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Friday, September 12, 2014

Citizens of my Nightmares

Free short fiction; horror, magical realism, feminism, TRIGGER WARNING, WILL MAKE YOU VERY UNCOMFORTABLE, PG-15/R

What is a girl worth?

When I was six years old, I asked God to give me a little sister, because I already had two brothers and I wanted a girl this time. The sister he gave me became a citizen of my nightmares. I used to dream about a wolf chasing me; now I dreamt about coming over the hill to the ravine behind my house to see her surrounded by a pack. I stepped forward, but the leader stood stiff in my way, growling as the fur rose thick like a mane on his shoulders, his teeth a Joker-grin daring me to step past him. It was her or me, his blazing dead eyes promised. I stood still, my breath stolen, my heart stopped, eyes wide and stupid. I did not choose; time chose for me. They devoured her in front of me.

I used to dream about facing down the apocalypse. I would die fighting the world, or I would save it and then die, usually. But now when the volcano erupted next door, and we all lost our homes, in our Exodus across the countryside my sister wandered off into the dead, sunny outskirts of one of the cities we passed through. I was a teenager now, the oldest of eight, responsible for all the little ones trailing behind me, so in my dream my oldest brother and I followed her. We lost her behind an enormous apartment building. I heard her screams as men raped her. We weren't fast enough.

Some people watch themselves in nightmares like movies; I walk through like real life, with conscious decisions and full lucidity, and I hated myself for not saving my sister. I managed to stop the wolves chasing me once and for all one night by whirling around in my sleep and ordering the wolf to dissipate because “Jesus said so.” It was my mother's idea. It worked. But I never did any such thing for my sister. I never thought of it. I was too slow.

Finally one night I fought the wolf. The nightmare fell hard and fast like the first sentence of a well-written thriller. From my bedroom I could hear her screams. I raced into the kitchen to find a man with a knife bending her over the table. He threatened me, his eyes wide and jeering yellow like the canine's, as if he knew everything about me that I didn't want him to. As if he remembered I wouldn't stop him.

I charged him. I shoved into her side; my body pushed hers out from under him. I gripped his knife. He yanked it away—he thrust! A heavy chronic agony throbbed into my side, as if he'd stabbed me a long, long time ago instead of now. Blood seeped down my ribs through my shirt. I clenched my teeth. My fingers curled on the knife handle, squirming under his in the slick of sweat. I wrested it from him. I pressed the blade to his throat. I called the police. I saved her.

But I went to the hospital, and my then-fiance visited me as I lay dying.

My beloved is built like Spiderman with Batman's personality: in public he's a convincing Bruce Wayne, but in reality he's quiet and wears a mask. His friends call him the Ghost, and for years in my dreams he didn't speak. He wandered beside me like a phantom, never acting, sometimes hard to see, as if in my loneliness I'd invented him. In the daytime it takes faith to believe in God; in night-world it takes faith to believe in my lover. In the daytime people told me not to marry him; in the night-world they didn't even acknowledge he existed. When he visited me in the hospital, he spoke, and I felt him beside me even though no one else talked to him.

But he acted the day the bear came.

The bear in the daytime hurt my best friend. For many years I corresponded with a girl who lived in the woods, sequestered by neglectful family acres away from anyone in poverty and depression, with her chickens and dogs as her only real friends. She sounds like a character from my dreams, but it was in the daytime that the bear came and killed all her friends in front of her. It was in the daytime that the animal ate her sister. She hates the bear.

The night the bear came for my sister, I'd spent the daytime struggling with my worth. For years the wolves sent messages into the daytime to wreak their revenge on me for banishing them from the night-world, and most of my life I took my cues from Batman and hid the struggle. I don't have a million dollars like he does, so I never bought a very good mask, and sometimes people did question my sanity. But I don't think they knew about the suicidal thoughts, or my intense, bitter desire to be a man. I danced around the demons, sung away the spirits, and wrote off the wolves, my pen and my laughter my sword and shield—but the month the bear came I was losing the battle. I was wishing myself dead the evening my husband called me from school. I wept. I told him that in the book written by the God I love, a verse in the Torah sets a woman's monetary value at half that of a man, and like the chronic pain of that knife, that fresh stab brought back the much deeper wound of many years' war. What, then, was I worth?

“You're worth more than anyone else in the world to me,” said my husband.

My mother was driving us on our family vacation when the bear came. The seventeen-seat magenta-beige van hummed through the woods over a floor of pine needles as conifers rustled in a soft, almost imperceptible breeze below a chilled North American sky. My husband, my little sister, and I climbed down the van's high step to explore. My sister's eyes were bright, and my husband's gentle.

The bear caught my eyes still a hundred yards off. I've seen black bears in the daytime. Black bears usually amble. This black bear did not amble. It charged full-speed at us through the trees.

We ran for the van. I made it to the door first and leapt the step. I whirled--

To see my sister standing frozen in the bear's path, her back to it, her face to me, babbling and smiling. Fight or flight did not kick in. She shut down. Stupefied. Blabbing, muttering, waving her hands in the air like a dementia patient with Parkinson's.

The bear closed in. Fifty yards distance.

I screamed her name. “Get in the car!”

She bubbled on.

Twenty-five yards. The bear broke the tree-line.

“Come here! Get in! Run!”

She stood rooted, talking with her hands, immune to my screams.

Twelve yards, or less. Even on all fours it towered over her.

“You're going to die!”

My memory kicked in. Not conscious memory, but the unconscious identity that knows that when you cannot save someone, you must endanger yourself. I'm the cannon fodder, the shield, the sacrificial lamb. That was the only thing that worked before; that's what I'm worth. I jumped from the car and ran for the bear like I'd run for her rapist, flirting with acceptance of my own mauling.

As I sped between her and it she woke up and made for the van. I screamed and shouted and threatened. The dumb bear whirled on me. I ran from it around the bumper of the van to draw it away from her and the door, its breath just a pace or two behind me. My mauling approached.

A gunshot cracked the icy air.

My husband stood in front of the van with a revolver smoking in his hand. A revolver can't take down a bear! I've seen videos of angry ursines, enraged by gunfire with no stopping power, tearing men open to feast on their intestines. My heart thrashed against my sternum as the videos played out again. I don't know how many times he fired as it charged him.

I know it fell in front of the van. I tottered towards him as silence fell, my eyes on that paw the size of a tire. I dream about zombies. I dream about things that cannot die. I know the night-world.

But the bear did not rise. My husband stood over it, his hand unwavering, weapon still outstretched, solid and corporeal, no ghost. As real as the animal laying dead at his feet.

Because I am worth saving, too.

The End.

I don't have much of an explanation for this story. I believe in female characters who save their own butts, but I also believe in female characters who are worth saving. I wish there were more stories about men—and women—risking their asses to save girls not because girls are weak, but because girls are worth it. 

The Bible verse the MC mentions is pretty easy to find. It's widely debated on a number of atheist and Christian feminist websites, and I won't go into it here. I will say, though, that in an age where important people didn't even talk to women, Jesus did, and in his death he proved he found girls very worth it. What he said about God permitting evil or inequality in his OT law “because of the hardness of your hearts” seems to me to apply to that old verse that plagues the MC.

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