Postmodern modern Prometheus*
*Disclaimer: I’m just being clever with the title (and by clever, I mean stealing all the smarts from Mom, who came up with it), this is actually in no way a postmodern work, in that it makes sense, follows a linear progression, and in general, I think, does not suck**.
** Which is not to say that all things postmodern are inherently full of failsauce, it’s just I can’t think of one right now that’s not, so we’ll save that for a post somewhere down the line, and you can just chill out and read a story for right now.
When they talked about the girl next door, they made girl sound like a synonym for terror. The very idea that she might be outside drove them in, to peep through curtains and call up the whole damn phone tree, just so they could say, “did you hear what that girl did?” She had a name, but no one called her anything but that girl.
As far as I could tell, her crimes were so typical they’d never hold up in a juvenile court, provided the judge had a modicum of intelligence. Which you’d think, seeing as how law school is all about the smarts and so on. There are some, though, my mother among them, who equate bare midriffs with the inevitable decline of civilization into the depths of barbarism.
Ok, so it wasn’t just bare midriffs.
It was coming home at all hours, and smoking cigarettes on the patio and getting large packages with unknowable contents delivered on a weekly basis. It was bottle blonde and all black and every off-the-rack signifier of teen defiance you could cram into a girl of ordinary size.
I didn’t believe the packaging for a moment.
So I watched her.
She had to be making something, building something, I don’t know, even destroying something. Otherwise, why all the boxes? And as I watched her, I came to see a pattern to her comings and goings, even if it did make me feel a little bit stalker boy. Which I wasn’t, seeing as I didn’t follow her anywhere. Until I did, that is.
One night, about half-past midnight, I saw her shape illuminated in the glow of a Bic lighter, as she flicked her cigarette to life. I wondered why someone my age would smoke so damn much. It seemed like something someone older ought to do, someone who’d lived a lot of life and let it drag them down at the corners. Anyway, it made it easier to follow her. I wore sneakers and she wore boots, and I figured that made harder for her to know I was following.
I was pretty proud of myself, all things considered. Slipping past sleeping parents, not even waking my cat, Rusty, who slept in an obese puddle by the door. Clearly, I was the master of the night, quieter than the dead and better smelling at that.
Until she caught me. In my defense, she didn’t turn on me until we’d reached the edge of town, where a decrepit truck stop sat, serving a constant stream of surly old guys who still knew where to buy suspenders and had no idea what irony meant, unless it was a thing that had to do with cars or maybe home appliances.
“Why are you following me?” She asked.
It wasn’t the most biting of sentences. In a range of jaws from field mouse to great white shark, she was maybe an alligator. So it wasn’t the most, but it was pretty far from the least, and it didn’t help that I had no prepared answer to fall back on.
“Uh…I wanted to make sure you got here ok?” I offered.
“Who’s going to walk you home, then? Could be monsters out.” her lip quirked to the side. I blushed and hoped the sickly streetlight orange would cancel it out.
“I can take care of myself.”
Her shrug said what she thought of that, and I felt like saying what I thought about what she’d said without saying it out loud, and felt myself go spineless and scared under her glare.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” I got closer to her, looking down and doing my best to feel as if my natural advantage was of some kind of consequence.
“Hasn’t a body got a right to be where she wants to be?”
“Sure, but I can’t figure why a body–why you wanna be here.”
She looked into the distance, into a black my eyes couldn’t penetrate, but maybe hers could. Her body was wrapped in a sigh and a trace of gasoline fumes. And then she took a step backward, toward the truck stop–where through a thick glass window I saw the night time people in their temporary haunts–and she said, quiet but no less incendiary,
“What can you know about me, that you could ask a question like that?”
I didn’t have an answer, so I let her walk away from me.
In the end, though, I followed on. Inside the truck stop, to the restaurant that served as a twin shrine to a certain kind of unsportsmanlike hunting and an America that was dead a long time ago, if it was anything but a myth to begin with. I took a seat, and spent a whole ten minutes staring at a streaky menu before she came to my table, wearing a uniform that might’ve been dug out of a bomb shelter built in the mid-60’s. She didn’t take her order sheet out for me, even though I could see it peeking up out of her apron pocket.
“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“Can I get a coffee?”
“Why not? It’s terrible, but the refills are free.” I could swear she almost smiled, until I looked up at her, and her name tag, and asked,
“Is your name really Juliet?”
“For now.” She said, her smile faltering, and something true extruding out, like a compound fracture, a broken bone breaking skin and tendons to point blame at the world.
And just like that, I knew nothing about her again.
Anyway, I stayed, and drank awful coffee, all acid on an empty stomach, before I caved in and spent carefully husbanded allowance money on a lot of fries. They were also awful, but they combated the coffee.
I left when Juliet left. Or the girl, who calls herself Juliet. That girl. Who comes home at odd hours on the backs of motorcycles and walks through her door as if no one is ever waiting.
But tonight, or this morning, or whatever you call the weird filtered blue time, she didn’t ride anybody’s motorcycle. She walked by herself, all places alike to her in passing. Only tonight, or this morning, or whatever, I was there, and I offered her my arm.
She took it.
“Why?” She asked.
“Because you’re alone.”
Even with her hand on the bend of my elbow, and our paces synched up, she was.
The boxes that come to her door are big. Big enough for body parts or machinery or other strange things that have no business in a house. Especially not one as un-house-like as Juliet’s, because it probably doesn’t need any kind of encouragement to not behave.
Everyone else has a garden and a lawn, a mailbox with a bright red flag. As if they all bought their houses pre-fabbed from a box only slightly bigger than the ones that Juliet signed for every few days.
I wanted to know what’s inside them. Badly enough to sneak inside her house, although maybe that’s just because I’d like to see her naked.
When I finally got up the guts to do it, though, it wasn’t Juliet I saw. It really, really wasn’t.
It’s not as if I meant to get into her basement, it’s just that the only window open on the day that she’s gone, and my parents are out of the way is a window into the basement, left wide and breathing even though it was too cold for that kind of thing, and it looked like if it didn’t rain in the next hour, the clouds were just going to explode from the pressure.
Too cold for open windows and open doors, except if you’re keeping a corpse fresh.
My feet smacked down on the brushed concrete floor, and I found myself staring down at a table, the folding kind like old ladies use for bake sales and nerdy kids use for Dungeons and Dragons. Except this one was covered in a sheet, and the sheet was covered with a corpse.
Its veins were very purple. The skin was stretched and rubbery looking, and I wanted to think that it wasn’t real, because Jesus Christ, but I wanted it not to be real. The dead are supposed to look just like us. Warm, natural skin and their best suits, laid to rest looking restful. But it’s all a lie of wax and greasepaint, and the reality was laid bare, in my face, unfiltered for my eyes.
The thing had to be Juliet’s mother. They had the same face shape, the same cheekbones, although a different forehead. Well, and Juliet’s complexion isn’t so…icky. I was too freaked out, too honed in to this uncouth reality, I barely noticed the beeping, and the pipes, and all the strange complex of wires caging the table.
It could be a hospital, if it were a hospital in the belly of a spaceship in an 80’s sci-fi movie, and I’d’ve guess it were life support, if there were any life to support. But there’s not, so if there was a purpose to all this, I didn’t know what it is.
Juliet stood on the last stair, almost hovering, a punk apparition in ripped jeans and a black shirt that looked wet with something too thick to be water. And then I heard the lightning, and clouds bursting, and felt fat drops pelting the back of my neck.
“What the hell is going on down here?” I asked, backing away, closer to the wall with no idea how I’d get up it and back out the way I came, but anxious for a safe distance between Juliet and me. Only in this basement, I didn’t feel like safe was a word that meant what it should anymore.
“I–this–“ She stretched out her hand, encompassing the table, but her fingers shook, her arm trembling as if a weight hung from it.
I wanted to hold her up, because she looked about ready to fall to the floor. Right up until she lifted her chin, biting her molars down hard, sending the muscles of her jaw into a tension-bridge frenzy. Then I backed away some more, shoulder blades to the wall. I didn’t feel safe. Just cold, and wet.
Lightning cracked again, but what made me jump was the louder, closer noise. A lever pulled, a weight shifted, a THWAP! of epic proportions. And then the lights went out. I saw a brief flicker, but I was too discombobulated and filled with primal terror to be sure whether it came from the half-light windows set in the basement cement bricks, or from the overhead fluorescents.
“Juliet?” I said, sinking to my haunches, an illusion of security–a ball of limbs, ending in bony points.
There’s a knot in her throat, tight and stretched to breaking. I couldn’t imagine what will happen if she breaks first. Because I was in her cellar, and I was facing a corpse, and I felt no better at ALL that I couldn’t see it there.
A blue spark ignited, coming from somewhere in the middle of the room. Juliet let out a tiny whimper, and my arms flexed tighter around my knees before I let go. Let go, and crawled toward the noise I just heard, because the only thing, the only thing worse than being brave just then was being a coward.
In another blinding flash of lightning, for sure this time, I caught hold of her hand. It was a small and impossible thing, with too many bits and pieces to make any sense in the dark, except that our fingers found each other anyway, lacing together tighter than I thought was possible without breaking.
Seconds must’ve ticked by, but they felt like nothing at all, like water when you’re under it, and it might as well be air. The seconds went on, meaningless, until they filled with a low, susurrating sound of sheets slithering down. And a throaty, phlegmy moan.
From the table.
And there was a creak.
And there was a breath.
But it didn’t belong to me, or to Juliet, because we’re stuck and still, unable even to draw a breath or let one out. We waited, while outside the storm raged harder, and inside…something that shouldn’t be woke up.
Juliet’s ribs quivered, and I put my arm around her waist, not to stop the fear, but to show her that I, too, was terrified.
“M–mom?” She said.
The lights came back on, and I wished they hadn’t. The purpled, veinous corpse sat up, naked under a flesh-tone slip that didn’t really live up to its name anymore. Or maybe the other way round. But the thing that reached down for us with bloated, blackening fingers was not the hand of something that anyone ought to call “mom”. But Juliet did, she did and wrenched away from me, her fingers pulling from mine with a sudden forcefulness.
“Mom! Mommy, mommy, mommy.” Her fingers, farther and farther from my own, ran down the cheeks, the shoulders, the hands of the woman–machine–thing on the table beside us. Tears fell from her face onto rubbery skin, and sparks seemed to fly from somewhere in the woman’s chest, like a lantern lit from beneath her ribs like spokes, and I wished, having opened my eyes, that I had the guts to shut them.
The girl next door is no longer a frightening and cautionary tale, she’s just a girl, too small for the world, and too big for it to pass her by. She’s caught in the middle like the rest of us, and all the worse for it. Her mother–her monster–clings to her, too, a muscle memory that remains, even when the brain must be a percolated mess, and her muscles degrade
Juliet sobbed and shuddered, relief or release, or realization that this can’t last.
I knew, because of course. I was the one outside it all, and looking in, so all that hope and desperation was at arm’s length, or further. All I could see was the inevitable collapse, and I was afraid for Juliet, and scared of the thing that might’ve still be her mother.
Except it isn’t, can’t be, won’t be, and never could be again. The sparks behind her ribs flittered and died and there was no light but the artificial, and it seemed impossibly dark in the basement, even so. It was darker and harsher then than it was with the power out and the lashing rains outside because the body that was almost, briefly, a person, was dead. This time, irrevocably.
I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to hold Juliet, but I didn’t KNOW her. It’s a terrible thing, to be so close to a girl, and know what ought to be, but not what will, and the way she shook from tears suppressed was just one more reason to leave her be. And one more reason to pull her close.
I’d’ve stayed locked in this indecisive limbo for far longer, but she collapsed, still holding the hand that is not a hand, and crying out onto the sheer concrete underneath her knees. I crawled closer and pulled her to me, an awkward heap of girl in my lap and overflowing.
“How? Why?” I asked, quiet and squelched and still, so damn scared.
Juliet turned, throwing her arms around my neck and squeezing, and she held so tight I’m wasn’t sure if she’d fall apart, or I would.
Her tears were hot on my skin, but left cold traces as they dried in rivulets all the way down my throat. I folded her closer, closer, and still, she shook. I rubbed circles into her back, but there’s no cure for the ultimate reality. There is always death, and he walks with us everywhere, and someday, we all of us will succumb. Wires, electrodes, hope and prayer. None of it can reverse the inevitable forever.
“I–I…I’m so alone. It’s…so h–hard. I just wanted…” her words were broken, and so was she, and I wished that I had something to stitch or glue her back to normal, but I didn’t. I didn’t, but I did what I could, and kept a hold on her no matter how she quaked, and we stayed like that.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and it wasn’t enough, but it’s what I had.
The storm raged, but it passed, and the visible sky got dark. And then, in the way of things, it lightened again, and the rays of a weak and watery sun shone down on our tired, cried out bones.
And today, today we live.