“I need a Budweiser,” he yells. “Sean, bring me a Bud. Now.”
I’m so used to the drill I do my homework in the kitchen. But when I open the frig, I see that it’s empty. Shit. He’ll be mad as hell.
I slink into the den but stop at the doorway.Then I scan the room for UFO’s. If he throws his shoe across the room, I need to stay at ducking distance.
“We’re all out, Pops.”I feel my shoulders tighten.It’s our own reality game show. Flight or fright.We know the players. Only the scoreboard changes from night to night.
Time for another beer run to the Piggy Wiggly. It’s October in Miami but the cooler weather hasn’t kicked in yet. It’s eighty-five degrees and one hundred percent humidity. Heading toward the truck feels like wading through soup. My father grabs the keys from my hand.My fingers relinquish them. Mistake number one.
“Maybe I should drive,” I tell him. Then thwack.A slap hard enough to throw me off- kilter. My neck does a 180 from the whiplash.I see flashbulb white, then red-blue fireworks rain down over my left eye. He’s starting early tonight. I jump into the cargo bed and land on metal. Manhole covers.They bring in pretty decent money at the scrap yards.
Not staying home was mistake number two.I never saw the other truck coming. The blare of a horn then boom. I’m catapulted twenty feet headfirst onto the asphalt, hear a dull thud, feel bone crunch.The smell of gas. A moment or two later flames lick the sky. Then it’s lights out.
“Welcome to my home, Mon Cherie.”I hover near the ceiling, floating like a cloud. When I look down, a vaguely familiar body lies on a bed. Its hands are clasped on its stomach, the eyes closed. Instead of being rounded like a regular head, this one’s flattened on one side.
“You feelin’ any better?”The black woman has a French accent, maybe Creole.No electric lamps just candles.And the smell? Sickly cloying like dead flowers or old lady perfume at church.
Rhomboid head doesn’t answer. Naked as a newborn, as gray as a headstone, his eyelids don’t even flutter.
“Dis powder will fix dings up. A little pufferfish, a little Bufo frog and voila!”
Mashing with a mortar and pestle now. Taking the mixture and spreading it like mud. Up and down the legs, the arms. Over and under the private parts. Her purple lips smiling and humming, flaunting large white teeth.
“See you are as good as new.”
Hours, maybe weeks pass by. There are no clocks. No windows. No night and no day.We are walking now around the one-room house. The Body doesn’t want to move. It needs drill sergeant instructions. Left leg, right leg. Left leg. Right leg. Like a newborn, learning one step at a time. If the Body opens its mouth to speak, only grrr comes out. Instead it bangs the table with its fist.
“My baby is hungry? My beautiful boy is always hungry.”
Blood drips down my arm, my face, my neck as I shove the meat inside me. There is never enough meat. Hunger stabs me like a knife. I bang on the table again. I’m strong. I’ve never been so strong. The table breaks, the wooden leg snaps like a twig.
She jumps back. The whites of her eyes are huge. I want to take my finger and flick them out, pop them in my mouth.
“I’ll be back soon.Very soon.”Vials are lines up along the shelf. Dusty bottles with skulls and crossbones. She makes another potion, opens my mouth, pours it in. I’m tied down to the cot once more.
“Dream of me, Mon Cherie.” Her record player is really old, the kind you see with the ear-cocked dog. Except there’s no dog here. And only one record. She lifts the needle and a lady sings.
My cheek’s been saving the liquid and as soon as she leaves it whooshes out like a popped balloon. I get up.Tell my arms to open drawers, find a shirt, pants. They are wide and short like Chinese pajamas. I stare and stare at the fly the combed teeth and eventually remember.Yes, that is a zipper.On top one, then two buttons.Then I am gone.
Neon shines blue in the distance. It’s a cool night and the legs are cooperating. A knee lifts then the other, making their way down the sidewalk.The lights are glaring now. Even Christmas lights hurt my eyes.There are bars on every window, and a mishmash of languages painted underneath. Zapatos, Soulye, shoes.When I grab the door handle, it falls off in my hand. The store is mercifully dark and I scuttle like a crab, grabbing sunglasses, baseball hat, jeans, hoodie. Pull three four nails out of bottom of my feet, a shard of glass. Next slip on sneakers. I make a mental note to come back and leave money. A thief I am not.
The hunger hits me again like a freight train. But when I walk by an all-night diner, my stomach yanks me in another direction. Pass the strips of stores, the little white houses, over the chain-linked fence.I am hopscotching granite markers, tangled in weeds. Mom?Is the Body looking for its mother?But the headstones here have stars instead of crosses. I am a stranger in a stranger land. Heinlein. Tenth grade English. Airbrushed memories–a desk, a chair, a hallway–seep their way back in.
The hunger pulls me towards someone who’s crying.She lies on the ground with her shoulders shaking, a mirage in the moonlight. A girl my age. Jacket and jeans. Long blond hair and an apple ass.She looks good enough to eat.
“Jesus!I thought I was alone. If you’re going to rob me, I’m broke. If you’re going to rape me, I know Taekwondo, dickwad.”
I grunt again. Communication seems to be a problem. The words travel from my brain to my mouth but then they get stuck.I wiggle my tongue, twist my lips and try again.“Fresh meat.”
“Take the hat and hood off,” she tells me.
“Okay, she says, “I’ll go first. The blond hair cascades out, covers her back like a cape. The memories flood back.The beach, bikinis. The Body stands on a surfboard, reads the foam, skims the waves.
When she sees me, she gasps. “Your head. It’s kinda like an anvil.”
“Meat. Fresh Meat.”It’s hard to focus on talking when hunger’s punching a hole through your diaphragm.I fall on my knees, start digging.
In two seconds flat she’s on top of me.She smells good, so good I bare my teeth.
“No. no. no. My sister’s down there..”
She pulls me off and hides in the shadows. There’s a patch of fresh soil around thirty yards away. My nose finds its. I burrow five feet down. The soil is damp, fresh, soft.Soon I hit the pine box underneath.It collapses with one kick. Reaching down, I feel a face. I’m so hungry I don’t know if it is old or young or man or woman I’m so hungry I just rip it off and feed.
“What the fuck?” she shouts. She’s standing under a tarp with four poles. A dozen folding chairs sit on cheap carpet. “Who are you? What are you?”
The pistons are firing now.They’re working with a loaded tank. “I think I’m dead,” I tell her.
There’s blood and brains dripping down my chin. I take my sleeve and wipe.
“You’re gross. Do you have any idea how gross you are?”
She two fingers my sweatshirt and leads to me her car. It’s a Mercedes SUV and I am very happy. It is soft it is warm and I am full.Green Day plays.She talks like one of those CSI detectives. Serious and to the point.
“Do you need to go to the hospital or something?”
I shake my head.
“Because you have a major dent going on there and a serious nutritional deficiency. Like maybe you’re anemic.”
“Just hungry, always hungry.”
“Do you know where you live?”
Memories wash over me. The Body sees a man with a belt, the belt flicking like a serpent’s tongue.I shake my head again.
“I’m taking you to my house. It’s not an option.”
She tells me her name is Taylor. We drive to a nice neighborhood. There’s a wall and gate, and she buzzes herself in. “Dad’s paranoid about being robbed. There’re a lot of freaks in this neighborhood.” No Christmas lights here but the insides shines like Disneyland.It hurts. I blink like a camera shutter.
Sheholds my hand like she’s my third grade field trip buddy. We tiptoe past a family room filled with people. They are eating and yelling, eating and yelling. I’m not sure how these people manage to chew while they shout. I twist my head to get a better look. Pretzels fly across a table. Coffee is sprayed from every mouth.
Taylor rolls her eyes. “If you think you’re disgusting, sit with my family for dinner one night.”
Her bedroom looks like a birthday cake.Frilly white curtains and quilts. Rainbows andunicorns. There are two twin beds.
She rolls her eyes once more. “Forgive the Care Bear decor. Hallie died five years ago. Bone cancer. So my room’s frozen in time.”
I jump up from the bed I’ve been sitting on. Okay, it’s my new version of jump. Move two miles an hour instead of one.
“It’s okay. Make yourself at home.”
Then I notice the Calculus 2 and Physic textbooks on her book shelf. This girl’s a lot smarter than me. When she sits down at her computer, her muscles relax for the first time.Kicks off her shoes, sips from an opened bottle of water. Finally she switches on her desk lamp. A cry of pain blurts out of my mouth.
“Sorry, Sorry,” she says. She turn it off and scrolls the Internet. “Do you think this is you?”
A Herald article dates October 7.Local boy dies in truck explosion. Father survives. There’s a yearbook picture.
“It kinda looks like you. I mean if we photoshopped your head.”
Sean Cole. It had a familiar ring to it.
“The truck was incinerated. A man, Lucien Cole, that must be your father, was thrown out of it by the impact. They never found your body. “She keeps on scrolling. “They just assumed you were barbecued.”
She searches for more articles. “Look here’s one. Truck Crash Survivor Wins Million Dollar Settlement for Death of Child.Boy, your Dad really hit the lottery.”After two more minutes of finger dancing, she locates my address, looks up my grades, knows our credit rating.
“Geesh, Sean.Your Dad bought a new house. A new car.” She turns and looks at me like that’s not good news.
There’s a knock on the door. I’m tired, really tired. Lying on the bed, a cabbage patch doll sits next to one ear, a my little pony stands by the other.Before Taylor even answers, a woman pokes her head in.
“Oh, my!Taylor didn’t tell me she had company.” Short blonde hair. Slacks, blouse, nice jewelry, heels.
“This is Sean, Mom.”
I send marching orders to the Body. Sit up. Stand up. Shake hands.Mrs. Schwartz looks at me weird. She stares at my head then slowly works her way down to my feet. My clothes are stained brown crusty.Clumps of brain run up and down my shirt.
Taylor takes her mother by the elbow, pulls her to the side. She whispers fake loud so I can hear her. “He’s one of my service club projects. I think he’s abused and homeless.”
Mrs. Schwartz clucks her tongue, wags her head. She looks at me differently now.“My son Harold’s at college but I do believe you two are close in size.” She holds up her hand in front of Taylor’s face and counts down starting with her thumb.
“One, he gets in the shower. Two, we buy a new wardrobe. Three,” she turns and runs her hands through my hair.It is stringy and filthy and falls off in little clumps.“He sees Adolpho tomorrow. This is way beyond my capabilities.”
She plumps the pillow, straightens the comforter. “Sean, I think it best if you sleep in Harold’s room.” While she’s plumping and straightening, she keeps on talking. When do these people stop to breathe?
“You must be hungry. Of course you’re hungry. Taylor, take your new friend downstairs. There’s leftover potato salad and plenty of cold cuts.” As she walks towards the door, she straightens the magazines, pulls on the sheets, palms the countertops. She is a tornado of neatness. When she shuts the door, Taylor and I both exhale.
The stabbing pains are back. “Fresh meat” I say again.
The kitchen is huge. The frig is as big as a bank vault.Taylor pulls out platter after platter but my stomach flips. Next she opens the freezer and takes out a steak. Her eyebrows jump.“How ’bout a kosher strip? she asks.
A little old lady joins us. She is around 4-foot-8 square, the top half all bosom. Her gray hair is hairsprayed football helmet hard. “Introduce me to your sweetie,” she says to Taylor.
Taylor’s face turns red. “Grandma, Sean. Sean this is my grandmother Pearl.”
I never knew my grandparents but for years fantasized a Hallmark version.They baked cookies and took you fishing. Grandma Pearl is not what I expected.
“Where’s the paper?” she barks.Taylor leafs through the pages and locates the obituaries. Pen in hand, Grandma bullseyes her way through them. This is her nightly ritual.
“Here’s Herb Edelstein!Boy, they sprang for a full column.”
“Grandma’s seems to lose a friend every week. Was he a nice man, Grandma?”
“Are you kidding me?Herb cheated at canasta and swindled his business partners. Good riddance. When he keeled over yesterday, no one wanted to call the paramedics.”
Taylor is inspired.“Is the funeral tomorrow?” Jews, she tells me, bury their dead quickly.Here one day, pushing up daisies the next.
I nod and remember how to smile. “Fresh meat.”
The next day I am oiled, buffed, polished. Taylor’s mother buys me new clothes, Adolpho trims my hair.Arlene, our wellness consultant, contributes a mani-pedi-exfoliation combo. “It’s all about confidence,” says Mrs. Schwartz. That night I dine on Herb Edelstein tartare and feel like a million bucks.
Mr. Schwartz decides that I need employment. “Schooling’s not for everyone , Son.Did I go to college?Did I ever crack open a book?No siree Bob. And look at this factory. We make sunglasses, Son. Everybody needs sunglasses.”
I spend the day touring the factory, walking up and down the aisles watching machines whirr and whizz. An ugly lady with orthopedic shoes and a harelip sneaks along with a clipboard.
“Sean, I want you to met my secretary Agnes.”Agnes is a machine, too. She follows his every step, taking notes, never raising her head.
By the end of the day I have a dozen new pair of sunglasses and pretty much figure out how everything works.Mr. Schwartz has tears in his eyes.He walks with his arm over my shoulder, and sits me down across his desk.
“I have a proposition to make you, Son.I’ve spent my whole life building a business. And who do I have to hand it over to?Harold, that slacker, is a voice major.And my brother Phil? Well it’s four o’clock in the afternoon and where is he?.
The sun is setting and with it Hunger rears its head. Just at that moment, Taylor’s uncle knocks at the door. He’s a younger version of Mr. Schwartz but his clothes are a lot different. Taylor’s father’s dressed for a day at the office. Phil’s dressed for the track. Flamingos race across his shirt. Unknown fluids are glopped on his pants.
“I’ve been interviewing candidates,” says Phil. Meet my new secretary Dolores.” Behind him trots a redhead with her blouse half unbuttoned and her push-up bra peeking out.There is red lipstick on her teeth, her face, the uncle’s collar.
Mr. Schwartz shakes her hand, but I can’t move. She looks like a cream puff and I am starving. “Fresh meat,” I stammer.
Dolores winks at me, steps in a little closer. Her hemoglobin is percolating at around 15 grams per deciliter. I lick my lips.The no-good brother Phil glares at me, grabs her elbow and steers her out of the office.
“I give her one week tops,” says Mr. Schwartz. I don’t think she’ll last that long.
Like all happy families, we find our rhythm, get into a routine. Every day I go to work with Mr. Schwartz.Who knew? I’m a whiz at machinery.The Body is ploddingand methodical, tailor-made for assembly line supervision. And every night, after Grandma Pearl introduces us to another friend in the obits, Taylor and I head to the cemetery. While I feed, she waits by her sister’s headstone.
“Stay home,”I tell her. But she’s been visiting every night for the last five years.
There are words in my head but the drawers seem stuck. “Gruesome,” I say.She looks at me funny. Then she opens up. She’s been pretty lonely for a long time.
“After Hallie got sick, there was no one for me to talk to. I mean my parents were at hospitals and doctors all the time.When they were home, they pretended everything was fine. Then when she died, they acted like she was at summer camp.You know. Like in a month or two she’d be back.”
“Too sad,” I say.
“Sometimes I come here to cry. Sometimes to holler. I’m sad and angry at the same time.”
“Do you ever think about visiting your Dad?”
I wag my head so hard it feels like it’s going to fly off.
“I mean. Don’t you think he’d wants to know you’re okay?Relatively speaking.”
One night, after I finish slurping Esther Greenbaum’s brains, Taylor surprises me. Instead of heading home, she drives to a new neighborhood. It’s not as fancy as her house, but it’s a two story on nice lot. Respectable cars in the driveways.Manicured landscaping.
“This is where your father lives.”
My jaw drops. Lucien’s stock has really shot up.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Taylor can get really pushy. Like a dog with a bone, once she gets an idea it’s hard to change her mind.
I swing my legs up a stone walkway and knock on the front door. A few seconds later, my father answers. At first he doesn’t recognize me. Then he looks pissed.
“What the hell happened to your head?”
Well, hello to you too, Pops. “Accident,” I tell him.
“You’re supposed to be dead. Why aren’t you dead?”
“Mostly dead. Not all dead,” is my highly intelligent reply.
He looks at the street, scans it from one end of the block to the other. Luckily Taylor has killed the headlights. Then he manages his fake smile. It’s like someone took a tool and tightened the screws on his face.
“Why don’tyou step inside, Son? “I’ll give you a tour.”
My father has never called me son in his life. It’s a bad sign. I’m ushered into his new den but stop in the doorway.He walks behind a desk and points to a chair. “Have a seat, Son.”But I’m not falling for it. I search the room for UFO’s and calculate the distance. I don’t duck as fast as I used to.
When he opens the drawer and pulls out a gun, even I’m surprised. And when he shoots, everything happens in slow motion. I turn to run and take the first bullet in my hand. The next hits me in my leg. Then I take one in the shoulder. Pretty soon I feel like a piñata that’s about to burst.
Taylor sees me shuffling at full speed out of the house and starts the engine. Dad’s just a few steps behind. Luckily he’s spent all the bullets. As I open the car door, he throws the gun at my head. It’s clips my good side, leaves a dent.
“Hurry, hurry,” I try to yell. But Lucien has revved up his new Dodge Ram with its V-8 350 horsepower engine. It’s a truck on steroids. He’s on our tail, trying to push us off of the road. First he breaks our tail lights, then the rear fender falls on the street. The Ram crushes it.
Taylor looks at me for instructions. “Cemetery,” I stammer.Meanwhile the bullets are itching like crazy. I dig out one two three of them out with my finger.When we pull up to the fence, instead of climbing over, I break the padlock on the gate. It disintegrates in my hand.“Mrs. Greenbaum’s,” I tell her.We look for the tarp, the four poles, the dozen chairs underneath. I fish the flashlight out of the glove compartment and stare hard at Taylor.
“Promise?”I ask her.
Lucien’s not familiar with the neighborhood and he’s around a hundred yards behind. I grab the cheap carpeting on the ground and throw it over the ditch holding Mrs. Greenbaum’s casket.Lucien notices the beam of the flashlight and follows. But it’s dark out. There’s no moon and no stars and you can’t even see the granite underfoot. Everything’s the color of pitch.
“Where the hell are you Sean?” Lucien is tripping over headstones, cussing.
“I’m here.” I yell. “Right here.”
When he’s close enough to spot me, I shine the flashlight on my face.A chunk of my scalp is flapping in the wind and my hand has a hole in it the size of a quarter. He stumbles backwards two steps and hits the carpet.
“Holy Mother of God!” Then a scream.
I aim the flashlight down and Lucien’s five feet under keeping Mrs. Greenbaum company. He’s holding his leg like it’s someone else’s.It must have hit the coffin and snapped. For Lucien he’s awfully quiet. I think he’s probably in shock.
Taylor’s at my side. The two of us just stand there, sizing up the situation.
“Is that your father?” she asks.
I shake my head, wipe the drool off my chin. Then a grin works its way from one ear to the other. “No,” I answer. “That’s fresh meat.”
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize. Her twitter handle is @writestuffmiami.