Excerpt from Bottleneck

by by Kate Van Brocklin

illustration by by Annika Finne

The pillow was a soft, cool cave for everything dark. Waking up with a damp neck and mossy hair, she was still stuck in the hot seaweed. A howling wind battered the windows, thirsting to crack her. There were only windows; she had never known walls. Salt flooded her nostrils and her stomach swooped and she knew that this was it, that this time she was truly paralyzed. If she tried to lift her ankles she would only feel buzzing teeth chewing across her brain. When the numbing subsided she would be released. Breath tuned to the wind’s hollow sucking, she narrowed in on her own howls. Each inhalation brought her farther from her body. She was leaving this shell, finally. Baring her teeth at the skeletal brace that hulked in the corner, she soared, then faltered. A big toe flexed beneath the covers.

She knew the words before the meaning struck. She first heard it when she was learning how to walk again—that glass forms when lightning hits sand. That’s what happened to you, her father would say. That’s why you’re all glassy. She used to believe that all teacup-boned girls lived in towers above the roiling sea. Then she found a stash of National Geographics while chasing a marble and maddeningly blushed while ravaging the pages, getting paper cuts and smearing blood on a gaunt-faced village. No metal encased them, no plaster. Before long her father found oily stains all over the gloss, the pictures of hungry girls in Laos, places where someone had fingered their malnourished bones. After that she found calcium supplements under the bed instead.

The moon and a full glass of milk leered above her spine in its serpentine curve. The wire between the girl and her father became taut at night, though he tried to lighten the air with cello concertos, violas, and the sounds of hollow instruments. Every time milk appeared her eyes fogged over, little ocean marbles. She sat in the high-backed wooden chair, chin raised, posture searing. If she faced the black window a monstrous figure was spat back. The spotlight pulsed its code into the void, illuminating the metal plate that covered her torso. She hummed and avoided the glass’s gaze. Her father’s veins throbbed all over the cream cascading down the sink. Plugging her ears against the gurgling that went straight down into the sea, she imagined that her unwanted milk was what made the waves froth and furious.

Walking around the lighthouse, she never knew where to put her hands. She would stumble around on her large feet, arms stretched out, as if blind. Only in the earliest morning could she play these games. Abandoning the insulated slippers at her bedside, she pretended she was a grasshopper and sidled along the whitewashed floors, wincing and smiling with each splinter. On the rare occasions when empty wine bottles were on the kitchen table, she knew she could risk the door. It always surprised her how nimbly the lock sprung after having gathered so much pressure. Stepping pointed-toed on the balcony, she could never brace herself for the fury. Shutters clapped above water’s standing ovation. A murmuring crawled across the depths. Pressing her plastic-sheathed body against the curved stucco wall, she fell into the violence and watched the clouds bloom. Each bloody hue screamed on the horizon. That means East. This is when she first began dreaming of deserts and how to reach one.

Her bones sweltered beneath her shell. Sometimes a breeze flooded her spatial bits and she imaged falling from a window. There was a time when she tried jumping off tall chairs, dressers, her bed, only to find the metal trappings beneath her feet magnetized to the floor. She would practice lifting her tingling legs as high as they could before they suctioned back down. Her father would hunch down the narrow hallway and stand in the crooked light, watching her trudging through invisible molasses, her face electrified.

With one lurch it would all be flushed away. Her feet were bare and raw where the metal had rubbed. Looking down at her lobster flesh, she curled her toes around the balcony’s edge and felt the concrete’s abrasion. Below, the swells formed hoops. She was not her body so her body let go.

A claw gripped her. Her eyes ran up the stranger’s arm, the lacework of veins and moles. She searched his face but found no anger. He was a raccoon boy with deep caverns under his eyes and sand in all his cuts. There was something about the way he rasped that struck her. His hand was still wrapped around her metal sheath so tightly she thought she saw an indent. The breathing, something about his breathing. She remembered it growing louder as someone trundled up the winding staircase. The sound of smothering, the gulping. The food boy. Teetering against the wind in a violent hug, beets rolled at their feet and over the edge.

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her farther over the railing. Stomach lurching, she saw what he aimed at—the little rowboat being knocked against the rocky bank. She stared at the frantic wooden frame surging with the maniacal waves. Running her hands down her second skin, she peered at his bony face and shook her head. Her owl eyes blinked too much. He looked at her intently before swinging up the paper bags of food and slipping back into the kitchen. Following him, the girl heard muffled poundings from down the hallway. She staggered into the shadows where the voice like a hot iron rod clanged. Let me out! She’ll disintegrate I tell you! She’ll just die! Slowly backing away, she turned around and saw the deep eyes rippling. He set the silver key on the wooden table and stepped away, raising his eyebrows.

Metal dug into her thighs with each winding step. The boy’s hand guided her along the narrow curvature, but she was stiff and confined in her trappings. The metal hummed on her bones. When she reached the last step, her whole body propelled backwards. Spine arced and limbs splayed, she clattered and yet could still move. She stood up again, realigned her vertebrae and gawked at the boy. I didn’t break. She flapped her arms wildly as the metal smashed against itself. Of course you didn’t. What did you think you were made of? The boy chortled and began cutting at the metal with a sharp blade. Each piece falling to the rocky floor screeched. The final piece was wrapped around her torso, and without it her stomach expanded as she let out a long breath. She ran her fingers across the doughy expanse. Lagoons of purple and green spotted her whole body. The boy draped a thick woolen blanket over her and held the boat steady as she clamored in. He cut the rope loose and started the small motor. Shaking under the wool, she feverishly pushed on the marks. No matter how hard she rubbed at the bruises they wouldn’t smear.

She had found it all strange: how he had two train tickets for that afternoon, the way he ignored people who tried talking to them, that the tent was already set up on the anonymous landscape. But the sand was the so richly clay red that she laid her head back down and let the thought skate away. If she squinted, her vision blurred the edges of all that she could see and the vastness could eat up the sea. Tiny particles shivered over her arm hairs as she licked her dry lips. She closed her eyes and imaged sinking beneath the sand. Burrow yourself down enough and no one even knows you lay there in the dampness, she told the boy. The trick is to close your eyes very tight and even you don’t know you’re there. But the boy wasn’t listening. He sprung up, suddenly alert, and craned his neck in the direction of nothingness. Grabbing the girl’s arm, he pulled her skin into the tent. The small purple canvas swished as she tumbled in, still getting used to her own limbs. The boy’s eyes were swollen and swimming. She looked to him in hope that this was a game that he was making up as he went along. She stuck a finger into his jawbone. He whipped his head around and gaped. His angles were shifting; he no longer appeared carved but hollow instead. The tent was palpitating now. What’s happening? Howling. He took one of her limp arms. You can move, see? Flap your wings. Look, real skin! He swung her pendulum arm. Ouch. Stop it. She crawled toward the tent’s flap but he caught her with one arm. They sat crouched with eyes flying. The girl watched the canvas gulping sand through the cracks. There was a wailing outside that wanted in.