by Andy Albrecht
Toward the rear of the classroom Simm is hunched over a dissection tray carving swastikas into a dead frog’s belly while Tommy dips a pack of rolling papers into a jar of formaldehyde. At the chalkboard Old Lady Lugosa is illustrating the proper dissecting technique to the class, beginning with a small incision above the throat and drawing a sharp white line down between its legs. Simm rips the scalpel across its lower abdomen and watches it ooze a purplish grey bloom of intestine. For a moment he wonders what it would taste like. Tommy drops the soggy zig-zags into a plastic baggy and stuffs that into a notebook scribbled over with tits and flaming eyeballs. It was an easy score. Rolled up with a little bit of weed they’d sell for ten bucks a pop, fifteen if you were square. Turned a handful of skinny joints into a hundred bucks like that. Maybe after school they’d take a few for themselves and head down to the wash with a few warm Tecates and spend the last hours of another bullshit day all fuzzed-out and numb in the gravel behind Carillo’s Auto Body. Didn’t really matter what they did long as they got away with it.
Mrs. Lugosa turns from the chalkboard and instinctively pins her eyes on them. “Daniel Simmons, Thomas Lancaster. Why don’t you boys tell the class where the liver is located?” Simm looks down into the dissection tray and tries to make sense of it. Fried balloons? Siamese vaginas? By now most of it had been hacked up into an ochre amphibian puree. He recognized the intestines unraveling into a puddle of the frog’s own excrement and all the major appendages, each piece severed and strewn about like end pieces around a dinner plate. But most striking of all were its eyes. Shards of fluorescent light trembled on each wet black surface, giving them an unnatural glint as if they were returning his stare, peering through his acne scarred forehead to take on every thought, every secret, every nasty teenage fantasy that ever spilled out onto the sheets. Mrs. Lugosa stood there staring at them with the seething patience of some unkillable, B-movie ghoul, complete with see-through skin, rattling bones, and a yellow-toothed grin poised somewhere between malice and delight. She was the frog’s human incarnate banished to the Twilight Zone once a semester to bear witness to her own mutilations and she taught class like the barker of some decrepit carnival where the main attraction was her own beating heart inside of an antique refrigerator.
“Well, boys? The class is waiting.” The frog’s head rested in a smeary glob where its stomach should’ve been and its right leg was now crammed through a slit in its throat. Every head in the class was wrenched in their direction. Simm poked around with his scalpel, feigning his utmost concentration before finally speaking up, “Goo. All I see is goo.”
Blotches of fresh pink skin showed where the scabs had peeled off. The deeper wounds bulged in purple seams from her half-shaven scalp. There were three hundred sixteen stitches in all, most of them weaving jaggedly across her forehead, eyebrows, nasal bridge, cheeks, lips, chin, and tongue. It took a team of plastic surgeons three surgeries, including a skin graft and extensive dental work, to put her back together again. Recovery was nothing but a word. Initially they said she might never fully regain her equilibrium or a complete range of motor skills. Even the sixteen steps from the bed to the toilet was an ordeal. She used the contours of furniture and walls to get across the room and at the end of every one of those private funhouse tours she had to sit down to avoid passing out.
After two months in the hospital the doctors decided that home was the best place for her to heal, to be close to the assortment of things that at one time outlined her life, but that only brought more confusion, more pain. The cast on her arm was signed by two children whose names she didn’t recognize and she was cared for by an unpleasant looking man they called her husband. Their wedding album was placed conspicuously on the living room table as the doctors suggested. At first she tried to ignore it, afraid it might contain revelations she wasn’t prepared to confront, but after awhile curiosity got the best of her. She barely recognized herself. There was a playful, kinetic quality to her face in the pictures as if the camera couldn’t pin down a single, defining image. She focused closely on the details, trying to coax out some stray vestige of memory. Little wrinkles bunched up between her eyes and cheeks when she smiled and there were a pair of crescent shaped dimples that framed a delicate symmetry – a symmetry she knew was lost forever in the rushing black of an instant. She wondered about the last time she smiled like that and what it was she smiled at, and how the scars would make it look lopsided now. There were other people in the pictures too. Doting parents, friends from the college dorm, smartly dressed colleagues from the office. As she turned the pages she was overcome by a longing for a time and place that never existed.
All of it was back there now, somewhere between the person she’d been and the stranger she’d become. Another life away. The only thing she could be sure of was the headache, draining and constant, especially at night, and it took steadily increasing doses of Vicodin to dull it out. The minutes before the opiate blossomed were almost unbearable. Nighttime silence amplified the chimes in her ears and the pain focused behind her eyes in a cold, hard slab. Sleep was the only solace, the only place she felt whole, a dreamless black sanctuary where nothing existed.
It hovered. It was not asleep, for it did not know sleep, sleep was not among its natural rhythms. It had no sense of itself, of its great size or of the fact that its capacity for hunger was unknown in other creatures of the deep. It hung more than half a mile below the surface, far beyond the reach of any sunlight, yet its enormous eyes registered faint glimmers, generated in terror or excitement, by other, smaller hunters. It often killed without need, as if nature, in a fit of perverse malevolence, had programmed it to that end. It sensed change now, and so the Beast rose slowly in the darkness.
Simm had his old Volvo wagon fishtailing while his favorite grindcore speedmetal band blasted so loud the factory speakers in the door panels threatened to blow apart. The thing drove like a giant cigarette boat carving gravel wakes through the stillwater suburban streets.
Forty yards ahead the traffic light turned yellow. Tommy was riding shotgun, trying to act tough, as if he wasn’t the least bit concerned about the blind turns they were taking or the fact that the guy behind the wheel once slit his wrists with the rusty lid of a soup can. That dude was somewhere else now, lost in the supercharged roar of a moment when the world compressed itself into the time it took yellow to flash red at the intersection of Now or Never, as every dull minute of his seventeen year existence became a precursor to this single, irretrievable instant. The RPM needle struggled to hold its place at 8000 and the wind tore hard through open windows. Tommy twisted the volume knob till it wouldn’t move anymore and the mortar shock of the drums turned the vehicle into their own private thunderstorm. The light flashed red a good ten yards before they got there. Simm jammed the pedal even harder into the floor. He took the intersection with his eyes shut.
Doctor Shelley dabbed a pen tip to his tongue and scribbled some notes onto her patient file. It was called deep regressive therapy and the way he described it made it sound more like a snake oil cure than any legitimate psychiatric treatment. Hypnosis brought to mind corny late night TV skits with quack practitioners of a fake magic coaxing an audience of stooges into behaving like assholes. It all seemed so staged and ridiculous, that with a count to ten and a snap of the fingers someone could completely leave themselves behind and become mindless agents of another person’s will. But options weren’t a luxury to her. They said the longer she avoided treatment the harder it would be to dredge herself out of whatever depths she sank to, if there was any of her left to recover at all. Doctor Shelley explained the procedure and she nodded politely despite her skepticism.
She laid down into the plush cushioning of the couch while he sat a few feet opposite her. “I want you to take a deep breath. Clear your mind and focus on letting your body relax. I’m going to count to ten and when I do, you’ll find yourself in a completely lucid state. Your muscles, your head, your hands and feet will feel feather light. Let yourself float away, just as if you were taking a nap. When you hear me clap twice you’ll come right out of it, safe and sound, thoroughly rested.”
She waited for the inevitable laugh track as she closed her eyes and focused on a fish tank against the wall behind Dr. Shelley. Her shoulders sank deeper into the couch and she let her left arm dangle off the side. She imagined that she could breathe underwater, letting herself float among shimmering schools of fish and electric colored coral, adjusting the water’s hue by minute degrees, going from baby blue to the deep, rich azures of the tropics. She queued in a pod of whales and listened to their ethereal songs echo softly from the periphery of her imagination. The doctor’s voice became muffled and far away. “That’s right. Drift. 1...2...3...4...”
Random drift had brought it to within a hundred feet of the surface, and its eyes gathered flickering shimmers of silver from the stars. It hung in the deep and waited, hovering at the confluence of two currents. It let itself be carried into the darkness behind the light and settled there, where it could concentrate on the scent of prey below. But now the rhythmic cycles that propelled the creature through life had been disrupted. It was confused by the discomfort caused from the unfamiliar sensation of hunger. Its cells were not accustomed to being denied.
The smog and late afternoon heat draped a dull headache over everything. The walls of the wash were spray painted with a thousand homeboy nicknames that transformed the place into an abstract mosaic of outlaw alphabets. Tommy took a swig of warm beer and spit out half of it. “Pass me the lighter, these matches keep blowing out.” He stood up out of a crouch and gulped down what was left in the can. “Warm beer tastes like piss.”
It was Simm’s idea to scatter the embalmed joints on his dashboard so they dried faster and now he was wincing through the first chemical drag as it bit his throat, holding it deep in his lungs to absorb each molecule of this rare and delicate poison. The buzz came on in a shivering red bath. He looked up into the cloudless sky and watched a jet drift slowly through the barren sunlight. It reminded him of a dream he had a while back, the one where he sat on the hood of his car and watched a dozen airplanes crash-land into the desert. It was the best dream he ever had, so much fire, so much noise and not a single motherfucker around to stop it. He coughed up a plume of smoke and laughed that shitty, sarcastic laugh of his. It was the sound of dismissal, as if he’d taken a giant rip of nitrous oxide and destroyed whatever fragile architecture was required to frame a single thought in his fucked up skull. He heard a dog bark from somewhere behind the auto body shop and the sound careened off the walls for what felt like an hour, going from one side to the next and back again as if it were surfing the heat waves that radiated off the concrete. When it finally stopped he wondered what the dog looked like and what kind of dreams it had.
Olive was feeding her Fruit Loops to the beagle under the table and Billy dropped an entire carton of oj onto the linoleum and the bacon was sizzling and she slapped jelly onto a dry piece of bread and the bus was five minutes away and her husband turned on the stove fan without asking how she was feeling and Billy started to cry and Olive wanted to know if she could go over to Wendy’s house after school and she stuffed the sandwich into a Ziploc and was it Wendy or Billy who wouldn’t eat peanut butter and honey, don’t forget to call the guy about the faucet and the fridge door was open and traffic was gridlocked on the Golden Gate because of another jumper and there weren’t any juice boxes left in the pantry and the bacon went black and the microwave rang out and pleeeease, mom it would only be ‘till seven o’clock and Wendy said I could have dinner with her family and the smell of burnt grease and Billy tracked orange juice footprints across the kitchen and someone left without grabbing their lunch and the dog wouldn’t stop barking and seriously honey, don’t forget to call the guy about the faucet. Funny, I don’t remember putting anything in the microwave, she thought, staring at it blankly as the headache came on in slow, steady waves.
Two impulses drove the creature now. The impulse to kill and the impulse to feed. Hunger dominated, a hunger that had become more and more urgent as it searched in vain for prey in the deep. Chemical triggers fired, nourishing the flesh, galvanizing it with luminescence. Its body chemistry was confused, and the chromatophores it triggered changed the creature’s flesh from gray to pink to maroon to red, reflecting emotions from anxiety to passion. It was driven by cycles of need, by the most basic of impulses, it rushed in one direction, then stopped, then rushed in another, extending its many senses to gather in more and more of the scattered signals that were exciting the frenzy. The signals it was receiving were partly alien and partly familiar, but its brain registered only that they were irresistible. Its senses were assaulted by new, conflicting signals, signals of food: of live prey, of dead prey, of light, movement, sound. And so it began to charge back and forth, confused, defensive, ravenous.
The world rumbled beneath battered slip-ons as they flew down the wash on their skateboards, the clack and rattle of polyurethane on concrete hammering out a familiar rhythm that always blotted out whatever static the day threw at them. They cruised a gradual decline for a good couple of miles, neither riding away from or towards anything in particular, just a couple of cosmonauts floating fast and free through space, trying to salvage what ragged edges were left of their high. They banked hard into the south wall to take a long, sweeping turn when Simm suddenly lost it and went cartwheeling over a piece of junk that appeared out of nowhere in middle of his orbit.
“What in the fuck was that!?” he spit as he came to, picking gravel out of the heel of his palm. He had slammed into a shopping cart at full speed and scattered everywhere on the wash floor were the remains of countless gutted electronic parts. It was the jewel box of a petty thief, an unpawnable treasure fished out of shimmied door locks and busted car windows. Tommy stopped laughing after he saw the owner of the cart’s contents crumpled in a heap among the wreckage.
“Yo. You alright, man? Can you hear me?” There was no answer and even less movement. It looked as if he’d been lying there for days. His eyes were open but skewed in opposite directions and his entire face was covered with little purple scabs that looked like cancers. And there were flies. Lots of them. The man looked frozen in time, like an ice mummy pulled out of the tundra. Simm limped over to get a closer look and Tommy poked at the corpse with the nose of his board.
“Is he dead or passed out?” asked Simm.
“Smells dead to me.”
“Some guy just drops over right here in the middle of the wash and nobody bothers to clean it up?”
“Looks like it.”
“Check his pockets.”
“Shit no! For what?”
“ID or something.”
“Guys like that don’t carry IDs.”
“So what? We just let the maggots get him?”
There was a silence between them.
“I ain’t seen a corpse since my brother’s funeral,” Simm said.
Tommy hadn’t heard his friend mention his brother in the two years since he died. Sophomore year. He didn’t know what to say so he kept quiet.
Simm walked over and pocketed an ancient little AM radio that had come hissing to life on the concrete.
It was a long walk back to the car.
She threw a rag on the floor where Billy spilled the juice and sat down with her back against the oven. The floor began to carousel and the migraine throbbed inside the veins that laced her temples, but these were things she’d have to learn to live with. Her recent progress stunned even Doctor Shelley, who confided in their last visit that after their first few sessions he wasn’t sure if the treatment was going be successful. Now he was calling it a 99% recovery, practically a miracle. Under hypnosis the memories came back in pieces, some larger than others, some more vivid, but slowly the people, places and names of her life were restored to their original places. There were, of course, gaps, blank areas, the one-percent which would probably never return; none of which she particularly wanted back and none a deeper black than the moments surrounding her coma. Olive’s birthday was the first memory to return. She came out of hypnosis with a perfect recollection of the event: the blustery November weather, the blueness of the nurse’s eyes, the acute pain of pushing out a nine pound baby with no epidural, and the profound exhaustion which lingered for weeks afterward.
And with that they trickled down in random order, in chunks of years, of months, of moments so fleeting they barely seemed to have existed at all. But despite the doctors clinical optimism and her family’s reassurance, she knew something was missing, something she felt but couldn’t define, a vague psychic amputee’s itch that the more she tried to scratch the more disturbed she became. The memories were just shells, empty husks drained of emotion.
The microwave went off again and a warm film of tears fattened between her eyelids. She felt tired now, as she had become accustomed to after the morning’s first hour. The daylight was somehow sharper, the silence more barren as the morning rush left her stranded. The days were nothing but a cycle of fatigue and headache and none of the prescriptions could kill whatever it was that ached. Sleep became the only thing she looked forward to, the promise of midnight where the shadows had no shape and the world dissolved into the unbridgeable gap between her two selves. The waking hours were suffused with light. There were no shadows here, no dark corners for anything to hide.
The rods in its eyes detected traces of bioluminescence, then more light flooded in, and more. It floated in the dark middle layer, drifting, and then from somewhere far away it felt the thrum of a pulse, faint waves that coursed through the water and tapped at its flesh. Its eyes gathered more and more light; its other senses recorded the increased vibrations in the dark, a sudden irregular static in the water’s pulse. Other reflexes voided a sac within the body cavity, flushing a cloud of black ink into the black sea. Defense impulse changed to attack impulse. The beast shot upward, excited by the prospect of the kill, impelled by a million years of imprinting.
“Double taco burger, extra cheese, with fries and a coke.” A good skate always brought out their appetites. The early evening rush was on at the drive thru. A line of cars wrapped around the block like a giant aluminum centipede, each segment humming to a different internal frequency. Simm paid the kid in loose change and peeled out into the avenue.
“Let’s go pay a visit to the wop. That mooch still owes me eighty bucks.”
“You can go but I’m not leaving the car. His mom’ll talk us sober. Plus, she’ll call my uncle and let him know I was over.”
“We’ll sneak through the back.”
“I am what I eat.”
“You know he’s got a sheet right now.”
“No way, dude. Last time I felt all jittery and weird for like, two or three days. I’m still seeing tracers.”
“Beats smoking these shitty sherms. Plus, I heard he got a rad new DVD.”
“Super Vixens of the SS?”
Tommy reached into the bag and pulled out something that looked like roadkill.
“Motherfuckers forgot the fries.”
Simm slurped down half of his soda, burped and pushed the wagon into third gear.
Streetlights flickered on in unison down both sides of the street as the sun disappeared behind a silhouette of rooftops and antennas.
She was on the couch, eyes closed, already lost inside her private fish tank. In recent months she had become so skilled at it that she could go there without the subliminal prodding of Doctor Shelley. At home she’d play little games with herself, conjuring the lucid blues of the water where the kitchen ceiling usually was, molding steam from the sink into iridescent schools of fish or giant whales, but right now under this particular sea she felt a shift in perspective. The water had acquired an unfamiliar coldness and the whale songs were too far away to hear. Dr. Shelley’s voice was garbled in background, somehow there and somehow not. She cried out in wet, confused syllables, the hallucilanguage of dream panic eventually dulling into a raspy scream that saturated the room. The doctor’s voice was louder now, more uncertain. He clapped twice and waited. Then he clapped again.
And then something was chasing her, something she couldn’t see but that must be huge and terrifying, for her fear became panic and her screams grew louder. A tongue snaked across her skin, examining texture, seeking difference. But the skin was all the same: hard, tasteless, dead. The tongue speeded up, impatient as it licked. A signal flashed across its brain and vanished. The tongue stopped, retreated, began to lick again, slower. There. The signal reappeared, steady. The texture here was different: smoother, thinner. Weaker.
“Red is, like, totally your color.” The words came from a pert beauty in her early twenties with an arsenal of makeup at her disposal. She had just put the finishing touches on a 5-minute makeover but the woman in the chair didn’t respond. She just kept staring at herself silently in the mirror, taking in her own reflection as if someone else was looking back at her.
“See how the foundation evens everything out. And that green plays perfectly with your complexion.”
The scars on her forehead were muted by a thick matting of foundation and the girl had over shadowed her eyes with swaths of smoky green. The girl said that the lipstick was a shade of red called “Vavoom”.
The woman got up out of the chair without saying anything and disappeared into the brisk foot traffic of the department store. A river of faces floated past her like ghosts and she had the impression that she could move through them as if they were masks. She toyed with the idea of slipping in and out of people’s heads: a nervous jangle of abject anxieties inside one, a garden of lusts in another.
On her way out the door she bumped into someone with a clutch of shopping bags and one of the handles tore off spilling its contents out onto the ground. Both of them surveyed the mess for a moment before one of them walked away.
They didn’t want to go home and home didn’t particularly want them there, either. Simm pulled over in the mall parking lot, cigarettes smoldering in a stuffed ashtray, spotted windows half drawn. They reclined in their seats, dulling tired, bloodshot eyes on what was left of the twilight sky. Simm sifted through the channels on his new pocket radio as if he were listening for something specific, but nothing came in. A pair of high heels clacking out of a department store caught their attention. Her mouth was a smear of stoplight red. Standing there, suddenly transfixed by the wagon’s headlights, her gaping pupils had a gravity all their own, devouring everything that looked into them like a pair of collapsed stars in the middle of her skull. It was the place where colors went to die. Tommy leaned out of the window and called her over. She shot a glance into the night behind her and walked over to the car. Simm looked into the rear-view and smiled. His hair was perfect.
From the radio came the strains of music she knew but couldn’t name, a lilting melody, a song, haunting and sad. Kindertotenlieder. The song cycle about the death of children. No souls, she thought as she looked at the moon. It was an Arab idea and she’d decided she liked it: The new moon was an empty celestial vessel setting out on a month’s journey to collect the souls of the departed, and as the days passed it swelled and swelled until, finally, engorged with souls, it disappeared to deposit its cargo in heaven, then reappeared, an empty vessel, and began again.
All three of them were contorted in the back of the Volvo. Tommy already had two fingers inside her and he wondered how many more would fit. Simm was on the opposite end, trying hard not to laugh at the absurd expression on his friend’s face. They were amused by the way she writhed, moaning in agony as they pushed themselves into her as deep as they could go.
For a moment she thought she recognized this place, that somehow she’d already been there among the cigarette butts and lost ketchup packets and wads of hardened bubblegum, already felt the chewed-up fingernails scraping away at places too deep to see. It all seemed pre-recorded, someplace she’d visited in a forgotten dream and was now watching through another set of eyes.
Fingernails suddenly raked skin from Simm’s face and she smashed her heels into Tommy’s sternum. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a 4-million volt stun gun and a roll of duct tape. “It’s your lucky day, my boys,” she heard herself hiss as the kids recoiled in terror. “Tonight we board the mothership.”
The lights of the city were smeared with the bugs on the windshield. Moonlight spilled from a split seam in the fog, giving the electric night a pale blue sheen. She eased the Volvo onto the 101 north for a few miles before arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge. She blew through the tollbooth and swerved into the southbound lane. A river of headlights parted to meet them. The boys were groaning in the back seat, bound at the wrists and ankles with their mouths and eyes taped over. The scent of stale tobacco gave her the strangest craving for a cigarette. She searched for one in the center console and found only expired registration papers and crumpled gas receipts. It had been over ten years since her last smoke and she wondered how many different lives one body could fit. Suddenly the windshield frosted into a thousand constellations and the car went tumbling out over the guardrails above the black Pacific. Beneath them the ocean swirled into a briny froth and the eye of the whirlpool opened to reveal a screeching nest of tentacles waiting to feed a giant, shining beak.
She remembered a line a poet wrote, “Many a midnight ship and all its shrieking crew...” They fell slowly, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing. Below, blue yielded to black, and all was night. All of a sudden she disappeared, and the thing chasing her was gone too, and all that was left was a loud, piercing buzz. The world had been swallowed by the sea.
[Note: The blocks of italicized text in this story were sampled from Peter Benchley, Beast (Random House, 1991. In some cases the sampled text has also been edited.]
About the Author
Andy Albrecht is a publisher and writer based in San Diego, California. He's open to receiving email as andypalbrecht at cox dot net.
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