The umbilical nourished me. Back then I didn’t have to feed the way I do now, the umbilical delivered what I needed to survive. This stuff.” She swabbed the inside of her mouth with one finger. When she withdrew it, the finger was black and sticky as if stained with oil.
I asked what was on the other end of the umbilical. She looked despondent. “Well it wasn’t my mother, I’ll tell you that. I hope you never fall far enough to find out. I was at a low point in my life. That’s the pattern I’ve identified, he came for all of us when we were at our weakest.
He offers such wonderful things. Life everlasting. Whatever you most dearly desire, or at least the convincing illusion of it. All you have to do is love him. But of course, the devil is in the details. You only find out afterwards what he means by everlasting life.”
She absent mindedly ran a long, slender finger along well concealed stitches. “It gets a little better. At first I was totally dependent. I didn’t know how to live like this, couldn’t even feed myself. Couldn’t repair my own body, or disguise it from the living with the illusion I showed you before. The longer you’re connected to him, the more new abilities you gain as your body changes. Not that I wanted it to keep changing, it just wouldn’t stop.”
I chimed in that my own body has been changing a lot in ways I don’t like. Getting hairy, and too big for my clothes. She rolled her eyes. “Not like that. I mean...here, look.” She took my hand and placed it on her chest. I blushed and my heart began to race.
“Calm down for a second and feel for a heartbeat.” I did so, and soon realized there wasn’t one. She didn’t seem to be breathing either, except when she spoke. I stared at her in awe. “Are you scared now?” It took a moment to recover from the shock, but once again I shook my head.
She looked pleased. “You really are something, you know that? I wish I’d met you...before all this. Things might’ve been different.” I asked why it’s too late. Her melancholy returned. “It’s just...I know him. I’ve been connected to him, felt what he feels.
He won’t be content to be loved by just the people he’s gotten ahold of down there. He’s been waiting down there for a very, very long time. For life to evolve on this planet that is complex enough to love him as richly and completely as he wants.
He will rise from the sea one day. I’ve seen it in my dreams. Every knee will bend, every head will bow and every mouth will sing his praises. I’ve hidden in whatever dark corner I could find since I escaped his grasp, but when that day arrives there will be no place anybody can hide.”
It sounded like a bunch of confusing nonsense to me, and I said so. She tousled my hair again, I hate when she does that. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a bunch of nonsense. Better to forget about it, and just enjoy the time we have left.”
After cogitating on that for a minute, I asked her what she found out on her mission. Her eyes lit up, having apparently forgotten about it while she was telling me that weird story. “I took the tape to a net cafe that’s open all night. I tried to break into a library first so I could avoid spending anything but there were cameras.”
When I cocked my head, she explained that even if it’s cameras, she can’t stand to be looked at. “It’s some weird multiple-observer effect. I get sick real fast, I can’t disguise myself. Another one of the drawbacks he doesn’t tell you about. Also, yanno. Cops.”
I urged her to get to the good stuff. “Alright. I did a little searching and found the woman credited as lead voice actress on that series of tapes was named Fiona Daniels.” I raised an eyebrow and asked what she meant by “was”.
She hesitated before answering, and her expression changed indecipherably. “She...she’s dead. Passed away four years ago in a nursing home. That tape series was made in the early 1980s, when you first listened to it she was probably older than your Mom.”
I scratched my head. “Dead? Passed away?” Violet waited and watched as if some lightbulb was supposed to illuminate over my head. “Yeah, you know. Their heart stops beating. They become cold and pale.”
Oh, I see. “Like you?” She waved her hands dismissively. “No, not...well, I mean, I am dead too. I keep moving though, it’s different. What happened to me isn’t normal. Most people just die, and that’s it. They stop moving forever. Their eyes close and never open again. Their body is buried in a wooden box.”
I still couldn’t make sense of it. “So they live in a box underground. Who brings them meals? Their mommies and daddies?” I could tell she was becoming frustrated. “No, they don’t live underground. They don’t live anymore, period. They’re gone. They just stop. How can you not know about this?”
Now trembling as I struggled to process the enormity of what she told me, I explained that I’ve read about people dying in some of my story books, but that I always thought it was just something that happens in books. People really die? Forever? Like all those rats I ate...
My whole body was shaking now, and my eyes had begun tearing up. She still sounded exasperated but somehow also sympathetic this time. “What did you think? How could you not know about death?” I told her I thought books were like a performance and the characters were actors. That after the story is over, the ones in the ground are dug up and go on with their lives.
She sighed, then shifted her jiggling, pulsating bulk as she carefully descended from the ceiling to comfort me. I just sat there shaking and tearful as she wrapped her slender, pale arms around me and whispered that it’s going to be okay.
How can it be okay? The Lady of the Tape is gone forever. I really did wait too long. All these years I thought there was no hurry. I thought I had all the time in the world. I waited too long because I’m a coward, and now she’s in a box underground.
“Can we go find where she’s buried?” Violet slowly stroked my hair as she held me. “What do you want to do that for?” My voice hollow and weak, I confessed that I just wanted to apologize for waiting too long, and kiss her one final time.
She held me tighter. “No, but you can kiss me if you like. That might make you feel better.” Still teary-eyed, I gazed up at her in confusion. She pressed her cold, dry lips to mine. It was startling but also unexpectedly pleasant.
When she pulled away, I worried I’d done something wrong. Instead, staring at me with anxious eyes, she said something quite confusing. “You’re...really not going to hurt me. Right? If I let you get close.” I replied frankly, that I’ve never hurt anybody but myself.
It must’ve been the right answer because she pulled me back in and kissed me again, more deeply this time. She was right. Something about it did feel risky...but also nourishing. I closed my eyes, went limp and surrendered myself to her.
My head swam. Kissing is even further than holding hands! I felt a brief pang of guilt, wondering what the Lady would say before remembering where she is now. When Violet finished, I told her if she meant to keep doing that, I ought to at least introduce her to my parents. Concern came over her. “Right. We...should talk about your parents”.
“Mommy and Daddy? What about them?” I fearfully asked if she woke them up on her way back in. “No, there’s...no danger of that. While I was at the cafe, I searched for anything in the web archives of the local newspaper related to your address…”
“And?” I waited expectantly. “...Uh, actually, I...you know what? I didn’t find anything. That’s...weird, right? Nothing in the news. You don’t have internet, do you?” I mumbled that I don’t know what ‘internet’ means, baffled by her sudden about-face. “It’s fine” she assured me. “Forget about it.”
When I awoke the next morning, to my astonishment Violet was no longer bloated. Her stomach was still too large, but empty and loose like a big floppy bag of skin. “It’ll shrink back to normal in a couple of hours” she casually remarked, “it always does this.”
There was black oily syrup of some sort dripping from the corner of her mouth, and a pit she must have dug in the floor filled to the brim with more of it. When I asked where it came from she made an unfamiliar gesture, sticking her extended middle finger down the back of her throat and gagging.
In the writhing, bubbling black goo, I spotted strange little wriggling creatures similar to tadpoles. “All of that came out of you?” She nodded. “Out my mouth, yes. If it came out the other end I’d be a lot more hesitant to eat it.” I nearly threw up. “You’re really gonna eat that mess?”
She asked if I had a spoon. I just stood there, hair still messy, eyes still crusty with sleep. “Actually if you have a syringe it’s even better. It lasts much longer when injected and there’s fewer side effects.” I started backing away. But then, with that familiar hint of shame and vulnerability in her voice, she asked me if I was scared of her now.
I steeled myself. “N...no. You’re...a good and okay nice lady.” She grinned, wiping the oily black stuff from the corner of her mouth with one finger, then sucking it off her fingertip and smacking her lips. “Yanno, if you think this is grody, you ought to see where it normally comes from.” I shuddered, struggling to restrain my imagination.
“Oh, I brought you some new clothes. They should fit much better.” She gestured to a bag in the corner I’d not seen the night before, tucked between some pipes. When I removed the contents, I discovered they were all black. “This way we’ll match!” she gushed.
I stacked up some boxes for privacy, stripped down, then tried on the new clothes. They felt so soft. So clean, nice and new. On top of that, they actually fit me! What a wonderful feeling after all these years. I couldn’t bring myself to discard my old clothes, though. There are too many memories in them.
I was content to store the tattered, torn up remains of my old clothes in a tupperware container I use to keep important things clean. It does a good job of keeping out moisture, mold, rats and so forth. I then bashfully presented myself to Violet. “How do I look?” She did some weird circle gesture with her finger.
When I just cocked my head in confusion, she urged me to turn all the way around so she could see me from all sides. She might’ve just said that in the first place, but whatever. I slowly spun in place, while she clapped and made shrill, giddy noises.
A funny feeling bubbled up from inside me. The same sort of feelings I’ve always had while listening to those tapes, but...this time it’s because Violet likes the way that I look. It grows even stronger when I recall how her lips felt on mine.
It’s too much. Overwhelming, overwhelming! I turn away and hold my cheeks while I get my breathing under control. “Are you alright?” she asks. “I’m fine! Fine! I just...it’s been such a long time since anybody gave me a present. I really love it though, thank you.”
She slept most of the day, groggily descending a few times only to snack on some of the black sludge before returning to her cozy patch of ceiling to resume her slumber. As usual, when the sun went down, she at last properly awoke and went about her own equivalent of my morning routine.
She’s fascinating to watch. Her every little movement is so careful and precise. Even when all she’s doing is washing up or folding clothes, she’s so meticulous. It’s like watching the movements of an insect, or a clockwork toy.
Or maybe I’m just clumsy, and so used to it that even something small like proper coordination impresses me. I don’t know. Many things about her that I overlooked before have become especially interesting since last night.
“Do you…” She turned to look at me with those big, dark eyes of hers. It briefly paralyzed me until I mustered the courage to finish. “...Do you want to do something tonight? I don’t know. Go somewhere? Maybe eat something?” That’s how it’s done, I think.
Her eyes widened. Surprise? Then slowly, a warm, knowing smile spread across her face. How closely I now study her every smile, great or small. “This is because I kissed you, isn’t it.” I froze up, dead to rights. “Well I mean, it’s fine if you don’t want to, I was just-”
She gestured for me to zip it, so I did. “I guess that would be fine. I’ve got to stick around at least until I finish off all of that.” She pointed to the shallow pit of black sludge. Dismayed, I asked if she meant to leave afterwards.
“Well...yeah, dude. I don’t know how to make you understand. There are people after me. People who know what I am.” I protested that if they know she is a good and nice okay lady, it should only make them like her more.
She reached for my hair but I pushed her hand away, still distraught by the revelation that she planned to leave soon. “Look dude. Not everybody sees me the way you do. I can tell you’ve built up some ideal concept of me in your mind, because you’re lonely. I sort of like that you see me that way. That’s a rare thing for me.
But that’s not who I am. It’s who you want me to be. Despite everything, you’re a lot more like the other boys I’ve known than you might realize. None of them really loved me. They loved their version of me.”
I promised that I’d seen everything about her that she hides from everyone else, but that it doesn’t matter to me. She looked away, increasingly morose. “Don’t get too twisted up about it. Nothing lasts forever, yanno. Nothing ought to anyway, I should know. When the storm clears up momentarily and there’s a brief respite during which the sun is shining and life is beautiful, just enjoy it while it lasts. Don’t try to force it to go on forever.”
I let her words sink in. Much as I hated it, the more I contemplated what she said, the more sense it made. I’ve been down here all this time watching life pass me by through that little window, under the assumption it would last forever...but because of that, I never really lived. I feel now as if I’ve only begun to live since learning that I will someday die.
“Besides” she added, “can this really work? I’m a...whatever I am. Something real fuckin’ wrong. And you? You’re a child in the body of a man, who lives in a crawlspace.” It stung, though I could tell from the tone of her voice that she didn’t mean it to.
“It’s a very nice crawlspace!” I objected. “Look at everything I’ve done to make it comfortable!” She frowned. “I didn’t mean...It’s a nice crawlspace, alright?” I began to show her my books and toys again one by one until she stopped me.
“It’s a fine crawlspace. You have really neat things.” I asked her which one she wanted to keep. I promised I would give her anything. “Even the computer” I hesitantly concluded. “Everything. I don’t have much, but it’s all yours if you stay.”
I was crying again but didn’t realize until she wiped my tears away. “I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t want any of your things. The only treasure down here is you.” I lost composure and threw myself into her arms. She wrapped them around me and I felt a few additional hands I didn’t remember her having, though when I looked there were only two.
“I just don’t want to live in a crawlspace. That’s not the life I want, and there’s not a lot of time left. I want to go out and see the world while I still can.” Just one dagger in my chest after the other, yet I couldn’t blame her. It’s what I’ve always wished I could do, but she’s brave enough to actually do it.
Remembering something, I scurried off and returned with a jar full of coins I’ve collected, which have fallen through the gaps in the floorboards over the years. When I thrust it at her, at first she declined. “It’s not because I want somebody who’s rich. You still don’t understand.”
This time, I was the one to contradict her. “That’s not it! You’ll need this, won’t you? Everything costs paper dollars and coins out there, you won’t get far without some. Besides, I still want to give you my nicest thing.
The coins are all very clean and shiny, and there’s even a few from far away lands that my Mommy brought me after a trip once. It’s the best I have to offer you. Please just take this. Take it, and run far away from me. I am not good enough. I’m all messed up.”
Again, her face expressed some incomprehensible mixture of emotions. How I wish I knew more about ladies. She hugged me again. “You’re so dramatic, you fuckin’ goob. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s too much right with you for the world to handle, if anything. I’m the one that’s messed up, even if you can’t see it.”
She made a show of tucking the jar of coins into the bag she’d brought my new clothes in. Then she spent some time just comforting me. Calming me down after my big blowup, reading me the best parts of my favorite books, playing computer games with me.
It felt so nice to have someone else to do all that with. I could still scarcely believe it would be over once the black soup is gone. Like a filthy hourglass counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until she vanishes from my life.
“Look at the time!” she gasped. I didn’t remember the significance until she reminded me that our date is tonight. I again grew bashful. “Well, geez, is it really a date? I mean that would be nice, but it doesn’t have to be if you’d rather not-”
She playfully pinched my nose. “It’s a date, dude. Try not to get all sweaty and weird before it even begins.” Preposterous, I’m not sweaty in the least. Expecting it to be cold again, I wrapped some extra layers around Violet until she reminded me that she no longer needs to stay warm.
After thinking about it for a moment, I resumed wrapping her up. “I want you to be warm anyways, just because.” She clung to my arm as we ascended the stairs to the trap door, and whispered to me. “What am I gonna do with you.”
Another beautiful night, the stars once again showing me their finest twinkles. I remembered something about that from a book of mine, some romantic thing a man says to a woman. I couldn’t remember the whole phrase though and didn’t want to mess it up, so I kept it to myself. Better safe than sorry.
“You look really nice” she said. I glanced down at the clothes she bought me, still so new that they’ve not yet accumulated the various discolored stains as everything else in the crawlspace. I actually felt pretty spiffy looking, too. I still didn’t want anybody but her to look at me of course, but I felt as if they wouldn’t be terrified if they did.
That reminded me of the jogger from last night. I began warily searching the shadows for any sign of menacing perfects. “What is it?” Violet pried. I took her hand in mine. “I don’t know why you want to see the world. It’s too big...and it seems like a scary, mean place. Then again maybe I’m wrong about this for the same reason I was wrong about those other things, because I haven’t seen enough yet.”
She sighs. “No, you’re not wrong this time.” It seemed to put a damper on her mood, which I very much didn’t intend. Then, a distant siren began to blare. Similar to the one I’ve heard from hospital cars, but not quite the same. Cops again?
Violet shivered. “Maybe tonight isn’t the best night to do this. Wouldn’t you rather have stayed in anyways? We could play more games, or read more books.” I wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s not a date if we stay in. And you said it’s a real date, remember? So it’s okay for me to call it that.”
She smirked and assured me that she remembered, but was visibly nervous after that until the siren subsided. I didn’t realize she was leading me someplace in particular until we arrived at a densely wooded trail.
It was too dark for me, I could no longer see where she was leading us. She nevertheless seemed to be able to see just fine. When she spotted a bobbing flashlight ahead, Violet put a hand out in front to stop me. I braced myself, prepared for another painful spray to the eyes.
It soon resolved as a man walking two dogs. I’ve seen plenty of dogs through the window but none this large, they’re like horses with big flappy ears. “Lovely night isn’t it?” Violet called out. “I’ll bet your dogs love this park.”
The man chuckled. “You should see the tantrum they throw when I try to make them leave.” The dogs both sniffed at Violet, then one retreated behind the man and the other whined. “Oh, that’s odd” the man remarked. “They’re so friendly with most people. Maybe they’re shy because it’s dark.”
I just stood there with my eyes firmly shut, so that no spray would get in. Violet nudged me. “He’s gone. What’s gotten into you? They’re not all like that jogger, yanno.” I told her I knew no such thing and saw no reason to take any risks.
“Even if there are some nice ones” I insisted, “I don’t know how to talk to them. They would just laugh.” She scolded me. “You’re so stubborn and anxious. You don’t actually know how other people think, you just assume the worst.
Talking to them doesn’t have to be some scary ordeal either. In fact, most people you will ever meet are sending out constant subtle invitations to step into their little world.” I asked if she meant crawlspace. “Kind of, but inside their heads, and their hearts. They’re just cautious because they’re fearful, like you.
If you want to reach out and connect with them, you’ve just gotta take the initiative. Show them some friendliness back, show them you’re interested so they know it’s okay to share.” I rubbed my chin. “Like you did with me?...I wish I had a nicer world for you to step into.”
She began to say something, but gave up on it and just went back to hanging onto my arm. When I spotted another flashlight bobbing towards us, Violet urged me to try it out. “I’m not gonna help you, but I will be right here beside you in case things go wrong.”