The Noose Lovers

Blake Planty

When I opened up the freezer, I found a cruelly flattened beetle preserved inside the ice cube tray. Six prying eyes stared back at me with such an unflinching sadness, I immediately shoved it back inside and slammed the door shut. I could decipher the individual hairs through the glassy ice, the grotesque curling and spirals of the limbs before the pathetic creature drowned. My heart felt ready to pop.

 

Nowadays, I have to be painfully cautious. I wasn’t sure how to deal with the diagnosis the doctor gave me. He told me this was a disease he’d never seen before—that he would ask me to stay in the hospital until I was cleared to leave. I refused before signing any papers, went back home, and couldn’t stop opening and closing my fridge door. I had bigger plans. I had no money. I didn’t know what to feel when I saw the disgusting beetle, whether or not to thaw it or throw it away. Trash belongs in the trash. Keeping it would be unnatural.

 

 To keep my mind off the diagnosis, I naturally went to the internet. I scoured forum websites until I found one perfectly sized for me.

 

The Noose Lovers wasn’t too exclusive. I can’t quite remember how I found the page—I was on another late-night web binge. My tongue felt dry. Teeth like rocks. I made an account by the time the sun was coming up.

 

A simple black background, a white chat-box, some usernames. At first, I thought these were robots. Not real people. I briefly tried talking to someone before with no luck. Today, I hope, will be my lucky day.

 

George, the first person I chat with, explains it effortlessly: everyone here is carefully coordinating their group suicide, all deciding to meet at a specific location. The Noose Lovers was meticulously organized. No one dared rat each other out. We were all very interested in our bodies, how they did not function. One person had a third eye. Another born with a beak. Some live their whole lives with a paper bag over their heads. There are people out there that might be like you. You can join them. George promised me it would be worth my time, given who I was.

 

A three-hour car drive. I can do this, I think. I want to see these people eye-to-eye, find community, a ticket out of ennui. The itchiness in my skin doesn’t leave me alone that night—I close my eyes and dream about holes in the ground opening and closing, like pores on my face. I don’t want to be a saint or intervene. The pills and the medicine on my dresser can wait.

I leave a note for my roommate explaining I’ll be back. Of course, this is a lie. I don’t feel particularly bad about it. More morbid curiosity than actually wanting to off myself. The doctor makes a vague comment about scissoring out my genitals, rewiring my tubes, my synapses, my nerves, my bladder fizzing out. The phone is already buried in my trunk by the time I drive off.

 

If I had my way, my body would be a breadboard, or a motherboard, all scrambled and welded with microscopic parts and circuits ready to drown. Miles and miles of encoiled wires.

 

The road is hopelessly empty. A semi-truck skims me—I tease the thought of crashing straight into it. Power lines follow me, like horned morning skeletons, teeming with the electric touch of sleeplessness. I’m not scared of what I might find.

 

//

 

When I open the car door, I pluck out a dragonfly. It was garroted and eviscerated. I roll the paper-thin wing into a cylinder and flick it on dirt road. Behind me, I squint through the afternoon fingers of the sun, over the furrowed head of empty field. A group of trees. A generator. I see the silhouette bodies and heads slowing moving from a distance. I wave from the side-road, my back against the taped-up window of my car. One of the disembodied arms in the field wave back.

 

George is a young man in his twenties. I don’t know what he’s done with his body—despite the humid weather he’s dressed in long sleeves and a button collar. There are others, but they keep their mouths shut. They are odd people with animal fur, horns, and third legs. Their eyes are wide and glassy. They remind me of prized taxidermy, preserved and framed for eternity. 

 

I imagine a cool glass of lemonade in this heat, slowly melting everything. The beetle miraculously coming back to me. Wriggling its legs, antenna, alive again.

 

“Here it is,” George tells me. He points to a sweating computer tower. A monitor is attached. A black and white screen full of tables and running numbers. The sun is heavy and right above our heads. My neck strains as I crouch, trying to get a better view. It is only slightly clearer.

 

There is a blank entry box. George asks me to type my name. The keyboard is cool and smooth, like touching the inside of my cheek, soft and wet. When I pick up my hand, a sticky black liquid drips off my fingers. It feels like condensation from a sweaty glass. This is oversharing, too much information for a group of strangers I barely know. I bite down on my tongue and wonder if I’m really this lonely, playing Russian Roulette in the boonies. The air is beginning to stink like tar.

 

I desperately want to crawl on my hands and knees and sit in the shade of a tree. But the others are glued to the monitor, waiting for something. I try to mentally ground myself: I can bury my roots into the soil and watch the static screen alongside them, like we’re all friends at the movie theatre. A silent dozen is staring.

 

George types something on the keyboard, but I can’t see it. When he pulls his hands away, the ink black fluid is smeared all over his wrists. It reminds me of semen. A muffled croak comes from a group behind us, watching us with bugging eyes. They have nothing to say to me.

 

The sound rewinds and plays over and over in my head like a distorted VHS tape. I stare down at my shoelaces and shake a small colony of ants off them. Whatever it was, it passes.

 

George says we should head back but I don’t know where this so-called back is. I’m worried about my car. Two teenagers pick up the monitor and the computer and the keyboard and tail us from behind. When I open my palm, the black substance still coats my hand, watery and gross. I taste it. It’s surprisingly sweet.

 

No one speaks—I’m clearly an unwanted parasite. The group is heading back to the road, George leading the way.

//

I wish I brought a camera. I’m afraid I won’t have any evidence if someone tries strangling me in my sleep. Up the road is a tiny hostel, just big enough for fifteen of us and the equipment we brought. When the sun goes down, I imagine we’re all on a camping trip, doing this all for fun. It wasn’t until midnight, as I lay on the hard wooden floor, that I catch a glimpse of my fellow Lovers undressing themselves.

One girl had fish fins where her armpit hair should’ve been. It reeked. A young man with very prominent chest scars asked to open a window, but a woman I’d never seen threatens him. Everyone is so young. I feel horribly insecure. She has pointed, animal ears and a sharp overbite that strangely suits her. George is sitting by a candle, taking notes. No one is sleeping—I think we’re all scared of what will happen if we collectively close our eyes.

 

I imagined my roommate trying to beat the summer heat with ice cubes. He pours lemonade. The beetle, shocked awake by the cold drink, floats to the surface and flies away, out an open window.

Someone is tapping me on the shoulder.

“Do you see this?” George asks me. He opens his palm, shows me the black smudges, tracing his fingers down. He has cunt-elbows. I can’t put it delicately. They’re fat and round and are oozing like a puss-infected wound. This is the first time I’ve seen him with his sleeves rolled up.

“What happened to you?” I ask him.

“Just one day I woke up and they were there. Only mounds at first. Like a cyst. Then this.”

 

My stomach sinks. There is a rope on the ground. My eyes follow its skinny body, as though it were a snake, all the way to the shadows at the edge of the room. Another pile of strangers sitting. They are gossiping, touching each other, removing clothes diligently. They make little wails. A donkey screams and moans. No one even lifts their head. George doesn’t even flinch. I inhale deeply through my nose and sigh, digging my nails into my thighs. 

 

The nooses still need to be tied. There’s so much work. I don’t know how they do it all alone.

“What are the computers for?” I ask.

“Just to keep everyone updated,” George answers. “We will record it for the ten randos at home. It gives them hope. It’s entertainment. Cheap stuff. You’re an exception.”

 

“I don’t think I’ll be killing myself.” Not wanting to sound overdramatic, I cross my arms.

 

I’m expecting a less than satisfied response from George, but he clearly doesn’t care.

 

“That’s fine,” he answers flatly. “You can watch all you want.”

 

George buttons his sleeves back up. Part of me secretly wants him to be a pervert, a disgrace. To say something ugly and disgusting, but I can’t hate him.

 

He starts on another rope, meticulously cutting the appropriate length and fastening the noose. Each of these are handcrafted pieces of art. I’m not sure how many of these we’ll actually use. I’m mesmerized by the craft. Like watching knitting or embroidery. I want to take one of these nooses home and hang it on my wall. A pretty, pretty souvenir.

 //

The computer is connected to a generator on wheels. Another horned teenager drags it on a dolly over the dirt and grass. I’m afraid of insects. I’m afraid a worm will creep between the monitor and the keyboards and bite me and lay eggs inside the wound. My eyes strain through the pollen and the heat. The sky is a hideous pink stained with an acidic blue and yellow swirls I’ve only seen in chemical spills. 

Traveling from one end of the hostel to the end of the field takes an hour. Trees grow in thick clusters together, shading us from the general public, deep in the heart of nowhere poured over in a summer sun.

A new piece of equipment: a digital camera. People are passing around a bottle of water—I use it to wash my hands of the black smudges. It still hasn’t washed off. Others are pouring it down their open pores oozing with infection. The fish armpit girl crosses her arms. A twenty-something with unsettling antennae eyes tries washing them out, but misses. Part of me wants to be fascinated with these bodies, slip them under a microscope. I can become the voyeur, the pervert, the hopeless obsessive. I’m so close and yet I don’t dare speak to them.

 

I touch my neck, feel the baby hairs of hormones, the sticky sweat-coated skin, the pulse quickening like a tiny drum as the first noose is hung. The rope swings its tail in the air, inviting the first willing victim, hungry and tempting. I get on my knees and wash my hands again, running the ice water over my palms, feverishly scrubbing my nails and my wrists. I am thinking dirty, filthy thoughts. Bodies festering with bacteria. George’s arms.

 

Someone is stepping forward. The camera goes live with its red cyclopean eye. Somewhere, in the future, an audience will watch us.

 

A beetle emerges from a hole in the ground, antenna prodding the blades of grass, enraged that we’ve come here on such a beautiful sunny day. I nearly choke and crush it with my foot. When I look up again, everyone excluding George is readying their nooses in assembly, ready to go. The ceremony goes differently from what I anticipated—rather than wait for one person to hang themselves, two or three people go at a time with little hesitation in between. A tall and skinny boy with horse hooves and antlers struggles to get the rope over his head, but the woman with fish armpits helps him without a hassle. Neither of them exchanges words. In a moment, a dozen strangers are hanging from branches, morbid ornaments decorating an otherwise painfully bare nothing. George nudges me to sit down beside him. He tells me, as though this was a recital, to wait until the very end.

 

It takes a minute for me to realize that no one’s neck has snapped yet. Despite the fact that the nooses should work, despite everyone’s limbs going limp, we watch their skin turn a deep, rich green. I want to get up and run away, but George firmly grabs my forearm and settles me down. The youngest boys, barely teenagers, are shuddering. Neither opens their eyes, but their hands open and close, grasping for leverage as the color settles deeper. The palest woman’s blue veins settle into a deep ghastly hazel, slowly beginning to protrude and throb. George assures me they knew this would happen—that death was just a process, a ritualistic stepping stone towards something else. That this is real death. This is deliberate forfeit.

 

Finally, I hear bone snap.

The hooved boy’s antler breaks off. Or rather, it unpeels into something gnarly and brittle, and the oak from the trees, like a hungry parasite, begins pulsating down to the velvety skin of the antlers. Latching on, it wastes no time cascading over eyebrows and eye sockets, before finally transforming an entire head into a thick mass of calciferous wood. Somehow, the weight still isn’t enough to break the neck. It continues further, to the torso, to the abdomen, until it finally reaches the bare hooves before making roots in the soil. By the time this happens, the same has befallen everyone else on the same branch , and together they  resemble bars in a rustic jail cell. There are no screams, no struggling, no interference. The computer camera never blinks, recording until it suddenly turns off.

 

George grabs my hand, reminding me that he is here. He stares me straight in the eye, never blinking, with such a serious and burning fascination with my face I’m afraid he will hurt me. After I struggle free a red mark bruises my wrists. I ask him what’s happening to everyone. Will they be okay. Are they suffering. In pain. Dead.

 

He says no, it never hurts. That this art of dying is restorative and peaceful. That if this ever happens to me, I don’t need to fear. That this is so much better than being shot, being poisoned by cancers, by medicines, by toxins in the water, by bombs and senators and angry lonely men. That people postpone their deaths, their sad freak accidents and suicides every day for this. My skin feels like it went straight to hell. When I touch my face, it’s dry and unbothered. But I want to cry but I do not want George to think I’m weak. The bodies of the strangers aren’t moving—they will never wake up with sweats in the middle of the night, moan in their sleep, lick their wounds. George says this cruel fantasy is better. 

 

“I want bliss. I want beautiful and happy things,” he says. “I want to close my eyes and see flowers and colors and know I can become a part of that. If not real life, this.”

 

His thumb presses against my lip. I don’t move, only stare past George’s face to these new sinewy arms and legs of trees, who have been here for hundreds of years. There’s an entire grove here, dozens of stranger’s lives that have found their final resting place in the middle of this strange desert. They will never migrate. They are home, forever. I’m jealous. With nothing but the computer equipment left for us to take, we pack our things, the water, the extra rope, and begin the long walk back to the hostel where we will spend the long night.

 

George reminds me these numbers were low, but satisfactory. There are cheats, he says, who refused to commit last minute. But he doesn’t hate them. He whistles while he works, wrapping the ropes in corduroy of all things. It’s all stored in a fanny pack. We only ended up using half the nooses, he reminds me. He says they will be used next year, and years and years after that.

 

George is tasteless and tacky. The others, those with animal ears, noses, and fish-webbed fingers who chose to stay, are diligently putting away equipment in boxes. No one is speaking—not even the slightest suggestion that they are happy with their decision to live another day. George reminds me that no one is forced to unwillingly end their life. No one is untouched by the misery of failed, aborted bodies. Everyone will live like this never happened. Happiness is mercy.

 

The Noose Lovers exist because of chance. George tells me this while we are drinking instant coffee. Any moment now, I am expecting the tree bodies to jump up from playing dead. I stare out from the entrance of the hostel, at the dirt path around the corner, waiting for the horned and hooved boy to make his galloping, grim return.

 

George is speaking less and less as our coffee depletes. I cross my arms uncomfortably, tucking my black stained hands under my armpits, quietly fuming.

 

“Where are we going after this?” I ask him. “What happens next?”

 

“Home, somewhere wet,” he tells me. “They start to stink after a while. It attracts bugs.”

 

The insects attracted to the newly formed tree limbs secrete a strange juice. It will take a year for the fluids to ripen, to become fertile. When The Noose Lovers return, the sticky substance will make itself known. I lose myself in my pitch-black coffee, until it splashes out from the cup, and a nearly drowned cricket flings itself over the edge. Lunging towards the exit, it makes it only a few feet before a box full of rope crushes it. Because I am so thirsty, so unable to sleep, I finish the ooze and tell George goodbye. He doesn’t even look back up at me. He hates my guts. I wonder if I hate him.

 

On my way back to the car, I scrape coats of bird shit off my window. Sweat is clinging to the back of my shirt. My tits itch. A cicada cries, whining and whining until I lock myself back inside and realize everything is as I left it. No mess, no gargling, no muffled moans. I don’t even find any dead bugs. I turn the key and start the ignition, and under the smeared oil orange of the afternoon I start driving back home.

//

The Noose Lovers website is taken down a few days later. It’s impossible to contact George by then. When I come home, my roommate leaves a note announcing he accidentally drank a beetle and we probably need an exterminator. I hope I don’t have fleas. I make my bed. I do my laundry. I wash my dishes. I practice every imaginable ritual of domesticity. I have six missed calls from my doctor—the voicemail says I need to urgently make an appointment. My blood is bad. It’s tainted with something deviant. In front of the mirror, I lift my lips and examine my gums, see them pink and raw, bloodied. They are dog-like. They’re so natural and keen.

I open a window, see fists of trees and the sun sloppy and shiny like a freshly cracked egg yolk. If I jump, I will scoop it up in my bare hands, touch the runny sides, lay it flat on my palms to sizzle and burn. The phone tone dials, rings, squeals. With my thumb on my incisor, I dial the doctor, beg him to lay me prostrate on the examination table, spread me open, pin me down, watch. He is too happy to oblige.

Blake Planty lives in a hole. He's interested in metamorphosis, our bodies, living online, trauma, and alien abductions. His work is in Nat. Brut, Waxwing Magazine, The Fanzine, Heavy Feather Review, Tenderness Lit, Foglifter Journal, and many more. Learn more at www.catboy.club.

His Twitter is @_dispossessed.

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