Volume 25, Number 1

The Stare

Daniel Gonzalez

When the world was full, Bill used to dream of quiet. Now the lack of sound is almost as biting and piercing as the constant warbling of human life was. Birds didn’t chirp anymore. They perched in trees, perfectly still, branches swaying in the breeze, their little beaks pointing this way and that, like road signs.

Bill’s feet hit the cold floor, then pounded on the wood, the dull thuds shaking all three bedrooms, until he flung open the door to Katie’s room.

“Katie! Wake up!” But Katie lay in bed like a corpse, her arms folded over her chest hole, eyes wide open and staring blankly. Bill couldn’t help but follow her gaze up to the ceiling, to try and see what she was transfixed by. When a person stares that coldly, that intently, even a dead person, it’s impossible not to try and see through her eyes, to see what it is that so fascinates her. So Bill’s gaze drifted upwards for the umpteenth time, towards nothing in particular.

He wound up grabbing her shoulders, snatching them like a frog slingshotting a fly out of midair. Then he began the morning routine, shaking her, slapping her, shouting, trying not to sound angry or desperate. Her thousand-yard stare never broke, and Bill distracted himself by trying to look off into the distance, as Katie did, sucked in by her rapt attention, her awesome reverence for things far away. Although her seven-year-old frame was tiny, his arms grew heavy from slapping and shaking her. A layer of sweat glistened on his forehead.

Finally, Katie blinked several times, her face pinching in annoyance, anger, a sense of injustice. Then she reached inside her chest, took out her heart and threw it at Bill’s head. He ducked. Katie sure can be cranky in the morning.

Bill tried to get her to put her heart back in her chest hole, but Katie wouldn’t do it. She’s his little sister, only seven years old and can still be kind of snotty when she wants to be. Katie used to like to say she was, “seven years and counting,” but at this point, they had stopped counting. Their parents had gone out shopping for new dishwasher months back. Bill thought it was for a dishwasher, anyway. As time went on and things grew strange he became less sure. They were somewhere, he thought—staring—their biological bond with Bill and Katie as useless as the heart he kept shoving back into Katie’s chest like stuffing into a turkey. Katie crossed her arms over her chest hole and turned away. So Bill retrieved her heart and slid it into a plastic baggie. He didn’t want her to lose it.

They went down to breakfast, the comforting sounds of footfalls on the stairs and cereal shuffling into a bowl as when Bill was a kid. Milk still gurgled when he poured it. Such things struck Bill hard, almost in the chest. He sometimes slid his hand over his breastplate as he poured his milk. As odd as things had become, a lot of things hadn’t changed at all. Bill found it hard to determine what was missing, the general groan of exhaust pipes off in the distance, the feeling of human energy, of steady, determined footfalls, legs crossing laps, fingers tapping at touch screen monitors. The whole business of goals and progress had evaporated. He could never figure out the sounds that were missing in part because the smacking of his lips when eating cereal was so loud, so true, like a tuning fork, the same every time. Then there was his heart, carrying the load of all the beating clumps of muscle that now sat idle in chests or in plastic sacks, hauled around out of a sense of dry nostalgia.

Bill cracked Katie on the side of the head with a spoon, which made an unexpected twanging sound. She had started staring again, at nothing, just staring and staring. She rubbed her ear, aggravated and he pointed to the cereal, which she dumped into a bowl, finishing the box.

* * *

In a world where there is no death, there is also little courtesy. Bill is reminded of this daily, sometimes while smacking Katie around, but also at other times when doing the simplest things. For instance, when he arrived at the supermarket, a woman holding what looked to be half her head in her hands kept him from entering the grocery store for ten minutes. She ran herself in rabid circles in the entryway.

Such a total lack of manners. True, having only one eye and about half an ear made straight walking a challenge. But all he wanted was cereal and to have to engage in what can only properly be considered a kind of bullfighting just to get in the store—Bill had to question the sanity of it.

“Mind if I pass?” Bill asked, as the women shot haphazardly in every direction at once, blood and purple foam oozing from what was left of her skull. She moved her lips, what was left of them, anyway, but no sound came out, just some purplish blood bubbles. Then she hip checked him into trashcan as he tried to slink by her into the entryway. “Excuse me,” Bill said, rubbing a developing knot on his hip. But the woman just stared at the mess in her hands, the remaining chunk of her attached head resting on her shoulder, the result of broken vertebrae and severed neck muscle and tendons.

She jerked around in sort of a circle, seeming to ride herself viciously, like an angry cowboy whipping an old horse, digging spurs into ribs with malice. She made several furious laps.

Bill couldn’t tell if the woman was intentionally blocking his way, or simply unable to control her movements and get clear of the store’s entrance. It certainly was confusing. After one of her haphazard laps, he noticed that the back of the woman’s dress was ripped open, exposing symmetrical buttocks, the creamy, sloping skin of her back. Under normal circumstances Bill would have turned away, especially seeing as how she was unable to even turn around to hide herself. But these were no longer normal circumstances. Despite his parental duties, Bill was only sixteen and couldn’t shake how fortunate he felt to have seen her nakedness, even with her clucking about in the doorway like a headless chicken.

Eventually, he made his way inside the store. He had left Katie in the car, but had her heart with him in a paper sack, not trusting her to keep it safe. It was already looking quite ragged, but Bill felt better about things in general when he knew her heart was safe. It had been many months since the staring began, yet the store was still reasonably stocked.

Perishables like milk or eggs remained hard to come by, but the dry cereal and candy aisles were plentiful. Bill stuffed several varieties of M&Ms down his pockets.

A troll-like employee leapt out at him once his clothing was so stuffed with candy as to make quick movements difficult. She was a mousy-looking thing, but devious in her facial expressions, and seemed to relish her quickness in relation to his burdened state.

“You paying for that?” she barked, pointing at his crotch.

“There’s no need for payment anymore,” Bill responded. “What’s in our world is in it for the first person who picks it up.”

“This is a store,” she interrupted—again, pointing her bony fingers accusingly at his crotch and smiling crookedly. “You have to pay for what you get.”

Bill set the sack on the floor so as to make himself more threatening. It’s not so much that people were any worse than before, but without the bookends of birth and death, what happened in the middle was more open to interpretation. People weren’t as apt to play nice, even in the simplest circumstances.

“What’s in the bag?” she croaked. It stung like an accusation.

“It’s none of your concern,” Bill responded, cracking his knuckles to let her know he meant business. “And if you don’t mind, I have some more supplies to lay in.” He motioned about the store with his arm, mostly to show off his biceps. She was quite a bit smaller than he, but reckless. She smiled with pleasure at his attempts to intimidate.

“That bag will be mine,” she muttered, pointing at the floor before stumbling off. She was less intimidating when walking, which revealed a number of disquieting injuries to the hips, her gait toddler-like.

Bill wandered the aisles, acquired a cart, then relieved his pants of their bulging contents, adding some proper necessities like dry cereal, rice, vitamins, and even some beef jerky that had been hidden in the greeting-card rack. He spent a long time reading labels, amused by their empty promises. Eventually, he made his way back to his car, feeling a deep sameness in the act, like so many other trips he’d made with his parents. As he approached the car, Katie’s statue-like figure heaped in the back seat—staring—he was paralyzed by a fear that something horrible had happened to her while he was shopping. As a child she got into everything, glue sticks in her mouth and hair, crayons in her nose and ears. Until one day she found a way to open her chest and remove her own heart. He couldn’t help but worry about her.

Bill had to remind himself there was no reason to pretend to be alive when there was nothing to do. You can put a dead person in a dark closet for days and they will sit there perfectly still. It does them little harm. But coming upon Katie like this always disturbed him, her shoulders so slim, her head still too large for her body, all of it gray and shrouded in death.

Bill’s hands ached at the prospect of the exercise that might be needed to wake her. But also at the thought of striking her.

He held up her candy and rapped on the window. Surprisingly, she turned her head, smiled, her mouth dropping and her gray tongue falling out of the opening lifelessly, like when you open a kitchen cabinet and box of pasta hurls down. A wave of pleasure coursed through him at her innocent happiness. He understood his parents’ desire to have another child once Bill had started toward his teenage years. After unlocking the door, Bill placed Katie’s heart on the seat and tossed several packets of candy over his shoulder. Katie devoured them, wrapper and all.

* * *

It was hard to know what to do with yourself. Supplies were plentiful and most of the dead, though unpleasant and standoffish, were laughably benign. After the staring had begun, Bill began to think that people used to act primarily out of fear that they would ruin their one and only shot at life.

Once this was altered, the lack of fear made people kind of silly, kind of prone to endless staring at nothing in particular. Nothing summed this up better than the dead who’d frozen in place in the midst of their jobs. Crossing guards gesturing to traffic long since moved on. A police officer endlessly scribbling out a ticket. A cook fixing his apron, forever.

Katie and Bill lounged around the house for weeks at a time, watching DVDs, eating candy. Bill picked up smoking for amusement, but increasingly, there was little to do or care about. He kept finding Katie stock-still, her eyes beady and blank. Sometimes she came back with a simple word or two.

Other times it was half an hour of mixed brutalities. Bill could never escape the feeling that he needed to apply more creativity to his violence.

“Let’s do something,” he told her one morning, cuffing her about the head. She grunted a reply. Although she was seven years old and had done plenty of talking when alive, the ability had lately departed her. Bill hoped it would return, but the truth was, she had no need for words. Talking to the dead was like interviewing a shoe. She crawled on all fours to the couch and picked up the television remote, her gray fingers looking like moldy French fries as she squeezed it.

“No, no,” Bill said, pulling the remote from her hands gently.

Though she was not decaying, he felt a need to treat her gently when he wasn’t slapping her. He pointed towards the door, made steering-wheel gestures with his hands. She tilted her head sideways, and Bill searched her face for recognition, for something behind the lifeless mask of her eyes. Her t-shirt had sucked into her chest hole. Bill had gotten kind of lazy about making sure her chest chamber was closed during the day. Sewing it shut worked best, but then Katie kind of destroyed herself in those times when she wanted it open. She had this innate desire to take her heart out and throw it. So, although it was more work, he tended to close her chest hole without fastening it.

Bill tousled her hair to distract her, then used the back of his hand to close her chest hole, which made a thunk sound. He threw on a fresh t-shirt, and they got in the car and started driving. He wasn’t sure at first where they might go, so he just kind of drove around a little. It was a lot like touring a wax museum. Figure after figure frozen in position, staring.

You could almost pretend something really interesting was happening.

“Want to go to swimming?” he asked, then hauled off and backhanded her across the cheek when she didn’t respond. She nodded, groaned slightly. There was no need to repeat the question. The dead can hear in their catatonia; they just don’t respond.

They drove by the town pool. Gray figures stacked in deck chairs. Bloated bodies swaying in the water. It was so quiet you could hear waves and ripples lapping against flesh.

“I have a better idea,” he told Katie, glad for once to see her staring mindlessly at the back of the seat in front of her.

* * *

It was a hell of a long drive, six and a half hours. By the time they got there Bill had to slap Katie around so much to rouse her from staring and deep, barely audible groaning that his hands grew bruised and sore. It was one of her rougher awakenings. He even had to use a closed fist. As usual, she was mad at him for about half an hour afterwards. It’s odd.

She’s not asleep or unconscious. She sort of knows he’s there, slapping the shit out of her, backhanding her and even throwing in the occasional elbow.

Katie doesn’t bleed anymore. None of the dead do, but the side of her head was starting to look a bit lopsided. Like a good tan, he’d need to even out the sessions to keep one side of her head from denting in. Bill made a mental note as they scooted past a ticket taker whose eyes were locked on something in the distance. He flexed his hands several times to relieve their soreness.

Their first ride was The Howler. It wasn’t as scary as it sounded, but Katie had never been on a roller coaster before.

Truthfully, she wasn’t quite as tall as the sign indicated she needed to be. But the attendant was barely there, his outstretched arm welcoming them aboard in an eternal gesture of beckoning. The ride was packed with kids and their parents, some punching their little ones in the face to revive them, others basking happily in the alertness of their dead children. The workers running the ride had to keep switching off and karate chopping each other in the throat so as to prevent fixating on something. Perhaps that was part of the excitement for the parents. There was this inherent danger that you could spend the foreseeable future going round and round on The Howler, a dead attendant staring at nothing in particular, forever.

“Doesn’t that cloud look like an elephant?” one mother pointed out, tousling the hair of her little boy as he bounced up and down in excitement. Bill peered up at the cloud and pointed to show Katie. It did sort of look like an elephant. But he failed to see the excitement. So did Katie, who he had to sort of elbow in the ear to wake up.

* * *

They tried a few more rides and coasters out. Something called The Raven, one of the country’s oldest wooden roller coasters, worked for a time. Katie even skipped around as they exited the ride, kicking a bottle cap to amuse herself. But after standing in a line of moaning children, their parents panting and sweaty from slapping their kids, Katie too lapsed back into a cold, dead stare.

* * *

That night, Bill put Katie’s heart back in her chest and sewed closed her chamber as she slept. But, really, the differences between her nighttime blankness and the daytime kind were circumstantial. At night, she reclined on a bed. Darkness, a night-light, her light moans. The sounds fit so closely to his memory that Bill used the back of his hand to tenderly close her eyelids. He even tiptoed out of the room, although he knew there was no chance of waking her.

Bill sat around the living room for a while, not sure what to do, not sure what would become of them. He thought of a few more places to look for Mom and Dad, but it seemed beside the point. What could they do for each other? He could picture Mom, shopping at Whole Foods, scouring labels for ingredients she deemed unsafe, Dad practicing his putter stroke a few feet away from her, his hands swinging back and forth, back and forth, like a hypnotist’s watch.

It would happen eventually. The urgent need to wake Katie would become routine, autonomic, like breathing. Even now, as Bill flexed his bruised knuckles, massaged his sore chest muscles, he knew he would become just like Katie, probably while walking into her room in the morning. He would yawn and everything would seem fine, her light breathing, the déjà vu of entering the room, the sight of Katie’s tiny body floating in her bed. He would be vaguely aware of the fact that he had stopped moving, fixated on Katie’s face, her miniature lips and expressionless cheeks. His hand would move to his chest in a protective gesture, but this time, he would pry it open.

Bill shifted in the recliner, settled in. Maybe he would sleep out here tonight. Something different, anyway. The thought relaxed him, and he wondered if perhaps Katie was the one who had it right, that maybe there is more going on inside the dead than he has given credit for. Endless dreaming. Eternal possibilities. Maybe that’s why she keeps taking her heart out and throwing it at his head.