Posts Tagged ‘horror’

On The Nickel

A cruel sun broke hard over the city skyline, giving no quarter to the hope of a gentle birth to this new day. Ripples of heat shimmered along the pavement, releasing the acrid stink of urine that carpeted the ground with a low-lying fog and in the tents, lean-tos, cardboard boxes and draped tarps, life rumbled and coughed, stretched and farted, sneezed and cursed, as Fifth Street awakened, or at least regained consciousness from having survived another long, desperate night. Soon, the air was filled with shouts and accusations, cries and curses, the language of poverty’s jungle.

Crows sat upon the power lines overhead, cawing their accusations, their judgments, to whatever ears might be listening, fixing their eyes on the sleek, glistening rats that meandered through the gutter, picking through the accumulated garbage for a few scraps of food. The crows watched the rats intently; if a choice piece of anything looked promising, they would drop down and take what was theirs. If the rats didn’t scatter, they might find themselves plucked from the earth and taken for food, for the crows knew to take a rat high, so high, and then simply let go. After gravity had taken its turn, the burst-open carcass made for a fine breakfast.

On the Row, or The Nickel, as it was called, there was no easy transition from night to day, no gentle awakening; rather, the scramble for sustenance began anew, for there were aching bellies to be fed, and dangerous habits demanded attention, life-or-death cravings that demanded fulfillment, needs that must be sustained, old grudges and hurts that defied time and reason, that started anew, their pain and resentment digging ever deeper into the shattered mind of the bearer.

In amongst the maze of makeshift habitats, inside an old military surplus tent that seemed impossibly old, Crying Mary blinked away the crusted dirt at the corners of her eyes, although she hadn’t slept. She lay under a filthy blanket, sweating already as the morning sun turned the canvas shelter into a convection oven, her head resting on the chest of the man lying next to her, rising and falling with his fitful breathing, listening to the staccato rhythm of his heart, her hand tracing an intricate and familiar pattern on the bare skin of his abdomen, fingernails wet with blood as she quietly, calmly, dug into him, so gently as to not disturb his restless slumber. Her nails, so sharp, passing through each layer of skin, then into the spongy yellow fat, pausing for a moment before making her way into the tougher muscle.

As with most drifters this man, whatever his name, had a fair amount of muscle hidden below the fat, the result of so many fights and flights, decades of hard living, and countless beatings. This was a man who had slept on concrete for much of his life, whether on the street or in a cell, and living like this toughens a person, makes the meat rich and dark. The man stirred, his brow furrowed as if in concentration or, more likely, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but had yet to announce itself. Mary froze in place, eyes open and watching his face, looking to see if he would awaken and, in doing so, ruining this most intimate of moments. For what he had done with her that night, for what he had done to her, he had earned this many times over. Soon enough, he settled back into slumber and she continued.

Her fingernails like scalpels, Mary slipped through the striated layers of muscle, delicately working her hand into his abdominal cavity, feeling his warmth, his electricity, her forearm gradually disappearing into him as she gently, so very gently, made her way upward to the center of his being, the engine of his damnable machine. Delicately, with all the care of a mother cradling her newborn, her fingers encircled his heart.

It was then that Crying Mary smiled, an unsettling sight under the best of circumstances. Her long, dark hair was matted and wild, as though it had never known comb or brush. Falling from the corners of both eyes were tattooed teardrops, too many to count, cascading down her cheeks like rain, jailhouse tattoos from an eternity of transgressions, thousands of nights spent without sight of the moon, the screams and cries of other inmates poorly taking the place of the crickets and bullfrogs of her youth, so many lifetimes ago. Opinions on Mary’s tears varied: some said each tear represented a prison stay, while others claimed the tears indicated lives taken, while still others claimed that the tears were symbolic of much darker deeds, things that go unmentioned even among this salty and seasoned group of travelers. That each tear was a different color only added to the depth of the impromptu mythology that had sprouted up around her.

One thing upon which all agreed was that one would never dare look directly at Crying Mary’s tears; to do so, it was rumored, would wreak a fate worse than those who dared gaze upon Medusa, that turning to stone would be preferable to being caught staring, and to stare would be the most common and understandable reaction to seeing Mary, especially for the first time. To add to matters, Mary stood well over six feet and her man, the whereabouts of whom was also cause for great speculation, was rumored to stand even taller. Some, who claimed to have met him, said in hushed whispers that Dead Henry, as he was called, was older than time, and others murmured that he himself was a demon, ejected from Hell for being too wicked.

Mary’s face also carried scars, as did her left arm, from a night long ago when two frat boys on a dare, drove into the Row, and looked for a homeless person to set fire to. For their sins, they had made the mistake of picking Mary, whose peace had been interrupted with the sharp stink of gasoline, a moment before the match dropped. She had burned, but her pain was nothing compared to the hell she unleashed upon the drunken boys. She had lost her mind during her assault on them, and had landed in the county mental ward for almost a year, all but braindead under the barrage of drugs being pumped into her system. Eventually she was pronounced ‘better,’ and released back onto the streets, all of which led, as they always will, to the Nickel. Still homeless, burned and broken, still alone, in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

In moments like this, Crying Mary’s heart longed for Henry, a yearning that stretched across a broken landscape of miles and an ocean of tears, and when she took a person, as she was about to, it was bittersweet in that she would not be able to share it with him. She was stronger than any ten men, and never forgot this simple truth; however, she felt incomplete without Henry, he was the one who made it all make sense. One day, she told herself.

One day.

Her fingers wrapped around the sleeping man’s heart, and she tugged lightly, causing him to stir. As his eyes opened and looked toward her, Mary stroked his forehead with her free hand, whispering quietly to him.

“Let this be a day of wonder, as I make this sacrifice to myself and my kin and as this man finds his way to the other side, let him know the true meaning of pain and fear, that I have held his heart and known the darkness it hides, that I have seen the things he has done, and that what comes next he has earned many times over.”

The man’s eyes opened wide at her words, the cold reality slicing through his mind, through the hazy years of drugs and booze, with a sobriety that shocked and horrified him. “Hey, wait – you wanted that stuff, you said so, afterward at least. I just did what you told me.”

“Hush now,” Crying Mary said, a beatific smile gracing her face. “This is what happens; it’s already done.”

She delicately slipped her middle finger between the aorta and pulmonary artery, gripped firmly and, with a single, savage motion, tore the man’s heart from his chest. When she held it before his eyes, it was still beating. “Your poorly-lived life can still have value,” she said quietly as comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes, even as the light of life faded from them.

Mary stuffed the dead man’s heart into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing whole chunks as if it were the first food she’d had in years, as blood spilled from her lips and down her chin, savoring the coppery taste upon her tongue. As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Later, after Mary had packed him away in a dumpster and rolled up her tent, she stood on the stained and filthy sidewalk of Skid Row, breathing deeply and tasting myriad scents that the street offered up, dark and delightful, reeking and filled with sin. She stuffed her tent deep into the shopping cart she used to carry her belongings and, for a moment, looked up at the crows perched on the power lines above, and winked while pressing a bloody finger to her lips.

Singing quietly off-key to herself, Crying Mary shuffled down the street, pushing the cart in front of her, into the bright light of a new day.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but I always will be true, and when your mama’s dead and gone, I’ll sing this lullaby just for you…”

maxresdefaultA once-fabulous mansion in decline, its worn vestiges of better times heartbreakingly reflected in the deep shadows of its spider-webbed corners. A large 1930s home in a quiet, upscale suburb, hiding a lifetime of pain and dark secrets. The sprawling landscape of Hollywood is littered with broken dreams and ruined lives; the never-were scrambling for a chance at making their mark, while the has-beens fall into obscurity, earning, at best, a footnote in the clutter of contemporary American culture.

The movie industry is a particularly cruel business; everyone involved is just one flop, one bad review, away from ruin, a concept that most of us will never understand. We live our lives within our small circle of friends and family and, except in cases of abuse or neglect, that is where we stay: unknown to most, close to a few, in simple, manageable lives. For those who have tasted and enjoyed stardom, however, to be unknown is akin to being dead, but without the relative comfort of eternal rest and a marker at Forest Lawn.

In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), struggling writer Joe Gillis makes a fateful turn into a driveway while evading repo men, and finds himself propelled into the world of Norma Desmond, once the darling of film’s silent era, “the greatest star of them all,” as she puts it. As happened with countless others, Desmond’s career came to an abrupt end when the film industry changed over to talking pictures.

Protected from the outside world by the remains of her fortune and her loyal servant Max, Norma Desmond surrounds herself with memories, both real and imagined, blissfully unaware that she is all but forgotten in 1950 Hollywood. Seeing an opportunity with the young writer who falls into her life, Norma plots her return to the silver screen, with a script she has spent the last several decades writing. Gillis sees in Norma Desmond a chance to make some money and get ahead of his debts, because her script is, predictably, awful, not least because the fifty-one-year-old actress wants to play the role of Salome herself, despite the three-decade gap in age.

In her efforts to defy the advancement of time, Norma surrounds herself with past associates from the silent era, diligently applying her makeup to stave off the evidence of age, and re-watching her old films, night after night. Her sense of fashion is thirty years out of date, and we readily see that she is living in a time capsule, a safe place far from the world that has long since forgotten her. She is as much a prisoner in her world as Joe Gillis, bound by her delusions and an intricate web of dependency and lies, as real as the fan letters she continues to receive.

Gillis soon finds himself a captive in Norma’s world, seduced by the gifts she lavishes upon him, the convenience that her money provides. He becomes essentially a kept man, unable to break away for the sake of Norma’s fragile grip on her version of reality, as he discovers that his benefactor’s sanity is a delicate balancing act, enabled and supported by Max, and the secrets that bind them. Norma Desmond desires is to be back in the spotlight, on the screen, to beg for the acceptance and forgiveness of the fans that she left so long ago, and incapable of accepting that time continued marching forward and she has been all but forgotten. When she is ultimately faced with the terrible truth, tragedy naturally prevails, as inevitably as night follows day.

As Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson gives the performance of a lifetime, and an ironic one as well. Swanson, who had been Paramount’s top star for six straight years during the silent era, had retired from film and moved to New York, where she worked in radio, and later, television. Swanson, however, understood that her time in film had passed, and was comfortable with this knowledge. It is notable that numerous silent film stars had been invited to a screening of Sunset Boulevard, and gave Swanson a standing ovation at the film’s end.

Sunset Boulevard holds a brutal mirror up to Hollywood, daring it to look itself in the eye and acknowledge its complicity in the using and discarding of lives, giving no support or counsel to those who fight the tide, or whose demons won’t go unheard.

Robert Aldrich’s film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), further examines the phenomena of those whom the world once adored, but then discarded, in a story as dark as Sunset Boulevard, but with the added elements of sibling warfare and toxic co-dependency.

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In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson is the darling of the vaudeville stage, while her sister Blanche watches from the sidelines, seething with resentment while their father gives all his love and attention to the spoiled, tyrannical Jane. By 1935, both sisters are working in Hollywood, but it is Blanche who is now the star while Jane has nothing but failure, despite Blanche’s demand that for every film she makes, the studio must make one for Jane as well. A drunken car crash leaves Blanche confined to a wheelchair, with Jane as her caretaker. Jane’s failure has turned her into a bitter lush, and whose grip on reality has become tenuous at best. By 1962, their already difficult relationship has turned dangerous: Jane’s psychosis has become more delusional and violent, while Blanche seems to have all but surrendered to her demented sister. As sibling dysfunction and the realities of aging pile up, the sisters rush headlong into an inevitable confrontation in which secrets and lies come to light, leaving neither woman untouched.

Each sister carries her own demons and responsibility for the events that have led them to this place in time, and neither is completely innocent. Davis plays Jane as a grotesquerie, a monstrous, raging gargoyle that dresses as she did in her childhood heyday, heavily piling on makeup in a vain attempt at covering the ravages of failure, alcohol, and hateful spite. There is, however, a delicate sorrow to her character, of which we are given glimpses as the story progresses. Jane Hudson has become a lost soul; forty-five years have passed since she was a star, and she appears to have no idea how the time has passed, and the damage it has done to her, forever trapped in the mind of a petulant, over-indulged child. It is a tour-de-force performance for Davis, which won her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Crawford, on the other hand, imbues Blanche with an almost noble, quiet dignity, enduring Jane’s viciousness with the grace and compassion that we would think could only come from true caring. Blanche is the rational adult of the two, looking out for Jane even as Jane’s attacks become increasingly violent and disturbing. We learn that while she wants to sell their house and find a place where Jane can receive the care that she needs, Blanche doesn’t appear to have any plans for herself, so deep is the love that she seems to have for her troubled sister. With time, we come to realize that Blanche may not be as loving and altruistic as she appears, and that deep secrets and hostility run on both sides of their bitter divide, and that this is perhaps a shared family trait, with neither sister having exclusive ownership of bitterness.

 At the heart of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? lies a story of family, and the damage that family can inflict upon itself. Who would put up with Jane’s constant abuse, if not a family member? Who would take charge of Blanche’s needs, if not a sibling? While these are admirable traits, family can oftentimes be a source of great discomfort and frustration, causing more pain than any stranger ever could, and enduring abuse that we would accept from no one. Family can be a fine and wonderful thing; it can also be a nightmare of dysfunction and heartbreak.

Like Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? examines the lament of the forgotten; whenever Jane is out in public, she compulsively asks whomever she is talking to if they know who she is, seemingly unaware of how much time has passed since she was popular, and dreams of returning to her former glory in a world that has moved on without her, in much the same way as Norma Desmond, but without the funds, direction, or backhanded support that Desmond enjoyedJane and Blanche Hudson are prisoners in their lives as much as Norma Desmond, their horrors are what connects them to us, and make no mistake: these are both horror films. The horror of growing old and being forgotten, of having no control over one’s life, of all-consuming, soul-destroying resentment and rage, of losing oneself to madness. The monsters in this film are very real, and all the more horrifying because of their familiarity to people we might know.

The streets and graveyards of Hollywood are filled with the lost and forgotten, those who couldn’t make the transition from from child star to adulthood, from silent to talkies, who had their shot at stardom and blew it, who never had a chance or a prayer, with no clue what to do as time marches mercilessly forward, and no protector to save them from themselves. Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are harsh indictments against an industry that prizes youth and beauty above all else, but it is also a judgment against us, the audience, for our capricious willingness to discard those whose dreams, whose desires, are to gain our acceptance and love, to make a name for themselves by making a place in our hearts.

 

thestandjpg-7125d8_1280wIn his epic 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King killed everything. An intensely aggressive form of influenza is accidentally released from a government research facility and one panicked guard escapes before quarantine is initiated. The guard spreads the plague, which grows exponentially, until 99.4% of the population is dead. Those who remain are alone or in splintered groups scattered across the United States, with a common thread. Many of them begin to have dreams: some dream of a kindly old woman in Nebraska, while others see a dark man in Las Vegas. Drifting aimlessly around the corpse of America, the paths of survivors eventually intersect and when it is realized that they are having the same dreams, the groups decide to travel to one of the two dreamed-about locations. The battle lines are being drawn; the time has come for humanity to make its stand, in the final war of good against evil.

While the story is one of survival in a radically changed landscape, it is also one of humanity lost and humanity found; each of the nearly thirty main and incidental characters faces a choice at some point in his or her journey, and it is these choices that ultimately dictate where they will land. The central protagonist, an East Texan called Stu Redman, is a good ol’ boy whose life is marked by tragedy and regret, and his mysterious immunity to the disease unfortunately lands him in a government research facility, located in Vermont. His experience in quarantine is truly nightmarish and through Redman, the reader is subjected to the horrors of isolation and confinement, of having no say in the course of one’s life, instead subjected to the poking and prodding of scientists who have no answer for his resistance to the illness. A frightening parallel could be made to the experiences of those who were subjected to imprisoned in concentration camps, whose minds and bodies were completely controlled by doctors whose motives were less than humane.

Other central characters include a rock star whose self-centered ways may be his ruination, a young expectant mother, a high-school boy whose resentment over being an outcast at school guides him bitterly but, in the new post-plague world, he has the chance to reinvent himself, provided he can leave the past behind. A sociology professor, a troubled woman with a dark secret, a developmentally disabled man, a young deaf-mute, a petty criminal, a schizophrenic pyromaniac, and numerous others round out a diverse cast, each of which have a past to contend with, and a future to decide.

While the characters are well-developed, as is common with King’s work, two particularly stand out: Harold Lauder, a sixteen-year-old whose intelligence and social awkwardness made him an outcast in the pre-plague world, and Donald Merwin Elbert (aka “Trashcan Man”), the aforementioned pyromaniac whose own troubled past appears inescapable and guides his actions, even when salvation is at hand. Like Arnie Cunningham in Christine, these two characters are incredibly well-written, both having significant paternal issues and episodes of being bullied and tormented at school, and the rage that fuels the actions of each. These characters are essential to the King canon, being possible extensions of his own childhood; indeed, bullies appear in nearly all of King’s works, and the ends that come to many of them reinforce the possibility that King may have been cathartically working out some issues.

Although published thirty-five years ago (with an extended version released in 1990, The Stand is eerily prescient with its themes of nuclear and biological warfare, governmental bungling, religious fanaticism, and police-state imagery. It is a cautionary tale for the ages, inviting the reader into an all-too real America in which each person must wade through their personal nightmares and pasts, and decide whether to take a stand, to make a claim for their own life and the direction in which they choose to take it.

In 1979, the paperback edition of The Stand noted that the book was soon to be made into a film by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead); however, after languishing in development for years, Romero dropped out and the plans were scuttled. In 1994, The Stand aired on television as an eight-hour (about six hours without commercials), four-part miniseries.

Long-time fans of King’s masterwork were split on their opinions, and for valid reasons: important characters were eliminated, unnecessarily changed or combined with others, plotlines were altered or abandoned, and the casting of actors was wildly uneven, ranging from brilliant to absurd. Fans rejoiced in the casting of Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman, Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen; the decision to have Rob Lowe portray Nick Andros was at first curious, but worked out well, while casting Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man was absolute, demented genius. However, the project was bogged down by the unfortunate casting of Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec as Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, Laura San Giacomo as Nadine Cross, Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid, and Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Ferrer was completely wrong for the part of the gullible, criminal man-child; Nemec carried none of Harold’s toxic rage or inner conflict; Ringwald made Frannie whining and weak, San Giacomo bumbled around, seemingly lost and, worst of all, Sheridan turned Flagg, the embodiment of death and destruction, possibly the Antichrist, into a leering caricature more suited for a soap opera.

The horrifying set pieces from the novel appear restricted by the small screen both in scope and in budget, their terror muted and sanitized for a general audience, and even the final confrontation, in which an enormous, angry mob draws together for a show trial, a final reckoning, during which all present must decide which side they stand on, comes off as a small gathering, carrying none of the gravity that it could and should have. Budgeted at twenty-eight million dollars (US), there simply wasn’t enough money to make The Stand as grand as it should have been, and eight hours did not give enough time to bring the book truly to life. Additionally, the sensibilities of 1994 did not allow ABC Television the freedom to bring much of The Stand’s horror and grimness to life, and many of the book’s themes were downplayed or muddled. Still, ABC made what appears to be an earnest attempt and, given the constraints under which they were working, one can forgive some of the decisions that were made.

That said, it has been reported that that Warner Brothers and CBS Films are developing a feature-length film adaptation of The Stand, and that it may be produced as a trilogy of films, with Ben Affleck at the helm. Given his recent run of successes and rebirth as a serious player in Hollywood, The Stand may yet make a transition to screen that will not only satisfy its lifelong fans, but also spur the uninitiated into taking on the dark nightmare of King’s epic masterpiece. The recent casting of Matthew McConaughey as the Main in Black (Randall Flagg)  in the big-screen adaptation of King’s Dark Tower, has many fans hoping that he will carry the role over to the new telling of The Stand; this writer thinks it would be a perfect match.

hornIt was doomed from the start, man. There had been six of us, and we were the masters of the universe, bulletproof and straight up gangster. You know the names already. What matters, what you have to understand, is that when we started that thing, we meant to do good. To be good, and to inspire others to do good, too.

We wanted what everyone else wants: respect, friends, love. We wanted to take the love to the people, to show them that there was nothing to fear, no reason to hide, that we weren’t the monsters so many of them thought we were. And for a while, it worked.

I was the face of the movement. I never bought into the whole ‘Sad Clown’ mindset; I felt that this life of mine should reflect the joy, the gleeful chaos that ensued whenever I walked into the tent. That’s what I was all about. Fucking joy, even if I wasn’t always feeling it. So there’s my mug, all happy smiles and arched eyebrows, bald cap over a bright green monk’s cowl. You know me. You’ve seen the posters and I know you watch the news.

So we would assemble, faces already in place, and we’d go in to the hospitals. Find the terminal kids and give them some laughs. That’s what most of us did, anyway. Captain Fancypants and Sparkles would slip away and find the place where they kept the good drugs, the serious narcotics, locked up. It’s not like it is now; in those days, it was just a closet, sometimes marked, sometimes not. Moe had huge pockets inside those baggy pants of his, and that son of a bitch could empty a pharmacy in seconds flat. By the time the pharmacist realized they’d been hit, we were already down the road and besides, who’d suspect a clown?

Then, and this is the important part, we’d take the drugs to the people who needed it. Not the junkies or the dealers, but the good people who were in serious pain and couldn’t afford a hospital visit or a costly prescription. Yes, we stole, but we did good with it. So much good. The problem is that the more we saw of the people in need, the angrier we got with those who held the purse strings, who kept the stuff out of the hands of the needy and in the hands of the entitled. We were like Robin Hood, but with rubber chickens instead of bow and arrow.

We eventually came to realize that the hospitals were small potatoes, that if we really wanted to make a difference, we’d have to hit the manufacturing facilities where the meds were made. So that’s what we did. I won’t bore you with the details of the plan, but it was brilliant. I thought it was, at least.

We hit the plant at midnight, figuring no one would be there. We were clowns, for Christ’s sake; what did we know about security at major pharmaceutical companies? Basic tools, nothing else, aside from the duffel bags. I had no idea that Twitch brought explosives, or why. What the fuck, why bring bangers on a night raid? I thought he’d left that behind in favor of Clown Life. Twitch always had that nervous energy about him, even when he was in makeup. Edgy, like an electrical current was running through him. So we break in through a side door, find our way to manufacturing and holy shit, there are mountains of boxes of pills, everything you could imagine, and a ton more that you couldn’t. I head straight for the antibiotics, knowing that there were folks up in the hills who needed them badly, so badly.

Working quickly, we filled our pockets and bags while Bananahead kept a lookout. The thing was, we didn’t know there was a night watchman. It wasn’t his fault. I didn’t think it was our fault either, but I know better now. These guys come through the door with flashlights in hand, maybe with guns drawn or maybe not, and the whole damn thing went sideways. Bananahead loses his shit and starts yelling about power to the people and fuck the system, like we’re the goddamn Weathermen or something, despite us all being in our goddamn clown suits. The guards didn’t know what the hell to do. They were laughing, but at the same time they knew something was wrong because it’s the middle of the damn night in a drug company warehouse and there’s five goddamn clowns screaming at him, screaming at each other, and then one of the clowns pulls a giant lighter out of his pants and sparks the fuse on a stick of dynamite and next thing you know, there’s blood all over the place and the night is wrecked, just fucking wrecked. It’s gone to shit, like Reservoir Dogs in greasepaint.

We’re standing there in a daze, and the poor security guards are dead, so obviously and violently dead, and scattered all over the place, Bananahead is covered in blood and gore, and Captain Fancypants is sitting on the floor, head in hands, weeping and sobbing like a baby and next thing I know, the night is filled with the screaming of sirens. The door is kicked in and suddenly Twitch is just gone, his head explodes in a spray of pink and red, and Sparkles is thrown backward by the force of a shotgun blast and then it’s just me, all the rest are dead, and all the guns are pointed at me, and they’re all shouting and all I can do is stand there, shit-the-pants terrified, but this goddamn smile painted on my face makes them think I’m getting off on this and I’m shouting and they’re shouting, and when I try to take a step my shoe squeaks and I slip in a puddle of someone’s blood and land on my ass, which sets off the whoopee cushion and I realize then that it’s all over, that my life’s work is ended, my passion dead, because of this.This hopeless, stupid mess.

I wanted to help people. I wanted to spread laughter and hope. I’m lost. My friends are dead, and I’m going to prison for a long time, the big vacation, and for a moment, everything stops and I’m reminded what my old friend and mentor, Dingles, told me, so many years ago.

“Kid, no matter what you do,” he said, dead serious with the stink of grain alcohol on his breath. “Don’t ever do no shit that’ll end you up behind bars. Bad things happen to a clown in jail. Permanent things, awful things. Trust me, I know.” He had shivered at the recollection, and a silent tear had slid down his painted face. He didn’t think people could see when he cried, and most couldn’t. But I could, every goddamn time. No one hurts quite like a clown.

I can’t go to prison, I know I won’t survive, that no mercy is shown for Red Nosers like me. I have no choice, this is my destiny, right here, right now. I say when is when and enough is enough. Looking back, I never had a chance; this life, clown life, chose me from the very start. This is who I am, what I am. I pull my knife and slash my own throat, real fast. The spray erupts from me like seltzer from a bottle. As the life drains out of me, I hear the cops laughing.

Life is good.

happiness-07All along the boardwalk, happy people and happy families wandered, enjoying the warm late summer sunshine that carried with it the faint but unmistakable light of the approaching autumn. The air was saturated with the smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels, and children scampered around their parents, playfully shrieking with the sense of unfettered freedom that only comes with the very young, a freedom that would be lost soon enough to the vagaries of adulthood. The parents knew this, as all adults do, and quietly mourned the loss of innocence that would one day fall upon their children, as surely as it had fallen upon them.

Music rang out softly from cleverly concealed speakers; 70s pop from bands whose names few remembered, but lyrics everyone knew, their contagious catchiness declaring with anthemic earnestness that happiness was only a heartbeat away, just one more kiss away, that her magical spell was working so well, and that all would be right on a Saturday night. A slight breeze off the ocean wafted past the revelers as they took in the sights and the sounds of one last weekend before the weather turned.

The town’s autumns were its best kept secret; known locally as “Second Summer,” it was the delicate span of two to three weeks after labor day, when all the tourists had gone back home, and the town again belonged to those who lived and worked there. The pace slowed, rules relaxed a bit, and a cheerful glow enveloped the strand along the beach. This was the time in which, as if by communal agreement, nothing happened, as per the unwritten code of the tourist towns across the country. In the absence of Them, all that remained was Us.

Hands held, arms around waists, moving at a pace that spoke of neither hurry nor worry, everyone just happy and content to be here, to be sharing the quiet joy of Fall, and even if something was lightly fouling the air, a faint whiff of what, decay maybe, it would pass soon enough and be as quickly forgotten. Except that to some, the smell was growing stronger, more pungent. More wrong.

A gasp arose from somewhere in the crowd, the sound repeating as others turned to see, a susurration of shock whose echo grew louder, instead of diminishing. Children cried, their mothers and fathers drawing them close with iron-gripped hands, shielding their eyes from what they had already seen, could never un-see, their childhoods crashing down around them like milk bottles in a rigged carnival game. The throng of people parted, not unlike the Red Sea, at the sight of the woman among them.

The woman, if she could even be called that anymore.

She staggered along the promenade, this ruined wreck of a human being, oblivious to the multitude staring at her. Barefoot, shambling toward an unknown destination, each step leaving a bloody smear on the ground, gangrenous toes the dark purple-green of putrefaction, the hem of her tattered sweatpants as filthy as the feet beneath them, the knees torn through and crusted with dried blood, suggesting a lifetime spent on her knees; a torn, sleeveless cardigan hung open, making no secret of the nakedness behind it, the awful, shameless bruising and open sores weeping sickly yellow pus and blood, and the arms, the terrible arms with countless scratches and scars, suggesting that she might have been a cutter, but even worse, much worse than that, were the blackened track marks that flowed down from the crooks of each arm, the wounds that had never closed, homemade tattoos unidentifiable now but staining the flesh for ever more.

But the left arm, it must have been a trick of the light, certainly that if nothing else, because the left forearm…the skin was rotting away, the radius and ulna brownish-white and exposed like a dirty secret for all the world to see, ragged flaps of desiccated skin and tendons hanging loosely, hardly any meat to cling to, just empty air, the hand, if indeed it was a hand, flopping limply at her side and wrapped in a towel soiled and dripping, no tissue to give it life, to give it motion. As the horror of the arm attempted to lodge itself in the minds of those who saw it, they were powerless as their eyes went to her face, which was perhaps the worst of all.

Her hair, which may once have been strawberry blond, was a dirty, matted mess, hanging in her face, but not enough to cover it, not nearly enough, for her face was a tattered roadmap of self-hatred and abuse of many types. Blood vessels had bust like fireworks in one eye, leaving the sclera red and angry, while the other eye, its pupil dilated, wandered about, searching everything, focusing on nothing, blood leaking like awful tears from the depths of a hell beyond comprehension, her nose partially eaten away, scarcely more than a diseased crater in the middle of her face, yellow-green snot hanging in thick ropes, her occasional sniffles doing nothing to stem the tide of mucus running into and out of the hole where once had been a mouth, where once had been strong, white teeth, but now was home to rotting, ragged stumps of black and brown, lips chewed to shreds as though incredible pain had been sustained.

Her shoulders slumped, betraying any sense of height, and such was her appearance that her own mother, had she been there that day, would have failed to recognize her. The woman’s ruination was so complete, so absolute, that nothing of her humanity remained. Dragging a leprous foot behind her, she slouched onward, humming a song to herself, a discordant but familiar tune, so quietly that none of those nearest her, who cleared a broad path, could have heard it. Had they chanced approaching this malignant, walking nightmare, they might have learned something about her, but none there on that awful day were willing to cross the line between caution and foolishness which, as it turned out, made no difference whatsoever.

The sniffling got louder and she stopped in her tracks, body shuddering and trembling as though current was passing through it. Suddenly, explosively, she sneezed, the force of it doubling her over and as phlegm spattered the horrified faces around her, the sneeze caused her to violently void her bowels, a vile torrent of toxic shit staining her pants and cascading down her leg.

Screams erupted as those covered in her mess caught the smell, as though all they had seen had been abstract until they were spattered in her filth, that they were shocked back into reality. As the people scattered and ran, frantically clutching their children, the woman coughed slightly and pitched forward, her swollen, distended abdomen disgorging an impossible amount of black bile onto the ground, her face landing in the puddle of vomit. With death, the last of her muscles gave way, and a reeking lake of dark waste soon surrounded her, her wretched destruction complete.

In the distance, a siren wailed. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, the woman’s purpose had been served; the poison that had exploded from her orifices and leaked from her pores, had reached nearly every soul on the boardwalk with absolute efficiency.

It had begun.

desktop-1430323952“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” — Hunter S Thompson

This past weekend, Epic Steph and I went back to the Museum of Death for our second visit. We’d gone earlier in the year for my birthday, but this time we were grizzled veterans, bringing friends who’d never been. That first visit had been on a Monday morning, just after the museum had opened; this time, it was a late Saturday afternoon. Packed but silent, save for the one woman who was there with family, obviously drunk. Whatever.

Having already seen the sights, I contented myself with observing the other guests, and looking, really looking, at the hundreds of photos that line the walls. This time, I saw that all the victims in all the photos bore one common trait: they died alone. Even if there were two or three together, they died alone. Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Abigail Folger, Albert Dekker, the sad sacks of the Heaven’s Gate comet cult, the incomprehensible nine hundred and eighteen of Jonestown, the suicides, the executions, the murders…no matter how many were there, each of those people went to death by themselves: their final breath, their final pulse, a desperately personal act as they made their way to the other side.

Even the Serial Killer Gallery, the first exhibit in the museum, stands as testament to the loneliness of the deviant mind. Artwork by Gacy and Ramirez are poor attempts at portraying an alienated inner landscape few of us can really understand. Here and there are the random teams, Toole and Lucas, Bianchi and Buono, but even in those cases, it was the loneliness of alienation that bonded these people together. This is no attempt at justification; just an observation that these were some profoundly fucked-up people who had trouble relating to most others and acted out in abhorrent ways.

Leaving the museum, we ventured up Hollywood Boulevard in the waning light of the fall afternoon, the setting sun seeming to light the street on fire as the city’s night shift emerged. The boulevard fascinates me; tourists make pilgrimages here every day of the year, seeking that magic that might have once lived here, but has long since fled. Graumann’s Chinese is owned by some big company that has set retail kiosks out in the courtyard, the souvenir carts covering the very signatures and handprints that bring people there in the first place, while poorly-costumed geeks wander the crowd, demanding money for photos no one wants, while a guy selling five-dollar t-shirts calls a girl a fucking bitch because she doesn’t return his aggressive flirting.

Across the street is the El Capitan, a former movie palace that’s been restored to its former glory by Disney. It’s beautiful, but in a cheap and tawdry way because it’s just another cynical way for Disney to pimp itself, but it stands in stark contrast to the ugliness, the desperation, the despair of Hollywood Boulevard. All the other storefronts are cheap souvenir shops, luggage shops, food stalls, ‘naughty’ costume shops, strip clubs, liquor stores, and on and on, foul, dirty, untended, uncared for. One would think that with all the tourism, someone would step up and take back at least this block, reclaim it as a tourist destination and make it pretty, clean, photogenic and worth visiting, but it’s painfully obvious that no one has given a damn about this place in a very long time.

Lining the star-embedded sidewalks are the legions of the homeless and the addicted, the lost and the lonely, hustling a buck to get through the night, the stink of urine rising from the sun-baked street makes me think of Times Square circa 1976, wondering which of the countless, wound-up Travis Bickles wandering the street, lonesome and unloved, alienated and alienating, will be the next to snap, and how many they’ll take with them.

We see two prostitutes inside the Roosevelt, and my friend tells me that the dark-haired one will die tonight, and I have no problem believing that. The words are spoken without humor, an honest, genuine gut-hunch that I’m in no position to argue, because when night falls on the Boulevard, anything is possible and the darkness is absolute. It’s then that I realize that all of this, the hustling, the squalor, the stardom, the death, all of this – it’s all a monument to loneliness, the uncomfortable silence that falls between friends, between lovers, between family members, that which drives people apart and away, sending them scuttling into the dark corners of their homes, the streets, their hearts,  their minds, fighting the thoughts, the voices, the need, the desire, the desperation, the despair, the longing, the heartache, the past, the future, until there is no fight left, the will exhausted, the battle lost, and the curtain finally falls.

Black-and-white-forest-1024x640She came awake gradual, eyes fluttering open lazily, confused to find herself standing, rather than lying down. She breathed deep, taking in the rich smell of earth, and this more than anything brought her to wakefulness. Not really standing, but upright, vertical, with dirt beneath and on all sides of her. The hole in which she stood was small enough that her knees hit the side and prevented her from sliding down. Checking quickly, she found herself naked, the soil soft and cold beneath her feet. She craned her neck, saw nothing but darkness overheard. She knew that up there, somewhere, was the sheet of plywood that kept this makeshift tomb closed. High enough that she couldn’t reach it, might as well be high as the moon for all it mattered.

She worked to fight the fear that was kindling in her heart, knowing that eventually she would be pulled out, roughly. This was the story she’d heard countless times, the story she’d told around so many childhood campfires, delighting in the thrill of the story, so long as it was happening to someone else, the friend of a friend, or the cousin of someone down the holler, not even caring if the story was true, secretly hoping it wasn’t but she knew, everyone knew, that sometimes folks went missing and they had to end up somewhere, and this was that place, that awful place, where bones hung from trees and the wind made them sing and ain’t no one ever come back from that.

She could feel the walls pressing against her; breath quickening and not a sliver of light to be found in the darkness surrounding her. She could smell the richness of the earth beside and beneath her, could hear the things that crawled and slithered through the soil, sightless in the eternal dark. Packed earth, cold and mean, compressed against her as she clawed, desperately, trying to climb through it, even as her frantic scrabbling brought rivulets of dirt down upon her, raining down into her eyes, her open mouth, tasting it on her tongue as panicked reality constricted her chest, straining her already overworked lungs, blood vessels and capillaries in full flow as adrenaline coursed through her veins, desperation taking the place of reason, bleak resignation not yet lurking on the near horizon.

She tried to slow her breathing, to take control of this most desperate situation, believing beyond reason that she could fix this, make it better somehow, make it all better, if only she could slow down and breathe. Little by little, she could feel herself relaxing, her respiration deeper now, less shallow, as she fought the greasy slick of terror that had settled in her mind.

She felt herself becoming lightheaded, and that’s all it took.

Being lightheaded meant suffocation, that much she knew, and the panic came raging back, a crazed bull rampaging through her chest, hammering against her battered ribcage, setting off another adrenal surge, more vicious this time, demanding its due like a demon rooked in a bad deal. Frenzied, she renewed her clawing at the dirt, determined to get out of this crypt, or die trying.

Heart beating so hard she heard it in her ears, she felt a fingernail crack and break as she dug frantically at her earthen tomb, the sheet of plywood too far overhead to reach, knowing that even if she could touch it, too much weight sat upon it to be moved. The narrowness of the hole pushed her into full panic, as small flashes of light sparkled like distant fireworks on the periphery of her vision. I’m dying, she thought to herself calmly, curiously, without emotion. The very thought was a crooked comfort, a sly, winking con man of a thought, the promise of salvation at a price because there was always a price, you goddamn well better believe it, but dying also meant release, not just from this damnable life, but from the daily reminders of choices made poorly and failures too many to number.

I’m dying.

And as it will, the acceptance of this simple fact caused the panic to ebb, subsiding like the tide on a distant shore, rolling back to the sea.

She was dying, her grave already dug, weary tears of understanding tracing clean lines down her filthy cheeks, which inexplicably turned upward in a graceful, grateful smile. This was the end, the end of everything, and she knew without knowing that her grave would go unmarked, that none would come to mourn, but the pain would be over, and that was worth everything. It didn’t matter, she would die as she had lived, filthy and unloved, stripped of warmth, denied happiness, and bereft of simple human dignity. She welcomed Death with weary arms and a loving heart, happy to be shut of all pain and heartache the world had put on her, that she had invited upon herself.

I’m dying, thank God.

storyWell, here we are again. Another year over and done, and a brand, spankin’ new one just ripe and ready for the plucking. Or so it would seem. Honestly, I’m just happy to see 2015 in the rear view mirror. It wasn’t a terrible year, but it was overstaying its welcome by around September. And now we prepare to take another trip around the sun, 2016 promises to be a good year, to eat all its vegetables, and to not make too much of a stink over an upcoming, dreaded milestone.

So yeah, I took a few months off, because I found myself at a point in which I felt I had little of value to say. Do I now? I dunno, but I feel like writing again so, you know, there’s that. And there’s also a renewed sense of purpose and direction, fueled by encouragement. Who’d have thought?

I was looking at my overall sales for Unworthy, and found that it’s doing some business. I’ve sold copies in the UK and Australia, which just has me shaking my head in disbelief and happiness. For such a uniquely American story, I guess there are some themes and ideas that cross the various cultures. And while neither Mr Fincher nor Mr Zombie have yet reached out for the film rights, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, yeah?

I digress.

I’ve begun work on a new novel, and I’m pretty stoked about it. While I’m far too superstitious to give up the title or what it’s about just yet, I will say that this will be a far more personal story, and I can already see that we’re going to be swimming in some very dark waters (sorry Mom, I’m just wired this way).

So stick around, won’t ya? I promise I’ll be better at keeping in touch (like we’ve never heard that before), have some updates along the way, an excerpt or two, and maybe even some awesome news.

Stay sick, and keep reading scary stories. And hey, if you’re reading this and happen to have read Unworthy, drop me a line or leave a review, would ya? We’d sure appreciate it.

Cellar LightWe had to put Gramma in the cellar. We told ourselves it was for her safety, which was easier than admitting it was for our own.

Her ‘spells’ had been coming on more often, and with greater…passion. I guess that’s the word for it. There was no talking to her then, once she got it in her head that she was, well, once she got it in her head, is all.

We’d considered the attic, but there were too many chances for problems. She could have fallen or jumped out a window. Neighbors (not that there were many left) could have seen her up there and called the authorities, in some noble but misguided effort to help a crazy old lady they didn’t understand. And honestly, the noise wasn’t as bad when she was in the cellar. Call it callous, call it selfish, but you don’t understand. You can’t understand.

So yes, we decided, as a family, to put her down there. Because we couldn’t control her anymore. Because we love her. Because we deserve some goddamn peace. How the hell were we supposed to know what would happen? I built a bed, a solid pine bed, just for her. I sank the posts two feet deep into the earth of the cellar, so she couldn’t move it around. We put down a nice rug and made sure no drafts could get in.

She wanted her candles, but we knew better. Pa ran some basic electric down there, so she could have light to read her Reader’s Digest and bible stories, and we made sure to take her meals down every day. A hefty lock on the door helped us sleep at night. Routine settled in.

Days turned to weeks, then months and seasons rolled by, and we almost began to believe we were a normal family again. Except when Gramma had one of her spells. During those times, Pa and I dutifully took the van for the four-hour round trip up to the city, to fetch a playmate for Gramma. A playmate, for God’s sake. There wasn’t enough craziness in our heads to call it what it really was, and that’s saying a hell of a lot. Because it was the crazy that kept us afloat, kept us from coming completely unglued, kept us from calling the authorities, kept us from admitting that we were doing bad things. Really bad things.

That’s the power of family: It kept you doing things you knew were wrong, knew were bad, because there’s this bond that says family is more important than anything else. So you abide, and God only knows the depths to which you’ll sink to preserve that goddamn bond, even if it drives you to do the Devil’s work. Damn our souls.

So yeah, we took the van to town, and cruised skid row, looking for some poor drunk with one foot already in the grave. It’s a public service, we’d tell ourselves in the quiet, dark parts of the night. We’re helping those poor souls on the road to salvation. Because what they had to endure, we desperately hoped God would show them mercy, just as we knew He would have no mercy on us. We deserved no mercy, no salvation; we’d damned ourselves from the outset, booked our passage to hell because of family.

Gramma had come from the old country, making the passage across the ocean in the windowless hold of a wooden ship, with hundreds of others, all piled atop one another, with not enough room for all to sleep at the same time, taking shifts standing while others lay on raised planks, the floor covered in vomit, piss, and shit, all for the sake of escaping to the Promised Land, enduring Hell on earth as shipmates died from exposure, pneumonia, infection, beatings, and God knows what else, while those that lived choked on the stench of death and sewage in the hot, rolling chaos of the ship’s steerage hold. Food was scarce, causing some to shatter long-held taboos out of desperation.

Occasionally, a mate would open a hatch in the deck, allowing sunlight to stream in, fresh sea air mingling with the unspeakable reek emanating from below deck. When land was finally sighted, the dead were gathered up and unceremoniously dumped overboard, their tattered clothing and meager possessions long gone to the wretched horde, half-insane in the darkness of the hold.

Out of this waking nightmare came Gramma, not knowing that even then she was carrying the sickness in her gut like a despised parasite. Even at her tender young age, she came out of the darkness and brought with her a viciousness that few would ever live to see, and fewer still would ever believe.

Gramma, in her better days, would tell us her story, over and over, like a record stuck in a groove, as though we’d never heard it before, wanting us to understand the sacrifices she’d made, the things she’d had to do, to provide for us, to give us a chance in this place. To make us understand that we were beholden to her, forevermore.

So Pa and I would find a lost soul and bring it home. Send it down the cellar stairs, where we assured it that there would be food and drink, and a warm, safe bed. Our challenge was to get the door closed and bolted before the screaming started. Before the wet, tearing sounds found their way to our ears and burrowed into our souls, an ironclad guarantee of a sleepless night, fraught with images best left to a slaughterhouse.

Later, after Gramma’s hunger was sated and she was asleep, we would descend the stairs with the buckets and clean up what remained, thankful for the earthen floor of the cellar, into which the blood and other fluids had seeped, which fed an army of beetles and worms that kept Gramma fed and satisfied until the next time she had one of her spells.

I tried not to look at Gramma; we’d given up on trying to keep her clothed ages ago. Anything we tried to put on her would end up stained and shredded, as though the fabric on her skin was a sacrilege she couldn’t abide. The sight of her, covered in sores and filth, made my heart ache, despite the monstrous things she did. Her skin sagged, a testament to her years, its elasticity long since lost to the brutality of gravity and time. She stank of a dangerous musk that ran deeper than simply an aversion to bathing; though alive, a pervasiveness of decay floated about her like a dark and awful cloud. Stray teeth, blackened and jagged, glistened when she licked them with the remains of her tongue, chewed upon so much and so often that it had given up any hope of regrowth.

The madness of Gramma had forced Ma to flee while I was still a child, her teary eyes beseeching us to run with her, far from the grasp of Gramma, all the while knowing we would never, could never, leave her, not until the old woman died, which wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She’d already passed her one hundredth birthday, and seemed hell-bent on outliving all of us, despite the sickness that had ravaged her brain.

Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop her, short of a silver bullet,” Ma had wept, her breath hitching in her chest on that last night, rain coursing down her face as she stood in the doorway, taxi idling a few yards away. I remember her eyes then, soft and pleading, heartbroken and miserable, hating herself for the abandonment, but determined not to fall under the wheels of this inherited madness.

Those words resonated in my mind down the years that followed, as I scoured the land around our property for metals, slowly finding bits and pieces of what I sought, knowing that I could simply steal what I needed, but knowing too that, despite all the wrong I had done for the sake of Gramma, I couldn’t do the one wrong that might deliver us from her. By and by, I’d put together enough to melt down, the last of it coming from a small crucifix I’d found on the roadside, its tiny Christ shedding tears of pain and joy in his last torturous hours on this earth. I shaped the blob of metal carefully, burning my fingers time and again as I bled to make it absolutely perfect, leaving part of myself in it, as if a sacrifice was demanded as a means to this particular end. I carefully tapped the slug into a brass casing, already set with gunpowder and primer in place.

While Pa slept fitfully upstairs, I retrieved his rifle from the hiding place he didn’t know I knew about, and made for the cellar. Before opening the door, I racked my bullet into the chamber. I descended the stairs carefully and quietly, so as not to disturb Gramma.

Who is that?” she grunted, her words slurred, as if she weren’t accustomed to using the language, instead recalling it from distant memory.

It’s me, Gramma,” I said quietly, keeping myself in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see the rifle or, at the very least, not know what it was. “Just come down to tell you we’re making dinner. It’ll be here soon.”

You’re a good boy, Henry,” she said, her voice taking on a timbre and tone that I’d not heard in ages, sounding much like it did before she got so bad. Through my tears, I knew it was a trick of my mind, not to be taken seriously or given any semblance of meaning. Because while I knew I was doing the right thing, there was a still, small voice inside of me that thought I was doing bad, committing evil, despite the evil I sought to put down.

You abide by family no matter what, the voice said. At the end of it, family’s all you have. This was Gramma’s voice, echoing down the years. I knew its refrain by heart, and yet it caused tears to well up in my eyes as I shouldered the rifle.

I love you, Gramma,” I said quietly, my teary eyes sighting down the barrel, my finger on the trigger. I gently squeezed the trigger, just as I’d been taught.

The shot rang huge in my ears as the rifle’s recoil slammed it into my shoulder, instantly numb and deaf. Gramma slumped against the wall of the cellar, legs askew with no inclination toward modesty, the right side of her head blown to vapor, and I watched the last dim light leave her cataract-clouded eyes. A voice from the doorway above broke the silence.

You did good, son,” Pa said, his voice calm, without a trace of judgment or sorrow.

I watched our house burn from the rear window of the van as we drove away, into the cold light of a new day, the road stretched out in front of us.

Somewhere out there, I knew, Ma waited for us.

WindowShe sits in the window, a vague silhouette softly backlit from an unseen source. She sits there, day in and day out, looking out across the garden and over the fence at the streets of the town, always observing, but never participating. She stares without seeing, listens without hearing, as the rest of the world passes by, rarely glancing up.

The woman gazes out, recalling a childhood full of promise, full of possibility. She thinks of a time in which love was light and nothing hurt. A recollection of love unfettered, of proud teachers and adoring classmates. Ribbons and trophies, a precocious interest, a mangy stray, the slip of a knife. The curiosity of a child, with an adult’s desire to make something hurt. A horrifying discovery, a tearful admission.

A distant memory of a parent’s anger, remorse, for having brought such a thing into the world. The slam of a door and tires screeching off the curb, an engine revving off into the distance, not seen again. The unbearable knowledge that they left because of her. The lash of a belt, the loneliness of a childhood locked in the broom closet. Because she is mean, awful, terrible. Because she escapes and keeps on doing it. Because she cannot help herself.

She dreams from the window, remembering a time when she would go for rides in cars with boys, their voices filled with promises of everlasting love as their bodies made mad lunges toward things best left unmentioned. Desperate for their love, dying for it, she remembers the bitter anger in their voices as she pushed eager hands away, feels again the sting of hand on cheek. The salty taste of anguished tears as promises gave way to hurtfulness, showered and pelted by gravel as yet another car pulled angrily away, stranding her.

Abandoning her.

Discarding her.

The woman in the window thinks of the time she finally gave in, to the hot, beer-laced breath of an aggressive young man, deciding to go through with it only to give herself the illusion of having had a choice. She remembers her fingernails clawing into the grey upholstery, a thin trickle of blood from where she’d bit her lip in pain, the tracks of tears slowly descending her face. His anger at her awkwardness, his wicked words at her inexperience, his hand raised, illuminated in the moonlight, seeking to punish her for his hasty fumbling and quick expiration.

A hand in her purse, clutching the pommel of an old familiar friend, the glint of light on steel, the violation of penetration, red on grey, red on the windows, the dashboard. The sound of her laughter, as though coming from someone else. The feeling of absolute, electric life, of ultimate power, and ultimate release. Walking home that night, feeling a joy to treasure forever.

She was home long enough to pack a bag, and long gone before first light, taking the first bus to anywhere, still desperate for the love she now understood would never be hers, but taking solace in the knowledge that there were many more things for her to feel, things that were close to love, or at least close enough.

She remembers the infinite lights of big cities, the wee twinkling of small towns, and the world of possibilities that lay within all of them. She remembers a bathtub, anchored to the floor by iron claws, filled with the glorious red, splashing around like that woman she’d read about in another time, in another place, feeling life seeping into her very pores, filling her senses, overloading her mind.

The woman in the window feels every moment, every sensation, as though they happened yesterday. The garden far below her window grows lush and wild, fortified with the essence of long-gone lovers, each and every one of them holding a special place in her heart, each one a notch on the wrought iron fence that contains them.

In the still of night, the woman hears voices, interrupting her solitary vigil. She recognizes them, recognizes them all, and tries to understand their rage, their anger, their hateful words, their spectral threats. Of late, they appear nightly, screaming their pain at her, their outrage at the desecration she visited upon them. She usually bears them no mind, allows them their indignant ramblings, but tonight they find her weak, find her vulnerable. The rantings of the dead fill her mind, her heart, her very being with their sorrow, an emotion for which she has no understanding, having abandoned such things a lifetime before.

Tonight, the woman in the window stands, and pushes aside her chair, moves it aside and walks calmly to the other side of her sitting room and turns her back to the wall. She pushes off with her feet and launches herself at the window, legs pumping madly, hitting the glass with her feet off the ground, but while the window cracks, it does not break. She is cut and bleeding from the impact as she returns to the wall and propels herself, again and again, at the stubborn window.

On the fifth attempt, she finds success. The glass gives way and she sails out, weightless in the night, her arms out in front of her, as if in flight. Bits and shards of glass accompany her, and she believes she flies among the stars, that heaven and earth were made just for her. Then the ground beckons her, invites her closer, and she sees the wrought iron flour-de-lis that sit atop the fence-posts rushing to meet her, and in that last moment, the woman in the window understands.

She smiles.