A Bowl of Water Falls
It started with the tiniest dribble of blood.
Paul disposed of the spotted cotton bud and smoothed a band aid over the incision on his hand. Picking at its edges, he watched as the Engineer hovered around the glass bowl of water, fiddling with the multitude of electrical devices it was hooked up to. In the darkness of the living room, little winking lights cast sporadic pillows of light over the two men.
The Engineer leapt up and rushed to the curtains, checking they were pulled firmly together. He seemed to dally a moment, running his hands over the smooth fabric, lost in thought. Then he was back at the dining table, flicking switches near its base.
A throbbing, static hum coursed through the mahogany wood, vibrating up to the bowl. The network of wires running up to metallic clamps on its edge burned with heat, and in the centre of the water a little circle of ripples began to develop. They rolled into minute waves, which lapped with calm momentum up to the glass perimeter; as they rushed with quickening intensity, grainy fragments of an image formed in sparse, black outlines.
Paul leaned in, his jaw fastened still and lower lip protruding. In the corner of his eyes he could see the Engineer smiling as he watched his response.
‘No, no…this is something else! This is-‘
‘Sh,’ the Engineer remonstrated, ‘Look. Stay focused on it.’
Paul screwed his eyes up. A woman’s face broke into view, manifesting little by little in the swells of liquid.
The space under her eyes was red, and she dabbed at them with a crumpled handful of tissues. Her voice was cracked and interrupted by glottal stops.
‘No, it’s not that. You’re saying it like it’s a good thing, but it’s not right. I shouldn’t only be happy when you’re happy, and unhappy when you’re unhappy.’
A shadow crossed Paul’s face.
‘That’s Kate,’ he breathed. A dull swell ran under the skin of his forehead as he thought of her at home, sweating under the sheets.
‘I can’t think…I can’t be anything around you. I need to be away, anywhere else. I need to heal,’ the woman continued, the sound of her voice shimmering up to them, tinged with spitting static. Her face seemed set and resolute now, as she gained control over her words. ‘I can’t forgive you for what you’ve done to me all these years.’
As quickly as they had formed, the images began to disperse. Paul’s left hand moved towards the bowl, and little webbed lines wrinkled in his temples. His eyes were glassy and uncertain.
‘That was Kate,’ he repeated numbly.
The Engineer dipped a tea spoon into a tiny ramekin holding a thick, yellow, jelly-like mixture, swivelling it around for a while. Then, arching his back over the dining table, he held it just under the surface of the water, his hand steady and his brow furrowed in concentration. From the area around the spoon, a bubble detached itself and rose to the surface of the bowl. They watched in silence again. It kept rising, slipping from the tip of a crest of choppy fluid into the air. From there it hung, drifting centimetres above the glass circle underneath it.
The clock on the wall ticked past midnight as the glacial bubble of water floated over the table, bobbing and rotating in graceful patterns.
Disposing of the spoon, the Engineer reached for an empty plastic bottle. Holding it in the space between the droplet of suspended water and the bowl, he caught the bubble in the bottle’s opening. It popped, dribbled in a tiny stream to the base of the container, and was still.
Paul reached for a cigarette, his hand shaking. His gaze never parted from the bowl as he lit it.
‘That was Kate, but I don’t remember it,’ he murmured.
The Engineer rested a hand on his shoulder and smiled warmly again, but the fingers jittered over his collarbone.
‘Paul, listen to me – listen to me. This is only the beginning, and I don’t – I still don’t understand everything. But I know enough to know that…I know this may be hard to grasp, impossible to…look, it’s hard for me to grasp, let alone convey…the conversation, it’s not something you would…it hasn’t taken place yet.’
Paul let the stammered words wash over him. In the street outside, an abrupt, whining car alarm clove the sleepy air.
‘What are you going to do?’ He asked.
A soft net of rain drummed on the roof as Paul sat clenching the steering wheel of his car outside. Dark shapes blended in the windscreen and he pushed clumping, uncomfortable thoughts amongst them, his eyes thatched with red strokes. It seemed beyond impossible, but he knew too much already – this man that was so close to him, this ‘engineer’ and his designs. Prodding at his phone, he toyed with calling her, but he knew she would ramble frantically. He had put the correct amount in her food and left her drifting off, a thin line of drool snaking out over the pillow. The same as every night.
Slick black rivulets of water twisted down the glass and the steady, rhythmic patter mimicked the tremulous quiver building between his flesh and skin. There was no reason to feel guilty. He kept her safe.
He knew then he had to recover the water.
For the next seven days the Engineer was out of reach. Paul was aware he went through periods of immersing himself in his work, but this felt different straight away; a different kind of separation. His phone was off and his curtains remained closed. As early as the second day, Paul was hammering on his door, but there was no response. By the seventh day, he was sat in his car across the road, staring at the front lawn. Hours sifted into each other and residents shot him suspicious looks as they came and went.
Late in the evening he saw the Engineer crash out of the door and run for his car, a full bottle of water swinging in his right hand as he ran. Paul made to move but he was already pulling out the driveway and speeding off down the street.
A full bottle of water. If he could see that much with a drop…
In the needling stillness that followed he thought again of Kate. He wondered if he had been consistent in putting the correct amounts in her food. She had seemed awfully chirpy the past week, to the point of asking if she could go out with friends from her group. There was no group. There had been no group for five years. He couldn’t conceive of the time he had seen in the water. He couldn’t conceive of a time when she wouldn’t be there.
On the Thursday night of the second week he broke into the house. The fridge in the kitchen was stuffed full of bottled water, each one labelled with dates and names. In the living room, scrawled notes were littered everywhere. Rustling around, Paul found the bottle from two Mondays past. Moving back to the living room, he scavenged through the sheets of paper. After several minutes he turned up the piece with his name on it.
Something black and putrid cracked and leaked throughout him as he read it. Crushing it into a ball in his fist, he made for the window he had come through. As he fiddled with the latch, a light blinked on in the hall, and the Engineer was standing in the door frame.
‘Paul…’ he stuttered. Stepping forward, he took in the window, the bottle of water, the black clothes.
‘Paul, what are you doing?’
He lurched into the room and dropped to his knees amongst the piles of handwritten sheets.
‘How many other people are you doing this to?’ Paul hissed, pressing hard on the cap of the bottle, indenting it into his palms. There was no response, only the soft flutter of paper as the Engineer shuffled on his knees.
‘You think my life is a joke, don’t you?’ Paul breathed, edging away from the window and towards the dining table. ‘You knew what it could do; you’re trying to screw with my head.’
The Engineer looked up, his face creased with distress.
‘No, Paul, I made a mistake…I wanted you to be there with me, after all that work…I didn’t know…I mean, I knew it would be after – the time that is, in the water – but I thought it would make you happy to see, to see her up and well, I-‘
He ground to a halt, raising his hands to cover his face. His words were muted as he continued.
‘I had an idea of what you were doing, over there…at home, but I thought that you were helping. I didn’t know that – Paul, you have to realise, you can’t own someone. She’s not well, she’s not a well person, she needs-‘
His words froze in the air as Paul lashed out at the bowl and sent it spinning to the ground. It shattered on collision and sent a thin pond of grey fluid seeping over the tiled area under the table. The Engineer emitted a hoarse, anguished squeal and scrambled awkwardly on his hands and knees over to the mess, padding his hands in desperation over puddles and seeking to clasp handfuls of water close to him as it drifted apart.
Paul watched him struggle for a moment, and made for the front door. His fingers gripped the handle and he glanced back a final time.
‘What I’m doing…what I have to do, it’s no different to what you’re doing,’ he hissed.
He caught a glimpse of the Engineer’s burning eyes as he left him scrabbling and slapping at the floor, the oilish spread fanning out around his frame.
She was asleep when he slid into the bedroom, but she soon rolled round and smiled at him as he sat on the sheets. A wan smile, tugging up towards deeply sunken eyes.
‘It’s so late, Paul,’ she whispered, her mouth opening in a deep yawn. Her forehead creased as she took in his black clothing.
‘Where have you been?’ She sighed, rubbing her hand over his chest. ‘l was having such bad dreams again…I don’t know where my head is anymore. I tried to watch this documentary and I…’
Her voice quavered as she glanced up at Paul. His left hand gripped a fold of duvet, the knuckles white.
‘I just kept bursting into tears, it’s ridiculous, it’s nonsense, it was just some daytime tat about lions in Africa. And after I tried to read, but I couldn’t concentrate, I kept thinking about it, and all the words were running into each other and it seemed so long, like it would never end. And Dad, he rang, but he just wants to talk about-‘
Paul raised a finger to her lips. ‘Kate, that’s enough. You’re getting yourself all worked up. You know what happens. Here.’
He opened the bottle of water and passed it to her. She smiled sadly and put it to her lips. As the first couple of mouthfuls washed down her throat, her eyes glimmered sheer white.
All her possibilities tumbled inside her and were negated at their source. A crisp glassy layer seemed to gather over her pale skin; flecks chipping like soft frost under his fingertips as he leaned in to help tilt the bottle. A soft, encasing shell, barely discernible.
She choked and spluttered fluid over her chin. As he watched, her face tensed and she scratched frantically at the duvet covering her lap.
‘Paul…Paul, I’m afraid…Paul, please don’t ever leave me, please don’t-‘
She threw her arms around her and clung to his body, shaking with uncontrollable tears. He held her tight as the stillness of the night wrapped rippling puddles of shadow around them, guarding his lot.