or (not) THE KELLY LINK STORY
The death rattle is full of teeth
and broken ear stones
baby’s breath and stolen words
Bits of dead cell phones
“It’s from the original Death Rattle,” Ben answers like Jessica asked. “Anabel hired someone to hack the server for the deleted file.”
Ben is dressed as that guy who was eaten by coyotes in the Gunks last year. He and Jessica are standing at the door to Anabel’s apartment. Jessica is thinking about why she’s not going in. Her boyfriend Ben is thinking about it too. She knows because he’s asked her that question three times. It’s going to be a great party. Anabel always throws great parties, which is why Jessica doesn’t want to go and it’s one of the many reasons she doesn’t like Anabel. Jessica is trying to not use the word ‘hate’ so much. It upsets her five year-old niece. But her niece has never met Anabel.
“I just don’t want to tell her it’s a great party,” Jessica says and Ben sighs like they do on TV. “I mean she knows it’s a great party already. I’m sure everyone’s told her how great it is about a hundred times already.”
“Well how would we know?” Ben says then takes her hands like they are in a scene on that show about teenagers who have to convince each other and everyone else that they’re in love or go into the pit. “Look, we followed the directions and we’re here. And I even had to ride the subway,” he says reminding Jessica about what he has sacrificed to come to this party she doesn’t want to walk into. But she doesn’t want to feel guilty about one more thing. Soon she will feel guilty for not liking Anabel for throwing such great parties. Probably, she already does. “So could we please go in and be fabulous already?” he says with a dramatic head tilt in that way that everyone else thinks means he’s gay, but Jessica knows is just Ben who likes to be mysterious or just difficult about everything from sexuality to grammar.
“Besides, it’s the Death Rattle. We have to go in or we’re really dead,” Ben says with a quick laugh and doesn’t see Jessica wince. He drops one of her hands like he’s going to knock but he doesn’t have to because the door opens with a loud creaking sound and it isn’t even Halloween. Jessica wonders if this is for effect or if the building is just that derelict. It could go either way but nothing happens around Anabel without a reason or a plan at least. She says she legally changed her middle name to ‘Intent’ four years ago and Jessica’s still not sure she was kidding.
The guy who opens the door has a drink in one hand and looks like he should be asking for change in the subway or at Burning Man. Maybe he’s a junkie. Anabel has a lot of artist friends and they all seem to do a lot of drugs Jessica’s never even heard of like MartianRover and ManRay. They’re the kind of people you feel vaguely sorry for until you find out their trust fund is worth more than your neighborhood in Brooklyn. This guy is like those guys: he could be a junkie or he could be a rich artist acting like a junkie for some performance art piece or as a lifestyle choice. If it’s art, there will be an expensive drone somewhere that looks just like a butterfly, fly, or a swarm of fruitflies. But there’s always a camera at Anabel’s parties because they’re so famous they go viral on youtube (and the dark internet Anabel can’t get to even with explicit directions) before anyone even gets home.
Even though the place is already packed, Anabel sees them from across the room and is making her way through the crowd. Everyone wants to talk to Anabel, which is probably why she ignores them and follows her bioluminescent green drink over to Jessica and Ben. Well, really to Ben.
“I got you a present!” is the first thing out of Anabel’s mouth before she kisses Jessica and then Ben with a little squeal at how fashionable he looks even as a dead person. Jessica tries not to get angry, but she knows it’s futile. They work together at Sharkman-Falk Advertising. Anabel is Creative, Jessica isn’t. Jessica is in Accounts. Even though she has an MFA in Creative Writing and writes fiction that actually gets published in important journals, Jessica still isn’t creative enough to write for Sharkman-Falk.
“What is it?” Jessica asks trying to smile. If she gets mad, if she even frowns, Anabel will be delighted. It will be even worse than telling her how great her party is.
“What is what?” Anabel asks. She’s talking to Ben about some secret viral marketing thing they’ve been planning for weeks. They were going to create some virus that infected people’s computers and made them 3D print out sheets of bacon. Maybe they’re still talking about that. Jessica has no idea. It’s Creative. They just haven’t managed to get the smell quite right yet.
“The present,” Jessica says and manages to sound a little excited. Anabel frowns.
Anabel never buys anything for anyone. Sometimes she re-gifts, but usually it’s just so she can tell you some awesome story about who gave it to her originally (usually some spectacular has-been or dead celebrity). She throws incredible parties, but that is the limit of her generosity and she expenses it all to Sharkman-Falk anyway. The present is probably something terrible or embarrassing or, more likely, both. Once, for a birthday, she gave Jessica a dress that supposedly belonged to Kurt Cobain. Anabel knew Courtney Love from her heroin days or Courtney Love used to babysit her or something. The dress wasn’t Jessica’s size, but she couldn’t throw it away and no one believed that it wasn’t just some old dress Jessica picked up at Goodwill so she couldn’t sell it either. It’s still hanging in a garment bag in her closet smelling like sweat, beer, and mildew, like a grunge ghost that just won’t leave.
“Oh!” Anabel says like she has just remembered even though they both know she didn’t. “You’ll figure it out,” she says and winks. “I’m surprised you don’t know already.” Anabel turns to Ben and they both laugh. When Anabel turns away to mouth something to the DJ, Jessica glares at Ben who just shrugs as if to say, what are you going to do? LOL. It’s just Anabel. Smiley face shrug emoji.
Jessica wants to turn around and walk out the door, but she’s afraid of the present. It could be something embarrassing that she’ll miss if she leaves. Then she won’t find out about it until work on Monday. That’s not the part that bothers her. Jessica will worry about it all weekend if she doesn’t find out now. That’s what really worries her. The days of worrying of checking and rechecking every site and googling her name every few minute. She already has alerts set to notify her if her name is attached to anything interesting and/or terrifying, but she gets alerts for things that seem to have nothing to do with her. Memes about alternative tarot decks and tattooed pigs. At least, she’s pretty sure it was a pig.
Now Anabel is back and she’s still talking and Ben is nodding along, so Jessica thinks about the present and what Anabel said. Or what she didn’t say. She didn’t say, ‘you’ll see’ or ‘it’s a surprise’, but ‘you’ll figure it out’ like it is already happening. Like it’s something Jessica is too stupid or unCreative to see.
Jessica looks around, but it is all zombies except for a few people who seem to have gotten the wrong invitation and are dressed like tacky celebrities.
“Who is she supposed to be?” Jessica says like she’s critiquing the woman’s costume, but really she’s just pissed she spent so much time making herself look like a pale, rotting corpse. She could have looked like something alive. She could have looked fabulous or ironically unstylish or at least better than human compost.
“Remember that woman from the Weather Network who died during Hurricane Brandi with a heart over the i?”
“I didn’t know you could come as a just-dead celebrity and not as a dirty, rotting corpse,” Jessica says and glares at him again. Ben wrote the tag lines for the invitation because he’s a copywriter/editor for a quirky, popular online literary news hub. He’s never published a story, but he’s really good at writing short, edgy, sexy copy and lists. But Ben didn’t write the directions, which is why they were so long and confusing. Jessica is still not sure where they are. She never takes any train that isn’t the F or Z so the letters and stations are meaningless. She’s pretty sure all of Anabel’s apartments are in Manhattan though, so at least Ben hasn’t lost the bet. He bet his friend Anil a thousand dollars that he could stay in Manhattan for an entire year. It’s been over seven months and he’s managed to remain on the island even when drunk and tripping and passed out in taxis. Even when Jessica had the flu and couldn’t leave her Brooklyn apartment to get food or medicine. Her recluse neighbor finally took pity on her and left care packages full of strange crackers and soups with unidentifiable meats and vegetables in them. Sea vegetables. But Jessica still hasn’t met the neighbor so she’s been leaving thank you notes, gifts, and cash at their door. It’s starting to look like a hipster altar.
Imagine you are a zombie. And then you aren’t anymore. Maybe you’re alive or maybe you’re dead. What’s the difference?
Jessica barely remembers them showing up outside her door with ‘care’ written on the box in big red letters. She didn’t remember ordering anything but she was so fever light and empty that she ate the soup and didn’t question the small plastic baggie with the teeth. She knew what to do with them. Or the flu did.
She doesn’t even remember making them really. Splashes of blood and something about egg shell or maybe skin and that creepy song playing over and over. Was it her own blood? It must have been because no one came to visit. Ben explained in texts and emails that he was so sorry he couldn’t, but he knew Jessica would understand about the bet. He wouldn’t call her either because Ben believes that viruses can be communicated over the phone. But not through texts. Which makes no sense. Diseases, especially viruses, can be communicated more rapidly via text. Everyone knows that. That’s what DNA is.
Jessica also remembers her teeth falling out and more blood, peeling skin, a conference call, Creative brainstorming, tattooing, a whiteboard full of anatomical drawings. But she has all of her teeth so that can’t be right.
Dead un dead un dead un dead
That fucking Bauhaus song. Only Anabel could play that song at a zombie party and get away with it. It’s not even Halloween. It’s May for fuck’s sake. Jessica doesn’t like Anabel a little more.
The drinks all have names like Old Man’s Feet, Scarlet Fever, Thrombosis, Pneumothorax, and Bloodshot. Ben gets a Stomach Pump with multiple pills floating in it. Jessica can’t decide. It all looks disgusting and she doesn’t like horror movies or hospital shows. Jessica prefers police procedurals because they are like a puzzle that always gets solved even if the victim usually dies anyway. It’s a violent puzzle with two endings: one good one, one not.
A waxy looking woman with too much makeup and a frozen, sneaky smile gets something that looks like a cranberry and vodka with teeth in the bottom, which can’t be too bad. “I’ll have what she’s having,” Jessica says. The bartender just nods. One of his teeth falls into her drink as he hands it to her. He stirs it with his dirty, scabby finger and gives her a smile. Jessica closes her eyes and wishes she were at home or at a normal party with normal drinks. She would kill for a Mantini no matter how uncool it is.
“So what is it? What’s the present?”
“You don’t know already?” Anabel says and the group around her chuckles as if they are in on the joke and Jessica isn’t. They probably are. Anabel doesn’t do anything without an audience. Jessica manages to stay quiet, telling herself to think like the dead person she is currently impersonating. Her new mantra:
Think like a zombie.
Zombies don’t speak
Or care what people think.
Zombies have no thoughts
They don’t care if they stink.
Think like a zombie.
This is the kind of weird non-rhyme Jessica’s brain imposes on her since the flu or whatever it was. It’s not Creative enough to share though.
Sharing something like the Death Rattle would be cool, but sharing the zombie song wouldn’t; it would just be embarrassing. But Jessica finds it kind of comforting in the face of all this hipness to be so uncool, like wearing her laundry day underwear to this party, or like touching the secret thing in her pocket. She smiles at the thought and Anabel looks confused for a moment, her sneer deflates just a bit, which is something utterly new.
Think like a zombie. Zombies don’t think.
Think like a zombie. Zombies just stink.
“Fine,” Anabel says and rolls her eyes, her sneer reappearing to shine on the group. “Since you’ll never figure it out. Remember that contest you told me about? The charity thing for that writer you like?”
“The ‘win a chance to be a character in a Kelly Link story’ contest?” Jessica says knowing that she shouldn’t have said it as a question because that has to be what Anabel is talking about. That is the only thing Jessica can remember talking to Anabel about that wasn’t work or Anabel’s personal life. Jessica releases her grip on the thing in her pocket like Anabel can see it through the fabric. Maybe she can.
“I won,” Anabel says. Of course Anabel won. “I entered as a joke and won and since I don’t care about that kind of thing,” Anabel waves her hand in the air like it is all too ridiculous for words, “I told her to give it to you.”
“What? You entered. What? You… can’t just win something for someone,” Jessica can’t even form a complete sentence and stops before she says something so embarrassing that it will instantly go viral.
“I know. You’re welcome,” Anabel says and takes another drink. Jessica breathes deeply like it says to do in all of those books about improving your life.
“I’m so jealous,” says one of Anabel’s sycophants, but Jessica can’t tell if he is serious or not. She can never tell with these people. Anabel jokes that Jessica suffers from ‘sarcasm blindness.’ Or maybe it isn’t a joke. Jessica looked it up online and there was nothing, but a few hours later it appeared everywhere complete with symptoms, drug treatments, and its own online support group dating back two years. She should have taken screen shots before and after. She suspects Anabel of another stealth ad campaign, probably for one of her big pharma clients. Then again, Anabel might have just done it as a joke. This is another thing Jessica doesn’t like about Anabel: diseases aren’t a joke. Like the bug flu or whatever Jessica had that nearly killed her.
The drink tastes like it looks: toxic. Like cough medicine spiked with copper pennies. Like a bloody cough or strep throat. Maybe that was the name of the drink. But Anabel is sneakily watching her take a sip so Jessica smiles as if it is a mojito or something she actually likes. It hits her stomach like a bad hangover and there’s a moment when she’s not sure she’ll be able to keep it down. Then she remembers the cameras and the mortifying possibility of millions of people watching her throw up all again and again and again an endless humiliation loop and clenches her teeth.
She takes another sip. Now it tastes just like the Gowanus smells, like industrial waste and decaying mob hits weighed down with cement rotting on the muddy bottom, but the burn is nice this time. When she looks up, Ben is smiling at her.
“This is going to be so cool,” he says, loud enough for Anabel to hear. Anabel ignores him, but her smile is sly and smug.
“You don’t even like Kelly Link,” Jessica says and takes a huge gulp of her drink, hoping to finish it. She chokes on the tooth and coughs, bending over at the waist. It feels like it’s chewing at her throat, but it’s only one tooth so that’s not possible. Ben pats her roughly on the back in a way that makes it worse, a way that makes it clear he is embarrassed of her because she is choking at Anabel’s party.
When she can finally breathe again, tears running down her face from all of the coughing, Ben is smiling a sickly smile.
“It’s not that I don’t like her,” Ben says loud enough to be heard over the music. “But doesn’t she write about vampires and ghosts and whatever?”
Anabel laughs next to them because she was listening even though she seemed to be ignoring them, talking to another group of Creatives from Sinkwater. “You won’t actually be in a Kelly Link story,” she says, but the way she says it makes Jessica think she’s totally lying.
“It could be worse. It could be a Jonathan Lethem novel,” Ben says and everyone laughs.
“Why would that be bad?” Jessica asks then is sorry she did when Anabel’s smile turns predatory.
“Because we’d be in Brooklyn,” Anabel says and all the Creatives laugh so hard they spill their bloody drinks. Now their clothes are even more bloodstained and the floor looks like a crime scene, which makes Anabel even happier. Ben’s loud, terrified laugh attracts the attention of a nearby couple who seem to be losing pieces of their costumes. An ear falls off into the growing bloodstain on the floor and they glare at Ben as if it’s his fault. Jessica’s glaring at Ben too. She lives in Brooklyn and secretly loves it. Ben thinks she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore, but really she just wants to get out of Manhattan and back to her neighborhood with its uncool bodegas and tacky funeral parlors. Manhattan feels like it’s always about to sink or be destroyed in a tsunami or about a million other disaster scenarios. Brooklyn feels like it’s going to stick around no matter what.
Anabel moves off as a cloud of blowflies swarms around her like she’s a fresh corpse. But they’re not flies; they’re drones moving in to cover whatever fabulous thing Anabel is doing. Jessica smiles weakly and the swarm moves on, uninterested.
When the swarm is a safe distance away, Ben leans in to whisper, “How do we get out of this?” As if Jessica had anything to do with it. Jessica wasn’t imaginative enough to throw an undead party in May or to enter a friend in a terrifying contest. It was the main reason Jessica was still in Accounts.
“I have no idea,” Jessica says and walks to the bar. Ben walks too quickly to catch up with her. “Why don’t you ask Anabel?” she says. Ben’s horrified gasp is almost worth winning the contest.
Jessica can’t remember what her neighbor looks like. The one who saved her life and maybe gave her the ingredients. The flu softened her memory. Especially from the time inside her illness. Ben and Anabel and everyone at Sharkman-Falk said she’d been out for two weeks, but she only remembers three days of illness before she went back to work. She also remembers being wrapped in a red silk blanket that breathed and sang to her. She remembers the packages, the soups, the sea vegetables, the blood and teeth, but just in chewed off pieces. When she tries to remember the neighbor, she remembers hot black eyes, images on skin (tattoos?), lots of arms and feels something hot rising in her face and everywhere like fever. She remembers kissing her neighbor, but maybe she had done that before the flu. The night before. And more than a kiss. (Was that a movie she watched? Or maybe that TV show about the haunted TV show? Or something about deepwater fish?) But then the memories begin to feel like having the flu again so she stops trying.
Anabel’s apartment building is across the street from a casket factory and Jessica can hear the loud crashes as the workers pile and unpile the metal caskets, like the soundtrack of a car accident on repeat. There are no casket factories in Manhattan. Jessica checked. Which means they are in one of the outer boroughs and Ben has probably lost his bet. Jessica wonders if she should tell him. When she thinks about Ben sucking up to Anabel, she thinks maybe she’ll text Anil from Ben’s phone with a GPS locator so he knows. Jessica thinks that losing the bet means Ben will come to Brooklyn, but she’s wrong. The bet was just an excuse. Ben is afraid of Brooklyn. It’s simultaneously too judgey and old-fashioned mixed with a hyper-hipster thing that makes him feel too old and too young at the same time.
Jessica doesn’t smoke, but it seemed like a good excuse to leave the party for a few minutes. Anabel doesn’t like smokers, which is an even better reason to have a cigarette. Jessica bums one off a zombie David Bowie. She doesn’t point out that David Bowie just died and was a lot older than the thirty this guy looks until she’s lit up. She has to say it twice and he finally seems to understand her.
“Oh,” he says in a perfect David Bowie accent. “It was all a hoax. I’ve been dead for years. That man’s an impersonator. He’s not even real.” He takes a long drag off the cigarette and smoke leaks out of someplace near his ear. She wants to comment on it, to ask how he managed the trick, but thinks of Anabel’s smug smile and attempts a smug smile of her own, one that says, I knew that.
There’s a loud crash behind them and Jessica thinks it’s the casket factory, echoing off the walls, but it’s Ben and he’s just closed the fire door they weren’t supposed to close.
“Bloody hell,” Zombie Bowie says with an exhausted sigh and flicks his cigarette away. Jessica thinks he doesn’t look so much like David Bowie without the cigarette. He looks less like Bowie when he pulls off part of his ear smoothing his hair back.
“Ew,” Ben says, waving fussily at the smoke as he leans in to kiss Jessica’s cheek. “Why are you out here smoking?” Ben hates it when Jessica smokes. He’ll refuse to kiss her until she brushes her teeth or uses the special gum he got her that removes the outer layer of tooth enamel and replaces it with some kind of minty resin.
David Bowie is shuffling away, probably toward the front of the building since Ben just shut the back door and there’s no way to open it from outside. There was a huge note taped to the door inside telling you not to let it close behind you and a brick between the door and the sill, but Ben never notices things like that. Or maybe he does and just wants to make things more difficult and dramatic so he’ll have a better story to tell everyone at work.
Jessica just shrugs because Ben would never understand that she’d rather be out here in the brownfield behind Anabel’s building for any reason than inside. She looks around at the post-apocalyptic landscape and wonders if Anabel hired people to make it look like this. It looks too perfect with its clumps of thorny weeds as tall as Ben and bare patches of blackened earth between. It looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie, which means Anabel probably did hire a team to do it. Jessica thinks about the garden next door to her building in Brooklyn: lush flowers and hedges, roses, a fountain that Anabel would probably call ‘quaint’ in that way that really means tacky and provincial. She imagines Anabel’s workers walking through it with flamethrowers and chainsaws, laughing at Jessica for living next to such an ugly, uncool thing and not ironically instagramming it. Instead of thinking about her inadequacies any more Jessica pulls away from the sharp bricks of the building and walks toward the alley. It’s full of rusty ripped cans and wrappers and there’s a tall chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top so there’s no way to actually get to the front of the building. Where did Bowie go?
“Just perfect!” Ben says as if it’s Jessica’s fault he shut the door that was their only way back to the party out of Anabel’s DIY hellscape. For a moment Jessica thinks about yelling at him, but decides it’s probably what he wants (my gf and I had a HUGE fight in a disgusting alley outside Anabel’s INCREDIBLY AWESOME UNDEAD PARTY YOU WEREN’T INVITED TO!) so she imagines being a zombie with nothing to say and no way to say it.
A woman shuffles by in zombie clothes.
“Hey! Are you going to Anabel’s?” Jessica yells. Trying to keep her voice friendly and non-threatening while yelling through a chain-link fence is challenging. She uses all of her award-winning Accounts skills, which means she smiles with all her teeth, and she makes her self dead inside.
The woman comes to a sort of shambling stop as if parts of her body can’t agree on whether to keep walking or not. For a moment Jessica thinks the zombie woman might fall over, but she rights herself and turns slowly toward Jessica. Great, Jessica thinks, she’s drunk or high, which makes it a greater probability that she’s going to Anabel’s.
“Jess,” Ben hisses. “What are you doing? Why don’t we just wait for someone else to come out for a smoke?” Ben also hates asking for directions.
“What if they don’t?” Jessica says without bothering to look at him. “What if they all go out front?” Ben looks terrified and pecks at his phone.
The woman stares at Jessica, but it doesn’t feel like she’s actually seeing anything. Her eyes are drunk dead and her face is slack and bruisey. Jessica stares back. The woman is wearing a business suit that might have been attractive or at least professional-looking once, but one of the sleeves looks like it has been chewed on near the shoulder. Her arm is bloody and raw-looking like a rash beneath the tattered remains of a white shirt. The suit looks familiar.
“Oh my God,” Ben squeaks beside her. “She looks just like you before you got your hair cut. And…is that your awful black suit?”
Jessica takes another look and tries (and fails) not to be offended. It’s difficult because this woman looks like she is rotting from the inside, her skin covered in bruises, blood, and lesions. It’s hard for Jessica to remember that she’s wearing zombie makeup too even though she rubbed most of it off in the bathroom earlier. “Thanks.”
“No, I mean, whatever,” Ben says, but he is looking at his phone now, not at the silent, rotting woman who keeps staring at Jessica through the chain link. Jessica feels irrationally thankful for the fence between them. “There’s no service,” he mumbles, his forehead scrunching. “Maybe in the back.” He wanders away and Jessica returns her attention to the drunk woman who is still standing in the same place staring at her, her head tilted at an awkward and probably uncomfortable angle.
“If you’re going to Anabel’s party, could you tell someone to open the back door? We’re locked out.” Jessica uses the voice and face she’s perfected working on difficult and disinterested clients, but the woman still doesn’t react. “We’ll even buy you a drink?” That’s another trick: turn everything into a question.
They just stare at each other for what feels like an uncomfortably long time. The kind of time that usually happens when you’re trying to break up with someone and they haven’t gotten the message yet. Jessica smells something dead and imagines rats in the alley with her along with whatever dead or rotting things they like to eat. Or maybe this woman is one of Anabel’s artist friends who has taken the theme of the party a little too far. An image of wolves rubbing on deer carcasses to cover themselves in the scent erupts into her thoughts and repeats itself like some sort of viral net video marketing campaign. The wolves eyes are blank like the zombie woman’s, their fur matted and slick with the grease of decomposition.
Someone bumps the woman and Jessica is finally released from the wolf-stink-rub feedback loop. The zombie woman, distracted, walks away without saying anything to Jessica, not even an acknowledgement that she has heard or seen her.
Jessica tries to get the attention of two other people who walk by, but it’s New York, so they’re used to ignoring strange people yelling at them from alleys in the middle of the night. Or maybe no one can hear her from the alley. There’s something weird about the acoustics. Maybe Anabel has installed some sort of noise-canceling technology so that no one can complain about her parties.
“Shit.” She gives up and goes to find Ben, but the small gravel courtyard is empty, the bare light bulb above the door flickering ominously (probably a specialty bulb designed for this purpose) and Jessica feels scared for the first time tonight. For a moment she panics, terrified that Ben found a way back into the building and left her out here in the burned out night. Then she hears Ben’s wheezing cough and muttering from the dark of the brownfield and almost cries in relief.
“Do you think this is part of the story?” he asks.
“The Kelly Link story. The one you won.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I’m just supposed to have a character named after me or whatever.”
“That’s not what the website says.” Ben hands Jessica his phone, open to the site and crosses his arms.
“By agreeing to the terms of this contest, you have given Kelly Link (and associated sub-contractors) consent to construct one of the following post-apocalyptic scenarios in which you will be an active participant (for a limited period of time TBD by the author):
“Which do you think she chose?”
Jessica just hands the phone back to Ben without answering.
It’s so dark in the burned out garden that the sky glows but not with stars. Maybe the occasional planet, comet, or supernova, but never stars. Instead it’s that orange gray color that happens when there’s a fire on a cloudy night in smaller cities. In the boring, mid-sized city where Jessica grew up, they called this sky ‘snow clouds’ because it only happened rarely. But the sky is clear tonight and there’s no snow or even rain. It burns anyway.
Anabel’s party looks like it might explode or fall out the windows at any moment. Jessica can see people shuffling and bumping around, bumping into windows, can hear that Bauhaus song playing over the constant rumble and squeak of shouted conversation and laughter. It’s like watching a loop of a movie, the windows a giant screen. Nobody comes out for a cigarette. Ben and Jessica watch people make their way toward the back and then disappear down the stairwell, but these people never make it all the way outside.
“I can’t fucking believe this!” Ben is shouting at his phone. And up at the windows. “Hey! Hey, we’re down here! We’re locked out! Let us in!” Now he is shouting at the party zombies who can’t hear him over the music and their own noise. Ben is one of those people who shouts at the TV too.
“They can’t hear you,” Jessica says and sits down on a pile of broken cinder blocks.
Ben tries shouting a few more times until his voice cracks and he’s too embarrassed to try again. Besides, Jessica’s a terrible audience and no one else is paying attention.
“Now what? We could be stuck out here all night.” His voice doesn’t crack but he’s in total drama mode now, completely absorbed in the story he’s going to tell everyone on Monday about Anabel’s Fabulous Party and How Ben Literally Almost (un)Died in Her Nightmare Backyard, Seriously.
Ben’s really not very good at telling stories although Jessica would never tell him that. He always gets lost in the middle and usually wanders around until he (sometimes) remembers the point. Sometimes this is entertaining in its own way. The details are the most important thing to Ben, not the plot. What everyone was wearing, what they said or didn’t say, their terrible perfume, the furniture. Like a designer, he gets lost in the pretty and ugly things that should be the background and barely notices the big picture, which is something a snotty copywriter would say.
“Maybe someone will finally make it outside for a cigarette,” Jessica says with a shrug. She doesn’t really care anymore. It’s kind of nice out there with Ben and she has an excuse for not being with all those people at Anabel’s terrible awesome party. If she could get him to talk about something other than the drama of being locked out.
“Maybe. If we don’t freeze to death first,” Ben says and flops down on the most secure looking piece of cinder block next to Jessica. It’s not that cold, but she moves closer to Ben to help warm him up. He puts his arm around her and she leans in to him. It’s almost nice. Like they’re the last people on earth watching a movie about a zombie party.
“You could kiss me,” Jessica says and leans in a little.
Ben makes a face — not a good one — and looks around the ruined garden.
“Out here?” He looks at Jessica then and his scowl becomes more dramatic. “You look kind of pasty and, you know, dead. And you smell like smoke and that alley with the dead thing.”
Sometimes she hates really doesn’t like Ben or maybe it’s that she likes the memory of Ben better than the reality. Sometimes she really wants to tell him how hateable he can be (and how he doesn’t smell so great either right now), but she thinks she’d miss him if he left and she doesn’t think they could be friends if they broke up. Ben would want her to destroy all of his clothes outside his office building and cut her hair off with a dull knife and burn it or something and he’d never forgive her if they had an amicable break up. Plus she wouldn’t get invited to parties, which would be the worst and best thing that ever happened to her.
“You know, we’re in Brooklyn,” she says instead and pulls away. His arm drops off her shoulder like it’s dead or asleep.
“What?” he yelps and closes his eyes as if he’s in great pain. Before she can apologize (she does feel a little sorry even though he deserves it), he’s looking at his phone muttering about GPS, but there’s still no service. “I can’t fucking believe this! I’ve been live casting all night! Everyone knows!”
Jessica should feel bad, but really just wishes she had another cigarette.
That’s when the fire door bangs open and the woman zombie who looks like Jessica comes stumbling out of Anabel’s party. Another partygoer appears behind her and they both begin shuffling toward Ben and Jessica. Jessica didn’t even see them through the windows.
“Oh my God, thank you!” Ben yells and shakes his phone at them as if it’s some sort of instrument. “You saved us!”
The door slams shut behind the zombies like a hundred coffins dropping across the street, but they don’t flinch or even seem to notice.
“No!” Ben and Jessica yell at the same time, moving toward the door as if they can stop it from being locked against them, as if they can change what has already happened.
“Does anyone know you’re down here? ’Cause if they don’t, we’re all locked out,” Ben says with a pasted on smile. It’s the smile he uses on annoying people or waiters, but it doesn’t work on the zombies, doesn’t even slow them down. They still shuffle forward in a straight line toward Ben and Jessica, walking over bushes and through a puddle of toxic green stuff like they don’t even care about their shoes.
Ben takes a step back and Jessica grabs his hand, afraid that he’ll leave her with them.
“Okay, I get it,” Ben says with a painful little laugh. “Where’s the drone?” He looks around with an exaggerated sweep. “This is part of Jessica’s present, right?”
Jessica thinks she sees Anabel looking down at them from the windows behind the zombies and wonders if this is all part of the joke/story. Then she thinks about her mantra and reaches into her pocket for the big secret thing she should have left at home but couldn’t help bringing with her. It is smooth and cool and perfect and no one knows about it but her, which gives her some ridiculous and improbable courage.
Think like a zombie.
The two stop abruptly like dogs caught on the end of a leash, as if there was some signal Jessica couldn’t see or hear. They are all just standing there in the dark staring at each other until someone at the party laughs so loud that it can be heard over the music and the Brooklyn noise
“Oh my God, I’m in!” Ben says and Jessica turns away from the still frozen partygoers (who, she notices with relief, are still breathing). Even though they are clearly in danger, Ben is typing furiously on his phone. It’s one of those geniusphones that has its own cockroach brain. It cost more than Jessica spent on clothes in the past three years. Ben says he bought it to research some other project he and Anabel are working on. Anabel says she got hers for free from someone who works at the company that made them. Testing or QA or something. Or Anabel’s lying and she slept with them to get it. Except that’s the sort of thing she usually brags about in that totally casual way as if she doesn’t care who she has sex with or why.
“What?” Jessica hisses, still afraid to take her attention from the too realistic zombie guests.
“To the pocket universe next door,” he says and walks away distracted. “We’ve been trying for months. Anabel’s going to be so jealous.” He sits down on something he would normally never even walk near and Jessica closes her eyes. Until she remembers the zombies and opens her eyes again quickly. But they’re still standing there staring back at Jessica as if she’s a TV screen.
“Um, Ben,” Jessica says trying not to sound angry and failing. “We’re still locked out. I’m cold. And weird shit is happening. Can you focus?”
“Alright,” he says with a huff and types with sharp little pecks as if he’s punctuating something important and loud. “There! Just sent a message to Anabel that we’re locked out.”
“But I thought you couldn’t get a signal.”
“I can’t. But someone in the pocket universe said they’d get a message to Anabel through the darknet.”
“You didn’t just text her?”
“No,” Ben says and looks confused. “It doesn’t work like that. You can’t send messages out, just in. “
“Like a black hole,” Jessica says absently. She’ not even sure this is true, but it sounds like something she read. Even though she switched her physics major to english, she likes to keep up. And Ben’s expression is somewhere between pleased surprise and irritation that he didn’t think of it so it must be true.
The zombies haven’t moved, not even a shift in stance. Jessica shifts her weight from one foot to another in sympathy. Her legs are going to sleep just looking at the too-still actors, or partygoers or whatever they are. She hopes Anabel is at least paying them well. Aren’t there unions for people like this? Even if this isn’t a movie, they still have rights.
Jessica’s pretty sure they haven’t even blinked. She’s also pretty sure that isn’t even possible. Unless it’s a side effect of some cool new drug someone brought to Anabel’s. Or worse, one of Anabel’s pharmaceutical clients is using the party to test some new designer drug. Jessica doesn’t remember signing a release, but that doesn’t mean Anabel didn’t sneak it into the invitation emails and texts anyway. You always have to read the fine print with someone like Anabel. Just showing up can be consent. Maybe Anabel had everyone’s middle names changed to Consent.
Zombies don’t think.
That’s when four people emerge from the darkness at the back of the yard. They’re all wearing black fatigues or fashionable fitted cargo pants, night vision glasses, and carrying strange devices that are probably supposed to be weapons. Or cosplay party props. Jessica decides that they must be from the party and relaxes. Besides, their movement is all wrong for military. She knows that from her time on the ARMY account and her uncle with PTSD who she knows really was Special Forces because he never talks about it. Stealthy soldiers don’t move like stealthy gym rats who’ve watched too many action movies and played too many video games and that’s exactly what these four people move like. But they are still walking toward Ben and Jessica in a threatening way with things that could be weapons.
“Stop,” a voice says and incredibly, the four black clad imposters do stop.
“You’re out of your zone, assholes. Turn the fuck around and go back to your own pocket before I report you for an illegal search.”
They don’t turn to look at the person behind the voice, but Jessica and Ben do. A woman with short gray, unstylish hair and rumpled, potato-colored clothes. She definitely wasn’t invited to Anabel’s party. Or if she was, she is too cool to even care. An aging artist or writer whose success makes style unnecessary. Probably not. Probably she’s just an uncool neighbor. A retired school administrator or city employee. Except for her obvious authority with the fake Army guys. Even the zombies are looking at her. One of them is humming.
The woman sighs and lifts a battered taped-together looking gray cell phone and acts like she’s about to press a very significant button.
“Okay!” one of the fake Army guy shouts and they all shake their heads and reverse their movements after giving each other a series of nonsensical hand gestures that Jessica is sure are meant to look authoritative. “Jesus, Joan. You’d think you’d make an exception for fucking Zombie zombies,” but they’re still moving away, guns lowered. And Jessica wonders why they had to say zombies twice, but doesn’t want to ask. They’re the kind of guys who would mock you for asking a question, especially if they didn’t know the answer.
“Go back to your hole, trucknuts.”
When Jessica looks again, they are gone.
The gray-haired woman is frowning at the zombies.
“Who ordered these guys?” she says, but it’s obvious she isn’t really expecting an answer or maybe knows it already as she shakes her heads and turns around.
“Come on, we’re off to see the wizard.” She says and starts walking toward the chain link fence at the back of the brown field. “The Dolphin, anyway.”
“Oh!” Ben says and Jessica steps aside as the zombies start to follow the woman. “The guy in the pocket universe says we would go to the Dolphin. Is that a bar? I read about a bar near the Gowanus that’s only supposed to be open on the new moon,” he says, still rambling as he follows the woman whose name may be Joan. He trips over something hidden in the scorched weeds, but doesn’t even look or seem embarrassed.
“No,” she says. “It’s an actual fucking dolphin.”
“But we’re just trying to get back into the party,” I say even as I follow the two of them toward the back of the lot instead of the front of the building where we should be headed. “If you could just show us how to get back on the street.”
“You can’t,” she sighs again as if she’s been assigned to work with us and we are the most difficult clients ever. The kind of clients you know are never going be a big account or even pay, but you have to act like they are anyway. “You’re Next Door now. Out of Pocket. It doesn’t work like that. That door is permanently closed.”
She keeps walking and doesn’t look at them. Ben keeps texting between glances to make sure he doesn’t trip. He trips anyway, but pretends he didn’t.
“And who exactly are you?” Ben says without looking up. The potato woman points her duct-taped-together phone at Ben like it’s a weapon and Ben flinches when his phone bloops.
Ben looks down at the screen and says oh. Then starts poking and rolls his eyes as a woman’s voice begins talking.
There is only one Feminist. She lives in a cave or abandoned building and drinks rainwater. She wears clothing and rags she finds on the side of the road, in dumpsters, on the street.
The Feminist speaks her own language. There is no translation.
The Feminist’s language, an extinct dialect of the Amazons, never existed. Some say the Amazons were Scythians, those golden warrior tombs They believe should have belonged to men, but didn’t. But that isn’t possible because we all know there is no such thing as a Scythian or an Amazon. Women aren’t warriors in any HIStory. What is the past but a story we tell ourselves now, in this language. Not the Feminist’s language. Not Scythian or even Amazonian. This new language is made by the fathers, the owners. This new language the feminist doesn’t speak. This new language speaks through her so she chooses not to.
The Feminist is preparing for the day when women choose silence and —
The voice is deep and clear. The words are earnest and meaningful in a way you don’t hear anymore, especially in New York. No irony or sarcasm at all. Jessica finds herself getting emotional then feeling embarrassed and smiling an ironic smile in self-defense. She doesn’t know what to do. It makes her uncomfortable as it continues to play. She wants to walk away, but manages to stay still like the zombies.
Think like a zombie, she mutters.
Don’t think. Like a zombie.
“Oh my God,” Ben says, still looking at his geniusphone, which tells him in that polite but slightly irritated voice to watch his step before he trips over another rock. “An embedded sound file? Hello? It’s 1997 calling. They want their web design back.”
“You wouldn’t understand. Written text is just another layer of separation from reality, another form of control,” the Feminist says. At least Jessica assumes that this woman is the Feminist.
Ben rolls his eyes and the Feminist (Joan?) shakes her head at him with another long-suffering sigh.
“Some things need to be spoken. Text just can’t communicate certain things. Like the Death Rattle poem. I think it seems like more of a song. You don’t really read it as much as sing it to yourself. It escapes the page. Especially that last line,” The Feminist continues as if Ben wasn’t there at all. As if she were only speaking to Jessica or maybe the zombies. Jessica tries hard not to react, to think like a zombie. She shouldn’t have bothered because Ben is not paying any attention to her. He’s staring at the Feminist as if she is a particularly ugly problem or a dish he didn’t order.
Ben half sputters, half laughs. “What does your crappy web site have to do with that ridiculous Death Rattle meme or whatever it is.” He laughs again as if to say it’s too ridiculous for words, then starts typing again. This is one of his gives: he laughs at the things that are most important to him like the fact that he and Anabel not only didn’t come up with the Death Rattle, but they can’t even find who did.
The Feminist doesn’t seem to care, just gives him a shrug before looking at Jessica as if it doesn’t matter, but that she knows somehow what’s in Jessica’s pocket. Or maybe it’s that the Feminist doesn’t expect anything different from Ben or anyone and it’s all a coincidence, her bringing up the Death Rattle. Either way, Ben is huffing and muttering as he stumbles after them. Jessica reaches in to touch the thing in her pocket, smooth like a missing tooth — you can’t stop feeling the metallic hole/absence with your tongue — and glances back to make sure the zombies are still following. She knows it’s ridiculous, that it’s a symptom of her disorder, but she feels responsible for them. The zombies start moving when she touches the secret thing like a sore spot she can’t leave alone. She thinks about the Death Rattle, the words on the screen. She thinks it’s not a poem or a song or even a meme.
Think of the Gowanus as the Underworld, the one no one believes in anymore because they are all sure they’re going to Heaven. The Underworld is dark. Opaque. It smells terrible and if it touches you, you will never wash off that smell, but that’s okay because people who go into the Underworld and the Gowanus, don’t get to come back (gangsters and their victims; see ‘cement shoes’ and ‘swimming with the fishes’). The Gowanus is the place no one wants to end up. It’s where all the waste things go: toxic industrial runoff, old plastic cups and used condoms, shit, dead cats, old computers, cell phones. Evidence.
In the Underworld, you don’t need cell phones. Not because everyone is connected to everyone else and isn’t it wonderful, but because cell phones don’t work. Cell phones use a form of light and there’s no light in the Underworld or the Gowanus, but there is sound. That’s why the Dolphin is the standard of communication and bats. But dolphins don’t like the Underworld. Imagine going from the wide open clean and clear ocean to the thick, petroleum sludge of the Gowanus. No dolphin is going to volunteer for that. Bats won’t even discuss it.
Also, like the Underworld, if you fall into the Gowanus, even if you manage through trickery or luck to climb back out, you’ll probably have some horrible disease or cancer so you never really got out did you? The Gowanus is full of things everyone (or just someone) would rather forget about. Things that will mark you, that will grab and never really let go like a curse. The Gowanus is full of things that are not quite dead and have strong hands and/or tentacles or claws, so don’t get too close. Don’t fall in.
“Why didn’t you let the Men in Black take care of the zombies?” Ben says without looking up from his phone. Jessica knows he’s not talking to her, so she just keeps walking and tries not to look back at the zombies to see whether they have noticed they’re being talked about.
“Because those guys are corporate fascists. If you let them get away with that shit outside their pocket just once, they’ll do it every time.” She says without bothering to look at him. “Besides, those zombies aren’t hurting anyone. Someone must have done an illegal search and called them up. Not their fault.” She’s looking directly at Ben when she says this, but he ignores whatever she isn’t saying.
“I get it. It’s all about the game, story, whatever. World-building,” Ben says nodding smugly at his own deduction even though it was Jessica who described ‘world-building’ (the science fiction/fantasy kind) to him a week ago. He still hasn’t stopped typing on his screen probably hoping to get it all down as it happens. As if that makes it more real or true. Or maybe he is secretly texting Anabel and this is all part of the contest and therefore a big lie.
“Okay, I’m game. Why are they zombie? How are they zombie? In the game or story or whatever? Are they really dead? Or just drugged and lacking personal hygiene? Or are they actors?” The Feminist smiles and nods just slightly as if Jessica has confirmed something and she is pleased. Jessica tries not to be pleased that she has gotten something right. This is one of the things (5 Personality Defects That Are Keeping You From Realizing Your Potential!) Jessica is working on: her overwhelming drive to please people. It’s disgusting (and it may be a diagnosable disorder soon), but it is also why she is so successful at her job so she’s not actually trying too hard. She really needs the money.
“Schrödinger’s Zombies,” the Feminist says and Ben actually looks up from his phone with a frown but doesn’t say anything. Which means he recognizes the term or thinks he should. “They’re not really dead, they’re just stuck half in one universe, half in another. And they can never get unstuck. Just more spread out.” She waves at the zombies behind them who don’t react in any way. “I’d say these are a special bunch. Probably spread between at least ten universes. Fucking advertising.”
“That’s horrible,” Jessica says like it means something. Like she has any idea what the Feminist is talking about and why zombies have anything to do with advertising. Except the obvious.
The Feminist waves her crap phone and they walk cross some kind of invisible line or that’s what it feels like because suddenly the air is warmer and the field they are in has some green to it instead of being all straw-colored and brown. There is also a terrible smell. And a strange sound like birdcrickets, which is quickly joined or challenged by another sound that is more mechanical.
“Crap, we’ve got company,” the Feminist says, but doesn’t seem particularly tense. “DarkLord, I told you and your boys to get back to your pocket. I just lodged a formal complaint,” she says to the empty darkness of the field.
“What’s that smell?” Ben asks, but Jessica already knows even though she isn’t sure how she knows.
“Fucking bitch! They’re out of their pocket too! And somebody did a search. Called us up,” the voice says and the Feminist turns to give Ben a hard stare.
“What?” Ben asks, eyes wide like he totally did it. The Feminist shakes her head and turns away.
There’s a loud ululating call, the barking of dogs and several loud thumps. Then what sounds like a man screaming.
“The Pack don’t have a pocket,” the Feminist says sounding incredibly tired, like a teacher who has repeated the lesson a thousand times in her life.
“Cody! Man down! Man down!” a deep baritone yells over and over.
“Jesus fuck! Hey grrls, don’t kill them please! Too many forms and we’ll have the Dragons all over our asses for months” the Feminist says in a voice that is very different, almost sweet. “And DarkLord, get your Trucknutz out of here before they hurt you or we all sue you and your corporate overlords for breach.” Not sweet. At all.
There is more grunting, but the barking, growling and ululations have stopped. There is some dragging, some manly whimpering, and the sound of guns being holstered, or maybe drones taking off. It’s hard to tell in the near-dark. Flashes of light make the scene harder to read. Jessica’s eyes keep trying to adjust back and forth. It’s giving her a headache. She thinks maybe she should try to help in some way, but these guys are supposed to be professionals (professional whats?) and she has no idea what she could do.
“Oh my God, they’re going to kill us!” Ben screams way too late and Jessica knows he is recording this somehow or he assumes someone else is. The timing can be fixed in editing.
“We’re outta here!” the first Fascist, DarkLord, yells from somewhere behind them. “You and your girlfriends are in deep shit, Joan!” Jessica gets that DarkLord yells at pretty much everything. He probably yells his order for coffee at the barista in the morning.
“Whatever,” the Feminist says and someone slim and jagged lopes toward them from the darkness ahead of them, running like a wolf runs, like a knife would run. “Lili. Nicely done. Thanks for not killing them.”
The jagged one nods and two other forms materialize next to her followed by dogs who don’t look like wolves. Ben stiffens next to her. He’s terrified of dogs (and dirt) and Jessica has learned since moving to Brooklyn to be wary of them. Especially dogs that look like this and aren’t on a leash. Everyone has heard the stories of feral dog packs in Red Hook and Gowanus. Everyone has read the story about the baby that may have been stolen right out of a stroller, dragged away and eaten by a pack of wild dogs while the baby’s mother screamed and screamed. Even if they’re not sure where they read it.
“No problem, Crone,” one of the jagged ones says in a high, smooth voice that is almost as sweet as the Feminist’s. The Crone’s. “Down Kiki,” she says in nearly the same soft voice and one of the dogs stops next to one of the jagged people that Jessica now understands is a girl. An actual girl of about thirteen or fourteen maybe. They all wear dark, patched and worn clothing. The one who spoke has a long puckered pink scar on one side of her face. The kind of scar that means the cut wasn’t treated correctly or at all. The others look like the shadows of tree limbs, against the orange light: All angles and asymmetrical connections.
A pack of feral girls. Jessica hasn’t heard any stories about that, but she will now. Ben is already pecking away at his phone and probably recording as well.
“You headed to the Dolphin?”
“Yep,” the Crone says and takes the girl’s hand briefly. It’s obvious the girl is both comforted and completely uncomfortable being touched. Then the girl is looking at Jessica.
“This the one,” she says still looking straight into Jessica like she is a mirror. Aren’t wild animals supposed to have a thing about making direct eye contact? Jessica tries not to look away. It’s like moving a mountain, not looking away. This girl is pushing her back and prodding at every corner of Jessica without even moving. Finally, suddenly, the look is gone.
“We’ve got your back,” Lili says then whistles and they all turn (the Pack? the packs?) at once, like a giant fur-skinned, denim-clad animal, and walk into the dark.
“Thank you, sisters,” the Crone says as if she is stating a fact for the record.
Jessica looks back. The zombies are still there. They move when she does.
“What’s that smell?” Ben asks and the Crone shakes her head, disgusted.
“Fucking bacon,” she says and keeps walking.
A death rattle’s an empty place, a hole
an abandoned house, cave
a drifting, howling soul
covered with sticks and bones and skin
Filled with bitten bits
Broken, bust, and bin.
fingernails, baby teeth, sawed off bone
stuffed inside the fistula then badly sewn
buried, red, infected
rashes, blistered skin,
do not disturb, don’t look too long,
don’t shake it don’t go in
“See, it doesn’t even rhyme right. Like totally different poems about the same thing stuck together. A franken poem.” Ben is looking up death rattle poetry somehow on his geniusphone. Or maybe he has them saved. How ironic, Jessica thinks and tries to look like she’s only sort of interested, like she’s never heard or seen them before.
Someone gave you the death rattle
Just like a baby rattle
but full of knocked out teeth
and tonsil stones
“I think Kelly Link must’ve written it,” he says.
“No. It wouldn’t rhyme,” the Crone says. “And now you see what I mean about speaking them aloud.” It’s not really a question, but Ben ignores her anyway.
“Wow. Some of these are terrible and some are actually pretty good.” But Jessica hears what’s unspoken, underneath: these poems are the wrong kind of terrible, the worst kind of good so it couldn’t be something Anabel and Ben and Creative put together. It must be real. Real people are not the right kind of clever. Real people don’t Create.
Jessica has lived in Brooklyn for three years, but she’s never seen the Gowanus except in brown flashes from the train when it heaves itself above ground for one those two stops. She realizes only now that the reason for those two stops is that the train would rather go over the Gowanus than under it (even though it has no problem tunneling under the terrifying East River), which is the real reason it goes above ground. Which means that the Gowanus is either much deeper than anyone knows or something about it is dangerous to trains. Or maybe there is another reason that Jessica will never understand because she was failing that horrible physics for engineering course and decided to become an English major instead.
She looks out at the darkness of the brownfield that seems to go on and on and imagines a whitefield, a nothing. A deleted place. Most people think of brownfields as nothings, but they’re not even close. There are flowers and weeds and secret gardens full of kale, heirloom tomato plants, and marijuana. There are packs of wild dogs and girls. There are trash bags full of things no one wants to even go through. Maybe it will be safe to look in five years. There are metal containers and plastic drums full of viscous mystery sludge, corpses, toxic waste.
A real whitefield would have nothing, erased, a white screen. Like a parking lot without even the asphalt. A dead place. But really dead.
There is something up ahead on the bridge, a dark, breathing thing like a giant snake or dragon. As they get closer, it becomes just a line of silhouettes winding through the iron frame that looks more like the skeleton of some mechanical dinosaur fallen crookedly across the canal than a bridge.
“CAUTION: this is a Superfund site,” the geniusphone murmurs to Ben. Jessica wonders how it is accessing the net for data if they’re disconnected. Cockroach brains don’t need the net maybe. Maybe they talk to other cockroach brains that aren’t phones. Which is impossible because cockroaches don’t speak English or anything so Jessica shakes her head to stop thinking.
Zombies don’t think.
The Crone keeps walking past the line as if the people in it are invisible, her boots pinging loudly even though she walks on ancient and rotting wooden planks. Jessica thinks of the smug way Ben and Anabel walked to the head of a club line when they had invites and plus-ones, but this feels different. Tonight they are following a potato drab woman with unstylish hair to the door of a club so cool, so elite, Ben and Anabel couldn’t get an invite or even information. A club so elite it only exists in a pocket universe they can’t escape.
“Hey, Crone.” The Bouncer wears an enormous headdress or helmet with foot-long spikes and colorful ribbons arranged in something like a giant metal mohawk. Their voice is higher and more melodic than Jessica expected from the enormous body towering over them. Or maybe it’s the headdress and the boots and the shoulder pads (she can almost hear Ben typing away about the 80s wanting their businesswear back) and the person isn’t so big after all. It’s hard to tell at night with shadows growing and waving and shivering like underwater forests around them. The headdress turns toward Jessica and Ben, but the shadow on the wall behind is the head of an enormous dragon turning its terrible gaze down on them.
“This the one?”
The Crone nods, but Jessica notices she refuses to look at the giant shadow now looming over them, its eyes glowing plutonium green, smoke snaking away in kelp fronds of silhouette, orange flaring and flaming out as it breathes. The Bouncer nods back and eventually the dragon nods its enormous head and recedes.
Ben makes a strangled sort of noise about kitschy projector art that Jessica doesn’t bother to interpret and the Crone closes her eyes with a weary sigh as if she’s relieved. As if they had been in some kind of danger and maybe still are.
“Plus that one,” the Crone barely moves her head toward Ben who huffs but manages to keep his mouth shut. The Bouncer scowls and seems to consider Ben or maybe they are consulting the whisper from the elaborate, bejeweled, blinking earpiece perched on one ear. The Bouncer and whoever is whispering in their ear seem to reach some kind of agreement (the dragon shadow seems uninterested and puts its head down) and the bouncer nods.
“What about the zombies?” the Bouncer asks as they move the frayed velvet rope aside. They don’t sound concerned really or even interested. “You know how the Dolphin is.”
“We picked ’em up at the coffin factory. Been following us since. Not ours. Lili says hitchhikers.”
The Bouncer nods and waves Ben and Jessica through, lowering the rope again in front of the zombies who lean over it but stay silent and otherwise still on the other side. Jessica almost feels bad for them, but the angry jealous glares from the rest of the line make her turn away.
“They’ll be alright,” the Crone said and pats Jessica on the arm as if they are talking about dogs. The Crone begins to carefully descend a slimy iron staircase with rotting weeds and shreds of plastic woven through every rib and spine. Jessica pauses to look at the zombies, at the people in line; they are flickering like candles, but not like candles, like screens: on and off almost too fast to notice. She closes her eyes, looks at Ben who is not flickering, but the sky that frames him is. That’s when she understands that she is probably flickering on and off too. She has somehow gotten stuck between universes and no one has made any decision. Especially not Jessica. Maybe she’s a zombie too. A little bit zombie.
Their steps are loud but dull, bumping off the glistening surfaces around them like they are in a bubble of slimy opaque plastic.
“I still don’t understand what we’re doing here or how this is going to help us get back to Anabel’s,” Ben mutters as his geniusphone counts down the steps.
Jessica thinks of all the times she’s been dragged to clubs and parties in odd and inaccessible and downright dangerous locations just because it was cool, just so Ben and Anabel could blog or tweet about being the first to blog or tweet about it. Then she thinks that Ben’s statement was really a perfect setup for an infodump, which Jessica had described to Ben a week ago in their ‘Worldbuilding 101 Tutorial’ as Ben tweeted about it.
“You don’t need to,” the Crone says and steps with a huff onto a crumbling cement slab. She walks toward a table and chairs hung with blinking fairy lights her silhouette blocking them to make strange constellations. Jessica steps onto the slimy cement and feels ridiculously relieved and solid, as if she’s arrived someplace safe even though it’s under a bridge over the Gowanus in the middle of the night with a bunch of strangers. And zombies.
Maybe this is the story part. The contest. Maybe the whole night has been. There’s no other explanation that makes sense. Although it would be ridiculously expensive to put something like this together. The permits and bribes alone would cost thousands, her project management brain supplies.
Someone — the Medium — moves toward the table, another towering, headdress swaying above her head. This headdress is different than the Bouncer’s, all curves and spirals releasing waving, sinuous shadows to crawl and hiss over the slimy surfaces around them: cement, metal, rust, water, the underworld. About halfway to the table, the Medium’s movements change, become less ritual and regular, more like someone walking to the table across a restaurant.
“Hey, sweetie. You reading this one?” The Medium asks, glancing and dismissing Ben and Jessica as the Crone sits down at the table. “No. Too personally invested. I’d appreciate it if you’d translate.” The Medium smiles, cracking her face to reveal a glimpse of predatory, sharp gold teeth as she stares at Jessica.
The Crone puts something down on the table, a pouch of leather and a black smooth rock. The Medium nods once, takes the rock and withdraws a deck of cards from the pouch with obvious reverence, fingers stroking and smoothing over the designs. Jessica can’t make out what’s on the cards, but they look nothing like the Tarot decks she’s seen. Then again, she hasn’t seen many. Ben huffs once, but goes quickly back to scowling and pecking at his phone. Probably reporting back to Anabel, getting instructions on how to keep Jessica within the world of the contest. Because of course they’re in on it. Anabel probably set it up and got financing and they’re filming it. Nothing this strange and elaborate just happens and definitely not to Jessica. Even when she went looking for it desperately with Ben and Anabel or whoever going to whichever ‘insane’ party or club, it was all sort of boring and the same bunch of people drinking and doing drugs and pecking at their geniusphones.
Maybe she needs a geniusphone. The thought of carrying a cockroach around isn’t very appealing. Neither is the idea of borrowing something’s brain even if it is something she stomps underfoot daily. Next they’ll be using rats and maybe dogs. Humans can’t be far off. But what would you call a phone powered by a human brain? You couldn’t call it a geniusphone. Very few human brains qualified. Of course it all depends on how you define genius. And phone.
Jessica imagines the account, selling the ad creative for a humanbrain phone. There would be tiers based on the intelligence of the phone brain. Genius phones would be exorbitantly expensive and the branding would center on those (Finally a phone ‘smarter’ than you are!) as they conquered the world. The direct marketing would target the rest of us with our affordable sub-par brains. ‘More brains for just $$$/month!’
Some potential geniusphone brain sources:
Jessica realizes that what she thought was paper crinkling or maybe someone in line peeing off the side of the bridge, is a large wave hitting the cement block that they’re sitting on. For some reason, she is afraid to look at the water, but when she does she can see a solid-looking circle of ripples in the black surface. Then something erupts from that black with a terrible scream (or maybe that’s Ben) and she ducks automatically under the table even though she’s trained herself not to react like this since she embarrassed herself at Coke Bar.
There’s a familiar-sounding whistle and cackle and a hand reaches down for her.
“It’s okay, Jess. It’s just the Dolphin making drama,” the Crone says and Jessica looks at the soft hand, worn but strong, no mani-pedi and wonders how she knew Jessica’s name. At least her voice isn’t mocking or even laughing.
Jessica really wants to stay under the table, but the Dolphin keeps chattering and she feels rude not saying hello. How does one say hello in dolphin?
She carefully crawls out of the safety under the table, her knees wet with whatever is in the Gowanus. She’ll probably have to throw out her jeans, but they’re zombie jeans so she was planning to after tonight anyway. The Crone and the Medium are talking to someone on the floor on the other side of the table while Ben just stares, his hands wrapped around his geniusphone but not typing for once. The person on the floor on the other side of the table is the Dolphin, but Jessica has to walk around to actually see him or her or them.
“Oh, hi,” she says then realizes how ridiculous that sounds and waits for someone to snort or laugh, but no one does. The Dolphin or whatever it is (it looks like a dolphin in the way that monkeys look like humans) makes a strange noise that could be hi if someone was gargling when they said hi. Then it laughs. There’s no mistaking that. But Jessica doesn’t feel laughed at or even self-conscious. Maybe it’s because she’s the Client for once.
Jessica doesn’t want to be rude, but she can’t help staring. The Dolphin is pale, almost pink like pictures she’s seen of freshwater dolphins (aren’t they extinct?), but more gray like what she imagines an ocean-dwelling dolphin trapped in the Gowanus should look like. At first she thinks the Dolphin is covered in sores, and there are terrible sores, but there are also designs or maybe glyphs tattooed on that pale graypink skin. They look like ripples in reverse, ripples that move over and across the Dolphin’s skin from different directions in different shapes and sizes. She knows dolphins communicate and sense mainly through echolocation. Maybe these are visual representations of dolphin words. What do they say?
“Oh my god. What’s wrong with it?” Ben asks, but nobody answers or even turns. “Oh, I get it,” he says and laughs too loud. “A dolphin zombie!” Jessica turns away as he scrambles for the right keys on his phone.
The Dolphin releases a burst of whistle static and slaps its tail on the water creating an enormous splash to punctuate whatever it has said. The Crone laughs, but the Medium mutters something and picks up the deck of cards, shuffling them fluidly with her slender fingers.
“Time for your reading,” the Medium says and throws the deck over the head of the tattooed Dolphin into the Gowanus.
Jessica’s about to ask questions, but the Dolphin somehow flips backward into the Gowanus with an oily splash and chattering whistles that Jessica feels like she should understand and maybe she does in a way that you understand things in dreams.
The Dolphin emerges with another splash and the now-familiar chittering as it slides onto the cement deck. Four cards lie stranded on the slab in front of it as the water recedes. The Dolphin rocks and nods, whistling in accompaniment as it chatters as if it’s explaining something or telling a long complicated story. Jessica nods along as if she understands or is just too polite to admit she doesn’t.
Jessica doesn’t know why she brought it with her.
She shouldn’t have brought it.
But she started carrying it around after the flu even though she was kind of worried it smelled like something rotting or dead. And she doesn’t even carry it in her bag, but in her pants pocket where it stays warm, where she can touch it, searching it out like the coppery, battery slick place where a tooth was. At least in her pocket, nosy people (designers) like Ben can’t ‘stumble’ on it while searching her bag (without asking) for gum or a pen. Jessica had to buy more clothes that have actual pockets, which meant shopping in boy departments because girl clothes don’t believe in real pockets. Girl pockets are sewn shut, useless things that are just there to make it seem like you could put something in it if you wanted. But you can’t. Girl pockets aren’t pockets. They go nowhere.
It scared her at first, having it in her pocket, because what if it rattled as she walked? But nothing has ever happened. Maybe it has to be deliberate. Or maybe it’s just bullshit like she’s 98% sure it is (like everything is).
Except that guy hasn’t answered emails or texts since she delivered his and there’s a facebook campaign to find him. Jessica feels momentarily guilty and touches the smooth skin of it in her pocket. She didn’t choose him so it wasn’t her fault. The rattle chose him. That’s what she tells herself. The rattle chose. People swear they’ve seen him. There are even blurry photos of him, tall, his fauxhawk making him even taller, but nothing sure. No one can prove one way or another.
Someone gave you the death rattle
just like a baby rattle
but full of knocked out teeth
and tonsil stones.
Shake it like an old bone
or someone’s shrunken head
you can only play it once
There are four cards that tell a story in this story. Jessica knows this already. She doesn’t need the Medium to translate. She even knows how it ends. But at the end of these four cards, like punctuation, are three triangular pieces of ivory spilled on the wet cement. A jagged ellipses.
“What are these?” Ben points at the carved white arrowheads on the slimy cement. Jessica already knows what they are, but has no idea how she knows.
“Teeth. The Dolphin wants a Death Rattle. In exchange. To get you home.”
Ben sputters next to her sounding like he’s surfacing for air. “What are you talking about?” he asks, but it’s more of an accusation. “We’re not the Death Rattle person. That’s just an urban legend anyway. Anabel hired a team. There’s no Death Rattle. It’s fake,” which to Ben is the worst possible insult.
They ignore him and Ben gets redder, opens his mouth to repeat himself louder.
The Medium gets up with a grunt, ignoring him, and squats with the cards between her body and the Dolphin, studying them as if they might change at any moment, as if she is memorizing them or willing them to do something different, maybe speak to her. Jessica can tell all of this from her stiff back, the hunched roll of her shoulders, the frustrated tilt of her head. She’s used to reading clients even though technically she’s the client this time.
“See, this card is the null pocket, which is a theoretical, abstract thing. Like death or quantum computers,” the Medium says and Jessica nods like she is just now understanding, but the card is just blank, white, so that’s pretty much self-explanatory.
“Or God,” the Crone says and the Medium nods once in agreement, her eyes still on the cards.
“It’s an empty universe, which doesn’t exist.”
“Yet. But the Dolphin thinks you need to go there anyway or make it,” the Crone says, her eyebrows lifting in disbelief. “Or you’re there already.”
“What are these cards? They don’t look like the deck my roommate used,” Jessica says hoping to change the subject and remembering the bright colored cards of her dorm room days: The Magician, the Hermit, VII of Wands. Not The Hive, Null Pocket, and Underworld. She’s sure there was no White Hole card in the roommate’s deck.
“It’s a dynamic deck. The Dolphin makes new cards all the time.”
Jessica picks up the ellipses teeth. She may not know the particular cards, but she thinks she knows how this ends. The teeth are smooth and cool, familiar even though they’re so much larger than the teeth she’s used to. One nicks her finger and before she can stop herself, she puts her finger in her mouth like a kid and sucks on it: Blood and iodine, something burnt, cheap industrial dye, high fructose corn syrup, the way ants smell when they’re angry. It tastes, in other words, exactly like the Underworld, like the Gowanus, like the drink she had back at Anabel’s in the other universe. The real universe. Viruses probably don’t have a taste although she remembers the flu tasting like this. And sea vegetables. Maybe that was the other taste.
She spits the blood and everything else onto the teeth in the palm of her hand. It feels familiar, especially with the fever and chills. It’s too soon to have caught anything from the Gowanus, but she feels the symptoms anyway. With her other hand she searches around in her pocket and palms the other rattle. Her rattle. She pushes it farther into her pocket where it will be safe and sits down in the pooled water next to the Dolphin. A card floats nearby, face down in the water. She fishes it out with a wet cough and starts folding or that’s what it feels like she’s doing even though the card is too pliable, like an endless sheet of plastic with no edges or seams, like skin, which is impossible but so is everything else. They’re talking around her, above her. Ben is talking loudly, the Crone’s voice is low and calm, but very stern. Ben’s talking turns into animal shrieks, monkey howls. The Crone barks once and Ben’s voice lowers like a tail.
The card seems to melt around the blood and teeth in her hand making everything seem warmer. Jessica leans back against the Dolphin and tries not to think about how she looks or the fact that she should be freezing but steam is rising around them from her clothes and skin. The Dolphin doesn’t seem to breathe, but she thinks she can feel a slow heartbeat through her wet shirt and jacket and dolphins breathe through their blowholes only once every fifteen minutes or something anyway don’t they?
The Dolphin shifts and Jessica falls into the Gowanus or maybe the Gowanus falls into her, but it’s really the Underworld. It’s dark and she can breathe fine here, much better than sucking painful gasps in the thick air up there. The dark water isn’t like water, but like some electric gel that makes an opening for them as they walk along the bottom kicking up little sludge whirlpools. Dredge devils. There are glowing metal barrels like giant fireflies that never stop signaling, a rusted out Ford, its headlights bright, the prow of a wooden boat glowing faintly like a ghost. There are more things floating, more rotting treasures sunk in mud, and animals or sentient plants that Jessica doesn’t want to think about (pulsing batteryflies made of glowing gel, something huge burning white like a star, the city skyline lit up below), but she and the Dolphin keep to the path, which is good because Jessica managed to lose her shoes somehow. The Dolphin doesn’t seem to need shoes and manages to walk or move or whatever just fine in this strange water even without legs or feet. There’s an opening ahead — more like a richer, darker darkness, like the blueback at the bottom of ocean trenches and dreams, a place that isn’t just dark, a place that has never seen light — with a definite boundary, a line around it. A neon black line. The Bouncer stands in front of the door, but this time the Bouncer is all dragon with iridescent black scales. The mohawk looks the same though. And Jessica can see the faint outline of a human shadow bobbing its head in time with some music in the dark behind. She hands the Dolphin the Death Rattle she made from the card and dolphin teeth, but leaves the other one in her pocket. The Dolphin whistles at her in a way that she understands as ‘thank you, this concludes our business’ and takes the rattle in its teeth with a dolphin smile. A snap of its head on that thick tattooed neck and the Rattle rattles like a cough, an almost empty coffin, a beetle in a box. The gate opens. The Dolphin waves its fin and walks into the even darker dark of the gate or hole, chattering and whistling and blowing bubble rings. The darker dark folds the Dolphin up and swallows.
Jessica isn’t sure what to do. The Dragon stares at her as if asking a question, its mohawk swaying like kelp above them maybe even all the way up to the surface, a vegetable antenna; its eyes spark like squid skin. She can hear someone shouting — Ben? — and thinks about how much she likes and dislikes him all the same time and why is he shouting? He doesn’t like to raise his voice unless there’s a very good reason, usually involving a story he’s telling. Things float and glow around her in the electric stuff that’s the air of the Underworld. Maybe she’s supposed to follow the Dolphin through the gate, but if this is the Underworld, where does the gate go? The under Underworld? The pocket Underworld?
For luck or comfort, she fingers the Rattle in her pocket and the Dragon’s eyes glow brighter in glyphs, in keyholes. What did the Dolphin cards say? She remembers the Medium talking and the Dolphin chattering, but not the words. The Dragon glyphs say something about the story the universe is telling that is Jessica and the Underworld, but it’s impossible to read when you’re in the story. Her phone bloops and vibrates, which is impossible. She pulls it from her back pocket and reads its glowing skin. It’s Ben’s geniusphone. Their phones must have gotten switched.
A text from Jess that’s actually Ben: I ❤ you! This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. Please don’t be gone.
Jess: Please come back!
Jess: I can’t believe you’re never going to text me back!
Jess: I can’t believe it.
Jess: Your dead.
She pulls the rattle from her pocket. It glows a little in the submerged dark. She shakes and feels the satisfying rattle of the teeth, the world, the fields and particles that lie under everything, oscillating. That lie.
Maybe it’s a pocket universe or maybe a wormhole or the gateway to the underunderworld. Or it’s just a black hole in the bottom of the Gowanus and she’s drowning. Probably it’s all these things. She walks toward the gate and lets the geniusphone go. It buzzes at her, lights up, and swims through ahead of her like it knows the way.
Maybe it’s an empty universe in there. She just hopes she’s creative enough to make something of it.