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The Refrigerator Monologues

Catherynne M. Valente

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  For Heath Miller and Gail Simone


  I’m dead. The deadest girl in Deadtown.

  It’s been a while now. I’m comfortable with the word. You wouldn’t believe how comfortable the dead can get. We don’t tiptoe.

  Dead. Dead. Dead. Flying Ace of the Corpse Corps. Stepping the light Deathtastic. I don’t actually know what a doornail is, but we have a lot in common. Dying was the biggest thing that ever happened to me. I’m famous for it. If you know the name Paige Embry, you know that Paige Embry died. She died at night. She died stupidly. She died for no reason. She fell off a bridge like a suicide leap and nobody caught her. She dropped into the water, her spine snapped, and the last things she probably saw was those astonishing lights in the sky, the lights of Doctor Nocturne’s infernal machine igniting every piece of metal in the city, turning skyscrapers into liquid purple fire while Kid Mercury punched the bad guy over and over again, maybe because he was grieving already, maybe because he loved fighting more than girls and it was his biggest fight yet, maybe because that’s what the script of his life told him to do, maybe because he couldn’t stop. Paige Embry died watching her boyfriend save New York City. When the fires went out in Manhattan, they went out in her eyes, too.

  It’s nice to be famous for something, I guess.

  And the thing about me is, I’m not coming back. Lots of people do, you know. Deadtown has pretty shitty border control. If you know somebody on the outside, somebody who knows a guy, a priest or a wizard or a screenwriter or a guy whose superpower shtick gets really dark sometimes or a scientist with a totally neat revivification ray who just can’t seem to get federal funding, you can go home again.

  But we go steady, Death and me. Nobody can tear us apart.

  Not everybody wants to go back. Life’s okay in Deadtown. The early bird special lasts all day and the gas is free. There’s no fiery rings of artisanal punishment down here. Just neighborhoods. Blackstones. Bodegas. Walk-up apartments with infinite floors. The subways run on time. Yeah, sure, there’s skulls and femurs and gargoyles all over the place and the architects never met a shade of black they didn’t like, but hey—good design is all about a unified aesthetic. You get used to it. It starts to feel like home. And the gargoyles are really nice guys. The one living on my balcony is called Brian. He has three heads and he’s super into slam poetry. Deadtown is like anyplace else. It’s scary at first, but you get into a rhythm. Find a favorite park. Put a couple of pictures up on your wall. Pretty soon, you can’t imagine living anywhere else.

  Not everyone adjusts. I’ve seen girls run down the main drag toward the EXIT sign with smiles on their faces that would break you in half. Then again, I’ve seen others dragged back to the land of the living, screaming and sobbing and clawing through the dirt till their fingernails snap off and their mouths fill up with snot.

  But not me. No way. No how. If there’s a constant in the universe, it’s that Paige Embry is dead. I am a permanent error page. 404: Girl Not Found. Oh, sure, I know a guy on the outside. A pretty damn powerful guy. A guy with the speed of a maglev train, the brainpower of a supercomputer, and the strength of a half-dozen Hollywood Hercules. A guy who can slalom between skyscrapers like gravity forgot to take down his name and number. But he’s never once peeked in on me. Never once caught me, in all the times I’ve fallen. I hear he’s dating now. We do get the news here in Deadtown. Every morning in four colors. He’s got somebody prettier than a lipstick ad who’ll stay home while he fights crime, waving from a window in a goddamn apron. I bet she lives forever.

  I think about Tom Thatcher a lot. Kid Mercury. I came up with that name, you know. He wanted to call himself Mr. Mercury. But I said, Tommy, that sounds like a car dealership. You’re eighteen. You’re not even halfway to being a Mister yet. We’re still kids, you and me.

  The thing I hate about being dead is you can’t move on. I was in love with him when I died, so I’ll be in love with him till the sun burns out. I used to say that actual thing, curled up next to Tom in bed, my leg draped over Kid Mercury’s marvelous thigh, as romantic as a heart-shaped balloon.

  I’ll love you till the sun burns out.

  Well, now it’s factually, actually true and it is just a huge bummer. I’m frozen. I’m stuck. I’m Paige Embry forever, the Paige Embry that died with all that violet flame flickering in her blank eyes. I can never be anyone else. I can never see a therapist or eat all the ice cream ever made or go out with my friends and drunk-dial him and tell him I hate him and I never came when he fucked me, not even once, not even after he got his powers, and then call again in the morning and apologize and hide in my couch watching a million episodes of Law & Order all in a row. I don’t get to start dating again. I get to wait in a black window for a guy who’s never coming home.

  At least it’s a nice window.

  But one thing the dead do love is telling our stories. We get to take our stories with us. They don’t take up a lick of room in the suitcase. Most days I leave my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen (actual Hell’s actual Kitchen), go down to the Lethe Café, order a cup of nothing, look out the window at the blue-gas burntbone streetlamps, and wait for the girls. Ladies who lunch. Ladies who lost. You don’t have to be lonely down here if you don’t want to be. They come one by one, all big eyes and long legs, tucking strands of loose hair behind their ears, carrying pocketbooks and hats and secret griefs. Julia, Pauline, Daisy, Bayou, Samantha and more and others. Every time they open the frosted-glass door a gust of autumn leaves and moonlight blows in and sticks against the legs of the tables. They apologize to Neil, the gargoyle behind the espresso machine. He shakes his big woolly wolfshead, pulls a black ristretto shot of emptiness and says, Don’t you worry about it, honey.

  It’s always autumn in Deadtown. It’s always the middle of the night, even at nine in the morning.

  We call ourselves the Hell Hath Club.

  There’s a lot of us. We’re mostly very beautiful and very well-read and very angry. We have seen some shit. Our numbers change—a few more this week, a few less next, depending on if anyone gets called up to the big game. You can’t keep your lunch date if some topside science jockey figures out how to make a zombie-you. We’re totally understanding about that sort of thing. She’ll be back. They always come back. Zombies never last, power sputters out, and clones don’t have the self-preservation instinct God gave a toddler in a stove shop.

  I watch them come and go and, sometimes, for a minute, I think that sweet-faced geek in his lab will reanimate my rotting corpse for once. But he never looks twice at me. Never picked myself for the
team for all eternity.

  I guess you could call me the President of the Hell Hath Club. It’s honorary and empty and mostly means I get to the café first and hold our table. I order for everyone. I keep the minutes, such as they are. And when the girls settle in, we open our stories up like the morning edition. News, sports, stocks, funny pages. It’s all right there, neat and tidy and well-crafted and finished. Everything that ever happened to us. With a big fat D-Day headline over the part where magic became real, superheroes hit the scene, and the world went absolutely, unashamedly, giggles-and-lollipops-for-good-behavior crazy.


  Trouble is, my story is his story. The story of Kid Mercury crowds out everything else, like Christmas landing on the shops in August while Halloween tries to get a bat in edgewise. It’s not his fault. I’m not even mad. Who wants to hear about an intern eking out a 2.21% improvement in the structural cohesion and tensile strength of an experimental alloy when they could look out the window of her very productive lab and see a guy in a slick silver suit swinging a haymaker at the metallic jaw of a former professor of music theory? BAM. POW. No contest. I have to try to squeeze in around the edges of him, to cram my little witch’s hat on the department store shelf next to his great fat silver star.

  Picture me as I was then. Paige Embry, pretty as a penny in a ponytail, turning up to Falk Industries every morning with what I used to cheerfully call my Cyanide Breakfast—a triple almond latte in my shiny, only slightly dented steel thermos. God damn, I used to love my lab coat! It made me feel invincible. A knight in shining polyester. I was gonna be twenty-two so fucking soon. I was gonna graduate with honors in overachieving-know-it-all studies. I was gonna throw my stupid mortarboard in the stupid air and it was gonna hang there for this long beautiful golden endless moment, like the last shot in a sitcom, before falling back into my arms filled up to the brim with tomorrows. The future looked so good on me.

  Not bad for an invisible-class nobody. You know the invisible classes. They’re the ones you never see till you need them. My dad was a garbageman. My mom was a night nurse. My whole childhood was made up of wee hours. Until I met Tom Thatcher, my favorite things in the world were C++, metallurgy, a shade of matte lipstick called the Grapes of Math, and Frosty Frogs cereal. Every single day of my life, I lived for the hour after my mother came home from the hospital, before my father started up his truck in the driveway, when the stars still held onto the sky by their fingertips and I sat at the kitchen counter, swinging my legs, eating my bowl of Frosty Frogs and listening to my parents be married to each other. You’d think Dad would have smelled horrific all the time, but he didn’t. He smelled like coffee grounds, no matter how many times he showered.

  “People throw out enough coffee in this city to keep the whole world awake till Judgment Day, Paigy. You should eat something besides that sugary crap, you know. Why don’t you make her a soft-boiled egg, Nora? Brainiacs need protein or they keel over.” And he’d whistle and spin woozily on his heel like a cartoon.

  My mom sighed the same when I was seven as when I was seventeen. Her sigh was the prettiest part of her. Dad once said he knew it was love when he realized he’d jump off a cliff just to hear one exasperated sigh out of Nora Embry’s mouth.

  She’s a vegetable now.

  The Arachnochancellor wrapped my mother up in his Web of Illusion and left her there to starve and suffocate and even though Tom rescued the hell out of her she never woke up. It happens. What are you going to do? When the world loses its fucking mind and turns on you like a stupid feral cat you thought was tame, it happens. Everyone does the long, woozy whistle and keels over.

  You get real honest when you’re dead. So let me give it to you straight: it’s my fault. Catatonic mom? My fault. Kid Mercury? My fault. The Arachnochancellor and Doctor Nocturne and those singing, boiling violet lights over Manhattan? They belong to me. I own them.

  Not me alone, of course. I was only an intern. But it came from my lab. My project. What a fathomless world can live in the slim space of 2.21%.

  It was such a nothing assignment. Busy work, really. Falk Industries loves the military-industrial complex like a kid in a blue tuxedo loves his date to the prom, and the military only ever wants two things from her suitors: new stuff that blows up or new stuff to keep other stuff from getting blown up. I was on Team No Blow Up. We were developing new alloys for use in body and vehicle armor—flexible, lightweight, strong, all those fun things that actually don’t play together so nicely unless you start telling them who’s boss on the molecular level. That was my job. Making metals and chemicals go out on charming little dates and drink charming little cocktails and make charming little astonishingly useful babies. It’s all so totally toxic, you need your own body armor even to take most of our toys out of the box. We had a prototype. Liquid armor. Take one bath and you’re good to work out your testosterone on unsuspecting nationalities for a solid diner shift of eight hours—if we could find a way to make it stop burning your skin off and eating through the floor of your infantry tank while smelling weirdly like baking cookies. I’d gotten us 2.21% closer to the promised land of nobody’s flesh melting.

  Who wouldn’t sneak their boyfriend in at night to see a bulletproof bubble bath that smelled like oatmeal chocolate chip?

  Tom and I met in class. Music theory. Dr. Alastair Augustus presiding. We’d both played piano since we were kids. Mom insisted that the upright Dad hauled back from some Upper East Side curb was only a little out of tune and besides I’d regret it if I woke up at fifty and had never learned an instrument. Tom’s parents died when he was little, but his aunt felt similarly about the epidemic of modern children growing up with only enough knowledge to hit play on a glowing screen. Dr. Augustus was a wonderful lecturer. Tall and thin in his dark suits and floppy hair, gesturing wildly with his good hand. He’d lost the other in Kuwait. You’d think he wouldn’t want to talk about it, but Dr. A wasn’t like that. He’d tell you anything you wanted to know. He flapped around his lecture hall like a jazz crow stuck in the building with no way out, squawking: Music theory is just math you can groove to.

  Tom and I are both front-row wave-your-hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-really-care-way-too-much types. One day, Dr. A asked us to stay after. He’d written a piece for five hands, and he wanted to take it for a spin. Tom’s, mine, his. We sat at the bench with the professor behind us, dusty afternoon sun sneaking in through the high windows to pool in the empty chairs and listen. We made a mess of it at first. You can imagine. Frantic eyes jumping between the sheet music and our leaping tangle of fingers. But slowly, the melody sorted itself between us, beneath our hands, filling up the hall with a strange, frantic sorrow.

  It was a nocturne.

  By the time we’d finished, Tom and I were a couple, even though we hadn’t said a word to each other. Music is an asshole like that.

  I remember lying next to him in his childhood bedroom, which looked like someplace computers went to have nervous breakdowns and die. Motherboards and soldering irons and cables, oh my. Old TRON and WarGames posters on the wall next to that awful cheesecake shot of a be-sweatered and bespectacled Glenn Falk of Falk Industries lying across his desk in nineteen eighty whatever. I pulled up the sheet a little—it felt weird to have my CEO watch me fuck Tom Thatcher for the first time with that smug come-hither stare. But I was happy. The sex was sweet and deep and good. We made do with four hands. I’d stepped on an old keyboard at one point and snapped off the vowels and a good spray of consonants. Now, after, Tom snuggled against me, rolling the M key over his thumb and his forefinger. I looked up through the spaces between the bones of his hand at the moon outside the window. M is for lots of things. Moon. Midnight. Mine. Mercury. Pretty soon it would be the Frosty Frogs hour.

  “You’re like the boy version of me,” I sighed.

  “I think you’ll find you’re the girl version of me,” Tom said, and whenever he said anything, there was a little laughter in it—not cruel lau
ghter, just leftover crumbs of delight in the world and himself and human speech.

  “I mean, obviously, my science is way cooler than your science, but I accept your lifestyle choices. You can fix my computer while I save the world.”

  Tom clutched invisible pearls. This is the mating dance of the lab scientist and the computer engineer. View our majestic plumage. “You bite your tongue! Cool is as cool does. And when those fancy Falk mainframes start horking up ASCII pictures of Sailor Moon instead of meekly processing your results, who you gonna call? That’s right, your big, strong, super cool boyfriend to make it all better.”

  That’s when everything changed. Right then. Watch it happen.

  I sat up, not caring one bit if Glenn W. Falk III saw my tits, and said:

  “You wanna see cool? Come with me. I’ll show you cool.”

  • • •

  The lab was quiet at four AM. Fluorescent lights and shadows and my brand-new 2.21% improved solution, the color of Frosty Frogs by moonlight. I’ve gone over it in my head a hundred times since. A thousand times. Because listen: Paige Embry practices Good Laboratory Hygiene. Perfect laboratory hygiene, in fact. I got into my hazmat suit and put Tom in Jimmy Keeler’s. They were about the same size. I checked the seals twice. I inspected the fabric for any micro-tears, felt my ears pop as the seals locked in our helmets, and gave Tom the thumbs-up. Protocols: I follow them. I fucking love protocols. Protocols are a girl’s best friend. So, I don’t understand. I still don’t understand.

  “So, this is what you do,” Tom said from beneath his plastic mask. “You do goop. All hail, Queen of Goop.”

  “Okay, it’s not that impressive in its resting state.” It really wasn’t. We called it hypermercury, even though there wasn’t much mercury in it anymore. It just sounded badass. At that moment, a couple of tablespoons of hypermercury sat at the bottom of my beaker like snot in fancy dress, doing absolutely nothing. “Hold out your hand.”