Haunted, p.32
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       Haunted, p.32

           Chuck Palahniuk
 

  She wore a size nothing. No hips. No chest. Just knees and shoulders and death-camp cheekbones. Cassandra could've worn anything, but every day was just the same of two or three long dresses. No jewelry. No makeup. She was so almost not there, it would take just a spoiled slice of lunchmeat to kill her. Just a handful of sleeping pills stirred into her oatmeal. If she would eat.

  But of course Mrs. Clark took her to a dentist. Paid money for a good partial denture. Offered to pay for implants to replace the teeth. The withered breasts. She did research on anorexia nervosa.

  Mrs. Clark lied and said she looked pretty, thin. Cassandra was never outside long enough to be anything but pale blue.

  No, Cassandra just went to school, where nobody talked to her. Everyone talked about her, the stories of her torture getting more horrible every term. Even the teachers let their terrible imaginations run wild. Around the neighborhood, everyone stopped Mrs. Clark to pat her hand and say how sorry they felt. As if Cassandra had been found dead.

  All the people who had canvassed, searched with the police dogs, they quit pressing for details. They got tired of Mrs. Clark telling them, “I don't know. I don't know. I don't know . . .”

  Cassandra's first year back in school, her grades went up. She didn't try out for cheerleader. She didn't play basketball or soccer. She didn't do anything but read and come home. She watched the birds in the sky. She watched her goldfish swim.

  Still, Cassandra wouldn't wear the partial denture even when Mrs. Clark begged and threatened—threatened to hurt herself. Mrs. Clark could burn her arm with cigarettes and her daughter would just sit by and watch. Breathing in the smell.

  Cassandra would just listen. While Mrs. Clark begged her and yelled at her, asking Cassandra to please make an effort to be pretty. To be popular. To talk to a counselor. Get back into the swim of life. Anything. All Cassandra did was listen.

  “My own daughter,” Mrs. Clark says, “and she was friendly as a houseplant.”

  A robot that got straight A's through her senior year but didn't go to the prom. Didn't date. Didn't have any girlfriends. A Nightmare Box that ticked away, high up on some shelf.

  “She sat through every day,” Mrs. Clark said, “the way people sit in church.”

  Silent. Straight-backed. Bright-eyed. But not singing, never offering any detail about what went on inside her head. Cassandra would just watch and listen. Not the girl her mother had known, but someone else. A statue that looked down from behind an altar. A statue carved in a cathedral a thousand years ago. In Europe. A statue that knew it was carved by Leonardo da Vinci. That's how Cassandra looked to people.

  Mrs. Clark says now, “It drove me crazy.”

  Other times, it was like living with a robot. Or a bomb. Some days, Mrs. Clark waited for whatever cult or nutcase to call and ask for Cassandra on the phone. Some nights, Mrs. Clark slept with a knife under her pillow and her bedroom door locked.

  Nobody knew what this silent girl might become. She'd lived through something the rest of them could never imagine. So much torture and horror that she didn't need to tell people about it. She'd never need drama or joy or pain ever again.

  You could walk into a room, turn on the television, eat a bag of popcorn, and only then notice she was sitting beside you on the couch.

  Really, she was that kind of spooky. Cassandra was.

  One dinner, just the two of them at the kitchen table, Mrs. Clark asked, did Cassandra remember the Nightmare Box? Did that night in the gallery have anything to do with her disappearing?

  And Cassandra said, “It made me want to be a writer.”

  After that, Mrs. Clark couldn't sleep. She wanted her daughter gone. Into college. In the army. In a convent. Anywhere. Just gone.

  And, one day, Mrs. Clark called the police to say Cassandra was missing.

  Of course she'd looked all over the house. Mrs. Clark knew the way Cassandra could disappear into the wallpaper or the stripes of the sofa fabric. But she really was gone.

  With all the faded yellow ribbons still flapping from everyone's car, those flags of surrender, Cassandra Clark had disappeared, again.

  Cassandra

  Another Story by Mrs. Clark

  If there's any trick to doing a job you hate . . . Mrs. Clark says it's to find a job you hate even more.

  After you find a bigger task to dread, the little chores will be a breeze. Here's another reason to have a devil on hand. It does make all the little demons more . . . bearable. Another Mrs. Clark extension to the theories of Mr. Whittier.

  We love drama. We love conflict. We need a devil or we'll create one.

  None of that is bad. It's just the way human beings operate. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

  After her daughter disappeared the second time, Mrs. Clark dipped a cotton swab in a can of mineral oil and sealed the grout between each bathroom tile. It took most of a weekend.

  She ran a dust cloth along the narrow length of each miniblind.

  All those tedious jobs, for the time being they were made bearable by the telephone call that might come. The police detectives calling to say they'd found the remains. Or, worse, they'd found Cassandra alive.

  That girl robot who could sit all day, painting the blue jays that screeched outside her window. Or watching that damned goldfish swim around and around its bowl.

  That . . . stranger with her toes and fingers gone.

  What Mrs. Clark didn't know is, the police had found Cassandra. A Cub Scout came out of the woods, not talking. Quiet with a secret, the discovery he'd found. Out looking in the woods, following a little stream up a canyon, climbing over rocks where the water pooled behind before it tipped over and dug out a pool there, this Cub Scout was looking for a hole big enough it might hold trout. Green moss crested and ebbed around the rocks, and trees stood with branches holding each other back. In that shade, there was Cassandra Clark stretched out on one side, her hands folded under the side of her thin, pale face as if she were asleep. Cassandra, naked on a bed of this thick, soft moss, under where the leaves from a hawthorn tree hung down in a curtain all around.

  The Scout tells someone adult, who calls the sheriff. Before dark, a string of detectives have followed the creek up that canyon. By dark, they've gone home, a crowd of people not talking about what they saw that day at work.

  None of them call Mrs. Clark. At home, waiting, she turns each mattress in the house. She washes the second-floor windows. She dusts the top edge of baseboards. Every job too miserable most times, is nothing compared to just waiting. She cleans the fireplace, the telephone never so far away she can't grab it on the first ring.

  This second disappearance, no one tied yellow ribbons to anything. Nobody went door-to-door, searching. Or lit prayer candles. No psychics called.

  Not even the television stations dropped by while Mrs. Clark cleaned and cleaned.

  That's another night Cassandra waited in that canyon, across a stream, and halfway up a rocky slope, a long carry from any forest-service logging road. No footprints marked the path, and her bare feet looked clean, as if she'd been carried.

  By then, it was too late to measure the potassium in her aqueous humor. Her arms could bend, so she'd been dead longer than two days. Rigor mortis had come and gone.

  That first team of detectives, they hung a microphone in the curtain of hawthorn branches. The same way they'd mike a murder victim's grave after a recent funeral. Because the killer has to come back. The killer has to talk, to tell this story until it's used up.

  Other stories, they use you up.

  To the only audience a killer can risk having, his victim.

  Cassandra on her bed of moss. The microphone hanging above her, connected to a tape recorder and a transmitter broadcasting to a sheriff's deputy perched on rocks across the canyon. Far enough away he can swat mosquitoes without giving himself away. The headphones over his ears. Sitting on the ground, crawling with ants. All the time, listening.

  In his earphones, birds sing. Th
e wind blows.

  You'd be amazed how many of the killers come back to say good-bye. They've shared something, the killer and the victim, and the killer will come to sit at the grave and talk about old times.

  Everyone needs an audience.

  In the deputy's earphone, black flies buzz, here to lay their eggs around the damp edge of Cassandra's eyelids, her blue lips opened just a crack. The flies lay eggs inside her nose and anus.

  At home, Mrs. Clark has wrestled the refrigerator away from the kitchen wall so she can vacuum the compressor coils on its back.

  On the bed of moss, Cassandra's blood has settled to the lowest side of her, leaving the parts you can see, her breasts and hands and face, looking painted white. Her eyes open and sticky-dry from the sucking tongues of insects. Her blond hair. Her hair rolls out yellow and thick from the back of her head, but dull, the way hair looks cut off and dead on the floor in a barbershop.

  Her cells are digesting themselves, still trying to do some job. Desperate for food, the enzymes inside start eating through the cell walls, and the yellow within each cell starts to leak out. Cassandra's pale skin starts to slip, sliding slack over the muscle underneath. Puckering and wrinkling, the skin on her hands looks loose-baggy as cotton gloves.

  Her skin is marked with bumps beyond counting, a field of what could be tiny knife scars, every bump moving, grazing between skin and muscle. Every bump the larva of a black fly. Eating the thin layer of subcutaneous fat, tunneling just under her skin. The entire surface of her, of her arms and legs, a constellation of moving lumps.

  In the deputy's headphones, the buzz of flies gives way to the crackle of grubs tunneling forward one bite at a time.

  At home, a step from the silent telephone, Mrs. Clark sorts Christmas decorations in the choking dust of the attic, throwing out and repacking. Labeling each box.

  The bacteria breathed inside Cassandra's lungs, the bacteria in her guts and mouth and nose, they split and split and split without white blood cells to stop them. They gobble the subcutaneous fat and the yellow protein leaking from her ruptured cells. Their numbers explode, bloating her pale stomach until her shoulders are forced back. Her legs are splayed open. Cassandra's belly swells tight, pregnant with the gas inside, the universe of bacteria eating and reproducing.

  Her tongue swells, forcing her jaws apart and jutting out between lips swollen big as bicycle tires. The bacteria tunnel through the top of her mouth, breaking into the cranial vault, where her brain waits, soft and edible.

  At home, Mrs. Clark carries the phone from room to room, scrubbing walls and washing the glass filled with dead houseflies covering each ceiling light.

  After another day, Cassandra's brain would bubble, red and brown, out her ears and nose. The soft mass of it would melt and bubble out the sockets where her eyes have collapsed.

  The microphone picks up the sound. Think of popcorn muted inside a microwave oven. Imagine slipping into hot water filled with bubble bath, the steady sound when all those bubbles burst. It's the sound of hard rain on a concrete patio. Hail hitting the roof of a car. That's the sound of maggots, by this time thick as white rice. The microphone picks up a rip and a squeal, the sound of skin coming apart and Cassandra's guts going flat.

  Meat-eating beetles arrive. Mice and magpies. Birds sing in the forest, each string of notes bright as colored lights. A woodpecker listens with his head cocked to hear insects inside a tree. He knocks to peck a hole.

  The skin sinks down, draped over bones, as Cassandra's guts leak away. Soaking into the ground. Leaving just this shadow of skin, this framework of bones mired in a puddle of her own mud.

  In the sheriff deputy's earphones, the mice munched the beetles. Snakes arrived to swallow the squealing mice. Everything looking to be last in the food chain.

  At home, Mrs. Clark sorted through the papers in her daughter's room, inside her desk drawers. The letters written on pink stationery. The old birthday cards. And, written in pencil, copied in Cassandra's handwriting on a sheet of lined notebook paper, the ragged perforations running up one side, a note said:

  Writers' Retreat: Abandon your life for three months . . .

  And she flushed her daughter's goldfish down the toilet, still alive. Then Mrs. Clark pulled on her winter coat.

  That night, in the deputy's headphones, a woman's voice said, “Is this where you went? This writers' retreat, is this where they tortured you?”

  It was the voice of Mrs. Clark saying, “I'm sorry, but you should've stayed missing. When you came back, you weren't the same.” She says, “I loved you so much more when you were gone . . .”

  Tonight, telling her story to the rest of us in the blue velvet lobby, Mrs. Clark says, “I did it with sleeping pills.” Sitting halfway up the wide blue stairs, she says, “The moment I saw the microphone hanging there, I ran.”

  That night in the canyon, she could already hear the sheriff's deputy crashing through the brush, coming to arrest her.

  She never went back to that clean house, with all those jobs she hated to do, done.

  With nothing in the world but her winter coat and her purse, Mrs. Clark called the phone number on Cassandra's handwritten note. She met Mr. Whittier, and she met the rest of us.

  Her eyes moving from our bandaged hands and feet to our ragged hair to our hollow cheeks, Mrs. Clark says, “I never was his . . . anything. I never loved Whittier.”

  Mrs. Clark says, “I just wanted to know what happened to my daughter.”

  Really, it was Mr. Whittier who killed the girl she'd given birth to.

  She says, “I only ever wanted to know why.”

  22

  The Matchmaker is alone in the Italian Renaissance lounge when we find him. Most days, while the lights are on, he just stands there at the long, black wood table with his zipper open and the meat cleaver in one hand. In his eyes: to chop or not to chop.

  “Shooo-rook,” the sound from his family ritual.

  Proof that one day your worst fear might just disappear. No matter how terrible something looks, it might not be around tomorrow.

  The Matchmaker, he's stopped asking the rest of us to swing the cleaver. Why should we help him hog the future spotlight? No, if he wants to be mutilated so bad—let him do it himself.

  The table, each leg is carved to look like different sizes of balls, all balanced or beaded together in a straight line. The balls that touch the floor or the tabletop look the same size as apples. The ball in the middle of each leg is the size of a watermelon. All four legs, the same greasy black color. Long and narrow as a coffin, the table looks carved out of black wax. Long and flat, and smudged, so it reflects nothing.

  Same as always, the Matchmaker stands there, hatchet ready. His chin pressed to his chest. His eyes watch his dick poke out his open zipper the way a cat would watch a mouse hole.

  The Italian Renaissance lounge is the same old green satin wallpaper since the white van dropped us in the alley. Since forever ago. The green satin looking wet. Slick. The edge of gold paint outlines every carved chair-back and baseboard molding and bracket that holds an electric candle to a green satin wall.

  Sunk into little caves in the wall, little open closets or green satin niches, inside there stand statues of naked people so padded with muscle and breast they look fat. These are statues taller than most people and standing on plaster pedestals painted the black-green you want to be malachite stone. Some holding spears and shields. Others stick out their white plaster butts, standing with their feet close together and their lower backs arched. Muscle or butt, from their feet up, their plaster is smudged with fingerprints, or scarred, gouged down to clean white by fingernails, but only as far as people can reach. Only about waist-high.

  We come up the stairs from the imperial-Chinese promenade, rushing from the red to green, and today the Matchmaker has his dick flopped out.

  Panting, coughing, with one hand on his chest, the Reverend Godless says, “They're coming, people . . . You can hear them in the alle
y, outside.”

  From behind his camera, Agent Tattletale says, “If you're cutting it off, cut it off now.”

  And, cleaver in hand, the Matchmaker says, “What?”

  The poor Matchmaker, compared to the bug-eyed, big-nosed, sunk-cheeked rest of him, his dick looks big as a statue. He's the last one of us still intact. So dirty he's pasted to the inside of his shirt, his tight skin looks cracked and shattered with the veins and arteries vined around his bony hands. Veins bunch and worm under the skin of his forehead. Tendons jump and twitch, webbed with the skin of his neck.

  “Some people outside,” the Missing Link says, his mouth hidden behind the fat end of his nose, tucked somewhere above the big nutsack of his hairy chin. He says, “They're drilling the lock. We're about to be famous.”

  Well, all of us—except the Matchmaker, the man with no scars to show, no signs he did anything but not eat.

  The table all around the gray head of his dick, the wood is crisscrossed with practice swings, every chop at a new angle. The chopped wood gone pulpy with our blood. The pulp pounded to slivers and splinters and knocked off, onto the floor.

  Our ears and toes and fingers fed to the cat. Cora Reynolds fed to Miss America. Miss America and her child fed to us. That food chain, complete.

  Every one of us fighting to be the last one in that chain.

  The camera behind the camera behind the camera.

  The Earl of Slander, he holds up one hand, wiggling the three bloody fingers still there, the fingernails torn off, missing, and he says, “Hurry and give me the chopper.” He says, “I still have time to suffer some more.”

  Chef Assassin flops down in a gold palace chair and kicks off his shoes. Grabbing each sock by the toe, he stretches it longer, longer, longer, until it snaps off his foot. Looking at his toes, he says, “Me first. I got way too many toes left.”

  The poor Matchmaker standing with his hips pressed into the black wood edge of the table, his dick flopped out, he says, “Don't rush me.” Sweat pumping out the pinholes of his forehead, he says, “You guys had your chance to suffer. It's my turn now.”

 
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