Phantasm

 In Short Fiction, Stories

The skin of your fingers is peeling off and a voice in your head mumbles you’re worthless, you’re a malfunction. It’s another thirty seconds before you’re able to move your body. This has been your daily waking-up routine for the past two years. You look at Brenda next to you. She’s sleeping soundly. You can see her iris even with her eyelids closed, its dull gray grief.

“Something’s wrong with me.” You only say important things when she’s asleep.

It’s still a dark blue night outside and there are churning noises, faint explosions, a dog barking halfheartedly. You can see and feel the cold the weather outside.

“Uh-huh,” Brenda says, eyes closed.

“Brenda, I miss you.”

She rolls to the other side.

*

It’s noon. You’re drawing Brenda with charcoal even though you’re tired and had just woke up. Soft piano music plays in the background. You’re figuring out the details of her left eyebrow. It isn’t drawn right though it’s the thing you’ve stared at the most. She sits on the purple sofa. You construct her jaw with stark, abstract lines going up from the bottom of the page. You don’t want to show Brenda what you have yet—she’d think you’re a cliché. You’re terribly afraid of showing people unfinished work.

Brenda straightens her back and puts her head on her hands, then walks to the kitchen.

“Brenda.”

“I’m sorry. I justI can’t do this anymore. Take a photo if you want.”

A photo doesn’t carry the same visual nuance as a three-dimensional presence, but you agree. You take a photo of her back to the couch, both of you quieter than death.

*

You’re at the doctor’s office. His name is Jack, balding, middle aged, skinnier than the skeleton model next to him. He looks like a dusty, nightstand lamp. His mouth, eyes, nose, and contortions remain completely still as he says, “Congrats! You have night terrors. Nothing to worry about.”

“But my delusions are so real.”

“Night paralysis is often associated with visual and auditory hallucinations. It’s pretty common.” There is a poster of a smiling nurse on the wall, an advertisement for an experimental lung cancer drug.

“I sweat all day long,” you say.

“Turn up the air conditioner.”

“I’m always bloated.”

“Don’t eat as much.”

“I’m depressed.”

“You should see a therapist then.”

“But I d

*

The bus smells of tragedy, like a mother whose only child just died. The driver has been crossing the speed limit for the past two hours. The radio plays a pop song from the seventies. No one cares ‘bout no one. No lovers are forever in love. Sounds of gunshots and faint bombing outside ramp up the song’s mellow chorus.

This was your ride home, but you never bothered to pull the rope. You thought, it’s fine, I could use a couple more hours of this and it will turn around eventually. But it didn’t. It kept moving forward and forward and forward and you stayed inside. You look outside but all you see is a dark blue motion blur. The man next to the window is wearing a purple tie and a suit. He’s no longer reading his book of poems. You’ve never been the kind of person who initiates talking with strangers but you haven’t genuinely spoken with anyone for years. The bus bumps up and down and the toddler behind you cries. You desperately want to be heard playing music but you don’t know any instruments. You want people to view your drawings but they’re never done, so you look at the man next to you with the purple tie and the suit and you part your lips, but you have nothing to say. You try to think of something in your life that is not trivial and forgotten.

“Why are you leaving?” you ask him.

“Leaving?”

“You’ve been here for four hours. I assume it’s not a ride to the mall you’re after.”

“Oh wow, it’s been six hours?” he says and takes out a melted chocolate bar from his pocket. “Why do you want to know?”

“I don’t know. I’m just curiousjustnever mind.”

He turns to you, his gray iris spirals like the surface of a mocha coffee. “My wife died. I wanna get away from the memory.”

“I’m sorry. What was she like?”

“Just a person, I guess.”

The bus stops at a checkpoint. All eyes furtively peek at the door. You watch those eyes instead.

“It’s gonna be okay,” the man next to you says. You wonder if you look like a person who needs reassurance. It’s comforting to know that your fear can still be communicated. “They just take money and leave.”

A tall man with round, scratched, glasses hovers over you. “Checkpoint fee, brother.” His voice is sullen, and he smiles looking at the floor. There’s a gun holstered in his belt.

When he leaves, you ask the guy next to you why he only took money from you.

“They thought we were together,” he says.

The bus, now moving again makes another, harsher bump.

“What made her different?” You ask him after a while.

“My wife?”

“Yeah.”

“When she laughed at my flaws, I laughed too.”

He coughs and looks at the window, it’s almost midnight now. He blows air, and the fog fills all the windows in the bus. All the noises mesh into unanimous uniformity that doesn’t say anything at all.

You look at the man and his eyes are widened and shot with shock.

And then the screaming begins.

Before realizing why, you become conscious of your heartbeat. You’re going down. The bus is no longer moving horizontally. Everyone is screaming, and the kid behind is crying with shrill, terrifying fear.

You and the man next to you grab at each other.

When the bus hits the floor, everyone flies at once, hitting the ceiling of the bus.

It all goes so slow, as if everything is reversing . . . the five-seconds downward dive, The ten-hours drive. For some, the ride of their lifespan.

*

When you wake up, the man from the bus is sitting next to you. The sun is blindingly bright. The ground is all but sand and you’re close to a cliff. You look around and see debris and corpses all around, but you’re nearly untouched. You sit up and stare at the demolished city.

“I really want a drink.”

“A twist Martini,” the man from the bus says.

“With ice.”

“And a straw, just for aesthetic purposes.”

A mother is weeping over her dead child that was behind you in the bus.

“If you die from a disease, do you still have it?”

“No,” he answers, almost before you finish asking.

At the distance far away from you and the guy with the tie and suit, from the weeping mother, the corpses, the debris, there’s smoke rising off the City Hall building.

Brenda calls. Your heart skips a beat as you realize that your phone screen is cracked. Hello. There’s no sound from the other end.

“Hey, do you want to come to my place tonight?” you ask the man. “I’m drawing Brenda, my wife.”

“Yeah, cause that’s how I love spending my nights. Watching people draw their spouses.”

“I’m drawing her from a photo. You can just hang out with me while I do it. Watch a movie if you want, have a drink.”

He nods reluctantly. “It’s not like there’s anything else left to do.”

You take another bus with the man. It feels like only an hour has passed, but it’s the next eve by the time you’re home.

*

You pour a drink for each of you. Lying sloppily on the couch in his underwear, he says, “Cordial, generous, and talented. Thank you.”

You sit on the drawing table attempting to finish Brenda’s face, but the reference photo is only a photo of the purple sofa. Thick liquid rises and floods your throat. It’s the alcohol, you think. It’s that nightly internal avalanche. It’s okay. It’ll pass. You leave the drawing table and sit next to the man. It strikes you that you don’t know his name yet. Inside your head he’s Nicholas, but that’s unlikely to be true. You let the lump in your throat take hold of you and you cry for the first time in years. He taps your shoulders. “It’s okay. It’ll pass.”

Together you watch a movie about a depressed filmmaker. When it ends, you say, “I’ll go to bed. Feel free to stay if you want.”

He doesn’t move at all.

Brenda is not in the bedroomshe’s probably working night shift again. You call her but she doesn’t respond. The crack in your phone screen has extended to its backside, to the wooden floor, to the body mirror by the side of your bed. An audible shattering repeats through the night. You look at the mirror and the cracked lines follow the outline of the man in the mirror. A short, scrawny guy. Expressionless under expensive blue sheets in a twin bed. The right front corner of his hair is only skin. In his bottom eyelids, there are thin lines that draw a map of everywhere but the place where he is.

You wake up in the middle of the night as usual. You can sense that Brenda is lying next to you. You try to turn your head at her, memorize her face even more. Maybe one day you won’t need her presence or even a photo to draw her. You’re incapable of moving. Your body is frozen. An ethereal creature enters the room with an ice cube in his hands, bringing a chilling wave of cold air. It makes you shiver without moving. It makes you sweat cold drops. It eventually subsides and the hallucinations are gone. You’re able to move again. You’re able to steer your head and look at Brenda.

“Where have you been?” you ask, concerned.

She opens her eyes and turns to your side. “At Beverly Hills.”

“You went all the way to Beverly Hills?”

“I took the bus.” Her smile mirrors the arch of her left eyebrow. “I’ve missed you.”

She kisses you softly on the eye. She sits up and starts stripping you naked. Vulnerability covers you like a blanket, and you feel safe. You wonder if this will be a rough fuck where she takes control, or a gentle, intimate one.

“I miss you too. Sometimes when you’re not around, I feel like someone is strangling my insides.”

“It’s OK. You’ll get over me with time. You might forget me, even.” She holds you to her, getting under the mattress on top of you. Then kisses your shoulder.

“That’s sad. Forgetting you is sadder than being agonized by your absence.”

She brushes your chest like she’s cleaning dust. You’re a painting and she’s varnish. You want to stay like this forever. Her body is shelter; it feeds life back into you. It blows your lungs and heart with zest that was emptied out so fucking long ago. She pushes herself inside you and you moan lightly. You push back into her. Your toes touch and it feels more important than the intertwine of your genitalia. Like a beat of familiar music, she goes up and down on you. You want her so much. You want to touch her all at once and never let go. You want her to merge with you, to cover you like veneer. You’re about to cum. You’re brimming with heat. You moan. She moans. Up. Down.

And she explodes into a million shattered pieces.

All her tiny fragments fly around the room. They slow down and float, calmly like they’re one with the air. They blend with the specs of dust and photons of light and you cry. You weep, “I’m sorry, Brenda. I’m so fucking sorry.”

In the eerie blue darkness of the room, the splinters get smaller and smaller. Every second they fade a little more into the murky air of the room. At the end, there is nothing but her lack of presence.

You are alone.

Magdi Hazaa is a visual artist and web developer currently living in the twin cities. He’s pursuing a BFA in web and multimedia with a minor in creative writing from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He has worked as a student reporter, and had artwork published in Average Arts Magazine, as well as exhibited at ìMade at MCADî and ìIt’s A small Worldî campus galleries. Magdi creates a lot of interactive web-based visual work that incorporates writing and narrative. His work can be seen at magdi-hazaa.com

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