The Octopus (an excerpt)
By Andrew James Rush
The following is an excerpt from the upcoming horror/noir novel The Octopus, by Andrew James Rush. The novel is still a work in progress and has not been picked up by any publishing company, but is the sole property of Andrew James Rush and Andrew James Rush Stories. This excerpt may be edited and may vary in some way from the final published novel. This is a work of fiction, and is not based on any real people, living or dead.
Steam billowed from the sliding glass door of the shower into the crisp winter air of the unheated bathroom as Jennifer pulled it open and reached for the pea green towel with the brown fern leaf pattern and stepped out onto the matching floor mat. She dried her body unhurriedly, her eyes never leaving the bathroom mirror. Ethan could see her reflection looking back at him, at herself, and he could feel the water droplets on her milky skin, he could smell the shampoo in her hair, even taste the steam that filled the room. She was extremely thin - unhealthily thin - with ribs that showed through her flesh like paper wrapped over one of those plastic skeletons you see hanging on a hook in a corner of a high-school science class. Her hair, though Ethan had never seen it dry, looked like it would be curly if it weren't dripping wet, and it was dark, maybe auburn, her eyes soft and sad.
She wrapped the towel around her chest, covering her breasts and midsection, and her eyes finally left the mirror and turned toward the door, which she opened, and walked slowly, deliberately, into a large bedroom that appeared to be a renovated attic space, with high sloping walls that met at a peak far above the middle of the room. It was a huge attic, many yards from end to end, with one small window at the far end from where she had emerged from the bathroom. Along the sharply angled ceiling there were large beams every ten feet or so that ran parallel to the floor of the attic, supporting the roof, making a series of very obtuse A's with long legs and short tops, and hanging from the horizontal beam of one of these A's was a long rope with a noose at the end, which hung down and ended about eight feet from the floor above a hope chest at the foot of an unmade bed that looked like it had been recently dragged into the middle of the room.
She walked to the vanity near the window, taking Ethan with her, and she sat, now engaged fully by this mirror, still moving with the same slow, deliberate movements, as if each small motion carried some significant meaning; an interpretive dance. She brushed her hair and Ethan watched, as he always had, through her eyes, knowing what would come next. He could feel her limbs move as the brush ran through her hair, and he could feel the bristles on her scalp. He used to fight these movements, trying to change her behavior, to stop her, but he couldn't, and though he knew now that it was useless, that he had to watch this unfold exactly this way, over and over, he imagined that he saw this resistance in her eyes, as if she too were trying to stop this chain of events. Was she stuck too? Was she even really a different person from Ethan? Was he seeing himself in those brown eyes?
There was a black laced dress lying across the middle of the bed, and she began to put it on. There were clothes strewn over every imaginable surface in this studio apartment, but somehow, the way this dress had been placed here seemed special. Perhaps it was the fact that along with it was placed a couple of blood red ribbons, which she delicately tied into her damp hair, or the matching red flats on the floor next to the chair.
As she had stared into her own eyes, carefully performing this dressing ritual, her mind had been quiet. Deathly still. Ethan was alone in there. There had been no parade of words echoing through her skull in her own voice, the way there nearly always was with Ethan unless he actively fought it. In fact, it was this thought that broke the silence, as she wondered to herself how long it had been since her mind had been so still. But, as if primed by this tiny trickle of thought, the engine revved to life, and Ethan was forced to endure a monsoon of thoughts, unable to effect them in any way. They churned and chugged and ripped through the mind he shared with her, and all the time she stared, deeply lost in her own eyes. Was she looking for him in there?
Now fully dressed all in black and red, she skillfully applied rouge and lipstick and puckered her lips into a kissy face at herself. This was purely habitual. There was no joy in her eyes, no sense of satisfaction at her gaunt beauty. This was just an automatic behavior, and one that she barely noticed she had done. It vaguely embarrassed Ethan.
She turned and walked to her hope chest where she knelt and ritualistically removed three items: a birthday card sized envelope with the name "Tom" written in flowing cursive across the front, an ivory handled letter opener, and a framed photograph of her as a little girl.
These three items she placed on the vanity, turning the photograph carefully so that it could clearly be seen from the bed (why must she do that?!) and then she turned back to the bed slowly, staring deeply at the handmade quilt that had been tossed to one side that morning and which now sloppily hung, spilling slightly onto the floor. She wasn't thinking of the quilt, or of the morning when she had tossed it so. Her mind was quiet again. Or, at least, it was empty of words, full instead with a kind of buzzing hum, an electrical storm of inarticulate emotions that was growing stronger. For Ethan, this was just as bad, if not worse. They were just thoughts without words, and they tore at him, pummeled him, as if he were caught in a hailstorm with a hot power line in his hands, throwing electricity all around him.
It was in this wordless, buzzing, thrashing hum that she knelt down at one end of the hope chest and heaved it off the ground, standing it on end so that it stood nearly as tall as she. Then she stepped up, onto the bed, and carefully mounted the chest, pulling her legs up, then balancing on her knees, and finally standing, reaching up to grab the noose for balance and support.
These were Ethan's thoughts now. Could she hear them? If she could, it didn't change anything. No matter what Ethan thought, no matter how fully condensed he allowed the vapor to become and how loudly he thought, she never changed her actions, never wavered from this macabre routine.
Her eyes met the eyes of the little girl on the vanity and an infinite spectrum of possibilities filled every crevice of that brief instant; all the lives that girl might have lived and the loves she might have known, and all the different ways she might have grown, how she might have healed. All the identities she had known; daughter, wife, mother, friend... And as Jennifer's left foot (her name was Jennifer, Ethan realized only after the first several times through this experience) kicked forward, sending the hope chest careening back to the floor, the spectrum snapped back into one bold, hard line which vibrated like a low bass guitar string connecting her neck to the big oak beam running across the ceiling. Her legs pedaled the air like an invisible bicycle.
She had expected the panic. And the pain. By now Ethan did too, and he felt them both. She let her body do what it needed, patiently waiting for it to end, willing herself to detach from the moment. But as the panic subsided and her body began to twitch and convulse, she found herself facing an unexpected development. She was still there. Every time, she was surprised by this. Ethan felt how her heart filled with horrible dread and regret at this new understanding. Death would not take her - not quickly, perhaps not at all. Her eyes were now motionless as her body swung very slightly, still locked onto the eyes of the little girl in the photo, and even as her vision darkened, bursts of blackness like negative images of fireworks around the periphery of her vision growing ever closer to the center, she was still there. Still aware. And Ethan was there too, alone in her head, unable to say or do anything.
Finally blackness obscured everything, and she felt weightless. No. Not weightless. Insubstantial. Time shattered, then disappeared; seconds and eons became indistinguishable. The numbness of her dead body gave way to fuzziness, as if there were no barrier between her and everything else in this ocean of darkness. And then the darkness began to move. Currents of darkness flowing within other currents. Rivers inside of oceans. Inky tentacles that writhed and squirmed, dragging suckers like giant tastebuds over every crevice of Jennifer's mind. And one yellow eye. Blinking open.
The fabric of reality rattled with a sudden BOOM! and WHOOSH!! and the flesh of the octopus flew apart like a kaleidoscope of black on black that dissolved into a loud and steady roar, bright orange light in all directions, and screaming pain through every inch of Ethan's body. He was being born. Again.
Always, it was like this. It was like this the very first time, if there had been a first time. There was the girl, the rope, the octopus, and then the explosion. That was the beginning of Ethan's life. Or maybe it was the beginning of the world. Later, he would recall foreign memories as a tall, lanky boy with jet black, frizzy hair, a strong jawline, roman nose, and stone blue eyes, but that wasn't really him. The girl (Jennifer was her name. She had a name) was more him than this stupid boy. He would recall these things later, but in those moments right after the octopus and the explosion he knew nothing about any of that. He only knew of Jennifer.
His eyes wouldn't open, but the fire was so bright that his eyelids lit up as if he were staring directly into a very bright, very orange lava lamp. His arms could move - he couldn't stop them from thrashing around, in fact - but his legs wouldn't. No, his left leg could move. He kicked it out in front of him, remembering the hope chest. He was lying on the ground, now he was able to tell, and his right leg was stuck. There was something heavy on it. The fire roared, and he could hear voices, shouting. Boys. English and Arabic. Then a gruff male voice, obviously older, broke through in English.
"Get it off him! Move!"
The boys' voices swarmed around him, chaos and panic. Someone grabbed his right arm and pulled, peeling a layer of skin away. There was so much pain coursing through every fabric of his being that he hardly noticed. They grabbed again, harder, and this time his body moved and there was a crunch in his right ankle. Stars burst in his vision even brighter than the fire. Then there was a violent HISS! and the orange light dimmed. His lungs filled with agonizing hot steam, and there was blackness again, but no octopus.
Only Ethan, whoever that was.