Folds and Creases
You found The Chair sometime last fall. It was dark in that solstice sort of way, a weighted blanket of starless sky, and you had already bodied three joints that never ended up getting passed to the next person in the circle. That was maybe an hour, two, ago; back when there were streetlights and not waifish birches shuffling to the tune of a ten below windchill. A sweatshirt, limp with sour, watery beer and sweat in the same vein, was doing about as well as your jeans at circulating warmth so you’d started sucking the numb off the fingers you wanted to keep. You were on a path before. You were getting ice, taking a shortcut. The birch trees bent to watch you scrape your feet across the detritus of Summer.
The Chair was there: not suddenly, but abruptly.
It was a white foldout, rust-stained at the hinges. There was an identical one hanging in the garage back at the condo, holding vigil over beer pong and cup flip. You never imagined something could look so unremarkable so divorced from its natural environment, but The Chair occupied its space like a tree worms its roots through the soil: invisibly, with purpose. The path was on the other side of the clearing. Any neon hum was imperceptible through the chirrup of patient cicadas but you could swear the gas station was up ahead, somewhere past a bend. Sunk cost fallacy.
You didn’t sit in The Chair that night. You had a cold for the next four days but you were a hero when you brought back not one, but two bags of ice, and you managed to swallow down another joint and leave the next morning before the burnout with racoon eye bags could ask you to Venmo him for the trouble.
Two weeks later you were at the 7/11 buying Swisher Sweets with a fake ID when the kid behind the counter dropped a handful of change onto the floor.
“Shit,” he said, staring monotone and unmoving.
“Yeah, man. Tired as fuck.”
Buzzing fluorescent bulbs cast even light across his face but his eyes were sunk so deep in his skull they were still swimming in shadow. Somewhere in those depths his grey irises were flexing and retracting ineffectually. He still hadn’t moved.
“Do you need any help?”
“No. No.” he lowered himself, scooping pennies and dimes one by one, “Bad dreams, you know?”
“Every night it’s just,” the coins trickling out of his palm kept pace with the ones he added, a juggling act of clinking and clattering zinc. “Fuck. Sorry. Jesus.”
“You sure you’re good?”
“I just can’t. It’s every night, man, every night.”
You started to wonder how badly you needed those cigars. Davie still had a handful of fifty nicotine pods you could bum for about the same price, maybe more, but he had fucked your ex after graduation and things had just been kind of weird since.
The cashier was picking up faster and faster but he was trapped in a Newtonian hell, every coin added equaling a coin lost, and he was getting frantic. Desperate. Panting and desperate. Some thought itched the back of your mind and you scratched it away. Surely the kid didn’t deserve this.
He was staring at the pile of coins now, surrendered. His back was making hiccup-y jerking motions but there was no sound, only the still moment of you, watching.
“I never should have sat in that fucking chair, man.”
From then on you saw The Chair spreading its roots. The digital moms in their Facebook gatherings swapped stories of kids failing algebra: a daughter hadn’t slept in six days, a son was complaining about recurring dreams of a threateningly amorphous quality. The grad students from the law school were talking in hushed tones to the pre-meds about record breaking benders: the bursar was looking to quietly reallocate scholarship money after its previous recipient was caught, mind-blasted on zombie dust, smashing MacBook screens in the library. Holly—fifth year senior, volleyball player—said she cut his dose with drywall powder but she’d been doing that since senior year number one. The freshman cashier working at the campus convenience store told the sophomore buying condoms that an R.A. had beat someone half to death over a housing contract violation and the sophomore mentioned that one of the Alpha Theta rushes smashed his own arm over a rock in the woods so bad there were bones sticking out of his shoulder.
You didn’t go home for Thanksgiving break. Turns out, Davie didn’t either. And you still needed something for the twitching in your left eye so you shot him a text. He said, yeah for sure. Come over. You drove the fifteen minutes to his part of town and he buzzed you into his complex. You knocked on the door.
The person who answered was not Davie.
You were certain of this. He was, for all intents and purposes, physically identical, down to the hairline scar on his chin from when he fell off the swing set in second grade. He smiled with the same amicable eyes that had always rested just a margin too far apart and he had the same close-lipped smile, implacably self-conscious, but you were certain this was not Davie. You stood there in the narthex of his home for a good, long while. He stared and tilted his head.
“You can come in, if you want.” He stepped to the side and gestured inwards.
“Sure. Thanks.” You entered, eyes set rigidly forward, neck muscles tensing against the urge to keep your eyes on not-Davie.
You had never been to his new apartment. It was clean. There was the sharp nostril burn of an essential oil diffuser. His TV was on, idling on the Netflix home screen, and a stack of unwashed dishes dominated the kitchen counter. Not-Davie watched.
“Want a cookie?”
He frowned. He hadn't expected you to know the rules. Wasn’t Davie.
The downward curve of his lips deepened, carving canyons in his cheeks.
“Straight to business, huh?”
“Sorry. It’s just kind of-”
“I get it. Just want the shit you came for, I guess?”
“Yeah, no, yeah. Forty bucks, right?”
“Get the fuck out of my house.”
A vein on Davie’s forehead thrashed and squirmed with the wild abandon of an upside-down cockroach.
“Get the fuck out of my house.”
“Jesus Christ, are you okay?”
There was a quiet plip and you saw a thin line of blood crawling out from between Davie’s clenched fist, burgeoning at his knuckles and dripping to the linoleum.
His hands were on your shoulders and before you could punch him in the gut you felt your spinal column make sudden and violent contact with the wall. The plaster indented, molding to your back like a tortoise shell before the rebound sent you elbow first onto the floor. Davie grabbed your ankle and started dragging. Your nails cracked and splintered as you clawed for purchase in the grout-lines and your free leg, flailing, kicking, made contact with what felt like skin and bone but unfalteringly, Davie persisted in scraping your body across the floor and out of his apartment.
I still remember you coming back to the condo, limping and hoarse. You told me you didn’t need to go to the hospital, you were fine. You asked if I still had that baseball bat from intramural, and where the flashlight was. I asked what for. You peeled a fingernail off and threw it in the trash before telling me that you were going to get some ice.
You told me what you were studying, once: anthropology. Folklore. You never really talked about it, too tweed and elbow patches for the façade you used to put on, but I caught you on an off day halfway between two caffeine tablets and the convulsing shape of your mouth was stringing one word after the other.
“It’s like,” you began, “different setting, you know?”
“Not really?” I had just severed the umbilicus tethering me to reality that was my pre-med track. The catatonic fallout kept me addled and unfocused enough to let you ramble.
“Sports, then. Like if you took Mahomes and put him in the NHL. We’re Mahomes, all the wackos that came before us are the NHL.”
“It’s a whole different game, all those hockey nuts playing with sticks and pucks and icings and shit. And vice versa, nowhere to go on turf when you’re wearing skates.”
“So what do you do?”
“I learn how to play hockey.”
The clearing was as you remembered it, for the most part. There was a lamp there now, tall and narrow and streaked in thick veins of rust. The light, white and even and clean, settled with a languid familiarity over the leaves, and over The Chair. Later, you would try to explain the sensation to me in increasingly manic metaphor. It was the unhinged physics of the hypodense cluster nestled in the universe’s frontal lobe, not so much occupying its space as it was being the space it occupied. It was a rat-king of severed fingers and toes from the Canaanite king Adonibezek, suffusing the matrimonial desire to be symmetrical once more. It was an ion, edging the speed of light along its collision course with the discovery of dark matter and you were just one of the four pit-stops along the way.
Sitting in The Chair was a deal, really. Immeasurable trade, that’s why everyone lost their shit. They were being audited, preternatural mote by preternatural mote, because in exchange for whatever The Chair had to offer all they could return was the fading memory of O-chem, chapter 11; geographical map of the Baltic States; Shakespeare sonnets twenty-eight through thirty-two; when to show up at the bar so you wouldn’t get carded. You, on the other hand, were lacing up your skates.
When I first saw you leave milk and bread on the stoop, I asked if it was for the strays. Sort of, you said, nurturing your room’s newest addition: a waxy fern to match the succulents lining the windowsill and the bulbous mushrooms potted in metal beds, under constant vigilance from a low-wattage heat lamp. You rubbed the leaves between your thumb and forefinger, smiling. It was your new project, keeping the plants. Something besides endless reading and researching and note-taking that you could come back to, somewhere you could rest. And Dane liked them too. Dane was coming over more. He hadn’t come over before, I don’t think; he at least wasn’t familiar, which was beginning to become less important. Dane always asked me for my name, said those words exactly.
“Could I have your name?”
And you laughed and punched his shoulder, but Dane just stared at me, his head tilted to the side, quizzical and goading.
“Sorry, long day at work. Hard to turn off the customer service voice sometimes.”
I crashed my car going through the roundabout. It was a blazing sun morning, forest green morning, and the graphic design majors were dancing until their feet bled onto the bone circle in the quad, and then they danced some more. Throngs of briar and mulberry, dense and matted as a king’s crooked crown, crept and crawled their stunted path longways ‘cross—
Dane started showing up to PHILOS 522. Registration was closed. He sat in the front row and took laborious notes while the professor click, click, click-click, clicked her way through slides on Edouard Machery and David Hull, the last battle for human nature, and primate mind-reading.
I followed Dane after class. He walked off campus, but not by much, and into a Starbucks. I went to the Urban Outfitters across the street and watched from the window as he put on a green apron. None of the other employees paid him any mind as he arranged five croissants in a hexagonal pattern on a plate and stood by the front door. I couldn’t read lips, but he smiled and tilted his head at everyone who walked in, flapped his gums rhythmically, and waited for a response. On that first day only one girl took a croissant: she was blond and short and wore a purple backpack with pins, indiscernible from my vantage point behind a mannequin whose outfit could’ve covered next month’s rent. She nibbled the corner and nodded before spitting it onto the floor, gagging and coughing black flecks.
Dane just stood and smiled while someone brushed past him to see if the girl was okay.
Following Dane to work became my project. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would enter the Urban Outfitters, or sit at the covered bus station, or kick at the loose edges of the sidewalk tiles while Dane stood by the door and waited. It wasn’t always croissants; it wasn’t even always something from Starbucks. I saw him leave class with a plastic bag and try to hawk chocolate covered strawberries, chunky and misshapen in the homemade sort of way. People didn’t take the free samples every day, and when they did, the effects were not always as immediate and as violent as the first girl’s had been.
Once I saw a man beat his nose against the uneven brick wall over and over and over again, muscles straining against the crowd of Good Samaritans clawing at his fleece quarter-zip, trying to pull him away. His face ended up mashed and flat like an interbred bulldog’s. That was the worst of it.
—the highway, the highway. I had wrapped my car clean around a tree trunk and the metal tendons were screaming and tearing at their cage, rubber melting into incense for the moldy orange sky. I clambered and clawed at the door handle but the guts of my vehicle tensed; apoptosis of the me, the meager cell who never evolved altruism, otherwise I would have kept us both unbent and unsundered by the curling tree-meat. The graphic design students would have wept for me if their eyes hadn’t parched and wrinkled like grapes forcefully unlearning their former shape.
A man wrapped in business and Tom Ford had a cellphone against his cheek, nervous sweat sticking it there and running rainbow streaks across the screen. He was standing on the white dotted line, one eye on me and the other smooth and absent, a blank canvas of raw skin.
“I can help you.”
“What do you offer?” Metal squelched against metal and the fractal remains of my roll cage were prodding my kidneys with inevitable intent.
He scratched his face absentmindedly.
“911. Bound to respond.”
“To respond, or to help?”
“To help can be arranged.”
“Will it be?”
“You’re good at this.”
“I learned from—"
I woke up in my room on Monday and there was a black stain streaking the wall by my headboard, watery and shimmering like spilled ink in the pale morning light. It dripped, incrementally, infinitesimally, downwards.
“You have to get rid of your fucking plants.”
There was a waxy smell in your room, candles just extinguished. Your fire alarm was hanging limp from a bare wire, the plastic casing cracked and in pieces. You looked up from your desk. It was covered in books and ink stains and what at first glance looked like beads of amber, but upon further inspection revealed themselves to be dozens and dozens of cicada shells.
“What about my plants?”
“There’s some fucking, I don’t know, fucking mold in my room.”
“Can I get rid of the mold for you?”
“Why do you have those things.”
“These?” You held a single cicada shell in your palm, rolling your eyes over its creases and joints.
“Yes, yes those.”
“Interesting creatures, these. Did you know that when bending paper into the shape of a juvenile cicada, an origami master might make hundreds, if not thousands, of folds? Just to make something that looks like this. That’s not to mention the years of experience it takes to box pleat or square pack without tearing the paper.”
“Are you fucked?”
“What I’m interested in is how many folds it will take to make this,” he gently pressed a finger down on the shell until it was a flat oval, “into what it was before.”
“What the hell.”
“Could I have your thoughts on the subject?”
“Yeah, and you can-”
I watched a lecture, once, about a man who found a thin white thread sticking out from beneath his fingernail. Thinking it cat hair or loose fabric, he yanked it out only to suddenly wake up, days later, in the hospital. It had been a loose nerve ending, and touching it had sent, in a quintillionth of a second, a rhapsody raging through his body. His brain, unable to dance to the rhythm of ten trillion beats per microsecond, four four, presto, was violently and suddenly removed from the number, leaving him untethered from his corporeal self.
When you robbed my mind, it felt something like that.
—the best around.”
The deal was struck, sealed in the old ways of lexical prescriptivism and locutionary acts. An ambulance came and I was gurneyed into its yawning throat, absentmindedly scratching at the patch of flesh where my left eye had never been.
A man with a wasp’s head was checking my blood pressure, mandibles splaying and protracting to reveal pink flesh, some gnarl of tongue and mouth and proboscis. I glittered in the million panoptic facets of his eyes.
“Rough day?” He pressed his antennae against the stethoscope’s nodules, disk against my chest.
“Offering or asking?”
“Damn kid. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m really not good at this.”
The fine hairs haloing his head tickled my cheek as he went to adjust the IV drip. There was only us in that moment: the wasp man, me, and the haze of citrus sky smearing its last breaths across the horizon. Stars were corkscrewing into view, daylight peeling away like paint under paint thinner.
“Can I smoke?” The wasp man was holding a cigarette between his mandibles, “I know, I know. I didn’t think it would work either.”
“You asked, ‘can I smoke’ and if I said yes, you would be in my debt. It’s a favor act.”
“Shit.” He ran a hand over his carapaced head.
“Rescind your contract.”
“Rescind my what now?”
“Your contract. Just say ‘I revoke my offer.’”
“I revoke my offer.”
“You may smoke.”
No matter where he turned his head, there were always at least a dozen of me, watching; fisheyed into plate-shapes.
“So we’re square? Smoking is good?”
Grey blue clouds—agitated, flicking in every direction but none—filled he ambulance. He tapped the ashes out on the gurney. A pile was forming by my toes.
“How did that happen,” I asked, not bothering to specify.
“Jesus.” The orange tip of his cigarette was breaking records on its way to whatever organ counted for his mouth. “Kid got hit by a truck while she was riding her bike. Rearranged her entire skeleton, looked like someone had stuffed a Jell-O mold full of rock candy. What the fuck are you supposed to do there? CPR? Probably would’ve pushed her guts out through the path of least resistance or something horrible like that. So I just kind of got down and lied and told her it was okay, everything was fine. And then she asked ‘could I have your name,’ verbatim. Just like that. Fuck, man. I said I’m. I’m. Fuck I’m. God, fuck, Jesus I’m. I’m-”
“Want me to light another cigarette for you?”
He handed me the lighter.
“I need these straps undone.”
When he loosened the straps around my chest and legs, I sat up and stood by the door. I twisted the handle and shoved the wasp man out onto the—
I stopped following Dane after class. There wasn’t anything in it anymore, now that I knew what was going on. Instead, I underwent the process of unlearning you; or, learning how to avoid you. The mold wormed its celiac pseudopods deeper into the walls, into the beams and paint and studs until my bed frame started to rot beneath me and sleeping on the couch was the only option. I didn’t ask first, knew better of it, learned better of it, after you cannibalized pieces of me at breakfast, and in the bathroom, and in the doorways. You told me you didn’t take pleasure in it. You can go fuck yourself. I cannot even remember the price of learning how to live. You took that from me. Where there was once. Where there. Where there was. Fuck.
There was, everywhere, the scream of cicadas. The chittering thrum of God (though you and I both know there is no god here, you just like the word). You became the gardener. Mushrooms like fistulas sprouted in rings and ropey roots like children’s forearms grasped out from moldering soil. I saw Dane lay the bone circle on the quad, and by then I had learned enough to plug my ears. People I had never seen before moved through the house like wine through Canaan. They brought not gifts, but requests laden with the value of malleable prophecy, the debt of twelve, gilded kidney stones impressed with silvered mouse skulls. I learned to avoid them all.
The cicada shells sprawled across the house. All waxy paper exoskeleton, some more perfectly folded than others. They moved like artery bypasses through the halls and the rooms and it became such that every step I took threatened to crush them, un-align their geometries. You tolerated my presence.
Welcomed it, I think.
“Are you leaving?” you leaned against your bedroom door, unrecognizable in all the features that once belonged to me.
I took the car keys off the rack.
“You’re going to miss the best part.” You unfurled your hand, and there was a patient chirrup, growing in intensity.
Black concrete. He flopped and ragdolled and spun through the air, round and round and round until he was, from afar, an immobile speck. I took the isopropyl alcohol from the cabinets, all of it I could find, and then the gauze and after some deliberation, the scalpel and EpiPens. The driver was rapping his knuckles on the dividing door and saying something but I just uncapped the EpiPen and screamed. The ambulance protested the weight of its continued momentum, suspension railing against Newtonian law, until it rested, spent, in the gravel on the side of the road. A man stepped through the door and before he could look surprised I screamed and leapt on him, wrapping my body around his chest like a car around a tree, jamming the EpiPen into his neck hard enough to leave a bruise. I unfurled my limbs as he gagged and sputtered on the floor, pink saliva drip-drip-dripping down his lips.
It took me until sundown to find the woods, but you were right. All those metaphors. I could not have ended up anywhere but that clearing, under that lamp. It was Summer now, somehow. Maybe you stole time from me, or maybe that was something I lost along the way.
The Chair is here, and even as I spray concentric spirals around it I can still feel its question, and I can feel the need to answer. I will not. That is something I learned from you.
The moon is a yellow sickle in a sky dense with absence. I flick wasp man’s lighter to life. Somewhere in the woods there is a bed of paper-skin cicada shells, arranged in the fabricated geometries of the universe’s wheezing heat death. You fuck.
Come get me.
Matthew Bettencourt is a student studying Creative Writing at UW Madison and working as Fiction Co-Editor-in-Chief for The Madison Review. His work has appeared in High Shelf Press, Neuro Logical and The Moving Force Journal.