality of tautness; the sun was rising somewhere but here light emerged in increments and Eve peered through her streaked window to see the faded lines of the road. A black mini-van driving quickly down the quiet road flashed its brights at her. Eve glared, and then rolled her eyes. She knew her headlight was out—the whole left head of her car was out of commission, battered and smashed up from her sideswipe with a Prius in the supermarket parking lot a few weeks ago. She’d get it fixed soon, and anyway, one of them worked.
Eve pulled into the parking lot of the Daily Ink, the bottom of her car scraping the curb as she misjudged the distance of her turn by a few inches, whipping the wheel around in her haste and disinterest. Her left tire firmly set on the left side of the line of her parking spot, Eve killed the ignition and, quickly checking her appearance in the rearview mirror, half-jogged into the building, until she reached the entrance to the office, at which point she slowed to an exaggeratedly casual pace. It was 8:06 a.m.—she was basically on time.
She saw the journalists eye one another, flickers of smiles flashing across their faces as she ambled in. They, of course, were there on time, already at work writing copy for the next day. She glared at Marc, the head writer for the sports section. His desk was in the front of the room, next to a window that, admittedly, only could boast a scenic view of the parking lot, but was still something. Also he had an annoying face. And he insisted on wearing that stupid Mets hat that made him look like a pre-teen, and also a loser. Eve changed her mind and pasted on a smirk as she sauntered past him, toward the back office where Donny, her boss and the Photo Editor of the Daily Ink, spent his days.
“Oh, hi Eve,” Donny looked up from his desk, littered with glossy print-outs. Eve tried to peer at the ones he was studying, but she couldn’t see without stooping over his desk. “Sorry, do you mind moving a little bit? You’re just blocking my light.”
“Sorry,” Eve said. “Hi Donny.”
“Would you mind checking in on Rachel Phillips? Remember she’s covering that story up in Westchester? The one about the Butter Burglar or whatever they’re calling him now…the guy who keeps stealing condiments? She hasn’t sent us anything in a couple of days—maybe he’s on the move again.”
“Yeah, I’m on it,” said Eve, moving to her “office” in the back corner of the room: a tiny desk with a telephone, computer, and a couple of wall dividers that marked her space off from Donny’s, though, of course, it was all within his realm.
“Oh and speaking of butter,” Donny called over the plaster partition panel, “you’re coming to my Christmas dinner potluck tomorrow night, right? I have you down for dessert.”
Eve let her head softly fall onto her clenched fist, knocking it quietly.
“Oh, right—of course, I’ll be there.”
“Excellent, it wouldn’t be complete without my punctilious personal assistant. In fact, it probably would all fall apart—God knows I can’t remember to do anything without you.”
Eve grimaced. “Hey, Donny, there’s actually something I’ve been wanting to ask you about,” she began, pulling out her pile of photos and hastily attempting to mold them back into a straightened stack. “I’ve been hoping you could take a look at some of my—”
Donny’s phone rang. “Sorry Eve, can you hold that thought? I’ve got to take this.”
“photos,” Eve whispered to herself. “They’re quite good, I think. I believe that I could be an asset to the Daily Ink in a more effective way as a full member of the team. I wonder if you’d consider taking me on as a photojournalist.”
She could hear Donny agreeing with someone on the phone, using the high-pitched, repeated “mhm” that meant he was never going to disagree outright with the other person, but he was also never going to approve whatever senseless idea they were pitching.
Eve sighed, and dialed Rachel’s number.
* * *
Byron Bromwich was writing his narrative in his head again. He knew how it was going to end—that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that he was eighty-six years old and once one gets to that age and also has a panoply of symptoms that can generally be classed as “purgatorial” it is difficult to know how the narrative is going to be sustained. That did not stop Byron. He was nothing if not stubborn. He was sure that he would figure out his story before it ended.
Byron slowly climbed down the steep steps of his creaking two-story home, unsure at this point if it was the wood cracking or his knees. He wondered if it mattered. He wondered what would happen if, suddenly, his leg fell through one of the steps. He would be stuck. No one would hear him. Someone would find him, years later, maybe, once it really started to stink. “A possum,” they’d think, “or a cat?” People cared a lot about cats.
“Or what about that old man? What was his name? Bradley?”
Or what if, alternatively, his knee snapped. Same result, really. He shook his head, irritated at himself. He knew the end; that did not matter. What came next? he thought.
Byron scraped his front door open, tugging against the rusty hinges, and, with a massive effort, squatted down and picked up his newspaper, laying on his front stoop. He carried it back inside and peeled open the front page as he brewed his coffee. Nothing interesting ever happened on the front page. The inside was where the good stories were hidden. Byron scanned for anything that he might add to his own story. He skipped to the police blotter. Someone had broken into a local home and stolen $3,000 in jewelry and cash, a television, two computers, and a jar of Mayonnaise. They thought it might be linked to other robberies involving stolen condiments. They said that they would catch the burglar soon; that anyone who leaves a distinct mark like that is easier to find. They implied that someone would have to be stupid to lay such an obvious trail. It made sense to Byron. Better to have a good story than to stay safe. He got out some mayonnaise from the fridge and ate it with his sausage and eggs. It did not taste very good, but it was a good addition to his story. It gained significance in repetition, he figured, within his narrative.
* * *
Declan Stillman was scoping the neighborhood. He noticed it all; nothing could evade his powerful faculties of observation. He saw right away which houses had visible alarm systems, which ones had signs denoting their alarm systems that were not actually in place, which ones had loud dogs that barked as he walked by their neatly fenced in squares of lawn. He saw who was away for winter vacation and had remembered, in the bustle of packing up the kids and the bathing suits and the sunscreen and the snorkels and the coloring books and the computers, to hire someone to take in their newspapers, and who did not, leaving a tower of pale blue bags scattered on their front steps like forgotten pieces of ancient earthenware, strewn about the site of a since-dispersed civilization.
He was building a memory castle—something that he had learned about at a recent course he had taken at the Flushing Community Center.
“Tap into your Internal Inert Intellect,” the poster had read. “You are only using ~10% of your brain right now! Learn techniques to employ up to 50%!” Declan had first noticed the poster tacked up to the telephone pole on the corner of his street, next to a poster advertising baking lessons. “Be Better with Butter: Learn to Bake Cakes, Cookies, and Croissants with Clara Carlson!” He stared at the first poster for a minute, until he had memorized the time, date, and location, and went home.
Later that day he had been reading the newspaper, and had come across an article about someone the writer was calling the “Butter Burglar.” They left a slick trail behind them, but were too greasy to be caught by the police. They were known for stealing condiments, along with their other, more typical, thefts. Declan decided he liked this idea. He liked it a whole lot.
And so it was that Declan became the first Copycat Butter Burglar. There were many reasons why this was the role Declan was born to play. He was forty-two years old, he lived on his own, he had negligible acquaintances, his powers of observation were strong, and he had been waiting for something like this to drive him forward, to give him a burst of energy and ambition, though he had not known that this was the thing he had been needing. Most of all, he was ready to expand his mind, for it to grow larger than himself, until his body, a stringy, scraggly, slight one that the eye naturally passed over, became inconsequential in the face of his colossal brain-power.
The idea of the memory castle was that you created a structure, in your mind, and associated different things that you wanted to remember with different places in the castle. If you were trying to remember a hand of cards, you would remember that the first one was an Ace of Hearts, and the doorway of your castle had a big “A” surrounded by hearts on it. Then you would walk into your hallway, and see Two Spades sitting on the table. And so on, as Declan understood it. But Declan wanted to go bigger. Instead of a memory castle, he was going to map out a whole memory neighborhood. As he roamed the streets day after day, he was packing all of the information he absorbed into his mind, storing minute data about his neighbors, that he would be able to tap into later as he Butter Burgled.
He continued down Rosedale Avenue, constructing his memory neighborhood.
33 Rosedale Avenue: Red door, tall black fence, abandoned G.I. Joe action figure lying prone on the lawn.
Declan wanted to pick it up, but kept moving, his eyeballs stroking his surroundings gently, working these muscles to construct a memory.
* * *
At 6:00 p.m. Eve climbed back into her car, her stack of photos still nested in her purse. She had been unable to get ahold of Rachel, and she was concerned that Donny was growing irritated with her, not that he would ever saying anything directly. He had called her his “steadfast assistant” as she had left, which didn’t sound as good as the titles she was usually showered with.
She started the car and jerkily pulled out onto the road. She stopped at the supermarket and picked up a carton of eggs. She would just have to do an amazing job with the cookies she was making for the potluck the next night. Good thing baking was one of her top skills, she thought drily.
First you put the flour in, then crack the eggs and blend it all together—no. First you sift the flour, then add sugar, and baking powder? No, baking soda. Then crack the eggs. Two eggs? One?
Eve drove quickly, despite her car’s partial blindness, but there were few other cars on the road. It was a quiet and cold night, and this road was never very busy, anyhow. Eve’s mind drifted back to eggs.
~ ~ ~
Byron decided he could not practicably figure out his story inside of his house. The indoors were not where stories were made. One had to go outside and do things for any real action. It was dark and frigid outside, but that was as good a beginning as any for his story. He liked that beginning, he decided.
It was a dark and stormy evening. That’s how the old saying goes, right?
He meandered down the empty road, not really thinking about where he was headed, sure that his feet would guide him in the direction of his narrative arc. He reached a crosswalk. There was no light, but there was a stop sign; the pedestrians had the right of way. The road seemed slippery, almost greased under the weak light glinting from the streetlamp a few yards away. This reminded Byron of mayonnaise.
~ ~ ~
Declan skulked out of his house and peered around; all looked just as he remembered. He walked down the street, dressed for burglary in his black jeans, sneakers, and hoodie. He was not particularly concerned about anyone noticing him—no one ever really had before, even in the light of day. But now, on a quiet evening on his silent street, where ranch houses stood like fortresses in the shadows of the streetlamps, he was safe to retreat into the neighborhood he knew well, the one in his mind.
He had forgotten his glasses, whose bent, wire frames normally wrapped around his face, fitting into the deep sockets around his eyes, and was having some trouble seeing the path in front of him. He was not worried. Declan had more confidence in his brain than his body. His body had only failed him time and again, first breaking out in a dogged spattering of acne that emerged all over his body in his preteen years and did not disappear until his mid-twenties, leaving behind cave-like scars and an inability to talk with members of any gender, and then, suddenly, without warning, in his early thirties, his eyesight had gone too, the sole benefit of which was the resulting loss of any necessity to look at his own appearance.
Declan reached out to touch the row of hedges that traced the sidewalk to his left, but his hand grazed only air. He patted about, searching for what he knew to be there. After a moment, he realized that what he had remembered as a wall of pruned privets was in actuality merely a short, squat, recently planted shrubbery. He bent down to pet it. It was growing in his memory already.
He could not allow a mistake like this to slip him up during the course of his burglary. He reached a crosswalk and paused, peering into the fuzzy darkness for a moment, before meandering into the dimly lit road.
He wondered what condiments the house would have. He liked when they had imitations of the real thing. Recently he had been grabbing jars of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” or Nayonnaise, a vegan substitute, if desperate.
~ ~ ~
Wait, first preheat the oven. 325 degrees. Then grease the baking sheet. No—first set out the butter two hours before beginning to bake to let it soften.
It was a cold and storming evening and a lone man was wandering the barren streets, on a quest for adventure and perhaps a surprising encounter with a stranger.
35 Rosedale avenue: blue window frames, unlocked back door, a stack of newspapers on front steps.
Which dry cleaning place does Donny like? Pristine Clean? What’s their phone number? If I set out the butter in twenty minutes will it be soft enough to bake the cookies tonight? What if I put it in the microwave?
The man had eaten mayonnaise earlier in the day, and was beginning to feel ill. He had forgotten about his allergy to egg yolk. He hadn’t thought this would be the way it ended, but, when it comes down to it, mayonnaise is as good a way to go as any.
First make sure the surface you are using is clean. Sprinkle flour onto the dry countertop so that the dough doesn’t stick to it. Is white or brown flour best? Are there still ants in the kitchen?
36 Rosedale Avenue: garden gnomes on front lawn, no alarm system, rusty hinges—can be greased with butter.
Eve’s car came jerking around the bend, and skidded on a patch of ice. Her single feeble beam revealed a couple of figures in the crosswalk. She slammed her foot down, wrenching the wheel, maybe into the skid, maybe not.
Eggs eggs eggs eggs eggs
Mayonnaise mayonnaise mayonnaise mayonnaise mayonnaise
Butter butter butter butter butter
Remember to wash your hands after touching the raw eggs, so you don’t get sick. If I get home in seven minutes I can clean the countertop and no—set out the butter and then clean the countertop and butter the pan and sift the flour and crack the eggs—
Oh god, did the eggs crack?
Eve got out of the car and moved the two bodies gently to the side of the road, patting their hair down and smoothing their clothing with softly mechanical motions.
Are the eggs cracked?
Eve climbed back into her car, drove the remaining five minutes to her house, parked the car at a diagonal slant, scraping the bottom of the car on the curb as she turned in, killed the ignition, and walked inside.
Eve stayed there for two years and fifty-seven days, at which time the police found her.
* * *
At 9:00 a.m. it was time for cleaning. Armed with a spray bottle of peppermint soap and water and a damp washcloth, Eve systematically moved through the silent house, top to bottom, evicting anything that had attempted to sprout up in the past twenty-four hours—a layer of dust that followed behind her cloth, seeming to crop back up as soon as she moved away from the surface, a crumb from a meal the day before, the occasional cobweb. The house she maintained was lifeless, but also deathless, and Eve smiled faintly when finally finishing her daily cleanse in the kitchen, feeling comforted in her power to evade the effects of time.
Eve’s routine first began shortly after she stopped going outside. It was not provoked by any attempt to try something new, but rather an urge to preserve some sense of normalcy, to feel assured in her day-to-day actions. It had also been a challenge. The first few days had been spent gleefully rushing from moment to moment, and as these moments filled her days with consequence, the days stretched into weeks and inertia propelled Eve forward, which she was terrified to interrupt. Time was constant, consistent, and could never end—it could only pass. And so, Eve too, passed her days, carried along by the clock, comfortable in her assertion that as long as she stayed on schedule nothing could harm her—she too could never end.
* * *
“Eve Semmes, I am going to have to place you under arrest for your involvement in the deaths of two people as well as leaving the scene of the crime and failing to report this incident to the authorities,” said Detective Martin Walker.
It had been a long time. Over two years. Eve stared down at her hands and thought about what the detective was saying to her, but really she was thinking about her fingernails, which needed to be cut, and the mess she had left in the kitchen, and also how soon physical copies of newspaper were going to be obsolete. Eventually, one of these problems pushed its way to the forefront.
“I just need to do one thing—” Eve stood up and, with Martin following her closely, made her way to the kitchen where she swept the few crumbs left over from her lunch off the counter and into the sink, which she then wiped down. She gave the floor a quick swiff with the dustpan and then, feeling satisfied, she turned to Martin.
“Do you want something to eat?” she asked, wiping her hands on the sides of her pant legs. “Maybe some eggs?”
The detective stared at her, a bit stunned.
“No, I’m alright,” he murmured, confusedly.
“I’m ready to go,” she stared at him evenly, as though she were announcing her preparation for an afternoon excursion to the park. She turned her back to Martin and, with only a slight hesitation turned the handle and stepped outside, fully immersed in the outdoors for the first time in over two years.
Martin, remembering belatedly his task, pulled out his handcuffs and began to strap them onto Eve.
* * *
Eve sat in the back seat of the police car, watching the houses blur by, looking familiar in a vague, archaic way, like images in old, yellowed newsprint clippings left in a box in the attic. Her arms were bent behind her back uncomfortably, and her wrists bit into the metal of the handcuffs every time the car bumped. She peered through the web that separated her from the back of the detective’s head, straining to look out the front window of the car. It was grey out, but she knew which road they were on.
It took a moment for Martin to notice the stop sign, and he hit the brake a second later than he should have, forcing the car to a harsh standstill. Eve’s head jerked forward, back, bumped dully into the headrest, before settling straight on her crooked spine.
“Sorry,” Martin muttered.
She could see a patch of grass outside of her window, and she kept her eyes trained on the wet triangle of green. Their bodies began to take shape as she looked, first an old man, his thin white hair muddied, a slight smile on his face, then a younger man, dressed in black, his pebbly face smushed into the grimy lawn.
The sun was setting on the man as he marched along the well-trodden path. He could see lights in the distance. They were coming toward him fast.
37 Rosedale Avenue: woman getting into a silver Civic, a lost photograph left on the ground of the driveway, the porch light left on during the day.
She blinked, and they disappeared. The policeman slowly rolled to a start, carefully now; Eve sat up straight and managed to remain immobile as the car sped up, leaving behind the familiar road.
Eve jerked her arm forward to check the time, out of habit, but her wrist with the watch on it stayed firmly locked behind her back.