NOTE: Below are some extracts from a draft of a supernatural story I wrote earlier in the summer for a contest. It’s very long and in dire need of revision; like a near-total overhaul in so many significant respects. Lord knows what will become of it, seeing as how I might be about to disqualify myself from said contest, but these wholly out-of-context extracts are not going to make it anyway; all I’m going to say is that “new shit has come to light.” Still, I don’t hate them and they may take me somewhere else in the future. So I figured I’d post them as other projects, as well as a pungent psychic malaise extending for most of the summer, have diverted my energies away from dreaming up anything new on here. Enjoy. Or don’t.
In all her time in New York, Michelle had never received more unsolicited epithets than in the space of time she was lodged between incoming and outgoing rush hour commuters on the stairs of the Brooklyn-bound train. She had not realized the sheer variety of style and timbre in “Pick a lane, you dumb bitch” before that moment. The courtesy one receives when trying not break their neck lugging a box of their official belongings.
Before she could even rest herself against the wall on the platform for a moment, her Blackberry was abuzz. After digging it out from within her now useless desk contents, she audibly and dramatically growled at the message: “can u plz come back to office? u forgot to turn in ur blackberry. thx Aimee @ hr”
Michelle looked around for any sign of commiseration at her anguish but found only a platform full of commuters similarly fixated on their own devices. She considered doing what the message politely demanded of her, as if she was still employed, but was stopped in that thought by the appearance of the one human that did seem to acknowledge her: a burly, unkempt older man, clearly homeless, his thick hair in a hopeless matted tangle, his cheeks smudged with soot, and whose odor became more putrid, almost corpse-like, the closer he approached. His gait was agonizingly slow at that. Michelle braced for another unwanted intervention into her space, and for money that she now very dearly needed. But the man said nothing, and passed by her as if she was a bad car accident. His mouth was agape in a vacant smile, that were it not for the four of his remaining yellow teeth emitted no indication that anything but darkness was inside of him.
And while time had felt elastic in that moment, he passed her, and went seemingly onto better things. Until he moved in front of a woman in a dark blue pantsuit 10 feet or so away from Michelle, who as if in a spasm swung her handbag at the man’s head, immediately knocking him down on the platform. Though of notably smaller build than the man, she was able to pin him down, straddle him, and press both hands on his mouth. The man struggled but appeared more inconvenienced than alarmed.
“I can’t let it out,” the woman said through grit teeth. “I can’t let it out.” Her face darted around the station, everyone on the Brooklyn platform cleared from her, everyone on the Manhattan platform gawked from afar. “Night sickness! HE’S GOT NIGHT SICKNESS,” she screamed out as if she was alerting her fellow commuters to a commonplace notion. This continued until a male cop, a female MTA employee, and a male civilian, an older office drone, converged to attempt to pull her off the man. Her strength was not any less subdued by this force, and Michelle could swear that she nearly knocked the cop onto the tracks just swinging her arm at him. They got the better of her when she stood up and appeared to want to gouge the man’s eye out with her stiletto heel.
“Don’t let him go!” she yelled. “He’ll darken us. He’ll darken everything.”
Michelle had never understood what was meant by “blood-curdling” screams until she heard that woman’s inner-torment reverberate into her veins. The three held her until the next train arrived, where they shoved her into the nearest car. “Walk it off lady,” the MTA employee advised as the door closed. As it passed by Michelle, the woman was no less calmed, banging at the window like a captured animal.
Everyone moved on as if nothing had transpired. Except for the homeless man, still lying on the platform, his head craned back at Michelle, laughing.
When she arrived at her apartment, she resolved to get her affairs in order. The first matter being to toss the Blackberry into the East River.
“So do you like people?” the teenager working the checkout register asked Michelle, standing stiffly at the bagging station.
“Y’know, what are your feelings on the human race? Do you want to push it collectively into the ocean or are you fine with it?”
“I never thought about it. Maybe in certain moods.”
“Fair,” the teen said, not listening very intently. “It’s just that it helps for this kind of job. To not like people very much.”
“You’ll be less disappointed.”
Michelle thought this was wise if not especially hard-earned counsel from a girl in a nose ring and racoon eyeliner, and whose acne took on a viral aspect under ShopRite’s fluorescent lighting.
“But you don’t need to worry about it too much on the vampire shift. We don’t expect much from anybody, and they don’t expect much from us. And everyone who is here … belongs here, even Doug.”
Doug had been surveilling Michelle throughout her first night shift from the customer service counter. Michelle sensed he was younger than she was a good margin, though it was hard to tell. His face was boyish with smooth, swollen cheeks, but offset by a baldpate and an ill-managed stubble on his chin. He was like a boy trying to will himself into middle-age. If things looked a little too relaxed for his liking he would walk at a sustained, almost charging pace, an intense presence somewhat reduced by his pleated Dockers, and monitor Michelle directly.
“You’re double-bagging, right?”
“It’s our policy to double-bag even if they don’t ask.”
“I think she knows, Doug.”
“Keep an eye on her, Brianna,” Doug decreed solemnly and returned to his post confident that what little chaos he could prevent had been kept at bay.
“I don’t know if he’s an actual demon,” Brianna wondered, “or if he’d just really enjoy Hell if he ever went there. I’m not even sure which would be more interesting.”
The “vampire shift” did not merely signify the span of time between 4:00 PM and 10:30 PM that Michelle had been decreed by the general manager to work in the store for three days out of the week—a Sunday day shift pending if she endured a month-long probationary period—but a sort of grace period for the less valued customers to be served by the less valued employees.
She recalled sitting across from the general manager in his office as he inspected her application like an untranslated sacred text, muttering observations about her as if she was not present. “Administrative assistant … takes direction well.” He did not ask uncomfortable questions pertaining to her pivot from white collar city work to hourly wage suburban work. He only glanced at her with a rapidity that looked at first like a reflexive twitch. “I don’t want to sound un-PC or anything, but please wash your hair before coming onto the premises.” He went into the corner filing cabinet and took out a label-maker. “Now is that ‘Michelle’ with one ‘L’ or two? You wrote it both ways.”
Brianna took out a cannister of Altoids from her apron and held it out to Michelle.
“Not my flavor.”
Brianna helped herself and swirled it around her mouth.
“You’ll get the hang of it. Pretty soon you’ll start having dreams about the place. This one dream I had I kept getting the same old woman and she kept buying Pepto Bismol. Only it was shaped like other products …”
Michelle forced a chuckle and turned to look out the front window. The orange twilight had all but faded, leaving a black reflection of the storefront for her to look at. Brianna was still talking and didn’t notice that there was a woman waiting at their checkout. But when Michelle turned to alert her, it was apparent that the woman was only in the reflection. Her face was distorted, but her white nurse uniform was unmistakable.
“… like rotisserie chicken-shaped Pepto Bismol. Stuff like that.”
Michelle came home from her shift with the urge to watch The Last Exorcism, purely for research purposes. A notion had crystalized in her mind on her bike ride home that an exorcism was going to place the following afternoon, in the middle of Starbucks, and she was to play a significant part. Though the assignment of roles as to who was possessed and who was exorcising was less clear to her. She only knew that Jenn’s appearance hours before at her checkout station had an occult air around it. Or anyway it felt very contrived.
The high-pitched astonishment in Jenn’s voice as she looked up from unloading her shopping cart onto the conveyer belt, the musical intonation of her name, “Mich-elle? Is that really you?” carried the sound of rehearsal, possibly on the drive over. Word had likely gotten out that Michelle was back in town and Jenn, who had never left, was bound to hear about it. The feigned surprise was unnecessary even if it, at least in Jenn’s mind, was more polite. Still, Jenn’s ingratiating charm, conveying an easy friendliness that was more charitable than social, had not lost its potency, and when Jenn inquired if Michelle had time to spare tomorrow “for coffee and to catch up” though everything, at least in Michelle’s mind, seemed pretty self-explanatory, she could not say no.
The exorcism analogy she formed was difficult to sustain in her mind as she considered it. At least literally speaking. It was rather the feeling of release that most fixated her. This forcible expulsion of a burden or of being freed from bondage. Each applied equally and respectively to Michelle and Jenn. Though Michelle never saw fit to say it, she always thought Jenn was a loser. She was a curious specimen, an obvious extrovert who was best suited to enclosure. Anything that taxed her comprehensive limitations or that was beyond her immediate control could not excite much interest in her. She was a fount of energy, the driving force and focal point of their clique yet inert in almost every other human respect. Michelle pictured a lever: Jenn who was incurious on one end, Erika who was infinitely curious about nothing on the other, and she the fulcrum on which they pivoted, having lost the capacity to learn anything new long ago. Pop culture had no lessons to impart beside the fact that characters trapped in exorcism narratives hardly ever reached the end of it entirely unharmed. Release came at a steep price. Michelle despaired at having to face the horror of the ordinary.
It had rained in the morning and Michelle biked cautiously around puddles and over slick pavement. The sky had not cleared and cast a dismal countenance upon everything she passed. Thought it was not to such an extent that it could obscure the increase of homes, and even business properties, that resembled Erika’s in its neglect and silence. A trend in living, of a sort, had captivated the town. Trends of all kinds move at a pace and by a logic that no individual witness to them can easily grasp. It is only clear that they are intent to perpetuate widely and any single gesture of resistance is both pointless and deviant.
Michelle spotted Jenn in the far corner of the Starbucks, sipping from a steaming latte, wearing a sweater with a Jack o’ Lantern in the center, her hair restrained in a tight ponytail, and staring down at an iPad. Her relaxed nature and her prim appearance bore a strong contrast, one Jenn herself could not help but react to nonverbally when drawn up from her screen, to Michelle’s disheveled appearance of straggly hair, damp tennis shoes, and her ever present employment apron. Nevertheless, Jenn rose to embrace her like the old friend that she still was, at least in spirit.
“Are you working today?” she asked noting the apron.
“No,” Michelle said meekly as she sat down.
“Oh … well, I didn’t know what to get you so I just got what I got. We’re matching!” she said handing her the latte. “I hope it’s still warm.”
Michelle took a small sip. “It’s fine, thank you.”
“I have to say it was a surprise to run into you yesterday. But I did hear through the grapevine that you were around. I didn’t think it was permanently.” Jenn stopped herself in that thought, having over-assumed. “Or, I guess, for an extended time?”
“I can’t say exactly at the moment.”
“Well, I think it’s nice you came back.”
The one thing Michelle always had over Jenn was that she knew Jenn at her least ideal. The Jenn that she knew was prone to vomiting like her life depended on it. Vomiting by the dumpsters of the Sante Fe Tavern after several ill-gained shots and a session with the mechanical bull. Vomiting behind the bleachers at the homecoming game. Vomiting in Terry Greco’s parent’s bidet. Vomiting into the jousting arena at Medieval Times. If Michelle hadn’t known any better, and of course she did not, she’d think Jenn had something of a drinking problem. And yet any evidence of that past appeared entirely expunged from this version she was now facing, whose comportment embodied every broad characteristic of “adult” she’d formed from childhood. She was pleasant and curious; a little patronizing but with a generous, patient spirit. The kind of spirit one might gain from having two children, Jayma (age four) and Preston (age two), whose images she showed Michelle on the iPad she cradled very much as she would a baby.
“I’m not keeping them from you, am I?”
“Oh no, they’re with my mom … who says hi, by the way.”
“Tell her thank you.”
A vague version of the Jenn she knew appeared soon enough, in her anodyne inquiries into New York life; or rather into life in Midtown and the financial district, of which Michelle went out of her way to understand as little as possible. It always amazed her privately how people she met in New York and people she knew in New Jersey each saw the other either as being on distant planets with utterly backwards conceptions of physics and social custom or has each possessing different versions of the same highly repulsive disease. Jenn, however, boasted a special kind of sheltering that made her seem better suited to Ohio, a tourist in what was ostensibly her own home. Michelle fell into a kind of fugue state gesturing affirmations at Jenn’s various conveyances of selfhood: her large ugly house that looked more like two houses fused together, her husband’s Taco Bell franchise ownership, her dream vacation to Hawaii, and other details she was boiling in her tepid verbal soup. Until one comment snapped her out of it.
“You know what I hadn’t thought about in ages? Erika Knight.”
Michelle sipped her now-cold latte and mumbled something.
“The bag-lady. Jeez, what were we thinking? I guess you sort of reminded me … if that makes sense.”
“You had some interactions with her, right? She was your neighbor, I think.”
“A few. We kind of lost touch.”
Jenn’s cheery expression shifted downward to one more skeptical. “So it seems.”
“I don’t really know what happened to her. Do you?”
“Well, not really. I’d always heard she’d run away or moved out. I’d heard some people say she OD’d on something. But that was just the safe assumption, all things considered.” Jenn’s face turned grave a she looked out the window, but finding nothing uplifting, turned her gaze back to Michelle with a smile that was at best serviceable. “I guess we didn’t treat her very well … Erika.”
“Why do we always do that?”
“Why do we always admit those things long after they happened, and especially when someone is dead?”
“I never said for cert—”
“It’s like an easy out. Like debt forgiveness for forgiveness.”
Whatever remaining charity Jenn had for her friend had been vaporized in that instant and her look settled on a chiseled severity.
“And so what is all this?” Jenn said, gesturing her arm in a circle around Michelle. “Is this you paying your debt? Leaving your career in flames? Spending all your time with a new generation of paint thinner addicts?”
“I’m not spending all my time with them,” Michelle protested, having felt that her solitary movie marathons and the intrusions of the otherworldly upon her space had been unfairly overlooked.
“You know I could never put my finger on you for the longest time. Then I went to FDU and majored in psychology, and learned about this thing called compartmentalization. And suddenly it was all clear. You like putting things in their own containers and keeping them very separate, that’s how you cope, I guess. It made it hurt less when I stopped hearing from you after freshman year. Or when my wedding invitation went unanswered. Or my Facebook friend request.” Jenn choked up and stopped herself again. “I really wanted not to bring this up.”
Jenn held a finger to her while she composed herself. “Maybe in a couple of years none of this is going to matter. Maybe this is just a late-20s thing.”
Michelle felt a weight drop in her chest upon realizing that the truth of Jenn’s observation was almost certain.
Outside the Starbucks, Jenn waited, draped in a bright yellow raincoat and matching goulashes, as Michelle unlocked her bike.
“I can give you a ride,” Jenn noncommittally suggested. “I can probably make space in the jeep.”
“That’s okay.” Michelle removed the lock and approached to receive a parting hug.
“It was good to see you … really,” Jenn said with a slight but meaningful smile.
“You know, wherever you’re going, I hope it’s right where you need to be.”
“Is that on your wall at home?”
“No … it’s just something people say when they have nothing else to say to someone.”
Michelle rode home absently wondering whom the demons they each let loose in the Starbucks would latch onto next, and if they would be just as merciless.