The only beneficiaries when the state loses funding for urban mental facilities are the developers who rent these appropriated slums to desperate startup youths, dayjob immigrants and anyone else blinded by city lights. The game in these living situations is acceptance, because indignities aside, to hold on to somewhere special in concept beyond the reality of your surroundings is a fragile hope in this cold industrial age.
“Something terrible has happened” Paul’s voice came in strained over the usual amount of static on Belinda’s cellular phone. Thank god this place was cheap. Their new house was smack dab in a deadzone that seemed to cancel out even the superb cellular plans she and her fiance’s offices provided. “There’s no time to explain,” Paul continued, breathing heavily, “just know that I loved you and that while we can never see each other again, there was not a moment wasted between us.”
She wondered why she wasn’t panicking. It was a short lived notion, the wondrous garbage surrounding her was too much to concentrate. Belinda’s peroxide blonde brows unfurrowed as she lost track of the words to Paul’s cryptic phone call.
Wasn’t Paul at work? Maybe this was what all the warning videos his company put in the ‘welcome’ packet were about? Belinda hadn’t seen any of them. At the time she’d been too busy getting an eyeglass screwdriver into a salvaged laptop she’d taken home from work. It had an operating system on it she was enamored by, broken in such a beautiful way. She wanted it for her own and knew that it was a cheap way of preserving herself in this shared new house of theirs.
Belinda, having finally grasped a tiny portion of this city where she always wanted to live, became significantly more self involved in ways that blinded her to Paul’s feelings. It happened the minute she changed her driver’s license. Maybe it was when she got that library card she never used, actually. Either way it was instantaneous. For having changed her zip code a few numbers, she allowed herself to feel like the woman she wanted to be when she was a girl.
All through Paul’s final phone call, Belinda mused over all the Apple II computers she now found strewn across their new basement. She was wearing a bandanna around her new haircut and even it had a vintage leopard print, another cool thing this city had to offer in its fabric district. But looking good was expensive. This house they had bought, for all it’s setbacks in electrical wiring, offered endless surprises. Here, for instance, in these ancient computers was more cheap escapism for the lease holder. Better ways, like the her office’s yoga instructor had proclaimed, to reclaim a sense of self.
‘It’s a wonder the things people are willing to leave behind,’ Belinda thought as her fiance’s voice pleaded in her ear. She suddenly had a painful thought about not listening and tuned her eardrum into his vocal patterns. The static was taking over by then. Her instantaneously bored eyes found more computers on the stone floor, became distracted again.
A couple of the Apples must have been plugged into unseen outlets behind the furnace or something (she didn’t even think there was power on this side of the house). Their screens were making patterns that Belinda assumed to be old screen savers.
She then remembered that computers this old didn’t need screensavers. She was relatively sure that concept, the ‘screen saver,’ hadn’t been invented in the mid-1980s. The miniature apple screens, encased in a single unit behind beige plastic, illuminated the rows of various clothes, photo albums and other dead computers of the damned.
The basement was so small that it kept Belinda hunched. Low rafters with only dead bulbs and spiders hanging, waiting to lacerate the 20-something IT woman churning the crank on her hand-held mechanical flashlight. She never remembered to keep it charged. For this many rooms at such a low price in this world-class city, she and Paul decided that conceding to expensive, sustainably battery-free flashlights and near-constant blackouts was more than fair.
This was the first time the basement had been touched since moving in. It had only been a few months, but it didn’t look like anyone had been down here for a decade.
Belinda’s gloved hands, even with the pleading finality in her ear, sorted through rabbit ears for cracked, wood-paneled televisions along the foundation of their first ‘house’ together in the decommissioned bungalow of a state halfway home. Why were all these electronics stacked up against the sides, creating obstacles at the center of this state facility basement? A VHS cassette rewinder was hissing somewhere in the distance, a familiar sound Belinda hadn’t heard in years. These stacks looked too deliberate not to resemble a labyrinth, yet too clumsy to have been anything but further nonsense from all the former mental patients this two story bungalow used to hold. Maybe it was newer, like the more mobile patients from across the courtyard in the rest of the halfway house could get into Belinda and Paul’s basement at night. That had been a concern during the open house that their stupid slumlord evaded deftly by offering to revoke the property from the market. There was nowhere else in this city so cheap on rent. Belinda reminded herself to get a padlock. Neon green glowed all around her, something she would have otherwise found disturbing if it wasn’t so convenient in the dark room with her dead flashlight.
The phone static was taking hold of Paul’s cellular call. “I love - - -” Belinda looked down at her screen and puzzled over having all of the service bars on her display. What good was this hunk of plastic and wires she always carried if it didn’t work at a time like this. “If we never - - -” And then suddenly the call dropped, service was lost.
At least that’s what Belinda assumed. If something had just yanked her fiance out of her life and this was their last phone call together, she needed to assume that Paul hadn’t just hung up on her. That would have been unacceptable.
The phone fell from her limp fingers. Her arms dangled at her side. The flashlight went nowhere, so used to its place in her palm that it defied gravity. Belinda and Paul always had these devices in their hands amidst this dark house, from the moment they got home from their offices to the moment in the morning when they left on separate buses.
Whatever happened, her feeling of sudden hollowness aside, Belinda had a weird, instantaneous sense of ease about the affordability of this house even with her suddenly sole income paying the bills. It wouldn’t mean an eviction. She wouldn’t have to pack up and leave the city. She wondered again about that little packet that Paul’s company had sent him home with containing all the biohazard warnings.
Paul’s vagueness in that phone call would haunt Belinda for the next week; distantly, like an old scar in the rain. In a sense, Paul wouldn’t be going anywhere for Belinda and the next week would be the most she’d paid attention to his needs throughout their whole courtship.
For now, Belinda stooped in that cramped basement and retrieved her cellphone. It had a new crack in the screen. Luckily she’d siphoned more of the office’s supplies to fix little nuisances like these. Whenever someone had a birthday, Belinda would steal home all the leftover cake for her and her husband to save money on groceries and buy necessities like clothes to keep from looking as tight as their budget really was in this city. That was until Paul started getting chubby.
Ahead of her in the basement stacks of birdcages sat next to what appeared to be the door to a laundry chute. Belinda couldn’t remember seeing any openings for this upstairs. None of this was any stranger to see for the IT woman than the surrounding menagerie of electronics belonging to decades of transient former electroshock patients. Belinda, like with most things that it took to live in the city, disregarded her concerns. She buried them with happy memories that she and Paul had a few bottles of wine upstairs from some company event. Belinda could drink the reds for dinner (she’d been feeling chubby lately in her tight dresses) and as a bonus not have to worry about how she was going to fall asleep that evening.
The laundry chute, if that’s what it was, sat embedded into the stone wall and was sealed off through the iron door’s thread with a rusted crowbar. Belinda couldn’t remember her last tetanus shot and decided that even if she wanted this built-in convenience to function, she would have to consult a doctor first. She quickly recalled misplacing the info on her company’s health plan. Looking any further into this room would have to wait until Belinda could deem it a responsible, safe move.
A crack in the brick wall of wherever this laundry room faced let a gust of wind smack up against that iron door. It almost sounded like a kick.
That night the birdman appeared. It would mark a week of Belinda’s trying to accept him for who he was. Belinda was willing to accept that this was who Paul had become. It was as though he couldn’t control himself anymore. She couldn’t blame him ever since she first laid eyes on him as she stumbled out of what used to be their shared bed that night to take a piss.
Belinda saw him first, a side glance reflection on her part into the mirror. His three-piece-suited figure glowed a strange neon against their kitchen. She wasn’t sure it was him at first, but then she remembered all the locks they had on the front door and the basement, decided that she would rather focus on the fact that he had a new suit. It was irrational and she was still frozen on that toilet bowl with fear, but her brain kept saying ‘Where did he get the money for that suit?’
The fuses in the kitchen never worked. Even the streetlight in the facility’s courtyard was only a blinking fixture, never a solid beam into where they ate. The pale orange from this facility’s post, clung to as usual by one of the high-functioning screw-looses next door, would for a few seconds offset that creature’s horrific glow.
This guy was really glowing. Belinda wondered how much Paul had spent on that. She still couldn’t move, her body was telling her otherwise, giving her a warning, but she just kept reasoning ‘who else could it be, come on?’ There were what appeared to be wings jutting out of his back, more pale than the tarnished glowing suit they burst through, from which a flurry of molting fluff was raining onto the carpeted floor.
That detail, the kitchen carpeting more than anything else was what made Belinda almost call the whole deal off when she and Paul got the ten-cent tour from their slumlord. It meant the kitchen had been in another room initially and that after god knows what happened, they’d just picked up the oven and fridge and shifted the whole deal around. There wasn’t even running water in this so-called ‘kitchen,’ how could they be sure there wasn’t a leaking gas line extension in some other room with a rush job like that. Belinda told Paul that she would never have stood for this kind of squalor in her thirties but for this city’s draw.
The bathroom light above her was another fixture that never got any juice. After the paralyzing shock of the birdman’s image wore off, Belinda’s hand was at the perpetual flashlight. She’d walked to the pisser on autopilot yet still grabbed the thing, never turning it on. It was lightweight, organic and pricey flashlight, not the kind of metal rod torch that she could use as a weapon against a threat. The only light on the whole floor right then was that glowing creature getting his short feathers all over her kitchen carpets.
‘I just cleaned that kitchen,’ Belinda thought from her cold toilet squat. It was such a strange thought that it snapped her even further out of this supernatural trance.
Belinda, dumbfounded, realized that she was thinking so rationally about this glowing freak because her powerful nostrils (a bane of her existence) picked up the scent of Corn Nutz brand snack treats from the kitchen. This was Paul’s all-time #1 stress food of choice; that chubby bastard. Belinda had always been on her fiance to lose weight, but honestly, that smell put Belinda at ease every time. Registering what had just transgressed, Belinda jumped from the bowl and ran to the kitchen. This was Paul for sure.
The winged man devouring Corn Nutz from a large (stale) bag turned around to face the co-signer of this former halfway house’s lease. His skin was as pale as the wings but seemed to be something almost human, stretched and maimed as it was. It looked like there wasn’t enough of the birdman’s epidermis to go around, like a bad canvass stretcher was left in charge of a bunch of Dali paintings. The birdman, Paul’s snout was covered with red barbeque seasoning, it coated his half-shattered beak. His eyes, looking confused like high-strung Paul with the genetic engineering job always did, were all black with tiny red specks at the center. Huge bags hung from beneath them that were oozing something purple.
“Paul! Oh, Paul! What have those bastards done to you with their chemicals??”
The birdman opened his beak, roared and took a lunge at her.
Suddenly fireworks erupted outside the window from the adjacent state orphanage (not without its own similar decommissioned slum-apartments on premises). Kids, orphans outside were running past “HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, CRAZY PEOPLE!”
Belinda had forgotten what day of the year it was. She cursed herself. She hadn’t had a single Budweiser or done anything distinctly American all day. Maybe saving her money by not going out was truly the most patriotic of all celebratory practices. Someday she wouldn’t be living in a slum like this. She reasoned it all as she turned back to her mutated fiance and found he was gone. The kitchen was empty. She thought she heard footsteps in the courtyard of the halfway house for a second, but reasoned it was just one of the free-range patients nextdoor that not even an arm full of thorazine could keep in the land of nod.
It was still better than living above that bachata club they’d found on the other side of town.
Belinda thought about this for a moment and nodded, yes, she would still rather have a small house in the abandoned portion of a mental facility than an apartment above a nightclub. “I mean come on,” she found herself saying to no one, “it’s a whole house.”
The next morning Belinda woke up and before plugging in her espresso maker, before checking her phone, before any of it she felt this consuming desire to give Paul the help he needed. Of course, her fiance was nowhere to be found. This was a real inconvenience to her that didn’t go unnoted. This kind selflessness which overcame her was quite unlike Belinda in her new urban mindset and she found the compassion painful. Here was this man she was probably going to marry for a few years, one of the many romances she wanted out of her life, and in the moments before becoming this monstrosity, he tells her how much she meant to him. Fuck. She could have gotten away so easily, a clean break. Why did he pick then to show a little bit of anything?
Belinda felt, begrudgingly (at least now amidst the initial pain in her lonely bedroom), that she owed her help to this man even if he’d become more disgusting with his appearance than when he’d ‘let himself go.’ Belinda gagged, acknowledging that from his behavior binging on all those Corn Nutz and lashing out at her was a sign he was hurting. Paul never showed that much backbone before. He usually ate his stress binges in private. This deformed state was really bugging him. Belinda couldn’t help noting that the mutation had caused his abs to tighten. She thought for a moment on this. It wasn’t something she was opposed to.
So why did Paul call to say goodbye forever if he’d just be around as an angsty mutant hours later? Belinda wondered this deeply because it was still the Fourth of July weekend and without a job to go to and no real money to spend, she didn’t know what to do with herself. Would Paul be back again later? Probably, he didn’t have any money either. Belinda hoped that in his new mutant state, things like money hadn’t become irrelevant to Paul because she couldn’t stand that hippie, free everything mumbo jumbo. You’ve got to work hard for what you want, Belinda asserted from her comforter in her formerly shared bed. So why the goodbye phonecall? ‘He just didn’t think I’d understand’ Belinda reasoned angrily. ‘What an insensitive jerk.’
That night the birdman appeared again, lighting up the floor as usual.
“Paul” Belinda said from the bedroom. The glowing figure appeared in the doorway, not leaving the hall, body only momentarily sidetracked, hand clutching the door frame as though to keep from bounding forward on its quest to kitchen.
The hand which held that doorframe had no fingernails. It was smooth as though they’d never belonged on these alabaster digits. Belinda scanned that hand for his engagement ring but remembered that he couldn’t afford one; a decision she had made. How could she forget? Then she gasped. She didn’t recognize that bit of jewelry on his other pale set of fingers, it must’ve been new. It looked pricey. Not to mention he was so desperate to hide it that he wore it on the wrong, deformed hand. That was too much of an insult.
“I knew it Paul,” she said, “you were always too insecure! How much did it cost? How much was that stupid token you’ve got on the wrong hand to tell the world you’re off the goddamn market, Paul??”
The birdman just stared at her with its huge eyes.
“Sorry.” Belinda finally said, really meaning it. She was quiet for a sec. It was unnatural. Usually intent on letting Paul know her opinions validity. That usually led to more arguing. This method, she realized, was much simpler. Paul was smart not to say anything. His bug eyes excreting purple waste from their eyelids as they looked deep into hers. Belinda could tell from his posture and desperate glances at the kitchen that all the birdman wanted was Barbeque Corn Nutz. It was insulting with how hard she was trying for him. Belinda’s nails curled into her palm. A lump climbed her throat. ‘That fink’s keeping quiet because he doesn’t care!’ Even worse, it was apparent at that moment that Paul just wanted to let himself go again, get fat now that he’d locked down her love with weapons-grade guilt.
“Paul, honey, wouldn’t you rather come here?” she beckoned. If he approached, which he did, Belinda was out of ideas. Her resentment dissolved as though it were never there. Belinda would throw up though if he intended to sleep with her. Luckily, he just stood at the edge of the room, just beyond the doorway and before the closet mirrors which would have blinded both of them with his reflected glow.
The birdman glared with no emotion, no intent, so lost in his autistic, childlike mannerisms that Belinda could see Paul the way he used to look. His former chubby body was superimposed over this bird monstrosity in her mind’s eye. There he was: Paul the genetic engineer who moved into this bargain house with her and now stood glowing at the corner of the room, a beak for a mouth, eyeballs destroyed. Paul the genetic engineer who riddled his fiance with guilt. Paul the genetic engineer who wasn’t there when she woke up the next morning.
“You look like shit,” said Diane Lawrence, a computer illiterate executive at Belinda’s company. The IT technician, running on very little sleep from a glowing fiance at the corner of her room all night, wasn’t making cubicle calls. That day everyone who came to see her in the basement with their laptops was sour. Belinda assumed Diane’s remarks were inspired by this inconvenience. The IT tech shrugged it off.
“No, seriously,” Diane persisted. Her words had a level of compassion which Belinda was unaccustomed. They sliced her psyche like tender knives, she was so used to guarded, curt interactions in a city like this. “Are you alright, Belinda? Seriously, girl. You look like somebody took off a couple layers of your skin and replaced it with sour cream!”
Belinda stared at the executive, mystified. “No, just a bad night’s sleep.”
“You should invest in cosmetics, girl” Diane said as she retrieved her color-coded repairs chit and exited the IT department.
“They test those products on innocent animals” Belinda said feebly, thinking of Paul’s job. Diane was already gone. Nobody else worked in the basement.
A night went by and the birdman didn’t show up. Belinda assumed that chubby Paul had decided to wait until she was asleep and grab those Corn Nutz uninterrupted. This was confirmed when she found the glowing footprints leading to the kitchen. ‘Is he no longer attracted to me?’ she wondered, feeling thoroughly hurt.
It was too dark in the house at dawn to track where the mutant stomped off to, even with the glowing footprints leading the way. The IT technician ended the search party on a note of bitterness, for in her fervor to be ready for Paul’s no-show the night before, she’d forgotten to make it so that she could see what she was doing when she shaved her legs that morning. The flashlight had been left uncharged, not a single crank of power in it. This chore she’d always neglected though, cursing Paul for it even before he became this mutant.
In the dark shower Belinda’s thighs, calves, everything felt lumpier than usual with her Lady Bic. But there was no way to really see and no time to sort through such a mundane mystery. It just had to be a mistake. There was no other possibility in Belinda’s scattered commuter brain. Even if doubts appeared, there was no time for any. She had an important transit connection to make and it was on the other end of a long bus ride. Fussing over those glowing footprints had taken the time she usually spent on the traffic report. She was flying blind this morning commute.
Through it all Belinda wanted more than anything to feel angry about Paul’s selfish Corn Nutz binge the night before. She felt entitled to that rage as a matter of respect. The way he was treating her was unallowed like late service at a restaurant around a time-sensitive lunch break or a no-show express train for peak hour commuter. She wished there was a website to write offenses like these up for all the world, to shame him.
But there in her heart, irrational as she could figure by suppressing these indignities, was a sense of obligation, a new sense she was developing which made caring for this helpless mutated freak of a fiance far more important than loving him when he was a functioning human being. ‘Damn that phone call!’ Belinda thought to herself, uninterrupted in this reverie by the late express train on that very morning.
Nothing at her job really bothered her as much anymore either. Not even the absurdity of the tragedy which occupied her every thought could bother her. Somehow it all made as much sense as anything else that her would-be husband was a giant bird mutant now. Belinda sighed amidst the commuter rail. Such sacrifices had to be made to afford living in such a world-class city. How many homeless were there right now with guitars and nothing else, happy just to be there amongst the beautiful people’s garbage? Belinda sighed again, at least knew she would have a roof over her head and could steal from the company fridge.
‘Hell, this mutation wouldn’t even be so bad,’ Belinda reasoned, ‘if Paul would just stop trampling all over my poor feelings.’ She got angry at her reflection on the train, imperfect and darkened in the tunnels. She could hardly see it. People shifted as far away from her as they could on the crowded car. She began talking to herself aloud without noting her own voice, grinding her teeth. It was so unconscious that she assumed it to be another subway car performer addressing another captive audience. She kept her eyes forward.
[TO BE CONTINUED]