The Boiler

Elizabeth Johnston

EVERYTHING BITTER

“One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.”
—Proverbs 27.7

Dan must have scrambled for the last parachute a minute too late. Katie imagined the helicopter exploding, those boys like kernels, popping out burnt and blackened, others melting and stretching shapeless to seats, caramelized.

She had been eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when the knock came. On the front step, an officer from the Buffalo reserve unit and a military chaplain. Of course she knew what they were going to say before they spoke, had watched this exact scene in the movies, so she swung the door wide and called to her mother in the kitchen. Then they stood side by side in front of the officers like awkward partners at a junior-high dance while the officers told them Dan’s unit had been lost somewhere southeast of Kabul. Shot down by enemy fire. A missile, perhaps. They couldn’t say more. A team had recovered his remains and shipped them to Dover. Her mom and dad could collect him there if they wished.

When her mother collapsed, Katie did not reach for her like a good daughter should. Instead, she fled to the bathroom, knelt at the toilet, and puked. She watched the chunks of her sandwich circle the drain like debris from a shipwreck, saliva forming a rope bridge between her mouth and the water. Since then she’d been unable to eat. Not real food, anyway.

Two mornings later, her parents left to meet with the funeral director. Her mother hadn’t wanted to leave her alone, but Katie insisted she needed the quiet and her mother reluctantly acquiesced. Katie watched their car pull from the driveway, then wandered into the kitchen where she opened and closed cupboard doors. She took a box of Cheerios from the pantry, poured it into a bowl, splashed milk over it. But the floating cereal reminded her of life rafts, so she dumped it down the garbage disposal. Through the window over the sink she could see the dilapidated shed her father had been threatening to tear down. Behind it, a row of dense pines and a chain-link fence.

Although still in her pajamas, Katie opened the door to the backyard, crossing the lawn in her bare feet. Turning her head instinctively to make sure no one was watching, she walked around the side of the shed toward the back. The shed was flanked on both sides by lilac bushes; Katie wiggled past the branches to a small clearing between the rear wall and fence. Hidden on all sides, it had been a favorite hideaway when she and Dan were children. Once they had even run away together there.

Dan was probably eight, Katie five. He had been sent to his room for some typical misdeed—throwing eggs at the cat or pouring flour into the sink to make quicksand. While her parents watched TV, Katie crept to his door and softly pushed it open. He was on his knees next to his toy box cramming Army soldiers and matchbox cars into his book bag. “I’m running away,” he had told her, his cheeks wet with indignation. Emboldened by love, she had tiptoed to the kitchen and stolen three Swiss Rolls from the cupboard. She returned, flushed and tingling, and held them out. “Want to go with me?” he had offered, and Katie’s heart triple-beat. She had raced to her own room, shook her pillow from its case and replaced it with a bathing suit, pink windbreaker, clean pair of underwear, and her new roller skates. Together they snuck downstairs, pausing at the backdoor to pinkie swear they’d never return. Then they slipped across the backyard, her pillowcase and his backpack slung over their shoulders, their shadows beneath the motion light stretching before them like a pair of cartoon burglars.

At the perimeter of the yard they stopped. “Let’s stay behind the shed for tonight,” Dan had suggested. “We’ll leave when the sun comes up.” They set up camp, spreading the blanket he had brought and propping themselves against the shed wall. They unwrapped one Swiss Roll each, peeling the chocolate shells from their spongy middles, eating slowly and deliberately. “It might be awhile before we find food,” Dan advised, pointing his flashlight into his book bag at the remaining roll. Katie nodded bravely, and he zipped it closed. Hours seemed to pass. Crickets chirped from the shadows, a cat yowled in the distance, unknown things moved around in the grass and rustled branches. It was still warm, but Katie put on her windbreaker anyway and huddled into it. She thought of how her mother’s hair smelled like lilacs. She wondered if her parents would adopt new children; if her mother would name her new little girl “Katie,” too. She started to weep, quietly at first, but then in breaking sobs. Dan jumped to his feet. “For Chrissake, you little baby. Let’s go back then.” He grabbed her pillowcase and his bag and marched across the lawn to the house before she could protest. Inside, the microwave clock blinked; it wasn’t even nine. Their parents hadn’t noticed their absence. At his bedroom door, Dan dropped her pillowcase and reached into his bag, held up the remaining Swiss Roll. “Next time I’m leaving you behind,” he growled, pressing his nose to hers and narrowing his eyes. Then he closed the door between them, Swiss Roll still clutched in his hands.

She and Dan hadn’t gone to the shed together in a long time, but for years it had been the place they met to commiserate about their monarchial parents, plot ways to foil school bullies, or plan their slurpee business. It was here she and Dan had cowered when her father was throwing cans from the kitchen cabinet and the police had come. It was here they had devised their secret three-fingered handshake. And it was here they had buried her hamster, Iggy, and, later, his goldfish, Steve.

But by the time Dan entered junior high, a kid sister was more an embarrassment than an ally. Plus Dan had an easy way with people that Katie never possessed. In high school he had run track, tested into AP classes, was even voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Katie, on the other hand, felt swallowed up in crowds. Her own yearbook pages were blank. She had assumed Dan stopped visiting the shed, though she went there herself several times a week to read or draw. One spring afternoon, the year before Dan graduated and left for boot camp, she had pushed the branches aside and was met with a flash of skin and hurried rustling of clothes. Get out of here you creep, Dan had snapped, swatting at her through the brush. Although she was already retreating, Katie glimpsed his girlfriend, Angela, giggling and hiding her face in his shoulder.

Katie had never cared for Angela. Not her doughy, Muppet face. Not the way she said Dan’s name, hanging onto it like a kite. Not how she jumped up to help Katie’s mom with the dishes– like she was auditioning for something. Angela had been one of the first to show up at the house after the news, blubbering at the kitchen table, mascara inking down her cheeks, snot bubbling from her nose. As if Dan belonged more to her than to them. When Angela reached for her hand, Katie didn’t care if she was being rude; she had waved it away and excused herself to her room.

Now she tried not to think about Angela and Dan’s bodies pressed together in this space. Or about Dan in his fatigues when they dropped him at the airport, how clumsily he had hugged Katie, his hand patting her back like he was burping her. Instead, she squinted up into the sun for as long as she could without blinking. When her eyes watered, she lowered them and counted the freckles on her arm. Then she tried counting a line of ants trickling along the fence. When they moved too quickly, she turned to the small, white flowers dotting the grass around her. They reminded her of the candies her mother used to buy in Wegman’s baking section that come glued to cardboard sheets. Katie’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten since the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Gently, she placed a flower on her tongue. It had a slight grassy taste. She chewed and swallowed. She ate another. Then another. When she had eaten all the flowers within reach, she crawled from behind the shed and began to move, methodically, across the lawn–the way a search team files across a field when someone’s gone missing—picking flowers and popping them into her mouth. When her parents came home, she told them she was full.

In the hours after the news, Katie’s mother had started cooking. She was like Betty Crocker on speed. Like Dan’s entire battalion was coming to the wake. She lined up whole Thanksgiving dinners. Peas piled like helmets. Mashed potatoes moated by gravy. She roasted a turkey. A fleshy ham. Three kinds of pies, crusts swollen and bleeding. Katie knew it would all go to waste, rot in Tupperware behind the milk. Leftover, like things unsaid.

There was some comfort in knowing Dan preferred to be cremated. “If something happens to me over there,” he had told her after their grandmother’s viewing, “don’t stuff me in a box like that. I don’t want people seeing me. Or bugs making meals of my eyes.” As it turned out, what was left wasn’t enough to bury anyway. The officers who turned over his remains told her parents the recovery team had dug at the dirt for days. Katie pictured them like farmers raking soil, plucking and tossing into their buckets fingers like carrots, toes like mushrooms. She imagined one pausing, bending, then dusting from the ash a perfectly preserved, pink Potato Head nose.

Katie was seven and Dan ten when he’d stolen her Mr. Potato Head. She found Dan at the table, napkin stuffed into his collar, knife and fork poised over the doll. Grinning, he snapped off its little pink nose, popped it into his mouth. He didn’t mean to swallow, but when Katie lunged, smacked him in the chest, he gulped the nose down whole. Dan was rushed to emergency. He turned out fine, but Mr. Potato Head’s nose was a goner. Since then Katie had imagined that nose bobbing around in his stomach like a buoy. When her parents brought home his ashes, Katie had to resist the urge to upend the urn. Part of her was sure she’d find that nose in his charred remains like a crackerjack prize.

Now Katie stood in the archway to the kitchen watching her mother and thinking of a reality show about a woman who ate her husband’s cremated ashes, rationing his remains by the teaspoon. Katie wondered what a body’s ashes would taste like. Perhaps like burned toast. Her mother’s back was turned, head bowed over a mixing bowl, beaters churning, hair streaked with batter. Her shoulders began to shake silently and Katie knew she was weeping. She wanted to go to her mother, hug her, whisper some kind of words. Instead, Katie trudged the stairs to Dan’s room, sat next to his bed, ate stuffing from a hole in his mattress.

Sometime in the night, Katie woke. She had been watching Noah’s Ark before she fell asleep and had dreamed of a sinking boat, zebras and elephants, dogs and parakeets, paddling past her two-by-two, grinning toothy smiles. Suddenly a giant whale had risen out of the churning sea, swallowed her whole, and she had slid down its tongue into its wet belly. In the dark, she beat against the slippery lining of its stomach, water lapping at her ankles, her shins, her knees—then, something grazed her leg; she felt around in the water and brought something small and hard to her face: a pink Potato nose. She woke soaked in sweat.

Unable to return to sleep, Katie crept downstairs to the liquor cabinet. She took a swig of Jack Daniels in the living room, then carried it upstairs to Dan’s room. Softly, she closed the door behind her, then opened his closet. The scent of cologne wafted out and she stepped back, blinking hard. Buried at the end of the row of button-downs and slacks was the jacket he had worn to their grandmother’s funeral. He had grown taller while he was away—as if boot camp had stretched him– and the jacket had been too small. He had looked like someone else in it. Not entirely like a stranger. More like someone she’d sit across from on the bus, someone she thought maybe she knew from somewhere.

Katie untangled the jacked from its hanger and laid it across his bed, stretching the arms wide. She picked some lint from its lapel and rolled it between her thumb and finger. Then she placed it in her mouth. It tickled and she swallowed it. Then she noticed one of the buttons was loose. She tugged it off. In her palm it looked like an M&M. She placed the button in her mouth, pushing it into the pocket of her cheek. She turned to his dresser, began to open each of his drawers. In the bottom drawer, beneath his soccer uniform, Katie found a cigar box. Inside, a stack of letters. She could tell from the fat, loopy handwriting scrawled across the envelopes they were from Angela.

Katie sat on his bed and opened them one at a time, sucking at the button in her mouth. Angela had written them while he was in training. Boring details about chemistry class at the community college or trying to house-train her new puppy. Every now and then some private moment would rise up from the page in glowing words like flesh and soft and naked, and Katie’s underarms would grow damp and her belly tighten. She lifted the bottle to her mouth, and with a long swing swallowed the button in her mouth. Then Katie lifted one of the letters to her mouth and nibbled at the edge. It tasted sweet. She tore off a corner, wadded it, popped it into her mouth like gum, and swallowed it with a swig of Jack. She ripped off Dear Dan, and ate it, too. She tore off roller-skating and milkshakes. Piece by piece, she consumed I miss you, don’t forget, and Love. Then she returned the box, put on Dan’s jacket, and crawled under his covers.

The next morning Katie woke to her father shaking her. He had the bottle of Jack in his hands. “Up,” he was saying, “Get up.” Katie groaned, the room spinning. “How much did you drink?” she heard him ask before a wall of nausea swept between them. She pushed past him and ran to the bathroom where she dry heaved, each retching gag an axe splitting her open. When the violence passed, she rested her cheek against the toilet seat, gratefully. She was vaguely aware that her father loomed over her. “It’s a good thing your mother is in the shower,” he scolded. “You think she needs to see you like this now? Jesus Christ. It’s your brother’s funeral today. And take that off before you get vomit on it.” Katie looked down and realized she was still wearing Dan’s jacket. She hoisted herself up from the toilet. “Sorry,” she mumbled, her eyes stinging, the room still swaying. But her father was already disappearing down the stairs.

They hadn’t been to church in years and Katie thought the new preacher, Pastor Dave, looked too young to be a minister, more like one of those pimply boys from school who made kissy faces at her. Above Pastor Dave’s head, Jesus hung on the cross. Crosses always made Katie think of vampires. When she was nine, Dan had paid Katie five dollars to watch Diary of a Vampire with him. Afterwards, he hid in the closet and jumped out at her. She had dissolved into hysterics and was plagued by nightmares for months; her parents grounded Dan for a week. “Baby,” he spat at her on his way to his room.

Now Pastor Dave began to read verses about eternal life, and Katie bent her head so that her hair fell around her face. Her armpits felt sticky and the backs of her knees were wet. When Katie heard her mom choke back a sob, she glanced up at her through her veil of hair. Her throat was throbbing and exposed, a cross around her neck rising and falling on her breasts. When Katie was a baby, she had bitten her mom while nursing and her mother wound up with mastitis. Her mom used to laugh that Katie was always so hungry, wanting more milk than her mother had to give. Dan, barely three, had been jealous, climbed onto their mother’s lap, pushed Katie out of the way. Katie tried to imagine her mother like that, holding babies to her breast. Like she must sometimes hold Katie’s father. Perhaps like Angela had held Dan.

The morning’s nausea flooded her again. “I need to go,” she whispered into her mother’s ear, standing and pushing past her. Her father tried to grab her hand, but Katie fled up the church aisle, not caring that Pastor Dave had paused, that everyone’s eyes were on her, that somewhere in the room Angela was sniveling in a pew. Katie pushed the doors open into the vestibule where she nearly knocked over the tripod that held Dan’s military photo. Quickly, she turned down the hall toward the fellowship room. Inside, the room was dark and the air cool and Katie’s nausea settled. Folded metal tables and chairs leaned against the wall. She remembered the Sunday potlucks the church had held once a month when she was little, the Styrofoam plates piled high with fruit salad and iced brownies, how she and Dan and the other kids would play capture the flag on the lawn outside while the adults drank coffee. Across the room was a door that led into the kitchen. She crossed the floor and pushed it open.

Dan was sitting on the floor, his back against the refrigerator. She knew it was him because he was wearing the suit he’d worn to their grandmother’s funeral. On his lap he balanced a communion tray of wafers, beside him another filled with thimbles of grape juice. He was tossing handfuls of wafers into his mouth like popcorn. He held out the tray.

She shook her head. “No thanks.”

He scooted over and she sat down next to him.

“What are you doing here?” He looked remarkably well. Not even a smudge of soot.

“I was hungry.” He tipped the thimble like a shot glass to his lips, then motioned toward the vestibule. “How’s it going out there?”

“Singing your praises like always.”

That please him. “Angela wearing that short little number she wore to Grandma’s funeral?”

“I didn’t notice,” Katie said, annoyed, but immediately felt guilty knowing he’d never be able to kiss Angela or slide that dress off her again. Suddenly he seemed smaller, his ankles and wrists thin and pale. A pinkish hue rimmed his eyes and nose, like he had been crying or awake too long.

“How are Mom and Dad taking it?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Bickering like usual. Arguing about your ashes. Mom wants to release them at the beach.”

Dan chewed thoughtfully. “And Dad?”

“National Cemetery.”

Dan nodded.

“I think they should put you behind the shed,” Katie offered.

Dan met her gaze. “I don’t care where you put me,” he said flatly. “I’m dead, dummy.”
Katie’s cheeks burned. She considered telling him she had eaten his letters. But then she felt guilty, not just because they were gone, but because she was certain he really was shrinking. Where moments before he was a head taller, now he came up just to her shoulder.

“Dan-,” she started to say, to warn him. It occurred to her that he might just keep shrinking. “Dan-” she said more urgently. Now he was the size of an urn and struggled beneath the weight of the communion tray.

Katie helped Dan slide out from beneath the tray. Then she put her hand on the floor, palm up, because by then he was so small he could walk right into it. She lifted him to eye level, feeling a little like King Kong. He was completely pink by then, and the size of a Mr. Potato Head nose.

He grinned and she thought if he wasn’t so tiny he would probably reach out to tousle her hair. “Ok, you big baby,” he said, “let’s get this over with.”

Katie brought her hand to her mouth. And swallowed hard.

____________________________________

“Everything Bitter” is Elizabeth Johnston’s first short story. Her essay, “Tackle Box,” was one of three finalists for Lunch Ticket’s 2015 Diana Woods Memorial Prize, her co-authored play, FourPlay, received honorable mention in Cahoodaloodaling’s 2015 In-Cahoots contest, and her poetry and plays have been nominated for two Pushcarts and a “Best of the Net” prize. You can read some of her most recent work in Excursions, Teaching English at the Two Year College, Veils, Halos, and Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women,  and All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood.  She is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers and lives in Rochester, NY, where she teaches writing, literature, and gender studies. To read more, please visit her website at http://strawmatwriters.weebly.com/