After the Ossuary

duncan b. barlow

1.

They had planned the trip to Prague after the miscarriage. It was Kent’s way of giving them something to look forward to during those bleak winter months when it felt as if the world was incapable of producing new life. For the most part, the trip was off to a good start, and when complications did arise, Margot and Kent were quick to make the best of things. When the flight was less lavish than they’d anticipated, they got drunk on wine and managed to sleep in the cramped seats of the airline without interruption; though they missed their connecting flight, they stayed in Berlin for a few days, eating Saharan falafel along the shady banks of the canals; and though the air-conditioning in their Air B&B was broken, they took day naps on the balcony, drank white wine spritzers, and embarked on short walking stints, taking in the majestic architecture of the town.

            It seemed at first that the tensions that had arisen after the loss of their child had completely evaporated, but as the temperatures continued to rise in Prague, Margot began to feel them reconstitute and seep to the surface, beneath the sweat that haunted their bodies. Still they were able to keep their frustrations at bay until they took their first day trip. Kent had caught wind of a church in the country that had been decorated in human bones.
            “Kuntá Hora,” he said, a boyish excitement edging his voice, “it’s listed as one of the things tourists absolutely need to see while in Prague.”
            “A church of bones,” Margot said, “that’s your idea of a vacation.”

            “Absolutely need to see,” Kent said, splaying his hands out like a showman when he stressed need.

            “We can still see the castle and eat sausage while we’re here though, right?”

            “The very next day,” He assured her.


 

Margot and Kent arrived at the Praha Hlavni Nadrazi with plenty of time to spare. Margot craved an egg sandwich, so despite their wishes to eat only local cuisines, they grabbed breakfast at an American fast food chain and ate in silence as the ceiling speakers showered them in hits from the eighties.

            “Look at the sign.” Margot said, “Does it seem weird that they haven’t listed our train yet?”

            “The man said it wouldn’t show until twenty minutes before we leave.”

            “That’s so weird, isn’t it?”

            “Like I said…”

            “Yeah, Europe’s different.” Margot took a bite from her sandwich and hummed to “Love Like Blood.”

            “They’d never play this in the States.”

            Margot shrugged. She shrugged a lot at the things Kent said. With ten years on her, he’d traveled the world a good many times and seemed to know a little something about everything, which he was always in the mood to share if anyone would listen. She chose to find it endearing most of the time, but sometimes, she found it, well, shrug-worthy.

            When it was twenty minutes to departure and they still hadn’t seen their train listed, Margot looked at Kent and said, “Well?”
            He walked around the screens and looked at the back (though they both knew there was nothing there) then took in the amassing crowd for a moment in dumb silence and said, “I’m not sure. Let’s find the ticket booth.”

            Following Kent through the train station for ten minutes, a strange pulse of annoyance resurrected in Margot’s neck, a funny thrush of blood that only Kent seemed to bring about. After a while, she stood there and let him wander, seemingly unaware that he was alone. He’d come back to the screen, stare at it with his eyes wide and then come to the conclusion, as she had some time ago, that their train wasn’t going to be listed. Were they at the wrong station? Would they make the train? Kent didn’t seem to know the answers.

            Eventually he left, only to return, red-faced, and say, “I found the ticket booth. It was down two floors.”

            “We missed our train.” Margot said, looking not at Kent, but at an elderly woman playing Rodrigo on a public piano.

            “Yes.”
            “I thought you were the expert.” Margot said, then added, “I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated.”

            “I understand,” Kent said, rubbing her back. “The woman down there wasn’t very helpful.”

            “So, we don’t go?”
            “We can still go, I just wanted to check if it’s cool that if I buy tickets for a later train.”

            It sometimes bothered her that a grown man still used the word cool, but Margot said nothing, just nodded and Kent vanished again into the maddening rush of travelers.

            Watching a small child and his mother walk into a grocery store, Margot found herself following them and smiling as the mother pointed to things and spoke to her child in Czech. For some time, she trailed behind them, stepping closer each time they stopped. It wasn’t an impulse with which she was familiar, and when it dawned on her that she was watching them, perhaps a little too closely, she changed direction and lost herself in the aisles, until she found some distraction in the various foodstuffs stacked around her. The cheese and meats were fresh, sandwiches wrapped daily with locally baked breads, the candy aisle was small but colorful, bursting with pastel wrappers and golden foil, and a vast menagerie of confectionary treats lined the bakery counter, each option more tantalizing than the last. Everything seemed healthier, the ingredient lists smaller, and if she could’ve read Czech, she had no doubts she’d find the ingredients to be all-natural.

            And how lovely to have a grocery store in the train station, where commuters could pick up dinner on their way home from work. Margot tried to imagine the HyVee in the local greyhound station back home, the crackheads and homeless stumbling through the aisles touching the bread. But the grocery stores back home were so much bigger, the chip aisles infinite and health food limited. She favored the small shops in Europe. The need to go to specialty stores. The socializing inherent in a day’s shopping. It all felt so personal. Everything back home seemed focused on convenience, but in Europe, she and Kent were putting in ten thousand steps on a bad day, meeting more people.

            Perhaps she could suggest they walk more when they got home? Frequent more of the boutique shops around town. This thought pleased her. The two of them carrying their bags from store to store, walking along the roads in the summer sun. A baby strapped to her chest.

            But there was no baby—and when she thought of one, there in the aisles of the store, she only saw a small bloody corpse, Kent slipping sunglasses on it, saying, Look who’s cool now!

            As if on cue, Kent’s voice broke her thoughts.  “When you vanished, I panicked a little.”  When Margot didn’t rely, he said, “Are you okay? You’re just staring into space.”

            What could she tell him? When she thought of a child, it was always dead? That she had dreams of a baby crying in the house? She touched a candy bar and said, “Everything here tastes better.”

            “Local and less preservatives,” Kent said, picking up a package of cheese. “I don’t even think they factory farm, which is preferable. I hate how they treat animals back home.”

            He stopped when Margot shook her head and taunted, “mer mer mer mer mer.”

            “I’m mansplaining again, sorry.”      

            “Can you mansplain the ticket situation to me now?”

            “Train tickets are good for the day, so if people miss their train, they can catch the next one.”

            “What if a lot of people miss their trains?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “Do you think they have to kick people off?”
            “I doubt it. Let’s not worry about it and just get on the train and see.”
            Margot chewed on the inside of her lip for a moment and said, “Do you know where we’re going this time?”
            Kent pulled a map from his pocket and pointed to a section the man had circled for him. “That’s our platform.”

2.

When they arrived to Kutná Hora, they hurried along the winding streets of the town to see the Sedec Ossuary, where Kent wandered among the bones and took photographs and Margot sat on a ledge beneath a towering stack of femurs and watched as the sun slanted in through the murky air. She thought of the old blind monk gathering the bones of the dead, stacking them in his permanent dark. Building the chandelier of spines, the arch of skulls, the alien wickerwork of boney wall patterns. Did it seem so macabre to him or did his blindness conceal the horrors that the sighted experience when confronted with their mortality? Certainly, it was not lost on him. And the smell, she wondered, was that mildew gathering in the furthest recesses of the stacks of bones or was that the smell of death, damp and dull? Where Kent found a childlike glee in such abjection, Margot couldn’t quite put her finger on her feelings. It was a quiet kind of terror collecting in the pockets of her spine. A slinky kind of shadow. She needed a beer.

            It wasn’t necessarily thirst that worked up inside Margot as much as it was a deep desire to feel lighter. Death seemed to weigh inside her. Walking out of the cemetery, she asked Kent to wait while she grabbed a drink from a vendor across the way, but Kent, who wanted a cold soda, suggested they visit an old bar they’d passed earlier. They walked for some time before they came upon it, doors locked, shades drawn.

            Without a word, Margot pivoted and they continued on toward the train station in silence. As a boy with a backpack passed them, he raised his head and said something. Was it a greeting or a curse? It had the soft sound of a familiar greeting, but certainly the boy was old enough (perhaps nine or ten) to mark tourists from a great distance. Margot felt in her a quiver in her womb and stopped dead for a moment.

            “What is it?” Kent asked.

            She looked over her shoulder at the boy. He turned around, walking backwards, and parted his tan lips to release a thin white smile. Was he mocking her?

            “Nothing,” she said and walked on.

            “Why’d we stop then?”

            “Are there Gypsies here?”

            “I think that’s racist.”

            “You think it is?”

            “I don’t know,” Kent said, a rare look of confusion pushing his brow into waves.

            Popping her lips together, that thing she did when she found herself short of language, she looked at her phone and said, “I want to get there early so we have a seat.”

            “Okay.”

            “And I want that beer.”

            As they neared the station, Kent stopped to bleat at a few goats that fed along the edge of a yard. Margot could see the train station, a barebones kind of place, in the distance, across the street from a dismal looking Asian restaurant, so she continued walking without Kent. She wasn’t going to stop until she got a beer.

            She bought a pilsner and a chocolate wafer from the convenience shop and descended the  cross-over steps to the platform. An artist had painted a colorful town map but all Margot could think about in the unlit tunnel were the thousands of unmarked bodies stacked atop one another in the Sedlec Ossuary. People lined up at the exit to buy pins and stickers and mugs. A tourist trap built on the tragic death of the sick. Again, something cold and foreign, a ghostly bone scraping, moved inside of her. How many children had died in the plague? Why were their bones hidden? She began stroking her stomach the way she had when she was pregnant. So familiar it was, so comforting. But then, she remembered the pains, the blood, the hospital stay, and dropped her hands to her sides, quickened her pace, took the steps up two at a time until she stood on the platform winded and hot.

 

The train was delayed, and because of this a glut of commuters packed the platform. When it finally arrived, the crowd lunged forward in a wave, pressing Kent and Margot into a first-class car. Kent pushed along the hallway, fighting for a chance at seats in second-class, but was jammed up next to the water closet. There, in the heat of the others, they stood, sweating as the train rolled on. Whatever cold feeling had worked itself inside her in the tunnel was replaced by the heat of a near asphyxiating claustrophobia.

            Holding onto the door handle, Kent blocked the window and, if Margot could have managed to get a word through the panic building inside her, she’d have asked him to trade places. Instead she hugged against his back and attempted to calm her ragged breath. Her knees were getting weak and she began to worry about getting trampled if she fell. Everything seemed to be pressing in on her, and just as she contemplated screaming to expand her lungs, the train stopped and several people hopped off, leaving the two of them alone in the vestibule.

            “Let’s go in there,” he said, pointing into first class, “it’s air-conditioned.”

            “I don’t want to get yelled at by the ticket guy,” Margot said.

            “I’ll handle it.”

            He opened the door and Margot followed him.

When they arrived back in Prague, they went to a Medieval restaurant across the street from Old Town Hall. They descended a spiral staircase lined with taxidermized animals. Squirrels, bear cubs, and foxes stared through the gloom, their glassy eyes cold.

            A host greeted them and said, “Welcome to China.”

            Though it seemed a funny greeting, she smiled and said, “Thank you.”

            In the back of the bunker, A Czech folk band played a mix of traditional songs and show tunes. As they launched into “Habanera” the other tourists began to sing along in a trance-like moan.

            “I get it now,” Kent said.

            Margot kept her eyes on the menu. “You get what?”

            “China.”

            “China?” Margot asked.

            Kent tapped on the edge of the laminated menu and she followed his hand to see that they were surrounded by scores of Chinese tourists.

            “We should leave.”

            “Oh, he didn’t mean anything by it.”

            “He meant everything by it, Kent.”

            “It’s not like he called them names. He was just, you know, warning us.”

            A hot thread of anger ran along her neck as she lowered her chin and refocused on the menu so she didn’t have to look at the hundreds of dead animals lining the walls.  When she finally looked back up, she saw the abject zeal in Kent’s eyes, the eyes that never seemed to get bloodshot because he never seemed to get tired. She, on the other hand, woke up tired and trudged through the days, working two jobs, in an endless fog.

            It was nice that Kent paid for things, things like the trip, but even his generosity had begun to worm itself under her skin after the miscarriage.  

            “Isn’t this place great?” Kent asked.

            She wanted to say no, say that it was another place filled with death that he he’d talked her into going to without thinking about the toll it might take on her. Another day he didn’t think about the baby.

            “Sure,” she said, choking it all down. Keeping measured. The way her parents had taught her.

            She took her time eating her dumplings as Kent stood to snap photos with his vintage camera. He was happy and it tore her up that she couldn’t find joy in that. But this was the way it had always been. Maybe it was that he came from money, but things didn’t seem to get to him. Only once had she seen his mood completely change. They’d been arguing over moving in together and Kent had made a joke. This was what he always did. Made jokes in uncomfortable situations as a way of coping with them. On good days he was funny, but on the bad days, he was tone deaf, his jokes soulless. When Margot didn’t laugh and told him she’d find someone else to live with, someone who actually wanted her around, Kent called her a bitch. She’d felt her stomach lurch and shouted, “Maybe your wife left you because you’re a fucking child.” Kent shut down for days, barely spoke. About a week later, he told her that his ex-wife had only married him for money. That she’d stolen from his family and left him when he’d confronted her about it.

            “I was never the same,” he had told Margot. “You’re the first person I’ve trusted since.”

            Kent put his hand on her shoulder as he watched the folk band and some hard thing in her heart softened. Margot reached up and stroked Kent’s leg. Looking down, he winked at her and then returned to the business of taking photos of the dead.

3.

The days grew hotter the longer they stayed. Large orange trucks rolled along the cobblestone streets spraying water into the air. People, needing a break from the heat, ran behind them and showered in the cool mists. As they walked around the city, Margot found herself possessed by the notion that rather than sweating, her body had taken to sloughing away gelatinous layers of skin. Though she knew better, she’d more than once checked her underwear, equally disappointed and grateful to find sweat.

            In an attempt to avoid the heat, they left early one morning to hike to Prague Castle, which loomed over the city like a shimmering white star. The first half of the journey was quite pleasant, as Kent indulged Margot’s request to stay and watch the Palace Garden peacocks.

            When she was a young, Margot had gone to a summer camp for children with working parents—a cheap sleepaway camp in the woods that bordered a country club. She would spend the days dodging activities like tie-dying shirts and weaving friendship bracelets to wander through the woods and lure the country club’s peacocks away from the greens, where she would sit with them and watch as old white men threw tantrums on the rough in the distance. It was her sanctuary at that horrible camp where the other kids bullied her and called her names and where the wolf spiders seemed to stalk her in the cabin, biting her when she wasn’t looking.

            When a white peacock emerged between two hedges, she stopped, her breath blocking any words. She had never seen one before and all she could seem to do was sit on the gravel and stare in daft bewilderment until it approached her and then she began to whisper in a secret language she’d once shared with the peacocks of her youth.

            A toddler in a pair of oversized denim overalls trotted in front of Margot and tossed a small stone at the bird. Grabbing the child’s arm, Margot chided her. “No, you never hurt animals!”

            The mother swooped in, pulled her daughter into her arms, and yelled, “Don’t you touch my child.” The toddler took to crying, a piercing shriek that sent the peacocks running.

            Kent attempted to make peace, but Margot stormed out of the gardens and began the long high climb to the castle.

            Kent called after her and Margot turned around and shouted, “What?”

            “What do you mean, what? Back there, what the hell were you thinking?”

            “Fuck that kid.”

            Kent wanted to laugh and she could see that, but he was doing his best not to. “Yeah, fuck that kid.” She grabbed his hand but then he said, “Baby, you can’t just grab a stranger’s kid” and she let it go.

            “That little shit threw a rock at a bird.”

            “I know, but what if that was our…” Kent trailed off. The world seemed to press against the back of Margot’s eyes. Her breath roiled in her throat. Closing her eyes, she swallowed hard against it. “What I mean, is we want to be parents. We need to start acting…” Again Kent trailed off, unable to find the right words.

            Margot turned around and began walking again.

            “Come on, talk to me.” Kent said, trailing her.

            “I told you about the peacocks I used to feed when I was at camp.” Kent jogged to catch up and walk by her side. “What I didn’t tell you is that I saw them die.”

            “You saw them die?”

            “I was out there once when hail as big as golf balls started raining down. I tried to help them, but it hurt too much.” Margot paused and caught her breath for a moment. “From there, I watched as it beat them to death, broke their wings, their spines, cracked their skulls. They tried to get to me. They tried but they just couldn’t make it. Some nights I still dream about them out there stumbling around and crying.”

            Kent took her hand and they walked for some time without speaking. This was the kindest thing he’d done for her in weeks, let her speak, without offering advice. Without trying to calm her by explaining the big life lesson she might glean from her experiences.

 

The further they climbed, the hotter it seemed to get, until, once again, Margot was overtaken by the feeling that she was sloughing away layers of slime that collected in her underwear. She’d scarcely felt so unclean in her life. To make matters worse, she was beginning to chafe, her inner thighs painfully scraping together in the shadows of her denim shorts. Spreading her gait slightly, she hoped to find some relief, but only managed to look strange in her off-balance lumber.

            The street curled before them in strange kinks, stepping forever upward in an unsubtle incline—neither steep nor gentle. Never did the castle or its massive cathedral reveal itself to them; instead, the rocky walls, hills, and businesses with their stony dark faces loomed over them so that, when they emerged in a small-town square, they were confused as to which road to take. White directional signs pointed in all directions and more than one seemed to promise a castle. Kent said that they should follow the crowd and so they did.

            A group of schoolchildren gathered around them. Kent joked with them and started giving them hi-fives. He was the social one of the relationship. Where he found ease in meeting new people, Margot prickled with anxiety and nausea. She began to put some distance between herself and Kent and the children. It was only a few feet, but it was enough.

            The climb became steep, and Margot bore the full weight of the summer sun. The blood began to gather in her cheeks in that way she hated, in the way that looked like she was cold but was not. Her hair clung to her shiny forehead and her breath now came in swift shots, less of it with every step. Had she grown so lazy that a leisurely climb made her struggle so? Kent suggested they slow and get a flavored ice from a street vendor who lurked upon the landing. How could he know this would drive her harder to complete the walk? She shook her head, feeling the tip-taps of sweaty hair against her skin, and continued on. When she looked back, she saw Kent struggling as well, his cheeks puffed out, his hair shining wet beneath the dazzling sun. There came in her a desire to win. Win what she wasn’t sure, but she felt the competition bloom inside her and so she began to step quicker. They passed families drinking water, sucking on ice, babies crying in harnesses, and the further they went, the more people they encountered until the stairway was congested with struggling travelers.

            Along the final bend, there was a majestic view of the Prague, but Margot didn’t stop—instead, she found new vigor and strode into the cobblestone opening, where a score of people danced wildly in the spray of a water truck. Kent jogged over and began dancing with strangers below the fountain. He waved for Margot to join, but she stood in the sun, arms crossed. As the children caught up, they too ran into the shower and began giving Kent hi-fives again. It was always so easy for him. He never cared about looking foolish.

            Margot made her way to the long line at the gates of the palace. When Kent joined her, dripping wet, they didn’t speak. Kent pulled on his shirt to fan his body and made some attempts at starting a conversation but Margot remained silent, annoyed by the sucking of the wet cotton as it came away from his body. She stared at the statues above the gates, their hands splayed above them as if even they were seeking shelter from the sun.

            When they finally made it inside the grounds, Kent said, “We need a drink.”

            Though she wanted only to see the castle and cathedral and return to the city, she capitulated and they went to a café, where they sat in a sunny corner and drank in silence as an American family next to them scrambled to pay a bill after they discovered the café didn’t accept cards. The father looked at his wallet as if there might be some pocket he’d forgotten that held a wealth of koruna. Shaking her head, his wife finally turned her back on the man and asked if they’d accept US currency. An agreement was reached as the father slipped his wallet back into his pocket, the look of something broken in his eyes.

            Kent stared beyond the hillside, oblivious as he so often was. Time passed and when it became clear to Margot that Kent wasn’t going to ask for a check anytime soon, a pinprick came to her heart. Her eyes narrowed, teeth went to edge, and she hailed a waitress.

            “People don’t do that here,” Kent said without taking his eyes off the window.

            “I don’t care. I’m ready to leave.”

            “Cool.”

            Margot watched the mother at the next table and said, “So cool.”

            The mother chided her son for getting chocolate on his shirt. The boy, next to his father, shared the same shameful dumb expression on his face. Margot turned to Kent and watched as he stared out of the window, his jaw slack, mouth agape slightly. She touched her stomach and wondered if her child would tell jokes at the wrong times, if it would sleep with its mouth agape, snoring, if it would leave the bathroom door open when it took a shit.

4.

            “I’m sorry,” Kent said.

            “Jesus, Kent, it’s all I wanted to do today.”

            “How was I supposed to know they’d close early?”

            “You’re the one who acts like he knows ever-fucking-thing about Europe. I don’t know, maybe look shit up?”

            Kent stared at a ghoul mask in the window of a curiosity shop. It was a sickly faded kind of chartreuse that, under the blacklight, glowed in an otherworldly haze that only seemed to draw attention to the inhuman texture of the cheap latex. Even with the light from the street pouring in through the window, the shadows within eyes, mouth, nose, and wrinkles along the temples were an ethereal black. Sticking from the blunt nose was a long, curving wart that wiggled when the mask turned on its motorized stand. It was, simply put, an unsightly mess, even for a ghoul. Kent didn’t speak for a long time, then said, “When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go trick ‘r’ treating with my friends. It’s kind of all I ever wanted to do. Maybe it’s because they forbid it, or maybe I was just naturally attracted to dark shit, I don’t know but I knew my parents wouldn’t let me buy this werewolf mask I really wanted. So one day I snuck to the comic book store, bought it, hid it under my bed, and made plans with my friends to sneak out on Halloween. It didn’t take long for the maid to find it and rat me out; my parents

shipped me away to a Baptist retreat that weekend and I missed everything.”

            Kent went silent again, his finger on the glass, a mischievous thin smile on his face.

            “Nice story,” Margot said, her voice a blade, “I’m hungry and annoyed, so what’s your point?”

            Kent winked, opened the door to the curiosity shop, and said, “There’s always time to set things right.”

            Walking away, Margot chewed at the inside of her mouth and stepped into the throng of tourists streaming by. The evening was cooler but the dampness was not gone from her. She wanted a beer and a sausage and a goddamned place to sit that wasn’t covered in bird shit or urine. Abandoning the push of the crowd, she came upon a small dark road where, beneath a broken street lamp, she saw the steely reflection of an old vendor’s cart, then the dim red glow from his cigarette. As she grew closer, his face emerged from the patchwork of shadows, a dull, tan thing with a dingy white beard. His flat cap obscured his eyes, but when he lifted his head, they came to life in a brilliant sparkle.

            “Sausage?” He asked, a smile revealing a startling white set of teeth.

            “Please. Do you have beer?”

            “This is Prague, Miss. We all have beer.”

            Margot laughed and handed the man a fistful of money.

            “This is too much, miss.”

            “How about you keep the beer coming until it’s all gone?”

            He pulled a few coins from the mess and said, “This will do.”

            The vendor offered his stool and she sat and ate her sausage. Sucking the first beer down, she tried to hand the man more money, but he refused and handed her another pilsner. She knew beer was cheap in Prague, but the math didn’t seem right, so she tried again, managing in-between chews to utter “take.”

            Shaking his head, the man said, “This Bud’s for you.”

Though it wasn’t Budweiser, she understood the reference as an act of kindness and pushing. She took a swig, a different variety, slightly hoppier, and certainly more potent. After two more, the world began to grow softer around the edges. She was buzzed.

            Maybe this was enough, enjoying the silence of a weathered sausage vendor in a dark alley, that moment of peace, buzzed and free. Just a few moments to clear her mind. To chase away the disappointment of the day.

 

A long silhouette emerged in the mouth of the cobblestone street, a specter among the tall buildings. The gait familiar but not the shape. As it grew closer, Margot made out the faint glow of the latex ghoul mask that haunted the window. Easing a baton from his pocket, the vendor stepped forward.

            “Margot, is that you?” Kent said, his voice muffled by the childish.

            “This fool’s with me,” Margot told the vendor.

            He laughed and collapsed the baton back into his pocket.

            “You shouldn’t be walking around dark streets without me.”

            Before taking another bite from her sausage, she said, “Because you’re the Europe guy?”

            Stopping in his tracks, Kent cocked his head sideways like a puppy that doesn’t understand.

            Sizing up the vendor, Kent said, “Let’s go, Margot.”

            “I’m not finished.”

            “Let’s get real food.”

            Something shifted in her, dropped inside her heart. Her pulse seemed to bounce in her throat, but she didn’t reply, only took a last big bite and walked to him.

            The old man sat back down and said, “Treat her better, man.”

            Turning on his heel, Kent said, “Mind your fucking business.”

            “No.” Margot said.

            “No what?” Kent asked.

            “Apologize to the man.”

            Kent stared at her, the mask concealing his expression.

            “Is this about the Cathedral?”

            “No. Apologize.”

            Kent mumbled an apology to the vendor as Margot stormed off. She could hear the awkward trot of Kent behind her as it ricocheted against the buildings, then she heard the sound of him tripping over a bollard and nearly falling. When he caught up with her, he had lifted the mask somewhat so he could see.

            “Take off the mask, Kent.”

            He slipped it back over his face, hobbled around her, and grunted. “The Czech Ghoul says we can try tomorrow. We can see the cathedral and we can eat sausage.”

            “Cut it out.”

            Grunting and hopping around, Kent took to swinging his arms wildly. A group of tourists stopped and gathered to watch. Raising his arms and spinning, Kent yelled, “The Czech Ghoul promises that you will get to do everything again. There is always hope.” He faced his new audience and said, “There is hope for everyone.”

            The crowd applauded, and though Margot attempted to duck away, the world spun wildly around her, so she stopped and Kent pulled her into a powerful hug. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew beneath the foul sagging skin of the mask, he was smiling. But everything seemed wrong. The face too long, his embrace too tight. The crowd still watching and moving in waves. Her legs flimsy and close to giving. Then, in that moment, a rush of blood seemed to flood her, a swarm of heat and a flash of white, and she heard herself yell, “But there is no hope. There’s no hope for us. There’s no hope that we’ll get back to normal.”

            His grip on Margot loosened.

            “What are you talking about, Margot?”

            “I’m talking about us. About this trip. You act like everything is okay. But it’s not. We lost our baby, Kent. And you’re dancing around in the street like an asshole, and we lost our baby and nothing, fucking nothing, is going to be okay.”

            Standing there in the mouth of the side street, the pale light sucking the color from their skin, they stared at one another. Some people in the crowd began to walk away, others chittered and stared in anticipation. Kent stood there, the mask comically long, the mouth agape as if it too had heard her.

            “Kent,” Margot tried to speak, but he turned, his hands stuffed in the small tight pockets of his jean shorts, and walked away, back toward their loft. Waiting for a moment, trying desperately to shake the drunk out of her head, she steadied herself. When the ground felt whole again, she stepped forward to follow, but Kent was lost in the throng of tourists.

            Though they’d walked between the square and the loft several times, it was much more difficult getting back drunk and alone. She was lousy at navigating on a good day, but drunk and upset, she was useless. The curving streets wrapped endlessly into themselves and she wondered if she wasn’t going to end up in some cul-de-sac where, through some dark eastern European miracle, all avenues of escape would vanish leaving her surrounded by marionette shops and banks. The streams of tourists derouted her, forced her into strange viaducts, tunnels, and boulevards. Eventually, with the help of a police officer, she made her way back, but Kent was asleep on the couch, the mask still on his face, so she crawled into bed and rode the tail end of her buzz into a long dreamless sleep.

 

5.

She woke to find Kent in the kitchen, sucking down a protein shake through a straw crudely pushed through the breathing hole of his mask. The image of him slurping that green milk in the mask, his bare belly protruding slightly above his tighty-whities, was too much. She burst into a laughter. Turning to face her, Kent accidentally pulled the straw from the cup and stood there in his underwear with shake dripping onto the tiles. The ghoul mask somehow looking shameful in the daylight. So badly did she want to confront him about the previous night, but not there. Not then. He just looked too pathetic. She thought of him with their son, if the child had survived. Passing these things onto the boy. Both of them standing in the kitchen, nothing but underwear and Halloween masks on. She shuddered and went to take a shower.

            When she was dressed and ready, Kent had left. She waited for a while, but when she realized he wasn’t coming back, she left and found a bar around the corner where she could get dumplings and beer. Her intention was to eat and go to the castle but she never made it. Instead, she spent the better part of the day in the dark pub talking to strangers who seemed all too eager to buy her drinks and swap stories. Emerging from the dank basement, she found herself stumbling home in the honey thick heat.

            The days went by like this. Margot would wake to find Kent drinking a smoothie in his mask and underwear and come home to him sleeping on the couch. More than once she tried to engage him in conversation but found him unresponsive. One night, when she came home after watching the local ballet company perform, she approached him carefully, stepping forward only when he inhaled deeply, his breath whistling in the slit of the mask, until she was kneeling next to him. She could smell the mildew gathering in the mask. The onion-like smell of his body odor. It was clear to her that he wasn’t bathing. Wasn’t removing the mask even when alone. She thought of him wandering the streets with it on. People staring. People pointing. People giving him money when he stopped to rest like he was a busker. When a car alarm rang out in the distance, Kent woke and shook with startle when he found Margot so close to him. She tried to speak, to apologize, but he didn’t listen; instead, he dressed and walked out of the loft.

            Two days passed and there was no sign of him. She called his parents, her mother, their closest friends but no one had heard from Kent. Revisiting some of the places they’d seen, she searched for him. She’d also visited the torture museum, the Kafka museum, and a creepy puppet theater in hopes of finding him, but came each time to the same result, Kent was gone. When the airline informed her that he’d not moved his ticket up, she went to the police.

            Exhausted and worried, she spent her evenings at the bar, getting drunk and thinking of horrible scenarios: Kent murdered in an alley, Kent drowned in the river, Kent hit by a train or car because of that stupid mask. Each night she would stumble back to the loft and fall asleep.

            One night, after passing out in bed, she awoke abruptly to find Kent sitting in a corner chair, staring at her, his masked face caught in a frame of silvery moonlight, disembodied.

            “Kent,” she said, her eyes still a little blurry, her heart hitched between fear and relief, “you’re back.”

            The figure sat in the chair, the small murmur of breath patting against the mask.

            “Where were you?” She asked. When again he didn’t reply, she mumbled, “take it off.”

            He did not. She wondered if he was sleeping.

            “Kent,” She said, a little louder. “Seriously, it’s fucking weird.”

            His head moved but he remained silent.

            “Take it off,” she said again and when he didn’t reply, she added, “are you just staring at me?”

            An ugly expanse opened in her, a vast kind of empty she’d never known. Margot got up and began tossing her things into her backpack. She kept an eye on Kent, who turned his head to watch as she moved about the room. When the bag was full, she slipped on her shoes and said, “Say something or I’m leaving.” The blood in Margot’s face was throbbing and hot. Her pulse a hammer in her veins.

            When it was clear he wasn’t going to respond, Margot left.

            Crossing through the courtyard, she felt a lightness in her body. Something she’d not felt in months. As she reached the gate, she turned around for one last glimpse, perhaps in hopes that something had changed, that Kent had taken off the mask, run down the stairs, followed her. Instead, she found him standing there, in the window, his masked head floating in all that awful black.

© 2015 Cogswell College •  191 Baypointe Parkway, San Jose, CA 95134 800.264.7955 • www.cogswell.edu