Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…
Mother Nature’s nose bleeds as the climate changes and zoonotic illnesses are on the rise and the human virus that infects the planet pushes itself toward extinction over squabbles of skin tone, religion, and wealth and the only thing holding the fabric of the universe together is Umbra, whose name means shadow, which is where she dances.
She is a shy girl with the crooked smile and nervous laugh who keeps herself to herself and stands apart from the rest of the so-called real world, moving her body to a tune of ancient magicks that no one else can hear and loving the vision of what people can become if only they can get out of their own way.
Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…
They come at night during the Hour of the Wolf, that gap between night and dawn when most people perish, when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when nightmares become flesh, and when ghosts are at the zenith of their power.
When they were alive they were families and neighbors who came to each other’s aid and fought for peace and tragically lost the battle before that peace had been established.
Now, these tortured souls step each pre-dawn from the void of the hereafter to remind us of how far we still must travel.
“…I swim against the current of my final destiny and pass through each body gathered in this place to leave a personalized vivid memory in an effort to ensure I am not forgotten. The end,” Nessa said as she set the sheet down on top of the pile of paper.
“That was the last story?” Warren asked.
“Yup, the rest of these are all rejection letters. Thank you, by the way.” She kissed her husband on the cheek.
“Doing this for me. I know it wasn’t easy for you.”
“Well, if I’m being totally honest here, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would,” he admitted.
“Didn’t hate it is high praise coming from you. I need to mark this down,” Nessa smiled and mimed writing in an invisible book. “Dear Diary, today my husband took his first step toward maturity…”
“Okay, smartass, let’s not make a big deal out of it.” Warren was on the cusp of a blush, which he desperately tried to tamp down.
“Seriously, though, how do you feel? What are you thinking?”
It took awhile for him to answer because it was all too new to him. Warren wasn’t like his wife who instantly knew her precise opinion and feelings on things. He needed privacy and time to reflect, to take the situation apart and properly inspect all the pieces before he could assess it as a whole.
“I wish I had gotten to know the man who wrote those stories,” he sighed. It was the best answer he was able to provide at the moment.
“Well, you know I don’t believe in accidents,” Nessa said. “There’s a reason for everything, including us finding these stories together.”
“Oh, come on Ness, not this,” Warren said and he couldn’t stop his eyes from rolling.
“Come on nothing,” Nessa said, tapping her finger on the paper stack. “You know if you found this by yourself you would have thrown it out without even reading it. Think of what you would have missed out on.”
Warren started to saying something but Nessa cut him off, “Your father wanted you to read his stories so that you could maybe not forgive him as such but understand him a little better. I was meant to be here with you to help make that happen.”
He didn’t believe in fate or destiny but he knew arguing the absurdity of her theory was pointless. “You know what, I’d concede your point if we found a journal where he explained what he was going through, why he did the things he did, but these are just random stories.”
“Can’t you see they’re more than that? They’re pieces of his soul, something he felt he had to hide.”
Warren threw up his hands. “I—I can’t, okay? This is all too much to process right now.”
“I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to push,” Nessa said.
She busied herself by gathering all the pages together and arranging them into a neat pile, to give her husband a little time to compose himself. Carefully, she folded the Kraft paper around the pile, wound the twine around and bound it with a neat bow.
“You fulfilled your end of the deal,” she said. “So, the choice is yours: which pile do these go in?”
“I don’t know,” Warren said.
“Well, I have a thought, but you might not like it.”
“Go on, spit it out.”
“I think we should try to get them published. It’s obviously what your father wanted and maybe the timing wasn’t right for him.”
“But they’re all short, I mean, shorter than the average short story…”
“So?” Nessa shrugged. “We present them as a collection.”
“Who in their right mind is going to be interested in a collection of super-short stories from an unknown writer? Do you have some insider knowledge of what’s trending with publishers and readers that I don’t know about?”
“How do you know if we don’t try?” Nessa countered. “Besides, if all else fails, we can publish them ourselves.”
“And why would we want to go through all that trouble?”
“Because you couldn’t ask for better closure than making your father’s dream come true. And I was thinking, maybe we can include the rejection letters in a section in the back of the book…or better yet, put each letter after the actual story!”
It was a waste of time, Warren knew that as sure as bread falls butter side down, but he watched how animated Nessa became at the thought of taking on the project, and although she drove him nutty a good majority of the time, he loved seeing that sparkle in her eyes.
And somewhere deep, deep, deep within the recesses of his being, the small, non-contrarian part of him reluctantly admitted that maybe, just maybe, she was right about this being the closure he needed in order to bury the resentment for his father in the past so that he could become a better father in the future.
He could even try his hand at writing himself. If his father could manage it, how hard could it really be?
If cities had pulses, then neighborhoods had temperaments and the patch of Houston, Texas Incognita and Toby settled in used to be a pocket dimension where art and creativity thrived. Over the near fifteen years in which their marriage occurred, they traded up from a shoebox apartment to a starter home, and a pandemic forced the world into seclusion, the area transformed into a land where bars, nightclubs and fast food joints held sway and common courtesy was no longer common.
It was late August, going on Eight in the evening when the sun had retired from the cloudless skies and Nita decided to walk home from work, taking the long way to help clear out her head because it had been a particularly stressful day and she hated bringing work home with her.
Her mother had a saying, If not for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all, and that was probably why she found herself standing in the middle of the street, fear and rage a bubble in her chest about to burst because it was seven to one and the odds were not in her favor. They were on the cusp of manhood, sixteen, seventeen at best, youth and speed on their side and probably hopped up on a drug that boosted their adrenaline, while she was a thirty-four-year-old woman with a bad knee who happened to be three months pregnant. The only advantage she had was their concentration was focused on the girl about their age that they were putting the boots to.
Armed only with a half-used canister of pepper spray, a lipstick stun gun that reportedly delivered 25,000,000 volts, and a pair of steel-toed boots, she dove into the fray. The plan was to tag at least five of them while she had the element of surprise but only managed to catch one teen with a foot to the crotch, another with the stun gun, and two others with a sweeping blast of the pepper spray.
“Wait! Hold on a minute,” Toby said, interrupting Nita’s recounting of events. “You took on seven guys in your condition?”
They were in Nita’s office at the community center, where she was seated on a second-hand couch with a sixteen-year-old girl whose face was a mess of cuts and contusions. A first-aid kit and a bottle of alcohol sat between them. Toby paced back and forth while his wife gingerly cleaned out the girl’s wounds, tossing the bloody gauze pads into a waste-paper bin that was slowly beginning to fill up.
“Took on is overstating the matter,” Nita said. “I put myself between Hannah and the boys, we had a brief standoff, they decided that getting their asses handed to them by some old broad wasn’t worth their time or trouble, and they left.”
“What you meant to say was, you’re lucky they didn’t regroup and gang up to stomp a new mudhole in your ass. What if they were carrying weapons?’
“I know, Toby, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t just walk past and do nothing.”
“And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have helped, you just need to find a safer way to do it.”
“Sorry to be so much trouble,” Hannah said.
“This isn’t about you,” Toby said, then course-corrected. “I mean, of course it’s about you, and I’m glad my wife was able to help prevent something more serious from happening to you. I’m just mad at her for acting like some rebel teen auditioning for Black Widow’s vacant spot in The Avengers.”
“Message received, loud and clear,” Nita said, moving off the couch, taking Toby by the arm and ushering him into the hallway. She closed the door behind them to give them the semblance of privacy. “I agree with you one hundred percent. It was a stupid thing to do and I promise to be more careful in the future.”
If she thought that statement would assuage his anger, she was dead wrong. Toby continued to argue at her, but she kept her tone and manner gentle and apologetic until she diffused the majority of his wrath because she realized it came from a place of concern and love.
“Can you at least explain to me why there are no cops here, and why she’s sitting in your office instead of a hospital?” Toby asked, looking at the girl on the couch whose clothes were covered in blood. She was staring at her smartphone.
“She’s afraid to go to the police or the hospital because she’s underage, smells like a bar at last call, and her pupils are dilated so there’s no telling what she’s on. It was tough enough convincing her to come here.”
“Is she local?”
“She lives in Sugar Land, that much I was able to get out of her,” Nita said. “I think she came here to have a little fun without the risk of running into anyone she knows.”
“Yeah, like no one travels to Houston.”
“I didn’t say it was a good plan, and remember, she’s young. I’m going to go back in to finish patching her up. Why don’t you see if there’s some ice in the break room for a compress, her lip’s starting to swell. And thanks for coming over so quickly.” Nita kissed her husband before heading back into the office.
“We weren’t bothering anyone,” Hannah said, hissing every time Nita touched an alcohol swab to one of her cuts. “We were just out enjoying ourselves, you know. Okay, so we partied a little but we were definitely still in control, and we were on our way to get something to eat, walking because the weather was nice, and Ella, that’s my girlfriend, said something sweet so I kissed her.
“All of a sudden these guys showed up and they began harassing us. They were making all kinds of nasty comments and demanding that we kiss again but this time like we meant it. We tried to ignore them, hoping they’d get bored and leave but they surrounded us and started asking which one of us was theman and how we got off by bumping donuts and disgusting things like that.
“I told them to fuck off, which was probably the wrong thing to say but they made me angry, and one of them hit me in the back of the head with something and I was looking around for Ella but they were punching, kicking and spitting on me, calling me names, and—and that’s when you showed up. You probably saved my life.”
Before Nita could respond, Toby stepped into the office with a tray loaded with ice cubes wrapped in a tea towel, a slice of pizza on a paper plate and a mug of hot tea.
“Managed to rustle up a cold compress and a slice. Don’t worry, it’s not Domino’s, it’s quality pizza that tastes pretty decent reheated, and I hope you’re a tea drinker ‘cause there ain’t a drop of coffee in the place.”
Nita took the compress and handed it to Hannah, saying, “Try not to talk so much and hold this to your lip. It’ll help reduce the pain and swelling. Keep in mind that this is only a patch-up job. You should really have someone at a hospital take a look at you, you might have a concussion or internal injuries.”
“I—I can’t,” Hannah said. “My parents would kill me.”
“And you don’t think it’s going to kill them seeing you hurt like this?” Toby asked.
“He’s right,” Nita said. “And it doesn’t seem like it right now, but in the long run, it’s easier just to tell the truth and deal with the consequences outright.”
“I need to think about it,” Hannah said.
“Okay, no pressure,” Nita reached over and plucked a business card off her desk to hand to the girl. “You know, I do this sort of thing for a living, so if you wanted me to be there when you spoke with your folks, I’m totally fine with that.”
Hannah studied the card. “Look, just because I kissed my friend doesn’t mean I’m gay, or whatever.”
“You don’t have to be, and we don’t make judgments here. This center does more than just offer outreach programs for the LGBTQ community. We offer a safe space where women are treated with dignity and can escape negative influences. We even teach self-defense classes, which are more than just learning to punch and kick. You can learn how to deescalate situations or spot the warning signs and avoid them altogether.”
“When I came in just now, I thought I heard you mention you were with a friend when this happened,” Toby said. “What happened to her?”
“She wasn’t there when I turned up on scene,” Nita said.
“She’s home,” Hannah said.
“In Sugar Land?” Nita asked.
Hannah nodded, dug the smartphone out of her pocket and held up a text message. “We drove here in Ella’s mom’s car. She sent me a text while you two were out in the hallway. She took off when the trouble started. For some reason they just let her go. She said she didn’t remember running away or getting into the car and before she knew it she was home. I didn’t answer her back because I don’t know what to say. I never would have left her like that, I don’t care how many guys there were.”
“None of us knows what we’d do in situations like that,” Nita sighed.
Hannah’s brow furrowed. “Are you defending her?”
“No, I’m just suggesting that you give her a chance to explain herself. She may have a good reason for what she did, maybe something in her past got triggered and put her on autopilot, or maybe she’s someone you just can’t depend on in a clutch. I know plenty of people like that and I still consider some of them friends.”
And the discussion went on. Hannah had eaten a little and when she calmed down a bit, she still refused the police or hospital recommendations, so Nita and Toby drove her home.
During the ride it seemed as if Hannah was warming to the idea of Nita being a part of the conversation with her parents, but as the car pulled up to her home, she politely declined and thanked them for the ride and all they had done for her.
A few days later, Nita was in the midst of juggling three different things for three different sets of people when there was a knock at her office door.
“Ain’t it always the way,” she said to herself as she stomped to the door, and swung it wide open. “What?”
She felt the flutter of tiny wings in her belly as her eyes fell on features that had aged over the years, become more angular yet were still as beautiful as ever. It was the face that belonged to…
“Lorelei Kilgareth?” Nita’s jaw should have cracked, it hit the floor so hard.
Lorelei smiled and held up her right hand to display her wedding ring. “Actually, it’s O’Leary now. I married someone we went to school with, maybe you remember him…”
“Tommy O’Leary? You married brace-face?” If it were at all possible for Nita’s jaw to hit the floor twice, it would have.
“Well, it’s been a long time since Tom wore braces,” Lorelei said. “You look like you’re in the middle of something, I can come back if this is a bad time.”
“No, no, come in,” Nita said, perhaps a bit too eagerly. She gestured at the couch. “Please, have a seat.”
Lorelei sat at one end, Nita at the other, and the past took its place in the space between them.
“Long time, no see,” Lorelei said after a long uncomfortable silence.
Nita nodded. “So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?”
Lorelei dipped into her handbag and brought out Nita’s business card. “You gave this to my daughter the other night.”
“Daughter?” Realization sometimes dawned slowly on Nita. “Hannah…?”
“O’Leary,” Lorelei nodded. “She told us what happened. Tom wanted to call and thank you, but I thought this was something best done in person. He would have been here, too, but he’s taken Hannah to the police station to file a report, so you should be receiving a call from them.”
“I’ll help in any way I can,” Nita said. “Did you make her go to the hospital?”
“Good, we were worried about that, Toby and me. Toby’s my husband,” Nita held up her own hand to put her ring on display. “Not as impressive as yours, but still…” She had no idea why she added that last bit and regretted it immediately.
“It’s a beautiful ring.”
“Thanks,” Nita said with absolutely zero confidence. “Like I was saying, we were concerned she might have had some internal injuries…”
There was another awkward pause which Lorelei broke again. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you doesn’t seem to be enough.”
“It’s plenty. What happened to Hannah happens more often than you think, so she wasn’t the first girl I helped from being seriously injured in an attack, and sadly, she won’t be the last. Unfortunately, the world is still a dangerous place for women, gay or straight.”
Lorelei found it hard to meet Nita’s eyes. “She told me about the kiss.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into that. She’s young and probably still trying to figure things out. We’re more capable than men to differentiate between emotional and sexual attraction, so it could have just been a spur-of-the-moment thing. You know that as well as I do,” Nita said in a tone that surprised her. “And if she happens to like kissing girls, she shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for it. Acceptance is probably one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. But that’s a conversation you should have with your daughter before involving an outside party.”
“I wasn’t—it’s not a—I don’t have—” Lorelei started several times, caught herself and tried to regroup, sighed and finally settled on, “I just wanted to express my gratitude to you. I still can’t believe how fortunate we were that she was saved by a friend.”
“We’re not friends,” Nita said curtly.
“Um, okay, I guess I deserved that, then by a former friend.”
“We were never friends.”
“How can you say that?”
“For the longest time I gave you credit for not joining in with the others in the bullying, but then I came to realize that you never, not once, stuck up for me. I didn’t expect you to stand in front and take the blows, but you never uttered one word in my defense, something a real friend would have done.”
“I was young…”
“You were Switzerland. You remained neutral because you were one of the lucky kids who flew under the radar. Nobody ever messed with you. And thinking about it, if I had gotten a Wonka golden ticket during grade school, maybe I wouldn’t have said anything either. And if I’m being totally honest with myself, I didn’t want to be your friend either.”
“Now, I’m totally confused.”
“From the first moment I saw you, you gave me butterflies in my stomach. The only person to ever do that. I love my husband better than I love chocolate cake and I’d take a bullet for him without thinking about it, but he never gave me that feeling. Only you, and we’ve never been intimate. Back then I wanted you to please notice me, please talk to me, please hold my hand, please hold me, please kiss me, and you did all that in your own sweet time and I got it all twisted up in my head and my heart and I fell for you. I wanted you so bad, but it wasn’t a sex thing, I just wanted to be with you all the time because, besides home, you were the only place that felt safe.”
“I never knew.”
Nita shot Lorelei a suspicious look, and said, “Really? Because I met a girl in high school that felt that way about me, Charlotte was her name, and she was the kindest, gentlest, most sincere person I had ever met, and she adored me. And I sure as hell noticed it and I loved being adored. The problem was, although I cared about her in my own way, I didn’t feel the same way she felt. And to her credit, she stuck around longer than I would have, but when the reality of the situation finally sank in, she collected the shattered pieces of her pride and left. Never heard from her again and I can only hope that she found someone who appreciates just how special she is, because she deserves it.”
“As for me,” Nita continued. “I was screwed because you became the high-water mark that I compared all my relationships to. There’s a saying, chasing the dragon which refers to a drug user’s pursuit of the original or ultimate but unattainable high. In my case I spent my youth chasing butterflies, until I met Toby and through sheer persistence he showed me I didn’t need butterflies to be happy.”
“Not to sound callous or anything,” Lorelei said. “But that was such a long time ago. Can’t we just put that incident, that I would absolutely undo if I could, behind us and start fresh? I don’t know how you feel about all this but I think fate brought us back together for a reason.”
Nita considered it for a moment. “You may be right. But I need to clear up something that’s been bugging me.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
Lorelei concentrated, flipping through the Rolodex of her memories.
“Here, let me help you,” Nita said. “It was class picture day.”
Lorelei snapped her finger and pointed at Nita. “You were wearing that pink dress!”
“And you were staring at me.”
“Of course, I was. I had never seen you in a dress before. You were beautiful. I wanted to come over, to say hi or sorry or something, but I was afraid that you were still mad at me.”
“You were staring at my chest.”
“I was surprised at how quickly you developed. You used to hide beneath baggy clothes.”
“You kept staring at my chest.”
Lorelei’s mouth opened and closed several times but no words managed to find their way past her tongue.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but since then, I’ve seen that look several times so now I know what it means, and I know that you’ll probably never say what I need to hear you say,” Nita slid across the couch, closing the gap with Lorelei.
“So, instead, I want to tell you something and I need you to believe that it comes from the bottom of my heart,” Nita said as she cupped Lorelei’s face in her hands and felt the woman tremble at her touch.
She moved in and pressed her lips to Lorelei’s mouth and deftly delivered a kiss with enough body English to make the woman’s legs wobble. And she held that kiss until she felt the last of the butterflies depart her pregnant belly in search of a new home.
When she broke the kiss, Nita said, “I forgive you. And you’re right, we need to put the incident, as you call it, behind us, so I never want to see you or your husband again because you both belong in my past. Your daughter, however, is the future, and she is welcome here anytime to avail herself of any of the programs we offer, and if the location is too far, I’ll find her a place she can visit that’s closer to home.”
Nita rose from the couch, walked to her office door, and opened it wide. Gesturing for Lorelei to leave, she said, “Goodbye, Lorelei O’Leary. I trust you can find your way out.”
The stunned, smudged-lipsticked Lorelei, left without uttering a word.
Nita leaned against her closed office door for longer than she cared to admit, processing what had transpired, feeling the weight of the past slowly lifting from her shoulders.
Her next step would be to call Toby and tell him what happened. He was going to be upset, oh boy, was he ever, but eventually when he calmed down and realized she finally had the closure she’d been searching for nearly all her adult life, he’d understand, and she’d find a way to make things right between them.
And as she heard his voice on the other end of the phone line, she rested her hand on her butterfly-free pregnant belly and knew that everything was going to work out just fine.
Thus concludes what started out as a character bio that somehow transformed into a look inside and stroll through the life of a young lady who still will not reveal her name to me. Thank you to everyone who commented or who even left a simple “Like” along the way, as I stumbled my way to a conclusion, of sorts. Much appreciated.
Change is a peculiar thing. When it’s for the worst, it can happen overnight and typically comes in threes, and people learn the folly of security when they watch everything they built so carefully fall apart so easily. When change is for the better, it arrives at a tortoise’s pace. Positive change isn’t measured in leaps and bounds, it’s measured in centimeters, and that’s how it was for Incognita.
Nita was able to fake her way through therapy and she did this after watching a documentary about a Christian camp that tried to use the fear of The Almighty to expunge the gay out of youthful sinners. She was sure that if she were sent to one of these camps that they couldn’t break her, but why go through all that hassle? Besides, what she had wasn’t a same-sex attraction, it was a vibe attraction.
Certain people had a vibe that she was drawn to and she wanted to absorb as much of it as she could and share a bit of herself in the process and she couldn’t give a good goddamn whether they were boys or girls, but how do you explain that to the so-called people in charge who were locked in their binary ways of thinking?
So, Nita just nodded and played along and either she was really good at pulling off her ruse of realizing her mistake and choosing to be normal, or the therapist just didn’t give a fuck and signed off on her. Either way, no more therapy past the apocalypse that was 4th Grade.
The rest of grade school was more of the same but Nita was developing a thick armor coating and let most of the nonsense slide off her back. Junior high, however, was when things began to turn around. In those three years, Nita honed her skill at fighting back. She lost as many battles as she won, but now the bullies understood there was a fifty-fifty chance of them getting away with a cheap shot or cruel prank, or having Nita explode in their face like a preteen M18 Claymore mine.
High school was when it changed for good, as a result of two physical altercations.
The first happened in the cafeteria when a girl accidentally-on-purpose tripped and tried to spill a milk, corn and applesauce concoction all over Nita’s brand-new jacket. The girl hadn’t counted on Nita’s reflexes being quick enough to grab the tray, tilt it away from her and bring the hard-plastic tray up into the girl’s aquiline nose. The girl fell back and her nose sprayed blood in every direction.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Nita said, her tone dripping with fake concern. “I think you slipped. Come on, sit up straight. No, no, don’t tilt your head back, that’ll only cause the blood to run down the back of your throat, and you may swallow it. Lean forward slightly.”
Sure, it was a ham-handed performance but it was enough to fool the teachers into thinking it was merely an unfortunate accident. What the teachers hadn’t realized was that Nita recognized the bloody girl as one of the Barbie clones from grade school who probably thought she could carry that Mean Girl shit over to high school.
When the Barbie clone returned to school wearing a nasal cast and sporting two black eyes, Nita leaned in while passing and whispered “Who’s the raccoon now?”
The second incident involved some lunkhead whose name Nita couldn’t remember if someone held a gun to her head, he was that unimportant. He was a grade above her and wanted to show all the fresh meat who was in charge, so he went down the line shoving and intimidating newbies. When he got around to Nita, the idiot actually tried to grab her boobs, but she put a stop to that quick fast in a hurry with a rabbit punch to his solar plexus. Knocked the wind right out of the dumb bastard and he crumpled like a paper bag. Nita could have told him to sit in a crouched position, calm down and take slow, deep breaths, but instead she stood over him and laughed like a loon before eventually walking away.
No. One. Messed. With. Her. After. That. Day.
Word quickly went around that sure, you could take a swing at the chubby girl if you wanted to, but the chubby girl was out of her fucking mind and she always hit back.
Kids being the little assholes they are, still talked about and made fun of her but they did it behind her back when Nita was well out of earshot. Ever since that day, Nita noticed a peculiar thing begin to happen. Girls began following her around, inching their way closer and closer, and eventually worked up the courage to sit at her table during lunch period.
She hated to call these girls mousy, but they were the timid and shy girls who got picked on the most by bullies who went after easy targets. None of the girls ever asked for her help, but Nita assumed they hung close to her figuring they were safe within her sphere of protection. She never guaranteed them anything but she didn’t chase them away, either. And they became an unofficial clique because sometimes things just worked out the way they worked out.
She actually became chummy with one of the girls, Charlotte, and one lusciously breezy day, when Nita had a few extra bucks burning a hole in the pocket of her Target jeans, they went to the mall together. Nita passed Express and The Limited with no interest because Lane Bryant was having a Spring sale.
“Let’s go inside,” Nita said.
“Oh, come on now,” Charlotte started, all doe-eyed and rosy-cheeked. “You don’t need to shop there! You’re not that big!”
“Not that big?” Nita actually liked this scrawny girl but she had the sudden urge to dropkick her into next week. “Sorry to disappoint you, Char, but I am that big and I do need to shop there. I actually enjoy shopping there. So why don’t you just slowly step away from my fat ass and go to the skinny store or something.”
Nita entered the store and it was liberating. She had been in chubby denial for the past two years or so, and to her coming out as fat was akin to coming out as gay or bi. Both of which she had to do and the former she actually found harder.
She remembered the exact moment that she came out to her mother as fat. She went to her mother’s job one day and her mother asked, “Where did you get that outfit?”
“Lane Bryant,” Nita proudly exclaimed. Okay, maybe it wasn’t so proudly, but damn it, she was just starting to get a handle on things.
“Oh, um…they have nice clothes there.”
Nita noticed the emphasis on nice. She could almost hear her mother’s insides screaming, “My God! Has it come to this? My little girl is fat!”
In Lane Bryant, while passing one of the store’s wall mirrors, Nita noticed she had a shadow. Charlotte, walking five paces behind with her head held down.
Nita spun on her heels and confronted the smaller girl. “I shop at Lane Bryant, so what? Sleeves on jackets go past my wrists for once. Shirts actually button around my chest. I don’t feel like a fucking freak here!”
“I don’t think you’re a freak,” Charlotte said. “I also don’t think of you as fat, I’m sorry, I don’t. You’re my friend and okay, I said something stupid and I hope you can forgive me. I mean, haven’t you ever said something, meaning well, that was taken the wrong way?”
Thoughts of Lorelei Kilgareth sprang to mind.
A long moment passed before Nita slowly exhaled her pent-up anger. She offered Charlotte a slight smile and said, “C’mon, help me pick out something nice. Let’s see if you’ve got any taste in big gal clothes.”
Nita was forced to admit to herself that shopping with Charlotte was actually fun. When their arms were loaded with outfit options, the girls went into the fitting room. Nita was so anxious to try on the new clothes in front of an audience that she stripped down to her underwear without even thinking about it. She realized the mistake when she saw the expression on Charlotte’s face change.
“What happened to you?” Charlotte asked, staring at the scars on Nita’s inner thighs.
“Nothing,” Nita said, snatching the nearest bit of clothing to cover herself up.
“Bullshit. That’s not nothing. Who did that to you?”
“Why do you care? Get out of here! It’s none of your goddamned business!”
“Of course, it’s my business! You’re my friend! If someone hurt you, I want to know about it!”
“I did it to myself, okay?” Nita admitted and had no idea why she did it. “Happy now?”
“I like scars,” Nita said, but it came out slowly, like she was struggling to get the words out. “At least that’s what I used to tell myself. The reality is that sometimes the world is just too sharp, you know, everything has edges, people, words, everything, and all those edges want is to stab at you, to cause you pain because they feed off your misery. And sometimes you want to feel you have some control over your life and if all you ever feel is pain then maybe you want to control that, too.”
Charlotte’s large and expressive eyes began welling up, proof that her soul was good and deep within she knew the true meaning of love and compassion. She hadn’t befriended Nita for protection, she actually had some sort of feelings for this tough girl who harmed herself in secret. The smaller girl knelt and moved the clothes Nita was hiding behind.
“What are you doing?”
Charlotte didn’t answer. She just lifted her hand and touched the scars. Delicate fingers traced the path of the razorblade cut marks gingerly, as if the wounds were still fresh.
Nita wanted to push Charlotte away, to beat her up for being so dammed nosy, and threaten her life if she ever told one single solitary soul about what she saw and heard in here, but she found that she was paralyzed, locked in the grip of something she didn’t quite understand.
Then Charlotte did the unexpected by pressing her pink tulip lips to the scars, the way a loving mother would try to kiss a child’s boo-boos better. And something inside Nita melted. Not because this clueless girl was kissing the insides of her thighs, but because she was showing tenderness to something that was much more private, more personal. She was kissing Nita’s secret pain, something she never shared with anyone, not even her own mother.
Then Charlotte wrapped her arms around Nita’s legs, gave them a gentle squeeze and said, “No more, okay? Promise me, no more.”
No one outside her own mother had shown Nita the slightest bit of gentleness and since she didn’t know how to accept it, her body trembled as her own eyes began to fill with tears as if all her emotions had condensed into a deluge of rain.
And the two girls remained in that fitting room for a long while, each crying for entirely different reasons.
“You ever make out with a girl?” Incognita’s boyfriend, Toby, asked in the early days before they became a couple. It was a simple question born of mild curiosity, the kind a person asked when they were bored and some stupid idle thought popped into their head.
Nita was about to answer, “Nope, sorry. No lesbian stories for your spank bank,” but the question opened the door to a memory of a person she hadn’t thought about in years. Lorelei Kilgareth.
They shared a desk back in the 4th grade and just the thought of Lorelei filled Nita’s nose with the scent of her shampoo. This girl had a knack for always smelling so clean, even when the pair got sweaty from playing at recess.
Nita always got laughed at by all the vapid, stupid clone girls because of her clothes that came from discount stores and she was picked on by idiot boys because she was considered an easy target for ridicule because of her weight, but Lorelei never fell in with the crowd, and never made Nita feel like that goofy-looking kid with the retainer that appeared in all her class pictures.
Nita wanted to tell Lorelei how she felt but she couldn’t make the words sound right in her head. Since they lived on opposite sides of town and Lorelei’s neighborhood was a damn sight better than hers, they stayed school friends, but of course, Nita wanted it to be more. In fact, she used to talk to herself when she was alone in her room and pretend she was talking to Lorelei and they had great lengthy conversations about everything that couldn’t be said in person and in those fantasy-filled discussions they discovered that they felt the same way about each other and Nita would fall asleep hugging her pillow, pretending it was Lorelei.
One day, when they were alone in the girl’s bathroom, they shared a kiss out of the blue. No rhyme, no reason and no tongues, just a simple peck on the lips because why not? And that was the first time Nita ever kissed a girl and as a result of that kiss, during lunch period she finally worked up the courage to tell Lorelei how she really felt. But the words came out all convoluted and Lorelei’s beautiful face twisted into a horrified mask of disgust and she said a word that shattered the illusion of them being together forever, shattered their friendship, and shattered Nita’s heart into a quadrillion pieces.
“Dyke!” Lorelei said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Nita could still remember that awful cafeteria smell and Tommy O’Leary, the stupid little brace-face boy who pointed at her and repeated the word and that was the ember that lit the spark for all the other kids to join in on the chant and dogpile on a girl who was in love and foolishly thought that it conquered all.
Incognita wanted the ground to swallow her whole but instead she fainted and fell face first onto the white tiled floor, deviating her septum and giving her two black eyes. After that she became known as Dykey Raccoon, a name that somehow managed to follow her all the way through junior high school. To add to her misery, Lorelei reported Nita to their teacher, which got both sets of parents involved and Nita was transferred out of the class she shared with Lorelei and was forced to see a therapist to address her unnatural same sex attraction.
School life had never been a picnic but after that, it became a living nightmare. The next time Nita saw Lorelei was on picture day. Her mother made her wear a stupid pink dress that showed the entire school that she had more cleavage than the principal she stood next to, and all the Barbie clones had a field day with that revelation, and all the boys, too immature to know how to handle a young lady going through puberty, made a game out of trying to punch her in the chest. That was when she learned to defend herself.
But the thing that stuck out in Nita’s mind was that Lorelei couldn’t stop staring at Nita’s chest. Out of disgust? Jealousy? Desire? She wasn’t able to tell and would never find out because the two never saw each other after that day.
The sad truth of the matter was if Lorelei had apologized for what she said, even after all she’d been through, Nita would have forgiven her.
Incognita ran into an old high school friend the other day and after a bit of catch-up, when she told him she had a boyfriend, his face twisted up.
He said, “I thought you were…”
“No, I don’t, and I won’t know until you tell me.”
“Well,” his face turned red with embarrassment. “I heard you were that way.”
Going off a high school rumor, he wasn’t thinking the word bisexual. He wanted to say lesbian and his expression told Nita that he thought of her preference like it was a sickness or affliction.
He wasn’t a bad guy back in high school and probably was still decent, so Nita let him off the hook, saying, “Yeah, I sold out and got myself a boyfriend and a little apartment uptown.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean it’s your choice and none of my business…it’s just I saw you and that weird goth girl holding hands and kissing in the mall, and I thought…”
“You thought the same thing everyone else thought, that I was a card-carrying member of the Sacred Sisterhood of Lavender. But I kissed you, too, back then, or was it so bad that you don’t remember?”
“I remember, and I was hurt and confused because I thought we had something…”
“We did, we had a moment and it was nice.”
“But I wasn’t enough.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing back then. Nobody was enough because I didn’t know what I wanted. I kissed other boys besides you and other girls, too. I like kissing, sue me. Look, if it’ll make you happy, I’ll give back the toaster oven gift I got for being a switch hitter.”
“I think you’ve got this all wrong…”
“No, I understand it better than you do. You judged me back then, just like you’re judging me now, and you can’t even be decent about it and ask me how I feel, or take a moment out of your day to consider what I was going through. Do you have any idea what it’s like being too queer for the straights and not queer enough for the gays? Having both sides turn their backs on you?”
And that was when her high school friend shut down and the rest of the conversation was nothing more than him issuing a string of apologies over and over again. Incognita stood there longer than she should have and let him say sorry repeatedly because she knew this would be the last time she ever saw him.
Yeah, Incognita got teased. A lot. She was the smart one in the family. Most of her earliest memories (well, the good ones, anyway) were of curling up with one of her mother’s medical textbooks and encyclopedias, reading about exotic diseases and conditions, women’s lib, and mammals. But people never saw past her weight or funny clothes. Her mother tried hard, she really did, but the little blonde girls, safe in their pristine two-story houses with their mommies and daddies and all their pretty toys didn’t care for her one whit.
Early on, Nita entered the world of the gifted and she always felt that she didn’t belong. Most kids lived across the street from the upper-class genius school, but she had to commute from the lower-class area. Sure, there were a few girls she got along with, but most just pretended she wasn’t there. But as bad as the girls were, the boys were the meanest ones.
She doesn’t remember exactly what they called her, but she remembers being absent for almost half of fourth grade for fear of getting beaten up by this one boy who didn’t like her size. She wasn’t unhealthily obese or anything, just chubby…and poor.
Nita tried to make friends for two years or so, and when that didn’t work, she decided to become invisible. By age ten she became jaded and cynical, reasoning that maybe it was just stupidity that made them so happy. She watched them at an Easter fair, giggling, tossing rich, pastel confetti eggs in the air, and running from boys. Maybe ignorance made them laugh and made them whisper.
But gifted kids are meaner ’cause they know better.
She used to read Judy Blume books about slumber parties and crushes and wondered “Who are these people? Does this shit happen in real life?”, then decided probably not, and picked up “Go Ask Alice” instead. She often wondered if she closed her eyes real tight and made one of those Twilight Zone big wishes, could she have teleported herself home to where things were peaceful and safe? If she stared intensely enough at the back of someone’s head that she hated, could she make it explode? If she stopped smiling, would anyone on the planet notice? Then concluded that maybe if she just stopped asking questions and took it, it would be over sooner.
Maybe she could make it until Friday, and die before Monday.
Cutter woke to total darkness. The last thing he remembered was walking out of the police station and heading for the E train home. Now, something was covering his face that stank of stale sweat.
“Are you finally awake, Mr. Coles?” a man’s voice said in an accent that Cutter couldn’t identify but sounded vaguely European.
The thing covering his face was a sack and it was snatched off his head. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the light and to regain his senses. Standing directly in front of him were four men wearing balaclavas and dressed in all black, with holstered sidearms. Cutter tried to move but found he couldn’t because his body was strapped to a gurney that had been tilted at an angle so that his feet were higher than his head. He was in some sort of abandoned warehouse, big enough to house a black van with tinted windows parked in the distance.
If he wasn’t scared out of his wits, he would have laughed at how cliché it all was.
“Who are you? Where am I? What do you want from me?” Cutter asked the questions in rapid succession.
One of the balaclava men stepped up, the one with the indistinguishable accent, and said, “I wish to make one thing perfectly clear before we begin, Mr. Coles: I have no grievance against you. I recognize your part in all this. You are an innocent man caught in the web of deception spun by a cunning woman you knew as Michelle Clarke. Were she still alive, I would be having this conversation with her instead.”
“Was it you, you sonuvabitch? Did you kill Mickie? I fucking swear I’ll make you pay!” Cutter meant it to sound more threatening than it did, but fear made his voice crack.
“Spoken like a true friend, but your anger is misguided,” the balaclava man said. “We had nothing to do with Miss Clarke’s demise. In fact, we first arrived to see you being escorted from her apartment in handcuffs by the police after you destroyed her apartment looking for something. What were you looking for, Mr. Coles?”
“I’ll tell you like I told the police, I didn’t trash Mickie’s place, it was like that when I got there! Somebody came in through the window! How do I know it wasn’t you and your goons?”
“We have not been properly acquainted, Mr. Coles. You may call me, Mr. Vex. I will be your interrogator for the evening, and I have but one pet peeve, I hate liars, therefore I do not lie myself. Behind me are my associates, Misters Rampage, Bedlam, and Blitz. They will be offering assistance during our tête-à-tête.”
“This can’t be real,” Cutter mumbled to himself. “I’m not about to be tortured by some faux Bond villains with codenames ripped from a Tarantino script.”
Vex said, “I assure you this is very real. As for the torture, that does not need to take place.”
“Great! So how about you untie me and we can talk about this like civilized men? I’ll tell you everything I know, which’ll be a short conversation because I don’t know a goddamned thing.”
“I will make you a promise, Mr. Coles: if you tell me what you were searching for in that apartment, I will release you unharmed. You have my word on that.”
“But that’s the thing, you see, I don’t know what I was looking for. I was hoping to find a clue or something that would help the police find Mickie’s killer!”
“Why is it that I do not believe you?”
“I don’t know, man, but I swear I’m telling you the God’s honest truth!”
Vex seemed to consider this for a moment before saying, “Perhaps you might reconsider your answer if you saw things from my point of view. Your friend, Mickie, illegally obtained something that did not belong to her, something that was meant to be delivered to me. Fearing that I was coming to collect my goods, she undoubtedly hid it somewhere she considered safe. It was too valuable to be left in her apartment, so she would have entrusted it to a person that she groomed to care for her because that was what she was trained to do. And all signs point to you, Mr. Coles. Now, all you need do is to tell me where I can find my property. I will consider this matter closed, and you can return to your normal life.”
“I don’t know anything about any stolen property.”
“The last time you saw her, she gave you something.”
“She didn’t give me anything. But wait…let’s say she did…now, if I had this thing, why would I need to tear her place apart looking for it? I mean, what sense does that make?
“Perhaps you left it behind by mistake,” Vex shrugged. “Or you somehow realized what she had given you and you became greedy and returned looking for more? Whatever the case, I will have the truth from you. And since you refuse to be cooperative, you leave me with no other choice.”
Mr. Vex signaled to Rampage, Bedlam, and Blitz, who picked up metal buckets of what appeared to be water, as he fitted the sack over Cutter’s head again. Then something else was placed on top of the sack, over the areas covering the nose and mouth, a towel, perhaps?
Cutter felt a slow cascade of water going up his nose, and he held his breath for as long as he could. He was not a swimmer, had never done any breathing exercises in his life, and had no idea how many minutes he could go without air, or how much time had passed since he last took a breath, but eventually, his lungs began aching for air and his body gave him no other option but to exhale. On the inhale that followed, the wet cloth clung to his face and he was breathing in water.
Cutter, at one point or another, most likely after watching films with interrogation scenes in them, had constructed a belief that he could retain his manhood up to a certain level of torture. That delusion was shattered the moment water entered his lungs and his gag reflex kicked in. He was in the grip of a sheer panic like he had never known before.
The water pour stopped, and Mr. Vex said, “That drowning sensation must be a horrible experience. Tell me what your friend gave you and where I can find it, and I will make this stop.”
“She didn’t give me anything!” Cutter sputtered, coughing up water with each syllable.
The pour started again and Cutter’s body flopped and squirmed on the gurney as if he was having a seizure.
While this was happening, Mr. Vex said, “Did you know this process causes lung and brain damage from oxygen deprivation, and even lasting psychological damage? The adverse physical effects can last for months, and psychological effects for years.”
The pour stopped again and this time Cutter was expelling water and snot as he was vomiting. The pain was excruciating.
“Where is my property, Mr. Coles?” Vex asked.
“I don’t fucking know!”
The pour began again, and Vex said, “I was being kind by having the water poured intermittently to prevent permanent injury. However, if you continue to be uncooperative, the water will be poured uninterruptedly which will lead to death by asphyxia.”
Suddenly there was a noise, a loud explosion and the pour stopped abruptly. Vex ripped the sack from Cutter’s head, as Rampage, Bedlam, and Blitz ran out of Cutter’s field of view. There were gunshots and sounds of commotion in the distance.
“You have to tell me where I can find my property now before it is too late,” Vex said.
Cutter couldn’t concentrate on Vex’s words because the bits of the man’s face visible in the holes of the mask, his eyes and mouth, seemed to be melting and sliding down his face and disappearing into the mask.
Before he could question it, there was another explosion and Cutter’s world went white in a blinding flash, before it went pitch black.