Inside Out Empty

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I often have a moment upon waking where the line between dreams and reality blurs. I dream I'm a fashion model; an idiot one who falls gracelessly from the catwalk, and when I wake it's to find my body half off the bed, nose-deep in carpet.

I thought this was yet another manifestation of my waking dreams. I woke up, and I looked down, and there it was. Tiny, really, about the size of an eraser-head. A hole in the middle of my abdomen.

It did not bleed, the way a stab wound might. No red flesh tinged with the buttery yellow of fat peeked up at me. The hole was black, perfectly round, absorbing the morning sun to a complete absence of light.

Fuzzy, curious, I ran a finger over it. It slurped at my fingertip like a tiny sink drain. Startled, I yanked my hand away.

I rolled out of bed and dressed, covering up the strange wound. As I spread jam on toast, I had to pluck my blouse away from my belly to keep the garment from flowing into my innards.

Once I had food in my system, I began to worry. I could no longer write my suctioning hole off as mere somnambulous folly. I pasted a bandaid over the black spot to save my clothing, and settled in front of the computer to see what sort of cancer I had developed overnight.

As soon as I logged in, he pinged me.

lalaw1: morning, beautiful. dinner 2nite?

He must have been waiting for me. Sitting at his desk, his razor-thin monitor painting his manicured features a cool blue, tapping away as soon as my IM name appeared.

I thought about going invisible, or ignoring him, but that would lead to a ringing phone. So I hammered out, Can't talk. Have cancer.

He didn't like that word. His mother died from cancer when he was just an overly neat kid.

He didn't IM back, and in a few seconds his screen name grayed out.

A sucking sound drew my attention back to my abdomen. My shirt stuck to the hole, like a blanket edge caught in the vacuum hose. I lifted it. The bandaid was gone, the hole now the size of my palm.

I went into the kitchen. Consuela'd been the day before, so it was clean, except for my toast crumbs.

The sink stopper rested next to the faucet, all shiny stainless steel and black rubber. Even my sink stoppers squeaked with cleanliness when Consuela was done. I swabbed the thing with alcohol, then snuggled it into my stomach like a cork in a bottle.

Instead of returning to the laptop, I wandered to the sofa. I clicked on the TiVo, letting aspiring models and The Price is Right contestants keep me company as I contemplated my condition.

I thumbed the metal stoppering my hole. I twisted it, feeling the torque pull my skin in spirals. I tugged at it, and it came free with a startled "Blurp!"

Almost the size of a coaster now, big enough that I should be able to see something.

I grabbed a handful of mints from the dish Consuela always refreshed on the coffee table. I dropped one into my belly. Nothing happened. I dropped a few more. The candies went inside me, but nothing came out the other side. Maybe I could bypass the whole eating process altogether. Chewing and swallowing gets really boring, especially when it's not chocolate going down.

After dumping the bowl in my stomach, however, I didn't feel full, and I wished I had kept a few aside to eat the regular way. I stuck my fingers in the hole, feeling around, as though my abdomen were a jar with one olive left in it.

I yanked them back out. What the hell was I thinking? I stared at my knuckles, glad all of them were still present, right up to my Malaysian Mist nail polish.

A hole. I had a hole in my stomach. I looked up at the television, with its droning, fake-smiling faces. A hole in my stomach, into the depths of me, eating me, swallowing me up. Where were my horror movie screams? Why hadn't I called 911?

I froze on the couch, the television trying to sell me on an art school – "Do you enjoy drawing? Do you enjoy computers? Then this is the place for you!" – one hand over my disappearing torso and one hand reaching for my cell phone.

I scrolled through all 337 names in my cell phone, but couldn't zero in on one to call. The cell phone companies call the contacts list your "friends and family," your "network," your "favorites." They should really call them "guys you screwed once, and needed a picture to remember their face," and "girls you tried to be friends with, but then turned out to be skanks or vacuous sacks." No one I could call.

Maybe one. My hand trembled. I had all of her numbers, her address, her email address, even a Skype account she rarely signed onto. I found her mobile number, for extreme emergencies only, because she thought cell phones were the height of rudeness. She preferred the antique ivory rotary on her desk, that giant desk I'd once tried to hide under when I was five. She'd immediately found me and as punishment for invading her space had insisted I stay there, crouched in the knee space, for the rest of the day, past dinner, past my bedtime, until I wet myself and passed out.

I put the phone down and returned to my computer. I wikied black holes, stomach ulcers, skin lesions, and everything else I could think of. Nothing cross-referenced. Not even weird Korean medical journals mentioned spontaneous abdominal astronomical phenomena.

I found an active "What's the strangest thing cancer's ever made you do?" forum, figuring it was the closest I'd get to the X-Files version of whatever was eating me.

I posted as MT-Girl.

mt-girl:anyone ever get a hole in ur bod, like a black hole?

ktsmom: what, you mean like sores?

mt-girl: no, like a black hole. srsly. woke up with it this morning. keeps getting bigger.

stanman: wtf? are you rly such a jerk to troll a CANCER forum?

mt-girl: not troll, i swear. freaked out.

ktsmom: stan, maybe it's just a kid, a little scared, getting the symptoms wrong. mt, it can't really be a black hole. a bruise, or a scrape?

stanman: don't feed the trolls, ktsmom. look at her posting history – nonexistent. i call troll.

mt-girl: it keeps sucking things into it. i put a bandaid on it, and it got sucked in when the thing grew. is it cancer?

stanman: fuck off, you shit. i'm emailing the admins.

ktsmom: at this point, i agree. shame on you, mt.

"Fuck!" I slammed my laptop closed.

I leaned back in my chair, palming stoppered hole. My abs were concave, the emptiness drawing them.

Back to the cell phone. I thumbed through the address book, wondering if I should go to the ER. I'd been in line at Whole Foods the other day, and a fat lady behind me was telling her friend about how she'd gone in for a fatectomy or something, and she'd had to wait eight hours because she wasn't nearly dead. I wasn't bleeding. I didn't even have any pain. Just the hole. The ER was probably a bad idea.

I called my doctor. I never saw her except for the one visit per year to roto-rooter my cooter. They hold your birth control hostage if you don't go in and let them rummage around down there.

"You want to ask about what?" the receptionist said. I could hear a screaming baby in the background.

"I have a hole in my stomach—"

"You should call 911 if this is an emergency."

"I'm not bleeding. But it keeps getting bigger, and I'm running out of things to stopper it up."

"I can get you in on Friday, but I really think you should go to urgent care at least."

I hung up. Receptionists never let you talk to a doctor. Can't let the ordinary germy hordes talk to the holy MDs. So receptionists give out medical advice based on their $8/hour salaries and experience from whatever their thirteen children have gotten in the past.

In my contacts list, I scrolled down to her number again, that emergency string of digits I'd never used.

I didn't call her. I swallowed, my throat dry, barely managing to complete the reflexive gesture. I pulled up some saliva, swallowed again, and turned the TV off.

Silence. Not even noises from outside the apartment.

My shirt fell back over the hole, and my stomach gulped it in. I gasped as the material stretched tight over my back, the seams creaking. Struggling, I pulled it away.

I could have stuffed a child's soccer ball into the pit. The circle stretched, lengthening into an oval as it reached the limits of my waist, filling out the extra space to the top and bottom. What would it do when it reached my breasts? Swallow them too?

Then I glanced down, and realized the hole nearly crossed below my underwear. I couldn't feel my fingers on my stomach, couldn't detect a belly button or abs. If the hole reached down just a few more inches, I wouldn't be able to feel anything down there, either. Ever.

Shit.

I scrambled to the kitchen. I pulled every plate out of the cupboard, pressing them to my torso, trying to fit bowls and cookie sheets and crockery to the opening.

A casserole dish, heavy, its edges fluted, fit almost perfectly. I scratched the price tag off the back and popped it in. The dish tugged at the edges of my skin, pulling inward. It wasn't going to last long, and then I'd be four ceramic pounds heavier for the rest of time.

I grabbed my keys and detoured around my Beamer parked in the lot below. Images of the dish disappearing, and my clothes and the steering wheel and the gear shift knob flying into my body tickered through my brain, and I didn't even bother to unlock the door.

But that left me too far to walk to anywhere except the Starbucks.

Starbucks. Caramel and chocolate and foam. What a thought. They make everything better.

I thumbed the ceramic edges that flared out of my belly, and squinted through the bright sun at my phone. I was surely neck-deep in an emergency, and the woman could make a nuclear meltdown look like nothing more than an overturned milk glass.

I called, but she didn't pick up. I left a message: "Gran, it's me. I'm really sorry, but I think I'm having an emergency. I'll be at the Starbucks by my apartment. Sorry. Ma'am. I mean, I'm not bleeding to death, but I think I need help. I'm sorry, Gran – ma'am…Please."

I ended the call with a wince. I'd have preferred to text: "911. Starbucks by my apt. Pls hurry." But Gran didn't do texts, and her emails to me were forced and formal.

I pushed into the Starbucks, my back stiff, keeping myself from twisting in any way that might dislodge the crockery. I stopped in the doorway, people squeezing around me to get to the counter, and breathed deeply. Caffeine has a smell, I don't care what any study says. The body knows.

"What can I get you?"

"Two venti cappuccinos. A blueberry scone, and a slice of that chocolate cake." It's not like it was going to expand my waistline.

I waited, toe tapping, then clutched the order to me and found a spot in the corner. I had to climb over some dweeb with a Mac to get to it, but I arrived in my comfy spot without spilling a drop of the precious.

"Expecting somebody?" Dweeb asked.

"Nope," I said, blowing on cup one. I dunked a wad of scone in it and gobbled it down.

"Lotta coffee." He nodded at my table, his too-long-uncut and too-long-uncombed hair falling over his eyes. At least it looked clean, unlike his thrift shop clothes.

"I need it. You see how much coffee I haven't drunk yet?"

He cocked his head and smiled.

"The coffee that is in these cups stands in direct proportion to how raging of a bitch I am until it is ingested. And today is a really, really fucking bad day to be all nosy at me, so just shut up and let me caffeinate in peace, okay?" I almost added "you loser", but the small amount of coffee included in my soaked bite of scone allowed me to filter it out.

He shrugged, and his smile widened to show a dimple in his left cheek. So 1994, the adorable dork. "Well, fuck you very much too," he replied.

I froze. He was still grinning, still friendly, but the words stabbed me.

He continued. "You come in here every day, sit in your corner table, with mascara smeared under your eyes, and sleep wrinkles still on your face at midday. You know the baristas draw straws to see who is going to serve you every morning? Because you're sure to discover your venti double mocha frappuccino is one percent low on no-fat milk. You're hot, and you're rich, but you are a class-A cuntasaurus. You don't notice a single other person in here, ever. I've talked to you five different times, and this is the only one where you haven't used the words loser, jerkface, retard, or gaywad. I'm Matt, that guy over there is Tonio, the girl in here on Wednesdays with the freckles is Maggie, and every once in a while you say something nasty to every one of us. We're your fucking neighborhood, and all you like to do is shit on—aw, shit. Don't tell me you're going to cry now."

I didn't mean to. The last time I cried was when I was seven, when Gran restricted me to my room during one of her parties.

I'd cried, and she'd slapped me.

"That is enough," she'd said, her voice low so the housekeeper wouldn't hear. "Ladies do not cry when they don't get when they want. Cry in front of me again, and you'll spend two weeks in your room, bathroom breaks only."

"Crying doesn't make you a nice person now, you know," said the asshole who had just told me how much of an asshole I am.

I wiped my nose with a scratchy brown napkin. "I never said it did. It's just been a really bad day."

He closed his eyes, like he was counting to ten, or picturing his happy place. Though from the looks of his possessions spread over his table, this was his happy place.

"Why has it been a bad day?" he asked without opening his eyes.

"What do you care?" I crumpled my napkin, wanting to get up and leave, take my coffees with me, ignore all these people I had always ignored.

He took a slow, measured breath. I glanced up to see his eyes open, drilling into me. "Because," he said, "if I ignore you, then I'm just another you. I go to yoga, man. I try to get along with people. It's easy to do when everyone else is trying to get along, too. But you never even try—"

"I didn't mean—"

"Yes you did, and shut up. You never try to get along, so the easy thing for me to do is treat you just like you treat everyone else. Doesn't fly, though." He shook his head. "If I'm gonna be all one with the universe and at peace with my fellow man and shit, I've got to treat everyone like a human being. Even you."

Even me. I hunkered.

"So," he continued on an inhale, "why are you having a bad day?"

I stuffed a chunk of scone in my mouth, mashing it around with little to no saliva. I had spent the last hour trying to find someone to listen. But when someone actually asked, when someone even pretended to care, I couldn't say the words.

My turn to close my eyes. Fuck it. Nothing so far had convinced my sleeping body, if it were asleep, to wake up from this shite-mare. Might as well keep falling down the rabbit hole.

"I have a hole in me."

He snorted. "You've got several, if you count the ones on your face and places I don't want to go."

I blinked. "No, I mean another hole. Like a black hole. A big fat empty thing, a vacuum sucking me into it."

The nerd glanced around. Then he leaned back in his chair and looked at me, his eyebrows raised. He took a swig from his dirty mug. He crossed his arms. "Go ahead then with the crazy," he finally said.

"I'm not crazy. Look." I lifted my shirt to reveal the casserole dish embedded in my body.

"How'd you do that?" He leaned forward, squinting. "Body paint?"

"No, you fucktard! I told you, I have a fucking hole! A shit-tastic, astronomer's delight, Einstein-took-it-up-the-ass singularity in the middle of my stomach!" I ripped at the dish, pulling with all my strength as everyone in the cafe turned to stare at me. It came away with a "POCK!"

The world froze. From the corner of my eye I saw cars moving outside, people walking along the sidewalk, flags and stapled flyers whipping in the breeze. But inside the cafe even the machines came to a standstill. The chatter behind the counter halted, the sips and gurgles fled, and everyone's lungs collapsed into a mass of useless tissue.

The geek stared. I held up a venti, the full one, still steaming through the sip hole. I plunged it into my belly, and it was gone.

Dorkus maximus stood up. He glanced briefly at my face, but crouched and peered at the middle of me.

"Seriously, that's some trick."

"No trick, dick. Stick your hand in it." My voice sounded cool. I learned that from Gran. But I could feel the flush rising in my chest, heating my neck, soaking my face.

He reached out. His fingers stopped at the horizon, as though he expected the brush of flesh. When nothing came, he met my eyes. Then he stuck his hand in me to the wrist.

"Holy fuck." The girl in the back spoke, I think, the one he'd mentioned before. It was barely a whisper, but she might as well have shouted.

We both looked down. His hand was gone at the wrist, his forearm ending in a flat line of nothing. I saw the hairs rise on his skin, his tone draining from crayola beige to corpse white. Shaking, bracing his other hand on my wobbly table, he drew back. Pixel by pixel, his appendage reemerged. When it was whole again he clutched it to his chest.

"I told you," I said. "I'm having a bad day." The tears were drying on my cheeks, pulling the skin into make-up mud tracks.

He thumped himself in the eyeball. Hard. "Crazy fucking dream," he muttered.

"Don't bother." I lowered my shirt. "I've been trying to wake up all day."

He held his hand up, wriggling the fingers and prodding the flesh.

"Your hand is okay. I put mine in earlier, and it's fine."

He pondered his palm for a few more moments before releasing it to rest gingerly in his lap. "What happened?"

I shrugged. "Just woke up with a hole. It was smaller this morning, pea-sized. Now it's huge."

"What did you do to make it bigger?"

"I didn't do anything. You actually think I'm capable of opening a black hole in my own body?"

A noise exploded from my middle, somewhere between a swish and a thunk. Suddenly I felt naked, exposed, like those dreams where you're in homeroom with no clothes on.

"See?" I said. "I didn't do anything. It just gets bigger, just like that." I clutched my arms around myself. I sat there in only a bra, the hole filling my entire abdomen, from my ribs to my hips, just the barest hint of flesh on the sides of my waist.

The trash on my table rattled, garbage at the end of a vacuum hose. I pushed away from it. I wouldn't be able to plug myself up much longer, to keep any object not bolted down, or—Jesus—other people from flying into me.

"I know a guy—" the geek started.

"What on Earth are you doing?"

For a moment I thought the hole had eaten my lungs as well. "Gran?"

"I told you only to call my mobile when you have an absolute emergency." She tapped a Blahnik toe. "Unless you have overdosed on whatever drug you've taken, I will be docking this little adventure from your salary."

In the midst of the crowded cafe, I suddenly felt very alone. Everyone turned away, prey animals retreating from the water hole as a croc comes to drink.

"It is an emergency, Gran," I whispered. I tugged my arms away from my waist.

Faced with my anomaly, her expression did not change. "In the car," she snapped. "Now."

I stood, but then sat back down. "Um, does anyone have a cookie sheet? I need to plug my hole."

The purple-haired barista managed a large aluminum sheet, covered in burnt scone skin.

"Here," the geek said, reaching into his bag. "It's clean." He tossed me a wadded up neon green T-shirt. When I slipped it over my head, looking down at my now somewhat boxy shape, I saw a full display of Ms PacMan. I sighed.

Gran cleared her throat, and everyone cringed in unison. I ducked my head down and followed as she walked out.

The Lincoln idled outside, James's left arm hanging out the driver's side window, his yellowed fingers tapping the gleaming black door.

Gran slid into the open back seat, sliding across the leather. I stood in the door, baking sheet pressed to my ribs and hips, and looked up and down the street. My street. The Starbucks, the health food store, the bong shop, the chiropractor's office; I lived here. People flowed in a stream along the sidewalks, and I recognized none of them.

"Get in. Now, please."

I jerked, and dropped into my seat. I pulled my legs in, somewhat less gracefully than Gran. I tugged the door closed, but it yanked free of my hand.

Off-balance, I nearly fell out of the car into the gutter. I scrambled back and looked up.

"Listen, I'll tag along, if that's copacetic. That T-shirt's classic; I've got to monitor where it is at all times." All I could do was stare up at him with my mouth open and my ass half out of the car. Geek boy shrugged and gestured me back in. "Scoot."

I scooted. I scooted until one thigh lay against Gran, and the other against him as he sat down and slammed the door shut.

He leaned across me, his hand stretched toward my grandmother. "I'm Matt. Pleased to meet you."

Gran leaned forward, ignoring his hand, and poured herself a glass of chardonnay. "Are you a friend of my granddaughter's?"

"No, ma'am," I said.

"Could be," Matt said, raising his eyebrow. "We've only just met, though."

"In that case, I will give you the chance to rethink your actions, and leave this car now. I can't waste any more time this morning on all this dithering about."

He didn't hesitate. "Think I'll stick around, if it's all the same to you. Ma'am." The words were casual, but I saw the bulge in his jaw, could almost hear his teeth grind. Ah. A man with authority issues. Now I know why he works in T-shirts on a Mac in the Starbucks.

"Fine." Gran pushed the intercom button. "James, we'll be going home now."

James didn't even raise an eyebrow. He pulled smoothly into traffic, and I slid against Matt a little.

Gran didn't say a word the entire drive, and without her prompting, I certainly wasn't going to open my big mouth. I sat stiff, clutching the baking tray to my body, hoping the hole wouldn't swallow the tray, my clothes, me, Gran, the car, everything. I started to sweat, smelling the cloying stench of nervousness.

Matt sucked in his breath when we pulled up to Gran's house. Some people, kids I went to school with, guys I've dated, they forget how big their homes are, how impressive and intimidating. I never did.

James let Gran out, and Matt and I followed her across the gravel, through the open front door, through the hall and into the sitting room.

Matt tried to gawk at the hall, with its parquet floors and expensive art, but Gran moved too quickly. He trotted to keep up, sensing that if he fell behind, she would leave him like a wounded herd animal.

Into the sitting room. I'd never been allowed in there, not even to stare at the paintings. This was where Gran held court, manipulating through fine wines and quartets.

I wondered if I'd been granted a promotion, being invited into the sitting room, or if she was about to pull her will out of a secret hidey hole and scratch me out of it in front of my eyes.

When Matt thunked down onto the closest sofa, she glared until he scrambled back behind me. Instead, she strode over to one of the sculptures that circled the room, an obsidian form, tortured and twisted.

"Are you familiar with this piece?" she asked, not turning to face us.

I looked at Matt, who shrugged. I took a tentative step forward. "No, ma'am. I haven't ever been allowed—"

"You are so concerned with what you are allowed to do. It's irritating." Gran reached out to caress the highest point of the statue.

It's your fault, I wanted to say. The words screamed through my head. You made the rules. You punished me.

"I'm sorry," I said.

Gran sighed. "Young man, come over here."

Matt hopped to her beckon. So much for authority issues.

"What do you see," Gran asked him, "when you look at this form? What do you feel?"

"Cold," Matt said easily. "Cold, pain, distance, grief. It's raw, open, like a wound that doesn't heal."

Gran turned to him, an eyebrow raised. She looked at him, actually met his eyes without that scowl on her face.

"And what do you feel when you look at my granddaughter?"

He stepped back, unable to meet my gaze as he had Gran's. "I don't...I don't know."

"Don't be shy. You can't hurt her feelings."

"Any more than you already have," I muttered.

Matt swallowed. He looked me up and down, his eyes sticking on the square shape under Ms Pacman. "Scared," he said. "Worried. Like when you find a kitten in a box on the side of the road, and it's skinny and sick and mewling."

I hunched my shoulders and turned away. I found a chair in the farthest corner of the room and curled up on it.

A metallic shiver rang out. I lifted my shirt to find the baking sheet dented in the middle, a circular ding caving into me. I covered it back up and hid my face in my arms.

After a moment, a weight eased slowly onto the matching ottoman in front of me, blocking out the pale sunshine.

"Sit up straight, child." I'd heard her say it more times than there were beans in a Starbucks, but she never said it that way. She had always cracked it, like a ruler across my wrist. This time it was soft, almost comforting.

I raised my head, blinking. Her lips were not pursed, her eyes not narrowed daggers. I thought she might touch me.

She rolled her silk sleeve back, and I heard Matt move to stand behind my chair. His breath brushed the top of my head.

"It is something you must learn to manage." Gran held her bare forearm out to me, and I couldn't remember ever seeing it before. I thought of all the evening dinners, the rides in the Lincoln to school, meetings, even those early years when I was still a child who expected protection from monsters in the middle of the night. Even in summer, she buttoned up and wore her hose.

Her skin was not liver-spotted. Spider veins did not snake across the thin flesh of her inner arm. Her bones did not push out, eager to break with the slightest fall.

I reached out to touch it, my hand shaking. She didn't pull back, as she always did from physical contact. Her skin was hard, warm, and smooth. Hard, the grain tickling my fingertips.

Gran reached across with her other fist and rapped on it. I yanked my hand back, and heard Matt stumble behind me. Her arm didn't just look and feel like wood; it was wood.

"What the fuck?" Matt said.

Gran pulled her arm back into her lap, clasping her fingers. "I'm afraid it's a family trait. My mother was an incredibly soft, caring woman, generous to a fault. When she was about your age, she began to grow softer and softer. I remember as a child I often petted her. Her back, her neck, her arms and legs. She grew a fine down much smoother than any cat. She exercised, she waxed, certainly, but no matter what she did she softened more with each passing year, like butter in a simmering pan. The doctors said she died of natural causes, but really she just melted away."

I glanced over at Matt. He shook his head and edged in the direction of the doorway.

"She used to tell me stories at night," Gran continued. "About her mother, who'd always been a bit...difficult, who had a sharp tongue and a very forward way about her. Abrasive, they called her when being kind. Mother would talk about how harsh she was to the touch, that no amount of skin treatments would soften her body. That she was sandpaper, lying over gravel.

"And more, all the way back, as far as Mother could remember, and her mother, and hers."

"You never told me any of them," I said. "I don't believe you."

"Believe, girl. We become what we are. Our skin, our bodies, become physical representations of our souls." She tapped her arm again, a hollow knock that raised goosebumps. "I was terrified of being my mother, of spreading and melting into a glob of uselessness. Look at what I became. I refused to tell your mother the stories, and when her change came, she did not come to me. She was incredibly frightened, I am sure. I could feel her fear vibrating through me. But she would not tell me.

"And now here you are, your soul eating you. Boy, come here," she snapped without turning her head. Matt jumped up to stand next to her, his face slack, his eyes flickering. "Dear, please lift that horrid rag and get rid of that foul slab of metal."

I did as asked, flushing as I revealed my hole and my bra, not sure which was more humiliating.

"Mark—"

"Matt," he said, automatically.

"Yes. Well." Gran gestured at me. "I'll ask you again. What do you see?"

He didn't answer. Instead, he moved away, back to the statue across the room. Gran and I watched him as he moved from sculpture to sculpture.

"How can it be true?" he asked. "The world, biology, it doesn't work the way you're saying it does. If I'm a depressed sort of guy, my skin doesn't turn black and puff up into a dark and foreboding raincloud. If I'm incapable of seriousness, I don't turn into a child's birthday clown."[AVATARS]

He stood in front of a stone bust, its features distorted until it was almost nothing more than a collection of facial landmarks. He reached out to it, palming the top of the head, his fingers rolling over the nose that was sneaking above one eye, the lips that twisted into an ear.

My eyes moved on around the room as he paused there, caught by the grotesque figure. None of the sculptures were abstract; all began with some basic human shape, all offering hints toward femininity. None were beautiful, modern Venus de Milos, celebrating an ideal, capturing a perfect curve. They were tortured, souls thrashing in the last throe of a death by flaws.

I leapt up, letting the baking tray clatter to the floor, feeling the T-shirt slip down and flutter into the abyss overtaking me. I climbed and clawed my way out of the room, desperate to escape the generations of transformed bodies reaching to hold me in, to capture me, to place me on another pedestal.

I ran. I'd never run in my grandmother's house before. I heard Matt calling behind me, Gran's heels clacking in a steady, calm rhythm on the hardwood floor.

I didn't manage to run very far. It's not like I run marathons in my spare time. I dwindled to a trot, then a lope. I managed to stay ahead of Gran, maybe because it was beneath her to run, maybe because her wooden limbs no longer allowed her to move in a higher gear.

I struggled on, gasping for breath, while Matt caught up to me and ambled along.

"You're running," he said.

"Not really," I managed. "More of a coordinated fall, I think."

He shrugged. "The front door's the other way. This is like leaping into the next level of Purgatory."

"Hell. Next level of Hell."

"I was being nice."

I coughed, bringing up a bit of spit and some asthmatic phlegm. I paused at the bottom of the stairs. I hadn't climbed them in four or five years, and my cardiovascular system was calling a code blue.

I heard Gran's shoes getting closer and closer, and the sharp staccato released a fresh jolt of adrenalin. I headed up the stairs.

Matt took them two at a time, still breathing easily through his nose. "Okay, so where are we going?"

"Safe…place." Eighteenth stair. Twenty-nine to go.

"More useless information." He sighed. "Fine. Why? Seems like your answers are back there."

I let my wheezing gain volume, hoping it would serve as an excuse, a stalling tactic. I didn't know why I was running away from Gran, after I'd called her, after she'd told me the why of it. I didn't know why I was escaping to my childhood prison. I didn't even know what this stranger was doing, following me here to Gran's house, up the stairs, down the hall.

The room was unchanged. Gran had not changed it when I had moved in, never offered to buy Little Mermaid coverlets or My Little Pony curtains. I slept here, often ate here, but I was not permitted to color it with any sense of my self. Rather, I changed to suit it. I took on the muted tones of the upholstery, blending seamlessly with the wallpaper, never showing stains or wear.

I sat on the bed. Nothing was dusty, though Gran never had guests. The bedsheets were clean, smelling of laundry detergent. A fresh splay of orchids sat on the dresser.

Matt stepped through the doorway. He watched me for a moment, as I heaved to pull in more oxygen, thinking maybe the hole had already started in on my lungs. Then he stepped through and pulled the door closed. It shut with a click, and when he found no way to lock it he simply stood there and held the knob.

"Let's have it. That's not Norman Bates down there. I mean, hell yeah, she's pretty damn scary, but seemed to me like she was trying to help you out."

"I know." I sucked in a full breath at last, feeling the innate satisfaction. "It's not her, not really."

He moved around the room, not touching anything, not really even looking at anything. There wasn't anything to look at anyway; never had been. "So you felt the need for a jog up the stairs? I get it, sure. I get that way sometimes. Worry about the DVTs, sitting in front of a computer like I do. You can just up and croak from sitting for a long time. I heard of this gamer guy, think he was in Iowa or someplace..."

I closed my eyes as he droned on, feeling my pulse settle into the rhythm of his words. I felt like a panicked wildcat, and he was my park ranger, using his voice to urge me back into the safe area of the world.

It worked. I lay back, feeling the room spin in the darkness behind my eyelids as he talked in circles around me. I lay a hand on my middle, edging my fingers around the hole, feeling the bloodless rim. After a while, Matt's voice trailed off, his feet ceasing their shuffle over the carpet.

"It's bigger, isn't it?" I asked.

"I think so. It's getting closer to third base than I have in the past three months."

I wanted to smile, even while I wanted to kick him for being a dick. "She said we become what we are. Our bodies manifest our souls."

"That's what she said." He moved, and the bed shifted under his weight as he sat next to me. "Sounds like some acid-trip version of your mom telling you not to make that face or it will stick that way."

I didn't move, didn't reach out to him. I just kept circling my vanishing flesh, rolling my fingertips around and around. "I have this dream sometimes where I live in the side of a cliff," I said. "I stand at the edge of my cave, looking out into a world with no bottom, no way to climb up or down.

"Sometimes I just live in the dream. Alone, in the cave. Sometimes I jump. I try to end the dream, to die if I'm going to die. I step from the cave into the void, thinking it will be like Alice in the rabbit hole, that I'll fall and fall and fall. But I don't fall. I just hang there, like when Indiana Jones steps out into that cavern on faith, and the floor appears below him. I can't move. I'm in space, suspended with no locomotion, no leverage to shove my body back toward the cave.

"Last time I had this dream, when I woke up for real, I was sure I'd be a million years old, I hung there for so long. I felt my face and hair, expecting wrinkles and old lady hair. When I looked in the mirror, I was still me. I couldn't breathe, couldn't think. I mean, I'd just been stuck in this void, this dream time, for at least 3.5 eons."

I should have been crying. In my head, that's how this scene was playing. Maybe I should sob, wracking, soul-deep mourning that expressed the grief inside, the sorrow at my lost life.

But I lay there. I barely moved, and I heard how flat my voice was, like I was reading my thoughts from a teleprompter. I wanted one tear to fall, one word to break with emotion, for Matt to hear it and see it, to gather me in his arms and heal me. That's how it happened on TV anyway.

That's not how it happened to me.

"I'm empty," I said. "That's what this is. My soul is this sucking vacuum, always taking in, never giving out. Never caring. Never believing. I'm an empty, useless vessel."

"That's not true," he murmured, and now he did make a move toward me, his hand hovering over my arm, pushing toward my shoulder. But it only hung there, not touching, but close enough for me to feel the electricity warming his body.

"Gran will be at the bottom of the stairs," I said, sharp and hard. "She can't climb them anymore. Will you please go to her? Help her up, bring her to me?"

He stared at me, at my body falling away into a nothingness that was everything about me.

"Please," I said, a bit softer.

"I don't think I should leave you."

One side of my face smiled, turning it into a smirk I didn't really feel. "What's the worst that can happen to me?" I waved an arm over myself, what was left.

He returned the smile, but it was a reflexive gesture. He didn't feel it or mean it either.

Gran's voice, distant but clear, hammered on the doorway.

"Please," I said again. "And thank you."

"For what?"

I shrugged. "Just thank you."

One step toward the door. His hand on the knob. He turned back toward me, opened his mouth.

I shook my head. "It's okay. I'll be right here."

I don't know why he cared. Why he cares. He'd spewed bile and hate at me an hour before. Maybe he had wounded dog syndrome, was one of those saps who gave their heart to any damaged mutt that came along. I didn't deserve his care, the creases around his eyes that would deepen to worry wrinkles. I didn't even deserve his T-shirt.

"Go." I broke eye contact, letting my eyes blur into the textured ceiling.

He breathed, a deep sucking breath, but didn't say anything.

Door open, door close. He was gone, his steps quickening as soon as he got into the hallway. He ran, probably stumbling down the steps to get my grandmother and haul her up to save me as fast as he could. He wouldn't be fast enough.

Then again, as I've found, he wouldn't be slow enough either.

I sat up, focused on my nothing, the emptiness that was me. I stretched an arm into it, pulled it out. It took all my effort to retrieve my limb from the singularity.

I looked around the room, the space that had defined me for so many years. I wanted to see a fingerprint, a smudge from a PB&J. I searched for a scuff on the floor from my first pair of heels, a dent left in the dresser from a childhood fall. But I saw nothing to indicate I had ever spent one moment there, much less lived there for hours, sometimes days without contact with the outside world. Not a doll, not a series of marks to chart my growth, not even a schoolbook left behind.

Closing my eyes, I drew my legs into my chest, the muscles quivering from the hole's pull. They sank into me, farther normal human joints could bend. I wrapped my arms around them, pushing, pulling. A coldness sank through them, freezing them, turning my arms and legs to lumps of icy concrete. I waited for the pain, but it did not come.

Instead, the cold vanished. The weight disappeared; not just the hole's irresistable force of gravity, but the normal weight of my body. My limbs were simply gone, as if they had never been attached to me at all.

I opened my eyes. I was a contortionist, folding into myself on an empty stage set for no one. My arms and legs stretched into the hole, longer than the universe, but I could not feel or move them. I strained, the tendons in my back nearly snapping from the effort, but I had placed too much mass in the hole to overcome it again. I was not coming back.

I tried to breathe deeply, one last time, as Matt had, but my origami shape no longer allowed my ribcage to fully expand. Instead, I took a swimmer's breath, gasping and shallow, and plunged my head toward the belly button that had preceded my limbs into nothingness.

Stop.

It all stopped.

The door opens. Voices, they come to me in doppler shifts, so slow and stretched they are nothing but a bass hum. The door closes sometimes. Once a millennium, I can twist my head to peer out the horizon of the hole, to see Gran's house waste away, to see the bulldozers, to see the city buildings, apartment complexes, shopping malls, and hotels that rise and fall on this spot. Sometimes all I see is green, foliage and bugs; sometimes a tundra, sometimes a desert.

The world changes, moves, drifts. It evolves, learns, lives, dies. I, I do nothing. I am nothing, perched on the edge of the singularity, my consciousness frozen in time. I am empty, inside out, gone into the nothing that ever I was.

But he cried for me.

###

 

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