Thick air, moist and hot, clogged Terry’s pores, made him struggle for breath, though he was only walking down the dirt road that led to old man Myers’ abandoned farmhouse.
Evelyn walked beside him. Just looking at her was a cool breeze for Terry. Terry had been going down this way from up north, had been pitching a multi-level marketing scheme for Toothbrite toothpaste until he had met her. Terry had quit and settled down that first day on the outskirts of Plainfield, Georgia. Evelyn had a way with him and she knew it. Terry had felt it immediately: Evelyn had the cool, the untouchable cool that no hot air, no man, woman nor child could ever shake loose from her. And Terry wanted that, almost as much as he wanted her.
But Evelyn—he always used her full name, even when he was just thinking about her—Evelyn just smiled her lizard smile: calm and motionless, a smile that dared anyone to doubt that she existed in three dimensions as she took up the hot air and replaced it with her cool scent—tangy, elusive Evelyn.
The Myers’ farmhouse came into sight over the orange mud road: grey boards with rusting nails, hog pens rotting and vines, everywhere vines and ivy crawling over everything. The farm was a long walk from town and seemed to be the welcome mat for the deep woods. Terry knew that Evelyn loved that shabby, humid shack more than anything.
Evelyn slowly leaned her head down; then, she cocked it to the side, patiently taking in the blue Chevy Camaro with the dent in the rear and the dangling bumper, sizing up metal that shouldn’t be there. She heard it: the guttural moans of two together from the inside of the Myers’ farm—her farmhouse. Evelyn took off at a sudden sprint: One moment motionless, the next she had gone down the road fifty long paces before Terry had grasped another thought. Her faded jeans clung to her muscular, pumping legs as her raven dark hair billowed behind her.
Evelyn never wasted energy. She stopped in front of the half unhinged door as quickly as she had started, giving Terry time to catch up. She just stood extra quietly. Her thick, moist, red tongue protruded slightly between her thin lips. It made Terry catch his breath in his throat upon seeing her like that, coiled and ready to strike, but ever patient.
Soon, the moaning stopped with a nervous “Sh”: It was a forced male bass, gruff and sloppy with spittle. Then it was quiet; Terry felt pressure from Evelyn’s complete stillness, a cold wave that made him bite his tongue and stopped the sparrows in mid song.
Evelyn just waited in front of the shack, letting her cool go to work. Terry thought he could almost feel the heavier air sliding under the dilapidated door, permeating Evelyn’s special place.
The door swung open with a bam! and knocked the side of the tiny house. Dust and flecks of faded white paint sprinkled to the ground. The door just missed Evelyn’s small nose, but she did not move.
A surly boy, about eighteen, stood in the doorway. He had close cropped greasy brown hair. A hunting knife’s edge glinted from his right hand, while his other hand clutched the tiny waist of a blonde teenager, who was tucking the shirt tail of her red blouse into her light blue skirt. They were filthy, unkempt. Hot and bothered, the boy stared at Evelyn without noticing Terry. He waved the knife and gritted his teeth. “Hag,” he muttered. The girl stopped fidgeting with her clothes to giggle her approval.
Terry smelled the Jack Daniels on their breath. He wanted to be the dashing hero, to disarm the punk; but Evelyn’s cool was on him, had raised his goosebumps. She had locked Terry into an eerie voyeurism as he watched reality pass before his eyes as if he were in a cool and dark theatre. He was sure it was Evelyn’s cool on him.
Terry thought he could see ice crystals forming on the blade. He discounted it as nerves.
The boy broke his gaze from Evelyn and trembled violently. The knife fell from his hand; its edge stuck between the warped porch slats.
Evelyn said, “Pick up your knife.”
The boy didn’t move.
“Pick up your knife.”
The girl hugged her boyfriend and whispered, “Let’s get out’a here, Jimmy.”
The boy hissed, “Shut it. Don’t be tellin’ her my name.” He looked at Evelyn’s waist, afraid to meet her gaze and asked, “What’re you gonna do?”
“Pick up your knife, Jimmy.”
Jimmy lunged to the ground, grabbed the knife, and scuttled, crabwise and quickly, toward his car. The girl gave a small yip from the back of her throat and bumped into Terry, jolting him from his paralysis, in her haste to get to the blue Chevy.
In a moment, the car was rumbling down the road, spraying orange dirt and carbon monoxide behind it.
Only after the intruders were out of sight did Evelyn slowly pass through the doorway. The old farmhouse smelled of dust and sour body odor. It was muggy and bare inside, excepting the obscenities scrawled on the walls and a blue blanket and whiskey bottle in the center of the room. The bottle still had about four fingers worth of whiskey in it.
Terry walked around her and picked up the bottle.
Evelyn shook her head slightly. Terry shrugged and said, “I could use a drop after that.” He took a small nip, barely enough to sting his throat. It was a normal thing to do; that’s why he did it—and to keep some part of himself not swallowed up by that icy demeanor from Evelyn that had spooked the boy. The harshness still clung to her like perfume.
But Evelyn smiled at him, her long brunette hair shining from the one ray of sunlight that streaked through the frame with the jagged window shards. Her smile caught Terry off guard: it was warm—a gift from her to him. It tingled his skin, made him sidle close to her, touch her, caress her.
“Are you sure, Terrence?” She plopped down on the blanket and her cool came back into the room through the doors behind her eyes. “You’d better be sure. Now, I know you’re willing, but are you sure?”
Terry carefully sat down in front of her and crossed his legs indian style. She had cooled his passion, deliberately using her silent pressure—the force of her, of pure Evelyn—on him, teasing him with her calm surety. He admired that, wanted that.
Evelyn saw the need in his eyes with her flat saurian stare. Her jade eyes tracked the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the sweat leaking out of large facial pores, and his hunger. She waited until the passion had played itself out in him, until his eyes riveted on her, not her cool. Then, she asked, “Why?”
Terry felt himself getting flustered as he tried to explain to her why he had to have what she held behind her eyes; he didn’t want to look that deeply inside himself, where he felt his shame and futility burning. But he had to have her cool—have her—so he gritted his teeth and muttered, “I’ve been moving all my damned life. Moving and selling. Little shit like toothpaste or storm windows. I’m sick of it, sick of trying to get ahead, dammit. I want out. I—“
“Why not commit suicide.”
She said it flatly, directly, with a crocodile’s patient eyes. Terry felt a stab of pain. How could she say that to him? He loved her. “Evelyn—“ he moaned.
“Well, that’s where you’re going with your talk, isn’t it?”
His anger burned away some of her cool. Terry shouted, “Dammit, Evelyn! You’re not listening to me. I don’t want out, not yet anyway. I want you. I want someone who isn’t staring at me with cynicism or looking at me as if I’m a leech trying to suck out their precious damn dollar bills. You—you—“ Her motionlessness overpowered him and strangled his passion. He flung his arms to his sides and whispered, “You don’t want. You just are. I want not to want. That’s all.”
Tears leaked from his brown eyes.
She laughed, short and soft, a laugh that seemed to shoot
another cool wind into the room through the one shattered window. Then her eyes went flat again, and Terry couldn’t catch anything from her but her words.
Evelyn said, “You’re like that horny boy. You think I’m some sort’a hoodoo mama transplanted from N’Orleans, huh? You think I can just make with the mumbo jumbo and you’ll have ruby slippers, a magic wand, and my cool, huh?”
“Evelyn, I’ll work for it. Tell me how. I’m not afraid—“
Evelyn cut him off with a slow wave of her thin hand and said, “That’s your problem, Terry. You’re so damn afraid that you forgot your fear, forgot it all. You been runnin’. Running all your life from fear. You see me, see my cool and deep in your gut, further than where your in the head talking voice can reach, you feel, ‘Aha! An escape! This Evelyn, she doesn’t have the fear, so she can take mine away.’ But I can’t, Terry. Only you can do that. Only you.”
Terry took another swig from the bottle, draining a finger of whiskey into his stomach. His nervous stomach spasmed and he had to fight to keep the burning liquor down. He spoke rapidly, “What are you talking about? I’ve travelled half this country; I’ve fought off muggers, canvassed door to door in ghettos—“
Evelyn laughed, “Stop beating your breast, Terry. Whoo! Your fear’s got you bad. It won’t even let you talk about itself. Listen to yourself. You’re running, running, running across the country, door to door, following me. But there your fear tripped up. It made you run into me. You’re one of the lucky people, Terry. Most humans’ fear is enough to paralyze their eyes from looking inward, but not enough to drive them to desperation. You’re lucky, Terry. Your fear was strong enough to force you into my embrace, to make you see the escape I could guide you to and make you crazy enough to pair up with a soul whom people deride as a homeless woman, as The Wicked Witch.” She laughed curtly, without merriment.
Terry bit his lip. He was a salesman and knew how to read people, except Evelyn, and how to listen to whispers. That was part of the game of money and persuasion—salesmanship. Terry had never told her that he had heard what the people said of her, that she was a slut, a satanist. He wanted to spare her that ugliness, but he recognized his foolishness: She didn’t sell herself as he did; she didn’t give a damn, because she had the cool, the cool that protected her. Abruptly, Terry cried, “Give it to me!”
“I can’t give it to you, but I can force you to it. Maybe you’ll die.” Evelyn’s eyes were locked on him, curious, expectant, cold eyes. “I don’t know if a human can succeed.”
She was giving him the lizard stare, predatory and quiet. Terry was afraid. Did she want him to die? Was she offering help in a suicide? He reached for the bottle, not wanting her cold on him; the whiskey was frozen; his hand stuck to the bottle as the moisture on his palm froze. Terry shivered and peeled the bottle from his hand with a groan.
Frost coated the blanket. Terry didn’t—couldn’t doubt. There had been ice crystals on the blade of the punk’s knife; Evelyn did make the room cold. Evelyn’s cool was real, not psychological, not a state of mind, a self assured calm—it was that, but more, physical, too. He was scared, but he still wanted her cool. Terry asked, “Who are you?”
Evelyn did not move, but spoke to him without moving her lips, “Don’t you mean, ‘What am I?’ Does it matter? You want the cool that comes from deep inside, and I don’t want to be alone anymore.” Her words had changed their accent to an alien one, emphasizing the first syllable of each new word like arrowheads piercing into his mind.
“You liar!” Terry screamed and pointed at her, “You’re just as scared as I am!”
Her silent words slipped into his mind, chilled his anger, “No, Terry. Your fear attempts to obfuscate itself for its survival. Yes, I am afraid of being alone; I’ve been alone since my kind died, before your lungfish ancestors waddled out of the sea. My cool preserves me. But loneliness is not your true fear. Any fear of loneliness you have is only a distraction from the true fear of yourself. That’s why you mire yourself in diversions. I do want companionship. I want you, but you have to have the cool to understand me. Are you ready, Terry? I’ve waited long for someone who was desperate and hungry enough to join me. Will you gamble with me? It has always been your choice. My cool keeps it that way.”
Terry looked at her. Her skin was still smooth, still young. But he imagined tentacles and double sets of sharpened teeth on her face and insect antennae and every bloody Roger Corman film mutation and horror spilling out of her, but the cool, the cool! “Yes.” Terry said.
She talked to him again without moving her lips, but there were no words, only her cool on his brain that stretched chilly tendrils and dug up and dragged his degradations, great and small, from his memories to his waking mind. At first it was pleasant. Childhood romps as a woodland archeologist were joyous, discovering everything and wondering where it had been, what it had done, who had touched it, how did it grow. Then the chilly tendrils delved deeper and Terry struggled to stop them from invading those locked places. But Evelyn had always had her way with him and he knew that and surrendered.
The bully who had harried him for a year burst forth first out of his mind’s cellar prison. He had told someone on the long yellow school bus, stinking of sweat and vinyl and puke, that this boy was stupid; then, the bully had overheard his nasty, prideful viciousness. And the retribution, the constant fear without ever a beating, the deserved beating, drove this memory into Terry’s dark cellar.
His first sale: The slim sandy haired girl with the oval blue eyes swayed freely and burned before Terry’s eyes, silently damning him with her aggrieved affections, with her bruised saintly virtue.
Then there was Jack, the friend, the first to say hello to him in a new school, that foreign land; Terry had sworn fealty and then abandoned Jack for the sophomoric clique that had deigned to accept him.
His father looked out at him from the grave with shame, a father’s primal shame at seeing his son follow the same wayward course of drunkenness and dissipation. Mother’s fallen hope that he follow her footsteps into academia cut him—a burning, living wound.
Everyone pushed forward in his mind, but No One and Nowhere was he, Terrence Strong, in evidence. Nowhere. In any of his memories. Add up all of them together: the Intellectual in middle school, the Jaded Youth, the Soulless Fornicator, the TV Zombie, the Drunken Young Man, the Serious Moneymaker, the Swift and Smooth Sales Representative. He hadn’t been himself for . . . for . . . All those years! A lifetime lost!
Terry screamed the special wail, where his jaw couldn’t open wide enough. The skin at the corners of his lips and the muscles near the hinge of his lower jaw sang in pain as he tried to stretch his mouth more than nature would permit. His lungs asked his brain for breath, but Terry refused to stop until the last wind was thrust through his vocal cords. He inhaled again, quickly. And in his mind in that small voice that still had a stream of consciousness, he pitied himself and denied that any god existed, could exist who would allow this type of pain, who would allow him to continue this way for so long, so long. Fear was written in the subtext of that last micron thin coil of consciousness not given to a rabid attempt to expel his pain.
Terrence was thrust into the void.
He greeted it gladly, hoping it would extinguish him; he didn’t want to live with the collection of mind mass he had bought and paid for with his constant running. But all the lies he had lived babbled in his mind, deafening, mocking whispers in the utter silence of the void: Such a shameful waste of life! Drunkard! Sleep on a cold cement sidewalk and carry yourself with pride a week later?! Dog. Suck out the hearts of women into that vast need, need, need—never filled—run from the truth—the truth will set you in hell. Meaningless perversion of human flesh—pointless in its mortality, in its futility—am I, Terrence. Keep moving, moving, moving from one empty tryst to the next, from one hollow friendship to the next. Wear a mask behind a mask, behind a mask, behind a mask is Nothing, being Terrence, devoured by masks, who allows—demands to be lost between one mask and the next. Void is oblivion, so am I. It’s all so empty and dark and I think I’m shrinking.
Make the whispers stop.
please . . .
Am I dead, yet?
please . . .
A cooling wind blew through the void with her scent: Evelyn.
Her presence gave him time for his self preservation instinct to kick in, reminded him of her peaceful life that he wanted, despite oblivion’s allure. He looked around, though he knew he wasn’t looking with his eyes. Evelyn had pushed him here, where there was nothing physical, nothing to distract him from himself: all void. It wasn’t even darkness; it was nihil.
Except for Evelyn.
Terry felt her, not her physical shape, only an oily caress against his thoughts that reminded him of Evelyn, her droll patience, the veneer that hid her love for him. Her coldness had been her patience, waiting, waiting for him to stop running, to choose to join her.
“You!” Terry screamed without vocal cords, without air, in the void.
Terry stopped. He wanted to run to her, but she wasn’t sending her cool toward him, leaving Terry to the void. Life had been painful—excruciating, forcing him to run, but the painful whispers bleated loudest here,
in the void,
detached from everything, where there was nowhere to run.
He accepted, even as the whispers drove nails through his thoughts, belittled him, emasculated him.
Thus was the past: a litany of running. A mind in motion stays in motion, had stayed so for Terry until running was more natural than breathing. Cowards die a thousand little deaths, each one eating another piece of me, digesting me in burning acids for the entire futile lifetime. Thus I have been a mistake—the sum of mistakes, mistaken for myself as somebody—something—a thing! Only a thing! Let me go away! But in the void, with only himself, there was nothing to run to, to run from. Up, down were meaningless. The mocking whispers roared. Terry could not turn away.
So, he listened.
One nasty voice stumbled into another mocking whisper, pushing against another stream of bile, as if it were a deluge beating in mindless rhythm against his face.
Terry could not tell how long he listened; the void seemed to eat time. But the whispers grew tired, nonsensical, absurd! against the vast abyss of the void, but he listened to it all, let it all rake through him. Suddenly, he recognized his own voice, the voice of Terrence-as-a-child in that stream of whispers, but tired and frightened and tremoring.
With that voice Terry agreed to reality as it was now, as he was now, just that simple elegance and no more:
His tags, his false names dripped from his mind to be swallowed by the dispassionate nihility; his shames—the whispers—soon followed, leaving only a joyous Terrence.
Terry’s cool spread through the void until it touched and glided over, around, and through the wordless thoughts of Evelyn. She welcomed him patiently, covered his thoughts tenderly, and the void receded.
He was still on the blanket, damp with melted frost. He locked eyes with her; his cool intertwined with hers. Old. That was the word for Evelyn. And alien, that too. Evelyn smiled. Terry watched her move the lips of her costume body; she leaned forward and pressed to his mouth. And Terry knew he would be like her, would survive ever running humanity and whatever grew from the Darwinian tides after humanity, molding his flesh to whatever form was needed as easily as he pressed his flesh against hers. Flesh was all costume to that beautiful core, Terrence. Terry wasn’t running anymore; he had found his saurian essence.
He was cool.