“So what’s this shit do?”
“That just makes ya feel all…all gooey. S’nice.”
“And this shit here?”
The darker stuff? That’s the good shit. Like rambo-speed only no crash, s’great.”
“What makes it darker?”
“Fuck should I know? S’got somehtin’ on it. Think it might be the beetles. I always see ‘em on it…”
“Betcha it’s beetle piss.”
“Well, what’s with the beetles, then?”
That’s how it all started, anyhow. Payne had woken slow and easy, wiggling her toes off the edge of the hammock she shared with Clay. Then there had been that walk to the bathing pool, and Rook had been there, and his body against her – and yes, the simplicity of it all – had left her feeling warm and strangely content, and they’d lay together with the air wafting over them, still and sated with slow touches and quiet words. She’d felt strange after a while though, awkward; that gentle comfort was nice enough, but unfamiliar. Thoughts pushed at the edges of her mind, urging her to consider, but she steadfastly pushed them off. She’d wanted to do it, what else was there? She’d gone off, explored, and found Rook again to present him proudly with a pair of boots so that he could go off and do…whatever it was he’d gone off to do. She hadn’t really paid attention. And then Clay had come around, with his easy grin and his hair flopping over his eyes, making warmth bloom in her chest, and over their usual game of mancala (he’d stopped protesting so much by now) they quietly discussed their various efforts: his sling and stones, her atlatl and spears, and her exploration of the strange lichen that grew over the tree roots they sat on. She’d listened the the forest making it’s daytime sounds, wondering what it would say, if it could speak. She watched Clay’s dirty hand drop tiny pebbles into depressions in the dirt. She’d thought about eating the beetles, really, something she’d heard on television about how they were good for you, but it took his dare and his shit-eating grin to make her pluck one up, a little green one, and watch its little legs flailing for a moment before crushing it between her teeth, fighting down bile at the strange, sweet-and-sour taste.
“There, ya happy?”
After that it had all gotten a bit strange. Not at first, although after a few minutes she opened her mouth to ask Clay where he’d learned to sing Opera. Didn’t seem like him, really – though she liked the sound of his singing – but opera? Didn’t you need a faggy white shirt for that? She waited for his reply, getting distracted by watching his hand drop the pebbles into his mancala, and her own hand reached out to pluck up her own pile, dropping them into the little holes, one by one by one. One by one by one, two by two, creatures in the ark, starting a new world, dove and raven sent out to bring back messages. One of them hadn’t ever come back, she remembered. Which one? It seemed, for some reason, terribly important. She asked Clay about it, and nodded at his answer, forgetting it instantly. She could count on him to remember his Bible. That was a relief. All the other animals got to stay warm and safe on the boat, she decided – it was the dove and raven that had been the read badasses, going off and never knowing if they’d find land. Couldn’t blame the one for fucking off. Her mind informed her in a dry tone that she was experiencing chemical intoxication; she waved it off impatiently.
She dropped the pebbles in, listening to the tiny clicks as they fell one against the other, nestling all together like…well she’d never known anything to nestle together like those pebbles did, but it seemed like an awfully nice idea. Her mind went back to those raves she’d snuck into, those insane conflusions of music and drugs and sex and noise and chaos, and she remembered the come-down, the fights, but mostly the passing out in exhausted piles, in hallways or coat rooms or wherever they happened to drop, sweaty and spent. Limbs tangled, skin. Nice thought. She looked up to Clay to ask if he remembered the time at that condemned warehouse, and wasn’t that a crazy night? But she couldn’t find his face in her memory, and it distressed her. Her fingers plucked up another pebble, dropping it in, and she remembered Clay then. He’d been snuggled up against her back, his hands wound around her, moving over her chest, and he’d been saying to her “Whatever this shit is, it was worth it.” and he’d been singing “Lavender blue, dilly dilly” and he’d been saying “Girl, you remind me of my sister” and he’d been saying “Go to sleep, stupid” and he’d been saying “Not here, people will see” and he’d been saying something else, something about the hammock, which didn’t really make sense when you were busy passing out on a coat room floor, but she wasn’t bothered because his hands on her tits and cock nestled snugly against her ass were nice, and the coat pillowing her head smelled like Marlboros and Helena and Rowan were talking in hushed tones somewhere near, and it had been nice to fall asleep like that. Really nice. She told Clay so, giving him a little smile before catching sight of the thread tied to her fingers.
It was beautiful, really beautiful. It was tied around her wrist, a pretty yellow colour, like the baby-bonnet her dad had gotten her when she was small, that she wore in all her baby pictures (there you are, that was at Coney Island… he said, his fingers nicotine-stained, smudging the polaroid) and her mind edged away from that, because it hurt, and concentrated on the thread. Little drops of water glimmered on it, like dew on a spider’s web, and it stretched across the mancala game laid out below their hands and tied to Clay’s wrist, still glimmering like the rides at Coney Island. She laughed then, pointing it out to him. Look, we’re tied together. Look, look! Between you and I. Tied, connected. Bound. Should have bothered her. Didn’t like being tied to anyone or anything, didn’t like that. Unable to move, unable to choose…but it was so pretty! She told him so, that she usually didn’t like being tied, but it was pretty. And it’s you, Clay. It’s okay if it’s you. She remembered a joke, from some smokey stand-up club in Brooklyn, about needing a man who could tie a girl up without tying her down. Clay didn’t tie her down. He never told her no, or do this, run that, take the call and fix up the getaway car. Never pushed her into a corner, never cornered her, never pressed down atop her, or hurt her, unless she wanted him to. Unless she liked it. And he always knew. Always knew when she wanted weight on her, and never asked why. Ah, she explained, turning her wrist this way and that so that the dewdrops glimmered in the light, like the rides at Coney Island. The thread, that’s how you always know. It was so obvious, she laughed that she hadn’t thought of it right away. Her hand scratched at the scab on her belly, and she laughed again. That too, she said. Even that. And she laughed again, because it had been so easy. All those random, dirty fucks, all that angst, those late-night calls and swallowing down the disgust, all those nights trying not to look at the face above or under or behind her, all that feeling trapped and drinking to the bottom of the bottle just so that the reek of vodka on her could provide a one-night pass to get out of thinking, deciding. And all the time, she laughed, all she’d needed was a yellow thread that sparkled in the sun.
She pulled her arm away, trying to test if the thread would stretch. It did. She laughed again, low and dark, because this meant she could go wherever she wanted, as far away as she wanted, and it would still hold. Should bother her, something like that not breaking. She wondered again why it didn’t. Should bother her. She let it go. Didn’t matter, because she could feel the air lapping at her arm as it swung through the air, even though it was still tossing stones into the mancala holes, one by one by one by one. The air was cool, cool and wet somehow, and she could feel her arm move through it with a bit of resistance, like drawing her arm through the water. Exactly like that. Like the water in Yubolev’s pool when she was little, in her bright yellow bikini, with Uncle Matvey standing there, both of them there with their beers and their cigars, talking about the Motherland, talking about Women, talking about Business. The bottom had been done all in brilliant blue tiling, pretty enough to lick like candy, and it stretched and changed as her arm rippled the water, just the way the air was stretching and changing now. All pools, she’d decided, ought to be bright blue, like that. Made the water more blue, made it look like a postcard. “Pretty lookin’ girl.” said the air, and Matvey looked a bit angry about that, scowling into his beer. She looked up to tell him not to be mad, to show him how the drops fell from her hand, how they sparkled in the sun like tiny gems, exactly like the gems around Yubolev’s mistress as she came out to give the men another beer. She was bottle-blonde and her looks were going, and she looked at Payne with bitterness and jealousy and resentment in her eyes, and Ulya had hated her. Hated her and pitied her, because the stupid bitch was old and her looks were going, and Ulya was young and beautiful and she would never, ever die. And the water fell from her hand, and her bright yellow bikini was the prettiest one from the store, just like Miss May had in her dad’s girlie calender, the one he never bothered to replace, which was why she’d wanted it. She wanted to be just like Miss May: confident and beautiful, dark eyes bold and daring, sunning herself on the rocks of some faraway beach without a care in the world. And she blinked, and the air closed around her just like the water of Yubolev’s pool when she’d dived in, forcing her eyes open to see the world underneath the skin of the water. It stung her eyes, but she didn’t mind that. It was all different, underneath the skin.
Under the skin, Payne forced her eyes open again and saw that her knuckles were white, clutched around the mancala pebbles. They complained at her, whimpering that she was holding them too tight, so she let them go, and they pattered down and nestled together contentedly. She envied them. Under the skin, the strange distortion was gone, but the air pressed in on her like water, and she felt a memory slip away. For a moment her hand grasped at it as tightly as she had the tiny stones: water, diving, brilliant blue tiles, there was something important there, but she let it fall away. The mancala stones didn’t like being held too tight, she realised, and memories were the same way. With a soft sigh she let the polaroids of the past slip back under the bed and forgot them, just as she’d lost and forgotten the thin, haphazard scrapbook that held the only proof that she had ever been young.
It was more interesting, anyway, to pay attention to the secrets flickering through the air, and to breathe in the strange new air that pushed into her lungs beneath the skin. She wondered if the world was just like a body, if under the skin there was blood, if it would spill through if you just knew where to make the cut. Skin was just a barrier, after all, there had to be something on both sides. She looked this way and that, and again her mind chimed in that this was just the result of chemicals in her mind that skewed her perception by manipulating her neurotransmitters. It provided corollaries to sex and exercise and trauma, it told her that she’d done acid before, reminded her that she’d been unimpressed. She wiggled her fingers, and her mind reminded her that none of this was real, that it was just Science, just chemicals. The needle goes in, the drug travels to the brain, chemicals release, the world changes. That sounded sensible. She turned her head, and the air whispered into her ear that even chemicals were not outside the reach of revelation, that nothing was. She blinked, staggered. Nothing? The air whuffed against her back, her arms, her cheeks, and she saw words written into the bark of the trees. It said that her mind was a machine, yes, but an organic one, and all the chemicals inside her were part of the same mathematics that governed storms, tides, bacteria, the birth and death of stars. It said you’ve always known this, really. You’ve always known that the needle loved you, always known that chemicals were just an excuse. But the beetle… the beetle was….it changed me, she argued. It’s just a drug, it made me see things that aren’t real. And a hand came out of the sky and pressed her down, down into the soil until there were leaves in her mouth, and it shouted, is the beetle real? Did you feel it crush between your teeth? Is your brain real? Are your neurotransmitters real? What part of this isn’t real, what part of it isn’t just another vector in the field? And she ran the numbers over and over, and she could not find the part that wasn’t real. And the beetles themselves came and whispered in her ears, and they said: we live,we die, we shit, we mate, we kill: the laws of this world govern us just as they do you. And her hands drew over her face, and her tongue worked against that sweet-sour taste in her mouth, and she felt her lungs work steadily, in and out, breathing in the air. But the air was filled with numbers and lines and equations, and the diagrams of interconnectedness were crowding it, and as her lungs filled with the air all of it drew into her lungs as well. She could feel graphs and charts and venn diagrams pushing into her lungs, she could feel it filling her like smoke, but this wasn’t weed and she couldn’t hold it in, she could only breathe in and out, feeling the mechanics of her body work as steadily and surely as the mechanics of everything under the skin. The world was a bigger machine than she’d ever conceived, and under the skin she could see its engine, organs pulsing and working, pistons moving in a rhythm that she almost knew, and nerves stretching out like powerlines in every direction, buzzing with heat and life and information, and she saw the engine turn over, purr and it made her smile, and blood, so much, oh god, so much blood, washing over her like a tide. It was red on her hands, red and sticky and again, again, again she drew her hands over her face, feeling the blood of the world glue her eyes tightly shut. She couldn’t keep it out of her lungs, though, or ignore the heartbeat. She tried to let her mind slide away from that heartbeat the same way she had from her past, but it was all around her, enveloping her, she was close and wet and pressed into the centre of it. This is my song, said the world. Listen, and remember. Payne choked, she could still feel more and more numbers filling her lungs, only now they were vines, and the earth was drawing her in and making her its creature. And still that heartbeat, that heavy, dragging thump with as much weight as a body dragged up the stairs, with that same drunken sway as car tyres rolling over a body, and she screamed, because that thought hurt, but the heartbeat wrapped all around her and rocked her, the blood pressed in upon her and said that world you remember is dead, all dead. I’m alive. And she gulped and knew that it was true: the evidence was around her and inside her, pressing in with an insistence she couldn’t ever say no to. And the beetles touched her ears with their tiny tongues and said it’s allright, it was hard for us at first, too. And the trees chimed in, and she pressed her hands to her ears, because she wanted to hear the heartbeat, wanted to hear the clack of the pistons and feel the engine humming under her. And for a second it quieted down, and she lay there under the skin, listening to the song of the world and she wondered if she could dance to it. Didn’t last long, the trees were murmuring again, and the hills, and the dirt, and the animals, she wanted to laugh, because they all crowded around her, the new visitor, and wouldn’t give her any room! And she wondered suddenly if she had more threads tied to her, going off to Helena and Thorne and the others and even the beast she’d killed, and then with a rusty grating breath she could hear it, too, adding its voice to the cacophony that rang in her head. But you’re dead, she protested , and got a dry sort of feeling back. You think that matters to me? And she wanted it to be quiet, she wanted them all to be quiet, but there were louder voices now, the sea and the plains and the rain and the stream and they all had things to say, and they all wanted to explain things to her, and it was too loud and she cried out it hurts, it hurts! And the song said to her yes, of course it does. You always knew that. You love the pain, you know you do. Don’t be such a pussy about it now. And for a while that was alright, she took the pain and let it roll through her, lift her up, like she always did. But, no, something was wrong, she couldn’t breathe and it was too much, pain was one thing but this was more, this was death, this…I can’t stay under the skin, she cried! Yes, stay, the beetles whispered to her, and she wanted to, she wanted to, but she was dying and she finally opened up her mouth, and she listened to her own voice join the cacophony: her screams went on and on until she had no more breath.