We were watching a breakup at the Calypso Gas and Chew.
Everyone was lingering, like bank robbers casing the joint by pretending to be customers. Roy was wiping a table that was already clean. Delaney was counting and recounting the register. Matt suddenly decided he needed to refill all of the sugar dispensers.
I was eavesdropping, openly and honestly. I propped my chin on my hands and watched the two women lob volleys of whispered words at each other, hisses, glances and stern silences.
The only one not listening was Old Man Earlobes, off in a corner booth, spooning ketchup into his mouth off a white plate.
“You’re making this harder than it has to be,” the one woman said. She was tall, willowy, with black curls that bounced when she talked. Her bangs hung in her eyes, giving her a severe, dismissive look. She wore a black turtleneck and I could imagine her delicately smoking cigarettes at an art gallery, casting her snooty gaze around on walls full of dreary paintings.
“Oh no, Marie, am I making it hard? I’m sorry.”, the other woman said. She was smaller, with a hoodie pulled over her head. A loose cluster of blonde hairs spilled out of the hood. Her thumbs poked out through the sleeves as she held her coffee cup, as if for warmth. “We’ve been together for four years. A simple “it’s not working out” isn’t fucking good enough.”
Delaney and I exchanged glances. It was clear; whatever this was about, we were on the hoodie-girl’s side.
Marie frowned and pressed her thumb to her forehead, bending it and crumpling her face in frustration. “You need so much out of me and I just don’t have it anymore. There’s something off–, with you, with you me. With how we’ve been living.”
“What do you mean, what are you saying?”
“I feel like I’m hollowing out,” Marie replied.
Her voice had a lilt to it, a musical lowness. When I was a kid I’d had a wooden flute, pilfered from one renaissance fair or another, and when you blew into it, it had that same, reedy lowness, a sound I associated with faraway locomotives and howling wind.
“I wake up and I feel flat. I paint this face and cut this hair and put on all these clothes and I smile at people and it’s like I can feel my skeleton poking through my face. I’m putting all this effort to hold this–,” she gestured suddenly, violently, at herself, “and for what? For you?”
“If you’re having problems we can get you help. I’ll help you–,” hoodie-girl reached out to grab one of Marie’s hands, but she recoiled in disgust.
Delaney and I exchanged glances. She rolled her eyes at Marie, but I had changed sides. Delaney might like the idea of someone being there, being undying with support and love, but I wondered if she ever had truly awful thoughts about herself, about other people. If I cracked her head open, what blackness might spill out? I knew there was plenty in mine; boiling, frothing darkness that made people feel cold and rubbery, like I could look into all of their eyes and feel the same way I did when I looked at a dead fish. A flatness.
I felt the same about myself, some days.
Marie mumbled something. It sounded like: “I’m sorry.”
The girl in the hoodie sprang to her feet. “Fine,” she spat. “Fuck you. Fuck you and your annoying voice. God, have you ever heard yourself laugh? Sounds like when I step on my cat.”
I smirked; hoodie-girl was devastated and it was obvious. She had to dig into her reserves to hurl something petty and awful as a parting shot. You have to cover your retreat when you’ve been defeated.
The door jingled and hoodie-girl was sprinting away into the night. The staff of the Calypso dispersed; no more drama to be observed. I took the coffee pot over to Marie and filled her cup.
“I like your voice,” I said to her.
She smiled weakly at me. “If you were a guy, I’d think you were hitting on me.”
“Well, come in here a few more times, I will start hitting on you.”
“Mmm,” she said, sipping the coffee. I took the hint; I had been dismissed.
She was back a few days later.
I was in the kitchen, staring hungrily at a raw, half-frozen steak that was bleeding onto a plate. The tentacle on my wrist uncoiled and began slurping gently at the liquid. I felt it vibrate, then watched with interest as it split apart into two, separate, wormlike creatures, each delighted to frolic in the bloody mess.
Delaney leaned back into the kitchen. “Hey Samantha, your girlfriend’s back.”
My heart skipped a beat, and I frantically scooped up the tentacles, letting them fuse back together and loop around my wrist. I ran a hand through my hair and left the kitchen, doing my best to look composed and utterly relaxed.
She was sitting at the same table, wearing roughly the same outfit, smoking a cigarette.
People weren’t supposed to smoke in here but I wasn’t going to tell her that.
“She ordered coffee,” Delaney said, handing me the pot. I grinned at her; sometimes she really was the best.
I went over to her and poured the coffee, racking my brains for something interesting to say. Instead, I smiled giddily at her.
Hers flickered over to me. Her hand shook in jittery, nervous fashion as she lifted it up to her flaked, chapped lips. “Not today,” she rasped. Her voice was a croak. “I’m kind of falling apart.” As if to exemplify this point, one of her fingernails appeared to detach suddenly, from deep at the root. It fluttered down like one of those helicopter seeds you’d see falling from trees.
My smile turned to a more guilty, sympathetic one, and I scurried back behind the counter, burning with embarrassment.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the stainless steel warming counter.
I had a streak of blood across my forehead.
She was back the next night, but I was ready.
My hair was brushed, sprayed and beaten into a voluminous, cascading flow that made it seem windswept at all times. My lips felt heavy with the dark lipstick, and I had used too much eyeliner, but I felt good; ready for war with the decaying beauty who chain-smoked and dismissed me.
Delaney watched my preparations in the breakroom with interest. “You know she just got out of a relationship, right? Like, a long one.”
“I don’t care. Let me borrow your perfume?”
She handed it over, but snatched it back when I tried to spray it a fifth time. “Take it easy, my eyes are watering.”
“How do I look?” I turned to her, presenting myself with a dumb, hungry look that I hoped appeared flirtatious and seductive.
“Pretty good, but…”
She scratched her head. “Remember a few months ago when you were wondering if you should be tested for autism?”
“Yeah, why are you bringing that up now?” I replied, fixing a loose strand of hair.
“No reason, but uh, what were the results?”
I brushed past Delaney and there she was, sliding into her usual booth, shaking out the last few cigarettes in her battered red and white pack, then arranging the cigarettes in front of her like a soldier sorting the last few bullets he had left.
She watched me come over with a menu but waved it off. I went to grab the coffee but she waved that off too, so I lingered, fully awkward and obviously smitten. She looked worse than ever and I wanted her more. Her face had a sunken, gaunt quality that brought about images of Halloween store skeletons. Her hair was stringy and clumped together, and the usual black sweater was covered in white dandruff flakes and cigarette ash.
“I’m not getting rid of you, am I?” she asked.
I crossed my arms and shook my head.
She tipped the edge of the cigarette into her empty coffee cup, then stuck it back between her lips and said: “Sit down.”
Gleefully, I slid into the booth across from her. Behind me, somewhere back in the kitchen, I heard Roy ask: “What’s with Sam?”
Marie frowned at me. “Your name is Sam?”
I nodded, enjoying the way her voice caressed my name and threw it back at me. My own name tended to be a hateful thing, a thing scolded and berated in my mind, but when she said it, it glowed like Christmas lights; an object to be adored and enjoyed.
“Well, I enjoy the attention, Sam. When I reach the end of one of my lives, I start to feel very… thin. Transparent, I guess. It’s like a depression, do you understand?”
I nodded again. I didn’t, or maybe I did, did it matter? She was talking to me. Was I listening? Kind of, if only to track her lips and the back-and-forth of her eyes as they searched my face. She could’ve been talking about nuclear diffusion, the defensive scheme of the Green Bay Packers; it did not matter.
“At the end of a life, I start to crumble. It’s an awful thing. Being alive seems to erode me. My teeth–,” she bared them at me, revealing a blackened gum line and crooked, yellowing teeth. “They’re decaying.” She reached up and pulled a canine out, a sharpened little triangle, and set it on the table. “My eyes are always watering. My hair– falling out, thinning out. My bones ache. Every joint makes a noise. Every day eats me alive. I no longer wish to carry on. Are you listening?”
“You’re very pretty,” I told her.
She groaned, but the exertion started a phlegmy coughing fit. She doubled over, letting loose an artillery barrage of thunderous, deep-chest coughs, before leaning back and gasping for air. “I fight it, every time. I don’t know why. I’ve done this before; I’ll do it again. But every time I fight to keep going on with this one, singular life. Why?”
I shrugged. Looking at her filled me with a pleasant blankness, a humming sense of peace. I got the sense she could reach over and rip my throat out, and I would blush. I was awash in the might of her presence.
She watched me sadly. “You are out of your mind, you know that?”
I nodded again. Greedily. It was all I could do.
“Will you help me with something?”
She laughed, and for a brief, flickering second, the croak left her voice and the vitality seemed to return to her. Color flushed her cheeks, brightness lit her eyes, and I fell in love ever more violently.
She started to get up, and I helped her to her feet. Her skin had the feel of old book pages; soft and dry but flimsy, like it might dissolve if I handled it too much. I’d had an ancient copy of Gulliver’s Travels that had those weird, almost-cloth pages that had the same feel as dollar bills– I thought of it while she led me outside, into the dark parking lot.
A bolt of dismay ran through me– this was where bad things happened at the Calypso. Murders and Dayshifters and untold horrors seemed to spill out from the warm confines of coffee smells, maple syrup and frying eggs. Out here, on the cold asphalt, under the flickering neon, death and ruin and rot all came to a head.
But Marie still had my hand. “It’ll be okay,” she said. She led me behind the diner, to the edge of the vast, flat deadlands that seemed to stretch forever. My eyes adjusted to the purple-black darkness, and miles upon miles away, I could see the skeletal beginnings of the looping highway in construction. It seemed monolithic and hungry.
Marie began stretching, her bones creaking and popping like bubble wrap as she pulled on her arms, tried to touch her toes, rolled her shoulders and limbered up. The moon hung over us like a dim flashlight, casting pale yellow light on our flickering motions. “If you can catch me, you can have me,” Marie said, and then she began running, legs churning and feet kicking dirt up as she tore off towards the horizon.
I froze for a brief moment, and then sprinted after her, giggling.
She was fast. She less ran and more acted as if she’d been flung forward, no thoughts toward aerodynamics, only pure motion. Her head tilted backwards, her legs took long, shaky strides. Her hands flailed and her entire body shook with the force of her momentum.
I started to catch up, my eyes fixed on the patch of bare skin between where her hair ended and the sweater began, when something fluttered off her and hit me square in the chest.
I caught it as I ran, stumbling to keep pace.
More and more human confetti flaked off, like dead leaves and roadside fast food wrappers, twirling and soaring back at me as I ran through it. Hair like silly string, bits of flesh like dead grass, a human pinata shambling away as I reached out to hold her.
Then the bones started.
An entire arm bone clattered to the ground behind Marie. A loose bit of flesh twirled in the air, stuck to it like a flag on a flagpole.
Teeth and knuckles and hundreds of tiny bones began gravel-tumbling in a loose, comet-like stream behind the fleeing woman.
A burning smell filled the air; a scent that reminded me of bonfires and spent fireworks, how I would pick them up off the road the morning after the fourth of July, just to get a whiff of gunpowder and scorch.
Her legs went, and she flew forward, tumbling violently in the dust.
I caught up easily, and knelt beside her. Her left leg was gone below the knee; her right was gone to the hip. The skin on her face had a melted, candle-wax look as it clung thinly to her cheekbones. Her eyes quivered as they looked at me. Her remaining hand caressed my cheek; white tipped fingers as the bones pushed through the flesh.
“I’m going to scream,” she said. “Cover your ears, baby.”
Her jaw unhinged with a dry click; her eyes sliding upward like slot machine rollers, showing only whites. Her remaining teeth fell out as her tonsils contracted, and from somewhere deep inside her, a green light began emitting. It grew brighter, then dimmed, then brighter than before. She let go of my face, her last remaining arm detaching and landing at my feet. She took a deep breath, the glow flaring, then threw her head back so hard I heard her spine break, and screamed.
I thought it was silence, at first. Then I realized I was in a vacuum of overwhelming sound, that even the sensations of my pulse and heartbeat had been stripped away. I was frozen, encased in the cacophony as if petrified in ash. She spewed light like a volcano spewing lava and smoke, a corridor of vibrant, hissing green piercing the night, hurtling upwards at the stars.
My mind was blank. There was nothing, only the light. I watched words like “Calypso” and “Samantha” float in front of my mind just to be rendered apart, dissolved by green abyss.
I was so fucking happy.
Numbly, in the very barest of peripheral vision, something wriggled.
The tentacle on my wrist. It rippled with the force of Marie’s unending scream, but it bravely split itself apart and each piece started the long, laborious trip up my arm, over the mountain of my shoulder, along the curve of my neck. I could feel them clinging and pulling themselves along my flesh. They tickled my earlobes and then, with the spine-chilling cringe of a wet-willy, they slid into my ear canals and provided a buffer from the sound.
God, was it loud.
Concerts and air raid sirens were the gentle chirp of a distant sparrow compared to Marie’s scream. I swayed on the spot, bullied by the noise. I regained a sense of myself, enough to pull away from staring at the mighty beam of light and look down upon my dear, sweet Marie.
All of her skin was gone. Her ribcage dug into the earth, entrenched by the force of her eruption. Her spine was stabbed deep into the ground, and her skull rattled and bounced as it struggled to direct the light upward. Strands of her hair flapped and twisted crazily, like those blow-up mascots used to sell cars.
The origin of the light rested below her sternum, a rotating helix shape of spirals and intertwining, crackling green tendrils of energy. It was blinding, burning; I closed my eyes against it and still felt it beating madly against my eyelids, a rabid animal desperate to eat my pupils.
My hands burned as I reached forward and closed Marie’s jaws.
The light snapped off, the sound receded, and I dared to open my eyes. My ears were ringing and my face felt numb.
Then the world exploded.
Camera flashes and flashlights in the eye and that hideous glare when someone turns a bright light on late at night and your eyes hiss in distress, all those sensations fused together and amplified exponentially.
Dimly, as I soared backward through the air, I felt the tentacles wiggling in my ears, and I hoped they would be okay.
Matt shook me awake.
I was flat on my back, a few dozen yards from where Marie had been. My entire body ached; I felt like I’d been in a car accident.
He helped me to my feet and dusted me off. I was dizzy, tired, and had a nasty burn on the left side of my face, extending down from under my eye to my neck. It looked like a giant pair of lips had scorched me.
In the distance, I heard Delaney calling: “Samantha! Where are you!”
I felt oddly touched.
Matt looked over in the direction of Marie’s fractured skull, then at me. We had never talked much; it was out of mutual respect for Delaney that we never became close enough to ally against her. The balance of the Calypso mattered too much.
He watched as I limped over and picked up the skull. I turned it over in my hands, relishing how cold it felt.
I burst into tears.
Suddenly I was enveloped in a warm hug that smelled of cooking grease and old bacon. He held it for a while, long enough for me to get annoyed. Long enough for me to feel like myself.
He let go of me, then reached up and pulled down the collar of his shirt, revealing a similar lip-shaped burn-scar on his collarbone.
“Banshees,” he said, as if it explained everything.
I supposed it did.