Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2005

AMERICAN GOTHIC

American Gothic

by Douglas W. Clark

 

From the bedroom, he calls to me. Sprawled on the couch, still sick with fatigue from the last time, I gaze distractedly at the shifting images on the television screen and try to ignore him. It’s too soon. Surely he knows this much at least.

His voice summons echoes from the corridors of my past, taking on the qualities of another voice. “Laura,” that other one would whisper, entering my room by night, “Laura, are you awake?” With that, of course, I would be, dreading what I knew must follow. “Your mother,” he would say, “she’s too sick. Laura, you must do this if you love me. You understand.” His weight, settling on the edge of my mattress, would spill me toward him. And I would choke back a sob and, ever an obedient daughter, offer up my throat.

Those early nights remain a swirl of disconnected impressions — stale cigarette smoke overlaid with the smell of his aftershave, the breath from his nostrils hot on my neck, flecks of dandruff among the strands of his thinning hair — details I focused on in order to shut out my shame and confusion, in order not to hear the suckling sounds he made while he fed. That was the age at which I first began wearing turtlenecks, passé though they had become, or later, high-collared Victorian dresses so long out of date I might almost have been trying to affect a new style. But if so, it was a trend none of my friends ever took up. During this time, too, teachers began to comment on my pallor, my languid inattention, and the haunted look that grew to be an ever-present feature of my face. When I look back at the school yearbook, I see that aspect still, peering across the years from those troubled eyes.

“Is it my fault you’re so healthy?” my father would demand whenever he finished with me, although I didn’t feel particularly healthy, not anymore. And then, as I lay there limp and nearly drained, he’d dab his lips and say, “Now remember, let this be our little secret.”

“Our little secret.” As if there was anyone I could tell. My friends all thought his kind existed only as romanticized figures in movies and books. How could I have convinced them true evil lurks not in dark, decaying castles, but in the warm, well-lit living rooms and bedrooms of home?

And yet there was one girl at school, Agnes something or other, about whom I always wondered. She too was slight and pale and frequently absent without obvious cause. What was even more telling, at least to me, was that she never exposed her throat to anyone’s view. We’d pass in the halls and risk an embarrassed smile or tentative “Hi.” But that was all. Occasionally I thought of confiding in her, but if there really was a connection between us, it was one we were both too ashamed to reveal. I wonder where she is now. Did she escape the fate I seem unable to avoid? Or does she, too, slump, weak and feeling scarcely alive, on a couch somewhere, fearing the call forever destined to haunt our days and nights?

Sometimes my father whistled as he left my room at night and sauntered down the long hall to the bedroom he shared with my mother. At first, I wondered how she could fail to notice his secret visits to me. Then, after a while, I stopped deluding myself. She wasn’t going to intervene, wasn’t going to protect me from him. All she did was cook more spinach and liver, telling me I needed the iron, pressing them on me until the smell of either made me gag. Our relationship grew strained. Looking back, I think she felt guilty, knowing my presence took some of the pressure off her. Slowly, her face acquired new color, and she looked less exhausted than I had ever known her to be. I suppose I should feel better knowing I gave her that, but somehow it doesn’t really help.

One time, my mother spoke of what was going on, and one time only. I was very weak and had to stay home in bed, missing school again. My mother brought my meals to me on a tray. As she fed me lunch that day, she said, “We have to pity them. Their need is so terrible.”

Them. Had I been less ill, perhaps I would have caught the significance of that word. But all I heard was that my father’s need was greater than my mother’s. Or mine.

She never spoke of it again.

He must have continued feeding off her even after he began his nocturnal visits to me, because she never fully regained her health, and when I was fifteen she died. I think she just couldn’t take it anymore, knowing what she gave him wasn’t enough and that he was taking from me as well. The doctors said the cause of her death was multiple organ failure precipitated by chronic acute anemia. But those were nothing more than fancy terms to cover up their ignorance. I believe she simply lost the will to live.

I moved out. I swore I’d never see him again, would never again let anyone take advantage of me like that. And I worked hard to build a new life. A life in which the blood in my veins wasn’t the unspoken currency determining my worth.

For a long time, I thought I’d succeeded. I dropped out of high school to take a job, although I eventually got my GED. It wasn’t much of a job – I was just a sales clerk in a discount clothing store – but it allowed me to rent a series of dumpy apartments, eventually sharing one with a couple of other girls I’d known in school, older kids who by that time had graduated. Most importantly, as soon as I moved away from home I threw away every turtleneck and high-collared dress I owned, discarding them for the more fashionable T-shirts and jeans I had always dreamed of wearing. So daring was that move it’s hard to describe, yet I felt freer than ever before in my life. At last, my blood was my own, and I didn’t need to hide the livid bruises that had for so many years been a stain on my throat and soul alike.

And still, despite all that, my days were vaguely unsatisfying, as if my life lacked definition. But for the most part, I remained too busy to notice.

Looking back, it’s odd that I didn’t notice right away when Alicia, one of my roommates in that last apartment, began wearing scarves all the time. I suppose that covering one’s throat still seemed second-nature to me, despite my newfound liberation. Or maybe I didn’t want to see what was right before my eyes. Perhaps my failure to notice isn’t really so odd after all, considering how desperately I wanted to believe I’d left my former life behind. Whatever the reason, I never considered that there might be anything sinister behind her new practice. I even admired the flair with which she sported the apparently endless supply of colorful silks that began to adorn her neck. As for her unaccustomed dreaminess, I attributed this to her having found a new boyfriend – and I suppose that was the case. It just wasn’t a result of falling in love as I conceived love to be.

Then one night, Alicia invited Tiffany – our other roommate – and me to a party she and her boyfriend had heard about. I was thrilled to be asked because the other girls gave the impression of being so much older and more mature than I felt myself to be. Harboring my dark secret and constant listlessness had left me socially underdeveloped in school. Although I looked up to my roommates, I still felt condemned to hover on the outskirts of their company. But now that appeared about to change. This was my chance to become one of them at last.

Alicia’s boyfriend drove us to a quiet neighborhood that I suppose would be considered lower-middle class, although after the places I’d been living it looked pretty good to me. The houses were older, but generally well kept, with tidy lawns and flower gardens out front, showing that people took pride in their homes. The house where we stopped was more rundown, with a dilapidated sofa no one would want to steal sitting on the front porch, canted as if missing a leg. A guy and a girl our age sat on it anyway. They were drinking beers and passing a cigarette, or maybe it was a joint, between them. The two smirked at Alicia, who ignored them, then exchanged greetings with her boyfriend before giving Tiffany and me a slow once-over with hard, calculating eyes. I wasn’t used to such predatory stares from other women. I shivered, not liking the scrutiny of either, and practically tripped over Tiffany’s heels in my hurry to get inside. Behind me, I heard the two laugh with an oddly familiar animal sound.

Inside, the living room was crowded, and music by a rap band I didn’t particularly like blared from the CD player. One or two couples danced in what was evidently intended to be the dining room, although a general lack of furniture made it difficult to be sure. Alicia turned and said something to Tiffany and me, but it was drowned out by the noise. She waved vaguely around the living room and off toward the kitchen. Then she and her boyfriend meandered into the back of the house. I felt uncomfortable separated from Alicia, but got the impression she didn’t want Tiffany and me following her. Jesus, if they were coming here just to find a bedroom and get laid, why didn’t they stay back at our place? Why drive all the way out here?

Some guy came over and asked Tiffany to dance, leaving me standing by myself. Another guy with short-cropped red hair and a pleasant, ruddy face seemed about to approach me, but I felt self-conscious and hurried into the kitchen in search of something to drink. On the kitchen floor, a beer keg sat in a tub of ice. Beside the tub rested a cooler filled with cans and bottles of yet more beer. I don’t like the way beer tastes, not that I had that much experience with any form of alcohol, so I looked around to see what else there was. On the counter next to the sink squatted an old-fashioned punchbowl filled with some pulpy, pink concoction. I ladled up a plastic cupful and took a sip. It was sickly sweet, the sharp bite of the alcohol partially masked by the drink’s fake fruity taste. I wrinkled my nose and took another sip. This time it didn’t taste quite as bad. I strolled around the kitchen nursing my drink, although there wasn’t much to see. Through a passage off the kitchen I found an empty utility room containing two closed doors. I opened one and discovered the garage, filled with trash bags that appeared to contain nothing but beer bottles and pizza boxes. The other door led to the backyard. I turned on the back porch light and stepped outside, savoring the relative silence after the din in the house.

I had finished about half my drink when I noticed a peculiar sensation creeping over me, a kind of lightheadedness that was all too familiar from those nights after my father would come into my room. The sudden rush of memories this called forth brought bile to my throat. I struggled not to throw up. The sensation back then, in the wake of those awful nights, had been due to loss of blood; it took a few minutes for me to realize this same sensation now was the effect of the alcohol depriving my brain of oxygen.

I tossed the rest of the drink into the yard, horrified that people would willingly subject themselves to this feeling – an experience with nothing but chilling associations for me.

Just as I turned to head back into the house, the door opened and a tall, heavyset guy stepped out, beer bottle in hand. He stood blocking my way as if unaware that I wanted back inside.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to edge past him.

He didn’t move. “What’s your hurry?”

“I … I don’t feel well.”

He leaned against the doorframe, still blocking my way. “Why? What’s the matter?”

“The punch seems to have gone to my head. I think maybe I need to leave,” I said, trying to sound more sure of myself.

“Naw, the fresh air out here will do you good. Stick around. The feeling will pass.”

All the time he talked, he coolly appraised me in the porch light. I felt myself flush and hoped it wouldn’t show. He made me uncomfortable, and I worried about how to get past him. Suddenly, he reached out a hand and stroked the side of my neck ever so gently with his index finger. His touch sent shivers of apprehension down my spine.

“Such soft skin,” he whispered. “Soft, warm skin on a healthy, full-blooded body. Hot damn, girl, but I’ll bet you taste fine.”

“Wh-what do you mean?” I stammered, but terror clutched at my belly with the certainty that I knew exactly what he meant.

He ran the tip of his tongue lightly over his teeth. “Come on, don’t play dumb with me. You know what it’s all about or you wouldn’t be at this party. Besides, I know a first-rate heifer when I see one. So how about a little crimson cream?”

Though I’d never heard these terms before, I could infer their meanings, and the crudity of the words sickened me.

He opened the door just wide enough to slip his hand inside and turn out the porch light. “See? It’s just as private out here as in one of the bedrooms,” he said. “No need to act coy with me now.”

The guy reached for me, and I suppose I screamed, because there was the sound of someone crying out – and it sure wasn’t him. Just then, the door burst open, throwing my attacker forward. His beer bottle flew from his hand and landed with a thud in the dirt. The porch light came back on, and the redhead I had seen earlier stepped outside.

“What the fuck?” the dark-haired one said, regaining his balance.

“Leave her alone.”

“Yeah? You gonna make me?”

Scared as I was, I couldn’t believe this guy was talking like that, as if he’d just stepped out of a B-grade gangster flick from the middle of the last century.

The redhead didn’t bother to answer. He simply cocked his arm back and let fly with his fist right at the other guy’s snout. Cartilage crunched and blood spurted from my attacker’s nose, which no longer lined up with the center of his face.

“My nose!” he wailed, his voice sounding stuffed up as if from sinus trouble. “You broke my fucking nose, you prick!”

“Get lost,” the redhead said, shoving his adversary back through the door.

I stumbled toward the door right behind my would-be attacker, anxious to find Tiffany and Alicia and escape this place. But the combination of terror and alcohol must have affected me worse than I’d realized, because the next thing I knew the redhead had caught my arm to keep me from falling. “Here,” he said, gently guiding me through the doorway, “let me help.”

Inside, I mumbled my thanks, both for saving me and for helping me through the door, then went looking for the other girls. I found them in the dining room, slow-dancing together with strange, dreamy expressions. Their movements had the sluggish, exaggerated air of those who have had too much to drink and are trying hard not to show it, but this time I knew it wasn’t from alcohol, at least not entirely. Around her neck, Tiffany wore one of Alicia’s scarves. Suddenly I recognized what had been right in front of me for the past several weeks. Then I noticed that a number of those at the party, including several guys, also kept their throats strategically covered. My stomach churned with disgust. I hurried back the way I’d come, searching for my red-haired rescuer. “Please,” I said when I found him, “will you take me home?”

He shot me an inquisitive glance but said nothing, merely nodded. Soon, we were cruising along nearly deserted streets, heading back to my apartment. My apartment! What a laugh. The apartment I shared with a couple of monsters, for such they now seemed to me. I knew I had to find another place to live.

So intent was I on my problems that I’d forgotten about my rescuer. He parked in front of the complex, however, and as I started to get out of the car, he laid a hand on my arm. He seemed engaged in some private struggle. “Do you believe it’s possible for someone to rise above their beginnings?” he asked after a moment.

I thought he was referring to me, and my unwillingness at the party to be someone’s prey. I blushed but nodded.

“I hope so,” he said with peculiar emphasis. Then, as I started to get out again, he thrust a scrap of paper toward me. Incomprehension must have registered on my face, because he explained, “It’s my name — Bradley — and my phone number. In case you want to get together or something. Maybe we could have coffee sometime.”

I nodded mutely and shoved the paper in my purse. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll give you a call.” Of course, I never intended to. I never intended to do anything that reminded me again of this dreadful night.

Yet two days later, I stood gripping the telephone handset, listening to rings on Bradley’s end. I had hardly spoken to Alicia and Tiffany, and then only when absolutely necessary. For their part, they seemed content to ignore me, lifting their noses in the air and acting superior.

“Hello?” a voice answered my call at last.

“Hello, Bradley? This is Laura.”

“Laura?”

“You know—” I took a deep breath “—the girl you rescued at the party?”

“Oh, Laura. You never told me your name, so I didn’t recognize it. How are you? You know, I never thought you’d really call.” Suddenly, his voice grew hushed and strained. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah. Well, no, not really.” I choked back a sob. I didn’t want him thinking I was just some helpless chick who needed saving all the time, especially since the only problem now was that I felt lonely, cut off from Alicia and Tiffany. “I just have to get out of here for a little while. Could we maybe get together for coffee?”

“Of course. I’ll be right over.”

That was how Bradley and I started seeing each other. But we never really talked, not about the night at the party or about what I suspected was happening to Tiffany and Alicia. It was as though we reached some kind of silent agreement during that first date not to discuss anything too real or uncomfortable. Instead, we talked about everything else, going on for hours. I felt as if I’d known Bradley for years. After a couple of months, I moved out of the apartment I’d shared with Tiffany and Alicia, who by now were so far removed from me they hardly acknowledged my leaving, and in with Bradley.

Things seemed idyllic at first. Idyllic. I learned that word recently, in the word power section of Reader’s Digest. It’s a good word, one I once would have tried to use whenever I could. Not that learning new words matters now. Anyway, at the time I’d never been so happy. He brought me flowers, took me to restaurants and movies, and in the evenings he would listen to me prattle about my day. He treated me as though I mattered, as though I wasn’t damaged goods. I almost believed it for a time. And yet, looking back, I must have suspected something was missing even then, an absence whose nature I couldn’t quite identify. The absence of the familiar.

Then things began to change, so slowly I wasn’t aware of it at first. Gradually, Bradley grew agitated and distant. He claimed he was simply under a lot of stress at work, and I believed him because I knew his boss had had to lay some people off. Or maybe I just wanted to believe him, didn’t want to think that anything could tarnish our relationship. Bradley started coming home late, claiming he’d been delayed at work, or sometimes he went off for hours without saying where he was going. When he’d finally come home, he’d skulk around and act guilty. I began to suspect he was seeing another woman.

Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer, and one night when he’d stayed out even later than usual, I confronted him.

“Where have you been?”

“Work.” His voice was flat, and he wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“I called your office, and nobody answered. Bradley, you’ve got to tell me. Who are you seeing?” My voice cracked despite my intention not to let my feelings show.

He spun around, looking startled. “What?”

Tears streamed down my face. I pressed on, ignoring them. “I know you’re seeing someone. Just, please, be honest with me.”

“Honest with you?” He spat the words. “You don’t want me to be honest with you. You never have.”

“What are you talking about?”

He paced now, looking like a caged beast: three strides to cross the room, then he’d swing around and retrace his steps, turn and start all over. “Tell me the truth,” he said, halting in mid-stride to stare at me, “haven’t you ever wondered what I was doing at that party?”

“Why, I guess I figured you were invited by . . . I don’t know. Someone. I never really thought about it.”

He snorted. “Invited! Yeah, I was invited, all right. There was a select group of us there that night. And then there were to be all of you.” His eyes bored through me as if measuring my soul, then flicked away as if what he found came up lacking.

“What do you mean?” I pleaded.

“You know what we call a party like that? A dairy farm. And we were invited there to make our selections from among the cattle being offered on the block.”

“I-I don’t understand.” Without thinking, I took a step back. Something awful stirred in me, but I pushed the feeling down. “What are you saying?”

“Even now, you don’t want to understand.” He reached out his hand, stroking the side of my neck with a finger. The gesture felt unbelievably dirty to me, and I cringed under his touch, because it reminded me of the way the heavyset guy had fondled me at the party.

“So warm,” Bradley went on, sounding like my attacker’s voice. “All that warm blood pulsing just beneath the surface.” Abruptly, he wrenched away, curling his body around his hand as if I’d burned him. “Do you have any idea how difficult it’s been, seeing your throat exposed every day, almost tasting the blood in your veins? It’s been agony.” He rocked back and forth, still cradling his hand.

“You mean you’re . . . ?” I clapped a hand over my mouth as though it could keep me from retching. Horror gripped me now, along with something else. Shame. “Oh god. Oh god, no.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, sounding miserable, “I’m not going to do anything. Not to you. I swore to myself when I drove you home that I’d never give in to that.”

“Then that’s where you’ve been going at night?” I couldn’t keep the disgust from my voice. “You’ve been out . . . what do you call it, anyway?”

“Hunting.” He bit the word off. “On the prowl for a compliant milk cow, one of those amenable companions we refer to among ourselves as a Guernsey or a Holstein. You know, someone with really good milk.”

“Crimson cream,” I muttered.

“What?”

“Crimson cream. That’s what the guy at the party called it.”

Bradley nodded. “Not that I had any luck tonight,” he added sullenly.

“So, is that what you live on?” But I knew.

He smiled — a hard, cold expression. “You’ve seen me eat plenty of times. No, it’s not what I live on in the sense of being my only sustenance. But it’s something I can’t live without, something I need to survive.”

I nodded, remembering my father and the dinners he would put away (often shortly before coming to my room), just as though he were someone normal. And maybe he was. What did I really know about normal, anyway?

Bradley watched my growing understanding with a look of terrible resignation on his face. At last, he turned away and headed for the bedroom.

“What are you doing?” I asked, fear congealing like a cold knot in my belly, because this time I associated his direction with all those nights when my father had visited me.

“Packing my things. You don’t think I can stay here now, do you?” He snorted. “Not that you’d still want me to.”

Suddenly I felt an even greater fear — the realization that I was losing him. “But Bradley, you can’t leave. I love you. Please, don’t go.”

He paused and stretched out his hand once more toward my neck, then snatched it away again without touching me. “And what will you do? Will you cover up that lovely throat, not to hide your wounds from the world but to shield me from temptation? Will you wait up nights while I’m out hunting, then welcome me into bed when I return, sated by other throats? Besides, I don’t think I can go on like this any longer,” he continued, his voice growing ever more bitter. “It’s tearing me up inside. Because the only blood I really want to taste anymore is yours. And that’s the one source I can never allow myself to have.”

He stared into my eyes as if to make sure I fully comprehended everything he was saying. His face was twisted with pain. I swallowed hard, my mouth suddenly dry. He was suffering, and it was somehow my fault. My fault because I was healthy and being selfish. All my fault once more. Childhood memories of shame rushed to devour me, from the times when my father first taught me the burden of my guilt. From him I had learned the price to be paid for being healthy and full of blood. And from my mother, whose only words on the subject now came back to me, I had learned to pity such terrible need.

Now, because of me, because of what I wouldn’t give him — because I didn’t pity him enough — Bradley was leaving. I wanted to run, to flee far away and hide, but I remained where I was, imprisoned by the anguish on his face.

We have to pity them. Their need is so terrible. My mother’s words took on all the force of an accusation.

“But what about my need?” I wanted to demand. Yet even as the words formed in my mind, I knew what I needed most. I needed his need for me. I needed to know that I mattered. I needed to know I held some worth.

We should pity ourselves, Mother. Our need is at least as terrible as theirs.

“Come,” I croaked out at last, opening my collar so he could better reach me. “Just this once, come, and take what you crave.”

For a moment, he merely looked at me in disbelief, and in that moment I hated him. Hated him for what he was making me see in myself. Hated and loved him both at once. Then he closed the gap between us. “Just this once,” he murmured, guiding me backward to the couch. I felt the familiar sharp prick of teeth puncturing my skin, and with the first spurt of blood something of my love for him died. But not my need for him. Mutual need now bound us tighter than love alone ever had. Mutual need and shame.

For several weeks, we pretended this really would be the only time. He was very apologetic in a general, nonspecific way, without ever actually mentioning what had happened. And he made a point of being so sweet throughout this time. But during those weeks, I watched his hunger grow. I began flinching from the sight of him. Finally there came a night when guilt and desperation conspired to ensure I yielded to him a second time. Thereafter, it simply became easier for both of us to stop pretending.

After that, nothing would be innocent between us ever again.

Now, from the bedroom Bradley calls to me again, his voice sounding both plaintive and commanding. For a moment, I consider telling him I’m pregnant. Maybe this would spare me. But then I would have to admit out loud what I have sought for several days to deny. Besides, I still hope the pregnancy will end on its own. For I know now that this child, if allowed to enter the world, will grow up to be either a predator or a cow. If it’s not born the one, it will learn to be the other. And either is a prospect I can’t bear.

Bradley calls once more, and a faint hope rouses me, that maybe this time he’ll accidentally drink too deep. That would end all my problems. It’s the same forlorn expectation that has kept me going for months now. Once again I try to convince myself it’s enough. I groan and, heaving myself to my feet, stagger in to dispense the only form of love I’ve ever known.

 

__________

Douglas W. Clark has written a number of science fiction and fantasy stories over the past several years, including three novels published by Avon Books. In addition, he has been a full-time nonfiction writer and editor most of his professional life. He has also worked as an environmental consultant, a laboratory director, and a lecturer and teacher. 





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