We had a tradition, in our shabby college apartment. There a single blank wall inside, stretching from one bedroom door to the next – maybe eight feet in diameter – with an ugly metal utility box to the side. We liked to hide this wall in creative ways: with a tapestry, then another, then a holiday ensemble, complete with cut-outs or wrapping paper or whatever matched the occasion.
The latest occasion was St. Patrick’s Day, but it was stretching toward mid-April. Easter was approaching. Maybe we would have time to decorate for it. Maybe not. Finals were also approaching, and we were all beginning to wear thin with the stress. Still, the wall had rapidly become an annoyance to walk by. It stood almost mocking – like a reminder of the past I was trying to forget. I wanted to take it down.
I started with the sparkly green clovers, artfully tilted together at the center of the wall. They were made of construction paper, and the first one ripped when I tried to peel it off. I carefully undid the back taping, trying not to tear the decoration further. Maybe I could re-use them next year. The decorations had cost a pretty penny, more than I could afford at the time. I didn’t regret the purchase, though.
I remember putting the whole thing up a few hours before our party was to start, with my roommate crying in her room about her latest worst-thing-in-the-world-of-the-week. She was like that. It was always one thing or the next, this or that. Right now, it was a speeding ticket. I could never understand the logic – how someone could get fed up about something so minor as a speeding ticket. I wish I had the luxury of worrying about details like did.
I went back to work, slowly taking the clovers down until only the center strip of the wall faced me. It was bruised and ugly in spots, and I remembered why we wanted to cover it up. It wasn’t so bad from far away, but close-up I could see all the dirt and stains.
My eyes trailed the pattern forehead level dents, created that one time my friend Nick drunkenly attempted to handstand against the wall. As the dents indicate, it hadn’t gone so well. I remember laughing though – genuinely laughing – unlike the forced smiles exchanged these days. No. In that moment, we were still best friends. In that moment, we were happy.
Next, it was time to rip down streamers – alternating shades of light and dark green. The streamers wouldn’t be worth storing, so I threw them away.
I remember Nick playing with them at a pre-game a few weeks earlier. Twisting them up as tight as he could without breaking the strands, then watching them come apart. I had been leaning against the wall, casually observing his work, when he turned to me.
“Promise me we’ll stay best friends forever,” he had said, his eyes suddenly wide and serious, without the casual laughter they had held before. He got like this when exceptionally drunk – all mushy and sentimental – and the best thing to do was humor him.
“Nothing could tear us apart," I remember replying. I remember meaning it too.
All in all, the wall took around two hours to put up and around twenty seconds to strip down. Back to where we started, just me and the ugly white. Pink splotches decorated the barren mess too, along with the handstand dents and dirt and stains from God-knows where. The whole thing was imperfect and gross; I already wanted it gone. We didn’t even own the apartment, and would probably have to pay for damaged paint or whatever.
Something about the wall bothered me though, in a dark, disturbing way. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but the disgust ran deeper than the unsightly appearance or reminder of impending paint fees. The wall looked mocking almost, laughing like it knew its stains had ruined the appearance. Like it knew just how much it bothered me.
I ordered a new tapestry a day later, a fading pattern to different shades of blue. We hadn’t hung blue on the wall before, and the thought made me happy. Blue was comforting. Blue was new. Blue would be here in approximately ten to fifteen business days. All I could do was wait.
Meanwhile, the wall was becoming worse. I began to avoid it, when I could. I resided on campus most of the day, or spent my time in my bedroom, with it out of sight. The hard part was the in-between: those thirteen steps from my bedroom to the apartment door. I could handle those thirteen steps, at the beginning. Each day I would wake up and prepare myself to confront the wall. It became a battle.
As the days went on, facing the white got harder and harder. Sometimes I would lose to its hateful gaze. I cowered in my room instead – terrified – while trying to think of creative excuses to email my professors.
Sometimes the problem was getting back in. I would sit in our apartment hallways for hours on end, trying to build up courage. Occasionally I’d sleep in my car.
Throughout the wait, I tried to maintain normalcy. At least, as much as I could. Because I was not crazy. I know I sounded crazy, but I was not crazy. Okay? I needed new paint, not therapy. I just needed the wall gone. At the sixteenth day since ordering that new tapestry, I called the shipping company.
I remember hearing the words backordered and I remember hearing screaming. It was deafening; wretched and terrible, filled with vulgar words –
“FUCK YOU, YOU PIECE Of FUCKING SHIT, YOU DON’T CONTROL ME, YOU –“
“Ma’am? MA’AM. Is everything okay!?”
It was only when the police rushed in that I realized: I was the one screaming.
I think the incident scared my roommates, because they began treating me like I was breakable, like they were afraid to set me off. Whispers and hushed conversations, abruptly halting when I entered the room. Hesitancy before asking me questions. Words thrown around, like “trauma” and “PTSD” and “neurotic.” Things like that. They thought I didn’t notice.
They spread the word to our friends, though, because breakdowns make for juicy gossip. More than ever, I felt alone. Nick kept his distance, too. A part of me began to hate him for that – for not defending me after everything. So much for forever. Yet, through it all, I kept my promise to him.
My mom called earlier today, a week and a half later. I had not left my room for approximately three days. But I hadn’t wanted to worry her. So, when she asked how I was doing, I told her I was great. I didn’t tell her that I was failing three classes, because then she’d worry about my scholarship. I didn’t tell her that I felt empty, that the wall was killing me a little bit more every day. I didn’t tell her about that night or about Nick and how we were slowly falling apart. Maybe I should have. Maybe things could have changed.
Instead, I listen now from my bedroom as my roommates entertain friends in the living room. They have the stereo on – some throwback songs from when we were kids. I can’t tell how many people are here, but I can hear the excited chattering, the laughter. Their happiness seeps through the walls. My chest tightens.
I’m lying on my bed, too afraid to make a sound. God, what if they don’t know I’m here? What if they do? I can’t leave my room because of the wall, and even without it my sudden presence would make the situation too awkward.
I can feel my heartbeat rising. I pick out Nick’s voice from the rest. It hurts. Here all my once friends are, going about life like I never mattered in it. Maybe that’s harsh. Maybe it was my fault –
(Promise me you won’t go to the police. It was a mistake. If you care about me at all you’ll keep this to yourself. Please)
– maybe I should have been selfish. Maybe I should have never agreed to keep my mouth shut. Oh No. Maybe I never should have told Nick I’d keep my mouth shut.
I can feel my pulse through my throat. My hands are shaking and I feel trapped – I feel trapped and the world is closing in – my chest feels light and my head feels heavy and I can hear them joking outside my door, joking and having fun and it’s all too much and I can see him, I can feel the too long glance and that brush of cracked fingertips and I can see myself brushing it off like nothing at all –
Somehow I end up on my hands and knees. The world is silent except for my breath and the beating music of the pregame on the other side of my door. Don’t Stop Believing is on. I can hear the room singing it.
Don’t Stop, Believing, they chime. Hold on to that feelin’ –
It’s the end of the song, a crescendo to the final notes. Everyone is off pitch. I fall to my side, rolling to face the ceiling.
Streetlights, I hear. peopleeeeeee – they hold out the word, changing keys. It’s the last line, and then the room goes silent. I hear them shuffling around, gathering their things before heading to the bars. I continue to stare at the ceiling.
Ceilings are nice, I decide. They don’t get messed up and spilled on by people. They stay blank – the perfect white. Untouched by our human messes. Walls let us ruin them.
I feel calm, after they leave. Detached, almost. There’s a heaviness in my bones, like the apartment itself has faded into nonexistence. Like it all was just a dream.
But it wasn’t a dream. This was real. It was all so fucking real.
Mechanically, I feel myself standing, and I feel my blood pounding in my fingers. There’s ball in my chest, slowly churning hotter and hotter.
I walk over to the kitchen cupboard, and pull out a toolbox. My mom insisted we keep one, though we never used it. There’s a hammer inside, and I feel the weight of it in my hands.
I think of Nick. I think of our promises.
(Promise me you won’t go to the police.)
He’d been the one to find me. It was his house, after all.
(Promise we’ll be best friends forever)
Best friends. That’s what he introduced me as – his best friend. I remember the elation of hearing him say it. I had never had a best friend. But that’s what he told his dad we were. Best friends. I had a best friend.
I turn and face the wall. It truly was hideous. I look. I feel the hammer. The wall cracks like lightning, before I realize what I’ve done. The hammer lies on the floor.
It feels good, I realize, and then suddenly I’m attacking the wall, and metal is hard and adrenaline is flooding in and I can’t stop, I can’t stop I cantfuckingforget because I see them in the wall – I see Nick’s dad and I see him lock the door and it’s all so wrong and I see Nick and his face when he realizes what his dad did and I see those terrified eyes – itwasamistake it was a mistake please don’t tell the police it was a mistake –
(Take it, that's right, just like that, baby)
(Stoppleasestop PLEASEFUCKING STOP)
(SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH AND TAKE IT YOU GOD DAMN SLUT) –
And somewhere along the lines I’ve dropped the hammer because it isn’t enough and I need to feel this - I need him to feel this.
The wall is turning red on the edges of where I hammer it so I grasp onto a cracked part and rip because this fucker is coming down and there’s so much red – God, there’s so much red but I need to keep going I can’t stop going –
And the world begins to blur. I steady myself, and I blink. The apartment is silent again. The wall is a scarring of browns and cracked white, a midsize hole tinged with the scarlet. I can feel myself fading.
Through the hole, I see my bedroom. On my desk is a mirror, and I catch sight of my reflection. I see my features, the light hair, dark eyes. The too big nose. Somehow, these parts don’t add up to me. To who I am. I don’t recognize this reflection. I can feel something wet drip on the edge of my nails.
Maybe this is who I was once. Before Nick. Before the wall. But this girl is dead.
I feel a pull, dragging at my conscious. I close my eyes, and let it take over.
Steel and Me
Steel’s breath smells almost as bad as the air here, downwind from what used to be a city. Mine probably stinks just as much as the dog’s, but he never bitches about it so neither do I. We may not be Dorothy and Toto, but he and I get along.
That’s how long Steel and I have been here on the west side. We have the cellar to ourselves and so far we have avoided the roving gangs of Burners. Our nighttime searches have been a bust though. All we have to show is one dented gas can, a few rolls of masking tape and the batteries.
Hell, I should feel thankful for those.
The last pack of batteries I found bought me three hots and a cot at the Ref-Center across town. Of course those were the square nine-volts and these are only double-A’s, but they should still be worth a fresh meal and maybe a pair of socks.
There’s a Drift I met by the burn pits—I think her name is Doris, or Daisy... something stupid like that—but she says she has a half-dozen sports-bras stashed, that she managed to steal from somewhere. If it’s true and one of them fits, I might just swap her a couple batteries instead. Safer than going to the Ref-Center, and I’d love to be able to run without having to hold my chest. I don't care what anyone says, boobs are a pain in the ass.
The sun’s getting hot again. Midday temps are reaching at least 130 now. Luckily we’ve been riding out the worst of it here, two levels deep. The air is a bit staler down here, but the heat is manageable.
We’ll need to make a trip to the lake tonight; we are down to two canteens of water, and Steel has been panting a lot today.
The mutt knows I’ll give him my share if I have to.
One of the Noonas at the Ref-Center told me she heard we are supposed to get some relief from the heat as autumn begins, but I wonder. Whoever the genius was who fired up the HAARP array, stripped the cloud cover off most of the planet before they could shut it down. The only rain we’ve seen in months, has been in our dreams.
I pour a little water in my hand and let Steel lap it up before we settle in for a siesta. It’s the best thing to do when it’s this damned hot.
I come fully awake from my nap all at once, like always. It doesn’t pay to be only partially aware. I learned that the hard way last year.
“Come on, Steel. Let’s go see if the group under the library wants to trade some mostly clean tape rolls for a new book.”
At least I would have something to read that way.
I almost make the stairs, when Steel’s warning growl, low and almost non-existent, stops me in my tracks. He smells something, and now I can hear it. Someone is in the room above us. I gently slide the bolt back on my rifle, and check the chamber before re-locking it.
I love you, dog. Let’s see who it is.
I make my way quietly up the stairs with Steel at my heels, all but silent on the pads of his feet.
I stop in the stairwell below the level of the upper floor, and slowly raise myself up on my toes, just enough to see through the weak light beyond the doorway above. It looks like a pair of Burners, probably on a foraging patrol.
Shit, they aren’t even trying to be quiet... probably feel invincible.
They should have checked the building completely, before acting all at-home and cozy. I bet they don’t even realize there is another level below this one.
I put my left eye against the scope, my right trigger finger lying gently inside the trigger guard. Just as I thought. Two boys in Burner boots and jackets; they don’t even look old enough to shave. I guess that’s a problem they won’t ever have to worry about now.
I raise my left hand, all four fingers straight up in the air. I can tell Steel has frozen at this signal without even having to look. We are a good team, Steel and me.
I think you might have some fresh food tonight, dog.
With a single motion, I close my hand into a fist and then stretch my fingers out flat. Steel lowers himself to his belly, crawls past me up the last few steps, and slinks toward the doorway. He knows how to flush out his prey.
Steel lays in the doorway quietly and turns to look at me. I brace myself against the steps and sight in on Burner #1, across the room. The idiot is standing in a thin beam of sunlight.
Almost too easy.
Even easier to imagine he is one of the crew who raped me last year. They are all dead—thanks to Steel and a couple well-placed bullets—but the anger comes on anyway, strengthening my resolve.
A simple quiet tongue-click is Steel’s cue and he begins to whine. Very softly and non-threatening. His posture is relaxed and his tail is slowly thumping up and down. He has his ears lowered and if I know Steel, he is grinning his silly-dog grin at them as well. He knows how to do the sweet and innocent act better than any human.
“What the fuck was that?” The sitting duck in my sights turns to look toward the darkened doorway with a bit of panic in his voice.
Maybe these two have a little brains after all.
His partner sees Steel and proves how green he is, sealing both their fates. He walks over and bends down, muttering some kind of baby talk to the dog. I gently squeeze the trigger on my rifle, and as the sound of the shot echoes up the stairwell, his buddy’s head explodes into a fine red mist behind him—bits of brain and blood spraying out across the far side of the room. I throw the bolt back, ejecting the spent casing, and slam another round home into the chamber before the noise is even gone.
The look of shock on the second Burner’s face is almost comical, but doesn’t last long. Steel uncoils like a spring, and without making a sound, tears out the asshole’s throat. His body falls to the floor, and his feet actually spasm a few times before his brain registers his own death.
I wait a few minutes to make sure the sound of the shot hasn’t attracted any unwanted attention, then stand up and enter the upper basement. I gotta hand it to the Drift who sold me this ammo. He said it would pack a punch, and he was definitely on track.
I quickly search the bodies. The headless one was packing a pistol with a full clip, but his buddy, Mr. Dog Food, was only carrying a 22-caliber pellet gun. Big Bad Burners they weren’t. Pitiful wanna-be’s is closer to the truth.
This is a tough world boys, too bad you didn’t figure that out sooner.
Between the two of them, they did have three canteens, which I use to refill my own supplies. The one I shot also had a bag of jerky in his pocket, so it looks like maybe Steel and I will both have a bite of dinner.
I signal the dog to have at it, and as he fills his belly on the remains of the Burner, I head back down to pack up my duffel. They were probably loners, but just in case, I’d rather not be here if their friends do show up to mourn their stupidity.
Oh well... it was time to move on anyway. Slinging my rifle, I lift the duffel to my shoulder and join Steel upstairs. Together, we make our way toward ground level and the afternoon heat. I pat the new pistol tucked into my belt, and smile at the dog.
Looks like I have a bit more than just batteries to trade now, mutt. Let’s go.
(c) 2017 - dustygrein
She always liked how I did her laundry. Truth be told, I liked doing her laundry, too. I would guess at what she was doing by her laundry. I would look at the grass stains, the caked-on mud, and the mysterious bodily fluids and fantasize scenarios about what she did to get such soiling. She was busy. Always creating dirty laundry.
I would always smell her laundry, as much a part of the process as detergent or setting the length of the spin cycle. Ah, the spin cycle.
Even the nefarious stains, each with their own tell-tale olfactory clues, could not mask away her own womanly scent. How would I describe it? Her scent is she. As real as the train approaching when you’ve been tied down to the tracks, yet as elusive as a unicorn. As much to do with the real world as a cloud, yet when I smell she, I smell life on Earth—evolution, foraging, mating, and natural selection. I smell the intangible of joy. Like the tesseract, it cannot be categorized within the limitations of mere human sensorium. It is victory, submission, defiance, conquest, and surrender all rolled into one.
It is she.
I lift one of her very personal items to my face and inhale deeply. I am with her when I do this. I am lifted; I leave, out-of-body, coasting on the pleasure of my forebrain. The second cranial nerve has allowed me to appreciate her beauty. The eighth cranial nerve has allowed me to harmonize to her song. But my first cranial nerve is a gift from God. Pheromones blow me into a singularity, all places and one simultaneously. I am drunk with her scent.
She. Just the word, with its digraphical phoneme…
Pheromones and phonemes. She. With its unvoiced fricative, my vocal chords don’t even vibrate until I get to the long ē. But it is worth the wait. It is when the angels join the chorus of my pleasure.
I sit atop the washer, sorting and smelling, separating and sniffing. When I think I have exhausted all of the odorifics contained thereon, I let it slip through the open door to join the others. The t-shirt with its musky tale of mammalian exertions. The scarf, sure to be ruined by the machine, with the alchemy of its man-made perfume concocting with the fragrance of she a bouquet of marriage between her and the rest of the world and all its wonders, not the least of which is the wonder of herself.
On second thought, I reach back in to retrieve the previous olfaction delight. I have not exhausted it, and I bask one more time in the fragrance of lovely, of feminine, and of implied symbiosis with me.
I appraise her other clothing, piece by piece. The bend of her knee here, the flex of her elbow there. Pivots that separate her sinews and pumping muscles. Rhythmic tightening and relaxations, glistening with the thinnest layer of moisture that sparkles magically on her faint hair. Bodily functions contained within a working model of woman, sculpted from fulfillment. I dream of these sinews and pumping muscles atop myself, and both of us atop this very washing machine. Machinations and machines come together today because it is wash day.
I reach for a towel. It is a heavy towel and it is not even dirty. It will conflict with the delicates; it will upset the balance of the rotation. It is on purpose: I want an uneven load. I place a detergent packet into the machine, to wipe the slate clean, to start over, to deliver to me the next generation of sensory enchantments. I push the right buttons.
The machine is an old one. It is not level, again, on purpose. I can feel the warmth on my bare buttocks as it begins its cycle of operation. I become aroused. If she were to walk in now, she would see it plainly.
She knows the game. She enters and feigns surprise, then outrage. She approaches me tenuously, testing each step as she does. Her livid expression undergoes devolution into one of lust. The machine is rumbling in its excitement. My arousal becomes stronger, crying for help. She disrobes, letting her things drop methodically and silently to the floor, staring into my eyes the entire time. Sex isn’t with genitals, it is with the brain.
It is with the soul.
She wants to join me during the machine’s excitation phase. Nude, a word that only portrays beauty, is not correct; she is naked, the better word, because it is the name that promises action. She steps up on a footstool and then throws one leg over my lap. Next she is sitting on top of me, insertion completed in one fell swoop. Deftly. I am surprised at her moisture. Again, the wrong word. She is wet, the name for love.
In the next phase of the machine’s cycle, there is a plateau during which it maintains a continued churning agitation. My anticipation builds, as we await the next phase. The thin layer of moisture on each of us is now the only thing between us. Alternating movements and alternating current both conspire to initiate in each of us the next phase of the cycle. The machine pauses. It is a spinal pause in us, as well, like that one moment on the roller coaster where the chain that drags the cars up the first and highest hill disengages in preparation for the headlong rush into the lake of adrenaline below. Chink, chink, chink, chink…then… the moment for which I have waited.
The spin cycle.
My friend, the heavy towel, creates the uneven load. The bespoke footpads, upon which the machine sits unevenly, partner with the towel. If the water-filling of the machine was the excitement and the agitation the plateau, the spin cycle is our climax. Woman and man and machine are one, as centripetal battles centrifugal and undulation and reciprocal pumping become cohorts. And that smell, she, wafts up to engulf us. Not just she, however, but us.
The spin reaches its peak as do we, and once again I am submerged within muscles and sinews and soul.The machine is frantic, the woman is ravenous, and the man is desperate. The sum greater than the addition of the parts.
There is a physiological reckoning in us when the machine now experiences its final phase, its spin down. It is a resolution, as we collapse in our own spindown. When all of the torque is spent, so are we. All is quiet—woman and man and machine.
I look down to regard the clothing she had removed before. I look back up toward her and she smiles.
“Very dirty clothes,” I say to her. They promise another laundry day.
Psychopaths in Love
I hadn’t seen my ex in two months. We didn’t break up because we didn’t love each other enough. In fact, we loved one another too much to a point where it was ruining our lives. Our independent mental issues could not coexist: my narcissism and his sociopathic personality. Our lack of attention to ourselves was devoured by our constant desire to please one another, and that doesn’t work for a narcissist or a sociopath. I needed constant attention, and he needed to worry about what made him happy. Without the ability to feed our psychosis, we were miserably in love.
Stewart e-mailed me on December 21st. “In Case the World Ends.” I had been out getting drunk with my best friend, Krista and being lavished with endless drinks and shots that were bought for me by admirer after admirer. I had gotten my fix; my ego had been fed. Then my phone buzzed, and I saw that I had a new e-mail. Assuming it was one of the many casting directors looking for me to star in their films, I eagerly opened it. And my heart stopped. After two months of no communication, he still had the ability to stop my heart, causing it to defy gravity and float into my throat.
I looked at Krista, and she saw the panic in my eyes. Prone to anxiety, she asked if I was having an attack. I couldn’t speak, so I handed her my phone. The wideness of her eyes quickly matched mine, but the fear and excitement and anger and elation were not there. Just like that, with the sight of a familiar e-mail address, I was already hopelessly his again. I didn’t even need to read what it said.
He opened up with a lightly humorous, yet I-know-you-way-too-well segment:
I have been trying to think of what I wanted to say for a while. I also have been thinking about what you'll say back…I've come up with:
a. I don't care.
b. Fuck you
c. fuck yourself
d. all of the above
I instantly thought of my response. D. All of the above.
He knew that I’d be defensive, but he’s also smart enough to know that A, B, C, or D were not how I was really going to feel. He ended his letter with the following:
Fuck it. I thought I was supposed to marry you and be with you and I don't know if I wrote this for you but I needed to write it. I told you I'm never going to not love you and that’s true. But we made each other miserable. I know I'll see you again so rather than just get into some huge fight where I say all this, I'd rather say it now. And if you're with a guy if I ever see you I am going to kill him…so make sure you don't like him.
He was supposed to marry me? Neither of us believed in the idea of marriage, yet somehow him saying this made me believe it was what I had wanted all along. He had always had this ability to incept me—to make me believe I wanted something that I never even thought about. He made me think I was wrong, made me feel like our faults were my faults. He had this way of keeping me just loosely attached to a string, so fragile that I was afraid to stray. I would be completely done with him, and he’d tell me I was beautiful, tell me he loved me, compliment me, and my narcissistic ass would be cuddled right back into the crevice between his curled legs and stomach.
He sealed the deal with violence. Aggression and assertion are sexy. He said he would kill a man simply for being the object of my affection. His jealousy turned me on. Stewart’s hatred for a potential suitor other than himself made me want to find a handsome man and introduce them to watch his reaction—to get off on it. His need for me made me want him. I knew, from the first e-mail, no matter how much I denied it, that I would be seeing him. I would do whatever it took to see him, regardless of time, space, or legality. I would chop down anything in my way, like a prince trying to find the tower where his princess awaits. Stewart was my princess; I’m the destructive one.
It took Stewart two days to convince me to drive to Connecticut to see him. He was relentless, as usual. When he wanted something—needed something—he would do anything in his power to get it. He needed to see me. He needed to look at me and touch me and know that I was still real. That I was still his. That we still belonged to each other, even if we weren’t together. He promised me a typewriter, a book by Bukowski, a bottle of whiskey, and money for gas, and I was sufficiently bribed.
When I pulled up in my black Honda Civic—an impulse buy when men were giving me their money to flirt with them and serve food—he met me at the door. I felt awkward and stupid, and I told him I didn’t want to be there anymore. And in usual Stewart fashion, he told me to shut up, and I followed him up to his room.
We talked about books and stories, a safe place for us. We’re both writers. Books are easy; we read a lot of them. He told me about what he’d been reading. He showed me his new tattoo: a Bukowski quote. And I called him a copy cat because I already had one from Bukowski. Secretly, I liked the idea that he was forever imprinted with a quote from my favorite author, a constant reminder of me. We were tied together through permanent ink, permanent love. Feelings that, albeit annoying, still refused to go away.
It took a second of silence. He looked at me, just for that one, solitary second, and he was kissing me. I pushed him away, rather feebly. He ignored my protests because he knew I didn’t mean them. It’s not fair how well he knows me, inside and out, physically-mentally-emotionally. I cried, tears of fear and rage and an accepting sadness. He held onto me, painfully tight, tears in his eyes, feeling his stupidity and weakness.
Then we gave in. We gave into desire and lust and love. If we weren’t inside of one another within seconds, our worlds were going to spontaneously combust. We would stop breathing, stop living, and die right there, half clothed on a broken beige couch.
I didn’t notice that he pulled my pants off inside out, that he had stretched out my sixty dollar Victoria’s Secret bra. I ripped at his belt with one hand, while I ripped at the skin on his back with the other. I bit him, clawed him. I was angry with him. He reciprocated by pulling my hair, grabbing me by the throat. He choked me inches from consciousness. And I liked it. We liked it. We liked this pain that was easing the stabbing of our hearts. The more he hurt me, the more I knew he needed me.
He was inside of me. He was pushing into me, and if he stopped, a bomb would be triggered. We would blow up. The little box would be activated, red numbers would begin a count down, and it would be the end of us. Once the sex ended, it would be the end for us too. We couldn’t let it end.
He spotted the belt on the floor, and without stopping, he tied my wrists tightly, cutting into my thin, pale skin. My eyes widened with excitement. I smiled a smile that only the insane can express. We looked into each other’s eyes, crazed, glazed over with tears and desire and a hypnotizing power that we held over the respective person. He needed to break the spell. He released.
I panicked. I needed him back inside of me. Where are you going, where are you going?! But he returned. He always returned. This time, with a straight razor in his hand. I wasn’t scared. I thought he might kill me, and I didn’t care. If I were to die at any moment, by the hand of any man, I wanted it there, and I wanted it to be him.
I was still tied up, and he remounted me. He stabbed into me as he stabbed the sharp end of the razor to my neck. I lifted my thin neck, urging him to push harder, to continue on, to cut me. Hurt me, I dare you.
I love you and I hate you, he said to me.
I think you may actually want to kill me.
He smiled, and I knew he was contemplating it. He’s agreeing with my statement. Still, I wasn’t scared.
As the razor kept slicing at my throat, he kissed me. It was a hard kiss, a kiss that said I need to be closer to you. I need to be deeper. I need you to open your flesh and let mine in. I tried to do this for him, to tear myself open for him, to help him tear at me. I pushed harder into him, I wrapped my tied arms around his back, and I fucked him. I let him fuck me. I fucked with a hungry need for something lost. If he dug deeper into me, maybe we’d find it.
I wanted to come at the same time. If we did it together, we were in sync. We didn’t need to ask the question. There was no oral communication. Our bodies spoke. And when he came, my body accepted his semen as a part of me. I wanted to keep it locked up in my little box forever. I clenched my thighs around his hips. I seized and moaned, and my eyes rolled back. He yelped like a man getting into a pool of water that’s too hot. His hips pumped awkwardly and without control. He dropped the razor. I tore out of the leather belt. I held him inside of me as we both reached ecstasy. Then we lay there, statuesque, in our wet sin.
The moment was frozen, and the night was not allowed to end. He took my small, naked body into his arms, and I felt empty. I felt like he had taken all of me, and there was nothing left for myself. I cried for my loss. I accepted that I was his, regardless of my displayed independence. And he just held me. He held onto what was his, refusing to ever let it go again, even though he knew that it didn’t matter. Even if he let me go, I’d come back. And even if he disappeared forever, I’d still be the urging voice inside of his head, the love that he couldn’t escape. The woman who took the soul he never thought he had.
There’s no escape for two psychopaths in love.
A Lady’s Fable
Lottie Sutherland first met the satyr at the little Super Valu down the road from her apartment building. She was in the breakfast aisle picking out a cereal when the noisy clip-clop of cloven hooves sounded nearby. Her mouth hung slightly open as she looked up to take in the features of the tall goatlike deity approaching her.
"Hello, my little nymph," said the satyr, with a hungry grin.
Lottie's reluctant mouth worked to find coherent syllables with which to reply. "H-have you mistaken me for someone else?" she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
The horned head shook back and forth. "Most assuredly not. Why are you so surprised?"
Licking her lips, Lottie clutched a box of Cheerios in front of her as a shield while she considered a response. "Well... for one, aren't you supposed to be... male?" Her eyes flicked up and down.
The satyr laughed, a musical sound composed of rich alto notes. It looked down at itself, and lifted both hands to weigh its heavy breasts like ripe fruits. The nipples were flushed a deep raspberry colour, and contracted to excited little peaks. Next, it slid its hands down its toned belly, and combed its fingers into the thicket of auburn curls that began below its navel and continued all the way down to those cloven hooves. At the apex of the thighs, gentle folds of flesh were just visible beneath the fur. Not a phallus to be found.
"What I am supposed to be," said the satyr, "is exactly what I want to be. Or, perhaps more accurately, what you want me to be."
"Me?" Lottie whispered. She held the Cheerios box in one hand now while her other hovered before her mouth in a demure posture. "I'm sure you must be mistaken. I'm just here for groceries."
That rich, smoky laugh sounded once more. The satyr stepped closer to her, close enough that they could smell one another. The satyr smelled of earth, wine, and sweet clover. Dumbstruck, Lottie adjusted her glasses and studied the strikingly upturned eyes. The pupils were ever so slightly elongated in a horizontal direction, and the colour around them was rich amber transitioning into green around the outer edge of the irises.
"Sweet thing," the satyr purred, reaching out to tuck Lottie's hair back behind her left ear with one delicate middle finger. "You have so much to learn."
Lottie held her breath at the touch, which left behind tiny tingles that danced and crawled around and into her ear, triggering a shiver.
"Think of me later," the creature whispered next to her tingling ear.
Lottie squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them again, she was alone in the breakfast aisle. By the time she'd dropped the sunny yellow cereal box into her cart, she'd already forgotten the encounter.
While she waited in line at the checkout, she thought she heard a faint clip-clop somewhere nearby, triggering an elusive moment of déjà vu. She felt a tickle just behind her left ear that made her gasp and shiver. The fifty-something man ahead of her in line turned to give her a curious look.
"Goose walk over your grave?" he asked, smirking.
"That must be it," Lottie replied with a nervous chuckle.
* * *
Lottie's cheek was mashed against a pillow she was sure hadn't been washed in months as she submitted to the vigorous pounding, her round behind stuck up in the air the way Tony liked it. The sex wasn't super horrible, she supposed. At least it didn't hurt anymore. Although it was probably a bad sign that she was thinking more about his pillow than his dick. In fact, she was thinking of pretty much everything but his dick. Was she bored? Had she simply had enough of sex? Did Tony just really suck at it, or did she?
"Ughhh, take it, whore, take it!" Tony grunted as he hammered a last few strokes and then pulled out to finish all over her backside before flopping out beside her to catch his breath.
She sighed--was it relief?--and rolled over, her back to him. She waited silently for him to say something to her, something boyfriend-y. Something that showed he cared the slightest bit about her enjoyment. She'd never climaxed during intercourse, and she'd given up hope that she ever would. Lottie did enough reading to know that it wasn't so uncommon for women not to orgasm from penetration, but was it also uncommon for guys not to have much interest in pleasuring their women? Didn't she deserve to get as much out of sex as he did? Every time she tried to talk to him about it, somehow he ended up making her feel like she was silly to even bring it up, or like any problem was her problem, so she hadn't even tried in months. Lately she was feeling consumed by ennui. Something had to change. Maybe she needed to break it off with Tony. Or maybe she could at least try to improve things a little.
"I've asked you before not to call me a whore," she whispered.
He patted her back clumsily. "Sorry, Char. You know I forget shit sometimes in the heat of the moment."
She released another sigh. Did he really not notice how unhappy she was? Or did he just not care? "Tony... I sort of wish you'd give me a little more attention," she ventured in a small, meek voice.
"Attention?" he repeated dumbly. "How is sex not attention? I could be alone fucking my Fleshlight. Instead I'm with you."
Was that supposed to be a compliment? Lottie took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts and her courage. She'd never been good at talking about her needs, about her wants. But the longer things went on like this, the less she wanted to care about upsetting others. Didn't she deserve the same things happy, sexually satisfied people had? Whenever her friends got together and gossiped about their sex lives, she always chimed in, but mostly she ended up pretending.
"Tony," she tried again, curling up into a fetal ball, "maybe you could help me finish...? No offense, but you don't seem to put in much effort."
Tony was silent for a few moments. "I don't know how to even process that," he finally replied, an edge creeping into his voice. "No offense to you either, but when you're just lying there looking bored and taking it, I don't get how you think I'm the one failing to put in effort."
Well, maybe he had a point. Lottie chewed the inside of her cheek and debated with herself. Usually this would be the point that she'd just give up. Tonight, she decided it was time to stand up for herself: "I'm kind of thinking more like, caring about me getting more out of it," she continued. "I want to get off too."
"You know best how to take care of yourself, Char," he sighed. "I mean, you gotta understand where I'm coming from here--honestly, most of the time it seems like getting you off is like trying to crack a safe. I have no fucking clue how to go about it, and every time I think I'm close, you lose it, or my hand gets tired, or whatever."
"Um... well, do you want to lick me a little maybe?"
Tony made a disgusted noise. "Maybe if you had a shower first. I just jizzed all over you. Maybe that's some guys' thing, but I don't really want to be sucking up my own load."
"Oh, forget it!" Lottie snapped, suddenly beyond frustrated. She sat up, kicking blankets aside and grabbing her glasses from the bedside table. She wanted to be done with Tony, and his dick, and his gross bed. She wanted to be done with all of this. "Forget it, Tony. I'm done. I'm really, really done." She grabbed an undershirt from his floor and used it to clean herself up before flinging it down again.
"God, fine!" he muttered. "Maybe get yourself a little vibe or something for next time."
She let her forehead drop into her hand. "No, you don't get it. I'm done done. With all of this. With you."
He sat up and glared at her, baffled and clearly pissed off. "You fucking kidding me, Char? You're gonna dump me because you're impossible to sexually satisfy?"
"I'm impossible?" she burst out, glaring back at him as she wrestled herself into her bra. "Maybe it's you who's the problem!"
"Oh, I guarantee you I'm not the problem," he shot back, sneering. "I can give you the names of at least half a dozen chicks who've screamed my name while riding this," he grabbed his penis by the base of the shaft and wagged it back and forth, "and I didn't need to jump through hoops for them!"
"Oh, that's classy," she replied acidly, working her limbs brusquely back into the rest of her clothes. "Well, feel free to go find one of your fake shrieking sluts then if you just want to feed your ego. I'm getting out of your life right now, and good riddance!"
"Yeah, back at you!" Tony snapped. "And just FYI, you're a cow. Good luck."
Lottie paused a moment, staring back at him as her eyes began to blur with tears. Tony was hot, and built, and he'd actually been really sweet at times. But there were some moments in life one really learned a person's true colours. She couldn't believe she'd wasted nearly a year on this asshole. With a huff, she ran her fingers roughly through her hair and turned to leave his bedroom.
"Try not to stomp so loudly, fatass!" he shouted after her. "My downstairs neighbours are gonna complain about the floor shaking!"
She took a deep breath to yell something horrible back at him, but it would have been pure immaturity. Moreover, he'd hit too close to home and she didn't trust her voice not to waver. There was a time when Tony would boisterously sing "Baby Got Back" at her while gyrating his hips, and as obnoxious as it was, it made her laugh and feel desirable. It made her feel like her curves might be something sexy that turned him on, rather than a drawback. Now she wasn't a girl with "great assets" anymore--she was just a "fatass".
Lottie left his apartment building for the last time and boarded a bus for home, taking a seat well apart from any other passengers, in case she couldn't hold in her tears.
At the next stop, an elderly lady wearing a plastic rain bonnet slowly boarded, and behind her, a tall, goat-legged deity. The lady sat just behind the driver, while the satyr clip-clopped down the centre aisle until it had reached Lottie, and took the seat directly next to her. Lottie hadn't given the satyr a moment's thought since the cereal aisle at the Super Valu this morning, but now, as she stared down at the furry knee bumping against hers, she found it very familiar. She inhaled the scent of earth, wine, and clover, and shivered.
"You smell of sex," the satyr remarked. Its nostrils twitched.
Lottie's cheeks burned. "I need a shower ASAP."
The satyr leaned closer to her and inhaled deeply. "Smells like he had sex on you instead of with you."
By this time, she imagined her cheeks were the colour of overripe strawberries. It was true enough, but she could make no reply.
"Why do you not take your pleasure as you will, my little nymph?"
Lottie's nervous eyes flicked up and down the bus. No one else seemed to be noticing the naked and incongruously feminine horned deity sitting next to her. "Once again, I'm sure you're mistaken. I'm not a nymph."
"I am never mistaken when it comes to beautiful maidens," said the satyr, smiling wide enough to show teeth that no natural human had.
Lottie released a short, sharp noise, the distant cousin of a laugh.
"You doubt your beauty," the satyr noticed. "Is that why you allowed that man to take his pleasure and leave you unsatisfied?"
With a little gasp, Lottie looked up, meeting those dramatic amber-and-green eyes. Her first instinct was to protest. Despite how she'd ended things with Tony, she didn't want to believe the situation was as grim as the satyr had bluntly stated. Maybe it was that word "allowed" that was digging at her. Nearly a year with Tony, and the physical side had always been unbalanced. She could blame Tony, but for all those months, she had allowed it, and that truth was difficult to face. It shone the light of responsibility on her. Certainly she had made her feeble attempts to speak up for herself now and then, but too quickly she'd given up and told herself that she was lucky just to have someone who wanted her body. You fold like origami, her friend Melanie had quipped on occasion. How mortifying to find out how true that was, now that she could look at her relationship with Tony through the clear lens of retrospect.
"I guess I really didn't think I could do any better," she whispered.
"My dear, sweet nymph," the satyr purred. "You can have the world if you only accept that you are worthy of it."
"But I don't want the world," Lottie protested. "I want... I just...." She broke off, even now hesitating to speak her desires aloud.
"What do you want?" the satyr urged. Its smile widened, once more showing too many teeth. "Say it!"
"I want... to be happy. I want to... enjoy..."
Lottie's tongue was frozen for a few tense moments. "Sex," she finally whispered. "My body!"
"Yesss," the satyr exhaled next to her ear, spurring a shiver. "It is an exquisite body, worthy of worship."
Lottie leaned away from the deity and looked down at her lap, making a skeptical noise. "I think you're in the wrong era," she mumbled. "It's been a few hundred years since a body like mine has been idealized."
The satyr responded with its characteristic smoky chuckle. "I speak of worthiness, nymph, not of a culture's fleeting aesthetic whims. You have fallen for a classic fallacy if you believe the two are the same."
Worthiness. Lottie sighed and looked up to gaze out the window. Billboards swept by, advertising clothing stores and beauty products, each of them featuring tall, willowy models with cheekbones and hipbones that stuck out. Who decided what worthy was? How could she be convinced of her own worth in a society that told her each day in a hundred subtle ways that she didn't fit?
"It starts in you, nymph," the satyr said, as if she had uttered her question aloud. "Not in the eyes of others."
Rolling her eyes, Lottie heaved another sigh. She'd been hearing confidence is attractive all her life, and of course, that old you-have-to-love-yourself-first chestnut. She was going to say something about it being easier said than done, but once more, the satyr spoke first:
"Think of me later."
The whispered words filled her ear with familiar tingles. When she turned, the seat next to her was empty, or almost so. There was a postcard-sized flyer lying there, advertising a temporary exhibit at the local art museum: Rubenesque. Lottie picked it up and gazed at the central image, a small print of Peter Paul Rubens' Leda and the Swan. The titular Leda was depicted as soft, pale, and curvaceous. She was thick around the hips and thighs, with dainty hands, feet, and breasts. Her round bottom almost seemed to be the focal point of the painting, somehow even more attention-grabbing than the large swan that seemed to be forcing itself on her.
"Baby got back," she whispered to herself, and smirked, slipping the flyer into her purse. She had no memory of anyone sitting next to her.
* * *
In the hopes of shoring up her damaged ego, Lottie contacted two of her closest friends and arranged to spend some time with them. Melanie and Chloe were sweet and treated her like a princess in her time of need, bringing her ice cream, brushing her hair, and taking her shopping. Still, she felt a sense of overall disconnect, and couldn't seem to place it. She could find no fault with how her friends doted on her, but she continued to feel the same sense of underlying ennui that had plagued her during her relationship with Tony. Sexual frustration might have been part of it, though late at night in her bedroom alone, she had a fairly decent time with her own fingers for company. She pleasured herself with almost spiteful enthusiasm, as if to disprove Tony's claim that she was "impossible". She was, in fact, extremely possible. It wasn't rocket science.
She told her friends only in the vaguest sense her reasons for walking out on Tony. She didn't discuss the sex issue in detail. As bad as she felt for never being open and honest with them about her problems, she still didn't feel quite comfortable telling them how little she'd been enjoying her sex life.
The shopping trips with her friends were bittersweet. She appreciated the attention as they handed her outfit after outfit to try on, and exclaimed over how pretty she looked, but she couldn't help but feel as if no matter how well-meaning Mel and Chloe were, she still didn't fit in. They were the sort of girls who were thin and pretty and had always gotten lots of attention from boys, the sort of girls you kind of wanted to hate but they were so nice you felt bad for even thinking so. Lottie worried at times she was just faking being one of them, and that she didn't belong in the sorts of stores they took her to. Sometimes she would put on a cute top or a dress and when she faced her reflection in the mirror, an outfit that looked adorable even hanging on a drab hanger managed to devolve into a mere brightly-coloured sack on her frame. They just didn't make clothes to suit short, curvy bodies, and she felt disillusioned even as her friends sighed and gushed and told her she looked so gorgeous.
In the back of her mind she was still hearing cow and fatass.
* * *
She found the Rubenesque flyer in her purse a few days later, and made the decision to attend the exhibit by herself. Her own bodily resemblance to Rubens' Leda had stuck in her mind. It was possible she might find it empowering to immerse herself in an era when bodies like hers had been celebrated in nude paintings. She considered taking Mel and Chloe along, but she felt embarrassed at the thought of them knowing how much she craved this sort of empowerment.
Lottie went early on a Saturday morning, and tried not to pay attention to the fact that she seemed to be the only lone visitor, while the other attendees were mainly couples, or groups of friends. The paintings were a feast of flesh, all voluptuous curves inadequately swathed in barely-there scraps of drapery. Wide-hipped goddesses and other mythical ladies cavorted, lounged beneath trees, struggled in the grips of creatures or muscular men. Some were lovely, some amusing, some baffling.
One painting in particular seized her attention for reasons she could not understand. Hypnotized, she stood staring at it for at least ten minutes, unaware of the world around her. The painting, entitled Pan and Syrinx, featured one of Rubens' typical soft, full-figured ladies, accompanied by gravity-defying drapery, with which she was attempting to cover her loins in a demurely protective posture. The figure apparently attempting to access those loins was the horned, goat-legged deity known as Pan.
Lottie nearly jumped at the softly spoken syllable near her left ear. Tingling and breathless, she turned, mouth open, to see a tall, androgynous woman standing next to her, staring at her. The woman sported a lazy, unstyled mohawk, and the wavy brown hair tumbling across her forehead stopped just short of covering her green eyes.
"Sorry to startle you," the woman whispered, smirking. "You were standing so still, I was beginning to wonder if you were an exhibit."
Warmth spread across Lottie's face and neck. "Oh," she exhaled. Her eyes flicked over the woman, taking in her long, slender limbs, comfortably clad in what looked like men's clothing. Feeling obligated to make some response, she groped for something clever to say. "Well... I may be on the Rubenesque side, but... I don't think he ever painted glasses or jeans."
The woman chuckled. It was a rich alto sound. Still standing next to Lottie, she turned to face the painting. "It is a particularly fascinating one, isn't it?"
"It is," Lottie agreed, "but I can't put my finger on why."
"Did you know it's a collaborative work?" She waited until Lottie shook her head, and then elaborated: "Rubens painted the figures, and the background was done by Jan Brueghel the Elder. They were the two major painters around Antwerp in their time, both getting commissions from nobles and royalty. Instead of being in competition, they ended up being buddies, and collaborated on a number of occasions. Rubens also painted with Brueghel the Younger when the Elder passed away. In fact, I think they painted the exact same subject several years after this one."
Lottie raised her eyebrows and looked from the painting, to the woman, and then back to the painting. "Wow. I had no idea. Are you an art history professor or something?"
"Only voluntarily, to annoy my friends," the woman quipped. "I'm actually a software engineer. Art's just a side interest."
"Cool," Lottie breathed. She chewed on her plump lower lip and tried to coax up a more extensive response from the depths of her suddenly warm and fluttering insides. "Um... I'm a 'barista'." She released a cynical huff and rolled her eyes.
"Yeah? Where at?"
Lottie glanced up at the woman, who seemed genuinely interested. Dare she answer? If so, she'd be giving a stranger the means to track her down. Did she want that? Her gaze shifted back to the painting, to Pan's hand reaching past the tall reeds to grasp at the nymph's diaphanous garment.
"Sorry," the woman whispered before Lottie could respond, "I'm being nosy. Don't worry about answering that."
Smiling faintly, deep in thought and still contemplating Pan and Syrinx, Lottie said nothing.
"Pan's such a creeper," the tall woman remarked after another minute's silence. "Most of the time he seems to go after everything he can't have. Syrinx, yunno... she was known for her chastity. A legendary, stalwart virgin."
Lottie let a little more silence pass before replying, with another tiny smile, "What a boring life."
The woman stifled a snicker.
They moved onward as a twosome, unconsciously having paired up as the only two apparent loners visiting the exhibit. Morning drifted toward afternoon as they discussed each painting they paused to appreciate, and eventually they ended up at Leda and the Swan.
"This story cracks me up," Lottie's new companion whispered to her. "Do you know who the swan is?"
Lottie shook her head.
"It's Zeus. Fucking Zeus. Like, for whatever reason, the king of the gods thought the best way to seduce a beautiful woman was to dive at her as a huge bird."
Both women covered their mouths to hold back laughter in the quiet museum.
"Who knows why stories like this became so celebrated in art?" the woman mused once they'd calmed. "There are so many depictions of this one alone. Sometimes Leda's obviously being attacked by the swan, and in others she seems to be, like... snuggling it. What really gets me is, look at how many examples of this weirdness show up in paintings of this era, in comparison to actual human couples. It's like it was somehow more socially acceptable to depict a woman being fucked by a bird or some supernatural creature than by a man."
"That is super weird," Lottie whispered, smirking. The other woman's liberal tongue amused her yet made her blush, and she glanced around to ensure there were no innocent youngsters or disapproving staff present to witness it before letting her mind drift back to the art. After a minute's consideration of the many female figures in the paintings she'd been gazing at, her smile faded. "These poor women. They always seem to be either love goddesses, or some dude is trying to chase them down and force them to be his own personal love goddess."
"Hm, yes. Women as either objects of worship, or objects for consumption. Is our culture much different?"
Lottie arched an eyebrow, remembering the beauty industry ads she often saw sweeping past her while she rode the bus. "Good point."
These poor women. Realizing she'd looked upon the Aphrodites with the same compassion with which she'd regarded the Ledas and the Syrinxes made Lottie feel a vague sense of shame over how resentfully she always looked upon the willowy models in the ads.
"Really good point," Lottie reiterated once she'd given the matter some more thought. They silently moved onto the next painting, which was Venus at a Mirror. A plump blonde Venus gazed almost smugly out at the viewer through the reflection of her small mirror, held up by a young Cupid.
Lottie took a deep breath, feeling somehow more able to speak certain private, shameful thoughts to a stranger than to her friends. "I've always sort of... felt this vague bitterness toward women who look 'perfect', according to modern standards. Or maybe 'envy' is a better word. I've often thought, 'They must have things so easy. They're so lucky.' But... maybe that's not true."
The woman glanced down at her with a little smile. "No, I don't think they have things easy at all."
"I guess women on both sides of the spectrum deserve compassion for the way they're, you know, pigeonholed by society. Or would it be condescending to feel sorry for them?" Lottie cocked her head, studying the Roman goddess who, with her gaze, tacitly invited the world to appreciate her beauty. "If a woman wants to be a love goddess, more power to her. But the idea that any of us should feel railroaded either up onto a pedestal or down to consumable status is just not okay, either in the seventeenth century or the twenty-first."
The woman's smile widened. "Well, now who's the professor? Very well put."
Lottie blushed, and uttered a nervous laugh. "I thought I was just rambling. You're very kind." Her throat was starting to feel dry. She swallowed with effort as she worked up the courage to ask a question she ought to have asked at least an hour ago: "Um, may I ask...? What's your name?"
The woman stood up a little taller, her broad smile growing brighter. "Sure. It's Lo."
Lottie's eyebrows went up. She wondered if she'd heard right. "As in... low rider? Or like... lo-and-behold?"
"More the second one," Lo chuckled. "But more specifically, short for Dolores. I know, it's a craptacular name, and the nickname options are equally unthinkable. I would never be a Dolly or a Lola, and certainly not a Lolita. Ugh!"
Lottie nearly burst into giggles at Lo's dramatic cringe. "Sorry! It's just... you make amazing faces. But I totally get it. I hate my name too. It's Charlotte, but I go by Lottie."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with 'Charlotte', but Lottie works. It's cute. It's you. I can't pull off 'cute', but you..."
They shared a lingering smile.
It was well into the afternoon by the time the two women were ready to leave the museum. They lingered near the parking lot, finding any excuse to keep talking and avoid parting ways. Inevitably, a lull settled, and it was then that Lottie knew her time with the fascinating Lo had come to a close.
"So, are you parked nearby?" Lo asked after a few moments' silence had passed. She was shifting her weight from foot to foot, seeming restless, perhaps nervous. She pulled out her keys, letting them dangle from one hand.
"I take the bus," Lottie said, her tone almost apologetic for reasons that escaped her. "Being a yuppie coffee slave hasn't yet made me quite wealthy enough for a vehicle."
Lo nodded and pushed back her untidy fringe of hair with the hand that wasn't jingling her keys. "Okay. Well... listen. This has been a lot of fun, and... I'd actually... really like to take you to lunch. How about it?" Her eyebrows went up expectantly.
Lottie bit down on her bottom lip. It had been fun, and she didn't want to call it a day. Still, she hesitated. Was this a date? Was she being hit on? Maybe it ought to have been obvious, but she wasn't used to being a recipient of flirtation, especially from a woman, and was more inclined to believe she had misunderstood the situation.
"I should clarify," Lo said quickly, before Lottie could come to any conclusions, "I think you're amazing, and super adorable, and yes, I'm asking you out. But if you're not into that, I totally get it, and I'd at least like to be friends. I promise I won't be a creeper like Pan and try to chase you into a marsh or anything."
The reference brought a giggle from Lottie, though it was partially nervousness. She looked down at her shoes, a simple, comfortable pair of flats, and then at Lo's clunky, square-toed boots. "I should really head home," she concluded. "Sorry. I just... yeah." She swallowed, feeling ashamed of herself, but the situation now seemed like something she needed to hastily remove herself from.
"Okay, that's cool," Lo said, peacefully accepting even her incoherent non-explanation. "Well... I said I wouldn't be a creeper, so I won't insist on inserting myself into your life. But I could at least offer you a ride home...? I promise I'm not an axe murderer, but I suppose that's what they all say."
Lottie looked up and laughed again, enjoying the woman's charming personality, yet still feeling the need to flee. It was as if she had a bright red ABORT, ABORT, ABORT signal flashing inside her brain. "That's very kind, but I couldn't possibly. It was nice to meet you." She took a step back, hesitated, looked toward the bus stop, and then back at Lo.
"Likewise," said Lo, offering a smile that seemed to bravely carry a burden of disappointment.
Lottie turned to leave, but had to stop, and turn back again. "Dark Horse!" she blurted out. "That's the coffee house I work at. Dark Horse on Third."
Lo's smile brightened. "I know of it."
Mirroring her smile, Lottie gave a single nod. "I'm there... most weekday afternoons."
"Okay then. Maybe I'll see you around, Lottie."
* * *
When the satyr showed up next, Lottie shrieked. She was in the bathtub, and had just surfaced after dunking her head beneath the water to wet her long hair. She wiped her eyes, and there was the deity, sitting on the lid of her toilet, watching her. Lottie scrambled to cover herself feebly with a washcloth, though the satyr was just as naked as she was. The water, churning from her frantic movements, splashed over the edge of the tub, causing a couple of the candles she'd lit to fizzle out.
"I've startled you," the satyr remarked with a twitch of amusement.
"No shit!" Lottie huffed, barely able to find a voice after the shock. Her heart was hammering against her ribs.
"Profanity, from my little nymph?" chuckled the goat-legged creature. "Perhaps you are finally beginning to free yourself."
Lottie shot the satyr a baleful glare. "Why are you stalking me?" she exclaimed. She narrowed her eyes and curled up tighter in the bathtub, remembering the predatory creature reaching through the reeds to grab hold of Syrinx. "Are you Pan?"
The satyr cocked its horned head. "It is a complicated question that would require a complicated answer, but it's not important. You're curious about me when you ought to be curious about yourself."
"Why, pray tell?"
"Because you still deny yourself."
Lottie stared back at the creature, her mouth hanging open in a paralysis of confusion, frustration, and shame.
"You know of what I speak," the satyr added.
"Do you mean... Lo?" Lottie whispered. "I'm denying myself... her?"
The satyr grinned.
Lottie released a sharp huff. "Look, I just got out of a relationship. More importantly... I'm straight!"
The satyr stood abruptly and took one large step over to her, its heavy cloven hoof landing with a clop! Lottie nearly shrieked again as the creature leaned down over her, hooking a hand around the back of her neck, exhaling earth, wine, and clover into her shocked face.
"Think of me later," it breathed against her trembling lips, and pressed its mouth to hers with almost bruising pressure.
* * *
She was rushing into the school bathroom, holding back tears. Before reaching a stall, she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror. She was dressed in a Halloween costume that she'd been so proud of this morning, but now it embarrassed her.
A late bloomer, Charlotte was only now, at fifteen, starting to feel more like a lady than a little girl. At the onset of puberty she'd initially tried to hide her body as much as possible, embarrassed by the changes and wanting to deny them. These days, she was finding the confidence to want to be pretty, grown up, even a little bit sexy. Other girls wore things that hugged their bodies, causing boys to stare. She wasn't sure she'd want to dress that way, at least not all the time. This year, though, she'd been preoccupied with the musical "Chicago", and decided to dress as a Jazz Age flapper. She didn't wear a lot of dresses, but this one was short, showy, and emphasized her curves. She even wore makeup, pantyhose, and borrowed high heels, all of which were a little weird for her, but she liked what she saw in the mirror.
At school, her friends gave her compliments, telling her she looked amazing, and that she should wear makeup more. Then, during the party at lunchtime, a boy told her loudly that her dress was too small and that her butt looked like a pair of beach balls. Several other boys had laughed, and even a few girls.
So she was here, hiding in the bathroom to avoid crying in front of her classmates. Someone, however, had followed her, and was pushing into the stall behind her. At first she thought it was a boy, and she nearly screamed, but it was a girl.
Francine Glasser, better known as Frank, had dressed as a boy as long as anyone had known her, and was so openly lesbian that she was downright obnoxious about it. Frank had been a troublemaker with severe behavioural problems, was in a few "special classes", and had been suspended a few times for destructive and defiant behaviour. She flirted with girls aggressively, making obscene gestures and comments. Hardly anyone actually liked her, and Charlotte found her particularly annoying.
Today, Frank actually looked pretty good dressed as a classic gangster, complete with pinstriped zoot suit and fedora. Her plastic machine gun and cigar had been confiscated, but she'd stayed in character all day. Even now, Gangster Frank followed her into the bathroom stall with a determined swagger.
"C'mere, dollface!" Frank said in a dramatically deepened voice, grabbing her by her long string of plastic pearls. "Don't listen to them saps. Yer a real swell dame."
Charlotte hadn't seen it coming, but suddenly their mouths were mashed together. She wasn't sure if it was because of the compliment, her vulnerable emotional state, the fact that their costumes matched eras, or everything together, but that moment in the bathroom stall with Frank had felt absolutely perfect. The kiss had lasted at least a minute or two before they broke apart, breathless, hearing voices approaching.
"I'd better scram, doll," Frank said, backing out of the stall and wiping away the lipstick that had smudged from Charlotte's mouth onto hers.
"Will I ever see you again?" Charlotte had panted, immersed in the role.
"Not likely, sweetcakes. But hey... we'll always have the bathroom stall!" Frank tipped her hat and fled the bathroom just as some other girls were coming in.
* * *
Lottie bolted upright with a huge gasp, splashing enough of her bathwater to extinguish the rest of her candles.
What had just happened? She must have fallen asleep, she figured, and dreamed of a memory several years buried. She put a hand to her lips, which felt warm and tingly, as if that kiss she'd been dreaming of had just happened moments ago.
Lottie got out of the tub and dried off. As she went about her nighttime routine, she couldn't stop thinking about that kiss. It had been her first kiss, though she'd never told anyone her first had been a girl. After the incident, she recalled worrying that Frank would tell everybody, or that she'd suddenly have to be a lesbian, but instead things had gone back to normal. Frank barely gave her a second look, and wasn't even nice to her when they'd been forced to interact in class. Still, that one kiss in the bathroom stall while wearing Halloween costumes had been the most romantic and sexy experience of her entire adolescence.
At a naive fifteen, she'd found it hard to wrap her head around Frank's behaviour. Now she knew there had to have been reasons for it, sad reasons. Frank had probably had a rough home life, and been discriminated against enough that she'd felt the need to live out her sexuality as loudly and obstinately as she could. In retrospect, Frank had perhaps contributed as much to her early exploration of her sexuality as she had to her reluctance to explore it further. On some level, young Charlotte had made the assumption that if she was going to be into girls, she'd have to be like Frank, and she didn't want to be like Frank.
Lottie fell asleep that night pondering what her life would have been like had she never denied a certain part of herself because of the personality of one individual. She dreamed of Gangster Frank, of Lo, and of something with horns.
* * *
Monday afternoon at Dark Horse dragged on for Lottie. It was one of those nightmare work days that seemed as if it would never end. Sometimes Lottie just about had her fill of coffee snobs, and her "customer service smile" was beginning to wane by the time she'd finished with a shrill soccer mom's bafflingly complex, inexplicable beverage order. As she took a deep breath and prepared to push herself back into the fray, she came face-to-face with someone familiar who instantly inspired a genuine smile.
"So you've tracked me down," Lottie remarked, glancing over Lo's white Oxford button-down paired with a tie covered in tiny ones and zeroes.
"In my defence, you made it easy," Lo replied, grinning back at her as she leaned on the counter, making firm eye contact.
"Granted." Lottie couldn't stop staring. Her heart was pounding. "Cute tie, by the way. Impressively nerdy. It's binary, isn't it?"
Lo, nodded. "Everyone at my office thinks it's hilarious, but outside of work only one person in thousands gets it. It just says 'fuck' over and over."
Lottie snorted loudly as she tried and failed to keep her laugh inside, and glanced aside to see her supervisor giving her the stinkeye. "Um, okay, that's hysterical. But I should probably appear to be a professional now. What can I get for you?"
Lo just kept grinning, charmed by her snort. "I'd be happy with whatever you might recommend. What's your finest cup of coffee?"
"The Kenyan medium roast is the absolute best," Lottie said. "We do the roasting right here in house."
"Sounds good to me. I'll take a large. Bestow upon me the dark nectar of life, coffee goddess!"
Lottie held back more giggles as she completed the transaction. Feeling cheeky, she wrote "NERDY LESBIAN" on the cup. Lo received it with a delighted laugh and snapped a picture.
"Already this is my favourite cup of coffee of all time," Lo said, winking. "The place is a bit out of my way, but I like the quality as well as the service. You may have just won a new regular customer."
"Well, I'll let you get back to work. I might just stay a while, though. I'm liking the, uh... ambiance."
The "ambiance" had likewise improved for Lottie, with Lo tucked into a comfortable chair nearby, alternately watching her work, or playing with her phone as she sipped her coffee. Lottie's mood was soaring until her supervisor confronted her about what she'd written on the cup. She silently cursed whichever of her co-workers had observed her and decided to tattle. Her cheeks were aflame with embarrassment as she feebly embellished a tale of the customer being a personal acquaintance, and something about an inside joke. Though her explanation did not fully placate her supervisor, she escaped with nothing more severe than a scolding and an imperative to apologize to the customer for the inappropriate cup label. Lottie decided to wait until the end of her shift, which was, fortunately, only about fifteen minutes away.
At last, she was able to hang up her apron, wash up, and escape. Lo was still hanging out, and offered a broad smile at her approach.
"You were right--best cup of coffee in town," she reported, holding up her empty cup. "And I may just have to keep this."
"Well, about that... I'm supposed to apologize," Lottie sighed, rolling her eyes.
"For what?" Lo wondered. "Didn't I say I loved the service?"
"Yes, well... apparently what I wrote wasn't considered appropriate." She felt the blush return to her cheeks, although she could not keep back a tiny smile.
"Well, I am a nerdy lesbian, so I find it entirely appropriate. And now I want to keep this cup even more. Your job's not in any danger, is it?" She quirked an eyebrow.
"Oh, goodness, no," Lottie assured her. "My shift is over, though." She bit her lip and gazed up at the tall woman who now stood up to face her. "There's something I genuinely do want to apologize for, though. The way I sort of freaked out and ran off on Saturday."
Lo shook her head. "Really, don't be sorry. I was pretty sure you were straight, and I took a shot. You weren't unfair, and you weren't cruel. Honestly, if you call that 'freaking out', you should see how some other straight chicks react."
Lottie shrugged, and looked down at their shoes. She wore comfortable sneakers, while Lo sported suede wingtips below a pair of simple navy slacks. "Well... I was thinking. You could ask me again...?" Her eyes flicked back up.
Lo grinned and shuffled a little closer to her. "Lottie," she said in a near whisper, "may I take you to dinner tonight?"
"Yes," Lottie replied, "you may."
* * *
By the time Lo was pulling up to her apartment building to drop her off that night, Lottie was feeling unburdened, and more alive than she had in years. At first she'd felt ashamed at how easy it was to tell Lo everything about her life, but Lo made her feel she didn't have to be ashamed of a single thing. She gave a thorough account of her life, her friendships, and her dating history, up to and including the sordid details of Tony and his unwashed pillow. She even talked about her first kiss, and how Frank's off-putting personality had likely been the primary reason for her hesitance to pursue other same-sex relationships for years afterward.
Lo had soaked up everything she had to say with seeming thirst, empathizing with her without laying on the sort of excessive coddling she'd gotten from her friends after her breakup. In turn, Lo shared plenty of her own history, from early explorations to her liberal college years and a brief experiment with bisexuality that was so ill-advised and so awkward that they both giggled over it, to recent years, her desire for fulfillment and stability, and her struggle to find someone she connected with who didn't just bring a heap of unwanted drama into her life.
It seemed backwards, but they had started with serious, intimate subjects and, toward the end of the night, worked their way back to lighter matters.
"...she orders a half-caff, half-sweet, extra-hot, one-third nonfat, two-thirds soy vanilla latte with--brace yourself--two percent foam. Talk about your special snowflakes! I genuinely suspect she derives sadistic pleasure from being an utter nuisance to anyone obligated to serve her."
Lo gaped at her account of the coffee order for a few moments before forming her hand into shape of a pistol and miming shooting herself in the head, complete with sound effects.
"Basically," Lottie agreed, giggling.
"You must have the patience of a saint," Lo remarked. "Or maybe I'm just not built for customer-service-oriented work. If it'd been me, she'd have gotten two percent spit."
"Gross!" Lottie laughed, giving her a light shove.
Lo pushed back, joining her in her laughter. "What, you have a problem with my spit?"
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose it comes down to context."
The two stared at each other, suddenly calm and silent, though both still smirking. Abruptly, they both burst out laughing again. Lottie felt heat flood her cheeks and neck. This stage of a first date was always nerve-wracking, though she didn't feel nearly as vulnerable as she normally would. In one evening she'd shown more of herself to Lo than she had to any boyfriend or even her closest friends. Instinctively, she knew Lo would never be one to throw any of her insecurities back in her face the way Tony had. Whatever happened from here, she felt ready for it.
"So, coffee goddess," Lo said softly, placing one arm across the back of the bench seat, "do you kiss on a first date?"
Lottie's heart raced. "I don't have any formal rules about these things," she said, grinning. "Once upon a time I would have been quite straight-laced, but these days I like to open myself to possibilities, and take things on a case-by-case basis."
"Oh, and how's my case looking?" Lo asked, reflecting back her smile and shifting closer to her.
"I'm very optimistic, in fact," Lottie said, her smile growing wide enough to cause her cheeks to ache. "So, if you wanted to kiss me...."
"Oh, I've been wanting to since I first saw you standing there in a daze, staring at Pan & Syrinx."
Lottie covered her face with both hands, a muffled squeal emerging from behind them. Lo reached out to coax her hands away, and kissed each of her palms. She brushed back Lottie's hair, and lips met lips. Lottie leaned into the kiss, a series of tiny shivers travelling all the way through her body. Lo's mouth was so soft, exquisitely soft. Lottie had gotten accustomed to a man's rough, devouring kiss and the abrasive scrape of his stubble against her sensitive skin. Lo was not only soft, but intuitive, deepening the kiss at just the right moment, and brushing gentle fingertips against the nape of her neck in a way that made her break out in a warm cascade of goosebumps. A kiss from Lo was something given rather than taken, and Lottie was breathless with gratitude as well as hunger for more.
"Good?" Lo whispered against her lips.
"Mmm... so good," Lottie sighed, placing a hand one of Lo's thighs and squeezing. "Come up?"
"Are you sure?"
They kissed with furious intensity all the way up in the elevator. The way Lo held her and touched her was like nothing Lottie had experienced before. When Lo's thumb drew up her spine, she went weak in the knees, and felt the other woman smile against her mouth. Lo wanted her to feel good. Lo derived pleasure from making her feel good. This was what Lottie had been missing.
In Lottie's bedroom, illuminated by the soft, warm glow of her bedside lamp, they undressed each other, piece by piece. Lottie marvelled at Lo's lean, athletic build. She didn't have many curves to her, but to Lottie, this was no drawback. She was magnificent, and Lottie felt privileged simply to be in her presence. Lo was likewise in awe of her, eyes raking over every soft line of her form, and warm, exploratory hands followed. Lottie felt like a goddess.
"You're so beautiful," Lo whispered, coaxing her down onto the bed and arching over her. "You're a masterpiece. You're just right. God, I want to taste every inch of you."
She leaned down and attached her lips to Lottie's neck, sucking gently, kissing, now and then darting her tongue out to sample the subtle salt tang of her flesh. Lottie melted, moaning, helpless beneath her as her mouth made its gradual way down her body until Lo was settled between her legs.
"Lottie," Lo panted, blazing eyes flicking up to meet hers, "I want to make you feel good. I know this is new to you, and I don't want you to feel any pressure to reciprocate. Tonight, I just want to please you, and get the taste of Tony and everyone else out of your mouth. Will you let me?"
Lottie blinked rapidly against the blur of threatening tears. "Yes," she gasped, "yes please!"
Under normal circumstances, Lottie preferred to stay discreetly quiet during sex, but in moments Lo's nimble tongue, laving, flicking, and plunging deep, had her yelling unbridled nonsense. Her legs wrapped around Lo as if to keep her in place, and one trembling hand reached down to massage the other woman's scalp. As Lo made a feast of her, answering each of her cries with growls of affirmation, Lottie's eyes rolled heavenward.
It may have been her distracted imagination, but Lottie could have sworn that, in the soft shadows dancing across her bedroom ceiling, she could make out the curious shape of a pair of horns as she inhaled a scent of sweet clover.
“Daddy, why is Mommy crying? Did you make her sad again?”
Little Cammie startled her dad. He pushed his wife from the crux of his arm. Streaks of black mascara stained the sleeves of his polo.
“Cammie, honey, what are you doing out of bed?” His voice straddled the line of annoyance and anger.
Cammie snuck out of bed when Mommy’s sobbing soiled the quiet night. By her accounts, it wasn’t often, but she couldn’t recall the last time she slept a full night through.
Stuffed bear tucked in her mouth; she watched television from the second-floor overlook although she rarely understood the shows her parents watched from the first-floor couch, it made her feel grown up. Part of the family.
The good family.
Tonight was the first time Cammie ventured downstairs from her second floor perch since that night.
The bad family.
Her arm healed. Crooked for weeks, but the hospital said it would straighten in time. Dad said it would straighten faster if she’d mind her own business and stay in bed at night.
Cammie rubbed the jagged scar on her forearm where the bone poked through to the outside. The doctor gave it a name, but Cammie didn’t want to remember. She only wanted one thing.
“I wanna watch TV with you and Mommy.” Cammie bent her knee, twisted her foot on her toes, and batted her big blue eyes at her dad.
“It’s late, Cammie. We have a busy day tomorrow. You need to rest up.” Her dad nudged her with his open palms. “After some early morning fun, your Mom and I have a meeting. Miss Lily is gonna babysit. I know how much fun you two have together.”
Cammie stroked her stuffed pink teddy bear. “I need to make sure Mommy is okay.”
“I'm all right, Sweetie. Please go back to bed like your father asked,” Mom said through her Kleenex mustache.
“But why were you crying?”
“Just something from the movie.” Mom kept one eye on the screen.
Cammie stared at the fifty-inch screen as a boy placed his hand on a train window. She didn’t understand why her parents watched in black and white when the colors worked perfectly well.
“His mommy is going to be mad at him for getting fingerprints on the window.” Cammie remembered all the times her mother yelled at her for doing the same thing, “And now the girl is doing it on the other side of the window! Oh, they are going to be in so much trouble.”
Tears streamed from Mom’s cheek darkening the light brown pillow in her lap.
A moment later both the girl and the boy on television were crying and shouting words to each other through the window.
“Are you sad because they are getting handprints on the window, Mommy?” Cammie asked.
Mom wiped away the tears from her face and then inhaled what Cammie estimated to be about a gallon of snot, “No, Honey. They were best friends who realized they were in love with each other, but they waited too long to tell each other. He’s on a train about to leave to fight some bad guys and is probably going to die. Them putting their hands on the clear window like that is their way of telling each other they are soul mates and will be together forever in each other’s heart. It’s so beautiful.”
Dad gathered Cammie in his arms, “Alright Peanut, that’s enough love lessons for you tonight. Let’s get you back into bed, so your mother can finish her movie and her bottle of wine, and your dad can get some sleep of his own.”
“Does Mommy have a soul mate, Daddy?” Cammie rested her head on her father’s shoulder.
“I think so, Baby Doll.” Her dad squeezed her tight, “Maybe more than one, but she doesn’t realize it. I’ll be happy when she does. We’ll all be happy when she does.”
The second floor wasn’t as lonely now that her dad slept in the bedroom next to Cammie’s instead of with Mom downstairs. At least tonight, Cammie didn’t think there would be slamming doors waking her.
"Rise and shine, Peanut!”
Cammie rubbed her eyes as she dragged her tattered bear down the stairs.
“Eat up quick. We need to get you dressed and down to the pond before it gets too crowded.” Dad flew around the kitchen. He banged pots and pans for no reason while Mom sat with her forehead in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other.
“God, you can be such an asshole sometimes, Pete,” Mom muttered between gulps of coffee. “I should thank you for killing any second thoughts I had about our meeting this afternoon.”
“You should really bitch to tea, you know.” Dad spun away from Cammie as he spoke.
“What did you say to me?” Mom slammed her mug on the counter. Waves of black crested the rim, dribbling onto the marbled granite.
“Switch to tea.” Dad frisbeed a coaster across the counter. “And use a coaster.”
Cammie prepared her breakfast these days and headed for the pantry to grab her favorite leprechaun adorned cereal box.
“Ow!” She screamed, hopping in chaotic circles holding her toe.
“What happened?” Dad asked.
“I kicked an empty bottle.” Cammie continued hopping on one foot certain she now held the Guinness record for length of time.
“Looks like someone’s Mom decided to stay up late last night and couldn’t get the empty into the recycling bin.”
“Stow it, Pete.” Mom held the coffee close to her mouth but didn’t drink. She popped two little white pills in her mouth and swallowed hard, “Can we just get going?”
Cammie loved ice skating with her parents, although she couldn’t understand why they didn’t all hold hands any longer. A small part of her didn’t mind. She would be eight in a few months and could skate without any help these days. Stopping presented a challenge at times, but in her opinion, that’s why there were other skaters on the pond. Dad called them bumper cars.
Her parents trailed behind her the first time around the pond. The only words spoken came from Dad who warned her to stay away from the thin ice sign.
After two laps, Cammie noticed a little boy in a red jacket holding hands with both his mother and his father.
“Skating alone isn’t any fun,” she muttered.
Cammie dropped back and grabbed Mom’s hand. On the next pass, she grabbed Dad's hand and refused to let go of Mom’s.
“Isn’t this fun?” Cammie smiled.
“Yes, Sweetie,” Mom raised one side of her mouth.
“Although, not as fun as an entire bottle of wine,” Dad smirked. “A good bottle too. I believe I brought that back from Sonoma last year too.”
“Seriously, Pete? You’re going to bring that shit up again.” Mom skidded to a halt while Dad continued. Cammie stretched like Gumby between them but held on tight until everyone tumbled to the ice.
“If it were just one time, then no, I wouldn’t bring it up. But come on Claire, that’s what, the fourth bottle this week? Not to mention the girl’s day out last Sunday. I’m sure you were good for a few drinks then.” Dad released Cammie’s hand.
Mom fired back, “Maybe if you paid as much attention to me as you paid to your new secretary we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Cammie found her hands dangling alone.
“Well, maybe if you didn’t live in a movie, spending your days pining to your online friends about finding a soul mate, I wouldn’t have to.” Dad crossed his arms and huffed steam from his nose. Cammie imagined him an ancient Chinese dragon defending a massive pile of gold from would-be marauders.
Mom’s defeated shoulders dropped.
Dad pressed on, “Yeah, that’s right. I read your email. All of them! By the way, Y-O-U apostrophe R-E means you are while Y-O-U-R shows possession.”
“Well Y-O-U apostrophe R-E an asshole and you can shove Y-O-U-R wine up Y-O-U-R A-S-S!” Mom shouted.
Cammie couldn’t follow what was happening, but she felt uncomfortable and skated away from the pair along with every other visitor to the pond. The only thing comforting her now was the dark pink Lily Pulitzer jacket her grandmother bought her last year. She missed her teddy bear.
Words and gestured flew between Mom and Dad as Cammie skated off.
A commotion louder than the couple’s insults commanded a temporary truce.
“Pete, where’s Cammie?”
All four eyes searched the worn ice.
Dad stopped an untalented skater as he hurried toward the entrance, “What happened?”
“Someone fell through the ice. A kid maybe.” He tried to pull away, but Dad restrained him.
“Boy or girl? What did they look like?”
“I don’t know man. Young kid. Wearing a red or pink jacket.”
Mom pushed Dad to the ice, “This is all your fault!” She bolted into the crowd.
Dad tried to stand, but his skate pick caught in the ice during the fall and he twisted his knee awkwardly, “Damn ACL!”
“Cammie, hang on honey, I’m coming! Mommy’s coming!”
Dad watched as Mom pushed her way through the crowd. Two skaters fell, and Dad heard the ice groan.
Mom’s shrill faded as the commotion escalated. Dad saw people plunging branches into the water. Folks frantically waved to the shore beckoning for help.
Dad pounded on the ice, sobbing with each hammer fist strike.
The screams became inaudible, and he couldn’t tell where one rescuer began and another ended. Mom escaped his vision in the sea of jackets.
Again and again, he attempted to stand without success. Inch by inch he dragged himself toward the crowd until he caught a glimpse of a little girl out of the corner of his eye. He looked left and saw a girl Cammie’s size kneeling on the ice with mittens removed and a hand pressed against the transparent sheet of ice staring intently into the frigid waters below.
“Cammie?” Dad hesitated, “Cammie, is that you?”
Cammie watched as Dad crawled across the ice in her direction, “Hey, Daddy. I lost my jacket. Please don’t be mad.”
“It’s okay.” Dad sighed and the pain in his leg no longer mattered. “Peanut, are you okay? What are you doing?”
Cammie smiled wide and looked away from the ice for only a second, “Come see, Daddy. You’ll be so happy. Mommy and I are soul mates.”
Rated R for Obscene Moments of Reality
Lighting up in front of a no smoking sign, while singing signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs, is about the ballsiest thing I do these days. The nurses allow it, simply because I refuse to be cooperative without my hourly smoke break. I had been sadly mistaken in the assumption that the truth would set me free, and found myself under twenty-four hour protective watch, after sharing fantasies of driving into oncoming traffic with my shrink. When she mentioned in-patient treatment, I laughed a little before telling her to fuck off. She in turn, politely stated it was not a suggestion. Alas, I find myself here - in a safe place, where I can work out my inner kinks under the guidance of a well trained, but slightly irritated psychiatric staff.
I am attempting to settle into this new atmosphere, and to adjust to the surroundings, which include doctors, nurses, and several other patients - some with nervous tics that are driving me batty. I’ve yet to accept any visitors, feeling as though I am a dog wearing the cone of shame. My husband will most likely leave me anyway, and I’m certain to be fired from my job. The doctor say’s that’s purely the anxiety talking, and everyone just wants me to get well. But, I know she’s full of shit. At least I am spared from wearing a hospital gown, and am allowed to stroll around in my own clothing, which I have selected with great purpose. Today’s attire consists of black and white striped lounge pants, hot pink slipper socks, and a t’shirt that reads, I Do Not Have Enough Middle Fingers For This! Sadly my favorite shirt - # Go Fuck Yourselfie - has been confiscated.
Today is sharing circle day. I’ve not participated in this activity as of yet, and frankly I am rather doubtful as to it’s benefits. I don’t particularly care for strangers, let alone do I want to share my inner demons with them. I figure giving it a good honest try won’t do any harm though, so I am patiently waiting in one of the chairs for the group therapist to arrive. The man next to me introduces himself, and tells me that he is a YouTube star. Apparently he has 429 subscribers, who watch him breath like a tiger twice a week. I fake a smile, then turn away, as he continues to describe his breathing technique. Just as the doctor walks into the room, I turn to the tiger man and explain to him, tomorrow is Mother's Day, and normally I would be able to drink as many mimosas as I like and no one would be able to say shit, but instead I'm stuck here with a bunch of crazies, and would he kindly shut up. It is then decided I might not be ready for group session just yet, so the doctor asks one of the nurses to escort me to the courtyard for some air.
In the courtyard the nurse sits next to me on a wooden bench underneath a willow tree. I observe, from the tag on her shirt, her name is Gilda. I pity her for it. She wants to know why I am so angry, and I tell her my mouth tastes like a monkey’s ass, because they don’t allow their patients to keep mouthwash. I can see the annoyance in her eyes, but she is trying hard to stay positive with me. She hands me a notebook, much like the ones used in elementary school for spelling words, or daily writing practice. My assignment is to write down why I am here, and what goals I might have for my stay. Nurse Gilda supplies me with a ballpoint pen and takes her leave. I notice her taking a deep breath as she walks away, and I call after her to enjoy the rest of her morning.
For a few moments, I just sit staring across the lawn beyond the yard, while resting the notebook and pen in my lap. I think about the assignment Nurse Gilda has given me, and decide to have a sincere go at it. Putting pen to paper I begin to write:
Dear Nurse Gilda,
I am here, at this beautiful retreat center, because I had thoughts of taking my own life. Mind you, they were just thoughts, no action was taken, but nonetheless I am here. The doctor’s say I have major depression, an anxiety disorder - without agoraphobia, and suicidal ideation. Ideation is the key word in the phrase, I believe. You see, just because I thought of it, doesn’t mean I’ll go through with anything. They say death is only a problem for the living, and not for the dead. I think this is a true statement. Taking my life would mean hurting those precious souls closest to me. I could never do such a thing to my children and my husband. Perhaps, there will come a day when my absence would no longer sting, and my suffering could be relieved, but until then I vow to remain a living, breathing, pain in everyone's ass.
You asked me to write some goals for my stay here. I can think of only two:
1. Use the opportunity to lose a few pounds - the food service in this place is horrendous! It reminds me of the slop farmers feed to their pigs.
2. Go home.
Thank you for the assignment, would you kindly bring me some mouthwash or a package of breath mints?
The lady from room 200
For a split second, I almost consider giving this letter to the nurse. A tear begins to form in the corner of my eye, and the familiar feeling of panic starts to arise in my body. I rip the page from the notebook, crumpling it into a ball, and toss it in the garbage can next to the bench. I see Nurse Gilda coming back, and I know she can tell I am crying. I quickly write in huge letters, across the now blank page in front of me: Piss Off! I tell her as she approaches, that I have completed my homework, and I hand her the book. With a sigh, she reads, then closes it. In her palm, is my cigarette and a lighter. She tells me I may commence my signing if I should like. I don’t feel like singing, and quietly light up, without saying a word.
Tsingtaos in Thailand
I pulled his pants down and was momentarily terrified by what I saw. I remember seeing a documentary about this once before but never believed it existed for real. Now it was staring me in the face. I had three seconds to make a choice: put it in my mouth or get up and walk out of that hotel room.
Phuket was disappointingly touristy. So completely different from what I had imagined. My friends and I had finally made it to Thailand and we were staying at a Holiday Inn with hamburgers on the menu.
We were drinking TsingTao beers at yet another dimly lit and smoky bar, one of those touristy places full of English-speaking travelers. We started chatting with a group of English men that were sitting next to us, one of which was Dan. He was blonde with light eyes and hilarious. Not traditionally attractive, but the more he made me laugh the hotter he became, and the more I liked him. I laughed harder than I thought possible. Phuket was finally starting to look good.
Dan and his friends and me and my friends decided to go to another dark bar together. We ordered more TsingTaos and whiskey shots. Lots of Thai prostitutes. The soundtrack was one CD, playing the same ten songs on repeat. I was magnetized to Dan; he was one of those people that you instantly felt connected to, someone that made you feel at home.
After the club, we all decided to go to the beach. It was empty and dark, nothing but the stars and the moon lighting the beach. The waves crashed in methodically, rhythmically. The weather was perfect, warm with just a little bit of humidity. My friends and Dan’s friends, all sensing what was about to happen, said their goodbyes and headed back to their respective hotels to leave us alone together. Dan went to get a six-pack of beer, and I laid right down in the sand the way only a drunk woman would.
"Let’s go in the ocean!” I shrieked upon his return.
“What ya gonna wear, your knickers?” Oh shit that British accent.
“No… let’s just... just keep our clothes on. Come on! Swimming in the moonlight will be insane!” I jumped up and started dragging him out to the water.
“But I’ve still got my trousers on!”
“Who fucking cares! Let’s just jump in in our clothes, it’ll be sexy.” I slurred on.
I must have looked like one crazy bitch running into the water still wearing my Target dress. Surprisingly he came right after me into the warm water, and we finally kissed as the waves crashed over our fully dressed selves. We dove into the water with our lips locked. I grinded myself against his crotch, and was disappointed not to feel anything hard. We continued to make out, rolling in the sand, the moonlight bouncing off of us. We drank our beer on the beach, soaking wet and covered with sand.
We held hands as we walked back to his hotel room together. He threw me on the bed and kissed me, hard and deep. His warm tongue was so deep in my mouth it sent flutters down my spine. I was drunk, and too forward. I asked if he had condoms. He said yes, and pulled one out of his wallet.
"Oh, you guys have Durex in England too?" I asked.
"Of course, dummy," he charmingly smiled, "What do you think we use, Mars Bars wrappers?"
I laughed out loud and began to go down on him. I really wasn’t too sure what a Mars Bar was but I assumed it was a weird British candy of some sort. I kissed my way down, starting at his neck, then drunkenly kissed and licked his blond-haired chest. I made my way down further to what I was sure would be a hard penis, but I felt nothing. I was disappointed but determined to try harder. I ripped off his pants and boxers and found myself face to face with a real life motherfucking micro-penis.
I hesitated for three seconds and then put it in my mouth. It was so small. No bigger than my thumb and at first I couldn’t figure out if it was hard or not. It was like sucking a fleshy finger.
Why wouldn't he have told me? Wait, did he have to tell me? Life can be so unfair. I was so shocked by its small stature that I just continued to give him head, pretending like it was any old regular penis. He came so quickly and there was so much semen I was shocked.
I was relieved that it was over. This freaky sexual experience was done and I could go back to my Holiday Inn hotel room. I kissed him and started to put my wet dress back on.
"Wait, where ya off too?" he asked.
"I was…uh.. gonna go." I muttered.
"Oh, no. I'm not done with you yet."
I was scared to death and unsure of what that really meant. He pulled out the Durex and slid it right on that taut tater tot. He looked at me, and expected me to get on top. I apprehensively tried to slide down on his penis, but couldn't really feel anything. He moaned in ecstasy, and I figured I should too.
I rode that penis like it was the greatest sex of my life.
He came hard, (again!) moaning and jerking. For some reason we couldn't find the condom after it was over. We gave up looking for it and laid down, and he spooned me in the kindest way, like a boyfriend. In the morning he woke me up tenderly, kissing my forehead. We got dressed and he walked me back to my hotel room, holding my hand the entire way, my dress still damp. Two whole days later I was peeing when the used condom plopped out in the toilet. Whoops! A fond reminder of all that fun I had with that fleshy, fantastic finger.
The Man With No Face
Stan’s life changed forever the day he met the man with no face. On that day, Stan was only six years old and his best friend, Sarah, from next door, had come over to play with him. All day long, Stan and Sarah played every game they knew from childhood’s outdoor gaming repertoire, Tag, Hide and Seek, and Simon Says, just to name a few; It wasn’t until they had exhausted all the games they knew that Sarah brought up the idea of going into the woods.
Stan knew very well that the woods was one of the places his mother said were completely off limits. She had told him plenty of stories of children going off into the woods in search of adventure, only to be led astray by an evil witch or demon that inhabited them. Fairy Tales she called them, but he was unable to see how they got such a name; fairies were not scary, but the things in his mother’s stories, on the other hand, were frightening enough to give him many sleepless nights, staring out the window, on guard for any vile creature that would try to take him away. Beside all of that was the fact that it was starting to get dark, which meant it would soon be time to go in.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, somewhere in his six-year-old mind, his normal pattern of logical thought failed him, and he decided that it was a great idea. Soon, the two of them were climbing over the short fence that separated the woods from Stan’s backyard. Stan’s mother was in the kitchen washing dishes and craning her neck to be able to see the television in the living room, which was showing a brand-new episode of I Love Lucy; she was oblivious to anything that was going on outside.
The woods opened themselves up to the six year olds, welcoming them in with the promise of miles of unexplored terrain, as well as the suggestion of buried treasures. Their young minds were spinning with the possibilities. They began looking everywhere in the fading light for some form of fantastical artifact. Before they knew it, it was dark.
“I think we should go home.” Sarah said quietly, as she looked around trying to figure out which direction they had come from.
“Yeah, it’s really dark now.” Stan looked around at the dark forms of the trees which, in his mind, slowly began shape shifting into the monsters from his mother’s stories. He had also lost track of which direction they had been traveling. “Which way do we go?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah said in a low voice with a hint of a whimper.
Stan and Sarah held each other’s hands, standing silently while trying to decide which way they should go. That was when they heard the footsteps in the darkness beyond them.
“What was that?” Stan asked.
“I don’t know Stanley. I’m scared. I’m also starting to get a bad headache. I just want to go home.” Sarah squeezed his hand tighter; then there was the sound of a breaking branch, and she wrapped her arm around his neck, hiding her face in the crook of her arm. Both of them were shaking now. With each moment that went by, it sounded like the footsteps were getting closer and closer, walking circles around them.
Suddenly Sarah loosened her grip. “Hey, I think I see somebody.” She released his hand, and went running into the dark. “Hey, help us please. We’re lost.”
“Sarah, where are you going?” Stan yelled as he lost sight of her. Alone in the dark, his heart began pounding harder than he had ever felt it pound before. His hands were almost dripping with sweat, while his lips had gone completely dry. He slowly inched forward. “Sarah, where are you? I can’t see you anymore.” He heard her gasp from behind a bush.
Stan started a slow walk toward the bush, eager to find his friend, but at the same time scared of what he might see when he found her. When he finally rounded the bush, he stopped dead in his tracks. His drumming heart felt like it had elevated into his throat.
Sarah was lying on the ground, her arms and legs at an angle that suggested that she had just fallen down while running; she was perfectly still. Her eyes and mouth were wide open, and she wasn’t breathing. But, the worst of it all, was the man standing over her, looking right at Stan.
The first thing Stan noticed was the man’s shoes. They were black leather cowboy boots. He noticed these because they were like the ones he had been begging his mother to get him for two Christmases in a row, ever since he saw one of the characters from Gunsmoke, his favorite show, wearing them. The man was also wearing blue jeans and a hooded sweater. The man had his hands stuffed into the pockets of the sweater, and the hood was pulled so tight around his head that Stan couldn’t even see his face. Not that he’d have been able to see much in the darkness anyway. For a moment, Stan had the horrible thought, that maybe the man didn’t have a face. He imagined sticking his hand into that gaping cavernous hood, watching his hand sink in and touch nothing. But that is ridiculous, he thought, everyone has a head … and a face.
Stan could have stood there forever thinking about face or no face, but the man had other plans. “Hello, Stanley.” The man spoke in a voice that was surprisingly common for such a specter.
Stan wasn't sure which was scarier, the fact that this seemingly faceless man was standing over Sarah, who from the best he could tell, might be dead, or the fact that this man knew his name. Stan couldn’t bring himself to say anything; he was vaguely aware that he had lost control of his bladder, and urine was soaking the front of his pants.
“Don’t worry Stanley, you’re in no danger. It was her time. You’ll be fine; in fact, you don’t know it yet, but this is going to be the turning point of your entire life.” The voice was coming from somewhere deep inside the hoods cavity. “I’ll be seeing you Stanley.” The man turned and walked away leaving Stan alone, shaking and smelling of piss.
Stan didn’t know how long he had stood there in the dark woods staring down at his dead friend, but at some point, he heard his mother calling for him. She didn’t sound very far away, so with tears rolling down his cheeks, he opened his mouth to call to her, but what came out instead, was a scream.
It turned out that Sarah had died of a brain aneurysm, but Stan swore up and down that there was a man there that must have done something to her. The police searched the area for days, but they never found any evidence of anyone other than the kids being there that night.
Stan was so adamant on the fact that he saw a man, that his parents took him to a psychologist. Over a series of several months, the doctor tried to convince Stan that his “memory” was something his mind had made up to help him cope with the shock of seeing his lifeless friend, but Stan could not accept that idea.
Then, came the day that Stan showed just how sure he was of what he saw. Toward the end of their umpteenth session together, Stan realized he had had enough of all the doubt focused on him. He began to clench his fists, his arms visibly shaking. “HE WAS THERE! He said my name.” Stan screamed.
“I know you think he was there Stanley but what I’m trying to tell you is-”
Stan cut the doctor off. “I did see him, goddamn it! I’m not making it up.” He had never used that word before, but he distinctly remembered his mother saying it to his father once, when she was super angry at him.
The Doctor, momentarily surprised to hear such a small child use such language, was at a loss for words. “Okay Stanley, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Tell me, what did the man look like again?”
“I’ve already told you.” Indeed, Stan had told and retold the description to the doctor many times in the duration of their many visits. The doctor had crossed referenced the description Stan had given him with the one given the police the night of the incident in the hopes that there would be some glaring differences between the two, but whatever discrepancy the doctor was looking for he did not find. Stan had told the story in the same exact way every time; nevertheless, Stan started to tell the story again. “He had cowboy boots, blue jeans and…he had no face.” Stan covered his eyes with his hands and began to cry. “He didn’t have a face. He did not have a face.”
The Doctor paused a moment to collect his thoughts, trying to figure out how to proceed without upsetting Stan even further than he already was. “Look Stanley, you do realize that it is impossible that you saw someone without a face, don’t you? Now think really hard. Do you think there is any way that you just thought that was what you saw? Perhaps it was just the shadow of a tree or something like that. You know, your mind could have been playing tricks on you.”
Stan jumped up from the couch. “I’m not lying! I know what I saw! Shadows don’t talk! He talked to me! He knew my name!” He leaped toward the doctor’s desk, grabbed one of the heavy glass paperweights that were scattered all around it, and without any thought at all, sent it soaring through the air until it connected painfully with the bridge of the Doctor’s nose.
It was at this point that the Doctor recommended that Stan be institutionalized, at least for a month or two. Stan’s parents, unsure of what else they could possibly do, agreed.
The day they took him to the children’s ward at St. Christopher’s, Stan seemed to be in a good mood. That is, until his parents got up to leave, and he realized that he was being left with the nurse sitting on the bed next to him. He knew that he couldn’t let this happen. He didn’t know what he was going to do before he did it. The one thought in his mind was that if he showed how bad he was, they wouldn’t let him stay, and his parents would have to take him home with them. He turned, grabbed the nurses arm, and sank his teeth in as far as he could. He felt the warm blood squirt into his mouth which made his stomach turn, so he let go, turned his head, and threw up onto the floor. The nurse, trying to stifle her screams left the room. A moment later Stan heard them call “code grey” over the intercom. Suddenly, several male nurses burst into the room and grabbed hold of Stan. One of the nurses pull a syringe from his pocket and fill it with a clear liquid from a bottle in his other hand. Stan watched the needle plunge into his arm and felt the numbness take over his whole body. His vision started to get blurry and, the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was his mother burying her face into his father’s chest, weeping.
When Stan opened his eyes again he was strapped down to a hospital bed. He stared at the ceiling trying hard to remember why he was here but no answer came. Where were his parents? Why were they letting this happen to him? When was he going to be able to go home? His mind seemed to be swimming in a fog, which made it hard for him to dwell too long on a single thought, so eventually he stopped trying to figure anything out and instead went back to staring at the ceiling.
He had been looking for a solid hour when a nurse finally entered the room. “How are we doing today, Stanley,” she asked while filling a cup of water.
“Who are you?” he asked as she began unbuckling his straps.
“My name is Clara.” She answered.
“Clara, why am I here?”
"Well, you’ve been through a bad experience that made you a little ill, and you’re here so that we can make you feel better.” Clara passed him a clear plastic cup with a few pills in it. “Here, take these for me, okay.”
Stan had great difficulty trying to follow everything Clara was saying, but he took the pills without thinking too much about it. When he had finished, Clara began to redo the straps.
“Do you have to put those straps back on me?” Stan asked.
“I’m afraid so, but pretty soon you won’t need them anymore. You just have to make sure you keep being a good boy, okay?” She gave a smile as she patted him on the cheek and turned to collect the empty cups and put them onto her tray.
“Thank you, Clara.” Stan said with a slurred speech. He found that it was becoming impossible to keep his eyes open. He knew he was going to fall asleep again but he wanted to look at her one more time. He fought to open his eyes, and when he succeeded he was immediately sorry. Standing in the doorway, staring right at him, was the man with no face. As Clara left the room he gave Stan a little wave, then turned and followed her out.
Part of Stan’s brain told him he should be scared, but fortunately the pills were doing their job very well, making everything seem okay. He closed his eyes again and went to sleep.
When he awoke the next day, he was disappointed to see that a different nurse had come in to give him his daily pills. “Where’s Clara?” He asked shyly.
The nurse looked at Stan with a touch of shock, which slowly melted into a look of sorrow. “Well boy, I guess you don’t know.” She took a moment, searching for the right words. Stan began to fear the worst. “Ms. Clara had herself a car accident. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.” Before she could even give him his medicine, Stan began to feel felt lightheaded and everything went black.
The next several months were filled with pills, sleeping, and visits to the man all the other kids called “the shrink.” When anyone asked Stan about the man with no face, he simply answered that he had sent him on his way, along with Santa and the Easter Bunny. The doctors were very pleased with the progress that he had made and he was given his full release shortly after.
Once he had been marked cured, one would think that Stan had stopped seeing the man with no face, but that was the farthest thing from the truth. He still saw him everywhere. If Stan was outside playing, the man with no face would be watching him from the bushes across the street. If he was lying in his bed, the man with no face was staring in through his window. Stan had come to the realization that the man would always be there, and nobody would ever believe him. He had merely taught himself to deal with it.
As he got older, the sightings decreased more and more, until around his seventeenth birthday he stopped seeing him altogether. Although it surprised him that it had happened that way, he was happy that he could now live a normal life without feeling like he was being watched at all times. Slowly, he became more and more relaxed until the man with no face was merely a vague memory that he could no longer imagine as having been real. He graduated from high school at the top of his class, breezed his way through law school, and in the end, he had become one of the most sought after defense attorneys of his class.
The morning of his biggest trial ever, Stan woke up with a troubled mind. He hadn’t lost many cases, but he had a really bad feeling about this one. He got up and walked into the bathroom, took care of his business, then proceeded to the kitchen to prepare himself a breakfast of two slices of toast with a light spread of grape jelly. He put the bread in the toaster and sat down to wait for it to pop. While waiting, he threw his briefcase on the table, popped it open and with a deep breath, pulled out a small stack of photos.
They were copies of the district attorney’s most damning evidence against his client. Stan had gotten his hands on them when he paid an unscrupulous intern working in the DA’s office to give him copies of everything on the case he could get his hands on. The first photo was a picture of a distinguished-looking, old man doing the dicky-dunk with an apparently very flexible woman wearing far too much makeup. The next was a photo of what looked like a homeless man sitting with his back against a wall. Except for the bullet hole between the homeless man’s eyes, it looked like he was in the process of sleeping off his last bender. In the man’s lap was the head of the woman from the previous picture, make up and all. The next photo was the rest of the woman’s body, lying nude, belly down on the ground beneath a dumpster in an alleyway.
Stan let out a heavy sigh. The man in the first photo was his client, a man that was high up in the legal system himself. The client had been a judge for twenty years, and had no doubt sentenced many men for crimes less grisly than this one. The prosecution’s story was that the judge had been nurturing an unhealthy appetite for carnal pleasure, and had accidentally let what he did for a living slip out. The woman, a friendly neighborhood prostitute, developed a blackmail scheme, and with the help of a fellow crack house resident, the homeless man in the second photo, managed to get her next tryst with the judge on film. She told the judge that if he didn’t pay the price, he would end up “paying the price.” Obviously, the judge didn’t take it very well. Stan tossed the photos back into the briefcase and slammed it shut with a grunting expletive.
After breakfast, Stan got dressed in his favorite black suite and headed out to his ocean-blue Jaguar. As he was backing out of his drive, he caught a glimpse of his face in the rear-view mirror. His eyes gave away the secret he was trying to hide; he was worried to death about this case. “It’s just a case,” he told the face in the mirror, “it’s not going to make or break you, man.” Suddenly, on the other side of the mirror, Stan glimpsed a shadow bolt behind the car. He felt a surge of adrenaline as he slammed on the breaks. He realized now that he was breathing heavily. He tried to convince himself that he was just freaking out about the case, but nevertheless, a bad feeling began to brew in his guts. He got out of the car expecting to see one of the neighbor’s kids carelessly riding their bike on the street, or a stray dog getting into the garbage again, but after looking all around, he had to admit that the street was completely vacant. As he got back into the car, he reached over to his glove compartment and pulled out the bottle of meds that he kept there for emergencies. After choking them down dry, he was on his way again.
In the city, the traffic was bumper to bumper. Horns blared and the radios blasting all around created a cacophony that did not help to settle Stan’s mind at all. He was stopped at a red light and was absentmindedly staring at the crowd of pedestrians crossing the road in front of him. His eyes caught hold of a woman wearing a short black skirt, revealing legs that seemed to go on forever. He followed her with his eyes as she walked until she passed behind someone who had come to a complete stop in the middle of the road. The man she had walked behind was wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. The man’s hands were deep inside the pockets of the sweatshirt and his hood was pulled so tight that even in broad daylight, Stan couldn’t see his face. A familiar tingle rolled down Stan’s spine, but the moment of complete remembrance did not come. The light turned green and a horn blared out behind him. Stan turned and waved a halfhearted apology, and when he turned back around the hooded man was gone.
The courthouse was packed; journalists and reporters lined the walls. The judge’s wife, wiping at her tears with the end of a mascara blotted handkerchief, was sitting with two men in their early thirties that Stan took to be her sons. Stan had a feeling that, win or lose, she was going to take her husband to the cleaners afterwards. He briefly considered slipping her his card, just in case. Soon the presiding judge sat down, the first witness was sworn in, and Stan started spinning his web of lies.
When the verdict of not guilty came out of the foreman’s mouth, Stan could finally let himself breath normally. It turned out that even though the prosecution did have the photos of the judge with the prostitute, they didn’t have anything concrete to pin him to the actual murder. The jury was more inclined to trust a judge of twenty years, despite his sexual proclivities, than the testimony of the cracked-out friend of a dead prostitute. There were groans of disapproval from the crowd mixed in with a few lighthearted cheers; one of which, was Stan’s. Stan’s client vigorously shook his hand with a smile from ear to ear. “My boy, we did it, thanks to you. I swear you’re worth every penny your firm charges. Boy Howdy, I’m a free man.” After a few more whoops and hollers the client left the courtroom, followed begrudgingly by his wife and sons.
Ray Sams, the only man in the firm that Stan could not even pretend to like, walked up to him with his hand outstretched. “Well, I guess congratulations are in order here. Although, I probably wouldn’t have done too shabby either, you know?” After a moment, Ray realized that Stan was not going to be shaking his hand, and let his hand fall to his side. His face took on a stern look. “You know, you’re getting pretty good reviews from the partners. They say that you might be well on your way to getting your name on the company letterhead.”
Stan saw right through the Ray’s public facade. If they were in private, Ray’s words would be a lot less friendly. “Look, Ray, I know you feel threatened by me, but just give me a few more of these cases, and I can retire before I end up beating you at your own race. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bar-stool calling my name.” Stan pushed past Ray and began to walk toward the exit, but Ray followed behind saying something that Stan didn’t bother paying attention to.
Stan looked ahead and could see people rushing by the door in both directions. He was eager to join the crowd and get Ray’s persistently arrogant voice out of his ears for the rest of the day, but as he stepped out into the hallway there was no one there, as if everyone that had been in the hall seconds before had vanished without a trace. Even Ray’s voice had been silenced behind him. His own foot falls boomed in his ears as they echoed off the walls of the empty hall, and he could hear the dripping of a distant water fountain.
At the far end of the hall, someone appeared, as if from thin air. It was the man with the hooded sweatshirt that Stan had seen on the street that morning; from deep inside his psyche Stan heard the voice of a child, the voice of his six-year-old self. “It’s him. The man with no face.”
Stan froze in his tracks and stared into the dark void created by the hood. “Stan,” a voice whispered in his ear, even though the man was still yards away. “It’s about that time.”
Stan started forward, but he wasn’t walking. To his horror, he realized that he was being dragged toward the horrid apparition, his feet effortlessly sliding along the hall’s tiled floor. He wanted to stop. Everything inside of him wanted to scream out, just as he had as a child. The little boy that had been lying dormant inside wanted to do nothing but lie down and cry. That was when a hand landed roughly on his shoulder.
“Hey don’t let Ray bother you like this man. He’s jealous of everybody.”
It was Stan’s friend Mark, apparently just coming out of another trial. The rest of the crowd had now returned to the hall as well. Stan looked down the hall to where the hooded man had been standing, but he only saw a short bald man with coke-bottom glasses, cleaning his ear out with a key.
Mark continued, “You know that little punk-ass hasn’t won a case in five years. I’m surprised the higher-ups even let him stay on.”
Stan wiped a film of cold sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Yah, that’s strange, huh?” Stan began walking forward again on shaky legs. “Hey, I’m going to Murphy’s to toss back a few, you want to come?”
“Man, I would but I have a bit of business regarding the missus at home to attend to, if you know what I mean. You know it’s the first time we will have been home together in two weeks?”
“Wow, that’s pretty rough.” Stan said sarcastically.
“Why, how long has it been for you there Stan-man?”
“Longer than two weeks,” Stan replied with a smile. He was beginning to feel like himself again, his long-practiced talent of lying to himself at work, making him believe he hadn’t really experienced what he had clearly just experienced.
Mark put his hands to his chest and acted like he had been struck by an arrow. “That’s rough, man. You know, one day you’re going to find a girl that’s either good enough or stupid enough to put up with all your crap, and then you’ll get it at least twice as often.”
“Here’s to hoping.” Stan replied.
Mark looked at his watch. “Man, I got to go.” He patted Stan on the back and began walking away. He called back over his shoulder, “Don’t you frisk that weasel too much; They say that makes you go blind.” Both men laughed as they parted ways.
Murphy’s bar was a dive that Stan had been frequenting since he was a rookie lawyer, making a far less extravagant living than he was now. He preferred it to the higher-end places he could now afford. Those places were far too stuck-up, and Stan despised anything that could be described as “trendy.” Not much had changed in the several years that had passed since the first time he had come in. The mirror by the bar was still covered in a mystery substance that refused to be cleaned and would only smear when a rag was taken to it. The bar-stools were still covered with the same worn leather with the stuffing bleeding out of the cracks. Although they had gotten older, had lost more teeth, and had acquired a lifetime’s quota of wrinkles, the patrons had also stayed the same.
From behind him, Stan could hear old Mr. Torley spouting out the punch-line to the same joke he always told at the height of his drunkenness. “So, the bartender asks the man is it your lover or your sister, to which the man replies, ‘WHY SIR IT’S BOTH.’” The crowd at the back table exploded with laughter as Torley slammed down another empty bottle.
“Funny how that joke never gets old to some people isn’t it, Stan?” Stan looked up from his glass to see that Greg, the bartender, was looking at him, perhaps waiting for a response. Greg wiped the inside of the glass with a towel, then slung the towel over his shoulder and placed the glass on the rack that said, Clean??? “Why are you looking so down today boy? I thought you won that judge case.”
As Greg took away Stan’s empty glass, Stan absentmindedly started playing with the ring of water that had been left on the counter. “I did win. I don’t really know what’s wrong. I think I’m just a little tired is all.” There was no other course of action but to lie. Nobody would ever believe what had happened in the courthouse hallway just an hour before. Stan was still trying to not believe it himself. “Once I get some sleep I should be fine.”
“Well that’s good to hear. Can I fix you another one?”
The phone rang. Stan’s body immediately tensed up. He couldn’t possibly know who was on the other line, but for some reason a sense of dread filled his mind like a grey fog on the incoming tide. Greg picked up the phone and said hello. Stan listened to a few uh-huh's and a few okays, and was just about to start feeling foolish when Greg held the phone out to him and said, “It’s for you.”
Stan’s heart skipped a beat, and with his mouth hanging wide open, he reached out for the phone and put it slowly to his ear, then half-spoke, half-choked out the word, “Hello.”
“Hello Stanley.” The voice on the other end was extremely familiar. It was warm and friendly, at least until the point that it said, "It's time."
"Okay, very funny joke Mark." It only made sense that it would be Mark. He was the only person Stan had told where he was going, and was also the only one Stan knew that was given to practical jokes. There was only one thing that didn’t fit into that equation. Stan had not told Mark about what had happened in the hallway, so there was no way Mark could know what may or may not have been said.
The voice seemed to take no notice of the fact that Stan had spoken at all. “What time would be the best for us to meet, face to face?” the voice asked.
“Okay that’s enough. Who is this?” Stan was beginning to sweat again.
“It doesn’t matter who I am Stanley, although you will find out soon enough. I suppose you would like me to pick the time and place?”
“Not on your life pal!” Stan slammed the phone down and then got to his feet, trying to catch his breath.
“Are you okay?” Greg asked, looking rather worried.
“I’ll be…” Stan started to answer, but something he saw in the blurry mirror behind Greg blasted all rational thought from his mind. Stan saw the blurred silhouette of a hooded figure standing right next to an equally blurred image of himself. He looked to his side so fast that it felt like he pulled something in his neck, but there was no one there. Without another word, Stan turned and left the bar as fast as his feet could take him. As he slipped into his car, he heard the distinct sound of distant thunder.
Ten minutes later he was driving down the interstate, his windshield being bombarded by what seemed like bucket-sized drops of rain. The day had turned pitch black, but every now and then a silver fork of lightning would light up the sky. The decision not to go home came to him rather quickly. Whoever this hooded man was, was obviously following him. Stan planned to drive to the next town and spend the night in an out of the way hotel. He had briefly considered going to the police to tell them what had happened, but what had happened? What in the world could he possibly tell them? That a man with no face and a hooded sweatshirt kept coming to him and talking to him and then evaporating into thin air? He had a quick glimpse of himself back in the hospital strapped to the bed. Perhaps they would even give him what they called the luxury suites this time, the ones with the padded walls and floor.
Deep in thought, he barely registered the broken tree limb, lying in the road ahead of him until it was too late. There was no time to swerve; he clenched his teeth and squinted his eyes. The car shook violently as the branch passed beneath the car, and over the sound of the falling rain, Stan heard the sharp pop as one of his tires exploded.
Stan slowed the car to a stop on the side of the road. Picking up his cell-phone he saw that there was no signal. With a grunt, he threw the phone into the passenger seat. Stan stared out at the road while thinking about what to do next. He could either sit and wait until the rain stopped, and then try and walk around until he found a signal, or he could get out and see if the tire could at least make it into town. The thought of sitting in one place, while that hooded man might or might not be hunting him down, forced him to choose the latter option.
Mere seconds after he exited the car, Stan was completely drenched from head to toe. The tires on the driver side were fine, but when he made his way over to the other side of the car, he saw that the front passenger side tire had been flattened, a broken piece of the branch poked from the side wall, and the rim looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. His heart fell; there was no point in trying to drive. As he headed back to the driver’s side of the car a flash of lightning lit up the sky, and the inside of the car. Stan saw him. The hooded man was sitting right there in the passenger seat, his hollow hood staring directly at him. Stan gasped and stumbled backward, and tripping over his own feet, landed on his back in the middle of the road.
Understanding that a car could come by any moment, Stan wasted no time in standing up; when he looked into the car again, the only thing sitting in the passenger seat was his cell-phone. He took off his sodden sports-jacket, rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, wringing the cuffs out as he went, and got back into the car. He buried his face in his clammy hands and concentrated on controlling his breath. His heart was thumping at what felt like a thousand beats per second.
Had he really seen the man with no face? Had the man been sitting in his passenger seat, or was it just a trick of the light? Six-year-old Stan sounded off in his head, “I know what I saw. It was a monster, just like in those stories mom used to tell.” He shook his head to get rid of the intruding voice.
Stan had been pondering silently for about an hour, when he saw a truck pull off the road and stop a few yards ahead of him. His anxiety returned and his breathing became more rapid. Stan watched as a big man with a face full of hair jump out of the truck and after getting control of a coughing fit, came ambling toward him. When the man reached Stan’s car he rapped on the window as if he didn’t think Stan had seen him. Stan rolled down the window just enough to hear what the man was trying to say.
“You got a situation here buddy?” The man asked with a wide smile and then began another series coughs.
“Yes,” Stan replied “I ran over a tree branch a few yards back. I don’t think it appreciated it very much.”
The man looked down gave a sigh. “No, I wouldn’t say it did. I saw it as I was walking over here.” The bearded man chuckled. “Look, I’m headed into town, and seeing as it’s pretty late in the evening, you’ll be hard pressed to find a decent tow-company. I’d be glad to give you a ride into town if that’s something you would want.”
Stan quickly accepted and followed the man back to his truck. When they were both safely inside the vehicle and making their way down the road, Stan was finally able to relax enough to breath. He extended his hand, to which his savior gave two firm shakes. “My name is Stan, and I really appreciate this, man.”
“No problem. I just hate to see people stranded on the side of the road. I know if I was in that situation, I would want someone to stop and help me.” While coughing yet again, the man reached into his shirt pocket pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He slipped one out and threw the rest of the pack onto the dashboard. “Don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” Stan shook his head. “By the way, my name is Chuck.”
“Well Chuck, it’s great to meet you.” Stan said.
“What the…?” Stan only had a second to wonder about Chuck’s response, because all of a sudden, Chuck was slamming on the brakes and the truck came to a skidding halt, stopping a few yards away from a figure slumped in the middle of the road. The figure was just beyond the reach of the truck’s headlights, creating a dark silhouette. Stan watched Chuck’s cigarette fall from between his lips and hit the floor. “What does this yahoo think he’s doing sitting in the middle of the damn road? I better make sure he’s alright.” Without wasting another second Chuck jumped out of the truck and slammed the door behind him.
To Stan, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, who it was, but a part of him was still refusing to accept it. He wanted desperately to warn Chuck, to call out to him to leave the man alone and get back into the truck, but he couldn’t muster up the courage to raise his voice above a whisper. Instead, he watched powerless as Chuck walked over to the shadowy figure, his arms waving about, as if he were yelling at the man. He may have been; Stan was finding it very hard to keep his grip on reality.
As Chuck approached the figure, it stood up straight, making evident the fact that it was a good foot taller than Chuck. Chuck stopped waving his arms and took a step backward, but it was too late. The silhouette’s arm shot out and its hand immediately grasped Chuck by the neck, raising him off the pavement.
The hand, illuminated now by the truck’s high beams, was old, and wrinkled, with flaps of withered flesh hanging off like rotting old rags. From the ends of the fingers bone-white claws protruded; Stan watched as those claws clasped tightly, digging into the soft flesh of Chuck’s neck. Chuck struggled to break free, but nothing he did seemed to faze the silhouette. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, Chuck gave up the struggle. Now, he hung there, shaking. His mouth opened and closed silently, like a fish out of water. When he stopped moving completely, the rotting hand released him, and he fell lifelessly to the ground. His dead, glassy, eyes stared up toward the starless night sky.
To Stan’s further horror the figure turned toward the truck and started walking toward the driver-side door.
With a shaking hand, Stan reached over and slammed down the lock pin on his side, then reached across, as quick as he could, and did the same for the other side, just as the man with no face approached the window. There was no denying it now. The man with no face was back, standing outside the locked door and staring in at Stan.
Stan was too scared to think; his six-year-old self was screaming in his head. He couldn’t run; there was nowhere to hide. He felt paralyzed by fear, a deer in the road staring unblinkingly at the lights of the eighteen-wheeler about to crush out his very existence.
The man with no face placed is hand on the door handle and there was an audible click as the door creaked open. Stan’s eyes widened but other than that, he remained motionless. Without a sound, the man with no face slid inside the truck, taking a seat behind the wheel and closed the door behind him. He placed one clawed hand on the steering wheel, and the other one on the gear shift. He turned his head so that the hollow hood faced Stan directly, and a low voice issued from the void. “Let’s go.”
The truck lurched forward with such speed that Stan’s head snapped backward hitting the window behind him. He glanced at the speedometer and saw that they were already doing well over eighty. He sat in his seat shivering, not knowing what to do or say, and then the man with no face started talking.
“Do you know how hard it was to find you tonight? Well I suppose not, although if I’m not mistaken, it seemed as if you were trying to hide from me.” Stan’s stomach was doing flips, as the truck began to hydroplane, sliding from side to side on the wet asphalt. “I also didn’t expect for you to have any company. Don’t worry, his time was almost up anyway. Emphysema, He’s been a smoker for years. Even after being diagnosed, he continued to ignore his doctor’s requests for him to quit.”
“How can you possibly know all of that?” Stan whispered, almost inaudibly.
“You know Stan, I’ve been following you for a long time.” Stan didn’t know if the man with no face was ignoring his question, or if he hadn’t heard it at all. He was too scared to repeat it. “Yes, I was there when you hit your first little league home run. I was there for your first kiss. I watched as you graduated with top honors. I even kept up with a majority of your major cases. Of course, my work keeps me rather busy, so I didn’t get to catch everything.”
Stan listened silently, watching everything outside speed by in a blur, but as the man with no face spoke, a question began burning in his mind. It was bubbling to get to the surface, and although he tried to repress it, it spilled out of him nonetheless, “Why!?”
The man with no face’s hand went to his chest as if he had been offended. “Why? Do you know how many times I’ve been asked that question? Why? Why does everyone take everything I do so personally? Do you want another why? Why is everyone so frightened of me, just because of my lot in life? I’m sure you have heard that old expression, ‘it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.’ How true that is”
Stan’s fear was starting to subside a little. Now, he felt like he was in trouble for some reason. Like the man with no face was scolding him.
“I suppose your next question will be asking me who I am, so I will go ahead and beat you to it. I have many names. So many, in fact, that I can’t even remember them all. Do you think that everyone would be as scared of me if they knew that my real, parent-given name was Brian?”
Stan was hit by a sudden revelation. This man he had been so frightened of his entire life was nothing more than a deranged stalker and lunatic. A surge of courage rose up in Stan, as he peeled his back away from the seat, turned toward the psycho in the hood, and growled, “Pull this truck over right now, before I make you pull it over.”
The hooded freak began to laugh. “So, you’re finally trying to play the role of the big, bad, tough guy, are you? Not so scared of me anymore? Well then, we’re finally getting somewhere.”
Stan figured that his moment had finally come. It was either let this man kill him in his own sick fashion, or go out with a fight. Stan shifted in his seat so that his legs were pointing directly at the man with no face, and with all the force he could muster, he kicked the arm holding the steering wheel. The truck lurched to the left, leaving the road, and dived into the woods.
The truck was driving full force down a densely-treed hill. Stan didn’t know how, but they seemed to be missing tree after tree by mere inches. A passing tree limb smashed the windshield, and the glass was reduced to a cracked and jagged spider’s web, before bursting in completely, and raining down on both of them. Stan felt the jagged flecks scrape his skin and the warmth of blood pouring down his now lacerated cheek. The whole while, the man with no face’s cackling laughter was spilling into his ears. The rain was now pouring in on them, and still the bastard was laughing. They could be pulverized at any moment by any given tree, and still, the lunatic was laughing his ass off. Despite the rush of adrenaline pumping through his body, Stan felt suddenly tired, and utterly defeated. In fact, the split second before they hit the tree, and the world went dark, Stan realized that he no longer cared what happened. He wanted the madness to end, one way or another.
When Stan awoke, he was blinded by little rays of sunshine, beaming in around the evergreen branches and through the open space where the windshield used to be. When his eyes finally adjusted, he saw that the front end of the truck had been obliterated; pieces of glass and twisted metal lay, strewn about every which way along the forest floor.
For a few moments, his mind was in a fog, but slowly, the image of the crazy man in the driver seat took shape, and his next breath caught in his throat as he turned his head to see if the man was dead. The man wasn’t there at all. In fact, there was no sign that he was ever there. Maybe, hopefully, he had been thrown from the car.
Stan remembered the cuts on his face and quickly twisted the rearview mirror his way to look at the damage. His spotless face stared back at him; He was surprised to see that there was no scratch, not even a single speck of blood. He sat back in his seat, breathing a little easier now. He had won. He was alive, and the man with no face was out there, at this moment, no doubt suffering from a major head rearrangement. Surprisingly, the thought made him laugh. With a slight struggle, Stan opened the door and crawled out of the wreckage. The mud outside was so slippery that his cowboy boots almost lost traction.
Stan looked up the hill that the truck had come down, finding it hard to believe that it had made it as far as it did. He knew the road was right up there, but he could hear no traffic; it was probably still early. He started up the hill, wondering if he would find police tape and officers searching the area for Chucks vehicle. Of course, that was unlikely. He had no idea how far away they had traveled from where Chuck met the man with no face, but based on the speed they were going, it had to be at least a few miles.
A gust of icy wind blew so hard that it felt to Stan as if little mice were trying to make a meal of his ears. Without thinking about it, he pulled the hood of his sweater up over his head to block it out. As he neared the top, he began to speed up his gait a little. His foot hit an exposed tree root, causing him to stumble and almost fall, but he managed to reach down and touch the wet ground to regain his balance. He wiped the cold moisture from the ground off on his blue jeans. Now, even his hands were freezing. He found that they were quite warm in the pockets of his sweater.
“What the hell?” he exclaimed. With a dawning horror, he realized that he was wearing the clothes of the man with no face, but how, and more importantly, why? All of his good feelings quickly floated away, and he was left with a lead weight in the pit of his stomach. What he saw waiting for him on the top of the hill only made it worse.
There was a man standing there, looking out at the road. The lead weight seemed to gain twenty pounds when Stan saw that the man was wearing his black suit pants, and white shirt. He had Stan’s suit jacket slung over his shoulder.
“Come here Stanley.” said the man in a cold, and cutting voice.
Stan walked forward slowly, not sure why he was bothering to obey. When the man turned to face Stan, he felt his empty stomach seize up. If he had eaten anything recently, he would have vomited. Instead, only a dry heave escaped his throat. He was looking at a dead man.
As Stan stared into the face of the living corpse, its skeletal face stared back at him, bits of withered flesh stretched tight across its surface. It looked like the face of a corpse that has been exhumed after being buried for years, and the smell coming from him was much the same. The corpse’s withered lips pulled tight into the semblance of a smile, and it spoke.
“So, now you see.”
“See what? That you’re crazy and a dead man?” Stan lost all feeling in his legs and they failed him. He dropped to the soft muddy earth. “I’m insane.” Stan whispered.
“Oh, come on now.” the corpse said in a chastising voice. “Neither of us is crazy. Surely you can see that, now that you’ve been chosen.”
“Chosen?” Stan spoke in complete disbelief of the situation. “What have I been chosen for? Who chose me?”
“Well, Stanley, it doesn’t exactly work like that. Trust me, I asked the same things you are asking me now when I was in your shoes.”
“What do you mean was? You are in my shoes. Those are my two-hundred-dollar pair of imported Italian dress-shoes”
“Okay. You need to calm down. I don’t have all day.” The corpse pulled a small golden pendant on a chain from around its leathery neck. The pendant was covered in all sorts of strange symbols, with writing that Stan did not understand. “This is something much bigger than you or me Stanley,” the corpse continued. “It is a job.”
“Yeah? Well, I already have one of those, so thanks, but no thanks.” Stan was still looking at his shoes on the corpse’s feet.
The corpse shook its head, but continued as if it hadn’t heard. “Like most jobs, this one is no fun, but as I told you last night, somebody has to do it. Otherwise, well…we won’t go there.” The corpse held up the dangling pendant. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, Stanley, but my time has come. I’m passing the torch.”
Stan stood up but no words escaped his mouth.
“That’s pretty much all there is to say.” With that, the corpse placed the chain over Stan’s head.
Stan felt the pendant fall against his chest and there was immediate warmth emanating from it. The heat was coming off in pulses; every one, a bit warmer than the first. With each pulse, images of death and dying flooded Stan’s mind, each lingering for a brief instance before disappearing and being replaced by another. He was seeing people he had never known die in almost every conceivable way. The pulses grew stronger. Soon, the pendant was so hot that it felt like it would meld with Stan’s skin. If he could have, he would have pulled it off and thrown it back at the corpse, but he seemed incapable of moving at all. Image after grisly image, burning blinks of time, pounded into him. Stan was in so much pain that he rocked his head back and screamed, but still the images came. When it finally stopped, Stan found himself on his knees with his forehead touching the ground. Tears poured down his face, but finally, he understood.
With a grunt, Stan got to his feet and looked the corpse directly in the eye. “Why me?” he asked.
The corpse looked silently back for a moment before responding, “I asked the same question. There is no answer.”
“But,” Stan paused, trying to find the questions that had been buried by the barrage of images. “For how long?”
“You’ll know.” The corpse took the jacket that had been draped across his shoulder and put it on. “You know what to do now, right?”
“But I have more questions.” Stan protested.
The corpse looked into Stan eyes, “The questions you have can only be answered by time. I have been here too long. You must do it now. I am ready.”
Stan raised is hand, placing it on the top of the corpses head. He felt the warmth gathering in his fingertips. The corpse closed its eyes, and the withered smile returned. Stan released the warmth that now filled his entire hand, and the corpse took one last breath before falling to the ground like a marionette that has just had its strings cut from the puppeteer’s hand. The corpse was dead, and Stan had taken its life.
Stan walked toward the road as a green car was driving by. He held out his hand and felt the warmth again. As the car passed, the lady in the driver’s seat seemed to be looking right at him. He wasn’t sure if she could see him, but he knew that in about an hour she was going to lose control of her vehicle and drive straight into oncoming traffic. It would be quick; she wouldn’t suffer. He turned and looked at the lifeless corpse of the man with no face one last time, but he knew he couldn’t stick around too long. In five minutes, someone in Manchester was going to choke to death on a scone, and after that, he had a full day with a tribe suffering from malaria in Uganda. He knew that his old life was over now. For all intents and purposes, Stan the lawyer, was lying on the ground in front of him. For a moment, he listened to the song of a bird that had not yet flown south for winter. Then he started walking. After all, he had a job to do.
Bodies on Planes
As an adult, whose life includes experiences, I know perfectly well that there is no stack of letters idyllically accumulating beneath the threshold of my doorway. I know that there is no comforting mid-century stereotype of a mailman, cocking and shaking his head, shoving said letters into the inaugural square foot of my apartment, privately wishing me well. I am well aware that every card I’ve received that’s not from Papyrus was the result of someone who sort of knows me standing in the candy/holiday/clearance aisle of a Safeway and congratulating himself/herself on selecting a card with exactly the right amount of condolences and a trendy-but-muted envelope color without all the cursive and religious stuff for less than $6.95. I am entirely conscious of the fact that their half-baked grievances are stacked and rubber-banded at the Devon Avenue Post Office, waiting to be retrieved by yours truly from an extremely condescending postal clerk at a time and date of my choosing.
But the joke’s on them, because I am not coming. I am halfway down the gangplank of a 747 (or whatever nondescript commercial airliner) and I am knee-deep in Everclear and Welsh Corgi, the two most notable purchases I’ve made in the past six hours. The latter is masquerading as a service dog, although what service an animal with six-inch legs could possibly perform is a glaring mystery, while the former represents a strategy to end my miserable life aboard the aircraft. It bears noting that the former is strapped inside the adorable service vest of the latter, and that sloshing vials of pure alcohol are best transported under the veil of sheer fucking cuteness, which has yet to be corrupted by the assiduity of airport security.
Halfway to my seat, I am presumed to be blind. It’s an incidental but logical development, brought on by a perfect storm of general clumsiness, an indoor animal, and Ray-Bans. I wade through a sea of crime novels embossed with their half-cooked, punny titles, and locate my seat, absolutely no one perplexed that I didn’t need Braille to identify the seat number. They’re too busy congratulating themselves on the idea that they’ll speak elegantly and helpfully hand me something, should the occasion arise.
I open a bottle, cagily unscrewing and sipping, feeling the flashbacky shame of a junior high hayride, wondering if I should have sprung for first class. I find myself desperate to hold something. I pick up my dog, this heavy, warm, shivering creature. Obliviously content, he licks my hand. The damp fur around his neck suggests that I’ve been crying, silently, onto the top of his head for hours. I detach the remainder of the quarter-bottles of Everclear from my little dog’s vest - I have just now decided to name him ‘Yes,’ like the hero of a never-to-be-made festival film - and load them into the seatback pocket like ammunition.
With a rush of acute regret I realize, for the first time and with sinking dread, that someone will be seated next to me. That my endeavor to suck down grain alcohol until I convert to a corpse may not be apropos. On the heels of my anxiety, this someone presents herself in the shape of a modest, earnest-looking brunette who obliquely introduces herself via a pandering hello to my dog. “Small for a guide dog,” she says, to me. This woman - let's call her Elle - is fully on board with the impression that I am completely and definitely blind. I cannot look her in the eye; not doing so is easy - all I can think of sincerely is what happens to a dead body aboard an international flight: whether its seatmate is spared from the carnage via some rare protocol involving a stilted announcement and a well-meaning set of waifish flight attendants demurely hauling the corpse to the rear coffee station beneath a clean white sheet from the forward cabin, striving to conjure some makeshift dignity, scrambling for whatever wisdom the employee handbook might have to offer on the subject - and it is this brutish melange of panic and pity that Elle mistakes for romantic interest.
Yes in my lap, Elle stroking his paws, her fingertips trailing mock-absently to my knee, I look through my purportedly blind eyes to these objects I’ve named, feeling gut-sick. Elle is kind, ripe, oblivious - she is a sudden perfect ten, dripping with the unleashed confidence of a woman addressing a blind man, to whom all women are equally beautiful.
We converse for an hour, of which I remember virtually nothing. I register that she is a real person, obviously – someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, very likely someone’s wife. I memorize everything with rigor and forget it immediately. We are flying to Colombia for our own plausible, unremarkable reasons, which we mutually pretend to find fascinating. For my part, I am a farmer, a sudden and alacritous liar; the season has been favorable; eggplant is tricky, but rewarding.
My mind is on white white white white lilies. Beautiful, hackneyed, no-prefix standard fucking lilies. I am wondering whether they’ll use my wife’s flowers for me too, or if the timing will be off. I'm forgivably hazy on the longevity of lilies. I think of wanting to be buried inside her casket, of the way that our bodies fit - do I have any crazy allies on the ground who might pitch this idea? is there a precedent? - and feel a sudden wash of nausea and ridiculousness at being so far away from her. I wonder if I've left anything out of the will, handwritten, on the island table, the way one wonders about leaving the oven on.
Among the bright hollow sound effects communicating the urgency of fastening one’s seatbelt, I hear Elle say, “I'm going to use the ladies’ room,” her mouth fondling the words in a bout of unmistakable over-articulation.
I aurally register the metallic click of her seatbelt, like an actual blind person. Looking out the window, I feel her sympathy warm on the back of my neck, her flushed remorse for the blue sky she thinks I can’t see.
There is no romantic drinking oneself to death, only scientific drinking oneself to death.
Mentally logging my bouncing baby aphorism, I pluck a bottle from the seatback pocket, liberating it from its niche behind a neglected safety manual featuring cartoon people at an airplane crash-themed waterpark. In the 90 seconds I estimate it will take my seatmate to compose herself, I drink the entire bottle. Feeling my esophagus shed its internal fascia like a snake, I appreciate what those fellows at carnivals must feel, swallowing the sword.
With a swift kiss delivered to the top of Yes’s head, the gentle directive to ‘Stay,’ I wade through four meters of air that has become molasses. I wonder (sort of, not caring) whether this inching forward by gripping strangers’ seatbacks, alternating footsteps with the lax confidence of hoping for the best, loosely resembles the behavior of a blind person.
I knock on the bathroom door, like an amateur. And then, by magic, I am inside and hearing the door latch, Elle’s hands guiding mine the way you would pilot a blind man’s hands. Everything is pure, extravagant texture, clawing its way through eviscerating numbness.
I try to remember if this is the first time I’ve ever had sex with sunglasses on, and decide that it probably is. Elle is biting my mouth; grappling with my belt; likening me, for some indiscernible reason, to a bloodhound. I don’t understand what this means, so I stay silent. With the sensation of having swallowed a nail salon, I pick her up and shove her against the mirror, positioning her on the narrow counter beside the sink. I am forgetting everything.
And then, unlocked, she is breathing all the wetness of her lungs into my ear. She is whispering whatever name I told her was mine, her long, slender legs tangled like vines around a condemned building.
She comes in an elaborately silent scream against my neck, and I wonder, fleetingly, how such an indisputably uncomfortable thing has become a cultural phenomenon. I bite her collarbone, lift her gently from the countertop, then come in the sink, like an old pro.
Her kiss lands and evaporates on the corner of my mouth, and I hear the plastic door click open, then shut. I turn and vomit instantly: 600 milliliters of pure alcohol spill over my lips into the most translucent bodily fluid any human has ever produced. A bright, courteous ding requisitions one to return to one’s seat with one’s seatbelt fastened. I finish undoing my suicidal handiwork, flushing the short-lived attempt into oblivion. I wash my hands, shaking, staring into the streaky mirror. The ding, again, the polite command to remain in one’s seat, with one’s seatbelt fastened, until the captain has turned off the Fasten Seatbelt sign.
I take off my sunglasses, rub my temples. I begin to cry violently. My body racks and aches, primally confused. I put the sunglasses back on. To my surprise and disappointment, I look great. I look blind.
I open the door to the little bathroom, stepping back into the stiff, cagey air of the cabin. To the right, toward the coffee station, a pert flight attendant looks back at me in horror. Mentally, I gather the frayed threads of an extemporaneous defense of my bathroom tryst, but soon realize that this is not why she looks horrified. At her feet, near her uniform blue pumps, a body lies covered in a white sheet, stretched out straight, with makeshift dignity, beneath the coffee station.
I cannot believe it. I was right.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says.
We look at each other, our eyes glazed with the weirdly mistaken, grateful sadness of not being this fellow beneath the sheet.
I return to my seat, stepping over Elle, making no further pretense of being blind. Yes bounds onto my knees with a kind of blithe, directionless urgency, a history of present moments coiled in his small limbs. My mind is generating names, hundreds of names, none of them permanent, none of them mine. The taste of bile and Everclear fresh in my mouth, I order a cup of coffee and survey the slick blue-green ocean, punctuated by boats like divots in glass. With the bright, doomed hope of a hundred little impending deaths, I begin to wonder what Colombia will look like.