Al Bruno III
Al Bruno III
The First Day
Brother Simon and the elders of the fellowship led Judith out of the Settlement of Arbatan through the tall corn stalks to the brown sawgrass that covered the Meadow of Larn. They would go no further because the Vulgate of the Magna Mater decreed that from this point on, the supplicant must walk alone.
Judith wore only a thin, white robe with a cowl. Judith was younger than most supplicants, barely a woman in the opinions of some, but she had learned every verse of Cybele's writings, and she had passed the tests of purity and strength with ease. No one could deny she was ready for this.
As was the custom, the soil of the meadow had been sprinkled with shards of broken glass. They gleamed in the morning light like dewdrops. Judith walked carefully, but the flesh of her bare feet were ragged and bloody by the time she reached the Vessel of Transubstantiation.
To an outsider the vessel would look like an old steamer trunk, but it had been blessed by Brother Simon in the name of the Holy Mother. Now every angle and surface was infused with divine power. Kneeling beside it, Judith lifted the lid and felt along the inside, her fingers tracing the rope handle that had been added. Judith looked back to see the elders watching her, ready to pray when she took her place in the vessel and ready to give chase if
she tried to run, tried to make it past the tall fences to the interstate.
Judith remembered the last time that had happened, the way the failed supplicant, Lillian, had been dragged back to the settlement, the way she had been tied down and given a hundred lashes. That had been ten years ago. The woman still lived, her home on the north side of the settlement where she made candles and sour wine.
Her face and body were a tangle of scars; she had no husband, no children, and when she eventually died, she would be left to the animals.
Was that what made the ruined woman come to Judith last night? Lillian had whispered through her window that trying to escape had been the best decision she’d ever made.
Alone in the meadow, Judith prayed that she would have the strength to survive the inner wilderness and that Cybele would find her worthy. No supplicant had been found worthy in over a generation, leaving the fellowship without a Holy Mother.
Now there was only Brother Simon to lead the way, Brother Simon who had gelded himself to prove his devotion. Judith admired him, and like him, she had no intention of turning away from her great calling. She had wanted this since she was twelve years old, and hadn’t there been signs and portents to encourage her?
Finally, it was time to climb into the Vessel of Transubstantiation. To fit she had to tuck her knees up tight beneath her and bend down until her head was almost level with them. After a
moment’s fumbling, she found the rope handle attached to the inside of the steamer trunk’s lid. She gave it a good hard tug.
She pulled again. Still nothing. The lid wouldn’t quite close. There was half an inch of space keeping the trunk from clicking shut completely. She shifted around a little, trying to make herself smaller, and exhaled for as long and hard as she could. Then she pulled again on the handle.
The lock clicked. She listened for the elders to approach and check to make sure she was secure. It wasn’t unheard of for
supplicants of weak faith and strong ambition to try and keep the lid from truly closing or jamming the lock with mud. As Brother Simon always said, “No chances can be taken in matters of faith.”
She heard their hands move over the vessel, felt them jostle it this way and that. Satisfied there was no earthly escape for her, they left the Meadow of Larn, abandoning Judith to the mercy of the elements and the wisdom of Cybele.
The Second Day
For a time there was only darkness, darkness and the sounds of her shallow breaths. There was a nervous fluttering in her stomach, and she worked to calm it by reciting the Vulgate of the Magna Mater, those tales and proverbs of the faith set down by Shelia Small in the year 1979. The year before an angry God cleared the Earth, leaving behind nothing more than a veil of illusions and lies to beguile the unwary. Only those who dwelt in the grace of Cybelle were allowed to truly live.
By the time Judith reached the sacred hymns of Attis, her holy prison had grown warm. She could imagine the afternoon sun shining down on the Vessel of Transubstantiation, making the new padlock shine and faux brass fittings glisten.
The songs of birds and chirping of cicadas were muffled but still recognizable; she even heard the illusion of a jet airplane pass overhead.
It was so easy to look upon a sight like that and be fooled into thinking the outside world still thrived.
The rush of adrenalin faded, and her eyelids began to grow heavy. She was more tired than she realized.
Judith yawned, but her position in the trunk made it little more than a hiccup. The sacred songs began to jumble together. She didn't want to sleep. She wanted to be strong and alert for every moment of her ordeal, but it was so dark in the trunk.
The dreams that rushed up to meet her were of familiar faces and old arguments. All of her family and friends had tried to talk her out of this, sometimes out of doubt and sometimes out of love. Judith might have let them sway her if she hadn't been absolutely certain of her calling.
Soon they would understand. Soon she would be the new Holy Mother. This is what she had been born for. It was not her destiny to become another corpse at the bottom of the Great Ravine.
The Third Day
It was night when she awoke again, the bird sounds replaced by crickets and frogs. Her shoulders and spine were aching, and her feet had gone numb. She wanted to inhale deeply, but the unnatural posture she was held in prevented that. It felt to Judith like she was trapped in a giant fist that was slowly closing in around her. Was that it? Was the Vessel of Transubstantiation somehow shrinking?
There was no stopping the panic, the terror that came with that thought. Judith clawed at the walls of the trunk until her nails broke, and she left trails of blood on either side of her. She called out for help, howling and sobbing.
The Fourth Day
The sounds and chill of the morning called her back to consciousness. Her head ached. Her hands ached. She had soiled herself, and even though it had been an inevitable part of the trial, she still felt shame and disgust.
Had her faith really been so weak? Was this how it had been with the others? Fear, pain, madness, and then death?
No. Judith told herself. She couldn’t believe that.
It wasn’t pride or foolishness that had set her upon this path. She knew the Fellowship of Cybele was growing weaker despite the
best efforts of Brother Simon. The Holy Mother had always said she knew her time would be brief, that she would be martyred by the faithless.
They needed a new Holy Mother desperately. Brother Simon was doing his best, but he needed three wives to assist him in his
duties, each one a young scholar, wise and beautiful beyond her years. The fellowship could never move forward on the path of Cybele without a woman leading them. No man could do it, not even a man as devout and self-sacrificing as Brother Simon.
The Fifth Day
By her fifth day in the Vessel of Transubstantiation, hunger and thirst competed for attention with the muscle spasms that traveled along her body. Judith tried to keep her mind focused on the Vulgate of the Magna Mater, but instead her thoughts kept returning to the subject of food, especially the taste of wild blackberries. What she wouldn’t give to have a few of those with her now. Just a handful.
At first the sound was so faint that she was sure she was imagining it. A deep, animal grumbling punctuated by labored breathing. Before she knew it, the sound was right outside her holy prison. Beasts usually stayed away from the Meadow of Larn —the shards of broken glass saw to that—but this one’s curiosity, or hunger, must have gotten the best of it. Judith forced herself to stay quiet as the creature chuffed and grumbled.
Children of the fellowship were always warned about the bears that lived in the forest, but no one had ever seen one. It had been a game among the teenagers to go looking for them, to have something to brag about. The most anyone ever encountered was the occasional group of campers. Such strangers might look innocent, but the teenagers of the fellowship knew they were the living embodiments of temptation and far more dangerous than any beast.
They were always dealt with harshly.
Judith had been part of these acts of secret savagery only twice, once when she was twelve and once when she was seventeen. Both times she had been amazed and horrified at how much those devils in human shape had bled and begged just like real people.
The thing that might be a bear nudged the steamer trunk, rocking it in place. Judith squealed and tried to cringe away, but there was nowhere to go. The sound of her voice encouraged the beast. It pushed against the Vessel of Transubstantiation again, tipping it to one side.
The thing that might be a bear beat its claws against the walls of wood and leather.
Each blow was punctuated by a growl that almost sounded like a bark. Judith imagined the walls of the trunk coming apart like the walls of a tent, she imagined failing at everything she’d ever prayed for.
“Go away!” she shouted.
The beast made a startled noise then beat at the trunk again.
“I said go away!” She raised her thirst-ragged voice as loud as it would go, bellowing orders like she would at a mischievous child or amorous boy. “In the name of Cybele, go away!”
And just like that, it did.
The Sixth Day
Time had lost all meaning. Sometimes it was night, sometimes it was day, sometimes it rained, sometimes it didn’t. The creature
that might have been a bear never returned, and that had been a great bolster to her faith.
But now some part of her wished it would come back just so she could feel something more than the serene agony of dehydration and starvation.
Sometimes she would dream that she had never done this, that reality was her still home in her bed, or in Brother Simon’s bed.
He had asked several times for her to become his fourth wife, but she had always refused the old man as gently as she could. To have any husband in her life, even an emasculated one, would be a distraction.
She had been so sure of herself when she had entered the Meadow of Larn.
Just a few days of discomfort, she had told herself. How terrible could it be?
And look what those few days had done to her, locked in a box that reeked of piss, shit, and blood, insects crawling on her skin, muscles that ached and a head lost to confusion.
More and more she began to worry that she had made a terrible mistake.
The Seventh Day
It had been so long now, so long that she felt like she was already dead and rotting away, that she was a corpse that prayed to a goddess that didn’t listen.
But it wasn’t that Cybele wasn’t listening, was it? Cybele had listened but found her unworthy. And what was the fate of the unworthy?
All she could do now was wait.
The Eighth Day
A few hours ago, or maybe it had been a few days, Judith had tried to gnaw her wrists open. She couldn’t remember when she had decided to kill herself, but she was too weak for even that.
She became more and more certain that she was already in Hell, that this was her the punishment for her presumption.
“What happened here?”
She started at the voice. It was familiar. It was Elder Gregory!
“Another bear. They’re getting too close.”
And that was Elder Mary!
Judith started to laugh. She had been right! She WAS the chosen one!
She called out to them, begging them to set her free so she could offer a prayer to the light of day. Her first prayer as the new Holy Mother!
“She’s alive?” Elder Mary gasped. “After all this time?” Elder Gregory’s voice broke “It’s a miracle!”
“What—what do we do now?” Elder Mary said.
When Brother Simon spoke, his voice was calm and passionless. “Throw her in the ravine with the others.”
Al Bruno III
“Are you just going to sulk or do you want to dance?” She stood before him with her hand outstretched and no pity in her eyes.
No one else at the homecoming dance even noticed them as they made their way out onto the floor, half giggling half blushing.
Not that anyone would have cared anyway…
It was a modest sized ballroom in a medium sized hotel. Middle aged people dressed in crisp clothes wandered through the tables, all hugs, smiles and handshakes. The open bar was seeing a lot of action, the buffet not so much. It was the 25th high school reunion and everyone was giggling over how much everyone had changed; who got fat, who got thin, who got rich and who got weird. Randy Carter stood near the back of the room, watching it all, hoping someone would notice him but unable to make the first move.
It was like old times again.
When the dance was over Randy told her he didn't know what to say, she jut kissed him on the cheek and told him to stay out of trouble.
Randy knew he was a fool to think she would ever be here, but he had to take the chance, he so wanted to see her again. He watched David Reed strutting around with his hair plugs and trophy bride and there was Terri Smith in a dress that was three inches too short and two sizes too small. The Vice Principal Mr. Martinoli was there, almost 80 years old but still recognizable, Randy was sure for a moment the old man had noticed him but it was just that he had been lingering near the rest rooms.
Everyone said she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, that she was headed for a bad end but ever since that dance Randy had been in love with Joyce Maynard.
She never wore makeup and she never wore dresses, even at the homecoming dance she had been wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Sure all the other boys appreciated the sight of her curves but none of them dared go near- she might be a junior but she dated college guys. All the other girls said so.
All these faces, some familiar some rendered unrecognizable by years or botox; Randy felt nothing at the sight of them. He just watched as his former classmates as they were overwhelmed with nostalgia or longing. Did any of them even remember him? Was he even a subject of conversation? There was a half- abandoned drink on a nearby table, Randy had half a mind to grab it and fling it into the 'Welcome Alumni' banner.
What would they have to say about Randy Carter then?
She didn't forget him after that night, when she passed him in the hall she wasn't afraid to make eye contact and flash him a little smile. On days that happened Randy was walking on air for the rest of the day.
As the seasons rolled on Joyce would disappear for weeks at a time, once or twice for suspensions and then there was the week she was hospitalized. What was she hospitalized for? Depending on which rumor you believed it was either a drug overdose or an abortion but the last time Randy saw her he would learn the real story.
When the buffet closed the began to play all the songs from the old days, people began to filter on to the dance floor; old flames sharing slow dances while their spouses waited on the sidelines. It wasn't even midnight yet but many of the Alumni were drunk and maudlin rehashing the same old stories again and again. Randy wished he could have joined in with them but what kind of stories would he have to share? He had spent so much of his time with his nose pressed in a book in anticipation of college, then in college in anticipation of his career. He made partner at his law firm when he was in his twenties, he was divorced by the time he was thirty-five and then along came a heart attack at forty one, in truth he had expected that as well, but not quite so soon.
And through it all he held on to those memories of Joyce, the only thing in his life that had ever been unexpected.
Even at seventeen he had a paper route; he was always industrious like that, always saving his money for law school in case his plans for a scholarship fell through. This had been his route for years but he never knew she lived on it, not until that frosty March morning. She was just coming home when she noticed him riding past on his bike, she called him over and they talked for a while about this last semester of high school. Joyce would be 18 this summer and she told him should couldn't wait to move on, she wasn't even going to bother with graduation ceremonies. She told him once she took her last exam she wouldn't be caught dead in that damn school.
It got colder and she invited him in for breakfast – there was no sign of her parents and all she had to offer him was soda and pop tarts. How could he refuse?
Conversation went round and round until he mentioned her most recent absence from school, he knew the rumors but he was curious to know the truth.
So she told him- it had been an appendectomy, then laughingly she had stood up shown him her scar. She dared him touch it, and he did.
Then in a moment of madness he kissed her.
And she kissed him back.
Before he knew it they were in her bed pulling at each others clothes. He was so excited and terrified, he even told her he didn’t know what to do so she showed him, guided him. They moved slowly cherishing every moment.
They both knew in their heart of hearts this would never happen again.
By 2 AM and the party had broken up and from the way some of his former classmates were acting Randy wouldn't be surprised if a few marriages might have gotten broken up as well. Randy was still there feeling disappointed and bitter, feeling like he'd wasted his time and effort to be here.
And it hadn't been easy to get away from home to be here, it had been more than a struggle but he had been determined.
All this effort for nothing but it had been worth the chance hadn't it?
He paused at the bulletin board that showed pictures of all the people that couldn’t be there, or didn’t care to be. Beside that were the pictures of the faces that could never be there.
One picture was a melancholy tribute to Joyce Maynard; mentioning how she had died young but not that she had died of a drug overdose weeks after graduation.
And beside that was Randy Carter dead of a heart attack at 42. He wondered to himself where they had gotten the picture of him from and how death could be so lonely, how he had even gone unnoticed by eternity itself.
Suddenly there was a voice behind him, “Are you just going to sulk or do you want to dance?”
Al Bruno III
A rusted electric fence surrounds the walled facility and the facility itself is a series of squat single story buildings connected by hallways. Every window is barred, every door is bolted, every surface is gray or blue. In this way the Kaydeross Asylum keeps the murderous nightmares of its prisoners tucked away from the world of ordinary madness.
Orderlies move through the hallways and buildings like ants, jaded boredom has rendered them faceless and emotionless. They go through their routines but have long ago stopped seeing their charges as human beings. The physicians and psychiatrists assigned to this place are no better, any thoughts of rehabilitating their patients have long been ground away by the never-ending crush of State-required paperwork.
Only Dr. Annabelle Masters truly cared about what went on here. Despite being the director of the facility she still made it a point to oversee the progress of the women remanded to the Kaydeross Asylum. There is a framed photograph she kept on the wall of her office, it shows her standing within the center of a crowd of women wearing faded hospital gowns and slippers; she is smiling despite the fact she is standing with a group of convicted murderers.
As I went through Dr. Masters's office my gaze returned to the picture again and again. There was something about the patients that haunted me- despite their smiling faces their eyes seemed to be screaming.
I was just a temporary administrator sent in to replace Dr. Masters while the investigation into her disappearance moved forward. It was my job to restore some semblance of order to the facility but I already knew it would be no easy task.
A tall bookcase occupied one side of the room, some of the texts shelved there were the standards of our profession but others had fallen out of print after being dismissed as bald faced quackery.
After this I turned my attention to her desk. It was ugly, gray and metallic. It reminded me of the sort of desk a schoolteacher might have. I searched through the drawer and found one had been locked. It took some effort but I was able to break the lock and found seven files that were thick with handwritten notes and EEG readouts.
Dr. Masters's notes were written on cheap onionskin paper, her handwriting script was cramped and strange, reading it was hard going. There was one folder for each of the Kaydeross Asylum's more infamous charges. She had been interviewing and treating these murderesses secretly.
No it was more than that, she had been experimenting on them.
Even now I can recall some of her notes almost perfectly-
...the Precious Machine continues to perform better than expected on Leslie Knapp but she resists treatment. She claws at the air and calls the names of her children. The modified styluses titter and scratch at the paper, there is something beautiful about the patterns they make. When I playback the audio tapes it almost sounds like an animal is skittering in the background like a rat gone wild with the urge to gnaw...
A search of Dr. Masters's office revealed no audio tapes or electroencephalogram, and her notes were maddeningly vague as to what exactly she was trying to accomplish.
Exhaustion, confusion and the murky February afternoon conspired to make me drowsy. I sat down in Dr. Masters' leather-backed chair and leaned back. I meant only to rest my eyes but I was soon asleep.
The dream that came was at first very literal, I was sitting in the office with the cryptic files spread out before me. There was a hollow rapping at the door and I called for the visitor to enter not looking up from my work. Once the visitor stood on the opposite side of the desk I became gripped with a childlike terror. I did not want to look up but my head moved of its own volition and I found myself staring at a figure from my long-abandoned faith. I knew that frail, beatific gaze and those stigmatic hands. But the crown of thorns he wore was metallic and it sparked. My breath caught in my throat as the figure opened his mouth to speak but all that came out was a faint scraping sound like a record that had reached the end of its song.
I awoke then, choking and gasping like a nearly drowned man, but the scratching sound continued. Once the dream had faded away and I was calm, I realized where the strange noise was coming from.
Initially the orderlies balked at my request insisting that the moving of furniture was a job for maintenance but I insisted. Once the heavy mahogany bookcase had been moved a doorway was revealed.
We forced the door open and found what must have once been a storage closet. The so-called 'Precious Machine' was there and it was, as I had thought, a strangely modified EEG machine. A tangle of wires led to a web of sensors that resembled the crown I had seen in my dreams. The EEG had long run out of paper and the styluses scraped and scratched on the bare rollers.
And beneath that crown of sensors was a desiccated figure, she had only been missing for a little over a week but the flesh had an almost mummified look to it. We could only identify the body because of the name badge clipped to the lab coat, and by the eyes, the perfectly preserved eyes that stared back at us.
Al Bruno III
Shapeless, white, trimmed with lace and roughly the size of his head.
Brett couldn't believe he had forgotten them but there was nothing he could do about it now; the funeral was over and Great Aunt Jill was in the ground. All that was left for him to do now was pack up her two lifetime's worth of clothes and knickknacks for goodwill or eBay, the house was his, finally his.
Still though he felt guilty about the whole underwear thing, near the end Great Aunt Jill had been worried to the point of paranoia about being buried in respectable undergarments. “Please be sure they bury me in my blue church dress and my own underwear. Sometimes the undertakers don't bother and leave you nude under your clothes.”
She had actually said “Nude under your clothes.” And without a drop of irony. More than once Brett had found himself burying his face to make sure she didn't see him roll his eyes.
Still though, Great Aunt Jill was gone, her blue dress was gone and being dragged to church every Sunday at 8 in the morning was over. Brett decided he needed a little fresh air and walked on to the porch. His porch. It was still crowded with colorful plants and drab decorations; it would all go soon in favor of something a little more bachelor-y. It would all be going, the doilies, the precious moments’ figurines the paintings and statuettes depicting the suffering of Christ. He often wondered why there weren't any pictures of Jesus hanging out with his buds- of course he never wondered it aloud, Great Aunt Jill would have had a conniption.
Once he felt refreshed enough and the smell of mothballs was gone from his nose Brett headed back inside. He thought to himself that his life shouldn't have been this way, that at 24 he should have been out and on his own- and hopefully been knee deep in pussy.
But his parents had thrown him under the bus at 12 years old and all just because he had shoplifted, gotten into a few fights and been caught with marijuana at school that one time. Brett barely escaped juvenile detention or boot camp but for the grace of God and his parents' lawyer. When it had all blown over Mom and Dad had shipped him off to his Great Aunt Jill in Elmira certain that she would be able to 'straighten him out'.
He now in retrospect felt that he should have taken his chances in juvie; after all they would have had to let him go at 18. Great Aunt Jill was under no such restrictions.
It took him a little a little while longer to clear out the last of the clothes, for a woman that only seemed to wear six seven outfits her whole life Great Aunt Jill sure had a lot of clothes stuffed into bureaus, dressers and most of the closets. Once that was done Brett started to break down her bed, he was done sleeping in the attic but there was no way he was sharing a mattress with her, even after the fact.
Soon enough the room would be empty and he could put in a waterbed or a widescreen TV, anything he wanted, he could afford it now. Brett remembered his parents dropping him off here to leave him in the care of a relative he only saw at holidays and funerals. A relative he only remembered because of her bell- like shape and dry kisses. As soon as he’d finished waving goodbye to Mom and Dad his new guardian laid down the house rules - no loud radios, no TV but educational programming, no videogames, lights out was at 10 PM and there was no lock on the bathroom door so if she caught him pleasuring himself he would find himself doing Hail Mary's for an hour.
That was when Brett made the mistake of asking her what a Hail Mary was.
A baker’s dozen of Hail Mary’s later she took him to his new room… it wasn’t much more than a bed a lamp and a chest of drawers in the attic. He could hear the wind whistling through the cracks in the attic windowsill and shivered a little in anticipation. His parents weren’t really going to go through with this were they?
Once Great Aunt Jill’s bed was broken down and waiting out on the curb for the trash man Brett made sure all the closets and drawers had been fully emptied. He found a black and white photograph in the top drawer of the nightstand table. It was of his Great Uncle John, who had apparently died a few years after his marriage. Everyone said it was a tragic accident but Brett now suspected it had all been an elaborate escape attempt gone wrong.
Brett tossed the photo and the bible into the kitchen trash, already making plans for his Monday visit with the estate lawyer. Did he want all the money at once? Or did he want it put in some kind of trust that would invest for him and dole out cash like a paycheck.
A really big paycheck. Brett thought as he decided to make a sandwich and have a beer. That’s right Jill, a beer.
He tripped over something on his way to the refrigerator, something tangled around the heel of his shoe. It was Great Aunt Jill’s forgotten funeral underwear, Brett laughed to himself he tossed the handful of cloth into the trash and got to work on that sandwich and beer.
And he didn’t use a single coaster or napkin; it made the meal taste even better.
From the ages 12 to 24 learned a great many things beyond the basic necessities of survival, like keeping the house neat, his manners perfect and how to sneak down into the basement laundry room at 1 AM so he could masturbate. Brett also learned that his parents weren’t coming back for him, that he’d been written off.
No, not written off… sold off.
Brett had found out that for all her frugal living and unwillingness to upgrade to cable TV Great Aunt Jill was rich, not super rich but rich enough to never need anything- rich enough to have family members coming to her with their hands out morning, noon and night. However since she was stingy Great Aunt Jill stayed rich and got richer.
And as far as Brett could figure it that was why he was stranded in Elmira because his parents were trying to win Great Aunt Jill’s heart and cash by giving here the one thing she never had.
A son of her own to take care of, and dote on and emasculate
It didn’t matter how many times he begged to come home. It didn’t matter that at every family gathering he felt himself drifting further and further from the emotional orbit of his parents and siblings until they started to treat him with the same kind of cool affection they’d reserve for a third cousin.
Or a Great Aunt.
Now that she was gone relatives were less reluctant to visit Great Aunt Jill’s house and they were all amazed and alarmed at how much the place had changed in the three months since her death. 1940’s era wallpaper and linoleum? Gone. Religious iconography? Gone. Threadbare non-leather furniture? Gone. Cool bachelor lifestyle?
Well he was working on that.
Of course when his relatives did come to call, the conversations always ended up reaching the subject of Great Aunt Jill’s fortune. How much did she leave? What was he going to do with it? Could they borrow five hundred dollars to get their car out of the impound lot?
Brett quickly discovered that the only thing better than having relatives beg you for money was saying no- especially his parents. He wondered sometimes what left them more stunned, that Great Aunt Jill had managed to live for as long as she had or that boy they had given to her had somehow managed to wheedle his way into the entire inheritance.
“Do you want to come up for a while?” she asked.
The question sent Brett’s pulse rate soaring, her name was Melanie and she was an assistant librarian. Which Brett assumed meant that she hadn’t quite mastered the Dewey Decimal system yet. Although personally he didn’t care if she had a job gelding horses because she was cute, easy to talk to and interested in him.
It was only their first date but somewhere between dinner and the show they’d gone from hand holding to kissing. He hadn’t planned to take things too quickly but Melanie had plans of her own. Once they were alone in her apartment they wasted no time in finding their way to her bedroom. Shoes off, their bodies rubbed together, they panted nonsense words to each other between the kisses.
Melanie wasn’t his first, but this was the first time when he had been alone with a woman and it hadn’t felt furtive or clumsy. Brett peeled her clothes away, slowly, savoring every moment of it. Her blouse and bra landed on the floor, he nuzzled the nape of her neck his hands exploring.
This girl was something, really something but he couldn’t quite imagine himself spending the rest of his life with her. But what as that old saying? That every girl was practice until the right girl came along?
Well as far as Brett was concerned he was going to practice the shit out of this girl.
Once he had exhausted himself with the possibilities of her exposed breasts Brett reached down and undid the zipper of Melanie’s skirt. By the time he had it off her she was cooing his name. Brett felt his body begin to tremble with anticipation, this was it. He hooked his fingers in the waistband of her panties; they were exactly the kind of panties he would have expected to see an assistant librarian wearing- shapeless, white, trimmed with lace.
That thought was like a splash of cold water in all the wrong places. He looked back up the length of her hoping it was a trick of the light but no.
She was wearing panties just like Great Aunt Jill’s, a thick asexual square of fabric that covered her from crotch to navel.
“What’s wrong?” Melanie asked.
“I don’t feel so…” He dressed clumsily, jamming his feet back into his shoes and throwing on his jacket, “…I’ll call you.”
“What’s wrong?” she called after him but he was already halfway down the stairs.
What’s the matter with me? Brett thought as he sped home, You blew it, and over what? Some underwear that she was going to let you take off her anyway?
But it was more than that, seeing that underwear had made him suddenly conscious of the woman again, of all the restrictions, stress and head games. He had spent the last six years of his life taking care of her and waiting for her to die. There was no way he was going to let Great Aunt Jill go to a nursing home so her estate could be nickel and dimned away to nothing so he had played nursemaid- but playing nursemaid had left him with images of the woman’s anatomy floating in his subconscious.
The sight of those panties had brought one too many clumsy bedpan cleanups to mind.
All Brett wanted now was to get home and get blind stinking drunk- he would have gone to a strip club but the closest one he knew of was in Utica. Police lights flared to life behind him. Oh what the Hell is this? Just because I have a red sports car and I’m going… He checked the speedometer …40 miles an hour above the speed limit.
“Shit.” Brett pulled over to the side of the road and tried to remind himself that he had a clean record. This was nothing. He would look back at all this someday and laugh.
The officer asked, “Sir do you know how fast you were going back there?”
Brett shrugged, “Pretty fast? Sorry?”
“Could I get your license and registration please?”
The license was in his wallet, the registration was in his glove compartment buried under the old Burger Clown paper napkins, owners manual and CDs. He pawed through them, tossing Night Ranger and Limp Bizkit’s greatest hits onto the seat beside him.
The napkins were all stuck together somehow and they all came out at once when he pulled at them. They were so old that they had become smooth to the touch and shapeless…
…and trimmed with lace.
It took one ticket, field sobriety test and car search before the police let him go home. He wasn’t sure how the panties had gotten there but Brett figured he must have pulled them off Melanie when he ran from her place.
The gentlemanly thing would have been to keep them to return to her but Brett couldn’t bear to have the things near him. He tossed them out the window of his car as he made his way home at a safe and reasonable speed.
A month later Brett was a jittery and teary eyed every moment of the day. His newly swinging bachelor pad was had become a slovenly ruin… even by the low standards set by bachelor pads.
Wherever he went he found them. He found them when he was folding laundry, when he was reaching for something to towel off with and even that one time when he was in the psychiatrist’s office they had fallen out of a magazine along with all those subscription cards!
Great Aunt Jill’s panties hounded him at every turn.
No. He thought, No just her panties… it’s her, she’s haunting me.
And Brett thought he knew why.
“Please be sure they bury me in my blue church dress and my own underwear. Sometimes the undertakers don't bother and leave you nude under your clothes.”
So she wanted her damn granny panties did she? Well he would see to it she got the damn things. Brett was sure he had everything he needed; flashlight, shovel and a crowbar.
He would have preferred not to go on such a dark and stormy night but he’d caught the panties lounging insolently on the dish rack and knew it was now or never.
It was a little after 1 AM when he reached the cemetery, a half an hour later he found an out of the way spot that he could use to sneak in. The cold rain soaked him to the skin, the thunder and lightning disoriented but he found Great Aunt Jill tombstone soon enough.
The storm had left the ground soft for digging but it was still a long backbreaking process. Every time he thought he was making progress one side of the grave would fall in and he would have to start again.
When the coffin was uncovered he took a moment to rest, the parts of his body that weren’t clammy and cold were sore and aching. He wondered to himself if it would be enough to just leave the granny panties in the coffin with her or if Great Aunt Jill really expected him to slip them on her.
Well I’m here. I may as well go all the way. He grabbed the crowbar and started to pry open the coffin lid. He cursed himself for getting such an expensive casket but eventually his persistence was rewarded with the sound of wood cracking. Brett opened the coffin.
The stench was worse than he could ever imagine both rancid and stale, bile filled his mouth, his eyes water. He forced himself to finish the job, there was no turning back now.
He reached into his jacket pocket but the panties weren’t there.
He tried the other. Still nothing.
“No.” Brett said as he checked each pocket a second and third time, “Oh no no no no…”
They were gone.
Did they… escape?
Scrambling out of the grave Brett looked all around the open Great Aunt Jill’s final resting place for the scrap of cloth.
Nothing. Nothing at all. He thought, Are they back at the car? Did I leave them home? What am I going to do?
Then Brett realized and he started tearing at himself, the crack of thunder swallowing his choking cries.
The next morning the cemetery caretaker ran into his office and dialed 911, “I need the police down at Morningside Cemetery. Someone dug up one of the graves and there’s this young man lying dead just a few feet away. Yes he’s dead. I know a dead man when I see one but you wouldn’t believe what he’s wearing…”
Al Bruno III
No one ever intends to become an addict but all it takes is that first sip of wine at dinner or a sampling of an illicit pharmaceutical at a party for an unlucky individual to start down a path of self-destruction. Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only thing that can prey on the weak willed or unlucky, shopping, food and gambling have all made people miserable at one time or another. Whole industries have sprung up to help men and women from all walks of life take back control of their lives. But Ethel’s addiction was an unusual one, there were no recognized treatments or easy explanations.
Ethel, you see, was addicted to popping pimples. It began with a YouTube video that her friends shared amongst themselves. A woman with a cyst on her back the size of an apple. It was the kind of video that was sent with the header of, “Can you watch all the way through?” or “Super Gross Out!”
The woman in the video, Ethel never saw her face or heard her name, was in what looked like a doctor’s office. Hands in latex gloves covered the oversized blemish with antiseptic and made sure plenty of gauze was nearby. Then a sharp scalpel came into view. It cut the skin and white-yellow fluid all but burst from the wound. It went everywhere some even landing on the camera filming the event. The person using the scalpel kept working, rolling the tip of the instrument around, coaxing more and more of the noxious-looking fluid out until all the flowed from the wound was blood.
Ethel was riveted, she watched the video dozens of times.
That YouTube video led to others, link after link of squeezing fingers and lancing instruments. The videos led her to Reddits and forums, to exclusive Facebook and Pinterest pages.
Watching kept her up late at night, sometimes she never went to bed at all.
She remembered being a teenager, the occasional breakouts and her mother cautioning her not to pick at her face. Compared to the other girls she had been lucky; there were some that had hidden their faces behind the books they were caring, who had endured insults like ‘Pizza Face’ and worse. Everyone said Ethel was one of the prettiest girls in class.
But she was thirty years old now, bored with work and marriage, The next time Ethel got a blemish, it was on her shoulder, she stared at it a long time. She had drawers of special skin care products for this kind of thing, but she decided that this time she would take matters into her own hands.
It took barely any pressure at all, certainly less than she expected. And it was so much better experienced than watched; the discomfort, the sudden pressure, the release, and the lingering soreness. On some level she couldn’t understand she both heard and felt the blemish give way.
Then Ethel took to giving her husband Floyd back rubs. He certainly didn’t protest, that hour or so was probably the most time they’d spent together in months. His law practice kept him busy, maddeningly so at times.
When she found some ingrown hair or neglected pustule he would ask her to not pick at it and she wouldn’t listen. She was relentless, it didn’t matter how much he squealed or if she drew blood. To keep him from shying away she made sure that her grooming sessions ended with sexual intercourse.
To Ethel it was a perfectly mature understanding, Floyd got what he wanted and she got what she wanted.
It went on like that for a time, Ethel sating herself with videos until a bump or blackhead appeared on herself or her husband. Those were moments she savored like fine wine. She probably could have gone on like for the rest of her life but Floyd had other ideas. One night at dinner he told her that he was in love with a coworker and he was leaving.
Ethel had wondered why he’d pulled the old suitcase out of the attic days earlier but never thought to ask. She’d never suspected she needed to.
Soon enough she was living alone for the first time in her life, alone and inconsolable. She had friends and family close by but it wasn’t enough, she had a busy work schedule and that wasn’t enough. Finishing off one bottle of Chablis a week wasn’t enough.
Even the pimple popping videos weren’t enough.
So, Ethel changed her diet, eating more and more fast food, more and more chocolate. She read articles with skin care advice and did the opposite of their recommendations. Then she waited.
The first few blemishes were small, little pinpricks of red that almost looked like freckles. Ethel worked at them eagerly having grown her nails out and bought a new makeup mirror for just this occasion.
Tiny but exhilarating, the discharge they expelled was thick and solid; she could roll it around on her fingertips.
When the next few pimples began to show she left them be, let them fatten up; whiteheads grew, blackheads darkened. The whiteheads almost always went painlessly but spectacularly, marking the surface of her mirror with speckles of yellow, white and green. Sometimes she would keep the pressure on until she added a spattering of red to the mix.
The blackheads could be more challenging, sometimes resisting her attentions for hours at a time until they were nothing so much as swollen nubs of pain that felt far larger than they actually were. When the surface of one finally broke it would exclude a thin streamer of puss. She would watch in fascination as the little filament of exudate twisted along her finger and then squeeze harder and harder until something would give way and a rivulet of blood veined with yellow and white shot from the wound.
She would celebrate each of her victories of those blemishes with a glass of wine and a dab of Sea Breeze.
Left cheek then right cheek, forehead then chin, she would let one part of her face fester and work at another. She learned how to cultivate razor bumps when she shaved her legs and was amazed at how resistant they could be but made them give up their secrets. All it took was a sewing needle and persistence.
Occasionally she filmed herself but it was never the same on playback, no matter how close she got to the camera. And Ethel never ever considered posting them, this was for her and her alone. She could imagine no experience more intimate.
Late at night when was lying in bed, half drunk with her face and legs stinging with astringent, she would wonder how much she had drained from her body this way, drop by drop, spurt by spurt. A pint? Maybe a gallon. She tried to imagine it, a an empty carton or milk jug overflowing with thick, putrefying liquid. She thought of the skin cells she shed every day and the mucus that gathered in her nose, of the mites that lived on her eyelashes and the bacteria that made their homes in her gut.
In the end was that all a person was? A festering wound? A host for infections?
Ethel’s friends and relatives would try to broach the subject of her complexion with her, never directly though. They would ask if she was sick, if she had seen a doctor or what beauty products she was using. She would wave such concerns away and change the subject. What did they know about her and her interests? As she drifted from one party or family reunion to another she would see more and more pitying gazes thrown her way, Ethel accepted them with a grim amusement.
Sometimes she would see people staring at a particularly swollen blackhead or purposely neglected twin-headed pimple and see a flash of something familiar in their eyes. They wanted to get their fingers on those blemishes as much as she did, to feel the lump skin protest against the squeezing and then give way. She was never uncomfortable with these people. Let them stare, let them be jealous.
Other times she would see nothing but pure disgust in someone’s expression, someone with perfect skin and hair that judged her and saw her as somehow inferior. With those people Ethel wanted nothing more than to give a demonstration of her newly developed skills, to send an arc of pus sailing into their face with a single, simple gesture.
But she never did that, it would have been a waste.
Then she had the accident.
It was a stupid thing really, Ethel had been driving back from the store when she’d become distracted by a previously unnoticed ingrown hair lurking just behind her earlobe. She knew better than to text and drive, or call and drive, she wasn’t even one to fiddle with the radio while in traffic but her attention kept returning to the blemish. One hand on the wheel she tried to get it to go by pinching it between the fingers of her free hand.
No luck. It was maddeningly resistant.
So, finally she gave in to temptation and used both hands to push at the ingrown hair. The pimple plopped open just as she clipped the front fender of the Nissan running the yellow light ahead of her.
She wasn’t in the wrong, that was obvious but the officers on the scene insisted on breathalyzer tests all around. They found Ethel’s blood alcohol level to be with the legal limit, but just barely.
It was all so embarrassing, and the Nissan’s driver only made things worse by suing anyone and everyone possible. They told a story that painted them as a victim of irresponsible drivers, poorly designed intersections and soft tissue damage.
Ethel was surprised when she saw her ex-husband Floyd among the attorneys involved in the deposition, she was even more surprised when he didn’t recognize her. When she finally approached him after the proceedings all his well trained lawyerly dispassion was gone in an instant. When he spoke his voice was loud enough that everyone in the room heard.
“What the Hell happened to you?”
Those words followed Ethel home from the courthouse. Every time she glimpsed herself in the rearview mirror or reflective surface she heard it again. “What the Hell happened to you?”
When she got home she cursed that there was no alcohol in the house but she had told herself she needed to cut down. The accident had been a close call and she had been frightened to realize later that she didn’t know how long it had been before her last drink and hitting the road that night.
But she would have loved a drink right then. She wanted her mind to be empty and spinning, she wanted her vision and senses blurred.
Once, not too long ago, he had looked upon her face with adoration, then, later on, resignation. In time Ethel had become used to both, but the expression of horror on his face. It had been too much to bear.
She cleaned off her makeup mirror and looked at herself, not the blemishes old and new, not the oily patches and deep, bruised-looking pockmarks. Ethel saw herself, saw the extent of her self mutilation.
Why had she done this? Why had she become so obsessed with act of whittling away at herself to the point that she had become unrecognizable to the man that had shared her bed for nine years? Remembering the tiny blooms of pleasure she had taken in the act suddenly left her feeling sick to her stomach.
Ethel ran her hands over her cheeks, they were ragged and eaten away, her forehead was a ruin of interconnected scars and her chin was a festering wound of pustules half gone to becoming cysts.
Someday, long from that moment, she would come to learn the terms Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior and Excoriation Disorder but that night, the night she wailed with self-disgust and self-realization and smashed her mirror, Ethel only knew that this it was more than she could take.
And after all, what was one more multilation at this point?
She hooked each of her hands into claws and brought them forward, and, after a deep breath to steel her courage, drove them deep into her eye sockets with all her might.
Then she pinched.