Whistling wind. That’s what I hear, coming to.
Horribly cold. I’m past shivering. On my back. The sky enamel blue cut with black lines—power lines, poles, big-ribbed transformers. Wind whining through the lines.
I know where I am: the transformer garden on the edge of town. Trapped with the giant electricity machines, surrounded by chain-link topped with tri-course barbed wire. This is where the buzz comes from, the buzz that gave the shop teacher brain cancer, but all I can hear is the whine.
I’m Tich. Fuck this.
I sit up and shove clumsy to my feet. My arm hairs stand on end. This place is spooky. I rush out as fast as I can. The main gate is padlocked, and a lap around the perimeter tells me there are no obvious breaks in the fence. I climb three-quarters up the chain-link, king rat moves, but then I grab some barbed wire by the barb. Bleeding, cold, I clink back down. Suck on my palm.
Who put me in this cage? I’m going hypothermic in my t-shirt. Night falls quick, fog rolling in.
A CLUNK and the buzz is immediately there, spinning up and up to its three-part madness. I feel it in my skull. A throb behind my eyes and a twitch in my tail. Streetlights and garage motion-tripped-lights all snap on; windows fill with TV flicker; the sky goes putrid orange. I want to be back at Mt. Eleanor Elementary, pushing my wheelie garbage can and mop.
Now I find a hole in the fence. Through it everything’s wrong. Rippled light, like a heat-mirage. Occasionally a spark arcs across the gap. The ground over there is wrong too. Cobblestones, queer shapes.
My rat-self says time to go. I feel a warm breeze coming through the hole. I plunge head first.
For the longest time I’m suspended in thick, crackling air. Electricity. Sometimes it pools and you’ve gotta call the electrician to fix it. Last year in the back stall of the girl’s bathroom at Mt. Eleanor I got to watch Ralph work. He stogged his big rough hands into welding mitts and told me about the way electricity can break free and set up an electrolysis, eating metal away. “Electric rot,” he called it. It took a whole morning for him to clean it up. The superintendent of schools came down later and made us promise not to tell anyone about the accident with Laryssa.
I have plenty of time to think about this as I fall, plenty of time to look around. I’m slowly passing towards the cobblestone world, which seems like it’s actually the top of a tower. There’s a woman crouched against a toothy wall, smoking a cigarette. She looks familiar.
I slip free and land on my feet. The air smells like ozone.
“Shit,” she says. Her voice is ragged. “I didn’t think it would be you. I don’t know, Brad maybe? Never you.” Her pants are ripped at the knee, her long blonde hair a frizzy heap.
“What are you doing here?” I say.
She throws a ball of something at my face, but I get my arm up in time. Lightning rattlesnakes up my bicep and explodes in a thousand needles on my shoulder. “You’re never gonna get us out,” she says. “Ohhh fuck. Tich, fuckin Tich, is the one comes.”
I leave her hugging her knees, eyes pressed shut. I know that look. Slipping time, back into warm, eighth-grade prom. I have no such place to go.
Up in the sky, jagged webs of electricity take the place of stars. I walk down dark stone stairs, straight into a vast pool.
Warm, viscous water up to my calves, darkly purple. I try to step back onto dry stone and my feet slide out from under me. My ass speeds down, tailbone hits hard, and then I’m underwater.
An impish voice in my head: Like, you know who put you here? Laura Ikona did.
The name wrings my skull till I remember what got me in that transformer cage.
Ms. Ikona was my teacher for three years of remedial English. She just about fixed my grammar up by the time I graduated, mainly because I was in love. Everyone except her called me Tich. Tich the itch, Tich the snitch, Tich the bitch. I heard it all, and I hated it. Ms. Ikona read my name off the roll sheet. Bruce.
She helped me fill out college applications. The FAFSA. A nearby state school accepted me. But then Mom got bloodsick, so I stuck around and took the job as a janitor at the elementary school, too embarrassed to tell Ms. Ikona I never ended up going to college. I avoided her.
When Mom died, I started selling. Never took the stuff. There was something funny about watching the cool kids from middle school waste away. They came to me first imperious, by the end on their knees. There was something funny about cutting them off, too. The whining through the door was so sweet. Dumb little Tich with his pocked cheeks, pushing his rolling trashcan around Mt. Eleanor. Dumb little Tich remade as God, slamming that door like I was cutting the first slice of cake at my wedding. Two hands on the knife, both mine.
My world split in half, and I walked through the crack. Tich the witch in an electric prison.
Memorize every face you meet. Practice faces in the mirror. Practice kissing your thumb and forefinger at night after the lights are out. Never step on a crack. Remember her face, brown hair, broad shoulders, the way she reflexively touched her eyebrow piercing. Remember and then dismember, clearing a way for the new, for the future.
You think you killed her cold. What a joke.
The voice in my head scratches something, some jagged edge of unresolved past. Something that doesn’t add up. It isn’t immediately obvious what. I remember the damn murder clearer than anything.
It plays on its own in my head, like a film, like watching myself.
I woke up a machine. My barricaded apartment with everything mopped clean. I ate instant oatmeal with cold water, like a machine. Pant-cuffs rolled, I walked out the door. I drove across town at the speed limit like a machine. It was evening. I rang her front doorbell. I waited and then rang again. She opened the door an inch. The door chain was attached. I threw my shoulder into the door again and again and it tore wide open the third time.
No one can bear remembering this. I choked her like an angry, broken human.
When I ran out of her apartment I closed the door behind me. No: actually I left it open so someone could find her sooner. It was almost like remorse. No: I called 911 from her cell phone and then left it on the table and ran through the door, praying they might resuscitate her. No: I stayed on the line and confessed everything and promised I was unarmed and begged they come quick.
No. Finally I remember the real ending. I repented the moment she was dead. I gave her CPR right then. I called 911 and kept giving her CPR, as close as I could remember to my training. We were alone for long minutes, me breathing for her. The medics did everything they could. They shocked her again and again with the defibrillator.
I sob but can’t cry underwater. I don’t know how I’m not drowning. Her blood forms into nebulae, glowing in the gloom.
I gather my arms and swim up and up and up. When I break the surface, I see red clouds massing over choppy waves. In the distance, a rocky shore. A tower.
I reach the shore. There’s a sort of breakwater, haphazardly built of giant stones. A swell surges up, and I grab a lip of rock, pull myself over, onto a narrow shelf. My body is numb, leaden, exhausted. My clothes drip in rivulets. I lay on my side and cough up brackish water. The wind is hot on my face and smells of ash. I look up, wishing sleep, as the sky gloams from salmon and gray to neon orange and pink. The waves play white around the rocks. My eyelids feel puffy, pushing more and more shut. I’m so tired.
Over the shushing surf, a tiny voice says, “I know you.”
I recoil at the sound, jerking my head up. My temple rams a point of stone and rages.
“You’re the janitor man. I saw you when I fell.” Between sharp throbs, I look up and pick out the girl sticking her head between two rocks above me. She has short bangs and a pointy chin.
I say, “Who are you?”
“I’m Laryssa. I’ve been here four months. How about you, how long have you been here?” She’s smiling. “You know no one’s ever done it, got free?”
We climb over endless boulders towards the tower. My clothes dry quickly. Then I sweat. The sky is a blinding overcast white.
Laryssa scrambles faster than me and shouts back questions I don’t answer.
“What’s your plan for getting out?”
“Hey, mister, did you know my mom, Cheyenne?”
“Do you want to play the wiffle-waffle game? It’s a fun balance game.”
I study the tower, tall and whitewashed, with mildew-stains trailing from deep-set windows. I’m praying the portal is still open at the top.
Laryssa says, “I know you killed that woman. I bet you don’t know she came through here. I think she really loved you.”
My eyes ache from the bright sky. Goddamn kids.
She keeps rambling. “Laura told me there was another tower if you walked long enough, and maybe even a tower city. She told me stories about the tower city, about how there were people from all over the real world there, sometimes there was even food. I think she was my friend.”
“You know why I’m named Laryssa? It’s cause mom thought it sounded pretty. Laryssa. You think it’s pretty?” I can’t tell if she’s talking to me or herself, but her little raspy voice fills the stairway with echoes. “Probably not, you probably don’t care at all. If you don’t answer me, I’m not going to tell you about my rock hideout. Okay, you don’t care. Anyways, what’s your name, mister?”
“I’m Tich,” I say.
We both get quiet. The stairs are dark and slick and smell of mold, except where windows let in air and light. I’m slower than the girl. She says, “At the top there’s a lady with all the cigarettes, did you know? She’s mean. I think she’s really sad. I stole a pack of her cigarettes back when I was bored, but then I smoked one and they were so gross I gave them back and she got mad. She hit me in the stomach, but it wasn’t as hard as she could. She had so many boxes, I didn’t know it was bad to take some. You know, I just can’t figure out how she got so many boxes of cigarettes.”
A voice echoes down, muddy and distant. “I was coming out of the Cigarettes-4-Less when I fell in.”
Laryssa puts on an old-timey voice and says, “You heard it here first, folks.”
From my job at Mt. Eleanor I already know how weird kids this age are.
“Tell me about Laura,” I say.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she says, giggling. “Well let’s see. Laura coming here was the best thing that happened. Before, I was so alone I had to talk with rocks. It was even worse than school. With Laura, though, we’d talk all the time. She told me how she got here, but she mainly talked about life, good things, food, you know. She talked about you. We talked about the tower city. We’d take walks.”
“Where did she go?” I ask, Laura’s face haunting me through the dark.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Hey, maybe we’ll go on an adventure and find her, Mister Tich.”
The voice calls down again, close now: “Aw, Christ. Tich again?”
“You know her?” says Laryssa.
“That’s Miranda,” I say. “We knew each other when we were your age.”
“She beat you up,” she says, pleased. “I can tell.”
Then I’m back on top of the tower, only now it’s bright with sunlight. Miranda looks much the same, propped in a shaded crook of wall, surrounded by cigarette cartons and a mound of butts. I look up but see only blue.
“You looking for the portal?” says Miranda. “It don’t open till night.”
Laryssa says, “We know how the portal works,” and stares hard at Miranda. The two of us climb up a crenel and sit there, staring at the horizon, waiting for sunset.
The clouds finally limn with orange and aquamarine. Miranda climbs up to watch with us.
“You guys aren’t going to get out of here. But if you did and you decided to come back,” she says, “Maybe bring some chewing gum for me?”
As the light fades, the sky fills with distant lightning, occluded by clouds. A thin, flickering glare illuminates the top of the tower. When I look up I see thin crackles and broad arcs and, directly overhead, a circular mass composed of hundreds of jittery strands of electricity. The portal, I’m pretty sure.
I’m in no rush, so I sit and watch. It’s in the shape of a disk, thicker in the center. Beyond the random motion of the strands, it seems to be rotating slowly, clockwise. Occasionally, a string of stray electricity breaks off and drifts, irregular and slow, to the stone floor, where it sits, jittering.
Laryssa says, “Tich, what are we doing?”
“Getting the hell out,” I say. “Climb on my back.”
“I’m not going first,” she says.
I glare at her and say, “Climb on my back already. We’re going together, and I’m going to hold onto your legs. I can’t really stand on your shoulders, kid, so this is going to have to work, okay?”
She looks me in the eye and says, “You better be telling the truth.”
When she climbs up me, her knees feel warm against my shoulders. I straighten up and a moment later her weight is off me, and she’s out of my reach, deep in the ball of lightning, screaming.
“Miranda, get over here,” I yell. “We have to save Laryssa.”
“Fuck, you fucking idiot,” she snarls at me, but she does get up.
“We have to get her. Pull her back,” I say. The screams are louder and louder, horrible. “Can I climb your shoulders?”
“You idiot, Tich. No you can’t. You’re too heavy.”
I look at her and say, “You’re right. I’m an idiot.” The screams are unbearable.
Miranda says, “Kneel down, idiot, I’m climbing on your shoulders. You had better hold onto my leg, though.”
I kneel, and she’s heavier, but it sort of works. I hold her leg as I straighten up. She grabs Laryssa. Then we are all convulsing with electric shocks, endless wracks of current, muscles cramping stiff, jolts twitching, smell of burning hair, eyes blinding white.
Jasper Henderson is a writer and teacher from the Mendocino Coast. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Juked, Permasummer, and an anthology of California writing, Golden State 2017. As a poet-teacher, he works with over four hundred students every year, from third-graders to high school seniors. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University L.A.
Corinne Chaix is an artist who lives and works in Venice, California. She was born in Paris, France, where she studied fine arts and computer science. Her love for storytelling and French writer, Jules Verne, infuses Chaix’s body of works, drawings, paintings and installations. Chaix’s work has been featured in many gallery exhibitions and is included in prestigious private collections worldwide.