Part 3: The Midnight Animal
February 14th, 1980. The liminal space between her thoughts grew ever wider as she pondered why she did what she had to do. Or at least, what she thought she had to do. Her fingers were like utensils, the tools of the destruction of herself and others, reaping what had been sown in front of her. It was a Cambodian killing field, and she was the one holding the AK. Last night, after peeling herself from her couch, she sat on the floor and watched the stars in the sky glint over the horizon beyond her sliding glass door. Neptune twinkled and Mars furrowed, Jupiter sat flushed as Saturn’s ring became a blur; it was like the entire solar system had lined up to judge her, cosmic entities whose circularity slowly became more and more cubelike, the abstraction in her eyes growing ever more fierce. The anger inside buried itself in her heart, and it sat there until her chest felt heavy.
She was probably going insane. The smell of gunpowder had stuck to her nostrils and wouldn’t leave, and the shots still rang faintly in her ears. Like before, her mind was replaying the recent violence over and over and over. All she wanted to do was hold someone and fall asleep to her own sobs, but she returned to her spot, laying there on that couch, bare, weak, pointless, until the planets left her in disgust and the sun brought its dreary gaze over the world once more.
Corey Zolagg did not sleep that night. As morning’s opening minutes grew into hours and she finally peeled herself from the scratchy cushions, the realization dawned as the sun flowed over her that she had experienced what was known as a ‘dissociative episode’. The static in her fingertips soon subsided, but the broken flow of thoughts was slower to repair. The handguns still sat there on the table in front of the couch, unmoving, taunting.
The coffee pot bubbled and stirred as she watched it brew in front of her with hungry eyes, finger still placed over the power switch. The coffee was black, sour, and bitter. That makes two of us, she thought.
No meeting today, she mentally sighed with relief as she lumbered to her meager excuse of a round dinner table, staring out the window mere inches from her face as she sat in that tiny little alcove under a naked bulb. It’s a holiday, she mused, I should go out and celebrate. Maybe drink away this pure regret in my lungs, from last night. I really didn’t have to do that. But it did feel good. Psychopathy, she self-diagnosed, or maybe just old pent-up fury being let out. At least it was in the direction of those who deserved it.
Just a sliver of sunlight made it through the alcove’s half-shutter blinds, and Corey let it blind her.
Lyla’s rowhouse looked like all the others, save a healthy-looking potted plant beside its door. Corey brushed its fronds with one hand as she held the other over the doorbell buzzer, unsure as to if this was really a good idea. Last night was tough, for Lyla at least, and while Corey had already shrugged it off due to the years of desensitization she’s had, but Lyla… She decided to knock instead. A few solid raps on the door later and there was still no movement inside; this was the right place, Lyla had told her that her “door was always open” if Corey needed anything, and at this moment, Corey needed to know if she was okay.
But alas, more silence, and Corey floated the idea of using the buzzer as she raised her hand to knock again. It felt weird, being here, in public, in a part of the city she’d otherwise not even look in the direction of. She adjusted the buttons of her overcoat anxiously, the lack of skyscrapers looming overhead making her feel exposed; this was Brooklyn, not Manhattan, and it might as well be another planet entirely. The streets were relatively empty save the rare crotchety old person walking their dog, Corey surmising that was due to it being Valentine’s Day, with most people likely out in Manhattan celebrating with friends, maybe lovers, or simply drowning their sorrows. The latter sounded fun to Corey, and she sighed before turning to begin walking down the row house’s front steps, but she paused to look around at the blocks after blocks of three, maybe four-story buildings surrounding her. It was all neatly laid out, even arguably clean, with no disparate or clashing architectural art styles, just rowhouses, apartments, and the odd business here or there. And most of all, it was calm. The honks and hisses of the cities core thoroughfares were only faintly audible out here, and the walk, while long, had got progressively quieter as she approached this neighborhood. It was peaceful out here. I like this.
A soft, faintly-accented voice suddenly spoke up. “You look like a whipped ass.” Corey turned to glare at Lyla, who was now peeking her head through the now-opened doorway, sans hijab. Her hair was a beautiful dark brown, and Corey, feeling that she looked more ‘ass’ than ‘whipped’ at the moment, eased up and relaxed a bit.
“You could say that. I didn’t sleep, was too-”
“I think so.” Corey glanced around, as if she was searching for her next words in the environment around her. “How… are you? Doing, that is.”
“Fine, at least, as fine as I can be after, you know.”
“Yeah, I do.” A wave of shame hit Corey in the back, lurching her gaze down and away from Lyla’s gentle face. “May I come in?”
Woah, what? Corey looked back up at her. “Um, may I ask, why?”
Lyla just weakly shrugged. “It’s just… I need today to myself.”
“I, ehrm, understand fully. If you uh, need anything, though-” Corey reached into a pocket and pulled out a small note, scribbled onto a sticky pad in pen earlier in the morning, holding it towards Lyla, “I’m always available for a chat.”
Lyla looked at the yellow paper, at the number scribbled onto it in chicken scratch, before closing her eyes and sighing. “I’ll see you at the meeting next week, Corey.”
Lyla pulled her head back into the door, and it shut less than a second later. Huh?
And that was it. This caused a bubble of rage to float up from Corey’s soul and pop in her head, but luckily the only external sign of this was a slight tightening of her brow and narrowing of her nostrils, which she quickly passed off with a random cough as the realization began to settle in.
Corey blinked, face contorted into a look of surprise? Because, what? What? WHAT?
She stood there for a bit, frozen in place, eyes darting back and forth at nothing in particular, unable to process what had happened. Did I just get… slagged off?
She blames me for last night. That’s it, that’s what it is. Why? There was no telling what would’ve happened next, what they would’ve asked next, she… Corey stopped trying to justify this to herself and just stomped off Lyla’s porch, feeling the smaller woman’s eyes burn through the back of Corey’s overcoat. Act professional, Corey, then freak out as soon as you round the corner.
And when she did round the corner, Lyla’s row house disappearing from sight, Corey immediately shrieked and kicked over a nearby trash can, crouching down and wrapping her head in her hands as she unloaded the air in her lungs into her forearms. She half-screamed until her throat was hoarse, and as she was vulnerable, self-doubt and cruelty slipped into frame.
Fucking kill yourself you asshole.
Corey punched the side of her head full-force, knocking those words out of her ear and into the void, before sticking the note into her mouth and chewing the hell out of it. This was not only childish, it was stupid, and also dumb. She didn’t even care that those last two terms were basically synonymous. Spitting out the now-wadded note into a nearby storm drain, Corey finally let the air out of her lungs and stood back up. Calm, down. Cool it. She’s still, like, formulating what happened. It’s fine.
The embarrassment had passed, and Corey straightened out her posture, rubbing the side of her scalp where she had smacked herself. So what now? Corey tried to turn back towards Lyla’s rowhouse again, but stopped herself. No, she’s had enough of me today, I guess. But… thinking about Lyla brought back someone else, someone who made a point that they were willing to hang with her for whatever reason. Someone whose phone number was also scribbled onto a note, one that Corey kept in one of her least-used coat pockets for some godforsaken reason, which is actually what gave Corey the idea for her feeble attempt in the first place. Likely for emergencies, she guessed, so did this count as an emergency? She unbuttoned the pocket and pulled out the little piece of white paper, balled up long ago, flicking off tiny strands of black lint clinging to it as she unfolded it between her fingers. The number looked almost alluring, as did the phone booth down the street.
No. Not yet. She stuffed the number back into her pocket and ran a hand through her scruffy curls. For some reason, she was happy about her reaction, in that she didn’t flip out in front of Lyla and that she had a reaction of any sort in the first place. For the last two months most of her emotions were completely muffled, and her go-to for most situations was a shit-eating grin or a vague frown, with no real internal feelings. But she felt the jealousy, the anger, and it revitalized her. I guess you’re not a robot after all, eh?
No emotions are better than bad emotions, though.
Corey decided to go to the one place that stayed behind the curtains of her thoughts and never left, even after two months: the crime scene. She wanted to see how the damage had been repaired, if it had at all, but one quick surveying of the fateful street proved her half-right. The sidewalks had been touched up, the sections that were fractured by the explosions having been torn out long ago and replaced with new, spotless light-gray slabs, completely out of place as they sat sandwiched between darkened blocks of concrete, free of even the spots of embedded gum. You may be fixed, she argued, but I’m not. Nothing here is fixed, I can still see the blast marks on the pavement, even the oxidation from the burning fuel, but you, the sidewalk, get replaced? She christened them by flicking a half-smoked cigarette between two of the slabs, knowing it would stay there and only accumulate friends over time. Welcome to this dirty, dirty, world.
Oh and, fuck you, sidewalk. She scuffed her heel on the concrete.
Why am I chastising the sidewalk in my head? Jealousy that they could just rip out the damaged parts and replace them with new bits? Disgust at how they stuck out compared to their environments? Re-opened mental wounds? Boredom? Trying to make myself laugh, maybe even just mildly giggle? Probably a mixture of all. Corey gazed across the street at the wrought-iron fence she and Linh walked beside as they held hands. For a moment, the chain-link fence of last night had blinked into the place of the iron fence, but it was gone as soon as she noticed it. She swore she could even see herself there, just for an instant, looking over at where Linh stood. Corey looked down at her feet. She stood between where the exploding cars had been, well, not exactly, she was standing on the (dreadfully) new sidewalk, but she didn’t care about the specifics. What she cared about was the fact that even after two months and wracking Marvin’s brain every instance she got, nobody knew why they exploded and nobody was even remotely close to discovering anything of note. No fragments of anything resembling bombs were found, no tampering was noticed in the burnt-out husks that were left behind after the explosion, there was just, nothing. They just did that. The cars just, did that.
Why the fuck would they do that? Why would they take Linh away from her? Fuck you, cars. Corey kicked some pebbles off the sidewalk and into the empty spaces. Fuck you, fuck all of you. She was tearing up now. Fuck this.
She noticed how quickly she was breathing, so she forced herself to slow down. Corey, do not lose control. Her fists balled up, and she just stared at those damned empty spots. You’re getting yourself mad over nothing, literally nothing, like, literally literally nothing. There’s nothing there, no more exploding cars, no more fire and brimstone. But, is there really literally nothing? Is there anything I can even do anymore? Corey’s head hurt, and not just because she had recently smacked it, although that definitely didn’t help.
Her hand fished out that number again, unrolling it once more and pinching it between her fingers as she looked for the nearest phone booth. She needed a distraction. Now.
And maybe, just maybe, Marvin would have some fresh answers for her.
“You really do look like a whipped ass.” Marvin joked as he brought the pint glass to his lips again, wiping off the foam residue with his napkin.
“Gee thanks You know,. I was expecting some sort of reprieve from you.” Corey scoffed as she tapped her fingers on her own pint, which she had yet to take a swig from.
“Well, she’s right. Have yah looked in a mirror lately? Grade-A whipped ass.” He buried his own pint beneath an unbearably thick mustache. Marvin spent his days standing around street corners and avoiding his coworkers, so who better to spend such a day of affection like this with? At least with him, she felt zero attraction; if she were with Lyla, whose soft face and frightened eyes had embedded themselves into her soul, she didn’t know if she could control herself for that long. She was prone to outbursts here and then, nothing too bad, but that was mostly due to the fact that she spent most of her energy punching her mattress until her knuckles were sore most mornings. But not today. Last night was enough to mostly drain her of any sort of emotion. Mostly.
“I’m sure you’ve seen many whipped asses in your job.” Corey commented as she eyed her drink, staring at the comically-distorted self-reflection from an unflattering angle on its surface.
Marvin rolled his eyes. “Nah, I did when I worked at the prison though. There, you get cited if you don’t whip ENOUGH asses, huhuh.” He picked at his nails for a moment, before asking, “So wha’ do yah need? Usually, I’m the one who calls you, not the other way around.”
“Yesterday, you came to my place, said some baffling junk, and dawdled off. What was that about?”
Marvin shrugged. “Like I said then, jus’ checkin’ up on you.”
“Bullshit.” But then again, she had just went and checked up on Lyla, so who was she to ask?
He laughed. “What, I can’t worry about you? What you’ve been through would’a crippled a dozen stronger men… but you, you’re made’a sterner stuff. You mentioned in the past some sorta war or somethin’, s’ that why?”
Corey merely sipped her drink as Marvin snorted at her lack of a reply, before he started babbling about his wife. Ah, the metaphorical wife, always wrapped in flowery praise and self-deprecation, one of Marvin’s mainstays whenever his words fell on Corey’s selectively deaf ears; it felt like he was talking more for himself than for Corey. But before he could regal another tale about her scaring him as he worked on the family car, accidentally slamming the hood on his fingers, Corey’s eyesight was dragged leftwards, sweeping across the bar Marvin had recommended they go to when she called him. Everyone was in some form of glee, be it drunken stupor or romantic passion, clinging to an arm for physical support or emotional support, it didn’t matter. Everybody had somebody, even if that somebody was currently being used as a prop for their shoulder, and here Corey sat.
Alone, being babbled at by a buzzed forty-something detective.
As such, her mind began to drift, disconnecting itself from the situation she was in, sliding backwards in time, month after month. The time with Linh was painfully thrown aside as her thoughts raced back to the war, and her focus was settled on one evening in late 1976, in a situation that gave current-Corey deja vu. She was at a bar, with a friend, just like now. But this friend was so very different.
Her name was Fran. She was the sole other woman in Corey’s unit, and she was Corey’s polar opposite in many ways. She had blonde hair that seemed to collect sunlight as they patrolled, and fair skin that somehow didn’t get cooked to a crisp by the sun. She even smiled sometimes. To the outside observer, she was your standard, run-of-the-mill, white Anglo woman. But her smiles… something about her made Corey feel odd. Of course, now she knows why, but at the time she only had the faintest inkling of what was going on with her body. It scared her.
The two of them were in the barest definition of a ‘bar’, a small building on the edge of their current base of operations, a tiny village in a tiny valley with a tiny population. Corey had just finished downing her beer as Fran was struggling with the bottle opener with hers. Wordlessly, Corey held out her hand, and Fran handed her the beer, which Corey easily opened with the edge of the table, handing it back.
“Thanks.” Sighed Fran, winded after straining against the bottlecap for about two minutes.
“No problem.” Corey replied with a faint smile. The air was thick with moisture and humid beyond belief, typical weather for the area, and it was the middle of the day, so the sun was beating down particularly hard. Other than the odd feelings she had for Fran, there was something else that bothered Corey, a little inkling of worry. When she and her fellow soldiers had entered the village earlier in the day, they all got the typical dagger-eyes and sneers from the villagers, which their Internal Affairs envoys replied to with curses in Shona and Afrikaans, demanding respect from the apparently-uncaring village folk. Otherwise, there was little opposition to their presence. At the time, Corey didn’t understand the hateful eyes that followed them, especially the ones trained on her. After all, they were peacekeepers, those people should be happy they were staying here for the day, protecting them!
From what, Corey didn’t know or really care, her job was merely to carry a rifle and point it at anyone she didn’t like. But as her unit began to wind down, spreading out across the town either to find entertainment and drink or women to whistle at, Corey noticed an old man staring at her from the window of a small thatch hut. He had a gray beard that reached down to his collarbone, not wearing a shirt, and he didn’t avert his gaze when Corey became aware of him. Completely unremarkable, save for the fact that his eyes had a certain hollowness to them, like he was staring at a freshly-harvested carcass dragged back into the village by local poachers. It was sad acceptance, Corey retroactively determined, of this new reality, the fact that her people were there, sitting in the homes and hovels of his people. The two locked in a staring contest, until the old man smiled with his cracked lips and chuckled, turning and hobbling away from the window. Corey, however, didn’t move, still staring at the empty window frame, unblinking. She didn’t even know why she was still watching.
Sweat had only just begun forming on her brow as she adjusted her cap, trying to shield her blue eyes at least partially from the seemingly ever-present sun peeking through the bullet holes in the stalks and branches that made up the walls of the ‘bar’. Her L1A1 rifle sat heavy in her lap, scratched up from over a decade of use by a previous owner. At least the conspicuous hole drilled in the side eliminating any markings of prior allegiance had lightened it slightly, she joked internally as she pulled the battle rifle off her legs, leaning it against the table.
Today, it was her and Fran’s table. Yesterday and tomorrow, it’ll be someone else’s, but today it’s theirs. She remembered Fran bringing up a story from her childhood, banal and forgettable, not a word of it settling in Corey’s mind today, but she still remembered that smile. Glistening white teeth, pinched eyes.
They left the bar after finishing their drinks, even forgetting to pay the bartender, who cursed at them. As the two female warriors basked in the evening sunlight, Fran turned to tell Corey something, smiling. Something flew past Corey’s cheek, and her whole face reverberated, feeling a shockwave bounce through her teeth.
Then the face between Fran’s lips and the top of her head vanished. Her field cap floated in the air for just a millisecond, ending the void between the top of Fran’s mouth and the sliver of scalp that remained under the hat. Everything paused. Fran crumpled as Corey watched, her own muscles turning to jelly, wanting her to fall too. Something audibly resembling a small explosion finally met her ears. That smile was all that was left of her. Fran’s tongue peeled off the top of her jaw and lolled to the ground, a pink snail on the dusty ground, all that Corey’s eyes were left centered on. There was surprisingly little blood.
What did she even love about her? Just that she smiled, and seemed to care? Was it even love she felt? Or just some faint shreds of companionship, something she’d never felt before, something easily mistaken as love?
Corey’s legs hurt as she ran towards the explosion, towards the violence. Just like in December. This wasn’t a new ‘feeling’, she realized as this memory floated through her head, just one that she had only felt once before. It was the pain of losing all she had, or at least all that mattered to her. Fran was just a friend, but if she hadn’t died that day, maybe she could’ve become something more. Linh was more than a friend, and could’ve been something even greater had she not died that day. Corey was never anything more than what she already was. A violent creature. Be it wearing camouflage or a zebra mask, she never changed, in fact, she was only emboldened.
Corey’s abdomen seized up in phantom pain as she relived stepping in the doorway of that hut, the one she saw the old man in, where smoke now floated from the window. The old man was still there, sitting on the dirt floor, wheezing something in some tribal language she neglected to learn. Besides the window was an anti-tank rifle, old world surplus, with a scope crudely welded to the side of its receiver. The old man just cackled as she walked towards him. He didn’t see her as anything more than just another soldier, another enemy, and even in his old age, he felt it worthy to put his life on the line to end hers. Except that he had missed, but he wasn’t sorry. Even though they shared no words, Corey felt all of this through the man’s weathered eyes, his toothless grin, his acceptance of her anger. He made no attempt to escape.
Without breaking stride, Corey pulled her bayonet from its scabbard, and it clicked as she placed it on the end of her rifle. The old man let out one last laugh. She drove her makeshift pike into his bare chest, and she couldn’t hold in her rage any longer.
Corey screamed for hours, stabbing over and over, even as her own muscles screamed back.
Marvin finished his story about how his wife managed to slam both his pinky finger, right ankle, and left big toe in a car door at the same time, not elaborating on how one would exactly get into position for that to be even possible, and broke into a coughing fit that snapped Corey out of her daydream. Just like that, she was back to the present, and the lingering strands of her previous thoughts faded away as Marvin’s voice registered in her ears. She swore she felt the pressure of her battle rifle in her fingers again, for just an instant, but that too was now gone.
“A-Any, urgh, anyhow, heh, I make sure t’ watch where my appendages are goin’ around her after that mess. Still got a welt on my ankle.”
“I’m sure you do.” Corey sighed before up-ending her glass and draining it in just a few seconds, leaning on her arm as she looked outside the front windows of the bar, watching droves of people strut past, couples and families. I hate holidays, she thought.
“You’re lookin’ a bit down.” Commented Marvin when he saw her face droop into a stern frown. “Well, more than usual.”
“If you want the truth,” she sighed as she pushed her head off her hand, “today is a day I wish didn’t exist.”
“And why’s that?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Tch, try me.”
Corey sighed. “Okay, fine. I am quite lonely.”
Marvin merely shrugged. “As are most people? Ain’t really somethin’ hard to understand, but I get where your pain is comin’ from.”
No you don’t.
Something in her head twitched, and only as her brain was flooded with old feelings did she realize her reminiscing had opened the floodgates. Marvin’s babbling was gradually silenced, as if he was slowly fading away once again, growing ever smaller with each passing moment. The cold plywood table under her hands dissolved, and she found herself stuck in the blackness of her own mind. Alone, as expected. If she wasn’t alone here, she’d be just a bit worried. Was she alone?
These disparate, dancing feelings finally fit together into one cognizant ‘thing’ after an eternity of waiting: a brief memory, nothing more than just a few faint sounds and some gentle touches, but it was enough. Her fingers, still grubby and small, grasping at a picture book held up by a hand many shades lighter than her own. Happy, happy gurgles came from deep within her child-throat. Those little appendages pinched at the pages, before a stern hand twice the size of hers reached down from the surrounding fog and flipped a page with ease. She didn’t remember the content on the pages, save one detail; there were people, and they looked like shit. Utterly incompetent, racist, and exaggerated. The book was not made without malicious intent, one proper look at it determined that, but how would she know? She was, what, three at this time?
She felt that familiar rage begin to boil in her guts, but instead of it being at the lately target, the present, this time it was directed at the past. She was taught to hate since birth, even if it was simply through indifference to whatever she was shown as a child. And now this hate was turned against that initial indoctrination.
Hate was all she had left. She grew up alongside it, not even knowing the words at first. Her first companion. Her only companion. No other would outlive it. Hate. Hate. Quaint.
Marvin laughed as he finished describing the time he came back to his wife with a fish hook stuck in his nether parts.
Corey merely stared at him, no, past him. Past his weary-yet-cheerful face, past those little divots and specks in his skin, the redness of his cheeks and the tip of his nose, past the scraggly sideburns, past him entirely. Past New York City, past New York itself, and past America. And what she saw, far, far off, away from our celestial body we call home, in the muddied waters of what we call reality, was nothing. She saw nothing, and this comforted her, for if she saw something, anything, she would collapse, maybe writhe around a bit for good measure, as her life is all she has left, and one more external force, no matter how soft, would fracture her beyond repair.
Her feet had relocated her outside the bar, her mouth and hands moving as she waved Marvin off while he sluggishly crept into his police cruiser. He said something about being immune to being pulled over for DUI because he couldn’t arrest himself, and off he went, down the rain-slicked asphalt, the blue car dissipating in the edge of her vision. She didn’t remember getting up or paying for her tab, but no matter. She had things to do today, things she didn’t even know yet, which only made them more important, so she clawed herself out of her head and felt a shiver run through her entire body. Get out of here, damned autopilot, she thought while rubbing her left hand’s thumb and forefinger together, her fingertips coming back into focus, feeling the soft faux-wool interiors trickle across her fingers as she pulled on her jet-black leather gloves. It would be a lie to say that she didn’t enjoy the fact that she didn’t have to consciously wave Marvin off, but there was an odd feeling in her gut that these insentient movements need to be stifled; she couldn’t simply shut her brain off and live out her life like a robot, there were things to enjoy, like… like… uhh, what DID she enjoy?
Ah well, yet another mystery to solve today, eh old noggin’? She tapped her skull with the wrist of one hand as she waltzed off, but winced as she had tapped the tender spot she smacked earlier. As she paused to rub her forehead, the previously-cheerful ruckus behind her, in the bar, rapidly quieted down. Someone probably vomited, she thought, but the whispering was less muffled curses and jokes, and more fearful whimpering and gasps. Did somebody crack their head open on the counter or something?
Corey turned and walked back into the bar, seeing that almost all of the patrons had risen from their chairs, even the half-asleep ones, and they all clustered around the bar. Corey uncaringly shoved past a few of the folks as she waded through the people-pile, stopping only when her pelvis rammed into the counter, leaning over to see what they were all staring at. A black and white television sat on a shelf above a few bottles of varying spirits and liquors, and through the grain and fuzz, a reporter buzzed out some of the most chilling words Corey had heard in a long, long time.
“-reports coming in from Tehran, along with, umm, footage, show the kidnappers dragging out one of the hostages.” The reporter paused, rubbing his forehead with the back of one hand as he read over the cluster of papers in his hand. “The uh, hostage, was partially identified as a member of the American embassy staff, one of the fifty-two hostages who have been held there since early November, with the only concrete detail known that the hostage was a young man, possibly a member of the security delegation. This man was brought out into the street and…” Another pause, followed by another wiping of the forehead, with the addition of a few sudden looks around the room, past the camera. “Do I really have to read this?”
Another voice, barely audible, whispered, “Go, go!” The reporter looked around again, but after nobody else in the studio seemed to speak up, resumed the report, but gained a quickened and less professional tone of voice. “He was led into a pit that had been recently excavated nearby. Nearby witnesses, sp-specifically members of the British embassy who had managed to geh-gain a glimpse of the proceedings, described that… the, man was buried up to his neck with sand, before buckets of rocks were placed around the pit.” He put down the stack of papers and covered his face with his hands, sniffing loudly before sighing and wiping off his face. The crowd around Corey barely kept in their emotions, strained voices cursing and spitting as others just shook their heads solemnly, the drunkest among them still staring at the television. “You all can guess as to what happened next.” The reporter croaked, breaking his professional facade for a moment, before clearing his voice and picking back up the papers.
She had completely forgotten about this shitshow. Corey, while a naturalized American, cared very little about ‘local politics’ unless they directly affected her. But even she felt a few pangs of patriotism in her, flickering embers of anger that were given more and more kindling with every new bit of information blared from the television’s speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen,” The man had regained a sliver of composure, sitting up straighter and speaking in a more stoic, if waverly, tone of voice, “as part of my report, I regret to inform you that, under the orders of President Carter, proceedings have begun in congress to sanction a declaration of war against Iran.”
War had found Corey again.
“How quaint.” She hissed while pushing off the counter, folding back into the crowd.
The city roared as Corey survived the bus ride back to her neighborhood a few blocks outside of Hell’s Kitchen. It was nice to be out of the dry air and away from the rainwater that tended to drip onto your head at the worst time possible, but the cramped seating of Manhattan’s public transit was only slightly better. She pressed her cheek against the window, likely inviting all manner of germs to crawl all over her face, but she didn’t care. Outside of the bus, crowds of people had seemingly manifested out of thin air, and many of them were running. The news spread fast for such a big city, and Corey began to wonder where they were all running to. Maybe some were running home, to hug their children and kiss their wives as they waited for the inevitable draft to come. Others likely went to places like the one she had just left, bars and speakeasies now filling up with those who the news hit particularly hard; the city was alive, and it was screaming.
And Corey loved its voice. The surroundings gradually became more and more familiar as time went on, and the prospect of home being near brought on the wonders of the future. I could be a counselor for teens, she thought. But that would require knowing how to control rage, and telling them to go kick the hell out of someone is likely privy to be frowned upon. But it IS good advice.
Or, I could be a psychiatric aide, help people who can’t help themselves, a friend-for-hire. I would find someone willing to take my orders and to them, I would be their caretaker. I would be something important to someone. Then again, I don’t even bathe regularly. She sniffed her armpit. Yep, not regular enough.
Or I could just wipe my ass with that stupid degree and go live in the subway tunnels and eat rats. How would she be able to find jobs with this specific of a degree in this big of a city, in a country seemingly on the verge of another stupid war? The opportunities in the papers sucked, job fairs skeeved her out, and she just didn’t want to directly interact with most people for at least a decade. But before she could further criticize her choice of major, the bus pulled up to her stop, and she quickly scuttled past the menagerie of folks on the bus along with her. Hopping onto the curb, she watched the bus leave before jogging off.
She took the necessary turn and walked down the necessary alleyway, but the expected gentle hiss of the wind as it flowed unimpeded through the emptied trainyard nearby the complex she called home was replaced by a gaggle of voices, half-stifled and too muffled to determine any sort of conversation topic. Corey looked out over the train yard, which sat below her in what she likened to a repurposed quarry, half-concealed by tunnel rammed into a gutted hill and half-exposed to the elements, and noticed two lengths of box cars left out to rust, likely dragged in between now and the last time she walked past the train yard. But the voices weren’t coming from there, not exactly. Instead, they came from directly beneath the edge of the fence that boxed her into the alleyway, and the talking became hushed as she approached the fence, looking down through the chain links at the group of people crowded beneath, many of whom were leaning against the concrete barriers that made up the walls of the train yard.
The faces that looked up at her all had one conjoining quality; they looked like shit. Not like before, with the racist caricatures in that kiddie book, but literally like they had been through hell, with baggy clothes and soot-flecked faces, like they’d just dropped in from 1850s London and were taking a break from lighting lamp posts. Just some hobos, Corey sighed before pulling her face away from the fence, but among the babbling one voice yelled out:
She looked back over the edge. “I’m not a ma’am.”
The hobo who spoke up shrugged. They were a man, seemingly middle-aged, wearing a faded denim jacket and a poor excuse of a beard on his face, but his hair was kept cut somewhat short, albeit unevenly, likely via a rusty razor blade. “My apologies, sir. May I ask you a question?”
Corey gawked. “I meant that I’m not a ‘lady’, not that I’m not a woman, daft fool.”
“My apologies again.”
She snorted. “You’re quite soft-spoken for a hobo.”
“You’re quite British-sounding for someone in the Big Apple.” He retorted back.
Corey pondered for a second. “Fair enough. What do you want?”
“Can you get us a six pack of beers? We got stories to trade, if you’d like to hear any.”
Corey sneered as she pulled her face away from the fence. “Stories? What would I want with stories?”
“We’ve been all over the country, miss. You look like the kinda person who’d like a good story.”
“You haven’t thrown anything at us yet. People tend to do that when we talk to them.”
Corey eyed a few empty beer bottles at her feet, before groaning. “…guess I’ll be back, then.”
A short celebratory cheer from the small crowd followed her out of the alleyway.
When Corey was three blocks away from her home, she froze. The crowds from earlier had either dispersed or were limited to the part of the city she’d just left, and the air was nigh-silent save distant murmurs from far behind her. Her vision locked onto a certain curb, where two cars were still parked, and she cautiously approached. She was here last night, with Lyla, and the asphalt told her the rest: blood was splattered across both the sidewalk and the section of road between the two cars, who themselves were flecked with droplets. It had all dried long ago, the pools turning into stains on the ground and crust on the cars, but the stale iron smell was still present; the wind couldn’t whip it away fast enough as it continued to rise like a miasma from that damned spot. But the bodies were gone. Some of the stains outlined where they had once laid, but there was no evidence of police work or any sort of cleanup, merely that the two men she had struck down in self defense were just… gone.
A shiver ran down her spine, and Corey felt she had to leave, now. Who knows who could be watching this spot, watching her, watching her reactions. She anxiously smelled her right glove, where she held her Beretta the night before, and the slight hint of burnt gunpowder relieved her greatly. Yeah, she’d shot the fuckers, but where did their bodies go?
The apartment complex was oddly quiet, her snooping neighbours having likely been humbled by the evening’s news, or tired out by the earlier celebrations, or both. Probably both, Corey mused as she fumbled with her keyring, a permanent resident of her back right jean pocket. But she paused as the key hovered over its respective hole in the door handle, and instead, she listened. Soft-but-strained voices came from down the hall, eking out from the slot at the bottom of one door, but she refused to listen to the topic being discussed. Not my fight.
As she went to unlock her door, however, the voices raised considerably in volume, evolving into stern arguing, before ramping up even more, into hoarse shouting. And then, a crack and a shrill shriek, and a bolt of anger shot through Corey’s brain.
Now it’s my fight. Corey dropped her keys and balled her fist, swiveling on a heel and stomping towards that apartment, hearing the voices with more clarity than before as she approached, but still refusing to listen to the words. Why wasn’t she listening? The context of the situation could be obviously determined by the words being thrown, but fists were being thrown as well, and that necessitated a less dignified approach; Corey was going to thoroughly thrash someone, and judging by the range of voices on the other side of the door she now stood in front of, that someone was likely a man. That decision came as easy as breathing, as if the new thought had no trouble at all entering her priorities. No fear, no worry, just action.
She raised a foot, gingerly placed her boot’s sole against the door, and pushed with all her might. With a burst of wood splinters, the door flew open with a deafening slam, and Corey entered.
Corey washed her bruised knuckles under the tap as she nursed them, straightening out each finger individually as water ran between her fingers. Even though she had gloves on, she had thrown too many punches at bone straight-on, and now her hands were paying that price. But, hell, it wasn’t nearly as big a price as the one the other guy was paying! He might as well take out a loan to pay for a new face. Hey, why not replace the whole cranium while they’re at it? Maybe a new brain will convince him not to slap a woman around like that.
After wrapping some ice from her freezer in a towel, Corey lumbered over to her couch, her favorite spot, and keeled over onto it, shifting about until she was laid face-up. She reached back and shoved a pillow under her head, and while alternating the ice pack from one hand to the other in a rhythmic fashion, Corey stared straight at the apartment’s primary source of light, a dull yellow half-circle on the popcorn ceiling, her own personal sun. After her eyes started weeping, Corey closed them, and the ice pack slipped from her hands as she tried to pass it once more. I can’t keep doing this shit, she sighed while rubbing her fists against one another. I can’t go and punch the hell out of anyone I see, or in this case hear, being a horrible person. Do I want to, absolutely, should I, probably not. This isn’t helping me at all.
…okay, that’s not entirely true, I feel righteous for doing it, and it lets me put my emotions towards something blatantly good. And what isn’t more blatantly good than beating up a few dullards? But I don’t want to get arrested, so, maybe lay off it for a little bit, eh Corey? The bright bulb above her burned through her eyelids, but not to a level that her eyes still hurt, so she continued to fixate on it, the phosphenes in her eyes mingling with the vague yellow light, purple and yellow flowing together, and these little candles soothed her. She thought back to earlier in the day, seeing Lyla, having the door unceremoniously shut in her face. She wanted to be upset, and yet, she couldn’t, not at all. There was that initial burst, yes, but it was just pure frustration, no malice attached. She’d try again tomorrow. The lights were-
Knocking at her door. Her eyes shot open as Corey sat up, momentarily looking through the sliding glass window to her balcony, before turning towards her front door. She hustled to her feet, hopping over the overcoat lazily tossed onto the floor earlier and pressing her eye up to the peephole. A figure moved off to the right of her field of view, but when she unlocked the door and peeked out between the deadbolt, they were long gone. Instead, a small box sat on Corey’s ‘welcome’ mat, which did not say ‘welcome’ anywhere on it (instead it said ‘GO AWAY’, a recent addition after Linh’s passing). She unlatched the deadbolt and pulled the door open enough to stick her head out, looking down both ends of the hallway. Not a stir. Hmm. Stepping out, Corey crouched down to examine the small cardboard box left sitting on her mat, poking it a few times. It was completely unmarked, but there was a white envelope adhered to the top with packing tape. Corey picked the box up and gave it a shake, and there was barely any movement felt except a very gentle thud, and the box itself weighed at least three kilograms, surprisingly heavy for such a small package (that’s what he said, kaching!). Corey thwacked herself on the side of the head for that stupid addition, but flinched as, just like before, she smacked the spot she was still healing from her earlier punching.
“Need to stop doing that.” She coughed while standing back up, shaking the box around in her hands a few more times. As she looked it over, something extremely odd caught her attention, and Corey looked down the left hallway.
The door where the voices were coming from, which she had previously push-kicked open, was closed. Now that’s all rightly fine and dandy, except for the fact that it wouldn’t have been able to close so neatly with the lock torn off by her forceful entry, and yet, it was closed. As a matter of fact, there were no wood fragments on the floor either, like they’d all been swept away, as if she had ne-
That chill from earlier, when she was on the street looking where the bodies once laid, returned in full force. Her knuckles, cold from condensation, couldn’t compare to the biting frost that seemed to emanate from the vessels in her arms and legs, spreading across her. Get inside, she felt that tiny voice whimper, get inside now and lock the door. So far, she’d never ‘heard’ it so hushed, practically whimpering, begging, but she was happy to oblige, her eyes having to be dragged away from the sight of that door. She closed the door, locked it, and slammed the deadbolt back into place, but as she turned its locking stem down, Corey stared at the back of her hand, raising it off the deadbolt slowly. No bruising. She checked her other hand. No bruising here either. No pain at all, in fact, as if nothing had ever happened to them. She didn’t remember leaving the neighbour’s apartment, only entering it, and yet, here she was; there was a hole in her thoughts.
And as soon as she noticed that hole, it sealed shut, and her brain went into overdrive trying to fill in all the information it glossed over, how she’d opened her own door, how she’d thrown off her overcoat, how she didn’t remember how her knuckles got bruised. But they weren’t bruised. Weren’t they?
“Blimey…” Corey breathed, and it felt like all the energy in her body slipped from her mouth as the final syllable left her lips. The world went sideways, and Corey’s face slammed into the overcoat sprawled across the floor, the wool padding saving her from fracturing her nose on the carpet, but the black material cut out all the light in her world. The box fell from her fingers as she crumpled, and she placed a palm on the floor to push herself up, but it was as if her bones liquefied as she strained. She didn’t feel tired just a few seconds ago, but now she, she couldn’t, she couldn’t… keep her… eyes… opehh… ope…
Sleep tight, Coriander, the small voice whispered softly.
You’ll need it, the big voice bellowed.
The first thing she felt was liquid trickling through her fingers, bitingly-cold, and with a consistency like a light syrup. Consciousness flowed from the tips of her finger down her arm and up her chest, signals traveling to her brain, telling her to wake up. Wake up, it called, wake up. But she was already awake, in fact, her eyes were already open. All she saw was a charming midday sky, nary a cloud in sight, soft baby blues. But the feeling in her hand stirred her, and Corey felt her frozen muscles finally unclench and let her relax, sharp points jabbing into her back and the underside of her legs. She sat up, looking around, but her limbs moved like they were coated in molasses, sluggishly and imprecisely. She struggled to look around, but her neck fought her every degree it rotated, and her eyes outright refused to focus any farther than a few meters. Through the blurriness, vibrant colors danced and swayed, undulating just outside the reach of her vision, as if an unfelt breeze was passing through.
She languorously dragged her hands to her sides, pulling them away from the cold, spattering droplets that felt like weights dropped on her body all over her chest, before placing her palms against the ground and pushing herself upright. Dozens of small jagged edges poked into her palms, but through the haze, Corey pulled a hand in front of her face, squinting with all her might to turn it into something legible. Her fingers were wet, shiny with water, and a few small pebbles fell out of her skin as she examined her palm. Knowing this, she came to two conclusions; she was on a riverbed, and she was dreaming. Both were quite obvious, she wondered, but, why am I dreaming this? I don’t recognize this place, especially since my eyes don’t sympathize with my plight. But the serenity of the environment seeped through her, as if she wasn’t there; she felt alien to this place, yet it felt like somewhere she had been before. Had she?
With great effort, Corey meandered to her feet, unsteady and with her vision swimming. The movement beyond her gaze was trees and foliage, but as she clumped towards the greenery with leaden feet, every step taking more effort than the last, she noticed the extreme coloration of the plants; bright lime-greens, dark purples, soft blues. Completely unnatural, yet understandable. It was emotional colour theory, she realized, her own mind giving her pretty, calming colours to look at as she trudged forward, shoving through the plants, brushing against the trees. But no matter how beautiful the environment, the feeling of not-belonging only grew greater with ever shrub she stomped over, every tree she dragged her shoulders across, like the pressure encompassing her was pressing harder and harder with every wheeze she made. The only thing worse would be if she was naked.
Oh god, am I naked?
She sluggishly touched all over herself. No, she wasn’t naked, she was wearing the same outfit she had as she fell asleep, boot-cut jeans and a black tank top, but her necklace was gone. The missing necklace gave her a pang of anxiety, but as she knew this was a dream, that anxiety vanished almost instantly. As she finished checking herself, however, her ears picked up on… something. It sounded like mumbling, half-whispers between uncountable voices, and it came from directly ahead of her. Corey pushed on, sifting through branches as her body started to outright refuse to move; her left arm seized and wouldn’t relax, then her lower right leg froze completely, having to be dragged along like a pegleg. There was a clearing ahead of her, and she just barely made it as her entire lower body lost the will to move, and she collapsed onto her arms and knees as she fell out of the brush.
In front of her was a clearing, the ground covered in light teal grass, a ring of impenetrable vegetation sealing her in, all of it surging with wind only they could feel. It was a perfectly circular clearing, but it was indeed clear; ahead of her was nothing, behind her, more nothing. But she heard the cluster of voices emanating from the middle of this glade, so she pressed on, wrapping her fingers around the grass and heaving herself onwards. It was a herculean effort, with most of her body locked in place, but after an eon of inching closer and closer to the middle of the clearing, she collapsed, the voices sounding as if they were overhead. They spoke no words, at least, none she could decipher, but they were all distinct and unique. A deep man’s voice, every word a cough or growl, a young girl’s voice, shrill and upbeat, a woman’s voice, dignified and hissing, a boy’s voice, confused and sad, and there were many more voices than that.
Corey lifted her head just a few millimeters higher, her neck muscles quivering with violence, and she closed her eyes. The voices flooded her ears, and she tried her hardest to decipher what they were saying, listening in to anything that sounded like a conversation or simply a sentence, but there was nothing. What did she hope to gain here, anyways? Unless she reserved it to memory with some deeper thinking, she’d forget this entire dream moments after waking up. There was no meaning here, no reasoning, it’s just chemicals in the brain bubbling and brewing falsehoods for her eyes. It’s all just noth-
She heard words. Concrete, positive words, undeniable in their wordy-ness. Focusing, Corey blocked out all other sensations and listened. But that was not necessary, for the voice spewing forth audible words spoke up, silencing all the others in an instant.
Ever further down the well.
Without remorse, without rhyme, without reason.
Who do you think you are?
Each syllable was like a hammer to her skull, ringing through her ears with great pain. The voice was louder, louder than anything else she’d ever heard, and even through her hearing damage from years of gunfire, she felt that ringing return to terrorize her again, muffling the voice. But when a second voice spoke up, softer and gentler, through the ringing, she felt an odd sense of relief, the pain lifting from her head.
The little girl in you, your innocence, your patience, is not dead yet.
You can still make things right.
You can climb back up, sinking your fingers into the defects of the bricks, scratching your nails raw until they eventually peel off.
Maybe you’ll never get out of this pit you’ve dug yourself.
But you can still try.
You can always try.
But if you don’t, you will sit there, alone, sliding ever deeper into ferocity.
You will no longer be the grasshopper.
You will become the locust.
Carried on the wind by the harpies, or maybe, just one, clutching you in her claw as she carries you towards destiny.
You know what you are!
But you know what you can be.
You are the eater of flesh, cannibal queen!
You are the one who loves, the one who lives.
The one who kills, the one who dies!
Wild at heart.
Cold in soul.
You are the midnight animal.