Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 6)

With A Demon On Your Chest

BY: Severin AllGood

It’s Christmas Day and you lie in bed between two girls, but not in a hot, Cinemax After Dark type of way. More in the sense that you all took too many Xanax after you left the bar and passed out together fully clothed. The one girl’s room is a mess. Dirty dishes and overturned ashtrays are scattered around. Half-empty beer bottles with cigarette butts floating in them. Moldy to-go containers from every delivery place in a three-mile radius. Even huddled together with these two, you’re still freezing. You wonder if the house has heat. Winter in Portland is no place to be without heat.

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The Farmers in the Fields

BY: Ziaul Moid Khan

“Is it my right to snatch food from their hands?” I asked myself. The answer was a lone, long silence. This family had done a lot to get me here, at this position. Not that I was super rich and all that, but at least I was just above a hand-to-mouth condition. They were still there, squaring their shoulders with the same grinding poverty.

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TCR Talks with Elizabeth Crane

BY: Jaime Parker Stickle

Elizabeth Crane is the author of such novels as We Only Know So Much and The History of Great Things. She has a unique, honest, and quirky voice, and you’ll relate to her characters, even those at odds with each other, recognizing them as friends or family. Crane’s writing is addictive in all the best ways.

When film director/writer/producer Donald Lardner Ward suggested Crane adapt her novel We Only Know So Much into a screenplay, she did. The result is an award-winning film.

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Lee Martin’s The Mutual UFO Network

by: A.m. Larks

To assume that Lee Martin is writing about little green men and flying saucers would be a faux pas, but Martin is writing about things that are no less alien to us: our fellow human beings. The Mutual UFO Network explores the complexity of human relationships, which is as terrifying, strange, and incomprehensible as any extraterrestrial lifeform.

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Ritual to Ban the Sun

By: Audrey moyce

The moment Rachel woke up she knew she was going to masturbate. She felt the familiar ache in her groin, and the sweat around her neck held the whiff of preemptive shame. The Backstreet Boys in the posters above her bed looked down at her.

She must not. Must not. God was watching, and God-knows-who-else was, too. And every time you touch yourself, it lays another brick on the staircase to hell. She had to stop this before it began.

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TCR Talks with Abby Geni

BY: A.e. SANTANA

Abby Geni is the award-winning author of The Lightkeepers and The Last Animal. Her latest novel, The Wildlands, explores the traumatic repercussions of a category five hurricane when it hits Mercy, Oklahoma, and demolishes the home of the McCloud family. Orphaned, the children attempt to go on with their lives but are swept into a world of dangerous, fanatical eco-terrorism that is both frightening and understandable. Through their story, Geni examines the turbulent state of our natural world and plays with the line between saving the planet and destroying ourselves.

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TCR Talks with Mart Kivastik

BY: KaiA GALLAGHER

For a small country of 1.3 million people, Estonia has a rich and long-standing literary tradition based on centuries of folklore and lyric poems. The country is located on the Baltic Sea to the south of Finland and shares its eastern border with Russia.

At the end of World War II, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, forcing many of the country’s authors and playwrights into exile. A select few remained in Estonia but found themselves constrained by Soviet censorship.

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Book Review: Adam Nemett’s “We Can Save Us All”

By David M. Olsen

We Can Save Us All is an ambitious debut by a very talented Adam Nemett. The book begins with a chance meeting of our rather nerdy protagonist, David Fuffman, in an odd, drug-enhanced damn-building exercise where he meets the charismatic and wealthy Mathias Blue—in a frigid river, at Princeton. This clever scene is a fun springboard into the witty, satirical, and nihilistic novel that is to follow. The story is set in the near future where all-too-realistic issues of war and climate change combine with a phenomenon called “Chronostrictesis,” where time itself seems to be coming to an end as though through a funnel: human existence as we know it is no longer, as the characters have to stockpile food and supplies for the severe weather and the impending superstorm.

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Hotels

By: Rachel Smith

The party was on a Thursday night. The guests came flushed with cold, carrying six-packs of Stella Artois. They unwound their scarves and lay their coats on Cici’s bed. As with all New York buildings in winter, the sixth-floor walk-up was overheated. Still, some guests kept their coats on. As each person arrived, Cici’s panic mounted. She’d invited women. Where were they? The work friends who had said they’d come? At half past seven, fifteen men stood in the tiny living room drinking. They threw glances her way as they talked to each other—about what? What could they have to say? None of them knew the others. She’d slept with them all.

Cici felt that they understood this. In the low, flickering candlelight, Brandon leaned toward Momar to speak. Steven drifted toward the window, tapping a pack of American Spirits on his palm. Frank and Hervé followed, reaching into their pockets. She glimpsed them from the open kitchen, where she was frantically browning meatballs. She saw awkward politeness in the way they moved across the room. But why be nervous? she asked herself, as she piled mounds of spaghetti on each triple-stacked paper plate. What could they say that would make it worse?

She delivered the food and moved among them, dipping into conversations, offering more beer. The apartment was deeply hot now and the last coats had been shed and tossed on the couch. She began to almost enjoy herself. The act of eating seemed to simmer them down. Then Luke came close and whispered, Sweetheart, I can’t compete, and dumped his plate in the trash. As he let himself out, he waved at her with his leather-palmed gloves. A sense of permission rippled through the room. Frank went to the bedroom for his coat. Hervé took his scarf from a hook on the wall. Soon the apartment was empty, candles burning down, a scattering of garbage. They were gone and she looked at the clock. It was nine.

 

How had it happened? she wondered again, three nights later, in the hotel room with Jean. He was a bulge breathing loudly beside her. She moved her legs and felt the milky soft sheets. To some of the men she’d barely mentioned the party, not even invited them. But mentioning a party was an invitation, she realized now. And she’d known that. Possibly she’d mentioned it out of fear no one would come. Or only two or three people would come. Some humiliatingly small number of people who would regret taking the train all the way up to 111th Street.

A clicking sound came from the gas fireplace in the corner. It was off now. Earlier she had lain on the thick carpet, bathing in its little heat. Jean always rented the Royal Suite when he came to the city—an indulgence she associated with his age—and the luxury made her feel spacious. It made her wonder if it was the squalidness of her apartment that had set her party up to fail. Whether a Chesterfield and a coat of Farrow & Ball would have changed the composition of the guests, made everyone drink more, and given the party that natural feeling good parties have. But this wasn’t about her apartment, she thought, turning over, pushing a pillow aside. It was about something more difficult. She had become one of those women who didn’t have friends.

Well. There were worse things. She was young. She probably had time. Light leaked around the cracks of the door to the bathroom and Jean’s shape was seal-like under the covers. She reached under and touched his arm.

Nn, he grunted. Cold.

Jean, she said, rolling onto her side.

Asleep, he said.

Why are you interested in me?

I was asleep, he said, opening his eyes.

That’s good, she said. You can go there again. But what made you interested in me? She was propped up on her elbows now.

He turned on his side to face her and said, Why are you asking?

I think I’m realizing something, Jean.

Well—he breathed and seemed to come more awake—I like being around you.

She fell back onto the pillows and thought about that for a moment. Or didn’t think about it, but felt it. The feeling was something like satisfaction.

I’m realizing—she said, and looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Jean? She nudged him with her fist. In the dim light, she studied the round outline of his face.

 

She half-woke when he left, before seven. Her alarm sounded at eight. The morning dark had given way to grey. Not light, exactly, but visibility. The room seemed to have been uncloaked. She stretched, cold under the sheets. The covers were heaped on the floor.

I used to go to the palace to meet with the son, he’d said at dinner the night before. He meant Baby Doc, Haiti’s president-for-life who’d fled to France in ’86. Half a decade, almost, before Cici was born. On a U.S. Airforce flight, by the way, Jean had said. They were in the hotel restaurant with its white tablecloths and dark damask walls. Jean had his fingers pressed on the base of his wine glass, his face lit with good humor. When I used to go meet with him, he said, twisting the glass a half turn, he would sit at the desk like a walrus in his beautiful suit. But he would never stand to greet you. You see, it was hot there, even in the palace. If he stood, you would see he was sitting there in bare legs and shorts.

Cici thought of this as she looked down the bed at her own thin legs. She’d lost weight when she visited Haiti, where she’d met Jean four months ago. She’d lost her period. The trip had left a spiritual mark on her, like a thin, white stripe on a plain beach rock. But whatever the mark was, she couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t really say what it was.

She reached for her phone to text Jean and opened an unread message. In meetings until late my bird but done TODAY if things go well. There were three fingers-crossed emojis. Idea: would you like to go to Maine?

Reading this raised a vague tenderness within her. She thought of Maine as a place that had kept its wildness, a place artists liked to go to paint little boats against a sea that bled into the sky. It must have been three months ago that she’d explained her wish to go there. They were at a hotel in Washington, where Jean lobbied for his textiles. I know I have a romantic idea of Maine, she’d started out, in her matter-of-fact way. It was one of the first nights they’d spent together. He folded his newspaper and looked at her blankly. As she went on talking and got more into the thrall of her own thoughts, she’d said, But that’s the point of travel, isn’t it? Romanticizing? Isn’t that what gives you pleasure?

The memory embarrassed her now. It made her feel exposed. It showed something unguarded that she would have rather him not have seen. When they were together, she was aware of the outer life she presented. She tried to allow no opening, to control his impression of her. She thought that this made him like her more. But thinking of him now, when they were apart, she felt that her inner self was exposed—was always open to him—in some elemental way.

She texted: Maine! Yes. 

When she got out of the shower there was a reply: But can u take off work?

She dried her hands on a bath towel and typed back: Of course.

 

Light and fine as salt, snow drifted over the park. She jammed her fists in her pockets and snugged her coat tighter. Horses and carriages lined up on 59th Street and the drivers huddled together smoking. Cici turned out of the park onto the sidewalk. She walked close to a dun horse and touched its neck.

Ride for you? a driver called out. He moved toward her, dropping his cigarette in a puddle.

She shook her head. The horse flared its nostrils and she felt its wet breath.

Beautiful day, he said. Snowy day—though the snow had nearly stopped—Today half price.

I’ve read about your horses, she said, moving her fingers over the mane. They don’t get to go to pasture. Their stables are too small.

Your titties are too small, he said, smiling.

You can’t even see my titties, she thought, walking on. When she got to the corner she wished she had said that. And as she turned down Fifth Avenue and pushed the heavy doors open to the lobby and took the elevator to the 32nd floor, she was dogged by an indistinct sense of regret.

She went to the boss’s office and asked for the rest of the week off.

No, he said. His desk was polished and bare, nothing on it but a MacBook and a package of Red Vines. You’ve already taken more time off than we allow, he said, fixing her with a perplexed gaze. He pushed the Red Vines toward her, as though offering consolation.

She went to her cubicle and turned on the computer. But as she thought about it, she felt that it was unfair. She had worked there the six years since college, taking no extra time off until this year. Her trip to Haiti shouldn’t count, since one of the organization’s pillars was “service.” She’d gone there after the hurricane to volunteer. They’d written her up in the company newsletter. She looked down the hall and saw the other copywriters staring into their computers, wearing earbuds. She stood and took her coat off the back of her chair.

 

She had met Jean at the Oloffson, the hotel from The Comedians, with its grand, weathered approach: a cement path with tall palms at each side. White balconies with rows of thin, ornate balusters. Flat patches of grass shored up by cracked, pale walls. The hotel had a kind of weary elegance that had slipped into being something else, something more like fluky endurance.

She was supposed to be in the south, where the hurricane had blown roofs off—in Les Cayes—but hadn’t figured out how to get there. So she was here, in Port-au-Prince, blowing a hundred bucks a night on what amounted to an oddly thrilling vacation. In the day she wandered the streets downtown. She bought bottles of Coke out of ice-filled coolers. The vendor handed her a tall glass bottle and wouldn’t let her leave until it was empty and she gave it back. People climbed on their roofs to repair leaks from the storm, and in the narrow alleys power lines were clumped haphazardly along cement block walls. Children bathed in plastic tubs and sold Chiclets and called out, Give me one dollar! Women sold fruit and men sold cell phone chargers and batteries. Blan, they yelled at her. Hey, Blan.

She drank rhum punch at the hotel bar. She swam in the pool, the one where the dead man had been found in the Graham Greene novel. On the porch, at breakfast, she listened to conversations. The third morning, a man near her spoke rapidly in English and French. She heard the words compliance assessment and you knew they were Koreans. The man wore short sleeves. He picked up his water glass and set it down again, as though his speech were so important he couldn’t pause to drink. Across from him, a woman sat hunched over a flat omelet. When she got up to use the bathroom, she dropped her napkin on the ground.

The man rocked back on the rear legs of his chair and addressed Cici. I usually go to the Hotel Montana, he said. But there are some people you must always meet here.

Why? Cici asked.

He waved a hand toward the empty chair. She hates it here, he said. So I have the advantage.

The woman returned and took out her pocketbook. Non, ma chére, he said. He turned his cheek for her to kiss. As she walked off, the sound of her heels made the waiter, in his billowing white shirt, glance up.

Jean turned to Cici then and asked what she was doing there. She explained that she didn’t know how to get to where she was meant to go. That evening she was in a private car, with a hired driver, on her way to Les Cayes.

 

Cici walked up Fifth Avenue, weaving back through the stream of commuters. It wasn’t yet ten. She went to the bookstore. She was standing, staring blankly down the aisle before she knew what she wanted. The Comedians had given her her first idea of Haiti: a country doomed and fertile, with dusty streets and paintings in bright colors. The image wasn’t so far off what she had experienced when she went there. She wanted to revisit that now.

When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals… Something like comfort spread within her at the formal, rhapsodic sound of the words. And there, near the bottom of the first page, was a line she remembered underlining ages ago: There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives. The words had thrilled her. She’d been in college, in her tiny dorm bed, curled with her back to her roommate. She’d wondered if that was true—the point of no return—and if it was, when it would arrive for her, or if it already had, and those questions had made her life seem to unfurl into the future, full of mystery and consequence.

There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives.

The words seemed more like a trick now. They seemed meant to coax her into a false sense of things mattering more than they did. They seemed cheap. The comfort she’d gotten from reading the first lines turned over on itself and darkened.

But why cheap? she wondered, as she closed the book gently and tucked it under her coat, under her arm.

And here her thoughts became confused, because the truth was that she felt both things at once: the sense of mystery the words had given her before, and also this new suspicion of cheapness. And there was something else, something swimming below the surface of her thoughts that she couldn’t get at. She walked in the direction of the door.

Excuse me, a man said, as she passed the sale table. He put his hand on her arm.

She stopped. She felt her face outwardly compose itself and she smiled at him.

Sorry to bother you, he said, in a cautious way. But I bet you’re my daughter’s age. I’m looking for a gift.

She waited for him to go on. A violin concerto played softly, coming from the cafe. She thought he must be well past sixty, the same age as Jean.

What books do you like? There was helplessness in his voice, as though he’d already been there, scanning the shelves for a long time. I want to get her the right one.

Don’t get a book, Cici said, clutching the zippered edge of her coat. She watched his face crumple. Get her anything else.

 

The snow had stopped. The air was cold through her coat. She felt the hard brick of the book against her ribs as she walked toward the train. Only when the doors had closed did she move it to her bag. No one saw. There weren’t many people going uptown.

She opened the door to her apartment, everything in order but dingy, and felt for a moment that no one lived there. It smelled like the natural, bergamot-scented spray she bought online. She crossed the living room to the window, the one the men had used to smoke at her party, and worked it open. In the pocket of her coat, her phone sounded, and she took it out and saw it was a call from her job. She turned the phone off. She left the window open as she packed a suitcase, even as it got cold. For a moment she stood in the doorway with her coat and luggage and the inexplicable sense that she wouldn’t come back here. She turned the lights off. Then, as though to guard against that odd feeling of finality, she switched the one in the kitchen on. 

In the hotel room, Cici slept on the pale, striped couch until Jean came. She felt him moving around the room, heard drawers opening. Then he was in the bathroom clipping his nails. He was on the phone, ordering room service, when she opened her eyes. She stretched, arching her back, and when he saw her, his face changed. It gave him pleasure to see her wake up. 

Did you have a good nap? he asked, coming close to kiss her hair.

Yes, she said.

He went to the mirror and undid his shirt buttons with the usual attitude of vigor and purpose. As she watched him now she wondered if this quality was something he’d cultivated against the fact of getting old. It made her feel sympathy, and admiration. She pushed the feelings aside. They weren’t the ones she wanted to have.

I accomplished my goals today, he said.

Good. She swung her feet to the floor. Her legs were bare. She stood and walked around the couch and lifted her shirt to see her midriff when she passed the mirror.

You’re thin, he said.

So? she said, dropping her shirt again.

He turned his body to profile, showing his beach-ball stomach. I didn’t used to be so fat, he said, and smiled. He took off his undershirt and looked at it. These are good shirts, he said. He opened his suitcase and took out a plastic-wrapped package. Want one?

She stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, and put her hands out.

He tossed it in her direction. This is what we’re making in my factory now. 

What are you paying these days?

That’s why I like you, he said. You have a conscience.

She pulled off the plastic wrapping and let it fall to the floor. She held the shirt by its two shoulders and shook out its folds. 

Five dollars a day. Twenty-five percent over the minimum wage and five times what people are making all over the country. He said this in a salesman voice that irritated her.

Mm, she said.

Mm, he said, with a finality that made her feel she should not say more. He walked into the bathroom. She heard the shower turn on.

 

She picked up the plastic from the floor and took out the cardboard insert that clung to the inside of the shirt. The cotton had a new, slippery feel, and it smelled like chemicals. She ran the fabric over her arm. Presently there was a knock, and she pulled her jeans on and opened the door. While the girl set up their trays on the folding stands, Cici took cash from her purse. It was money Jean had left that morning for her to take a cab.

Thank you, the girl said, and Cici nodded. The girl asked if they needed anything else.

Cici shook her head and softly closed the door. 

She looked at the trays. The plates were covered, and—she put her fingers to them—hot. She lifted the napkin from the bread basket and took out a piece of baguette. She spread it with butter, and stood there, next to the table, eating slowly.

She says she’s hungry, the driver Jean had hired told her, as they moved through the slow traffic on the way to Les Cayes. They were watching a woman walk alongside the cars with her hand out and pleading eyes.

Many people here have need, the driver said. But we also have fakers.

You think she’s a faker? Cici said.

The driver shrugged.

A man in the car in front of them rolled down the window and yelled something.

The driver laughed.

What did he say? Cici asked. The woman had fixed her eyes on their car now and was thrusting her open palm at Cici.

Nothing, the driver said. He says nothing.

Cici handed the woman a coin.

Put up the window, the driver said, and she did. The car in front of them moved and he drove on, gathering speed.

What did that man say? Cici asked again, after they’d traveled a few bumpy miles. The driver smiled and turned his clear eyes to her. You want to know?

Cici nodded.

The lady says mwen grangou. I’m hungry. That man puts his window down and says, Go have a fuck. It will make you forget about it.

He turned the radio up and drove on.

Cici was eating another piece of bread when Jean came out of the bathroom. My factory got two contracts today, he said. He had recovered his jolly mood. One is a big label. We have not been working at full capacity since we opened. Now we will, almost. Oh, good, he said. The food is here.

Jean produced a candle from a small paper bag and lit it. He moved behind her and pressed his mouth to her neck. He pulled out her chair. Before he lifted the lids off the plates, he took her hand between his and rubbed it. The portions were small but he had ordered lavishly. French onion soup, mussels, filet, green beans.

You know, he said. Since the factory opened after the earthquake, we’ve created almost two hundred jobs.

Cici thought of her own job with a swell of resentment. You don’t mind spending money, she said, surveying the food. You could pay them more.

You liberals, he said soberly, you always use the same lines.

What are you, she asked, a conservative?

I’m an industrialist. I’m a business man. And—he picked up a steak knife—a champion of my country. Mwen grangou, he said, as he cut the filet in half. He spoke Creole, she understood, to show that he knew more than she did about his own people.

He began talking again after they had eaten for a while in silence. I went to a good private school, he said. We spoke French at home. We were raised to be—he waved a hand—cosmopolitan. By the way, they teach French in the schools all over Haiti. Only they don’t teach it well enough for anyone to come out understanding. He took a bite of bread and Cici waited as he chewed.

Our class went to an assembly in an outdoor arena, he said. This was with Papa Doc there, running the country—he pointed in the direction of the coffee table—like in your book. Terrible times. Though if you were not political, and not unlucky, you were not so desperate then as the people are now. I mean in terms of money. He cut the last green beans on his plate, picked up his water glass, and set it back down. When he spoke again it was with hesitation, as though she’d asked a difficult question. We sat in a row on bleachers. In front of us a man was blindfolded. The Macoute came out wearing their sunglasses, holding guns. Ten of them, maybe. They line up. There is no speech about the man, nothing. No sentence. Nobody coughs. This man is there, of course, for a political reason. But we don’t understand. We’re eight years old. I was wearing my navy uniform with shorts. He paused, then made his fingers into the shape of a gun. He looked toward the window, as though looking away from the image that had come into his mind. Can you imagine? he said. This was what we watched at school.

 

In bed, Cici pressed her body to his, touching the hair on his arms, the band of his cotton underwear. She couldn’t sleep. She had napped too long. She thought of the tent city in Les Cayes, where she had helped a mission group hand out water bottles and plastic toys. The local people had left her with varied impressions—resignation, friendliness, shock, dignity. They had warned her not to wear her flip-flops in the mud because of worms. The day before she left, she had wandered through the corridors, among the tents and tarps, snapping photos with her phone. As she reached a small clearing, away from the foreign workers, a man in a loose, sleeveless shirt had come up to her, slapping his chest and yelling in Creole. He took a rake that stood against the fence and waved it at Cici, heckling. He came close and backed away, dragging the rake over the ground. The only word she understood was white person, blan, but she saw what was underneath the words. It was pure—almost appealing—anger. And there was something sexual in it that confused her, something to do with power.

A woman in a Médecins Sans Frontières jacket stopped and stood beside Cici. He says, Look at me, she translated. Go ahead. Take my picture. Isn’t that what you want? Take it home with you. Take my picture when I’m—the woman searched for the word—in squalor? In her lovely French accent, the woman remarked, Next time you might want to ask.

Later, Cici stood with the same woman near a small garbage fire, and she said, You know what the problem is with this country?

Cici shook her head.

The corruption, the woman said. The elites. There’s money here. But it goes—she held her fingers up as though she’d taken a pinch of salt—to this many people. They rob their own country blind.

Cici thought of this now, in the bed, as she touched Jean. She had a rush of feeling that she tried to untangle. It had risen from his story of the execution. He had seemed sincere. But in that sincerity, she sensed something else—as though his feelings about it were rooted in something more personal than watching a man be shot. But who was she to doubt the depth of his feeling? It had made her suspicious. But why? She knew nothing about Haiti. Or business. Jean had only been kind. Yet she couldn’t dismiss the sense that he should not have money, being from a country that was so poor. She fell asleep wondering if there was logic in this, or if it was naive, or whether it mattered at all.

In the morning, he brought her coffee in bed. It’s a beautiful day for a drive, he said.

She looked to the window. The patch of sky between buildings was gray and there was a steady drumming of rain. Why are you so happy? she said.

Did you ever go to Cité Soleil? he asked.

She shook her head.

He shrugged. I thought maybe you had, because all the do-gooders like to go there. I used to have a factory there. But when the government changed, we started to have gangs. I kept operating, losing money every day, my workers being shot at, bullets coming in through the walls. Everyone lost their jobs. I had to close the factory down.

With the new factory, I’m useful again. And what happened yesterday, the contracts—people can rely on me. It will be the first time we’re on steady ground. He touched his hands together, then drew them apart. I feel a weight is gone.

Cici allowed herself to be swept up in Jean’s sincerity. She gathered the covers around herself and said, I like you.

Why, my bird?

I like the way you talk about what you do, she said. But—she felt herself speaking from someplace else, saying things that were possibly not true, yet at the same time were pleasing to say aloud—There’s a part of me that might say I like you because of your money. I like the hotels. The plates with the silver covers. The fireplace and the good sheets. It doesn’t take much, she said, for me to feel happy.

A wounded look passed over his face, but he quickly recovered.

He came close and put a hand on the side of her neck and said, We have our own reasons for enjoying each other. At my age, the enjoyment is what matters. The details matter less.

He turned his back to her and she felt as though something had fallen within her, as though he had won.

She put on the clean, chemical-smelling t-shirt he’d given her, and felt her own uneasiness as they hauled their suitcases down in the elevator and loaded them into the rental car. She knew better than to romanticize having nothing. And yet, she was cutting the pieces of her life down to nothing. No friends. No job. No money. She would go on the trip, she thought, and after that she would not see Jean. As they drove north in silence, with the windshield wipers flying back and forth, she understood the difference between them, and for a moment it eased her suffering. He had passed the point of no return, and she still had all the time in the world.


Rachel Smith’s writing has appeared in The AtlanticThe Seattle TimesThe Rumpus, and Brevity. She has been a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Fellowship and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives with her husband and dog in a cabin in the wilds of the North Cascades. 

Nicky Heads Home

by: Eli Ryder

November 2005

All Sara could remember about rock bottom was hopelessness, begging, and the rough smell of burnt hazelnut mixed with an unidentifiable herbaceous funk. She sprawled on the floor and locked eyes on the dirty hypodermic needle that lay six inches from her nose. If the floor sways just right, she thought, it’ll leap right into my eye. Then she slept.

 

December 2005

Sara laid behind the dumpster in the snow, crumpled and hollow, for so long that the cold left her stiff and slow. Not numb, though. She had hoped that the burn would turn to sore and the cold would drain whatever was left, but numb didn’t come.

Standing wasn’t good. Walking wasn’t better, but making sure she stayed upright distracted her from the pain. She could still feel him over either shoulder, a shadow just out of reach. He was a blur at the edge of her vision, and then he was gone. His voice echoed in her, deep and harsh, and she could smell rock bottom on her clothes. His smell.

She was still drunk. She stumbled, regained, and spilled out into the yellow light on the sidewalk. She felt the sideways burn of onlookers.

It was just a half-mile shuffle up the boulevard past sidewalk diners to the rough end where the storefronts were barricaded with rolling steel gates.

She stuck her key into a battered door between two of the gates, opened it. Inside, she flipped a switch and a sterile fluorescent buzzed on. The carpeted stairs swayed in front of her, and she braced herself on the brass mailboxes that lined the wall.

She lifted a foot onto the first step, and pain flared white. Each push to the next step torched higher, and halfway up the stairs she realized she was screaming.

Right about now, numb, she thought. Any time, numb. I’m waiting.

In the hall at the top of the stairs, she dodged sleeping addicts curled in front of locked doors, banging her shoulders against the walls. She started to feel shadows creep in at the corners of her eyes and pinched her forearm. The shadows shot back behind her, and she found her door.

Inside, she left a trail of purse and keys and torn skirt and shredded nylons, bra and top and heels, leading to the bathroom, where she slid into the cold tub and curled her hands under her cheek.

 

March 2007

Nicky had already spun the lid off the bleach when Sara slid into the kitchen. She snatched the bottle away, splashing a little on his face. Instinctively, he slapped the wet spot with a clumsy hand and spattered it around—his clothes, his eye, his lips—and then sucked in a belly full of air, shooting the bleach into the back of his throat.

Sara had time to wonder if skin stained and corroded the way his clothes would, and then Nicky was choking, gagging, screaming. She ripped him up off the floor and shoved his face under the faucet. Hold his eye open, don’t drop him, he’s squirming—

Nicky whipped his head away from the faucet, cracking against the divide between the basins. Sara gasped and went cold—what the fuck did I just do—and then he screamed again, eyes shut tight. She propped his eye open, praying the deep red there would rinse away.

Nicky threw up thick bile, choked, and kept screaming.

In the emergency room, waiting patients split their attention between their injuries and her tattered son. She held him tight to her chest, silently begging Nicky to forgive her, but the other patients’ glances burned fiery holes in her, rekindling her guilt. Nicky was close to nodding off, but the lump on his head from bashing against the sink was huge and she didn’t want to let him sleep. Every time she woke him, his screaming renewed and her heart broke a little more.

Nicky’s nurse had only just taken him when Sara heard a cold voice behind her. “You really should have latched all the cabinets.” A woman in a severe suit looked down at her from behind a clipboard.

“I have child latches on the cabinets. A baby gate, latches, and supposedly a childproof cap on the bleach.”

“And you took your eyes off him, left him alone because you ‘knew’ he was going to be fine?”

“No! I left him—”

“Left him. I have that part.”

“Goddamn, let me finish. I left him asleep in his playpen—the walls are higher than he is tall—and I went to the bathroom. That’s all. I came out and heard the cabinet door shut and he already had the damned bottle.”

“Really.”

“Fuck you. I’m doing this by myself, what the fuck do you know about it? Working,

taking care of a kid? Alone. It’s a miracle we have what we do—in the beginning, I had nothing, and now we’re good, we’re doing good. I own my place, I’m not taking handouts. I’m working—I run my department, I’m fucking working.” Sara’s voice echoed through triage. A few people stared.

“First, stop shouting. Not great for your ‘I’ve got it all together’ argument. Second, I’m just going to file the report. I don’t make decisions, your yelling at me will get you nowhere at all.” She paused. “It just goes in my report.”

Sara swallowed the threat and said nothing. Severe Suit stared her down a moment longer and then left. Sara put her head in her hands, trying not to cry through the stillness of the moment.

 

December 2013

Mrs. Nolan was a pleasant woman, always sweet on the phone, but Sara still couldn’t help sneering when she spoke. Something about her thick voice, like cloying honey, stuck weird in her ears. Sara’s mother would have said that voice raised her hackles, which Sara always thought was funny, picturing hackles like porcupine quills on the back of her neck that stabbed straight out when raised.

She felt the back of her neck, rubbed a little, making sure nothing spiked out.

Mrs. Nolan flipped another drawing to the top of the stack. “There’s this one too, which doesn’t seem so terribly bad, but in conjunction with the others—”

“There’s a theme, you’re saying.”

“Yes, a theme. And maybe not one that we should be concerned about, but we tend to notice patterns in these kinds of things.”

“Yes.” Sara flipped through the drawings. Each was a crude landscape, drawn in Nicky’s clumsy crayon hand. A set of rolling fields, corn rows, mountains, a beach, each scribbled darkly and barely recognizable. In the top corner of each, a waxy black sun, and directly under the sun, standing on whatever surface the landscape afforded, a black goat. It would have been indiscernible from a dog or cat, or bear for that matter, except Nicky had spiked two horns and a goatee on the heads in each drawing. Sara smiled—it really was just a stick figure, each stick scratched repeatedly into black grooves in the paper. But the horns, the goatee, they were delicate. Shaky, still, but delicate and precise. As though Nicky had been afraid to take as little care with them as he had the rest of the animal.

“At his age,” Mrs. Nolan said, “we normally see pictures like this, with family and pets. Very common actually, especially if the child is troubled about something.”

Sara felt a tug of sadness. She remembered her mother proudly displaying her crayon drawings of family on the refrigerator, remembered painstakingly drawing each yellow strand of hair in her clumsy hand and then convincing herself she had gotten it right. Why wasn’t Nicky drawing her? She made a mental note to plan some time off. She’d been busy with work, maybe too busy, she thought. They needed some family time, just the two of them.

“He’s fine. And we don’t have a goat.”

“No, of course not. I just wanted to bring them to your attention.”

Sara looked up and couldn’t see anything but real concern on Mrs. Nolan’s face. She stacked the drawings together and stood up, trying to shake the feeling that her hackles had spread like wings. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have a talk with him.”

Mrs. Nolan smiled. “If you feel that’s necessary. He’s a bright young man, sensitive too, and his acting out has calmed considerably.” Sara saw the concern flash into judgment for a moment, then return. “Not entirely gone, but we never expect perfection, do we?”

She’d been trying, and despite her territorial instinct that begged for her to punch Mrs. Nolan in the throat for pushing her nose where Sara thought it didn’t belong, she was grateful that her efforts were recognized. Happier still that Nicky might learn to get along.

“Thanks again.” Sara turned and left, not slowing when she passed Nicky in the hall and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go, kid. You. Me. Ice cream. And tell me about the goat.”

At home that night, Sara stood in the doorway of Nicky’s room and watched him sleep. His nightlight cast star patterns on the walls and ceiling. Sara never could figure out how the slow rotation of their positions didn’t make Nicky sick. He lay still, sucking on the neckband of his pajamas, the stars revolving around him.

Sara smiled at the image, but thought he might do better with others if he didn’t think of the world as revolving around him. She reminded herself to have her assistant replace the nightlight with something less astral. Maybe a yellow sun just plugged into the wall, something that didn’t move, something that didn’t so obviously indicate that he was the center of the universe. He was the center of hers, though, and she dismissed replacing the nightlight entirely.

“His name is Billy,” he’d said in the car. “Billy is my goat-friend and he’s been to all those places.”

“How do you know him?”

“He tells me about all those places, about the people there—but I can’t draw the people, just Billy and the places.” He split his attention between her and the world blurring by outside the window.

Hackles again. “How do you know him, honey? Why can’t you draw the people?”

Nicky smiled at the window, and Sara thought the conversation was over. Her back stuck to the leather, the heated seats suddenly overdoing their job. She thumbed the off button and flicked a finger across the car’s touchscreen radio controls, finding Nicky’s favorite Pandora station, and braced herself against the onslaught of Disney-themed Christmas songs. Sara watched him in the rearview, bobbing his head and conducting. She started listing in her head the night’s tasks, and then the next day’s, a habit she’d gotten into when she’d been given her first executive position.

She added bedtime stories to the list. He was sweetest then, when he was curled up and listening to her Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears voices.

“Because they’re in the hole, Mommy. Billy keeps them in the hole.” Nicky was still looking out the window, his voice barely hovering above the saccharine bounce of Disney tunes.

“The people are in the hole?” It was an odd thing to say.

“The bad people.”

“Where are the good people?” she asked.

“What good people, Mommy?”

 

November 2014

Sara’s eyes snapped open and Nicky was standing at the foot of her bed. Her clock’s red LED display shone on his face, his flat expression glowing fire in the dark.

“Jesus, Nicky, what’s wrong? You scared me.”

Nicky just stared, his breathing regular and smooth. Not a nightmare, Sara thought, not a bad dream.

“Do you need something? Water? Feeling okay? What time is it, honey?” She glanced at the clock. 2:59 a.m. Far below, the sparse sounds of the devil’s hour on city streets—the rare horn blaring, a siren or two—gave the only indication that anywhere outside the bedroom actually existed. She could scream and no one would hear, she thought. She shuddered.

Nicky didn’t answer, just stared, and Sara was smacked by a rush of cold. A puff of condensed breath shot out of his nose and he blinked. Sara looked down, saw that her breast had spilled out of her nightgown—so cold, if that nipple gets any harder it’ll break, she thought—and felt his eyes there. She covered herself in a flash. The air warmed, she couldn’t see his breath anymore, and he turned away. Nicky backed away from the foot of her bed, still blank, still staring. He turned away, and the clock’s red glow flared on his profile.

He was naked. He still had a child’s belly, but his shoulders and arms were the sculpted thin that hinted at impending adult dexterity. He was going to be strong, she thought, and then saw his erection. Impossibly large for an eight-year-old, and she thought she saw a gleam of pre-ejaculate jeweled at the tip. Her breath caught and she shivered, praying he wouldn’t notice and turn back to her.

His bare feet clomped on the teak floor in the hallway. He shut the door to his room behind him.

 

October 2015

Nicky stared out the window and Sara watched him, punctuating her phone conversation with questions he didn’t answer. The back of the limousine was wide enough that Sara could barely reach across the seat to touch his scraped knuckles, but she tried anyway. He moved, the smallest twitch of avoidance, such that he was just out of reach. She hung up the phone, counted to ten and reminded herself that personal time was part of what a CEO gave to her company, and turned to Nicky again.

“Honey, you can’t keep avoiding this. There aren’t any more schools we can send you to.”

Nicky didn’t answer.

Sara tried to make a note in her phone to book a vacation, just the two of them, but it rang again. Nicky looked at her and rolled his eyes, sinking his thin frame farther into the soft leather.

That’s something at least, Sara thought, something better than silence and a complete lack of acknowledgment. At least he noticed she was there.

They turned into the massive driveway that half circled the front of the estate. She gasped and dropped her phone.

Red and blue lights swirling from the emergency responders splashed over everything. They scrambled to put out the fire. Her hedges and the stone wall circling the property had kept the flames hidden, and the night sky obscured the smoke, but there was no hiding the blaze once inside the perimeter. The entire front of the sprawling colonial house was engulfed.

Sara looked at Nicky. His eyes glowed orange.

 

November 2015

Millie sat on the floor, hands covering her face, but she was unable to keep from dripping blood all around her. Sara stood frozen, unable to process what she had just seen—Nicky smashing his nanny in the face with Sara’s empty San Pellegrino bottle—and instead wondered how much the hotel would charge for getting blood out of the carpet.

Nicky’s shoulders jumped up and down, his hands were folded over his belly, and he barked and snorted deliriously. In a moment, he was doubled over with it, then down on the floor, rolling back and forth. Millie’s whimpers of pain ramped into growls of anger, and Nicky laughed harder. Millie stood, raging through her clenched jaw. She wiped her hands on her jeans and locked eyes with Sara.

“Fuck him, and fuck you,” Millie said, nose still bleeding. She snatched a towel from the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

Sara looked down at him, then at the blood spattered on the plush floor, then back at Nicky. Still laughing, he took off his shirt. He dipped his fingers in the blood spangled around him and drew the familiar scribbled goat in blood on his chest. Nicky looked down at himself and chuckled.

Sara stared at him, searching, and eventually had to look away, unable to find a remnant of the child she loved in the unknowable monster in front of her.

 

December 2015

For the fifth night in a row, Sara closed her eyes and saw that bloody smear on Nicky’s chest behind her eyelids. Sleep might come, she thought, but that’s what I’ll see there.

Since the Millie incident, her dreams had been vivid and disturbing, but explainable. She watched her son smash his nanny in the face with a liter-sized glass bottle, and then draw with the blood. Perfectly understandable that she carried that around for a while, she thought. It had all but obliterated any of the positive memories that Sara clung desperately to. Those small moments when Nicky hugged back, when he looked her in the eye and smiled, when he expressed joy in her presence—at her presence—happened, they were real, but they had become ghosts just behind the terror and frustration that a violent child engenders.

The last few nights, though, her dreams were becoming darker. There was the smear, the glass, Millie’s curse on her way out—each dream it was something different. Most recently, Millie just spat in her face and hissed, but something else was creeping into the corners, becoming more and more tangible every night. Nicky had been especially difficult the last few weeks, scrawling black scribbles on every surface in his room, destroying everything that could be destroyed, and then sleeping in a hollow scooped into the wreckage.

She was locking Nicky in his room now. She was surprised at first that he didn’t protest, but these days she was grateful for any respite from the constant battle that sharing his space had become. She tried to tell herself that she was doing the right thing to protect Nicky from himself, even tried justifying locking him in as protection against the furniture that she just had her assistant order, but the weight of failure bore down on her and she couldn’t deny that locking him in his room was also a way for her to avoid dealing with the problem. If she didn’t have to fight with him, if she didn’t have to worry about his breaking bones on the furniture—if she didn’t have to look at him and see everything she thought she should have done better for him shining in his face—then she’d be fine. She was going to be fine.

Except for the dreams. She was cold again, hollow, and trying to stuff that ancient memory back into the hole from which it came, but every night the cold grew stronger, the hollow in her bigger. She barely slept at night, barely noticed the sterility of the empty rooms in the new house that they hadn’t yet filled, barely noticed the thick animal smell coming from Nicky’s room. In a daze, she submitted her Leave of Absence to the board and didn’t even register their surprise. She was already halfway home when they called to grant their approval, and she let it go to voicemail. There was nothing else in the world beyond exhaustion and the shadows that crept in when she slept, the shadows that whispered Nicky’s name.

Sleep did come, though. It was shallow, and she couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or not. There was just snow, and pain, and the whipping smack of gleefully administered beatings. She couldn’t see, but she heard the clomp of hooves and the snort of dead breath, and screams—so many screams—and the weight of shattered parents trying to piece themselves together after having their souls ripped away drilling right into her. She couldn’t breathe. The taste of spoiled meat and unwashed fur filled her mouth, she choked on it, and shot upright in bed.

Breathing in wasn’t good. Expelling wasn’t any better, but she had to empty her lungs. She choked out bristled hair in tufts and spat out sour saliva. She heaved in and out, begging the burn to fade to sore and then to numb. And then she heard him.

“Hello again.” His voice, deep and harsh, ground through her ears. He sounded like he was pulling his voice from the deepest parts of her bowels, where what she’d eaten bound itself up and refused to be voided, rotting and corrupting instead. “You’ve done well,” he said.

He was seated on the edge of her bed, his black suit blending into the dark so that his face seemed to float on the thick fear she was sweating out. He looked the same: angularly handsome, sharp features just barely inhuman enough to still be called exotic. He smiled, not showing teeth, and something tore inside her.

“You,” was all she could manage.

“Yes, me. Well, me and.” He glanced over his shoulder, daring her to look. She could only make out a silhouette: horns and titan-wide shoulders, wiry shags of fur, thick hooves.  She closed her eyes before she could see more.

“It’s time,” he said.

Sara let confusion crowd fear out for a moment. “Time?”

“Our bargain, Sara.” His thin smile didn’t waver, but Sara felt his patience wane. It was like holding ice, cold but present, then gone.

“You already made good on your end. I’m doing fine, we’re doing fine, I’ve got everything I need for as long as we’ll need it. I don’t need you anymore.” She started to cry toward the end, her voice shaking.

He laughed. “Sara, you sweet dumb girl. You owe. Not me.”

“What? But the alley—I let you—I paid, I paid you!”

“You offered your body, yes.”

“That was the deal!” Sara’s fear was taking over again, tinged with anger. “That was the deal.”

“Yes, it was. And we used your body. In the moment, that was for me.” He giggled. “For funsies. But what came after, that was for him.”

The silhouette emerged from the shadows. He was ancient, his beard thin wisps of brittle hair that kinked away from his chin. His eyes were clouded, his snout scarred and dry. His shoulders, still strong, hunched when he came away from the wall where he was leaning, and his back slumped down under the weight of unfathomable age.

The dark smell of impending death shrouded him, and when he came closer that shroud enveloped Sara too. Underneath that smell, Sara felt his exhaustion and its thin hold on his urges. To kill, to maim, to take—all barely held back by the little life he had left.

Nicky came into the room, chest again painted with that scrawled goat, erection pointing straight up. When he saw the beast, his eyes glowed red. Sara saw his posture change, his muscles twitch, and she screamed.

The black-suited man shoved his fist into her mouth, choking off the sound. She could barely breathe but managed to squeak air in through her nose. He still smelled the same, like burnt hazelnut and exotic, clinging aromatics. Nicky approached the beast, bolder with each step. It opened its mouth and growled. Generations of suffering pulsed in that growl. Her own voice swirled there, every word she should have said, everything she should have done. The bad people wailing their bad choices into a symphony, and Sara was the virtuoso soloist.

Nicky took it in, smiled, and then nodded.

“We’re going to go now,” the black-suited man said. “It’s been a pleasure doing business in you.” He giggled. “Sorry, with you.” He pulled his fist out of her mouth and stood.

“Wait—”

“I often wonder why everyone, every single one, tries to undo a deal,” he said. “You got what you wanted. You all always do, every time—too bad none of you think about what you’re asking. Tsk-tsk.”

Sara wanted to protest further, betrayal-fueled rage building in her, but then—Nicky was a monster, wasn’t he? A walking nightmare, inhuman and uncontrollable. She shook her head. He was her son, of course she loved him, and she refused to be relieved he was being taken.

The black-suited man giggled again. “No take-backsies, Sara. What’s done is done. And you did it well.” He winked at her. “I’d fair say you earned this, even. Every last bit of it.”

Nicky put his hand in the beast’s scraggly paw and Sara wailed.

Not for the nightmare she’d lived with, not for its disappearing, but for the son she knew hid somewhere in that monster child, stealing smiling glances at her from deep behind its glowing eyes.

The beast turned toward the door to the bedroom, and Sara’s screaming intensified. It stumbled, and Nicky shifted into the crook of his arm, keeping him upright. The black-suited man looked back over his shoulder.

“We appreciate his name,” he said. “You couldn’t have known, but it was a nice touch.” He winked, and they disappeared down the hall.

Sara’s sobbing drowned out their footsteps and the front door closing, but the man’s voice echoed long after they were gone, long after she stopped crying, and long after she cut herself.

She could still save him, the him that curled up for bedtime stories, the him that still knew the word Mother, and leave the demon around him in Hell.

She waited in the tub, the veins in her wrists open, for that old sour smell to mark the beginning of a new negotiation.


Eli Ryder writes dark fiction and teaches college English. His work has appeared online and in print, and he is a co-founder of www.automatareview.com. He stole his MFA from UC Riverside’s low-residency program in Palm Desert, and is an avid lover of all things twisted.

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