City Full of Rain

Penny and Mike were on the corner of South Broadway and 53rd Street, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, in a city full of rain. I saw them for a moment, before they crossed the street. I couldn’t hear what they said and my umbrella had holes, so I ducked back into a coffee shop, ordered the house blend, put lots of cream and sugar in it and flirted, badly, with the guy in bloodied scrubs at the next table.

To be fair, he also flirted badly, but he looked tired. Big bloodshot milk chocolate eyes, lines sunk deep into his forehead, his hair, bark brown, greasy and clumpy yet somehow so inviting to the touch. I didn’t touch it, don’t worry, I’m not that far gone yet. We talked awkwardly of the weather and not much else. I asked him for a spoon to stir my coffee, my whirled whatever the coffee shop sold under House Blend. I’m not bold or confident but Penny and Mike had filled me, for a moment, with actual energy and drive. The guy’s voice held the hoarseness of too many hours, not enough peace of mind.

They are angels. It’s the nearest I can get to labeling Penny and Mike. I think they’re the wrong kind of angels, working for the other side. And this rainy city is perfect for them to hide. So many shadows and indifferent people here, indifferent to rain and shadows. I’ve seen them many times now. Always together. She wears a daisy-printed scarf over her head, carries a bright black umbrella. He has a red carnation, always. Tucked into his Levi jacket pocket. Asian and slender, with a bit of gray at each temple. I think it’s more for effect and to blend in than any real aging on his part. She is young yet old, her face unlined yet ancient. Hers is not an American face; that American face of many nationalities swirled together like cake batter. Penny’s disguise is not as good as his. Her cheekbones, the thin lips, something is off. I call them Penny and Mike. I don’t know their real names. Something from before the invention of languages, probably. Something scraped and gouged in a cave wall no one in these times can read correctly. And I of course just can’t approach them and demand introductions. That would be mature and logical.

I probably am crazy; I probably made this all up to amuse myself because life is so very un-amusing. But I doubt it. I’ve been writing all this down for a year or so, hand-written in those single-subject notebooks they still sell at the supermarket. Each little scribbled word drains me. Yet I do it anyway. I want a record of what I did. Don’t we all? A record of why I did what I did and why it mattered. Don’t we all? I am not violence-minded, don’t worry. How could I hurt them? They’re angels or whatever they are. Survivors to this modern age. Nothing is that careful or cautious, nothing. Not even God. They’ve survived, Mike and Penny, because they’re impervious, not because they’re cautious. I could expose them but who, honestly but a handful of other crazies and wild-eyed breathless others, would take me seriously?

Ah, my awkward flirting partner in the bloody scrubs leaves, with a smile at me. I didn’t collect his number or arrange a further meeting, another casual fumbling over coffee and possibly the soggy bear claws for sale in the case. Or something more healthy-ish, like the poppy seed flax muffin made from tofu flour. I wish I’d made that up to make a point. I prefer fat and sugar and fried everything, but I resist as much as possible. I do indulge occasionally in fast food and a bag of mini candy bars and at times, sour cream and onion chips with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m not a food snob, either. I enjoy the occasional slice of Spam, the delights of gravy over biscuits, the extra buttery microwave popcorn. No doubt my skinny intern almost-new-friend enjoys boiled fish, bitter lettuce salads with lemon juice on the side and a cup of raisins as a treat, but only every other month. Look at me, already building up walls against yet another person I’ve barely met and hardly know. No doubt the guy in the bloody scrubs enjoys salt pork sandwiches on Wonder Bread, with real mayo, topped with a pound of melted Velveeta. All washed down with a gallon of lime Kool-Aid and with a side order of chili fries  and biscuits and gravy. And for dessert, an entire chocolate-dipped cheesecake. You can’t judge people and think you know what they eat or do.

I need a new umbrella. I moved here to the quirky rain corridor that is the Pacific Northwest not that long ago. Time moves, we do things, when we do them isn’t that important. We humans are so concerned with time, what time is it, time has passed, is it time yet, it’s time for something or other. I work, I write down my angel sightings and I sleep. Life is good. I’m quite happy, at peace. I know what I know. I’ve examined my life, my life has examined me, we’re kosher with each other. I have no idea if that’s the right use of kosher. But it sounds right.

So. A new umbrella. I came from the desert. Where it never rains. The winds are gigantic and filthy with dust. You can see for miles, as they say. That’s not true, though; it does rain. Big harsh primitive rains that pound the dead earth into some semblance of life for a short swift season. Plants turn green, throw out flowers, grow madly. Animals show up or wake up to mate, raise babies, die or go back to sleep until the rains come again. Here, with the abundance of water and wry self-awareness of how un-self-aware we really all are, there’s too much green. Too much fecundity for my desert-baked eyes. It hurt me, at first, to see all this water and green and cloudy skies be so taken for granted. I wandered around wounded and unhappy and broody as a hen over a nest. Until the shock wore off and my sense of humor cuffed me upside the head with how precious and fragile these Pacific Northwesterners were about everything. It didn’t matter if I traveled from Seattle to Portland to Salem to Eugene…just the sameness undid me and made me giggle at inappropriate moments. It was like attending a funeral and getting a knock knock joke stuck in your head, a really funny one, if indeed, such a joke exists at all. Yes, the cities under their assault of rain are like living at a funeral parlor. Maybe that only occurs to those born in dry lands, who spend their time waiting for the rain to show up.

By the time I make it to the second-hand store down the street from the coffee shop, I am soaked and shivering. I find an umbrella with bright white spots against a bright red background, rather like the Fly Agaric mushrooms. There is a middle-aged woman who has not shaved any of her personal hair, legs, crotch, pits, for the last twenty years. She wears a pair of hiking shorts and a sleeveless top, so no, I’m not being mean. I can only assume she’s not intensely grooming her private areas and yanking out her pubic hair.

But. She dreamily peruses the collection of paperbacks and hardbacks in the book and magazine section of the New Again Thrift Consortium. Her rough fingers dance over the spines as she reads the titles, no makeup to speak of, her hair in a tidy gray and blond braid down her wide back. Then she looks over at me. I’ve seen her before, come to think of it. A real sense of recognition blunders about my brain cavity. I saw her last week after I’d tailed Mike and Penny into Lake Cascade Park, not the real name but I have my reasons for that. I’d seen the hippie mama at the bus stop over on Maryland Avenue, after I’d watched Mike and Penny get on the bus with the creaky doors. Hiking boots, shorts, sometimes a jacket, she did not seem to notice it was cold and rainy. Same tidy braid of hair, same lack of knowing normal women shaved their little hairs so the public wouldn’t have to witness a woman’s hirsuteness in any capacity.

Leave them alone, she mouths at me, her teeth yellow and shiny. Big yellow shiny teeth. Leave them alone. A smile, hiding those teeth behind thin lips and the woman, in the mustard-yellow tank top, takes a book to the counter where the young black girl rings it up. The black girl texts someone on her wide, bright purple phone at the same time. I stand there, with my poisonous umbrella, puzzled and shocked over that message whispered at me from a strange hippie-ish lady who buys a battered copy of He’s Just Not That Into You without a trace of embarrassment.

She leaves. There is a chill in the air now. I never quite get warm here, so it’s not really a harbinger of the Apocalypse or the next ice age, whatever. Not that I think the

End Times are Nigh, good heavens. There’s crazy and then there’s CRAZY. I wander over to the clothes, but I don’t have much change on me. I see a quite pretty leopard-spot blouse, but it doesn’t fit. Too small. I have large shoulders and a big chest, inherited from my Russian peasant women farm worker ancestors. Or so I always imagine and thus assign blame for my body’s flaws and kinks and wrong turns. It’s always the fault of my ancestors. And I think on that message– leave them alone. Of course, it came from Mike and Penny. They don’t want attention or some weird, not that friendly fan. It creates awkward situations and messes that need cleaning up, cosmic fashion. God always sends in a cleaning crew for spilled milk, is how that goes. But will I desist? No. I am madly curious to see this play out and I have the caution and reason common to most of my species. As in none at all. We humans, rushing forward, then writing books about what we should have done instead. I pay for my new umbrella and the black girl, who is carelessly, freshly, wow oh wow gorgeous and indifferent to people reacting to her beauty, accepts my five dollars and gives me four cents back. I wander out, open my umbrella outside the store. To open an umbrella inside in considered bad luck or bad manners, I’m not sure.

Mike and Penny stand across the street. South Broadway. I’m not using real street names so don’t bother with maps. I’m writing in code, you’ll see why.  It’s a downtown street, you know the kind. They’re all the same. With the same little shops, the same little people. The artsy attempts. It’s where the artists of any self-respecting metropolis hang out and try to be arty. Or at least look arty for the wide-eyed tourists. But. Mike turns his head to look at me, then says something to Penny, who shrugs, adjusting her daisy-printed headscarf with her long, spidery fingers. I get it. They are warning me themselves. I get it. I am thrilled. I’ve received proof. Here is proof, from a secondary source– the middle-aged unshaved woman, and now from Mike and Penny, first-hand source and vital root of my obsession tree. The rain drifts down, more of a tired drip than a real storm. Patter patter patter. Puddles forming in the least dip or imperfection of sidewalk or road. Sparrows fighting over a dropped bagel. A crow diving in and stealing the bagel. And then Penny crosses the road, without regard for a crosswalk. Not a lot of traffic right now, however, so she doesn’t have to dodge or wait or hold people up, sitting in their metal tubes of affluence. Or metal tubes of despair and this is how poor I really am-ness. Penny wears wide-legged brown pants, with the hems wet and dirty, and hiking boots. A black blouse that’s loose and free under her light gray jacket.

Mike waits on the other side of the street. Patient, perhaps even bored by all this. Penny approaches me, and her perfume hits my nostrils, so strong it creates a taste in my mouth. Cinnamon. Cinnamon and something woody. Tropical volcano hot jungles vines wrapped around trees woody. Something right out of the Jurassic kind of woody.  Attractive. Repellent. Hey there, girlie, she says and her voice is low, scratchy, a smoker’s growl. Because she used to live in hell where it’s all smoke all the time, my inner comedian brays. I put my hand over my mouth to hide my smirking smile. I’m smirking and being threatened by a hell-child. What a day. And so thrilled to be making contact. So thrilled.

Stop following us. It’s annoying.

Annoying? I nod, my thoughts full of the strangest notions. Like where did she get that headscarf? Do she and Mike have sex? Do angels have genitals, I’ve heard several theories.  How much wood can a woodchuck chuck? What if I don’t? There. I can’t flirt worth a hill of beans, but I can cut to the heart of the matter. I mean, this is my neighborhood, you guys should pick a new neighborhood if you don’t want to see me. I’m not following anyone. I overshot my bolt, as it were. We humans do that, over-explain and get belligerent when caught in weird, unmannerly acts.  

Penny or whatever her name really was, came closer to me, her cinnamon aura overwhelming, her stink of spice and murderous jungle vines punching up my nasal passages. I suddenly wanted a cinnamon roll and cinnamon toast. And a cinnamon latte. Yum. Wanna find out? She was unbearably skinny, like a heroin addict, her delicate wrists skeletal, the sharp edges of her collar bones almost boring through her taut, unhealthy-looking skin. How’s the coffee here? I’ve heard it sucks.  Wanna find out? Wanna find out what we can do? There was an open cold sore, a small one, on her upper lip.   

Strangely, I did. I wanted an ending to my note-taking efforts. And then what will happen?  I’m dead? Empty threat so I have to take up crocheting to fill the long hours?  Go to hell or heaven, have to deal with whatever’s actually in charge? But. How was I a threat? Why do you care if I know about you? I don’t. I don’t know anything. I’m making up stuff and calling it true. What do you care? The coffee here’s okay.

Penny rolled her eyes. They were dark brown with flecks of light green. You’re such a little nosey monkey. I’d go deaf, blind and dumb, monkey. Forget about us. Oh and the  coffee’s okay, not exactly a ringing endorsement.  And on that contemptuous note, she walked back over to Mike, and they spoke to each other, then moved up the street, toward the bus stop. Mike clearly laughed, throwing back his head, his umbrella bobbing up and down. Penny did not even spare me a glance. As far as they were concerned, I was done like dinner.

Did I listen? Did I take heed? Nah. I watched them get on the bus and watched the bus trundle away, the big heavy motor laboring. No doubt they were both laughing like hyenas, quietly though. Quiet hyenas.

I got myself home. My apartment, on the second tier, has a lovely view ofsitcom the parking lot, though the row of threadbare Japanese plums were quite pretty in the spring. I wrote down everything, everything. I left nothing out of the two encounters. There were leftovers so I had them for dinner, a scoop of mac and cheese, a leftover overcooked chicken breast, some limp green beans. And hot chocolate, it was that kind of a day, and a handful of Oreos. I poured the entire bottle of bath salts into my old-fashioned clawfoot tub, the freesia scent sickly and welcoming. Decadence! Happy and content, I went to bed by eleven, quite expecting to sleep. I have no history of insomnia. I fall asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. I can sleep anywhere, light, dark, noise, silence, it doesn’t seem to matter. So it alarmed me right off when at three in the morning, I lay there wide awake and exhausted, beneath my mismatched sheets, my blue thermal blanket and my orange and red comforter, bought on sale at K-Mart, years ago. My mind refused to shut down and go into neutral. I hear cars pass by on West street. I heard cats fighting in the narrow alley. I heard my neighbors having one hell of a fight, with the cuss words knocking against my ears for a good five minutes, and then they must have made up, because we all, those still awake, heard suspiciously loud groaning. But Misty, with her intense nobody understands him but me relationship with Jammsy, the name he had actually thrown at me when Misty had introduced us…well, Misty had always been very vocal no matter what she was doing. Her donkey’s bray of a voice carried effortlessly. As it had earlier tonight, at one or so.

The hours snailed by, as someone said or perhaps something I had read. My bedside clock ticked off each minute, the digital face big blurry blue numbers. I checked my phone; my phone, too, told me it was in the wee smalls. The rain pit pit pit pit pit pit against the glass. The communal mouse that lived in the walls rustling and munching. A dog barking then abruptly silenced. A television or somebody’s computer playing a sitcom, something with a laugh track. Someone else was up or getting ready to go to work or just getting home from work or play. Planes going by overhead. I heard planes. I’d swear to it. The tick of my water heater. Little gusts of wind now and then, nothing serious, no tornados here in the Northwest. Cats fighting. Over religion and politics, no doubt.

Morning. Gray and serene and misty with rain. I made scrambled eggs, yawning and red-eyed, but unable to go to sleep. It was rather like watching a frozen computer screen. You wait and wait for it to unfreeze and return to your game of solitaire or scrolling through the message boards under the latest conspiracy theory concerning robots, alien lizard overlords and pyramids, which you read, ironically and just for the laughs, of course…in my case, for my brain to just switch off and let me rest. My eyes ached in their gritty sockets. My mood came under the heading of ‘ shaky ‘. I went to work, I’m a mechanic at a local lube and oil place. I mostly just change oil and replace windshield wipers. My attention wandered and I naturally wondered if Mike and Penny had done this to me.

Of course not. I’d just never experienced any real bouts of insomnia before. I smiled as best I could and carried on.

After ten days of not sleeping, I found myself crying when I stepped on a spider on the sidewalk. By accident, of course. I didn’t go out of my way to slay spiders. I leave them alone; they mostly leave me alone. We have an understanding. My hands shook and trembled as if I had picked up a good case of palsy or had some sort of sudden onset seizure disorder. My mind refused to form logical chains of thought. I went from considering fish sticks for dinner to birds are evil with no intervening logical links in between. I broke all my coffee cups because I’d forgotten to buy coffee my last go-round at the grocery store two blocks over. I had remembered to buy toilet paper and cat litter, though. I had remembered the cat litter, for a cat I didn’t have. I also bought a single small container of cherry yogurt. Toilet paper, cat litter, cherry yogurt. Nothing else. So it made sense to break all the coffee cups in my cupboard, about ten or so. And just leave the mess for my imaginary cat to clean up. I had taken to sitting on the apartment-furnished recliner, my apartment had come somewhat furnished, wrapped in my ugly comforter, staring at my television set, which I did not actually turn on. I took long baths at two in the morning, hoping to at least drown and wake up somewhere else. I spent a chunk of my savings on bath salts, freesia scented. The woman at Bed, Bath and Beyond no doubt thought me either a fetishist or a harmless lover of all things freesia. Or both or neither or none of the above. I cut off all my hair at four twenty-eight am, which I had been growing for the last four years. I just took my scissors and began cutting. What a relief to have that oily, somewhat fine blackish-brown mess littering my bathroom floor! I wore a hat to work, a knitted hat, to hide what I had done. The urge to shave my head completely circled my whirling brain, too. Bam bam bam shave that head bam bam bam shave that head. Like something heavy in the dryer hitting the dryer wall. You wait for it to hit, you wait.

So, nothing too major yet. Just a lack of sleep, deprivation starting to make me a little nuts and openly tantrum-y as an exhausted, sick child, that was all it was, really. I stayed away from my usual stalking grounds over by the coffee shop and the thrift store. Over by the parks and the waterfront. I went to work, and I came home. Anything else was almost more than I could handle.

On the eleventh day, I broke down and wandered over to that coffee house, called something like the Mud Hut or the Bean Place, something so insufferably cutesy it was a wonder no one had yet firebombed it out of existence. I wore my knitted hat, for I had cut off the right side to about half an inch and left the other side alone. I wore old jeans, a brand-new blouse with sparkles, spangles and glitter all over it– a friend of mine had given it to me for both Christmas and as a joke– a mismatched pair of shoes and a fanny pack. No umbrella, no jacket, because the chances of rain were a hundred percent, and I liked the idea of defying those odds and that chance of chill. As for the fanny pack, it never got worn and today seemed just the day for it.

The hippie woman sat at a table, with a backpack tucked underneath that table by her hiking booted feet. She read and sipped from a cup of tea. Tea ordered in a house of coffee…just so wrong on so many levels. I sat at her table and her amused, pitying eyes came to me at once, her arms bare and stringy and ropy for she wore the same mustard tank top. Big nipples on her small boobs. And no bra. Her middle-aged boobs swung and moved and jiggled as she shifted, sitting back, marking her place in her book– Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. Really?? My eyes swung here and there, leaked tears down my cheeks.

You had enough? She regarded me as one might look at a smelly, mange-covered dog that just wants to sit in your lap and lick your face. A lot.

I sighed, wiped at my face with a borrowed napkin, which she slid across to me with all the judgment she could muster. They did this to me? I didn’t have time to play games or pretend something weird and otherworldly wasn’t going on. My mind refused to leap to that uppermost must-be-logical narrative. Mike and Penny? Why? Did you know you have freckles?

Who are Mike and Penny? Oh. The woman smiled, answering her own question. I’m Mamie, by the way. Mike and Penny, that is amusing. I’m amused. Yes, I know I have freckles. And yes, they did this to you. They plan on doing more things to you. Mike and Penny are just rather like that, sorry.

I sat there, my mouth agape, slack, drawing flies. I had no defenses left, no humor left to buoy me. Nothing much left at all to combat so much as a single ant. That I was unable to physically fall asleep was caused by two otherworldly sorts or whatever they were…seemed so plausible to me. Are they angels? Why would angels be so mean to me?

I can’t hurt them. Mamie? Mamie. No. Your name should be Sunshine or Suzy Creamcheese. Why am I thinking Suzy Creamcheese?

Mamie pressed her right hand hard against her mouth for a bit, her eyes bulging with how hilarious she found me. Her hand came away. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Suzy Zeiger. I have no idea why you’d think I’d go by such names. No, no, that’s not me. I’m a servant, I serve. I do what I’m told. Angels are servants. Nikki, is it? They told me your name.

I was still trying to fit that weird factoid into my blown-out brain’s remaining storage lockers. Not angels? What? I took her cup of lukewarm tea, sipped it without asking. No sugar, green tea. Ugh. Vile. Yet wet in my throat, it allowed my throat to work. I set the cup back down on the cracked saucer, both cup and saucer white and institutional. She knew my name, a nickname, really, for Nikkolena. Named for some great-great grandmother from the Old Country. Or because my mother had hated me so thoroughly she wished one and all to know it by giving me such a name. Oh. Mamie allowed me to steal her tea. I was crazy, leaking tears and dressed for both New Year’s Eve and a day spent in bed watching Lifetime women-in-peril movies. What are they? Unicorns?

Mamie sighed, impatient to be done with this, with me. She grabbed her backpack, stuffed her book in it, zipped it back up. Slid her cup of tea toward me. As they say, there’s nowhere to hide. Enjoy the tea. Later, gator. Suzy Creamcheese. As if. Mamie got up, her neat tail of hair falling over her shoulder. She wore her backpack off of one broad shoulder, her boobs jiggling. She had a small pot belly and big hiking muscles in her calves to go with her boots. She saluted me and left me to melt in a combination of my own hot tears and my own degenerating brain. Lack of sleep can kill you. I’d heard that somewhere. It’s not a nice way to go.

I finished the vile borrowed green tea in a couple gulps. I left the coffee shop with the vague idea of returning home to stare at the television set which I  of course would not turn on. Sparrows fought and divebombed each other over a fallen bagel. Someone kept dropping their bagel. I watched this, leaning up against the brick wall outside the coffee house, my hands shaking, my legs not that steady either.

It was no surprise that Mike spoke from behind me as I faced the other way, watching the deathly serious games of the feuding sparrows. Nikki. Nik Nik Nik. What a fucking pest you are. His voice. My bladder let go, just like that. It was like having a bear whisper in your ear. Something like a bear, something as scary and merciless and full of black, awful going to kill you and enjoy it humor as a bear. My breath curdled to sour milk in the linings of my lungs. I could smell myself, I hadn’t showered today yet. And now pee. I smelled like pee and cherry yogurt farts. Penny had been a warm gentle bunny compared to good ole boy Mike. Or something far better at hiding how truly awful and revolting and murderous it was.

You’re angels. I can’t hurt angels. Even though Mamie had told me otherwise, they were angels. I could not get past how they were angels. No amount of evidence otherwise seemed to matter.

Mike laughed. My stomach rumbled uneasily. I could not stop staring at the sparrows who took no notice of the two in their vicinity. He moved to where I could now see him. The red carnation hung over his left ear instead of jammed down into his Levi jacket pocket. Jaunty! I’m tall so we were about eye to eye height-wise. Angels? No, that’s not what we are. We’re nothing, we’re something else, we’re everywhere and nowhere. is that vague enough, even for you, Nikki? Are you going to stop noticing us? The truth, please.

My mouth opened. My tongue wagged. No. No. I’m going to write this all down, keep looking for you, keep keeping track! What are you? What are you?

Mike looked down the street to a rack of bicycles. Pretentious snotty bicycles. He had faint wrinkles limned around his lidless eyes. That lack of a fold in the Asian eye, the lashes straight and short, the brows winged and somewhat heavy. I wanted to stroke his eyeballs. I remember that clearly. I wanted to stroke his eyeballs. Pop them casually out of each eye socket and just…

I thought so. He looked back at me. Mike took the flower from behind his left ear, held it out to me. I took it, the spicy smell pungent and very fresh. A real carnation.

Go home, Nikki. May you get what you want. He winked and my stomach, rumbling and upset, gave me a tiny warning before my bowels let loose, too. Mike, whatever he was called, walked casually away without a backward glance. He had smelled mostly of dust and that carnation I now held in my hand.

I got myself home, soiled and stinking. The shower washed me clean and I held the flower in one hand, washed with the other. Somehow it seemed important, to my turned to ash and ashes brain, to keep that flower in my hand. The hot water and steam smelled of the tropical jungles now filled with spicy stiff flowers with stiffly red petals. I filled slowly with a rising tide of must-sleep-now. I remember only a little of stumbling out of my bathroom, naked, wet, shivering like a Chihuahua, wrapping myself in that ugly red and orange comforter, that red carnation still clutched in my hand, collapsing across my bed…before sleep arrived like a long-waited for period after thinking one is pregnant from some hasty, drunken one night stand. I went downward, downward, that’s all I can recall of going from being awake for ten days to being asleep.

Mike and Penny arrived at my apartment. In my dreams, I hope above all. That I just dreamed their coming, their staying a bit and their going away again. Because I like life to be easy and easily explainable.

They came to my door, which I had not locked. I had come home soiled as a diapered eight-month-old, after all and hadn’t slept for a bit. Call me forgetful! Anyone could have come in and helped themselves to my poor possessions. My toaster, my ancient computer that needed replacing, my collection of VHS movies including The Black Stallion Returns and Porky’s II, my freesia bath salts, my thrift store umbrella. Or perhaps made themselves a tuna fish sandwich and washed it down with some instant hot chocolate. Of course I had nothing more in my fridge than a bowl of cat litter and cherry yogurt. Which I had been eating once a day, in lieu of other meals altogether. Which would explain the stomach upset.

I had come from the deserts and the rain-soaked lands dismayed me no matter how I longed to enjoy them. This rain was unnatural to me. That’s how Penny and Mike seemed, too. Unnatural, not welcome here, out of place. If I had been born here in this green and water world, would my eyes have skipped over the two? Not noticed how they didn’t mesh with everything else around them? Noticed how they seemed in bad disguises that surely everyone saw through. Sadly, some days, I think, yes. Yes, if only my first few breaths had not been of the dusty dry air of harsh, gasping landscapes. Yes, if only I had been drawn from my mother in a soft, lush, too-verdant world with rain playing like elevator music in the background.

Mike stood on one side of my bed, Penny the other. They regarded my little bedroom with a dour, astonished levity, their exchanged looks a four-hour long Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard with two intermissions. Yes oh yes, my bedroom so deeply profoundly tragically funny. I sat up, wrapped clumsily in my comforter. My hair, my lopped off hair stuck every which way, my mouth rimmed with sleep crystals, my eyes bleary, my vision gummed and blurry. Had I not been expecting them, this, whatever they had come to do?

And oh, there was Mamie, too, in the doorway, with her backpack. Her nipples stuck out several inches, unnatural nipples. No female or male nipples stuck out that far. Oh.

This is a rodent’s nest. Penny sat near my head. Mike sat near my hip, on the right side of me. They gave off heat, like water bottles. Mike had another flower, a carnation, red, in his Levi jacket pocket. Penny wore her black loose shirt, her daisy headdress. Mamie wore a skirt, as if she had dressed up for the occasion. Cotton, navy blue with snowflakes. Snowflakes. It hit her just at her hairy knees. Same hiking boots. Same mustard tank top.

Penny spoke again when I could find no pithy rejoinder. This is our last warning. Leave us alone. Forget us.

No, you’re devils. I said this to them, all of them.

Yes, we are, that’s close enough to what we actually are, twit.  Mike smiled as he said this. Something in my head gave a tiny pop, and blood trickled, just a little trickle, from my right nostril. A giant walloping pain for a bit, then nothing. He had smiled, Penny had smiled, and something had fried in my head, a circuit had blown, a fuse had gone. He put his hand on my thigh. A thousand voids opened below me, around me, inside me. Penny kissed my cheek, her lips like being touched with razor blades and rose petals. Mike leaned toward me, his voice the voice of a happy bear about to happily eat a hiker. Gods, devils, what does it matter, human child…what does it matter?

And Mamie watched. Penny whispered the truths of the universe in my ears as Mike entered all the holes of my physical body, all the canyons and openings and slits of my soul and heart and mind. He lectured me, his lips against my ears as Penny took a turn, slipping into me in all ways ever thought of until I was nothing more than a broken pile of leftover flesh and unkindly broken bones and shredded heart. My soul had run long ago to hide itself until the carnage was over. My mind drowned itself willfully in this is not real, this is not real. I only imagined myself so ghastly damaged and torn open, they left my physical body sweaty and smelling of their usage. I smelled it for days afterward. For many years to come, I think. Mamie’s gaze never flinched. Their twin voices never stopped murmuring. I never stopped begging them to stop. Until I could no longer speak or think or scream, that is. And still they continued, the endless invasion rolling over me, through me, inside me, up into me, out of me, through me through me through me.

Toward the end, the long years of their twin assault on everything that was me, their words coalesced into one phrase. Leave us alone leave us alone leave us alone.

Leave us alone.

They left me by morning. I could not move, I had no tears for this. I lay there as raw and crude as a lump of bread dough. I cannot bear to have another come near me. I flinch from casual brushing against me by strangers in checkout lane. Such a vivid dream, I lie to myself, left indelible marks.

I survived, as they intended me to. I hid how I still saw them. Mamie, after a few months, disappeared. I saw her face on the local news, she had either gotten a reward for services to homeless children or had been found murdered down by the waterfront. I can’t remember which. I trained my gaze to pass right over them. I pretended not to see them, and they pretended my eyesight no longer stopped on them no matter how hard I tried to swing my gaze past them. I quit my job, I’m moving back to my homelands of dust and heat and arid earth.

All accounts of Penny and Mike I’ve kept up. I am sure there is much worse they can do. I have the belligerent bravado of a survivor. Come at me, finish me off. Yet, I am cautious and vague in my scribblings. Some nights I wake up and I smell cinnamon. I smell carnations and hot cosmic spices. They are keeping tabs, too. They are keeping tabs, too.


Photography Credit: Author for author photo. Jason Rice (cover detail).

Ann Wuehler’s Oregon Gothic was published in 2015 and her House on Clark Boulevard was published September of 2017. She had an evening of plays September 2018 with the Ilkley Playhouse in the UK. Bunny Slipper, a short story, was published in Whistle Pig 2018. The Whistle Pig has also published her short stories Pearlie at the Gates of Dawn, Maybelle and Greenhorn. The Moth and the Whale was published January 2019 in A Door is a Jar. They will also publish By Starlight By Starlight My Dear, a flash fiction piece, in July 2019. The Rumpus accepted her poem, My Feet Hurt recently. Sudden Denouement featured her poem, His Taste, on their site. Imptown was published in Twisted Vine, Spring 2020. Her third and fourth novels are out now- Aftermath: Boise, Idaho and the Remarkable Women of Brokenheart Lane. Jimmy’s Jar Collection will be in the latest issue of the Ghastling.