Haunted, p.21
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       Haunted, p.21

           Chuck Palahniuk

  All morning, the people he worked with, they sipped wine or sparkling water and talked about corporate goals. Mission statements. Team building.

  At the moment when it seemed they'd all wasted a beautiful Saturday morning, that moment when all the small talk comes to an end, Rand says that's when he opened the hamper.

  People. These people who worked together every day. Who thought they knew each other. As this white chaos. This storm exploded up from the center of the picnic. Some people screamed. People fell back into the grass. They covered their faces with their open hands. Food and wine fell. Good clothes got stained.

  It was the moment after when people saw it wouldn't hurt them. When people saw this was safe. It was the most lovely thing they'd ever seen. They fell back, too amazed to even smile. For the countless hours of that one long moment, they forgot everything important and watched the cloud of white wings twist up into the blue sky.

  They watched it spiral. And the spiral open. And the birds, trained by many trips, follow each other away to someplace they knew every time was their real home.

  “That,” Rand says, “is what's inside the Nightmare Box.”

  It's something that goes beyond life-after-death. What's in the box is proof that what we call life isn't. Our world is a dream. Infinitely fake. A nightmare.

  One look, Rand says, and your life—your preening and struggle and worry—it's all pointless.

  The grandson crawling with cockroaches, the antiques dealer, Cassandra with no eyelashes wandering off naked.

  All your problems and love affairs.

  They're an illusion.

  “What you see inside the box,” Rand says, “is a glimpse of the real reality.”

  The two people still sitting there, together on the concrete gallery floor, the sunlight from the windows and the street noise, it all feels different. It could be somewhere they've never been before. It's right now the ticking from the box, it's stopped.

  And Mrs. Clark was too afraid to look.


  We have no food. No hot water. Pretty soon, we may be trapped here in the dark, Brailling our way from room to room, feeling, hand over hand, every moldy, soft patch of the wallpaper. Or crawling over the sticky carpet, our hands and knees crusted, heavy with dried mouse turds. Touching every stiff carpet stain, branched with arms and legs.

  We have no heat, now that the furnace is broken, again—the way it should be.

  Every so often, you hear Saint Gut-Free shout for help, but a shout soft as the last echo off a wall a long ways away.

  The Saint calls himself the People's Committee for Getting Attention. All day, he's walking the length of every outside wall, banging on the locked metal fire-doors, screaming. But only banging with his open hand. And not yelling too loud. Just loud enough to say he tried. We tried. We made the best of the situation by being brave, strong characters.

  We organized committees. We stayed calm.

  We're still suffering, despite the ghost who snaked the sewer pipes one night and got the toilets to work. The ghost used pliers to turn the gas back on to the water heater, after Comrade Snarky threw away the valve handle. It even spliced the power cord to the washing machine and started a load of clothes.

  To the Reverend Godless, our ghost is the Dalai Lama. To the Countess Foresight, it's Marilyn Monroe. Or it's Mr. Whittier's empty wheelchair, the chrome shining in his room.

  During the rinse cycle, the ghost adds fabric softener.

  With collecting the lightbulbs and shouting for help and undoing the ghost's good deeds, we have almost no time left over. Just keeping the furnace broken is a full-time job.

  What's worse is, this is nothing we can put in the final screenplay. No, we have to look in pain. Hungry and hurting. We should be praying for help. Mrs. Clark should be ruling us with an iron fist.

  None of this is going bad enough. Even our hunger is less than we'd want. A letdown.

  “We need a monster,” Sister Vigilante says, her bowling ball in her lap and her elbows propped on it. Using a knife to pry up her fingernails, wedging the knife tip under and rocking the blade side to side to pop each nail up, then pull it off, she says, “The basis of any horror story is, the building has to work against us.”

  Flicking away each fingernail, she shakes her head, saying, “It doesn't hurt when you think how much money the scars are worth.”

  It's all we can do not to drag Mrs. Clark out of her dressing room and force her at knife point to bully and torture us.

  Sister Vigilante calls herself the People's Committee for Finding a Decent Enemy.

  Director Denial limps around with both feet wrapped in silk rags. All of her toes hacked off. Her left hand is nothing, just a paddle of skin and bone, just the palm, with all the fingers and thumb hacked off, this paddle wrapped huge with rags. Her right hand is just her thumb and index finger. Between them, she holds a severed finger with her dark-red polish still on the nail.

  Holding this finger, the Director walks from room to room, the Arabian Nights gallery to the Italian Renaissance lounge, her saying, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” Saying, “Cora? Come to Mama, Cora, my baby. Dinner's ready . . .”

  Every so often, you hear the voice of Saint Gut-Free shouting soft as a whisper, “Help us . . . Someone, please, help us . . .” Then the soft clap of his hands patting the exit doors.

  Extra soft and quiet, just in case someone is right outside.

  Director Denial calls herself the People's Committee for Feeding the Cat.

  Miss Sneezy and the Missing Link, they're the People's Committee for Flushing the Rest of the Ruined Food. With every bag they flush, they force down a cushion or a shoe, anything that will make sure the toilets stay clogged.

  Agent Tattletale knocks at Mrs. Clark's dressing-room door, saying, “Listen to me.” Saying, “You can't be the victim, here. We've voted you the next villain.”

  Agent Tattletale calls himself the People's Committee for Getting Us a New Devil.

  The lightbulb “peaches” the Matchmaker picks, that he lowers to Baroness Frostbite . . . That she packs so careful into boxes padded with old wigs . . . At the end of every day, the Earl of Slander takes them to the subbasement and breaks them on the concrete floor. He throws them the exact same way he'll tell the world Mrs. Clark broke them.

  Already, the rooms seem bigger. Dimmer. The colors and walls disappear into the dark. Agent Tattletale videotapes the broken bulbs and Sister Vigilante's thrown-away fingernails on the floor. Identical half-moon shards of white.

  Despite the ghost, our life is almost bad enough.

  To Sister Vigilante, the ghost is a hero. She says we hate heroes.

  “Civilization always works best,” Sister Vigilante says, picking the knife under another fingernail, “when we have a bogeyman.”

  Voir Dire

  A Poem About Sister Vigilante

  “Some man sued for a million bucks,” Sister Vigilante says, “because of a dirty look.”

  On her first day doing jury duty.

  Sister Vigilante onstage, she holds a book to shield the front of her blouse.

  Her blouse, frilly-yellow and edged with white lace.

  The book, black leather with the title stamped in gold leaf across the cover:

  Holy Bible

  On her face, black-framed eyeglasses.

  Her only jewelry, a charm bracelet of jiggling, trembling silver reminders.

  Her hairdo dyed the same deep black as her shoe polish. As her Bible.

  Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment:

  Each lens of her glasses, it glares with the reflected image of electric chairs

  and gallows. Grainy newsreel footage of prisoners sentenced to the gas chamber

  or the firing squad.

  Where her eyes should be,

  no eyes.

  That first day on jury duty, the next trial, a man tripped over a curb and sued

  the luxury car he fell against.

an award of fifty grand for being such a stupid butterfingers.

  “All these people with no sense of physical coordination,” Sister Vigilante says.

  They all had excellent blaming skills.

  Another man wanted a hundred grand from a homeowner who left the garden hose

  stretched across the backyard that tripped him,

  breaking his ankle,

  while he fled from the police in an otherwise totally unrelated case

  of rape.

  This crippled rapist, he wanted a fortune for his pain and suffering.

  There, up onstage, the silver charms flashing against the lace of her cuff,

  her Bible gripped between the fingers of both hands,

  her fingernails painted the same yellow as her frills,

  Sister Vigilante says she pays her taxes on time.

  She never jaywalks. Recycles her plastic. Rides the bus to work.

  “At that point,” says Sister Vigilante, her first day of jury duty, “I told the judge”

  Some charm-bracelet version of:

  “Fuck this shit.”

  And the judge held her in contempt . . .

  Civil Twilight

  A Story by Sister Vigilante

  It was the summer people quit complaining about the price of gasoline. The summer when they stopped bitching about what shows were on television.

  On June 24, sunset was at 8:35. Civil twilight ended at 9:07. A woman was walking uphill on the steep stretch of Lewis Street. On the block between 19th and 20th Avenues, she heard a pounding sound. It was the sound a pile driver might make, a heavy stomping sound she could feel through her flat shoes on the concrete sidewalk. It came every few seconds, getting louder with each stomp, getting closer. The sidewalk was empty, and the woman stepped back against the brick wall of an apartment hotel. Across the street, an Asian man stood in the bright glass doorway to a delicatessen, drying his hands on a white towel. Somewhere in the dark between streetlights, something glass broke. The stomp came again and a car alarm wailed. The stomp came closer, something invisible against the night. A newspaper box blew over sideways, crashing into the street. The crash came again, she says, and the windows blew out of a glass telephone booth only three parked cars away from where she stood.

  According to a small item in the next day's newspaper, her name was Teresa Wheeler. She was thirty years old. A clerk at a law firm.

  By then the Asian man had stepped back into the deli. He turned the sign around to say: Closed. Still holding the hand towel, he ran to the back of the store, and the lights went out.

  Then the street was dark. The car alarm wailing. The stomp came again, so heavy and close by, Wheeler's reflection shimmered as the glass in the dark deli windows shook. A mailbox, bolted to the curb, it boomed loud as a cannon, then stood shaking, vibrating, dented and leaning to one side. A wooden utility pole shuddered, the cables draped across it rattling against each other, the sparks sprinkling down, bright summer fireworks.

  A block downhill from Wheeler, the Plexiglas side of a bus shelter, the backlighted photograph of a movie star wearing just his underpants, the Plexiglas exploded.

  Wheeler stood, stuck there flat against the brick wall behind her, her fingers worked into the joints between each brick, her fingertips touching mortar, clinging tight as ivy. Her head held back so hard that when she showed the police, when she told them her story, the rough brick had worn a bald spot in her hair.

  Then, she said, nothing.

  Nothing happened. Nothing had gone by in the dark street.

  Sister Vigilante, telling this, she's worming a knife under each of her fingernails and prying off the nail.

  Civil twilight, she says, is the period of time between sunset and when the sun is more than six degrees below the horizon. That six degrees equals about half an hour. Civil twilight, Sister Vigilante says, is different from nautical twilight, which lasts until the sun is twelve degrees under the horizon. Astronomical twilight goes until the sun is eighteen degrees below the horizon.

  The Sister says, that something no one ever saw, downhill from Teresa Wheeler, it crumpled the roof of a car, waiting at a red light near 16th Avenue. The same invisible nothing wiped out the neon sign for The Tropics Lounge, crushed the neon tubing and folded the steel sign in half where it hung near a third-floor window.

  Still, there was nothing to describe. Effect without cause. An invisible riot run amok on Lewis Street, all the way from 20th Avenue to somewhere near the waterfront.

  On June 29, Sister Vigilante says, sunset was at 8:36.

  Civil twilight ended at 9:08.

  According to a guy working the box office of the Olympia Adult Theater, something rushed past the glass front of his ticket booth. This was nothing he could see. It was more the sound of air, an invisible bus going past, or an enormous exhale, so close it fluttered the paper money he had stacking in front of him. Just a high-pitched sound. At the edge of his sight, the lights of the diner across the street, they fluttered, blinked, as if something blotted out the whole world for an instant.

  In the next breath, the ticket taker, he described the pounding sound first reported by Teresa Wheeler. A dog barked, somewhere in the dark. It was a walking sound, the kid in the box office would tell police. The sound of something taking huge steps. Just one huge foot he never saw swing past, only as far as one breath away.

  On July 1, people were complaining about the water shortage. They were griping about city budget cuts and all the police getting laid off. Car prowls were on the rise. Spray-paint tagging and armed robbery.

  On July 2, they weren't.

  On July 1, sunset was at 8:34, with civil twilight ending at 9:03.

  On July 2, a woman walking her dog found the body of Lorenzo Curdy, the side of his face caved in. Dead, Sister Vigilante says.

  “Subarachnoid hemorrhage,” she says.

  The moment before he was hit, the man must've felt something, maybe the rush of air, something, because he put his hands up in front of his face. When they found him, both hands were buried, punched so deep in his face his fingernails had dug into his own crushed brain.

  On a street, the moment you're between streetlights, there in the dark you'd hear it. The stomp. Some people called it a clomping sound. You might hear a second sound from closer, somewhere nearby, or, worse, the next victim would be you. People heard it coming, once, twice, closer, and they froze. Or they forced their feet, left, right, left, three or four steps into a close-by doorway. They crouched, cowering next to parked cars. Closer, the next stomp came, a crash and a car alarm wailing. It was coming down the street, sounding closer, getting loud and gaining speed.

  In the pitch-dark, Sister Vigilante says, it would hit—bam—a bolt of black lightning.

  On July 13, sunset at 8:33 with civil twilight over at 9:03, a woman named Angela Davis had just left work at a dry cleaner's on Center Street when nothing hit her square in the middle of her back, breaking her spine so hard it lifted her out of her shoes.

  On July 17, when civil twilight ended at 9:01, a man named Glenn Jacobs stepped off a bus and started up Porter Street toward 25th Avenue. What nobody saw, it slammed into him so hard his ribcage collapsed. His chest punched in the way you'd crush a wicker basket.

  July 25, civil twilight ended at 8:55. Mary Leah Stanek was last seen jogging along Union Street. She stopped to tie one tennis shoe and check her pulse against her wristwatch. Stanek pulled off the baseball cap she wore. She turned it backward and put it back on, tucking her long brown hair up under it.

  She headed west on Pacific Street, and then she was dead. Her face torn loose from the skull and muscle underneath.

  “Avulsion,” Sister Vigilante says.

  What killed Stanek, it was wiped clean of fingerprints. Clotted with blood and hair. They found the murder weapon wedged under a parked car down along 2nd Avenue.

  It was a bowling ball, the police reported.

  Those smudged, greasy-black bowling balls, you can b
uy them at any thrift shop for half a buck. You can pick and choose, they have bins of them. Somebody buying over a stretch of time, say one ball each year from every junk store in town, that person could have hundreds. Even in bowling alleys, it's simple to walk out with an eight-pound ball under your coat. A twelve-pound ball tucked in a baby stroller, a barely concealed weapon.

  The police held a press conference. They stood in a parking lot and someone threw a bowling ball down, threw it hard against the concrete. And the ball bounced. It made the sound of a pile driver far away. It bounced high, taller than the man who threw it. It didn't leave a mark, and if the sidewalk were sloped, the police said, it would keep going, bouncing higher, faster, bouncing downhill in long strides. They threw it down from a third-story window in police headquarters, and the ball bounced even higher. The television news crews got it on tape. Every station played it that night.

  The city council pushed for a law to paint all balls bright pink. Or neon yellow, orange, or green, some color you could see flying at your face down a dark side street late at night. To give people just a moment to dodge before—blam—their face is gone.

  City fathers, they pushed for a law to make owning black balls a crime.

  The police called it a nonspecific-motive killer. Like Herbert Mullin, who killed ten people to prevent southern-California earthquakes. Or Norman Bernard, who shot hobos because he thought it would help the economy. What the Federal Bureau of Investigation would call personal-cause killers.

  Sister Vigilante says, “The police thought the killer was their enemy.”

  The bowling ball was a police cover-up, people said. The bowling ball was a red herring. A monster wannabe. The bowling ball was a quick fix to keep everybody calm.

  On July 31, the sun was six degrees under the horizon at 8:49. That night, Darryl Earl Fitzhugh was homeless, sleeping on Western Avenue. Open across his face, Fitzhugh had a paperback copy of Stranger in a Strange Land when his chest was crushed, both his lungs collapsed, and his heart muscle ruptured.

  According to one witness, the killer came out of the bay, dragging itself over the lip of the seawall. Another witness saw the monster, dripping ooze, squeezing up from the storm sewer. These same people said the forensic evidence was consistent with a hard backhanded slap from a giant lizard walking on its hind legs. The ribcage collapsed was sure proof the victim was stepped on by some dinosaur throwback.

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