Paper Tigers (Excerpt)18 min read
The soles of Alison’s shoes marked each limping step away from her front door. She tugged the scarf on her head, pulling the fabric down to cover most of her forehead, and shoved her gloved hands deep in the pockets of her jacket. A woman’s voice, high-pitched and nasal, broke the 3 a.m. stillness.
“Get outta here!”
Alison froze, a rabbit in disaster’s headlights. Ten feet away, a man stumbled from a house with his shoes untied and the tails of his shirt flapping around his hips. The door slammed behind him, and he let out a string of mumbled curses. Alison tucked her chin toward her chest, willing herself into an insignificant shape, another shadow in the night, and only when the man crossed the street and disappeared did she move again.
Once she reached the street sign at the corner, marking the point of no return, her steps quickened. Her first rule: if one tiny sliver of shoe went past the edge of the sign she had to go on and, of course, tonight it had. Her second rule: she couldn’t alter her steps approaching the sign to prevent such an occurrence.
She paused. If she turned left, she’d pass by the elementary school, and although it used to be her favorite route, she hadn’t been that way in months. Not since the night she’d stumbled upon a few teenagers lingering in the playground. If she’d seen them first, she never would’ve entered the playground and she never would’ve heard their words. Alison blinked twice, forcing the memory away. Decision made, she turned right.
She passed more houses, all nestled next to each other. Narrow brick boxes, some with painted screens covering the basement windows, others with awnings over windows and doors, and all with a marble stoop, a Baltimore trademark.
The original residents of Hampden, a triangular shaped area in northwestern Baltimore, were mostly millworkers. Now, artists, college students, and families took their place.
The late September air held a promise of rain underneath the scent of old exhaust. Alison turned onto 36th Street and a quick gust of wind ruffled the scarf covering her head. Shops and restaurants with darkened windows lined both sides. Traffic lights cast arcs of red, yellow, and green on the asphalt. An empty plastic bag spiraled on the pavement and bounced across the street. Alison peered into the windows and saw cloth-covered tables in one, shelves of handmade jewelry in another, and racks of women’s shoes in the next, teasing her with their proximity, taunting with their inaccessibility. When she neared the last store at the end of the block, her pace slowed and she smiled. The skin on her right cheek twisted and tugged, turning the side of her face into something closer to a grimace than a grin.
A small hand-lettered sign in the corner of the window read Elena’s Antiquesin careful print. Antiques, maybe. Junk, definitely. Until a month ago, the building housed an art gallery. Not the sort with champagne openings for brilliant young artists selling work for six figures, but the type featuring art heavy with barbed wire and faces contorted in misery and torment. All prices negotiable, of course.
The streetlamps cast a pale glow on the items on display: an old tricycle with faded plastic streamers hanging from the handle grips, a lamp with a multicolored glass shade, several small stone dragon statues, a hand mirror with a gilded handle, the reflective side facing away, and a photo album with a worn, ash grey cover. A large split in the leather ran from one corner down to the center, and the bloated shape of the page edges gave proof of the photos within.
Over the past three weeks the shop had filled up with old furniture and other odds and ends, but the sign and the items in the front window were new additions. She bent close to the glass, turning slightly to see everything with her one good eye. A quick succession of footsteps heading in her direction pierced the silence. She exhaled and stood, leaving behind a circle of breathy fog on the window. The steps drew closer.
A short, round woman with a bright scarf wrapped around her hair emerged from the shadows. Alison backed away from the window, blinking in disbelief and dismay. 3 a.m. on a weeknight was normally safe; she never ran into anyone. And twice in one night? She hunched her shoulders.
The woman unlocked the door, turned, and jingled a large ring of keys in her hand.
“You want come in?” she asked.
“No thank you,” Alison said, angling her face away from the glare of the streetlamps.
She glanced at the photo album. She could call her mother tomorrow and ask her to pick it up. But what if someone else bought it? A ridiculous thought. But what if?
“Aren’t you closed? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Sometime close, sometime open. If you want something, I let you come in anyway.”
Alison worried her lower lip between her teeth. The woman gave the keys another shake. Why was she so willing to open her door, so unconcerned at this time of the morning?
Alison whirled around, moving away from the store. Red flared inside her, a deep shade of crimson shot through with scarlet, and she tightened her hands into fists, hating the way the right curled in, misshapen and smaller than the left. The red swirled in and around, twisting her every cell into a grim reminder of what she had, what she remembered, and what she lost. Her vision blurred.
Go away, Monstergirl, a voice said.
How she wished she didn’t know that voice so well. The voice, sharp of teeth and cruel with contempt, bit down hard. The woman remained at the door, her eyes narrowed.
Alison closed the distance between them with several short steps that helped hide her ungainly walk, ignoring the ache in her right hip.
“The photo album in the window. I want.” She cleared her throat. “I’d like to buy it. Please.”
“Okay, you come in.”
The woman held the door open with one hand and gestured with the other. Alison paused, her mouth dry. How long since she’d been inside any building other than her house or the hospital? She couldn’t even bring herself to cross the threshold of the house in which she’d grown up, in spite of her mother’s assurances that she’d taken down all the old photographs.
Her mother’s words came to mind: Babygirl, you have to try.
Alison kept her chin down and when the woman turned on the lights, she turned her face away.
Leave, leave, leave. She hasn’t seen you yet, a voice said, not the voice of the red, but of the sharpest yellow. Alison swallowed hard. Shoved the voice away.
The walls still retained the previous tenant’s paint, a steely shade of grey, complete with unpatched gouges in the plaster. Some of the ceiling tiles in the long, rectangular space had been replaced, but others, stained and bowed in the middle, hung from the framework. A fluorescent tube near the window flickered.
“You want look around some, is okay,” the woman said as she headed to a counter in the corner, her scarf, a vibrant fuchsia with dark flowery swirls, bobbing up and down the entire way. “I here for little while.”
“Thank you,” Alison said.
She nudged the hand mirror in the window out of the way, and grabbed the photo album. It slipped from her grasp, sliding back with a heavy thud and a puff of dust. She cast a glance toward the counter, but the woman (maybe Elena?) muttered to herself and crouched down, leaving only a curve of her scarf visible. Alison wrapped her
old scars, old hurts
gloved fingers around each side of the album, breathing in the passage of time and a hint of tobacco as she pulled it free and held it close against her chest.
Despite the bright lights, the shop called out with a siren’s song, and after another check to make sure maybe-Elena wasn’t watching, she let her feet answer the call. The smell of old boxes, yellowed paper curling at the edges, and unwanted clothing hung in the air, musty and thick. And beneath, a trace of artificial rose, reminiscent of the squares of decorative soap her grandmother had kept in a porcelain tray in the bathroom. From a large bookcase set against the far wall, she removed a volume of Poe’s works, but a dark stain covered more than half the pages and rendered the text illegible.
She traced a set of initials—JSJ—carved into one corner of the desk, and her fingers left three trails behind in the fine layer of dust covering the scuffed mahogany. A brass-handled drawer gave a tiny squeal of protest, and the carved legs ended with well-worn lion’s feet. The sort of desk designed for a master wordsmith’s time and tales. Alison’s own poetry, all random, chaotic outpourings of battered emotions, did not warrant such a masterpiece.
If a writer didn’t purchase the desk, Alison hoped a teacher would. The kind of teacher students gave gifts to; the kind of teacher students remembered long after they left the classroom. She could almost see a stack of test papers on one corner, an open lesson plan in the other, a collection of pens off to the side. She closed the drawer a little harder than she intended, picked up the photo album, and made for the counter.
“How much please?” she asked, keeping her chin down.
When she handed the money over, their fingertips touched, glove against skin, and she held her breath. Maybe-Elena said something low, something soft and not in English, but Alison recognized the tone. Oh yes, she did. Yellow raced in, a huge wave (so young, so ugly) crashing down, too fast and too hard to hold still, and she stumbled back, grabbing the album, refusing to lift her gaze, refusing to see everything she hated—feared—in maybe-Elena’s eyes. Without another word, she fled back into the safe anonymity of the shadows, her heart a steady beat of hurt.
It took three tries before Alison could hold the key still enough to slide it into the lock. She rushed in, flipped the dead-bolt latch, and stood with her back against the door, the album clutched to her chest.
Red and Yellow, two of the Muses of Disfigurement accompanying Alison on her journey through the land of scars, still fought within her. She envisioned them as women in flowing robes, their faces hidden behind swathes of fabric. Red carried anger in her fists; Yellow bore the weight of pity upon her shoulders. Both had voices far too strong and sharp to ignore. Both were bound to Alison with unbreakable chains stronger than steel.
Alison’s eyelids fluttered shut and she willed herself to a blank slate. Emptiness flowed in, leaving her still, silent, and colorless—the absence of self, the absence of everything. Her pulse slowed, and her breathing turned even.
She slipped off her gloves (plain thin gloves, not the hateful pressure garments meant to tame the scars into submission), shifting the weight of the album from side to side. The spaces where pinkie and ring fingers on her right hand should be cried out with a familiar phantom itch, familiar enough to ignore. As she kicked off her shoes, her hip gave a small thank you. The reinforced heel of the right shoe kept her hips properly aligned and turned her limping gait into something less awkward, but like braces on teeth, the forcing of crooked into straight held a price.
She shrugged out of her jacket and sat on the end of the sofa, closest to the light, with the album on her lap. She’d done it. She’d gone into the store and braved the woman’s stares. Sure, she’d hightailed it out of the shop, but that was okay. She’d faced a stranger. That had to mean something.
Baby steps, babygirl. Baby steps.
Tracing her fingers along the cover, she imagined the feel of the old leather. Rough, yet smooth, perhaps cool to the touch. The tip of her forefinger caught on one jagged edge of the long split, hard enough to leave a small mark, a raised line of white against the pinkish skin glove of scar tissue, but not sharp enough to draw blood.
She opened the album, smiling at the scent of tobacco. They never smelled the same. Another odd smell conjured images of old furniture and empty animal cages.
Faint smears of indigo marred the stiff, heavy paper of the first page. Traces of old ink? She tilted the page. Yes, definitely. Old words too faded to read, but still there nonetheless. She angled the album a little further, almost able to make out the handwritten words. An inscription? The name of a family? One line stood out at the bottom, a little darker than the rest, the handwriting old-fashioned and spidery. Not a name, though. Too many words for a name. She held the album even higher, and the words came into focus. Alison read them twice to make sure.
A paper tiger to swallow you whole.
A snippet of poetry perhaps. Oddly compelling.
“Here there be paper tigers,” she said and turned the page.
The yellowed paper crackled and a small corner crumbled off into her hand. The first page contained one photo, a sepia-toned, somber faced man in a dark suit, a dark stain obscuring the bottom half of the picture. Alison traced the man’s face with her finger, willing it to memory. Dark hair, bushy moustache, stern eyes, small spectacles balanced on a strong nose, thin lips pressed into a narrow line.
“George, I think. You look like a George.”
A bachelor with a penchant for strong drink. A banker or a businessman. The fantasy spilled out and took shape. His voice deep and raspy, yet eloquent. Educated. A haze of pipe smoke floated around his head, illuminated by the glow of candlelight. A journal, ornate script on its pages, lay open on the table. The sharp bite of liquor. Brandy.
“A good year. Only the best,” he said, lifting his glass in a toast. “Only the best.”
A predatory smile and quick shift of the eyes. He slammed his fist down. Glass shattered and liquor pooled onto the journal, blurring the ink. Blood seeped between his fingers and mixed with the alcohol and the ink.
Alison pulled her hand back from the page and the images drifted away. The tips of her fingers tingled again, the disconnect between brain and dead nerve endings teasing her with the memory of sensation. She dropped her hand onto the sofa, and her breath caught in her throat. Smooth fabric played beneath her skin, soft and real and warm, not phantom. She pushed harder; the sensation melted away, leaving her with the familiar nothingness and tears burning in her left eye. But she knew she felt it.
The red coiled tight. Liar, it said. Fool.
It wasn’t the first time it had happened, nor would it be the last. It could happen for years, her doctor had said. When she asked how many years, he’d glanced away. Obviously, more than two. Then he resumed his pep talk about living in the here and now. Easy to say, and even easier to do, for a man with all ten fingers, two eyes, a full head of hair, and unscarred skin.
A dull, uncomfortable ache nestled in the pit of her stomach.
Let me out, Monstergirl, Red said.
She closed her eyes, counted to five, and let it all go. Nothing more than spilled milk. Not worth the tears. Not worth the hope.
She grabbed the next page in the photo album. A triangular piece of the paper ripped, disintegrated to parchment confetti between her fingers, and spiraled down to the sofa. She slid her finger under the opposite corner of the page and lifted. The corner split; she gave a small growl.
Flipping the album on its side, she fanned the page edges with her fingernail. A brittle yet musical rustle danced up, but all the pages, save the first, held fast together despite no visible sign of water damage darkening the thick paper. She tried sliding her finger between two pages. They wouldn’t budge. At least George’s photo, his face, made the album interesting enough to keep. Behind the spectacles, his eyes gleamed with an intense light, like the look of a caged animal with dusky stripes pacing past the walls of its prison, waiting for a chance to be free.
Or to attack.
Three quick little raps of knuckles against wood announced her mother’s arrival, and Alison closed her laptop before opening the door. Her mother bustled through, wrapped in a comforting cloud of gardenias, all smiles and shopping bags. She set down the latter before she pressed her lips to Alison’s unscarred left cheek.
“Wait until you see the sweater I bought you,” she said, stepping back. “It might convince you to change out of your pajamas once in a while.”
“Please. You don’t have to buy me something every time you step foot in the mall,” Alison said. “And my pajamas are perfectly fine. You’re the one who bought them for me anyway.”
“Hush. I can buy my daughter a present if I want to. Are you sure I bought those?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Remember? I asked you to after I saw them online.”
“Hmm,” she muttered. “Monkey pajamas. What every well-dressed twenty-four-year-old woman is wearing these days.” She glanced over at the laptop. “How are your friends?”
“They’re fine,” Alison said.
A shred of guilt wormed its way in, turning the words bitter. For a few months after her release from the hospital, she belonged to an online forum for survivors, but once her friends started discussing their reintroduction to society, she deleted her account and all the subsequent emails. And in the year since then, she’d avoided any website that even hinted at human interaction.
They never spoke of the other friends, the old friends and coworkers
Her mother stopped in the middle of the living room and sniffed. “What is that smell?”
“It’s dreadful. Can’t you smell it?”
“I can only smell your perfume. Too much, like always.” She let out a fake cough, hiding a smile behind her hand.
Her mother pointed at the album. “It’s that, I think.” She fanned the air in front of her face. “Oh, Alison, it’s horrible. It smells like dead, wet leaves. How can you stand it?”
Alison shrugged. “It doesn’t smell that bad to me. A little musty, but it’s old. I bought it last night.”
“Well, technically this morning, but yes, I got it from a new shop on 36th Street, one of those places with a handful of antiques and a lot of junk. This was in the window.”
Her mother stopped with her hand in mid-air. “You went in the shop?”
“Oh babygirl, I’m so proud of you,” she said, taking Alison’s hands in hers.
“It was no big deal. I was out walking, and the woman was going in. She saw me looking at the album and said I could come in. She wasn’t open, though. There weren’t any other customers, I mean. Just me.”
“But you went in?”
“Yes, I did.” Tears glittered in her mother’s eyes. Alison gave her hand a small squeeze. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to go out in the middle of the day. I wanted the album.”
“But it’s a step in the right direction. The next time you go out will be easier and soon—”
“Okay. Well, show it to me.”
“You don’t even like them.”
“I’ve never said that. I just think it’s morbid. All those dead strangers. Of all the things you could possibly collect…”
Alison rolled her eyes but flipped the front cover open. “You’ve said that too, more than once. What can I say? I like them. This one isn’t much, though. The pages are all stuck together. You can only see one picture.”
Her mother fanned the air again. “From the smell, I can believe it. It’s like someone dipped it in manure and rolled it in mud.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Sorry dear, but it is. I think you have so many of them you’ve become immune. I wish you would collect something…more aromatic.”
“Like perfume? Sorry, you have the market on that one. Do you want something to drink? I can make some tea.”
“Tea would be wonderful, but I can—”
“Nope, you stay put. I’m not crippled.”
In the kitchen, Alison filled the teapot and set it on the burner before she turned the knob, hiding the tiny blue flames from her sight. She normally used the microwave to make tea for herself but it made her mother happy when she used the stove. Another check mark on her “Alison is making progress sheet.”
Alison clenched her jaw. It was hard enough to make progress; knowing her mother was always taking notes made it harder still.
“Mom, are you hungry?” she called out. “If you want, I can make something.”
Her mother came into the kitchen and fetched the sugar bowl. “No, I’m fine. I had a little something before I came over.”
“You couldn’t sit and wait, could you?”
“Oh you know me. I get itchy feet when someone else is in the kitchen. Maybe I’ll come over next Sunday and make you dinner.”
“You don’t have to do that. Why don’t you come over, and I’ll make you dinner.”
“But I like doing things for you.”
Of course she did, but did she have to try so damn hard? Alison wasn’t going to shatter into pieces. She’d made it this far, hadn’t she? She held her tongue, said only, “I know you do.”
“I’ve been thinking. I can add a cell phone to my plan at any time and since you go out walking now, I’d like to get you one.”
“I don’t want one. I’m fine with the phone here.”
“But what if something happens? What if you fall?—”
“Mom. Please? If I decide I want one, I’ll let you know.”
Her mother held up both hands. “Okay, okay.” Her nose wrinkled. “You’re not really going to keep that album, are you?”
“Sure, why not? I might be able to get the pages unstuck and get to the other photos.”
“I think you should throw it away. The man in the picture is horrible.”
Alison turned away so her mother wouldn’t see her smile. “It’s just an old photo, and he’s just an old dead guy. He’s perfectly harmless.”
“Still, it’s unsettling. Please, don’t keep this one.”
Alison turned back. “Okay, fine. I’ll throw it out.”
The tea kettle rang out with a high-pitched whistle, and they jumped in unison.
After her mother left, Alison took a butter knife into the living room and sat on the floor beside the coffee table. She slid the blade between two of the photo album’s back pages and wiggled it from side to side, wincing at the sound of tearing paper and pulling it out when it met resistance.
She flipped it to George’s photo. Despite her odd daydream of broken glass in a slammed fist, his gaze held only a middle-aged man, dark of eyes and hair, from a forgotten time, his name lost everywhere but her own imagination. Nothing visible anchored the photo in place, and the edge of one corner bent out. She tapped the knife against her palm, set it aside, and slid her finger under the tiny separation. The paper crackled in protest, but the photo stayed intact. When the edge came up a little more, she poked and prodded the opposite corner until it lifted as well. The third corner wouldn’t budge, so she traced the edge of her fingernail around the last one, and with a tiny, brittle creak, it gave way. As her fingertip slipped under the picture, a white crack appeared at the edge, breaking through the sepia tones in the shape of a lightning bolt. She pulled her hand back, and two drops of blood dripped onto George’s shoulder.
“Damn,” she muttered. “Sorry, George.”
She cleaned off the blood from the photo with her thumb, leaving behind a small smear. Crimson welled from the small gash on her finger, a wet mouth within scarred lips, and she pressed her thumb on the cut, longing for the sharp sting. This wound would scab over and gift her construct of ruined flesh with yet another mark. As if she didn’t have enough.
Yellow rushed in, sunshine bright belying the ugliness it contained. It spoke of Monstergirls and broken things, useless fingers (and not quite enough because two little finger-piggies went away and never came home) and fractured images in a mirror, wrapping her in a blanket of familiar hurt. She closed her eyes, and tried to find the nothing-place, but the scars crisscrossing her palms and fingers and the back of her right hand didn’t care about closed eyes.
They all stare at the Monstergirl. They stare and point and make faces because you’re the sideshow freak, and they can’t resist the horror. Come, give up a tear or two, you poor, poor thing. So young, so trapped in your unmistakable destruction. Save your prayers, your hopes, swallow everything you ever thought you wanted. This is all you have now. Take it, choke it down, drown in it—
A heady scent of tobacco pushed through the voice, and her eyes snapped open. A grey wisp of ribbon-thin smoke hung in the air. Then it vanished. She held out one hand, touching the space where the smoke had been.
She wiped the blood smear again. Tingles raced up and down her thumb and she hissed in a breath. Under the pins and needles, the exterior of the photo changed from a dull pressure to rough against her skin, not the slick, slippery feel of a new photograph, but parchment, textured and warm. She traced the outline of George’s face; when she slid her thumb from the picture to the surrounding paper, a cool heat like icemelt on a hot pavement radiated from its pebbled surface. Spreading her fingers wide, she set her hand down, half-covering George’s photo, half on the paper, but the coldhotcold touched only her thumb. The rest of her skin remained an insensate landscape of alternately ridged and smooth scars. The tingle intensified, a creeping, insectile buzz beneath the skin. She blinked and the sensation ceased, like the phantom smoke. With a sigh, she stuck her finger in her mouth, tasting the metallic tang of blood.
A paper cut from a paper tiger.