Happy Halloween, kids. As this is my favorite holiday, and I love doing Halloween makeup, I’m going to post a totally unprofessional picture of myself.
I know, I know. I haven’t applied nearly enough Instagram filters to this to be pretty. AND I’m not quite done on the chest. But, erm. Pretty isn’t really the point of Halloween.
At least, not to sane people.
Anyway, I hope you get a lot of candy this year–or, better, a lot of drinks bought for you. Much love on my favorite holiday to all my blog buddies. Maybe I’ll go to work like this on Monday, just for a lark. Wonder if my boss’d spot the difference?
We’re ending Fright Week on a spooky yet blackly funny note–and we’re talking about the scariest thing in our modern world, student loan repayment. Ooo-wee-ooooo. Might not be the most startlingly original story in this collection, but it’s my favorite.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the week of spooky flash fiction. Have a happy Halloween.
“If your loan goes into default, your paycheck could be garnished up to fifteen percent,” the nice lady on the phone tells me, concern infused in every syllable. “If you get refund money at tax time, the government can take that, as well.”
I stare at the wall. I know I need to do something–something–but what can I do? I have rent and utilities to pay, just like everybody else. My parents won’t give me a cent. I’ve pissed off just about every friend I have.
I need to pay off my loan. I know I do. But I also need to eat.
“I just…I don’t have any money,” I mutter. This conversation is probably being recorded–don’t they record them? I want to scream, and curse, and throw things, but she’s a thousand miles away in some cubicle, and besides, she’s just doing her job. And it’s probably a shitty enough job already. I’m sure a lot of people do scream and curse.
“Times are pretty hard,” the lady says. God, that concern. Do they train them in the precise inflection necessary to make us scumbags feel like total wastes of breath? Do they play recordings of someone’s mother to them, educate them that way in disappointed sighs?
But what she says next catches my attention. It’s something no one has said before.
“Of course,” my loan lady says, “there’s the alternative.”
“What alternative? Bankruptcy?”
“We’re starting a program. It’s called A Pound of Flesh–you can look it up on our website, if you’re curious.”
“Well, it’s one of our charity initiatives. If you’re lower income–if you make less than 15,000 dollars a year–you can donate a part of yourself for forbearance time. A piece of your liver earns you six months, an eye or a lung earns you a year. If you’re interested in loan forgiveness, you might want to look up our Kindly Kidneys initiative. The parts go to your local hospital, where they’re donated to a lucky person in need.”
I’m glad she can’t see me. I can feel my jaw hanging open. “You’re kidding me,” I say at last. “You people are accepting body parts in lieu of payment? Is that even legal?”
“We want to provide everyone the opportunity for good credit,” my loan lady says. Which isn’t exactly an answer.
I shake my head. I know she can’t hear me do it, but I imagine she’s had this conversation enough times to know it’s happening.
“Shit,” I say at last. I don’t care if they’re recording. They deserve to hear someone cuss over this–deserve to hear how ridiculous it is.
“I’ll email you one of our Pound of Flesh information packets,” my lady says, voice cheerful and carefully modulated. “It’s a good option, for someone young and healthy such as yourself. You won’t be disabled by the loss of one kidney, or one lung, or one eye. And the organs, I promise you, do go to a good cause.”
“Wait–how do you know I’m healthy?”
I don’t think my jaw can sag any closer to the floor without falling off. Hell, I kind of wish it would–then I could just give it to them and get some money back.
“I’m not interested,” I manage to say at last. “I’m–holy shit. I’m so not interested.”
And, for the first time, I hear a hint of personality in my loan lady’s voice. It’s sly, and amused, and I don’t like it one bit.
“That’s what they all say,” she tells me. “At first.”
“I’ll call you back once I’ve looked at all my options,” I tell her. I hang up.
For a while I just stand there, phone in hand, looking around my apartment. Dark, this late–I try to save money by only turning on one light at a time. Blank walls, unmade futon, empty mac n’ cheese boxes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen counter. The steady drip-drip-drip, from the bathroom, of a leak maintenance hasn’t been by to fix for two months. I hear money in that drip. With every liquid splatter against the sink, I hear a penny clinking, never to be seen or heard from again.
I open up my laptop.
A few week later, I wake up in my own bathtub, surrounded by ice. Someone has placed a Sandy March Loan Company bathrobe on the toilet seat for me, next to a chocolate bar and a big glass of water. And, of course, a stack of papers. Seems like there’s always a stack of papers.
I can feel the stitches, like burrowing worms, in my abdomen. The ice has a pink tinge to it, a strange antiseptic smell–when I breathe the smell in I’m reminded of the medical personnel who filed in here a few hours ago, green scrubs bearing the Sandy March logo, full of smiles and good cheer and reassurances.
“You’re doing a great thing,” the doctor tells me. “Thanks to you, some kid’ll have kidney function for the first time in years. He’ll have a future away from hospitals, dialysis machines, doctors. He can go to college like a normal person. Now just sign here. And here. And here.”
Going to college, I want to tell him, is what got me into this mess. But I sign all the papers, I shake their hands.
What else can I do?
What other choice do I have?
“Enjoy your year of forbearance,” the doctor tells me, smiling. He slides the IV needle into my arm and there’s a little pinch, a few moments of waiting, and then–
–well. Then, I’m here. Strangely peaceful, lying in my tub of ice.
And the worst part about it is, the doctors were right. It doesn’t hurt so much, and I don’t feel any different.
And I’ve still got most of my liver, a lung, and a kidney to spare.
You know how I told you not to let your kids read these? Especially not this one. Really.
OUT OF THE EATER
I see her getting pizza at the New York joint across from the bus station, and she’s beautiful, juicy as a ripe fruit. Blonde hair, big round titties, schoolgirl dress just short enough to make you think about everything under the dress for a good long time. She pays in cash, counting quarters for the tip. I think about stepping over, gallantly offering a dollar or two, but it’s too soon and I know it. They run from you, if you approach too soon.
They run from you, if you approach without purpose.
She’s not heading anywhere in a hurry. She stops out front for a few minutes, searching for her phone and her ear buds in her see-thru plastic tote. I watch her, watch her head bend, watch those bleached curls fall down, down, down. I think about the deer hunts I’d go on with Daddy at dawn, me twelve or thirteen, mist rising off the fields, just the two of us crouched together in the blind above the world. The deer flashing their asses at us. White tails, not too different from the color of her hair.
I’m not a monster. Nothing like.
I’m just a man who knows what he wants.
She turns left and walks out of my line of sight. I leave a ten for my bill and take up the hunt. Twenty percent tip: good, but not memorable. In an hour they will have forgotten I was ever there.
Daddy always said, women don’t know how to act. You have to teach them, show them. You have to not take no for an answer. A woman like that, short skirt, long legs. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what she wants. You just have to show her.
She clips down the cobblestoned street in those tall black heels, legs pumping. Sinew and skin and flesh, a promise of honey, a taste of milk and sweetness. Other men are looking, and hot jealousy floods me–eyes elsewhere, you scum. My honey, my taste. Marked as mine, by the force of my gaze.
I think of the way her skin will goose-pimple, on such a crisp evening. I imagine reading her like Braille in the dark. I imagine the warmth in her secret place. I imagine the loosening of limbs, that warmth seeping out into the ground. Stickiness. Smell of copper, primal.
She turns into a side street. A single old woman on the corner, pushing a shopping cart, her hair full of shit and leaf fragments, muttering ceaselessly under her breath. Boarded shop windows. A crosswalk sign, its light busted.
I steal closer.
I think of the weight of the hunting rifle on my arm. Daddy’s beery breath. The resistance in the trigger–young fingers have to pull, and pull. And squeeze. And pull.
She’s off guard. She didn’t even know I was following her, phone volume jacked up to full bar. Her weight is soft under my weight, yielding, forgiving. I trip her up and send her flying into a close alley. Her breath streaming in the air, like mist over the fields. The soft aureole of bleached hair around her. Angelic. Divine.
She tries to scream, so I save some time and crush her windpipe. I won’t have long this way, but these moments are better when brief. Sweeter. Rarer.
I push up her dress. I’m here to teach. Here to admonish. Here to inflict. Here to guide.
She’s making a funny noise. I lean in, wanting to catch every grace note of her death, but that isn’t what I hear.
Somehow, the bitch is laughing.
Her body is cold. Too cold–ice cold. And when I look up at her face her eyes are reflectionless, dark as two polished stones.
“Mmm,” she murmurs. “Hello, handsome.”
She opens her legs farther, farther. Wide-wide. There’s a cosmos in there, the black brief tickling dotted by distant stars, howling with the loneliness of time. Darkness, death-dark. A wave of terror crests inside my skull–against the void there are monsters moving, silhouettes blotting out all light.
It’s a pearl and it’s not a pearl. I was fooled at first, just like Miranda–it’s round, after all, and white, and it has a pearl’s milky smoothness. We found it in an oyster, albeit one that had already been cleaned. All signs, Miranda would say, point to pearl.
But it’s something else. I know it. I feel it most strongly late at night, after Miranda’s gone to bed–when the lights are all out, and the house is silent. I can see it glowing. I can see the projections it casts: faces, indistinct, on the bedroom wall. Sometimes the faces are human faces. Sometimes–most of the time–I simply think they want to be.
Come play with me, the faces whisper. Play with me. Come play.
I stare at the ghostly shadows until the rising sun divides them. Until the morning comes, and the pearl is once again just a pearl. Four days, it’s been. Four nights without sleep.
We found it at the Shuck’n Shack, where we go every year for our anniversary. It was just sitting there, on top of one of our oysters–a bed of gray snot underneath, tasting of the sea. The servers denied putting it on there, but one of them must have–we come there every year. A gift, maybe, from an anonymous donor. I tip well, and they know us here. It didn’t seem so unlikely at the time.
We took it home, and the shell we found it in. Miranda wants to get it mounted, put it on a ring–our anniversary pearl.
It was odd, looking back, how nobody said anything about it. Nobody came forth. A pearl that big–a pearl that round–it’s a kingly gift.
Even when I’m awake–when I’m at work, stretching at my desk, plugging numbers into a spreadsheet–I can hear it. Come play with me. Come play.
Tonight it glows especially brightly. Lurid and pulsing, washing Miranda’s sleeping face in the fluorescent glow of a laboratory, or maybe a morgue.
I need to sleep. I haven’t slept since we brought it home. And there’s only one way that’s going to happen.
I get out of bed, as quietly as I can. I tiptoe over to the dresser. I take the pearl in my hand.
The light is almost blinding–how it doesn’t wake Miranda I’ll never know. I roll the pearl across my fingers, feeling the odd softness of it.
Come play with me.
I have a vision. Momentary. A schoolyard, brick walls and green grass and the laughter of children. A yellow tire swing, brown with dirt. A boy, standing in front of me, grinning. Look what I found.
Woah, I say. Cool. I feel the weight of the pearl, like the weight of ripe fruit, between my fingers.
In the throes of my vision, in the dark bedroom, my hand clenches. I crush the pearl.
It pops like a berry, and incandescent slime oozes out over the top of my fist. For a moment, I see Miranda’s face: sleeping, sleeping. Far away.
Things expand in a bright fluorescent bubble. The world rushes upward around me, the ceiling draws farther away. I’m in a rocky grey prison of some sort–the shell. I am in the oyster shell.
I try to move. I can’t.
My own face, bathed in the glow of the pearl, is bending over me. My lips open–have they always been that cracked, that ragged? Or is it only because they seem huge now?
“I’m really sorry,” I whisper to myself. Those giant lips are moving, the teeth inside like yellowed boulders.
My voice is the voice of a little girl.
“I had to get out. I’m bad. I know. I’m really sorry.”
I can feel the shell of the pearl around me. It’s soft–even inside, I can feel it give–but it’s unbreakably soft, like a thousand layers of paper pressed together. The glow of my prison fills me.
Desperately, I whisper.
Come play with me. Come play.
Across the room, a million miles away, Miranda’s eyes open.
Definitely Not Dave, my magician manperson, wanted me to write one of these about a massage chair. So I did.
The kiosk is disgusting, a deserted island of cracked leather chairs in the middle of the empty mall. On a folding chair, an old man–from somewhere in Southeast Asia, or maybe Mexico, hell if I know–sits snoozing, a paperback book loose in his lap. Lucky for me, I don’t need him: though I have to say, it might be worth a complaint to whoever management is. You put your money straight into the chair here, but still. Attendants should attend you. It’s what they’re paid for.
The sign by the old man reads ASSAGE. There’s a slightly cleaner patch of sign backing where the M once rested. I read the sign’s smaller letters, scrawled in Sharpie:
5 MIN=5 DOLLAR
10 MIN= 10 DOLLAR
30 MIN= 20 DOLLAR SPECIAL PRICE
I plunk my purse down by a chair and try out the surface with a tentative palm. It’s springy, and maybe I’m crazy but I could almost imagine I feel a little vibration in there already.
Lana from HR said I need to try it. She said I looked tired. I don’t know why the hell that’s okay now, telling another woman she looks tired–and Lana’s not the one to talk. She hasn’t gotten her hair done in months, and last time I saw her her panty hose had runs in them. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to Lana in HR. Maybe I should be talking to HR about Lana. She’s a blight on the office environment. Not me. I just work hard.
But I took a long lunch today anyway. And I don’t have time for a real massage, but the mall’s right across from the office, and this, maybe…
Lana recommended the stupid chairs herself. And it’s so cheap! she said. And that giggle. That stupid airhead giggle.I don’t care about cheap. Doesn’t she know that?
I take off my jacket, fold it over my purse where it’ll maybe keep it hidden from purse-snatchers. Mall like this, you never know who’s around.
I sit down in the chair. I slide my money in–ten dollars. I don’t have all day.
I close my eyes and lean back. It’s the funniest massage chair I’ve ever sat in, but it’s soothing–a faint prickling pounding, like millions of little pistons are wearing themselves out against my back. I should’ve brought some disinfectant with me. Woken up the Chinese guy, asked him for a towel. Who knows who sat in this thing before me? Some fat old housewife, probably. A hoarder, out at midday, puttering around the mall. Ugh. I don’t want the shit from some filthy house all over my skirt.
But I can’t help it. I press myself deeper into the chair. The feeling–it’s an interesting feeling. I like it. I wish it was just a little bit stronger, but there are no adjustment controls on the chair–no space-age technology, this.
I press in deeper. Christ. It’s almost working. I can almost feel the knots in my back releasing. Whoever designed this thing was an evil genius–I’m going to put another ten dollars in, I can tell it already. Maybe there’s a market for this, a product that almost works. Something people have to buy over and over again. Like cigarettes, but without all the bad PR.
I press. I can feel the cheap crappy leather against my hose, my skirt, my nice new work shirt. Probably going to wrinkle. I don’t care. I want more.
I press in as hard as I can, clutching the tattered chair arms and forcing myself backwards. That feeling, Jesus. It’s almost working, almost perfect. Like an itch you can’t quite reach.
Something in the chair shifts, and I feel an opening, slotlike, where the back of the chair joins the seat. Whatever. Come on. Just give me a massage. A real massage. Come on, chair.
The opening widens, and there are sudden needles of pain along my back. I don’t have much time to feel it before the opening gets wide, wide, wider than it should be, wider than it can be.
I see something on my way in.
Out in the deserted shopping mall, in a lonely kiosk filled with shabby leather chairs, a sound rings out.
It’s a single burp. Low, sinister. Satisfied.
The man on the folding chair drops his book, jumps. He looks at the chair for a few seconds, stands up, stretches.
“Are you happy now?” he asks it. “Did Lana send us a good one?”
The chair burps again. A tiny bit of blood, fresh red, seeps out between the backing and the seat.
“Eh,” the old man says. “You fatty.” He chuckles.
He takes a towel from his pocket, wipes the blood away. He picks up the purse and the jacket, balls them up with the towel. He throws the whole mess in the trash, and returns to his book.
“Very well,” Satan says, flipping the final page of the contract and neatening the stack. “All seems to be in order. It’s an unusual request, writing up your own deal, but I can’t say I see anything in here I’m unsatisfied with.” He winks one blood-red eye. “After a few aeons of torment, I might consider asking you to work for me. It’s getting harder and harder to find good lawyers in Hell these days.”
“So you’re satisfied with all the terms and conditions?” I ask. I wipe the sweat from my palms off on the sides of my suit jacket.
“Sure, sure. It’s the standard deal, ain’t it? My power and wealth and fame, your soul. Pfah. You people are never original.” He looks down at the stack again. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there’s almost a hint of sadness in his big red face. “Just once,” he says, “I’d like someone to sell their soul for a loved one’s life. Or the ability to cure cancer, ebola, AIDS. But I guess that kind doesn’t come to me.”
There’s no mistaking the sadness now. “They never come to me.”
I haven’t been dealing with Satan very long–just the same old contract, as he’d say–but he’s not what you’d expect. He’s getting old, I guess. Weary. The Light-bringer, remembering the color of sky. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him wish for love in the world, health, kindness.
It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be honest. You should know where you stand, with Satan. You should be terrified, grovelling, subservient. A guy like me should maybe be a little opportunistic.
But sorry for him? Never.
I clear my throat. “I’ll go ahead and sign now, shall I?”
“Sure. Sure.” Satan produces a wickedly serrated fountain pen from the depths of his own coat pocket. “You know the deal. Sign in blood, forfeit your soul, et cetera. Then I sign. I’ll send you a hellhound or something. We’ll keep in touch.”
I take the pen in hand, run the nib over my finger. The blood wells up, dark and deep.
I do the deed.
There’s nothing. No feeling, no fear, no crackle of hellfire, no demonic cacophany.
Satan takes the pen after me, changes the nib with all the persnickety care of an old woman. Blood is, as I’ve come to understand it, very important in the legal proceedings of Hell–should he use the same nib as me, should a trace of my blood wind up in his signature, his power over me is lessened.
Guess it’s good he’s still careful about some things.
He signs the same way he’s signed all my friends’ contracts: a simple red X, smoking and bubbling with all the foulness of the demon blood that created it. He looks down at the X for a long time, and perhaps this is how I’ll remember him: the great red body stuffed into a suit that doesn’t quite fit it, black hair combed back, cuffs damp with yesterday’s blood. A used car salesman in Hell. A has-been, focused on the past.
Which is why I’m here, to be honest.
“Lucifer,” I say, almost gently. “Satan. Buddy. Do you realize what you’ve done yet?”
It’s at the sound of his own name–Lucifer–that the knowledge comes into his eyes. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he murmurs. “And, now that you mention it–I didn’t see it anywhere on that contract.”
“Nope.” I can’t keep from grinning any longer. Hell–if you tricked Satan, would you? “I just made a totally legally binding deal with the Prince of Darkness. My soul for neverending power–same old deal, Luke, you always make. There’s just one little catch.”
The flames flicker across the blade of my new-drawn knife, send lines of pulsing orange neon dancing down it. I look Satan in the eyes. There’s fear there, surprise, and maybe–just maybe–a little bit of relief.
Simp. Stupid simp.
“The Prince,” I whisper, “doesn’t have to be you. It might as well be me.”
He carves up beautifully, like a big red Thanksgiving turkey. You’d think there would be more fight in him, but I guess sometimes folks just know when it’s time to exit stage left. It’s been time for him for a while.
I should feel remorse, staring at the gobbets of unresisting red meat steaming in front of me. I don’t. I feel like a stranger, looking out across the surface of Mars. I feel like a warrior, bathed in the blood of my enemies.
Okay, I have a real post coming up for you, but I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately and I have a project to tell you about. And I am JUST. SO. EXCITED. And full of coffee. AND EXCITED.
This is like my favorite time of year ever. Working retail has effectively ruined Christmas for me, and has also effectively meant I rarely get home for Thanksgiving. My birthday is boring, and I’m not religious, so Easter doesn’t mean much. Valentine’s Day is overhyped.
So that leaves me with Halloween. Which is all right, because I can’t think of a holiday more meant to fit me–we can wear a lot of black, talk about serial killers, and not pretend to be thankful for things? ALL RIGHT. That’s like the best holiday an Emily could ask for. AND I get to dress up like a zombie? Megasweet.
AND I GET CANDY?
You’re fucking kidding me!
Anyway, with that said:
I’m going to do something a little different this year, and celebrate this lovely holiday with SEVENDAYSOFFLASHFICTION. Yes. For the week leading up to Halloween (starting tomorrow, 10.24), I’ll post a mini horror story (1,000 words or less) with fun overfiltered horrorshow graphics ONCE A DAY. (Isn’t that font just full of camp?) Why, you ask? What good can this possibly do?
Probably none. But it’ll be fun.
An advanced warning, just in case you don’t usually follow this blog and don’t know me: none of these stories will be appropriate for little ones. Unless, of course, you take a laissez-faire view of parenting, and your bitty monsters have already seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or heard you drop the f-bomb in traffic. In which case, bring ’em on.
We’ll see how I do. I don’t usually write a lot of horror, so this might be pretty terrible. But that’s what this blog is here for, right? Experiments. On you, my captive audience. Muahaha.