A short story by Taya Devere.
A short story by Taya Devere.
a short story by
“And where the actual fuck have you been, coming home this late?”
The heavy front door is only halfway open when his low but hissing voice greets her. Rose pushes herself in and slips by her boyfriend whose frame blocks half of the entrance to their one-bedroom apartment. His seemingly relaxed posture doesn’t fool her. It hasn’t for many years.
Rose takes the extra steps back, not to get further away from him—not just for that—but to discreetly scan the living room table for beer cans as she strips off her winter coat. One quick glance is enough for her to count them in her head.
One, two, three, four, five cans. I should be okay.
”It was the end of the semester party. I told you about it, remember?”
As much as she focuses to keep her voice natural and neutral, her words tremble toward the end of her supposedly carefree answer.
“Dressed like that? What, was the party at a club where you’ve taken a night job as a stripper? I know we could use the extra cash, but whoring is not exactly what I had in mind when I suggested you get a job,” he says, never lowering his intense stare.
Rose swallows loudly, struggling to find the words to reply. They’ve had the same conversation a thousand times before. The answers should be in her head, ready to pop out, like a script she knows by heart. But as her body tenses and her breath becomes shallow, she forgets every answer that may get her out of this frightening but all too familiar situation. Her mouth opens and then closes again, like a fish on a dry land.
Finally, he scoffs and rolls his eyes, like she was the most boring thing on Earth. Walking back to the living room, he tilts his head back and empties a can into his mouth in order to get the last few drops of IPA.
Six cans. Fuck.
“Are you eating healthy? Your sister wants to know if you still fit in your collection of jeans or if you’re ready to hand it over to her?” Rose’s mother’s high-pitched laughter forces Rose to pull the phone further away from her ear. Sending Mindy her jeans may seem like a harmless joke to her mother, but Rose knows her sister’s not joking.
Since they hit puberty, Mindy had become obsessed, not only about her own weight and looks, but Rose’s appearance as well. The twins look nothing alike. Not in Rose’s eyes, at least. Mindy has more hair than she would grow in her lifetime, and her sister never put on an extra pound, not even after pigging out on a Friday night, munching too many salty treats and then balancing her stomach with sugary ones: pastries, chocolate, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“You can tell that skinny little shit it ain’t going to happen,” Rose said, wondering how her voice sounds so carefree, amused even, as her anger and annoyance bubble and burn beneath the surface.
Her sister’s obsession about carbs, makeup, and perfect pony tails has made her well aware of her non-perfect looks. It’s not that she’s fat or ugly—whoever gets to define what ugly is anyway— but her self-esteem has always been butchered by her more beautiful, more talented, more everything, sister. People don’t see this shadow in her; they only see a confident, striking, admired young woman.
“Easy for you to say—your life is so perfect.” Rose has run out of answers to overrule this false claim people keep throwing at her face.
She doesn’t want to care what she looks like. Such a shallow, meaningless thing as appearances shouldn’t control her life. But most nights, as she washes off her carefully placed makeup, she spends an hour staring at her face, cursing its tiny flaws and the dark bags below her hazel eyes, revealing the truth of one too many sleepless nights.
“And how is Joe doing? Don’t let that boy spoil you rotten! Nobody’s going to pull out your chair when you return home from Washington.”
Rose swallows loudly and plays with her tongue, as she does in situations where others might bite their tongue or lip. What would her mother do if she knew? If Rose hinted of the alcohol stink in Joe’s breath or his spit on her face? What could she do? For Mom, Joe is the perfect fiancé and their love story the kind authors are inspired to write trilogies about. Perfect, handsome, successful Joe.
“Joe is well. Working less, which is good.” Good for his alcoholic ways, she adds in her mind.
Things had gone downhill when Joe quit his job as a developer back in their home state of Texas to move in with Rose while she spends the next four years studying in Washington.
At first, meeting him was a dream come true. Even Mindy approved of the popular and handsome Joe when Rose first brought him home for her family to meet.
Their puppy love had quickly turned into a serious relationship during high school. In everybody’s eyes, they were the perfect couple; Barbie and Ken, Sid and Nancy, Mickey and Minnie. The façade was brilliant from the get-go, too perfect for even herself to question. That is until the red flags started to appear.
At first, it was temper tantrums: Joe snapping, his judgmental comments and nasty looks. The behavior got worse when he resigned from his full-time job. The tantrums didn’t become a nightly habit until Washington and his struggle to find a new job despite his off-the-charts recommendations and experience. And then came the IPAs.
He never laid a hand on Rose. Spitting in her face remains the most physical act during Joe’s hostile flare-ups. If he did—as much as bitch-slap her—she’d dump him in a heartbeat. At least that’s what she tells herself on those nights when she sobs quietly in the shower for thirty minutes, convincing herself she isn’t the worthless, fat, acne face Joe’s words doom her to be.
“All right, Mom. I’ll see you next week, okay? Love you,” Rose says, eagerly thinking about the week-long Christmas vacation she’ll soon get to spend at home. Joe will drive down with her, but he’ll be staying with his grandmother, a bitter and nasty woman who took over raising Joe after he lost his parents in a car accident when Joe was only twelve years old. Rose convinces herself that their brief separation isn’t the reason why she waits for her return to Texas so impatiently.
“Such a sweet boy, that Joe,” her Mom says just before the phone line disconnects. Rose sighs and tosses the phone on the kitchen table. Leaning her elbows against the table’s cold glass, she circles her closed fists slowly around her temples. It’ll get better. This is just a phase.
The fizzing sound of a beer can opening echoes from the living room.
The bump on the back of her head rises quickly. The oozing, steady bounce radiating from her head blurs her vision.
“Shit… Watch your step, love. You’ve always been so clumsy.”
Clumsy is not a word that would describe Rose, not at any given situation. Her newest hobby, horseback riding, has taught her body control beyond what any gym practice could. She’s constantly aware of her core, making sure her point of balance is always between her belly button and spine, even while driving or grocery shopping. After her first lesson, her trainer had told Rose she’s a natural. She still believes it was the horseman’s way of ensuring she’d come back for more, handing the trainer fifty bucks for being yelled at for forty-five minutes.
No, it wasn’t her clumsiness that made her fall and bump the back of her head on the bedroom closet door. It was him waking her from a deep sleep, forcing her to get up, him backing her into a corner. Just before Rose was backed against the bedroom wall, she had tripped on a pair of Joe’s sneakers, carelessly left laying in the middle of the floor.
“It’s my riding teacher! Ricky. That’s his name.”
Joe stands above her, considering her words. His fist tightly wrapped around Rose’s phone and him hissing something about Ricky tells her the old trainer must have sent her a text message, most likely canceling their morning lesson due to bad weather. Joe must have thought Ricky was Rose’s ill-gotten boyfriend, canceling their secret date.
“Oh. Well, shit,” he says, rubbing the side of his head with the phone. Rose pushes her upper body up, supports herself on her elbows. The room spins wildly. This must be what a concussion feels like, she thinks as the walls twirl.
Hey, you shouldn’t let that spunktrumpet treat you that way.
An unfamiliar man’s voice, thick with a foreign accent, makes Rose jump and sit up straight.
“Take it easy, love. You bumped your head pretty hard,” Joe says, but doesn’t dare move closer or offer a helping hand. Things have flared up between them many times before, but no one had gotten hurt before. He doesn’t know how to react.
“What’s a spunktrumpet?”
“A spunktrumpet. Did you just call me that?” Rose says, confused, staring into space. Joe looks at her, unsure what to say. He wonders if he should call the hospital, risking them not believing the truth of his clumsy girlfriend, tripping into a pair of shoes late on a Saturday night. Might as well tell them she walked into a closet door.
“You should go back to bed, love. You’ll feel better in the morning. Sorry for waking you up. I just… you know.”
“You know? What is it exactly that you know, hm? Who is he to call you ‘love?’” This cuntpuddle isn’t for real.”
“Cuntpuddle? Are you British?” Rose asks, a blank stare shadowing her face. Joe has already exited the room when she replies to the foreign voice.
“I get that a lot. No, I’m not British. I’m Finnish. And you’re American? From the south? And oh, by the way… what in Pete’s name are you doing inside my head?”
Supporting her injured, and clearly bat shit crazy head, Rose gets up and walks back to her side of the bed. The more the bump on the back of her head grows, the more the pain subsides. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
“We should get you to a hospital. That was one nasty fall you took.”
“Yeah, we. I guess I must be your alter ego or some other funky shit. And you mine.”
Rose chuckles at the voice’s claim, muffling her laughter into a pillow. She pulls the blanket over her head to block their conversation reaching Joe’s drunken ears in the living room.
“Alter ego? I don’t believe in stuff like that,” she replies, frowning but amused. The throbbing headache turns into a dull, nagging ache.
“Neither do I. Or, I didn’t. Not until tonight, when I watched that cockwomble push you into a closet door.”
“He didn’t push me,” Rose corrects him quickly.
A mocking scoff is the only reply she gets.
“But he didn’t push me! I tripped on those sneakers… wait….” Rose’s index finger, pointing in the assumed direction of the disastrous shoes, freezes under the blanket.
“Did you say… you… watched me fall?”
“Yeah, I did. What, you can’t see me?”
Rose is dumbfounded. Focusing on this new feeling her consciousness has created, she turns her focus inward, to herself, like she was taught to do when Mindy dragged her to one of her meditation classes. Rose had found the concept to be utter nonsense.
As she closes her eyes, Rose sees a blurry image of white wallpaper with tiny flowers printed on its wrinkly surface. At the end of the room, two huge windows cover most of the back wall, but the view they’re supposedly providing is swallowed by dark. Dim street lights reflect rain falling on a rooftop of another building complex across the road. Above the gray, depressing view, a bright star shines its light, seemingly out of place, too beautiful for the rest of it. The northern star.
“Is that… a penthouse?”
The voice chuckles before it responses. “Penthouse. I like that. But, in all honesty, it’s more of a rental apartment on the top floor of a moldy, old building complex.”
“Am I seeing all this through your eyes?” Rose’s question is just a whisper, not to stop Joe from hearing their secret, supernatural conversation, but because the question is so surreal, she can barely stand to ask such a foolish thing.
The voice says nothing. Rose stares at the northern star, shining brighter than she’s seen it before. A sudden movement under the star, a reflection in the window, catches her eye. A shape of a man, sturdy and strong, moves closer to the window. It stops right under the northern star, hesitating, as if to contemplate what to do next.
Rose tosses the blanket off her head. She reaches for the lamp on her nightstand, turns it on. Feeling as if she’s stuck in a slow-motion film, she raises her left hand, waves it slightly.
The shape under the star mirrors her movement, waving back.
Oh no. No, no, no.
The gift-wrapped present lands on the icy pavement next to her truck. The sound of shattering glass leaves no question whether she has just destroyed Joe’s Christmas present for his grandmother. Rose can’t remember what it was Joe got her, but by the sound of its landing, she’s sure whatever it was is now broken into pieces.
Ha! Serves him right! You’re not going to tell him, right? It’ll be a long drive to Texas.
The voice is right. Normally her morals wouldn’t let her cover her tracks, disappointing Joe and his grandmother as they open the presents they got one another. But Joe opened his first beer early this morning. Four empty cans sit next to a wobbly, wooden stool and an ashtray on the front porch.
When Rose doesn’t answer the voice in her head, it continues. I don’t get it. You’re strong, sophisticated, drop-dead gorgeous… why not dump his ass and get it over with?
“It’s not that simple. He has a dreadful past. He was raised to be… what he is.”
What? A girlfriend-beating, IPA-consuming tosspot?
She surprises them both as she bursts into laughter. It’s not the first time her alter ego has made her laugh. During their few days together, they focused on bickering—having endless arguments about which is the most surreal pizza topping, pineapple or peanut butter—rather than discussing the why and how the two are now part of each other’s lives.
“What the fuck, Rose? I know you hate my grandmother, but this is outrageous!”
Joe stomps out to see the fallen present on the driveway pavement—and Rose laughing full-heartedly while staring at it. How is Joe to know a gay guy across the world is making her laugh? That she’s not chuckling because of the smashed gift, but his inappropriate jokes?
“Sorry, Joe, I didn’t mean to, I swear,” Rose says but she can’t stop laughing. The joke is not that funny, but the sleepless nights are pulling a trick on Rose’s tired brain.
His hand closes around her ponytail, pulling her down next to the broken present, laying in a low layer of snow. Her winter coat makes a ripping sound when Joe drags her toward to the house.
“Get the fuck up! You said you wouldn’t put up with this! Get. The fuck. Up.”
The voice is too panicked to sound angry. The man in her head helplessly watches Joe tow Rose toward the front door. He’s right. The voice is right. She did make a promise to herself. Feeling sorry for Joe is one thing but letting him pour all his toxic waste on her is another. Surprisingly, him laying his hands on her doesn’t feel worse than his insults, between the line threats and the other mental violence she lives with; both forms of violence make her feel just as beaten. For too long, she’s been doing this; giving second chances, third chances, fourth…. It’s time to respect herself again, to be in control of her own life.
Using her newfound core strength, Rose spins around. She kicks Joe’s legs from beneath him and the sudden, perfectly controlled movement takes him by surprise. He lands hard on his butt.
Just. Fucking. Run.
Rose does as her alter ego suggests. She runs down the driveway, jumps over the wrapped present and gets in the driver’s seat. Backing out onto the quiet street, she stops and pulls the hand break on. The truck is left running when she gets out.
No, no, no. What are you doing? Get back in the car, you silly-ass woman! Leave that piss-stain to lie in the dirt where he belongs!
Not bothering to answer, Rose walks around the truck and opens the back door. She pulls out a duffel bag the size of her body, a black, bunny-eared trash bag full of dirty laundry, and three pairs of shoes. Item after another, she tosses Joe’s belongings onto the pavement by the driveway.
“Find yourself another ride, love! And find a new place to live while you’re at it!”
The word Google appears on the computer screen. In the ruthless fluorescent light, a layer of blond hair shimmers above the young doctor’s upper lip. His desperate intention to grow a mustache is painfully obvious. Dee can’t blame him. The baby face’s twiggy, tall body drowns in the white lab coat, forcing him to repeatedly roll his long, falling sleeves so his slightly shaky hands can continue typing. He’s the kind people would mock on a windy day, suggesting he’d hold on to something so the wind wouldn’t steal him away.
Like this toddler could help.
Dee usually ignores her inner demon, venomously talking inside her head, but this time she must agree with its words.
The almost-mustache types the words panic attack into the search bar. How Dee has enough energy to stop herself from rolling her eyes is beyond her tired and slightly foggy brain. Couldn’t he at least turn the screen away from her? Couldn’t he pretend to know what to do with her?
“It says here that panic disorder can be caused by either genetics, major stress, or a temperament that is more sensitive to stress or prone to negative emotions. Are you… do you… is there, umm….”
Her demon lets out a sigh so deep and hissing, Dee jumps in her chair.
You are such a numb-nut! You feel bad—for him? This is what they pay him to do! So you make him uncomfortable, so what? It’s his fucking job!”
“Shut up,” Dee hisses back at her demon, lashing her words out loud.
“I’m… I’m sorry… You don’t need to—” the doctor stutters.
Dee curses herself when she looks up and sees his uncomfortable grin, leaving Dee wondering if he has soiled his pants. “No, not you. It’s okay. You’re doing fine. To answer your question, yes, yes, and yes. Alcoholism and depression run in our family, I am hypersensitive to nearly fucking everything….” Dee stops, peeks at him to see if her unplanned cursing upset the young man even more. In his frozen state, he manages to nod, meeting Dee’s eyes only for a moment until he quickly continues to stare over her shoulder. Anything to not hold her gaze.
“…and my father just told me he has cancer.”
The box of pills presses painfully against her palm as Dee walks to her old, temperamental car, waiting in the hospital’s parking lot. There were multiple empty parking spots available when she arrived, but she had parked her car by the entryway; a guaranteed way to get a parking ticket or get yelled at by the hospital guard. She checks the windshield and scans the yard. No ticket and no guards.
Using the sleeve of her winter jacket, she wipes off a thin layer of snow from the car door, pulls out the key and unlocks the door. How is the lock not frozen? This winter has been more brutal than what they’re used to experiencing, even here in her arctic home country near the North Pole.
She seeks for her usual feelings of fluster, sadness, or anger. Since her dad broke the news, she’s become numb to all of it. Without emotions, she feels as if she’s a mindless robot, moving through her days; an empty frame repeating her daily chores, working at the local supermarket, stacking rye bread, and listening to customer complaints, day in and day out.
You should have told him you have dissociative identity disorder. Now that’s a bitch to Google.
“I don’t have… that,” Dee answers her demon out loud, feeling mortified at the realization of her now having full on arguments with her inner demon.
You’re right. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re just crazy. Bonkers. Off your nut. Bananas. Batty.
“I’ve never been diagnosed with any of that. I’m fine!” Dee yells, loud enough for the old man sitting in his car next to Dee’s to turn and stare at her. As the temporarily lost anger lashes through Dee’s posture, the tears burn the back of her eyes. She begs them to come out, dreaming of the relief their stream would bring her. But the tears stubbornly settle to burn her eye sockets, refusing to refill the much-needed human emotion back into her empty shell.
The old man keeps staring, his mouth slightly open.
Is your psycho-ass going to yell at that staring shitpouch as well?
The back of the store is quiet. Dee stacks frozen cinnamon buns, apple wieners, and star-shaped Christmas puff pastries on the baking trays. Setting the full trays into a bakery rack on wheels, Dee pushes them along the dim hallway. After opening the commercial freezer’s door, she gives the rack a forceful nudge. It slides into the icy room. The rack rolls on its wheels until it stops in a slot in the middle of two cardboard box mountains. Sweets on the left, salty on the right.
As Dee’s the one closing tonight, it’ll be someone else’s responsibility to roll the frozen goods out tomorrow morning, bake them, and provide their morning-person customers with a chance to defy diabetes.
Just as Dee pats her oversized work pants to find the soft package of Marlboros, her phone buzzes in the chest pocket of her work jacket. Their manager has forbidden the use of personal phones during all shifts at the supermarket. Dee finds this rule annoying and controlling but obeys it anyway. At least, she does most days, but today is different. Her Dad has gone into surgery only a week after learning he has cancer.
Mom calling flickers on the Nokia phone’s broken screen. Dee is notorious for dropping her phone or tossing it into a wall. She’s always been sensitive, easily crushed under sadness, and effortlessly lifted high into a hyper state when experiencing joy. Her hypersensitivity is also quick to anger. The old Nokia phone usually ends up being her victim when she lashes out in frustration.
“Mom?” Dee leans against the open freezer door’s frosty surface. Shivers travel through her tense body, the coldness having nothing to do with it. Her mom not immediately bursting into a relieved rant about Dad being okay—that it all went well, that we worried for nothing—is enough for her to know she’s not calling to share good news. A single, quiet sob on the other end of the phone line confirms what Dee already knows.
“Honey. Dee. Something went wrong during surgery.”
Cocooned down on the floor, Dee lets her cell phone fall from her hands. It lands facedown on the concrete floor by the freezer door. Ice-cold air pushes from the cold room where she rolled the pastries in, just moments ago, before her whole world fell apart.
Her head buried against her chest and her arms covering the head, she rocks her body back and forth while the cold breeze freezes her buttocks numb. The sensation is barely noticeable, compared to the new humming numbness taking over her mind.
Dad’s not dead, but he will be. They fucked up the surgery. They fucked up her life.
Calling her friend is more of a reflex, a habit she has gotten so used to, it’s barely noticeable. He’s the only one who still cares, the only one who hasn’t been swayed by her subtle, and less than subtle actions, motivated by only one goal—to keep people away.
Depression hasn’t left her helpless. It hasn’t knocked her down, unable to get out of bed, crying and staring into space. She works. Does laundry. Goes bar hopping. Drinks… boy, does she drink. The numbness in her grows stronger every day, lessening the moments when she feels joy, her need to laugh, and her uncanny ability to return witty comments that border on inappropriate. Balancing between the good and bad days is not really about balancing anymore. It’s more about falling, face flat onto the dark side. It grew her cold, angry, turned her into a bitch to be around.
A movement at the end of the dark hallway makes her peek from the nest that is her own body. Flashes from her night terrors fill her head, but the monsters flashing in the back of her eyes now barely get her pulse palpating. They have no power over the new, real life beast that bashes her mind into small, worthless pieces as she sways against the freezer.
The beast is cancer, and it’s about to lift its deadly fist, to grind down the one Dee loves the most. The beast will leave her abandoned and alone, cocooned into a pathetic rocking bundle, slowly freezing her to an early death.
“Fuc…crying out loud.”
The frozen Hawaiian pizza lands on the ice-covered parking lot as Harri slips and lands face-first on the pavement. Staring at the yellow snow, a permanent mark the poodle who lives down the road likes to leave by his car, he calculates whether the hit his head took is worth the trip to a local hospital. Fuck it, he thinks and gets up, careful not to curse out loud.
His neighbor’s ten-year-old kid—whose presence Harri had noticed just in time to save himself from a bitch-slap the kid’s mother would surely send his way for cursing in front of her first-born—picks up the pizza box and hands it over to him.
Winter in their northern country could not end soon enough. His head bouncing mildly, Harri decides to brave his worsening hangover and take the stairs instead of joining his neighbor to wait for the old, rickety elevator to roll down from the seventh floor.
His long legs covering two stairs at a time, Harri makes it to the third floor in record-breaking time. A sharp pain under his ribcage forces him to stop for a breather. The frozen pizza melting against his sweaty hand, he leans against the stairway railing, catching his breath.
Last night wasn’t worth feeling like this. Harri had headed out with his girlfriends, bar hopping their usual buzzing route downtown. At midnight, he slyly disappeared to the city’s only gay club. Not many know the place exists, which is a great thing for a closet-bound, young gay guy as himself, but bad for the club owner’s business. The club is to shut down by the end of next month.
After the breather he usually has no need for, Harri makes it to the sixth floor, his heart pounding out of his chest. The hinges creak slightly and the door handle bangs against the closets in the mud room as Harri knees the door open with too much force. He isn’t a regular sight at the local gym, nor was he into heavy weight lifting or bodybuilding. But since he can remember, he’s had muscle and his body stays slim without much effort.
Harri graduating early and knowing what he wanted to do for a living had him moving out of his parent’s house to a place of his own, years before his friends the same age could have done the same. The rental apartment at the top of a building complex provided him with the privilege of privacy and enough space to have all his friends over at once, without anyone needing to feel claustrophobic. His monthly salary paid his ex tempore weekend travels around the southern parts of their country. If he didn’t get lucky at the local, soon to be closed, gay club, the multiple online dating sites swarmed with opportunities, giving him multiple chances for a new one-night, long-distance relationship.
Lately, Harri hasn’t traveled or wandered too far from his hometown. His best friend is acting out. It’s not that she hasn’t always been sensitive and troubled, but this time her mood made Harri edgy, almost too edgy for him to pretend as if he hadn’t noticed the change in her demeanor. She has yet to tell Harri what’s going on.
Pulling his cranky and snappy friend out of bed and force-feeding her frozen pizzas aggravates him most days, but he drives, almost daily, to her side of town anyway. He wants to tell her to “snap out of it” and to grab another beer, but something about her blank yet vulnerable face stops him from vocalizing his frustration.
So he keeps going over, taking care of her in his own, small gestures and ways. His nightly adventures and weekend getaways will be there for him to enjoy once his friend conquers whatever demons she is wrestling.
The phone buzzes demandingly on the kitchen table. Harri tosses the half-melted pizza in the freezer and speed-walks to the buzz.
“What’s up, jizzmonger?”
Harri’s joke freezes on his half-smiling lips when he focuses on her voice. The tone is off, too off—way more fragile and intermittent than usual.
“Where you at? I’m coming over.”
His heart skips a beat as he listens to her breathless voice, too calm to deliver the news she has just shared with him, but also shaken by panic and disbelief. After blurting out her location and a four-digit door code, she hangs up, like she has nothing else to say.
“Fuck me running,” Harri mumbles as he hurries to the mudroom. He pulls on his black, hooded winter coat and grabs his keys from the front room table.
“One of your boy toys that got you so amped?”
The American accent doesn’t startle him. It hasn’t once since it appeared out of nowhere. Instead of focusing on the fact that only crazy people hear voices in their heads, yet alone engage in full conversations with them, Harri has lulled himself into thinking how nice it is to have someone to talk to. There’s no denying it; he’s the chatty one, as he usually ends up being when meeting new people. Harri’s pretty sure this is the first time the voice in his head has initiated the conversation.
“Now, that would be a treat. No boy toys, I’m afraid. Just a friend in need.”
“The one you haul the god-awful pizzas to?”
“Nothing wrong with pineapple and ham, you peanut butter and vinegar worshipping weirdo.”
“When have I ever put vinegar on my pizza?”
Harri smiles when the voice’s laughter jingles happily. Happiness hasn’t garnished his alter ego’s voice since she left her boyfriend lying on a pavement somewhere in the U.S.
“On top of a pizza must be the only place where you don’t sprinkle that shit.”
The giggle continues, and the voice waits for Harri to elaborate.
“You Americans use vinegar on everything. Coffee maker dirty? Wash it with vinegar! Musty laundry? Add vinegar! Looking for a healthy but tasty salad dressing? You know it—vinegar’s the shit!”
Harri has made his way back to the parking lot. He ignores the woman walking a tiny, white poodle who slows her stride and sends curious looks in Harri’s direction as he talks to himself in a foreign language.
She gathers herself enough to speak again. Oh, whatever, wank-stain. You don’t know.
“Hey! My nicknames are growing on you!”
The supermarket parking lot looks eerie without its usual load of vehicles, parked in neat, endless rows across the snow- and ice-covered pavement. Harri passes his usual parking spot by the front doors and drives slowly toward the back door of the huge steel building.
How the guard managed to lock up and turn off the lights without noticing someone was still in the building makes Harri nervously tap his foot. Don’t they have key-cards, something for them to know who has walked in and out during the day? Thank goodness she called him.
Being locked up in a supermarket overnight would normally be a wicked, kick-ass thing to happen, but not this time. Harri shakes his head to get rid of the feeling, but it sticks with him, stubborn and nagging. Maybe he’s too late. Maybe something bad happened to Dee.
“This is not a horror movie. This is my dull and boring life,” Harri murmurs to himself as he parks next to Dee’s car, tucked away behind the building, covered in snow.
The voice stays silent, but Harri senses her there, observing. Whatever there is, he’s still clueless, but this is not the time to ponder the burning question that is his mental health.
The access control’s keypad blinks red when Harri enters the code Dee gave him on the phone. He tries again, but the door stays locked, and his ill-gotten access denied. Wondering if a third incorrect attempt would send the guards his way, he curses his bad memory and the fact that he didn’t write the code down.
“It’s 6-3-9-6, you big, dumb fuckwit.”
Rolling his eyes at Rose, Harri taps the keypad one more time. A green light and the lock popping open sidetracks him from their name-calling game. He slips in and lets the door close silently behind him. A second popping sound from the lock tells Harri he’s now locked into the back of a pitch-dark store. He’s never been inside, not on this side of the building.
“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”
“Not the dark.”
Reluctant to think about what exactly Harri is so terrified to find, he decides to take a moment, to give his night vision time to get used to the dim, green light from the exit signs that reflect the hallway’s floor.
Night vision, huh? Can I be Robin?
“That’s not what I meant when I thought night vi—” Harri stops talking. “You can hear my thoughts too?”
Rose’s silence tells Harri they’re both oblivious to what it is exactly they both can do with this new ability. Guess if they see through each other’s eyes, why couldn’t they read each other’s minds? When he comes to think about it, that’s exactly what they have been doing all along.
“Hey, knuckle-head, is that your friend, huddled down by the freezer?”
Harri’s steps assured, his mind forgetting the darkness and his own clumsiness, he speed-walks to his friend. Dee’s bundled frame shakes on the freezing cold floor. Harri pushes the freezer’s heavy door shut and sits next to her on the ice-cold concrete.
“Shit, Dee. I don’t know what to say.”
Surprised that she’s willing to lift her head to look at him, Harri studies Dee’s face, expecting her skin and eyes to be a hot mess of tears and snot. It’s not. She’s pale, but that’s usual, and the expression on her face is barely an expression. Blank A4 paper sheet, Harri thinks. He’d tell his joke to Dee if the situation wasn’t so inflamed.
Dee’s gaze lingers on Harri’s face, but she seems to be elsewhere, going through an inner battle, a debate between herself and someone else. Could she have an alter ego of her own?
And what makes you so special to think you’re the only one?
“Not now,” Harri hisses, looking up toward his brows, hoping Rose wouldn’t intervene again. Situation like this is awkward enough without a strange American woman barking at him through his mind’s eye. Whatever the fuck that means.
“You can hear it too?” Dee raises her gaze, and Harri can’t tell if the look he gets from her is filled with hope or pure insanity.
Without Rose, his new frenemy—a phrase he despises to use but can’t come up with a better one to describe what the voice is to him—he wouldn’t question Dee’s sanity. He’d carry her out, tie her onto the back seat of his car, and drop her ass off at the loony house’s gates just outside of town. But now, he’s not so sure if he shouldn’t join her.
“Hear what, Dee?”
“I guess we all hear… something.” Harri fights not to roll his eyes at himself. No wonder Rose thinks he’s a complete dildo. What do his words even mean?
“So… maybe I’m not going crazy?”
Dee’s careful question is a whisper. Harri considers her words. Could it be that we’re all insane, some of us just hiding it better? Are we all wrestling with inner voices, reluctant to let anyone know in case they’ll judge you, or worse, deliver you to a nice, soft room, leave you there, doomed to pop colorful pills, live in a haze, possibly for the rest of your life? Those places don’t heal you. They don’t make you better. Those places pick you up, shove you aside from the public eye, just so the “normal” people won’t feel awkward and annoyed by your craziness.
“Nah. You’re just confused,” Harri says, unsure if he believes this to be true, but deadly sure Dee’s state of mind wouldn’t bear to hear an alternative option.
Contemplating his next move, Harri twists his fingers in the dark. To hug or not to hug? He curses his awkward ways. Him twisting, her swaying, they continue to sit in silence.
“Oh, for the love of god, would you just hug her? Help her! Do something. Anything!”
Harri’s frown deepens and he waves his hand, as if to get rid of Rose’s meddlesome suggestions.
“Don’t you shoo me! Hug. Her.”
The words echo in sync, coming from his mouth and Dee’s, both at the exact moment.
“What?” the two ask, again in sync.
If Harri wasn’t so confused, he’d enjoy how dumbfounded Rose sounds just now, her usual witty and confident ways subsiding for a change. Maybe she is a real-life person after all. Maybe she’s equally worried that there’s something wrong with her, that her mentally unstable head has taken one hit too many.
Dee lowers her chin on her knees and goes back to staring into space. Harri lands a hand on her back, pats her awkwardly, the curse words repeating in his mind like a truck driver’s mantra. Ei helvetti, vittu, perkele. Why can’t he come up with anything to say? How does a normal person act in a situation like this?
“Ask her a question. Any question. Let her know you’re there, that she’s not alone. Jesus, Harri, say something! Ask her!”
“Would you like me to prepare us some Hawaiian pizza?”
The sound of Rose’s facepalm echoes in his head. She must be too overwhelmed by his stupidity to comment on his out-of-this-world choice of words. Her voice falls completely silent.
Dee looks up. An almost-smile lingers on her shade-of-blue lips before she gasps for air between her teeth. “That would be nice.”
Harri gets up and stretches his arm to help his friend climb off the freezing floor. She takes his hand, gets up, not bothering to wipe off the layer of saw dust and dirt stuck to her dark green work attire. Together, they turn to face the back door.
All of the voices fall silent as they take their first steps to start their shared journey through the darkness.
The Borderline Trilogy is now available on Amazon: