and other outré objects d’art

FLUID MOSAIC
MICHAEL A. ARNZEN

WILDSIDE PRESS
Berkeley Heights, New Jersey

Copyright © 2000 by Michael A. Arnzen. All rights reserved. “The Blood Ran Out” first appeared in
Stories.

100 Vicious Little Vampire

Barnes and Noble Books, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Michael A.

Arnzen. “Cheese” first appeared in © 1995 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Falling Back” first appeared in
High Fantastic. The Urbanite

#5, Spring 1995. Copyright

Ocean View Books,

1995. Copyright © 1995 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Fluid Mosaic” first appeared in
Imagination Fully Dilated 2.

IFD

Publishing, April 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Immaterial Girl” first appeared in
Imagination Fully Dilated.

CD

Publications, May 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Michael A. Arnzen. “In Fur” first appeared in
Mystic Fiction

#2.2, Spring 1994. Copyright

© 1994 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Mr. Pipecleaners." Copyright © 2000 by Michael A. Arnzen. “My Wound Still Weeps” first appeared in
Horrors! 365 Scary Stories.

Barnes and Noble Books, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Michael A. Arnzen. “The Piano Player Has No Fingers” first appeared in 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Sight to the Blind” first appeared in
Wicked Mystic Palace Corbie

#7,

#19, Nov. 1992.

Copyright © 1992 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Sinking Sandy” first appeared in © 1995 by Michael A. Arnzen. “Stigmata” first appeared in
T erminal Frights. Fugue

#12, Winter 1995. Copyright

Vol. 1. T erminal Fright

Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Michael A. Arnzen. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” first appeared in
Dark Regions

#3.1,

Spring 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Michael A. Arnzen.

Cover Graphic Copyright © 2001 by Renate Müller.

Fluid Mosaic
A publication of

Wildside Press
P.O. Box 45 Gillette, NJ 07933-0045 www.wildsidepress.com

FIRST EDITION

To Renate & for Baltasar Espinosa

Table of Contents
Immaterial Girl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 The Piano Player Has No Fingers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 My Wound Still Weeps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32 In Fur . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34 Sight to the Blind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46 Cheese . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52 Sinking Sandy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57 Stigmata . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60 Falling Back. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69 The Blood R an Out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76 Fluid Mosaic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78 While My Guitar Gently Weeps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99 Mr. Pipecleaners. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107 Liner Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116

Immaterial Girl

I

hadn’t seen Faye DeWhite since high school, so when she walked into Sears and started riffling through the lingerie hangers across the floor from me, I wanted to run right out of the store, bury myself in the mall crowd and find a vacant men’s room stall to hide in for a couple of hours. But like everything else in my life, the job held me back: I had a family of three lick-combing one another’s hair and adjusting each other’s collar buttons like a gang of preening orangutans. They were standing below the obnoxious banner — “8 8x10’s for $8.10!” — which sectioned off my so-called studio, and I felt that Faye would either spot me as an employee or figure I was there with my family. It was embarrassing either way. And doubly embarrassing to even be embarrassed, just when I was starting to get used to the everyday humiliation of sporting my dorky smock with the even dorkier name badge on it. So I kept my head turned away from Faye DeWhite, only stealing the occasional sideways glance when she picked something off the rack or moved to another department of the store, while I pretended to prep the big camera and ignored the monkeys in front of the mirror. Faye looked good. Her hair was as light blond and frazzled around her almond-shaped head as I remembered it. She had grown up, obviously, but she still looked exactly the same. In high school she carried one of those faces that looked impossibly sophisticated for her age — an adult face on a young girl’s body, a soft form just waiting to be filled up with age. In those days, about thirteen years ago, she dressed like the other girls at Cheshire High, emulating Madonna’s “slutty virgin” masquerade which was so popular at the time. And judging from the way she looked now, pert and pale in her long black leggings, long black sport coat, and faded black T-shirt, I could see the afterimage of that look on her thirty-year-old body. Either she still liked the style — which gave her some charm, since it was old fashioned by today’s standards — or she had simply given up on fashion trends right after high school, and stayed with the look because she didn’t know what else to do. Either way, she had apparently become the beautiful woman her mature face had always

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promised, and now she was standing within thirty feet of me. “Okie-dokie, we’re ready,” the Orangutan Father called from behind me. I turned to face his family, who positioned themselves in front of the crushed violet backdrop. The color helped bring the veins out on Mother Orangutan’s crossed, chubby legs. Little Boy Orangutan, bobbing on her knee in his high-water black suit pants, dribbled grape lollipop juice on her thigh. Father Orangutan swallowed his chewing tobacco and smiled. I winced as I snapped the photo, swallowing my own spit. They winced from the blinding flashbulb. And then I was tapped on the shoulder and I jumped, pegging my eye socket onto the camera’s viewfinder. I turned and blushed, knowing it would be Faye before our eyes met. She cocked her head and crossed her arms. She was clutching a small purse in one long white hand, dangling a long cardboard price tag. “I bet you don’t remember me, do you? You’re Charley or something like that, right?” It was a chance to lie. I took it and shrugged, wearing my best frown of confusion. I hoped she didn’t see my nametag, which said CHARLEY in big block letters. “I’m Faye . . . Faye DeWhite?” Her head cocked to the other side. “Remember? We went to Cheshire High together?” My cheeks flushed as hot as a water bottle. It felt just like the old days, whenever I shared a hallway or classroom with her — a sudden feeling of pure panic corked in a ceramic bottle. Back then, she never spoke a word to me; hearing her address me after all these years in a curious and somewhat needy voice seemed to cheapen all my adolescent suffering. And there was no way I’d be caught dead working in the local Sears store back then, so there was no reason to let her catch me now. “Sorry,” I said, tearing my eyes from her silver moon glare. “You must have me confused with someone else.” Her scrutiny stayed on my shoulders as I turned and took cash from the monkey family. I wondered if she would remember my birthmark, the genetic blotch of brown branded on the back of my neck. I robotically handed the father a receipt with a computer-generated date on it, telling him that that was the day he could come pick up his shots. He nodded rapidly, making a face like he already knew how long it would take. I glanced over at the three-way mirror where his family had groomed one another, and saw Faye catching my eyes and then looking right through me, her eyes all wet and dilated, before spinning away from my gaze in a blur. “I should have known better,” I heard her mutter as her leather shoes clacked the tiles down the aisles away from me, the sound dissipating like the drops from a spout minutes after a shower. Her voice sounded genuinely sad and she had said the same sort of thing I myself would have said long ago, rejecting myself before ever even trying to talk to a girl like

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Faye. “What was I thinking,” I heard her complain down the aisle, “coming back to this place?” I got the nerve to actually face her as she marched away. My head pulsed back to normal as she turned an aisle and headed for the mouth of the store that spilled into mallway. I felt better for about ten seconds. And then I realized what a gutless idiot I still was. I’d felt guilty for breathing since long before I attended Cheshire High. And here I was, working in the same Sears store in the same town taking the same pictures of the same old people ever since I graduated. I had nothing to lose by saying hello to Faye, who obviously might have had some fond memory of me. After all, she wasn’t laughing in my face when she made her approach. She was smiling. I had nothing to lose by running after her, except maybe my shame and a measly minimum wage job. I tore off my smock and ran into the mall. When I finally found Faye, she was standing in front of a leather goods store window. It was a shop that I usually ignored, because leather jackets and all the other things they had were far out of my price range and no one who really lived in Cheshire would be caught dead wearing leather. Faye, however, was built for it. When I approached her, she was staring vacantly through the glass, transfixed by a biker chick mannequin in a leather recliner with a stupid “Mom” tattoo magic-markered on her plastic forearm and a remote control in the other plastic fist. Too afraid to interrupt Faye’s gaze, I sat on a wooden bench in the median of the mallway, uncomfortably positioned beside a stoned teenager with pins in his face and a purple crew cut. I watched Faye watching the dummy, like mutes having a philosophical conversation. Faye continued staring at the mannequin until she noticed my reflection gawking at her in the window. Or maybe it was something else. Either way, she turned and lilted into the store, casually stripping the mannequin nude and slipping on its jacket and cap. No one inside the store seemed to notice her. Something about the way she did it made me blush — her slow stripping of the plastic nude made me feel like I was watching a porn flick, and the apathetic punk sitting beside me made me feel perverted and old. As I looked around the window to see where Faye had gone to, I noticed she had already exited the store and was crossing the mallway to a gift shop. It was so fast that she must have stolen the biker jacket. Inside the gift shop, she ogled doodads, slipping the ones that she admired into her purse. The purse with the price tag still on it. The one she had stolen from Sears right before my eyes. She left the gift shop and I followed her from behind, totally in awe of how easy it was for her to shoplift and steal. It wasn’t just that she never bothered to be covert that got to me — she was the best looking

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woman that ever had graced this run down excuse for a mall, and no one was paying any attention to her whatsoever. Except me. I watched her pocket it all: from clock radios to Barbie Dolls. She simply grabbed things and held them for a moment, feeling them out and testing them, before exiting the store as if she were walking out of her own house in her own clothes with her own personal property. She didn’t see me following and she didn’t even bother talking to shop clerks and salesmen. In fact, they never approached her when she was inside, which seemed very strange to me. Mall clerks always confront their customers — it’s what makes them seem like they’re earning their pay, even though they’re really avoiding their jobs by talking to people and hoping the other clerks will do the stock work and inventory. Outside of a video game parlor, Faye finally caught my eyes. Instead of looking away, I stayed focused on her silver stare, which widened as I got closer and closer. When I was within an arm’s length, she turned and ran. Not knowing why, I gave chase, mimicking her path through the small crowd of teenagers in the food court, and ultimately falling back far enough to see her turn a corner that I knew would lead to the main exit and out of my sight. Something in my gut lurched, as if I’d not only lost her, but also lost every chance I ever had. I almost gave into it. But then I kicked my legs into gear and doubled my jog to get around the corner. And she was there, waiting for me right around the edge of the hall, her left arm akimbo. I nearly knocked her down when I rammed into her elbow, but she held her footing and then clutched me to keep her balance. Her new purse banged into my chest like a brick. Her grip seemed very strong for someone so thin-boned and waifish. She held on and began consuming me with her eyes. “You do remember me, don’t you?” Her question begged me to say yes. I wouldn’t have lied if she were a stranger. “Yeah,” I said, trying to keep my cool. “But I don’t remember you being a shoplifter in high school.” She shook her head as if her crime was irrelevant. She knew I wasn’t playing security guard. “You remember me. And you followed me . . .” She tightened her grip on my arms. “And you’re here with me now.” “Uh-huh.” She didn’t let go. She looked at her hands around my arms and then back up to my face. “Will you stay?” I bent forward and looked in her eyes, hoping to find her logic, but I found only desperation in them. “Sure thing. I’ve got nowhere else to go.” She let go, but kept me pinned in place with her eyes. Her lips cracked into a flirty smile. “Well come on, then.” She headed toward the exit, almost walking backwards, keeping me in her sight as if I were the one who’d been running away. I followed, curious and confused. I didn’t give

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a damn about skipping out on the job. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like I had finally passed some unspoken existential final test that had held me back from the world all along, and that Faye had come to escort me through graduation.

S

he drove me to a house she said she had recently bought, a place just out on the border of town, in the section called Cheshire West. It didn’t make sense to me that a shoplifter would have the money to buy a house, but I was quickly learning not to be surprised by Faye. If the town had hills, her place would be in them. It was big and it was clean and it looked just like all the other houses nearby: sturdy, old enough to be traditional, new enough to be chic. Her block was relatively empty, save for the occasional new Jeep or new Caddy or new BMW, all shining as if Turtle Wax had thrown some sort of competition here. No kids. No trash. No noise. Cheshire West wasn’t an over-the-top rich hideaway, but the area was rich enough to keep me far away for as long as I had lived in town. The place was as foreign to me as the mountains on the horizon. During the ride to her place, she didn’t speak much. Just fragmented small talk about her college years and the bad jobs she’d had afterward. Nothing compared to my own. She said she came back to town because she simply wasn’t happy anywhere else. I didn’t quite believe her. She gave me plenty of room to interrupt her story and ask her for the truth, but I let her do all the talking. My own story, after all, was pretty self-evident: I didn’t have one. I still lived in the same town where I went to school; I’d graduated from high school only to wind up in the Sears Portrait Studio right down the street. Even though Faye had been out in the real world, she seemed just as bored by everyday life as I was: she talked about her own past as if it were someone else’s. And when she talked, she constantly touched me, with a brush or a grip or a pat that wasn’t sexual, but was still just as needy. It was nice to feel like a man instead of being treated like the same old eighteen year-old boy in a thirty year-old body. When we pulled into her garage and she turned off the engine, I noticed that her back-seat was full of objects in their original packaging, things I guessed she had lifted from other places before coming into Sears. I helped her carry them in, and quickly realized that her house was a lot like the back seat of her car. Piles and piles of stuff, strewn everywhere. Piled up, literally, beside cardboard boxes which were obviously still unopened from her recent move-in. Her living room reminded me of the stock rooms in the basement at Sears, where shipments were stored and boxes halfheartedly unpacked. Her kitchen looked like the household department: everything shined silver and was arranged rank-and-file, her countertop a surgeon’s tray of knifes and mallets which would probably never cut meat or vegetables. It wasn’t the fact that her house was all

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arranged like a showroom-in-utero, though, that disturbed me. It was the sheer lack of use and total lack of care for what it said about her. She was living in the doll house of a very rich and spoiled child who cared more about stuffing new toys into the rooms than arranging or playing with them, and that child was herself. In fact, I did notice a number of children’s toys mixed in with all her adult ones. “So what gives?” I finally asked, once she handed me a cup of gourmet coffee in a tall, top-heavy white ceramic mug and took a seat beside me on her crushed velvet sofa. I motioned my hands to point around the room. “You’ve obviously got money. Why do you steal little things from gift shops?” Her eyebrows knotted. “It isn’t stealing, really.” “What would you call it?” I took a sip from the cup in my hand. Her coffee tasted like burnt chocolate. “Borrowing?” She hummed. “I don’t know. Just holding on to things, I suppose. What does it matter? I just moved into town and I need stuff. Besides, I never get caught. Wouldn’t you take whatever you liked if no one ever stopped you?” “I’m not sure I know what you mean.” I torched the roof of my mouth with more coffee. “But I am surprised you didn’t get caught today. I mean, it was pretty obvious what you were doing. You weren’t going out of your way to hide the fact.” “And you didn’t stop me.” “Well,” I countered, “I chased ya.” “Yeah, but not like some security guard because I was taking things.” She touched me again. “In fact, I lost you for a while there. So in a way, I caught you when you ran around the corner.” She smiled at her own logic, then glanced at my lips to see if I was smiling, too. I wasn’t. “So why were you following me, anyway?” “I suddenly remembered who you were and wanted to say hello. Took me a few minutes . . .” “Well you don’t know how happy I am that you did.” She rolled her eyes as she cut me off, coming across like a bad actress as she scooted a little closer. “Do you realize that you’re the first person in town to remember me since I moved back last week?” I remembered how popular she was in high school. “Get out of here.” “Really! And I just happened to bump into you by accident. But I’ve been going out of my way to find old friends, and I’ve found a few, but they act like I’m a crazy person or something. I visited the school, and none of the teachers knew who the hell I was. I used to work at Sonic — you know, that drive-in restaurant on Carroll Street? — and even old Stonie, the jerk-off who used to sign my checks and pinch my ass every Saturday morning like clockwork, didn’t recognize me. I checked the yearbook, looked in the phone book for people from our class — only a

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few people are still here, but you probably know that — and, anyway, I called them, but not a damned one of them could remember me.” She stopped for a moment to breathe. “It’s weird, but I sort of expected it.” She looked at me with a scrunched-up face. “I’ve been gone so long. I don’t know what I was thinking, moving back here, expecting everyone to know me.” “I remember you as if it were yesterday.” “Yeah,” she said, cocking her head and flashing me a tongue-tipped smile. “You’re special.” She grabbed my knee and shook my leg playfully. “I better hold on to you.” I had always wanted her to touch me, but she was actually doing it and so it started to make me nervous. I stood up and walked around her living room like a patron at some museum, touring the walls and eyeballing the objects scattered around the room. The place was a mess, but it said a lot about Faye. A small part of me was jealous of her stuff. “So tell me your secret,” I said, picking up a glass kaleidoscope from a pile of sophisticated toys and peering down its shaft. “How do you manage to get out of the store without anyone seeing you? You were like a ghost or something. What’s your trick?” “I feel like a ghost.” The tone of her voice returned to the same as when she left the Sears store in frustration. “No one ever sees me, whether I’m taking things or staring them in the face. Even you didn’t recognize me at first. No one ever remembers me anymore . . . it’s like I’m not even there. But I’m not a ghost.” She paused and clutched a throw pillow to her belly. “Wish I was. Ghosts come back to life. They scare people because they come out of nowhere and just, well, appear. They materialize, or whatever. With me, it’s the opposite.” “Huh?” I put down the scope and looked at her. The afterimage of psychedelia was branded on my retinas. I was only half-listening, but I knew she was drop-dead serious and wasn’t making a bit of sense. “I’m fading. That’s the only way I can put it.” She took a sip and licked her thin lips, an unsatisfied look in her eyes. “No one sees me stealing things and no one recognizes me anymore because I’m just fading away.” My chin did a little skeptical bounce as I looked down at her. “You’re telling me that you can rob a store and walk away scot-free because you, like, disappear.” She looked up at me with tears welling in the corners of her eyes. “Yeah. It’s true. You think I don’t know how stupid that sounds? How impossible? It’s like I evaporate. I don’t feel any different when it happens, and I seem to be able to control it, but people won’t even see me unless I really try hard to get their attention.” “C’mon. Gimme a . . .” I almost said break, but cut myself short and judged her face. The muscles around her eyes twitched as if she were fighting back tears. Faye was evidently lonely. She wasn’t invisible or

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anything like that, obviously, but she wasn’t all there, either. I’d seen her when she walked out of the stores. She didn’t magically disappear. But she seemed to believe that she did. Maybe she was going a little stir crazy from sitting alone in this huge house for a week. I knew how she felt; Cheshire was a town that could drive a person nuts. I finished my sentence, opening my arms: “. . . a hug.” Her eyes brightened and she smiled. When she stood up a tear fell from where it had been dangling on the edge of her mascara and it spattered her black T-shirt, making one spot blacker over her heart. She fell into my arms and I felt the tiny wet stain beating there, against me. “Don’t go,” she said, kissing cool breath into my ear. I closed my eyes and held on to her voice. “Don’t let go.” I pulled her more tightly against me and for just a moment imagined my right arm sunk into where her shoulder blade should have been. But she grabbed me by the wrists and led my hand around to the front of her skirt.

n the morning, she was still there when I woke up in her bed. I half-expected a sunken satin pillow and a pile of dust instead of her smooth arms and legs. Her body was curled up in the white sheets like a Halloween angel in full costume. I watched her for a long time. I think it was the first time I ever saw her in white. And the first time I appreciated the pigment of her skin; she did not appear as pale as she did in her usual black outfit. Her bedroom was as full of objects as the living room, of course: torn cardboard boxes and loose arrangements of knick knacks on unarranged furniture cluttered the room. A tall vanity mirror stood crooked against a long wall, allowing room for an extension cord which led to a lamp in another corner of the room. An empty vase perched on its corner, ready to spill and break. The whole place looked as if she had unloaded her things into the house when she moved in and left them where they lay, not bothering to rearrange anything or unpack until she needed something specific. And she had a ton of stuff. I began to wonder why she held on to so much junk. Faye stirred awake and didn’t seem to realize I was there as she stretched onto her back and glowered up at the ceiling. She slid her arms up and placed interlaced hands behind her head, yawning. Then her eyes tore open, and she shot sideways out of bed, crawling across the carpet toward a large cardboard box that read U-HAUL on its side. When she reached it in the corner of the room, she tore it open and dug her arms all the way inside. She was naked and shimmying into the cardboard, which was spilling its guts around her armpits. She worked her body into the box like a range animal with a fresh carcass. I stared, holding my breath,

I

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17

waiting for it to end. Of all the things I expected her to remove from that box, I was completely surprised when she withdrew a kiddie camera, one of those ones that actually works, still sheathed in its PlaySkul packaging. She turned and faced me for the first time that morning, her white hair wild around her face: “Pictures!” I looked sideways at her, as if breaking a conversation with an imaginary friend. “Yeah?” She dug into the box again and found a box of film, holding both camera and film up in the air like a runner breaking a ribbon. Then she pounced up onto the bed and on my feet, nearly flopping me out from the rebound. “You’re a photographer,” she said. “You can take pictures of me.” “Sure I can,” I said, feeling like I had to calm her down with my voice. Or maybe it was myself that needed the calming. “Now?” “No silly. With pictures I can prove to you that I’m actually fading.” She slid forward, making sure her bare breasts brushed me from kneecap to chin, and then she kissed me. The kiss calmed me. She pulled back and leaned forward on her elbows, propping her head over mine with upturned palms. Her hair trailed down over her cheeks and darkened her eyes. It sort of tickled and I smiled. The full weight of her body pressed against my groin. “I can tell you don’t believe me,” she said, smiling down at me. “Even though you saw it with your own eyes, I can tell you think I’m full of it.” “Well I sure can feel you now, Faye. And I’m telling you: you’re all there, all right.” She slid down one side of me, not wanting to encourage sex. “Only because you’re here.” “C’mon,” I said, patting her hip. Let’s eat something." “I don’t eat breakfast.” “Well no wonder you’re fading away.” “Hah-hah,” she said, obviously not amused. She fell on her back and wrapped her hands around her neck again. “You go ahead. There’s plenty in the kitchen.” I wasn’t much of a cook, and I always ate eggs at the diner on my walk to the mall. “I’m sure there’s more than enough. But I thought I’d take you out.” She turned her back on me, staring intensely at a vase on the vanity, as if keeping it from falling with her glare. “Oh no,” she muttered. “We’re not going anywhere.” “How do you expect folks to remember you if you don’t leave the house? Anyway, I know everyone from school who still lives in town. I was thinking I can take you to them, see if they want to get some drinks or something.” I stood up and pulled on some of my clothes. “You know,

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it’s kind of funny. Many of the same people who wouldn’t give me the time of day back in high school are all my friends now. Just because we were all sort of abandoned here. You should see us at the bar, it’s a total loser convention . . .” Faye sighed impatiently. “Are you gonna take my picture or not?” I looked at her for awhile as I buttoned my shirt. “Sure. Let me have some of that great coffee of yours first.” “Did you ever think,” she asked, still staring toward the vanity and ignoring what I said, “that maybe we all only exist in someone else’s eyes? Or that maybe if there isn’t someone, somewhere, thinking of us, that maybe we just sort of disappear?” “Interesting question.” I looked over and saw that she hadn’t been looking at the vase at all, but gazing at my image in the vanity’s mirror since I stood up. I tried to make a funny face: “But too philosophical without coffee.” I broke her stare and headed out of the room. Luckily, she left the beans out where I could find them, right beside a small grinding machine. Not certain how many it took, I filled the grinder to the brim and churned them to pulver. The coffee maker took some searching, but I discovered it behind a toaster oven and a tangle of power cables which lead to every imaginable appliance she had collected on the counter. I heard her bare feet pad onto the kitchen tiles beside me. “It happened the second you left the room,” she whimpered. “What did?” “My legs. They went all tingly and faded.” I was getting sick of her “fading” crap, and felt it was time to let her know. The record was long broken, but she was still playing it over and over. I found the glass decanter for the coffee and slammed the cold water faucet on. Then I twisted toward her, empty pot in hand. “So how the hell did you manage to walk out here then?” She muttered a weak “I don’t know” towards the floor. I got angry, moving closer to her as water streamed from the tap. “I mean, come on, Faye. You don’t just fade away when someone leaves the room. I know you’re lonely and I know you’re not happy to be back in town and not be head cheerleader or whatever anymore. You think I’m happy to still be here? You think I enjoy living all alone in a dumpy little apartment downtown? You and everyone else I ever liked ditched me a long time ago to go to your fancy colleges and your fancy jobs and your fancy marriages and I was stuck here all alone, working at Sears and taking pictures of freaking idiots who were worse off but still a helluva lot happier than me. But you don’t see me fading away. I sort of rotted a little bit, sure, but I’m still here, flesh and bone. And so are you. So don’t you tell me that you disappeared just because I left you alone for a moment.” She sniffled. I thought I was being realistic, but I was being mean. Mean to the girl of my pubescent dreams. Mean when I hadn’t made a peep of

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protest about my life to anyone for fifteen years, and now I was doing it. It felt good to let it out of my system, but I felt dirty for throwing my crap all over Faye, standing there pathetic in the nude. “I’m sorry.” She looked up, confronting me with bloodshot and hungry silver eyes. “No you’re not. I can tell!” In evidence, she held up an arm that was no longer there. The coffeepot shattered on the floor, spraying glass shards into my face, just seconds before it, too, smacked the tiles.

M

y head was on Faye’s lap when I recovered. She was combing glass fragments from my hair, humming some sort of love song under her breath. I didn’t open my eyes, afraid that only half of her would be there above me: a floating skull and arm bone, balancing on exposed spine. To get rid of the possibilities, I took some time to think through what the hell was happening. Everything she had said was completely true. She was fading and it was beyond her control. Loneliness was causing her to fade. My anger, too, had erased a part of her for a moment. But she wasn’t disappearing, really: she was just fading in and out, depending on how much attention was paid her by others. Like she said, she had to force people to pay attention to her. I didn’t quite understand why she was fading, or how it all worked, but she did seem to be whole when my attention was intensely focused on her — like when we made love, or when I woke up and watched her sleeping like an angel. I don’t know how she pulled off the small robberies at the mall, though, or how the hell she even got to the mall if she was all alone in town beforehand. If she wasn’t there, how could she pick things up and take them with her? Fading, obviously, wasn’t disappearing into nothingness. That was the whole trick of her kleptomania: she could walk out of the store with an armload of goods, but no one would see her; she was present and could move . . . it was just that she wasn’t seen, wasn’t sensed, wasn’t recognized. And it wasn’t logical and it didn’t make any sense, but I now knew that it was true. And now I could see why she stole things, too. I could understand why she seemed so possessive, so hungry for piles of junk. Holding on to an object was probably the only way she could know that she was really there. It was her way of holding on to reality. “I know you’re awake,” she purred down to me. “You’re thinking about me. I can feel it. Warmth.” I opened my eyes. Of course she could feel it. I was feeding her presence with my thoughts about her. I could see evidence in her face: her eyes were pulsing and glossy, as if freshly filled up with blood. But I could tell I had hurt her, too. “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m just happy you’re still here.” She bent forward

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and kissed my forehead. I could feel her mouth press into my flesh and leave a mold of her smile there, mopping up a circle in my sweat with her kiss. “So am I,” I said, not quite certain how I felt. As happy as I was to have found Faye, in some ways, I wanted all of this to just fade away. She brushed my hair with her palm, as if petting a doll’s hair. “Tell you what. Why don’t you take a shower and I’ll pack up a few things and we can go out on a picnic for breakfast?” “I don’t know, Faye. We really need to talk. I need to know where this is going . . .” “We can talk at the picnic. I want to take you someplace special.” She slid out from under my head, gently resting my scalp on the tiles with a palm. Then she stood above me offering a hand to help me up. It was the arm that wasn’t there before, and so I hesitated to take it. But when I did, she pulled me all the way up and into her for a warm hug. “Promise you’ll never stop thinking about me.” She sounded very much like the night before. This time I considered the consequences. “I promise.” She backed out of the hug and held my temples in her hands, looking deep into my eyes. After awhile she nodded and let go.

he “special place” she wanted to take me was Cheshire Memorial. Fitting that she’d take me to the grave. I’d deduced in the shower that she owned me for life now that she had stolen me from the mall and stashed me in her house like just another piece of bric-a-brac. But like she had said, I was “special.” And she’d hold on to me. By the time I’d finished drying off in the bathroom, I had gotten used to the idea. I was spellbound by Faye and completely confused by what was happening to her, but she was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me, and it felt so good to be needed by someone else that I didn’t care what the cost might be. Faye was worth the risk. She threw an auburn plaid blanket down beside a stone marked DeWhite. The memorial was tall and heavy, nearly as high as Faye herself. I noticed that the blanket she had brought matched the sky, whose clouds were ruddy with dusk. And if it was dusk, then that meant I was out cold on her kitchen floor for longer than it seemed. It was getting brisk out. The wind picked up and rustled a handful of dead daisies drooping around a rotten ceramic pot in a shadow cast by the head stone. As I buttoned my collar, I wondered if Faye had put the flowers there, long ago. Faye handed me the basket of food she had carried with us and turned her attention to the stone, whispering up close to it as if speaking to a huge microphone that could somehow reach her parents in the ground

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beneath our feet. All I heard her say was “I’m back,” before she bent down into a crouch and began her mute conversation. I gave her some privacy and paid attention to the objects in the basket — which was overstuffed with unnecessary things, naturally — and I unloaded and arranged them on the blanket. I discovered the camera and film roll she found in her bedroom in the bottom of the basket. Faye turned to face me once, saying something to her dead parents about me, then turned back to her private discussion. As I waited for her to finish this strange ritual, I recalled the time when I heard that her parents had died. They were crushed to death in a car wreck with a drunken truck driver who was speeding down the wrong side of a two-lane highway. The town built a median in the area where it happened, because of it. Her parents died near the end of our senior year, and I remember being jealous because Faye got to skip some of her final exams and got a free ride into graduation. But I also remember feeling extremely sorry for her, too, finally realizing the loss she felt during the actual graduation ceremony, and coming to terms with death myself for the first time. She sat a row behind me, and had cried during the entire speech of the valedictorian. I think she may have been completely alone at the ceremony — I didn’t see her smile for anyone when she picked up her diploma, and I didn’t see her hug anybody afterward. As popular as she was in school, she graduated utterly alone. I never saw her after that, but I remember wanting to invite her to the small graduation party my parents were throwing. But I never had the guts to ask. Probably for the better — the party was more like a bad wake. Faye sniffled again, now, sounding just like she had back at the graduation ceremony. Her penchant for black clothing suddenly made sense to me — it was as though the funeral had never ended for her. I stood up and moved to hold her but she sensed me coming and shook her head to say “no,” walking briskly around to the other side of the stone. She crossed her arms and leaned back against it, propping a foot up on a chunk of someone else’s gravestone which had fallen there. I kept my distance, watching her beautiful white hair whip up and over the stone from the wind. Her legs seemed to fade a bit while she stood there, even though she was entirely occupying my thoughts. I wondered how that could be. The wind whisked the blanket up behind me, ruining the arrangement of plates and glasses and silverware I had so artfully made. I sat down on the blanket and opened some wine. “We don’t go anywhere when we die,” she said when she finally returned. Her face was wet and some stray hair was sticking weirdly to her cheeks. “We don’t get to look down on the people we leave behind and we don’t get to wait up in the clouds for them to join us. We just rot away to dust. Anything else anyone says about death is total bullshit.”

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I could understand her bitterness. She was probably told all sorts of stories about the afterlife when her parents had died, probably all sorts of hokey, watered-down fables since she was relatively young when it happened. But now she was fading, and without parents to think of her and — what? keep her whole? — she drew the only conclusion that made sense to her: that there was no afterlife at all. I handed her a glass of wine, wondering if she believed what she was saying. If so, why talk to the gravestone? “C’mon. Drink. Live and don’t think about it.” She took the glass, but didn’t sip from it. “You’re being so good to me, Charley. You’re keeping me alive.” “You’re fine, Faye. With or without me, you’re fine.” “No, I don’t think so.” She tucked her feet under her thighs. “I should be honest with you. When you found me in the mall, I’d given up caring anymore, given up on life. I’d probably be buried right here right now if you hadn’t chased after me yesterday. And you know what? I lied before, too. Let me tell you the truth. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t get a good job. I think I started fading right after the funeral here fifteen years ago, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I got my diploma, sure, but I also got stupid. I didn’t know what to do without anyone around to tell me. I was eighteen years old, going on twelve. So I left Cheshire and went to Reno and gambled my inheritance away bit-by-bit at the blackjack tables, getting drunk the whole time and getting a room every night with whoever was sitting next to me when I was too tired to hold my head up anymore.” She looked down at her wineglass, then poured it onto her parents’ grave. “I was out of control. My funds were gone fast, and I started lifting chips to keep afloat. I could pick them out of the dealer’s stack without him ever seeing me, and I thought I was just a good thief — not a fading person — and so I started stealing full-time. It was easy and I got richer than I ever dreamed possible, picking up a few thousand a night in chips and cashing in every morning with a new jerk on my sleeve. It was easy. Maybe too easy, because it made me easy, too, and I ended up pregnant and wasted and all alone and I killed my baby with the booze in the process.” She finally raised her eyes to mine. She didn’t flinch, but I could tell she expected me to. I didn’t know what to do but nod. “Go on.” Her eyes clenched as she recalled: “I never felt more whole than when I had that baby inside me. I was ready to quit the booze, quit the gambling, and just try to get my life back in shape and try to raise a family. But it was too late for me and too early for the baby. It would have been a boy. I would have called him Jimmy. But I went into premature labor and that stupid, stupid boy held on to my insides and the doctors had to do some special operation to get him all the way out. My baby held on but my body wanted him out, and they scraped him free anyway. Can you believe that? And they left me barren for the rest of my life.” She unclenched her eyes

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and looked at me as if I had some sort of answer for her. “Oh God, Faye,” was all I could say. I found myself spilling tears for her, since she seemed to be completely out of them. I hadn’t cried for years. “I’m so sorry.” “Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m used to it now. And I couldn’t have held on to my baby forever.” She looked over at her parents’ gravestone and then back at me. She picked up the wine bottle and refilled my glass. “I’d have to let him go sooner or later, and then I’d just start fading again, right? I know that now. But I didn’t know that then.” She brushed her hair out of her eyes. “After the operation I took my money and bought a cheap hotel room and never came out for like a whole year. I was this close to slashing my wrists, but too depressed to even pick up a razor. Instead I just lay in my room, staring at the walls all day and sleeping when I wasn’t doing that. I . . . I . . .” I jumped in, holding her knee with my hand: “I can’t imagine what it was like for you, Faye, but I do know what it’s like to be depressed like that. I feel like I’ve been staring at the walls myself for the past ten years. Until you came into town, that is.” She smiled. “Thanks.” She looked up at the sky. “Gah, I’m sorry for talking so much. It’s just that I haven’t been back here for so long. So many bad memories come back. You know?” “Yeah.” I thought about my grandfather ten rows down from where we sat. He could get mean, and I suppose he was the one really responsible for how I had yelled at Faye earlier. “And good memories, too. But . . . but, dammit, you know . . . like, why can’t they bring Mom and Dad back? Why is it that I can come back from fading when you think of me, but not anyone else?” “You know how it works better than I do, Faye. Like you said last night, it’s the opposite of being a ghost.” I dumped my wine on the far side of the blanket. “But honestly, I don’t even understand why you started to fade.” “It just happened. Sometime when I was in that hotel room. I just faded away.” “Well not anymore.” I gripped her knee tightly. The wind blew down my back and it was getting dark. Sitting in the graveyard was starting to creep me out a bit. “Listen, why don’t we go back home now?” She seemed to not understand. “Home?” “Your place.” “Oh. No. . . .” She grabbed my hand and nodded. “Ours.”

n the way back to her house, I asked her to stop at the mall. We went into the Sears store and I told them I quit. They made some noise about giving a thirty-day notice, but I just laughed and said that they

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wouldn’t have noticed me either way. Then we went to the mall jeweler, who was beginning to close up shop. I told Faye to get a ring. She said I should go play a video game or something — all the attention and love I was giving her might mess up the fade. So I played Kung-Fu Pirates while she nabbed us two wedding bands. We tried them on, and then headed home. We made jokes on the way about fading at the altar. It was all so spontaneous that I wondered if I had drunk too much wine. But just seeing Faye blush was enough to know that I was doing the right thing. My bride to be was a blushing one; you had to be full of life to blush so bright. When we pulled into the driveway, Faye almost ran right into the tail end of the cop car parked there. Another one sped in right behind us, lights on but siren silent. I looked over at Faye. Her chin dropped down almost low enough to land between her breasts. “Oh shit, Faye.” I said. “Oh, no.” She didn’t say anything. She just stared at her lap, blinking. I reached over and locked her door and then my own, peering out the windows, wondering what we were going to do. “Oh Faye, all that stuff in your house . . . there’s no way you’re gonna get out of this.” She looked over at me. I glanced up into the rear view and saw the cop behind us getting out of his car, talking on a handset radio. The garage door was opening in front of us, and I saw patent leather waiting in the gap that opened. “Damn.” I held Faye’s leg. “Fade, Faye. Just fade away and get out of here.” “I can’t. I can’t leave you. I can’t leave you and let you take the heat . . .” The cop from behind was at her window now, rapping on the glass with a knuckle. The garage was halfway open, and I saw uniformed pants and a box. The cop in the garage was holding one of Faye’s cardboard boxes in his arms. Stolen booty. “Do it, Faye! Now! We can meet again later. You can come find me . . . if they arrest me, you can use the fade to help me escape or something.” I slapped the seat between us. “C’mon!” “Okay, okay, I’m trying! Shut up!” She squinted her face. Then she looked up at me in panic. The cop at her window was drawing his gun. “Stop thinking about me!” My mouth dropped open. I didn’t know how. “Stop!” “I can’t!” The garage door was three-quarters open now and the cop ducked down and came out and started running toward our car. The one at her window was screaming something, pointing the gun at her head. She twisted in the seat and confronted me. “I hate you, Charley. I’ve

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always hated you. You were always a loser in high school. I never gave a damn about you then, and I couldn’t care less about you now.” “It’s not gonna work, Faye. You can’t make me mad enough to make you disappear.” I watched the cop coming out of the garage. He dropped the cardboard box in his arms and spilled its contents on the cement driveway, charging toward us and trying to unholster his weapon as he ran. She wouldn’t give it up: “Do you really think I was gonna marry you? Hah! Why would I marry someone who got a summer job and never left it? How could I wake up every morning next to the laughing stock of our entire high school class? How could I possibly love a guy like you?” The other cop was at my window. Now I had a gun pointed at my head, too. I turned to face it head on, trying to push Faye out of my thoughts with my screams: “Faye, I’m not paying attention! I know you don’t mean it! Just fade away, dammit! Go!” The car shuddered a bit, and I heard Faye grunting. She was rolling down the window as quickly as she could. “Officer!” she shouted through the widening crack. “He’s got a gun! He’s holding me hostage! Shoot him! Please! Now!” “Faye!” The other cop punched the window in front of me with his revolver and glass sprayed onto my lap. Faye’s cop was reaching in and unlocking her door. The guy with the gun in my face shouted like a bad actor, but it was so real it scared the piss out of me: “Both hands out the window, punk! Now!” If he shot me, it would have been the end to our problem: Faye could have faded if I would have died. I almost pretended to reach under the seat for an imaginary gun, but I was too scared. That made me a loser, just like Faye had said. I did as ordered, cautiously sliding my arms through the shattered glass. The cop whipped a pair of cuffs out from his back and slapped them on me quicker than a magician. Glass gnawed into my forearms through the car window as he pulled me forward by them. When I was finally out of the car, I searched for Faye with my eyes, but she was nowhere to be seen. The cop threw me down to the concrete, chin first. My groin smacked against the cuffs in front of me and my wrists cracked backwards. He kept a boot on my back and was asking the other one where Faye went. The guy muttered something that sounded like “She went poof!” and then the fascist on my back barked at him to radio for back up and then get his ass back to the car to find the gun she said I had. Then he leaned down and yanked me up by the belt loops on my jeans. As I tried to get up and avoid more pain, I noticed the box the cop had dropped in the driveway ahead of me. And then I fell down again on my wrists. Something lifelike stuck out from where the box had tore open,

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like an animal frozen in mid-escape. But it was long dead. A malformed baby’s head, like a broken doll with only one eye open. Purple and blue veins. Staples down its neck. A yellow plastic toy arm dangling by a rusty wire from its side.

t would have been a boy. She would have called it Jimmy. It could have been me. I’m locked up pretty well and I know it would be really hard for her to get through all these bars and guards, no matter how faded she was. But I still keep that image of baby Jimmy in my head, a memory like a snapshot that I pray will never fade away. It’s my memory of Faye, and while it might not keep her from fading it still might keep her away. Sometimes I think real hard about what Faye said about there being no afterlife. I think about the afterimage of her baby on my eyes and I tell myself, no, it isn’t true. We can’t just fade away.

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Excerpted from FLUID MOSAIC by Michael A. Arnzen (Wildside Press, 2000). "Immaterial Girl" originally appeared in IMAGINATION FULLY DILATED (ed. Alan Clark. Cemetery Dance Books, May 1998) and was subsequently reprinted in PROVERBS FOR MONSTERS (Dark Regions Press, 2007).

The Piano Player Has No Fingers

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To: Audio Engineering Room Fr: Staff Sgt. M. Voco, Homicide Div. Date: 4/2 Re: Case #: KEESIG2/4C Hey, Jim. Here’s the cassette recording found on the premises that I was telling you about last night. Try running a written transcript with the VRU. If possible, also run a diagnostic to isolate that mute voice in the background for a match. John Doe might be telling us something. Let me know what turns up. You can hear it best at the end. Thanks.