Susan Marlon awoke at two o'clock in the morning.
Such wakefulness was no sort of habit as far as Susan Marlon was concerned. It was, in fact, quite extraordinary. Susan Marlon was absurdly regular in her habits. Her sleeping was regular, her eating was regular, her alcohol consumption, bowel movements, and exercise routines were all regular. She very much doubted that she had ever been awake at two AM before, although she suspected that she had come close in college. She privately remembered coming very close to doing a lot of things in college she wasn't proud of, and preferred not to think about the whole ordeal at all.
Susan pulled herself up to her elbows, flicked on the bedside lamp, draped her not-entirely-undesirable legs over the side of the bed and pursed her lips at the rain that hurtled through the inky darkness shrouding her windows. This expression was comfortable for her. It had been her favorite since preschool, at which time she had discovered that a well-placed puckered lip could accomplish much that an energetic bout of shouting could not. These days, Susan was primly well-put-together, but there were little wrinkles carved deeply into her face, suggesting a more advanced stage of middle age than was precisely correct. She had celebrated her forty-second birthday the previous Thursday with a number of people, none of whom she considered close friends. She stepped from the bed, slid into the slippers aligned perfectly perpendicular to the side of the bed, and padded downstairs.
Upon entering the kitchen, Susan followed her morning routine:
- Straight and slightly left to turn the kitchen lights on and press play on the turntable (The record was Bach, again. She reminded herself to change it later);
- To the right into the kitchen;
- Straight to turn on the electric kettle; open the cupboard; take out the ground decaf, the filters, the filter holder, and her thermos; arrange them for the proper preparation of coffee, and close the cupboard again;
- Left again to find her purse, open it, find her blue folding brush, brush her hair, and put the brush back;
- Straight down the kitchen counter to turn on the living room lights;
- Another left and two rights to collapse on the couch and stare at the ceiling, waiting for the water to boil.
The Marlon living room was quite remarkable, in that it managed to look both spartan and lived in at the same time. Everything was comfortable and worn (except for the high-backed leather recliner in the corner, which she had never used), but none of it displayed a flash of personality. The couch was off-white, the carpet was beige, the lampshades were eggshell, and the wall color was a color called “dove,” a term which, Susan mused, had probably won a paint marketing person an award. To a normal person, it would appear overwhelmingly bland. Susan, to her credit, thought it was bland too, and as she lay on the couch, awaiting the click of the kettle reaching boil, she reminded herself to call an interior decorator, or at least pick up some magazines to put around the place next time she was at the grocery store. The kettle clicked, as it did every morning. The kettle didn't care what time it was.
Susan cared, however, and she considered putting away the decaf and taking the caf. Realizing that she had twelve varieties of decaf and no caf, she added caf to the shopping list (left to the pen, right to the shopping list, left to return to the rapidly cooling kettle). Pour, pause, pour, pause, sip. Pucker.
Ten minutes later, Susan was strolling down the driveway with her briefcase and thermos, enjoying the crisp morning air. She had clambered into the front seat of her Volvo before she realized that she had failed to turn the lights off in the house, press stop on the turntable, or change into her suit. With a shock, she remembered that it was also 2:37 AM. Even if it took her a half hour to get there, the office wouldn't open for another four.
A wave of futility and despair crashed over Susan, leaving her breathless. Tears splashed down her face, and she slammed herself backwards into her seat, crumpling against the inner door with a stifled scream. She lay there, shuddering, for a few minutes, feeling the unwelcome flare of emotion bleed out through her body, leaving an icy chill as it departed. She righted herself, still gazing at her lap.
It dawned on her that there was something strange about her nightgown. It was totally dry, despite the torrential downpour that—she abruptly comprehended—had roused her in the first place. Feeling rather faint, Susan opened the car door and faced her home, eyes drawn inexorably upwards. About fifty feet away from her backyard, a solid wall of rain six inches thick poured from a ribbon of dark cloud. It stretched out like a latitudinal line, bridging the horizon and slicing the whole world in half. Alone, helpless, Susan Marlon stood on the pavement and stared into the sky.