NECK ROW MAN SEA
Laurie was watching television late at night the first time the bad word drifted through her mind as casually as a cloud passing across a moonlit sky. Charlie was finally asleep in his crib. He’d been crying and irritable all night.
Laurie was exhausted and half dozing.
“Neck row man sea,” she spoke aloud, meticulously pronouncing each syllable.
On her lap the black cat shifted, disturbed by the slight movement of her speech. It looked up at her and meowed. She looked down at its mismatched eyes, one blue, one green, and tousled its head.
Where had that come from? Laurie wondered.
Necromancy. That was black magic, wasn’t it? She thought to herself.
She shrugged, she’d probably gotten it from the TV set as she was drowsing. She pushed the cat off her lap and looked at the clock: 3:00 AM it blinked.
It was time to go to bed. Mr. Hunter the Caretaker would be by tomorrow to collect her part of the rent. He liked to come early, trying to catch her in her bathrobe so he could stare down her front.
It wasn’t, she told herself, as if it was much of an apartment. She lived in a one bedroom apartment in an old drafty building. Charlie, her baby, occupied the bedroom, Laurie unfolded the couch in the living room.
Laurie hated being poor. Hated being alone and unwanted and slowly growing older as her child grew up. She hugged Sam, her cat, to her as she went to sleep.
She woke to a persistent knocking at her door.
“Oh damn,” she mumbled, she stumbled over to the peephole.
It was Mr. Hunter.
“Just a minute,” she told him.
Laurie scrambled into her bathrobe before letting him in.
“Hey Laurie, I hope I didn’t wake you,” he said.
The way his eyes slid over her made her body feel like it had been dipped in oil. Mister Hunter was a greasy hairy man with a potbelly and pale rancid skin on the wrong side of forty. He always smelled vaguely of something she couldn’t identify, something sour. He had a wife who was just as unpleasant, but that didn’t stop him from hitting on the tenants.
“Uh, no,” she said, “I was just putting on some tea.”
Involuntarily he licked his lips. She flinched at her choice of words. Saying ‘putting on’ probably made him think of ‘taking off.’
“I’ve got the money right around here,” she told him, stepping into the kitchen area.
Welfare theoretically paid the rent, but it wasn’t enough. So each month she gave the landlord forty dollars of the money welfare provided to her for food and clothing. Then, left short, she tried to figure out how to make it to the end of the month, so the cycle could start over again.
“That’s okay,” he told her, “I’m in no hurry.”
He followed her into the kitchen and sat down at the little table.
“So,” he asked, “what are you up to, these days?”
“Nothing much,” she said, “taking care of the baby, looking for work.”
She took the spending money out of a jar in cupboard and set it on the table. It jingled with the sound of nickels and dimes.
“Those two don’t go together,” he grunted, “you should get yourself a man.”
Her bathrobe slipped a little and she could almost feel the pressure of his piggy little eyes on her exposed flesh.
“I had a man,” Laurie told him, “he broke my nose when I was six months pregnant.”
Carefully she counted out thirty five dollars.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s tough. But still, I bet you must get pretty lonely. All by yourself. I bet you’d like some ‘company’ once in a while.” Hunter put a vaguely obscene lilt into the word ‘company.’ He folded the money away. It was mostly in ones and two’s.
“I’m okay,” Laurie replied stiffly, “I got Charley, and I got Sam.”
“It’s illegal to keep a pet in this building,” Hunter told her. He laid his hand across her wrist. Her skin shriveled. “You’re lucky I like you. Sometimes I wonder why I go out of my way for people.”
Charley’s bawling saved her from having to answer. Hunter flinched visibly at the sound.
“He probably just needs changing,” she told him. There was a small pleasure in watching him squirm in disgust.
“I’d better be going, then. Let you take care of the kid.”
He got up.
“Okay,” she said, walking quickly into the bedroom.
Laurie picked up Charley and then stepped back to the hall.
“Wait…” she called to Hunter in the Doorway.
“D’you know what ‘necromancy’ means?” she asked.
His greasy brow wrinkled.
“That’s black magic shit. Workin’ with zombies and dead things and stuff.”
“I was just wondering,” she told him.
“Uh huh,” he said, “where’d you hear that?”
“On the TV last night.”
“Oh,” he announced dumbly, “I don’t remember seeing no horror movies in the TV guide, I would have stayed up for it.”
“I can’t remember what show it was.”
He gave her a broken toothed grin, “Oh well. You wanna stay up some night practicing black magic, that’s fine with me. I’d even let you cast a spell on me.”
The grin turned into a leer just before he vanished out the door.
Pig, she thought, as she held the baby.
Their conversation flitted through her mind as she changed the diaper. Looking for work: What a joke. Who was going to hire a nineteen year old high school dropout.
“You messed yourself, eh. Smells bad.” She talked to Charley just to hear a human voice. “Better learn soon, I don’t want to be changing your diapers for the rest of my life.”
And if she could find a job, what would she do about Charley? Day care cost money. She couldn’t earn enough to pay nursery fees and then rent and food and clothing on top of that.
Sam, her cat, meowed insistently, rubbing against her leg.
“Wait a minute, Sam,” she muttered. Charley was still crying. Holding the baby in one arm she rocked it back and forth, carrying the diaper to a hamper in the bathroom, next to the litter box.
Sam followed her with cat quick steps. He meowed again.
“Wait, Sam…” Laurie shoved the cat with her foot, but it continued to follow her, “or I’ll take you back to the pound.”
Sam was what she thought of as her one luxury. She’d gotten him for free at the animal shelter. But he was her pick.
It was the week after Philip had broken her nose. She’d moved out, taking the television and two suitcases with her.
There was a bitter taste in remembering. What a slide that had been. High school had been a different world. They were going to graduate and then get married. They’d have jobs and a nice house. Philip had wanted a dog, but she’d always argued for a cat.
At least, she thought sourly, I have the cat. She opened the cupboard and pulled out the kitty kibbles.
The pregnancy had ruined everything. There had been the terrible fights with her parents as she’d tried to get an abortion, then moving in with Philip, the two of them dropping out of school as they’d tried to make it work.
She poured the kibbles into the bowl beside the garbage. A kibble or two bounced onto the linoleum.
“Eat up, you little monster,” she told the cat.
But it hadn’t worked. Philip had become increasingly withdrawn and bitter as the pregnancy progressed.
They’d even stopped making love. Except that Philip had never used that term. To Philip, it had always been fucking.
She’d tried. She’d been out there looking for a job too. And at home she’d done her best to make the rathole of an apartment a home. To make it neat and presentable. To always have a good meal on the table. Philip just got worse. More withdrawn, more resentful of her.
It was as if he was watching his future diminish as her belly grew.
As it turned out, she thought angrily, it was only her future that had been flushed down the toilet.
Walking back and forth across the kitchen with Charley, Laurie watched Sam wolf down the kibbles. She poured some water for him.
“What happened Sam?” she asked. “All I wanted was a life.”
The cat looked up and meowed.
She thought of a song. “Whatever happened to that ole black magic?”
The days drifted past in monotonous repetition. Charley demanded constant attention. When she wasn’t changing him she was feeding him. When she wasn’t feeding him she was rocking him. When she wasn’t rocking him she was changing him. And so on, and so on, and so on. Right around the clock.
If it wasn’t Charley, it was Sam: Demanding to be fed, demanding to be put outside, or simply demanding attention.
“I don’t know why I got a cat like you,” she would tell it.
“I ought to take you back and get a cat that’ll mind its own business,” she would threaten.
When she’d seen Sam at the animal shelter, a raggedy black tom with mismatched eyes, she’d felt a wave of sympathy for it. She’d still had a black eye at the time.
The shelter people told her that the cat had been there four weeks. They usually only kept them a week before putting them down, but they’d had it at a vet one week, and then they thought they might have found the old owner another week.
Things had come up, but it was all out of time.
If Laurie hadn’t taken him home, they would have put Sam to sleep that very day.
In a way, she felt responsible for his life, just like Charley.
The cat would simply blink up at her when these thoughts crossed her mind.
Every now and then, in odd moments when Charley was quiet and Sam was purring on her lap, the word would bubble up to the surface of her thoughts. Like some log buried in a swamp, pushed to the top of the water by its own decomposition.
Or like a dead body rising through the muck.
Necromancy. Death magic. She was surprised at how much she knew once she started to think about it.
“Things just float in,” she told Charley as she changed his diapers. “You watch movies and you hear TV. People talk. You pick things up without knowing.”
“For instance, I know that you can’t leave a baby alone with a cat. Did you know that?” she asked him as she turned him over and powdered his bum. Charley gurgled happily.
“It’s ’cause the cat will smell milk on the baby’s breath, and he’ll sit on the babies chest and try and lap it up, and the baby will suffocate from the weight. Now did either of you know that?”
Sam rubbed against her leg.
“Well, it’s true. I don’t know where I learned it from, but it’s true. That’s why I don’t allow you in the bedroom, Sam.” She directed her comment to the cat as she fixed the new diaper in place on Charley.
Necromancy, she realized, was death magic. It took its energy from the sacrifice of living things like chickens or goats. She’d seen them kill a chicken once on some television show about voodoo. Paid in blood up front.
Magic, the thoughts came to her, always had a price. You paid for it sooner or later.
Like loan sharks, she thought, the longer you waited the more it cost.
One morning, at the end of the week, she opened the fridge and was assaulted by the rank odor of spoiled milk and rotting food.
“Fridge’s busted,” Hunter grunted, when he finally came down to inspect it.
“All my food is ruined,” Laurie wailed miserably. The tone in her voice made Sam meow questioningly. It was a week and a half before the next welfare cheque.
“Nothing I can do but get someone in to fix it. Take a few days to get someone in to fix it, maybe a week,” Hunter said.
“I have a baby,” Laurie whined, “I need a fridge.”
“I’m sorry about that…” Hunter began.
“Please,” she begged.
A look passed across his face, “I might be able to do something, but you’ll owe me…”
Later that night she sat in the kitchen, holding Sam in her arms, watching the mini-fridge chug away in the corner. She’d borrowed twenty-five dollars for food. There would be a price, she knew.
Laurie was shocked by how much this relatively trivial disaster had affected her.
Back in high school, before everything went wrong, she wouldn’t have cared. She’d have just gone to MacDonalds, or eaten at friends.
Except that now there was no money for MacDonalds, and none of her old friends were around, they’d dropped her when their lives had gone one way and hers had gone another. To them, she was an ugly might-have-been that they’d managed to avoid and didn’t want to be reminded of.
No new friends had replaced them. You couldn’t go out and meet people when you were looking after a kid twenty-four hours a day.
What hurt the most was that Philip had never looked for her, had never called, after she walked out.
Poverty sucked, she decided. Being poor meant you had no chances. You couldn’t have good toys for Charley, or medicine if he got sick. You couldn’t afford a babysitter. You couldn’t go out. You couldn’t do anything. The high point of the week became taking Charley out for a walk, if the weather was good. All you could really do was sit around and watch TV and get fat and old.
“I wish,” she mumbled, “I wish for a way out.”
But, she thought, there were no fairy godmothers to wave a magic wand. And anyway, if there were, they’d probably have a price. Like everything else.
Sam squirmed in her arms.
As she counted down the nights until welfare day, she thought about it again and again.
Necromancy was black magic, sure, but at least you paid up front and that was that. Once she turned her attention to it, it all seemed so straightforward. Even the rituals were just common sense.
In a way, it was like Birthday candles, she thought. Blowing out the candle and making a wish was a magical ritual. But with a candle, you were only making a tiny sacrifice.
Too bad it didn’t work.
Still, on welfare day, she half-surprised herself by buying a rabbit at the Pet Store.
She’d thought about getting a chicken, like in the voodoo program. But the Pet Store didn’t have live chickens and the meat market only had dead ones.
Besides, the idea of a chicken made the whole thing seem unbearable. How would she get it home without making noise? And what about the sacrifice, she’d shuddered at the memory of the headless chicken flopping around and beating its wings in the voodoo show.
A rabbit wouldn’t make noise. Besides, she thought, if she changed her mind, she could keep it as a pet.
Laurie kept the rabbit for two days. At first, feeling its soft fur and looking at its sensitive twitching nose and soft brown eyes she didn’t have the heart to hurt it. Sam sniffed it once or twice and then ignored it.
It shit on the rug and gnawed at the electrical cords.
Unlike Sam, it seemed to have no personality, it just hopped around. The rabbit didn’t seem to like her, she had to chase it to pet it. Then it hopped away as soon as she released her grip, moving until it was just out of her reach, and then snuffling about, indifferent to her presence.
At night, Laurie could hear it moving around, scrabbling like some huge rat. It made it hard for her to sleep, she thought it kept Charley awake too.
“You could do it,” the thoughts floated through her mind, “in the bathtub. That way, the blood could just drain away.” The bathroom was all tiles: Easy to clean, quiet, no windows, no one could hear.
She laid on her back in bed and listened to its scratching and thought about it. Reaching up, she scratched Sam, who was laying on her stomach, behind the ears.
“What about it Sam?” she asked, “Do you want to be a witch’s familiar?”
Sam just blinked his eyes a couple of times and purred.
The next night, at midnight, she took the rabbit into the bathroom.
It was harder than she thought it would be. She had to hold the rabbit with both hands as it kicked. The incantations came out as a mumbled hiss. Blood spattered on the walls and across her face.
Afterwards, she simply felt stupid.
Laurie couldn’t sleep. She laid in bed until the morning, conscious of an eviscerated rabbit tucked into the miniature fridge’s vegetable compartment. She became aware of Sam lapping traces of dried blood from her skin and pushed him off the bed.
The next morning, she was bone tired. Charley seemed more bothersome than usual. Neither feeding nor changing helped, he complained continually.
“Be quiet,” she told Charley as she walked him back and forth, “your mommy is going crazy. Cabin fever. That’s what it is, being cooped up here with you two all the time.”
“Isn’t that right, Sam?” she asked.
Sam was eating pieces of rabbit meat in his bowl. The cat didn’t even look up.
Two days later, while taking Charley for a walk she found an unmarked envelope containing four hundred dollars in cash.
Back in her apartment she put Charley away, and sat at the kitchen table, counting the money over and over again. Sam’s meowing went unheard. It was more than she got from welfare. Her mind became a swirling flood of all the things she could buy, toys for Charley, clothes, food, she could get a babysitter, go to a movie.
At the back of her mind, though, was the idea that the magic had worked, after all. There was a strangely satisfying feeling that came with that thought. It meant that it wasn’t just luck, it had been her, she’d supported her family, she’d done something.
The money lasted a week. A glorious week of potato chips and ice cream, eating at MacDonalds. A week of catnip and educational toys and that special quality baby powder that Charley really seemed to like. A week of baby clothes and new jeans that made her feel sexy and attractive for the first time in a year. A wonderful week that brought home to her how bland and stale her life had been.
And would be again.
She bought a guinea pig, the biggest one the store had. This time, she didn’t let the little rodent shit all over the apartment for two days. She did it that night.
The next day, while cleaning Charley, she picked up the phone and answered a radio quiz. She won a Blu-Ray and six months digital streaming service.
“It’s working,” she crooned to Charley during feeding, “it’s finally working out. We’re going to have a good life. We’re going to be a terrific family, the three of us, wait and see.”
She did the laundry, did everything that could be put in a washer, even dishtowels, using that expensive fabric softener that made things smell so good. She scrubbed the linoleum floor in the kitchen and polished the counters and coffee tables. The apartment was still a low rent dive, she admitted, but now it felt brighter and more hopeful. Now it seemed like a home. Even
Mr. Hunter was bearable, actually pleasant at times.
A form casually filled out won her the Children’s Universal Encyclopedia Set. There were more rabbits and guinea pigs, and rats and puppies and half grown dogs, some chickens, and even a young goat.
Even Charley seemed more pleasant. The fussy irritation that had made him so difficult the last few months vanished. Now he was a happy, gurgling baby. Feeding and changing him were no longer chores, perhaps it was simply that there was more to look forward to. She spent hours playing with him.
It was neat at first. Laurie never knew what form things would take. There was a fifty dollar rebate on her electric bill. Then she found a diamond ring inside a coat she bought from at the Goodwill Seconds store. At times, it became almost irritating, she didn’t often get what she really needed when she needed it. A free prescription had come only after devastating menstrual cramps had passed.
“If you were a better familiar,” she scolded Sam, shaking the prescription at him, “these things would come in on time.”
She’d begun to think of Sam as a real familiar. That was why he’d lasted four weeks at the shelter. Sam, she thought, was feeding her magical knowledge, just putting it in her head.
After a time, it occurred to her that it was still just the three of them, a lonely little circle.
Laurie returned to her old haunts to find that many of her friends had moved on. The gulf between her and the ones she found convinced her that there was nothing left in the past.
She tracked down Phillip’s phone number. For a quarter of an hour she sat by the phone, desperately holding Sam like a rag doll. Finally, with muffled sobs, she tore the phone number up and flushed it down the toilet.
At midnight, embarrassed by the fact of her nudity, Laurie stepped into the bathtub with the sacrifice for the first time. I need someone, she thought. Holding the rabbit above her head, she slit it’s throat. It kicked spastically as hot blood spurted on her cheek and ran down her neck, dripping redly over her breasts and thighs.
It was like birthday candles, you just made your wish and blew them out.
Three days later the serviceman came from the cable company because she’d won a year’s free cable service in a draw at the Safeway.
He was gorgeous. She’d made him tea and then they’d talked for most of the morning. His hand on her thigh, when it came, was welcome and she opened easily.
He was better than Philip. Much, much better than Philip, and it had been so long. His name was Mike, and he promised that he would come back.
After he left, she just laid there on the bed, languorous and sensual in her wet nudity. Padding onto her stomach, crouching at her sternum, the cat licked the drying sweat from between her breasts.
The next day, Laurie was still glowing. Singing softly to herself she straightened up the apartment, Sam following her, meowing softly for attention.
Mike had left his newspaper behind, in the kitchen.
Laurie hardly ever bought newspapers. Except for the comics, there wasn’t much in them that interested her.
Late that night, as she read the newspaper, she came across the National lottery listings. The National lottery was held once a week, the prize was nominally a quarter of a million dollars. But if there was no winner, then the prize would roll into next weeks lottery, and so on, until someone won the pot. It was up to four million dollars.
Laurie thought vaguely that it would be nice to win something big for a change. Then she turned to the comics. After that, she tried to do the crossword puzzle.
Over the next week, the thought of the lottery would intrude upon her at odd moments. When changing Charley she would daydream about winning the lottery and having a housekeeper to do this.
Four million dollars, she thought, would solve all her problems.
Finally, she bought a ticket and the day before the draw, she sacrificed a rabbit. She’d become quite elaborate in her sacrifices, buying a red velvet nightrobe to wear, chanting for as much as half an hour, and killing with a genuine silver plated knife she purchased specially for the purpose at Walmart.
She lost. The prize went unclaimed.
“Magic,” she told Sam, “is damned frustrating.”
The cat just blinked at her with mismatched eyes.
Still, the smaller magics seemed to work. New things happened. She cleaned the apartment, played with Charley, rented movies and watched TV. Mike phoned to tell her he would be going out of town for a week, but would call her when he got back.
The next week, she bought a ticket and tried again.
Again the lottery went unclaimed.
Five and a half million dollars now.
The sacrifice wasn’t big enough, she decided.
Laurie bought a goat.
She’d used a goat once before and had promised herself never again. The beast had kicked and butted and made noise. It had been murder getting it home unseen, and once home, it had nearly wrecked the bathroom before it had been time. She’d been terrified by the possibility that it might wake the neighbors. Afterwards she’d had to laboriously cut it to pieces and spent half the night disposing of the carcass as far across the city as she could walk.
This goat, an obnoxious black billy, was an even bigger pain in the ass.
Again, the prize slipped away from her.
Six and three quarter million dollars.
Failure put her in a black mood. For two days, she moped.
It’s too big, the thought slipped into her mind, it’s not like some supermarket draw or radio contest. Millions of people buy tickets. What was needed was a really big sacrifice.
She petted Sam, he preened under her hand. Animals just wouldn’t release enough death energy. She needed a more powerful sacrifice.
A human sacrifice.
In the bedroom, Charley cried.
She stood there a moment, allowing the pieces to fall into place in her mind.
Her response was simple.
“No,” she said out loud. She went to take care of Charley.
Seven million dollars. Unclaimed.
As the next week passed, Laurie found she couldn’t stop thinking about it. It began to obsess her. Seven million dollars she would chant unconsciously as she changed diapers or cleaned the toilet.
Seven and a quarter million.
On Wednesday at 4:25 p.m., she broke.
Laurie threw the kibbles box at Sam. With a puzzled “rrowl!” the cat leaped away.
“This is all your fault,” she screamed at the cat.
“You’re doing it. You put the magic in my head. You’re making me think this.”
In the next room, startled by the noise, Charley started to cry.
“I don’t need you,” she blubbered as she chased the cat around the apartment, “I don’t need that money. I can do the magic by myself now, I know how.”
She caught Sam by the scruff of his neck. Holding the struggling animal at arm’s length, Laurie marched it out of the building. It howled as she flung it away.
The cat hit the ground, bounced, and scrambled away.
“I don’t need you,” she said bitterly.
Seven and a half million.
The magic stopped working. She made sacrifices practically every night, but nothing happened except that she ran increasingly short of money.
Charley began to cry constantly. It kept her up at nights. The Doctor said it was just teething, and would be over in a few months.
Seven and three quarter million.
Laurie had reconciled herself to the knowledge that Mike wasn’t going to call. On the other hand, Mr. Hunter had become unpleasantly aggressive. His wife was in the hospital. Some of his advances contained veiled threats.
She fantasized about making Mr. Hunter a sacrifice. But she remembered the goat with a shudder, if the goat had been bad, Hunter would be a hundred times worse. Besides, deep down she felt that Hunter wouldn’t satisfy the magic. She knew what it wanted.
Sometimes in the night, she heard Sam calling plaintively outside.
Bills came in the mail, but even worse were the flyers: Sign here and subscribe to the Children’s book series. Buy the video clubs library membership, seven rentals a week for the price of five. Expand cable to the superchannels. New appliances. A car. A laptop. Clothes. Everyone wanted her to buy something, but she had nothing to pay them with.
Charley cried and fussed, and the apartment became grey and barren. She felt her life closing in around her again.
“It’s just you and me kid,” she told Charley as she rocked him.
He just cried. That was all he did nowadays, he never even wanted to play. She felt increasingly stupid talking to him.
She found no trace of personality in him. More and more, he was just a bundle of chores. Demanding feeding. Demanding changing. Just demanding.
Eight million dollars.
Late in the night, as Charley squalled and squalled, she finally let the cat in.
Much later, she was blearily conscious of weeks, even months, having passed.
Her lawyer was talking to her. She didn’t especially care. She simply sat there in her hospital gown and let him drone on. The past was a blur.
No, that wasn’t quite true, she remembered Philip, and Sam, and then Charley. Then she didn’t want to remember any more. She didn’t want to think about anything. She didn’t want to be.
Laurie noticed a razor blade on the table between them. Had he put it there? Carefully, surreptitiously, she palmed it. Tonight, she thought. One last bloodletting. A final sacrifice and then it, then she, would be over.
She looked up at her lawyer for the first time. He was a striking man, she thought through the mental haze, sharp features and dark hair. But his eyes were his most arresting feature: Mismatched, one blue, one green.