Wednesday night the walls bled so bad, the smell alone woke me up. Sharp and dirty, like the jar of old pennies Tommy kept on his side of the closet. I tried to hack up the taste but only got sticky night spit, wiped my mouth against my sheets. This was definitely worse than the last two nights.
The messed-up clock read F:68, which meant almost two in the morning. Tommy was doing that raspy hee-haw snoring thing he’d started since he got on his new pills. I let him sleep. Monday, when we first saw it soaking through the wallpaper like chocolate syrup, he got to laughing and snorting and cussing so much that I couldn’t shut him down. I had to call Mom to come home from the bar and man, did we both catch it then. Especially me, cause she thought I’d stirred him up on purpose. I got the whole lecture about no money for babysitters, being in charge, his problems. Like I didn’t know it by heart.
So this time I just waited until the bus stop the next morning, to tell him how there’d been a giant gob of it right above his bed.
“And there was this big ole drop dangling over your head—I thought for sure you were gonna get a mess of it right in the mouth.”
“Brian you ass-s-s-a-hole… shoulda woke me up!”
Mom had cut a deal with him—he could cuss as long as he just used the first letter, and didn’t go into the Other voice.
I dropped a rock in the mud puddle by the mailbox. “That’s what it woulda looked like. Splat.”
Tommy started cackling like his hee-haw snoring, only louder and with more grunts. His head jerking like somebody had it on a string. He trickled his fingers in front of his face as the Other voice broke in. “I LIKE IT WHEN IT RUNNNNNS DOWN.”
That crap didn’t scare me, but I knew I’d better wear him down before the bus got here. I started spooky-laughing, chasing him through the giant purple lilacs that ran along the lane. We got kinda carried away—when the bus showed up we were halfway back to our house. Mrs. Gerhardt laid on the horn and then gave us a dirty look when we finally got on.
My plan had crapped out. Tommy was out of breath but really wired now, just waiting to unload on her. I asked how her puppy was doing—that bought us a good ten minutes of potty-training stories.
“Suck-up,” Tommy whispered.
“Butt-kisser,” I told him back.
“Why don’t you go plant one on her big left cheek?”
Don’t say anything, don’t stir him up again. But I just couldn’t keep it in.
“Dude, if she farts I’m toast.”
That was all Tommy needed.
“CUNTFUCKER!” the Other voice barked out.
“What!” Mrs. Gerhardt yelled.
I punched Tommy’s knee as hard as I could. His next words broke into a bawl.
“I think he stubbed his toe or something,” I called back at her.
“WHAT did he say?”
“Nothing.” Some of the other kids were staring, but most knew better. I glared the few gawkers down while I said, “He just banged his stupid foot.”
He opened his mouth again.
“Come on baby, you’re okay,” I messed with his hair. Behind the tall green seat, I showed him my fist again.
He shut his mouth and sniffled away from me.
The bus driver was back to her dirty looks. “The more I know you kids, the more I like my dog.”
We got to school with no more problems. I thought everything had cooled out, but then right before lunch-
“Can I talk to Brian out here a second?”
Our principal was a big guy who seemed to fill up the hallway. He told everybody to call him Mr. J ’cause his last name was Polish and like nine syllables long.
“Brian, is anything going on at home? Anything new, unusual?”
“No.” I didn’t trust this at all.
“Well, your brother was telling his class some pretty wild stories. Something about bleeding walls and your dad?”
It was like somebody grabbed every hair on my body and pulled them straight out. I tried to look surprised. “Yuck!”
“That’s what the rest of the class thought. Scared some of them pretty bad. He was—very animated, almost had a seizure. He’s okay, but, ah… he wet himself.”
“Oh. He got spare clothes?”
“Yes. We were going to call your mom, to come pick up the dirty ones-”
“No.” She didn’t need to know about this. Besides, I hated her coming to school in her bar outfit. “I mean, we’ll take them home. Just stick them in a bag, just so… you know, nobody sees.”
“You’re a good brother.” He smiled, kinda sadly. “But you don’t have any idea where this wall stuff came from?”
I rubbed my lips against each other, like I was thinking. “No. I don’t think so. My dad—left us a few months ago. It’s hard for Tommy with—you know, everything.”
“I know.” That sad smile again.
“He mighta seen part of a scary movie last night. Mr. J, I should get back to class. Didn’t do so good on long-division.”
Special ed’s lunch period was before fifth grade’s, so I just managed to corner Tommy as he was leaving the cafeteria.
“Dummy! I told you not to talk about-” I trickled my fingers down the wall.
“Wasn’t my… g-d fault! Donny said his dead grandma could change the TV channel, so I said well I got a dead-”
I caught him by the skin of the elbow. Twisted it into a knot, then pulled him close before he could scream out.
“You can’t tell Donny,” I hissed. “We can’t tell anybody. Or they’ll take us away from Mom. Remember? I warned you!”
His eyes were bugging out, his lips trembling. For a second I thought he might seize out.
“Hey,” I eased up on his arm, “hey, we just gotta keep it between us. Maybe we can tell other people some day. But right now, its like I said, it’s our secret. Jannio brothers only.”
The idea of a pact, just him and me, calmed him down a bit. “Just for us.”
“Not even Mom.”
Which was kinda funny, since Mom already knew. She’s got to—she’s the whole reason this started.
He did good the rest of the day, so when the bus dropped us off I let him go a little nuts. The lilac bushes battered us as we weaved like fighter planes down the lane. Our tiny house was at the very bottom, right on top of the long pebbly pier that stretched into the dirty-grey harbor like a finger. The water was still so cold, even at the end of April, and I had to tell Tommy twice to get his shoes back on.
It’s like it was calling to him, though. Calling both of us, letting us know that summer was closing in. Soon the tourists—terrorists, Dad’d always called them—would overrun us with their boat trailers and stacks of fishing gear. Tommy and I’d had full run of the lane since last September, but soon we’d just be local brats.
We hopped around on the big rocks, scaring up black dock spiders and screaming as they swarmed all over. Our yells bounced off the empty fishing cottages lining the harbor. That’s really all our house was, just four small rooms not meant for year-round living. Dad’d always said he was going to build an upstairs. Tommy and I’d have separate rooms, and the living room and kitchen wouldn’t be right fucking on top of each other (his words).
That was late Sunday night talk, after he’d crewed whatever boat would take him and then staggered home stinking like fresh fish and spilled beer. Sit in his recliner, read his magazine about two-headed chickens and the world’s fattest midgets, and lay out all these big plans he had.
I’d smile. I’d say it sounded great. I’d stay close to Tommy, who didn’t know when to just nod and who I could sometimes get outside before it all started. We would run and splash like we were right now, loud enough to drown out the noises tearing apart the inside of our tiny little house.
Spring fever had swept us up so much, I didn’t notice dusk settling until Mom’s headlights splashed across the water. Then I realized I’d stepped in it bad—hadn’t washed his clothes, hadn’t started dinner, hadn’t even taken our books inside.
She knew, soon as she got out of the car. “Brian, tell me you got his homework going.”
“Oh yeah,” Tommy said. “I left my math book at school. Can we go get it?”
Her eyes burned into me. “You didn’t check his books?”
“Let’s go get it, gotta go get it.” Tommy hopped around in song.
“They’re closed, baby.” She touched his head absently, then pulled her hand back like she’d been bit. “Oh Brian, he’s got mud all in his hair!”
“I told him to quit going through the puddles,” I tried.
“No didn’t, no didn’t,” Tommy sing-songed.
I hated the way Mom pushed at her temples as she stared across the darkening water. “Shut up, you little spaz!” I yelled.
“SHUT UP, DUMB BITCH,” the Other voice ordered.
Mom flinched. We both knew who that sounded like. “Inside, both of you.”
We turned toward the dock, to get our bikes, and she cut loose. “HEY! Did I say anything about those bikes? Get in the godda—just get inside. NOW!”
She rushed around the kitchen as I peeled Tommy’s clothes off him in the bathroom. “You knew I was planning spaghetti tonight. You could have started the noodles, or… well, done something!”
“Sorry, I didn’t know how late it was!” I snapped.
I didn’t like matching her angry glare, but I couldn’t really look anywhere else. She was still in her work outfit—black jeans too tight on her hips and butt, with a white t-shirt tied just below her boobs. Nobody wants to see their mom like that.
“You’re right,” I backed down. “I screwed up. But you’re late too.”
She said nothing, though her mouth softened. She snapped the noodles in half and dropped them in the rolling water. “How’d he do today?”
“Fine. Just had an accident.”
She didn’t need to know he almost had a seizure. He always almost had seizures.
“I’m in the tu-ub, ” Brian called.
“Here, trade me,” she said to me.
“No,” I motioned a muddy hand. “I got him dirty, I can do his bath.”
A small smile crossed her face. Then it faded out fast, like her happy little thought got run over by something big and unyielding. That happened a lot lately.
At least Dad’s gone, I wanted to say. At least you got rid of him. Instead I started scrubbing Tommy.
She burned the sauce. I still had two platefuls. Tommy was in a picky mood and would only eat the noodles once he’d scraped every bit of meat off them. Mom barely noticed as she went through the mail, creating a small mountain of bills.
She sighed, arms cradling the back of her head. “You’d think at least some of it would be junk mail,” she said mostly to herself.
“Mommy,” Tommy said as he slurped down a bare noodle, “does your boo-boo still hurt?”
He pointed at her left forearm, where you could still make out the top swirl of the burner in the dark pink scar tissue. That had been another night of burned food. Dad, however, paid more attention to the taste than Tommy or me.
She hastily dropped her arm back down. “No, its fine baby.”
“That’s good.” His noodle-scraping slowed a bit. “Mommy, is Daddy coming back?”
I tried to shoot Tommy a warning look. If he started talking about the walls, then she’d know we knew. I don’t want her to freak out. It’s okay. I can handle it, the fact that she killed Dad.
She looked between the two of us, unsure how to answer. “No. I don’t think he is.”
“Oh,” Tommy considered. “That’s good too.”
Then he looked at me with a great knowing grin. And I tried to stare down his enthusiasm. And she continued to flicker between him and me, in uncertain suspicion. So we just sat there, three people eying each other, eating our spaghetti.
Later, lying catty-corner from me in the bedroom, he brought it up again. “Do you think he’s comin’ back?”
“Sure he is,” I said. “Right now.”
The far dock light reflected off the water and through our dirty window, smearing the darkness. Still, it wasn’t hard to see the stains emerging, the blotch on the window-wall peering out like a face.
I heard Tommy’s breathing catch. “You scared?” I asked.
Nervous giggle. “N-no. Kinda. You?”
No. Not a bit. What could a little ghostly blood do that he hadn’t? I watched the stain spread, thought of a dog peeing in the snow. “Are you glad he’s dead?” I asked.
“Kinda. But sometimes… I miss him, too.”
“Well, he’s pretty hard to miss now.” I waved at the wall. “Hi, Dad.”
That creepy giggle again. “HI DUMDAMNDADDY!”
“Shut up,” I hissed. But there were no approaching footsteps—Mom’s TV just continued its background grumble.
Amazingly, he calmed down. Silence settled back into the room so fast it was a little scary. “Do you know you sound like him, when you do that voice?”
Tommy tossed himself under his covers. “Leave me alone.”
“Hey I’m not picking on you, I just-”
My words gave out. I wasn’t even sure what I meant.
I laid quiet and still, watching the blood inkblot its way down the walls. This leaking was just Dad trying to scare us, trying to trick us into thinking he was still in the house, watching us from behind the walls when really Mom had smashed him over the head with a rock, then loaded him into the small rowboat from behind the Lashley’s cottage, paddled out to the middle of the lake while Tommy and I slept, tied the rock that killed him to his feet and-
“Sometimes – like somebody else inside me.”
I bit my lip to keep from screaming. “God, I thought you were asleep!”
Tommy rolled back toward me, his face pale. “It’s like, I’m laughing and having fun, and then all a sudden my heart-”
He shook his fist beneath his sheets.
“-it starts rattling inside, like something’s gonna break loose and-”
“Tommy, it’s okay-”
“I get these – NASty” – the Other voice lurching halfway through the word – “nasty, so mad but it feels… good, so g-d good -”
“Tommy,” I tried again.
The Other voice, crashing over him – “FUCKSUCKCUNTKILL -”
I was out of bed even as I heard Mom rushing down the hallway. I slapped his quivering face. Something seemed to run across his eyes. He started crying whole-hog, big rolling jags, just as Mom came in.
“What, baby, what…” She rocked his head against her lap. Her eyes were so tired.
“Was it a seizure?” she asked me.
“Just a bad dream, I think.”
But what I was really thinking was about last summer, when Dad had spotted the dent in the car while mowing. How he’d whipped around with the lawnmower, lifting it up by the handle, the blade humming beneath it like a helicopter or some giant spinning mouth. How he had smashed the mower against the corner of the house. Terrible screeching, pieces of eaves spout shooting like chewed-up bullets, the mower rolling black smoke as it crashed to its side.
And when he’d turned, to where I was hiding in the trees . . . I never understood the smile on his face, until what Tommy had just told me.
…nasty feelings, like I’m so mad but it feels good too . . .
When I woke up, the morning sun was slanting across my legs and pointing at the mess on the wall. The other mornings you could have missed them if you weren’t paying attention. It was getting worse though – the stain was setting in. If Mom didn’t see them today, it’d be tomorrow or the day after.
And then what? Would she flip out? Pack us up and run away? That was what he wanted, the whole point of this—to get back in control. But he was dead, and if he could really hurt us he would have by now. All he could do was lay there, killed, rotting at the bottom of the lake.
I really wanted to tell him that.
I looked over at my brother, still crumbled up under his blankets.
The more I thought about it on the bus ride to school, the more it made sense. The doctors had told us brains run on electricity, just like radios. If the radio dial gets bumped, the sound goes fuzzy. Sometimes Tommy’s dial gets bumped.
Sometimes, though, you can kinda hear other voices through radio static. Pick up other channels.
…feels like somebody else inside me…
That’s what Tommy’s Other voice was—another signal coming in. Tommy was picking up Dad.
It was so hard all day, not telling him what I had in mind. If I said anything though, he’d get totally obsessed, probably start telling people. So I had to sit on it, all the way until after the bus dropped us off.
“Hey!” I grabbed his arm before he could tear down the lane. “You wanna shut the walls off? For good?”
He squinted at me through the brilliant sun. “You know how?”
“No. You do. I’m gonna show you but you gotta trust me, okay?”
He jumped from foot to foot. “Brothers only?”
“Only the Jannios.”
His face broke into a giant grin as he sprinted toward the bright water. “F-ing yeah!!”
It was Friday night. Mom came home just long enough to bring us burgers and fries. She told me they were already slammed, it’d be long after midnight before she got back. I said we’d be fine. She reminded me about his nine o’clock medicine, all laid out in his med minder. I said I’d take care of it.
I felt bad lying about that.
I tried to pass the evening with a rush of dockside chases and TV. Finally, nine o’clock showed up.
“Ok,” I told him, “Bedtime.”
“What? It’s Friday!”
“Part of the plan. It always starts right after we go to bed. Besides, we gotta be done before Mom gets home.”
“Ohhh,” he pouted. “alriiight. I need my pills.”
“Not tonight you don’t.”
He looked at me like a confused dog—medicine time was a golden rule with Mom.
“Look, I’ll give them after we’re done. You gotta trust me. Brothers only, right?”
His throat clicked as he swallowed, nodded.
I knew he could go a couple hours without his pills – when Dad used to watch us it was a total toss-up if he got them at all. Besides, Mom said those pills kept his brain quiet. Tonight, we needed his channel opened up, live and loud.
The bedroom was stuffy, like the walls were already filled with moisture. I propped the window up with a ruler. The sound of the lake quietly licking against the rocks drifted in. I loved that—any other night that would have put me right out. That night though, I felt like I’d never sleep again. Tommy musta felt it too; he was flopping around in bed like a landed fish.
“What are you doing?”
“I gotta… I gotta…” He revved his hands in front of him urgently, like a person getting an electric shock. “…get all pumped up…”
My attention snapped to the wall. “The faucets are running,” I said, bravely.
Dad must have known we were planning something. It came through heavier than ever before, like tar welling up behind the wallpaper, blacker than the night itself.
“Alright,” Tommy yammer-whispered, “whatdowedo?”
I crossed the room to Tommy’s bed. Reached out, hesitated just a second before touching the wall. It was like pushing on a sponge of syrup.
“Ewwwwww,” Tommy giggled. He pulled back as I turned toward him. “Brian, donttouchme with that, please-”
I rapped his shin with my clean fist. “Shut up you little spaz.”
“DICKLICKER,” he croaked. “FUCK BRian you a-hole-”
I shoved my gooey fingers into his mouth. His teeth broke through my knuckle skin, adding my blood to the mix. I clamped his jaw with my other hand before he could bite any harder. I didn’t really feel the pain; my attention was on his eyes. His pupils were flared, rolling.
“You listen to me. Hold still. I’m running things now. You try to hurt me again, there’s gonna be problems.”
I wasn’t talking to my brother.
He started as soon as I pulled my hand free. “LITTLE FUCKER.”
“I’m bigger than you.”
“THIS IS THE VOICE OF DAAAADDDY!”
Tommy’s eyes were still going crazy, but he was breathing okay, didn’t seem twitchy.
“Where are you at?” I asked my brother’s glazed face.
“EVERYWHERE. SHIT STAIN EVERYWHERE. TOMMYRETARD POOPEATER.”
“Leave him out of this.” I thought I’d be more scared, but my whole body just felt like a coiled spring, a knife ready to drop. “You’re wrong. We’re know you’re not in here. You’re not behind the walls. You got dumped at the bottom of the lake. How does that feel?”
“CUMCUMCUM VISIT. ASSHOLE HOME. MY FUCKING HOUSE.”
“You got relocated, asshole.” God this was great, just like something out of a movie. I’d never even dreamed of feeling this strong. “You’re a pile of dogshit. This blood crap doesn’t scare us. You hear us laughing at you at night?”
Brian’s face jerked into a smile. It made me want to pound his teeth in. “RETARD CUMS WITH” my brother’s mouth said about himself.
I ignored that; this was the important part. What I’d thought about all day, how to bluff our way through this.
“You wanna make the walls bleed? Show everybody you’re a big scary ghost? okay, then remember that stupid magazine you always laughed at, with the freaks in it? Bet they’d pay a lot of money for pictures of real bleeding wall. So much money maybe we could even move away from here. From you.”
“CUNT ROTS. TAKE HER AWAYAWAYAWAY.” The face wasn’t even human anymore. It looked like something wearing a Tommy mask for Halloween.
“Yeah, they’ll find out Mom killed you. And they’ll find out about her burn too, and the bruises on my back, and the scar on Tommy’s head. You think anybody’ll give a shit she got rid of you? They’ll give her a fuckin’ medal. And if you don’t knock off this blood crap I swear I’ll do it, I’ll tell the whole world your wife finally kicked your ass and your sons laugh at your ghost. You hear me, Daddy, you fuckin’ bully, I fuckin’ hate you-”
I’d never cussed so much—it felt so good, to give it all back to him –
“EHHH EHHH EHHH,” This demonic laugh, some Hell-version of how he used to wheeze at us from that ugly recliner.
“You think it’s funny? Think I won’t do it?” I climbed up on Brian’s body now, was squeezing my nails into his biceps. “I’m stronger than you. We all are! You’re dead you piece of shit and all you can do is rot! Sink and rot! Sink and rot!”
“EHHh eHHh ehhh-”
Tommy’s eyes fluttered, just once.
Somehow, that one little flicker broke through enough to tell me I needed to get off him, before I hurt him. I let go of his arms.
That’s when he sprang up like some miniature Frankenstein, thrashing, lurching around the room, tearing at the walls, splattering his own blood as he punched at it and broke his fingers.
I charged him, managed to pull him away from the wall. He let out one long horrible bellow before his body slammed totally rigid, the way it always did during his grand mal seizures. He jerked out of my hands.
When he fell he came straight forward and broke his head open against my bed’s footboard.
Grandma seizures—that’s what Tommy had called them. Why that came to me as I watched my brother die I don’t know.
“I had to fight to wake up. Like I was drowning in sleep. I lurched my body forward, to a seated position in bed. I could still feel Brian’s arms under my hands, my fingernails.
Looked like a beautiful day outside. Mom was sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing Tommy’s bed. Very dimly, it bothered me that the police and ambulance guys had seen her like that, in her work outfit.
She slowly applied a smile. “Good morning.”
I crawled over to her and laid my head in her lap. Waited for one of us to start crying. After a while, her silence pulled my eyes up.
She was staring at the wall above Tommy’s bed, at the brownish blotches from Dad’s visit.
“We shoulda left, after he did,” she said as she gently moved my head. She stood like someone rising out of water, still wavering from last night’s sedative. Pills for her, pills for me. Pills for everybody but Tommy.
She approached the wall with measured steps, until her fingers brushed the stain. “We should have tried for more. T… Tommy deserved better. You too. At least your own rooms, without rust stains all over them.”
“They’re not rust stains.”
She closed her eyes, leaned her forehead against Daddy’s blood.
Why would she do that? Can’t she smell it?
“Just like a thief, like a dirty thief he left all his clothes but took all the money, after-”
A gulping sob cut her off
“-after EVERYTHING he did, he’s the one that leaves, leaves us here and my baby died looking at filthy rust-”
Why was she doing this? Why was she telling this story?
The police were here, and the ambulance guys too. They saw the room, they know its blood. They know it’s blood, it’s gotta be blood, Tommy didn’t die for a story-
She grabbed hold of me as I started to shake.
But I wouldn’t let myself cry, even as her tears brushed against my hair. I’ll show her I’m strong enough. I can handle the truth.
Tommy died cause Daddy tricked me. And as I heard the lake whispering through my window that morning, I knew how to trick him back.
He’ll be hard to find, but I’ve got all summer. Even in the dark I’m a good swimmer. I’ll follow my nose if I have to. Sniff him out by his blood, and then it’ll just be stone by stone, the biggest ones I can carry from the pier to the bottom of the lake.
I’ll build a wall so thick nothing can come through.
In addition to three previous appearances in Ideomancer, I’ve published over fifty stories and poems, most recently in volumes 1 and 2 of the Read by Dawn anthologies, and I’m currently shopping a screenplay around. See my website or my myspace for more free stories and poems. I was also published in Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul, but don’t tell anyone, it’s bad for my reputation….
A quite dysfunctional family lived down the road from me when I was in elementary school—at least one of the kids had some sort of cognitive disability, there were numerous rumors of domestic violence, and I believe they moved out in the middle of the night. And yes, the kids were always telling stories about how their walls bled. I wonder whatever happened to them….
Later that day Gary would think back hard, looking for some warning he might have missed. At least a hint – a sinister elongation of the hallway; a cold spot curdling the soup on the tray; something foreboding about his perfunctory, Dad-I-hope-you’re-not-naked rap on the door before he pushed it open.
But there was nothing. Nothing more substantial than the five months of veiled nightmares since his father had moved in – five months of finding the remote in the freezer, of double-locking the front door so he couldn’t wander off. And so the nightmares, while horrible, had torn themselves apart quickly under daylight’s routine of care and vigilance. They were simply the product of far-fetched worry. Nothing prophetic.
When Gary opened the door, his father’s head swung toward the sound like a chunk of wood suspended from a string. That head was three times the size it’d been when Gary had started making the soup.
The swollen cheeks and forehead had stretched the old man’s wrinkles to a shiny pink tallow. Eyes like bright, buried marbles stared out from the hydrocephalic depths, their gaze as unstable as the rest of the teetering body. His suddenly-too-plump legs strained the bed rails with rolls of baby fat.
Gary’s father had Cherubed.
Hot soup seeping through his slippers, and Amy calling out about the breaking noise from far, far away.
Cherub. Cherub. Like a heartbeat, a grotesquely huge pulse in his mind.
The hint of citrus and sunflower – Amy’s “happy” perfume – told Gary his wife was close. Slowly, Amy entered his stunned field of vision.
“Oh my god,” she breathed.
Amy approached his father like a bridesmaid – stride measured, yet hesitant, trying to find a respectful rhythm but very, very desperate to reach her destination. Gary’s father, watching with wonder, gurgled out a smile and reached toward her.
Too awed to make contact, she could only manage, “Gary . . . it’s wonderful . . . “
The joy in her voice nailed Gary, broke a sob through him. She wrapped him in her arms as tears lit up her eyes and she laughed out, “God is good, God is sooo good . . .”
Behind them the Cherub cooed. Gary struggled not to be sick.
He lay rigid on the couch while Amy called their pastor. Creaking from his former den as three hundred pounds of infant shifted in the used hospital bed. Gary tried to block out the sounds by focusing on Amy’s conversation, but his attention kept returning to the wall with the mirror and piano and pictures of all their nieces and nephews. The wall behind which his father – Cherub, the Cherub – now sat.
How big do they get?
There was no certain answer. Many never grew beyond their initial size, but Gary had read of one whom the family had needed to convert a barn for. Too easy to imagine – the mirror splitting, piano lurching, pictures dancing as an ever-swelling head shoved through the wall toward him –
Amy had hung up the phone. “Word’s going out through the prayer chain. Pastor Hershel says to come down, to bring him down -“
At the look on Gary’s face, she hurried to his side. “Please don’t. Don’t be scared. This – this is the answer to our prayers.”
Her prayers, she meant. For his doubts, for their arguments and the resulting thick silences. But not . . . not for the other, right? Surely this wasn’t some sort of correction to the picture wall of only other people’s children . . .
Please, her shining face begged him. Please share this happiness with me. The desperation behind her rapture closed off his throat.
A crash from the former den. Amy’s eyes widened – some fear, but mostly excitement. Baby’s first fall. She scampered away like a little kid herself.
Gary stared at the ceiling as he heard his wife asking his eighty-year-old father, “Did you break bed, go boom?”
They had to take out the sliding glass doors to fit him through. One door slipped from Gary’s numb fingers and burst against the patio furniture. Amy made him shop-vac the deck twice, to ensure no chance of shards in giant bubbly feet.
In the former den she patted her legs – C’mon! Can you do it? Can you do it? The Cherub sat amid the wreckage of the bed, huffing in an attempt to crawl toward her.
His father was now a retarded puppy. Gary could take it no more.
“C’mon Dad,” he said automatically. “Gimme your hand.”
Gary pressed the squishy palm into his own grasp, lost his arm in the folds of an armpit, and hoisted. The Cherub came up too easily, almost sailing face-first back to the floor. Gary threw his other arm around, so that father and son staggered in a bear hug. His nose inches from the bare chest, Gary struggled to detect the spicy cologne he helped his father apply every morning. Nothing – just a hint of talcum, and some gas.
The pajamas were indecently ripped, so Amy wrapped the bed sheet around his lower half. Gary tried to ignore the semblance of a diaper. She threw a blanket over his shoulders but still fretted.
“I don’t know, it’s warm for September but still -“
“Let’s get him walking,” Gary said, his face still smashed against his father’s taut skin.
The huge head bobbled back and forth with those first few steps. His blubbery form seemed to weigh nothing, and Gary quickly figured out the trick was to let momentum do most of the work. Gary guided the head through doorways as best he could. The floppy arms wiped out decorative shelves, the shoulders whacked into corners.
“Oh, be careful!” Amy cried.
When they made it outside, the Cherub lifted his head to the early-afternoon glare of Indian summer. Gary squinted, hoping for a trick of lighting. But no – his father’s salt-and-pepper hair had faded to a wispy, almost translucent blonde.
Amy saw it too. “Oh Gary, it looks like a halo.”
They were halfway to the truck when Mrs. Neddleman lurched to a halt at her bird feeder. “Is that . . . is that Frank?”
Amy could only nod with a clown-like smile. Gary found himself thankful for her silence.
“Sweet Jesus!” The heavy old woman threw down the bag of bird seed and bustled back toward her house. “Oh Sweet Jesus, wait til Marlene hears I saw one, I’m – living, I’m living next to one – “
She had almost disappeared inside when her head thrust back out. “Congratulations, you two!”
Amy began crying again. What you always wanted to hear, Gary thought. He felt something wet on his hand and looked up to find his father drooling.
It took a while to load him in the bed of the pick-up. In the end, Gary planted his shoulder against the Cherub’s considerable rear end and drove him forward as gently as possible. He still crash-landed, striking his head against the cab’s rear glass.
Amy’s hands fluttered. “You need to be care-“
“Yes.” Gary could barely speak.
Her features softened. She took his hand. “I know, I know this is hard, but . . . see this for the blessing it is. A miracle.”
A car passing by honked enthusiastically. “God bless you!” the driver called.
His father was already on all the religious stations. Not mentioned by name or address – if that’d been the case, Gary doubted they could have gotten out of the driveway. Still, he prickled with chills as each voice whispered the transformation across the radio winds.
“Another miracle, this one close to home- “
“Praise be! God, in his infinite wisdom, has blessed yet another local family-“
” -continues to baffle the scientific community- ”
Gary’s station-changing finger paused.
“-ranging the gambit of the biological and environmental, from previously inactive chromosomal defects to unknown side effects from dementia medications. This contentious debate is intensified by the resistance of the families involved to allow investigation. The faithful, it seems, have their own explanation- “
Amy punched the button to a channel of choir music. “Yes, we do,” she said quietly. “Yes, we do.”
His father seemed to enjoy the ride. Then again, he always had been of the old, let’s-go-for-a-Sunday-drive variety. Over the last months, Gary had found that on bad days, when memory’s hide-and-seek was especially malicious, a quick trip in the truck could stop the quivering of his lips, sooth the worry lines creasing his brow-
Except worry lines weren’t a problem now. They had been pulled flat as freshly-pressed paper, and the only mouth-quivering came from the wind as the Cherub tried to taste the air. In the rearview mirror, Gary was dimly horrified to see the infant still had his father’s age-stained teeth jammed into its pearly-pink gums.
“Watch your speed,” Amy said. “Don’t want him to get chilled.”
I can’t do this, Gary thought. I can’t drive him around like we’re pulling a float, or transporting some freak to the county fair. Come one, come all, see the world’s oldest fattest baby! Some say genes, some say God; I say I wouldn’t want to change the diapers! HA HA HA!
But he just continued driving, crawling through the outskirts of town, even managing a limp wave to the passers-by who shouted their well-wishes. No one leered, or pointed and screamed, especially not in a small Ohio town like Granley. Seeing this was a tangible expression of faith, an affirmation they’d been right all along.
And after all, who doesn’t love a baby?
The church, low and modernly beige, was built on the brink of a sea of soybean fields. Farmhouses and barns dotted the horizon like old sailing ships. A wide cross-section of the congregation, from farm-dusted pick-ups to sparkling SUVs, had already gathered in the parking lot. Doors swung open domino-style as the truck and its amazing cargo were sighted. People rose quickly and then froze.
Gary’s itchiness flared – he didn’t like crowds, and all those smiles made it worse. Too wide, too many teeth, as if their joy had wiped them dumb and any minute they would surge forward, tipping the truck in order to get a hand on what gurgled in its bed.
Movement among the throng – Pastor Hershel approaching. The breeze clutched at the robe sleeves dangling from his sticklike wrists. Plant him in the field and watch the crows flee, Gary thought, immediately followed by, here comes the barker. He instantly regretted such pettiness, though as with everything else today he felt powerless to stop it.
Pastor had reached their truck. His youthful appearance was betrayed only by his eyes, which had the pinch of someone well beyond middle-age. That powerful peering grabbed Gary just as tangibly as Pastor’s hand touching Amy’s arm.
“Good morning,” he chuckled. But his barely-contained mirth seemed directed only at Amy. What Gary received was concern. Conviction. Just a hint of I-told-you-so.
She’s told him, about our troubles. Gary wasn’t surprised, though the pang of betrayal in his chest caught him off-guard.
“That’s my father,” Gary said. Whether out of defiance or simply to hear his own voice, Gary wasn’t sure.
“I know. Glory be to the Father.”
The old man with the child’s body and the young man with the aged eyes took each other in. A palpable quiet pressed down on the whole of the parking lot. Gary felt Amy stiffen, holding her breath. For his part, he just savored the soft whistle of the breeze, the calm he knew would not last –
His father giggled, and the atmosphere broke into a tidal wave of cheering. Pastor Hershel beamed at his cue.
“Good morning!” The crowd echoed back.
Gary leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. The pep rally has begun.
“It IS a good morning! A God-given morning, and, of course, what God gives is always good.” Pastor laid a hand on the Cherub’s foot. “Would you look at Brother Frank?
“WOULD YOU LOOK AT BROTHER FRANK!”
A frenzy of emoting. The Cherub, sensing it was for him, grinned at them.
“Let us pray.”
The crumbled-paper sound of chins scraping collars as heads dropped.
“Oh Father, in your divine judgment you have blessed us all. Everything touched by Your hand shines anew. You have given Gary and Amy the child that they, and we, and most of all YOU, always wanted. You have risen Frank to a place of pure innocence. And you have tapped this church, to go forward with the others you have chosen, to show the world the POWER of INNOCENCE. Just as your Son granted salvation to this world, let all these new Sons and Daughters be beacons that draw more and more people back into your good, pure light. Amen.”
Gary hadn’t heard anything beyond the proclamation that he had always wanted a child. At one time, like some many other things in his life, that may have been true. But after all the tests, the fertility medicines, the miscarriages . . . Gary had finally found acceptance in belief. Belief that some things were not meant to be.
But that was back when Gary had believed in ANYTHING. Before any sense of ultimate reason had slowly slipped away from him, followed shortly by his connection to his wife and his father’s hold on reality.
That was also before giant babies started taking over the world as cult godheads. That didn’t help much, either.
“Hold up your children!” Pastor Hershel beseeched.
A smattering of infants and toddlers were raised up with two arms, lofted onto shoulders. All their wide, gawking eyes trained on Pastor and the Cherub.
“THIS – ” Pastor motioned in a sweeping circle ” – this is life. That most precious of gifts, the one that tells us more than anything else that GOD LOVES US. And how does he love us best? HOW does he consider us closest to his glory?”
The congregation made some indiscriminate noise. Tell us! Tell us!
“God loves us best when we are INNOCENT. When we are PURE AND SIMPLE. When we are LIKE THE CHILDREN OUR FATHER WANTS US TO BE! And this is why our culture hates children so much. So much so that we say its OK to use pills or rubber barriers to interfere with God’s design to expand his kingdom. And if that doesn’t work . . . we just kill them. Kill them right inside their mothers.”
Or God kills them. Dribbles them out in a stream of blood, flows them forever away from a woman who wanted them more than anything in the world. Even if Gary had the courage to scream his thoughts, he doubted he’d have been heard over the crowd’s throaty harangue.
“It’s not hard, folks.” Pastor raised his worn Bible. “Matthew 11:25 – ‘I praise you Father because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’ And then, Mark 10:15 – ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'”
Pastor’s voice dropped reverently as he turned to face the Cherub. “Brothers and Sisters . . . this simple innocence is the path to Salvation.”
Gary’s raging doubt was too intense for thought. It manifested itself only as a throbbing at the base of his skull, seemingly in rhythm with Pastor’s gestures. Hershel’s momentum seemed in time with everything – Amy’s meek nodding, the crowd’s tides, even the slight rocking of his father. Back and forth, with a contented strain on his face-
Suspicion sunk through Gary.
He craned his neck, peering through the truck’s back window at the sheet encircling the Cherub’s lower half. At the misshapen lump smooshed from his father’s rear end, and the watery brown stain seeping through the sheet.
The perfect pathway to heaven was dirtying his diaper.
Gary barely registered Amy’s stare as he fumbled with the door handle. The air outside the truck cool on his face, or maybe that was just his speed, his near-run carrying him past outstretched hands, away from Hershel’s attempt at explanation, about how overwhelming this experience can be-
Overwhelming? Just wait til you get overwhelmed by the smell –
Gary made it around the corner and out of the crowd’s sight before his breakfast splattered across the church’s brick. Then he crammed his stinking teeth against the thick of his thumb as full-body contortions rolled him.
I can’t go back and listen to more of that. Should just drive away, leave Amy here and take off down the road with Dad, just another one of our afternoon drives. Just going, going . . .
The service continued for hours. An impromptu tent was constructed around the Cherub, to shade tender skin from the afternoon’s dry burn. Gary sat amid the sweat and the ecstasy, waiting. Waiting for someone to step in the sheeted lump. To crinkle their nose at the smell. Even just a polite offering of a clean sheet from the church’s linen closet.
Nothing. Just continued revelry, revelation.
Finally, amid the charred orange rays that announced the lurking of twilight, the congregation dispersed. Hand after hand shaking his, thumping his shoulder, pulling him close. Everyone stank of heat and emotional exertion – everyone except Amy. Hair wind-torn, face ruddy and moist, and yet Gary hadn’t seen her so beautiful or happy in years. A beautiful happy stranger. Someone you might pass on the street and wonder what had happened to make them seem so, so . . .
They drove home with the radio off, the exhausted silence between them like a third passenger. Behind them, his father rose a pudgy hand to the broken yolk of the sun, letting it spill through his fingers.
Their front porch was littered with gifts – baby figurines, teddy bears, even a few maternity balloons screaming more congratulations in pastel letters. Amy carefully carried these things inside while Gary scooted his father to the tailgate. The approaching night masked the long divots of mess smeared across the truck bed but did nothing to hide the smell, which had baked to eye-watering richness. Yet Amy made no mention of it as she and Gary guided the Cherub through the yard and back into his room. The sagging, stinking sogginess of the sheet seemed to pass wholly out of her recognition.
An utter refusal to notice that her blessing was leaving a trail of shit behind it.
When Gary came back in from hosing out the truck, she was in a robe in the bathroom. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”
They stared at each other. Gary was aware he needed to say something, even just “Okay”, but it was so much easier to not talk.
“I love you,” she announced. “And I love this new life we have. I love – I love our baby, our little angel.”
There it was. The solution laid before him. All he had to do was repeat it back to her, and everything would be fine.
Say you love the baby and live happily ever after.
Instead, he said, “Yeah.”
When nothing else came, she cast her eyes down. Softly shut the door between them.
And then it was just Gary and the Cherub, and the heavy stench clogging the room between them. Gary got several old towels, soaked half of them, and began the task of cleaning him up.
Gary had prepared himself over the months to feed, bathe, wipe, do whatever was needed. For his father. Not this – not some cosmic practical joke that gawked while he scrubbed its fleshy thighs.
I thought we were safe, that this only happened to the faithful. Was this for Amy’s faith, then? That was even worse – that his father could be stolen away, to reward her piety.
The Cherub hitched a bit as Gary dug behind his ear.
Or perhaps a punishment, to show me what a lack of faith brings you. But that only sounded like Hershel, cracking the brimstone whip.
Gary ran his last clean towel over this transformed face, rough enough that the mouth pinched and the eyes teared up.
If this is anything, anything other than Fate’s bad dice throw . . . then it’s a test. A last shot of finding the inherent brightness in life, the hope that went into hiding from me a long time ago . . .
The Cherub was genuinely crying now – low whines that started deep in its blubbery chest and ended with a wheeze.
Next to the soiled towels was the plump pillow his father had always liked. Gary lifted it, used the corners to wipe at the trembling tears.
He took longer and longer dabs, even after the tears were gone. Patting the softness against those overstuffed cheeks. Then pushing.
The pillow was almost too small to fit over the Cherub’s bulbous face – Gary surprised himself with how far he stretched the pillow. How much force he used.
If this is a test, then I have failed.
When he finally pulled back, the Cherub’s face was stuck in a grimace – one eye squinting, the mouth set like an old-movie gangster’s. A menacing, I-know-what-you-did wink.
You don’t know anything. Just a baby, the bare-bones version of humanity. Innocent? Try ignorant. No thought, just all base desires – eat and shit, want and need, and my dad wasn’t that far gone yet, not yet . . .
Gary brought the pillow to his own face, hoping for a last scent of his father.
Instead, he felt his own bowels letting loose. Everything turning to liquid, no solidity left in the entire world.
Want and need. Unreasonable. Screaming in their desires, to get their way.
The pillow was the Cherub’s death-mask, the features as clearly indented into the fabric as if the face had been pressed into concrete. The contortion, the unrestrained rage against stolen breath, the absolute refusal to go to sleep –
Want and need.
The pillow-image squirmed.
This egoless, mewling spirit surging forward, and Gary had time to think of the petulance of children, their greed, how they don’t always play nice . . .
At the funeral, Hershel extolled the congregation not to judge Gary. “The world is a rock-strewn place, and we all may fall. There but for the grace of God . . .”
Amy sat in the front row, nodding. She could forgive her husband for his weakness. He was in a better place now.
And then, after the pall-bearers had laid Frank’s normal-sized body to rest – a celebration. Jubilance that even a soul as lost as Gary’s – someone who tried to kill a miracle – could still be graced.
Gary sat on the floor, since there was no chair big enough for him. Sat there amid the party in the church basement, and smiled sometimes when people smiled at him. That made everyone, including Gary, very happy.
Sat there, with a naïve stare. Thinking nothing. Vaguely wanting to void.
And then eat.
In addition to two previous appearances in Ideomancer, Sam’s publication credits include fifty stories and poems in magazines, webzines, and anthologies such as Flesh and Blood, Space & Time, Chiaroscuro, Deathgrip 3: It Came from the Cinema and the upcoming Read by Dawn (edited by Ramsey Campbell). He’s also received a couple of Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and was nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s 2001 Rhysling Award.
Inspirations for this story: American culture’s long-standing obsession with the archetype of The Child, The Innocent, and especially The Baby as symbols of all that is Good and Pure . . . the dangerous connection between innocence and ignorance… and finally, my continued frustration over people asking when my wife and I are going to have children….
They taught us in greyness, leaded air-raid walls needing mortar and thick sun-kill curtains. The girl desked right of me always nervously tapped hers, so quietly, along the fake wood edge til she had grooved batches of notches keeping some unknown score. Maybe mark-timing our days, or teacher’s frequent use of
soft spot, find the soft spot, spot the softness and stick it in. Thigh and chest easiest, though down the throat can be quite good, or squarely in the eye with well-aimed strokes
Touching ourselves while teacher taught, imagining the feel of the stick-and-slide in another. Fantasies til the end of spring, when they butted our desks face-to-face. All our six-inches classroom-bound in hard safety sheathing.
Always her slight head tilt first, attempted artistry, staccato paintbrush penetrating all my spaces, my ribs, my accordion trachea folds. Never sorry at turn’s end, just offered to me her face, the bruise acne of my past, learning thrusts…
In four years since, in every battle, every conquest, every time I drove one home–her face, always the most soft thing.
Samuel Minier’s publication credits include forty stories and poems in numerous magazines, webzines, and anthologies, including Flesh and Blood, Space & Time, CHIAROSCURO, and Deathgrip 3: It Came from the Cinema. His last appearance in Ideomancer was for the story “Nothing But Worm Meat” (August 02). He’s also received two Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and was nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s 2001 Rhysling Award. Please visit www.samuelminier.com for further access to Sam’s work.
As far as inspiration for the piece, it germinated out of two sources. One was a series of actual quotations from a World War I “bayonet training” session (fairly gruesome stuff). The other was an radical extrapolation of “sex education” in schools–by that, I mean the notion of actually teaching kids how to have sex. So then the two twisted together–young people whose bodies are telling them to copulate, whose minds are being programmed to destroy….
You’d think I’d be pleased, wouldn’t you? To find out I was right all along, I mean. Shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration? Well, excuse me dear, if I don’t break out the Stoli quite yet. It’s not easy to please an old Yankee bitch so set and certain in her ways. Of course I was right. Logic and science had always supported me. The inextricable connection between body and personality, to paraphrase Lamont. I always preferred my own rendition — Flesh and Soul as One. No cherubic celebrations, no rejoicing in beatific cloud fields. The soul is just flesh. Just flesh.
You see, I was right all along. And the truth shall set you free.
So very true. So very free.
They wheel us out in the mornings, before class arrives. The sun comes through the windows in flat, pale strips. It’s April or May now, somewhere in the prelude to summer, and the hazy light holds a hint of coming heat. Not that I can feel it; no, dearie, you could place my soft forearm on a glowing burner and I wouldn’t so much as murmer. But I can still remember the heat in those beams, Herb’s white gardening hat in the humid mornings. Herb had always been an early raiser — even in the last year of his life, he never broke ground later than nine in the morning. Not for me; I was rarely out of bed before ten. Besides, the garden was his. I don’t think he would have rejected my help, but I’m almost certain he wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. In 52 years of marriage, you learn what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘mine’.
I wasn’t offended. I much preferred to watch him from the balcony, glass of tomato juice with a finger of vodka in one loose hand, feet adorned with the most recent pair of Trevor’s travesties. His tradition of tacky slippers had started over thirty Christmases ago, when he was thirteen. This last year, they were lime green with plastic shot glasses on the toes and “Viva la Tequila” stitched on the sides. I wonder how in the world he’s going to top tha —
The wheels on the carts never catch or squeak — their ride is impeccably smooth. Rather unnerving, really. A few of us get going in response to that perfect rolling purr. The grunts and cries go unrecognized by the attendants. They are like stone as they push us — they don’t whistle, they barely speak, and they never laugh. I believe they’re trying to be respectful. But I don’t want respect. I want sound, something other than our noises.
I miss the word “fuck”. Shocked to hear that from an old lady? I hold the distinction of being the only person to use that word during my testimony in the McCarthy trials. Believe me, the contempt charge was worth the expression on old Joe’s face when I told him he was more of a fucking danger to America than the communists ever would be. I always liked the earthy bluntness of the word — vulgar and lively, crammed with emotion. I wish the attendants would use it — throw it at each other in jest or bellow it when a hand gets caught between the carts. Too damn quiet.
There are few voices of reasonable dissent left — just Ralph and I, in fact. We lost John Stanton a few days ago, when his tongue was cut out as a joke. John’s dissector stuck it on the end of a probe and waggled it at his partner’s enormous boobs. She rumbled with guilty laughter. John’s last words, shaking and resigned as the scalpel parted the pink fibers behind his teeth, were “Enough’s enough — I’ll be goddamned if I’ll talk without a tongue”.
Ralph still valiantly tries for humor as they roll him into place. “I wanted a table by the window. The window, damnit! Frank, if you don’t start listening to me you’re not getting a tip. I’ll tell you, the staff around here are a bunch of stiffs.”
Ralph’s left-hand neighbor is getting into her morning routine. “My eyes slipped open my eyes my eyes are open SOMEBODY GET THAT NIGGER TO CLOSE MY EYES CLOSE MY EYES NIGGER CLOSE MY EYES NIGGER”
I like Ralph, know how he appreciates an active audience. “Doris is heckling you again,” I prompt him.
“Oh, it’s just Doris’ way of saying she likes me. Look at her. She can’t take her eyes off me, can you? You adorable bigoted cunt you.”
Vulgarity is one thing, but the lurch into callous hatred burns even my numb skin. “Ralph.”
“I’m sorry, Ann.” His voice disappears, like a cut phone line.
Oh, damnit. That’s the second day in a row I’ve shut him down. I hope one of us is gone before he breaks.
Ralph has struggled throughout this whole thing to remain upbeat, gentlemanly. He didn’t speak for the first three days because he didn’t want to see the women naked. Trying to close his eyes, he’d said, though we both know that phrase meant precious little under our new circumstances. Still, how else can we communicate? It’s dangerous to contemplate sight without functioning eyes, feeling while neurons hang cold. The man who shared the rack with me before Ralph was an English teacher. Rather, he was until an aneurysm ended his career in the middle of freshman grammar. Analytical man, pragmatist, concerned with coming to some logical grasp of our situation. I liked him immediately. His first priority, he’d informed me, was to try to understand our new language, since it seemed ontologically false to use metaphors that no longer had any significant meaning for us. He went mad in two hours.
The students enter in small waves. Their pre-professional bustle goads more of us. It grows, that stunted clamoring none of the students can hear. My Jill comes over, greets her partner. “Good morning, Sui Lee.” Curt nod at me. “Hilda.” I don’t know why she picked Hilda; the name should irritate me, but I like her bemused tone in spite of myself. Her zealousness reminds me of another headstrong, bitchy woman I always admired.
Jill corrals her dangling black curls into a hair band. Beside her, Sui Lee is small and patient, waiting; she knows My Jill will take the lead, be the first to continue the exploration. Today marks the beginning of hands. Jill hunkers over me and gently grips my palm, as though to give a manicure. The scalpel stands ready.
“Did you hear about Eddie McDormand?” Sui Lee asks as the blade sinks in.
“Hell of a thing. You don’t hear much about people hanging themselves anymore. Did you know him?”
“What he looked like. That’s it.” Eyes locked on the parting skin.
“They said his landlord didn’t find him for four days. Nice cutting.” Sui Lee is distracted from Eddie’s sad fate as Jill shears back skinny flays of epidermis. They fold under their own weight, like shaved ham.
“Thanks. Yeah, some people don’t have any place in this business. Where are we going today?”
Sui Li consults the anatomical chart. “Find the palmar aponeurosis, then trace its branches out to the fingers…”
They work awhile amid their comparable silence of instrument clangs and sharp shoe squeaks. Noise from us swirls around them. The screaming, of course, there’s always someone screaming. A prayer floats from the corner of the room, “Oh Jesus, save us.” Oh, save your breath.
“What breath, Ann?” Ralph, subdued, trying to make peace.
I am eager to comply. “Ah yes, the curse of the metaphor.”
I sense his smile. He’s with me for at least another day. An intense longing for Herb suddenly explodes through me as Ralph moves on. “They’ve already thrown poor Mr. Eddie in with us, haven’t they?”
Herb is too close to my still lips, so I say nothing. I don’t need to, Ralph knows. There are no secrets among us, no matter how much you imagine closing your eyes. When I can, I reply, “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”
“Probably wishes he hadn’t signed his donor card.” I join Ralph in his chuckling, it’s too uneasy by itself. He’s right, of course — they’ve already lumped this Eddie in with us. He was different from them, didn’t belong in the business. Poor bastard, snip snip snip. None of them acknowledge that we mark the road end for them as well. Especially not My Jill — she can’t allow it to, it would destroy her ambition, the grab-Death-by-the-balls glint in her eyes. To them, we’re specimens, sources of knowledge in the fight. To us, they differ only in terms of years, days, seconds.
In the end, you’re us.
I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought I was ready for it. At ninety-two, you’re either rambling to your fern or you’re very aware the coda is approaching. The heart attack slammed me onto the concrete outside Watson’s Coffee To-Go like a freight train. Even when the emergency squad roared up a sparse two minutes later, I knew. En route to the hospital, the huge burning needle goring my left boob suddenly pulled out; lights and whistles sent everyone into a flurry of circles around me. It didn’t hurt after that. My left side had collapsed into a black hole that tugged insistently, threatening to flip me right out of the gurney. I didn’t fight the slide, I didn’t see the sense. When the show’s over, you don’t complain why it wasn’t longer, you get out of your seat and go the hell home. I slid further, the sound liquefying, and I just remember thinking, well, this is it, go on home folks, show’s over, show’s over, and everything around me pinched shut —
I was waking up. At least that’s what it felt like. My vision was opening back up, brightening. Brightening? Yes, much as I hate to admit it, there it was, a huge glowing light at the end of a tunnel of sorts. The light swelled, exploding the tunnel, killing the hints of periphery black. A harsh orange eye glared down on me. It was an operating table light. Well I’ll be damned, I made it through.
Then I tried my arm, and nothing happened. I had a stroke too? Nothing from the other arm. Have you ever half-awakened from a nightmare and been unable to move? Your mind kicking and thrashing inside the immobile rock of your body? Someone approached, a figure uniformed in green and white. He carried a harpoon with a rubber lead — I’ve since learned it’s called a trocar. He brandished it at me, and the indifference in this movement, the professional boredom, scared me far more than my inability to move. My tongue was thick, limp cardboard. I tried to twist away. He jabbed his hollow spear into my stomach, and I felt nothing.
And you think pain hurts.
I screamed and screamed as the attendant suctioned out my food, my blood, other less distinguishable juices. The rubber lead dangled in the morgue sink, and I watched the muddy parade slosh out the tube and down the drain. Intense vertigo; I was swirling, eyes ripped out and bobbing in the flood, just around and down, around and down. By the time the attendant had attached the trocar to the pump containing the preservative, I’d grown quiet again. This time, I didn’t cry out as he stuck me.
All in all, I think I handled the embalming pretty well.
Our first day was like a grand military assembly. They’d set us out early, all sheeted. The expanse of white folds covering me had gracefully molded to my face. They entered in small clumps, huddled in spite of themselves, some boasting too loudly as they stomped in — “Hey, how was your weekend?” — trying to fool themselves into believing this was not some terrible, extraordinary day.
The teacher stood at the head of the huge classroom. Short and round, Napoleon surveying the troops. Numbers hung at the end of the tables; several people crowded the wrong tables and were profuse in their quiet embarrassment. When the shuffling was at a minimum, he intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you would follow my lead….
His full-hand pinched the sheet near the rounded top. This was all done with the left, his right stayed hidden behind his back. The students tentatively mimicked him.
“And lift back….”
All fifty of us were unveiled simultaneously. There was the rippling of a hundred sails, and for an instant I was on my grandson Jeffrey’s sloop off Nantuckett. Napoleon’s melodrama worked on all in the room. Eyeballs bobbed as they took us in. Their faces crawled, some hardly at all, some as if they were infested with insects. A collective moan escaped us.
“Ladies and gentlemen, ” Fat Napoleon continued, “welcome to Human Anatomy. Those of you who survive this course will have taken a huge step in learning how to prevent a result such as this,” his plump left hand motioned to us, ” from occurring in a situation such as this….”
Napoleon’s right hand appeared over his head, wrapped around a claw hammer. The hammer whistled down and punched through the head of the body before him. Bone chips leapt up and bounced harmlessly off Napoleon’s own skull. The head jerked sideways, appealing to the rest of us, as the eye shot out like a marble on a sinewy string. The jaw popped out of its socket in surprise, and all I could think of was the jack-in-the-box whose wide mouth had sent Jeffrey into screaming fits his third Christmas morning.
Their reactions were to be expected. They were furiously alive; the shock that wormed across features and down arms, the graceful sway-and-drop as several people fainted, the aerobic stomach-crunches of vomiting. The hands of the girl standing over me jumped protectively toward my head, as if she would never do something so horrible to her cadaver.
You silly little bitch.
I did not yet know her as My Jill. For that instant, I hated her. If possible, I would have lurched up and crushed her throat. She could not hear the untwitching cacophony, especially not the goggling of the man ravaged by Napoleon — his apologizing for his appearance, his sounds breaking into tears as he strained to reel his eye back into his head.
Napoleon surveyed the room. “Those of you who’ve passed out cannot hear me. Those of you vomiting, finish and get a bucket to clean it up. Those of you still upright, pick up a scalpel.”
This was our first day of medical school.
Over three days, My Jill has changed the hand into an opened spider, a grey and white arachnid streaked with electric blue. It is a completely different creature from the puddy-toad of my back. They started on our backs first; big muscle groups, a safe place for practice and mistakes. Their learning cuts stripe me in heavy purple highways.
Sui Li steers the knife now. She is much slower than Jill, not uncertain but extremely cautious. Jill is rubbing her thumb and forefinger against each other as she watches. Oh, my dear, you just yearn to be behind that knife, don’t you? To be making all the choices, determining the paths. You’re so certain in your knowledge. Even if you don’t have all the answers yet, you have faith in your callings. They are certainly within striking distance of your blade. So much like me, so certain and sure.
Flesh and Soul as One. Even Lamont had complimented me on its poetic simplicity — no small praise, considering the source. I discovered his Philosophy of Humanism in ’51, a few years before McCarthy’s madness brought us into the same courtroom. My god, he was amazing. His words burned with dissident intensity, with humane conviction. Heaven and hell were just myths, he ranted, societal constructions used to convince the downtrodden not to rebel. The meek shall inherit the earth, indeed. The idea of an afterlife served only to remind the good and long-suffering that they would receive ultimate justice and that the sinners, the rabble-rousers, would receive well-deserved damnation. He hoped that death could simply be honestly recognized, not loaded down with undue hopes or fears.
How could someone be so right and so wrong at the same time? For this cannot be hell. If so, then God is much crueler than even the Old Testament tells. There are believers all around me, singing psalms of the suffering faithful. Ralph is one, I can hear his reedy prayers each night when they shut down the main lights. So how can we all be thrown together like this, the pagans and the pious? No, I was right. Flesh and Soul as One. This body is all there is. Somehow consciousness continues, possibly residual electricity in the neurons, released at the time of severe cardiac trauma. Neurochemical flooding, perhaps. Maybe the embalming preserves the body too well, so that it cannot break down as fast as it should. Yes, the process takes much longer, but it still goes on —
Oh god, the time of the dumping.
They do it so casually, pushing and sweeping the day’s bits into the bags, flicking away tiny scraps that have clung to the scalpel. It shouldn’t bother me. Damn it, Ann, take your stand. This is the way it is meant to be. We are nothing but worm meat in the end. To rally against this would be unnatural and stupid. A waste of time.
And yet, it may be those bags that finally drive me over the edge. Not Ralph’s faltering breakdown, not the forty raving corpses I’m spending the last part of my existence with. Just some red biohazard bags, the final source of my post-life dementia.
With each careless wrist flick, the gentle rustling rolls louder through my ears. Each little bit of me that drops seems to echo. I tell myself it’s just meat, no matter how it sounds. It can’t be whispering as it falls.
Night in the vault. A walk-in closet of bodies; two orderly rows, each of us suspended from crab-claws of metal. The claws hold us by the head, their thin but strong pincers gripping by the ears. The blackness wraps around like an immense velvet hand.
Memories swarm. Trevor’s pebble collection, still packed away somewhere in the attic. Our twenty-fifth anniversary, celebrated in the Moroccan street markets. Long summer mornings. Herb’s white hat glistens like a star. The air heavy with the smell of grass. His fingers carefully break the ground open. And there they are. They squirm uncertainly, startled by blinding light. Herb gently brushes them aside to make room for his hibiscus. They retreat back underground. Temporarily. Dripping around and down, waiting….
The blackness rushes back around me. Reassuring emptiness. It happens that way sometimes, the memories coming alive, almost like dreams or hallucinations. At least they quiet the screamers, lull them into an Alzheimeric peace. Deep inside, that’s what I’d always expected, blissful peace. That’s a difficult admission for me. I always mocked the Jesus brigade for their light-filled tunnels and eternal gardens, but I don’t know that I ever had a less concrete vision. You can’t imagine nothingness, can you? I guess I’d always pictured some sort of comforting oblivion — a tiny figure lying under an eternity of night. What a terrible lack of self-awareness. I always prided myself as being more rational. But that’s the point, I guess — it takes death to erase self.
I know this, because there is no true quiet anymore. Now, when night stills the ravings, something else creeps in. Static growing louder, struggling to be words. Flashes of color. Images ribbed, lined, thrashing. Lost bits of meat weeping, opening their eyes —
Up they go, unwinding, unwrapping. They cut and then stretch, as if opening curtains. All bodies match now, preserved pink and pickled grey with green fibers and mounds like dusky rope. My Jill has laid my neck open when Ralph starts singing.
“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me.
His tone is shaky, uncertain, and I join in to support him.
‘one else but me.
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.
I can’t remember the next line. It doesn’t matter, because Ralph is improvising.
’cause I’m already under the apple tree, just little ole me.
Dead and buried under the apple tree.
Dead under the apple tree, nobody else but me.
Dead under the apple tree, nobody else but me.
Dead under the apple tree….
Like a needle stuck on a record. I call to him gently, and the song becomes a shout, drowning me out. Each appeal brings a louder shriek.
I miss him already.
Oh god, neural fibers have to break apart at some point. Maybe when they get to our heads. Scoop out the ice cream, get rid of the nuts.
Delirious. I’m staring up at My Jill, watching the dedication in her mouth, and the noise that accompanies her face is sloshing, like waste in a sewer pipe. Smells slam through each other, mate and bear mixed offspring: isopropyl breathe mints, aerosol rubber, dead fart perfume. At night, the whispers break in more fervently, speaking from in my head but not in my voice.
I’m losing track of things. I distinctly remember Jill removing my arms, yet she did it again today. Arm: log of peeled fruit, strands of tendon randomly erect. She lifted the saw and the air buzzed with chewing. The first time, I watched the arm go. This time, I watch my body stay put as she removed me from the torso and wrapped me in the red hazard bags. Those fucking bags.
Working on faces today. Ralph’s features look like a lump of beets with two white grapes balanced atop. Jill is peeling my cheeks like an apple, an apple tree with anyone else but me anyone else but me N O ! NO! No. Have to stay. Together. The show must end soon.
I hear a thousand smackings somewhere. Can’t locate; ever since My Jill took my eyes, it’s been harder and harder to see. Applause. There’s a droning that makes me think of France, then more smackings. Happy whooping. Jill’s face suddenly fuzzes into view. Those steady lips. I wonder what she did with mine.
Different hands now. They’re scooping me into plastic. The red biohazard mouth wins in the end. That’s fine. Last act, it’s almost over. Finally, a cart with squeaky wheels. I hear an elevator. Anticipation settles through me, along with an unnamed liquid seeping across my back, slimy in its comfort, like week-old bath water. They cremate the bodies in a mass grave, I remember this from the school’s literature on body donation. Even if this meat is still dumbly winding down, the fire will end it, char it, burn it to embers and atoms. Whispers and slithering flashes —
THE NOISE! Outside. I’m outside the building. My god, to think I complained of the silence in the classroom. Life, like a thousand ruptures at once. Sharp explosion of bird wings as one of my vertebrae gives way, lolling my head to the left. Birds taking flight near me, or my spine breaking? Think it was both, synchronous soaring and slipping. Outside the vault, the world is a system. Everything is together, humming shining thumping driving whining revving braking gesticulating gesturing
Why are we in a cemetery? What used to be my cheek against the ground. Shovel passes me like a shark in murky water. No, don’t bury me, burn me, GODDAMNIT, BURN ME BURN ME!
Trevor. He never liked this donating idea, said he wanted somewhere to remember. I always told you we needed to discipline that boy better. Herb, where are you, get the usher, the show is over, I want to leave but I seem to be cemented to my chair.
Splatters of dirt, down and down and…stop.
Someone brushing cracked knuckles against corduroy, the sound of ripping. The bag splits, forms two skewed eyes, black pupils on a flushed face. They stare at me. I wanted a private table, a window table, damnit, where’s my window table.
They come in through the eyes, sniffing at first, curly little fingers. They rub through the holes and drop. They’ve vanished, but I can still feel them….
I was right. Half-right. Not Flesh and Soul as One — Flesh and Soul Is One. Each bit of the Flesh is Soul, has soul, has a voice. Death as the Great Liberator, unshackling the unheard masses, freeing them to sing, to …whisper.
Not sure if this is me anymore. Me. Silly word. I could be Ann’s brain. Could be her pancreas, splurting out insight. A stray skin cell, too stupid to have sluffed off yet. Now I finally know. Only one philosophy that matters in terminus — decayism. Decomposition of fact giving birth to fact, old voices breaking into new, leaking out of the joints gnawed open by the munchers at the door.
The truth shall set you free. I was right all along. Nothing but worm meat.
But, oh god, I didn’t know I’d still be screaming as they fed.