Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
All the King's Men
Submitted by Crab (Formerly Nelke)
She was standing on top of a cliff, hair windswept, knobby hands open in the wind, clothes flying behind her. The sky raged above her; below her, boiled a sea of polished metal. She had jumped, although she was still there.
Christa blinked, and the vision was gone. Her hands were moving at top speed, without any intervention from her consciousness, scanning the items at the register as fast as they could. The customer, frozen in a reprimanding gesture, pursed his lips and shook his head. She had been out of it for a couple of seconds, almost enough to get a complaint. She finished the transaction and let the customer go with a grin. The next one, a noisy family, came through.
Four hours, only four hours more, and the shift would be over. The store was open for longer for Christmas, so they called her to cover for a sick colleague. It had been a blessing, she needed the money, but then she would have to hurry up to her job interview. She had skipped lunch, if she just grabbed a sandwich and jumped in the bus, she would make it on time.
The woman of the vision was there, in the store. Christa gasped. She was browsing the shelves, calm, despite being surrounded by a whirlpool of customers. She did not seem to be buying anything.
Christa tried not to get distracted. The speed demanded for a cashier was one item every two seconds. She could not afford to fall behind, or she would not be called again. However, she wondered why she had pictured the stranger before seeing her in person. Maybe she had come into the store and she had registered her unconsciously. She moved so slowly, amongst the chaos, the cries, the shoves and the jingles. She stopped sometimes, poised as a statue, hair in a bun so smooth and shiny it looked fake, a Christmas decoration. However, there was something in her gestures, the tension of her shoulders, the way she stopped sometimes before an item to examine it with her delicate fingers, that betrayed a tension, something ravenous and desperate.
She shook the daydream away. What good was it to obsess over a random lady, or to indulge in visions of cliffs and storms? Christa resumed work, but that did not put an end to her speculations. Her own subconscious had latched into the lady, she thought, because she noticed her tension. She felt a kinship with the stranger.
It was that, Christa thought. She was also standing on top of a cliff, but her own abyss was internal. It had grown wider with the cold of the season, as disgraces piled up, a hollow pit in her stomach that called her every morning, every night, every second she was not busy counting her money or feeding or looking for a new job.
The lady was standing in front of her, holding two packages of pasta. Christa reacted automatically, and scanned them.
“That will be two dollars forty-nine.” She said, looking ahead.
The lady dug in her purse, and, without looking, gave her the exact amount. Christa took it, without taking her eyes off the stranger. Her heart pounded into her chest, her skin felt both hot and cold, and the well in her stomach grew until it engulfed her, and her own body, and the store, and the customers suddenly looked far away. With a shaky hand, she took the money and put it in the register. Her body did the rest of the actions expected of her.
The stranger left, and Christa forgot what she looked like or how did her voice sound. Her knees were wobbly, and again she wished that she was allowed to sit down in the job. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with a wrinkled tissue, and the next customer in the queue came through.
The hours dragged by, and the ache in Christa’s feet crept up to her knees, her hips, her loins, her shoulders. Confined at the cash register, she could not stretch. She just kept scanning items, attending customers, taking money and giving back change. The customers melted together, bubbles of nothingness that spat cash and asked and demanded and berated. The Christmas music surrounded everything, piercing her ears, muddling her thoughts into a multicolor and sickening puddle.
Her replacement came seven minutes too late, and the world seemed to coalesce again. She bolted out of the cash register and got changed. Too late. She had no time to grab a sandwich, she could not even sneak into the bathroom to get a furtive sip of water.
She headed out, chewing a stale candy bar she had forgotten in her pocket. It was already dark; it had been for hours. The wind went through the fabric of her coat, and she walked faster.
She had planned her bus schedule with the precision of a surgeon. The office was in the suburbs, an odd location for a company. She would take route 14, then change two stations over, then ten stops with route 10. Then she would have to walk for twenty minutes, but she would make it to the place of the interview. However, she had not counted on being late to the stop.
She ran. The wind howled around her, pushing her back, pushing her behind. Her lungs burned, with the miserable pain of exhaustion in the cold. She saw the stop around the corner, and gathered her last breath to reach it.
The bus came while she was still two hundred meters away. She stopped and saw how it drove through the stop without braking, and got lost in the distance.
A car drove next to her, hitting a puddle and soaking her up to her knees. She still ran to the stop, only to get confirmation of what she already knew, that the next bus came in half an hour, that she would miss the connection, that she would not make it in time for the interview. She sat on the bench. It started to rain, and there was no cover.
She wished sometimes for a single disgrace, for a point of fracture towards which she could look back and place the blame onto. However, even the despairing comfort of a tragedy had been denied to her.
First, she broke up with her first college girlfriend, the one her parents had disinherited her for. She had to look for a new room, that costed double. It had been OK, she could still get by with temp jobs while she looked for something in her field. Then, her company moved overseas.
She could still survive. She just had to find another job, with a little lower pay. She just had to pull from her savings account, where she tried to put a little money every month. The money dried up. A friend recommended her a job as a waitress, long hours, good pay. She did not tolerate being groped, so she was fired. The friend, who had put herself in the line to recommend her, also disappeared.
The baseline kept sinking. She found her job as a cashier. She lived month to month. Then, the cavity she had been ignoring for almost a year became an abscess.
She went into debt. Her gym membership, the only thing keeping her sane some days, had to be cancelled. She still went to visit her friends sometimes, and everybody pitched in to help her pay for drinks, but the looks of pity and the half-joking comments became insufferable.
The surgery went well, but she missed two days work. She could not afford the implants, so she was missing three teeth in the left side of the mouth. It hurt to chew sometimes, and it went into her neck and shoulders.
And then, last week, her car did not start. She brought it to the mechanic, who shook his head. He pointed at the engine, the transmission, the battery. “This thing is only good for scrap”, he said.
Traffic was sparse. Sitting at the bus stop, letting the rain soak her through, ruining the hairdo that she had got done at 6 AM before her mirror, she let herself fall into the pit. She did not cry. There was nothing inside her to break anymore.
For a second she wondered how many raindrops would fall into the city in a minute, in a second. She wished for the rain to dissolve her, for the water to carry her, down into the gutter and away in the dark, with the other dejects of the city into the sea.
A car parked in front of the bus stop and honked. She looked at it from a distance, wondering who might be walking behind her in the pouring rain, in the night. It honked again.
The car window rolled down, and in the driver seat, the lady from the store was looking at her with her piercing eyes. Her face was a mask of kindness.
“Need a ride somewhere?”
The stranger did not seem to recognize her, and did almost not look at her. Her car was immaculate. Christa wiped her hair with a towel she gave hair, and tried to express her gratefulness.
Christa’s hair, still wet from the rain, was still in the ponytail she had made in a futile attempt to control her hair before the interview as she arrived home in the evening. She put the groceries in the kitchen floor and took out her coat, her shoes, her sweater. She sat down and put her face in her hands.
“So, how was it?” Her roommate was already in his pajamas, or maybe he had not changed during the day. His name was Ron. He always smelled oily.
“I think I got the job.” Christa tried to smile, but the tension in her chest was still there.
“Hey, that’s cool!” said Ron. “Here, I’ll make dinner. We gotta celebrate.”
“You really don’t need to.” Pleaded Christa.
“No, no, no worries. I’ll take care of it. Go change!”
Still surprised by her roommate’s extraordinary display of niceness, she obeyed. She changed her clothes on autopilot.
She had tried so hard not to make poverty her whole identity. Her room was the smallest of an already small apartment, with just space for a bed and a desk. Her clothes were hidden in crates under the bed. However, the desk was covered in plastic flowers and books, old gifts from friends and exes, an accordion from her times when she used to play in the street in the summer. In a round bowl, an orange fish called Jasper swam in circles around fake algae. It was the only survivor of a bigger aquarium she had to leave behind when she moved.
Ron called her into the kitchen. He was thirty-two, and his specialty dish was mac n cheese from the box, that Christa ate gratefully. He offered her a joint, and she said no. There would be drug tests in her new job.
Long ago, before her previous relationship, long before her world had gone to shit, they had hooked up a few times in the first year of college, before they realized they were not into each other. Life brought them apart and back together, and they had managed to stay friends for almost half a decade.
They ate, and they laughed, and Christa even took out her bottle of whisky, a relic from better times, and they shared two glasses in the dirty kitchen. She went to sleep almost happy, her chest almost light.
In her new job, she had to work from 2 pm to 10 pm, one Saturday a month. She still needed to work mornings at the supermarket, but she did not have to fight back a panic attack anymore before checking her bank account.
She met the stranger again, at the café next to the supermarket. Christa saw her through the vitrine, sitting down with the same studied pose she used to check the shelves. She was drinking a coffee and looking at nowhere in particular.
She is a coiled spring, thought a part of her. However, she went inside.
“Excuse me, I do not intend to be a creep. Do you remember me?” asked Christa, embarrassed.
The strange woman looked at her and smiled.
“Of course. Did you get the job?”
“I did” Christa smiled, and unconsciously tapped her feet, snug in her new shoes. “You did a good thing that day. I do not think I can ever repay you.”
“It really was nothing. I live very close from that address. So, you going there now? Do you have a car?”
“I’m going by bus.”
The woman lifted an eyebrow.
“Ah, routes fourteen and ten, right?” Christa nodded. “That takes a while. You sure you will arrive in time?”
“Of course! I start at two. I’ll have lunch and go.”
The other looked at her, alarmed.
“Oh, dear. Does it not take almost an hour?”
“Yes, but it is one, right?”
The stranger pursed her lips and showed her the phone.
“It is twenty past one.”
How was it possible? Panic filled Christa’s chest. The reaction started mechanically, too easily, too fast.
“Oh no!” she said. “I will call a cab.” Can I afford it? Said a voice in the back of her head.
“Nonsense!” said the stranger. “I was about to leave, anyway. Come with me, I’ll drop you at the office.”
“But I cannot…”
“Of course you can.” the stranger smiled. “If you feel bad, next time buy me a coffee or something.”
They left and went into the car, a grey and sleek machine in a model that Christa had never seen. She was grateful and embarrassed, to the degree that she did not allow herself to question how had the lady paid for the order, as she knew that in that café place you always had to pay at the end.
“Have you eaten?” asked the stranger.
“Yes, of course.” Lied Christa. The stranger nodded, looking ahead.
“You said you would have lunch before.”
Christa felt her cheeks flush red.
“Do not worry about it.”
“Look. I feel awkward proposing this, but I come for lunch around this area every day. I can take you to your job at half past one. You will save time, and I will have company.”
Christa started to reject the offer automatically, but the other raised a hand.
“If you feel uncomfortable, just pay me a dollar every ride. It is more than what the gas costs, and I do the route every day. You do not have to give me an answer now.”
“I’ll think about it.”
At the door of the office, the stranger gave her a business card, smooth and heavy, with a name and a phone number printed in silvery letters. Christa recorded the number. When Christa arrived home, nauseous with hunger, she made herself dinner and sat down with her plate of wok veggies and a glass of water. Reluctantly, she did the math.
She had ten minutes to eat every day. She tried to bring lunch at the beginning, but, as her job had no microwave, she always had to buy a sandwich at the café, and that meant that, in the days when there was a queue, she had to skip the meal.
If she took up the lady’s offer, she would have twenty-five minutes every day, at least. It would mean spending a dollar for each ride, but she would eat. Maybe she could even order soups or the day specials, and have something more substantial than a sandwich.
She texted the stranger. When she checked her phone, she was ashamed to see that she had written down the number, but not the name. She looked for the card, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Hi, Christa here. I been thinkin and I would like to take you up in your offer, if that’s still OK. Thank you, Christa.
The reply came in seconds.
Absolutely. Shall I pick you up tomorrow?
Of course. And thank you again. This is very generous of you.
“You look great!” said Ron a week later. “Did something to your hair?” He asked with a measuredly polite tone.
“I think it is just sleep.” Said Christa, smiling. “Not worrying if I will have to choose between food and rent does miracles to your health.”
“I’ll drink to that.” He said, lifting a can of beer. “And that old lady, she is really doing you a solid, right? We should invite her for dinner.”
“She’s not old,” complained Christa “And she is posh. I do not think we can invite it unless we deep-clean the place.”
“Yeah, you are right” he replied, and covered a stain on the couch with a ratty cushion. “By the way, what is your new job about? You never talk about it.”
“Oh. Well, you know, it was from an offer I saw online. One of these boring office jobs.” What is my job about, she thought, and realized she came up with nothing. She had memories of her hands, and a screen, and spreadsheets. She frowned in concentration.
“Oh, yes. It is just very… boring.” She felt the pieces of information moving in her head. “I do data entry.” Yes, it is that, she thought, relieved. It had just been a moment of forgetfulness. The details came back: her chipped coffee mug, her office colleagues, her boss, a cheerful old man.
“My roommate, Ron. He’s nice, you know, but he’s such a slob.” Christa laughed awkwardly. “I feel I have to pick up after him. Like a mother.”
The stranger nodded, hands in the steering wheel.
“Men are such children. How did you know each other?”
“Friend of a friend.” Said Christa, “When I had to leave my old place, he offered me a room, and it was cheap. I really needed a place to stay.”
“Sounds like a lovely thing to do.”
“Yes, or that was what I thought. Thinking back, I have the feeling that he was looking for a maid.”
The lady gave her a side glance, and said nothing. Christa relaxed in the seat. The car smelled good, and it was warm. Lately, the inside of the vehicle seemed like the only place she actually felt good. Even with her new job, with the teeth of anxiety gone, things were annoying her.
“I hope I am not prying too much,” said the stranger “but how old are you?”
“Twenty-three” said Christa.
“So young!” she took a turn. The rain had turned the world out of the glass into an abstract painting. Christa wondered how she managed to drive in that weather. “You are just a child. Where are your parents?”
There was something in the tone of the question that made Christa’s hair in the nape of the neck stand up. She was not a child. However, the lady looked at her through the mirror, and in her eyes there was only concern.
“My parents and I are not close.” said Christa, choosing her words carefully. “They did not agree with some of my life choices.”
“That’s why they did not help you with the car, right?”
“Yes.” Admitting it was like relieving an immense weight from her chest. There was silent. The stranger’s face did not change as she stopped.
“Sorry to hear that. What shitheads.” Her knuckles where white on the steering wheel. “What degenerates.”
“They are not bad people, just really… traditional.”
“What kind of vermin gives up on a daughter like that.” Her tone was still neutral, her eyes fixed on the road. “Don’t they know that a baby is the most precious thing you can possess. Don’t they know that some people could kill for what they had and threw away.”
Christa was breathing hard.
“I am sorry.” Continued the stranger. “I feel very strongly about this. I, too, have been abandoned by people I love. This is on me.”
The stranger stopped.
“We are here.”
Christa came back home a Saturday night.
For the first time in years, she had gone dancing. A part of her thought all that sort of things behind her, an activity for her younger years. However, that weekend, she checked her bank account and saw that some drinks out would not wreck her finances. Hell, not even a lot of drinks would do it. So she texted a number she had not texted in a long time, and her friend was surprised and delighted to hear from her.
“This might be the first time I feel like myself in months.” She told her group of old friends.
She was not lying. She had put on one of her old dresses, one of the last remnants of her “fun” clothes from college, and she had rescued a pair of shoes from the crate under the bed.
They danced, and talked a lot, and drank. Christa told her friends what had happened in her life, and the others put her up to speed with theirs. Turned out that they also had their own problems and tragedies, that they also got sick, that they also struggled.
She opened the door of her apartment happy and buzzed and tired, such an unusual feeling for her. The light at her roommate’s bedroom was on.
“Ron?” she asked, and went it to peek. The room was empty, and the bed unmade.
She checked the living room, expecting to see him passed out on the couch like half of his Saturday nights, but he was also not there. Weird, she thought. He never went out.
“Eat your salad” The stranger’s voice was kind, but firm. Christa took a bite from her sandwich, chewing slowly. Her jaw hurt. She felt too sick to swallow.
She had been tempted to get the special that day, a soft-looking sandwich with a bowl of custard as a desert, but the stranger got the salad without asking, and she was too polite to reject it.
“So your roommate is still missing?” she continued.
“I went to the police station to give another statement, but they said they did not need any more information about the case.”
“It’s been three weeks already.”
Christa shook her head.
“His wallet, his phone and his keys were in his room. He did not contact anyone. It’s as if the earth swallowed him.” She stammered.
“I do not want to sadden you,” said the other carefully “but from the way you talked about him, he really seemed depressed.”
“M… maybe?” It was not that she did not want to be the possibility. “He did not look depressed to me, but you never know. It just feels so odd. He did not take any bus or cab that evening. Nobody saw him out of the apartment. And the body has not turned up.”
The stranger took her cup of tea to her lips, but she did not drink.
“Did you talk to his family?”
“To his mother. She calls me every day, asking for him. She even came to
the flat, once. They were estranged, but she misses him.”
“I feel sorry for her. What an ugly thing it is, to lose a child.” There were wrinkles around her eyes. Her face was unremarkable, save for some moments when light hit her in a particular way, or when there was an emotion coming to the surface.
“The main problem is, he was the one in the lease, and now that he is gone, the landlords do not like me there. Apparently, he never mentioned that I had moved in.” She blurted the last sentences, almost involuntarily. “So now I am flat hunting again.”
“That must be stressful.” Answered the other. She stood up.
“It’s almost time.”
In the car, they were silent, until the stranger broke the silence.
“You know, my house is quite big. If you need a place to stay for a while, I would be glad to let you stay in the spare room.”
“Oh, that would be too much.” Said Christa, startled, but her heart was not there.
“If you do not feel comfortable staying for free, pay me rent for the time.” And she said a number that was a third of the average rate for a room.
“I’ll think about it” said Christa, leaving the car.
ISABELLA ROSENBURG said the name in the mailbox and on the doorbell, on a plate so polished that Christa could see her reflection like in a mirror. That was the stranger’s name. Finally, she thought. There was, however, an itch in the back of her head. She would have sworn that that was not the name in the business card. It was too shiny, as shiny as the plate, as bright as the hall beyond the door.
Isabella had called it big, but that did not seem to capture the spaciousness, the feeling of freedom inside. On the outside, it looked identical to the other houses on the street. However, as Christa came in, a ray of sunshine from the skylight above fell upon her, blinding her, leaving her confused and blinking as she regained her vision.
The house felt like a dream, like the ones Christa had when she was a child and she was lost inside one of her mother’s design magazines. There was steel and chrome, and hardwood floors, and lamps twisted in fantastic shapes. Everywhere, her reflection looked back at her, in the form of wall mirrors, or glass tulips, or polished metal.
“You have a wonderful place.” She said, carefully.
“Come to your room” was Isabella’s answer. She was carrying two of Christa’s boxes as if they did not weight a gram.
Her bedroom was in the first floor, and it was almost as big as her previous apartment. It had a small balcony that overlooked the porch and the trees in the street. It had a bed, and a wardrobe, and a desk, all in the same style of the rest of the house, both eccentric and minimalistic. She put the fishbowl with Jasper on the table. Maybe I will be able to get him a better aquarium, she hoped.
Christa stepped onto the balcony. It was the beginning of March, and there was already some sweetness in the air. There were almost no cars in the street. In the reddening sky, she could see birds flying back to her nests.
“I come from the countryside.” Said the stranger, with unusual melancholy. “And I miss nature in the city. The sight soothes me.”
“This is so beautiful. Are you sure you are OK with me taking this room?” asked Christa for the umpteenth time.
“Yes, it is. Come, let me show you the rest of the house.”
They saw the kitchen and living room, separated by a wall with a hole. They saw the small, carefully tended garden in the backyard. They saw the two bathrooms and the study room, with a huge computer screen. They passed next to a closed door, next to Christa’s bedroom.
“I sleep upstairs” said the woman who called herself Isabella. “I just sleep in there. When I am home, I am normally working at the study room.” Christa nodded.
“Come.” Said the stranger. “Let’s have some tea.”
The kitchen was immaculate. The stranger opened one of the cabinets and took out an unopened box of tea bags, and she brewed them in a kettle. She served the tea. The water still smelled like plastic, like it happens with new kettles.
Christa sat down on the couch, careful not to move the cushions around. Unconsciously, she was trying to look smaller than she was. The stranger laughed.
“Come on, don’t be so freaked out.” She said.
“I am sorry. It is just… the house is so nice! I have never been in a place like this.” The words left her mouth almost unwillingly, an admission of poverty. “You are so nice to me, and you have been driving me for so many months” How many, asked a voice in the back of her head. Dates seemed blurry. “And I know almost nothing of you.”
“Do not worry about it.” Said the stranger, taking out a plate of strawberries. “I am very private. I do not show my place to everyone.”
“What do you do?” Asked Christa finally.
“I have been many things, but I work in finance, as a consultor. Money is good.”
“That is such a hard topic,” said Christa, unsure of what to answer. “I cannot imagine having a head for that.
The stranger laughed louder.
“Oh dear, you cannot imagine. Do you know what did I use to be? A farmer!”
“For real?” Christa’s eyes were wide open.
“We grew beans, and broccoli. A small life, a small profit. However, the farm failed, and I had to move to the city. Can you imagine? A woman in her fifties, no job, no college, no experience. I knew nothing by that time. But I got a small-time job crunching numbers. And, you know what? Turned out I am really good at crunching numbers.”
“Really?” said Christa, regretting it almost immediately. She wanted to sound appreciative, not skeptical.
“My boss did not believe it either. A hick like me, performing so well. By that time, I could not speak city, was rough. I taught myself to speak all shiny. In a year, I became his boss. Then, I went up.” An accent was slipping, but Christa was unsure from where. Maybe it was just emotion, leaking from behind her mask.
“This is amazing.”
“After some years, I went freelancer. The money is good, but the hours are long, and it is lonely working from home. I am an anomaly, you see. I started old, I started low. I have no degree, no education, no contacts. However, I could see further away from any of them.” Her lips were pressed in a line, in an expression that was like a smile but not quite. There was an odd shine in her eyes. “But enough of myself.” Her expression softened. “I just want you to feel comfortable here. You can stay for as long as you want.”
Isabella had not lied. Her house was ridiculously close from Christa’s afternoon job, so close a five-minute stroll took her there. It was, however, far away from her other job at the supermarket, and really far away from the city center.
It was, however, such an improvement in her quality of life she was still happy to wake up at dawn to get to the supermarket. She was not even sad when she woke up and saw Jasper floating belly up in the water, swollen and cyanotic. She flushed it down the toilet and said a silent goodbye.
Her plants withered as well. Maybe it was the change in the light, or they had been watered too much. Some of them had been with her for years.
She still did not complain, not as her body started to itch at her arms, her legs, her feet. She quietly changed the bedsheets and wore long sleeves to bed, thinking it was an allergy to the fabric, but it did not work. The itch was still with her every night, every day. She got antihistamines, that helped her sleep but made her drowsy. After the third time sleeping in, she lost her job as a cashier.
“I can still pay rent.” She told Isabella, regretfully. “And I will look for a job as fast as I can.”
“You can pay me a little less.” Replied the other. “Really, not a problem.”
“I am not a moocher.” Said Christa. “I will look for a morning job, or I will try to work longer hours.”
Christa looked at job offers every day. However, she was secretly relieved at not having to work fourteen hours a day. She was ashamed to admit it, but life was so easy with only forty hours a week. She would wake up late, at nine a.m. even ten sometimes. Isabella would already be downstairs, and they would have breakfast together.
Isabella was a good conversationalist. She would eat as if feeding herself was a long-forgotten habit, with tiny bites that she would chew forever. She always made small portions for Christa.
“Putting on weight is easy.” She said. “Losing it is hard.” And she would stare at Christa’s waistline. Christa did not like it, but she could not bring herself to be mad at Isabella.
She came back from work one evening, tired and hungry. She called Isabella, but she was not in the living room.
Christa went upstairs and knocked on the study room, but there was no answer. She went into the upper floor, where she had never been.
The corridor was cold. Maybe that part of the house did not have good insulation anymore. There was a door, smaller than the others in the house, made of old wood. She knocked there as well, but only silence came back to her.
Maybe she is shopping, or she is at a meeting, thought Christa, although Isabella never left the house in the evenings. She texted her in a casual tone, asking if everything was OK.
Going downstairs, she walked down the corridor where her room was. The door of the other room, the one that was never open, was ajar.
Slowly, heart pounding in her chest, Christa called out Isabella and pushed the door slowly, afraid of seeing her passed out or worse. However, there was no one in there.
It was a pink room, full of frilly things, like a little girl’s. There were stuffed animals on the bed. The light from the streetlights, filtered through the curtain, dyed the air a salmon hue.
There was no dust, but something in the dry, quiet air, made Christa understand the place had not been inhabited for a really long time, and that the things inside were old, older than her. She walked to the desk, neatly organized in pens, pencils, paper for writing. Hesitatingly, she put a hand on the wood.
“What the fuck are you doing in there?” Isabella’s voice was loud, shrill, devoid of all the soft intonations that were a part of her. “Get OUT!”
Christa turned to see her charging towards her, and she only had time to recoil for a second as Isabella grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out of the room. Her bun was undone, her face was flushed.
“I am sorry, I was worried about you. I… thought you were there!” Christa tried to explain herself frantically, pulling away from her. She had not been grabbed by the hair in years, since bullies in school decided they had got enough fun out of her.
“Never peek inside what is not yours, you ungrateful brat!” There were pinpricks of light inside Isabella’s eyes as she grabbed Christa by the shoulders and slammed her against a wall, knocking the wind out of her. “Do you understand?”
Christa tried to mumble a new apology, a new combination of words that would make Isabella less angry, but she had lost her voice. The other lifted her head with her hand, and looked at her in the eye. With the other hand, she went for Christa’s arm, to the soft skin next in the inside, next to the armpit, and pinched hard.
Christa screamed, and Isabella released her. The young woman limped out of the corridor into the lower floor and out of the house, blind with fear. It was minutes later when she became aware of her burning lungs, her heart that threatened to jump away from her chest, the tears in her eyes.
What was that? How could she become so angry? She thought. She realized she had no wallet with her, no keys, and that she had taken out her coat in the cold.
The suburbs were quiet at that time of the night. Rows of identical houses, each one with a small garden, all of them dark inside. There were no crickets, no insects. The light from the streetlights hid the stars.
It was as if she had stepped into an uninhabited cosmos, a place where no life had ever been. The houses looked just like mineral formations, like rocks that, seemed from a certain angle, became manmade objects.
Her own footsteps were muted. Was there a bus stop nearby? Where was she? In her despair and confusion, she did the only thing she could do: she dialed someone.
The friend she had contacted months ago answered the phone with a voice soaked in sleep, but she seemed to wake up immediately as she heard Christa’s tone. She had used to be a good friend, she realized. They would hang out every day at college.
Christa told her everything. The words came out in spurts. She told her about her poverty, her missing roommate, the strange woman who was her benefactor and who had scared her with her rage.
“Christa, this is creepy as hell.” Said the friend at the other side of the line. “Look, I am calling a cab for you. Can you give me your address?”
“Yes, I am… Wait. I am not sure.” She looked around, but the streets had no nameplates.
“Yes, it is just that I do not know where I am exactly. I will look for a bus stop or a landmark and text you from there.”
“You sure? Want me to stay in the line?”
“No, thank you.” And her heart felt warm at her friend, at her worry. “I promise I will call you asap.”
“OK. Please take care Christa. See you soon.” And she hung up.
Christa walked around, shivering in the cold, but the streets looked endless, a grid of identical homes, of streetlights at the same intervals. How big is this suburb? She wondered. The place in her underarm where Isabella had pinched her beat painfully, like a second heart. She would have a bruise the next day. She kept walking, until she found a home with the lights still on, the door open. She walked there.
Panic set in, as she recognized the little porch and the street number, and stood there paralyzed. However, she walked inside. Maybe she could recover her wallet, she thought. She could pick up her stuff and leave.
“Come in.” Said a small voice.
Isabella was sitting on the couch, hands on her lap. Her hair was still down, and Christa saw that it was peppered with white. She looked much older.
“Please, do not run away.”
Christa thought of turning back and leaving the house for good, even without a jacket, even without not knowing where she was. She would spend the night outside, and ask someone in the morning, and ask her friends from help.
For a moment, she had a vision of her never finding a way out of the suburb, forever lost, living off the fruit of the gardens, growing dirty and malnourished and cold. For a moment, it looked an almost desirable situation. However, something gripped her chest and made her walk and, without realizing, she was sitting down in front of Isabella.
“I want to apologize. I am so sorry.”
Christa said nothing, and hugged herself. Her arms itched bad.
“I should have never lost my temper with you like that. I see that now. Please, forgive me.”
“You were so angry.” Said Christa. “You scared me.”
“So sorry, so sorry. I hope I did not hurt you too badly when I grabbed you. I was just so ashamed, I wanted you out, I did not want you to see that part of me.”
You did not only grab me, Christa thought. You pinched me, hard. But she did not say anything.
“Just so ashamed.” She repeated. “This is unlike me.”
“It is OK.” Said Christa, involuntarily.
“It is not! And I have hurt and scared you, and I want you to know.”
“I think I should go for tonight.” Christa started looking away, but Isabella looked so small, and so miserable, and so pleading that she turned back when she heard the other speak.
“I have a daughter.”
There was a pause.
“You never mentioned her before.”
“She is almost your age. A little younger than you. She was with me in the farm.”
Without being aware of it, Christa sat down again, fascinated. The other’s face was wrinkled, her hands, frail. How had she never noticed the blue veins in her hands, visible through her skin, as thin as porcelain. Isabella stood up.
“Come with me. I will show you.”
They went back in the child’s room. It looked smaller now. It felt like an ordinary room. Isabella opened a drawer and pulled out a picture of her and a little girl.
“This was her. My Hayley. She grew up with me.” She sat down on the bed, and patted the matress by her side. Christa followed.
“She was such a bright child. Sharp as a tack. And strong-headed, of course. I was so proud of her stubbornness, until she grew up.”
She let out a ragged breath, and Christa put her hand on the other’s shoulder.
“It was… as if a fiend had possessed her. She started meeting a bad crowd. She became rude, and uncaring, and cruel. She said she wanted to toss me away, that she did not need me. What kind of child says that to a
mother? To the person who birthed them into life?” She stared around, accusingly, and continued.
“I let her go, what else can a mother do? I took care of her damn dog. I tried to contact her, once and over and over, but she did not want to know anything of me. Part of me thinks she was just scared of growing up, and acting out in such a way. Maybe the badness had always been in her, a bad seed taking place in her heart.”
“I am so sorry to hear that.”
“She came back to me, after a while, but she was different. She barely moved, she had no life in her anymore. I saw her falling apart before my eyes. Can you imagine that? Seeing the sickness consuming your own baby, your own spawn? I clothed, and bathed, and fed her. She would not thank me.”
“Oh my God.”
“Then, one day, without a warning, she was gone. I do not know where she went. I looked for her old friends, the trash of the earth, but they did not know where she was.”
“Do you know if she is still alive?”
“Sh… she…” her voice broke. “After a while, I realized I could not stay in the farm any longer. Everything I saw reminded me of her. The trees, the fields, even the sky seemed to mock me. That’s why I moved to the city, to the place I knew she always wanted to go. I am looking for her here.” She took a breath. “Do you see this house? Do you see my job? I spend every second of my free time, thinking she might be out there somewhere.”
“Did you find out something?”
“I get rumors, cold trails, hints that she might be out there, somewhere. Evidence maddening enough to keep me searching.” She stopped again, agitated, and looked at Christa straight in the eyes.
“Do you know what a cargo cult is?”
“In the Pacific Islands, when the Westerns came, the natives were astounded at the technology. They believed the newcomers to be gods.”
“Aha.” Replied Christa, unsure of what to say.
“When the Westerns left, after they took what they wanted, or they stayed for the war, the natives wanted them to come back. So they built fake airplanes, hoping to attract real ones. They made rifles out of leaves and bamboo, and towers to call the gods down from the sky. That’s what they did. Foolish, right?”
“I do not know what to say.” Answered the other, truthfully. “It seems to me they did what they thought it would work with the information we had.”
“So that’s what this room is. My own personal cargo religion. I built this room with her things, with her clothes in the wardrobe, with the pens and papers she used to love, with the mad hope that she might feel it and come back home, come back to me. Do you think I am crazy?” Without waiting for an answer, she resumed. “I feel crazy. Poisoned by love, you know? Love, the most bitter of emotions. I may look smooth and glossy, but I am just an old woman, old and lonely and scared. And I just want my baby back.”
The following day, Isabella behaved as if normally had happened. Christa went on with her routine, everything unchanged. The only trace of the previous day was a bruise, dark and swollen and invisible under her arm.
It faded with the days. Christa tried to contact her friend, but her phone crashed and she had to reset it to factory settings. She lost all her contacts.
The itch in her body was becoming maddening. She went to work and chatted with her colleagues, but sometimes she was scared of scratching herself bloody under the clothes. She finally mentioned it to Isabella.
“Oh, dear, why didn’t you mention it before?”
They went back upstairs, and Isabella pulled the sheets back. There was a dark stain in the mattress.
“This is not good.” Said the woman, smacking her lips. “This is mold.”
She went to the wall and scratched the paint with her keys. She let out a curse word.
Behind the layer of paint, there was something black and shiny. Christa came close. It smelled wet.
“Oh my god” Isabella said flatly. “This is black mold.”
Christa retched. Had she really been sleeping there? She scratched herself furiously. Was it that what killed her goldfish?
“You cannot stay here, darling.” Said Isabella dejectedly, sinking on the bed. “This is incredible. I am so angry. There must be a leak from a pipe somewhere.”
“I will crash with some friends, do not worry, please.”
“No! I had you sleeping in this terrible room! Those careless builders… playing with the health of the people.”
“Really, you have been so generous to me. Please do not feel bad. I am overstaying my welcome, anyway.”
“No, please, do not go! I would feel awful if you had to leave because of my terrible oversight! I will have it fixed in a week. Meanwhile, you can stay at my daughter’s room.”
“Oh, please. I cannot do that. This would feel wrong.”
Isabella stood up and grabbed Christa’s arm. She suddenly looked much
Christa nodded, swallowing bile. She tried to shook the other away.
“So is it agreed?” Asked the other.
“Yes.” Replied the other, nervously. She only wanted to go away.
That afternoon, Christa moved her remaining things into the pink room. When she opened the wardrobe, she got the unpleasant surprise that all her clothes had traces of black mold.
“Do not worry.” Isabella grinned. “Check this out.” In the daughter’s room, she opened the wardrobe.
Inside, ordered in neat rows and covered in plastic, were dozens of dresses, skirts and blouses, all of them clean, and ironed and starched. There were shoes, shiny as newly polished.
“I do not think they are my size.”
However, they were. As she changed clothes, she found that she had lost enough weight to fit in almost all the clothes. Some of the dresses pinched, and hugged her almost painfully. Some of the blouses were too tight at the chest. However, Isabella nodded approvingly.
“They look good on you, you know. Use the clothes all the time you want.”
“I will buy new ones as soon as possible.”
In the following days, Christa looked for her friends in social media, but she found out her own profiles had been locked. She went through the steps of creating new e-mail accounts to get new profiles.
Isabella was acting friendly. There was a new warmth in her eyes as she saw Christa in the dresses and blouses of her dead daughter. She found it abhorrent, but at the same time, she could not help feeling flattered somehow. She must have loved her daughter so much.
Work went on as undemanding as usual. Spreadsheets, and empty chat, and a light, airy office. Things were normal, almost. Christa felt that things were back on track. Soon, she would be able to save enough to find a room for herself, maybe even a used car. She would contact her friends, and meet them in the weekends. She would be OK, if only it was not for that itch…
Lying on the bed awake, she stared at the ceiling. She was wearing the last of her clothes, a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, so washed it was almost transparent at some spots. She had not taken her antihistamines.
Maybe it was that why sleep did not go to her that night. Maybe it was the itch that had become too unbearable and kept her awake. Maybe it was just a fluctuation of the ether that shook things. In the night, the part of her that had been quiet, that had been hexed into silence came back into life.
She stood up, silence over the silence, and got her shoes quietly. As she walked, she realized she had no idea what time of the year she was, how long had she stayed at that house, smothering her feelings of wrongness, smothering herself.
She got her wallet and her phone and her keys. She had nothing else that was hers, not anymore. She made no noise as she left the house.
Again, the endless street and the cold stars received her. She had never left the suburb on foot, she realized. However, there was a place she knew how to go.
Her workplace was a dark mass against the sky. The windows stared likeempty sockets into the night. As she came closer, the building felt something beyond cold. It felt dead.
The doors were held by a broken chain. She pushed them and went inside. The light did not work. The itch seemed to grow inside her head, to grow somehow louder. She massaged her temples. She switched on her cell phone’s lantern.
She walked into the dusty corridor, looking for her office. The walls were covered in graffiti. The floor was almost invisible under debris and dirt.
There was nothing there, no computers, no chairs, no chipped coffee mugs. Nobody had gone into that place for a long, long time. Was she in the right building? She remembered the doors, unbroken and new. She remembered the layout of the corridors, the rooms. Why did she remember? Panting, in the dark, she found her office.
It was like the others, empty, devoid of furniture or human presence. It was cold and it stank. In the dark, she could make out the shape of the trash on the floor, and traces, as if someone had paced the room back and forth obsessively, for days, weeks, months at a time.
She ran out. At the door of the building, she scratched herself raw, and rolled up her sleeves, and looked at her arms for the first time.
Under the redness and the swelling, her arms were a patchwork map. Stitched to her, were patches of gray skin, dried up and shrunk, that left parts of flesh exposed, black under the moonlight.
She did not yell, although she tried. She tried to tear out the alien skin patches, but her hands were too shaky. Sobbing, she ran blindly.
She was running down a corridor, and at the end there was a door. She recognized where she was; it was the attic of Isabella’s house. She turned back and found the stairs.
She went downstairs, and she found herself again in the same attic, in the same cold. She looked up, and she could see stars. Where was she?
Her body stopped, trying to get its breath back. Her mind looked for an explanation, somewhere to go, something to do. Where was she?
Who was she?
She used to have a name, she realized. There was nothing in its place. There was a square object buzzing in her hand, useless. She threw it away. She kept running.
She found herself by the same door that she had been avoiding. It was wooden, and dark, and heavy. It seemed to radiate cold. She walked back from it.
The door was in front of her. She turned back, and there it was again. She was in a space that kept shrinking, getting smaller, and the door was always in front of her eyes.
Consciousness crept back into her, like an ivy from the bottom of a well. Like something forgotten and unwanted, so insignificant it did not even grant destruction, the woman went back into her body.
Everything hurt. She was lying on her back on something hard, and cold. Metal, she realized.
She lifted her head slowly. She could see her own body from there, limp like a ragdoll, ruined by a landscape of stitches that covered her body in pieces of dead skin. To whom did they belong?
Her vision returned slowly, and she realized what she was. The attic. The door stood there. Like a living, hateful thing, it seemed to be breathing, shutting them away from the world, or shutting the world away from reality.
It was a windowless room covered in shelves, that contained objects made of glass. Isabella was rummaging around on a table, her back towards her, whispering something to herself. The woman made an effort to open her eyes, and her vision cleared, and she could finally see what was in the shelves.
There were jars and bottles, made of transparent glass, filled with cloudy liquid. She made an effort to make out her contents, and a scream tried to make the way out of her throat.
Inside the flasks, curled or floating or lying at the bottoms, were human parts. Here there were two hands, clasping one another like lovers. Here there was a liver, here a face, here a foot. There were hundreds of organs and fragments of what used to be people.
How do you panic when the mechanisms for it are stuck? What do you do when your limbs barely obey you, when you have the strength of an infant in an adult body? The woman flailed around, weakly. No words came out of her lips. Isabella turned around.
She looked at her dispassionately at first. Isabella put her hands on the woman, and the strength left her. The woman tried to look at her, to plead with her eyes. The stranger’s expression changed.
“Stop moving.” She commanded, and the woman’s body did not obey anymore. Prisoner of herself, she could not even blink. “Do not dare to ruin everything.”
Isabella called the woman a name, one that she did not recognize but that caused her a nameless revulsion. She opened the other’s mouth with her fingers, delicately.
She disappeared from the woman’s field of vision, and came back with something, long and dark. The woman could not whimper when she saw what it was. Isabella was holding a pair of pliers.
She worked slowly, with a tenderness that contradicted the strength needed for the task. She held the woman’s head as she pulled the teeth one by one.
The woman did not pass out. Maybe, in a normal state, she would have. However, with a body that did not react, that did not produce spikes of adrenalin, with muscles that did not clench, that did not even have a coughing reflex, pain was left to be felt undiluted. It reverberated throughout her bones, through all of her, until there was nothing left but agony. It went on forever.
When she was done, holding the woman’s head back so she would not choke in her own blood, Isabella made cooing noises. “My baby, my girl. You are coming back to me.” She went to the table, and came back with a tray of little white things.
Teeth. She left them next to the woman, and pinched her lips away to expose her bleeding gums. She took out a scalpel.
The woman saw everything happening, through the fog of pain. She saw the tooth above her, chipped like the mug in her memory, that had never existed. She saw Isabella’s face, and in her eyes she saw her own reflection. And, in that abhorrent mirror, someone who was not her looked back.
Who are you, she inquired with her mind.
Hollow calls hollow, it said.
It looked like the woman, or more like the woman’s reflection, but not quite. It was distorted, like a featureless globe over which someone had stretched her own face. It spoke again.
She is trying to bring her daughter back. She almost managed it once, but it didn’t stick. She has tried many, many times. She has practiced.
It did not look like the woman anymore. It looked like a dead goldfish, circling down a drain.
This is crazy. How is she planning to do it?
She is trying to anchor the spirit to your body. For that, she is making you resemble her. Little by little, adding patches of while you slept, taking parts of you. Now she is going to add the bigger pieces.
I do not want this. Can you help?
Let me be you.
It was not exactly a transition, she realized, more like a shift in perspective. The mirror thing had always been a part of herself, a line of misshapen code in her mind, a growth from the hinterlands of being. As she took it, she became less.
The first thing she became aware of was that being was an act of subtracting, not adding. The self is a filter, little more than a trick of light and shadow that lets in whatever it wants to consider itself. And, like that, it could be manipulated. Christa saw, for the first time, beyond the web of lies made by the stranger.
Her parents had never disinherited her. Their relationship had been tense since she had come out as bi, but they tried to be accepting, and they would have never disinherited her. They were just poor. She had a brother and a sister. How could she have forgotten them? How could she have forgotten so many things about herself?
Her name was Christa, not the other name the stranger called her. She was twenty-three, and she had studied Architecture. She used to have friends, a family, a job, several jobs. She used to like music. She used to have a different body, one that was whole, without scars and wounds, with all her teeth.
Formulae came into her mind, endless and complex and shining like a sun of beautiful nothing. They explained everything. She could see herself again, albeit from the outside. She could see each and every one of her organs. She knew the origin of the metal from the gurney she was lying into, a vein of ore deep in the earth, mined away decades ago. The knowledge was seamlessly hers, it had always been a part of her, forgotten at birth.
She looked at the woman, and understood. The stranger fancied herself a gardener, pruning away the things she did not like from people, putting them in small pots to see them grow into fantastic shapes. However, she had no curiosity, no understanding.
That is the secret of gardeners; the first thing you have to prune and shape is yourself. You give yourself into a purpose, and throw the rest away. She had casted a web of spells for Christa, to make her less, to make her forget. She wanted to transform her into a vessel for an unwilling spirit. However, by hollowing her out, she had made room in her for something else.
Christa stretched herself into her body, that was hers again. Pain and nausea returned, blinding and horrible and welcome like the sun after the dark. Time was shunted back into place.
She moved fast, rolling down and away from Isabella. She tore out the dress as if it was a predator eating her. The other reacted too late.
Power was building up in the room, calling for something that did not want to be back. The air beat like a heart, hot like blood. The daughter’s teeth bound a spirit, one weak and afraid, fragmented beyond repair. However, there was something in them, something usable. Christa spoke a new language with her toothless mouth, maimed syllables from a broken god. Time froze again, at her command.
Thirty-two pieces of bone and enamel chittered, animated into a crepuscular, insectoid ablife, and they jumped into the closest place that looked like a home for them. Isabella recoiled, trying to get away from the swarm of tiny, marblelike predators.
She closed her mouth in vain. They went into her through her nostrils, her ears, her eyes. Christa could feel them as they tunneled into Isabella’s flesh, tearing through her brain like butter, dislodging her own teeth from the gums and finding their place.
The woman whose name was not Isabella collapsed, and then she was not there anymore. There was a lump in the shape of a woman, an empty sack of flesh. Teeth were still teeming inside her mouth, giving her an appearance of life.
Christa studied the door. It had no knob, no handle, no hinges. It had a way to be opened, but she had to reverse-engineer it. She sat down, and wrote bright glyphs with her finger.
A silky, murmuring noise startled her. She turned back and looked beyond the woman’s corpse, to the wall full of specimens.
They were shaking in their jars, writhing in a parody of life. A heart that had sprouted tentacles moved inside the glass and opened its prison from the inside. Christa said a word to stop it, that became a hex. However, once started, life is almost as hard to stop as death. The organ fell into the floor with a wet sound, and started crawling towards her. The other organs followed suite. Remnants of failed experiments, animated by the residual magic of the spells made to insufflate vitality into the dead, they were coming back, with a single desire: to become again.
She created another frantic spell, another construct made to undo the lattice of life, but it did not work. She took a step back, and touched the door with her hands, and whispered a word of power to be, like them, free of the prison.
It did not work. The door was a powerful thing, built with layers upon layers, something to contain, to let things out. She could break it eventually, but it would take hours. Maybe she could hold the organs back for a while.
More organs left their jars. Others shook so wildly that their glass prisons broke, and they all crawled towards her. Many, many body parts, from more than one person, more than a dozen, limped forward, on mutated appendices, on their own vascular system. A cluster of eyes writhed in spastic movements, tied together by their nerve strings like a rat king. Lungs inflated and deflated in her direction. A brain, splashed and flat, damaged but still coming. A uterus, dragging itself by the ovaries.
She fought. She kicked, and punched, and stomped, in vain. At some point, the screams became noises, and cracks, and unidentifiable things. Emptiness became fullness. And, by dawn, something big, and wet and new, crawled into the light.