Corrine pulled the straps of her backpack tight and loosened them. The repetition was soothing, one of a dozen odd defences and rituals she used to get through each day. Watching for the first signs and waiting for it to bloom inside her head.
Not ‘a migraine.’ which she knew to be appropriated to get out of social engagements and obligations. It was less embarrassing than saying you had the shits. It was a gesture accompanied by a narrowing of the eyes, allusions to grand agonies nobly borne. In truth, they were muzak to the thrash metal cacophonies she lived with. An attack laid her out for days, squirrelled away in her stale apartment, tasting battery acid with every swallow. What fragile traces of a life she had built around them were tenuous, inconstant and forever subject to the angry, arbitrary whims of the primitive pain god that had set up a temple inside her head.
Welfare was not going to help her and her claim for disability was wandering through a bureaucratic labyrinth, so Corrine had choked down her last pills and gotten up before dawn to attend the job fair at the convention centre.
The queue was a living thing that fed on desperation. It had already grown fat and malignant in its length.
She thought she saw Charlie who had been working at the dealership last time she had seen him. He didn’t see her though. Corrine had adjusted to large periods of time passing when she suffered these attacks. No wonder people moved away from her. It was a relief, in its own way.
Corrine focused on her breathing but the air was so cold that it made her nostrils ache, so she got out the battered paperback copy of Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale and slipped into the cruel world order of Gilead.
The queue had grown longer, alive with whispers of dismay, shouts of resentment and the cries of cold and hungry children. Corrine stopped watching or reading the news because it never matched her experiences of the world, good and bad. She knew too many people who were walking a tightrope that got cut when they were halfway across.
She kept reading. She wished she had brought a flask of soup. Coffee was a temptation, but it triggered the worst headaches and kept her awake for every vicious hour of it.
Brenda’s voice was scuffed with amused exhaustion. They had worked at the nursing home together, Brenda having taken her under her wing despite being five years younger. She had Oscar with her, swaddled in blankets in a flimsy push chair. Corrine hugger and then knelt down to make faces at Oscar. Brenda looked around at the queue and gave a dismayed sigh.
‘Wow, you were smart getting here early. I mean, I tried but this little man has his own way of doing things just like his daddy.’
Corrine peered past Brenda and could not see to the end of the line. Brenda’s cheeks glowed like coals with the cold and Oscar’s breath came out in visible plumes.
‘Come on, stand with me.’ Corrine said.
The guy behind her, glared from underneath the brim of his ball cap and pointed a doughy finger at Brenda.
‘No fucking way.’
Corrine’s head started to throb and she stood between Brenda and the guy. She squinted at him, his neat beard, flecked with white and the oversized spectacles that made his eyes swim. His belly strained the buttons on his padded shirt.
‘I was saving her place. Please, mister, don’t swear in front of the kid.’
The man grimaced and made fists of his hands.
‘I don’t have to mind my language for anyone.’
Corrine bristled at his indignation. He had looked at Brenda and Oscar, cold and desperate as he was and decided that honour wasn’t going to get his light bill paid. How he could dismiss them like that.
A burning wire pushed through one side of her head. She squeezed her eyes shut and squirmed with futility as the man laughed at her.
‘Now fuck off the back of the line. Having a kid doesn’t entitle you to shit.’
His voice dug fingernails into her scalp. It fed the god inside her. Whatever was happening, had burst past the tethers of her medication. It pounded at the inside of her skull as it shat hot, humming lava into her sinuses
She struggled to see through the flashes of white light before her eyes.
The man laughed and a few others joined in, a little behind him in their enthusiasm. Corrine burned with humiliation as her senses extended outwards, like crude lightning into the minds of everyone around her. Brenda’s low-key desperation, Oscar’s discomfort atop the mockery being poured into her head. A spike of pain drove itself through the top of her head and she screamed. She leaned over and clutched her head. The pressure was testing the plates of her skull, flooding her system, overwhelming what dignified fragility constituted her soul.
The man laughed again. A spark landing behind the pool of gasoline inside her head.
Corrine became the roar of flames, convulsing with an atavistic rage that was engulfing and empowering all at once. Her right arm shot out and her fingers gripped the front of the man’s shirt, pulling him towards her.
Corrine was sensitive to the nuances and auspices of her condition, enough to note that this was not an ordinary attack. It sought to leave, to fulfill its purpose.
She knew its name.
VEH VAH LEE AH
VEH VAH LEE AH
VEH VAH LEE AH
In calling it, her will was enacted.
It moved outwards from her head down through her arm into him.
There was a perfect shining pearl of relief before she opened her eyes and saw what her will had achieved.
His eyes had gone up into his skull, showing only the veined whites as blood streamed from his nose, clotting his beard. He shuddered before collapsing to the ground, his limbs flailing against the ground. Amidst the chaos, Corrine experienced a detachment as surreal as it was gorgeous.
A gobbet of tissue landed in front of Oscar’s push chair.
A chunk of his tongue where he had bitten through it.
He laid there, lost to a storm of neural abandon as people got out their phones, some to call for help, others to film it. Corrine watched it all with a smooth, analgesic delight.
Oscar gurgled at her, showing his pink, damp gums and his eyes glittered with curiosity. Brenda’s face had turned white and her mouth was slack with awe. Corrine smiled at her, tightened the straps on her backpack and walked away.
She left her pain behind. She took the power with her, listened to it.
She began to learn.
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