Excerpt from Tyrannosaurus Rexia

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apertures hypertext imageBy Susan L. Lin

Apertures

Colby Keiser was thirteen years old when he saw the man with the handlebar mustache again, re-emerged in the guise of a new person. He had shaved his upper lip clean and sprouted instead a pair of prominent sideburns, the twin patches of hair growing wider as they passed the earlobes on either side of his face, well on their way to becoming muttonchops. He had also traded his signature lavender suit for board shorts and a button-down shirt with a tropical island sunset printed on the synthetic fabric. In terms of style, he had made himself wholly unrecognizable. Nevertheless, Colby wasn’t fooled. He was convinced it was the same man. At home, he would spend hours in front of the TV, rewinding and playing the commercials back in slow motion, trying to catch the expressions on the man’s face that gave him away, subconsciously mimicking the man’s telltale mannerisms with his own body. As the man sipped from his colorful Smoovie drink on-screen, Colby held his own arm in the same way—bent at the elbow, his fingers and thumb circled around an imaginary cup—and tilted his chin up to mirror the older man.

He began collecting all of the print ads he encountered, tearing glossy pages from magazines and seizing windblown posters he found lying in the gutters along the street. Colby flattened them between the pages of a dusty anatomy textbook before transferring them to a clear zippered folder that he kept in his school binder. During science lab, he would study the man’s face with more concentration than he ever devoted to the lesson plans and pseudo-experiments. Charlatan, he would think, staring down the man in the picture. Swindler. Son of a bitch. Change your hair all you want. Wear different clothes and pretend to be a different person. I know it’s you. He wished he had something to compare it to—hard evidence of the man’s former self—but all the remnants of the man with the handlebar mustache had disappeared from the present world, all signs of him scrubbed clean from their lives.

The Smoovies had garnered a cult following long before their staggered worldwide midnight release. The ads had been running for months, on billboards by the side of the freeway, along the walls of subway stations, even on the backs of cardboard cereal boxes. If you thought 3-D movies were a scientific marvel, read one tag line, you haven’t tried a Smoovie yet! The most immersive and engaging frozen beverage experience you will ever have, read another. No two drinks are exactly the same!

While Colby’s classmates taunted him for being “gay for the Smoovie guy,” his mother only regarded his behavior with worry, orbiting him at a distance as if afraid to interfere. “Promise me,” she said. “Promise me you’ll stay away from this.” Her voice was firm, even as it faltered. “These new hybrid inventions are nothing but trouble. You know what happened to your sisters.” The truth was, he had a hard time looking his mother in the eye now. He felt like he had seen a part of her that no child should ever see of his parents. And if it weren’t for Mia, he would have complied, agreed to anything if it meant purging that new image of his mother from his memory. 

Mia Young was his best friend in junior high, and shortly after, his first girlfriend. For the longest time, he only knew her as “the blind girl” because that’s what everyone called her. She carried a white cane everywhere, sweeping it in front of her like a metal detector searching for treasure buried deep within the Earth. She was pretty in a way that was pure and devoid of self-importance. Other girls flipped open their compact mirrors in class to purse their lips and pout at their reflections, fixated on the face that stared back at them. Mia went through life, not knowing. During their first formal encounter, she shook his hand and compared the lines on his palms to tributaries.

One sunny afternoon, just as the hype surrounding the frozen drinks was reaching its apex, she grabbed his wrist and asked if he wanted to split a Smoovie. When she laughed, she sounded like a completely different person, no longer quiet and still. He couldn’t say no. Not to that smile and those teeth. Not to the fingers that saw everything.

 

“Which one do you want?” he asked Mia when they reached the restaurant.

He offered to read the synopses out loud for her. She shook her head and told him to choose.

Colby regarded the four tumblers secured in the cardboard display. The first three sported colorful drawings that wrapped around the side of the cup, drawings of a girl dragging a deflated balloon behind her as if walking a dog, of a lone tire swing tied to a thick tree branch, of two dinosaurs fighting over a single chili cheese dog. On the fourth cup was a black rectangle with three white X’s.

“Number four is, uh, rated NC-17,” the older teen at the counter was quick to point out. His nametag read “Kevin.” He tapped the MPAA label on the back of the cup with one finger. “I’ll need to see some ID if you want that one, bro.” His dull expression suggested that there was no way they could convince him they were seventeen, but also that he didn’t really care either way.

Colby wasn’t quite certain how to respond. Sure, he was intrigued—even curious. But they didn’t have IDs. And with no illustration, who knew what they would find inside that cup? He leaned across the counter. “Kevin, I—this is embarrassing but I kinda…I left my license in the car.” He tried his best to look sheepish, remembering mid-sentence to deepen his voice. “It’s a hot day, it’s a long walk. You know how this place is—I parked way out there…” He made a sweeping arm motion in the direction of the parking lot.

 “I see.” Kevin’s expression never changed. “So that’s a no to number four. Do you want to ‘watch’ the trailers then? If you do, we offer samples of all four, free of charge. There’s a room in the back for that.” With his thumb, the teen indicated a doorway behind him that was completely obscured by a large piece of burgundy cloth.

The whole set-up looked sketchier than a serial killer’s basement. Colby raised his eyebrows at Mia before remembering that she couldn’t return the expression. He threw a protective arm around her shoulders instead, felt her collarbone rise beneath his fingers. “Kevin, I have to admit that sounds awful tempting, but it really won’t be necessary.” He’d already made his decision. “We’ll take number three.” Two savage dinosaurs fighting over a single chili cheese dog. No telling from the illustration alone whether it was a cheesy horror flick or a slapstick comedy. The title of the Smoovie was written on the lid: Apertures.

Colby paid for the drink with a few crumpled bills. He was barely listening as Kevin offered to boost the drink with a long list of available shots infused with an array of vitamin supplements, all while injecting the Smoovie with familiar narrative tropes: a high-speed police chase and Calcium combo, a climactic elevator ride infused with Vitamin C, or a literal cliffhanger that contained Omega-3 nutrients. The choices seemed to be endless and Colby finally cut the older boy off with a polite refusal of the add-ons.

Beside him, Mia spoke up: “Two straws, please.”

The request seemed to catch Kevin by surprise. His lips parted slightly as if ready to go off-script at last, but soon he returned to his previous demeanor without comment. He plucked a pair of straws from the dispenser and slid them across the counter. “Do not use this product in direct sunlight or in brightly lit rooms. For the best possible experience, please consume the Smoovie with both eyes closed for the entire duration of the show. It should go without saying then that one should not drive a motor vehicle or operate heavy machinery while undergoing the Smoovie experience.” He recited this in a bored monotone as he snatched an empty cup from the display and started to prepare the frozen concoction. As Kevin turned a crank on the machine behind the counter, he added: “Lastly, please be aware that Smoothie Queen cannot be held accountable for any damage that might occur to your person as a result of drinking irresponsibly.” It was the same speech that the man with the muttonchops gave in the commercials, the same words stemming from a different mouth, in a different voice. Colby found himself moving his own lips involuntarily, repeating the words as they were being said. He hadn’t realized till then that he had the whole thing memorized.

Kevin didn’t seem to notice. Not once during the recitation did he make eye contact with Colby. Finally, he snapped on the domed lid and slid the filled cup across the counter. “Enjoy.” For the first time since they had walked into the restaurant, his lips curved into the subtlest of smiles.

The restaurant door swung shut behind Colby and Mia, a small bell ringing as they exited.

 

Her parents weren’t home. The front door, locked. Mia’s hands were shaking, cold and wet from contact with the dripping Smoovie cup, as her fingertips searched out the keyhole. Against the backdrop of the dead afternoon air, Colby could hear the house key slide in, tooth by tooth, until it turned and the bolt shrunk back into a hollow cavity inside the door. The two of them stepped inside, kicking their shoes off inside the foyer. Condensation continued to drip onto the tiled floor and Colby tried to wipe it away with his foot, leaving his socks damp and icy.

The hall closet smelled of mothballs. Inside, a thigh-length corduroy coat brushed Colby’s cheek. When he pushed it aside, his fingers came in contact with a plastic button sewn onto on the sleeve. Four holes. A strand of fraying thread. He wondered if Mia noticed little things like that—the inconsequential details—all the time. “Ready?” He cleared his throat, voice uncertain. He wasn’t ready. Not at all.

Mia laughed, one continuous sound that filled the tiny space. He imagined her head thrown back against the wall, eyes crinkled into half-moons. The clothing absorbed the noise before it hit the walls.

“What? Why are you laughing?”

She didn’t stop. “Colby Keiser, so nervous about a drink! It’s kind of cute.”

Whether she intended it or not, her tone was condescending. “How many of these have you had?” He tried not to sound as irritable as he felt.

She held up two fingers, making the shape of a V, a sign of peace. In the darkness, his fingertips traced the valley where the two digits met. “You shouldn’t be scared, you know,” she whispered. “They’re harmless.”

Colby scowled. “I’m not scared.” He wanted to ask what they were like, so he could prepare himself but he knew that would be a mistake. The cup continued to sweat profusely, cold as crushed ice in his palm.

“I’m right here,” she said suddenly, taking his other hand and holding it in the space that separated them, intertwining their fingers. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” In the dark, it was impossible to tell if she was teasing or being serious.

He wanted to tell her he didn’t need her protection, but that sounded harsher than he meant it to, so he closed his mouth. He didn’t pull his hand free and she didn’t relinquish it. Inhaling, he heard the faint sound of air entering and then exiting his nostrils. No more fear, no more hesitation.

Colby took the straw into his mouth and drank.

The substance itself had no discernible taste and soon, sensory overload took over. He forgot he was drinking anything at all. Unlike the films of the past, Smoovies catered to all senses. He wasn’t watching the scenes play out before him as much as he was living inside of them. Visually, the images he encountered were hazy and disjointed, weaving in and out of focus, each one dissolving into the next without resolution. Some went by so quickly that he could barely process what was happening inside his head. One second, he was standing below a stormy pink sky at dusk. Dark clouds drifted. In the distant recesses of his mind, thunder grew louder. Then, a crack of lightning cutting across the sky, and in the next second, Colby had been transported elsewhere. Mid-action, he found himself running through the tall grass that surrounded an aquamarine pond. It was early morning now. The blades were wet, the aftermath of rainfall apparent in the humid air. Birds chirped unenthusiastically in the distance, lethargic. And then he was gone again, standing along a winding, unpaved road at nighttime. Enormous footprints were carved into the dirt. His gaze traveled up a pair of legs and past a thick torso and pair of puny arms to land on the monstrous jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It unhinged with a roar, revealing a row of sharp teeth that hung like stalactites from the roof of a cave. There was a long smear along its chin, the dark yellow of mustard. Then, another jump, and the sky was bright once more. He stood at the periphery, next to a group of food trucks at an outdoor festival. Various condiments in bulk containers—ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, sweet relish, sauerkraut—were lined up on top of a folding table, their labels and brand-name logos turned towards him, conspicuous. All of the jars and bottles were at least three-quarters empty. Loud, indistinct conversation continued throughout the scene, though he never saw any other people in his line of vision.

 

Colby could feel the bottom of the cup coming the same way he could with a regular straw in a regular drink: first there was that unmistakable sound of bubbles and pockets of empty air, then the realization of drinking next to nothing. But now there was an added dimension, other gaps that appeared here and there, holes in moving pictures and extended periods of silence amidst a steady stream of noise. The resulting landscapes were erratic and fitful, like a night of bad dreams, accompanied by halting auditory arrangements. They filled Colby with a sense of loss so intense and unexpected that he nearly gasped out loud, somehow deficient. The sensation snapped him out of the dream, like house lights coming up in a theater after the show is over and the credits start rolling. Just like that, all of it disappeared. He was back in the hall closet with Mia, sitting in near total darkness.

For the longest time, she didn’t say anything. Then, finally: “So, what did you see?”

Colby thought back to the past ten minutes of his life that now seemed impossibly far away. He had no idea how to describe any of it in words. His breathing was ragged and uneven, forehead damp with sweat. He felt like he had just crossed the finish line after running a marathon. Even his muscles ached. “What did you see?” Their fingers were still intertwined between them. Her thumb brushed his kneecap through the fabric of his jeans.

She was silent for so long that he thought maybe she hadn’t heard his question. Maybe he hadn’t asked it, only thinking the words in his head. But then she spoke. “Bones,” she said, her head turning away from the straw, away from him. He didn’t know why, but it reminded him of a mother rejecting her newborn baby just minutes after giving birth. “I saw a lot of bones.”

For some reason, he thought there would be more to it. Maybe because that’s how his own experience had been: cloudy, drained snapshots; liquid colors melted on the insides of his eyelids; a fragmented soundscape echoing deep within his tunnel ears and down—down, down, down his throat and into his esophagus, rushing past his thumping heart and filtering into the orchestral chamber of his stomach where it pooled, finally at ease. So he sat there in silence, waiting for her to say more. Surely she would elaborate, surely she was going to share her experience, how she felt both physically and emotionally, as the Smoovie traveled through her body. But she didn’t say anything more.

Without moving, he considered what she had said. Bones. Colby knew about bones. When he was in first grade, his class had gone on a field trip to the natural science museum. In the lobby was the skeleton of a reconstructed stegosaurus, standing upright on a platform as if the creature were still alive and fully functional. One of the bones in its front leg had been missing. And thanks to an irritating song that his music teacher had been obsessed with, and to the ever-mysterious Dr. Ezekiel, Colby was an expert on humans as well: he knew exactly which bones in the body were connected to which other ones, the head bone connected to the neck bone, the neck bone connected to the back bone, the back bone connected to the whatever bone, and so on. Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around. Their class sang the song at the annual recital once, his teacher waving the conductor’s baton at them with exaggerated verve. Years later, his older brother Jack dropped out of college and returned home, announcing himself a vegetarian: “I won’t eat anything that has a skeleton,” he repeated over and over, inhaling loaves of jalapeño cheese bread and entire vegetable platters in one sitting while the other Keisers sawed at T-bone steaks with silver cutlery. And then there was his sister Brianna and her frail arms, the teeth on the zipper of her plum-colored prom dress parting to reveal her knobby spine and each individual bone in her ribcage, evident beneath her skin. Finally, there was that one night, when he stood at the top of the stairwell leading down into the basement and watched his mother deconstruct the infamous Weigh-dio, screw by screw, circuit board by circuit board, disconnecting everything inside that made it work, made it monstrous, sobbing the whole time, cursing as she threw the pieces in the incinerator. All the while, a sheaf of advertisement pages already blackened in the flames, revealing multiples of the same man and the same distinctive mustache that hid his artificial smile.

In the closet, Colby swallowed, partly in an attempt to bury an impending burp, and suddenly the image of a large eye (opening and closing, opening and closing) framed by scaly, wrinkled skin, chased its way around his brain, translucent and fading with each reiteration, as if it were printed on a piece of tracing paper that was disintegrating by the second.

“I…I think need to rinse my mouth.” He was trying to stay calm. “Can I use your bathroom?”

Mia didn’t answer, but her fingers untangled from his, and wordlessly, she parted the winter coats that hung like a theater curtain before them, revealing a dark and golden doorknob.

 

When Colby opened the door to leave the small, dark crawlspace of the closet, he nearly fell several times as he tried to stand. His fingers hooked onto whatever they could find in order to steady his feet, find a balance. Those winter coats were the most common casualties of his flailing arms. He clutched the hems of empty sleeves, as if there were human arms reaching out of them, hands to hold for comfort. Underneath his fingertips, he felt their materials: corduroy, polyester, leather, denim, wool. He felt that tension of resistance before the plastic hangers gave and toppled from the wooden bar, the jackets flying off with them.

Mia was still sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up against her chest. She laughed as the outerwear piled over her. “Careful. Give your eyes some time to adjust, will you?” As if it were common sense. As if she even had any idea, being blind. Suddenly, a sharp streak of cruel, absurd jealousy hit him. How much easier it must be, he thought, to go through life not being able to see anything. How much easier it must be, not having to avert your eyes to avoid catching a glimpse of the ugliness that rears its head in this world, often without announcing itself.

But he lingered there until the dizziness subsided, knowing the thought would pass, knowing the definition of ugliness was not confined to the aesthetic or the visual. “Sorry, I don’t know what’s—I’m—sorry. Sorry!” More coats fell and he heard another muffled snort as he exited. Colby stumbled toward the bathroom across the hall, pitching forward as he neared it. The door was already open, beckoning for him to enter the little room with its linoleum floors and pastel wallpaper. He shut the door behind him and heard it lock with a satisfying click. And then he stood there, leaning against the sink counter with his hands along the ledge to support his body’s weight. He looked at his reflection for some time, examining his eyes first, searching for any discernable side effects from the drink, and then moving down to his lips and tongue to see if they had taken on the same vibrant swirl of colors that had existed inside the Smoovie cup half an hour before.

His eyes looked normal. Tired, yes, but not swollen, not bloodshot. He saw traces of aquamarine and violet hues trapped along his cracked lips and on his tongue, but they were dull and muted, not hot pink or electric blue. He made the mistake of gulping air into his lungs and the sensation overtook him again. Wide and expansive on the canvas of his inner mind, that enormous reptilian eye opened and closed, the image slowly deteriorating in his mind.

With both hands cupped underneath the running water, he drank. He gurgled and spit, careful to leave the washbasin in pristine condition. Diluted color ran down the drain in rivulets, through the metal pipes between the walls and underneath the floorboards. Where did all that water go? The city was like a human body, made up of a concealed network of tubes and narrow passageways: complex mechanisms that, for the most part, worked modestly away without recognition or need for attention. It was only when they failed that we took notice, wondered what went wrong and where.

Colby tore off a few perforated squares of toilet paper and wiped the excess water from the sink counter. There wasn’t much there to look at. An unassuming bottle of antibacterial hand soap in the scent of blood oranges—liquid still filled to the top—stood near the faucet. That was all. He pumped the dispenser and soap foamed into his palm. He sniffed, taking in the fragrance before lathering and rinsing it off. Nothing interesting in the medicine cabinet either: an almost-empty box of flesh-colored bandages, a pocket-size container of Tums, and a few unopened packages of toothbrushes. He shut the mirrored door, disappointed.

“Mom! You’re home early!” On the other side of the door, the surprise in Mia’s voice was evident and it snapped him back to attention. Colby imagined her emerging from the hall closet as an unrecognizable creature, faceless and covered in a layer after layer of dusty windbreakers and anoraks.

It was an amusing image, but he found it hard to laugh. Quickly, he checked his reflection again, smoothing the errant strands of hair down until he looked presentable.

“Mrs. Young!” Colby tried his best to sound composed as he emerged from the bathroom. He noticed the brown paper bags on the kitchen table, fresh from the grocery store. “So glad to finally meet you. And may I say that you have a beautiful closet.” He coughed, choking on his own saliva. “Beautiful home! You have a beautiful home.”

The woman looked bewildered. She was holding a large block of cheese in one hand and a toothpick dispenser in the other.

“Beautiful home,” Colby repeated, looking around at the plain, unadorned walls. He coughed into his fist some more, thumping his chest. “Went down the wrong pipe! Ahem.”

Mrs. Young blinked rather rapidly. She glanced down at the toothpicks in her hand, and then at the block of pale orange cheese, still sealed in plastic. “Colby?” She held the object out to him like a sacrificial offering.

“Yes, that’s me,” Colby agreed, flustered. She was obstructing the front door, his only exit. “If you’ll excuse me, I was just about to leave.” He maneuvered his way past her with as much sophistication as he could muster. “Really—it was truly a pleasure to meet you. Truly a pleasure.” As soon as he was out the door, he broke into a full-fledged sprint. The sun was out, but on the verge of setting. His shadow stretched far across the concrete sidewalk, crooked as it hit the curb, and spilled onto the road. There he ran, elongated and thin.

Yes, this was a very bright world they were living in. Very luminous, very bright.

 

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SANYO DIGITAL CAMERASusan L. Lin hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California. “Apertures” is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress Tyrannosaurus Rexia, which explores artificiality, hybridization, technological advancement, de(con)struction of body, and the life and death of prehistoric dinosaurs, as seen through the lens of one boy’s coming-of-age experience. Other passages have previously appeared in Ghost TownMadHat Annual, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review(Chrysanthemum). You can fish the waters for her recent blog posts at Goodbye to the Ocean.

 

 

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