Homunculus by Claire Hopple

She is flying to stay with her grandpa for the summer. She is what some may call “in trouble.”

Her brain is still developing. Not all of the synaptic hallways have been fitted with those lights containing long tubes of shocking fluorescence. She can tell her limits sometimes. She will say something and then realize she hadn’t thought it all the way through. There are incredible insights that she can feel, though she doesn’t exactly know them. A dilettante at critical thinking, though her textbooks have those little colorful squares at the bottom corners of occasional pages clearly titled “Critical Thinking” with an open question below it. Something that she is supposed to answer. More things to answer.

Her development is not an excuse for her behavior. She isn’t making any excuses. This is mostly because she is unrepentant.

After the flight attendant’s safety spiel, the pilot says this flight has the distinct honor of carrying a decorated veteran home to his family. She smiles, finds this nice. Then the pilot continues, referencing this man only in the past tense. The thing is: it’s not a live veteran. The plane is carrying the veteran’s body.

And of course her mind cobbles together a morbid scene where his body, gathered from some unknowable place across the ocean, safely arrives in the U.S. But on this particular journey, the shortest leg, the plane has complications. There is an error with certain plane parts that have complicated names and that have grown shabby with overuse. The plane crashes over the Rockies (thought this plane will not actually be crossing over the Rockies today). Then the veteran’s family goes from having nothing to really having nothing.

She imagines this while she tries to read. The words on the page, she can hear them in her head read aloud in her own voice but it has a stutter, something she doesn’t actually have. She is distracted but pushing through and it all becomes a jumble.

She reads the word “diaphanous” and wants to look it up but can’t; her phone is in airplane mode. The sentence has left her no context clues. She wants to stand up, take off this toy seatbelt, and over the (sometimes humming, sometimes growling, of the) angry engine, shriek, “Does anyone know what diaphanous means?”

But she stays in her seat. She is not one to cause panic. She wants everyone to be comfortable, even when that means the situation is painstaking for her. This feels like what female means to her and she will learn years later to buck against it.

 

This whole thing started with her dad’s accident. He was in a car accident, except that he wasn’t a driver but a pedestrian.

Now he has a phantom limb. And it’s not metaphorical. It’s as real as something unreal can be, realer than most real things. The limb gives him great pain, and this pain gives him the kind of strength that only great pain can give.

Or so he says.

He also says his phantom arm means that his brain is in the process of rewiring itself, growing accustomed to things. That the limb can feel too hot, too cold. Too itchy. That he can still feel his watchband clenched around the wrist that’s not there. The doctor told him it should eventually telescope; feel like it’s getting shorter and shorter as the brain slowly adjusts.

She got caught shoplifting two months after the accident. Her mother was confused because she would have gladly increased her allowance upon request. They had ample “monies,” which is something she just learned could be plural.

Guidance counselors, friends, friends’ parents thought they knew what was going on. She’s just upset, they deciphered. She’s dealing with the accident. But that was not the truth. She was almost completely unaffected. It was how little she was affected, how trapped within herself she was, and how horrifying this felt, that made her do it.

At the drug store, she had not wanted to reach out and hold the lipstick in her hands because she knew that she would feel the cold metal of the tube and it would be miraculous how it could feel cold and yet be in the same room with her, and it would seem so absurdly decorous in her small, wrinkly palm that she would have to put it in her bag.

She thought she was being followed out of the store. In her 15 year-old mind, everyone was looking at her all the time. It seemed perfectly natural that someone would follow her. This time, however, she was worried that the man had noticed her stealing. This man was in plain clothes so she doubted he was a store employee. Still, she walked faster.

He was about a half a block away from her on her walk home and his steps were synchronous with her own. She would look behind her and he would blatantly turn around so that his bald spot was in view. This was just a start of one, the rest of his hair still perfectly intact. There was not enough of a bare patch to warrant a change in hairstyle but enough for him to start thinking about the brutal reality of the human lifecycle, specifically as it relates to him.

He prowled around behind her for the rest of the walk home and she lost track of him right before the bend into the cul-de-sac.

The store manager had already called her mother at that point. Her parents had already inadvertently taught her that admitting fault was the only real crime, so she remained quiet through the accusations.

 

She now lives in the current of this pendulous dynamic. It is marred and craggy but it is something she created. She understands that she belongs to the coalition of smug children everywhere whose only platform is vehemently declaring their belief that they shouldn’t have to do things that don’t sound good to them.

Strange that her grandpa is now more physically and mentally and emotionally capable than her father/his son. She does not remember much about him, but she does remember the desk in his office. There was a crystal ashtray to one side of a large, leather writing pad and it gleamed in the light of the green desk lamp, the same kind of lamp they had in the public library. To design something so ornate and refined for a receptacle containing bits of tar, carcinogens, stimulants, spittle, seems to her such a perfectly human invention.

It’s the right time to leave, she thinks. She is embarrassed for her dad, more embarrassed than she has ever been for herself. But it still feels the same.

Plus, she had just finished her paper on “The Most Dangerous Game” to end the school year. The story didn’t seem nearly as savage, this hunting of humans, than the events told to her secondhand (or really thirdhand) by her local-news-watching mother.

And her friends are suddenly too young. Not that long ago, they had formed a secret society with an official secret code for writing notes to each other. The key for the code had disappeared shortly after its creation, so the code became not-so-secret, except to the people who had created it.

She watches out the window as the plane lands ever so ordinarily on the ground.

 

 

 

Claire Hopple’s fiction has been published in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, Quarter After Eight, Timber, Hermeneutic Chaos, District Lit, Knee-Jerk, Third Point Press, Foliate Oak and others. She is a columnist for Maudlin House and a Fiction Co-Editor for Rabble Lit. She’s just a steel town girl on a Saturday night. More at clairehopple.com.

 

 

(Front page image via)



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