"I talk to you through this gauze of lying, 'cause there is no death, only dying." Feast's third album blared from the living room speakers and Richard listened to Lauren's voice belt out the lyrics.
He rested his chin in front of the pin box on the black bedroom dresser and watched the pins slide slowly, one at a time, toward his face. Lauren had picked up the toy at a Sears clearance sale. She'd brought the thing home, poked her fingers into it, then her tongue; she had even squished her breasts together and pushed her nipples into the pins to form images on the other side.
This time, it was her fingers.
It was just like her to use a toy to reach out to him. Every part of life -- their marriage, her music, even fame -- had always been a game to her, and she still treated it that way, even three months after her death.
Richard put his nose to the clear Lexan front of the pin box, and his breath fogged the plastic. His scalp prickled; static electricity pulled at the hair falling across his forehead. He smelled the plastic, oily and synthetic like a baby's chew-toy, and the metal pins beyond, sharp and tangy like blood. He held his breath for a few seconds until the fog cleared away.
Lauren's right-hand fingertips worked their way slowly toward Richard. The silvery pins made him think of the time she'd painted her nails chrome for one of a hundred Feast goth-rock concerts at the Palladium or the Whisky or some other Los Angeles club. That night the paint had completely worn off onto her guitar strings before the end of her set.
Just before the middle finger pins tapped against the Lexan, the tip of her thumb appeared, then pressed forward as she reached toward Richard.
"What do you want me to say?" he asked, breath fogging the plastic again. He touched it with the tip of his tongue, got a little electric shock. He jerked back. It didn't taste like her at all, but the pain was familiar. "You're the one who left me, remember?"
Her fingers clenched; the pins shifted, sliding back from the Lexan as if pulled by a magnet. But she couldn't move the metal pins sideways, couldn't bend them. She was reacting, pissed off. Or maybe she was trying to get a sound from the pins, like guitar strings, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Richard expected the fingers to withdraw -- maybe all but the middle one -- and for her to leave him alone again with just an expression of hate, pain, long-suffering angst preserved in metal.
But she didn't. All five fingers stretched further for Richard's face, and hit plastic instead. The static in the air brushed his hair up and away from his eyes.
Reaching went beyond anything she'd ever done in life. The feeling of a possible connection with Lauren offered more of a thrill than Richard remembered experiencing at any time when she was alive. He was a step closer to what other people told him they got from love, that magical world where a smile conveyed more than an hour of talking, and the touch of one fingertip could write a novel upon the skin. It was what he knew heaven must be like. And it seemed appropriate that it would come from her now, after her death.
"I want to help," Richard said. He hesitated. "And I want you back."
He knew that wasn't possible. There was no coming back. What did she expect of him? Would she want him to pull her back from heaven? Not like he'd ever actually had her, not completely, or like she was someone who could be had, even in death. She'd always belonged to her music, to her guitar, to her band. Maybe heaven didn't even have her, in much the same way. Were there grimy, smoke-filled bars in heaven, places for souls to go, good souls who needed to see the darkness once in a while? People got tired of too much light.
The fingers twitched again, and the frame jumped on the dresser. For a fraction of a second, The pins appeared to narrow and elongate, distorting the fingers into pointed claws seen in a funhouse mirror. Richard moved back from the frame, blinked. And then the sense of her presence was gone. Just like that. That feeling of heaven, that bliss, had disappeared, leaving an almost tangible sense of absence. His hair dropped across his forehead and covered one eye. There was nothing left of her but the impression of her distorted fingers.
Richard tapped the Lexan, then reached his hand around and slowly pushed all the pins to their ends, up against the plastic. He felt each one, as if they might go from cold metal to warm flesh at any moment. As if they might become Lauren, and allow him to touch her again. But they remained rough, solid, and dead. He lifted the frame and dropped the pins back into place. A clean slate.
But that, too, was just like Lauren. It was another new beginning, another promise in a string of promises never kept. It was an assurance she would do better next time. She was asking for another chance, in her way. It said All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up. Or, in Lauren's case, her music video or cum shot or fade-out or maybe just one more bullet to the temple.
Lauren came again at three in the morning. The hair rose on Richard's neck and he woke as the bedroom boom box clicked on. The first track on Feast's second album blared. "Don't want to miss a thing, you said. Don't want to miss a thing, so you can sleep when you're dead."
Richard had been dreaming of their time in Hawaii. It was a club tour masquerading as a vacation. Richard had wanted to lie on the beach, maybe try surfing. Lauren had insisted on getting plastered, stripping naked, and chasing mongrel dogs through Honolulu alleys. They'd gotten arrested for that. Vacation in jail.
"We're in hell," Lauren had said through the bars.
"How can you tell?" Richard had replied.
She'd run her fingertips along the wall of her jail cell, then along the bars that separated her from Richard.
"I can feel it. It's in the texture of the suffering that's gone on here. We're part of it now. I feel like I'm being torn between heaven and hell."
Then she was writing. In her head, she was already writing and composing the song.
In Richard's dream, she had smiled, and it was a smile that radiated warmth and genius and understanding of the human condition. But she'd never done that in real life. She might have understood it all, even let it out in her music, but she had never smiled.
Richard flipped on the bedside light and held the pin box in front of his face. She was there; he could feel her in the static that brushed his ears and caressed the back of his head. Her nose poked slowly through the pins, and slid toward him. There were Lauren's nostrils, the left one slightly smaller than the right. Then the curve of her upper lip, then her lower lip and her chin. Delicate features made rough and brutish in the metalscape.
"I miss you," Richard said.
A whisper. An exhalation. Richard strained to hear. He was sure Lauren said, "Help me."
"What?" Richard said. "Help you how?"
"Release." It was a hiss of air through a car tire valve. It was the last of the whipped cream can. It was sharp, and quick, and compressed. Richard shivered.
"Hurry," she said.
"What can I do?" he said. "Show me."
Lauren's mouth opened in a distorted bending of pins, the pin box seeming to twist and warp as sharp teeth gnashed out toward the Lexan.
Richard cried out and flung the pin box to the bed. He backpedaled away from the face that twisted and roiled silently within the metal. The pins moved so quickly the face appeared almost liquid. It moved from Lauren's fine features to an elongated snout, sharp teeth, jutting chin. Then back to Lauren. It was her, yet it was something else, something darker than her. Something that wanted to stop her from communicating with the living.
For a moment, Richard hesitated, afraid the creature might return. Then he steeled his courage, grabbed the pin box and shook it vigorously, ignoring the shock it sent up his arm. When he stopped, the face was caught mid-change between Lauren and whatever else was trying to break through. He stared at it until he was sure it wasn't going to come alive again, then gingerly touched the backs of the pins and tried to push them in, but they wouldn't go. They were fused together, solid, and the plastic was melted around them. He shuddered at the texture of the creature locked in the box. It was like running his fingers along a squeaky clean glass fresh from the dishwasher, or touching a terry towel after spending too much time in the pool, skin waterlogged and clammy. He set the pin box on the bedside table, under a line of framed photos hanging on the wall.
Gathering his thoughts, Richard looked at the photos, most of them images Lauren had captured on film during their trip to Catalina Island ten years ago. He revisited that day with each photo: the bright sunshine glimmering off Avalon Harbor, the old slow boat leaving port for Long Beach, the road to the Wrigley Memorial.
Only one photo was Richard's, showing Lauren sitting cross-legged on the scrubby grass near the old casino. She was playing an acoustic guitar and scrunching her face in a snarl. Someone else might have mistaken it for laughing, since that went along with the sort of music she'd played back then. It had been silly folk songs from the sixties, and Richard had laughed as he took the photo. Then he recorded her playing with his cheap Walkman. She'd finished playing and said, "I love you," for the first and only time.
Then she'd gone beyond that kind of music and on to goth, on to fame and fortune.
And now she was dead and would never go beyond that.
This last visit had been too short. It seemed like Lauren left sooner each time, left Richard alone with the pain, the feeling of suffering, of angst, that was so familiar. Richard wondered if that was hell calling her. Maybe a clerical error had sent her to the wrong place. Maybe heaven and hell were timeshares. Each time she spent more and more time in hell, less and less in heaven. Hell sent its gatekeeper to find her and retrieve her, and eventually she'd be gone from his life completely. He'd be left with just the image of the creature, and he would lose her.
Or perhaps she just needed more surface area to communicate. He grabbed his jacket and went to the hardware store to buy nails.
The basement had a puke-green garage-sale throw rug on the floor that looked better than the bloodstained concrete below. Richard hadn't come down here in months, though, so it hadn't mattered to him. Until now.
The basement had been Lauren's practice studio. Her guitars lined one wall, hung on hooks. Amps were scattered around under the single high window that looked out to the backyard. Cables were everywhere. A poster on one wall proclaimed, "Feast, opening for Type O Negative." An old pine dresser Lauren had kept since her childhood sat in one corner. It was covered with rock band stickers.
The dresser scared him even more than what was under the rug. She'd had it longer than she'd had him, and -- until her death -- he had always feared it was filled with love notes from fans, or hate letters she'd never sent to him. Maybe a diary. Now he thought there might be a hidden compartment the cops hadn't found, something secret. Maybe more suicide notes.
Richard decided not to think about the desk, or about his urge to lift the rug and revisit what lay beneath.
Instead, he stood back and admired his handiwork. The frame was eight feet high and four feet wide, bolted to the floor and ceiling. The plywood board covering its surface was riddled with little holes, like fine pegboard. And in each hole was a shiny steel nail. The hardware store clerk had filled his cart with boxes of long small-head nails.
"Five-inch stainless brads oughtta do ya," the clerk had said. "This is like one of those pin art toys, huh?"
"For my wife," Richard said. "She's an artist."
People kept telling him how weird it was for Lauren to shoot herself. Men shot themselves or drove their cars off cliffs, but women usually opted for things like pills, or razor blades, or maybe sometimes jumping off bridges. No, he hadn't known that, Richard always said. But Lauren certainly had. And she hated to copy other people. Every facet of her music had to have her stamp of originality. Even her death had to state that she was an individual woman, that she was as good as any man. That she could kill herself just as well. Richard would have thought she'd have used a completely original way of doing it, something novel, but no. She couldn't do what he expected her to do either.
Richard ran his hand along the nail heads, flattening them all against the board. He milled around the basement, running his fingers along guitars and amps. Then the dresser. He regarded it, then took a deep breath and opened the top drawer. Guitar cords, sheet music. The next was filled with effects pedals. The bottom was tapes, masters of Feast albums, some of Lauren's favorite felt marker pens, and a disposable camera. Nothing more than before, nothing different than when the police had gone through and tagged everything and given him a list. He picked up the disposable camera. It still had one shot left on it out of twelve; that meant eleven photos Lauren had taken that he'd never seen.
Richard dropped the camera back into the drawer and closed it. He didn't need anything new to hurt him, to add to his pain, yet part of him wanted to know what she'd found important enough to photograph, no matter whether it hurt him. He'd been playing her music over and over so often in his mind that he'd begun to believe her words.
He sang, "Love is forever, or so I'm told, but pain is worth much more than gold." Then he dug Lauren's dusty old Fender acoustic guitar out from behind the dresser and sat cross-legged on the floor, picking out the chords, one at a time.
And there she was, with the sliding of pins through plywood. First her nipples poked through, then breasts, nose, and chin. Richard watched in fascination as Lauren's naked body coalesced in front of him, a quarter-inch at a time. He recalled the way clothes had fit her, pants cut low enough to hang on her hips and show what kind of underwear she was wearing, or not wearing. The little black shirts that had accentuated her breasts.
Her torso appeared, complete with hips. Her thighs followed, then shoulders and legs. Her hands came into view, palms forward, just to the side of either breast, and pressed forward toward Richard.
Richard set the guitar down and stood, moving slowly toward Lauren's shape. The static blew his hair back on his head and pulled at his shirt. He moved his hands toward Lauren and touched the pins. The electric shock was intense, stronger than before, but Richard held fast. The pins resisted, and he touched his palms to hers.
Richard's eyes teared up; he fought to keep from crying.
Her entire face was there, smooth as possible in silver metal. She was every bit as beautiful as he remembered her.
"Help," whispered Lauren.
"What can I do?" he said. "Anything, and I'll do it."
"There," she said.
Lauren's finger pointed toward the dresser. Richard looked, then went to it.
"Bottom," she said, voice fading. "Quick. No time."
Richard flung open the bottom drawer. Just tapes, like before. Digital audio recordings, compact discs, some older tapes. Then one of them caught his eye. It wasn't a Feast album. It was a low-grade cassette tape that said "Untitled." He pulled the tape from the drawer and went toward Lauren.
"Yes," she said. "Release."
And then he understood. An unreleased album. This was her unfinished business on earth. And then she could move on. She could get out of whatever purgatory she was in. She could leave him. It was like a slap in the face, and Richard fought to breathe, to grasp what she was asking of him. She hadn't come back for him at all.
He walked shakily up to her.
"You bitch," Richard said. "That's all you want from me? Even after you're dead, it's all about you?"
"Please," Lauren said.
Richard held the tape in his hand, looked from it to her. Her eyes were solid metal, impassive. He couldn't tell whether she was pleading for him to help her or just to stop pitying himself. But she was there, and solid, and almost alive. He would do anything to keep her around longer.
"What's it called?" Richard said.
"Have to go," she said.
He touched her pin body, then awkwardly hugged it the best he could. Despite his words, he did not want to let go. It was as close to heaven as he'd ever been.
"Don't go." It was all Richard could think to say. It was all he could get through his lips.
"Have to," she said. "Coming for me. Love you."
And then the leaving, the absence of that euphoric feeling. Richard stepped back to regard the image of his lost wife. Perfect, peaceful, frozen in time. But how like her was that? Peaceful? Never. She had said she loved him. Maybe he shouldn't keep the image. It would not be Lauren.
Then hell caught up with the pin box. A demon twisted Lauren's form into a horned metal beast and lunged toward Richard. Richard jumped back and away from the pin box, but slipped on the rug and landed hard on the concrete floor. The beast went for him, but the nails weren't held in place, and they fell to the floor as the creature leapt, filling the basement with a cacophony of metal tinkling. The creature's shape coalesced in the mass of nails on the green carpet, fluid, half-formed. It roiled and struggled silently, then froze in place.
Richard jumped to his feet, then ran up the stairs, away from the silence of the basement.
He sat cross-legged on the bed he had once shared with Lauren. His finger hovered over the play button on the boom box. It was what she'd want him to do, to play the tape, to hear yet another of her creations. To give in to her again. Or, he could throw it away and let her stay on perpetual standby. Maybe she'd come back to visit him. Maybe.
He pressed play. Static and background noise washed over him. The first few notes made it clear that it was an old tape, recorded outdoors, not in a studio. Then he forgot all about the sound quality, forgot all about the pin box and the demon. Forgot everything but his love for Lauren as he let the music move through him, and envelop him, and remind him of what Lauren had been like on that sunny Catalina day, ten years past.
When she said, "I love you," Richard began to sob.
Richard sat in front of the pile of fused nails that littered the basement floor. He picked up Lauren's acoustic guitar and began to play. He sang softly, "And go to sleep forever, you won't die. You'll be sleeping when I join you, by and by."
He pulled a marker from the open dresser drawer and neatly labeled the untitled cassette tape, "Feel of Heaven, Texture of Hell." Then he used the disposable camera to snap a quick picture of the fused pile of nails. He'd go in and get the film developed tomorrow. Lauren would love it. It would make one hell of an album cover.
"Feel of Heaven, Texture of Hell," by Kenneth Brady, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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Kenneth Brady's short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world. He also writes for stage and screen, and has produced an independent feature film that has received several awards. He lives in Eugene, Oregon, and has an almost unnatural fascination with rubber chickens. For more about him, see his Web site.