In memory of Phil Western, I’m resharing this story because today marks one year since his passing. Phil said he loved Pain Flowers because it was about overcoming trauma but almost losing oneself to it, which feels eerie now that I write it here.
My hand trembles. Coffee splashes on the table. Memories are weird like that. They make us happy, sick, sad, alive, dead, giddy, remorseful. Today, I’m nauseous. My mouth tastes like metal and dirt. I ate microwaved eggs, mushrooms and pepper jack cheese in a mug. I thought it would ground me, but I was mistaken. It just made me more lethargic. More coffee, please. More elbow, please. These knots won’t untie themselves, so maybe I should cut them in half with a razor blade. A shortcut to relief. My reprieve from this deformed and sickening life game. My slow sorrow away from the sunrise. All locked into the knots in my back. They hold secrets. I bend my arms behind me, but I still can’t reach. The pain is out of my reach but somehow embedded in my actual muscle tissue.
I tailspin too far to the left, and he’s not there to reel me back in, so I fall and fall and fall until I slam the bottom of a pit of my own creation. This is my horror house. My last resort. My faded fantasy of unfurled firmament. I can’t figure out how to climb back. I clasp my bleeding chest. A river of blood flows from my heart into the pit, and somehow its force emits light. I can see again. I see the open chasm, its jaws fierce with incisors the size of Texas. How did my pain get so big?
“Don’t bite me,” I say. But my pain doesn’t listen because it doesn’t have ears, just rows and rows of teeth. The Great White Shark of My Shadow. He chomps at my chin but misses. I have fast reflexes he can’t predict. I wipe the spit from the corner of my mouth. The chase has me salivating from the excitement. The Mouth of Madness clamps down on the rocks where I stand at the bottom of my mind’s well. I two-step to the side, then back-step and spin. The ground cracks in loud bursts beneath my feet. The blood, still pouring from my heart, fills the hole. The pit becomes mountainous. It moves past fast in a circular motion, somehow spinning on an axis that I shouldn’t be able to perceive but do. The blood-filled hole sprouts. A white flower grows in hyper speed. I shudder at its growth. I wish I could grow that fast. Grow past this pit. This sorrow. This regret. This pain. Grow up and out like each petal reaching the sky so far from us now. It climbs a foot, two, five, ten, a mile until the sunlight bathes its silky flower. It has me and the jaws of pain mesmerized. We stop in silence. The chase in hiatus until further notice. But the jaws regain focus. And munch toward me. I leap as far as possible with each step, but he has the advantage of rage. Its tongue lashes out and whips my ankles. I trip and fall on large rocks. I’m trapped between two rocks, in a crevice the Mouth of Madness can’t slide through. It licks the rocks in an attempt to lubricate its way to me, dinner. But its big mouth is just too big. My pain is just too big to reach me. I dream about pissing myself. Apparently, that’s good luck. Not sure what that means when I’m lodged between two rocks at the bottom of my mind’s pit and the giant jaws of my tumult are gnashing at me, thirsting for my flesh.
I wake up. My head pounds. I touch the bump, and it hurts even more. I can’t see at first, but my eyes adjust. I’m under a tree. I don’t see a human-sized mouth with no body or face anywhere near me. Only a field of white and red flowers. I put my hand over my heart and find a silver heart locket. I caress it; the embossed rose calms my fingertips. I open it. A tiny bundle of hair is tied inside with a tiny piece of amethyst. I close the pendant. Shift from my ass to my knees, then to my feet. I hold onto the tree for support. I breathe in the fresh air, then hold it in, then exhale. I taste the sunshine on my lips. The rays somehow citrusy. My heart thumps in my chest as I recall the giant jaws of pain chasing me in the pit. The river of blood and the mile-high flower it begot from the chasm in the pit taunt me from the distance. I weep.
What a horrible nightmare.
But it’s over. I think. I hope. But I won’t know until the days and nights pass me long enough to forget the chase, forget the pain, forget the knots in my back that keep growing and growing.
At the ground level, there’s a door. I lift the latch. I climb down the ladder. It’s rusted and damp. The mildew hits my nostrils. I gag. Knock. Knock. Knock. I move toward the sound. The bunker lights up with sensor lamps in each room. Rows and rows of canned foods and pickled meats line the shelves in the first room. Knock. Knock. Knock. The second room is full of clothes, shoes, blankets, and sewing kits. Knock. Knock. Knock. The third room is a workshop. He’s hammering away at something, but I can’t see it, so I move in closer. It’s pale and shiny. Closer, quietly. I stop.
“Hello?” I ask.
He drops a mechanical mannequin arm. He approaches me.
“I made you something,” he says.
He grabs my hand and takes me to the table. He lifts his creation. A white metal arm with cushioned finger tips. It has an elbow that extends and retracts and heats and cools and who knows what else.
He holds the remote. The arm lifts from the table. The fingers spread, then move one by one, then close.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
He shows me how to use the remote. The dials for speeds and massage techniques. Something warms my chest. I look down. Blood.
I gasp, then study his face. I can’t hear his words. He doesn’t seem to notice the blood. I fall back farther and farther away from him into blackness. The knots in my back burn. My head quakes. My vision fails in the blackness. I can’t catch my breath.
I claw at the dirt. Rocks penetrate my flesh under my nails. I pound fists against the dirt and rocks. Spit drips on my face and into my tear ducts and slathers along my eyelids and eyelashes. I wipe it away and chunks of dirt get in my eyes, too. I rub them with my forearm then my shirt. But blood gets in them, and I think I’m doomed. Blind for life. But somehow all of that gunk combined was some secret sight spell, and my eyes open to rows and rows of teeth and a bulbous tongue that reaches for me, but it can’t fit through the rocks.
I take off my shirt. I squeeze the blood from my chest on it until it’s soaked. I wring it onto the tongue. It chokes and coughs and hyperventilates. It can’t handle cannibalism. I press my chest with the shirt and pop myself like a zit into it. My face pales, my lips take on a blue hue. The white shirt now blood-red. The blood drips down my hands, forearms, and cascades down my elbows and onto the rocks and into the dirt. A green leaf springs up. It unfolds a white flower. It moves fast toward the rim of the pit. The stalk and leaves sturdy enough to climb.
I ball up the blood-soaked shirt and cock back my arm and pitch it right into the Mouth of Madness. It lodges right into its tonsils. Bounces around, from side to side in a jarring rhythm. It slides back. It coughs blood. A sprig cracks through the tongue. The stem splits the tongue in half. It grows thick and shatters through the front rows of teeth. A white flower unfolds. It grows and grows and grows. I don’t watch. Instead, I climb up the silky flower from the large rocks until I reach the opening. I cut my knee on the rim and lift myself out.
A version of this story originally appeared in CLASH Media, 2017.