The Wall Garden
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Illustration by Katerina Apostolakou
There is no having, only a being, only a state of being that craves the last breath, craves suffocation. — Franz Kafka
Searing pain brands him, as though the world were a cigarette trying to put itself out on his body. Kevin Gostend tries to wrench himself free from the fiery agony, but that merely tightens its grip.
Then the burning transforms into a crushing force, the universe pushing in from all sides. After tremendous effort a muted gargle emerges from his lips. He’s blind; he can’t move; he doesn’t recognize his own voice. He feels hot slime, or perhaps blood, drool from his mouth and ears as his insides turn to jelly.
Kevin Gostend goes somewhere else.
Two weeks earlier, Kevin, whose driver’s license picture — flattering compared to the real deal — showed a doughy forty-eight year old with a wide forehead, big ears, a small angular nose, and a cold gaping smile married to an unattractive overbite, had landed in Weaverville, CA, the town where he’d grown up.
“You look awful,” said Dolores, owner of the house where he was crashing and divorced mother of one of his high-school drug buddies, now in jail. “And good morning. I’m sure that crappy mattress isn’t helping.” She set a cup on a nearby dresser. “Here’s some coffee.”
He looked away. “I remember my life as it once was,” he said, and threw himself back on the mattress. “Snapshots of a kiss, a car, a graduation. Melissa. Raymond. Ray again. Oh, and this one unbelievable blowjob, pardon my French.”
“Kevin,” Dolores began. He stared at her. He hated the way his name sounded when she spoke it. Maybe he hated the way it sounded, period.
“Kevin,” she said again.
He closed his eyes. “I remember getting married and thinking to myself, I have a future. I remember thoughts like I love Melissa, or I love Raymond, or It’s good to be alive. That was my life before the war took him from me.”
Dolores’ face drew itself into tight lines. She puckered her lips and spoke in a low voice. “Grow up. Chrissakes. You can’t blame the government for how your life’s turned out,” she said. “I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a son … in the way you lost yours. But Ray was an adult. He knew the risks. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
He shot her a quizzical look, the meaning of her words light-years away. He studied the skin that sagged on her chin and neck. A thin neck. He wondered what his hands would feel like on that old over-tanned skin, how hard his fingers would have to press, how far his thumbs would have to push down into her flesh before the veins in her neck burst, before she stopped breathing.
Dolores glanced at the coffee.
He shook his head. “Not anyone’s fault. I suppose that means Melissa was blameless. Not her fault. Depressed, cheating bitch, who worked through her pain by fucking other men. You’re good at this therapy shit. Charge by the hour?”
Dolores crossed her arms. Then she grabbed the coffee and downed it herself in short, urgent draughts.
“You need to leave,” she said. “Get help, Kevin. Professional help. I have to pick up some groceries. Be gone when I’m back.”
He smiled and nodded. She left.
That morning in Weaverville, while he imagined Dolores down at the supermarket shopping for toilet paper and hair spray, he thought about shooting himself in the face. It was a weirdly humid morning and the sky was a tumult of gray. He lay there on his old pal’s rickety bed and stared out the window.
As he watched the heavy embankments of cloud press down on the world, a surge of willfulness arose within, a desire not to succumb to a cliché of darkness and despair. If I’m going to kill myself, he thought, I’ll do it when it’s a beautiful day. Let the sun shine down on my corpse for all the world to see.
He packed up and within the hour he was gone.
The next four days, as it turned out, were overcast.
He studied the sky with ironic bemusement every couple of hours and decided to stay alive, connected to this world by a mere thread of meteorological happenstance.
And on the fifth day, as the sun began to peel away the mantle of melancholy off-whites and he resolved to make good on his commitment, he met the woman who would change everything.
Kevin, squeezed between two walls, feels consciousness return like tar, heavy and non-porous. He opens what he thinks of as his eyes, which feel more like slits, and attempts to move his limbs, which he fails to locate. Instead, his body is tube-like, bulbous, a distended mess without extremities or gripping appendages. He pulls in his grotesque gut (is that all that he is now, gut?) and heaves, and little by little he inches forward by undulating and writhing.
Exhaustion comes soon. A putrid liquid bubbles up to his mouth. It dribbles out of him and with it, small, hard things, bitter and pungent, maybe pebbles, or twigs, or dead animal parts.
He forces himself to continue.
Drug-induced hallucination, he tells himself. Hang in there.
In the penumbra, as he continues writhing up or down that seemingly infinite space, something brushes up against him. A carapace rebounds from him and comes back for a second pass. This time Kevin feels the creature’s many cilia-like legs as it crawls over him.
“Can you hear me?” Kevin asks. “Can you understand what I’m saying?”
The caterpillar says, “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Kevin replies. “Help me get out. I need to find a hospital. Someone’s done something to me.”
He isn’t sure how he’s speaking. No distinct words emanate from his blubbery mouth, only a low rumbling interspersed with chirps and clicks.
“Out?” the caterpillar asks. “You mean you don’t like it here?”
“I can hardly move,” Kevin said. “I can’t see because it’s so fucking dark. And it stinks like a hog house.”
“We’re inside a wall. Maybe you’re just hungry. You might feel better if you eat something,” the caterpillar suggests. “Try me.”
After a few moments Kevin says, “I can’t eat you.”
The caterpillar inches away.
“Help me,” Kevin says, to no one in particular. He tries to project himself more loudly. “HELP ME! HELP ME! PLEASE!”
Desperation proves exhausting, specially when it goes on and on and on without results. In the enclosure, completely without energy or purpose, starving, unable to tolerate the stench, Kevin decides to stop moving and die. Maybe that’s the way out of the dream and back into real life. Maybe he’ll wake up in an emergency room and a doctor will lean forward and say, “Close call, son.”
But he doesn’t die. And he doesn’t sleep. Hunger comes and goes in bouts, and at times he feels himself digesting parts of his own body. This makes him regurgitate again.
Then something else bumps into him — no carapace this time.
The snake swiftly coils itself around Kevin’s body and squeezes the air out of his lungs, if that’s what they are.
“Stop doing that,” Kevin wheezes. “You’re choking me!”
“Just restoring your circulation,” the snake replies and unspools itself.
Kevin feels a prickling heat spread all over his body.
“A little longer and you would have gotten stuck for good,” the snake chides.
“I’m already stuck.”
“Don’t be obtuse. You know what I mean.”
“What color are these walls?”
“It’s a single wall, in case no one told you,” the snake said. “And we’re inside it. Quite commodious, if you ask me. Plenty of room for exploration and meditation. Some of us who’ve been here a while think of this place as a garden. A wall garden.”
The snake recedes from him.
Kevin’s mind remains fixated on the two bumpy, smelly surfaces that define his world right and left, or up and down, or whatever direction he’s in. He’s inside a wall, made of two walls. That’s all there is.
“Is there a ceiling?” Kevin calls out.
“Then how come it’s so dark in here?”
“We’re so deep inside the wall that light wearies on its journey here. And if you ever got to the floor you’d just reappear somewhere else inside the wall.” With that, the snake is gone.
Her name was Clara. Kevin met her at a convenience store. He was buying cigarettes while she waited in line behind him, carrying two bottles. She wasn’t particularly attractive — short, pale, small and beady brown eyes, grungy shoulder-length hair that could use styling or a ponytail — but she was lithe, and possessed a nervous energy that he immediately responded to.
While the clerk fetched his smokes he turned to her and said, “The sun’s really coming out today, isn’t it? Seems like it’s been cloudy for weeks.”
She nodded absently, right hand rummaging through her purse, small lopsided smile but little eye contact.
The clerk brought out his cigarettes. He paid and stepped aside, pretending to examine his change.
In his peripheral vision he saw her place the bottles on the counter and heard the clerk ring her up. Her purse antics grew more frenzied until she finally said, “I’m so sorry, I seem to have misplaced my wallet.”
The clerk sighed loudly. “Have you reported it lost or stolen, ma’am?”
“It’s not lost or stolen,” she replied. “I’ve just misplaced it.”
The clerk shrugged. “We take card or cash. If you can’t pay for these items, please make room for the next customer.”
The woman glanced behind her. There was no one in line.
“Is there any way you can do me a favor? I promised my sister I’d bring wine to the luncheon she’s giving, and I hate to let her down. Let me take the wine — I’ll leave the whisky — and then she and I can drive back here later and we’ll pay for everything. Promise.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. “Ma’am— ”
“It’s okay,” Kevin interrupted, and reached into his pocket. “Here, on me. How much is it?”
The woman seemed taken aback by his intrusion, but not as taken aback as someone who had received no such favors in the past.
“Really, there’s no need,” she said half-heartedly, her words undermined by her strong smile.
“Not a problem.”
The clerk, with a disapproving look and a second shrug, passed the receipt on to him, and he plopped the cash down on the counter.
Kevin tucked the brown bag with her purchases under his arm. “Let me carry it out to your car for you.”
She said, “Be my guest.”
She pulled a key from the right pocket of her tight jeans as they reached her rusted-out black Hyundai Excel and opened the passenger side. He hadn’t seen a car this old in years. He leaned forward and was about to place the bag on the seat when she said, “Need a lift?”
Bag still under his arm, he said, “My Ford’s right over there.” He pointed to his truck, five spots from her car.
“The world might look different if you ride with me,” she said. “More grounded.”
He smirked. “Why not.”
While she got in he sat down on the passenger side, placed the bag on the floorboard and removed his baseball cap and sunglasses. The car smelled of cigarettes and faded dashboard vinyl.
She turned on the engine and said, “This rickety junk-heap belongs to a friend. Need to return it in a few hours. Only does like eighty, but it sure beats walking or catching the bus.” She applied fresh lipstick and perfume. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but he felt himself grow excited at the whiff of raw body odor it was covering up.
“Where do you wanna go?” she asked.
She glanced at the brown bag by his feet. “I’ve got a better idea.”
She drove to the outskirts of town and pulled onto a dirt road. Forest cropped up on either side, framing them with tall pines and eucalyptus trees. For a moment he felt penned in. She kept going for a few more miles and eventually pulled over. He relaxed. Sunlight mottled the dashboard, bright spots of morning floating down from the tree canopy.
It was quiet here.
Dark enough, he thought.
“So do you really have a sister?”
She blushed a little through her grin. “She died about five years ago. Fucking brain tumor. You believe that shit?”
Kevin pulled out some pills from his pocket.
“Want some?” he asked. “Very calming.”
He dropped two pills into the palm of her hand, careful not to touch her skin. He wanted to prolong the anticipation.
He swallowed two pills himself and closed his eyes.
Within moments he felt himself easing into the now, while the part of himself that was normally in control, the part that was depressed and suicidal, took a hike. Gone with it too the typical questions he would have asked, such as: What’s your name? What do you do for a living? Kids? All that bullshit — all the trappings that would lead away from the mystery and excitement of the present moment and back into the labyrinth of quotidian expectations, rote conversations, stereotypes, disappointments — all of that, poof.
He basked in the shared silence.
They sat like this, placid, while the world took care of itself.
After an indefinite period of dozing and beautiful dreams, she leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Want to taste me?”
He was instantly hard at the closeness of her warm breath against his earlobe.
Slowly, deliberately, her right hand disappeared into the front of her jeans, two forefingers outstretched. He saw the shape of her fingers in her crotch, working their way down and in. She closed her eyes and moaned.
This one imagined what her breasts looked like underneath her gray hoodie, slim and pale like the rest of her. In his mind’s eye he saw her nipples hardening, could feel their tips in his lips. Then the two index fingers emerged, gleaming and moist, and she half-reached her hand towards him and stopped, so that he had to lean forward and stretch his neck for his mouth to reach them.
He opened wide and enveloped her fingers with his mouth, wrapping them in his warm tongue, running his tongue down their length, pausing at the knuckles, dwelling on every subtlety of her hot, sticky, tangy taste. She trembled.
Without looking away, he reached down into the grocery bag, opened the bottle of Evan Williams and drew the bottle towards her mouth. She reclined and parted her lips, thrusting out her tongue. He allowed a little to pour into her mouth, spilled some down her chin. It dribbled down her neck and on her hoodie. He smiled and tilted the bottle more heavily, turning the upper part of her hoodie dark. Hungrily, he lowered his head to her chest, and began kissing the stains, tracing the contour of her breasts with his mouth. Her head turned sideways, flushed with excitement. He could smell her salty skin now, as he worked his way up to her neck and back down, and the taste made him even harder. On the way back down to her breasts he teased the hoodie zipper open with his left hand, and parted it just low enough to reveal her black cotton lace bra. Then he spilled more bourbon on her bra and sucked on each breast in turn, passionate and firm, but in control of his lust.
“You know, they lie when they say whiskey is sunlight held together by water,” he said.
She stared down at him, eyes wide. He moved up and kissed her on the mouth, long and playful.
“Sunlight and whiskey have come together to make a woman,” he went on, “and that woman is you.”
She grabbed his hand and slipped it inside her jeans. His fingers found her easily, and he teased her by circling a few times before slipping into her warm, tight wetness. He pushed his thumb against the not-so-little bump of her clit and began to drive his other fingers in and out of her, feeling her gushing at his touch. She began to grind on him, squeezing his fingers more and more tightly inside her.
“Make me burn a little brighter,” she said, and he did as instructed.
For the first time in this life or his previous one, Kevin wants to cry, longs for the release that will come with such abandon. But his slits-for-eyes are incapable of it, and the more he focuses on triggering the physiological process, the less psychological use he has for it, until the whole thing becomes a joke.
His futility turns to anger. He uses the anger to keep himself moving. That works for a short while, but hunger stymies him. The pangs Kevin experiences tug at his consciousness with an insistent, voracious pull. It is in this state that he encounters a crab. The being’s pincers brush against Kevin’s blob of a body; that brief contact sends Kevin into a tizzy of ravenous desire.
“I’m sorry,” Kevin says, and bites into it. The crab defends itself with desperate ferocity but Kevin won’t relent. His hunger acts as a balm for the pain of the crab’s thrusts and cuts. Then the crab abruptly stops fighting. Kevin envelops it with his turgid body and waits to see if its immobility is some kind of trap. But the crab appears to have simply given up. It has lost the will to live, Kevin thinks.
Kevin closes his eyes and snaps down as hard as he can on the crab’s tough shell. His teeth aren’t much to speak of but his jaw is a powerful device, and repeated clenching and unclenching soon gets him places. A cracking sound is followed by the sensation of something warm and pulpy spilling into Kevin’s mouth. Without a doubt, this is the most succulent meat he has ever tasted. Eating is too slow to satisfy his hunger; he aspirates the crab’s innards. In his haste, pieces of the crab’s shell mix in with the more tender insides, but it makes no difference.
On the drive back to the parking lot they exchanged names. Clara went on to tell him that she was a user who’d tried to clean up twice, and that after losing her job six months ago she’d been raped by a drunken ex-co-worker, about three miles from where they were currently parked.
“Why stay here?” Kevin asked.
“Every place is the same. You only travel in your mind.”
Insipid nonsense, he thought. Starving, he asked Clara if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She declined.
As they reached his truck his pulse weakened and his palms became clammy. “I want to see you again,” he said.
“You’re cute.” She had changed from her hoodie into a black sweater that was a size too small, with a visible hole on the right shoulder. The tightness of the fabric and the exposed patch of skin distracted him from her refusal to extend their interaction. All he could think about was how she looked underneath her clothes. How she smelled. How she tasted.
“Please,” he said, ashamed of himself. Uncomfortable thoughts arose about the friend to whom she had to return the car. “I mean, if…”
Clara’s smile faded. “You bought me the booze and gave me that stuff, and—”
“—and I thanked you for it, in my own special way. That’s it. I’d like to remember you as a friend.”
Clara started the engine.
The other one’s jaw clenched. He looked outside. The sky was cloudy again. He nodded slowly, opened the door, got out and slammed it shut. Clara said, “Fuck you, too,” and squealed out of the lot.
He studied her license plate as she left. Once back inside his truck, he examined the cell phone pictures he’d taken of Clara while she had drifted off. He then reached into his pocket to inventory the snatched spoils. He ran his finger over her smooth lipstick case and became hard, saved her driver’s license for last.
Now, to wait.
Devouring the crab infuses Kevin with strength, and he writhes for what seem hours, days. Eventually, his eyes better used to the dimness, he makes out a scorpion, except this one has two upward-curving segmented tails instead of just one. Kevin hesitates.
The scorpion advances, stingers snapping forward.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” Kevin says, retreating as rapidly as his ponderous body allows.
“What makes you think you could intrude, even if you wanted to?”
“Maybe I’ll intrude on you.” The scorpion’s stingers turn on each other for an instant, in a grotesque parody of clapping hands.
“Can we talk for just a minute?” Kevin pleads. “My name’s Kevin.”
“Talk before I kill you? Is that what you mean?”
“If you get to know me—”
“Then I won’t be so bent on poisoning you?” A pause. “Is that what she tried with you? I used to be a she too, you know.”
Kevin feels his brain turn to mush. “She?”
“Yes. The one you liked so much you had to kill.”
“I can’t remember killing anyone.”
“Not remembering is a far cry from not doing.”
Kevin knows that there’s no way, given the scorpion’s speed, that he can escape.
He thinks of the crab.
“Ever since I arrived in this place I’ve just been trying to stay alive,” Kevin says. “Wake up from this bad trip.”
“Liar. That’s not what you believe this is.”
“You remember her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Let me help you.” The scorpion pounces on Kevin and the stingers come down hard, piercing Kevin’s fatty middle. But instead of pain the penetration is almost orgasmic, a sudden, vast, dissolution of his control, a surrender and an emptying of himself into something else, new, other.
The scorpion’s stingers are inside me, Kevin reflects, surprised by his own calm, by his ability to articulate exactly what is happening.
Then the tips of the stingers release their venom and Kevin remembers.
After bashing in the side of Clara’s head with an ashtray, Kevin felt a flash of euphoria, followed by a migraine, hallucinations of burning and being crushed alive.
The visions passed. Only seconds had elapsed. He sat on the edge of the bed, very still.
He felt… lighter.
Something warm flooded the sheets and ran down his legs. He looked down. It took him a few moments to realize it was his own urine.
Kevin chokes for an instant, as though the onrush of recollections is a physical discharge clogging up his mouth.
He sputters, hyperventilates, screams. The two-tailed scorpion pulls the stingers out.
“You remember now, don’t you?”
Kevin gasps for air. Spittle on his lips, he turns himself upside down so that he won’t have to see the scorpion.
“Yes,” he manages. “Clara was her name. This is some sort of punishment, isn’t it?”
“Reflect upon the walls,” the scorpion says. “Begin your work.”
Kevin twitches. He wants to be free from this place. He’s sick with fear, sick of the darkness and the acrid, foul smell. The walls provoke nausea. His own body makes him want to retch. Enough is enough. “My work is to get the fuck out of here,” he says.
“If you become obsessed with leaving, you’ll never get out. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“What makes you the expert? I mean, why are you even here?”
“Killed my husband and two children,” the scorpion says. “He was thirty four. One of my boys was three, the other five. I tried shooting myself several times. Just couldn’t do it. I think my name was Suzanna.”
The prurient details of the scorpion’s other life console Kevin, at least for now. “How long you been inside this wall?”
“So long I don’t know if anything I just told you is true. I think I arrived as a rat. I killed myself quickly — tore into my own skull with my claws and scooped out my rat brain. Then I came back as a slug. Better-looking than you. For years I fed on the excrement of this one gorgeous, over-sized aphid. Eventually the aphid was eaten by a spider and I starved. Came back a dozen more times after that, but I’ll spare you the gory details.”
Kevin wriggles back.
The scorpion laughs.
Kevin calms himself and says, “So wanting to leave won’t work. Maybe I’ll try the opposite.”
“Sorry, giving up is also a bust. Then you just end up becoming an apathetic zombie. There are thousands of them, maybe even millions, not far from here. A whole colony of numbed-out giant hornets, soldier ants, bot flies that will lay their tasty eggs inside your mouth while you sleep. Good luck.”
“Wanting to leave is useless. Not wanting to leave is useless. You’re helpful.”
“Patience,” the scorpion says. “There’s still some of you left in the world you came from. Living his life, what used to be your life. This other one, the remainder of you, is purer than before. No conscience. No guilt. It’s up to this other one to decide what happens next. He may end up realizing what he’s missing and pull you out by sheer force of will. Or he may never notice what he has become and leave you here to rot forever.”
Kevin imagines this other him going about his business as though nothing has changed. Getting up in the morning, drinking, playing online poker, working some shitty job, jerking off to porn. He hates that creature, has nothing but contempt for that stupid, joyless self-pitying fuck.
“You seem depressed. Poor Kevin.” The scorpion chuckles.
Kevin resumes his travels and leaves the scorpion far behind. In time he encounters a dung beetle who confirms many of the things the scorpion told him.
“So you’re also waiting for the other you, somewhere out there, to pull you out?” Kevin asks. Even the slightest commonality with one of the wall’s other denizens will help keep him from going completely insane.
“Fuck my other one,” the dung beetle says. “I belong here. No way in hell I’m leaving. That would be… dishonest.”
The dung beetle whistles to his friend, a red scarab beetle that has been waiting in hiding above Kevin. The scarab beetle lunges and rips open Kevin’s flesh.
Kevin’s last slug thought is, I wonder if they’re going to roll my body up into a ball.
The other him, the one who remains in the world of greasy late-night diners and neon-lit transience, drives away from Weaverville and thinks about the store where he met Clara, and how video tape will show them together. But he paid cash, and his face was covered by his cap and sunglasses, so they won’t easily ID him. Besides, will the world really care that someone like Clara is gone? Who will report her missing?
The other one turns on the radio and keeps driving all night and all day. He relishes his newfound freedom. He can drift through any town he chooses or stay put. He can eat healthy and live clean and or he can get hammered and gorge on junk-food. He can be a model employee or he can sleep in and say “I quit.” He can save or max out his credit cards. He can be a good Samaritan or lie and steal and kill. He can do it all at the same time. He can be whatever he wills himself to be in the moment — even if that’s nothing at all.
Kevin is a centipede now, smaller than his previous slug incarnation, more nimble. “If I’m gone, why would my other one repent and pull me out? He was a sad excuse for a human being when he had me, imagine now.”
“You’re just as sad,” the giant hissing cockroach replies. “Don’t forget that you guys were tight once.”
“The only thing that’s tight is this goddamned wall.” As a centipede he’s small enough to detach himself from one of the surfaces and plunge down through the crawlspace void. He has tried that several times. He just keeps falling and falling until he tumbles and scrapes his way back to one of the walls.
“Do you think there’s any way for me to communicate with him?” Kevin asks.
“I’ve heard of stranger things. But I wouldn’t trust anything I say.” The cockroach blows air out of its spiracles, as though to emphasize the point.
Kevin gets underway once more and eventually reaches a section of the wall festooned with spider-webs. He backtracks. But before he knows it, a female praying mantis has swooped down on him from the opposite wall and hooked him with her raptorial legs.
The mantis begins eating him, her eyes strangely alive. Kevin squeals. A second mantis descends on him and joins in the festivities.
With Kevin’s insides falling out, the first mantis interrupts the feast to savagely copulate with the second one. It then bites the head off its male companion and pushes its still-twitching body into the opening of Kevin’s gutted torso. The female mantis resumes its eating, seeming to relish its new two-body combo.
Kevin comes back as a lizard and resolves to be more aggressive. He stays alive for a long time. But deeper and deeper inside the wall, he discovers more and more creatures like the mantis, ferocious, hungry, who lash out and kill without any provocation. These critters aren’t like the others: their eyes are on fire, they never speak, and their thirst for killing is unquenchable, often causing them to turn on one another.
Almost as though they’ve come here for the pure sport of it, Kevin thinks, and scuttles in the opposite direction.
The other one thrives while he explores his new do-whatever-I-please self for two weeks before the depression returns.
One morning he sits in his truck waiting for the sun to rise and when it does, he nods to himself, and ambles to the nearest diner for one final meal.
On his second cup of coffee, but before his hamburger and fries arrive, he glances up as a long-limbed blonde places her hand on his shoulder and says, “Excuse me mister, got a sec?”
You gotta be shittin’ me. “Sure.”
The blonde, dressed in form-fitting sportswear, sits across from him in his booth. She’s about six-one, trim but with curves where it counts, and her eyes, the color of turquoise diamonds, match her fingernails.
“I never do this,” she says.
“Me neither. I always get steak for breakfast.”
She chuckles and plays with her two long braids, for a moment making them look like tails growing out of her head. “I never do this, meaning approach strangers and sit in their booths. But I saw you from the bar-stool, and I was convinced I knew you from somewhere.”
“No, I’m sure.” She scrutinizes his features. “Would you mind taking off your glasses and hat?”
Don’t. He complies.
She smiles. “Yep, I definitely know you from somewhere.”
“And where might that be?”
She leans forward conspiratorially. “I’m going to tell you something real strange. Promise not to laugh at me.”
He sits back. He likes her perfume. Strong but not cheap — unlike Clara’s. The blonde’s skin looks soft. Well-cared for. Maybe it needs some roughing up.
“I recently had a dream that I was a scorpion,” she says. “Very vivid. Unlike any other dream I’ve ever had. I have this strange sense that I know you from there. From inside the dream. It’s a place where you can be free… express who you really are. Give in to all your desires.”
She crosses her legs and licks her lower lip.
His food arrives. He offers her some. She half-eats, half-sucks on a few fries. He says, “Tell me more.”
“The weirdest thing of all is that I’m convinced that there’s a way to get back there.”
Several bites into his burger he puts it down and takes a long sip of coffee.
“Back there. You mean the dream?”
“Well, yeah. Sorta.” She blushes. “Jesus, I sound like a raving lunatic. I swear I took my meds this morning.”
“You do sound a little nuts,” he says calmly, “but as you can see I’m not laughing at you.”
She blinks her long eyelids coquettishly. “We could go back into the dream together.”
“Is that so?” He grins, pushes his plate to the side. There are things going on underneath the table he’s happy no-one can see.
“Yep. The only kicker is, to get there we’d have to do something seriously crazy.”
“You seem to excel in that department.”
She reaches forward and plays with his knife, turning it this way and that, studying her reflection in the blade. Then she sits straight, cuts into the middle finger of her left hand. He sees a streak of crimson well to the surface around the still-inserted blade. She removes the knife slowly, making no effort to attend to the cut.
“The question is, am I right about you?”
She turns the knife so that the handle points in his direction. Instead of picking it up and cutting into his own hand in reciprocity, he takes the blade and licks off what remains of her blood.
“How am I doing?” he says, eyes fixed squarely on hers.
Her cheeks dimple. “Not bad.”
He moves his leg under the table until his foot touches her ankle, then traces a slow arc, pushing against her thigh, until he reaches the soft spot where her inner thigh turns into her groin, and there he lingers.
“Better,” she whispers.
He pulls his leg back abruptly. “So what do we need to do to go back to this fantastic world of endless possibilities?”
Her eyes seem to burn with unnatural brightness. “A suicide pact — just like the ones you see in the movies. I haven’t known you for more than a few minutes, but I think you’re the kind of person I could kill myself with.” She exhales, louder than a sigh, more dramatic.
His heartbeat accelerates and his mouth opens. The words that come out are, “What’s your name, sunshine?”