I GRAZE ON BEEF-FED GRASS. Four packs
of cards left out. The clubs curdled,
so they’ll need to be discarded. Diamonds
were fine over night; they last forever.
Retain the offal and you may find yourself
a soul departing.
Withstand enough peer pressure and perhaps
you’ll capture one as it flees. At least
sense it. What is it to be alive
if not to be sensate? Life’s a game
of spades. One pass through
the digestion system is never enough. Sixty-four years
later and it’s never enough.
I’m sorry. My language
has over sixty-four words
for a snowball’s chance in hell.
One for each year. He loves you,
now, but the only way to know
if you two will make it for sure
is to appeal to sabermetrics. Take heart:
the regressions look good. They project
many years into the future. Strategically adjusting the R2 results in our crossing the Rubicon
of significance. Traditionally, hell was depicted
as a cold place. In Svalbard the candles
are expected to last only one night
but routinely last eight. Miracles do exist.
They are called forests, and my language
has over sixty words for the way atheists
disavow them. I appreciated your interrogation
very much, but I already discarded
all my guilt. You won’t find my prints on it
AFTER SIX NIGHTS OF INSOMNIA, I SAW THE SHADOW. It appeared on the paisley wallpaper of my bedroom, as black rings transforming into a pitch black child-size figure. It stepped off the wall, tip-toed on its black cat feet, and sat on the edge of my mattress. Then, as if seizing control of my thoughts, my mind filled with memories of the black boy I killed: his screams, his blood pouring onto my manicured lawn, where my new SUV was parked in front. His opened eyes staring out of a sleeping face.
Fear paralyzed me in bed, though not enough to stop me from moving. I willed this charcoal illusion to return to the wall where it belonged. What right did it have to invade my space like this, to forcibly remind me of that boy? I was found not guilty by a jury of my peers. All I wanted was to keep intruders from burglarizing my enclave. I knew every-one who crossed through our front gate. How was I to know this boy had friends here?
The shadow returned to the wall.
I shook myself awake and jumped up, thinking my insomnia was playing tricks with my head. I turned on the lights and touched the wall to see if I could feel where he— “It,” I mean— went…but it had vanished without a trace.
In the morning, on my bedroom bureau, I saw a photo of my grandmother crying. She was not crying before.
My friends and family have kept away from me. Frightened of my story. How I acted. Jumping at shadows I see on a wall. They thought I was losing my mind.
Was being alone really becoming so scary for me? No—this phantasm manifested from my lack of sleep. I prayed before going to bed that this black boy—I mean shadow—would soon be nothing more than another bad dream. And would go away.
But at night, it returned. It floated across the carpet, passing right through my TV set, picture frames. In a photo of me, where I once flashed a gleaming white smile, I now sulked pitifully.
THE CAKE ONLY GETS MADE WHEN SOMEONE DIES—the baker calls it his mortuary masterpiece. “A recipe from my great-grandparents in the Netherlands,” he explains when we ask. “So sweet it expunges the grief right out of you.” The first time he brings it to a wake, we think he’s crazy—cake can’t heal our wounds, erase our sorrow for the town dentist’s death. We’re pretty sure he was overcharging us for crown work anyway, so we’re not even certain it’s sorrow we’re feeling, except maybe for all the money he’d weaseled from us.
The cake really does all of those things, though—as soon as we eat that first bite, our tears dry, our wails melt into sniffles. Some of us even start to look forward to funerals—fingers crossed it’s just our neighbor’s great-uncle, someone who’s already 85 and lived a good life, but we’re not picky. The twenty-four-year-old who crashes his car into a tree is a tragedy, sure, but at least no one else suffered at the hands of his drunk driving.
The cake is black, or sometimes dark gray, depending on how much food coloring is in the icing. “It doesn’t take much,” says the baker, “just five or six drops.” Some of us don’t like the icing’s anise flavor, not at first: it reminds us of our alcoholic grandfathers, or nosy maiden aunts who visit twice a year. But we come around.
The cake has a slab of almond paste in the middle, a thick, golden mortar that shrivels our tongues and puckers our lips with its sweetness. But almonds take a lot of water to grow, water which has been in short supply for so long, despite some of our efforts to form a resource conservation council and unify the town to save water, which generally fails. Little water means few almonds, so often we settle for imitation paste, which isn’t as good. It has a bit of a chalky flavor simmering underneath. Better than nothing.
The cake goes unmade for three whole months, the entire town in suspended animation like prehistoric mosquitoes in amber while we wait for someone to start counting worms. Our nerves get worn down—we’re on edge, our patience constantly pressed against the edge of a knife, screaming at our spouses for chewing too loud, and one of us snaps and runs over the dog next door that just won’t stop barking. Maybe this will count as a death, we think. We hold our breath. Continue reading “The Cake” – Fiction by Jonathan Wlodarski→
Our Winter 2017 issue doesn’t fly until December 21, but if you’d like an early taste of all the hungry, beastly lit that lies in wait, here’s Deirdre Coyle‘s wonderfully bizarre short story “How to Vomit Living Creatures.”
AND THEN SHE VOMITED A CAT. Not so much a hairball as an entire cat. It folded out of her mouth and onto the floor, fur smoothed by mucus.
She was wearing her bumblebee sweater.
“You look like a bumblebee,” said her mother.
“I just threw up a cat,” she replied.
Her mother looked at the clock. “Isn’t it time for your therapy?”
“Well…is the cat dead?” It was not moving.
“Let me check on it. Go see your therapist.”
Veronica was a student of comparative linguistics. She walked two miles to class every morning. Sometimes she ran. Sometimes she ate Luna bars while walking. This was allowed. At lunch, sometimes she ate french fries or chicken fingers. This was not allowed. Sometimes she stuck her fingers down her throat afterwards. Other times she ran an extra five miles on her way home to make up for it. Nothing made up for it.
The therapy sessions had begun after her freshman year of college, during which she had dropped thirty pounds in a few months and maintained a perfect 4.0.
“Do you worry often?” the therapist had asked during their first session. “About grades, maybe? Or boys?”
“I worry about grades,” Veronica replied. “But mostly I just get good grades. That’s what happens. To do otherwise would be stupid.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’m in college, right? My mom’s paying for it. So I’m not going to waste her tuition money partying, you know?”
Her therapist raised an eyebrow, one finger tapping the arm of her chair. “Why do you say that?”
After two years and as many pounds of weight gain, Veronica’s therapist continued to question obvious statements.
“You can’t just eat a cookie and then throw up a cat,” said her therapist.
“I could. I did.”
“Not physically,” the therapist said, scribbling on her pad. “In order to purge a cat—”
“I wasn’t purging.”
“I only meant expunge. In order to expunge a cat, you must have eaten a cat.”
“I never ate a cat. I only ate a cookie. And if I had eaten two cookies, I probably would have thrown up two cats. Or maybe one, much fatter cat.”
THE PEOPLE STOPPED FIGHTING IT A LONG TIME AGO. They used to make a show out of securing their homes. They would barricade the doors. They removed family pictures from the walls and replaced them with photographs of famous landmarks, skylines of cities they’d never seen, and Impressionist paintings. They tucked their children into small holes in the wall behind the bookshelf. They hid them in secret cellars, and under loose floorboards. They harnessed them behind the furnace in makeshift contraptions.
Nothing surprised the Retrievers. It seemed the breadth of innovation when it came to concealing one’s own child had its limits. The Retrievers knew every trick and every secret hiding place, and had heard every lie, sometimes more than once on the same day, sometimes on the same street. The children were either safe or they were not, and every cycle they never left a house without the child they had come for. If the child was chosen, the child would be found and the child would come.
It’s been decades since anyone has resisted the Retrievers, not in any meaningful way at least. Occasionally, there’s a bribe offer, which they always reject, or a demand for proof of authority, to which the Retrievers respond by showing the parent the roster, leaving them to sulk, defeated in their doorframes. Most just comply now. Fate is fate they say. They watch as the van rolls down their street, and as it slows to a stop and the Retrievers exit, they clutch their child instinctively — a final protective measure before their fate is finally revealed to them. Then they whisper to themselves, “Not this house, please, not this house,” because that is all that they can do. Continue reading “Number 59” – Fiction by Rayna White→