by Daulton Dickey.
Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a window in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter filled with blank pages. She turns the page and scans the textures. Her eyes bounce right to left, right to left, as if reading Hebrew. The textures, fine, almost imperceptible, are arrayed in scattershot patterns. Pulp dropped and compressed into pages. Random. But the textures say something. They mean something. Of that, she is certain.
The window to her right overlooks a brick wall. Someone at some point long ago, probably long before Jane was pushed into this world, had tagged the wall with paint. A cock with eyes and a mustache sitting on top of a scrotum. Above the cock, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, ye who enter here.”
Every now and then, Jane peels her eyes from the book and glances at the graffiti on the wall. She wonders what it means. She wonders if—exempting the eyes and mustache—it is a more or less realistic depiction of a cock. Or a scrotum. Then she wonders if “cock” is even a word people actually use to describe it, or if it’s a euphemism developed and propagated by middle- and upper-class novelists feigning street credentials.
Back to the book: those textures mean something. They spell out a message, a secret story. Why else had the authors included this chapter in the book? It’s some sort of ingenious new printing method: the textures of the page spell out some Voynich Manuscript-style esoterica.
Someone knocks on the door and Jane sets aside the book. She remains seated and stares at the door, stares at the crack beneath the door, as if she can discern the person from the shadow that he or she casts and spills into the crack.
Then there it is again, the knock. This time louder, more forceful.
Jane tip-toes across the room, never allowing the balls of her feet to touch the ground, trying to be as light, and as quiet, as possible.
She stops near the door and slows her breathing as she listens for sounds, for some sort of familiar cough or …
The doorknob shakes and jiggles. The door trembles. Feet scuffle, making sounds like tap dancers tearing up a stage—those gritty yet metallic staccato plops.
It’s times like these Jane wishes she had a peephole. Times like these, she’d be able to scan the outside world through a fish-eye lens and discern or identify whomever dared to harass her.
‘Mist Poe.’ The door muffles the voice, but the voice—nasally and low—obviously belongs to a man. ‘Mist Poe: cracker jack the sack around back. Arms and alms shout farewell.’
‘Crooked, crazy liar,’ she says, in what amounts to little more than a whisper.
‘The obvious doesn’t slow the noon.’
‘I’m comfortable here.’
‘Rape sore hills. Rape sore hills.’
‘No. No, you can’t make me.’
She shakes her head and backs away from the door, still refusing to marry the balls of her feet to the floor.
‘Rape sore hills.’ The man’s voice inflects, transmits authority.
‘No. I’m comfortable …’
The doorknob twists again. Jiggles again. The door trembles and the man speaks again: ‘Rape sore hills, mist Poe.’
Jane Doe spins and rushes to the chair. She drops into it and pulls the book to her lap. She flips the pages, studies them. Not a word in sight. Not a letter or even a speck of ink in sight.
Flipping the pages focuses her attention, and the man’s voice recedes and vanishes.
And she forgets about the man and the door altogether.
Phosphorescent lights bleed white. The room is so well lit that she’d be hard-pressed to find so much as a single shadow. After scrutinizing the book, Jane again sets it aside. She leaves the room to get a drink of water, and when she returns she notices a mural shimmering on the wall opposite the chair. A woman on a horse points to a vaguely Ancient Near Eastern city in flames. Cherubim hover over the woman and drape a cape–conspicuously shaped and textured like a vagina–over her.
The woman on the horse looks familiar, but Jane can’t place her. That likeness. She’s seen it somewhere.
She taps her cheeks with her fingertips and drags them down her chin and neck, stops them on her collar bone. She taps it. She taps it. It sounds hollow, hollow.
That mural, it … Is it new? She vaguely remembers a door. Somewhere. She vaguely remembers the door and somehow, for some reason, associates it with fear.
But then … She dismisses the thought. Her house is an impenetrable cube. No need for a door, she’d told the construction crew before they set out to build the cube around her. No need even for a window, she’d said. I can make both if I want to, she’d said, but I don’t really foresee a situation in which I’d want either a door or a window.
Then she remembers the construction crew. It hadn’t occurred to her then, but it occurs to her now: they weren’t wearing top hats or denim shirts or pants. They weren’t wearing belts or carrying tools. They were dressed in scrubs and white lab coats. And they were depositing and rearranging textures onto paper attached to clipboards while she spoke. And the foreman had a laughable combover. When he spoke, he sort of sung and spit out words and sentences in a nasally and low voice.
But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway? Jane Doe knows as well as anyone that memories can’t be trusted. Trust your memories and you might as well take a blade to the veins in your forearms.
Someone had told her that. But who? And is it even correct, and is it even verbatim—isn’t it more like, “trusting your memories is why you took a blade to your forearms”?
But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway?
She backs up and falls into the chair and pulls the book onto her lap. She flips through it, searches for patterns in the textures of the pulp compressed into, and forming, the paper. She searches. But she can’t discern a pattern.
All patterns are discernible. She knows that. Chance isn’t responsible for anything. It’s not even an ontological concern. It’s only a product of the brain, that piece of untrustworthy meat lodged in everyone’s skulls. Of that, she’s certain.
Dislodging thoughts from the meat in her skull, Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a framed painting in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter composed of photographs of aborted fetuses. She turns the page and scans the photographs. Her eyes bounce up and down, up and down, as if she’s reading Kenji and Kanji.
The framed painting to her right depicts a pregnant woman. She’s naked, the woman, and she appears no taller than a four year old child. Her stomach is bloated and corpse colored—green and purple, black and red. And she’s sitting on a man’s lap. The man is adult-sized. He’s wearing a suit and a tie, and a mustache obscures his upper lip. Motion lines, meant to depict movement, surround his leg, creating, or trying to create, the impression that the man is bouncing the pregnant, child-sized woman on his knee. On a banner above the man, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, the hills of Zoar.”
This story appears in the ebook “A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms,” which you can find here. 50% of all proceeds from the sale of this book go to The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.