by Mike Allen
“The Button Bin” was originally published by Helix: Speculative Fiction Quarterly in 2007
You know he’s the one who made your beloved niece disappear.
He’s come out of his shop now, fussing with gloves that look expensive, a match to his long glossy overcoat. Glare from the streetlight glints on his bare scalp. Above that light, impotent clouds wall away the moon, render the sky a blank carbon sheet.
His odd little assistant left moments ago, her hose-sheathed ankles still overflowing her shoes as she waddled across the lot to her van. His car squats directly under the light, smart–except for these few minutes there’s no one to see him but you. Yet why would he worry? In a throwback town like this, with every house from a 1950s-era postcard, crime remains distant, alien, a single murder strange as an apocalypse.
You stand from behind the trash cans with your arm held out as if you’re warding off a demon, pointing the black pistol you took from your father’s gun safe.
You’re lucky. Mr. Lenahan sees you but doesn’t understand. In his moment of incomprehension you close the distance, press the nose of the Glock against the soft underside of his chin. He’s a big man, Lenahan, you’re looking up into his surprised round face.
Back in the store, you say.
He starts to speak, he wants to tell you he’ll give you the money, there’s no need to get rough, but something stops him.
It’s not the first time he’s looked you in the eye. Once last week, he helped you choose a bolt of fabric for a baby blanket, covered with baseballs and bats and mitts, you told him you wanted your fiancée to make it, he responded to your tale with rote coos and congratulations. And today, an hour before closing, you asked him to help you find a replacement button for one you ripped off your shirt just for the ruse.
Don’t see too many men come in here more than once, he said, with a smile full of hints and questions.
And he’s recognized you again. His eyes move as if scanning an inner catalog. He whispers, Your eyes are the same. Denise.
If you could silence your own heart to listen more closely, you would. Sweat drools down his wide forehead.
I can tell you where she is, he says.
You say, I know you can.
This is what she means to you:
Wide green eyes that mirror your own, peering shyly at you from the doorway of the den in your parents’ basement: you stretched out full length on the sofa, paging through T.S. Eliot’s silly book on cats. You catch her watching, a scrawny girl in overalls and a pink T-shirt, dark hair clipped back with a pink plastic bow, all this pink inflicted on her by your basket-case half-sister. She tells you that–My mom makes me–when you hold up your right hand, smallest finger extended, and say with infinite amusement, Hi, Pinky!
You see she’s about to retreat, so you wave the book. Ever read this before?
Dumbstruck, she shakes her head. She is ten, you are fourteen.
Wanna hear from it?
So it starts. You become her warrior-poet, showing her nuggets to be found in your parents’ dusty academic volumes of Eliot and Poe, Yeats and Auden, Plath and Byron. Warrior, because you’re a killer of deer, ducks, squirrel, which repulses and fascinates her all at once. She comes along with you and your dad on one such trip that fall, you figure it’s going to be a boring stakeout in the woods, and you brought Wallace Stevens in your back pocket, because you want to creep her out with “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (you love the way she watches when you read, the way she shudders when you sneak something scary in on her) but it’s a bad day for boredom, a three-point buck wanders into view and she gets to see your father kill it, watches silent and thoughtful as you help clean the carcass. You wonder what she thinks of the blood on your hands.
She has her own life apart from yours, school, a few school friends, softball. You see her in her softball uniform a lot, and go with your parents to several games, though they don’t hold your attention you cheer loud for her whenever the chance arises, make sure she hears you. What you look forward to, face it, is her time with you, admiring your clever words–it’s not hard to seem constantly clever to someone four years younger–with those eyes so much like your own but prettier. It’s intoxicating. Exhilarating. Your drug of choice.
But her mother’s blood pumps through her heart. Your father’s wild first child, eighteen years older than you by a woman long vanished, whose very existence your own mom tolerates with pained, saintly silence. Your crazy half-sister, who accepted her fiancé’s marriage proposal as he sat behind the protective glass at the jail intake, the day after the cops brought him in for beating her. They never did marry–she found her senses for a brief time three years later, when he forced his fist into her mouth and made her lips split. And when she found those senses, went into the shelter, your father and mother agreed with stoic grace to help watch Denise. And because it didn’t take long for your sister to find trouble again, Denise spends a lot of time in your house, sleeping in the extra bedroom upstairs, polite little ghost with a burning curiosity stowed quietly inside, eating supper in the cluttered dining room while her mother shacks up with this bad man or that.
You shouldered your burden of guilt: she’s thirteen, you’re seventeen, charged with watching her while mom and dad spend Sunday out with those church friends, the ones your mom likes and your dad always bitches about. But you have a couple of your own friends over, sneaky middle-class hellions like yourself, sitting at the back patio table beneath the tacky umbrella, the three of you already high when Denise walks up. She asks what you’re doing, but she has an idea already.
Being the good son is all about what your parents don’t know.
She knows what you’ll do, because you’re the coolest uncle ever. She stares with thoughtful silence at the mystic smoke swirling inside the blue glass bong. You show her how to breathe it in. You and your chums giggle at her coughing fit.
You keep thinking about that moment, those giggles, her hurt frown, mortified she failed to impress you. You think about it two years later, when she runs away and your mom finds the needle hidden in the tape deck of your niece’s CD player. The way she’s scratching herself all over when the cops bring her back. The two of you together in the back seat during the ride to rehab, you as angry as mom and dad. You snap at her: I can’t believe you.
That same hurt look in her eyes, so like yours. Then her gaze flicks your way again. Read me something, she says.
I don’t have a book.
Can’t you remember something?
Bring me back, her eyes say. And you try. You recite what you remember: Fearful symmetry. The center cannot hold. Rage against the dying of the light.
She does come back, but never for long. And the last boy she takes up with, Billy Willett, that sorry sack of shit, he takes her somewhere that neither can come back from.
What they found of him wasn’t much. But he could still talk.
The county deputies think he was in a crash, his damned motorcycle struck in a hit-and-run during a late night kiss-your-own-ass curve on a mountain road. They found the wrecked hog, they found him down the slope, still alive despite all odds, most of him that was below the waist missing. Dragged off by animals, they think. His eyes gone too, pecked out by crows perhaps, while he lay unconscious on the old hillside. How he lived they don’t understand, he must heal up like Jesus.
Denise was with him, now missing. Can’t charge the boy with manslaughter with no body, and knowing her, so like her mom, she could be anywhere.
She was nineteen. You were twenty-three.
Willett gives you Lenahan’s name. He never gave it to the police. Just to you.
We can talk down here, Lenahan says. Just let me get the lights.
I see you fine in the dark. Keep the lights off.
How about this one? Just a desk lamp. No one outside will see it.
Go ahead, then.
The lamp’s slender fluorescent tubes do little to penetrate the gloom in the basement warehouse, a space much bigger than you expected from outside.
Lenahan’s shop used to be a schoolhouse, still has the look of a relic from a lost time; the street it fronts has surrendered to modern clutter, telephone poles and squawky burger drive-thrus. Even the schoolhouse’s Rockwellesque bell tower still points benignly at the sky, though the bell’s long gone.
The former school houses a fabric and craft store, one with a subtle reputation for eclectic and exotic selections that stretches for hundreds of miles outside the tiny dollop of a town where it nestles. Every room brims with bolts of fabric, regimented in racks or piled in bins, from burlap plain to prismatic textures and labyrinthine patterns that dizzy the eye. In at least two former classrooms long glass cases stand sentry, crowded with glittering baubles, costume jewelry. In the cavernous basement, tall steel shelves hold rows of thick fabric meant for towels, sheets, blankets, even tents. So many rugs hang from overhead racks, den-spanning designs of tigers, elephants, dragons, griffins, Egyptian gods and even wilder beasts, that they would make for maze-like layers of concealment if your quarry tried to run and you pursued–but he doesn’t try to get away, even though he must know this place by heart even in the dark.
In fact, he acts as if he’s invited you in. He sits down at the desk where the lamp shines, it’s more of a drawing table, tilted up, scattered with catalogs and pattern books, the kind that show a smiling woman strutting in an outfit she’s supposedly sewn herself. He settles a hand down next to a small red cushion bristling with needles and pins. With his other hand, he gestures at a folding chair at the corner of the table, going through motions he’s long accustomed to, have a seat here, let’s look this over. Beside the desk and your chair is a long coffin-like box. You study it, wonder what’s in it, why he wants you to sit next to it.
A long wooden chest of some dark wood, with what appear to be elaborate Polynesian designs carved on its side–you see a horde of faces peering out through a thicket of strange trees, their gaze aimed to the right, where a large figure is stepping out from a yanni-esque opening in a wall of reeds. The lid of the chest is open, perhaps even removed. Inside, small objects glitter like treasure in a pirate movie.
You peer more closely. The chest is filled to the brim with buttons, of just about every kind you think could exist, every conceivable size and color: sky blue, gold, oak brown, blood red, sea green, India ink, rose pink, oil swirls, crystal prisms, basalt opaque; some like grains, some larger than silver dollars, disks, cubes, knobs, triangles and stars, even crosses, moons, little grinning skulls, twining oriental dragons, snarling demon heads. The entire conglomeration shimmers as if the weak glow from the lamp transmutes to moonlight across their many surfaces.
Lenahan says, It’s amazing what you can find in there. Still amazes me.
You realize your attention wandered, you aim your focus and your Glock back where they belong.
Where is she?
He leans forward, his shadowed bulk alarming, his face a gibbous moon. I just gave you a hint.
You blink. His eyes have changed. You could swear when you looked at them before they were dark, not that eerie bright green.
You emphasize the command with a wave of your pistol. Don’t move. Don’t do anything other than tell me where she is.
You inhale slowly. You tell yourself it’s not your plan to kill him, you just have to know.
You say, Depends on what you tell me.
He sits still, but his fingers on the desk twitch spider-like, drum softly in some random Morse code. He leans back a little, face going from gibbous to full, and you see his eyes are different, unquestionably burning bright green, like seeing your own eyes in a mirror.
He’s playing games, not taking you serious.
The little cushion full of pins trembles as his fingers drum. You shoot it.
The Glock hiccups in your hand, the sound like a sledgehammer smashing concrete. The cushion is simply gone, a long second before Lenahan jerks his hand away. The moment punctuates with the clatter of the spent shell casing on the floor.
Lenahan holds up his hand, stares, his sensuous lips parted. There’s a needle jutting from the tip of his ring finger. His expression makes you squirm inside.
He puts finger to mouth, grips the needle in his teeth, pulls. It protrudes from his incisors like a toothpick. Then he tosses it away.
He doesn’t seem frightened, but your heart is pounding crazy against its cell of ribs.
Under the lamp, a bead of blood wells from his fingertip. I don’t want to make trouble for you, he says.
A flick, the blood is gone. Why does the skin of his broad hand seem smoother, paler, the hairs between the knuckles somehow absent, reverse-werewolf?
Stop moving, you say.
He obeys, watches, waits.
You still haven’t answered, you say.
You scream an obscenity, put the gun almost to his chin.
His eyes flick to the button bin.
Just as with his eyes and hands, the buttons in the bin have changed. It’s hard to quantify what’s different, but you hit upon it: they look more real, more like the things they represent. The sea blue disks look like circles of ocean, the skulls gleam like real bone, the laughing demons seem to wink, the moons and suns shine with their own light, the faces on the fake coins frown or grin or simply breathe.
He knows your name. Shaun, he says. You reach in there, you’ll find her. You’ll know what happened.
You aim the Glock in his face and say, You do it.
Don’t you remember what Billy Willett told you? So intent you were on the who and where of Mr. Lenahan, perhaps you only lent half an ear’s credence to the other things he said.
You found Billy’s apartment, inside a house sided with flaking paint and rotting wood in a neighborhood once proud and rich, now long abandoned to poverty, slouching among the drug lairs with cars coming and going at all hours, a rundown convenience store at the corner with crack pipes for sale by the register.
Half of the front porch has collapsed, you don’t know how whoever lives in the front apartments can get to their doors, but it’s not your problem because Willett lives in the basement apartment accessed from the back. A sullen pit bull watches you from a chain link kennel as you walk past; the dog’s black back is splotched with mange or scars. It has no shelter from the sun.
You walk down the short concrete steps to the door. The house has sunk into the earth over many years; the bottom step and the threshold no longer meet. You bang the door, hear a woman’s voice croak inside.
A moment later she pulls the door open and squints at you, a short stick figure with tattoos flanking her withered cleavage, crowned with a shriveled apple face, dirty mop-grey hair cropped close to her head. Above her a chain stretches to its taut limit, restricting entrance.
You try to sound pleasant. I’d like to talk to Billy.
Get oughtta here, she croaks. You go.
The Glock presses cold against your skin, hidden in the waistband of your jeans beneath your baggy T-shirt. For a moment you think of simply forcing your way in. Surely, given the house’s decay, the chain would pull out of the wall with just a burst of pressure. You see yourself stepping over the old woman as she flounders on the floor.
I really need to see him, you say.
Let us alone, she says, and shuts the door. You turn to go. You look at the other houses, great rambling derelicts like this one, some sporting mock towers and turrets that were no doubt gloriously gaudy in their heyday. You wonder whether those windows will be lit after dark, if anyone might be watching. There’s a half-formed plan in your head, what you might do if you come back then.
But behind you, the jingling sound of the chain undone. A click, a creak, the old woman’s croak: He want to talk to you.
Once you’re inside, she watches you with eyes narrowed, wrinkles radiating out from the disapproving line of her mouth. The room you’ve stepped into is cleaner than you expected, a cramped dun sofa facing a vast widescreen TV with the sound off and the picture hopelessly blurred. She points down the hall, where a door stands ajar–this door incongruously painted with a crude scene of two kids playing on a swing set beneath a smiley-face sun.
As you head for the bedroom, she croaks behind you, Don’t you hurt my son.
You want to say, No promises, but you don’t.
The room is decorated in the same childish way as the door, but you don’t take it all in. You’re looking at Willett, what’s left of him, half-tucked beneath sheets in a bed that would have been too small if he still had legs. His arms, though, are still stout through the biceps, taut and wiry. His shoulders bunch and ripple as he hears you come in, props himself up. The sheet slides down and for a queasy moment you think it will slide off, bare him completely, and you don’t know what you’ll see then, what horrid mass of scar tissue he must truncate in.
But you’re spared, the sheet pauses at his navel, exposing tattoos that crawl up his abdomen and chest, oriental dragons coiled around naked bimbos. You think of Denise, staring at that vulgar art as she straddled Willett’s hips and sank down, and it makes you sick.
Willett’s thin, angular face, with the stubble-shrouded cleft in his chin, remains handsome, or would have without the fleshy puckers where his eyes once were. But it’s as if those scars can see, because he turns to you.
You’re finally here, he says. His voice sounds choked with grit.
Do you know where Denise is?
He laughs. It’s a bark tinged with hysteria. Yes. Yes. Lenahan has her. He put us both deep under but he only kept what he wanted from me. Denise, he kept all of her. He planned to all along.
Maybe, maybe–and now he’s struggling to speak, as though someone just told him an incredible joke and he’s still gasping for breath–maybe if you ask nice he’ll bring her back. He wanted me to tell you if you asked. He told me to.
Who is he?
And Willett tells you.
He tells you Lenahan lives four counties away, runs the craft store in the school house, took it over from the Confederate daughter used to own it, made it into something spectacular. The place is well known but you’ve never heard of it, had no reason to know about it.
But the man has a reputation in a far different circle, one where Willett scuffed at the edge. In that circle, Lenahan has a different name, and only a few know who he really is. But most of the meth makers and meth pushers call him Mr. Buttons.
Willett giggles. Funny, isn’t it. Like some little pink bunny.
His puckered scar eyes crinkle with mirth.
He’s the one with the money, who keeps his people in good supply. He doesn’t use, doesn’t sell, just expects returns on what he puts down. And you don’t dare snitch on him if you get caught. The narcs don’t have a thing on him, won’t find a thing on him, and as soon as no one’s watching, you’re gone and no one will find you again.
Billy Willet tells you how eager Denise was to try crystal meth when they first got together. How he encouraged her by saying it wouldn’t wreck her mind and body like the heroin did. He leers as he says it, like he wants you to shoot him, hopes you will. But you don’t. You just tell him to keep talking.
And he details how he and Denise went to one of Mr. Buttons’ top men, the one with the barrels of chemicals in the storage shed behind his barn, and what Denise did to pay because they had no money.
And how the next time they went, word was Mr. Buttons wanted to meet them both, and this time their fixes would be free of charge.
Willett tells you where Mr. Buttons’ place was and who he turned out to be. He tells you he doesn’t know how Lenahan took his eyes and legs. He says he didn’t see what happened to Denise but he knows she can never come back unless Lenahan sets her free.
Maybe good ol’ Uncle Shaun can just ask real sweet, he says. Maybe you ask him just the right way, he’ll let you see her.
It took weeks of brooding, planning, stalking to reach the place you now sit.
He leans toward the button bin, the muzzle of your gun almost kissing the meaty curve of his ear.
His arm disappears to the elbow and he shudders like he’s plunged it in ice. You don’t hear the noise you expect, the clattering hiss of beads displaced. Instead a quiet wind-chime jostle, a patter of hourglass sand, a release of air like a lover’s soft exhalation.
Lenahan pauses. I’m not going to try anything, he says. Could you please pull that out of my ear?
Move slow, you say, but you back off a little.
His arm comes out slowly as if he’s having to extract it from tar and in fact the buttons seem to stick to it. There’s a squelching noise as his hand comes free.
Whatever you’re doing, stop it.
Just be calm, son.
He holds his hand up in front of his face, looks at his knuckles, looks at you between his fingers. Some of the buttons have adhered to his skin. There’s a cat’s-eye centered in the palm of his hand, gold suns in the crooks of his knuckles, blood drops around his wrist, black diamonds tracking in rows down his forearm, alternating with bone circlets. You realize the buttons have arranged themselves in deliberate patterns–it’s as if they lined up along invisible seams in his skin. Your heart is a madman pounding at the walls.
You aim at one of his bright green eyes, just like yours, like Denise’s.
You’ll never know the answer if you shoot me.
His palm still toward you, he takes his other hand, grips a demon-face button centered in his wrist, just below the ball of the thumb. Then he pushes it through his skin and out again, undoes the button as if loosening a collar. A vertical seam in his wrist suddenly gapes, like a new eye opening.
What you should see through that opening is blood and meat and tendons, but instead there’s something in there that wavers like heat shimmer, flutters like a moth, shines without color, and a scent wafts out of sadness and silence. It confounds your gaze, makes your stomach lurch.
Stop it! you say, but he’s unbuttoning his wrist, the skin parting like a cuff, something pale and gleaming and alive revealed underneath. The entire room has become strange, still dark but the darkness somehow agitated, animate.
He says, Do you see her yet?
His face contorts, his neck bulges and suddenly you think of Apeneck Sweeney, Eliot’s mindless brute, zebra stripes swelling along his jaw. Beside you the buttons in the bin crawl over each other, glittering mites that seethe at the lip of their container like spectators crowding a coliseum wall.
Lenahan’s arm gapes to the elbow. He flexes the meat of his contorted forearm. This is not…easy, he grunts, and something bulges through the gap in the curtain of his flesh. It’s a face pushed out as if birthed, Denise’s face, her pink lips parted as if in hesitation before asking a question. Squeezed out from between his unbuttoned skin, her face bows, an empty mask, eyeholes dark. Eyeless because the eyes regarding you from Lenahan’s sweat-sheened visage are not just like her eyes, they are her eyes.
Her mouth is moving, a fish drawing in water. He raises his arm, brings her lips to yours.
Your lips close with hers. She is almost fourteen. You are eighteen.
You and she are in your room downstairs. Even though your parents are traveling across the country, you have the door pulled shut, the curtains drawn. The radio chatters and croons, you don’t know what’s playing, you’re not paying attention. She’s lying on the rug, her overalls undone, pulled down to her hips, her T-shirt pushed up past her bra, looking up at you. You’re a head taller, about fifty pounds heavier, poised over her like you’re doing a push up. Staring into her eyes, like staring at yourself in an adoring mirror. You tell yourself that’s what you see, adoration, that she could never be frightened of you, terrified of making you angry, terrified of what you’re going to do.
On your bedroom wall hangs a poster of lions in the veldt. The lions are flickering, watching. The bed in your room is not a bed at all, it shimmers in a turmoil of beads and discs and suns and skulls. She stiffens as you push up her bra.
Lenahan again. He straightens his arm, withdrawing the face inside himself like a snail into a shell.
As you sit stunned he takes your gun away, sets it gingerly on the drawing table. He takes your hand, eyes full of sympathy, different eyes now, maybe his own, maybe Willett’s, maybe someone else’s. He whispers something soothing as he guides your hand toward the chest. You have no fight in you. Both of you know why you really came, not because you loved her so but because you feared, you feared the revelation of a secret you kept even from yourself. But there’s nothing to fear now, Lenahan knows, has known, has wanted to meet you all along.
Gold rhomboids practically leap from the bin onto your fingers, but Lenahan isn’t content to wait, he forces you to your knees, shoves your right arm in to the shoulder. You feel something like static, like a jet of water, like a mosquito swarm, then you feel nothing, your arm is numb. He pulls you back, and your arm, like his, sports an array of buttons. A seam runs up the inside, a row of green irises with black pupil insets. He runs a finger along them, they pop like snaps, lift apart like the eyes that line a scallop shell.
When I tried her on, he says, I saw what you did.
He’s pushing his arm inside yours.
The memory. How she stayed petrified, silent, as your fingers pushed inside her.
His fingers, inside yours, wearing your hand like a glove as you relive the memory.
Your knees have jellified. There’s hot pain behind your eyes, sticky tears on your cheeks. To your utter shame, there’s a stirring in your groin, your cock flutters as you relive what you did to her, and are yourself violated.
Lenahan chuckles, his belly pressed against your back, his right arm inside yours, his fingers inside yours.
He used his free hand with the confidence of long practice, unfastening your tainted arm from your shoulder. He will keep what he wants of you for himself, as he did with Willett, keep the parts of you that remember Denise. The rest, he will dispose of how he pleases.
You can’t allow that. You can’t let Lenahan parcel you.
You go slack. He repositions himself awkwardly, reaching for the buttons on the underside of your arm to finish his theft, as you lunge for the gun on the drawing table.
He grunts and tries to pull you down, but you’ve twisted to your feet. You feel the sickening stretch where he’s loosened your arm and stuffed his inside, but the buttons don’t pull free. He’s on his feet now too, pulling at you as you pull away, the two of you orbiting each other in grotesque conjoined dance.
He grabs your collar with his left hand, jerks you toward him, tries to get behind you again. You let him pull you closer, but he doesn’t see you have the gun till you’ve jabbed it under his chin. He tries to grab your wrist but you’re sweat-slick and quicker, pull the trigger one two three, sharp hammer strikes, flares that burn bright spots in your vision.
But the struggle doesn’t stop. Now he has your wrist, tries to pull your fingers open.
Adrenaline clears your head, you see the holes punctured in him, frayed edges like shooting through sackcloth, no blood, something like light but not fluttering out through them, causing your balance to sway, your stomach to heave.
His eyes, green again. He’s using her to look at you, using her eyes that brim with hurt and ache with questions never asked as he tries again to pry the gun from you.
You squeeze again. One of your niece’s eyes goes dark. When he cries out, it’s with her voice.
Rage and fear and years of pent-up shame fuel your own scream. You shove at him, push at him, but neither of you can escape the other. He stumbles, the backs of his knees hit the lip of the bin and his free arm flails. Then you throw your weight against him. He topples, you push and he sits in the carved chest. The living buttons swarm up his thighs and belly. You drop the gun into the seething shiny mass of baubles and grip him by shoving your fingers into the holes under his chin. You feel fibers tear and then your hand is inside the sack of his head.
Images gush into your brain, hundreds upon hundreds, flash memories of men, women, boys, girls captured at the moment Lenahan introduced them to his terrible buttons, shoving in their hands, their feet, their heads, to open them like boots, gloves, hats, coats and expose the twisted, vulnerable things of spirit inside. But what rises topmost is an image of Denise, and you do to him what he did to her, push him down full body until his head and shoulders are submerged, bury him in his own sick magic.
You’re still entangled with him, your face just inches from the sparkling swarm. Numbness spreads along your jaw as the buttons attach.
You jerk back, then scream as Lenahan’s head and shoulders re-emerge.
Every follicle of hair is now a loose thread jutting out from a buttonhole. Huge black stars have replaced his eyes, his mouth sealed shut with a ragged line of skulls, his nostrils plugged with ornate blue knobs. Tiny transparent disks line the ridges of his nose and brows and cheekbones, hooks fasten the folds of his neck. His head could be opened a thousand different ways.
His struggles cease. He smells, not of flesh but vinyl and lacquer. Slowly, painstakingly, you start to extract your hand from him and his hand from you. There’s a weird pressure inside your arm that lessens and disappears as you finally pull free.
Now you see his skin is patchwork, a grid delineated by the buttons, every piece a different shade. Who could tell what skin first was his?
Hundreds of alien memories have faded from your mind before you can pinpoint a point of origin.
He pushed her in, your niece, all the way under, withdrew a button-studded mannequin and undid her from head to foot, pulled her on and possessed her in total in a way you could never do, though something dark and shriveled in you tried. And when he learned about you, what you did, how you destroyed her, he wanted that for himself too, set things in motion to lay claim on the moment of her undoing.
A noise in the darkness. You look up.
There, between rugs hanging like tapestries in a hall of nightmares. Lenahan’s short, strange assistant has returned. She stares at you with wide-set amphibian eyes beneath a too-broad forehead, above a too-small mouth, as rough and patchworked as the creature you’ve just murdered.
Her eyes deep and wet as cavern pools meet yours for a long time. She simply nods.
And now you know how you will see your beloved niece again.
You start at Lenahan’s forehead and work your way down, head to foot, prepare to try him on, see how the seams of a monster fit. You’re sure they’ll fit well, snug and comfortable as a tailored suit.
It’s the only skin you deserve to wear.
More from Mike Allen:
Mike Allen works as the arts and culture columnist for the daily newspaper in Roanoke, Va., where he lives with his wife Anita, a goofy dog, and two mischievous cats. In his spare time he does a ridiculous number of things, including editing the critically-acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the long-running poetry journal Mythic Delirium. His own poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award. He’s also active in local improv theater, where he’s often asked to provide the voice of an Ominous Narrator or play the part of Satan.