Chapter 2 of a story I wrote that kind of fizzled. Chapter 1 is here
Chapter 2: A Sore Back, Joy Division and Forty Pages.
Sugar Uthman missed waking up.
More accurately, Sugar missed waking up in her bed, lying down, like a normal person. No one was technically “normal”, not anymore, but she’d give anything for an easy, stupid “type one” curse that was closer to an idiosyncrasy as opposed to a problem.
She opened her eyes and her back screamed at her, as it did every morning. What the heck – her back yelled, don’t you know you can’t sleep sitting up?
Oh, she knew. She knew alright.
In front of her was a stack of paper covered with her cramped, jerky handwriting. Her curse in action. At least eighty pages of names, transcribed while she slept. Every night she would sleep-write and dutifully record names. Names, names, names. Pages and pages of names from all over the globe.
In the early days, before they had allowed her pen and paper, the nightly incidents were horrific. Her curse demanded names be written and if there was no pencil and paper available, she’d use whatever was on hand. She had woken up to lipstick on mirrors, scratches deep into wood desks and once, when they locked her up in a bare, padded room, her own blood on the wall.
The names demanded to be written, and the curse would kill her if she didn’t.
Things were better now. Her desk was available to her at all times, well-stocked with pads and pads of paper and a generous supply of pencils. Her chair, while functional, was as comfortable as she could make it. A pillow covered the hard wooden frame and she threw her comforter over the back.
Once, only once, she asked Joseph for a better chair. He didn’t answer right away, but instead stared at her, his head slightly tilted.
“If I gave you a better chair,” he asked, “would your curse then require a better pen? Perhaps a better room? Better paper? You control the curse, not the other way around. The chair reminds you who is in charge.”
The chair mostly reminded her how little a human back enjoyed sitting for eight hours at a stretch, hunched over, writing names. Still, Joseph considered the matter closed and she didn’t ask again.
She had managed to finagle one concession. A small portable tape player, a relic from the 80’s that miraculously still worked. Wade snuck it in for her, complete with a collection of Joy Division tapes. She had never heard of them before, but Wade, in that calm Wade-like way he had, threw her a slow wink and told her to give them a shot. Each night before bed, she’d pop it in the stereo and each morning it would be playing. Curse or no, she was turning it on in her sleep.
Their first tape was called Unknown Pleasures and the first song was a track called “Disorder.” The song was borderline perfect.
The drums snapped hard against a bass line that started unexpectedly high before dipping down to the lower registers. Four bars in, a scratchy, distorted guitar chimed in, playing two notes over and over with an urgency that completed the song. Ian Curtis’s first line in his first song on his first CD was “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.”
It was the most singularly heartbreaking lyric she had ever heard and his tenuous, voice against the cacophony of the music made for the the best opening moments of any CD ever released by any band.
Her and Wade argued about that a lot. The best first song by a band. He maintained “More Than a Feeling” by Boston was the number one, and she had to admit, that crunchy four chord chorus was hard to top. Straight outta Compton by NWA ranked up there too, with its angry, in your face, bombastic urgency. But for her, it was Disorder.
She spent a lot of time thinking about that song. How did Ian Curtis keep recording music for so many years afterwards when he had achieved sonic perfection right out of the gate? Sure, their most famous song was “Love will tear us apart” but she knew better. He nailed it with Disorder. He didn’t need to ever record any more music after that single song.
How do you keep going when the best things are behind you?
It’s the sort of question that could keep a person up all night, assuming you weren’t in the grip of a relentless type-three curse.
This early, the room was still consumed by shadows, with only a small amount of light coming in through the crack beneath the door. Impossible to tell with any certainty what time it was, but she thought maybe 7:00 or 8:00. Early morning had a feel, a stillness that settled on the air. The group wouldn’t start stirring until later.
She flicked on the desk lamp and stretched, letting the tiny carpet on the floor tickle the pads of her feet. Carpet was another one of the few concessions she’d been able to wrestle out for herself. Joseph, and by extension, The Damaged Masses, were big on the sanctity and the purity of absence, the belief that fewer belongings meant more harmony. She didn’t figure how having a carpet made you any less pure, it was only a floor sweater and everyone likes sweaters.
Snap crackle and pop went her back as she stood up, and she was nearly hobbled by the spasm that ran down her spine. She pushed a knuckle into the small of her back, trying to work out the knot. The top drawer of her desk was partially opened and she reached in to grab a container of painkillers. They were slightly more powerful than over-the-counter stuff, but not by much. Another secret gift from Wade. He really did help make this more bearable. She’d have to try to remember not to tease him as much.
She washed a couple of pills down with a swallow of water, and leaned over to check what she wrote. When this first started, she couldn’t figure out the significance of the names. It was stacks of pages, with no discernible pattern. Over time, with the help of the Internet she was able to piece it together.
She wrote the names of other kids. Kids who were coming into her curses. Why? Who the heck knew? Why do any curses work the way they did? Smarter people than her had tried to figure that out with no luck.
Regardless of the reason, it seemed that whenever a kid would come into their curse, she would write their name down. Since everyone got their curse eventually, she was basically making a list of kids who had hit puberty. Not much interesting there and no reason for Joseph to find her so valuable.
Except that if the curse was powerful enough, if it was a type three or, gosh forbid, a type four, the name would be repeated multiple times. From this, Joseph could try to find new people to add to his ever-growing flock of followers, the group he called “The Damaged Masses”. He wasn’t interested in the lower levels, but the more powerful ones? He had a definite interest in those.
She skimmed through the pages looking for any duplicate names. The most she had ever seen was a name of a boy way up in Canada that she had written eleven times. They were unable to get to him in time before he succumbed to his curse. She learned later, from Wade, that he had been able to shoot lasers from his eyes. The first time it happened, his head melted from the outside in, eyeballs being poor conduits for lightning-hot plasma. That one blast had ripped through a downtown apartment complex, killing twenty people.
Nothing too interesting through the pages, a couple names repeated twice, but Joseph had told her not to come to him anymore unless the name was there more frequently. He wanted the most powerful curses.
Halfway through the stack, at the very bottom, the last line looked promising. She had written:
Marcie Dayton Richard Wilson Meiping Xiong Josh Keene Josh Keene Josh Keene.
Huh, three times. That was maybe enough to show to Joseph. She flipped the page and her breath caught. The world narrowed to pinpoints and she nearly dropped to the floor.
The entire next page was the same name. Josh Keene. Josh Keene. Josh Keene.
She flipped to the next page, and it was the same thing.
Page after page after page of the same name, over and over. The boy who could level cities with his eyesight was repeated eleven times, this one had forty pages. What could he do?
She started to cry. It was immediate and born out of pure terror. Her knees shook and this time, she did drop. A hard thud that landed her on her bum and she hardly noticed the shock of pain that went up her spine. The world was changed. Now, in this moment, here. There was the world she went to bed in and now this one. A world where a little boy named Josh Keene was waking up to a power so profound that he dwarfed anything anyone had ever seen. Maybe even worse than Chicago. She lived in a a world that was already crippled and now it was going to get worse.
She never swore. God didn’t like swearing and she tried her best to do what God wanted. She adjusted herself to her knees, wiped her nose with a sniffle and clasped her hands in front of her.
“God,” she said, and closed her eyes. “Hi, it’s me, Sugar. From Earth? I’m sorry but I am very scared right now and I need to say something.”
Satisfied, she opened her eyes back up.
“Holy fucking shit.”