by Leigh Harlen
The woman lying next to me snores. Soft, phlegmy breaths punctuated by grotesque snorts that rattle their way out of her sinuses. I wish she would leave, so I elbow her in the side. She starts and the cacophony stops. Thank God. I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. She scoots across the bed, rests her head on my shoulder, and drapes her arm over my chest.
Her snoring begins again and now I’m trapped. I can’t even sneak out of bed to go get breakfast without waking her. I'm still holding out hope that she'll get up and make a quiet exit while I'm pretending to be asleep. As much as I want her gone, I'd like to avoid the awkward morning after goodbye. She'll want to talk. It'll be uncomfortable. And if I'm really unlucky, she'll be upset. If only sex didn’t involve so many feelings.
I know this train of thought is cowardly and cruel. I wasn't always like this. I used to care about my lovers, family, and friends. I hurt when they hurt, my heart broke to see them cry, and I raged when they were wronged. But something changed and I lost a piece of myself somewhere along the way. And nothing I do fills up the space where it used to be. And God knows I try. That’s why, I think her name is Mandy, is here in the first place.
Mandy’s eyelashes tickle my shoulder and she squeezes me. “Good morning.”
I blink as if just woken. I put my mask in place and smile. “Good morning.”
She pushes herself up on her elbows and kisses me. She tastes like last night’s beer. I kiss her back, but I’m already too impatient to try and fake enthusiasm.
“I need to go to work,” I say.
Her smile droops. I can tell I’ve already made her insecure. Getting her out of my apartment without some kind of confrontation is getting less likely. I kiss her forehead and hope the gesture sooths her hurt feelings.
“Oh, right. I’ll get going.” She climbs out of bed and puts her clothes on.
I slip on a robe and follow her to the door. She grabs her purse and digs through it until she locates her keys and cellphone.
“I had a lot of fun last night.” She leans into me.
I put my hands on her hips, I hope she takes it as an intimate gesture and not an effort to stop her getting any closer. “Yeah me, too.”
“I’m off at ten on Saturday, are you free? You could meet me for a drink.”
“Maybe, I’ll see what I have going on and then text you, okay?”
My mask must have slipped, because she tenses and steps back from me. This was about to get unpleasant. Most people can be counted on to bury the hurt and avoid the confrontation, but I can see in her clenched jaw and intense eye contact that she’s a fighter.
“You’re not going to call me are you?”
I should be honest. I know that. “Of course, yeah, I’ll call.”
“You are a lousy liar, Callie. Jesus Christ. I had fun, but you’re not God’s gift. Be an adult and be honest. Fuck.” She pulls her purse over her shoulder and slams the door so hard that the photograph over the couch shakes and tilts to the left. I push it back into a place. I like the photo. Barren trees in a snowy landscape. It's so bleak that it appears to be black and white, but if you look close enough you can see hints of green moss and fallen brown leaves. I picked it up at a garage sale because a woman I brought home one night told me that my bare apartment made me seem like a serial killer.
Usually the day after I have sex I feel calm, even peaceful. But today I’m hollow and sad. I’m not sure why. Mandy isn’t the first woman to storm out of my apartment yelling or crying. On my list of uncomfortable mornings after, that wasn’t even a top five. I don’t have much appetite, so I decide to go straight to work.
I turn off my computer and put my coat on.
“Nice work,” Leon says, holding up the report I’d finished earlier in the day.
“Thanks.” I like Leon as much as I like anyone. He’s vindictive, belittling, and temperamental, but he never tries to make conversation in the break room and he doesn’t expect me to go to holiday parties or staff retreats. That’s really all I look for in a boss.
I get in my car and start the engine. I sit and let the heat take the damp chill out of the air. I know I should go home. There's a six pack waiting in my refrigerator. I can drink, watch television, and go to sleep. But the depression from this morning is still clinging to my brain and the idea of going home with nothing but beer and my own thoughts for company is unbearable.
I head towards the unfortunately named Velvet Rose. I haven’t been there in a couple of months so hopefully I won’t run into anyone still nursing hurt feelings.
When I step inside, I can tell that I’m too early. The bar is brightly lit and almost empty except for a few older women enjoying a quiet drink with their girlfriends, wives, and friends before the college girls and twenty-somethings show up at a more fashionable time.
I order a scotch a soda. The bartender hands me my drink and tries to hide her disgust behind a forced smile. Most of the bartenders recognize me at this point. They’ve seen me enough and probably heard enough women crying into their drinks the next day.
Glass in hand, I find a quiet, dark booth, and sit down. People start to trickle in and the lights dim. No one really catches my eye. They’re here with their girlfriends or just looking to dance. After I finish my fourth drink, I’m feeling the effects. I stare, mesmerized and confused at the mass of sweaty, dancing bodies writhing under the flashing lights. I used to love to go dancing. I remember the ghost of the uninhibited, primal feeling that came from moving and sweating, pressed against another body, in time with the pounding music.
While I’m lost in my thoughts, she walks in. Long, wavy black hair that almost reaches her ass. Tall, with broad shoulders, and muscular the way that people who have a job doing physical labor are, not the carefully sculpted muscles of the gym rat.
She cuts through the glistening, squirming mass of people and makes her way to the bar. She leans across and says something in the bartender’s ear. The bartender's face flushes and she refuses to meet the woman's eye as she hands her a drink.
The black haired woman leans against a stool and surveys the crowd. She looks unimpressed by what she sees.
I try to catch her gaze, but her eyes seem to bounce off of me like a stone skipping the surface of a pond. Frustrated, I stand to go talk to her. I usually avoid such a direct first move, experience has taught me that quiet and mysterious is a much better strategy for me than charming conversation. But I need to talk to her. I don’t know why.
Before I reach her, her eyes lock on mine and I’m frozen. To say that the feeling is electric is a cliché and an understatement.
She walks towards me and I can’t breathe. She sits down at my booth and I’ve forgotten how to say, “Hello.”
She takes a sip of her drink. “Are you going to sit back down or not?”
I force myself to bend my knees and drop down in the seat across from her.
“Well, that’s better. You know, most people come to bars to have fun," she says, "Dance, spend time with friends. Not sit in the dark and stare at people like some kind of creep."
“Of course, most people are boring as fuck.”
I laugh. I think my laughter might even be genuine.
She looks around. “Jesus Christ, this place really is depressing. Let’s get out of here.”
“Where do you want to go?” The words feel like they’re tripping over each other as they fall off the end of my tongue.
“You live nearby?”
“Let’s go.” She downs the rest of her drink and stands up.
I follow her past the throng of dancing bodies and out into the cool, misty night.
“Which way?” she says.
“My car’s in the garage.”
“You’ve had, what, five drinks? You’re hot, but not hot enough to die for. How far to your place?” She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and lights one with a silver lighter.
“It’s about fifteen minutes. That way.” I point. I’m not sure how she knows how much I’ve had to drink, but it doesn’t seem all that important through the haze of liquor and lust.
“Let’s go then.”
She’s mostly silent while we walk. She takes her lighter back out, flicks it, and then closes it, extinguishing the flame. Over and over. I’m not sure why her tic doesn’t annoy me. Everything about her is fascinating from the callous on her thumb to the way the little flame reflects in her dark eyes.
I lead the way up the stairs to my apartment. Her boots click on the steps behind me. I’m uncertain what to expect when I open the door and let her in.
She turns and stares at me. She doesn’t break eye contact, there’s no tiny glances to the side, it’s uncomfortable and I feel exposed.
“I’d really like to fuck you,” she says.
I had expected the night to go that direction, but her straightforward declaration is startling.
“I’d um like that.” I'm embarrassed at how awkward I sound.
“Where’s your bedroom?”
I point. She turns and walks, stripping off her shirt and dropping it on my couch.
I follow. When I reach the bedroom, she’s laid out on the bed, wearing nothing but a pair of black cotton panties. I know I should question this. I should wonder why this woman is so interested in someone who has done nothing more charming than stammer and stare at her. I should worry about how I've felt unreal and out of control since the moment I saw her.
I pull my shirt over my head, drop it on the floor, and climb on the bed. She puts her cool hand against my back and guides me on top of her. She kisses me and her mouth tastes like whiskey and cigarettes.
She grips my shoulders, her fingers digging into the skin and muscle. I trace her nipples with my fingers and kiss down her neck. She moans and grinds her clit against my thigh.
This is why I do this. Why I put up with the uncomfortable mornings, the fights, and the accusations. I love the heat and the frenzy. I think I even feel something approaching happiness. I’m not sure if the feeling is really mine, it’s very likely just a contact high from the passion and need of the woman underneath me. But it’s powerful and for just a few minutes I’m gone. The cruel, hollowed out person who lives in my head is silent and I’m just feeling and sensation.
I bury my face in her black hair and breathe in the floral smell of her shampoo. My fingers dance and caress the area around her clit. Her breath is fast and she grabs my ass so hard that I'll probably have bruises.
"Stop fucking teasing," she says.
I slide two fingers inside her. She's wet and I move slowly in and out of her. Her muscles clench around my fingers. She grabs a handful of my hair and pulls harder and harder as her body tenses and shudders.
"Fuck." The word seems to crawl slowly, rasping and hoarse, out of her throat. Her muscles relax and she melts into the pillows.
I roll off of her. I’m myself again. The rush is gone. We lay there in silence as her breathing slows.
She pushes herself up, throws a leg over my hips, and straddles me. She laces her fingers with mine, pinning my hands to the mattress, and kisses me. I’m disappointed, I don’t feel anything. I never do after my lover gets off, but I had hoped that because of the way she had affected me, that she might be different.
She kisses, nibbles, licks, and caresses me. I try to enjoy the sensation, but I feel empty. I moan and run my fingers down her back, hoping that my responses are timed appropriately so that she doesn't catch on to the fact that I'm bored.
She looks down and smiles. It’s bright and mischievous and I hate her for her being so normal, for being happy. She leans down and kisses me, biting my lower lip. Her hair falls around us, it smells like roses and orange blossoms. She sits back up, her hair a black curtain across her face. She draws it back and the sun has disappeared, her eyes are cold and dark.
“I know what you want,” she says.
Even though her tone is harsh and commanding, I assume she’s trying to be flirty and naughty. Women have said those words to me on more occasions than I can count, and they’ve always been wrong. But I know to play along.
“What’s that?” I force a smile.
“To be consumed,” she says.
I’m stunned. Her words are so strange and unexpected that I’m not certain if she’s teasing me. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You want to be consumed, eaten up. Until you’re nothing.”
She climbs off of me and puts her pants back on.
She ignores me and fastens her bra.
“Can I see you again?” The words surprise me as they escape my mouth. I don’t think I’ve said that in ten years.
Without turning around she says, “I’ll call you.”
My front door opens and clicks shut and I’m left with silence and the echo of her voice in my head murmuring, I know what you want.
Gina picks up her purse. She gives me a tight smile. I can tell she doesn’t want to see me again, which is a relief. “Well, I had fun.”
“Yeah, me too,” I lie.
She combs her hair with her fingers and leaves.
I stare at the door and think about the strange black haired woman. I spent every night alone in my apartment, for two weeks, thinking about what she'd said. I know she was right. I didn’t have words for what it was I craved until she spoke them. And now I can’t think of anything else.
But then I couldn't stand my own frantic thoughts or the silent apartment another night and I threw myself into a frenzy of drunken one night stands. Anything to distract me and force her out of my brain. But it’s not working. I get less and less out of sex each day. If I can’t find someone to take home, I drink myself into a stupor just so that I can shut out her voice and sleep. Sometimes I do both.
I step outside to go to work.
“Hey there,” a voice growls behind me. I turn around and there she is. Black hair obscuring half of her face, the other half hidden in shadows.
I’m so relieved that I’m shaking.
She smirks and walks up to me, pulls me against her body and kisses me. I drink in the taste of nicotine and the bitter bite of her lipstick. The appropriate response is probably to be angry that she never called, that she’s here on my doorstep with no warning, and kissing me like I have no cause to be hurt. But honestly, I’m so happy she’s here that I don’t fucking care.
“I’m on my way to work,” I say.
I nod and let her lead me back into my apartment.
After I get her off, she doesn’t bother trying to do the same for me. She lays next to me in bed and takes a drag off a cigarette. I don’t bother telling her that my building doesn’t allow smoking.
“What did you mean?” I say.
“That I want to be consumed.”
“I’m not sure.”
She says nothing and continues to smoke. I think she’s waiting for me to admit that she’s right.
“I don't understand what that means.”
“I’ll show you,” she says.
“When is next time?” I say.
She shrugs and grinds her cigarette out on my headboard, ashes drop on my white pillow case.
I know what you want. It's a strange dream. For one, I know I'm dreaming. For another, I don't see anything. I just follow the sound of her voice deeper into the dark. The blackness feels immense, it presses down on me, caressing, nibbling, gripping my skin with its claws until I'm so overcome that I drop to my knees and let it fill me.
I want this.
I open my eyes and feel just as exhausted as I did when I went to sleep last night. I grab my cellphone off the nightstand.
"What is it, Callie?" That's how Leon always answers the phone. Even I think it's off-putting.
"I'm sick. I won't be in today."
"Cal. This isn't a good time."
"It's never a good time to be shitting and vomiting all over yourself." Blunt always works best with Leon.
"Goddamnit. Fine. I'll see you tomorrow." He hangs up.
I lay back down. I'm exhausted but I can't sleep anymore. I know I should at least go get groceries, but moving is difficult and beyond me right now. My mouth is dry and my tongue rough and foul tasting from last night's booze. I imagine her standing outside, knocking on my door. But then what? What does she show me? I try to make up some fantasy, but nothing comes.
I force myself out of bed. I'm not hungry, but I know I need to eat. I haven't eaten anything since the lumpy oatmeal I forced down for breakfast yesterday. I open the refrigerator, it's almost empty and smells like rotten vegetables. The pasta I made last week and have been picking at is covered in a fine layer of green and white fuzz. I slam the door.
Slipping on shoes, I head towards the grocery store.
I see her. Striding down the sidewalk. Coarse black hair, swaying across her broad back.
"Wait." I run after her and grab her arm.
The woman whirls around and screams. Not her.
I let go of her arm. "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else."
"The hell is wrong with you?"
"Sorry," I say again.
She walks quickly, almost a run, to the intersection and crosses the street to get away from me.
I shake my head. I don't know how I could have mistaken that frail young woman for her. Desperation I suppose.
I know what you want.
Her voice is more than a memory. It's almost real. I feel like she dug her claws into my brain and left part of herself behind to torment me. I think I might hate her.
I walk back home. I put my foot on the first step up to my apartment. I didn't make it to the grocery store, shit. I'll just have something delivered, I can't bear to go back out. I look down and realize I'm still wearing my sweat and liquor stained pajamas.
"I know what you want."
Her voice sounds exceptionally real. I clamp my eyes closed and rub my ears.
A cool hand wraps around my wrist. "I can show you."
Afraid my imagination has more than run wild, but taken flight and left the planet, I turn. Thick black hair, heavy eyebrows, full mouth. It's her. Tears are falling from my eyes and I don't even know why.
She entwines her fingers with mine. "Come on."
I let her lead me to a black car. It's battered and peeling, but it has the sleek lines of something that was once chic, a status symbol, what would be called "classic" if it were better maintained. I don't know enough about cars to recognize the make.
She drives fast. Too fast. We should get pulled over or at least forced to slow down by another car. But the roads empty before us. The only cars I see turn off the road well before we catch them. We pass a police cruiser, the officer inside, eyes closed, sleeping.
I know this is strange. But I don’t care. My heart is beating hard, my body sweats with anticipation.
We leave the city behind. Corn fields spring up around us, cows raise their heads from their grazing to watch us pass. She turns off the road into the tall grass. The path before us is just two mud filled grooves in the earth.
She stops in front of a large barn. Its peeling red walls are splattered with mud. The roof has partially collapsed and there are scorch marks around the windows.
The only sounds are crows and wind. I don't know what to think about being brought to this decrepit barn. She very well might have brought me here to kill me, no one would ever find my body. But my need to know overpowers any sense of self-preservation I have.
She must have gotten out while I was staring at the barn because she opens my door. "Let's go," she says.
I get out. My muscles are stiff from sitting so long. She unlocks the barn door doors and pulls them open. They groan and the wood around the hinges buckles.
"I'll be right out here," she says.
I step inside and the doors close behind me. The air smells like rotten wood and smoke. I step forward and my foot goes through the floor. I yank my foot out and almost lose my shoe.
There's nothing in here. I don't remember the last time I felt angry, but I feel it now. A rage so powerful that my hands are shaking and my face is hot. I clench my fists. I'm going to go and demand to know what kind of hoax this is.
Something pricks my skin like electricity right before a storm. The sensation becomes more intense until it feels like a thousand tiny fingers gripping and clawing at my skin. Pressure in the airs builds and my ears pop.
The claws grow more urgent, more needful. They dig into me in a way that no human ever has. There are red lines appearing on my arms, but they go deeper than that. All the way inside me. I can feel them in my guts, in my cunt, in my brain, in my soul.
The air grows so heavy, so dense that I can't stand up. I drop the ground.
They feed. It feeds? I'm not sure. Through the tiny rips in the fibers of being, I am being drawn out. I feel things I haven't felt in years. Sorrow, joy, rage, loneliness, guilt. It fills me and then pours out of me. First exquisite, then agonizing, and building and intertwining until I can no longer tell the difference.
I haven't had an orgasm in ten years. But this is the closest thing I've felt to that pleasurable, mind and body rush. But it's so much more than that.
I'm getting dizzy, weak. Black spots flicker and dance across my vision. I feel something else I haven't felt in a long time. Terror. I can't handle any more of this. Fear cuts through the ecstatic pain and I crawl to the barn door. As soon as I touch the wood, the pressure disappears, and the force releases me. I pull myself to my feet, push on the door, and it groans open. I tumble into the wet grass. The emotions I had inside disappear. I'm crying at her feet. I don't know what I'm feeling anymore. Loss, maybe.
She smiles down at me. "Come on, I'll take you home."
"Please take me back," I say.
She strokes my hair. "Not today."
I bury my face in her denim clad thigh and weep. The fabric soaks up my tears, but she doesn't complain or relent. It's been two months since she first took me to the barn and we've been back twice. She won't always take me and she never explains why.
I hate her. I love her. I haven't felt either feeling in so long that I forgot how they could become the same thing.
She doesn't ask me to fuck her anymore. Maybe she knows how pale and meaningless sex would be for me now. Maybe it's that I can't seem to remember to shower unless she reminds me.
She pries my head from her lap. "I have to go."
"Please take me," I say again.
She shakes her head. "Next time."
I wait for a few minutes after the door closes behind her before grabbing my keys and going outside. I start my car and drive. I follow the winding road around the lake and to the expressway. I drive past the corn and the cows, looking for those grooves that would lead me to the barn. I can't find them.
I drive until I know I've gone too far and turn around. I drive even further the other direction. Out of desperation, I go off the road and drive around in the fields until it becomes too dark to see and I have to stop.
I slam my hands over and over into the steering wheel. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Unable to find my way out of the fields in the dark, I have no choice but to sleep here until morning.
I wake up to the sound of the liquor bottles on my coffee table clattering to the ground. I look up. I must have kicked them in my sleep. My phone beeps. I look down at it, I have a new voicemail. My heart pounds. She's never called me. I don't even know how she'd have my number, but I hope to God it's from her.
"You're fucking fired. That can't be a surprise. The hell, Callie? You really left me hanging." I delete Leon's angry message. I don't care. I should, I'm running out of money. But if she doesn't come back, I don't see much reason to continue feeding myself.
There's a knock. I hope it's her. I trip over an empty takeout container in my hurry to open the door.
There she is. Smiling, a glowing cigarette between her fingers. I want to hug her for coming back and then throw her off the balcony for making me wait so long this time.
She takes in my unwashed appearance and then looks over my shoulder at the empty bottles and greasy pizza boxes.
"Please," I say.
My entire body feels like it has gone silent waiting for her response. She purses her lips and fixes me with that unwavering gaze that seems to strip away my defenses and artifice.
"Let's go," she says at last. She leads the way down the stairs. The heels of her boots echoing on each step. She opens the door for me to get in her car.
As she drives, I try to understand where I went wrong in trying to find my way back. But everything looks exactly as I remember. I even see the flattened grass from where I went off road.
She turns off onto the beaten path. I don't know why I didn't see it when I was here before. But I'm here now and I don't plan to ever leave.
As soon as she puts her car in park, I unlock my door and climb out. I yank on the barn door.
"Wait up." She holds up a small silver key.
I step back from the door and she unlocks it. I go inside. The doors close behind me and the barn is drenched in darkness.
I close my eyes and wait with anticipation.
The tingling begins again, then the building pressure. The claws start their digging once more. I relish the feeling of them burrowing deeper and deeper inside me. Blood and emotion spills from the wounds.
The feeding begins. Sucking and drawing deep from the ruptures in my body and spirit. Happiness, rage, love, shame, all of it fills me until I feel like I'm going to explode and then it pours out of me and into that needful, hungry thing.
I collapse under the growing pressure. My knees sink into the rotting wood. Drops of blood splatter my hands. The exquisite rush hits me and I scream. It grows and grows until it becomes agony.
When I can't take anymore, I crawl towards the door. This time the thing doesn't let me go when I reach the exit, it keeps feeding. I push on the door.
It's locked. The bliss is swallowed up by fear. I pull myself to my feet and pound on the soft, slime coated wood. I slam my shoulder into the door, praying that the rusted hinges will give way. But as unsteady as it looks from the outside, from the inside it's rock solid.
I fall back down to my hands and knees, too weak to stand.
"Please," I whisper. I hope it understands me. I hope it appreciates what I've given it and knows that I'll be back. I hope it will let me live.
It continues to drain me, heedless of my terror. My mouth fills with blood and I spit. A crimson flower of black and red gore on the wood.
The pressure builds in my ears until I hear a pop. Blood drips down my neck and the only thing I can hear is her voice.
I know what you want.
Tears sting my eyes. "Please." Her voice is so real that I think maybe she can hear me too.
To be consumed.
I scream. The rage that hasn't yet been eaten spills from my mouth and is swallowed.
Until you're nothing.
I weep. The last of my sorrow and my terror are gobbled up, too.
I know what you want.
And she's right. I do want this. But it's more than that.
Calm fills me. Prepared, accepting, I lift my head up, and look straight ahead into the darkness. The hungry, needful thing digs its claws in deep, pulling out the last of my shame and guilt.
"I deserve this." It rips open one final wound and consumes the last of me.
Issue #5 CONTENTS
Keeping it Necroreal
David Van Gough
The Quick and the Dead
The Potters' Field
Shed Shed Shed
Rachel Ann Girty
The Shivering Girls
The Monarch of the Sill Shenoa Carroll-Bradd
The Puzzle Box
Pink Afternoon, Reconstruction
Reflections of a Pissed Off Killown