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Fiction

Decorating with Luke

Hello.

Thanks for coming. I know I was a bit mysterious on the phone.

This is my house.

I live here because a house should be an expression of the individual, and nothing in my life has defined me as an individual more than my hatred for Luke.

Yes, the same Luke.

You were married to Luke for a while, weren’t you? Yes, I know you endured a couple of years of that. I know how he sucked you in and made you his, and then, once he had you under his roof, revealed for the first time who he really was. I know that it was nothing good. I know that Luke treated the people in his life like sticks he had to whittle: first peeling off the top layer, then the layer beneath, then the layer beneath that. Every day they were less than they were before. And every day they told themselves that this was just the new normal, that things couldn’t get worse than they were now, that there was still some part of themselves that he couldn’t touch; and this was an empty promise, because his knife was still out and there was still raw flesh to carve.

Live with Luke long enough, and you get used to being flayed.

Believe me, I know. I came after you, and he was the same with me.

I think there were one or two others. I don’t know much about them. The stupid thing about Luke, as opposed to many guys like him, is that he didn’t tailor us to just the right state of acceptance and then hold on to us, forever; the way my father did to my mom. That was a case and a half. They lived together for sixty years, sixty. My father reduced her to a shell within the first five, and for the rest of their lives played drum solos on what was left. It irritated him that, having broken her down that far, he couldn’t break her down any further without killing her. But neither could he start over again with someone new, the way Luke always did.

Luke liked the process of beating us down, but not so much the process of keeping us.

And so we got discarded, to stumble into a world that now somehow seemed empty without him, a world where we could either break apart like sculptures made of sand, or find ourselves a new Luke, to keep playing the same song.

I was looking for someone like you, who, like me, put herself back together, and wandered on.

I know this is difficult. I promise. This is not just about rehashing old horrors. I promise you, this visit’s about healing.

I know you’ve done well. You have your little business, don’t you? And it’s thriving, isn’t it? You’re making money, you’re comfortable, you live somewhere you think Luke would never find you. You’re an inspiration, really. And yet, I know the mark Luke left on people: the way you startle at loud noises, the way you recoil with distrust whenever somebody probably better than Luke tries to worm his way in. You hate yourself a little bit for not being able to open up to people, don’t you? You can’t jettison the suspicion that even the nicest ones might be just like Luke.

And then there are the old aches and pains, aren’t there? You’re healed, but sometimes your knee hurts when it rains. You’re healed, but sometimes you feel a twinge in your wrist. You’re healed, but then somebody calls something you’ve done stupid, and even if it is stupid, and the word is spoken with something like irony, some part of you still curls into a little ball, because you remember how often Luke used that word, and the things he did on saying it. Parts of you will always be raw. Believe me, I know. Luke didn’t abandon his human projects until they were entirely raw.

So, yes, I know what it’s like.

And I want you to know that I did not bring you here for mutual support. I know that’s bloody useless. I just want to share my own subsequent project with you.

Let me show you my special room.

Yes, I keep it locked. On the rare occasions when I have people over, I call it a storeroom, which it is; a private space, which it is. Most people would not understand.

It’s dark because I keep it dark. I like light, as much light as possible, so much so that I keep nightlights burning in every room. That’s one of things that life with Luke does to you, as you know. You learn to hate shadows. But this room, I keep dark, except when I’m in it.

Let me get the light—

There.

No, it’s not empty.

I know there’s no furniture except for that folding chair. The folding chair doesn’t belong here, but I bring it in here so often, just to sit and enjoy the space, that I sometimes forget to put it away when I leave. As it happens, I’ve been away for a few days, and I haven’t been in here for almost a week. So the chair has been in here, in the dark, for about that long. This is naughty of me. Call that a temporary fixture. The room otherwise is furnished exactly as I intended: the bare bulb in the ceiling, the tan wallpaper, the boarded-up windows, the plain wood floor. Oh, and that cabinet, mounted on the wall. Yes, it’s a kitchen cabinet. You would normally find it holding dishes. It’s been repurposed for this room to store something else, something I intend to show you. But not yet.

No, please don’t touch the wall yet. Also don’t turn around. There’s something behind you, to the right of the door, that I also intend to show you. But not yet.

Just take in the atmosphere. Take a deep breath. What do you smell?

That’s right. Luke.

This is Luke’s room.

Yes, he’s here.

No. It’s okay. I promise you, it’s okay. He’s not about to come storming in here and resume where he left off. This is not a return to the old days. They’re dead, even if Luke isn’t. What you’re looking at is my personal museum of a part of my life I left behind, the same part of your life you left behind. I brought you here not to scare you, but to make sure you get to leave what lingering fear you might still have behind you.

Let me tell you that when I made my own escape, I’d been whittled to my absolute core. I was a broken and savaged thing and there was not much left to me, not sanity and not decency. I was broken and I was feral. I became, for lack of a better word, evil: not the kind of evil Luke was, indiscriminate and dedicated to the torment of everything in his orbit, but the kind that had only one focus, and only one driving ambition. I knew that I could not live my life in a world where Luke was running around, and I knew that I would not be happy with setting the law on him, leaving him to rot in some cell somewhere.

No, I considered that, but what would be the good of that? Putting a bullet in the back of his head, burning his house down with him inside, putting some substance in his food to dissolve him from the inside out—after all that, however much I could make it hurt, he would be released to death, and I wouldn’t have been close to paying him back for four and a half years of being carved to nothingness.

I wanted him in hell, and I’ve got to say that I know that you must have had many of the same fantasies. Imagine getting a lease on one of Satan’s little lava pits, leaving him up to his lower lip in molten rock, and being able to come back once in a while, transformed into some demonic creature capable of enjoying the climate, so you could give him playful jabs with your pitchfork!

No?

Funny. Near the end that was all I thought about.

What about just locking him up in your basement?

Don’t bother denying it. I saw a flicker there.

That was another fantasy. I imagined a hidden room of cinderblock, with everything needed to sustain life: running water, a toilet, food cycled through a door in the wall, and silence. I imagined coming to see him once a week or so and just staring at him, giving him the kind of look that admitted to no humanity, while he stood at his little window and begged me to say something, anything. I would have watched the years whittle him down to nothing, as I was whittled, as you were whittled, and I would have had no problem with never, ever letting him out.

That’s the kind of idea that goes away when sanity intrudes.

Who wants to spend her life as a zookeeper?

In the first place, after about a year or so of having my fun, I would either get tired of it or realize that I was in danger of being swallowed by it. I would realize that I’d simply gone from one definition of serving him from hand to foot, to another.

I’d either flee or I’d wall him up forever.

And even if I kept up my responsibilities as my keeper, there’s the other fact, isn’t it? He’s a rabid animal. Rabid animals escape. Zookeepers are mauled by their lions, trampled by their elephants. People with loving pet dogs are suddenly mauled by them for no reason. I could put myself in a position where he depended on me for everything, but he would never stop plotting, would he? You know as well as I know that Luke being Luke, he would get free, and then, Luke being Luke, he would damn sure find some way to put me back where I started. That fear would always be in the back of my mind, as long as he had any free will or not.

I needed to find a way to keep him and never, ever lose control.

You see that, right?

Yes, I’m insane. By most definitions, I am.

But then so are you.

Here’s a parable. You think the world is out to kill you. You think the government, the army, the people, are all out to get you. Everywhere you look, wherever you look, the world is a machine out to destroy you. That’s one working form of insanity, right?

How insane is it if you’re a Jew in Warsaw in 1942?

In that case, you are thinking the same thoughts, the same insane thoughts, but they are no longer insane, are they? They are now wholly accurate descriptions of the world in which you live. I tell you, knowing that this man is the devil that will be a threat for as long as he remains alive is not insanity; it is a simple realistic assessment of our situation. It is a way of thinking that was forced on you, that was forced on me—and yet it’s not insane to think that killing him is too easy, that will never equal what he took.

I need to tell you that after I left Luke, I made certain deals, learned certain skills, made friends of entities nobody should ever approach, became capable of certain things that I otherwise never would have wanted to be capable of.

I sacrificed things that I never should have wanted to sacrifice, in exchange to do what otherwise would have been impossible.

So that other women, like you, would never know the hell that goes along with wanting to.

You still smell Luke, right? That’s his sweat. That’s his arrogant musk. That’s something you knew close up, a scent that will never leave you.

In a second I’m going to ask you to turn around and look at that spot to the right of the door. But you’ll need to brace yourself. It’s going to be a shock. Just keep one thing in mind: you’re safe. This room may smell of him and you will see soon that it also feels like him, but I promise you that he will never hurt you, or anybody else, ever again.

I’ll hold your hand if you want.

Okay. Turn around.

Calm down. It’s okay. I promise you. It’s okay.

Yes, that is his tattoo.

The same stupid grinning fascist frog that he used to wear on his bicep.

It’s not a copy.

It’s the one tattoo he had, the actual tattoo he had, and that is actually it, right next to the light switch.

I grew to hate that fucking thing, just like I’m sure you did. I would have thrown it out, just so I never had to look at it again, but then I wouldn’t have had enough to wallpaper properly.

You know with what.

Touch it if you don’t believe me.

Yes, it is warm. As warm as he was, in every way but the emotional.

Look closer. Note that it really is skin, living skin. Much more than he ever had, as a man walking around in the world. Peeling it off him, inducing him to grow more, smoothing it out and hanging it all, covering this entire room, took almost three years, and it wasn’t any more pleasant for me than it was for him. I don’t need to go into all the things I had to do to make sure it remained capable of sensation, so that it would always be aware of my touch, whether tender or cruel. I’ve been known to stroke it kindly, and I’ve also been known to burn it with the iron. I promise you, it feels everything. Including nothing at all, when I leave it alone for a while, and that is fine, because I don’t have to run my life for its eternal convenience.

I assure you it is possible. Try it out for yourself. Use your nails.

He felt that. Even if he made no sound, I promise you he felt that.

Just as he would feel it if you now went to the kitchen and came back with some salt.

This isn’t just a room. This is Luke. And always will be. It’s really quite impossible to kill. It heals from anything you can do it. It’s also very capable of thought, and memory, and regret, though not of speech; I could have given him that, but I had more than enough of his goddamned mouth when I was living with him, thank you very much, and there’s no possible reason to hear what he has to say. What would he say, that he was sorry? That I’m a bitch? Honestly, pretty much everything he ever said, while we were together, belonged to either one category, or the other, unless you’re talking about promises, which he never kept, so . . . why would I want to hear them? Why would I want to hear any of it?

I don’t have enough to paper another room, unfortunately, but I do have one remaining roll, which you could bring home if you wanted. It would be as reactive to your touch as it is in this room, but unless you live in a home so large you can afford a place that no one else will ever see, it’s probably not a good idea. Honestly, this is just my own way of handling things. I just knew that you were part of the Luke sisterhood and figured that you could probably use the closure. If that’s what you want.

Sure, I’ll leave you alone with him for a while. When you’re done, you can come out, and I’ll have the wine ready.

But before that, I want to show you the best part.

Usually, when I come in here, I’m not in the mood to see his face. Or to look in his eyes. I had more than enough, thank you. But you might have some things to say out loud, and it’s less than satisfying to say them to the skin of his back.

So that’s what the cabinet’s for. It covers the precise spot where his features are. You will find them still very reactive.

There you go.

Hi, Luke.

Look who dropped in.

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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. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories. 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). His latest release was the audio collection, And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with his wife Judi and a trio of revolutionary cats.