by Josh Pearce
Even running flat out, you know you will not make it to the broken-down, rusting shell of the school bus before she and he do what they do. You run down the lane, skidding on the red tide of fallen autumn leaves. At the far end of the lane, you see the three remaining ruins — the church, the schoolhouse, the bunkroom of the logging camp — that form a cul-de-sac, and the bus parked in front of them. It has been there for so long that all of its windows are gone and its tires have melted away from countless summers. The three buildings are not much better off. Something terrible has happened here, long ago, turning it into a place that people tend to avoid, through unspoken unease. Before you get there, they step out of the bus together. You are less broken by what they did than you are that she did with him and instead of with you. Examine your pain as it happens. They don’t look at each other, and they don’t look at you. Their eyes are deep and hollowed out like the fire-blackened door and window frames of the church.
Her knees are wobbly, an unsound foundation. The hem of her blue dress is only slightly askew, but that’s askew enough for you. You take her by the hand and run away from him, away from the bus, away from the burned-out buildings. It has gotten very dark, very quickly, because of the tall trees on either side of the lane, which is within spitting distance of home but hidden by the foliage. Something terrible has happened here. As you and she run, run, run, the oaks grow long in their shadows. They are lightning-split, cored out. Some have fallen over from floodwater exposing their roots, so that it’s as if you are not running through the woods, but across an ancient seabed whose water has long since dried away and surrounded you with shipwrecks. You are holding her hand and running toward what was supposed to be your future together.
Let him in. What have you been so afraid of? He steps through the doorway and stands very close to you. All the rumors and legends you’ve heard about him are just that: rumors. Rumors that his fingers — at their smallest, microscopic divisions — can reach between nuclei, that he can grip your insides with van der Waals effect, that he can hold you together with strong nuclear force like nobody else in your life can or tear you down by splitting your atoms. He places his right hand on your chest, just over your heart, and your nipple reacts under his palm. With his mouth, the one in his face, he is speaking softly to reassure you that this is okay, that nothing is holding the two of you back anymore. The lips of his hand pucker around the thin cotton of your shirt, the lips of his fingers stretch all the way past your collarbone and latch onto your neck and shoulder, where they pleasurably pulse like an octopus. The lashes of all these eyes tickle your skin. The more he talks, the harder your heart beats, kicking him in the teeth.
“What can you possibly promise me?” you ask him. “We hardly know each other.” The voices from his right hand are muffled when he answers. When he promises that you’ll be together and that he won’t let you go. “And what if you’re wrong?” You look straight into his eyes, the ones that make him look human. “Can you admit, honestly, the possibility that you may be wrong? Just try it, just for a second. Entertain the notion, the barest chance, that your behavior needs changing. That there is something, anything, you could change in our interactions that would go toward making you a better person.”
The last time you asked someone that exact question, she hesitated, opened her mouth a few times, and then just gave up without saying anything. It took you too long to realize that her scars couldn’t change, and that maybe she was in more pain than you were. But unlike the last time you asked, the reply is immediate; he says, “I’ve loved you from the day you ran away.” His grip on your body tightens, and you tense up in anticipation, all the kisses from all the mouths rippling up and down the points of contact. You close your eyes. And then he bites.
The palm-mouth takes the biggest piece out of you, tearing you open almost to the bone. The eyeball there is looking deep inside you. His finger-mouths rip out smaller, but still painful, chunks of flesh from your trapezius muscle, and you can feel even the tiny pinprick, mosquito-sized bites from the smaller and smaller branches of his infinite fingertips. The mouths in his left hand are singing, all together. They range up the scale quickly — you can hardly hear the uppermost pitches of the chorus coming from the finger-hands that are too small to be seen. You should be fighting him off, pushing him away, but your body is locked up completely with the sensation. The salt from his tears burns and irritates the wounds. At least you are screaming. At least you are expressing something.
Perhaps to silence you, perhaps to silence himself, the Polydactyl places the flat of his free hand over your mouth and kisses you with it. You can feel his tongue which is, indeed, bifurcated and bifurcated and bifurcated, black and swollen, filling your mouth with the topography of a Koch snowflake. You have time to think, maybe this time around won’t be so bad. Maybe the scars will be worth showing off to a sympathetic audience someday, to someone who wants to see your body. Examine your pain from several dimensions as it happens. Then the Polydactyl stretches the fingers of his left hand. Two of them cover your eyes, and open wide.
You hear a noise over the sound of the shower water pouring on your head and you freeze, blinded by rivulets of shampoo, listening for it to repeat, hoping that it won’t. It does. You open your eyes as far as the burning soap will allow, and see the Polydactyl standing on the other side of the frosted glass. You allow yourself to scream, drowning. You’re angry, yes at him for getting so far in, so easily past the walls, but also at yourself for not following all the horror-movie rules of common sense. Although you’d eliminated most of the other points-of-entry to your house, you’d forgotten to replace the shower door with a curtain. Maybe you thought its transparency would save you, would make this a safe place exempt from whatever otherworldly laws the Polydactyl is living by. You put all your weight on the door so that he can’t push in.
He places both hands on the glass; his hands are fractal, each finger tipped with a smaller but fully-formed hand, fully functional, and each of those has smaller finger-hands, etc., you know, the way of all such recursive things. You are used to that by now, as much as you can be. What you are not used to is the heart line of each palm opening to reveal an eyeball nestled there, and a careful observer would notice from the corner folds that they are all left eyes. His life lines have also, this entire time, been tightly clamped lips that now open to lick the moisture on the shower door with tongues the color of eggplant. You try to cover yourself with your hands, and plead, “Don’t look at me!” You want to get as far away from all of those eyes while still holding the door closed. The mouths on his right hand cajole, promise, flatter. The mouths on his left hand threaten, warn, and eventually start to argue with the right hand and each other. You stick your head back under the water so that you don’t have to listen, and watch the steam slowly obscure him from your sight. You eventually stop hearing the voices, and you even tune out the noise of the shower after a while, but you do hear the doorbell.
Slowly and painfully, you stand, wipe away the fog. The Polydactyl is gone, so you let yourself out. The bell rings again. You open the front door a crack to check. Your best friend is standing on the front porch, and he says, “Hi.” You shut the door again quickly because the Polydactyl is standing right behind him, unnoticed. “Hello?” says a voice through the door. You pause just long enough to take a breath, and open. Still there. Close the door. Open again. Close. Finally open and there’s only one man on the stoop.
“What are you doing here?” You let him in.
“You weren’t answering your phone. No one’s seen you in almost four days. What have you been doing?”
You shrug. “Sleeping, I guess. Taking a shower.” You realize how hungry you are. He can see, on the parts of you that the robe doesn’t cover, the blisters that the hot shower water burned into your skin, but he doesn’t mention it as you walk to the kitchen, just sits on the couch.
“Why are all your doors out on the lawn?” You open the snack cupboard, and the Polydactyl is folded up within it, so you let the cabinet door snap back, almost crushing his fingers as he reaches out for you. Your exasperated, “Ah!” slips out, and from the other room he asks, “Okay in there?” There’s always a greater-than-zero but less-than-one chance that he’s behind whatever door you open, so you just have to keep opening it until the odds shift your way. Check the cabinet again. The Polydactyl is gone, so you can eat today.
Your friend sits really close to you on the couch, and you nearly jump out of your skin when he goes to take your hand. Closing your eyes, you focus on the feel of his fingers on yours, carefully counting them in your mind. He doesn’t try to make any move beyond that, because you’ve told him all about her, about how it ended, even though you can feel in the tension of his muscles that he really wants to. You’ve told him about the Polydactyl, and he’s told you about his jealousy of how much you talk about this mysterious man that no one else has seen, with the hint in his voice of the same bored irritation that all of your friends and family put on whenever they need to feign interest in yet another one of the new flames in your life, one who they know they’ll never get the chance to meet before you’ve dumped them already and erased, from your vocabulary, their names. The same tone you hear when trying to get across just how omnipresent the Polydactyl is, like, for example, how he’s usually waiting next to the driver’s side whenever you park the car, forcing you to either drive off again or to quickly scramble out of the passenger’s side and sprint for the safety of the indoors.
And, “Well,” your mother repeatedly says on the phone, “it sounds like he’s only trying to be a gentleman and get the door for you. Why aren’t you ever interested in a nice man like that?” Because. Because he can’t possibly be what he seems. Because all of the people we ever look up to or admire turn out to be false. Everyone you’ve ever harbored a romantic flicker for, or a man-crush, or a lady-crush, or hoped to build life with, or ever considered mating, putting a part of you into a part of them to create something that is both of you, they all end up being just too human, fatally imperfect, and by the time you realize that you shouldn’t try to be like them, you already are, and that feels like someone is gnawing at the insides of your torso. You can’t stand it, and you let go of his hand.
The haunted place before it becomes haunted. What nature of thing has happened here to turn it into a desolate ruin, visited only by teenage misfits and adults with questionable motives? Local speculation disagrees: Maybe it was that week a false storm covered the city, lightning without thunder, blackout clouds with no rain; or when the Perseids were especially thick, falling as constant as hail. A piece broke off of the sky and struck the church, setting it ablaze — retribution, went the whispers, from God because the minister had been secretly sacrificing his congregation in blood rituals. Likely something more mundane, you figure from your local history classes, like the over-logging whose legacy, decades after the camp was bankrupted by the violent government suppression of a union strike, of loosened soil washes the lane away in landslides every first rain of the season.
You go to that school for a single year, and your lack of popularity certainly has something to do with the sense of alienation of this place. You are the weird kid, sitting alone at lunch, picking at the warts on your hands while the other students play tag and skip rope and tell each other ghost stories about a serial killer who gouges his victims’ eyes out with his thumbs and dumps their empty skulls among the fields of tree stumps that are just over there, they point, on the other side of the hill, across the street. There is a newspaper article in the school library, dated 1929, about logger Jerome O’Brian, who reported finding something out in the woods that was neither human nor animal but, when authorities investigated the spot, had already disappeared, dragging itself into the underbrush, and no amount of dedicated forestry ever uncovered it again.
Who knows. Maybe the terrible thing has always been here. You look across the lunchroom and notice her for the first time, wearing blue. She looks at you and smiles. Examine this moment from multiple dimensions as it happens. Listen to the shrieks of your classmates — they sound like your mother and father fighting down the hall, like your mother and her boyfriend fucking when you walk, quickly, head down, from the front door to lock yourself in your room. Listen to their voices mingling — they sound like the overheard gossip at the begrudgingly attended sleepover birthday parties as you go into the bathroom and shut the door that is thinner than everyone else suspects it is. You look away, and look back. She is still there, and still smiling. Look away again, and look back. Still smiling. One more time. She is still there, but no longer smiling. Can you imagine yourself with this person? Can you picture the two of you behind closed doors?
You cross your fingers and go to talk to her. You have time to think, maybe this time around won’t be so bad.
Copyright © 2019 by Josh Pearce