Edition 7: Serial Fiction: Intangible (Part 2 of 6) by A. A. Garrison
In the last episode of Intangible, Hack the shaman had picked his target. His mark is a young woman, Jeannie Tuttle. He now begins to dabble in her everyday life, placing cues in the unseen movements of his grand plot. SY
III. September 11th, 1989
Jeannie knows she’s dreaming. It’s an inherent knowledge, like how to lie. She distantly wonders if she can manipulate her dream, steer it, but this proves impossible: it sprouts strange legs and runs, moving with the scripted adamance of a kabuki play.
It’s daytime and beautiful, concrete below a sunshot sky, people thronged along a cordoned street. In the distance, snare drums and a pan flute play “Yankee Doodle.” Good cheer lifts every face, a flag for every hand. The Fourth of July?
A smirking man sidles past Jeannie, a disaster of rosy cheeks and leathery skin. He mumbles, “’Skuse me, sweetheart,” and contact too firm to be innocent meets her rear. Her face storms—she recognizes this game, knows it well. She wants to grab the cad, spin him around, scream: “You touched me! You violated me!” But she doesn’t; can’t. She watches, she waits, and he leaves scot-free, just like the touchy drunks at Budd’s Tavern. Just like the sleaze-ball movie-men.
Red, white, and blue people ebb past, oblivious to her distress. Excuse me, pardon me, sorry. The bodies stress the blockades, the air thick with carnival odors. “Yankee Doodle” gathers force beneath the crowd’s din; a parade is coming.
As Jeannie stands in wait—she likes parades—a slow, warbling moan rises from behind. She wants to ignore it, wants to watch the parade, but the dream’s tidal grip twirls her to the moan, to the alleyway.
The alley is too deep, too dark, the brick walls wavering and deformed like funhouse mirrors. The passage is a partition from day, the crisp sunlight finding no purchase there. A second moan from deep inside, followed by small cries.
“Hello?” she calls, quitting the crowd.
A glimmer of white answers from the gloom. The dream-legs usher her closer, pulling insistently, and the black soon drowns her like ink.
“Hello?” Jeannie calls again, frightened, faltering.
More lachrymose noises as the crop of white grows, resolves, into a mask. A porcelain theatre mask, she sees, the unhappy one. The spatulate shape shines in the dark, a discarnate tooth, and the dream conveys her closer, closer. Glowing blue eyes haunt the almond sockets, staring, appraising. They scour her from head to toe, prod her, indulge her—just as they had, the people, watching her over the silver screen, seeing her everything and laughing, laughing, laughing. She knows that wanting stare, just as she knew the man’s drive-by feel-up: the eyes crave her. The eyes are hungry.
“No,” Jeannie says, struggling lamely against the dream-legs. But the conveyor continues, slow and steady.
A shrill howl erupts from the mask, part lamentation and part feline laughter.
“Stay away!” she screams, but her cry is anemic, dilute.
“Come,” says the mask, and there are checkers now, wallpapering the alley and the sky and her paralyzed body. “Come and give me your—”
The conveyor breaks and Jeannie stumbles from the alley, as if in mortar shoes. Through the corridor and onto the walk, away from the insatiable eyes and their two-toned hell. She meets the crowd just as the Yankee Doodlers march past.
Amazingly, the parade calms her, in the imperious way of dreams. Forgetting the alley, she watches the street fill with stars and stripes, first an array of majorettes, blurring batons and kicking invisible footballs, then the marching band. The star-spangled ensemble is trailed by a papier-mâché juggernaut, and Jeannie instantly recognizes the effigy: Abraham Lincoln.
Not the Fourth, but President’s Day. George Washington must be next.
But she’s wrong: the following juggernaut is another Lincoln. As is the next, and the fourth, the fifth. She counts seven Lincolns; eight; ten; fifteen. She looks down the road, and they clog both lanes for as far as she can see: a wagon train of topper hats and crescent beards and determined brows; so many marching ants. She opens her mouth to question this, and—
Jeannie Tuttle awoke, making groggy noises and knuckling her eyes. Sharp morning sun cuts through a window, slatted over her chest. Chirping birds, wheeling dust. Dozing, she reviewed her fading dream: there was an alleyway, and crying, and some jerk grabbing her ass. And a parade starring Abraham Lincoln—a whole sea of Lincolns, actually.
The dream was weird, but it was better than reliving the movie opening.
She muttered like an old woman, shoving her comforter to her waist. Doobie, her corpse-skinny tabby, stirred from her feet with an inquisitive mmm-mowl.
She levered onto her elbows, stretching her neck with a pulpy pop. “I wasn’t talking to you, fuzz-butt,” she said, and stroked the cat’s knobbly back. The cat’s eyes said it could answer but chose not to.
She sent a diagnostic foot to the floor, and reeled back; only September, and it was already getting cold. She was still acclimatising to the mountains, to Ford. It was a far cry from California, that was for damn sure. Might as well be the North Pole.
Steeling herself, she pirouetted over the glacial floor and to her socks, discarded imprudently by the closet. They slid on warm and she slipped absently from her panties, half expecting to find the dream-man’s handprint over her right buttock. It was clean, however; as always, the groping only leaves contempt.
She hurried open the third drawer of her bureau and picked through, goosebumps all over. It was her dayshift drawer, the one with clothes her size—apparel for the sober, daylight hours at Budd’s Tavern, in other words. One of her fellow waitresses had asked to trade shifts, and Jeannie couldn’t have been more willing. Her nightshift outfits, two sizes too big, occupied the next drawer down.
She pulled out jeans and a tee-shirt and fresh underwear, then stood at her closet mirror without putting them on, looking herself up and down. She’d been doing this since the movie disaster, having staring contests with the mirror.
The pier glass cut off at her shins, truncating her into a footless thing. A face more than cute, makeup unnecessary. Long sorrel hair an oxbow down her shoulders, touching her breasts. They were moderately large, her breasts, achieving that gravid appearance so many women strive for, though they were only proportionate with her stocky body. Unrestrained, they rested politely over the swell of her tummy, the nipples forming a perfect triangle with her navel. Her hips continued her body’s padded motif, just enough to appear curvaceous and matronly. “Big boned,” she’d been called, and there was nothing euphemistic about it: she was simply big, full, a hand-me-down from her father, according to Mom. Whatever the size of her bones though, Jeannie had never struggled with confidence; she’d always thought herself beautiful and shapely, if a little soft in the middle.
But that was all before the movie, before Hollywood chewed her up, spit her out, and picked its teeth. Now when she assessed her plus-sized self, all she had was questions, and they stung. She quit the mirror and dressed blind.
Bunning her hair, she left her childhood bedroom for the hall. Doobie shambled behind, a furry afterthought. She’d missed him while in California, and he was about the only thing. Jeannie used the bathroom, then continued down the hall, to wake Mom.
Mom. She slowed to a stop, a machine losing power. The thought needled her, everything else surfacing in a chain reaction: the movie, the laughter, the men. It was hell, these reckonings. They’d started in the month since she’d moved back home, sneaking up like thieves. She didn’t know what was worse: living the humiliation that had been California, or forgetting it then remembering, ad nauseam. Literally.
She returned to the toilet and vomited soundlessly, as she’d learned. Doobie cried.
Mom’s doorknob was as cold as the floor, but fell short of the woman herself. “Ma?” Jeannie said in a funny voice. Her mouth was acidy from the puke.
Some grumpy noises that Jeannie translated as “I’m up” sounded from the room beyond, and she grabbed the knob, wincing. Hate this, can’t stand it, can’t do this anymore, bled from the back of her head, and Cory’s cynical voice spoke up in reply: Then don’t, it said, complete with Cory’s know-it-all lilt. It was tempting.
Upon Jeannie’s March homecoming, Cory had resumed her position as Best Friend, coming to the aid of her demimonde high-school chum. And now that Jeannie was remembering the trials of Life With Mom, one of the reasons she’d swanned off to California in the first place, Cory made it a regular point that Jeannie had no obligations. “Your mom can take care of herself,” was Cory’s stance, and she was right: Mom wasn’t helpless. The old woman would adapt in the face of solitude, Jeannie knew, just like when Jeannie had left the first time. But Cory didn’t know Mom’s talent for ascribing culpability, or the razor-sharp tongue used to deliver it—which was especially keen after the movie fiasco, when she had magnanimously let Jeannie come crawling back. Jeannie had known, even before coming home to Ford, that by returning to Mom she’d be giving her a drum of ammo to shoot her with, perhaps bottomless. So there was no leaving her again, not unless she wanted to see Mom with her claws out.
Jeannie turned the knob and stepped inside. She could do this, apparently.
“Close thuh damn doo’ah,” said a womanish heap of covers. “You’re lettin’ the cold air in.”
“I’m going to, Mom—”
The heap cut her off: “None of yuh sass, Jeannie Mae. Now close thuh doo’ah.”
Biting her tongue, Jeannie closed the door and helped her cantankerous mother out of bed. Doobie was nowhere to be found.
“Yuh put too much buttah in here,” said the elder Ms. Tuttle, loud in the little kitchen. A veiny stalk of finger indicated her grits, trembling. Outsize glasses amplified the distaste in her eyes. She may or may not have been frowning; at her age, it was hard to tell.
Jeannie froze by the stove, the conundrum presenting itself: apologize and get scolded for talking back, or stay quiet and receive equal reprimand for not apologizing? Decisions, decisions …
She took the apologetic route. “Sorry, Mom,” she said, tensing.
“And yuh should be,” her mother snapped. “Always over-butterin’ thuh grits…” Her head wagged, slate-gray hair staying perfectly still.
Jeannie relaxed. She could deal with complaint. Complaint was okay. She flipped on an old beige radio and began her own breakfast, eggs and toast. The antique’s single speaker—blown ages ago, even before Jeannie’s dad had left the picture—played some distorted Ray Charles. Campy as it was, the music drowned out Mom’s noisy chewing, elevating the mood to something resembling normalcy.
Halfway through the song, the vocals broke in. Mom’s jaw stopped. “Is that Ray Charles?” she asked peevishly, making no effort to conceal her mouthful of grits.
“The one and only,” Jeannie chirruped.
Mom sprung from the table and slapped off the radio, devilishly fast. “Don’t need that junkie bast’uhd in this home,” she spat, thudding back down. Doobie, crowning a chair, followed her with his eyes.
Jeannie cringed with her diaphragm, sure Mom’s distaste would migrate to her daughter. But, by some small miracle, it faded, and the two ate in silence, as close to peace as they would get. Jeannie would settle for silence; silence, like complaint, was okay. As long as they weren’t hashing over the movie, it was okay.
Eventually Jeannie stood and cleaned the table, still working through her last bite. Doobie dashed into the other room for no apparent reason.
“You workin’ this mornin’?” Mom asked, abnormally relaxed. The food, perhaps. Blood-sugar and all that.
Jeannie nodded. “Mary and I swapped shifts.” She started the dishes, forearms gloved in lather.
Mom made a “Hmmm” of acknowledgement, then struggled from the table and disappeared. Two rooms over, the TV clicked on. That, too, was okay.
With the dishes mellowing in the strainer and Doobie’s litter box clean, Jeannie threw on a sweater, called a goodbye, and left for Budd’s Tavern, feeling something like good. Her repression mechanism was working its magic, once more burying her personal goblins, and this was okay as well. Anything beat the shameful desert she’d been wandering this last month. She whistled “Yankee Doodle” over the half-mile walk to work.
An autumnal Ford greeted her, in all its dismal splendor, the morning sun lending a glaze of cheerfulness. The Tuttle house, a wanna-be Edwardian with a rug-sized lawn, was right in town, Budd’s Tavern conveniently close; on quiet nights, she could hear the bass from its stereo. The bar was the same as ever, a ramshackle eyesore sitting along Carlyle Street, Ford’s main drag. A gaudy sign featured a giant animated beer stein, its three-part sequence tipping the world at large.
As she approached, ready for another day of playing barmaid, she found men in work overalls on either side of the portico, balanced precariously on ladders. The two were struggling a printed banner over the door, just below the BUDD’S lightbox. The vinyl hung in languid droops, distorting the sign’s advertisement, but Jeannie could still make it out:
DRINKIN WITH LINCOLN
$1 SUDS AFTER 8
The lettering was a vulgar red-on-white. Flanking each side of it was a stenciled bust of Honest Abe himself, the aquiline nose and prodigious beard forming a caliper.
Jeannie stopped whistling.
IV. October, 1989
The luminescent street corner bustles with activity, a riot of light. Light-bodies glide about the fugitive scene. A half-pipe culvert runs parallel to the writhing street, conducting an ectoplasmic river. Translucent cars stop and go, their candent passengers like jarred fireflies.
Hack watches from his extra-dimensional perch, waiting. It’s a strange perspective, free of the spatial dimension that plagues flesh. Forward and back, up and down, left and right, merges into an inclusive Here; past, present, and future, Now. Here melds with Now to present the corner’s complete history, from creation to destruction and beyond.
Hard stop, fender bender, Hack thinks, just as one swirling blob of car stops short at the intersection, its trailing blob merging with it.
That quarter’s not worth it, son.
A light-child feeds change into a multi-colored vending machine. Two dimes, a nickel, a quarter; but the last doesn’t quite make it. The coin wobbles over the sidewalk and hops the curb for the candy-colored asphalt. The light-boy considers it, his swirling aura describing thought, but he cuts his losses and walks off. He will live long, Hack knows.
Hack’s awareness shifts to the bike courier, who is three blocks away and gaining. Show time.
Without fanfare, Hack enters a nearby sparrow, forcing the creature to share its body. They occupy the tiny brain like two men in a bathroom stall, the bird’s rudimentary consciousness protesting the incursion.
It will all be over soon, the shaman relays to his passenger, and the bird-mind goes broodingly quiet.
The courier, in shirtsleeves and a baseball cap, clears the final preceding block, and Hack acts. Operating the bird like a bizarre automobile, he flaps it from its perch in a broad spume of dust, thus spraying the courier’s face, impeccably on target. With that, the gambit is complete.
The courier sneezes, and his hat takes flight as if shot. The man throws a desperate hand to recover it, but the wind jerks it out of reach like a bully. The black hat—PANTY INSPECTOR, it reads in austere block letters—blows over the guardrail and into the culvert’s ghostly river, joining a nursery of newspapers and wrappers and other flotsam.
And so the hat begins its journey, cruising the town on a raft of dead leaves. Several people notice the expensive-looking article, but none are so bold as to dare the culvert, so the hat takes a slow tour of Ford. In time the river becomes a stream, the culvert a ditch, and the town a park, and the hat eventually snags in a grating. And for the next few hours, there it stays, atop its lighter of leaves and branches. It remains dry and attractive, enough to catch the eye of Rollie Defranco, a child who lives nearby.
Rollie leans dangerously from the bank, snatches the panty-inspector hat as if it were made of hundred-dollar bills, and climbs triumphantly from the cut. “Hey! You guys!” he cries with childish glee, waving his treasure.
The cry interrupts his friends’ soccer game, sending the last kick awry. The checkered ball hooks left, ducks a fence, and rolls into the path of a female pedestrian.
The kicker cups his hands over his mouth and shouts—
“Hey, lady! Little help?”
Jeannie looked between the soccer ball and the loose spread of kids in the field. Another was galumphing toward them, a hat in his hands. She returned the wayward ball with a ladylike punt, sending it bounding like a strange animal.
The vocal boy caught it deftly under his foot and gave a friendly wave. “Thanks!”
Jeannie smiled and returned his wave. In doing so, she noticed a gilt plaque rising from a nearby crater of cement, reading Abraham Lincoln Memorial Field. The words registered over her face.
“What is it?” Cory Witall, the sour-looking redhead at her side, asked.
Abe Lincoln, Jeannie wanted to say. I’ve been seeing it for the past month. “Nothing,” she said instead, and started from the park, her spooked expression betraying her answer.
Cory, too perceptive for her own good, seized on it. “Did they say something about the movie? Give you that look?” she growled, glancing dubiously at the soccering kids.
“I said, nothing. Chill out,” Jeannie said, and kept walking. Cory had been like this since Jeannie came home, constantly on the attack for anyone kicking sand in regards to the movie.
Cory sent the boys one last, black look, and followed.
A.A. Garrison is a twenty-nine-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of zines, anthologies, and journals, as well as the Pseudopod webcast. His horror novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is available from Montag Press. He blogs at synchroshock.blogspot.com.