by Brittany Pyle
Two baby girls were born to a mother who had no audience.
“Her blood type is the same as yours,” the doctors said on each occasion. “O negative, universal donors, but you can only receive from each other.”
Each time, four years apart, she rendered a fancy scene to the hospital staff of the girls’ father. He was away on business for his very prestigious job. Out of the excuses she had collected, she liked that one best.
Issue #96 soundtrack: Hailey Wojcik "XO, Skeleton"
When my father got the news of his own father’s death, he was despondent. He had never known him, but had assumed their paths would cross eventually. He told my mother he would like to spend some time alone. His work friend had a cabin that he could stay at for the weekend. My mother wanted to share this grief. Instead she pulled out his suitcase.
After a week had passed, my mother told little Me that we should go up to visit him. We drove through two meal times, through winding roads in slushy snow. When we pulled up a driveway, she came around and unsnapped my car seat.
There was a light on in the window at the side of the house. Our crunching footsteps were the only sounds in the darkness. Mom pushed the front door open with ease.
“We’re here!” I called out triumphantly, stamping out my rubber boots. We looked around. We didn’t see him anywhere. Still holding my mittened hand, Mom called for him. We walked towards the back room, where a slice of yellow light crept from under the door. My heart pounded. Mom pushed open the door.
What we saw was monstrous. In the center of the room, the bed was alive. Under the patterned sheets, spines made hills and valleys. Growling filled my ears. It was unbearable.
“Daddy?” I cried, looking to my mother to act. My mother swung me into her arms. We fled to the car. As my cheeks hit cold air, I felt that she was saving me, and Dad was lost to us forever.
After my parents divorced, my dad would take my sister and me on his dates with new women. They were young but smelled musty. They looked nothing like our mother. One girl dressed like Pocahontas, with leather-tasseled tops and feather earrings, a look I could appreciate at seven. The crack between her front teeth was discolored.
“Do you girls care if I smoke?” asked Pocahontas as she rolled down the car window. I said nothing. My sister stared at her with baby doll eyes from the backseat.
Dad’s new backyard was unexciting. Barren patches of dirt sprawled across the lawn. Yellow grass poked around the fence. A grill sat on the cement slab. A Fisher-Price swing from the previous owners hung from the branch of the sole tree.
“What do you want to play?” my sister Jessica asked, kicking a rock in her lavender windbreaker.
“Do you see that?” I squinted at movement in the back corner of the yard.
We skipped out to it, crouching to find a tiny brown rabbit. “It’s a baby bunny!” Jessica squealed.
“It’s hurt,” I told her. Rapid breath shuddered against its bloody underbelly. “A cat must have got it.”
Jessica looked to me for an answer. “Let me show you a trick I learned,” I told her.
Behind us, Dad had stepped out from the patio door, quietly observing.
I pulled a safety pin from my coat pocket. “You see what you do is,” I began as I pricked the end of my index finger with the needle. I squeezed the ends and let it drip over the belly of the rabbit.
“Do you want to do it, too?” I asked her.
She pouted in deliberation. Before she could decide, I snatched her left hand and pricked it hard, holding it over the rabbit by force.
“You’re hurting me!” she cried.
“Hey! What’s going on here?” Dad called as he came upon us.
We looked up at him as the rabbit bounded away from us, full of life, beyond the chain link fence.
Somehow Dad’s seedy women found out, or maybe he told them, about the liquid gold that flowed through the veins of his daughters.
After weekend visitations at Dad’s house, our mom began taking note of the Care Bears Band-Aids that were cropping up on obvious places first, like knees and elbows.
“Girls, you shouldn’t be playing so rough,” she would say with furrowed brow, caressing our doughy limbs.
Dad would come in to tell us good night in the double bed we shared in his house. He perched on the edge closest to me. The sheets felt scratchy and unfamiliar.
“Come on, turn off the radio now,” he said, his face illuminated by the plastic glowing orb on the bedside table. “Let me see your arm.”
Silver and glass glinted in Dad’s paws, and it pinched above the dead part of my elbow.
“Ow,” I objected.
In a calm voice, he instructed me to lie still as he squeezed bits of my skin together. “There,” he finalized as he kissed the spot. “Now Jessica.”
“Goodnight, little bunnies,” he called as we compared our freshly laid Care Bears body art.
We saw more of Pocahontas than the other girls after a while. One day I walked in on her in the bathroom. The counter was littered with hairspray canisters, blush brushes, and other strange vials of dark liquid. She was standing at the sink, looking at herself in the mirror and rubbing her sun-spotted face.
“Will you put some makeup on me too?” I asked as I sidled up to her.
She looked down at me, confused.
She seemed to realize something. She began to laugh. Her low rumbling gained fuel, and soon she was in hysterics. Her eyes filled with laughing tears as she continued to rub her trembling hands under her nose, gasping. I stood transfixed.
Shaking gradually into silence, she looked at my mirror self. Her hands fell to the countertop, revealing sticky red smears from her nostrils and the corners of her lips. My stomach turned.
“Get out of the bathroom, kid, before I show you Bloody Mary.”
“Grocery shopping?” Mom shouted, challenging my father’s story. “Why couldn’t they have brought you home before ‘grocery shopping’? What stores are even open right now? Where are you?”
I tugged on the metallic cord. “I don’t know, a payphone.”
“Is Jessica with you? Where is your dad? Put him on the phone right now.”
I looked up at the crumbling building into which they’d disappeared. I fanned the pages of the water-warped telephone book. “He told me to call you. He gave me the quarters.”
My fifteenth birthday party was spent at the bowling alley. All of us were heavily perfumed with Lucky You, nauseating our lane neighbors.
“Did you notice that Tommy Duke is here with those guys?” Ally gestured with her chin as she stood poised with a neon bowling ball. It was true—across the room sat the lone figure of Tommy Duke, slouched with elbows on knees, dark gaze fixed on our Lane 3. He unnerved me.
“You know he’s like obsessed with you,” Ally hissed at me.
“He is not,” I muttered, half-looking.
“He’s a freaking weirdo anyway. Remember when he killed that rat in Science last year?”
Jackie looked thoughtful. “I thought it was kind of an accident?”
Ally cast her ball with precision. “It would be hilarious if we told him to come over and kiss you, you know, for your birthday. I bet he would do it.”
“Don’t even,” I said.
I thought about Tommy Duke in ways my friends wouldn’t understand. He consumed me. He had an emotional telepathy zeroed in on me, a gift of x-ray perception. He knew my secret. It was like he and I were the only people who breathed air and felt the pang of history.
One homeroom in January, Tommy Duke made a pointed decision to sit down beside me. He greeted me briefly, but left our conversation suspended for several minutes, deliberating his next words.
I noticed he was rolling up the sleeve on his left arm. He kept it in the shadow of the desk, but I could make out the thin red dashes webbing across his skin in an arbitrary yet complex design.
“I’ve been telling people I slipped on ice, but really I have a pocket knife,” he whispered as he made slashing motions with two fingers.
His gaze never left my face. He raised an eyebrow, expectantly. After a moment, I carefully slipped a pair of scissors from my zippered pencil bag. I opened my own forearm with a quick, simple tear. I wiped it up with my fingers and reached across the aisle, delicately applying the love of a hundred years lived.
I looked up to meet his eyes. He was grinning.
Tommy Duke was the son of religious radicals. His mother wore long, unshorn hair with dresses that swept the floor. “Women shall not wear that which pertaineth unto man,” Tommy’s father would recite with an air of finality. The absence of television in the home, along with any unapproved media, motivated Tommy to get good at stealing. He longed to play team sports. His grandmother picked him up at school every day in a pale blue sedan, surveying his exit.
He would call my bedroom phone at 3:45. We would talk breathlessly, pushing our conversation until the last moment he was unmonitored. We whispered goodbyes.
On a golden April Thursday, he left a note in my locker. He had written in slow, deliberate cursive.
“There’s someone I like being with, the only one who understands me and listens to my thoughts and problems. The one who has proven again and again she’s there for me. Sometimes I worry that one day she’ll wake up and forget about me. One day I’m going to be out, able to do things I can’t do now. When that day comes, I’ll know who to come looking for. I’ve never said this to anyone, but I love her.”
A few months later Tommy Duke’s father permitted him to drive his grandmother’s old car. In the same day, I became a passenger.
August was still muggy at night and the windows fogged easily, veiling us from the outside world. Tommy breathed a question into my ear, his voice shaking. I confessed the most dauntless love for any person of any age, enough to make up for his family, enough to make up for his restrictions, enough to make up for his shame. My shoulder blades and vertebrae paid no mind to their strange relationship to the car frame. My veins vibrated, their power realized.
“Oh my god,” Tommy said after many moments of silence.
“What?” I craned my neck to find his line of sight.
He was sitting up now. “What the fuck? Oh… oh… fucking shit!” he began to wail.
“What!” I demanded. He was grasping for clothing on the floorboard.
“You… your blood is all over this car seat! What am I… Are you fucking serious?”
After his hundredth corporal punishment and subsequent grounding, the bulk of my relationship with Tommy was spent at our isolated lunch room table. Ally and Jackie had long ago tired of my devotion to a pariah, and they could be found chatting merrily near the windows with girls from the volleyball team.
“Oh, I got these for you yesterday.” I rustled in my bag with practiced nonchalance and produced two CDs with Parental Advisory stickers.
“Nelly, Eminem, nice!” he said, the approval of a mentor.
We continued eating in unnatural silence.
“So, I went over to Elena’s house yesterday,” Tommy began.
“Elena Ross? I didn’t know you two were friends.” A familiar Tommy-induced tremor seized my legs.
“Yeah, well, I had to tell my parents I was going to Mike’s house, obviously, but yeah, we’re friends.”
He said nothing else. I despaired over how to find out what I wanted to know. “What, um, did you guys do exactly?” I asked finally.
“If you must know, some stuff happened, but I don’t want you to freak out. It was basically nothing. Don’t look like that,” he scolded. “You know how I feel about you. I just felt like, I don’t get many opportunities, you know? To be a normal guy? So I mean, it was just for the hell of it. Elena’s a total slut and she was offering. You won’t be jealous over this, will you?”
My stomach roiled. Careful responses. I wanted to keep him. “ You’ve never snuck over to my house,” I offered quietly. “You never invited me,” he said plainly.
The first time Tommy snuck over to my house was a Sunday afternoon. Fortuitously, I was home alone, with Mom running errands and Jessica at a friend’s house. He was visibly upset. Without much exchange, I ushered him in and he followed me down the dark hall to my room.
“This is my room,” I gestured, suddenly conscious of the boy band posters I taped up two years ago.
He sat on the foot of my bed. “So, how’s this for your average weekend? I was basically exorcised this morning,” he delivered like a joke, but his voice was strange.
“What?” I felt stupid, not getting it, confusing his wording for exercise.
“My parents wanted to make an example of me at church. All of my problems, my ‘complete deviance,’ they said. There were like twenty people laying their hands on me, shouting, speaking in tongues. Which is basically like gibberish.”
I noticed his hands shaking and my understanding sank in. I pictured Linda Blair, projectile puke. “You mean, they tried to perform an exorcism on you?”
“It was so fucked.”
I sat down next to him and embraced him with urgency. My fingers entwined his hair and I kissed the place where his neck met shoulder. We reclined onto my bedspread.
He brought my hand to his mouth and kissed it delicately. “Can I please? I will feel so much better.”
He bit down hard on my wrist. I stared at the ceiling fan as everything went hazy; a lurid bliss from yielding to someone who needed me.
The sophomore class rode the school bus home one night from a field trip to the city. Tommy Duke and I sat together on a bench near the back, shoulders touching. Brian Allen sat diagonally from us, tossing paper wads back and forth with his friends. Brian’s family owned our town’s grocery store. He was on the honor roll. He was friendly. His girlfriend Jenna, who sat beside him, was pretty and aloof. In the sharing of our histories, Tommy had confessed his childhood fascination with Jenna. Because of this fact, paired with Brian’s achievements, or perhaps his freedom to achieve, Tommy despised Brian Allen. He stared at them from our seat.
The bus rolled up to the school at 10pm, diesel engine throbbing as we filed out.
“I’m just going to run in to get my homework from my locker,” I explained to Tommy, the usual charting my coordinates to him. He stood motionless as I left the crowd.
The halls looked uncanny with the lights off. I jogged down the main corridor, turned right at the staircase, and made for my locker. I squinted at the combination lock.
After the metal slam, I heard muffled voices by the front stairwell. I slowed my pace, peering around the corner in the direction of sound. I saw shadowed figures, five people, at the base of the stairs.
“You are such a piece of shit, you know that?” It was Tommy’s voice. It was thin and high, contorted.
“What the fuck brought this on?” Brian Allen laughed.
“You walk around like you’re hot shit, like you’re untouchable. I know you’re a goddamn pussy,” Tommy spat.
Brian Allen put up both hands, feigning white flags. “Looks like we’ve got a psycho over here, boys!”
The group laughed.
Tommy flung into him, pinning Brian against the cinder block wall. His fists flew against Brian’s face, but the position was short lived. The other boys reacted. Light from the streetlamp caught Tommy’s face as they threw him to the floor. They kicked and punched. A hollow crack sounded against tile.
Heat tore across my chest, wedging my voice into its depths. I saw a body give a final swift kick to Tommy’s face, and a dark stream splattered across the floor. I began to sob.
They stopped. The four standing figures watched silently as Tommy righted himself to a sitting position.
“What do you have to say for yourself, psycho?” one boy asked.
Tommy smiled slowly at them. Blood from his nostrils circled his mouth. His voice was eerily controlled now, soft and intent. “Come on, fellas. Can’t you take a joke?”
After what felt like hours I left through the front lobby. I didn’t want to humiliate him. He would know I had seen it.
I saw Tommy slumped against the bike racks, staring at the ground. I hesitated. I knew I couldn’t go home in secrecy. I approached him and sat down at his side, silent.
I could tell he had been crying. His face was shadowed. I reached to touch his hair, his beautiful head, as tears blurred my vision. He let me do it without responding. I returned my hand to my lap.
Suddenly his voice broke, a pitiful, foreign sound.
“He has everything I want. I have nothing.”
I wanted to share this grief. Instead I pulled on my book bag.
When my dad became very old and frail, I went to see him. It felt strange because we didn’t know each other very well. Big gaps of our lives never in his memories, missing like teeth. I had no reason to believe he loved us. Despite it, I still felt ashamed.
“You girls were the best things I made in my life,” he said to me, like a compliment.
On nights we needed comfort, our mom would sing to us before bed. Perched to the side, one hand lightly caressing our backs or bellies or palms, she would recall lullabies and Sunday School hymns. She had a good voice—simple and lilting, not showy.
The night our dad returned us so late, the night of the payphone, was a turning point. When we pulled into the drive, our mother raced out to the front yard, ushering us out of the car as rage pummeled into the thick night air. She and my dad screamed and swore, their voices thunder beyond the trees. Jessica went in, crying, but I stayed out, crying, thinking my presence would keep things together somehow.
After my dad drove away, Pocahontas’s hair whipping out the window, I don’t remember much until we were back in our bedroom. She had lulled Jessica to sleep, and I was waiting for her to come to me.
When she sat down, I looked up at her, and she looked at me. She was crying. I think she regretted that she couldn’t protect me, that I was already changed.
Through her tears, throat thick, she began an old song.
If I needed you
Would you come to me
Would you come to me
And ease my pain?
If you needed me
I would come to you
I would swim the seas
For to ease your pain
As she sang, I let my fingers clasp her slender wrist. I felt her pulse, pumping heat through her heart and through her limbs and through me.
“Mom?” I began.
“We are trying,” she answered softly.
I didn’t know if she meant she and my dad, or she and me.
Brittany Pyle is a writer and a multimedia artist living in Chicago. She holds a BFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has exhibited photography, video, and installation work throughout Illinois, and her last short fiction piece, Onarga, was published in WhiskeyPaper. She works for the Chicago Humanities Festival. Visit her online at brittanypyle.com.
Julius Kalamarz received his MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. His writing and artwork have appeared online and in print in DIAGRAM, Opium Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, >kill author, Ninth Letter, Black & BLUE, DEAR SIR, and elsewhere. PIROULETTE (2011) an automatic last words generator (LCD screen, wood) was exhibited in Apexart's, "Let It End Like This," curated by Todd Zuniga. AVENIR (24 boxed postcards based on the work of Yves Klein) was published as Object 009 in the ZIMZALLA Avant Object Series. His work was exhibited in ILLUMINATIONS at the Crypt Gallery in London (2014) and in the ZIMZALLA show at the Hardy Tree Gallery in London (2014). For more, visit the artist on Twitter, Tumblr, and at bunnycrowd.com.
Hailey Wojcik's new EP, Book of Beasts, drops on cassette March 3rd with Wiener Records and digitally on Bandcamp. Hailey engineered and produced the majority of the EP by herself in the south of France, and completed it in Michigan and Brooklyn with drummer Brian Viglione. She has co-directed several music videos, many of which included her own stop-motion animation. Her debut album, Diorama, was produced by Dan Romer in 2010. In the intervening years since releasing Diorama, Hailey pursued a side project, the garage rock two-piece, WOJCIK, which released an eponymous EP and an LP entitled Wise Blood, in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Catch her on tour now with The Shondes. For more, follow Hailey on Facebook, Bandcamp, and Tumblr.