In His Armor Clad | Sandra M. Odell

03 In His Armour Clad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Anya’s troubles, Victor reinvents himself as her knight in shining armor. The morning Anya wakes and someone else looks at him through her eyes, he realizes Anya is a hydra in disguise.

Victor reaches for her across the comfortable expanse of their king-sized bed. “Hey there. How you doing?”

She punches him in the mouth, and runs naked and screaming down the stairs and out of the house. A frantic twenty minutes later, he finds her huddled behind the dumpster at the HandyMart two blocks away, sobbing like a child. She does not recognize him. The hydra laughs through her tears, two heads writhing from the stump of his wife’s severed psyche. Their fetid breath—ammonia, bleach, rotting meat—pour over Victor in a mustard cloud, make his eyes water.

When the ambulance arrives, Victor coaxes Anya inside with promises that her mother waits at the hospital. He gives the store manager and responding police officer his contact information before locking himself in the men’s room to strip out of his muddy armor and have a good cry.

*

“Dissociative reactions allow a child to create alters to hold unpleasant memories or feelings that might otherwise cause even more damage,” says the therapist, a slight woman with fine smile lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

Victor frowns. “Alters?”

“Think of them as guards Anya created to keep herself safe from her uncle and cousins.”

Curled in a fetal position, bound by pharmaceutical chains, the hydra sleeps in fits and starts. Blood crusts one nostril, all that remains from when one of the heads smashed against the door when orderlies tried to remove Anya from the ambulance.

The hydra’s breath catches in its throat. It whimpers, shifts, settles once more. Asleep, it looks delicate, fragile, like Anya on their honeymoon night. Victor’s upper lip throbs. He rubs his face. “How long has she been a, a them?”

The therapist brushes a finger over the plastic identification bracelet secured around a cracked, black claw. “I can’t say for certain, but I suspect since she was two or three years old, in the gray areas Anya can’t remember.” She uses a tissue to dab at brackish water pooled under the hydra and soaking the sheets, sets the sodden lump on top of a growing pile of tissue on the bed-table. “Some of her behaviors as a child were the alters’ way of expressing her anger and hurt.”

“But why now?” Victor scrapes his bottom teeth along the much-abused nail plate of his right thumb. The keratin comes away in small, damp clumps that cling to the tip of his tongue.

“They’ve always been there,” the therapist says. “You mentioned during our second couples’ session her lapses in memory? The sudden mood swings? The difficulties during sex?”

“But Anya was doing so much better.” Scrape, scrape. “Wasn’t she?”

“She is, and she’ll continue to improve. This is another step towards mutual awareness. Something has changed in her internal landscape, how the parts of Anya’s personality view themselves.”

Victor reaches out and brushes the back of one of the hydra’s claws curled in a fist on the thin hospital pillow. “My promotion?” he says in small voice. “I don’t get home until late most nights. She can’t sleep when I’m not there, says she doesn’t feel safe.”

“Possibly.”

“There were times when she would look at me, or she’d say the strangest things, even when we were dating. She threatened to kill me once.” Scrape, scrape. “Was that, was that one of these alters?”

“I don’t know, but you have to understand this isn’t your fault. You can’t blame yourself for any of this. Anya is very lucky to have your love and support.”

“It’s getting to be too much.” The words spilled out in a petty rush that Victor only mostly wishes he’d kept to himself. “I mean, I love Anya more than anything, but I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”

“I hear your concerns, I do.”

Cultured, sincere words from a cultured, sincere woman. Victor watches the therapist out of the corner of his eye. How would it feel to run his fingers through her stylishly-spiked hair? To nibble her ears around the silver hoop earrings? What type of bra does she wear under her blue cable-knit sweater?

He sighs and looks away. He has no real interest, passing fancies stirred by long, platonic nights, and now the thought of touching the woman he loves when someone else might respond. “What can I do?”

The therapist hands him a set of leather armor, a torch, and a bow and quiver of arrows.

Victor gnaws at his thumb until his teeth scrape tender flesh underneath.

Beside him, the hydra snores.

*

The co-worker leans against the breakroom counter by the microwave, fluorescent lights highlighting the red in her hair. “How is she?”

Victor shrugs. His eyes feel gritty and sore. He fidgets with the leather straps of his armor. He wants to wear his usual slacks and button-front shirt, maybe a tie, but getting back into the armor before visiting Anya is its own sort of hell. “Doing okay, I guess. She wants to come home.”

They are alone in the breakroom, the door closed against the whir and sigh of computers, the rise and fall of office voices.

She brushes her fingers against the back of his hand. “Are you okay with that?”

Her fingernails are peacock blue. Would her hand warm to the touch if she slid it under his shirt? Anya used to slide a hand under his t-shirt at night, her short fingers warming as they drifted to sleep together. “Yeah, I’m okay, I guess.”

He is lonely, and frightened, and angry, but doesn’t feel like talking about it. He tosses his half-full Diet Coke in the recycling. “I need to get back to work. Three days makes for a nasty backlog.”

The co-worker nods. She squeezes his hand. “You let me know if you need anything, okay?”

His smile must look genuine. “Thanks.”

*

The hydra peers at Victor with narrowed, rheumy eyes. Cheek spines flare, settle back. “I don’t do dishes.”

Sand and gravel, words trying to resonate at the back of the throat and diaphragm like a man’s voice. The head wears one of Victor’s sleeveless night-shirts and a pair of Anya’s panties. It smells of his Axe body spray and brine.

Victor looks around the hydra’s shoulder at the swamp of dirty dishes spread over the counter. He’d hoped for a morning off, a respite from doing everything himself. “That’s fine. I can finish them tonight when I get home.”

The hydra snorts and pours itself a second cup of coffee. Anya hates coffee. “Whatever.”

Victor picks his way through the morass of mangrove roots to the counter. Moss hangs from the cabinet doors, and a jellied egg-sack congeals beneath the oven timer. The twin stenches of methane and sour milk curdle the air.

He pours himself the last of the coffee, adds a spoonful of sugar, remembering that this personality likes its coffee strong enough to walk on its own. “How’d you sleep last night?”

The hydra gulps coffee and shrugs. It paces, steps stirring the shallow pools of algae in the low spots on the floor.

“The Roserem isn’t working for you?”

“I don’t like it, so I don’t take it.”

Victor inhales through his nose, exhales slowly through his mouth.

“You going to work today?” the hydra says as Victor spreads boysenberry jam over an Eggo waffle.

Victor nods.

“I said are you going to work today?”

Hot breath on his shoulder, and with it the stench of sulfur and rotting bones. Victor grips his torch like a club. “Yes, I’m going to work,” he says, sharper than he intends.

The splash of liquid, the crack and clatter of ceramic against tile. The hydra screams and begins to cry. Victor turns to find the hydra pulling the nightshirt away from its body, a steaming brown stain spreading between its claws, the mug in pieces at its feet

“It’s okay, honey. Here. No, it’s okay.” Victor gently takes the hydra by the shoulders and directs it a few steps to the right. He pulls the nightshirt over its head and drops it on the floor. The hydra clutches at Victor’s armor; one head wails, the others hiss and thrash.

Splotches of red color the hydra’s belly and upper thighs; a wide brown stain spread across the front of the underwear. Victor pulls down the hydra’s panties.

“Get away from me!” The hydra catches him on the side of the face with his own mug.

Victor drops to his knees, the world a mass of spinning, throbbing blood.

The hydra runs out of the kitchen and up the stairs, screaming for its mother.

*

The co-worker smiles, all bright eyes, small teeth, and a single, stable head. “What’s up? You’ve been moping around for the better part of the day.”

Victor’s armor reeks of coffee, sweat, and aftershave. The hydra has not slept in three days; likewise, neither has Victor. They watch Disney movies and look at picture books when the hydra lets him near. He researches Dissociative Identity Disorder and downs Red Bull when it stays away. He hasn’t showered, afraid to leave Anya unattended. “Just tired,” he says with the best smile he can manage. “What’s up with you?”

“Stalling before I get back to performance reviews.” She makes herself comfortable on the edge of his filing cabinet, rubs her palms together. “Listen, do you want to grab a drink or something after work? I mean, we have to work late, anyway, and it’s been a hell of a week for both of us, right?”

The invitation has appeal. The therapist said he should take some time to himself; time to unwind. Anya would be okay. Maybe the extra time will improve things when he gets home. Maybe it will be Anya-Anya and not Anya-Someone-Else. He misses his wife with an ache that settles at the back of his throat, hot with tears.

His co-worker isn’t Anya. “I think I’ll take a pass. I’m wiped.”

She nods, short, nervous jerks of the head. Her cheeks flush a cinnamon Victor can almost taste. “No worries.”

“Thanks, though.”

“Another time?”

He shifts around a pinch in the armor at his groin. “Sure.”

*

Victor scrapes at his thumbnail, tasting blood and salt. “She slept through the night last night, that’s a good thing. The Prazosin seems to be working with the nightmares.”

The therapist nods, crossing her ankles. “Good.”

“And she cleaned the kitchen yesterday. Swept and mopped, loaded the dishwasher.”

Another nod. “Anya?”

Anya smiles at Victor, guarded, hesitant, arms crossed over her chest. She shifts on the couch, tucks her left foot behind his right. Her nails are ragged and uneven, chewed to the quick. “He didn’t call the police when I hit him with the mug.”

The therapist cuts a quick look at Victor. “What else?”

Anya frowns. The hydra twitches. A head curls forward, spittle oozing from the corner of its mouth. It wipes the damp line away with a ragged claw. Something dark slithers through the knot of roots at its feet. “What?”

A want-to-be man’s voice.

The therapist slips on a leather mask and sets a coil of tarred rope on her lap. “I asked Anya a question.”

The head cocks a boney eye ridge towards her. “About?”

The therapist loops the rope around the hydra’s massive fore quarters, setting the knot without pulling it tight. “I’d like to speak with Anya,” she says in a calm, even voice.

Water trickles through the moss on the walls, soaks the ruff of the couch cover. The edges of the carpet look like the floor mats of Victor’s Subaru, unraveling green sprinkled with tiny white mushrooms.

The hydra rolls its shoulders and sits back. “I don’t have anything against him, if that’s what you’re asking. He treats her good, which means something, y’know? I trust him most times.”

“That’s good to know.” The therapist settles a second coil of rope over the hydra. “How does Anya feel about Victor? I’d like to hear from her.”

Yellow steam rises from the water on the carpet. The hydra twists its head away from Victor, rubbing its cheek against the rope. Other heads and expressions writhe in the murky shadows. One head settles, squeezes its eyes shut. “Did I miss something?”

The therapist unloops the rope from around Anya’s shoulders. “What else has Victor done recently to show he loves you?”

“He tells me he loves me, and I love him. I mean, it’s hard to say sometimes, but he’s everything to me.” Anya reaches for Victor’s hand without opening her eyes. “He came with me to the appointment. Not everyone would be willing to do that after all we’ve been through. And he washed my hair when I took a bath two nights ago.”

He’d dried her hair as well; it smelled of coconuts and strawberries. He’d washed her hair on the first night of their honeymoon.

Anya squeezes his hand twice. Victor squeezes back.

A clump of moldering leaves drops on the couch between the couple. The hydra’s claw twitches.

Victor pulls his hand away and wipes his thumb on his pants, frowning with abstract pain. The nail is almost gone.

*

A television above either end of the bar celebrates the sports highlights of the day, picking apart the statistics to rebuild them for the next game.

A waitress in a cheerful red blouse and tired red lipstick brings Victor his fifth beer, his co-worker her third glass of Merlot. Victor thanks the waitress, and has half the bottle gone before she makes it back to the bar.

“I mean, it’s not like I’m asking for a lot of time,” the co-worker continues. “And it’s eight months out, right? I’m going to check on my request Monday.”

Victor nods without really hearing what she said. He runs his right thumb over her knuckles. After another late night at the office, he’d accepted her offer to go out. Anya would be fine for a couple of hours. They’d started holding hands somewhere in the middle of his third beer.

The bar crowd doesn’t drip or steam. His co-worker’s hair is clean and short and smells like lavender when she leans in close to catch something he’s said. He’d been slow to pull away, and maybe, possibly, her lips brushed his ear.

“Pardon?” he says, after another swallow.

She taps his bandaged right thumb. “What did you do?”

Victor looks at the thumb. “Cut myself. Listen, can we go someplace a little more quiet?”

She tips her head a certain way, smiles to match. “My apartment is a couple of blocks from here.”

By the bottom of the bottle, her place sounds just fine.

Victor drives, not very well. They kiss in the parking lot, fumbling hands and nibbling mouths. She leans into his touch, sighs into his mouth. Her hands are cold.

Out of the car, giggling through the lobby, petting in the elevator like teenagers. She leads him to her apartment, fishing her keys out of her clutch. He doesn’t want to wait. Before she can get the keys in the lock, Victor presses her against the door, sliding his hands up her thighs and his tongue to the warm hollow of her throat. She tastes like cinnamon and wine, and not one bit like swamp rot. He fumbles with the binds on his armor.

“Mmm. Don’t you, don’t you want…” She gasps, arching her back as his lips find her nipples through her blouse. “Right there, right, oh…”

She grinds against his leg. Victor clutches her ass, drawing her to him. So good, it is so good to be alive, to feel again, to have someone hot and ready against him, the way it should be. It has been too long. Together they peel off his leggings, unstrap the cuirass. “Want you so bad, Anya,” he whispers against his wife’s throat. “So Goddamn long.”

She kisses him, giggles, “Rhonda.”

At the name, a spigot opens and the beers drain out of Victor’s head, into his gut, and threaten to come right back up. He stares at the hand on her breast. Long peacock blue nails, slender fingers. Looks down at himself. “Oh, God.”

“What? Don’t stop now.”

“No.” He tries to stuff himself back into his pants and falls back a step, slamming against the wall. “Oh, shit. I got to, uh, I got to, I am so sorry.”

She frowns, blinks at the keys in her hand. “But I thought you wanted to, you know, come inside? Didn’t you?”

Victor grabs pieces of armor. “No, no, I got to go. Have to go. I’m sorry, oh God, I’m sorry. Shouldn’t have come.”

He staggers past the elevator to the stairs, a stranger named Rhonda calling after him.

*

Victor strikes a spark with flint and steel. The torch flares to smoky life. He eases open the front door, stepping around puddles of muck. “Anya?”

Algae covers the furniture in a thin layer of slime. Moss hangs from the light fixtures. Dark water wells up from the carpet with every step, soaking his shoes. Shadows curl through the hydra’s lair, shadows and a deeper darkness Victor brings with him.

Victor eases the door closed. Maybe Anya is asleep, maybe everything is okay. He can clean up, even if only his thoughts, and then head to bed where he belongs. He’ll call the therapist tomorrow, make an appointment for himself. Rhonda—oh, God, what he’d almost done!—doesn’t have his home phone number. Work is tomorrow. His world on hold until tomorrow.

“Where have you been?”

Victor freezes. He doesn’t recognize the voice—Anya’s, yes, but which Anya? He peers through the hanging moss, searching for the hydra. Water drips from the ceiling, trailing chill fingers down his back. “I had to work late,” he says, edging around the hall closet towards the kitchen. The dark scoops up the torchlight and smears twisted shadows along the walls.

Above him, claws scrape over sodden carpet, tearing at the padding and wood beneath. The house sags in towards the beast’s weight. The hydra slams into a wall. “You could have called.”

Victor eases onto his knees and squeezes through the crawlspace into the kitchen. Languid drops of water merge in a perverse collision of identity along the walls. On his feet, he kicks away a clump of vines and loses his balance. His left knee pops, and Victor goes down in a starburst of pain. He squeezes his eyes shut, swallows curses and beer.

“Why didn’t you call? Do you know what time it is? I was worried about you. You scared me.”

Victor crawls to the counter, levering himself up with both hands and his right leg. “I’m sorry,” he says around the pain.

“You. Scared. Me.”

Victor hears the hydra on the stairs. He opens the refrigerator, stuffs a bottle of water under his right arm and twists off the cap. Half the water spills cold over his legs before he manages his first drink. Look casual. Act casual. Hands shaking, Victor sets the water on the counter behind him and brings the torch around again. Smoke makes his eyes water. “I thought you’d be in bed. I didn’t want to wake you.”

The hydra’s shadow slips cold and black around the corner. Sinuous heads poke through the crawlspace, testing the air with great sulfurous snorts. “I didn’t know where you were,” they said together, and the hydra steps into the doorway. Anya’s favorite chef’s knife catches a bare shimmer of light from the street. “I didn’t—You were drinking?” One head darts forward, another back. “You fucking came home drunk?”

Victor recognizes this voice, the male voice, the protector. “I had a couple of beers with a friend. No big—”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

“—deal. Just a couple of beers.”

The hydra comes at him with the knife, takes him low and drives him to the floor in a tangle of gnashing teeth and acid breath. Heads and steel whip around him; the nightgown bunches in his face.

Victor pushes his wife off and rolls away, losing hold of the torch, catching the knife on the forearm with a hot flash of pain. “No! It’s not like—”

“Keep your fucking hands off her! I’ll kill you!”

The knife, the teeth, the claws, the anger multiplied in the eyes of every head. “Don’t you fucking care?” it screams. “Can’t you hear her screaming? You cocksucker! Fucking drunk pervert!”

The hydra slams a knee into his groin and Victor gags. He manages to grab the hydra’s wrists and wrenches the beast onto its back, straddling it in the stagnant water. He slams its hand down again and again until it drops the knife. “Stop it! Are you crazy? Just stop it!”

The hydra bucks and kicks. “You lying bastard!”

Razor teeth latch onto his arm, and he jerks it away. “Fuck!”

“You lied, all the time lied! Goddamn bastard!”

“Just stop! I had a couple of beers with a woman, okay? But I didn’t do anything to her. Nothing.” To Anya or Rhonda. “I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t do a fucking thing to her. I need, I need to talk to Anya!”

“Fuck you!”

“Anya, you bastard! I want—”

A head thrusts out of the poisonous tangle. “I want my mom!”

Victor can’t do this, can’t take any more. Let the fucking therapists and doctors chain the thing up, dope it, gut it and leave it to bleed. “Fine! Whatever!”

He tears off the remains of his armor, grabs the knife, and throws himself off her.

“I want to go home,” the hydra sobs, curled on its side.

Victor tumbles into the water and retches until all he can bring up are his shoes.

*

Sometime later, the hydra says, “You came to the meetings.”

Victor rests his head on his arms. The room won’t stop spinning, swamp water sloshing against the walls. Every breath is a knife to the groin. He prays for a quick death. “What?”

“You came to the meetings with me.” The hydra lays on its side in the still water, a low hillock, a clump of algae in the shadows.

It sounds like Anya, but Victor hurts too much to be certain. “I did.”

Silence. Water drips, splashes. Victor braces himself, for what he doesn’t know.

“Why?”

It does sound like Anya.

“Because I love you.” Victor hopes he still means it; only time will tell. For now, he rolls onto his back, reaches out. “Because you’re worth it.”

A claw hooks around his hand, squeezes twice. “I’m scared.”

“So am I.”

Water laps at his ears, blending the sounds of the night and his breathing.

“Can you wash my hair? I feel dirty.”

Victor pulls his hand away, levers himself up on one arm, then into a sitting position. The swamp surges with the rising tide. “I can do that.”

She sits up, looks him in the eye. “It’s going to take time,” the hydra says in Anya’s voice.

Victor makes it to his feet. He picks up bits and pieces of sodden leather and twisted metal. His thumb throbs beneath the torn bandage. He offers her his free hand. “I can do that, too.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Sandra M. Odell lives with her husband and sons in Washington state.  She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic.  Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and at the PodCastle podcast.  Find out more at http://www.writerodell.com

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