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The Refrigerator Monologues, Page 2

Catherynne M. Valente

  Girls do dumb things to impress boys. I’m no different. But I swear it was safe. I’d done it on myself, on Jimmy Keeler, on a New England Patriots bobblehead, even on Mr. Falk himself when he toured R&D last Thanksgiving. Our suits keep it off you. They’re designed specifically for working with hypermercury. Maybe I missed a micro-tear. Maybe the gloves were degraded from the day’s testing. Maybe that 2.21% I was so proud of made hypermercury just that tiniest bit more corrosive, that tiniest bit hungrier. I poured my goop onto Tom Thatcher’s fingertips—just a little. I swear, only a little.

  At first, it did its thing and did it fabulously.

  My happy silver mud flowed over his knuckles, mapping his hand, conforming, coating, encasing. Becoming a gauntlet that almost nothing could pierce or dent or scratch or penetrate in any fashion. Just like it was supposed to—better than it was supposed to. I could see the wrinkles of his glove forming in crisp, flawless silver. It was beautiful.

  And then he started screaming.

  Through the faceplate of his suit I could see Tom Thatcher’s pretty face annihilate itself. Sudden thready veins snaked over his jaw—silver, white, blue, black—like frost cracking. Like dye falling through water. His eyes became hot diamonds, a million boiling crystal facets shredding his pupils. His stubble, the hair in his nose, his eyelashes, his eyebrows, all froze into steely icicles, then liquefied, sliding down over his cheeks, dripping, weeping off his chin. He said my name once.


  Then Tom fell down. When he got back up, everything in the world was different, and it would never go back.

  He said I’m okay but he wasn’t. He said It didn’t hurt but it did. He said I feel fine but he lied.

  He felt amazing.

  • • •

  Origin stories are like birthday parties: very exciting and colorful and noisy, but in the end, they’re all the same. Anticipation sizzles around for weeks before the Big Day, but when it comes, your shindig looks pretty much like the one little Peter had last month. There’s an order of operations: take off your coats, pin the tail on the donkey, infection, singing, cake, mutation, balloons, gifts, branding, maybe a magician or a clown, exhaustion, and a bag of toys to take home. You’re the same person today as yesterday. You just got a really big present and a shiny new hat to wear.

  We stood outside the great glass doors of Falk Industries’ midtown campus hip-deep in the last dregs of night and stars.

  I saw it first.

  Tom Thatcher, standing in a puddle of rain. But it wasn’t rain. Too silvery, too thick, too opaque. It seeped from the soles of his feet, welled up, then bolted out ahead of him like a path through a fairy tale forest.

  “Tom?” I asked. But he was already gone.

  Tom vanished. That’s what the speed of light looks like when you’re standing still. He just tilted forward and disappeared, chasing the silver down 23rd Street, across the park, across the river, back to me, then up the side of the glassy Falk offices and over the top, leaping between skyscrapers like it was nothing, like he was hopping over Lego bricks he’d left on the floor of his room. I walked up to the N/R train subway entrance and waited for him to remember I existed. By the time he came silver-screaming down the stairwell, the sun had come up. Nothing can hide in the all-seeing light of dawn in Manhattan. Everything is just so totally clear.

  “Holy shit,” he said. “Did you see? Did you see?”

  I did.

  Back at his place, Tom and me went at it like fucking was an Olympic sport and we were after the gold.

  Nobody ever talks about the sex. Nobody but the Hell Hath Club. I’ll tell you something, it is unsettling as all hell. Tom turned into a hummingbird. So fast, touching every part of me at once, his fingertips crackling with the liquid lightning of hypermercury. With whatever hypermercury had become once it got inside him and unpacked all its secret belongings. Sometimes his eyes were diamonds. Sometimes they were human, brown and warm. Sometimes he was kissing me. Sometimes . . . sometimes it was. My work. My 2.21%. I could feel the difference on my lips. All the while, Glenn Falk III looked down from his poster, from his 1982 desk and his computer the size of a baby elephant.

  Afterward, I lay there with one leg flung over his thigh, and we stated the obvious. Because it is obvious. I’ve seen a movie in my life. I’ve read a damn comic book. Why pretend there’s some mystery to Hardy-Boy out? Dead rising from the grave? Eating brains? Only die with a headshot? You’ve got zombies, son. And when you come in contact with experimental goo and suddenly start leaping up the sides of buildings and punching through steel?

  “So,” Tom Thatcher said with a grin, “I’m clearly a superhero, right?”


  “Do I have to fight crime?” He whispered sweet everythings in my ear. “I mean, that’s the classic career path. Computer science degree is to San Francisco start-up as superpower is to fighting crime. Never really wanted to be a cop, though.”

  I ran my fingers down the line of his jaw. “So don’t be a cop. You don’t have to do anything. Except maybe see a doctor? We can’t be totally sure this is safe, it was nowhere near ready for human trials—”

  Tom wasn’t listening. “But I . . . I have a responsibility, don’t I? To help people. If you’re strong, you gotta use that strength. And I . . . I’m good, aren’t I? I’m a good person. I could use it well. I could fix things. More than code. Debug the world, little bit by little bit. I can’t just go back to school like nothing’s different. You can’t just shove power under the bed and expect it to stay put. It wants to be expressed. I just . . . I just have to do it carefully.”

  And that’s why I went back to the lab and deleted my notes, my progress, everything leading to that strange, wily 2.21% improvement and everything coming from it. Because Tom Thatcher was a good person. I took the solution sample home with me. I didn’t even break a sweat going through security. Turns out lying and stealing aren’t that hard. If you’ve got a solid reason to sin, it’s easy. It’s nothing. This was my reason: one Kid Mercury was enough for the world. One good person could be trusted. Mass-produced Kid Mercuries could not.

  Tom kissed me so fiercely that first morning. He could hardly contain himself. He started giggling and fell back on the bed.

  “Oh my god, Paige, I really want a costume. Is that stupid? Can you sew?”

  The garbageman’s daughter could indeed sew.

  • • •

  Kid Mercury started slow. Entry-level stuff. Willing to work hard and learn, sir. Willing to work his way up. Purse snatchers and missing dogs, treed kittens and all that Sunday funny papers shit. We settled on silver and dark blue for the costume. Full body, mask and all. As aerodynamic as Francine’s Fabric Depot and my wheezing dumpster-find Singer could manage. The first time he stopped a mugging, we went out for margaritas and sang karaoke in Koreatown till dawn. Tommy could do a surprisingly good boy-band croon. The first time he stopped a murder, we just walked out to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and stood there, looking at the stars and not saying anything—because what could you say? The traffic dopplered by behind us. We stared down into the water. Three months later, I was going to die down there. In that filthy river. In the dark, in the light.

  Dr. Augustus noticed Tom’s good mood. Our tardiness. My distraction. He started following us. He was very good at it. I never saw. Tom never saw. When you’re looking for muggers, you don’t see the professor of music keeping watch two blocks behind. Dr. A had spent a long time overseas, learning to follow suspicious persons unseen through urban mazes. He never came at anything straight on.

  “Come to dinner with me tonight, Paige,” the professor said one day after the final. We both knew I’d aced it, despite everything. Back then, I could still be proud of a victory as small as an aced final. He slipped his good arm around my waist.

  “I’m not sure that’s completely appropriate, Dr. Augustus,” I said, and laughed a little, opening the door for him to pretend it was a joke.

sp; “Nonsense, my dear. My interest is utterly professional, I promise. And please, call me Alastair.”

  He picked me up at eight. Tom worried. We always worried about each other. For people as tightly wound as us, worry is love.

  “It’s weird. Don’t you think it’s weird? It’s pretty weird,” Kid Mercury fretted, the hood of his costume hanging down the back of his neck, his hair artfully mussed, the way I liked it.

  “Have you ever met a pianist who isn’t weird? Let alone a one-handed pianist who wears bow ties and has muttonchops. He probably just wants to get some free work-study hours out of me. Besides, you’re hardly Captain Normal these days.”

  Kid Mercury gave me one of his perfect patented sidelong grins. “I am Captain Normal, thank you very much! Captain Normal of the Average Army, recipient of the Totally Regular Guy Medal of Honor.”

  I kissed him and pulled on my only really nice piece of clothing, a green velvet coat with real fox fur around the collar. My dad found it tossed on some glitterati trash bin. It only had a little stain on the fur and a few missing buttons. He’d fixed it up for Christmas for me. I stepped, in velvet and fur, out the door of Tom’s apartment and into Dr. Augustus’s car.

  He bought me dinner first; I’ll give him that. A golden French river of butter and garlic and game birds and champagne. We talked about his music. About my ambitions. About Tom. Quite a bit about Tom, really, but it’s hard to see ominous patterns through champagne specs. After the crème brûlée, Alastair Augustus, PhD, opened the door of his long black sedan for me. I collapsed in a heap on the seat.

  When he slid in beside me, he locked the doors.

  I felt those locks click in my sternum, in the pit of my stomach. Every girl knows what that sound means. There’s only a few choices left, once that vicious little church bell rings out. I still hear that sound over and over inside me, click, click, click.

  “Where are we going?” I asked, fishing down into my gut for sobriety and coming up empty.

  “Where else, Miss Embry? I’m taking you home. What sort of man do you think I am?”

  No one would be home. It wasn’t Frosty Frogs time yet. Mom would be at the hospital and Dad would be down at the depot, signing out his truck. I shrank against the seat. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be clever. So I was. We stopped at a red light. I gulped air. In air is courage. I pulled my pocketknife out of my purse and jammed it in Dr. A’s leg, then scrabbled at the lock, yanked it up, and stumbled out onto 6th Ave. But brave and clever isn’t necessarily fast. I couldn’t streak out over the city and run to New Jersey in forty-five seconds flat. Alastair Augustus whipped out his good hand and grabbed my hair in his fist. My hair and the fox-fur collar of Dad’s Christmas coat. I hit my head on the roof of the car as he hauled me back in and leaned over to shut the door again.

  “That’s not how good girls behave, Paige,” he said calmly, as though he’d caught me chewing gum in class. “And I know you are a good girl, so I expect you to act like one. Good girls want to please, Paige. Good girls do as they’re told. And girls who are very good get sweets. Now, are you going to be a good girl for me?”

  I kept my mouth shut, because what the fuck do you say to that? My head throbbed.

  Dr. Augustus went on. His eyes looked so flat in the streetlights. “I’ll tell you what else a good girl does. A good girl takes her gentleman friend into her house without any fuss. A good girl plays the hostess to a T. She brings out the very best for her guest. She goes to her nasty little hiding place and fetches whatever it is she gave to her moronic boyfriend to make him special. And she brings it out on a silver tray, Paige, because a good girl only gives up her treats to men who deserve it, real men, not skinny, sniveling weaklings who sit around on their computers all day. Do you understand, Paige? Are you a good girl?”

  “No,” I whispered. “I’m not.” I didn’t cry. Don’t let anyone tell you I cried.

  “Pity,” sighed Alastair. “The world has run out of good girls. Whores like you are all that’s left. But the nice thing about whores?” He leaned in. His breath smelled like the soft pale green after-dinner mints from the restaurant. “Whores give it up to everyone.”

  He came around to my side of the car and hauled me out by my hair, winding it around his knuckles. I felt the mouth of a gun against my back. Dr. Augustus shoved me through my own front door.

  “Get me what I want, Paige. If you can’t be a good girl, be a good dog. Fetch Daddy his slippers. Go on.”

  A voice came out of the shadows. “Did you two have a nice time? I hope you tipped the waitress.”

  Tom Thatcher, my Tom, Kid Mercury, leaned against the door of my bedroom, a hint of silver fabric showing under a soft black hoodie. I yelped in relief, an ugly, doglike sound. Tom glared at Dr. Augustus with diamond eyes. “They rely on tips, you know. They take care of you; you take care of them.” A pool of quicksilver formed under his feet, angry and ready.

  Alastair pulled his gun out of my spine so fast, I hardly had time to shout before he fired—twice. Once directly between Tom’s eyes. Once left, wildly wide. Kid Mercury vanished before the first bullet even got near his forehead—and took the second in his shoulder. He collapsed onto the floor.

  “Idiot. You have no training,” the professor said as he stepped over Tom into my room. “You always dodge to the left. Rookie mistake. Predictable patterns only serve your enemy. Now, Paige, show me your hiding place or it’s two in the head this time.”

  I didn’t show him. I didn’t. You can say I wasn’t fast enough. You can say I wasn’t brave enough. But I didn’t give in. I pressed my hand hard against Tom’s wound to stanch the bleeding. I didn’t even look at Augustus.

  “It’s no use ignoring me,” he said airily. “I can find it. There’s only so many places a nasty, stupid, bad girl hides her filthy little diary. Under the bed? Under the mattress with her magazines? In her makeup drawer? Or have you got a loose floorboard? That would be a classic.”

  I don’t read magazines. I don’t have a makeup drawer. My music professor stepped daintily around the edges of my bedroom, listening for a creak, a click, a groan. Please no, I thought, and Tom locked eyes with me. Floor of mine, just this once, shut up.

  Creak. Groan.

  Dr. A leapt to the floorboard and pried it up. Tom vanished from under my hands. It happened at a speed I couldn’t see, the speed of mistakes, which is faster than anything in the universe. Later, Tom told me he almost got the vials out of Augustus’s hand. But he’d never been shot before. The bullet had shattered his collarbone. He didn’t know how to counterbalance the damage. So, I watched as Dr. Augustus poured my hypermercury onto the ruined stump where his hand had been, rubbed it onto his bare arms and his neck like soap. He laughed, a real villain’s laugh—he never had to practice once. New, silvery fingers stretched out of his scar tissue, longer and thinner and stronger than any human fingers, slicing up out of his skin like knives. He screamed. He laughed again. His eyes became diamonds.

  • • •

  The rest happened about how you’d expect. There’s a certain inertia to these things. Heroes in motion tend to stay in motion, but villains in motion tend toward mass destruction.

  Doctor Nocturne was born.

  He built his machine, a great, terrible organ buried deep within the city, on which he could play out his symphony of death. With one chord, he proclaimed to every news station, he could electrify the whole of Manhattan. With another, he would bring it crashing down. Tom kept telling me to stay home. After all, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t help. Just stay home and wait, Paige. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I understood how hypermercury worked, what Nocturne had done. It was my fault. I had to fix it. The last thing I said to Tom Thatcher was: I am not going to stay home like a good little girl. I am going to beat him.

  When Tom says shit like that, the universe rearranges itself to make it true. When I said it, the universe pissed itself laughing.

  They fought on the bridge. Doctor Nocturne,
so much more eager to push the hypermercury past its limits than Tom had ever been, surrounded by great silver arms like a fucked-up mecha-Shiva, laughing that perfect, sick laugh, while I ran past them, small, dark, quiet, trying for once in my life to be unnoticed. One of those silver arms picked me up and flung me over the edge like I was a paper cup. The garbageman’s daughter, thrown away. Oh, Tommy jumped after me. He did. My love. My hero. Caught me just in time, just before I hit the water. But a funny thing about bodies. They can’t stop once they really get going. Girls in motion tend to stay in motion. Kid Mercury caught me and the sudden stop snapped my neck in half. The ends of my hair dripped out the East River onto Tom’s feet and the violet lights of Doctor Nocturne’s machine lit up the night and pretty soon they were the only lights left in my eyes.

  • • •

  Tom’s got a girl now who stays home when she’s told. A good girl. A girl who leaves the fixing up to him. I was just the prototype, the Act One conflict who had to go so the story could grow a little more gravitas. Some days, I’m okay with that. But some days? Some days I want to rise up out of the dark, rip open Kid Mercury’s throat, and drink back every drop of my 2.21% solution, my fault, my mother, my quicksilver, my speed, my strength, my story.

  But Paige Embry is dead. So, all she gets is a cigarette from one of the Hell Hath girls, plucked out of a black case. Up there, cigarettes taste like tar and ash. Down here, they taste like sunlight.


  The door to the Lethe Café swings open. A fresh gust of leafy moonlight blows in. Behind the counter, good old Neil wipes his claws on his apron and waves to the tall redhead. She vanishes before she reaches the till to place her order. When she reappears, she’s a brunette. She only gets half a word out before she blinks out again. We’re all used to it. Julia never stays long, but she never leaves for long, either. By the time she gets her cup of nothing, she’s got a shaved head like a prisoner and she’s wearing the ragged ruin of some uniform I don’t recognize.