Cover by Chynna Clugston (“Blue Monday,” “Strangetown”)
Many of you know Jamie S. Rich as the former Editor-In-Chief of Oni Press. Since leaving his EiC post, he’s better known these days as writer Jamie S. Rich and he’s been doing a lot of that, lately. This August, his latest novel, “The Everlasting,” debuts from Oni Press. It’s listed in the “Diamond Previews” catalog hitting comic shops this Wednesday.
Rich and Oni Press has provided CBR News with a deleted scene from “The Everlasting.” The excerpt below gives a taste of the romantic entanglements and the push-and-pull of relationships that “The Everlasting” explores. You can sample the style and subject-matter without fear of spoilers, though, as this short story will not be in the novel — the only place it can be read is right here on Comic Book Resources!
Look for “The Everlasting” this August from Oni Press. The following should hold you over until then.
Lance rolled over, and he felt Sadie leap from the bed with a start. While he had only been half-awake in the roll, the subsequent kitty jump and the clunk with which she hit the floor was enough to jolt him out of it a bit more, to sense the dryness in his mouth, to head for the refrigerator.
He didn’t turn on the lights. He’d lived there long enough to know his way. It was instinctual topography. Besides, once in the kitchen, the fridge door was open and the light from it illuminated the entire front area. The interior smelled like his roommate’s leftover Thai food — garlic chicken with cashews, very spicy. There was about half a can of cranberry soda left, and Lance went for it.
As he drank, a terrible sound came in from the hallway. Muffled somewhat by the door, it was faint at first, but the gagging and wheezing was unmistakable. Someone was having a murder of a coughing fit. It got closer, got louder. Lance wondered if someone was actually dying in the hallway. How many times do you hear someone in your building hacking up a lung and you don’t realize that for them, it’s no metaphor? Maybe sometimes they really are releasing their internal organs through their own mouth.
Now overcome by a morbid curiosity, Lance began to tiptoe to the apartment door. A sense that he was spying, that he may be detected, made him walk quietly despite the cougher being somewhere outside his own apartment; it made Lance turn around and close the refrigerator door, lest its light give him away. He crossed the living room, got to the door, pressed his cheek to the cold wood, placed a single eye to the peephole.
The sound was still there, reverberating on the bare walls, traverse the empty corridor — but from where? Lance couldn’t see anyone. The cough was still going, stronger and more convulsive than ever, and it sounded like it was right outside his door — but it wasn’t? Where was it? Where was this person’s deathbed?
For a moment, Lance considered opening the door. If his fears were true, if this invisible person was fatally choking, could he really just stand there, looking at this glassy circle of the world, merely listening? But then, after one last, violent convulsion of sound, the coughing stopped. There was no denouement, no labored breathing or sniffling or anything. It was just over. It had faded in, why hadn’t it faded out?
Lance put his hand on the doorknob. It was cold, the metal almost sticky. He could still smell the Thai spices. He bit his lip. His hand just rested on there, he didn’t apply pressure, he waited.
After a few long moments, he withdrew it, turned around. Lance looked at his apartment, bathed in darkness. It seemed suddenly expansive, wider and more open than usual. Nothing was moving, not even himself.
He shook it off and went back to bed.
In the morning, after he had made some coffee, Lance suddenly remembered what he had heard. Part of him questioned whether he had actually dreamed it rather than really heard it, but the cranberry soda can was still out on the kitchen counter — a tangible clue, like at the end of some bad horror movie with a twist ending. “It wasn’t just a dream that I was being chased by a killer with a knife! Look at these slashes in my pajamas!”
He put on his pants and concocted an excuse to go outside by scooping a few hard turds out of Sadie’s cat box. For good measure, he dumped the morning’s coffee grounds into the plastic bag with them and got a momentary whiff of a deadly cat-shit java. He saw Sadie staring at him, and joked, “Needs sugar.” She either didn’t get it or, more likely, didn’t find it funny. Her stare suggested disgust.
Lance stepped into the hallway. Without realizing it, his hands wrenched the handles of the plastic bag a little too tightly as he clutched the dirty cargo to his chest. His breathing was speeding up a little. He stepped lightly across the pea-green carpet, scanned it for signs of the cougher. He looked at the walls, the doors. What did he expect to find? Vomit? Blood? Phlegm? That lung?
The path down to the garbage bin was clean. No stray human bits anywhere. Lance felt more than a little embarrassed, and he ran up the stairs and back to the apartment in a calculated attempt to suggest that there was nothing out of the ordinary about his trip. Though, back inside, Sadie still stared at him as if she knew.
Lance spent much of the day in nervous anticipation of his date with Mandy. He tried to bury himself in work, but it wasn’t doing him much good. He spent more time staring at the screen than moving his fingers across its controls. He hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks, and he was anxious like it was the first date all over again.
As the evening approached, he brushed his teeth and fixed his hair and tried to appear casual. Jeans, a dark blue Fred Perry, a black Gatsby. His thought was that perhaps if he removed some of his earnestness, didn’t seem so anxious to be with her, she might find that more attractive than the eager, lovelorn boy who doted on her every move.
The look he got from Sadie seemed to say, “Who do you think you’re kidding?”
“I don’t know,” he told her. “I really don’t.”
Mandy rang him from the street. He walked down the stairs to meet her. He stopped about halfway down, steadied himself. It smelled like someone was cooking steak. He never ate steak. It made his mouth water a little, but it also made his stomach slightly sick. He took a deep breath through his mouth and carried on.
He imagined various scenarios. How would she greet him? Would she hug him and give one of those delightful Mandy squeals? It would make the distance between them, the time that had passed since they last saw each other, seem to disappear. Would she go so far as to give him a kiss, let him feel her lips again? He knew the sensation of them — always a little dry, a little rubbery, but he appreciated the taste of them. They left behind an impression like having a wet tea leaf floating on the tip of your tongue.
Tongue. Was that the ultimate he could hope for? A real kiss, not just a kiss like friends, like siblings. Was it possible that she would finally throw her whole self into it and surrender? “Oh, Lance,” he heard her sigh. “I’ve been so dumb.”
And what if she did none of these things? What if it was a dry hello? A small wave, she flicks her head in the direction of her car, says, “Come on.” What then? Should he move in? Maybe he could squeal for once, grab her, lift her off the ground, wrapping his arms all the way around her petite body. He could kiss her, push his face into hers, dive in and show her what she had been missing. “I’m not taking any more hesitation from you. This is it. This is love and you have to admit it.”
She might kiss him back. She might punch him. She might separate and leave and never return his calls again (would that be so different?). She might politely tell him how uncalled for his actions were, don’t push her, he’d blown it, it was over.
By the time he finally got downstairs, met her outside his door, he had filled his own brain with so many ideas, he found it impossible to know which way was the right one. He couldn’t even come up with what to say. He just looked at her. She was wearing dark orange jeans, a burgundy thermal shirt, scuffed green boots. She was a cute little mess, looking like she had worn whatever piece of clothing was closest to her on the floor. He wanted to tell her how adorable it was, but he knew she would fail to see it as a compliment.
So, Lance said nothing. He stood at his door and stared at Mandy. He lost count of the moments that passed. It was like a staring contest. Who will have a sign of life, a show of emotion, first?
She did. Mandy laughed. She moved to him, bumped her head into his shoulder like a cat, slid an arm around his waist. “How’re you, man?” she said.
He put an arm around her, brought her a little closer.
“Good,” he replied.
“I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
And that was it. Weirdly, he was right. Time and distance did seem to dissolve. It was just him and Mandy.
Lance and Mandy.
In her car she was playing Johnny Thunders. “Subway Train.” Johnny Thunders, ex-guitarist of the New York Dolls, now dead junkie. A short legacy of a love affair with music. Another beautiful mess. How apropos, Lance thought. It was another thing that she wouldn’t find a compliment, and he wasn’t sure she should either. It was one thing to have mismatched socks, but no one likes to be compared to an overdose tragedy.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“You’re not really hungry, are you?”
“I kind of am. Why?”
“Because I have an idea, but it doesn’t really involve food. Are you up for it?”
“I’m a little scared.”
“Don’t be. It’s gonna be fun! Come on! Today is your day to be a Tigger. I can feel it!”
It was a nickname that stung. She always pulled it out when she wanted Lance to do something he wasn’t normally inclined to do. “Tigger is wild, not like that stuffy old Rabbit who puttered around the 100 Acre Wood like a fuddy duddy,” she’d say. “Who would you rather go through life as?”
It stung because it worked. Lance always relented.
She drove them for about twenty minutes, onto the freeway and away from downtown. He didn’t recognize the suburb she pulled off into, but Mandy seemed to know where she was going. She turned the car into a large shopping center with a grocery store as its hub. Off to the side, there was a store that was almost bigger than the market, called Playville. It was billed as “A Children’s Activity Center” via big painted bubble letters in its window. Playville dwarfed the women’s clothing stores and boot repair shops that clustered nearby. Mandy parked in front of it.
“Are we on a playdate?” Lance asked.
“Shut up,” she said. “You’ll see. You’ll be sorry for making fun.”
Standing outside the door, potential customers weren’t fairly warned of the swirl of noise, color, and bodies they were about to enter. As soon as the double glass doors were cracked, a wave of scream — like propulsion from a jet engine — rushed through, slamming into them. Lance looked at Mandy, an eyebrow arched and asking, “Are you sure?” She merely laughed in response and shoved him in.
The place was jam-packed with children unleashed to have fun, and from the look of things, fun was caught unaware. Giant plastic slides with houses at the top of them dropped down into pits filled with multicolored plastic balls. Intricate jungle gyms and hamster mazes — all made out of plastic — had kids crawling rodent-like through every section, cramming their tiny bodies in every porthole or slinging them along the rungs of fluorescent ladders. A chubby little boy with gunk smeared all over his face and a cylinder of purple foam rubber in his hands was doing laps around the central play area yelling at the top of his teeny little lungs.
Mandy took Lance’s hand and pulled him along — past the pigtails, bowl haircuts, and slobber — towards the rear, where he could see various craft areas had been set off in back rooms. There was no less activity through there, but it was more subdued. The room she took Lance to had stuffed animal parts strewn about — heads, torsos, limbs — as well as various articles of miniature clothing. It was all terribly grotesque, like Lord of the Flies set in a toy shop. Weaker plushies were torn to shreds by marauding children who had been left to their own devices in a wilderness they were determined to tame, rather than let it tame them. What did they do? Just dump buckets of fluffy creatures in the room and let the monsters have at it? Bring your offspring, and get a break while they engage in destruction! We’ll clean up the mess for you!
“We’re going to build our own dolls,” Mandy squealed. “Isn’t it wild?”
“Yeah! You pick your parts and then you put together an animal doll.”
“Oh.” Lance snorted. “That’s almost disappointing.”
He had wanted to destroy, not to create.
A young woman who looked tired beyond her years greeted them. Her uniform was a tranquil blue polyester, but her eyes betrayed that her world was one of mayhem. She seemed relieved to be talking to adults. “Hi, you guys,” she said. “The set-up is pretty simple….”
The girl handed them a checklist showing them all the things they needed to build their own stuffed animals, including helpful drawings illustrating how each piece would stick in its proper place with Velcro connecters. They had various animals to choose from, as well as clothes like caps and shirts and little shorts. Once they had built and dressed the dolls, there was stuff to decorate the clothing — glitter and shiny paints and decals.
The parts were kept in big buckets. These buckets were plastic, just like everything else in Playville. “Children bounce off plastic,” Lance said.
“That’s why everything here is plastic. Kids don’t navigate well, and they run into stuff. If it’s plastic, their little bodies bounce.”
“That’s not true.”
“It’s more than true, it’s science! Didn’t you pay attention to school in 10th grade?”
“I’m a product of a better public school system than California’s. Isn’t every teacher there just an out-of-work actor?”
“No, some write screenplays, and others want to direct.”
The two of them knelt down and began digging through the bucket. Lance found a monkey head, and declared, “Oh, I have to start with this!”
“You’re going to build a monkey?” Mandy asked.
“I am beginning with a monkey.”
Mandy selected the head of a hound dog, and then started to find its body, its legs. She came up short one arm. “This is going to suck if he only has three paws,” she said.
“Don’t forget the tail.”
“Oh, shit, yeah. Why do they make the tail separate?”
Lance collected a bear’s body, frog’s arms and legs, and a shark’s tail. “Do I put it together and then dress it, or do I put the clothes on at the same time?”
“I would imagine you build it, then dress it.”
Lance studied his pieces. “But what if the head rips off when I slide on his little T-shirt? There will be blood everywhere. It’d be gruesome.”
“Shut up and help me find one more leg.”
“Maybe he should go shirtless. Shirts can’t contain my mutant!”
“Shhhhh!” Lance said, looking around. “We’re in a children’s establishment, dirt mouth!”
They both started laughing, and fell together over the bucket, their foreheads clicking. “Ow,” Lance cried, but he didn’t pull his head away. Neither did Mandy. He kissed her quickly, just a peck, before she could escape. Mandy nudged him with her nose, then looked back into the gathering of furry body parts.
“I found it!” she exclaimed, holding up the last of her dog’s limbs. “I got the tail a second ago, too.”
“Excellent,” Lance said, smiling.
It was getting late by the time they were done. Mandy had to get to work, but Lance was starving, so they ran through a Taco Bell drive-through. They ate in the car while Mandy drove, which was a dangerous proposition, given her questionable driving skills.
“You want me to hold your burrito?” Lance joked.
“No! I’m fine.”
Of course, it was no joke when she accidentally ran a stop sign. An old Ford pick-up with fading burgundy paint stopped so hard, it nearly flipped over frontward. Mandy giggled as the guy leaned on his horn, and she flashed Lance a hot-sauce smile. “Ooops,” she said.
“You’re gross and deadly.”
“Marry me, darling.”
“Pick a date.”
He said it as a joke, but as soon as the words were out, there they were, and the whole mood changed. It felt like the car was filling up with water, dirty rain flooding in through the cracks in the windows. Mandy looked at Lance sideways, her lips folded into a smirk. He didn’t know really what to do. Should he push it further or stumble out of it? As a way of compromising with himself, Lance shrugged.
“You wouldn’t want to marry me,” she said.
Lance was trying to read her face. Is this poker? She was giving him no real indication. She could have been fucking around, or she might have been sending a serious message underneath. It was impossible to tell.
“I’m awful. I’m moody, I drink too much, and I am a wreck in the morning.”
“I like you in the morning.”
“You do not!”
“Seeing a woman when she first wakes up is a good way to see what she’s really like. No fancy make-up or other tricks to hide behind. Just splotchy faces and messy hair, and some of you, you just look beautiful anyway. It doesn’t matter. And I don’t care much about those other things you mentioned.”
“Yeah, well…I know all that, including that the last one is a lie. So I don’t care about none of it.”
“But I don’t.”
She didn’t say anything, just crumpled up the paper and straightened up in her seat. “Give me my soft taco.”
“No way. You can’t handle a solid object like a burrito. You’re not getting this until we’re parked.”
Her Johnny Thunders tape had worked itself around. “(She’s So) Untouchable.” Now who was the junkie? If Lance could have gotten out of the car just then, he could have walked home and totally walked away from it, but there wasn’t really a way to do it, and he knew he didn’t have the resolve anyway.
The rest of the drive home, Mandy told Lance a story about being a little girl, and how she went through a streak where she liked to set things on fire. She used to sneak over to the fireplace and burn things on the brick step. She tried different paper, plastics, bringing in sticks and things from outside the house. She liked watching the way things melted, how they retreated from the fire. Her experiments led her to the candy cigarettes they used to make before giving kids anything resembling smokes had become completely impossible. When she lit the end, it bubbled up and browned like a marshmallow. The burning didn’t last, it went out right away, but she put the intact end into her mouth and sucked on it. A sugary smoky taste came through. She liked it, and sucked until the flavor changed. She lit the melty end again, burned it out, sucked it dry. She kept doing it, only switching it up here and there to try to smoke it while it was still burning or other techniques, until the cigarette was too small to do any more with.
All he could think of to say was, “I think every kid went through a firebug phase.” He was surprised she wasn’t poisoned by the burning candy, though, and he remembered that animals like toads and salamanders that are toxic are also often immune to outside poisons — as well as to caring about what their venom does to the other creatures they touch.
By the time Mandy dropped him by his place, Lance felt spent. Earlier, when she had arrived and picked him up, right there on the same spot of street, she had picked him up emotionally, as well. She had put him on a high that lasted the whole way through, only for him to fall from it on the way back.
Lance left his mutant monkey-frog-bear-shark on her seat. He had given him a shirt that said in big bold letters, “ME.”
“Hang on to the little guy for me,” he said. “Don’t let him down. He has no one else.”
Mandy rolled her head around, with her eyes turned back and her tongue hanging out, like this was the silliest thing she had ever heard. “What should I tell him when he asks why his dad gave him away?”
“I don’t know. You’ll think of something, I’m sure.”
He pushed the door a little too hard — harder than he meant to, at least — and it closed with a loud clang. Worried that she’d think this was intended to be some kind of gesture of finality, Lance leaned down, giving her a smile and wave in the window. She didn’t see, though, she was already pulling away. Besides, he couldn’t say for sure, but maybe the car door wasn’t the one giving him the gesture. “Get out, and stay out!”
Walking up the steps to his apartment building, Lance paused. He kept his eyes down, and he listened. Hearing nothing, he went inside.
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