Excerpt from The Wake Up
Do you remember bedtime as a child? I was terrified of the dark. I was terrified of the closed closet door that surely cracked open when I wasn’t looking and spewed out ghouls and devils. I took care that no arms or legs protruded from the bed. I sometimes slept with the covers over my head. Sweltering, panting, barely breathing. Not even my hair exposed, lest a monster discover and devour me. I remember begging my father to check under the bed. I remember trying to explain how some monsters had invisibility cloaks. He would kiss my cheek and switch off the light.
We stop looking under the bed once we realize that the monsters are inside us.
It’s funny how they transform. Suddenly they don’t mind daylight. Suddenly they dress nicely, speak our language, and share our customs. They sit next to us on the metro and jog around our neighborhoods. They slip things into our drinks at parties and offer us jobs. Sometimes we spot them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we even do the unthinkable: we invite them to our bed. As adults, we burn down the sanctuaries we created as children. Our inner child freaks out, but its screams are drowned by our moans as our monsters bring us to orgasm.
16 / Exposed
“You think you know someone. But mostly you just know what you want to know.”
Autumn came early and lingered with its shroud of rainstorms and its wreath of dead leaves. Lexi was getting dolled up for Sonya’s birthday and Dominic didn’t give a damn. He sprawled on his couch and zapped through the channels. He skipped past the news channels that spoke of bombs in Baghdad and Vienna’s upcoming Halloween parade. He settled on FashionTV, drooling over the Victoria’s Secret Angels that traipsed across the screen.
Lexi set down her phone and leaned against the couch, competing for his attention. “And why, exactly, do you not want to go?”
“I’ve had a long day.”
“You don’t let me introduce you to anyone.” She tucked her hair behind her ears—something she did often, since he’d once called the gesture cute—and peered at him. “You never introduce me either. I’ve seen you talking to people. I know you have friends.”
“Not friends.” Keeping his eyes glued to the screen, he sighed in a world-weary way that would normally have made her withdraw, feeling guilty for multiplying his concerns. Tonight his sighs just sounded dramatic. Lexi didn’t budge. “Acquaintances. There’s no such thing as friends. We’ve gone over this before.”
“That’s not true. And that’s not even the point.”
“Are you stupid or just pretending to be stupid?”
Lexi’s face fell. She’d been hearing that line too often lately. Dominic adopted a look of muted outrage as he turned to look at her, but he smiled on the inside. The ball was in his court now.
“You want everyone nosing around in our business? Other girls beg to have their boyfriend to themselves. Do you know what things I am exposed to every day? The deaths and grief I’ve got to face and handle? Do you know the patients and nurses who throw themselves at me, in their despair? But what do I do? I spend all my free time with Lexi. I try to find time for Lexi. I make Lexi my priority. And what does Lexi do?”
Lexi’s hated that righteous tone. And she hated, too, the knowledge she’d already lost this duel, because he wouldn’t agree to anything now that she’d gotten him riled up. It was her fault, she realized. It was her own inability to express herself well enough.
“Look, I’ve been telling you about this party for a while now. It’s for Sonya. We have to go.”
“We don’t have to do anything. Birthday party? How old is this Sonya friend of yours, ten? Grow up, Lexi. I need a woman by my side, not a child.”
She stared at him, torn between anger and surprise. What sort of person bashed birthday parties?
“We can meet this Sonya another time,” Dominic added, his tone more gentle. “I promise, ok? But we don’t have to do it when there are forty other people milling around and stealing your attention away from me.”
“Nobody is going to steal—”
“Just tell her we’ll see her tomorrow. Tell her I’m not feeling well. Tell her we need to spend some quality time together because I’ve been working all day and I’ve missed my girlfriend.”
And just like that, I became we, just as Lexi yearned it would, but not in the context she’d wanted. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” she protested, releasing her phone as he reached and jerked it from her hands. “You look fine to me.”
“I’m starving,” Dominic growled, a sudden change of mood flashing across his face. He grabbed her in his arms and threw her over one muscular shoulder. He carried her from the kitchen to the bedroom, then plopped her unceremoniously onto the bed. “I’m starving for a sexy Lexi.”
He shut her up by yanking her hair and nibbling her neck. It’d become a pattern: she pouted; he caressed; she relented. His arms cupped her smaller body, grinding her against him so she could tell how he hungered. The full moon glowed through his filmed bedroom window, a pulse of brightness in the dark. She realized, soon enough, they weren’t going anywhere that night. They weren’t going anywhere the next. As usual, he’d won. He slipped off her clothes and covered her eyes with one hand, a blindfold of naiveté she wore willingly, relishing his embrace like an idiot inmate who mistakes a straitjacket for a snuggie.
. . .
Lexi woke abruptly in the night, feeling something poke against her skull. Dominic’s arms were wrapped around her waist, his body spooning against hers. His head wasn’t touching hers, but it was close enough that his breath tickled the skin behind her ear.
“Awake? I sensed it,” he murmured. He kissed the nape of her neck.
She giggled. “You’re poking me. Move your head.”
The words escaped from her mouth, lost from her. They did not come back.
“What did you say?” The darkness in his voice scared her. It wasn’t the poking part, Lexi realized. That could have easily implied what he’d initially thought it implied, what with her back against his. Why had she mentioned his head? And it wasn’t like he’d really poked her. Had he? She’d always seen things; since when did she feel them?
“It’s fine.” Lexi feigned a yawn. “Your chin was poking me.”
Dominic raised himself onto his left elbow, peering down at her face. He didn’t speak until she turned her head and looked up at him. He graced her with his Reserved for Crazy Persons stare.
His disdain drained Lexi of any remaining oxytocin. Dominic rarely dropped a subject until he’d beaten it to death and ran it over with a Hummer a few times. And Lexi was sick of putting up with the Reserved for Crazy Persons stare. She threw the covers aside, onto his face, and hoisted herself up.
The tile-paved trip to the bathroom chilled her toes. Her hands plucked the mirror from the ledge above the sink. A little mirror—originally hers, presented to Dominic on his birthday (because we do like birthdays when they’re ours, eh?)—just enough to see a person’s face and throat. Three years into the Ruling, the odds of being raided by the agencies had slimmed; there hadn’t been a local bombing in weeks. And luckily for Lexi, Dominic seemed vain enough to risk it.
She brought the mirror back to bed, careful with her footing. Dominic looked at her differently as she approached. This was the Reserved for Clinically Confirmed Crazy Persons stare.
They were making progress.
“Look,” Lexi demanded. She climbed onto the mattress and knelt in front of him. He sat up, cross-legged. She held the mirror against her chest, slanting it up towards Dominic so that it reflected his face. “Look hard.”
She’d seen his reflection in the bathroom many times, brushing her teeth alongside him. She’d watched as he’d gelled his hair, the curls he’d been growing out ever since a random woman on the street last month had told him he’d be cuter if he didn’t shave his head. Lexi sometimes noted the outline of his wings or his horns in the mirror—coming and going, growing or shrinking. Watching them was like watching a television station struggle through static. Sometimes there were neither horns nor wings. Sometimes there simply was no reception.
It didn’t alarm her too much. One night last week, she’d thought she’d felt more than his arms envelop her. She’d felt his wings, arching above them and cupping both of their resting bodies. It had felt so personal, so sensual. It was like being touched in a way that was intensely intimate. Holy, even. It’d been his soul brushing against hers.
She watched now as Dominic’s face paled in the mirror. His smirk faded. He raised his hands and clutched at his hair. No, not at his hair—at the spiraling horns which he beheld for the first time in his life.
He made a small noise.
“Don’t be scared.” Lexi reached out a hand and stroked his arm. Despite his terrified expression, her heart fluttered with joy. “It’s okay. You’re perfectly okay! We all have horns and wings. It’s just that most people apparently simply can’t see them. It’s okay!” Inside, her heart was dancing, jiving and jigging and cartwheeling. You can SEE!
Dominic jerked away from her touch. He lowered his hands and covered his eyes. Lexi scrambled off the bed and returned the mirror to its place above the bathroom sink. When she returned, Dominic had already wrapped himself back in the covers. He’d hidden his face.
“Dom.” Lexi’s heart stopped dancing, sensing that a lonely fiesta was a nonexistent fiesta. She buried her fingers in Dominic’s hair. He flung her hands away. “It doesn’t change anything. Not about you, not about us. There are many of us who can See. Listen, there’s this place…”
Try as she might, she couldn’t rouse him. He didn’t care about Seeing. He didn’t care about the Tzami. He wouldn’t reply to anything she said. With every kiss she gave, he burrowed away deeper, yanking the covers with him.
She found a second blanket in the closet and curled up on the bed, feeling like the discarded toy of a spoiled child. She found a strange sort of comfort in the heat of her misery as the cold chilled her tears. In time, she would look up words like doormat and wimp, with Merriam-Webster definitions that would expose her to the faulty clockwork of her heart.
Then she, too, would see.
17 / Saw
“The baby bat screamed out in fright
‘Turn on the dark, I’m afraid of the light.’”
Lexi woke up the next morning to a cold bed. She shivered. Dominic had thrown back the covers. She heard water running in the bathroom.
“Dominic?” She grabbed the closest article of clothing—one of his baggy NYU sweatshirts—and pulled it over her head. “Dominic, you almost done?” No answer. Trying not to think of her urgent need to use the bathroom, she tried to distract herself by making the bed. Folding the blankets. Plumping the pillows. The bed looked nice now, but she still had to pee.
It was early enough in the relationship that they’d never peed in front of one another. She respected that. She wanted that. But her bladder didn’t give a damn. “Dominic!” Lexi made a face and grabbed the bathroom doorknob, opening the door.
He didn’t seem to see her at first. She could barely see him, too, thanks to all the steam. Apparently he’d turned the shower on, waiting for the water to warm, but the water—literally steaming—was still running needlessly. The little room had become a sauna.
And in the middle of it all, hunched in front of the little mirror on the wall, Dominic was holding a bread knife to his head. And sawing. Sawing at his head. To be exact, at about two inches above his head. Right where the knobby black horns would be visible in the mirror, emerging from his tousled hair. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy as if he’d been crying all night. His cheeks were tear-streaked and rugged with scruff. Even though she couldn’t see the horns without the mirror, the sight chilled Lexi to the bone.
“Dominic!” she cried.
He whirled to look at her, eyes wide and desperate and just a bit too bright. “Shut up!” he hissed. “Or I’ll report you. I’ll fucking report you!” The knife trembled in his hand, the harsh light of the bathroom lightbulbs reflected in the blade. He pointed it at her. His eyes scared her more than the knife.
Lexi froze. Is that what crazy people do? For a fleeting second, she wondered if he would stab her. Is this how stupid people die?
Dominic dropped the knife.
“Help me,” he begged.
When he held out his hands, she clasped them in hers. His palms were raw and bloody. Lexi couldn’t tell if that was from the friction of the horns or the knife hilt. When they touched, his wings unfurled from his back and flooded the mirror with their beautiful smoke-blue feathers.
As much as she cajoled him, Dominic refused to look.
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