Various time passages in an old home.
On the way to a reading, an academic stumbles into a mysterious infrastructure.
"For some reason he couldn’t put his finger on he was feeling happy. Naturally it had been a relief to come in out of the rain—though this particular brand of happiness seemed unrelated to anything as simple as relief. No, there was something about being in the tunnel that was making him feel very happy, almost ecstatically so. Against the wall just inside the door someone had arranged cleaning implements—several brooms, a bucket with a mop in it, a pile of rags—but other than that the tunnel was empty. The walls at this end had been painted with the green, glossy paint beloved of institutions the world over, the paint having been applied in what seemed like a spirit of gay abandon. The smooth concrete floor was splashed with it, and it depended in hardened drips from a series of thin pipes running lengthwise along the ceiling."
A woman takes a very odd job as a human pipe defroster.
"And none of the customers are what she had expected. They don’t stare, googley-eyed, while she slips out of her coat. They don’t try to touch her or make jokes. If they stick around at all, it’s to chat about thermodynamics and temperature gradients and conduction and convection and spray foam insulation and all the boring things Sheila has never been interested in herself. She nods politely and pretends to understand it all, waiting for them to leave her alone with the pipe."
A story of assessments as the end of the world nears.
"I'm afraid to look at first, but then I get my bearings and turn in the direction where the river should be. On the other side is home and if I'm right, the towers. There's no bright, white plume of smoke on the horizon to help me, now. The towers will be quiet. Shut down and dead."
An abused woman reacts to her downstairs neighbor's murder.
"Laurie thinks he tries to cry, and she appreciates the effort. She kisses Jimmy in return, pretends it doesn’t hurt when he scrapes his teeth over her collarbone, and ignores the phone when it rings. If it’s her mother, she’ll call again soon enough; if it’s another reporter, well, Laurie doesn’t have much to say."
Three ambassadors find themselves on a familiar yet alien planet.
"He sees a red and white building that looks just like the pharmacy where he once filled prescriptions. He recognizes a squat building with a black awning and patio that looks similar to a restaurant where he and his wife once dined on Sunday afternoons. He spots a building that looks exactly the same as a bar all three men visited after their final training session at the space station across the city, sharing the last pitchers of beer they drank together before rocketing from earth."
A study in building spaceships.
"Mostly, the spaceship builders did not come out of their trailers or houses, though our local guides claimed they didn't mind the occasional tour. They were so serious they could not see that others might laugh. Some of their grounds looked measured and neat; some were spilling over or scraped to dust. Most were single, a few married, some widowed or divorced. The married ones interested us most—what sorts of agreements had they come to? were the ships built for two?"
An elderly man's work on a complex sculpture confuses those close to him.
" I sit on the plastic pot bench with my feet dangling in the water, drinking beer with my son, and it occurs to me that this is the first time in a long while that we have done something together that wasn’t planned to death or didn’t involve other people. I keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to spoil the moment. But Wallace spoils it for me. He starts telling me about his speech. At first I don’t understand what he is talking about, but then I start to hear something. He says that expectations are changing, and that the things that sustain us are not always recognizable as such. But what I hear him saying is that he thinks this thing I am building is what I believe is keeping me alive. He still doesn’t get it. He thinks maybe I am depressed, so I turn the conversation to something more capitalistic."
An isolated apartment sitter sees apparitions of mysterious beings.
"And then, after a few days, I returned to the living room, to sit in the blank and quiet night and watch them pass in darkness. And after a few more nights, I crept closer to the curtains. One night, having left them closed, I peeled one back as the last of them passed. I watched them proceed down the street in their own strange strides, walking steadily, not turning a corner, not entering some structure, not vanishing in mid-air."
An island house; a series of apparations, dreams, and mysteries.
"Sara put trances on Leigh in the middle of the night, while Leigh was sleeping. Leigh knew but didn't tell Mum or say anything about it to Sara. All three had terrible secrets they kept safe. They kept them safe for so long and so devotedly that they were no longer secrets—they were alternate ways of navigating the world."
A dead son's markings appear in household mold, thus beginning a new form of Butler's surreal, creepy family dramas.
"I’d always felt my boy would live forever. He seemed strung with a different make of vein. I’d once watched him bang his head hard on a lathe out in my workshop in the midst of chasing moths, and instead of crying, whining for mother, his body shook with hiccupping elation, a brook of blood tracing his cheek down to his diapers. Only months alive he’d had large canines. When I’d let him, in his mother’s absence, he liked pounding nails with the tiny hammer I’d provided. I’d caught him more than once chewing on hunks of dirt or even glass, which he’d swallow grinning as I tried to make him spit. How he could stare straight into a blowtorch, beg for me to lay the hot blue light in his hands and sit like that for as long as I could stand to hold it with him. Three years old and already beyond anything I had imagined in a son."
A woman's ex-lover moves into her duplex apartment.
"I wanted to be with Mitch again the way we were after college, with that safety of the late-night sex call, the backup-plan date who was not really a date to parties filled with couples. But I did not have the courage to tell him that I wanted to pick up where we had left off before he married Janet any more than I could have told him I had loved him all those years ago. By the time he was free again (and moving into the duplex I owned), I had learned to seal off my heart from his casual, unofficial kind of love."