Excerpt from my novel Toxicosis:

Aquarium (by Alison Armstrong)

Tripping on feline revenant blood visions, I walk amidst the annual Halloween parade’s rowdy, inebriated, costume-clad celebrants. Mermaids, pirates, zombies, and “vampires” invade the streets, giving free rein to impulses liberated by the protective shield of their disguise. Terrifying, bawdy, alluring, or idiotic, the temporary persona lets them drift anonymously into the raucous anarchy infusing this celebration of death.

I sit alone, sipping a Manhattan in one of the area’s many dark, crowded, cavernous nightclubs while my Awakener tends to the kittens during their hibernatorial metamorphosis. Velvet Underground music rumbles through the narrow passageways like a musty bagpipe moan, and an aquarium tank on the counter beside me emits bubbling sighs as a large opalescent fish peers out from beneath a brain-shaped piece of coral. Its fins sway slowly to the vibrations, and its mouth, grim with wisdom like my grandmother’s, purses in annoyance.

Thoughts drift through the glass and liquid, mirrors of resonance. I float through the soothing balm, flesh and scale, lung and gill, watching the people pass by our transparent barrier.

A petite young blonde dressed as a slutty witch laughs as she sticks a plastic broom stick between her legs, then hands the slippery broom to the bouncer. “Want a taste?” she taunts.

Her date, a sandy-haired older man, smiles uncomfortably and then walks away.

My piscine grandmother blows more bubbles huffily as she watches the woman suck on an absinthe-soaked cherry.

“Cherry bomb!” the woman screeches. “Bet you can’t bust my cherry!”

“Tsk, tsk,” my grandmother, carp eyes unblinking, gurgles between her tight-clenched lips. “That’s no way for her to talk. And you─ what are you doing in this kind of place anyway?” She flicks her tail fins disdainfully.

“I just had to get away,” I mumble, my voice inaudible to any but the incorporeal, the revenants or the aquatic. “It was time to move on. So here we are. I know you don’t approve, but, hey, we have to survive as best we can. You should know that better than anyone.”

“Yes,” she rolls one of her large disc-like eyes. “I do know. All those years with your grandfather, and now this. Oh, well. Life goes on, whether we’re happy or not.”

Mouth smeared with sticky translucent gel, Ms. Cherry Bomb interrupts my silent conversation with Grandma by sashaying back to the bar and plinking herself down on a newly vacated seat beside me.

“Is anyone sitting here?” she giggles, spreading her legs apart to show off her crotchless panties.

“Well, someone is now,” I mumble, wishing she would leave before my hunger and annoyance get the best of me.

Despite his insistence that we wait for our prey to summon us in their dreams or thoughts, it was very difficult to control myself when my Awakener wasn’t here, especially when I am under the hallucinatory spell of the feline goddess. That drop of cat blood I swallowed before I left the hotel has sharpened my predatory instincts as well as intoxicated my senses. I am one with them, the feral ones, the ancient atavistic icons of undying desire. I see through the transmigrational mirages, the changing, shape-shifting possibilities, living and dead, human and animal returning and sometimes recombining, and I seethe with their endless yearning to survive.

Cherry Bomb prattles on and on about her escort career, the numerous high-rollers who pay huge amounts of money just to spend a night out on the town and then under the sheets with her. As she talks, the spasms in my stomach intensify—pins and needles, claws and knives and machetes. Restraint yields in gory surrender, and relentless hunger takes control, craving spurting sustenance and the silencing of words.

“How would you like to experience something more powerful and exhilarating than anything money can buy?” I ask, gazing into her murky hazel eyes.

“Sure. Why not?” she smiles.

“Then come with me for a moment outside. Come,” I urge, my voice seductively shepherding her through the congested maze of revelers.   

With lurching steps she follows me out into the alley.

We stop by a heaping dumpster, and I hold her hair back as she pukes. A river of brown with small spongy islands of red joins the purgatorial sea of beige saturating the ground beside the dumpster, and a few splattered globs spray onto my shoes. Although I am sickened by the sight, smell, and sound of vomit, my hunger, paradoxically sharpened by revulsion and pity towards the girl, is even more fierce. She has shown her weakness, the fatal ripping thread, and now her insides, like the cottony stuffing of a tormented teddy bear, spill out as I look on with cruelty-engorged compassion. I feel for her as a lioness might towards a limping stray kitten. To nurture or to annihilate─that is the dilemma. Whether the lioness and I are empathic, helping the vulnerable young one, or are ruthless, killing it, depends on our degree of hunger. Satiety or starvation determines the outcome. In my case, the hunger predominates.

Her retching stopped, she looks at me boldly, unashamed. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she straightens from her hunched position.

“What do you have to show me?” she asks.

“Just this,” I reply and lean closer, my lips against her neck.

“Oh, that!” she scoffs. “I’ve done that before.”

“No, this is something different.”

She moans, closing her eyes, as my tongue, bristled, like a cat’s, licks her throat. Hiding flirtatiously beneath layers of bitter bath wash scum and slightly rancid patchouli lies the honey musk nectar that signals arousal, surrender. I taste her brazen, reckless, addictively enticing summons. She sighs, neck arched, legs parted. With the tip of her finger, she touches the furry darkness between her legs. She wants whatever I offer; nothing else matters but the release, any release, I can give her.

Unfortunately for her, my need merely masquerades as carnal. I am not tempted by her sticky, wandering fingers as they slither from her crotch to mine. I am only interested in the life she gives, the hunger she temporarily satisfies as the liquid currents of her body empty into me and I experience the dying ecstasy of her spirit.

She cries out, her voice a raucous shriek nearly indistinguishable from the boisterous yelps of the Halloween revelers in the bar and streets nearby. It is a howl of rapture, the swooning submission of her will, her consciousness, her sins and guilts and regrets. I pull back her hair once more, this time, though, less gently, as my fangs penetrate her lustily pulsating throat.

The blood is sweeter and more delicately flavored than I would have expected from one so tawdry. With her blood come memories, moments from her life, dreams, hopes, and fears she never shared with anyone else.

I see her as a girl of seven. It is her birthday, and she is trying to blow out the candles. As she blows, the candles flicker, but none go out. She tries again, and tears start to spill from her eyes.

“Go on! You can do it!” what appears to be her mother is urging.

“Just do it for her,” a male figure, probably her father, sighs. “I have to get to work soon. Let’s get this show on the road.” He shovels a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth and glances at a newspaper.

“I can’t, Mommy!” she cries.

“OK, honey,” her mom reassures. “I’ll do it this time, but you need to try harder. Daddy doesn’t have any patience. You know that. We both love you. He just has a strange way of showing it sometimes.

The cake, candles blown out, fades into a grayish mist, and a small bed with a white quilt takes its place. She is lying on the bed, eyes closed, and from her head, a wispy dream emerges. Tiny white figures in the dream are dancing, ballerinas dressed as swans. She dances among them, prettier and more lissome than all the rest. From a red curtain a man resembling her father, but younger, more handsome, leaps onto the stage. She dances up to him, throwing herself into his waiting arms; however, instead of catching her, he steps aside, and she falls, down, deeper and deeper into a huge, dark, whirling hole, that, like a giant drain, swallows her with a belching gulp. In a tunnel of filth she wanders. Shit dangles from black, twisted, burnt, leafless trees.  Frantically, she calls for her mother, even, at last resort, her father, but no one answers. As she heads towards a spider-webbed stairway, a man in a white tuxedo appears. She runs to him, collapsing at his feet, and begs for help.

“For a kiss,” he whispers. “Only for a kiss.”

Her lips touch his, and he scoops her up into his arms, carrying her up the stairs that she was too tired or too hopeless to climb herself.

The dream cloud vanishes, and so does the bed with the sleeping girl. She is now a teenager. Sitting at a mirror, she adjusts her make-up, careful to cover the blotchy tear-stained reminders of last night’s disastrous dance recital. No more dance classes, no more defeat and disappointment for her. Tonight was the prom, and then, soon, would be graduation. She was going to leave town with her boyfriend afterwards, start a new life, maybe become a model. If that failed, her boyfriend Tommy would help her somehow. He had connections. So what if he asked his friends to come over and watch while he had sex with her? They paid him money for it, and the money would be just enough for her and Tommy to move somewhere far away from all these bad memories. Maybe then the nightmares would stop. A kiss, a caress, whether from love or for profit, would help her rise above all the failures she was doomed to make if she kept trying by herself, alone.

Her reflection in the mirror changes. A faint greenish-brown bruise accents her delicate cheekbones, and a small red scab lurks at one corner of her mouth. Although she is still, in her hustler boyfriend’s words, “quite the looker,” she worries that her beauty has already started to fade. Only in her twenties, she senses the vindictive fingernails of Time scraping at her youth and vitality. The dusty yellow light in the motel room flickers like the birthday candles, unextinguished yet joyless, devoid of hope. “I can’t!” she sobs. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Yes, you can,” the room seems to echo, repeating her boyfriend’s words. “I will help, but first, a kiss.”

The yellow-light darkens to a crimson glow. She straddles a plastic broomstick in the doorway of the bar as her escort smiles half-heartedly. He glances at his watch, then scans the crowd inside and disappears. A screeching reverberates inside her ear, and she realizes she is shrieking with laughter. The sound spirals around her in seasick haloes, making her laugh louder, more deliriously in response.

She stumbles towards the bar and is helped to a seat beside an aquarium containing a large fish that stares at her with scornful saucer eyes.

The bitter licorice-like taste of absinthe cherries begins to overpower every other sensation. Her chair spins inside the halo of dizzying laughter. Within the ear-ringing circle an auburn-haired woman about the same age as herself asks if she wants to “experience something more powerful and exhilarating than anything money can buy.”  The voice, like the cherries, is stealthily seductive, sneaking past her loosely guarded defenses. It guides her through the swirling thicket of spider-legged chairs, luridly gleaming bottles, and motley macabre partiers towards some promised revelation in a garbage-strewn alley.

Swill, hot, syrupy, metallic, and cherry-infused, gushes from her mouth. It surges in burning rivulets, purging from her any last remaining morsels of shame. Cold hands caress her hair, holing it back from the fiery flood. Lips even colder than the hands kiss her neck.

Icy teeth tear at her throat, releasing another sizzling, gurgling gush, but this torrent is fierce and seething with the smell of death. Red alarm bells shriek their futile warnings, and red stop signs flash by in stunned defeat. Red and black shadows, like the flames of long-ago embers, flicker stubbornly in the corners of her fading vision, birthday candles waiting to be extinguished. A hiss, silken and clammy, whispers in her ear, and the flames go out, her wish granted.

Through open, unclosable eyes she watches as her body is somehow hoisted by the slender woman, tossed into the dumpster, and buried underneath a festering compost of pizza crusts, brown-smeared newspaper, stiffened, grimacing rat carcasses, and soggy fast food wrappings. Tiny white particles the size of rice grains squirm over her lips, giving memorial kisses to their wedding cake bride, but though her flesh must unflinchingly endure their carrion devotion, she is floating far away, heading towards a distant, unflickering white-hot flame.       

She has her reward, and I have mine. Our brief yet revelatory connection severed, there remain only a few droplets of blood and vomit splattering my hands and shoes as mementoes of our intimate bond. Eager to wash away these reminders as quickly as possible, I leave the alleyway and hurry towards the bar’s only bathroom.

On the left side of a long, dark, narrow corridor cluttered with empty beer and liquor boxes, the bathroom effectively deters casual visitors. Braving the obstacle-ridden labyrinth and arriving at my destination, I grasp the sweat-slicked doorknob and enter the room. As soon as I open the door, a hideous stew of scents assails my nostrils—yeasty, musky, curdled, feculent offerings from anonymous males and females, prayer-prefaced ejaculations, cinnamony sanctimonious aftershave repentances. Faint, furtive whiffs of remorseful self-hatred cower amidst the unctuously overpowering aroma of hypocrisy. Illuminating this pernicious chamber of odors, a dim overhead bulb, uncovered except for cobwebs, bleakly reveals a dingy, chipped porcelain sink and solitary stall door decorated with felt tip drawings of cum-shooting penises and anus-gaping buttocks. Smeared words accompany the crudely yet enthusiastically rendered cartoons, remnants of profanities past, layers upon layers of faded, erased, or superimposed pornography as ephemeral as the shit and piss so indifferently flushed away. Like the room’s pervasive stench, the scribblers’ luridly illustrations and obscenities evoke a suffocating blend of desire, frustration, and hostility. They are the futile, excremental splatterings of confused mortals trying to leave some imprint of their existence on a tomb-gray slab.

Turning away from this noxious little gallery, I notice that the soap dispenser above the sink is empty. I touch the rusty, soap-scummed faucet and wait for the trickles of water to escape from their crusty confinement. One by one, like sluggish messengers, the droplets find their way to my hands, slowly moistening them. I tear off what seems to be the only remaining paper towel, and, after drying my hands, dampen the towel to dab the barfy residue from my shoes. Washing my hands again, I notice a brownish red spot between the sink and the door. The spot shifts location, moving slightly.

Antennae and legs quiver as the rust-colored roach, bloated yet agile, begins scurrying towards the door. Its swollen torso and spindly limbs disgust me. This mindless, robotic thing encased in brittle armor, so primitive yet so prolific, seems to mock evolutionary as well as religious views of creation. Eons before the emergence of the vertebrae, the limbic system, and the first precursory hints at cognition, its kindred thrived, continuing to “go forth and multiply” despite the so-called supremacy of much more advanced life forms. Whereas the saber tooth tiger and woolly mammoth flourished in brief but magnificent splendor, the lowly, repugnant cockroach continues to prosper, nearly immune to technological advances and completely indifferent to aesthetic, moral, emotional, or spiritual concerns. Appalling in its apparent purposelessness, it defies human ideals of meaning and progress while thwarting human desires to dominate all other species on earth.

My throat constricts, the taste of blood turning bitter and surging upwards, but I manage to swallow the brackish tide as I ambush the repulsively ruddy insect. Sensing my presence, it pauses, unsure which way to run. I spring forward as it scuttles past, my right boot heel crushing its back legs. Dragging its hindquarters, it crawls a few more steps and then stumbles, falling onto its back. Tiny legs twitching, it jerks and kicks with extravagant bravura like an old-time cowboy actor in melodramatic death throes.

Static pulsates from its convulsing limbs, and a jarring, jolting, discordant high-pitched sound, like the shrieking soundtrack to the Psycho shower scene, ripples throughout the room. Small specks of red, green, brown, and black float in front of my eyes, eidetic insectile forms, gnat angels screeching vengeful lamentations. They hover accusingly around my head, then swoop downwards, tiny wings whirring, to keep watch over the fallen roach.

A tremor of alarm cackles up my spine, and panic pulls me towards the door. Staggering past the dizzying swarm, I escape into the bass-throbbing sanctuary of the crowded nightclub.

As I return to the bar, the seat I had left is unoccupied. People mill around in small obnoxious clusters, chatting, flirting and gyrating. Their voices buzz, their abdomens wiggle, their bodies drip with malodorous juices. They are drawn to each other’s stench and slurred, incoherent babblings. Huddling together, they throng, thrust, and satisfy each other’s thirst for a taste of ecstasy, no matter how stagnant and disillusioning it may be.

Bored by their lurching boogie woogie, I turn again towards the aquarium. Grandma waves a translucent fin, wiping away the strands of snail slime and mossy vegetation in her path.

“Time for you to go now,” her gurgly voice announces. “The Day of the Dead is almost here. It is their day to celebrate, not yours. Let them visit with their loved ones.  Leave now. Don’t delay, or you will be visited by unrest. Two spirits are on their way—a ghost from your childhood past and a spirit from the more recent past who intends to curse your future.”

“Kind of like in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, huh?” I sneer.

“Mock, if you wish. But they are coming. Leave now before it is too late.” She glides upwards towards the surface of the water, as if to blow me a goodbye kiss.

I sip my drink, savoring the last lush silken swallows. Despite the warning I don’t feel like leaving. Grandma was always such a worrywart, not even letting me walk around the block of my neighborhood by myself until I was twelve years old.  Her finned transformation hasn’t changed her tendencies towards paranoia and dreary misgivings.

My Awakener and I are not bound by time. The seconds tick by like manic soldiers in suicidal obedience, but we are free of chronological commands. We are, however, still afflicted by its psychological torments. The memories perpetually increase, moment by moment recorded and shelved in an ever-accumulating library.  Page by page, volume by volume, they pile up, like an inexhaustible, unending collection of encyclopedia yearbooks with a subscription that can never be cancelled.  No matter how outdated and irrelevant the information they contain, they keep coming, nearly toppling as their numbers expand and the dust piles up ever thicker on their ever-more-obsolete pages. How many more words, how many more images can the mind contain before it starts to leak, trickling incontinent babble?

I watch the costumed revelers flicker by, chameleon moths drawn towards the festive pageantry of metamorphosis and the sparkling, seductive gleam of alcohol. Blue, green, and amber bottles shimmer, stained glass elixirs promising revelations by the jigger.

A young woman wearing a blue jumper dress and carrying a small wicker basket, walks into the bar. Her hair, a weary driftwood beige, hangs in disheveled pigtails. Her eyes, cornflower blue like her dress, simmer with a cold, relentless hunger, infusing her “Dorothy” persona with an Oz-obsessed ferocity. Sitting down in a chair next to me, she orders an Old Fashioned and puts her basket on the counter.

As the bartender places the Old Fashioned in front of her, “Dorothy” smiles tensely. Her plucky little heroine persona cannot conceal the desperate frenzy of the young woman I knew when we were both children, my long ago friend and Neurasthenics keyboardist, Nadia.

She had died a week or so after I was transformed by my Awakener. Cause of death, the NYC tabloids rumored, was exsanguination, apparently as a result of suicide. Although saddened by the news of her death, I had been so infatuated with my new life and sensually enthralling eternal lover that I dismissed the gnawing of grief interrupting my bliss.

Ignoring my gaze, she sips her drink. At the bottom of her glass a bloated Maraschino cherry lies languidly, like a monstrously swollen pimple ready to burst.

As she sits so tantalizingly close to me, I can still detect her scent, a spirit-infusion of her essence, the soft, androgynously alluring fragrance of summer outdoor evenings when everything delicious is secretly ripening, erupting in riotous surges, releasing torrents of defiant, undammed desire.

“Blood sisters” she and I called ourselves years ago when we were about twelve years old. We had made a pact to share with each other whatever we wrote as we chronicled our strange, foreboding journey into puberty. Alarms, fire-red, tingled in our bellies, womb sirens, insistent and horrific.

“Like a slimy ball of red snot,” she had recalled, reading aloud to me from her diary as we celebrated the beginning of summer vacation by having a sleepover at my house. She had turned thirteen a few weeks earlier and had had her first period shortly afterwards, so she was eager to share with me her impressions of this momentous event. “Sticky as glue, and the pain was like being twisted from the inside by big, clumsy hands. You know how it feels when you are kneading dough? It was like I was the dough. So gross!”

More than a best friend, she had been my first true love in that innocent, nonphysical, unselfconscious, intensely honest way that children and adolescents, particularly girls, often are before their emotions and desires are stifled or subverted. Our deep, almost psychic bond grew more complicated, however, when she and I started our rock band The Neurasthenics. The band, short-lived, played its final performance the night of my accident last year, but by then she had left the group, the seeds of dissension and early decay having begun to destroy the group’s cohesiveness several months earlier. By the time she died, I had already thought of her as a part of my past, and since she had abruptly cut herself off from the group months before that, I had felt betrayed and abandoned by her anyway.

Breathing in her scent, I am transported back to the days of our secret pacts and absurdly amusing mutual jokes, the laughs we would have at the grown-ups around us who thought they were so wise, so perceptive, but didn’t see the bitter mockery behind our sweet girlish masks.

She sits beside me on the bed of my childhood home, picking at the cat-scratched ravelings of my green and blue paisley bedspread. The turquoise light bulb in the lamp beside the bed illuminates everything in a bleak otherworldly glow. Her face reminds me of a painting I once saw of a moorland wraith, pale, intense, shadowed with apprehension of something unknown and frightening.

As I touch Nadia’s hand, perhaps to reassure her or just to feel her soft, smooth skin, my grandmother opens the bedroom door.

“Do you girls want a snack? I made some tapioca pudding.”

“No thanks,” I tell her, remembering the magic word, “thanks” and glance up at Nadia, who giggles at our shared memory of Grandma’s tapioca. The round little clumps in the pudding made us think of fish eyes, salty, underwater observers swimming down our throats.

“OK, then,” she replies.  “Don’t stay up too late, though, with all your chattering.”

Warily, she closes the door, and we hear her sigh as she makes her way to bed.

To Grandma, we are just adolescent girls, happy, naïve, and presumably carefree with our whole lives ahead of us, lives to fill with many more exciting opportunities than she and her generation ever had. She didn’t sense the darkness hissing behind our innocence-imitating laughter.

I say her name; however, she does not respond. My words are vapor, disintegrating the moment they are uttered. As she continues to sip her drink, her fingers reflect the cyanotic lighting of the bar. They are translucent, a holographic image of something once real. She speaks but does not reply, her words like those in a play instead of an actual conversation, while I, separated by a misty filament dividing dead from undead, am unheard.

“November,” she smiles grimly, gazing at me blurrily without meeting my eyes and raising her glass as if to deliver a sarcastic toast. “How I’ve always hated that month! It should be called the Month of the Dead. Gobble gobble go the turkeys and the zombies, gluttons feasting as the trees become skeletons, and the ground grows cold. Then come the trinkets and the tra la las. It all depresses the hell out of me, even now.”

Grandma peeks out again from the coral and pouts disapprovingly. Although far from cheery, she would never admit her contempt for the holiday hubbub and her grim relief once the last Christmas carol had been croakingly silenced.

“My time here is short,” Nadia confides, an urgency in her voice. “Back to old Doom and Gloom I must return, you know. Morbidy, by the way, says ‘hello.’ He’ll be seeing you again very soon. And that beautiful Tooth Fairy woman sends her love.  She’ll be dropping in someday in the near future, too. Anyway, I just wanted to pass along some words of advice.”

Her expression grows colder, more mask-like, as if she is reciting lines from a script that she barely knows or repeating words from a prompter only she can hear.

“Beware of the past and its perfumed poppy field mazes,” she warns in a hushed, almost frightened tone. “They smell so good, look so pretty, but you can get lost in them and never return or you may emerge from them with a different face and identity in a different era. Enemies and obstacles resurface. What-ifs resurrect. That yellow brick road is made of mustard, so leave the path to those who haunt it. Leave me and my fellow travelers to the world of nostalgia and regret.”

She waves goodbye, and then drizzles away like a slippery sheen of oily water droplets.

As I start to get out of my chair, preparing to leave, a tall, large-boned, angular figure, dressed in a clingy pink dress, enters the room. The face, haggard and plastered with flaking beige make-up, glowers at me from cavernous, black-rimmed eyes. “I know you,” the voice, husky yet falsetto, and all too familiar, beckons.

Wearing a similar or identical pink dress, this person, who called herself “Tammy,” had come to my grandmother’s house many years ago to rent a room after my grandfather had died. She had slept in my grandfather’s bed, shared meals at our table, and gradually began to insinuate herself into our lives.

In contrast to her dainty, diminutive name, “Tammy” had a hulking physique and deep, sepulchral voice. She seemed to harbor many secrets behind her garish make-up and incongruous resume. We didn’t care what these secrets were, however, as long as she was hospitable and law-abiding, followed the agreed upon household rules, and paid her rent on time.

Throughout her stay at our house Tammy remained silent about much of her early past but was obsessively eager to boast about her career accomplishments. Her tales of tarnished glory, like a tattered screed buried in excrement, proliferated with maggoty profusion, growing increasingly more bizarre. According to her grandiose sagas, she had been a psychic CIA operative, successfully identifying potential terrorists by reading their auras. A jeep accident in Pakistan, she claimed, had put an end to her celebrated espionage career. No longer able to work full-time, she eked out a living as a cosmetics consultant and fortune teller, devoting her leisure hours to the study of apocalyptic portents.

When she wasn’t boasting about her past exploits, she began preaching about her visions— epiphanies in which American people as spiritual masters of the earth reigned supreme over all nations and life forms. Nature was out of balance, she claimed, and humans needed to reassert their benevolent subjugation. As the strongest country in the world, the United States, she believed, needed to take the first step in this divinely sanctioned dictatorship over all creation.

First step in her agenda for environmental enslavement was the culling of certain nonhuman species, particularly those that lived on land people wanted to use, such as the wolves, mustangs, and coyotes, or those considered nuisances. Included amongst her nuisance list was the small but growing population of feral cats in our back yard.

“They kill birds and spread disease,” she had ranted, grabbing a hot dog from the refrigerator and slathering mustard on it as I watched from the kitchen window the stray cats gather for their evening meal.

“So do people,” I would reply, and the bickering would begin almost every night.

Scowls and disgruntled sighs gave way to sneers, snarls, and insinuations. Homeless cats were going to eventually take over the world unless they were rounded up and exterminated, she argued; they were a menace, a scourge that should be dealt a gentle genocidal solution—“one little shot, then bye bye hunger and cold and suffering.”

Unlike the cats, who were welcome, long-term guests, Tammy did not stay at our house for more than a few weeks. Due to Tammy’s increasingly violent rants, Grandma gave her a month’s notice to leave. That month’s deadline was cut mercifully short when, about a week later, Tammy announced that one of her cosmetician commando buddies was in urgent need of a roommate. As Tammy began packing her belongings into her rusted orange truck, the cats outside congregated around their departing nemesis. Tails in the air, they waved a victorious farewell, and Tammy zoomed away.

The day after her departure, I noticed a strange, vinegary odor pervading the room she had rented. It was a stench of slowly decomposing subterfuge, like a perfume-drenched rag wrapped around a slaughtered victim’s face or the smooth theatrical mask of the rotting Phantom in that last extravagant show before the abyss claims its own. The smell hovered in the house, reminding me of Tammy, the counterfeit medium, make-up merchant, and spy, all artifice and facade and sinisterly smiling hollowness.

This smell, I later discovered, came from an opened jar of mustard which Tammy must have left in the room after one of her late-night hot dog or ham sandwich snacks. Shoved under the bed, the jar was presumably misplaced when Tammy began haphazardly flinging her belongings into her pink camouflage print duffel bag. Tammy was always very possessive of her mustard or any other food she bought, accusing us of stealing whenever it couldn’t be found. The jar, labeled with her magic marker skull and crossbones “Tammy’s, do not touch!” warning, was half-empty, with boogerish clumps of grayish green surrounded by putrid pools of yellow.  For days after we threw the jar away, the odor lingered, as if in homage to our unsavory tenant.

Seeing Tammy now, looking almost exactly the same as when she first arrived at my grandmother’s house, I wonder what brought about her untimely demise. Was it some make up or mustard related toxicity? Or some malevolent seepage deep within, a malaise of hatred and paranoia gnawing away at her body and soul until nothing was left but the garishly gilded mummy case shell that entombed her?

Whatever the cause of death, Tammy had returned from the grave seeming no worse for wear and was ready for battle. Vengeance was hers, at least for a day, and she intended to reclaim a small portion of what she had lost in life. The missing jar of mustard, like a stolen canopic urn, perhaps symbolized to her an earthly life tainted by disappointment and deceit. It was repellent, poisonous, but it had belonged to her, and she wanted it back. For some inexplicable reason or rule governing spectral interactions, Tammy, unlike Nadia, was able to address me directly, confrontationally, and she used this opportunity to vent her rage.

“I know you,” her hollow voice repeats. “You’re the one who stole my mustard! Give it to me or pay the price!”

“Is that so?” my grandmother, blowing bubbles from her mouth, scoffs. “I’ve had enough of your lies and petty rants. We can see right through you, always did. You didn’t fool us one little bit.”

Unfortunately, Tammy cannot hear my grandmother’s defiant sputter. Grandma is, to everyone’s eyes but mine, merely a fish.

I close my eyes and focus on the prickling currents of energy sizzling and itching like tiny insect bites. They touch my skin, making me feel warm, irritated, inflamed. They rub against me, creating friction, a sensation of bubbling electric steam. I envision myself as one of them, a small transparent particle floating in their midst. I am dissolving, becoming a droplet of evaporating liquid, then turning into vapor.

When I open my eyes, I should be somewhere else, out of this bar and wherever I want to be. This is how it always is when my Awakener and I need to escape somewhere or enter invisible portals into people’s homes and dreams and thoughts. I picture the hotel room, my Awakener lying on the bed with the two sleeping kittens, his long dark hair spilling onto the harsh grayish-white pillow, his fingers caressing them as they purr in feline bliss.

Opening my eyes, however, I see instead the aquarium, the manic, costumed crowd, the sparkling blue, green, and amber bottles of liquor, and Tammy in her pink dress. For some terrifying reason (the hallucinogenic effects of the kitten blood perhaps or the power of the ghosts?), I cannot escape this scene.

I look into Tammy’s brownish-yellow eyes, seeing in them jaundiced pools of swampy mustard water—fracked ponds of poisonous delusions. She stares at me, her large pupils squirming like black worms as they try to hook me, pull me in, drown me.

A gurgling sound tugs at my attention just before I am dragged under by her gaze.  Grandma flashes her silvery fins and opens her grim-lipped, frothy mouth.  “Remember the cats,” she mumbles. “You have their blood in you, their protective spirits. Call on that power, the banishing hiss.”

I struggle to close my eyes, but the force of Tammy’s malevolent gaze pulls at my eyelids, snapping them open as if they were on marionette strings. Breathing deeply, I focus my concentration inward so that my outward vision blurs. Outlines soften, becoming misty. Her stare partially clouded, I let my mind wander like a watercolor wash, swirling amidst the foggy browns and yellows, creating from the miasmic pool of Tammy’s ghost a realm sacred to the ancestral gods. The browns are muddy sand, flooded by the life-giving Nile River. Sleek brown cats with eyes like the sun walk with dainty footsteps in the now-moist soil. In the distance, sheltered by a grove of trees, gleams a golden statue of the feline goddess Bast.

I see myself, a white and red calico walking amongst my sleek brown kindred as they pay homage to our great goddess, the sensual, courageous, and fierce giver of life. Unfazed by the floods and the drought, she presides over her ancient birthplace, ensuring its fertility. In her honor a temple has been built, underneath which lie the mummified remains of kittens and cats entombed in bronze sarcophagi. No cat must be harmed, the laws of her land proclaim. However, some do not obey those laws.

I see now in our midst a disheveled woman, straggly, sun-faded beige hair and sickly ochre-rimmed eyes. Her garb, an unsightly, treacherous pink, is splashed with fresh blood, and from her hag-like hands droops a tiny kitten, its neck broken.

As this woman stumbles drunkenly towards the temple, a hiss, low, metallic, and merciless, erupts from the otherwise implacable statue. The sound vibrates at the base of my spine, making my tail bristle in electrified alarm. The ground rumbles, and the woman convulses as if struck by lightning. Blood pours from her nostrils, and grayish clumps of what appears to be brain matter seep through her cracking skull. The dead kitten drops from her scorched, blackened hands. A yellowish pool of fetid liquid collects beneath her seared legs. The stench of burning flesh, moldy pickles, and slowly simmered sewage wafts through the fiery hot cat-cursed air.

Like a desert mirage, the image quivers in trembling vaporous waves. My eyes, forced open, drip with sweat or tears, and the landscape is spattered with acidic rain. Amber bottles shimmer, spirit vessels, genii glass decanters to embalm and entomb time. Liquids seductive as honey, fragrant as never-fading flowers, sparkle within.

The sound of steam and snakes sizzles in my ears. It seethes between my teeth.

Sinewy lines sharpen as the mirage, fog-like, recedes. A world of corners and defined edges returns, a world ruled, at least presumably, by technology, not by gods.  In this claustrophobic, cubicle-constructed setting Tammy flinches slightly as she continues to stare at me, recoiling at the hiss which comes from my fang-bared mouth.

“Be gone!” I hiss. “There’s no place for you in this world. No one wants you. No one will ever want you. You are a lie. You are nothing. You don’t even exist.”

The hiss encapsulates my solipsistic nightmare. To be but a vision, a sublime gasp of dream birthed in some deity’s imagination, lies at the cackling epicenter of my terror triggers. I wield this spitting annihilatory banishment at my long-ago enemy, a phantasmal trickster.

The angular contours defining Tammy once again blur. Her jutting shoulders and craggy cheekbones ripple and drip like wax on a burning candle effigy. Features dissolve, head and shoulders merging into a long pink phallic pillar.

Her power over me, as well as her existence, erased, my eyelids relax. I close them, feeling the deliciously fluttering sensation as I blink.

When I open my eyes, I see a person wearing a pink penis costume. The person giggles, a soft, drunken, feminine laugh that seems to be directed towards the bartender. From two side holes in the penis her arms emerge, and from a larger hole by the head of the phallus the woman’s bespectacled eyes gaze casually in my direction. She places her manicured fingers, pink polished nails with white sperm-shaped designs, upon the bar counter and orders a “Dirty Martini.”

I peer down at my now-empty glass with its melted ice cubes, unsure whether the penis girl is flesh and blood, a ghost, or a hallucination.

“Almost dawn,” Grandma’s gurgly voice interjects. “You better get going.”

Giving one last glance at her grim, bubble-sputtering mouth and glistening disk-like eyes, I sense her begrudging affection. That, at least, is real.

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Writings by Alison Armstrong