by Jeffrey Ford
[Continued from Part 3]
Suddenly the house lights went up, as they used to say, and again I was buried up to my neck in nightmare. I entertained the idea of coming clean with Gloriette and telling her of my predicament. Out of the kindness of her heart, she might turn the movie over to Stootladdle to save me, but at the same time she would know I had betrayed her. I did not want to lose her, but I did not want to die either. Even Cotten, expert thespian that he was, couldn't disguise my quandary. After dinner the night that Vespatian had delivered the dreaded message, Gloriette asked what was troubling me.
"Nothing," I told her, but later, after we had taken the smoke, she asked again. The drug weakened me and my growing fear forced me to rely on her mercy. I was sitting next to her on the couch. I reached over and took her hand in mine. She sat up and leaned toward me. "I have a confession to make," I said.
"Yes?" she said, looking into my eyes.
I did not know how to begin and sat long minutes simply staring at her beautiful face. From out across the veldt came the sound of thunder, and then an instant later the rain began to fall, tapping lightly at the parlor window.
I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came forth. She took this as a sign and moved her face close to mine, touching her lips against my own. We were kissing, passionately. She wrapped her arms around me and drew me closer. My hand moved along the thin material of her dress, from her thigh to her ribs to her breasts. She made no protest for she was as hot as I was. We fondled and kissed for an unheard of length of time, more true to the manner of the twentieth century than our own. When I could stand it no longer, I reached beneath her dress. My hand sailed along the smooth inner skin of her thigh, and when I was about to explode with excitement, my fingers came to rest on the cold steel of her exhaust spigot. I literally groaned.
The suit makers, in all of their art and cunning, had left out that which may be the most important aspect of human anatomy. Think of the irony, a suit made to enhance a commerce dealing ultimately in sex, but having no sex itself. At the same moment I groped her steel pipe, she was doing the same to mine. We released each other and sat there in a state of total frustration.
"The box," she said. "Tomorrow we will go to town, to the box."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"We have to," she said.
"But can you afford it? I haven't the money," I said, still slightly trembling.
"No, I can't afford it either, but there is something that Stootladdle wants that I can trade for a half-hour in the chamber," she said.
Then it struck me, just like in Gloriette's movie, love would prevail. She was going to trade the film for me, and I would live and not be found out by her. Frank Capra himself couldn't have conceived of anything more felicitous.
Vespatian woke me from a warm, bright dream of summer by the sea. "Mrs. Lancaster is waiting for you in the truck," he said. I hurriedly got dressed and went downstairs.
As I climbed into my chair, I saw that Gloriette was holding the movie tin in her hand. She tapped it nervously against her knee.
"Good morning, Joseph," she said. "I hope you are well rested."
"I'm ready," I said with a lightness in my heart I had not felt since landing on the bug planet.
She wore a yellow dress and a golden bee pendant on a thin cable around her neck. Her hair was done in braids, and she shone more vibrantly than the veldt itself.
"Exo-Skeleton Town," she called to Vespatian.
"As is your pleasure, madame," said the grasshopper, and we were off.
We rode in silence through the dark. Somewhere, after we had left the veldt far behind and I couldn't see two feet in front of me, I felt her hand touch mine and we intertwined our fingers. All went well until we reached the outskirts of Exo-town, and there, beneath a streetlamp, we witnessed a despondent Judy Garland, in blue gingham, put a stinger gun to her head and pull the trigger. Her exo-skin must have been poorly made because, instead of her leaking out, it blew apart like a bursting balloon, spewing blood and guts of her true self across the passenger door of our truck.
Gloriette covered her eyes with her hand. "I wish I hadn't seen that," she said. "This is surely Hell."
"It's all right," I told her. "She's better off."
The bluebottles immediately appeared and began devouring the remains.
"Drive faster, Vespatian," she called.
The grasshopper hit the gas pedal, and we were driving down the main street of Exo-Skeleton Town no more than three minutes later.
Stootladdle was beside himself with cordiality when he finally understood the deal that Gloriette was putting before him.
"An old movie and not well known," he said, taking the film tin from her. "But, in deference to your late husband, and because you are so delightful, I will take this token in exchange for a half-hour in the box for you and your friend."
"When you see me in the scene at the end of the film, where I am in the bar," she said to him. "Always remember that at that moment, as I am saying my final line, my left high heel is flattening a roach beneath my bar stool."
"It will thrill me to the very thorax," said the mayor.
"The box," she said.
"Yes, follow me," said the flea. As we left his office, he turned to me and whispered, "Cotten, you damn rascal."
The box was in an otherwise abandoned building down the street from the mayor's office. He unlocked the door with the end of a long thick hair that jutted from his cheek. We stepped into the deep shadows behind him. There before us, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the darkness, was a large black box, ten by ten by ten. Stootladdle moved to the front of it and appeared to be pressing some buttons. There was a sound of old gears turning slowly, and a panel slid back revealing bright light, as if from my dream of summer.
"Remember," said the flea, "you must wait until the gong sounds inside before you can molt your outer skin. Also, when the gong sounds for the second time, you must replace your skin within five minutes or you will die when the door opens again. All this was told to me by the dear Earth man who invented it."
"Joseph?" asked Gloriette.
"Let's go," I said.
"This is surely paradise," said Stootladdle as he swept out his arms to usher us into the box of light.
I could hear the door slowly closing behind us but could see nothing, my eyes temporarily blinded. It was warm, though, and there were sound effects—a stream running, birds singing, a tinkling wind chime, and the rustling of leaves.
Just as my vision cleared, I heard the gong sound.
"Isn't it perfectly lovely," said Gloriette.
"The most beautiful place I've ever been," I said. I looked around and there was nothing inside, just the floor and walls padded with deep foam rubber covered in crimson silk.
"Come, Joseph, make me forget about the veldt," she said.
I put my arms around her. She gently pushed me away. "Let's molt," she said with a nervous laugh.
Four successive taps at the center of the forehead made the exo-skin peel down like the sectioned hide of an orange. We reached out and tapped each other.
Imagine wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes, shoes far too tight. Imagine walking for months in them with no relief. And then imagine finally taking them off, and you will know one hundredth the relief of shedding an exo-skin. This sensation itself verged on orgasm. Cotten fell away and lay rumpled around my ankles. I kicked him into a corner of the box. When I looked back at Gloriette, she had her back to me. I was pleased to see her real hair was a perfect color match for that of the actress. Stepping up behind her, I put my hands on her shoulders.
"Scratch my back," she said, and I did.
"That feels so good," she said, with a sigh.
Then she turned and I took a step away from her. My eyes went wide as did hers. I noticed a sudden hollow feeling in my chest. She wasn't beautiful anymore, and she wasn't homely by any means, but she was different. That difference thoroughly chilled me even in the warm light of the box. What was more, I saw from the look in her eyes the reflection of her own grave disappointment. All of my pent-up desire vanished, leaving me limp inside and out. I saw her bottom lip begin to tremble and the sight of this brought tears to my eyes.
"I'm not Gloriette Moss," she said.
"I know," I told her and stepped forward to put my arms around her once again.
For fifteen minutes of our precious time in paradise, we stood holding each other in silence, not as lovers but as frightened, lost children. The notion of sex was as distant from that box as we were from the true sun. Like a desperate confession, she began frantically to whisper into my ear her life story. Born on Earth as Melissa Bower to a military man and his wife, she married very young to a career diplomat, who forced her to accompany him to the bug planet. In choosing her exo-skin, he would not allow her to become anyone of any recognition. She had wanted Jane Mansfield, but instead was allowed only Gloriette Moss. His main desire was to achieve great wealth for himself. The ambassador, it turns out, was as abusive a species of vermin as Stootladdle. It was she who did Lancaster in with a hatpin to the eye. "I used something so very thin, so there would be no evidence and he would suffer longer as he turned to jelly," she said. "The smoke was my only friend."
Her honesty made me feel as naked within as without. I told her the truth about how I had come to her house and why. As I explained, I heard her give a brief groan and then felt her slump in my arms as if she were now no more than an empty exo-skin. When I finished, I eased her onto the floor and lay beside her. She did not cry, but stared vacantly into the corner of the box.
"We have each other now," I told her. "We can help each other beat the smoke, and if we sell all the things in your house, we can return to Earth. We might even come to love each other." I kissed her on the cheek, but she did not respond.
I talked and projected and promised, rubbed her arm and ran my open palm the length of her hair. Then the gong sounded, waking me suddenly from the dream of the future I was spinning.
I immediately began fitting my suit back on. "It will be fine," I said right before I momentarily died and was revived. When I was again Cotten, I looked down and to my horror, she hadn't moved.
"Come on, hurry!" I yelled. "There are only minutes left."
She lay motionless, staring. I tried to slip her suit onto her—an impossible task unless the wearer is standing—but she was curled in a fetal position. Those few minutes were an eternity, and when I thought they should have long been over, I lifted her and held her to me.
"Why?" I asked. "Why?"
She slowly turned her face to me. "You know why," she said.
Then the door slid open, and she turned to rain in my arms.
[Continue to Story #23]
[Continue to Story #23]
"Exo-Skeleton Town" is © 2001 by Jeffrey Ford and is reprinted here by permission of the author. The story was originally published in the premiere issue of Black Gate magazine, Spring 2001.
"Exo-Skeleton Town" is one of 26 stories included in anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and forthcoming from Night Shade Books in November. For more information on this anthology, you may want to start here.
Jeffrey Ford is a graduate of Binghamton University, where he studied with the novelist John Gardner. He published his first story, "The Casket," in Gardner's literary magazine MSS in 1981, and his first full-length novel, Vanitas, in 1988. His next three novels comprised the "Well-Built City" trilogy: The Physiognomy, Memoranda, and The Beyond. Jeff has twelve nominations for the World Fantasy Award, and has won the award six times: two for novels The Physiognomy and The Shadow Year; two for collections The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories and The Drowned Life, one for novella "Botch Town," and one for short story "Creation." He teaches Writing and Early American Literature at Brookdale Community College.