For those who haven’t turned in their Anthony Award ballots and are looking for a short story to nominate, please consider my story, “The Body Electric” from the anthology DEAD ENDS edited by JT Ellison. This is one of the best stories I’ve ever written and it addresses some complex themes that I’ve wanted to work through for a while, but was waiting for the right opportunity. This story was the combination of the right idea and the right opportunity at the right time and I’d love for everyone involved to get the recognition for their hard work that comes with an award nomination.
I’ve posted the full text of the story below as well as a link to a formatted PDF so you can read it for free and decide if it’s worthy. Thanks.
THE BODY ELECTRIC
By Bryon Quertermous
Brindy Dye needed to go get her baby. The rain was coming down in thick sheets and NeNe was out there in the swampy weeds, exposed and alone.
Brindy’d never gotten used to drinking in this weather. Give her a blizzard and a fifth of something brown and she was a happy girl. This humidity was bullshit and whiskey did weird stuff to her head during hurricane season. Not as weird as the shit Dusty did to her head when he hit her, but weird enough to make her wonder if she was even awake.
The window in her bedroom looked out over the back of the trailer park to the field where her baby liked to play.
Where NeNe liked to play.
She still had a name. She’d never grow old or get married or have babies, but she had her name: Navayah Nelody Dye-Accord. Dusty and his jap car last name made her baby sound like a foreign peace law, but he’d given her a few clean needles and some good pills to make her add the name, him being a proud dad and all.
Goddamn this weather.
Her hip was tricky from Dusty throwing her down the steps of their first trailer outside of Detroit and her knee was blown out from when he hit her with the car her last day of work at the nursing home before moving to New Orleans to take care of Pop. She rolled the fingers on her left hand into a gimpy fist and tried to push herself up from her bed. Two lite beer cans and a bottle of pills fell to the floor when she moved, but she didn’t notice the needle still in her arm until she tried to scratch the back of her head.
The rain poured from the sky and blew against her window like God was trying to sink the trailer. That might be a nice way to go. She’d heard good things about drowning in her suicide support group. Supposed to make you feel heavy and tired and light, and then you woke up in heaven or hell or just passed on to whatever was next. She wanted to pass on, but not without her baby. If Brindy could get to her before the water took her away, they could pass on together. Maybe get another shot in a better place.
Her reflection in the window’s rainy splatter made it hard to see what was going on outside, but it sure looked like someone else was sneaking around where her baby was. One of the perverts who lived in the park, probably. She didn’t have a problem with perverts so much, God knows she was no good girl, and they’d been kind to her and NeNe, but nobody needed to be passing a baby on to heaven but her momma.
Pulling out the needle made her bleed and made her head spin. She remembered for a second having the same feeling before and that’s why she’d left it in. Needles were bullshit, like the weather and the sugary booze in the summer, but they were easier to come by than pills. The TV was getting louder, or maybe she was just remembering it was there, but she liked her odds with the TV in her head. TV’d been good to her and NeNe, and would never steer them wrong. She made a final push out of bed toward the sound. There were more cans on the floor and another needle she almost stepped on in the bathroom, but she made it to the TV and the Wheel of Fortune.
“Panama Canal,” was the last thing she said before she passed out again.
The pervert from across the way woke her up the next morning. His name was really Matthew or something white and Biblical like that, but everybody in the whole goddamn park had names that sounded the same, so she got used to thinking of them as the pervert from across the way, the pervert with the nice van, the pervert with the head scab, the pervert with the good grill. Despite his name, the pervert from across the way was a black guy with a lumpy head and slimy hair, but she was too Christian to think of him as the black pervert, and he really was across the way. Always across the way, watching her and NeNe, but never saying anything or making them feel creepy or whatever. Just watching.
He said, “She didn’t blow away or nuthin’, so you know, or whatever.”
Brindy swatted at the air between them, but didn’t make a move to get out of bed. Her head was thick with something other than booze and she was having trouble shaking it clear.
“Why am I… Jesus, pervert, what’d you do?”
“I ain’t no pervert where you’re concerned, and you know that. You and your pop and that girl of yours are family like my blood is family.”
“I’m just foggy is all. No offense meant.”
“Family don’t always mean friend, though.”
She nodded, not sure what to say to that, and horked up a thick wad of phlegm. The room spun when she spit off the side of her bed, and she was aware of her mouth opening and her tongue moving and some kind of sound coming out, but the specifics were gooey. When she woke up again, the pervert was gone, her head was clear, and she had a decade’s worth of mourning to do.
Brindy read the coupon circulars with a cigarette and a coffee mug full of DayQuil. The storm that had blown through took some trees and some trailers with it but left behind the shitty weather and oppressive heat. She’d taken a walk around the park when she woke the second time, hoping everything she remembered was a dream, or her imagination. But nobody was outside, and she wasn’t ready to go talk to people until she cleared her head and made a plan. A picture of her baby from a birthday party last year was on her phone and reminded her that at least some of it was real. She had a daughter and her daughter was gone.
Nine years old. How had that happened? Brindy tried, she really did. The minutes and hours had gone so wrong, but the years, they’d been okay. The birthday party at the skating rink. Church camp. Even days around the park with Pop. She’d done what she could. Weren’t a lot of men in her life to look to, and the women weren’t much for role modeling, either, but she didn’t hit her baby, didn’t touch her with anything but motherly love. And she fed her carrots and whole milk and made her read real books without pictures. Her baby was smart.
Brindy rubbed her thumb across the cracked phone. Even through the webbing of broken glass, NeNe’s aura shone brightly through the decrepit trailer. Framed photos on the wall across the room, moist with rancid condensation, anchored Brindy’s nerves and kept the worst of her… the worst of everything… in check. Without her baby, whatever was left, Brindy would be left with the rot of her world, the rot of her life, the rot of forever.
She finished her drink, put her cigarette out in the kitchen sink, and put on enough clothes to keep temptation away from her neighbors, but not so much she’d suffocate from the heat. She’d strut across the park in her rain boots and a smile if she weren’t too Christian to cause her fellow man to stumble. She settled for a linen dress and steel-toed boots––bought on credit for a week’s work in a factory––in case she had to kick off a snake or swamp rat, and carried Pop’s old cane just in case.
The pervert across the way saw her coming and met her on the porch. She waved and dug her boot toe into the ground in front of her. It was spongy and clung to her boot like her grandma’s Jell-O salad clung to their old dog one year at Christmas, when he was being an ass and knocked over the dinner table.
“You look better,” he said. “So we can go see the preacher now.”
“That man ain’t no preacher,” Brindy said. “Don’t care how many crosses he wears or prayers he says.”
“You want that precious girl of yours to pass on the right way, you got to get a man of God to—”
“I’ll pass my baby on myself. Don’t need no preacher man to hold my baby and ask God not to send her to hell.”
“But the preacher says—”
Brindy kicked him in the balls and smacked him across the back with Pop’s cane. He fell to the ground, gasping.
“Less you want this cane somewhere even the preacher can’t reach it to bless, you’ll keep your mouth shut and help me find my baby.”
He nodded, and when he was breathing again, she helped him up. They walked around to the back of the park where Brindy remembered seeing someone pick up her daughter. Park was too ambitious a name for where they lived, she thought, as they slowly marked their steps along the outer edge of the dozen trailers that made up their little compound. It was far enough away from schools and playgrounds and pools to be safe for anyone on the sex offender registry, including her father, who was dying of lung cancer and didn’t have anyone else to take care of him. Her baby was supposed to spend time with Pop in his last days and build memories and a family tree, then go on and live a life Brindy couldn’t provide her alone. Pop and his rotting lungs weren’t supposed to outlive her baby.
Brindy and Matthew the pervert walked together toward the spot she’d seen NeNe’s body last night. Regrets from a life of shitty living piled deep in her head, but the big regret was not being with her baby when she… well, during her last few… truth was, she’d been drinking whiskey at Pop’s bedside when NeNe was outside. He’d been a vegetable for a month now, but she couldn’t bring herself to pull the plug. She kept hoping someone from the homecare agency would come for the equipment and make the decision for her, but they never did, so she spent an hour every afternoon drinking and watching Judge Judy with him and an hour every night reading to him from the Bible.
“I saw you in the window when it happened,” Matthew said, touching her arm lightly.
A creepy tingle slithered up her arm like a leech and she shook his hand away. Had he touched her baby like that? She’d never thought of that. The perverts in the trailer park, they were family. They bought her a turkey at Christmas and NeNe a Barbie doll
Jeep to drive around the park in the summer.
Brindy swung Pop’s cane at him and missed his head by an inch or so, which sent Matthew to the ground again. She stood over him.
“Did you touch my baby?”
The pervert shook his head and curled into a fetal ball.
“I was just looking out for her. You let her bob around here like a piece a chum for these others… these other… we don’t want to touch nobody’s babies. We living right, and staying away, and you can’t just keep putting us in position to… you can’t just—”
Brindy poked the cane into the pervert’s throat.
“Didn’t say I cared about anybody else ‘round here. You the only one watching us every day.”
“You ain’t watching your own baby, so somebody should, and that somebody’s me.”
She eased the cane off of his neck and helped him back up again.
“Already feel bad enough about my mothering,” she said. “Don’t need a pervert like you making me feel worse.”
Matthew nodded and took her hand. The creepy tingle was still there, but faded a bit. She turned her hand so she was shaking his instead of holding it.
“Tell me what you saw.”
“I always been worried about them wires over there,” he said, grabbing the cane and pointing toward a mess of jumper cables and circuit boxes and wires wrapped around a small tree. “Think maybe one person in the entire park pays for electricity and everyone else taps into that… mess.”
Brindy tried to take the cane back, but Matthew pushed her off with his shoulder and kept pointing at the tree as he walked toward it.
“Your girl was a climber,” he said. “Reminded me of my own Ruby back in the day. But you look around and it’s all swamp and no good climbing trees.”
“Except that one,” Brindy said.
“Except that one.”
“I don’t even think she cared about climbing. She liked the jumping. Wanted me to put her in gymnastics. Can’t afford food without bugs in it, but expects me to find money for gymnastics.”
“Every day I seen her over there looking at that tree like she had a plan. Couldn’t do nothing from my house while I watched her.
Kept hoping she’d turn back, but… well, I don’t think she suffered any, if that makes any difference.”
Brindy thought about yesterday. One of her worst days of the year, even before this. The weather. The whiskey. The everything.
She’d done some things with Dusty she hoped would relax her, but the whiskey got to him, too, and pissed ‘em both off even more.
“You shoulda come and told me,” she said softly.
“Knocked quite a bit when she was in the tree,” he said. “Heard some moaning that sounded private so I kept on walking.”
“Jesus,” Brindy whispered, then silently said a prayer asking for forgiveness.
“I went around back, too, but didn’t want to get too close to her. We’re doing life right this time. Best we can, you know? And that means stayin’ away from what haunts us.”
“You saw her fall?”
“Like it was one of them slow motion replays on television,” he said. “Even remember reaching my arms out, like maybe I could catch her or something from all the way over here. But all I caught was a vision I can’t shake from my dreams and a nasty eye from you.”
“And she was dead?”
“Wasn’t moving, and that scream… being dead’s the best thing for her after that scream.”
The combination of memories and guilt and the creeping wetness in the air made Brindy sick to her stomach. She put her hand out to hold herself up with the cane before remembering she didn’t have it, and fell face first into the swampy ground. Matthew crouched down next to her and pulled her face out of a puddle by her hair.
“You seen where it happened. You made me hear that scream again. So now we goin’ to the preacher to make sure that baby passes on the right way.”
She nodded the best she could with her movement restricted by Matthew’s grip on her hair, and he pushed her face back into the mud.
The preacher had a trailer in the park, but he never stayed there more than a few hours on Sundays, to watch football or play cards with the other perverts after reading something to them from his old crusty Bible and saying a prayer for their souls. A quick walk around the trailer confirmed no one was there, so Brindy and Matthew set off on the walk to the bigger house. That’s where the preacher spent his days with his families, and did God knows what else in the small house out back.
Brindy had been to the big house with its giant, decaying steel gate once before, when she first arrived at the park with NeNe. The preacher, no name ever given, was the one who ran the park, and he’d tried several times to talk her out of staying. Toward the end of that meeting, he even hinted that something awful would happen to Pop if she stayed and corrupted the perfect balance of healing intent he said he’d created. But Brindy insisted, he relented, and they drank two bottles of wine by the fire while NeNe played with the preacher’s wife.
“Never understood where this place came from,” Matthew said as they approached the gate. “Looks like it should be up north in New York or Massachusetts as a school for preppy kids or horse riders or something, not out here in this swampy hell.”
“Fits in around here about as well as that preacher man.”
“I had a dream once, the first time I came out here,” Matthew said. “Drank a beer with the preacher and fell asleep on his couch. I remember seeing him in this old black wool coat standing out by these gates right here trying to get in. Dancing around, putting a hand or a foot through the bars, but never walking through the gates. Went on like that for a time before these big old gates turned blue and zapped that preacher man right in the heart.”
“Like my baby.”
“Never did believe him when he said I had more than one drink, but who am I to argue with a man of God? Right?”
“We shouldn’t be here.”
Brindy turned to walk away, successfully grabbing the cane from Matthew this time.
“You walk away, you’ll always wonder,” Matthew said.
“Better than seeing whatever he’s done to her in there.”
“Ain’t nothing bad in that house. Too cold and stone and barren.”
“Not the one out back.”
The small carriage house out back fit the area better. Sagging wood that had once been elaborately engraved and trimmed held up a roof with enough peaks and turrets to make the whole thing look like a giant wooden birthday cake. The red and yellow paint had long ago peeled away in most places, replaced with cobwebs and climbing vines, and the walkway to the front door was clouded in a hazy red mist. Brindy imagined was from brimstone. She reached out for Matthew’s hand, but hesitated, remembering the creepy tingling she got each time they touched earlier.
Matthew knocked once before the preacher appeared at the door. He had a wide smile full of yellow teeth and puffy gums. His hair was messy and electrified with static cling. The black wool coat Matthew mentioned from his dream was draped over the preacher’s shoulders, even though Brindy’s old weather thermometer on her porch had shown the temperature nearing ninety that morning.
“It was wet last night, or you would have been here sooner, I reckon,” he said, waving them inside.
The smell inside matched the rest of the house. The air was still and flat, musty, rotting, and vaguely electric. Brindy wished she’d worn something more concealing and protective than her thin linen dress. She felt the spirits of the house move through the flat air and through her body and up her legs.
“I want my baby. I want her to… You need to help me—”
“All in good time,” the preacher said. “Would you like a drink first?”
“I don’t want a drink. I want my baby. I want to know what you did to my baby and I want to take her home.”
“The Earth is not our home, my dear Miss Dye. We are but temporary—”
“I don’t need your mumbo jumbo bullshit, preacher man. I want to see my daughter.”
The sharp smile turned quickly to a menacing leer.
“Yes. Let’s go see your daughter.”
Brindy prepared herself mentally for many outcomes. She wanted to be strong in the face of tragedy and strong in the face of even the worst possible outcomes. What she wasn’t prepared for was to hear her daughter say hello.
“Mommy,” NeNe said, her voice floating from a small nook off the entrance to the house. “I missed you.”
Brindy took her daughter in her arms and spun her around joyously, but the mood remained somber. The air remained flat and putrid. Her daughter was not smiling.
“It’s so good to see you, baby. I missed you, too.”
Brindy hugged her daughter again. She expected NeNe to nuzzle her chest, like she did when she was a baby, but NeNe kept her head turned toward the preacher. When the hug was over, Brindy fell back against Matthew in exhaustion and relief.
NeNe said, “Why did you let me die?”
The three walked back to the trailer park in silence. Brindy was confused and horrified by her daughter’s cold demeanor, and Matthew was twitchy and awkward around NeNe, which made Brindy even more nervous.
That night, she decided the time had come for Pop to pass on properly, so she made his favorite spicy chili for dinner and ate three bowls of it in his room. Together, they watched the evening news. Her daughter was spacey and reserved, and every attempt Brindy made at fixing things sent them both into a depressing spiral.
When Pop took his final breath, Brindy kissed his forehead, then dialed the number for the funeral home to come and get him. NeNe was in the other room, but she appeared in Brindy’s side view and quickly swatted Brindy’s phone out of her hand.
“Bury him by the tree,” she said. “Or they’ll come for me, too.”
The corner of NeNe’s mouth wiggled as she stared at Brindy. Her eyes were unfocused, lazing so far apart they seemed to be splitting off from each other. She wobbled around for a few seconds before falling to the floor. Brindy bent down to make sure her daughter was breathing. When she leaned in close to NeNe face to listen for a breath, her daughter’s eyes opened, and she snapped at Brindy’s throat with her teeth.
NeNe continued snapping at her mother, even as Brindy scrambled away from the bedroom and slammed the door shut.
“Make him electric,” NeNe said. “We’ll live forever.”
Brindy ran to the kitchen and reached around on top of the ice box until she found the revolver she kept up there for emergencies. She held the gun away from her body as she approached the bedroom door. There were no more sounds coming from the room, so Brindy relaxed her gun hand and ran to Matthew’s house.
“That preacher man did something to my baby,” she said. “I need you to stop me before I do something ungodly.”
She could see Matthew looking down at the gun and waited for him to invite her inside. The invitation never came, and Matthew seemed more off than normal. A salty film of sweat and liquor hung in the air, and each breath Matthew took smelled like the underside of her liquor shelf.
“It’s dark times for both you,” he said, slowly. “You’re edgy and ripe with visions and demons, and that ain’t no time to be grabbing a gun or visiting no preacher man.”
“I need you to watch her for a bit.”
“No, no, no,” he said on the verge of tears. “You can’t be doin’ something like that to me. It’s not right. It’s not right. It’s not right.”
“I don’t have anyone else, and I need to know what he did to her.”
“You thought she was dead, now she’s alive. Rejecting a miracle can only bring you more pain.”
“She’s not alive, and that’s not my daughter. I brought a corpse in my home and the preacher man needs to pay.”
Matthew shut the door and turned the deadbolt.
“I’m living life right. You can’t make me do this.”
“I know you’re always watching her,” Brindy said. “This time I won’t be there, is all.”
She’d taken a few steps away from his trailer, when Matthew opened his door slightly.
“Just wait till morning and I’ll do whatever you want.”
“I can’t sleep with that thing in my house. She’s always liked you. Maybe you can fix her.”
Brindy’s plan was to shoot the preacher man between the eyes and then search his house. She couldn’t do either though, because he wasn’t there, so she ended up having a glass of sweet tea with his wife. They talked about family and God and heaven and how much sugar was enough for a good sweet tea. As the evening wore on, Brindy felt comfortable enough to confess her original intentions for her visit. The preacher’s wife smiled and shook her head.
“That would have been a sight to see,” she said.
“My husband… my Dusty… uh, her father always said I was like a stick of dynamite full of stupid, just waiting for someone to light me.”
“That’s quite a colorful way to say you’ve got the servant’s heart.”
“I wish I had my daughter’s heart. I wish I knew she’d get through whatever this is. Whatever he did to her.”
“He did it for her. And for you. For all of us.”
“I just don’t know.”
“Go home to your baby. Give her some space and some time. She’ll come back to you.”
Brindy stood to leave and awkwardly held herself between a hug and a handshake before the preacher’s wife grabbed her and embraced her heartily. Tears and sweat weren’t enough to break Brindy’s growing feelings of comfort and happiness, feelings that she would never have again. At the very end of the hug, the preacher’s wife pulled Brindy in closer, gripping her painfully tight.
“When it’s time, we’ll have you both.”
Brindy stood at the gates, stunned. Her instinct told her to run as fast as she could back to her baby and to Matthew. Something was wrong, but she was too afraid to face it. She wanted to go around back to the carriage house as well, but she knew what she would find back there, too. So she stood at the gates to the out-of-place east coast-style mansion and hoped to be struck dead by a blast of electricity.
“I can show you the others,” the preacher said from behind her. “I can’t imagine anyone you’d tell would believe you.”
The others turned out to be the bodies of ten young girls, all within a year or so of NeNe, who the preacher said was special because she survived.
As he opened the cellar door where the bodies lay, the preacher began to recite in a hushed, hollow voice:
“I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them.
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them.
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.”
“Oh my God,” Brindy said, when she saw the empty faces of the small bodies piled on top of one another.
The preacher kept going.
“Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
The preacher kept speaking, getting louder with every verse, and she recognized it was the Whitman poem from the English class where she met Dusty. Seeing so many bodies of other mothers’ babies was too much. She wanted to go to her own baby, whatever she looked like, however she acted.
Brindy decided they’d leave that night. Pop didn’t need them anymore. He’d left his life savings for them, she knew where. And then they’d drive. Away from the swamp, the whiskey, and the perverts. They’d drive together and become something new together. She was as dead inside as she thought her daughter was, they both needed a revival. They’d find God, or something like him, on their own, without a preacher, the way her grandma said man was meant to find God.
She heard music as she approached her trailer and wondered if maybe they’d take a minute to dance before they left. NeNe loved to dance when she was a baby and before gymnastics, and before the reality of cost set in, Brindy had dreamed of her daughter being a dancer on Broadway. The music sounded like a show tune, something from the eighties, if the synthesizers were any indication. The song was building as she opened the front door. She saw Matthew’s body lying through her bedroom doorway the same time she heard the lyric from the song.
I sing the body electric
She rushed into the bedroom and saw NeNe lying next to Matthew, both of them undressed and bleeding from their wrists. NeNe’s eyes were closed. Matthew’s were open, his mouth still gurgling and his chest slowly rising.
“What did you do to my baby?”
He shook his head and pointed to a note on the dresser. Brindy picked it up and read Matthew’s scrawl:
You were too concerned with the daughter you wanted and forgot about the one you had. You made me do this.
She grabbed her baby’s body and wrapped it in a blanket before running as fast as she could back to the preacher’s gates. He was waiting in the carriage house with his wife when she arrived, and took NeNe’s body when she offered.
“Whatever you did to her, I don’t care. You know? The first time? Whatever you did. Do it again.”
The preacher shook his head slowly and ran his hands up and down NeNe’s body. Brindy cringed, but kept her eyes on the preacher. She’d do whatever he wanted to bring her baby back.
“I’m not sure that’s possible,” he said.
“That pervert killed her and it’s my fault. I didn’t believe in you and what you can do here, but I do now.”
“Where is Matthew now?”
“Rotting on my bed.”
“You…took care of him?”
“Did it himself. Killed my baby then killed himself like a coward.”
“So they passed on…together?”
“You said she’s special. Show me.”
“For a miracle of this…intensity…we need more. You say you believe in what we do here; you need to show me.”
“I’ll do anything,” Brindy said.
The preacher’s wife smiled and handed Brindy a knife.
If anything is sacred the human body is sacred,
And the glory and sweat of a man is the token of manhood untainted,
And in man or woman a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is more beautiful than the most beautiful face.