This short story by April L Ford was inspired by Hazel Gore’s painting ‘Living Alone in Paradise’. It comes with a trigger warning for rape and sexual assault.
Her unconscious state, the immobilized expression of slight terror on her face, the space between her lips the preface to a wail swallowed and painfully lodged in the esophagus, sent contractions through Carl’s large intestine. Her sucked-in cheeks, their wet red flesh clamped between bicuspids and molars, damp hair fanned about her head like silkworms, dribble of pink saliva arcing from the right corner of her mouth to her right earlobe. A feline smile. He would wait for her to awaken, would not disturb her further in such a vulnerable state, would not rescue her until she became aware he was rescuing her.
Carl considered covering the girl with a sheet, or her own clothing from the floor beside the couch, but he wanted first to study her, absorb the shock she must have felt at being rearranged like a rag doll: arms above head, legs unbent and separated, humid skin peeled away from humid skin, on the couch, off the couch, on the floor, body prone, against the couch, back on the couch. She had been difficult to manipulate; Carl would have liked help replacing her so not to knock her elbows against the exposed wood frame of the couch, scrape her tailbone and backs of her legs over it, stretching and splintering her.
He had spent the early morning hours staring out the second-floor apartment window, forehead pressed to the glass, eyeballs nearly flush with the glass until he saw the first eruption of green on the sidewalk below, which initiated another eruption, and then another, until the drunken Saint Patrick’s Day college students had completed their circle-wretch and streamed northward to the next bar. He waited until the last plastic leprechaun hat disappeared from sight and then ran onto the street with such velocity he skidded onto the pile of green vomit. He withdrew his sneakers immediately and shook, spattering vomit on himself, and then squatted to inspect the pile. It had the consistency of raw pancake batter.
As his brother had bragged of the previous night, there was evidence of breakfast—scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, sausages, ham, home fries, a slice of orange almost perfectly intact! None mixed well with beer the colour of green E142. But to Carl, these manifestations of the human body, guttural reflexes to protect it against the daily abuses of people who did not appreciate it, were glorious as they shone under the nascent sunlight. This evidence satisfied his curiosity more than any word of mouth, television documentary, or encyclopedia passage, more valuable in its warm, post-ejected state, its subjects still afoot, than his father’s lifeless subjects on 36 Chestnut Street, lined up on stainless steel gurneys, waiting to be drained of every last thing that made them important.
A group of college students, all male, approached from the south end of town. Each wore thick-framed titanium sunglasses atop his head and a lime-green bandana around one globose bicep. All sang out in intoxicated falsetto Gaelic: Is leir don saol e an firinne, is folamh fuar e teach gan bean! Carl thought he might follow them to their next drinking destination and watch through a window, or wait nearby until they lumbered back onto the
street and performed the ritual he had watched the others do earlier. Hey kid, one guy said to Carl as the group approached, make sure you lick it good eh? Lick it real good! The college students hooted and each one patted the top of Carl’s head as the boy peered up from his squatting position. His top lip curled under and disappeared across his buckteeth; when he smiled, his chin disappeared and he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
When Carl’s brother swaggered into the apartment later that morning, by which time Carl had collected samples from each pile outside the apartment and stored them in separate freezer bags for eventual analysis, he brought with him two guys and a girl Carl had never met. Met them at the O, his brother said, slapping one guy on the shoulder as they all tipped their sweaty heads back and opened their throats to bottles of beer. This beer was not green, Carl noted, to which the girl said in a rumbling voice that contradicted her small, neat frame: The green beer’s all gone. It’s whale piss for us now until we pass out. Hiccup. Belch. Oh that’s quite rude of me isn’t it? Hiccup. You’ll see little Carly Carl when you get to be a college student like us you’ll know what I mean. You’ll remember me and what I said.
Carl, being but a moon-faced boy of 13, felt both frightened by and taken with this girl, whose eyes were hidden behind by kohl liner and mascara, whose ski-slope nose winked at him from a tiny silver ring coiled around one nostril, whose feet, supine against the parquet floor, were alive with toes that wriggled and bucked inside her zebra-print ballerina shoes. He imagined one of the samples in the freezer was hers; he imagined it was the smallest, for how could such a girl produce excess?
Carl’s brother, the two guys, and the girl smiled languidly, swaying toward and away from one other, and then went
into the bedroom; Carl heard the door locking from the inside and the ghetto blaster being turned on, and for the next hour he mouthed the words to a series of Metallica songs he sometimes listened to when his brother was not home. When the gang reappeared, Carl’s brother held up his thick, football player’s arm, palm open and so stiff the tops of his fingers curved backward. Don’t tell dad we were here, he said. Nobody was here and I was at school all day. The two guys appeared, the girl folded between them like a Motel 6 hide-a-bed, head so far back between her shoulder blades she had an Adam’s apple. Carl had never seen breasts before, or hair that grew on secret regions of the female body; he had only dreamed what these might look like without the trappings of tight t-shirts and jeans. Again he felt frightened, but his eyes could not avert the glow of skin around the girl’s bejeweled navel. The two guys transported the girl to the living room couch and Carl’s brother said, If she wakes up before I get back make her leave okay? He no longer exhibited a spirit of celebration; the two guys no longer exhibited a spirit of conviviality; the girl no longer exhibited.
Carl thought of 36 Chestnut Street and concluded the girl would have to undergo, what would be to her, an objectionable transformation. No makeup to obscure her eyes, no glinting pieces of steel on her face and certainly not on the private regions of her body. A pale, glossy pink for her lips, and the ballerina shoes could stay. These were the only things concealing her body now; her toes had ceased to wriggle and buck, and Carl denied his impulse to slip the shoes from her feet to see what her toes looked like. He imagined they were free of flower and butterfly tattoos and offensive polishes like “Bleeding Heart” and “Blue Death”, like the girls in his class wore; he enjoyed the possibility of her toes being as neat as the rest of her, the thrill of mystery.
At three in the afternoon, Carl’s brother phoned and asked if the girl was still there. I’ve done some things to her that I thought would wake her up but they didn’t work, Carl said. His brother cursed and then hollered for somebody to order one more round but then he had to go, and after he hung up, Carl decided he did not want his brother to come home and take the girl away from him. Again. He sat on the couch and watched her. He reached out to touch her thigh and then stopped. He reached out to touch her stomach and then stopped. He reasoned that touching her forearm was acceptable. He had touched other parts earlier, on the floor, but those had been exploratory and purpose-driven, like he had spied his father doing on 36 Chestnut Street. He had not spoken to the girl then, or earlier when she had spoken to him, and he did not know how to speak to her now. For 20 minutes Carl extended and withdrew his hand, kneading the air each time a little closer to the girl’s forearm, until the slight terror immobilized on her face began to travel in faint twitches across her forehead, along her throat, down her legs and into her toes, each one popping up against the roof of her zebra-print ballerina slippers, waking up one at a time, until the girl herself popped up and clapped her hands over her breasts in a violent gasp. Her breath reeked of green E142 as she heaved all over herself, and Carl, who had never been so close to a human body in a state of retaliation, fled to his brother’s room and turned on the ghetto blaster.