issue one - June 1997
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Interview with SCOTT HEIM | Review of IN AWE | Author Bio

Excerpt from  In Awe



With autumn the days grow darker and in darkness comes the rain, insistent and slow and narcotic, the town's punishment. The streets flood at night and crumble by morning. Leaves fall early, brown by the month's herald, dragged down by the chill and the wind. At night the breeze blows from the southwest, bearing a candylike hint of apple cider from the orchards of McIntosh and Red Delicious that border Lawrence. But mostly the smell is rain. People stop smiling. In stables horses whinny and in kennels dogs howl, as animals do before tornadoes or quakes, their voices harmonizing to interrupt sleep.

      The Kansas River is a wound, carving the town in two. The storms have made it furious. It pounds and laps and breathes pale yellow mists. A pair of university students have been reported missing since the advent of fall semester, and a headline in the newspaper blames the river: FLOODS SUSPECTED IN GIRLS' DISAPPEARANCES. The townfolk whisper otherwise, trusting no one.

      Midnight means curfew at Sunflower Youth Home. Boris clicks off the lamp, stretches out, closes his eyes. He focuses on the river and rain, their bastard clash, and can't sleep. The muggy darkness persists, tightens at his throat, yet he clutches the blanket closer. He's replaced the Sunflower blanket with one swiped from his last foster family, the mercurochrome stain still spotted on its trim, their house's soapsud smell pasted to its fleece. Boris breathes the scent and feels everyone drifting off around him. Nearby, his roommate Carl; the other twenty-two teenagers whose rooms divide the hallway; the pair of night counselors who sleep in adjacent beds downstairs. He senses them losing consciousness, oppressive waves stilling, dispersing, leaving him alone at last.

      Boris pictures Sarah and Harriet and, between their sorrowed faces, Marshall. He tries to replace his thoughts of today's funeral with the missing students. He imagines the discovery of a body: It will happen, he's certain, soon. He dreams hunters in camouflaged hats and coveralls, stamping through the woods at the north side of town. One hunter, scanning the bushes and mulch heaps for deer, will spy something strange through binoculars. One shotgun will drop; another, and another. They'll find her face peeking forth from piles of leaves, her buttermilk eyes watching them, flesh the color of a peeled potato, dried blood against her frozen lips. Boris catalogues the details. Church bell's chime in the far distance; secretive crackle of the grasses; scavenging arc of birds that ache to gnaw at her knuckles and toes. Starlings' songs trapped in her unhearing ears. Wasp stings the last bitter flavor on her tongue.

      His room lies at the hall's darkest end like a secret fairy tale chamber. On the inside, though, it is ordinary to the point of severe, no Sleeping Beauty castle or Bluebeard lair. He arrived that first day with two suitcases, a half-filled photo album, the Dr. Pepper he'd bought at the bus station. He slurped its remainder through a half-gnawed straw and withheld a wince at the assigned room. He still hates it: Like all others at Sunflower, it consists of white-painted walls enclosed by a spackled ceiling, unornamented except for a single gold crucifix above each bed. Posters, photographs, or cork boards aren't allowed. There are two closets, two dressers, two desks with matching chairs. Boris has learned snippets of history by reading his desktop's ballpointed graffiti; the knife-nicks from legions of past orphans and runaways, underage arsonists and shoplifters. Delinquents, black sheep, thieves! He has heard the stories, the gossip. In the room directly above sleeps a girl who, when ordered by her mother not to attend junior prom, slit twin verticals in her wrists with a carpet knife. Down the hall, a boy who attacked three friends with a rubber mallet. Once upon another time, more than a decade ago, even Sarah was here, captive during her own damaged and vaguely criminal adolescence.

      Boris claims the dresser on the left. Unlike Carl's, its bottom drawer has been rigged with a lock. He keeps the key taped to the inside of a Bible, a pocketable New Testament with a cover the color and texture of a lime. Sunflower supplies one Bible per tenant, but Boris only opens his to retrieve the key. He's revealed its whereabouts to Sarah and Harriet, telling them they can uncover the drawer's contents "in the case I'm murdered, or become target of a terrorist's bomb, or mysteriously disappear from the face of the earth."

      Carl sleeps, eyes and mouth closed, his ribs visible above white boxers. He's a freshman at the high school, two years younger than Boris, but could pass for much older within the miserable light. It fans from the mullioned window to illuminate the never-shaved blond hairs above Carl's lip. The lashes, bristled like a bat's. He shifts, moving his head from view, and Boris, privacy assured, edges from bed to extract the Bible from under the mattress. Digital numbers on his nightstand clock glow a burgundy 1:04--Sarah's not due for another fifty-six minutes--so he tiptoes to the dresser and inserts the key.

      Crammed inside the drawer is the Suffering Box. Boris considers it a masterpiece, a first-rate sculpture Sarah made nearly fifteen years ago while still a Lawrence West senior. It resembles a small crib, two feet long, one foot wide and deep, its sides constructed with ribs of wood, animal bone, wrapped clumps of chickenwire. Inside rest more bones, unthreaded needles, glass shards, feathers, rosebush thorns, and various mementos from the distant and recent past. One month ago, Sarah presented it to Boris: "An early happy birthday." She stipulated only that he keep it safe and continue adding to its contents, just as she'd done over the years. "It's like an ongoing work," Sarah told him. "Use it. Stuff some sort of reminder in the box. Whatever's symbolic of your pain." She included her final items--one of Marshall's translucent blue hospital bracelets, a palmful of fingernails she'd clipped from his hand--and surrendered it.

      At the bottom of the Suffering Box are pieces and bits of Sarah's earlier life. Locks of hair; class rings she and Marshall once wore; a torn-but-retaped photo of a boy swinging a tennis racket. They serve to add slight tints to a monochrome past she doesn't readily divulge. In another of the box's photos, a teenage Sarah grins sheepishly, displaying a deeply charcoaled portrait of Marshall. She wears a tight blouse, too much make-up, henna-yellow pixie curls at the cheeks. The words on the picture's reverse read "Grand Champion, Douglas County High Schools in the Arts Contest." Sarah insists that everyone but a few select boys, back then, hated her guts; still, Boris figures she must have earned notoriety for her artwork. She grabbed first place in the very competition Boris hopes to win this year.

      Instead of visual art, Boris plans to enter March of the Zombies, his horror novel-in-progress. The pages he's scribbled thus far are crammed together with his diary between the Suffering Box and the right side of the drawer. Boris will build the narrative around Sarah, Harriet, himself; he originally intended four characters, but after Marshall, he narrowed his scope. The plot focuses on their tribulations, the most horrifying and terrible hours from their pasts. A fatal accident turns the protagonists into zombies. They lurch from graves to prey on all who have abused or ostracized them. Instead of inventing these scenarios, Boris figures, he'll base everything on truth. Besides detailing his own experiences on pieces of school notebook paper, he'll collect letters from Sarah and Harriet, notes of confession categorized with a gigantic red S or H above each page.

      Carl stirs. Boris shuts the drawer, then waits a dozen seconds before reopening. For last year's arts contest, he entered a not-quite-autobiographical short story about a foster kid torching his various sets of pretend-parents' houses. He was new to Lawrence then, recently dumped by another host family, and all his effort received was a participant's ribbon. The contest awarded students who'd entered paintings, poems, tapes of songs they'd composed; grand champion trophy went to a chubby girl who'd once called him "Faggot" during class. Her sculpture of a ferocious phoenix soaring from papier-mache flames still towers in the vice principal's office.

      Boris adds today's funeral pamphlet to the box, the outside light spangling on the words inked at the page's top border:

Marshall David Jasper
June 3, 1963 - September 15, 1995g

      On the reverse, a pastel of heavenly sunbeams seeping through stained glass accompanies a poem included at the church pastor's urging. Boris slides the slip of paper to the box corner, yet it seems out of place: for here, top of the pile, perhaps even more hush-hush than Sarah's photos and memories, more than his novel, is Boris's shrine to Rex Jackson.

      Rex. How can Boris possibly describe him? Months back, when Sarah asked him, he couldn't. "Oh god. Rex. Um, he's, um, beautiful." Rex, Boris's most mammoth crush, attends his same school. One year ahead of Boris, but light years away from ever knowing the extent of his love.

      The first time he saw Rex he felt splashed with cold champagne. Boris, newly transferred, was heading for algebra; shop class seemed Rex's destination, as in place of books or pencils, his hands gripped a hammer and a sheaf of sandpaper. Rex walked with the clumsy swagger of a drunk. Scrapes dotted his knuckles like dribbles of strawberry jelly, and mudstains browned his jeans. At the far end of the lockers, an argument between two stoners elevated to a fight, and Rex's bored face rose toward the ruckus. Fluorescent light graciously haloed him. Boris saw the beauty there, its sharpness leeching away each of his senses like a sweet syringe until he felt so puny and stupefied he nearly fainted. A girl bumped the book from his hand. In the time it took to lift it off the floor, Rex had vanished.

      Later that day, Boris glimpsed him, him, again. Rex clicked like a jigsaw piece into the mold that Boris, after brief years of boywatching, had begun to develop as his "type"--tall, skinny but broad-shouldered, somewhat uncomfortable amid his surroundings. Hair so black, from a distance it resembled paint, from super-close possibly licorice, although Boris hadn't, and still hasn't, attempted that proximity. Disarming green of his eyes. Big ears. Big hands and feet. Best of all, a smooth, almost Roman nose in the exact center of his face. To some, Rex's nose might be considered too large; for Boris it's heaven-sent. He dreams of touching it, clamping his lips down, tonguing the runneled cartilage.

      After two weeks of eyeing him, Boris inaugurated his collection. When Rex fumbled a butterscotch disk tossed by a female admirer, Boris waited until he could safely snatch it up. He slid check-out cards from the back covers of library books, Rex's left-slant signature repeated in different inks. Boris lingered outside classrooms, learned his idol's schedule, risked tardy slips. He pocketed leftover screws from Rex's shop project; pieced-off sneaker tracks of dried farm mud; a brown paper towel dampened by grimy hands. The R. JACKSON nameplate hung from its hook on the gymnasium ping pong tournament board? Nabbed by Boris. The smiley-face sugar cookie Rex neglected to eat during cafeteria hour? Stolen from the trash and canvassed in a cellophane bag. Boris even found fresh magic-marker scribblings of lyrics from metal bands' songs on Rex's gym locker. He tried transferring them mirror-image to a tissue with careful dabs of spit. THE FIRE IM FEELIN WILL TAKE ME TO HELL//IF YOU WANNA FOLLOW BABY, JUST . . . the rest is unreadable.

      The Rex collection started months ago, long before Sarah gave him her bone and chickenwire box to house it all. Now, September, the rain rises and falls and strips toast-colored leaves from the trees. Boris lords over his bottom drawer with the devotion of an evangelist. The Suffering Box, March of the Zombies and its preparations, everything he's lifted and scraped and assembled of Rex. There has to be something to desire, right? Something to live for? Rex surely wouldn't dream of speaking to spindly, girly-boy Boris. But the slim possibility that maybe, just maybe Rex could, keeps Boris going.

      When he met Sarah and Harriet and Marshall, he'd been anchored at Sunflower less than a month. He had memorized everyone's first and last names. He knew, from his bedroom window view, when lights went off and on in the neighbors' homes; the schedules for their postal deliveries and dogwalkings. This time he didn't worry about getting attached, for he'd no doubt seen the last of the foster families. Stuck: this halfway house, this Sing Sing, the last stretch of a foster home tunnel from which turning eighteen would free him. Boris didn't argue when the supervisors gave orders. He washed dishes, folded stacks of laundry. Twice a week he volunteered, like the other kids, for community service. Among the less glamorous stints were lawnmowing at City Hall; repainting storefronts; nosing for trash in riverside bushes after July Fourth celebration. These tasks were assigned to the runaways, the mom-beaters and botched suicides, the teen hooligans who collected misdemeanors like postage stamps.

      But they let the foster kids choose their duties, and Boris chose hospital work. Tuesdays and Thursdays, after school, he'd make a beeline for Lawrence Memorial, homework books at his side, earphones roaring twin splinters of sound into his brain. He noticed the women his first week there. What outcast doesn't notice another, their gazes crashing head-on with equal degrees of admiration and contention, as if being misfit is a contest? Yet Boris, at school, felt too shy to approach anyone. The two women waited in the hallway where he cleaned, the wallpaper a sherbety glow behind them. The older woman looked like an overdressed sparrow. She sang to herself, glanced at the clock, and sang some more, slightly louder this time. The younger woman's foot kept perfect fox-trot rhythm, and she held a plastic bowl the size of a spittoon. Peanuts in their shells: Boris could smell them, could hear her munching. Her T-shirt showed a still from Psycho-- shower head drizzling water, as seen from below--but while Boris loved horror films too, he couldn't muster the courage to approach.

      She saw him staring nonetheless. "I'm Sarah, she's Harriet." Something soft swirled behind her eyes and made Boris feel that she recognized him, foresaw his future. She pointed at his green-bristle broom and dustpan. "Have some peanuts. You a candystriper, or the janitor?"
The sound of an alarm clock, beeping; someone's ragged cough. "Neither," Boris said. "I'm a foster kid."

      Later he leaned beside the window in the hospital room, nibbling a fingernail. Harriet stood at her son's shoulder, guiding the paper cup to Marshall's lips, stroking his hair. When Sarah made introductions, she relayed information she'd already gleaned in the hallway: Boris was new to town, and lived at Sunflower, "like I did, the early eighties, all those centuries ago."
Marshall wore a patch over one eye. An IV trailed its umbilical into one forearm. Beside his bed were seed catalogs, equestrian magazines, a European travel guide with a cover photo of a half-naked, ponytailed boy. "Howdy," Marshall said. His face looked inhuman, buttery, and seeing him smile and speak was like watching a painting spring to life. "How's Sunflower? When I was around your age, I used to sneak there to see Sarah. God, I sound old."

      When Boris opened his mouth, only a stutter fell out. He cleared his throat and grinned back at Marshall. "It's not so interesting there, now. I'm like an inmate. Only the supervisors have a new name. They call us CINCs. Children. In. Need. Of. Care. It'd be cooler if they pronounced it 'kink.' But they have to say 'sink.' So until someone takes me in again, I'm a CINC. But I'm nearly seventeen, so no one's going to take me now, right? They'll wait for me to graduate, then I'm history."

      "Well," Marshall said. There was an uncomfortable silence. Harriet looked at Marshall, back to Boris, back to Marshall; at last she selected a horse magazine and resumed her humming song. The melody clashed with the trapped-animal shrill of the air conditioner. "Well Boris," Marshall said, "it's a rare day when I get guests beyond the queen and princess here. And nurses, I can't forget them."

      The room smelled of incense, which Sarah explained as an herbalist's blend of healing aromas, concocted to overpower the hospital odor. "It's illegal here," she said, "but the nurses are certain me and Harriet are witches-slash-lunatics, so they leave us be." Harriet laughed at that. Boris laughed too, then stopped when she stopped. He looked out the window: A woman pushed a double stroller; trees stretched back to more trees; a rake rested teeth-up, its handle knotted with a checkered necktie. A gardener unrolled strips of new lawn like carpet, rowelling parallel swaths of green with a silver implement that reflected up to Marshall's window.

      When Harriet left for the rest room, Marshall's voice smoothed to a whisper. "It's what you think it is," he said. He explained how he wasn't that sick, not yet. He would get to go home tomorrow, maybe; he just needed to regain strength. Boris chewed his fingernail a millimeter deeper until Harriet returned. Yes, there would still be time outside the hospital for Marshall. And then more time in the hospital. And then, and then.

      "Look at this kid's red hair!" Marshall told the women. He pointed at Boris with his exposed arm, the IV wiggling its tendril. "And up close there--the eyelashes and brows are nearly blond. Boy, you'd make a pretty girl." As a child, Boris would stomp weeping from the room at comments like that. But not now. He already liked these people. And the guy was dying.

      They spent the remaining visiting hours talking, talking more. Soon Harriet pat-patted the chair beside her son's bed and Boris, a buzzing warmth spreading through his chest, took the seat. They all shared slices of an apple and four paper cups of peppermint tea. Harriet hummed a new song; Boris, recognizing it, joined in. At some point, Sarah reached to take his hand. "Re what you said about no one wanting to take you?" she asked, and Boris shrugged. "You said 'who'd want me, right?' Well, forget that. We'll take you." She indicated Marshall and Harriet with a nod of her head, then touched her thumb to his chin. "It's official. You're ours now."

      Boris, sleepyhead, planned to wait for 2 AM, for Sarah's horn signal to whisk him away. Instead he dozes off, his bed a skiff sailing toward dreams of Rex he fruitlessly struggles to dream. During sleep, a procession of mosquitoes steals through the open window. In a matter of minutes they do their damage, divebombing for skin Boris's sheet has left uncovered. His ankles and shoulders and forearms redden with welts. He wakes to the metallic whine of a mosquito, screaming in the hollow of his ear, sniffing his fragrant heart.

      The room brightens with what at first seems like lightning, red electric strobes that make the stark surroundings clarify, blur, clarify . . . . Boris feels confused, as though he's woken inside a tornado. He swipes the bangs from his eyes, stretches, leans near Carl's bed. It's just the digital clock that flashes. Has a storm passed? Yes, he hears the trampoline shudder of thunder. He counts out sixty bursts of the clockface. The power loss has reset the time, 12:00, 12:00, but he's certain it's close to two, precisely two, or somewhere past.

      Some nights, after her late shift at the truck stop/convenience store on the interstate, Sarah kidnaps him. They tour Lawrence with the aimlessness of sleepwalkers. She'll lure him out by standing in the parking lot, tossing twigs against his window, as the demon does in one of her favorite horror movies. Hearing nothing tonight, Boris jolts to his feet in the fear she's abandoned him.

      He looks out through drizzle and the fronds of a weeping willow.The Volkswagen sits in the lot, alongside a supervisor's car and a Sunflower transport van. There is Sarah's shadow, waving through the shattered windshield. Boris hoists the window higher to maneuver his body through. Here, nothing's locked from the outside: People can't enter, sure, but as Carl informed him once, some stipulation of law prevents the supervisors from bolting kids in. He shrugs his body past the pane, shuffles through the lot--a cricket stops chirping, a pickup in the street varooms past, did someone see?--and grasps the door handle. The spray-painted QUEERS splits apart, then rejoins on the slam.

      Streetlights sear white-dot mirrors on the windshield, kaleidoscoped through the crushed glass. Sarah backs out and speeds away, her single unbroken highbeam sending a glimmery beacon through the rain. Her side window, obliterated by the vandals, is now a taped-up square of cellophane; through it light glints, green and eerie, in her hair. "Have I got news," she says, targeting her eyes on the road. "Police found one of the missing girls. The same day as the funeral, and they find one of the bodies."
      "What else do you know?" Boris shakes the drizzle, setter-like, from his brow. "Where was she? Was it on the news? What happened?"
      "I just heard it on the radio. She washed up way down river. Dead, that's all I know."

      Boris fights the urge to click on the car's tinny radio for more information. Sarah usually keeps it blaring (the college radio station; one of Marshall's handpicked music tapes), but tonight, silence. And whereas she sometimes smells of gasoline or the sausage cooker from the convenience store, tonight's scent seems more like liquor. Boris knows her mind isn't on the dead girl. He squints, attempting to read any emotion in her face. "Are you doing okay?"

      "It's warm in here," Sarah says. A double pause, and then: "Am I doing okay. Really, I'm not feeling much. It would have been different if he hadn't taken so long. Wasn't like a murderer slipping in to stab an otherwise healthy and expected-to-live-fifty-years-more sort of person." She half-grins, pleased with her answer. "I guess I felt more way back when. About the time he first told me he was sick."

      She points to the side door, and Boris cranks the handle. Water beads seep through the crack and blow across his shoulder and forehead. The wipers squeak their rubbery swath, stamping leaves and June bugs further into the flotsam at the windshield's bottom. Rhode Island Street, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont; the VW meanders up the central hill toward the university, humming on the incline, the headlight swinging its white finger over the houses. Some brood darker than others, their electricity snuffed by whips of lightning. But campus glows brighter, lampposts dropping white umbrellas of light before the science and humanities buildings, the history museum. The Kansas Union shines brightest of all, its glassed-in marquee exhibiting posters for upcoming movies, flyers offering reward for the missing students.

      Sarah eases down into the campus drive's 20 miles per hour limit; turns for the road to the central belltower. KANSAS UNIVERSITY MEMORIAL CAMPANILE, a sign reads. Ahead, the structure rises, rises its illuminated tip to the froth of clouds, a landlocked lighthouse in the rain. "Marsh loved this place," Sarah says, and Boris agrees. He knows what goes on here after dark. Men abandon their cars, then disappear into oak and cottonwood shadows. Two sidewalks branch like arteries from the belltower's cement oblong, one leading near cars parked beneath a canopy of trees, the other following a footpath down to a shaded valley between the Campanile and the football stadium. Scattered in that valley are various bushes, sycamores, and mulberry trees, all interlocking arms. But no walk lamps, no light whatsoever. Just men, hidden in darkness: Boris imagines heel-toe footsteps, rustlings, the soft minuet of laughter.

      Not long before Marshall re-entered the hospital, he brought Boris and Sarah here, explaining in the voice of a tour guide the secret locations where he once cruised, all the sequestered nooks for sex. Two sores showed through the charcoal hair on Marshall's arm, rose-violet dots under the Campanile's light. "This way," he said. Sarah strolled, then skipped ahead, asking question after question. Boris wanted Marshall to detail his experiences, but was too embarrassed to ask. Since then, in private, he's imagined boys below the campus trees, their eyes watching his approach.

      A police car moseys past, the officer inside regarding their jumble of graffiti, and Sarah momentarily parks. Next to them is a red Mustang with a figure behind its wheel. Boris is too bashful to look. At the bottom of the hill below, further from the belltower and heavily shrouded by trees, lies Potter's Lake. It betrays its name, more a pond than a lake, speckled with lily pads and cattails, ramparted by a small brick bridge. During the day, students kiss there, toss bread to ducks. At night everyone avoids the place. According to story, a philosophy major once drowned in Potter's. Every year, students reestablish the rumors: "Weird choking sounds can be heard there at night"; "I saw a figure lurching from the water," etcetera.

      "This place isn't seeing much business," Sarah says. "Marshall used to like it here best when it rained. Bad weather brought out the real die-hard junkies." Around them, the sidewalks look caramelized; Sarah backs, concentrating, from the parking spot. "I'm not going to be one of those friends who'll preach and preach to you. But listen. Marsh knew someone who was attacked with a baseball bat here." She turns off Campanile Drive, steers away from campus. "Too boring tonight. Let's head north. See how far the water's risen."

      The car fills with a strange silence. Boris, unsure how to break it, watches the world from the window. There, as if through tinted lenses: the southeastern glow from the fairgrounds, the Douglas County Carnival currently in town. Its lights stretch skyward, opalating the bank of thunderheads, beckoning him.

      On the north side of Lawrence are dark bars, antique and curio shops, a video store with window posters of lips and angels and guns. Sarah parallel parks on Locust Street, at the bridge's junction. She pulls an umbrella from behind her seat and heads across the walkway. "C'mon."

      Boris trails behind her, securing his hand first to the LAWRENCE RIVERFRONT PARK sign, then the edge-rungs of the railing. He bends to tie his shoe; sees bits of glass, a discarded yellow parking ticket, a broken treble hook and the grip from a pair of fishing pliers. At this hour the bridge seems spooky; no drivers, no cars trailing their bright whites or maraschino reds.

      Sarah chooses a spot, brushes pebbles from the concrete, sits. They hug their arms to the gunmetal vertical rails, dangle their legs over the edge. Boris, both acro- and hydrophobic, grits his teeth and looks. The river has risen higher since Sarah last drove him here, three days ago. It sluices past open-faced Bowersock Dam, pounding the descending embankment of stones, the abutments of graffitied cement. During the day its color is creamed tea; now it's only black. It swells and foams and drinks the endless rain. Further down shore, illuminated by laddered highway light, a trio of fishermen cast catfish lines. They wade through the water, reel in, rare back, toss their hooks into the drizzle's curtain.

      Decades ago, a movie called Carnival of Souls was filmed at this very location. Sarah has seen the film seven times, knows integral snippets of the heroine's dialogue. Once she even viewed it with Boris, at the farmhouse, while in the kitchen, Harriet crushed herbs with a pestle and sprinkled them into Marshall's empty plastic pill capsules. Sarah mouthed the words, nearly all of them, as the alien television light made fireflies across her face. On screen, dour zombies rose from the brackish water, eyelids smeared with kohl, dark robes dripping. Boris will try to recount their creepy appearances in further descriptions of his novel's undead protagonists.

      He wipes rain beads from his wristwatch: It's nearly three. If the supervisors catch him sneaking off again, it will mean two demerits, an extra night of dish duty. And sometimes, if a CINC turns up missing, he or she's considered a runaway. The supervisors rush for Sunflower's hall telephone; punch-punch-punch a furious 911. So far, the police haven't bothered Boris. He hopes to leave it this way.

      A semi whizzes past in hot gasoline fumes. It rumbles the bridge beneath them, heading deeper into north Lawrence, the poorer side of town. "Where the sad people live," as Sarah has told him. Where she, too, lives. Boris follows her gaze out, out, to the weed bed spot where the little group casts for fish. She could be thinking about movie zombies, their sawteeth and their cutlass claws; more likely, she's thinking about the funeral. "I know nothing about fishing," Boris tells her, "but I've heard they bite in storms." His attempt at distraction sounds artificial, so he retries. "I'm adding lots to the Suffering Box."

      A second too much time passes before she responds. "Marvelous. Maybe I'll have to build a bigger one."

      Boris clenches his fist and holds it in front of Sarah's lips. They do this sometimes: the newsman conducting an "interview," using a "microphone" for the starlet's "speech." "So tell me, Miss Hart," Boris begins, "what exactly did you mean to say when you created your work of art?"

      Sarah rests her head against the rail, then reaches to move his microphone closer. "It was supposed to represent how we treasure material items during life." Her voice lowers, serious, her face slack with a seen-it-all expression. "But after we die all becomes nothing, we're right in there with the bones and shit and feathers, people are buried in their jewels and nice clothes but then in only a matter of months . . . you know." Now Sarah's real voice has risen again, no more make-believe, and Boris takes his hand away from her mouth. "It's like Marshall," she says. "You know. The way he looked and all? Oh, I'm not sure what I'm saying really."

      The breeze startles the distant branches, all the needlestick reeds that waltz the water's edge. It lifts Sarah's hair from her shoulders, shaking free the rain. "Well, the box is yours now. I bet you've been stuffing it full of . . . full of what? More this-and-that of Rex's, I hope?"

      "I'll never get him," Boris says. "I have this huge fear I'll be forty years old and still in love with this perfect human being from high school, still, like, following him around in secret and jamming my pockets full of whatever he drops. He has no idea I'm alive, but god, he's so perfect. If I were that beautiful I'd make certain I'd be famous."

      Sarah stops sponging her brow and transfers the hand to Boris's head. "Stop. You are beautiful. You have the most amazing lips, and your hair's cool, and those cheekbones! I'm envious." Boris worries that Sarah's only saying this, adopting the obvious adult stance to offer support a mother might give. "Rex," she says, "is dumb for not realizing what's great about you. If I were him," she adds, "I'd be deep in love with you."

      The rock embankment to their left is littered with snarls of flue, with the remains of two white trees, a giant ulna and radius coughed up from the water and left to dry. A bike trail slopes into blackness; the trees where, at certain times on uncertain years, bald eagles come to perch. Somewhere in that dark, too, the towering grain elevator near Sarah's home.

      The fishermen slosh further down river. Boris catches a hint of their ruckus, even over the rip-roar surge below. One of the men holds a flashlight, its beam striping the bulrushes, staining an egglike stain on the water. Boris closes his eyes--Rex's face, so easily conjured, Rex's face--and he repeats out loud the words he wrote, weeks ago, in a page in his secret journal: "I want to put my tongue inside his mouth for so long I memorize every edge and texture and angle of every tooth. I want to taste his lunch, and beyond that even, his morning toothpaste." As he finishes the words, he sees Sarah trying to smile, yet still not masking, not quite, her leftover exhaustion and sorrow from the long day. Boris tastes the mistake, hot and dry in his mouth, and knows he should have thought of Marshall, should have restrained from spouting his own dark-red desires. "I'm sorry," he tells her.
      "Don't be," Sarah says. "Never hold back what you're feeling. I want you to tell me everything, whenever you want."
      Boris, after two breaths: "Okay. I will." A car rumbles past. "Then I want you to tell me everything, too."
      "I will."

      In a film, one of them would blurt "I love you" here. In real life, Sarah sometimes says that, but for Boris it always seems inappropriate. He rechannels his thoughts by recalling afternoons at the beginning of summer, days without school, before Marshall's illness. The sun would blister, refusing to stop its burn, mocking soothsayers' predictions of its imminent deterioration. Sarah sported an early cocoa-butter tan. When she picked him up from Sunflower, Marshall sat in the passenger seat, and Boris would crowd into the back with Harriet. She would grip his fingers, the liver spots on her hand as delicate as the flecks on a moth. While Sarah chauffeured them through the heat-rippled streets, Harriet spoke of the demeanors of her cats and the afghan she was knitting for Marshall. She revealed surprises from her housedress pockets, things, she complained, "Marshall doesn't want anymore." An orange-yellow jawbreaker as big as an orange; a devil's claw she found at the exposed-knuckle roots of a dying tree; a fortuneteller fish made of red rubber that, depending on how it curled or buckled within the bowl of Boris's hand, determined future days of success or sorrow or bliss.

      Now, remembering this and wanting Sarah to remember too, Boris opens his mouth to speak. But abruptly Sarah stands. He stops and follows the point of her finger. There: the river's frame, where waves crash and scrape the rock embankment. "Shhh," she says, though Boris hasn't uttered a word. She steps onto the first horizontal rail and leans her head over, jostling his queasy fear of heights. Only a single javelin of streetlight reaches for the murkiness, but Boris sees something nevertheless. At first he guesses a white trash bag, its form bobbing furiously at the water's edge. But no, this looks more solid.

      Sarah steps around him, umbrella in hand, and gallops along the walkway between the street and bridge rail. "It's a body," she says, running. Boris pursues her, down the end of the bridge, to the declination of rocks. He aims his thoughts on the second missing girl. Her sorority has advertised a ten thousand dollar reward for information. Have he and Sarah found her, only hours after the discovery of the first body?

      From the open-faced dam, the roar of water intensifies, its scent a wedlock of September's thundershowers and decaying fish. Hurry-hurry: Boris stumbles on the avalanche of rocks, his gaze pasted all the while on yes, what is certainly a body. It's the second girl. He knows it. She has been murdered and dumped like garbage. Mosquitoes pepper the air, and he shoos them. Fathoms away, the fishermen hunch pygmylike over their calling. A frantic thought zips through Boris's head--will they want to help, will they want to split the reward money?--but he stamps down faster on each rock, nearing the river's edge.

      Sarah, thirty feet ahead, makes the shoreline first. She drops her umbrella, then bends to one knee to stretch an arm forward. A vision from Carnival of Souls flashes in Boris's head, and he bets she's displacing herself again, dreaming her actions are part of that movie. She yells, but instead of the pitch of terror, it's a disgusted "oh." The water churns in rapid broil and Sarah reaches, grasps the body by the hair, and tugs, pulling it close. Its head makes an inhuman clunk on the rocks. Boris takes five, six more steps, rests his hand on Sarah's back, looks down at their discovery.

      "Dammit," Sarah says, "dammit dammit," her tone telling him that she, too, was dreaming of reward. The body--Boris kneels, seeing it--isn't a murder victim at all, but something artificial, a dummy made of hard plastic like those used in CPR classes. Boris saw one similar during a first-aid assembly at school. This model, a female, looks surprisingly real, even in its unbending chalky skin. Its hair is dark as coffee, moussed stiff with moss. Its three-quarter-closed eyes resemble bruises or Rorschach blots. The lips, painted unnaturally red, are parted almost seductively, and a crawdaddy clings there, bits of river foam and spinach-green algae sliming the cheek. Sarah brushes it all away. Its naked body isn't hollow, but filled inside and out, chilly plastic skin, plastic eyes, possibly plastic stomach and lungs and heart. Sarah and Boris examine closer, squinting in the absence of light. The dummy has been damaged, battered, chunks broken and chiseled in places. One of its breasts has been hammered away; the other wears a scarlet nipple, magic-markered by someone's unsteady hand. A finger missing here; another here, and here. Various stabs and lacerations tattoo its arms. Smaller gouges cover one plastic shoulder; when Boris fingers these, they seem the tracks of teeth, of bite marks.

      Sarah huddles over the dummy and circles an index finger in its crotch. "It's a make-believe cunt," she says. "Feel."

      Boris, fighting the burn of a blush, sticks three fingers in. A hole has been drilled between the legs, a cavity deeper than the length of his probing fingers. He remembers years ago when, on a fishing excursion with a foster father, he thrust his hand into a bucket of carp guts. Now the feeling is the same: Something spongy fills the dummy's hole, strands of wet-gristle flesh that Boris pulls free. The stuff almost pulses in his hand, like tendons of raw meat, and he draws his fingers to his face. "It isn't moss. It smells like liver."

      Sarah notices something else. Someone has written letters on the doll's stomach, scribbled a word into its vanilla skin in the same color as the nipple. Boris reads the letters, but they don't make sense. Parts of the word have been chipped away, gouges or nibbles in the plastic confusing it. "O, S, T, I, T," Boris reads.

      "Awful, it's awful," Sarah says. She swipes oatmeal sand, more ropy moss, from the dummy's leg. "Someone used this for fucking. Someone pretty messed up, judging by the look. He must have gotten tired of her, dumped her here." Sarah palms the outline of its facial features, dragging it further onto the silt. As she stands, Boris sees her fear and pain spelled simply on her face. He wants to turn away into the wind. "I feel sad," Sarah tells him. "I don't know why. I feel like I should rescue her. Put her in a blanket or something." She crosses her arms, hugging herself, then attempts lifting. "She's heavy. Help me carry her. I'll get the head, you take the feet."

      Now an odor of spoiled meat and, heavier, of ancient miry earth. Boris hoists his end and breathes through his mouth. Sarah wedges the umbrella in an armpit and cradles the mannequin's head. They step slowly up the embankment, steadying their feet on rocks, as they carry the dummy to the car. Sarah whispers curses; Boris sees her clenched teeth and candle-flutter eyes. Below her face, sickening and pushing him closer to sickness, the ruined pagan face of the mannequin. When they stuff the body inside the snug trunk at the VW's front, Boris must push it further, harder, and as he does a single toe chips from the foot. He bends to get it; Sarah, not noticing, slams the trunk. Staring back at them, the graffiti: TRASH MOTHERFUCKERS.

      Boris shuts his door behind him. His nailed-in-place expression fills the mirror square, and he looks away. The smell clings to his fingers, the smell of her feet, her stomach, her manufactured hole; breathing it coaxes a thick nausea inside him. He doesn't want the dummy in Sarah's car. Its slitted eyes, its artificial mouth drooling black bacterial water, its code-word scrawled on its raped and butchered body.

      Sarah gets in. Boris opens his mouth, but whatever speech he'd planned snags in his throat. She starts the car, pumps the brakes, and speeds off.

      "Marsh and I took a CPR class once," Sarah says. "This was years ago. I had to take it for some reason. Maybe it was during my little stint at Sunflower. They probably thought it was good for us. Marshall just went along for the experience." Boris can smell the water on her too, the mossy plastic memory of the body. "Weird, but the dummy we used looked a hell of a lot like that one. Identical. Marshall did the CPR thing better than me. Always had the idea that someday he'd save somebody's life."

      They pass gas stations, banks sentried by enormous flags, restaurants dark except for shining signs. Boris hadn't been queasy during Marshall's funeral. Now everything is different. He wants to rewind, whirlwind back to the bridge, and wrap his arms around Sarah's shoulders to hold close, hold dear. She will tell him she loves him, that everything will be fine. He will repeat her words: "It will be all right." And maybe someday Boris will find the courage to protect her from the world, from damage worse than the kind in Carnival of Souls or similar films. He will shield her eyes from horrors like the synthetic girl's rebirth on the shore.

      The car veers toward the street dead-ended by the youth home. Sarah glances in the rearview, then across to Boris. "O, S, T, I, T? What is that? Something to do with the missing girls? What do you think?"

      Boris doesn't answer. Everything feels slightly askew. His body slants forward, the world tilting further on its axis. The dummy's body lies before them, packed within the shadows of Sarah's trunk. In minutes Boris will ease back to sleep, snug inside his Sunflower bed. If he could he would program his dreams to forget everything. This day, the funeral, tonight's pair of hours. He wants sleep to obliterate the lost puzzled look on Harriet's face; the exhausted look on Sarah's. He wants sleep to make him forget the rain, the dummy, forget OSTIT. And yes, too, forget this poisonous unfathomable world, goodnight, goodnight, sleep tight.

1997 Scott Heim
published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

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Scott HeimScott Heim is from Kansas and is presently living in New York. His extraordinary debut novel, Mysterious Skin, met with high praise from critics and readers alike. His second novel, In Awe, published by HarperCollins, is due out June 1, 1997.

[UPDATE May 2002:  In Awe went on to win the 1998 Firecracker Alternative Book Award. Scott Heim is currently finishing his third novel, We Disappear.]