Gone: Spring 1990 • Torgus the Angel • Koolaid: 1999 • The Waste-resses: August 2000 • Bot: 1999
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Gone: Spring 1990
We knocked off around eleven and went cruising in my Buick. “Man, what a fun-hater.” I was referring to Mitch’s latest accusation. Some Michelangelo had drawn a giant pair of boobs across the work schedule taped to the walk-in freezer door. We hadn’t been anywhere near the freezer (at least I hadn’t). Lately, Mitch had taken to calling us “the twins,” and not in an affectionate way. We hadn’t done anything to earn his mistrust, other than just laugh a lot, but apparently that was enough.
“Forget Mitch the Bitch,” Marissa said. “I’ve got some of Rusty’s vodka in a jar. It’s up by the factory, in the bushes.”
A stillness hung over the dimly lit grounds of the NFMA as the Buick crept across the west parking lot. As we neared the sprawling building, taillights flashed on the south side and a UPS truck motored away. We didn’t even try to follow, knowing by the time we swung back out onto 48th the truck would have vanished like a big, grumbling spirit in the night.
Instead, we parked on the north side of the building, where the shadows were deepest. I turned off the engine and waited.
“You have to go get it,” Marissa whispered.
“Like heck! You’re the one that planted the booze, you go get it.”
“Exactly—I did the hard part, stealing it and hiding it. Now it’s your turn.” It was too dark to see her, but I could tell she was wearing a shit-eating grin. It was a reprisal of our old game of chicken.
I sighed. “Where is it?”
“Over there, by the corner.”
I opened the door and crept across the grass towards the bushes growing below those wide, black windows. I knelt at the corner of the building, heart pounding, and fumbled around, scratching up my arms, all my neck hair standing straight up.
“PSST. Doc!” I jerked back, adrenaline racing outward from my core, and fell on my ass. “I forgot, it’s not by the corner. It’s by the door.” Still with that shit-eating grin.
“You get out here and help me, then!” I think she could hear the shrillness in my voice because the passenger door swung open and a second later, she was there beside me.
“Some detective you’d make,” she giggled, bumping me in the direction of the north employee entrance.
“That’s why I’m gonna be a meteorologist!” I whispered back, my face heating with that mixture of fear, annoyance, and excitement she always managed to provoke.
The blank windows seemed to widen, the towering maples to arch lower as if to get a better look at us as we felt around in the shrubbery, and I kept looking over at the door, imagining it swinging slowly, silently inward. A chill gripped me, and I reached for Marissa, meaning to say Forget it, let’s get out of here. “Bingo!” She stood up, something sloshing in her hand, and headed back towards the car, and I scrambled after her.
Safely back in the Buick, I grasped the ignition key. “Where you going? Let’s stay here.” I hit the locks on all four doors, not caring if she laughed. “Here. This’ll take the edge off.” She pressed the jar into my hand.
I unscrewed the lid and took a swig of Rusty’s vodka. It tasted like stale bread. I settled back in the seat, feeling warmth spreading outward from my core. I took another drink. I guessed Marissa was right. There was nothing to fear here. I handed the jar back. “You’re an asshole.”
I could just see the jar’s faint gleam as she held it up in a salute. Welch’s Grape Jelly. “Here’s to whatever you really are,” she said to the dark and silent building. She took a deep drink.
There was something about the way she said it. Like a kind of good-bye. “It’s not like we’ll never come here again,” I said. “We’re just going to college, not some other world.” We’d finally decided: Norman, Oklahoma, home of the Sooners, O.U.’s School of Meteorology, and the National Weather Center. Smack in the middle of Tornado Alley. “School of Accounting won’t know what hit ’em when Doomsday takes ’em by storm,” I added, elbowing her.
Marissa was silent a few seconds. Then she toasted the factory once more. “’Til we meet again, then.”
With Doomsday at my side, the watchful darkness was no longer forbidding. Instead, it seemed to reach out to us, to call us by name. As I drove her home and watched her disappear around the corner of her house, I pictured all the new adventures waiting for us in Oklahoma after graduation.
It was a school morning like any other. Faith No More was rattling my rear left speaker when I pulled into my usual corner slot on the west side of Lincoln East. I slid into my desk in Mr. Maddox’s American History class just as the buzzer went off and turned, grinning, hand half-raised for an air high-five with Doomsday two rows over.
But Marissa Kelvin’s seat was empty. She should have been kicked back in it, red Converse high-tops stuck out in the aisle, daring Mr. Maddox to make her sit up. Was I supposed to give her a ride today? But no, Rusty had been dropping her off. He’d been in a mean mood lately…meaner than usual.
I turned to face front again, a cold shard of worry sliding into my stomach. Kelvin was always the cutup, had done plenty of time in detention. But it was the end of senior year, we had a solid plan for the future, and she hadn’t ditched once since last fall.
“…late this morning? Tori?” I blinked, startled to hear my name.
Some of the kids were laughing. Mr. Maddox was grinning. “Long night, eh? Maybe that explains Miss Kelvin’s tardiness.”
By the following day, the whole school knew something had happened: She’d run away with a band of gypsies; had been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang; had gotten shot in a drug deal gone bad. As the last known person to have seen her, I had to be interviewed by the police. Rusty came limping up to our house (he’d hurt his leg somehow), demanding to know where she was and accusing me of holding something back. Dad slammed the door in his face. I’d never seen Dad so angry.
For the next few days, I went down to the Rambler every day. Each time, I tore up the last note, left a new version:
Day One: Doc to Doomsday—what’s the plan? Whatever it is, I’ve got your back. Just write me here.
Day Two: Doomsday, come in. Just write back, OK? You know I won’t tell anyone. I’ll help, just tell me what to do.
Day Three: Dude, what the fuck? I’m starting to freak out. Call me.
Day Four: Marissa, where are you? Please.
Day five, it hit me: Of all the places she might have gone, where was the one place we’d always talked about, traced on the old Atlas map? I had never skipped school before. I left home that morning, same time as always, as if I were just heading off for American History with Mr. Maddox. The old map fluttering on the passenger seat, the destination encircled by hearts drawn in a child’s hand.
Hours later, standing at the curve of U.S. 40 with nothing but wind, yucca, and buffalo grass for miles around, I stared down into Uncle Deek’s canyon. There was no sign anyone had been here—but had I really expected something? It was just a nameless curve in a road in Kansas. A crumpled fast-food sack rustled, snagged on a prickly pear cactus, flies buzzing in and out, the red and blue American Taco logo just visible. We always made fun of that name.
It was in this moment the dark reality circling at the periphery of my consciousness, descending lazily in ever-tighter spirals, swooped into stark relief and clutched me in its talons: She was truly gone. Gone were all our shared dreams of the future. Oklahoma, gone. Doomsday, becoming some high-fallutin’ CFO—gone. Me, someday getting to be her kids’ crazy, storm-chasing aunt—gone. My best friend and common-law sister, the only one I’d never had to pretend to be normal around.
My breath caught, and I staggered against the car door, engulfed in the silence. Fear knifed through me, for her…but also, shamefully, for me—fear of being left alone with my craziness.
A week or two later, I climbed through the pasture fence and walked along the ridge—not hoping, really. Just pretending a reply might be waiting in the glove box. Long before the ridge bore me to the old pond bed, my steps slowed. And then I was standing where, a day earlier, the Rambler had sat. In its place was a large, rectangular patch of barren, oil-soaked dirt. Palsied yellow tangles of grama grass lay flat where the slowly rotting tires had rested. A rusty trail gouged the dry earth where the old wreck had been dragged onto a trailer.
I stood there looking, mind blank, until the sun’s last light winked out behind the hills.
The guys got to wear blue graduation robes (Jostens color name: Cornflower). Marissa and I had not voted to wear Dusty Rose, (Marissa’s color name: Cow Pussy), but we’d lost that vote.
The valedictorian’s tearful speech included a lengthy tribute to Marissa Kelvin, and the principal asked everyone to bow their heads for a moment of silence as we prayed for her safe return. As names were announced and families cheered, I could see her strolling across that stage, old ripped jeans under that pink polyester, a pint of Mad Dog 20/20 in her hip pocket. What are we doing? How can they just go ahead with graduation when she’s still out there somewhere? And then it was me crossing the stage with my own diploma, the applause barely registering in my head. We can’t do this without her. I didn’t realize ’til it was too late that everyone was unpinning their mortars to throw them in the air in defiance of the principal’s futile threats. I pulled mine loose and tossed it onto the pile after the moment had already passed. Everyone was crying and hugging and high-fiving. Nowhere in all that tearful celebration was that raspy drawl I longed to hear: We did it, Doc. Now let’s blow this joint.
“I can’t do this without you,” I said, but no one heard me.
Sharing the old VFW reception hall with two other families, I ate cake and hugged people, smiling for pictures, for Dad. But he saw my eyes turn towards the doors every time they opened, and his hand came to rest on my hair and he kissed my forehead.
Over the past month, I’d already begun to think of my life as broken into two opposing eras: Before and After.
In years to come, whenever I would visit Dad, I’d leave by the alley, driving up Burkhardt, turning around in front of Rusty’s house. Though he lived there for many years (along with an aging continuum of girlfriends), the place always had an empty, almost forbidding feel about it.
Before: The world was dangerous, full of dark secrets, fantastic adventures, the ultimate party waiting just around every corner.
After: No more mysteries hid below the surface of everyday things. A sparrow was just a sparrow. A road was just a road.
The angels, now my only consolation, became an even deeper obsession.
It seemed increasingly likely, in fact, that I was just plain insane, hallucinating, remembering things that weren’t possible. And wasn’t it a hallmark of craziness you had to be obsessed with the FBI? Add to that the amusing twist that, due to a childhood misadventure, in my mind the FBI was synonymous with the UPS. Time grew longer, the secrets burrowed deeper, and the fear grew into a wall that went for miles.
Torgus the Angel
You could not have known, Little Speaker, the weight of her burden. The only thing worse than living in the house at the end of Burkhardt Street would have been losing You, and so she became a master of secrets.
Had she not, the authorities might have scrutinized her father a hell of a lot closer, might have ordered a search of that house long before the blood was cleaned away, the bullet holes repaired with fresh drywall and plaster.
As it stood, however…
April twelfth, 1990: It is Thursday, child. The first day of the shadow. The shadow of a skinny, angry, straw-haired girl, that in the years to come will darken Your every step, and anchor You to this damned town.
There is light, at least, and this is good. She has the sensation, from one instant to the next, of awakening, again and again, every beat, every breath, a singular moment, with nothing preceding it. In a wall of rock, a rough corridor extends into darkness, softly illuminated at intervals by hovering white globes. The crew advances slowly, sorting through debris, loading carts and wheelbarrows with black crystals for later refining. Her hands are swift and sure, as if they have always done this. This, and nothing else.
Down here, the heat is more intense. Black outlines of people bend, lift, pivot, in perfect rhythm with the music that pounds overhead. They push their carts up and down paths carved into the rock, and the heat and glow rise all around them. One misstep and one would go plummeting to the furnaces below. But danger does not even enter the mind. As long as she does not falter, as long as she follows the music, her footing will be sure. She has never spoken, or been spoken to, has never looked into another person’s eyes; it has never occurred to her to try.
Who she is, how she came to be here, how long this has been happening—these questions do not even surface. Here, there are no questions, no doubts, no hesitation. It’s lulling, this timelessness, no sense of identity, only singular purpose. They are machines, the song of obedience erasing any trace of thought or emotion.
The agent coursing through them is more powerful than chains or manacles. It blocks the pathways between the temporal cortex and amygdala, erasing memory and response, simultaneously seizing control of the motor cortex and syncing it with the relentless rhythm of the music. They grasp, dip, and twirl in synchrony, a perfect ballet of extraction, refinery, production, and assembly. There is a kind of beauty (were there some outsider here, able to observe), a grace in this flawless choreography.
At the edges of vision are figures in white—the Supervisors. They rarely come forward but are always watching.
Now, she is marching down a wide, dark passage, eyes straight ahead, one of many units in a row among many rows. Her body is tired and sore, but her muscles respond to the music like pistons to the spark’s combustion. The girl walking in front of her has braided hair, unraveling with growth down the smooth brown curve of her neck. It does not occur to her to wonder who all of these people are, why they are here. Like parts on an assembly line they file, turning left or right and disappearing. When her turn comes, she automatically turns right, down a narrow corridor between the pod banks. A hand falls on her arm, and she obediently stops at one of the pods. The glass slides open, and she steps inside. The coffin-like structure tilts back a few degrees, and her body automatically relaxes. “Who am I?” she whispers.
“No one, sweetheart,” soothes a figure in white, gently patting her cheek. “You are no one at all.” The glass whispers shut, the music now barely audible, and a muffled voice says, “That one’s trying to talk. Up her Forty-Five another five hundred mils.” The pale gas that some small remnant of her brain has come to think of as the koolaid flows in around her, and now she is floating away, dissipating like mist into the night.
When she awakens again, she is already standing at the mouth of a machine, sorting the black crystals by size onto different conveyor belts. She bends, grasps, and turns in time to the pounding music, the crystals separated flawlessly for the next phase of processing. A worker across from her makes a sudden sound. His face is old, but his eyes are young, staring into hers with the confusion of someone surfacing from a dream. His face twists in horror as the tools fall from his hands. “Where is this?” he says. “Who am I?”
A flicker of white as the Supervisors hurry past. He is taken away, silenced. A new worker is brought in to replace him. In her mind, the memory is already fading. A slight frown creases her brow for an instant as she searches for the peace, the emptiness, the mindless rush…then the music carries her away.
At the periphery, white figures have begun to regularly gather, curious, observing this solitary worker who never tires, never weakens, never grows old and dies like the others.
She does not notice them, or anything else. There is a certain comfort and joy in being excellent at her job, of never missing a beat.
The Waste-resses: August 2000
Table ten had the chicken-fried steak and salad bar. As I rang them up, Mr. Fancy-Pants approached the register, scanning the restaurant. Spying Trish across the room, he crooked The Finger, beckoning her over. “Was everything okay, sir?” she asked, looking scared.
He smiled grandly. “Everything was just perfect. For you, my dear.” With a flourish, he held up a bill, making sure I saw the 20 on it, before bestowing it upon her hand.
The second the door fell shut behind him, Trish stuffed the cash into my pocket. I pulled it out and handed it back, smiling and shaking my head. “Thanks for the he’p,” I whispered. In all her time spent coddling Señor Fancy Pants, I’d scored more than double that waiting on more pleasant customers.
“Keep your cool, guys,” Ronnie muttered, stepping up to the counter as more tables rose to leave. “It’s just business.” The phone next to the register rang, and he picked up. “DownHome Kitchen—” he began, then frowned and banged the phone back into its cradle.
“Tori? He’p!” Marki McFarland, the only other DownHome veteran besides me, was pushing together tables for a party of fourteen, several members of which were clearly drunk—probably fresh out of Skeeter’s Pub around the corner. I hurried over to help set the tables and distribute menus. Marki leaned close. “Get the waters? There’s a beer in it for you later.” I grinned, heading back to pour a tray of fourteen ice waters, the strands of creeping dread from whatever I’d imagined outside the window earlier tonight finally starting to fade. Just a daydream. That’s all it was. Yeah.
Often, after a particularly grueling shift at the restaurant, several of us waitresses would congregate at someone’s apartment, where we’d kick off our grubby white shoes, rub our sore and stinky feet, roll up the sleeves on our pink flowered dresses, and proceed to get shitfaced playing quarters ’til four or five in the morning. Our secret club name: The Waste-resses. Pretty clever. Marki and I were the only two original members.
“Hi! How’s everybody doing tonight?” Balancing the tray and putting on my brightest smile, I started setting glasses of water in front of each guest. “Marki will be your waitress, I’m just he’pin’ out a bit.” Marki and I grinned at one another over their heads as she began to take their orders.
A rough hand clutched at my skirt. “Hey there, sweet thing,” the guy slurred. “I want biscuits and gravy.” He looked me up and down. “And a slice a’ yer pie.” Everyone in the party started either guffawing or scolding him to shut the fuck up, depending on how drunk they were.
I pointed to the head of the table, where Marki was scribbling on her pad. “Marki will come around and get your order in a sec.” I yanked my skirt out of his hand and proceeded down the line.
“Hey! Where you goin’?” He made another swipe, but I was already well out of reach.
“Sorry,” said one of the more sober diners with an embarrassed smile.
I shrugged, smiling back. “I’ve had worse tonight.” For some reason, they all thought that was even more hilarious.
By nine, the first dinner rush was slowing, but the cooks’ window was crowded with orders-up. Marki recruited me, along with Nora and Cindy, to help haul it all out so everyone would get their food at the same time. The sweating cooks glowered out at us through the window as if we’d personally invited fourteen drunks to dinner just for the fun of it.
“Got somethin’ for ya,” Marki whispered, arching an eyebrow. Expertly balancing her large tray on one palm, she brandished a pat of butter on the other. I knew what that meant. If I didn’t stay at least two steps ahead of her out there, I was going to have a square of butter stuck on my ass. It had happened before.
We set our loaded trays on easels and started distributing plates of food. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Marki rounding the end of the table, deftly delivering a shrimp scampi and a hot beef one-handed, not even breaking stride. Cindy served the biscuits and gravy, nimbly avoiding Mr. Grabby Hands, all the while watching our little parade and biting her lips shut. He’p! I mouthed at her silently, over the heads of the diners. From the podium, Ronnie was also watching, grinning a little despite himself. I dealt out plates like playing cards, whipping a bottle of ketchup out of my pocket (eliciting exclamations of drunken amazement), and zigzagged away as the pat of butter missed its mark by millimeters.
Nora and Cindy suddenly stopped smiling and finished emptying their trays with lowered eyes.
As we approached the galley, Ronnie popped out. “What’re you doing?” he hissed. “Go back and ask them if they need anything else.” He shoved a bottle of steak sauce into my hand. “Stop fucking around!”
The whole atmosphere had changed, and I knew exactly why. I had observed the founder and owner of the DownHome Kitchen restaurant chain being seated with his wife in their favorite window booth. Ronald and Rose Gillespie smiled up at Trish as she served their drinks, and I shuddered internally. An unannounced visit from Ronnie’s parents was never a good thing. We’d all be a bunch of smiling, curtsying robots ’til they left, and Ronnie would be a basket-case the rest of the night.
“BYOB at Nora’s,” Marki murmured as we passed each other. “You in?”
“Maybe. I’ve got some stuff to do first.”
Marki glanced out the window and eyed me knowingly. “Right, Marshall. No wonder your eyes are brown. Just watch out for the twisters when you’re driving around out there, gawking at clouds.” Thunder replied softly, more felt than heard. “You and all the other weather nuts.”
We laughed, then I shrugged. “There won’t be any twisters tonight, anyhow.”
She frowned. “How do you know?”
I caught myself, realizing it was time to drop the subject. “Oh, you know…just a hunch.”
One night, her eyes open in the dark. Deep within her spellbound temporal lobe, a spark fires briefly, and she utters a single syllable: “Doc?” By the time the Supervisors have come to investigate the sound, the flicker has died and her eyes do not open again until she awakens on the assembly line.
A thin strand of continuity that could be called memory has begun to take root, and with it the first primitive flicker of emotion. The koolaid—Number Forty-Five—that sweeps away all care, allowing her drained body to repair itself for the next workday, works in tandem with the music pouring down from above, so that its commands replace those of her own brain. In the grip of this magic, her body is now cross-cutting and grinding crystals, now welding a perfect stringer bead, now weaving metal threads into whip-like structures as assemblies move down the belt. But…
Every day, like someone battling the bonds of sleep paralysis, she fights a little harder. And then one day, it happens. The signals from her brainstem finally reach her eyes. Still unable to control the rest of her body, she blinks, looking up, down, left, right. A word flashes briefly, dying before it can reach her lips: Fuck.
Now, as flame and darkness fill her vision, it is all too clear: This is a place of endless production. Of constant workflow. Of smooth efficiency. The transport rails from the shafts below, the assembly lines, the conveyor belts, go on and on, connected here and there by narrow walkways, tunnels, bridges spanning gaping chasms of unknowable depth. The extraction and processing of materials, the assembly of components, the packaging of product, are all performed with the flawless speed and precision of row upon row of industrial robots.
But these are not robots.
Her eyes find those of the woman working next to her; over the course of the workday, the silvery glow of the gas has faded to a faint flicker in those brown eyes. Brown, like those of someone she knew in some other place. Her braided hair is now a graying tangle down her back. It is the girl who was marching in line before, only far older now. Watercolor memory fades in and out. In desperation, she blinks, trying to connect with the woman on some basic level. The brown eyes flicker, almost imperceptibly. Then the woman swivels away, hands flying, parts moving down the belt.
Those around her are mostly young, but some are middle-aged. And some, like the woman, seem a strange mix of young and old. Her own hands are rough and worn, but her body is tireless. One of her hands, the right one, has a pink scar between the thumb and forefinger. Looking at it makes her sad, but she doesn’t know why.
She can smell the stink of her own body. Some of the people around her have large sores on their legs, faces, hands. She has become aware of the passage of time. She is beginning to remember faces from one day to the next. The brown-skinned woman with the falling-apart braid has begun to have sagging skin on her neck and jawline. Her hands have become knobby and spotted. Every day, the lines across her forehead and around her mouth are deeper. The aging has not touched her beautiful, blank eyes.
One day, the woman does not return. A girl, pale and expressionless, is in her place, rapidly assembling the parts as though she has done it for years. On her wrist is a crude tattoo: JR. Was it once her name? The name of someone she loved? Except for the black crystals, the conveyor belts, the components being assembled, everything is past-tense. Most here have likely been given up for lost, wherever they once were from; some not even missed, every one a runaway, a castaway, a throwaway. Here in this factory of death, there is an affectionate nickname, casually applied to one and all by the Supervisors.
That name is: bot.
She unloads crystals out of the lift, passes them to JR, who sorts them onto trays, which other workers whisk away to be processed and assembled. When one tray disappears, she slides another into its place. I’m someone, she wants to shout, but can only whisper. I’m someone.
In the mines, at the conveyor belts, on the assembly lines, the few who awaken from an occasional mis-dose or glitch in the enchantment, who in their confusion and terror try to run or fight, are quickly dragged away. Those who remain spellbound weaken, age, sicken, are replaced. Only she remains strong, in fact growing stronger, while inside, every day now, she is becoming less machine, more human. The music, once a lullaby to her, is now a clashing cacophony of noise, but she is locked in its rhythm, bending, lifting, pivoting at lightning speeds. Will she be forced to labor like this for years, while hundreds die around her? Inside, her senses are screaming this is UNDERGROUND, there is NO SKY, maybe this goes on for MILES, maybe this goes on FOREVER.
Only with night’s arrival of the koolaid does the horror recede, as the potion hits her nervous system. It is what she lives for now: lying motionless behind the glass, waiting for the elixir that turns its victims into human robots, but is also her atomizer, transforming her into an element, a pattern, something intangible and far away from this place.
She has begun awakening in the small hours, before they come for her, what started with one tiny spark of consciousness now burning fiercely into the dark. On the inside of the fogged lid, she has begun tracing lines, like fence rows, with her fingertip. Along each row, she has begun to add stems, the edges of leaves. One night, there are crude stalks, with cobs growing out of them. The next night, the arc of a setting sun at the end of the rows. The drawings fade before they are ever completed. She does not know her reason for doing this, but one night, suddenly, the sight of them floods her whole being with a memory of sky, of lightning, of thunder, the scent of rain.
Beside her on the assembly line, the boy in the tattered remains of a green sweater has begun to fall behind. He has grown rapidly thinner, his cheeks hollowing, his hair graying. Then the boy is gone and another is in his place. She doesn’t want to look at the new one, to remember her face, or see if she has any tattoos. Doesn’t want to imagine who she might have been before, or where her body will go when it fails at last. Because they all fail. They are all replaced with fresh ones. They are never seen again.
All of them, except for her.
Why? Because of something that happened long ago, when she was a little girl. Because of what happened in…
The garden. That is what she has been trying to reconstruct with the little drawings on the glass. Corn grew there, and beans, and zucchinis…and one day long ago, they brought the rain. They. Who else had been there? The koolaid flows through her, she is floating away, but from somewhere in the blackness of time, a name surfaces: Tori. She must remember who Tori is, or was…she must find the garden again.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.