Michelle stopped to look at herself in the mirror. Not sure why; she’d been washing up, finished, and now assessed herself silently in the mirror. What was she looking for, exactly? If there was a trick here, it was working, because confronting herself got her out of the prison of her own mind.
She smiled at herself sweetly, almost mockingly, but if there was a joke here, she was in on it. Was this what you wanted? Look at me, all fine, take those prying eyes elsewhere.
She put on a nice-fitting burgundy dress. Not white, off- white, or ivory; not overly sexy, low-cut, revealing or high- hemmed. Her heart wanted green — it was her favorite color — but green doesn’t go well with olive skin, so no, and she’d read somewhere that it was a weird color to wear to a wedding. Michelle opened her bedroom door. Dorothy, her mother, was
ready to go, dressed in a blue-and-purple cocktail dress and heels.
“Oh Michelle, you look so beautiful, so beautiful,” she cradled Michelle’s slender face in her palms, “just wonderful, look at you, this dress looks so lovely with your hair, your skin, a bright ray of sunshine. I love what you did with your hair, how it flows, so glad you are growing it out again.”
Mom’s right hand traced a pattern through Michelle’s chestnut brown hair, which was not well-past shoulder length. “Thanks mom.” Michelle had been living at home now for over three years; it’s not like her Mom didn’t see her every day. But it was a special day, her cousin Audra’s wedding, and
Michelle indulged her mother’s pageantry.
Michelle thought she looked nice, too, but her mother’s effusiveness was, while understandable, still too much. She suppressed the urge to flee from the rabid fussing and over- attention. Michelle tracked the language her mother used — “bright ray of sunshine” — which as a compliment didn’t make sense given Michelle’s skin tone, and was more aspirational than anything. You look like a bright ray of sunshine; therefore, you are a bright ray of sunshine; that which is beaming, radiant, a thing that makes others beaming and radiant, a thing that others like to have around. You are that, be that.
“Have you eaten, honey? Are you ready?”
“I ate a bit, I’m not that hungry.”
“It’s going to be a long day and a long drive, you’ll need strength.”
Strength for what, sitting in the passenger seat, making sure Mom paid attention to the road and stopped when the lights turned red? ‘Strength’ and ‘your truth’ and ‘your journey’: everything had to be freighted with such elevated language. She expected to hear about five hundred references during the wedding to the “next step” of Audra’s “adventure” and her and husband’s “journey together,” as if their honeymoon and e-grifting for wedding gifts was somehow virtuous. Couldn’t things just be recognized as ugly and routine? Soon taking a shit will be referred to as “unburdening yourself from the toxins that hold you back from fulfilling your destiny.”
“I’m ok. I’ll bring energy bars.”
They were heading to a day-wedding reception a few hours away at The Barns at Wesleyan Hills in Connecticut. Audra and her husband nixed all of the eternal-vows part and were just having a celebration; sanctity and the state of grace and holy aspirations being something chucked to avoid boring the guests. They’d never farmed a day in their lives, but Michelle could just imagine Audra going through the grounds, ooh-ing if there were baby ducks quack-quack-quacking about, making faux- exasperated gasp-face and taking all “part of the drama” pictures if a goat started chewing on a table leg or walked into a shot, loving the rustic-chic interior, pretending to appreciate the ornateness of a chandelier, and surely if there was a sweeping lake on the premises to pose before then oh-my-God it’d all be over can you believe this?! Michelle brought the gift: a card signed from the both of them, containing a generous check drawn against her mother’s account.
At various points during the ride, Dorothy would tenderly clasp Michelle’s inner thigh and give her a rheumy look. “It’s ok, Mom,” Michelle would respond. During the latter leg of the journey, Michelle would whisper some permutation of “it’s ok” in response, suggesting to her mother that, like her vocal-strength, the thigh-clasping should peter out.
“Thanks for coming with me, Michelle. Thanks for being here with me.”
“Ok, Mom. My — of course, Mom.”
The wedding was well-attended, must have been four hundred people, and the interior was gorgeous, abundant overhanging vegetation, brightly-colored roses and violets and tulips counterpointed with the muted root colors of a Thanksgiving cornucopia, Indian corn and curved dwarf pumpkins. Ornamental containers held fragrant flowers and fruits: cherries, strawberries, mangos, some preserved melons, and Michelle noted that some held the occasional cherry seed. When she first spotted a cherry seed, she thought of removing it, a tiny blemish she could fix; then she realized the two or three seeds in each container were intentional imperfections, a “cute” detail Audra certainly insisted upon for some privately meaningful reason.
Michelle went through the parade of distant relatives, distant relations, friends-of-friends, the half-recalled, referenced people made real, the animating spirits underneath the social media avatars.
“Michelle!” An uncle’s close friend.
“Michelle!” A different uncle’s wife, ostensibly her aunt.
“Michelle!” A different cousin.
All saying how beautiful, how wonderful she looked.
“Grown so lovely,” Uncle Howard said, holding her hand, as Aunt Catherine and Dorothy and some others greeted and laughed. “Oh-oh, giving us a spin now” — it was Howard who was moving his arm in a semi-circle, Michelle just following the route of its passage — and she gave a quick spin.
“Doesn’t she look wonderful!” Dorothy said for what must have been the tenth time. Those gathered cheered after her spin, as if witnessing Michelle participating in something corporeal was confirmation that she would remain here, not just passively gliding beyond them, but tethered to this life, this reality, this shared existence, something everyone could look back on and point to if she’d changed her mind, “but she was there, she spun, she looked so wonderful, how could she?!” She was seated at table 21, with eleven other people, hor d’oeuvres on the plates. All also in their late twenties, also a heavy absence of “plus ones.” She didn’t recognize anyone
except Yvette and Paul, two of Audra’s married friends who, like Audra, were a few years older than Michelle. She hadn’t seen them for . . . must have been almost five years. Michelle wondered why they were seated with this younger, largely single group. Maybe because they were jovial and good-hearted; or maybe a familiar pair for Michelle; or maybe just a stable presence, two people who had gotten married during college, if Michelle remembered correctly. She noted that Yvette might have a baby bump.
Audra swam upstream against the “congratulations” and “thank you’s” and interruptions to grace table 21 with her presence.
“Michelle! So great you could make it, you’re here!”
“Of course I am.”
“Everyone, this lovely woman — my, Michelle, get a look at you —” she looked at the rest of the occupants of 21 and, curling her lip to emphasize the following in an unnatural sassy-ghetto patois — “get a look at this one, you a fox girl, dammmn,” and then said normally, “this beautiful woman is my wonderful cousin, Michelle.”
The other seated guests seemed to register her differently after hearing she was the “cousin Michelle.” They were paying more attention, as if morally obligated to expend some quantum of energy on interacting with her; one or two had a look of confused recognition, the piecing together of what they’d heard and what sat before them. Michelle gave a static, elbow-stuck-
“This party is really wonderful. It’s beautiful.” “Oh thanks, I-I just love barns and farms, I don’t know why, I always loved them, there are even pigs out back, we can see them all later, they’re so cute.”
“My plate will remain pork-free. I won’t want them judging
“Wha- oh-” Audra closed her eyes and raised her head,
laughed and slapped her knee, ”oh that’s funny. Not only pork .
. . aren’t you . . . still vegetarian?”
“No, not anymore. I should be, I should try to, I stopped
that a few years ago.”
“Oh, great you can enjoy all the food. The meat options are wayyy better than the vegetarian options. Are you still –
doing – how are you liking doing with – the massages?”
“Good, good. It’s all good.”
“All going good?”
“All going good.”
“Great! I’ll leave you in the good hands of Table 21. All the guests at each table were hand-picked by me, I pored over the lists to ensure just the specific . . . selections of people
that pair well.”
“If a fight breaks out, we’ll only have you to blame.”
“I’m sure each table will produce their special brand of
alchemy.” So said the young man seated next to Michelle,
looking up at her as she and Audra gabbed.
“Oh, I’m so glad you two will be sitting next to each other, this whole table is the table I’d want to be sitting at, for sure —” and the competing calls for Audra’s attention overwhelmed her and she moved away and into another conversation, waving back at them with a comic “can you believe this?” look of a put-upon heroine in her own romantic comedy.
“No rest for her, that’s for sure,” the young man said. He was a not-ugly, swarthy man in his late twenties with short dark hair in the earliest stages of balding, dressed in a light blue summer suit with a dark tie with purple music notes. Most notably he had a wide chin and the countenance of a man who always appeared to be leaning into a joke or a jest.
“Mmmhmmm.” She kept him in the periphery of her vision, smiled and broke attention as fleetingly as she could, to show that she bore him no ill-will and was certain he was perfectly fine but she was just not in the mood to make small talk.
“So, did I hear you did – worked – in massages? Like, massage therapy, or, like, do you do physical rehabilitation?” “I’ve been, yes, I went to the Finger Lakes School, and I’m, I’m doing it until, I’m not sure exactly, I- I’m not sure
how long I’ll be doing it for. I’m still figuring everything out but it’s not terrible.”
“Not terrible is good.”
The guests at the table almost-imperceptibly oriented toward her presence; rival conversations dimmed, not dramatically but as if the others wanted to give the impression
of paying attention, of enfolding her within their group dynamics. She felt she was being treated as if she was unaware of the cues adults gave to children to encourage participation. “Massage is a great way to meet people,” someone else said. “You hear massage and—” someone else said, a male, and trailed off, and then others laughed, and Michelle figured it was another iteration of the comment she’d heard many times, most often from her mother, that massage was great because who wouldn’t want to date a woman who knew how to give a great massage? Her mother, ever utilitarian and adaptable and practical as functional people needed to be, assumed that even if Michelle didn’t pursue massage, it was a desirable skill to have, especially in the dating world. That Michelle didn’t date, even though she now she had this extra alluring quiver in her bow, was another frustrating perplexity, such a beautiful girl, if only . . . .
Michelle afforded the courtesy of simulating that she was paying attention, and then stood up, indicating that she was going to get a drink from the bar and pretending to be unaware of the ensuing protestation that wouldn’t it be easier to get a drink brought to the table?
The young man seated next to her began to stand up as he spoke. “I was just about to get a drink too, actually. I wanted to see what they had at the bar, and at the bar I can get them to add all the maraschino cherries I want.” Michelle checked his table setting and saw that he, in fact, didn’t have a drink, but still, his lie was transparent. Maybe he was genuine, it didn’t matter, she was beyond caring, although that was a lie because she felt an empathy for him that almost compelled her to acquiesce to his company.
“I’m – actually going to the bathroom first, so I’ll be back,” she feinted.
“Oh, the bathrooms, best part of being in a giant fancy hall like this is they have the best bathrooms. You could live in these bathrooms.”
She almost thought to say “I’ll be the judge of that!” She felt compelled to say something overly friendly as if she might actually come back to initiate conversation. Instead she smiled as an acknowledgment of receipt; then, before she fully turned, furrowed her brow and let the smile fade to let him know her politeness was perfunctory. It was no reflection on him, but she wanted him to know not to waste his time.
Michelle walked past tables en route to the bar, a peremptory, low-wattage smile on reserve in case anyone looked her way. She recognized a young man sitting at another table; Damian, that was his name, a friend of Audra’s she’d seen on- and-off at birthday parties. His younger brother had killed himself, that’s why she remembered him. Suicide. Oblivion. The end of all things. The idea seemed so quaint nowadays, all things considered.
She went over to the bar, but kept enough distance so she wouldn’t be expected to actually order something yet. She just wanted a breather.
A loud burp caught her attention.
“Urp – ooh, excuse me. Lord, must be last night’s bar-bee- queee! Don’t mind me y’all, I so sorry. Mmmhmm though it taste good, it tasted good goin’ down, it tastin’ good comin’ up.” So said a female employee rapidly bee-lining past the bar; unclear whether she was a server or some type of barback. Another employee laughed and said “girl,” while trailing after her. As always, Michelle was jealous. Any time she witnessed such a lack of self-consciousness, such a delirious, gleeful flippancy, such a sheer reactive enjoyment of life: it amazed her. Here she was, straight-jacketed with self-doubt, and there were unencumbered people all about her, simple, carefree people content in the mystery and magic of just living. The type of people who talked about “great sex”; or who loudly sung along when they heard a favorite song in a store; or the people who go on about the joys of a great sandwich, describing in lustrous detail the tang of the mustard, the snap of a pickle, the redolent firmness of a fresh juicy tomato. To Michelle, a sandwich was just that, a sandwich, food, something to sustain you until you get to the next challenge over the horizon.
How she envied those people. She’d never be that. She’d resisted the entreaty to abandon this life, kept the invitation at bay. How stupid would it be to base her final decision on the oblivious, literally gassy chatter about barbeque? But she just knew she’d never be that carefree and delighted, never even have one scintilla of that joy de vivre. It was her life, after all. It was her decision.
And she hated them all, didn’t she? Wasn’t that what it came down too? She didn’t want to be here. It was selfish of them to impose upon her this way of life, their way of life. Their system didn’t work for her. Small talk and “oh my god, it’s, like, been so long!” and champagne cocktails and “did you hear who got divorced?” and status anxiety and “when do you think he’ll finally propose to her?” and — “It’s nice of you, talking to her,” Michelle overheard near the bar. Why she fixated on that, said by someone she didn’t recognize, who knows? Maybe it was a sign.
The young man who’d been seated next to her shrugged. “She seems cool, actually. Not interested in me at all, but still, I tried. Can’t say I didn’t try.” He looked around, perhaps even looking for her to see if she came back from the bathroom. He somehow must have missed her, as she was almost directly behind him, just outside his range of vision. “Well, it’s nice of you to try.”
Remarkable. Just remarkable. What are the odds she’d hear that exchange? What were the odds that that exchange would even occur, right in earshot, let alone that they’d just overlook her being directly behind them? Hilarious, in a way. It just cemented the correctness of her decision.
What, had Audra sat them next to each other, kindly requested that this young man flirt with her, try and keep her engaged? Strange Michelle, did you hear all the threats she’d made, to leave this lovely wonderful life. Who could do such a thing?
She harbored no ill-will toward him, not at all, none whatsoever. It was just that her decision was made. It was remarkable, when you really thought of it. This was all optional. Nowadays, the option to leave was just right there, open to anyone, but people were just so afraid. Economics, wasn’t it? In any competitive market, when an alternative product becomes easier to access, the dominant product needs to stay competitive: upgrade, improve somehow, be better. What was LIFE’S improvement, its attempt to keep her
loyal? Was it her mother’s panicky helicoptering, filling silences with her hollow noises? Audra benevolently bestowing superficial attention?
Fuck them. Good intentions weren’t enough. This was her life, her choice. She would pee, she decided strangely. One of life’s small pleasures, right? The pleasure of release, return to homeostasis, comfort. So she did. That guy had been right, these bathrooms were quite grand. Peeing burned a bit, no real feeling of release, tepid and dispiriting. Oh well, a let-down. Figures. She sat back down at the table.
“Oh, hey!” that same fellow said to her, seated in his
“No drink? Or just crush it right at the bar?”
She wondered if it would be funny to learn his name before she left. Just, why not? But no.
She closed her eyes while he yammered some more. She didn’t need to close her eyes, but it felt appropriate to give an outward appearance of concentration. I submit, she thought. I’m tired. I’m tired. Let me out. Let me out. She succumbed to the voice, the same voice that had made itself available to all who sought it, the same voice she’d threatened to succumb to since it made its presence known. The presence was one of those cataclysmic events that’s all a matter of perspective. When the whole world panicked but people of a certain sentiment thought, finally, an option. This life has nothing to offer me. I want out. She closed her eyes and felt the tingling, and wondered if that was really necessary; was it like toothpaste, where the tingling was introduced solely to let you feel like the product was working?
Are you sure you wish to join us?
She wouldn’t really die, she knew. Her body would still exist. But she’d be elsewhere, ferried off to somewhere else, no longer an atomized soul imprisoned in the isolation of solitary consciousness, but spread, intermingled, joined with all the others who heeded the call, who chose something else, something better.
Yes, I want it, a million times over. I want it. I want this. I want it! She pictured her catatonic face and came to like the idea of her body still existing, being an imposition on others; some payback for all the countless burdens and expectations people had thoughtlessly saddled her with all these years. She could still hear the voice of her mother, clamoring in
protest: How could she feel this way, beautiful young Michelle, the whole “world” before her?
All those people, they were just of a different cast. Their system didn’t work for her. She knew her temperament, saw before her a life of leaden gloom, where the guaranteed, ever-present hardships invested in her daily life overshadowed any ephemeral joy she could hope to experience in return, a life that she did not sufficiently value to lessen her sufferings by any active means. And was it possible she was wrong? Surely, someone else could find the same reasoning unpersuasive; most people would, in fact. But she was her, and for her to find that conceit wrong, she would have to be someone else, with an entirely different frame of reference, entirely different wiring.
She opened her eyes and saw her mother staring from across the room, concern writ large across her face. Michelle considered herself a decent person; in fact, she never disliked herself, only her situation, and always felt empathy and pity for all things. She didn’t enjoy witnessing her mother’s pain. Any satisfaction she was feeling was the satisfaction inherent in equity, righting a longstanding wrong.
But she could, perhaps, stop this. Just continue on with her life, think of others, they say. But life wasn’t lived that way. It was she who carried her own burdens, in every conscious moment.
She untethered herself, persevered, slavered on, for herself. The anxiety and depression and panic and expectations and failures and disappointments were, she saw, quite literally saw, a twitching expansive gray cloud, that now narrowed, winnowed, and as it folded in on itself the ambient chattering in her soul diminished in tandem, until the cloud was nothing but a long thin line and here there was — could it be? — a placid stillness. Is this pure consciousness she had heard about, the quieting of the restless mind, one of the zillions of self-help buzzwords she’d encountered throughout her treatment, and the whole time the solution was here and she’d always kept it at bay to serve the demands of other people, think of other people, think of other people, that was her curse, wasn’t it, think of others, forget your suffering, as if she wasn’t a human being but some other creature that could live a life in psychic concert with others.
But now she could —
The sentiments of millions of others who had taken this voyage spiraled through her, from all across the world, she felt her burdens dissolving, such a sublime stillness, that was it, wasn’t it, such pristine perfection to be unburdened, her consciousness spread so thin, floating up and away, becoming indistinguishable, intermingled with the others, so her thoughts were their thoughts, she joined them in great sweeping monuments that beckoned to her. The area between her upper lip and nose split with a great big tearing sound, and she could swear that beneath the din of the crowd she could hear the satisfyingly slow “pshhhhhh” release of gas from her face, and she smiled a mutilated smile, because that noise served no purpose but was something only for herself to know, carry with her to elsewhere. She held her tongue out and felt jellied chunks of her own flesh and greedily slurped down, not caring about choking or taste or texture and
hoped she looked deranged and horrifying because these people’s thoughts were nothing anymore, and to her it was the confirmation that her prayers were finally being answered.
Unburdened, and within that stillness there was a fiery, ecstatic rumbling, atonal but somehow musical; no, that wasn’t music, it was the ebullient joy of making the right decision, and for the first time in her life she could understand how it was that people bellowed out their favorite song, to be in the moment.
What Michelle knew of her left arm ended at the elbow, replaced with a pointed splinter interlacing with pulsating deep blue and red veins, the vibrant technicolor she needed to see and it was so delightful, in that delight again was the understanding of how it was that people could feel the urge to bellow and shout and dance; “And did you always feel like it was that time? That magic time, the witching hour when it’s your time to go, the store now closed but everyone’s outside still knocking!” she sung aloud, the made-up clauses measured into some kind of melody, an irrepressible song on the fly for this wonderful time. To think, Audra or someone else, hyperventilating over that tune, having no idea what Michelle sung before she left, always turning those phrases over in their mind; what did they mean!
What song was that! Audra turning to her stupid selfish husband years later, yelling, “did no one think to Shazam it!,” scene cut — and at the end of the splinter there lay gagging and sputtering that boy who tried to talk to her, and wasn’t that terrible, objectively terrible, in that version of the world where such things mattered and one could be sad, and how was it that it didn’t bother her when she knew herself and knew she was a good person?
And it felt so good to not need to care anymore about this world, and she was finally home, to become one with those who felt as she felt, that chunk of ice that for so long desired to melt into some opposite stream.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.