Haunted, p.31
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       Haunted, p.31

           Chuck Palahniuk
 

  In the Lodge kitchen, Olson used to sing hymns so loud you could hear them in the dining room. Olson, huge in his flapping white apron, the ties knotted and cutting into his thick, deep waist, he sat in the bar, reading his Bible in the almost-dark. The beer-and-smoke smell of the dark-red carpet. If he joined your table in the staff break room, Olson bowed his head to his chest and said a rambling blessing over his baloney sandwich.

  His favorite verb was “fellowship.”

  A night when Olson walked into the pantry and found Miss Leroy kissing a bellhop, just some liberal-arts dropout from NYU, Olson Read told them kissing was the devil's first step to fornication. With his rubbery red lips, Olson told everyone he was saving himself for marriage, but the truth was, he couldn't give himself away.

  To Olson, the White River was his Garden of Eden, the proof his God did beautiful work.

  Olson watched the hot springs, the geysers and steaming mud pots, the way every Christian loves the idea of hell. The way every Eden had to have its snake. He watched the scalding water steam and spit, the same way he'd peek through the order window and watch the waitresses in the dining room.

  On his day off, he'd carry his Bible through the woods, through the clouds and fog of sulfur. He'd be singing “Amazing Grace” or “Nearer My God to Thee,” but only the fifth or sixth verses, the parts so strange and unknown you might think he made them up. Walking on the sinter, the thin crust of calcium that forms the way ice sets up on water, Olson would step off the boardwalk and kneel at the deep edge of a spitting, stinking pool. Kneeling there, he'd pray out loud for Miss Leroy and the bellhop. He'd pray to his Lord, our God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. He'd pray for the immortal soul of each busboy by name. He'd inventory the sins of each hotel maid out loud. Olson's voice rising with the steam, he prayed for Nola, who pinned up the hem of her skirt too high and committed the act of oral sex with any hotel guest willing to cut loose a twenty-dollar bill. The tourist families standing back, safe on the boardwalk behind him, Olson begged mercy for the dining-room waiters, Evan and Leo, who assaulted each other with lewd acts of sodomy every night in the men's dorm. Olson wept and shouted about Dewey and Buddy, who breathed glue from a brown paper bag while they washed the dishes.

  There at the gates of his hell, Olson yelled opinions into the trees and sky. Making his report to God, Olson walked out after the dinner shift and shouted your sins at the stars so bright they bled together in the night. He begged for God's mercy on your behalf.

  No, nobody very much liked Olson Read. Nobody any age likes a tattletale.

  They'd all heard the stories about the woman wrapped in olive oil. The kid cooked to soup with his dog. And Olson especially would listen, his eyes bright as candy. This was proof of everything he held dear. The truth of this. Proof you can't hide what you've done from God. You can't fix it. We'd be awake and alive in Hell, but hurting so bad we'd wish we could die. We'd spend all eternity suffering, someplace no one in the world would trade us to be.

  Here, it would be, Miss Leroy would stop talking. She'd light a new cigarette. She'd draw you another beer.

  Some stories, she'd say, the more you tell them, the faster you use them up. Those kind, the drama burns off, and every version, they sound more silly and flat. The other kind of story, it uses you up. The more you tell it, the stronger it gets. Those kind of stories only remind you how stupid you were. Are. Will always be.

  Telling some stories, Miss Leroy says, is committing suicide.

  It's here that she'd work hard to make the story boring, saying how water heated to 158 degrees Fahrenheit causes a third-degree burn in one second.

  The typical thermal feature along the White River Fault is a vent that opens to a pool crusted around the edge with a layer of that crystallized mineral. The average temperature of thermal features along the White River being 205 degrees Fahrenheit.

  One second in water this hot, and pulling your socks off will pull off your feet. The cooked skin of your hands will stick to anything you touch and stay behind, perfect as a pair of leather gloves.

  Your body tries to save itself by shifting fluid to the burn, to dissipate the heat. You sweat, dehydrating faster than the worst case of diarrhea. Losing so much fluid your blood pressure drops. You go into shock. Your vital organs shut down in rapid succession.

  Burns can be first-degree, second-, third-, or fourth-degree. They can be superficial, partial-thickness, or full-thickness burns. In superficial or first-degree burns, the skin turns red without blistering. Think of a sunburn and the subsequent desquamation of necrotic tissue—the dead, peeling skin. In full-thickness, third-degree burns, you get the dry, white leather look of a knuckle that bumps the top heating element when you take a cake out of the oven. In fourth-degree burns, you're cooked worse than skin deep.

  To determine the extent of a burn, the medical examiner will use the “Rule of Nines.” The head is 9 percent of the body's total skin. Each arm is 9 percent. Each leg is 18 percent. The torso front and back are each 18 percent. One percent for the neck, and you get the whole 100 percent.

  Swallowing even a mouthful of water this hot causes massive edema of the larynx and asphyxial death. Your throat swells shut, and you choke to death.

  It's poetry to hear Miss Leroy spin this out. Skeletonization. Skin slippage. Hypokalemia. Long words that take everybody in the bar to safe abstracts, far, far away. It's a nice little break in her story, before facing the worst.

  You can spend your whole life building a wall of facts between you and anything real.

  A February just like this, most of her life ago, Miss Leroy and Olson, the cook, were the only people in the Lodge that night. The day before dropped three feet of new snow, and the plows hadn't come through yet.

  The same as every night, Olson Read takes his Bible in one fat hand and goes tramping off into the snow. Back then, they had coyotes to worry about. Cougar and bobcat. Singing “Amazing Grace” for a mile, never repeating a verse, Olson tramps off, white against the white snow.

  The two lanes of Highway 17, lost under snow. The neon sign saying The Lodge in green neon, free-standing on a steel pole anchored in concrete with a low brick planter around the base of it. The outside world, like every night, is moonlight black and blue, the forest just dark pine-tree shapes stretched up.

  Young and thin, Miss Leroy never gave Olson Read a second thought. Never realized how long he was gone until she heard the wolves start to howl. She was looking at her teeth, holding a polished butter knife so she could see how straight and white her teeth looked. She was used to hearing Olson shout each night. His voice shouting her name followed by a sin, real or imagined, it came from the woods. She smoked cigarettes, Olson shouted. She slow-danced. Olson screamed at God on her behalf.

  Telling the story now, she'll make you tweeze the rest out of her. The idea of her trapped here. Her soul in limbo. Nobody comes to the Lodge planning to stay the rest of their life. Hell, Miss Leroy says, there's things you see happen worse than getting killed.

  There's things that happen, worse than a car accident, that leave you stranded. Worse than breaking an axle. When you're young. And you're left tending bar in some little noplace for the rest of your life.

  More than half her life ago, Miss Leroy hears the wolves howl. The coyotes yip. She hears Olson screaming, not her name or any sin, but just screaming. She goes to the dining-room side door. She steps outside, leaning out over the snow, and turns her head sideways to listen.

  She smells Olson before she can see him. It's the smell of breakfast, of bacon frying in the cold air. The smell of bacon or Spam, sliced thick and hissing crisp in its own hot fat.

  At this point in her story, the electric wall heater always comes on. That moment, the moment the room's got as cold as it can get. Miss Leroy knows that moment, can feel it make the hair stand up on her top lip. She knows when to stop a second. To leave a little way of quiet, and then—voom—the rush and wail of warm air out of the heater. The fan makes a
low moan, far away at first, then up-close loud. Miss Leroy makes sure the barroom's dark by now. The heater comes on, the low moan of it, and people look up. All they can see in the window is their own reflection. Their own face not recognized. Looking inside at them is a pale mask full of dark holes. The mouth is a hanging-open dark hole. Their own eyes, two close-together staring black holes through to the night behind them.

  The cars parked just outside, they look a hundred cold miles away. Even the parking lot looks too far to walk in this kind of dark.

  The face of Olson Read, when she found him, his neck and head, this last 10 percent of him was still perfect. Beautiful even, compared to the peeling, boiled-food rest of his body.

  Still screaming. As if the stars give a shit. This something left of Olson, dragging itself down this side of the White River, it stumbled, knees wobbly, staggering and coming apart.

  There were parts of Olson already gone. His legs, below his knees, cooked and drug off over the broken ice. Bit and pulled off, the skin first and then the bones, the blood so cooked inside there's nothing going off behind him but a trail of his own grease. His heat melting deep in the snow.

  The kid from Pinson City, Wyoming, the kid who jumped in to save his dog. Folks say that when the crowd pulled him out his arms popped apart, joint by joint, but he was still alive. His scalp peeled back off his white skull, but he was still awake.

  The surface of the seething water, it spit hot and sparkling rainbow colors from the kid's rendered fat, the grease of him floating on the surface.

  The kid's dog boiled down to a perfect dog-shaped fur coat, its bones already cooked clean and settling into the deep geothermal center of the world, the kid's last words were, “I fucked up. I can't fix this. Can I?”

  That's how Miss Leroy found Olson Read that night. But worse.

  The snow behind him, the fresh powder all around him, it was cut with drool.

  All around his screams, fanned out around behind him, Miss Leroy could see a swarm of yellow eyes. The snow stamped down to ice in the prints of coyote feet. The four-toe prints of wolf paws. Floating around him were the long skull faces of wild dogs. Panting behind their own white breath, their black lips curled up along the ridge of each snout. Their little-root teeth meshed together, tight, tugging back on the rags of Olson's white pants, the shredded pant legs still steaming from what's boiled alive inside.

  The next heartbeat, the yellow eyes are gone and what's left of Olson is what's left. Snow kicked up by back feet, it still sparkles in the air.

  The two of them, in the warm cloud of bacon smell, Olson pulsed with heat, a big baked potato sinking deeper into the snow beside her. His skin was crusted now, puckered and rough as fried chicken, but loose and slippery on top of the muscle underneath, the muscle twisting, cooked, around the core of warm bone.

  His hands clamped tight around her, around Miss Leroy's fingers, when she tried to pull away, his skin tore. His cooked hands stuck, the way your lips freeze to the flagpole on the playground in cold weather. When she tried to pull away, his fingers split to the bone, baked and bloodless inside, and he screamed and gripped Miss Leroy tight.

  He was too heavy to move. Sunk there in the snow.

  She was anchored there, the side door to the dining room only twenty footprints away in the snow. The door was still open, and the tables inside set for the next meal. Miss Leroy could see the dining room's big stone mountain of a fireplace, the logs burning inside. She could watch, but it was too far away to feel. She swam with her feet, kicking, trying to drag Olson, but the snow was too deep.

  Instead of moving, she stayed, hoping he would die. Praying to God to kill Olson Read before she froze. The wolves watching with their yellow eyes from the dark edge of the forest. The pine-tree shapes going up into the night sky. The stars above them, bleeding together.

  That night, Read Olson told her a story. His own private ghost story.

  When we die, these are the stories still on our lips. The stories we'll only tell strangers, someplace private in the padded cell of midnight. These important stories, we rehearse them for years in our head but never tell. These stories are ghosts, bringing people back from the dead. Just for a moment. For a visit. Every story is a ghost. This story is Olson's.

  Melting snow in her mouth, Miss Leroy spit the water into Olson's fat red lips, his face the only part of him that she could touch without getting stuck. Kneeling there beside him. The devil's first step to fornication. That kiss, the moment Olson had saved himself for.

  For most of her life, she never told anyone what he yelled. Holding this inside was such a burden. Now she tells everyone, and it's no better.

  That boiled, sad thing up the White River, it screamed, “Why did you do this?”

  It screamed, “What did I do?”

  “Timber wolves,” Miss Leroy says, and she laughs. We don't have that trouble. Not here, she says. Not anymore.

  How Olson died, it's called myoglobulinaria. In extensive burns, the burned muscles release the protein myoglobulin. This flood of protein into the bloodstream overwhelms each kidney. The kidneys shut down, and the body fills with fluid and blood toxins. Renal failure. Myoglobulinaria. When Miss Leroy says these words, she could be a magician doing a trick. They could be a spell. An incantation.

  This way to die takes all night.

  The next morning, the snow plow came through. The driver found them: Olson Read dead and Miss Leroy asleep. From melting snow in her mouth all night, her gums were patched with white. Frostbite. Read's dead hands were still locked around hers, protecting her fingers, warm as a pair of gloves. For weeks, the frozen skin around the base of each tooth, it peeled away, soft and gray from the brown root, until her teeth looked the way they do. Until her lips were gone.

  Desquamating necrotic tissue. Another magic spell.

  There's nothing out in the woods, Miss Leroy would tell people. Nothing evil. It's just something so sad and alone. It's Olson Read not knowing, still, what he did wrong. Not knowing where he's at. So terrible and alone, even the wolves, the coyotes are gone from up that end of the White River.

  That's how a scary story works. It echoes some ancient fear. It re-creates some forgotten terror. Something we'd like to think we've grown beyond. But it can still scare us to tears. It's something you'd hoped was healed.

  Every night's scattered with them. These wandering people who can't be saved but won't die. You can hear them at night, screaming out there, up this side of the White River Fault.

  Some February nights, there's still the smell of hot grease. Crisp bacon. Olson Read not feeling his legs but still getting tugged back. Him screaming. His fingers hooked claws into the snow, getting tugged back into the dark by all those clenched little teeth.

  21

  According to Mrs. Clark, the average person burns sixty-five calories per hour while asleep. You burn seventy-seven calories each hour awake. Just walking slow, you burn two hundred. Just to stay alive, you need to eat 1,650 calories each day.

  Your body can only store about twelve hundred calories of carbohydrates—most of them in your liver. Just being alive, you burn through all your stored calories in less than one day. After that, you burn fat. Then muscle.

  This is when your blood fills with ketones. Your serum-acetone concentrations soar, and your breath starts to smell. Your sweat stinks of airplane glue.

  Your liver and spleen and kidneys shrink and atrophy. Your small intestine swells from disuse and fills with mucus. Ulcers open up holes in the wall of your colon.

  As you starve, your liver converts muscle to glucose to keep your brain alive. As you starve, your hunger pains disappear. After that, you're just tired. More and more, you're confused. You stop noticing the world around you. You quit keeping yourself clean.

  Once you burn through 70 to 94 percent of your body fat, and 20 percent of your muscle, you die.

  For most people, this takes sixty-one days.

  “My daughter, Cassandra,” Mrs. Clark say
s, “she never did tell me what happened.”

  Most of what we know about starvation, Mrs. Clark says, comes from watching prisoners in Northern Ireland on hunger strikes.

  While starving, sometimes your skin fades to pale blue. Sometimes it turns dark brown. A third of the starved swell—but only the ones with pale skin.

  On the wall in the Gothic smoking room, Saint Gut-Free has counted off forty days' worth of hash marks. Forty stripes of his pencil.

  Our story, the true-life epic of our brave survival in the face of cruel, cruel torture, well, the royalties get split only thirteen ways. Now that Miss America's bled to death.

  Most of us have quit trying to break the furnace after it's been fixed by the ghost. Still, we don't wash our clothes. Some days, from lights-on to lights-out, we lie in bed in our dressing rooms, backstage. Each of us, reciting our story to our self.

  If we have the strength, we might borrow a knife from Chef Assassin and hack our hair off at the scalp. Another humiliation inflicted on us by Mr. Whittier. Here's another way to make our after picture more terrible compared to the before pictures of us, right now being stapled to telephone poles or printed on milk cartons.

  The Reverend Godless breaks the leg off a chair and twists the wood inside his ass, to get some slivers for the police to find. A fine idea, provided by Mrs. Clark's daughter, Cassandra.

  After dark, we hear footsteps. Doors creak open. The ghost footsteps of here. Mr. Whittier. Lady Baglady. Comrade Snarky and Miss America.

  Since what the ghost did to the Duke of Vandals, we all lock our doors after lights-out. No one wanders except in twos or threes, every witness with another witness, to stay safe. Everybody carries one of Chef Assassin's knives.

  After she came home, Mrs. Clark says, her daughter never did gain back much weight. Cassandra's fingernails grew back, but she never painted them. Her hair grew back, but Cassandra would only wash it and keep it combed. She never curled it, piled it into hairdos, tinted it. Of course her missing teeth never grew back.

 
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