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Charles Shaw

SHE IS THE FIRST THING HE FEELS FOR IN THE DARK. After his hand finds her body his eyes open slowly, and he gazes around in a circle across the room. The dark blueness is a comfort. He breathes in deeply, feeling dust gather on the inside of his nostrils. He senses the frenzied irritation of unseen molds growing on the stiff, discolored sheets. He turns his head, stifling a sneeze. Beside him is the outline of Delila's body, and as he moves he feels the weight of her leg across his ankle. She stirs, and the hard smell of DHEA rises up from under the sheets. The dank odor of her breath, contaminated with sleep, blows across his face. He wrinkles his nose, reaches out to touch her, but pulls his hand away before he makes contact. He rises from the bed, sitting upright, and blood rushes from his head in pulsating waves, spasms of vessels and nerves that ache from atrophy. A cold shock strikes his feet as they touch the floor, and his arches contract involuntarily and cramp. He stands despite the dizziness and turns around. She, perhaps feeling his movement in her sleep, the absence of his mass on the mattress, rolls onto her stomach, dispersing her weight and form over the entire space. Her face is turned to the wall, sunk deeply into an old, down pillow, and he can hear the muffled blast of her agitated, dream addled breath against the worn fabric.

He moves across the room to the solitary window and stands staring out into a fathomless blue glow, listening to the winds of a winter storm tear past the window like a cloud of sand, whipping, grinding, and scratching with bitter cold. He places his hands on the windowsill and the freezing moisture on his palms begins to bond his skin to the wood. He leans forward until his head touches the glass, and a burning cold bores its way through his skin.

Between his freezing hands is a clay flowerpot filled with a small plant and stones. He reaches in the pot, removes a small handful of stones. Turning, he begins to toss them at Delila, who continues to stir in oblivion.

"Are you awake," he says. The volume of his voice startles him, and for an instant he jumps as if to retract the words before they reach the other side of the room. "Depends on what you mean," she replies.

"I can't get any rest."

"Tell me about it."

"I dreamt I was trying to find you."

"You would lose me."

"I didn't lose you, you ran away."

"Yeah that sure was a dream. You should be so lucky."

Seamus continues to stare blankly out the window, fingering the base of the clay pot. He looks upward and then down then to the sides of the building, but all he sees is blue haze and barely perceptible beyond it the shade of an endless brick wall.

"I haven't seen the sun in months," he says.

Delila mumbles into the pillow, "As if you've been looking."

"You can't just decide not to see the sun."

"You can when you're hiding from it like you do with all these lovely habits we have. I am convinced that they invented the Vampire tale as an explanation for people like us. "

"People like us? Junkies?"

"We're not junkies."

"What are we then?"

"We're disenfranchised."

"We're not teenagers, Seamus."

She looks up, turns her head and squints in the darkness, seeing him silhouetted against the window.

"Would you be human and grab my cigarettes for me?"

"Can I have one?"

"Are you actually asking me?"

He pauses for an instant, hesitates, then moves towards the coffee table in front of the couch, watching her in the bed.

"You get sun where you live?" he asks.

"Where I live? Honey, if you haven't noticed, I'm livin' here now."

"Where you were from?"

"I don't know anyone who doesn't."

"Maybe it's just me."

Delila sits up, shakes off sleep and slowly stands up, hopping from foot to foot. She wears only cotton panties and a ripped tank top. Her flesh prickles at the temperature of the air, but she stands up straight and stretches her arms towards the ceiling. Her hair is short, and mortally red. She is slight, but built strong and solid with well-defined arms and a flat stomach. Her hips betray her, curving out wildly like the aftermath of birth. But they also give her a powerful sexuality, an Earth-Mother flaw. The hips flow into sinewy thighs, bony knees and strong calves. Her feet seem too small for her body. Aside from her head, she has nary a hair on her whole body.

She pads across the floor silently, moving towards the kitchen, picking dirt off the bottoms of her feet and mumbling about the state of the apartment.

She shuffles to the couch and sits down cross-legged. A long cylinder of ash falls from the tip of her cigarette onto the floor. She rests her elbows on her knees, her cigarette dangling precariously. They both stare across the room in mutual, shared silence. The wind howls in fits and swells.

"Can we talk about something?" she says.

"About what?"

"I wanna finish what we were talking about earlier."

"Jesus," he mutters. "Why bother?" He waves his hand dismissively as he turns his back to her. She rises from the couch and moves to the window, turning around to confront him. She flicks ashes on the floor defiantly.

"You can't just decide to ignore it."

He stands. She opens her mouth, but remains silent. He waits for her to speak. She abandons her current thought and looks down at the floor.

"If we're through," he says, "I was gonna make some coffee. Can I make you some?"

She ignores him, but he knows if he makes it, she will drink it.

"I'd like something a bit stronger."

"Like Espresso?"

"Hardee har har."

"Can you just cool it a minute, okay, in five minutes you'll forget all about wanting it now."

"And I say, why wait the five minutes but to exert control over me."

"Precisely. Very good then."

Seamus moves across the room to the kitchen, plucking the dirty, stained coffee pot from the sink and, after a few precursory rinses, he begins to fill it with the water from the spurting tap. He reaches inside the freezer for the large can of coffee and begins to pry off the top. The metal around the rim is ragged, the result of an old and rusty can opener. As the lid pops off, he cuts his finger. The cut is deep, but no blood flows. He instinctively places his finger in his mouth and sucks, expecting the warm, slightly salty taste of his own blood to coat his tongue, but there is nothing but the taste of skin.

He feels heat swell through him, and his pores explode in moisture as his equilibrium funnels down through him like a nauseating undertow. He staggers a moment and places his hand on the counter for balance. Each muscle inside him cramps simultaneously. He grimaces, then reaches out again for the faucet and places his head under the cool stream and, as water runs into his nostrils he then gulps five or six heavy mouthfuls that stick in his throat and commence a violent spasm of hiccupping. Some of the water heaves back up into his throat, and he spits it out into the sink, warm and acidic. He gasps for air, breathing quick and shallow, the water dripping from his hair being drawn down his body like icy blunt stones. Once the fit subsides, he rechecks his finger, yet still no blood. He slams his fist to the counter, closes his eyes and counts slowly.

Opening his eyes, he takes a deep breath and begins to fashion a makeshift filter out of a sheet of paper towel. He begins scooping mound after mound of coffee into the basket. Sliding the basket into place, he turns on the power and the brewer sputters to life, a dark, ground-filled glut of hot coffee splattering inside the pot.

Across the room Delila stares at her cigarette burning in the darkness in the complete absence of thought. She appears vacant, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly agape. Seamus approaches her, carrying two steaming, cups of potent black coffee. Moving closer her face becomes more visible, and he stops, paused uncontrollably by a faint recognition, where another face seems to have overlapped hers. He feels fear and confusion until a scalding pain springs from his knuckles and he realizes that he has let the coffee mugs tip. He gasps, and her attention is once again regained.

"What's wrong with you?" she says, coldly.

He shakes away the pain and delivers the coffee.

"I'm sorry," he says. "Are you all right? You look funny."

"I was thinking. What's your excuse?"

"That expression on your face...that...look... You reminded me of something."

"What's that?"

"I'll have to think about it a minute."

Seamus reaches under the table and removes a large mirror splattered with intermittent mounds of cocaine and marijuana. He quickly cuts up four bloated lines and sucks up two of them, one right after the other into alternating nostrils. He hands the straw to Delila, and she follows suit.

"Good morning!" she says, falling back into the couch and spreading her legs on either side of him.

"Encephalitis," he says.

She laughs. "Are you sure you meant to say that?"

"No, I did."

"Is that that disease where your testicles swell up the size of basketballs?"

"No, that would be Elephantiasis, smart ass!"

"Good, I was worried there for a moment."

Seamus pauses, hesitant to continue, struggling with something, a recollection, a placement, the surety of his senses. He continues quietly.

"Was that my case?" he says.

"Excuse me?"

He shakes his head rapidly, not wishing to be hurried, savoring the brief glimpses he is receiving but simultaneously tortured by the blank spots.

"I'm just trying to remember if..." He pauses, takes a breath, snorts fugitive cocaine back down his throat. "I had this case once where I represented this kid who had Encephalitis, which is a brain virus. It gives you...brain damage. You may already know this."

"Ooooohh," she says, sarcastically. "Tales from the former life of Seamus Kelly, Esquire. This is a rare treat."

"Yeah, well, rarities aside, this boy...Gabriel...'bout eight or ten or so, caught Encephalitis and it cooked his brain. The family brought him in on a Malpractice case, said the doctor failed to diagnose it, told the family he had a cold..."

"A cold?"

"Rough, isn't it?"

He feels a momentum building, a deluge of words attached somehow to an ostensible meaning. He moves his hands in rapid circles.

"Because he had this illness, he was a vegetable. Let me qualify that. He had no short term memory left, and could only remember random, disjointed things from his past."

He sits, setting his mug on the table, and a ring of moisture rises from around the base. He fights to maintain cohesion of thought.

"Look," he says, "you wanted to know things about me. I'm tryin' to tell you." He pauses, changing his perspective and tone.

"I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"Probably the coke. And last night. So what happened with the kid?"



"There was an accident...the family died...the kid survived."

"That sucks. What happened?"

"A tornado hit their house. They found Gabriel wandering in a field half a mile away. He was in the house with the rest of the family, and they only found parts of them. It was a sick, twisted miracle that he survived."

"I'm sorry I laughed. It sounds terrible."

"Tell me about it. That was a ten million dollar case."

Delila smacks him across the shoulder. He smiles with enjoyment.

"Why am I not surprised you said that?" she says.

"I don't know."

"It was rhetorical... You are most definitely a lawyer…. I should have had my head examined coming here knowing that."

"Now who's being flattering? Anyway, I think what we're doing here is a few steps up from practicing law."

"I don't want to fight, okay. Just tell me the story. Why did you lose the case?"

"I didn't lose it. There was no one to take up the case after the accident, no family, so we had to end suit. The kid became a ward of the state and went away to some home, some institution." He pauses, thinking. "But you could say nothing happened him."

"How is that possible?"

"He has no memory of what happened. Think about it."

He wonders if she understands the metaphysics of his statement, if she wonders, or perhaps suspects that he is toying with her. He likes to pride himself on what he considers to be his own intelligence. Perhaps, he thinks, it is during these mental sparring matches that she doubts the verity of his stories, much less the importance.

She says, "It's as if he was never there."


"But he was there. remember it, so it did happen."

He breathes deep. He feels it is always a competition with her. He cuts another two lines and lets her go first. She sucks up both lines with the speed of a Mamba and sits up with her tongue sticking out.

"That was cute."

She cuts him two lines, her teeth beginning to chatter away. He does them with equal veracity.

"Okay," he says, "look at it this way. It's a busy day, you're walking down the street, you got a lot on your mind. You step off the curb and WHAM! get hit by a bus. You didn't see it coming, but you know it know there was a change, that something changed...something happened. You're dead. But what if there was no memory of something happening, that something changed? How could you know it happened? How could you know there was a change, that one minute was different from the next?"

"Yes, but how do you know that he had absolutely no memory at all? I mean, did he tell you that? He may remember something."

He knows she understands what he means, and he is resentful of the fact that she is making him explain himself, exposing the frailty of his pride.

"Sure," he says, "he may remember something, but he wouldn't know where it was supposed to be. It would be disjointed, out of place. He wouldn't know if it happened at the end of one minute or the beginning of the next...or the fourth or the fifth. He wouldn't be aware of any change because it would always be changing."

Delila, restless, snaps, "actually he'd be dead, so what difference would it make."

They lock eyes. "He didn't die. I told you that."

"That's right. So you just let him go and that was that?"

"It wasn't my choice...I had nothing to do with it."

"You were his lawyer."

"I was nobody," he says quietly. "I was just an appendage."

She crushes out her cigarette and rises. "Way to take initiative," she says, and moves over to the bed, sitting on the edge.

"What are you, the voice of my conscience? It's not even relevant anymore. Nobody wrote it down."

She lights a match, holds it to her face. "Everything you've ever done has been written down somewhere. You're not the only one keeping tabs."

Seamus giggles, placing his hands to his face in mock-fear and shaking them back and forth, saying, "Oooooooooooo." He rises, casting a look of intolerance in her general direction as he shuffles back to the kitchen to pour more coffee. She raises her hand to protest another cup, but quickly demurs out of habit or perhaps a desire to demur. He sits, places the hot mugs on the same spots, fitting them into the stain rings. He cuts two more lines, and begins to roll a joint.

"Let's smoke some of it," she says, "I've never done that."

No less distracted, Seamus says, "Forget it."

"Why not?"

"You don't want to go down that road, trust me?"

"I don't see much difference. Give me one good reason why we shouldn't?"

"We like each other now. We wouldn't like each much longer if we did that."

"Can I just try it?"

"Just smoke this," he says, handing her a joint. "I will not be responsible for any further self-degradation on your part."

She laughs and lights the joint. His head drops quickly and he recommences rolling at the same fevered pace. She leans back, shaking her head, half amused, half annoyed. She passes the joint to him, but he lights his own in the same instant. They recline and smoke.

He smiles at Delila, and his gaze begins to travel down her body, remarking the soft, round folds of her chest, the sharp, angular definition of the muscles in her arms and shoulders, and her tiny, asymmetrical feet. He places a hand on her knee and feels goose flesh spring to attention. He reaches up her thigh, looking for a glimpse of where her powerful legs meet her torso. Folds of swelling pink skin emerge from the sides of her non-descript, white underwear, and he feels the prickly sensation of blood flowing through his hips. His hand reaches across her and he kisses her neck. She does not respond, staring away. He thinks that perhaps she is restraining herself. He tries to force his hand deeper, but she does not ease the way. He understands that she does not feel he deserves it right now, despite how much she herself wants it. After a moment, with no change in the tension of her legs or the timbre of her breath, he leans back to look upon her face, his hand still wedged defiantly between her thighs as his underwear protrudes before him in an absurdly humiliating gesture.

"What?" he says.

"Is that why you left?"

"Is what why I left?"

"Is that why you stopped being a lawyer?"

He removes his hand and scoots himself back to the opposite side of the couch. They face each other like arm wrestlers, preparing to battle.

"I don't know...maybe."

"You're not amusing me."

"I'm not trying to. It's just a lot more complicated than that."

"So talk to me about it. What else have we got to do?"

He smirks, knowing he should say nothing but ignoring his instincts. "I can think of a thing or two."

She grunts, frustrated by the adolescent smugness of this veiled request.

"Is that all you want?"

"All I want is a little piece of mind."

"Fine. I'm going back to sleep. You can have your peace of mind."

Delila returns to the bed, falling heavily across the mattress. Seamus gathers up the coffee mugs and brings them to the sink, dropping them loudly. He glances over to the bed with no result. She has turned away from him. He stands for a few moments, listening to the wind outside, the creaking of the floors, the drip drip dripping of the faucet and the drip drip dripping of his sinus cavity. He turns and opens the cabinet to the right of the sink and removes a cardboard shoebox. Taking it to the table, he sits, flipping the top off noisily, reaching inside. The box is filled with letters written on bizarre stationary: pages from a magazine, napkins, toilet paper wrappers, air sickness bags, tiny notebooks and the inside jackets of novels. Randomly, he extracts one of her letters, turns it over in his hands. He reads the sharp, erratic writing.

I spend my days on the floor staring at the ceiling wondering what you look like. I picture you as an angry, brooding creature, snarling at the walls, screaming at shadows, your hair standing on end... Is the floor worn from your pacing? Has the paint on the walls bubbled under the heat of your loneliness? From where I lay the walls are cold and the paint hard. Perhaps some day you can warm them...

Your Mystery Woman...

He drops her letter back into the box to rest with the others and leans back in his chair, placing his arms behind his head.

He hears nothing but the wind and the pounding within his ears, reminiscent of a heartbeat but too loud, too erratic to be a rhythm. He tries to remember when he first read that letter, how it came to him, but all he remembers are fragments of his response, the ramshackle memories of a young man caught between something and nothing, a man he hardly remembers being. Now the material needs of the body had replaced the metaphysical desires of the soul. He grapples with the question of whether or not he betrayed himself, but it is an old, tired argument for which he no longer possesses the strength nor the conviction to pursue any longer. He replaces the lid on the box of letters and puts the box back onto the dark shelf and closes the door. Then he sits at the edge of the bed next to her. He touches her head.

"How do you admit that you gave up without seeming like you didn't care?" he says, more to himself than to her, but still, somehow, expecting an answer.

"If you did good, even if only a little bit, you shouldn't feel any shame."

"But I do. And I just walked away and became a non-entity. I crawled into this little prison and I haven't left since."

"Am I supposed to pity you?"

"No, you're supposed to understand."

"I see. Am I here to give you absolution?"

"I don't need to be absolved."

"You don't? Then what?"

"You don't understand?"

"Do you wish you were dead?"

"If it were only that simple. I don't need to look at myself to understand my feelings...or lack of. I can't say I'm happy...isn't that obvious?"


"It's so difficult to try and explain."

"No it's not, it's quite simple. Despair is simple. You just don't want to talk."

"What do you want me to say?"

"It's what you want to say."

"Which is little to nothing."

"But you'll expound on your death wish from here to eternity."

"It's not a death wish... It''s just like..."

"Don't back out now."

"It's like in that dream I had. I was reborn as a Siamese twin, joined at the heart to another mirror version of myself. I remember trying to move around but being hindered with every step. At some point I thought of severing the connection between us but was overcome with the knowledge that if I did so, it would invariably lead to both of our deaths. I was forced to accept that for myself to exist, so too did my twin. At some point you entered the dream, and then ran away in horror. And still I am afraid to cut away the other half for fear that I too may die in the process, that we are intertwined in some inescapable, malevolent symbiosis. But it begs the questions as to why I am so bound to this other part, this other half of me? It's woven itself into my psyche, and it wants me to suffer. As of this moment I have no idea what it is. I want to kill that part of me. That is who I want dead."

"You want escape. You want to give up."


"You have given up."

"No, it's not that. You don't understand."

"Make me understand."

He rises, agitated, moves slowly to the window, his fists clenched tightly. He closes his eyes, breathes, relaxes.

"I didn't give up on the world, the world gave up on me."

"That's awfully convenient, isn't it?"

"It's the truth. I don't need to stand here and convince you. Things happened, and I can't change them."

He pauses, then waves his hand.

"The rest I choose not to remember."

"You owe it to him to remember."

"And what does he owe me?"

Delila, disgusted, turns back away from him, towards the dark wall and the faint hint of a shadow darting in the corner, muttering, "Always the lawyer, always arguing. You can't argue with fate, Seamus. Didn't anyone ever tell you that?"

Seamus rubs his arms in search of warmth. He returns to his couch and sits, feeling her slipping away.

"What do you think of me?" he says.

"I think you're like a ten year old boy with the mind of a seventy-year old trapped inside the body of a mentally-unstable man in his early thirties."

What she said does not surprise him, rather it gives him chance to think about how many ways one can be a child, and how retreating to a less responsible state of being is convenient in the face of accountability. He rises again from the couch, restless, caffeinated, nicotated, cocanated, awash in ponderous inertia. He returns to the secure confines of the window, framing himself against a backdrop of blue and shadow, holding himself against the chill and the penetrating inquiries from across the room. He appears to whither, receding further, back into the darkest corner where his form is swallowed up by the cracks and crevices of the old, painted-over molding. His geometric limbs become part of the architecture, his head sags as he stares painfully at the floor.

"I don't know where any of this begins or ends," he says. "I wish you understood."

"I understand. You came looking for me."

"I did not."

"You posted that message online: looking for companion. You made it abundantly clear what this engagement entailed. We negotiated time and money and we committed ourselves to it. You bring the coke, I'll bring the weed. No emotional ties necessary…"

"I get your point."

"But then you kept writing me these letters and I began to see your personality emerging and I believed you were sincere..."

"...that's past tense now?..."

"...and somehow you actually convinced yourself it would be a good idea for me to follow through with all this."

"Well, obviously I'm not the only one who thought it was a good idea..."

"...I thought you needed me, needed have no idea how desperate you sounded."

"And you came to rescue me with drugs and sex. How quaint."

She pauses, perhaps insulted, perhaps hoping things aren't about to spin out of control, into that realm where emotional daggers are thrown for the sole purpose of maiming, but never to kill outright. He feels himself fighting her off, refusing to let even a finger caress his face despite his overwhelming need to be taken up into her soul and cradled. He has pride, and it is choking him, slowly.

"Has anything good come of this?" he says. "I'd hate to think of all this as just...wasted time."

She looks at him, deadpan, emotionless by visage, but in tumult just behind her hard, crystalline eyes.

"I think the only thing I'm thankful for is that I now know a fantasy should always remain a fantasy."

Motionless, flat and toneless, he replies, "That's really unfair."

"If I thought you cared, I'd say more. You don't care about me Seamus just admit it, it won't kill you. You're just lonely and you're broken by this guilt and regret and self-hatred and you're too afraid to go through it alone. You want me to be a receptacle for you, in any way you can define that. You want me to be this loving and nurturing creature that will make you feel good about yourself again, if only for a fleeting instant, while also pandering to your frail, male sexual ego. How can you put that kind of responsibility on someone?"

"You walked into this with open eyes."

He says nothing, staring wide-eyed at the floor. He gets up and does more cocaine, and she gets up herself and does more as well.

With a calm, measured understanding, almost condescendingly, she says, "you don't want me, you just want someone."

"You can be cruel," he says.

"When it suits you it's honesty, when it betrays you it's cruelty."

"We can go around in circles all night."

"Night's just about over, baby."

He turns and faces the frosting glass window, hearing only the wind and the sound of his own breathing.

"It all seems a lifetime ago," he says. She senses the shift in his tone. "Maybe he's still out there, still wandering around lost in his own backyard, unable to even recognize that anything has happened to him. Maybe he's there and walking in circles and he can't see that he's going over the same ground because he never remembers being there in the first place, and his footprints are covered up or blown away. And he thinks about his family and his dog but he can't remember having a need or desire or impulse to see them so he just continues to wander around, and he is not sad...he's just...lost. That's about the size of it. Lost...inside his own mind...and way deep down in me...because I promised to help him. But where am I?"

He turns around to face Delila, his arms dropping to his sides, then reaching out plaintively.

"What happened to you?"

"I did the wrong thing, and I paid for it.

He looks at her. "How are we supposed to react to each other? He pauses, smiling at the irony. "I know nothing about you."

"You finally admit it," she says.

"So then it was a total waste."

"Maybe when we wrote the letters, we wrote them to ourselves, not to each other. Just like now when we talk we're not listening to each other, we're just waiting for our turn to speak. We are here, not for each other, but for you..."

"Well, now that we've formally met, I can admit I don't know you. But I would."

A glimmer fills her eyes, and she smiles. It disturbs him, the power of her expression.

"Of course you would," she says. "You've always known me. You just hadn't given me a name."

She rises, moves towards him and slides into his arms and kisses him aggressively, then stops. He looks down into her face and smiles, giggling like a little boy. She looks back coldly.

"I'm not doing this for you," she says. "This is for me. I have needs too, you know."

She kisses him again, but Seamus stops her, reluctantly.

"What's going to happen to us?" he says.

"Nothing that hasn't happened already."

He pauses, wavering indecisively, then picks her up and drops her on the bed, falling on top of her, feeling the broad muscles of her legs squeeze his hips as her pelvis pushes hard against him. Then, she goes slack, motionless, laying her arms above her head and gazing up at him with total submission, perhaps knowing that within this contrivance lies not submission but complete control. He removes her underwear and slides his hand between her legs, and only her eyes respond. Even as he rolls into position and pushes himself deep inside her, trembling with furious tension, she remains passive and relaxed, unflinching, allowing herself to be rocked back and forth as the shadows of the ceiling jar out of focus. Her mouth opens just slightly, revealing the barest hint of a gasp, to the lover above her, who drives himself into oblivion.


Aside from being the Politics and Non-Fiction Editor for 3am Magazine, Charles Shaw is an emerging fiction writer. He graduated from Boston University in 1992 where he studied fiction under Saul Bellow, Derek Walcott, Leslie Epstein, and George Higgins. He was also an intern with the famed Partisan Review before he ever understood a lick about good writing. After 10 years, his debut novel, Unfinished Portraits, will finally be gracing readers everywhere in 2003. His fiction has appeared parsimoniously in 3am Magazine and Flat Bike & Banged Head. He lives in Chicago, although he is quick to point out the city is no longer the way Saul Bellow wrote about it. He is proud to present us with his favorite story, based upon a conversation he had with his unconscious.

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