La Petite Mort

“Touch my breasts, not my heart,” she demanded as she gyrated atop him to the crescendo of Stairway To Heaven. Impatiently, her hand sought his, the latter crouching timidly between her breasts like a meek, trembling gerbil, and slammed it over her left nipple; her most sex-sensitive nipple.
“Oh, don’t you fucking finish yet!” she growled, feeling him erupt inside of her.
“Sorry!” he moaned, his face contorting ridiculously with orgasm. “You’re…just…so…beautiful!”
Angry, she grinded down on him harder, trying to reach climax herself. It did not work. He went limp and shriveled, vacating whatever iota of pleasure she felt in tandem measure to his manhood. He was like all of the others, then; selfish in sex, even with all of his kisses and promises of love and his priming cunnilingus foreplay. True, he had attempted to sway her heart with love, but only because he wanted sex. She looked down at him, or what remained of him now. He looked like a mummified corpse over a thousand years old. Beef jerky, like the countless others. The ancient curse, thus, persisted, as it had since Hatshepsut had placed it upon her for fornicating with her priest in her royal temple. And she would not die and go on to the land of Duat until a man had pleased her fully.
“Ammit!” she called.
The bedroom door opened and a fat bulldog entered on stiff-jointed, squat legs.
She dismounted from the leathery corpse, almost crudely, and flicked her hand in a gesture of mild irritation.
“Another one unworthy,” she said. She walked into the adjacent bathroom to take a shower and clean up. The bulldog hopped up onto the bed and looked down at the corpse. There was, faintly, the sound of a scream— as quiet as if it came from a great distance down in the shriveled throat of the inert cadaver, barely audible above the sound of the shower faucet and Robert Plant’s mewling conclusion to his magnum opus. Then again, it could have been a pigeon’s feather brushing against the highrise apartment window. If Ammit heard it, he did not care. He opened his jowl-underlined jaws and swallowed the corpse whole, as if there unfolded in his small, pudgy body a whole dimension of oblivion belied by his ostensible size.
She sighed irritably as she reentered the bedroom, walking briskly to her clothes and scooping them up. She began to dress herself hurriedly; preparing her makeup and her favorite black dress and her golden jewelry with its sapphire scarab.
“Looks like I’m going out tonight, Ammit,” she said, huffing and puffing in princess annoyance. “I feel like the Sisyphean dung beetle, pushing his ball uphill. I will never land a good man.”
She turned off the radio, as it began to play Heart’s What About Love. She sat down in front of a long, ornate mirror, applying mascara to darken her already dark eyes. She had feline eyes, like a lioness, which she inherited from her mother. Her rounded cheeks, too, were feline and inherited from her mother’s blood, as were her full lips which always appeared puckered. Her mother had been an African consort from Ghana. Her Egyptian father gave her his long black hair and dusky skin. He had been a royal priest, much like the man she had coupled with in Hatshepsut’s temple. She wondered, sardonically, if she had daddy issues and whether this whole cursed life had stemmed from a need to fulfill an Electra complex. But she hated the Greeks, and she hated Freud, so she pushed such disgusting thoughts away lest they lead to madness.
She looked glumly into her reflection with a sense of doom. She had been cursed by beauty and desirability. No man, through the centuries, had survived a night with her. Hatshepsut had devised the most consummately ironic punishment for the trespass against her divinity. By cursing her with her boons she had guaranteed a persistent curse, seemingly without deliverance. Consequently, she lived a life of one night stands and hopeless bedside regrets. And while many men willingly died for one night with her, she had hoped one of them would overcome the curse so that she could die, at long last, and escape dull eternity as it stretched out upon the infinite horizon of Time.
She braided her black hair in a complex pattern of knots; quickly, to one side. She then sighed, hissing through clenched teeth.
“The Nile is more than just a river in Egypt,” she said.
She stood up, glancing over her comely curves in profile, beneath the black dress. She ran her fingers down the black sheer gown— over her breasts, down her belly and into the valley of her womanhood. She then slapped her hip. She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Seduction has lost all of its savor,” she said.
Ammit barked breathlessly, once. She glanced back at him.
“Oh, I am sure you do not mind my bounty,” she said. “I keep you well fed.”
She fetched a pair of black stilettos from her closet. They were angled like pyramids beneath the arches of her feet, raising her buttocks high with an elevated “come hither” posture. When she walked in them it was with a slow, graceful flamingo poise, even as her eyes flashed with feline predation.
Glancing once more in the long mirror—and appraising herself bodily— she nodded and headed into the hall and toward the front door. Ammit followed her eagerly, breathing laboriously. He was a very old bulldog.
“I’ll be back later,” she said to him. She opened the door and stepped out into the outer hallway. “Here’s to finding Mr. Right.”
She closed the door behind her and set off for another day of hunting for hearts.

The Crossroads

I felt I had, in my mad dash, run my legs to splinters. When I saw the inn, standing tall beneath the moon and looming large on the precipice of the seaside cliff, I beat my feet harder in my boots, as if digging another trench against the Krauts and their endless artillery shells. I hurled myself into the door, slamming it bodily aside and falling forward onto a soft carpet. At my back I could still feel the darkness and the artillery fire vying for conquest of the night, and, too, that fetid breath of the monstrous thing that had pursued me down this midnight road.
I kicked the door shut, the heavy wood slamming loudly with a finality like artillery falling from above. I lay there, then, relieved and insensate, breathing heavily as my bones and muscles ached below my knees. Too long the War March was. The hammering of the artillery and the crawling through wet mud and barbed wire and the bodies of the dead—all too much for me. As I sat up, gathering about me my senses like a seamstress’s scattered thread, I realized that a tall woman stood before me. She was fair as salt, ephemeral like a ghost in moonlight, her white nightgown and white hair making a pale pillar of her, like a caryatid. Yet, her material form was attested by a candlestick she held to light that dark lobby. A ruby cross necklace lay between her comely breasts.
“Are you the innkeeper?” I asked.
“Always,” she said. She had a French accent, as was to be expected in Boulogne.
I looked to the window near the door, and saw the moon eclipsed by a bulky shadow. I heard the creature snorting in frustration, like a boar; like the push and pull of the tides.
“That…thing chased me here,” I said.
“As it does us all,” she said. “It catches some of us unawares. Some go to it willingly. Others ride it as a mount, exulting. But even they slip off, in time, and are eaten.”
“I…I am with the Irish Guards,” I said. Clutching my head in my hands, I felt ashamed at leaving my brothers behind. “I fled. The fighting… The artillery… I cannot take it anymore…”
“Come,” she said simply. “Your bed awaits.”
“My bed?” I said, confused.
She said no more, but turned to leave.
I did not know what to make of this young lady. Feeling ashamed now for my shame, I rose, slowly, wobbly, to my bleeding feet and followed her as she lifted her candle to light the inner gloom of that large establishment.
I could see little as I followed her except her back. She wore a sleeveless gown in the French style, the back low cut, the angel wings of her shoulderblades etched softly in her pale skin. She was ghostly in form, in her movements, as if she floated ahead of me through that enveloping darkness. She inspired in me fear, like a war widow soon to betray me to the Krauts. I had heard stories of them— French women who betrayed Allied soldiers to the enemy in return for favors. Then again, there were plenty of other stories about French women who saved many Allied soldiers; women who died saving them and their fellow countrymen. So I followed her, knowing I did not wish to return to the artillery shells or the beast beyond the threshold.
She led me upstairs to another hallway with many doors on either side. Guiding me to the last door, near the hall’s window, she unlocked the room with a key. I chanced a glance outside and glimpsed, briefly, that bulwark form of the beast below, shrouded in the obscurity of shadows. The moon glowed brightly, as did the innkeeper’s pallor. She opened the door and gestured with a lithe arm as slender and speckless as ivory. Her white hair, I realized, was coiled back into a chain of French braids, baring her slender neck on one side.
“If soldiers come,” I said, “they will ask for me.”
“No one who comes here ever knows where they will go,” she said. Her voice was faint, yet even as she stood apart from me, it was as intimate as if she spoke it at my ear. The inn, otherwise, was silent, except for the snorting of the beast at the threshold and my own heartbeat, the latter echoing loudly in my own ears. She did not smile, but she did not frown. Her face was enigmatic as she asked me a question.
“Do you want company on this Night among nights?”
I watched her face— looking for a hint of malice or mockery, or simple coquettishness—but found nothing. Only mystery dwelled in that pretty visage.
“No,” I said. “I wish only to sleep.”
She entered the room, her candle’s halo blooming in that space. What was revealed as the shadows pulled back like overabundant curtains was kingly quarters, finely furnished and familiar, its walls adorned with wallpapered flowers and finely lacquered wainscoting. The large bed was utterly unlike the muddy blanket beneath which I shivered in the trenches. It was a four-post bed heavily stacked with quilts and would have been more befitting of a Lord than a simple farmhand such as myself. Looking upon it, I knew I could not wear my sullied uniform. My muddy, bloody boots did not belong in that room, either, and so I took them off, one at a time. The pain was excruciating. It felt as if I had taken my shins off with the boots. At length, however, I stood in the hallway, barefooted and hesitant to enter. The innkeeper beckoned me with a gentle gesture, and so I entered.
She set the candle on a small escritoire beside the bed and walked to the door, presumably to leave. When I heard the door shut, I doffed my uniform, born again in my undergarments. I did not pray, but put myself to bed with utmost expedience. The innkeeper startled me by sitting on the bed, next to me, and laying a soft hand upon my forehead. I had thought she had left. She did not smile, but there was an impression of benevolence and concern in her face.
“Have you no other needs?” she asked.
“My legs hurt,” I said.
“Do not think on it,” she cooed, stroking my forehead. The ruby cross flashed as it caught the light from the melting candle. It seemed to blind me.
I felt hot and chilled alternately. I wished to be home, in Ireland, with my family.
“Why do you wear that…thing?” I asked, waving away at the red flash of her cross. “You know it does no good in times like these. Nothing does.” I became angry. Bitter. Spiteful. “The dead pile up. Nothing stymies the flow of blood. God takes no sides, but takes from every side. We are His playthings.”
She said nothing, her face illegible; mysterious; beautiful and empty, like the cross that adorned her heart. I sighed in resignation and regret.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” I said, after a while. “My father told me not to enlist. But I volunteered to fight over here of my own accord. Everyone in Britain looks down upon us Irish, but when there’s a fight we cannot help but ball up our fists and start swinging for their honor, as much as for our own. Maybe I thought I’d find a new life over the sea. But all I found was another crossroads to spin about on.”
She shushed me with a kiss to my lips.
“I shall sing to you a lullaby,” she said. “To ease you in your time of suffering.”
She then proceeded to sing a quiet, soothing song that calmed me like morphine in my veins.

“My only love swam out to sea
while singing a song, mon ami.
He swam too far dans la mer
while wondering how not to care.
My only love did not swim back to me,
lost forever in la nuit…”

I slipped beneath her gentle palm into an ocean of oblivion far deeper and darker than the Atlantic. There was no pain there; no lonely ache for home, nor cold nor fever nor memory nor regret. There was only the deepness of peace. I was at long last contented.

***

When I awoke, the fair-haired woman was gone, along with her candle and her ruby cross. Yet, I was not alone. Moonlight spilled through the windows, illuminating in milky softness the interior of the room: the walls, the furniture, the bed upon which I lay. All things were illuminated; all things except the hulking mass of shadow at the foot of the bed.
I tried to scream, but my voice would not come forth. The beast lurched forward, then, and fell upon my feet, chewing at them slowly while I attempted to scream for help and pull away. Yet, I was paralyzed, voiceless, at the mercy of its snorting, ravenous, cruel appetite as it chewed my toes and my feet and then my shins. I sobbed inwardly, for tears would not come, and the beast ate of my legs until, as if suddenly disinterested, it turned away and melded again into the shadows. In agony now, I succumbed to the pain and fell asleep all at once.

***

I awoke in a tent. A doctor stood over me, a clipboard and a pencil in his hands. He wore a long white uniform that was splattered redly, like a butcher’s apron.
“Good,” he said with a British accent. “You are awake. The worst is over.” He turned away, then paused. “But I suppose the worst is yet to come.”
He motioned for a tall, pale nurse to see to me. She wore a Red Cross gown, with a white skirt and a bonnet over her white hair. She looked familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen her. I was feverish, soaken with sweat, and I ached all along my legs. I tried to sit up, but had not the strength. I looked to one side of the table, and to the other, and saw other soldiers bandaged and bloodied and broken. Some were covered with a blanket, head to toe. Dead.
“I do not belong here,” I whispered. I pushed myself up and turned, trying to stand from the bed. I hopped off the bed, plunging downward through empty air and hitting the floor with my thighs, sprawling out helplessly in astonished misery. The tall nurse rushed towards me, but it was too late. Surveying myself, I moaned in horror. My legs had been reduced to stubs by the Krauts’ artillery shells.

***

That night I crawled out of the medical tent, pulling myself through the camp and out into the French countryside. I crawled past the dozens of nameless crosses that stood in testimony to the thousands that had died in the war, nailed together out of driftwood and kindling. I wanted to go West, away from the butchery of trench warfare. I wanted to return to Ireland. I would float out to sea, I told myself, and wake up a selkie on Erin’s beach once again. Behind me I heard the artillery shells that lit up the night once again. But I never looked back. If I looked back I would dissolve.
I crawled all night and at morning light found myself at the edge of a seaside cliff. I stared down its bluff as the briny air whispered intimately in my ear. Far below, in the deep water, I saw the beast beyond the threshold, snorting hungrily among the waves. It wanted the rest of me. There was nothing left for me except to feed it, as countless other soldiers had in this terrible war. Whoever won the war, the spoils were its alone.
The tall nurse surprised me, then, running towards me. Her hair was done up in a French braid that billowed behind her. She had been looking for me, it seemed, and she now found me. I saw the cross upon her heart, red as blood, and bitterly wished to tear it from her breast. Behind her I saw the explosions of a battle enjoined once again. She glistened like a pillar of salt, and I looked away from her before she could dissolve within the warring winds. She called to me, in her French accent, and the beast called to me, too, with a terrible squeal like a bomb falling and exploding all around me.
“Do not swim so eagerly out to sea!” she cried.
“To sea,” I said. “To home. To nothingness.”
I pivoted my legless body upon the crossroads and plunged forward, giving myself fully to the beast.

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.

Teacups, Collars, And Petticoats

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Disclaimer: This story is rife with sordid things meant for an adult mind…and likely a puerile mind, too.  Manners are herein detailed, as well as etiquette, and many a Victorian pretense.  And nudity.  There is nudity, both textual and illustrated, though mostly for comedic effect.  This is a short story concerning juxtaposition and contrasts between overt behavior and latent compulsion.  Consequently, it is a story about Freudian suppression and the “return of the repressed”.

The rain fell heavy and the Thames breathed its fog in heady sighs through the glistening gaslight murk of London. Despite the dark, misty labyrinthine streets, her red dress and overtopping hat exploded with colorful distinction like a crimson carnation bountiful with bloom in a wet grotto. She was a walking fire embodied and emboldened by her own self-regard. The rain itself struck her umbrella but apologetically. Perhaps it knew better than to provoke the grudge of Jane Augusta Petticue. Most Londoners seemed to know such things.

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Jane entered the restaurant with her hoopskirt swishing left and right, such was her haste to meet Sarah at the dining table. Brusquely, she shoved her small umbrella into the unprepared arms of the nearest waiter, ignoring the waiter’s protests and bounding buoyantly toward the usual corner of the restaurant where she and Sarah exchanged their fruitful gossip. Her demoness stood upon her shoulder; a small, impish pinkish creature with a large-lipped mouth, always puckered in relish of wry mischief. At that moment the demoness was wringing her taloned hands in excitement, eagerly eyeing Sarah as Jane navigated the other tables in the crowded restaurant— tables clustered with patrons and their own demons— and sat down in her habitual chair. Her cup of tea awaited her obediently, its steam swaying as if a cobra mesmerized by the piping of a flute.
Jane’s eyes, and the eyes of her demoness, glimmered with glee. A very fine, thin, and long silken thread laced the demoness’s neck, tying her to Jane. Diamonds gleamed there, studded like stars.
“You will never guess what mayhem I have accomplished today,” Jane said, sipping from her tea. She was an older woman, and graying, whereas Sarah, sitting across the table from her, was to her a protege—young, pretty, unmarried as Jane once was.

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“Do tell me it was of the provincial sort,” Sarah said, eyes sparkling in near equal sheen to her idol’s. Her demoness was sitting upon the floor beside her chair, chained to the garter high upon her thigh. Her demoness was voluptuous and tempting, as if following the precedent that was herself, despite horns and naked disregard for convention; which is to say, a literal naked disregard for the convention of clothing. As men glanced toward Sarah, her demoness spread her legs in a most vulgar display while tugging at the lacy hem of Sarah’s petticoats as if to invite them in for a grand show. Several men looked away, talking amongst themselves at their table, yet their own demons sported priapic extravagances, standing in a circle around the table to compare and measure the most manly among the present competition.

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“It is mayhem of the lordly sort,” Jane said, smiling broadly with deep satisfaction.
Sarah gasped in pleasant shock. “You do not mean Lord Clovenhill?”
“The very same,” Jane said, her smirk so taut it could hang a man in its noose. “It will come out soon enough, but for now there are only four individuals who are aware of his great misfortune. Him, myself, yourself, and the young lady Anna Lynn Maywell.”
Sarah’s eyes were agape. Even her demoness ceased spreading legs and sat up, listening intently.
“Have you spoiled that courtship through…bold means?” she asked. “I should have liked portion of such a delicious endeavor. Lord Clovenhill, for all of his stuffy and stiff bearing, is a handsome man, and I do not doubt, when coaxed sweetly enough, a beast abed.”
“No, it is not a carnal matter of drama,” Jane said, shaking her head and thinking her protege too hedonistic in some ways to be proficient at true sin. Her graying ringlets brushed against her demoness, who was too pleased with their accomplishments to notice.
“Then did you induce him to take liberties with Lady Maywell? Surely not. The innocent little creature keeps her demoness in a canary cage, feeding it on crackers, instead of vice, and teaching it choir songs. It is the cutest of things, for a demoness, and so…unfailingly harmless. Why, it is almost as small as your demoness, Jane.”

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Jane nodded only once, but did not afford her own demoness an appraising glance, knowing the smile on her small face the selfsame smile upon her own.
“Nor is it in that particular area of interest,” Jane said, “though the broad topic is keen to the happenings I have devised and set into motion.”
Before she elaborated she raised a gloved hand, signaling a waiter hereto.
“A bit of crumb cake, please,” she said to the waiter. His demon’s head was bowed, but muttered discourtesies and insolence toward all of the patrons in the room. When the young man turned to inquire after Sarah’s wants, however, and upon seeing the bulging bosom heaving up and down within her bodice, his demon sprouted his own absurd priapism.

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“And the young lady?” he said, blushing.
“Nothing so delicious yet, dear sir,” she crooned with a coy smile.

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The waiter hesitantly went to fetch the cake. Jane’s demon, taking umbrage at the waiter’s choice of distinguishing Sarah with the pretense “young” and not herself, whispered in Jane’s ear. Jane smiled, less pleasantly than before, and waited until the waiter returned with a plate of her cake, and a fork. She accepted it with a broad, beaming smile and inquired after his name.
“Jonathan, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded, once, dismissing Jonathan from the table, yet her small mouse-sized demoness glared balefully after him until he receded to the other side of the restaurant. Jane began to vengefully eat at the cake, cutting it spitefully with her fork and chewing as if relishing her own vexation.
“Why would you seek such ploys to undermine a pillar of London society?” Sarah asked, hoping to press Jane toward unforthcoming details. “Why, Lord Clovenhill is praised every day for his charities. There has yet to be a philanthropist in measure to him. And the legislation he has put forth in the House of Lords is famous for its social reforms. Truly, even I know of their commendable nature, though I find politics exceedingly tiresome and banal. Moreover, he is neither arrogant nor a boor. I have met him upon multiple occasions, in balls and soirees and such, and never had a disagreeable word with him. True, he is, as I have stated, stiff in his manner, but so are many young men of his rank. He is…”
Sarah fell to a sudden, embarrassed silence, noticing at last Jane’s icy smile of patience, which, like ice, could crack and dunk the unwary traveler at a moment’s glance. Jane set her fork down, next to the half-eaten cake, took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled.
“But that is the precise reason for my plot,” Jane said quietly. “He is praised for so many superficial services to society, and to the Crown, but I know his embosomed secret. I know what poison grows in the bloom of his heart.”
Sarah leaned forward, rapt. Her demoness stood beside her, leaning forward, too, their bosoms swelling against the edge of the table. “Do enlighten me, Jane.”
Jane glanced about the room, seeing that they were unattended by unwanted ear or eye from the overcrowded restaurant. There were too many conversations for eavesdroppers. Even the rain was speaking to itself as it splattered loudly against the windowpane, chatting away in inane elemental jabberwocky. When Jane was satisfied that the dining hall was too clamorous to overhear her, she spoke. Her eyes glittered like a wildfire happily betaken to woodland.
“Lord Clovenhill is beholden to a massive personage,” she said. “Indeed, his demon is positively gargantuan. It is the ugliest, foulest, most infernal creature I have ever seen. Jack the Ripper would give pause to witness it. It is so dangerous in its appetites that he has partitioned half of his countryside estate to imprison it.”

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Sarah gawped in incredulity for the longest moment. The men at the nearest table grinned to one another, to see such an expression upon her visage, and their demons scrambled to satisfy themselves to the wanton image.
“But he seems such a fine gentleman!” Sarah remarked. “How does he retain servants in his manor if such a creature resides there?”
“They seem to not fear it,” Jane said with a lax shrug that made her demoness sway indifferently. “I suppose they are foolish enough to believe he can contain it forever, and I suppose they can somehow separate the man they know from the demon they should rightly fear. But I saw in it the truth. However strong the shackles placed upon it, it exists, and so the man is owed needful comeuppance.”
“And how did you manage such divine retribution?”
“By simply calling on him,” she said, her smile broadening again, “while in the company of Lady Maywell.”
Sarah gasped. “Surely you did not.”
“Surely I did. I could see it chafed Lord Clovenhill considerably, that breach of etiquette, but moreover I could see the fear behind his stoic mask while he hastily bid his servants to ‘prepare the house for guests’. As if any preparations could be made to spirit away his unsightly secret! My delight was devilish and deserved, especially when—in the Lord’s fleeting absence to see to a domestic matter—I led Lady Maywell to the secret he so feared in its discovery. The poor delicate girl was a crumpled pile of fright by the time Lord Clovenhill retrieved us. He attempted to console her, and chastise me, but the revelation proved beyond his powers of excuse or explanation. It was a triumphant hour, and my greatest pleasure. All of London knows he has long been courting Lady Maywell in the hopes of ascertaining the childish-minded girl as his bride. She has no fortune, but she has infinite prospects to resettle her to her advantage. After all, where wealth is wanting, beauty and obedience may suffice. Now she will assume the worthier bond of another attachment and all will be happier for it. Except Mr. Clovenhill, of course.”
“Pardon me, Jane,” Sarah said, “but they have been the talk of town of late. The men all wish to be Lord Clovenhill and the women all envy her natural, innocent charms. Nor is he bereft in endowments. She will not overcome the attachment easily. It was only a month ago that he startled the Wickfield Circle by holding Lady Maywell’s demoness in his hands, stroking it affectionately as no one ever has another’s demon. The darling little imp purred in his care. As a cat. No one has ever seen the like!”

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“Yes,” Jane said irritably, “but had his demon been there I assure you he would have devoured her little imp, the Lady herself, and all among that presumptuous gathering. Forgive me, Sarah, but you are ignorant of his truer nature. You have never seen his demon. And I would not allow him the pleasure of parading about, lauded by everyone, while he hides his demon from the light of day.”
“But Jane, even you leash your creature,” Sarah observed. The scowl rewarding this observation was twofold— madam and demoness, both— and Sarah cringed, but yoked her tongue to truth. “I only mean to say that is it not commendable that he should take such precautions? Is that not what we all do?” She lifted the golden chain that bound her demon to her garter. “That his demon is so large and frightful, as you say, should he not be applauded for countering its potential transgressions with such elaborate means? Sometimes to acknowledge one’s foibles is as divine as not possessing them in the first, for you may remedy them with greater exercises of volition.”
“That it exists at all is proof enough of his wickedness,” Jane said, snorting in contempt. “But even so, I should have done as I have done were he not beholden to such a large demon. It passes the time, you know, in this widowed age. Errors and etiquette can only do so much to entertain me in my waning years. At times it requires a bit of mischief to embolden the flavors of life.” She reached down under her petticoat and produced a flask, the contents of which she poured into her tea. The aroma of liquor wafted across the table. “The milk of human kindness cannot spice my tea. It only dulls and dilutes, and produces in me a most awful stomachache.”
She set her teacup down on the saucer abruptly, porcelain biting on porcelain sharply, like teeth clamping shut upon bone. She lifted the plate upon which her half-eaten crumb cake sat.
“Excuse me, Sarah,” she said. “I must do something about this cake. It is…too sweet.”
Rising from the table, she walked the length of the restaurant, navigating the crowded tables with her hoopskirt. The other patrons in the restaurant naturally avoided her gaze, and inched their chairs away from her expansive garments. She came, briskly, to the manager of the restaurant. He was an older gentleman, his demon sitting upon his shoulders, one leg to either side of his head, in piggyback fashion, while its protuberant belly pressed down upon his nape, bowing his head forward under the unwieldy weight of its appetite.
“Sir,” Jane said.
“Mrs. Petticue,” the proprietor said, bowing lower while steadying himself with a hand on a window sill. He always stood next to the window, commanding a view of both his restaurant and the bustling London streets. “How is your evening seeing you?”
“Most inhospitably,” she said, tucking a curly tress behind her hair with the affectation of unrest. She set the cake down “Indeed, one of your waiters has been uncharitable in his service. When I asked him for a slice of cake he saw it a happy mischief to bring me but a small, worn morsel of which he had taken liberty to satisfy his own stomach. As you can well see, there is scarcely a mouthful left.”
The old man reddened instantly upon the charge, his eyes flaring spitefully as if to catch his white whiskers aflame.
“I see,” he said, in a tone belying his ire. “Do tell me the scoundrel’s name.”
“Jonathan,” she said.
The old man nodded once, then took the proffered plate of half-eaten cake from Mrs. Petticue. “I will have a fresher slice brought out to you, my dear, of more generous portions. And Jonathan will be brought out, as well. He shall be made to apologize.”
“Oh no, no!” Jane said, affecting a flight of swooning. “I cannot abide the sight of him, even were he groveling to me as Judas to Christ. He has already abused my good nature with his supercilious airs. When I asked him, begging his forgiveness, what happened to the cake he assumed a derisive tone and told me…” She affected to wipe away a tear. “…told me I was of figure not in want for cake.”
“This is an outrage!” the old gentleman said. “I shall have him flogged through the streets!”
“No, I shan’t have his bruises on my heart,” she said. “Just…just show him to the streets, if you could be so kind, and in the Christian fashion. I should like to forgive him, in time.”
The old man nodded fervently. “You are a dear sweet lady, Mrs. Petticue,” he said. “Such sweetness is rare in this world.”
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “As rare as cake, but not so easily crumbled when engaged.”
He escorted her back to her table, sending another waiter to fetch a larger piece of cake, untouched, and two waiters to fetch Jonathan. Jane sat and ate her new slice of cake silently, relishing the sweetness and the view as she watched the old gentleman reprimand a perplexed Jonathan by the door, shortly before shoving him beyond its threshold and out into the misty, cold, dark London street. Jane’s demoness waved goodbye, a serrated grin between her lips. Sarah, whose back was turned to the whole incident, asked Jane if the cake was truly so good as to have second servings.

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“Absolutely, Sarah,” Jane said. “And a third serving, and a fourth, and endless until my time is done and my eyes, and mouth, close forever.”
A tremor abruptly shook the restaurant, rattling plates and teacups and constitutions. In the ensuing silence the patrons at the restaurant gawped toward one another for an explanation, only for another tremor to seize that fine establishment. After its echoing tremble, all visages were nervous, quivery, their demons jumping up and down like disquieted apes in a zoo. Only Jane sat still, and her demoness, too, a self-satisfied smile slowly spreading across her face and giving it dimples such as she had not donned since a young woman.
“No doubt lightning,” the proprietor of the restaurant said, chuckling nervously. His demon nearly tore his whiskers out at the roots in fear.
Another tremor and several patrons stood.
The proprietor raised his hands, trying to calm his patrons. “Just a disgruntled storm,” he tried to reassure them. Another tremor shook him and he steadied himself with a hand on a chair. “My, but they do seem to strike close, do they not?”
The tremors followed one another in rapid succession, drawing closer to the street. The rain had stopped and the windowpanes were rattling themselves dry in the quakes. A decisive concussion to the earth caused the lights in the restaurant to flicker, blinking ominously. Another tremor struck, stronger than the others, and rattled teacups and teeth alike, echoing through the restaurant and the patrons. A few patrons rushed to the door in a frantic crush of struggling bodies, shoving and scrambling out into the misty tumult of night. Others looked to one another, oscillating in indecision and the demands of properly comported etiquette.
“My word,” Sarah whispered. “What is that?”
Jane’s eyebrows arched as the corner of her mouth twisted with wry humor.
“Why, Jane, I do believe that is the true Mr. Clovenhill come to call.”
A roar, like that of a tempest’s gale, rent the uneasy silence, deafening the cries of panic as the patrons in the restaurant fled to the door, crushing together in a struggle to exit and flee down the street. Another tremor shook the clog loose at the door, and so the trickle of patrons became as a gush. Even the waiters and the proprietor joined the exodus. Only Jane and Sarah remained, Jane clutching her demoness in her lap as she watched through their corner’s window, seeing a river of people hastening helter-skelter down the street.
“Do not fret, Sarah,” Jane said calmly. “He would never condescend to visit this establishment. It is, as you know, beneath him.”
The gigantic demon stomped down the street, roaring and rattling the bones of London. It was only as it passed by the window that Sarah realized that there was a bewailing tone to the creature’s roar; as if it was in great pain.
“The poor creature is wounded,” Sarah remarked.
“Quite,” Jane said. “And perhaps it is a mortal wound, though I dare say I would rather it live on, enthralled to its suffering.”
As the demon stomped and moaned, buildings and streets crumbled around it. It was as if another terrible fire was destroying London.

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“What devastation!” Sarah said, her face a paler shade than any French makeup could ever accomplish. “What mayhem!”
“Thank you, my dear,” Jane said quietly. “Being the busy socialite that I am, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce London to the true Lord of Philanthropy in his most esteemed form. Mark how destructive he is. Mark how self-conceited with his woes. What an utterly bestial personage. What catastrophe in his wake. What a monstrous demon with which to share a heart.”
But as Sarah looked from the clamorous devastation beyond the windowpane to the quiet satisfaction on Jane’s face—and the selfsame smile imprinted upon her imp—she marveled at how so much mischief and mayhem could be wrought by such a small, petty demon.

No Regrets

It was normal for Katy to see mice and rats in the subway as she waited for the train. They gathered here every morning, more punctually than Katy had ever been, and scrambling for scraps and throwaway trash to add to their smorgasbord breakfast. What was not normal that morning were the toads and frogs strewn out all across the subway platform.
If New York wanted to be weird, she thought, let it be weird. She was of no mind to question it. Last night had been terrible and she was in a foul mood. Breakups always ruined the next day—or week, or year, depending upon the person and the circumstances. Peter wasn’t worth more than a morning of regret, on the other hand, since he had been so petty and manipulative, and so she had decided to waste only a little of the morning finding closure and peace— not with the ending of the relationship, but the beginning of it. She never should have dated him. It was a mistake from the start. It was a waste of three months. Had he not been so handsome she wouldn’t have wasted more than three hours on him. But he was handsome, like a prince, and she leapt at the chance to date him that night when he casually asked her out to dinner. Now she was ready for some time alone. Now she was ready for some me time.
Only, these frogs and toads were annoyingly everywhere. She gingerly stepped between them as she crossed the platform to board the newly arrived train. Inside, she found them all over the floor, the seats, and the windows. Small frogs. Huge frogs. Tiny toads. Fat toads. Toads that bulged like ugly purses. Tree frogs as lean and green as plant stems while they crouched on whatever nooks they could find. More surprising than these unlikely invaders were the reactions of Katy’s fellow passengers. Or, as it were, their lack of reactions. They glanced over them seemingly without seeing them. They sat on toad and frog alike without compunction. Not one twenty-something took pictures of the creatures with his or her phone— they didn’t even feel the urge to take selfies with them.
The train stopped and Katy stepped off.  She was met by another subway platform sprawling with frogs and toads. Once again she stepped mindfully between them, and her fellow New Yorkers— which was a bit awkward in stilettos—and she came to the rise of stairs, following them up and out into daylight once again, or as much daylight that could be had between the skyscrapers. She glanced up at a digital clock on the side of a bank and realized she was almost late. Hurrying across three blocks, she came to the office building where she worked. Here, too, the frogs and toads were strewn everywhere, but much worse in their numbers than anywhere else. Walking into the lobby, she saw several coworkers at the coffee stand, and all of them had frogs and toads clinging to their shoes and pants and skirts. Instead of being bothered by their stowaways, they all seemed instead to be bothered by Katy herself. They gave her odd looks as she walked by them. Women turned and whispered to one another. Men elbowed each other and grinned. Katy feared she was having a mental breakdown. Stubbornly, she fixed her brown eyes upon the floor, taking deep breaths and heading straight to the elevator. To her surprise, and relief, no one joined her in the elevator on the way up. When the elevator stopped at the next few floors, would-be passengers stepped forward, recognized her, and then stepped out.
“I’ll catch the next one,” they said.
Katy did not understand any of it.
Feeling lonely and vulnerable, and since she had time, Katy checked her phone. She had silenced it after her alarm clock went off that morning. There were several missed calls from her friend, Ashley, and from her mother. She thought to call them back, but by now the frogs and toads were multiplying exponentially within the elevator. She could not see where they were coming from, and their slimy bodies crowded around her, an acute claustrophobia overtaking her. When the elevator doors finally slid open, at the eighth floor, she nearly fell trying to escape it.
Angela happened by as Katy stumbled toward her cubicle.
“Good girl’s not so good after all,” she said with a haughty, knowing smirk. Frogs clung to her ears and hair. A tiny frog— not even the size of a fingernail—dangled from her nostril.
Feeling off-balanced and disturbed, Katy tried to ignore her. Angela always had been a conceited, petty diva.
Furtive glances followed her from around every cubicle partition, and with them came an abundance of frogs and toads. Katy arrived at her cubicle after an obstacle course of croaking, chirping, stinking amphibians. Her cubicle was overrun, too. Some of the little beasts were trying to mate with others, forming big clusters of obscenity that rose and collapsed in columns all over her desk. Dismayed, she could do nothing but gawp at it for a moment, wondering if she had suffered an aneurysm or had accidentally ingested LSD on the way to work. Just then, her supervisor, Dave, approached her.
“Katy,” he said, “I know you didn’t mean to do it, but it is a strict company guideline that anything posted on your social media accounts can impact negatively on your continued employment…”
Katy turned to face him, confused as to what he was talking about. A large fat toad squatted atop his head, hunkering down in the bald circle of his pate.
“The terms are severe, I know,” he was saying. “Harsh, even, and I know this is your one and only infraction, so I am going to try to contain it, if I can, and see if we can work out a deal with HR for a minor suspension— without pay, of course— but then you could be relocated into another position at a different firm.” The old man blushed bright red, and would not look at her. “You know, so it won’t be so embarrassing for you or your coworkers…”
“I don’t feel so good,” she said, interrupting him. “I need to go home.”
Dave nodded fervently, as did the fat toad on his head. “Yes, yes! That would be best. But only until we figure this out! Don’t worry about it. It’ll be water under the bridge in no time.”
The toad and frogs followed Katy home to her apartment. All along the way she came across more of them, which only swelled the ranks around her. Peter was waiting for her, his mouth wide with an amphibious smirk.
“I showed everybody that was on your accounts,” he said. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr. Pics and video and gifs. I showed everybody everything.”
Katy just looked down at him as he squatted in front of her door. He had expelled so many frogs and toads now that he was little more than a tiny creature himself. How, she wondered, could such a small creature gloat so expansively?
“I told you it wouldn’t be happily ever after if you broke up with me,” he croaked up at her. “I told you you’d regret it”
“Maybe,” she said. “But I won’t regret this.”
She squashed the prince beneath her stiletto heel.