Angels and Dragons

I think there is a shelf life for stories, at least from the writer’s point of view. I wrote the first draft of this story between the fall of ’99 and the spring of ’00, and subsequently revised and expanded it over the next several years. Looking at it now, I see the flaws and weaknesses that I was blind to back in the early aughts. While I would have submitted this story back then, now I couldn’t imagine trying to sell it without major revisions. A lesson to myself not to sit on stories for years on end before submitting them for publication. As to “Angels and Dragons,” I still love these characters, can still connect to the emotions of the piece, and take some pride in writing the story. Is it a good story? I think so. Could it be better? Yes. However, as a writer, this story is over for me and the rewrites necessary to raise it to another level will, most likely, never happen. So I give it to you (whoever you are) and hope that these particular angels and dragons might yet speak to you about hope, love, fear, and sacrifice.

1.

The day was a sharp blue beyond triple-panned glass. Jeremiah was deeply absorbed in fashioning a wreath made of macaroni. A very satisfying activity, Jeremiah thought, bringing reality down to the squelch of glue through his fingers and the careful planting of the shells in just the right places and it reminded him of childhood. A time when the world was mud between your toes in the spring and snow melting on your tongue in the winter. A time when he connected to the earth in a very real way, in the dirt and the grime which his mother was continually complaining about. The feel, the smell of the glue and the simplistic complexity of his task made him, without knowing it, smile broadly. A week at the Facility and he was already feeling better, more focused and present. Things like macaroni art helped him much more than the sessions with the Doctors. They were nice enough, but Jeremiah couldn’t find it in himself to answer the questions as honestly as he thought he should.

“What was your relationship with your Mother like, Jeremiah,” the pleasant enough young man in the white coat would ask, tapping the sides of his eyeglasses with a yellow pencil. Well, what could he say to that? Just like anybody else’s relationship, he supposed. Myriad, complex and indefinable. Any answer he gave sounded false, like the squeal of an off-key clarinet interrupting a string section. He would answer though, because that is what you did if you were in a Mental Health Facility. To not answer would be unhealthy.

But the crafts were the best. There were no untruths in macaroni or paint-by-colors.

That day, he was working on the wreath, placing that shell here . . . just so, and that one . . . there. He was interrupted by a succession of rapid, short little sneezes. Turning, he saw a woman. She was, in any place and time, a mousy woman. A small, pinched face with close-set, squinting eyes. A narrow nose that seemed to twitch constantly and a mouth with only the barest suggestion of lips. Thin, straight, brown hair that lay, rather than hung, just shy of her shoulders. Her body was, well, merely there. Boyish hips and twelve-year-old breasts draped in loose fitting, drab clothes.

For a moment, ever so brief, Jeremiah saw something magnificent ready to bloom deep in her soul. Something like a flower or a sunrise, and, in that moment, he fell in love.

The moment ended and he told himself that his illness was simply creating images that weren’t real. Annoyed at the interruption, he turned back to his wreath, disturbed by the glowing warmth he felt in the center of his chest.

Another bout of sneezing and he thought he felt wetness land on his neck. Then the words, “Excuse me,” were quaveringly offered by this mouse of a woman. Her voice reminded Jeremiah of the time (as a child he had cared about such things) when he watched a flower open delicate petals, white and pink hued, to embrace the sun. He had felt a warmth unknown to him at the time and now, remembering it, he recognized it as something dangerous. Especially to a man of his condition. (Condition, not madness. He had learned that the first day at the Facility.)

“Bless you,” he said, hoping she would go away.

“Th . . . thank yo . . . thank you.” She did not go away.

“I . . . I like that. It’s pre . . . pretty,” she continued, rubbing her nose as she spoke, her eyes misting with allergic tears. He turned, again, to look at her and was further annoyed by her flitting eyes, never still, moving from macaroni, window, floor, Ned (the large, sullen looking nurse’s aid), window, ceiling, macaroni, Jessie (a pretty nurse who wore too much makeup and sometimes had bruises on her face), and then back again. It made him nuts. He smiled at that last thought, as if he wasn’t already nuts. She thought he was smiling at her.

“My name . . . is,” ceiling, floor, macaroni, window, then, finally, his eyes, “Sarah Jane Smith.”

Her eyes pinned him like a butterfly on display and he was suddenly glad she hadn’t looked at him earlier or more. A small, inaudible part of him whimpered while another, even smaller part, shouted joyfully. Love was in that gaze, or perhaps the perception of that gaze. But love was insane enough and love in a loony . . . Facility was crazier still. He shook himself loose from her eyes. Free once more, he laughed aloud.

“Sarah Jane Smith,” he said, “Sarah Jane Smith. Dr. Who, right? There was this companion named that, wasn’t there.” Picturing bad sets and worse special effects, he laughed again.

Sarah attempted to pout, but having next to no lips, she merely looked constipated.

“Ye . . . yes,” she muttered, “. . . and I don’t even like science fiction.” She smiled. Then sneezed.

That was how they met.

2.

You see, it was at the beginning of the world, or perhaps the end of it and Jeremiah had found himself having a bit of a problem with reality. Not that such a problem was unheard of in that time. In fact, most people found themselves having exactly the same problem. The only difference between Jeremiah and most of those around him was that at the same time that reality seemed to slip and slide away, Jeremiah’s ability to hide behind the conventional masks of society fled him like an anxious lemming leaping toward a rather nasty death. Leaving him both bewildered and unprotected, which made everyone around him distinctly uncomfortable. In those early (or ending) days of the world, civilization was such a fragile creature that anything or anyone who did not believe in the consensus reality was terribly dangerous. The slightest contamination of alternative thoughts could possibly upset the entire balance, plunging mankind and womankind alike into chaos and death.

So, Jeremiah, afraid of what was happening to him, yes, but much more terrified by the toll his experience was taking on the few friends he possessed, took a two week vacation from his job editing classified ads for a local paper (WF,brn,brn,5’6”, 135 iso WM s/SOH, WPTH, n/s,n/d; GMC trk, rns gd, nds bdy wrk; St. Jude, thank you . . .), and checked himself in to The Brewer Mental Health Facility.

It was a large facility, at various times named as a sanitarium, rest home, loony bin, insane asylum, psychiatric hospital and retreat.

The grounds were quite beautiful in the spring sun.

3.

“Once upon a time,” she said, rubbing her itchy eyes, “there was a Princess, that’s me, and a frog. That’s you.”

He was always the frog in her stories. Jeremiah wasn’t certain just how he felt about that. On the one hand, it was rather demeaning, being a frog, but on the other, he was relieved that she had not made him some knight in shining armor, or a prince or anything that implied power and responsibility. He couldn’t take care of himself, he thought, so maybe being the frog is the safest thing. Sometimes though, he would awaken with a start, the taste of insects on his tongue and the feel of slime coating the sheets. It frightened him. Yet, for one reason or another, he could not seem to escape the web of her stories. Each morning, after breakfast (shapeless food you ate with a plastic spork) and before Group Therapy, they would be together. After Group and before lunch they would huddle by the windows and look out at the vague sun, sometimes silent, sometimes not. Every moment they could be, they would be together.

And she would tell him stories. Stories she believed were true. Which was why she was at the Facility. Because they were not true stories, no, not at all, Jeremiah would think, even as he listened, enthralled. They were fantasies and myths, but with every telling, she would believe different fantasies and myths. In one, the Elf-Kingdom was waiting for her to return and take her rightful place on the throne. In another she was a Princess given up at birth and would, one day, be found by a trusted family servant who had vowed to find her and had scoured the lands far and wide for over twenty-five years. Or that she was a goddess or the Virgin Mother, or even Gaia herself.

She was crazy. He knew that. Yet, he would listen, knowing he was not getting better. Knowing that her visions, so baroque and detailed and gorgeous were clouding what was real. Why do I need to hear these stories, he would ask himself. Why do I need to hear her tell these stories? He could not answer himself, but a voiceless and certain part of him knew that what she said, who she was, was somehow important.

Then, one night, she somehow slipped into his room and into his bed. He was awake, heart beating entirely too fast when he felt the warmth of her breath smooth across his cheek. She was trembling (more than usual) and her flesh was so cold he could feel the goose-bumps through the fabric of her nightgown.

This is what she said:

“I’m going. I don’t know when or where, but I can feel it in every beat of my heart, every pulse of my blood. I don’t belong here. Here, in this time. This place. My genes are those of giants and elves, heaven and hell. An angel was my father. A dragon my mother. I look around at steel and concrete and taste death. I see hatred and violence, blood dripping from the lips of children and I hear the choir of hell calling my name. I look at life and see nothing. A huge Nothing seeping through the cracks in the world, licking us up like a kitten licks milk. And I don’t belong. I go home after my day at work, feeling nothing. I look at the money I make and the money I owe and feel nothing. I look at the people around me, some of whom I know I should love, and feel nothing. Please, oh please my dear little frog, make me feel something, something before it is too late and I go away, wisp away like your breath on a cold night, thinning, thinning and then gone.”

This is what Jeremiah thought:

I think I love her. Love. But that’s crazy. She’s crazy and she says things that make too much sense, but if she is crazy and makes sense to me then that means I’m crazy too and I don’t want to be crazy. I don’t want to feel like a ghost in my own body and vomit every time I see the news or smell blood. I want to be well and she makes me crazier than before because I can see it, see them. An angel on her left and a dragon on her right and the whole ancient world of long ago caught in her soul like a fly in a web. But that’s crazy. Love. I think I love her.

This is what they did:

He pulled her body tight to his, giving all his warmth to stop her shivering. She breathed deep, in surprise as much as anticipation. Their hearts beat faster as he moved his hands along her body, smoothing the goose-bumps with his touch. He bunched her nightgown in his fist, lifting it slowly, as if peeling a delicate candy from its wrapper. He kissed her lightly on the forehead, loving even the slight taste of sweat as he did. She ducked her head down, like a scolded child and then raised it up to press, lightly, her lips to his. Harder. Tongues swirled, met and danced. He grew hard. She moist. The pounding of blood. A moan. Gasp. Bodies melt, minds merge and a fire burns in each of their hearts. He entered. She accepted.

Bodies stuck in a narrow bed in the Brewer Mental Health Facility, yet they made love everywhere. A blue, icy crag in Tibet. On brown, baked earth in the Sahara. At the bottom of the ocean, lit by tiny, flashing organisms the same color as cracking mint Certs in the dark. Floating on the ionosphere and bathing naked in glorious radiation. In the belly of a volcano, moving with the roiling, boiling motion of lava.

And he saw it all, felt it all without feeling cold or heat. She surrounded him, made him part of her. Something larger than he ever was alone, ever could be. Something insane, yes. Mad as a Hatter, yes. But glorious and complete.

Climax . . .

and for that moment they were nowhere.

4.

The next day they took her.

5.

He was working on a new wreath, one made specially for her. His hands were covered with glue that would soon dry and he would peel it off, feeling, not like a frog, but rather like a snake. Ned came into the room, looking more sullen than usual. He moved quickly to Sarah and it was almost as if she knew. Before Ned could say anything, she leapt at Jeremiah, knocking him down, grasping him painfully tight and started screaming that they could never take her away from her frog, her prince, her love. Ned was forced to drag her off of Jeremiah. She kicked and flailed screaming, sneezing and then screaming again. Ned threw her over his shoulders and carried her out the door. Jeremiah stood up. The door closed. He said nothing (what was there to say?) and bled inside.

At one time a man like Jeremiah would have run to her, matching Ned’s strength with his own passion and love. He would have rescued, no, not her, but himself by going to her. No matter the cost. In another time, he would have given anything: sanity, life, honor and soul.

But this was the beginning or the end of the world and people just didn’t do that sort of thing. Yes, the tales told of inseparable lovers, men and women overcoming the most impossible of odds in order to be together. For love’s sake. Those were fables, fancies, celluloid dreams that fueled the need for drama inherent in every teenager’s naïve, raging heart. They were not how people really behaved. So he stood, glue drying on his hands, bleeding inside and as she screamed and punched at Ned’s back, as she shouted “No no no you can’t take me I’m a dragon I’m an angel and I’ve found my frog, my princeling frog to make me, make me a real princess,” Jeremiah turned back to his macaroni wreath.

The nurse buzzed Ned out of the ward. She was gone. And Jeremiah kept saying to himself, there was nothing, nothing I could do. Nothing I could do. Nothing. I’m a frog, not a knight. Not a prince. Her kisses had not turned him into anything else. I’m sorry, he said to himself and to her, I’m sorry. I’m nothing but a frog.

6.

“You’ve made excellent progress, Jeremiah, we’re very proud of you.”

“I’m not sure . . .”

“You’ll be fine. Just remember what we talked about and remember to take your pills everyday.”

“But I still . . .”

“Now Jeremiah, you can’t stay here forever. Your insurance won’t allow it.”

Silence.

“That was a joke, Jeremiah.”

“Oh.”

7.

One year later. Seven hundred and thirty pills past. A cat named Isaac for a friend and a promotion. Jeremiah’s life moved like a light breeze on a small pond: barely a ripple. Smooth and eventless. His few friends had all moved away, grasping at this chance and that opportunity. An occasional letter would brighten his days, then plunge him into a dark funk of loneliness which he would combat by playing with Isaac for hours on end, taking his pill and buying something chocolate to eat as he sat before his television. Watching Billy Wilder videos and reading mysteries was how he spent most of his free time. Occasionally he might go for a short walk or out to a pub for an ale. He spoke to no one when he did, except for the bartender. Sitting, sipping the drink and watching various sports on the television in the corner, sports with the sound turned off. He knew he was no different, no worse off than many people in that place and time. Sometimes he wrote down all the good things in his life. 1. Good Job. 2. Isaac. 3. My Health (as long as I take my pills). 4. A Small But Nice Apartment. Though the list was rather short, the solidity of black ink on white paper reassured him, calmed him. Almost as much as the television.

He had also stopped masturbating on a nightly basis. He knew that the pills were the reason, but he felt a vague pleasure in the fact because since he had turned twenty-five (ten years, long years ago) he had felt that it was an awfully juvenile thing to do. Even so, he had not been able to sleep until he had closed his eyes, let random, quite pedestrian fantasies play in his mind, climaxed and wiped himself off. Now however, he slept quite peacefully without such a ritual.

He was . . . content. Not happy, perhaps, but there was a lot to say for contentment, considering the state of the world around him. No highs, but no terrifying, chaotic lows either.

He had just come home from work one day, shivering as he entered his apartment. The cold had ripped through his old, tattered winter coat. Every year he meant to buy a new coat and every year just never got around to doing so. He was feeling raw and exposed, so he took his pill even before taking off his coat. Swallowing it with tap water tinged rust-brown. Took a deep breath and felt the feeling go away. Well, not “go away” really, but it drifted to a safe distance as the drug erected, with master chemical-craftsmanship, the dikes, dams and hurricane walls that shielded him from the storms of emotion. Isaac rubbed between his legs, purring loudly, demanding attention and supper (in that order). He took off his coat, laying it over the arm of a chair and picked up Isaac, scratching between the cat’s ears. Set him down, opened a can of cat food and put it on Isaac’s plate.

Something screamed and he dropped the plate, nearly hitting Isaac on the head and scattering the moist mass of seafood flavored cat food all over the floor. His heart thudded, calming only as he realized what the sound was. The phone. It had been a very long time since the phone had rung. The only reason he still kept it was to order out for pizza and Chinese. It was only the phone. He smiled slightly and answered it.

“Hello.”

A thin voice, a desperate voice, “Oh my frog.”

His felt adrenaline blast through his heart and the racing and pounding threatened to break his rib.

“Sarah.”

The storm burst through. No warning, no warning at all. One second he was perfectly removed from his life, safe and secure and in the next the drug-walls tore like tissue paper and he heard a roaring in his head and the room spun. He sat, breathing hard. Scared. Isaac looked up for a moment then returned to lapping at the food on the floor. Jeremiah gulped air like a dying fish.

“I need you, darling. I’m free, well nearly so, but it’s coming, coming so very soon and I want you to be here. I have nothing to say goodbye to, nobody to share this with except you. Please, oh please come to me.”

A year’s worth of drugs and sanity were undone: he felt it unraveling inside him with each word she spoke, as if she had taken a loose thread from the tapestry of his life and pulled. All he could see were her watery eyes looking at him. Imploring, needing. All he could feel was a dark terror, but beneath that, like vanilla cake covered in chocolate frosting was the lightness of love.

She said other things, but his mind stuck on “please come to me.”

In the end, of course, he went to her.

He knocked on the door and heard a faraway voice call out, “It’s open, oh it’s open.” He walked in. Her apartment was as disordered as her mind. Cans and bottles gathered, like refugees, in the sink and on the countertops of the kitchen. Bags of chips and boxes of cereal cried mutely through their open mouths. The living room was scattered with magazines, books and clothes. The rug, obscured. There was a thick scent of musk and mildew biding it’s time under the oppressive regime of a thick incense, vanilla-based, which made his nose itch. He grinned. It was so, so her.

“I’m in here, my lover.”

Her voice slid through the chaos and vanilla and embraced him. He trembled and picked his way carefully across the living room floor, kicking away a purple blouse and an empty plate to clear a space for his foot, then a broken-backed fantasy novel and a tattered copy of a fashion magazine (the model’s face ripped in half) to put his other foot. In this way he moved slowly to the open door, her bedroom.

She was sitting on her bed, the last rays of a cold sun weakly hauling themselves through the window to lay, dying, upon her bare skin. She was naked, thin and pale and shivering as she always did. Her hair was limper than he remembered and her eyes watered, overflowed. Tears tracked down the dark circles under her eyes and rolled along hollow cheeks, But she smiled and looked directly at him and his breath held and his heart skipped and he moved quickly to her side.

They held each other for a long moment, or a short eternity. Their breathing fell into synch and neither moved. Then, slowly, he traced her too prominent ribs with his fingertips, kissed her forehead, took her left breast in his hand, rolling her nipple between his fingers and whispered, “I love you.”

His lips met hers tentatively, like old friends who haven’t seen each other in years and don’t know how to act. Opening, the kiss deepened and he noticed the sour taste of bad breath, but did not care, so warm and active her tongue on his. As they kissed, lost in one another, she undid his belt and unzipped his pants. They stopped kissing only long enough, laughing, to tug his pants off. Followed immediately by his boxers. They unbuttoned his shirt, threw it to the foot of the bed and lay together, flesh on flesh, flesh in flesh, barely moving, making long, slow love. Exploring each other. Exploring themselves through the other, the reflection in each other’s eyes, the gasp of pleasure elicited by a small movement, by the barest trace of tongue on skin.

The dark came, putting the sun to bed like a penitent child. They lit no lights, but seemed to see each other in a kind of glow, sensing instinctively where lips, hands, breasts, ears and thighs were. After a long time, after being everywhere and then nowhere, they lay, curled together, and slept.

This is what he dreamt:

He was a child, safe inside his mother’s arms.

He was an old man, sitting on a lavender, flowered couch, next to his wife. Neither speaking because being was language enough.

This is what she dreamt:

She was light. She was air. Her parents by her side reclaiming their lost, little girl from the place where she had spent twenty-six years. No longer lost, confused and alone. No longer. In dream she saw them standing at the foot of the bed, her father, shining in simple glory and her mother, green-scaled and gray-clawed, full of power and wisdom. She moved softly from the bed and stood between them, ready to quit this world. Ready but for one last thing. She turned . . .

. . . and he awoke. Black night replaced by a steel-gray dawn flecked with pink. His hand moved to caress her thigh and met only sweat-damp sheets. Sitting, he saw her standing by the window. She was crying. He moved to her, taking the comforter and surrounding her body with it’s warmth and he thought of the National Geographic special he had seen about penguins and how the fathers would envelope their young with thick, warm wings. He pressed tight to her trembling body and her backbone dug into his stomach.

“Shhh, shhh,” he whispered, nuzzling her neck, “Don’t. Don’t. It’s all right. I’m here. We’re together.”

She turned, fiercely, and kissed him hard on the mouth. He tasted tears and something saltier, thicker. She pulled back and he could see blood spotting her lower lip. Even as he noticed it, she gnawed again at the chapped skin. She shook her head and her eyes danced around the room. He felt something hot build in his stomach, a not-quite-fear feeling. Vague worries licked at his mind: lone . . . leave . . . regret . . . she doesn’t . . . . . . gone . . . my pills, I need . . . a . . .

“Wh . . .” his voice caught on the image of the lost penguin chick slowly freezing and calling for its father.

“What’s wrong?”

She pulled him to the floor, her chest heaving with empty sobs. A slipper pushed into his leg and a magazine tickled the bottom of one foot. Her weight lay on his stomach and he felt a brief pain but then she moved slightly and it went away.

“Th . . . they . . . they didn’t come for me! I thought . . . I thought that last night I could feel it and I knew that they would be here but I’m still here and they didn’t and I’m here and they didn’t and I’m scared now and I don’t know if they will ever be back.

“I don’t know who I am!”

Jagged, bitten down nails scratched at his arms as her body twisted in loss and anguish. He didn’t know what to do, so he held her as best he could. Whispering words meant to soothe but whose meaning even he could not have defined. He told her stories about how he had been a lowly frog, stuck in the Swamp of Devoid until he had been found by her, The Beautiful Princess, found and cherished and loved and held until he turned into The Beautiful Prince and together they were Happy Ever After.

And still she sobbed, choked on bitter tears and flem, twisted and trembled. She tried to scream but her voice could not carry past a harsh whisper.

Still he held her. Kissed her, talked to her and caressed her sweaty and matted hair. He thought, I love her. I will hold her for as long as she needs.

He thought, this is why her stories were important. This is why it was important for her to tell those stories, so that I would know what to say, and they were important because I am important. To her. He couldn’t remember ever being important before, but she had made him so, with her stories and her need.

He thought, I should take my pills.

He thought, if I take my pills, I won’t hold her for as long as she needs.

Hours passed. He did not let go.

  1. Time ceased after Jeremiah moved into Sarah’s apartment. Not all at once, but slowly. At first, his days were marked by gently moving from under her arm, taking a quick shower, stumbling over whatever new refuse lay on the floor, dressing, speaking softly to Isaac, kissing Sarah’s fever damp cheek, swallowing half a cup of instant coffee made with luke-warm tap water and going to work. Work passed as it always had. Then, on his way home, he would stop for food and return.

Sarah would sometimes be curled in a corner of the living room, flipping through a magazine or reading a book, surrounded on all sides by discarded magazines or books or clothes or the stained containers of the previous night’s take-out. She would greet him with a hot look, throw whatever she held to the floor and run to him, kissing his cheeks with dry, chapped lips. He would struggle not to drop that night’s dinner, finally set it on the counter and gather her body to his. Sometimes they kissed and then ate dinner, listening to old albums and telling each other stories. Other times they would make love as the food grew cold and the night washed over the sky like a grease stain. Either way, however, they were soon in bed, huddling close beneath the covers as she still shivered slightly and he maneuvered his hot feet out from under layer upon layer of sheets, covers and comforters. In darkness they banished the world and the blood and the fear that threatened to envelope the world in those days. They became each other’s universe. Not in any ethereal, Romantic way, but, rather, in a very real, very physical manner. Skin on skin, the scratch of the throat turned to a small cough, Isaac mewing as he stretched and caught cloth or skin with cat-claws, a bit of drool, the slickness of semen, the sound and then the smell of passing gas; a rattle of congestion, a sniffle, the taste of hair as they kissed, sweat, sex, wordless voicings of desire and voiceless desires caught in a sigh or a sudden intake of breath. And then, sleep. Dreams of dragons and angels as the night considered, challenged and finally withdrew, leaving Jeremiah to move gently from under her arm . . .

Time still ran, still structured as Jeremiah’s weeks were marked by those five work days followed by the weekend.

The weekend!

Jeremiah would get up early and move about the apartment, half-heartedly attempting order in the midst of chaos. Talking softly to Isaac as he did so, Jeremiah pretended he was on an archeological dig, using the various strata to determine a history of the past week. Reconstructing Sarah’s days from the dog-eared copy of a P.D. James novel and the pile of stiff, advertising cards littered beneath a copy of Writer’s Digest. Picking up a bowl half-full of dead raisins which was covered by a damp towel, he would sit for a moment, a strange, small smile playing over his lips as he imagined her nibbling, rabbit-like at the little fruits, or the sight of the water beading down her thin body, breaking over the ridges of her backbone and ribs as she stood in the shower.

Dishes. Some laundry. Perhaps even a glimpse of the actual carpet. Then Sarah would get up and he would make breakfast for her. They would talk about what they wanted to do for the day. It was not often, but not odd for them to actually go out on the weekends. Sometimes to a museum or a movie or a park or a zoo. Once, as they were leaving a movie theatre, laughing at the silliness of the film and trying to pry popcorn kernels from between their teeth with their tongues, they thought they saw one of the Doctors from the Mental Health Facility, but when the man turned they saw that it wasn’t. Still, after that, they stayed in more often.

But, eventually, time did cease. Months came to mean nothing except a stronger sun. And when Jeremiah was laid off from work, weeks died. Then, finally, days began to run into nights and nights into days but neither Jeremiah nor Sarah could bother to keep track of which was which or whether something was beginning or ending. They left the apartment infrequently, and only if it was absolutely necessary.

  1. Out, buying cat food and tampons, Jeremiah saw himself in a storefront window. He stopped, not recognizing the wild-haired, bright-eyed, poorly shaven and raggedly dressed figure staring back at him. A movement started in his stomach, a feeling of fear and he walked quickly home, trying to put the image out of his mind. Trying to forget how . . . how crazy he looked.

  2. 10.

He awoke to the sound of clothes tearing and Sarah grunting short, hot breaths between clenched curses.

“Goddamnit.” “Fuck.” “Shit, where the fuck are you you fucker I know you’re in there you pissshit cock.”

She was tearing all of their clothes out from the closet, ripping them and throwing them around the room. Wearing only a pair of frog slippers and a dirty sweatshirt, she did not turn when he called out to her.

“Fucking asshole I saw you I saw you!”

A satin shirt was pulled off a hanger, there was a sharp ping as a button hit the door jamb and then the gasp of the shirt as it was torn in half. He stood, moved toward her, went to embrace her. She turned and hit at him.

“Leave me alone, damn it, he was here I saw him staring at us from the closet with his greasy eyes and his watery hands and he wants to kill me I know I know I know.”

He tried to hold her tightly but she burst away from him, attacking the closet again. Reaching out once more, he touched her shoulder. It was as if a switch had been thrown and she collapsed atop the pink-blue-green-yellow-red pile of sweaters and blouses and jeans and khakis and scarves and dresses and button-down dress shirts. She fell and he instantly gathered her in his arms, rocking her, lightly kissing her tears away. His stomach knotted as she cried voicelessly. Her slight body convulsing and shivering, her mouth open, snot and tears mixing as she choked for breath. Shaking her head back and forth, her eyes shut tight, she lay in his arms and he thought about how much he loved her and that this was going to be all right, she had a bad dream and now it was over. He thought about how much fun they always had playing with Isaac and watching Jeopardy together. He thought about lying next to her, feeling her heartbeat pass through her thin chest and beat against his ribs.

He thought about how hungry he suddenly was and about the fact that he couldn’t remember the last time he had actually eaten anything. He must have eaten yesterday . . . but, he couldn’t quite remember yesterday, or distinguish it from today or the day before. When had he last eaten?

Sarah wiped her nose on the sleeve of the sweatshirt and finally opened her eyes.

When did I last eat, Jeremiah was about to say. But as he looked down he stopped, suddenly sure that it was not important. He felt strong enough and clear-headed, so he couldn’t be that hungry.

Out of the corner of his eye he thought, for one brief moment, he saw the shape of a man in the back of the closet. Then, nothing. She blinked up at him. And smiled. He felt a warmth blossom and spread through his body. Everything was going to be all right. He hugged her. Everything was going to be all right. All right. Everything.

  1. “Sarah. Sarah?”

Why did she have to lock herself in the bathroom? Jeremiah slid down the door to sit, cross-legged on an empty cereal box. Scratching his face through his beard, he called out again.

“Sarah. Come out, please, hon. Everything is going to be all right.”

His words were automatic, tired. Worn and buffed by the chamois of time and repetition. Idly, he traced the contour of a rib jutting forth from his body. Too thin. A thought, but fleeting and gone.

“Sarah. I love you Sarah.”

He heard her blow her nose and cough lightly. Smiling, he shifted off the cereal box and his bare buttocks chilled on the cold, wood floor.

“Tell me a story,” she asked, as he knew she would.

“Ok, hon. If I tell you a story, will you come out of there?”

“Yes.”

“Once upon a time . . .” He told a story full of love and passion and heroes and dragons and damsels and frogs. He could feel her lean against the other side of the door and listen, could imagine the slight frown tracing lines on her forehead as she concentrated, could see pale skin and bright eyes, could feel her pulse race as he talked.

“. . . along the road to Alabazar, the good Knight Lenear saw the face of . . .”

A small meow brought his attention to the thin form of Isaac as the cat moved to take residence in Jeremiah’s lap. Still the story went on. Despite the fainting hunger in Jeremiah’s stomach. Despite the tears welling up in his eyes. I’m so tired, he thought, so very tired. I love her but . . .

It was that “but” which scared him and brought bile and fear flooding into his mouth. He hadn’t been afraid of anything since he had come to her side. Not giving up the pills, or moving in, or losing his job, or seeing the man in the closet, or hearing the screams of the dragons as they fought against the demon-giants right outside of their window. He hadn’t been scared when Sarah had sawed at her wrists with the butter knife. He had found her, passed out on the kitchen floor, with only the trace of abrasive blood because she had never reached the vein.

“. . . the sun set, sending golden sparks through the air as the Princess . . .”

When the Angel had visited them, large, imposing and with a flaming sword that hurt Jeremiah’s eyes, he had not been afraid. Even when the Angel screamed at them, told them that they were bloody and evil and bad for being naked in the eyes of the Lord, still, he had not been afraid. When Sarah cut into her own skin or held burning matches up to her arm or put candles out with her thighs, Jeremiah was not afraid. He would hold her until the shaking stopped. He would bandage her, put ointment on her burns, hold her close and talk about love. Talk about how much she had changed his life. How much joy she brought him. They would kiss, dryly, and lie together. Everything, he would say, will be all right.

“. . . with a mighty roar the beast fell upon the Knight, spewing venom . . .”

He loved her . . . but . . .

But.

I am too thin, he thought, too thin and too tired and something isn’t right. When did I last eat? Why can’t I help . . . help her be better?

The story went on.

But . . .

Pills. I’m supposed to take pills, something about seeing somethings that aren’t there. A man. The pills would stop the man from coming. I think. And the Angel and the Dragons and the Giants. Pill somewhere. Need to eat something . . .

No. If I take the pills I’ll stop seeing with her. I won’t be able to watch over her when the Angel comes and the Dragon and the Giants and the man. I have to . . . to. There’s nobody else and I love her. But . . .

No. I love her.

“. . . and with a gentle kiss the Princess turned the Frog . . .”

The story ended. The door opened and they fell into each other’s arms. His fear died as she ran her tongue over his lips. Kissing frenetically, grasping anxiously, they made love in the doorway. Bellies still hungry, but souls full, they fell asleep in the hallway. On the cold, hardwood floor.

12.

She had been asleep for a very long time when they came and took her away.

13.

He was sane. All the doctors said so.

“Jeremiah, you are better now. Just take your pills like you’re supposed to.”

“All set now, Jeremiah, you use those breathing techniques if the visions start.”

“Don’t forget . . .”

“. . . take your pills.”

“. . . pills. It’s really very important, Jeremiah.”

Pills.

Sarah. Was. Gone.

Dead.

They said that she had been dead for at least three days before the landlord had used the spare key and found them lying in bed. Jeremiah was close to death himself, his body feeding upon itself for protein. They said that Sarah had turned a green shade of purple and that the apartment smelled like a charnel house. They said that when the paramedics had tried to separate Jeremiah from Sarah that he had screamed and swore and fought, fought like a . . . madman. But though he had finally learned to fight for love, it was too late. Hunger, weakness and the fact that she was dead, all brought Jeremiah down, gasping like a dying fish, as he was strapped down to the gurney and taken to the hospital.

He was there for a long time. Several seasons passed. Nations died. Men and women, loved, lived, were slaughtered. Babies were born. Jeremiah saw bad things in his head, wrong things, insane things. But the doctors took care of him and led him by the hand to a safe place. Slowly, as the drugs battled the dragons, Jeremiah came back to the world.

It was not a nice place, the world. Not at that time. Beginnings and endings are equally chaotic and frightening. But as hundreds of pounds of macaroni were turned into Art, and as his prescription was raised to 1000mg of the current drug du jour, and as days once more followed nights and weeks became months; as the regularity of time was once more caging his life and he was given food and guidance; as the visions . . . no, hallucinations began to fade (and even when they happened, he was assured of their incorporality because nobody else ever, ever saw them), Jeremiah finally pulled back from the brink of insanity.

Over than long time spent in the Brewer Mental Health Facility—yes, the same place where once he met a desperate princess—Jeremiah’s mental landscape was worn away, buffed and polished to a monotonous, but safe place. There were no chasms, no pinnacles and not a single abyss in his consciousness. But what about . . .? His subconscious had been thrashed by the drugs and didn’t have the strength to break free.

He was, once more, dully content.

Because reality was really so precarious, the doctors were, of course, delighted with his progress.

He was . . . content to be sane.

His mouth was dry and his voice cracked as Jeremiah said, “Thank you,” to the bus driver. Then, without hearing the response, he stepped off the bus. His heart trembled slightly and his body shook with a strange fear. Those had been the first words he had spoken to anyone since his release from the Mental Health Facility that afternoon.

It was spring.

The bus coughed black smoke and Jeremiah blinked his eyes as exhaust billowed, surrounding him. An acrid taste lay in the back of his throat until the wind shifted, slightly and almost uneasily, taking with it the exhaust. Rubbing tears from his eyes, Jeremiah looked up at the bright sky, the green grass and began to walk. He had not taken his pill today, but held them tightly in his fist. His head hurt and a small ball of fear uncoiled itself in his bowels. Not knowing where she was buried, he moved slowly, looking at the headstones, reading them and reflecting casually about the people who lay buried. Casually, but not dwelling on any particular thoughts of life and death. It was a trick that the doctors had taught him: not to think deeply about things. It helped.

Idly a bird sang in the distance and he thought, “how nice.”

And it was. The sun warmed his skin without being too hot. The wind blew without ferocity or passion. But for the birds and the hum of insects there was silence. Trees stood gentle and without malice. As he walked, he thought about the kitten he had seen at the animal shelter earlier that day. A tiny, black kitten with the pinkest nose and little white feet. It awoke when Jeremiah moved to look at it, stretching and mewing slightly. Opening its bright green eyes to look directly at him. I think I’ll get him, thought Jeremiah, brushing away the ghost of a memory of another cat, in another time. Yes, I think I will. Name? Socks came to mind but he thought it was dumb. I’ll figure it out when I get to know him.

Surprised, he found that he had stopped walking and stood now in front of her headstone. Squeezing the plastic bottle of pills, his knuckles turned white and he sat heavily, almost collapsing on the grass. His mouth went dry and he shook, not much, but slightly. He knew that this was the beginning or the end of . . . of something.

He thought:

I still love her. That hasn’t changed. I wish I could write or sculpt or paint or do anything to let people know that I still love her.

But as he thought, he realized that even if he could do any of those things, he wouldn’t have much to say. She was crazy and he loved her. That was all. A momentary lapse in his mind and a vision of blank eyes and a feel of cold flesh pressed against his skin. Then the sun came out from the passing cloud and he smiled. One last, he thought, one last time.

Lying down, the grass tickling his neck, he told her a story. A solitary, small, black ant crawled along his wrist and he let it be. The story was of love and loss, and though it was sad, it was an oddly contented story, happy to be what it was and no more. A brief sound, like a small sneeze came from somewhere, or perhaps it was only in his imagination. The story over, he pressed himself to the earth, feeling its solidity and thinking of how intangible she had been, even when lying beneath him, accepting him into her. She had been a kind of a dream, a kind of madness and now, with one last act of . . .

He kissed her grave, briefly, ashamed and somewhat pleased with the shame. It meant that he knew right from wrong, sane from crazy. Quickly wiping dirt from his lips, he sat up. The barest indication of an erection startled and frightened him, and so Jeremiah quickly removed the cap from the bottle of pills. Working up as much spit as he could, he held a pill to the sky for a moment: bright pink against blue.

Socks may be a dumb name, he thought, but it’s a good name. A sensible name.

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