It had only been a couple days since Paul’s ‘final’ phone call bound Belinda, or so she felt, to the wreck of her former fiance. This sentiment in her mind was much more pure, sounded far less jaded, but these things corrode when the attempt is made to put them into words. Sometimes the words just slip out on their own.
After catching somebody’s eye on the train and stopping her unconscious soliloquy, a more rational, shut-off portion of the IT gal’s psyche reassured the rest of her emotions that they could chalk up any irrationalities in her current actions to complete and utter shock. She was not personally losing her mind, she was just growing emotionally. This was a great perspective to gain from such a relationship, Belinda reasoned, and if after a while of kicking the tires on this mutant/guilt relationship she had to bail, Paul would surely understand.
She wasn’t able to see that she would never be able to leave him anymore. The lights around her flashed as the car pulled into the station. Her core emotions were lost amidst a staring train ride full of commuters. Isn’t that always the way?
Your narrator apologizes, retract that prior statement about the serenity of grief because one thing did really bother Belinda amidst all her reassuring internal monologue and nightly Paul reappearances. It was Diane Lawrence from work.
“Here ya go, princess” Diane said, dumping some expensive makeup onto the IT counter at the base of the company skyscraper’s erection.
Belinda couldn’t contain herself. “Is it ‘Bring a Hooker to Work Day’?” she spouted, then corrected herself “I mean ‘Dress Your IT Department like Hookers Day?’ . . . no, that’s no good . . .”
“No it’s not.” said Diane.
Belinda sighed. “What’s with the makeup?”
Diane stalled to give Belinda the up-and-down. Between women this usually has a much less sexual connotation then between the sexes at nightclubs, say. For instance, Diane sized Belinda up with pure pity like a missionary would a starving child. “Girl, you look a bit better today, got some of that color back in your pigments! Whatever your skin’s ethnic background is, it’s meant to shine in the sunlight . . .” Diane realized there were no windows on Belinda’s floor. “. . . When you go outside for breaks or whatever.”
Belinda was doing her best not to get insulted. She began to speak “Diane . . .”
“Belinda, I’ve never seen anyone look the way you did yesterday. This is a mission of mercy. How old are you, 49? 50?”
“You don’t have to lie about your age to me, Be-Linda, I’m a certified Revlon representative: a goddamn beauty professional on the prowl!”
“So that’s what this is about, you want me to buy . . .”
“Belinda, take this. I don’t have the heart to charge you for anything, just please . . . this will make you look like you’re 34 when you say it.”
“Hey! No, seriously, I’m 34. I had my birthday last week at the . . .” then Belinda remembered that she’d had Paul cancel the birthday reservations at the company bar so that she could take the money for a full-body spa day. Now it seemed as though both efforts had failed.
Diane walked off without checking on her busted computer. Belinda realized that this visit hadn’t been professional, that the company executive really felt bad for Belinda, pitied her. It made Belinda pissed: Helplessly, entirely filled with rage.
“I’m just worried about you is all,” said Diane, looking back and seeing this dagger-shooting glare from the IT counter. The executive climbed the first steps of the stairwell and looked back again. An elevator didn’t go down this far from offices like Diane’s. “You should try a spa day,” the woman’s words echoed around the concrete slabs of the long, reverberating shaft, the only way above ground.
At the bottom and to the side of this stone shaft sat Belinda. The IT tech was behind an inlaid desk which pulled out to reveal it was also a door, the only exit from this department. It had a schedule painted onto the wall. Nothing was wasted in this city.
The birdman returned that night, face covered in Corn Nutz powder.
Belinda noticed earlier that the cabinets were emptied on Paul’s night spent without her so she bought more Corn Nutz, cursing herself at the store for that loving feeling of warmth in her less-tightened-than-usual belly. Was this how Lauren Bacall felt in all those movies before Vincent Price turned back from a human fly? Paul was making strides to show he cared. He still never spoke a word or touched her while she was awake, but that evening he took a further step into the bedroom at her desperate beckon. She was overwhelmed with emotion when he did. It felt like the world’s most potent vodka shot and when she almost threw up from it, the suppressed urge had nothing to do with the stench of Paul’s new body. It was pure love.
His glowing reflection off their closet mirror doors at this angle kept Belinda up late into the morning, her eyes only closing when the light of dawn through the window offset the mutant sheen a little bit.
Still, the young woman felt an overwhelming warmth and love in her heart that made the effort one of the most worthwhile events in her life. More than a lover, this was the perfection of a forgotten feeling from her years of training puppies with her father as a child; something so pure, so chaste. It was true selflessness and melted a lot of the superficiality within the city-hardened, IT technician’s heart. She could see now why others felt compassion for her in this time of weakness as she rubbed the heavy bags under her eyes that morning. It was time for work. She went into the bathroom and used the gunk Diane had left her to gussy up for work, if only for one day. The importance of one day was no longer lost on a callous Belinda.
One day, if nights like the last one kept up, Belinda imagined that mutant Paul would come over from his creepy, owl-like bedroom perch and embrace her. She thought this as she slathered on the makeup in the dark. When that happened, everything would somehow be back like it was before the phone call, before whatever accident did this, only far better and he would tell her ‘Belinda, baby, thank you for staying true. Belinda, baby, oh! I love you. Belinda, oh yeah, Belinda. Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ In Belinda’s fantasy, the mutation had also made Paul a fantastic singer. The lack of sleep was beginning to get to her.
“I’m wearing the makeup, Diane,” Belinda said later that morning, “aren’t you proud of me?” But the executive looked horrified. She froze in her polka-dotted blouse and black pencil skirt before stepping off the last stair into the basement. Her black high heel dangled off a mid-air, stockinged foot. It never touched the shitty carpet at the basement landing. Diane couldn’t bring herself to come any closer. She was actually shaking. Her face seemed to retreat into itself around this lips.
“Whatever, drama queen” Belinda laughed off the executive’s insulting behavior. “Your computer’s ready.”
Diane headed back up the stairs instead, pronto.
Diane said nothing. She was gone.
“Your computer’s ready! Hey! Hey, Diane! . . . Whatever . . .”
Belinda was overcome with crippling self-awareness and needed to see what she looked like in a mirror. She’d forgotten to charge the crank flashlight again at the house and did so by sense of touch earlier. That was probably a mistake. She feared this was what made Diane run off, maybe Belinda’s application of the product was somehow insulting to a Revlon agent. There had been a lot of people staring at her on the train during the morning commute. She thought it was because she looked better in this pore clogging gunk. It certainly made her face stop feeling so tight and itchy. She hadn’t been sleeping lately, wasn’t that what dermatologists were always on about? This was probably some horribly dark Revlon sales pitch, Belinda reasoned.
The bathroom light in the skyscraper’s basement was blinding. How long had she been awake in the dark? She came to work in sunglasses these days and was feeling increasingly nocturnal for a woman who quit using cocaine years ago. Her eyes were unable to focus for almost a minute. ‘That can’t be healthy’ thought Belinda. Her face looked like someone had been peeling layers of it away as she slept. How could this have happened in just a few days? Her cheeks were entirely sunken, even her arms were thinner than ever, skeletal; old. Her nose cartilage was practically jutting out of points, like a poor canvass stretcher had been going to work on her without drawing her attention. Her eyes had these weirdly familiar purple bulges underneath that seemed full of pus, pulling at the seams where they attached to the sausage casing of her stretched cheeks, everywhere else pulled tight as well. This face was no longer hers, but it still looked so familiar. She was too tired to even gasp. Whatever Paul had done to himself in that stupid genetic testing facility was fucking contagious. She’d become one of whatever he was. “Great” she said emptily. She could never leave. There would be no second or third husband, no greater love to be found, no further outsider perspectives on her soul from which to learn.
Now she finally felt herself able to get pissed at Paul. No longer was any of this justifiable. But this futile anger was too tinged with sadness. The newfound compassion for poor Paul made her unable to hate him. It had only been a few days and it had become so strong, that intensity doesn’t fade in mere moments. Belinda just raised her tired fist and tried to punch the mirror; shatter the image of herself before her eyes. She did this only to discover her fingernails gone from an unrecognizably pale hand which just slid down the mirrored surface. Tonight she would give herself to him. What other choice did she have? The lights above flickered, she could see fallen bits of fluff on the tiled floor beneath her flats.
Belinda smiled suddenly, her face seeming to spread wider than usual, beaklike at the thought that the Walrus wasn’t Paul, but rather that Paul was a giant bird monster.
Then she stopped. She was becoming one too.
It is so easy to lose one’s perspective in such a modern world with all these dangerous chemicals and day jobs. It hadn’t been a week since that phone call where Paul told her that no moment with her had been wasted but that he was to leave his life with her forever.
One of the orphans threw a rock at Belinda’s bus as it pulled up to the row of state facilities on the far end of town that evening. The former IT tech had to take a bus each day to the train station that took her to work in such a large city. This was another concession she made to live here amongst all the celebrities, new food fusion restaurants, technological pinnacles, beautiful people, free electronica concerts and opportunity. She would never take this commute ever again. She wasn’t sure if she was sad about this, but let it become a symbol for a greater sadness she didn’t know how to express.
Belinda did a set of pushups in the bedroom until sunset, looking at her threadbare skin in what little she could make out of the mirrored closet door. It was her last act of self preservation before giving this body she used to love to Paul in his monstrous form. Rolling with the punches of city living had always been easier for Belinda after a vigorous, zone-focused workout. She was too tired to fight her destiny. She decided after seducing the glowing birdman later, she would be on the lazy, receiving end. He had gotten her sick, after all.
She did another few pushups every time she found the energy to worry.
When he appeared she fed him Corn Nutz from her palm. She was wearing the sexiest underwear she could find in the dark on short notice with nothing else but a bag of the creature’s favorite snacks. His grasping at the tiny pellets of fried cornmeal was far more violent than Belinda expected. She grabbed him and he gripped her back. It didn’t feel sexual but she was willing to accept anything. She pressed herself to him. She was determined to embed herself so much in the moment, think so hard of Paul’s soul that by the time her senses caught up to the nastiness of the creature she was clutching, there would be no going back.
“I love you Paul! I love you! I’m never going to leave! Thank you for coming back, Paul I will shower you with love, unconditional, true, soul saving love and we will both make it through this!”
Then Paul fell limp to her feet. Behind him in a bathrobe and slippers was that one nutjob from the halfway house next door who was always staring into their windows from the courtyard after dark. She had thought until now he was a harmless pervert with dementia or something.
“I’ve been waiting 10 years for this asshole to surface again” said the old asian man. His eyes were burning, determined. His posture ready for a fight, straighter than usual.
Paul sprung to his feet and lunged for the old man with a roar familiar to Belinda from their first night, the reunion after the accident, the fireworks that had sent Paul running. The old man, in one fluid motion, punched in the fire alarm box glass and grabbed the axe inside.
No alarm sounded as he slashed at the birdman with this safety tool. Feathers filled the air, exuded from a large thump against the carpeted floor which took Paul with it. The right half of his face was coating the wall, black eyeball bouncing across the floor.
“That’s my fiance” Belinda screamed helplessly at the man. Her feet were frozen.
“This?” the greyed man demanded. His bathrobe was open in the breeze like a cape with only a pair of tighty whities beneath. He’d honestly expected Belinda to be dead by now and was annoyed to see her. It showed in his voice, practically spitting her. “Lady, this is Quangule, the rat bastard who killed my father!”
He took another slash at Paul with the fire axe. Belinda couldn’t believe that this intruder A) didn’t destroy his feeble-looking hand punching through the glass firebox and B) that this hadn’t triggered the alarm. Then her mind flashed to her slumlord’s slimy face and she shrugged. It made as much sense as anything else. She tried again to plead with this axe wielding old man about Paul. The assailant would hear none of it. “You know how long I’ve been waiting for this god forsaken piece of shit to show up and let me finish his bird brain once and for all, you old bag?”
“10 years? You’ve been waiting 10 years? You just said it. What, do you think that I’m deaf? I’ve been waiting far longer than that to live here in this berg and your delusional, halfway-home ass is killing my fiance right now in the hallway of my dream home!” Belinda took a deep breath, then her eyes flashed. “. . . And ‘old bag?’ . . . ‘OLD BAG?!’ HOW DARE YOU?”
The man looked at her, dumbfounded that someone was actually listening to him for once after a long stint spitting out sedatives under nurse’s iron rule. He was dumbfounded. “Well . . . yeah . . . sorry . . . but . . . listen, that’s not your boyfriend . . .”
“Fiance! . . . And I’m 34 years old, his contagious mutation took my youth!”
The old man, unthinking, spoke his thoughts aloud. “Yeesh, older than me even without your disadvantageous looks.”
“Hey! You look ancient too, geezer!”
The old man, foot atop Paul’s neck, sighed and almost dropped his guard.
“I’m sure you were real pretty once” he lied, then looked back at his prey. “This dipshit worked the same trick on me and look how I wound up. Fucking Quangule!”
The old man took another slash at Belinda’s immobile mutant fiance there on the carpet. His other eyeball went flying somewhere into the kitchen. Belinda moaned.
“But he’s . . .”
“Doesn’t make a difference even if you fell in love with him, lady. You know how often that happens? Quite a bit. Quangule ain’t exactly the marrying type but he loves a courtship. You think you’re the first one he’s pulled this shit on? Best I can tell he’s been haunting these parts since the earthquake.”
Belinda was certain that this old man was cracked, even with her own improbable deformity from whatever chemical reaction she and Paul were undergoing, his story sounded too ridiculous to be true.
Then suddenly, before what remained of her love could leap off the floor again onto the old bath robed man like Belinda was rooting for, a fire axe smashed his disassembled body deep into the carpet. Not a single one of his joints remained connected or in any semblance of solidity. Belinda felt a sudden, irrational sadness to see this cheap carpet ruined. It somehow outweighed anything she momentarily felt for Paul as his brains splattered onto her feet.
This decommissioned halfway house had been so affordable and in city limits during a terrible market. “Stop!” she tried to scream, but the shock of seeing the floor destroyed overtook her vocal cords. Nothing like this house would ever come up for her again in her life, Belinda was sure of it. She would have to move out to the suburbs if she survived this axe wielding intruder and her own mutations. Belinda cried and feebly tried to hurt Paul’s killer with her withered arms. “I LOVED HIM!” she shouted. It was the first phrase she could think.
“Fucking Quangule victims,” said the old asian fellow, retrieving a bit of his youth as he lit a Fortuna menthol. “You’re all alike. Why did Quangle hunting have to be my family’s trade? Ancient art my ass. Our ancestors were fucking slaves, field peasants happy to have a seemingly professional trade in their municipal idiocy, risking their lives fending off Quangules for the warlords. I mean seriously, I’ve been in a nut house for the last ten fucking years and you’re complaining to me on my big night? Come on, show a bit of understanding, opening your ugly, mutant eyes. See, but for a dumb sense of obligation to my clan, I coulda been a succubus tamer. You know how much trim a guy gets working a job like that? Buckets! You get the kinds of trim people write Penthouse letters about. And a gig like that doesn’t prematurely make you a prune every time you’re on the goddamn hunt too. But no, we had to be Quangule hunters, spend our lives chasing these fucking assholes. Yeesh, like you got a right to complain, honey!”
“But my . . .”
“You wanna see what your precious hubby was doin’ with you while you slept? Why you were waking up so fucking ugly? Why you’re stuck this way and I can turn back into my regular old, somewhat attractive self?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Ugh” groaned the old man, “Just come with me. It’s in the basement.”
“Oh!” Belinda said suddenly, from a distant part of her psyche like an utter idiot, “Does this have anything to do with the laundry chute I found at the beginning of the week?”
“You guys don’t have a laundry chute” said the old man curtly as he pulled out a cheap, battery powered flashlight. It was made of metal and weighed a ton.
They went down the stairs. “Did you touch it?” he asked, pointing to the door.
“No, it was all rusted and I don’t have a tetanus shot. At least I don’t think. You can never be too sure. I mean, what kind of an idiot do I look like to take such risks?”
The old man looked at her, the woman who had just been making out with a mutated bird parasite and decided not to say anything. Now that his youth was coming back, his patience was at an all time high. “So this thing must’ve just come out on it’s own, eh?”
“He really liked Corn Nutz” sad Belinda. “Paul always liked Corn Nutz when he was stressed. And after the accident . . .” She stared at this asian man, now in his twenties and still wearing the same bathrobe. It wasn’t fair that he got to look like this, she thought. If she was stuck this way, why did she have to be alone? She grabbed the young man with her dwindled strength, her smooth, alabaster fingers like she was wearing a weighted glove.
“Hey,” she demanded, “Why did you have to do that back there, man? What the hell . . .” She was too tired for hysterics, too tired to even speak, too weak to care. She just let him move away towards the door. She almost fell without him supporting her weight.
Stooped over, the bath robed fellow slammed at the crowbar barricading that iron hatch. His axe made the crowbar fly with one punt, it was only there for show, placed there with clumsy hands. The iron door creaked open in an instant, revealing a green glow inside.
The room contained giant eggs amongst strange glowing muck. Tending to them, crawling back and forth between their little nests was a nearly hairless figure, incomplete but for bone scraps in its construction from the waist down.
Its translucent, papery skin yellowed with some kind of adherent to the chicken bones from the facility’s courtyard dumpsters. All the salvaged parts were rearranged delicately to make a near human form with perfectly scaled arms, a head, and everything else except legs.
The organs from pig and chicken carcasses, gutted across the courtyard in the facility kitchens, were stuffed into this sausage golem, a nanny to the quivering egg things, with unsettlingly textbook detail for such an inarticulate constructor. However, the feebleness of his smooth fingers made certain parts of the anatomy into crude abstractions.
The face, regardless of only being a spider web around a chicken bone skull, was all too familiar for Belinda. She dropped her flashlight.
“Still feeling compassionate?”
“Burn it all to the ground” said Belinda to the smug young asian fellow. He lit another Fortuna and smiled.
Belinda would be next door a week later when the postcard came. It featured a hastily taken bridal scene in Las Vegas dated a week previous. The card had been addressed to that bungalow across the courtyard which had burned down, causing one particular slumlord more than enough trouble on his own rent in such a competitive housing market.
The coincidence that the expected recipient to whom this postcard was addressed would be in the place it inadvertently wound up is of only mild note in such a busy city. Belinda, now taking every prescription she could get a hold of and watching television as though it were her daily job with those big purple bags under her eyes, seemed amused to see the chubby man in the picture. His cumberbund looked as though about to burst with cake.
“Babe, sorry but I got cold feet. It was all too much pressure, too much finality. I always figured we’d wind up married for a few years and then part ways anyhow. I mean, you’re great, but you gave off that vibe of impermanence when you never paid any attention to my job. It’s okay, you’ll find someone you deserve, who loves you for who you are. I just sent this to explain that I’m happy now with Mary-Melinda. We’re on the other side of town, her father owns a house out here. Can you believe it? You can keep that awesome low-rent spot. It always seemed like your kind of place anyhow.”
The card finished with an invite: “Come visit if this doesn’t . . .”
But by then Belinda was asleep, medication was powerful at these places for those with no tolerance from lifelong institute to institute shuffles. Belinda liked that, the daily life in this facility was tiring enough with all its bridge playing and soap operas. When she felt chubby from all the sitting around, she could just have a tranquilizer drip for dinner. She was happy to still be within city limits, even if she was prematurely in her mid-70s and lost half her nose.