Cuttlefish. Imagine! The impossibility of such a creature, constructed, it seems, as a metaphor for need, desire. Francine hadn't expected to be facing it, like that, so suddenly, as she slips through some small spill on the bio lab floor, pitching forward, bracing herself – with both hands! – on the marble tabletop, and when she looks up, there, entombed in glass, is that spindly creature dredged from a deep river or some other nightmare. It stares at her through the display cabinet, suspended in a vial of its own water, assessing her with its very large button of an eye.
Regaining herself, she sees now that the thing possesses, in fact, two of those eyes, two very large and watery eyes that would surely be used to great effect under water, the creature trailing through grottos, through its very own shadows to net anything it might want in the throng of those tentacles arranged about its mouth.
She is just barely a young woman now, a freshman in college, attending a branch campus of the state university, one of two girls allowed in the lab after-hours to clean up what other students have left behind: test-tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, graduated cylinders – all of them such beautifully crafted pieces of glassware, as far as she's concerned. For the science lab, and for a girl (so young), she certainly has acquired some responsibility, a ring-full of keys that allow her access to drawers, showcases, and closets not allowable to other students. She has never thought to use the keys for anything other than what she has been instructed to do – replace glassware, retrieve soap (sometimes acids and bases from the supply closet (to remove resilient residue)), so she'd have to admit she's nervous as she splays the ring of keys in her hand like a lottery wheel, coming finally to the one labeled in blue marker CASE #3.
Now the lock to the case opens, and she removes the tube of formaldehyde and cuttlefish from the case and feels its cool weight so heavy in her hands. Seen from any direction, the cuttlefi sh still seems unacceptable, frozen almost in angry protest of what it is. "What is your name?" she asks of it, rotating the tube now to its label, Sepia officinalis.
She gets lost somewhere in the words, and as she lets her tongue tap out each syllable of its name, she jolts at the clattering of a janitor's wash basin in the hall of the science building, a clear and unavoidable clatter, as she pushes the cuttlefi sh back into its display case, adjusting the tube among the circle of dust so that no one might ever know it had, in fact, been disturbed, let alone disturbed by her. So she replaces the locks, makes sure the keys are put deep within her pocket by the time the janitor rounds the corner into the laboratory, looking at her with the face of a beast.
"What is your name?" he asks.
"I'm working late."
"Me too," he says.
He has slipped the mop back into his pail, and stands sizing her up. His stopping makes her fearful immediately. She knows his stopping means that he'll want to talk, about nonsense probably, and she has no interest in it, really, no interest at all.
"I'm sorry. I don't have time to talk to you," she says, and as soon as she says it, she realizes how bad it comes out and how awful it makes her seem, just in adding "to you," which she didn't mean, or at least in the way she knows he'll take it to mean, but it's too late, it's been said, and already he's rubbing his fingers through his open mouth and trailing them through his black beard and looking at her with those eyes of someone both frightened and charged by the reflection of the self he's suddenly seen in another's reaction.
"Being nice will never hurt."
"Nice, who has time for nice? I'm tired of being nice." And now the war is on, he's demanding her to lock horns.
"Something for you to learn at this school."
"Yes," she says, "Yes, you're so right. I'm going to get my degree in being nice."
"What are you studying?"
And now she knows she is caught, he has mistaken her rude behavior for an invitation to extend the conversation, and that says something about the kind of man he is now, revealing himself like that, placing his whole history and his whole dreadful future extending on both sides of him, like dreadful wings of time.
"No, I'm sorry, I need to go," she says, clutching her chest, nearly deprived of breath. She is shoving paper sheaves into book flaps, closing texts, gathering whatever she has spread out on the lab table earlier, not looking and thinking about what she's taking but rather taking everything that's laid out before her. "I'm sorry, I need to go," and so she makes her way past him. In the doorway, she has to squeeze.
"Oops," he says, as she passes, pressing between the janitor – who will not move – and the doorframe – which will not move – and she feels one hand on her breast and another hand wedged between her legs.
She is clutching her books to her chest, halfway down the hallway, when she stops to look again at the janitor, who grins and watches her now. It happened so quickly, did it really happen? Did it really happen?
"Study hard, will you?" he says.
Still, did it happen? And she finds herself letting out a scream, a short punchy scream, as if a spider's come upon her hand and she bats it away, a scream, as she turns and claps in her heels down the hallway, bursting through the EMERGENCY exit and out into the crisp dead leaves falling from their trees. She looks to where the sky arcs and dreams, for a moment, her feet lift ing from the earth and propelling her into the air, to become lost, cleansed at the centers of clouds.
She realizes now she has forgotten her coat, pictures it hung properly on the hook at the front of the room, a bright magenta color when hanging she had thought brought some color to the room, a bright pulsing-hard heart among the seeming dolor of the very gray bio lab, but she can't go back for it now. She decides to endure the cold rather than face the janitor once more, and anyway, there is a lot of work do be done back at the house, back at the girls' dormitory, where even when the door is shut she is surrounded by laughs and shrieks and giggles and oft en has to wait until all have gone to sleep before she can study.
"Oh, you're freezing," says her roommate Connie, once Francine has gotten back. "You're shivering, Francine."
"Yes, it's really cold again. I forgot my coat."
"How did you forget your coat?"
"Oh, I don't know, how do you forget anything?
""But it's so cold, Frannie."
"Dr Markham had me stay to clean the lab," Frannie says finally. "That's all. The doors locked behind me before I could get back in. You know how they lock when it's too late."
"Couldn't you have rung the janitor or the watchman?"
"I didn't want to bother anyone, you know."
"I bought some ginger snaps." Connie is opening the small silver-wrapped package of cookies, rimmed with gold piping.
"No, thanks. It's so pretty, that package, but I need to study. There's so much work to be done."
"Well, time for a study break," Connie says. "I'm off then. I won't forget my coat!"
"No. Of course not," Fran says, then pauses. "Please don't."
Michael Hyde's book of stories What Are You Afraid Of? won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, Alaska Quarterly Review, Bloom, Ontario Review, and in the anthology Western Pennsylvania Reﬂ ections: Stories from the Alleghenies to Lake Erie sponsored by the PA Writing Project. He earned an M.F.A. from the writing programme at Columbia University, where he was a Teaching and Writing Fellow, and has received fellowship support from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain. Currently, he is an associate professor of writing and literature at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at Vagabond are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.