Fetch Tales, Part 3: Awakening
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O.E. awæcnan (intrans.), "to spring into being," also, less often, "to wake up;" earlier onwæcnan , from a- (1) "on" + wæcnan (see waken). Transitive meaning "to rouse from sleep" is recorded from 1510s; figurative sense of "to stir up, rouse to activity" is from c.1600.
-- Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper
I remember the pavement was painted in browns because it had been sprinkling on and off all day, and the sky was a kaleidoscope of grays and whites moving to some music I had always wanted to hear. As a child, I would watch the storms and wonder who was conducting them, and I would imagine that I was taking over the symphony and making them move away from my house.
That evening as I locked my apartment door, I remembered myself as a girl of ten, standing with my hands deep in my pockets and with my fingers secretly wagging the clouds away - and I smiled. What an adorable child, and what an adorable thing to do!
And I took an extra deep breath of the air because I knew it would smell of green, even in a city covered over with cement. It couldn't help revealing what was underneath all of the smooth walkways and shear walls and neons signs we took for granted. We could put fences around all the plants in the city, but the caged trees lining our street would tell us what we really were: alive and thirsty, growing and rotting at the same time.
I found myself already down the steps to the walkway when I had that last thought, and it struck me as a little strange. Who could think of rotting on a fine day like this? The plants in the courtyard were speckled with rain and painted a dangerously deep shade of green that could be hiding almost anything. Each leaf and frond stood out perfect from the rest...almost uniform, like they'd been factory-assembled.
I stepped closer and felt an odd dip in my breath, like the kind children get when they approach the exhibit at the zoo that finally holds what they're most afraid of. Maybe the lion wasn't enough to scare them, or the gigantic snakes, but the insects are too much. Too many legs, or bisected eyes, or hungry mouths. And deep down the heart of your fear is thinking: "Surely God would not allow something like this to be real, not if He loved us."
But these were just plants. Nothing that hungered for life, like Venus flytraps. Nothing exotic and devious, like Pitcher plants full of digestive acids, waiting for the hapless insects to get too close and slip inside. Just the same nameless bushy array that filled apartment planters everywhere in California with shapes that were vaguely tropical and beachy. Like every open courtyard was a stage just waiting to play out the California Life that never was.
Except that this vegetation was too waxy and lush and perfect. I found myself looking for the joints where plastic plants fit together with their bases, connecting stems with flowers into a whole that's as stiff and posed as a corpse at a funeral. I couldn't find them, but they had to be there. I felt a sweep of blood course through my arms and legs, ready to grab a few handfuls out of the dirt to find a cube of plastic or maybe collection of stems held in a rubber band where roots should be.
It was sickening, maddening. Insane.
I was suddenly aware that I'd been standing at the threshold of a planter I usually walked through on the way to the path on the other side, standing with my hands clenched and my shoulders hunched at attention for God knows how many minutes. In a building with as many people as mine, there was always someone watching.
Except tonight. I felt my head swivel from right to left, slow as a camera in a film, sweeping over the pathways that ran through the complex like the shoddy veins and byways in an old woman's legs, cracked uneven by trees, worn away in out of the way places. No movement. No eyes. Lights, but no one seemed to be home.
I stepped back from the planter, ready to force myself the long way around when a neighbor's kid came wandering around a corner. A small voice in my soul sighed gratitude; I could stop this craziness, I could get moving down the block until I forgot about it altogether. My stomach would release its tight protective knot. Maybe I could get pizza on the way back.
Pizza was the most sane thing I had thought about all day. Maybe all week.
I zipped up my jacket and patted myself down in search of the walking gear I stored across various pockets: keys, cash, phone, lip balm. Check, check, and check. My blood seemed to flow back into my body and I even readied a smile for the kid, who was just old enough to resent being called "kid," but just teen enough to classify as one. The utter normalcy of his hunched shoulders and downcast head (covered by the droop of a hood he probably thought was gangsta) was all it took to make the smile genuine. Oh for those glory days, gone in the wink of a young girl's eye! This kid had probably never heard of Springsteen.
As we neared, something in the gears of the world seemed to slow so that every detail would stand out in its impossible perfection. He lifted up his eyes, and there was a surly undertone in his gaze, a confrontation waiting to happen - but it wasn't real. It's not just that his anger wasn't meant for me. It was a programmed response, a default setting on a machine, like the power level in my microwave. I stared so deep into his pupils that I could have fallen into them and I saw nothing,nothing behind them. His lashes were too long, his skin surely too clear for a boy his age. Fake. He was fake. Like a mannequin treading the world in hundred dollar shoes.
I almost stepped away in shock, but by that point he'd moved on down the lane. My heart lurched as I glanced back at him, and I could hear it pumping as I hurried to the front gate. The lobby area was an ugly space, a bottleneck of broken angles and shut doorways lit by fluorescents that chased the shadows away. But the shadows were waiting anyway, growing in the gathering dusk outside. The street lights glowed with serene halos beyond the glass doorway and I chased them down the block a ways.
Cars passed and turned and stopped like always. People ventured the streets while it was still bearable, because in a couple of hours it would be truly cold, or what Californians thought of as truly cold. Maybe cold enough to make the nipples on their false breasts tingle with some life again? Cold enough to sting the insides of their sculpted noses, cold enough to close their puffed lips over their bleached teeth. A girl came wandering toward me with hair colored a shade of red that had never been found in nature, except perhaps in venomous jungle animals warning others to flee. Her limbs were an assortment of cubes and circles, and her boyish hips made her jerk forward slightly, like a nutcracker out of time with the chorus.
I gave her a wide berth. I didn't understand her, or the couple walking hand-in-hand across the street. Surely they knew that normal people didn't walk so perfectly in step with each other. Someone is always a little off cue, a little behind or ahead or to the side, dominant or passive or removed. Headlights swept over their faces, which had been molded by time to look too much alike. They could have been brother and sister, passing through the night like lovers or ancient gods who could bone their sisters so long as the world came out of it.
I veered suddenly into the welcoming light of the pizza parlor, as would any parishioner seeking respite. The little storefront was tightly designed and proportioned, without a foot to spare in any direction, but it was neat and clean and the man at the counter smiled. I automatically responded to the flash of teeth and then flitted my eyes to the menu board above and behind his head. If I could just concentrate on it, maybe the horrible night would end in a burst of Italian spices.
"Can I get a white pizza please, with extra garlic and a two liter of Coke?" a voice asked from far away. I knew it was mine, but it sounded canned, or maybe measured is the better word. It was my Polite Voice. My Down to Business Like the World Isn't Coming Apart voice.
"Is Pepsi okay?" he responded, in a polite tone that was warmer and better measured than mine. Soothing, even though he was asking a question I usually hated.
"Sure." From the corners of my eyes I saw him typing my order into the cash register, so I strolled back to the front windows to wait and pulled out my phone before he could expect me to meet his gaze.
I wasn't going to call anyone. I wasn't sure I could bear their voices talking at me about whatever was on their minds like it didn't matter who was listening or what the replies would be, as long as they kept wearing down the same grooves as the day before. I batted aside automated reminders about the texts that were waiting in line, pouring in from the same few people about the same few things. They could be pre-written texts half the time and who would know the difference?
I scrolled blindly through the menu options and wondered about the last time I heard a genuinely new human thought. Or had I ever? Was there such a thing as déjà vu when you had always been there before? Was there such a thing as friendship when people only talked to you so their voices would bounce back at them when they spoke?
The first icy bead of sweat trailed down my brow into the neck of my shirt, making me aware of how warm it was in the radius of the pizza ovens, where the register guy was getting ready to extract a pie. I darted a glance over at the couple leaning against each other in the other corner of the shop, and what started as a quick look turned into slow blinking. Their arms were ropes of dough slung around lumpy limbs encased in clothes. Their faces were almost indistinguishable as they pressed together, pressing their features out of shape as they kissed and slavered and gnawed at each other.
I stood in a frozen prison of sweat and caught an unbearable whiff of the fresh pie sizzling from the pit. Sizzling bits of flesh.
From the sight of their jaws gently working came the sounds of passionate chewing, chewing, chewing, though all they had to chew on was each other. But wasn't that love, really? Devouring, digesting, excreting, reforming...
My stomach lurched up in a wash of tangy acid against my teeth, and I stumbled out the door in time to spray the sidewalk outside with a mist of green. My guts ached so much that I didn't dare go back or look to see if the couple had disengaged themselves in concern for another human being, or if they had eaten each other's tongues and left bloody maws behind where lips should be. I ran.
Somewhere along the line I lost my phone and my knitted hat, but I kept my keys and almost broke one trying to get my front door open. By that point all I could think was: Please God let me shut them out. Please God let me shut them out until I'm okay again.
I stepped on a cat's inquiring appendage as I stumbled into the room and pawed for the lights, and it ran a few leagues before stopping to stare blamefully at me. Glass eyes and gleaming hairs, not even a step away from a taxidermist's recreation. It might as well already be dead.
I backed away into the bathroom and locked the door before bothering with lights. All I could hear was my breath and my heart. In and out. Lub and dub. The sounds of the machine. I was shaking when I flicked the switch and still trembling when I turned to the full mirror above the sink.
Had I ever seen myself before? In the school photographs, during morning ablutions, anywhere? Had anyone else ever noticed the girl formed out of bedsheets and stuffed with pillow innards, bedecked with a crown of thick rope-like doll hair? Held together with the pajamas I wore the night I had the worst nightmare of my life - the night the big bad wolf came in and swallowed me whole?
Had it been a dream?
I walked up to the sink serenely and reached out to the cool glass. When I pulled my hand back, I saw that my flesh was the bedsheet pattern that I laid in that night so long ago, back during the days when I was ten years old and wondering who conducted the cloud orchestra. Another me. The girl I used to be ended on those pillows. She left in the wolf's belly, when he crossed the bedroom door, and there I lay for the rest of the night, shivering from a dream.
No dream. She was real - and I was not.
The world snapped back into place, almost as though it had finally been stretched to its limit and returned to its former shape. Another wave of nausea struck, and I closed my eyes waiting for it to pass. My hands clung to the lip of the sink as I stood and prayed that when I looked at the world again, it would finally make sense.
And I got my wish. The wicked spell was broken! I calmly regarded the mirror, opened the door, and saw the perfectly inquisitive face of my cat staring up at me, as if to say: "Are you satisfied?" How could I not be? At last I had an answer for the disconnection in everything, the strange breaks and silences, the world that seemed so perfect but wasn't.
When I went to sleep, I dreamed of the girl who had my face first, before I was given a copy torn out of blankets. She was naked and battered and covered in scratches that had surely been made in hell. But she was also stumbling onto a real street with her arms crossed over her breasts, trying to call for help from a passing car with whatever voice she had left. If someone helped her, she would live. If she lived, she would find out about me and come to kill me.
But if I killed her first, I would finally be real - and she would finally be at peace.
I know exactly what I have to do now that I'm finally awake.
And I'm still enough like her to wonder who's been conducting the storm that's coming my way.
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