All the Melted Horses
Jacob didn’t expect the fire to spread so quickly, but within seconds the flames had crawled across the floor and spiraled up the poles, illuminating the night sky. There was an audible “whoosh” when they reached the canvas of the tent-like top. He stood, transfixed by the ghost-like faces that formed in the fire, their malevolent grins flickering as they consumed everything except the metal pieces of machinery that powered the damned thing—spinning it around and around, moving the horses up and down, forcing them to gallop along an infinite track, devoid of destination.
He had turned the power on after dousing the carousel in gasoline and now the plastic horses were melting as they spun, their faces dripping onto the platform below. Their expressions had always been grotesque—mouths open, lips pulled back by their bits, exposing large, rectangular teeth; they looked as if they were being driven hard, made to travel long distances at a painful pace—but the flames transformed them into demons. As they burned, their ornate manes were replaced by living flames, which Jacob found far more beautiful. Gradually, the carnival music slowed and distorted, its eerie melody punctuated by offbeat crashes as chunks of the carousel began raining down. The pole that bisected a jet black mare, connecting it to the structure, snapped free and the steed crashed to the ground. He stood watching the whole thing burn for much longer than was wise, entranced, exhausted, not caring what happened. With the flames still dancing, he walked over to the fallen black horse, fell to his knees and looked into its lifeless eye that was staring vacantly into space. He could see himself, framed by the flames, reflected in the dark paint of its pupil.
The night closed in around him as he got to his feet and began walking home. He was vaguely aware he was dragging the horse, holding it by the length of pole that protruded from its withers.
The next day he woke to the smell of gasoline mixed with smoke and whiskey. Both his right hand and his head were throbbing—the hand was badly burned, the headache was the result of the whiskey. Scattered snapshots of the night before flashed through his mind. With his eyes still closed, he patted the bed searching for his phone. He had kicked the blankets off during the night and the sheets were twisted around his body. Eventually, he located his phone and brought it to his face. Without lifting his head, he opened one eye. Six text messages, all from Julia, and three missed calls—two from Julia and one from a number he didn’t recognize.
7:15 PM: Where are you?
8:23 PM: Hello? You were supposed to be here more than an hour ago.
8:45 PM: WTF, Jacob. This really isn’t cool.
9:03 PM: Whatever, I’m leaving.
7:32 AM: Where were you last night?
10:04 AM: “I’m done worrying about you, but we have some shit we need to figure out. Don’t make me show up at your door.”
That was for the best. He was done worrying about him too. In an effort to stop from thinking, he shoved his face into the pillow and scrunched his eyes closed hard enough that he could see the orange capillaries of his eyelids snaking across his vision like streaks of lightning. “Do eyelids have capillaries?” his hungover brain wondered vaguely. Rolling over, a strange shape in the corner of the room caught his eye. When he brought it into focus, he saw it was the carousel horse from the night before. He must have dragged it all the way home. “I’ll deal with that later,” he thought, letting out a groan. Just then his phone, still in his hand, buzzed to let him know that he had a voicemail. It was from the number that he hadn’t recognized.
“Hello, this message is for Jacob Digory. Mr. Digory, this is Detective Chung of the Boston Police Department. Please call me back as soon as possible. I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
Jacob dropped his phone and sat up in bed, looking over at the carousel horse. “That can’t be good,” he muttered and flopped back down on the bed. His eyes were hot and the pounding in his head was unrelenting. He closed his eyes against a temporary dizzy spell and his mind thought back to his most recent session with Dr. Atawan, when he had told her about phantom limb syndrome.
“The term was coined by a physician in the 1870s. Back then they thought it was caused by an irritation in the nervous system, at the place where the limb had been amputated, but in the late 1980’s some other doctor realized that couldn’t be true because people who had been born without limbs experienced it as well,” he had been loosely aware of the fact that he was talking very fast.
“You’d think they would have realized that a whole lot earlier, but they didn’t. Or maybe some people did, but they never told the right people, or it never got published or whatever, so the medical literature never got updated. Anyway, this guy in the 80s, Dr. Melzack, came up with this theory that the experience of the body is created by a wide network of interconnecting neural structures, which he called the ‘neuromatrix’. Then in the 90s a team of scientists conducted some experiments on monkeys that showed that the area of the brain responsible for processing sensory information undergoes a substantial reorganization after the loss of sensory input. I suppose that means they hooked the monkeys’ brains up to an imaging device and then cut off their limbs, which is really sick, but those experiments led to the theory that these changes in the brain may account for some but not all of the phantom limb pain that people report. They said that it might be the result of what they called ‘junk inputs’ from the neural system. But despite all of the years of research, to this day no one can really say for sure what causes phantom limb syndrome.”
“Why are you telling me about this, Jacob? How is it relevant to your life?” Dr. Atawan had asked.
“What I’m saying is that maybe what I’ve been experiencing is a sort of emotional version of phantom limb syndrome. That the hallucinations are the result of my brain reorganizing itself because of the loss. I’m saying it’s the same fucking thing and that if all these goddamn doctors couldn’t figure out how it works in the body, with all their monkeys and experiments and actual fucking physical evidence and quantifiable results then what hope do we have of figuring out the shit that I’ve been dealing with, nevermind treating it? I’m saying it’s a lost fucking cause.”
By this point he had begun yelling and could hear the blood coursing through his veins. He had taken a minute to catch his breath and to look at the slight woman on the other side of his laptop screen. He could tell she was glad it was a teletherapy session—that she wasn’t in the same room as him.
“Ok, Jacob. I understand,” Dr. Atawan had replied, her voice syrupy, slow and subdued. “I’d suggest that the parallels you’re attempting to draw between the two conditions are far from exact and that you’ve been expressing skepticism about this process since the very beginning, but before we get to that—I want to ask, how are you doing with your substance use? Are you still self-medicating? Are you under the influence of anything right now?”
That was the last time he saw Dr. Antawan. From that point on he had been alone and had been falling fast. He had spent the last month locked in the shitbox apartment that he had rented when Julia asked him to leave the house, after living with him had become “untenable”. He had stopped answering his phone and email and going to work. He ordered bottles of booze off the internet and instructed the delivery drivers to leave the packages at the door so he wouldn’t have to see them. When he moved, he had purchased a threadbare, second hand recliner and dragged it into the middle of the otherwise barren “family room”. He sat in it for hours, the shades pulled down and the lights off, feeling as though he were in a tiny boat that was lost at sea.
“What are you doing, Dad?”
“No. You’re not here. You’re not real.”
“Maybe not, but what would I think of you if I were?”
“You’re not here, Eli. Please. Please stop it. I can’t take this.”
“You have to. You have no choice now. Why did you do it, Dad? Why did you set it on fire? It was my favorite. I used to beg you to let me ride it every time we passed by on our walk home from the library.”
“I did it because it was your favorite. I did it because it was still in the world and you’re not. Because I…because I couldn’t,” he trailed off, no longer capable of forming words. He was crying now—big ugly sobs that wracked his entire body. “Please,” he whimpered. “Please come back. I brought you home a horse.”
Jacob no longer knew if it was day or night; what did it matter? He came to, shirtless and in sweatpants, slumped over on the arm of the recliner. He had been fading in and out of consciousness for what seemed like an eternity. He opened his eyes and saw a bottle of pills turned on its side, its contents spilled out across the floor, and an overturned half-empty bottle of vodka. Before he could make his hand reach for it, he registered, for the first time, the violent knocking at the front door. How long had that been going on? Was it what woke him? He grabbed the vodka bottle, unscrewed the cap, and took three large pulls, pausing for breath in between each. When the knocking came again, it did so incessantly, without pause for several minutes. Slowly, he got to his feet, dropping the bottle and listening to it roll across the room as he stumbled towards the door.
“I’m coming,” he mumbled, too quietly for anyone to hear, his bare feet shuffling along the uneven floorboards.
“Don’t answer it,” Eli’s voice came from the far side of the room where he stood holding the black horse by the reins, its long muzzle looming over his shoulder. “You won’t like what’s on the other side, Dad.”
“I have to,” he replied, but he was no longer moving towards the door.
“It’s over, Dad. If you open that door, it’s all over.”
Jacob wrapped his arms around his head and squeezed, trying to block out the world. The knocking at the door was so loud it felt as if the person’s fist was rapping against the inside of his skull. The room began to spin, faster and faster, spots of light and shadow forming intricate patterns as they spiraled around him.
“Like a carousel,” he thought, collapsing to the floor.