Father opened the door to find the parcel on our doorstep, something pink and faintly luminous in a shopping bag. In those first moments, we nearly mistook Löb for a jambon de Bayonne. An elderly neighbor, Gregorio, was in the habit of leaving things on the doorstep, most of them on the verge of perishing. Gregorio couldn’t tolerate waste. He also knew that we had a little girl in the house, and thought it was something the child might enjoy. Silvine took ownership of Löb straight away.
That put Mother in a pickle. She was uncertain whether Löb should stay, but reluctant to disappoint her only child. The final decision fell to Father who, after much deliberation, announced, “Let’s wait and see.”
So Löb became Silvine’s responsibility, an arrangement agreeable to everyone. The two were not inseparable, though it wasn’t long before the sight of Löb brought Silvine to mind, and vice versa. Their activities were simple - a tea party here, a game of horseshoes there.
Neighbors looked in on us from time to time. They entered the house cautiously before clapping eyes on Silvine and the new arrival, a sight so disarming that it seemed to guarantee them a profitable visit.
One autumn evening, Mother and Father were seated at the dining room table, lingering over their coffee and a stack of past-due paperwork. The wind pressed on the doors and windows with such insistence that for several days, we had put off going outside altogether. Silvine was moaning from the top of the stairs, but we couldn’t hear her. When Father looked up from his paperwork, he saw her trembling on the threshold of the dining room. He followed her back up the stairs. When he returned to the dining room, he announced that Löb was dead.
Silvine took Löb’s death the hardest - that was to be expected, after all. Mother too was clearly unsettled by it. But we couldn’t remain in grief forever. In time, Silvine returned to her lessons, and Mother to the button business that kept the household afloat. The season changed; the winds gave up. That winter, Mother wondered aloud what we'd ever been so upset about. “Shall we put Löb out with the trash?” she asked. Father seemed puzzled, but just to be safe, responded, “Let’s wait and see”.
Throughout the following spring, the pace of our days never slowed. On the face of it, little had changed. Mother worked too hard. Silvine attended to her modules, for example, the circulatory system. Father held his position at the window. I read my books and took long walks in the small strip of woods behind the house.
Now Löb and Silvine were rarely seen apart. They played, but their games weren’t fun anymore. You could hardly blame Löb for that.
In August, the family traveled to the seashore. We arranged our belongings under an oversized umbrella. The day was hot and bright. Father swam, and was carried out by the riptide. I let Silvine and Löb bury me in the sand. The hole was not wide, but quite deep. Mother unpacked the sandwiches. We talked about a boat. Six hours later, the tide returned, bringing Father with it.
Ready to work following a long absence. Everything was changed. The configuration of the cubicles was different: project managers next to regional managers next to data entry specialists. An unheard of arrangement. The company name in blue acrylic contained an extra consonant or two.
Now Teddy was seated at her desk, his tie knotted higher and tighter than ever before. With nowhere else to go, she sidled in next to him. It was difficult to concentrate. The numbers were out of whack; Francesca couldn’t get them to behave. She sighed frequently and glanced at a co-worker for support.
At lunch she ate a turkey sandwich noiselessly. Afterward, she teased a little info from her unexpected cubemate. It would have been easier if someone told her to leave. Instead the day proceeded along an untrained path.
In the late afternoon a meeting was called. Senior staff as well as Teddy rose from their chairs and filed into the conference room. Francesca followed. She didn’t recognize everyone. For example, a woman in a teal coat, despite the warm weather. Then a prayer - that was new. A prayer for autonomy? Again there was nowhere for Francesca to sit, so she leaned against a wall.
It should have been glorious, that was the consensus. And it should have been! The Dolci skateboard line? Francesca had lived inside it for weeks, maybe months. No one in the group was playing catchup. The woman in teal led the charge.
“We still have 400 unfilled orders for the golf ball bags. Lou?”
“They’re personalized. Talk to the vendor.”
Protocol, scheduling, payroll - that’s where they were. Francesca listened, but she couldn’t keep silent for long, even as an inner voice whispered hold your tongue.
“What about Dolci?” she demanded. All eyes turned toward her standing in the corner like a forgotten rubber plant.
Of course she already knew. The launch had collapsed. Someone laughed derisively. “What are skateboards without wheels, Francesca? Planks? Paddles?” The skateboards had arrived from China without wheels, without even the riser and truck that would have made the wheel assembly possible. They did look like paddles, like primitive instruments of punishment. Francesca couldn’t explain the outcome. No one would have believed her. Instead she had blamed the Chinese supplier, who smelled a conspiracy and threatened a lawsuit. It was impossible, he’d insisted, for product to leave his factory in one incarnation and arrive in quite another.
Francesca ran out the back door of the building, into a tangle of woodland that cut off at the interstate. She kicked at the dirt.
Why couldn’t this be the target? Something useless transformed?
And then behind her, dammit, she wasn’t alone. Two shadows.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“I’m sorry to bother you, I know it’s wrong,” April said with a subservience typical of interns. “Please don’t be upset.”
The other was Jonathan, tech guy.
The intern stepped forward, took hold of Francesca’s balled-up fists and raised them to her chest. “Why do you want to be like the rest of us?”
Francesca scowled at Jonathan, “This is your idea?”
No it wasn’t his idea.
“Jonathan, say something,” April murmured.
At that moment, Francesca would have traded lives with the girl in a blink, dumb as she was.
“Let’s make this right here the town hall,” April said, marking off space with her feet. “And all along there, a winding lane that leads to the apothecary’s hut, half buried in the earth, with a single window like an enormous eye.”
The two senior staff members looked at each other. Francesca giggled.
“I’ll take you home,” Jonathan said, mercifully.