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Book 1 – Chapter 6 – Climax – Part 5

Beechum University seemed to be scattered around a neighborhood several blocks from downtown Medford until we were in the heart of it. The classrooms were lined with pebbles, not too different from the wall near Simon’s school. We stopped for a crew of girls in jogging suit on their way to a domed gymnasium. The dorms must have been the kind of old factories they turn into outlet malls now. The rent-a-cops on the roads didn’t bat us an eye.

Elory cruised slowly into a parking lot behind the dorms and squinted through the glass. “Hail Asphaultia, full of grace, help us find a parking space,” she said and spotted one behind an SUV, “See? It works.”

That was magic to her – anything that caused magical thinking. She cut the engine and checked herself in the mirror. I did as well. I was passable.

Elory fluffed her hair and stepped out. “This is funny,” she said, “This is near where the Black Bonds club used to be. I never knew there was a college here.”

I undid my seat belt. “I’ve never heard of it,” I said.

“They shut it down a long time ago,” she said, “Do you have everything?”

“Just what’s in my pockets,” I said.

The snow wasn’t cleared nearly as well as in the city. The college roads were matted with a dense layer that only faded around potholes. The walkways along the lot had ice patches and I was very careful where I put my feet.

The Mechanical Development building had a row of office windows mashed into a stretch of solid brick. We followed the road to an electronic gate for trucks, and ducked under the guard rail. The lot had a few vans and tractor trailers with fresh tracks. We were trespassing.

The building had a single spotlight around the back. Elory patted my shoulder. “You’re doing great,” she said, “Just hold it together a little longer.”

I nodded and sniffled while I could.

The ground crunched under our feet and I heard Tigerlilac on her way towards us. She was wrapped in leathers with her blue reindeer hat yanked tight. “Hey, what’d’ya know?” she called out, “What’s shaking?”

I balanced on my heels to tighten my legs. “I came from my ex’s place,” I said, “She’s not going to pull anything like this again.”

“That’s good,” she said, and put out her hand. “Hi. It’s Elory isn’t it?”

They shook quickly, with a pause before they released. “Good to see you again, Emma,” Elory said, “You’re still on the board for Arisia, right?”

“It’s my last year, hopefully,” Tigerlilac said, “I may be moving soon. I didn’t know you knew Cheryl.”

Elory wandered beside her as we turned the corner towards the loading dock. “She’s wearing my old harness,” she said, with no indication that I was there.

“I remember that,” Tigerlilac said.

“And I remember you in your little hoochie leather skirt,” Elory said, “That was the cutest thing ever.”

“I know, I still wish I could fit into it,” Tigerlilac said.

“Oh, the poundy-thirties. I knew those,” Elory said. She patted her belly.

A school van had its rear doors open by the dock. A bundled workman heaved out an orange crate from the back and dropped it with a pile of others on the platform. We couldn’t go any further from the steps onto the dock. The huge blue sliding door was locked tight.

“What sort of mood is Terry in?” Elory said.

“He’s tired,” Tigerlilac said, “He runs on weekends and he had a school function yesterday and hasn’t had time to grade his own papers.”

“So he’s pliable,” Elory said.

“Maybe,” Tigerlilac said. She waited for the workman to drop his create and notice her. “Hey Phil, think we can have a swipe?”

She tapped the card reader beside the door.

“Hey, no problem,” Phil said, but he was hard to understand with the ski mask and glasses.

“You’ll be waiting out here?” Elory said.

“No, I’ll come in with you,” Tigerlilac said.

“Just to his office is fine,” Elory said, “It’ll be easier if it’s only Cheryl and me. You won’t have to act surprised.”

“I wasn’t planning on going that far,” Tigerlilac said, “I’ll show you the way though.”

Phil gave a friendly, “Ahem,” and I moved aside so he could reach by to swipe his card. The blue door clicked but did not open.

“Hang on, this thing sticks in the cold,” Tigerlilac said. She put her entire weight into it and rolled it far enough for her to slip through. She lost her grip briefly and strained to hold it. Elory had to step through sideways. Then I followed her.

I’ve dreamed about those next moments for months, but they never happen as I remember them. I’m not even sure my memory is correct. Sometimes, a school dance is inside the storage room with mirrorballs and stereos from whichever garage band decided to put them up that night. The dancers are dazed ghosts, mumbling and crossing the floor to the punch bowl. They never see me but they crowd around me until their gray forms are packed on all sides. I can’t move. I could escape if I could fly but that isn’t that sort of dream. I taste cotton.

I picked up a cat once, after it had been hit by a car that kept driving. I didn’t know the side it landed on had been scraped open. I wiped my hands on the grass but the ooze didn’t come off my fingers. The cat was gasping, paralyzed. I carried it to the grass and I waited until it coughed, curled and everything stopped. That’s what happened next.

Tigerlilac’s cell phone went off as I passed through the bulkhead. The ring was shrill enough to put my hairs on end. My shoulders cleared the bulkhead as she reached to answer it. I had a second when I could have taken another step forward. Instead, I turned to listen in.

I don’t remember if my body was tugged first, or the bulkhead roared as its springs gave way. Sometimes, I dream I fall backwards and plummet until I splash into the ocean. I usually wake up after that.

I am sure I spent only milliseconds before I hit. My waist seized my entire body and slammed me against the door as it crunched shut.

I was worried about my head, at first. When it impacted the door, I heard bone snap and the pain exploded. I thought I’d been hit with a hammer. I put my hands against the door to ease myself forward but I was stuck. My backside seemed to be glued to the door.

I must say it now because it is important that I say it and understand it, because since then, I have worked hard to deny it. The bulkhead destroyed my tail. When the door was pulled open, my tail did not work. It hung limp with a smear of oil across the break. The pieces rattled inside the fur.

I didn’t feel its pain at all. There was no electrical surge, only the ringing in my skull. The fur brushed my legs with some hope that it would restore itself to life.

This is what it did to me – it broke me in all the places I couldn’t see. As the pain went down, nothing took its place. No rapture, no tears, no cradling in my arms. I stood there, one of the ghosts ready to join the dance. I know that humans have a soul because I lost mine.

The air inside was a pleasant fifty degrees Fahrenheit and my internal balancing functions prevented me from falling to the floor. One and one were two and if I pressed my arms against my head, the pressure relieved the discomfort I experienced. I brought my other hand in front of my face and the trails of my fingers obscured the boxes and college desks stacked around the store room. My lungs seized as I had forgotten they needed breath.

I didn’t like that my tail still rested against my legs. I ordered it to move up. I begged it. I pleaded with it. My shadow-tail went up and up and floated to the clouds but the weight against my legs remained.

I don’t know if it’s possible to crawl through the air, but I did. I creeped, inch by inch, to a plastic chair made from some wretched orange color. I lowered my face into it, kneeling, which was difficult as I had to manipulate every muscle as a puppeteer. There were so many strings, except one which was loose when I tugged on it.

I pressed myself into the rough, chemical-soaked seat and waited until it was okay to feel again. There was warmth on either side of me and some words were exchanged. I didn’t have to respond.

The living world had so much pain, it was incredible that I had been part of it once. I wasn’t close to my mom’s mother, who always had this one line that got my hackles up. “Don’t get old,” she said, because she could. I knew that she meant that you could stop living when the agony was too much. That’s why we have a soul, I think, so we can lose it and die for a while. It wasn’t so bad. When my mom’s mother died, I cried in the shower for ten minutes, and when it was over, I had enough hot water to rinse my hair.

An airplane crash victim looks down on the girder which skewers her leg and thinks, wow, that probably hurts.

I would mingle at the Diesel Café and a friend would say, “Oh, something’s missing from you.”

I would reply, “I was tired of it.”

I couldn’t remain in limbo forever though. Tell me, I begged myself, what about my loss is worth crying for.

Paralyze half your face, I responded, and then tell me that it is not a tragedy.

It was true. Joy needed that thump-thump-thump behind me to be complete. Comfort was an extra layer of fur in my lap. I would have to learn to walk again without the sureness of the steady rudder on my back. I couldn’t air-swim and my shadow-mask became distant.

It’s my fault, I thought, and tried to find reasons why.

Finally, Elory’s words broke through the mist surrounding me. “Let’s help you take it off,” she said.

I growled at her. “No.” I didn’t expect it to be so sudden.

“Maybe we can fix it,” she said, “We need to check it for damage.”

Again, I said, no, because picking at a scar doesn’t help it heal.

Tigerlilac’s words were a faded foghorn in the distance, unrecognizable.

Elory knelt beside me and pressed her lips against my ears. “I promise, I won’t let you see it,” she said, “I will hold your eyes shut as we take it off you. Emma will inspect it in the hall.”

I reached along her arm for her bare hand. I pulled it under me, pressing it to my heart. “Promise?” I said.

“I do,” she said.

The two shadows helped me to my feet. Elory cupped her palm over my eyes. I opened them briefly, to make sure no light came in, and then closed them. There wasn’t a change. I lifted each foot as my boots were removed. I sucked in my stomach as my belt was loosened and my jeans fell to my ankles. Their strong arms kept me steady as I stepped from my clothes. The straps on my harness were pulled loose, one by one, and eased away from me. The itchy fabric brushed my bare calves one last time and the gentle weight was gone.

Tigerlilac’s footsteps hurried out to the hallway. Elory guided me to lower my butt in the cold chair, with her palm protecting my sight the whole time.

“Breathe slower,” she said, “Don’t hyperventilate.”

I refused to put my pants on until I heard Tigerlilac’s report. My goosebumps were spread thick over my skin and I wasn’t wearing my tail. It simply wasn’t there, like my friends from college, my dad’s mother and my goddamn girlfriend.

The worst part of losing your soul is when it comes back. You know you’re not going to die and life continues and all that pain and worry becomes yours again. You understand what else your loss has stolen from you. People who have never known sorrow are so strong because they are whole. I was not.

Tigerlilac marched across the floor. “I don’t think it’ll ever work again,” she said, “The power supply’s fried and it took out part of the motherboard with it.”

I held out my arms. “Bring it here,” I said.

Tigerlilac returned with the wilted ball of fur that clicked softly as I raised each end. I dug my nose into it and kissed it goodbye. I didn’t have the strength to see it one last time.

“Take it,” I said, “Can you get into Lanyi’s lab?”

Tigerlilac lifted it away. “Yes,” she said.

“Put it with the other pieces,” I said, “Tell him I couldn’t make the meeting tonight.”

“I will,” she said, “Do you want some help with your pants?”

“No, just get the fuck out of here!” I yelled.

Tigerlilac clomped away and the hall door swung shut.

“She did you a favor,” Elory said.

“I know,” I said, “I’ll apologize when I’m good and ready.”

Elory released my face and the store room was not so different. Some light from the parking lot filtered through dirty windows overhead, leaving murky shapes on the floor. I reached down and buckled my jeans on. I slid my toes in my boots.

I lifted the harness gingerly. “You can have this back,” I said.

Elory blocked my offer. “It’s yours,” she said, “You can throw it out or put another tail in it. I don’t care.”

I shoved most of it in my coat pocket while the ends dangled out. “Do you mind if I ride home with you?” I said.

Elory nodded. She pulled me close to her. I gripped her shoulders and buried my face in her neck. It was over but I didn’t know where to go from there.

I spent the last moments knocking on the hall door. Tigerlilac was sour when she opened it.

“Thanks for letting me scream at you,” I said.

“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” she said, “I dropped the door on your tail and I’m so sorry. Damn girl, be angry at me for that.”

“Oh,” I said but I was too far gone.

Elory dragged the bulkhead open and we made it through unscathed. The van had left and the orange crates waited on the dock. She took my arm in hers and guided me down the steps.

“Fuck,” she said, “Of all the things that had to happen, this was the worst.”

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 6 - Climax.

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