Fright Week Flash Fiction VII: The Alternative

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Photo by joe burge at freeimages.com.

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.

The Alternative

“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.”

“I’m 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?”

“Medical records.”

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 sigh.

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.

EXCERPT: Night Shift, Part Deux

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A little more of this story, since you guys said you liked it. Nothing too exciting happens. Lesbians and Vietnam, you know how it is. Just a day in the life of the fucktarded townspeople of Bully, NC. This is a little more telling than I usually like to do, but it’s coupled with showing later on, I promise.

If you missed the first part of the story, here it is. Though, you know, it’s the next post down, so you probably could’ve managed on your own, but whatever, convenience.

*****

The thing about Tinker was–well, there were a lot of things about Tinker. Riley thought through them, in conscripted order, whenever she heard a siren start, or a dog bark, or someone shouting outside. She thought about them whenever she ran the garbage disposal and heard something break inside it. She thought about them when she was up late at night, all the bills were paid, and she needed something comfortable to worry about.

But the main thing about Tinker–the most surprising thing–was simply this. She was sane.

Riley had spent the last few years of their friendship thinking that certainly–certainly–this wasn’t the case. Every time Tinker tried to order live scorpions from Amazon, or drink Skittles dissolved in whiskey, or, most common, dump rotting meat products on someone’s luxury vehicle, she thought certainly, certainly, Tinker had finally gone off the deep end, had become an alcoholic, taken a dose of LSD.

But Tinker didn’t do drugs. She was a light drinker. And, as far as Riley’s somewhat unreliable experience could suggest, she was sound of mind and body. She always knew the date, her address, who was president. And that was how you checked these things. Wasn’t it?

It was perplexing, to say the least.

The miracle of her friend’s birth and raising–a scrawny child of the nineties in the tiny town of Bully, NC, learning through the magic of the internet how to dye her hair with Kool-Aid and think in the fashion most opposite everybody else–had somehow resulted in her continued existence. Somehow, some way, Tinker Tonkin continued to both toss rotten meat on police cars AND rent apartments, go to the drugstore, work part time at Caveat Coffee.

It was as though she led a double life. Double lives–both of them charmed.

“It’s not that odd, really,” Tinker had explained to her one night as they mined the Piggly Wiggly dumpster for old sausage. “I don’t hurt anybody. I don’t hold grudges. And this town–well, it’s never had an artist before. It’s inclined to forgive me a lot just for that.”

And Tinker was an artist. Bully’s own artist. Though her exhibits might boast nose cones and sachets of potpurri at the door, and most of her paycheck must have gone to property damage fees, there was something about her rotting meat tableaux that drew people, even the people who’d gotten caught in the middle of them. The texture, the raw reds and browns, the sense that, in the grainy photographs and boxed-in rotting masses, you were seeing something obscene, something private, something not so different, in sheer wrongness, from pornography or horror movie gore.

The livid colors and unconscionable stench reminded Riley of the photographs her grandfather had taken in Vietnam, kept buried for most of her childhood under the leatherette photo albums in the family room. They reminded her, specifically, of the moment she had first realized the people smiling in those photos were now mostly dead. Had died in a ditch somewhere, young guys with shy grins and stupid jug ears: victims of the Viet Cong in the jungle, quiet and softfooted and sure.

It was an uneasy feeling. Sickness, darkness, childhood lost. Almost a feeling of rape. Riley didn’t like the meat pieces, but she had to admit: they worked. They unsettled.

Which was what Tinker, being Tinker, thought art should do.

Tinker had found a terrycloth robe somewhere in the apartment’s reeking bowels and had donned it. It was covered in khaki splotches, which Riley thought of subconsciously as ‘Tonkin Camo’. The robe’s ratty bottom left a few inches of her acid green ass visible, but it was better than nothing.

Tinker fished in her pocket, came up with a flattened pack of Djarum Blacks. She lit one, draped herself equally over the couch, a pile of laundry nearly as high as the couch, and Riley’s lap.

“So,” she said, belching out a curl of clove-scented smoke. “What brings you to mein humble abode? I don’t see you much any more.” Her eyes narrowed. “Not unless you want something.”

“I don’t want anything. I had something to tell you.”

“You couldn’t call?”

“Your phone’s been dead for a year, Tink.”

“Hmm,” Tink said, acknowledging the truth of this with a neutral nod. “Well played.”

RIley wasn’t sure exactly what she was supposed to have been playing, or how she had done whatever it was well. She shifted a little, Tinker’s half-shaven head itching her thighs. That damn smoke–Riley had never been able to stand the sweet-heavy smoke of her friend’s cigarettes. When they were in high school, her mother had only needed to sniff her to know who she had been hanging out with.

“I just came by to tell you,” Riley said. “Ashford Mims is dead. Remember him?”

“Mhmm.” Tinker’s eyes were fixed on the popcorn swirl of the ceiling. “He was a senior when we were juniors. Football star. What happened to him?”

“Car wreck. They found his Buick wrapped around a tree on the side of old 86. Nasty mess. They’re not sure if it was a hit and run or if it was suicide–doesn’t seem like anything another driver could’ve driven away from, though.” Riley found herself intrigued by the ceiling too–cracking and peeling, galaxies of little white stars. “Funeral’s on Wednesday. His mom said to tell you you should come.”

“I never knew him that well.”

“Yeah, neither did I. But you remember how Mrs. Mims is, right? She wants the whole school there. Even ten years after we’ve graduated. A bunch of people talking about how nice Ash was, how kind and good with animals and all that.”

“He wasn’t.”

“I figure it wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, might comfort–what?”

“He wasn’t good with animals. I saw him kick a dog out on the tennis courts once.” Tinker scowled. “The dog didn’t deserve it, either.”

Riley realized she was staring. “Tinker,” she said. “The guy died.”

“I know that. But he wasn’t good with animals.” Tinker put her cigarette out on the coffee table, not even bothering to wipe the embers away. Riley watched them fizzle and darken, looked across at the patchwork of ashen squares where Tinker had done this a hundred times before.

“The best way to remember the dead,” Tinker intoned, in the manner of someone quoting a hallowed source, “is to tell the truth.”

“Okay, okay. Fine. Just don’t tell too much truth at the funeral.” Riley frowned. “You are going, right? I’ll give you a lift. Don’t make me do this alone, Tink. That wake’s going to be like a high school reunion.”

“Why would that bother you?” She shrugged. “Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll go. I think I’ve got black clothing lying somewhere around here, I can find it by Wednesday.”

“Great. I’ll come pick you up.”

They sat for a little while in uncomfortable silence. They had been so close in high school–had spent every day together, walked home from school together, had hung out in Caveat Coffee and talked on the phone late at night when Riley couldn’t sleep, which was almost every night. They had gone to prom together, causing a minor commotion in both the Prom Committee and the parking lot of Bully Southern Baptist after church. They had gotten drunk for the first time that night in the Tonkin family basement, splitting a twelve pack of Pabst Tinker’s older brother had gotten for them at the corner stab n’ grab. Riley had told Tinker she liked girls. Tinker had told Riley she didn’t like much of anybody. The next morning, they had gone on like it had never happened. Like friends do. Good friends.

What had happened to all that? Age, Riley guessed. Responsibilities. Bills. Riley’s world was night shift at a convenience store, a bare apartment, visiting with Mom on the weekends. Tinker’s world, though it couldn’t have contained much more–Bully was only so big, after all–seemed alien. A rotting meat world, a child’s make-believe world.
The world of a fugitive from life.

The apartment felt even closer and danker than usual, somehow. The smell of Tinker’s ashed cigarette, hot and sharp and sweet. Riley felt her throat constrict. The ceiling seemed to swell, bulge, though it must have just been her imagination.

“I gotta go,” Riley said, swallowing. “I gotta get ready for work.”

“You haven’t even had a beer,” said Tinker.

“I know. I’ll catch you next time.” And then, for reasons she didn’t entirely understand, Riley added: “sorry, Tink.”

She noticed, on her way out, that the parking lot was once again quiet. The BMW, now boasting a meaty topcoat and a cracked windshield, had been moved across the lot. No one had called the police. No one had even bothered hosing off the meat–the BMW owner had probably been proud to find his car so afflicted. People often were, sometimes even to the point of refusing Tinker’s repair money. The town had never had art before, particularly abstract art, and if there was one thing Bully liked as a whole it was feeling included.

Riley didn’t get it, but then again, she didn’t have to. Her car was off limits. Tinker had pinky-sworn it when they were seventeen.

All in all, it was a typical night.

Flash Fiction: Dear Greg

I hope you guys find this amusing. I certainly did.

Hey honey,

I’m sorry I’m having to write you a letter like this, but I couldn’t think of any way to just say it. Every time I see you now, you’re busy doing other stuff. So I’m going to come right out with it:

If you don’t stop telling people you’re a wizard, I’m going to break up with you.

It really hurts me to have to say it. This year has been one of the best years of my life, and we’ve had a lot of great times together. But Greg, it’s kind of crazy how you keep insisting you have magical powers left over from the birth of the universe. And screaming out in pain over the ectoplasmic wounds the demon you traded your soul to inflicts on you REALLY isn’t helping our sex life, ha ha!

So it’s got to stop. I just can’t be happy with you as long as you’re doing this wizard thing.

The first time it was sort of cute and funny. Remember that? We were out at the bar with Stacy and Karen and Gay Steve, and you gave us all that sweet back story about how we were the only people you trusted, and you had something really amazing you wanted to share with us. And then you raised your hands like you were doing a spell, and WOW, that was a well-timed gust of wind! You even made Steve a little nervous; at least, until we went back inside and you were just the same old you. The shot of tequila you got for everybody probably helped with that.

At any rate, we all know you’re such a joker, so we didn’t think anything of it until next Friday when you said it AGAIN! You sure got Stacy and Steve with that fire-breathing trick, but my college roommate used to do that stuff for Burning Man, and you can’t fool me that easily. And your story after that, about the Mantic Demons seeking the life-essence of the human race–how drunk were you? I was a little embarrassed, honestly. You apologized the next morning and everything, but it still wasn’t cool to be seen with you blabbering on like that, especially when you burped in the middle of the last fireball and set Karen’s perm on fire. She still won’t speak to me, Greg! We’ve been friends since fifth grade!
Even that I could’ve dealt with. I mean, everybody has their flaws, right? You like practical jokes and I’ve always known that. I used to think it was funny. But this wizard thing? You’re trying too hard. And it’s gotten waaaay too serious.

I should apologize, Greg. I only realized how bad it was when I got that call from the police station. What were you doing with a human adrenal gland, Greg? And why on Earth would you want anyone to call you Borlax the Magnificent? You’re lucky I was there to bail you out. I’d had a few glasses of wine with Stacy, and if I’d had one more I wouldn’t have been able to drive to the station. What would you have done then, huh? The police officers almost didn’t let you go with me–they thought Raving Acres, that asylum out in Herckelwhaite County, would be better.

But I convinced them. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe there really is something wrong with you. The ‘talk’ you gave me in the car sure made me think so–it isn’t funny to talk about the world ending in a vicious blaze of infernal fire, Greg! And the stuff about the Mantic Demons flaying flesh from flesh until there was only bone and the defeated whimpering of humanity’s dregs wasn’t very nice either. People just don’t talk about that sort of thing, Greg. Not even for a joke. It gave me the creeps. And these texts you keep sending are really creepy too. What does THREE DAYS mean? Please stop!!!

I thought about what you said, though. Not the stuff about joining my powers to yours to defeat the Legion–that was just plain stupid–but when you said you loved me, and you would be worthless without me, and how I needed to accept the truth if I wanted to survive. Maybe it’s a self esteem thing? You don’t need to make up all this weird stuff to get my attention, Greg. I know I’ve been a little busy with work lately, but as soon as evaluations are over it’ll be back to how it used to be, you and me going out every weekend and watching movies cuddled up on the couch. Won’t that be nice? Isn’t that what you want?

So please stop with this wizard stuff! You are taking it WAY TOO FAR, and it’s really starting to worry me. I’m starting to almost think YOU believe it–guess the joke’s on me!

Love,
Cindy

PS– Just got your text. What does ‘THE LORD OF THE FLIES HAS HIS THOUSAND EYES FIXED ON YOU’ mean? Are you trying to be romantic again? It’s sweet that you think there are that many people looking!

PPS–Steve wants to know what weather app you use. He thinks to-the-minute wind coverage is pretty cool.