This story is by Tess Rianne Sullivan and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
You would think his skin, devoid of all its bloody moisture would appear like paper mache, but it did not. His body, stuffed with hay, breathed with the freshness of a well-fertilized pasture. His lifeless eyes swirled with such depth- they could have swallowed all of me into their black hole gaze. Only me. I knew he wasn’t seeing the scholarship try-hards peering through glasses aboard scrunched-up noses stacked behind me. And they were not seeing him either. Not the way I did.
All I could see of him at first was his tall yellow hat, over the ridge of my welcome brochure, and beyond the tour of freshmen heads that I’d caboosed. But when the heads parted just for a moment my eyes were able to take in the full effect of him; his white ruffled blouse and high-water trousers, and cane resting in mannerly gloved hand. He quickly and without competition replaced the brochure as the new object of my attention and his magnetism pulled me toward his mahogany cupboard of residence with a force I had never felt before.
Sculpting my elbows into plows, I moved through the crowd knocking people aside like a graceless bowling ball. “I can’t hear what the guide is saying.” I explained repeatedly, as a mostly-valid reason for my solo stampede.
At the front, I smoothed my hair that is prone to fly-away frizzies, adjusted my name tag that read “Louise” and wiggled back into position the hearing aid that had jostled on my bulldozer-like stroll. It was true enough that I hadn’t heard a word the tour guide had said, mostly out of my own deaf disinterest, but now after both a second and an eternity of fantasies alone with him inside that cupboard, the guide’s voice entered my ears.
“This gentlemen of the 18th century, sitting in this cabinet in the 20th century, was a social reformer and the first to ask that he be made into the auto-icon you see here today.” He scanned his audience of partly disinterested and partly feigned-interested faces. “Is anyone here familiar with Jeremy Bentham and his-”
His voice blurred in my head. “Jeremy Bentham… Louise Bentham… I now pronounce you Jeremy and Louise Bentham” twirled in a hypnotic loop until someone abruptly stole his name from me.
“Jeremy Bentham was one of the founding developers of utilitarianism, and a proponent of education who wished to donate his body to be of the most use after his death.” said a turtleneck-wearing know-it-all with upsettingly un-frizzy auburn curls. I shot her a glare and vowed that for the rest of her time at UCL I would be taking note of her grades and far outranking her in every class. Or I would befriend her and keep her close so that she could be a bridesmaid at Jeremy and I’s wedding because it would be good to have the wedding party filled with peers that could appreciate him.
I brought it up with Georgiana as soon as I got back to our apartment. She was on the phone, having a seemingly important conversation with whoever was less important than what I had to tell her so I mimed that the building was on fire so that she would need to hang up immediately, and she did.
“What is it?? Where is it?? What do we-” she began rushing around as a very naturally distressed reaction, and so I quickly moved to hold her by the arms and smiled so that she knew everything was okay and that the building was not in fact on fire.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We are not on fire.”
She looked at me aghast. “So then this whole-“ She copied my dramatic pantomime.
“-didn’t mean that we were in danger and on the brink of death then?”
I shook my head happily. “No, Georgiana…” I took a deep breath to steady my excitement. “I met someone.”
“… Beg your pardon?”
“I met someone.” I repeated.
Her look was just a step past annoyance and en route to rage. “I was on the phone with my BOSS, Louise. And I hung up on him because you talked to someone at school today??”
“No, I didn’t talk to anyone at school today.”
“… Louise, I was on the phone with my BOSS and I hung up on him because you didn’t talk to someone today?”
“No, I didn’t talk to-“
“You didn’t talk.”
“Okay.” She sighed in the way that older sisters who’ve been putting up with younger sisters their whole life always do. “I’ll give you five minutes to tell me about it, only because I am the greatest sister in the world and have always been very understanding and patient when putting up with things like this our whole lives and because you’re going to pay ALL of my bills when you’re a very successful doctor.”
I stared at her, waiting for my five minutes to start.
“Right??” she said under severely raised eyebrows and I understood and agreed to her greatness and the preceding stipulations.
“Okay, you may begin.” she said and reached to turn over the hourglass that we got for times when I want to talk but she has work to get done. “So, if you didn’t speak, then how did you meet?”
“Well I saw him from across the room, you know, like right out of a movie, and he was in his cupboard, and I-“
“In his cupboard?” She sounded concerned.
“Yes, he’s always in his cupboard.”
“Louise… Is he a leprechaun?”
“No, he’s a fairy, Georgiana.”
She began to look more impressed than concerned. “Look, you’re making little jokes! What a good sign that you’re not completely losing your mind.”
“It’s a half-joke. He’s not a fairy but he does live in a cupboard.” I look nervously at the sand rushing through the tiny timer spout and quickly try to divulge as many of my feelings of admiration for the 18th century taxidermied hominin as I possibly can. I tell her of his stately ruffled blouse, his highly intelligent wax-coated mind, and my intent to be wed as mummified man and wife.
Her mouth had gone guppy and closed for the first time in minutes with the beginning consonant ‘b’ in “But there’s no way that would be legal!”. Then she reminded me of something that had completely slipped from my mind. “And you’ve got a boyfriend???”
I could see that I’d flustered her by the way she was pacing like a Spanish bull through the living room. “And he’s alive and breathing and studying philosophy because he’s also banking off of your doctors allowance, so just tell him to do the creepy Bentham cupboard thing when he’s kicked the bucket and save me from having to phone the police because I’m sure this is against a law or, I don’t know, TEN.” She took a breath. “Oh, AND-“
“The timer’s out.” I interrupted, pointing to the empty top of the hourglass.
She strode over to the miniature mechanism and turned it around again with a bang against the counter adding with a glare; “And you better see a goddam therapist too while you’re at it!” Then marched off to her room muttering something about how much I’ve put her through and how I’m nuts and then because of my hearing aid I really couldn’t hear much after that.
I picked up the phone that Georgiana’s boss was no longer on the other side of and dialed Matthew’s number. He picked up rather immediately and asked if I wanted to see a movie that night. I told him that I couldn’t on account that it was over between us, but I didn’t tell him who I was leaving him for of course because I’m not cruel. He did sound quite sad though so I hung up fast so that I wouldn’t upset him more and also because the timer was running out.
Back at the school, I walked into Bentham’s room to find him exactly where I’d left him. Now nothing was going to stand between us; no sister’s disapproval, no boyfriend’s desire to see some stupid blockbuster movie, no- my heart stopped. Standing in front of my beloved Bentham was… the know-it-all girl with the auburn hair. I scowled at her un-frizzy head with the heat of a thousand non-existent apartment fires. But there was a man at her side holding her ring-clad hand. My scowl unfurled. Bridesmaid it is then.
We gazed upon his cupboard as the staff closed the doors for the night.
“Do you want to come to our wedding?” I asked her.
She was confused, probably assuming I misspoke and was talking about her own engagement.
“Mine and Bentham’s.” I clarified.
She nodded. “It’ll be good to have the wedding party filled with peers that can appreciate him.”
My eyes glistened.
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