This was published in 2009, in the now-defunct magazine Fantastic Horror.
Sometimes I walk the empty lots just outside of town, where the circus used to resurrect freak shows by puffing air into ballooned tents, turning the land into a nightmarescape of shrunken baby heads in formaldehyde and Siamese twin sisters with their cheeks held together like little bird bones – their hips melting right through their pleated girl skirts and wire frame corsets. A leopard man once took me aside and pressed his mouth against my ear and whispered, “God is a lightbulb,” before his leopard wife pulled him aside and growled at him:
“Adrian. Stop trying to scare the children.”
He turned and smiled at that girl with the startled, ashy face in her gingham checkered dress; the girl who used to be me, and though so many years have passed, I still remember his animal teeth amidst all his fire-eating tattoos. The kind of teeth for eating spiders.
Most people learn religion from Mommy and Daddy, but I learned of religion when I looked outside my window and saw the coolies turning plastic and cheap lights into a palace of the grotesque, finished slick with a Ferris wheel done up in Hades blue and all the vendor games with teddy bears never won nailed to the wood. I learned philosophy when Mr. Black, the reedy magician stuck inside his skin-tight tuxedo, pulled a rabbit out of a hat and let it enter wriggling into my arms, and when he released doves out of his sleeves and read my mind with a pack of 52, slipping in and out of head mind so quietly I only felt it as a butterfly’s kiss.
A few days ago Mr. Dawkins knocked on my door at 4:30 in the morning. I’m an old woman, and by the time I pulled a sweater over my head and got down the stairs, I found Mr. Dawkins sitting on my porch swing, shivering, his glasses fogged with sublunary white mist.
“Mr. Dawkins?” I asked, “Why are you out so late?”
Only then did I notice he held a bundle of tarp and plastic wrap in his arms.
It was his daughter.
We laid her down on the bedspread and unwrapped her from her makeshift cradle; revealing the layers of her skin, a criss-cross of wounds and bruises hard as black eggs, her arms and legs tied tightly in a way that made her resemble a supine vampire. Only her eyelids moved, fluttering softly, her eyelashes like little psychopomps tugging her towards death.
“Where did you find her?” I asked.
“The ravine,” he said, “I haven’t slept in three days. I’ve been looking for her,” and then he added, “Katie. Katie is still missing.”
“Should call the police,” I said, “she needs medical attention.”
“She needs you.”
I squeezed my right hand until the veins popped out. I wanted to say _I’m too old for this shit_ but I couldn’t when I looked at her waxy face or her body chewed up and spit out like bad button candy. I used to watch her from the porch as she played with her twin sister on their lawn, blowing big soapy bubbles from a bottle, chasing magic as it spilled out and popped into rainbows. She had blonde hair – I remembered that. And a name. _Femie_ Both were reduced to colorlessness underneath the dried blood and her torn skin.
Her soul clung so tightly to her lips but it was fa d I n g away, turning translucent. She blew white matter like baby bird fluff away with every tiny breath.
“Who did this to my baby girl?”
And I wish I didn’t know.
As a child, sometimes I went down to the river and swam until my lips turned blue, even though Mom told me it would make me sick.
Once I went down there and found one of my classmates down at the bank, alone, drowning a rat. _Chubby Charlie we called him._ He didn’t notice me approach through the copse, and I watched, transfixed, as he held the kicking, squirming little creature and stroked its head, almost lovingly, until its lungs burst and the pink padded feet stopped scratching against the arm of his jacket.
He released the rat into the water like an offering, his arms spread out in front of him, and the dead creature disappeared downstream where it bobbed and sank straight into turgid blackness.
He turned to leave, but stopped when he saw me. I walked closer to him, my backpack slung over one shoulder. I wish I could have said he looked like a rat himself, with his pink skin and bludgeoning eyes, but I used to go to Sunday school with Chubby Charlie, and he let me borrow his black crayon when I’d run mine down to the nub.
“Why did you kill the rat?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
I pinched his arm. “You’re lying,” I said, “Tell me or I’m telling your Momma.”
“Charlie,” I said softly, “It’s all right. Tell me.”
“I wanted to see what it felt like,” he said, his breath like static, his voice a motormotormotor, “What it felt like….when…when it stopped kicking.”
I released his arm and took a step back.
“Emma,” he said, “I’d never hurt you. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to see.”
Crunch. Bones? No, just leaves.
“Emma? Emma, I’ll never do it again.”
I tried to forget. I never forgot.
I became a shamanka at age nineteen. That is to say, I died and lived to tell about it. My grandmother was the storyteller of the family, and even when I grew older I sat with rapt attention in her kitchen as she spun stories and sugar biscuits and turned dough into christmasstarshapes and let me lick all the cake batter off the spoon.
She taught me death wasn’t a white horse that once cut from its tether runs and keeps running and doesn’t stop even when the froth peels back from her lips, but a door that keeps revolving, and that if you’re clever and can remember where you’ve been and who you are, you can slip back in and out.
Then I got older, and the dreams came. I talked to demons and angels. I walked through fields of bloated monsters, conferring philosophy with liquor rivers and deep ravines, where my voice _echo echo echoed_ until hands reached up to snatch my voice away. Men and women unraveled me from my skin and molded my soul into shapes; a wheel, a ball, a pair of wings. I flew over Greece on Icarus’ back and this time, he did not fall into the sea. I rode on the backs of wolves and inhaled the wild scent of their fur, until they said, “You are one of us,” and let me wriggle down into their animal bodies. I was a bird and a kite, and a maraschino colored man reeled me in when
Whenever I told my grandmother about these dreams, she would only smile.
“What have you done to me?” I asked my grandmother.
“I haven’t done anything,” she said.
“Why won’t you tell the truth?”
In adolescence I’d grown knobby and sharp and tall, all dark bow bents while my grandmother removed short and curved out; yet in that moment she seemed to darken, and grow shape, so that I was a little girl braiding my knees against the kitchen tile once more, holding out my hands so she would place the christmasstarshapes into the mold of my two palms.
“Nobody is giving you them dreams but yourself, Emma,” my grandmother said, “It’s your choice, you know, if you’re going to reject them or see just how deep they go. They’ll fade, or you will fade.”
And like a frightened child (as uncomfortable and strange in my skin as the day I could no longer fit in the cubby hole in my grandmother’s closet where she kept her church shoes) I ran back home.
And I kept dreaming.
I can’t tell you everything because the words haven’t been created yet. I fell asleep in my bed and when I got to my feet I was outside, and it was summer again. The clouds dipped low into the fronds, the air filled with little white dandelion wisps, entangling themselves in my hair, brushing against my fingers, before moving onwards. I followed.
I died at the place where the dandelions fell to earth. A demon threw a spear into my heart and I fell backwards into water, sunk down underneath the earth, black streams pouring out of my mouth until my heart ruptured within my chest, and my limbs became immovable.
On the other side he came to me with a covered basket labeled _cherries_ and he pulled the spear out of my heart. “You’re dead,” he said.
“I know,” I whispered.
“And we’re going to give you a new life.”
I said nothing.
“Do you want it?”
He took out my heart, that dead bird thing, its surface the color of crow’s feathers, and he threw it into the waters where it sank and was swallowed up by lantanas that split their petals and grew ivory teeth. He cracked open my body from navel to sternum, with the sickening crunch of bones, and hollowed me out until I was nothing but skin and emptiness inside.
“Do you know what the difference between you and other people are?” he asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“You are awake, even when you are dreaming.”
There were no cherries in his basket: instead he pulled out glittering coals, fluttering and flushed inside with hot white light, fused and sealed like grenades, or bezoars, wrapped so tightly inside themselves, smooth as underwater stones. He placed those coals where my organs used to be. My skin glowed with their suffused heat.
“Now you belong to us,” he said, “Now you are reborn.”
“What do I do now?” I asked.
He smiled, “Have a nice trip down.”
And I fell.
Into arrhythmia. Into the epicenter. The town caught like a snowglobe into my lap, and I shook it up and watched the snow drift and the buildings crash and all the little people fly to the top of the bubble dome and slide back down, like the pegs of a machine, and in that moment they gave up all their secrets. I became scared of the strange people I saw, and pushed the town off my skirt and watched it collapse far, far away. Mother and Father danced in mummified wrappings _all around all around all around_ until they dissolved to dust and blew through my fingers. Absolute darkness became darker. Little lights came and went and when I touched them they burst and showered me with cinnamon hearts. I could have crushed the world if I wanted to. It passed by me, swimming in its cytoplasmic seven continents, its bubble wrap shape, on little fly wings, chased by something it couldn’t quite see. I didn’t touch.
I dropped to the center where my skirts billowed out and the darkness shot up like amorphous cells struggling to swim upstream. The leopard man was right. God is a light bulb, and that lightbulb glows so brightly at the bottom, hovering, like a child in the placenta of the universe. I tried to touch, but it burned so brightly, that child, and I wanted to cry it hurt so badly, and I thought the bass dubdubdubdubdubdub of its throbbing, many-roomed heart would blind me, and its sweeping, summer golden light would drown me. But it didn’t, because _God is a light bulb_, not showing us the way, but illuminating all the paths we can take.
I tried to keep Femie alive. I tried to keep her strawbody pumping its heart so she would perhaps take a breath and suck her soul back inside its chambers and stop hanging off the edge. Mr. Dawkins repeated her name at the quiet intervals, as if to coax her out of unconsciousness with lullaby noise. _Femie. Femie. Femie. Femie._ After a while it became a mantra underneath my tongue, bursting like paper, wilting into dead seed. Dawn broke. No change.
“We have to call an ambulance,” I said, “She’s not getting any better. I’m sorry.”
The paramedics came. I went to the edge of the porch and watched as Mr. Dawkin’s daughter was pulled out into the schizophrenic blueredbluered lights, and strapped in her gurney as Mr. Dawkins got into the back of the ambulance with her. The doors closed. The ambulance left, trailing red Oklahoman dust, disappearing into the clear black cusp of the horizon. I stood in its wake.
I wasn’t alone for long.
Femie stood beside me, with all her pink organs flushed and visible like the inner workings of a glassfish, her eyes rimmed with ghost-ink, powdery spiderwebbed cuts, sharp dark microfiche bruises.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I couldn’t save you.”
“It’s all right,” she said, “It didn’t hurt. I mean. At the end.” She held out her hand for me to take.
“We have to go,” she said.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You know,” she whispered.
I took her hand. We left in search of her sister.
Six months ago the first girl disappeared from our town: a blonde, dimpled child, a fourteen-year-old goddess in her knee-highs and jumper and the corner she called her own, between 5th and Hickory, where I saw her once with her girlfriends, discussing the blooms of teenage romance, exchanging languid rings of smoke and a stolen cartridge of her brother’s cigarettes. And in another moment, she was gone, a rubbed out spot, our town’s dispatched goddess, from location A to location B.
For a week the town went out in groups with electric lanterns and flashlights to search the wilderness for her, calling her name out in frosty, expatriated breath, our own bodies foreign enemies, our neighbors bodies citadels we could not break. The realization of just how alone we were set us apart. Some even accused me for her disappearance, because I was old and lived by myself and I was shamanki, and people were afraid of the dead that walked among them; even the spiritually blind can sense the frequency, that hum, that moment, when we are standing alone and the air stills and turns into syrup, and into ether.
We found her on the seventh day, cocooned in tarp with her face stretched thin with plastic wrap, an icebox machination, all of her limbs and her middle bruised with snowflake cuts, like she and her murderer had waltzed gently between sharp spheres, filleting away one strip at a time. After the police came and took her body away and left behind their yellow crime scene tape, the goddess appeared to me, her jumper stained, her eyes empty, austere plates. My fingers went right through her cheekbones.
“Who did this to you?” I whispered, “Who killed you?”
“I can’t tell you,” she said, “But look.” She pointed away, “There’s light coming through the trees.”
I saw nothing but the darkness, the locusts encapsulating my heartbeat, the wind drinking a sigh.
And the goddess left me.
Three more girls disappeared before Mr. Dawkin’s twin daughters vanished with them. Parents had to watch their children slip through their hands, and the rest latched on to the shallow reassurance _That at least she’s not my child_ as barriers and after-school programs and neighborhood watch were put into place and girls were stolen anyways. They were taken out of their shape and bent down into cardboard, faces plastered on cartons, dumpsters, telephone wires, transmuted from flesh into so much plastic. I could not find ghosts to speak to. Some looked to me for answers, those who still remembered the days when I was a healer of the people; those who thought I could wear down crystal balls and keys so they would spit up their turgid mysteries: but I felt sad and useless. I had no answers.
Femie’s ghost took me through those empty lots where carnival lights were once strung from the top of stackable metal poles, where I watched a man swallow fire and yet not ignite into flame himself. _I would be there now if I could, reaching out to touch woman tattoos and stringing my fingers with cotton candy._
Femie squeezed my hand. “Don’t you see?” There’s a light in the trees.”
But I didn’t see, and the empty grasses turned into trees that bowed down and tried to hide my face with their sticky, detritus veins. The lunary darkness covered me like a shroud wherever her hand white did not touch. The joints in my knees ached. My head ached. We kept going.
“Is your sister alive?” I asked. “Is Katie alive?”
“I can’t say,” she said, and then quietly, “Please – please save her.”
Femie stopped and looked down. There was a hole in the earth.
I saw Chubby Charlie a few weeks ago. He had lost all of his pinkness -he was rake thin and gray, standing in the back of the convenience store with a skin mag tucked partially inside his coat and a thin, eldritch cigar hanging from the corner of his lips. He smiled when he saw me.
“How have you been Emma? Any news on the disappearances?”
I got a six-pack of orange soda – the kids liked to drink it when they came over to my porch – and I left.
I’ve never fallen so far before. The tornado cellar, _the hole_, warped the darkness like an old cutting board. I thought the joints in my knees would burst every time I climbed down another rung on the ladder. Femie climbed below me, her ghost fingers sometimes brushing against my shoes, or passing straight through my ankles. We didn’t speak. When my feet touched the solid ground below, the floor like a glittering cave, packed with dirt, Femie took my hand once more and led me through the labyrinth below.
As we continued the walls sloped and shrunk, and geometric shapes danced in the frequencies of the pocketed grooves, squares of fire like blaring sirens. I kept expecting to see _come one, come all_ plastered against the concrete in loud text, alongside rows and rows of corpulent faces in formaldehyde, alongside Siamese sisters and contortionists and fire eaters.
It would only bring me closer to reality.
The tunnels shrunk so low I had to get down on my knees and crawl. Femie whispered, “It’s all right,” as her face blurred into the shadow. Through the pain in my joints I could detect that we seemed to be ascending. I remembered death like this, floating in cerebral cytoplast, waiting for that sinking light. In old age I became afraid of that death, but in that cramped tunneled with glittery dirt and concrete threatening to squeeze out my organs, I realized:
_The light was still inside me._
We reached a slatted wooden door. I pushed through Femie’s ghost until it opened, and we crawled out onto black and white tiles, a cuckoo clock on one wall, a bright red and yellow _kiss the cook_ plaque above the stove.
The dead little girls waited for us in the doorway, caked in blood and sharp dark cuts, their bruises transparently colorless, their eyes deep and runny and chartreuse. I got to my feet and they led me through the shellacked walls of the nearly empty house to the guest bedroom, where Katie lay limp on the plush, blue flowered comforter, half of her blouse shredded with knife cuts, her face puckered with cauliflower lesions, lip split. Her arms were tied to the bedposts, her wrists ringed with deep, flushed pink grooves.
“Charlie,” she said. I flinched at the name
“No, baby,” I said, “Not Charlie.”
Her eyes struggled to focus as I untied the rope knots. “Shamanki.”
“Emma, honey,” I said, “Just Emma.”
I gathered her in my arms and she clung to my neck. The ghosts reached out to stroke her hair, her cheek, whisper little kisses in her ear and against her bruise forehead. My spine felt as if it might pop out of joint, even if Katie was thin and nearly peeling away like melanoma paper. She breathed out of space against my neck. I tried to tell her, just like Femie told me, that _it would be all right_, but I could not breathe properly with her weight pressing down on my ribcage. Her small nails pressed against my back as the ghosts tugged on my arms and entangled themselves in my hair.
We went into the living room. His voice stopped me.
He sat motionless in his rocking chair, a half empty bottle of Everclear on the table next to him. I couldn’t hold her any longer. Katie slid down until her toes touched the carpet and I clung to her to keep her from falling.
“Why did you do it, Charlie?”
“You’re not leaving with her,” he said.
I barely recognized him from those childhood nightmares; only a carapace of my pink Sunday school friend with the soft eyes remained, everything else blotched and blackened, like when the teacher told us to draw a picture of the sun and I drew blackness, because, I explained, it was the inside of our eyelids, when the sun became too bright and we closed our eyes.
Katie stirred gently against me.
“Did you want to know what it felt like when she stopped kicking?” I asked.
“But you know, don’t you? You know what it feels like.”
“Emma. Put her down and leave this place.”
_And I thought I could trust you, with your crayons and I’ll never do it agains._
“Is it because you want to know what it feels like to die?” I said, “Charlie, look inside me – if you really want to know what death is like. I’ll show you. It lights up inside.”
The girls tugged on my clothes, their eyes playing with fire – and I was taken back to that day when the atmosphere hung on thin metal wires and the leopard man told me the secret of the world, as if he had been to the bottom and seen that drifting sphere – the one that pulsed and whispered quietly _death is only a dream_, and even if God wanted to bury my heart in his strawberry garden, he could not take it from me. I remembered the Hades blue lights and the god engine placed inside my head after I died, the glowing coals and the _light was inside me_.
“Do you want me to show you death?” I whispered, “Because I don’t think you’re prepared for that.”
He let me leave.
Outside in the cool forest I guided Katie step by step through the trees, holding her elbows as her toes touched down against dirt and fennels.
“Stay awake for me,” I said, “You’re safe now.”
The girls lifted their arms like wings and disappeared right into the skyline fabric. Femie touched Katie’s cheek and blew a goodbye kiss that danced away into mist.
“You’re safe now,” I said once more. Another step. Another step. As the last angel disappeared above we crossed that impermanent gap between illusion and reality, floating heads and lights strung to look like teeth, with every short, sucked in breath.
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