Short Story–“Reading the Story”

In addition to The Eye-Dancers, I’ve written many short stories over the years.  I would like to share a few of them on here in the days ahead.  This first one is called “Reading the Story,” which I wrote several years ago and then revised a couple of times.  Hopefully the revisions have helped!

Like Mitchell Brant (and me), Peter, the protagonist of “Reading the Story,” is a devoted comic book collector.  And old, beat-up comics play an integral part in the story . . .

“Reading the Story”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

*****************

Peter had always loved the musty smell.  It made him think of old things, buried treasures, mysterious secrets waiting to be discovered.  But now as he sniffed the comic book in his hands, that smell bothered him.  It reminded him too much of decay and brokenness—and of Tanya.

He leaned back against his pillow, and looked absently at the comic book—a worn, brittle copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 28.  The cover was lined with numerous creases, the edges were frayed, and even the staples were loose, barely holding the issue together.  But he loved it just the same; he loved all of his old comics, even with their multitude of imperfections.  And the smell.  That old-comic smell.  He’d always savored that.  But not today.

There was a knock on his door.

“Peter?”  It was his mother.

“Yeah, Mom,” he said, bagging the comic in its protective Mylar sleeve and setting it aside.  “I’m on my bed.”

The door opened.  His mother looked tired and sad.  “Peter,” she began, and he knew where this was going.  He didn’t want to deal with it, but he knew he had to.  “Why don’t you go in and see your sister?  She’s in her room.”

“Do you really think that’s such a good idea, Mom?  I mean . . .”

His mother closed the door and walked over to him.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “It’s not easy knowing what to do, or what to say.  But I really think you should.  Avoiding her isn’t the answer, Peter.  That won’t help at all.”

No, it wouldn’t, Peter knew.  But then, if what had happened to Tanya, to her face, had happened to him, he wasn’t sure he’d wish to see anyone.  He might just hide away in a corner and let the world pass on by.  But he didn’t want that for Tanya.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll go.  But I won’t stay if she doesn’t want me around.”

His mother smiled.  It seemed to Peter that stubborn rusty hinges were being forced open in her face.  But they gave way, however reluctantly.  Then the smile vanished so fast, he wasn’t sure he’d even seen it.  Maybe he hadn’t.  His mother rarely smiled these days.  Why should she, after what had happened to Tanya?

“Would you like me to come in with you?” his mother asked.

“No.  Thanks, Mom, but no.  I think it would be easier if I went alone.”

She nodded and left.  Peter picked up his comic again (he didn’t know why; it just felt like a friend, a comfort somehow) and walked into the hallway.  His sister’s room was just across from his.  He took a deep breath.  He wasn’t sure if he could handle this.  He wasn’t sure if he could stand to look at Tanya’s face.

The weight of that thought, the strangeness of it, rammed into him with the force of a pile driver.  Tanya had always been beautiful, so much so that Peter had often taken her beauty for granted.  It was constant, something you counted on, like the sun rising every morning or the teacher calling on you in class when you weren’t paying attention.  Tanya was voted Most Attractive in her senior yearbook, and she had no trouble making a new boyfriend once she went to the local university.  This would have been her sophomore year in college, but she wasn’t attending this fall.  There was hope she might resume her courses again in January.  But who knew?  Who knew if Tanya wanted to do much of anything anymore?

Last summer, she had gone on a camping trip with some girlfriends.  They spent four days in the Adirondacks.  On their last night there, a stray mongrel dog came up to them as they roasted marshmallows over a low fire.  The dog did not seem threatening at first, had in fact wagged its tail when Tanya gave it a marshmallow.  But when she turned her head, the dog suddenly ripped into the right side of Tanya’s face.  The girls she was camping with later said there had been no warning, no provocation.  One minute the dog seemed friendly, the next minute it simply attacked.  Brutally attacked.  The only reason it hadn’t killed Tanya was that the other girls threw themselves on top of the dog and pulled it away from her.  They beat it and kicked it and punched it, and finally it ran back into the woods.  When a search party later looked for the dog, it wasn’t found.  It probably belonged to some backwoods hermit who didn’t keep it chained, they said after returning from their search empty-handed.

Tanya’s friends were lauded as heroes, and their bravery made the local news.  But they said they didn’t feel brave.  They just did what came naturally.  Maybe that was true, but they had saved Tanya’s life.  Too bad they couldn’t save her face.

Peter knocked on the door.  No answer.  He knocked again.

“Go away,” Tanya said from behind the door.

“It’s me,” he said.  “Peter.  Can I come in?”

There was silence.  It seemed to drag on forever.  Then, in a small voice, Tanya said, “Okay.”

He opened the door, cringing at what he might see and hating himself for it.

“Close it,” she said as soon as he stepped inside her room.

He closed the door.  Looking around, things seemed normal, as though nothing had changed.  Same flowery wallpaper.  Same bookshelf complete with the classics Tanya liked to read—Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte.  She was an English Lit major at the college.  But looking closer, Peter realized not everything in the room was the same.  The mirror that had hung on the wall no longer was there.  The fashion magazines that Tanya used to have strewn on her dresser top were gone.  And something else was gone, too, wasn’t it?  He couldn’t put a finger on it, but he could feel it.  It was as essential as it was intangible.  Was it innocence?  Girlhood dreams?  Optimism?  He wasn’t sure.  But he sensed its absence, whatever it was.

Tanya was lying on her bed, the scarred part of her face against the pillow.  Late-afternoon sunshine, mellow and lazy, streamed through the window.

“Leaves are turning color,” Peter said, not sure why.  “They’re real nice.”

“I know,” Tanya said.  She kept the ruined side of her face against the pillow as she spoke.  She wasn’t looking at Peter.  Peter couldn’t tell if she was looking at anything.  “I saw them the other day when I left the hospital.”

He cringed.  He’d hated that place, hated the aura of sickness that always hung in the air as he and his parents rushed through narrow corridors on their way to Tanya’s room.  And he hated seeing Tanya have to go through so much there.  She’d stayed in the hospital for weeks, and she underwent five separate surgeries on her face.  When they’d visit her, the right side of her face was always bandaged, and they couldn’t see the damage.  Then, just three days ago, they all saw it for the first time.  After five surgeries, they had hoped it wouldn’t be that bad.  The doctors warned them not to expect a miracle, but they hoped anyway.  How terrible could it be?  How—

“Look,” Tanya said from her pillow, “you don’t need to do this, okay?  I know you don’t want to be in here with me.  So you can go, okay?”

He almost did.  He wanted to, that was sure.  But it didn’t seem like the right thing to do.  Instead, he went over and sat on the foot of her bed.

“What’d you do that for?” she said, sounding hostile.

“I don’t know.”

Silence.  Penetrating silence.  Peter wished he could think of something to say, but he couldn’t.

“What’s that?” Tanya said.

Peter turned to look at her.  Her voice nipped into him like a gust of wind.  He hadn’t expected her to say anything.  “Huh?” he said clumsily.

“What are you holding?”

“Oh,” he said.  “It’s a comic.  Spider-Man number twenty-eight.  Classic issue.  First appearance of The Molten Man.”

Peter saw Tanya’s good eye roll.

“Why don’t you just rent the movie, you dork?” she said, and he thought he heard a faint echo of her old playfulness.  But then, maybe that was just wishful thinking.

“The movie’s not the same,” he said.  “Besides, The Molten Man isn’t in it.”

“Lemme see that for a second,” Tanya said.

He handed her the comic.

“Boy, this is beat.  Why would you want a rag like this?”  She was still hiding the right side of her face from him.

“Well,” he said, “the main reason is it’s affordable.  But I like it like that, too.  I mean, smell it.”

She put the comic to her nose and sniffed.

“Whaddaya think?” he said.  “Pretty awesome, huh?”

“Smells like dust and mouse turds,” she said.  “Why don’t you just get the new ones?”

“I do,” he said.  “But they aren’t nearly as good.  You just can’t beat a classic old Spider-Man or Fantastic Four.  And you know what?  I like that it’s beat up.  Some guys will only buy a comic if it’s in mint condition—one little scratch, and they won’t even look at it.  It’s gotta be perfect, y’know?  And they won’t read it, either.  They’ll just store it away somewhere, or maybe sell it to somebody else.”

“But you’re not like that.”  He wasn’t sure if she was complimenting him or insulting him.

“No way,” he said.  “I mean, I couldn’t be, even if I wanted to.  Like that Spidey there—” he pointed to the issue in his sister’s hands—“it’s over forty years old.  If that was in nice shape, it would cost four, five hundred bucks, easy.  I’d never be able to buy it.  But that’s not even the biggest thing.  I know it sounds weird, but I like it to be rough, I like the creases and the scuff marks.  They make it more mine, y’know?  More special.”

“More special?” she said.  “You’re right, Peter, that does sound weird.  Even for you.”

He smiled.  “I don’t really know how to explain it,” he said.  “I just love the stories, that’s all.  You don’t get the comics I do for the way they look.  You get ‘em to read the stories.  And the stories in those old comics are the best.  They’re like magic.”

She put the comic on the nightstand beside her bed.  “Look,” she said, “thanks for coming in here, Peter, but I really do want to be alone, okay?”

“Okay.”  He stood up.  “You’ll be going back to college in January, won’t you?” he said, surprising himself.  He had intended just to walk out without saying anything else.

“I don’t know,” Tanya said.  “I want to.  I mean, I really like it, y’know?  I like my classes and stuff, but . . . I just, I . . . don’t know.”

“I hope you do,” he said.  “They’ll be missing a lot if you don’t go back.”

“Will they?  I didn’t know they missed seeing freaks every day.”

“Tanya—”

“Oh, I can see it now.  First day back to classes, and as I walk in, everyone just stares.  Maybe even a few run away screaming.  Oh, yeah, I’ll be missed all right!  Sure!”

“No, Tanya, you’ve got it all wrong.  You—”

“Look at my face!” she shrieked, and she finally exposed the right side of her face to him.  It wasn’t a surprise—he had just seen it yesterday when Tanya was in the kitchen pouring herself a bowl of cereal.  But it still shocked him.  He wondered if it always would.  She wore a white patch over her right eye.  The dog had bitten into it, destroying it and robbing it of any usefulness.  Two scars snaked angrily down from the patch.  One of them cut across to her ear.  The other twisted down to the right side of her mouth, forcing her lip into a contorted, clownish sneer.  More scars lined the ruined flesh of her cheek.  She looked like the survivor of a terrible knife fight.  What must her face have looked like before? Peter thought, and shuddered.  Before the five surgeries, before even the first surgery?  What did it look like on that night, when the dog ripped into it?  What did it look like then?

Peter turned away from his sister’s face.

“See?” she said.  She was crying now.  “Even you can’t look at me.  My own brother!  What do you think the people in my classes will do?”

He forced himself to look at her.  A fat teardrop seeped out from under her eye patch, slowly working its way over her scars.  She wiped it away.

“I used to be pretty,” she said.  “Well, maybe not pretty, but normal at least!”  No, Peter thought.  No, Tanya.  You were pretty.  You were beautiful.  “Now what am I?  I’m a monster!  A freakshow!  I hate my face!  I can’t even look in the mirror anymore, and it hurts.  It hurts so bad all the time.  It hurts even to talk and to chew.  My God, it hurts!”

That was all she could say.  She just cried then, burying her face in the pillow.  Peter stood there a moment longer, wishing he could help but knowing he couldn’t.  He left.  As he closed the door on his way out, he noticed his comic on her nightstand.  He had forgotten to take it.

He couldn’t get to sleep that night, couldn’t stop thinking about Tanya.  He had never really been too close with her, and they often fought, but it wasn’t so bad.  They got along all right, when you really looked at it.  The thing was, he had often been a little jealous of her.  She was always so popular.  Ever since he could remember, boys had flipped over her.  Peter?  He was sixteen and hadn’t even been on a date yet.  He recalled one day, about three years ago, when Tanya had still been a junior in high school.  Four boys had come over, all at different times.  She sent them all away, but that wasn’t the point.  He wished he could have even one-tenth of her popularity.  But now, he wouldn’t trade places with her for all the money in the world.

He remembered when their Aunt Helen came to visit from across the country.  She had looked at Tanya, then a little girl, cupped her face in her hands, and said, “You are so pretty, Tanya, do you know that?  You have the face of an angel.  The boys are gonna be after you like flies on butter.”

Aunt Helen’s voice reverberated in Peter’s mind as he looked out his bedroom window into the cold October night.  You have the face of an angel.  Now what did she have?  Half of an angel’s face?  That was the worst thing.  The left side of Tanya’s face was just as smooth, just as flawless as ever.  It seemed to Peter that Tanya might have been better off if both sides of her face had been scarred.  The way it was now, it just seemed like a taunt—the good side laughing at the bad side.

He went to his dresser and pulled out another of his old comics.  He brought it to his nose and smelled the musty smell he had always loved.  But now it only made him think of fallen leaves rotting in stormdrains.

Tanya’s boyfriend came over the next day.  He had seen her at the hospital after the bandages had been removed, and he had looked pale.  Now, he went up to her room, was in there all of five minutes, and then he raced back downstairs.  He said good-bye quickly to Peter’s mother, and left.  Peter knew they’d never see him again.  He wasn’t sure if he hated Tanya’s boyfriend or sympathized with him.

For her part, Tanya rarely left her room.  Peter tried to get her to go outside with him before the weather turned too cold, but she always refused.  She wouldn’t eat with the family, either.  Mom usually brought a plate of something up to Tanya after the rest of them had eaten.

Peter tried to tell himself Tanya would pull through, that she’d be fine.  Then he’d see her lying on her bed, without any motivation, without any hope—and he couldn’t deal with that.  He tried telling her not to feel sorry for herself.  She threw her pillow at him and screamed for him to get out.  So he did.

Two weeks later, Peter stood by his sister’s bed.

“C’mon, Tanya,” he said.  “I’m not taking no for an answer this time.  Let’s take a walk.  It’s nice out—this will probably be the last nice day of the year.  Let’s go.”

“Go away.”

“Not this time.”  He reached for her hand and pulled her into a sitting position.

“Hey!  Watch it, Peter!”

“Let’s go,” he said.  He noticed the comic he had brought in with him that day a couple of weeks ago was on her dresser.  “You read that yet?” he asked.

She shook her head.  “Of course not,” she said.  “Why would I read one of your beat-up old comic books?  It would probably fall apart in my hands even if I did want to read it, which I don’t.”

“It’s great,” he said.  “It’s a great story.  And just be careful with it.  It won’t fall apart.  Just remember, it’s special.  Now, c’mon.”

She came.  He figured it was just to shut him up.  They walked around the block.  It was cool but nice, a sunny November Saturday afternoon that felt so clean it made Peter’s eyes water.  They walked in silence, but he could tell that Tanya was enjoying the air, the sun, the exercise.

At one point, a little boy on a bicycle crossed their path.  They didn’t recognize him, but he stopped anyway.

“Wow,” he said, staring at Tanya, “what happened to you?”

“A big dog bit me,” she said.

“Ow,” the boy said.  “That musta hurt.  I like your eye patch, though.  It’s neat.  See ya.”  And he rode off.

Tanya laughed.  It was the first time Peter had heard her laugh since she’d come home from the hospital.

“He didn’t think you’re a freak,” he said.

“That’s because he’s little,” she said.  But he thought he heard something in her voice that hadn’t been there.

Later, he sat on his bedroom floor, his door swung open, and he could hear Tanya crying in her room.  He didn’t know why she was crying.  He thought the walk had done her good.  Was he wrong?  He looked at his windowpane, watching it fog up.  Dusk was descending, and the faint warmth that the sun had brought was evaporating like steam rising from a lost river.

He drove to the comic shop after supper.  He liked going on cold Saturday evenings.  No one was ever there, and since the shop closed at nine, he had a lot of time to browse.  The old-comic smell was overpowering in the shop.  Every time he inhaled, it was there, and it was comforting, like a pleasant childhood memory, or the rock-solid assurances of a faithful friend.

He went to the checkout counter.

“I’ll take a look at that one,” he said to Granger, the shop’s owner.

Granger looked over his shoulder.  Various old comic books were taped to the wall.  “Which?  The FF?”  Peter nodded, and Granger gently took it down.  He took it out of its Mylar sleeve, and handed it to Peter.  This was a measure of trust that Peter had earned.  He knew Granger did not allow just anyone to flip through the merchandise.

“Whatcha think?” Granger said.  “Pretty hosed copy, ain’t it?  Seen better days.”

Peter finished flipping through it and gave it back to Granger.  “I’ll take it,” he said.

Granger nodded and put the comic back into its sleeve.  “Hey,” he said.  “It’s Fantastic Four number thirty-three.  They don’t exactly grow on trees.  And it’s a great read.  They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.  You could do a lot worse.”

Yes, you could.  The copy he was buying was tattered, it had a bad spine roll, and there was even a corner chewed off—probably by a mouse.  But the story was all there.  The wonder was all there.  The magic.

When he got home, he was surprised to see Tanya sitting on the sofa in the living room.

“Hey,” Peter said, “whatcha doin’?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Mom and Dad went out to a movie, and I just figured I’d come downstairs for a change.”

Her good side was toward him, and it was easy to pretend that everything was normal, that Tanya still was pretty, that no dog had ripped into her.  Then she turned to face him—and the pretending stopped.

“I thought I’d finally take a look at this,” she said.  She held up the Spider-Man comic that had been lying on top of her dresser.

Peter smiled.  “Yeah, sure,” he said.  “And remember, be careful with it.  I’m actually gonna go upstairs and read one I just bought.  Need anything while I’m down here?”

“No, I’m fine.  I have your dumb comic, don’t I?”

He smiled again and went upstairs.  He read his comic, loving every panel.  When he finished, he sniffed it and then put it back into its sleeve, carefully, making sure not to inflict any further damage to the fragile spine.  He looked out his window.  A full moon shone at him.  As he had done since he was little, he looked for the man in the moon, but he couldn’t find him.  He thought he’d seen him once, a long time ago, though it was probably just his imagination.  But he liked to think it was true.  His old comic books had that effect on him—they made the magic seem real.  You just needed to look past the deteriorated cover and discover the richness within.  That made him think of his sister.  Was she still reading the Spider-Man?

He went downstairs, quietly, and looked into the living room.  Tanya was still on the sofa, holding the comic in her lap.  Unaware of Peter’s presence, she let out a little giggle, then flipped the page, gingerly, tenderly, treating the comic like fine china.  A few moments went by, and she turned the page again.  She was completely rapt, completely absorbed in the comic book.

She was reading the story.

**********

Thanks so much for reading!  As always, any and all feedback is welcome.

–Mike

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ariesgrl
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 18:26:43

    I enjoyed this short story. The feelings Peter feels towards his comic books, is how I feel about books. Amazing how a single story can change your life. Thanks for posting yours. Have a good day!
    ~Ariesgrl

    Reply

  2. kelihasablog
    Dec 05, 2012 @ 13:19:30

    I’m starting to read “Eye Dancers” today! I may be a bit slow though cuz my daughter just got engaged and we are having to check out venues, prices, etc. Ugh… this is gonna be expensive I think…LOL Good thing I only had one daughter! Thanks so much for the mail… 😀

    Reply

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