AT THE VERY CENTER OF YOU IS NOTHING by Alice M.

AT THE VERY CENTER OF YOU IS NOTHING by Alice M.

A cool green night like crick water. On the white stones of the drive locusts soaked up the leftover heat of the day. When they jumped away from the car some landed on the windshield, their small defenses crushed against the implacable glass. The girls in the car squealed. Erin said oh god I feel so bad, but what can I do? I can’t stop driving, but Kerry felt herself split. She squealed with the girls and she thought, this is stupid. They’re just grasshoppers. Am I like this, truly, or do I want to fit in.

The road went across an artificial lake, like the roads in Kerry’s dreams. A line bisecting a circle. Behind it the refurbished ranch house was a pencil outline. There was one room, high up, in color, a postage stamp of light. Oh my god it’s fucking huge, said Briony. How much was the rental, Kerry? Don’t worry about it, Kerry said. Yeah, but if I want to come back. Kerry didn’t say anything because she wasn’t going to say the cost out loud, because it would upset both Erin and Gwen, but Gwen pointed and said oh, look! Jackrabbit! so she didn’t have to answer.

*

The cattle gate had no lock but the house’s front door was heavy oak and opened with long antique keys like iron bones, collected on a keyring made from an old ranch brand. Kerry wasn’t sure whether the brand had been used, decades ago, to burn cows. The host probably thought it was romantic to keep the original locks, and she was probably right.

The house inside smelled of cedar aromatherapy oil and, underneath, all purpose cleaner. They lugged their bags into a big parquet floored room. The walls were pleasant eggshell, hung with noncommittal abstract art and cleanly fashionable takes on Western decor. Kerry draped her jacket on a plush leather sectional and noted the wire frame longhorn skull and bouquet of glass bluebonnets from the rental photos.

Kerry chose this rental because she thought the girls might like it. Kerry’s girlfriend was paying for everyone so Kerry organized the trip. She wanted to handle it with aplomb. She wanted the girls to like her choices because her choices made up her taste, and her taste was most of who she was. There was no Kerry, otherwise.

She hefted her tweed and leather duffel bag over one shoulder and said, everybody pick your rooms. I’ll take the one nobody wants.
You sure? said Erin. 

Yeah, yeah. Go ahead, Kerry said. I need a glass of water anyway.

The kitchen was lit like an art museum. Aloof, in stasis. Kerry was alone now. All the girls had gone upstairs. The cupboard opened silently. The glasses were threaded with blue inclusions and had swirls of little bubbles in the base. There was a water spout in the fridge door. She drank with one silver ringed hand resting on the countertop, and felt the price of the glassware in its heft. But she drank and the water was cold, real. She put the glass down a little too hard on the counter, but the sound woke her up and she checked the bottom for chips. Hey Kerry? floated down the stairs.

Yeah?

Did the listing say there were four bedrooms or five?

Four, why?

Well, come up here! You have the keys?

Yeah. Kerry put the glass gently in the sink. One second!

She found the girls standing around a plain white wooden door on the third floor with a lock in the brass knob. This one, Erin said. It’s locked. Okay, Kerry said. I’ll open it and we’ll see what we got. She scooted past the girls and started trying keys.
This floor is listed as a game room and only one bedroom, she said. But it looks like a bedroom door, right? said Gwen, who’d called Kerry up. I think it’s a closet said Briony. Why would they list four bedrooms if there are five? Makes no sense. Kerry shrugged. Maybe the hosts have kept some stuff in the house? she said.

Wait, Erin said. You know what, I think this is the room you can see from the road! Remember? The only one with a light? There’s a window over here! She went over to the right of the door, into the only listed bedroom, and Briony followed her. 

Someone scraped a window open. Yeah! Erin called. It’s lit up! And there’s the road.
She came back to the doorway, and said, it’s got curtains or something. Her flax and ash hair was windblown, her cheeks bright. As far as Kerry knew, Erin had never dyed it, came from old Mormon stock who valued that tawny look.

I’m on the last key, Kerry said. Looks promising. Wait for us! Erin said. Briony came up behind Erin. I can’t tell what’s in there, either.

Kerry waited for them all to stand behind her, turned the key, and opened the door. 

What the fuck, she said.

Briony screamed.

Oh my god, said Gwen.

Erin threw up on herself.

*

The girls and Kerry were downstairs. Kerry was scrubbing Erin’s sweater over the steel kitchen sink with a little dish soap and her fingers. She did it leaning against the marble counter, bloodclot red stone webbed with stringy, fatty white connective tissue. The dish soap covered her hands with verbena smell and sucked all the moisture from her skin. 

Erin watched Kerry from the floor with her knees under her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs. Her cheeks and eyes were bright red from crying.

Don’t worry about the sweater, Kerry said. It won’t stain.

We need to find a motel or something, said Briony. I am not sleeping here tonight. You should message the host and ask for your money back. 

Kerry hung Erin’s sweater to dry on the oven door handle. I don’t get it, she said. Is it an art installation? Like the fuck is it made out of, even. Silicone? 

Well, you needed to message anyway, to let her know we’ve arrived, said Briony. Ask.

23:14

what’s with the extra bedroom on the third floor

Read 23:15

23:18

Oh hey, Kerry.

I guess you got in OK??

Read 23:18

 

23:24

How’s the   house? 🙂

Read 23:24

23:26

the rest of the house is fine

why didn’t you tell us about the third floor bedroom

please tell me what that is 

everyone is freaking out

Read 23:27

23:28

That’s just the flesh   room.

Read 23:28

23:28

the WHAT

Read 23:29

23:28

It’s   totally fine, I promise!

Ignore it if you want !! 🙂

Read 23:29

 

She says it’s real. Kerry kept her eyes on her phone so she didn’t have to battle anyone’s stare. She says ignore it. Well tell her you need your deposit back, jesus christ! said Briony. What the fuck! Kerry typed and waited. She says nobody’s complained before and we can check reviews, that everyone’s really happy with the house. Kerry let her phone hand fall on her thigh. Guys, there’s nowhere else to go in a hundred miles, she said. She lifted her phone and looked again. She’s not giving us our money back. Give me the phone said Briony, and Kerry handed it over. 

Briony typed, tutting when she got a reply and typing again, not relaying any of the conversation. Gwen said, What’s she saying? Briony gave Gwen the phone and threw her hands in the air. I tried! she said. Gwen said, yeah she’s not budging at all, wow. She says it’s just like any other rental with a locked room. All we have to do is lock the door. She left the key on the ring by mistake.

I am leaving a very. bad. review, Briony said. 

She crossed her arms. 

Oh, said Gwen. She says she’ll give us the last night free? So that’s something, at least? She shrugged.

Are you okay? Kerry asked Erin. 

Erin nodded, but her eyes were still glossy. 

I can take the bedroom next to it, if y’all want, Kerry said. That way nobody has to sleep on that floor but me.

Would that work? She directed this at Erin, and Erin sniffed, then nodded again. Kerry patted her shoulder. And then in the morning we can drive to the nearest motel, she said.

That works for me, Gwen said. I think Erin should get the first floor bedroom.

Briony looked like she was going to complain but reconsidered. Yeah, okay. Gwen and me on the second floor.

*

As Kerry unpacked she heard the flesh room breathe. It sounded like fireplace bellows, but quieter. She put her ear against the wall to hear it better. This side was normal plaster and wood. The wall was a little warm. 

It’s nice up here, she thought. The third floor converted attic bedroom was the biggest and had an ensuite bathroom with a rain shower. A big ol’ country bed with a German town style quilt and a horseshoe nailed over it. Black and white contrast photos of rearing horses. A rolltop desk stocked with letter paper and envelopes and a cowhide seat stool. The flesh room’s breath was steady and calm, and Kerry’s bed linens smelled faintly of lavender. She fell asleep without turning off the reading light.

In the morning she took a shower and put her hair up in a chignon with an antique tortoiseshell hair clip. She dressed on trend: an undyed linen jumpsuit, woven sandals, a sunhat. Before she went downstairs she unlocked the door to the flesh room. A few of its eyes blinked at her slowly. 

Hey, she said. Good morning. 

The flesh room didn’t answer, but the lips on the bedcover smiled. Well, she said, see you later.

She typed on the stairs.

08:36

do I have to feed it or anything?

Received 08:36

Briony sat at the breakfast table with her laptop, a mug of coffee and half eaten scrambled eggs. Hey, Kerry said. Still on that WIP about the woman with cancer? Yeah, Briony said. I’m only averaging 3k a session but my critique partner says it should be fine to push back edits a month. 

Any coffee left? Kerry said. 

Should be, said Briony.

Kerry opened the fridge, and it was stocked exactly how she requested. So it’s not all bad, she thought.

She put ice in a tumbler and poured the coffee over it, then added almond cream. She took it to the table and sat across from Briony. Walk me through it, she said. Well, said Briony. Okay. So you know that scene where my MC confronts her mom? Yeah, said Kerry. So right now I’m writing a scene where the mom compares my  MC’s cancer to her own struggles with drugs.

Uh huh, said Kerry. She sipped her coffee. You don’t have your laptop, Briony said. Yeah, I mean, I work better at night, said Kerry. I figured I’d annoy all of you during the day. Briony looked up and Kerry said O kayyy, looks like I’ve succeeded already. I’ll leave you to it. 

 

08:36

do I have to feed it or anything?

Read 09:48

09:49

Oh, no, don’t worry about that. 🙂   It’s fine!

So I guess you’ve. Decided   today?

*to stay

Received 09:50

Hey Briony? said Kerry.

Yes? If Briony wasn’t annoyed before she really was now.

Do you still want to get a motel? 

Briony looked back down at her laptop. It’s whatever, she said. I mean I don’t care.

09:49

So I guess you’ve. Decided   today?

*to stay

Read 09:50

09:51

I don’t know yet

Read 10:15

Kerry freshened her coffee and took it out to the porch swing. When she got back inside Erin was toasting a bagel, notebooks and colored pens abandoned all over the side of the table Briony wasn’t using. Briony was still on her laptop. Gwen had made a new pot of coffee to drink with her toaster waffles. She ate them with one syrupy buttered hand and typed with the other, clean. 

Kerry took a big pot of coconut yogurt out of the fridge and sliced up a peach to top it. She only ate because everyone else was eating. She normally stuck to coffee before lunch. Steel stomach, her girlfriend would say. And because her girlfriend was a bad match for Kerry, Kerry would punish her by replying, you know it’s learned habits from an eating disorder, and then her girlfriend would sigh and say, I’m just kidding, and they’d anger fuck on the couch.

Kerry was working on her novel. She had been working on her novel for almost five years. She’d written three chapters in all that time, because the normal writing process seemed reversed in Kerry. She took forever to draft, but editing was a breeze and she did it like breathing. She’d read a profile in The Paris Review of a late career writer who drafted one painful paragraph a day, then when the manuscript was done, edited in a fever and published to critical fanfare, about once per decade, and she hoped she was like that writer. His novels were autobiographical. 

Erin, with her easy 2.5k a day drafting habit in color coded gel pen, was a fucking monster. She managed a full time job selling scented candles decorated with wax food like popcorn and fruit slices on Etsy, three kids, and a solid self pub career through Amazon. Kerry adored her because you had to, and hated her, because Kerry was Kerry. Gwen, a project manager at a furniture manufacturer, who drafted a lot and deleted a lot, wrote the kind of thrillers Kerry loved to read but not write, so their relationship was easy. Gwen got along with everybody so her job wasn’t too much of a strain, and her books were dependably solid. Even Briony, a PR executive, was more of a writer than Kerry, plodding steadily away at her mediocre manuscripts. She earned more than everybody else combined, and hadn’t once offered to help pay for the trip. Kerry liked having her around, though, as an example of what not to be. Plus, she gave good critiques. 

Kerry loaded her own schedule with critiques for other people, hoping she’d jiggle something loose in her brain, and finally draft more than a hundred words in a week. It didn’t work but she kept trying.

Nobody mentioned moving to a motel, so she messaged the host.

13:24

looks like we’re staying after all

Read 13:50

13:51

Great!! Glad to hear it! Enjoy your stay 🙂

Read 13:53

*

Kerry made a lentil salad for lunch, which she shared with Erin, who was vegetarian, so instead of Kerry’s crumbled salted tofu on her lentils used feta cheese. Kerry shotgunned her food so she could go upstairs. 

She told the girls she was taking a nap but she wasn’t. She was running her fingers over the trembling skin of the flesh room. It seemed to like that.

The afternoon sun was like boiling gold so Kerry put on a high as fuck spf and went out in a bikini to roast on the stubby vinyl thick grass sloping down to the artificial lake. She took a pitcher of strawberry lemonade and her ebook with her so she could binge free romance novels. I’ll never understand you said Gwen, in a sports bra and panties, because she forgot to bring a suit. Why het romances? You don’t like men. Kerry turned a page and pulled her sunglasses down to stare at Gwen over them. Because the lesbian ones aren’t bad enough, she said. That’s so weird, said Gwen. I skip all the sex scenes, Kerry said. She pushed her glasses up. That doesn’t make it better, said Gwen. And anyway, isn’t this a writing retreat? I am writing, said Kerry, turning a page.

*

In the afternoon Gwen and Kerry put on more sunscreen and took floaties from the game room out on the lake under a chlorine sky, with cirrus like pulled cotton. The lakeside bank not next to the house was left wild, gnarled short juniper trees singing with a chorus of cicadas and in the distance, the industrial pock pock pock of a woodpecker.

Gwen’s floatie was a unicorn inner tube and Kerry got the flimsy flamingo and pineapple print raft. They paddled around each other in chaotic spirals, sometimes resting, sometimes splashing, touching base for a second, pushing off, never tied but not apart.

*

For dinner Kerry made a Thai green curry the girls ate and complimented. Erin had two glasses of white wine and went to bed. Briony tapped out after getting tipsy on a bottle of red, and Gwen stayed until midnight. Kerry cleaned up, changed into pajamas, had two cups of peppermint and chamomile tisane, and when her head began to loll against her shoulder, shuffled upstairs to her laptop, where her brain finally let her write a banal scene of her protagonist trying to write a screenplay in a coffee shop, which she knew she’d delete later, because who the fuck did Kerry think she was, I mean, really. She fell asleep with her laptop open.

She slept hard. When she woke up she felt better. In general. She sat on the bed in her pajamas with her laptop, erased the scene she’d written the night before, and wrote. When she was done with the new scene she was ravenous so she went downstairs and ate all the leftover green curry, and drank a whole carton of OJ, right out of their containers, standing barefoot in the kitchen.

The girls seemed pleased Kerry was letting her guard down, and was downstairs in her pajamas. Erin gave her a hug which she gratefully returned. But by midmorning came the old incapacity. Kerry spent the hours first doomscrolling, then sleeping with her phone against her neck, until Gwen woke her for lunch.

Briony had made spaghetti but it was bolognese, so Kerry had to cook another batch for herself and Erin with vegan pesto while Erin grated the cheese for her half. 

A vegan lesbian is such a cliche, Kerry, Briony said, from the table. Gwen and Erin looked shocked but Kerry laughed. It was a lot of why she liked having Briony around. She came out with these broken glass insults, and Kerry admired that. Briony would never use that talent in her writing, which was a shame. 

The spaghetti sated Kerry for less than an hour. When the girls were occupied with writing she snuck a piece of Leerdammer from Gwen’s pile of deli stuff.

She hadn’t eaten cheese in years so she thought maybe it’d satisfy something. It didn’t, and ten minutes later she stole a slice of bologna, a substance she hadn’t eaten since she was probably eight years old. Nothing.

At dinner, she wolfed down three black bean, avocado salsa, and lime rice burritos. 

Jesus Kerry, said Gwen. 

Is this normal? said Briony. Like maybe you’re sick. In my book research I found out one of the symptoms of cancer is eating a lot and not putting on any weight. 

You had to do research to find that out? thought Kerry, but she said, it’s fine, I get hungry like this sometimes, which was a lie.

*

In the middle of the night, hunger pangs woke Kerry up. She went downstairs and took a paring knife from the rack. 

The flesh room didn’t protest when she cut a thin strip of wall from under the desk, through peachfuzz skin and yellow fat and bloody meat. The hands growing from the desk petted her hair. 

She grilled the meat, skin side down, and ate it hot from the grill, grease threading under her nails.

It sated her. She texted the host.

03:24

oh god I am so sorry

I was testing to see if it was real and I think I hurt it

Read 03:25

03:25

Don’t worry a  bit!! It’ll grow   back.

We actually use it for BBQ if we haven’t   slaughtered.

A steer recently! ! 🐄🥩

Much cheaper than the supermarket ! 🙂

Read 03:26

03:26

oh that’s a relief

thank you!

Read 03:27

03:27

Have a good night!! 😴

Received 03:28

 

Kerry ran upstairs for her laptop and parked herself on the kitchen table. This WIP she was writing sucked. Cerebral, removed from the sensory. Everything hinted, nothing explained. Too many words. Kerry tripping over her own words. Not a narrative, a snarled knot. (Nice broad vocabulary, though.) She opened a new document, made coffee, and had a chapter done by the time the girls woke up.

*

Didja cook something? said Gwen. Yeah, said Kerry, startled. Just grilled a hunk of tofu. She hadn’t noticed anyone else was in the kitchen. Gwen lifted the grill pan up to her nose. Smells like bacon, she said. Do you guys have bacon flavored tofu? Like, vegans, I mean. 

Erin leaned over her shoulder and sniffed, then wrinkled her nose. Yeah that smells super realistic. 

Well, yeah, there’s everything flavored tofu, said Kerry. But I, um. It’s fine, it’s fine! Gwen said. You’re allowed to cheat! She’s allowed to cheat, right Erin? 

Erin nodded. Yeah! It’s totally fine, Kerry! 

Don’t tell Briony, Kerry said. I’d never hear the end of it. Don’t tell Briony what, said Briony, sleepy, in the stairwell. 

About bacon flavored tofu, Kerry said. 

Ew, Briony said. Sounds nasty. 

It’s really nasty, Kerry said. Except for bacon bits. Those are good. Want some coffee?

*

Kerry had a normal lunch but her writing flagged. So she went upstairs, to shower she said. But when she was clean she left the shower running and ran to the flesh room with a knife, dripping all over the neatly trimmed pube carpet. She cut a bigger piece from the same wound she’d already made, no skin, only muscle. No way to cook the meat without the girls seeing. So she ate it raw, in the shower, hunched against the Saltillo tile accent, edged top and bottom with blue and white Talavera, water and blood rilling down her neck.

*

That night, after she’d written some chapters, and eaten two more strips of meat, Kerry experimented. Meat from the fridge tasted like meat always tasted. Gross, strong, a film of musky fat on her lips. But from the flesh room it was unctuous, umami, complex as nutmeat. It didn’t need seasoning or a sauce.

At this rate she’d finish a manuscript draft before the retreat was over. And the writing was good. She dug her fingertips into the soft surface of the flesh room’s desk and the room purred, filling her chest with soft static.

*

Kerry woke with her head cupped in a pair of gentle hands. She raised it and yawned. Oh, hey, she said. The left hand reached up to pet her hair. It had blunt nails and soft fingers. The right hand pushed her head upright. The green eye above the desk had smile lines in the corner. Haha, okay, I’m getting up, said Kerry. The eye winked.

Kerry went downstairs to white faced girls. 

Kerry, said Erin. She was chewing on a hangnail. We came to see if you wanted some pancakes for breakfast. 

Gwen got down from the high chair at the breakfast bar counter. Were you. She paused.

I guess so, said Kerry. 

What the fuck! said Erin. I hadn’t even thought about it for days. I thought we agreed to keep the door locked! 

But, said Kerry. 

No! said Erin. No no no! Just, ugh, don’t even talk to me. 

She left the kitchen and Kerry heard the porch door slam open and shut. 

Gwen rested her chin in her hands. I get how she feels, Kerry, she said. 

No, I mean, but, I do too! Kerry said. 

Do you? said Briony, who was sitting on the couch and had watched all of this without saying anything or moving. Like don’t get me wrong, Kerry, I don’t care what you do. But I get why Erin’s so upset. 

Right? said Gwen. I think you need to go apologize to her. 

Apologize, what? said Kerry. Like apologize for what, for being interested in a fucking weird phenomenon that scares her? By being fascinated in something we have to live with for two weeks, and, let’s face it, which is truly fascinating? 

Erin’s scared because this isn’t normal, Kerry, said Briony. Not normal from you, specifically. The room is the room, but she has to be in a writing group with you. She has to be in a car with you for six hours so she can catch her plane home.

Kerry rubbed her eyes. Okay, that’s fair, she said. She filled the kettle with water and put it on the stove to boil. Okay. I’ll go talk to her. 

Good, said Gwen.

What would Kerry taste like to the flesh room, she wondered, staring past the surface of the tea to nowhere. Desperation? What would she taste like if she was Gregor, her girlfriend’s Norwegian boss, who put in his hours with the predatory cheerfulness of a guy earning seven figures a year with bonus? Like macrobiotics and microdosing? What do people do if they’re emotionally balanced? If Gregor had his name on a book he would hire a ghostwriter and never write a word, and it would be about how short spells of hypothermia can supercharge the business brain. 

Kerry took the tea mugs out to the porch. Erin was sitting, staring out over the lake. Maybe past it to the haze on the lilac hills. Hey, Kerry said. She put the mugs on the white painted wicker table between the stuffed porch chairs. Want tea? I know it’s hot out even though it’s like 7 a.m. but, I thought maybe. Erin sniffed, then nodded. Sure, she said. You know when I came out here I was looking at the hummingbirds? There’s a feeder. Right there. She pointed.

And they were all there at the feeder, yelling at each other, Erin said, but they’re so small the yells are squeaks. They sound like dog toys, all squeaking. They move so fast they look like big shiny green bees. She reached for her tea. When you came out they left. I guess they’re only here in the morning, cause I didn’t see them yesterday.

I’m sorry, Kerry said. It’s just, I’m not like you. I don’t get all these great ideas one after another after another. I’m like, writing constipated, all the time. Erin laughed. You are, she said. And it’s sad, Kerry, because your writing is so good.

It’s really not, Kerry said. But the room, I don’t know. It’s like, just the fact it exists makes writing easier for me. Like here’s something really truly unusual. I’m not making any sense. I’m sorry. I should have asked you if it was okay. 

Erin sipped her tea. Oh, this is nice, she said. Chai? Yeah, Kerry said. I brought a box from home. When she gets off work Anna goes to this tea shop in SoHo sometimes. They blend it by hand with fresh spices or something. It’s near Canal Street so she can get the A or C back, easy. 

Erin smiled. A real New York writer. Hardly! said Kerry. Anna’s the one who pays. The rent, this. I just mooch. So when’s the wedding? Erin said. Kerry looked away and laughed. I dunno! She’s great, it’s just.

Erin nodded. I’ve always felt like I’m not good enough for you, she said. Like here I am, Midwestern Mom, writing my romance thrillers. And you’re writing actual literature. Are you high? Kerry said. You’re a beast! You found your niche and you’re owning it! You make a living off your work, which is literally the most difficult thing. God, Erin, I never meant to give you that impression. Honestly, I feel so insecure around you. 

Erin drank more tea, then said, so you don’t hate me? 

A little, said Kerry. I’m not gonna lie to you. But that’s only because I’m a jealous loser who can’t deal when other people are more productive or successful. But since we got here I’ve written 45k and it’s good, Erin. It’s really good. 

You’re not a loser, Kerry, Erin said. And I really liked the book you were working on before. 45k is great. I’m sorry I got so upset. 

Please don’t be! Kerry said. I should have talked to you. And, she thought, plus, I should tell you the other shit I’ve done with the room besides sleep in it. But she didn’t say that. She said, look, just trust I’ll be okay, and let me go in there while I’m still drafting. And I promise to keep the door locked, and sleep in a normal bed. Does that work for you?

Erin thought about it. I’m okay with that, she said. But when you’re done drafting, please don’t go back in. Hand on heart, Kerry said. I’ll even give you the key. Okay, Erin said. Thank you for the tea, but I’m hungry. Breakfast? 

Starving, Kerry said.

*

Kerry looked at her face in the flesh room’s standing mirror. Or, not her face. Or her face, features arranged into an expression she had never seen on it before. Kerry, not Kerry. It was confident. Charismatic. Charming. A little less feminine. Kerry didn’t want to think about why that was good.

The mirror was on feet. They stood under the bottom corners, pointed completely away from each other as if the mirror were about to do a plié. The toes wiggled.

Kerry leaned to the side. Her face was in three dimensions, sticking out of the mirror like someone had hot glued a Halloween mask to the glass. So not her face after all. She tugged it gently and it came off with a satisfying thock. Her real face, reflected now it wasn’t hidden by the mask, was drawn, anxious. Sad.

14:15

it’s giving me things

like gifts

what should i do

Read 14:21

14:22

It will give you what you want, Kerry 🙂

When our son was growing up he .

Was hard to handle you know what I   mean ??

His dad is a real outdoors kinda guy . Beaing a rancher

*being

We love our guns out here  !!

Barrett was not acting like normal 

He was acting ! weird .

So we asked Pastor Gray about what to do and he said 

well boys will be boys ! Let him be.

So my husband Howard Barretts father he said well why

don’t he take my 9mm up to the .  Weird room and I agreed 

that might help so Barrett well he started to use the room for

 target practice and he started going up there every day and I 

said honey that’s right honey you get it all out of you !

Barrett he’s such a good kid he would never do nothing to 

hurt nobody and besides he went off to Basic right when he

 graduated so he could be a Marine !! I am so PROUD of my 

BOY and I am so grateful God provided !! 🙏🙏

So you just use that God given gift for whatever you need Kerry

 and I won’t tell a living soul !!

Read 14:30

14:31

thank you.

thank you so much

Read 14:32

Kerry glanced back over her shoulder to make sure the door was shut. Then she put the mask on.

*

Keeeeerrrryyy! Are you ready? We’ve gotta go in like five minutes!

Kerry turned two of the flesh masks to the side so they were better hidden by her tshirts. 

One second! She pushed her folded clothes down and zipped up her bag. She hadn’t eaten any meat from the room in days. The masks were enough. 

She was wearing her favorite now, the first one, which departed her from the feminine, but not too much. With it she could write reams of paper, she felt. The Great American Novel. She could smoke a pipe, legs crossed at the knee, pleated ivory slacks, Kristen Stewart via Steinbeck, argyle socks, brown Oxfords, tweed jacket, pocket square. A poodle, underfoot.

Another, the one hugging her toiletry bag, sharp and alien, avant-garde makeup in color blocks and wings, high cheekbones, more androgynous, Tilda Swinton plays David Bowie, a confrontational undercut. It produced soaring sci fi epics. 

Another wrote solid midlist thrillers. 

The masks were thin, pliable. They attached to her skin, seamless. They emoted for her, always appropriate, guaranteed to fetch the reaction she wanted. Kerry sometimes forgot to take them off. She could write and write and write. And when they were on her face, it could settle into its most comfortable expression underneath. Blank.

*

The aftermath. Fellowships. Bestsellers. Awards. Grants. Profiles in The Atlantic, The New Yorker. Interviewed on NPR. A previously unknown director remade Kerry’s debut novel as an arthouse masterpiece. She watched it at Cannes sitting beside Scarlett Johannson. She was calm. She gave seminars, taught at Colombia, Warwick, NYU, lectured at Oxford, Iowa. Online small businesses made polymer clay earrings of her book covers. She had two children with Anna, now her wife. When her grandchildren were applying to college, Kerry and Anna moved to a historic house in the Catskills, and Kerry decided now was the time to finish her first novel, the one she tried to write at the ranch house.

Nobody would have to see it until after she was dead.

She had been wearing her favorite flesh mask for over a decade. To write the novel, she thought, she would have to take it off. 

She got a hand mirror and locked her heavy office door. She leaned back in her soft leather desk chair, rubbed the sides of her face with her fingertips, felt the mask separate from her skin. She put her thumb and middle finger beside the apples of the cheeks, her index finger on the forehead, and pulled. Thock.

But Kerry did not stay with her body. As her left hand swung away from her neck she came with it, leaving behind her body in its expensive, professorial attire, legs crossed at the knee, pleated slacks, boating shoes. Where her face should be was a contoured but featureless skull, draped in musculature and skin but nothing else. No expression. A mannequin.

Kerry herself, now only a collection of other people’s impressions and opinions of her, felt nothing. 


Alice M. Alice is a pseudonymous nonbinary writer from London. Aer work has appeared in Salt Publishing's "Best British Short Stories," HAD, Rejection Letters, and Hobart. Alice paints, and is obsessed with nuclear physics and languages for some reason.

Art by Alice M.

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