NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2018
Prompt: Genre -- Romance, Subject -- Building demolition, Character: Exotic pet owner
Synopsis: Isla Bungalow’s life plummets when a mold kills her octopi and destroys her dilapidated old barn. Through the process of deconstructing her home, her own internal walls are broken down and she is able to fall in love with a man called Wilder Blueheel.
Isla Bungalow calls canned sliced pineapples and milk, cereal.
Isla Bungalow lives in a barn, not a bungalow as one might assume. It is incredibly colorful and absolutely nothing matches. She has a dated radio on her stack-of-books-kitchen-counter. It’s the same one from her childhood. She had no technology growing up except for this radio, and instead of bedtime-stories, Isla had radio-dancing. Her mother would dial through the stations and whenever she stopped, Isla would boogie — be it to Motown, jazz, or NPR. Other parents thought that riling up the child before bed was absurd, but Isla’s mother believed that dancing stirred up sweet dreams. Isla, now thirty-two, still believes in radio-dancing as the best dream-catcher.
She used to live in a city, until the weight of rules and etiquette crushed her like a soda can under someone’s heavy heel. Someone was always telling her what to do: Don’t walk. Walk now! Don’t be late. Arrive later! The painted white lines of each crosswalk felt like slashes through her imagination. She moved to the city to become a bohemian painter, but she couldn’t earn a living doing that so she turned to commissioned portraits. With each wealthy nose she painted, a bit of her light was sucked up into one of their nostrils. When she handed over the finished portrait, she imagined them blowing their noses and finding her snotty imagination somewhere in their tissue. Isla could have made friends in the city but she didn’t; she believed that adults didn’t know how to play, and she didn’t know how to play an adult. Instead of being found out, she preferred to hide behind the protection of her sturdy wooden easels.
One rainy day in May, Isla was strolling down restaurant row for inspiration when she decided to make her escape. She saw luscious cartfuls of vegetables pushed into backdoors, and vibrant colours and textures on people’s plates. The problem was that restaurants didn’t often change their menu, so she was beginning to see the same plates over and over again. She began to turn on her heel when she saw someone carrying a heavy tank full of water and shouting in Italian; “Allooora cosa vuoi che faccio con questi polpi?” She walked over and saw that the Italians were opening a new seafood restaurant — and then she looked inside the tank. There, curled up in the corners, were with the most beautiful, most strange, and most soulful creatures Isla had ever seen. She could paint them for the rest of her life and never cease to be inspired by their enrapturing beauty. She ran into the restaurant to find the owner, who happened to be the man shouting with the tank, and made a deal; she would paint the entire interior with coastal murals if she could have the six octopi in exchange. The man readily agreed — “Ma certo, grazie!” — and she began her search for a home outside of the city.
The barn was the first and last place she visited. She fell in love with the character scarred deep within the parquet floors; the tinny sound the rusted hinges made whenever the wind blew, and the light that poured in through the skylights. She brought her few belongings — the radio, her leather books from every country she visited, and her grandmother’s cast iron pan. She installed a tank for her octopi with help from a farmer up the road. She called it the tiny sea, and it was the size of a living room. Isla and her octopi spent almost every waking moment together. In the morning, she would feed them before pouring herself coffee. Then she would stretch out her limbs, mix her paints, clean her brushes, and get to work. Her muses never grew impatient, or tiresome. They listened to her stories and understood her troubles. When she would mix up kooky concoctions just for fun (like onion grass and rock broth), they never laughed. They accepted her unconditionally, and she loved them more than she had ever loved a human. She had liberated them from their eventual dinner-plate demise, but they had liberated her from a stuck life in the city. She was safe and at peace within the four decaying walls of her sunny barn with her six inspiring, tentacled muses.
Isla wakes up to the sunshine in her warm, lofted, bed and peers through the skylight to the trees above. The leaves are turning deep crimsons and marigolds… they’re the same rich hues as Fiorello, one of her octopi, whenever he gets agitated. She thinks about how she’s never compared the colors of her octopi to the seasons, and imagines what that would look like. How would she capture the rich greens of spring? Algae, she thinks, let the tank get a little dirty. She climbs down the ladder and gets distracted halfway through with organizing magazines on the shelves below her loft. She pauses, and realizes that the house feels oddly quiet. Turning her head towards the middle of the room, her chest clenches and she can’t breathe. Her hands go numb and her mind goes blank. There’s a loud ringing in her ears and her vision is blinded by bright white light. It feels as if she’s underwater, in the tiny sea with her loves. It’s peaceful for a moment, until the dagger of reality pierces through the shock.
Her octopi are floating in the tiny sea with their expansive white tentacles belly up like great big spindly lily pads.
The only thing Isla can think is what the hell, what the hell, WHAT THE HELL? Her body loses the ability to stand and she slides down the ladder into a pile of long brown braids, weathered clogs, and a tear-soaked smock. After an eternity or a few minutes, she crawls to her phone and calls the aquatic vet, who says she’ll send someone over to test the water and the barn for mold. “Mold?” Isla asks the vet. Isla’s known that the barn has been covered in mold but didn’t think twice about it. Penicillin is made from mold, and that saves people. “Mold can kill pets, and their owners” the vet said. Isla hangs up, too weak to ask any more questions. She stays on the floor and watches her octopi float. They look so peaceful, and slack, and buoyant. The violent hues have drained from their bodies and they’re a rosy white. Isla has always thought of death as black, not rosy white. She feels a bottomless hole of grief inside her body and can’t fathom ever getting up off the floor. The vet’s assistant comes with a mold inspector, and while she tests the water, he tests for mold. No one speaks to Isla who watches them with glassy eyes. Everything is quiet until the mold man gasps. In his hand is the test strip, which has turned a deep indigo. The vet’s assistant’s jaw drops, and she looks at Isla with deer-in-headlight-eyes. “Hm?” Isla musters. She learns that her barn has been invaded by the most toxic kind of mold: ultra-violet-indigo, colloquially known in mold-circles as The Killer. Guilt floods every crevice of Isla’s body as she recalls wiping down mold from the cracks of the barn walls. Then anger, as she realizes that her own stupidity and carelessness killed her loved ones. Then anguish, as she realizes that her octopi are dead, and finally despair, when she realizes that if the mold killed them, it might kill her, and she’ll have to leave the only real home she’s ever known.
There are two ways to level a building; deconstruction, or demolition.
The thought of her barn imploding into dust seemed like too much violence for Isla to handle, so she decided to go with deconstruction. She knew what deconstructivism was in the art world, but she’d never heard of a deconstruction worker before. Her great-aunt Flora’s friend recommended a guy so she called for an estimate. Wilder Blueheel answers the phone and his voice is smooth and deep like amber honey. Two hours later, he pulls up in a rusted white pick up truck. Isla hears the engine shut off and looks through her windows at a tanned face, sun-bleached mane and beard, and paint-laden work boots. His gait is open, at ease. He sees Isla from the window and smiles; deep wrinkles corner his eyes and she sees proof that he has laughed. She slides open the barn door and it kicks off the track; she hikes it up and throws it back in place. Her forehead is sweaty and she wipes away wisps of sticky hair. They both extend the same hand, and then both switch hands, and then Isla says oh screw the formalities I’m Isla and my barn needs to come down because it’s been infested by a killer mold and I murdered my pets and yes, if you haven’t heard, I’m the crazy octopus lady. Or rather I was, the crazy octopus lady. He responds, nice to meet you Isla, former crazy octopus lady. I’m Wilder, I’m a former-journalist, now deconstruction worker, I pour hot water into my cereal instead of milk, and once I poured salt on a slug and watched it dissolve and I haven’t gotten over it since.
Isla looks up from her tidying and smiles for the first time since noticing the crimson and marigold leaves. “Nice to meet you,” she says. They both stand there, smiling at each other. Imagine if all romances began with the question, how are you crazy? It would save a lot of time, and heartbreak. She first offers him coffee, he bites. Then she offers him rock and onion grass soup. He says he’s never tried it, but he can imagine it takes a long time to stew the rocks. Isla laughs, and it feels funny — to have another human make her laugh.
Wilder explains to her how a deconstruction works. It takes time, and patience, for the walls of the barn to come down. He explains how you begin with the roof, shingle by shingle. Then the walls come down, plank by plank. And then the parquet comes up, piece by piece. Each shingle and plank and parquet piece is inspected, to see if it can be reused. In her case, none of it can be reused, but they will still need to separate the materials to dispose of them correctly. For the next two weeks, Isla and Wilder deconstruct the barn.
Wilder Blueheel is calm, and disarming. He moves slowly, and speaks slowly. He prefers to eat with his hands because he says it makes the food taste better. His truck is filled with rusty work tools, garage sale board games, empty growlers for homemade beer, and rain-soaked newspapers. He’s forty, and his nomadic lifestyle has left him without a family but full of experience. He likes Isla’s honesty; the way she operates like a feral child in an adult’s body. She brings out the rowdy boy inside of him that was pushed aside by career dreams and expectations. She likes his acceptance of near about anything she says, his curious, open mind, and his appreciation of beauty. She feels animated by their conversation — it doesn’t tire her like conversations with other humans.
Isla struggled with freedom and felt that obedience or rules or places oppressed her. All along; however, it was her own internal blockades that restricted her. The craziness she felt in the city was her inability to express her creativity. Her lack of connection to people was because of her guard, tough as iron. The empathy she felt with her octopi was misguided; they had no agency in the walls constructed around them. Before meeting Wilder, Isla was a fortress. Who knows what materials were used to construct her walls — divorced parents, a nomadic lifestyle, fear of rejection. Yet with each screw unscrewed alongside Wilder, the pain and anger and fear inside of her was also unscrewed, undone. While the decaying planks came down, so did her guard. She shared openly with Wilder tales of her chaotic childhood, and he shared his. She realized that someone could listen and understand and accept her better than her gracious octopi. When Wilder and Isla stripped the foundation of the barn, parquet by parquet, they sat leaning against each other’s backs. He was there and he was sturdy; she could relax and lean back against him. He kissed her and she kissed back, they were gentle and passionate and daring and calm and knowing with each other.
The tiny sea’s walls are stacked neatly and reflect the blue sky. The decaying planks are ripe for a bonfire. The hundreds of screws look like an illustrated ant colony. Her easels are also on the ground, piled next to the planks. Isla’s burning them too, because she doesn’t need to hide behind them anymore. Behind where the barn once stood, six rocks mark the graves of her beloved octopi. Sprouts of grass have begun to push through the fresh earth even though the frost may hinder them. Looking out over her deconstructed life, Isla Bungalow realizes that something is missing. She runs to the other side of where the barn once stood and hoists a heavy radio over one shoulder. She walks over to Wilder and turns it on; jazz plays. Her feet begin to move, and so do his; tippity tap, tippity tap, tippity tap tap. From the outside, it looks like two goofy adults about to begin constructing a home. From the inside — an inside with no walls and no roof — it feels like love.