Side by side they sat upon the mausoleum, feet playfully dangling over the edge, twining the coarse leaves of the Resurrection Fern between their fingers. One turned to the other and said, “I always hated my name, Flo,” bottom lip disfigured with the blunt one-syllable word, “kind of gets stuck right there, just on the other side of my mouth and never fully drops away.” The comment didn’t produce a chuckle as she had hoped, which turned the soliloquy more introspective. “Always wanted it to, you know, drop off and never come back. It didn’t belong to me, that name, and I always felt that way, ever since I could remember. Even my skin, it’s been void of nerve endings my whole life, like wearing latex; I could see it was there but couldn’t feel it, you know, like how most people do. I’ve always been missing.”
Flo’s neighbor finally spoke, saying, “Missing?”
The question startled Flo. She turned, stared at the woman beside her who attempted to appear younger than she was in how she braided pigtails in her hair, wore a white frock and matching shoes, but between the freckles and youthful coating, an uncomfortable look of age bore in those wrinkles caked with makeup.
Flo told her yes, that she had been missing, and not just in name alone, “but how I felt slotted in this skin of mine, lacking a center—an entry to my true soul—feeling I should have been something different.”
“Like what, a horse, or maybe a pigeon?”
“No, silly,” flashing a quick smile that faded, “a man, I should have been a man.” Flo’s hand presented her exterior; the uneven breasts that hung, the area of her crotch in need of an organ. “Up there, amongst the living, I was missing, and when you’re missing, you’re always searching…always.” Flo slumped to give her story a little theatrics. “Even here I search. From day one I’ve looked between crevices, wandered the streets on the lookout. Through the windows I peered into the homes of the living, watching what was left of their mortality, looking for evidence, and for years never seeing one single piece of it until last week.” Flo presented a huge smile, an excited secret that caused her to straighten and then say, “I saw him and he was me, but wasn’t me. And he was so gorgeous; let me tell you, his hair parted just so off his forehead, and the way he walked, owning that muscular build of his like I always dreamt I could wear.”
“What did you say to him?”
“Nothing, I couldn’t, I lost him, just as suddenly as when I found him. He was there one moment, and then he wasn’t. Except…”
“There was this face I stumbled upon instead, peering out from a crypt. And he was, oh, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how hideous he was, but he spoke to me like he knew me.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, horrible things.”
“Let me hear them.”
“It may frighten you.”
“Please, frighten me.”
Flo bristled in preparation, and then said, “He told me, no wait, it was more of a scolding, saying, ‘When asked to leave you didn’t.’ That’s how he began, then paused and went on to say, ‘Was even warned of twilight and of that creature’s creature named ‘E’, and still you refused to pass through. You were forthright with your answers at the same time being detached, and when queried on love not living in the world of the dead, you had paused, only for a moment, and still obstinately shook your head and refused to go. Asked why, you didn’t say, and when the question was broached on what you had done to deserve a place like this, you simply closed your eyes and said, My absence is deserving enough.’”
“What do you think he meant by all that?”
Flo sighed and said, “It means I chose to be here because I didn’t want to leave without him. I always figured he must have died as well, and had been trapped down here like how I was, and I was right, because I saw him, I did. So I’m back to searching for him again, every day since, wandering through cemeteries, down streets, peeking into houses, just to get a glimpse of him once again, my true self, and be done with what currently wears me. Because you see, I believe that here, of all places, is the world where I can somehow finally become who I should have been from birth, and let this other self be laid to rest.” Flo thoughtfully gazed out toward the sinking sun. “You know, I’ve heard about this Green Man over by the river cemetery, maybe he can help me.”
“No, not him, he can only paint pictures. What you need is something more ecclesiastical, you know a practitioner when it comes to the dealings of the soul.”
“How do you know so much?”
“Never mind that, listen, just consider it fortunate we ran into one another, now then, what does this other self look like?”
And Flo told her the details in depth, enough for the vivid pictures to reel across her vision like a moving picture show. Then the eyes of the woman in pigtails brightened and said, “Yes, I’ve seen him. I’m certain of it. Give me a day and I’ll find him for you. Meet me over there tomorrow afternoon when the sun is nearly finished with us.” She raised her finger and pointed to a sarcophagus with a tall pointed roof. “There’s a tree with enormous roots beside the crypt’s base, and through the roots is a tunnel with steps that lead underground. It’s there where the church is housed, and it’s there where Preacher Man Thomas can do what preachers do best.”
“And what is that?”
“Finally bring you two together.”
The wait was an eternity, if eternity could even be more insidious in the land of the eternally damned. But the hour had eventually come around and Flo tentatively moved within the roots of the tree beside the crypt. Even the dank air wearing its cool undertones couldn’t deter the excitement that rushed through her body, sporadically surfacing through nervous hands and the upturn of her lips to a smile. The stairs spiraled around a stone core; ten, fifteen feet it went under the cemetery where the casting glow of candlelight grew brighter in a buried sanctuary.
The place was small but the ceilings high. Mud walls glistened in specks of phosphorus and mica where a congregation of other souls sat upon homemade pews, stiff like statues. At the end of the space, and elevated a foot higher than the rest of the room, sat the Altar, and it was there that more of everything was found; more candles that flickered, more light and shadow, more movement with Preacher Man Thomas pacing out front, head sunk in reflective consternation, a pattern of misgivings and schemes.
When Flo entered, the Preacher Man quickly looked up, chest swelled where he bellowed in a Marlon Brando muttering, “Ah, she has finally arrived, ladies and gentleman of the congregation,” no one stirred, “the mother of internal conflict and strife, a keeper of secrets and wants, the woman wanting to become a man, has joined us on this most momentous occasion; the union of lost souls.” Preacher Man Thomas extended his arms, a benevolent gesture that resided on the absurd in how his arms kept going, stretching out across the pews where enormous hands flayed open like thin crooked talons. “Come, my lost sheep, come, please, join us up front.” His fingers and arms contracted on her approach where he wrapped his arms around Flo’s shoulders and faced her toward the congregation. Stupefied faces stared back, eyes glazed in a semi-catatonic permanence, mouths agape, blue lips parted as Preacher Man intimately whispered as if speaking to a child. “To fully understand our good friend’s peculiar predicament, she was born a woman, as you can see, with all her womanly parts, but ever since a wee-little child she never felt right owning such womanly things. Is what I’m saying correct?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Good, very good, we are all on the same sheet of music. So with knowledge, comes power, and with power, one must use it, and what you have shared with us today is very powerful, very powerful indeed.”
Flo glances up toward him, a little perplexed.
Preacher Man Thomas hugs her tighter and gives her a comforting jostle. “Yes, Flo, your confession is power, because what you have done, what you have implied with your statement is to admit God is flawed and prone to mistakes, so what couldn’t be more powerful than that.”
“Shhh, child don’t, no explanations or excuses are needed. We don’t judge here, only illuminate. Now then, this reunion we’ve all excitedly waited for, ‘E’,” raising his voice, “the floor is yours.”
From the back shadows emerged the man Flo was supposed to be, being led by the woman in white frock and pigtails. The man was naked; a darkened tuft of hair feathered around his package like some emblematic beacon, and for a second Flo was stunned at what she saw, felt herself leave this foreign body and drift across the pews toward the back where she was finally metaphorically wrapped in his skin, that promised self soon to be named, all thanks to an underground preacher.
With a touch from the woman in pigtails, her other self (the man) began to walk forward. He began to move toward Flo in a way that made her heart skip and steal breaths. She grew dizzy; dopamine’s flushed, a marriage of flesh and soul only a short distance away—thirty feet, then twenty five. It was a ceremonial pacing that inspired tears to rupture from her eyes and an integrations of four different smiles to dash through her cheeks. The congregation also became enlivened. Celebratory feelings fed off Flo’s emotions, enough for cheers to erupt gauged by whistles. Balloons and gifts dotted the underground scene, with a solitary candle lit upon a cake, where the ubiquitous outburst of ‘Happy Birthday’ was parroted out around the room.
“Yes, it is my birthday” said Flo, “I’m one year old.”
But the tears and festivities distracted away from what was happening before Flo’s eyes. With each footfall, the man began to melt the closer he got to her. First his skin sagged then sloughed in wrinkled sheets. His muscle oozed as if boiled, leaving pieces and fluids of milked hope behind in his wake until he stretched to nothingness just below her feet.
The solitary candle on the cake was extinguished; a balloon lost its air and zipped around the room until falling limp upon the altar. It was that familiar burden, hobbled by incompleteness extending clear back to when she was ten and a pair of eyes stared out from a shell. The horror showed on her face, enough for Preacher Man Thomas to jostle Flo in comfort. “Don’t be angry with us,” said he, “it is in our nature to disappoint and yours to keep searching. Isn’t that right?” The girl in pigtails rattled a laugh, deep-chested and full of phlegm. Not to be outdone, Preacher Man theatrically raised his arm, and to have the last word, quoted, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Now then, can I get an Amen!”
Runner Up for 2015 Faulkner’s Word and Music, and semi-finalist at Glimmer Train, his work has appeared in the New Author’s Journal, Double Dealer and The Wisconsin Review. It’s the years of living multiple lives; from a Marine and husband, to a construction worker and dad, as well as a salesperson and designer that has given him not only the opportunity to discover his voice, but a perspective for both character and story that is balanced throughout his work.