previous: Strawman ch6: Desert Rain
“Well, aren’t you just cute as crap.”
“I dunno. My poopy is pretty cute!”
The room was spinning, all around me were television screens playing scenes of a cartoon pig who was talking to an unseen narrator. The screens were set up in a checkerboard pattern. I felt like I was in an electronics store or maybe a thrift store since the screens were the pre-LCD kind. This was nostalgia; childhood, sweetness, and innocence?
Suddenly there was a flash of light, and several movie projectors started to run at once. The sound was deafening. A clattering of plastic tiles, played over a motorcycle’s engine. It was a sound that shook my brain. It felt like the beginning of a roller-coaster; the horrible, painful shaking. Except it never ended.
Through the intense pain, I almost missed the horror of the images. It was me, but I was living someone else’s life, watching every mistake and the horrific consequences. I didn’t want to see this, but when I tried to lift my limbs, I found I had none.
I had no physical body. My heart rate calmed; this was a dream, it had to be. I just needed to survive the narrative of whatever this dream chose to present. ‘Why am I in so much pain?’ The fact that I could feel pain meant I could possibly die. I wanted my life to flash before my eyes, not this white trash doppelganger. ‘That’s because you’re not dying!’ I just needed to focus. I needed to watch.
In this world, I’d fallen in love with Jamie during the night of the storm. instead of attacking me, we kissed. I got pregnant, lost the first baby in the third trimester. It died inside of me. I watched as I gave birth to a corpse in the middle of my living room. Jamie emerged from the kitchen but did nothing to help. I assume he knew the baby was dead. Otherwise, the kick to the stomach seemed like overkill.
The strike seemed to cause my onscreen body to go into spasm. After a few more moments of intense vaginal bleeding, the baby’s corpse slid out. And I vomited.
“We should bury it next to the pigs,” Jamie said as he left the room, returning with a trashcan.
“No,” I said through desperate breaths. “I want to burn it.”
“You want to burn our little boy?” He picked up the child by its foot, hurling it in to the plastic bin. For a moment I caught sight of the child’s face. There were two massive eyes in a single socket. The baby’s nose was abnormally large, spread out all over the remainder of it’s face. It looked like a pig. The creature’s short limbs only added to the fact: we had made God angry.
The sound of the projector became louder, throbbing in my head.
Jamie and I, (my on-screen twin, anyway) We lived off the land, off the grid. She was relying on him exclusively. And then came her second pregnancy.
“Why are you letting him touch you?” I screamed at the image. This only caused the projector to flicker. She couldn’t hear me over her tears, and swollen face. The couple fought nearly every hour of the day, breaking only when Jamie wanted to drink himself to sleep. With a crackle, the projector skipped, jumping to a new scene. My image was walking towards the nearest gas station (likely for drinks or cigarettes since neither she nor Jamie had a car.) On the wall was a job listing; it was an agency who sent out cleaning crews.
I watched as she took the flyer and left. The projector skipped again, now showing her at her job in a tavern-like restaurant. Not as a waitress, but as a bus boy (or girl, I guess.) It was a measure of freedom, that was all that mattered.
Unfortunately, she, I had no place to stay. This meant that every night we’d walk back towards our house. We felt strong, but only because Jamie didn’t know where we worked. I could have been a stripper for all he cared, just as long as he had his private stash.
“You drinking again?” she said as she softly entered the kitchen of the wooden shack.
Jamie was reclined across an old, thrifted sofa. There was a bottle on the floor and a crack pipe in his left hand. “I sold a pig today.”
“Good for you.”
“Ain’t you proud of me?”
He sat up, taking a long drag. His eyes were flickering, glaring. He didn’t look human. “Well, you don’t look like an appreciative woman. What you look like is a bitch who fucks around all day.”
“How much did you spend on drugs?” My lookalike gripped Jamie’s arm, revealing his busted veins. His wrist looked like a warzone; he was maybe three injections away from a full limb amputation. But still, grabbing him was a horrifically stupid move.
He hit her over and over while she screamed. And then he started to cut off her clothes. I could feel throbbing, burning, and then it all went black.
“Wake up!” I shouted at the screen. “Wake up now!”
The image of me awoke. She looked at the clock, it was just after three in the morning. She looked around, scared, confused and likely in a crippling amount of pain. With her last remaining strength, she pulled a thin blanket from the sofa, wrapping her nude body. Jamie had taken what he wanted and now he was likely in the main bedroom.
Was I controlling her? I needed to test this theory. “Walk!”
She stood up and walked to the door. Just outside the house was a plastic bin with an extra work uniform. She quickly gets dressed, but does not abandon the blanket, or make any attempt to leave.
Why was she frozen? Did she not have a survival instinct? “Walk to work.”
The figure on screen started to walk. Her face is frozen in fear as she made her way along the empty highway, heading towards the restaurant. She kept the blanket, likely to stay warm. (Jamie wouldn’t even notice she was gone.) It was around pre-sunrise when she made it to the front door. She banged on the door, cupping her hands to look inside.
‘Did this place even serve breakfast?’ Hitting the front door would be pointless if there were no front-end staff present. I needed her to move. “Go around back, to where the trash is.” If anyone was watching the place, they would have eyes on the dumpster.
I was correct. She ran right into a group of college kids on their smoke break. “Get out of here before I call the cops!” this voice was a young male with a New England accent.
A second male emerged from the kitchen. He was older, taller, wearing sunglasses and a hairnet. “Dude, I think she works here.”
The voice made me want to cry. It was Rey. “Rey?” When the word left my mouth, my doppelganger moved her swollen bloody lips.
“Yeah,” the man replied. Judging by his posture, he was racking his brain for her name, since she so clearly knew his. “You’re a porter, right?”
She nodded. “Porter, janitor, busboy.”
“What was your name?
He pursed his lips, nodding with a look of recognition. “You’re a local, right?”
He knew. Our reputation preceded us; Grace was the girl with the busted face who lived with her drug dealing baby daddy. “Yeah, I am.”
He took a step forward, reaching for my hand. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” He turned to his crew “If the boss arrives before I get back, just tell him I had a family emergency.”
I entered the kitchen with him. he offered me a seat, and a dinner roll. “I would offer you some coffee, but you know.”
“You think I’m pregnant?”
“I didn’t mean.”
“I am. And I would like some coffee.”
He poured me a cup, and then went for the first aid kit. The only thing remotely useful was the icepack. “Do you want to talk?”
“Sure. I’m carrying a massive lock inside of me. Once it’s complete I’m pretty sure I’ll want to keep it, and it will lock me to the father for the rest of my life.”
“Are you married”
“No, not legally.”
“Then you can do whatever you want.”
“I have no place to go.”
Rey touched his finger to her cheek. “I have a place in student housing.
“Are you a student?”
“I’m putting myself through college. Just taken longer than I thought.” Rey took a sip of his coffee, his dark eyes looking over the lip. “I’m actually off in a few minutes.”
I was blushing, she was blushing. “You work nights?”
“Not usually, but I just worked a double.”
I felt a wave of joy; a sense of peace and happiness that warmed my soul. Suddenly I realized the sound was gone. The movie seemed brighter, and the cartoon began to fade into static. I was about to step foot in Rey’s bedroom.
This version of Rey was a college student in his late twenties. This is known only because a younger student attempted to start a fight. Rey was a white trash nomad from a poor family. This upbringing gave him a sense of hard work, responsibility and above all, empathy. His muscular body, built from a lifetime of manual labor allowed him to punch the kid in the face. He stopped after one hit. “Christian, I know your girlfriend cheated on you, but I don’t have time for this shit, right now.”
Other student employees dragged the boy away, ridiculing him for daring to provoke the resident advisor. I kept close to Rey. “What was that about?”
“Just a shithead trying to make a name for himself.” He opened the door, taking a moment to stretch his back.
“You can take the bed and I’ll set up on the floor,” Rey made his way to his mini fridge helping himself to a Pepsi.
“Got any beer?”
“No, that would get someone kicked out of the student program.” He tossed me a pillow and blanket. I think I have a change of clothes. I doubt it’ll fit but it’s something to wear when you’re out of uniform. He handed me an old t-shirt, and a pair of boxers. “I see other girls wear them all the time.”
“Other girls wear your underwear?”
The way he laughed, the sexy way his mouth parted in to a smile, with his eyes squinted closed; it was a moment I wanted to commit to memory. This would have been his time to make a move. Instead, after much laughter and a sip of his drink, Rey revealed his true intentions. “Nah, just my sisters. They were always stealing my clothes.”
“That’s actually really sweet.” Rey saw me as a sister. And that was perfectly fine. He was the big brother I needed. He talked to the supervisors, getting them to understand my situation. This gave me a few days of rest, allowing my wounds to heal. I, of course, didn’t collect a paycheck, but Rey bought anything I needed; food, clothing, even prenatal vitamins.
I spent my days watching television, talking to my unborn baby. When I felt stronger, I started to clean up around Rey’s studio apartment. I could feel his aura, his energy, his unique courage. I walked in the dirt of his footprints, imagining the way he would step in and out of his shoes, the way he moved. I savored his dirty laundry; the smell of his body, his sweat.
Maybe it was my pregnancy, but I had a crush on him the same way a school girl would have a crush on a Hollywood idol. Rey was a god, a savior. Someone beyond sexuality. After a few months I actually started to feel safe in his small apartment. I could see the door; I would know if it was locked (or not.) And I was told that I did not ever have to open the door. (Anyone who needed Rey’s assistance could leave a note or contact him at the tavern.
This was all well and good, until the day it wasn’t. I heard the chorus of screams. In the nearly six months I’d been gone, Jamie had figured out the housing arrangement. I assumed he knew where I was working, since it was in the tourist trap area next to Mount Rushmore, a bunch of campgrounds, and a wilderness safari tour (the kind you can drive through.) I could imagine Jamie stalking me like a predator. Maybe he had me followed. He didn’t own a vehicle, but he had friends. Of course, it would have been just as easy for him to walk the same path as I did.
Either way, my on-screen persona was visibly pregnant (late into her third trimester) when Jamie’s strikes hit the door like gunshots. “Who is it?” It was pretty clear who it was, even before he started shouting profanity.
“Get your ass out here, you damn whore!” There was screaming; young male and female voices fleeing in terror.
‘Did Jamie have a weapon?’ My twin was frozen in fear. She needed my advice.
“Call the police.”
She attempted to make a call from the in-room phone. “Hello? 911? I need help!” There was a pause. “Yes, that’s my location.”
Someone was already calling.
“The police are already on their way? Ok, um thank you.” She looked around the room it was a small, studio, with everything out in the open. The bathroom didn’t even have a locking door. There had to be a way to hide. The bed was not an option, but maybe if she hid behind the sofa, she could use her extra weight to attack.
“You need a weapon!” I shouted.
She got up to locate a knife from the kitchen, just as Jamie broke through the door. Somehow, he had armed himself with a crowbar. First, he smashed off the doorknob, and then he just kept going. He burst through, reaching his hand towards the remains of the lock. “Gracie, baby, I know you’re in there. I can hear you breathing.”
When he opened the door, he didn’t move. Instead, he stood in the hallway swinging the weapon like a lasso. ‘Was he threatening to throw it?’
He waited, smiling, like a lunatic, until a male student attempted to attack him from behind. The unarmed boy appeared to be athletic, attempting to grab Jamie in a chokehold. Jamie easily struck him in the head. Once, then twice; the world moved in slow-motion as he beat the wannabe hero until he no longer had a face. Covered in blood, Jamie started to take steps towards his pregnant girlfriend. “You coming?”
She shook her head, tears running down her face.
“Now, you can try to wait it out,” he said as he adjusted his stance, blocking the door. “Maybe the police will save you, but they’ll need to make it to the third, no this is the fourth floor. Can you imagine what I’ll do to you?” He walked closer, stopping right in front of her face.
She lowered her head in defeat.
“Or maybe you want to wait for your lover? The big Hispanic guy? Or is he Italian? Is that what you want?” He proceeded to call Rey every racial slur, even ones that didn’t apply. “I can’t have no (racial slur that I’d never even heard of) touching my future wife, the mother of my child.”
“Rey isn’t interested in that.”
“What,” he asked with a smirk.
“You heard me.” I was mentally prepared to be called a liar, but not for Jamie’s next choice of words. “There are good men in this world.”
So, he’s a faggot?” Jamie gripped me by my neck and shoulder. He held the crowbar in front of my throat like a medieval torture device. If I tried to move, he would pull me in closer, cutting off my airway until I begged for him to stop.
When he got me to the ground floor, I could easily see where the police were. For the safety of the many arriving tourists, they were staying back, attempting to set up a barricade. This allowed Jamie to easily slip out. We cut through the safari.
I always knew Jamie had a talent for communicating with animals. It went beyond animal husbandry. There was a psychic connection. The birds created diversions, flying off in a very specific direction. This allowed a team of buffalo and deer to lead the way to a secret exit.
This was how he found me so easily. From the safari exit, it was a less than thirty-minute walk to the storm cellar. He threw me down the ladder making sure to position me to land on my arm. At least he had no intention of killing me or the baby.
“I’m going to cut the baby out.”
“She’ll die.” Those were the first words the came out. I didn’t know much about child development but I knew a newborn needed to be fed every two hours. He would likely starve her, hurt her, maybe even kill her.
In order to find out, I first needed to stay alive. The room went dark. I no longer saw the bio pic or the cartoon pig. Instead, I was faced with a pair of eyes; my eyes, her eyes. She was looking to me for words of wisdom.
“You have to check on the baby.”
She looked down at her body, allowing me a view from her perspective. He had handcuffed her to the wall, in a manner that seemed all too familiar.
“Can you sit up?”
She nodded. And then she looked down at her stomach and her vision went blurry. Jamie had literally cut the baby out of her, leaving her abdomen open and bleeding.
She needed a blanket, but first she needed a way out of the handcuffs.
“What is the cuff attached to?”
She ignored my question. With a crunch she dislocated the bones in her hand. (At least that’s what is sounded like.) My onscreen sister seemed to be trying her best not to look in the direction of her hand. She grabbed the blanket from Jamie’s cot, wrapping her massive wound. And then she looked at the ladder; the only way out of the cellar.
With her good hand she positioned herself. She moved slowly, careful to keep her organs inside of her body. Little by little she went up the ladder, until she reached the latch. It was unlocked. ‘Why was it unlocked?’
“Pick up a weapon!” I shouted quickly.
She looked around, until we could see a shiny piece of metal. It was a crowbar, except instead of bright blood, the item was covered in brown rust. She picked it up anyway, making her way back to the house.
‘How long has she, I, been down there?’ Gripping the weapon, she opened the front door. Jamie was sitting in a rocking chair. In one arm was the baby, while the other held a shotgun.
“Look, baby Ella, it’s Mama!”
“You named her Ella?”
“Ella, Ellie, Eli,” he said bouncing the baby on his lap. The child appeared to be clean well fed and happy.
“How old is she?”
“I dunno. I think she’s a little over two months. That’s a crawling age, right?” While still keeping a hand on his gun, he lowered the baby to the ground. The little girl with the blue eyes had red rosy cheeks. A little too red. Was she sunburned?
She opened her mouth and giggled. And then she squeaked.
I screamed, over and over. I wanted to punch myself in the gut, but in my reality, I was still just a floating consciousness.
On-screen Grace remained calm. She nodded, turned and left. She started to walk in the direction of the Tavern, student housing and Rey. No one appeared to be following her. And yet we heard a voice.
“Mama?” the voice was small, squeaky, but it wasn’t the toy pig.
“Don’t turn around,” I pleaded.
The woman on screen kept walking. Her mind stayed focused on the idea of finding Rey. He was our salvation.
“Why don’t you love Papa?”
“Because I never did.” Grace turned around. Standing behind her was Eli.
She was fully grown, wearing Jamie’s old clothes. “You’ll only end up hurting Rey, but you know that. And you didn’t care.
Grace nodded. Likely, none of that was untrue, so there was nothing more to add. “I’ll see you around, my dear daughter.”
Eli flipped her the bird then walked back into the forest, returning to her father’s side.
Rey was in bed, but he wasn’t alone. He immediately got up, allowing me a view of the woman holding a fidgety toddler. ‘Rey was married? Of course, he was.’ Someone as special as him, deserved someone as beautiful as the brunette with the sun kissed streaks in her hair. She appeared athletic, strong, and there was no doubt that baby was Rey’s child. The little girl had his dark, wideset eyes.
‘How do you know it’s a girl?’ My mind suddenly froze with a horrifying thought. Was this the same Rey who went to prison for the attempted murder of his wife? “Ask about Maria.?
My bloody, abused form looked at the baby with a blank, emotionless stare. “Is that Maria? Your daughter is beautiful.”
The woman in bed shifted the child in her arms, turning the little girl’s face away from the gory zombie. “Rey, you told her our child’s name?”
Her question was addressed to Rey but I decided to answer. “Rey told me she was named after his mother,” as I said the words, the blood covered Grace spoke with a renewed sense of confidence. “He just told me when we used to talk about our babies.” She motioned to her wrapped stomach. To the surprise of no one, the blood had seeped through the blanket. The fluid was coating her bare legs, dripping on to the carpeted floor. Grace, herself, was moments away from passing out.
Rey took a step towards her. He put his arm around Grace, allowing her to fall into his loving embrace. “Grace, I need you to talk to me. Where is your baby?”
“Ella’s with her daddy.” Her voice was resigned to her fate. She smiled at Rey before finally closing her eyes.
My world went dark. I awoke in a bright yellow room, restrained to a hospital bed; no more screens, no more movies, this was my reality. My entire body hurt; my face, my chest. My wrist is broken, as is my leg. I reached for the nurse call button. Thankfully it was within my line of sight, in the form of a strange red circle at the bottom of the television remote. I pressed the button, waiting for some kind of dial tone.
A red-haired nurse entered the room, she checked my vitals, ignoring me as if I was in a coma. “What is it you want?” She appeared to be speaking to the bag of fluids being pumped into my arm. But I answered anyway.
“I want to go home.”
“You want to go home?” She rolled her eyes.
I immediately felt stupid. This version of ‘home’ would take me back to Jamie. I wanted my real home, my real job, my real identity.
“Don’t we all,” the nurse replied. “Don’t we all.”
“Am I dead?”
She turned to me with a smile that seemed a little too wide. The fact she wasn’t wearing a mask seemed odd on its own. Her lips being the color of blood added a demonic effect. “Ultimately it’s up to you.”
“It’s up to me to decide if I’m dead?”
“Let’s just say, ‘You’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Or Montana, or Canada.”
“That was the place I called home.” She crossed her arms, leaning over my bed. She looked like a supermodel; her eyes were done with fake lashes, eyeliner, everything to make her look absolutely ethereal. “My name is Charlotte, but you can call me Charli.”
next: Strawman ch8: River