“Five more minutes,” said the woman from Child Protective Services. Crystal, who had previously attempted and botched other, more gratifying responses to her situation, now could only squeeze the baby more tightly and say to the uncomprehending little round face, I’m such an asshole and I’m sorry and I love you. After an interval the CPS lady said “Okay,” and stood up, and Crystal handed over the baby. The lady received the baby easily and expertly. She was an expert in the affairs of babies.
“I’ve left information about your options on the table by the door,” she said to Crystal. They both knew it was just a gesture because Crystal had descended to a nadir of fuck-up-ed-ness from which no number of info sheets could ever rescue her. Crystal watched the lady go out the front door with the baby. From the front window, she watched them going down the path to the car where the baby’s father was waiting.
She turned around and went into the kitchen. From the cabinet she took a glass. From the fridge she retrieved a liter of vodka and a bottle of orange juice. From the drawer where she kept plastic wrap, etc., she got a loaded revolver. This time there would be no botching of the act. She was going to do it right. She knew how; she had Googled it. She put everything on the kitchen table and made herself a drink.
Crystal had drunk most of the liter of vodka and was feeling good and ready when the laws of physics made a sick groaning sound.
Right there in the kitchen, the fabric of the universe ripped open. From the gash, an unearthly illumination rayed out. Then something that looked like a spectral octopus was oozing through.
Crystal screamed like holy hell.
The octopus pushed and pulled with its tentacles until it popped free into the kitchen. The rip in space-time quickly healed and vanished. Unfortunately the octopus did not also vanish. It floated in the kitchen: see-through, glowing radioactively, and glaring at Crystal.
“Excuse me,” it said. “But this is a really pathetic scene and I can’t stand to watch it anymore.”
The appearance of a ghostlike cephalopod, about the size of a trash-fattened raccoon and speaking perfectly good English, was Crystal’s last straw. She picked up the loaded gun, placed it against her temple, and pulled the trigger. Click—nothing. She pulled the trigger again. Another useless click. Crystal put down the gun and buried her face in her hands.
“Typical,” she said. “I can’t do anything right.”
“That was me,” said the octopus. “I disappeared the bullets.” Crystal made the beginning of a move towards the pantry. “I disappeared the extras, too,” added the octopus. Its voice sounded the way a cat’s tongue feels: scratchy and warm.
“And who the FUCK are you?” asked Crystal.
“I’m a flarp,” said the octopus. “I’m what you call a guardian angel. But you can just call me Flarp. I take issue with that term, guardian angel. It’s dopey. It connotes wings and a robe and a halo of golden light, and do you see any of that here?”
“No,” said Crystal. “I see a nightmare creature from the deep. Can you put my bullets back? I have something I need to do.”
“As your guardian angel,” said Flarp, “I can tell you that killing yourself would be the worst thing you could do. Ever.”
“Ha,” said Crystal. “You have no idea what I’ve been up to lately.”
“Yes, I do,” said Flarp, swooping around the kitchen in an exploratory fashion. “In the middle of the divorce, you left town with the baby. You didn’t have a plan. You drove around for two weeks sleeping at Motel Sixes until you ran out of money. Then you came back home. Although child abduction doesn’t necessarily result in the loss of parental rights, your alcoholism and the fact that you’'re on the brink of losing both your job and your house pushed the scales. They took your daughter away. You don’t even have visitation rights.”
Of course it was creepy that Flarp knew all this, but also somehow comforting.
“I’m the worst mom of all time,” Crystal said. “And I really don’t want to live.”
Flarp rolled its eyes. “There are way worse moms than you in the multiverse,” it said. “And you need to live. For your daughter.”
“I can get her back?” asked Crystal.
“No,” said Flarp. “But you can get visitation rights. They’ll be extremely limited, but they’ll allow you to stay in your daughter’s life. Which you need to do.”
Then he (Flarp was seeming like a “he” to Crystal) zoomed towards her and placed a tentacle on her forehead. Now that he was closer, Crystal could see that he was covered in wraithy gray fur that blew in an invisible wind. The contact of the tentacle on her forehead was not a physical touch, but a singing electric buzz that showed Crystal how things would turn out for the baby if she didn’t stick around.
“Oh my god,” said Crystal. “What do we do?”
“I think there are info sheets here somewhere?” said Flarp.
Day had turned to night. Crystal and Flarp were still in the kitchen, coming up with a plan. Flarp had scanned the info sheets left by the CPS lady and was now doing some purely mental remote access and review of Virginia state family law. Crystal, her head pounding, poured herself another vodka and orange juice.
“You’re way better than me at this policy and procedure stuff,” she said to Flarp.
Flarp’s opalescent eyes, which had been closed while he did his telepathy thing, snapped open. “Here’s the plan,” he said. “The plan is: stop drinking. Later steps of the plan will include getting your act together at the office, reestablishing a regular schedule of mortgage payments, and requesting a reevaluation from the state to document measurable improvement of a child-supportive home. But the first step of the plan is: stop drinking.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right,” said Crystal, although she didn’t know that at all. But she thought about what Flarp’s tentacle had shown her of her daughter’s possible future. She knocked back the rest of the drink and then slowly emptied the vodka bottle down the sink while Flarp watched her with luminous, doubtful eyes.
“I got this,” Crystal assured him.
“Time for bed,” Flarp said, avoiding any affirmation. “It’s late and you have to get up early for work.” He looked around. “I think I’ll just hang out in there,” he said, and floated towards the linen closet in the hallway. He passed right through the particle-board door like a ghost.
“Thank you for coming to save my life,” Crystal said through the closet door.
“You’re welcome,” said Flarp.
“Especially,” said Crystal, “as I’m guessing you really went out on a limb for me.”
“Well, yes,” said Flarp. “Normally we don’t intervene like this. People are supposed to help themselves, and we just nudge from the other side. I may have broken some rules to come here.”
It was not lost on Crystal that to try to save her from her criminal incompetence, Flarp had committed criminal acts himself.
“Wow,” she said. “Thanks.” It definitely didn’t seem like enough, but she couldn’t think of anything better to say.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, Crystal got to her desk on time. Reba, the other receptionist at the doctor’s office where Crystal worked, stared in disbelief.
“What are you doing here?” Reba asked.
Crystal was on probation at work for poor performance. Everything was made worse by the fact that that overachieving, goody-two-shoes snitch Reba hated Crystal.
“Huh?” said Crystal, playing dumb.
“What are you doing at work, and what are you doing at work on time,” said Reba.
“You know what, Reba? Yesterday I had a family emergency. I told Dr. Tenenbaum I was going to be out because had things to deal with. And now I’m back.” Despite their awful relationship, Crystal ached to tell Reba about it, just to tell someone: They took away my baby. I mean, I lost my baby.
Reba went to the register, banged out the money drawer, and handed it to Crystal. “Since you’re here before the office opens, for once, you can do yesterday’s deposit. A thing we’re supposed to trade off on, but that I’ve been doing all by myself for months.” She handed the drawer to Crystal and sat down angrily in her chair.
“I’m sorry I’ve been a pain in the ass,” said Crystal. “I’m going to try to do better from now on. And I’ve kind of forgotten how to do the daily deposit, so it would be great if you could just show me.”
Reba was obdurate. “Figure it out yourself,” she said.
By the time Reba unlocked the front doors and the phones started ringing, Crystal still hadn’t figured out how to do the deposit. She got the other money drawer from the safe and stuck it in the register, and she put yesterday’s drawer under her desk by her feet to deal with later. It was the start of an extra-bad day. Patients came at her with peeves, beefs, and expired insurance cards. Reba exchanged meaningful looks with Dr. Tenenbaum whenever he came into their area. By the end of the day, Crystal was saturated with absorbed negativity and needed a drink so bad she was gritting her teeth.
The office closed at five.
She went online and found an AA meeting nearby that started at six.
She stopped at the Bay Horse for two doubles.
She stopped at Plenty Pig for breath mints.
She went to the AA meeting in a cold room in an Episcopalian church. During the sharing time, when it was her turn, she said, “I’m having a terrible week. They took away my kid and to get her back I’m going to need to stop drinking. But I don’t know how. Why is it so hard for us to quit?”
A mousy woman who had earlier declined her opportunity to speak suddenly spoke up. “We’re afraid of life,” she said. “Just—all of it. So we drink.”
The chairperson, who was one of those Reba types, said, “No crosstalk. Asking and answering questions is crosstalk.”
“How do you stop being afraid of life?” Crystal asked the mousy woman.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Me neither,” said Crystal.
“No crosstalk,” said the chairperson, very loudly this time.
When Crystal got home that night, the house seemed empty. “Flarp?” she called. No answer. She went to the linen closet and opened it. There was Flarp, curled up on a stack of towels just like a cat. He opened his iridescent eyes, saw her, and made an expression. Even though his face looked like a bucket of shucked clams, he did have expressions, and right now his expression was as if he’d just smelled something dead.
“You’re all cruddy,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Crystal asked guiltily.
“You’re covered with jangly badness. Have you been arguing?”
“Do you know what I do all day?” asked Crystal. “I work in an office. So, yes.”
“Maybe you should take a shower,” said Flarp.
“If that will make you feel better,” said Crystal. She was relieved that Flarp didn’t seem to sense that she’d been drinking. She took a shower and got into her bathrobe and flopped on the couch.
She was feeling like she’d made it through the day pretty well when she remembered how the baby laughed like crazy at her own farts, which always made Crystal laugh like crazy too, and how much fun that was, and then she remembered that the baby was gone now. A wave of grief and loneliness and anxiety crashed over her, and then all she wanted, ferociously, was a drink. Flarp floated out of the closet. He seemed uncharacteristically dreamy.
“Do you miss the other flarps?” Crystal asked him, trying to quell her shaking. If she got him talking, maybe she could take hold of his voice, a lifeline to the next moment, and the next, and the next.
“Yes,” said Flarp, rising slowly upwards.
“What do flarps do together?”
Flarp floated upside down just under the living-room ceiling, his tentacles spread out like a star. “We don’t do together so much as be together,” he said.
“Sounds boring,” said Crystal, who wanted a drink so badly that tears were in her eyes.
“How can I explain,” said Flarp. “Be together. It doesn’t mean just proximity, or even sharing thoughts. It means touching the entire other.” He mulled for a bit. “It’s kind of like your orgasm, except much better. Imagine having an extended orgasm with everyone you know.”
“Oh jeez,” said Crystal, getting up.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Not doing it,” said Crystal. “I’m not having the sex-is-nothing-to-be-ashamed-of conversation with my guardian angel.” But in her bedroom, she pictured flarps daisy-chained together in spirals and double-helixes and other shapes often depicted in psychedelic art; also she imagined the flarps singing a song or just harmonizing around a single note, waving their invertebrate arms in cascading waves, and having glorious sex, and never being lonely, and never afraid of life.
The next morning Crystal managed not to drink on the way to work and got there at seven on the dot. She was very proud of herself. Reba was being weird in an impossible-to-read way, but at least was quiet and non-aggressive. Crystal was logging into her computer when Dr. Tenenbaum asked her into his office. Her heart sank.
“I’m letting you go,” he said.
“Why??” asked Crystal.
“Yesterday you left the daily deposit incomplete and unsecured. As you know, I’ve been needing to see a hundred-percent commitment from you to our daily operations. Not seeing that, I wish you the best.”
“You have no idea what this is going to do to me,” said Crystal.
“Excuse me, but that is not my problem,” said the doctor, standing up and opening his office door. “Please gather your things.”
Legs of lead carried Crystal out of Dr. Tenenbaum’s office. She found herself at her desk, which already did not look like hers, except that her purse was sitting there. She picked it up and went looking for Reba, who was hiding in the break room.
“Snitch,” said Crystal.
“I have some advice for you,” said Reba. “Try, just for once, to think of someone other than yourself.”
Countless drinks later, at the Bay Horse, those words were still resonating in Crystal’s ears. The problem is that when you’re working so hard to obliterate your awareness of yourself, it’s basically impossible to be aware of others. Crystal drove drunk to the Plenty Pig for vodka and orange juice, and then drove home. In the mailbox was a letter about the foreclosure and another bill from the hospital related to the birth of the baby, which hadn’t been that long ago. Crystal still didn’t feel back to normal down there and already the baby was gone, the job was gone, and the house was going. She let herself in and went into the kitchen to make a drink.
The kitchen smelled like ozone. Flarp hovered dead center over the kitchen table, stretched into a long, hard shape of righteous indignation.
“Fired,” said Crystal. “I tried.”
“Not hard enough,” said Flarp.
Crystal started fixing herself a drink.
“Do you want things to be different?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Crystal. “No.”
“Then I shouldn’t have come,” said Flarp. “I was stupid to believe that we could do what everyone says is impossible: That I could help you, and you could receive help. You won’t change and I shouldn’t have come.”
“Then this is the perfect time to leave,” said Crystal, grabbing up her glass and the bottles. “Leave leave leave leave leave.” She went into her bedroom, slammed the door behind her as hard as she could, and felt very sorry for herself because her guardian angel had just yelled at her. She drank and felt sorry for herself and passed out.
The next morning, she woke at dawn. As the memory of the previous night formed, she felt sick to her stomach. She went to the linen closet and opened the door. She experienced great relief to find Flarp there, curled up on the pile of towels. His eyes were worried moonstones.
“I got angry,” he said.
“That’s okay and completely understandable,” said Crystal. “Everyone gets angry sometimes. And everyone gets angry at me specifically.”
“I’ve never been angry before,” said Flarp. “It felt awful. Like burning. Anguish. Burning. What do you do when you get angry?”
“I drink,” said Crystal. “It seems like the lesser evil.” She started to cry. “I’m really sorry about last night,” she said. “And about drinking. And about everything. Thank you for not leaving me.”
“I can’t leave you,” said Flarp. “You’re my job.” And although his lids then came down over his opalescent eyes, dimming his glow, and that was the end of the conversation, Crystal felt she had been forgiven.
Crystal attended AA meetings and applied for any job she could find. Fort Chiswell was a small town with a permanently depressed economy, so the pickings were slim. Flarp helped her with the application forms. He was really good at identifying her past accomplishments and putting them into active-voice sentences; plus he knew how to use semicolons. It took six weeks, but finally Crystal got an interview for a job as a bagger at Plenty Pig—and nailed it.
“You’re hired!” the store manager said. Crystal was to come in the next day. She would make only half of what she’d been making at the doctor’s office, and there would be no way to stop the foreclosure now. But even so, a new job was something to celebrate. Without really noticing what she was doing, Crystal stopped at Bay Horse.
“Vodka martini!” she said to Chevy the bartender. “Today is a good day.”
Four vodka martinis in, Crystal decided that she wanted to see her baby.
“What about the restraining order?” asked Chevy.
“I’m just going to look in the window,” said Crystal. “He won’t even know I’m there.”
“This isn’t your worst idea ever, but it’s still pretty bad,” said Chevy.
“Don’t worry. I got this,” Crystal said, and floated on a vodka cloud out of the bar. She took the 81 out of Fort Chiswell proper and drove through four miles of poplar and birch forest to Ex’s house. Dusk was falling, which would help conceal her approach. She parked on the shoulder of the interstate and headed by foot up the drive. Ex’s truck was parked out front and cozy light fell from the windows. Crystal headed around the side and struggled through the raspberry bushes that hugged the back of the house. The vodka dulled the scratches and pricks from the thorns. Standing on her toes and gripping the sill, she was just able to peep through the nursery window.
Crystal could see the small lump of the baby under a fleece blanket in her crib. She didn’t appear to be moving and Crystal was suddenly panicked by the thought that she might be dead. But then the baby experienced a kind of spasm in her sleep and punched the air with a tiny fist. Along with a wave of relief, Crystal experienced a jolt of a feeling she’d lived with as long as she could remember. It was a feeling of being outside—outside of life and even outside, somehow, herself.
Her ex-husband entered the nursery. He patted the baby’s diaper and rearranged the blanket around her, and then leaned over the crib to watch her sleeping. His movements were natural and tender. In court, he had said that he believed the baby was better off without Crystal. Watching him, it was hard for Crystal not to believe that herself.
“You think you’re so great,” Crystal muttered. And then she banged on the window—hard.
Ex turned pale with terror; his face actually went gray, which was very satisfying. But once he recognized Crystal, fury brought the color back into his cheeks. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed the police.
“911?” he shouted.
The baby woke and began to cry.
Too late, Crystal remembered the restraining order that she was violating. Also too late, she noticed that Ex was using his phone to video record her face in the window as evidence for the court date now definitely coming her way.
“Wait!” hollered Crystal.
Headlights shone from the interstate. Was it the police already? A car turned onto the drive. Yes, it was the police already. Each new brush with the law was a huge blow to the possibility of ever reuniting with her daughter. Crystal turned to head into the woods in hopes of an escape—
—when a loud crack smacked her eardrums.
Her eyelids flew shut against a holographic burst of bright light.
What came after was an eerie silence. No ex-husband shouting. No baby crying. No police-car tires crunching over fallen leaves. Crystal opened her eyes.
Flarp bobbed in the air in front of her.
“What happened?” Crystal asked him. She looked into the nursery window. Ex was sleeping soundly in the rocking chair with the baby, also sleeping, in his arms. “Did you do that?”
“I arranged some things,” said Flarp.
Crystal realized that somehow, she was totally sober. “Where did the police go?” she asked.
“I changed the past,” said Flarp. “A little.”
“Oh my god,” said Crystal. “You just saved my ass. You just rescued me from some cannot-be-recovered-from shit. You made everything okay again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Flarp made a wet sound and fell down.
She ran over to where he lay in the fallen leaves—and touched him. Touched Flarp, who was normally as immaterial as a ghost. His fur was silky soft under her fingers.
“I do not feel well,” said Flarp. “Not at all.”
Crystal picked up Flarp. His now-heavy body was burning up. “What the fuck?” she said.
“I’m incarnating. Do you know the Latin root for that word,‘incarnating’? Carnis. It means meat.”
“Hello, braniac,” yelled Crystal. “Are you dying?”
“Eventually,” said Flarp evasively. “It’s the fate of all flesh.”
“Are you dying right now?” asked Crystal.
“Yes. No. Maybe,” said Flarp, as his moonstone eyes began to go opaque and milky. Crystal touched the tip of one of his tentacles, which wrapped around her finger involuntarily in a tight velveteen hug. It reminded her of the baby’s grip, so unexpectedly strong.
“Quit,” she said to Flarp. “Quit now. Leave. Go.”
“Go home now, please, before it’s too late, and I’ll stop drinking. I can’t have you stuck in this dim world with dumb old me, not where you belong, not having group sex with the other flarps. Please just go. I’ll stop drinking. It’s a decision I can make. It’s just that before, it always seemed like such a difficult decision to make.”
“In my head I’ve been calling this place The Realm of Difficult Decisions,” said Flarp. “I didn’t say it out loud because I didn’t want to discourage you.”
“Why is it like this?” asked Crystal.
“I don’t know,” said Flarp. “But there must be some honor in getting through it.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep telling myself that,” said Crystal. “But seriously, you have to leave now.”
Flarp reached up and touched Crystal’s third-eye area with a tentacle. Crystal knew what he was doing. He was reading her heart, looking into her future, checking her words. She closed her eyes and hoped that he saw what she really felt. Flarp took away his tentacle. A weightlessness happened. Crystal opened her eyes.
“Wow, what happened to you?” she asked.
He was back to the way he used to be. Floaty and opalescent as ever, big and healthy-looking, although immaterially so.
“I knew I was right about you,” said Flarp. “Bye, Crystal.”
He drifted up, lighter than air, his tentacles drifting in the invisible current they always seemed to play in. He rose and glittered and vanished. Crystal took one last look through the window at her sleeping daughter, and then got in the car. She drove home and fell into a deep sleep. The next morning she got up and went to her new job. After work, she went to an AA meeting. She went to work, she went to AA meetings, and she didn’t drink. And slowly, slowly, slowly, as slow as time passing and no faster, things got a little better.
CYBELE KNOWLES writes stories, essays, poems, and scripts. Her work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, The Destroyer, and Diagram, among other places. She also writes for the blog All-Girl All-Comedy Reviews and for @FeministNikkiSixx on Instagram. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.