Categories
2021 Fiction

R.S. Powers

THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

He gets down on one knee with a waxy smile. He pops an old glasses case and points at me a .22-bullet-sized inset that gleams like a blood-dark shard of church glass. I’ve seen the ring on his mom. Will you marry me? he trumpets and everyone outside Cinderella’s Castle begins to din and take videos I’ll see online for the rest of my life. I’m hearing a dirge that isn’t there—I’m outside myself murmuring: Yes. He bear-hugs my ribs and Mickey and Minnie rush over to help and I’m in the gummy jaws of coliseum lions, an entire metropolis roaring for gore. What am I doing? It’s Star Wars cosplay day—May the fourth be with you! I’m white-robe Leia, he’s fighter-jacket Han. I don’t know how to tell him we’re not getting married.

*

The only working channel in our motel is the porn one. He’s shirtless on the bed using my laptop to share proposal photos with our families. I’m on the little balcony over the parking lot, the dusk a deep bruise. I’m in my late grandma’s swimsuit with a pack of old cigarettes.

I could feed him tall boys, wait for snoring, take his car, leave my phone, but he’d get his cop brother involved. I could take my phone, taunt him when he calls, but he’d call my mom and she’d call his mom and together they’d preach about what a magnanimous angel I’ve been. This is fixable! my mom would say. Your many children will love you! his mom would say.

Get in here, he says, putting on a torn t-shirt. He wants me for a video he’s posting. I show the ring and say: Next stop Vegas! We watch and re-watch our first take. His smile is nowhere near mine. He must’ve known I would’ve said no. He needed the crowd.

*

Only a few days ago he and I were on a ragged Gulf beach watching the day die and buzzing on something cheap I’d bought at a gas station. He told me he’d likely be fired for kicking his construction job supervisor in the kidney over poker cash. He asked if we could move in together; I said we should go on a first road trip to Disney. I packed that night, thinking: We go, we return, we’re done, hallelujah. He pulled up at dawn insisting he drive all twelve hours. Almost right away, he called my mom about the rides he’d researched. You’re such sweetness! she said. Next, he called his mom: How I envy you two!

*

We nail his video on the fourth take. He shows me photos of the ask he got from passersby. You look so surprised, he says, holding the laptop to his face. Like you can’t believe it. I want to say: I can’t. I say: May the fourth—a date that will live in infamy! He holds my shoulders, says: I’m sorry I surprised you but we’ll be telling this story for the next hundred years. This is the first normal thing we’ve ever done. He drinks quickly and waits for me to bless him with forgiveness. I watch him talk Vegas chapel plans and our heading there tomorrow.

*

Everything about him once brought me an unfamiliar joy. We met a year ago in the Main Street coffeehouse where I freelance-edit technical manuals. He approached with a bag of sour worms and said he’d seen me eating them. He was weird-cute, pale with short dyed-black hair, shabbily dressed like in a bad band, dozens of little arm tattoos crisscrossed with scars. He’d been a marine, he said, in Iraq, and asked if I wanted to go see a new British aristocracy film. That afternoon we fucked in his un-swept bedroom like sad teenagers. I asked if he’d ever killed anyone—we were in our underwear, drinking boxed wine—and he said I wouldn’t believe him whether he said yes or no. When I found out he’d never been a marine, he said: I wanted you to know I could protect you, and he tried to punch through his bathroom door. He had me make a list of my passwords—social media, email, what-have-you. You’re older, my mom said on the phone. Mature him. When I met his mom, he took us for dinner at a Chinese takeout he used to work at. Afterwards, he and I were in my bed and he struck me on the fleshiest part of one of my bare buttocks. Naked, he stood over me and said he didn’t think I was strong enough to do the same: Hit me, Alice. Show me badness. Show me you. He first pretended to kill me after saying I should pay his entire electricity bill. Your deadbeat roommates should pay! I said and he shattered his cereal bowl in the sink. He grabbed my throat, shuffled me to the doorframe. You love this, he said, which was a little true. I spat in his face, raked my nails across his nipples. We belong together, he said weakly. A few weeks ago, we were in my car in an empty Walmart parking lot after he was fired from a telemarketing job. I bit his ear lobe and drew blood. He kept on sobbing: I’m nothing. I’m nothing. He’d never looked more broken. I realized then I’d only ever been devoted to how dangerous he might be. He won’t remember who we really were.

*

He falls asleep mid-sentence, something about an Area 51 honeymoon.

There’s nothing for me to pack. I take his keys.

On the little balcony the new night is alive with screams bouncing between the stucco buildings, a nearby boozy block party getting started. My USA flip-flops aren’t designed to climb down to the first-floor balcony and push through the wall of barbed bushes. I make a promise: When I remember today, I’ll remember the lacerated lines on my arms and legs. I’ll remember my midnight drive in search of revelers. The rest will have never happened.


R.S. Powers’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Sou’wester, Speculative Nonfiction, X-R-A-Y, World Literature Today, The Hunger, and other journals. He is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Florida State University.

Categories
2021 Fiction

Lucy Zhang

BLUEBEARD’S SISTER

Her brother leads his wives to their deaths.

It happens like clockwork: the wife–maybe willowy and tall like the tree swaying near the mansion, brushing against the windows without scratching the glass, maybe short and compact, a package of spitfire and sass, maybe soft and curved with that childlike plumpness witches like to stir in their evening stews–marries into the family with a small wedding in the back garden, under a birch arch strung with ivy, attended by more birds than people.

It happens like clockwork: her brother tells his wife I need to run an errand, here are the keys to all of the rooms in the mansion, you may open any door except for the one leading to the underground chamber, I’ll be back in a few days and hands the silly wife a ring of keys, all shiny and new besides one–the runt, the rusted, the one that smells of old pennies and whose surface seems to flake away upon touch. The wife wanders from room to room, hesitates for a moment before prying open the final door whose hinge flap and knuckles squeak, disturbing the silence. The wife descends into the underground chamber, discovers the floor is wet, screams as she counts the corpses hanging from hooks around the room–women, some dripping blood, some not, each finer than the adjacent body. It happens like clockwork: the wife drops the key in fresh blood and quickly snatches it back up, runs out of the room without cleaning her sweaty fingerprints from the doorknob or her trail of bloodied footsteps, tries to revert to a state of mind before entering the chamber.

It happens like clockwork: her brother finds out and strangles the wife in his underground lair, the silly pigeon, the dumb dove.

You aren’t like them, he tells his sister. You’re clever.

What is cleverness? she wonders as she wrings the rag dry and hands it to her brother so he can scrub down the doorknob. The stiletto of one of the hanging corpses clatters to the ground, clumps of the original wearer’s rotting skin falling with it. She reaches out to grab the shoe and balance it back on the desiccated flesh, but he places his hand on her wrist, thumb drawing a circle around her ulnar styloid, and shakes his head like she should know better, like she is a child trying to fix a fracture with hot glue.

It’ll just fall off again. Why don’t you get changed for dinner? I’m almost done here.

She nods and walks–more like glides–to her room; her feet leave no trail of blood, a ghost in the hall.

In her room, she steps out of her dress, now a puddle of white fabric and crusted splotches of brown. She inhales the metallic scent of blood like she can absorb it into her skin. She stares at her naked body, a spidery creature–all limbs and protrusions. She reaches her hand behind her neck and touches the ridges of the vertebrae down her spine and finds the scar, a small stitch in the fabric of her skin, so imperceptible she sometimes questions its existence.

When they were kids, their parents tried to marry her off to a baron whom they owned a significant debt. Originally of modest wealth, their family suffered when their main trade of furs lost business thanks to the development of cotton. At ten years old, she learned she would marry into the sixty-year-old baron’s family as his third wife when the servants led her to not her room but the guest room where the baron, a walrus of a monocle-wearing man, sat in his bathrobe, sipping wine and balancing checker pieces between his multi-gemstone, multi-ring-adorned fingers. He beckoned her forward and wrapped his hand around her waist, slipped his fingers under the back opening of her dress. His rings grazed her skin, like ice compared to his sweaty hand. Her mouth refused to open, lips pursed, fists tight, and then, like she’d been stabbed with a hot iron, she bolted. The baron’s diamond ring scraped her back–it seared, but she shut off the pain and pulled until the dress tore under his grip and she escaped the room. To her brother’s room, where he welcomed her in, patted her on the head like she was a stuffed animal, cradled her in his arms, and let her sleep in his bed. The next day, coroners deemed the baron dead due to a heart attack–that old man had always been overweight and full of clogged arteries. And if anyone asked her brother where he was that night, he smiled and said he’d been studying in the library and no, he hadn’t even known the baron was in their home.

Her brother is clever: he makes money out of broken businesses, charms investors, sabotages competitors, and look–now they are rich, protected from unwanted suitors, eating fresh fruits even when they’re out of season, wanting for nothing. He knows to leave his tie loose for his wife to tighten, a calculated act of intimacy. He knows how to pinpoint a family’s favored daughter–the one who will inherit all the one-of-a-kind antiques, the one who will leave the family in sorrow, how to emerge from a marriage proposal with a dowry valued at twice his initial goal, how to pleasure a woman one night and strangle her for her transgressions the next. 

She is not clever: she doesn’t know when men want bed warmers or conversationalists, how hot her tea is until she burns her tongue, why she hears a pulse in her ear that matches her heartbeat as she spies the wife running back upstairs, dripping blood onto the hand-spun Persian carpet.

She has tea with the wives before they open the chamber door. They gossip like teenagers at a sleepover, sitting prim and proper on four-legged chairs that are more air than wood, their backs so straight a plank must have slipped into their spines, so still they could balance encyclopedias from A to C on their heads.

Use food coloring to dye hot water yellow, the wives tell her. Pretend it’s chicken broth–men like when you have an appetite, but they don’t want it to show. The wives gesture to their hourglass figure cinched with a corset.

But brother doesn’t care for that, she tells them.

The wives snort, men–they’re all the same. Going through several bottles of wine in the evening, sloshing liquid in glasses like they think they’re professional wine tasters, spilling it over the floor so the room smells like rotten pineapple the next day–all that, we have to clean up. Best thing you can get from putting up with it is money.

What will you do with all the money? she asks.

Some of the wives want to send funds back to their childhood crushes, a forbidden romance with the poor farm boy who now works in slaughterhouses, snapping heads off chickens in well-oiled factory lines. Some want to start businesses in fashion–dresses with pockets, cushioned and padded shoes. Others dream of raising children, sending them off to prestigious boarding schools, cooking organic meals for family picnics, massaging their husband’s shoulders after a stressful day at work, comparing the number of charities they’ve donated to with the neighboring wives.

What would you do? They ask her.

Like when she was a child, splitting single meals with her family, stomach growling into the night, waiting for the next day’s charitable donation of a jug of milk and maybe a few eggs, she remembers to eat once a day and only when she faints, threatens to wither away, does her brother spoon-feed her the rich meats and sauces from the kitchen. He lets her lean into his lap, tells her about the antique ruby tiara he’ll gift her once he claims ownership over his new wife’s dowry. She moves with the same overzealous caution as she did when she was a child, every motion dictated by her fear and imagination: clowns emerge from shadows, bookshelves, barely open closets, and they squeak their red noses and try to peel her skin away, leaving her nowhere to hide; so when she walks to the library, grips a book’s spine, stitches years-old dresses back together, she keeps a candle nearby. Money, money, what can money buy?

I’m happy just helping brother, she says. It doesn’t feel like a lie.

At dinner, her brother mentions finding a new wife.

Why do you need a new wife again so soon? she asks. Aren’t I enough? She attempts to stab a grape tomato with her fork; it jumps away.

He laughs. You know you’re not wife material.

It happens like clockwork: her brother marries some country girl, the youngest of a family of six, and leaves this new wife in possession of the keys, all scintillating except for one. There’s nothing interesting behind that door, she tells the new wife over earl grey tea, repeats it several times during the conversation, implores with barely masked desperation, as she has told all the previous wives. But, like clockwork, the new wife opens the door to the underground chamber, screams, trails blood back up the stairs, over the carpet, in between crevasses of floorboards that have just begun to crack.

Her brother returns before she can finish cleaning, half-heartedly hiding the evidence. But it is not so bad, she thinks when they take care of the wife’s corpse and its aftermath–one of them rinsing rags, the other scrubbing stains–doing this together, as always.


Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Contrary, New Delta Review, Hypertext and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at here or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Categories
2021 Fiction

Stephanie C. Trott

(NO) VACANCY

Marlene has been inside me for nearly two years. Six hundred and ninety-four days, if you’re counting, and I have been from the start. Possession isn’t something one comes into slowly but rather all at once, like jumping off the high dive at the community swimming pool. You’re just minding your own business falling through space and then all of a sudden you’re smashing through something and you can’t breathe and you don’t know which way is up. You’re held down there in the cold and the dark with no chance of escape, even though the other side is so close that sometimes you can feel the sun and see the ripple of wind at the surface. But that’s exactly where she’s bringing me now: the surface.

I was still in school when it happened, about to get my bachelor’s and spend a summer traveling alone through Europe. Cliché, I know, but c’mon: the food, the art, the sex. Who wouldn’t want to spend three months gorging themselves in every possible way? A middle-aged ghost wasn’t on the list of things I wanted to put inside me, but that’s what happened one night in the library while I was studying for finals. I walked in as one person and came out another.

No one told me what to expect when she took hold of my body. I didn’t know I’d lose my sense of taste and smell, that my hair would lack its shine. Most days I’m lucky if I get up before eleven, and I only listen to classic rock. Now I’m more scared of being alone than I am at the thought of her staying forever.

She drops the news as I’m flossing one night after dinner, right as I’m working to free a shred of spinach: “I’m leaving you.” Her words come out of my mouth as I fling a tiny green speck onto to the mirror, and blood fills the space between my bicuspids.

“You’re what?” I ask, tasting warm iron and salt. I can’t believe what I’ve just said.

“Leaving.”

“Why?”

“I’m bored. You never take me anywhere new.”

“I thought you hated anything new.”

“See, that’s the problem,” she sighs. “You don’t anticipate my needs anymore. It’s never ‘what does Marlene want,’ not like in the beginning. I need someone who’s going to challenge me. Someone who won’t be such a pushover.”

“I’m not a pushover,” I say. “I don’t let us walk naked in front of the windows anymore.”

“I know, and I hate it. We’re holding each other back. I have needs.”

“I can change.”

“You can’t. Trust me.”

On the bus ride to work the next morning, she outlines her impending departure so that I can continue coming to terms: she’ll select a worthy partner after trying out a few and will make her final move in a month.

“What if you don’t find someone?” I ask, eyeing the other passengers and imaging her inside them. The man with a bumpy nose. The woman with body odor. The child whose shoes are on the wrong feet. “Then will you stay?”

I know this is a text-book case of Stockholm syndrome, but I can’t help it. Who am I without her? Someone who secretly still needs two credits to graduate, who knows she’s a disappointment to her parents, who’s never been west of the Mississippi River—Hell, I’ve never even been out of the Northeast. I’ve let this woman consume me, change me, define me. It won’t be a relief to have her gone; it’ll be an emptiness, like a sagging mattress tossed to the curb. Without Marlene, I’ll have to face who I’ve let myself become with her, and there will be so much undoing to be done up again.

I’ve come to find myself more comfortable in her company than in that of my family and friends. I haven’t seen them in months, though they still call every so often. Mostly they say they miss me, that it’s been too long and hope I’m okay and want to get together for dinner some time. But other than social withdrawal and a bit of concern for my sudden isolation, no one who knew me before has suspected a thing. Possession isn’t always a loud and ornate expression like they make it look in the movies; as crass and obscene as she is in private, Marlene is generally quite quiet when we’re around other people. Most of my conversations with her happen in my head, like some twisted version of a conscience. Only occasionally does she act out.

“There are at least five people on this bus who would work,” she says. “Six, if you count that baby, but I don’t like the way he’s sucking his thumb. That shit makes for years of orthodontia.”

“So you want someone younger.”

“No, I want someone with more agency.”

“A baby doesn’t have agency.” We cross Myrtle Street and I press the yellow tape to signal our stop.

“No, but he’s a hell of a lot cuter than you.”

We get off the bus and I watch it pull away with her potential suitors as we head toward the bank. After I watched my friends graduate, the only job I could find (and keep) was as a teller downtown, monitoring money and handing out lollipops through the drive-up window. I didn’t go to college for this. I studied Proust. I analyzed Baudelaire. I thought my life might take place somewhere along the Seine or at the very least in Canada. Now the closest I come to that dream is exchanging dollars for euros, placed into the hands of folks who have more cash than they know what to do with. That’s how you travel: you have money, time, and a life that gets to be filled however you wish.

When Marlene arrived, I resold my plane tickets and used the rest of the money I’d saved for my trip to rent an apartment where we could be alone and get to know each other. It was difficult at first and took time to learn what foods she liked (chalupas and cheezy curls), which clothes she wanted to wear (nothing, preferably, but cutoffs and flannels were eventually permitted), when she slept (never), and where we could go (very few places).

Marlene’s idea of travel is our weekly trip to the public library, where we check out 1980s horror films. She’s frugal, and it’s one of the few things we can squarely agree on. Together we take walks down Elm Street, spend summers at Camp Crystal Lake, sleep restlessly in Amityville, and make snowmen at the Overlook Hotel. Today as we watch a pirated version of Poltergeist on my iPhone, I tell her there are other movies we could try. I could take her somewhere new without going anywhere at all. I suggest Phantom of the Opera, trying to find something a little more cultured.

“I hate music.”

Nosferatu?

“Too quiet.”

King Kong?

“I could get into bestiality,” she teases and has me eat a cherry lollipop while Carol Anne gets sucked into the void. A man in a white newsboy cap pulls up and fiddles with the plastic drive-thru canister, sending it through the tubes and into my hands. He rolls up the tinted window of his Benz so that only his eyes are visible. “Bet he’s loaded,” says Marlene.

Inside the container is a deposit slip, a check for $32,000, ten twenty-dollar bills, and a business card. He’s placed three red Xs by his telephone number, which he’s underlined. Guys do stuff like this all the time, send me little notes through the deposit system. I can see myself with this man: Eddie Almeida, Independent Real Estate Agent. His card says his office is on Bradford Avenue, across from the liquor store where there’s always a cop circling, and I’ve seen his face smeared on billboards near the highway. He has a reputation, and Marlene’s taste in men—questionable at best—has rubbed off. Before her, I never would have gone for a guy like this. Lately, though, even she is quick to find fault with them. Eddie rolls his window down again and presses the intercom button.

“That sucker looks real good,” he says. He licks his lips and winks.

“Oh, stuff it,” Marlene says aloud, wanting him to hear. “You’ve got the tiniest little dick and no clue what to do with it. Come back when you get some Viagra.”

I feel my cheeks flush as we process Eddie’s deposit, then return the receipt without making eye contact with him. He pulls away, likely as embarrassed as I am; I hate that she can read everyone’s thoughts, not just mine. I take the lollipop out of my mouth and throw it toward the trash bin beneath my desk. It misses and sticks to the rug.

“Did you ever think about using your powers for good?” I ask her.

“Did you ever think about using my powers for anything at all?”

*

Two weeks pass and Marlene is no closer to finding her next partner, or at least that’s what she’s telling me. Mostly she goes out when I’m asleep, but her return jolts me awake like a cat pouncing on my chest. There’s this deep weight and I can sense her inside me again, settling in and leaving me to acquaint myself once more with the heaviness of another being. I bet if you took a scan of my entire body, you’d see how physically messed up I am from having another person inside me for this long. My fingers have curled, my feet have bunions. Sometimes I wonder if she’s given me stomach ulcers or if it’s all the coffee she drinks. My eyesight is gone—like, completely shot. I ache all the time, but I can’t remember what it’s like not to.

There are days when I look in the mirror and see only her face, but I know that a part of me is still in there, somewhere. I see who I was in the freckle on my right pinky toe, in the scar above my upper lip that I got when I was ten. Everything else is Marlene: the way my sweat smells like cigarettes even though I’ve never smoked, how my eyebrows now thin at the ends where they once were thick tufts of blonde. Her table manners are what’s worst, the chewing and the smacking and the slapping of my lips, and the way she swallows things whole. It hurts, inside and out, when someone has taken control of you.

Marlene was a waitress in her mortal life, at the all-night diner down the street from our apartment. I never went there before she moved in, but since then I’ve become one of their regular midnight customers. Marlene takes me there when she’s restless so that she can watch the desserts spin on their chrome plates. I buy us a piece of chocolate cream pie and wait for her to settle. Tonight she wants to play AC/DC on the jukebox, but I don’t have any quarters. “We can listen to music at home for free,” I tell her.

“You don’t have anything I like.”

“We can find something on YouTube. There’s a ton of B-sides on there. Or I can reserve some Slayer CDs from the library. Whatever you want.”

“No. Just knowing you’d rather listen to ‘Coat of Many Colors’ puts me in a mood.”

“Everyone loves Dolly Parton.”

“I do not love Dolly Parton,” she growls.

We sit in silence as she becomes transfixed with a bowl of rotating JELL-O and I finish the pie knowing I fucked up. The waitress comes over and says it’s nice to see me again. I smile and Marlene licks the graham cracker crumbs off our fork. I joke with the waitress and tell her I’m practically part of the furniture now. She places the receipt face down in front of me, as if I don’t already know it’s $4.73, that it’s the sixth piece of pie I’ve eaten since Tuesday, that my pants are ripped beneath the crotch from where my thighs can’t stop rubbing together. I’ll need to get a gym membership when Marlene leaves. Shit.

The waitress smiles big and leans over the counter. Her breasts rest on the sugar shaker.

“Anything else I can get you, hon?” she asks.

I feel my eye start to twitch, and I quickly slap five bucks on the counter. Whenever Marlene’s about the act up, my left eyelid quivers and then it’s only a matter of moments before she’s flipping a table or calling someone the C word. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does I mostly black out.

“Thanks for the pie, bitch,” I hear Marlene slur as we trip toward the glass doors and spill into the night. She finds my keys as we’re walking toward a yellow Camaro, their metal edges poking out from my hand like Freddy’s jagged nails. Tunnel-visioned, I watch as she scratches three deep lines from tail to front and bangs my fists on the hood, barely making a dent.

“Dumb blonde,” she says, and walks my jelly legs back to my Toyota.

Inside I come-to slowly. My foot hurts and the skin between my fingers is bleeding. I fumble for one of my brother’s old Black Sabbath tapes and play it as I drive us home. It has taken so long to learn how to please Marlene that I have lost the things that please me: Édith Piaf’s “Padam Padam,” the taste of fresh strawberries, sunrises, the feeling of my dog, Arlo, sleeping against me. I had to rehome him early in our relationship when Marlene jokingly tried to kick him, and I haven’t seen him since.

“What was that about?” I ask calmly, not wanting to upset her more.

 “She’s the one.”

“What? How?”

“She’s perfect.”

“But you just mangled her car. You don’t even know her.”

“I’ve been watching her for a long time. Doesn’t give a damn about other people, lives in a shitty apartment across town and only cares about her next paycheck. She’s got no savings, just that car, and she reminds me of myself when I was alive. She’ll get those scratches fixed in no time, and then I’ll have something nice to ride around in once I get her to actually drive it right.”

“I think the Camry’s pretty nice.”

“It might be nice for you!” she roars, and we swerve into the empty bike lane. The car rumbles and then quiets as I get us back in the road. Marlene sighs. “You heard how she smirked at us. She thinks she’s better than you.”

“So?”

“So she needs to be taught a lesson. I never had anyone do that for me, okay?”

We’re silent for a few songs until the tape clicks over. This savior complex is a new side of her, one I don’t understand. Am I not worth her staying to help me clean up this mess? Why does she have to fix someone else when she’s broken me? She waits until the intro of “Turn Up the Night” finishes before she speaks again.

“Don’t come back to the diner when I’m gone. Go to Europe, like you were going to. I hear Paris is nice.”

“What would I do in Paris?”

“I don’t know. Drink wine. Meet someone new.”

“But I have you.”

“We each need to find ourselves again.”

“Please, Leen, I don’t know what else to do. I’ll miss you too much.”

“Shut up. You won’t.”

“We could go together, before you leave? One last hurrah. I’ll sublet the apartment and show you the Mona Lisa. We can ride through Montmartre on a Vespa.”

“Those things are ridiculous.”

“Yeah. I know.”

*

Marlene leaves me on a Tuesday just after three A.M. We’re watching The Exorcist, the part where Reagan’s head spins all the way around, and I’m waiting for Marlene to laugh like she always does. “Demons don’t have to obey the limits of anatomy,” she told me the first time we watched it together. “It’s different with ghosts. You go and snap your neck, and I’m stuck living in a cold house until the Rapture swings by to pick me up.” It’s never stopped me from thinking about it, especially when I thought she might be off with someone else. But we both knew I’d never jump. If I died, she’d have no one to come home to, and neither would I.

Reagan’s head begins to turn, and I feel a rumble in the pit of my stomach, like green slime might come out of my mouth if I’m not careful. Instead it’s Marlene, loud and deep and rolling out of me in waves. I feel her next in my chest, then in my throat and on my tongue. Finally she’s everywhere, her voice and mine filling the room as we laugh at someone else’s misfortune, someone else’s undoing. She keeps going and I can’t stop it, the sound of her leaving, the sound of me coming back. I laugh for what feels like forever, until Father Karras dies and the credits roll and roll and I’m not laughing anymore. I’m crying, alone. Lying in my bed with my sweat and my stench and my own body. Mine. Not hers. Not ours.

I gasp in air and feel it reach the bottom of my lungs, welcoming oxygen to touch the parts of my body I’d forgotten were meant for just me. I piss myself, the sheets soaked with a deep, aching relief. I was a bed-wetter as a kid, and the feeling is familiar, safe. But as it cools and the warmth dissipates, I’m swept by the quiet realization that it’s happened: she’s gone. I’m alone. And Paris is so far away.


Stephanie C. Trott lives and writes in southeastern Massachusetts. She is a fiction editor at Longleaf Review and the 2021 guest editor for Emerging Voices in Fiction at Oyster River Pages. Her fiction additionally appears in Prairie SchoonerBlood Orange Review, and New South.

Categories
2021 Fiction

Colleen Mayo

WITH SUSANNA

Susanna and I sit like queens outside her restaurant on South Congress. She’s ordered us oysters, ham, and plates of tiny salted pickles that cost more than a pack of cigarettes. The windowsills are lined with baskets of cacti.

We’re different now. Grown, although acting like teenagers as we flirt with Paul, one of her waiters. Paul’s a coy Texas boy from Lubbock. Everyone around here, Susanna tells me, calls him Buddy after Buddy Holly. She hired him six weeks back. She says he knows his wine and how to charm the wives of all the fancy couples who frequent her restaurant.

Susanna winks at me while Paul gets us another bottle of champagne.

“You know those east coast wenches,” she says. “They can’t get over a cowboy smile.”

I wink back and remember how, fifteen years ago, Susanna was loud and thick-wasted. I made fun of her for all the words she mispronounced. But if I needed a dollar, Susanna had five. If I needed a drink, Susanna had Lone Stars and water bottles full of liquor. If I needed a ride, she had a black Toyota with weed in the console and a glove box stashed with condoms for safety. We used to joke about the condoms because we never used them. Instead, she’d drive her Toyota around Austin and we’d find roads shaded with live oaks to kiss one another under. It still excites me to remember first lying against her long stomach, how much difference there was to discover between our bodies—two shapes that, before Susanna, I’d assumed would be too similar to ever make sense as a set.

It’s eleven at night. Heel after heel clicks down South Congress. The women around us have skinny legs and handbags smooth as butter. Paul arrives to refill our champagne flutes and we toast to Susanna’s success. She bought this place out from an organic grocery store. Before that, the space was a bakery. Fifteen years ago, it was a metal shack that sold the best greasy hamburgers in town.  

Now she leans back with her fingers woven together on the table.

“You’re a businesswoman,” I tell her. “A total boss.” 

Susanna takes my hand and squeezes it three times. 

I want to say a corny line—let’s get out of here or follow me—then grab the champagne and lead her down an alleyway out back to light cigarettes and pass the bottle. I want Susanna to drink it all before getting closer. I want her to say, “now this feels good.” 

And then I want us to find some Lone Star. I want a plastic water bottle of liquor. I want to be sixteen and stoned in the back of Susanna’s Toyota. She’s left a handful of condoms in the glovebox for safety, knowing full well that’s not what we’re after at all. 

“It feels good to have you here,” she says. 


Colleen Mayo’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, The Sun Magazine, The Rumpus, Hobart, The Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. Colleen lives in Denton, Texas where she is a PhD student in Creative Writing at The University of North Texas.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Anne Carney

BARBIE DEATH STAR

Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.

Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.

She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”

Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.

She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?

Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.

Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.

She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.

She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.

When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.

Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.

There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.

Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.

Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.

When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.

“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.

He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.

Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.

The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.

Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.

Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.

Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.

Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.

The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.

Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.

She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.

Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.

Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.

“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.

“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”

But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.

“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.

“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”

Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.

Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.

The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.

“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”

Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.

The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?

Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.

After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.

“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”

“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”

Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.

“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”

“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”

Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.

“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”

“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.

“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”

“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.

“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”

“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”

The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.

“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?

“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”

“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”

So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.

“What’s that?” asks Joan.

“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”

They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.

“Is this legal?” asks Joan.

“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.

The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.

“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”

“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”

“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”

Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.

“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”

“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”


Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.

Categories
2020 Fiction

K-Ming Chang

SWALLOWER

We brought the woman our hands to swallow. She stood at the intersection where ghosts were known to knit themselves into gloves, sheathing the hands of drivers and misdirecting them into telephone poles and duplexes and each other. The woman called us her daughters and claimed she could swallow anything if we paid her. In her hands, a baseball cap purpled with sweat and jingling half-full of nickels. One time she was featured in the World Journal, the only street performer to ever make the bottom-right-hand corner of the front page, and tourists drove in from all over the city with dollar bills in their fists and backseats full of things they dared her to swallow. She was tall and so thin her fingers had more knuckles than ours and her veins surfaced like snakes when she swallowed, her mouth unhinging wide enough to cleave open the sun and suck out the squirm of its seed. When she walked, her shadow preceded her into any room, a dark that rotted our teeth to seeds and repainted the walls wherever she went. She spoke in an accent none of us could name, each of her vowels spat to the sidewalk and split like scabs.

One time, one of us brought her a sparrow to swallow, a sparrow that had been living in the wall of our duplex for weeks, along with the rotting carcass of a raccoon and an assembly of squirrels. It was only after we hammered holes in the walls, the way we saw men in nature shows tapping trees for sap, that we freed the sparrows fortressed inside. The woman plucked the sparrow by one wing from our palms, tipped her head back, and balled the bird into her mouth as if it were a document she needed to smuggle through her bowels, and there were rumors of that too, that she was a former spy, that her one and only skill was to swallow evidence of what was stolen.

Her throat was translucent as the core of a pear, incandescent, and we saw the sparrow dive into her belly beak-first, its black wings bound by sound. For months, we heard the bird flying around inside her, carving a sky inside her belly, and when she opened her mouth it was to chirp. We thought maybe the sparrow had mated with whatever else she had eaten, and now there was a family perched inside her. We threw handfuls of birdseed onto the sidewalk and watched her kneel to lick them up, her tongue studded with shells. We took turns being in love with her. First we were in love with the butcher at Ranch 99, the one who could slice a lung thin enough to drape over a lamp. There were rumors that his wife was a knife and that is how he learned to be precise. Even in the way he spoke: he could sharpen any sound narrow-tipped enough to enter any part of your body. Our love for him was a like a tendon, elastic, easily snipped, and sometimes we didn’t love him at all and sometimes we were willing to hang from hooks if it meant he would touch us, treat us with the tenderness of a stampede.

The swallower we loved differently, more from a distance, her face like the surface of a planet, one of those planets with an atmosphere so toxic your skin dissolve on contact. That was until the day we brought her our hands to swallow. For tips, we’d seen her swallow a golf club, a lit candle, a flashlight, a drawerful of socks, a cell-phone, a pen knife, a whole fish, but we had never seen her swallow a fist. We believed our hands would finally defeat the gravity of her belly, and when we lifted them to her, the way we saw illustrated flames reach up to a woman tied to a stake, she gathered our hands as if plucking dandelion heads from the sidewalk and tugged the bouquet to her mouth. That was the day we touched the pit of her, our arms sleeved inside her dark, our fingers combing the carpet at the bottom of her belly, the place where all things return to before they’re reborn. She gagged our hands back up again, pulled us out glistening like roots, and we knew we would never know her. There was an art to swallowing, she said: consumption without destruction. It was an inherited skill, learned from her father who mastered swallowing an entire pistol. He smuggled ammunition past Japanese troops, swallowed gold bars and set off airport metal detectors, shoplifted a live hen in his stomach. When he died years later of pneumonia, she said, tears came out of his ears. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and to smuggle water into his body, she drilled a straw into the base of his throat and sponged water down it. Hearing is the last thing to go, she said. The last thing the dead know is the sound of our voices, the chorus of hornets in our lungs, and the dead keep listening even after they’re buried. The ears take the longest to decompose, and sometimes they reincarnate into butterflies. This is why it is important to announce ourselves to the dead. To enter every room voice-first, asking our ghosts if we can wear them.

The day she swallowed and regurgitated our hands, the woman sat down on the curb and stretched out her legs, their shadows bright as sails. She said her father never taught her how to swallow because daughters do not inherit, but she learned in a dream how to mimic the sea’s plumbing, how to be a body of water wide enough to drown anything. We reached out our hands as she told this story, all of us hoping to remain in her like a thorn, to make of her skin something holy. Each of us planned to reconvene in our dreams that night, to see if we too might learn to swallow in our sleep, the only place where we did not have bodies, where our legs were the length of our lives. But the woman warned us against dreaming, said that it was possible to get lost inside one, to sever the tether back to your body and be set loose like a sparrow in a house of glass, everywhere a false sky to fly into.

There was a girl she knew once, a girl who got locked out of her body because she wandered off in a dream and did not return. For three weeks she was asleep in her mother’s bed, and each of her sisters had to take turns wiping her ass and flipping her over so that sores would not scuttle all over her body like roaches. It was only later, when we repeated this story to our mothers, that we learned the girl was not asleep for weeks because she wandered off in her dream but because her brother knocked her head against the side of a duplex. We often saw our mothers slapping a fish’s head against a flat stone, the best way to stun it bloodlessly before severing the head, and we wondered if the girl was like that, laid out on the bed so that her vacated head could be cut off cleanly and painlessly. There were ways to wake up, but the woman did not tell us, and she did not tell us how it was possible to maintain a mouth inside a dream, when we ourselves were mouthless in ours, always waking inside of cities didn’t know their own names.

We tried swallowing too, we practiced on doorknobs, our razor blades, on kitchen sponges, on spoons, we tried swallowing our own fists, clouds punctured by our tongues, CDs broken in half, we tried colors, swallowing our shadows, we tried wind, parts of cars, aquariums, live fish, a gerbil, roadkill, we tried knives, fish bones, a leash, a puddle, we swallowed our mothers’ necklaces, earrings that dangled in our throats and lit us from the inside like chandeliers, lightbulbs, a clothes-hanger, a struck match, a flame. But everything cancelled out in our mouths, unstitched into steam, and we always swallowed nothing.

We returned to her and asked how to drown things in our bodies. The way you do it, we said, and she said we had to be gifted the way she was, gifted by ghosts: if you feed a starving dog in this life, she said, the dog will reincarnate and come back to you and save you. She said: My dog lives curled in my belly like smoke. My dog is the dog that returned in this life to bite me – I was just six years old then – and my teeth turned to sweetcream and I vomited out my tongue but when the fever lifted like a flag in a fallen country I was cured and my mouth was the entrance to a freeway. After hearing this, we tried to find a dog in the neighborhood to feed, but none of them were starving. None of them were strays, all were tame, and we couldn’t find a single one to save. One of us finally stole a pitbull out of someone’s side-yard, gnawing the leash with her own teeth, and we starved it over many weeks, feeding it only leaves, nips of our sleeves. Then when the dog was so skinny its breath played its ribs like an accordion, when it was so starved it began to levitate, floating away from its feet, we fed it. Raw patty meat, stolen lung slices, bread-crusts: it ate so much we thought its stomach was a snake’s, the kind that can swallow its prey and digest it over a lifetime, the kind of creature with a hunger elongated across history. Then the dog lifted its head from our palms and rolled its eyes back and died and we cried because now the dog would not return to us in its next life and save us or teach us to swallow. The dog would return only for revenge and bite us and fill our mouths with clouds, and we might as well leash ourselves now, we might as well forfeit our mouths.

When we told the woman what we’d done, how we failed, she laughed and said we were haunted now, that the dog would return as our husbands and we would soon give birth to litters of six at a time. She knew a woman who once gave birth to sextuplets, naming each one after a different month, and halfway through the year she tore her voice and never spoke again. We wore scarves now, trying to protect the tender sides of our necks, until the woman said a ghost would snag the ends of our scarves and suffocate us. We were tired of the woman and her stories and her reincarnations, tired now that we knew we would never as full as her, symphonic with discarded objects, so we swallowed her. It was the Sunday before rain was invented. It was night and the woman looked up at the moon as if she might swallow that too, as if every light was located inside her, every light was another of her lives.

We took her the way we took the dog, by striking her between the eyes with a flashlight, and then we each held a limb and began to swallow and swallow until our mouths met in the middle of her and she was gone, divvied up between us, siphoned into us as smog. Inside us, she took root in our bellies, hinged us to our knees. She was submerged like a radish before it surfaces and is skinned bright as a knuckle, and we waddled now instead of walking, sharing the weight of her, building our breaths into rungs for her to climb out of us, heaving our pregnant bellies, hearing her beg every day to be born breech, the way we all should be, legs-first and running from our lives.


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

OF THE NATURAL WORLD

Three hours after Charlie left for college, her parents stood in her blank bedroom, running their hands along the dust on her empty bookshelf.

“What do we do now?” Janie’s voice echoed against the walls.

Rob examined the tiny holes where Charlie’s posters had hung. “I think we’re supposed to take up fly fishing.”

“I don’t know how to fish.”

“We’ll learn.” Rob went to the window, which Charlie had always kept closed, and parted the curtains. Half the house was underground, built into a hill. Charlie’s window had been installed at the mark where underground became above, so the ground lay at the ledge’s level. At first the sun reaching through the window blinded Rob, but then he adjusted. A wolf’s yellow eyes stared back at him.

He called to Janie. She came to the wolf’s eyes. They were used to wildlife. Out on their stretch of twelve wild acres, bought before the area had been developed, they saw all kinds: roadrunners, deer, turkey, coyotes.

The wolf, gray as the carpet, his eyes yellow as though the sun behind him shone right through, pressed his nose against the glass, leaving a smudge mark like the ones their dogs left on the car windows when they brought them on vacations.

“Where are the dogs?” Janie said. She backed away from the window. “Rob, I’m going to find the dogs.”

Rob didn’t budge. Janie called through the house: “Orion, here boy, here Prancer.” Their collars jingled as they bounded from their hiding places. The wolf’s lips curled back, revealing his razor teeth.

“Janie, keep the dogs out of here,” Rob yelled.

“I locked them up.”

Rob hadn’t heard Janie enter the room again. He had read not to make eye contact with certain animals, and not to look away first if you did.

Behind him Janie spoke into a phone: “Yes, we have a wild animal problem here, possibly rabid. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Rob held the gaze for the full half-hour it took for Animal Control to arrive. Not even when the animal controller aimed his tranquilizer at the wolf did Rob look away. The wolf howled and thrashed and fell unconscious in the grass.

The animal controller thanked them for calling. “Many people,” he said, “would’ve taken the wolf out on their own.”

“The only gun we keep’s a BB,” Rob said.

“Must be trusting,” the controller said.

At dinner Rob and Janie recalled the controller’s comment and rolled their eyes. They were used to being thought strange in their Texas town: no guns, no dead things on the walls. There had always been a child in the house, and no material thing they owned was valuable enough to be stolen. Besides, they lived in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t lock their doors at night. They weren’t afraid of people.

But there was one thing they were afraid of. In the empty house they didn’t talk about it, but they feared that Charlie wouldn’t come home again. The first night, as they played Spades on the couch, putting off their troubled sleep, they tried not to stare at their phones.

#

The next morning Rob cooked breakfast as Janie slept, eggs and toast with butter, pecan waffles with cheap maple syrup. Charlie’s favorites. Janie woke to the sugar smell. They ate in silence. Neither of them remembered their dreams anymore, but they had dreamt of their daughter. She was their only child.

They avoided her room. It would be easier once the weekend was over and they busied themselves with work. Rob would return to the grocery, Janie to the local community college where she taught art. The monotony would help. Without it they finished their dinner in front of the TV and then walked as if in a trance to the empty room.

The growl crept in again. “He’s back,” Rob said, though it was impossible; Animal Control wouldn’t have released him from captivity. But when Rob opened the curtains, the wolf’s eyes shone through the solid dark.

“What is going on?” Janie said.

“I don’t know.” He let go of the curtains. “Call Animal Control again.”

Janie retrieved the phone.

“I think there’s more of them,” he said when she returned. “I heard more.”

This time Janie parted the curtains. A dozen wolves stared in, pressed close to each other like an army formation. Against the window, five squeezed close together, five nose prints on the glass.

They called the cops. The operator assured them someone would be out as soon as possible. “Don’t provoke them,” she said. “Don’t go outside.”

Rob and Janie crouched against the far wall. It was hot outside, but their bodies shook. They whispered, afraid the wolves would hear them. The two cop cars pulled into the driveway with the Animal Control van.

Then the blast of a gun sounded, another, another, another, until twelve—Rob counted them—rang out. Rob went to the window. The controller and several policemen dragged the bodies into the back of the van, and when they finally piled the wolves in they called Rob and Janie out.

“Have you been feeding these wolves?”

“Of course not,” Rob said.

“Did you try to keep them, as pets? Have you provoked them? Could you have fed them by mistake?”

“No, officer. I don’t think so.”

“Wolves don’t attack unprovoked,” said the officer. “These wolves don’t look rabid. Rabid wolves are lone wolves. And they don’t look particularly hungry either. I don’t know what you’ve done to make these wolves act like this, but you better cut it out. Cause we aren’t gonna be able to come round every time they’re at your window.”

Rob shrugged. “Thanks for coming out.”

“Controller here says you don’t own a gun?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, you might think of getting one.”

“Thanks. We’ll consider it.”

That night, Rob and Janie barely touched their reheated Chinese food. They were fossils holding onto a lost life. Why had they never gotten a gun? Why weren’t they rushing out to get one now? They wished they wanted to cook, but they had no one to impress.

#

The night sweats came over Rob and Janie as they slept, the dogs stretched at their feet. They rose together and paced the room.

“Let’s open these windows,” Janie said. “I’ve got to get some air.”

She pulled the curtains back and opened the window. The air that rushed into the bedroom burned her hand. Falling back onto the bed, she pulled the clothes from her body and discarded them on the floor.

“So hot,” she said.

“I know.” Rob undressed, fell beside her, touched the skin of her belly, despite the heat.

“We’ll make more,” Janie said. “Not to worry. We’ll make more.”

They pressed together as if all they needed was more sweat to cool the body. They fell into rhythms. The heat blew in. They stared into one another’s eyes, but the closeness reminded them who they had been before Charlie, and Janie turned her face to the window. She screamed.

It wasn’t a wolf but a baby buffalo wedged in the window, mouth open, a creature straight out of Charlie’s history texts—Life on the Plains. Janie pushed Rob off, put her feet on the floor, then her knees. His teeth were blunt, the hair above his eyes raised like two thick brows. He moaned, and Janie recognized the groan as the groan her husband made in his sleep, on his back, when gravity was too heavy for him.

Janie crawled on her knees to the window. The buffalo was frightening, so unexpected, but she wanted to be near it. She placed her hand atop its tongue. Its jaw unhinged with her weight, but the buffalo didn’t move. It groaned again. The bones that once held the jaw in place showed now. The jaw hung unmoving. The buffalo did not blink.

“You’re hurting him.” Rob pulled her hand from the buffalo’s mouth.

“What are you doing?”

The buffalo turned and ran, and Rob darted from window to window, opening the blinds as the buffalo passed. Its jaw flapped against its chest. Wolves followed at its haunches, low to the ground. Janie shut and locked the bedroom window, backed into the bed, and sat as the strange monsters disappeared down the drive. In the distance, the animal emitted one small whimper of death.

“Don’t worry.” Rob stroked her hair, the skin of her naked neck. “It’ll end. Whatever this is will end.”

He had to say something. To say nothing would leave them as helpless as children. If he didn’t know how to fix this, he didn’t know his place in this house anymore. If he couldn’t fix this, there would be no house.

“I know,” Janie said. “I just want to know what’s going on.” Janie’s arm fit right around Rob’s shoulders. She let his head fall on her chest. “We’ll figure this out.”

#

The natural world monsters were familiar. Not only from their appearances on nature world documentaries—Janie housed a hazy recollection of their appearance in her daughter’s morning stories. The nightmares are worse. Charlie unable to sleep for weeks. Every time I close my eyes. An overactive imagination, Rob and Janie told her. Go back to sleep.

The dogs weren’t barking like they usually did when animals appeared in their yard. Rob had nodded off after the creatures had gone. They imagined the carnage, their grass torn from its roots from the weight of chase and catch. When Rob’s breath steadied, Janie crept from the room on her toes. She went outside into the muggy air, dew in the process of forming. The door creaked like in a black-and-white horror flick. Twigs snapped in the distance.

Charlie used to crawl into their bed. They’d wake to her weight pressed between them, her warmth overheating the room, her arms folded at her chest as if she thought they wouldn’t see her if she guarded her body. They’d shake her awake.

“Nightmares,” she’d say in her groggy frog voice. “Can’t I sleep with you?”

When she was younger they’d let her. When she was older they hesitated. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little old?” But they didn’t mean it, and when she would begrudgingly return to her own bed, they would feel a cavity in their chests.

They’d forgotten who they were. When she was born, she became their whole world. The nightmares scared them more than they scared Charlie. They hugged her too tight, They shielded her. They didn’t want to scare her away from the world, but they didn’t want to push her into it either. They wished their daughter could stay with them until she was gray, but they had to let her go. She was smart. She needed a new home. She needed a city in which to fold out of herself. But now, without their daughter, they weren’t parents, not during the long days, not without her there.

In the woods wolves waited. But Charlie had dreamt of other monsters, of skeletons in dark rooms with no doors. In the yard Prancer stood guard, growling. From the woods these skeletons emerged from the trees, half-skin, half-bone, a menagerie of creatures from Charlie’s ABC books. A for alligator, its scaly skin peeling back more and more with each slide forward over the rough dirt. B for the bear struggling on bare bone feet to hold up what was left of its innards, guts hanging in its arms. C for the wildcats with bone-claws protruding from their paws, loping across the yard yet more menacing for their uneven grasp of the soil.

Janie ran toward Prancer, shooed him from the forest. “Go on, get out of here. Inside.” Prancer turned, reluctant, and ran up to the deck. She did not see Orion. What she saw was the monsters. Up close. They were so real, no wonder Charlie could never sleep on her own. What was left of their fur hung rotting from their skeletons, their colored patches silk-shiny.

“Why are you here?” she asked. They were close enough to hear their breath.

They moved in her direction. What else could she say? She didn’t know an incantation to banish nightmares. She couldn’t just wake up. The dream had gone on too long. She grabbed a rock. She hurled it. The bear wobbled closer, raised up so tall it cast a human shadow. The shadow creaked as it came near.

“Run,” Rob called down to her from the patio. “Get away!”

She looked up at her husband and back at the monsters. She wouldn’t run. She threw another rock; it hit the alligator’s skull. Janie turned her back on the monsters. Her husband held the BB gun in both of his hands. He aimed it and shot. The BBs smacked against skin and fur and bone. One bounced off her arm. The sting sent heat through her veins. She sunk to the ground. She couldn’t fight a nightmare.

Worse, she felt she understood them. They looked at her with the same want in their eyes that had been in hers, in her husband’s. They missed Charlie. They tried to go with her, but she didn’t need them anymore. They too didn’t know who they were without their Charlie there.

#

Charlie brought her friend home for the weekend. It had been two weeks since she’d seen her family, though she’d already learned enough about the world to have been gone a year.

“My parents are pretty nice,” she said. What particulars did she want to tell her friend? That they always thought she was something she wasn’t? Naïve? That, though they’d had eighteen years to prepare, she still wasn’t sure they had been ready for life without her?

Charlie pulled into the drive. Charlie walked across the trampled grass to the broken stone pathway to the front door. She paused to examine her mother’s uprooted flowers. The stairs’ wood had cracked on the sides, where the handrails were. Mud tracks led to the door.

“What happened?” Charlie’s friend asked.

“No clue,” Charlie said. She rang the doorbell. The sound echoed through the house like a howl.


Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam‘s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 70 publications such as Fairy Tale Review, Masters Review, and Uncanny as well as in six languages. She was the featured author at LeVar Burton’s Dallas LeVar Reads event. She’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award, placed second for Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize, and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; Syfy turned her story set in the world of the Magicians into an animated short. She also curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth.

Categories
2020 Fiction

L.M. Davenport

BALLAD II

Your own true love, that I’ll have, and more—

But thou shalt never come ashore.”

trad. English folk song

My one true love says the lights on the windmills look like eyeshine, flickering in and out of visible in the half-dark. He says this as we are driving through a forest of them, the only kind of forest we have seen since California. They edge up to the road, cyclopean heads turning slow as poured honey, and over away to the passenger side I can see the power lines they feed in their turning. The lines seem low-slung by comparison. If I could stand under them, I know, I would hear their hum, evaporating static.

“I’d rather think of them like trees,” I tell my one true love. “Then maybe we could find one with a door cut in the bottom for the road, like that redwood on the postcard.” I do not tell my one true love that I prefer this way because trees cannot pull up roots and follow you home, as beasts can.

My one true love takes one hand off the wheel and blindly pats at my shoulder. He ends up around my bicep. I will cut him slack for this, because he has been awake a long time now.

“It got sick, little magpie,” he says. “The Park Service cut it down. The rangers were afraid it would fall on someone, because the wood had gone soft.”

The car shivers between the painted lines, and a semi roars past on the left. My one true love snatches his hand back to the wheel, blinks several times in quick succession. I know those fluttering eyes, that clawed grip. This is the way he looked just before we slid out onto the salt flats, where nothing grew up from the cracked ground to stop the wind. This is the face that comes before the silent tears, and even though it’s close to three-quarters dark, I don’t want to see that.

*

We’re at a rest stop, in the middle of a stretch of interstate where the towns are too small to be viable places of repose. (“No Services,” the exit signs scream as we pass them.) It’s late, or it’s early. The lobby is floored in institutional linoleum, fake-paneled in fake wood. The overheads hum, that sound my mother says dries out your skin.

My one true love is in the bathroom. He is taking a long time, so long I wonder if he’s passed out, shoulders arched back against the toilet tank, hands dangling limp as a puppet’s. Or maybe he is having trouble swallowing the medicine which is keeping him awake.

My one true love does not sleep, because I ask him not to. In sleeping, he might dream of my sister. He might remember that once he courted her, and led her upstairs with her pale hair trailing, in the afternoons when our mother was gone. I stood forgotten at the foot of the stair in those days, crushing whatever small thing he’d brought me as consolation in my fist. His gifts matched our mother’s house, all things from another era—gloves in velvet and satin and kid, cameo rings, hanks of embroidery silk in hues that burned like coals in the darkened hall—but as I held to the newel post with one hand and watched their ascending backs, I wanted only what my sister had. To be held the way a branch holds a bird. To clasp and to be clasped, in a room where the windowpanes turned sun to honey.

I could have stopped it, could have told our mother what they did together. But then I would have lost him, too, because they would have laughed behind their hands and found another place. Somewhere I couldn’t lie on the floorboards of my own bower and watch the thorn-boughs nailed to the ceiling quiver in time with half-heard gasps, as my hand worked between my legs.

Almost always he’d come down to the kitchen, afterwards, while she washed. He made sandwiches, with whatever came first to his hand—apricot cake, pickled onions, calamari—and eat them standing up against the counter. (I was always first to the kitchen in those days, in order to pretend I’d been there all along.) I would have a sandwich already, turning to chalk in my mouth because when he leaned across me for the chili sauce, I’d smell my sister on his skin.

Most days we would talk in low voices, about the ocean that was rising or the forests that were falling. Or he’d fan the prints of his latest photographs like playing cards, saying I could choose one: a carousel horse half-splintered in an alley, a row of dolls with empty eye sockets, an aproned woman proffering a cake while behind her, a blackened field smoked. The light would thin around us, and the sounds that came muffled through the window would change to herald day’s end: a dog calling without expectation of relief, a neighbor watering her garden beds, distant sirens.

“Little magpie,” he would say, smiling and pushing his glasses up with a tapered forefinger, “do you take these to line your nest?”

Towards the end, those last weeks when every moment felt stretched taut as piano wire, I would open my mouth to tell him that name fit too truly, and all the things I had from him lay speared within the briars that coiled above my head by night. But then my sister’s tread would echo down the staircase, and at the sound his face would brighten past bearing. And then they would walk out together, a pair of high-stepping waterbirds off to promenade among their equals.

I would remain, until the kitchen grew dark and I heard the front door open for my mother. Then I would slip upstairs before she could come in and see me silent there. Before she could lay a hand on my own hair falling dark and too fine, to tell me sympathetically that my days of walking handclasped on the pier were surely not far off.

*

It is my turn to drive, again. My one true love slumps glassy-eyed in the passenger seat. He is awake; I have made sure of it. (My hands cupped so tenderly, one that brought the bottle to his open mouth and one that stroked his throat until he swallowed.) We have left the rest stop behind, the uniformed woman at the desk still watching her forensics show, in which figures combed beneath salt-rotted struts to seek a body. We have left another couple in the parking lot smiling and vulpine, a glitter of strange medicine in their stares.

I am about to ask my one true love if he is all right, if he has water—the longer he keeps awake, the less he speaks his needs, decaying slowly into the passive wordlessness of a houseplant—when he says, without inflection: “They are following.”

The hair on my forearms stands up. Nobody knows, I remind myself. Nobody saw. I don’t reply.

He goes on, barely audible: “They are walking, they are coming. They have the harp.”

Still I do not speak, and my one true love lapses back into silence. I press the accelerator closer to the floor, trying to take us further, faster. My one true love is in no condition to drive now, and sooner or later I will have to stop and rest. He is not fully mine, I think despairingly. All the waking in the world will not root her out of him.

*

The last photograph I took from my one true love, he did not mean to offer.

“I’ve had a windfall, little magpie,” he said, laughing as we stood together, backs against the counter. “And more sold means a fine dinner for my darling. Take one, before we go—take five—take them all, soon I’ll have so many we could paper this house in them!”

I wanted to break his smile in half. I couldn’t have him then, couldn’t have his face to hold between my own two hands, but there in front of me were things that could be mine. So I took up the pile of glossed, heavy squares of paper, and began to sift through what he had made.

A man, his face painted into plumage. Cut glass, irises, a silver-dollar moon. A child on stilts whose tips branched into chicken feet, like the witch’s house in the story. Teacups that floated blossoms, from whose centers winked human teeth. A paper dragon, a mirror printed with lipstick rosettes like a squid’s suckers. My sister bare-backed.

My sister bare-backed, bare-everything, face turned away and hair coiled over her shoulder. I knew that bed, I knew the hangings on the wall behind her, I knew the mole just at her waist. (I used to try and prod it when we were small and ran together through the oscillating spray of the lawn sprinkler.) Why could I not be thus gazed upon, thus loved?

He had not yet noticed what I lingered on. He was gazing into the middle distance, grinning foolishly, heedless of the sweat beading on his upper lip despite the air conditioning. I slid the picture of my sister into my other hand and ran upstairs, calling over my shoulder that, for now, I had enough.

*

Fog has descended, clouds lowering until they brush the fields. No stars, no lights or signs, and the lane lines appear as only the barest traces. Ours is the only car on the road, I think, but I have no way of knowing if it is otherwise. Even if we are alone, I am driving too fast. The idea of impending death does not concern me. It feels as if the hands that grip the steering wheel and the foot that presses the accelerator belong to someone else, as if the car were floating, not even above the interstate but through a netherworld in which there is only dark and cloud, and the disembodied shine of the headlights.

My one true love is singing under his breath, something about the green-growing rushes. His voice was sweet before I ground it down with wakefulness, and now it wears on my ears. I do not ask him to stop, because his eyes are shut and so the song is the only thing that tells me he remains awake. The verses drone on, and every so often he interrupts himself, mumbling about the walkers and their harp. This is worse than the singing, and each time he does it I push the pedal down a little more.

It occurs to me that this is all we will ever have, the cloud and the song and the running away. As quickly as the thought appears, I try to banish it, but the old tricks are not working in this quiet, at this speed. What kind of a future did I think we would have, when I took the steps that seemed necessary to allow us one? Wooden floors in the sun, the sound of the ocean on another coast, sweetness untempered by memory? A new photograph, one in which it was my naked back and not my sister’s that shone like witch-light in a dim chamber?

An exit appears as if birthed from the fog, and I let up on the gas to ease along its ramp. The walled curve terminates in one of the ruler-straight highways that carve this part of the country into blocks; I turn left, choosing at random, and speed away into the only darkness heavier than the one that lay over the interstate. If I am thinking anything, it is that I will not permit us to be found.

No future, I muse as the car skims over pavement that cuts a broad aisle through fields of corn that would grow far over my and my one true love’s heads, were we to tread among the stalks. No present, either. In our present are only vacant eyes and the promise of a devouring, of creatures bodied tall and implacable as windmills. They have dextrous hands, and they carry the delicate rotted thing that flickered across the rest-stop lobby television, a harp with which to sing my guilt. To sing my one true love away.

I turn off down a smaller road, and then another. My one true love does not appear to register this change. He only mutters that same garbled tune, his head lolling at an angle that hurts me more than it does him. I pull over close to the towering corn, and shut off the engine. The fog is practically nudging against the windows, and I am filled with an irrational fear that it will creep inside the car, to wrap us in obscurity while we await our judgment. I unbuckle my one true love and pull him unresisting across the console. His head rests under my chin, and still his song runs on, at the very edge of hearing. I cradle him from ribs to crown, and shut my eyes.

Only the past is left. I sink into it like a longed-for bed.

*

The image of my sister held pride of place, in the thorned canopy that draped my bower. How could it not? She, and not my one true love, was the crux of the problem, my supreme obstacle. She was the last thing that I beheld at night, the first thing my gaze struck in the morning. Daily I examined the undulations of my own spine by twisting before a mirror, striving to compare them to hers.

Then came the day when I opened the door and discovered her there in the flesh, head craned back and eyes popping in disgust.

“You’re sick,” she whispered, when she registered the sound of creaking wood and her head snapped down from staring at the ceiling. “This is sick. It’s like some kind of shrine.”

I stood still, mute as a photograph. My blood hummed.

“He felt sorry for you,” my sister spat, her voice growing louder now, “because you’re always there when we are here, always mooning after him as if you were a childling of thirteen, and not almost a woman grown. As if I were the elder, and not you.”

And I remembered all the days, when we had been so small that strangers spoke to us only under our mother’s eye, that she found herself petted and cosseted and presumed the elder, all the doting gazes and unlikely gifts. My sister had always been more beautiful than I, no one would dispute that—but it was not her beauty which made me long to wrap her in briars until she stood more wound than skin. From the day I watched our mother push her, squalling, into the open air, no one could look on my sister and not love her. Even I, even in this moment—I loved her, and it tore at me as I wanted the thorns to tear her flesh.

I let my love show in my face, put my hand out, and spoke soothingly. “Sister,” I said, “let me explain. This isn’t what you think. Walk with me, and I will tell you all about it—”

I did not finish speaking. I did not have to, because my sister was coming towards me, with mistrust and wary sympathy in her face, and stretching out her hand to set in mine. She squeezed my fingers once, saying only: “Let’s go, then. This had better be good.”

She looked back once, at the captured self that hung over the bed. But then she shook her head, as if to put the image and my ownership of it from her mind, and I closed the door behind us.

We took the bus through town to the coast, and did not speak along the way. I could tell from her face that she thought I was preparing lies to feed her, that she was steeling herself against whatever I might have to say when we arrived. But she made no protest.

Nor did she object when we reached the high trail, the one that cut a perilous margin across the cliffs that loomed above the beach. I did not know what I would do until I saw the jutting curve the path made just ahead of us, and understood at last why I had brought her to this place. My heart beat the way it did when I uncovered her photograph from his fistful of prints, the way it did when I saw him for the first time, walking on her arm. I drew breath as if to speak, and when she turned expectantly I whirled and pushed against her shoulders with all my strength.

It was like throwing a rag doll to the floor; she was unprepared and already off-balance when I struck her. She tried to seize my wrists, to pull me over the edge after her, but her fingers found no purchase. Their touch was like the faintest brush of a flame.

I took my time walking to the bottom. There was a slight humming in my ears, but otherwise I felt nothing. I watched my feet scuff over the dry grass and dull pebbles.

My sister was still breathing when I reached her, though she was crushed and snapped. There was blood in her hair, and blood soaking into the wet grit around her, like a halo. She rasped something through collapsed lungs; I crouched by her head to hear better.

“Call someone,” she was saying, “and I’ll give you anything you want. For the rest of our lives, it’ll be how you want it.” She trailed off then, into agonized panting, and did not speak again.

“I’ll have him,” I replied after a moment. “Him and everything else, because you’ll never see the shore.” I lifted her up by the shoulders; her body gave like wet clay under my touch, and I shivered with revulsion. I dragged her into the water, taking her out until my feet could barely touch down on the ragged seafloor, and kissed the top of her head—still miraculously intact—before I let go.

I hauled my own body, which did not feel like mine, back to dry land, and huddled there in my soaked clothes. From far off, she looked like a crumpled swan in the last moments, or a banner torn down and trampled. Then she slid beneath the surface, and I bowed my head to stare again at my shoes, instead of at the sea, that endless yawning throat which had swallowed her down.

Was it any wonder that, when my sister did not come home, I was the first one there to comfort my one true love? That, as the weeks passed and he came to accept—even in his despair—that she had gone, there came a day when he lifted his salt-streaked face from my chest and kissed me on the mouth? That there followed a night, and a morning in which I woke up serene, believing he was my own, and not simply my one?

No, it was no wonder. It was what I had longed for, what I had been forging within myself for all the time he had been my sister’s love. True, he wept often, and spoke of my sister more than I would have liked. And when he woke up in my embrace, he would turn over sleepily and call me by her name.

It was this last thing that pushed me to think of leaving, taking him someplace where memories of her would not linger in the very woodwork. And it brought the idea of keeping him awake to mind, so he would not see her even in his dreams. I told him we would start over, stay awake together and drive until we reached a new home. When we got there, I said, she would be gone. We would be clean.

*

I feel my one true love’s voice die away even as I hold him in the front seat, and know that he is at last descending into sleep, and I have lost. I keep my own eyes closed; he has gone where I will not follow, for I will stay awake until the walkers arrive on stilted legs, to gaze at me with their slow-turning heads. I will refuse to look when they arrive, but I will know them by the sounding of their harp: hair fretted across breastbone, a bright, sodden thing which sings of its own accord. There is a wet rustle outside the window. I hold my breath, the better to hear their footsteps.


L.M. Davenport is a fourth-year MFA student at the University of Alabama. Her work has previously appeared in Quarterly West, Booth, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Dustin M. Hoffman

PIKE’S DEATHBED BLAZES ON

Pike told me, over lunchbreak burritos, how him and his old lady set the bedspread on fire again last night. Second time this month, tenth time this year. I kept a secret tally, marked in orange paint, inside the work trailer’s wall. I expected Pike to die any day. It’s not like I wished him and his old lady dead. It just seemed a matter of inevitability, like painting jobs drying up in winter, like the fact that my back would give out if I kept doing this gig.

Pike licked sour cream off his index finger, which ended at a nub middle knuckle. He never told me that story, how he lost it. Maybe his old lady bit it off. He never shared the stories I wanted, just over and over again how he woke to smoke, thick and black and tarry from the synthetic weave of his comforter. No flames, he claimed. Instead, heat smoldered against their naked bodies. Always naked, of course, because that’s how they lived, naked and smoking, their asses bared for fate.

They were both disgusting specimens. I was reminded of this every day as I witnessed Pike’s crooked teeth, yellow as corn kernels. His hair hung thick with grease, his face pinched into a constant grimace, his whole body an act of twisted compression. And she showed up on site often to visit Pike, to demand he hand over his pack of cigarettes. She’d practice her sport of harassing him while he rolled out walls. Pencil dick, she’d say. Bent-cock motherhumper. Always kissing your boss’s asshole, she’d chant at him, and he’d look strangled, turning purple with shame, but he’d never return an insult.

Every night, they returned home to join their hideous nude bodies in bed, where they’d smoke. Their commitment to doom was unbreakable. Here was love, a promise to burn in your partner’s secondhand fire, while I returned to my pair of cats who mostly hid under the bed.

At work, I’d finish cutting the wall, finish painting the room, fold up the drop cloth, lock up a house transmuted by a fresh skin of blue paint or wheat-yellow or throbbing white. I’d drive my truck away with clean tools, drive right to my beautiful boss proffering a final paycheck, wishing me good luck in life, wishing me better than him and Pike, and then I’d move to better jobs sitting behind glowing screens. Better jobs, better jobs, I’d whisper to myself. In my head, Pike and his girlfriend have married. They keep growing younger, gorgeous and vital. She’s pregnant. Pike’s finger grew back. Their teeth have gone white, their hair silky and full. Their bed blazes, flames flashing every color we ever painted, and every color we never could dream.


Dustin M. Hoffman writes stories about working people. He’s the author of the story collection No Good for Digging and the fiction chapbook Secrets of the Wild (Word West Press). His first book One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press) won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior ReviewAlaska Quarterly ReviewPuerto del SolMasters ReviewWitnessQuarterly WestThe JournalWigleafThe Adroit JournalFaultline, and a bunch of other neat places. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Sarah Mollie Silberman

SURVEY

You have been selected to complete a survey. The purpose of the survey is to gain information about your health and wellness. Your answers are confidential; they are used only for policy research and to better understand the health challenges Americans face today. Participation is voluntary. There is no penalty if you decline to complete it. You can learn more about the survey, and the work of our federal agency, on our website.

*

“Do you have any questions, Mr. Rivers?” says the phone interviewer. She has a warm voice, the voice of someone who uses the word hon a lot.

You ask how long the survey will last.

“About 35 minutes,” she says, “depending on the size of your household.”

You tell her you are the only person in your household.

“About 35 minutes, then,” she says. “Any additional questions?”

35 minutes is not an insignificant amount of time. You could, of course, decline to participate, but the truth is you have little better to do. It is 3:27 pm, and the only things you have done today are work on the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle scattered on the kitchen table and ignore your sister Madeline’s phone calls. She knows you are ignoring her calls; her response is to call at 20 to 40-minute intervals. She also texts various emojis. So far, these have included: the orange angry face, the telephone, and, for reasons that are unclear to you, the pineapple.

You put your phone on speaker and set it on the table, amidst the scattered puzzle pieces. You run your tongue over your teeth, which can best be described as fuzzy. You have not yet brushed them today, and your mouth still tastes like the Coke you drank in lieu of the coffee you ran out of, because who has the wherewithal to go to a store and buy coffee? Truly, you would like to know. You would like to shake their hand. “No additional questions,” you say.

The interviewer starts by asking for basic demographic information.

You tell her: white, non-Hispanic. You tell her your date of birth and confirm your age, which is 27. You are unmarried, without children, and have lived at your current residence for six months or longer. You tell her your occupation (waiter) and that your employer does not currently provide health coverage.

A text message appears on your screen. It is from your sister Madeline: the snail emoji. A minute later: Maybe answer your phone.

“Do you currently have health coverage?” the interviewer asks.

“No.”

“What are the last four digits of your Social Security Number?”

Here, you pause. You wonder if the survey is an elaborate ploy to steal your identity. For one thing, a telephone survey seems odd in the age of the internet. But then, you are not overly troubled by prospect of identity theft. You question the wisdom of anyone who chooses your identity, of the billions of identities, to steal. If you were to steal someone’s identity, you would give it a lot of thought beforehand. You tap a puzzle piece against the table and decide you would steal Tony Danza’s identity. He has a shitload of money and a relatively low profile, which means not a lot of people have thought to steal it.

The interviewer clears her throat. “Sir?”

“Why do you need my Social Security Number?”

“We use it to link your answers to those of other respondents.”

You provide her with the last four digits of your Social Security Number, clicking a puzzle piece into place. To be clear, you are not a puzzle person—you are actually something of a social animal. The puzzle belongs to your mother, who found it in her closet two or three months ago, before she died of pancreatic cancer. The box was still wrapped in plastic when she pulled it from the shelf. “I have no idea why I bought this puzzle,” she said. She was sick then, but not as sick as she was going to be. She still had some meat on her bones. “I never opened it and now it is one of a million things I’ll never do.” It sounds morbid, but your mother was not a morbid person. She was having a low moment, on account of the cancer. In the meantime, you have discovered that assembling the puzzle is the right kind of mindless activity. The wrong kind of mindless activity, such as drinking a glass of water, or brushing your teeth, leaves you feeling inexplicably blank.

“The next few questions are designed to understand your health and access to health care services,” the interviewer says. She asks for your height and weight. She asks how frequently you exercise. “Do you smoke cigarettes?” she asks.

“No,” you say. It is basically true.

She asks if you could walk 100 yards, or the length of a football field, without difficulty. If you could walk 500 yards, or the length of five football fields, without difficulty. If you could walk up to three flights of stairs without difficulty. “Would you characterize your overall physical health as Excellent, Good, Average, or Poor?”

You stand, pick up your phone, and walk athletically to the refrigerator, where three cans of Coke and half a lime remain. You bought the Coke to mix with rum, but you ran out of rum before you ran out of Coke. Is that an indication of Excellent health? Probably not. You take a can from the shelf and crack it open. “I would characterize my health as Good.”

She asks if you have experienced arthritis (no), hypertension (no), asthma, (no), or diabetes (no).

Another text message appears on your screen: Maybe remember I have a key to your apartment, your sister writes.

It’s true: you are someone who loses keys on a regular basis—a trait inherited from your mother—and your sister is not. At one time, it had seemed like a good idea to give Madeline your extra set, but now you see how wrong you were.

“Have you ever postponed medical, dental, or vision care,” the interviewer asks, “because you were concerned about the expense?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen a medical professional within the last twelve months? Including a general practitioner, nurse, nurse’s assistant, urgent care or emergency room physician, specialist, or mental health professional?”

You tell her that, yes, you have.

“And was the purpose of your appointment for routine care,” the interviewer asks, “or to treat a specific problem?”

“In theory,” you say, “it was to treat a specific problem.”

Your sister was the one who scheduled your consultation with the therapist two weeks ago, a month after your mother died. Because you’re wandering around like a bored zombie, she said. She also used the word reeling at some point, though by that time you had pretty much tuned her out. Needless to say, you failed to show up for the consultation. Then Madeline scheduled another appointment, appeared at your door 45 minutes before it started, and escorted you to the office on the bus. The two of you waited in a small room with a (fake) plant, listening to the wall clock tick. You wondered what kind of therapist neglected to invest in a non-ticking wall clock.

She turned out to be younger than you expected, with the dark, unruly hair of someone with mental health issues of her own. She wore earth tones and clogs, and she seemed like someone who would brag about not having a smartphone. What brings you here today? she asked.

My sister, you said, even though you knew perfectly well what she was getting at. You glanced at the poster of Edvard Munch’s The Scream displayed on the wall, which seemed a little on the nose. Then the two of you sat across from each other, waiting for your grief to present itself in a neat little package, but all you were able to summon was contempt for the therapist and her museum gift shop art. And your sister, for dragging you there. Your sister, who had the temerity to schedule a second appointment (or third, if you include the one you skipped). That appointment is today. That is why she is calling. It is why you are avoiding her calls.

“And was the medical bill mailed to your home address?”

“Yes.”

“2201 Ontario Road,” she says, “Apartment 418?”

In the background, you hear a dog barking affably. “Is that your dog?” you ask.

There is a pause. “It is.”

“It’s nice you can work from home. Or can you bring your dog to work?”

The next pause is long enough you wonder if you’ve been disconnected. You glance at your screen; the call is still going. “I work from home sometimes,” the interviewer says. You had pictured her in a drab cubicle. In fact, you had pictured her existing in a drab cubicle, all day and all night. But of course she has a home. People live in homes, unless they are homeless. “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Bernadette.”

You can picture Bernadette: a chocolate lab. Old and stubborn, with mournful eyes. She has a dog bed near a window, where she can bathe in sunlight for hours at a time. It takes a lot to compel Bernadette from her dog bed—an enticing bone, maybe, or the promise of a leisurely walk—in part because the interviewer has gone to great lengths to make it comfortable, lining it with soft blankets and vacuuming it regularly to remove fur and other debris. Probably, if you saw Bernadette’s dog bed, you would be tempted to lie in it yourself.

“How old is Bernadette?” you ask.

“Sir.” There is a hint of edge in the interviewer’s voice. “Let’s return to the survey.”

You take a sip of Coke, the carbonation fizzing in your mouth. “Fine,” you say.

“Now I am going to ask a series of questions about pain,” she says. “How often do you experience pain? Never, rarely, sometimes, a lot, or all the time?”

You tell her sometimes.

She asks if you experience pain in your head, neck, or shoulders (sometimes), or in your back, hips, or knees (sometimes), or in your hands or feet (sometimes).

“Is your pain ever so severe it prevents you from going to your job?”

“No.”

“Is your pain ever so severe it prevents you from seeing your friends or loved ones?”

“That’s a dark question,” you say.

She clears her throat. “The questions are designed to gain information about your health and wellness.”

“You said that already.”

“Would you describe the pain as acute, or general?”

“Both.”

“If possible, can you pick one or the other?”

“I would describe it as acutely generalized pain.”

It takes the interviewer a few extra seconds to record your answer. “And is your pain more severe than your mother’s pain?”

You squeeze the Coke can. It buckles beneath your grip. “What?” you say.

“What?” the interviewer says, alarmed.

“Could you repeat the question?”

“Certainly.” She speaks more slowly, this time. “Is your pain manageable with the use of over-the-counter or prescription medication?”

You snap another puzzle piece into place, not answering. You have assembled maybe three-quarters of the 1,000 pieces, and the image is starting to emerge. It is a view from Park Güell in Barcelona: a curving overlook, a vibrant array of buildings, a piercing blue sky. Barcelona, you think, is another thing your mother never did. But she was a fan of views. Not vistas, necessarily, though she liked those fine, but views that were interesting if not beautiful. For instance, she loved the look of an industrial skyline with a water tower and various earth-polluting smokestacks. When she saw a view she liked, she would grab you by the wrist—she had a strong grip—and she would say, Look, and you would say, I’m looking, and she would say, Look harder. And she would stand there, holding onto your arm with her white-knuckled death grip, until she decided you had looked at it hard enough. That was the kind of person she was.

It hits you suddenly. You experience it as you might a large wooden plank that is placed on top of your body and then pressed down upon, hard. “Oh my god,” you say. “My mother is dead.” The words hang there, ugly and gleaming. You feel a prickling behind your eyes, though you are not yet crying, and when you take a breath, a strangled sound escapes from your mouth. You wonder if the interviewer will mistaken it for a cough. “Sorry,” you say.

“Do you need a second?” the interviewer asks.

“Sorry,” you say, again. You are crying now.

She tells you not to apologize. She tells you to take your time.

It is hard to tell how long you take. You think, for some reason, about the week before last, when you went to the sauna at the Korean spa, and the only other person there was this old, non-Korean man, and when you sat down he looked at you with great sympathy. You look like you could use a good sweat, he said. It was hot in the sauna, obviously. Uncomfortably hot. But it was the kind of discomfort you could settle into, that you could curl up inside of. For a few minutes, at least, the heat of the sauna was the only thing you felt.

You swallow. You breathe in and out. “Okay,” you say to the interviewer. “Let’s continue.”

“Actually,” she says, “I have just one final question. What’s your mother’s maiden name?”

“That’s a strange question,” you say. You look at the picture of Park Güell, which is so bright and colorful, with mosaic tiles and trees and houses that look like something from a storybook, with spires and everything, that it is actually kind of frenzied. Overwhelming, even. You wonder how your mother’s maiden name could possibly be relevant to your health and wellness. You try to recall the listicle you read several months ago about identity theft. What precise information have you already provided to the interviewer? “What agency do you work for, again?”

“Sir?” the interviewer says.

“Your employer,” you say. “Who is it?”

The interviewer is silent.

The call ends the way most things end: without ceremony. It just ends. You do not even hear a click when the interviewer hangs up, since phones no longer click when people hang up. You watch as your phone switches to the home screen. The bright, neatly arranged apps have never looked less enticing. You place your forehead on the table, feeling several of the puzzle pieces adhere to your skin. You imagine the interviewer closing her laptop and calling to Bernadette. You imagine Bernadette rising from her dog bed, guileless, and meandering over, tail wagging.


Sarah Mollie Silberman’s stories have appeared in Booth, CutBank, Juked, Nashville Review, Potomac Review, and Witness. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and lives in Washington, DC. Find her online at www.sarahmolliesilberman.com