Stefan's job was to estimate when the end would come, and to whom it would most likely come, and what it would cost, in a variety of situations. He created statistical models, and populated those models with numbers, and ran those models, but really, the whole endeavor came down to money. He calculated monetary values for risks: Workplace injuries; surgical mishaps; automobile malfunctions and crashes; trees falling on houses; dismemberment due to farm equipment. Other actuaries consulted with him on matters of inland marine business. And other matters. Stefan was something of a prodigy in that world. Risk was his thing.
From the beginning, he'd thought of Tina as a calculated risk. They met online. She described herself as “adventurous” and “divorced.” He described himself as “ready to settle” and “perpetually restless.” Like the kid in The Giving Tree, he wrote in an email. He spent 15 years working like a hurricane, and he’d recently been promoted to an executive position at his reinsurance company. After describing himself in an email as “working like a hurricane,” he promptly followed up by explaining to her, in another email, that he was a casualty actuary who calculated risk, and he knew a thing or two about how much work a hurricane did, and how much money that work was worth. In his first draft of that email, he explained the relative merits of fitting a lognormal distribution to losses, and when a gamma or Pareto distribution makes more sense, and why his paper on mixing distributions had become something of a seminal reference in the field, but before he sent the email he deleted those details.
In a third email, he told her again that he worked for a reinsurance company.
“I like that you chose words that go against each other in your profile,” Tina said when she and Stefan met for the first time at a diner. They drank coffee and ordered the same kind of omelet, a western omelet, which at that diner meant they poured Pace picante sauce over some scrambled eggs.
“You’re ‘adventurous,’” he said because he didn’t know what else to say.
“I’d never read The Giving Tree,” she said as she tapped one long fingernail on the rim of a mug that said Peggy’s, “but then I bought a copy and I cried. Oh, I cried! I’ve been married before. No kids, but I wanted kids. I used to party. Not anymore.”
“Me neither,” Stefan said. She held up her coffee cup, and he held up his, and they toasted to not partying anymore. He felt regret even in that toast, but he suspected she did, too. She seemed like the kind of woman who was reluctant to grow up.
One night, after two gin and tonics, he told Tina that he’d gone to rehab for six months to kick a cocaine addiction. He told her that he felt like a widower, like cocaine was his dead spouse and he was grieving, always grieving. He’d finished rehab three years earlier and didn’t think it would be a problem anymore, but he thought she should know. Low risk of resuming addictive habit. (He said nothing about how he estimated the Value at Risk before starting rehab, and how close his calculations had been to the actual financial maximum loss, though that loss was dwarfed by the projected maximum loss of maintaining an expensive habit into middle age.)
“I get it,” Tina said. She had large eyes and golden skin and worked for a marketing firm. She dressed nicely. Stefan smiled because he thought she really did get it.
Another night, he told her that he’d already bought a four-bedroom house on a half-acre lot in Darien. He was renting it to a nice family—a dog, two kids with tutors—until he had his own family. She responded by saying she appreciated his earnestness and his candor, but she probably wouldn’t ever settle with him. He sold the house in Darien.
One night, at a restaurant, she asked him what reinsurance was.
“Insurance companies need insurance,” he said, “to cover their exposure.”
She burst out laughing. “You've already lost me but it sounds hilarious,” she said. “Cover their exposure!” Stefan didn't know what was so hilarious but he laughed, too.
She texted him from the bathroom. “Cvrin my xpozr rofl!” She attached a photo of a toilet paper roll and of her cleavage, taken in the bathroom mirror.
Tina introduced him to sexting. She showed him how to use letters and symbols to fashion vulgar pictures. They took videos of each other, and later of themselves. After they’d been together for two years, she spliced their camera-shot movies, and they watched them together and laughed and then stopped laughing when they got hot and bothered.
Stefan persisted with the talk about getting married and all that. Their disagreements were few and quickly resolved, often in bed. Before Tina, sex had been recreational and occasional and necessary, more like a Windows update or a new insurance model. It had been a variable, decidedly nonparametric, that was influential enough to drive him to meet people. Something interesting, but passing. Sex with Tina made sex seem more like an investment, an accumulation of carnal knowledge with both short-term dividends and the potential to lead to something larger in the future. Returns that, if one turned sex into a parametric variable, could be modeled, analyzed, and used for projections. He told her something like that, once.
She had pushed him off. “Shut the fuck off, actuarial nerd!” she cried. He fell back, surprised. For a moment, she looked horrified. Then her face broke into a smile and she pulled him toward her again. “I’m just kidding, Stefan. It’s hot. Really. I’m glad my tits remind you of work.”
He laughed. “Shut the fuck off?”
“Shut the fuck off,” she said, pushed him onto his back, and climbed on top.
Tina said she liked his dependability, and that he was predictable but still liked to have fun. He rented a yacht and on a moonless, overcast night he asked her to marry him. She couldn’t see the ring, but she gauged its heft with the cushion of her index finger. She bit her bottom lip, got caught up in the moment and said yes, yes, yes, Stefan. Yes, let’s marry.
The next day, she didn’t send a sexy text; she wrote: Baking a casserole! Hungry?
He texted back: Home after work, dear.
They thought it hilarious, this new kind of role-playing, like the day before they'd been feral, and now here they were, domesticated.
She convinced him to live in Greenwich, because she still had to go to the city sometimes and he still worked in Stamford, the reinsurance capital of the world. The nickname of that city was: “The City that Works.” Artless, accurate. A year after the wedding, she became pregnant; two years after the wedding, they had a three-month-old girl named Addie with her mother’s eyes and her father’s big head. Stefan doted, so much so that he surprised himself. Early on, he tried to build a spreadsheet that would help him quantify his affection for the child—he tried to identify his affection on a scale from 1-10, a measurement used in the same equation as what he called his “exhaustion quotient”—but eventually gave up. Tina quit her job in the city. Originally, she’d planned to go back to work but later said going back to work seemed awful.
One day she texted: Lasagna for dinner! Firing the cleaning lady! You? Neither thing was true.
Him: Humming. What else is new?
Her: Running errands, getting gas. Howz work?
He texted back: Rough day at the office.
She texted back: Bring the boss home to dinner! Kay?
And him: But I am the boss!
Her: No lipstick on your collar this time! I’ll kill her! Got it?
Things worsened about the time of Addie’s first birthday. Tina cried a lot at night, after Addie was asleep. Tina said she wondered if she was spending too much time with Addie, spoiling the child, rotting herself, though that hardly seemed possible. She couldn’t imagine going back to work, going back to the city, but maybe she needed a new job. She told Stefan she wanted to do something else. Maybe she wanted to be a nurse. Stefan tried to be supportive, but he felt the ground shift, and he made every effort to hold Addie as often as possible when he was home, to protect her from the tremors he was starting to feel, all the while his head spinning through equations that might help him minimize the ongoing losses, might help minimize the probable maximum. Tina saw therapists, enrolled and then dropped out of programs, found another marketing job. He scrambled to build models that might predict all the different ways the situation might lead, and what the outcomes and losses would be in each situation, and the probability of each situation.
“It’s like everyone pretends to be real,” she told Stefan, in tears, the night she quit for good, “But they’re not. They don’t know what matters. God, was I like that? Did I know what matters?”
“Of course you did,” Stefan said, “You still do.” He wasn’t sure what they were talking about.
“But do I? Do I?” she cried, holding him tighter. “How do you know if you know what matters? You're a . . . a human calculator! Why don’t I even know myself? How can I be a mother? How do you know? This isn't an equation! No matter where I know, people pretend to know what matters and no one does, but everyone rolls on anyway, every day.”
The texts didn’t change—they were still light, still make-believe—though he could detect changes in the tone and color.
Baby needs new shoes.
Hot enough for ya? LOL Turning to ash
Bring home the bacon fry it up in a pan.
One day in mid-November, when Addie was 18 months old, Stefan woke up and felt cold beneath his skin. The house was heated; that wasn’t the problem. Connecticut had entered November: that time of year when the world is wrapped in a dreary and damp blanket. At the beach visible from their bedroom window, cruel winds tumbled over the dark and turbulent waters of the sound and pounded the shore. Clouds washed the world in monochrome.
“It's like a slow suffocation,” was the first thing Tina said to him in the morning. She'd been looking out the window at the clouds. She had bags under her eyes, which were red, and he wondered how sleeplessness would affect projected losses.
He and Tina fought that morning, and he wasn’t sure what they were fighting about. She felt lost and trapped even though they had all the freedom and money they could want. He tried to empathize, but he didn’t really understand; he knew his limitations were painfully visible. They didn’t resolve anything; Tina slammed the door to Addie’s room. Stefan had a nine o’clock meeting and didn’t want to be late, so he calmly left the house and drove to work and had his meeting. Honestly, he didn't know why she was flailing, or how to help her. All he could do was estimate.
After his meeting, he closed the door to his office. The corner office had come with his promotion to a vice-president position. His coworkers said it was perfect for him. Out one side, the windows overlooked a string of large yachts moored to a long dock. Farther out in the sound, small islands appeared like a string of stone turtles. The other windows overlooked a small, old graveyard. The two views were separated by a 90-degree swivel in an expensive chair.
“Wealth!” said a coworker, jabbing his thumb toward the bobbing yachts.
“Or Death!” laughed another, pointing to the rotting teeth in the graveyard.
That day in mid-November, though, he closed his eyes and didn’t look out either window. The thing about risk, he reminded himself, is that it’s theoretical—until the moment something happens. A driver is fine until he crashes; a beachfront mansion stands tall until it’s leveled by a hurricane. Until a diagnosis, the risk of cancer is just a number that means nothing. Stefan believed every risk sat on the abstract possibility of a real incident. And that day felt like that kind of moment. The morning’s fight hadn’t been particularly eventful, but something about it seemed final.
He tried to ignore the uncertainty of it all. He hated uncertainty.
He texted: Big plans for the morning?
He set down the phone and stared at it. Thirty seconds later, which seemed like a long time, it buzzed with a return message.
Pedicure and bon-bons. As always.
Then: You know Addie loves Oprah.
He smiled. Maybe he’d been wrong. He turned to his work.
Then: I'll try not to leave the car running in the garage. JK!
Outside, empty and brittle trees drooped with despondence, the cold settled in and the gray sky looked like a heart attack. In his business, this time of year was known as renewal season. Actuaries reassessed existing contracts to ensure their reinsurance prices were both competitive and profitable. Actuaries scoured data and used software to simulate catastrophic events. Actuaries calculated expected values for payouts by multiplying the likelihood of an event by its expense.
Actuaries analyzed the past to quantify the future. And made lots of money.
Usually, he delegated contract renewals to lesser actuaries. But the company was doing so well that renewals had backed up, and so he set out to price one himself. He pulled a binder from a stack of binders—he preferred looking at the hard copies rather than the numbers on his dead, glowing screen—and began to read. The company applying for reinsurance was a small, Southern insurance company that insured nonprofit organizations. Stefan began absent-mindedly flipping through the pages.
Somewhere out in the office, an underwriter was on fire.
“At the end of the day,” the man barked, loud enough that everyone could hear, even Stefan in his closed office, “what matters is who's pitching and who's catching, and I'm asking you, who's pitching? Can ya tell me that, Brad? Cause I'm ready to send one out of the park. We gotta know who’s on board. This ship is sailing, Brad, and it sounds like you might miss it.”
Stefan shook his head and returned to the file. He'd never liked underwriters. He stopped flipping through the binder and landed on the Claim Narratives. Normally, he didn’t pay attention to them. Claim narratives were one- or two-sentence descriptions of tragedy; these described the claims that had been paid by the insured businesses—and, if the monetary amounts were high enough, the amount that the reinsurance company had paid.
Each line represented a very real event, a collapsing of risk into incident. Something happened, then someone had filed a claim, then the insurance company had paid money. Stefan began to read.
The first one: Goodwill warehouse. Forklift accident. Blindness.
Further down the page: Door opened on Big Brothers Big Sisters van while occupied. Passenger ejected.
And: Claimant struck by Boy Scouts of America ElderShuttle. Quadriplegic.
And: Ramp collapse. Loss of three digits. Skull contusion.
Stefan caught his breath. He began to imagine these scenes. Invariably, in his imagination, they happened on sunny days in quaint small towns where everyone spoke with a drawl. He'd never spent much time in the states covered by this company: Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, part of South Carolina. Stefan had grown up in Sacramento but went to the East Coast for college and never returned. He’d never known the South. But here were its daily tragedies.
Deceased had heart attack in disabled HomeAssist elevator
Collapsed exhibit, children’s museum. Broken arm, concussion.
He read, and read, and read. He tried to crunch some numbers. He couldn’t think straight.
He texted: Sup?
Tina texted: Park. Lib. Store for groceries.
He stared at the phone, waiting for more, but it was silent. The binder lay open. He closed it. He watched the clock on his computer monitor change from 3:00 to 3:01. Outside the sky was darkening. He called it a day.
As he left, the fight with Tina loomed large in his mind. He'd go home and talk to her. Sort it out. Figure out what had changed. Take Addie out for hot chocolate. He turned off the monitor, turned out the light, nodded to the underwriter next door as he walked by the door—the underwriter winked and pointed at him, then inexplicably raised a fist in the air three times—and walked to the elevators.
Traffic wasn't bad yet. Stefan raced up I-95 with the fading sun on his left. It took him only about 15 minutes to get home with no traffic. He pulled into the garage at 3:30 and parked next to Tina's car.
“Tina?” he called as he walked in, though he knew by the heavy quietness that she was out. “Addie?”
He took his phone from his pocket and called her number, but she didn't answer, and he didn't leave a message. He wandered absent-mindedly from room to room, staring only at his phone. Waiting for her to call back. She didn’t. The playroom: Spotless. The bedrooms: Beds made, but definitely uninhabited. The kitchen: Tidy.
Something seemed so wrong about all of this. Tina was not neat; Tina was not tidy. They only ever picked up the mess at night. But now, every room looked unchanged from when they’d gone to bed last night. It was clean last night because the cleaning lady had been there yesterday afternoon.
Stefan sat down on his bed and loosened his tie. He closed his eyes. Tina's car was still in the garage. Not running, and empty. They were probably out for a walk. Park. Library. Groceries.
He stood up and was headed for the kitchen when he peeked into the den and noticed that the laptop was open, though the screen was dark. He'd come home to fix his family, but since they weren't there, nothing would be fixed. He texted Tina.
Busy day at the office?
She texted back, almost immediately: The usual. Trying not to burn things.
He tried to call again, but she didn't answer. There was nothing to do but work, he supposed. He pushed a button on the laptop and the screen bristled as it came to life.
A browser window, open to an unfamiliar web page. An email provider Stefan had never heard of. An email address. An email, on the screen.
Hi Debbie, Sure, it's fine to come earlier. Sorry to have upset you. But no need to panic! We can take her at 9:00 or later, no problem. Let me know if there's any foods she's allergic to for lunch. Mary
Stefan scrolled down.
Mary, I don't think it's going to work, then. I don't know what to do. My first interview is at 10:00 so I really need to drop off my sweet sweet daughter by 9:30 at the latest to get there on time. I just don't know what to do but thanks for your offer. Any way 9:30 or even 9:15 will work? You are an angel you are blessed. God bless you for helping people like me. Debbie.
Stefan recognized that phrase: “You are an angel you are blessed” because Tina often whispered it to Addie at night, the last thing the little girl heard before falling asleep. Stefan told himself to close the window but read the rest of the email chain instead.
Dear Debbie, You and your sweet daughter can stop worrying for today, anyway! Bob and I will be home all day. My kids are grown and away, and I miss having a toddler in the house. We'll be up and at 'em by 10. We live at 3510 Rider Place in Darien – it's a gray, two-story house on the corner. We'll be watching for you! Blessings on you Debbie, and good luck in your interview! Mary
Mary, I feel like the luckiest mom in Connecticut. Finally I have an interview for a job, and I don't have to cancel because of my sweet Angel daughter. You were sent to me by God. I know it! And I know that my late husband is smiling down on me from heaven, and smiling down on you, too, and things are going to change for me and for Addie. I just know it. Love, Debbie
The last email read:
Dear Debbie, My husband showed me your notice on Craig's List. We are so sorry for your loss, so very sorry, and I know what it's like to be scraping by. Trust me! I was a single mom to three wonderful kids, but it was tough. They grew up. I met Bob, a wonderful man. I'm not scraping by now, and I want to tell you that things can change. Don't despair. I can watch your daughter today. I'm available and home, and I can assure you that our house is safe and we will take the best care of her. I'm sure you've received a dozen other offers, but if you still need someone, please email me back. Love, Mary Pelham
Stefan sat down. He clicked on the inbox and found other messages from other people, all sent the night before, all offering “Debbie” to take care of her dear daughter. He closed his eyes, then he opened them again. His heart raced; Addie was at the home of Mary and Bob. Or was she?
He texted Tina: 's news?
Tina: Boring day. No new tale to tell!
Him: Early dinner?
Tina: No way! The house is a mess. Maybe take out.
Stefan felt sick. He called; Tina didn't answer. He looked again through the inbox and found, the week before, and the week before that, other, similar messages. From well-wishers. They offered help to “Susan” or “Vicky” or “Sarah.” Addie had been spending many days in the homes of strangers.
Then he found email messages from someone else. Doug. One from Tina to Doug, from the night before.
Big D, and I know you know what I mean by Big, Still on for Six Flags! Pick us up at 9 – A goes to Darien, on the way. Back by 4, okay? Can't wait - Xoxo, Teen
Stefan looked out the window; snow had begun to fall.
He wrote down the address and ran to his car. He felt sick. He drove to Darien. It was 3:30.
Mary Pelham was a heavy woman with a worn face, mid-60s, standing behind a screen door and pinching her bottom lip. Her other hand was on her hip.
“My daughter's here,” Stefan said. “Addie. You have my daughter.”
Mary's eyes widened, and she put both hands on her hips.
“I'm sorry,” she said, nodding. “I think you have the wrong house.”
“Mary Pelham, 3510 Rider Place, Darien. You have my daughter. Don't you? Please.”
“Please leave, sir. You're making me quite uncomfortable.”
“My wife's name is Tina but she told you her name was Debbie. She said I was dead, which isn't true, and I think she's with someone named Doug. Addie is my daughter and I want to take her home.”
She strained to look past him, over his shoulder, at his car. He looked at his silent phone. It was 4:00; the sun was falling; a street light flickered on behind him. The light dusting of snow had left everything dreamy and white.
“Addie!” he called into the house.
“No!” Mary said, shuffling to stand in front of him. “I don't know who you are, or who Addie is, but I will call the police.”
“Yes,” he said. “Let's call the police. You will be charged with kidnapping. Addie is the little girl you were taking care of today.”
“No,” she said. “Please go away.”
“Daddy!” cried Addie, running up behind Mary Pelham. She had two braids in her blond hair, one on each side. “Surprise! Ha ha ha! Where's mommy? I am an Angel.”
Stefan tried to smile, then he looked at Mary and yanked on the screen door. It had been locked, but he pulled so hard it broke. A piece of the metal latch landed on the concrete step. Stefan picked it up and handed it to Mary.
He was about to speak when Addie jumped into his arms. She had dark circles under her eyes; she went limp in his arms. Stefan glared at Mary, then carried his daughter to the car and installed her in her seat in the back, facing forward. He started the car, turned on the heat, and told her they would leave soon. By the time he turned around, she was asleep. He stepped out of the car again.
“She didn't nap,” Mary said.
“When are the police going to be here?” Stefan asked.
“I didn't call,” Mary said. “But if you leave before the girl's mother gets here, I will. I've got your plates memorized.”
Stefan folded his arms and leaned against the car. Snow covered the lawn, but there were footprints running through the front yard. It wasn't a bad street. Mary didn't come across as a bad person. Addie had probably been safe. More lights popped on overhead; they were bright, making each passing car look like it came from a showroom. Stefan got out his phone.
Where r u? He typed.
Out there, in the dark somewhere, her fingertips dancing lightly across the lighted keys.
She texted back: Home. Making dinner.
Something harsh and tight moved across Stefan's face.
He glanced at the car where Addie was sleeping. Please don't be like us, he thought.
He texted: How's our girl?
Tina: Sound asleep. Long nap.
What's for dinner? He typed, but held his finger over “send” without pushing.
“I think that's her,” Mary said. “She had a ride to her interview.”
Stefan looked up.
“I don't think there was an interview,” he said.
A white sedan approached. It slowed as it neared. It passed under the nearest streetlight, and Stefan saw a flurry of hands in the front seat. Tina's hands. A reflection caught her face. She sat in the passenger seat; a man with a short beard drove. Stefan had never seen the man before. The driver looked confused; Tina put her hand over her mouth and stared down at her lap, right where the phone must be sitting. Time seemed to slow. She looked up again.
Their eyes met, and without looking down Stefan pushed “send.” He held her eyes as the car passed directly in front of the driveway. Her face was blank, but then her eyes quickly shifted down. The message had arrived on her phone. It probably made that annoying sound of a passing jetliner. She looked up again; she held her bottom lip between her teeth. Then she was looking backward as they passed. Then she and her companion Doug were gone, the sedan was gone, and then it turned a corner, and Stefan and Addie were alone in the driveway and it was just as quiet as it had been before. Maybe more quiet.
He thought his body would snap in a million places. In all his figuring, all the models, this variable had never appeared, never been valued, never had a probability attached to it. His face felt cold within and without. This was his hurricane; his accident; his blindness; his paralysis; his forklift. This was the promise of risk, fulfilled; this was a claim. This was an act of God.
Stefan's phone vibrated.
Lasagna. See you soon?
I'll be home late. He texted. Don't wait up. He didn't know why he wrote back. After a hurricane, people don't come out of their houses and talk about the weather. He knew that the smart way to see a catastrophe was to look forward, press on, begin the reconstruction, but for a few more seconds he appreciated having a last tether to what had already been lost.
Mary sighed. Stefan had forgotten she was there. He looked at her, saw her breath escape her mouth and envelop her like a wall. She'd come out of the house and was wearing a coat over her knee-length dress, and clogs.
“I guess I'm a fool, after all,” she said, slapping her hand on her thighs and walking away, into the house. “No cops,” she called over her shoulder.
“Wait,” Stefan said. “Wait. What do I owe you?”
Mary turned around and shook her head. “You don't.”
“For taking care... For the door. I should pay you some money.”
“Please don't,” Mary said.
“For taking care of Addie.”
But that's how we know this happened, he thought. That's how we know.
Mary walked into the house, and the broken door slammed behind her, then bounced, then shut again, then bounced less, then shut quieter, then finally was still, half-open. Stefan, alone in the snow in the yard, slowly closed his wallet and returned to the car, where his daughter was sleeping. He leaned into the backseat and cupped her cheek in his hand. It was warm and soft, and she smiled in her sleep.
Stephen Ornes writes from a converted shed in his backyard in Nashville, Tenn. His work has also appeared in One Story, Arcadia, Vestal Review, the New Haven Review, and elsewhere. Visit him online at stephenornes.com.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: I worked for a short while at a reinsurance company in Stamford, Connecticut, and I drew details from that experience for this story. Unlike Stefan, the prodigious actuary and protagonist of my story, I was not particularly well-suited for the actuarial life. The idea for the plot came from events that unfolded while I was living in Connecticut: A mother posted fabricated stories of tragedy and loss on Craig's List, soliciting strangers to watch her children while she claimed to be looking for a job. I wondered: Where could that lead?
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: One Story, PANK, Glimmer Train.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I have three children and a full-time writing job, so writing fiction is done furtively and desperately, in small pieces, during time in-between other commitments.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm shopping around a science-fiction novel about the scientist who finds a pocket of dark matter embedded in the Earth's crust. I'm also working on a novel about an 18th century mathematician.