THE SNAKE AND THE BOOKWORM
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The men whispered, snickered and then yelled as soon as she exited the bodega, balancing a cup of bitter black coffee on top of the schoolbooks and mystery novels that didn’t fit in her backpack.
What, you can’t say hello back?
Where you going?
Stop, wait — come back.
Why had she worn the black vinyl pants today — the tight black top? The tall black boots. She should have worn brown. She should have worn burlap. She should have invested in an invisibility cloak.
Rose walked faster, slopping coffee all down her front, which made them laugh and yell louder. She winced as the hot liquid seared the skin right over her heart and she wondered if it would scar.
You wet for me?
Stop, baby, I’ll clean you up…
…or get you even wetter.
She began running, dropped her coffee on the ground. She knew that they wouldn’t follow her. They had their stools set up by the entrance, their beers in bags, settled in for a day of leering. Besides, there was a police station just down the block covered in colorful murals of multi-cultural families and flowers. The men were like dogs in electric collars, trapped inside a fence; they could snap and growl all they wanted, as long as they didn’t stray too far.
Rose ran all the same, powered by adrenaline, the pink ends of her blonde hair flapping in the breeze, bright, bright, bright like a police station mural flower. Aunt Min had helped her dye them last night. Rose regretted the pink now. It marked her GIRL and made her something to look at and pluck, like the creeping roses that grew in the gardens of the Hasids on her block. She thought the women in their long dresses were beautiful, the children in their matching outfits. She liked to watch them play as she walked by. Then she would hit the block where the Puerto Rican families sat on folding chairs outside their apartments, listening to dancey music on scratchy radios, and she would wish that she could dance, too.
As she ran, her sides stitched and her thighs chafed in the black pants — and she could hear the men laughing behind her. Big laughs at her fear. Big laughs at the small girl. Her sides burned and she was crying and when she looked behind her she couldn’t see the bodega anymore, so she leaned against a building and tried to calm her breathing. Across the street, a ceramic Jesus in a Plexiglas box stood silently, his hand lifted as if to bless her. Jesus next to Jews next to Heathens, like her and Min.
Min woke when Devo the cat stuck his paw under the blankets and whacked her in the face. Her head hurt from too much wine and her bed felt empty, so she grabbed a pillow and tucked it under one leg like it was a man. Her hand fumbled her phone off of the bedside table and Devo squawked and ran away. The Sad One had texted her again — three times: one at eleven, one at midnight, one at three a.m.
Hi, I’m back in town! Wondering if you’d like to meet up for a drink.
Please, Min. We used to be friends. Please don’t be angry at me.
Well, fine, then. You’ll be sorry if I die.
She deleted the texts and grabbed her medication from the bedside table, threw back the pill with some stale water, and wondered how things like water and love could go bad.
Rose had finally stopped crying, her heart slowing to a normal thump under her drenched shirt. She blinked and blinked into the sun and realized that she was standing in front of After, an all-ages club that shut down last week. It was condemned, really. She had never been, but her friend Doc (a.k.a. Martin Docuyanan) used to go to punk shows there after his mother fell asleep. As Rose surveyed the blank storefront — its blacked-over windows, its neon sign with the badly cracked “A” — the door creaked open, slowly at first, and then fast, buffeted by some phantom breeze. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she stuck a boot into After, and then it was as if something reached into her chest and pulled — hard. And she was falling. In the darkness she saw the empty stage under dead Christmas lights, posters covered in graffiti plastering the walls, a palimpsest of dead dreams. She heard the echoes of guitars and drums counting off. She smelled cigarettes and spilled beer and sweating bodies. And as she lurched toward the ground she thought she heard someone whisper “finally.”
Min watched the men watching her as she shambled into the bodega to get cigarettes.
You got a kiss for me?
Pretty in pink.
She bared her teeth and growled, curling her fingers into claws, and they backed up, laughing. She wondered if they still bothered Rose. A few weeks ago, Rose had come home from school crying about the things the men had hissed and shouted. Min had told her to put her shoulders back and stare them down. That life was full of hissing men and that all you could do was endure. She wondered now if that was the best advice as the men muttered about what they would do to her behind her back.
Min was covered in rose tattoos — her flesh a garden like the one her father had built for her sister and her in the woods when they were young. It had a birdbath and a Green Man statue and bushes and bushes of pink and white roses. Min got a new tattoo every year on Rose’s birthday — or, rather, she had started getting them after her sister Lin and Lin’s husband, Jon, had died. Car accident. Because how else did one’s sister die? Swimming with sharks? Climbing Everest? Looking for Big Foot? No, people’s sisters died going to the grocery store. People’s sisters died fighting in traffic. People’s sisters died without knowing that Death was following them in a black Jeep — Death with blood as dark and rich as chocolate liqueur.
Lin and Jon died and Rose went to live with Min, who didn’t drive because she lived in a city of metal underground snakes. Min who had, instead of a husband, a parade of boots by the door. In the past, boots had been owned by a guitarist who got stoned in the bathtub on Sundays, a drummer who couldn’t sleep and played the pots and pans at 4 a.m., a harmonica player who wailed at the cats in heat on summer evenings, a bassist Rose always suspected was a vampire because of his propensity for black and bloody steaks, and a lawyer who showed up once with roses and never returned. And before them there was, of course, the Sad One.
As she left the bodega with a fresh pack and a cup of coffee, Min thought she saw something of the Sad One in the men’s leering faces, but she shook her rose-covered shoulders back and put on her shades and walked past. She endured.
CRACK. TWHACK. Rose’s head erupted stars and her vision swam in and out of blackness. She blinked. She tried to swallow a sob.
“Damn it!” she cried, kicking out a boot — a boot that clanged into something that rang out like a bell in the DIY darkness. She blinked again. And then again. Because there in front of her was a clear glass box and inside that clear glass box was a boy.
A boy with his eyes closed and his hands folded over his chest. He looked like Jesus in Plexiglas, except he was blond and he was younger and his face was clean-shaven and he was wearing a homemade Nirvana shirt. Dead smiley face in shaky marker. She tapped on the glass and his eyelids fluttered, but he didn’t wake up. She peered closer and she could see that his chest was not moving up and down. She wondered if she had imagined his eyelids fluttering like the butterflies on the police mural would flutter if they were alive and she tapped again. Flutter, flutter, like the fake-lashed eyes on a haunted doll.
“He-llo…” she said to the boy in the box, but he kept sleeping — or whatever he was doing.
“Do you need help?” she asked, feeling silly. Of course he needed help. He was a boy trapped in a glass box. Her backpack had fallen somewhere near the entrance of After, so she scrambled toward it now, on the hunt for her phone.
“Hold on,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m going to call someone.” She wondered if she should call 911. She had never called 911 before. This seemed like an emergency? Instead, she punched in Min’s number and sat on the floor.
“Hello?” Min answered on the first ring. She sounded tired, but worried. She always sounded tired and worried.
“Hey, Aunt Min… I have a question…” Rose stuck her finger in her mouth, wondering how to phrase this. “I found a… well… I found a boy…”
“A boy? Rose? What are you talking about?” Min sounded panicked now.
Rose stuck a piece of hair in her mouth and clenched her fingers, “Yeah, he’s…” she turned toward the boy in the box and saw…nothing. He was gone. The dust wasn’t even disturbed where the glass box had been. The Christmas lights swayed in silence.
“Rose? Rose?!” Min shrieked down the line. “What’s going on?”
Rose’s chest was cold and her head hurt. “Um, I’m sorry, Min. I think everything’s OK now. See you after school?” She hung up even as Min continued to call her name.
The machine picked up when Min called back, Rose’s chirping voice so much like Lin’s, but seconds later a text came through. “It’s OK. I’m fine. Misunderstanding.” Min dropped the phone on her bed, the screen still glowing, and lit her first cigarette of the day.
Min didn’t like phone calls. Phone calls meant bad news. The first bad news phone call came in almost-Fall when it was hot and the next thing Min knew, Lin was gone. Then, a week later, Min’s phone had rung and rung and rung when the towers fell. After she saw the fires on TV, she walked across the bridge to the city, watching the black smoke curl up into the sky. She snapped pictures of the smoke. She pulled her red kimono from Chinatown around her and walked against the flow of people. She took pictures of the people. She followed the ambulances and the flashing lights. And as she stepped onto the island of Manhattan, she looked down at her thin white hands, the single rose tattooed over the webbing between thumb and pointer, and wondered how she would be able to patch this hole in the skyline with such shaky hands. She had called the Sad One again and again as she watched the city crumble and he ignored her.
The school library seemed a rather precarious place to try one’s hand at automatic writing, but Doc really wouldn’t listen to reason — or Rose, for that matter.
“People are looking,” Rose said, sticking the end of her silver glitter pen between her teeth and grimacing. She knew her ex-boyfriend, Lenny, walked past the library around this time with the marching band. He used to peek in and lift his trumpet to his lips, puff out his cheeks as if he was about to play a particularly dicey note, then make kissy faces at her instead. She used to laugh and blush. Lately, she had been hiding behind her giant volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales every time the band trooped past, tooting and bleating in their feathered hats.
“No one who matters,” Doc replied, pulling the pen from her mouth and twisting his lips into an exaggerated mask of disgust. “Now, just hold the pen over the paper — so just the tip is touching…” he paused to smirk at her and toss his dark bangs “…close your eyes and let your mind wander…”
Rose frowned, but did what he said, balancing the pen on her bitten, peony pink nails and staring off into space. All the computers were occupied with underclassmen playing Oregon Trail. She hated that game. You could only really win if you decided to be a banker from Boston and hunt a lot. Aunt Min had raised her vegan and really hated bankers and people like that. When Trump officially entered the presidential race, she drove Rose halfway to Montreal before she realized she had forgotten their passports. They drove back and ate Indian food on the floor of the living room while Aunt Min played Motorhead’s “Eat the Rich” on repeat and cried. She shaved her head later that night for reasons that made little sense to Rose.
“H! Oh my God, H!” Doc yelled, pointing at the piece of construction paper he had laid out in front of Rose. The librarian kind of looked at him and sighed. The underclassmen playing Oregon Trail jumped in their seats and tutted like they had all simultaneously contracted yellow fever.
Rose looked down at the paper. She guessed she saw an “H” there, but it mostly just looked like a squiggle. Or a hotdog. She was hungry for lunch. “I’m not sure I understand what this is going to do…” She hadn’t told Doc about the Nirvana boy, seeing as how he had disappeared and everything. Instead, she told him, in vague terms, that she had been having weird dreams. Doc loved weird dreams.
He frowned again and took the pen out of her hand, tapped it on the book in front of him: Are You Psychic? Unlocking the Power Within. “According to Hans Holzer…” Doc cleared his throat dramatically and cracked his knuckles, his black motorcycle jacket straining over his thin shoulder blades, “‘Automatic writing is generally done when the writer is alone…’ guess we fucked up there… whatever, check out this next bit: ‘…In most cases, illegible scribblings are the initial indication that an outside entity is about to possess the hand of the writer.’” He leveled his onyx black eyes at Rose, “It’s supposed to be messed up at first. Later on, Hans says, the words will get clearer and we’ll be able to make actual contact.”
“What happens then? Do…” she swallowed and looked at all the students in their chairs with their pimples and smartphones, “…ghosts possess you or something?”
“I mean, kind of?” Doc said. He was interested in that stuff. Ghosts. He was obsessed with Hans Holzer, who spoke like Dracula in the clips they watched on YouTube (after all of Rose’s homework was done). He knew all the secrets, it seemed.
Doc’s mom used to say that when she and her family came to America, the whole family came — even those who weren’t alive anymore. Any time a pot fell in the kitchen or Doc lost a holey sock, she would proclaim, “Grandma Abigail is here!” or “Uncle Armando thinks you need to work harder in math class.” Rose liked to sit in their kitchen and listen to Mrs. Docuyanan talk to her dead family. She wished she could talk to hers, too.
While Doc was lost in Hans, Rose decided to do a little research, as was her custom when faced with a quandary of any kind. She typed “glass coffin” into her phone and this is what she found: “‘The Glass Coffin’ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, tale number 163,” Wikipedia said. She wasn’t supposed to use Wikipedia as a source, her teachers told her, but, in this case, she wasn’t getting graded so she figured it was OK.
“The Glass Coffin” was about a tailor’s apprentice who found a pretty girl in a glass box and saved her and then married her. Other things happened, too, but that seemed to be the gist. Rose wondered if she was supposed to save the blond Plexiglas Jesus boy and marry him, but she didn’t live in a fairytale — she lived on South Fifth Street in Brooklyn down the way from a place that had really good wet burritos. There was also a Laundromat with hidden pinball bar in the back — you had to go through a drier to get to it, she had heard. When the bar opened, Min got all riled up about gentrification. Rose wondered if the boy liked pinball.
After school, she went back to After. The door was closed this time and no matter how long she stared at it, it didn’t swing open, and even though she pushed and pushed it wouldn’t give. The blacked-over eyes of the building gave away nothing.
Until the other week, until After was condemned, kids came from the city and down the block to see shows on its decaying stage. But then some kid fell off a balcony and painted the sidewalk red and another kid was hit by a falling beam while a garage band was covering a David Bowie song and another kid drank too much and fell asleep in the bathroom forever and the cops from the station down the block came and shut the club down. But that didn’t explain the boy who had been sleeping in the glass coffin for probably twenty-something years (based on his homemade Nirvana shirt and loose jeans).
That night, Rose sat in her bed with Devo on her lap and a notebook in front of her, trying to call out to the boy in the box. She had tried meditating with sage and herbs, fanning Doc’s borrowed Tarot cards across the floor, burning a candle anointed with glitter and oils. Still, nothing. And, just as she was starting to worry that she was insane, she fell asleep with a pen in her hand and her face flat on her notebook. “Finally,” someone whispered.
And then she was back at After, looking down at the boy’s (pretty, now that she noticed it) face. His eyes opened and his mouth opened and he said the word “Help.”
Her mouth opened and she said back, “How?”
“Come to me tomorrow at 3:33 a.m.” Nirvana boy said. “Tap on the lid of the coffin three times to wake me up.” He spoke like the fortune-telling robot at Coney Island. The one that scared her when she was little. “The lid will open and I will be free.”
“That’s it?” She stuck her hair in her mouth.
Nirvana boy paused, his fortune-teller-machine eyes clicking in his skull, back and forth and back and forth. “Kiss me and then I’m free. Give me some of you, and then I’m free.”
Rose woke up, ink on her cheek and her neck sore. On her notebook was scrawled “help” over and over again in rough, sad handwriting that didn’t look like hers but kind of looked like the handwriting that had written “Nirvana” on the coffin boy’s shirt.
Min watched Rose pour her coffee (black, like her own), her pen poised above her crossword puzzle. She noticed a smudge of ink on her hand, and rubbed it on her tattered red kimono. Her brain felt like mush after a night of non-dreaming. She had blocked his number and unblocked in three times before she finally left it unblocked and went to sleep. As long as he was still texting, she knew that he was OK.
Rose was staring at her, her brow furrowed, so Min cleared her throat and looked down at the paper. “What’s another word for ‘aid’? Four letters?” she asked, just for something to say.
“Help.” the word fell from Rose’s lips like a frog in a fairytale.
Min stared at the paper long after Rose had left, examining the pen-ink scrawl, “Help.” Everyone always feels bad for the kid when the mother dies. But what about the sister? What about that blood? What about the one who had been in the other twin bed, listening to the air conditioner hum in the summer, whispering with the crickets about crushes? Or the one who, when frost made fingers into mannequin hands, tunneled into drifts of snow to make a castle for sisters alone?
Min had been trying. She had started taking meds the day after she wandered down to where the towers were crumbling. She had tried with him, too, even as he cried and told her that she didn’t love him enough — couldn’t love him enough. After he shook off her tears at three a.m. one morning when it was just getting warm outside and told her that it was all her fault that he was leaving. Everyone had left her because it was her fault. And then he left, too — took the frost away from the grass and the trees but not from her chest.
The electric fence dog-men were outside the bodega again, but Rose didn’t have to go in because she’d had that coffee at home. They stared at her — even though she was wearing jeans and a hoodie and sneakers today — and one took a tentative step away from the sidewalk toward her. Rose avoided looking at him because if she looked at him he would say something, but he said something, anyway — or he whispered it from his blurry ghost face.
I’m going to get you someday…
She put her hood up and stuck in her headphones and blasted a song that sounded happy but wasn’t really that happy, and walked past After, imagining the boy and the glass coffin inside. He wanted something from her. He would take something from her and then he could go free.
Doc tried to distract her during study hall by giving her a backrub, but she shrugged him off and he looked mad. He flopped down next to her and opened a Hans Holzer book called Ghosts and ignored her until she apologized, even though she didn’t really want to apologize. Then he hugged her for just a second too long and they went to math class.
After school, Rose sat in her room and stared at the strange handwriting — the “help, help, help” — while Min sat in the living room drinking red wine and watching something on Netflix.
The lights all started clicking off in the apartment and in the apartments across the way, and soon it was just Rose sitting in her bed, surrounded by her school books and papers, staring at “help, help, help” under the glow of the star-shaped paper lantern hanging above her bed. It never got fully dark outside — not like it did at her grandparents’ house, where the sky swam with stars and everything smelled like wind in trees and blackberry vines. She and Min hadn’t been there in a while, though. Min said it made her sad to see them look sad when they looked at Rose and saw her mother’s echo. Rose wasn’t sure she liked being anyone’s echo, but she didn’t say anything, just nodded and frowned and missed drinking lemonade on the stonewall and wandering in the woods.
At three-something, Rose slid out of bed and pulled on her black puffer jacket and tip-toed out the front door. She held her breath by the bodega, which was still open, the entrance empty tonight. As she trundled toward After, though, she swore she saw a shadow peel itself from the darkness — but when she turned around, nothing was there except an empty store, the man behind the counter reading a tabloid and drinking a beer in a bag.
As she approached the condemned club she held her breath, wondering if it was still locked up tight, but tonight the door swung open as it had before, and she stole into the darkness, holding her glowing phone aloft. The boy was there, his hands still crossed and his eyes still closed and his face still pretty. Her phone clicked up to 3:33 and Rose rapped on the glass with her knuckles three times and waited. She sat back on the floor and waited. Then something did open, but it was the door behind her and when she turned around a shadow came sidling in and sauntering toward her.
What you doing out so late at night? You come looking for me?
Her cellphone fell to the floor and the light shined in Rose’s eyes and she wanted to scream, but nothing came out. She wanted to run, but her legs wanted her to collapse instead. So she stood, clenching her fists and wishing she had brought her heavy schoolbooks with her, the ones she clutched to her chest as she fell asleep each night.
Come on. It’s just you and me now… Just you and me…
The phone woke her: ping, Ping, PING, it said from her bedside table. Instead of picking it up, though, she lurched into the kitchen, her empty wineglass in hand. Devo skittered from under the couch and Min hushed him, “It’s not breakfast time yet, Dumpling Face.”
She poured herself a big glass of red wine and shivered. The window was open in Rose’s room and it was cold, cold, cold in the little apartment. When Min went in to close it, though, she saw the empty bed and the paper scrawled with “help” and a winter chill killed all the roses over her heart.
The figure moved closer and closer. His electric fence collar was gone. The cops couldn’t see him from inside their sunny mural building. No one could see. No one could… help. And then — the man jumped back, tripping over the fallen beam that had sent that kid to live with the Starman.
The man scrambled backward and into the night and when the door banged behind him, Rose turned around, her legs giving way and her cheeks now covered in tears. The Nirvana boy was out of the coffin — floating above the ground with his feet hanging down like ceramic Jesus on the cross. His fortune-teller-robot eyes opened and his mouth opened and his feet danced down to the ground like a puppet trying to stand like a human.
“Now,” his mouth said, “kiss me so I can be free. Give me something so I can be free.”
Rose stuck her hands deep into the pockets of her puffer jacket and looked at the boy’s pretty face. She thought of how the man who saved the princess in the glass coffin married her. She thought of how she hadn’t really kissed that many people. She thought of how the kisses from all the men in Min’s boot parade never really made her aunt that happy.
Nirvana boy’s feet clattered toward her, his eyes still ticking back and forth, his marionette arms reaching toward her. “Don’t you want to help me? Don’t you want to set me free?”
“But…” Rose blew some pink hair out of her face. “What happens to me? After you go free? If I help you?”
The puppet boy kept walking, arms outstretched like some kind of grunge Frankenstein. “I can finally be free. I can finally go on tour. I can be famous. I’ve been waiting here so long. I’ve been waiting.”
Rose’s face got hot and her fingers curled. “But what happens to me?”
“He told me if I lay down and waited I would be famous. He told me I’d have my turn. Now help me go free.” Nirvana boy’s hands were on her shoulders now, his face getting close to hers.
“But what happens to me?!” Rose stamped her foot, shrinking away from his pretty-plastic face.
The boy cocked his head and Rose swore she could hear something creak. His eyes rolled back and forth, back and forth until she was dizzy.
“Someone has to take my place…” he said, and now that he was that close Rose could see that his teeth had nearly rotted away. “I’m meant for greatness, little girl. Climb in the coffin and let me free.” His eyes lolled back in his head like he couldn’t control them anymore. “Someday someone will do the same for you.” His eyes rolled forward again and he smiled. “I promise.”
The voice didn’t come from Rose’s lips, even though that was what she had been planning on saying. Min stood in the entrance of After, her kimono-shrouded frame outlined by streetlights and moonlight. In her hand, Rose could see a piece of notebook paper covered in “help”s.
“Rose, don’t do it.” Min strode into the club, her shoulders back and her bald head shining. All the roses on her arms and neck and shoulders and hands twisted in the gloom like they were growing — like the flowers in fairytales that covered walls to protect maidens. She closed the distance between her and Rose and put her arms around the girl, glaring at the Nirvana boy, who was now sagging to the side like a puppet with a broken string.
Rose looked up at her aunt when she felt tears falling from Min’s eyes onto her face and frowned. “I wasn’t going to… I don’t think…” She looked at the boy and felt something sad in her heart.
Min squeezed her tighter and the Nirvana boy listed even more. “Hurry, little girl, hurry… hurry or I will never be free…” his wooden lips clacked. One of his teeth popped from his mouth and skittered across the floor.
Rose wrinkled her brow and looked up at her aunt. “But shouldn’t we help him somehow? He’s dying… or something…”
The boy clattered to the ground near the hole as if he was being pulled back into it and his eyes kept moving back and forth and his mouth kept opening and closing.
Min shook her head, looking down at the puppet boy. “He chose this, Rose. He chose… whatever this is.” He clattered down into the coffin and they stepped to the edge to watch him as his head lolled back and forth and back and forth. “You can’t save him. You can’t let him pull you down with him.”
“But didn’t you do that with my mom and my dad and me?” Rose looked up at Min and she realized she was crying again, both she and Min were. “Didn’t I pull you down?”
Min’s face crumpled and she didn’t even notice the glass lid closing, the puppet man giving one last desperate cry as his hands folded and he fell back to forever-sleep.
“No, Rose, because I love you,” Min smeared tears from her cheeks with a tattooed hand. “Maybe I haven’t been the best at showing you that, but I love you.”
Rose and Min went home then and made mint tea and crumbled cookies into the steam and talked. They talked about the towers falling and Min’s boot parade and the Sad One who haunted her phone. And they talked about the dog-collar men and the things Doc sometimes said and about Nirvana boys in glass cases who always want you to save them. In the end, the two fell asleep, heads on the table, the pink in Rose’s hair mingling with the blooms on Min’s arms, and it wasn’t the end, really. It wasn’t the end at all.