“Human Child” – Fiction by Brendan Byrne

By SJNikon - Sam Roberts [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Worship – Sam Roberts, 2010

There’s a vague but undeniable dread stalking the reader from the margins of “Human Child,” Brendan Byrne‘s story from our Fall 2014 Issue.

{ X }

IT HAS BEEN AN ACHING DAY. The sky heals like a scab, but nothing has split it, and it has never bled an ounce of fluid. Light the first of the evening. My hands ache. Fluxing bone pain which doesn’t dissipate. Rest my elbows on the black metal railing adjacent to the basement stairs. A Japanese guy with coiffed hair and a model’s blank face brushes by, street-level. I think I hear him say, sotto voce, into a phone curled against the side of his skull,  “…other territories… how does it feel there?”

The door jerks towards me: I catch it.  The last of the maggots file out, pawing at coats, extracting packs of cigarettes, demanding lights off each other, howling about the stupidity of associates and lovers. I wait till they’re halfway down the block, then go back inside. Clear the scrap-wood tables of barely begun drinks, kick the chairs and jerk the tables back into some kind of order. I have my head down, starting the wash, when the door heaves and wheezes.

Kid. Small and thin. White-stained hoodie draped, obscuring features. He’s looking at my face in the way people who know you look at you. I straighten up and move down the bar towards him. Just from the way he’s standing, I know I don’t know him.

“Gonna have to see ID, man.”

As I approach, the candle throws up yellow globe light, and I can see the shorn sides of his head. Scraped unclean with cheap razors. I tighten, keep a good deal of the bar between the two of us. I think of the metal bar under the wash.

“Not looking for a drink.” His voice is a slurry of broken things. His hands jammed into the hoodie’s pockets. He hasn’t looked anywhere except right at me. There’s a bunch of things I could say. None of them would ease the situation in the necessary direction.

His eyes are somewhere I’ve never been. “Knowa girl named Kimmie?”

“Don’t know anyone named that, no.”

“Kimmie.”

“No idea.”

The kid leans slightly over the bar. I can see the beginning of lazy slashes of tribal tattooing on his wrists. There is what looks like at first a severe case of eczema on his neck, but as he comes closer, I can see it’s scar-art, created through glass laceration. Thought it was out of style.

And I can smell him. Old puke and new trash. Like one of the gutter punks who camps out in Tompkins Square Park and adjoining streets, but they don’t come in here, they know better than that.

“Said she knew you.”

“No idea, man. Sorry.”

“You’re Aaron.”

“No, that’s not my name.”

His single, simple grin. “Kimmie said.”

“Not me.”

“Aaron.”

“No.”

“Aaron.” It’s a statement. He places both his hands on the bar like they’re dead birds he’s been carrying around too long in his pockets. “She said you knew how to get back.”

“Get back where?”

He thinks this is funny: his face begins to convulse around the slit of a smile. His body is impossibly still, like a caryatid of an unseen palace. Then his neck begins to spasm, and something happens to his eyes. His shoulder twitches, and his head drops as if he’s mid-seizure. I step back, place the base of my spine against the counter behind me. A middle age couple comes through the door bubbling and laughing, talking about the never-removed Christmas lights, calling for two Stella. In the second I look away from the kid, he was out the door, quick-lurching up the stairs. The couple brightly ignores his transit, settling. I pour the beer, take money, give change. Stymie attempted dialogue, “How long has this place been here…” Curve around the bar. Outside. Up the concrete stairs.

There is nothing on the sidewalk except for dog shit, menthols smoked down to the nub, and chip bags, inside-out, gleaming. The sky is wet and swirled with grays, refusing to rain.

 

Army jacket hung over his sloped shoulders, a brace of whiteheads running up the right side of his neck, my brother stood in front of the cafe door.  It was the late morning rush, espresso hiss and plume. Early twenties with their anti-ironic plumage and their hung-over fleshmasks would walk up behind him and do a nimble three step; in New York, you can never quite believe that the person who is in your way is not about to begin the process of getting out of it.  Then they’d say something passive and suburban or touch him lightly on the shoulder.  He’d turn a little, looking almost hunchback, grimace, smile down at them, then open his eyes in surprise and shuffle to the side.  After they passed, he’d return to his station, staring out the window at the broken sidewalk, the trucks slamming over the surface of the street. I saw him repeat this process four or five times, always with the same surprise and lack of agility, as if he had simply become incapable of learning from past experiences. Eventually, I had to stand, take him by the shoulder and elbow, and lead him back to the table.

I was seventeen, taking a week of my break to visit him. I’d known he’d dropped out. I hadn’t known he was this bad.

He tapped out a tattoo on the table with his knuckles, some kind of obscure protection.  “Do you dream?” he asked me.

“Yes. Probably.”

“You don’t remember them?”

“Not really. Smears of them. Never faces or anything. Colors and feelings.”

“So we could be having the same dream and not know it.”

“I guess.”

“Would you go back there with me? If we could?”

“Go back where?”

His eyes did this little animal thing, like he was catching up with me. “The marcot, Cat. Where else have you ever been that you’d want to go back to?”

“The marcot?”

His face slipped a little. Then his head began bobbing back and forth like someone had cut his jugular and physics had not yet decided what was to be done. He said, very softly, “We went there together.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“When you were six and I was twelve.”

“I don’t remember much of that.”

“Remember much of what?”

“Before I went away to school.”

He was blinking at me, slow and deliberate.

“I don’t remember much after mom and dad died.”

“They didn’t.”

“What?”

“They didn’t die.”

I stood without knowing it was what I was doing, my hand closing around backpack. My brother reached across the table and grabbed my wrist. We held the relief, slightly risen, me pulling against his grip ever so gently, for maybe an entire minute. Then I released my backpack, and he released me, and we both sat down.

That evening, I watched him do nitrous, inhaling leisurely into the fluid-rimmed balloon, frozen steam coming off its top, his one huge hand encompassing most of its fat body. And when he leaned back into unconsciousness, he was smiling, no blood in his face.

 

“…you couldn’t really see the expression on its face, its mouth was broken or stuffed with moss or worn away by water, or it was just hidden by shadow, it was hard to tell, but I could see the mane, the eyes. It was blue, even in the dark, you could tell it was blue, blue-black, and it was supported there, by some kind of stone column, and I asked him what it was, and he said, ‘A drain, of course,’ in that Hackney accent, and I asked him how he knew, and he said he’d been looking for it for so goddamn long of course he’d recognize it, and that was when he flopped over onto his back and began to kick his legs up in the air and let out these little shrieks. I thought something was wrong with him, his face was all screwed up and his eyes were shut and his forehead and brow, I guess you’d call it a brow, were all wrinkled. But as the shrieks, they were really these kind of small things, not that loud, rose in pitch, I realized that he was joyous and anxious too, that this was a celebration.” He stopped there and smiled at me.

Down at the L curve of the bar. Natalie covering my ass on a strangely quiet fall Friday.

“So? What happened?” I poured myself another two fingers of scotch. Aaron waved the proffered bottle off. His fingers seemed thicker than the last time I saw him, his face more sallow and excited. His clothes seemed bought fresh from Walmart, though they fit perfectly. The pink polo seemed particularly inappropriate.

“I dunno. This was just a scouting expedition. He had to do some more research. I got caught up in other shit. He never got in touch again.”

“He knew how to get in touch with you?”

“Everybody knew how to get in touch with me.”

“I didn’t.”

“I didn’t mean people like you.”

“People like me.”

“Yes.” He said it like everything was so evident.

“What do you think he was going to do?”

“What do I think-” His fingers knitted together over his right knee. “He was going to go down there and follow it. The old drain and the river it led to.”

“Where did he think it led to?”

“We didn’t know,” Aaron said. “But that was the point. Wasn’t it?”

 

I usually went out easy, slept hard, and woke late, blinking gauze away. After one particular Monday night of Ambien and Dewars, dreams crawled up my skin, up my nostrils. I woke repeatedly, each time knowing exactly where and who I was. Around five, I slipped out of bed, steadied myself against the gently flaking blue walls, slouched toward kitchen for a drink. Stopped over the couch. I’d forgotten my brother was there. Curled, flimsy covers twisted about his ankles like a homemade escape rope, less in a fetal position than like a beetle. He enacted, with wrists, elbows, lower jaw, and neck, such strange positions, somehow fluid and somehow jarring, that I didn’t think, at the time, I’d ever seen a human have purpose for. There was no noise, except for the scratching of his jeans against the rough material of the couch. I was reminded of the nature of sexual fantasy long before experiencing penetration, when all there is is the idea of warm, of hiding. “You go limp,” an ex had once observed of my sleep patterns, “And then suddenly you kick out once or twice like a dog.”

 

“A fucking speck.” It was late, and he was drunk two beers in. I’d had quite a bit more, but I was metabolizing at a steady rate in those days. Aaron sat on the beat-to-fuck blue couch, legs curled up under him. He wore one of my blotched white work shirts and an old pair of my black jeans, threads exposed on the inner left thigh. He’d shaved but had not slept well, and the weight he’d put on since living with me showed in obvious places: curled in a roll at the gut, under the folds of his arms, the chin, the cheeks.

“I’ve never stopped looking for it. And I haven’t found a fucking speck,” and here he showed me non-space between thumb and forefinger. “I’ve found things, yeah, I’ve found strange things, but the people who’ve, they’ve said they know what I’m talking, they didn’t give it the same name… They’ve all been looking for, I don’t know, maybe looking for attention. Notoriety. Power. Though if that makes sense.” He raised his hands, showing me the plain palms, the fingers gripping the air between us. “Do you remember waking up after? In the ditch? My arm thrown over you, my stomach pressing against your ribs, your T-shirt? It was the green Slimer one, and the sun was above us, and there was the slow, steady rhythm of your heart under my hand. That was real. Just a for a minute. It was real. Mom and dad.” He looked off, then his gaze clipped back to me. “They were there, and then they weren’t. Maybe they’d never existed. Maybe they were an intervention. But I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I was never alive, never even born, until I came to the marcot, and the same goes for you, Cat. You know that.” His hands retracted and clutched his upper arms. He twisted back and forth, not quite rocking. Then, softly, looking down at that sloped, bare floor, “I know it happened. I just need to hear you say it. Just once.”

I rarely laugh from my heart, the shaking, difficult kind of laughter you can’t control, but that’s what I did then, the thing seizing me and not letting me go, shaking my torso with violence, forcing out sobs, tears, and making me gasp for air. Aaron watched me the whole time.

 

He’d stayed with me for almost two months. I think it was the happiest I’d ever been.

 

Then Kimmie.

 

Flame-scorched forearms, she seemed of autumn all the stronger for it. The wave-mass of tan scarration ran roughshod from thick-knobbed wrist bones to the plains of upper, fleshy arms. She refused long sleeves, even in the winter, kept to simple white T-shirts after spring bleeds into summer, but she didn’t flaunt her trauma, spectacle herself, enjoining her figure to your minor wells of pity and superstitious fear.

I first saw her staring down at a jagged tangle of glass at her feet like she had no idea where it had come from. Her iPod had reached the end of a playlist of muddy old funk, and into the crisp, new silence, the crash had been loud and immediate. The cafe had just started serving beer and wine, the latter in these really unfortunate long-stemmed glasses you’d see at a restaurant with tablecloths. She regarded the mound mutely, her body stalled in a bend forward, a position she held so long it seemed stilted, posed like a modern dance arrangement. It wasn’t this desperate unnaturalness, but the look of negation on her face, her total rejection of the incident which made me get up from my table and approach her.

Kimmie could bleed the word “boy” of all its talk-down city connotations, shiver you with its purr. She drank good bourbon, but she drank slowly, and she did not often get drunk. She made you tell her stories about yourself, or stories others had told you; she leaned across the bar and grasped your wrist and demanded it of you, Korean features contracted by Western lilt, extremely American. Both forced a sense of wide vistas, as well as a certain lack of innocence. She wouldn’t offer advice, and that was welcome enough. Telling her tales wasn’t an unburdening; she offered her complete self up and drank it in readily, smiling close-mouthed and without opinion.

She came from this little thing that called itself a town, non-incorporated, in between two ranges of things that were not quite mountains in a state that really shouldn’t have been a state anymore. Came from; well, was imported to, adopted and flown in, but she had no memory of being born, no memory of Korea. The town, they would have bonfires when autumn hung heavy above the abandoned mineshafts, the slim, wooden gateposts with parked motorbikes in front of what they called bars, the unstreamlined chapels. Yard refuse, dried deadwood still unsoaked by dew, crippled furniture unsalvaged by the middling talents of local craftsmen, leaves and brush, all things with their ends irrevocably stuck in them, handed down from Christ for the single purpose of burning. She described the smell, as if tar had been alight for years, as if summer itself were for burning, the excitement that came with the sacrifice of the end of the year, hailing the season of miracles, demons and godlings and pilgrimsnindians, dead n’ hungry. The thrill of children who don’t know that their world is limited by the laws of physics and sickness. She described her parents’ drive in the dark, just highway and highway, the tractor-trailers downshifting with bunkerbuster explosions, the long pebbled climbs of emergency access roads, for when one of these behemoths went rogue. She described the food, gourd-based, and watching her mother drink and dance, slight and free, happy to become a stereotype. She did not describe the actual incident, the day when her flesh was transfigured to no longer resemble itself but something unmoving, some kind of mountain topography: dry rivers, empty valleys, useless plateaus. But it was the burning which convinced her that there was another place; she had not touched, seen, or even felt it, yet had become inexorably sure that this world could not simply be all there is.

 

The stairs, inlaid and rococo, were steep and easy to misjudge. We watched the run of semi-mythological scenes sketched on the walls, muzzled bears and heavy hares, dwarf trees fruiting, a caravan of cats, and wondered if these scenes were executed from legend or just the imaginings of a hired artist, storyless, bidding his characters to cavort purposelessly.

Kimmie clung to my clothing, banging deliberately against my side on our way down, laughing loud and dirty with each collision, turning out her limbs to catch against pillars and the spaces created between railings; on one impact I swear I heard something crack. The street, when we finally came out onto it, was a mid-morning Saturday bugfuck. We just leaned in and plowed through.

Aaron grabbed my head and brought his face to mine.

“Tell me you’ll come with me,” he said.

Blonde and skeletal and so hunched he seemed shrunken, ligature marks on his neck and a tic in the well of his left eye, his fingers smooth and weak, his teeth small shoals in a great pale gumline. His clothes garish tatters. He, or someone drugged, had given himself a mohawk and then allowed the hair to grow back irregularly, so that the central slash of hair was now nearly obscured. He squinted like a sewer rat dragged into daylight. “Tell me.”

Kimmie hit him hard on the cheek, exhaling a stylized grunt as she followed through. Aaron recoiled but didn’t so much as look at her.

“Kimmie,” I said. “It’s okay. This is my brother.”

“Fuckin’ what?” she said.

“Aaron.”

“I know how to. It’s so simple.”

“Let go of him. You’re hurting.”

“Kimmie.”

The crowd churned.

“The marcot.” I made myself say it.

“Yes.” He put everything he had left into the affirmation. “Hearing you say its name.”

“It never existed.”

He didn’t let go of me but rather, after a single second, pressed my head firmly between his hands with a strength I had never been able to allow myself to see in him. Then he leaned forward and kissed me where the left cheek meets the mouth. He released me then folded himself into the crowd. Kimmie stood there in the burnt-egg light, looking up at me like she hadn’t, until now, seen me at all.

 

I ask Natalie to cover my shift, and Stewart for his car.

 

Everyone looks at you strange, coming into the state. You must be lost, they think. Were we? What could we have been doing here in the first place? Any family outing would have normally been confined to the Great Falls or Wolf Trap or, at the most experimental, ‘discovered’ backroads. ‘West Virginia: Open For Business’, read the signs as you cross the border. This is a state almost impossible to mock.

It takes some effort to find 81, more the cow path leading off it. Last time (and I am terrified by how I’m thinking of it so casually as ‘last time’), Aaron knew the way here, issuing directions as he bounced, joyous and anxious, in the bucket seat of Kimmie’s aunt’s old gunboat.

I stopped at what I, correctly, assumed was the last place to fill up for cigarettes, Red Bull and a 22 of Bud. I chained, sunk half the energy drink, the entirety of the beer, followed by the rest of the former, its metal taste dulled by exposure to air, its violence to the palate and gullet less crisp. I tried to vomit, head between my knees, half sitting on the passenger seat, head stuck out the open door. Nothing happened.

Driving now alongside a long unbroken, unmended metal fence, no animals in sight and nothing between the sky and myself but the very fact of the car itself, I wonder at my calmness. It makes little sense, but it stays till I have navigated up the tree- engulfed path to the little ditch where she is coming to stand upright now.

Alone. Hair like scrap growing back on a tan, perfectly- curved scalp. Bagged out in a yellow jumper, burnt-orange pants, blue-black winter jacket, all three or four sizes too big. Hands emerging out of the two sleeves like shy sea spiders exiting furred coral caves. Sclerotic spine like Eros bid the body bend over, but only the upper torso gave into seduction. Face open at the center, drawn out and stretched at the edges. Mouth open ever so slightly.

She advances, tripping over herself repeatedly, calling my name in this sweet, ragged voice, nothing like the one she used to have. There is not the scrotal-thrilling fear I expect or the empty ache of the pathologically depressed. There is just an emotion I cannot hope to capture and classify.

I throw my arm over the seat back next to me (not her eyes) and slam the shift into reverse, tear downhill. I close my own eyes, so I can’t get a glimpse of her reflection in one of the rearview mirrors.

 

“That’s where you think mom and dad died.” We stood by the beginning of the curve, traffic a full and complete line to our side, the flashes of ambo lights from around the bend just barely visible on the dull chrome of rearview mirrors, the sheen of the wet road. The drivers didn’t appear too upset; they checked texts, played video games on their phones as if they had nowhere to be. Perhaps they didn’t.

“Around that corner?”

He nodded slowly, as if distracted. He’d grown fat in prison, or the hospital, I’d never been able to get a straight answer just which kind of institution he’d been placed in. Mostly bald, though no men in our family were so. Glum-faced with this strangely sweet new smile and horrible breath. His hands jammed into the pockets of his Wolverines hoodie.

“That’s some fucking coincidence.”

“Well, it’s not where we’re going.”

I looked at him; he’d turned back to regard the long unbroken stream, now shutting off their engines, getting ready for the long haul. The harsh rhythmic wail of a copter’s rotors came from above and far around the bend, refracted straight through the trees.

“Good.” He smiled. “That means not everyone is dead.” He began to slowly pick his way back toward our car, as if each step’s province was deeply important.

 

“Stay in the car.”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

I shut the door. My brother was already at the side of the thing he called a road, kicking wildly at a lead-covered ditch. His arms flailed wildly with each strike, as if he were a duck trying to gain balance. “Help me help me!” he shrieked.

I grabbed his arms and pressed them down to his sides. Close now, we were on the very lip of the ditch. He turned in the embrace. “We’re here!” It was a kind of enthusiasm which even he might have found suspect a few years beforehand.

“Settle down,” I said. “Nothing’s gonna happen.”

“You don’t know that,” he said, his foot digging at the leaves again. “She’s probably almost dead by now.”

“What? Who are you-”

“Christina Clarke. The girl they just evacuated in the med chopper.” He blinked once. “Come on.” Tugging at me.

“Wait, you knew?”

“Not quite. It doesn’t make-” His face went slack; he let go and stumbled down to his hands and knees. “Cat.” His voice registers lower than it should have been, than I have ever heard anybody’s go.

I turned to the car, where Kimmie sat watching us through the window, her mouth open ever so slightly.

“Cat!”

I watched her face as it happened.

 

The car barely moves at seventy-six miles an hour.  No backroads here. Just highway, dead trees, cars, strip malls, all choppy, misdirected, fractal, only visible in the periphery.  In the side mirror, its edges ridged, the collapse of light breaks spastically in the form of a lesser inhabitant of a bestiary, deliberately lost, amorphous, without intent, neither advancing nor retreating, its form caught in a transition, a relationship impossible to sever.

{ X }

bio(1)BRENDAN BYRNE‘s fiction has appeared in FLURB, his nonfiction in Arc. His novella The Showing of The Instruments was published by Phone Booth Press in 2011. He is a contributing editor at Rhizome
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