Published in Spooklights
Muzzleland Press, September 2014
Kate Franco stared at the dark screen of her cell phone as a steady stream of urine ran down her right leg. She didn’t try to stop it; the urge was too great.
The situation was not at all amusing: she was a thirty-year-old woman, standing alone in her Manhattan kitchen, and she had just pissed her pants. She’d like to say she felt three or four years old again—acceptable ages. But really, it had only been eleven years since her last accident.
Kate looked down at the pale yellow puddle beneath her bare feet, a result of the brief but intense call. A small dribble had escaped and ran toward the dishwasher at the other end of her tiny alcove kitchen. She sighed, tossed her cell onto the counter, and stepped over the slow-moving rivulet, grabbing for the paper towels.
Her mother was dead. Heart attack. According to her Aunt Kathy, it had come on at the Fancy Pantry grocery store in Kate’s hometown of Ronkonkoma, Long Island. Patricia Franco had convulsed for several feet before tripping over her wooden cane and face planting into a pile of frozen fish patties. Her glasses, which she wore strung around her neck with an ugly beaded eyeglass chain, had been crushed in the fall, and a piece of glass from the frames snagged a vein in her neck. The bloodletting had been so massive they’d evacuated the store.
As Kate cleaned up her piss, she wondered why her mother had been at the Fancy Pantry in the first place. Patricia hadn’t cooked a decent meal—or even eaten one, for that matter—in at least a decade.
This question—and a million more—would never be answered.
Kate finished wiping the floor and tossed the saturated paper towel into the garbage, thinking about what to do next. She couldn’t sit at home after such news. Her brain felt like a wasps’ nest. Aunt Kathy had given it a real good shake, had agitated the shit out of her with questions like: Are you coming out to the island? What should I do about the service? Are you OK? Kate, I mean it, are you OK?
Recalling the brief conversation caused an uncomfortable weight to settle in her bladder. Her last accident had been the last time she’d seen her mother, when she was nineteen years old, and just like that: she was back.
She left the cramped kitchen and wandered to her dresser, which doubled as a TV stand in the snug studio, to put on fresh underwear and a pair of yoga pants. She had to escape the oppressive confines of her rental. She could wander the city and push off decisions—and thoughts of her mother—until morning. It would all seem less daunting when the sun was peeking in through her cheap plastic blinds.
As Kate laced her sneakers, she checked the clock above the stove. It was after midnight, but the late hour didn’t concern her. This was Manhattan, after all. She’d abandoned the suburbs for a closet-sized apartment in Murrary Hill as soon as she could afford to, namely because the city’s bright lights never dimmed, the hustle never quelled. It was a welcome change from the fearful, stifled darkness of her past.
She grabbed a sweatshirt on her way out—it was April, but a winter chill still lingered in the evenings—locked the door behind her and shuffled down three flights of stairs to the street. Outside, she immediately felt lighter. As she’d expected, Third Avenue was bustling. She wandered downtown, watching buses and taxis pass in a blur of light like swarms of giant, metal fireflies. The hum of the city filled her head, and she walked without thinking. Inevitably, unpleasant memories gathered like a disorderly mob around her overtaxed mind, making it impossible not to think about her mother.
Patricia Franco would have been fifty-four years old next week, and quite frankly, it shocked Kate she’d survived as long as she did. She’d been an incurable methamphetamine addict and paranoid schizophrenic who took orders from an apparition called Mrs. Dark. Her violent outbursts had been exacerbated around Kate since the girl’s traumatic birth. The painful home delivery of a malnourished, shrieking meth-baby had possessed the unstable junkie, under the direction of Mrs. Dark, to quiet the newborn with a hammer. In her delirium, she’d smashed her own shin to smithereens, causing a ruckus that summoned police and left Kate in the custody of Patricia’s only sister, Kathy.
Aunt Kathy kept Patricia away, allowing an uncomfortable reunion only after her sister’s first (and last) stint in rehab when Kate was eight years old. Even then, Kate couldn’t bear to look at her: the woman’s raw, pockmarked face had a gaunt, hollow appearance; her bottom lip hung over her chin like a dead slug, revealing a row of yellow teeth that had been grinded to nubs. And her eyes—which had once been azure, according to Aunt Kathy—had begun to recede, swallowed by two meth-hungry pupils. Patricia stayed sober for nearly twelve hours that day, before snorting meth in the basement while Kate and Kathy slept.
Kate woke around three a.m. with the urge to urinate.
The quaint house had only one bathroom, on the first floor, and Kate felt her way there in the dark. It was a familiar routine for the restless child, who, drowsy with sleep and preoccupied by a full bladder, had forgotten about her mother’s visit—until she tripped over Patricia’s cane.
She toppled onto her belly in the dark, too surprised to cry out. Her forehead hit the bathroom door jamb and the ground seemed to pitch beneath her, rolling Kate onto her back and bringing her nose-to-nose with her wild-eyed, drooling mother. Patricia wrapped two gnarly hands around Kate’s wrists and pinned her arms above her head.
“I know,” Patricia barked, glancing over one shoulder, her bloodshot eyes and gaping mouth twitching. “I won’t fuck it up this time.”
And then Kate was screaming, screaming for Aunt Kathy, kicking and convulsing, warm and wet between her legs.
She refused to be around her mother after that.
Kate had been walking for quite a while. She’d headed east on Twenty-Third Street and was now nearing FDR Drive, the highway snaking down the island’s east perimeter. The entire length of the block was home to a cluster of residential buildings surrounded by a gated park. It was a familiar neighborhood; Kate sometimes jogged along the bike path that ran parallel to the highway. She especially liked the area early in the morning, when the sun was high and gleaming off the East River. At this hour, however, it felt dark and destitute, and Kate cursed herself for wandering so far from the action. She turned back, eager to retreat to the harsh lights and soothing cacophony when she noticed the woman approaching.
The dim streetlights cast long, nebulous shadows, disguising the stranger’s face, yet there was an off-putting familiarity in her frail silhouette and erratic gait. The way the woman’s long, thin neck strained under the burden of her cumbersome head and mess of unruly hair perturbed Kate. And the wooden cane that sprouted from the palm of her left hand—the way she thrust it at the ground with each step, as if the cement were an enemy, her right leg limp and practically useless as she hobbled along—
Kate clenched her pelvic muscles. Her weak bladder strained and she thought about her mother staggering toward her in the darkness…her mother and her crippled, meth-addled body and mind.
She was going to piss her pants again.
Without hesitation, she turned and dashed toward the highway; on the other side of the bustling road, a BP gas station glowed like a beacon against the dark sky. She caught the green light and forged ahead. When she reached her destination, safe beneath the hot florescent lights, Kate looked back.
The woman was gone.
Kate tensed. She was certain of what she’d seen and yet the stranger—who just seconds before had been staggering toward her at a snail’s pace—was nowhere to be found. She wondered if the woman was disguised by the surrounding darkness. Or maybe she hadn’t been there at all; maybe Kate had imagined the whole damn thing.
The thought caused a quick, heaving throb in her bladder, and it pulsated beneath her skin like an abnormal growth. She put the stranger out of her mind and concentrated instead on finding a restroom.
The BP boasted four pumps and a small concession stand but nowhere to relieve her bladder. She considered hailing a taxi and zipping back uptown, but in her agitated haste, she’d forgotten her wallet. Come to think of it, her cell phone was back at the apartment, too. Kate clenched her teeth and glanced around, hoping an idea would come to mind. Uptown, along the highway, the East River Bikeway stretched on, a desolate path to nowhere. To her left, the course continued, separated from the highway by a darkened parking lot.
And there, about a hundred yards away, nestled beneath a street lamp, sat a porta-potty.
For a split second, revulsion coursed through her, and she nearly gagged at the thought of going inside. But she had little choice: she could either take care of business inside that putrid box or she could do it right here on the street. It was a no-brainer.
She hurried toward the toilet. The flickering streetlight above illuminated the words “Dark Matter, Inc.” in bright red lettering against the porta-potty’s white plastic shell; the bulb’s strobe effect caused the words to appear fluid, as if written in fresh blood. The thought should have stopped her from entering, but it was too late to reverse her forward momentum. She stepped inside.
The streetlamp went out.
Moist darkness embraced her. A sickening cocktail of piss, shit and floral-scented air freshener tickled her nose; the thud of the plastic door slamming closed echoed in the small enclosure followed by the subtle whisper of plastic—a sound nearly inaudible over the dull monotonous thunder of cars zipping along the nearby parkway. The flesh on her arms and neck prickled, and Kate was consumed by the unsettling feeling that she was not alone.
Despite the agony of her full bladder, she turned to leave, awkwardly maneuvering in the cramped space, her vision compromised by the absolute blackness. Her foot caught a bulge on the floor, her legs tangling with no room to stretch. She toppled to one side of the tiny enclosure, her hip ramming a hard circular protrusion, her cheek slapping the cool, wet plastic. Struggling to stay on her feet, she thrust both hands forward to steady herself; her left grasped a nook in the wall and the right settled on something angular and cold.
Kate recoiled; screams fled her body like rats from a flooded subway, tearing at her throat, climbing over one another to be the first to escape. Her back collided with the door, which should have swung open because she hadn’t locked it—but it didn’t—and she twisted around, lowered her shoulder, and rammed it against the plastic once, twice, again, again, and again. A desperate, primitive cry filled the tight space—the sound was so hideous, Kate could only assume it was inhuman—and she conjured an image of the stranger behind her: beastly with broken, shit-brown teeth and serrated claws caked with blood. She imagined it wrapping veiny, skeletal arms around her, dragging her down into the black abyss, cackling as it suffocated her—
Before it dawned on Kate that the cries were hers, she spun around and attacked. Arms flailing in the dark, her fists collided with bone; hair tangled in her fingers and she drew back, freed herself, and attacked again. She threw her arms in the air and brought them down upon the stranger like a child throwing a tantrum.
“Let me out!” she cried. “Let me out!”
Amidst her frenzy, something warm and wet splattered onto her face; it dripped into her mouth, tasting like a rotten fruit and penny soup. She vomited. The hot sick dribbled over her chin; a second heave splattered onto her knees and dripped down to her ankles. Its sticky warmth reminded her of her dire need to urinate.
She spun around again and clawed at the slick surface of her confinement, recalling the way her bladder had failed her earlier in the night, pictured the urine on her kitchen floor, the claustrophobic nature of her tiny apartment, the crowds and commotion retreating as she neared the highway, the crippled woman, the subdued glow of the gas station, Dark Matter, Inc. written in blood-red lettering—it had been a domino effect, stemming from the news of her mother. It was as if her mother had orchestrated the whole evening from beyond the grave: luring her into the dark and tormenting her in one final, mortifying act of malice.
But this time, Kate didn’t let go of her bladder; she clenched her pelvis, accepting the dull pain that gathered beneath her navel. She was terrified, but more so she was furious: furious that the mere mention of her mother would lead to such a predicament; furious that she was just as afraid of her mother—her dead mother—now as ever.
Kate turned back to the stranger behind her, fists raised again, when it dawned on her that he or she hadn’t retaliated—hadn’t even cried out in surprise or pain.
“Hello?” Kate whispered.
Only the dull thrum of the highway.
She wiped her mouth with her shirtsleeve, considering the possibility that whoever was inside with her was dead. The thought caused a sharp cramp in her gut. It was at least one a.m. now and unlikely that anyone would pass the porta-potty until morning. She could be trapped inside all night.
Kate thrust her back against the door in an attempt to dislodge it, but her efforts were futile and she leaned over, ready to vomit again. This time, she swallowed it back, took several shallow, tremulous breaths and steadied herself. With her right hand, she reached for the body. Her fingertips grazed hair first, a tangle of loose, frizzy strands. Lowering her aim, she touched the stranger’s ear, and then felt along its face before finding the soft area beneath the jawbone. She waited for a pulse but felt none.
“Oh, God,” she muttered.
Her hand felt suddenly heavy and cold. As she let it drop to her side, her fingers tangled on a thin, ornamented chain around the corpse’s neck. Kate withdrew, shooing the item away like a pesky insect, but not before a feeling of déjà vu settled over her. She knew immediately what she’d just grasped, and without thinking, struck out again; this time, she felt the corpse’s chin, felt its clavicle. A pair of glasses, held by a beaded necklace, rested against its chest.
Fresh gooseflesh rippled along her arms, and she turned away and began to feel for the door again, wishing she could see something—anything—that would aid her. She recalled the eerie sound of chafing plastic and considered the possibility that someone had trapped her inside.
Kate turned to face the body again; she didn’t like having her back to it, the same way she’d never liked having her back to her mother.
For over a decade, Aunt Kathy honored her promise to keep Kate a safe distance from her mother, but she hadn’t the heart to banish the woman completely. Thankfully, Patricia’s visits had been infrequent and short: when she was desperate for money or when it was too cold to sleep outside. Her longest visit, during the Blizzard of 2003, was her last.
Nearly two feet of snow had settled on Long Island when Patricia showed up shoeless, broke and high. The usual routine followed: Aunt Kathy let her in, offered a hot meal, and insisted she sleep in Kate’s room, forcing Kate to bunk with her aunt. Kathy’s reasoning, that her sister would be “more comfortable in a bed than on the couch” was total bullshit; Kathy was afraid of what Patricia would do to Kate while she slept. In fact, she was afraid for them both: she would lock the door and wedge a chair under the knob after she thought Kate was sleeping.
But Kate never slept when Patricia visited and that night was no exception. She laid awake for hours, her back pressed against Aunt Kathy’s, listening as her mother crept around the house like a caged animal, the thunk of her cane followed by the shhh of her leg dragging behind her. Sleep came eventually, but she was woken by the unpleasant ammonia-scent of her mother’s body odor.
Kate lifted her head from the pillow and glanced toward the door. It was closed, but the chair Aunt Kathy had used to secure it was oddly positioned. The backrest, which should have been lodged beneath the knob, appeared to sit several inches away, rendering the whole set-up pointless. Kate wondered if the darkness was compromising her vision—it was unlike Aunt Kathy to be so careless—when she heard her mother under the bed.
Kate’s heart throbbed as a warm, wet puddle spread beneath her buttocks. Her head, now leaden and slick with sweat, fell back onto the bed, her ear pressed firmly to the mattress. Her mother was whispering to Mrs. Dark, assuring her that this was it, their chance.
She thrust an elbow into Aunt Kathy’s ribs, but her aunt remained motionless, prompting the sickening notion that she’d already fallen prey to Patricia and Mrs. Dark. Kate opened her mouth to scream, but the sight of her mother sent the cry scurrying back into her throat.
Patricia rose swiftly from beneath the bed, gnarled arms outstretched, overlooking her daughter with drug-fueled, ill-intentioned hate. Her dangerous, black eyes distended from a grotesque face, her mouth twisted in a triumphant grin. She was naked, her breasts shriveled like flesh-colored prunes, her stomach bulging beneath a protruding rib cage, the stench of her dirty flesh overwhelming. As she threw herself onto Kate, Kathy woke, sprang up and flicked on the light, startling the deranged addict. The pair overpowered Patricia and forced her into a closet until police arrived.
Kate never saw her mother again.
An acute pain between her hips drew Kate’s attention back to her current predicament. She was trapped inside a porta-potty on the east side of Manhattan. Her bladder burned, turning over like a swollen, roasting pig on a spit, but she wouldn’t allow herself to let go. The irrational idea that her mother had orchestrated this impasse took hold and wouldn’t retreat; Kate was certain that if she gave in to the urge, she would never get out.
And she couldn’t let that happen.
Her sudden resolve slowed her erratic heartbeat. She took a deep breath and, despite her unease, turned her back to the corpse. This time, she crouched down, and starting in the corner, blindly explored the surface of the porta-potty wall. The plastic was smooth and cool beneath her tingling hands; the nooks and crevices were endless, but finally—finally—she found the handle.
Relief settled the heat in her belly and bladder, and a little smile parted one cheek. The closure was comprised of a single sheet of plastic, about three inches wide, jammed through a cutout in the wall. She wrapped her fingers around one end, preparing to dislodge it, when a quiet shuffling sounded behind her.
Kate froze; the fine hairs on her body stiffened again, and she looked over her shoulder.
The corpse was struggling to stand in the cramped space. In the total darkness, Kate could distinguish only a shadowy outline of its flesh against the black backdrop, but she was sure it was her mother. She pictured Patricia’s limbs bent at peculiar and impossible angles, her mouth agape in a silent scream. Her cane had been discarded, and a mangled right leg hung at her side like a loose scarf. It had taken three decades, but Patricia had finally gotten her daughter alone.
Kate’s mind and heart thrashed in soundless horror as her mother’s skeletal arms clamped down on her shoulders. Her resolve wavered; gelid legs struggled under the burden of her trembling body. Torpidity traveled to Kate’s thighs, her bladder. Soon, she would feel the familiar and humiliating warmth of urine between her thighs.
This was the end—
But not for Kate.
Her last moments wouldn’t be spent inside this dark shithole, and she certainly wasn’t going to piss herself and die at the hands of her own mother. Tonight, she would escape Patricia Franco, and the darkness she’d spread throughout Kate’s entire existence, once and for all.
Shaking free of her sudden, stupefied trance, Kate retaliated, fighting to get her hands around her mother’s neck. Patricia fought back, her withered fingers like broken twigs, stabbing Kate’s face. They struggled to overpower one another, but Patricia’s meth-fueled high was no match for Kate’s youth, physical strength and rage. She freed her right arm and thrust her fist across the corpse’s face. Knuckles collided with bone, but Kate welcomed the pain. With it came a refreshing sense of confidence and impunity, and she felt compelled to say what she never thought she’d have the chance to utter.
“You’re dead!” she screamed. “You’re not going to scare me anymore!”
With this, she pushed the corpse away, heard its skull clunk against the wall behind it; heard the squeak of flesh against plastic, a sigh of defeat. She took a deep breath, suddenly exhausted but exulted, and leaned back against the door.
It opened behind her and she fell; the rumble of the highway became suddenly deafening and a chill embraced her. Her tailbone hit the ground first, sending a rod of hot, paralyzing pain through her spine. Her head whipped back and smacked the pavement. A man gasped.
“Shit, are you OK?” he asked.
Kate clenched her teeth and pulled her limbs toward her torso like a startled turtle, waiting for the pain to subside. Hands grasped her shoulders, and the man said: “Hey now, you’re all right.”
He had an unruly beard and deep-set, brown eyes. A set of ear buds dangled against one shoulder; an iPod was secured to the opposite arm with a jogging armband. His body odor was overpowering, yet a welcome contrast to the porta-potty’s stagnant stew of urine and feces.
“I heard you screaming,” he said. “What the hell happened? Are you all right?”
“I got…trapped inside,” she stuttered. “There’s a dead body in there…”
Her mother. Christ, her dead mother was in there. She scrambled to her feet; her eyes locked on the porta-potty. She pointed at the door; her hand shook violently.
“There,” she said. “It’s in there!”
The bearded man stood, looking from Kate to the porta-potty. “You sure?”
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.” He reached for Kate, but this time, he didn’t touch her. “I don’t have my cell, but the gas station will have a phone; we’ll call the cops.”
“I want to see her,” Kate said.
The man shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His face had paled to a dull, sickly shade. He asked: “It’s a woman?”
“Holy shit.” He tugged on his beard. Kate could tell he wanted to run; his right leg twitched. Finally, he said: “I…I’m just gonna go call the cops.”
He took a step back, glanced toward the gas station. Kate barely noticed when he turned around and started running. Her eyes were fixed on the porta-potty door, on the words “Dark Matter, Inc.” The streetlight had come back on; the area was fully illuminated.
She stepped up to the door, grabbed the handle and glanced over her shoulder. The man had stopped running, was about fifty yards away; he was watching her. She turned back and pulled the door open.
The porta-potty was empty.
Impossible. She’d felt it: frizzy hair; glasses strung on a beaded chain, leathery skin stretched over bone. She’d wrung its neck; had heard the thunk of its skull against the hard plastic. There had been another person in that porta-potty with her, she was sure of it.
It had been her mother, or Mrs. Dark, or some other kind of dark matter.
She stepped forward, to get a closer look.
It was empty.
She looked back toward the bearded man; he was gone, likely with the gas station attendant, dialing the police. When they arrived, he’d tell them her claims, and they’d see the empty porta-potty. Then what? Surely, she’d spend the rest of her life locked in a dark cell not much larger than this shit box.
Maybe that had been her mother’s plan.
Kate knew she should run, but her bladder pulsated; the ache had spread from her abdomen to her chest and legs, and she wasn’t sure she could move. If she could just muster the courage to go back inside—just for a few seconds—she could empty her bladder and then disappear before anyone came back.
The porta-potty was empty.
She closed her eyes. When she opened them, it was still empty.
She stepped inside.