Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

The Narrow Escape of Zipper-Girl

It was her zipper that drew me to her.

She was beautiful enough, according to what most people seemed to consider beauty. She had a black buzz cut, the kind of body that gives the impression of lankiness even on someone petite, a complexion pale as milk, and an overbite that made sure that a sliver of teeth was always visible even when her bee-sting lips were mostly shut. Everything about her face seemed tentative, as if placed there by a designer who knew just how much any given feature needed before it gained enough prominence to overpower the others; hence her tiny nose, her light eyebrows and her gray eyes. When she first crossed the room, she struck me as so light on her feet that she might have been something drifting in the breeze; but it was the long line of her neck that made me look twice, the longest and most graceful neck I had ever seen on any woman, to that point.

I’m a neck man. Some guys notice breasts first. Others are first taken by long shiny legs. I notice necks. I’ve always noticed necks, the most beautiful and most vulnerable attribute women have.

Hers had a zipper.

I had seen any number of studs and implants and piercings on women, but had never seen a zipper.

It stretched across the curve of her throat, drawing a diagonal line from just below the base of the jaw, to the edge of her collarbone.

Later, analyzing just what made her zipper so intriguing, I decided that the angle was crucial. Worn horizontally, it would have resembled a second mouth, worn vertically, a second vagina equipped with gold metallic dentata. Slicing diagonally, like a slash, the way it was—and here I note how impossible it is to describe it accurately without running into the traps laid by the very language—it was its own thing, denying easy analogy.

I bought her a drink, and chatted with her long enough to allow the obvious question to arrive naturally.

She had no problem demonstrating that the zipper was functional. She touched the fingers of one wispy-thin hand to the zipper’s pull-tab and drew it south. The teeth duly separated by a hair, revealing another expanse of pale skin beneath them. The zipper was, in short, a false promise, implying entry to the flesh beneath the surface but in the end just an overlay, a fraud.

I liked her a little less right away.

I still asked her what had given her the idea to implant such a thing. She had some reason I forgot within minutes of her offering it—some deep appreciation of the artificial, some philosophical point about the fictions we all embrace while navigating modern life. It was background noise, just like the band’s set and the fruity flavor of the house specialty drink she recommended. Her name, some exotic spelling of a commonplace name for girls, was just a label. To me, she was always a mostly unremarkable girl who had brushed greatness with the implantation of a zipper, but had retreated from it with other lame attempts at individuality. To her, I was the guy who admired the zipper but seemed to have found other points of attraction.

I didn’t like her much. I never did, though we were together for over a year, and most observers would have supposed that I was wild for her. In truth, I found her tiresome and vapid, a girl who had substituted style for substance.

But I successfully hid that.

It was the zipper that drew me.

• • • •

That night and over the next few weeks I discovered what little else there was to learn about her.

She lived in a third-floor walk-up with stairways so narrow that it was hard to imagine how anybody had ever been able to move furniture into any of the shoebox apartments above. The hallways were dim places with octagonal white tiles the diameter of silver dollars, separated by grout that had gone black from decades of scuffed feet. The building was narrow, too, and there were no more than two apartments per floor, one unimpeded by the stairwell and one that assumed an eccentric L-shape to accommodate it. She had one of the L-shaped ones. I liked that. It was easy to imagine her just around the bend, minding her own business, not knowing I crouched in wait on the other side.

She had artistic pretensions. She had written poetry and performed as lead singer in small bands. She had a voice that had turned to premature gravel, and she enjoyed the character it lent her. She was extraordinarily proud of the one gothic horror story she’d written that an anthology had published, but she was not driven to produce more. When I asked her if it was about zippers, she thought I was joking, and said yeah, right. Later, I read it, and it turned out to be nihilistic vampire shit, redeemed only slightly by her facility with poetic language. It was a story where nobody’s throat got cut, where the point was more the weight of the alienation her blood-sucking creation felt, and I read all of it waiting for the mood and the poetry to get out of the way so the bleeding could start. But nobody died. Nobody even bled. I didn’t see the point of that, but still complimented her as she seemed to expect, and at regular intervals during our time together asked her when she was going to write another story.

She was a casual smoker, but she hated what the lingering smell of tobacco did to furniture, and so she never lit up at home, limiting herself to one a day, on the street. I liked to think of the way she would have exhaled if the zipper had opened up onto her windpipe, the fumes exiting her throat without ever rising as far as her lips. I liked to imagine her head, expressionless and unconnected from the breathing process, almost dead, floating atop a bed of smoke, like a vision.

She had two tattoos, a bleeding barbed-wire band circling her right bicep and, showing more age, a tiny rose blossom at the base of her spine. I told her that if she was already bleeding on the arm she should add a long stem with bleeding thorns to the rose. She said maybe. It was not wise to return to such ideas too often; I had to pretend other interests.

She owned a one-eyed cat. It had lost half its vision before she rescued it, in what was clearly some wound inflicted by a human being. It was uncommonly friendly to most people, especially considering what it had been through, but after a few sniffs it never came near me. I shrugged and said you could never tell with animals. It never would come near me, not even after the zippered girl and I moved in together. Maybe it knew I didn’t like its asymmetrical features, the way that single slit pupil regarded me with perfect comprehension. Much later on, after the zippered girl and I had lived together for a few weeks, I climbed down the fire escape one day I knew she wasn’t home, broke the window with a brick, ransacked the place, and took the cat so I could make it symmetrical again.

The zippered girl had a regular job. I wondered aloud how she managed to hold one down, let alone in the dentist’s office where she served as a perky young receptionist, while sporting a zipper in her neck. She told me that it was easy to camouflage. When she wanted to, she could look quite conservative, a nice conventional girl who wore minimal make-up and had a mysterious love of neck-concealing scarves and high collars. She laughed that it was her boring disguise. I laughed and said, your secret identity, before you rip off the scarf and stand revealed as . . . Zipper-Girl!

I didn’t tell her that she was boring no matter how she was dressed, that nothing about her intrigued me except for the one delightful change she had made in herself. She had no way of knowing. I wasn’t interested in most people, and had long since perfected the art of seeming to participate in conversations while paying minimal attention to them. I was great at it. I gave her no way of knowing that she was only the medium for the zipper. When she lit candles and we made love, I was careful to pay obeisance to all the other stations of her personal cross, bringing pleasure to her breasts and her ass and both the northern and southern set of lips, but it was the zipper that kept me interested, the thought of it being a real portal instead of a fake one, the image of the tab pulled down and everything wet in her pulsing underneath. At one point, I bought a red light bulb and she teased me for having such a corny device in my erotic arsenal. She didn’t know that red light made certain things easier to imagine. Some nights we used oils, and the sheen on her skin, combined with the scarlet glow, made her breasts and arms look like they’d been lubricated by wounds. Once in a great while I unzipped her neck and licked the pale skin between the interlocking blades, making her giggle as I felt the blood pulsing underneath, and tortured myself with the thought of how it would take only one convulsive whim, now, to get at it.

The night she blurted that she loved me, I took that as a cue. She may have thought it was inappropriate shyness, at odds with our supposed closeness, but I let my eyes dip downward just before I said me too. As intended, she thought I was talking to her.

I used the name Zipper-Girl whenever I could. She liked it, and before long, in most private conversations, I hardly had to use her real name at all. Sometimes I had to remind myself what it was. I put her name on my arm. She was thrilled. But I did it because I needed a convenient reference.

• • • •

I was an efficient worker. My work duties occupied only about twenty percent of the time at the job. My bosses tried to give me more, but they couldn’t keep up with my ability to arrange my work day around vast tracts of free time. I refused any promotion that required additional responsibility. They honored me with an office anyway, and I spent hours in there with the door closed, using Photoshop on portraits of the girl with the zipper. I gave her more than just the one. I airbrushed out her eyes and put a pair of sealed zippers over each one. I did the same to her lips. Who needs lips? They’re imperfect sealants, and instruments for fricatives. The improved portrait became a sock-puppet, even more attractive in its artificiality and in its censorship of the personality the excised features could no longer express. I imagined her sitting in a chair, not tied there, but trapped there by blindness, waiting for me to unzip her mouth so she could eat. I imagined the one in her neck being an opening to her esophagus that I could use as the entry point for nutrients that would keep her alive but that she could not taste. Zippers gave me the option of controlling her very senses. In my fantasies, she made sounds of protest until I taught her to stop.

Then I would return home to a Zipper-Girl who was to the images in that file what a paper airplane is to a fighter jet.

I had to endure doing things with her. Clubbing was all right because the music was so loud I could pretend enough local deafness to abstain from conversation. Dining required more work, but I made myself the kind of man who spent more time listening than he did speaking. Going to museums was hellish, but I developed a particular interest in the paintings where the faces were caricatures, like the aftermath of terrible accidents where the bones had healed back in inhuman shapes. I became a fan of one artist who liked to obscure the eyes behind screens of concealing shadow. I told Zipper-Girl this was a representation of just how much human beings hide from one another. This was bullshit. I just liked to imagine that along with the eyes I couldn’t see there were also concealing zippers. She got serious and said, you know, you hide more than any man I’ve ever known. What are you thinking about, what are you feeling, when I catch you staring into space? I made a special effort to be attentive toward her, for the rest of the evening. It wouldn’t do to be so mysterious and moody that she no longer wanted anything to do with me.

One day when I was out and about without her I found a young girl’s hoodie abandoned at a bus stop. This was a warmer day than expected, and the owner must have taken it off to cool down, leaving it behind when the bus arrived. I wondered how long it had taken her to realize that she’d left it behind, if her parents had enough money to replace it or if when the cold weather came again she was left walking to and from school in hunched misery, hands stuck in dungaree pockets. It wouldn’t have been hard to find out, because I could have asked her. A tag bearing her name and address had been sewn to the base of the hood. I brought the garment home in a bag, hid it away, and the first time Zipper-Girl was not around used a pair of shears to amputate the zipper running from hem to collar. I zipped it open and zipped it closed. There was one section near the bottom where it tended to get stuck, surrendering to motion again only after ardent struggle. I thought of the girl needing to take it on and off, growing red-faced whenever she had to fight with it, perhaps even breathing heavily, in a battle consummated only when it once again gave her what she wanted. I imagined that the zipper knew that it was conquering her, that it made her its bitch with its recalcitrance. I imagined Zipper-Girl weeping because she had pulled the false promise in her neck halfway down only to have it stuck in place, refusing to either ascend or descend, its teeth forming an asymmetrical, vertical grimace. I put the zipper from the hoodie away where I could find it again whenever I wanted. I carried it around in a jacket pocket and fingered it, imagining that the two strips bounding the metal teeth were not material from a hoodie, but skin, taken from a breathing neck.

The weather turned cold and she bought a distressed black leather jacket for herself. It had zippered pockets on the breasts, on the shoulders, and down the arms. There were pockets too small and too tight to house more than spare change. They were not meant to be open or closed, just to display their zippers. I banged her while she wore it and nothing else, paying all due attention to all the soft and unzipped parts of her anatomy. She asked me to use her name. I called her Zipper-Girl. She asked me to call her by her real name. I was able to arrange a glimpse of my own tattooed reminder, but knew that she’d noticed the hesitation.

One night, as an experiment, she brought home a bondage hood. It was a full-face mask with zippers covering the mouth and eyes, with another zipper running down the back, to the neckline. She donned it just to demonstrate that it was too large for her, regardless of all available adjustments. She asked me to wear it. I had no choice. I had to say yes just to make it possible that she would someday wear one like it. I put it on and she drew it tight, sealing the one over my mouth, then zipping it back open, then sealing it again. In darkness, unable to see her face and therefore cut off from what she was thinking or feeling, I knew only that this had gone on far longer than I had expected. After a while she loosened the hood, removed it and left the apartment with it, returning two minutes later without it. It was just enough time to have taken it to the garbage chute. She didn’t talk to me again for the rest of the night.

Sex became more and more infrequent. One night when angry she told me that sometimes she looked in my eyes and saw nothing behind them but an empty space, that it was like looking through a dirty window into a gutted building. She said that when she saw something moving in there, it wasn’t necessarily something she liked. I told her she was imagining things. She asked me to name five things about her, aside from the zipper, that I liked. I was only able to come up with four. I was fortunate that she had either lost count, or been so satisfied with rote poetical evocations of her smile, her sense of humor, her singing voice, and her eyes that she let the subject drop. When we did make love, I noticed her studying me during the act, measuring my own sincerity by the negative space formed around the one feature of her body that was not currently safe for me to acknowledge.

Winter faded. Spring came. The jacket got put away. She put on a white tank top and light blue jeans. I think she chose the button fly deliberately. We went for a walk in the park, and in the first moment of easy intimacy we’d had in weeks, linked hands, a gesture I privately liked because the interlocking fingers reminded me so much of the only bond I really cared about. We watched a street mime and we had ice cream from a vendor. A little boy with a toy plane asked Zipper-Girl about the thing on her neck and she said, oh, that’s just a boo-boo, honey. It’ll go away before long. The little boy was satisfied by this answer. He ran back to his mommy and I watched him go, feeling a wrenching pain inside me. When I turned back to Zipper-Girl her eyes were wet, and I knew that I must have flashed the wrong expression.

She said, you know what?

I said, what?

She said, I’ve been trying to tell myself that I was wrong about you, you were just a little focused on one thing. But everything I’ve been wondering about is true, isn’t it? You don’t care about anything but the zipper. Not even the slightest bit.

It took me a second to say, that’s not true.

She said, wanna bet? How about I go to the guy who put it in tomorrow and have him take the damn thing out? It’s, like, an hour’s work, tops. I’ll be the same person afterward that I was before. Except I won’t have this piece of shit on my neck. Is there any fucking chance on Earth you’d still want to be with me if I did that? Tell me I’m wrong. Come on. Tell me I’m wrong, you son of a bitch.

I said, stop testing me.

She said, too late, I’m testing you. I’ve decided. It’s going. What are you gonna do about it?

I took too long answering.

She said, fuck you. Just fuck you.

And she got up and walked away.

• • • •

I’ve read in books on such things that when relationships go sour, some injured parties replay the mistakes they made in their heads, changing the dialogue in arguments, altering what was said to what should have been said, turning moments of petulance into moments of generosity, turning passages of disastrous blindness into moments of heart-affirming empathy. I have read that people rewrite the endings. I am not immune. On the stage of my imagination, she might have still had cause to tell me I was a sick piece of shit who she never wanted to see again, but I kept her from being able to make it stick. In my version, she never got watchful friends to stay with her and keep an eye on me while I gathered my few belongings and left. In my version, one male friend of hers didn’t say to me, tell the truth, you son of a bitch. You’re the one who took her cat, aren’t you? In my version, I denied it with persuasive shock instead of remaining silent and getting a chorus of angry voices replying that they fucking knew it all along.

In my version of the story, I did not stay away for months, busying myself with other things, only to slip unseen into the back of a small concert being given by her latest band of the moment, and I did not see that while her ink had spread down both arms, the zipper was well and truly gone, not even a scar remaining. I did not see her kiss a guy in the audience, and I did not see her face light up, the way it never had at any point during the year she and her zipper had been with me.

In my rewrite, she embraced the only special part of herself and had zippers installed everywhere imagination and medical reality rendered possible; one in her forehead that could be drawn open revealing skull, two on her cheeks that could be drawn aside to reveal teeth and gums, others on her arms and on her breasts and down her back and everywhere else she had never been bold enough to have zippers before. In my rewrite, we found a hood that fit her, and whenever she was at home and not dealing with my needs it was her duty to sit with her nasty face and her annoying personality packed away, while I spent hours and days toying with the feature we’d had enlarged to stretch all the way from her jaw line to her belly button. In my rewrite, she liked it, or knew that it didn’t matter whether she liked it. That, I know, would have been ideal. That would have been bliss.

I leave her alone and write it off as a learning experience.

This is the world I actually live in. It’s impossible to walk down the street, now, without looking for the zippers on the bodies of others. So far I haven’t seen any. It hasn’t caught on as a fad. But sooner or later I’ll find someone who knows that the zipper is the only important thing; or one sufficiently eager to please, or fool, into changing herself in any way I demand.

It’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, getting ready, I’m taking classes in tailoring.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The penultimate installment in the series, Gustav Gloom and the Inn of Shadows (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in August 2015. The finale published in August 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.