From A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories. Out now via Kindle
On the Sidewalk, at Night, as Thunder Roared and the Clouds Threatened Rain, She Encountered a Possible Solution
The man at the counter focused on Alexis as she walked into the store, and as she walked through the store, picking up items and glancing at them, and sometimes seeming to study them, she had this feeling prickling the back of her skull, this feeling like being watched. Hyper agency detection, it’s called. The ability to sense the presence of other people. It was useful to her evolutionary forebears, and it was useful to Alexis as she sensed the man’s eyes penetrate her skull. But she didn’t glance at him to verify whether or not the sensation was a hit or a miss—sometimes people detected agents that weren’t there, a consequence of the evolutionary advantage, and a plausible component to the story of humankind’s invention of the concept of god.
The sense of becoming prey to a man’s eyes didn’t leave her, but she tried to soften it, to forget it, or, at the very least, to diminish its effects while she ambled from aisle to aisle and perused the shelves. And what was she searching for anyway? Why had she stopped at this store, this convenience store, at almost midnight on a Sunday-night-almost-Monday-morning?
Her arms itched, itched, that awful itch-and-sensation-of-not-belonging-in-ones-own-skin that diabetics claimed afflicted them—this sensation they usually noticed before receiving their diagnosis. She clutched them at her chest, her arms, and cupped her forearms, near her elbows. Every once in a while she’d start to scratch her arms, but then she’d catch herself and instead rub her arms, palms against flesh, the way parents do when consoling children.
And she drifted from aisle to aisle, glanced at item after item, as she wrestled with the instinct to scratch her arms. Worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head. Some people called this daydreaming. Others recognized it as a symptom of various attention deficit-type disorders and wrote or asked for prescriptions for medication. But Alexis called it neither—it was simply a thing she did, something to pass the time, she supposed. It was something like a gimmick or a distraction, a way to silence the noises produced by the meat in her skull, meat intent on firing neurons and transmitting impulses in such as way as to bleed into her conscious state and to make her brain and her mind, and her entire body, feel the way her arms felt, feel like nothing belonged, like everything was attached by bristles and super glue, that nothing was certain or sacred or numinous or … Human. Yes, human.
When she reached the wall on the far side, the wall opposite the entrance, the wall replaced by refrigerators with glass doors, refrigerators lined with bottles of soda and frozen pizzas, chilled coffee and microwaveable lunches, she doubled back and, arms still clutched to her chest, made a beeline for the front door.
Hyper agency detection kicked in again, and she glanced at the man behind the counter as she opened the door: he focused on her, tracked her with his eyes and a slow motion panning head, and he sort of smiled this greasy smile, the type Alexis had encountered when men smiled at her with only one thing in mind.
She didn’t return the man’s smile, or even acknowledge it, as she glided through the door and flung it shut.
Clouds obscured the moon. She smelled moisture in the air but didn’t sense rain. Somewhere something was on fire. A house, maybe. She smelled it, too, and she wondered if it was a house, if maybe someone was inside the house, roasting alive and screaming and crying. A person’s mind shuts down in such a situation, she wagered. When you’re on the verge of death, of a death as awful as one by fire, she was pretty certain, your mind shut down. Instincts took over.
She was pretty certain instincts took over.
Her mind shut down the last time she glimpsed death. She was high and naked and lying on the carpet—she remembered it was wet, or was that a false memory, the wetness?—and she felt numb and floaty, as if her head had detached from her body and rolled into a closet, and she saw the world through the crack in a mostly-closed door. Or better yet: the world shrank as she slipped into a lens with an aperture slowly closing.
Her instincts didn’t take over then. That time, and on previous occasions when she’d glimpsed death, she rocked on her belly and closed her eyes and felt a sort of smile bend her lips—she didn’t remember smiling, she didn’t even remember consciously moving her lips, but she did remembered feeling her lips move; she remembered feeling them curl into a sort of smile as the aperture closed, closed, closed.
Clouds collided and merged and thunder rumbled to the east. Lightning flashed. Alexis floated down the sidewalk and glanced at her reflection in the window of a shuttered pet shop. Her face was droopy and her eyes were empty and dead looking. Fitting, those eyes, that face. Fitting because her external self had converged with her internal self, and, for once, for once, the external and the internal commingled in something like harmony.
Thunder rumbled again and lightning backlit the clouds. But it didn’t rain. It didn’t rain yet. Alexis knew rain would fill the streets soon enough, and she didn’t know where to go. Where would she go? Where would she go to stay warm and dry and itch or scratch free? And where would she go to escape that thing she did, that kind of daydreaming but not daydreaming thing where worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head?
And where would she go to avoid the Bad Thing? That, for her, was the million dollar question. Her friends had succumbed to the Bad Thing and none had the desire, it seemed, to try to escape it. Not even Kara. Especially not Kara.
The last time Alexis had stayed with Kara, they spent three days locked inside the house, uncompromisingly high, and they wore these kind of old-lady-house-dress-looking pajamas, and the pajamas were dirty and smelled of urine and vomit, but neither Alexis nor Kara really cared about the stench, and they only rarely even noticed it, and then usually only when one plopped down on the bed and the air concussed and blasted the other in the face; and they were so high, so high they barely even spoke, and when they did speak, they spoke in that whispery drawl people speak after succumbing to the Bad Thing. And they stayed high for three days. Three days, and it felt like ten minutes. And then at one point during the three days, near the end, as Alexis recalled, Mario stopped by and promised Kara more of the Bad Stuff if she’d have sex with him, but Kara was so wrecked by the Bad Stuff that she couldn’t even feign excitement and she couldn’t convince Mario she was enjoying it—and she clearly wasn’t, but she tried, it seemed, to express excitement, at least for his sake. But he didn’t buy it, and the act of catching a woman feigning excitement did more to enrage him than probably anything else. Kara could probably have stolen a gram and it wouldn’t have enraged Mario as much as her whole faking an orgasm act had. And even after they had sex, which was the agreement, not an insistence on enjoyment, Mario refused to give Kara—and, by extension, Alexis—anything because she, Kara, was, Mario insisted, so strung out she was “worthless” and “about as useful” w/r/t sex as “a sock filled with sandpaper.”
Kara was so strung out, she didn’t care. She didn’t care that she’d had unprotected sex with a notorious—i.e. possible carrier of STDs—womanizer. She didn’t care that Mario’d had unprotected sex with her and then protested her lack of enthusiasm, she didn’t care that he’d ridiculed her and her best friend and then left without honoring his end of the bargain—she cared only about succumbing to the Bad Thing, and she was so taken by it that nothing else mattered.
If she returned to Kara’s house, Alexis knew she’d once again succumb to the Bad Thing, and she didn’t oh god want to succumb to the Bad Thing again, even though succumbing to it sounded so goddam good that her mouth, her brains, her bones screamed out for it. Please. God. Just one little taste. One. More. Taste. One little … To stop the burning, the sickness, the itching, the …
She clutched her belly and she fought it. She fought it. She wrestled every sensation tearing through her, the sensations practically demanding attention, the sensations threatening an insurrection, threatening to usurp her arms and legs and get the Bad Stuff and taste it one last time—with or without her consent. But then … Then she clutched her stomach again.
She couldn’t taste the Bad Stuff. Never again. Not now. Not …
She wasn’t certain she was pregnant—that is, she hadn’t verified it with a pregnancy test, but she knew. She could tell. Women knew these things. And she knew a baby was growing inside her, of that she was more certain than anything. And she knew she was going to have it, and she knew she wanted to keep it, and she knew keeping it entailed responsibility, the type of which she’d never really exercised before, and she knew the Bad Stuff would either kill the baby or deform it somehow—maybe not physically but definitely mentally—and she knew the Bad Stuff would splinter or destroy whatever neural processes governed the actions people referred to as “maternal instincts.” And so … No. She wouldn’t go to Kara’s. She wouldn’t fall back or rely on anyone she’d known or kind of befriended—though in those circles, you never really “befriended” anyone; friendship itself only remained strong when someone had access to the Bad Stuff. She could not even attempt to rely on Kara or anyone else now that a baby was blooming inside her.
Thunder rumbled again. It jolted her. She jumped, physically jumped, and her heart pounded. She glanced up and registered the sky, the clouds, and mentally inquired about the rain. Why hadn’t it started yet? It was almost certainly going to start. Any minute now. Any …
And that’s when she saw it. On the sidewalk, near the base of a building, an old barbershop: a one hundred dollar bill. It lay flat on the sidewalk. She stopped and stood over it and glanced down at it. Her fingers curled and closed into a fist—acting on their own; a prelude to insurrection? And she fought the impulse to bend over and scoop up the money.
This required consideration. This required tact.
Hyper agency detection kicked in and Alexis stepped forward and dropped her foot onto the hundred dollar bill, and she glanced around—left to right, forward and back—but she didn’t see anyone, no one, not a single person. Not anywhere. And so she stood, frozen, foot stamped on the money, and she considered what she’d discovered. An answer. A possible answer. Maybe she could use it to find a cheap hotel and regroup. Maybe she could use it to eat. Maybe she could use it to … Maybe just a little taste of it, the Bad Stuff. A small portion of the cash could buy enough Bad Stuff to maybe make her sickness go away or make the itching go away or … But no. No. She was desperate and she was tired and she was hungry, and she was also craving the Bad Stuff, and so while the money might be a blessing there was also an almost equal chance that it might be a curse. And so …
And so she’d just take it. She’d scoop it up and slip it into her pocket and find a cheap hotel and maybe—or maybe not, who knew?—call Mario or Kara and …
She lifted her foot and bent over and tried to scoop up the money, but something prevented her for picking it up. Something prevented her from grabbing it and lifting it and slipping it into her pocket.
She fell to her knees and tried to pick it up and then she tried to wedge her thumbnail under the corner to peel it away from the sidewalk and … This money would really help. It could help and … Maybe a hotel for the night. Or food. Or maybe it’d buy a taste, just a little taste of the Bad Stuff. Or maybe … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under it. If she could only lift the corner, peel it from the sidewalk, she’d undoubtedly then peel the entire thing off and shove it into her pocket and … Maybe just a taste, you know? One little taste and … Just lift the corner. She only needed to lift the corner. But the corner wouldn’t rise. It wouldn’t break free. It …. Probably those assholes, those frat boys assholes … They probably used some adhesive to stick it to the ground. Those assholes pulled pranks like this all the time. They pulled pranks on the poor or homeless and filmed it and put it online so other frat boys assholes could watch it and laugh at the poor or homeless and … It was definitely glued. Definitely stuck there. Definitely affixed to the sidewalk. And … It was undoubtedly those assholes and … If only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner. If she could only lift the corner … God, she was so fucking tired. A hotel room sounded great. It called to her. And food: she could feel her stomach jump into her throat, ready to devour anything, anything. And then maybe she would call Mario. But just for a taste. One last taste before she … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner.