Annie was the kind of woman that couldn't let things go. She would just keep drilling deeper and deeper, looking for answers, or winning an argument, or to be proven right at any cost. She was the kind of woman that got her way and still wanted more... a queen on a throne only she could see. I was the guy in the picture, infatuated at first, entranced by her, running circles to earn a drop of her approval, fascinated with her acumen, even a bit frightened by her smarts at times. She had a way of seeing beyond things, through things, and no ability to compromise with those who lacked such penetrating vision.
The fascination that drew me to her, of course, was like the heat of a flame to a hapless moth. The tenacity that compelled me to chase her was a vortex I could not escape... circling deeper and deeper into a darkness of overcriticized minutia and hyper-passionate makeups. She was attractive by most common accounts, I suppose, but it was her mind... that energized brain of hers ticking and spinning and solving every oddity, every movie ending, every TV cold case, every typo in every recipe. She was an intellect of endless appetite, and I found it intoxicating.
That is, until I didn't.
The thing about ravenous minds is that they don't know when to stop feeding. She wanted too many answers, wanted to show me how foolish I was to lose my right shoe, how dimwitted it must be to misplace a phone charger, or how gray-eyed I must be to not see the hidden truths in the clues of an unsolved murder. Despite that, it's hard to remember exactly how we grew apart day by day. My mind hides the details with mercy and trauma. I remember the shouting, a spilled coffee, walking down the street alone one night to let her cool off. What was she picking at me about that night? Lost in the remembering, I suppose. Lost in the rubbing of eyes and wringing of hands.
That was all behind me now. Fast forward to one of my mental health days. A little me time. I walked down to the pier as usual. The gray waves always soothed my ragged nerves, no matter how bad the memories were. The pictures of the past were like teeth on a mile-long saw blade, tooth by tooth, dragging across my sanity day by day. The water dulled the teeth, dulled the flashes. I was still confused, still muddled on what happened.
Then I saw it.
On the colorless horizon beyond the splintered handrail, a speck of white caught my eye. It was floating against the tide, defiant, a pinpoint of disturbance on my soothing scene... a bleached pebble of sand in my eye... a uncaring blemish of turpentine on a well-oiled canvas. I squinted, it was moving closer. A bird, yes, a pelican, floating on the lazy swells. A cold shiver ran down my neck. No scarf could stop that bite and I shivered, zipping up my jacket, but stopping halfway. The metal teeth of the zipper, one by one, scraping, grinding like a dog in the wheels of a truck, chewing at each other with scissor scrapes. I looked again.
It was still there. Floating, uneventful, ruining my peace. The shiver became a tremor in my hands. The knuckles were raw, for some reason, skinless, frozen, like bologna in the fluorescent glow of a butcher's neglected case. I didn't want to look at those knuckles, I was there to look at the kind sea, not these spider's limbs. Flashes returned with each tremor: concrete, crumbling asbestos, a wire hanger giving way under a too-heavy coat, a bulb popping with a flash, then teeth seen far too close, and that awful sloshing below the crack in the door.
My trance broke. The pelican was no longer in view. The bastard lacked the decency to come closer? Aborting his leisurely float before saying hello? A sadistic tidewalker revealing itself only long enough to make those on land question if he was ever there at all? The nerve! The callous, greedy, gulping bird mind of this thing! Betrayer! But then, the large bird floated back into view, obscured only by a slow swell a hundred yards out. I breathed relief, but teh anger remained. I could feel my skinless knuckles strain and pop in their pocket prisons.
It was a large specimen, even for its kind: corpulent with over feeding, riding low in the water. The wings were not tucked, but half-feathered, loosely trailing, one dipped in the churn. Then I leaned forward, seeing it turn toward me for a better look at last. The throat-sack, or gullet, or goiter, or beak-bag or whatever you call it, was terribly bloated. Blue veins strained at the skin membrane. Rivulets of yellowed foam slid and bobbed at the waterline. It bulged and strained, full to the brim.
I shivered again. Annie's disapproving look in my eyelids. She laughed at my making of the bed, chided me for a bowl placed in the wrong cupboard. Then, escalation. She shoved me across the couch, ripped the cuff of my dress shirt, dumped my desk drawer insisting I had stolen her last good pen. Those little memories were small things, but they swirled and folded and compounded like the razor-sharp edges of some black pyramid in my mind. The mass of it all rose above the petrified rooftops, above the anvil clouds, above the stratosphere, into star-storms of hideous proportions. There the obelisk unfolded, lightless against the uncaring cosmos, revealing its infinite interior, where blood-soaked souls screamed for mercy, and a trillion white doors fanned together to form a wheel of howling madness, below each of them a flow of crimson-turning-black. Teeth floated in the red rivers, and I felt my stomach drop.
"Fuck!" I heard my involuntary voice cry. Two other people were on the pier, walking like panty-hose mannequins with rag-stuffed mouths and meaningless small talk. They noticed me and hurried away. I forced my hands to unclench, took a breath. Where was my only friend? Where was my only hope? Where was the bleached sun in my hopeless ocean? Where was the pelican?
Again it appeared, lazy, barely blinking. "See?" I said absently, "it'll be ok, Annie. It'll be ok, you'll see." I knew she was waiting for me to come home, but I could spare a few more moments with this sagely avian. Bloated, stuffed to the beak, sickly, cold as death, perhaps, but a friend nonetheless. "Just a few more minutes, Annie."
Then closer the bird came in a rush, riding the swell toward the pylons below the pier. It was clear as day now, every feather countable, every pink bit of skin, every eyelid quill in view. The beak, the throat-sac... it was overful, unswallowable. The bird struggled with it now and then, but could neither release the mouthful nor force it down. It was trapped in its own gluttony. The beak caught a bit of seawater now and then, sending a shiver down the feathered back. I could feel the cold of it.
If she would just give me a moment, just leave me be, just stay quiet for a few breaths, I could endure another day. I knew she was at home, seething at me, waiting in that harshly lit room. She was in that damned chair, no doubt, preparing a litany of grievances. The rage began to boil up again.
Then I saw it.
At last the pelican bumped against a stone or underwater timber. It leaned to one side, and the beak-sack flopped open. A flash of light in my eyes somehow, and I was on a stony beach, half moon high above, black plastic squeaking, rain pounding. Something slid into the water. It was quiet, so very quiet. It was a silence crafted from hell's heart, each second a sawtooth of soundless horror ticking, ticking through my jaw with strain. A memory? Or was the pier a memory? Was this now? Again, I looked at my hands, and horror gripped me like a coffin of ice and salt.
The beak drooped, opened wider than it should. The pelican was dead after all, colorless, rotted, eyeless, balding. In that skin-bag of froth and foam the last of my mind was lost. The crusted sea-drool and deflated-football skin flayed back from the hollow bones, the scalpel cuts formed polygons of ever-deeper tunneling shapes. Vortices upon vortices spinning around my perception, plunging me downward, sideways, into the past and the terrible future at once, towards a black star of lifeless hunger. Some idiot god was at the core of it, howling into a thousand broken trumpets, cracking a spaghetti-tangle of skinless knuckles in concentric circles... forever... forever unfolding into tooth-cluttered flows of blood. My mouth opened, but I could not scream, for screaming is a thing done by living things, and I was no living thing: only the madness remained, only the terror.
There, in the flopping beak, was a sea-chewed head. It rolled lifelessly, sticky hair in seaweed spirals on the pale blue cheeks. It rolled to one side, revealing a death scream, mouth agape, jaw falling from a jelly-soft skull. No tooth was in that yawning hole of a mouth, but the eyes had somehow remained. Milky white, but still focused, still lucid, dead and dying all at once. The unmistakable, relentless, critical eyes of my Annie.
They tell me I'll stop seeing it soon. They tell me to keep painting. They tell me I'll get better in time, that I can learn to forget.
But it is all I ever see. Whether through my tiny barred window, or through the wall itself, whether in the eyes of the guard or the bone-white knuckles chewed bloodless in my afternoons, I see it! It is all I ever see... the pelican.