“Cipher” was the winning story in the sixteenth Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, and was originally published on this site on November 1, 2007.
Courtesy Sondra Peron
It had been warm all day, the type of day where the heavy air presses into you and makes it hard to move. It didn’t help that her shift had been spent calling customers and listening to endless streams of why they couldn’t make their hydro payments. And they would yell, swear at her as if she had caused their loss of job, their alcoholism, their way of life. She absorbed it all, the words sinking through the membrane in her ear and resonating within the membrane of her mind long after the calls had stopped.
If there’d been a breeze, or a slight coolness to the air, then those words could have lifted from her. They heated her, churning and boiling within so that by the time she got the apartment door open her flesh looked glossy with the sweat.
Brian wasn’t home yet, but she didn’t care. A tall cool glass of water swirled down her throat but it didn’t lessen the heat or dissolve the words that filled her. Instead, it seemed to bloat them till her head throbbed with their need to become a story. She pressed her head into her hands and rocked on the couch. The pounding became a drumbeat thumping against her skull. A primal beat, a heartbeat that pulsated her body as she rocked. Her head reverberated. She was the drum and drumskin; sound formed from the vibration of air and skin to become words.
“What are you doing!” The words cut through her like a blade.
Her eyes, open though they were, finally focused on Brian. He dropped his backpack to the floor and just stared at her, caught between amusement and concern.
She shook her head, then looked down. Swaths of white paper towels bandaged her bare arms, belly, legs. Damp, they clung to her like a cheap remake of some mummy movie. When had she taken off her clothes?
So many words choked her; there were no imprints on the paper towels. All she could say was, “I — I was trying to capture the words.”
* * *
She stared down at his bare back. It radiated heat in a light flush of pink and brown in the late afternoon light. A light dusting of freckles, the downy hair and the broad expanse of flesh with slight hills and dips covering muscle and bone. It was like parchment, soft and supple, waiting for impressions. Pressing her finger lightly on his shoulder blade, she began to write in long looping curls. His skin seemed to glow incandescent white with each word before it was absorbed into him.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m writing a story.”
She could see the whorl, where his hair began and spiraled over his head. The center of his being, the center of thought. A moment’s impulse and she leaned over to kiss him at that nexus.
He didn’t look up from the book he read, or at least rested below him. The words entered him cerebrally, through his eyes, while hers entered him physically, to his heart. She continued writing and he said, “What is it you’re writing?”
She tilted her head to the side, paused for a moment, then moved her finger across the ridged vertebrae of his back, over the expanse of muscle and down to the ribs. “I’m writing my story, so that you won’t forget me.”
Stillness grasped him for a moment, then he rolled over and looked at her. A small frown between his brows, he said, “Why would you think I’d forget you?”
How could she answer that? It was just a feeling, that their ways would part and she wanted to know he would remember her. Like many conversations, the words dissolved into air, forgotten moments, if not months, after they were spoken. No permanence but what was written. She shrugged and smiled sadly at him. “I just want…well, if anything should happen you will have my story imbedded in you.”
He reached up and pulled her down to the warm plain of his chest, kissed her forehead, his hand ruffling through her short hair. “Why don’t you just tell me your story.”
Softly, muffled by his chest hair, she sighed. “There are…things I can’t say.”
“Then why not write them down? Then I’d know what your story is.”
“No, they’re not meant for paper. You could forget them behind. This way they can’t be changed for other ones. This way you’ll feel them,” she pressed her hand onto his chest, “in here.”
He laughed and forgot his book, kissing his way down her ear and throat, to the soft dip of her collar bone. “You get the strangest ideas sometime.”
* * *
She met him dancing. Blue barrettes held her sweaty red hair back from her forehead. Her shirt was unbuttoned to just below her breasts. She asked him to dance but didn’t really notice him from all the others she had asked.
Later he came and sat with her and her friends, easing into their conversation gracefully. He said, “I like your boldness. You ask anyone to dance and then you do that and only that.”
He was right. She danced with a brief glance from time to time at her partner, few smiles, and then a nod of thanks afterward as she made her way back to her friends. He had told her her lack of interest in the individuals intrigued him, how she treated everyone equally.
She never did manage to tell him that she was interested in all the individuals but not one over the other. Dancing was what she came to do and that’s what she did.
Later, when they went on a not-quite-dinner date to a local café they talked. She had gone to talk and that’s what she did. Mostly she asked questions, but leaned into his conversation when he spoke softly, smiled at certain moments, sat back and absorbed what he said. She noticed the particular shade of his glacial blue eyes, and the slant of bone and ripple of muscles over his jaw. She asked him what he did, what he planned to do.
He had to coax answers from her. Small talk escaped her; she could not fathom its purpose. Only matters that interested her gained her attention. When she knew what he did she didn’t ask how or why because that didn’t matter. It was the landscape in which she found herself that mattered and it consisted of words and stories, action and movement, emotions and silence.
Implicitly, she believed everything while at the same time knowing nothing was true. Brian told her he liked someone who didn’t talk too much, who was a person of action, like her. She found her tongue thick and unresponsive when it came to talking about how she felt but she thought her body language was enough. Every move, every gesture mattered and they were never false.
It didn’t take them long to fall into bed. It was where she could communicate best. When Brian too quickly pushed her onto the bed, she would push him back. When his hands skimmed over her breasts and thought that was enough she would grasp them firmly and put them back on her breasts, pinching his fingers together around her nipples. When everything was the right tempo and intimacy she would respond with a passion that never failed to arouse Brian more.
But she could never understand when he didn’t seem to know what she wanted, when he stood there in his underwear and disheveled hair, hands splayed out at the side and said, “I don’t understand you. Why can’t you just speak plainly?”
She said, “I am.”
Brian just shook his head and plopped on the couch, picking at the loose weave. It looked as if all the air had been punched out of him. “You’re like a puzzle. You give me certain pieces and expect me to figure it out from there, but there’s always pieces missing.” He didn’t look up.
At that point she was lost; she neither knew how to tell him more, or what it was he wanted to hear. She was the puzzle, but the pieces were not all words; some were actions, expressions and body language. Why couldn’t he see what was so clear to her?
She went to the kitchen and pulled a beer out of the fridge. Popping the cap, she took a long swallow from the bottle. Would it impart any wisdom? Most of the beer was gone by the time she had left the kitchen. She drank and stared at Brian, not bothering to sit. He ignored her, then clicked on the TV. When the bottle was empty she dropped it beside the chair and went back to the kitchen for another.
After the third beer, she managed to say, “What do you want from me?”
Without once looking at her, he said, “I want someone who will talk to me.”
* * *
It was windy and hot when she came through the kitchen door. Her thoughts seemed to tumble and stick in her head, catching her unawares when her mother asked, “Where were you?”
Trying to catch and organize her thoughts she said, “I was down at the empty lot. Then Timmy Johnson showed up and before he saw me he pulled his thing out. He made it grow big.” She’d been fascinated, like a bee to honey. The boy had moaned and wriggled, and the warm pinky flesh in the hot sun was filled with secret hungers. She had watched, knowing she would be shown things she hadn’t known. Secrets were in the outing.
Her mother jerked as if she’d cut her finger. There was a look in her eyes as if the dog had just eaten the neighbor’s child. “What?”
Suddenly she felt that she had walked into a sticky trap like a fly on flypaper, but she didn’t know what it was yet. “He had his thing out. Then another boy joined him and started to kiss –“
“What did I tell you about lying? I don’t want any more of that talk out of you. Come here,” her mother snapped.
“B-but, it’s true. I saw –“
“People don’t do those things; you don’t watch!” Her mother dragged her by her arm into the bathroom. Tears obscured the view but she knew what was coming. The lies had stopped a long time ago, after she’d said the ice cream man had frozen babies in with his popsicles. The punishment had been terrible. But it didn’t seem her mother believed the punishment’s effectiveness. In her large coarse hands she held the smooth white bar of soap.
The bar was so close to her face that the brand impression was quite clear; a little dove. Her mother brought the bar into contact with her lips. She clenched her teeth and tossed her head from side to side but what strength did a six-year-old have against a mother with righteous anger? The bar wormed its way between her lips and then her mother scrubbed it against her teeth, all the while yelling, “I never never never want to hear lies from you again. Do you hear me? Do you?”
Her tears ran trails through the soapy flakes and by the time her mother stopped there was half a bar of white dove soap mortared between her teeth. Crying, saliva mixing with the disgusting bitter, waxy soap, she spit into the sink. Water would not remove it all, brushing vigorously until her gums bled did not remove the taste for hours. What was removed was the taste for words. Scrubbed cleanly away; she was cleansed of tales and cleansed of truths. A conviction rose in her like so many soap bubbles; a dirty lie was more convincing than the clean, well-told truth.
* * *
At the bar again; the last ship to carry their sinking relationship. The smoke gives a foggy private realm within the noisy room. Brian stares into the crowd at nothing, lifting his cigarette unconsciously to his mouth. She watches him, feeling the distance that has been growing between them, wondering how she can break it. Can the tangible around them reach in and pull them out to see each other? She looks at Brian, wondering what she can say.
The fourth beer flows smoothly down her throat. Its cool sharp taste speaks worlds to her. She suggested they go out and Brian had agreed though he’s said little since they arrived. There is a wall that guards him, a wall of flesh, and she cannot read his emotions through it. It’s not hard to tell what the wall means though. At one time she thought she knew how to open him up with a touch of her finger, a lick of her tongue, but those keys don’t seem to work anymore. He’s changed the locks.
It’s on the tip of her tongue to say, “I love you,” but she stops herself. No longer is she sure if that fact is true. She reaches out instead, and puts her hand on his arm.
Brian blows out smoke like a sigh and says, “I can’t relate to you anymore. I don’t know where you’re coming from.”
She can’t stop the sad smile from spreading over her face. “The same place as always.”
He gulps his drink and says, “It’s not going to work.”
Before she can even think to respond he’s tossed some money on the table and pushed his way through the crowd, a stiff back retreating into shadow.
She wonders in fact what she would say that could change anything. She’s tried so hard to communicate all along that she’s no longer sure what the original message was. Will he even feel the story that she embedded in him? How long until he forgets her name?
She shrugs, downing the last of her beer. That story would no longer be hers anyway. She’s not sure which story would be because she’s never tried to read herself.
The bottle’s glass has warmed in her hand, to her own body temperature. But it is not part of her, and even though the alcohol is, those bubbles burst hollowly within her. They have not told her anything. She had hoped to buoy all the words that had moored themselves in her. Borne on effervescent bubbles they would have burst from her. Brian would have heard. Instead, the words swirl sickeningly within her, a whirlpool that sucks her thoughts away.
She hesitates before signaling to the waitress for one more beer. Not fooled by the cool touch of the new beer or the obscurity of the amber glass, she watches the people who thread and weave intricate patterns around her. Three men bend and twist, pause and drink, as they play pool. She absorbs their actions, waiting for their story to come to her.
Colleen Anderson writes fiction, dark fiction, erotica, poetry, SF, fantasy, and anything of interest. She has a BFA in Creative Writing and freelances as a copyeditor and proofreader, which includes editing slush and poetry for ChiZine. She is currently co-editing the Canadian anthology series Tesseracts 17 with East Coast dark fiction writer Steve Vernon. Twice nominated for the Aurora Award, as well as shortlisted for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, the Friends of Merril short fiction contest, the Rannu competition (and placed second in poetry), the SFPA poetry contest, Colleen has also won the Jerry Jazz Musician short story contest. She has also received several honorable mentions in the Year’s Best SF, Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy, and the Writers of the Future.
For more information and other books that contain her stories, click here.