Annabel on the Eighteenth Floor
Annabel was 16, she lived with her parents on the 18th floor, and she didn't matter. Her parents' building was next door to Groz's mother's apartment. He didn't know that—not until after. He had only known her from school and sometimes hanging out. Cool, he thought; they had something in common. There was another in the buildings.
She had thick lips and a sweet smile below yellow shiny eyes always bugging out between heavy caked lashes. Stoned eyes; dust eyes big with veins like any dust head's. Around those eyes she was kind of pretty—but she didn't care about pretty. The makeup on her face was thick and white. She wore the black lipstick favored by all the other girls at the punk matinees. Black jacket and engineer boots with a silver buckle on the outside. Thick matte-black hair out of a packet of cheap dye fell down to her shoulders when it wasn't pinned up carelessly to the back of her head.
She blew out of the glass window at 8:53 PM on a Monday night. High on dust. They had been in the dining area next to the living room (Groz's mother's apartment was laid out the same way). It was a large rectangle of glass with two small panels; one on each side. It could open with a latched hinge. There was nothing but air between the window on the 18th floor and the pavement, hedges, and dirt below. Dave was there in the room with Annabel that Monday. And her parents. The parents said that she and Dave couldn't see each other anymore. That was enough—dusted. She couldn't go forward, and then there was broken glass, crisp cold air on her face, and nothing else.
After, Groz dreamt about her; dreamt that she came to him. Dreamt that Annabel was the Queen of Violet. Which didn't mean anything. Maybe.
Alison was quick and sharp; she knew about cutting and pulling. She hated every inch of her boney fat protruding body, and so she cut it. She pulled a razor blade along her arms, up and down on the soft side with no little black hairs. Carefully. Slowly. But even with the singular riveted-eyeball attention she fixed on her ritual, something had gone wrong. Very wrong—and the cut had run open like a pocket with a loose zipper, and a large blood balloon of a vein fell out. No bleeding at first, just this huge vein dangling out. Alison knew it was wrong and dangerous. She was immediately out of the trance mind of cutting and stepped purposefully, one swift step after another holding her wound. She carried it to her parents in the other room and unclenched her fingers from around the cut. Then came an ambulance ride to the hospital where, after arrival, Alison was involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward for observation and to prevent any immediate repetition of her attempt at whatever it was that was determined.
"You wouldn't have that if I weren't Hollowed Out. I did it for you. I did everything for my children." Groz's father sat before him, a slumped Hollowed Out scarecrow of a man. A bag of dough without the will to rise—finished long ago but holding on still—and for Groz, a murky ruinous pool of quicksand waiting for his fateful step.
"My boy won't need to Transform. You can see inside yourself. And into others. I remember being young and having Sight. I knew what this was all about down under the bullshit." Apparently the old man was lucid just then—enough to talk and to listen. Groz was comforted to be with his father when he was like this. He couldn't remember far back enough to recall what his father was like before Hollowing Out. It was around seven or eight years, but that was about half a life-time for Groz—and not a very good half.
His father had never Transformed. Like the others covered in that certain spectral translucent web of spotty soot skins over their own earthly sheaths, he had Hollowed Out, a dreaded becoming. Dreaded at least by the Shiners with their ever-ready can-do shines.
Shiners were the gold standard of the Transformed. The "shine" moniker arose from the peculiar gloss that pasted itself to their Transformed teeth, skin, and hair. The Shiners were groomed and polished by the Transformation process itself (as well as their parents who were, almost, invariably Shiners too) for positions of importance—in corporate and State affairs.
Groz had not Transformed. Nor had his Crew, not yet, and none of them had Hollowed Out. They knew themselves in contrast to the Shiners, and it was something they braced themselves to resist, finding any way to be something else. But there was time left, still only in High School, the "winds of change" (a polite way of referring to Transformation) wouldn't necessarily come upon the Crew for some time, but it could arrive for them at any moment. If his father was telling him the truth, Groz would never Transform—not like the others—because he had Sight into things of this world and beneath it.
Just the week before, Groz's friend and sometimes make out partner, Yanna, had Transformed. She was now a shining example of a good girl and a student of some import. The Crew had all known that she had always been a "sell-out." "Shine on laced-up pussy." Groz had held his outstretched fingers up to both sides of his face to form a sign of a freakish sun beaming light in mocking honor of his crush now lost. "Punk rock to the planet rock!" In reply, his friend Red had howled with his lips in a preposterous "O" in the center of his goat-like freckled white face under a crown of curly red hair. And that had been the last they spoke of her.
"With the Sight, I could do amazing things." Groz's father continued. "Sense the connections." He turned his face upwards, and Groz could see the furrows between the man's white bushy Russian eyebrows raised high above his grey blue eyes. "Isn't it peculiar that the fat offish hairless monkeys that humans are have the ability to speak, to perform mathematics, to compose an opera? Not just grab at food scraps and bite each other in spite. And they say that Sight is strange. The genius doctors, the apes who like to dress up in white and stick probes into your pubes, they don't believe in Sight. Well, feh. I did what I did for you."
"I know, Pops." Groz put his hands on his father's sloped shoulders. His fingertips crossed over the course cloth of the old man's bag-like shirt and onto the rough dry bone of his spine, exposed from his Hollowing Out. "I love you."
"Me too, boy. I don't know what I would do without you." His father gently placed the side of his head on Groz's shoulders before it bobbled over and dropped forward over his sunken chest. Groz bled under his bones. He knew. It didn't matter.
"I gotta go, Pops. My cousins are coming to Mom's tonight." But Groz's father was staring, transfixed to something Groz couldn't see—whatever. "Later, Pops."
Grozny and the Sticks
Young arms lifted fingers skitteling tiny sticks and glue to form a series of interlocking towers on top of their mother's old card table in the corner. Uncounted rectangles of flicks of wood and white paste rose geometrically, expanding out into the living room's air. The smell of carpet embedded with grownups' nights up late drinking, smoking, and holding cards floated over and around them. The bigger cousins sat with their legs dug into the braided cords of seat covers. With knee skin molded into reverse patterns of the cords, they stared intently with tiny points of tongue sticking out between their lips.
Grozny, his sister Lena, and his cousin Drake added stick after stick to the rising structure. It hung heavy to one side as the kids bolstered it from below with more wood to even things out. Never quite steady, it was still in its hulking mass of fragility, always just before a fall to one side or another, saved only by the speed of their darting young hands and arms attending to thin wood emergencies and critical failures of sticky glue.
"Yeeehhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaa!" Shrieking little plump cheeks and a wisp of curling hair scrambled and bumped up and down toward where the older ones sat constructing and fixing their teetering complex. "Shhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!" She looked up with a two-year-old's expectations of joining them, both terror and joy swelled up from her belly in an almost entirely physical sensation. "Yyyyyyaaaaaaahhhhhh! Owwwwww."
Groz hugged the structure with outstretched arms, palms and fingers circling and sheltering. "Get her away!" His chest was pressed tightly up against the wood and drying glue. It smelled fresh compared to the stale card table air he'd been breathing. As he stood witness to his seemingly automatic actions, not knowing whether the structure would survive the attack, he felt a sudden connection to what he'd built—a commitment to its survival arising simultaneously with his experience of rising bodily to protect it. This was trust, he thought. "Something to hold onto."
"Gimme gi-you! Let's do it!" Lena wanted to play one of their favorite games. "Gimme gi-you—I give you a tickle." Lena grabbed her little cousin Sasha and thrust her quivering fingers into the little girl's arm pits. "Eeeeeeaaeheheh" Sasha laughed, squinting her eyes as tight as she could.
It was Sasha's turn now. "Com'n now, you—gimme gi-you." Lena stood ready for the attack. "Gimma, gi" Sasha ran at her cousin and broke into giggles as she tried to stick a finger into Lena's side. She picked up the little one and put her to the side, still giggling to herself.
Lena turned to Groz, sitting by the card table. "Groz, you go."
"Ah, can't we get this done?"
"Ok—gimme gi-you." Groz was upon Lena before he finished the words.
"AAAhhhhh. Stop! I'm peeing. Stop, I'm peeing in my pants." Lena was stiff with excruciating laughter.
"Ok, man, we're done." Groz went back to the table and his twisting tower.
Groz took the subway to visit Alison in the hospital. He wound his way up to the Bronx and walked along the tree-lined meridian until he arrived at the large brick building. The psyche ward was on the 9th floor. Alison came out to see Groz in her little white hospital gown with her arm all tied up with tape and cotton. She bounced out toward him like she always did, smiling but holding her head down a bit with a degree of shame. Groz didn't notice; he was in a haze of white walls, ammonia, and bleach-cleaned sheets taught on top of turning filthy wheels of aging gurneys and wet gauze—white on white on white.
"It's good to see you, Groz."
"Are you okay? He mumbled, looking down at the cotton bundled around her arm. A corner of the white tape had yellowed and become threadbare from her pullings and twistings.
"Yeah. They just have to do this because they thought I was trying to kill myself. I wasn't, y'know. I made a friend here, Amy. She's cool." Alison moved close to Groz, and he could feel the warmth of her skeletal body and smell her hair.
"When are you getting out?"
"Next week, if everything works out." She was excited at the thought of leaving.
Groz was mesmerized by her presence. He could feel an ocean rise in his gut. He could sense that she was telling him the truth; she didn't mean to kill herself, it was something else—an accident. Groz craved her touch—he needed her.
Inside the stone building Groz, Red, and Alex sat in Red's room. It was a good place for them to hang out. Red's parents never seemed to be around, although neither had jobs that kept them outside their home. His mother was a high school dance teacher a few blocks away, and his father had been out of work for awhile. Groz had been there scores of times over the last few months—he'd met the parents once, maybe it was twice.
There was a gargoyle on the corner of the stone ornament outside the one window in Red's bedroom. Red liked to show guests how to see it by sticking their bodies out of the ninth-floor window about halfway down their thighs, pushing their hands on the window frame to hold their bodies in and looking down. Groz had done it when he first met Red—pushed himself out the window, looked down, and "Oh yeah—I see it," and then quickly jumped back in.
"I didn't know she lived in the next building," Groz said. "Maybe we could have hung out there."
"Whatever, one down. Right?" Red nodded his head and cocked it back. "Right?" he bellowed with a laugh. "Yeah"—Groz shrugged, and his back loosened a little in relief. Maybe Red had it right. Just one down.
"Dang. That shit ain't right" Alex shook his head and looked down, at once smiling and admonishing with his lips. "Dave almost jumped too. Shit. He's hanging out with Dougie and Mike." Before banding together with Groz and Red, Alex had been part of a "Crew" with Dougie Fresh, Mike, and Dave. They hung out at the statue in the Park, skateboarding, smoking, dropping acid, fighting when they had to. All except Alex—he never dosed and didn't smoke cigarettes. "They're just watching him. He's gone." He pointed his crooked arm and outstretched finger from his head and out to space. "Nigga crazy motherfucker anyway and shit," he falsettoed, now with his full-on signature Cheshire grin. "He and Annabel used to work at McDonalds on Broadway, and the motherfucker would blow his nose in the buns!" Like Red, Alex had vivid orange hair that he wore down to his shoulders. With his grin and grey blue eyes, he was like an otherworldly vision from a graphic novel—a good one.
"No fucking way!" Groz laughed. "I ate there."
"I'm serious, for real, for real." Alex giggled with his hand up to his mouth.
"When did he work there?"
"A year ago or something." Alex said. "What's up with Alison?" Groz felt his stomach drop and shoulders shrink and tense.
"She didn't mean to kill herself. She was just cutting. Barely scratching her arms, and it slipped or something. She should be going home in a couple of days." Groz didn't want to talk about her. Groz thought Alex was too interested in Alison.
"Word up!" Alex threw us fist into the air, haling Groz.
"Whatever, man. Thanks." Groz turned from Alex.
"Yo, let's go," Red barked. "The Park?" Red was at least six inches taller than Groz, and his body was rippled with muscle from his constant climbing of rocks, walls, tunnels, and anything else he could find to pull himself up. Walking in the park, he would stop, turn to Groz, and say "Look at that squirrel. It was made to climb." And they would just marvel at the way the little grey rodents would scramble straight up rock walls.
"Sure man." Groz was down.
"Got to go. Nah." Alex turned and crushed his shoulders up around his neck—no choice.
"Ok—later, man. It's me and Groz."
Groz nodded. "Later"
Groz and Red walked out with Alex and went west toward the Park. Alex turned toward Broadway.
Alex pictured Dave as he walked up the avenue. He knew him well enough to know Dave would never be okay—knew enough to sense the Hollowing. He giggled to himself as he remembered the story he had just told about Dave's work at McDonald's. "Crazy motherfucker." His eulogy done, Alex headed towards Jessica's house up Broadway. She knew Dave—and Annabel. She'd have something to say about it. Maybe she'd cry. He looked forward to her snapping out of her tears and cracking up with him. Maybe they'd both just crack up together. That would be something.
The sky was dimming to dark as Alex walked down 89th Street toward Jessica's brownstone. At the end of the block, the lights had come on around the statue. Alex could see that the Crew wasn't there. He didn't have to hang with them just now. He knocked on Jess's door.
Up the avenue, snaking along the river into Harlem, the two boys lingered and huddled as Dave stood out on the other side of the curb. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, waiting for now was enough. They stood guard for Dave, but would they stop him—intrude if he decided to go? They didn't know. Dougie and Mike had been Hollowing Out for months that felt like years in the compressed tunnel vision of always-present teenage-time. They held onto hope that Dave wouldn't. What would it mean for them?
Dave leaned back onto the curved metal and glass. A parked car behind him. Cars swifted down the avenue in front of his belly, pushed forward from his arched back; his bangs lifted and fell in their wind. Restraint. Dave held himself still, not lurching forward (if only he could) and not going back.
In the orange haze of streetlights under a clear dark sky, Dave felt the first bite of the change burn over his cheekbone and across his nose, but that was it. Then and after: numb. He was as a limp carrot still in the ground in winter, forgotten at harvest, cold, damp, unmoving, utterly devoid of ability to fight or flee, vaguely alive. His skin was released of its moisture. Down came the dank cloth over the holes of his eyes. A tightly pulled crosshatch of burlap now covered his skull and what had been its muscles. His bagged head was tied up with an inch-across knot of rope. His naked dry spine stuck down where his neck had been. It disappeared into a blue cotton buttoned shirt above jeans both stuffed full with hay. Black hard buttons for eyes. A dopey hat, faded and torn, adorned the bag head. He could stand somehow, but he swung a bit from side to side. Dougie and Mike stared at Dave, now a Hollow spectral presence like themselves. The winds swept around the three, like a rush of air swirling to fill a vacuum.
Blowing Blood (Bubbles)
Lena walked down the thin cement path down towards the Astral Dome with her little cousin in hand. The antique green street lights lit the path in yellow rounds one after another. Her stride quickened in the shadow-filled spots between the circles of light. The little one hurried to keep up; she was scared of the dark. Lena could see a huddle of figures up ahead and a crowd of teens smoking and pushing around in the lights next to the Astral Dome. She walked towards the circle of figures. "Lena, what's up?" Groz was surprised to see his sister at the Astral. "Why'd you bring the baby here? Man."
The little girl shot out from Lena's side towards his low familiar voice. "Gimme, Gi, Gi!"
"Yo, let me get it." Red grabbed at the bag in Groz's hand. Red poured some of the powder out onto his hand. "How do you work this shit again?" He put his mouth down onto his palm wetting the powder and coughed.
Lena scowled at Groz. "She wants to play Gimme gi-you, Groz. Com'n."
Groz nodded toward the orange-haired ram-faced hulk in front of him and winked at Alison's face tucked in between Groz and Red. "Here, go like this": he lifted his cupped hands to his mouth and sucked in beige powder like it was sweet air about to escape. Sip! Hhhhhnnnnnnn. He could barely hold back his own vomit and gagging shrieks from the putrid slap of pain and disgust to the back of his throat. But in a second it was over. He had kept his cool and he threw his head back as if to say "nothing to this." Then back to it as he thrust his neck out in front of him, sucked back some breath, put his lips together and: pop. A perfect globe of shining bright red-purple emerged from his lips and quivered in the air.
Grozy and his friends had been fooling around with the powder for a few weeks. It was nothing more than microscopic crustacean fossils whose cracked edges and hooks would, when inhaled, sever thousands of tiny blood vessels lining the inside of folded lung tissue. By contracting the muscles around their upper abdominal muscles and forcing a burp-like jerk of breath up and out of their lungs, a burst of the blood would spew up and, if you blew just right, a red-purple orb would emerge from your mouth like a vampire's bubble gum and quiver then—spurt, it would burst and paint your mouth and chin with spots of exhaled blood. The cuts hurt a little for a couple of days, but no one ever died of it.
Groz's bubble quivered, and for a second Alison could see a fuzzy bright red reflection of herself run over its surface. Her reflection was misshapen in the shaking and coagulation. It made her angry to have looked at the blood bubble as a mirror—she looked fat. Then pop—sputter; he wiped the blood aside with the sleeve of his shirt. Arched symmetrical lines of clotting red clung to the skin where his cheek met his chin. "I don't play gimme gi-you no more."
They walked next to each other, Groz's side used as a moving cane for his slumped and limping father. The Hollowed man's chest and shoulders flopped side to side from the axle of his waist as if supported by a great broken spring stuck down into his spine. Bobble head and black eyes dangling above, like an emblem of otherness. "Maybe you can find yourself in me."
"I don't know, Pops."
"My friend, a girl at school jumped out her window. She was on dust."
His father stopped, and his head turned towards Groz's. "Sorry, sweetheart. You okay?"
The nerves in Groz's chest felt sore as he heard his father's interest. Groz was startled—by being asked, by his father being conscious enough of someone else to ask, and by the thought of it. Not Annabel but the window and her jump. He couldn't make himself tell Pops about Alison. It was too much, and he didn't want to cry in front of the old man just then—he might not be able to stop. "I didn't know her that well. She lived next door. But I didn't really know her. You know?"
"My friend tried to do that to me." Groz didn't know what the old man meant. "She had two kids. It was impossible. She didn't know what happened."
"What are you talking about, Pops?" Groz was getting frustrated.
"She ate enough pills to kill seventeen people, but she didn't die. She kept taking more, but it didn't work."
"What? Why was she trying to kill herself? Were you there? You have to be careful. You could go to jail."
The scarecrow was getting tense and was ill at ease now; a slow swirling sea of the gaseous smoky membrane moved where his neck should have been. His shoulders twitched. He rubbed his swollen cracked fingertips together against the bones and dry skin of what had been his thumbs. "She had the syndrome, and it was becoming unlivable. Unbearable. She shit her pants. I didn't do anything. She has two children." His voice was sharp, and moisture was coming off of him, or was it his clothes?
Excited, his father pushed his chest forward to force out his words and took the rest of his body and the clothes it was wrapped in with it, out further than he had aimed, and suddenly a pile of bones, blankets, the dumb blue hat, and his woeful atmosphere of grey and soot was free-falling toward the curb. Fast, Groz bent down low and put his buoyant body between the twisting pile and the hard cold ground below.
Without thought, he turned his shoulder into the avalanche and sprang up with his knees to lift it back into balance. As he stood to straighten out, he flashed to the card table the night before and his saving embrace of the glued tower of tiny sticks. Something to hold onto, he had thought at the time. This was trust—but trust of what? Trust that he would rise? That things would fall? Or trust that it was all automatic—a free-falling collapse that he could no more prevent than fix altogether?
Releasing his grip on the dirt laden shirt sleeve, Groz turned away, and as if talking to the air swifting between them, he spoke without knowing what he would say: "Okay, man, whatever, it doesn't matter."
"I wore this one for you, Groz." Her shirt was scissored back around the neck so her chest heaved out of the cut rim. "Thanks. You have great breasts." He felt proud of saying it. Which one of the Crew could say that for real?
"I know." She laughed and pulled away with her fingers holding the neck line.
"You've got a great body." He coaxed her on an inch further.
"No, I don't!" She turned from Groz, and suddenly the light went out of them. She held her frame tight with both arms. Groz could hear her beginning to cry.
"I don't understand. What happened?"
"Just leave me alone!"
He pressed his eyelids down into the bottom lips of their sockets and sensed the stillness below the bones in his chest and back. A quiet wind blew against his cheek and pushed the tiny hairs on the outside of his ear. His skin rippled with twitching nerves.
He focused on the energy down under his bones. If he could just focus it, use it to envelope her.
She laid on her side on the other side of the room. "I had a dream that I was the Queen of Violet."
Groz's world stuttered. The moment stuck. "What the fuck does that mean?"
"Fuck you." Alison was rubbing the back of her arm with an opened safety pin. "You know what that means. Maybe."
Groz stayed still. His spine was illuminated with pain aching to pull his body upright and do battle for Alison. But he was suspended.
How strange that beneath his black-sleeved white-breasted t-shirt stenciled with the exploding Hindenburg and under the last of the soft skins of his childhood sprouting with course hairs and meaningful bumps, a skin prone to quiver and jump from the slightest touch and yet stubbornly refusing entry to foreign thought and commands, laid a floating transparent pool—an endless subterranean sky dense with layered illuminated vapors and shadow, a bottomless cavern of churning question. How odd that his days were filled with plastic chairs, imposed schedules and classes, school jackets and backpacks while under his very skin a sea of urgent seeking and the power of Sight swelled and rose to crest under that vaporous submerged sky.
But for all its supposed power and presence, he was unable to do anything for Alison.
Her long hair was motionless, draped across her shoulders and over her neck. She lay silent, intently eyeballing a pinch of skin from her arm in between two fingers and a safety pin open now, held by her teeth. She was outstretched, naked and alone. She could feel the thin sharp steel's bite on her tongue. She fingered the pin and pricked her arm. Alison was quick and sharp. Her mouth clenched tight around her lips with a regal air of indifference to her suffering. For now had come the royal Queen of Violet.
Groz sat motionless and felt the wind blowing against his chilled face. His skin rippled with twitching nerves. He bled under his bones.
CL Brussel comes from, but now lives just outside the edges of, New York City. He has authored published works on a wide range of non-fiction topics from a legal and economic analysis of regulatory regimes for genetically modified organisms to weekly columns on food culture in suburbia. He is currently completing a novel of the weird for current and former teens.
copyright © 2008, C. L. Brussel
—Annabel on the Eighteenth Floor
C. L. BRUSSEL
JASON ERIK LUNDBERG
—Rhapsody in Transverse Vibration
—The Red Door
BRYAN D. DIETRICH
BRYAN D. DIETRICH
—Several Stories, Single Bound
BRYAN D. DIETRICH
MICHAEL NEAL MORRIS