The Predator-Prey Spectrum

A girl wakes up and a stranger is sitting on her chest, incubus-style. She’s an ordinary human, a regular girl with a regular life, but something inside her wakes up. A crazy, beautiful, almost superhuman force. She fights and fights, her throat is slashed ear to ear, and she keeps fighting. She makes it to the bathroom and barricades the door and holds her own throat shut until the ambulance gets there.

Miles and years away, another stranger is drinking human blood. He is a true believer. He is simply doing what he has to do to survive. And to survive he has wandered into a house and systematically murdered everyone who lives there. He needs blood! He himself broke long ago. And easily. The world tapped on his brain like a fingernail on an egg. It cracked and spilled and no one paid attention and now here he is, covered in the blood of babies.

There’s a mystery to humans, to any human. The psyche, a human’s “animating spirit,” is often represented as a moth: a dusty creature draw toward what kills it. Did you know Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized in jail, and when he emerged from the whirlpool, he smiled? What neurons fired then? What wings brushed across his cortex?

On Being the Stranger  

 

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You get a sick thrill when you stumble across a website that has been cobbled together to provide “solace” for people who are mourning a stranger. You can read through the comment section and see the way raw grief paralyzes grammar. You can look at the last names and piece a story together: there’s his cousin, there’s his sister.

You find yourself wanting to mourn them too because mourning feels good and soon enough the tears are stinging your eyes because you have somehow—inopportune and sacrilegious freak that you are—found the father’s obituary for the son. Nothing is sacred. Everything is accessible. Here, he is spewing aphorisms because they are the only way to bandage that geyser of grief, and he is signing off as “Heartbroken,” and you are reading the whole thing without apology. Past midnight, you search the Internet to find the boy’s real name and tuck it into your dark heart.

And the whole time you recite to yourself a litany of the people you have not lost. This is not the same as the litany of people you thought you might lose.

The Wilds of the Midwest

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I live in the Midwest but I’m not from here at all. I’m an East Coast baby, a move-around-a-lot baby. I lived abroad as a child, and before I was a teenager, the only place I really put feelers into the soil was the little town of Lenoir, North Carolina. And then once I was a teenager–well, teenagers are by their very nature rootless. But anyway, we moved to Chicago. 

I’m not a Midwesterner, though occasionally I catch the ghost of a Chicago twang in my a’s (Shi-cahh-go). I’ve lived in Chicago for years now and I have yet to feel any sense of home in this city. But then I take I-80 West and the fields start streaming by.

See, my family is from Midwestern farmland and they’re from here deep.

I always forget that ancestry means something. It means a lot. I always think of my identity as me: small Tori, skipping through states and countries in her missionary-child girlhood. But I’ve been helping my grandma with a book of our genealogy lately and it’s really moving to hear about the people that run in your blood. Me isn’t just me. Everything is a composite, even the things we thought were pure, like my secret vampire teeth or when I was twelve I drew a picture of two people kissing. 

The things we can catalog besides my childhood portraits: the German immigrant. The mysterious death of the brother. The sod house in Nebraska. Two boys walking home, staring down the wolves. The died-in-childbirth. The year they thought they weren’t going to make it. The year they built the little white farm house, the farmhouse that’s still standing, the farmhouse that I’m sitting in right now, wrapped in blankets on a narrow vintage bed.

At night I hear footsteps in the room above me and I whisper come down and see me.

I wish those people knew me. You know: my ancestors. I want to run up to them and be like, hey, you made me, whatcha think? I want them to be proud of their own boundless potential, proud of filling up this huge country with tall children. Still, I feel like I’m not of them at all. Actually don’t come down. Actually I’m scared. I’m this other person, this rootless girl. Not a speck of DNA in this body. I didn’t grow up anywhere; some days I feel like a mannequin with a small girl ghost inside it. But other days, to keep my feet on real dirt, to shake myself into some sense of existence, I walk around these empty fields repeating, this is what I am. This is what I am. And the fields might respond, if I could just take my stubborn legs and kneel.

Advice for the Wandering Girl

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When you’re alone, you have to pretend like you’re in a movie. You have to, or you’ll go crazy. If you don’t see yourself as the sweet, sad heroine of some beautifully-wrought journey, you’ll start asking the dangerous questions:

Why did I come here?

What am I trying to find?

Why am I not afraid?

 

I’ve been writing an essay about my home and thinking a lot about ghosts. 

Thirteen Nightmares

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I dreamed that deep in the forest preserve, a man shot my brother.

I dreamed you said you never loved me, and you clutched your phone. I wrenched it away from you. I didn’t want you to text another girl.

I dreamed I was running up stairs.

I dreamed I had an older brother, and we passed a monster every day on our way to school. We fed the monster peanut butter sandwiches, but one day, he wanted me.

I dreamed we ran in and out of a pink building, looking for a place to kiss in secret.

I dreamed I was in love with a short skinny boy I knew when I was fifteen.

I dreamed my high school crush kicked me into the sky like a balloon.

I dreamed the line, “When I woke up, I wasn’t anybody, not even Alice.”

I dreamed I was waiting tables in an infinite loop, and nothing was going wrong, and the perfect rhythm was terrifying.

I dreamed that you died. And you, and you, and you.

I dreamed I was swimming with a beautiful woman.

I dreamed I couldn’t get away from the witch.

I dreamed I lay back on a table in the dark.

In my dream, I was screaming and screaming.

I tried to stop him, but he pulled out the gun.

It went off, and—as in the rules of the waking world—you dropped like a dead man.