Snowbanks flew up into the sky on either side of the car, reaching like great cloddy hands with fat fingers. I watched each one pass by, lost in the marriage of pure white with the grey slush that New England is so used to carrying in its cradled Winter arms like the child no one wants.
I stole a glance at Helen out of the corner of my eye; she was the same color, the gentle and the piercing bright all rolled into one skin. Around us for miles, shedding like god’s light refracting off a crystal blessed with the season’s injured breath, the snow reached greedy and heavy for the trees. It was something I could get lost in for hours and, coincidentally, Helen was someone I could get lost in and with for hours.
Creeping my hand across the cigarette-burned middle console, I ran a finger along the side of her arm, tracing old scars and my favorite tattoo, and let the incidental paths lead me to her hand; it was fidgeting like a nervous spider in her lap.
Unfolding her fingers one by one, I placed my palm in hers, silently loving the contrast of my dark skin against her almost ghostly pallor. I watched her; without taking her eyes off of the road, without even acknowledging me, she closed her nervous spider around my curious fly and, as always, devoured my heart alongside my imagination.
The decade-old speakers of her tired little Mazda hitched and rattled as she pressed the gas down; the car groaned, but the complaint fell on deaf ears. The *Talking Heads* tape I’d given her months ago poked through the musty air the heater was pumping out.
I sighed; eyes flicking up to the rearview, I watched Quincy disappear behind us; it would get smaller and smaller, a miniscule shitstain city dot in the map of this shitstain state, and eventually the banks around us would swallow it up. It couldn’t happen fast enough.
Helen and I met two years ago, locking eyes across the room at a show.
Some tuneless punk in a ratty halfshirt spat and convulsed on stage and humped the ground and I stood, lonely and bored, hugging the back wall. Sucking at the last breath and backwash out of my whiskey and coke, wishing it full again, I traced the dark corners of the bar, looking for anything to break the monotony of fuzz and feedback and snottily yelled “fucks”, and eventually my eyes fell on her; thin pale arms wrapped around an invisible form over the dark halo of sweat beading her forehead, she looked like a static TV angel, warped and wavering on the fumes of $2 tallboys and testosterone flooding through the air. The deep red jacket draped over her skintight black dress did nothing to hide her curves as she tore a burning hole through my field of vision.
Out of time with the music, she swooped and cut a swath through the crowd, her own little center of the universe. Past her winding fingers, I could see a tall greaser in a leather jacket and torn black pants eyeing her up and down, a wolf in weirdo’s clothing. The expression in his eyes licked its lips and he breached the trio of mohawks in his way, sidling up next to her. A classic push of a hand through the hair, a well-practiced grin, he offered her a beer and she took it, never breaking stride in her twisting and weaving. He placed a hand on her hip and through the dim light of the bar, I saw something wild flash through her eyes. Something deep and dangerous.
As if on cue, she made direct eye contact with me, grinned, and with the swiftness of a jungle cat slipped out of his grasp, around his back, and shoved him into the burly skinhead mass next to them.
As she dipped and dove through the crowd, the flickering overheads of the bar dancing off of her eyes like stars, the greaser frenchkissed skinhead’s knuckles and spat blood onto the still-wailing frontman of the band; I’m sure the tats pounding into his eyes said something keen like FUCK LOVE or NAZI HATE or ANTI FAS with a big X at the end; the crowd fell in on them like hungry jackals whipped by a crashing wave screaming for more more more blood; the bassist walked the song’s heart icy cold over their rippling backs like a staccato mountain, all narrow roads and tattered bridges and damp caves.
My static angel split from the tailend of the crowd as one fight became three and then five and then most of the bodies were thumping on each other with abandon; she twirled as she broke free from the wall of beasts and breaking backs and darted over to me, fast as a lynx, and grabbed my hand. It was only then that I realized I’d been holding my breath since the second I started watching her, and let it slip past my lips and hang from a thankful noose in the damp air struck solid between us.
Then, we were outside; the scream of the band and the excitement of swollen eyes and cracking teeth felt like they were miles away as we sucked in greedy mouthfuls of the cold, crisp night.
I opened my mouth to say something; what, I’m not sure, because a second later she had slender fingers wrapped in the confines of my hair, tugging me closer and filling my mouth with a pillowsoft tongue. I melted into her, folding around her limbs like a parting ocean; she tasted sharp and sweet, and a quick pain shot through my lip as she sunk her teeth into it. I gasped into the back of her throat as hot blood spilled into our mouths and jumped away from her. She just grinned at me, small rivulets of my blood flecking her smile, and in that moment I fell deep and hard in love.
Helen was… odd. Even for my very high standards of oddities, human odds and ends. She hardly ever spoke, and when she did, it seemed like she was filtering fragments of thoughts through her a brain only half-invested in the situation before her.
She didn’t really seem to connect. At least not with others. With me, she didn’t need a whole lot of words.
We flowed into each other in a way that I never had with another person. I was always the outcast, always on the fringe, even within my own homegroups. I grew up in a small town in the South, and being a tall black girl who never seemed to pay any mind to the local boys raised more than enough red flags. I left as soon as I could scrape enough money together and kicked the theoretical door down, flying the coop the day I turned 19.
Helen grew up on a half-forgotten farm in West Virginia, somewhere deep off the beaten path. Her mother raised her by herself, a schoolteacher’s grace with all the love she could muster, and she was left to her own devices a lot of the time as a child. She found comfort in the lay of the land. She made friends of the crops and scarecrows. Every Halloween eve, her mother would sit with her in the kitchen and carve a hugely-smiling jack-o-lantern, tracing their fingers over the craggy grin and pushing in its tented eyes. They were happy as hindu cows; until, one Winter, her mother fell ill; she held on as long as she could, but passed the following Summer. Helen was 22. She took off hard and heavy and closed up to the north to start a new life in the city. What city? Any city, in her words.
Helen never seemed to be fully there, never 100% present in any given conversation, but her flightiness was part of her charm, and every whisked smile and floating laugh I could conjure from her placid waters just made me love her that much harder. Every little note of her past that I could string into a tangible score was like a little symphony to my ears.
In the night, wrapped up in my arms, she would twitch and sweat; she’d warned me about the nightmares the first time I slept over her apartment; she told me that they would come in waves, and the best thing would be to just ignore them. But that didn’t stop me from hugging her as close as I could to my body, feeling her heart pounding into mine, our bloodstreams forming a single cacophonous timbre as she bucked and cried and cursed whatever phantom was haunting her sleep. She’d told me that there was trauma in her past, but wouldn’t walk me down any alleys beyond that.
One night, I remember distinctly, she jumped like her body was a chorus of volts and slammed her back into the headboard, making the walls shake and groan under the assault, and she screamed the words “burning eyes” over and over like they were the magic key to some distant kingdom. I held her as she thrashed against me, pounding the bed and my skin alike, and eventually she sank back into a disturbed sleep fraught with twists and turns I wanted nothing more than to cure.
Helen was like a magnet; she attracted attention in a vacuum, all flashing neon lights and little workers in reflective orange vests flagging her runway. Men and women practically fell to their knees salivating and clawing her shins to get her to look at them. Maybe I exaggerate, maybe not, but regardless, I felt like I had the world on my own engraved silver platter when she brushed the attention off like it was a nasty tick; her hazel eyes were only for me.
This, alongside her natural dreamy air, unfortunately created some tense situations. Drunken boys in bars thinking themselves stunt cocks that could solve any girl’s problem dripped from dirty ceilings between fluorescent lights like raindrops from slanted sills. They sidled up between us, pushing me to the side, ignoring my huff, and latched onto her like veiny tattooed leeches, drooling from the shitty womb birthing desperation from the middle of their faces,
“Hey baby,-” between the audible stretching of leather or tensing of cotton or scrape of wool “-what’re you doing all alone on a night like this?”
they’d say, clawed-out vowels drowning themselves in a sea of cheap cologne. Helen would look at them and roll her eyes and laugh, waving a blood-red fingernail in a swoop between their eyes, pushing away their hopes for a quick fuck in the bathroom stall with ease every time.
She’d slink around them with a housecat’s indifference, sliding between my legs and kissing me deep and hard, and she’d say, “I’m here with my girl; thanks but no fucking thanks.”
I always liked the ways she dry-stressed her consonants.
The boys would fall, shoulders hunched and dicks tucked back between their legs, and crawl across the bar looking for an easier mark; ‘if they don’t find it, they could always tuck back a little farther and fuck themselves,’ she’d whispered in my ear with a little nip. We’d shake with laughter, order another round, squeeze each other and roll on with the night.
It was Halloween of 2011. A shrill bitch of a nor’easter had taken hold of the upper coast, tearing through our town, laying waste to a lot of holiday hopes and dreams; that didn’t bother either of us. We both loved the cold. I dressed as a cat burglar (simple, and I felt extremely lazy). Helen chose something of her own invention she dubbed the “Pumpkin Queen”. I think her laziness was taking head as well, but I also think she just wanted an excuse to carry around a real pumpkin.
We hit a few parties, leaving vapor trails of booze wherever we went, and ended up at our favorite bar. It was small, loud, crowded, and the drinks were dirty cheap. Sinking into our fifth or sixth of the night, we let the music swell around us; some local band doing punk covers of horror movie themes. As a skinny, blood-soaked zombie rattled through Tubular Bells on his bass, I got up to use the bathroom, vaguely noticing a phantom of the opera staring at me from across the room.
When I came back out, drying my hands on my black jumper, I went back to where we’d been sitting but Helen was missing from her seat. Over the music and the crowd, the bartender motioned outside and mouthed the words “friend” and “argument”. Shrugging, I padded to the parking lot only to find her mid-slap with the mystery phantom who’d been casing us in the bar. I heard the strike ring out, a loud crack in the cold air, and the phantom stumbled backwards, clutching at his mask.
Running over, I shouted, “What the hell is going on?”
Helen looked at me, a weird expression dancing between her eyes and stopping dead at her mouth, and said, “Nothing, this asshole and I were just having – and ending – a quick conversation.”
She started to walk towards me, but the asshole phantom lurched forward, grabbing her by the shoulder, and screamed, “You fucking bitch!” as he shoved her; she fell to the ground with a cry. I saw the knife before I even saw his hand reaching for it. Rushing forward and grabbing her up in one swift motion, I darted towards the treeline at the far end of the parking lot with both of our hearts pounding in my ears. I could feel her pulse rocking through her body like a double barrel shotgun, pumping rounds left and right.
We were fast, but so was he; just as we broke past the treeline, I could hear him hot on our heels, snapping branches and swearing up a storm.
“Fucking dyke slut” bounced off the snowy tree branches, doubling back and ricocheting off of “lying whore” and the occasional “bitch” as we ran.
Then, I pulled the movie classic; I hit a patch of ice and slipped; a root caught me off balance and sent me flying into the snowy brush, taking Helen down with me. We hit the ground with twin yelps, and something hard and heavy rolled past us, landing at the base of a tree. Through the haze of pain blossoming in my leg and head, I realized it was her pumpkin.
The asshole phantom, heaving and huge and mad against the dark sky, walked forward, towering over us. The knife glinted sharp and loud in the air; it was the kind hunters used for skinning and gutting game. I choked on the breath which had finally caught up with us during the fall and looked to Helen; her face was gaunt and white and stony.
The phantom stumbled forward, drunk but more intoxicated with anger and the thrill of the hunt. He lifted his knife hand, stabbing at us and spitting at our feet.
“Fuckin’ slut, th-thinkin’ you can just run off with some black dyke bitch like that,” he wheezed.
Helen was silent; the only sound besides the phantom’s ragged breathing and my own crying was the creaking of the trees.
“Show you like I did back then, show you a real man again, thinkin’ you can just run away like that.”
As he closed the distance between us and tore off his mask, throwing it to the ground, I noticed something move beyond his head; something bright flickered for just a moment, like the rolling breath of a lighter.
He took another step; I saw another flicker.
FIve feet from us, the flicker rolled across the space above his head; this time, it remained. Two bright, orange, triangle eyes glowed just above him like tiny windows to some cartoon hell. I gasped, the sound lost in the swirl of his aggravation, and glanced again at Helen; her eyes seemed to be locked on the apparition.
When I looked back, beyond him, in the dark, a dozen more sets of eyes had appeared, all different shapes and sizes. Some were square, some were slivers of triangles or diamonds, and one even looked like a clover. They all burned with the same unearthly orange glow.
The phantom’s next step didn’t reach the snowy carpet of the forest floor; a gnarled vine shot out of nowhere, a quick whisper in the night, and wrapped itself around his leg, suspending it midair.
His eyes reached his captor before his brain; they gaped at it like two hardboiled eggs begging to burst from his head.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Helen’s face; deep in her skull, her eyes burned with a pale flame.
The phantom half bent down to grab at the vine, and another one shot out, wrapping itself around his throat, tugging him back up. He screamed and flailed wildly behind him with the knife, severing the vine, but in the blink of an eye another two crept from the dark like bullets to replace it. More and more, from the shadows beyond his head, vines like steely brown pythons crawled across his body, robbing him of any autonomous purchase, drawing him close and tight between the trees.
Finally, Helen moved; she pushed herself up from the tangle of the brush and floated over to him with the pumpkin in her hands. Setting it down and picking up the phantom’s knife from where it’d fallen at his feet, she whicked it through the air a few times in front of his face. Against the strain of a vine filling his mouth, across his teeth, he shook his head violently and produced a pathetic scream.
Tossing a look over her shoulder, giving me that same grin she’d had when the turning the greaser into skinhead pulp the first night we’d met, she turned back to the phantom and slammed the knife into his chest.
He bucked and heaved against the intrusion, but the vines held him tight. Placing her other hand against his cheek, she sighed; I could hear the sound clearly, soft as a fairy’s whisper. Then, she twisted the handle.
As the dying phantom twitched and bled, a mess of vines curled up his thighs, across his chest, and threaded themselves around his neck like sweet lover’s hands. They twisted and turned; the veins in his face bulged and something in his forehead popped, sending a wash of blood into his right eye.
With a vast, low creaking sound like a redwood’s orgasm, his muscles strained and strained, and finally broke. With one final snap, the vines tore his head clean off, rocketing the empty skull somewhere deep into the woods; the empty space where it’d been seemed to waver in the air for a moment, almost steaming with the new bodily excess, and a jet of blood leapt into the air.
Helen picked her pumpkin back up, set it carefully down in the space between his shoulders, patted it, and turned to face me. The blood on her face was like a crimson mask, covering every available inch.
With mist rising off of her in twisting waves, the kind you see shimmering on hot metal cars in traffic, my very own version of an oasis in grey pavement hell, I’d never seen anything quite as beautiful.
We drove for what felt like years, the wedges of early morning creeping around us like great beasts as dawn broke. With my curious fly comforting her nervous spider’s limbs, we drove until we ran out of gas and the horizon melted into a wash of ruined colors.