Archive for September, 2009
I have only come here because I am following instructions and not the ones from my court appointed attorney. Well, maybe “instructions” is the wrong word. They are more like signs. You see, I am trying to save my soul.
How do I know there is such thing as a soul? I know because I can feel mine trying to scratch and claw its way free from the confines of my body, its prison. And I know it is a thing separate from my mind, because my mind is its tormenter. I wonder if this is what it is to be crazy?
The woman trying to find out if I’m crazy is Dr. Leeds. She has done the socially acceptable things to make me comfortable: body-temp water in a paper cup, skin-so-soft handshake, flat-lined voice as uniform as her teeth. As she pulls some cards from her desk, she is using her voice, but I am concentrating on those teeth. They are bringing me closer to clarity than her words can.
I lift my fingers to press my own teeth and then walk them around the mask of my skin. Pressing harder, I feel the bone, the skull, the eye sockets. Hm. This is all that will be left of me one day. A skull like those in the science books and museums which have been excavated and displayed for the purpose of teaching, of learning. Of learning that time marches on. That we exist in a blink of an eye.
I jump. She has cleared her throat loudly. This means she is unhappy, and I need to pay attention to her. I will try.
She pulls up a chair beside me. “Okay, Mr. Collins. I’m going to place a card in front of you, and I want you to tell me your first impression of it, all right?”
I want to touch her teeth. They are so close now. I grip my hands together and nod instead.
Her sun-freckled arm moves smoothly to place the card in front of me, and I feel my soul fling itself violently at its cage, its wings beating my ribs. My chair scrapes the wood flooring as I thrust myself back from the image on the card. I can feel the heat of her stare now which means I have done something wrong. I feel myself shrinking, sucked inward by the vortex of her disappointment.
“Why don’t you tell me what you see?”
I shake my head vigorously as I watch the black ink splotches unfold their wings, their beaks screaming, trying to rip free from the face of death placed between them. The black face of death grips them like a vice between his teeth. I know there is no escape.
“Okay, we’ll just move on then.” She takes the screaming birds away and places a second card in front of me.
Blood. Blood everywhere! I begin to shake and look away. My skin is becoming slick with fear. I stare at the starchy white curtains behind her desk. I try to make my mind a white space, too.
“Mr. Collins? Mr. Collins? Are you all right?”
I can smell her worry. It smells like lemons. It breezes through my mind, quieting it. My soul quivers in its cage, exhausted.
“Okay. Why don’t we just talk for a bit.” She returns to her place behind the desk and slips the cards back in a drawer.
I know what I have to do now. Those cards were given to me as a path to the last image I need to see. A path to the answer. The signs are always so clever. I feel my lips pulling away from my teeth in what I believe to be a smile. By the look on Dr. Leeds paling face, I am wrong.
The gun is heavier and cooler in my hand than it was in my jacket pocket. She screams as she pushes herself away from the desk, trying to put distance between her and death. It is the scream of the black birds. I pull the trigger. The loud bang silences the screams. The smell of burnt powder and flesh, the tang of blood replaces the smell of lemons.
I barely notice the late doctor’s secretary open the door and stumble back out of the room.
Dr. Leeds’ soul is free now. It has flown from the hole in her chest. I can’t help myself. I lean over her and run my finger under her lip. Her teeth are hard like bone and still damp. Then I see it. The last sign! I scoot backwards and stare at the blood splatter on the white curtains. She has sacrificed herself to give me one last image. Her blood is alive, running like veins along the fabric, spelling out words for me. Instructions, after all. Of course! I am in charge of my own destiny. Escape is possible. Thank you, Dr. Leeds.
I hold the still warm gun barrel to my chest and free my own soul.
The woman awoke with no clothing and no memory. She stared up at the dense, black sky, afraid to move, trying to clear the fog from her head. Her pale body lay, curled up like a fetus, inside blackened ribs that had washed ashore from some long ago shipwreck. The smell of saltwater was familiar enough. She used this to dig into her memories, to try and bring forth something else familiar.
“Who am I?” she choked, squeezing her eyes shut against the fear. “How did I get here?”
After a brief spell of letting warm tears fall, she crawled out from beneath the oaken skeleton, wincing as she stretched out arms and legs that seemed as petrified as the wood. Straining to see through the darkness, she squinted down the long stretch of sand to her right and then her left. There was no sign of movement. She was alone. A chilled wind brushed against her exposed body and she began to shiver uncontrollably. Clothes. She had to find clothes.
She pushed herself off the damp sand, wrapped her arms around bare breasts and struggle up the beach toward the dunes, hoping to find a house or road, some sign of civilization. She stumbled along the beach grass until a narrow path emerged. Picking her way carefully, barefooted and nearly blind from the moonless night, she finally stepped onto blacktop. A road! Relief flooded through her. The long shape of a building could be seen to her right, but there were no lights on. No street lamps, no cars? Odd. Just a long stretch of darkness, with unfamiliar shapes and shadows as far as she could see either way. Was this a deserted town? Something felt very wrong.
She hesitated as she stared toward the building. Well, what choice did she have? She couldn’t just stand there naked and freezing to death. With a growing sense of dread, she forced herself to walk. She concentrated on the sound of crashing surf and tried to ignore the sharp bites of broken shells under her steps, once again wrestling with her own mind. There was something lurking at the edge of her memory, something large that invoked anxiety even as she struggled to reach it.
She reached the building first. It was an abandoned hotel, its windows boarded up with faded gray plywood, rusted railing curling away from a sagging porch. Luckily, the first door she tried had weathered enough to kick open. Trembling, more now from fear than cold, she stepped into the musty room. To her surprise, it was intact. She moved quickly– pulling a stiff sheet off the bed, wrapping it around herself and searching for some clue as to where she was. There was a phone on the nightstand, the cord hanging lifeless on the warped wood flooring. Nothing! Nothing in the drawer, nothing to tell her where the hell she was. This can’t be happening. Rusted mattress springs groaned in protest as she lowered herself onto the bed, defeated. What now? She began to pull at the seaweed matted in her hair, sliding it absentmindedly from her tangled strands.
When she looked up, a man stood quietly in the doorway watching her. She stared at him, too startled to run.
He nodded and moved to sit beside her on the bed. Her heart pounded in her chest as so many thoughts ran through her mind…scream, run, jump up, impossible…that she was paralyzed. He didn’t seem to want to harm her. A large silver band around his wrist had his full attention.
He turned toward her, distracted. “Yes?”
“Do you know…where this place is?”
“Not where, Miss Shillings, but when.”
“Miss Shillings? Is that my name? Do you know me?” She shook her head. “I must be dreaming.”
He dropped his arm, staring at her curiously. “A great man had a dream once, turned out to be reality. Tesla. You know of him? “
“What is the last thing you remember?”
As she looked in his dark eyes, a flash of lighting lit up her mind. “Oh,” she said, struggling to hold on to the memory. “A storm? I think there was a storm.”
“Yes. There were two actually.”
“Two? But what do you mean? Look, I…I can’t remember where I live. You know me, you must know where I live.” Hope began to replace fear. “You can get me home, right?”
“It’s not time yet.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The wind picked up and blew her hair off her shoulders.
She felt tears stinging her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“We don’t either,” he sighed. “Not really. For some reason, this region is highly susceptible to the effects of geomagnetic storms. Once in a while, a lighting strike happens to coincide perfectly with this phenomenon…we’ve figured out this much from his research.” He glanced at the sheet wrapped around her and nodded. “Flesh has a different frequency than inorganic material…they never seem to travel together.”
“Flesh?” The woman blinked, her face draining of color. “Oh my god, I’ve gone mad, haven’t I? Or, am I dead?! I’m dead!” She stood up and began to hyperventilate.
“Miss Shillings, you must calm yourself.” The man stood up with her. Just then a flash of lightning lit up the room and thunder shook the walls.
“It’s okay,” he said, glancing at the metal band again. “My success rate is very high. I’m good at what I do.”
“What do you do?” she asked, as a hard rain began to beat the roof and ground around them.
“I get people like you home.”
A loud ring behind her made her jump back, and she stumbled into the man. He steadied her, then quickly went to the ringing phone. As he spoke into the receiver, she stared in disbelief at the exposed, unplugged cord. I have gone mad.
He hung up the phone and whirled around, smiled at her and held his hand toward the door. “Shall we, Miss Shillings?”
She glanced at the sheets of rain outside being blown sideways by the wind. “Shall we…?”
“Get you home, of course.”
“Of course.” She nodded and stepped out into the storm. What choice did she have?
As my knife sinks into the apple, I hear my neighbor screaming. His pain vibrates the sheetrock between us. I lean against the counter with a sigh.
He has only been home two weeks and already his wife has dropped ten pounds, forgot to wash her hair, formed bruises under her eyes and hefted a landfill load of worry and sorrow onto her narrow shoulders.
They have a child; a blue-eyed waif of a little girl, who seems to be disappearing into the background of their lives, pushed aside by the ghosts he has brought home with him.
I saw her yesterday. Her eyes have grown round with shock. My heart shattered, splintering right there in the hallway, in front of her silence and her headless doll.
“Where is her head?” I asked.
“I didn’t want her to get headaches like daddy,” she whispered back.
A box came through the door, followed by two people with tight faces and wide eyes. Haunted, I thought. The ghosts were busy. Peeking in the box as they passed with unsmiling faces, I caught a glimpse of a paint ball gun on top of rope and kitchen knifes. A black stick with a trigger was clutched in the tall, crumpled man’s hand. His knuckles were white.
I send over an apple pie and a note to call me if they need anything. I feel helpless.
The knock comes at three in the morning. A frantic pound pound pound. A wild noise pushed from her throat, a scream forming words, “Call 911”. The pale, wide-eyed child in a dirty nightgown is pushed into my leg by her mother, Karen. “Please,” she chokes, then turning away, she barrels down the stairs.
I know what has happened, I just don’t know how. Tentatively, I step into their apartment with the child clinging to my arm. The place smells like Lysol and old grease. Moonlight is pouring through the open window along with a light mist of rain. A lone white curtain billows from a gust of wind. I see it as a thinly veiled flag of surrender.
Their worn leather couch is turned on its back, pillows stacked neatly in rows across it. Evidently, something the maddening ghosts built. The people carrying out the box didn’t realize they were leaving the most deadly arsenal behind. I shake my head and look down at their victim, stroking her pale face. She is staring at her doll.
“Where are her arms?” I ask, a bit shocked her doll is disappearing piece by piece.
“She doesn’t need arms anymore,” she whispers, dropping the broken doll to the wood floor.
No, I think, as sirens scream below the open window. Wings. She needed wings.
Collapsing onto the floor, I pull her down into my arms and begin to sing quietly to her.
Her tears finally fall and I think about gravity. The ground’s pull must be infinitely stronger than human will. It is, after all, the place where we all end up.
My Mama says our new neighbor, Mr. Charles, lives alone because his wife died, but today I am having lunch with Mr. Charles and his dead wife.
Her eyes are glass, cat’s eye marbles with sweeping blue waves and tiny bubbles. Cluster pearls are clipped onto her walnut ears. Dust motes and steam, from the Hungarian goulash, create a mist around her. I try not to stare; it’s rude.
“Best you’ll ever have, Henry. Eat up, Son.”
“Yes, Mr. Charles.” I dip my spoon into the empty bowl and bring it to my lips.
“She makes it with tomatoes fresh from the garden; that’s her secret.” He reaches over and pats her hand, meticulously recreated from sardine bones, being careful not to disturb the thin gold band. I nod, glancing through the window at the yawning square of cracked ground and petrified vines beyond the porch. I dip my spoon again and shove air into my dry mouth. It’s only polite.
We sit like this for a long time and I begin to wonder if he’s forgotten I’m here. I steal a glance at the stained glass hearts clinging to the window. They glow like fresh blood in the sunlight.
“Okay.” I stop holding my breath.
He stands wearily, removes both our bowls from the table. The steam clears and I glimpse the painful cracks around her wax lips. Still, she smiles. This must be why he loves her. He lowers a yellowing doily in front of her, places a white ceramic cup gently on the doily. Steam rises once again and moisture accumulates on her eyes. He baptizes the teabag in the boiling water, scoops out some honey from a half-full jar and stirs it into the cup. A series of high pitched dings follow. My cup remains empty, but I don’t bring it up.
“Her dad used to raise honey bees, bring raw buckwheat honey in for their tea. Why she’s so sweet,” he chuckles.
The air is thick around us and I sit very still so I don’t disturb anything. I am becoming aware of the numbness in my bottom, but I don’t dare squirm. I can almost feel her approval at this, at my stillness. We drink our tea like this. In silence.
“You’re a good boy. We’re glad to have you in the neighborhood.” He shakes my hand and I feel the dry trembling.
As I slide awkwardly out of the chair, I am possessed by a sudden urge to give her something. I remember the four leaf clover I found in our own yard and reach deep into my pocket. It’s a bit wilted and ripped in one corner, but it did take me almost a whole hour on my knees to find. Still a worthy sacrifice. I place it by her fish bone hand and whisper into the tiny caverns of the walnut. I whisper that if she can hear me I would like to taste a bit of the soup and tea and honey for myself next time. Then I think maybe I am being ungrateful and add “sorry” and “thank you”.
“We’ll see you next Sunday then?” he calls.