By Steve Berman
9 July 2001
Part 1 of 2
Read Part 2 here.
You're going to be sad reading this, I know. Jess and I took off for the Fallen Area. I can hear that groan -- or are you cursing? But I had to. Ever since she first heard of the Fallen, Jess has been obsessing about running away and becoming part of the strangeness. There were nights she never slept, just lay next to me, and I knew she was wondering what was beyond the concrete walls and barbed wire quarantining parts of the city.
I told her she's special and different from everyone else, but that didn't seem to satisfy her. I think she needs to prove it.
Thanks for letting us stay the last few days with you. I hope everything works out with you and that film student.
So indebted to you it hurts,
The two had spent the past few hours on the streets of the Fallen Area. Along the way their hands often met, not just to help each other along but for that reassuring interweaving of fingers. Overhead, clouds streaked across an angry red sky. Marie, winded from their fast pace, looked up at Jess for strength. Her lover's dark curls had become matted with sweat, but those almost-black eyes shimmered with expectation. Marie had considered stopping to catch her breath many times but always pressed on. But now, so close to their goal, she needed to rest. Her legs and sides burned. She stopped, heaving in gulps of air.
Jess seemed surprised that they weren't moving anymore. She looked over at Marie. "I'm glad you're here with me." That was Jess's way of saying "I love you," to use different words that were easier to admit.
Marie was slightly bent over, hands on her knees, but she still nodded. "This isn't the kind of place I want us to be."
Jess glanced down the street they found themselves on. To Marie, it looked abandoned, with shattered storefronts and debris piled alongside the pavement.
"Can't you find someone else to learn from?" Marie said.
Jess made that face, the one that mixed scolding and pleading. "Hon, we've talked about this before. Anyone other than an anthvoke would want something from me in return. Anthvokes aren't interested in flesh." She tugged at the front of her sweat-stained tank top, briefly revealing the butterfly tattoo over her petite breasts. "Do you really want to share me with someone else?" Her hand reached out and caressed Marie's smooth round face.
Marie answered by taking Jess's hand in her own. Together they cautiously explored what once had been Antiques Row. "Which one is it?"
Jess was silent. She seemed focused on each entrance, the ones that were nothing more than gaping holes framed with jagged glass, the ones boarded up and marred with graffiti, the ones that were choked by boxes filled with trash.
She finally stopped a few feet in front of one shop. The remains of a rolltop desk, thick-limbed mahogany chairs, and a battered samovar that had turned a sick green from the elements were all partly protected by a twisted and rusted grate. The gate's smaller brother blocked most of the open doorway.
"Guests." The voice barely escaped from the darkness inside the shop.
Jess slipped a sweaty hand from Marie's grasp and moved closer, pulling at the metal grate to widen the gap. One of the sharp ends caught and tore the fabric of her batik dress. Marie inwardly shuddered and worried about tetanus. "I've come to learn," Jess shouted. "You have to teach me!"
Marie found herself clutching the brick wall of the shop. This was not her place; she did not feel a guest, not even welcome here. She nearly leapt and climbed the wall when the front of the desk suddenly rolled back on its own. "Students," came the voice, stronger and deeper than before, "are the best guests." The sound of glass being crunched underfoot followed the words. An unkempt man appeared in the storefront window. Greasy hair hung down into his face. He wore the faded scraps of an old smoking jacket. Fresh blood from the debris he was walking through covered his scarred feet. Without a word, or an expression on his unshaven face, he sat down on the only upright chair and stared at the women there on the sidewalk.
Jess reached out towards the man, one of her fingers reverently touching the tattered hem of the jacket. The sight turned Marie's stomach. She wanted to drag Jess back and run that hand under hot water to wash away the traces of the man and this dump. Then they could slip under clean covers and fall asleep safe together.
But she remained still. Jess wanted this.
You'll never see this letter, but I need to write you anyway. I have no one else to talk to, and I need to talk so badly. I hope you never see where we're living. I'll call it an apartment but it's actually the third floor of an office building. It's close enough to the anthvoke for Jess to walk but gives me the distance I need to feel comfortable. I leave the lights on all the time because row after row of empty cubicles/empty desks in the dark would give me nightmares.
That's a lie. I still have nightmares. I wake up on a sleeping bag on the industrial-strength carpet and I'm scared to close my eyes again.
Everything we heard about the Fallen Area on the Outside was pretty much true. But we never heard about the atmosphere. Everything is either abandoned or run down and yet there are people living here! Some streets aren't safe to walk down.
I always feel on edge, worried. As for Jess, well, ever hear of an anthvoke? Prob not. They're Talented with a capital T which just means they can do weird things. Anthvokes somehow tap and awaken the spirit of antiques and old junk. At least, that's how Jess explains it. Nothing makes sense. I think the world has gone a little crazy around here. Or am I the only one, since I doubt everything? No, that's not true. I don't have doubts. I hate everything here.
Ugh, that anthvoke. Jess doesn't know how much he bothers me. They wouldn't let me stay and watch her first night of training cause I'm normal, so I waited half the night on an empty street. Nothing to do but try and stay awake. You do not want to fall asleep outside here.
I'm hoping she comes home soon. I'm tired of photocopying my hand. I've taped pages of me flipping the finger on every door as a warning for others to stay out.
Are film students any easier than Jess?
"They have pawnshops here?" Marie adjusted the nylon fanny pack around her waist. It lay like a swollen lump against her stomach, stuffed with pepper spray, the cellophane-wrapped caramels that Jess loved, tissues, a Swiss army knife, and, hidden away in the secret zipper compartment, some cash. She felt more confident wearing the pack, as if it were a comic book heroine's trusted utility belt, proof against all the dangers around them. Jess said it made her look fat.
"Uh-huh," Jess nodded absently, as they walked down the stairs to the office building's lobby.
"So is this like homework?"
Jess looked over her shoulder at Marie as she pushed open the glass door to the street and laughed. That laugh, once so common that Marie heard it every day, seemed a stranger's. "I guess you could say that. He told me I need some old things in the apartment to create the right emanations."
Marie bit back her remarks about their "apartment." Bad-mouthing the office had become a habit over the past two weeks -- though by now she almost slept through the nights, and her days spent roaming the vast floor, peering into desk drawers for forgotten bits of clerical treasure, were almost calming. Last night she'd awarded an hours-late Jess with a necklace of rainbow-colored paper clips.
Why the anthvoke just didn't lend Jess junk from his shop was beyond Marie.
The warm weather drew others to the street. Marie envied Jess's ability to simply walk along staring straight ahead, undistracted. Marie could not stop herself from staring at every person passing by. She had the urge to judge, to brand each of them. Those over there seemed normal. Were they stressed and forlorn like herself? She needed a beer. Did desperate people crave beer? She wiped away the dampness of sweat from her upper lip. She struggled to keep her gaze someplace safe, on Jess's back, admiring Jess's wing-like shoulder blade as it moved beneath her pale skin. If she worried about the others around them, she risked breaking down, becoming a wreck.
The pawnshop was thankfully not that far. Past the door was a room with a counter and then a long area behind that filled with boxes and crates that she doubted held anything more interesting than warped record albums and old men's magazines. Marie glanced at the faded pictures of cheap and greasy Chinese food dishes above the counter and her stomach gurgled. What a pity, she thought, to give up shredded chicken with garlic sauce for a shop worse than a second-rate flea market.
The proprietor wore a short-sleeve dress shirt stained along the collar and under the arms from sweat. He looked up from tinkering with an old rotary phone. His glasses enlarged his beady eyes.
"It's not ready yet." He tapped the metal dial of the telephone with the screwdriver he held.
Jess shook her head. "That's not what I need. Or is it?" She tilted her head in thought, and then frowned. "No, not now." She pointed over the proprietor's shoulder on the right. "There, on the third shelf from the top."
The man nervously looked behind him, and then nodded several times, his head bobbing on a thin neck. He stretched out his arms and took down a slightly tarnished silver dome resting on a rosewood base. He carefully placed it on the counter in front of Jess.
"What is it?" Marie took a step closer, actually curious.
Jess took the knob at the top of the dome in her fingers and lifted, revealing a thick layer of metal honeycombed with small round holes. "A vintage cigarette holder. 1943. Made in Trenton, New Jersey."
"How did you know all that?"
"Let me guess," said the store owner, pushing up his glasses over his nose for a moment before they drooped back down again. "You're an anthvoke."
"Nearly," Jess said with a half-smile.
"Ugh, don't start smoking." Marie detested the scent of cigarette smoke.
"I'll take it." Jess lowered the dome back into place. "How much is it, anyway?"
"Trade or cash?"
"Cash." Marie unzipped the fanny pack and took out the money.
He thought for a moment, biting at his lip and looking disappointed that there would be no trade. "Then it's thirty."
"What about that tea cup?"
Twenty minutes later, they left the store with two bags full of treasure. Jess grinned. Marie allowed her lover's happiness to infect her a little.
"I'm surprised you didn't buy that music box."
"It was a reproduction. Made in Taiwan last year."
Well, we've nearly run out of money. Jess doesn't seem worried, even at the thought of no food in the little fridge. Of course, she barely eats anyway. I'm always stuffing my face. Ugh, I think I've gained twenty pounds since we came here. What else am I supposed to do? There's nothing here for me, nothing but Jess, and I'm not so sure she even cares I'm around. We've stopped, well, being intimate. She comes home near morning, wakes me up, and lets me put my arm around her and then she's asleep and I'm left hoping.
Jess promises that as soon as she's mastered her talents, everything will be different and we'll be wanting for nothing. Doesn't she even see that's a lie? I mean, her teacher is this hermit huddled away from the rest of the world with his relics. She brings home all this old crap, staring at it, touching it. Ugh. I try to talk with her, tell her I'm worried, sometimes even scared. But I can tell she's not really listening. She's slowly closing me off.
I miss television. And cheesecake, especially covered with choc sauce. And walking by the river just before dark. I miss you and even those annoying yapping lap dogs of yours. How does your film student stand them?
But neither of us can go back.
One of Marie's most relaxing pastimes had always been watching Jess dress. On the Outside, Marie would have been lying on her stomach on their bed while her lover riffled through the closet they shared. Now, in their office apartment, she had to make do with reclining on a sleeping bag and staring up as Jess lifted clothes from a desktop. Her lover chose something she'd bought the other day at a thrift store. Jess let out a giggle as she pulled the old outfit over her head and down her torso. Marie doubted the frayed straps would hold.
"See how it shimmers when I move."
Marie stayed quiet. The fabric had lost most of its gold sequins; the dress had barely survived the ages since a flapper had last worn it. If there was any shimmer left, it was only a last-ditch attempt at glamour. But it did no good to say anything. All the clothes that Jess had brought with her to the Fallen Area were now in the alleyway beside the building, thrown one by one out the window as she brought home vintage things to wear. Marie had managed to hold her tongue when that soft mocha-colored dress she had bought Jess in New Hope on their last anniversary had been consigned to the rats below.
Okay, I finally found something here for me. After so many days staying inside, boredom was driving me crazy, so I started exploring the neighborhood. A few blocks away there's a shelter. They offer beds and whatever food people have scavenged. The people that run it were thrilled when I mentioned I was a nurse and wanted me to run a first aid station in the back corner. Yesterday I started helping out.
It felt soooo good.
You'd probably cringe if you saw the place. Basically it's some old storefront that they converted. Let's not even mention the word sterile. I have boxes of bandages and tape, iodine and rubbing alcohol, and there's a locked drawer if I ever get any real medicine. Once a week this young guy brings in new supplies that he must somehow get from the Outside. Maybe he sneaks it past the National Guard.
Since I started helping people there I've had a few propositions! At least that made me laugh, something I worried I'd left behind outside the concrete walls surrounding us.
Jess took out all her piercings. Even the tongue bar. She said they were too modern and interfered with her studies. She looks a little plainer, but I wouldn't say that to her face. I think she traded the bar. Ugh. Who would want that and why?
Take care. I wish I was there.
Marie adjusted the white drapes along the metal rods she had spent the past hour installing in the shelter walls. She had told the others at the shelter they were necessary for patients' privacy, but that was only a half-truth. She needed them too, to hide behind in those moments when she felt lost and alone.
Then she would fight back tears by distracting herself with a routine: wiping down the furniture or doing yet another mental checklist of supplies. Only when everything was in order and there was no one needing help could she come out from behind the curtains and chat with the rest of the shelter workers.
She was in the midst of deciding the label for a half-full bottle of vodka when she heard the latest uproar out front. She ignored the shouts and wrote the words Hydrogen Peroxide with a fat marker on surgical tape. Marie was ready to affix the label when she heard her name called.
The flimsy curtains were suddenly pulled aside and a young man staggered towards her. The ripped black T-shirt showed a bloody wound at the shoulder. Small scratches and cuts marred the pale skin on his neck and lower arm. His black jeans were ripped at the knees. His face looked familiar, and as he took another step, Marie recognized him as the guy who delivered supplies to the shelter.
Behind him, the other workers seemed ready to engulf him, as each sought to be the one to help him. He lifted his one fit arm and waved them back.
Marie moved to assist but the look on his face stopped her, until his eyes lost their focus and he seemed ready to fall. She let him lean against her on his good side, and guided him over to sit atop the metal-topped desk she used as an exam table.
"Close the curtain. I can't -- close it so they don't stare." His voice sounded low and tired.
They were all standing right outside, and she gave them a shrug as she pulled the drapes shut.
"They all want a piece of me." He looked drawn, almost stark white, with unruly black hair and dark eyes.
Marie opened a drawer and took out the scissors. "Why?"
As she cut away the tattered remains of the blood-soaked sleeve, she could feel him looking at her. "Because they think I can do anything they want."
He sucked in a breath as she slowly peeled away the shirt. "So what do you want?"
"You to sit still."
Imbedded in his flesh were slivers of glass, ranging in size from as large as her finger down to small glistening points. "What happened to you?"
"Stained rain." The young man winced as she took a tweezers and started to remove the largest pieces. He saw Marie's confused look. "You haven't been Inside long." He bit his lip a moment. "Stained glass windows are trouble in the Fallen. Tend to shatter whenever a living thing gets near. I was careless around this one temple. As soon as it exploded down on me, I moved."
"Not fast enough." The shards chimed happily as they fell into the metal bowl. Each piece reflected the overhead light like a wet, red jewel.
She spent what felt like hours trying to get all the glass out of him. Towards the end, she had her face only a few inches from his shoulder, muttering that she'd kill for a magnifying glass, as her hand began to cramp trying to lightly tease out every last sliver she could find. Only once did he cry out, when she had to dig the tips of the tweezers down deep. Blood-soaked towels lay at her feet, and she could feel the trails sweat had left down her sides and back.
"I think that's all of them." She reached for the nearby stack of paper napkins and unscrewed the bottle of recently christened peroxide. "This is going to hurt worse than anything."
"Are you always this honest?"
She had to smile at his attitude. Her younger brother had always favored sarcasm as the best form of expression.
Her patient's eyes closed before she began daubing away the blood. His face went another shade paler and his clenched lips trembled. When the wounds were clean, she wrapped them in gauze and tape.
She glanced at the curtains and saw the shadows of the shelter workers gathered behind the cloth. She cursed under her breath and went over to the curtains and pulled them back a few inches.
"Make yourselves useful and find me a clean shirt for him."
Their mad rush as they scattered throughout the shelter to hunt surprised her. Only moments later a little man, no taller than her waist, stumbled over with a worn dress shirt clutched in his hands. He passed it to her as if it were a precious thing, his cramped hands twitching. "Tell Caleb it was me," he said.
Shaking her head, she quickly pulled the curtain closed. Did she even know the little man's name?
The young man nodded. "You never told me what you wanted."
Marie felt his hand lightly grip her arm. Instinct wanted her to shake her head and answer him with a muttered "Nothing." But suddenly she was thinking; unbidden, her mind turned back through the last few weeks. The sadness and loneliness, the pain of missing the Jess she had fallen in love with so many months ago, washed over her. Emotions she had fought down and kept at bay in the clinic threatened once more. As the memories went by she realized she was talking, softly, but she couldn't follow what she was saying. It felt like she had woken with the remnants of a dream still drifting about her head.
Caleb let go and frowned. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. Habit."
Marie didn't understand why he was apologizing. Wasn't she the teary-eyed one who had to turn away a moment and take a few deep breaths to compose herself? She wiped her face with her hands. "You should stay here, at least for tonight."
Caleb shook his head. "That would be wrong for so many reasons." He glanced at the curtain separating them from the rest of the shelter.
"Do you have someplace to go?" She almost offered her place and that unnerved her. How had he managed to bypass her walls?
"Yeah. I'll be back soon so you can give me a second opinion."
She laughed. He tried and winced.
"I don't have anything for pain."
"Don't worry, I'll bring enough for both of us."
Read Part 2 here.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Berman
Steve Berman appears much younger than his real age, which makes sense considering his tendency to tell stories and lies. His collection of gay dark fantasy and weird fiction, Trysts, will be available this autumn.