Caustic

Disclaimer: Adult Content and Gallows Humor.  Some might say this is politically incorrect, but such people are too blinded by career-oriented agendas to read between the lines or to see past their own projection.  It’s all in good fun, even if it is also a little bit, well, caustic.

It was past midnight by the time Daria pulled into the parking lot below the tall apartment complex. She had taken her time that evening in her photography studio, developing several wedding photos before finally making good on Kyle’s invitation to come over. The wedding photos were not an urgency for her. They were for Mr and Mrs Bentley, whom she had started to call Mr and Mrs Getbentley because of their nagging. She always came up with dismissive names for wedding photography clients. She resented such clients most of all.  Still, Daria did not want to drop what she was doing all at once because a boy had called her over for dinner. No, Daria was taking her time developing the wedding photos for their album, giving them their proofs piecemeal and taking pleasure in cutting their faces up for a collage with which to taunt them, like a kidnapper cutting out letters from various magazine ads for a ransom letter. Or perhaps she was more like a serial killer taunting police. The truth was that Daria held nothing but contempt for couples getting married, and resented having to work for them, especially for their weddings.
Daria did not bother to dress up. She wore a black sweater and blue jeans, a pink shade of lipstick, but no makeup otherwise. She had only started seeing Kyle a month ago and she wanted him thirsty and aware of who held the keys to the libido kingdom in the pseudo-relationship. That wasn’t to say that they never had sex—they had sex the first night they met at a mutual friend’s art exhibit after going to his apartment for wine—but she wanted him to know she had full control over the limited resource of her body and that he was not entitled to any of it even though he was a White cisgender male that made six figures a year trading stocks. The amusement park could close at any time, and often did. Last time she came over to his apartment she left prematurely because he wanted to watch a Jackie Chan movie. Totally boring. Hopefully, she thought, he learned his lesson or she would blue-ball him again.
Kyle had already given her card access to the apartment complex. She used it to get into the lobby and to take the elevator up to his floor. On the way up she felt some pressure on her stomach. She belched, her throat burning with bile, and she was glad she was the only one in the elevator. She carried no purse—being a 10th wave feminist—but she did keep a roll of Tums in her pocket. Her gastroenterologist said that Daria suffered from excessive acidity. She called it acidosis. Her gynecologist claimed the same thing, more or less. Too much alcohol, they said, and not enough alkali to balance it out. She told both of them that she ate plenty of cheese with her wine, but cheese also had lactic acid in it, or so they said. Sometimes her skin blistered and rashes bloomed on her knees, elbows, and forehead. She resented makeup, mostly, but used it whenever she had flare-ups. She felt like she was being dipped in acetic acid by someone who did not know the first thing about film development.
Then again, she also knew the bulimia did not help. Eating a carton of ice-cream and then force-vomiting afterwards left canker sores in her mouth. The sores hurt when she talked, which only made her angrier when she had to talk to people she disliked. And she disliked a lot of people.
Kyle had a posh apartment on the upper side of town. He had no taste for movies or art, Daria reflected, but he did have good taste for amenities and material comforts. There was merit in that, at least. And he had good taste in women, obviously, since he was so hopelessly head-over-heels for Daria. He was like a puppy dog around her. Too bad she was a cat person. Still, she thought him useful for passing the time.
The elevator opened and Daria stepped out, popping another Tums tablet into her mouth and chewing it as she walked the long, high-scale hallway that led to Kyle’s apartment. The silence attested to the quality of the apartment complex. Thick walls and solid doors. Someone could be screaming bloody murder and no one would hear it next door, above or below the apartment.
Daria came to room 512 and swallowed whatever bits remained of the Tums tablet. The acidic heat subsided in her throat and stomach. The bile ebbed. The card Kyle gave her to the lobby and elevator did not work on his room, which irritated her. But it was a ritzy apartment building so they had cards for everything. She hated door buzzers and chose to knock instead. Kyle fumbled with the chain a moment.
“I didn’t think you would show up,” he said, both nervous and giddy with apparent joy as he opened the door.
“You sure look like it,” she said, frowning at his boxers, black socks, and white T-shirt. “You getting ready to go to bed? That’s okay. I’ll just go out with some friends if you are tired…”
“No, no,” he said hurriedly. “I just thought it was too late for you to want to come over. I was watching something on tv…”
“Nothing pervy, was it?” she teased, albeit with a tone so flat that he could not tell the difference. Daria disconcerted most people this way, including her own parents when she spoke to them…which was rarely.
“No, just some old sitcoms,” he said. “I like to jump around. MASH. Seinfeld. Frasier…”
“Old White guys sitcoms,” she remarked with a frown. “Whining about their privileged lives.”
Kyle smiled uneasily. He had shaved, which Daria did not like. She preferred him to have stubble on his chin. Since his hair was black it gave him a very Bohemian shade to his look, even if it gave nothing to his milquetoast personality.
“I guess so,” he said. His awkward, nervous laugh died in his throat. “What do you watch for comedy?”
“Nothing before 2010,” she said, walking past him and into his apartment. She went to his living room, which was dark except for the glow of the television and the city beyond the windowpane. “Anything before that is just too Patriarchal for me to stomach.”
“Oh,” he said, closing the door. “I guess I’m not up to date on that stuff.”
She felt bile rising in her throat again.
“Need to use the ladies room,” she said lightly. “Be back in a second.”
Daria went into his bathroom and closed the door behind her. Looking into the mirror she saw, much to her chagrin, that her forehead was broken out with an angry red patch of psoriasis. It was reptilian in its scaliness.
“Should have used makeup after all,” she grumbled.
Her brown hair was pulled back into a stern ponytail. She undid the tie and let her hair fall to her shoulders. Her bangs covered most of the rash. If Kyle kept the lights off then he would not be able to see the rash. She ate another Tums and rinsed down the chalk with some water. The cool water stimulated her bladder. Sitting down on the toilet, she peed. Peeing burned down below and up into her lady bits.
“Great,” she muttered. “Yeast infection. Or a bladder infection. Maybe both, knowing my luck.”
Her gynecologist told her once that condoms could cause infections. Of course, pregnancy was a worse infection—in her estimation anyway—but she really wished men would get more vasectomies. One little snip and that was it. But their pride got in the way of progress. Daria had been known to castrate men with a quip, so it was all a normal procedure for her.
She waited until the burning, and the tinkling, stopped, then washed her hands and went out to the living room. She was annoyed to find that Kyle had turned the lights on.
“No,” she said. “Lights off.”
While Kyle turned the lights off, Daria sat on his leather couch in front of the huge widescreen television. The lights blinked off and Kyle tried to nonchalantly sit beside her—as if he wasn’t under the delusion that Netflix-and-Chill was always a euphemism for sex while throwaway programming cycled in the background.
“No funny business,” she said. “If this was a booty call I’d tell you.”
Kyle eased off of her, leaning toward his side of the sofa.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just…well…I like you a lot.”
“Course you do,” she said. “I am awesome.” She frowned at the television. “This? Not so awesome.” She held her hand up and Kyle surrendered the remote control. She cycled through the Netflix browser. “This looks pretty good,” she said, selecting an Indie art house film.
“I’ve heard the reviews aren’t great,” Kyle said reluctantly.
“Anybody with a keyboard and an internet connection can critique something,” she said, as if explaining to a toddler. “You can’t let other people tell you what to think.” She crossed her legs, kicking impatiently as her nether regions began to burn again. “Now be quiet and watch. You’ll enjoy this.”
But half an hour later and Daria was not enjoying the film anymore than the critics. It was a slow burn— like the burn between her legs and at the back of her throat—and it went nowhere. Yet, Daria’s pride would not let her turn it off. Kyle fell asleep a few times, and she even nodded off once or twice, finally succumbing to sleep at the forty-five minute mark. She woke up later, the credits rolling down the screen. She needed to pee again.
Rushing to the bathroom, Daria relieved herself. It was painful. The bile rose up in her throat again and she spat it into the toilet. Throat, mouth and vagina burning, she examined herself in the mirror. Apart from redness—and the rash on her forehead—she looked fine. She left the bathroom and rejoined Kyle on the couch. They cycled through the browser again, finding nothing. Neither of them was in a mood to watch anything anyway. Kyle yawned, which irritated Daria. She was ready to leave, but then Kyle spoke.
“I met one of your friends today,” he said. “Or ex-friends, I guess. Toni Bower. She’s an intern at the office.”
Daria never laughed, but she did smirk often, and she smirked expansively at this. “I always knew she’d become an office waitress. She sure as hell was a shit photographer.”
Kyle cringed. “Yeah, she seemed nice enough. At first, I mean. But then I told her I was dating you and she looked like I had ran over her cat.”
Why were you talking about me?” she demanded. “And we are not dating. This is just…hanging out with benefits. Sometimes with benefits.”
Kyle raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “She wanted to grab coffee,” he said. “I told her I had a girlfriend so she wouldn’t feel rejected. I thought I had a girlfriend,” he added, looking at a loss.
“That’s pretty presumptuous,” Daria said. “Of both of you.” She eyed Kyle coolly, quite irritated with him and with Toni. Daria had planned on dumping Kyle sooner or later, but now she couldn’t. She didn’t like the idea that Toni would be Kyle’s rebound girl. Toni, she thought, was a damn scraphound.
Leaning toward Kyle, Daria rested her head on his shoulder. He could not see her face, but she was smirking— smirking at him as much as at the thought of Toni Bower working as an intern.
“That bitch has some serious crabs downtown,” she said. “She sleeps with just about any dude with a guitar. He doesn’t even need to know how to play it. In college her panties would drop if she saw a dude with a pick in his hand. She’s basically just a groupie for loser guitarists.”
“You are so caustic,” he said.
“What can I say?” she said. “I am a soup kitchen of sarcasm, and everybody’s in line for a bowl. And that bitch deserves multiple servings. Shit photographer and a shit feminist, too. 3rd Wave washout. She’ll probably be knocked up by one of the janitors there by the end of the year. No, it will be worse. She’ll probably marry one of the janitors. She deserves as much.”
“Toni seemed nice, though,” Kyle said. “Really, she did.”
Daria shrugged with smug self-assurance, then took off her sweater. “You’d be real nice, too, if you would just fuck me and stop talking about Toni Bower.”
At least Kyle was good at foreplay, she thought. Her panties were gushing by the time he put his rubber on. She ignored the burning downstairs, even after he inserted himself and began to thrust away. He was average in every measure, so the burning was not exacerbated too much. For a while, at least. He even managed to give her a couple of decent orgasms, her vagina tantalized into gushing vengefully against the image of Toni Bower crying in a lonely corner of an office building. Daria hated that bitch so much that it made her horny.
It was just before Daria’s third orgasm that Kyle began to grunt and groan and make painful faces. At first Daria thought he was going to orgasm. That irritated her. How selfish! She considered herself a 10th wave feminist— far ahead of the curve— and she did not want a man to finish inside her without giving her what she wanted first. So, she pushed him off of her and, before he could say anything, grabbed him by his ears and dragged his face down in between her legs. She was so wet now. He began to convulse, but she did not let go; no matter how loudly he screamed into her pelvis. When she had finished shaking from her final orgasm she let him fall back, moaning in agony. She was so taken away by climax that she did not care. If the building was on fire she would have just laid there, satisfied and unconcerned. It was when he began crawling across the floor that she realized something was wrong.
“Don’t be such a baby,” she said. “Eating pussy never killed anyone.”
He mumbled something, weeping and pointing to his face and to his penis.
“I am not going to blow you off,” she said. “Go finish yourself in the bathroom.”
He was shaking with sobs now and she lost patience. Sighing angrily, she stood up from the couch and turned on a light. Blood streaked the floor where he had crawled like a worm. He tried to speak, but could only moan ineffectually. His tongue, and his penis, had been melted to bloody nubs.
“Okay,” Daria said, after considering him for a long time. “I suppose Toni can have you if she wants.  Better than a janitor, I guess.”

Higher Ground

“Soldiers keep on warrin’,
World keep on turnin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long…”

— Stevie Wonder, Higher Ground

Rain had fallen heavy for three days as I walked the edge of a line between two counties. It had been a year since I had seen or felt rain, and it was overzealous in wanting to remind me what it was like; what it was like for the angels to cry again. The rain had been warm, coming with a warm front, and once it had stopped the chill retook the air. The fog was dense. I had not seen fog in a long time, either, though I still felt like I was walking through the fog of war. It rose like dust after an IED explosion; drifting as slowly and carelessly as ghosts no longer concerned with the world through which they wandered. Thunder boomed at a distance, like RPGs exploding along the horizon. The ground was soggy and slick like blood-muddied sand beneath my boots. The moon, like the rain, came and went as it pleased in that darkly cloaked night.
The two counties were divided by a river. I walked parallel with the flow, following its distended flanks and giving it plenty of space to lounge however it pleased. It was swollen with rainfall and had driven herds of deer to higher ground. I saw many whitetails in groups of five and seven and even ten. There were several does, and many more fawns, but I saw only one buck—a pitiful-looking six-pointer who hadn’t even earned himself any scars yet. He watched the does like a middleschooler at the Christmas dance, afraid to approach the girls.
I followed the railroad tracks wherever the river claimed too much land to cross. The railroad tracks were elevated above the flood-plains and moved undauntedly between the ditches and the valleys that dropped at sheer slopes all along this manic Ohio River Valley landscape. Every natural concavity was brimming with water now. Many of the pools joined their water to the ever-expanding river that silently spread itself across the valley like a mute tyrant. Attrition and fatigue were not problems known to the river’s regiments. The rains came and went at intervals, never letting up for long, but always thickening the fog like corn starch in black bean soup.
I did not mind the rain. My leather duster was wool-lined and kept me dry and warm. Seeing rain was a nice change from what I was used to seeing. It never rained in the desert. It’s like what my drill sergeant once told me: God did not cry in the Middle East. He was a real bleeding heart for the Heartland, but he was a dry-eyed, hard son-a-bitch in the desert. If you got lost, you were on your own; if you got shot, you were on your own. The only time you did have someone watching your back was when a sharp-shooter had his cross-hairs fixed on your nigger noggin. You never had to worry about the levee breaking out in the desert. Except maybe in your skull. Even now I felt that I needed a watershed for my memories. I needed to relieve the pressure of that torrential flow. What was it the Medic did to help relieve the swelling of Connor’s brain? Trepan? I needed to trepan my memories.
Sometimes I wondered if the only way to remove memories was with a bullet.
I was hungry, and I did not want to wait to eat at the next gas station I might find—however far away it might have been. So I raised my rifle and aimed at the fawn that was most easily seen in the midnight murk. If the Army taught me anything, it was how to kill. I had been a good rifleman on the range, and an even better one in Kabul. There wasn’t a gnat at ten yards that I couldn’t shoot out between his wings.
As I pulled the trigger the fawn looked at me. Its innocent eyes flashed while a passing car’s headlights stabbed through the woods. Its eyes reminded me of someone else’s—pleading, sorrowful eyes. I blinked. The muzzle wavered just before the discharge and the bullet struck a tree over the fawn’s shoulder. The herds of deer scattered, running in every direction. Cursing the darkness, and my unsteady nerves, I watched as the panicked multitude fled. My aim had been true, but my nerves had betrayed me. The military trained you to shoot, but they never could train you how to deal with the aftermath. Despite however rational I tried to be, I still dreaded the sound of a gunshot. The anticipation of the sound was worse, and the ensuing silence was the worst. That terrible, deathly silence that was irrevocable.
I had money to buy food. I was, perhaps, the wealthiest homeless man in the Ohio River Valley. After returning from Afghanistan, I withdrew all of my savings, stowed it in my backpack, shed my military fatigues for a leather duster and denim pants, setting off with no direction in mind except freedom. AWOL freedom. I did not have to hunt to feed myself, but it seemed a shame to squander so much venison. I just needed to aim better, and not let the War shake me too much.
Shouldering my rifle, I reached into my backpack and found the plastic bag where my hand-rolled joints were kept dry. Taking one out, I lit it with my lighter and smoked until my hands relaxed and my heart stopped pounding like a kettle drum. A few drags and I was feeling buzzed enough to calm down, but not be stupid or loopy. Those VA drugs couldn’t do that. That shit made you into a zombie. Half the day you’d spend just staring at the wall, and the other half you’d be dreaming about the wall. I didn’t know which was worse: the zombie pharmaceuticals or the deadly street stuff. I tried to warn Bo about both, but he didn’t listen. He was fool enough to start taking the painkillers they had prescribed for him, and by the end of his tour he was injecting his veins with heroin that was one part opium and two parts antifreeze. Died in a stall in the airport before we boarded. He eventually returned home, but in a box gift-wrapped in the American flag.
No, I was more cautious than that. Mary Jane was my bedside Nightingale. Anything the VA gave you was meant to negate legacy costs with zero patient outcomes. That’s why they never raised taxes to pay for us. They hoped we would either return able-bodied or body-bagged.
As I moved farther along the river I saw that venison wasn’t the only meat rampant around there. The flooding had driven several rabbits up from the valleys, too. They scattered everywhere as I strolled through the dark. If I could have trusted them not to have worms, I would have chosen to eat rabbit instead of deer. Then again, if I couldn’t shoot a fawn at ten yards then I couldn’t hit a rabbit.
Moonlight was not my enemy, but it wasn’t my friend, either. It tricked me with what it showed me, and deceived with what it suggested with shadows. I stumbled several times, following the deer as they bolted here and there. They would slow down, as if confused by the flood waters that pooled in the vales between hillocks and which made a maze of the land left above water. I also worried about pitching headlong into water. I did not want pneumonia because of soaked underwear and cold winds. The desert was cold at night, but you never had to worry about getting soaked to the skin.
Eventually I found myself on a highway. Here, too, the deer were abundant. When they saw me they fled. However, I was surprised to see them flanking the woods directly in front of them, rather than plunging straight into the trees for cover. They could have easily entered the woods, and escaped me, but it was as if the woods were a wall admitting no entry. At first I thought it was because the woods were flooded, like many of the other woods I had seen along the railroad tracks. But the land did not dip to catch water. It spread flatly at the same level beneath the haggard trees as it did beneath my feet, and so there could not be any water to deter the deer from fleeing in that direction, otherwise I would have been sloshing through water at that moment.
I raised my rifle and fired. A fawn tumbled over, dead even as it rocked, trying to stand up again. It trembled, then quivered, and finally lay still next to those shunned trees. Kneeling next to the fawn, I peered through the woods. They were only four or five trees deep, opening on the other side to a vast, moon-glossed field. The fawn could have escaped through there, but it skirted the trees as idiotically as the rest of the herd. All of the deer had skirted it. It made no sense. Curious, I left the fawn where it fell and walked between the trees until I came out on the other side.
There was a house in the center of that vast field. It squatted like a swamp cat in wait. Its muddy driveway ran in a straight line from its lightless portico to the backcountry road, bisecting the expansive stretch of land that was more swamp than field. The moon glistened upon the furrowed vastness where the soggy ground pooled with rains like the backwash of antediluvial times. Beyond the house the trees rose crookedly together like mobs of malcontents sulking and plotting mischief at the peripheries. Beyond them, and all around the horizon, the black knobs shouldered the silent sky and its scattershot-stars. Frogs did not chirp here. Coyotes that had yipped and yowled beyond the trees, and with great mirth, now tiptoed silently through the morass, as if fearful of too much sound amidst too much silence. Neither owl nor whippoorwill called near that stretch of land.
The house was silent and dark. It sat like a shadow within shadows, black-faced with the moon at its back. No one seemed to be awake in its squat squareness. It was like a big tombstone, toppled sideways and forgotten by its descendants.
Not wanting to be caught trespassing, I turned to leave. It was as I was turning that I saw the figure walking among the damp grass and beaten mud. Her bare feet splashed in hushed tones that sounded almost musical. I watched her a while, entranced. She was the whitest black woman I had ever seen, and the whitest white woman, for that matter. Bald, her head glowed brighter than the moon. She was wearing only a thin shirt, her albino legs bare to the thighs. Her calves glistened with water from the puddles she pattered through. It was a cool February night and it would have chilled me to my bones if I didn’t have my coat and muck boots on. Yet, the cold and the damp did not seem to bother her at all. She walked like a little girl through a flower field in July.
Where she passed, earthworms rose from the mud. I could see them because they glimmered in among the moon-kissed puddles. Their luminous bodies wiggled in the drowned earth like melting glow-sticks. I was disturbed to see how unnatural they were. Too large to be normal worms, they looked more like tube-worms rising up from the oceanic depths.
The woman suddenly stopped and turned. She looked directly at me, her eyes glinting with a glancing scant light. I began to withdraw, but she raised a hand; not quite waving and not quite beckoning. It was a languid, limp hand.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was just…well…” I suddenly realized my predicament.
“You were hunting,” she said.
I nodded, wondering if I would have to leave the county by morning.
“That is fine,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone.” She paused, her eyes unblinking in the shade that cowled her face. “Are you tired? You look like you need rest.” Her tone was dreamy, as if she was falling asleep at that very moment.
“I sleep well enough in the woods,” I said, warily.
“No,” she said. “You need rest from your life.”
She walked toward me, her bare feet slapping the swampish grass and mud like soft glottal gagging. She halted at the edge of the morass.
“I am tending my garden,” she said. She raised both hands to indicate the mushy field. “This is my garden of earthly delights.” She said it without any delight whatsoever in her monotone voice. “You are welcome here.”
The earth worms rose wherever she walked, as luminous as her albino skin. My eyes must have adjusted to the dimness because I could see her clearly now, her skin whiter than I had first thought; so white that it glowed like the moon. But it was not perfectly white. Along the edges of her arms and legs and her neck and part of her face, at the edge of her chin, there remained slivers and swathes of dark skin. Her skin had been nearly as black as mine, once upon a time. She must have had the disorder that my uncle had. Vitiligo. It was the body attacking itself. Autoimmune disorder. I always feared I would get it, too, and would one day wake up White.
A chilly February wind brushed against my face like a ghost’s palm.
“Doesn’t this cold bother you?” I asked.
“I have felt much colder,” she said. “This is balmy weather to what I have known upon my flesh.”
I became embarrassed. The way she said my flesh seemed too intimate and suggestive for a stranger to hear. Her eyes, I realized, were pale gray; almost white.
“Come with me,” she said. “Stay with me.”
“I can’t,” was all I could say.
She smiled at me and stepped closer. Her hand raised slowly toward me. I did not step away from her, or flinch.
“You are haunted by horrors, too,” she said, touching my cheek. “No matter how much we struggle, they cling to us, the trace touch of them stinging us even after they let us go and we seek sanctuary in oblivion.” She shivered, then, in the inert air. “Even now I can feel it clutch me with its blanching grasp.”
“I am dangerous,” I warned her.
“So is my husband,” she said. “But he is not here today.”
She smiled, and her smile was beautiful, but also empty. It was a porcelain doll’s smile: crafted to please, but artificial. It reminded me of that little girl in Afghanistan that smiled and then led Bo behind the street corner where a sniper waited. Bo got shot in the chest, the bullet cracking his chest, but not his body armor. He was given medication for the pain. It was supposed to help him live, but all it really did was sway him into killing himself with drugs later. The merciless irony.
“Come,” she said. “It is a cold night and we can keep each other warm.”
Maybe I wanted to die that night. Every functional nerve screamed danger, but I followed her to her house anyway. The dead fawn— and my dead friend— were forgotten.

The house had been damaged by water. Water stains colored the first six runs of siding, darkening the walls from white to greenish black, and the wood that comprised the porch had been damaged by water so badly that it looked like it was made of flotsam. She opened the peeling door and led me inside the house. She did not bother cleaning her feet, and so I did not bother taking off my boots. She lit a candle, illuminating the living room. The interior of the house was muddy and mildewed. Out of curiosity, I flipped a switch on the nearby wall. No lights came on.
“No electricity?” I asked.
She did not answer me. Instead, she lit another candle, lifting it and walking toward a back room. I waited by the front door, my instincts screaming at me to both flee and to follow her. She glanced back at me, then beckoned me with a languid wave of her hand. The gleam of the candle transformed her bald head into an eyeless skull. She had no eyebrows. The ridges of her eye sockets were smoothly sculpted. I stayed by the door, distracting myself from her comely body by staring at the discolored walls in that dilapidated house. There was a stench of more than mere mildew in the house. The air was heavy with a fishy odor, like shrimp on ice. The whole county stank of fish because of the rain and the river, but it was denser here, like a distilled perfume. I felt sickened to my stomach, and yet the nausea disappeared as she approached me.
“My husband will not be home for days,” she said, slipping her shirt over her head and tossing it aside. She stood naked in the dim candlelight, her body a clash of albinism and blackness, coiling in conflict across her sumptuousness. No pubic hair interrupted the marbled mound of her womanhood. “Take me.”
As soon as I saw her bare body I craved it, and forgot the stench and the squalor and all of my survival training. My instincts were swayed by the contours of her figure. Any remaining iota of caution dwindled and withered in the bright whiteness and dark blackness of her starkly conflicted body. I should have left, then and there, and never looked back. But it had been so long since I had touched a woman, and been touched by a woman, and so I let her black-and-white hands pass over me, peeling my dirty clothes from my body. I needed a bath, and she needed a bath, too, but the stench of the house was so pervasive that our mutual smells became a refuge within the oppressive stench of the river and that ruinous house.
We did not make “love” so much as make frenzy. The destitution and self-loathing that I felt was obliterated during our heated rut. I lost sense of my self in her entangling legs and arms and labial folds. I did not want to recover from it. I wanted to die in the climax and let the rest of the fractured mosaic that was my life scatter and sink into shadows and silence. If I was to die then, let me die in the throes of coital obliteration. It was a peace, after all, of its own sort.
But I found myself still breathing after our mutual orgasm, albeit under the strain of the damp, heavy air. Her bedroom smelled of mildew, and so any breathing done was belabored. It was the closest to drowning in air I had ever experienced. The desert could steal your breath, too, with its aridness, but it was not so heavy and moist and rotten as this air, especially now that I lay in a puddle of my own self-loathing.
We lay afterwards on our backs, sharing the only pillow the bed offered. I looked at her sideways, tracing the profile of her black-and-white face. She was bald and zebra-striped and pale-eyed and beautiful. She was a crazy assortment of deal-breaking deformities, and yet they all worked in concert with one another, complementing each other. I realized I did not know her name, so I asked her for her name.
“Zoya,” she said.
Of course, I thought; she had to have a strange name. White folks thought us Black folks chose strange names all of the time, but even I had to admit being perplexed by that name. Zoya.
I did not tell her my name, and she did not ask.
“Your husband doesn’t take care of you,” I said.
“He has done what he needs to do,” she said.
I concluded, upon that instant, that Zoya and her husband were drug users. This house was probably a heroin den. It was too dilapidated to be a Meth lab. But despite my initial conclusion, I had to admit that Zoya didn’t look skanky and bony and wasted with drugs. She was in good shape, and by all measures must have eaten well to keep her curves and her muscles in such excellent condition. She had shown me just how fit and flexible she was when she was grinding on top of me. She had a physique that some supermodels would kill for, and so would some Marines. There were Olympic athletes with less conditioning.
But that wasn’t to say everything about her was beautiful. Her teeth were yellow and her breath stank badly. I didn’t kiss her but once, and she didn’t react to it with any passion, so I didn’t kiss her more than that, thanking God above that she wasn’t romantic and old-fashioned. Her breath was worse than a pussy ever could be.
I unconciously stroked her white-bud nipple as I lay there, thinking. Was her husband a drug dealer? If so, he was probably armed. What if he came in while I was still in bed with his wife? He’d shoot me dead for sure. Then again, maybe that was their plan. Have Zoya bang my brains out and then kill me and rummage through my stuff afterwards for pawn store compensation. No. Any guy that had a woman like Zoya wouldn’t wait until after his woman had fucked the victim. He would have done it while I was tit-stunned at the outset, still fumbling with my dick.
“Your husband,” I said. “What’s he do?”
She did not seem to want to answer the question, so I changed my approach.
“How long has he been gone?”
“A long time,” she said. “But he will return in three days. The river is right for it.”
Looking into her eyes, I saw that their pallor had darkened, and with the darkening came a recognition. It was as if she was a sleepwalker suddenly waking up.
“You still have your rifle, don’t you?” she asked.
I had set it down with my backpack near the door, leaning against a corner.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it…is it powerful enough to kill someone in one shot?”
“Are you wanting me to kill your husband?” I asked, unnerved by the question.
“No,” she said. She said no more on it, and her eyes once again paled like old milk.
Gazing along her body, I realized that there were blisters cropping up along her white flesh, blooming across her breasts and nipples, too. Was it an STD? If so, then I had it, too. I hadn’t had a condom. Sex was one of the last things I thought I would be doing while tramping around the country.
“What is wrong with your skin?” I asked.
She did not answer my question, but stood up and opened the bedroom window. A cold air blew in. The blankets on the bed were too damp to keep me warm, so I hurried to put on my clothes. As I dressed myself, I watched Zoya stand by the window, letting the cold air waft over her naked body. I thought she was crazy, but then I saw something that made me question whether I was the one that was crazy. Her blisters disappeared. Wherever they had popped up, they shriveled and flattened. I couldn’t understand it, but it terrified me.
As I put on my clothes, I watched Zoya watch me. A porcelain emptiness returned to her face. Her eyes were pale and devoid of expression, but when they had darkened her face assumed habitation. Which was worst was hard to decide. When she was “there”, her face brimmed with fear. When she was not “there”, it was like being in a room with a living statue. As I headed to the door, she followed me with her blank gaze.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I was hungry before,” I said. “Now I am starving.”
I stepped outside and found my way back to the fawn that I had shot. The night was cold and the meat had not wasted yet, even in the soggy grass. I slung the deer over my shoulder and brought it to the porch. There, I skinned and gutted it with my bowie knife, throwing the viscera in the swampy yard. Seeing it disturbed me, and I was glad to be rid of it. It reminded me too much of Kabul. The glowing earth worms wiggled up from the drowned soil and converged on the discarded guts. It drove them wild. I didn’t think earth worms ate meat. I thought they just tunneled and tilled through the soil. Maybe they weren’t earth worms.
I cut a chunk of thigh meat and brought it inside the house, letting the rest of the deer air out on the porch. The house was very old and had a stove in the kitchen. There was no wood for miles that was not soaked through and through, so I looked around Zoya’s house for anything that might be burned and not missed. Indifferent as Zoya was, and already in squalor, she did not seem to care. Moreover, I had already decided to take her someplace else once the rain had stopped and the river had receded. She needed help, badly.
I took an old, splintered chair in the kitchen and broke it apart, stuffing its pieces into the iron-bellied stove. Using the lighter I kept in my backpack, I set the wood on fire and tended it with my bowie knife, moving the tinder around as it caught fire and crackled. When the stove was hot enough, I cut the venison into cubes and used my gun-cleaning rod as a kabob, roasting the cubes in the stove until they had cooked enough to eat.
Zoya watched me from the living room. She looked nervous. Maybe she was upset because I had broken her chair. It was only later that I realized that she was afraid of the fire, and its light.
When the meat had cooked well enough, I stripped the kabob with my mouth. The meat burned my tongue, and was gamy, but I was so hungry that it did not matter to me. I ate three kabobs’ worth, and then offered Zoya some. She stared at the hot venison, and shuddered in fear. She broke for the door, running outside. She was still nude, her black-and-white body flashing in the fog-mooned chill of night. She lingered outside, as if collecting her frayed nerves and twining them together.
I watched her as I ate, looking through the kitchen window. She stooped down and picked up what appeared to be a crawdad. Without a second thought, she bit into its head and chewed at it. The remainder of the crawdad was flailing as she popped it into her mouth. She ate several crawdads this way, and all the while the luminous earth worms followed her, springing up from the soggy ground.
“What the hell is wrong with her?” I asked aloud. Neither god nor devil answered me.
When she had eaten all that she wanted, Zoya squatted in the swampy field, her hands clutching her bald head as if she was in agony. I was about to look away— because I have never been fucked up enough to want to watch a woman make like an animal in the wild—but she moaned, as if in terrible pain, and the moan became a shriek, and the shriek tapered to a groaning, grunting sigh, and there came a glow, a phosphorescent spillage, and where she had squatted a whole tangle of earth worms now wiggled and writhed. I retched, looking away. They were parasites, I thought. Maybe some kind of tapeworm. I suddenly feared for my own intestines. Perhaps that was why the deer did not cross this land, and avoided it at the cost of their own lives.
“Fuck this place,” I said.
It was time for me to leave. I needed to get medical help for Zoya. She was living in squalor in a parasite-infested swamp and eating raw mudbugs from a swamp that was probably tainted with blackwater overflow. My appetite gone, I threw the last few pieces of cooked venison into a plastic bag, then grabbed my things and prepared to leave. Outside, Zoya stepped in front of me. Her eyes glowed pallidly and her face was as expressionless as a blank page.
“My husband comes in three days,” she said.
“That’s why I am leaving now,” I said, trying to keep myself calm.
“In three days, he comes,” she said.
I looked down at her feet. The mud swallowed them almost to the ankle, and the earth worms were swaying around her.
Only, they were not earth worms. Part of them looked like earth worms, but as they wiggled and wagged, their ends split apart into small tentacles that writhed independently of each other, grazing her calves with their feelers. They reminded me of little squids, tunneling through the wet muck.
“What are they?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“My children,” Zoya said. “When the river crests their father will come for them. They will follow him downstream and separate, like dandelion seeds from the stalk, scattering and growing and finding wives of their own.”
“Who is your husband?” I asked. I immediately amended the question. “What is your husband?”
She did not answer. The squid-worms glowed brightly around her, swaying like strangely petaled flowers in a rhythmic wind.
I hurried toward the tree line, tearing my eyes away from Zoya. She followed me.
“Don’t leave,” she said, her voice suddenly pleading.
I glanced back and saw the little creatures recoil from her, as if her skin burned them. Her eyes were darker again; browner. Her expression was no longer blank and forced. Somebody was home in her face, looking out through her eyes
“Don’t leave me here alone,” she said. “I…I…”
Her eyes paled once again, and the glowing squid-worms coiled their tendrils around her feet. Her face lost all of its former composition of personality, reverting once more to its impenetrable porcelain mask.
I looked away, horrified, and felt my way through the shadow-flooded trees, leaving that swampy field behind. I did not understand what was wrong with Zoya, and I did not want to understand. I just wanted to get as far away from her as I could that night. The whole world had its share of problems and all you should focus on, I told myself, was your own.

My life had been simple since going AWOL. I traveled and hunted by night. Less eyes to see me, and less light to betray me. Less people to question why a young black man was walking around with a loaded rifle. Evidently it was fine for a black man to be armed in the Middle East, but not in the heartland of America. Okay for a black man to have a gun in a war zone, but not among a bunch of oversensitive Whites. What they didn’t understand was that a black man was always living in a war zone. Your whole life was full of enemies waiting in ambush. The police. The justice system. The media. Fox News. AM radio. Even smiling Whitey was a threat.
Especially smiling Whitey. His smile was always a trap.
I thought about Sylvester Stallone in the movie First Blood and how he gave them a “war you wouldn’t believe”. That was a great quote, but I wasn’t Rambo. I wasn’t a killing machine with PTSD. I was a reluctant soldier with PTSD. War hardened me, but it had hardened me like thin clay, so I was brittle. I wasn’t tempered steel. I wasn’t cold bronze. The desert had taken my greenware heart and heated it, but only after Afghanistan had smashed and flattened it and riddled it with honeycomb holes. It was called the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. It was a dead-end for everybody that went there.
I still wondered how I could be so stupid to be recruited. I had to have been blind back then. Sent to rebuild another country while the one I knew was falling apart. Drugs, gangs, violence, poverty. Same problems; different longitude. I should have known better. But I was a green kid. Worse, I was a green black kid, and that was a “kick me” sign you couldn’t shake off your back.
“Freedom isn’t free,” they said. As if that asinine platitude wasn’t an inherent contradiction. I hated when some of the rednecks in my platoon parroted that stupid shit. It was as insubstantial and absurd as “land of the free” and “United States of America”. We weren’t the land of the free, and we sure as hell weren’t united.
I walked for a while before I realized I had walked in a circle. I told myself that the darkness had fooled me. I told myself that my unfamiliarity with the land, and the deceptive scatter of pools and ponds made me lose my bearings under a starless night as I circumnavigated their concentric mazes. Later that night—or, more accurately, early the next morning—I found a truckstop diner. It was just off the interstate, but also atop a hill, which seemed an unusual place for a truckstop, especially as I watched a tractor trailer climb uphill, roaring in disgruntled agitation at the steep ascent. I followed the road and headed up toward that bright, unnatural beacon amidst so much dreary, damp darkness.
It was too early in the morning for many people to be inside. Most of the truckers were either asleep in their cabs, or getting a jump on the lazy sun. The sun would not be up for three more hours. I walked to the front doors, glancing in through the windows, and then chose to go around to the side of the building. I was in no condition to enter the front door. Too much attention. Too much stank still on me. I looked and smelled like trouble.
Needing a shower, I hid my rifle behind a dumpster, under my duster, and went into the truckstop through a side door. This door led almost directly to the bathrooms and the showers. I knew I stank badly and I did not want an incident because some dumbass redneck trucker decided to open his fat mouth and quip about “jungle stank”. The last time it happened I broke a redneck’s jabbering jaw and fled into the woods, just as the blue-and-red lights of the Law flashed between the trees.
Truckstop showers were never the safest places in the world. Not only did you have to worry about perverts and theft and muggings and seeing things you never wanted to see, but no amount of bleach could sanitize the showers themselves enough to rid yourself of the nagging paranoia that you might catch something from the spigots. Still, it was a better life than in the desert. No amount of water could get the sand out of your ears. It stayed there forever, drifting around and rustling and taunting you with its whispers.
The showers were unoccupied. I chose the one that looked the cleanest, even though I knew any one of them could be teeming with bacteria. In the Army I had to learn to take showers with other dudes, but it was something I never liked. Obviously. I did it because I had to. Now that I was out of the Army, I never wanted to see another guy’s ass again. Hell, I didn’t even want to see my own.
I lathered up with some lye soap I carried in a plastic bag in my backpack, and then rinsed off. Then I dried off. I used a lot of deodorant because I know I still reeked of Zoya’s house, and then I put on a fresh set of clothes. Denim jeans and a sweater. Basic clothes for Winter. Nothing conspicuous. Nothing that a black twenty-something might be wearing in a mugshot. No hoodie. No ghetto jewelry. Just the getup of an upstanding young black man with a non-threatening outlook in life.
When I had finished, I threw my dirty clothes into the quarter-a-spin laundromat just outside the showers. I should have probably just burned the clothes. But I hated to waste anything. While they washed, I went to the diner to buy some coffee. I needed some coffee. It had been a long, strange, unsettling night, and I did not want to go to sleep with the image of those worms fresh in my brain. I needed to put time, and eventually miles, between me and them.
The diner was dimly lit so as to not antagonize its groggy-eyed patrons. There was a long counter with several chairs. A few smaller tables with two chairs apiece sat toward the back. A gray-bearded man in a white apron stood behind the counter, a greasy spatula in his hand. This implement he waved around as he opined on the moral decay of America. Two truckers sat in front of him; one in flannel and the other in denim coveralls. Both had sagging guts that spilled over their laps.
“It’s why we’ve got to fight them over there,” the cook was saying. “The libtards sure as hell ain’t going to fight ‘em here. They’ll give them the keys to the kingdom.”
“And wrap themselves up like good little ragheads,” said the flannel trucker. “I tell ya’, I don’t know what this new generation’s gonna’ do if we ever have World War Three.”
“We’re already in World War Three,” the trucker in the coveralls said. “And they’re losing it. Damn near ten years now and they ain’t done shit over there. We should just bomb the hell outta’ them, but they’re too afraid of doin’ that. ‘Think of the children.’ Hell, the children’d be better off dead.”
“It’s all part of the Globalist agenda,” said the cook. “Weaken America with the Jihadis and then destroy us economically. Then the Chinese come in and take all of our natural resources, sharing them with the UN.”
“Or just keeping it all to themselves and taking over the rest of the world,” the flannel trucker said. “Chinese don’t have no allegiance but to the Chinese. They’re just using the UN Globalists. Playing them like suckers.”
I knew better than to talk to conspiracy nuts, especially since the majority of them were hostile to people of my skin tone, but by the time I made the decision to leave I had already caught the eye of the cook.
“Whoa there, boy,” he said. “You got a hot date or something? You’ve got enough perfume to make a pig farm stink.”
“And he’s wearing a backpack!” remarked the flannel trucker. “Must have a date for the playground.”
The truckers laughed. I sensed trouble coming and started to back away.
“Don’t worry, boy,” the cook said. “You want something to eat? I can make you something. If you’ve got money, I mean.”
I should have said no, but if I did they would have become suspicious. Belligerent.
“I have money,” I said.
“What do you want, then?”
“Can I have some…?” I glanced around for a menu or a sign. Evidently, you were just supposed to know what the diner offered. “…eggs?”
The truckers glanced at each other, then at the cook.
“All right then,” the cook said. “That’s the breakfast of champions, boy.”
He turned around and started preparing the breakfast I ordered. I sat down on a chair that was a couple of seats down from the truckers. They watched me sidelong, and I kept them in my periphery vision, pretending to be looking at a watch on my wrist that didn’t work.
“You in a hurry, boy?” the flannel trucker asked.
“Excuse me?” I said, innocently.
“I said, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ You keep looking at your watch.”
“My watch is broken,” I said, honestly. “I was just wondering what time it is.”
The two men exchanged knowing glances, as if they smelled a rat, and I raised my watch for them to see. I doubted they could see it, as dark as it was in the gloom of the diner, but they took my gesture at face value and abandoned doubt. Somewhat, anyway.
“It’s half past four,” the trucker in coveralls said.
“Too damn early is what time it is,” the flannel trucker said. “Damn pigs can go find themselves something to eat. They don’t need no distiller’s grain.”
“You ain’t Boss Hoss,” the trucker in coveralls said. “So you don’t get to decide when they eat and when they don’t.” He turned his attention to me. “Where you from, boy?”
“Atlanta,” I said.
“What brings you out here?”
“I needed to get away for a while,” I said. It was the truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth was that I needed to get away forever.
“Atlanta’s a nightmare,” the flannel trucker said. “I fucking hate going through that hellhole. Why anybody’d live there is fucking beyond me.” He suddenly looked at me as if surprised; as if I had materialized out of thin air. “Wait a second. Are you moving out here?”
“No,” I said.
He nodded, but did not take his eyes off of me. “Good. If one moves out here, more will follow. That’s how they all are. And then they start breeding…”
“Don’t mind him,” said the cook. “He doesn’t like people much on account that he likes to fuck pigs. But he likes to do it like a gentleman. Offers them flowers and chocolates first.”
The trucker in coveralls snorted a laugh, but the flannel trucker scowled at the cook. The cook did not seem to care. He brought me my eggs, and a few links of sausage, and set them in front of me.
“You want ketchup with them or anything?” he asked.
“Just pepper,” I said.
He handed me a silver shaker and I blackened my eggs with a few shakes. He lingered nearby while I ate, stroking his beard in thought. I tried to ignore him. The eggs and the sausages were fine, but they didn’t earn him the right to stare at me.
“I got it!” he said, suddenly. He grinned. “You’re military, aren’cha’?”
I swallowed the last bite of sausage and cleared my throat. “Ex-military,” I said.
The cook grinned wide. “You ain’t never ex-military,” he said. “I see it in the way you talk and move and eat.”
I could only nod in agreement. The Army had scarred me for life in more ways than one. Their Eagle-tread boot had disfigured and reconfigured me. Uncle Sam’s boot smarted hard, especially in the nuts.
“I served in Vietnam,” the cook said. “Two tours. Fucking hated it. But I’m here. Lots of folks ain’t so lucky. Lots of folks underground.”
I took out my money to pay him, but he waved it away. “Aw no,” he said. “Vets eat for free.” He glanced around suddenly. “Ain’t no sign, but that’s my policy.”
“What about me?” the flannel trucker said. “I was in the military.”
“You were in the National Guard,” the cook said. “That ain’t shit.” He turned to me again. “So what are you really doing out here?”
“I’m just waiting for the floods to subside,” I said. “Then I’m moving on.”
The cook considered this, crossing his arms. “Well, you’ll be waiting for a while. The river ain’t crested yet. Give it time. It’ll be the biggest flood since 1910. This whole valley will be underwater. Well, other than here on this hill. Knock on wood.” He rapped on the wooden counter. “My granddaddy knew what he was doing. He built this diner right here cause he knew all about how that river lounged in the valley. Not a lot of folk did that. No forethought, I guess.”
“Plenty of other folk did the same,” said the trucker in denim coveralls. “Nothing special about knowing to keep your head above water.”
“Some didn’t,” the cook insisted, scowling. “Lots of people gonna’ need to seek higher ground before it’s all said and done.”
They all turned, then, and looked out the windows that lined the counter. Beyond it, you could see the parking lot and its trucks. Beyond the lot lay the trees that marched uphill along the knobs. Several deer moved skittishly through the murk. They were fleet-hoofed phantoms in flight, kicking into leaps as their white tails flashed like little white fires at their rears.
“Look at them deer out there,” the flannel trucker said. “Too bad there ain’t but a coupl’a bucks, and small ones at that.”
“Water’s driving them upland,” said the cook. “There’s something they fear in the water.”
“Yeah,” the flannel trucker said. “The water. It’ll drown ya’.”
The cook shook his head slowly. “I’m tellin’ you that there’s somethin’ in that river they don’t like, and it ain’t just the water.”
“They don’t mind it any other time of the year,” the flannel trucker said. He reeked, I realized, of pigshit. His boots were garnished with it; frosted like a cake.
“Something about the floodwaters scares them,” the cook said. “Something that only comes when the waters rise.”
“Listen to yourself,” the flannel trucker said. “You sound more cuckoo’ed than a white man whose wife just gave birth to a brown baby.”
The cook gave me a shrug of helplessness. The flannel trucker did not care that he made a faux pas. Actually, he seemed pleased with himself.
“Could I have some coffee, please?” I asked, ignoring the trucker’s devilish grin.
“Sure,” said the cook. “How do you want it?”
“Black,” I said.
The cook poured a cup of coffee and handed it to me. “Any creamer or sugar or anything?”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine the way it is.”
“Sure is,” said the flannel trucker. “No need to be mixing it with any creamer. Just ruins ‘em both.”
“That’s enough,” the cook said, reddening. “You keep it up and I’ll throw you out.”
The trucker raised both of his hands in surrender. “I’m just joking,” he said. He smirked in my direction, not unlike Lucifer about to claim a soul. “Truce?”
“I didn’t know we were at war,” I said.
They all laughed, then, and seemed to welcome me into their fold; even the flannel trucker. Not that the flannel trucker would ever have been someone I would have had in a platoon. There was nothing “friendly” about friendly fire, and it happened more than they ever reported on the CBS Evening News.
I was naive about the world before I went into the Army, but there were things I learned before my rude awakening. For instance, I already knew that humans were innately racist. We are. All of us. Whites, Blacks, Asians. It’s basic human nature to be racist, just as it is basic human nature to make fun of kids with big ears or to shun lepers or to mock somebody cheering the opposing football team. That’s not to say it is ever justified; just to acknowledge a basic human inclination. Moreover, anyone who says they are not racist is doubly racist. They’re not “color blind”. They’re only blind to their own racism. What we have to do is just admit the racism and then try to work around it the best we can. That’s what the Army did right. Race did not matter to them. Identity did not matter to them; racial or otherwise. Humanity did not matter to them. You were a tool. You were a weapon. A weapon is to be honed and used. If it is scrutinized at all, then it is to be scrutinized in how well it functions. And race has no bearing on how well a tool funcitons.
That was not to say that there were not racist tools in the Army. There were a bunch of those. They made things worse, sure, but you developed an immunity to it after a while. The only thing you didn’t develop an immunity for was War itself.
“The Army’s good for people,” the cook said, offhandedly, as if he could read my thoughts. “Gives them structure and discipline.”
“Damn straight,” said the flannel trucker. “That’s what’s wrong with your kin in Africa. No structure or discipline. They’re like a bunch of goddamn monkeys throwin’ their shit everywhere.”
“They have militaries in Africa,” I said. “Militaries rule most of Africa. That’s the problem.”
“Yeah, but they’re not White militaries. That’s what’s missing from the equation. Just like in the Middle East. No Whites to lead them. That’s why it’s a chaotic clusterfuck over there. Hell, even the kids kill over there.”
“Kids kill each other here, too,” I said. “Lots of White boys bringing guns to school and mowing kids down.”
“Oh, that’s because their parents are a bunch of drug heads and queers and hippie-dippie libtards.” His scruffy face brightened red. He was becoming angry. “Besides, they ain’t got nothin’ on those colored kids running around with AK’s in the Congo, shooting each other up and rapin’ women.”
“Under orders of the military,” I said.
Miraculously, he reddened even more. His flannel shirt was not half so red. “And what about them kids in the Taliban? Hm? Do you think that’s a military?”
“It’s a militant fundamentalist cult,” I said. “Only one foot farther into the chasm of insanity than any other military.”
“More like a hop, skip, and a jump,” the cook said. “That’s what you mean, right?”
I shrugged indifferently, and sipped my coffee. It was refreshingly bitter.
“You don’t think they’re worse than us, do you?” the flannel trucker asked, eyeing me with ill-concealed spite.
“They get away with more than our military does,” I said, “but if our military could brainwash kids into being killing machines they would. And a lot of those kids do what they’re told because they don’t want their family members to be killed. There are a lot worse things in the world than colored kids just trying to survive. A lot worse.”
The trucker in coveralls grunted. “Why do you care so much? They ain’t your kind anyhow.”
“They are sand niggers,” the flannel trucker said. “All niggers stick together. Until they don’t. As long as they’re blamin’ their problems on Whites they’re happy in their shit holes. The only time a niggers happier is when he’s putting a tire necklace on somebody else. Really makes their faces glow.”
The way the word nigger rolled so easily from his tongue told me that he must have said it all of the time, and in receptive company. I would have liked to hear him say it in downtown Atlanta, or in Fort Meyers military base. I would have liked him to say it in Detroit in the middle of the night, walking down any ghetto street with his head up high and the same arrogance in his eye that gleamed there now.
I did not finish my coffee. I stood up and left the diner. It was a free meal, but it wasn’t worth it. People like that, I thought, would never understand. The problem in the Middle East, and in Africa, and even here in America, was not color or racism or who was on top and who was on the bottom. It was Tribalism. Tribalism of any kind. Black vs white. Red vs blue. Christianity vs Islam. Catholicism vs Protestantism. New York Giants vs. New England Patriots. We didn’t all have to be the same; we just had to abide the differences, if the differences did not make the other person want to go out and kill you just to score points with their petty tribe.
I fetched my rifle and duster from behind the dumpster and went down the road, looking for a place to sleep during the day. I found an old barn that had fallen to disrepair. It had collapsed partially, but was solid enough to stay together and keep out the rain. Wrapping myself up in my duster, I laid down in its shadiest, driest corner, double-checked the things in my backpack, and went to sleep.

Zoya haunted me in my dreams. I saw her, naked in the moonlight, wrapped only in the cold February winds. Her body was a scar of clashing colors. At her feet the luminous worms writhed. Rain fell against her skin and the unnatural whiteness began to glow, like a bioluminescent creature in the oceanic depths. She was now spreadeagled upon the ground, welcoming me with her embrace. Even though the worms writhed around her, I could not resist her. I let her arms enfold me and I nestled my head among her breasts. As I entered her, I saw the quarter moon fall from the sky and descend to the swampy field below. The worms writhed jubilantly and Zoya moaned in ecstacy. Quivering in horror, I felt the coldly burning touch of something alien to the human world slip over the two of us.
I woke in a sweat. The cold February air chilled it to frost. Sitting up, I lit my lighter and warmed myself with its small flame. Breathing rapidly, I tried to calm down. The frigid air burnt my lungs. At least when it was raining the air was warm.
As I huddled around my little lighter I thought again of Zoya. Zebra-striped Zoya. Marbled mistress. Unmixed mulatto. Vitiligo vixen.
Vitiligo. It was a genetic disease. My uncle had it, much to his great consternation. My dad died before it could mark him, too. Some people thought Michael Jackson had it. My uncle thought MJ just wanted to be white and bleached his skin. Uncle Malcom did not like the King of Pop, or white people generally. The irony was that he turned into a white man. He thought them “white devils” and said you could never trust them. I knew better than that. The only people you couldn’t trust were men in suits. The only color that mattered to men in suits was green; green money and green teens. Recruiters were the worst men in suits. Recruiters for religion, for basketball teams, for the Army. The one that circled my school like a buzzard was an Uncle Tom for Uncle Sam. Told me I could get out of the ghetto if I joined the Army. Well, I joined the Army and they took me out of the ghetto, all right, dropping me straight into a war zone. There wasn’t much difference, really, except in longitude, but I still felt duped by the grinning glad-hand.
My uncle was part of the Nation of Islam. They believed some ludicrous shit. I mean, I knew that all religions were bogus, but the Nation of Islam was basically the black KKK. That dumbass trucker in flannel back at the truckstop’s diner was basically just my uncle, except inverted. He spent his life hating things, my uncle. I hated things, too, but after Afghanistan I realized it was sometimes better just to go all Buddha on the world. Not care about anything. Escape through the cracks of society and find peace in the gaps. Become Ellison’s “Invisible Man”—so invisible that you stop existing altogether. Try to go truly invisible, even to yourself. Lose yourself in the apathy inhabiting the shadow of the world’s rigorous dynamo. Find a hole, crawl in, and die. It was when people cared about things that suffering began. Buddha was right about that. When they cared about color, there reigned racism. When they cared about peace, there blossomed war. When they cared about love, there came to be hatred. Caring leads to killing, as sure as rains lead to flooding.
You needed to get a better perspective on things. Perspective was akin to enlightenment. It was a superpower. It was godly. It helped you elevate yourself above the fray and see the big picture, like Martin Luther King could, from up on high. If we couldn’t do that, then the human race was doomed as a species. If we did not reconcile, then something would conquer us, whether it was disease, our own self-destructive belligerence, the environment, or…something else.
But I didn’t care about that. I knew it. A lot of people knew it. A lot of people knew it and did not care, either. They were just trying to survive. All I was trying to do was survive. I thought I might outlive the War while in this wilderness. But the War continued. And the military machine continued. I wished it wouldn’t. I wished it would go AWOL for once. Smoke a blunt and tell the world to fuck off for a while. But there was only one real way to tell the world to fuck off, and to make sure that it did fuck off. I just didn’t have it in me to do that. Not yet. I didn’t have the fight in me to give up the Fight. I battled Death because I was too afraid to battle Life.
And the irony was I could have beaten Life with a single bullet.
Feeling warmed, I put the lighter away and stood up, looking out of the dilapidated barn. It seemed to be afternoon, but the sky was overcast and the earth was dark gray and grim. The black woods surrounded me, heaped toward the sky upon the knobs. A fog drifted like a march of ghosts that had forgotten what they were marching for. I stepped out among them and went for a walk. I needed to move and loosen my joints and tendons. The cold had settled into them, like biting termites, and I needed to shake them with motion. I walked all day— mostly in circles. When I was hungry I sat and ate what remained of the venison I had cooked and bagged at Zoya’s house. The rain fell heavy, in time, and I returned again to the barn. Night fell heavy, too, as did sleep.

***

After the sniper popped Bo’s chest, the girl had screamed and begun to cry, squatting down and covering her ears with her hands. I froze, unable to move. There was a succession of bullets, one after the other. Most struck the dirty streets and the walls, wisps of dust blooming like dissolving flowers. One struck the girl in the gut, tearing her abdomen apart like a bale of hale pulled into two different directions. Knowing where the sniper was, by deducing the angle of the shots, I ran behind a crumbling wall and took up a position, angling my rifle on the toppled bricks. The sniper was shooting wildly now as the rest of my platoon ran to grab Bo and lay down a suppressive fire. I took my time while they scrambled. I was too focused by shock and adrenaline to feel anything about my own well-being. My attack was methodical and emotionless. I aimed at the glint of the sniper’s scope, spotting it in a window on the fourth storey of a bomb-blasted facade. One shot and the enemy fire ceased. I then hurried to the little girl, forgotten by the rest of my platoon.
She was gurgling blood, her stomach in mutilated disarray. She was too alive to be freed from the pain, and too damaged to be saved. I pointed my rifle at her forehead and fired. I did not know, at that moment, if I cried because I had shot a little girl or because I hated her so much for leading us into a trap. Now, thinking back, I knew it was a little of both. The only ambiguity left was wondering which was the reason I hated myself. Maybe it was both, too.
The medic had already taken Bo and was stripping away his shirt. There was a lot of blood pooling and I thought for certain he was dead. But the medic took off his bullet proof vest and examined the wound. It was blunt trauma, but no puncture wound. The blood was welling on his chest, but there was no deep hemorrhage. There was no damage to his heart.
And yet there was.

***

The gurgling song of the smaller frogs woke me, as did the fat-throated burping of the bullfrogs. Frogs and crawdads and rabbits and deer were scattered atop the hills and the knobs. The rains were drenching the world again. It was a “gully washer”, as my daddy used to call them. The air was drowning with rain. But I needed to be moving on, or I would have gone mad.
The overflows became as lakes among the laps of the fields between the knobs. These lakes glimmered silently in moonlight, hushed and waiting. It was as if the waters knew something I did not, and kept their secrets in complacent silence. It reminded me of the blank faces of those Afghanis that knew we were going to be attacked, but kept their mouths shut about it.
I had wanted to move on, to continue up the county line, but I couldn’t shake Zoya out of my head. That woman had a hold on me. I tried to forget her, but I couldn’t. The image of her strangely marked face and her pale eyes and sumptuous fertile body followed me among the fog, like a ghost. I turned, and she was there. I looked away, and she was there. I closed my eyes, and she was there. Her pale nipples glowed like lighthouse beacons in the distance. Her cleft glowed, too, calling me to her.
I found a cheap roadside motel strip. Going in, I spoke to the clerk. She was a fat woman with a no-nonsense frown and a ridiculous beehive. Paying her extra for discretion, I rented a room for two nights. I had a plan. I would take Zoya away from that mildewed house, bathe her, and call for an ambulance. When they arrived I would tell them about her parasites and her skin condition and tell them to take her to a hospital for treatment. After they left I would leave, too, wishing Zoya the best and hoping she would come to her senses and leave her neglectful husband— if he existed at all. Maybe he was dead already, or was a figment of her parasitically-induced hallucinogenic imagination. Maybe he had simply gone AWOL from the marriage, leaving her all by her lonesome.
Once I paid for the room I started the long trek to Zoya’s house. As I walked, the clouds parted and the sun shone full over the waterlogged county. I cleaved to the trees for cover, shunning the roads for fear of being spotted and questioned. It was strange to see daylight breech the overcast clouds. Rather than transforming the dreary landscape, it only intensified its dismal gloominess. The trees remained black and twisted, contrasting more crookedly in the bright light. The pools of water were dim with mud and did not gleam within the black forests, but swallowed with their dirty brown depths whatever light touched them between the trees. The grass was sallow and loose, the dark soil beneath it brimming with excess water. Loosened turf and brown rivulets gushed down the sides of knobs like baptismal water down the flanks of shaggy beasts too wild to be tamed. The beast sullied the baptism; the baptism did not cleanse the beast.
The imagery that sprawled around me reminded me of Noah’s flood, which called to mind of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel and the children of Cain. Even religion could not unite the races. Two men could be baptized in the name of Christ and still hate each other for skin color. They could still hate each other for opinions, too, and favorite football teams. That was why I never took too much stock in Faith. My uncle believed in the Nation of Islam, and was crazy, and the cop that shot my cousin Jerome wore a golden crucifix while saying Blacks were the children of Cain. He was crazy, too. I didn’t believe in religion, not because religion made you crazy— people had always been crazy— but because it gave you one more thing to be crazy about.
Bo was a redneck and I was a nigger and it meant precisely fuck-all. Bo thought the same way I did. That’s why he and I got along: not for the things we believed in, but the things we didn’t believe in. Unlike the dumbass rednecks in Basic who were talking about converting Muslims to Christianity, Bo and I talked about the stupidity of the war. The compounded stupidity of it all. Stupidity stacked atop inanity, inanity heaped atop absurdity, and absurdity piled atop insanity. The Army was stupid, the politicians were stupid, the mission was stupid, our fellow soldiers were stupid, and we were stupid for having been conned into that farcical parade of folly that led us from the United States to the “Graveyard of Empires”. The only way for us to deal with the critical mass of stupidity was to laugh about it. We turned folly to jolly.
Or I thought we did, anyway. I didn’t know that Bo had found another coping mechanism.
Bo was like my brother from another mother, even if he was as ginger as Christmas cookies. I had been able to handle Afghanistan pretty well up until I found him in that airport in Atlanta. I had been able to endure the whole misbegotten odyssey until I saw him slumped in the corner of that stall, his arm black-veined and his mouth bubbling froth. It was morbidly comical in its own way, too: that Bo had been shot to death not by a sniper’s bullet, but by a needle. See, every human life was the punchline to some terrible cosmic joke.

The rains ran riot over the sodden earth and no diplomacy could appeal to their kinder nature. It was an insensible excess of violence, its pelting fists but a feint so that it could muster the strength of the river and rally its finishing blow.
Arriving at the swampy field, I noticed first that the worms were nowhere to be seen. As I tromped across the squishy swathe they remained beneath the drowned mud. They must have been nocturnal, I thought.
The house was more derelict and depressing by day than it had been when draped by night. The white siding was gray with mold, and green with water stains. The porch was nearly black with mold. The carcass of the fawn still hung on the porch, preserved by the cold temperatures. I felt guilty about leaving it there, but wondered if there were parasites in it, too.
The animals shunned the field still. No deer, fox, rabbit, or even bird touched its bedraggled expanse, even while the worms were dormant.
“Zoya?” I called. She did not answer. I knocked at the door, but it did not open. I wondered if her husband had returned. He could have been just on the other side of the door, waiting to brain me with a shovel.
Despite my reluctance, I turned the knob and opened the door, cautiously peering into the dank, dark house.
“Zoya?”
Still no answer. Slowly, with my arms raised, I stepped inside that fetid house, waiting for a gunshot or a blunt instrument to cave my skull in. But the living room was unoccupied and silent and dim. It was as dark now as it had been the night Zoya had invited me inside. I noticed, then, that the ragged curtains blocked every window, darkening the interior against the brightness of the day.
“Zoya?” I repeated, squinting into the murk.
I found her in the bedroom, wrapped in the moldy blankets, sitting in the darkest corner beside the bed. She did not seem to recognize me, her pale eyes devoid of expression.
I pulled her up to her feet. She immediately let the dirty blankets drop, standing before me nakedly and tugging me toward the bed. My loins burned to take her again, and so I did. It was only afterwards, when her unnatural whiteness bloomed with blisters once more, that I hurriedly put on my clothes, wrapped her in my duster, picked her up and carried her out to the living room. When I opened the door, she shrieked and clawed at me like a wild animal. I was so startled by her sudden change that I dropped her. She leapt out of my duster and ran once again into her bedroom. I tried to approach her, as she huddled in the corner, but she hissed and snapped, as if only a beast remained within her pale eyes.
I tried for ten minutes to take her with me. All I got for my efforts were scratches and bites. At one point, her white eyes darkened to brown and she seemed to recognize me.
“My husband will be home tomorrow,” she said. “You have to go. Don’t come back here.”
“You need to go to a hospital,” I said. “You’ve got parasites.”
“They’re my children,” she moaned.
“Come with me,” I said, extending my hand. “You need help.”
“Nothing can help me,” she said. “I am damned.”
Her eyes paled once again and she became that skittish, vicious creature from before.
Not sure if she was a lost cause or not, I left her house and walked toward the diner. I had to talk to someone— anyone— about who she was and what was wrong with her.

***

The bullet didn’t do that terrible damage to Bo’s heart; the girl did. When she led him away by the finger, and into the crosshairs of a sniper, it destroyed his basic trust in humanity. That was the pain he had to escape with a needle in his veins. That betrayal. It was innocence— hers, and his—that finally caused him to forsake the world.
A hateful downpour came that was heavier with its hammering than any before it. Rivulets ran down the hills among the disheveled grass, baptizing the earth like some wild beast that cared little for ritual or religion. The wind howled in contempt and the pools of water became ponds, the ponds as lakes, their surfaces rising and broadening as they shivered with impatient malice. Was this the warning Noah had received from his god centuries ago? Not a persuasive admonishment, but a malevolent ultimatum? Build your refuge or drown with the rest of my children. Noah’s god was overbearing. The sky was black with his fury. In the desert he was an absentee father. No rains. No angels crying. No wonder the Holy Land was pockmarked with war and mayhem, like some syphilitic whore: god’s children were always brawling over his throne, their petulance intensified by pretenses and weapons of mass destruction, each one wanting to become the “man of the house”.
The parking lot was a choc-a-block maze of tractor trailers. Luckily, everyone seemed to be either inside the diner or inside their cabs. I hid my rifle in my duster behind the dumpster again, then went inside.
The cook saw me come in and motioned me to the counter. Only one seat was available. All o the others were squeaking beneath fat ass truckers scarfing down their lunch.
“I was afraid we ran you off for good,” the cook said.
“I’ve learned to let petty shit slip off my back,” I said.
“Learned that in the Army,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Just from dealing with white people my whole life.”
The cook chuckled. The guy to my right sneered down at his BLT, then bit into it with a vengeance. It reminded me of a hog scrounging for truffles.
“Want a sandwich?” the cook asked. “On the house.”
“Just some coffee,” I said, “and some information.”
The cook nodded and poured me a cup of black, bitter coffee. It was lukewarm and much bitterer than the cup I had early that morning. It must have been sitting for a while. I took a sip of it and did not hide my soured face. I nodded at it, though, because I liked how its god-awful taste woke up my senses.
“What do you need to know about?” he asked.
“Who,” I said. “A woman living by herself down in a valley. Her name’s Zoya.”
“Never heard of her,” he said. “Where she live?”
“In a rundown white house in a field. Muddy drive lane. Muddy house. She’s gone…feral, I think.”
“I think I know which house you’re talking about,” he said. “I didn’t think that house was inhabited. You said her name’s…. what was it?”
“Zoya.”
“Zoya? She a colored girl?”
“Yes and no,” I said. “She’s albino. Or has Vitiligo.” He gave me a quizzical look. “A skin disease,” I explained. “Turns you white.”
“Like Michael Jackson?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, just to simplify things.
He grinned. “It’s funny to me,” he said. “Us whites are always trying to darken our skin with tanning, and you colors are always trying to lighten your skin with bleaching.”
I gave a noncommital nod.
“The Indians do it now, too,” he said. “Bleach themselves whiter. And I always thought Indian women were the prettiest I’d ever seen. Skin like cinnamon. Why would you go and ruin such pretty skin?”
Again, a noncommital nod.
He did not seem to mind my lack of enthusiasm. “It’s the people who are unhappy with themselves that make it harder for the rest of us to be happy with who we are. Sowing discord. Telling us we oughta’ be a different color. Or we oughta’ love a color more, or hate a color more. Can’t live with themselves happily, so they gotta’ make the rest of us unhappy with what color they are, or aren’t. That was so great about the Army. Made you think beyond yourself. Made you think beyond a lot of different things. No colors matter there except Army Green.”
I couldn’t even muster a noncommital nod.
“But it ain’t ever going to stop for the civilians,” the cook concluded. “No matter who’s yelling at who. It’s like what my momma used to say: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him a Baptist.’”
That much was true, I supposed. And when things did change, they never changed for the right reasons. Flashpoints of change occurred because they were flashy. That was why people seemed to care more about the King of Pop than they did Martin Luther King nowadays. One had more rhinestone luster than the other, and distance and time had made the radiance of one King fade while the other’s ghost was still singing songs on the radio.
I was startled out of these depressing thoughts when I saw the local Sheriff come in, sporting a cowboy hat and wearing sunglasses despite the world outside being darker than sin. Things always became more apparent when the Law was nearby. For instance, I was the only Black man in the entire diner, and since I was the only black man it felt as if the Sheriff’s unseen eyes were fixed on me. In a crowd of white faces, my face was as conspicuous as a raven among a flock of doves
He walked slowly toward me, his cowboy boots click-clopping on the tiled floor. Why this Sheriff was wearing so much cowboy attire, I didn’t know. This was a Heartland state, but it wasn’t the Midwest. The closest prairies were a couple of states Westward.
I couldn’t get up and leave. It would have looked too suspicious. Instead, I asked the cook if I could have that sandwich after all.
“Sure thing,” he said, and immediately made one for me.
While I waited, the Sheriff walked by, then paused.
“Boy,” he said. “You’re sitting in my seat.”
The cook returned just in time with my sandwich.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the sandwich and standing up. I knew better than to fight over a stool with a lawman dressed up like John Wayne. It would have only ended badly for me; either in jail or in a morgue. I took my sandwich and moved to a vacant table.
“Boy,” the Sheriff called after me. I turned and looked at him, not knowing what to expect. “You forgot to pay for your food.”
“It’s on the house, Sheriff,” the cook said.
The Sheriff took off his sunglasses. His blue eyes were compressed between squinty eyelids. “Then he ought to pay for it with gratitude,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, just to expedite this encounter.
“You’re welcome,” the cook said. I could see that he was troubled by the exchange, but he wasn’t going to second-guess the Sheriff too much on my behalf. He brought the Sheriff a sandwich on a plate, and a piece of good ol’ American apple pie. The Sheriff sat down on the stool and took off his hat, revealing thin white hair along a red-tinted neck. He wasn’t the type that tanned; he was the type that burned.
I ate my BLT as quietly as possible, keeping my eyes on the tear-streaked windows, and the darkness that waited beyond them. I did not know what to do about Zoya. She needed help, but I couldn’t help her; not as an AWOL soldier with an arrest warrant out for him in another state. I needed to finish my BLT and then move on. Make my way deeper into the wilderness. Follow the river, like Jim and Huckleberry Finn. I was Jim. My rifle was Huckleberry Finn.
“What’s your name, boy?”
I turned from the window and saw the Sheriff looming over me.
“Jim,” I lied.
“Jim who?”
“Jim Finn,” I lied.
“I ain’t never seen you around here before,” the Sheriff said, sitting down uninvited at my table. “You new at the wheel?”
“I’m not a trucker,” I said. “I’m on leave.”
“Oh,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, but I could tell that he was not relaxed at all. His posture was distrust and readiness. “So you a soldier?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I should have lied, but the truth came spilling out; just not the whole truth. “Just returned from Afghanistan.”
He crossed his arms. “How many tours?”
“One,” I said. “But I am due back soon.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Going to see some folks,” I said. “Got caught by the river.”
He nodded at this, and his body seemed to relax. “You and everybody else here.” He pushed himself up from the chair, sighing like an old man. “Well, take care, Jim. Thanks for serving this great country of ours. And godspeed.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
He returned to his stool at the counter, and began to eat his apple pie. I ate the rest of my sandwich and discreetly left while the Sheriff was captivated by some whip cream.
I retrieved my rifle and duster from behind the dumpster, then set off toward the river, going behind the truckstop and into the woods, so I could avoid the Sheriff and any other curious eyes.
Through and down I went, the forested knobs recording my footsteps with mud. I walked parallel with the old country roads, glimpsing them occasionally through the black branches and the falling rain. The potholes sloshed with rain, and the cracks were furrowed to trenches as the newborn creeks flowed athwart the roads. I came to a creek that had swollen to a river in its own right and had to cross its narrow bridge to continue on. I let my mind be as a river, flowing in one direction. And yet faces floated up from that river, unbidden, speaking to me, pleading with me, just before sinking again into that torrential flow. I saw Bo, his ginger-headed face convulsing with drugs. I saw the little Afghani girl, her small mouth twisted in ungodly suffering. I saw Zoya, her eyes pale and then dark, pale and then dark, asking me about my rifle and telling me her husband would be coming home soon, just before the luminous squid-worms pulled her into the depths once again. I saw countless other faces rising from that river, and then submerging again, drowning in memories. White, black, brown, yellow, red; faces all agonizing in that river of sorrow. Because what was memory except sorrow? What was remembering things except drowning in the depths of Life instead of just flowing with the sorrows and letting them take you wherever they would? I needed a tourniquet for my memories. I needed something to staunch the flow.
The rain had a musicality to it. It was bellicose, but it was music. War had a musicality to it, too, and it came in swells, dropped to single-note silences, and then chaotically clashed with violent Jazz pitches. It was the music of an arrhythmic heartbeat; one shocked to a stammering hammer-beat just before the heart burst from the stress. The truth was that I hated music, too. I used to listen to Rap, and R&B, Hip-Hop, and even old Soul. No modern shit, though. I didn’t like how modern rappers referred to women as bitches and spoke about nothing but money and partying. I didn’t like the macho grandstanding and the shallow shit stacked tall to give the appearance of depth. But now even the old school Rap and Hip-Hop was too much for me. I couldn’t take the bomb-blasting bass, the confrontational lyrics, the noise of it all. Now I just wanted silence. Utter silence. And not the silence of Afghanistan— the plotting, scheming, antagonistic silence— but the peaceful, unworried silence. The rain was a hushing noise; a uniform cacophony that obliterated its own cadences to create a wall of nothingness. It was a suicidal meaninglessness as the raindrops struck themselves upon the ground, decelerating into the inert puddles. Suicidal. Yes, that was the right word for it. The angels cried and their tears escaped the sorrow by launching themselves along gravity’s pull and crashing themselves into this unfeeling ball of mud and shit. Perhaps I should have antagonized the Sheriff. Perhaps I should have gone back and screamed at him, pull my rifle on him, shot out a window, and let his bullets have had their say. It would have been a small amount of noise to endure before that hushing wall of silence that was Oblivion.
And yet, I could hear Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crooning a song. He was singing “I put a spell on you…because you’re mine” while his crazed carnival music carouseled in the background. It visited me like a macabre hymn in my quietest moments. In Afghanistan it visited me. In the States it visited me. Even now it cycled in my head, competing with the cadence of the rain. Life did put a spell on us. It held onto us tightly and refused to let go. I resented it, and yet his song compelled me. Does a carcass refuse its flies? No, they gradually work their way into its eyes and nose and head and heart. Only a matter of time.
I took the muzzle of my rifle away from my mouth and strapped it again to my shoulder, under my duster. I followed the road until it was overtaken by the river, and then trudged uphill, coming to a field where old cedar posts tottered sideways along the rolling waves of land. Farther ahead I found another barn. This one was newer, and in better shape than the previous one I had spent the night in. Going inside, it smelled of hay and earth. I dried off and used some of the hay to make a fire, sitting down beside it and disassembling my rifle, cleaning it, and putting it back together. The patter of rain on the tin roof made me drowsy. Sleep, paradoxically, was a small suicide we underwent every night so we could live in the morning. I took this suicide willingly enough and slept until nightfall.

***

I dreamed that I had returned from the war. The airport was full of soldiers, all dressed in desert-dust. They turned as one and looked at me, their accusatory eyes following me as I ran away from them. Running into the woods, I found them there, too, following me like I was an escaped slave, their hounds pulling at their leashes, all snarling and barking at me as I rushed into the woods. I tried to find shadows to hide in, but the sun followed me, too, and it blazed upon me like an eye of condemnation. Coming to a road, I followed it, and found myself once again at the truckstop and its diner. The faces in the diner turned and looked at me, all at once like a bunch of dogs seeing a raccoon enter their yard. They all stood up at once, and I backed away, but it was too late. The doors were completely blocked off, so I ran down the hall and hid in the restroom. I saw Bo slumped in a stall, holding his bleeding heart in his hands.
“None of us ever get away,” he said. “You’ll never be free. Freedom isn’t free, because it doesn’t exist. You’ll always have to do what other people want. Life only gives you one freedom, and that is only if you do it before someone or something takes your own terms away from you. So do it.”
The door to the restroom flung open and the Sheriff and the flannel trucker and countless other flaring faces mobbed me, tying me up and taking me out to the woods where a noose awaited me.
“Die in the desert,” they said, “or die here, nigger.”
The noose was tight as they hauled me up. They were going to take my one and only freedom away from me. The only freedom that actually existed. How I would die…

***

I awoke to silence. Not the hushed silence of rain; only silence. The silence of a ghost’s scream. The moon was full and shone through the cracks in the barn. I rose and gathered my things. An urgency compelled me. I did not know why. It took hold of me, like a sneeze, and there was no fighting it. I walked outside and followed the sound of the river as it rushed like a titan’s tongue toward its terminal glut.
There was something wrong in the world. On a primordial level, in my deep ancestral blood, I felt something swirling with menace and malice. It wasn’t like sensing a sabertoothed tiger ready to spring; it was like knowing a volcano was going to erupt, and with its eruption there would be no escape. The whole earth would burn with its scream of Death.
But I could not stop running toward it. It was what a soldier did: run toward the danger. It was not something that a civilian could understand. Even in the dark, with the chill of night on my face and the shadows and earth and slick grass betraying me with every step, I ran. Maybe it was something else, too. Maybe it was Zoya calling me back to her. Maybe she was not the only one infected with parasites.
There were no nuances on the front line. Kill or be killed was the only rule that applied. Politicians and pundits and philosophers could heap up rhetoric back in their quiet, peaceful chairs while soldiers heaped up bodies, and were in turn heaped up, ourselves. They should have tried matching the bullet fire with their bullet points and seen, for themselves, which one held the most clout in the exchange. Jesus spoke peace, and said those that lived by the sword would perish by the sword, but it didn’t save him one bit. Not that I didn’t admire him. Sometimes being crucified was not the worst thing that could have happened to me. Maybe I even deserved it.
The moon was riding high when I came across the ridge overlooking the valley where Zoya’s house resided. Beneath the moonlight I could see that the river had rolled into the valley. I walked out upon a long stretch of land that extended into the river like a peninsula. I could see over the line of trees, and saw Zoya glowing in the moonlight.
Naked, Zoya stood on the roof of her house, surrounded by undulating floodwater. I called out to her, but she was transfixed by something beyond the trees. I followed her mesmerized gaze and saw a soft light moving among the flooded trees near the base of a knob. The light was large and soft in its luminosity, not intense like a manmade bulb, but somehow hurting my eyes as if I was staring into the desert sun. Yet, I could not look away. I watched its progress among the backlit trees and felt a primordial fear the likes of which I had never felt, even when bullets rained above my head and bombs exploded through walls to knock dusty bricks against me.
When the creature emerged from the trees, I let out a wavering moan. The pale, luminous thing floated along the water like a giant dead fish limply following the river’s flow. The tentacles along its bloated body undulated with drowsy life as it neared Zoya. Its tentacles reached for her, and she raised her arms to it, welcoming it home. Their luminous offspring swarmed like a school of glowing fish, circling their father like a halo.
I now understood why she had asked me whether my rifle could kill someone in one shot. I raised the rifle and fired. Zoya’s bald head twisted sideways and then she collapsed, her body unresponsive and the white glow dimming to darkness once again. The moon-thing writhed at the report. I shot at it, again and again and it bled but a trickle of glowing blackish ooze. It then turned and floated towards me. I shot again at its bloated flanks, but the bullets were like pin pricks in an elephant’s bulk; they did not deter its progress. I wanted to escape to higher ground in the wooded knobs, but I could not move.
The creature’s long tentacles wove in and around the trees, illuminating them in a mesmerizing light. My body stayed where it was, betraying me as the tentacles rose around me. The glowing pallor of its ropey appendages were like a fish’s belly, or a bloated corpse floating in the water. One tentacle tentatively touched my face. It was so cold that it burned like fire, blinding me with its frigid flesh. It communicated through touch, this needful adaptation evolved in the dark oceans of a planet orbiting a dying star. I saw things no human mind should see. I saw a planet ringed with moons, its surface hilled with water, rising like mountains in other areas as the moons pulled at its watery sphere. The water rose and encircled the moons, creating a web of water. I saw millions of these creatures spiraling around one another in the depths, unable to find bearers for their children, the life in their planet consumed until only they remained. They traveled one of the many long stretches of water to that moon, thickening around it and then spinning as one, unified in their strategy for survival. They had to be unified to survive. Their bodies and the momentum gave the moon greater mass, pulling the hundreds of other moons to it with its gravity, crashing into them and gaining more mass, even as millions of them died in the collision. The moon snowballed, then, engorging on its sister moons. Billions died before their composite planet was large enough to oscillate with enough force to break free of its orbit from the dead planet. It then went spiraling away from its dying star, crashing and scattering across the galaxies for eons, its children spreading as their rogue planet broke apart while pinballing around the galaxy.
Its touch told me to not be afraid— to come into that radiant maw and be one with its unity. It reminded me of the little Afghan girl taking Bo by the finger and leading him to a sniper’s crosshairs. The rage I felt broke the spell.
It didn’t care what color you were, or what religion. Like the Army, it would mark you and use you. It was just trying to survive, just trying to perpetuate its species. It did not belong here on earth. This wasn’t a clash of races. It wasn’t a hostility born of racism. It was a hostility born of mutual incompatibility. One of our species would die if the other was to live. It did not wish to cohabit peacefully. It wished to dominate and supplant. It was worse than racism or slavery; it was prosperity from annihilation.
Desperate to be rid of its touch, my hand sought my bowie knife, but settled on the lighter in my backpack. With a frantic flick of the thumb, I lit the damned tentacle afire. The pale flesh blistered and blackened and bloomed aflame. The creature flailed and shrieked. The fire ate through half the tentacle in a matter of seconds, ringing the limb and rushing toward the bulk. The moon-creature severed the limb like a salamander shedding its tail. The tentacle fell to the ground, the remainder writhing spasmodically before it was completely consumed, melting to a dark bluish ichor that stank. The odor was too overbearing, as was the sting upon my face. I collapsed as the creature lunged toward the safety of the river, floating away between the trees and the hills and the rays of the moon. Its swarm of children followed it out, swimming downstream like glossy strains of lunar gossamers.
I could still feel the cold burn of its touch upon my face, and I could still see its kin spiraling through the galaxy. I could still feel the command of its terrible touch, and the compulsion of its biological drive that had brought it across the dark depths of Space and Time. I watched the creature as it followed the river, disappearing beyond the shadow-palled knobs.
I collapsed upon my knees and waited there until morning. My hand sought a joint, but fumbled them all, dropping them down the side of that hill, all taken by the river. All would be taken by that river, I thought. Eventually.

***

I awoke an hour or so later. My right eye was blind. My face still stung where the tentacle had touched me. The river was still cresting. Zoya’s body was gone from the roof of her house. Unsteadily, I rose to my feet and picked up my rifle and lighter. My face still stung as if the skin had been burned off. My feet began to race before my mind could, and my heart was runner-up to both. By the time I reached the diner I was sweating as if I had fallen into the river. No doubt I looked like a man recently reborn from drowning in those indifferent waters.
The cook had said there was something in the river. I knew he would believe me. I went into the diner and went straight up to him. He gasped when he saw my face. I told him that Zoya was dead and that her husband had escaped downstream. It was not a lie.
“I was having an affair with her,” I said. “I was returning to try to get her to run away with me, but he got to her before I could save her.”
A trucker said something about “jungle fever”. The cook told him to shut the fuck up.
“You know where he went?” the cook asked me.
“I think so,” I said. “But I need help. And a few other things.”
While the cook called the Sheriff, he let me have the freedom of his kitchen. Scrounging around, I found a kerosene heater in the corner. I took out the cannister and checked it. It was half-full. Rummaging through the drawers, I found a few rags. Atop a shelf I found several empty bottles. I poured the kerosene into three bottles and stuffed their necks with the rags, making molotov cocktails.
The cook saw what I had done and frowned. “The Sheriff won’t let you take the law into your own hands,” he said. “He’s not going to let you burn him alive.”
“I think the Sheriff will want to do worse to him when he sees him,” I said. “Unless he lynches me first.”
“He won’t do that,” the cook said. “I know him. He may not like…well, he may be similar to most other folk around here and think races shouldn’t mix. But he’ll do what’s right by the law.”
“I’m not green,” I said. “I know he doesn’t like blacks.”
“Yeah, you’re green,” the cook said. “Army Green. The Sheriff was a soldier, too. He respects that. He knows a soldier’s worth. Anybody willing to lay down their life for their country has to be a good person.”
“No, they don’t,” I said. “Plenty of Nazis were willing to die for Germany. Plenty were willing to kill, too, based on the color of a man’s skin.”
The cook stroked his gray beard. “That’s true. I can’t deny that. World War II proved white men could be evil. But it also proved we could work together with other colors. The Germans with the Japs. The Brits and Americans with the Arabians and Africans and Latinos. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. My granddaddy fought alongside Brazilians. He was a card-carrying Klan member. But one day a Brazilian saved his life. Kicked a Jap grenade away just before it could explode underneath him. My granddaddy never said nothing bad about anybody after that. Wars can change things for the better, even as things get worse.”
“But what about Vietnam?” I asked, feeling angry. “Vietnam wasn’t a great cause for us. It didn’t bring out the best in the soldiers that went there. It fucked them up.”
The cook seemed stricken, as if he was suffering a stroke. His mouth hung agape and his eyes widened, then he closed his mouth and blinked. “That’s true,” he said haltingly. “I’ve seen some things. I’ve done some things. My Lai wasn’t good for anybody involved. It brought out the worst in us. Mines everywhere. Sprouting up like daisies. What we did was horrible—what I did was horrible— and I don’t offer any justification. Just facts. We changed for the worse. But we also protected each other. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t rat each other out. Only the Lieutenant got sentenced, and he took it like a soldier. Even the Army didn’t like sentencing him. That’s why they gave him such a light sentence. They put us in an impossible situation and then blamed us when shit went wrong. Vietnam didn’t just kill us with land mines in the ground. It put ‘em in our hearts.” He pretended to scratch his cheek, but was really wiping away a tear from his eye. “And let me tell you something. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, we all looked out for each other. We may have hated each other’s guts for thousands of other reasons, but we protected one another.”
I gave a noncommital shrug. War was a temporary watershed for hatred. The resentment and the hatred returned in full flow after the enemy was defeated and there were no more watersheds to lessen its singular direction. The hatred was a river without end, and it brimmed inside every heart.
“It’s like a bridge,” he said. “The timbers hold the bridge up against the wind and the waves, and they don’t care about the color of the timbers beside them.”
I didn’t think he was right about that. Some people would rather the whole of civilization come crashing down upon their heads than watch a black and a white walk down the street together, holding hands. The river would never be truly forded.

The Sheriff brought a posse. There were two officers and a deputy, each armed with shotguns or rifles. All of them had a mean-looking magnum holstered on their hips. They made me nervous, and I wondered what they thought of all of this, especially as they were led by a black man along the river, heading where I had last seen the creature afloat, following the sloshy banks. The sun rose as we went, burning away the shadows of the leafless woods. The river narrowed and thinned as the many watersheds diverted its strength, and I began to wonder if the moon-creature had actually come this way. Where would it hide from the sun? It was too large to shelter in the shallow river now.
“What the hell is that?!” the Sheriff exclaimed.
We found it, its opalescent bulk huddling beneath a bridge to escape the ubiquitous sunlight. It shivered and undulated, spreading its pale tentacles along the underside of the bridge. It could not burrow into the mud like its offspring. It was too large, and the rock too close to the surface in this clay-and-stone land. Perhaps it could not survive without water to keep its large mass from collapsing in upon itself. Perhaps the scant heat in this yet frigid February day was enough to weaken it. To think that it had come thousands of light-years, surviving across the gulfs of space, only to die huddled beneath a bridge like some homeless veteran. I wondered if I would die the same way. Freezing to death under a bridge, or an overpass, or in some other nook of Uncle Sam’s civilization.
The posse panicked when they saw the creature. They fired into its shimmery corpulence with all of their guns, emptying their barrels and chambers in a hellish salvo. The bullets peppered the creature, causing it to trickle blood, but the damage was not lethal.
“It ain’t killin’ it!” a deputy shrieked.
“Keep firin’!” the Sheriff shouted.
Before the posse could reload and fire again, I walked over to the bridge, interrupting their line of sight. The water was little more than a creek here, and the moon-creature was only half-submerged in water. Taking out my lighter, and the two bottles I had prepared, I lit a molotov cocktail and threw it at the creature. The bottle broke upon its body and burst into flames. Its flesh was extremely flammable and the few spread quickly. It tried to flop over— to extinguish the flames in the shallow water— but I lit the other molotov cocktail and threw it, too. It erupted over the creature just like the previous one. It thrashed wildly now, striking the bridge and burning in flames and blistering in the sunlight. It had nowhere to escape to. The posse must have felt it incumbent upon them to claim victory in any way they could, and so unloaded another hail of bullets and slugs upon the creature. The ichor caught fire as it bled from the bullet entry holes, the otherwise negligible wounds carrying the flames into the creature’s flesh along the blue-black runnels. The flames caught within, where no water could reach them, and the creature shrieked and writhed as it burned alive from the inside. Its white flesh burned to a dark putrescence that stained the bridge and the embankments of the creek.
“What the fuck was that?!” the Sheriff demanded, sweating out of every pink pore.
“An invasion,” I said.
I explained what I knew the best way I could. Surprisingly, they were silent the entire time I explained it to them. No interruptions. No “Boy, that ain’t possible” or “You’re a goddamn loony coon”. I told them what I had learned from the creature’s touch. I told them what I had learned by piecing together what it had done to Zoya. that the enemy did not care what color its next wife would be. It did not care what “race”. It was not racist. It was practical. Clinically practical, like the Army itself. It was an invasion machine that did not baulk at method or countermeasure. It wanted to survive. The question was, “Did we want to survive?”

We waited until the fire had run its course, leaving nothing but foul-smelling stains. Then we trekked back to Zoya’s house. The waters had receded now. We found her body in the the crook of a tree, cradled as if she had been crucified. Her bald head had been canoed by the rifle bullet, dribbling the same blackish-blue ichor that had bled from the creature. I climbed the tree to fetch her down and not a single white man below made a jape about a “monkey in a tree”. They were too disturbed to crack jokes.
“What’s wrong with her?” the cook asked, his throat tightening his words to a whisper.
“She has parasites,” I said, setting her limp body upon the ground. “That monster infected her with its offspring.”
When they saw the moon-worms expelling out of Zoya’s dead body, they turned away, nauseated and trembling. They begged me to burn her as quickly as possible. I did. After the flames had extinguished, we gathered her remains and put her bones and ashes in a dufflebag.
“I’ll take the rest of her to the crematorium for a proper burning,” the Sheriff said. “My deputy will take your testimony.”
The Sheriff glanced sidelong at me, then nodded to his deputy, and then his other two officers followed him away from that field; one carrying the dufflebag and the other carrying the guns. They returned uphill, to the road where their squad cars sat. They waited there, their backs turned to us.
I was suffering deja vu of the time I spent taking Bo’s remains to his family. They say you can never step in the same river twice, but the same river sure can drown you endless times. The memories overlapped each other, and the levee broke. I was overcome with grief and horror. I wept for the first time since I found Bo slumped in the restroom stall. I was too overcome to realize that the deputy was eying me sideways. My face stung— with the imprint of the moon creature and with grief— and I did not see him pull his magnum from his holster and raise it, its muzzle aimed at the side of my head. The din of the shot echoed through my skull. I stood motionless, waiting to tumble over. Instead, the deputy fell face forward in the mud. The cook lowered his rifle, then tossed it away, the muzzle still smoking.
“You need to get out of here,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t thank me,” he said, his face pale and sweating. “I’m gonna’ have to tell them you killed him.”
“I know,” I said.
“Go!” he said. “Don’t you stop, neither!”
I went. I followed the river Southbound, keeping with the current. The Sheriff would come for me eventually, assembling a bigger posse— or lynch mob, more than likely—to find me. So I had to get out of the county. I had to get out of the state. There would probably be a manhunt laced with goddamned dragnets, too. They would try to seine me like a minnow. I had to move quickly. I could not afford to dillydally. The hounds of war were after me, as they had always been.

***

I became sensitive to the sun, and to the heat.
Three days on the run and I began to sense them, too— the wives of the moon creature. I could see them in my blinded eye. They glowed like the moon in that featureless darkness, becoming as beacons for my flight. I went toward them as I left; one and then another. They were marked just like Zoya; just like I was. And like Zoya, their homes were shunned by animals. I went to them, and they welcomed me, and then I gave them what they wanted: I gave them peace.
Now, ever on the run, I hunt the wives of those creatures from another world. I follow the river, and where it floods I look for the women that have been blanched by its cold touch. Because of its touch, I see from two different eyes; one dark brown and the other pale and luminescent. The latter sees in the dark, and detects the infected wives. At times it is difficult to live this life, hunting down the breeding grounds of this alien invasion. I tell myself that I am performing mercy killings for these women; that I am being a good soldier. At other times I feel like I am only a killer, and that I kill because they disgust me so much.
I should have stayed in Afghanistan. There are places in the desert where there are no rivers. There are no rains. I want to bury my head in the sand and forget what I see here— forget everything until all of my thoughts are sand in the recesses of my sun-bleached skull, the world turning me like an hourglass unaware of its own demarcations of Time. I would know nothing but the dry, rainless silence of for all eternity. But I know that I couldn’t survive in the desert now. I would blister and burn up. It changed me, just like the war changed me.
Nowadays I stay away from mirrors. Last time I looked at myself I was well on my way to becoming completely white. But I don’t know if it is vitiligo or that monster’s touch. Who would have thought that turning white in America could be the most ominous thing to happen to a young black man? My uncle, maybe, but not me.
I feel so hot now, and my body needs to be cold. I take off my duster, and my sweater, and my undershirt, and my pants and boots. I wear only my boxers, and feel some relief from the stifling heat as a cold wind sweeps by me, roiling the fog. Sometimes, when I am feeling too hot, I wade into the swollen river. When the clouds lift, I find I cannot tolerate the sunlight. It blisters my skin where it touches me upon my marked face, and so I shun sunlight, staying in caves during the day, and coming out only at night. When I meet my wives along the river, I stay with them, too, in their mildewed homes with their damp, squishy carpets and grimy walls. I sometimes forget who I am and what I am doing. Sometimes I stay with my wives for months on end, looking after our children and awaiting the day when our children will grow large, and take wives of their own. And then I remember who I am, and I kill my wife, and I would kill myself, but then who would be there to fight this war along the riverside? Who would be left upon the front line if I went AWOL from Life one more time?
I shun my own reflection now. It alienates me from myself. It is like when I returned with Bo’s ashes. I saw myself in a mirror at his parents’ home and I was transfixed by how much I had been transformed. There was a collapse around my mouth where a smile could have once been. It was like the destruction of a school or a church or a cinema; the ruin unsalvageable.
War takes a hell of a toll on you.

Hysteria (Part Two)

20190223_200349

It was approximately midnight when I heard the scream. I hurried outside and ran toward Virginia’s cottage. The moon was bright, illuminating the treacherous path uphill. I heard a hissing voice hush her, but she would not be silenced. Shadows struggled in the candle-lit interior of her cottage. I rushed forward and the door was thrown open. A figure ran toward me, her long fair hair trailing after her. Behind her came a hobbling figure too slow to overtake her. Within the span of a breath she had cowered behind me, pointing at the hobbling man.
“He is trying to kill me!” she cried.
“I donna’ wanna’ kill her!” Henry said, his knife glinting in the moonlight. “Just her wanderin’ womb! It needs to cease its dreamin’ before it start’s wakin’! Will tol’ me so!”
The man had lost his senses. His eyes were wild with madness.
“Stop, Henry!” I said.
He did not stop, but raised the knife. I rushed to meet him, grabbing the arm with the thirsty blade. His eyes glowed with moonlight, and madness, and his cheeks glistened with tears.
“You donna’ understand!” he cried as we struggled. “I have to silence her screams! I have to silence the blasphemy of her wanderin’ womb!”
His mouth reeked of beer and his words rang with lunacy. “The wanderin’ womb!”.
“Get a grip on yourself!” I said. “Stop this! Drop the knife! William paid you to watch over her, not slay her!”
“You donna’ know the price!” he sobbed. “You donna’ know what he done to satisfy the Pact!”
I was taller than him, and had two good legs, but his madness lent him strength. Gradually, however, his crippled leg betrayed him, giving way as we both tumbled to the ground, the knife between us. I felt a splash of wetness, and the seaman shook as if suffering from a spasm of the spine. The struggle went out of him and he lay among the gorse, clutching the knife buried in his side. The blood was black by moonlight, like the shadowy cowl of Death himself.
“I meant her no harm,” he sobbed. “Only to free her. To free her from the wanderin’ womb!”
I rose to my feet, breathless and shaken. Virginia clung to me, looking down upon the madman. His breath shallowed, thinning and softening as the dark pall of Death spread wider.
“Ye’ donna’ un’erstand,” he gasped. “It’s an abomination. That…wanderin’…womb…”
They were his final words. He lay still then; dead as the face of the moon.
“Virginia!” I said, turning her away from the corpse. “Did he harm you?” I pulled her toward her cottage. “Come. I must check you for wounds.”
We entered her cottage. A candle burned by the window, but the writing desk was overturned, its contents spilled upon the floor. I used the candle to light an oil lamp, its fiery light further banishing the shadows. Virginia watched me with untroubled eyes, and I wondered, momentarily, if she would relapse into her catatonia. Instead, she let slip her white gown and stood denuded before me, her pale skin immaculate in that livid light. I was beside myself with astonishment.
“You said you would inspect me for wounds,” she said.
“At once!” I said, rallying my faculties against my astounded wonderment. “Of course, of course!”
Immediately, I surveyed her body most closely, holding the oil lamp near to reveal any lacerations or bruises that might need tending. Finding none, I told Virginia she was most fortunate and that she could clothe herself once again. She did not. Instead, she sat down upon her bed and stared at me— or perhaps stared at something beyond me. At length, she spoke.
“My husband assigned him to me,” she said plainly.
“Yes,” I said. “But certainly not to harm you. William would never…”
She tossed her fair hair impassively.
“What would you say if I told you that I almost welcomed his blade? What would you say if I told you I am tempted, even now, to withdraw that knife and thrust it into my heart? In truth, I am not even sure why I screamed. An old, animal instinct, perhaps.”
“You are suffering from your illness,” I told her. “You just need more treatment and more time to recover.”
She scoffed. “Time? Time is exactly what I do not need, nor have.” She smirked at the door. “That man was not so wicked as you might conjecture,” she said. “He refused to use his knife unless I absolved him of the sin with my forgiveness. Is that madness? I wonder…”
“Religiosity is a certain madness,” I said, trying to keep my eyes upon her face.
She appeared amused. “Have you ever been touched by a god, Dr. Grace?”
“By a god, Mrs. Worthington?” I said, not understanding. “Do you mean touched by God? As in a religious conversion?”
“By either, then,” she said, sardonically crossing her bare arms across her bare breasts.
“I am not of a religious inclination, Mrs. Worthington.”
She laughed softly, and I feared that this latest encounter had indeed damaged her wits. No sane woman would be inclined toward mirth after nearly dying.
“I would have suspected not,” she said. “No, once you are touched by a god, everything changes. You are awakened in ways you cannot comprehend, and so, to reconcile yourself, you become as if asleep to the rest of the world. Turned off, like an oil lamp.”
I turned off the oil lamp, thinking she was implying a need for greater privacy from the light. Her nakedness glowed within the room with its lunar luminescence.
“I am speaking of my catatonia,” she said. “I may have appeared unresponsive, but that was because I was like a wagon overburdened with weight. Too much upon my mind and so I could not budge beneath those panoramic revelations. Or were they pandemonic?” She reached out her hand and touched mine, ever so lightly. “But you fetched me back from those overwhelming sensations. With this hand. This hand beckoned me away from the pandemonium. I was too awake, Robert. I was catatonic because I was too awake.”
Without thinking, I clasped her hand in mine.
“What truly ails you, Mrs. Worthington?” I asked. “Please help me to understand. I feel as if I have been groping in darkness since first I saw you.”
She slipped her hand from mine and stood up, walking past me and looking out her cottage window. Her pale hip brushed against me and I quivered involuntarily.
“I am ever upon a bridge of sighs,” she said, “and I know not which way to go. Left or right. Up or down. Perhaps down, then up.” She shook her head. “No, no. Someone such as myself would not ascend. Too great a sin weighs upon me, ever growing, and I know not how I can expunge it without committing yet another sin in its stead.”
I needed to leave her cottage. I realized this with much affright, for I felt myself drawn to her as she stood, steeped starkly in the luminosity of her nakedness, and feared I might breach that gulf between patient and doctor.
“I need to fetch some men to remove the body,” I said. “You should rest. If you have difficulties sleeping I will bring some wine…”
She turned upon me, pressing against me with her belly and breasts. She kissed me, and her kiss dispelled all thoughts from my head.
“I will be fine,” she said as she withdrew. “Good night, doctor.”
She lay down to bed and I— in my bewilderment— fumbled with the door. Stumbling out into the night, I walked as if a somnambulist in want of smelling salts. So overtaken was I that I tripped over the dead seaman’s body as I stumbled through the moonlight. The tumble roused me to my senses, reminding me of the cliffs always hemming the moors, and so I picked myself up and, with a sober mind, I woke a few Cornish men, including George Friggs, and we saw to the disposal of the body.
I had thought we would bury the man, but George infromed me that the Cornish earth was not kind to shovels nor to the backs using them. Instead, they chose to wrap him in cloth and weigh him down with rocks. They then took him in a small boat and dropped him into the Celtic Sea.
“Is a proper sailor’s burial anyhow,” George reassured me. “The bastard might have been mad, but he will find his peace in the hereafter.”
It was the only prayer uttered that night. Everyone was eager to return to bed. Yet, I lingered upon the shore, listening to the hiss and hush of the tides. My mind went, naturally, to Virginia, but I turned it aside and thought instead of Henry O’ Toole. He had not seemed a violent man. He was mad, to be sure. The glint of flint in his eyes must have soon given itself to a great fire upon the brain. Yet, I had not believed him capable of violence. He seemed a reluctant assassin prompted by as much concern for Virginia as for the world. And Virginia’s account cautioned an overly violent characterization. True, he wished to harm her, but it seemed an act of fear or desperation rather than wrath or lust or any other such fiery emotion. He had ultimately begged for forgiveness, she said, and that, more than likely, was what bought her chance at escape.
I recalled his final words, too, for a clue. He had spoken of a “wanderin’ womb”. The phrase struck me as familiar, though I could not place its reference. Thinking upon it, I returned to my cottage. Once there, I sought my books. Throughout the witching hours I read by oil lamp the various passages I had marked concerning ancient beliefs concerning the womb. It was as the rosy blush of dawn came stealing out of the East that I found a relevant passage concerning the womb. It was in Plato’s works, of all people’s, and that imbecile had, as usual, much of nothing to say about anything that struck his fancy. He believed the womb to be a wandering creature that moved about in the woman’s body. I could not think that Henry O’ Toole was familiar with Plato, nor such antiquated notions as the womb being a separate creature living within Woman. So, what was it that the hobbled seaman actually meant? Surely there was reason in his madness, however disproportional.
It was a mystery, and I was too exhausted for mysteries. As I lay myself to bed my fatigued mind went wandering itself. I remembered what my father had said to me about my plans to become a doctor focused primarily upon women. He had been chagrined, and moreover, furious.
“My own son a degenerate!” he had exclaimed. “It should not surprise me that others should follow this Age of Reason with such abandon, but my own flesh and blood?! You must understand, boy! They are epicureans, one and all! Hedonists with intellectual pretenses. They feed themselves with libraries full of absurd immoralities to justify their perversions. Man’s sinfulness will inevitably corrupt every human enterprise, including Medicine. You will be damned, my son!”
“Knowledge is a blessing, father,” I told him. “And there is no happier knowledge than that of the creatures with whom Man is so intimately entwined.”
“I have lived with women enough to know the faults of them,” my father said. “And there is no remedying them, anymore than remedying a single man’s soul. Think back to when Adam sought to remedy Eve’s discontent and know the fruit of humanity’s sins. That is why they suffer in childbirth. That is why the bed holds no pleasures for them. Original Sin.”
“Certain women of Asia have enjoyed the marriage bed for centuries,” I had said. “There is no reason why they should be the only ones. And to understand women would be to improve their health. Is that not what we should aspire to do as doctors? So much could be learned in conjunction with women. Imagine what I could learn if I were to travel to the Orient. Perhaps I could even learn the means for safer birthing…”
“So you learn to practice Medicine from women now, do you?” my father had countered. “And savages at that.” He had scoffed. “But I suppose Asian savages are vogue in London. Perhaps you should import some into your service. Why bother with midwives of the English stock when you might have more exotic flavors at your disposal?”
“Father,” I said patiently, “what is it that you are implying of me?”
“That you have always had a keen interest in women,” he said. “Which I would normally encourage if the woman was of means and breeding. But to have a keen interest in all women…well, I am sure it is lucrative, but it is affords others much in the way of gossip.”
“I do not care for gossip,” I said. “It impoverishes our species. I only wish to elucidate what is sorely lacking in human knowledge. Women are yet a mystery to us. Half the world is in shadow. We need to know more about them so we can properly treat them for their maladies. And I believe that much of their suffering is from extraneous inhibitions and needless oppression. Why not work to eliminate the causes of these hysteria symptoms? For instance, if husbands would only tend to their wives’ needs in the marriage bed…”
“A woman’s pleasure in the marriage bed comes in her husband’s pleasure!” my father snapped. “Nothing more within it. Her personal pleasures lie beyond it, in her children and in the upkeep of the household. There is no personal pleasure in the marriage bed for proper ladies, as every married man in England can attest.”
“I contest it,” I had said vehemently. “It cannot be so. If you could only see how transformed these women are after a proper treatment…”
“Enough!” my father had said, nearly screaming. “What would your mother say? What would she say, having given her life so that you might live? And for what? To seek the bestial pleasures of these…these…bacchantes?! There is only one treatment for women: to read the Bible and forsake all other indulgences. Even chocolate is a thing of diabolic design.”
“Father, how can you say such things?” I said. “You have been a doctor your whole life. You have been a man of Science and Natural remedy!”
“And what has it given me? A son dedicating his life to perversions, like all among his ignoble generation. You seek to not only eat of the Forbidden Fruit, but to plant its seeds and make an Eden of your own; a manmade blasphemous thing that is a blight to the eyes of God.”
“We are only helping our fellow people,” I said.
“Helping your fellow people at the cost of the Master that made you,” he said. “Goodly works of God are being reduced to Natural trivialities, like ancient mountains mined for gold. This is the price of so-called Progress.”
“We must learn, though,” I argued. “Regardless of what it does to the superstitions that we hold dear, and indeed because of what it does to those superstitions. We must yoke ourselves to Progress.”
My father had shaken his head slowly, ruefully. “But you will not like what you find, son. It will be like gutting a flower to see how its petals bloom. All you will be left with is rot.”
Ignorance, for me, was a blasphemy. And I had no use for gods of any kind. My own birth had slain my mother. What sort of god demanded such a terrible price with so much infinite power and wisdom at his disposal? To me, if there was a god then he was a cruel tyrant, for his very breath was a great storm at sea that sank ships and widowed women and orphaned children upon his unfeeling whim. He was an elemental creature beyond Reason, and so beyond Empathy for the creations he had forged through eons of bloody Natural Selection. His very breath soured the world.
And I vowed I would dedicate my whole life to casting just a sliver of light upon his shadowy depths, if only so he had less darkness wherein to dwell, unseen, like the monster that he was.
Now, of course, I truly regret glimpsing god, for it is one of many of the horrors I must take with me to the grave, burdened as I am with hideous revelations.

***

My ghosts clung stubbornly to me throughout the night. Their cumbrous, clammy touch inspired frets and fatigue without relief. My father’s ghost bickered and demeaned me while the faceless ghost of my mother blamed me for her death. When I attempted to speak— to apologize to my mother and tell her my intention to atone for murdering her with my birth into this world— I had no tongue. I had no voice. I had no breath. The ghosts of my parents sat upon my chest and I could only roll my head about, powerless against their condemnations.

***

I woke late in the afternoon the next day. Charlotte had asssumed liberty in sitting next to my bed, in a ladderback chair.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“You were sleepin’ awfully long, sir,” she said. “I feared you might be sick.”
“I could not sleep well,” I said. “There was an incident last night, of which I should like to inform you and your sisters. It may affect Mrs. Worthington’s convalescence here.”
“As you say, sir,” she said, rising from the chair. She lingered by the bedside, her face a silent seal of concern and apprehension. Her presence vexed me.
“Is there anything else, Charlotte?” I asked impatiently.
“No, sir,” she said, curtsying. She hesitated. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I only wondered if there were anything I might do for you.”
“Yes,” I said, with admittedly waspish irritation. “Your chores. That is what I pay you for.”
She curtsied once again and left to join her sisters. I was suffering too much from a headache to be pestered at that moment by Cornish girls with their silly peculiarities. I rose from bed, groggily, and prepared myself for another day. As I often did upon rising, I searched for the velvet pouch with which William had secured his wife’s safekeeping. Its heft of wealth was reassuring. There were enough jewels, pearls, and gold to buy a manor house further inland and live the rest of my days in comfort. And perhaps I would do that. Perhaps, I fancied, I would invite the Worthingtons to winter there.
Perhaps William would be too preoccupied with business and Mrs. Worthington would come alone.
It was an ignoble fancy, but it gave haste to my movements despite my fatigue. I hurried to don my clothes and to start the day, heading directly to Virginia’s cottage. She was already upon the moor, walking through the gorse. Her whitely golden hair streamed in the briny breeze— tumbling with the shamelessness of a Greek nymph. She turned to me, as if expecting me, and smiled.
“It is high time you had risen,” she said in her husky, yet melodic, voice. “I was beginning to fear that the madman had not been so dead as thought and had taken you with him.”
“He cannot harm you now,” I said, “nor anyone.”
“Thanks to you,” she said, smiling openly as the sea winds blew her long fair hair about her face. She looked like an elfin queen behind that wilderness of flaxen hair. My heart leapt in anticipation of becoming lost in its caress. I was quite lost in such unbecoming fancies. “You are my knight now,” she said. “I shall dub thee Lancelot, though I dare say it is an ill-omened title.”
“I would gladly be your Lancelot,” I said.
She took my hands in her own. “And would you kill a dragon for me, if I asked it of you?”
“Anything you wished,” I said, grinning at what seemed a childish jest.
“And if the dragon was a part of me,” she said, “and would mean my own death to free me, would you do it?”
All mirth vanished in the instant, blown away by the faint stench of rot upon the winds.
“I do not like this conjecture,” I said.
She smiled and let go of my hands. “It is just a fancy of mine, is all,” she said. “Come now. Let us walk away this angst. Give our demons a jaunt, as a kettle master would his dogs.”
We walked for much of the day upon the moors and the heathland. The sun was radiant and the flowers further inland were ebullient with its light. It was an idyllic stroll. We said little except to comment upon a certain flower, or the refreshing air, or the sparkle of the sea. Eventually we came to a granite outcropping near an old ruin of a building. Well-worn ruts formed a crude road leading away to a shore nearby shore. I had never been so far from my clinic. It was exhilarating in its own way, and keenly I was pleased with having Virginia by my side. Nor did I fail to understand the scandalous nature of my emotions. I was dancing upon a steep and slippery precipice.
“This must have been a mine once upon a time,” I remarked. “Copper or tin, I should think. Maybe even iron. I do not know.”
“It contrasts greatly with the heath,” Virginia said. “Indeed, it is most foul in appearance, like a ruin where once it was likely beautiful.”
“Pardon me,” I said, “but did not your family’s fortune come from mines?”
“Yes,” she said. “But they have been barren for a long time.”
“And so you married William,” I said, the implications distasteful. “I presume to understand that his newfound wealth has been a result of mines in America.” I thought again of the strange creamy white gold and oddly coloured jewels that resided in the velvet pouch in my bedcamber. “Gold mines, if I am not mistaken. Is that so?”
“He has found wealth in America,” she said quietly.
“So,” I said, hoping that I did not inquire too clumsily into this rather personal business, “how did he acquire such opportunities? Did he buy a teat off that Golden Calf? What has he traded for such wealth?”
Virginia was quiet a very long time. “Something not so near and dear to his heart as gold,” she said, her long fair hair blowing around her like an aureola.
“I see,” I said, not at all seeing what she meant.
Virginia continued to gaze at the plundered earth with its open wounds of blasted turf and rent rock. There was a wrathfulness in her countenance. Combined with her beauty, it made her appear like an avenging angel.
“What a creature Man is,” she said. “When Man looks upon something, he must either control it or destroy it. Whether it be animals or land or Woman, he must control or destroy it. But soon there will come things that Man cannot control; things which he will despair of ever destroying. It will be as a new hell for Man, then; one that Man will not be capable of reconciling himself with, but like a fly against a window pane he will slam himself again and again in the futile effort to break free. Whereas Woman…well, Woman has learned to deal with such hells since her creation and will, through her strength, endure yet another glass cage no different than the one before.”
She trembled as she spoke, but whether wroth or ill I could not tell. I know now that her tremors were born of simultaneous sources.
“Are you well, Virginia?” I asked, touching her wrist.
She drew away from me, and there came a momentary flare of hatred in her eyes. But she shook her head and sighed. “I am sorry, Robert,” she said, warily. “It has been a long walk and I should like to return to the cottage.”
“As you wish,” I said. “Let us go.”
We returned to the village. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were in the field, affecting to pick flowers. When I approached the three sisters, only Anne and Emily hailed us. Charlotte turned away, as if lost in her own thoughts.
“It is good to see you out of bed, sir,” Anne said. She eyed Virginia with a sidelong glance that I disliked. “And our one and only patient is doing well, too, it seems.”
“Yes,” I said, “though the ruffian I dispatched last night merely had her in his grasp.”
The sisters’ demeanors changed upon the instant from smoldering resentment to startled apoplexy.
“Indeed, Dr. Grace?!” Emily said, her mouth a moue of surprise. “What happened?”
“It does not matter,” I said, wanting to spare Virginia the recollection. “It is enough to know that I have slain the deluded fool with his own blade. Now you no longer need fear any trespassers.”
The revelation overawed the three sisters and I, to my great shame, took pride in being a hero of my own story, especially since it involved saving the life of the beautiful Virginia Worthington. I exulted in it, truly, and blinded myself to my own folly.
I sent the three sisters home early once again, after they had made an early supper for Virginia, and then I set myself down to the tavern once again, hoping to speak to George about last night’s bloody business. In truth, I wanted to regale the Cornish men— to whom I was considered little more than a London dandy— with my heroic encounter with violence the night before.

***

As Fate would have it, I would not be able to confer upon the Cornish flock my grand tale of valor. Instead, I greeted George at the bar to order another modest meal of mutton and potatoes and was served, instead, with a sobering bit of news.
“Dr. Grace,” he said, “I received a letter today from a lad working a merchant ship. We were to deliver it to you at once, but your midwives said you were resting. Later, they said you had gone for a stroll. I am sorry for the tardiness of its delivery, but here it is, swift as bad luck could have it.”
He handed to me an envelope with William’s seal upon it. I sat down, then, next to a candle and opened the letter, reading its contents. It had not been written by William, nor did it claim to be. Rather, it was written by the captain of his trade ship. It reported—in a succinct, clinical hand—that William had taken his own life in the captain’s quarters. My childhood friend left no testimony behind, and gave no forewarning to his self-destructive state of mind. The captain had sent the letter ashore with the lad and then continued North, having too much cargo to tarry for formalities. Since I was Virginia’s caretaker it was incumbent upon me to inform her of the tragedy. In the meantime, the captain would oversee William’s trade ventures, as had been a contractual stipulation previously agreed upon in the event of misfortune.
I was shocked. William had been a lifelong friend, and now his life was at an end. Simultaneously, I felt a quickening rush of relief and, moreover, joy. Virginia was now a widow, and as such was available to court. True, there had to be a sufficient period of mourning, but afterwards she would yet remain in my care and, so, be free to wed me as she undoubtedly desired. Yes, fool as I was— and, moreover, a repugnant opportunist, it seemed—I had no doubts as to her attachment to me; no more doubts than as to my attachment to her.
I thanked George and left the tavern, walking uphill toward the seaside moor. The moon was full as I approached Virginia’s cottage. I rapped at the door once, and it at once opened.
“Robert?” she said. “Is something the matter?”
“I am afraid so,” I said, affecting proper solemnity for the message. “Please, be seated. This will come as quite the shock.”
She did not sit, but stood by the window, turning away from me. Her petticoats seemed swollen with an errant wind through the window. She did not turn away from the window, but stared out at sea. I wondered, perhaps, if she was looking for William somewhere beyond the horizon, or if she was looking for something else.
“I have terrible news,” I said.
“Did William kill an Albatross?” she asked, her voice flippant.
“No,” I said. “It saddens me to say it, but it appears he has…taken his own life.”
I expected female frailty, and so rushed to her should she be faint. But in the stead of a swooning woman I found an unmoved statue of icy scorn.
“A coward’s end, then,” she remarked. “I knew he had not the stomach to endure what he had begotten upon the world. Begotten with his scheming and conniving. How ironic that I should have the stomach to see it through to the end.” She turned away from the window, then, and I saw how beautifully icy her blue eyes were. “Tell me, doctor, since you have the privilege of being both a man and a doctor that treats women, what do you think of that trite epithet, ‘the fairer sex’?”
I knew not how to answer her, for I knew not the purpose in such a question. Before I could stammer a response, she took my hand and led me toward her bed. The lunar luminescence of her face outshone the moon itself, her skin seemingly glowing in the shadows.
“I am ready for another treatment, Robert,” she said. “For I wish to be reminded of how a woman should feel before it is too late to feel anything human. But I do not want you to treat me as you would any other patient. I do not wish for you to treat me as a doctor should. Rather, I want you to rut upon me as a man would a woman, naturally, without these pretenses of Medicine. Be as a beast upon me, and let me be as a beast upon you.”
Whether it was dread or exultation that silenced me, I do not know. But I did as she commanded.
She undid her petticoats and stepped out from that frilled garment, slick with her nudity. Her belly was protuberant and hung upon her solidly, and yet it did not repulse me. Her breasts, too, were swollen, and her nipples dark and engorged, the tips damp already with excited milk. I will not omit that I did take her, then, as she wished it, and she took me, in turns, straddling me as her milk trickled upon me. The excitement I felt was as a new awakening, very much akin to those that I gave to my patients in the clinic. For who was I to fool myself into believing that what I practiced was clinical medicine? What I did for my female patients was as Hedonistic as my father avowed, and was all the more therapeutic because of its Natural basis in human pleasures. It was simply animal instinct sanctified by the pretense of Medicine.
And yet, even in the euphoria of our mutual paroxysm, I felt dawn a fear akin to religious terror. As my hands cupped her breasts and I gazed up at her, I saw the climactic triumph in her eyes, and yet I was drawn in my attentions to the rotund swell of her belly and the strange, overabundant movement that writhed there, deep in the mysterious womb of Woman.

***

What was it that lured my heart to these iniquities? Idleness, perhaps, and indolence, too. Perhaps it was the idle hours that tempted my mind ever toward my singular patient. Singular, also, was the vice, for had I more patients in my care such fixations would not have diverted and vexed me so strongly within the lecherous lap of so much leisure. Indeed, idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and I had idle hands in want of work. Wanting work, I exercised them, and my heart, upon the newly widowed Virginia Worthington. It was a passionate, shameless enterprise.
We dropped all pretenses as to doctor and patient. Instead, the treatment cottage became as a rutting grot of amorous delights. The sisters inquired after us only once, happening upon us in our mutual pleasures, and they fled in appalled fright. This encroachment only catalyzed our passions. Seeing Charlotte’s heart break awoke in me a Sadist I had never known. This demonic twin reveled in debauchery and its gremlin familiar, gossip.
Again and again Virginia and I sought each other’s flesh. Moreover, we walked like husband and wife through town. The Cornish people were aghast at our impropriety. Yet, it delighted us to no end. We relished our shared flesh and shared sin. We took our supper in the tavern, much to George’s horror, and that he did not refuse my coin only made it the more enjoyable experience. For weeks we cleaved to one another. It was not Love, nor was it wholly Lust. Indeed, it was more of an act of ruination upon society, and civilization. Like animals we were, slighting the conventions of modern civilization by savaging ourselves with every bedroom taboo that willed itself upon us in our ardour. We were as unashamed as Adam and Eve, and as corrupt as the Serpent, yet no one dared to burn our Garden down.
But a certain melancholia would clutch Virginia intermittently, like a hawk upon a hare, and she would turn wan and swoon away after the paroxysms had at last left her. In these moments of lethargy she would beg me, with a wanton’s sincerity, to end her life.
“You do not know the agonies I know,” she said. “You do not know the horrors visited upon me by the shadows of this world.”
I explained to her the absurdity of this fixation and vowed that I was forbidden from harming another. I had taken the Hippocratic oath, and the first vow was to do no harm. Yet, even then I knew I was deluding myself. By refusing to end her life, and thus aborting the creature growing within her womb, I had done unto the world a greater harm beyond all reckoning.
Gradually, Virginia’s belly swelled all the more with child, and yet my desire for her only increased. My mind turned ever toward her, even as I slept at night, lost in the nightmares that visited me in my vulnerable hours of sleep. I saw, yet again, the Great Flood that subsumed the continents. I stood upon the ridged spine of the earth, surrounded by endless ocean to either side. I saw the island rise with its terrible countenance. I saw the dark, indifferent eyes and the maw thrashing its ropy appendages upon the water. I saw Virginia entwined within its writhing tendrils.
When I heard her screams, I did not know if they were screams of joy or of agony. Perhaps they were both.

***

The sisters never returned to my employment. The Cornish people avoided me, except whenever wealth held sway, and even then they acknowledged me with a begrudging taciturnity. I pondered the notion of selling the cottages and taking the jewels and gold and gems that William had given me and moving inland. Thinking it would please Virginia, I told her of my plans while abed in the aftermath of our passions. Contrary to my expectations, she succumbed to a rage.
“And I suppose you think I will leave with you?!” she cried. “You suppose you and I will live happily ever after, growing old together like true loves in a ridiculous French novel? That is absurd, Robert, and you know it!”
“What is errant in the idea?” I demanded, becoming angry. “Do you not wish to escape to some private place where we might live in happiness? An estate in the country, perhaps? Or do you wish to return to London? I would be willing to live in London, but you must know that there will be gossip. Gossip of which we would be powerless to silence.”
She sat up in bed, her belly swollen to a full rotundness and her breasts almost always trickling milk now— so much so that it ruined the sheets, though I had long foregone frets upon such things. Even the unnatural writhing of her womb did not give me pause or halt my breath with terror. She looked upon me with her blue-eyed scorn, and it both withered me and excited me. I loved when she so loathed me with a single look.
“Powerless?” she said, her hysteria taking hold of her. “Powerless? Is that what you fear? Well, perhaps you should. Man has never known the powerlessness inherent in being born Woman. Man does not know the rough indifference of a rutting beast mounting him against his protestations, being taken body and soul by the indifferent whim of another. But he will know it. That time will come soon enough.”
“I only wish that we live as husband and wife,” I said, feeling an angry possessiveness overtake me. Her hysterical fits always provoked me, for I still understood little of their nature. “I am your doctor, after all, and I know what is best for you.”
She stood up, quivering with rage. She did not bother to don her clothes, but left her cottage without clothes or shame. I hastened to clothe myself and follow her, lest great anger would lead to great folly.
There were no sane men or women out of doors that night in Cornwall. A tempest was blowing in upon the Celtic Sea, like a raging dragon crashing aground in its wrath. The sea-borne gales blew and bellowed, as if the Atlantic itself was warring with the continents. I could not walk long without nearly toppling over with their belligerent wails. It was a black night illuminated only in flashes of lightning. All was hidden and revealed in spasmodic intervals, light and darkness frenetic in their struggle. Fearing that Virginia would lose herself in such a night, I called for her and hastened my own tentative tread, all the while frightened of the treacherous cliffs that dropped dizzily toward the throe-thrown sea.
I found Virginia soon enough. She swayed at the edge of the cliff. Jagged rocks gaped like a maw below her, as if she was a worm upon a hook. I called to her, pleading that she come away from that airy threshold. The winds howled in elemental rage, and the lightning flashed.
“I will never be powerless again!” she screamed beneath the tumult of the winds. “Neither Man nor God nor Devil will own me!”
I pleaded with her to step away from the cliff. I begged and shouted and sobbed for her return.
“If I am to die,” she cried, “then I shall decide when and how! No Man or Devil or God will decide it so! Only myself! I was not allowed to choose my life, but I will choose my death! I will have autonomy with my final breath!”
“Virginia!” I shouted, rushing toward her.
A wink of darkness and then a flash of lightning and she was no longer upon the cliff. I ran to the place of her disappearance and gazed down below at the terrible crags. There, sprawled limply, as if she had only recently been treated by hysterical paroxysm, Virginia Worthington lay broken and bloodied upon the teeth of the sea. I stared on in horror as the rain fell. Lightning flashed and crackled in triumph, its epileptic illumination brightening her body. I saw, then, that her belly undulated as if in unnatural contractions. Uncertain of my own eyes, I watched as there expelled from her body a mass neither human nor animal. It glistened, as if with scales, and crawled in agony with webbed fingers and coiling tendrils. Soon it slipped into the crashing surf and was carried out to the depths as if within a foamy cradle. Another flash and my eyes beheld something gigantic within the sea; something my mind could not comprehend and so merely blurred its form with a rush of panic. I staggered back from the cliff and ran headlong down the hill toward the village; toward any manmade dwelling wherein I could escape that terrible image and the maddening elements.

***

I proposed to Charlotte the next day, bitter with tears and fears and steeped in my own folly. She was repulsed and she vehemently declined my offer. In time she would marry a Cornish tradesman of relatively good financial standing and has never answered any of the letters I have sent her, nor have her sisters answered to my ink. Unable to abide the sea since that tragic night, I moved further inland, relocating to London. I never married and instead directed my life to plying my profession. I was therefore separate from Woman even as I treated Woman for her hysterical maladies. I became as a device used to exorcize excessive sexual retention. I later read the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the other psychoanalysts who pioneered the strange realm of Woman in all of its exotic terrors. It elucidated no more for me than the anatomical reactions evident in my patients. But perhaps it was willful misunderstanding on my part that led me to my continuing mystification in that realm. To dare true enlightenment seemed to me to be not unlike flinging myself from a cliff headlong into unknown crags and indifferent tides. Woman’s sexuality is as frightening, if not more so, than anything else the Sciences might reveal. Indeed, I thought of Freud as some pagan shaman summoning disturbing creatures from the depths of the psyche, and so, after a time, cloyed of his works, turning my attention solely to the pragmatic applications of my profession rather than extrapolating an overarching theory or revelations from collated findings. The latter was the road to madness, I realized, as was any memory associated with Virginia.
I still read literature from women in the East. Despite the insistence by so many in the West that they were barbarians, I could not help admiring their honesty and the pure, personal romanticism of their stories. It seemed to me that their view on Woman’s sexuality was both healthy and practical. Indeed, I never read once a translation indicating that they ever suffered from hysteria. Then again, had such a perspective been adopted by the West I would not have had a vocation nor have been steeped as I was in such lucrative petticoats.
Yet, as all things do, even this vocation came to an end. Nor did it end from retirement or the needfulness of my wanting health. In truth, I could have retired when returning from Cornwall, such were my finances. Yet, I remained devoted to Medicine because it gave to me a sense of purpose, and justified contact with Woman. And I walways wished to be of service to the fairer sex. It eased my soul knowing I helped Woman after Woman died birthing me.
But then a day came when a nervous husband brought his wife to the clinic, seeking la titillation du clitoris. She was no beauty, nor was she homely, yet there was in her complexion a familiar luminescence that staggered me with its lambency. I treated her for her catatonia, with some effort, and wished to think her glow an illusion of my failing eyes. Then came another woman, escorted to my clinic while suffering the same stupor and lunar luminescence. And another. And yet another. With each new patient my health waned and my mind became haunted with the same images that rose again and again within the realm of sleep. At last I could suffer it no longer and told these distraught husbands to bring their wives to someone else. I did not care whom, even if Dr. Severan was still practicing his butchery. I would have no part in it, either way. I merely wanted peace and solitude away from Man, Woman, God, Devil, and Sea.
And so now, as Death readies himself for his final visit, I only wish to unburden myself of what I have come to know, and what is soon to come. I do not believe the tide can be turned about, nor the infestation stymied. There is no cure for the Wandering Womb.

Shell Game Part 1

20180210_231242-1

 

The sand was golden as the Atlantic ocean lapped at its curving slopes, the sun dazzling on the rippling water like the golden navel jewelry of a belly dancer. Andy walked behind his three cousins, following them down to their parents’ private beach. Tiffany led the way: tall, lithe, golden brown like the shore, her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail that trailed all the way down to her pink bikini bottom. She was carrying a basket in one hand— holding sunscreen, her beach towel, and her cell-phone—and her free hand was slapping her upper thigh as she walked. Andy was carrying her beach parasol, which he wanted to do, despite how long, heavy, and unwieldy it was. He would have done anything for her. She was the most beautiful thirteen year old he had ever seen.
A sudden tug on the parasol and Andy almost fell backward. Startled, he glanced behind himself and saw, to his irritation, his youngest cousin, Seth, grinning devilishly.
“Watch out, Mary Poppins!” Seth said. “Those winds are strong.”
Seth was tanned brown, like his eldest sister, and sandy blonde. He was eleven years old— one year younger than Andy— and it was, so far as Andy reckoned, because Seth was younger that Seth deliberately irritated Andy so much. He constantly badgered him, and mocked him, and slugged his arm, and acted like they were buddies while also submitting Andy to bullying antics that bordered on controlling. Andy tried to let his irritation subside since he was staying with his cousins for the rest of the Summer. Or at least until his mother and father called him back to Georgia. He was at the mercy of his aunt and uncle until then, and they played favorites. In fact, if they had had a pet worm it would have probably been more favored than Andy was.
Seth pulled on the parasol again, making Andy wobble, lose his balance, and nearly fall.
“Don’t drop the umbrella,” Samantha snapped.
“Seth keeps pulling on it,” Andy said, defensively.
“Then you need to be more careful,” Samantha countered. She was red-faced from sunburn and anger. Andy did not know why Samantha was so spiteful toward him. Was it because she had a sunburn and he didn’t? Well, her siblings did not have sunburns, either, and were tanned. On the other hand, Andy had darker skin than all of them, and not because he played in the sun all of the time. It was hard to play outside in the trailer park back in Georgia; there were too many broken glass bottles and rusty detritus that required tetanus shots. Then again, just about anyone’s skin was darker than Samantha’s. She was as pale as a peeled apple and freckled like a cinnamon bun, taking after her father rather than her mother. Nor did she have blonde hair. Her hair was a drab mousy brown that always seemed to spiral spitefully in natural curls.
“You should know better than blaming other people for your mistakes,” Samantha continued. “I know that, and we’re the same age.”
Andy ignored her, just like Seth and Tiffany and her parents ignored her. It seemed to be the best option for her middle-child tantrums and outbursts. She was sensitive about everything, and that sensitivity was more than skin-deep.
“Put the parasol here,” Tiffany said, pointing to a slope of sand.
Andy unwrapped the parasol, letting its radial ribs expand, the blue-and-white striped bloom blossoming wide. He nearly lost his balance with the unwieldy canopy, wobbling left and right. He then impaled its shaft into the middle of the sandy bank.
“No, not there!” Tiffany said. “There!”
She pointed at roughly the same place, so Andy uprooted the shaft and thrust it into the slope a few inches higher, where her finger pointed.
“Ugh!” Tiffany exhaled in disgust. “You are useless.” She stooped down and uprooted the parasol and carried it farther up the slope, then impaled its shaft into the crest of the slope and angled it downward. “This is where I wanted it,” she chided him.
It was nowhere near where she pointed, but Andy did not say so. He watched her as she crouched and unrolled her towel beneath that little pool of shade in that otherwise starkly bright stretch of sand. He watched her in fascination, not knowig why he was so entranced by her long legs. Until this Summer he had never met his cousins before. For some reason, of which he did not understand, there was some “family drama” that kept his mother and his aunt apart. In fact, they had been estranged his entire life, so coming to stay with them was, for Andy, like staying at a stranger’s house. Somehow, though, he thought a stranger would have been more friendly to him than they were. They treated him like not only an inconvenience, but like something they were ashamed of being seen with in public. They never let him leave their private house, and only agreed to let him accompany his cousins down to the beach because it was their private section of the beach. No humiliating eyes.
“Don’t let anyone see you with him,” his aunt admonished his cousins. “If any of our neighbors happen by, tell them he just showed up and you don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”
If his aunt and uncle spoke to Andy at all it was in commands, like he was a dog. Generally, however, they spoke around him rather than at him. Sometimes he felt like he was in the hospital, on the sickbed, while adults spoke about his condition while not speaking directly to him.
Seth ran into the white surf, shouting. Tiffany called after him.
“You need sunscreen, idiot!”
“I’m letting Samantha have it all,” he said. “She needs all the sunscreen she can get.”
“Shut up!” Samantha yelled, even as she begrudgingly lathered herself up in the stinky white lotion. “I’m getting a tan. It’s just taking time.”
Andy waited for his turn for the sunscreen. Tiffany frowned at him, almost as if in disgust.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Sunscreen,” Andy said.
Tiffany almost laughed— a mirthless laugh of cool disbelief. She shook her head, making her long hair play peek-a-boo on either side of her hips. “You don’t need sunscreen.”
Andy was confused. “Why?”
“Because it would be a waste!” she said. “I mean, you people are made for being in the sun all day.”
Andy did not understand, but since Tiffany was the one that said this, he accepted it as a truth, and walked across the burning sand, glad when the warm surf crashed over his feet. No sooner had he waded waist deep then up popped Seth beside him, pouncing on him and wrapping his arms around his neck, trying to piggy-back on him.
“Let go!” Andy tried to shout, half-choked.
“Getty up!” Seth cried.
Andy peeled Seth’s arms from around his neck and let him drop, floundering, into the water. Coughing, Andy rubbed his throat, wondering if he would have a bruise there tomorrow. It had felt like he had been hung with a noose. He walked away, putting some distance between himself and Seth. In doing so, he accidentally bumped into Samantha, who was standing nearby.
“Watch where you’re going!” she snapped. She pushed him, but since she was so scrawny she could not budge him. Still, he obliged her by stepping away from her. She obliged him by stepping toward him. “You’re really clumsy!”
“Okay,” was all he said.
She did not relent, but seemed provoked at his neutral response. “I thought you were supposed to be athletic and stuff.”
This confused Andy, too, because he had never played any sports. He never watched sports, either. He spent his time reading and helping his mother around the trailer, making dinner, cleaning, and repairing things. His mother had taught him how to stitch.
Thinking he should stay away from both of his cousins, Andy walked a little farther out into the ocean. It swelled up to his collarbone. He felt nervous being out this far. He knew how to swim, but as he gazed upon the expanse of the Atlantic he felt like the ocean surrounded him. It dwarfed him— dwarfed the sun in the sky— and made him feel small and insignificant in the saltwater wash of the world. What mysteries lurked there in those silent waters? What monsters?
Fearing the ocean, Andy turned toward the beach. He saw Tiffany walking toward the water; tall and slender and long-legged. She walked with a poise that was so mature and ladylike, similar to the way fashion runway models walked. She dove into the shoals and then emerged, glistening and golden like a bronze statue. Andy was transfixed; so much so that he did not see Seth wading toward him until it was too late. Seth leapt on him again, this time on his head, and, with his whole weight, his cousin shoved Andy down into the saltwater. Andy had been so taken by surprise that he had not had the chance to breathe in any air, and in fact gasped, thinking a shark had clamped him in its jaws.
Andy struggled to throw his cousin off. The pressure in his vacant lungs was too much. His chest ached. His nostrils and eyes burned in the saltwater. He panicked and felt the strength go out of his limbs. Seth had entwined his arms and legs around Andy too securely to be broken or even loosened. As a last chance effort—before his lungs should explode—Andy turned his head and bit Seth’s arm as hard as he could. Seth instantly released him and Andy burst up through the water, coughing and choking and trying to regain his breath. Blindly, he walked toward the shore.
“He bit me!” Seth yelled. “He bit me on my arm! Dad was right. He is an animal.”
Andy was too grateful for air to take umbrage at what his uncle may have said. He trudged toward the shore until he came to the frothy edge of the ocean, then collapsed on his butt, coughing and wheezing, the surf lapping against him as if the ocean’s bosom, too, was trying to regain its breath with every painful contraction.
“Hey!” Seth said. “You bit me! Apologize or I’m telling dad!”
“You almost drowned me,” Andy said between ragged breaths. “You wouldn’t let go.”
“You bit me,” Seth said, again. “Apologize.”
“You better apologize,” Tiffany said, with a tone of distinterest, “or dad will just send you back home.”
Andy was bewildered by the water glistening on the flat of her chest, above her heart. In that moment he would have said anything she told him to.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You better be sorry,” Samantha said, revving up for one of her outbursts. “If you’re not sorry you will be, because we don’t tolerate things like that in our household!”
“Give it a break,” Seth told his sister. “He said he was sorry. I’m not worried about it.”
Samantha was so off-balanced by her brother’s sudden change in mood that she could only gawp like a pale-faced fish. “But…but…”
Tiffany turned away, not interested in anything other than taking selfies with her selfie-stick. Seth had lost interest and was chasing a pelican that had landed a few yards down the way, the big bird somewhat indifferent to the rowdy child. Only Samantha remained next to Andy, outraged that no one else was outraged anymore. Andy stared at the lapping water, trying to ignore Samantha’s lingering scowl. She tarried a bit longer, her shadow draping itself over his legs, before hesitantly turning away from him and shuffling back into the shoals.

Andy did not know how to please any of them. It seemed that Tiffany wished him to simply disappear until something needed to be carried. Meanwhile Seth wished Andy to be a toy that did what he wanted, regardless of how painful or humiliating. Samantha just wished to…chastise him. His uncle and aunt wanted him to go home. They had said as much the other night, when he was laying on the couch in the living room and they were in the kitchen, drinking.
“Andy.”
Andy was surprised to hear Tiffany say his name.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at that tall girl with the long hair and longer legs.
“Why don’t you go pick some seashells for me?”
Seeing her in the bright sunlight, with the sand glowing around her and the water glistening on her slender arms, Andy would have done anything for her, including diving into the deepest part of the ocean as sharks spiraled around him.
Well, maybe not with sharks.
“What kind of seashells do you want?” he asked, knowing the difference between a conch and an auger and a scallop and such.
“The type that come from the sea,” she said with a shrug. “Put them in my basket.”
Andy immediately leapt up and began picking up the seashells that had washed ashore with the tides. There were countless shells cluttering the beach; some brilliantly colored with red stripes and yellow hues and burnished brown, and some blanched white with the kiss of the saltwater and the gaze of the sun. Tritons and mitres and cones and bonnets, figs and frogs and harps and spindles: he collected what he could. Yet, while the more simplistic shells were whole, the more elaborate conchs and spindles were shattered, some looking more like spiral bits of bone rather than shells. The lunatic tides were merciless in their anxious tossing and smashing of shells. They broke the more elaborate shells like a passionate woman breaking plates after news of her sailor husband being lost at sea. Only the plainer, more solid shells survived her passions.

The sun beat upon the children’s backs as it rose toward its midday peak. Tiffany retreated under the shade of the parasol. Samantha began to pick up shells, too.
“That one’s mine,” she would tell Andy when he was stooping to pick up a shell. Invariably, however, she would forget about the previous one and then claim the next one he was stooping to pick up. “That one’s mine too.”
She shadowed him throughout his hunt, her pale legs always nearby; her little freckled feet in his periphery as he picked up shells. Sometimes she would put her shells in Tiffany’s basket as Andy carried it around, since she had nowhere else to put them.
“You better not mix up my shells with Tiffany’s,” she said, tossing her shells in carelessly.
Somehow Andy knew he would be blamed for their inevitable squabbling later, when it came time to divvy the shells amongst the two sisters. This fret so overwhelmed him that when Seth nearly tore the basket out of his hand, Andy almost punched his cousin in the face.
“Stop it!” Andy said.
“You can’t tell me with to do,” Seth said with a smirk. He pulled at the basket again and Andy stepped away, trying to put distance between the two of them. Seth stepped forward, a look of mischief in his blue eyes. Everything was a game to him. “I’m going to get it,” he said, gleefully.
Samantha grabbed her brother by the wrist. “Quit it, Seth. You’ll break my shells!”
Seth shoved his sister and she went sprawling on the sand. Tiffany, overhearing the fight, stopped taking selfies and emerged from under her parasol.
“Stop fighting!” she said. “Or I’ll tell dad!”
Seth just grinned and ran into the surf again, undaunted by the threat. Samantha was sniffling, and trying not to cry. Andy helped her stand up, but she shoved him once she regained her feet.
“Don’t touch me!” she snapped. Still sniffling, she stormed up the beach and into the shade of the palm trees, her back to the ocean so no one could see her face. Andy knew she was crying. He thought about going to talk to her, but Tiffany called to him and he forgot all about Samantha.
“Let me see my seashells,” she said.
Tiffanys voice was musical in its chiming cadences, like a lullaby, and Andy immediately obeyed. When he reached her, he held the basket up in both hands. She rummaged through its hoard with a finicky, fastidious eye. Her small delicate fingers danced through the shells like a sea creature scuttling across a mound of underwater treasures. Andy felt her fingertips tickling him along the inside of his belly.
“They’re not bad,” she said. “But a lot of them are broken and small. You can get better shells in the water if you dig around for them.”
Andy nodded without hesitation, set the basket down, and went out into the water.
“In the deeper water!” Tiffany shouted after him.
Andy could not resist her siren song and so he went further into the ocean. He was up to his waist when he took a deep breath and submerged to the bottom, digging around in the drowned sand for whatever his hands might lay upon. His fingers found nothing and he emerged, his vision blurred with saltwater and his lungs chugging air. He glanced around blearily, making certain that Seth was nowhere near him, and then he took another deep breath and dropped himself into the water, searching once again. He did this several times in several different locations. Meanwhile, he thought about his mother and his father and his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He drowned in his own thoughts and frets.
Tiffany, Samantha, and Seth weren’t Andy’s real cousins; not by blood, anyway. Their father had divorced their mother in order to marry Andy’s aunt. The drama of it all happened over a decade ago. Andy had never met his “cousin’s” birth mother. Whenever Andy’s mother had spoken about it to his father she said that her brother–in-law wanted a smaller sized baby bed to play in— whatever that meant. Consequently, his three cousins rarely saw their mother since their father “out-lawyered” her in court. It was much the same as with Andy and his father. He rarely ever saw the man that had given him his name and his face and his skin. Like the seashells scattered beneath the sun, there were many things broken in this world.
Andy rose again from the water, snorting saltwater through his nose. He sneezed it out, but it burned in his sinuses. He hated the thought of drowning in the ocean. He had read somewhere that saltwater took a very long time to drown you. It could take up to half an hour, which seemed cruel to Andy. But at least the ocean did not hate you. It might drown you, or smash you with a tidal wave or capsize your boat; but it did not do it because it hated you. He knew only people could hate other people. They might help you live; they might provide you food and shelter and a place at the table, but if they hated you while they were doing it then it was like they were drowning you; drowning you for days, weeks, months, even years. And that was even crueller than what the ocean did to you.
Steeling his nerves— and remembering how beautiful Tiffany was as she emerged from the water—Andy dove down into the water once more, digging into the sand with his feverish fingers. To his surprise, his hand happened upon something big, heavy, thorny, and hard. It felt like a large crown. Emerging, he lifted the shell out of the water and looked at it with his blurry eyes. It looked like a large murex shell, or something similar enough to be labeled one. In the blinking, blurry moment that Andy held it he saw that it was large, with great heft to it, and its thorny back gave it an elaborate Poseidon crown-like appearance. It was an impressive shell, and his heart leapt at the prospect of Tiffany’s delight.
But before he could stare long at it, Andy was startled when a slimy black appendage darted out of the shell’s serrated mouth. With a cry, he dropped the shell and it plunged back into the water. But before it could be lost to the depths forever, Seth— who had been sneaking up on Andy—dove for the shell and grabbed it, hauling it out of the water and up above his head, the black appendage flailing wildly toward the sky.
“You scaredy cat,” Seth exclaimed. “It’s just a shell snail!”
Before Andy could say anything, Seth ran ashore, shouting in triumph about his prize.
“Look at my shell!” he shouted. “It’s the best shell and it’s all mine!”
Naturally, his two sisters wanted to claim it for themselves. Before they could, though, Seth ran off toward the house. Tiffany stomped after him. Samantha paused, looking at Andy.
“You better pick up everything,” she said. “Especially my shells!”
She then ran after her sister and brother. Andy watched her go, coming ashore once again. He picked up the basket, and collapsed the parasol, and folded the beach towel. But even as he did these mundane things he could not shake the image out of his head. It was disturbing, and Any wondered if he had only imagined it; if the saltwater and the sun and the gleam of the slimy thing within the shell had deceived his eyes.
What Seth had not noticed, and what Andy had seen in that blinking flash of a moment, was that the appendage inside the shell was attached to a body, and that body had a face with features not unlike that of a baby’s.

The walk back to the house was hard on Andy. He had to carry not only the parasol, the beach towel, and the sunscreen lotion bottle, but also the basket full of seashells. Everything was so heavy and cumbrous. He walked at a slug’s pace, the clutter in his arms making him teeter and tremble. Eventually, and with great effort, Andy arrived at his cousins’ beach house.
His cousins’ beach house was like a mansion, and not just because Andy had lived the majority of his life in a trailer park. It was larger than most of the houses he saw around his hometown in Georgia. It had two storeys, a large wraparound porch with awnings jutting here and there over the chairs, large windows letting the sun in, and the whole estate was surrounded by a low fence to keep the alligators out of the grassy lawn. Toward the back of the house, facing away from the ocean, was the beginning of the mangroves. Floating among them, in the deeper waters, were manatees, those gentle giants with the mysterious eyes.
It should have been a paradise. Yet, Andy always had to be on his guard; always watchful of his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He was in a strange world and at the mercy of their merest caprice, and so felt like a newly hatched seaturtle besieged by seabirds on all sides. They reminded him, nearly ever hour, that he did not belong there. He was a whim away from being besieged on all sides by thunderously loud, fault-finding factions.
And yet, when Andy opened the sliding door to step into the kitchen, he found that it was the shell, and not himself, that was embattled at that moment. All three of his cousins were fighting over it. Seth ran around the island in the kitchen while Samantha chased after him. Tiffany stood by, scowling and demanding that she be given the shell since Andy had been the one to first find it and so, by extension, she had greatest claim to it.
“And I’m the oldest,” she said. “So I get to choose.”
“No way,” Seth said. “It’s mine, fair and square. The scaredy-cat dropped it in the ocean. Finders keepers.”
Samantha, meanwhile, tried to wrestle the shell from her brother’s hands.
“I never get a good shell, ever!” Samantha moaned.
But when she saw the black appendage emerge from the conch, she yelped and sprang backwards, crashing into Andy as he came into the kitchen.
“Yuck!” she cried, bouncing off of Andy. “You keep it! I don’t want the nasty thing!”
Seeing the snail’s appendage once again startled Andy. It was black, but also mottled brown and had bright luminescent yellow stripes that looked like they probably glowed in the dark. It still looked vaguely like an infant’s arm, and even had tiny stalks that undulated like fingers at its end. Yet, unlike sea hares or sea slugs, there were four such stalks, and were strangely prehensile in their weird array.
“Yeah, I don’t want that thing,” Tiffany said, having a change of heart. “It’s too gross. I only want the shell.”
Still, the two sisters remained, watching Seth as he held it aloft as if bearing the Olympic torch. After a few moments of his parading, the sisters turned their attention to the basket of seashells that Andy had brought in with him. Tiffany pointed to the kitchen’s island and Andy obediently hoisted the basket—with a grunt—and set it there. He fumbled the rest of the things in his arms— the parasol and towel—and they tumbled to the floor.
“At least I have all of these shells,” Tiffany said.
“They’re not all yours,” Samantha said. “Mine are in there, too.”
“Do you actually know which ones are yours?” Tiffany retorted.
“I…” Samantha faltered. “I’ll know them when I see them,” she said.
“No you won’t,” Tiffany said. She looked at Andy. “Do you remember which ones are mine and which ones are hers?”
Andy felt like a cornered cricket, and that any chirp he might give would earn him the bottom of someone’s shoe. He shrugged one shoulder meekly.
“Great,” remarked Tiffany. “Well, there is only one way to know. I will go through them and take whichever ones I want, and then you can have the rest.”
“But that’s not fair!” Samantha cried.
“Then you shouldn’t have mixed yours in with mine. You should have brought your own basket.”
Tiffany took the basket and walked upstairs, disappearing into her room.
Samantha turned on Andy, her brown eyes twinkling with tears. “This is all your fault!” She ran upstairs, too, slamming the door to her room.
Meanwhile, Seth was lording over his prize, grinning with great satisfaction as he watched the strange arm-like tentacle writhe out of its wickedly thorny shell.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Ain’t it?”
Andy did not know what to say, other than it was a hideous creature. He kept his silence, which Seth mistook for envy.
“You’re just like my sisters,” Seth said. “Jealous of what I found.”
Andy could have corrected Seth, and recalled the fact that he was the one that found the shell, but he thought that argument too meaningless to pursue. Moreover, he was too overcome with a sense of foreboding from the shell. Seeing it in the kitchen made him feel uneasy for the entire house.
“It’s the best shell I’ve ever seen,” Seth said, watching the snail sway. “Just got to get rid of the snail.”
Standing aside, Andy watched as Seth searched around the kitchen. Seth found a saltshaker in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. It was a large saltshaker; the kind that you twisted to grind up its pink salt crystals in order to season food. He held it over the shell and began grinding the salt, showering the snail, the shell, and the island. He made a mess.
“It sure as hell doesn’t like that!” Seth exclaimed with a laugh.
The snail instantly lost its black luster and began to shrivel and withdraw into the shell. There was no refuge for it, however, even within its own home. The salt dried out its slimy, liver-colored flesh until it looked like a black banana left out in the sun. Seth took the shell to the trash can and, using a spork he found in a drawer, began prodding and scraping and scooping the snail out.
“That is one weird looking snail,” he observed as it began to slip out of the shell.
Andy was mesmerized and appalled by the ghastly thing. To him it looked less like some tubular snail and more like a small, lumpy, shriveled infant. There even seemed to be a face where the head should be, wizened by the ravages of the salt that dusted its viscous flesh.
Seth cussed as he scraped
“Damn, it doesn’t want to come out!”
Andy stared at that shriveled head, and thought he saw a luminescent eye open. Before he could gasp in fright, the petal-lipped mouth parted like a flower and a long tube slithered its way out, tapered at the end with a sharp black barb. It darted out wildly and struck Seth in the arm just as he had dislodged the snail from the shell.
“Ow!” he cried. He dropped the shell on the island. He clutched his arm with his other hand. “Ow! Shit! It burns! It burns!”
Seth’s voice heightened, as if he might begin to wail at any moment. Andy ushered him to the sink and ran cold water over the puncture point. It was small, like a spider bite, and had a swollen whelp that was red. Seth cringed as the water ran over the mark. He breathed through clenched teeth, his face wrung in pain.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Andy said, panicking at the thought of Seth dying from a venomous sting and his aunt and uncle blaming him for it.
“No,” Seth said, trying to put on a brave face. “The pain’s going away. It’s feeling better.” After a minute of washing the wound with cold water, Seth left the sink and went over to the island, reclaiming his shell with a gleam in his eye. “Now I just have to boil it to get that stink out.”
The snail itself was nothing but a dried-out husk reeking in the trash can.
Over the next ten minutes Seth boiled the shell in a large pot on the stovetop. Andy sat at the island, watching Seth for any telltale signs of fatigue or lethargy. The whelp on his cousin’s arm was darkening.
“You should go to the hospital,” Andy said.
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Seth said. He had a pair of tongs and was turning the shell around inside the boiling pot. He seemed to do this out of boredom and restlessness rather than purpose. “It’s just a bruise.”
Andy was not so sure. The whelp had blackened, and appeared to be “sweating”. That was the only term he could think of for the dark bump’s wet shimmer.
“Hey, why don’t you get me a glass of water?” Seth said. “I’m thirsty.”
Andy would have pointed out that Seth was next to the cabinet with the glasses and right next to the refrigerator with the water purifier, and so Seth could have gotten his own water, but he knew Seth was stubborn and would not have gotten his own water, especially if challenged on it, and besides Seth looked peaked, the dark circles under his eyes deepening in his strangely gaunt face. In short, Andy fetched a glass of water for his willful cousin.
“Here,” Andy said.
Seth tipped his head back and gulped the entire glass down in one go. This was impressive considering he was only eleven and the glass that Andy had filled was a glass intended for an adult.
Seth immediately handed the glass back to Andy. “Some more.”
Andy filled the glass once again, and once again Seth drained it with one extended tip of the head. Seth’s Adam’s apple was like an oversized hamster racing up and down a narrow water hose. His body began to sweat all over, from his forehead to his feet.
“More,” he said.
Andy obliged him, all the while eyeing his cousin with alarm.
After downing the third glass, Seth retched and ran to the sink. He threw up, expelling all of the water he had recently drank.
“I’m calling the ambulance,” Andy said, heading into the living room. He glanced around the living room, his eyes wandering upstairs, past the rails and from door to door on the second floor. He remembered that there was no house phone. Tiffany was the only one, besides her father and stepmother, that had a cell phone. So, Andy ran upstairs and knocked on her door. Her voice cut through the door, and through Andy’s heart, like a sword.
“Go away!”
“Seth’s sick!” Andy said.
Another door opened down the hall, Samantha stepping out in shorts and a tanktop. Her eyes were rimmed red and her brown hair was matted to her imprinted forehead. She had been laying in bed, crying.
“What’s going on?” Samantha said, somewhat warily.
“Seth’s sick,” Andy repeated.
“So what?” came Tiffany’s reply.
“Really sick,” Andy said.
He heard Tiffany sigh, and the creaking of her box springs as she got up from bed. When the door opened she stood before him with her hair wrapped up in a towel and a long white shirt on, and seemingly nothing else except underwear. Andy glanced at the interior of her room, and saw that it was cerulean trimmed and white-walled and had a large seashell-shaped mirror in one corner, the vanity table crowded with makeup and brushes and jewelry. It was a mermaid’s bedroom.
“He better be dying,” Tiffany said. Huffing irritably, she went downstairs. Andy followed her, and Samantha followed him.
When they came into the kitchen, Seth looked at them in surprise. They looked at him in surprise, too.
“What?” he said.
He looked completely normal. He was no longer sweating; no longer retching. Even the whelp on his arm had lightened and shallowed.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tiffany demanded.
“Wrong with me?” Seth said, scoffing. “Nothing’s wrong. What’s wrong with you?”
Tiffany turned on Andy, her hands on her hips and her arms akimbo.
“Are you trying to annoy me?” she demanded.
Andy was too baffled by Seth’s miraculous recovery, and the swells beneath Tiffany’s shirt, to offer a coherent explanation. He stammered for a few moments before Tiffany, in a hissy-huff, stormed upstairs and disappeared once again into her mermaid bedroom.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on us,” Samantha said, having recovered enough from her previous defeat to feel aggrieved at this new turn of events. “It’s not funny.”
“I didn’t ask you to come downstairs,” Andy retorted, too overcome by the bizarreness of the situation to be diplomatic.
Samantha’s face turned bright red, her eyes a tempest of fury and tears. She stormed upstairs once again and slammed her door shut.
“My sisters are drama queens,” Seth said, still stirring the shell around in the steaming pot. “It’s all melodrama with them.”
Andy opened his mouth to ask whether Seth really was okay, but hesitated. He wondered if he had imagined the situation as being worse than it actually was. Perhaps, he thought, he had succumbed to his own alarmist melodrama.
But then his eye caught something peculiar in the kitchen; something that he could not rightly account for. The saltshaker was on the island, where Seth had left it, but it was now nearly empty. Where did all of the salt go?

Left Alone

 

2018-12-23 01.54.52

When Chuck clutched his fat fingers to his chest, wheezing and coughing, and then fell to his knees by the hamburger grill, everyone was too busy with the noon rush hour to pay attention to him at first. I thought he had dropped his sunglasses on the floor— since he was always wearing sunglasses indoors—and was looking for them. But then he collapsed face-first to the floor and I— being the only manager on shift at McDougall’s that day—had to leave the scrambling helter-skelter hurry-flurry of the front counter to see what was happening.
By then, Joe and Devon had both left the assembly line and were standing over Chuck, frowning down at him. Matt was at the deep fryer, glancing over his shoulder while trying to catch up with the day’s deficit of chicken nuggets. We were all too busy for antics, and I was pretty miffed already because Joe had pissed me off earlier by talking about how big my ass was, loudly so that the customers could hear by the front counter. But I knew Chuck, somewhat, and knew that he never clowned around.
Seeing Chuck’s empurpling fat cheeks, I knew something was seriously wrong. I yelled at Andrea up front, near the phone.
“Call 911!” I then pointed to Joe and Devon. “You two flip him over onto his back.”
Joe and Devon looked at each other, in reluctance, and then squatted down and grabbed hold of Chuck. Slowly they dragged his corpulent body over, face-up, grunting as they struggled. The biggest problem was Chuck’s gut. He was a large man—tall and obese and big-boned—and so flipping him over was like flipping over a beach-stranded whale.
Scabby-faced Joe, always an asshole, smacked Chuck’s cheek a couple of times.
“Wake up, you fat-fuck,” he said.
I pushed him aside and knelt down beside Chuck, ruining my brand new pair of pants on the greasy floor. How many times had I told them to mop up when the morning rush was over? They always did the least they had to for their paychecks. No work ethic at all.
I pressed my ear to Chuck’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. By now his breathing was shallow, and his heartbeat faint. Being a manager, I had taken CPR and First Aid classes in the Spring. I never wanted to have to use what I had learned, especially not on someone who stank like Chuck did. It was not fair to me. Joe was a merciless asshole, but when he chose the nickname “Cheddar-Chuck” it stuck because it rang true. At the same time, Chuck didn’t smell like Cheddar; he smelled like mold and mildew and ammonia. Cat piss, in other words. He was always worse in the heat of Summer, and a hundred times worse in the sizzling heat of the grill area. Often I sent him to fetch things from the freezer downstairs, hoping it might cool him down and stop his sweating. It never worked for very long. Being this close to him, and checking his vitals, I felt nauseated and dizzy as my stomach churned and my head spun. I did not want to do CPR on him. Often I wore more perfume because of how bad McDougall’s stank in Summer, and how bad Chuck stank over it all.
“Andrea!” I shouted. “Is the ambulance on the way?”
Andrea popped up between the partition that separated the grill area from the front counter area. She looked like she was going to cry.
“The ambulence is on its way!” she shrieked, her eyes rimmed redly and her chest heaving toward hyperventilation. God, I hated working with teenagers. It reminded me of how much I hated myself at that age. Melodrama and histrionics. Everything was the end of the world for them.
I turned back to Chuck and saw, with alarm, that his face was blue now, almost gray, like a corpse. I knew I had to do something. Being a manager, I wondered if I could order Joe to give him mouth to mouth. I would have enjoyed the look on his face in any other circumstance, but I knew I was the manager, so, ultimately, I was responsible for whatever casualties we suffered throughout the day. I did not want to lose my job because a fat, stinky loner decided to die on my shift. My aspirations were to be a CEO someday. I was too driven in my career to be derailed by something like this. I worked sixty hours a week and went to night school, marching indomitably toward my business degree. It was often difficult, especially with whiny, lazy, and stupid teenagers under me. It was worse than corralling cats. At least with cats you could just pick each up and drop them where you wanted them to go. I couldn’t lay a hand on any of the teens, no matter how much I wanted to strangle them and drop them into a river.
That said, Chuck wasn’t a teenager. I didn’t honestly know how old he was. He had a cherub face and could have been anywhere from twenty to forty years old. He never talked about himself, and had worked at McDougall’s almost as long as I had. In a way, we were kin by merit of time spent in the franchise. Still, that did not change how disgusted he made me feel.
I swallowed hard. Chuck was dying and I did not know how long the ambulance would take to arrive here. Last time we had a medical emergency it took half an hour for the ambulance to arrive. Luckily, the old man had only pulled his chest muscles and was not having a heart attack. This was different though. Chuck was dying, and in doing so he was selfishly ruining my future. Why couldn’t he have waited until he was off-duty to keel over? Maybe at home, or at least down the street and out of sight.
And looking at Chuck now, I realized I never noticed how many warts arrayed around his fat, cherubic face. He was like a warthog, really. Very ugly, all in all. The warts were discolored and scabby, and round as mushrooms. It looked like he suffered from psoriasis, too. Perhaps if he had bathed himself properly he wouldn’t have so many skin problems, or his body odor problem. He disgusted me.
I took a few deep breaths, which only made things worse for me as I knelt over Chuck. I did not want to lose my job. I had too many bills to pay, and college tuition rose every year. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I palmed my forehead, massaging my face as I weighed my options. Who the fuck was I kidding? I had no options. Do or die…even if it made me want to upchuck.
Leaning over him, with my hands over his heart, I set myself into compressions. I don’t know how many I did, actually. I did not keep count. I probably did more than I should have, stalling for time while faced with the prospect of putting my mouth to his. Then again, I might have done the right amount. It really wore my shoulders out. It shouldn’t have, if I had done them right, but I was a little panicky at the thought of losing my job. Every year they changed the number of compressions and breaths, probably to justify the renewal fees each year. It was a good business model, I supposed, even if it irritated the hell out of me.
I hesitated when I thought it came time for the two breaths. A wave of nausea overcame me again and I swayed. I told myself to woman-up and do what I needed to do. It was part of being a manager, after all. And if I wanted to be a businesswoman I would have to steel myself in as many ways as humanly possible. So I took a deep breath, tilted Chuck’s head back to open his airway, clamped his nose, held his jaw open, and pressed my lips to his. For a moment I wondered if it was the first kiss from a woman Chuck had ever had. This ironic thought was obliterated as I breathed into his mouth, and tasted the stench of his innards. However awful he smelled on the outside, his halitosis was a thousand times worse. I gagged and retched, making gawp-mouthed vowel sounds that could give way to vomit at any moment. Nonetheless, I soldiered through and breathed again into that sewage grotto of his mouth. It was musty, like a cellar, and rank, like the cellar was full of dead rats. I coughed and gagged, feeling Chuck cough up into my own mouth as something vile and sour spurted against my tongue and throat.
Lurching to my feet with a frantic cry, I ran to the nearest garbage can, clamping a hand to my mouth as vomit hurled itself against my palm. Leaning over the garbage can, I sputtered as everything came hurling out, my gullet exploding with bile and half-digested food. Joe would have laughed at me in any other circumstance, but even that asshole kept his mouth shut as I returned to check on Chuck.
He was dead.

***

The paramedics tried to resuscitate Chuck using an AED. It was no use. They asked us if he had any allergies, but no one knew. He was fat and ate three egg burritos in the morning and two quarter pounders for lunch everyday. Heart disease, they concluded, with a shrug. The “American Illness.”
They carted him away. By that time we were so far behind on our orders that we rushed for two hours straight trying to catch up. I put Joe on the grill, and I took over his spot on the assembly line. By the time Bob came in to relieve me as manager for the night shift, I was dehydrated, sick, and pale.
“You need to take a day off,” he said, after I informed him of what happened.
“I’m fine,” I said, defiantly. Bob wanted my position as daytime manager. He tried to act like my friend all of the time, with his casual talk and stupid smile, but I knew there were no such things as friends. Only competitors.
It was as I was leaving that I noticed something in the corner, beside the grills. I walked over to it and bent over, finding a ring of keys in the coagulated grease.
“DAT ASS!” Joe exclaimed.
“Shut the fuck up, Joe,” Devon said.
I ignored both of them. I took the key ring and put it in my pocket. It belonged to Chuck. I could tell because it had a Sailor Moon figurine hanging from it. Maybe, I thought, I could give it to his family.

***

A week passed and a funeral was held for Chuck. I went to the graveyard, late in the evening. There was an old woman there, standing over the large pile of unsettled earth. When she saw me, she smiled. She was a small woman, withered and white-haired beneath a black hat.
“Charlie never did have nobody,” she observed. “I should have been there for him more often. But my health problems have never been good for socializing, even with my grandson.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. She looked me up and down. “How did you know Charlie?”
“I was his manager,” I said.
She nodded and stepped forward, hugging me. “I heard you tried to do right by him. Tried to save him. But there weren’t no saving him. Not Charlie. It’s all his momma’s fault, of course. My son, Charlie’s daddy, died of a heart attack, too. When he was young. Then that no-good woman remarried, not even a month later, to some other man. Moved out of state and never looked back. Been trying to call her, but the slut blocked me.”
I could only nod. Family drama was not something I had time or energy for; it was the reason I did not talk to my family anymore. They just weighed me down.
“Charlie never really had any friends,” his grandmother said. “I raised him, you know, after his daddy died. He liked cartoons. He liked video games. He liked food, too, like his daddy. But that was his only sin, God bless him. He kept to himself. But he worked, too, and I couldn’t fault him none for that. When he moved out I had hoped he would of found a life for himself. Now…now I just hope he’s found some peace.”
“I hope so, too,” I said, if only because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Were you his friend?” she asked, looking up at me shrewdly.
“He was a coworker,” I said. “He was a…a hard worker. Always arrived on time and never missed a day.”
It was my default remark for people of whom I had little else to say positive. I said the same thing about Joe, sometimes. He came to work, most of the time, though he came only because he liked to harass the girls in drive-thru, and because he thought he might be able to fuck me someday. Fat chance, that. I had a man in my life— why would I want a scab-faced, little scrub?
“Chuck never made any problems for anyone,” I concluded, diplomatically.
She smiled, appeased. “Yes, that was Charlie. Always working hard and doing what was right. He was a good boy.  A good man.”
She wiped a few tears from her eyes and I looked away, feeling embarrassed and awkward. I never knew how to handle this emotional stuff. Emotions got in the way, I often noticed. Emotions had no business in a businesswoman’s life. I looked toward my car, parked to the side of the road that cut through the graveyard. I was anxious to leave. I was a busy woman; an aspiring businesswoman.
“Oh!” I said, suddenly remembering. “I almost forgot.” My hand rummaged through the pocket of my pantsuit, finding the key ring. I held it out to Chuck’s grandmother. “I found this at work. It’s Chuck’s, isn’t it?”
She raised a hand to take the ring, but then withdrew it. “I couldn’t go there,” she said. “Not right now. My health isn’t very good. I hate to bother you, Miss, but do you think you could just go ahead and give that to Charlie’s landlord? I know it’s a burden, but I just don’t think I could deal with it right now. He’d ask me to move Charlie’s things out, and I just couldn’t do it by myself, and I don’t think I’d want to see his things. You could just drop it off at his apartment building. It’s on Basswood Road, Apartment number…what was it? Number 230.”
I felt misused suddenly, and very irritable. I should have refused, because it would have been my best interest, but the old lady looked very pitiful, and so I felt guilty. Guilt was a moral failing. I would not be able to feel guilt as a CEO, I told myself. Still, my hand dropped the key ring in my pocket again. I told myself I wouldn’t make a scene, but I also wouldn’t go to his apartment and drop the key off. I didn’t have the time. Let the landlord deal with it. He had an extra key, anyway, if he was a responsible businessman.
“I have to go,” I said. “Sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, dear,” the old woman said. She turned toward the unsettled earth again, praying while I walked back to my car.

***

I started to suffer a cough. It came on occasionally, whether at work or at home. It was a light allergy cough, it seemed, and then it became more of a deep-chested, painful cough that rattled my throat. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor, though, so I just medicated myself with cough syrup and antihistamine pills. Intermittently I would feel nauseated and dizzy. I would have thought myself pregnant if not for the fact that my boyfriend and I were not having sex that much, and when we did we were extremely careful with condoms and birth control pills. He went on frequent business trips, too, which meant we spent a lot of time apart. He worked as a hardware salesman for a tech company. It was one of the reasons I respected him so much. Love did not enter the equation; it was all about future prospects, compatibility, and synergy; like any good Corporate merger. Still, I missed him a lot when he was out of town. Much of the time I had only the teenagers at work and the weirdos at night school around me, and I felt their presence and attitudes surrounding me like an infectious miasma of mediocrity and idiocy. Michael, my boyfriend, was so professional and savvy, and I liked to think that his professionalism rubbed off on me, innuring me to the effects of the parasites that frequently surrounded me.
I called my boyfriend the next week, while he was staying in Vancouver for a tech summit. He sounded busy. He always sounded busy while out on his business trips. That was why they were business trips.
“Hello?” he said, his voice slightly tinged with irritation.
“Hey,” I said. “Just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine,” he said flatly.
“That’s good,” I said. “How are things in Vancouver?”
“Fine,” he said. “Listen, Elle, I have to go. I have an important business meeting in a few minutes. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “So you’re making good business contacts at the summit?”
“Yes,” he said. “Really good contacts.”
“Okay,” I said. “Um. See you when you get back.”
“Sure, Elle,” he said.
He hung up. My man was doing well. I could tell. He was too busy to talk. He was in the zone. One day I called him at work, while on break, and when I hung up Andrea, who was also taking her break, asked me why I didn’t tell him I loved him. We were not that type of people. We did not “love” like in the movies. We were a mutual venture together. We were a partnership, albeit not necessarily a platonic kind. We had sex, and we sometimes watched tv together, but neither of us had pretensions about feelings. Life was a survival game, an enterprise and a franchise. We would not be embarking on the “ultimate” franchise, children, but we would be conquering the business world together. That was what I told myself I most wanted in a life partner.

***

That night it rained. My breathing became worse as I left the community college campus, holding my umbrella and fast-walking to my car to get home so I could write a paper I had due the next day (which I had forgotten about). I felt over-exerted, as if I had ran a marathon, and sat in my car, coughing and trying to catch my breath. I gagged for a moment, sounding like a cat coughing up a hairball, and something exploded wetly against my upraised hand. Turning on the light, I expecting phlegm. Instead, there was a grayish mucus splattered all over my fingers and palm. Wiping it up with a napkin, I felt horrified. I knew I needed to go to the doctor and so when I arrived home I called Melinda and asked her if she could switch shifts with me the next day so I could go to the doctor in the morning. Melinda was a twenty-something, like me, but her resting bitch-face and grouchy attitude always made me think she was in her fifties. She was happy to switch with me because it meant she would have Friday night off. I doubted she actually partied or had a date lined up, but maybe it pleased her to think she could have either going for her on a Friday night.
That night I slept in fits, coughing and hacking up the grayish mucus. Friday morning, I went to the doctor’s office. By then, however, the rain had stopped, and the sun had come out, and I was no longer spitting up the gray mucus. The doctor— an old man with a perpetual scowl— examined me and said I had allergies. He wrote a prescription for expensive allergy medicine. He also noticed a place on my chest that I had not seen: a ring of scabby discoloration just above my right breast. Examining it, through his thick glasses, he diagnosed it as ringworm and gave me prescription for that, too.
My insurance covered most of the expenses and I took my medication before going to work that night. I was relieved to think my condition was diagnosed and, hopefully, soon to be mended. I did not want to miss work or school. My ambitions had no time for any health complications.

***

I woke up the next day with my eyes sealed shut. For a moment I panicked, rubbing my eyelids frantically with my fingertips. I could feel a hard, crusted substance along the raven-wings of my eyelashes, solidifying like mortar between bricks. Painfully, I scraped the thick crust away until I could see. My vision was blurry, though, and I went to the bathroom to find out what was wrong. I told myself it was just grogginess— that my eyes hadn’t focused since waking up—but when I turned on the light in the bathroom a sudden burning ache flared in my eyes. Squinting through the pain, I saw my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot, the flesh lining the socket inflamed, and a yellow pus was leaking out of my tear ducts. It had to be an eye infection. But I had just gone to the doctor! If only this infection had shown itself yesterday, then I could have gotten treatment for it. As it was, I didn’t have time to go again. I took my allergy medicine, then went to the store and bought an over-the-counter eyedrop medication. It was not antibacterial, but it was good enough to clear my eyes of most of the redness, even if the puffiness remained, and the pain of seeing in light worsened. I bought a pair of sunglasses, also, and wore them throughout the workday. Joe, being the asshole he was, kept saying I was hungover. I wished he wasn’t a part of that school-to-work program. How the hell did he have the grades to sustain his daytime job and his schoolwork? Devon, I could understand, but not Joe. Maybe he was a dropout. I wouldn’t have been surprised. I wasn’t the one that hired him, although I sure wanted to be the one to fire him. The problem was that he worked well enough, and never missed any days. And we were always short on help at McDougall’s.
At one point I tried to take the sunglasses off, but the lights inside the restaurant burned like freshly cooked, salted fries pressed against my eyeballs. What the hell was wrong with me?

***

Work became tough after Chuck’s death; not because he had died and I missed him there— quite the opposite, in fact, since it did not stink so badly as when he was there—but because we were now undermanned on dayshift. Joe was worse than ever, consequently. He felt free to say whatever he wanted to me and the rest of the girls because he knew I couldn’t afford to fire him. Even Devon lost his patience with him. I had to separate them more than once before they came to blows. Drama was too damn high now, and I had no interest as a stage director.
And hiring new employees was only a temporary solution. The new hires quit within a couple of days. None of them wanted to work the grill. It was hot and it spat scalding grease and it was hard work scraping the grill clean between cooking burgers. But I did it when I had first started. I had the red scars on my knuckles to prove it. They just had no ambitions. That was the problem with a lot of people. Lazy and unmotivated and ungrateful for a chance. Fucking parasites.

***

I went home each night feeling more drained and miserable than before. My cough became worse, racking my body and sloshing my brain about in my skull. I slept more and more each night, sometimes oversleeping and having to rush to work to help with Opening. Michael wasn’t home from Vancouver yet, and didn’t call very often. I would have called him, but last time I did I interrupted one of his important meetings. He was very peevish with me after that and so I didn’t want to be a bother. I didn’t want to seem clingy, or even emotional. Emotions were a weakness in a partnership.

***

It was all a disaster. They suspended me at work, without pay, and they were mulling over whether they would terminate me. I did not know what to expect from Corporate. And what was worse was that it was all completely avoidable. Joe and Devon got into another argument while I was helping in Drive-Thru. It was some stupid argument over who should be responsible for throwing pickles on the hamburgers. It was petty and trivial and unprofessional. Anyway, push came to shove and Joe tried to punch Devon. Devon was a boxer, evidently, and blocked the punch. But instead of just letting the altercation go, Devon threw a punch, too, and knocked Joe backwards. It was rush-hour at the time and I didn’t see how it transpired, but Matt saw it from the deep fryer. He said Joe staggered backwards and slipped on some grease and spun around to try to catch himself, landing face-first on the corner of the grill. He suffered third-degree burns. Almost melted his face off, from what I could see from behind my sunglasses. It did not help his ugly face at all. Sorry, but it was hard to feel compassion towards the little shit. It was his own fault, anyway. I may not believe in karma, but cause and effect are real things, as are idiots and consequences.
And there were a lot of consequences from that idiot.
Since I was the manager on duty, Corporate had decided to send their army of lawyers into the case and determine what the legal ramifications could be and whether my severance might save them money in the long run. By “severance” I mean severing and skewering my head for public display to ward off a potential lawsuit and PR catastrophe. Joe and Devon were both seventeen years old, working there on the school-to-work program. I was the adult responsible for their safety, at least in the eyes of the Corporate executioners.
I had nothing to do but stay at my apartment and wait for the guillotine to drop. Michael had been sent on another business trip right after his Vancouver summit, back-to-back, and would not be home, he said, for three more weeks. This time he went to Montreal. He never had much time to talk whenever I called him, and his text messages came in tersely-worded trickles. I felt isolated and alone, unmoored from anything that kept me anchored; and the world was a violent, drunken storm. Or some such melodrama. I became a homebody in the meantime, staying cooped up all day every day, only going out at night for groceries. I kept the window curtains drawn and most of the lights off in my apartment. I never looked outside at daylight unless I had to. Even moderate light hurt my eyes. I wondered if my cataracts had gotten worse. I went to the doctor and he said I had a fungal infection, and gave me some antibiotics. The pain subsided, but the vision impairment only became worse. My skin itched incessantly, and the rings of scabby tissue multiplied, cracking and spreading like vengeful psoriasis.

***

It was the week of my period and I did not feel well. I was as anemic as an inbred aristocrat that was her own aunt. Normally my periods were light, since I took birth control, but this week was heavy and debilitating. My flow was darker than usual, almost black, and while it never smelled like roses it had a worse odor than usual. I started to believe I had an infection down there, too, since it burned so badly. Just when I was about to go to the doctor, however, Corporate dropped the blade and my head went rolling. I lost my job. I lost my steady income and I also lost my health insurance. Rent was due soon, too, as was my car payment. Because I went to night school I had little savings for anything beyond next month’s rent. When I tried to call Michael I got his voicemail. I texted him what had happened, and told him I needed money, but he only texted back a cool response:

“We will discuss it when I return.”

He would not answer my repeated phone calls and did not seem to care about the Medical Emergency texts I sent him. And while I didn’t believe in bad luck, this seemed like the perfect storm of converging problems.

***

My symptoms grew worse. For some reason my mind kept returning to the day that I gave Chuck mouth-to-mouth. I wondered, in my paranoia, if I had contracted something from him. I sat on this paranoia for a while, but then it became too strong and forceful. I became anxious, my anxiety growing alongside my illness. Finally, having nothing else to do, I decided to investigate the problem at its source.
I drove to Basswood Drive, looking for the apartment complex that Chuck’s grandmother had told me about. I did not expect much of an apartment for someone living on McDougall wages, but even with that in mind his neighborhood was a dump. It was an apartment complex beside the railroad tracks, shaken occasionally by the passing train. The cars parked outside the two-storey building ranged from rusty jalopies to pristine sports cars that made you wonder how someone living in such a rundown neighborhood could afford such flashy rides. Chuck did not own a car. He had walked to work everyday, which had only made his odor problem worse. Even on the coldest mornings he came in soaked in sweat and reeking of that soured-sweet smell of mildew and repellent body musk. Often his smell overpowered the heavy grease smells of the grill area. Since I was a manager I had to handle it when everyone complained. I bought him a very strong bar of deodorant and gave it to him, half-expecting him to lose his temper and throw it in the garbage can. Instead, he nodded lugubriously and went into the bathroom to apply it. It had done little good in fumigating his stench. His smell was like an aura permeating the air all around him. It ignored the deodorant’s best efforts. I didn’t know at the time if his stench was a result of bad hygiene and self-neglect or a medical problem. The truth was that I didn’t give it much thought other than as an annoyingly persistent defect on his part.
Everyone on the McDougall’s daytime crew knew it was only a matter of time before obesity killed Chuck. None of us expected it so soon, though. His obituary claimed he was only twenty-eight years old. He was a good worker, I realized, even with his odor problem. Then again, it was very inconsiderate of him to subject the rest of us to his stench. Perhaps he had had a medical condition; perhaps that was what eventually killed him. The paramedics claimed it was a heart-attack, and maybe it was, but maybe it was triggered by some undiagnosed, underlying condition. If so, maybe it was contagious.
Behind the apartment complex was a woods. I couldn’t see far into it, and had never been to this side of town before, so I did not know how far it spread out along the railroad tracks. I knew there used to be a small park with a slide and swings for kids, but the city closed it when they started finding used syringes near the gazebo. There was a huge hullabaloo about it in the newspaper a few months ago.
I pulled into the parking lot and idled with the air conditioner on. It was a hot Summer day and the heat made my cough worse. Only cold air seemed to allay it. I really, really hoped I hadn’t contracted a disease from Chuck.
Feeling suddenly lonely and depressed, I called Michael. The phone rang three times before it went to voicemail. I waited a minute and called again. It went to voicemail on the second ring. I waited for the beep and left a message, speaking into that static-eaten voice that lay between us.  Irrationally, pathetically, I felt the strong need for a hug. I detested such a desire even as I sighed and wrapped my arms around myself. Another fit of coughs shook me like a ragdoll in my seat, so I turned off the car and got out, scanning the numbers over the apartment doors. From one end to the other I walked, looking for the right door. I then walked the other way. I could not find Chuck’s apartment. Confused, I frowned and wondered if I had misremembered what his grandmother had said.
“What’re ya’ lookin’ for?”
I turned to see a man seemingly stepping out from shadows into midday daylight. He was skinny and greasy with sweat, his Confederate battleflag wife-beater soaked through and he had a black mullet and tacky pornstache.
“Needin’ some weed?” he asked. “Maybe somethin’…stronger?”
“No,” I said. “I’m looking for Charlie Blanford’s apartment. He goes…went by ‘Chuck’.”
The man slunk up to me like a side-saddling crab. “What was his door number?”
I told him while he leered, boldly, at my breasts in my pantsuit. I crossed my arms over my chest and turned sideways, away from him, and he looked at my butt instead, his eyes up and down my contours as if fondling me with his gaze. I got enough of that at work from Joe. Actually, I wondered if this sleazeball and Joe were related. They both had that same inbred, blueblood skin, and creepy slug-eyed leer.
He smirked. “I see yer problem. He was that boy that lived in the basement.” He chortled, a squealing pig snort that sounded as if his pea-sized brain had slipped out and become lodged in his nasal cavity.
“Where’s the door, then?” I asked impatiently.
“Follow me, Missy, and I’ll show you.”
Instead of walking in front of me, he walked behind me, telling me where to go while he stared at my ass along the way. We went around the complex and into the marshy, waterlogged backyard. There was a set of concrete stairs that descended down alongside the cinderblock foundation. A dirty, windowless door stood at the bottom of the stairs, stained with a green floodwater mark. Even now a quarter inch of water had settled there, in the cool shade, away from the sun; stagnant and dirty and full of dead insects.
I began my descent. The country-fried redneck started down after me. I paused.
“Thanks for your help,” I said, hoping he would take the hint to leave.
“No problem, baby,” he said. He adjusted his crotch while I was at head-level. I averted my eyes and I took another step down. When he did the same, I lost my temper.
“I am here because Chuck died,” I said. “I am…was…his manager. His grandmother sent me to see to his things. This is a personal matter.”
“Oh, I understand,” he said, his lecherous pornstache clinging to his face like a leech on a scrotum. “I’ll let you do what you need to do.”
I walked down the rest of the steps in a rush, unlocking the door and slamming it in his face. I locked the door again, before I even groped for a light switch amidst that moldy, catacomb darkness. I could feel water soaking through my shoes and into my socks. It splashed and lapped with each step. As my hands scoured the walls for a light switch I could feel the cinderblock riddled with a veiny, scabby, flaky substance. It felt scaley, too, and moist.
The smell was awful.
Behind me, I heard the redneck try the door knob. He was a persistent creep, but after a few futile twists of the knob he cussed and walked upstairs, leaving me alone. I suspected he would be waiting for me when I left, lingering up at the top of the stairs.
It was very dark in the basement, so I took off my sunglasses and, finally feeling the light switch, flipped it on. A couple of lightbulbs flickered to life, their pale glow illuminating the derelict basement palace that belonged to “Cheddar-Chuck”. There was a couch in the middle of the large room. It was discolored and rank, seated in front of an old television and dvd player, both of which stood atop several cardboard boxes stacked atop one another. The carpet was mushy with water, like marshland, and discolored like the couch; brown, gray, black beneath the water. I sloshed through the pool of water, following the two lights that were strung up on hooks that had been affixed onto the foundation pillars that supported the rest of the apartment complex above. The majority of the basement was just one large living room with a kitchenette in the corner. The latter had a sink full of dirty dishes, a microwave oven, and a refrigerator. The sink was overflowing with water, gushing onto the floor. Despite the light, the walls were black with shadows and mildew, scabbed over like leprous flesh. The basement was very hot and humid, laboring my lungs with its stale, stagnant, and balmy air. There were two plug-in heaters, each one standing perilously atop their own stacks of damp cardboard boxes. Their insistent heat intensified the stench.
None of this made any sense to me. It was a waste of water and electricity. As I wandered deeper into the dimly-lit living space I discovered the bathroom— partitioned with a mildewy shower curtain— and found that the bathtub’s water was on and overflowing onto the floor, too.
Chuck had really given up on life, it seemed to me, long before he had died. It was sad, or would have been if I had let my emotions get the better of me. Maybe he was depressed. Maybe he was lonely down here. Then again, maybe he liked the solitude. He couldn’t have liked the scenery much. There were no windows at all and the dim lightbulbs did little more than accent the darkness with a hinting ghost-glow of illumination. I took out my cellphone and turned on its flashlight to see where I was going. The bathroom stank worse than the living room, so I turned away from it and returned to the living room.
I could smell cat piss beneath the sweet-decay stench of mildew, but I couldn’t find any cats. I thought I heard something toward the back of the basement, and spun around too quickly, knocking over a lamp with my butt. It fell and broke in the water. Luckily, it wasn’t plugged in, or else I would have been electrocuted. It was as I picked up the lamp that I found a heap next to the couch. I shined my cellphone light on it. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. My brain told my eyes it was a scoopful of earth with dandelions sprouting all over it. When my eyes and brain finally figured the morbid enigma out, I screamed involuntarily and staggered back, hands on knees, bent over and retching. It was a dead cat: old, mangy, subsumed by cobwebbed mold as the feline bloated and decayed in the water. The “dandelions” were fungal spheres, spores ready to bloom into airborne motes.
I saw more cats around the basement’s bowels, now, recognizing them for what they were. Each had grown its own garden of fungi upon their inert bodies. For a moment I thought I saw a cat move, but told myself it was just the lapping of water against its limp tail.
I didn’t know what I expected to find, and had found more than I wanted. But before I could leave my eye alighted on some other strange remainder of Chuck’s stagnant life. There was a makeshift partition of waterstained drywood near the kitchenette. It was a crudely constructed room within the basement, and it had a single door leading into it. The door was closed and blank-faced except for mildew and water stains. I tried the knob and found it locked. Taking the keyring out again I tried one key, then the other. The second key worked and the door opened slowly, creaking on its rusted hinges. The interior of the room was utter shadow; impenetrably black. I raised my cellphone to tunnel into that darkness.
The stench of the basement was concentrated here, like the breath of a graveyard in an ancient, undrained swamp. A wave of mildew and mold and decaying vegetables and ammonia struck me so hard I staggered. I steadied myself with my free hand on the door frame. Gagging and coughing, I turned away. But then I heard what sounded like a sigh. Turning around once more, I raised my cellphone and scraped away the shadows with a swipe of its light. Involuntarily, I moaned in horror.
Listen: I wanted to become a businesswoman. I wanted to be my own boss. That was my dream. CEO supreme. Corporate Queen. Prime Mover. It was a lonely seat of power, and faraway presently, but I wanted it no matter how tough a job it was. I was willing to be an island, self-reliant and a castle envied by every petty, backstabbing person below me. A fortress of solitude. I could do that, I told myself everyday. I would strive that way, like Ayn Rand, or Margaret Thatcher. An Iron Lady. Unto myself, independent from all. A tower against the mightiest storms, standing tall and proud and always defiant.
Yet, even as strong as I thought I was, a panic overtook me and I flung myself into a dash out of that stifling, mildewy, shadow-drenched, and waterlogged place. I felt the mold and the mildew suddenly growing, like an organism, in my lungs, and I could see it conquering my wind bags, inch by inch, inside and out, soon spreading through my entire body until I was nothing but a fungus-fleeced half-corpse. Like those cats. Like that thing spread upon the bed. A thing that Chuck, in his loneliness, found and cared for while in its silent stagnation.
I ran through the door, nearly slipping and falling in the basement’s water. Unlocking it, I rushed upstairs, nearly collapsing with fatigue and fear and infection. The country-fried sleazeball was up there, waiting for me, but when he saw me— and saw whatever illness was taking me—his eyes boggled and he swore.
“Christ Almighty!”
He ran away in a frenetic, fear-sprawled scramble.
I crawled to my car and, eventually, drove myself home.

***

I wanted to call someone, as I lay in my bedroom, overcome with fatigue and sadness and depression. But I did not know who to call. I had no friends to call— only coworkers. Only competitors. After several hours of slipping in and out of consciousness, I called Michael. Someone answered, but it was not Michael.
“Hello?” she said, her voice young and perky.
I struggled to make my tongue work. I did not know if it was the sickness or the emotions I felt.
“Michael?” I whispered, my throat feeling as if it was flaking apart.
“Somebody wants you,” the young woman said. There was a fumbling noise, and Michael sighed dejectedly.
“Michael?” I whispered again. My voice sounded like wind through wet, dead leaves.
“Christ,” he whispered. He then spoke more firmly into the phone. “Hey, babe, what’s going on?”
I wanted to tell him I was dying, and I needed help, and that he was a selfish bastard, and that I hoped he would feel guilty when I died. Instead my mouth said, weakly, “It’s three in the morning.”
He cleared his throat, and I heard the woman laugh drunkenly in the background.
“It’s a different time zone,” he said, defensively. “I am having a business meeting. It’s ten o clock here.”
My head, and my heart, hurt too much to think whether that was how the time zones worked or not. Instead, I let the phone fall onto the wet, fetid bed and laid back on my pillows. My eyes were leaking, but I was not crying. I was too tired and hurt and depressed to cry. I felt hollow, and hollowing. I closed my wet eyes and let the gray pus seal them forever.

***

Chuck had been too obese to be a home for it. The stress of the loneliness and isolation was too much for his cholesterol-clogged arteries and fat-choked heart. Heat from the grills only made it worse. He often wore sunglasses indoors, while at work. I thought it was to keep the steam from the grill out of his eyes. I might have thought he was concealing pupils dilated from drugs, but the truth was that I did not care as long as he showed up for work. No one was anything to me but a worker. I wasn’t anything to anyone but a manager.
And now I was nothing.

***

I can’t see anymore. My eyes are sealed shut. Even so, my apartment is utter shadow. I cannot hear, either, except for the occasional dripping of water from my bathroom. My body cannot move. I no longer cough. Air enters through it. It helps me breathe. It keeps me half-alive, and keeps me half-dead.
I used to sneer at people who needed to go to psychiatrists. I used to mock women who said they were the victims and were oppressed. It never seemed to me that I was oppressed or a victim. But now I do believe oppression exists, and the oppressor is Life. But soon…soon it won’t oppress me anymore. The sweet surrender is nearing now. I am so tired of the rat race. So tired of the competition. Now I just want to let go. Life has held me too long as a slave. I was such a fool for not realizing it before. To live is to suffer. We are enthralled to an abuser, and we make reasons to love our abuser. But now the loneliness will end. The pain and the sadness will subside. You can’t be lonely if you have it inside your mind, always there; always whispering. And it does whisper to me, as it grows throughout my body. It tells me how contented I will be when it has fully bonded with me. We will set each other free in a great sigh of contentment.
I am so sad and lonely now. Depressed. I don’t feel like moving, or even thinking. I just want to lay here, like that thing I found in Chuck’s bedroom, half-decayed into the bed, and half-eaten up with fungus. Let me waste in the dark. Let me dissolve into nothing. Maybe if Michael finds me here he’ll be sorry. Maybe he will feel bad for having treated me so badly. Maybe he will feel something; anything at all. Or not. I don’t care. Emotions are burdens. I don’t want them anymore. I just want the shadows, and the balmy air, saturated with moisture, and the stagnated silence. Like a mushroom in the dark, I just want to be left alone.