Excerpt from In Awe
ith autumn the days grow darker and in
darkness comes the rain, insistent and slow and narcotic, the town's punishment. The
streets flood at night and crumble by morning. Leaves fall early, brown by the month's
herald, dragged down by the chill and the wind. At night the breeze blows from the
southwest, bearing a candylike hint of apple cider from the orchards of McIntosh and Red
Delicious that border Lawrence. But mostly the smell is rain. People stop smiling. In
stables horses whinny and in kennels dogs howl, as animals do before tornadoes or quakes,
their voices harmonizing to interrupt sleep.
The Kansas River is a wound, carving the town in
two. The storms have made it furious. It pounds and laps and breathes pale yellow mists. A
pair of university students have been reported missing since the advent of fall semester,
and a headline in the newspaper blames the river: FLOODS SUSPECTED IN GIRLS'
DISAPPEARANCES. The townfolk whisper otherwise, trusting no one.
Midnight means curfew at Sunflower Youth Home.
Boris clicks off the lamp, stretches out, closes his eyes. He focuses on the river and
rain, their bastard clash, and can't sleep. The muggy darkness persists, tightens at his
throat, yet he clutches the blanket closer. He's replaced the Sunflower blanket with one
swiped from his last foster family, the mercurochrome stain still spotted on its trim,
their house's soapsud smell pasted to its fleece. Boris breathes the scent and feels
everyone drifting off around him. Nearby, his roommate Carl; the other twenty-two
teenagers whose rooms divide the hallway; the pair of night counselors who sleep in
adjacent beds downstairs. He senses them losing consciousness, oppressive waves stilling,
dispersing, leaving him alone at last.
Boris pictures Sarah and Harriet and, between their
sorrowed faces, Marshall. He tries to replace his thoughts of today's funeral with the
missing students. He imagines the discovery of a body: It will happen, he's certain, soon.
He dreams hunters in camouflaged hats and coveralls, stamping through the woods at the
north side of town. One hunter, scanning the bushes and mulch heaps for deer, will spy
something strange through binoculars. One shotgun will drop; another, and another. They'll
find her face peeking forth from piles of leaves, her buttermilk eyes watching them, flesh
the color of a peeled potato, dried blood against her frozen lips. Boris catalogues the
details. Church bell's chime in the far distance; secretive crackle of the grasses;
scavenging arc of birds that ache to gnaw at her knuckles and toes. Starlings' songs
trapped in her unhearing ears. Wasp stings the last bitter flavor on her tongue.
His room lies at the hall's darkest end like a
secret fairy tale chamber. On the inside, though, it is ordinary to the point of severe,
no Sleeping Beauty castle or Bluebeard lair. He arrived that first day with two suitcases,
a half-filled photo album, the Dr. Pepper he'd bought at the bus station. He slurped its
remainder through a half-gnawed straw and withheld a wince at the assigned room. He still
hates it: Like all others at Sunflower, it consists of white-painted walls enclosed by a
spackled ceiling, unornamented except for a single gold crucifix above each bed. Posters,
photographs, or cork boards aren't allowed. There are two closets, two dressers, two desks
with matching chairs. Boris has learned snippets of history by reading his desktop's
ballpointed graffiti; the knife-nicks from legions of past orphans and runaways, underage
arsonists and shoplifters. Delinquents, black sheep, thieves! He has heard the stories,
the gossip. In the room directly above sleeps a girl who, when ordered by her mother not
to attend junior prom, slit twin verticals in her wrists with a carpet knife. Down the
hall, a boy who attacked three friends with a rubber mallet. Once upon another time, more
than a decade ago, even Sarah was here, captive during her own damaged and vaguely
Boris claims the dresser on the left. Unlike
Carl's, its bottom drawer has been rigged with a lock. He keeps the key taped to the
inside of a Bible, a pocketable New Testament with a cover the color and texture of a
lime. Sunflower supplies one Bible per tenant, but Boris only opens his to retrieve the
key. He's revealed its whereabouts to Sarah and Harriet, telling them they can uncover the
drawer's contents "in the case I'm murdered, or become target of a terrorist's bomb,
or mysteriously disappear from the face of the earth."
Carl sleeps, eyes and mouth closed, his ribs
visible above white boxers. He's a freshman at the high school, two years younger than
Boris, but could pass for much older within the miserable light. It fans from the
mullioned window to illuminate the never-shaved blond hairs above Carl's lip. The lashes,
bristled like a bat's. He shifts, moving his head from view, and Boris, privacy assured,
edges from bed to extract the Bible from under the mattress. Digital numbers on his
nightstand clock glow a burgundy 1:04--Sarah's not due for another fifty-six minutes--so
he tiptoes to the dresser and inserts the key.
Crammed inside the drawer is the Suffering Box.
Boris considers it a masterpiece, a first-rate sculpture Sarah made nearly fifteen years
ago while still a Lawrence West senior. It resembles a small crib, two feet long, one foot
wide and deep, its sides constructed with ribs of wood, animal bone, wrapped clumps of
chickenwire. Inside rest more bones, unthreaded needles, glass shards, feathers, rosebush
thorns, and various mementos from the distant and recent past. One month ago, Sarah
presented it to Boris: "An early happy birthday." She stipulated only that he
keep it safe and continue adding to its contents, just as she'd done over the years.
"It's like an ongoing work," Sarah told him. "Use it. Stuff some sort of
reminder in the box. Whatever's symbolic of your pain." She included her final
items--one of Marshall's translucent blue hospital bracelets, a palmful of fingernails
she'd clipped from his hand--and surrendered it.
At the bottom of the Suffering Box are pieces and
bits of Sarah's earlier life. Locks of hair; class rings she and Marshall once wore; a
torn-but-retaped photo of a boy swinging a tennis racket. They serve to add slight tints
to a monochrome past she doesn't readily divulge. In another of the box's photos, a
teenage Sarah grins sheepishly, displaying a deeply charcoaled portrait of Marshall. She
wears a tight blouse, too much make-up, henna-yellow pixie curls at the cheeks. The words
on the picture's reverse read "Grand Champion, Douglas County High Schools in the
Arts Contest." Sarah insists that everyone but a few select boys, back then, hated
her guts; still, Boris figures she must have earned notoriety for her artwork. She grabbed
first place in the very competition Boris hopes to win this year.
Instead of visual art, Boris plans to enter March
of the Zombies, his horror novel-in-progress. The pages he's scribbled thus far are
crammed together with his diary between the Suffering Box and the right side of the
drawer. Boris will build the narrative around Sarah, Harriet, himself; he originally
intended four characters, but after Marshall, he narrowed his scope. The plot focuses on
their tribulations, the most horrifying and terrible hours from their pasts. A fatal
accident turns the protagonists into zombies. They lurch from graves to prey on all who
have abused or ostracized them. Instead of inventing these scenarios, Boris figures, he'll
base everything on truth. Besides detailing his own experiences on pieces of school
notebook paper, he'll collect letters from Sarah and Harriet, notes of confession
categorized with a gigantic red S or H above each page.
Carl stirs. Boris shuts the drawer, then waits a
dozen seconds before reopening. For last year's arts contest, he entered a
not-quite-autobiographical short story about a foster kid torching his various sets of
pretend-parents' houses. He was new to Lawrence then, recently dumped by another host
family, and all his effort received was a participant's ribbon. The contest awarded
students who'd entered paintings, poems, tapes of songs they'd composed; grand champion
trophy went to a chubby girl who'd once called him "Faggot" during class. Her
sculpture of a ferocious phoenix soaring from papier-mache flames still towers in the vice
Boris adds today's funeral pamphlet to the box, the
outside light spangling on the words inked at the page's top border:
Marshall David Jasper
June 3, 1963 - September 15, 1995g
On the reverse, a pastel of heavenly sunbeams
seeping through stained glass accompanies a poem included at the church pastor's urging.
Boris slides the slip of paper to the box corner, yet it seems out of place: for here, top
of the pile, perhaps even more hush-hush than Sarah's photos and memories, more than his
novel, is Boris's shrine to Rex Jackson.
Rex. How can Boris possibly describe him? Months
back, when Sarah asked him, he couldn't. "Oh god. Rex. Um, he's, um, beautiful."
Rex, Boris's most mammoth crush, attends his same school. One year ahead of Boris, but
light years away from ever knowing the extent of his love.
The first time he saw Rex he felt splashed with
cold champagne. Boris, newly transferred, was heading for algebra; shop class seemed Rex's
destination, as in place of books or pencils, his hands gripped a hammer and a sheaf of
sandpaper. Rex walked with the clumsy swagger of a drunk. Scrapes dotted his knuckles like
dribbles of strawberry jelly, and mudstains browned his jeans. At the far end of the
lockers, an argument between two stoners elevated to a fight, and Rex's bored face rose
toward the ruckus. Fluorescent light graciously haloed him. Boris saw the beauty there,
its sharpness leeching away each of his senses like a sweet syringe until he felt so puny
and stupefied he nearly fainted. A girl bumped the book from his hand. In the time it took
to lift it off the floor, Rex had vanished.
Later that day, Boris glimpsed him, him,
again. Rex clicked like a jigsaw piece into the mold that Boris, after brief years of
boywatching, had begun to develop as his "type"--tall, skinny but
broad-shouldered, somewhat uncomfortable amid his surroundings. Hair so black, from a
distance it resembled paint, from super-close possibly licorice, although Boris hadn't,
and still hasn't, attempted that proximity. Disarming green of his eyes. Big ears. Big
hands and feet. Best of all, a smooth, almost Roman nose in the exact center of his face.
To some, Rex's nose might be considered too large; for Boris it's heaven-sent. He dreams
of touching it, clamping his lips down, tonguing the runneled cartilage.
After two weeks of eyeing him, Boris inaugurated
his collection. When Rex fumbled a butterscotch disk tossed by a female admirer, Boris
waited until he could safely snatch it up. He slid check-out cards from the back covers of
library books, Rex's left-slant signature repeated in different inks. Boris lingered
outside classrooms, learned his idol's schedule, risked tardy slips. He pocketed leftover
screws from Rex's shop project; pieced-off sneaker tracks of dried farm mud; a brown paper
towel dampened by grimy hands. The R. JACKSON nameplate hung from its hook on the
gymnasium ping pong tournament board? Nabbed by Boris. The smiley-face sugar cookie Rex
neglected to eat during cafeteria hour? Stolen from the trash and canvassed in a
cellophane bag. Boris even found fresh magic-marker scribblings of lyrics from metal
bands' songs on Rex's gym locker. He tried transferring them mirror-image to a tissue with
careful dabs of spit. THE FIRE IM FEELIN WILL TAKE ME TO HELL//IF YOU WANNA FOLLOW BABY,
JUST . . . the rest is unreadable.
The Rex collection started months ago, long before
Sarah gave him her bone and chickenwire box to house it all. Now, September, the rain
rises and falls and strips toast-colored leaves from the trees. Boris lords over his
bottom drawer with the devotion of an evangelist. The Suffering Box, March of the
Zombies and its preparations, everything he's lifted and scraped and assembled of
Rex. There has to be something to desire, right? Something to live for? Rex surely
wouldn't dream of speaking to spindly, girly-boy Boris. But the slim possibility that
maybe, just maybe Rex could, keeps Boris going.
When he met Sarah and Harriet and Marshall, he'd
been anchored at Sunflower less than a month. He had memorized everyone's first and last
names. He knew, from his bedroom window view, when lights went off and on in the
neighbors' homes; the schedules for their postal deliveries and dogwalkings. This time he
didn't worry about getting attached, for he'd no doubt seen the last of the foster
families. Stuck: this halfway house, this Sing Sing, the last stretch of a foster home
tunnel from which turning eighteen would free him. Boris didn't argue when the supervisors
gave orders. He washed dishes, folded stacks of laundry. Twice a week he volunteered, like
the other kids, for community service. Among the less glamorous stints were lawnmowing at
City Hall; repainting storefronts; nosing for trash in riverside bushes after July Fourth
celebration. These tasks were assigned to the runaways, the mom-beaters and botched
suicides, the teen hooligans who collected misdemeanors like postage stamps.
But they let the foster kids choose their duties,
and Boris chose hospital work. Tuesdays and Thursdays, after school, he'd make a beeline
for Lawrence Memorial, homework books at his side, earphones roaring twin splinters of
sound into his brain. He noticed the women his first week there. What outcast doesn't
notice another, their gazes crashing head-on with equal degrees of admiration and
contention, as if being misfit is a contest? Yet Boris, at school, felt too shy to
approach anyone. The two women waited in the hallway where he cleaned, the wallpaper a
sherbety glow behind them. The older woman looked like an overdressed sparrow. She sang to
herself, glanced at the clock, and sang some more, slightly louder this time. The younger
woman's foot kept perfect fox-trot rhythm, and she held a plastic bowl the size of a
spittoon. Peanuts in their shells: Boris could smell them, could hear her munching. Her
T-shirt showed a still from Psycho-- shower head drizzling water, as seen
from below--but while Boris loved horror films too, he couldn't muster the courage to
She saw him staring nonetheless. "I'm Sarah,
she's Harriet." Something soft swirled behind her eyes and made Boris feel that she
recognized him, foresaw his future. She pointed at his green-bristle broom and dustpan.
"Have some peanuts. You a candystriper, or the janitor?"
The sound of an alarm clock, beeping; someone's ragged cough. "Neither," Boris
said. "I'm a foster kid."
Later he leaned beside the window in the hospital
room, nibbling a fingernail. Harriet stood at her son's shoulder, guiding the paper cup to
Marshall's lips, stroking his hair. When Sarah made introductions, she relayed information
she'd already gleaned in the hallway: Boris was new to town, and lived at Sunflower,
"like I did, the early eighties, all those centuries ago."
Marshall wore a patch over one eye. An IV trailed its umbilical into one forearm. Beside
his bed were seed catalogs, equestrian magazines, a European travel guide with a cover
photo of a half-naked, ponytailed boy. "Howdy," Marshall said. His face looked
inhuman, buttery, and seeing him smile and speak was like watching a painting spring to
life. "How's Sunflower? When I was around your age, I used to sneak there to see
Sarah. God, I sound old."
When Boris opened his mouth, only a stutter fell
out. He cleared his throat and grinned back at Marshall. "It's not so interesting
there, now. I'm like an inmate. Only the supervisors have a new name. They call us CINCs.
Children. In. Need. Of. Care. It'd be cooler if they pronounced it 'kink.' But they have
to say 'sink.' So until someone takes me in again, I'm a CINC. But I'm nearly seventeen,
so no one's going to take me now, right? They'll wait for me to graduate, then I'm
"Well," Marshall said. There was an
uncomfortable silence. Harriet looked at Marshall, back to Boris, back to Marshall; at
last she selected a horse magazine and resumed her humming song. The melody clashed with
the trapped-animal shrill of the air conditioner. "Well Boris," Marshall said,
"it's a rare day when I get guests beyond the queen and princess here. And nurses, I
can't forget them."
The room smelled of incense, which Sarah explained
as an herbalist's blend of healing aromas, concocted to overpower the hospital odor.
"It's illegal here," she said, "but the nurses are certain me and Harriet
are witches-slash-lunatics, so they leave us be." Harriet laughed at that. Boris
laughed too, then stopped when she stopped. He looked out the window: A woman pushed a
double stroller; trees stretched back to more trees; a rake rested teeth-up, its handle
knotted with a checkered necktie. A gardener unrolled strips of new lawn like carpet,
rowelling parallel swaths of green with a silver implement that reflected up to Marshall's
When Harriet left for the rest room, Marshall's
voice smoothed to a whisper. "It's what you think it is," he said. He explained
how he wasn't that sick, not yet. He would get to go home tomorrow, maybe; he
just needed to regain strength. Boris chewed his fingernail a millimeter deeper until
Harriet returned. Yes, there would still be time outside the hospital for Marshall. And
then more time in the hospital. And then, and then.
"Look at this kid's red hair!" Marshall
told the women. He pointed at Boris with his exposed arm, the IV wiggling its tendril.
"And up close there--the eyelashes and brows are nearly blond. Boy, you'd make a
pretty girl." As a child, Boris would stomp weeping from the room at comments like
that. But not now. He already liked these people. And the guy was dying.
They spent the remaining visiting hours talking,
talking more. Soon Harriet pat-patted the chair beside her son's bed and Boris, a buzzing
warmth spreading through his chest, took the seat. They all shared slices of an apple and
four paper cups of peppermint tea. Harriet hummed a new song; Boris, recognizing it,
joined in. At some point, Sarah reached to take his hand. "Re what you said about no
one wanting to take you?" she asked, and Boris shrugged. "You said 'who'd want
me, right?' Well, forget that. We'll take you." She indicated Marshall and Harriet
with a nod of her head, then touched her thumb to his chin. "It's official. You're
Boris, sleepyhead, planned to wait for 2 AM, for
Sarah's horn signal to whisk him away. Instead he dozes off, his bed a skiff sailing
toward dreams of Rex he fruitlessly struggles to dream. During sleep, a procession of
mosquitoes steals through the open window. In a matter of minutes they do their damage,
divebombing for skin Boris's sheet has left uncovered. His ankles and shoulders and
forearms redden with welts. He wakes to the metallic whine of a mosquito, screaming in the
hollow of his ear, sniffing his fragrant heart.
The room brightens with what at first seems like
lightning, red electric strobes that make the stark surroundings clarify, blur, clarify .
. . . Boris feels confused, as though he's woken inside a tornado. He swipes the bangs
from his eyes, stretches, leans near Carl's bed. It's just the digital clock that flashes.
Has a storm passed? Yes, he hears the trampoline shudder of thunder. He counts out sixty
bursts of the clockface. The power loss has reset the time, 12:00, 12:00, but he's certain
it's close to two, precisely two, or somewhere past.
Some nights, after her late shift at the truck
stop/convenience store on the interstate, Sarah kidnaps him. They tour Lawrence with the
aimlessness of sleepwalkers. She'll lure him out by standing in the parking lot, tossing
twigs against his window, as the demon does in one of her favorite horror movies. Hearing
nothing tonight, Boris jolts to his feet in the fear she's abandoned him.
He looks out through drizzle and the fronds of a
weeping willow.The Volkswagen sits in the lot, alongside a supervisor's car and a
Sunflower transport van. There is Sarah's shadow, waving through the shattered windshield.
Boris hoists the window higher to maneuver his body through. Here, nothing's locked from
the outside: People can't enter, sure, but as Carl informed him once, some stipulation of
law prevents the supervisors from bolting kids in. He shrugs his body past the pane,
shuffles through the lot--a cricket stops chirping, a pickup in the street varooms past,
did someone see?--and grasps the door handle. The spray-painted QUEERS splits apart, then
rejoins on the slam.
Streetlights sear white-dot mirrors on the
windshield, kaleidoscoped through the crushed glass. Sarah backs out and speeds away, her
single unbroken highbeam sending a glimmery beacon through the rain. Her side window,
obliterated by the vandals, is now a taped-up square of cellophane; through it light
glints, green and eerie, in her hair. "Have I got news," she says, targeting her
eyes on the road. "Police found one of the missing girls. The same day as the
funeral, and they find one of the bodies."
"What else do you know?" Boris shakes the
drizzle, setter-like, from his brow. "Where was she? Was it on the news? What
"I just heard it on the radio. She washed up way
down river. Dead, that's all I know."
Boris fights the urge to click on the car's tinny
radio for more information. Sarah usually keeps it blaring (the college radio station; one
of Marshall's handpicked music tapes), but tonight, silence. And whereas she sometimes
smells of gasoline or the sausage cooker from the convenience store, tonight's scent seems
more like liquor. Boris knows her mind isn't on the dead girl. He squints, attempting to
read any emotion in her face. "Are you doing okay?"
"It's warm in here," Sarah says. A double
pause, and then: "Am I doing okay. Really, I'm not feeling much. It would have been
different if he hadn't taken so long. Wasn't like a murderer slipping in to stab an
otherwise healthy and expected-to-live-fifty-years-more sort of person." She
half-grins, pleased with her answer. "I guess I felt more way back when. About the
time he first told me he was sick."
She points to the side door, and Boris cranks the
handle. Water beads seep through the crack and blow across his shoulder and forehead. The
wipers squeak their rubbery swath, stamping leaves and June bugs further into the flotsam
at the windshield's bottom. Rhode Island Street, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont;
the VW meanders up the central hill toward the university, humming on the incline, the
headlight swinging its white finger over the houses. Some brood darker than others, their
electricity snuffed by whips of lightning. But campus glows brighter, lampposts dropping
white umbrellas of light before the science and humanities buildings, the history museum.
The Kansas Union shines brightest of all, its glassed-in marquee exhibiting posters for
upcoming movies, flyers offering reward for the missing students.
Sarah eases down into the campus drive's 20 miles
per hour limit; turns for the road to the central belltower. KANSAS UNIVERSITY MEMORIAL
CAMPANILE, a sign reads. Ahead, the structure rises, rises its illuminated tip to the
froth of clouds, a landlocked lighthouse in the rain. "Marsh loved this place,"
Sarah says, and Boris agrees. He knows what goes on here after dark. Men abandon their
cars, then disappear into oak and cottonwood shadows. Two sidewalks branch like arteries
from the belltower's cement oblong, one leading near cars parked beneath a canopy of
trees, the other following a footpath down to a shaded valley between the Campanile and
the football stadium. Scattered in that valley are various bushes, sycamores, and mulberry
trees, all interlocking arms. But no walk lamps, no light whatsoever. Just men, hidden in
darkness: Boris imagines heel-toe footsteps, rustlings, the soft minuet of laughter.
Not long before Marshall re-entered the hospital,
he brought Boris and Sarah here, explaining in the voice of a tour guide the secret
locations where he once cruised, all the sequestered nooks for sex. Two sores showed
through the charcoal hair on Marshall's arm, rose-violet dots under the Campanile's light.
"This way," he said. Sarah strolled, then skipped ahead, asking question after
question. Boris wanted Marshall to detail his experiences, but was too embarrassed to ask.
Since then, in private, he's imagined boys below the campus trees, their eyes watching his
A police car moseys past, the officer inside
regarding their jumble of graffiti, and Sarah momentarily parks. Next to them is a red
Mustang with a figure behind its wheel. Boris is too bashful to look. At the bottom of the
hill below, further from the belltower and heavily shrouded by trees, lies Potter's Lake.
It betrays its name, more a pond than a lake, speckled with lily pads and cattails,
ramparted by a small brick bridge. During the day, students kiss there, toss bread to
ducks. At night everyone avoids the place. According to story, a philosophy major once
drowned in Potter's. Every year, students reestablish the rumors: "Weird choking
sounds can be heard there at night"; "I saw a figure lurching from the
"This place isn't seeing much business,"
Sarah says. "Marshall used to like it here best when it rained. Bad weather brought
out the real die-hard junkies." Around them, the sidewalks look caramelized; Sarah
backs, concentrating, from the parking spot. "I'm not going to be one of those
friends who'll preach and preach to you. But listen. Marsh knew someone who was attacked
with a baseball bat here." She turns off Campanile Drive, steers away from campus.
"Too boring tonight. Let's head north. See how far the water's risen."
The car fills with a strange silence. Boris, unsure
how to break it, watches the world from the window. There, as if through tinted lenses:
the southeastern glow from the fairgrounds, the Douglas County Carnival currently in town.
Its lights stretch skyward, opalating the bank of thunderheads, beckoning him.
On the north side of Lawrence are dark bars,
antique and curio shops, a video store with window posters of lips and angels and guns.
Sarah parallel parks on Locust Street, at the bridge's junction. She pulls an umbrella
from behind her seat and heads across the walkway. "C'mon."
Boris trails behind her, securing his hand first to
the LAWRENCE RIVERFRONT PARK sign, then the edge-rungs of the railing. He bends to tie his
shoe; sees bits of glass, a discarded yellow parking ticket, a broken treble hook and the
grip from a pair of fishing pliers. At this hour the bridge seems spooky; no drivers, no
cars trailing their bright whites or maraschino reds.
Sarah chooses a spot, brushes pebbles from the
concrete, sits. They hug their arms to the gunmetal vertical rails, dangle their legs over
the edge. Boris, both acro- and hydrophobic, grits his teeth and looks. The river has
risen higher since Sarah last drove him here, three days ago. It sluices past open-faced
Bowersock Dam, pounding the descending embankment of stones, the abutments of graffitied
cement. During the day its color is creamed tea; now it's only black. It swells and foams
and drinks the endless rain. Further down shore, illuminated by laddered highway light, a
trio of fishermen cast catfish lines. They wade through the water, reel in, rare back,
toss their hooks into the drizzle's curtain.
Decades ago, a movie called Carnival of Souls
was filmed at this very location. Sarah has seen the film seven times, knows integral
snippets of the heroine's dialogue. Once she even viewed it with Boris, at the farmhouse,
while in the kitchen, Harriet crushed herbs with a pestle and sprinkled them into
Marshall's empty plastic pill capsules. Sarah mouthed the words, nearly all of them, as
the alien television light made fireflies across her face. On screen, dour zombies rose
from the brackish water, eyelids smeared with kohl, dark robes dripping. Boris will try to
recount their creepy appearances in further descriptions of his novel's undead
He wipes rain beads from his wristwatch: It's
nearly three. If the supervisors catch him sneaking off again, it will mean two demerits,
an extra night of dish duty. And sometimes, if a CINC turns up missing, he or she's
considered a runaway. The supervisors rush for Sunflower's hall telephone;
punch-punch-punch a furious 911. So far, the police haven't bothered Boris. He hopes to
leave it this way.
A semi whizzes past in hot gasoline fumes. It
rumbles the bridge beneath them, heading deeper into north Lawrence, the poorer side of
town. "Where the sad people live," as Sarah has told him. Where she, too, lives.
Boris follows her gaze out, out, to the weed bed spot where the little group casts for
fish. She could be thinking about movie zombies, their sawteeth and their cutlass claws;
more likely, she's thinking about the funeral. "I know nothing about fishing,"
Boris tells her, "but I've heard they bite in storms." His attempt at
distraction sounds artificial, so he retries. "I'm adding lots to the Suffering
A second too much time passes before she responds.
"Marvelous. Maybe I'll have to build a bigger one."
Boris clenches his fist and holds it in front of
Sarah's lips. They do this sometimes: the newsman conducting an "interview,"
using a "microphone" for the starlet's "speech." "So tell me,
Miss Hart," Boris begins, "what exactly did you mean to say when you created
your work of art?"
Sarah rests her head against the rail, then reaches
to move his microphone closer. "It was supposed to represent how we treasure material
items during life." Her voice lowers, serious, her face slack with a seen-it-all
expression. "But after we die all becomes nothing, we're right in there with the
bones and shit and feathers, people are buried in their jewels and nice clothes but then
in only a matter of months . . . you know." Now Sarah's real voice has risen again,
no more make-believe, and Boris takes his hand away from her mouth. "It's like
Marshall," she says. "You know. The way he looked and all? Oh, I'm not sure what
I'm saying really."
The breeze startles the distant branches, all the
needlestick reeds that waltz the water's edge. It lifts Sarah's hair from her shoulders,
shaking free the rain. "Well, the box is yours now. I bet you've been stuffing it
full of . . . full of what? More this-and-that of Rex's, I hope?"
"I'll never get him," Boris says. "I
have this huge fear I'll be forty years old and still in love with this perfect human
being from high school, still, like, following him around in secret and jamming my pockets
full of whatever he drops. He has no idea I'm alive, but god, he's so perfect. If I were
that beautiful I'd make certain I'd be famous."
Sarah stops sponging her brow and transfers the
hand to Boris's head. "Stop. You are beautiful. You have the most amazing lips, and
your hair's cool, and those cheekbones! I'm envious." Boris worries that Sarah's only
saying this, adopting the obvious adult stance to offer support a mother might give.
"Rex," she says, "is dumb for not realizing what's great about you. If I
were him," she adds, "I'd be deep in love with you."
The rock embankment to their left is littered with
snarls of flue, with the remains of two white trees, a giant ulna and radius coughed up
from the water and left to dry. A bike trail slopes into blackness; the trees where, at
certain times on uncertain years, bald eagles come to perch. Somewhere in that dark, too,
the towering grain elevator near Sarah's home.
The fishermen slosh further down river. Boris
catches a hint of their ruckus, even over the rip-roar surge below. One of the men holds a
flashlight, its beam striping the bulrushes, staining an egglike stain on the water. Boris
closes his eyes--Rex's face, so easily conjured, Rex's face--and he repeats out loud the
words he wrote, weeks ago, in a page in his secret journal: "I want to put my tongue
inside his mouth for so long I memorize every edge and texture and angle of every tooth. I
want to taste his lunch, and beyond that even, his morning toothpaste." As he
finishes the words, he sees Sarah trying to smile, yet still not masking, not quite, her
leftover exhaustion and sorrow from the long day. Boris tastes the mistake, hot and dry in
his mouth, and knows he should have thought of Marshall, should have restrained from
spouting his own dark-red desires. "I'm sorry," he tells her.
"Don't be," Sarah says. "Never hold
back what you're feeling. I want you to tell me everything, whenever you want."
Boris, after two breaths: "Okay. I will." A
car rumbles past. "Then I want you to tell me everything, too."
In a film, one of them would blurt "I love
you" here. In real life, Sarah sometimes says that, but for Boris it always seems
inappropriate. He rechannels his thoughts by recalling afternoons at the beginning of
summer, days without school, before Marshall's illness. The sun would blister, refusing to
stop its burn, mocking soothsayers' predictions of its imminent deterioration. Sarah
sported an early cocoa-butter tan. When she picked him up from Sunflower, Marshall sat in
the passenger seat, and Boris would crowd into the back with Harriet. She would grip his
fingers, the liver spots on her hand as delicate as the flecks on a moth. While Sarah
chauffeured them through the heat-rippled streets, Harriet spoke of the demeanors of her
cats and the afghan she was knitting for Marshall. She revealed surprises from her
housedress pockets, things, she complained, "Marshall doesn't want anymore." An
orange-yellow jawbreaker as big as an orange; a devil's claw she found at the
exposed-knuckle roots of a dying tree; a fortuneteller fish made of red rubber that,
depending on how it curled or buckled within the bowl of Boris's hand, determined future
days of success or sorrow or bliss.
Now, remembering this and wanting Sarah to remember
too, Boris opens his mouth to speak. But abruptly Sarah stands. He stops and follows the
point of her finger. There: the river's frame, where waves crash and scrape the rock
embankment. "Shhh," she says, though Boris hasn't uttered a word. She steps onto
the first horizontal rail and leans her head over, jostling his queasy fear of heights.
Only a single javelin of streetlight reaches for the murkiness, but Boris sees something
nevertheless. At first he guesses a white trash bag, its form bobbing furiously at the
water's edge. But no, this looks more solid.
Sarah steps around him, umbrella in hand, and
gallops along the walkway between the street and bridge rail. "It's a body," she
says, running. Boris pursues her, down the end of the bridge, to the declination of rocks.
He aims his thoughts on the second missing girl. Her sorority has advertised a ten
thousand dollar reward for information. Have he and Sarah found her, only hours after the
discovery of the first body?
From the open-faced dam, the roar of water
intensifies, its scent a wedlock of September's thundershowers and decaying fish.
Hurry-hurry: Boris stumbles on the avalanche of rocks, his gaze pasted all the while on
yes, what is certainly a body. It's the second girl. He knows it. She has been murdered
and dumped like garbage. Mosquitoes pepper the air, and he shoos them. Fathoms away, the
fishermen hunch pygmylike over their calling. A frantic thought zips through Boris's
head--will they want to help, will they want to split the reward money?--but he stamps
down faster on each rock, nearing the river's edge.
Sarah, thirty feet ahead, makes the shoreline
first. She drops her umbrella, then bends to one knee to stretch an arm forward. A vision
from Carnival of Souls flashes in Boris's head, and he bets she's displacing
herself again, dreaming her actions are part of that movie. She yells, but instead of the
pitch of terror, it's a disgusted "oh." The water churns in rapid broil and
Sarah reaches, grasps the body by the hair, and tugs, pulling it close. Its head makes an
inhuman clunk on the rocks. Boris takes five, six more steps, rests his hand on Sarah's
back, looks down at their discovery.
"Dammit," Sarah says, "dammit
dammit," her tone telling him that she, too, was dreaming of reward. The body--Boris
kneels, seeing it--isn't a murder victim at all, but something artificial, a dummy made of
hard plastic like those used in CPR classes. Boris saw one similar during a first-aid
assembly at school. This model, a female, looks surprisingly real, even in its unbending
chalky skin. Its hair is dark as coffee, moussed stiff with moss. Its three-quarter-closed
eyes resemble bruises or Rorschach blots. The lips, painted unnaturally red, are parted
almost seductively, and a crawdaddy clings there, bits of river foam and spinach-green
algae sliming the cheek. Sarah brushes it all away. Its naked body isn't hollow, but
filled inside and out, chilly plastic skin, plastic eyes, possibly plastic stomach and
lungs and heart. Sarah and Boris examine closer, squinting in the absence of light. The
dummy has been damaged, battered, chunks broken and chiseled in places. One of its breasts
has been hammered away; the other wears a scarlet nipple, magic-markered by someone's
unsteady hand. A finger missing here; another here, and here. Various stabs and
lacerations tattoo its arms. Smaller gouges cover one plastic shoulder; when Boris fingers
these, they seem the tracks of teeth, of bite marks.
Sarah huddles over the dummy and circles an index
finger in its crotch. "It's a make-believe cunt," she says. "Feel."
Boris, fighting the burn of a blush, sticks three
fingers in. A hole has been drilled between the legs, a cavity deeper than the length of
his probing fingers. He remembers years ago when, on a fishing excursion with a foster
father, he thrust his hand into a bucket of carp guts. Now the feeling is the same:
Something spongy fills the dummy's hole, strands of wet-gristle flesh that Boris pulls
free. The stuff almost pulses in his hand, like tendons of raw meat, and he draws his
fingers to his face. "It isn't moss. It smells like liver."
Sarah notices something else. Someone has written
letters on the doll's stomach, scribbled a word into its vanilla skin in the same color as
the nipple. Boris reads the letters, but they don't make sense. Parts of the word have
been chipped away, gouges or nibbles in the plastic confusing it. "O, S, T, I,
T," Boris reads.
"Awful, it's awful," Sarah says. She
swipes oatmeal sand, more ropy moss, from the dummy's leg. "Someone used this for
fucking. Someone pretty messed up, judging by the look. He must have gotten tired of her,
dumped her here." Sarah palms the outline of its facial features, dragging it further
onto the silt. As she stands, Boris sees her fear and pain spelled simply on her face. He
wants to turn away into the wind. "I feel sad," Sarah tells him. "I don't
know why. I feel like I should rescue her. Put her in a blanket or something." She
crosses her arms, hugging herself, then attempts lifting. "She's heavy. Help me carry
her. I'll get the head, you take the feet."
Now an odor of spoiled meat and, heavier, of
ancient miry earth. Boris hoists his end and breathes through his mouth. Sarah wedges the
umbrella in an armpit and cradles the mannequin's head. They step slowly up the
embankment, steadying their feet on rocks, as they carry the dummy to the car. Sarah
whispers curses; Boris sees her clenched teeth and candle-flutter eyes. Below her face,
sickening and pushing him closer to sickness, the ruined pagan face of the mannequin. When
they stuff the body inside the snug trunk at the VW's front, Boris must push it further,
harder, and as he does a single toe chips from the foot. He bends to get it; Sarah, not
noticing, slams the trunk. Staring back at them, the graffiti: TRASH MOTHERFUCKERS.
Boris shuts his door behind him. His
nailed-in-place expression fills the mirror square, and he looks away. The smell clings to
his fingers, the smell of her feet, her stomach, her manufactured hole; breathing it
coaxes a thick nausea inside him. He doesn't want the dummy in Sarah's car. Its slitted
eyes, its artificial mouth drooling black bacterial water, its code-word scrawled on its
raped and butchered body.
Sarah gets in. Boris opens his mouth, but whatever
speech he'd planned snags in his throat. She starts the car, pumps the brakes, and speeds
"Marsh and I took a CPR class once,"
Sarah says. "This was years ago. I had to take it for some reason. Maybe it was
during my little stint at Sunflower. They probably thought it was good for us. Marshall
just went along for the experience." Boris can smell the water on her too, the mossy
plastic memory of the body. "Weird, but the dummy we used looked a hell of a lot like
that one. Identical. Marshall did the CPR thing better than me. Always had the idea that
someday he'd save somebody's life."
They pass gas stations, banks sentried by enormous
flags, restaurants dark except for shining signs. Boris hadn't been queasy during
Marshall's funeral. Now everything is different. He wants to rewind, whirlwind back to the
bridge, and wrap his arms around Sarah's shoulders to hold close, hold dear. She will tell
him she loves him, that everything will be fine. He will repeat her words: "It will
be all right." And maybe someday Boris will find the courage to protect her from the
world, from damage worse than the kind in Carnival of Souls or similar films.
He will shield her eyes from horrors like the synthetic girl's rebirth on the shore.
The car veers toward the street dead-ended by the
youth home. Sarah glances in the rearview, then across to Boris. "O, S, T, I, T? What
is that? Something to do with the missing girls? What do you think?"
Boris doesn't answer. Everything feels slightly
askew. His body slants forward, the world tilting further on its axis. The dummy's body
lies before them, packed within the shadows of Sarah's trunk. In minutes Boris will ease
back to sleep, snug inside his Sunflower bed. If he could he would program his dreams to
forget everything. This day, the funeral, tonight's pair of hours. He wants sleep to
obliterate the lost puzzled look on Harriet's face; the exhausted look on Sarah's. He
wants sleep to make him forget the rain, the dummy, forget OSTIT. And yes, too, forget
this poisonous unfathomable world, goodnight, goodnight, sleep tight.