prologue: the pattern
You never imagined you’d be in a place like this again.
Mothers. Fathers. Schoolteachers. Children. All about you, children.
To a tiny part of you, this setting is familiar. These hard chairs built a little too small, with their desk flaps scarred by years upon years of pocketknife graffiti, rows on rows slanting down between aisles of threadbare carpet to the stage with its smooth-worn planks and its decades-old curtain and its faded elementary school logo marring the cinder block at the front of the stage platform.
You’re packed in tight among these people that the bulk of you finds so alien. To your left, a plump mom in a fancy black coat shushes her sullen son. To your right, a thick-bellied dad with a ridiculously long mustache makes no effort to hide his boredom. In front of you, a younger woman, slender, wearing a tacky spotted top, reveals a hollow, haunted look as she leans in to listen to whatever her towheaded daughter is trying to tell her.
The lights dim. The curtain parts.
The play is something scripted from a children’s picture book, and the set matches the source, all garish pinks and greens. Adults in the cast are dressed as children, with ponytails and long white socks and overalls. They speak in exaggerated childspeak, with loud slurred words, and jump and skip with over-the-top excitement. There are children on stage with them, playing at being playmates. They’re singing that old tune about the woman who swallows everything, the fly, the spider, the bird, all manner of beasts. Around you, the parents laugh and laugh, especially the moms, even the haunted mom in front of you.
You pay the story no mind, it’s all just screechy noise.
Except it isn’t.
If the school auditorium affects you like an alien moonscape, then this sensation is even more alien, this burning moistness behind the eyes you’ve chosen to use, this pressure in your throat like a tightening fist, this weight pushing down inside your chest, the pain there that billows and unfolds and billows.
You don’t understand. Thoughts echo confused inside the marble hall of your mind, whisper amidst infinite layers of tapestry.
Your vision blurs. You bring a hand to your face, unable to believe until your fingers touch your lower eyelids that you’re shedding tears. That you’re sniffling.
It makes no sense. You’re not moved by this squealing travesty on the stage. Not at all.
How many parts of you remember being read to at night? The drone of a father’s singsong voice, the sprightly coo of a mother reading Alice or the Grimms? Sharing in your wide-eyed delight with shining eyes of her own.
This agony in your belly uncurls layer after layer. You are a mask of mourning in a garden of mindless giggles, listening to voices from stolen memories, watching a tableau of unabashed, unselfconscious innocence that you will never belong to, can never be part of again.
It’s a miracle you don’t sob aloud. You have to get away, get out of this crowd, before someone notices.
You excuse yourself. Once upon a time, these people would have had to stand up and press themselves as far back against their seats as they could to let you pass. No such problem now, you’re so compact they hardly notice you.
It’s no matter that you left early; your plans are still on track.
You know what you’re looking for and where you want to go. But it’s this tide of emotion sloshing inside you, disrupting your concentration, that’s unexpected and unwelcome and potentially dangerous.
It takes an uncomfortably long time to find the car, and the slice of you that remains in control frets about how you must look, wandering aimless among the rows of spoiled suburbanite SUVs with tears smearing your face. In another life, you might have called the cops on such a freak, or at least run like a goody two-shoes to tell a teacher.
When you spot that little red hatchback with all its charming dents and rust spots, it’s like the day your father arrived at the park just as the sixth-grade bullies had you cornered, a signal of safety, an end to fear.
But not an end to sorrow.
You produce the hand that holds the right key, you open the hatch and swing it up, climb in with a creak of old shocks and seal yourself inside. There’s a thick tattered quilt of yellow and green crumpled behind the back seat, where you knew it would be; you pull it over yourself and squirm into the darkness underneath, as small as you can make yourself.
But you want to shrink further, crawl into the purest darkness that’s found only in the spaces between atoms and the void outside time and never come out again. The empty places inside you rustle at this longing, trickle echoes down into the sickest pits of your soul, and you allow a sob to escape. But only one.
You can’t still the trembling, not completely. Though you smother this ghost chorus of despair in layer after layer, you can’t quite force yourself to still, no matter how silent you become, enveloped in warm black misery that doesn’t abate even as the young mother with the hollow stare opens the passenger door. You can’t see her, but you know she’s there.
Her towheaded daughter chirps Shotgun! as she climbs onto her seat to be buckled in.
Maddy, don’t be silly, scolds her mom, and hold still, damn it. Hold still.
Madeleine, you say, too soft for either of them to hear.
Somewhere inside you, someone’s heartstring stretches past the breaking point.
The little engine that could starts up after several cough-and-hack tries, and as the asphalt rumbles beneath you, Maddy starts to talk. She tells her mother over and over again about the play’s funny parts, the parts that make her laugh again to think about them, prompted along by her mom’s disengaged Mmm-hmms and Yeahs muttered at the right places. And that little girl’s laughter, that indecipherable Rosetta stone from a land with all its gates barred to you forevermore, makes you want to plug your ears and howl.
Even in your state, tactile memories tell you when the final turn arrives, when the tires bounce and trundle over the gutter and onto the gravel drive. That’s when you do move, when you sit up, when you stretch out.
As you draw your magic pouch from your neck, your bulging button sack, and dig fingers into your writhing faerie beads, far more addictive than any crystal Maddy’s mother was ever tempted to try, you glimpse your face in the rear view mirror, so distressed from your pathetic weeping that it’s peeled in strips like wet wallpaper, and the stuff beneath has sagged like softened wax, a paper-mâché horror show.
You could scream at the sight, as you slide forward. And so could Madeleine and her haunted mother, but soon they have no mouths to open.
In your hands, it shudders, this thing plucked from a little girl’s limp shell, this eye-searing, beautiful thing.
You wail as it flutters against your fingers.
In the cobweb-garnished shadows of his living room, Benjamin does what he does every morning at this hour, creeps to the bay window where he keeps the gauzelike curtains pulled almost shut but for a gap of an inch or two.
And he watches through his remaining eye.
His living room is dim and cavernous, and yet he never turns on the lights here. There’s no need, because he never has visitors.
Binoculars rest on a doily atop the lamp table beside the window, next to a telescope on a tripod that bows its heavy magnifying lens in a show of mock shame.
For now, with the sky cloud-free, he has no need for such tools—perched on the hill at the end of the circle, his house commands an ideal view down the short length of the street, with split-level domiciles lined up to either side, four to the right, three to the left, triplets and quadruplets clad in beige and white vinyl siding. He has a surveyor’s command of the neighborhood, and the people in it, what they do in their yards, what they do in their cars.
He only needs assistance when he wants his gaze to reach through a few choice windows.
Already there’s sights to behold. Second house on the left, Maria the single mother is outside washing her car in cut-off jean shorts and a bikini top, a good use of an idle May morning. Her son is probably in school, true, but even if school was out she’d still be idle—her ex has custody on weekdays. A loudmouth talk radio DJ, that pinheaded tub of lard was no prize in any box, but she was the one who got caught cheating. Let her boss’s nephew nail her on top of the manager’s desk in the very restaurant where she worked as a hostess, or so Benjamin heard. Just one unseemly bead on a string of terrible decisions that stretches across her entire life.
Maria is not a young lass anymore but the wear has all been on the inside. It’s no wonder that even though she’s almost twice his age, Lance the redneck brute has emerged from the first house on the right to make a show of trimming the hedges. He stares at his neighbor whenever her back is turned, sometimes even when she’s facing him.
Surely she knows he’s there, what he’s doing, but whenever Maria looks up, it’s to steal furtive glances at the house directly across from hers, third house right, where Clive and Francene’s troubled prodigal son has just been returned to the nest.
Benjamin had been witness a couple afternoons ago to the sad procession, as the unhappy couple brought wayward Shaun home from rehab, rushed him inside like handlers hiding their charge from paparazzi.
What a delectable mess that household is. Once upon a time they were four, with stiff and proper Francene, demure wife number two, agreeing to help Clive raise a granddaughter produced through his first marriage. So little boy Shaun acquired a niece, Denise, who started as a sweet tomboy in a softball uniform, graduated from there to full-blown teen crackhouse queen, then vanished without a trace.
And now, Shaun, their perfect son, their honor-roll-scoring son, is headed down that same route. That special hell paved behind pressure-washed siding and meticulously fertilized lawns.
The fact is, hollow eyes and needle tracks serve little perfect boy Shaun just dandy, as far as Benjamin is concerned. Benjamin knows the boy was never what he seemed, he saw the backyard parties when mom and dad weren’t home, the toking, the drinking, the groping. Kept a lot of things hidden from his parents, that boy did. Benjamin always had a suspicion that bad things happened to little Denise when Clive and Francene left her alone with their bright-eyed boy.
Then Denise went missing, Shaun charged off looking for her, and not only did he fail, he came back an utter wreck, a babbling addict, the candy wrapper removed to reveal the turd that was always there.
But why is Maria so invested in Clive and Francene’s intimate misfortunes? Why the worried frown when she stares at their house?
There she goes, stealing yet another concerned glance, herself a central pattern in the fabric of that perfect family’s unraveling lies.
Invisible at the window, Benjamin smiles, witness to the long hours Clive has spent inside Maria’s house over the course of years. He’s noted with lascivious glee the times of entrance and exits, and that sometimes these day-after-day repetitions of arrival and departure occur through the back door rather than the front—usually when she’s between other lovers, and their on-off is on again, and Clive feels pressed to avoid his wife’s gaze. Sometimes he even comes over when her sniveling whelp of a boy is visiting, on loan from his overbearing disk jockey dad.
Benjamin has devoted much space in his imagination to what happens inside Maria’s house, with its wildflower gardens always on the verge of riot.
She’s hardly the only sad soul in this neighborhood whose imaginary exploits keep him awake long into the night. There’s the ripening teenage redhead being raised by her milky-eyed grandmother in the fourth house on the right, who Benjamin knows with his own eyes and the aid of his telescope to be turning in the direction that most offspring of strict church upbringings turn. The things she does in her blank-eyed boyfriend’s truck, parked right in her grandmother’s driveway—surely she wants to be caught, surely it will be only a matter of time before she gets her wish.
And then there’s the cop in third house left who comes home from nights spent arresting drunken and abusive husbands to beat his mousy wife if she doesn’t fix his breakfast fast enough. Or the heartthrob weatherman in second house right with his endless procession of lithe young men brought home well after dark, kicked out in the wee hours of the morning.
The door opens first house left, and Benjamin’s smile changes, to one of fond indulgence. Here’s scrawny, feisty, nosy Patsy, trundling down her ramp in her motorized wheelchair.
It’s been years since he was inside Patsy’s house, with its Christmas tree always lit in the dining room and its overpowering smell of cats’ piss. But hers is the only other home in this cul-de-sac he’s ever set foot inside. And she’s the only neighbor he ever speaks to, though it all happens over the phone.
She has never been inside his residence.
Afflicted by a cruel degenerative brain disease that’s taken more and more of her mobility away over her fifty years of life, Patsy will never be a part of the harem in Benjamin’s inner sanctum. Yet amidst the dingy rooms inside his mind, he keeps a shrine to her that’s pristine, bathed in light.
She waves to Lance the white-trash thug, who beats a retreat like a pitbull nailed with pepper spray, unable in his hardwired hatred to cope with his neighbor’s half-paralyzed body and relentless good cheer, not so bold a bully as to mock a handicapped woman when the parents he still lives with might find out about it. To Lance, Patsy is wolfsbane.
At the window, Benjamin smiles, as Patsy glides her slow and steady wheelchair up the street, to where Maria wipes a towel over her tiny car’s back bumper. She doesn’t seem to mind the interruption at all as Patsy hails her—she stands up and steps over to chat, despite being drenched head to toe from her labors.
This is the one thing that raises Maria higher in Benjamin’s esteem than all the other pathetic human lumps making their nests along this street. She’s always kind to Patsy.
The way both women keep looking over at Clive and Francene’s house, Benjamin guesses they must be chatting in stage whispers about the drug addict’s return. He longs to know what they’re saying, but doesn’t trouble himself. Sometime this afternoon, the phone will shrill, and Patsy’s adenoidal voice will tell him everything.
And he will share things too, things he’s seen. He will never tell her everything, never that, but enough to keep her coming back.
They’ve been entwined in this relationship so long, he and Patsy, that he no longer remembers precisely how it started, other than that it must have begun all those years ago when she invited him to her house and he accepted, even then not entirely understanding why. Possibly because no one else had ever asked such a thing of the creepy old man on the hill.
Though they had almost nothing in common, they immediately recognized the one thing they shared, an outsider’s perspective on everyone else, that delectable twist of longing and contempt. And an unspoken and yet soundly understood acceptance that directed a gentle breeze through the torn rags of each others’ psyches.
Dearest Patsy, who like him lives off disability checks, who like him has a ravaged face to show the world. When he was younger, he would tell people his eyepatch covered the results of a war wound in Vietnam, where he never served. He would never admit to anyone his puddinglike eye and prematurely arthritis-crimped joints resulted from venereal disease.
Patsy, for all her chatty nosiness in the neighborhood, showed no interest in learning about his embarrassments. She just wanted him to feel at home, she once said.
Her empathy had actually freed him to make the play he most desired in the game of human interaction: to drop out, to give up trying.
Maria turns her head, and Patsy hers. And now Benjamin looks too, and squints his one good eye, and shuffles to grab the binoculars.
That drug-addled boy, Shaun the Formerly Perfect, has just turned onto the circle from the cross-street, walking with shoulders hunched in a jacket too warm for the weather, like he thinks that will stop him from being seen.
But when did he leave his parents’ house? And where on earth is he coming from?
Benjamin presses the binoculars to the window.
Maria knows something has gone terribly wrong the moment she spies Shaun trudging up the street, shoulders hunched, the skin around his eyes puffy and raw, his expression unfathomable.
Speak of the devil.
He looks like a devil, doesn’t he? Like someone consumed inside by fire, any moment his skin will blacken and the flames lick through.
Sweet Patsy stops her soft-spoken prattle mid-sentence, thank goodness. She has to sense it too, how wrong this is.
The boy’s not supposed to be out of the house, Maria knows this. Clive told her last week, during a brief, jittery-nerved visit. It had been a Wednesday before sunup, her son Davey staying with his accursed father, Clive dressed for work in his button-down, her in her violet nightie. They’d shared nothing more than a quick kiss on the lips. Her on-again off-again lover had been wound tight enough to snap a spring.
That in itself wasn’t so unusual for Clive these days—his family had unraveled, his granddaughter Denise gone without a trace, his son plunged down the same path of addiction and self-inflicted psychosis.
And worse, Shaun’s stay in rehab had gone about as poorly as could be imagined. His second night there one of his podmates at the Langan Center had gone missing, presumably bolting back to his life of crack and crystal, but the third podmate had made wild accusations that Shaun had assaulted his fellow junkie—they weren’t taken seriously because what the guy described sounded like something straight out of a peyote delusion.
The accusations stopped when the third podmate staged his own disappearing act the next night, but the seeds of suspicion had been irrevocably sown.
That morning, they sat pressed together on the couch in her den, her shoulders tucked under his arm. They’re kicking him out, he said. I have to go get him today. It’s either that or the streets, and I’m not letting that happen again.
She frowned up at him, but he was staring somewhere else, staring through the paneled wall.
Did I tell you about the things he said?
I remember. Maria shuddered involuntarily, remembering the night Shaun came home, how he’d pounded on the windows of his parents’ house, screaming about things crawling inside him, things like little living needles.
No. When I saw him yesterday, when the staff called me in.
She looked into those eyes that weren’t focused on her. No, you didn’t.
So the director leaves me alone in the pod with him for a couple minutes, and he’s had this hangdog, sullen look on his face the whole time, but then, as soon as the door shuts, he cuts loose with this smile. I’ve never seen a look quite like that on his face before. It’s not a nice smile. It’s like he wants to take a bite out of me. And he says, You don’t have to grieve for Denise anymore, Dad. She’s right here. And he taps his chest. I found her, and you’ll see her again and so will Mom.
And I’m so freaked out that I don’t know how to even respond to that. And I’m thinking about how when he disappeared, so did one of my handguns. So I ask him, Shaun, do you know where your roommates went?
And he just smiles that same way and says, They didn’t go anywhere.
Good God, she said. They can’t let him out. Not like that.
That’s what I tried to tell them. But they wouldn’t listen. Clive bit his lip like a child. I think they’re as afraid of him as I am.
They had ended the visit by clinging to each other in a desperate hug. There’d been no closing kiss.
Shaun trudges down the street between these passive rows of cookie-cutter split levels, a feral dog stalking the hen houses in the open. She knows he’s never been the stand-up chip off the block her lover believes him to be. She’d been the subject of too many more-than-cursory glances from the little creep over the years. How much did he know about her, about her and his father? What did he imagine when he looked at her that way?
Maria knows something is wrong, and she’s burning to know what, and she is not afraid of Clive’s pup. Hey, Shaun, she says, how’s it going?
He draws up short, and his face lights up in a manner that makes no sense, like a trapped miner who has just spotted a pinprick of light, but this glow goes out almost as soon as she notices.
And then he turns to her, to Patsy, and he’s walking over to them with his mouth compressed into an anxious line, and Maria wonders why she couldn’t just leave well enough alone.
Hi, ladies, he says. He glances over Maria, still dripping from her not quite finished carwash, before he turns to Patsy, scrawny and wide-eyed in her wheelchair, and Maria’s heart starts to pound, her fists to clench.
Are you feeling okay? he says to Patsy. You look pale.
Patsy, bless her heart, recovers quickly from the shock of being addressed by the creep she was just whispering about. I don’t feel any worse than I usually do, Shaun, but I appreciate your concern.
I know you’ve both heard things about me, he says.
Maria sees her own cold trepidation mirrored in Patsy’s round face. Her wheelchair-bound neighbor’s thick glasses, framed by graying curls, magnify her pop-eyed shock.
I’m sure everybody heard me screaming the other night. I don’t even know what I was saying. He hangs his head. I know Mom and Dad had to tell all of you why. I didn’t leave them a choice. And that’s no one’s fault but mine. Everything that’s happened to me is all my fault. All of it.
The pain on his face is so frank that Patsy has gone misty-eyed. Maria feels that urge, too, gathering behind her own eyes, but it doesn’t gain momentum, because something in her doesn’t believe in what she’s seeing, as if it’s staged, a movie trick, as if she’s staring at the most perfect rubber mask ever molded.
I know I frightened everyone, he goes on. And I know I caused my mom and dad a lot of pain and confusion and worry. I have to make it up to them. And I want to make it up to all of you.
How are your mom and dad, Shaun? Maria doesn’t think she kept the suspicion completely out of her voice.
Oh, man, he says. They’re so unhappy right now. Unhappy as they can be.
The way he looks at her, when he says it.
I know dad helps you around the house sometimes, he says. Maybe I can do that for you. Help out some.
The thought makes her skin crawl. She’s shaking her head before she even comes up with words to blurt out. I can always lean on my ex if I have to, she says, with what she hopes is a jaunty smirk. He doesn’t know jack about squat, but he can afford electricians and plumbers. And the courts made sure he has to pay for them. Don’t you worry about me.
But he’s already turned to Patsy. Same offer stands for you, he says. My mom’s told me about how much trouble it is for you, keeping things up inside your house. I know I can help. I want to help. His voice grows even more urgent. I’ve been so selfish. Putting my needs above all others. That needs to stop. I want to do something that I know is worthwhile. Give to a good person.
Oh, Shaun, poor Patsy stammers, that’s, that’s so sweet …
He keeps speaking to Patsy, even though he’s looking at Maria sidelong. Mom told me what she said to you. About talking to myself all night. In different voices. How they could hear me through the floor. About the fight I had with Dad. How they locked themselves in the bedroom to keep me out. I know. Yes, it’s all true.
This is exactly what Patsy had been telling Maria about when Shaun walked up. The things she’d heard from Francene.
But I’m done with that. I’m done with the DTs. Too much has happened to me these past few weeks, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I can’t take any of them back. But I want to make good now. I want to show everyone that I can.
Maria has backed away a little. You don’t need to try so hard, she says. Just be the person you want to be. And quit being bad to yourself.
He ignores her, kneels beside Patsy. Come on, Patsy, please. There’s got to be errands I can help you with. Chores?
The sheer force of his need bends her will. She nods, flashes a nervous smile. Sure. Sure. Tomorrow. Let me think about it.
And he takes her hand. Thank you. Kisses her fingertips. Then stands, and grins radiantly at both of them, a smile so heart-breakingly genuine that Maria feels ashamed for a moment that her hackles were ever raised.
And then he turns to his house, and goes inside, without knocking—the door isn’t locked.
Immediately she’s at Patsy’s side. I don’t think you should do it. Don’t let him in your house. It’s not…he might be looking to steal something. For money. For drugs. It’s what happens.
She fears something worse, but she can’t imagine or articulate what.
I want to help him, Patsy says.
No, no, you don’t have to do that.
It’ll be fine, she says. I feel so bad for him.
Well, if you notice anything funny, you call.
A shy smile. I will. Don’t you worry.
Lance crouches behind the peeling picket fence that stretches from the side of his parents’ house like a molting wing, and peers between the slats, watches the woman in the wheelchair roll back home, watches Maria finish up her chore, plucks idly at the crotch of his jeans.
He doesn’t know which of the two women he hates more, the freakish one that gives him the willies with her cheerful, slurring speech and owl eyes and spindly frame slumping all the wrong ways, or the sad sexpot bitch who thinks she’s too good to give him what he wants.
That latter hate has been with him a long time, planted in puberty, growing poison vines. A tower of athletic-numbered-and-school-lettered muscle in high school, he never had trouble reeling in pussy at the rich-kid parties despite his own humbler origins—and he couldn’t count how many times, when he’d had some dumb bitch squealing beneath him while he hammered her with his hips hard enough to leave bruises, he’d shut his eyes as he spurted and groaned and pictured his neighbor across the street in all her latté-skinned glory.
As for the former, he’d only ever imagined choking her to death.
In truth, his loathing for either woman means nothing special, given his quick slide into obscurity after squeaking through graduation, his father who still calls him a lazy cocksucker, his father’s cheapskate friend who owns the oil-change shop where he works but doesn’t pay him enough to let him move out, the friend’s microskirt-wearing slut of a daughter—his withered, leathery heart holds plenty of hate to spare for all of them, and most everyone else besides.
When Maria finally goes inside, Lance stands up, adjusts his jeans, and notices with an angry blush that the creepy kid from two doors down is staring right at him. The gall of that boy, prissy Shaun, offspring of perfect Clive and Francene, standing beneath a tree, not averting his gaze at all. And fucking grinning.
Lance meets him stare for stare, getting angrier by the second. What the fuck are you looking at?
The little prick grins and shrugs. Actually grins and shrugs.
You want me to come over there? Want me to beat your junkie ass?
No, that’s okay, he says. As if this is fucking funny. But he trucks toward his house like the plucked chicken he is.
Lance thinks about shouting after him, but he knows that little prick has been acting all bugnuts, he knows that family has guns, and his entire life has been about walking the edge of discretion, only hurting others when he knows there will be no repercussions.
That little prick had been a recipient of some of that hurt, once upon a time. You’d think he would remember how it felt, surrounded and petrified in the little park down the hill, blubbering on the ground while Lance’s friends circled him and laughed, while Lance himself pretended he was going to shove the pipe wrench in his grip handle first up Shaun’s prissy little asshole. He had no intention of doing so, but the fact that the little faggot believed it and was terrified enough to piss himself, and too humiliated afterward to ever tell—that was what mattered.
You’d think he’d remember that, and know who not to fuck with.
Recalling the scene brings Lance to a quick boil, but not because of his crybaby neighbor’s defiance of the pecking order. Lance remembers how that confrontation ended, with perfect daddy Clive, who seemed so much bigger then, driving his Pontiac right over the cement parking block and onto the playground grass, stepping out with a tire iron gripped in one hand as all the big kids scattered. Lance hating little Shaunie even more as he ran, not because his wuss ass had to be rescued by his dad but because he knew his own dad would never do anything like that for him.
Think of the devil. Inside the house, Lance’s dad starts shouting, and he freezes, and fucking hates himself for doing it. His dad’s just screaming at his mom again. Nothing for him to care about.
Lance saunters all supercool back to the garage and resumes the task he had planned to start when Maria popped out her front door with all that skin showing. He has his Cutlass Supreme’s front tires up on ramps, the oil filter wrench and the oil tray and the new filter already in easy reach. He lies down on his back on the mechanic’s creeper he swiped from his employer and glides under the engine.
This chore is child’s play, and as he clamps on the wrench, his mind wanders, because the smirk on that little prick’s face still pisses him off. His rage is like a hydra made from rattlesnakes; it wants to sink all its fangs into its target, any target, and never let go.
He mutters under his breath as he awkwardly twists the wrench. I know what would wipe that smile off your face, you little prick. He twists. That crazy bitch niece of yours showed up at Mickey’s party stoned out of her mind. He twists. She gave every motherfucker head that was there. He twists, harder. The filter’s not coming off. I had my turn in line, little prick. I had my turn. What do you think of that, prick? What do you think?
But then his stomach is in knots, because the fact is he’d been so drunk he barely remembers what happened that night, only Denise’s eyes staring up at him, bloodshot to the point of pink. And the memory makes him sick—
The filter tears apart, spraying oil all over him. Fuck!
It takes him a full second to realize that in his distracted state of mind he was turning the wrench the wrong way, and then he cusses that much louder.
And that’s when he notices the shoes. There’s someone standing in front of the Cutlass, two nice high tops parked right by his left thigh.
What the— he begins, but he doesn’t get to finish, because something shoves what feels like a fist-sized rock in his mouth. He thrashes, smashes his forehead into the bottom of the engine. The thing in his mouth shoves down, slams the back of his head into the ground. It tastes like snotty flesh. It pulses and thickens, and his muffled scream becomes a shriek as his jaw pops out of its hinges.
The shoes never move. Dark, mottled ropes blur with cobra speed around the tire ramps.
The engine drops, embeds itself in Lance’s body. His chest and ribs cave in. His pelvis splits. Beneath him, the caster wheels pop out from underneath the creeper. The weight of the Cutlass pins his head sideways against the concrete of the garage floor. So many nerve signals are roaring that he doesn’t feel his right ear tear free. He’s shrieking, shrieking, shrieking, but the sound can’t get around the fleshy obstruction swelling in his mouth.
He doesn’t have enough mind functioning rationally to wonder how Shaun is with him, under the car with him, somehow slid under to join him, bright green eyes boring right into his as he once again displays that maddening smirk.
You remember my niece, then, Shaun says. Turns out, she does remember you. Just barely.
Something balloons out. From Shaun’s neck. Like a sack. Except it’s also a face. A girl’s face. Bright things crawl from her eyes.
You were so lucky.
Your father never told you, No you can’t, never said anything was out of your grasp. Your mother never laughed at you when you talked about writing poetry for a living, starting a band, hitchhiking the country just to do it. They always told you that whatever you wanted most was the thing that was best for you.
You had to take things into your own hands to learn what a waste you are, what a repulsive excuse for a human being you turned out to be, even before you could no longer call yourself human.
At rare intervals, such as now, shuddering on your parents’ king-size bed, stifling your whimpers with the barrel of your father’s .357 magnum, you congeal in some rough approximation of your old self.
Most of the time you are not—you are a creature of unbridled longing, unstoppable hunger, lacking even the discerning predilection for the weak and unwanted that kept the monster you have now become hidden from the light for long ages.
You no longer know where you begin or when you began. You can crawl inside yourself like a silverfish skittering through the coils of a rolled-up tapestry but no matter how deep into the dark you crawl you will never find the other end.
You are every god that ever had the raw remains of a sacrifice stretched over its shoulders, every monster that ever wore its victims’ skins, stitched them into capes, coats and masks. The soul is a bright morsel sealed in an envelope of flesh, and you are the unbinder and the weaver, the one who adds new patches to the ever-growing quilt. You carry the motes that, when cast upon your prey, reveal the seams by which you unhook and unbutton, but never rip, never draw blood.
You are a nightmare from the grimmest of all fairy tales. Call your true name, and you’ll simply unhinge your jaw to swallow the shrieking princess and her squalling baby whole. You are a throat that can never be stoppered, a hole that can’t be sealed by sunlight or stake or bullet.
Sometimes the you who once was slides out from the folds to glimpse the surface, but that you is never is control. There is nothing in control.
The only thing you ever had control over, was Denise. Until she fled. Right into the arms of another monster, and led you right to it, led it to you.
She ran from your probing hands, from the sickening price you exacted for a false show of brotherly love, and to addiction, to alcohol, to sex, to Ecstasy, to the archdemons of crack and heroin and meth and finally into the grasp of something a million times worse.
When you tracked her down at that quaint little shop, innocuous front for a methadone empire, it was waiting for you. It had a name, Lenahan, and a sweet public face, and an awe-inspiring profile in the drug-running underworld. And an even older pedigree and an even more terrible purpose, a hunger it fed so carefully, so thoroughly.
And you thought you were so clever, when you bested it with its own button-hook magic. But as it died, it opened you up, it made you understand what you were, a pathetic, predatory scavenger, a belly-crawling degenerate, feeble clone of its own black-stitched glory.
You’re draped in its hunger, in its lust, in its skins, but not worthy of the mantle. You’re the will-o’-the-wisp struggling to steer the whirlwind.
You’re the fly swallowed alive, helpless, wriggling.
In the dead of night, blubbering on all fours on your parents’ bed, you press the tip of the brutal metal barrel hard against the back of your mouth and squeeze the trigger.
The bullet bores through your palate, out the back of your head, punches into the ceiling. You feel nothing but a hard tug.
You start screaming. The screams are in Denise’s voice, in your father’s voice, in the voice of an innocent little girl, in voices you don’t recognize and never will.
You push your mouth down on the barrel, jam it in your throat, you gag on it but shove it in deeper, you squeeze the trigger in your fist again, again, punching holes through your head, the entire clip, ten spent shell casings spit from the chamber one after the other. And you wail and you keen as each bullet does you no more harm than a needle shoved through a cloth sack.
Your cries leak through the spiral coils inside you and you can feel the responses in kind, a muffled chorus of despair croaking for release.
You’re just one more voice at the crest of this crypt, the thin-stretched shroud wound over and through a mass grave packed with thousands, pressed on each other in layer after layer.
Your father’s gun has gone impotent but you keep clicking the trigger, screaming into an empty chamber.
Still later in the night, when the cops come to the door, you calmly tell them nothing’s wrong. You let them search the house. They ask about the bullet holes in the bedroom ceiling. You say your son did that when he was drunk and alone in the house, before you had him taken to rehab, and right now you don’t know where he is.
They can see there’s no blood. Finally, they leave you. And you resist the urges. You leave them alone. You let them leave.
The crushed shell of your mind leaks with other urges, more pressing lusts to slake.
Truth be told, Patsy gave no credence to Shaun’s strange, tear-stained speech of the previous day, expected nothing to come of it, which makes the knock on her door so early this morning that much more of a surprise.
Everyone promises to call on Patsy and her cats. No one ever does. And she makes sure they don’t need to. Every warm day, she makes sure they all have to see her bright-eyed, smiling face.
Most of her neighbors pretend to be kind to her, and she’s not blind to the pretense. They smile too long, won’t look her in the eye, say goodbye before she’s done talking. She’s always gracious about the subtle abuse—a compromise she offers to those who might be happiest if she gave into the disease slowly rendering her paralyzed, if she simply stayed in her home and withered away, died helpless and forgotten in her bed, a sacrifice to the flies.
One of the consequences of being inconsequential, a person looked past rather than seen—she has been cast as the neighborhood’s cheerful confessor, its motorized wheelchair-bound repository of secrets.
If she wanted to, she could make the whole neighborhood come apart at the seams. But, because she never breaches trust, never shares these sacred scraps, and because of the pity those with a glimmer of a conscience feel toward this woman with no friends, she is entrusted with so much. She knows so many things about people who care little to nothing about her.
She hears the elderly woman at the end of the street complaining about her tramp of a granddaughter. She hears Francene’s frettings about missing Denise, and her not-so-perfect son, and the suspicions about her husband that she doesn’t quite dare face head-on.
She hears Maria’s gripes about her many obnoxious boyfriends, enough that she can tell when someone’s about to get dumped. She hears about the fights with the ex, how he lords his custody of Davey over her, how he deprives Davey of things like comic books and field trips just to spite his mother, to show her how powerless she is.
Patsy even hears about the break-ups and reunions with Clive—Maria has never kept this secret, not from her.
And she hears from Barry the bulked-up, hunky weatherman about the annoying and adorable quirks of his latest boy toys. She hears the resentful whispers of the cop’s wife, and many, many more, even sometimes speaks to Lance’s withered and hateful mother, aged to twice her years, about what goes on in that hell of a household.
There is only one person with whom she shares these treasures. Withdrawn, crazy Benjamin, with his fenced-in house on the hill past the dead end. She talks to Benjamin because of all the ones she knows, he’s the one she pities. Because the rest of the neighborhood has forgotten him, the way they’d love to forget her. Because she has vowed to never be what he became, a thing so cut off from the world his blighted soul is barely recognizable as human, the way he eats the morsels of other lives that she feeds him the way a starved dog gobbles leftover fat.
Though he came to see her once in the mildew-blotted house she can’t keep up with, she has never been so naive as to mistake his alien fascination for kindness. Others have shown genuine kindness, Maria for one, Barry for another in his self-indulgent way, sometimes calling her to warn her about the weather when he thinks of it. Even distracted Francene has at times remembered her with tiny gestures, cheap porcelain kittens given at Christmas to match her octet of living ones. Patsy places Francene’s gifts in the living room, under the plastic Christmas tree that she never takes down, set up when she was more mobile.
When the knock comes again, she wonders if one of her occasional benefactors is making a rare house call. Maria, most likely, though she hardly stops by anymore, and she can’t keep from wrinkling her nose when she does. No one ever asks if she wants to live with this stink, no one ever offers to help. She can’t afford in-home care. They look at the stains on the carpet, the turds on the floor, and assume this is something she wants. And if she asks for help, that leads to the cold stares, to the questions, Why do you keep so many cats? Can’t you get rid of them? She doesn’t dare ask for help.
The knock again.
Who is it? she yells, commencing her struggle to get out of bed. Her crutches haven’t slipped out of reach, that’s a good start.
Muffled through the door, It’s me, Miss Hale.
Francene and Clive’s boy has kept his word. He’s really at the door. The depth of her shock can’t be sounded, especially after all that commotion last night, noises like firecrackers and police cars parked out front, their blue rollers bathing the street in submarine light.
She wonders what that was about. She wonders if it’s safe to have that boy on her doorstep. She wonders if Benjamin watched last night, what he saw.
He knocks again. I’m coming, she says, you’ll have to wait.
Getting dressed is an ordeal that requires careful coordination. In forty-five minutes, she is clad in slacks, shoes, an oversized, faded floral-print blouse, and rolling her halting way to the door. She hasn’t heard a peep from Shaun, but when she peers through the spyhole, there he is, standing at the top of her ramp, those piercing green eyes gazing off into nowhere, a slight frown creasing his forehead.
Her voice quavers slightly as she unlocks the door. Bless you for being so patient.
Not a problem, Patsy. He slips inside, closing the door behind him, deftly maneuvering around her wheelchair. She rotates the machine to see where he goes but he just stands in the middle of the living room, doesn’t raise his eyebrows at the Christmas tree, doesn’t show any sign he notices the reek.
What a lovely house, he says.
Patsy starts. She could swear that when he spoke, the voice she heard was Francene’s. Yet the illusion breaks when he speaks again. I can get started if you show me where you keep your cleaning supplies.
They’re in the kitchen, beside the sink. You’ll see them right away.
He doesn’t move. Actually, before I get started, there’s something I want to talk to you about.
Now she understands. He wants what everyone wants: to make a confession. Yet still her unease grows, blood rushing in the parts of her that still have functioning nerves to feel. Well, anytime, Shaun.
This isn’t easy for me. He takes a deep breath. Maybe you can show me around the place, give me a little tour, so I can see what needs to be done. While I think about how to start. It’s a painful subject.
And raw pain wrenches in his voice. Patsy doesn’t know what to say other than, Okay, then.
Go ahead, I’ll follow you, he says.
Well, okay. There’s not much to see. I don’t use the basement much.
He doesn’t laugh at her joke. His red-rimmed eyes glisten.
Oh, Shaun, she says, what is it?
He just shakes his head. She finally pushes the lever to guide the chair toward the hall, and from there into the kitchen. Beneath her the floor creaks. Something is egregiously wrong about all this, his unprecedented frankness, his claims to want to make amends, his presence here so early, but she can’t deny that he’s genuinely upset over something. In fact, behind her, he’s starting to sob.
The kitchen linoleum is as filthy as the living room carpet. Three of her babies hunch under the table, mute witnesses with wide slit-pupil eyes, eager for morsels and charity. Were she alone, they would have it.
She’s almost afraid to speak. He’s crying behind her. Whimpering. Maybe she should suggest he leave, but she doesn’t have the heart. I do have a table in here with a couple extra chairs. I don’t use them much, but maybe you could…sit down?
Then her head snaps back as he shoves her out of the chair, as her chin smashes against the floor, her mouth blooming with agony as she bites her tongue.
She’s spitting blood as he flips her onto her back as if she’s no more than a porcelain doll. Her babies all pitter-patter away in panic as he straddles her stomach. The sounds coming out of him—he’s bawling like a child with his hand slammed in a door.
His face. The skin of his face is sliding loose. And there’s another face underneath. And that too is peeling along a previously invisible seam, splitting to reveal yet another layer that starts to slide free as soon as it’s exposed.
He’s not heavy, not a big man, but her traitor muscles can’t help her, she can never hope to get out from underneath. Her blows against him are kitten-weak and she hates that even more than she hates him.
He claws at his throat, which splits open at the Adam’s apple. His sobs don’t stop as he draws out something like a kerchief that expands into a sack, into a limp mask. He bends toward her, with this mask clutched beneath his sloughing face as if it’s a bag on a necklace, and the mask’s mouth is shaping silent words. The face, it’s familiar, she would know it if it weren’t so distended, if her mind were not on fire with fear and pain.
He shakes the mask. Bright beads fall from its mouth, eyes, into his cupped hand.
He jerks her up by her collar and shoves his hand with its fistful of bright crawling motes down her blouse. She wails up at him in outrage as her aching chest goes numb. Beneath the peeling onion of his face, the gasping girl mask opens its mouth in a silent scream that mirrors hers as he rips her blouse open, the fabric tearing like tissue paper.
The bright beads have arranged themselves in rows down her heaving ribs. They look like buttons, multihued buttons of all shapes and sizes, but they also look like living things, beetles or ticks, aligning themselves along invisible seams.
His fingers trace those seams. As he gropes, his breath hitches, somewhere deep inside the ruin of his head.
She cannot be seeing what she is seeing. Her flesh parting under his manipulations as if he’s unfastening another blouse.
She swallows a copper gob of blood. Why?
I can’t fight them, he sobs. It’s what they want. I can’t stop.
Barry winces as he gets out of the gleaming Volvo he can’t actually afford and limps the six yards from his driveway to his house, still dressed in the sweater and button-down he wore during the early morning forecast.
Sometimes his face aches from the smile he has to hold steady the entire time the cameras are at risk of rolling. He kept it on through the 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. shows. Even sat there grinning beside the anchor, her adipose-padded hips safely hidden behind the counter on the set, as she rattled off a sad script about a young single mom and her daughter reporting missing yesterday, and how police wanted to question her ex-boyfriend, a doozy of a catch with an easily checked-on criminal record who vanished without a trace from a rehab center just days ago.
That poor woman and her kid, last seen at a school play, probably already dead at the hands of psycho Romeo. How is it that people never have their guard up, never recognize the signs, he wonders.
Of course, the cheerful weatherman act was even trickier this morning, thanks to that beautiful peacock of a hookup from the night before. An exquisite young buck from the club with plush pouty lips and not an ounce of cellulite on his slender frame, with cheekbones high and sleek as an elf’s. But he’d pleaded an over-reactive gag reflex, insisted on sucking and chewing only on the very tip of Barry’s cock and making up for it with his hands. Oh, they did the trick, yes – his thighs were still sore—but he’d also woken up with the tip of his penis bruised purple as a plum. He had to look forward to an entire day pretending in front of a camera that every step wasn’t accompanied by an excruciating pinch of pain.
Ordinarily, he would head straight for the basement and the free weights, to pass the couple hours before he had to drive back and prepare the noon forecast. Instead, he fills a sock full of ice from the fridge and climbs straight to bed. He doesn’t know if the ice will help, but he has to try.
He lies there in a fugue, mind shifting between the day’s labor and the not at all unpleasant memory of the face of that evil Adonis bobbing at his groin. He sits up with a yell when the scratching at the window starts.
Obscured by the shade, there’s a dark shape in the window’s bottom corner that could be the curve of a head in silhouette.
Get out of here, he hears. Get in your car and never come back here.
Barry’s window is at the back of his house, on the second floor. There’s no deck, no tree, nothing below it to stand on for support. And Patsy …
I’m sharing a secret, she says. He wants to fight it but he can’t stop. He’s too weak. You have to go.
He springs to the window, jerks the shade handle. It slams up onto its roll, flapping hard against the wall, one, two, three.
Nothing out there but the sun dappling his tool shed and the tiny square of his vegetable garden.
Before he gets back in his car, he notices a curtain moving in Clive and Francene’s bedroom window next door, the fabric stirring as if caught by a breeze, even though the sash is closed.
Late for work, Maria freezes with the side door to the carport half open. Clive stands by her Hyundai, clean-shaven in a short-sleeve button down and tie, face vacant as a zombie’s.
Then he sees her, and that square-cornered grin of his brings all his smile lines out.
Inside her the spike of alarm melts, and for a moment she doesn’t care that they’re out in the open. Oh, baby, she says, where you been?
His smile falters. I’m so sorry I haven’t been in touch. I swear, that crazy kid’s going to be the death of me.
No he won’t. You’ll get through to him. She knows this role, the comforter. She’s played it for him many a time. She locks the door behind her. Your timing’s terrible, I have to get to the restaurant, I’m going to be late.
I know, I just … I had to get out of there a minute. I had to see you. He stares hard at the ground as he says this.
Now she’s beside him. He happens to be blocking her driver’s side door. It’s okay baby. I was worried, really worried, you’ve been silent as the grave. I just can’t do this right this minute. She holds up her car keys in a clear I’m-about-to-unlock-the-door gesture. He doesn’t move, just studies her face. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down above the knot of his tie, as if there’s a word stuck there that won’t come out.
Um, baby? I have to go.
He reaches up, strokes a warm finger under her jawline. She leans into his hand out of reflex a split second before her brain kicks in. Then she recoils. Clive, what the hell are you doing?
He grabs her shoulders, pulls her in for a kiss.
He’s never done this before, not this way, and not where everyone can see. His fingers dig in hard enough to bruise, and with a hiss she punches him in the solar plexus. Jesus fucking Christ!
Her knuckles sting from the impact. He doesn’t flinch but he lets go.
What the hell are you thinking? You want Francene to see?
She’s never seen his face assume a configuration like this before, a snake flickering its tongue above a quivering mouse. You really think she doesn’t know, Maria?
For a moment, his eyes are green, like his son’s, like Francene’s. She blinks and they’re dark brown, like they should be.
She grips her ignition key like she’s holding a knife. I need to go.
She vowed a long time ago not to let men bully her any more, not to let them use her, not when she has a choice. She’s not going to tolerate this kind of bullshit, not anymore, least of all from Clive. She’ll do what she has to do, even if it hurts.
He’s not moving. For a breath-stopping moment she’s certain she’ll have to make good on her threat. Then he shudders, and gives way.
A higher power blesses her at that instant, keeps her from fumbling at the lock, lets her hop into the driver’s seat in a fluid motion without ever having to look at him, even though he’s just inches away. She pulls the switch that locks all the doors.
As the car coughs to life, he starts shouting. Maria, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
She floors the accelerator, screeches straight out of the driveway. At the end of the street she checks her side mirror. He’s still standing in the same spot.
Binoculars pressed against the window, Benjamin witnesses the whole brouhaha, Clive the Perfect Husband attempting to draw Maria the Single Mom into a kiss right there on the front lawn, his not-so-secret lover-on-the-side responding by thrashing out of his grip and holding her car keys like she intends to stab him in the eye.
Obviously having Junior home has pushed Mr. Perfect Husband and Father over the edge. Benjamin can’t help but feel little thrills, of titillation, of anticipation.
It makes up some for not having seen Patsy out and about today despite the sunny glow outside. It’s not time for her to call yet, though. When she does, he’ll learn what’s happened, what new twist in her ailment has laid her low. And he’ll listen as if he’s interested, because sometimes one must make an investment to keep the returns you want coming in.
Clive the Perfect stands in the driveway as his mistress zooms off. This Benjamin can actually hear, the sulky tramp lead-footing the engine. Surely all that noise has brought meek little Francene or even wild son Shaun who caused all that police ruckus last night to come to a window, to see.
Maybe they’ll have a confrontation right in the street. Benjamin can only hope.
He watches Maria’s car disappear around the corner at the far end of the circle, then turns his attention back to Wayward Daddy.
Who is staring right back at him.
Benjamin utters a little girly shriek and stumbles back from the window.
Then he pulls himself together, because it could only have been coincidence. He did not see Clive the Perfect Father with a smile like a serpent about to swallow a nest of eggs, looking not at his house or even at his window but right at him, meeting his single-eye gaze across the distance. It did not happen. No one ever looks at him in the slit between the bay window curtains. He’s never caught the neighbors doing more than idly scanning what little of the overgrown yard they could see behind his fence.
He returns to the pane, puts binoculars to the glass.
And finds himself looking right into bright green eyes, glistening mad eyes, eyes like aurora fire.
Clive hasn’t moved an inch, except he has to have moved, and with astonishing speed. Because it’s not the father standing there now, in his bland blue button-down, it’s the son, the drug addict, in an unwashed black print t-shirt, standing in the exact same spot in Maria’s driveway, in the exact same hands-in-the-pockets pose, staring at Benjamin with the exact same predatory smile.
Where has the father gone? Benjamin doesn’t know and he never finds out. He can’t look away from those green eyes. Seconds turn into minutes.
Shaun winks. And blows Benjamin a kiss.
And the old man cries out, and pulls the curtains shut.
Lance doesn’t understand the place where he’s been, or the condition he now finds himself in.
If his mind ever connected to the concept of a card catalog, he might have explained the raw sensations in those terms—he had been as a sheet of flesh compressed against other sheets in a claustrophobic drawer, waiting for fingers to pull open the narrow space, page through the pink membranes of exposed nerves. But Lance lacks the vocabulary to explain how it felt, just as he has no words to articulate how awareness, sight, smell and hearing have returned to him as abruptly as a sack pulled over his face.
He stares at the ominous circular grill directly over his head for several seconds before his addled brain tells him it’s in fact the cover over a drain set in a concrete floor. Though his eyes tell him he must be hanging upside down, he feels no corresponding upset of balance. When he tries to bend his neck, he learns something doesn’t work right. It’s like his muscles find no spine to pull or push against, but his gaze swivels enough to see a water heater, a tool bench, saws and hammers hanging on a wall-mounted peg board.
Somewhere, perhaps in another room, the sound of a tea kettle boiling to a whistle, quickly subsiding as a hand removes it from the stove.
He doesn’t know if he should call out or keep quiet. He tries to look up at the ceiling, find out what the hell he’s hanging from, but he can’t make himself bend. His back, his arms, his legs—none of these things cooperate.
Unbidden he remembers something awkward, something awful. Hanging upside-down in a smoke-filled bedroom, his mountain of a father dangling him, crushing both ankles together in a sandpaper-rough hand. Lance was tiny then, so tiny, and when his father used his free hand to punch him in the back, the fist that struck him was almost as wide as he was. He wailed like a siren, wailed red-faced at his momma sitting on the bed, who took the cigarette out of her mouth to say, Hit him again! The impact felt like it cracked him in half, and when he screamed his momma yelled, Shut him up! Again!
When the mist clears from his eyes he connects with a start that he’s in a utility room, just a plain old utility room like any you’d find in the houses all through this neighborhood where he’s lived all his life. Those blocky things in the darkness beneath the lowered shade are just a washer and dryer, those jars on the shelves across from him hold nothing more than jam and canned beans.
A door opens somewhere he can’t see, and the overhead light clicks on. Someone pads into the room. Lance tries again to turn his head, can’t. Then he tries to call out, but he can only push out air, no matter what he tries to say, Hey or Help me down or Who are you or You fucker.
Striped athlete’s socks, no shoes, slender legs covered in blond fuzz, white boxers, the bottom hem of a black T-shirt. A hand gripping a large silver stovetop kettle, thumb fiddling with the lever that controls the lid over the spout, making it open and snap shut. The bastard stands that way, the spout not inches from Lance’s nose, flicking the lid open and shut, muttering something Lance can’t quite hear.
His course of action ought to be a no-brainer. Knock that kettle away, grab hold of the little fuck however he can with his own massive hands, twist with arms thick as his puny captor’s legs, hell, tear the freak’s balls off if that’s what it takes, make him weep, make him beg, make him Let me down!
But he does nothing of the sort—the most he manages to do is sort of tremble in place.
Now is when it occurs to him to be afraid.
And even that feels all wrong. His heart should be freaking in its ribcage like an inmate with the DTs. Instead he feels an unnatural and sickening chill, like ice is cracking underneath his chin.
The guy bends down to look him in the eye. It’s Shaun, staring with wild green eyes. His hair is matted, bird’s-nest crazy, as if he hasn’t slept in years. And there’s something wrong with his face, not just that the pussy’s been crying, but his skin looks like it’s straining, on the verge of bursting.
It isn’t enough, he says. Don’t try to tell me it’s enough. It isn’t enough. He deserves so much worse. So much worse than what we can do. Don’t tell me it’s enough. Don’t tell me what to fucking do, I want this, I want this.
He grabs Lance by the hair and lifts his head. Lance’s head and shoulders shouldn’t be able to bend and fold the way that they do.
His eyes tell him things. He doesn’t understand or accept them.
His eyes show him that he’s hanging from nothing more substantial than clothesline strung from the bare ceiling rafters. Something is wrong with his skin. It’s loose, neither stretched by muscle nor distended by belly fat. His eyes tell him he has no arms—they’re simply not there. His body truncates at the waist, no cock, no legs. Odd black pins clip him to the clothesline. If his eyes are to be believed, he’s hanging like a pillowcase of empty hide in the drug addict’s basement.
For a second, his captor looks him in the eye, face peeling like wet wallpaper.
The kid lets him go, and his head flops down so he’s staring at the drain again.
Shaun walks around him, still talking. So he never did this. That makes me an innovator. Taking things to the next level. Shaun stops behind him, tugs at him, tugs at his back, where he can’t defend himself.
Now Lance is really struggling to form words, saying Don’t, don’t, Daddy don’t …
Tell me if this hurts, the addict says.
Then the water sluices in, poured through the opening at his waist, scalding him from the inside out. It burns worse than a hand on the burner, than a blowtorch in the throat, gushing through his empty insides, and he screams and screams, but only water pours out, searing his tongue, searing his nostrils, cooking his eyes like eggs as it leaks out through the corners of his eyelids.
You can’t control the whole, but you can control its pieces. You can break off parts, you can make them long for a voice to scream with. You’ve never loved loss of control so much, you’re high on it, laughing as the tornado lifts you.
Surely a sin eater can also sin. You say it to yourself, over and over, despite the whispers of alarm deep within. Eventually all those whispers shift along the spectrum, no longer voices in unison, no one could understand their thousandfold overlapping syllables, especially not you.
Maria has too much to think about when she gets home.
The confrontation with Clive really rattled her, has her pacing through the house, paying only half-attention to her evening routines as she rehearses how she’ll tell him she never wants to hear from him again.
She’s only indulged their clandestine trysts this long because he’s been so sweet to her, oftentimes the only help on hand when she really needs it. And he’s smart in a way that most of the men who chase her generally aren’t. She never sought out a relationship with a married man, but she fell for him anyway. Her feelings are what they are and she knows the good things in life are fleeting, so she enjoys them when she can.
And she knows that as soon as something goes bad it must be thrown away. No matter what excuse he concocts.
So many men are just like children. They push boundaries. It took her a few bouts with abuse too many to learn that lesson, but boy has she learned it.
She ditched graduating high school to become a wealthy older man’s toy, to learn a toy’s life is torture when one’s owner never lets you out of the box and never wants you to ask what he does while you’re trapped inside alone. The bad boy who helped her escape turned out to be even worse, a charming wild-man guitar player with a heart-melting grin and a honey tongue, who’d get her drunk and stoned and show off what he could make her do, with other men, with other women, with people watching. And then Ralph the disc jockey, who turned out to be the worst of all, like marrying Hitler disguised as Casanova. The only thing worthwhile that came from all of it was Davey. For her son, she’d do anything.
Everyone else could go to Hell, and if Hell came for her and her boy, she’d stand in the fire and hold him out of reach of the flames.
She’s wandered into Davey’s room, the one he uses on weekends. She sits on his bed with its Spiderman-patterned comforter, idly thumbs through the books stacked on his short metal bookshelf. Bartholomew and the Oobleck. He’s a little old for that one now. Alice in Wonderland. Something Wicked This Way Comes. That’s a little better. Bulfinch’s Mythology. She’s wondered if that would be too fat and wordy for him, but he loves it, loves those old tales of weird Greek heroes and gods and goddesses always doing terrible things to each other, just like life.
What was the one they read together that punched her so hard in the gut? The musician and his wife. Orpheus.
No man was ever going to lure her down into the dark and trap her there, accident or no. She thinks of Clive again, starts telling him to go fuck himself a hundred different ways, then snaps out of it. Laundry. All her uniforms are dirty. Laundry, now.
There’s a note taped to the basement door. She doesn’t recognize the handwriting. A woman’s, curvy and meticulous. It just says, I know now.
She freezes as if every drop of blood in her body changed to ice crystal.
Who the fuck has been in my house, she thinks, although the message itself points to one particular person, which is impossible because Clive doesn’t have a key to her house. She learned never to make that mistake again many years ago.
With a slow-motion avalanche of denial at war in her mind with an inferno of curiosity, she opens the door.
When she spies the heap at the foot of the basement stairs, at first she thinks it’s a pile of clothes, and she wonders how it got there, because Davey’s with his father.
Another step down after flipping on the light and her confusion grows, because these are women’s clothes, but not like anything she herself has ever worn. A no-nonsense, non-revealing skirt and a clean, pristine blouse, when she is totally a jeans-and-T-shirt person, if even that formal.
The disconnect resolves itself when she takes her next step, and she understands someone is wearing these clothes, someone lying motionless at the bottom of the stairs.
Down a slow step further and she realizes she knows who it is, recognizes the outfit. Francene, who is always at home, because Clive makes enough she doesn’t have to work. She’s had any number of reasons, ranging from seething envy to sympathetic pity, to give Francene more than casual scrutiny on multiple occasions.
It looks for all the world like Francene is lying with her head wedged under the bottom step.
The illusion doesn’t come apart until Maria stands on the bottom step and softly calls Francene’s name. When no response comes she toes the other woman’s arm with her slipper, and the body shifts.
She appeared to have her head wedged under the step because her shoulders were flush against it. Francene’s head is missing.
What’s even stranger about it, what pushes Maria right past the need to scream, leaves her sitting silent with mind in freefall, is the sheer absurdity of the fatal wound—or lack thereof. Francene’s starched collar doesn’t encircle a gory stalk of severed neck. Instead it reveals an expanse of smooth skin, as if Maria’s unknowing romantic rival had never had a head, was somehow born without one.
Immediately Maria convinces herself that she’s the victim of a prank and her own overactive imagination. She grabs an arm of the dummy and her fingers circle flesh that’s still warm, still has a pulse.
The next thing she knows she’s on the floor herself, back against the cinder-block wall in the furnace room, kicking at headless Francene, who does nothing in response but flop and loll. The shrieks ringing in her ears are no doubt her own.
A rap on the basement window startles her into new silence.
The squat window in question is set high in the wall above the dryer. On the outside of the house, the sill of that window is set in a shallow concrete well, its floor about six inches below ground level. Shadows move outside that could be legs and feet, someone in the backyard retreating from the window, impossible to tell in the dark.
There’s another note, taped to the window. She can see writing. WE NEED TO TALK—in the same hand she saw before, that neat feminine cursive.
She should call the police.
She can’t. Her cursed brain shows her the consequences all too clearly.
Her rival’s still-living headless body lies sprawled at the foot of her basement stairs. Either Clive or his son left her there. One of them is responsible for Francene’s state, somehow. She doesn’t understand what’s happened to Francene, she knows that she’s alive, somehow, and that means there’s hope. Whatever has been done, she doesn’t understand it, but she needs it undone.
She can’t call the police.
She could have before, and she didn’t. When Denise showed up on her stoop crying late one night, wanting to talk. Maria will never forget the conversation they had over warm tea that graduated to straight shots of Jack, as Denise spilled her guts about things that happened in that house. She made Maria promise never to tell.
It weighs like a hot brick inside that she kept that promise. But the consequences of breaking it are too painful to think about.
The loud-mouthed father of her sweet little bookworm of a son already has far too much power. What would happen to her life, if she exposed this squirming mess? How would Ralph exploit it?
She can’t give up. For Davey’s sake, she needs this fixed.
But she’s not completely without her senses.
When she crosses over to Clive’s house, nonchalant as if she’s planning to borrow a bag of sugar, there’s a little extra pressure in the front hip pocket of her jeans, a gift from one of her previous paramours, a big-bellied trucker with a wicked sense of humor and too much of a mean streak to be a keeper.
The gift: a silvery folding knife with molded black grips and a ten-pound spring that causes it to flip open and lock with the speed of a switchblade when she depresses a button with her thumb. Hardly an assurance of even odds—Clive owns guns. And there’s Francene’s body, still living somehow without its head. She can’t comprehend how something like that is possible, can’t deal with it in any rational way, so she just doesn’t.
All the neighborhood’s cookie-cutter houses gleam ghostly in the lamplight. The street is empty. Somewhere down the cross-street, a kid shouts, a basketball bounces on a driveway.
Upstairs, to her right, in the room where Denise slept, the curtain moves. A face glimpsed.
Francene? Francene’s head?
She watches her finger push the doorbell as if she’s dreaming. Footsteps on the other side, but no one answers.
She hears Clive call. It’s open.
She hasn’t set foot in this house in years. Hasn’t dared.
As promised, the door’s unlocked. Inside the house is pristine as ever, shoes arranged neat as soldiers on the split-level landing, a wooden plaque carved with the words Our Lovely Home mounted above the short stairwell to the basement, and to the side, above another plaque that reads Home Is Family, hangs a huge photo of the family in their younger years, Denise in her softball uniform, Shaun in glasses and an Izod shirt, Clive in a sweater and Francene in a pink blouse with puffy sleeves.
Maria regards them all, their phony smiles. Clive, what the hell is going on?
A noise from downstairs, a creak, something banging on a metal surface, and a wet sound she can’t quite place.
As she descends the stairs, more homilies await on the walls. God bless this house. Home is where the heart is. Forgive us our trespasses.
The door to the utility room stands ajar. That odd, wet flopping sound wafts through it. She contemplates pulling out the knife, decides against it.
Through the door, past the furnace, and at first she’s puzzled by what she sees hanging from the short clothesline attached to the ceiling beams.
Her mind translates it as a large, shapeless sack of untanned leather, with a swarm of something inside it, making it twitch and ripple up and down its length in a truly disgusting way. Insects? Mice? The creaks come from the clothesline cord as the thing’s weight tugs and shifts, the bangs occur when the cord snaps up against a metal air duct.
When she steps closer, the sack shivers even more violently. Her stomach knots as she notices the thing is leaking, a thick, foamy, snot-like string dripping out a hole at its tapered bottom. A hole that looks disturbingly like a mouth. With lips that stretch and contract.
She can make out more features. Nostrils. Ears. There are eyes. Rolling to stare at her as the drooling mouth shapes words.
She recoils, and bumps into someone standing right behind her.
A warm envelope of red, glistening flesh engulfs her head. A bear hug crushes her arms to her sides, and what feels like another arm crooks around her neck. She kicks, kicks, kicks as she’s dragged upstairs.
one stitch loosens
A voice, louder than the others. Not her.
Her struggle ends when she’s hurled like a Barbie doll thrown in a tantrum. She lands on a mattress.
Maria wants to laugh. She’s in the master bedroom, sprawled on Clive and Francene’s king-size bed, with its layers upon layers of floral comforters, its pillows color-coordinated to anal-retentive perfection.
The ceiling is riddled with bullet holes.
Shaun bars the way between her and the doorway, eyes bulged, teeth bared in an extraordinary grimace. Tears slick his cheeks. Snot globs his vestigial mustache. He’s panting so hard, it’s like his whole body is pulsing.
She scrambles away from him, to the opposite corner, between Francene’s delicate white dresser and an immense oak wardrobe.
The boy thumps his chest with a fist. You belong in here.
No I don’t, she says. What the fuck’s wrong with you?
Everything, he says, his voice breaking.
She’s on her feet in the narrow space between bed and wall, wardrobe and dresser. He’s crossing by the foot of the bed, moving toward her as he claws at his throat with both hands, his lips stretched in an agonized rictus.
Stay away, she says, and flicks the knife open.
He looses a sob, and steps closer.
You’re a forlorn cry of despair, echoing and echoing down through the spirals of flesh and darkness.
You’re an ant atop a mountain crawling with severed and recombined horrors, the mountain itself built on layers of half-mad, half-alive remains. You’re battling against other fanged and pincered mites as the entire mass beneath you begins to move.
As legs kick. As arms scrabble. As skin inches and bunches and slithers. The coils of the tapestry plunge deep, deeper than anything remembers, so many strata crushed one onto the other, all sewn together with the darkest magic, all alive.
You are the cork shaking loose above a building geyser of hunger. A thin membrane that swells, ruptures, leaks.
You are staring at the parasite who drained your father’s love away, your husband’s sperm away, and as you reach for your thronging faerie beads, your black magic buttons, your ultimate drug of choice, other fingers pluck at yours, other wills rip at yours, other longings disrupt yours, and the bright motes slip into the cracks inside you and scuttle the wrong way.
Your father’s voice, cutting against the grain of yours. Not her.
And other heads lift inside the coils of this endless, overloaded patchwork of stolen sin and severed lives. Uncounted mouths cry out, even as voices both yours and not yours hiss in your ear.
Somewhere inside you a little girl wails.
And you’re in a fight to keep your own mind intact as a multitude strains for freedom, pushing and pulling in all directions from their places in the quilt. The only thing these fragments have in common is appetite.
You are the head torn almost free, dangling by a shred of flesh no thicker than a thread.
You are the pattern that can no longer hold.
Through the gap in his throat something bulges, another mouth, whispering not her not her not her …
Shaun screams and lurches forward another step.
Even his eyes split, another pair bubbling up behind them.
Backed up against the wall, Maria has forgotten to breathe. Forgotten she has a heartbeat. Forgotten she has a weapon.
Beneath his clothes, beneath his skin, Shaun’s flesh is swelling.
Just as with his face, his forearms begin to split.
Inside his left arm, there’s another mouth, and it starts screaming too. In Patsy’s voice. Run, Maria! He can’t control it!
The thing that was Shaun gasps NO! and stumbles closer.
Get away, she says, but she can’t even hear her own voice over the many, many others that join Patsy’s, yammering over top of her. Run run help me not her help me RUN …
Worst of all, she hears the ear-shredding screams of a terrified little girl.
Folds of skin slide out from underneath Shaun’s shirt, from inside his sleeves, pour out like foam from an overflowing cup.
His face is a shattered nesting doll, a peeling onion of mouths and eyes. His arms, too, peeling back like corn husks as he reaches toward her, his soft shell rolling back to reveal clots of squirming fingers, gobs of knotted flesh between them mushrooming out into even more faces, the empty eye sockets abruptly filling with eyes, bright mites flowing through the creases between the tumorous blooms.
He’s filling the space between wardrobe and bed, sealing her in. She peels herself out of her paralysis, stabs him in what’s left of his face.
The knife sticks in his molting forehead as if plunged in a grapefruit. It draws no blood. Above and below it, his head yawns apart. The knife slips into the widening hole and vanishes somewhere inside him.
She scrambles onto the bed, flailing pillows out of the way as every bit of Shaun’s mutating body begins to unwind.
He comes undone, a thing made of unreeling tapestries, every panel sewn together from writhing, bleating human remains, every single tortured sheet unrolling.
You belong here. The words waft out of his partitioning face before the length of his body splits and yawns wide open.
One of the thousand voices she hears screaming must be her own.
What had been a body, however chimerical, is now a tunnel gaping down into another space, a spiraling channel into somewhere completely outside the confines of reality, its walls formed of peeling patches of skin knitted and merged in suppurating layers, of thrashing limbs, of lolling heads, of flopping genitals, of twisting intestines and latticed bone, all fused in brain-bending Picasso distortion.
She could laugh. She does laugh. The thing fills half the room, every part of it like a window shade flapping open, like fleshy tongues of carpet unrolling, speeding to a blur, every new fractalling tendril opening out and uncoiling, spewing even more patchworks of flesh. The babble of voices echoing out of that otherwordly tunnel of fused-together body parts has reached such a crescendo that she can no longer make out any individual one.
Somehow she’s crawled backward onto the floor by the bedroom door, as a curtain of swarming skin covers the ceiling in a single motion like the tossing of a sheet, as a twisting tendril of flesh slithers out from beneath the bed, its tip opening in a polyp of arms that rises to embrace her.
She scrambles backward into the hall. The tendril formed of grasping arms lashes at her like a striking snake. Her cries have moved beyond words.
She’s up and running, down the hall, down the stairs, out the door, into the night.
Outside, the bright streetlights cast the neighborhood in friendly amber. In the distance, Maria hears traffic. Closer, the springboard sound of a basketball hitting a backboard, the game she heard before continuing into the night, in someone’s floodlit driveway.
From the house behind her, not a sound.
A pickup truck turns onto the street, pulls up to the curb by the first house on the right, engine idling. The headlights momentarily blind her—she steps hesitantly out of Clive and Francene’s yard, feeling as if she just woke from a nightmare to discover she’s been sleepwalking.
She can see redhead Jillian and her peach-fuzz bearded boyfriend, necking in the cab of the truck right where Jillian’s grandma could see her if she chose to look.
She wants to warn them but her mind can’t wrap around what to warn them about. What did she see in that house? Did she see anything at all? Her heart could be sprinting in place.
The house stands silent, front door sensibly shut, lights on behind the dark curtains in the windows.
A rustling catches her ear, and she backpedals to the road until she can see its source. Clive and Francene have a juniper beside their house that they’ve allowed to grow up until its crown crops just beneath their bedroom window. The branches are waving back and forth, ever so slightly—but even as her heart attempts to leap into her mouth, she can feel the quickening breeze.
A new flicker of motion makes her glance back up at the living room window, on the second floor, on the left side of the house, above a neatly trimmed hedge of cedars, black boxes in the night illumination. Again, the curtain in that window moves. Is moving.
Maria peers closer. The way the fabric is moving.
What she sees in the window, illuminated by the truck headlights, is a continuous glistening sheet, sliding up the glass. It flexes and expands until the window goes black.
Maria backs away as the rustling in the trees grows louder, joined by new noises from the back yard, as something starts moving in the hedges that shield the basement windows.
An exit plan is forming in her head. Get back to her house, grab her keys, get to her car, roar as far away from this place as possible, pausing only to pick up Davey from his father’s apartment. She’ll take him by force if she has to, somehow. And then just keep driving. What’s one waitress job? She can always get another. And she’s blessed enough that she can always find a place to live, even if it means shacking up with someone disposable for a while.
A voice whispers, Maria.
She can’t tell from where.
She’s off at a sprint.
When the telephone rings, it’s as if a banshee breaks the silence in Benjamin’s dank cavern of a house.
He’s lain in his own bed under the covers most of the day, shivering, but not because of any cold. He wants the courage to spit in those green eyes that sought him out in his hidey-hole. He wants the courage, the rage, to say to that smugly predatory face, You have no right, to seize that smug head in his bare hands and squeeze that all-too-knowing stare out of existence with his thumbs.
He wants to put the bricks back in the wall that’s been blasted through. But the most he has the strength to do is hide and hope the rock he’s under gets left alone.
The phone shocks him out of his withdrawal. He’s so deeply shaken, San Andreas fault shaken, that he’s only in the most passing way noticed that Patsy’s afternoon call never came. He has not wondered why, or what might be wrong.
Patsy. He needs to ask her what’s gone on down there, why Shaun the Drug Addict has taken notice of him.
The phone continues to shrill, a deafening nag worse than any his long-gone mother had to offer him.
He pads into the kitchen with increasing hurry, so used to the dark he navigates without need to see his way, wanting as much to quiet that hideous ringing as to hear from his partner in spying on the neighborhood’s sad dregs.
The receiver is cold in his grip. When he picks it up the noise is astonishing, like someone’s called him from a room where everyone is shouting.
The volume dims as he places it to his ear, but as he speaks Hello! Hello! into the phone, it takes many seconds before he can hear Patsy talking to him.
Her voice sounds strange in the receiver, like she’s having trouble breathing. And even once he can make her out she’s hard to hear. Though he can’t fathom why, she’s whispering, even though it sounds like she’s still in a crowded room, a cocktail party where hundreds of people are speaking softly.
What? he asks.
You have to come to the window, the woman’s voice whispers. You won’t believe your eye.
If he could still breathe, Lance would breathe a sigh of relief when the bright motes stitch him back into the seamless sheet of the greater body.
He’s never been a beast of strong will or secure mind, governed from childhood by primal, petty instincts, a creature crushed beneath his father, forced to grow unnaturally in what little space remained under that flabby oppression. He has no identity to clutch to beyond the scrub of hate, cannot hold his own against the torrent and doesn’t even try.
And yet in the expanding corpus of the quilt, hunger trumps all, and the desires of its individual parts become guiding urges, adding eddies to the current, that scrabble and claw into tributaries.
Perhaps it’s only chance that his gibbering remains are among those disassembled and rearranged segments that push out through the crack in the utility room window.
Yet as he and his companions slither as one across the weatherman’s backyard, grope not quite blindly toward his own home, this tributary of fused-together flesh gains momentum, gains purpose, speeding even faster as he leads the squeeze through the hairline gap beneath the garage door, faster yet as he tracks the muted sounds of emphysema-roughened moans and animal grunts.
He finds them naked in the den, their shriveled, sagging flesh bared and animated with full rut, his mother on the couch on all fours, his father kneeling behind her, red-faced, veins bulging in his neck just as they did during a prelude to a beating.
Neither has time to squawk a syllable as the tide washes over them, as Lance’s hands find his mother’s neck, as his mouth locks with his father’s mouth.
The bright motes unbind them and Lance is inside his mother and father and both are inside and part of him, and all the pathetic and mean secrets they kept from one another are known for one brief moment before they’re all absorbed and swept away.
The higher powers are not smiling on Maria.
Neither her purse nor her keys are on the lamp table by the door where they’re supposed to be. Nor are they on the coffee table in front of the TV. Nor are they on the spare chair in the kitchen. What the hell did she do when she came home, before she found Francene’s body?
She finds them on the desk in Davey’s room, her keys glittering like stray treasure beside a stack of coloring books he hasn’t touched in years. She vaguely remembers thumbing through the books and daydreaming before heading down to start laundry.
She snatches the keys and she’s sprinting again, breath hissing through her nose. Her mind alights briefly on the headless not-corpse in the basement, regrets there’s no time to hide it, to somehow make it go away. But if someone finds it, if someone wants to ask her about it, so be it. If God really does love her she’ll be far away from here by this time next day, with Davey sleeping in the passenger seat.
She dashes outside, keeping her mind restricted to the practical, the need to leave, not letting herself dwell on the unexplainable. Stay focused, get away, get to Davey. One foot on the sidewalk, she pauses to wonder if she should bother locking the house. A hand waves to her from the grass alongside the driveway.
Her mind tells her someone’s lying there, though she sees no body. The arm waves again, protruding straight up from the ground, a pale, thick and disconcertingly lively flower.
A second arm lifts up nearby. And a third, this one terminating in a smooth knob at the wrist rather than a hand.
Someone else starts to scream.
The pickup truck’s shock absorbers groan and squeak as it rocks back and forth with tremendous force. A mass of churning, meaty darkness blots and flattens against the windows of the cab. The girl’s screams continue, muted underneath. The waving headlights sweep a road flooded with travesty, a boiling river of wet glistening eyes, gasping mouths, floundering limbs.
What the fuck!
From the house on Maria’s right, that boulder-muscled hulk of a cop has come out onto his front deck, his scalp reflecting white beneath the halo of his crew cut, wearing only his boxers, his coal black Glock 22 clutched with both fists.
Her own yard is smothered in serpentine motion. Inside the truck cab, the girl is still screaming, though her voice sounds like it’s coming from down a long hallway, someplace far distant. The passenger window rolls down and something pale and inhumanly long wiggles out of it.
The cop swears again. His gun cracks and flashes.
Hundreds of limbs, a forest of arms, rise up from the cop’s yard, from Maria’s, in eerie synchronicity. They sprout beside her car. They grope out from underneath it.
She hears a laugh, Shaun’s laugh. One of the arms holds up a pale bag of flesh that fills into a woman’s blond head. The woman whose body lies in her basement. Francene’s head bares teeth, her jaw unhinging to stretch her mouth in a baboon’s insane scream.
Maria runs straight toward Patsy’s house, where she saw no animated remains raise their hands. She aims for the treeline behind, the railroad tracks beyond.
Behind her, more gunfire.
Francene knows anger. She knows betrayal, she knows rage, she knows the urge to murder. For good or for ill, she has known these things for years, and kept them buried deep.
Now they’re all that’s left of her.
The thing that used to be her son claimed both her and her sham of a husband just hours after Clive brought him home from the rehab center. So funny, so funny, when he started wailing that he couldn’t resist any longer, they thought he meant the drugs. But, oh, the thing their boy was addicted to, one taste and hooked for life, it wasn’t drugs. Oh, how soon they learned.
Since then Francene has been nothing, a speck of plankton swallowed by the whale, not even a party to the cruel game of bait and lure to which her body had been put to use. Until this spark, this ignition that renders her a particle of positive charge, drawn with increasing power to a negative target.
When she was gobbled by the monster, her husband did nothing to keep it from happening, nothing to fight it, nothing.
When the monster came for Maria—he fought for her, used what was left of his will to delay the strike, buy her time to escape, break her son’s crumbling will. Not her. He fought for Maria.
Francene’s anger swells. Her hunger snowballs.
The prey is on the run.
The forest of arms bends toward Maria’s retreating back like flowers pursuing sunlight in time lapse. The pool of flesh gushes as the limbs swarm after her.
The bulk of the chaos she’s part of surges in ravenous bloodlust toward a different morsel but the impulse spreading through the tide of flesh has no hold on her. Francene rides her own frenzied engine, her wrath outpacing the momentum of the greater body. She hardly feels the plucks of stitches parting, nerves separating.
This time, her beautiful rival won’t be spared.
Benjamin can’t tear himself away from the window.
As Maria the Mistress runs, the Uniformed Wifebeater clutches his gun and wades into what looks from Benjamin’s perspective like churning floodwaters, only it’s too pale, too patchwork, too alive and deliberate in all its motion to be water or any other form of fluid.
Through the disc of his monocular vision the entire street seethes with twisted life. The mouth of Hell has vomited up all its squirming scrapple of damned.
The cop shoots again, shouting in a voice uncharacteristically high-pitched. The visual makes no sense at all: hands clutch at the cop’s waist like he’s a rock star attempting to stride across a crowd of rabid fans. Something like glitter sparks between the scrabbling fingers. Then the cop drops straight down as if a trap door opens under his feet, disappears up to his bare heaving chest in the chaos, shrieking nonstop as his arms flail wildly.
Then, as if he were an iceberg melting, his head, his shoulders, his muscle-knotted arms simply drift apart—one arm slapping the air, the other with the gun firing straight up, his face contorted like a pug, still shrieking, as each part drifts at speed in different directions, separated by feet, by yards, still moving, still alive.
I told you, a voice whispers. The best show of your life.
He drops his binoculars. They break on the hard oak floor.
A woman’s voice. Watching, always watching. Never one of us.
He peers back into his darkened cavern of a house. Patsy?
The woman laughs, softly, and her voice is joined by another, and another, a chorus of mockery.
We know all about you now.
Never one of us.
Always watching. Always peeping.
He thinks he hears weeping. He thinks he hears Patsy’s voice, a moan of warning. Something plucks at the hem of his dressing gown.
He cries out and stumbles back, into a host of waiting arms.
Lips press against his ear. Nasty little spy. You will never be one of us.
He’s yelling, Leave me alone, Leave me alone, and struggling against the hands that are all over him, palms sliding across his body, fingers digging in. There are mouths, teeth nipping pinches of flesh.
Never part of us. Simply … apart.
His feet leave the floor.
His gown torn away, his eye patch gone, arms squeezing him, pinning his own arms, fingers probing his mouth, his anus, his blind eye, squeezing his cock, his balls, his throat, grabbing fistfuls of his flab, more fingers grabbing at his tongue to replace the ones he bites through, stuffing his mouth as he tries to plead for mercy.
His joints are being bent the wrong way. The pressure, unrelenting, unbearable.
And the hands tighten their grips to stone-crushing force. And pull until they tear, as joints pop loose, as teeth force themselves through skin.
As Maria bolts past the fenced-in house where that weird recluse lives, a horrible noise rips from its dark depths, screams fed from a level of pain she’s never encountered in the whole of her life, never even been able to imagine. The very sound makes her want to weep and cover her ears.
When she reaches the treeline, they still haven’t stopped. She’s tuned them out. She has to. And she doesn’t notice at first that there’s another voice, screaming her name.
Her mind is racing far ahead of her wheezing body, thinking about what she needs to do once she’s on the railroad tracks, once she’s off them, who she’ll call and who she’ll recruit, how she’ll get to the apartment where the father of her child lives to snatch Davey up.
She doesn’t understand any of the things she’s seen over the past hour, doesn’t understand what happened to Shaun and Clive and Patsy, doesn’t need to. She knows she can’t go home, knows she can’t leave this town without her son, knows she can’t leave him vulnerable in a place where the pylons of reality have ripped free of the ocean floor.
She’s a survivor. Someone who lands in bad situations and then springs out again under her own power, whether it’s through the possessive clutches of a beefy, jealous boyfriend or through the snags of untrimmed brambles and disease-slimed trees with the mouth of Hell open behind her.
The fence guarding the rail yard has barbed wire strung along the top. Twenty years ago, she would have climbed it without thinking twice. Tonight the sight makes her hesitate, just for a second.
And now she can’t mistake the sound.
She turns to meet Francene’s green-eyed glare, not three feet away, illuminated by the rail yard lights, peering at her through the crown of a sumac tree, her oval head cross-hatched by the shadows of the compound leaves. Maria doesn’t see a body—she knows Francene’s body isn’t with her head—she can’t tell how Francene’s face is hanging there.
She picks the only obvious option, and flees. The treetops rattle and rock above her as Francene follows. The rustle of the leaves could be thunder.
No more hiding, Francene says.
She lowers down from a cedar that’s directly in Maria’s path.
Francene’s head with its blond hair once wound back in a tightly braided bun now grins at the tip of a slender twist of flesh that thickens out into a column, a many-limbed worm cobbled together from the still-moving parts of other people. They clamber through the branches with no concern for injury as Francene lowers her head further—there are so many of them, the branches heavy with motion all around her, the coils of the creature winding from trunk to trunk, hands grasping everywhere as the circle tightens.
She’s surrounded. Francene’s head lifts toward her, the mutant head of a caterpillar. Maria wants to laugh.
More rustling of leaves, and she’s confronted with the tail of the serpent. This too sports a face, gasping like a fish. Shaun, Francene’s son.
My disgusting son wants to know you from inside, the way my disgusting husband did.
The boy’s voice whimpers. I’m sorry.
The crazy quilt monster of torsos and arms and legs and eyes has closed in on all sides, steadily inching through the branches and brush. Francene’s head nuzzles against her weeping son in a twisted show of affection. My little sweetheart should always get what he wants most.
Everywhere Maria could lunge, arms await.
She kneels. I just want to see my son again. You understand.
Mine wants to see inside you, Francene’s mouth hisses. The coils unite, become a wall, a chimney.
Maria knows Francene’s hatred is just. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to hurt any of you, she says. I’m so sorry.
Fingers pull at her hair, her clothes. Most of her body goes numb as glowing mites crawl from the monster’s skin onto hers, arrange themselves in orderly rows.
Arms encircle her, lift her shirt as Francene’s face lowers to her navel, pulls one of the bright fasteners loose with her teeth, then another, then another, opening Maria’s belly like a baby doll’s. What’s inside flitters in mind-bending motion.
Shaun’s face disappears inside her as the serpent invades tail-first. She can feel its length folding up inside her, folding and folding, feel the blind eyes along its length flutter open.
You are so lucky.
Your life and hers connect in one long worm of memory, and with full understanding hate can only transmute into sadness.
You learn all you ever needed to know about the man you have in common, how he kept feeble ghosts of love alive for both of you, one shade comatose and dying, the other leprous and selfish, based on a stunted waxwork of desire. He never wanted you close enough to have for keeps but never wanted you to stray out of reach. In your shared soul, you see he always wanted you in your proper place, loved you for your usefulness but demanded that you stay out of sight, carry out what you were charged to do without ever getting in the way. And for this empty, manipulative homunculus of a man you’ve waged a war of wills, burrowed into one another in life and after.
You are so lucky.
That her furor, her desire to rend you piecemeal so overwhelmed that she tore away from the great body and found you on her own.
That as she stitches herself into you and fastens you around herself, as the scraps and tatters she dragged with her fuse into you, as that insatiable hunger for the stains of flesh and spirit becomes your hunger, as her mind buttons itself to yours, she understands everything, the web you had lived in together all these years, understands your surrender, your genuine repentance, and loses the willpower to do anything but grieve.
And as she howls, as she curls into herself, you smother her, you swallow her, you unravel the bits that remain and weave her into your new pattern.
You’re a survivor, with a drive, a cause that devours all others.
Your belly closes over the tapestry of horror rolled up inside you. A thousand half-memories loop around your thickening thread, add their feral undercurrents.
You are every goddess that ever wore the skins of her followers. You are every witch that ever stole a man’s damnable shape. You are an innocent girl molested, you are her pathetic, cowardly abuser, you are every docile loved one who ever kept silent and looked the other way. You are the woman on the side, the woman scorned, the woman bent on murder.
You are a new pattern sheared from the old quilt.
You find what’s left of the weak, mewling man-boy, the one who tried to be the monster and failed, and fold him into nothing, into something even less.
You can feel the great body’s resonance in your weave of nerves, the wonderful agony as it spews and stretches with no end in sight. The slavering delight at finding new patches to absorb, new secrets, new nasties, hunting them as they run through the streets, hide in cellars and closets and clutch their button-eyed dolls under their beds, winding tendrils around the punches they throw, circling fingers around their ankles as they try to climb into their cars.
You could return to it, yes. Perhaps you could become its new nerve center, new master pattern, the quilter who stretches all the layers across the frame and binds them with the strength of living skin.
Or perhaps you’d simply become lost and reabsorbed in its folds. Or perhaps you’ll snip away all you can steal and set out on your own, a new colony.
You have nothing to fear, everything to learn. You go to meet it.
the piece trimmed free
A little girl kneels in the center of a quiet street.
As below, so above. Asphalt washed by streetlamps. A bright moon muffled by clouds. All the same gray.
Empty houses stand to either side of her, dead sentinels, skulls of concrete and plaster picked clean of all human parasites. The girl has never seen any of these houses before. She still doesn’t see them. She stares at the ground between her hands, posed as if she plans to puke, as if she’s pressed her hands to the plate glass above a view into the craw of Hell, and she can’t stop watching, no matter how much she wants to.
Around her the neighborhood lies silent. In the distance, somewhere well out of sight of this deserted cul-de-sac, a brief scream, a sound that could belong to anything, human or animal.
Off to one side, in the front yard of one of the abandoned houses, a woman rises from the grass. In the gray ambiance her hair flows black as strokes of ink, her skin dusky, her eyes glistening pits. Every bit of her is alive, flesh, clothing, layers sliding over one another as might snakes in a nest, before she settles into one shape.
She steps onto the road, walks to the girl, who doesn’t move, doesn’t look up.
Maria stoops beside the girl, cups a hand under her chin, forces her to raise her head. She whispers the girl’s name. Maddy. She speaks in another woman’s voice.
The girl who was Maddy stares at nothing, starts to shudder.
When Maria speaks again, it’s with a voice akin to her own. She whispers in the girl’s ear. You don’t belong in here.
Maddy sings softly, without melody. She swallowed the spider. To catch the fly.
I gave you back everything I could.
She swallowed the fly. I don’t know why. Maybe she’ll die.
You’ll have to find the rest on your own.
Maddy’s mouth moves but makes no more sounds. Maria stands and backs away. Now her eyes are star-bright. Maybe I’ll see you again. When you’re older.
When Maria drives away, the little girl is still hunched in the road, neither laughing nor crying as she speaks. Funny, Mommy. It was so funny. Mommy, don’t you think it was funny?
the scrap left over
Mom, what’s going on?
Davey stands at the end of the dark hallway, his silhouette ludicrously tall and wide for a boy of ten, especially one as sedentary as he is, but these days that’s how they grow them.
Maria has just stepped out of his father’s bedroom, carrying a bulky juggernaut of a purse that’s packed to the point of overflow.
She pushes past her son and sets her bag down on the breakfast bar that delineates the kitchenette. Its handles flop to one side and its contents take a while to settle, stirring quite a bit of noise as they rattle about.
Jeez, Mom, you got mice in there?
She laughs. In the background, the voice on the TV changes. The panicked newscasters have actually stopped hogging the airways long enough to let that hunky weatherman talk about the thunderstorm sweeping in ahead of the cold front.
Davey bites his lip as he peers down the hall again. Where’s dad?
Oh, he’s still here. He just can’t see you right now.
He’s not feeling well.
Oh. He wanders over to the TV, but he’s still eying his mom. Did Marcie know you were coming over? You know how she gets, if you come over without telling her first.
A smirk. Oh, she knows I’m here.
And now his mother grows thoughtful.
Davey, remember that story we were talking about the other day, that thing you read?
More specifics, Mom?
That story about the harpist.
Yeah, that’s the guy.
How he couldn’t stop from looking back and left his wife in Hades forever?
No, no, there was something else. About his head.
Oh, that. I told you, these women who were like demons tore off his head, but he was immortal, so he couldn’t die, and when they threw his head in the river it was still singing, and it floated away.
Yes, that exactly, she says. I really like that part of the story. I think it’s my favorite. I was wondering if it could work in real life.
The contents of the purse shift. There’s a noise inside, like a hiss of air, a gasp.
Her son cocks his head, but his mother seems to take no notice. Instead she snatches the handles. I need you to wait here just for an hour or so, okay. Just stay put. Play a game or something.
Where you going?
Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back for you soon.
And she totes her burden out the door.
Originally published in Unseaming (Antimatter Press, 2014).