Air Then Blue Then Black

Icy Detroit River

He’d catch her in the corner of his eyes, stalking, inhabiting spaces like cancer in human form. She was the absence of sound, devoid of identifying features, always just out of view. She was always moving, always coming closer, lights going out around her and a stench like mildewy clothes that have just seen the light of day after years of stewing. She had no eyes, or none that he could see in the glimpses in sewer puddles, bloodstains on cuffs and spreading through old clothes torn to tatters.

She’d catch him when he slept, sit on his chest till his breaths came out like the wheezes of the dying, beeps in the background from machines busy keeping them alive. He’d awake in the middle of the night to find her noneyes staring into him, opening his mouth with her own and replacing his tongue with sour, hot air. She’d squeeze him out till all vitals were gone, till he could see everything go to black and then she’d bring him back again, over and over till sunrise when she’d have to return to the cracks of the floor.

When he passes shadows, she’ll cling to his heart like spines stuck straight through it, tingles down his left arm till he collapses under the weight. He collects himself and tries to stay in the light, all around him the dead and dying. He’s pinioned by her presence, trying to keep upright, forced to relive all of his worst memories whenever she’s near. And sometimes, only sometimes, he can swear that he sees his own death, blood leaving his body like a liquid crowd, pooling under his back and sticking his spine to the floor. She’d stick his limbs to every surface they touched, pull away skin and leave him skinless and bloodied, going numb and cold from shock. That’s what she is: a skinned body lurking in corners, stinking through walls and doors, leaving streaks of her skinned self for the downtrodden to slip on.

She subsumes him when he’s alone, enters him like so much intercourse, feeling her way through his guts till he can do nothing but retch in the toilet if he’s lucky enough to make it there, more likely emptying himself onto himself, the light flickering above, a brutal wind sending shivers down his spine which is being raked by her rancid fingernails.

He plans a trap for her, silent so as not to let her hear. She’s always around. She might be able to hear his thoughts. He walks through the chilly air to an arts and crafts store, selecting the sharpest blade they have. He finds a little nook outside and sits down on the grass, trees all around to shield him from view. He pulls up his sleeves and empties his arms with the blade. But she’s there quick, knocking the blade from his hand and suturing his arms with her scalding touch. He stifles his cries as his skin sizzles and hisses in the freezing air.

The last of the blood drying on his arms, he leaves her behind and goes out looking. When he finds what he’s looking for, he stops and stares out at the river that courses below the bridge he’s standing on, little floes of ice slowly making their way through. She appears behind him, hissing her fetid breath into his ear. In one swift motion, he pulls a length of cord from his jacket and faces her, binding her tightly to him. For the first time, looking into her mangled face, he can see a hint of fear. He clutches her tightly, her skin flaking off in sheets beneath his fingers, and leaps over the side. Air, then blue, then black.

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The World Underneath

In the mornings after a rain she’ll forage for berries from bushes sprouting through sidewalks, dewy rubble sliding away, some of it turning to chalky mud between her toes. She’ll climb the wires that the old levilator used to use and reach the top of the building she uses for water, cups and pans and buckets and pails and upside down umbrellas and helmets filled with rain. She’ll inspect them carefully, look for any trace of contamination. All it would take was to drink from something that’s been soiled by the birds and she’ll be gone.

Gone. Gone to where? Mother always said that when you left this world you were taken to the world underneath, that that’s where everybody went. Mother said it was a place of peace and calm, and mystery. Mystery because no one who had gone to the world underneath had ever come back. And you were supposed to stay in this world here as long as you could, because… Because. There never was an actual reason beyond the because. The because I said so. You were to stay here as long as was your appointed time, then go away. Forever.

Forever. For ever. The way Mother used to say it, it was like the way the sun always peeked across the sky, chasing away the darkness only to be pursued again. That was forever. But couldn’t even the sun die, the girl wanted to ask? Wouldn’t it? She didn’t ask then, and now she couldn’t at all. Some things really do slip through your fingers.

So she’ll look for the world underneath in the cracked and cracking features on the city’s swollen face, the scars of buildings healed over by tissue in the form of vines and wires of green, leaves intruding past shattered windows, erring into the darkness within, retreating and angling up the sides of the glass towers, reaching up high for the sun, a mirror image of themselves beside them, shining in the light in the minutes that the sun can be seen, before it hides once again from view, behind not so much cloud as it is interstitial haze, fog coming from somewhere human eyes have never been, will never go, even in their dreams. Hanging thick, choking the air of oxygen, sticking to the rags the girl will have to wear forever, the coils of her hair, the muddy grass now tinged black at blade tips, from this haze, whatever it is.

She’ll explore.

She will, in her time, make her way down to the sewer cover she’s seen before, the one that Mother steered her away from, to the other side of the street, beside the plastic people dangling from an old shop’s broken pane, no pain on these plastic faces, charred even, one of them with a handprint of old and faded blood on its cheek, colored brown in the sun, crackling in spots like dead paint on a wall that hasn’t been seen in generations. She will make her way to this sewer cover, and she will turn around to see if there’s anyone watching her, but there will be no one. No one but her. Forever. She will pry at it with dried-mud hands, but it will go nowhere. She will have no grip on it. She will go to the shop with the blank plastic faces and find in it a crowbar. She will picture in her mind a crow perched on this implement, this foreign tool that holds no significance to her. She will take this tool and pry the cover with all of the strength she has inside of her, and it will come free, crowbar tipping over, falling as the lid comes clear of the hole, the tool tipping, spinning, falling, still not making a sound, and before she can think of what is happening, the girl will be pushed, from behind, tipping over and forward, through the hole, to chase the tool she will have dropped down there.

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The People Who Aren’t People

On the shore, all you can hear is the sound of the tide coming in: wish-wash, wish-wash. The sun is a brillo-scuffed marble suspended behind a steamy shower door. The birds circle inky water, waiting for the divers to surface for breath, when they will peck at already-scarred scalps and sustain themselves off of the flesh they find there. There’s no other food for them.

An unincorporated bedroom sits at the spot where sand meets water; the waves lap in under the bed and tease open the doors of the armoire, where mildewy clothing hangs limply on rusting hangers. It all smells of salt. Nothing of the rest of the house remains, except an ascending corkscrew staircase that leads from the bedroom door up into featureless sky. At the top of the stairs stands Abel. Sea foam clings to the rags that clothe him, plastered to his frail body by the mist that hangs over everything. He looks out past the shore, hand over eyebrows, for a sign of something–anything–other than endless water. His son, in the bed on the floor below him, calls “Papa, Papa” in a parched singsong, like a scarecrow who just learned how to talk. He goes to him.

Abel’s son collects discarded video cards, filament-less light bulbs, bits of frayed copper wiring. Right now the pieces are collected and connected in the form of a tiny automaton, with diodes for eyes and AV cables for limbs. He stifles a cough, pulls the robot up to his ruddy face and breathes warmth onto it to keep away the incessant mist. Far away and behind the boy a diver surfaces, gulps air, dives again before any of the birds can attack.

“Tell me about the people who aren’t people.”

The bed is the type with taffeta curtain running around it, thin enough to turn everything beyond it into a dusky golden version of itself. Abel encloses himself with his son, tries to ignore the pained screams of a diver too greedy for air to dip again in time.

“You are sick. You should sleep.”

“But I want to hear the story about the people who aren’t people. I’m not too sick to hear the story, Papa. I promise.”

A gust of wind eddies the sand, sends it onto Abel’s bare feet. He kicks the grains away, but some of them stubbornly cling to his sole. His toenails are yellowed, dog-eared pages in a book that hasn’t been read in years. He takes his son’s robotic homunculus and sets it on the scuffed nightstand. His eye sockets are darkened graves.

“A long time ago, before the mist and the flood and the broken buildings, there were people everywhere. People so numerous you couldn’t even count them all.”

His son’s eyes go wide. This happens every time, no matter how often the story is told.

“The streets were filled with people. There were so many people that they had cars to drive themselves to where they needed to go. There were too many people for them to walk, even. There were so many people that they sent them up in great ships out past the sky and into the stars. There were so many people that they sent the bad ones to islands in the sea to starve. There were so many people that they took down buildings with people in them and built more buildings over the ones they took down. There were so, so, so many people.”

“How many people, Papa?”

“So, so, so, so, so, so, so many people. So, so many. So many that they needed to figure out who among the people weren’t people, so they could get rid of them.”

“How could they be people, but not people, Papa?”

“Anything can become true if enough people say it is. So they found the people who weren’t people, and they killed them. But there were still so, so, so, so, so many people.”

“How many people?”

“So many that they decided there must be even more people who weren’t people than they first thought. So they broadened their definition and killed many more people. They pushed the people from cliffs. They hanged them. They shot them, until the bullets started to run out. But there were still so many people.”

“How many people, Papa?”

“So many people that they took the souls of people and put them into stone, where they could be locked up until there was more room for people again.”

The robot shifts on the nightstand. The taffeta curtain rustles.

“When they put their souls into stone, their bodies were burned or set into the sea or buried up where they’d never be seen again.”

“And that’s where mother is? In the stone?”

Abel’s beard brushes against his caved-in chest as he nods, at the place where the rags give way to skin, the transition indefinite and hazy as the fog all around them.

“We’re going to bring her back.”

Abel lifts his son from the bed and slings him over his shoulder. His feet sink into the sand as he leaves the bedroom behind, the birds still circling and the tide as it goes in and out, wish-wash wish-wash, over and over and over.

And over.

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THE UNSPEAKABLE THING

There are things you can do to pass the time as you build up the courage to walk up to the Coward’s front stoop and ring the bell with the piece tucked neatly in the waistband behind your back as all the old movies suggest. You can sit quietly in your car and create a cigarette ashpile on your lap. You can listen to cicadas drone and record the cacophony on your phone, play it back real slow so they all sound like they’re yelling for the rest of their lives, which are usually short for insects. You can think some more about The Unspeakable Thing that he did to you that similar summer day all those years back and smell the mud that went up your nose as he pressed your face against same, as the feeling went out of your hands, then wrists, then the Other Place, and the nondescript backyard’s lawn’s grass blades waved back and forth rhythmically to the force of his thrusts. You can ponder the etymology of a word like “unspeakable”–an innocuous word, and one you think you could get to the root of if you really wanted to.

You could instead use the human-specific gift of foresight you’ve been given as a member of the species and think of all the possible scenarios that might go down when you march right on up to that stoop and try to force your bladder to do things against its will as the Coward did to you for very different reasons all those years ago, try not to pee and negate the whole thing when he finally answers the door, when you’ll make just the right scowl of vengeance, the one you’ve been practicing in the mirror all week and let the weight of what’s about to happen really sink in for him before equipping the piece and using it on him. But the trick, you realize, is to use it at just the right moment so as to ensure that his last human thoughts will be on the unimaginable error of his ways and not on something like how funny his show was before he had to get up and answer the door. You can’t wait too long, either–you wouldn’t want him praying for forgiveness or actually asking it or anything like that. It’s all about timing. You know that.

It occurs to you that relieving yourself might be unavoidable, if not desirable for what needs to be done. Considering you unintentionally relieved yourself after he relieved himself in a very different way inside of you, the reaction might be a Pavlovian one, and could very well be activated the second you see his face again. But normal people don’t piss their pants. Crazy people do. And if he thinks you’re crazy, he’ll be scared. Again with the whole last thoughts thing.

You consider what the headline might be for something like this. Something involving “outrage as,” most likely, like: “OUTRAGE AS GUNNED-DOWN VETERAN FIGHTS FOR LIFE,” “OUTRAGE AS VET SHOOTER REMAINS ON THE RUN,” “OUTRAGE AS DES PLAINES MOURNS ITS HOMETOWN HERO,” etc. The anger you feel at the inevitable headline-related injustice is useful. It’s just what you needed, frankly, and so you get out of the car and march right on up to that stoop and let your bladder know that it can do just about whatever it wants right about now. And you ring the doorbell, which sounds lovely. And you wait patiently. And you don’t hear any prior door-approaching footsteps, which is odd, but the door awkwardly jars open a couple inches, then another couple as the Coward holds the door with one hand and struggles to wheel backward in his chair with the other. And you find yourself unintentionally helping him open his door to you, to the man he raped all those years ago when the man was a boy, to the man who will now end his life just as soon as suitable last thoughts can be assured.

And you try on the practiced scowl and stand there ominously once the door’s all the way open and propped against his chair’s right front wheel, and the bladder lets go in Pavlovian fashion just as you thought it would, and he sees the pee stain right away with the eye that wasn’t blown away by the IED, can’t smell it with a nose that is no longer on his face, and has trouble speaking about it with lips that have been grafted from ass flesh, but you come to understand that he has a change of pants inside if you needed them, and he understands if you don’t want them.

You listen to the cicadas droning their insectal/coital chatter. To the cars Dopplering past each other far away on busy streets. You feel the urine warm first your genitals, then your thighs, then trace ticklish lines down both legs. The piece feels unnaturally cold against the skin of your back, its muzzle threatening and grazing the Other Place.

Your head is very, very hot.

And you march right on inside, and will you bwait juss a second while I bit the pants he asks against the grafted ass flesh, and you will, and you close the door more so others won’t have to see the squalor of his house than the growing stain in your pants. And replacement pants have been fetched, and they’ll do you a whole hell of a lot better than they’ll do him with his atrophied legs and his left foot missing in action.

And he points out the bathroom for changing, or baffrum as his mangled lips render it, and you change right there in front of him instead. You let him see the body he had once, the body you now have. And the piece falls from your waistband, and you leave it lying there on the floor.

Blease juss do it, he says.

But you don’t do it.

You leave.

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PICKING

Beer foam collected on the bristle tips of Poppy’s mustache, fiber optic cables jutting out at odd angles and leaking, spilling their essential fluids down onto tongue that was searching and seeking and only occasionally finding. Eyes bulged out of skeleton sockets, the skin paper and threatening to tear in the spots where veins were busy pumping and convulsing to keep Poppy alive as he licked for beer and collected his covert McDonald’s cup, the other hand on the wheel and calibrating, adjusting and correcting with a deftness that could only come with practice. And Cal was in the passenger seat with his eyes hardly seeing above the dash, his child’s eyes so unlike the bulging skeleton ones of Poppy as he sat and prayed the prayers that Momma recited on windy nights when Poppy was Out and About and just not quite able to come home that night.

Sunlight glinted off the hood in metallic flames that danced in Cal’s eyes as Poppy reached down for the cup and kept eyes cupbound with the horns and the muted yells to bring hands back to 10 and 2 and he’d give such a Chuckle then and look over at tiny little Cal, miniature Cal who wasn’t buckled in and that bassy laugh would worm its way into Cal’s babychest and tickle his lungs till he couldn’t breathe and could only laugh to relieve it, only laugh to stop Poppy from looking at him with those skeleton’s eyes and put them back roadbound so they wouldn’t Get Hurt, only ever a possibility of Getting Hurt and never anything worse in Cal’s tiny childbrain but that was enough for him and so he made sure to give Poppy a good Chuckle.

They were Picking, or at least ostensibly so, and it was late enough in the season where even errant garbage cans were to be searched and dumped and sifted through, as long as the hood was apt to be deserted and not the type to call the poe leece, because you don’t want to have the poe leece come for Poppy, Cal, so tell me if you see em. Red and blue and we’re through, okay Cally? Red and blue and we’re through.

I say ostensibly cause Momma hadn’t come home from her third shift the night before. She was always so tired as Cal’s childeyes could see, always chuff and sigh and sort of buckle on creaky chair they’d found in Picking, her eyes lighting on the scratches in kitchen table, the spots where the graffiti’d been washed clean but the knife scars would always remain, and she’d say I’m tard just like that with no high “I” or lilting “R,” just tard and she’d look at Cal with the soft eyes she gave him and wouldn’t ever look for too long before she got up and out to do it all over again. But she did none of that the night before. The night before, according to Poppy, she’d been Out and About.

Slouched figures sat stooped on stoops with the brown bags hiding bottles between legs as they watched Poppy swerve his way down car-lined street and scrape firelight on errant mirrors, the tiny things going pop and snap off of hinges as they launched forward and danced their light in Cal’s eyes only briefly before crashing down on pothole-ridden street, the glass sometimes collecting in the holes and scattering out into glittering flatlands and jagged skyscrapers, tiny cities waiting for the dirty rain to come holebound and fill and level out till the mirror city was nothing more than a mirror Atlantis and Poppy was long gone and could never see his work.

Cal saw Momma before Poppy did, and she was none too tard as she sat stoopbound with her soft, Cal-given eyes closed and lips touched lightly on cheek, then neck, then lips of another man, her hands searching and seeking and very often finding. And Poppy saw in time, and there weren’t no Chuckle, no not at all as the wheel turned with 10 and 2 sent spinning as hand went over hand and repeated, as tiny Cal went scrunched against car door and very nearly out window, the tires screaming injustice and wafting out their burning just before the hit.

Stoop bricks flew through air still whistling with car and human screams and made purchase with wall, window, wire on the rebound that knocked out telephone service for the rest of the day as McDonald’s cloud followed Poppy out with his voice up and ready for a big Tell like he’d always give Momma, like I Tell you what or I ain’t gonna Tell you twice and all the rest, but the stoop man weren’t Momma and he weren’t pleased none as he gave Poppy a pop on the mouth where the beer-tipped bristles were, cleaned them right off as Poppy staggered back and fell stoopbrickbound with eyes up and whites showing for the briefest of moments like glinting mirrors waiting to shatter in pockmarked street, waiting to make another Atlantis down here in the hood with its maker nowhere in sight.

And the car stopped screaming but Momma didn’t, with the wail carrying and wavering on the breeze as Cal sat quietly in smoking car, as the poe leece sirens wailed and cried too and the lights started flashing from way back down the street. Red and blue. We’re through.

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THE CURER

Dirty fluorescence darted over eyes, mouths, ears. Pudgy repugnant hands stuck in mid-fiddle as the patient’s eyes came up for reassurance and were granted it just as swiftly from the curer, which is what she’d taken to calling herself on the nights when it all seemed just a little too much to handle. It was either stockinged feet dampening the midnight tracks with heels held in hand and hazy trainlight threatening from afar as tonight would be the night she’d do it or else going by the silly name. She took the name.

The fingers exploded from hands engorged to lamb chops, uncooked and sloppy. He had tits, pendulous ones, ones that threatened hers in size and heaved terribly whenever he cried, which was often on these Friday night visits. And he’d Tell, and he’d do his tit heave and his tit cry, and she’d cross and uncross skirted hams and check watch and picture stockinged feet dampening on midnight-lit tracks and open her mouth very wide during those crying sessions when the patient’s eyes were shut tight against the tears, open her mouth incredibly wide and swallow him whole in her mind, eat him up and explode stomach-first like some human slitherer, her skirted hams vesitigial and waiting to fall away.

Maybe she’d bring a gun to their next session. She’d pull out a pistol while he was doing his inevitable Tell and she’d put it in his hand and say Okay. And he’d look at her with tit heave paused and see her intent and maybe even stop crying. She’d grab him by exploded finger and guide him past the trigger guard and say Okay then do it.

But she remained ineffably adept, even in the midst of the Tell and the tit heave and the sweat that glittered in mucoidal droplets at nose’s tip and threatened to fall on putrid lap. Shifted face into pretty concern or pretty shock or pretty authority. Always pretty something and attentive, with eyes shining bright and idealistic even in that dirty fluorescence, practiced looks of attention and intent she looked over in lighted mirrors at home, mirrors that opened up pores to moon crater size, where she could open her mouth incredibly wide and eat herself whole if she wanted to. And she’d tweeze and pluck and squeeze and smile her authority and give pretty solemnity and even crack at pupils’ hollow a little bit and like smile with the eyes even as she ate herself whole on the inside.

And the sessions would end after a big climactic Tell, replete with blubber and hitchy pathetic sobs and he’d cry and say he needed it, as if there was any other way and she’d give pretty authority with just a touch of pretty pity, and that’d give him all he needed until next week, and she’d pretend not to notice his tic-like way of staring at her ass as she got up and left before him, almost bolting and leaving dirty fluorescence to find dirty lamplight out in the night with dampened, stockinged feet still in heels and not yet wobbly but almost psychosomatically so as she walked from one session to the next as she called it, this next session in graffitied bathroom with bassy beat pounding out the one in her chest and the revelers all Outside as she was now Inside the stall, as some anonym was Inside her and giving her a different kind of Tell and she was making all the noises she practiced and kept to herself and even recorded for playback to check pitch and timbre and maximum sex appeal and maybe adjust for the next time, the next Tell in some other tagged stall with some other anonym on some other Friday night.

And so the curer came rollicking down tracks set impossibly close and wobbly and twisting and tracing lines made mapbound with midnight light coming dirtily down as trainlight ran adjacent and refused to be heeded in inebriation. As stockinged feet collected moisture in the fog and transmuted it down on fickle train tracks, left pretty tracks from pretty feet as the curer opened her mouth very wide, impossibly wide and turned to face silly little trainlight down and out there in the foggy black. As she walked nimbly on through the buzz and anonym soreness and mentally unhinged jaw in preparation for the biggest meal she’d ever know.

Train gave futile cry and screamed off into the night without knowing what was coming for it. That it was another patient to be cured, its Tell untenable and so futile. Terribly, unmistakably futile. Pretty, stockinged feet marched on along fickle tracks, heels held aloft and out to the side in balance compensation. Wobble. Tip. Adjust. Wobble. Tip. Adjust.

That same train scream in the night and her mouth opened wide, ready to devour and cure and heal and set things straight so there’d be no more anonyms or sessions or tit-heaving patients.

A blare.

And a cry.

And a squeal.

Driving steel on steel.

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