I come to, tied up. All tied up. I’m fucking tied to my chair. I’m a short man. I’m a fat man. I’m a dumb man tied to his chair. I’m the thin man staring at himself in a funhouse mirror and realizing I’m so far from the carnival, so far from my weapon. The pretty girl eating ice cream smiles at me like she knows me, like she can deliver me from evil.
The old man, the same son of a bitch who tied me up, is over me. He’s old, but the fucker is strong. “If you take the body, you owe the soul.” He talks to me like I’m his one-man congregation, says I can be on my own underground or I can be with them above. He sells it like having that choice is a good thing but my eyes tell him I defer. “You may think we ain’t natural, but that don’t mean we ain’t got law,” he says.
The girl makes it hard to concentrate on the old man. She makes noises somewhere in between a moan and a laugh. She either really likes ice cream or she likes my condition. I’d like to know exactly what that condition is, but I suppose people like me don’t deserve facts. I just know I’m the one fucking tied to a chair. I’m the one pretending to have choices. Still, I think I might be able to steal a dream. I think if you grab it right as you know what it is, just before it slips away, you can make it real.
Some things come back to me: the wife that’s long checked out; the wife’s cousin with those damn eyes, the river of green I always knew would take me in the current.
Even though the wife is gone and the cousin is now across from me, I can still hear their words from the past.
The wife in my left ear, “Trust me, you don’t want to meet them. You don’t even want to know.” I swear I can still feel her whisper in my ear, feel my hair move, feel my heart retreat.
“Don’t worry about them, baby. Quit being such a pussy,” from the cousin in my right ear. Yes, I do feel the tickle of saliva delivered by her emphasis on the word, ‘pussy.’
Back to the left ear from the wife, “I swear, you’ll never change.” When she first levied that charge, I had nothing to refute it and I still can’t say it’s a lie.
“Change? What the fuck are you talking about?” asks a right-eared whisper from the cousin and, just like they did the first time, her legs make her questions rhetorical. Done with ice cream, she stretches and sends those long legs to the wall. The ‘How It Could Have Been’ or ‘How It Should Have Been’ are no longer things.
“You did take the body,” she says and hides her hands between the legs. “Oh god, did you take it.”
The trick is the old man’s quizzes don’t even have questions. His riddle of new life is me with them. Feeling like them. Like I love to but might never feel again. The old man stares at me as if I’m his child. As if it’s his right to create or destroy me. My curse is when those two are equals.
He lights a match and holds it to my face so I feel the heat without being burned. It goes down to his fingers and then he flicks it off my chest. “You might think that smell is sulfur, but it ain’t that. It’s your weakness dying. It’s a good thing.” He starts another to ignite the whole book and throws the flame onto my lap. I try to move my hips and flip it off, but I can’t do it, so I tip the whole chair and myself to the ground. Behind the burning matches, the cousin lies on the floor and blows me a kiss. “It’s time to pay,” the old man says. “Make no mistake: Everyone has to pay.”
Just before I let everything slip away—before I kill the idea of myself—I realize what I have to do. I have to delay the end. I have to steal dreams, work their carnival, be their killer. I have to stay above ground. I have to be untied. I have to be with her. I do.
(Originally appeared in Red Savina Review)