Skin (Chapter 1)
Eyes locked on the girl, Josh struggled to balance the rifle on his shoulder as the slippery neuroskin under his sweatshirt pulled it off-center. I never should’ve sold the skin on my arms, he thought. The girl was propped up against a maple thirty yards out, guzzling a Coke and eating a Poptart, crumbs landing on the crest of her rounded stomach.
I see you Goldie, she thought, yawning. Damn boys are no different than monkeys in Thailand trained to rip wristwatches off tourists for their masters. Except his master wants my skin...
Through the scope, slowly blinking grey-green eyes and sunken cheeks splattered with large spots appeared close enough to touch. The zipper on her windbreaker had burst open revealing irregular shaped spots on her stomach and as he watched, golden leaves spun down onto her red curls. She’s been on the road as long as me, he thought.
I’m exhausted. If it wasn’t for you, my love, I’d let them skin me. Breeding programs like the one that impregnated her had created larger, darker, more leopard-like freckles in the MC1R carrier population, yet the demand was always outpacing the supply.
Josh trained the laser on her forearm. Already tagged. The Trac-B read her bounty at 100,000Q, but the burn rate on Spotties was so high that the baby was worth ten times that. Josh loaded a dart and was easing forward on the trigger when he felt a wire snake around his neck and squeeze.
Sadie sprinted to where the boy was clawing at the slowly constricting garrote. When she tapped thumb to forefinger, the snare ceased tightening. She tossed his rifle then squatted over him.
He’s at the end of his run, she thought, taking inventory. Face crisscrossed with scars. Nose broken multiple times. She fished into his mouth, finding better quality teeth than expected and no wisdom teeth. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. He’d had some success as a tracker too. Nickel-sized bonus stamps crawled up both forearms covered with the revolting liquid plastic skin replacement.
“Look, Trackie,” she whispered, “I’ll be long gone by the time the signal wanes and this necklace…” she flicked the metal rope and his eyes popped an inch wider “drops off. You’ll be dead by then. Do you understand?”
His lips were turning blue, but he quit pulling at the snare and flashed a thumbs up sign.
“Or…I’ll give you 10,000 quid to take me over the Divide unseen.” She gestured to the zoomers above, just visible through the trees. “And my guess is you’ve run these hills before.” She looked at her watch. “You’ve got about thirty seconds left.”
He stared up at her, calculating his options, then nodded. She gave the split signal and the snare dropped off, snaked through the leaves and coiled around her ankle.
“What’s your name, Goldie?”
“Josh.” He sounded hoarse, but not angry.
“Sadie,” she responded. “Let me know when you’ve got your wind.”
He bent over one knee, coughing and lacing up his skimmers. A thick line of bruising cut across his neck and his right eye was blood red. He was twice her height, lanky and unintimidating. Though they were roughly the same age, he seemed younger.
After a few seconds, he circled his forefinger.
“Nope. Call your Wheat first. And make it good.”
“Yeah. Ok.” He coughed again then hit the comm on his Trac-B.
“She’s gone,” Josh said, adding, “Wasn’t a Spottie anyway.”
“Whaddyou mean gone? You lose her or drop her?”
“Markin, she was a Teaser! I dropped her, okay? On my way in.”
“Josh! You lazy piece of shit. Find me something or your old ass is on carving from now on!” Markin disconnected.
Josh looked down at Sadie, one eyebrow raised.
“How long before he comes looking?”
“Won’t probably. He’ll think I’ve been poached, not that you’re a…uh...” Josh trailed off.
“Spottie. You can say it.”
He had the good manners to look down.
She sighed. “Alright, you’re in the lead. Let’s go.”
He kicked off headed north, his long strides quickly outpacing hers. Without his cough, she would never have heard him -- he knew just where to place his feet.
Josh slowed to a trot.
“Sadie, we’ve got a drop coming up.”
Oh, thank God, she thought. She dropped her head, pulling in lungfuls of cool air.
“You’re as loud as a boar,” Josh complained.
“Shut it, Goldie! I’m not paying you to talk.” She gasped between each word, which took the venom out of it.
The break in the forest revealed what used to be an overpass and was now a maw of rusting street cars. Josh straddled a metal girder, legs dangling. Sadie flipped up her hood.
“Where are we?”
He took a swig of water, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Pretty sure we’re just east of Advance. Should be signage below.”
Josh suddenly reached over her head, grabbing for the rifle.
She rolled away, reaching under her arm and scrambling to her feet, a curved knife thrust towards his chest.
The rifle raised between his hands, he shouted, “Woah, Sadie, relax! I just need the scope, okay?
Sadie held her ground as he stripped it off, dropping the rifle at her feet with a roll of his eyes. He climbed down as far as he could, then tucked and dropped onto the hood of a wrecked BMW. Scanning under the collapsed bridge, the signage was gone. Must have been attached to the overpass.
A billboard for Harry Winston still stood. A blonde in her thirties, elbows balanced on a white tablecloth, flashed a broad smile. She wore emerald earrings and matching twisted skin bangles. Each an inch wide, the skin was a striped mix of mocha, Spottie and pale. The uneven surface of the bracelets were the only indication that underneath the skin was not wood or plastic, but bone.
“No. But we can’t be that far from Buck Creek and the Sierras are just on the other side.”
He paused to pull long strips of rubber out of his shirt, “Let’s try for the creek by nightfall. You good?”
She nodded and smiled, stifling a sharp pain in her side.
“Where’d you learn how to make these?” she asked.
He sat in the dirt, straddling her bare foot, muttering under his breath.
“Your feet are swollen,” he said, dark eyes squinting up at her.
“If the swelling gets worse...”
“Listen, I didn’t…”
He cut her off. “Yeah, I know. But you’re scaring the game away. I can’t make you quality skimmers, but these will help.”
“Fine.” she said, reddening. “Make it quick.”
“Of course, your highness.” He responded, the corners of his lips curling up.
She didn’t appreciate the gesture until she ran again. He’d jammed cross-sections of rubber into cuts in the soles. It not only made the boots quiet, but also wider and therefore infinitely more comfortable.
They made it to the valley well before mid-day and for once, she didn’t immediately kick her boots off, but walked along the ridge scouting for a smooth rock. He was laying back among the late-blooming wildflowers eating jerky and squinting up at the sun when she plopped down beside him.
“You’re going to choke and go blind,” she said.
He laughed, nearly choking, and re-crossed his long legs at the ankles, snapping off another bite.
She leaned forward as far as she could, coming up shy of her toes. Hello there, my love, she thought. Then she pulled up the back of her shirt and circled the clean side of the rock on her lower back, grunting with pleasure.
“Unh?” she responded, eyes closed.
“Do you know how it happened?”
“The… you know… the skin trade.” He turned towards her, shaggy hair falling over his eyes and tucked his knees into his chest.
Hmm… makes sense I guess, she thought. Wheat take kids as payment for Rock-addicted parents. Goldens are raised like dogs – given food and shelter, taught to track, but not much more.
“Yeah.” She answered finally. “I know some.”
“Tell me?” His earnest face reminded her of Noah. It had been weeks since she thought about her brother. His chubby fists tied down, screaming her name. The skin peeling off his tiny fingertips. And all the blood...
“Um…first there were piercings, where needles would pass through.” Sadie revealed her popped bellybutton and mimed piercing it. “And towards the end, the holes got bigger. My uncle Rami showed me vid of a man in India passing an entire snake through a hole in his ear.”
Josh rolled an earlobe between his fingers, bewildered.
“Then tattooing,” she continued. “No area was sacred. People inked their eyelids and inside their ears. They…”
“Have you seen Malenas?” Josh interrupted, sitting up.
“They run Skittle across the border. Malenas have a tattoo…” Josh pointed to the center of his tongue, “…of a purple eye. I’ve seen the farms...”
“Does anyone still buy farmed skin?”
“Some, yeah. For orange Skittle, they force-feed the kids pumpkin puree. For green, they strap copper plates on. And for XP, they’re kept in the dark for years.”
Sadie shivered. At least I can run…
She continued, “When 3-D tattooing began, my mom was little. They built a pyramid on my grandfather’s back between his shoulder blades. When he fell asleep on the couch watching television, she curled up in its shade. The needle injected ink and GDF5, a cartilage-producing protein. People made horns, tails and of course, parts of their anatomy bigger too.”
Josh laughed. For all the trauma to his face, was good-looking in a goofy, coltish way.
“Some of the old-timers still have them. I once saw a man with an octopus on his head. The blue and grey tentacles climbing down the sides of his face formed aquatic sideburns. The irises were made of jade, sewn into eyes eight inches above his own.”
“3-D removal creates a bloody mess. Grafted skin was the solution…”
“Why not just use the pink?” Josh pointed to the slick arm propping up his head. The shiny plastic resembled the underside of a frisbee.
“Josh, you know why. Neuroskin is nasty. You’ve seen a Pigpen, right?”
People who sold all of their skin -- Pinkies -- were universally hooked on K-rock. Cops called their hangouts “pigpens” from the look of their tangled pink limbs on filthy mattresses, eyes rolled back, telltale white haze hanging in the air.
He changed the subject. “Do you need to cross the Divide?”
“Kaweah Gap is steep. It’s the lowest point in the range, but...”
She winced and nodded.
“What if we go southwest into Three Rivers?”
“How am I walking into town?”
He tugged on her hood. “Your uh…” He struggled for the right word. Freckles. They’re called freckles… “freckles will be tougher, but a clay paste...”
She stood up. “Clay paste? For these?” She pulled her curls back so he got a good look.
“Okay, okay.” He put his palms up. “I’ll skim into Three Rivers, hit an R-X and grab proper coverup and dye.”
“You don’t think I've thought of that?” She struggled to speak calmly. “They scan you, Trackie. You probably have a freeze or two on your tag, right? And they scan you on the way in, so you can’t lift it either.”
“Fine. I’ll claim your tag and walk you in. Put the snare on.”
“Josh! You know what I’m worth, which is nothing compared to the baby. The Wheat will have me on a carving board in under an hour. We’re wasting time. I’m paying you to get me over that.”
She stabbed her finger at the snow-cap behind him marking the Divide, her arm shaking on the way down.
“And you know damn well you can’t make the climb,” he said softly.
I’ll make it, she thought, rubbing her belly, but will you, my love?
Marcia perched on the top step, taking small sips of December wind and puffing white mist back against the door, trying to calm herself down. I’m nuts, she decided, before raising her knuckles, teeth clenched in a salesman’s smile.
Her hand hadn’t yet landed when the deadbolt banged open, rattling the frame. She fell forward a step, twisting her ankle as her purse arced forward under her nose, pulling her off-balance.
“Oh! Mrs. Grammaldi... I’m…” tumbled from her mouth. She swore under her breath and fought to stand upright.
“I know you.” The woman’s face, sweaty and irritated, mooned large in the doorframe. Her rusty voice clashed with the wispy black curls and loud paisley housedress she wore.
As at trial, Anna Grammaldi reminded Marcia of her grandmother, but with an edge. Still, Marcia had the inappropriate desire to snuggle into Anna’s large bosom and spill her worries. Warm, slightly musty air trickled through the doorway mixed with the sweet smell of onions cooking down in olive oil. Marcia smiled despite herself, but stifled it quickly, leaving a half sneer in its wake. It felt odd on her face, like a sneeze swallowed.
“Okay,” she said slowly, smoothing her creased pants and holding her hands up palms out. “May I come in? This is important.”
“No.” The door closed fast and hard. Anticipating the move, Marcia reacted quickly, jamming her leg back into the gap, pressing with both hands and angling her chin toward the edge of the door to be heard.
“Ma’am, please! I’m here at your son’s request. His last in fact. Hear me out?” she shouted.
Anna held the door firm, applying pressure from her hips and yelled, “I’m suppose’ to believe Tony asked you for somethin’?”
“I’m the only one that can visit him!” Marcia shot back, wincing but doubling down, shoving with all she had.
All at once, Anna let go. Marcia once again tumbled into the entryway, this time taking three teetering steps on her throbbing ankle before skidding to a stop. Long strands of dark hair were caught in her chapstick. She pulled them free, righted one low heel and struggled upright. She found herself sandwiched between the freezing wind at her back and the warm fragrant air flanking the woman in front of her.
Anna was still. Her weight balanced forward, like a fighter’s, her mouth fixed in a tight white line. Her eyes, so dark they appeared to be missing their pupils, shone beneath sleepy looking lids.
Seeing Anna’s stance, Marcia stiffened. She suddenly felt that the woman was thinking hard about throwing her back down the walkup. Anna was barely over five feet and pushing seventy, but she had powerful arms. Marcia waited.
Anna’s curiosity won out it seemed. She shoved the door shut and grunted, waving Marcia into her formal room. Wine drapes fanned a bare wooden window seat. Dust motes floated in the rays coming through the segmented glass. A forest green loveseat sealed beneath a clear plastic cover was shoved up against the far wall and a dark shag rug, likely the source of the stale smell, covered most of the pine floor. Stacks of unopened bills and yellowing newspapers framed the doorway.
As Marcia trailed behind, she noticed Anna’s whitened cracked heels hanging from the back of her too small slides. She had some sympathy for the woman. Her family and friends had shunned her during trial as she steadfastly defended Tony, in the front row throughout, gripping her purse tightly on her lap, pecking out scowling glances at the jury.
Having offered Marcia a coffee (politely declined) and turned the burner down, Anna dropped solidly into a highback chair with a low groan. Her housedress rode up past her knees and Marcia noticed with embarrassment the nude roll at the top of her support hose. Her large thighs were plagued with thick blue varicose veins. That must be painful, Marcia thought. Anna slapped her knees to bring Marcia’s attention back around. “Well now. What does Tony want?”
“His last meal, Mrs. Grammaldi,” Marcia said, clearing her throat. “He’d like your eggplant parmesan.”
“Huh,” she said, nodding. Not surprised in the least, Marcia thought. “So? You came to Queens to tell me that?”
“Well,” Marcia started “You’re aware of his restrictions. No visitors except defense counsel, who Tony fired following the outcome of his last appeal, and myself. And no gifts of any kind. In other words, you can’t make the meal, but I can.”
“Puh!” So incredulous was Anna’s face, Marcia giggled and instantly regretted it. She blushed and looked down at her feet.
“Even let’s say I give you the recipe, you can’t do it like me. My Tony would know. And? I’m not givin’ you shit. Capiche?” She leaned forward, one massive elbow balanced on one rounded knee. They were now nose to nose. Marcia tried to maintain the distance. She focused on the woman’s chin hair and the line around her lips of worn off mauve lipstick, but in the end Marcia flinched, pulling her head back.
After holding her gaze for a moment longer, Anna turned towards the back of her chair, pretended to spit and then spun back to Marcia, flashing the fork of her first two fingers over her left eye.
Marcia sighed inwardly, smiled tightly and pushed. “Curse me if you like. Tony will be executed in thirty-one hours. He’s promised me the location of the Morrey twins in exchange for this meal. And I intend to make that happen.”
Anna’s eyes widened. She looked up, palms together as if in prayer and made the sign of the cross. “My Tony…” she started. “I still can’t believe he…They were babies...babies.” To her credit, the woman looked disgusted.
Marcia was used to the reaction. Anna’s son was, is, an absolute monster. Over the years, people hungry for the sordid details asked her. So, she told them what was on the record and more because in addition to overwhelming proof, public outrage kept him in prison the last seven years. Their reaction was always the same. How could he? Every one of them with large eyes, childlike in their fear.
Marcia let the silence spin out, coating the two of them for a minute. Then, softly, she said, “Anna, their parents… They know their girls are gone. But they want to say goodbye. To bury their bodies. You can understand that, can’t you?”
Anna looked past Marcia’s head, out the bay window to the street below. It was just starting to snow and the house was cozy, too warm, stifling in fact. Marcia shifted in her seat, searching for a cool spot on the cushion. She noticed there were no frames in the room. She would have expected at least one of Tony. Anna still hadn’t responded. Her hands were pressed together tightly in her lap, her eyebrows knit. She looked younger in her shame, and unwilling. Mostly unwilling. Marcia pressed harder, ready to cross the line to get what she came for.
“Mrs. Morrey has only a thumb, Mrs. Grammadli! One greying thumb with sparkly pink polish, chipped at the sides. She doesn’t know whether it’s Sara’s or Samantha’s. Can you imagine that, as a mother? Only having one tiny piece of your children to bury? Let’s get her what’s left of them, okay? Let’s do the right thing! Please!”
Anna produced a tissue from one of her sleeves and dabbed dry, but reddened eyes. “He was never a good boy. You know? Never was. But I loved him... Still do.”
Anna said nothing for a long time, then asked roughly, “You have kids?”
“No, ma’am, I don’t. But the Morrey…” Marica was losing her patience.
Anna cut her off with a wave, too close to Marcia’s face. “Yeah, I know. I know.”
Marcia waited a moment longer, then leaned in again. “Mrs. Grammaldi, I’ve got some supplies in the car. Can we try to do this now, today? Please? I’d love to give the Morrey family some solace before Christmas. And Tony will appreciate it I’m sure. This last gift from his mother.”
Anna cut her eyes quickly to Marcia as if to say “layin it on pretty thick missy...”
Finally, Anna nodded, tucking the tissue into her cleavage. She slapped her knees again and sucked in through her nose, snorting a bit.
“Alright, let’s give it a shot,” Anna said. Rising, she gasped midway and stopped, one hand gripping the arm of the chair. Marcia thought to help, her hand even pulled away from her side automatically, but she didn’t move. Marcia, she’s an old lady! she chided herself, but still she remained frozen. Finally upright, Anna shuffled into the kitchen and Marcia excused herself to the car.
She let go of the door handle and stood there a moment in the swirling snow, bag in hand. She let the cold air whip around her waist and run up her armpits. Goosebumps burst out on her arms and she shivered violently, deliciously. She wanted to drop the bag, get back in the car and just take off. Spin out in the snow and hit I-95 at eighty miles an hour. But she promised Ellen Morrey that if she ever had the opportunity to get the girls back, she would. So, she sighed, hitched up the bag and started back up the stairs.
Tsking at the contents of the bag, Anna said, “Thank God I was already making marinara. I can’t make anything from diced tomatoes and garlic powder. Who taught you how to make sauce?”
“I wasn’t sure what you would need,” Marcia answered lamely.
“Huh,” Anna responded, still pawing the bag. “At least the eggplants are firm. You aren’t a complete idiot,” she said, patting Marcia’s arm. Her hand, larger than a man’s, was hot and sweaty through Marcia’s thin sleeve.
Marcia stood, one arm gripping the opposite elbow on the stained linoleum, taking in the cracked laminate counter and greasy stovetop. The fresh air she’d taken in was gone. She once again felt crammed into the too small space, but she flipped open the cuffs of her silk blouse and started rolling.
They stood side by side, Marcia in charge of the egg wash, Anna doing the breadcrumbs. In heels, she was eight inches taller than Anna, but still fought that feeling of being a little kid cooking with her grandmother. Anna even corrected her by slapping her hand when she spilled egg on the counter. Marcia gritted her teeth and said nothing.
They passed the eggplant in silence. Marcia was grateful that the woman wasn’t chatty. She didn’t want to have to manufacture sympathy if Anna confided in her just how lonely she was or how much she missed her darling boy. As they fell into a rhythm, Marcia got lost in her thoughts. She imagined stealing a handful of breadcrumbs and shoving them into her pockets. Just in case, she thought. But I’m already in the witch’s house. It’s too late.
When it came time to fry, Marcia excused herself to the bathroom. She could imagine all sorts of scenarios where the woman “slipped” and Marica got doused with scalding oil. She was being ridiculous, childish, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman had it in for her. She had, after all, put her only son on death row…
In the bathroom, she found two toothbrushes. Marcia recalled Anna’s husband had died during sentencing. Heart attack, she thought. Was she keeping his toothbrush as a reminder? That’s sick. Did she have a male suitor? Ugh. That was worse.
She splashed cold water on her face before stepping out. It smelled amazing in the kitchen, she had to admit. Anna was layering the eggplant with mozzarella and hot marinara. Her stomach grumbled at first, then turned queasy. Maybe it was the lack of fresh air. She reeked of oil as if she’d done the frying herself. She felt greasy, suffocated.
“Can I put some plastic on top?” Marica suggested.
“Are you nuts? It’s too hot. Just sit tight and let it cool. Come, come.” Anna said, striding out of the kitchen.
Back to the formal room? Lord. Marcia thought. Trailing behind, Marcia looked at her watch. “Unfortunately, I…”
“You’ll wait! I’ve got somethin’ to show you.” Anna responded, too loudly for the small space.
Oh lord, here come the pictures, Marcia thought. Tony on a sled smiling. Tony as a baby.
“Ma’am, I must…” Marcia started.
Anna moved fast, rising from the chair (no bum hip now) and slapped Marica hard across the face. She stood on tiptoes to get this done, but the reach did nothing to diminish her strength. Marcia was still standing, but just barely. The slap rocked her and she was buzzed, tipsy. The woman could’ve been a slugger for the Yankees, she thought. God! Her mouth formed a perfect O and hot blood filled her cheeks.
As Marcia reached up to rub her cheek, Anna bit the tips of her fingers and whistled. A teenager, long chestnut hair swinging behind her, fair skin shining in the reflection from the bay window, appeared as if on queue behind Marcia. Cranking her neck around slowly, Marcia first absorbed her own throbbing cheek, the spot where breadcrumbs were stuck with egg to her arm hair and finally, at the end of her arc, that the beautiful girl in front of her was missing the thumb from her right hand.
Marcia’s ears buzzed and her vision started to tunnel. She could not, would not, pass out here. She bit her tongue hard and copper flooded her mouth.
She turned back to the chair, scanning for her purse, and found it tucked in next to Anna’s left thigh. Then Marcia noticed her own gun leveled at her chest.
“My God! You had her? Them? The whole time?” She asked.
Anna shook her head slowly, the gun not wavering. “I couldn’t save Samantha. He’d already done his work on her. But Sara…” She looked at the girl lovingly. “I pulled him off her. Stemmed the blood. I kept her safe.”
The girl still hadn’t spoken. Marcia risked a glance. “Are you okay?” Such a stupid thing to ask after seven years of captivity. The girl smiled, then opened her mouth wide to Marcia.
A black hole, larger than it should be, stared back at Marcia.
Oh God, oh God, Marcia thought.
“That’s my doin’,” Anna said, chuckling low. “Couldn’t risk someone hearing her.”
I’m going to die here, Marcia thought. Tony knew. He sent me here because he knew! His last girl. I’m his last girl. Not Sara. Not Samantha. Me. Oh God.
Anna tossed Marcia’s keys to Sara, who caught them deftly with her injured hand. “Bring her car around back, love. I’ll need your help. And then wash up for dinner. I made eggplant parm.”
The Stranger in the Walls
I experience them now only through the eyes and ears I’ve created. They’ve tried to abandon me, like everyone does eventually. But I still have them this way. I’m the stranger in the walls.
When I met Janice five years ago, she was plain and thus unprepared to be flattered, pursued, showered with gifts by a wealthy older man. The other waitresses at the diner tried to warn her. I heard that too.
“He’s handsome I guess, J, but he’s…There’s something not quite right. I mean…”
“Stop it Bev. He’s just shy, like me.”
“Really? Shy? He taped An Open Letter to the Friends of Janice Mcfain on the door to the downstairs pantry. Mike is pissed. He wants to know how he got back there.”
“Tell Mike to calm down. He’s the Assistant Night Manager, not my dad. And I think it’s sweet that he wants you guys to like him! You and Jenny were especially shitty when we went to AMC last Friday. Don’t think I didn’t see you refuse to share popcorn with us. Really?”
“I…I didn’t want to touch his hand, J! I can’t put my finger on it J, but something is wrong with him. I mean, he’s old and…and there’s something else. I just….Instead of getting mad at me, why not talk to Shell? Talk to Mike and Von too. Your ENTIRE group of friends is creeped out by him. He stops smiling when you look the other away. Did you know that? It’s weird!”
“You’re being a bitch, Bev.” Janice set her jaw and grabbed the grilled cheese on the counter, headed to the front. Beverly grabbed her wrist and the sandwich slipped halfway off the plate. Janice shoved it back in place and licked her fingers.
“Come on, J! Why are you taking this out on me? Listen, sweets, I’m telling you there’s a problem with him. I’m not a hater. I know he’s your…your first. But there’s no way you’re his, right? So, do you know anything about him? Was he marr…Shit. He’s here again.”
Beverly pointed her stubby red nails at me, dead ahead, in my favorite booth. It was my favorite because at ten in the morning the sun glinted off my thick blonde hair and gave me a gauzy, god-like halo. In the past three months, I’d sat in every booth in the place and knew from the reflection on the steel backsplash of the kitchen that this one was the best. Janice lifted her narrow set blue eyes and took in my charcoal suit, my spray tan, my wide smile just for her. She smiled and blushed right through her freckles. That’s when I knew I had her.
We married seven months later. She was three months pregnant with Charlie, queasy and green throughout the ceremony. I thought it was sexy how sick she was. When she puked after the cake, I held her hair back and kissed her ear. I tried to nibble her neck too, but she wasn’t having it.
I’m aware that people tend not to like me, so I worried about popping the question. Her parents were easy enough to deal with though.
I leaned in, hip to hip, pushing Barbara up against the formica countertop.
“You look so young,” I whispered into her ear. “You’ve really kept your figure.”
She laughed and rubbed up against my suit pants. I touched her sagging elbow skin, then her brittle orange hair. She took a swig of white wine and then lowered her eyes at me, trying for smoldering, but achieving cheap. Match win.
I wandered into the living room, clinking the ice cubes in my scotch.
“Hello Sir. How are you this evening?” He stared at the television, pretending not to hear me.
“I wanted, sir, to ask you a question if I may.” I remained standing. This wouldn’t take long and their couch had clearly never been vacuumed.
He turned to look at me, his distaste evident in the tilt of his bushy moustache. I sighed.
“Oh, I understand I’m not who you would have chosen for your little girl, but I can take care of her and elevate her a bit above…” I paused for effect. “Well, above all of this, I suppose.” I motioned with my glass to their shag carpet and peeling wallpaper.
He grunted and turned back to the TV, cranking the volume on Hunting Bigfoot.
And that’s game. I swigged the rest of my glass and walked out, swatting her mother in the ass as I passed through the kitchen.
By all accounts, I was supportive and loving throughout Janice’s pregnancy. When her little sister visited, I rubbed her increasingly fatter back and her swollen, unpolished toes, smiling all the while. I resisted my daily urge to cover her nose and mouth when she snored on the couch. Her bloated, drooling figure disgusted me, but she was mine.
Her shitty diner friends threw her a baby shower and didn’t invite me. That kind of thing really pisses me off so I stepped on her hand when she was on the floor of the nursery folding baby clothes. We both pretended it was an accident.
She eventually stopped talking to them, but it took some convincing.
“Janice, you should be home! That’s it. Period.”
“Calm down Charles. It was one night.”
“Do you really think you should be out at the dives pregnant? Is that what a good mommy-to-be ought to do?”
“Charles, I’m tired. Can we not do this? It was one night. I miss my friends.”
“The friends that encourage you to dance like a whale’s ass and then reopen the diner at three a.m. to raid the pantry bleary-eyed and laughing like a fucking idiot? Is that who you miss? Those friends?”
“How…how did you know we reopened the diner?”
“I know everything, Janice. I make it my business to know things. How’s your hand by the way?”
When Charlie was born, something changed. We were now a complete family. A world onto ourselves. And he was a funny clingy little monkey. He liked being with me, which was good. Really good actually. I found myself totally absorbed by him. I could watch him play with his toes for hours. It was a new feeling for me, fatherhood. It suited me.
But we had sex less, which sucked. I resorted to my old habits. I had many less than desirable methods of alleviating the resulting pressure, the heartbeat in my temples, the burning heat, all of which I hid from Janice. As far as she knew, I was still her darling, if a bit overbearing, husband. But then I caught Janice watching me closely with narrowed eyes when I had Charlie on my lap. Something had tweaked her.
“Nothing. Charles, nothing.”
“The hell are you staring at?” My voice ragged, caught in my throat.
“Just….What were you doing last night?” She pulled at one chapped lip. I noticed her pinkie trembling.
I stood up then, fists balling at my side. Charlie slid expertly to the floor, thumb still stuck safely in his mouth and padded off to find his matchbox cars. At two, he was an old pro at ignoring our arguments.
“When? When did you wake up?”
“I just…I woke up on the couch. I don’t remember what time. And. Uh... And I went to check on Charlie and you…”
“And me what?” My voice was pitched low, but I was in a full rage now, shaking, my mind twisting through the various scenarios. What would she do? What did she see?
“Nothing, nothing.” She was beet red. Her still fat face (she still hadn’t lost that damn baby weight) was sweaty as usual. She had saved up all her courage for this moment and then blew it. Ha! Loser.
“You come at me with an accusation, you better have something to back it up, Janice!” I sneered at her, grabbed my new leather jacket off of the back of the kitchen chair and rolled out the front door with a big smile on my face. I love a good win.
Oh, I don’t want you to think I’m a dirtbag or anything. All she saw was me, swinging naked from the exposed beams in our bedroom. Creepy yes, I’ll own that. Incestual child-molester creepy, no.
When I got home from the bar that afternoon, three beers and two scotch and waters under my belt, the dreaded old hamburger smelling crew had descended. She had invited them into my restored nineteenth century home. Crowded in a circle on my taupe and lavender persian rug were seven white trash losers that I used to be able to name. It smelled like red wine and snot. In other words, it smelled like Janice had been crying.
“What the hell?” I stood hands on my hips in my kitchen. From there I was taller than everyone else in the sunken formal room. And better looking, as usual.
I couldn’t see her in the middle of all of the bodies, but I guessed that she was sitting on the far end, one cheek perched on the antique coffee table. Which, of course, she wasn’t allowed to do. The hairy Greek guy answered me instead of Janice.
“You’re not welcome here anymore, buddy,” he said. Then he took two steps forward as I descended into the living room. I faked a lunge and he skittered back on his heels, almost falling on his ass. Pathetic. I looked around and thought through my options. I could easily toss them all out and break a few arms in the process, but the dark-haired wench in the corner with the acne was already pulling out her cell to call the cops.
This little intervention could be a small blip brought on by a few recent events. Maybe that fight two weeks ago before the ballet when I tried to help her with her hair and I burned her ear with her curling iron? It was mostly an accident. Or maybe she was freaked by my erotic trapeze last night? We had a few other recent rows as well. Who could remember them all? Or it could turn into something really big. I was adverse to another prison term, so I decided to play along.
I stepped around the Greek, who had lost his nerve entirely and was looking at his toes like they might start a conversation with him at any minute. I found her cowering on the edge of the table (I knew it!) and grabbed her sweaty palms.
“Janice, love, what’s all this about?” Insert winning smile. Insert kneeling husband with the thick wavy hair. But this time her eyes did not go gooey at the sight of me. She pulled her hands back as if I had bitten her and stood, shakily, to her feet. She quickly turned, showing me the back of her lumpy neck and let herself be wrapped in tight by the arms of that flat faced waitress with the stubby nails. The woman’s beady eyes glared at me over Janice’s matted hair. Her mouth was pursed to look exactly like an asshole. I sighed. This was going to take some time.
I called to Charlie then and waited through the ensuing silence. The others stared at me, willing me to go. I laughed, actually amused. I’m used to people willing me gone, but in my own home? It was almost too much. But I did wish Charlie had come running. I’m not saying I grew a heart like the Grinch when Charlie was born. But I do want him around. I like his goofy face. I like the way he clings to the back of my leg when I shave in the morning. He doesn’t think I’m weird. At least not yet. She must have whisked him off somewhere to hide him from me. Payback is a bitch my dear.
The Greek followed me to the door. I wanted him to say something. I had a buck knife on me and it would feel good to let some blood pour (it’s been years!), but he just stood there, one hand on my new Cherrywood door. The one I had installed after I pulled Janice’s chair out from under her fat ass and chucked it at the door last year. He shut it in my face. That fucker. He’s got it coming too.
Watching from the tree line on Market Street, I saw the loser crew visit in shifts for two more days, but eventually they had to get back to their own horrible lives. Only one car kept coming as the weeks wore on. The old Nissan. The Greek’s car.
I ignored the service of process from her lawyer. Our lawyer actually. She doubled down with both a restraining order and a divorce decree requesting sole custody. So childish, Janice.
I used my key (too dumb to change the locks!) while they were at the grocery store probably buying pop tarts and chicken nuggets. Charlie was going to be obese by eight if I wasn’t there to tell her what to buy. I took nothing from the house. I plan on being back soon enough. But I did leave a lot of things. I left eyes and ears in every room. In every lamp, every outlet. These things are so cheap now. I must have installed fifty of them. Actually, I lost track!
I’m in every wall, in every conversation. I have an apartment downtown and the spare bedroom looks like Mission Control. I watch Charlie sorting shapes into that plastic block thing. It’s possible he’s stupid (being fifty percent Janice and all), but I don’t think so. Lately he’s been getting them all in except the crescent. That one is a bitch. I find myself clapping for him like I’m there. I wish I was actually.
Then three nights ago I saw Janice and Mike the Greek getting it on in my bed. That was unfortunate. For them at least. I was making plans to roll in (she STILL hasn’t changed the damn locks), but I hesitated for some reason and now I’m so glad I did. Because about an hour ago, I watched that Greek motherfucker hit Charlie! Yup, saw and heard it. He was banging away on Janice and Charlie started to cry. This hairy asshole gets up out of my Queen Anne bed, rolls down the hallway naked and opens the nursery. I’m watching as he lifts my son up by one arm and smacks his soft little cheek. I stood up from my monitors and started screaming, exactly matching the pitch of Charlie on the other end. I’ve hit my limit folks! It’s go time.
I’m done being the stranger in the walls. Charlie needs me. Oh, and I might scoop Janice up again. Makeup sex is so much fun…
The sun doesn’t bother me. Not anymore. I’m on the inside for as long as I need be. That’s what He said anyway. It’s my fault I’m in here after all. Because I drew Him to me. Made him want me. Made him take me. With my smell. With my hair and my breasts and my sweat. He couldn’t help himself. And I deserved it. And I can see it. The sun. Sometimes I can, yes. But mostly it’s just a shadow on the floor. My shadow. Or worse, His shadow. Because I’m not safe near the windows. And because to tilt my neck up would burn my skin, my eyes. But really it’s my insides that would burn. To know that such a thing exists! I would rather not look. And pretend that the inside is the out. Outside is a fantasy. A realm where I no longer exist. Not anymore. It's been too long. And I have what I need after all. In this dark place. I have my own light. My own sun. Born in darkness, he brings me light. Blinding, beautiful light. The only light. That’s what He told me. Didn’t He give me the baby? And isn’t he wonderful? Of course he is. He’s not a pet. Not like me. His skin is clear. Not like me. No burns, no scars. No pain. So far. He sleeps in a bed. Not a cage. Not like me. He’s a real person. Or will be someday. Of course he will want it. The sun that is. And I can’t give it to him. But maybe someday. Someday when He’s not looking. And when I get free. If I get free. If I can ever get free. With the baby. My baby. Our baby. If He lets us. If He dies. If I kill Him. And that’s why I don’t let the sun bother me. It’s a future sun. In a future day. In a future that I don’t have. That we don’t have. Not yet anyway. But maybe my sun, our son, will meet the real sun. Maybe he will be king of the sun! Someday. Maybe. Until then we live in the shade, the shadows. On the inside. Out of it’s reach. Where it’s safe. Until I can. Until it's time. For us. For both of us. To live in the sun.
At 42, Raena Meinhardt has lost everything. Only two years ago, she’d been a senior partner at Crast and Moore, a New York wealth management firm, and had taken a sleek town car to work every morning, reading the Wall Street Journal over a customized coffee, headset permanently clipped to her ear, manicured nails tapping impatiently on the leather interior. But a series of late-term miscarriages, expensive IVF treatments and a botched Somali adoption derailed her career and ruined her second marriage. When Conner finally moves out on Christmas Eve, taking most of the furniture with him, Raena pickes up a bottle of vanilla vodka and a chocolate cake, sits in front of her still undecorated faux tree and begins to drink herself to death. She doesn’t hear the first ring of the doorbell, but the second pulls her up from her stupor. Stumbling, bleary-eyed onto the front porch, she finds a sleeping baby, bundled tight against the wind. And a note pinned to the carrier which reads:
My Dear Raena,
Meet Farah. She will be yours for the next 365 days. When I return next Christmas Eve, she will disappear and you will once again be a childless suicidal alcoholic! Or…behind door number two…you can be that good little mommy you always wanted to be and run, run, run!
Oh, you better watch out
(Because I’m watching you!)
You better not hide
(Oh, please do Raena! I love a good game!)
You better not shout
(Don’t you dare tell the cops. I will kill you BOTH.)
I’m telling you why
(Raena, are you listening?)
Santa Claus is coming to town
(You have a year to plan your escape! Think of all the options!)
He sees you when you’re sleeping
(You moan in your sleep Raena. Did you know?)
He knows when you’re awake
(Your robe is open Raena. Cover up, you whore!)
He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so….WATCH OUT RAENA!!! I’M COMING FOR YOU!!!
Your Secret Santa
There's nothing to decide. Raena sweeps her eyes over the circular drive, then tucks Farah inside her robe, nuzzling her soft cheek and backs into the house. She doesn't have a lot of time. She needs help and there's only one person who might be able to save her and Farah. She picks up the phone, dreading the call, and starts dialing.
What I Wanted
We snuck fizzy boozy punch from his parents’ party bowl and then walked out into the autumn air, hand in hand. A cool breeze tossed leaves around my boots. Too old to trick or treat, but doing it anyway. He, a convincing skeleton and me a naughty cowgirl. Two other couples trailed behind us.
We rang and rang, grabbed fistfuls of candy, laughed and sang the wrong words to songs, topping each other. Rude and loud about it. The boys scuffling, the girls slapping. All of us happy. It was all a goof. Wanting to be young again at the ripe old age of fifteen.
Nobody answered the door at a three-story house, but the lights were on inside, so we hid in the bushes and spied through a crack in the window shutter, six of us huddled into too small a space behind the hedging. We shoved and giggled and finally found a spot to stack up. So we saw a fat middle-aged man leading an elegantly dressed blowup doll in a pattern on the plush carpet. A waltz maybe? We gasped, hands over our mouths, stifling hilarious snorts, but then grew quiet and serious one by one as we watched the intricate turns, the twists, the dip. He, so intense and she, well, don’t they always seem surprised? The creepiness stole over all of us and we stood there staring, quieted, horrified.
Wanting out of the Twilight Zone dreary, I grabbed his hand and we took flight. We ran hard and far. Away from the sad man and his doll. Away from our friends. We stopped, hunched over, hands on knees, panting and spilling laugh tears from the outer corners of our eyes. Glad to be alone.
It was a clearing where the leaves had not fallen. The grass was hanging on to green. The night was warmer just there and the moon so large, it seemed lofted low, staged just for us. So bright it blotted the stars. He laid down with one arm outstretched, asking. And he looked at me with those clear yellow eyes, searching my face. As if boneless, I collapsed onto him. I was warm, you understand? Whether from the dizzy silly escape or because he was just what I wanted in that moment, I was flushed, heat radiating from my chest to my eyes and back down. All the way down.
And we lay there, me with my head on his bony chest, his face in my long hair until he asked me from painted skeleton lips, whispered yet sweetly formal, whether he could and I said yes. Because we were alone. All around us on every side street there were kids and dogs and parents and flashlights, cars and doorbells and laughing, but somehow we had escaped and were isolated, impenetrable, unpredictably alone. We couldn’t hear them or see them. Just our hot breaths, closer to each other than we had ever been, than I’d ever been with any boy. Just that, the unlikely green grass underneath me and the moon so large at my back.
He was everything I wanted just then and maybe I was too. I don’t know because he didn’t say anything. My skin was dark and his so very white in the moonlight. He shook, but I did not. And it was too cautious, painfully slow, in fits and starts, silly and tender.
And when it was done the spell broke all at once. I could hear cars and kids again, the moon sped away from us and chilly air filled the gap. We pulled clothes on, shivering, and twisted them back into their original shape or close enough. We walked, hand in hand, through a night darker than it had been before. Back to his home. And his parents, too drunk to notice how different we were. It was magic. It was over. It was what I wanted.