previous: Charmanderchar1692 ch7
The rave-like neon lights lowered to black. A wave of silence washed over the captive audience, as a spotlight pointed at the stage, for the first ‘presentation.’ A small thin figure (wearing a black t-shirt with a glow-in-the-dark neon logo) sat at a projector setup, with a laptop covered in stickers. “Mi-Town is ready,” the figure said in a deep southern accent.
‘Mi-Town?’ I watched in awe as the PowerPoint presentation started. The first slide was their logo. ‘Misfit-Town Legacy: piercing, body art, and tattoo studio,’ was written in bold blocky font, with a second line of text written in gold cursive lettering, ‘The freakshow of Mississippi.’ Their shop emblem was a low-resolution image of a two-headed baby. The more I looked at it the more it seemed to be reminiscent of the Starbucks coffee mermaid (except drawn in gaudy neon colors, against a midnight-blue background.)
The slide changed to a solid white frame. This served as a spotlight for the ‘project.’ It started out as a figure in a sleeping bag, crawling on stage like a caterpillar looking for a place to transform. Once the creature settled on a spot, it started to remove itself from its fabric cocoon, revealing a human (male) form. The tall lanky man was naked except for a gimp mask. In the purple hue lighting of the stage, it kind of appeared as if he had no head. This was a design choice, to draw attention to the figure’s bare chest.
The man sucked in his breath, tightening his stomach muscles smaller and smaller, sucking his muscles into his ribs, revealing a hole. I stared in awe. The mutation reminded me of the medical condition where people are born with a sunken in chest, (below their sternum.) I’d seen people go viral for using their God-given ‘cereal bowl’ for various funny videos. Not here.
Instead of just a dip bowl, there was a keyhole. The man stood up, flexing his ribs to further enhance the shape. This was not a birth defect, this was a work of art.
The audience gasped, cheered, applauded, some even whistled. On the surface it seemed like harmless fun, but even I could spot the sexual sadists licking their lips as they watched with hypnotic silence.
*Flap, flap, flap*
I was pretty sure the elderly man in front of me was masturbating. I wasn’t about to sit up to verify but my still unnamed red-haired shopkeeper friend was much braver. “Excuse me, sir,” she said politely as she poked him in the back of the head. “It’s not loud enough in here to do that. Do I need to remind you of the club rules?”
“Mind your own,” the man growled, not turning his head.
My friend sighed, sinking her nails into his neck. “I do apologize for my rudeness, but you are distracting my guest.” She pressed her lips to his ear, whispering in a flirtatious tone. “If you don’t stop, I’m going to cut off your special little toy and make it in to a keychain while you bleed out.” This finally got the man to stop. He put his hands in front of his face, like a fugitive surrendering to police. “Thank you kindly, sir. Now we can all enjoy the show.”
Standing in the light of the projector, the gimp focused the beam through his chest hole, creating unique shapes. Apparently, this was a new, up-and-coming, (unregulated), body mod called, ‘key breath piercing.’
The title brought attention to the man’s missing parts, namely his lungs and spine. ‘Was he even still alive?’ My questions would soon be answered by the company representative.
“The lungs are moved upward, with in the rib cavity,” an off-stage male voice explained.
*Clop, clop, clop*
A tall leather-clad figure came on stage. He wore holographic boots with comically high heels. This was paired with leather pants a dress shirt with a clip-on wireless mic. “Other vital organs are pressed to the side, held in place by the surgical steel plates.”
The speaker helped the man to his feet. He then stuck his hand inside the man’s keyhole. (I assumed that was to prove the realness of the hole, as opposed to mirrors or projector tricks.) This resulted in applause.
The project took a bow, lowering his chest with a sickening crunch. The PowerPoint slide changed, revealing a diagram of the implant. “The implanted device, itself is made up of a propriety blend of medical-grade materials. The size can vary depending upon the number of links, allowing for variation of body types.”
That made a certain amount of sense, at least from a design perspective. The connected pieces which made up the hole, were flexible, allowing for any possible shape to be created.
As he spoke those words, the inventor stuck his hands inside the gimp and started to manually reshape the hole. The audience went silent. I could hear the sound of bones crunching, organs squishing. The gimp’s legs were trembling. It was clear that under his mask was a ball gag (or else he would have been screaming in agony.) After what felt like twenty minutes, he finally collapsed to the ground.
The presenter groaned with annoyance since he was not through with his demonstration. “Don’t fuck this up, for me Ryder.” He grabbed the gimp by the back of his neck, forcing him to sit up. “You’re already going to be severely punished for your weakness.”
“We can’t see the modification from here!” shouted my seatmate.
“Seriously?” I muttered. “We just saw the slide; you know how it all works.”
“Yeah,” she replied cheerfully, “but I want to see the finished product.”
The presenter took a bow. “I do apologize, miss.” Without missing a beat, man took out a needle from his pocket (this had all been part of the show.) With a quick motion, he stabbed it directly into the gimp’s neck. This caused the body to spasm; with his arms and legs straightened, the keyhole in his chest had been re-sculpted into the shape of a valentine heart.
The audience applauded as the projector returned to the default, Windows98 home screen. “Please clear the stage for the next presenter,” said an off-screen voice. The figure who was at the projector handed the connector cables off to a masked figure seated on their left.
The back wall dropped down, revealing itself to be nothing more than a screen. There was something hanging on the wall; a girl with the body of an athlete and the face of a porcelain doll. She was attached by her hands, crucified to a neon pink wall mount. When the PowerPoint presentation resumed, the diagram on the slide illuminated parts of her body. Her legs, chest and torso were bionic, while her arms, skull, and a majority of her skeleton were made of organic material. Her blonde hair seemed to also be real (unlike the bright colorful hair of the other convention attendees.)
“She’s in pain.” I didn’t mean to say the words out loud. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself.
My shopkeeper friend turned to me. “How can you tell?” The way she asked was comically tranquil, as if what we were looking at was just a doll.
“I just feel it.” I could see the figure’s eyes darting from side to side, but even more obvious than that was the fact her chest was moving. Robots don’t breathe. (Or maybe they do?)
Her chest was moving erratically. This was more than pain, this was fear. I was too far from the stage to hear if she was making any noise; was she whimpering, crying? I blinked my eye, feeling the metal against the skin of my eyelid. Was she like me: an unwilling volunteer, forced to endure horrific mutilation?
A presenter spoke about the advancements in prosthetics, in relation to brain function. The words floated over my head like a toxic cloud, but the message was clear; this creature could feel everything. I was frozen to my seat. The previous freak-show display at least had a point; the keyhole was just another means of self-expression. Is that what this was; the ability to graft any body part to any other physical form? This was like something out of a movie.
If I was a hero, I would have tried something, that would have been the right thing to do. Just as I was thanking God for not being a hero, my eye activated, causing me to see a wireframe map covering the room. ‘Right, I forgot about that.’ I’d never had the opportunity to try out my prosthetic’s abilities outside of Vice’s compound.
I focused on the audience, as a test. As expected, I could see a room full of heat signatures. I knew what I had to do. I closed my eyes, and turned my head, mentally preparing for what I was about to see.
Suddenly the lights went out. the room was filled with a neon green gas. My first instinct was to hold my breath but something stopped me. I could see flashes of metal. Was it Henry? There was one flash, then two and three. A pair of hands grabbed my friend by her hair. We both had red hair; did he think she was me? Was he going to leave without me?
The flash disappeared down the hallway, dragging my friend under one arm. I followed the figure down the stairs, around a series of corners, to the parking garage.
I turned to see Henry pulling my friend into a van, and it was not the van we arrived in. I wanted to shout after him, but something felt off, as if I was watching a movie with a missing reel (or a book with a chapter ripped out.)
I went back, retracing my steps, until I made it back to the neon room. The book was still there, so I stole it. There was no way for me to hide it on my person, so I also grabbed convention-labeled plastic bag, making it appear as if this was just part of my welcome package. And then I headed back to the parking garage.
I knew where Vice had parked the van, but instead of a vehicle there was only Vice, sitting on the curb with his head in his hands. He turned his head, looking towards the light of the exit, as if waiting for death.
Dumbfounded, I said the first thing that came to mind, “Did someone take the van?”
Vice turned to me. “No, Alicia went back to the compound. I actually I guess that means Alicia took the van.” He chuckled at his own joke. He blinked his eyes, allowing a single tear. “You can go.”
“Canada; if you can’t make it across the border without a passport, you could probably get help from the embassy.”
“Sure.” My legs wanted to run; my heart wanted to vomit, and my mouth wanted to scream, but my hand was still gripping the bag. Was this true Stockholm syndrome? Or maybe it was my addiction to true crime mysteries; I needed to know the truth, I needed to show him the book. I took a seat by his side and removed the book, holding it on my lap.
“This is for you.”
Vice moved his hand over the gold lettering, tracing the name of his late wife. “Who wrote this?”
I actually had not checked for an author. The decorative cover seemed to focus on the majesty and fantasy allure of the science. “Dallas Beniot?” I had no idea of that was a male, female or just a made-up penname. I flipped through the book to see if there was any photo or mention of the author.
“That was the man who was arrested for her murder.”
“Oh.” His defeated tone made a lot more sense. I started to flip through the book, looking for any clues.
“Did you see her?” Vice asked, still looking towards the exit.
“Claire? I thought she was dead?”
Vice nodded, the look of terror in his eyes, revealed a side of him I had never seen. “A corpse washed up on shore. I was forced to identify the body.”
“You never believed she was dead.”
“You can go.” He pursed his lips, nodding in my direction. Vice lifted his hand to his eyes, wiping away tears, but he completed the motion by running his fingers through his hair. “I mean it.”
His blue eyes were the color of sadness; two pools of emotional pain offering me a view into his soul. ‘No, Charlotte, stop it!’ Thevoice in my head was screaming, but my body was refusing to cooperate. All I could do was smile as I reached for his hand. ‘Charlotte, stand up, start walking! This son-of-a-bitch cut out your eye! He tortured you. Run, you idiot!’ I placed my hand over his, feeling the wrinkles of his individual knuckles.
His hands were trembling as he turned the pages of the book, each image seemed to pull at his heart strings. “I tried for so long, but sometimes, something that’s broken can’t be repaired.” Vice was still looking towards the exit, as he closed the book. “Have you seen your partner?”
“No, I was actually going to ask you the same thing. Did he pass through this way?” I looked in the direction of the exit, the bright light of the afternoon sun was beginning to fade. “Or are you waiting for him?”
Vice nodded. “He was the one who wanted to come here. It was as if he already knew.” Vice was speaking the words of a broken man.
‘Did I meet Claire? Was she living as a traveling shopkeeper?’ The idea was too strange. “You know, I think I am going to go.” I tried to move away while still keeping the book in his grasp. “You can keep the manuscript. It’s about your wife’s work, after all. You should have it.”
“No thanks.” Vice shook his head, swallowing the lump in his throat. “Too many bad memories.”
“Ok,” I said softly, as I placed the book back into its discreet containment. Henry had to be around here someplace. He wouldn’t have left me. Worst case, if I was wrong, I could still try to rush the boarder. Even without a passport or proper identification I stood a chance; desperate refugees did it all the time. I was about to stand up when I realized I was still holding Vice’s hand. “Can I ask you something?”
“You can certainly try.” His fingers were gripping me softly, just enough to make me doubt any decision to leave. “No guarantee of an answer.”
“How did you meet her?”
Vice turned, for the first time looking me in the eyes. “You heard of those stories of American soldiers who brought home war brides?”
“You met your wife overseas?” With Claire’s exotic last name, it was entirely possible.
“Nah,” he said with a chuckle. “I was in prison out in Wyoming.” He stood up, leaning against a nearby wall as he dug in his pockets. “Smoke?”
“No thanks, it’s a nasty habit.”
“Well, I’m just a nasty boy.” he released my hand, cupping his palm to shield the flame of his lighter as he ignited his cigarette. “I got sent away for grand larceny.”
“You a bank robber or something?”
“I was something,” Vice said as he took a long drag. “I thought I was some real hot shit. Just picture a skinny-ass meth addict, fresh off the trailer park. My mouth got my ass kicked. Next thing I knew I found myself in the infirmary, face to face with a red-haired siren.”
“Claire worked at the prison hospital?”
“She was a med school student, doing volunteer work. So, needless to say, she sure as fuck was not supposed to left alone with someone like me.” He leaned back, closing his eyes. “I was messed up really bad; broken nose, cheekbone, jaw. I remember having a tube down my throat. Claire told me I’d been unconscious for the first two days. She called me her gender swap sleeping beauty.”
Knowing what I knew about Claire Milette, this seemed correct. She likely saw him as someone she could mold into the ideal partner. “She made you fall for her?”
Vice nodded in agreement, fully acknowledging his frailty. “I was a man starved for affection. And she was a med school student who always had a fantasy about hooking up with a convict. She said it made her feel alive.” He chuckled at the absurdity. “We had sex in my hospital bed. Just a few months in to my sentence she agreed to be my wife.”
“You proposed in a prison hospital?”
“Yeah, I even gave her my mama’s ring.” Vice paused looking down at his hands. “It was my most valuable possession.”
“The ring that was never recovered,” I muttered. My breath froze in my chest. I was not supposed to know that.
Vice glanced in my direction. His mouth curled upward with a partial smirk. “I see you’ve read my journal?”
I knew I could have claimed to have heard it on the news, but this seemed easier. “Yeah, I’m sorry.”
“Well, I guess I can tell you the rest of the story. I was set to do a dime, ten years minimum before I’d be eligible for parole, but about a year or so in, I started getting these fucking horrible migraines. And getting to go to medical for anything less than a broken bone was damn near impossible. I mean I tried, but all I ever got were those travel size packets of Tylenol.”
“The kind they sell in airports?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You’ve never been in an airport?”
“Does that surprise you?”
“All I know is that ‘baby’s first pharmacy’ bullshit did fuck all for my chronic pain.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” I don’t know what I was apologizing for. It just felt like the appropriate thing to say.
“Don’t be,” he said cheerfully. “It just made the next part that much easier to pull off.”
“I hit my head against the wall, slamming over and over until the world went black. Apparently, I even had a seizure,” he said with a laugh.
“What’s so funny about a seizure?” I already knew the answer; Vice had proudly conned his way back into the medical ward, in order to spend more time with his Claire-bear.
“When I got back to medical, Claire demanded that I get a brain scan. Her reasoning was sound; what kind of sane human being would beat himself into a seizure?”
“Were you already married at that point?” I imagined that if they were, it would lend a degree of credibility to her claims.
“We were married, Claire had full medical power of attorney.” He took another drag of his cigarette, closing his eyes as if recalling a wonderful dream. “That was how she got me diagnosed with brain cancer.”
“Brain cancer?” I repeated. I was amused by his comical level of cockiness.
Vice smiled, pressing his tongue into his cheek. “She knew how to work the system. My beautiful, brilliant wife got me a great lawyer, secured a compassionate release.”
“You were never sick,” I clarified out loud.
Vice seemed slightly offended that I figured it out. “Water under the bridge, I guess. We can turn back the clock, only ask for redemption.”
“True,” I replied with as much empathy as I could muster. Claire had gotten him out of prison for some kind of nefarious means. She had used him, trained him and as a result he felt a need to continue her work. Perhaps there was a part of him that truly loved her, and hoped she would return to him.
Then there was the major question. “You were in the audience, in the neon room, right?”
“Yes,” he replied calmly. “As I know you were.”
“Did you see the crucified patchwork girl?”
“I did.” Vice looked at me with his big blue eyes prompting a moment of awkward silence. He was not going to reply, he wanted to hear what I had to say.
I wanted to ask if he knew where the parts came from. Was she made by Claire? Did she contain parts of Claire or even Annaleigh? But like before, my superhero balls were yet to grow. “Well, I guess this is goodbye then.”
“I guess so.” Vice shook my hand like a used car salesman trying to seal a deal. His lips were parted in a way that made me want to come closer. He wanted me to stay, or maybe it was me who wanted to stay.
“Bye then.” I had to force myself to take one step after another, resisting the urge to look back. ‘Who am I kidding, if he wanted to, he could likely track my eye.’
I power walked out of the parking garage. When I was in the open air, I took a breath and then another. ‘Calm down, calm the fuck down, Charlotte. Where is your phone?’ I touched my hips realizing I had absolutely no pockets. My phone was back at Vice’s shop. ‘Well, crap.’
I started to walk along the sidewalk, to the beach. My goal was to locate the highway and maybe walk along the side like a hitchhiker, following the signs towards Niagara Falls. I was walking at a normal pace, but I couldn’t help but think I was being followed.
There were no police cars on the street nor were there any vans. In the distance I could see a way to get on to the highway. Hopefully, if I was lucky, I would come across a highway patrol car waiting to catch some unsuspecting drivers.
And for a moment, I was almost lucky. I could see a car parked about a hundred feet away. All I had to do was keep walking. I resisted the urge to run, if only because I was afraid of falling off my shoes, into oncoming traffic.
With each car that passed, I felt like I was getting hit with a projectile attack. Wind blast after wind blast. When a truck passed by, I nearly fell over. A smarter woman would have taken off the damn shoes.
“Maybe I should. I mean it can’t be that painful to walk barefoot along the New Jersey turnpike.” I looked down at my feet, diverting my eyes for no more then a second. That was enough time for a van to pullover behind me.
My first instinct was to try and run. Almost immediately, I fell on my face, hitting my head on the asphalt. It hurt more than I thought it would. My nose was bleeding, as was my forehead. My eyes burned; I was sure I had gravel in my open wounds, that was when my body gave up.
Two large arms lifted me from behind, carrying me in a way that prevented me from turning around. My captor threw me face first into the van. Hitting the bare metal was not as painful, but the shock prompted me to put my hands over my face. I turned my head just in time to see a large male remove my shoes, hurling them out the window, before getting back into the driver’s seat.
“Yes, it’s me,” he replied, adjusting the rearview mirror. Locking eyes with my bloody face, he motioned for me to sit beside him. “The seat’s free.”
“Thanks,” I said as I attempted to crawl to the front. There was a panel in the floor of the van, and as I placed my weight on it, I heard muffled human screams. I quickly took a seat by Henry’s side, pretending I didn’t hear anything.
Henry wore a melee weapon strapped across his back. He reached for the glove compartment. “Here, take this.”
I expected a weapon of some kind but instead it was just a first aid kit, next to a small silver flask. “Is this for drinking or sanitizing?” I asked, lifting the small container.
“Either,” he replied, merging to the left lane. “It’s just a little vodka.”
“Where are we headed?” I asked.
“What difference does it make?”
“If we’re attempting an escape, I sort of hoped we would be making a stop to pick up the baby.”
“We will,” he said glancing at the mirror again. There was no one in the back, only the panel. “I just need to dispose of some trash.”
next: Charmanderchar1692 ch9