SHORT STORY CONTEST

HONORABLE MENTION

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY

BY ASHLEY WEAVER

The bald undertaker of a taxi driver blasts a last-ditch attempt to get me out of the intersection. I’m too tired. I’m always too tired. I enter the all-too-familiar apartment building and clamber up the stairs. The elevator is still broken.

“I’m home!” I holler, launching my keys and handbag onto the sofa.

I open the fridge and search for the last piece of chocolate cake I had been harboring until it’s inevitable expiration date. Stories about my comatose board meeting, the bug in my salad at lunch, and the raw jealousy I’m feeling about one of my co-workers spill off of my tongue as I ravage the refrigerator.

And then I enter his room and swallow the rest of my words. “Oh honey, I’m sorry for ranting like that. How was your day?”

No answer. Just the up and down rhythmic hum of the ventilator pumping air into his lungs. I pick up the worn novel sprawled open on his chest. Page 106. The same page he was on when I left.

“You don’t have to be this lazy, you know!” I wag the book at him. But it’s clearly the last thing he wants to hear right now.

I finally calm myself enough to level my voice. “I’m going to make dinner, and when I’m done, we’re going to have a talk.”

I make dinner. We never have a talk. He just lies there and the same feelings of frustration begin to boil inside me.

I wash the dishes for over an hour. Scrub and rinse. The hot water scalds my hands, but I’ll do anything to keep from going back there. From what we both know is coming.

Finally, I meander back into his room. Slowly. I pass the sick cadence of the ventilator and pick up the crinkled book from its place on the chair beside his bed.

I begin:

“…He hesitated at the sight of her, entranced, for he had never seen a creature so still, so lovely. He leaned over her bedside, breathing in her beauty, and pressed his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. Just one. Suddenly, her eyes fluttered open, radiant with the breath of new life. True love’s kiss…

I stop and look up from the page. I never do that.

I reach my hand over to his face and lift one of his eyelids with my finger. Glazed over like a marble, the cornea reflects no life back to me of the man I know.

I lean over and my lips meet his. He doesn’t wake up.

HONORABLE MENTION

A NEARLY PERFECT DAY

BY BILL GLOSE

Summer in North Carolina and the temperature is unusually cool. Throngs of revelers fill Lumberton Carnival’s fairgrounds with the ubiquitous glissando of laughter. Amid the raucous glee, soldiers from Fort Bragg are easy to pick out with their silent, staring ways. Home from war, their heads swivel as they scan the multitude, eyes flicking from face to hand and back again, checking for weapons, checking for intent.

Brendan Mueller wants so much to leave the desert behind, to pass by trampled litter without thinking Bomb, to linger near the Strength Tester without thinking Mortar every time someone swings the sledgehammer and sends a puck rocketing toward the bell. For months he’s longed for exactly this—a day out with his wife and daughter, ambling over matted grass instead of sand. Freed of body armor, dressed in his favorite Levis, the ones with the seat and thighs worn soft, he knows he should be more at ease, like all these smiling faces in the boisterous crowd, unaware of anything but whirling machines, painted clowns, and tents with all their games of chance. But the coil in his gut won’t unwind. His body and all its interconnected nerves say vigilance is required. There are just too many people here, too many hands to scan, too many potential threats.

Squirming in his arms is his three-year-old daughter, Chrissie, dressed in bright red shorts and a Mickey Mouse tee shirt. Her heart-shaped face and gray eyes are duplicates of her mother’s; her button nose and stubborn streak, gifts from her father. She hasn’t seen him in eleven months. Another time he’d been gone for six. Absent for almost half her life, he’s a stranger to her still. He lives in hallway pictures and on her mother’s computer when she Skypes and Chrissie burrows into her bosom, turning one eye to the screen. It’s hard for her young mind to correlate that one-dimensional face with this three-dimensional man, wiry and square-shouldered, his brown hair buzzed high-and-tight, his eyes roving away as if she doesn’t even exist.

Brendan’s wife, Sophia, is wearing yellow capris, a sleeveless, white blouse patterned with daisies, and a faux pearl necklace. He’s promised time and again that once he makes rank and catches up on bills, he’s going to buy her the real thing, a string of pearls the size of marbles, something to make the other wives in their housing quad drool. Here, she says, let me take her.

The girl stretches her arms out as Brendan passes her over, then she tries to settle on her mother’s hip. No, Baby, Sophia says, setting her daughter down and holding her hand, you’re too big for that now.

Brendan leads his family along the edge of the swirling cacophony, trying to keep the crowd to one side. But not everything is located on the perimeter; not the carousel, not the bumper cars, not the flying chairs. Those family-friendly attractions are clustered in the center, which shares space with food trolleys and gift shops, everything else funneling target customers into the confined area. Just like the kill zone in an ambush.

They ride the teacups, Brendan pulling hard on the center ring to spin them faster, Sophia yelling, Stop, stop, I’m going to throw up. But she’s laughing, as is Chrissie, so he keeps tugging with all his might. When they step off, Sophia’s woozy and leaning into Brendan for support. Chrissie is between them, holding her parent’s hands and giggling. They’re a Norman Rockwell portrait of the perfect American family.

As they make their way to the arcade, Sophia buys Chrissie a small stick of cotton candy. Chrissie pulls at the wispy stickiness and throws a chunk of it on the ground.

No, Baby, Sophia says, you eat it.

Chrissie opens wide and bites into the pink confection, getting as much on her cheeks as in her mouth. Then the taste hits her and wonder fills her eyes. She’s chomping the last bits and asking for more by the time they reach the gaming tents with their shelves crammed full of stuffed animal prizes.

At the ring toss, Brendan’s throws bounce off the necks of bottles before skittering away.  Same with ping pong balls at the table of colored bowls. But then he steps up to the Annie Oakley Shooting Game and picks up an air rifle. Leaning an elbow on the counter for support, he ignores the big targets—the barn and cows—aiming instead at tiny birds atop haystacks and the chickens peeking out from small windows in their coop, their metal faces snapping back with satisfying Pings as he strikes each one. His score is high enough to earn a prize from the top shelf. Lifting Chrissie onto the countertop, he asks, What do you think, Honey, you want the Panda?

She nods, and the carnie pulls down the black-and-white animal, passing it to Chrissie with delicate care, as if it were fine china and not stuffed with wadding. Your father’s quite a shot, he says in a jovial tone.

And your mother’s quite a babe, says a man from the half-circle that had gathered to watch Brendan’s shooting display. A couple of other men chuckle along with him.

Brendan sets Chrissie back on the ground and steps over to the man who made the comment. Brendan’s face has turned to stone, mirth squeezed from his now flattened lips, his slit eyes. You say something about my wife?

The man is mid-twenties, same age as Brendan, but three inches taller, big-boned with thick, hairy arms protruding from a cut-off flannel shirt. A light blue UNC Tar Heel cap is tilted back atop his curly black hair. Lighten’ up, buddy, he says. Just payin’ a compliment. The guy looks sideways at his two friends, gives them a wink. One of them nods back. The Tar Heel looks back at Brendan, his brow wrinkling, some inner calculations crunching the odds and determining, with his bigger size and posse, that he’s way up on the plus side. Just sayin’ she’s Grade A, you know.

Brendan doesn’t hesitate. It’s the instinct drilled into him from a thousand rehearsals, his sergeant’s voice bellowing in his head, Someone confronts you, you put them down. And so, almost unbidden, his right hand shoots out, grabbing the man’s right wrist and twisting his arm backwards. Then Brendan kicks behind the man’s knee and presses his face into the grass. Were he still in Iraq, he’d zip-tie his wrists and pull a sandbag over his head.

The two friends are as dumbstruck as the rest of the gasping audience. The one who’d nodded encouragement earlier to his friend now flattened in the grass is first to respond. But not for long. Just as he reaches out to pull Brendan away, another hand yanks back on the neck hole of his Mötley Crüe tee shirt, momentarily choking him. The new hand belongs to someone in the crowd with the crew cut of a soldier, ebony-skinned, biceps stretching the sleeve of his Polo shirt. He’s no one that Brendan knows, but his brother nonetheless. Not your fight, man, the soldier says, holding onto the tee shirt’s scruff until its occupant nods agreement.

Brendan leans close to his captive’s ear. Apologize. Right now. He jerks up on the man’s twisted arm for emphasis.

The man wriggles like a landed fish. Okay, man, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.

Not to me. Apologize to her. Brendan looks over his shoulder at Sophia, who is hugging herself and shaking.

Sorry, miss. I didn’t mean anything. Honest.

Brendan doesn’t even hear it. The man is forgotten now. Brendan is taking in the area around his wife, his eyes wild and searching. He jumps up and runs to Sophia. Where’s Chrissie?

Sophia reacts as if slapped. She spins in a quick circle, calling out, Chrissie! Chrissie! Where are you, Baby?

The man Brendan had tackled is now on his feet, wiping grass from his shirt and pants, as wobbly as Sophia had been stepping out of the teacup. Brendan glances his way, wanting to attack the man all over again, to punish him for his daughter’s disappearance, but that would be sidetracking. Chrissie is his mission. He scans his surroundings in a slow and methodical 360, surveying every slice of arc. The air is still filled with rings and buzzers from the arcade and beyond that the grinding of amusement rides and the screams of their passengers, but the crowd is quiet here, nothing emanating from this spot except for Sophia’s frantic calls.

Brendan grabs his wife by the shoulders. His voice is steady and firm. You look that way, he says, pointing back toward the teacups. I’ll go this way. He hooks a thumb toward the Ferris wheel. Meet you back here. He waits a beat to make sure she understands. When she nods and runs off, he turns and does the same.

He trots instead of running full out, calling Chrissie’s name while scanning the swarm of people for a tiny kid in red shorts and a white shirt. There are hundreds of children here but none fit the description. Then he sees one that does, a child holding a gray-haired man’s hand as they walk together, their backs to Brendan. He races up to them and is just about to grab the man’s shoulder when he sees the kid’s pink Nikes. Chrissie had been wearing white canvas shoes like her mother.

Brendan has suffered nightmares before—dead comrades asking him to help stuff their intestines back inside, rail-thin prisoners boring through him with their damning eyes as they squat on cardboard squares in cold holding cells, Iraqi children pulling his arm, begging him to let their father go, to let their brother go, to stop pointing his M4 at their sack-covered heads. Perhaps, Brendan thinks, this is penance for all his sins. He’d thought he could leave the desert behind, but if war has taught him anything, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned.

Something occurs to Brendan. He snaps his fingers and says, Lost and found. He remembers seeing the booth near the carnival entrance. He turns and runs that way, his focus back on mission, trying not to breathe life into his fears. Then his wife calls out his name. He looks in her direction and stops dead. She’s standing at the shooting gallery counter with Chrissie in her arms. Brendan’s heart is thumping in his ears as he walks over to them.

She was at the cotton candy machine, Sophia says. Just standing there watching it swirl round and round.

The attendant in the booth places the panda on the counter.

Keep it, Brendan says, grabbing Sophia by the elbow and pulling her away. How could you let this happen? he growls in her ear, propelling them into the crowd, which swallows them up, this once-perfect family on this once-perfect day.

MOST CREATIVE

THREE WALLS

BY AMANDA HARMAN

1.

The way I found out that I am merely a creation of word is actually quite funny, but then, I do share the author’s sense of humor. I was walking along and had the sudden urge to start running. I didn’t see any reason to do that, so I fought back the desire. Against my will, I began racing down the sidewalk. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop. Then, I heard a voice: Running was a pleasure, an escape. I cast my eyes around me, searching for a source. Realizing I was alone, I decided the voice was either in my head, or else it was emanating from the ground and sky all at once. I gulped down my fear and confusion (a hard task if one is also gasping for air), and I looked up. There, where the sky should have been, where the proverbial fourth wall should have completed the world, I saw the focused face of an intellectual. She was typing and clearly enjoying it. Instantly, I understood; she was the author. I was merely a character in a story that somehow involved me running. I hate running; it was not a pleasure or an escape. If anything, it was a form of cruel and unusual torture. Why would the author describe me so wrong? Another realization smacked me so hard that I thought my uncontrollable feet had propelled me into a wall: I am whatever she wants me to be. In some stories, I’m a pirate, bloodthirsty and on the prowl for treasure. Other times, she turns me into a princess brandishing a mighty sword against a dragon. No matter what it is, it’s always me, and it’s never me. I am the author’s pawn, a forever morphing slave to her crazy whims. Seriously, I have no free will, no ability to sit out of a plot that’s too intense or scary, and, trust me, there have been quite a few. The running incident, what I came to refer to as waking up, was years ago, and I’ve been in countless stories almost every day since.

I can’t help but imagine what it would be like if just one time, the author let me be myself in a story. Or better yet, to not have to be in a story at all.

2.

“Where do you think you are going?” Mary asked Peter when she stopped him in the dim hallway of the hospital.

He rolled his eyes, “I told you, out.”

She chose not to acknowledge the eye-roll. “And I told you that you need to spend time here with your grandfather.”

“I don’t want to,” Peter whined.

“Well, he wants you to be here, so you’re staying.”

“What’s the point? He’s going to be gone soon anyway.”

Mary hung her head. “That’s the point, Peter. You’ll never get this opportunity back. I know it hurts, and I know it’s scary, but don’t run away.”

All Peter could manage was a weak shrug before he began to cry. “I don’t want to see him like this!”

“I know, honey, but he wants you here.” So, together, they went to see Grandpa.

At that point, the author turned off her laptop for the night, and the lights all around our small scene dimmed. I closed my eyes and came back to myself, letting the imposed grief roll off my shoulders. I turned to the one the author named Peter, who was still sobbing.

“How’re you doing?” I asked.

He looked at me with his pain-filled eyes and replied, “You know how I am doing. My grandpa is dying!”

I shook my head. This problem often happens with new characters. “Do you even know your grandfather? What’s he like? How old is he?”

“Umm, he is… my grandpa, and he is…”

“You don’t know, do you?”

The pain in his eyes disappeared behind a lens of fear, “No. Why is it impossible for me to remember anything about him? What’s wrong with me, Mary?”

“I’m not Mary, and the reason you don’t know him is because he doesn’t exist. The author hasn’t actually created the grandpa character yet.”

The fear lens was quickly displaced by one of confusion. He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. I waited, relieved that his tears had finally stopped. We stood like that for almost a minute before he finally managed to force out, “But, you are Mary?”

“Not really, just in this story. Sorry.” And I really was sorry. I knew how awful waking up feels. This guy the author called Peter was about to have the biggest identity crisis. “My name is Prota.”

“Prota?”

“Yeah, like Protagonist. It’s the name I gave myself when I figured out that none of this is real.” I’ve learned that it’s better to be blunt with new characters; my words had the intended effect. He started slightly as if a static charge had just poked him with its electric fingers.

He released a shaky breath, “This is all imaginary? None of it is real?”

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.” Knowing may be awful, but it’s better than living in a lie.

“No, that actually makes sense. I would never leave my grandpa alone if he was really dying.” He looked at me like he wanted me to tell him that he was talking nonsense.

Instead, I nodded, “Uh-huh. That’s just the character the author wrote for you.”

A light flashed behind his eyes as a new idea flew into his head. “So then, my name is not Peter, is it?”

“Nope. That’s the character.”

“What is my name then?”

“I guess that’s up to you.”

He nodded; a strand of blonde hair fell out of place and hung over his forehead. “I think that I am Foil, then.”

That wasn’t the answer I expected. Most of the new characters the author dreamed up chose something like Joe or Sally, and they only hung around for a story or two, while I was in all her pieces. Oddly enough, the name did seem right for him, and I had a feeling deep in my gut that he would be around for longer than a couple plots. “Nice to meet you, Foil.”

We shook hands. I asked him if he had any other questions, but he was already fairly at-ease with the whole situation. That was a good thing; one poor girl, who ended up calling herself Betsy, couldn’t function for an entire week after she woke up. She played her role in the author’s plot, then went and stood by herself in the corner for the rest of the time, shivering and staring at the screen in abject terror.

3.

Because it was getting late, I decided to show Foil where the characters usually went to sleep, or rest, or whatever the heck we did as fictional beings. It was a humble little shack over in the corner of what, to us, was the entire world — a 100-yard square area that the author changed into any setting she could ever desire. The shack was wooden with a corrugated tin roof. It was low to the ground and smelled distinctly of pine no matter what I did to change things up; it’s not like there are many candle stores inside the laptop. The inside was humbly furnished with simple cots and couches, but it was cozy, illuminated by several small lamps that cast yellow light over the whole space. Taking up the entire back wall was a bookcase with shelves bowing and bending under the weight of their burden. I explained to Foil that the books were all the stories the author had saved onto her laptop, whether novels, websites, or her own creations. Again, he accepted this insane information like it was common sense. It had taken me months, and a brief period where I somehow convinced myself I was in Moby Dick, to figure that out, but I did finally turn in my harpoon. We turned in for the night, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like the lone survivor on a desert island.

The next day, bright and early and right on schedule, the laptop opened. Foil and I waited on the edge of the patch of light, waiting for the setting to fill in. He was nearly bouncing with excitement.

“What’s up with you?” I asked.

His eyebrows arched, “What do you mean? We get to be in a story!”

“That happens every day.”

“But it is a surprise every day. What will the author write? It’s so exciting, living with the unexpected.”

Finding myself unable to respond, I stared at him. His attitude made no sense. I hated not knowing what would happen; I hated not being in control.

The bricks crumbled when Peter approached, as if on cue. He winced at the cacophony that was unleashed as the clatter echoed off the blank walls. Empty windows eyed him suspiciously, like they knew he should not be there. A light drizzle had started, casting a gloom over the already dreary atmosphere.

Foil stepped into the scene when the author typed his character’s name. I was more than happy to be a spectator as I puzzled over his misplaced excitement. I could see how eagerly he maneuvered around the crumbling ruins the author had conjured into our world. I glanced back at her for a moment. I may not have always enjoyed what she put me through, like Foil seemed to, but she had been my only constant in the years since I woke up.

As I was looking out at her, a man, with disturbingly familiar blonde hair, crept up behind her and abruptly grabbed her shoulders. She jumped slightly and whacked his arm without turning around. He laughed, kissing her head. I gaped in wonder as she continued furiously tapping the keyboard. The sentences formed slowly in my brain. Foil had a real-life counterpart. That man —whoever he was — was the inspiration for Foil, or Peter, I guess. I’d never known any of the other characters to be from the author’s life. Maybe that was why Foil seemed so concrete and permanent; he was not entirely imaginary.

4.

For the next few days, I struggled with this concept. If Foil wasn’t entirely imaginary, then maybe, perhaps, I wasn’t either. That would explain so much: the reason I had been around for so long, why I woke up by myself without anyone explaining it to me. All of this made perfect sense to me, and yet I knew that I was making massive assumptions. It seemed too good to be true that I was, in any way, real. It would mean that I did have an identity that the author didn’t choose. That somewhere out there, a version of me was living her life, making her own choices, starring in her own story instead of someone else’s.

I didn’t mention any of this to Foil. He hadn’t seen his counterpart, and I didn’t want to release the Kraken of my worry upon his unsuspecting mind. I continued to carefully watch the author, hoping against all sense to find a clue to who I was to her. I kept telling myself to let it go; I was a creation of her imagination and nothing more.

I tried to keep my internal turmoil hidden from Foil. One night, we were sitting in our shack reading selections from the bookshelf. Foil was leaned against its base with his nose almost touching the pages of the book clutched in his whitening knuckles.

I paused in my third or fourth reading of an article about literary inspiration. It had no real answers for my own situation, but the author had clearly used it for Foil. “It’s getting good?” I asked with a chuckle.

He looked up at me, reluctantly leaving the world of the novel. “Yes, this is amazing!”

I rolled my eyes slightly and nodded.

“What? You disagree?”

“It’s no different than any other book I’ve read.”

“Really? I think it is uniquely thrilling.”

“Nope, it falls into one of the seven plots, just like every single story ever written.”

He set his book on the ground and pulled himself to his feet. He walked across the room to stand in front of the couch I had sunk into. Leaning forward so his face was just a couple inches from mine, he said, “What seven plots?”

I lightly pushed his shoulder to remind him to back up some. I’d quickly learned that this dude had an odd concept of personal space, which was new for me. I was used to being alone, since that was how I spent most of my time since waking up. “There are only seven different plots in all of literature: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy, and tragedy.”

“Hmm, so where would you say my Sherlock Holmes mystery fits in that list?”

“That’s easy, overcoming the monster. The killer is the monster, and Sherlock and Watson have to overcome by stopping him. See? If you know which plot it is, you can predict the ending. It takes the suspense out completely.”

He slowly nodded. “Even if the plot thing is true, and I am not so sure it is, that does not stop me from enjoying the thrill of a well-written novel.”

Once again, I was silenced by his strange opinion. Knowing the ending kind of, by definition, ends the suspense. That was why I hadn’t read any of the books for years, just the research articles saved to the author’s computer.

We had many conversations like that over the course of several months. He was always way too naïve about the struggle of this existence. I initially chalked it up to inexperience, but I grew to suspect that it was just his genuine outlook. He thought the author was generous for letting him try out the many, many characters, which was absolutely insane. He didn’t seem to understand that we lost all identity in the rush of personalities that constantly buffeted us from the author’s mind.

One night, things got more intense than usual. Foil got so close to me, I felt his breath on my face. “Why are you so jaded?” he asked me in an intense whisper.

I looked deeply into his eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t try to be; it just comes with experience.”

“It does not have to.” He leaned in even closer.

I shook my head. “I can’t help it.”

“Let me help you,” he said, right before he closed the remaining gap between us and pressed his lips to mine. It was the first time we had done anything like that without the author writing it. I pictured the author and the boy I had seen with her. I hadn’t ever considered that he was a romantic character. It was unsettling for such a soft person to enter my world; I’d prided myself on being hard as nails (forgive the cliché, I never said the author was amazing).

The next day, I got up for the laptop opening like every morning since I had woken up, and Foil was gone. I searched every inch of the shack, but he was nowhere. It was like he had been erased.

“Foil! This isn’t funny!” I screamed to the corners of my entire world. No answer.

Abruptly, the laptop was yanked open. I peered out and saw the tear-streaked face of the author. That was new; the author had never cried while she was writing before.

Without warning, and just when things seemed to be perfect, Peter left. Mary was alone in a new world of utter blackness and sorrow. She didn’t know what to do or how she was even supposed to breathe through the piercing pain in her heart, like a ragged hole had been ripped through her chest. She collapsed in a pool of self-pity and let the sobs wrack her body.

Just as quickly, the laptop slammed shut. I glanced around, and Foil was still gone, but I was used to the blankness. I dried the obligatory tears from my face as the truth revealed itself to me slowly, like that cheesy sunrise the author wrote the other day. Foil was a projection of the author’s friend, who the Peter character, among others, was based on. I had been the Mary character; the one Peter had hurt. If the author was crying at the same time as Mary, that meant — the thought struggled to organize itself in my head— I was based on the author herself. Every story I was part of was the author imagining herself having an adventure. I was her way into new worlds, making it possible for her to escape her own. I was the author’s avatar, the character most like her.

What I didn’t understand was why the author was so crushed by her version of Peter. I mean, I missed Foil, but not enough to sob. She’d put me through much worse pain in many of her tales, crafting countless broken legs and hearts for me over the years. And, anyway, a new story would come along soon; they always do.

WINNER

FATTENING THE CURVE

BY DAN HUYCKE

Since it had started, there was no stopping it. Coronavirus was the silicone to the augmented tit of depression that everyone, Jeff being no exception to the woody hard rule, suckled from. Twisted in his bedding on the old cheapo carpet he swore to vacuum weekly, brain a-flood with craving, Jeff disturbed himself with focusing too much on one of those odd, involuntary and inexplicably localized muscle twitches the body just has, this time somewhere vaguely left of center of his left asscheek. Light the color of evening snow gone guttery ashen sickened in through the frosted north-facing window. Sinestra is Italian for left. Jeff tried to focus on the little moments in life, like this, that keep defining him, struggling to adjust that internal reality and project it, metronize its palpitating, onto the smear of shadow on the ceiling, above which, with the cartoonish rhythm of an idiot villain sawing at the plank he sits on, his neighbors fucked. Never any voices, Jeff’s brain said, but only because Jeff couldn’t think of the speaking verby thing part of the dialog tag if that dialog’s spoken by, like, Vincent Price, but also because Jeff remembered a professor, bald, stout with modern coolness evidenced by a total lack of tweed, repeating, chalk in ultra-cool hand, Said is not dead. No groans, no moans, no fugitive yelps or yips escaped on accident. Just ceaseless sawing.

“Sugar.” Said Jeff.

The processed kind with dyes and saccharide polymers, added starches of ambiguous, unpronounceable origins (for familiar texture and satisfying crumble), -oses innumerable, the kinds that pack into the crags of your molars like concrete and leave your tongue burning. And the advertising. Lately they’d rolled out those resealable packages, the kind with the sticky rim that, unless he ate them fast enough, a not-so-implausible case, collected constellations of precious lost sugardust Jeff felt mocked by in a weird cheated-consumerist sort of way. Font was important, Jeff solemnly reminded himself. Even a fool could tell you that. In a way, it was everything. Whether it was that zingy, caper-esque slant, or the more subtle, but not at all refined, cursive drawl resembling silvery strands of juiced-up drool, each had a role to play and Jeff felt pretty damn sure he knew what each one was.

It had started. So how could he stop it?

Thin spit gleeked out from under his tongue. It had the same alkaline taste spit has right before puking from too much clearance-aisle red. Jeff couldn’t swallow fast enough. All that Nancy Reagan shit he’d been fed in health class about that life-altering ‘first hit’ turned out to be true. If he could go back to then, to four year old Jeff, smeared stupid with chocolate, he’d beat the bastard black and blue, instill some Pavlovian sense into the little twerp. But here he was, too many years later, flushing time down the daydream drain, agonizing over the prospect of donuts, fudge, the standard and, honestly, dull assortment of Big Names, cookie confections, gelled worms/amorphous globs/children (generously spritzed with that zapping, freebase crystal stuff) was all well and good, too good really, but there was nothing that held a sticky soothing candle to the One, the Constant Crave that never Caves, the Big Kahuna, the Commander in fucking Chief of jonesing. Jeff had no brand loyalty, not really. Bank statements played a part in whether it was Turkey Hill or Blue Bell, Blue Bunny or that whackass looking Aldi shit, but besides matters of personal finance at whatever time of the week that Jeff was in that aisle of the grocery store, that corridor of partitioned glass door after glass door, the breath from within calling to those on the other side, namely, with cherubic sorrow, lusterless Jeff, slumped and visibly “off” Jeff, stooped and mumbling, as if drawn and hammered by the burden of choice, of will, made miserably ductile by the consumerist decision designed specifically to unleash, in all its unwanted humility, that special flavor of personal abasement only we can inflict on ourselves, the newest and hottest, not to mention most crushingly common, way to self-flagellate, Jeff.

Yes, it had always been, and could only ever be, dearest ice cream that commanded Jeff’s brain. Alcohol had, for a time, staked tyrannical claim on Jeff’s life for a few months, but it was nothing several consecutive days of vegetarianism, two-mile runs and a genuinely concerning policy admonishing any self-pity with too many push ups, slapping his own face, or both, couldn’t clear up. He had even flirted with cocaine for a scintillating spell, but it never really flirted back, and Jeff wasn’t the type to go chasing dogs. Nothing ever came close to darling ice cream, ice cream the heartthrob, the starlet, Jeff’s joie de vivre and esteemed, lipless confidant.

Nevertheless, there was a pulse, however feathery, of extraordinary violence beating in the walls of Jeff’s thoughts of ice cream. Sometimes they were as simple as scenes imagined and smirked at of Jeff groping for the soup ladle to literally excavate lurid green hunks of Mint Chocolate Chip out of its pint-sized packaging and into his fanged mouth, or of Jeff, smeared with berry-juice, traditional Great Plains headdress on yet askew, machete raised and dripping Death by Chocolate, eyes a-bulge with creamlust unredeemable; these were not all unwelcome.

But sometimes there was an invasive force that occupied him, a manual override executed by a hand he could not see even if he were searching on his hands and knees, triggering thoughts in Jeff that he would proudly (indeed, publically, and with great ado) punt a small child for verbally expressing, but that upon thinking, no matter the brevity of the thought, iced him with sweats. Disgust didn’t even begin to describe what it made him feel, this Edy’s sponsored terrorism of the soul. When it descended— this is always the choicest word, determined long ago, probably during the toxically umpteenth repetition of scissoring leglifts, to properly illustrate it’s essentially god-like and vengeful propulsion, it’s brimstone velocity— waste was laid. In the past, Jeff had clawed at his throat thinking a tightening rope there whenever he considered, no matter how momentarily, of seeking social, perhaps even sexual, shelter from that mental maelstrom he could not outrun. Now though, Jeff just twisted, listened in between the twistings to the pulse in his skull, the blood batter whisking unpredictably in his gluteus maximus, sinestral style.

At that forgettable moment Jeff received a text from a newly inaugurated hypochondriac friend. Very simply it read, ‘Death Toll Tops A Million; Riots Erupt Worldwide.’ Jeff fiddled his fingers the way people do to intimate the fleeting sense of the world, and the phone clunked to the floor. No echo. Jeff waited, maybe for his breathing to stop, maybe for the guilt-jacking impulse to rise, to try and take a shit, to just do something. What really needs to be, Jeff’s brain offered in a voice occupying some weird no-man’s land between 2nd and 3rd person, a kind of dictatorial plasma, is some recontextualizing. Jeff grinned, sort of. What raw-boned textures the word had. What morphologia nebula. The critics would nod. The campus would approve, but keep an aslant eye constantly transfixed on him, primed at full cock, crosshairs hungry for future transgression. Recontextualize, my dear, foppish Jeff. ‘Tops a Million’! This virus had him sighing through his nose, a preposterous not-so-little number, with provocatively tubular suggestions to it. His peaked roof at the front door, as his very healthy mother (no pre-existing conditions, pulmonary or otherwise) of seventy-something used to say. Should I call her? Maybe wait two weeks. The last time they’d spoken they hadn’t really spoken; he’d been a peripheral presence outside the intense remisremembering scope of her and his father’s medical past, specifically concerning a certain top ranking health official with serious COVID suction, and the Washington Post expose on said official’s breadth of research and outreach during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, stating, according to his mother, with no absence of laudal flare, and, more or less, sycophancy, that this woman had bravely given birth at the very height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, refusing an epidermal, bleeding profusely, and right as the midwife was about to transfuse much needed blood into the laboring lady in question, shouted “Don’t! It’s infected!” and promptly, like the hackneyed heroine of so many sentimentalist cheese-fests, passed out. Jeff’s mother was appalled at the story because that midwife was her. She had delivered the baby of this now highly influential medical advisor in the time of pandemic; she had been the one accused of attempting, albeit, unknowingly, to essentially murder this woman, and her darling child, with shamelessly sourced blood, when in fact the story was all “marmalade in the fry”, as a really unfortunate looking and strange relative of Jeff’s used to say, and at really inappropiate moments. Certain details had been not only left out, but erroneously reversed. The woman was not bleeding profusely, Jeff’s mother, finger wagging, lips puckered into a foot locker of crow’s feet. The story, she said, was propaganda.

“She was a total wuss,” Mrs. Jeff began, splaying herself in her armchair, rubbing bare bunions together hideously, proverbial hammer and nails in hand to crucify patient-provider confidentiality with, “whose idiot husband, god bless him, was going green with misplaced machismo, staring into her dilations, not that he could stare (his eyes were swirling in opposite directions; I’ve never seen anything like it), so I grab him, walk him over to her head, which, I might fffff add, was still perfectly fffffucking quoiffed and poofed and conditioned, vaginal rippage notwithstanding, and I tell him to hold her hand because she’s screaming ‘There’s too much blood! Give me the transfusion now!’, when it was a perfectly normal amount of blood during a perfectly normal, unexceptional birth from an unexceptional woman with too many mirrors in her life.” She relaxes, sinks exhausted into her cushions.

The whole time Jeff’s father is squinting like he, Jeff, imagines his father imagines a sage squints. “Hmmph! Most nefarious!” Jeff Sr. cloudy-brained. “Reverso muck-rake-o-o-oh, no?”

“And another thing!” torso bolting upright. But the rest, it dawns on Jeff, is lost to memory, that heel of narrative hid in the muted boom of a story’s (listing) shadow, and all that might matter is what that woman is willing to do for us, the fearful dying thousands. Upstairs, the body-knocking has stopped and the customary female throat-clear means they’ll start arguing in fiveish minutes. Jeff had not spoken about his life at all that night with his parents, which at the time was fine by him. What would he talk about, the hours wasted on the floor, dopesick for dairy? Or how about his neighbors’ ritual fuck-fight-fuck routine and how sad and jealous it made him, or how he had never wanted so badly to be ultra-elderly in his entire life as he does right now in this historical global moment just so he can say, ‘I’m ancient. My front steps are trying to kill me so go away and let me cough and eat fried chicken.’? Shut lips, not unlike a ganache-layered cake, got him through life’s riots and made the paper thin walls of experience seem pointless which meant there was doubly no point in talking about it. So the hours passed; the carpet never got vacuumed. He went outside.

The previous tenant had left an ashtray full of rain-stained cigarettes on the knee-high brick wall that Jeff figured he now had the right to call a stoop. Burned off fog left the air queasy thick, so Jeff went up his two steps to street level thinking it might be better. Out on the sidewalk, without a crisp edge to speak of, was a tin pan of waffles someone had had enough of. Instead of being waffled like waffles, a doughy sugar-powdered bootprint could be distinctly made out. He approaches, stands over the thing. It’s sad, alright. A pace or two away is what looks like a blob of used condoms, but Jeff’s brain is seeing the wrong glove. Painter’s masks, deflated latex digits, the weekly new addition to the corner’s panhandlers— the torrent is multiplying, the curve bulges. Wobbly humanity has an ill-founded universe stacked against it. Jeff begins to feel jumpy in that moment, a cursed kind of feeling sweeping down the street and over the potholes to swirl around him like the warm evening winds of femme ferocity in a heroine’s red dress, the blazing scarlet number that says, ‘yeah, I got some tricks up my sleeve, pal’, but the opposite. Jeff wanted to either die or be on a huge, empty beach or both. He couldn’t tell. What that told him about the afterlife should’ve been interesting (to Jeff, that is) but not this time.

Maybe he should just get some chocolate, the nice kind with the smoky nightclub backlighting in the picture. An idea occurred: all this weird sex stuff, the really subliminal, subdued, cloaked kind, had fucked Jeff up. Think about it. There’s this ad that pops up on his Spotify, an English version and a Spanish one (Jeff’s ex spoke Spanish but Spotify must’ve figured once a multilingual targetability, always a multilingual targetability): a woman, youngish-sounding, posing really inappropriately leading questions in this voice. It’s too at-ease sounding, a hardly hidden giggle somewhere in there, in that voice that maybe had a couple real stiff vodkatinis and all of a sudden dear god has hips whose sway makes you seasick and has this way of running its fingers through its shampoo model hair and Jeff only ever hears this ad when his headphones are in his head. If the phone’s through a speaker or on its own, neither version plays. It’s as if the voice knows it is powerless unless it can be closer than a lover’s whisper. Craft chocolate does the same thing.

He’d had enough of this. Sugar withdrawal had his head creaking with raw-boned pain, like a hangover but somehow more embarrassing. Patting his pockets, he felt his wallet with the debit card and the driver’s license (quietly proud organ donor, please and thank you), his key, phone.  There was no denying he was all set. He even had his headphones tangled in a stuffed bunch in his back pocket. A big breath in, a big breath out.

“I’m ready now,” he said, and he turned to the door and held out a shaky hand towards the knob that doesn’t always turn the way you want.

 

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