Rag Doll Symposium
Somewhere in the darkness.
I don't wanna wake up, Andie thought to herself. To her.
Ultrasound-resolution snapshots of her—the owner of the sweetly familiar:
An awning of wispy bangs poorly concealing the remnants of acne.
Endearing moles forever at risk of falling into severe dimples.
Crooked smile full of crooked teeth.
Eyes a squirrel's winter-long regret about the prized acorns that got away.
And the sweetly familiar itself: lightly freckled, naturally fragrant flesh stretching over perfectly moulded cartilage to produce the finely pointed nose unique to Heather.
The sensation—a feathery tickle against Andie's own bumpy nose—beckoned her to wake up.
Let me sleep.
But the tickling intensified. Heather’s persistent nose rubbed against Andie's, achieving searing friction.
This better be good.
Bracing for light—even if only the dim shaded bulb on the nightstand—Andie opened her eyes, and was rewarded with the darkness of Heather's close countenance.
I'm awake, I'm awake.
But Heather seemed neither to notice, nor care.
Andie swivelled her head in a spasmodic arc, trying to untether herself from Heather's abrasive nose, but a keen Heather mirrored every evasive direction. She tried pushing the nuisance away, but the nuisance had prepared for this counterattack, pinning her arms.
What're you doing?
Heather continued the assault at her leisure.
Prophesying the personal pain of such a tactic, Andie shot her head forward, but the headbutt failed to make contact with the anticipating Heather. Once more, she projected her forehead; once more, Heather mirrored the motion in reverse.
The agonizing tickling and impenetrable darkness persisted.
What the fuck’re you doing?
Andie blinked vigorously, unable to grip the opaque nothingness of Heather's face.
A spike of anxiety pierced but did not defeat the overwhelming tickling.
Sharper spikes of anxiety, whetted by an ambient lifelong fear.
I'm mute and blind!
Exaggerated blinking tested her new disability.
Tears failed to wash away the darkness. Failed to soothe the tickling ravaging her nose.
Can't you see I'm fucking blind, Heather?
A gust of wind banished the darkness, but not the awful tickling, allowing terrible light to stab Andie's unprepared eyes. Behind sealed lids, she waited for the jolting pain to subside, relishing the jagged throbbing, for it promised a chance of sight. A chance of seeing Heather.
Like a newborn's natural foray into optics, Andie studied the world between adjusting blinks:
Hands stretched out on either side of her, free of Heather's shackles.
The left a tight fist.
The right upturned, open, reaching for something.
Andie stared at the motionless hands shrouded in night's gloom, willing them to form the motions that would “speak” Heather's name.
They remained still.
She attempted “speech” again and again, each time forging a spike of anxiety with a message not of blindness this time, but of something else.
Sleep paralysis. Recalling the frequent occurrence blunted the spikes.
Sleeping on my stomach again.
But I'm not allowed to sleep on my stomach anymore.
I don't know.
Another breath of cold air inspired movement. Vexed that Heather would leave the oscillator on at what felt like maximum power during a bitter winter night, Andie tracked the stirring to her right. Things poked out from the wrist of the unfulfilled right hand. Tiny. Gossamer. White. Dancing in the breeze, seemingly matching the tickling on her nose without contact.
I know what you are.
Andie crossed her eyes, directed blurred sight upon the tip of her nose, and barely made out the tail-end of one of the tiny white things clinging there.
You're not Heather’s nose!
Fire raged beneath her face, stoked by the fraud that was the tiny white thing she struggled to identify. She tried to wipe the obstruction away, but sleep paralysis forced her to try another way. Attempts to move her head reported the same incapacity. Her tongue fared too short to reach the anomaly, while funnelling breath upward only contributed to the tiny white thing's dance. And its fraudulent tickling.
You'll never be Heather’s nose!
Andie glared at the other tiny white things spilling from her wrist.
None of you will ever be Heather’s nose!
One of the flimsy objects quivered in the swift breeze.
You rhyme with her...
But you're just...
Loosening itself from her wrist.
You're just a... a stupid feather!
The tiny white thing—indeed a feather—flung itself toward her. The oncoming feather grazed her nose, instigating a fresh tingling sensation, then flitted away, leaving the original feather stuck to her nose to continue the annoying assault.
Andie eyed the feathers' cousins, pouring from her wrist, threatening additional attacks.
I gotta get Heather to sew that up.
The fire beneath Andie's face simmered to a temperature of reminiscence. A heat calibrated to emulate Heather's delicate embrace. For a moment, she quieted the tickling on her nose, and she and Heather became Celsius and Fahrenheit, their trivial differences set aside to form a mutual climate. A love affair between disagreeing degrees, matched only by the winter jacket Heather had gifted her.
Why am I wearing a jacket in bed?
Andie's desperate eyes searched the farthest reaches of their sockets. She stared at her open right hand, then adjusted her vision to include her closed left fist in the narrow frame of vision. The immovable things were her means of communication with a world that barely listened to the speaking. These bony, fragile tools possessed the history of Andie and Heather in their joints, their lines, their movements; possessed their arguments, their flirtations, their declarations of love, their wordless explorations of flawed bodies. They articulated every syllable, every inflection, every nuance their shared body language spoke.
But Heather was nowhere to read Andie now.
Dread filled Andie, then a painful swig of frigid air. Countless icy teeth and claws gnashed and slashed at her hot innards, melting to a refined tickle in her dry throat—as if Heather rubbed her there with her sweetly familiar nose. Increasing pressure and vibration created an alien discomfort, and when she achieved that sense of unpleasant fullness, she braced herself, wishing for dreaded deafness as she expelled a pitiful timbre of inarticulate wind.
Andie winced at the pathetic sound of her wretched voice, immediately cutting off the gauzy second syllable of Heather's name before it could further pollute the silence.
The unpleasant fullness dissipated.
The pressure released.
The vibration returned to stillness.
The tickling buried itself in her unpracticed vocal cords.
Tears, not Heather, heeded her call.
Where the fuck are you, Heather?
A scream tore through the silence, a noise Andie could never aspire to create.
The scream rose in volume, in agony.
She's having another nightmare.
Andie struggled to push her head to the right, but sleep paralysis had other plans. Still, memory showed her what she had seen many a night: a “sleeping” Heather, bathed in perspiration, a corner of the pillow cover or end of the blanket crammed into her gagging mouth, the poor thing trapped in the recurring nightmare, where she was reduced to a vulnerable child, forever choking on the sock her ashamed mother forced her to keep in her mouth for countless hours, her mother's incessant credo—“A girl who can't speak has no use for a mouth”—singing against Heather's screaming.
It's okay, doll, Andie helplessly cooed. I'm here.
Andie glared at her stricken arms to awaken from the damned sleep paralysis.
I'm awake! she yelled at her left arm. To the right: I'm fucking awake!
As the excruciating concert wore on, Andie fixed her eyes on the open seam of her jacket sleeve, its gaping mouth seemingly producing the agonizing screams. One of the feathers flitted toward the screaming as if sucked by the noise. Another followed, seemingly beckoning her to follow its trajectory. Even the fraudulent feather tacked to her nose had had enough of imitating Heather's rubbing nose, and flew in the direction of the screaming—flew not adjacent to her, where Heather suffered through her nightmare, but ahead of her, where the bed's headboard and the wall beyond were just out of sight.
Screaming can't come from there.
An epiphany both relieving and perplexing: Heather can't scream.
Indeed, the perpetual soundtrack of distress was much too distinct, soaked in the clarity of the regularly-speaking.
Andie forced her head up and forward for a better view of the source of discordance, barely managing to rest her chin upon a hard, cold surface.
Where's our bed? My pillow?
She tried to extend her range of motion, but the cursed sleep paralysis established its barrier.
The screaming dropped into an octave of frustration for a quick bar, guttural notes Andie begrudgingly adopted as the anthem to her own frustration.
The strained vocals abandoned this reprieve, resuming its song of pain. So, too, did Andie's eyes rise with the notes, straining to see something—anything!—just under their top lids. Twin images of blurry eyelashes filled her field of vision, through which she could see a dark, sleek surface that ended in a massive spiderweb.
No wonder Heather's screaming.
She's not, she reminded herself. She can't!
But the spiders!
Andie's limited sight followed the strands of web, their simultaneous diverging and converging paths crooked, muddled with helter-skelter clots, knots, and lazy asymmetrical patterns. The work was devoid of famed arachnid artistry.
I gotta find and kill the spider for her.
Her eyes hunted, seeing eight legs where none existed.
Where the fuck are my legs?
Her brain sent messages to them, but received reminders of sleep paralysis.
Exasperated, Andie concentrated on locating the spider. Sight settled upon a glob of web material sitting to one side, pressing against the web from behind without snapping the strands. Glistening red stained the off-white mass.
Do spiders bleed like we do?
She couldn't recall any colours from her previous Heather rescue missions. Blood and guts had always been carefully collected and concealed by exaggerated clumps of tissue or smooth-soled dollar store slippers, thrown away with neither smear nor stray piece.
If only they were made of tiny white feathers, then Heather might kill them herself.
But then I couldn't rescue her.
A scream from somewhere beyond the ugly web and uglier clump of red-splotched ball of material.
Do spiders scream?
She didn't know. Didn't want to know, what with the numerous murders by her hand.
Another scream. Human, garnished with animality. An abrupt choke reduced the screaming to an intermittent rhythm of panting and crying.
The hunk of web throbbed in sync with the breathy melody. A painful bark announced the arrival of twin spiders crawling over the bulbous horizon. Large, spindly things. In Andie's mind, doubtless plump with tiny white feathers.
The binary arachnids halted in unison, staring at Andie with a multitude of hidden eyes that asked the same question: “How are you going to protect Heather?”
The panting/crying intensified, neglecting its metronome.
The spiders clenched the glob of web, impressing their spindly legs into the mass, giving Andie the impression of something hollow and soft. Intoxicated with heavy deja vu, she felt the spiders and their imprint as a single hand upon her stomach. Felt the tiny protest against the disembodied palm. Felt the barely perceptible rise and fall underneath the palm.
Andie diverted her eyes from the spiders, but she still felt the ethereal palm against her stomach, the rise and fall of burgeoning life within, communicating its own rendition of her and Heather's soundless language.
Rise and fall.
Rise and fall.
Rise Andie had, mere hours ago, sliding out from under Heather's anchoring hand.
Andie felt the life within still communicating, unaware contact had been broken during the quick escape from a cozy bed, oblivious to Andie's hasty change from toasted pajamas to untoasted winter wear. She turned to an inquisitive Heather, answering those acorn eyes with a flourish of hands, communicating her need for fresh air. And before Heather's hands could espouse cliched warnings of the perils of the late hour, the harsh weather, and remind Andie she had two people to think about—made all the more ominous by her official use of “Andrea”—Andie left.
Traffic was sparse, the last of the illuminated businesses camouflaged with the night. No matter the pace or direction travelled, Andie still felt Heather's strangling umbilical cord reeling her back to their womb-like apartment. Still felt Heather's hand upon her bulbous stomach, transmitting love, admiration, and awe to the life within. Underneath the positive trifecta, however, there lived the lingering inverted trinity of anger, resentment, and jealousy, for genetics, in all of its indiscriminate wisdom, had long ago deemed Heather unfit for childbearing.
Aimless though she believed her steps to be, Andie instinctively slowed as she approached the building. The filmy streetlamp was far too bright, too akin Heather's omniscient eyes, coaxing Andie to review her surroundings. Despite its discreet and welcoming design, the bland building exuded an aura of stigma and harsh judgment. Andie ignored the condemnation by counting the slightly uneven steps to the front door, knowing there were three—always three. Three easy steps. And a ramp. Easy access to a life in need of correction. A new life.
Andie knew she could indeed achieve a new life beyond those sliding doors, but knew that, upon exit, it would be a certified life without dear Heather.
As if sensing the building's controversial business, the baby kicked, and like a trained horse responding to a spurred heel, Andie moved on, wondering if she would ever muster the moxie to pass through those sliding doors during hours of operation.
Hands buried in the warmth of the jacket's pockets—and far too close to the sentient creature beneath the fabric—Andie found herself not only toying with thoughts, but something else. She withdrew her right hand, and between her fingers saw a bent tiny white feather, flailing in the cold wind. Pivoting her arm, she saw the seam—wider than the last time she had laid eyes upon it during a similar walk for “fresh air”—in the cuff of the jacket, the deflated sleeve having lost most of its voluptuous originality.
Andie imagined a similar opening along her abdomen. Imagined reaching in and removing her tiny white feather.
If only it was that simple.
A flash of the building in her wake, and the inspiration, along with the feather, flitted away in the bitter wind.
As cold breaths of air slowly defeated Andie's jacket, her worn boots detected uneven gravel well past the transition from smooth sidewalk. Down a quiet road she had never traversed, she found herself within the throes of longer, deeper chasms of darkness, sporadic, weepy-eyed streetlamps teasing tangled brush and sinuous, nude trees.
She, too, felt nude, but somehow freer.
The mysterious darkness beyond the last visible streetlamp illuminated a thought: I can keep going.
Her stomach ached with the kicks of countless babies, forcing her to stop. Alarmed by the swiftness of the onslaught, she felt something she hadn't since first daring to hold Heather's hand for all the world to see. Not the kicks of countless babies, but the fluttering wings of excited butterflies.
I can keep going!
In the invigorating darkness between tired streetlamps, Andie's mouth ached, both from the numbing cold and the lengthy lack of practice those deprived muscles had in performing a smile. For the first time in months, she no longer felt like an incubator to Heather's hopes and dreams, a lifeless machine providing life to a living, breathing miniature but weighty anchor, but a weightless butterfly sanctuary whose very inhabitants would whisk her off of her exhausted feet, and transport her to a place where mind and body were her own.
Her legs believed the hype, propelling her toward a terrifying yet exhilarating unknown.
A pale pair of silvery eyes pierced the dark vanishing point of the quiet road ahead.
She was faintly aware of the glaring negatives of this compulsion, instead savouring the gluttony of well-deserved selfishness.
The pale eyes grew brighter. Closer.
Butterfly wings pushed her forward. Baby kicks—or the fresh memory of them—threatened to pull her back to Heather, and the seemingly already-lived life she had fervently planned for the young trio.
The eyes moved fast and erratically along the road, illuminating Andie's route to freedom.
Her right hand detected another loose feather.
I gotta get Heather to sew that.
Her enthusiastic legs tripped on the old, automatic thinking. She regained footing, helped by Heather's firm grip on her stomach. Heather's property.
The eyes blurred into a single spotlight, blinding, roaring, racing toward her.
The baby issued a tremendous kick.
Darkness replaced the spotlight, somehow equally blinding.
Andie danced with minutes and millennia in timelessness until oblivious numbness spawned a sensation.
Somewhere in the darkness.
I don't wanna to wake up.
But the crying insisted.
Not the blaring adult female screaming that had paradoxically lulled Andie to the peaceful darkness where recent memory dwelled, but a quieter, tinier, reassuring song whose hypnotic quality gently lifted Andie out of her black limbo.
Between blinks, she rediscovered her predicament: outstretched arms bracketing her peripheral, the left hand curled in a tight fist, the right hand open, awaiting acceptance, her permanently paralyzed means of communication rendering her forever mute; the tiny white feathers continuing their way through the jacket cuff's enlarged seam, some clinging to the opening, seemingly hesitant to experience their newfound freedom, while others took flight without second thought; the shattered windshield where she began to see and understand the car manufacturer's safety design rather than the intricate abstract web-work of an elusive yet brilliant spider; alas, there were the twin spiders and their glob of reddened web—dead feminine hands clenching a deployed, blood-stained airbag.
For all the human and vehicular carnage, Andie felt no pain. Felt nothing but the tickling sensation inspired by severed and confused nerve-endings unable to see and comprehend the car before her and the tree behind her.
From somewhere behind the busted windshield, the crying of a newborn baby lamented its terrible start in life.
I'm sorry your mommy is dead, Andie hopelessly transmitted.
The baby cried louder: “I'm sorry your baby is dead.”
Andie focused her numb senses on her stomach, the crushed filling of a gruesome sandwich. She mentally kicked the baby, receiving the stillness for which she yearned.
I can sleep on my stomach again.
The bent hood of the car was cool under her cheek.
Like its deceased mother's labour cacophony, the baby's crying wooed Andie into a masquerade of slumber. The nothingness was seductively delicious; the more obese she became indulging a diet of pure nirvana, the lighter she felt. From infinite seams on her deflating being, tiny white feathers went wherever such things go.
There was a final sensation.
Somewhere in the darkness.