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and Other Stories

by Matthew Sanborn Smith

“Rubble People” Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Sanborn Smith.

First appeared in Aliterate 1, Brendan Hickey.

“The Wardrobe” Copyright © 2017 by Matthew Sanborn Smith.

First appeared in See the Elephant Magazine 3, Melanie Lamaga.

“Out of Breath in a Sharp Red Suit” Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Sanborn Smith.

“Giraffe Cyborg Cleans House!” Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Sanborn Smith.

First appeared at Diabolical Plots, David Steffen.

“Three Kingdoms” Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Sanborn Smith.

First appeared at Kaleidotrope, Fred Coppersmith.

“Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin” Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Sanborn Smith. First appeared in Apex Magazine, Jason Sizemore.

Assorted Twitter fiction Copyright © 2009 by Matthew Sanborn Smith. First appeared at Thaumatrope, Nathan E. Lilly

Additional material Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Sanborn Smith.

Cover art Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Sanborn Smith, employing a public domain photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer

Cover design by Matthew Sanborn Smith

These stories are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and extremely unlikely.

I’ve tried to recreate events contained in the afterwords (The stories behind the stories) to the best of my ability, given my memories, records, and the internet.

For Emily Barlow

who lit the fire when she was here.

Introduction: There is no Introduction

-Matthew Sanborn Smith

December, 2018

The boxes at the grocery store all called out “Buy me!” But I chose you, little wallflower, even though I don’t know how you’ll taste.

Rubble People

The local Partyville starts to peel apart around us: the booth, the ball pit, a video game and the netting between them, the pizza on the table, and the table too. Shards of pressboard and plastic fly toward me while molding themselves into the form of a man. A couple of the other moms scream, and their kids run to them. I didn't expect this, but I know what it is.

“It's David!” I shout at them. “It's just David!” I look at Lainey, three years old today and so much tougher than the adults behind her. She's seen this before. Whatever party we might have had is in a shambles now. But I don't care. David's here.

“Look, honey, Daddy's accumulating!” I say.

When they see Lainey and me standing our ground, the others calm down a little, but Gina and Dara still scoop their kids up and head for the door, sprinkling f-words like holy water. Marie's backed into a corner with little Farrah in her arms. Farrah's tiny face is splotched pink and shiny wet. Her mouth hangs open. Marie's does the same. They're too afraid to come over, too curious to leave. I feel a little bad (because everybody kicked in for the party) but not too bad, because they're being stupid.

David has finally come together. “I wanted to see my little girl on her birthday,” he says. I pick up Lainey and the two of us hug this weird conglomeration of a man. I kiss David's pepperoni lips, taste his grease with a flick of my tongue. The broad orange booth tabletop is his chest and its base is one of his legs. He's got plastic balls from the ball pit and a sound card voice box from a videogame. He kisses Lainey, who laughs and wipes her hand in the new grease on her face.

“It's so good to see you, baby,” I tell him. It is good, but it takes all I have to not cry on him. I don't want to waste the little bit of time we have together by bringing him down. It's my job to hold everything up. I'm not doing my job very well.

“You too, babe,” David says. “I only have a minute before they look in on me again.”

“Daddy, it's my birfday!” Lainey says.

“I know it's your birthday, honey! That's why I'm here. Damn, you're gettin' big!”

Lainey sticks her hand into her father's face and tastes it.

“I'm sorry, David,” I say.

“For what?” he asks in his chiptune voice.

“For having fun sometimes. For being happy. For smiling. I feel guilty when you're over there, fighting.”

I can almost make out the memory of his cheekbones in his pizza crust face. He says, “But I want you to do all that, Beth. I want you to have a good life. That's what I'm fighting for. I want you to show this girl she can have a good life even if some other people can't.”

“Which other people?” For a second, I wonder if he's talking about his buddies' husbands and wives.

“The people over here. Or over there. You know what I mean. Where we're fighting.” He means North Africa, he’s just not allowed to say it.

The decision bursts out of me. I finally hit send on the projection unit in my head, but it isn't the courage that's been sitting there since I had it installed a few months ago that I pull out of myself. The transfer is P2P: psyche to psyche. The unit facilitates by making us hallucinate our own icons to manipulate. I feel a thick thread worming its way out of my left eyeball, one from my left nostril, one from my left ear. They weave themselves together and I yank at the cord. It feels like I’ve torn a piece of my brain out along with it. I don’t think it was supposed to work like that.

I've reached in and taken out the impulses, the memories, the ghosts of the neural nets that make up my compassion and my caring. I force them on him, plastering the sticky thing to the table bolt that punctures the orange formica and forms David’s nipple. And then it’s a part of him as if it always had been.

He leans back for a moment, like I shoved him. “Oh,” he says, surprised. His salt and pepper cap eyes leak salt and pepper tears.

“Jesus, you shouldn't have done that, baby. You know I can't give that back.” He grabs me tight in his plywood arms, the hard materials of his body somehow feeling softer when he squeezes them into me. He feels warmer, that's for sure. But I care less.

“I had to do something,” I say. “I need for something to change. I need you to change and me and this whole goddamned situation. I've had enough of this.”

“Jesus, I'm sorry.”

“It's not your fault. It's someone else's. I'm sorry. I'm doing this all wrong. I didn't mean to—”

“We'll do something,” he says, and kisses us both. “We'll work this out. I gotta go now. I love you guys.”

When he's gone, I sit in the wreckage of the booth, in the pile of junk that used to be a table and a lot of other things, and also used to be my husband. Without the table to cover me, I can see my belly popping out from below the hem of my Goodbye Kitty T-shirt. White. Fat. Ugly. My outie gross as ever, like a curling pigtail that got squashed trying to escape.

The manager comes over. He says, “You're gonna have to pay for this.”

I look him straight in the eye, not giving a fuck about him or what he wants. “Here,” I say. I throw one of the balls from the ball pit at him. He takes it in his gut like it's a medicine ball. “You didn't have the balls to come over when my husband was here. See if you’ve got the balls to make me.”

* * *

David remoted himself to the moon once. He didn't tell anyone but me. He doesn't think anyone else has ever done it. I look up at it sometimes, especially when it's full, and I think about him. Once, not long ago, a man made of moonrock walked on the surface up there, shuffling off gray dust. David might be the only one in the world who can go that far. I always knew he was special. He's incredible. And I'm lucky.

I couldn't even have kids before David. My parents died when I was young, and I was sterilized at the orphanage. I met David before he enlisted, and we talked about adopting. After he joined up, he found out a way to give me a maybe baby. It was a trick he learned in the army. On his second leave, he reached into me with that spirit part of himself, his radio flesh is what he calls it. While we were having sex, he reached into my womb and accumulated the tiniest part of me. He touched millions of cells. Chances were good one of them would be enough like an egg to take. It did. It wasn't enough like an egg to give me a completely healthy baby, but the doctors fixed that. I'm so grateful for Lainey.

David sneaks over sometimes, like at Partyville. He's not supposed to. He can get into a lot of trouble if he gets caught, but the minders turn the other way for a few minutes now and then. He figures they know that remotes need a little contact to keep from killing civilians outside of the designated war zone. There have been too many incidents involving the Formosa Strait vets. The minders don't seem as bothered about the civilians inside the zone, though.

On our side, the Turks and the Ozzies get the worst of it because they use real people. Their soldiers are tanked up like Iron Man, flesh and blood inside. But really, the worst side to be on is no side. David never wants to talk about fighting, but once in a while, when he's saddest, he'll slip and mention the kids or the women or the old people. Then he just falls apart.

I hold him, whatever body he's in.

I’ll have to remember the way I do that for next time, so it feels right to him and maybe he’ll forget my emotional amputation. The mutilations underneath the skin are easier to hide. In the short term, anyway.

I wonder, if there are ever astronauts again, if they might find what looks like a shattered statue of a man while they're on the moon. They'd freak. I wonder if he could go to the sun. I wonder if someday people will kill each other in those places, too.

* * *

I can't fucking deal with this anymore. I shouldn't have to. I wipe Lainey's red, running nose and the snot pouring over her lip. I have to call out again because daycare won't take her sick. I'm gonna get fired, I know I am, and David doesn't make enough to keep us going by himself. I'm letting the month-overdue rent slide, so I can make the month-overdue car payment. I can't drive the house, but we can sleep in the car.

Lainey's screaming and miserable. I hold her against my old Bruins sweatshirt, pat her back, step around the toys on the floor and into the fruit punch stains on the carpet. She won't go down to sleep. She's got a fever and even if I had the gas money to get to the walk-in clinic, I couldn't afford the co-pay. I put a cold washcloth on her forehead and give her a second Flintstone chewable. I don't know what else to do. A sick baby eats you.

Even though I gave David my compassion, I still know I'm supposed to feel for Lainey. I know I'm supposed to take care of her. I'm trying to do what a person who feels what they're supposed to feel would do. I'm doing what I think I would have done a week ago in this situation. It feels strange. I had the projection unit installed in my head months ago during the war drive at the recruitment center because it got us $30.00 a month more on our EBT chip. We could’ve gotten more if I actually used the damned thing the way the army wants me to.

With the civilian units, we can't remote like soldiers do, just project pieces of our personalities. We can't get back what we send like soldiers do. I chickened out before the first send. What I projected into David at Partyville was the first emotion I ever gave away.

The army wants our determination, our positive attitudes. They want our courage. I'm afraid to give my courage. The ones who gave it wound up giving more than they expected. I'd seen other people, David's dad for one, give his courage for the war drive and then live in fear about everything that came down. He gave away his car, thinking it was a deathtrap. He gave away his sleep and can hardly function anymore.

I wish there was someone I could give my worry to. I wish there was someone I could give my fear to. This poverty. No one wants any of it. Not even the enemy would be stupid enough to take it.

I find twelve dollars in an envelope I was supposed to pay back to Gina, but I didn't see Gina on Tuesday like I was supposed to. She's being a bitch, still freaked out over David showing up at Partyville. But I'm glad she's being a bitch because twelve dollars is something. Add that to the money I scrape up from behind the crumb-covered cushions, from the sticky cup holder in the car, from the bottom of my pocketbook, from Lainey's glass penny jar, and I come up with fifteen dollars and thirty-eight cents. I can find something for Lainey in the cold and flu aisle at Sav-A-Lot for fifteen dollars and thirty-eight cents. I know I can. I have to.

* * *

In the store, Lainey's griping on my shoulder. She wants to be held everywhere we go. The most expensive stuff, anywhere in the store, is always on the shelf at eye level. I don't even know what's up there anymore. My eyes automatically go to the bottom shelf. I've been shopping the bottom shelf for a year and a half.

The cheapest thing they have is $16.99, a tiny bottle of some generic cherry-flavored cough syrup. It's made for adults. I read the bottle again. It says not to be taken by children under twelve, but it doesn't say why. Maybe if I just give her a quarter of a teaspoon, it’ll knock her out. I pace the speckled tiles of the cold and flu aisle with Aaron Neville singing overhead on the PA system and I wonder if the cough syrup would hurt her. And if I decide it won’t, how do I come up with three more dollars? Lainey screams in my ear and I look for a woman, because a mother should understand.

Two aisles over, it's a woman with dyed brown hair and curls the size of soup cans. She's in a long fuzzy coat, pushing a cart, and checking out the corn pads. “Ma'am, could you help me, please? My baby's sick and I just need three more dollars to get her some medicine.”

She sighs, a little huffy, but there's no denying Lainey's a restless mess. She goes into her pocketbook, and I don't care if it's a hassle for her. I'm closer every minute to doing whatever it takes to get by. The world has kicked me around enough.

“Hold up!” comes a voice from behind me. I turn and see Gianni in his Sav-A-Lot vest. Shit. Gianni, the most vile human being I know, is out on the sales floor.

Gianni couldn't get into the army. Psychic deformity. He couldn't accumulate, couldn't function even in a supporting role, much less combat. He felt guilt over that. Dara said he tried to kill himself. Ran his electric car in the garage hoping to die from carbon monoxide poisoning. We used to call psychic deformity “stupid” when I was little. Now he's a fucking disaster with a name tag.

“Ma'am, please put your money away. I apologize. We have rules against begging.” His finger’s in my face. “You're coming back to the office,” he says to me.

Idiot Gianni grabs the arm I'm holding Lainey with and she almost tumbles to the floor. The lady says, “Oh!” and reaches her hands toward her. I catch Lainey with my other arm, the one that was waiting for those three dollars.

“What the fuck, Gianni! You almost made me drop her!”

I jerk the arm he has upward to hit him in the face, but he pulls back, and I only catch the end of his nose. He slams his open hand into my head and I knock skulls with Lainey.

“Hey, stop it!” The lady screams. Her hands are up, half to grab at us, and half to stop any fists flying at her. Lainey is outright crying.

“What the hell is going on here?” Gianni's boss, big Steve Arden, is pulling Gianni off of me. I know it's smart to pull back and act innocent, but I can't help kicking him in the leg while he's still in reach. Gianni spits at me and lands one on my hoodie while a couple of other stock boys run in and try to hold his swinging arms. He's crying too, and screaming incoherently.

“He hit her!” the lady says.

“I'm so sorry, Beth,” Steve says to me, “You know the situation with Gianni.”

Yeah, I know the situation. Gianni gave his courage to the war drive and he gave his determination. He gave his good citizenship, he gave his driving skills, his rock-skipping ability, his knowledge of boiling water. He gave everything they would let him give because he wanted to give something. He wanted to give everything, but they don't want all of it, only the good things. He's left with everything that makes him human trash, all the shit no one would ever want, with the guilt that sold off everything else sitting right there on the top of the pile.

He can't even be the greeter at the Sav-A-Lot. But Steve, who went to school with David's cousin, can't fire Gianni. Says the government won't let him. Gianni's a war hero as far as they're concerned, even though he's never fired a shot. Or maybe part of him has now. Steve has to give him at least four hours a week.

“I don't care what the situation is,” I say to Steve, “That's assault and I want you to call the cops on him.”

Steve stands a little taller, like he hadn't thought of that. “I'll be more than happy to do that. Don't you worry about a thing. Do you need to see a doctor?”

My mind races. “Lainey does. Gianni knocked my head into hers. She might have a concussion.” I hope Steve doesn't think about it too hard and question if Lainey can even get a concussion. No, he's rattled, thank God. If not because of us, then because of this lady.

“All right, let me call 911, we'll fix this whole thing up. Are you all right, Ma'am?” he asks the lady.

“I'm fine. You need to fire that maniac.”

“I hope I can, Ma'am.”

“Thank you, Steve,” I say.

I never would have guessed Gianni would be the best thing that happened to me today.

* * *

David says the locals have different names for remote soldiers depending on where they're fighting. When they see action in the desert, they call them sand devils. In the cities they're called rubble people. I think about rubble people every time I give Lainey another vitamin: Barney, Betty, Bamm-Bamm. I think about David accumulating in the vitamin factory, a man made of sweet pastel chalk. I like to imagine that Lainey would get better if she could take a big bite of him like that.

He says he can feel himself while he moves between bodies. His buddies say he's imagining it. They travel at light speed from human body to accumulated body and back. They say there's not enough time to feel anything in between. He says he takes his time and feels it and I believe him. The only thing that keeps the others from trying it is fear. The fear of not being able to get back to their bodies.

But anything can be our bodies. The whole world can be our body. I think I want to do it, be out of my body. But for longer than a microsecond. I want to fly without any weight, knowing I could never be heavy enough to fall.

When our men and women come home, our boys and girls, the ones that are still alive aren't only human. They've collected pieces of the world inside them and become unrefined, like metal being turned back to ore. A remote might go out and become a tree walker in Indonesia, a jungle soldier made of vines and unlucky monkeys. And when she comes back to the base, a tiny bit of her real body changes. Maybe a few cells of a blood vessel wall turn to sap. And maybe she wonders where that bruise came from and how much of her is still her. This is the first war where wounds can add to a soldier's weight instead of take away. They wear their tree bark skin, their concrete joints, their iron wounds, and they like to think they're stronger for it.

I wonder what David's going to bring back inside himself. And what he might leave behind.

* * *

Lainey's been deleted.

I can't understand this. I can't believe this. I keep going over it to remind myself that it really has happened. My life hasn't quite synced with reality, I guess.

Her eyes look like something from a taxidermist's sample, only soft. I can still see them through the steel door. She looked like she was getting better since the emergency room. They gave her antibiotics, the fever seemed to be easing up. Then this morning she stopped.

I can't afford the emergency room like Sav-A-Lot can. I call the doctor who grew the brain she shouldn't have been born with. He says that in Poland there was a baby like Lainey who had a fever. Her brain overclocked and it wiped her mind clear.

I ask him, “Could Lainey's mind have gone somewhere else, like her father's does when he's remote?”

“There's been no evidence to show that's the case,” the doctor says. He sounds the same way I remember him. Gentle. Smart.

“Can you make another brain like her last one?

“We can actually salvage the brain she already has. That wouldn’t be the issue. The problem is we can't get her memories back. She’d be mentally like a newborn and the new connections and memories that formed in her brain would mean she’d be a different person, not the Lainey you knew. On top of that, I’m afraid Medicaid wouldn't cover the procedure.”

“If I could find Lanie’s memories online or if her father can find them in North Africa, could you put them back?” The words sound crazier outside of my head than inside. His sigh rolls through the connection like a thick, tired fog.

“I think the best thing for you in this moment is to get some rest. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

There are no police. There's no medical examiner, there's no funeral home. As far as the law is concerned, Lainey was stillborn three years ago. I don't have the heart to bury my own little girl. I don't want her waking up trapped in a box under a ton of earth. I didn't know what else to do. Her body's in the kitchen freezer.

I press my face against the freezer door. I can't ever open it again. On the counter are the freezer shelf and the ice cube trays and a box of frozen peas and my favorite flavor of melting ice cream. My face is hot and swollen and wet. I'm babbling. Telling her things I'd planned to tell her when she was older. I'm not supposed to shake like this, am I? I'm not supposed to feel as much pain as I do. I guess compassion isn't exactly love. It isn't exactly that feeling you have when another person was your whole life, sick and all.

“Daddy went through me once, with his radio flesh,” I tell Lainey with my hand balling up against the door. I don't want her to be lonely in there. “That's how we made you. You were a miracle. Three years is more than I ever should have had with you, baby, and I'm so, so grateful for that. But am I greedy for wanting even more?”

There's nothing else to be done, but I keep standing here because what the hell else can I do? I haven't made a move in years that wasn't based around Lainey. Would I have tried harder if she was a real baby? I mean, she is a real baby. Was a real baby. Is there some maternal instinct I never got because she wasn't completely natural? Is there some part of me that would have done anything to recover her, even whored for the money, if she was like all the other kids? Is that the part I gave to David on Lainey's birthday?

For the first time ever, I hope David doesn't visit me. I can't be the one to tell him that his daughter is dead. He's going to blame me. I know he's going to blame me. I can't face that. I can't ever face him again. My whole life is fucked. It's all fucked. I think it always was. I was just too stupid to see it.

My eyes are burning. My face and the kitchen floor are wet. I have to get out. We used to go out all the time when David was here. We had more money then. I can't believe how many better days there used to be. I'm home more now. I have to go somewhere to just get away from the apartment and my life. To get away from the freezer.

I'm sorry, David. I didn't have what it takes to hold it together. I know I should admit I failed as a mother and as a wife and as a person, but, fuck, I'm sure I didn't fail. It was the world that failed me.

There are two ways this can go. Either way, it's the end. The one way, I can crumble. But I don't have what it takes to kill myself. I don't want to die, anyway. I want everything else to die. That's the other way. I can scratch at the eyes of God.

I'm going to go down to Second Street where the homeless lady with the cardboard sign hangs out on the corner and I'm going to give it all away to her, everything left that's good about me, just like Gianni did. Either Gianni is a real person and Lainey was a real baby and I was a real mother or none of that is true. I don't know which. I don't know if it matters and I think I don't care. I'm going to give myself away to the woman, give her everything about me that was ever any good. Except whatever murderous courage might still be in me.

The world will get whatever's left of me. The darkness, the destruction, the cruelty and the cowardice. It'll get what it deserves. The world declared war on me when I was eleven years old. My forces have been deteriorating ever since. This malformed society has whittled me down to a single atom and taken one last swipe at it. That atom is about to explode. I'm going to make this corner of America my very own North Africa.

I hope when David is a very old man and finally passes, they open him and are shocked to see a little sprinkling of moon dust inside of him. I hope that his radio flesh will still be alive there on the moon, young and unburdened by his rubble flesh here. I hope Lainey's there waiting for him and they live long, happy lives far away from this place.

I go outside to the car and leave the front door of the apartment wide open. I'm going to find my next body.

The Story Behind

Rubble People

I’d like to take a moment before we get into this to mention my blog, The One-Thousand. I started it in my mid-thirties as a way to get me writing more and to focus that writing. I was inspired by Julie Powell, the Julie of Julie and Julia, who decided to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I in 365 days (I would have waited for a leap year, myself, and then cooked seven recipes). I liked the idea of committing to a big, long-term project.

I decided that by the time I was fifty years old, I would write one-thousand short stories that I would submit to magazine editors. I was thirty-six at the time. I’d been writing stories with the goal of being published for fourteen and a half years at that point, and I had only completed 44 stories.

In contrast, as of this writing, I am forty-nine years and eight months old. I’m up to 167 stories. It’s a far cry from 1,000, but I am picking up speed. Plus, I’ve still got four months left to pull it all together.

Rubble People was number 143 of the One-Thousand.

I like to change up my methods, approach the writing of different stories in different ways to see what will happen. “Rubble People” was one of my better experiments.

I don’t know if I read Jeff Noon’s blog post, “The Ghost on the B-Side,” before beginning this story or while I was writing it, but it was definitely before I was done with the first draft. Jeff explained a computer assisted cut-up method that he used (not unlike the manual cut-up method popularized by William S. Burroughs). I fed my half draft into some freeware, along with a paragraph of something by some famous writer (I can’t remember whom), and some words I really liked the sound of. It broke everything into two-word or three-word blocks and rearranged them. I ran the result through the software a second time.

From the garbled mess that came out, I pulled out interesting sounding phrases, or things that resembled phrases. I wrote a line or two around the best, determined how I could incorporate those into the story, and threw out the rest.

The cut-up sparked some nice turns of phrase that survived to the final draft, and also some ideas and images. Radio flesh came out of it. Also, the idea that pieces of the soldiers’ accumulated bodies are somehow transferred to their real bodies which might be hundreds of miles away. And, of course, “Lainey’s been deleted,” which gave me the ending and overall tone of the story.

I grew up with a dad who fought in the Pacific in World War II. He was unlike a lot of vets in that he talked about his experiences. We also watched the World War II documentary series World at War (possibly the grimmest television series ever made) back in the seventies, when I wasn’t yet ten years old. Given those albeit second-hand experiences, I can’t say enough bad things about war. It is the antithesis of everything that is good in the world. That may sound obvious, but too many people in this world don’t understand that, and so they cheer as their children march off to die, and praise their gods of peace all the while.

Having said that, I believe active military folk and veterans need all the help they can get. First and foremost, they need help staying out of war, but beyond that they deserve decent lives for themselves and their families. They agree to put their lives at risk for their countries, and too often their countries later treat them like problems to be forgotten.

In Rubble People, I wanted to talk about the poverty endured by the families of the folks who serve at the lowest levels of the military. These are spouses and children of active members of the military who have to go on government food programs like SNAP and WIC just to get by. I think that’s fucking criminal. I’ve never been poor, but I’ve been so broke I couldn’t afford to make a call on a pay phone. I’ve been in spots very much like the spots that Beth experiences. Mine just didn’t last as long.

Brendan Hickey bought the story for the first issue of Aliterate magazine. I got the check within eight days of signing the contract, the fastest I’ve ever been paid for a story. Aliterate won a lot of Matt-love that week.

Speaking of love, I love it when an editor squeezes a little something extra out of me for the story. Originally, for the transfer of emotion from Beth to David in the first scene I pretty much just said that she did it, she created an icon representing her compassion and stuck it onto his accumulated body. One of the folks at Aliterate, I think it was Emilio Jasso, asked me to better explain how that happened. I hate further explaining how things happen in my stories. I think it takes away from the mystery and the weirdness that I like to cultivate. I previously would have engaged in disagreement with whatever editor might have suggested such a thing, but this time I decided on a different approach. I would explain the process better, but I would add extra weirdness to counteract the dilution it would bring about. This is why I came up with the psyche to psyche bit, and the thread icons Beth yanks out of her head.

Work with me, and I’ll do all sorts of tricks.

Don paid a specialist big bucks for personality carbonation, but instead of being bubbly, his clients found him gassy.

The Wardrobe

A tipsy Marie Antoinette leaned into Albert’s back until she was uprighted by an Abraham Lincoln on rollerblades. At the king of all housewarming parties, Albert stood in front of the wardrobe, dressed as another king in a late-era Elvis jumpsuit. He held the end of a string in his hand. It was unknotted and unfrayed, no evidence it had ever been attached to a person.

Someone had gone into the wardrobe and hadn’t come out.

Albert had seen movement just beyond the coats as he’d pulled the string—taut only seconds ago—from the darkness. The stirring of suit shoulders and sleeves as a body pushed through, about to emerge. Then the end slipped from the garments to spring at him like a water snake. Nothing remained but creaking hangers swinging old clothing.

This was a bad idea. Jesus, this was such a bad idea. Albert stepped back to keep from falling over. A corn chip crunched beneath his shoe.

He’d watched everyone who went in to explore, everyone who came out with a costume, keeping mental track while he explained to others what a deal he’d gotten on the place and yes, what an amazing thing he’d received with it. No, he hadn’t read the book, but he’d seen the movie. No, no trees or fauns.

As he’d spoken, his right hand had rubbed across the room’s chipped cherry wainscoting, feeling the pits again and again. In the past week, his waking life had half-melted into soft, plastic dream. He’d dreaded this nightmare finale even as he’d walked toward it, worried about his liability, wondered why he hadn’t locked this room away from the party rather than making it the main attraction.

It was that guy, the boyfriend of one of Sarah’s friends. The Guy with the John Lennon Glasses, Albert had christened him, in lieu of the name he’d instantly forgotten. That Guy had been on the end of the string. This quarter ton piece of ebony, thick leaves carved into its hard flesh, had gobbled up a human being. And it belonged to him.

“Oh my God!” a woman said from behind him. He turned. She wore a green leotard, her terrified face at the center of a fuzzy pillow of yellow stamens, themselves within a halo of white flower petals. The room quieted, except for the shouts and stomping downstairs.

The other guests in the room followed the flower-woman’s wide eyes to the string in Albert’s hand. He’d given his instructions so many times before the booze went down their throats that it had become a joke. “No string, no costume!” they’d repeated throughout the evening, in increasingly Stalinist voices. Now the only words were mumbled.

“Oh, shit.”

Albert dove into the wardrobe, hanging onto the outermost hanger rod. He waved his arm into the sea of fabrics, first talking, then shouting. “Hello? Hello!”

The hem of a long blue evening gown caught the lip of a three-quarter empty beer bottle and knocked it down: a dull, glass-ringing bounce. Nothing but clothes. He stepped out and tied the string to his four-inch wide white belt. Yards more of the string piled upon the floor, far more than he remembered attaching to the doorknob at the room’s exit.

“What’s going on?” asked a Buddy Holly who had just stumbled in from downstairs. Albert ignored him.

“Sarah,” Albert said. “Take a head count, check downstairs, find out who’s missing.” He wanted to keep his fiancée busy out here. In her 1930s nurse’s uniform, Sarah resembled his grandmother in a photo from an album, far away in a rented storage space. His heart thumped like it had when he was a kid at the house of horrors, afraid to step into the enormous entrance mouth. Afraid to be swallowed.

“Hell, no!” Sarah said. “I’m not letting you go in there by yourself!” She grabbed a spool of twine from the side of the wardrobe.

Albert wanted to tell her, “No.” It was his job to protect her, but his throat didn’t even tense to form the word. He felt nothing but relief.

“Janice,” he said to his cousin, who wore several purple boas like an octopus.

“I’ve got it,” she said. “I’ll find out who’s here and who’s not. Be careful in there.”

“We might have to call the police,” came a man’s voice from the back of the room. It was the Guy with the John Lennon Glasses. In his street clothes. Shit. Albert had been certain the Guy was the missing guest. Now he didn’t even know who he might be looking for.

“Albie?” Sarah said. She pushed one of the flashlights they’d been using into his hand to rouse him. She turned her own light on.

“Yeah,” he said. “Janice, call me.” He held up his cell phone. The party had grown somber. Sharp giggles bubbled from a few, still innocent, downstairs.

“Give us half an hour,” Albert said. “If we can’t find him or we don’t come out, call the cops. But don’t tell them about this thing until they get here. I don’t suppose they’ll believe you, but they’ll figure it out for themselves. All right, you ready?” he asked Sarah. She nodded. The wardrobe awaited them, its double doors spread like open arms.

“Good luck!” The flower-woman said.

* * *

He’d felt like a hero as he looked upon the small crowd in the room. They’d looked back like he knew what the hell he was doing. Now inside, Albert’s breathing came heavier and louder as he glanced back over his turned-up collar. The lamplight from the room only peeked between hatboxes and above jackets.

He and Sarah pierced the darkness in a realm of clotted dresses and cloaks from men and women long dead. The strength he had drawn from their friends evaporated. Sarah was as big as he was, but he wasn’t big. He gripped her hand, so fragile, like his own. The paw of a small, defenseless mammal in a world of predators.

They pushed past the eighth layer of clothing. This was as deep as he’d dared go his first night in the house, once he’d realized what he had here. The “wow” of it had gone south in moments. He’d hauled ass out of there and locked the door to the room with the type of long, black, cast iron key he hadn’t known existed outside of old movies. He didn’t set foot on the third floor for two days after that.

The world in here smelled of mothballs. Sarah’s torchlight arced from left to right. Even in its light, Albert could no longer see the sides of the wardrobe. He turned his own flashlight upward, startled when the glow found the surface some thirty feet overhead.

“Hello?” Sarah called, startling him, again. Already the sounds of the muted party were lost behind them. “Sorry,” she said.

“No, no, you’re right,” he said, and called out himself, half-expecting his guests to call back. They moved between dashikis and skirts, from 1980s red leather to first-century gladiator, survivor of an empire now dust.

The wardrobe had been the one piece of furniture in the old house, sitting in the back of the third floor’s solitary room, as if it had been saved for the final leg of a move and then forgotten. The realtor, a heavy woman whose lipstick hurt Albert’s eyes, had joked that it meant the place came furnished.

And now he belonged to it.

Something tiny darted away from the light. As Albert breathed deeply to calm himself, he could only wonder what ancient particles he might be inhaling. Bits of spider eggs or insect wings. He mentally extended the wardrobe’s space out into his world. They’d be what, maybe fifty yards in now? Twenty feet above the road outside the house. His hard soles clunked on the floor beneath them. Wooden. Hollow. There was no solid ground beneath these boards. To fall through from here might kill them, would definitely break bones. But in unfamiliar dimensions, another floor might lie below. Or an unending abyss. He shook his head. This place worked on you.

They emerged into a clearing among the racks of clothing. Here, the floorboards warped down into standing water, wide as a small pond. The multi-tiered racks beyond the water extended upwards out of sight. It felt like a strange forest. Hansel and Gretel. The story had terrified him as a child. Alone in the woods, waiting to be cooked and eaten.

Albert heard a feral noise up ahead, the grunt of a large animal.

“Hello?” Sarah said. He shook her arm to quiet her. He turned off his flashlight and whispered for her to do the same. To their surprise, they could still see. A sort of moonlight filled the clearing, from what source, he couldn’t tell.

There was movement to their right, not ten feet away. Albert grabbed Sarah. She was ice and he was sweat.

It was a man—a naked, patchwork man, nipples and navels appearing where they shouldn’t be. A man clad in the skins of other people, streaked dark with blood and held together with a clumsy twine stitching. A woman’s breast hung from his shoulder.

Albert felt the cold from his feet pour upward to fill his chest, his head, his hands. It was The Guy with the John Lennon Glasses, whom Albert had at first been certain was on the end of that piece of string, whom they’d left behind only minutes ago.

The Guy looked in their direction. He no longer wore the glasses, and thank God, because he didn’t seem to be able to see them. Something about the skins filled Albert with a personal kind of terror, as if the Guy had killed Albert’s unborn children. The Guy was sniffing. If Albert had ever breathed before, he couldn’t remember when.

After long moments, the Guy seemed satisfied and waded into the standing water as if looking for something, going out toward the forest, sinking to his chest. Sarah took advantage of the noise of the water to slowly step backward, pulling Albert into the cover of the clothing behind them.

“Jesus, we gotta get outta here,” he whispered. He felt her nod against his cheek, her quick breath on his face. He pulled his string into his hands. It was slack. Fresh sweat prickled up on his neck and forehead. They headed back into the darkness, away from the clearing. He didn’t have the balls to turn his flashlight back on, not yet.

Sarah held his arm as if she was hanging over a pit. He quaked with her shivering. His free hand shook on its own as it slid along the length of string for direction before taking a step. His shoes were too goddamned loud. He couldn’t hear the water anymore. Did that mean it was out of earshot, or was the Guy without the John Lennon Glasses back on the floor, and possibly behind them?

Clothing dragged over their bodies, sleeves everywhere, empty arms touching them as they passed. Albert was hyper-aware of every touch, paying attention to any that felt alive. Every motion brought more sweat, rolling down his chest and thighs. It was so hot in here. He itched. He ached in muscles tensed for too long. A sharp need to piss pressed on him.

He checked his phone. Its screen showed, “No Service.”

Sarah screamed, and he jumped. He clenched a fist around the phone and thrust it past her at whatever was there. He punched air and dry cleaner’s plastic and tweed-covered hangers as he shouted, “What? What is it?” He didn’t connect with anything solid.

“I felt him!” she said. “I felt him touch me! Oh, God!”

“Are you all right?” he asked, trying to put himself between her and whatever it was. His legs shook now. His fist jabbed, his arm swung molasses-heavy through the clothing all around him. Even as he fought, he knew it would be over soon. His body was reaching its limits. Dying in a ridiculous, white, rhinestone-covered jumpsuit somehow added to the horror.

In a sickening flash Albert knew what exactly about the Guy had hit him so deeply in his gut. That suit of human skin, that breast, it was Sarah’s. He’d seen it a thousand times. Never like that.

He reached around to grab her arm with his free hand, to hold on to her more tightly than he had ever held before, now that he understood what she was truly worth, what any human being was worth to someone who loved them. He felt the hairs on her arms brush against his too slow fingertips. And she was gone.

“Sarah!” he screamed. “Sarah!” His bladder emptied as if he was the one who had been taken. His arms flailed, unable to accept that she wasn’t there any longer, as if she had never been there at all. He plowed through racks of clothing, reaching for her, calling for her until he found himself running past shelves of shoes, rows which became denser no matter what direction he chose, even backwards. There was no way to find her in the ever-changing landscape. Sarah was gone. She hadn’t even made a sound.

Albert collapsed to the floor, ran his fingers through his slick hair. Tears burned his eyes. He understood how close he and billions of others were to insanity. It took so very little to nudge a person over the threshold. Raise a person in a reality for twenty-five, thirty years. Wear him down through fatigue, through stress. Then reveal to him that every prejudice he held about his universe was radically mistaken.

He had to get up. That fucker was hurting her. Killing her! He grabbed a shelf, hauled his tired and shaking body upward. His piss-soaked outfit had already grown cold. Albert removed his boots, peeled off the soiled jumpsuit. He wiped himself with the dry end of it and grabbed the only dry clothes at hand in this land of shoes: a tunic and a grass skirt sitting on a shoe rack.

It didn’t surprise him that the string was gone. It had gone wherever his phone had gone. His flashlight. Sarah.

He heard a noise. An animal noise, not like anything Sarah could have made. He was scared shitless of the Guy without the John Lennon Glasses, the animal that the Guy had become over how long a stay in this place? But he’d take the bastard down to save Sarah. More noise—clompity, clompity—a horse, coming toward him. He spun around.

It wasn’t a horse.

Not exactly. It was a horse-shaped conglomeration of clothing, one glistening black leather leg, another calico, its entire body a laundry bin of confusion strewn over the horizontal torso of dressmaker’s dummy. Fringe mane, button eyes, open zipper mouth. A clotheshorse. It had no rider and stopped when it reached him. Albert stretched out a hand and petted its great head. It licked at his hand with a wet, pink, vinyl purse of a tongue from between its thimble teeth.

“You’ll let me ride you, girl?” He glanced beneath it and saw a child’s umbrella, closed, hanging beneath its belly. “You’ll let me ride you, boy? We need to find Sarah.”

He stepped up on a shelf and mounted the horse. It began moving as soon as he found his seat. He felt no warmth from its large body. The horse’s hooves were steep, wooden-soled pumps, clacking across the floorboards. It seemed to know where it was going, and he didn’t know what else to do but trust it.

They came out of the shoes and passed through a set of enormous, round department store clothing racks, which rose like towers draped with dark blouses designed for giants. Past these, they entered a great valley. Hills of clothing rose hundreds of yards away on either side of them. A glowing river lit the scene, casting a photonegative appearance upon everything.

High above, Albert made out pinpoints of bare light bulbs hanging from an impossibly distant ceiling. They mimicked stars and together formed weird and frightening constellations, sky-filling mythologies that might squash him on a whim. Goosebumps bubbled up on his arms in the camphor wind. He peered up and backward, jerked upright when he felt himself falling.

Upon a far hilltop, flapping figures of animate clothing stalked the night. Pants, shirts, hats, bound together, filled, he knew, with no human form, yet still clinging to human memory. With motivations that might be very human or very inhuman, each equally disturbing.

“It was my job to keep her safe,” Albert whispered to the horse. His whispers amplified to fill the valley. “I should have never let her come.”

He patted the animal’s shoulder and watched the hills slowly shift around them as the horse made its way deeper into the land of the wardrobe. The air began to grow hazy.

Albert thought that every piece of clothing that had ever been worn must be here. Every soldier’s uniform and every tuxedo and ski mask. Every aspect of humankind it had ever wanted to project.

The haze condensed into a fog that felt like spider webs across his face. He batted at them. Not spider webs, he realized, pulling some from his mouth, but threads. Millions of multicolored threads, wrapping about him like swaddling blankets. He was caught in them, stuck in place as the horse passed beneath his legs.

Albert braced himself for impact with the floor beneath, but the void left by his mount had been filled. He couldn’t close his legs and found himself in utter darkness, trapped in a vast piece of clothing like a louse woven into a winter coat. And yet, still, he was cold. He panicked, tried to swing his arm, tried with whatever he had left to move before he died . . .

. . . and put his fist through the wall of his childhood bedroom.

“It’s not your fault she’s gone,” Sarah said, putting a hand on his bare shoulder.

“It is my fault!” he shouted, pulling his throbbing, bloody hand back. “I could have tried fucking harder!”

His face was wet. They were naked in his old room at his parents’ house. It was night, the only illumination from a streetlight showing through the blinds. He felt the grit of the unswept floor beneath his bare feet.

“You can’t stop cancer, Albie!”

“You can!” he said around his sobs. “I rented the comedies, but she didn’t want to watch them! All she wanted was the goddamned love stories that made her cry. I should have made her eat the right food, I should have wheeled her outside more. I should have forced the comedies on her!”

“Your mother was not Norman fucking Cousins, okay? Optimists die just like pessimists! People die, and you’re not God.”

“She was counting on me. The whole fucking thing has been on me since Dad died.”

“Look at me,” Sarah said, taking his face in her hands. “Nobody put it on you. You put it on yourself, and it’s time to take it off yourself.”

“I don’t know how.”

She wrapped herself around him.

“Put it on me for a while then.”



Albert should have had no more water left inside of him, but he cried in his tomb of thread. The capillary action of the fibers drew it out of him until they swelled around him like sinewy mud. He waited there to die.

A song came into his head, unbidden. If he could have so much as twitched, he would have laughed a pitiful laugh: “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

* * *

He waited many years.

* * *

He came out of it slowly, like coming out of a drug-heavy sleep. Threads pulled sharp and biting across his skin as they parted. He felt tired, old muscles complaining as gravity pulled them into positions they hadn’t known for a lifetime.

Threads that had filled his sinuses and lungs for as long as he could remember pulled out and he heaved air again. Threads beneath his eyelids and within his urethra drew painfully from their hiding places.

His aching flesh convulsed on the hard wood floor. And still the cold was there. He realized he was completely naked, the threads of his forgotten clothing evacuated with the rest. Albert got to his feet slowly, amazed to be able to do so. He made out the form of a coat and reached for it before pulling back as if he’d been bitten.

The coat frightened him. It was a frock coat, bright blue with gold trim. It had seven sleeves. Two on the right and five on the left. There was no collar, no place for a head, only a slit in the neck. He knew, just as someone had worn every other piece of clothing here, that something had worn this.

Sanity was just the denial of a wider realm of existence.

He shook his head in sorrow for the Guy with the John Lennon Glasses even as he understood the Guy without the John Lennon Glasses. Albert still wanted to kill him for what he’d done to Sarah, but he didn’t fear him anymore.

He caught a whiff of smoke on the air. Over the racks, he saw a distinct glow in this land of indistinct ones. He went to it, drawn like an insect to light, to warmth, to safety, knowing even as he went that it might burn him. He wondered how much he cared anymore. The crackle of the flames called to him. He parted a series of thick velvet robes like a stage curtain. There.

He found her by a library of hatboxes, naked to the waist and singing to herself. Sarah. She was older. Heavier. The shine in her hair had faded. Still, so beautiful. Around her neck was a raw choker of red where the wet, glistening skin at its borders had been twisted until it tore. She wore bracelets to match. He slowly sank to the floor beside her, shivering. She removed the jacket of her own flesh and threw it over his shoulders. He was warm for the first time since he’d lost her. Warmer than he had ever felt before. He sank his head gently into the bloody, sticky meat of her chest, not wanting to hurt her. She cradled his head in her arm.

“Are you all right?” Sarah asked. “I was worried about you.”

He shook a little laugh. “You were worried about me.”

“Yes. I was. I’m glad you’re here.”

They stayed like that for a long while. Until the fire died down.

“Come on now,” she said. She stood, lifting him with her. He didn’t know why. There was nowhere to go.

Sarah pushed aside a stack of hatboxes with her foot. A light from beyond stung Albert’s eyes. They stepped out of the wardrobe and into the third floor of his house. The room was empty. A layer of dust coated the floor and windowsills. A sealed bottle of beer sat forgotten in one corner. Sarah went to it as Albert squinted at the snow-covered ground outside the windows. What season had it been before?

He heard Sarah gulp the beer. Heard a little belch as she pushed the bottle into his hand. She was dripping on the floor. He set the bottle on the sill, removed her skin from his back and helped her back into it. They held each other and watched the frosted branches and power lines in the distance. It was so bright out.

It was morning.

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