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By Matthew Vasiliauskas
At the top of my head, near a small indentation, the result of a pre-mature birth, rests a silver zipper.

It appeared almost 3 years ago and has kept me in a constant state of curious panic ever since.

At first I would pick at it every minute or so, the rigid, sculpted edges of my chewed fingernails maneuvering over the often glistening metal causing faint echoes to emerge as if from a distant bell ringing under water.

Merely feeling it only made matters worse, so I constructed a set of mirrors attached to an old lawn chair, so that I could sit down, bathing in the neon glow of the living room, and view the zipper from all angles, a morphing honeycomb of reflective, shifting, twinkling bodies crawling on top of one another and inside of each other burrowing deep into the cavernous infinity of rushing darkness melting into sliding strands of blues and reds completely covering my darting, irritated eyes.

I tried turning to entertainment for distractions, warmed by the evening’s flashing fabrics, the vertical warped blinking of my Magnavox’s wooden eye, dilated with swirling chefs, pulsating medication and well-groomed evangelists melting away in the language of shifting hues and the fire-like crackle that seems to always take over after days without sleep.

Eventually the irritation became unbearable, and in a fit of frustration, I gripped onto the zipper and began pulling it downward, forcing my face to separate, perfectly woven strands of flesh unraveling, a torn web floating past the now stretched freckles of my cheeks collecting the scattered orbs of scurrying sweat.

My skin had become nothing more than clothing, slipping past my arms and legs until finally resting at the base of my feet, so moist and soft that my toes dug into it, sending a sinking feeling throughout my exposed body, and a strange buzzing that gradually began evolving into whispers struggling for breath, squeezing through dense layers of seconds until finally emerging into a near deafening phrase that said, “Jared, you mumbling idiot!”

Gradually Jane’s face came into focus, resurrected from a rippling, heat-drenched mirage into a sort of floating mask, splashed with color as if it had been tumbling down the trash-strewn streets of Mardi Gras.

“You’re doing it again,” she said, her blue cotton dress now brighter than ever. “Enough with that goddamn zipper talk. You don’t have one, and we’re all trying to sleep, so shut up already.”

It all became apparent to me once again, three months of comforting claustrophobia cutting through encrusted eyelashes and 20 minutes of momentary escape, revealing instead the dirty walls of Heinz Ketchup and Dill Pickles exhaling deflated shadows covering the shivering bodies of Jane and Joseph. Sleep had been pushed aside once again, and replaced with the reality of the shelter.

We were grateful for the shelter, but that did not mean we had come to fully embrace its existence.

It was one of the late model G editions, designed by Buro Golding, a man who had spent much of his professional life sketching and designing out of a one room shack behind his parents’ Victorian home.

Although he had been well regarded for his shelter designs for many years, his fame and critical acclaim grew after he began his romance with Isabella Maura.

It was said that the design for the G edition came to him from watching Isabella engage in one of her favorite pastimes; that of lying completely nude at the bottom of an empty pool, her knees raised to the sky, allowing trickling rays of sunlight to dig their fingers into her skin and crawl slowly towards her face, brushing over her closed eyes, and manipulating her mouth to speak words that only the surrounding golden tiles could understand.

Every inch of her body was in the design, and as he stood in the middle of the prototype with his colleagues he exclaimed, “I want them to feel as if they are inside a womb. I want them to feel inside of her the way I have.”

But as time went on, she developed an unexplained and severe depression, and 10 days after her 30th birthday, wearing a dress Buro had imported from Japan, walked into the ocean, her face melting with the waves until finally disappearing into a stream of swimming bubbles.

He would never recover from the shock, and stopped designing all together, spending his days instead at the ocean’s edge, his mouth screaming with every ounce of energy, but unable to produce a single sound.

The war had forced everyone into hiding. I remember quite clearly in the days leading up to the exile, sitting in Jane’s living room, resting a cool beer on my cheek, the running condensation massaging my skin, and watching a news broadcast in which a military vehicle was moving slowly down a darkened neighborhood, shining a spotlight into houses and yards, sending frightened individuals running, their torn and ragged clothing flapping in the wind as they dove into trashcans, rusted cars and through the windows of abandoned basements looking like the fleeting flash and spark of a gunshot and bringing forth a communal hiss as if they were insects longing for the safety of the warm rock that had just been lifted from them.

Jane and I had been friends for years, and it was her house the shelter was attached to. Joseph was a much more recent edition to our lives, entering the nocturnal world of towering aluminum landscapes by means of a faded green sleeping bag he had wrapped himself in and burrowed deep beneath Jane’s back deck, covering his face and ears with loose dirt trying to drown out the booming sound of explosions.

Jane didn’t have the heart to turn him away, and instead invited him to stay with us in the shelter, making a space for him in one of the far corners where the sleeping bag could consume the descending bits of dust that now covered the cloth like freshly fallen grey snow.

We tried our best to find some sort of normalcy, passing the time by turning everything into a game, and creating miniature theatrical productions out of hardened potatoes; Henrik Ibsen was our favorite, although Joseph was never as enthusiastic as Jane and I about the process. He hated A Doll’s house.

As of recent though, Jane had grown increasingly protective of her sleep, and more than once, has attacked us with a wooden spoon she now keeps under a coffee bean sack, should we disturb her in any way.

“I’m getting migraines again, you need to be more considerate,” she said rubbing her temples, her eye sockets drooping like melted wax.

“I’m having some pretty significant problems of my own,” I replied, allowing my thumb and index finger to entangle themselves in a grove of deflated, greasy hair near the back of my head.

“We need to find some way to dim your voice.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your voice. It’s so bright, it feels like it’s cutting through my face. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how I feel.”

“You’re just getting anxious again. Have some of the ketchup. It’ll calm you.”

“And that’s another thing, you’re eating all our supplies.”

“Me? What about you? And Joseph for Christ’s sake. He ate a whole jar of peaches yesterday.”

“He needs all the nutrition he can get. He’s not in a good state.”

“And I am? I’m falling apart by the minute.”

“You’re healthier than any of us, and don’t even think about bringing up that zipper nonsense. None of us want to hear it.”

Her eyes began taking on the quality of a passing fog, distant, blurred lights swaying drunkenly side to side creating splashes of amber sinking into the darkness of her pupils.

“Okay, I think I have a solution,” she said, licking the corners of her dried lips.

“We’ll have a staring contest. If you win, you can talk about your zipper for the rest of the evening, but if I win, I get to hit you as hard as I can with my spoon.”

It certainly was an enticing offer, and the prospect of me being able to voice my concerns about the shining parasitic piece of metal dangling from my scalp uninterrupted for hours sent chills through my body, drifting memories of lying flat on my back in the summertime fields of Dodge, before the war, raising my hands and molding the dissipating clouds into tattered flowers swirling in the celestial pond where the schools of breathing stars now swam.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I said, moving closer to her face.

She wasted no time in counting to three, and soon our eyes were locked in a competitive gaze. I could feel the pain tugging at my face, its fingers digging into my cheeks and pulling the skin all the way to the floor, dragging it along the concrete collecting the shredded skin of broken glass bottles.

I suddenly noticed a slight streak of pink in the otherwise ivory pool surrounding her stone eye. At first I was incredibly concerned, thinking it was some kind of infection and wanting to put a stop to this game immediately. But then without warning, the pink seemed to lift from here eye, floating through the space between us like a discarded ribbon carrying with it the scent of jasmine, the last surviving descendant of trees long since cut down and burned, transformed into a useless, unsalvageable ash.

I felt the tip of the ribbon brushing over my retina, watered down globs of black creating an ever-increasing wet blindness pushing my eyes deeper and deeper into the endless echoing caverns of flesh until finally the weight had become unbearable, forcing me to blink and cough simultaneously.

“I win,” she said, a grin stretching to the far corners of her face.

I remained still, my hands pinching the area of my pants right above the knee, and watched as she drew the wooden spoon from underneath the coffee sack, gripping it tightly and approaching me with it raised above her head.

I closed my eyes in anticipation of the blow, but suddenly out of nowhere, a large, muffled crash sounded from outside the shelter.

Our movements and thoughts ceased, walking backwards in a paranoid panic past the idle dust and shelves of creamy peanut butter, to the dampened wooden safe houses stacked in the corners, peering through the holes and cracks, observing our confused and frightened faces about the fact that for the first time in months, the distant sound of explosions had stopped.