originally featured in the DFW Arts & Words Show
The Ghoul brought the skull dangling from his hand to what passed for his lips and bit with a loud apple crunch. Sharp shards split off with his spittle and cut Wingus’ face as she pushed the accelerator harder and willed the black ’59 T-Bird down the abandoned highway. She’d learned it was no good to complain about The Ghoul’s eating habits. It was no good trying to remember how they’d gotten here, how they met. How did Laurel meet Hardy? The Ghoul and Wingus never spoke of their pasts, only of where they were going and what they were going to do when they got there. The city of Cinderland still lay an unknown infinity of miles ahead of them and it would do neither of them any good to slow down to argue or reminisce.
Through the speakers Frances Farmer was having her revenge on Seattle, and as the chaos built into something that could pass as melody Wingus turned the volume up to drown out The Ghoul’s crunching.
I miss the comfort in being saaaaaaaad….
The Ghoul looked at her with hollow eyes. “What do you think he means by that?”
For The Ghoul, Cinderland held the opportunity for some vague humanity. There he thought he might be able to purchase a flesh-covered face, with passable lips, and a tongue too soft for the crunch of a skull, and taste buds that could discern and inform him why his eating choices had always inspired disgust in those around him.
Wingus took the bait. “Well, he’s depressed,” she began.
“Ah-ah.” The Ghoul tutted. “He says he misses being sad.”
For Wingus, the distant promise of Cinderland wasn’t the hope of gaining something new, but finding something lost: her mother. She dialed-up after Wingus was born and never came back offline. She was plugged in to a large inter-chair at some quaint inner-city cafe, addicted to the endless influx of information, and approval. Her bodily needs regulated by a grotesque knot of tubes and wires. She had foregone evaluating her worth in the world through physical accomplishments and now only lived for the approval of strangers through raised thumbs and orange arrows. She needed saving, and now that Wingus was old enough and had found the cafe through arduous tracking of VR-IP addresses, she knew this trip was the fulfillment of her destiny.
“No.” Wingus found her footing. The Ghoul had slipped. “He says he misses the comfort. He misses the familiarity. He had learned depression’s ins-and-outs and how he was expected to behave in them. Sadness gave him a foundation. It was something to cling to when nothing else in life seemed to make any sense, and without it he has no idea where he’s supposed to turn or what’s going to happen next. With happiness, he’s lost.”
The Ghoul sat silently for a long moment. Wingus assumed he was trying to devise the cheapest way to turn the argument back in his favor, but instead he let out the closest sound his monstrous face could make to a sigh. Then he reached over and jerked the steering-wheel from Wingus’s grip.
“What are you doing?” screamed Wingus as she fought to pull the car back into the center lane.
“I just realized we’ve been thinking about this all wrong,” said The Ghoul.
There was a gap in the concrete barrier. The car spilled into a long dirt ditch.
Wingus punched at The Ghoul’s arm futilely.
“Your Mom will never forgive you if you go through with this.”
The simultaneous shock, and anger froze Wingus for a moment. This subject, like so many others, was meant to be taboo. “She’s not some prisoner; she’s a cyber-junkie. She could unplug whenever she feels like.”
The T-Bird bounced violently and The Ghoul’s grip slacked. Wingus used the opportunity to force the car onto the service road. She didn’t realize she was crying.
“So that’s why you’re doing this? To stop me?”
“Didn’t you hear what you just said? We’re both straying from our comfort. We don’t know what’s waiting in the city. We’ve been so focused on moving forward, we’ve never stopped to see what we have.”
“Yeah,” Wingus fired back, “because what we have sucks! We’re trying to make our lives better, remember?”
The Ghoul released the steering-wheel and reclined back into the passenger seat. Neither of them said anything, which suited Wingus fine. She took the next ramp back onto the abandoned highway. The Ghoul resumed snacking on the skull’s jagged remnants.
It didn’t matter, Wingus decided. She’d ditch him at the next stop.
Then The Ghoul growled a decisive, “No,” and pressed his face against Wingus’ ear. “What’s so horrible about being happy with yourself just the way you are?” Then he shoved a sharp piece of bone through the bottom of her chin.
Wingus felt the blood pooling in her mouth and dripping down her throat. She realized she couldn’t scream. She released the wheel instinctively to put pressure on the bleeding. This time, when the car hit the wall it went into the sky, spinning. Wingus flew from her seat and the windshield released her to the asphalt. When the violence was over, she lay on the road and watched The Ghoul pull himself from the wreckage. She wondered how she’d never realized just how large and frightening he was. But when he reached her, he knelt and stroked her forehead on his lap, like a mother with a sick child.
His hand gently rubbed her head.
She tried to speak through the pain, “could…been…” and then something that sounded like, but couldn’t have been “butter.” The Ghoul just softly shhhhed until the time passed, then, when she was still, he raised her head to what passed for his lips.