Stitched

IMAG0258(You can read this post without reading my short story Stitched, but the full text is available here.)

If anyone ever asks me where I get my story ideas, this is what I’m going to tell them:

I was a twentyish college kid and my kitten was going to die. I’d never had a pet of my own before, and I sure had fucked this one up. Four short months into her life, it was ending.

Until then, I’d been under the impression that cats landed on their feet, but my cat had fallen on her head. She’d had a seizure. Her brain swelled, making her head loll to one side. The vet gave me anti-inflammatory pills for her and told me that was all he could do.

“She could go at any time,” he said.

While I watched her walk in circles and vomit in the litter box — while I waited for her to go — I realized I didn’t have any idea what to do with an animal’s dead body. My family would have buried her in the backyard, but I lived far away from them, in an apartment. There was no place to bury my kitten. I knew I wouldn’t have long to figure it out after she died, so I started searching online.

I learned that you could leave their bodies out with the trash, as long as you notified the county, but I couldn’t do that to my baby. I learned that you could have them cremated, which appealed to me, though I knew I couldn’t afford the process.

And I learned about pet preservation.

There existed a company not too far from my area that, for a fee, would freeze-dry your pet. They emphasized that the process was not the same as taxidermy, where you’d pull an animal skin over a premade form. Freeze-drying kept the animal completely intact, bones and organs and all. They’d use reference photos to pose your pet as naturally as possible, and they’d mail you the little preserved corpse, which you’d then be free to display.

I wanted to click away from the page in disgust, but I found myself scrolling through the testimonials, most of which mentioned something about “having our beloved pet back forever”.

I let my eyes sloooowly drift toward my kitten. Forever. Didn’t that sound good?

Luck must have been on my side back then, because over the next few weeks, she healed up almost perfectly. She’ll always have vision problems, and she’ll never be able to have surgery thanks to the increased risk of seizure that comes along with anesthesia, but she’s a happy, healthy five-year-old today.

After that scare, I didn’t stop planning for the future. I bought her a collar I could remember her by if she passed away, and I decided to save up for cremation. I came to my senses about the freeze-drying procedure. Having her body around would be nothing like having her. It’d be just another empty, soulless thing to gather dust. 

The more I thought about it, the more curious I got. There were obviously people who loved having their freeze-dried pets around. What did they get out of it? I wondered how someone who’d keep a pet’s body forever would handle trying to come to terms with a human loved one’s death.

Just like that, the seeds of a story took root.

I came up with a woman who’d had her dead pets preserved, who thought of it as a celebration of their lives. When her teenage daughter suddenly died, it only seemed natural to do the same.

Her husband had always been skeptical about the freeze-drying situation, but he’d never been much of a family man. As it turned out, he had a lot to say to his daughter’s body, and a lot to make amends for.

These thoughts stewed in my head for a long time. I didn’t want to put them on paper. The idea made me uncomfortable, brought back bad memories, even grossed me out a little.

Eventually, I wrote and self-published the short story Stitched, which has been more widely read and enjoyed than any of my20140618_131208 other work. It was my first foray into horror, which made it more derivative than I would have liked (the Stephen King is strong with this one), but my discomfort during the writing process made it a story worth telling.

Here’s the true definition of horror fiction, as far as I’m concerned: It’s something you relate to, but wish you didn’t.

These days, I’m working on plenty of other horror projects. My sources of inspiration vary, from a sudden rainstorm to a road sign to a mountaintop sunset. I think these stories are better than Stitched in terms of plot and characterization, and I hope for them to eventually see the light of day.

But nothing will beat the story of how Stitched came to be. I still feel the horrible knowledge of what’s to come creeping up on me every time I look at the first few lines.

When Armand arrives home from work, he walks upstairs to his daughter’s room to press his forehead for several minutes against the cool wooden door, the same way he has each day since her death.

Today, though, the door is open. And his daughter is lying on her side on the window seat, hands folded beneath her head.

When I Need to Cry, I Watch Horror

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Growing up, I was not a crier.

One of those anecdotes my family loves to repeat: When I was first learning to walk, I wouldn’t make a sound if I fell down and hurt myself. Instead, I’d sit there on my diapered rear, looking solemn. So, one day, my grandma came up to me and said, “Honey, it’s okay to cry.”

I punched her in the face.

Later on in life I ran across a few situations that probably merited tears, but I never could figure out how to cry. (And, as I learned firsthand, there comes an age when it isn’t cute to express your emotions through whacking people anymore.) I cried over high school crushes, but for the most part, anything more intense would make me clam up.

I remember sitting through tearjerkers like Up and Big Fish while my friends or family wept around me. There were plenty of jokes about how I was heartless, or they were too emotional. I wasn’t an easy scare either, when it came to horror movies. If you’re the kind of person who believes in gender stereotypes, you’d call me the man in every relationship I’ve had: I kill the bugs, I let my lover hold my hand in scary movies (and when they have nightmares after), and I don’t show my feelings.

The thing is, I wasn’t feeling my feelings either, and I wanted to. Crying, or at least sitting with your sadness for a while, is cathartic. You do it, and you move on. There was plenty I wanted to move on from. For a while, I sought out the saddest movies and songs I could. I’d sit in front of Youtube and watch these recordings of sobbing people having their pets euthanized. Nothing.

Then I saw a horror movie alone, and I caught myself off guard by bursting into helpless, noisy tears.

I think it was The Last Exorcism. Later on, when I went to see sequel in theaters, I cried too. (No, not because of how awful it was.) For a few years, I went by myself to see every horror movie the week it released: Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, The Possession, The Woman in Black. Some were good, or at least fun to watch. Others were terrible, but inevitably, I left the theater sniffling and all wrung out.

And it felt great. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I just couldn’t help wondering what the hell it was all supposed to mean. The movies that hit hardest tended to feature young girls as the subject of a ritual or a possession, which didn’t frighten me and certainly hadn’t happened to me.

…Unless, in a way, I actually had been through something similar.

I remembered how my ex, the one who hit me, used to be terrified of the woman from The Grudge. He said that for a long time after he first saw the movie, he’d sit awake at night, staring at the corners and waiting for a wispy dark cloud of her hair to appear. Which he thought was strange, because usually, he was most attracted to girls who looked like her — and like me — with long dark hair and pale skin. He was so terrified that if my hair fell over my face or I got too quiet, he’d yell at me.

I told him, “Maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what you love most turning on you.”

From where I am today, this sounds silly, but his fear gave me power. He could hurt me, he could manipulate me, he could shout at me, but he was also afraid of me. Afraid that the weak, intimidated person he knew might be taken over by something stronger. I don’t think he feared the supernatural so much as he feared me snapping out of it and finding a way to get back at him.

Movies that center on exorcism still scare us today, although the historical events that inspire them are often a case of misinterpreting disability. Some even take comfort in reclaiming exorcism as a way to handle their illnesses.

I can relate. The girls who star in these movies are innocent in a way I never got to be. The ghosts or demons that haunt them also give them the ability to hurt and terrorize — without being fully themselves, without marring their innocence.

I spent my childhood at the mercy of illness, feared for what it might do to me. I spent my early adulthood at the mercy of a man, feared for what I might do to him. I had power over others that came at a great expense to me. I was scared to show my feelings to anyone who asked, because I knew that an honest answer would make them scared, too. Or angry, or sad. Sometimes this felt good; it gave me a secret advantage. Usually, though, it just made me feel beyond helping.

These movies reflected my experience in a way real life never could. The protagonists don’t mean to cause any trouble. Some of them fight against the entity that seeks to take them. Some of them embrace it. Either way, they don’t come out the other side unscathed, and no one will ever look at them in quite the same way.

I cried because a handful of scriptwriters out there accidentally managed to understand me. They stuck up for me. They made me sympathetic.

These days, there’s less of a disconnect between me and my feelings. I still love horror, and I’m still not a big crier, but I no longer need to see pretty little girls in white dresses be tortured and turned into monsters before I’m able to feel something for myself. I’ve gotten better at processing my experiences, and I think I’ve finally cried myself out.

And I still don’t like it when people fawn over me and ask me if I’m feeling okay, but I can usually brush them off or tell them the truth, which is a big step up from smashing them right in the nose.