“X-Ray” and “Trance” by Claire Podulka

Categories: ISSUE 01: Babe

X-ray

The morning after the fight, Anna awoke to find that she had X-ray vision. She woke up with her cat nudging her head with its head, and when she opened her eyes, she saw, as though on a doctor’s light board, the bright white bones of the cat’s skull and the dull gray outlines of everything else. What a weird dream, she thought, and closed her eyes again. The cat persisted in its nudging. Anna reopened her eyes. The skull meowed at her.

She couldn’t scream, just slowly sat up and pulled the covers back. She swallowed hard and tried to remember to breathe. Her own arms, torso, and legs were revealed to her in the same dirty gray and white, right through her pajamas. She slapped herself in the cheek and opened and closed her eyes furiously while shaking her head. She was definitely awake. She wasn’t in pain. But the X-ray vision seemed to be there to stay.

Anna stood up and walked into the bathroom. She had to steady herself against the sink when she saw her own featureless head in the mirror. Her smooth, round skull. Her empty, wide eye sockets. Her orthodontically straightened teeth. She reached her ghostly hand up and touched her face. Still there, still fleshy and soft. The nose she couldn’t see still protruding, slightly crooked, from the negative space in her reflection. Her hair felt slightly tangled from sleep, so she worked out the knots with her fingers, unable to see if she’d gotten them all.

Unsure of what else to do, Anna took a shower. She kept her eyes averted, first because her shadowy, lumpy body was creepy to look at, and second because it was hard to make her arms and hands do the things they needed to do while simultaneously observing their mechanical inner workings.

After she got out of the shower, Anna realized that her vision only seemed to work on living things. Herself and the cat: yes. But she couldn’t see into cabinets or through walls, couldn’t see the springs in her mattress or the wires in her clock. Unless she happened across a terrorist with a bomb implanted inside him or a drug smuggler with a gut full of cocaine pellets, she couldn’t imagine how this vision might be useful. It didn’t strike her as a superpower. It was only disconcerting.

She sat in her kitchen and stared at her hand. She wiggled her fingers and watched the articulation of all those tiny components. She squinted and concentrated and kept inadvertently crossing her eyes, blurring the vision but not erasing it, until she gave herself a headache.

It was too early for the drink she felt like she needed, but she figured a coffee might do her some good, so she headed out to the café. Immediately upon being confronted with other people and almost without realizing she was doing it, she started scanning them like a camera, top to bottom. If people were giving her odd or angry looks at this inspection, she couldn’t see them so she didn’t react. Gender was easy to figure, race essentially impossible. All her finely honed urban instincts of who to look at, who to ignore, who to veer away from, who to nod at were useless without the data of clothes, hair, face, and skin to analyze. She felt unmoored. She saw a slump-shouldered man with one arm longer than the other. She saw a woman with pins in her left knee but no discernible limp. She saw a baby in a stroller with its skull still unfused and thought how vulnerable it was and she was and we all are.

She took her coffee to go. She couldn’t be around people, seeing them like this.

She was halfway up her back steps when her phone rang. She wasn’t sure how this conversation would go but felt compelled to answer anyway.

“I’m sorry” was the first thing he said. “I’m so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have said any of those things last night.”

“I’m sorry too,” she said, so quickly she stepped on the end of his apology with hers. “I didn’t mean any of that stuff.” The fact that she had meant all of it—and that she was sure he had, too—washed away in a warm wave of relief.

“Let’s forget all of that, OK? Nothing we said last night really happened. Can we do that?”

“Of course. Of course.” She was tearing up, not exactly with happiness, but with a sense of release, of a burden being lifted. It felt like she had been freezing and could suddenly wrap herself in a thick blanket. She shook her head as if to dislodge all the thoughts that had stuck there the night before. “I’m so glad you called. I’ve had the strangest morning.”

“What happened?”

She looked down and saw her legs, pale and slightly stubbly, sticking out from her skirt, and the chipped polish on her fingernails. A quick, relieved laugh burst from her lips, which she felt sure were there, thin and pinkish, on her face where they belonged, concealing her teeth and gums just like they were supposed to.
“What happened?” he asked again, but she couldn’t answer.

O Typekey Divider

Trance

After it was all over—after she finally faded away into whatever happens after a person stops beating, stops breathing, stops flickering with electricity—after he was done saying goodbye to the body that was left and after he was done, for the moment, with crying, we all gathered up our things and drove back to his house—now just his house, not theirs anymore—to do whatever it was we were supposed to do. No one knew what we were supposed to do. The house was packed with food from the past week of other people who didn’t know what they were supposed to do filling in that gap with dishes and casseroles and looks that fell somewhere between sad and scared. We fixed plates of food and picked at them, feeling like, since he wasn’t eating, it would be wrong for us to eat. He wasn’t doing anything. Since we’d gotten back from the hospice, he’d gone straight to his chair at the head of the table in the dining room and had not moved or spoken. It was like he was in a trance. If none of us knew what to do, it was nothing in comparison to what he didn’t know. When we left that night, all of us would go back to our lives pretty much the same as they’d always been, with a small chip out of one side where she’d been. But his entire life had been smashed, fragments shattered everywhere, leaving him with empty hands and shards cutting his skin. We went over to him and tried to talk to him or get him to eat or just asked him if he wanted to lie down for a little while, but he was somewhere else, maybe trying to follow her to wherever she’d gone, maybe talking with her inside his head, maybe just shutting down, overloaded, unable to handle the world at that moment without her there. We asked if he wanted us to stay that night. He didn’t answer, so some of us did, because we were worried. She was gone; we couldn’t worry about her anymore. We had to worry about him, about where he might be going now, where he might have already gone, and how we could help him get back.

Story by Claire Podulka

Foreground photo by John Maloof