The first one Nancy found, after a weekend of parties big and small, sat rather smugly on her coffee table next to a cigarette cocktail. Some of the parties she had hosted herself, while at others she had been merely a guest in her own enviable, high-ceilinged apartment. That's why it was perfectly understandable that trinkets, favors, cartons of smokes, pocket change, and so on would be left behind by unspecified freeloaders and dear friends alike. Things happen at parties, she knew, and that is part of what makes them parties.
It wanted to get her attention, Nancy could tell that right away. Wrapped in plain, high-gloss silver foil like a baked potato, it caught the torrents of light shed by the wall-mounted televisions and had no choice but to become the focal point in the composition. Nancy had studied art once, before she had become "Nan" and moved into the legacied apartment and started finding these morsels that were not at all mysterious.
After all, the unwrapping of papery metal—be it tin or aluminum—she'd been doing that since childhood. One of the pleasurable aspects of foil stems from how unpredictably it comes away, its seams nearly invisible; perforce Nancy's right thumbnail wandered a bit before finding a ledge upon which she could begin stripping the shine from the familiar shape. She knew what would happen. First the peeling would proceed in one direction, then in a wholly different one, and she'd turn the object excitedly in her hands to keep up with how the material fled.
Nancy's brief labors were true to this description. It was if the foil were leading her on a chase along garden pathways while trailing smoke and lace, as she, laughingly, tried to keep its comet tail in sight as it rounded one hedge-corner after another. Finally, when they were both done running, Nancy beamed with tension and joy.
Inside the soft, bright idol was a magnificent springtime bunny in milk chocolate, with cool, brown skin and hardly any teeth.
"Hi, this is Nan," the answering machine said behind her, and she hoped so much that no one was calling to claim either the nine remaining Newport packs or the chocolate slowly making its way toward her mouth.
As usual, though, she was ambivalent as to the best way to consume the effigy. Should she begin at the head, eliminating its consciousness first? Or should the head be saved for last, out of some obscure notion of respect? As a compromise, Nancy ate the mammal sideways.
A few minutes later, while both tidying the previous party and preparing for the next, she came across the next delectable figure. More conventionally, the foil was printed with a color illustration that matched the content within. The figure was a monkey with a tail that jutted, and the little primate seemed to be shouting in rage. This one was a no-brainer: Nancy ate the tail first.
She then lit two dozen cigarettes and left them burning in the perimeters of as many ashtrays distributed throughout the apartment. That way, she didn't have to be bothered with actually holding a menthol to her lips—she simply had to circulate and breathe. Nothing could be easier.
"I love all these wall-mounted TV's, so sleek like works of art," said a kind man.
"Yes, they're very slender," his date concurred.
Nancy felt she had to speak up before things got out of hand. "Those are not thin-skinned plasmatic wafers," she corrected. "They are ultra-dense, cylinder-block-thick models, the most heavy-set sets in existence that money can buy."
People looked at her dumbfounded. They were absolutely delighted.
"Don't you understand?" Nancy wailed. "This wall"—she rapped it with her knuckles and then, for extra visual oomph, borrowed the knuckles of a burly fellow leaning against it and rapped harder—"well, you think you're looking at a wall, but the television is the wall. It's several feet thick and extends the entire length from here to there. And that pathetic little screen resting upon it is akin to a pat of butter." (She thought about adding on a baked potato, but decided that would be too proximate to her secret.) "If you don't believe me, come and look. The controls and electrical cord are on the other side of the wall, and for this one over here, they're in my neighbor's apartment."
At this point a few intrepid souls, including the bleeding lad, went around the side to investigate.
"She's right," Lloyd cried. "There are controls here! What the devil is she up to?"
A pall now hung over the remainder of the fundraiser. Somewhat self-consciously, people began putting on their walking shoes and heading toward the nearest door (which was not always, technically speaking, an exit). "The nerve!" said one of the dear friends. "To place inoperative remote controls within arm's reach...."
"Oh, well," Nancy murmured into a cigarette filter that she nibbled on the sly. "That's what happens when you throw parties and don't have sufficient time to set up for them properly, or even to send out invitations." She continued reflecting in this mode as she watched the guests file out, not a single one of them with the decency to blow a boozy kiss her way.
Yessiree, she thought, that's what happens when you end up with friends that you don't even have time to be introduced to. When you must plan for both life and death and don't have the internal resources to do either. When you must sample tempting finger foods before reading their warning labels. I loved Lloyd, she thought dismally, and yet I never took the time to properly learn how to spell his name.
Soon afterwards, with all the beer bottles and remotes gone from view, the televisions uninstalled and far away, and the last of the wait staff sleeping soundly in the back room, Nancy noticed something breathtaking: nearly every doodad that had been deeded to her was replaced by foil-wrapped sentinels in assorted sizes. Some towered as high as those inflatable clowns children knock over and which then bounce back up to punch the children square in their little round noses.
Hastily, Nancy began consuming all the chocolate beings cross-sectionally. She would eat the eyeballs last, and by the time they rested alone in the flat of her palm they resembled little flecks of something or other, not eyeballs at all, for they no longer had any facial context to identify them as such. They weren't impressive. "I understand you," she said to them tenderly, "in a very, very, very perfect way."
Many of the treats had unconventional body types and flesh tones, and a few, surprisingly, were not room temperature. She went over it again and again in her mind: This one is liquid coldness flowing over my greedy gums—it's a muddy Russian road in the third week of January. She went over it again and again in her hands: This one was sculpted by a sullen factory worker with little or no sense of north.
She placed the best of them in her freezer, while the most offensive were set out on window boxes to drip onto passersby. Others, for whom she felt conflicting but extremely powerful emotions, she relegated to the desk drawer in her study. Nancy knew this was not a long-term solution and made a mental note to rescue them—if she felt like it. In nearly all cases, though, the colorful foil on the outside matched an idealized version of what was inside, providing a blueprint for the emeralds, scarlets, and indigos that the mind had to project onto the chocolate within. Yes, occasionally there was dark chocolate and, ostentatiously, white chocolate. But hadn't anyone ever told the old man and the elves that the world was a rainbow of colors, a living prism?
The newish party, which was doing an admirable job of hosting itself, was now in half-swing. In attendance were folks who had heard the place was a mess and had dropped by to lend a hand, thus starting another fête without license.
"During most of my life's meals," another person called "Nan" was saying, "I wasn't really paying attention. Sure, I wanted to make certain I didn't cut myself on this or that, but I wasn't fully 'in the moment,' as the wise men say. I wasn't aware of being a predator on china plates."
"The entire universe is based on predation," someone else said in passing. "Except for volunteer work, that is." Nancy recognized the voice as her own.
There was a chocolate figure of her first almost-boyfriend, and there was one of that college professor whom she hadn't written to and then found out was dead. There was one of the popular colleague from her internship way back when, that blonde whom she'd first befriended and then become; one of an elderly neighbor with whom she hadn't stayed in touch even when they had been neighbors; and that guy on the subway that time.
Their taste became precipitously less chocolate-y, and that bothered her. Or perhaps it was the odor that was so severely unsweetened. It was difficult to eat something, Nancy realized, to hold it so close one's face, and not to smell it.
Just then the impact of the absent televisions became dramatically evident: without walls, the apartment was subject to aromas from who-knows-where, riding in on the breezes that blow through the top layers of all big cities.
In a dull, unexcited panic, Nancy quickly checked all the hiding spots and refuges. Oh, thank God it was snowing outside! None of the members of her sill-planted army had melted thirty stories straight down. What had she been thinking! Even the ones in her desk were fine. She had forgotten that she kept cans of light beer in there, and that these exerted a naturally cooling and refreshing effect.
Now the partygoers really were all gone, even the twins. Or else they had joined the wait staff in a suspended state.
Step by step, and in completely majestic privacy, Nancy continued to retrieve every single one of the totems. The little girl with the long, lustrous hair and the ballet shoes had rehardened in a twisted way. Nancy could not bring herself to open the foil skin; it was best to leave her rigid, a perpetual Sleeping Beauty. (There were other less-publicized "Beauties," Nancy knew: Eating Beauty, Tapdancing Beauty, Spitting Beauty, for example.) She placed the little girl between a pint of hand-packed ice cream and a glass of Kona Gold she'd put up the previous summer intending to make iced coffee. If you leave anything in one place for too long, she concluded, it will come back to haunt you. Then you will not be able to drink it as originally intended.
Finally, in the center of the coffee table, where she had found that first one so very long ago, was the crowning achievement of all the peasants and artisans. No more than six inches in height, it was immodestly flawless. Simply put, it was the child she had never dreamed of having. ("Call me Nan," she murmured to it. "Call me Nan-ny.")
Almost immediately she knew that this was the worst moment in the entire parade of moments. I've been dreading this my whole life, she thought, but even as she considered this, she knew it wasn't true: there is never any single thing that one dreads for the length and breadth of a life—because the very best dreads must be formed over time.
The chocolate was shaped like a boy-child. She sensed that when she opened it, he'd have red suspenders and shiny, dark hair, and wear short pants that were two shades of blue and that he'd be sporting a wide, close-mouthed smile....
But all the moving and squirming inside the foil—she'd have to put an end to that.
Peter Gutierrez's weird fiction has been published off and on for about 25 years. A longtime writer for Rue Morgue, Peter has had his work appear in various anthologies and online journals; he has had both a short story ('A Different Kind of Sunshine') and a poem ('Anteroom') in the long list of Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. Peter's comics anthology of Japanese ghost stories Shi: Kaidan was nominated for an Eisner Award.