Fiction Section: Facing It Fiction
I would like to begin my remarks by announcing that we received double the usual amount of fiction submissions this month, so thank you to all who sent a story in. I enjoyed reading each one and you made it very difficult for me to choose only three. I had to in the end, so without further ado…
Write from Wrong proudly presents these fantastic pieces of Fiction for our June 2011 issue:
“The Day We Sold Our Mouths for Our Mother” by Graham Tugwell
“Kitty’s Thud and Cry” by J. Karbowiak
“Everything Happens” by Alice Blair
Each of these stories seems to center around either sickness or sacrifice or both. They all contain fear and suffering, in different capacities and met with different responses.
Please enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts below. – Hayley Battaglia, Fiction Editor
Graham Tugwell’s “The Day We Sold Our Mouths for Our Mother” is a nightmarish account of a family who sacrifices their mouths and thus, their voices, to save their sick mother. It reads like an eerie fairy tale complete with an absurdly frightening villain who is made entirely of mouths, each with its own diabolical purpose. In this story, I see the author’s potential to create works like those of renowned Horror/Fantasy writers Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and John Connelly.
The Day We Sold Our Mouths for Our Mother
I was twelve years old.
I always knew that bad things came when I was lying half asleep. I knew that things would sit along the edges of my walls, would limp from corner to corner and whisper, watching me.
Deciding what to do with me. Deciding what to show me when my eyes were closed.
Nighttime held unending horror for me, yet sleep would always hold me harder, hold me so there was no escape. Just night, and my breathing, and them.
I was twelve years old.
They came from the stories my sister would tell, greedy for juicy cruelty, eager to watch me squirm as I beheld each creature in my own mind: The Long Man with the Lonely Stare, The Stretched Dalmatian and his Terrible Gift, The Lingering Lung, The Bog Men and the Travelling Thumb, The Ice Man of the Under Eye, The Wishing Neck. Such horrible things she’d tell me of, the things from the lanes and hedges and from deep in the centre of frozen fields. Those cold things, those gathered pieces, looking for the warmth of love, the heart of happiness. The things that would crawl or drift or melt through my window come the blue curve of night and find me defenseless in my bed.
Find me when I was in that half state, neither dreaming, nor awake. Neither fully alive nor completely dead…
And when they had me, had me where they could do just what they wanted… the crooked palm would open, the bulging neck would bleed, the pebble eye would slowly roll… and I would see the ruby, the oil, the tooth, the hook… A hundred revelations, a hundred transformations.
Every night I dreamt of those complete and awful seeds of Change. Each night I tasted Body Wrong. Those were my nightmares. Those were my living fears.
And the worst of them, the thing that seemed to urge the other nightmares on, the thing that watched the rest of them from tight corners while they played, the worst thing, from the worst story of them all:
If I wasn’t frightened, if the story of The Wristless Boy or The Melting Swallow Robinsons hadn’t reduced me to the state of hollow terror that she so wanted, that was the story she’d return to with glee. That was the one that would petrify me without fail.
Let me tell you, she’d say, let me tell you about… The Grinner… and she’d grin his grin herself and lean forward as I leaned back into my pillows, back into my cold soft sheets. But still I’d never be able to block out that voice, changed by the story into a strange, clenched warble, as if something was pressing a fist against her throat, as if she was speaking from under a film of ditch water.
When you’re wondering: where does colour hide,
When things are left to bleach to white?
(Know I’m the one with the swallowing smile)
And it was if the rhythm of the words called shadows of their own, and sent all other noises scurrying. Just the cold sheets, my breathing, and her voice.
And her fingers would work their way along the bedclothes slowly, terribly slowly, softly pressing menace with each drawn out syllable…
You’ll see me when you lose your sight,
Or look through tears at blinding light.
(Call me the one with the shimmering smile)
And I would, I’d see him.
I’d see him, I’d know what to expect, and I’d start to see him in my mind’s eye, beginning from the grin and fading outwards into full horrific life.
I’d see him. Surrounded with all those stolen smiles. All those tongues and teeth and ruby lips. All part of him.
All along his arms and legs, in angled rows across his chest and hips and back and neck, all those smiles, all those rows of teeth and tongues, fat and thin and thick and sharp, all those smiles with their own especial use.
Grinning, eyes shining, my sister would list them.
One that kisses away your dreams, one that opens just to scream, one that chews upon your shame, one that laughs at little pains and one in the centre of his chest that counts the seconds to your death.
But the worst…the worst was the severing smile… She’d recite:
When parts are pruned to pacify,
How many strips will satisfy?
(Beware I’m the one with the severing smile)
And as the rhyming syllables birthed coils above me, I’d dream that I was smiling the severing smile, and all parts of me were softly splitting links of meat, were tumbling away faster, ever faster, were separating in turn, were separating out and on until I was left nothing but an eyeless smile, watching the distant corners of my bedclothes fill with pale retreating plastic pieces.
Oh, I’d dream such dreams… I’d dream then that the covers, the cold iron crushing covers would slide so slowly back, slide across the red dry lips that were the whole of me now, revealing me to him, and revealing him to me…
That twisted pirouette of hairless flesh, a hundred scarlet mouths twisting in slants across his trunk and shoulders, rising in tightening loops to the flapping cobalt point where the tiny head hung sharp and slanting with its jaundiced saffron eyes.
And he would lean and lift me with his seven-fingered hands, and hold me for a moment on his whorled and azure palm. And then the Change would happen—gently, ever gently, he would press me to his chest and there would come the sorrow sweet of melting.
Flesh accepting flesh: under the pressure of his palm I would be him, and he would be me, until the final skeins of difference would dissolve and drift away. Until only The Grinner would remain.
From a body… to a scrap… and then to nothing and less than nothing, nothing at all…
And I would wake, so gratefully wake, and feel the horror fade: morning; and night so far away for now.
But that was just the dream; that was just the story working his way through and out. When it happened in this world, when it stepped out of the story and stood inside real life, it was different. So familiar, but so, so different.
I was thirteen years old.
Mother was long in dying—a cancerous node was rising from her chest and everything that could be done, had been done. It was simply a matter of time now. A matter of days.
The closeness of death had called an ending to my sister’s stories, but they had long since marked me with seven cerulean nails. The dreams continued undiminished.
Always: the mouth in the bedclothes. The pieces breaking, cold tubes of flesh flowing away. The reaching hand, the sloping head, the bleak unhappy yellow eyes. And again and again and again, pressed against the chest, pressed against the chest, pressed against the chest…
Sometimes, the slanted mouths would un-stick. Sometimes those mouths would speak.
“Come.” Or: “Weep.” Or: “Breathe”
Or they would string those words together:
“Weep a seventh tear for all my swallowed hope.”
“Close your lips and breathe through mine.”
“Lend your mouth to the shallow slopes.”
And I, the mouth held softly in his hand, would open to reply:
“Don’t melt me away, don’t melt me all away.”
“I don’t want to lose myself.”
But it would happen; it would all happen anyway.
And then there came that last night, that night of nights. The night when everything Changed.
The mouth in the bed melts to the mouth in the hand melts to the yellow eyes, slowed with amber sadness melts to the slanting, grinning, spiraling cyan skin…
And then the words from the shoulder slashes: “I can help her.”
“I can take her bitter pain away.”
“Say yes to me.”
I say yes. Of course I say yes.
“Look for me,” the Grinner sighs, “Look for me in the darkest corner. Look for me there.”
I say yes. Of course I say yes.
And then he presses me, the rag of mouth flesh, to his chest.
Daylight failed to dispel that dream; such a sorrow taste left to sour within me. Throughout the day the dream remained; a foreboding stain, an awful threat of Body Wrong.
To kill the dream, to quash the Grinner’s soughing words, I sought the darkest corner of my room. Found it, found the mouldy stretch of wallpaper, and pulling it down and away, found him in shadow waiting, found that it was not a dream; it had never been a dream at all.
Small, he looked, and sad, a melted, twisting thing of gaps and teeth, all wrongly jointed. Those pale gold eyes on the angled head, those mumbling mouths in canted wrinkled lines, the wide hands, the belly, the wet and shining calves.
“Months I’ve waited for your mouth,” the Grinner purled.
I asked him: why me? Why come to me?
He whispered: “I want a mouth that knows the taste of fear.
I want a mouth that knows the taste of Body Wrong.”
I said nothing.
He ran a thumb along my jaw, left a trail of blue.
“I’ll help you,” the Grinner thrummed. “But all will make the sacrifice. All of you.”
I said yes. Of course I said yes.
I said yes.
And so I took The Grinner by the hand and led him to where my mother lay, swollen, silent, senseless to everything bar the sarcoma pain.
Crouching on her pillow, a wet knee light upon her neck, he laid his seven-fingered hands upon her chest.
Days later the tumour would begin its slow retreat, the melt that left the black porcelain hollow upon her chest.
But first: the payment to be paid.
Mother was first; there, recumbent on the bed. Then my sister; held down with difficulty upon the couch. Then me; finally, willingly, gratefully. We all gave our mouths to the Grinner; our lips, our tongues, our teeth; even our palates, hard and soft, all were stripped away, surrendered.
The Grinner’s fourteen fingers worked flesh magic on each of us: he didn’t spill a drop of blood. He simply pulled apart the pieces pure and whole, they plopped from sockets with a shocking pop.
Such soft and harmless things, there in groups upon the carpet. Slips of meat; hard to believe they once gave us voice.
It didn’t hurt—just stung a second when the part was pulled away and out. After that, the numbing spread as fresh skin crawled to cover the gaps.
The worst sensation?
Cold air blowing on exposed muscle, whistling on the nerve end raw. You’ve never felt such freezing hollowness.
And finally the filling in, as muscle, newly-formed, packed and filled the space where once we ate, where once our voices sounded, where once our breath flowed through. The heaviness of all that flesh weighing us down, straining the muscles of our necks.
And then it was done.
I am thirteen years old.
I sit on the edge of my bed, I’m sitting there a long time.
The Grinner, orange eyes sunset-warm, runs a hand along my leg, consoling, soothing.
A mouth speaks, the mouth that once was mine, speaking with the voice that was once my own.
“It’s a freedom,” murmurs the Grinner, “It’s a type of freedom.”
I nod; obviously I do nothing but nod.
And he leaves, leaving us alive but silent, our faces full and heavy with virgin flesh.
And now, though the dreams are gone, the Grinner is with me. My mouth is his, his mouth is mine. I smell him. I’m breathing through his body now.
His taste is always, always with me.
The taste of Change.
The sorrow taste of Body Wrong.
Author’s Bio: Graham Tugwell is a PhD student with the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches Popular and Modernist Fiction. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, he has work forthcoming in Kerouac’s Dog magazine.
“In “Kitty’s Thud and Cry” by J. Karbowiak, bystanders look down from their windows as their neighbor is brutally attacked, on several occasions. They are unwilling to sacrifice their lazy sense of security, their delusional notion that the helpless woman suffering before them is none of their business, that someone else will help. Karbowiak weaves her tale out of a poetically disjointed stream-of-consciousness.”- HB, Fiction Ed.
Kitty’s Thud and Cry
Kitty’s Thud and Cry
Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was walking home alone from the Long Island Railroad parking lot after 3 am on March 13, 1964 when a man attacked her. Neighbors in her building heard the assault and called down to the man to stop. When the man left, no one came down to open the outside apartment door to help and no one called the police. The man returned two more times, eventually stabbing, raping and killing Kitty while neighbors looked on. As the New York Times article written by Martin Gansberg on March 27, 1964 states: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”
I walk the tree-lined street in early hours. The cry of night-birds echoing off and away, replaced by early risers who call. Softness there in the new sound, so familiar this early, the high-pitched lilt of wavering voices, the birds who know me.
It is ever-dark walking from car to home, so many times this journey, after work and tired, laden down with purse, keys, thudding heels on pavement slick with dew and rain. I think heat, move lapels of thin coat tighter to my body, pressing warmth. Envision plush down of comforter waiting, the ease and comfort of feather pillows, my own.
Small, thin frame pulsing behind. I feel him there, no view without a full turn, danger. I walk faster and wait. Thick boots hitting the street, thud thud thudding after my own meager thud and click. A frightening, near-fragile form in dark clothes quickens pace, visible now out of eye-corners. I run.
At first, the run is enough. I drop fingers from coat collar, feel the tenuous hold I have, let purse and keys fall and scatter. The soprano wails of my birds filling my ears, so does heart-pound. I hear the thudding thud of my flee, it fills the in-between space of his heavier hunt, the click and cry on concrete. He overtakes me.
It is in these first moments I feel fear, coursing with adrenaline, surging up. It pumps through my veins, overtakes blood. My body shakes with the largeness of it. I am small, thin, too slow. I wish for sneakers, a foolish wish because too late now, too late for wishes not meant to fill this moment.
I see the dark man, he is only black hair and eyes. A glinting there. Sharp touch as we struggle on corner, lamplight glinting off parking lot, the lot I know, the lot my car knows, a false safety in the knowing.
I feel sharp twist and enter, a jagged I’ve not known before. It sears me. There is release before the next series of twisting turning spikes, exits and entrances, flesh-filled, marking holes in the light coloring of coat. The break of fingernails, fingers pushing stronger, covered arms.
I think brief, let him take, give less resistance. It is easy here in this moment to resign to this. I listen to loud grunts of his terror-toil, ignore the urge to beckon God, come and take me, heal me with warming. It is too much, this sear and tear of the body I know. The birdcalls come frenzied, will me back to myself, I risk the cry as his gasps come intermittent now, hard-won from effort, will God’s heat back and away for a while.
Oh my god! He stabbed me! He stabbed me!
Please, please help me!
It is all I can muster, forcing breath into lungs, offset panic with feeble voice, my own. Wishing saving, the blare and bold glow from above and across the street, my building alive with light. The dark figure I see in one of the bright windows, a garbled and guttural bass wobbling through the air towards us.
Hey! Let that girl alone!
Nothing more. One time, five words, still my dark captor recedes, slow, so slow. I blink back wet, feel the ache and betrayal of me, move to knees to feet to leave. I am complete stagger. I push across street, hear the whine of bird families distracted from duty by the noise of my attack. This lilting fills me up, gives force to my almost-walk. I drag these searing parts across street, hit wall of concrete lining the building side, finger the knob of door there, locking warmth from me, try to force. The numerous bursts of light above bringing safety now dimmed, dimmer, out, all out. Only the birds watch me, call me, run, run away, find safe.
We listen and wait. We hear the attack-sounds, blaze lights in tiny rooms to make him scatter, below. There are many of us, ten at least. We listen to cry and sob, the rising whine of the girl we know. One of us musters courage, shouts down.
She lives here, with us, the pretty darkness of her, now soaked in redness and desperate, inching closer to where we are, safe. We know someone called the police but not us, it is better not to, be involved, this sort of terror-laden and dangerous thing.
We peer out dark-again windows, curtains pulled back slight, eyes peering down. Hear the rough garbling and gurgling of her, see birds in lining trees fluttering with frenzy.
She opened the door for me once when I had too many bags, one woman whispers at husband in their newest dark. She always smiles at me, one ugly man thinks. Don’t call the police, this a younger woman to husband. Surely, surely someone else will.
I feel an awkward pulse, it builds in my head, creates black-rims at eye-corners. I blink back the black, know I cannot come back from that color. I cannot believe, fingers turning frigid on outside knob, closing and turning weak, locked out. I grew up near here. I am known here, close. I wait for the wail of siren, the sound of fingers unlatching the inside, surely, surely, then the black comes for a while.
Blink back the black. I regain myself. Blink it ever-back. The birds still call out and down, chaotic warbles of my winged friends. They press me, push me forward. I stagger still, place groove of right shoulder in side of concrete wall, move through the alley ever-slow to back.
I do not notice his return. He is manic now, the shove and force of sharp coming quicker, thicker now. It tears tremendous.
I’m dying! I’m dying!
All to muster, searing pain, the buckle and crumpling inside. Something cracks, another something shreds, irreparable, red on lips and teeth.
Again the saving burn of light above, incoherent shouts down, they do less help, this second of times.
No pounding feet on stair, police shouts, anything tangible but the spectator glow from above. There is only the bird-cry to linger in my ears, keep the sound of him out.
It feels hour-long, day-length, this second searing though I know only minutes pass. His breath ragged, heavier, the chest of him rising and falling long. His lean against concrete wall as my eyes and shoulders sag.
Call the police. Please help me.
My ragged and feeble call. It must hit its mark. His eyes up and over, up and over always, fearing interruption, squinting brows and eyes to the cacophony in the trees.
They are watching, I think to myself, want to say aloud, cannot push it out. They know and watch what you do. We are not here alone.
I feel the cough rise, cannot suppress, the constant gurgle growing with what must be blood, staining white shirt— the one I must have only pressed last night, last night but where and what is this now, where is time while I am here—now splattered with ruby clots of my own making. The dark man lifting off wall, struggles breath to slow, it is much for him, the excitement of all this.
The lights suddenly register more, perhaps, he turns and walks sluggish, he is so sluggish-slow, I wonder where his fear has fled, he revs a whiteness in the parking lot. The shock and knowing, he was there the whole time before this second searing, watching, waiting.
Knees buckle, a desperate pull of fingers into ground, a lifting up off collapsed legs. Grateful now, it’s over, the police will come, someone above will burst forth, do saving things. I blink back the black, listen to the mournful warble of the friends I know here.
We listen and wait, again. It feels forever. He drives off as we peer down, muted cries below now, invisible in-pain girl somewhere our eyes cannot reach.
We think to run down stair, open outer door, lift latch with both hands frenetic with joy at help, but he came and then came back. He could come again. Too much to risk and lose, danger for us, all of us.
We listen, strain ear to low moan lifting to window frames, the way in which we see whiteness from afar, his slow dark meander back, this third of times. We do not call, risk view, know somewhere down there in ever-dark this girl, the pretty darkness we know, is completely lost.
Open time I cannot account for, deep spaces of black and red, swirling. Awaken to tittering cry of maybe-morning birds, hard to tell now. Broken body moving without my help, all I feel and hear are the soprano-sounds saving me.
There is the back-edge of building, another door, knob to touch, locking safety out, again. I float somewhere nearby, watch my body’s desperate attempt to save. My body pushes wall, shoulder again in groove made, sliding beyond and above what is possible.
A vestibule found, small dark hall leading up, second-floor landing visible, the hushed heartbeat stronger as the body finds its way there, finally inside, inside and down on coldness, too much to manage.
My body does not see the dark man come back. I notice him, this third time, deliberate, unhurried, the darkest of darks.
I hear the plod and crunch of him, boots and slow swagger checking front then side, following the trail my body leaves, small crimson puddles near the side wall, the drip-drabs leading him back.
I catch his shadow in the doorway, too small and thin for such an evil. For once thankful I cannot blink back the black, not anymore. I watch the shred and tear of clothes, bra, underwear, know what comes and wait.
See his thrust, the force of him, my body unmoving.
See him wipe after on discarded shirt-top, clutching tens and ones, the near-fifty dollar find from my abandoned wallet.
He is slight, red-fisted, shattering. I watch sharp cuts wrench this body I used to know, once twice more, over. Finally over.
We watched him, down there in dark. Slow meander out of sight, little sound, then the retreat of him. The steady trill and rhythm of bird-calls pulsate out into the lightening day, we count out thirty-two minutes.
He goes, the girl goes, nothing left to do. The blazing glow did not save her, but something more maybe, something more. We do not linger here, it is unsafe terrain, questioning. Who really thinks to call when it is not safe, for us, not in the face of this silence.
Author’s Bio: J Karbowiak has most recently been published in The Chaffey Review and Arcadia journal.
“Alice Blair’s “Everything Happens” is a smoothly flowing, thoughtfully written story about the apparent randomness of tragedy. A phone conversation between Maryann, the protagonist, and her sister serves as the vehicle for the plot and the brief words they share coupled with Maryann’s simultaneous ruminations open up the characters’ personalities, relationships, and lives to us so completely… Quite a feat for such a short story.” – HB, Fiction Ed.
“Mom told me about David.”
“Who is this?” I asked. It is what I always say when Melissa calls, my comment on the fact that I rarely hear from her.
The kitchen clock read five-fifteen. Time had scattered in such a way that I could not keep track of it, and I struggled to recall what it was that people did at that hour. When it came to me, I pictured my sister on her way home from work, bundled in a long black coat and shouting into her cell phone, walking and talking, alone and aloud. Timid pedestrians would scatter to clear her path.
She did not ask how Dave was feeling, and I thought of all the comments, years ago, about his lack of earning potential.
She launched into talking about a recent client of hers. “He’s a…” she said, but whatever the man was crackled away on a wind. “And he’s been living with lymphoma for five years.”
She said this like it was a good thing.
Dave sat watching television in the next room, and I could hear that he was flipping. Channel, channel, channel. Gunfire, laughter, a woman’s voice saying, “The school board voted…” If you could hear a mind racing, this is what it would sound like.
“He’d had something wrong with him for a long time – just like David – before they finally figured out what it was,” she went on.
“Obviously, this guy has access to the best oncologists. I’ll contact him and see what he can tell me. Tomorrow.”
This last word was a bit unclear, and I asked, “Tomorrow?”
“There’s no reason not to do it tomorrow, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said, then thrown by all the negatives, added, “No.”
“I mean, no point in waiting.”
“Obviously, there’s no point in waiting, Maryann.”
Her sharp exhale rustled like static on the line.
I paced the kitchen, my bare feet sticking to the curling-up-on-the-edges linoleum. Melissa spoke about the many things she would be doing if she were in my situation. In the living room, channels changed. A country song, something mechanical, a dog barking. I was inventing an excuse to get off the phone when out of nowhere Melissa gave a yelp, shrill and squeaking.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I nearly fell on my ass!”
“I slipped on this damned sidewalk ice,” she said, which made sense, but then she added, “You should compile a phone roster.”
“About…ice?” I was disappointed in myself for losing the train of the conversation.
The roster was not about ice, as it turned out, but a list of people I could ask to help with meals and babysitting.
“Lilly’s never had a babysitter,” I said.
“Madison stayed with babysitters from the time she was a month old. What’s Lilly? Two months?”
My sister’s breathing came through the phone, strong and insistent. The traffic sounds had disappeared. I pictured her marching up the sloping sidewalk that leads toward her home. Melissa and Edward’s place is in the city, not far from the cathedral, and it is massive. It has a circular driveway, so they never have to back out into the road, and this is lined with a row of box hedges.
She said, “You need to let people help you…sweetie.” And though the endearment was spoken as if in an unfamiliar tongue, I lowered my voice and said, “Mel?”
My eyes stung and in my throat there was a thickness and a pushing. “Doesn’t it seem like a lot to happen to people? To finally have Lilly, after everything, and now this?”
A ruffling sound came over the line, and when it settled, Melissa spoke.
“Maryann,” she said, “everything happens for a reason.”
I had heard this line before, but it blindsided me still, like a wild animal charging into my kitchen from the living room to knock me flat. I hoped that this was a case of someone saying something because they didn’t know what else to say, that she would not try to elaborate. But she did.
“You know? Because-”
“I have to go,” I cut in.
“I mean, if you had known before…”
“I need to go now.”
She began to say something else. “Alright, but obviously, you should ca-,” when her voice broke into a shriek like a “YEEE!” Even as she made this noise I heard beneath it a thud, then a louder whump and a dry clattering. This was followed by long, gray quiet.
“Melissa?” I called.
“Melissa?” I shouted again.
I could guess what had happened.
The image in my mind was that of my sister splayed out on a patch of sidewalk ice, her phone broken beneath her. I tried to think how she might have fallen. Had she toppled forward as she climbed her hill? Had she twisted on her way down? In her entire life, Melissa had never had a serious injury. Might this be the first time she had ever been hurt?
I knew that I ought to call someone or maybe drive to her place to make sure she was unharmed. It was as I was trying to choose a course of action that there came, from the living room, the absence of sound. Dave had turned off the television. I pictured him, not moving, in his chair, and I listened hard to the quiet. Then, the recliner creaked as he brought it upright, and his footsteps shuffled down the hall into Lilly’s room. He would not wake her, only watch her sleep.
I decided that I would not drive anywhere. Rather, I would make chicken and dumplings for dinner. Neither would I call anyone. Instead, I would thaw a key lime pie.
I took the pie from the freezer.
I pulled the flour from the cabinet.
And as I was searching for the baking powder, I paused a moment and thought to myself, Maybe some things happen for a reason.
Author’s Bio: Alice Blair is a writer and occupational therapist living in Virginia.