Providence

Couri Johnson

Couri Johnson lives in Youngstown, Ohio. She is currently a graduate student at the NeoMFA, and working on a thesis of short stories focusing on women and the supernatural. She has been published twice in Youngstown State University’s online literary magazine, Jenny. She admires the strange and the rusted.

 We all agree that Annie getting struck by lightning was the best thing that could have happened. We had been living with Annie for a while by this point, flipping anything we got our hands on out of her living room, staying toasted by eating the profits. Even before the incident we all knew it was the best trap house we could hope to find, but it didn’t start feeling like a home until Annie’s bolt to the brain.

There was no way of knowing this when we found her. Where her face wasn’t caked in soot, it was bleached white and seemed stretched, her hair burnt like a metal halo encircling her head.

Before that we had all been curled up on our king sized mattress laid out on the bare living room floor, locking toes with one another and giggling into the crumpled sheets. The echo of the thunderclap, the fizzle of power draining from the light bulbs stirred the dust of our bones, and we climbed to the window to look out.

“Is that Annie?” someone asked. Most likely Dodge, who was always saying things that concerned Annie, was on a whole always more aware of her absence than the rest of us were.

“Where?” we asked. A pointed finger drew our eyes down from the crowd of swirling dark clouds to a smoldering lump on the ground. We were up then, some of us pulling on shoes, coats. Then we were out the door in a circling around her.

We took turns calling her name and saying “shit”, as if it was the chorus of our conversation. She was laid out under a telephone pole equipped with a breaker box.  Rain beat against our bare heads, and dripped down the collars of our shirts. Water pooled in the depression beneath her eyes. “Shit. Annie? Shit,” we intoned.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

“Are you kidding? She’s probably fried out of her mind, and so are you. Shit. Annie? Shit.”

“I’m not going to jail just because she was too dumb to get the fuck indoors.”

All around us in the houses not left vacant and shambled we could hear the creaking open of doors.  We clustered closer together, hoped against hope that the neighbors couldn’t see through the forest of our legs. A few of us squinted up into the sky, as if checking the breaker box till we heard doors close.

“What the fuck are we going to do?”

“Shit. Annie? Shit. Is she even breathing?”

“Yeah,” Dodge said. He was crouched down by our feet, his fingers nestled against her throat. “Yeah, I think she is. We have to do something.”

“Let’s drag her in the house, maybe she’ll be alright. I don’t  fucking know.” Some of us hoisted her up by her arms, some by the legs, and we heaved her up the weedy driveway into the side door. Inside her head knocked against the stairs, she moaned, assuring us that we were making the right choice.

“Let’s wash her off. She smells like burnt rubber.” We headed into the bathroom. We filled the tub halfway with cold water and tried to strip the clothes off her, but they were infused to her skin. With each gentle tug there was the sound of fresh, ripping flesh. Dodge was crying over her, his fingers pinching his nose like some little kid trying to hold his snot in.

“Fuck it,” we said, “just do it with her clothes on.”  We heaved her up again and dumped her in the bath. Dodge ran his wet hands through the remains of her hair and came back with a fist full of ash. The burnt skin peeled away like dirty pocket lint, and left red, nearly bleeding patches in their place.

We strained the water for the loose pieces of skin that floated like dead, black gnats all around her. Things were tense then, in those moments of discovery and bathing. We cupped the torn flakes of skin in our palms and made a pyramid of loose Annie on the windowsill next to the sink.

Dodge lifted her out of the tub and swaddled her in a towel. He carried her into her bedroom. We went downstairs and pressed our faces into the familiar smell of our sweat mingled in our mattress.  Some of us took things to keep us up, some to fall asleep. We floated together in semi-conscious darkness and whispered. Kept whispering long after the lights flickered on and the sun burst through the dissipating clouds. Dodge came downstairs; eyes sunk in his skull like heavy marbles. He fell asleep among us.

She followed not long after, her steps slippery and quiet like a child waking from a nightmare.

We hadn’t heard her coming, even as her hands fluttered in front of her sightless eyes and her feet fell without knowing. She was now a quiet thing, a thing of silence and surprise. Before she had been struck she had always been loud. She announced herself. She was her own procession, screaming as she entered into our personal fray, “Who left the water on?” Crying out, “Who did all my coke? I bought it, it was mine.” She was the first, and she knew it, and she wanted us to know it and remember it with every move she made. Now, she moves without noise, comes without words. This was the first change. It had set in the moment she collapsed in a pile of burning self beneath the breaker box. The first thing we noticed, however, was the second shift. The thing that shocked us the most, in that first moment of silent unveiling, had been her eyes.

She was blind. She couldn’t not be. Gone were her pupils, her iris. Void of any and all things eye-like. Her eyelashes had burned off and left nothing but the edge of absence to define them. Her eyes were full of the fuzz of unconnected T.V.s , the hum of blenders, noise and color. We could hear them when her face passed close to ours as she shuffled with her hands against the wall.

“Annie?”

She positioned herself in the corner of the living room, her legs drawn up under her chin, her sightless eyes pointing in our direction with unnatural accuracy.

Her hair was almost gone, tufts of it still clung to her scalp like colorless tumbleweeds. All of her was unnaturally white on the surface, allowing for a confusion of internal colors to bleed through. We could see the road map of her veins and the star-shaped broken capillaries resting under her skin. Without her pupils, and the brown hang of her hair, she was hueless. Her features seemed to float away from their proper places with no color to anchor them. We saw how far back her ears were, how unnaturally low they sat. Her nose hooked forward like a bird’s beak. At a distance the noise of her eyes blended into the blank sheet of her face and melted away.

It seemed then as if she had unbecome. We thought she was fragile, then. In our minds days and days of caring for her flitted into one heavy weight that settled on our shoulders. Leading her up and down the stairs, wiping her dirtied ass, changing her socks. We did not know then that she was swelling.

Dodge woke and moved across the mattress towards her. “Annie?” he cried and reached for her. We knew then what we had suspected for weeks. His love of her lifted the burden of her imagined weight from our shoulders. As he touched her face out relieved sighs blossomed against the metallic crackle of his skin against hers. He pulled his fingers back and suckled them, as if they were burned.

“Dodge.” She whispered.

“Can you see me, Annie?” Dodge took his finger from his mouth.

“I can hear you, Dodge,” she replied, her voice was thin and papery, dull and flat. “I can hear your heart. Your real heart, and I can hear you, your hearts, too. I can hear all of you.” She started picking at the sleeve still stuck to her arm. Little lines of blood trickled out from beneath it and dripped to the floor.

We fell into silence.

She did not rise at the end of the day as she normally would have. She didn’t ask about her job. She didn’t eat, nor did she drink. We ate chemicals and whispered, and became too afraid to whisper, so we wrote instead. She would tilt her balding head towards the sound of our pen and correct our spelling. We would crumple the sheet in our hands without looking at what we had written. Dodge looked at his finger; he sucked his lip. He slipped further back, away from her, inch by inch.

***

Night came and none of us slept. We were as children are during tornado warnings, huddled under blankets. Anticipation, fear, and the aura of festivals danced between our faces. We lined powders up with shaking hands, and swore not to fall asleep with looks and mouthed promises.

 I won’t if you won’t.

I won’t, not ever.

Dodge asked her if she wanted to eat.

“I’m not hungry,” she said. We popped our heads out from under our blankets. The static of her eyes illuminated her corner and curved hard against Dodge’s dark stooped shoulders.

“You haven’t eaten,” a note of hysterical pleading crept into Dodge’s voice. The light of her eyes strobed with her blinking.

“I can hear your stomachs caving in on themselves. I can hear your organs twisting in on their own emptiness. Stop trying to give to me what you want for yourself.”

Dodge twisted to his feet and strode over us and into the kitchen.

“I wonder what she’d be like—tripping.” One of us whispered.

“I bet it’s scary blind.”

The mattress squeaked and the stash box creaked open. One of us moved across the room on all fours. By the noise of her eyes we could see a silhouette approach, arm outstretched. It pried open her lips and slipped something in.

The figure leaned back, suckling its fingertips curiously. Annie spit.

“I said I’m not hungry.”

We surged forward with curses and jeers. One of us called for the light as our hands brushed the floor before her, searching. We brushed her skin, we felt a burn, a shock coursing through us and all we touched. We fell back into one another and scrambled for the sheets, back into silence.

Dodge appeared in the doorway, clutching a bowl in one hand, his mouth hung open.

“What did you do to her,” he shouted, we clutched one another’s smoking hands.

“She”— we looked towards her, her eyes squirting sparks of color and light. “She shocked us, Dodge. She did.”

Dodge slithered past us with the bowl before him and crouched in front of Annie. He tried to spoon cereal and milk into her lips, but it spilled uselessly down her chin. Between attempts he would eat a little, and stare at the tips of his fingers when he thought we weren’t looking.

He never touched her directly. Not even to clean the milk from her chin or the static tears bleeding down her cheeks.

No one spoke. No one wrote. We sat in silence, afraid that if our eyes closed she would be upon us, quick and quiet, with lightning in her hands.

***

      Night shifted to day. Day into night. We’ve stopped buying, stopped selling, stopped doing anything other than consuming and shaking and staring at one another, desperate for one another’s looks to keep our own centered.

We always kept at least one hand intertwined with someone else’s and took to crushing pills and straightening lines in teams. Sweat would pool between our cupped palms.Our lips cracked and bled with disuse. Only Dodge sat outside of our circle, his back against the wall furthest from Annie. He alone tried to speak, and only ever to her. After the third day he gave up, and then there was nothing left but the crackle of her eyes.

***

We churned around one another and did not sleep, or slept with our eyes open and fixed on the dilating pupils of our bedmates. More of her hair fell off until she was completely bald, her scalp scabbed. Her skin grew paler, a more colors shined through, shifted, danced under her ever thinning skin.

Eventually the lights shut off.

“What the fuck,” we rasped, and were surprised by our sound.

There had been no thunder, this time, to call the dark.

“Annie paid the electric bill,” Dodge said, and this time his voice was just as flat, just as even as Annie’s. “It looks like we’re without power from here on out.”

We could only see by day. We had to prepare our provisions for night when the sun was up, and huddled before the light of her eyes at night.

***

Dawn came without Dodge one day. We had never thought to leave, and it was far too late, now. He left a note scrawled on one of our abandoned conversations. Her father, it read, with a number. We stared into each other’s hollow hungry faces with pens poised above his words..We seized upon Dodge’s words with ravenous hearts, her father.

Did he not love her?

This is not our burden to carry.

He shall keep her and we shall keep her house.

We secreted away the phone and locked ourselves in the bathroom. We huddled beneath the windowsill that held her shrine of torn skin. Over the phone we jumbled together what needed to be said in short bursts. “Your daughter. An accident. You must come quick.” The address, the time, all settled.

The door to the bathroom creaked open and she stood before us, her head perched against the wooden frame as if it were too heavy for her to carry.

“Bathe me,” she said. Her hands reached down to the hem of her shirt,and as if removing a band aid, tore it over her head. The sound of skin tearing echoed in the walls. She wore no bra. Her skin was pruned and withered, bleeding from fresh wounds and covered in dangling scabs.

She bent down and tore the pants from her legs. She closed the door. The room was filled with the essence of her, of metal and burnt hair.

“Bathe me.” She held her arms out like a child waiting to be led and we tripped on our own voices in denial.

“Dodge will do it, when he comes back.”

“ Dodge has left me, but you’re here. You’re here to bathe me.”

“We can’t.” She was close now, and we could feel electricity pressing in on us, the smell of her condensing, pushing against us.

“If I’m going to see my father, I have to be cleaned.”

She lowered herself into the bathtub and stared at us expectantly.

We could not bring ourselves to touch her. We were afraid of the shock of her bare skin.

“The rubber gloves,” someone whispered, and the few of us in the front slipped out and came back with two sets of large rubber yellow gloves made for washing dishes.

We took turns arming ourselves with them and pouring buckets of water over her head while scrubbing her down. More of her skin flaked off and we strained the water, put them with the rest of the sheets of her flesh. We took turns and crouched in the corner, chewing our nails until they bled, while we waited. The water around her ugliness sizzled with flashes of light and sound.

We dried her and brought her clothes. We gave her an extra-large forest green sweater that bunched around her like extra rolls of skin. She looked like a shell-less turtle.

***

We stopped consuming the day before her father’s arrival in preparation. We indulged in one more bump after her bath to unwind, and began to wait. We could breathe deeper, her smell masked by soap and dampness.

The hour before he came we woke, hopeful and hungry. We cooked a pot of noodles and made sauce with peppers. We counted one another’s ribs and laughed, tapped against them with spoons as if they were xylophones. We had just begun to eat when the knock came.

We lead him to her, left them alone to pile plates with food. We took seats on the stairs and peered into the living room as we fed. He hovered over her, straight and wide, and moaned aloud.

“Oh, sweet heart, what happened to you? My little baby girl.”

She whispered something and he arched down to hear it. “You have to come home,” he urged. We dug our fingers into one another’s thighs and wiggled in our seats. We scooped saucy handfuls of noodles and peppers between each other’s lips.

“I can hear all of you,” the dry voice of a book-on-tape narrator thundered through our bones, inside our skulls. Noodles drooped from our mouth down to our plates. Our hands clenched harder, broke flesh. Annie told us: “I can hear everything. I can hear the noodles squirming down your throats. I can hear your bowels. I can hear your decay. I can hear it. I can hear everything.”

Her father was still pleading with her to come home.

She assured us: “I won’t leave. This is my place. You are my place. I won’t leave until you finish rotting. I won’t leave you.”

Tears welled in our eyes and we spat the food from our mouths, heaped in on one another over our plates and stained ourselves with spaghetti sauce.

“Annie, come home and I’ll take care of you. Annie, say something.” Her father’s voice was stern now.

Annie whispered to us: “You’ll come to love me.” We peeked around the corner, dribbling snot and sauce. Her father reached a hand towards her face. Her eyes bled fuzzy tears of color and we saw the bolts leap into his fingers. He fell back howling.

“Annie! Did you just bite me? Annie, what’s wrong with you?”

She snuggled back into her corner and growled something low that we couldn’t hear. He stood speechless.  Her head retracted into her collar. He turned from her. His shoes got wound in our sheets and dragged them off of our bed. He kicked them into a heap in front of us, sucked his wounded finger, then shoved it in our faces.

“I don’t know what you did to her, but that—thing—is not my daughter,” he spat. Then he was gone, the door slamming shut behind him.

Annie stood and stepped onto the mattress. She dropped to her knees and held her arms open towards us. “Come,” she insisted.

She filled our head with a dull roar: “Worship me.”

We gathered the blankets in our arms and fled into the basement, causing the plates of food in our laps to fall to the stairs and shatter.

***

The basement was cold darkness, night terrors fumbling and timeless. We piled our bodies together in the corner. “What do we do?” we whispered. “What can we do?” We listened to the boiler slosh and thump, thinking every noise was her coming for us, but she was without sound now. She could be with us, her eyes shut, waiting to brush our skin with her colorless palms.

We had nothing with us to take to make our bodies stop aching, to quiet the dull throb of thoughts pulsing through our head.

We were lonely for our bed.

We heard Annie calling in our bones.

“We can’t stay down here,” we whispered to one another.

“We can’t leave. We have nowhere else to go.”

We were so close we were breathing one another in. We were enveloped in the smell of sweat, the smell of urine and decay, mixing in our noses and mouths. We were unable to tell whose scent it was we tasted. We could feel our bodies caving.

“We can’t live this way.”

We crawled together to the lip of the stairs, the blankets draped around our shoulders. We hurdled upward into the darkness on our hands and knees, straining to find the end of one stair and the start of the next. As we ascended we caught the shine of static up at the top of the flight.

“I’ve been lonely,” Annie whispered, “Come to me.” We could see the shine of her arms outreached, grasping, the curve of her bald head outlined against the moon dipping behind the kitchen window.

She urged us from within: “Come.”

We gave in.

We gathered in a circle around her on our mattress and used our blankets to hide our faces and wipe away our snot and tears before she could sense them. We dug into the remaining scraps of our stash.

***

Light dulled the shine of Annie’s eyes. She smiled at us, her hands plucking the collar of her sweater away from her neck, sending out wafting bursts of her new strange odor.

“I think I’d like another bath.”

We shifted uncomfortably before her.

“Don’t be afraid. You’re hearts are so much louder, when you’re afraid. Stop it.” She plucked her shirt off over her head and stood up. “Let’s go,” she reached down towards us and we fell away, scrambled to our feet by ourselves. She moved past us, stopped among the wreckage of our meal, bits of plate cutting into her toes. She waited.

We scrubbed and she smiled dreamily up from the bathtub at us like a child being lulled to sleep. Her body was more scabbed, than before, as if she was wilting from within. When we’d touch these patches we expected her to wince, but she only let out a small sigh like laugh.

When she was satisfied she seized those of us bathing her by our gloved arms.

“Here,” she whispered, fixing her static eyes on our own. “A reward.” She picked off a hard, black piece of scab, lifted it up and deposited it in the mouth closest to her. She beckoned all of us in, one by one, to do the same. We couldn’t resist, and when her skin touched our tongue there was an electric shock of sound.

We gazed goofily into one another’s faces and felt the floating sensation of the high lift us up. We touched, we tumbled. We were suddenly downstairs on the mattress, piled with blankets and pillows, gasping with laughter. Annie stood above us, her teeth flashing with bolts of thunder.  We slept.

We woke with a new hunger.

We bathed and she doled out her flesh. We collected what we could from the water and left it to dry in the windows. We chewed what we had already, the time blurred. We felt joy again.

She offered her flesh to us like treats to drooling dogs. “Worship me,” she commanded. “Bathe me.” We barked on command.

The hunger grew. She held herself over us. It wasn’t enough.

When we woke our bodies would ache and we would beg, and she would wait, and withhold.

Our skin burned for her skin. We crawled in the dark before her shining eyes. We wanted the light. We wanted, and she laughed.

We would crawl back into the basement when it was at its worst, and whisper beneath the beat of our hearts

“What do we do?”

“This is our place.”

“She has us, she has us and she knows it.”

“Does she think we’re animals?”

“What are we going to do?”

Our hands twisted around imaginary necks. We chewed at ourselves in frustration. We wanted peace. We wanted our mattress back. Worship me she commanded. We wanted to be over.

We crept upstairs in the dark and seized things.  The microwave, a lamp, candle sticks, extension cords. Anything that could be used for our improvised violence. She was sitting in the middle of our mattress, eyes throbbing in the dark. We collapsed in on her, bodies tossing, and lashing—merging together with violent movement. Cords struck flesh, the microwave cracked. Teeth scraped knuckles. The light of the lamp glowed in the dark.

Annie lay in a heap, bloodied and cracked open. The cord rested against a gash in her head.

“The light.” We whispered, and pressed our hands against the hot bulb. She groaned, tossed her head, and the cord came away. The room went dark.

We found the cord and jammed it in her mouth.

We could see.

***

Annie hums now. Hums and buzzes, lined with wires. In her mouth, in her legs, in every hole a cord. We’ve widened the crack of her skull to fit more. We’ve put new slits up her arm to power the upstairs. We pick the scabs, we eat well of her. She sits quietly, mostly. Squirms when she needs a bath. We’ve made a special alter for excess skin and scabs on the bathroom windowsill. They glow a pale blue when they first peel off and float in the water like glittering stars.

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