Outside In

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Running my fingertips around the concrete pillar in the rental house bedroom, a story took shape in my mind. I wanted to write it down but I’d have to hide it from Scott.

“The outside became the inside?” I asked the realtor. What would I look like if my outside became my inside? Scott called me his beautiful, tormented angel. Perhaps my temperament would be more angelic if I was flipped inside out.

Scott and the realtor ignored me. I made a face at the realtor’s cheap suited back. I already knew I wanted to live here, remodeled warehouse or not. If you asked me, the pillar gave the room ambience.

With my foot, I nudged the plugged up pipe sticking out of the center of the pillar’s base. “Where does that go?”

“Nowhere,” Scott said, flipping the lights on and off.

“Everything goes somewhere,” I said.

“Renny, let it go, okay?” Scott gave me a look—his tolerant look for when I was teetering on silliness and he wanted me to rein it back.

I winked at him. He gave me a thumb’s up and went back to hashing out the rental details.

I circled the pillar, wandering round and round, until the pads of my fingers burned from the friction.

Scott unloaded the last boxes off the U-haul while I swept the kitchen floor with a plastic broom.

“Fresh start.” Scott kissed me on the temple. He smelled like sweaty cardboard. “Right, hun?”

“You betcha.” I gave my best smile.

“That’s my girl.” The boxes made dry whispers as Scott slid them onto the cracked countertop. “I hope you like it here.”

“I love it,” I said, and I meant it. Our new rental house wasn’t busy and full of honking horns like the old one. No, this one was tucked away in a sleepy part of town. Our bedroom used to be a parking lot until the warehouse owner had decided to add on an office space.

So he’d walled in the outside and made it the inside. I liked that.

Scott disappeared into the bedroom. When he came back, he had on a clean polo shirt.

I frowned. “You’re working today?”

“Gotta pay the rent,” he said. “There’s only one key. I’ll get a new set made soon. Take it easy today. No stories. Just rest up.”

Writing stories made me too fanciful—or so Scott and Dr. Volmer said.

I thought of the pillar in our bedroom, wondered if I could wrap my arms all the way around it. Better to try that when Scott wasn’t here.

“I’ll be peachy,” I said.

He locked the door from the outside. I tried the doorknob but it wouldn’t budge. Probably a special warehouse door for added security. I’d ask Scott when he got home. A few hours inside wouldn’t hurt me.

I explored the house from end to end. Such an odd, nonsensical place to live. I imagined a secretary in shoulder pads and plastic earrings banging away at a word processor where our kitchen table now sat.

The windows were barred from the outside but Scott said the office would have had a cash box so the bars deterred petty thieves. I didn’t mind the bars. They made me feel safe. Protected.

And the bedroom had the pillar—a big concrete doozy cheaper to leave than to dig out during remodeling. It gave the room a mod-chic feel, all linear planes and sharp angles, then the smooth roundness in the center.

I wrapped my arms around the pillar and pressed my cheek to its silky smoothness. I could almost touch my fingertips in back.

When I leaned the side of my head against the pillar, I heard rustling—quiet whooshes like wind blowing through clotheslined sheets.

My breathing grew slow and deep. I closed my eyes and told myself this was my new beginning. Hugging the pillar, I filled my arms until my heart filled to bursting and I couldn’t hold anymore.

The sun threw long striped shadows through the windows and Scott still wasn’t home. Anxiety crept up my spine with kitty cat claws. My thoughts flew in a million directions. What if he’d had enough of me and left for good this time? I ran to the door, praying it was unlocked now. Maybe Scott had crept in while I dozed. I yanked the unmoving handle. The air stuck in my throat until I couldn’t breathe.

I had no plan. No escape. No companion to lean on.

Stumbling into the bedroom, I sagged against the wall and stared at the pipe bulging from the pillar’s base. Focal points helped me. I breathed in, held, then released through pursed lips, staring at the swelling circle the pipe mouth made, like a reptile pushing out its egg sac.

I pushed the story to the back of my mind and focused on the pipe, matching my breath to the quiet whoosh deep inside the pillar.

It was dark when Scott came home, but he was in such a good mood, I didn’t want to ruin it with my bad day. My secret story was hidden under the sofa—a single sheet of notebook paper for now but I knew there would be more to come.

We made hoagies in the former break room turned kitchen.

“Can we get a real oven?” I asked. “Microwaves give you cancer.”

“Soon,” he said. “I don’t want workmen banging around while I’m gone. Disturbing you.”

“So considerate.” I gave him a sexy, come-hither smile.

He patted my cheek and went back to his hoagie.

I scowled. But Scott didn’t notice.

I should have been sleeping but my thoughts were whirling petals I couldn’t catch. I traced the line of the pipe with my eyes, over and over and over until I was cross-eyed. I tried to figure out what it was filled with. The stuffing looked like mashed potatoes painted with white-out.

Or cotton packed in tighter than tight until all the air had been squeezed out.

Or marshmallow fluff left to fossilize.

Scott snored. I nudged his shoulder and he rolled over. The snoring stopped. I sighed and stared up at the ceiling, trying to make my mind into a blank screen.

But my fingers itched to touch the marshmallow cotton fluff. I tiptoed over and poked it. The center was definitely softer than the column itself. I scraped it with my fingernail and was rewarded with a curl of white plaster. When I licked my finger, it tasted like chalk and Mrs. Delaney’s first grade class.

I slid back over to bed and crept under the covers. Scott’s snores shook the mattress. My fingers tingled. I popped them in my mouth and chewed on the tips until I fell asleep.

“I could pick some flowers for the table. A little outside air would be healthy in here.” I wiped down the breakfast dishes and lined them up on the counter. “If you left the door open.”

Scott scratched the back of his head. “Not today. Supposed to rain, I think.”

I watched through the front window as Scott crunched down the gravel drive. He’d lost weight. His khakis sagged in the back when he climbed into the pickup.

As soon as the truck was out of sight, I crept back to the bedroom. The pipe’s filling was less smooth than I had thought. The plaster was pitted around the bottom and the center caved inward. I traced the painted metal lip with my finger. The contact soothed my frustration over the flowers. I stood and gave the pillar a hug, straining to make my fingertips meet—almost. I thought about doing some yoga exercises to open up the muscles in my shoulders, increase my flexibility. We didn’t have internet this far out of town but any day now the coverage would expand and then I could go online myself.

I’d have to ask Scott to order a yoga book.

I was already in bed picking at my split ends when Scott came out of the bathroom in his pajama bottoms, his hair wet from the shower. The pipe must have caught his eye because he bent down on one knee and poked at it.

A funny feeling jumped up in my chest.

“Stop that,” I said. “You’re going to mess it up.”

He gave me a sideways glance and frowned. “What have you been doing with all your free time?”

“Yoga. Journalling. I feel better than I have in ages.” I patted the bed with an inviting smile, trying to ignore his finger scraping away at the plaster. “Maybe we could have a date night this weekend?”

“Work is really piling up. Have to wait and see.” His knees crackled when he stood up.

“Are you upset with me?” I asked. “Forget about the date night. Pretend I never asked.”

“Not upset. Worried is all.” His eyes flickered back to the pipe and I squirmed, breathing a sigh of relief when the bed sagged under his weight.

I rolled to face him but his back was to me. I walked my fingertips down his spine and he shivered.

“Go to sleep,” he said.

But I couldn’t sleep. Even tracing the pipe’s outline with my eyes didn’t help. I got confused about where I’d started and my eyes went round and round until it started to hurt but I couldn’t find the right stopping place so round and round I went. Finally, I got out of bed and wrapped my arms around the column. It felt cool on my chest and stomach through my nightie so I slid around to the other side and just held on for a while.

I hadn’t realized how thin the plaster was over the pipe. Perhaps there was another woman on the other side tracing her fingers around and around like me, wearing it down and we would meet in the center—our fingertips pressed together. We’d bend down and peep at each other through the open circle.

I slid to the floor and rested my forehead against the pillar, closing my eyes.

The birds woke me with their chattering—luckily, before Scott. He’s like a hibernating bear, minus the long teeth and claws.

My right cheek had gone numb and the top of my head was sore from leaning against the pillar all night. But my heart gave a little skip of joy as I crawled back to bed.

After dinner, Scott sat on the bed next to me and took my hands in his.

“Have you been picking at your fingers?” he asked, inspecting my up-turned palm. “If you’re getting agitated, I can call Dr. Volmer, see if he can work you in.”

“No. I’m fine.”

“How did you get all these callouses?” He pinched the tip of my index finger but I hardly felt it. “You can tell me if you’ve been scratching again.”

I smiled and kissed his cheek. His stubble itched my lips. “Not a single urge.”

I thought that would make him happy and it did. He kissed me on the forehead and wrapped me in his arms.

As soon as he was asleep, I wriggled onto the floor. The closed pipe bothered me. Even a tiny hole would make it better. An air hole. A breath of fresh air into the static world inside the pillar. Crawling over, I worked my pinkie nail into the thinnest part, digging in with my nail until my finger popped through. The plaster crumbled to the carpet. I lay down on my belly and stuck my eye up to the hole but it was too dark to see anything. The stale air smelled like water in a rain barrel.

My pinkie wasn’t enough. I wiggled my forefinger into the hole and yanked out a chunk of plaster. I poked and yanked and crumbled until the plaster was gone. I pulled off my nightie and used it to wipe the metal clean, enjoying the way my hand rocked back and forth, slipping up then swooping back down again to swish back the other way. I reached in deeper, cleaning as far as I could. The dust made my nose itch but I held back the sneeze. Scott wouldn’t have been happy if he’d woken to find me in my undies cleaning a drain pipe.

Satisfied that I’d given the woman on the other side a nice, clean view of my world, I shook out my nightie the best I could and put it back on.

On tiptoes, I retrieved my growing manuscript from its hiding place under the sofa. I rolled it up and wedged it into the pipe as far as I could reach.

The whooshing was louder now. It rattled through the pipe’s metal joints, shaking like a living bellows—blowing out the stale air, sucking in the fresh.

The pages of my manuscript rustled. I prayed the pipe wouldn’t whisk it away.

I could only hope Scott wouldn’t notice.

Scott noticed the pipe first thing.

“Are you crazy?” He sounded strangled—like he was trying not to yell. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“The plaster looked unsanitary… like asbestos,” I said, my stomach knotting tight. “And really, aren’t you glad I’ve gotten rid of it before we come down with some horrid disease like lung rot? Or tuberculosis?”

The vein in his forehead bulged like a fat worm. I wanted to pick it out with my fingernails so he could be happy again.

“I won’t mess with it anymore,” I held my hands behind my back so he wouldn’t see all my crossed fingers. “I won’t even touch it.”

That seemed to appease him. But I was a jittery mess.

As soon as he left, I hugged the column.

I reached and reached but still my fingertips wouldn’t meet. Why would it be so satisfying for my fingers to touch on the other side when I could so easily touch them together on this side without even remotely having to struggle?

I had no idea.

There was the smoothest path around the column—like the builder made it just for hugging. My favorite part of the day was fitting my arms into the groove and feeling the solid permanence of the concrete holding me up, making me feel solid and permanent too. It was my anchor to keep from blowing away.

I pressed my cheek against the pillar and closed my eyes, breathing deep. In and out. Mustering in my mind, all the stories I would tell. My fingers itched to write. The words gathered in my bones, soldier ants awaiting the command to march forward onto the paper.

It wasn’t enough. I slid down the pillar, slow as molasses on a cold day, until I could peek into the pipe. I fished out my manuscript and tucked the pages in the back of my shorts.

I ran my palms over the smooth metal pipe. Tiny bits of plaster clung to the edge. Stretching out my tee shirt so it covered my hand, I began to polish—just a tad more and it would be perfect.

Scott bought flowers when he got home, kissed my hand and begged forgiveness for losing his temper. I slid my arms around his waist and clung tight.

As we lay in bed, I caught him staring at the hole the empty pipe made. He started to say something but then shook his head. I hated it when he did that.

I’d gotten the pipe quite clean. I could reach my arm in all the way up to my armpit. The drain went upward at a lazy angle until I got my elbow inside, then it pointed upward, angling away again just where my fingertips could reach. I wished I knew where it went, what was beyond that angle. If I smashed my cheek against the metal and stretched, I could just touch the lip of what I thought was the connector. I imagined the woman on the other side reaching down toward me, her fingertips stretching until they brushed mine. We could be friends, she and I. She understood.

Scott came home early from work today. I was hugging the column and I knew he was watching me but I didn’t open my eyes. I was in such a good place and I knew Scott would be happy that I was happy. I was sorely mistaken.

He grabbed my hands in his and pulled me away from the pillar. Scott was so strong. My hands turned to claws but I couldn’t hold onto the slick smooth groove. He tried to hug me but he was sweaty and warm and smelled like rancid meat that made me choke. Finally he let me go and I collapsed onto the column, hugging and letting it hug me back, cool and clean.

“Renny, we can’t stay here,” he said. “It’s not healthy.”

I didn’t answer him. The woman on the inside didn’t either.

I waited for Scott to go to sleep like I did every night. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to know where the connector in the pipe went. I wanted to touch her fingers with mine so we could both be happy.

When I slid out of bed, I wriggled on my stomach to the pipe. I liked the way the carpet scratched my skin, the way it tugged my nightie down so the straps bit into my shoulders and made me feel wrapped up tight. Secure.

Inside the pipe was an enormous black hole where all the darkness lived. Outside, the pillar was white and smooth and clean because the pipe sucked up all the dark and oozy and bad.

Maybe we needed to trade places. I could go in so she could come out.

I reached my arm into the pipe as far as I could. I stretched until my shoulder popped and the pipe bit into my neck. My fingers wiggled like bony bait for the woman inside to snap up. But tonight she felt scared, worried about coming out and didn’t take my hand. But she will soon. She doesn’t want to stay inside anymore.

My arm smelled a sickly green when I pulled it out. Like pus under a scab. I chewed on my fingertips but they were sour and tasted like dead things.

“Tomorrow,” Scott said. He reached to touch my cheek but I snapped my teeth at him. His jaw tightened. He didn’t say anything else but he double checked the door lock as he left.

Watching him walk to the truck, I shook the door handle. Shook and shook and shook but he didn’t look back.

The pillar waited for me, a whitewashed sepulcher filled with rotten flesh—just like me. I wrapped my arms around it and hugged tight. The groove was perfect—just the right height for my arms and chest, slick as ice to help me go round and round. My bare feet burned up the carpet into a red hot path as I circled faster and faster, waking up the woman inside. I heard her moving, belly to belly with me as we did our dance like two ancient priestesses summoning their goddess.

My heartbeat throbbed in my ears, tinny drum beats punctuating our effort to meet in the middle. The woman inside gave a cry, no more than a kitten’s mewl, but I heard. I had been listening. She was ready to come out.

“I’ll help you.” My whispered voice cut through the concrete pillar, soothing her.

Dropping to my knees, I leaned onto my elbows and peered into the pipe. Her ululating cry brought tears to my eyes.

“Hold on,” I said. “I’m coming.”

I flattened out onto my belly, holding my breath against the stench from inside the pipe. I reached as far as I could, stretching out my fingers until I thought my shoulder was going to pop out of socket.

“Please,” I cried. “Take my hand.”

I wiggled my fingers, snaking my body around the pillar to keep her company until I could rescue her.

Flames lit my fingertips, racing down my arm and up my shoulder. I gave a strangled cry, the brimstone bitter as ash in my mouth.

I couldn’t reach her. She couldn’t reach me.

My arm slithered out of the pipe, charred from the devil’s touch. I scrabbled at the concrete with my nails, leaving blackened smudges in my wake.

I dug my fingers into the seam where the concrete met the carpet, wedged my fingers into the tiny gap I’d made, and tugged at the carpet, but it wouldn’t lift.

Something sharp was what I needed. Scissors or a knife. I rose and bolted for the kitchen and rummaged through the drawers. Nothing but plastic utensils and paper cups—not even a glass plate I could smash.

I ran through the house, throwing open drawers and cupboards, but nothing was left for me to use. I had to lay on the bedroom floor and gnaw on the carpet. Fibers coated my tongue and saliva escaped the corner of my mouth, tickling my cheek until I wiped it away.

The woman’s cries were garbled now. She was fading. And tomorrow I would be taken away. Tomorrow, I’d be gone.

With a cry, I ripped at the carpet, yanking it up with both hands to expose the cold slab.

I slapped my palms against the concrete to get her attention. “Wait for me.”

On hands and knees, I crawled around the pillar, looking for a weak spot, a chink in the concrete I could dig my nails into. My palms left red smears on the gray slab that my kneecaps wiped up.

She wailed. Oh, how she wanted out.

If I leaned my head so my skull bounced against the smooth pillar, it seemed to soothe her. My teeth chattered together from the jostling until I bit my tongue to find a weak spot. A way to get to her. I knew I would.

Hands grabbed my waist and I shrieked. Scott’s thick arms wrapped around me and pulled me away but I yanked at his thick hands, dug in with my nails, my feet slap-slapping against the floor.

The woman shrieked with me. I felt her pain. Her torment. I would get her out. I would.

My elbow hit something hard. Scott grunted and let loose. I lunged away from him. All I needed was a single crack in the concrete. A hairline fracture to free her.

Fingers dug into my calf and I kicked backward so hard my arms gave out beneath me and my chest slammed into the floor.

We all yelled. Scott, the woman, and I.

My mouth tasted like warm iron buttons until I spit them out. I slap-crawled toward the pipe’s black mouth. It was open wide. Wider than ever before.

“I’m here,” I cried. I shoved my arm into the drain pipe.

The woman was waiting for me, and grabbed me. Her fingers wrapped around my wrist, my tendons and sinews lit afire as my shoulder slid into the pipe.

My head pushed askew, I looked back at Scott, still gripping my ankle. His face was red but his eyes looked tired.

“I give up,” he said and let go of my leg.

The woman and I gave a triumphant cry. I ducked my head and squirmed inside, reveling in its dark comfort. Her arms burned me to cinders as she climbed over me, slithered atop my quivering ashes, and spilled herself onto the floor outside.

Then I was on the inside.

And I would watch from within as she went round and round on the outside, searching, running her fingers along the seam where the floor met my prison, climbing over and over Scott’s outstretched legs where he slumped against the pillar in defeat.

Round and round and round, she would go until we met in the center once more.

end article

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Anna Yeatts

About Anna Yeatts

Anna Yeatts is a dark fantasy and horror writer living in Pinehurst, NC. Her short fiction has appeared in Suddenly Lost in Words, Mslexia, and Spark: A Creative Anthology, among others. Anna is the publisher of Flash Fiction Online (flashfictiononline.com). Follow her at annayeatts.com or on Twitter @AnnaYeatts.