by Matt Lattanzi
She built the machine in her dreams. A perfect steel contraption: charged through synapse and designed with fragments of memories, hopes, dreams and fears. Over time the machine grew in scope, not only feeding on her dreams, but encapsulating them. And on the night the machine drifted into the ocean, the dream became flesh.
In the morning she awoke, her husband lying next to her with his arms slung over her body like the coils of a rope. She gazed out the window as the purpled sunlight bled the dark from the morning sky; a hard thrust freed her from her husband’s arms. She contemplated his pale skin and bulky frame as she reached into her nightstand. Fumbling over a small vibrator and a bulky romance novel, her hands steadied around a butterfly knife; the steel was ice in her warm hands. With slow, methodical precision she carved another notch in the headboard of her bed, a reminder of her dreams; and wiped the wood shavings onto the floor.
The only good thing about waking up this early is that you know the day couldn’t possibly get any worse, she mourned. The bed creaked as she leaned forward to rub the mucus from her eyes. There was a short pause as she played with the knife and ran through the day’s mental checklist: build, relax, breakfast for her husband, nap, work, home, dinner for her husband, television, sleep. Once in a while her husband would pressure her for sex or her mother would call to chat, but seldom did any major deviations occur in her plans. Today will be different. I know a signal will arrive. I’m headed for the ocean.
A deep sigh and a glance at her husband gave her resolve sinew. She rubbed the edge of the blade with her finger; the sharpness shocked her nerves to complete alertness. “Almost there,” she whispered as she plunged the butterfly knife into the muscle of her left arm and carved off a thick portion of flesh. After a long, dramatic grimace of pain and a powerful rush of blood, the skin and meat peeled away to reveal a pulsing mess of tendons. It oozed red and quivered like pistons inside a machine. The human body is so strange and interesting, she reflected. How, then, do we end up so boring on the outside?
She plucked the loose skin and meat from out of her lap and dangled it in her hand. The texture was soft and brittle, almost as if it were the wings of a butterfly. She stretched it until it resembled silly putty and placed it on a towel under her bed.
It took a few bandages, a bottle of antiseptic and two rolls of gauze to stop the bleeding, but afterward she felt clear direction wash over her. With arm wrapped tight, she wandered to the kitchen and poured a glass of orange juice. She chewed on the thick pulp and wondered if human flesh tasted anything like it. It was only morbid curiosity that posed this question; her skin was too valuable to waste on a breakfast snack.
A brief examination of early morning infomercials on the television resulted in the spontaneous purchase of: perfume, a china doll, a riding crop and a teeth whitening kit. A mischievous resentment made her charge it all to her husband’s credit card. Bastard’s going to be pissed, she smirked.
After loading some laundry into the washing machine, she grabbed the towel from under her bed, made her way to her study room and locked the door. It was the only room in the house that was all hers, her ‘off-limits’ retreat, created under the guise of a home office. Her husband had only fleeting interest in her work life, so he never bothered to question the locked door and the secrets it concealed; for all he knew it could have contained orgies, a meth lab or the corpse of Jimmy Hoffa.
In the study, she laid out the fresh skin, warm and gooey, on the antique maple desk. It stuck to her fingers and proved difficult to peel off without wrinkling. It was a common routine, starting with the fourth occurrence of her dream, so it wasn’t much cause for distress. She smiled bitterly and used the friction of the dried wood to slide the patch of flesh from her fingers. With her hands free to work, she pulled the blueprint from out of the cupboard. She had spent a month sketching it, culled from the mental flashes of her nightly visions.
In the corner, next to the bookcase, was the machine itself. A jumbled mess of steel and tin with patches of greenish skin drooping from the metal skeleton like the image of a man who has suddenly lost a great deal of weight. It was box-shaped and bulky with a diamond protrusion mimicking an eye at the top. A long cylinder ran down the edge and fed power to a heater in the stomach of the machine. The strong odor of embalming fluid and cleaning supplies radiated from it with the force of an exploding star.
She stretched her fresh skin over the tube; it fizzled as it came in contact with the solution soaked metal. With her left hand she flattened the patch, removing all the bubbles. Her heart thudded as she caressed the smooth skin, fascinated by the memory of where it came from and what it had become. Her damaged arm tingled as if celebrating the memory of its fallen soldier.
“Just one more piece,” she murmured, her throat choking back an explosive joy.
Her husband typically woke at 8:30, so she relocked her study door and returned to the kitchen. Oblivious to her surroundings, her hands began work on breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast. It wasn’t until the bacon began to sizzle that she became aware of what she was doing. She stared in disgust as the grease ran along the edges of the pan, popping in the air as the fatty bacon trembled in the goo.
“Good morning,” her husband grumbled as he slinked into his chair, “how’d you sleep?”
It took a moment to process the words. ‘Good’ and ‘morning.’ She heard these words every day, she responded to them every day, but they took on no definitive meaning. She let them tumble around in her head, conjuring images of desert sands and a wide, rolling ocean.
“Fine,” her mouth fumbled as her mind continued to spiral his words over and over again in her head. She looked at her arm and thought about the pulsing tendons and gushing blood that lay buried beneath the skin. “Good morning” seemed such an inadequate greeting for an organism as complicated as a human being.
Her husband spread his newspaper across the dining room table and absentmindedly swallowed his breakfast. She watched him in silence and itched the bandage covering her wound. At precisely 9:25, he folded up the paper and brought his empty dish to the sink. The sound of the water frightened her and she spun around to face him. His eyes were caught by the thick white cloth, frayed by blood, wrapped around his wife’s arm.
“Goddamn it, I thought we’d sorted out these nightmares,” he mumbled as he put his arms around her.
She didn’t provide a response, she just looked out the window and toward the sky, mesmerized by a hummingbird flitting from tree to tree.
“I’ll call the doctor again. We can’t have this happening every time you fall asleep.”
She nodded. She looked in his eyes and remembered how gentle and comforting they used to be to her. When she was younger, his wide brown eyes would reach into her and pull out her anxieties and dissect them, replacing all doubts with the image of a crystalline ocean and golden sands. That power faded with time and in their wake was a mild recognition of the life that was once promised her.
He kissed her softly on the lips and held her for, what felt like, a purgatorial eternity. She pressed her ear against his chest and listened to the blood flowing to and from his heart. He spoke to her softly, but the thudding of his heartbeat drowned out any conversation. If only your voice was half as interesting as your circulatory system, I might not want to break your jaw so badly. She fought back the urge to knee him in the genitals and batter his head in with a frying pan; the desire ultimately subsided when she decided the action may be considered rude and unladylike.
He broke his embrace and put on his jacket. “Please try to work through this,” he sighed as he walked out the door. She lingered in the kitchen for a moment longer and then headed back to the bedroom for a nap. It was her Wednesday routine, the only morning she had the house to herself. This routine had become a pleasure for her, and she found that she slept far better when her husband was away. It was suddenly just her, the bed and her bright, beautiful dreams.
In her slumber, she located her machine and crawled deep inside it. It had maintained its course along the ocean while she was away. The waters slapped at the box and the unblinking eye penetrated the dark sky, setting an unwavering course along an unknown path. Despite the uncertainty of the venture, she felt no fear as long as the eye could stare straight ahead into the distance. With destination undecided, she curled into a ball and rested, warm and content, soothed by the rocking of the waves.
Birds circled above her head: seagulls, vultures and crows. They squawked to her in the haunting language of birds: “Join me,” “fly with me,” “your machine is so beautiful,” “give me a blow job.” Their words sparkled like diamonds on their tongues.
She wondered how she could understand them. It was the first time their words took on any meaning and she was surprised they were so encouraging—except for the perverted one who kept pressing her for oral sex. No matter how bad my life gets, I will not give head to a vulture, she resolved. She quickly she understood the reason for her sudden insight; she had merged with the eye of her machine. It’s time.
When she woke from her dream, she made another notch in the headboard. There was a moment of preparation before she drove the knife into her leg, carving off the entirety of her calf. Blood soaked the carpet and a nicked artery squirted crimson onto her shirt.
Her attempt to rise from her bed was momentarily aborted as she struggled to retain consciousness. She was growing weaker every second and spots were flickering in the air around her.
“This will be worth it. I know it will.”
She didn’t bother to bandage herself up much; she just wrapped the leg with a towel to delay the bleeding. Her heart trembling, she limped into her study room and stretched the last piece of flesh across the tubing of her machine. It took several tries to stretch it across, and at one dire moment she almost thought she hadn’t cut off enough. But, eventually the struggle ended and the system was in place, revealing a near-perfect replica of the machine she had previously known only in her dreams.
After a brief click and an extended whirring sound, the flesh began to glow. The diamond-shaped eye rotated, focusing its wild stare directly into her body. The eye blinked twice and refocused its attention to the window, angling itself to the sky. She reached up and felt the contours of her machine. The cold, dry feel of dead flesh was gone; the entire body was warm and soft. She poked it, letting bits of dried blood cling to her fingers.
The slamming of the front door jolted her. She quickly realized her husband must have come home on his lunch break to check on her. She hurried out of the study and locked the door, stunned by the pain in her skinless calf and nicked vein. She stumbled through the hallway and started down the steps, feeling herself getting dizzy from loss of blood. She clutched the rail, but found it impossible to sustain herself. Overcome by weakness, she crumpled to the ground, the stairs tossing her body downward like a rag doll.
It was here that her husband discovered her, legs wrapped around the railing, a reddened towel unfurled; the fleshless calf of his unconscious wife was revealed; blood sprayed the air in a fine mist.
She found herself in the belly of her machine, floating in the ocean and warmed by the undying fire in the pit of her creation. She sat there for an unknown period, no desire to move or change, just float. Above her flew black and white seagulls that called and called for her to join them. The seagulls were joined by the vultures and crows. All of their bodies were featherless, instead they were made of human skin with the veins and organs wrapped around the outside of the flesh—as if their veins were twine holding the skin on the creatures. They dripped blood from the sky and the pounding of their organs roared like thunder over the ocean.
From outside of the machine, she heard her husband call to her. His voice came from the mouth of a large, man-fleshed shark that swam in circles around her. His eyes were black and beady. His teeth were giant knives that pricked his gums as they moved up and down. His tongue was a long snake that coiled around his teeth whenever he talked.
“Darling, I want to wake you. I want to devour you. I want you in my stomach forever and ever.”
She opened the door in the front of her machine. The hinges creaked loudly as it swung outward. The flames from the furnace spewed over the water. She looked at her husband. His eyes were needy and helpless, blackened with hungry desperation.
“I won’t let you do that. I’m leaving you,” she yelled firmly.
She felt her arms grow weak, she tried to lower them, but she couldn’t muster the strength. They remained suspended mid-air before falling from her sockets. Blood sprayed purple and yellow into the air; it mingled with the flames of the furnace, turning it into a black powdery smoke. Her arms bounced off the side of the machine and landed into the hungry jaws of her shark-husband. He chewed them savagely, his tongue rattling in excitement.
“Delicious,” he said, smacking his lips, “Hey, do you remember the night I proposed to you? Do you remember the stars as they slid across the snow globe of the earth? We were sitting on your porch smoking cigarettes. Ha, there were no worries of cancer back then. I took you by the hand and led you to the pavilion at the edge of your pond. The fish bubbled to the surface and I promised to care for you until every creature on this planet had become a shark.”
She listened to him, growing misty and depressed. She no longer had the arms to wipe away her tears so she let them pour down her face. She contemplated diving into the jaws of the beast. Let him swallow you. It’s still an escape.
The machine bounded over a sudden wave and crashed under water for a split-second. She pressed her legs against the frame of the door to prevent herself from tumbling into the ocean. The machine hit a second wave; her legs snapped in the impact. Shards of bone scattered through the air, piercing her body like acupuncture needles.
The shark closed his eyes and opened his mouth.
“Did you know that I have both a penis and a vagina? They are totally awesome,” he informed her, munching on her shattered leg bones.
The perverted vulture from her dream fluttered into her machine. “It’s true. His penis is really great.”
The vulture made strange noises as his wings smacked around in the furnace. It swooped toward her face and she could see maggots crawling out of its eyes. It had opened its jaw and prepared to close it around her head, when the creature flew too close to the flames. Its human flesh melted; its skeleton darkened. As its bones turned to ash, it looked up at her and cackled, “Please, before I die, give me one blow job.”
She tried to roll out of the machine as the creature exploded. The shark watched curiously as her torso dangled off the edge of the machine.
“I can make my head spin in circles and feel no nausea. Don’t be jealous,” he yelped.
Suddenly there was a loud thud from beneath her and she was knocked back into the pit of her creation. The machine had run over the shark, crushing it with its weight. The body was crumpled and torn apart in the motor. Chunks of intestine and skin were tossed up into the exhaust of the machine, causing the apparatus to sputter.
Soaked with the insides of the shark, she shut her eyes to block out the violence that was ruining her dream; when they opened again, she found herself on the floor of her kitchen. She had the body of her twenty-eight year old self. Her husband was rinsing his hands in the sink, a cigarette dangled from his lips.
“That shit will give you cancer,” she told him.
He looked at her tenderly and put out the cigarette with the water.
He sat down at the dinner table and shuffled through a couple bills. His face was focused intently on the papers, his mind doing rapid calculations.
“Why the hell is the electric bill so high this month?” he asked no one is particular.
She picked herself off the floor and walked behind him. She draped her arms around his neck.
“You know, I was thinking, maybe it’s time to discuss that thing we’ve been putting off.”
He turned to her, his heart skipping a beat, “You’re ready to try anal?”
She laughed, “No, dummy, can’t you take anything serious? I’m talking about the other thing.”
He let out a short sigh and laid down the bills. He pulled his wife down to her knees and grabbed her hand.
“Honey, we’ve been through this, now just isn’t a good time. We don’t have the money to support a family, especially since one of us would have to quit our job to take care of a child.”
She pulled her hand away and frowned.
“It’s not even a family I want as much as change. Nothing has changed in the last five years we’ve been married. Nothing at all. I just can’t do this every day.”
He looked at her with a kindness that expanded as her melancholy shrank. He brushed a strand of hair from her face and rested his fingers on her cheek.
“I’ve shaved my pubes for you. That’s something.”
Her husband stood up from his seat. His body shook violently; his shoulder blades expanded into wings. His long nose grew even longer and curved into a beak. His skin turned to black feathers and he cawed with an intensity that shook the entire house.
She screamed. Never before had she never hated anyone as much as she hated her husband in that moment. Her anger grew until it drained her of her will to breathe. Lightness filled her head and she fell back on the kitchen floor.
When she regained consciousness, she found that her body was gone. There was a feeling of separation. Without a body, she found it easier to survey the world around her. At last she had merged with the eye of her machine.
She had an exhilarating sense of self to be a part of her creation, a power of complete knowledge. With the eye she could see herself burning in the machine, and she saw her body in a hospital bed punctured by tubes; she saw the boundless ocean and the infinite sky. She could see herself thrust from her mother’s womb into the arms of a mid-wife, and could see the dirt shoveled on her grave. As her eye widened, she could see maggots crawling in her bones and butterflies blooming in her stomach. The only thing she could no longer see was the flesh of man. Everyone had become a walking display of human anatomy.
Beneath her eye, the machine grew wings of tufted feathers. They flapped up and down against the waves. They curled and stretched, causing the birds to fall from the sky around it. Her machine spread its wings and flew toward the moon, past the birds, past the clouds, burning the stars and flickered in the night. Then the machine exploded; its particles dispersed into the stretches of outer space.
It was a week after his wife’s funeral when he found the machine. The smell in the room was overwhelming. Merely approaching the hallway caused uncontrollable vomiting.
He didn’t have the key to the study room, so he kicked in the door. The machine was tucked away in the corner, glowing and humming. The triangular eye focused on him and shut. He cautiously approached it, examining the twisted steel and rotting flesh.
He ran his hand along the warm contours. He could feel it breathe in and out. He could feel it pulse. His knees trembled and a scream rose in his throat. What the fuck was she doing in here?
There was a large box in the center of the machine. A small doorway was attached to it. He twisted the knob, opened the box and was greeted by flames. He held up his arms to protect his body from the fire. The heat singed his hair, roared against his flesh. He backed away, unable to shut the door.
He sank down in the desk chair, just in time to watch a charred skeleton tumble from the flames. He held his breathe and rushed to it. It showed no form of ashing and was as intact as any healthy bones would be. Inexplicably he knew exactly who the body belonged to. With tears in his eyes, he covered his face and lay next to the corpse. He put his arms around it and hugged it tight. Tears soaked into the carpet and his pain oozed with it.
The eye at the top of the machine sprung back to life. It analyzed the man with complete curiosity. The eye rolled backward, confused. It could see into the depths of time, but somehow this one simple action mystified it. It could never have anticipated this moment, the husband lying next to the corpse, holding it, crying. To the eye, the image was the most interesting thing in the galaxy. To the man, the behavior was the most natural thing in the world.
Matthew Lattanzi was a YSU student. He graduated. When the sun aligns with the shadow of Jupiter he will return. Matthew Lattanzi is a conservative paradigm. He is cocky, but not self assured. He is the best part of waking up, but is not Folgers coffee. He can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Criminally undernourished. Neo-fetishist. Twice dead, seven times resurrected. Misery opportunist. Death in a pink skirt. This is Matthew Lattanzi.