from No-Injury Policy by C. M. Humphries
(C) 2012 - 2014
Nauseating strobes flash through the packed night club and break everyone down into static. My head spins as I try to focus on a blurred blond woman across from me on a curved leather bench. I watch her tap her neon-painted fingernails along the table.
With one hand running along the side of my head, she makes me recoil even before she flashes her cracked grin. This ghost of a woman digs her nails into her face and peels down her flesh. Rather than cartilage or tissue, underneath her skin is a deep blackness with only her eyes and bone structure to reveal.
Some sudden change in motion, I’m to my feet and stumbling backwards across the sticky floor, which is resonant of a good time gone wrong. She stays in her seat, sipping on an Amaretto Sour. She sets her drink on the table and lets the liquid run along her jawbone and out of her throat. Rummaging through her handbag, the blond woman pulls out a pocket mirror and turns it at me.
Her sharp nails clench my wrist and pull me closer, until I can see my reflection in the. From my forehead to the bridge of my nose, my flesh melts away, developing into a dark abyss much like her own.
Akin to a knife in my chest, a stabbing pain flares my lungs with each rapid breath. I spring upright in my bed at the sound of a loud rapping. My heartbeat echoes around the room; the sound is thumping in my eardrums, as if it derives from my head.
Deep breaths through my nostrils, deep into my lungs, and out of my mouth, I focus in on silencing my erratic sounds. My heartbeat becomes nothing more than an unfamiliar drum in the background. I hear the knocking again.
A curious thought crosses my mind: What if I pretend to be asleep; will it go away? Parents tell their children if they sleep, the monsters will go away. Then there’s Santa Claus and Freddy Krueger.
Twisting the sheets around my limbs, I roll over to face the brunette twins lying next to me, asleep. Knock, knock, knock.
Sliding out of bed, careful as to not wake my beautiful guests, I tip-toe towards the door. No sooner than I crack the door open, Ray peers in. Twenty-seven, Ray is slightly taller than me (though certainly not in an emasculating kind of way) and has a little too much salt in his pepper for being so young (though older than me). He slips his rectangular glasses further back on his nose, the side pads teasing his tear ducts. He wears an expensive dress shirt with ripped jeans.
Ray tries to barge in, but I push a stiff arm forward into his chest and shut the door behind us.
Underneath a lonely light in the hallway I ask Ray, “What do you want?”
“Mike,” he responds, his eyes surveying the room through a small gap near the hinges. “What are you doing in there?”
“Trying to sleep,” I assure him.
“You’re awake now. C’mon, Mike, let’s go outside.”
Thick grease polishes the back of my left hand as I rub my forehead. “What time is it?” I ask him.
Ray glances down at his watch, a rare sight on most people after the ceaseless explosion of mobile media devices. He kept his clean – white and silver. “Like four,” he says. “C’mon, let’s go.”
Pointing back at the bedroom door, I reply, “I’ve got these two twins here –”
“– I thought you were trying to sleep,” he says. “Wait, twins?”
“I dunno,” I admit. “They look like twins. Good enough.”
“That’s always your problem, man,” Ray says. “You’ve always gotta have these bimbos around to prove –”
“– Save the speech, Ray.”
I start to open the bedroom door, when Ray adds a little louder, “See, you’ve always gotta have these bimbos around –”
“– Ok. Fine. Let’s go,” I mutter and leave my lovely guests by themselves in my bedroom.
Outside Ray has a few beers ready for me, next to a pink .22. The deck faces a backyard stretching until it drops over the horizon. He leads me to the beers and the guns at the end of the deck. He hands me a cold one and the pink .22. Another .22, black, is at his feet.
Ray tucks his gun into his armpit with one hand and grabs the beer with the other.
Though I’ve never fired a gun before, I nestle the butt along my shoulder, which feels wrong.
Ray loads the gun, and a slight aroma of gunpowder fills the air.
“Jesus, Ray,” I say. “You’re gonna piss off the entire neighborhood.”
He reloads and fires again. “It’s relaxing,” he says. He reloads.
Sighing, I load the pink .22 and follow suit. The slight recoil catches me off-guard, but I’m not shaken by it, although I expected to be. “Then tell me, why did you wake me up? Please say it’s not just so we can shoot in the dark.”
“Isn’t that what we always do?” he replies. And fires.
The whisper of his gun is followed by mine. “It’s gonna be one of those drunken, philosophical kind of nights, isn’t it? Mom used to love that about you, you know.”
“Leave that alone,” Ray says through clenched teeth. He aims.
“What’s the point of dragging me out here, Ray?”
Without hesitation he says, “I’ve been thinking about people lately.”
Though the last words on my mind, I say, “Fuck people.”
He replies, “And look where that has gotten you.”
“Better off than you are.”
I slam the .22 down and walk for the backdoor, when Ray says, “Some people only need someone special to hold their hand and reassure them in times of doubt. And when they’re confident and move on, sometimes they don’t think twice about it all.” Fires. Reloads.
“Man, spit it out,” I respond. “I’ve got these two twins up there, and you’re beating around the bush.”
“What is?” I ask him. “It’s just a turn of phrase.”
“No,” he says, “‘two twins.’” Ray checks his gun to see if it’s loaded. He fires two simultaneous shots. “Ever since I moved in – since Mom – you’ve had a different girl over every night.” He gulps down the last of his drink. Reloads.
“You’ve got two seconds to step off,” I shout and then recognize the unintentional volume of my voice. “I’d hate to kick my own brother out on the streets.”
Ray fires his gun and says, “I’m not calling you a womanizer or anything; nothing like that. But I want to know exactly who you think you are.”
I slide the door open and step inside the house. “Goodnight, Ray,” I tell him.
“Wanna go to the park after we visit Mom tomorrow?” he asks last second.
Halfway to closing the door, I mumble, “Sure.”
Ray fires two more shots as I enter the house to resume some overdue cuddling with two twins.
The Long Brooke Park consists of six possible pathways along fresh-cut grass, tree-shadowed picnicking hills, and a small stream leading to a miniature waterfall underneath a photoesque bridge. Each pathway is a mile longer than the last, ranging from a mile to six. The more extensive pathways lead to a well-kept sidewalk, bike path, and in some locations, a small transcendental walkway.
The center of the park, by comparison to the outskirts, is a generic playground for both young romances by night and elderly couples by day. Save the bridge, nothing really stands out, and perhaps that is the reason Ray brings me here. Or he figures I won’t kill him in a public area.
Up ahead is a set of benches; around them, children play with toys or even the picnic sets. A few people read, though not many. Joggers blast by on the longer path, leaving cold gusts in their trails.
Ray’s dressed in the usual gear: torn jeans and a dress shirt. He says, “Look at all of them.”
More joggers pass by, and soon to pass a little further behind is a redheaded jogger, whom I follow with my eyes.
Ray adds, “All these people cluttering around this cookie-cutter park, smiling and playing with their kids. Kissing their loved ones.”
“All I see is an epicenter of façades,” I tell him. “All these people gossiping, pretending to listen to each other until it’s their turn to speak again. Showing the world how much better their lives are than everyone else’s.”
“See, Mike, that’s where you’re wrong.” He leans back on the bench and stares at the shapeless clouds. “These people are happy. They aren’t playing face. They are listening to each other. There’s love. There’s friendship.”
“There’s a lot of bullshit,” I counter. “Nothing about these people reveals anything true and worth knowing.”
Ray turns his head towards me and replies, “People aren’t going to project their flaws, you know. Of course they’re gonna flaunt whatever makes them happy. What makes them feel significant.”
The redheaded jogger nears the bench, her body glistening under a layer of sweat. She wipes away the grease from her face and adjusts her headphones at the bench next to us.
“Why don’t you go talk to her?” Ray asks.
“And say what?” I ask him back. I can’t imagine having anything in common with such a stunning woman. “What, talk about the weather? What’s my plan? Besides, you’re the one who thinks I’m a womanizer.”
“I dunno,” Ray says. “Just talk about exercise or something. Tell her you always see her jogging around here and wanted to say hello to a somewhat familiar face.”
“Step one, according to you, is lie. Step two is – what – approach her like a creep?”
“No, it’s called breaking the ice.”
“And then what?” I ask. “How do I introduce myself? How can I maintain conversation with her?”
“Just . . .”
“Nothing,” I tell Ray. “Even if I talk to her, it’ll be about the day or her appearance, or I’ll laugh at one of her jokes, even if it’s not funny. But I won’t ever tell her a damn thing about me.”
The redheaded jogger reties her shoes and pushes her ear buds in. At sight of me, she smiles as she turns on her music, which I can hear clearly from my position on the bench. If I knew more about music, then I would have something to say. She stalls for a moment.
“Say anything, man,” Ray insists. “We’re all just people trying to be people.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I respond. “Even if she and I hit it off, she won’t ever know anything about me.” The redheaded jogger passes by, music seeping out of her ear buds, and I can’t peel my eyes off of her. She blurs into the sunlight somewhere beyond my view. “Ever,” I repeat for emphasis as I rise to my feet and jog after the redhead.
Her name is Sarah or maybe Cara. Perhaps even Patricia. She’s the redheaded jogger from the park, and her hands roam along the fringes of my body. Nearly glued together, we stumble into my dark bedroom, spotlighted by the starlight peering in through the blinds.
Both of our faces appear flushed in the idle television screen across from my bed as she pulls my head towards her and runs her hands over the right side of my face. I sink in for a kiss and entangle in the sheets with her.
After a quick snooze when we finish, I rub my head and look at Sarah, Lisa, Patricia, or maybe even Carol. The redheaded jogger who is deep asleep next to me, naked under twisted covers and dead to the world atop of tossed pillows. I stare up at the stucco ceiling until I pass out again.
Into an unfamiliar bedroom, I carry two glasses of red wine, though I cannot recall ever favoring the sharp tongue of it over hard liquor or other spirits. The floor distances itself from my feet, tunneling far below my toes. I realize my socks are the only thing I am still wearing, and between the falling floor and the crooked entrance to the bedroom, it’s obvious I’ve already drank my fair share.
Lucy, Linda, or Lexi – the redheaded jogger – awaits me, her bare nipples pressing against the silk sheets. Every fabric melts around her, as though it was designed for flattery and to compliment her figure from every angle. I gesture the glass, but she shakes her head.
Placing the glass on an end table, I slide under the covers next to her, socks still on. We toss and turn, never separating more than a few inches. She play-bites my lip over and over until it’s numb, and I grunt and bite back, although nothing about pain turns me on. Then I taste the saltiness of blood.
She’s pulling me closer. Sliding me towards her. I reach out for the side of the bed to grip on, but knock her wineglass against the brass-base lamp. Glass shatters.
The redheaded jogger smiles and reaches over for the largest shard of glass. My reflection, upside down on the pieces, glares back at me.
Her grin draws wide as she lifts the shard high above her chest and plunges it down, lacerating her flesh until the glass thuds against bone.
I’m falling off of the bed and convulsing. “Oh my god,” I mutter. “What?”
The redheaded jogger stares down at her chest, watching the red river stain the sheets. With a worried smile, she looks at me and asks, “I’ve really done it this time, haven’t I?”
Thwack! My back smacks against the cold tiled floor.
What bedroom floor is tiled? I wonder.
Collapsing into a fetal position, I can’t help but stare at the blood as it cascades over the edge of the bed and onto the floor, inching towards my face. The metal smell burns my eyes and nostrils, although I’m not one hundred percent positive I truly smell it.
The redheaded jogger asks, “I’m going to die from this, aren’t I? Because I couldn’t stop.” Soon the floor turns into a pond of her blood and floods like a basement after bad stop. The blood never quits flowing; instead, a current develops and crimson waves crash along the shores of the walls.
I close my eyes and pretend I’m not drowning.
When I open my eyes again, the redheaded jogger stands up on the bed, dead and as though her nerves jerked her upright for me to see her body drying and cracking apart. Her shell falls to the saturated sheets. Underneath she is an older woman with a prominent brow and chin. She keeps aging, keeps aging.
“Mom?” I ask under my breath, spitting out some of her blood.
“Your mother’s dead, my dear,” she says.
I shake my head, confused. “You’re her. You are dead.”
The old woman grabs the red glass shard and runs it along the bed, laughing as it tears into the foam. At the edge of the bed, she hoists the shard above her head and jumps down to the floor, her chipped smile inches away from my bloody lips. She holds the glass above me and laughs.
Like loose cargo against the side of a ship, my heart pounds against its cage as I spring upright in my bed. I check my chest for any blood or wounds. None. The redheaded jogger next to me is still beautiful, still young, and still alive.
She cracks her eyelids and mumbles, “Is everything all right?”
Instead of answering at first, I lie back down. The redheaded jogger is quick to sleep before I say, “Sure. Everything’s fine.” My eyes want to lock shut as I’m ravenous for sleep, but all I can do is quiver.
Long after the redheaded jogger leaves, I rush downstairs and barge into Ray’s room without knocking. The room is a mess on the side closest to the door and immaculate around his desk, where a Magnum lies next to a photograph. At the sound of the door slamming shut, Ray snatches both items and shoves them into the desk.
“Sure, man,” he says, “come right in.”
I plop on the recliner next to his desk. “It’s my house,” I remind him.
He says, “Guess you’re right.” There’s something distant about his tone.
Ray stays silent. He withdraws the photograph from his desk and stares. It’s a picture of him and his ex-wife Emily. Smart, beautiful in away only the word beautiful can describe, and too selfish to stick around a man with baggage, as she so eloquently told him before she disappeared. “I was thinking about what you said at the park,” he almost whispers.
“Man, don’t listen to me. I’ve just been in a real funk lately.”
“I think you’re right, though. She waited around for a few months, but Emily just fucking took off. After Mom passed. And I can’t stop wondering why.”
“Whatever happened to her?” I ask.
“She just wanted to get away, I think,” Ray responds. “Maybe she was learning too much about me.”
“Forget her then. If someone really wanted to marry you, then they would’ve stayed with you no matter what, you know? You can’t let some bitch get the best of you.”
“And this is coming from you?”
“Yeah, and I’m your best friend, Ray. You can’t get rid of your brother.”
“Tell me something about that redhead you had in your room last night,” Ray says.
I might’ve muttered, “Point taken.”
Ray opens the drawer containing the gun. He holds the Magnum up, and I admire the gloss of craftsmanship. Man never developed a good tool to preserve life, because what it really wanted was a sure-shit way to end it. “I bought this back before she left,” Ray says. “Thought I might need it someday.”
“Don’t you dare,” I say.
“Don’t worry; it’s not for me.”
I give him a speculative stare. “You wanna know why I can’t –”
“– Don’t divulge your problems with me right now. I have enough of my own.”
“I just thought –”
“– I’m nothing. I’m fine.” Ray shakes as he picks up the photograph and turns it around again. This display of emotion is a bit much of Ray, and the rarity of the event captures me while my eyes ingest a story lost behind broken glass. “Just get out,” he says.
One arm forward, I try to provide what I known as comfort, but he slaps my hand away from his shoulder and says, “Just leave me alone right now.”
Though diffident, I walk over to the doorway. As I grip the handle, he asks, “Do you wanna go to the club tonight?”
I’m frozen, one hand still out in front of me. I reply, “Sure, man. Let’s do that. Please don’t do anything stupid, all right?”
He nods. “It’s not me I’m worried about,” he says.
From our barstools we can see all of the clubbers have sex with clothes on, otherwise known as “dancing.” The scene here is a melted series of silhouettes and vibrant colors with a complete stench of body spray and sweat, cigarettes and regret. Drinks spill as the clubbers rub against each other and exchange desperate smiles.
I signal for the barkeep underneath the rain of neon lights. He waves his index finger “one moment” at me and finishes mixing drinks for a couple of women at the other end of the bar.
“What can I get for you fellas?” he asks when he finally arrives at our end.
Before we can order, Ray darts his head in the direction of the dance floor, where in the center of ecstasy and confusion, Emily moves around by herself.
The light above her brings Emily to focus, and Ray pursues.
I ask him where he’s going, and he doesn’t so much as look back at me.
“All right,” the barkeep says, “What can I get for you?”
I order the safe and classy: Rum n’ Coke.
The barkeep turns away to make the drink, when my attention centers on a brunette woman scooting closer to me. She arrives at the stool next to mine within a matter of seconds. “Don’t tell me a handsome guy such as yourself is here by his lonesome,” she says behind tectonic violet eyes and over-glossed lips.
“I’m with him,” I say as my index finger searches for Ray.
She cocks her head and follows my gesture. “Who? I really can’t hear you. Wanna go someplace with less noise?”
In day-to-day life, this is unacceptable behavior, but add a club and some alcohol and it becomes an act of courtesy. My lips shape “no”, but the music drowns out any utterance of the word.
“What?” she yells over the music, her voice intoxicated by unnatural levels of estrogen.
The barkeep returns with the drink, and I say to the brunette woman, “Sure. After this drink.”
We crash onto a floating bed at the center of her studio apartment. It’s at the top of a high-rise at the end of Lakeside, before the city limits of Long Brooke. Sweeps of flowery fragrance latticed by vanilla tosses along the walls. Her pillows smell unusually clean, I think as she tears my shirt open.
She begins to fiddle around with my belt, when a sudden urge to break away overwhelms me. In a flash, I see the redheaded jogger morph into the dilapidated old woman. I slip to the edge of her bed and place my head into my palms. I swear I’m not weeping.
“What’s wrong?” the brunette woman from the bar asks, although there is either a lack of sincerity or too much alcohol in her tone.
“I’m fine,” I slobber out.
“Can we fix this?” she asks – not quite the question I thought she had in mind. Her voice is seductive despite its balloon-squeal pitch, and in a way, indescribable. Sometimes you have to hold a diamond to understand it.
I rush up to my feet and collect my clothes, even though I confess part of me wants to stay. As I take off, I glance down at my cell phone and see Ray has texted me: “Backyard. Now!”
On my way out, I swear I hear the brunette woman say, “Fucking pig.”
My feet can’t move any faster after I hear Emily scream from the backyard. As I turn the last corner, I find Ray holding his Magnum against the side of her head. She cries on both knees in the mud. Rain water glares off of the gun’s steel.
“What the fuck are you doing, Ray?” I scream across the backyard.
“Don’t make a scene out of this,” he says.
“Please let me go.” Emily whines and then sniffles.
“It’s ok,” Ray says, and I think he’s talking to me. “You were right, Mike. This needs to happen.”
“What needs to happen?” I ask between shallow breaths.
Ray replies, “We need to get rid of all the disguises. We’ve gotta stop these people from taking control of us. Fuck her.
“I never said that, Ray.”
Ray cocks back the gun and teases the trigger. “You’re right. These people have nothing to offer. They’re all the same. All fakes.”
He grabs Emily by the hair and lifts her to both feet. She slips along the mud. He holds the gun out towards me, and I step back. “You know best,” Ray says.
“No,” I tell him.
“Take the gun. Do this. It’s right.” He shoves the Magnum into my shaking hands.
I say, “I can’t do this, Ray. What the hell is wrong with you, man? We can work this whole thing out.”
Rays sends Emily down to the soggy ground with a violent shove, and pushes me forward once his hands are free. “Think of your life,” he says. “Think about it. Mom left us. Emily left me. All these women want nothing to do with you. You were right when you said we can never really reveal anything about ourselves to anyone else.”
“I was in a funk,” I dispute. “That’s all it was.”
“Yeah, but think about it: Emily left me after Mom died. None of these women want to know their men. And maybe we don’t want to deal with them either. But if we’re pigs, what are they?”
For some reason, I contemplate the question.
His hand clasps over my own and tenses. His index finger guides mine to the steel crescent. “There’s no point,” he says. “So what if we get caught for this? At least we stood up for the right thing. Maybe people will learn to accept others for who they are.”
“I don’t think they’ll ever learn,” I reply.
“How else can we be sure?” Ray asks with a crooked smile. He presses my hand even closer to the steel; my finger closer to the trigger.
As my hand draws near, Emily screams louder.
Ray says, “This is how we find ourselves. You were right, you’re not a womanizer, but these sorts of people have taken our identities away from us. We have the meaningful lives, yet they decide whether we fit in. Do it, Mike. Shoot her.”
Her eyes beg me to stop.
“Do it,” Ray hisses.
I follow the trigger with my index finger, and Ray stops guiding me.
Blood must lace Emily’s throat, the way she screams.
I drop the gun, and it fires into the woods. “I can’t do it,” I concede. Something comes over me – some force of animosity and bewilderment I cannot quite comprehend – and I begin to swing at Ray.
Emily rushes to her feet and steps between us, pushing us apart with her arms out in a cross. After a deep breath, she looks at Ray, and they both laugh.
“What the hell?” I ask.
They collect themselves. “God that was scary,” Emily says to him.
Ray turns to me and says, “I was worried about you, man.”
“Tell me what the hell is going on, Ray,” I say.
Ray and Emily walk away, holding hands. He calls back, “I think you’re figuring it all out.” They leave me alone in the backyard underneath the clout of rain. As much as I want to shoot him, I want to laugh, and I can feel a grin slice across my face.
Until they stop.
Gunfire rumbles like thunder so immediate and loud I knew the lightning struck near.
To be continued . . .
in Ashland’s Asylum.
Fear, focus, and the future. C.M. Humphries talks about writing, horror, and whatever.