Doug Cornett lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a student in the M.F.A. Fiction program at Portland State University. He earned his B.A. from Skidmore College and was the recipient of the 2003 Denise Marcil Prize in Fiction. His work has previously appeared in such publications as Fringe Magazine, Word Riot, and Prick of the Spindle. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories.
Sometimes I think of myself as a weather girl. I'm not, of course. I'm a man, for one thing. But sometimes I'm the pretty weather girl standing in front of the darkening skies, the gathering black winds, bravery all over my face. I'm breathing deep and e-nun-ci-at-ing. In front of the darkening sky, my hair whips this way and that. My microphone chord is horizontal in the wind; I stumble to keep footing in my heels. Behind me an old wooden barn folds, a cow drifts by and moos in the tumult. My stocking gets a run.
I do my own make-up, even though there are people who would do it for me, because I enjoy it, and it's one of those little things that makes me different. People say all the time that I'm a real person, a real kind of person. I spend long nights at my desk at the office, in front of computer screens beeping, flashing with numbers. One of the computer screen features a view of the sky directly outside my office, all day long. Expressionless blue, irked chunks of gray clouds. Another computer screen features a series of circles, one inside the other, all the time getting wider until they are off screen. It looks like a radar on a submarine, and sometimes when milky shapes appear and traverse the circles, I sit up and type something into a different computer. My ringless fingers manipulate the keyboard with satisfying pops. I am always chewing on pencils; I have a whole drawer full of chewed pencils, you could open it up and look at them.
I've lost my communication feed with the station. We're out here all alone, my cameraman and I, in this rural storm scene. He's too embarrassed to let on, but I can tell he has a thing for me. I catch him following my legs all the way from the ground up. It's ok, I think, I'd do the same.
The dark sky behind me resembles a black canvas. The clouds and the tiny little drops of rain have bumpy textures and seem like they've been painted on. A lightning fork appears in the corner—it looks artificial, juvenile. The wind works itself into a fit; I am lifted into the air and disappear in the storm.
I have more money than anybody I've ever met. My house is a city block, I've never even been to all its rooms. New wings are always being thrown onto the ends of old ones, and carriage houses are constantly being built on top of other carriage houses. Like a cartoon, I jump off a diving board into an Olympic size swimming pool filled with gold coins. I'm so rich that even when I joke like this, you'll never be able to tell if I'm joking.
I'm a king, or an emperor—I'm always forgetting which. Imagine the mansion that a king or emperor would have. Imagine the endless tunneled corridors and the obligatory labyrinth garden, the tired exotic beasts (drool suspended from the eaves of their mouths). A dizzying supply of silver objects. Imagine long-ignored secret passages leading underground. Cobwebs, footprints in dust. Imagine a moat girdling the outer walls (I don't have this yet, but I am forever planning). Picture a man shuffling through these grounds, as tall and normal as anybody, wearing an old plaid button-down shirt. Picture him alone.
A man like me has all the time in the world. Most days I walk around the estate, examining the various rooms and halls for anything that may have changed from the previous day. Have the walls changed color? Are there holes in the wood floors where there weren't yesterday? Is that portrait on the wall wearing a different expression?
I like to think that each day is a mystery to be solved, with clues hidden all over my estate. My bacon curls on my breakfast plate just so, a message from the chef who is on to something. Discreet hieroglyphics appear knotted into the oaken table, plunging me to the library to decipher their meaning. The mustached man who wheels the bedding to the laundry room is a spy; his hanging gut and soft jelly flesh a disguise. I follow him the entire afternoon, keeping my distance and ducking behind pillars. Was there something silver concealed in that duvet cover? Is he whispering into his sleeve? If noticed I avert my eyes. I'm looking for something, but never mind, I've just remembered where I left it.
There are days when I'll select a remote location—there are plenty to choose from—and sit as still as I can for hours. The sun goes down, the walls grow dark around me. I concentrate on the image of a crack in the sidewalk I once saw outside. In my mind, I follow it as it lances forward irregularly. When a pair of legs swing over it, I attach myself to them. That is who I am for the day.
Sometimes I think of myself as a native on a far away island. I have some such animal's bones through my nose and ears. I am stalking the beach for wild boar when a man emerges from the green sea, dressed head to foot in torn clothing. He approaches me slowly, keeping his hands up like he is blind and feeling his way forward. I crouch away, jab the air with my spear, unable to understand his strange words. He says, “Where is this?” over and over but I am incapable of knowing what that means.
I want to separate him out, boil his limbs up in a pot. Dance around him with my friends, singing our songs. Imagine the songs a native might sing, dancing around a boiling pot. I want to look him in the eyes and laugh at his clothes, call him a dog. I want to show him that there is a place this far away from home. That this place you cannot return from.
Sometimes I think I'll build a museum, stories tall, and feature only one exhibit, right in the middle of the center room. Every other room will be white-walled, empty. People will put their noses up to the walls, squinting, trying to convince themselves there are faint lines drawn over the white. Most who come to the museum will get frustrated and lose hope, leave before they ever find the exhibit in the middle of the center room. Perhaps there will be a sculpture of a nude woman, or a piece of ancient jewelry. Discounts for seniors and kids under twelve.
Perhaps sometime soon I'll hide from my employees, my subjects. One night they'll see me shuffle into my bedroom, shut the door behind me, and the next morning I'll be vanished. At first they won't wonder at it too much, as on occasion I like to make myself scarce, even to my closest assistants. But they'll call me for breakfast, for lunch, and where could I be? I won't be in the dining hall, or the movie theater, or even in the keep. I won't be answering my cell. Nobody will have seen me all day in the garden. They'll call out my name, timidly, over the intercom. They'll resort to shouting. Somebody will even have to leave the grounds and stalk the city streets, on the off chance I've left. But they won't find me; I'll be somewhere else.
At the end of a day or so they'll accuse one another of negligence. You've lost him! Their voices will grow more strained, they'll start banging on the walls and listening for echoes. They'll run down the corridors instead of walk, they'll curse and yell “Over my dead body!” and some will sit with tears in their eyes, bewildered.
They'll scavenge through security camera footage, log hours of black and white images that will yield nothing. They'll meet in the ballroom, concoct charts and discuss likelihoods. They'll establish a radius, separate into groups. All the while they'll be yelling out my name.
Days will pass. Eventually they'll realize it's no use. I've disappeared. They'll stop running and yelling, they'll sit down at tables and fix each other with defeated gazes. They'll eye the compound walls uneasily, feel somehow that they are closing in. Someone or other will sigh, exhausted and famished from the search. He'll fetch himself a piece of bread from the pantry and a glass of water. He'll take a bite, chew slowly.
That's when I'll appear, from a fold in a curtain or out from behind the refrigerator. I'll blast the bread from his hands, snarling. I'll bite at him, kick at him, order the others to restrain me. I'll tell him he never loved me, that I'll eat him alive. We'll all struggle together, lose our breath. We'll all lean against each other, our chests heaving.
“I never went away,” I'll say to them. And to him, the one whom I attacked, I'll rub his shoulder. I'll pat his back and let him know it's ok.
Sometimes I think of myself as a famous comedian who has taken ill. I've entertained millions but these days I can tell something isn't right. I tell all of my friends as much.
“What are your symptoms?” they ask, which is difficult to answer because there aren't any. When they ask me this, I tend to rub my neck and look over their shoulders as if there were something to see in the distance.
“How long has your neck been stiff?” they ask, but it isn't.
My wife tells me to see the doctor. She is either concerned or she doesn't believe me. He holds a stethoscope to my chest and back, listening for something that he doesn't hear. He asks me what my symptoms are. Behind him, out the window, I watch a woman walk on crutches to the passenger side of a red compact sedan. I feel a pang of jealousy.
My wife and I have dinner at a fancy restaurant and when the food arrives something within me goes awry. The tenderloin does not agree with my condition.
“What condition?” my wife mutters, starting the car up.
Each morning I wake up and my legs fail to ache, my bones continue to be healthy. Still, the illness gathers me bit by bit. Soon there'll be nothing left.
Sometimes I imagine I've died a hundred times over in these walls and there are a hundred of my ghosts wandering about from room to room, each believing himself still alive, the only real me. I imagine I am one of these ghosts, just one of these unremarkable ghosts. We hang around, crushed by the hours, living in our counterfeit way.
The real me thinks he sees something at the foot of his bed. He hears faint snores next to him in the night. He feels a coolness on his bare legs. At the end of our days, we all pile in there with him.
Sometimes I think of myself as a midnight prowler. I come from nowhere—I simply appear on your block in the middle of the night, dressed all in black. I look exactly like you're afraid I do; dark from head to toe and savage, not quite human. I can walk as quietly as I like, but I step on twigs in your back yard and creak in your hallway because I want you to think you hear something. I like for you to tell yourself it's nothing.
The police are always after me. They search silently for a disturbed local man. They cruise slowly up and down the black maple lined streets, shining their spotlights at tree trunks and garbage cans. I don't mind them; they're just doing their jobs as I am mine, because as far as I'm concerned it's all just business. Somebody has to show the children and even the adults that you have to be scared of something, no matter what it is.
Maybe it was you whom I found the other day. Maybe it was you that I came across while walking in my garden, crouched behind a shrub cut into a giant sphere.
You had scaled the wall because you wanted to get a peek, and you hadn't meant to trespass, but your foot snagged and you fell. I bristled at your swollen ankle and stroked your head, told you not to worry.
“I promise not to tell,” you said, looking around at all that you could see.
We walked together. I pulled a lever and brought you down into my underground tunnels, where we ducked bats and disappeared from each other in the long stretches between flickering wall candles.
You were unimpressed. “Yes, but hasn't this all been done?” your eyes seemed to say when I showed you the lonely grand ball room, the city view from my stone tower.
I offered you cookies, and between gulps of chocolate milk you told me you were bored. You were disappointed to find that everything was just as you'd expected it.
“Everything's been done under the sun,” I said, walking you down the front path toward the gate.
“Amen to that,” I added.
Sometimes I think of myself as an amateur magician. I'm nervous for the show. Sweat gets in my eyes but I cut the lady in half.
I've never been able to grow a good enough mustache, so I wear a fake one. It's black and waxy, curled in the corners. My eyebrows are naturally thick and I know that it makes me look like a caricature of a magician, which of course is what I feel like.
I used to have two beautiful assistants, now I have one that, truth be told, is less than beautiful. She is paper thin and seems delicate enough, but when you stand close to her you realize she breathes heavily through her nose. Once you've noticed this, it is very hard to hear anything else. When I'm crouched at her feet behind a false glass window, and she's convoluting her body for the audience, I wonder was her nose tampered with sometime in the past, or was she like this even as a little girl?
My brother has driven in for the show tonight, and he's sitting in the fifth row. That's far enough away not to see my hands shake when I pull out the three white doves that will flutter above my head, above the heads of the audience. Some nights, the doves make for the vents in the ceiling and the show is lengthened by several minutes.
My brother is a dreamer. For my final trick of the evening he imagines me transforming into a thousand drops of rain, pouring myself onto the roof of the nightclub. But after all, I'm only an amateur, and I plunge myself into a tank of lukewarm water instead.The crowd has seen this one before and some are restless, they want something fresh. They want magic, their bones to bend under their skin. They want to stay up all night second-guessing. But this is all that I have. This is all that I ever wanted to be.