"Tell me about any violent urges you've had lately," said Dr. June.
I was surprised. "Any what? I'm here about anxiety, doctor. I've been having trouble sleeping."
She scratched a bit of a note with the edge of her pen and cocked her head to the side. "How long ago did your husband go missing?"
"This is a bit awkward," I said, after a second had passed. "I wonder if therapy is right for me after all."
A man in a gorilla suit took a seat on the bus, a few rows ahead of me. Something about him reminded me of Frank, although what that was I couldn't say precisely — he was encased in a suit of fur.
The bus gave a gassy hiss when we stopped at the modern art museum and the gorilla moved slowly toward the door, very slowly. The driver said something, I couldn't hear what but everyone heard the gorilla, who threw back his head and howled, a fierce and primitive cry.
After a long silence the applause began. The door rebounded and shuddered against the gorilla's sides, the driver's mouth pinched with anger as he thumbed the button.
I was clapping, too, but my hands faltered. A moon-faced woman had been reading a magazine in Dr. June's waiting room, and I had just seen a spherical visage — an afterimage, really — of that same hue, half-hidden in the laughing forest of passengers.
So what, I thought, gripping the sides of my seat. What would Frank have said? He loved faces, the more expressive the better. I whacked the panel, stop requested.
As I stepped off a boy on a skateboard rattled by, pulled by a dog. The bus was sliding away behind me and the boy pointed up and yelled, "piano," dipping into my purse with the other hand. I stuck out a foot and he flipped, tumbled.
The bus stopped again a block away and seconds later the moon-faced woman appeared, walking briskly. "Shh," I whispered, kneeling behind a sapling in the sidewalk. The boy moaned. The dog, splayed and panting, looked at me and kept panting.
"Bitch. You broke my hand." His wrist was in fact bent awkwardly.
There was the slightest catch in her step as she passed the sapling, enough for me. I broke cover and darted across the street, seeing the cyclist at the last second. The shock of the impact was amazing, like being struck by a piano. I flew backwards, sideways, whichever.
I woke up in the back of a car. My head throbbed. "Frank?" I said.
"Are you feeling okay?" It was the moon-faced woman. She squinted left and right, clicked her turn signal.
"You kidnapped me." I fumbled at the handle but everything was electric.
"No!" She smiled. "I'm taking you to the hospital."
"Oh." I watched the blur of brick and tree canopies go by. "This isn't the way to the hospital," I said, eventually.
She tapped the wheel, frowning. "You don't seem badly hurt."
"Bullshit, I'm concussed." I felt my limbs. A knot had swelled up on my forehead, puffy and egglike.
She parked on the street. "Let's stop here." Beyond a fringe of grass were silver waves and seagulls. As we climbed out, I saw there wasn't a key in the ignition, just a tangle of wires.
"You stole a car?"
"Of course not." She laughed a long high laugh which then thickened and grew guttural. She took up a loose-limbed stance. "Listen to my voice." A heavy pocket-watch dangled from her pasty fingers. "Watch the watch." It made a gentle arc at the end of a silver chain. "Far below us flow the ice floes," she crooned. "In groves above us rove the love-doves."
I couldn't help but look down, then up. Her eyes were pools or maybe craters. She put the watch away. "Come along."
I wanted to laugh. Did she think she'd hypnotized me? She seemed to think I'd follow her. There was a ship by the quay, a large white yacht. She strolled up the gangway and disappeared.
I'd been right to walk out, I realized. Violent urges. Something about the woman, Dr. June and her random remarks. And how did she know about Frank? I hadn't filled out any questionnaire, that I remembered.
The gangway was springy underfoot and there was an open door, liquid darkness beyond. "Hello?" I felt the edge of a table and something heavy on top, polished and cold. My fingertips traced the lines of a marble grimace, hard tendons ridging the straining neck and nostrils flaring.
"She was right behind me," said the moon-faced woman through the wall. Feet pattered on the deck, and an older woman whose voice I knew said, "Jean, the saloon's open."
I sprinted out, headed for the gangway. The shore was a hundred yards away. We were moving toward the open sea, where a single pearl-white cloud that had eaten all the others bulged monstrously on the horizon.
"Use the taser, Philip," urged a gray-haired woman. A man in cycling pants was fiddling with something, whacking at it with the heel of his palm.
I was a step from the rail. Jean appeared, fumbling for her watch. "Stop," she called.
My legs went limp under me but it was too late, I was in mid-air. The harbor was deep. I plummeted through warm water, crystal-green darkening to cold, impenetrable blue, and stopped sinking. I hung suspended between.
It was beautiful. The sun rippled far above, and something with tentacles disappeared in a puff of ink. Schools of glassy-eyed fish folded back and forth, and a shark slipped through forests of languid kelp. Through the swaying strands I could make out the pale and crumbling pillars of a forgotten city, toppled statues green with murk and staring emptily.
Thud thud thud. The sun vanished as the ship's propellers churned overhead. The statues glared upward, pursed their lips or screamed silently. Long poles dipped down. A hook snagged my blouse and tore free. I swam, diving down below the reach of their poles.
They would expect me to go for shore, but I was an expert swimmer like Frank, and struck out toward the mouth of the harbor instead. I realized that the hook snagged more than my blouse. A trail of blood turned to wisps of dark cloud in my wake, and a shadow glided by, off to my right.
When I broke the surface, the ship was moving toward the quay. Philip was leaning too far, poking with his pole. I thought about the cold stone in the saloon, the leering grin, and sank again, slowly, slowly, lingering amongst the kelp-trees.
My husband's disappearance plays no role in my feelings of anxiety and worthlessness.
Something bumped me, rubbing along my leg, and I ducked underwater. The shark dappled in the sunlight was bigger than the one I'd seen before, fins angling downward as it turned.
The mouth opened, a crawlspace filled with teeth. I flapped sideways and tumbled. Something gave my arm a squeeze. Oh? I thrust a thumb deep into a big black eyeball.
There was a fort at the harbor mouth, a polygonal configuration of ditches and berms. I pulled myself through an embrasure and flopped on the stones in front of some tourists and three men in waistcoats and knee breeches beside a cannon on a swiveling base. One held a smoldering matchstick. The forgotten rammer poked out of the barrel like a swizzle stick.
They gaped. "Can you give me a hand," I said, reaching toward them.
A snort of hysterical laughter was abruptly choked off, and that is when I saw that my arm ended at the wrist in a flap of skin and pale bone.
My heart thumped sleepily, I couldn't feel a thing. I got up. Just offshore, two figures watched from the idling yacht. The gun turned soundlessly, nudged by my knee. The tourists gaped. I plucked the match from the gunner's hand and touched it to the touchhole and the cannon gave a short, rich cough, jerking backward over the gunner's foot as the rammer, a thick pole eight feet long, flitted through the sky.
A dark spot appeared in the yacht's white skin. On board, the two figures crouched down briefly, then hopped up and began to run around.
I sat down again. I looked at my hand, pulled back my lips and stretched my teeth, making the grimace harder, deeper, a smile of such extremity the earth ought to shake, the ocean choke up its dead.
The gunner lay on the ground, his face twisted. I could see that the yacht was listing but with a puff of exhaust it began to limp away.
Eventually, two ambulances arrived.
"Morphine," begged the gunner.
"Me too," I said.
"This is a waste of gas," said one of the EMTs. "Send them together." Another EMT nodded.
"No fucking way," said the gunner, raising his head from the stretcher.
I opened my eyes on the operating table. The doctor smiled confidently.
"Can you reattach my hand, doc?" I was bleary from the anesthetic.
"You have it with you?" he said, surprised.
"Then, no." A needle prickled.
Frank was a famous art collector, who had amassed a famous art collection before he vanished.
"Those were one-of-a-kind pieces," wept Rebecca.
"They still are," I said.
"What about the Messerschmidts," she gabbled. "You can't have given away the Messerschmidts."
"All eight of them."
"There were nine! Nine!" she screamed.
"I know, I'm teasing," I said. "Look, they were too heavy to hang on the walls."
"Hang? On the walls? They're busts." She was twitching, spittle flecking her mouth.
I opened my eyes. The doctor was quietly consulting a gorilla in a surgical mask. It was ludicrous, a tiny blue square lost against his big gorilla head and all that fur.
White liquid streamed into a tube.
"No monkey business," I said, but it came out nungee mizz.
I floated wraithlike through the ward. I climbed the stairs and visited other hallways, poked my nose into rooms.
The gunner gasped in a girlish way, but it was muffled by the slipper I'd stuck in his mouth.
"Sorry." I removed the slipper.
He spat out a piece of fuzz. "What do you want."
I lay down beside him. His foot was swaddled in bandages. "I need help."
"With what? Target practice?"
"I need someone to un-hypnotize me."
I said, "I have to go to a hearing in a few hours. The woman who hypnotized me will make me say wrong things."
The gunner looked thoughtful. "'Wrong things'."
Eventually he said, "do you feel hypnotized?"
"It's a spell. You know? The magician claps his hands, and everyone wakes up."
The gunner clapped his hands. "Wake up," he said.
The room was full of wood and the benches were hard as pews, smooth enough to slide right off. The judge had a doubtful expression and I wondered if she could see me at all. "You say you met with a psychologist?" she said.
"Dr. June, your honor."
She lifted a piece of paper. "I have a June Cuvier retained by your sister? Who I see is recommending committal."
"Hah, hah. What do you mean, committal," I said.
"Sister-in-law," said Rebecca, through clenched teeth. She sat across the aisle with Dr. June and Jean the hypnotist.
The judge's bifocals dangled around her neck. "What's this about violent urges?"
"Hah, hah," I said. "I don't have any, your honor."
Dr. June opened a folder. There were pictures of a man clutching his foot, a boy clutching his wrist, a panting dog.
"First of all, the dog's fine." I was annoyed. "And that kid's a hardened criminal."
"Who is also your son," the judge established.
"I see him around," I conceded. "But I think he's gone rogue."
"What about the gunner," said the judge, fingertips pressing the sides of her head. "He was injured, let's see. A cannon was fired at a private boat."
"Which they used to kidnap me."
Dr. June had pictures of me walking alone up the gangplank, nosing around the deck, furtive and wide-eyed in the saloon.
"I was hypnotized!" I pointed at Jean, but her white face was as expressive as dough. "Look." I waved my arm in the air. "A shark bit my arm off."
Another photo: a cannon, me holding a long match.
"Your honor?" added Dr. June. "She only lost a hand."
There was a commotion; the judge raised her hand for quiet.
"The other one, your honor," corrected Dr. June.
"I've heard enough," said the judge.
A mesh panel separated me from the driver. "Philip," I whispered. "I overheard them. Apparently, you know too much; they're going to, what's the word they used, liquidate..."
One eye blinked slowly in the mirror. "Might as well have a nap, ma'am. It's two hours' drive. Hey, now," he said, leaning away from my clawing fingers.
The facility was surrounded by lush green hills. They gave me clothes and a rubber toothbrush that you slip on a fingertip.
"I shouldn't be here," I said. "It's a plot to steal my husband's heads."
The doctor was Falstaff, a big man with a friendly face. "I've heard so much," he said. His teeth were blackened nubs.
I kept waiting for about you.
"Time for your meds," said Nurse Susie.
I laughed. "I'm not on any meds."
"Everyone's on meds. Upsy-daisy."
I pretended to swallow. A beak-faced man appeared behind Nurse Susie, holding an electrified baton. "Call off your vulture," I said.
He raised the baton like a serving fork. As I opened my mouth to scream, Nurse Susie popped in a pill.
"I'm going to bite your lips off, Susie," I said, slipping to the floor. "Just like Hannibal the Cannibal."
The woman in the next room was Hilda. We could both see, through our small windows, the horses grazing in an adjoining pasture. I was feeling way mellow and leaned on the bars. "Hilda?"
"If this is a hospital, how come they have bars on the doors?"
There was a pause. "You have bars on your door?" said Hilda.
Falstaff came by for medical purposes. "I need a little blood," he said.
"You look okay to me, but here you go." I held up the bandaged stump. "I'm sure there's some left."
His grin was a thin, twisting thing, like an eel. "You don't even like art," he said finally. "Why not simply..."
"Hand over the heads? Have you ever tried to lift one of those things? You need two hands." I mimed slipping, dropping the precious busts, the horrified onlookers.
"Maybe some more drugs," he said, after a considering silence.
I slipped into a dream, an empty bus winding through narrow streets. Rebecca smiled, her hands tiny on the enormous wheel. "I don't believe you, darling. I don't think you gave them away at all."
"Watch out for that gorilla," I said.
She whipped her head around and brakes screeched but Frank had vanished. Again. "We're taking water." She threw me a bucket. I saw the cannon on a distant hill, a puff of smoke and as the bus rocked violently I dropped my bucket and swam out the window.
In the afternoon, the staff played croquet on the lawn. Hilda was startled to see me. "How did you get out?"
I unwrapped my bandage; the prosthetic was a hook of glinting steel. "Are you coming?"
"Er, it's naptime..."
I eased the tip of the hook into the latch and jerked upward. All the doors on the hall swung open, and an alarm began to wail. "Whoops," I said. Groggy patients spilled from their rooms. Nurse Susie screamed, but the drowsy hordes rolled over her like a wave of slow honey.
Outside, the day was peaceful. All the woods were dead. The sun lay low in the twiggy, corpse-fingered canopy like an egg in a nest, and the grass was tender underfoot.
"Maybe it wasn't a real hypnosis," Hilda said, over her shoulder. The piebald trotted nervously, ears pricked up. "Maybe she wanted you to believe you were hypnotized."
"It's possible," I said, squeezing the warm body of the horse between my legs. "I guess I still just don't feel like myself."
"Well, a shark was involved," said Hilda.
The drumbeat of hooves roused me. Hilda was whispering in the piebald's ear.
"What's the fuss," I said.
The fuss was Dr. Falstaff on a strawberry roan, silhouetted by the evening sun. The beak-faced man rode high upon his shoulders, baton sizzling. "The work of healing is a lengthy process, an art," boomed Falstaff. "We've only just begun." Our horses were neck-to-neck, but the roan seemed fresher.
The creature on his shoulders wobbled erratically above the galloping Falstaff, bare feet gripping the doctor's white coat like talons. His whole body curved over us like an enormous buggy whip and I swatted at the plucking, pinching fingers. The piebald foamed and rolled her eyes.
Just then the moon appeared, a fragile crescent showing smooth and white through the boughs of the trees. Why, I don't know, but I threw my head back and howled.
Surprised, the buzzard-man's arm dropped, touching Dr. Falstaff with his electrified baton. The doctor gave an enormous shudder and the roan bucked powerfully.
The buzzard-man soared away. Falstaff tumbled like a cannonball over shrub, root and stone. The strawberry roan danced in circles and kicked up its heels.
The woods grew thicker and thicker. In between the trees I could see the heads, jutting aslant from the loose forest soil. The trees were vast and ancient, the heads rapturous, wailing, dappled like the shark by thin sunbeams through deep water. Sulky and petulant, gleeful beyond compare.
Hilda tethered the piebald near a stream and we lay under a luxuriant spruce. The stars were out. The moon wasn't a crescent anymore, but a pale, fleshy face.
"How do you know he vanished," asked Hilda.
I looked up, surprised. "Well, I don't ever see him anymore."
When Hilda fell asleep I rose. The piebald nickered as I untied him. Frank had eyes like those, brown and drowning eyes.
I caught glimpses of him dodging ahead of us in his thick furry suit, just out of view, wending through the trees.
Riding through the forest, the moon wouldn't stop showing me faces. Rebecca's, pursed and spitting. The puzzled judge. Frank smiled and whispered in tongues of kelp. A boy wept, and as his dog howled the moon turned faster and faster, twinkling and spinning.
Finally, the beak-faced man rose above the chalklike plain. Boulders the size of houses sat in his palms and when he flung them they sailed high, high, high, and crashed down through the walls of the burning city.
Matthew Chamberlin lives in Virginia, where he also writes. His stories and poems can be found in Apex, Strangelet and Jersey Devil Press.