Frank was sick and tired of these goddamned immoral monsters.
They’d created a cannibalistic society. It was inhumane! Was it so hard, Frank thought, to live one’s life from creation to death without ripping another person apart? Look at what they’d become! No amount of cosmetics would get rid of those scars, Frank said to those who listened, adding: On the outside and the inside.
Frank couldn’t believe how quickly this trend had progressed. This seemingly progressive Western civilization had gone from patting themselves on the back for finally achieving a “post-racism society” (whatever that meant) to ripping off the limbs of everyone now listed as “viable stock” . . . and the transformation had been almost overnight.
Now Frank couldn’t go anywhere without being reminded of what they’d become.
The library? No. The librarian was hopping around on one leg.
The grocery store? No. The cashier clerk had to bag your items one at a time with only the one arm.
He couldn’t even turn on the TV and watch his favorite shows. That was worst of all. All these beautiful people, supermodels and movie stars and actresses, now the most viable “stock” available. Every sitcom and drama and reality show was now filled with them: beautiful women with amputated limbs. Arm stubs sloppily stapled together, tracing scars like lightning bolts across their bodies. Noses carved from their faces; eye patches the new trend; breasts lopped off as if there was an outbreak of breast cancer. The most beautiful of them all were confined to wheelchairs with not an appendage left to express themselves with. Within weeks of this overnight pandemic, every Hollywood set and every Hollywood lot had become handicap accessible.
But this was no pandemic, Frank knew. It was no disease in the true sense of the word. This was a disease of the brain—of the male brain. Every man in America woke up one day, saw a beautiful woman, and thought, That’s mine. One could argue that this was no different than any other day in America, of course, but for one difference: in today’s America, if a man liked a woman’s tits or ass or legs, he didn’t just catcall her or follow her around or rape her; he went to his toolshed or the nearest Home Depot, grabbed a hacksaw, and went and got what was his by any force necessary.
And since this was America, the world was pretty much OK with it.
It was like nothing had changed. Because, Frank conceded, nothing had. Men walked around today just like they did yesterday, swinging cocks between their knees as if they were their creator’s gift to women everywhere, physically and mentally superior in every way. And if a woman had something a man wanted? Well, it wasn’t really hers to keep, then.
Even now, as Frank sat at his usual table outside his usual café, drinking his usual chai tea latté, he glanced around at the new normal in abject disgust. Women walked or limped or hobbled or wheeled themselves down the sidewalks as if nothing had changed, but if you looked close enough you saw it. They only traveled in large groups now, four or more, and Frank was willing to bet that those big purses each of them carried were filled with pepper spray and Tasers and little snub-noses, fully loaded and ready to go. He was willing to bet that “girl nights” were now spent training each other on how to clean a gun or quick-draw. Nights at the bar were substituted for weekends at the shooting range.
Funny. Frank, a liberal through and through, used to protest gun rights in America every chance he got. As far as he was concerned, the NRA were the most evil group in the world. Now? Now he donated to them every month, little though he could afford. These women deserved to protect themselves, and no amount of gun laws were going to get in their way. It’s their right to bear arms! It’s right there in the Constitution!
“Anything else, sir?”
“Huh?” Frank looked up from his reverie.
The barista stood a safe distance away, hesitatingly making eye contact.
It broke his fucking heart. Here she was, just doing her job, and she couldn’t even be sure she was safe in refilling his coffee at her own place of work.
God, he prayed, please let her boss be a woman.
“No,” he told her, smiling his warmest, most sincere smile. “Thank you. This was the most delicious chai I’ve ever had. You did a wonderful job.”
She smiled back, but he noticed that the dirty cups she’d cleared from the table next to his were shaking in her hands. “You say that every day, sir,” she said. “You’re too kind.”
“Well, I mean it every day,” he said. “In fact . . . you know what? I just can’t say no to you. Could I get another of these delicious creations of yours? And a nonfat vanilla latté to go with it?”
“Of course.” She turned away and headed back inside the café.
Frank sighed. The same barista served him every single day, and yet she still didn’t trust him. At least not until Shelly turned up.
Shelly was Frank’s wife. Unfortunately, he’d met her after the new world order, so she had her own scars. But to him she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever known, and he made sure to treat her as such. They’d met at the hospital four years ago, just weeks after women started showing up in the Emergency Room in droves missing body parts. Frank had been in for his quarterly checkup. Shelly was there to treat the infection in her amputated wrist.
There hadn’t been enough medical professionals to meet the sudden demand, so it was rather common for patients to bleed out in the waiting room, or for women to not bother coming in with infections and dying from blood poisoning. In some hospitals, in fact, there were just as many security guards as there were doctors, because it wasn’t unheard of for packs of men to rush a hospital lobby looking for weak victims.
Frank, being the progressive feminist he was, gladly surrendered his slotted appointment to let Shelly see his doctor instead. Insisted on it, in fact. To thank him, she took him to this very café to buy him a coffee. “Chai tea latté,” he’d ordered; “Nonfat vanilla latté,” she’d ordered; and just like that, their budding relationship had begun with what had now become a daily tradition.
And here she was, walking toward him now. It was only a couple blocks from their apartment building, but nonetheless she was speed-walking over, furtively glancing around her as she went. Always the cautious one, Frank’s Shelly.
The barista showed up with their drinks just as Shelly settled in her seat. Frank noted that the barista seemed noticeably more relaxed now that another woman was here. Silly, really. Frank met Shelly here every day. He clearly wasn’t like any of these monsters. Couldn’t this barista woman see that?
“Hey sweetie,” Frank said. “How was the showing?”
Shelly was a painter, a creator of art in her own right, and had spent the morning preparing a Halloween-themed art installation. Frank didn’t quite get it, to be honest. Modern art was beyond his humble understanding, he would say to her when she asked for his opinion—while, inside, he’d stare at a canvas painted a solid shade of yellow and think, Who would pay for this? It looks like a toddler pissed on it.
“Oh . . . great,” Shelly said, cupping her drink in her one hand and sighing out some pent-up tension she’d stored on the walk over here.
“Yeah? Did you sell any?”
“Not exactly . . .”
“Not exactly? What does that mean?”
“It means I got an offer—”
“Great! So you did sell. Exactly.”
“No . . .”
She paused. “A private collector offered to buy the whole lot—”
“—if,” she said, looking up from her drink, “I alter them.”
Frank took a sip of chai and asked, “Alter them how?”
“He . . .” She frowned. “You won’t get it. It’s stupid.”
“Shelly,” Frank said, fixing her with a reassuring smile. “Nothing you say is stupid. Come on. I’m listening, I promise.”
“Well . . . this collector . . . he wants me to ‘restore’ them. Whatever that means.”
“He didn’t tell you what he meant by that?”
“He did, but . . . it’s not restoring them. It’s fucking ruining them.”
“How does he want you to alter them, exactly?”
“Well, my painting of the girl from The Ring, for example. You remember that one?”
Frank thought for a moment, recalling the installation in his mind. One of the larger pieces incorporated what Shelly called “three-dimensional mediums” and was actually made to look like an old TV set. On the television’s screen was an image of an old stone well on a dreary, desolate landscape. Made to look as if she’d just climbed from the well, this decomposing girl was frozen with one limb reaching from the screen. This was one Frank actually liked. Nothing “modern” here. Shelly had very cleverly made the girl’s arm poke through the TV’s screen and actually reach out toward the viewer.
“Yes,” Frank said. “I loved that one! Why would he want you to alter it?”
Anguish filled Shelly’s face. “He wants me to give her a hand.”
Frank understood now. The central theme in Shelly’s installation was to show classic Hollywood horror films through the lens of today’s social fad of taking parts of the female anatomy for the male possession. Shelly had spent a large portion of her time on the art piece of the girl climbing through the TV because, Frank knew, she saw it as a reflection of herself. She had carefully created it, then just as carefully sawed the girl’s hand off at the wrist—just like Shelly’s own amputated hand—and made the arm to look as if it had been haphazardly sewn shut and turned green with infection.
“So,” Frank said, “by ‘restoring’ them, this collector means he wants you to just make them look like the actual characters they’re based off of, before each mutilation.”
“Yes.” Shelly sighed.
Frank considered this for a moment, sipping his chai. He looked out onto the street and saw one of the less fortunate women, one of those who had lost more than just her limbs. She was barely a torso with a head, and even that had been trimmed back piece by piece until she was truly terrifying to look at. One socket glared emptily, and the other still had its eye but no eyelid, so she was forced to constantly stare around at this new world with no depth perception. She was strapped to a wheelchair, and a man—her husband, Frank assumed—wheeled her down the sidewalk as he merrily chatted away to her.
Frank was too far away to hear what he said, but nonetheless he thought: Bless you, sir. You and I are one of the good ones. Here to support our women.
He turned back to his own woman and said, “I’m sorry, Shelly. I know that part of the exhibit was very important to you.”
“It was the most important part of the exhibit,” she snapped back. “That was the whole goddamned point.”
Frank held up his hands in defense. “Hey, hey,” he said. “Don’t take this out on me. You know I’m one of the good guys.”
Shelly almost dropped her cup. “One of the good guys?”
Frank blinked at her. This wasn’t going as he’d hoped. “Yes. One of the good guys. I’m on your side here. You know I’m here to listen and to support you.”
He shut his mouth, his teeth clicking together. He hated these situations. They were becoming more and more frequent. How could he tell her he was here to listen and understand while still listening instead of talking? He wasn’t about to mansplain to her. He did understand, at least as much as he could understand the female struggle, but telling her so would make this whole conversation about him and not her, wouldn’t it?
How does one keep one’s mouth shut without becoming complicit in one’s silence?
Shelly still hadn’t responded. She still hadn’t picked her cup back up from where she’d placed it. And she still hadn’t looked away from Frank’s eyes. He was starting to feel very uncomfortable—but there was no way he would allow himself the comfort of looking away. He would bear this discomfort and keep firm eye contact with his wife to show that he was here for her, never himself.
“Frank . . .” Shelly began, then she too shut her mouth. She hadn’t lost as many of her teeth as some of the other women, but it was enough for Frank not to hear the same click from her as his had made.
Frank didn’t respond. Let her speak, he told himself. This is her time to speak.
“Frank,” she said again. “Do you . . . you don’t think you’re completely separate from all this, do you?”
He couldn’t just ignore her question, rhetorical or no. “You know I’m not exactly going around cannibalizing anyone,” he said. “I haven’t taken a single piece of the female body from a single woman,” he said. “I haven’t even touched a hacksaw or a scalpel or anything,” he said.
Shelly squinted her eyes as if looking through Frank’s own eyes.
Windows to the soul, he thought.
“And that’s . . . what?” she said. “Noble of you?”
“No, of course not! It’s not noble to do the decent thing, Shelly.”
“The ‘decent thing’ . . . what’s that? Not ripping the female body to shreds?”
“That’s certainly one of them.”
Shelly leaned forward. She was shaking. “Frank, don’t you dare tell yourself that you’re not a part of this new American Dream.”
“What . . . what are you talking about?”
“Goddammit, Frank.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and one fell from her cheek directly into her forgotten latté. “You can’t just call yourself a feminist because you don’t fucking eat women.”
“I . . . I am—”
“Oh, cut the bullshit, Frank.”
Frank stared at her. She was absolutely quivering, and the tears kept coming one after the other. She used her wrist stump to wipe one side of her face, smearing her makeup.
“Where is this coming from?” he asked. “Is this because of your art installa—”
“It’s not about the goddamned art, OK?” She was whispering now, and her hissed words whistled through a gap in her teeth. “Is the male ego so big, so fragile, that you can’t even remember your own mistakes?”
“Shelly, I’ve made mistakes. I’m not disputing that, but—”
“But they just aren’t that bad, is that it?”
“Well . . . yes.”
“Oh, fuck this,” Shelly said, reaching for her large purse and spilling her latté with her stump in her haste. “I’m not going to spell it out for you, Frank. I’m going home.”
“Shelly . . . what are you talking about?”
She stood up and looked down at Frank with . . . was that pity in her eyes? Or more anger? “Maybe,” she said, “if you’re nice and condescending enough to our barista—her name is Mary, by the way—maybe she’ll give you the key to the restroom so you can take a good, hard look at yourself in the mirror.”
She turned and walked away, the same quick steps as the ones that had brought her here, only now she walked with hunched shoulders and a clenched fist and she didn’t glance around for danger.
Maybe I should walk with her, Frank thought. To protect her.
“Anything else, sir?”
“Huh?” Frank looked up from his reverie.
The barista stood a safe distance away, hesitatingly making eye contact.
It broke his fucking heart.
“Um,” he said, looking down at the table. “I’m sorry. It seems my wife has made a bit of a mess.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about it. I’ll clean up the spilled coffee as soon as you leave.”
He smiled up at her, and then his smile faltered as he saw that she was shaking again. Just as if Shelly had never been here. Didn’t she know she had nothing to fear with him?
His smile completely fell away when he remembered Shelly’s parting words.
“Mary . . .” he said, giving her his warmest, most sincere smile. “It’s Mary, isn’t it?”
She nodded, her lips stretched into a semblance of a returning smile.
“Might I borrow the key to the restroom before I go?”
“Yes, of course!” she said, pulling a key attached to a plastic saucer from her apron and—well, not handing it to him as he’d expected when he held his hand out to hers. Instead, she placed it on his table within his reach and quickly stepped away.
Broke his fucking heart.
He smiled anyway, retrieved the key, stood up. Pulled out his wallet and placed a twenty-dollar bill on the table, careful to not place it directly in Shelly’s spilled drink. “A little tip for you,” he told the barista. “You deserve it.”
He walked around her as she thanked him, careful to give her a wide berth—for her benefit, of course—and stepped inside the café and then into the small restroom in the corner. Closing the door behind him, he paused, facing the door. Was he really afraid to turn around and face the mirror over the sink? What did Shelly expect him to see, exactly?
He turned around, but his eyes were fixed on the tiled floor.
He stepped to the sink. Placed the saucer-key on the porcelain beneath the soap dispenser. Grasped either side of the sink in his hands. Leaned into it. The mirror was now just inches from his face, but still . . . he couldn’t bring himself to look up.
What did Shelly see in him?
Do it, he told himself. Fucking do it.
He brought his chin up . . . but his eyes were firmly shut.
Do it! Fucking do it!
Frank opened his eyes.
Look at what you’ve become!
“My God . . .” Frank whispered to his reflection. “Shelly was right.”
He looked just like all the other monsters. Just like all those goddamned immoral monsters he was so sick and tired of—the ones he condemned to everybody who would listen, telling them that no amount of cosmetics would fix those scars . . . not the ones on the outside and not the ones on the inside.
He reached up with one hand and felt his face. There they were. The scars. He traced their zigzags across his face and down his neck and up into his scalp. The staples stood out from his skin and pricked his fingertips. His face was a collage of flesh—pale white, tan, black, swarthy, green—like different countries on a map, the stitches as their borders.
How . . . how had he forgotten?
He hadn’t lied to Shelly—he’d never lifted a hacksaw in his life, had never ripped a body part from a woman. But that hadn’t stopped him from taking their bodies once they were torn to scraps. A piece here, a piece there . . .
Were any of them Shelly’s?
Oh God . . .
Frank was a monster.