Haunted, p.14
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       Haunted, p.14

           Chuck Palahniuk
 

  Director Denial twists her nylon tourniquet tighter, saying, “You did.”

  At this point, everyone is looking for an edge.

  We all want some way to pad our role. To put our character into the spotlight after we're rescued.

  Plus, it's a way to feed the cat.

  Whoever can show the worst suffering, the most scars, they'll play the lead in the public mind. If the outside world broke in to rescue us right now, Director Denial would be our biggest victim—flashing the stubs of her severed toes and fingers, flaunting them for sympathy. Making herself the lead character. The A Block on any television talk show.

  Making us her supporting cast.

  Not to be outdone, skinny Saint Gut-Free borrowed a cleaver from Chef Assassin and lopped the thumb off his right hand. A radical thumb-ectomy.

  Not to be upstaged, Reverend Godless asked to borrow the cleaver and hacked the smallest toe off each his feet. “To be famous,” he said, “and after that, wear really narrow high heels.”

  The green wallpaper and silk drapes of the Italian Renaissance lounge, the green is spattered and sprayed with blood that looks black under electric light. The floor feels so sticky, the carpet, that every step tries to pull off your shoes.

  The Missing Link says losing a finger does take your mind off being hungry. The Missing Link, he's wearing a bishop's vestments, sprouting black chest hair at the collar, all white brocade embroidered with gold thread along the edges. He's wearing a powdered wig that makes his square head and shaggy beard look twice as big.

  With his ponytail, the Duke of Vandals wears a buckskin shirt and pants with long fringe flapping from every seam. Chewing his nicotine gum. Mother Nature limps around, hobbling in high-heeled sandals that show off her own severed toes, her choker of brass bells jingling with every limp. Nibbling a clove-nutmeg aromatherapy candle.

  We're all keeping warm in frilly Lord Byron poet blouses. Or Mary Shelley long skirts filled with petticoats. Dracula capes lined with red satin. Heavy Frankenstein boots.

  About this time, Saint Gut-Free asks if he can be the one to fall in love.

  Every epic needs a romantic subplot, he says, holding his pants up with one hand. To cover all the marketing bases, we need two young people deep and desperately in love—but kept apart by a cruel villain.

  Saint Gut-Free and Miss Sneezy, talking in the Italian Renaissance lounge with its embroidered chairs and banners of green silk between tall windows of mirror, here was the place to hatch a romance.

  “I was thinking I'd be in love with Comrade Snarky,” Saint Gut-Free says.

  Next to them, the meat cleaver's stuck in the long wood table: Mr. Whittier's ghost waiting for its next victim.

  Wiping her nose sideways, Miss Sneezy asks, has the Saint talked to Comrade Snarky about her being in love, too? After we're rescued, during the marketing-and-media-promotion part, any two people who fought to be together, they'll have to at least fake being in love. How they act inside here, it won't matter, but once those doors come open they'll need to be kissing and hugging every time a camera turns their way. People will expect a wedding. Maybe even children.

  Batting her bloodshot eyes, Miss Sneezy says, “Pick a girl you can fake loving for the rest of your life . . .”

  Saint Gut-Free says, “How about me and the Countess Foresight?”

  The way Saint Gut-Free sees it, being fake married to him has got to beat hacking off fingers. Any woman here should jump at the chance.

  And, smiling, her face close-up into his, Miss Sneezy says, “How about you and me?”

  And Saint Gut-Free says, “How about Baroness Frostbite?”

  “She has no lips,” Miss Sneezy says. “I mean, she really has no lips.”

  How about Miss America?

  “She'll already get famous for being pregnant,” Miss Sneezy says. She says, “I'm not pregnant, and I have lips . . .”

  Director Denial has already hacked off fingers. So has Sister Vigilante—plus some toes, using the same paring knife that Lady Baglady borrowed from Chef Assassin to slice off her ear. Their plan, after we're rescued, is to tell the world how Mr. Whittier tortured them by hacking off a little bit for every day they didn't produce a great work of art. Or—Mrs. Clark did the cutting while Mr. Whittier held the victim down, screaming, on the long, dark wood table in the Italian Renaissance lounge.

  The table is already scarred from practice chops and nervous chops and successful chops with Chef Assassin's meat cleaver.

  “Okay,” Saint Gut-Free says. “How about Mother Nature?”

  It's clear, he just wants his feet rubbed, some new way to get his rocks off. A foot job. Another hands-free method beyond the invisible carrot, the candle wax, and the swimming pool. Not so much a romantic subplot as sexual need.

  Better, Miss Sneezy says. She says, “You know what Mother did with her nose, don't you?”

  Poor Miss Sneezy, she still coughed and coughed from the mold spores we had to breathe, but her suffering looked like nothing compared to Mother Nature, who borrowed a filleting knife to slit each of her nostrils, straight up to the bridge of her nose—her brass bells jingling and scabs spraying everywhere each time she had to laugh.

  Still, we needed the romantic subplot. Any romantic storyline.

  Really, it was Mr. Whittier who slit Mother Nature's nose.

  “But he's dead,” Mrs. Clark says.

  Mr. Whittier did it before he died, the Missing Link says. With everyone hacking off fingers and toes and ears, no way is anyone going to walk out of here without a good scar. A stump they can flash in close-up on television. Mr. Whittier did it to keep Saint Gut-Free and Mother Nature apart. To punish them for falling in love.

  In our version of what happened, every toe or finger, it was eaten by the villains whom no one will believe.

  The Matchmaker has been asking around, trying to find someone willing to lop off his penis. Because it's perfect—how that torture fits with some old family joke.

  One slice, he says, and all your problems are solved. Just a severed penis in the dirt.

  “Besides, I'm not using it for anything,” the Matchmaker says, and smiles. Wink, wink.

  So far, no one's volunteered to swing the cleaver. Not because it's too disgusting, too awful, but because it would so put him in the driver's seat. A chopped-off penis is something none of us could top.

  Still, if he did it—and bled to death—it would mean the royalties would only get split fifteen ways. Fourteen ways if Miss Sneezy would hurry up and suffocate on the mold. Thirteen ways if Miss America is considerate enough to die in childbirth.

  Everyone feeding their bits and pieces to the cat, Cora Reynolds is getting huge.

  “If you do chop your dick,” says Director Denial, “do not feed it to my cat.”

  She says, “That's not something I want to know every time Cora licks my face . . .”

  It was looking for bandages that we found the costumes. Backstage, we were hunting for clean cloth to tear into bandage strips, and here were gowns and coats left over from vaudeville and light opera. Folded away with tissue paper and mothballs, in trunks and garment bags, here were hoop skirts and togas. Kimonos and kilts. Boots and wigs and armor.

  Thanks to Mrs. Clark cutting the plug off the washing machine, any clothes we'd brought were stinking with dirt and sweat. Thanks to Mr. Whittier wrecking the furnace, the building was colder every day. So we started to wear these tunics and sarongs and waistcoats. These velvets and satin brocades. Pilgrim hats with silver buckles. Elbow-long gloves of white leather.

  “These rooms . . . ,” the Countess Foresight says, stumbling in her turban, hacking off her toes, but not the security tracking bracelet around her wrist. “These clothes . . . all this blood . . . ,” she says, “I feel as if I'm in a very creepy Grimm's fairy tale.”

  We wore fur stoles made of small animals biting each other in the ass. Minks and ferrets and weasels. Dead, but their teeth still sunk in, deep.

  Here, in t
he Italian Renaissance lounge, down on one knee, holding her bloody hand and looking up her slit nose, Saint Gut-Free said to Mother Nature, “Can you pretend to love me for the rest of your life?”

  And, kneeling there, he slipped the sticky-red three-carat diamond he'd hacked off Lady Baglady's hand, Saint Gut-Free slipped sparkling-dead Lord Baglady onto Mother Nature's red-hennaed finger.

  And his stomach growled.

  And she laughed, blood and scabs—everywhere.

  By now even these silk shirts and linens are stiff and matted with blood. The fingers of gloves hanging empty. Shoes and boots stuffed with balled-up socks to replace missing toes.

  The fur stoles, the weasels and ferrets, soft as the fur on the cat.

  “Keep feeding that cat,” says Miss America. “And he can be our Thanksgiving turkey.”

  “Don't even joke,” Director Denial tells her, scratching the cat's fat stomach. “Little Cora is my baby . . .”

  With the roots of her bleached hair grown out, brown, a kind of measuring stick to show how long we've been trapped, Miss America watches the cat pick the meat off another finger. Looking up, at Director Denial, she says, “If it was you who took my exercise wheel, I want it back.” Holding her hands a little ways apart, Miss America says, “It's pink plastic, about so big. You remember.”

  Brushing the layer of cat hair from her sticky, yellow silk bandages, the Director says, “What about your unborn child?”

  And, stroking her own little belly, Miss America says, “The Matchmaker should feed me his penis.” She says, “I'm the one not eating for two . . .”

  Job Description

  A Poem About Director Denial

  “A police officer,” says Director Denial, “has to protect a Satan worshiper.”

  You don't get to pick and choose.

  Director Denial onstage, the tweed sleeves of her blazer disappear around her back,

  where her hands are holding each other

  hidden, the way you'd stand for a firing squad.

  Her hair, salted with gray and cut short to look bristling

  on purpose.

  Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment:

  A security video, grainy black and white,

  of suspects under arrest, standing in lineups for identification by a witness.

  Suspects wrestling with handcuffs, or their coats pulled up in back

  to hood their faces as they go into court.

  Onstage stands Director Denial, with the bulge of her shoulder holster

  swelling one lapel of her blazer.

  Her tweed skirt hemmed above cuffed white running shoes,

  the shoelaces double knotted.

  She says, “An officer of the law has to die for pretty much everybody.”

  You die for people who kick dogs.

  Drug addicts. Communists. Lutherans.

  You die to protect and serve rich kids with trust funds.

  Child molesters. Pornographers. Prostitutes.

  If that next bullet has your name on it.

  Her face crowded with victims and criminals, black and white,

  Director Denial says, “You might die for welfare queens . . .”

  Or drag queens.

  For folks who hate you, or folks who'd call you a hero.

  You don't get to discriminate when your number comes up.

  “And if you're really stupid,” Director Denial says, “you die still hoping.”

  You made the world just a little bit better place.

  And maybe, just maybe, your death

  will be the last.

  Exodus

  A Story by Director Denial

  Please understand.

  Nobody here is defending what Cora did.

  Maybe two years ago was the only time anything like this had ever happened. Spring and fall, the county staff has to take a refresher in mouth-to-mouth. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Each group meets in the health room to practice heart massage on the dummy. They partner up, the agency director pumping the chest, the other person kneeling down, pinching the nose shut, and blowing air into the mouth. The dummy is a Breather Betty model, just a torso with a head. No arms or legs. Rubbery blue lips. Eyes molded open, staring. Green eyes. Still, whoever makes these dummies, they glued long eyelashes on her. They glued on a glamour-girl wig, the red hair so smooth you don't feel your fingers combing it until someone else says, “Easy there . . .”

  While she knelt next to the dummy and spread her red-painted fingernails against its chest, the agency director, Director Sedlak, said how all Breather Betty dolls are molded from the death mask of a single French girl.

  “True story,” she told the group of them.

  This face on the floor, it's the face of a suicide pulled from the water over a century ago. Those same blue lips. The same staring dull eyes. All Breather Betty dolls are molded from the face of this same young woman who threw herself into the Seine River.

  If the girl died because of love or loneliness, we'll never find out. But police detectives used plaster to cast a mask of her dead face, to help find her name, and decades later a toymaker owned that death mask and used it to cast the face of the first Breather Betty.

  Despite the risk that somebody in a school or factory or Army unit might someday lean down and recognize the long-dead body of their sister, mother, daughter, wife, this exact dead girl is kissed by millions of people. For generations, millions of strangers have pressed their mouths over hers, those lips her exact drowned lips. For the rest of history, all over the world, people will be trying to save this same dead woman.

  This woman who just wanted to die.

  The girl who turned herself into an object.

  Nobody said that last part. But nobody had to say it.

  So, last year, Cora Reynolds was in a group that goes to the health room and takes the Breather Betty out of her blue plastic suitcase. They lay her out on the linoleum tile. Swab her mouth with hydrogen peroxide. It's standard hygiene procedure. Another county policy. Director Sedlak bends to put both her palms on the middle of Betty's chest. On her sternum. Someone kneels close to pinch Betty's nose. The director shoves down on the plastic chest. And the kneeling guy, with his mouth on Betty's rubber mouth, he starts to cough.

  He leans back, coughing, sitting on his heels. Then he spits. Splat, there on the health-room linoleum tile, he spits. The mouth guy wipes the back of one hand across his lips and says, “Damn, that stinks.”

  The people crowded around, Cora Reynolds among them, the rest of the class, they lean closer.

  Still squatting there, the mouth guy says, “There's something inside her.” He covers his mouth and nose with one cupped hand. His face twisted sideways, away from the rubber mouth but still watching it, he says, “Go ahead. Hit her, again. Hit her hard.”

  The director, bent over with the heels of both hands on Betty's chest, her fingernails painted dark red, she shoves down.

  And a fat bubble swells between Betty's blue rubber lips. Some liquid, some salad dressing, thin and milky white, the bubble swells big. A greasy gray pearl. Then a Ping-Pong ball. A baseball. Until it pops. Spattering the greasy off-white soup everywhere. This thin, watery culture, puffing a cloud of stink into the room.

  Until that day, anybody could use the Health Room. Lock the door. Unfold the rollaway cot and take a nap during their lunch hour. If they got a headache. Or cramps. The first-aid kit, that's where they'd find it. All the bandages and aspirin. You didn't need anybody's permission. All that's in there is the rollaway cot, a little cabinet with a metal sink for hand-washing, a switch on the wall for the light. The blue plastic suitcase that Breather Betty comes in, it has no lock.

  The group, they roll the dummy onto her side, and from the corner of her soft rubber mouth, first a drip, drip, drip, then a thin stream of creamy gruel runs out. Some of the watery mess washes down her pink rubber cheek. Some of it webs between her lips and plastic teeth. Most of it pools on the linoleum tile.


  This dummy, now a French person. A girl who drowned. A victim of herself.

  Everyone standing there, breathing behind a cupped hand or a handkerchief. Blinking back the smell that makes their eyes water. Their throats slide up and down inside their neck skin as they swallow and swallow to keep their scrambled eggs and bacon and coffee and oatmeal with skim milk and peach yogurt and English muffins and cottage cheese down, deep in their gut.

  The mouth guy grabs the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and throws his head back. Dumping a double swig into his mouth, he puffs his cheeks. He stares at the ceiling, eyes closed, mouth open, gargling the peroxide. Then he snaps forward to spit his mouthful into the little metal sink.

  The room, everybody breathing the laundry-bleach smell of the peroxide, underneath that the toilet smell from the Breather Betty's lungs. The director, she says for somebody to grab a sex-crime investigation kit. The swabs and slides and gloves.

  Cora Reynolds, she was among that group, standing so close that she tracked some of the slippery muck all the way back to her desk. It's after that day County Facilities put a lock on the door and gave Cora the key. Since then, you get cramps and you put your name on a list, with the date and time, before you get that key. You get a headache, and you ask Cora for two aspirin.

  The team at the state labs, when they got the swabs and they ran the slides and cultures, they asked: Was this a joke?

  Yeah, the lab team said, the ooze was sperm. Some of it maybe six months old. Dating back to the last mouth-to-mouth class session. But, hey, there was so much of it. Besides, running it for DNA, the genetic signifiers showed this was the work of twelve, maybe fifteen different men.

  The county guys on this end, they said, Yeah. A bad joke. Now forget it.

  This is just what human beings do—turn objects into people, people into objects.

  Nobody's saying it's the county team that screwed up. Screwed up big-time.

  The Breather Betty dummy, it's no surprise Cora took it home. Rinsed out its lungs, somehow. Washed and set its red glamour-girl hair. Cora bought a new dress for its armless, legless torso. A string of fake pearls for around its neck. Anything that helpless, Cora could never just toss in the garbage. She put lipstick on its blue lips. Mascara on its long eyelashes. Blush. Perfume—a lot of perfume, to cover the smell. Some nice clip-on earrings. It would amaze nobody to find out she spent every night sitting on the sofa in her apartment, watching the television and chatting at it.

 
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