The man reached for my chest. I could not move or scream. “What’s wrong?” he said. “You agreed to this, remember?” His fingers were knives. They pierced my skin. Blood ran down his arm as his hand plunged deeper and deeper…
That was the part when I woke, clutching my chest. I got up and opened the curtain.
It was already noon. The hotel walls were a pale, scratched green, like the color of hibiscus leaves beset with white flies. At one time, those walls were a hue that would have been soothing, but decay had made them splotchy, unsightly, rather like the metropolis in which I lived.
A tent card, old and limp, advertised a nearby brothel. A muted TV showed a nautilus consuming a crab, its legs disappearing through rippling tentacles.
Like a barnacle on a ship, I had attached myself to Coraldeth, a company. I was constantly pushing out tendrils in the hope of catching something, and I had just caught a juicy one. I sat down at my computer and communicated my plans for this new project.
Years ago, I worked with animals in a small office, I think. Dogs and cats, I think. One day a man approached me and offered a different career. I cannot remember his name or his face, but I must have agreed.
I started work with Coraldeth. The preparation for my new job involved darkness, needles, and blood, but at the end of it I became a resourceful talent manager.
The Metro was a huge city, sucking life out of the districts that surrounded it. If I had ever been to those places, I could not remember them. The city was a giant hive, but unlike bees, no one worked for the collective good. I knew I did not.
Many girls arrived at The Metro from the districts, transfixed with the sound of the buzzing hive, the movement, the opportunity. Those girls would do anything to escape the rural poverty and oppressive local government. I did not blame them.
In desperation for something resembling the family they had just left, they clung to their old religion, like a hermit crab to its shell. The Metro had churches for them, of course. The girls did not understand that the churches were rotten like all the other institutions of this foul city.
I had sourced all my girls from the churches. I felt comfortable there. The talent was just the right kind for me to use. I was the only manager who recruited this way.
Leilani was my juicy one. She had a high forehead, large dark eyes, pouty lips, and pale skin smoothed out over an expressive face. She was soloing at St. Konan’s, a church in a vast industrial area where I had discovered many girls. They sang well but could never become stars until I had them processed.
I started with Leilani the same way I did with all the other girls. After Mass was over, I would ask to have a word. It was important to get them alone. I would tell them I was a talent scout and that I could make them a star. Their eyes would always light up.
I took Leilani to a diner where she ordered a beans and rice meal typical of her district. As she straightened her blouse, I noticed its collar had tiny kittens embroidered into it. She worked at the boot mill, a foul facility that made its workers silly with the chemicals they used. Back where she came from, her mother limped on her left foot when she was tired, and her father always asked the same question about dinner when he arrived home to a household with six daughters and three sons.
Besides singing at her church, she also taught religion to the children and visited the old folks’ home. I chewed on my BLT sandwich and kept her talking. I would need to get her far away from this parish.
I told Leilani about being a star, and that a large entertainment organization with the right connections was necessary. I told her that Coraldeth could make her famous and that everyone would want to see her. I also told her that every star needs to have cosmetic work done.
She was nodding her head. She took the “cosmetic work” without reacting, so I moved in to close the deal. I told her that all my stars underwent a special procedure which turned ordinary people into spectacular singers. I gave her examples of celebrities that Coraldeth had already transformed. Leilani hung on every word.
I pulled out a contract for her to sign while I casually lied about other prospects I was about to choose from that day. I pointed out the pay, the benefits, and the support. I neglected to mention how the procedure causes lost memory, and other long-term health problems. The money always helped. As soon as I gave them money, they would give me their trust. They would quit their jobs and be ready to do anything.
She signed immediately. She did not even ask about the side effects of the procedure.
Once they signed, I took my projects to “Doctor Ernie,” a fat old sea slug of a man. In the middle of his loose jowls sat a small mouth with jutting lips, usually hanging open. His rapacious smile displayed rows of chipped teeth. He would laugh when I called him “Doctor Ernest” in front of the girls. They often got nervous at this point, and I had to work hard to keep them calm. Leilani asked to bring a friend. I told her there was no time, and that I would look after her.
The procedure took a couple of hours. I waited in a nearby park that had a half-dried lake and occasional patches of grass. A homeless man approached me and held out his hand.
I told him I had something for him. Putting some gloves on, I walked around to an alley adjoining the park. The surprised look on his face when I caught him on my backhanded fist was amusing. So was his ragdoll appearance on the ground when I walked away.
My projects usually needed a few days to recover. After some rehearsing, I would take them to The Docks, a lawless part of The Metro with foreigners, money, and contraband.
Kids thronged to “Squawkers,” a night club where aspiring musicians could get a start. The chain link fence had trash wedged into its openings. Puddles of luminescent waste filled the potholes, and the night hid the faded paint on the outside walls. Inside, the tired smell of cigarettes and addictive drugs filled the air. It was there that Leilani gave her first performance.
I had recruited the band from lists that Coraldeth provided me. The musicians came to gigs with their tattoos, colored hair, filed teeth and surgically altered appendages. I ignored their appearances and paid them, making everyone happy.
The chaotic slam of drums destroyed the pre-performance quiet. A guitar screech was so loud you did not need ears to hear it. Leilani started jumping across the front of the stage, screaming, and thrashing with such energy that her body parts barely seemed connected. The band banged out song after song with wrenching intensity and the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy.
At the end of the evening the band milked its final note, while Leilani ran from one side of the stage to the other, screaming and crashing into the musicians. They laughed. When the curtain fell, she stood rooted just behind it while the musicians put away their gear.
“Leilani, why are you standing there like that?” I asked. She turned to me. Emotion twisted her face as she realized she had finished her first successful concert. She sprinted in my direction and slammed into my chest, nearly throwing me to the floor. Her tiny body convulsed with sobs as she clung to me.
She was so different from my other girls. Usually, they would strut off stage with the cold arrogance of an established star, waiting for everyone to bow down and worship. Ernie’s procedure was supposed to take the emotion out of my projects, but it did not work this time. I did not report this to my bosses. Leilani had made a lot of money for everyone that night.
Just as strange, Leilani continued going to church every Sunday. Again, I did nothing. She was far away from St. Konan’s, and the schedules of churches and night clubs rarely conflict. Protective of my investment, I accompanied her, and even got to know the pastor. But she no longer sang as cantor. She belonged to me.
After church we would sit outside for donuts and coffee. She would gaze at me with those surgically enhanced eyes and ask me questions. I could not remember much about my past, so I described my job. I told her a few stories of how I handled club owners who did not pay. She looked at me like a small child, infatuated with a grandpa. She made fun of the gray on my temples, laughed at my jokes, and called me “Papi.”
She would break off pieces of her donut and feed them to the pigeons as they surrounded her. I would laugh, and she would hide her face.
And what a voice. No disappointments with the procedure this time. Leilani’s voice grew from two and a half octaves to five. Once, just for fun, I measured her singing with a studio oscilloscope. She nailed every pitch, exactly. With a little coaching, she mastered the use of breath, dynamics, and microphones. She could growl, yodel, and scream precisely on key, and it all came so easily to her.
Her favorite music was a kind of techno chick pop. She sang it with a gritty voice, broadening its appeal. She packed night clubs with girls who dressed like her. Then the boys came. As her celebrity grew, I could hire some of the best writers in the industry for new material.
Her emotional fits after concerts did not subside.
“Leilani, are you okay?” I asked when she was, once again, in tears.
She slapped herself in the face and grunted like a pig. “I wish I wasn’t losing it all the time. What’s my fucking problem?”
We were trapped in a spider’s web. I was hanging limp. As she shook the web with quaking emotion, blood began to flow in my veins. I also began to struggle, thinking, “maybe it is not so hopeless.”
A knock on my hotel door woke me. I opened my eyes and rolled over. I ignored the aches of my aging body as I hobbled to the door.
It was Leilani. She was looking down at the floor.
“Can we go to the zoo?”
“What time is it?” I asked, stifling a yawn.
“About ten in the morning. Can we go to the zoo? I know it’s stupid, but can we go?” Then she looked up at me with those big, merciless eyes.
It had been so long since I had been there. Would I even be able to find it?
Her eyes lit up. “Thank you. I’ll be in the lobby.”
The zoo smelled like manure and the day was hot. The enclosures, although large, had been denuded of all vegetation. Fascinated with the monkeys, she jumped around, saying “Hey monkey! Hey monkey!” Then she looked back at me, searching for any sign of disapproval. A laughing snort escaped my chest. She went back to jumping around, hooting, and calling, “Aaaack! Aaaack!”
After she figured out that I was just laughing, she leapt up and grabbed a hook under the eaves of the monkey house and swung. She kept playing the monkey, leaping around on all fours.
I was laughing all afternoon, and my chest felt a vigor it had not experienced in years. Then we got to the wolves. The enclosure had one wolf only. It was old, graying at the muzzle. Its canine gait and the way it scratched at its ears made something tighten deep in my stomach. I felt like I had a word on the tip of my tongue. Then the wolf stopped pacing and looked directly at me. Its eyes had a ravenous, longing hunger, like it had lost something long ago.
Leilani stopped jumping around and looked at me. “Papi. Are you okay?”
I shook my head as if waking. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”
We stopped in front of the pigeons in lofts. The sign described how they could always find their way home, no matter where they were. A nest holding tiny eggs was inside one of the cubbies. Leilani put her head on my shoulder. Her touch felt electric. No one had touched me in a long time.
We visited the zoo every week. I did not report any of this.
One rainy night after a concert, the limousine failed to show up and take Leilani, so I drove her myself. “Papi. Please take me up to my room,” she said as I pulled in front of the hotel. It was nice to be staying at shiny places with huge lobbies for a change. I shut off the motor and accompanied her. She needed a couple of attempts with the hotel key, but finally her door opened, revealing a pigeon walking about on the floor.
“Leilani,” I said. “Why is there a pigeon in your room?”
She covered her face and sighed.
“He crashed into my balcony window, and I couldn’t just leave him there. But he seems better now.”
She approached the bird. It was tame in her hands. “Could you open the sliding door for me please?”
I opened the door, and she walked out on the balcony. She whispered a few words to the bird, and then cast it out to the sky. Its silhouette flapped against the lights below.
“Thank you for helping me, Papi,” she said, looking up at me like a small child. That girl was such an idiot. She did not understand how I was using her.
I went out to a convenience store for some marijuana. I got the good stuff this time. I went back to my car and smoked a bowl. Then I fell asleep.
Small hands freed me from the lofts. I was overjoyed to feel the air of the sky. I knew the ground, the trees, the houses below me. My wings had awakened and knew where to go.
When my eyes opened, I was still high. I did not notice or care whether it was dark or light. I turned on the ignition, pulled out onto the street, and drove. I passed through traffic lights and rotaries. Left, left, straight, right, left, straight. I drove on and on through empty streets.
It was still dark when I pulled in front of a small set of worn identical houses by a dirt road with no sidewalk. I got out of my car and approached the third door.
The lock, like many locks in The Metro, was fingerprint activated. I pressed my hand to the device, and it turned green. I pushed. The door gave me some resistance and then it creaked open.
The walls had paintings of animals, especially dogs and cats. The air smelled of stillness, nothingness. The furniture of the sitting room was coated with dust and cobwebs. The refrigerator in the kitchen had food that was brown and rotted. Then I went into one of the bedrooms. My room.
A guitar leaned against a corner by the closet. I picked it up and sat down on the bed to tune it. I played. My fingers knew exactly what to do. The melody was in a minor key, haunting me, calling me. I thought of incense and the colors of stained-glass windows.
The song ended. I got up, put the guitar back and straightened the covers on the bed. Why did I do that? My bed. It was meticulously made.
I felt tired. The long night and the marijuana were catching up with me. I crawled back onto my bed and collapsed.
I was banging against a door. It would not open. The bones in my hands were breaking. My blood was spattering the floor. The door was beginning to crack.
I woke, went to a desk, and started digging through the drawers.
I found a small, green book in the first drawer. I paged through it and a number caught my eye. The number was in large script, and it had been crossed out in a single stroke that cut through the page. I could still read the number, however.
I picked up an old phone on the desk and heard a tone. I dialed and listened to the ringing. A woman answered.
Her voice was gentle and tired. It had a singing cadence, a lilt typical of the northern districts. I knew this voice. My eyes squinted. A response broke out from deep in my chest.
“Benjamin? Benjamin? Is that you?”
She called out away from the phone, desperation screeching through her voice. “Richard! Richard! It’s Benjamin! He’s on the phone now!”
A man’s voice took over. “Benjamin? We’re sorry. We didn’t mean any of those things we said. Where have you been? What happened to you?”
“Dad. I’m okay. I know it’s been a while.”
I felt confused. My insides felt like paper tearing into pieces.
“Wait. I don’t think I should have done this. I’m sorry. I have to go now. I’m sorry.”
“Benjamin…Wait! Don’t go! Where are you?”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Goodbye.”
I put the phone back on the desk. My fingers, shaking, sifted through the drawers. I found a photograph of a man holding a dog, with a wall of cages behind him. His head was tilted back laughing and his eyes were closed. In another photo, that same man was holding a guitar alongside a few other people. A woman held a tambourine. They were standing in front of a church. I felt sick. This man was a churchgoing, guitar-playing animal-loving pussy!
I closed the desk drawer and walked out back to my car. I got away, but the feeling that I had torn something would not go away.
Leilani had become a master of working an audience. She had a smirk that never left her face as she gestured with her microphone. Her emotion-driven performances gave her a stage presence I had never seen before. In hit after hit, her voice dominated radios and bars across the Metro.
I began staying at my old house, despite the long trips involved. I cleaned it up, painted the walls and bought new furniture. Then, Leilani started staying in the bedroom opposite mine. She tried to hide it, but she was giving food to stray animals. Whenever I found a bowl of food on the porch, she hid her face in her hands.
“I’m sorry, but he looked so hungry.”
I did not really care, but she seemed to want to hide these activities from me and even from herself.
The trajectories of my projects ran their course, like everything else of this brutal world. The fans were fickle and few of my girls had the talent necessary to continue for long.
But the fans were not the worst thing. The procedure did not take long to catch up with my projects. After a couple of years, they could not hit the high notes anymore and their pitch would deteriorate. Even worse, they would become paranoid and argumentative.
Leilani’s crying was getting worse, but at least she was still making money. Otherwise, I would have had to develop another girl quickly. I wondered how difficult moving on would be or if it was even possible. I was squeezing in concerts, and taking her to the movies, the zoo, and other outings every day.
The end came faster than I anticipated. I was coming back home with milk and burritos, and I found her seated at my computer, hanging up the phone. I felt my stomach crinkle up. Did I close out those password-protected files before I left?
Her eyes were creased, and her face was frozen. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“What you’ve done to all those other girls? Is that going to happen to me too?”
“Leilani. None of those girls were like you.”
“I suppose that means they never trusted you like I did.”
“No. It’s not like that.”
“How long before you get rid of me too? It seems like I don’t have much time left, do I?”
“Leilani. That was different. You’re different.”
“You’re lying! I’ll bet that’s what you tell all of them!” She got up and started gathering her things.
“Where are you going?”
“Away from you!” Her movements were quick and clumsy.
I was walking behind her. “Leilani! No! You’re different. I have taken you into my house. I don’t want you to go. I don’t care how many fans you have. I don’t care about the money. You don’t understand what’s really going on. Please. You have to believe me!”
She was not even looking at me. I reached out as she approached the door, and she batted my hand away like it was a snake.
A cab had arrived and was waiting to pick her up. She walked out and slammed the door. Then she was gone.
I plopped down in front of my desk and opened a tracking program on my computer. The procedure had placed a transmitter in her head. I watched a little brown dot on the computer, superimposed on a map of the city. When I figured out where she was going, I got into my car, bracing myself for what I had to do. I could have done it all remotely, but I wanted to see her.
She was going to a church nearby. I drove as creatively as possible, through alleys and across yards. When I arrived, Leilani was getting out of the cab, grim and determined.
With my previous projects, the last step was simply separating the girl and moving on. But not this time. My hands shook as I pulled out my phone and accessed the Leilani file. I wanted to throw up. I looked at Leilani and pressed “END PROJECT.”
The effect was immediate. Leilani put a hand on her right temple, stumbled, and then collapsed in front of the doors of the parish office. The procedure had given me the option of initiating what would appear to be a memory-wiping stroke, usually lethal.
A man in black emerged. He looked at her, and then at me. His eyes narrowed. He called for help and crouched down beside Leilani. I got back into my car and drove away.
I knew the pastor would not expose what he saw. He was in a government church, and Coraldeth had lots of ties with the government.
Because of Coraldeth’s connections, the public records of Leilani’s celebrity would be deleted. The star would disappear.
I sat, stuck in traffic, in places I had never seen. The sun set and traffic eased. I refueled two times as the night wore on. The sun rose again. That man in the photograph with the guitar would not go away. The words “traitor” and “murderer” kept slipping out of my mouth.
I went back home. For the next few days, I played guitar in my room. The following Sunday I drove to the church where I had last seen Leilani. My heart was pounding. What could I have been hoping to find?
I sat in the same pew where she and I sat. Mass began. Leilani had always been so emotional and so compassionate towards animals, and she hated it, considering it her worst weakness. But it was, in fact, her greatest strength.
After Mass I climbed into my car and left. I sent a text to my boss, saying I needed to talk to him.
As I pulled up to my house my vision was getting awful, like looking out through a tunnel. I had to watch the ground with every step. As I opened the door, my right temple felt like it was splitting open. Spots of brilliant colors were flying though my eyes. I pushed through the door and felt relieved that I was in my own place, instead of a hotel.
As I struggled with spiraling pain, I turned on the TV and saw a nature show. I collapsed into the bed and tried to focus on the screen as the spots and colors got bigger and bigger in my eyes.
The show featured a frog that could remain dormant in the desert ground for months, or even years, and then wake again with the next big rainstorm.
The agony in my right temple spread throughout my whole body. My room, the nature show, and the bed were slipping away.
The pain gave way to a sleepiness, and I felt like I had been sleepy for such a long time. Existing in a sort of half-life. Not my life. Somebody else’s life.
Then the strangest thing happened. The spots in my eyes became dogs and cats, of all breeds, and of every color. Hundreds of them were barking and meowing in a glorious cacophony, and they were all coming to me. Gentle guitar music played.
The animals crowded out everything else. They shielded me from the nightmare that had become my dreadful world and enveloped me in their paws, their muzzles, and their fur. I reached out to them and laughed.
Mike Neis lives in Orange County, CA and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in The Stray Branch, Rind Literary Magazine and elsewhere. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language. His blog: mrneisblog.home.blog
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