When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote a story that scared the crap out of several of my classmates. I’d like to say that it was my command of deathless prose that did it, my grasp of visceral details that never lets you unsee a thing. I’d like to say I was a budding Stephen King, and that they begged me to scare them with my story. Nah. It was a thoroughly juvenile hit piece of the worst sort: a lonely teenage girl who’s tortured by the local bullies gets her revenge when Death Himself (for some unfathomable reason) taps her to be his successor…and she starts with her bullies.
The fact that I wrote the damned thing wasn’t the problem. It was the fact that my teachers always recognized my writing talent quickly, despite my being perennially “the new kid.” Add in one teacher desperate to look cool in front of his students—so desperate that he’d ask the new kid to read aloud from her work in front of the whole study hall without knowing what kinds of things she wrote in her personal time—and you get a literal horror story.
Because of course I was the lonely teenage girl who was being bullied by the local kids.
Because of course I dreamed about becoming Death’s right-hand girl.
And of course I’d named names.
I was angry and juvenile enough about all of it not to change the names as I read, either. I didn’t want to protect the not-so-innocent. I enjoyed the wide-eyed, uneasy looks that flickered between my bullies. I enjoyed the growing look of horror on my teacher’s face as he realized he’d made a mistake. Hell, I did more than enjoy it. I reveled in it. I was glad that teacher was such a dumb-ass ex-jock. It was my chance to shine a light on those oversized cockroaches that everybody else called “wealthy” and “popular” and “athletic,” who distracted themselves from their howling emptiness by making fun of me every day.
I’ll say this: it was a different time. Nowadays that story would’ve gotten me immediately branded as a member of the trenchcoat mafia. I’d have had every level of administration of the school descend on me like locusts. At minimum I’d have been taken to the principal’s office, and my bag and locker would’ve been searched. I might possibly have been arrested for making threats. Since it occurred in Florida, if I’d been arrested I most certainly would’ve been on the receiving end of the Baker Act shortly thereafter. But like I said, times were different. The internet didn’t exist yet. Camera phones didn’t record the horror for all to see…and judge.
As it was, the teacher was gathering the courage to tell me to stop reading when the bell rang. I serenely shut my notebook and packed my things and strode out to a thundering silence. It wasn’t applause, but it was just as loud, and it would do.
The downside: I was never asked to read aloud again. I also wasn’t asked to submit work to the school’s creative writing magazine that year, which I’d been looking forward to. It didn’t matter much, though. I was out of that school in another year, anyway. Off to another school, because to my parents the grass was always greener someplace else, year after year after year…
The upside: my bullies backed the fuck off for the rest of my time at that school. After the fictional study hall massacre, I was universally shunned as another “weird” kid. Only my teachers talked to me. So did two other “weird” kids, who were basically tender-natured, socially awkward nerds just like me. That suited me fine. It allowed me to get through the rest of another lame duck year in relative peace.
Because that was the “everyday horror” of my childhood: year after year of being unseen, or actively erased, by my parents’ choices. Since my sister was the squeaky wheel, I had to be “never a moment’s trouble.” That’s not the healthiest thing to be when I can count on less than one hand the total number of yearbooks I ever appeared in. There were years I didn’t have a picture at all, because I had been enrolled in another school on picture day. Or worse, my name was there, but it was applied to the picture of a different girl who left partway through the year. No one ever knew who I was.
Between being a ghost at school and not being listened to at home, there were times I wondered if I existed.
None of my friendships lasted longer than two years. It being the era before the internet and smart phones, once I was pulled out of a school and moved to a new one, it was as if all those new friends I’d so painstakingly made never existed. It was too hard to keep up more than that, with access to nothing more than a single shared landline and snail mail at home. It got really hard to keep up friendships when my family moved.
It got impossible when my friends died.
Yep, everyday horror. By the time I graduated high school, I’d been in nearly as many schools as grades…and I’d lost nine friends and classmates along the way.
The first was my bestie from our neighborhood at the time. He was 16 and went to a different school. I was ten. I still considered him my bestie though, because we’d spent a couple summers jumping our BMX bikes off homemade ramps together. (How sad is that, right?) But his parents gave him a moped for his 16th birthday, despite the fact that he was so immature he hung out with a ten-year-old girl unironically. He was dead before the summer was out. I didn’t go to the funeral because, you guessed it, we’d already moved to a different state before he died. I found out in the only letter the other neighborhood kid ever wrote me. At least my parents were honest: “We’re sorry, honey, we knew, we just didn’t know how to tell you.”
Then it was two deaths at the same time, the boyfriend and bestie of one of my orchestra classmates. I chatted with them daily when they came to visit her between classes. Their deaths made the local news, because they stole a car and crashed into a house. It destroyed a baby’s bedroom moments after the mother had picked the infant up from the crib and stepped out of the doorway. The funeral was closed to everyone except family, to keep the reporters out. I watched my classmate sob hysterically for days. The orchestra teacher put her in one of the sound-dampened practice rooms.
Then it was my chemistry lab partner, a sweetheart of a kid. He went out to play tennis on a hot day, got home, took one step inside his front door and dropped of a brain aneurysm. He didn’t die immediately. By the time there’d have been a funeral, I was already at another school.
Then it was my boyfriend’s childhood bestie, killed in a freak accident at a party. A bit of roughhousing turned into a playful punch to the chest…and cardiac arrest. I didn’t see the funeral. I just saw my boyfriend, 6’4” and 220 pounds, an ex-football player, curled up in my lap and heaving sobs like a broken child for weeks.
Then it was four kids dead all at the same time. They were most of a group of friends, and they were some of the only seniors who didn’t torture us weird kids sitting at the next table over in the cafeteria. They died in a boating accident that became national news. Closed funeral…again. No one sat at their cafeteria table for the rest of the year. Us weird kids didn’t even have to defend their seats, though we were prepared to.
And though Death stopped hunting my immediate circle of friends, don’t think for even a second that He moved far away: a motherfucking serial killer hit my boyfriend’s college campus during our freshman year. Close enough to make hundreds of parents at my campus come and take their kids home in moving trucks. Close enough to make my parents ask if they should come bring me home.
I said no way in hell. I wasn’t moving again except under my own power. My newly-made friends and I went everywhere in packs. We clung to our biggest male friends, even though they looked just as terrified as we girls did.
My university installed the “blue light trail,” a series of emergency call boxes with bright blue lights atop them. Some parts of campus were so dark the blue lights were the only navigable light source. But the Gainesville Ripper was said to be so stealthy he’d hidden in one of his crimes scenes while it was still being investigated by the apartment manager. Yeah sure, my friends and I said, those blue motherfucking lights are gonna do a whole lot when the Ripper left a girl’s head on a record player. He even killed an ex-football player who was 6’4” and 220…my boyfriend’s exact measurements…but for once, the poor kid who died was not a kid I knew. I felt like the universe was winking at me: See? See what I did there? It could’ve been your boyfriend, and it wasn’t. Never let it be said that I don’t love you, baby.
Yep, everyday horror.
At some point—certainly no later than 2020—a lot of the American public finally woke up to the idea that Death never stopped walking among us. It could no longer be carefully tidied away behind hospital doors, or waved away with “thoughts and prayers.” It was spilling out into the hallways of our schools, movie theaters, hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices…and then out of the morgues and into reefer trucks, and drone footage of paupers’ graveyards. It spilled into long lines in cars, and empty shelves at the grocery store. It spilled into jokes about how much our culture had to change overnight: people used to cough to cover a fart, now they fart to cover a cough. Despite the fact that our culture has spent the last two decades on permanent blast—everything down to what we had for breakfast that day photographed and expounded upon ad nauseam for every stranger to read about on the web—Death had yet to make real inroads on the public consciousness. We had been so fixated on being “internet ready” at all times that we had no idea what to do when the real Grim Reaper showed up to interrupt the feed. It was as if having all those internet news stories about ways other people died actually added to the camouflage around grinning, personal death.
And then all of America said it felt like it was waiting for the next round of bad news.
Welcome to my life, America. I’ve been living that garbage since 1972.
All of America began to realize what I’d intuited since I was old enough to go to school: There is no real protection. The white American mythology of all cops being honorable protectors has always been bullshit. The cops don’t arrive in time to actually protect anyone. They’re there to project the government’s indignation onto someone who may or may not have actually broken a law. At best the police are moral clean-up crews who mean well and think they’re helping by “getting the guy.” At worst, they’re amoral thugs who enjoy engaging in state-sanctioned violence against those who can’t fight back. In either case, you won’t find out which type of cop you’ve got on your hands until you’re alone with them and vulnerable.
Kinda like dating that way.
Parents and teachers aren’t truly protectors, either. They may say they are, and many of them even believe it. They often accomplish powerful acts of good. But the fact is that if they do anything, by definition it’ll be after the shit has hit the fan. They’ve got their own lives to live. I had to watch my devoted parents drive thousands of miles to support me during cancer to realize that, honestly, that’s the best goddamn thing I could’ve asked for. When added to the weight of their own 70-something lives, driving thousands of miles and giving away thousands of dollars to support me is an astonishing act of fortitude and love. In the support groups I’ve been privy to, I’ve heard so many people make do with so much less. In the final analysis my parents rock, because they were willing to give up so much of their personal comfort and safety to go be “in the shit” with me. The damage of my childhood didn’t arise from a lack of love. It was a direct result of the damage of their childhoods. I was so very, very lucky it wasn’t worse.
I had to grow up to realize that all any of us can do is show up to our lives and pray to still have them in the morning.
As a kid I’d intuited that fact but wasn’t ready for it. It made me angry. Hence the Death story. I hated my life and didn’t want to show up to it. But as I’ve aged I’ve learned to view that hatred as just another of the everyday, garden-variety horrors we live with…like growing up with a family so loving but so emotionally broken that I’ve sometimes referred to them as a Stockholm Syndrome rather than a family.
Or like bullies. Which I’ve had.
Like repeated losses. Which I’ve had.
Like being abused by a partner. Which I’ve been.
Like miscarriage. Which I’ve had.
Like a rare cancer. Which I’ve had, and may someday suffer again.
Like MS and Hashimoto’s, both of which I live with every day.
I’ve learned that I have to take what I can get from life. Take it in gratitude, take it in rage, doesn’t matter. But take it, whatever I need, when and where I can get it, because life won’t offer it again. It will only take more from me every fucking chance it gets.
It’s then my job to give as much as I can to others, because they need it, too.
And some fine day, as the cherry on top of a lifetime of loss, I’ll look around and realize life is in the process of taking everything from me…even my last breath.
Now, this essay was supposed to be a review of the horror anthology, Incubate. I’m not normally into horror. Maybe it’s all the leftover cringe from my “Death’s apprentice” story and its reception. Maybe it’s just the fact that my life has at times been a nonstop shitshow, and that I read either to escape it, or to get what feels like an educated edge on it.
But imagine my surprise to read Incubate and see story after story of everyday horrors…and then to see every single one of those protagonists take what was theirs, back.
Everyday horrors like rape…and the girls take revenge.
Like new motherhood alongside a cruelly neglectful partner…and the new little family takes their needed sustenance, no matter what that partner wants.
Like being overthrown for the new wife…and reaching through the new wife to get at the ex.
Like being controlled and abused…and turning the tables.
Like bullying…and payback.
What’s thrilling to read in these grown-up versions of the hit piece I once wrote is that the authors don’t go after the innocent. To be sure, the kids who tormented me weren’t wholly innocent. Ultimately they were products of a desensitizing amount of wealth, buried in a dehumanizing system. I’m certain they tortured me because someone else was torturing them—and honestly, they suffered far worse things than I did. I never showed up to school with black eyes.
But Incubate doesn’t bite the hand that strikes: it goes straight for the jugular, for the actual evil at the root of the everyday horror. It’s powerful wish-fulfillment, to see evil get what’s coming to it…especially if that evil otherwise goes about freely in society wearing a blameless face and a nice suit.
Like a woman with a finely-honed sense of justice, Incubate knows who to spare, and who to punish. And like a woman with a sense of cruelty finely honed by a lifetime of bad personal experiences, it knows exactly how to punish, too.
Incubate is a romp of a read that’ll leave you seething.
It’s a big smile with pointed teeth, and knife and fork in hand.
It’s a belly that’s had its fill of suffering but is famished for the blood of its enemies.
And as I discovered in writing this piece, Incubate is also a light that lances the dark places in your head and lets the nasty stuff come running out.
Make no mistake, Incubate is angry, and she has reason to be. So do I. But in reading and writing about our everyday horrors, we share a measure of comfort. We realize we’re not alone in the dark, both for good and ill. Together we can rove in packs, and crack jokes about the uselessness of blue lights. And together we can occasionally sit down to a meal of delicious payback. Even if it’s silent, even if it’s fictional, man is it satisfying.