Something About the Days Getting Shorter

Just before Ranulph begins shooting the crows, I tell Sarah that the birds know about the absence of light.

She stares out the window, transfixed by the wheeling cloud, her hands wrapped around her teacup. Her knuckles are the colour of boiled meat. With her head turned this way, in profile, she appears in silhouette, and doesn’t seem so insane.

“They wheel around like that to bring the darkness in,” I go on helpfully, “they drag the winter here. You never see this many crows in the wintertime.”

She nods. She understands. She is clever, despite the hereditary curse, with her slick brown hair and quick green eyes. She has a jewelled stare. Men in the street seek out her face, and watch the horizon there.

The clamour penetrates the double glazing, a raucous shrieking that overlaps in and around itself, amplified by the short distance between the earth and the sky in this particular part of the country. Sarah and I are cocooned by hoarse screaming.  It fills up the air between us and makes me feel slightly dizzy in a gentle way; the waves of vertigo that creep up from your knees at the top of the stairs.

*

Do you know the etymology of vertigo? It comes from vertere, to turn. The room, the birds, their voices – the world turns around us.

She shivers slightly and looks away, retreating to the sideboard with her cup, her bare feet making floppy fish sounds on the parquet. She doesn’t say it but I know what’s causing her so much distress: she worries about how the birds don’t collide. In itself it seems unnatural. I don’t explain theories of flocking to her, the laws of separation, alignment and cohesion – she wouldn’t understand. I don’t tell her either that a group of crows is called a murder, though this term usually appears in poetry rather than scientific contexts.

I continue to stare at the vertiginous sky, hands thrust into the pockets of my slacks. We are in the dining room, the room furthest south with a large bay  of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the expanse of the estate. From where I stand to the main road is a distance of more than a mile.

“I think you’re lying,” she says, almost smothering her voice with the clunk of the cup on mahogany. I may have no depth perception but I’m not deaf. Her voice shakes. I know that she will have a fit this afternoon, and will possibly require restraining.

I wait until I hear her leave before I turn to check that she’s gone. Moments later the plumbing begins to creak from upstairs. This is a house that whines.

This is when Ranulph appeared on the widows walk with his blackmarket G3 and started firing at the birds. It was a ridiculous gun, and he should never have had it. Have you ever seen one? For some reason that day my brother had it on semi auto, and the rounds came out with an almost refined regularity. After a second or two of that, Ranulph realised what was wrong and switched the settings, releasing a streak of cacophony. It was a noisy massacre.

*

I have only one eye. An accident at birth, involving my father. One eye, a weeping blue, and the other, a maw of flesh and darkness, a pucker of wrinkles. I watched the falling bodies with my single eye until the lawn seemed crowded with them – and yet the volume of the flock above never lessened. They seemed to renew themselves automatically, like a aberrant bacteria, and I, like Sarah, shivered. Ranulph, spying me, gave a cheery wave and grinned a cheery grin on that beef-red face of his. I reluctantly went out to help him bag his kills. Dead birds feel like drowned kittens in your hands.

*

Until I surfaced from my sleep and could see properly, I thought Sarah was drowning me, that her mewling in my ears was the mournful sound of an underwater death. Her hands, red and white and useless, tried to shake me this way and that. I sat up, knuckling my hair

Her eyes were pools of black in blackness.

I made a sound at her such as is made in the dead of night upon awakening. Her voice made a variety of bubbles that drifted whitely about the room, illuminating the scene. Must come, and quickly.

Grasping my wrist, she pulled me from the eiderdown and to the door, her feet still bare, all the halls and corridors of this ancient old house still and silent.

Save one.

She led me through the tangle of passageways to the dining room. I traced our path with the flat of my hand on the wall, enjoying, in an infinitesimal way, the sound of my skin and bones on the various surfaces, wood, tile, brass, leather, cloth.

Ranulph sat at the head of the dining table, illuminated from behind by an ornate standing lamp. He fixed me with a bloodshot gaze, but never once stopped what he was doing.

He was eating a bird.

There was a small pagoda of them on the floor, a discolouration of red.

He opened its small body with his hands, ripping into the flesh with his pointed teeth – the same as my own, as Sarah’s – undeterred by feathers. His face was slick with various fluids, and feathers adhered to it in all places.

He was a mass of feathers, soft and black as a miscarriage.

The room was loud with ripping.

Sarah extended a shaking finger at him, as though to emphasise her point.

Interludes similar to this one are not uncommon in my private life.

I sighed, moving to step forward, not perturbed by the behaviour of my brother in the slightest. This, of course, was when the bay window was shattered into a thousand pieces from the outside, and a thousand night-black birds tumbled in. I say tumbled; they poured, or streamed, like ink, or the waters of the Styx.

The room was filled with the grotesque.

Appalled, I flung myself back, smashing a teaset, bombarded by hundreds of tiny careening bodies that looked soft but were endowed with a sharpness that tore my nightshirt, my chest and arms and face.

The night was red and black.

The last images I saw seared themselves onto my memory for all time. Before they lacerated and extracted my eye, I saw my sister’s face, white with fear and revulsion, the birds all around her and within her nightclothes, her hair, cramming into her mouth. I saw them plunge into the stomach of my brother.

Something about the days getting shorter seeps itself into my marrow at the turn of the year, and recalls to me my last night of vision.

* * * * *

Jessica Maybury is a Dublin-based fiction writer, poet, and amateur pianist. She reviews comics at http://GirlsLikeComics.Wordpress.com and co-edits @azinecalledESC. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

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Something Something

“Something something,”
says my niece when the power of her brain sparks
too bright for words—
expressions, idioms, understandings, you name it.
She works the somethings into conversation—
a meme for me now
to which I stack up my bests,
thankful for my matter.

Something something
happened once and now
I’d rather talk about
anything else.
There’s something
like a hope curve, says science—
a burst of cure between the lines,
the thin white space of unknown,
something something.

* * * * *

Marcella Hammer is a writer and an entrepreneur. She lives in San Francisco and enjoys mountain biking, running and good German beer. Follow her on Twitter @marhammer. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Ancestors, Internally

Mother-dearest poured the hot chocolate with the powder into the boiling water and the water stopped boiling.  It was her trick that she wanted the children to see.  Magic, illumination, and reverence.  She intoned, “See?  Grandmother stopped the water from boiling.”  Mother-dearest had mixed Grandmother’s ashes into the hot cocoa mix, so you really couldn’t see the grays from the browns and wouldn’t want to anyway.

Grandmother wasn’t pretty when she was so far dead.  She looked like dirt.  But it was only polite to wave into the pan and say, “Grandmother, how lovely to see you again,” and blow her a kiss (better than her puffy old cheek any day).

The table, chrome edged with a yellow top, soon held six cups, like when they dyed Easter eggs.  One for each color, one for each child, one for each spirit, one for each egg, one for Jesus crying, one for Jesus kissing, one for Jesus carrying his cross, one for the blood of Jesus, one for Jesus climbing the cross of his own accord, one for Jesus behind the rock playing hide and seek with Mary, leaving his shroud.  There were six special cups.  There was no cup for praying; the praying came from Mother-dearest, standing over her brood, telling them when to be grateful and when to ask for mercy.  And when to drink.  “Drink, children, drink now, while she’s hot and properly mixed.”  If you waited too long, the cocoa would settle, with Grandmother’s ashes, into the bottom of the cup, and you’d have to scrape her out with a spoon.  It was sweet and gritty then.  That’s why they drank Grandmother’s ashes.  A pill, coated in peanut butter.

All five children reached for their cups, and Mother-dearest as well.  Papa wouldn’t drink.  It wasn’t his mother.  He didn’t much care for her.

Prudence took the pink Easter egg cup with the top-hat bunny, her long hair pulled back in a bow and her I’m a Good Helper apron over her funeral dress.  Horace took the blue cup with the squiggles and the tiny worm-like crack and his eyes kept darting at his brother and sisters, just in case.  He’d never drank anyone before.  And if he didn’t have to, he’d rather not start.  Petunia and Lucinda took their cups (orange and yellow, butterflies and flowers, and Big Foot in a forest) without questioning; they just wanted the melted chocolate and wouldn’t remember Grandmother by the end of the week.  There were thousands of imaginary fairies and talking twigs to take her place.  Littlest Nathaniel reached for the black cup and Mother-dearest took gold.

But where was the silver cup?  Papa’s special cup.  The cup that said Papa in glittering letters as if he were the most special man in this known world.

Papa would not get Grandmother’s special care, from deep inside, if he didn’t drink.  She might even hex him, from the beyond, for not sucking up his pettiness.

Of course, Grandmother (though no one would ever dare slander her aloud) was the one who poked him and said rude things.  She had quite the tongue.  It was fat and faintly purple, with thousands of bumps and one smooth ridge.  No matter what Papa did, she always went contrary.  Papa was the one who had tried.  Grandmother, dearest.  She smacked him for trying to Dearest her.  He built her house, tended her chickens, cut the heads from her turkeys, sired her grandchildren, and dug her grave.

But, you know, it’s how you act after someone has passed (like drinking their ashes) that’s most important, not how you are to their face.  Face to face, you don’t call your mother-in-law a hag; that would upset the wife.  It’s tougher, once the dead are buried, to make time to visit the grave and dig out the parasites, pull the weeds, particularly the witchweed that always sprung up from the graves of difficult women.

Witchweed, dearest, and a missing silver Easter egg cup.  It didn’t take a saint to count to seven, to see the missing bits of the rainbow, and to open a mouth.  The littlest child was always the stupidest, and this one asked, “What about Papa?”

“There’s not enough to share with Papa,” Mother-dearest said.  She said it like he was halfway to Hell and strewing his seeds along the way.

“Then I’ll share mine.”  Nathaniel hopped off his vinyl chair to force his own father to drink the bitterness of pride.

Mother-dearest panicked.  “Sit!”  It didn’t take a woman five children to see her mother’s wicked nature.  Drink the woman; do not cross her.

“But if Papa’s already going to Hell when he dies, I don’t want him to go there while he’s alive, too, and you know what Grandmama will do to him.”

Mother-dearest raised her face to the cross nailed over the kitchen door: Protect My Family.  “There’s nothing to be done for him.”

Again with the stupid child who believed good about everyone, including his own father, the man who could split logs with one chop and wore a belt with a vicious buckle.  “Then I’ll lay down my life for him.”

“Nathaniel—”

“Someone’s gotta do it, Mama.”

What do you tell a kid who’s being sweetness itself?  Nothing.  Not when you’d want him to lay down his life for you, too.

Nathaniel ran off with his little black cup to find Papa out by the barn killing something for dinner and licking the splattered blood off his lips.  The screen door slammed definitively.  The separation of good and evil.

“Stupid Wart,” Horace muttered after his brother, and Prudence took it upon her young maternal instincts to smack him.

Mother-dearest got out the spoons and handed them around to the children who had waited until the drink was cool and the silt had settled.  “Stir.  Stir and stir, and if that’s not enough, you’ll have to scoop her out.  Don’t waste her.  You know what will happen if you pour even one iota of your grandmother down the drain.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Children in chorus.  They knew all too well.  Grandmother wasn’t easy to please, but she was easy to annoy, be it spinning tops, the clack of marbles, or the mud left over from a water fight—a fight that always started off so clean.  Too bad nothing ever stayed that way.

In the barn, Papa wept, as if he had something in his eye, and Nathaniel felt a peace that came only when the wicked had been swept off the game board and all was right in the world.

 *

It only took two weeks for peace to break.  Nathaniel, known as Wart when the parents weren’t there to eavesdrop manners, clutched his stomach and fell off the bed he shared with his brother.  “She’s got me!” he screamed.  He rolled around on the floor.  “She’s eating me from the inside!”

“No, she’s not, stupid!” Horace yelled, throwing things off the bed.

The three girls ran over from the room they shared across the hall.  Petunia started to scream, her chore as youngest girl.  Prudence went to fetch a garbage can, just in case, and middle Lucinda hopped from foot to foot.

Horace backed away from the bed into the deepest part of the corner.  He pressed himself back against the rough wood of the paneled closet door, almost like he could see his grandmother, returned to them, swirling around.  She’d been the type to laugh when people died and say she’d been praying for it for years.

Nathaniel kicked around on the floor and finally Prudence threw her head back and let out a long howl.

Mother-dearest and Papa stopped by to say, “What’s with the noise?” and to offer their two cents.  Horace ducked.  The air went hot and cold.  With seven people yelling, whimpering, sniffling, and vomiting in the small attic bedroom, there would have been no room for any other except a ghost.

“Don’t touch the bed.”

“Get some rags.”

“Fetch the ice.”

You just didn’t say things, in that family, like: Don’t worry, darling, it’ll be all right.  You hopped to, you got stuff done, and when the youngest child died in your arms, you did not cry.  After all, you were blessed with four others.

But that was how they all found out that Papa, his head bowed against the low slant of the ceiling, was going straight to Hell, and that there was nothing anyone could do about it.  Grandmother would make sure it was so, no matter what.

 *

They kept Nathaniel’s ashes until what would have been his sixth birthday.  He’d been too young to drink at five, and there was only enough of him to share between his parents.  The weeds grew extra strong that summer, higher than a mule and with a kick twice as hard.  Mother-dearest poured the instant coffee into the little black mug her youngest had favored and she mixed his ashes into it.  It was harder to hide the ashes in coffee, so smooth they floated around in a whirl and got caught in the teeth on the way down.  But it was pleasant to drink on the back porch with the setting sun, hot enough to bring out a second sweat while the first still dripped into the collar.

Papa came up the back porch stairs, kicking mud and weeds from his boots, shaking it through the slats in the porch floor.  “Make me a cup, will you?”  It was only the second time he’d agreed to drink someone’s essence, and his son gave him heartburn.  He sat on the porch swing with Mother-dearest and took the silver mug.  A cup of coffee with a sprinkle of Wart, witchweed clinging to Papa’s socks, they would do what they could, as a family, to protect each other, the living, the dead, and the ashes of the in between.

* * * * *

Dawn Wilson dabbles inside the (relatively) dark forest of kitsch, surrealism, and espieglerie while wearing various pieces of the kitchen silverware. A recent graduate of the Bath Spa University MA in Creative Writing in Bath, England, she is at work on a madcap novel.  Her work is forthcoming in Rabbit Catastrophe Review and Liquid Imagination, and has already appeared in Shoots and Some of Its Parts. Her contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Exposure № 098: And my yearnings closed inside me like bubbles in a loaf of bread

Naama Sarid-Maleta’ shares this photo of mementos from her family before they left Baghdad for Israel in the 40s. It features  the last photos her family made in Baghdad.

* * * * *

Naama Sarid-Maleta’ is an architect. She began an intense career as a documentary and conceptual photographer in Madrid (2008) and has contributed to magazines and publications in Europe and Israel. She has participated in numerous exhibitions in Ukraine, Spain and Israel. Her sustained challenge as an artist is the desire to “build dreams” in visual codes. She had developed a scheme of work based on the interaction of enforcement procedures and the organizations of architecture and a conceptual result more expressionistic and plastic in its nature. Her husband is also an architect and photographer from Cuba, and they work as a team with multidisciplinary projections.

Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

The Family Tree

.

y parents’ living room is perfectly clean,
blinds drawn against the strengthening light of Spring.
My mother and I are discussing
my sister and whether she will
start a family now she is married.
I am never going to have children, still
I startle as my mother says
‘its not worth it, I wouldn’t do it again.’

Later when my parents are out shopping,
I wander round the garden, stopping
to admire the flowers, listen to the birds,
mourn the chopped down apple tree.

*

This post is part of a series on trees. Submit your tree features to snakeoilcure[at]gmail[dot]com.

* * * * *

Juliet Wilson is an Edinburgh-based writer, conservation volunteer, and adult education tutor, teaching creative writing and birdwatching. She blogs at Crafty Green Poet (http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com), tweets @craftygreenpoet and edits the online poetry journal Bolts of Silk (http://boltsofsilk.blogspot.com.) This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

Danny’s Blood

This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.

.

t must have been summer. There weren’t any clouds, or not many anyway. We were young, just kids. Danny’s front garden had a tall tree in it, the sort that has a long curved stem and leaves right at the top, splaying out all over the place. Like a palm tree, I suppose, right in the middle of the lawn.

I remember he had called to my house and we’d gone out onto the road. It didn’t take much to convince me to go out. It never did, then. By the time we got to the McAvinues’ house, Danny decided that we needed to inject a little urgency. I remember him smiling at me and then he set off running very fast into his driveway and diagonally across the front lawn, his hand raking along the palm tree as he headed towards the side passage of the house. I started running as fast as I could, but he had a good head start and the total distance to be covered was so short I knew I would never catch him, but if I could just keep him in my sights it might not be so bad. Then he disappeared around the corner of the house as I jumped over the flowerbed onto the grass. I could hear him giggling as he ran, that mix of breathing hard and laughing I heard so many times in those days.

By the time I got to the corner of the house the laughing had stopped. Danny was standing by the back door, hunched over, breathing hard. As my run slowed I wondered why he didn’t go inside. What was he waiting for? I stopped at the bin when I saw the blood. Danny was wheezing and I was scared then, confused. I couldn’t see where the blood was coming from, but it must have been coming from him, it must have been coming from Danny. Something had happened in those seconds between him disappearing around the corner and me reaching the side of the house.

I saw him reach up and put his hand on the handle of the back door. His fingers were stained with his own blood, but they didn’t tremble. The opening of the door seemed to break a spell and I could move again. I slowly made my way to the steps leading into the kitchen. Danny was standing framed in the doorway, just starting to sniffle. His mother and father were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers. I suppose they didn’t look up immediately because it was just one of their children coming through the back door, as probably happened every ten minutes during the holidays.

From where I was standing it was hard to see where the blood was coming from, but I could see it dripping onto the kitchen floor. I was mesmerised by the red fluid that was flowing out from some hole in my best friend. It seemed – or it seems now, the memory of it – like everything was in black and white except for that stream of vivid colour pouring onto the floor. His father glanced up from the paper and seemed to freeze for a moment, as if he too was transfixed by the brilliant red liquid his son was spouting. Then both parents shouted different things and leaped up, grabbing Danny, dabbing carefully at the source of the blood. His father made an effort to gently but hurriedly wipe his face, wrapping him in a rug, bundling him up like he was a toddler. They asked me questions – what happened? how long ago? – but  I couldn’t answer them. I just stood there watching as they carried him out the front door, shouting to me or anybody else that might have been in the house, put him into the car with urgent tenderness and drove away.

I wasn’t sure what to do then. I was standing in front of the two steps that led up to the open back door. They had blood on them. There was blood on the concrete where the wall joins the doorway; that must have been where the impact happened. I didn’t know whether or not I should close the door or leave it open. I was still standing there wondering what to do when Brendan, Danny’s older brother, came into the kitchen to see what all the fuss was about. He looked a little confused at first by the empty room with the open exterior door. Then he saw the blood and then he saw me. I could tell he assumed the two were connected somehow. I must have been the cause of this bloodletting on his kitchen floor. He asked me what had happened, but I still seemed unable to speak, as if Danny’s head injury had affected my power of speech. I remember feeling cold. It must have been getting late in the afternoon.

Brendan stood in the kitchen looking at me, standing out in the passageway. We were separated by his brother’s blood. I wasn’t looking directly at him, but I knew he was looking at me. He wanted details I couldn’t give him because I had been struck dumb. He started to get angry with me because of my silence. I felt the tears coming before they started streaming from my eyes. He was still shouting when I turned and ran away, back the same way I had run in with Danny only a few minutes before, when it was still summer, when there was no blood.

My father’s dirty green Land Rover was parked inside the gate and I had to step onto the lawn to get past it. He didn’t like me or my sister walking on the lawn, but when his big car was in the way, there wasn’t any choice. I hoped he wouldn’t see me, but even if he was watching and getting that brittle look he used to get on his face, it didn’t matter. All I really wanted to do then was get inside to my own room and try to breathe without rasping.

My mother was in the kitchen, sweeping the floor, I think, when I came in the back door. The same sort of back door that Danny had staggered through earlier. I was not dripping blood all over the lino, but I was probably more anxious than Danny had been bleeding in his kitchen. My mother looked up and asked me to mind the pile of dust on the floor – I think it was the pile of dust she mentioned – but I kept walking through the kitchen doorway into the hall. I was at the bottom of the stairs when I vomited.

I don’t know how long I was there for. I never worked it out. I remember my father looking worried as he dragged me by the hand up the stairs to the bathroom, but I didn’t know if he was worried about me or the carpet. I could smell the puke on my face and my clothes. The smell made me dizzy and I thought I might vomit again, but I managed to keep my mouth closed against the wave that pushed up into my throat from my stomach. My arm where he held me got sorer as we crested the top of the stairs and burst into the bathroom.

My father held my head down, in case I spewed anywhere but in the bowl. This made my neck sore, but the vomit didn’t last long. He let me go and I sat on the toilet floor briefly, feeling sore inside and out. I wanted water. My father pulled me over to the sink and threw water on my face. Then he told me to brush my teeth and get out of my clothes. I wanted to tell him that I needed a drink of water, but he was already walking away. I was shaking a little bit, as I started taking off my clothes. And I didn’t know whether I should put the clothes straight into the laundry basket or if they needed to be rinsed first. I didn’t do much rinsing of clothes then. Not like now.

My mother came into the bathroom as I was running water on the pukey clothes. She wasn’t happy. She told me that I shouldn’t be standing in my underpants in the bathroom because I’d get cold. I shouldn’t be rinsing dirty clothes in the bath. She didn’t touch me, though. She took the last stitch of clothes off me and put me in the shower and scrubbed me with an un-soaped facecloth. I didn’t cry, I don’t think. Or if I did, I suppose she didn’t notice because of the shower running.

Her drying was pretty aggressive. She told me my father would talk to me before I went to bed. Then she told me to get into my pyjamas. I wanted to protest that it was too early to go to bed and how come my sister didn’t have to go too, but instead I told her that I didn’t want my father to come and talk to me, I didn’t feel well. She stopped drying me and told me to get into my pyjamas right away.

I was trembling as I put on my pjs. My father would talk to me and my sister – but mostly me – whenever he or my mother decided we needed to be spoken to. I was always jealous of Danny because when his parents said they wanted to talk to him, they actually meant talk. Even if they were cross, it was still better, better than the wordless talking that my father was on his way up the stairs to do with me.

I thought about Danny. I wondered if he was in the hospital or back at home. All that blood, even my parents might be worried. When he was finished with me, my father had that look in his eye, that crestfallen look he always had right after. I suppose now it might have meant he felt guilty or a little bit sorry, but he never said anything. He just walked out of the room slowly without looking back.

I dreamed that Danny was being buried in a little white box. I still had some blood, but all of his had spilled out on the ground, the kitchen floor, the car. While the coffin was being lowered into the hole, the lid opened and inside I didn’t see Danny, I saw my father, all twisted up to fit into such a small space. He had that look on his face. I was smiling.

I woke up and saw my sister asleep in the bed across from me. She was smiling too. We must have both been having the same dream. I walked out into the bathroom. I didn’t need to turn the light on, I knew where my father kept his razor. I tried to climb into the bath to keep the blood off the floor, but my arms hurt. Then I started crying and wishing that I had just stayed in bed. I went down stairs, trying to catch the blood dripping from my arm.

The road was lit by the two streetlights between our house and Danny’s. I walked slowly, probably leaving little drops of blood and tears behind me, until I got to the back door of Danny’s house. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I think his blood had been cleaned up from the steps. I sat down, feeling sorry that I was spilling more blood and wondering what I should do. The door opened and Danny’s father was standing there with a big black bin bag in his hand. He nearly stepped on me.

* * * * *

Niall Ó Sioradáin is from Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the stage, radio and television. In 2011 he was short listed for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award. Recently he was long listed for the Fish Publishing International Short Story Contest and was awarded third place in the Doire Press International Fiction & Poetry Chapbook Competition. This is his first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

Pigs, Chickens

This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.

.

e were only eighty miles outside of Tulsa, our destination, when my pregnant cousin demanded that we stop at the next restaurant, gas station or rest stop. It was 3:30 and she was hungry, never mind we had just had lunch less than two hours ago. My mother, who was driving this shift, crinkled up her face and looked in the rearview.

“We just had lunch, Marianna.”

“That was like five hours ago,” my cousin whined.

Aunt Lelia leaned forward and joined us staring into the openness of I-40. “Just a quick bite, Charlotte. She’s pregnant.”

As she reclined back into the seat, Aunt Lelia lifted Marianna’s shaggy bangs away from her forehead with her tanned pinky finger.

“Next place we see, okay?”

The words were still hanging in the air when Marianna bolted forward and pointed at a billboard we were fast approaching.

“Look! There’s one! Next exit, Aunt Charlotte,” she yelped.

My mother squinted at the sign. The blue and white paint was chipping and the words were barely readable. I could make out a plump, pink pig dancing around a chicken holding a banjo. Did that say…

“Pick-N-Chickens? Oh, honey I don’t know if that place is going to be open,” my mother said.

Here comes the temper tantrum, I thought. Marianna is one of those clichéd tragedies, a stat you hear about on 20/20, the story entitled “Babies Having Babies.” She’s sixteen and her boyfriend Tommy “got her” pregnant. (I love this saying, ‘got her’ pregnant, like he wiped his cooties on her lunch box or sneezed in her direction). One would think she was carrying the Christ Child in there, and it was only August–we had four more months to go. Whenever she didn’t get her way, she reverted to being three years old. Yep, babies having babies is about right. I’m only a few years behind her and if I had a dime for every time my mother said to me, ‘Don’t you dare end up like Marianna!’ I’d be filthy rich. There’s another one: ‘End up’ pregnant. How can the female race ever get the respect it deserves as long as there’s males around to ‘get us’ pregnant, so we’ll tragically ‘end up’ with a pack of kids we had nothing to do with?

Although I was nowhere near hungry, I decided to nip the tantrum in the bud.

“That looks good. Exit 65,” I said as my mother shot me a glance that could have impressed Medusa. Marianna had already heaved her fat self between the seats in anticipation of a fight but my bud-nipping worked. She kept quiet and eased herself back down into the seat as Aunt Lelia started rummaging through her purse.

“It doesn’t look like the kind of place that takes Visa. I’ve only got…seven dollars and some change. What have you got, Charlotte?”

“Oh I never carry cash, never,” my mother said with robust surety. I fished through her bag and found three twenties in her billfold. I fanned them out in my lap and shot her a sideways glance.

“Shit,” she murmured as she looked down at the money. She reached for her cigarettes which had spilled out onto the floorboard. Exit 65 was now visible and as she steered the caravan onto the ramp, she punched in the cigarette lighter.

“Charlotte, we haven’t been smoking around Marianna,” Aunt Lelia said.

“Well, we’re almost out of the car. Just relax.”

Pick-N-Chickens was not closed and as we turned into the dusty parking lot, Aunt Lelia sat upright and said what we were all thinking.

“Uh-oh.”

“What?” Marianna asked.

“Well, unless it’s a glass of boiling water, I don’t know if you want to be eating here–might get tuberculosis or something.”

“Hep C, more likely,” I chimed in.

“Shut up, Ruth,” Marianna said.

“You want me to keep going, hon?” my mother asked as the van slowed and she lit her dangling cigarette.

“No, no! I’m just about to throw up back here and all I need is something on my stomach. Y’all don’t know what it’s like!”

As the van came to a stop, Aunt Lelia opened the sliding door on her side but then slammed it shut when she heard her daughter’s lament.

“Who doesn’t know what what’s like, Marianna Hope McCall?”

Silence. I could tell Marianna was deciding between a temper tantrum or a few crocodile tears. Her breathing was loud and exaggerated. She blinked at all of us, one by one, and settled on the tears. As they welled up and distorted her face, she began twisting a stray curl. Aunt Lelia had seen this act before and although she stood up for Marianna about ninety-five percent of the time, that five percent when she didn’t was brutal.

“Because there’s two women in this here car who’s been pregnant–more than once, and given birth, more than once. And we’re still standing! The world didn’t come to end ‘cause we got pregnant. Now, if you’re saying ‘we don’t know what it’s like’ because we weren’t stupid enough to get ourselves pregnant at sixteen years old, well yes, you’re right sugar, we don’t know what that’s like. Why don’t you tell us all about it? Tell us how you worked in getting laid between going to the mall, downloading music to your i-pod, and playing beer pong with your friends? Because Aunt Charlotte, Ruth and I have no idea how hard that must have been!”

I looked over at my mother smoking her cigarette. She took a deep, slow draw and shot out a plume of smoke like a jazz musician. Was she grinning? You could hear a fly fart, and I wanted to say something to break the silence. Marianna finally asked for a tissue. I scrambled through the glove box and pulled out two or three, stretching my arm back to her.

“Let’s just go in. I’ll get a cup of soup or something and it’ll be real quick. Thanks Ruth,” she said as she took the tissues and blew her nose.

My mother threw her half-smoked cigarette out the slit in the window and my aunt jerked the sliding door open again. I took a deep breath and apparently let out an audible sigh because my mother turned to me and patted my knee.

“It’s alright. Tiger’s still in the cage. Did you take your vitamin C this morning?” she asked.

“I took the whole alphabet, thanks for asking,” I said to the cadence of all four doors slamming shut.

*

.
ords cannot do justice
to the roadside attraction of the Pick-N-Chickens. In fact, justice may have left this stretch of I-40 and Oklahoma to its own devices long ago. The eight Harley Davidsons were all parked at forty-five degree angles to one another, the scorching sun shining down upon them, their chrome blinding. Galileo himself could not have made a straighter line.

We strode single-file into the building, my mother leading the pack. From the side, I’d like to say we looked that one Beatles album, all long-legged strides crossing a street, the happy sun on our shoulders, but think of the opposite of that image and that’s more like it.

As we got closer, I felt my stomach dance a bit, in a reaction similar to that of a rabbit who’s just seen a wolf cross into her terrain—a frozen worry. I peered in as the door opened and a blast of country music smacked the air around us. Since it was August, none of us had a whole lot of clothes on. I am a full-fledged tomboy anyway and never cared much what I looked like but felt the need as we stepped into the Pick-N-Chickens to run back to the car and grab my Clemson sweatshirt–a wearable foxhole. My mother rolled in to this den of grease with her own defense: 5’11” and willow-like, she bunched her blonde hair up in a scrunchie on the top of her head, making a hair fountain and poof! Her 5’11” frame transformed into 6’2″. Aunt Lelia brought up the rear and was probably timing how long we should stay. Three and a half minutes if we could get something to go, ten at the very most if we had to sit. She exaggerated her yell to my mother as soon as we were all inside, no doubt to announce that is was her opinion that their jukebox was too damn loud.

“DO YOU SEE THE MAITRE D’, CHARLOTTE?”

I snickered, then turned to Marianna, whose regret at not holding out for a Hardee’s or rest stop vending machine was clearly evident. She glared back at me and let out one of her pregnant sighs, which was always accompanied by her left hand falling to her belly.

“Y’all can wait in the car, I’ll just get something to go, alright? Jesus!”

“Oh, no, shug. We ain’t leaving you in here by yourself,” Aunt Lelia said as she moved further into the seating area.

From the outside, the Pick-N-Chickens looked much bigger than the diner we were standing in: a modest counter with five or six stools reminiscent of an ice cream parlor, six or seven shoddy tables with menus stuck next to the paper napkin dispensers, and a tray of hot sauces—a sign you were still in the South. The smell of fried food was only slightly more pungent than the smell of cigarette smoke, and the mix of both only slightly less nauseating than the stench of a mop pail hiding some place out of sight.

The entire room of customers–three leather-clad bikers, an elderly farmer and his wife, and a single man at the counter wearing way too many layers of clothes for summer–looked up as our entourage fumbled in. A cook wearing a waitress uniform stood over a grill where two hamburger patties sizzled in harmony. She motioned with her spatula toward the tables, instructing us to sit anywhere and as she did the grease from her spatula dribbled a semi-circle around her.

Aunt Lelia moved closer to the register and scanned the room for any other employees.

“Excuse me, but we’d just like to get something to go?”

The waitress-cook had turned her back to us and was smacking the burgers. She began chopping some onions that were on the grill with the side of her versatile spatula. As Mariana shifted from foot to foot, I noticed my mother had attracted the attention of one of the bikers.

Aunt Lelia’s question got as far as her throat, as the waitress-cook ignored us. We gagged in the air and the heat of the place, and watched the biker walk toward us. It was as if he forged a telepathic contract with my mother, not taking his eyes off of her. I guessed it said, ‘I would throw you on the back of my motorcycle right now if you didn’t have those trolls with you.’

As he brushed past us he said, “Scuse me, m’am,” to which my mother sassed out, “No problem, sir.” At that point the waitress-cook whipped around, clutching the ever-handy spatula.

“Y’all gonna sit down or whistle Dixie out yer pie holes? ‘Cause we ain’t seen that one in a while. Don’t make no difference to me, hmnf, Eddie?” she winked at the single man sitting at the counter.

Aunt Lelia turned back to us and shoved a menu into Marianna’s hand.

“I guess we’re sitting, unless of course, you’re in the mood for whistling out your pie hole. Make it quick. I’ll be right back.”

She went in the same direction the big biker had gone, and my mother steered us over to the counter, where Eddie—as the waitress-cook had called him—was bobbing up and down. A half-drunk strawberry milkshake with two straws poking out of it and a huge plate of Tater Tots sat in front of him–not home fries, not french fries, Tater Tots.

I surveyed the seating. There were only three stools beyond Eddie, then the wall. There was a single stool on the other side of Eddie however the stools were stationary. Unless my mother planned on one of us standing, somebody was going to have to ask Eddie to move down one, and then sit next to him. I figured that somebody would probably be me so before my mother could say, ‘Do me a favor, Ruthie,’ I tapped Eddie on the shoulder.

“Sir? Would it be too much trouble to ask you to move down one? There’s four of us.”

Eddie gave me the once-over, sucked his teeth then turned back to his milkshake. He stared straight ahead, as if waiting for some guidance from the waitress-cook. Then I’ll be damned if she didn’t look over her shoulder, sling that spatula in the direction of the vacant seat beside him and say, ‘Go on, it’s okay’ to which Eddie moved his bottom and his plate of Tater Tots all in one fell swoop. He faked-smiled at me as I slid him his milkshake. Marianna was next while my mother took the safety seat next to the wall leaving the remaining stool for Aunt Lelia, who was returning from wherever she went.

“Why aren’t you eating yet?” she barked at Marianna.

“Mama, we just sat down. I need to go to the bathroom first anyway. Where is it?”

“You’re gonna have to wait, sweet pea.”

“What for? Is there a line?”

“No, just wait, Marianna Hope. I thought you were hungry!”

“Jesus Christ I never seen such fussing! Come on, I’ll go with her,” my mother said as she bounced off of her stool and grabbed Marianna’s arm.

“Charlotte, wait! I wouldn’t do that,” Aunt Lelia said. Then, to me, “Do not use the bathroom here, Ruth. Do you hear me?”

I nodded yes while picking up the vibe of Eddie’s bobbing which had started up again as my mother and Marianna marched past him. The waitress-cook turned to face us, welding her ever-loving spatula and fishing deep into her apron pocket. Kool 100’s. Of course. She lit one and leaned against the grill.

“What’s it going to be, ladies?”

Neither Aunt Lelia nor myself were looking at menus; I figured I should get something just to give this woman something to do. Aunt Lelia was not so generous, and squinted at the waitress-cook as if she had just witnessed her pick her ass.

“We’re not eating. My daughter’s the one who wanted to stop here. She’ll be right out.”

“I’ll have a milkshake,” I blurted out as I gazed over at Eddie’s. “Do you have chocolate?”

Aunt Lelia’s jaw dropped as she turned to me, followed by the same expression she had used on the waitress-cook.

“Hep C, Ruth, Hep C…” she sang.

I rolled my eyes at her, pretending to forget it was my idea originally.

“Eddie, make this little ginger a chocolate milkshake, will ya?” the waitress-cook said as she stacked the burgers onto their toasty buns, ashed her cigarette into her apron pocket with a jerk of her head, and finally lined the plates up her left arm, leaving her right hand free to grab the bottles of ketchup and mustard. Off she went to the farmer and his wife.

Bobbing Eddie slunk off behind the other side of the counter. He spun a shiny, silver cup on his elbow then planted it down in front of me. It tinged and I could hear my Aunt Lelia say, “Oh, lord” over my right shoulder. He bent down behind the counter then popped up again, plopping several scoops of vanilla ice cream into the silver cup. He pulled a vat of chocolate sauce up from below the counter.

“You like it real chocolatey, or just average?” he asked.

His voice didn’t sound as hill-billyish as I’d imagined, and now that I was his audience of one, he looked kind of cute, despite the Oklahoma clothing emergency. His tanned, veiny hands held the ice cream scooper and the silver cup, giving off some sort of milkshake confidence, like he was a master. The Master of Milkshakes.

“Um, pretty chocolatey, but not overboard,” I suggested.

“Um hmm. Almost deluxe chocolatey but pull back a little bit, right?”

“Yes! That sounds good.”

My mother and Marianna returned from the bathroom as Eddie started his creation. Marianna’s wicked laugh was interrupted by her number one mantra, ‘Oh my God/Oh my God,’ and my mother’s face was beet-red as she kept telling Marianna to hush. They sat down, my mother as if she had ants in her pants, Marianna in her slow, pregnant descent.

I looked at her with keen curiosity. I hadn’t seen Marianna laugh in a very long time. Cry, yes. Whine, yes. Bitch, yes. But laugh?

“What is so funny?”

“Marianna, shut up. Ruth, don’t worry about it,” my mother said. Aunt Lelia was smiling her big pie face at my mother while Marianna continued her ‘Oh my God’ line ad infinitum.

“Is it really gross or something?” I asked, still enraptured by Eddie’s handiwork with what I knew was going to be the best milkshake I’d ever had.

The waitress-cook returned to her post in front of the grill not saying a word but awaiting Marianna’s order. She seemed a bit aggravated since Aunt Lelia had mentioned hepatitis. Eddie had gone around the corner with the silver cup, and as I craned my neck, I saw the makings of my milkshake starting to spin on the milkshake caddy. The noise of the machine forced the waitress-cook to yell at Marianna.

“What’s it gonna be, barefoot?”

Marianna settled down and blinked at the menu.

“Let’s see. Well, what’s the doctor order?” Marianna asked.

My mother, Aunt Lelia and Marianna howled once more, my mother slapping her hand on the Formica like she was in a jug-band. My aunt stammered, “Stop! I’m gonna pee my pants!”

Eddie returned with the silver cup. He pulled a fancy soda-fountain type glass from below the counter and set it in front of me. He carefully poured the chocolatey-deluxe-but-pulled- back-a-little milkshake into it.

“Whipped cream?” His eyebrows shot up quizzically as he took in my family.

“Yes, please. And excuse the laughing hyenas,” I said.

The waitress-cook who was nodding her head, lit another cigarette and rested her gray eyes on Marianna.

“I know what you need,” she said with a thin smile.

Eddie, considerate thing that he was, tore off all but the tip of the paper on a straw and stuck it in the center of my creation.

“Enjoy,” he said then returned to his seat beside me.

I took a healthy slurp and mixed the whipped cream a bit with the straw. I was right: that was the best goddamn milkshake I had ever had.

“So, where y’all headed?” Eddie asked.

“Tulsa. To see my sister. This is really delicious, thank you.”

“Your sister? She ain’t your sister?” He twirled his almost-gone milkshake in Marianna’s direction.

“No. She’s my cousin. But she’s really good friends with my sister Angie, on top of being her cousin too. That’s why she’s got to come with us–they’re real close,” I said.

“Off to Tulsa, huh?” Eddie grunted.

“We’re having an intervention. My sister’s in a bad situation,” I said, as if I knew how interventions worked. I looked up to see the waitress-cook shaking out a mess of fried circles into a paper bag. She shook it gently, threw in some salt, poured them out on a plate, then placed it in front of Marianna.

“Thousand Islands, Ranch or both?”

“Are these fried pickles?” Marianna squealed.

“Just what the doctor ordered, darlin,’” the waitress-cook said as she turned back to the cooler and brought out the two containers of Thousand Island and Ranch. Marianna asked if she could please have a decaffeinated soda.

As Aunt Lelia and my mother adjusted the time frame of arriving in Tulsa and Marianna scarfed down her pickles, I contented myself with my milkshake and Eddie’s company.

“Do you work here?” I asked, knowing he must.

“Yeah.”

“Is there something funny about your bathrooms?”

“No. Not that I can think of,” he said.

“‘Cause for some reason, my mother and my aunt do not want me to use them.”

Eddie sniffed, sucked up the rest of his milkshake and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“Makes you want to go to the bathroom, don’t it?” he asked, not a tinge of malice or smart aleck in his voice. He was right.

“Yeah, I kind of do, even though you know, I don’t have to go,” I confessed.

“Well, this here’s a small operation. And the bathrooms are shared by the bar. This is a roadhouse, did you know that? We get all kinds of good bands in here Friday and Saturday nights. I mean, this? This is just to keep the drunks a skosh soberer by feeding ‘em.”

I looked around. That’s why it looked so big from the outside, because it was–it was a Road House. With some vast dance floor somewhere, probably a riding bull too. And pigs and chickens playing banjos and God knows what else. I looked over at Marianna in her pickle heaven and then to my mother and Aunt Lelia. They had invited the waitress-cook into their calculations, all three with consternated looks on their faces. My mother was smoking one of the waitress-cook’s Kool 100’s.

“I’ll be right back,” I whispered to Eddie, leaving my state champion of a milkshake on the counter.

I ran through the tight maze of tables and down a darkened hallway. There were two doors. On one door, there were three cartoon cats: a gray one, a pink one, and an orange one. They were fluffy and curvaceous with eyes at half-mast. A cartoon bubble hung over the mouth of the orange cat and painted inside was the word, ‘purrrr.’ On this door read the word ‘Pussys.’ On the other door, there was a black cat equally frisky-looking sitting on her haunches. Standing above her was a cartoon boy-cat wearing a white lab coat and glasses. A stethoscope ran from his rascally ears down to the black cat’s chest, his cat lips pursed in a whistle.

On this door read the words, ‘Pussy Doctors.’

“What the?”

This was what was so funny? Bizarre, yes. A bit disgusting. But they made out like it was the funniest thing they had ever seen, something that might make Aunt Lelia pee her pants. As my hand touched the door to push it open, a figure appeared at the opposite end of the hallway. I tried to make out who it was but before my eyes could fully adjust, Eddie was standing right in front of me.

“Hey. I see you found the bathroom alright,” he blurted out and with one hasty push of his arms, he and I were stumbling through the ‘Pussys’ door.

“So what do you think of the bathroom, Ruth?” Eddie’s strawberry breath was hot in my face. I blinked at him, my palms starting their ancient flight-or-fight sweat. He was close enough to count freckles and then, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed the walls of the bathroom. They were plastered floor to ceiling with pictures of naked women and men doing all kinds of stuff. And not drawings or paintings but magazine pages.

I looked back into Eddie’s face, knowing that in a matter of minutes, seconds perhaps, my mother would be storming through the door.

“How’d you know my name?”

“I heard the laughing hyenas talking about you.” Eddie’s face inched ever closer but his hands hung safely by his side.

“Did you like the milkshake?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice cracking.

“What other kinds of things do you like, Ruth?”

I laughed nervously and stepped back into the wall, a photo of a purple-veined penis inches from my nose.

“You’re not gonna want to be in here when my mama comes in,” I said, finding it hard not to smile. Eddie pushed himself against me. Was it all those clothes? Or did I feel something sprouting in Eddie’s pants?

“How old are you?” he asked without making it a serious question.

“Any minute now. I mean, she’s skinny as a twig but she’s mighty. She’ll kick your ass, man.”

“Is that right.” Eddie pinned me against the porn wallpaper. His strawberry tongue shot into my mouth, almost touched my tonsils. My lips stung a little from the force. Our eyeballs locked when we heard my mother’s voice.

“Ruth? Are you down here?”

“Shit. I told you! Quick, get in one of the stalls,” I said pushing him off of me with a power that surprised us both. He closed the stall door with a snap and I heard him trying to latch it.

“Get up on the toilet seat! Haven’t you ever hid before?” I gasped. The commotion of my mother’s fury masked the sound of Eddie’s bumbling onto the toilet seat.

“Ruth! There you are. I thought we told you not to go to these nasty-ass bathrooms?”

“This? Nothing I ain’t never seen before. The cats on the door are a little weird,” I huffed, crossing my arms over my chest to keep her from seeing my shaking hands.

“There’s PG-13 ha-ha funny,” my mother said, “and there’s R-rated tasteless funny and these here bathrooms–well, they’re in the latter category. Not really appropriate for my fourteen- year-old daughter. Now come on. We’ll never get there in time if we want to catch Angie before her shift.”

“Well, I really do have to pee,” I said.

“You ain’t peed yet? Well go on. Marianna and Lelia are already in the car,” she said, not moving.

I stood there, staring down at my sneakers. Eddie was as quiet as a dead dog.

“Are you going to watch me?” I asked.

“What?”

“I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Ruth.”

“Well, I’m watched like a hawk twenty-four hours a day! You’re so scared I’m going to end up like Angie or Marianna, you can’t let me be me—even a good me or a so-so me. You won’t let me just be me!”

“Ruth, I declare! What in the world!”

“And you know what? I think you might be scared I’m going to end up like you. No, you weren’t sixteen like Marianna but you weren’t far off.”

For that, I should have gotten my mouth slapped but she just stood there, her skinny chest heaving up and down.

“Mama, please. Go on out to the car and let me take a piss in private. I promise you I will not be corrupted between here and there.”

She turned the spigot on full blast, and splashed some water on her face. She stared at herself in the mirror a full minute as I watched the errant spray of water wet the floor. She left the water running and turned to face me.

“Nothing you ain’t seen before, huh?”

I shrugged my shoulders, listening for Eddie.

“That supposed to make me feel better?” she asked, glancing around at the four walls. I walked towards her and hugged her around the middle, pressing my ear against her chest.

“I know I’m your winning ticket, your sure thing,” I said, listening to the wild thump of her heart. “But I am fourteen. I still might be a tomboy but I’m not a baby tomboy.”

My mother started to laugh, then tousled my hair and said, “If you aren’t in that caravan in five minutes…”

“Yeah, okay. Can I have a little privacy?”

“You’ll always be my baby, Ruth,” she said and walked out.

I stood there, trying to figure out how I wanted to spend the next five minutes, since

I knew my mother would be back as sure as my name is Ruth Anne Lancaster. Eddie opened the stall door, walked to the sink and rinsed his mouth out, sticking his whole head in the stream of water. He turned it off, then looked at me in the mirror, as if he knew me but forgot my name, like he was trying to place me. He walked over to me and cradled my neck in his big hands.

“Too bad you’re just passing through.”

“Yeah. We’ve got to, you know, go see my sister,” I said, thinking that must have taken at least two of the minutes.

“Well, maybe y’all will stop in on the way back. If it’s a Saturday night, you can even see my band.”

“Band? What instrument do you play?”

“Drums.”

Three minutes. I looked at the door behind him. I wished he would kiss me again, before I got summoned to the caravan. Eddie must have read my mind, because he did kiss me again, but this time he was careful, like he was trying to pour sand through the eye of a needle. His strawberry tongue, now watered down, moved slowly around the inside of my mouth. Before I could say ‘I gotta go,’ Eddie offered to walk me out to the parking lot.

“Better not,” I said.

“How about to the end of the hall?”

“Um, okay.”

As he opened the door for me, a swoosh of cool air swirled into the bathroom. He grabbed my hand, and we walked down the hallway in silence to the door which led out to the parking lot and the brilliant, hot sun.

* * * * *

M.K. SPAIN is a writer living in South Portland, Maine. Cures for tedium include writing, acting, sword-fighting and spontaneous singing (which, by the way, cures more than tedium). She has a degree in Creative Writing from Colorado State University, and will have a play produced in this year’s Maine Playwrights Festival in Portland. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

Two Weeks in Spain

This story was originally published on July 16, 2011. The author nominated it for Snake-Oil Cure’s First Short Story Contest.

.

erence, what’s on your mind? You seem a little preoccupied.”

“Nothing.” Everything. Your mother! “I was just running through everything in my head, making sure we’d left nothing behind or forgotten to do anything. Don’t want any upsets for our fortnight away.”

Terence hoped the reassuring smile he offered Jenette was both reassuring and a smile. He glanced at the time.

Another hour and a half.

The motorway. At least in name. The long series of roadworks strung together with brief stretches of road served a slow route to the airport. Terence had, of course, accounted for the extra time it would take. But he found little comfort in his planning. The contingency gave him longer to mull and stew.

He did not consider himself awkward or shy, just particular. Particular about social situations and particularly about physical contact. Intimacy wasn’t public and it didn’t come in degrees.

They crawled past traffic cones and through contraflows. Jenette leafed through a holiday guide. Janie slept in the back in her car seat. Scenarios and evasive manoeuvres raced through Terence’s mind. Roadworks only gave him more time at the wheel to contemplate the possibility of having to hug — and perhaps kiss — his mother-in-law goodbye at the airport.

Read more of “Two Weeks in Spain”

The Memory Eater

.
ohn sat on the floor
, wishing desperately he hadn’t stubbed his last cigarette out. If he was outside, he could smoke, but he wasn’t outside, and the idea of getting up and walking all the way to the front door just to go outside and smoke seemed ridiculously tedious. If he was going to go that far, he might as well just go home.  Which didn’t seem like such a bad idea, really.

He climbed to his feet, steadying himself against the wall. His hand was completely encircled by one large yellowed water stain, a blemish that started in the top right-hand corner of the room and widened and narrowed, almost artistically, all the way down to the floor.  He stared at the stain for way too long, thinking about how much fun it would be to trace the shape of the stain with a black magic marker, fill in the shape with doodles and squiggles, turn it into a real piece of artwork, before forcing himself to take the two small staggering steps that would take him out of the room and into the hallway leading to the living room, the hallway full of family photos framed in cheap flowery metal frames, all the pictures of Keith and Sarah’s family, including the ones of the two children they lost. The little girl, aged five, and the little boy, aged nine, both dead.

This hallway never seemed right to him. There was too much before photographed and cataloged in this walk, and it bothered him. This hallway belonged to a nice house, of a happy family, and of him as a welcome guest, wearing clean clothes and bearing gifts like nice bottles of wine and take-out food and even flowers, like some smarmy character from a feel-good television show. The walk through the short hallway always felt to him like drowning, and it was only with the greatest exertion that he pulled himself along the wall and into the living room.

Through the congested hallway and into the living room. Keith was sitting on the couch with a little boy. The room was full of hung-over people ruffling the little boy’s short hair again and again, with the boy smiling patiently through it all as if happy to be in the center of attention. “That’s my boy!” said Keith, again and again, his arm around the boy’s shoulders. He also ruffled the little boy’s haircut. Sarah, in the kitchen, making Irish coffees for everyone, smiled every time Keith said, “That’s my boy,” patting her stomach as though to reassure the baby inside that he or she would also receive similar accolades once born.

“This kid, he’s so smart,” said Keith. “He’s just great. Tell everybody something smart, little boy.”

“Did you know that there might be planet-sized moons inside of Saturn’s rings that could be terra-formed for human habitation?” piped the little boy, smiling around the room. “It’s true, I read it in National Geographic. We don’t even know how many moons Saturn has, because we can’t look inside the rings properly. It has hundreds of moons.”

I know the names of at least a dozen of Saturn’s moons, John thought suddenly. Why can’t I remember the names of Saturn’s moons? He opened his mouth, determined to list at least one of the moons, but nothing came out. It seemed really important to him to remember just one of the moons.

“Wow.” Keith looked at the little boy with renewed adoration. “That is so cool. This one, he’s like a rocket scientist, he is.”

Like I was, thought John. That wasn’t right. He wasn’t a rocket scientist, but he was something, something different than this. He had that feeling like he had when he was in the hallway, like he was drowning. He opened his mouth to speak, only to find a beer bottle heading toward it, propelled by his hand. “That boy, this, it’s not right,” he muttered just barely under his breath, swallowing half the bottle in one draught. He looked up to see the little boy staring across the room at him with a look like drowning on his face. Bobby. The boy’s name was Bobby. “You’re all wrong, Bobby,” he said to the boy, loud enough for everyone to stop talking at look at him.

“Little boy, I need you in the kitchen for a second,” called Sarah from the kitchen, glaring at John through the doorway. “A minute, maybe. I don’t know.” She wrinkled her forehead as if concentrating on something really important. “Right now.”

“Aw, I never get to spend any time with my boy,” protested Keith, but let Bobby get up anyway. The little boy held onto his sweet smile all the way out of the room, held onto it in such a way that John could tell he was trying not to cry.

“Aw, shit,” John said, and got up himself. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said to Keith.

“Well, you’d better go and apologize, asshole,” said Keith. “You can’t talk to kids that way. Especially my  kids.”

“All right, all right. I’m going.” John quickly walked through the hallway to the kitchen. Sarah was standing at the stove, holding a knife in her hand, a blank expression on her face. Bobby was standing next to her, two pieces of bread laid out on the counter in front of him, as well as an open jar of peanut butter and an open jar of jelly.

“I think I can handle this part, Sarah,” said Bobby, reaching up and taking the knife from her.

“No!” Sarah shouted, suddenly coming to life. She pulled the knife back from the little boy. “See this knife, little boy?” she said, pointing. “It’s too sharp for peanut butter and jelly.  You can’t use this kind of knife for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You need a knife that’s less sharp, so you don’t cut yourself.” She put the sharp filet knife down on the counter in front of Bobby and stared off into the corner for several quiet seconds. Bobby looked up at her expectantly, then sighed. He picked up the filet knife.

“No!” shouted Sarah again, grabbing the knife. The blade slipped across her palm, cutting a thin red line through the pale yellow skin. She dropped the knife on the floor and sucked at the blood welling out of the wound.

“It’s okay,” said John to the boy. He reached down and carefully picked up the knife. He grabbed a paper towel and wadded it around the blade, then put the knife and the towel in the trash can, pushing it deep beneath a mound of coffee grinds and filters so that no one would accidentally cut themselves if they reached into the bag themselves. He opened first one drawer, then another, until he finally found a butter knife.

“You won’t be able to hurt yourself on this one,” he said, handing it to Bobby. Sarah looked at him with gratitude in her eyes. Bobby began scooping globs of peanut butter and jelly on the pieces of bread.

“I have to teach him,” said Sarah, grabbing John’s arm. Her voice sounded like she was forcing herself to speak very clearly and evenly, as though that was some sort of extreme effort. “I remember why my own—my other—children died. I didn’t feed them, John. I forgot to feed them, and dress them, and put them to bed, and they got sick and died. What’s wrong with me?” she hissed through her clenched teeth.  “How could I forget to feed my kids? They were eating crap out of the trash can, and I just—I just—I drank. I smoked, I drank, and I think I even went out for a burger. And all that time, they were sick, and then they were dead. I can’t…”

“…let it happen to Bobby,” nodded John. He ruffled the little boy’s crew cut, and seemed to remember doing the same thing to some other little boy, some boy who was his. “We won’t let it happen to Bobby. See how good he is at making his own sandwich? He barely even needs you here, right, big guy?”

“It’s a pretty good sandwich, Sarah,” nodded Bobby. “I can make you one, too, if you’d like.”

“No.” Sarah shook her head. “I want to you wash off the knife when you’re done, then put it somewhere where you can find it again, okay? Put the peanut butter and jelly in your backpack, with the bread, so that any time you feel hungry, you can just make yourself a sandwich. This is important, Bobby,” she said, kneeling down so that she could look her son straight in the eye. “Don’t let the backpack out of your sight. When you run out of bread, get more out of the kitchen and put t in your bag. Or crackers. Or you can just eat right out of the jar. Any time you get hungry, promise me you’ll just eat, okay? You won’t wait for me to make you something?”

“Okay,” said Bobby. He looked like he was about to cry again.

“And, and, you’ll start calling me ‘Mom’ again, right?” said Sarah. “What kind of kid calls his mother ‘Sarah?’” She stared hard at Bobby again, and a confused look clouded her face. After a couple of seconds, she reached over and set the open peanut butter jar on the stovetop. She turned the burner on and began humming.

“Whoa.” John reached over and turned the burner off. He grabbed the jar of peanut butter and twisted the lid back on. “Put this stuff in your backpack. Now,” he ordered Bobby.

“When are we going home, Dad?” asked Bobby quietly. Sarah stopped humming for half a second, and Bobby backed away to stand behind John. “I want to go home. I just want to go home. You have to fix this, Dad,” the little boy added, looking up at John with a desperate look in his eyes. Bobby choked back a sob and wiped his eyes furiously with the back of his hand. John felt the beginning of a scream build in his chest. How long had he been here?

“You have to show me the way out of here,” he said, finally. He grabbed the little boy’s hand and pushed him towards the door. “You have to get me out of here, before I forget you again.”

“And then everything’ll be okay?” whispered Bobby.  “You’ll fix the Memory Eater?”

“What’s that?” snorted John. “Some kind of video game?”

“No!” hissed Bobby fearfully. “It’s that thing that’s broken! You’ll see when we get home!” He pulled John after him, out of the kitchen and into the living room, through the room full of people and past the sofa where Keith lay sprawled out, smoking a cigarette and laughing at the television.

“What the fuck?” said Keith, watching John and Bobby. “Where’re you taking my kid?”

“We’ll be right back!” called Bobby, squeezing John’s hand tightly. “We’re going to the store to buy more cigarettes!”

“That’s a great idea,” said Keith, nodding and smiling. “That’s a fucking awesome idea.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills. “Buy me this many cigarettes, okay?” he added, passing it over to Bobby.  John tried to pull his hand free from the little boy so he could sit on the couch next to Keith, but Bobby held on tightly.

“Hey, little dude,” he started, smiling, trying to pull free.

“I can’t buy cigarettes by myself,” said Bobby loudly, looking over at Keith. “I’m too young.” He pulled again, and John nodded, following him out the door.

The light outside was so bright that John just stood there, blinking, for several seconds. How long had he been inside? It felt like weeks, or even longer, since he couldn’t remember for the life of him when he’d actually arrived here, or where he’d even come here from. The party that had been going on inside seemed to have followed him outside, though, which was somewhat comforting. A yellow schoolbus squealed by him and Bobby, nearly tipping onto its side as it turned the corner. “We’re number one!” shouted the bus driver, half his body hanging out the window as he drove by, both arms waving wildly.  “Number one!”

“All right!” John shouted back, holding up his index finger and hooting back. “Number one! All right!”

“Do you think Mom’s all right?” asked Bobby quietly. The little boy sat on the stoop of Keith and Sarah’s house, his arms wrapped around the blue backpack on his lap.  “I tried counting the days we were here, but the sun didn’t come up for a real long time, and now it won’t go down.”

“Yeah. It’s real bright out,” said John, whistling. He jammed his hands into his pockets. Something felt wrong, something was missing here. “You still brushing your teeth?” he asked.

“I don’t think it’s the sun at all,” the boy continued, his voice so quiet it was practically a whisper. “It’s too bright, and it’s on all the time. And it’s so noisy out! Do you hear it? It’s like a car revving its engines, but it just keeps going on. Do you think your machine can do all that? Make it daylight all the time and be so noisy?”

“Oh, that’s just traffic. It’s a busy street,” said John, ruffling the boy’s crew cut. “See? There’s a car right now.” A Volkswagen bug careened down the street, fire shooting out of its tailpipe, the driver slumped over the steering wheel. “Now that’s a noisy car,” he added, nodding sagely at the boy. “Was that what you heard?”

“No. Can’t you hear it?” Bobby put his hands over his ears and clapped them tightly. “I can still hear it,” he said after a few seconds. “It’s like it’s in my head!”

“Could be,” said John. “You know what, little dude? I just realized I left my wallet in the house, and I should really go back in and get it before I forget. It’ll just take me a second, okay?” He turned to go back into the house.

“You can’t go back in there!” said Bobby, leaping up and grabbing his hand. “Dad, if you go in there, you’ll forget me again. I’ll be alone out here!” The little boy fell against John, wrapping around his leg, digging his fingernails into his pants. “I’ll be all alone,” he sobbed, shaking uncontrollably. “We have to go home so you can fix the Memory Eater!”

“What’s that?” snorted John. “Some kind of video game?”  And then it suddenly felt like a thick, sticky web was pulling away from John’s brain. It was all coming back to him—his son, his wife, his home. It was all just down the street from here, less than two blocks away. “Bobby, I’ll just be  a second,” he said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. “I’ll just go in, grab my wallet, and come back. It’ll take a second. Two seconds. It’s okay, buddy.” he said, pulling his son’s arms off his leg.  “I won’t forget you, okay? I promise. I’ll just be a second, and then we’ll go home, and I’ll fix everything. I promise.”

Bobby looked up at the change in his father’s voice, a glint of hope in his eyes. “Okay,” he said at last, backing up and taking his seat on the stoop once more. “But you’d better come back,” he added. “I’m just going to sit here and wait for you to come back, and if you don’t come back, I’ll be out here all alone.”

John opened the door of the house and stepped back inside. His wallet was right where he had left it the night before, on the corner of the coffee table full of beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays.

“Dude!” said Keith, laughing. “I can’t believe that nobody lifted your wallet. Did you leave it there all night?”

“Yeah,” said John. “Pretty stupid, huh?”

“You’re pretty lucky, is what it is.” Keith sat up and made room for John on the couch. “You want a beer?”

“Oh, sure, man,” John said, plopping down on the couch. He reached into the paper bag on the table and pulled out first one empty beer bottle, then another. “Are there any full bottles in here?” he asked, pulling out a third empty.

“Sarah! Get John a beer, will ya?” Keith yelled, taking the bag from John and throwing it into the corner of the room with a loud crashing sound. A dark stain spread over the brown paper bag and began leaking. “Oh, shit!” said Keith, laughing. “I guess there was a full beer in there. Oh, well. They’re better when they’re cold, right?”

“Sure,” agreed John. Sarah came in from the kitchen and handed John a cold beer. He took a swig from it and grunted approval. “Yeah, this is good,” he said.

“Don’t go in the back room, by the way,” said Sarah. “Everyone else is back there, fucking, or dying, whatever. Something noisy. I mean, you can go back there if you want,” she added mischievously, “but I wouldn’t want you to wander back there thinking you were going to take a nap or get in some meditation time.”

“Wow. I might have to go back there just to take a look,” said John. “How did that happen??

“I dunno. The TV went off for a moment, and I went to the bathroom, and when I got back, everybody was gone,” said Keith.

“I was in the kitchen, trying to make Keith a sandwich, but I couldn’t find the peanut butter,” said Sarah. “I just know people are in there because they’re making noises. You can hear them really good when you press your ear against the door,” she added, gesturing.

“I think I’ll take your word for it,” said John. “So the TV went out?” he asked Keith.

“Yeah! It was the weirdest thing!” Keith reached over and grabbed the remote control. He flipped around the channels for a while, then leaned back against the sofa. “We were watching the news, when all of a sudden, it was like the cameraman just dropped the camera and it broke or something. There was just static for like, ten minutes.”

“Looks like it’s working now,” said John. The screen showed what looked like a grocery store parking lot, except the big plate glass storefront of the grocery store was shattered and the parking lot was full of half-clothed people riding around in shopping carts. The picture was sideways, as though the camera was lying down on the ground.

“Looks like some kind of movie,” said Sarah. She sat down on the couch next to Keith and lit herself a cigarette. “What movie is this?”

John stared at the flickering television screen. Over the sound of the people yelling and laughing hysterically, he could hear a low, noisy, metallic roar, like a car engine revving up over and over. Huge shadows passed over the parking lot scene, but the camera angle made it impossible to see what the shadows were coming from. Part of something really big appeared briefly in the background, and John thought he recognized a word on the side of the really big object, a company logo, graffiti. Damn kids. Something about kids.

“I think I’ve gotta go,” he said, suddenly, standing up. He opened his wallet and looked inside. There was something in here that was really important. There was something he was supposed to do. He flipped through the credit cards and saw a picture of a woman, my wife, and a little boy, Bobby.

“Aw, so soon?” said Keith. “Oh, hey, you think you could go in back and get Paul to come out here and hang out with us? That Paul, he’s so funny! Were you here earlier when he was telling that story?”

“I’ve gotta go,” said John. He ran at the door, ran because he wasn’t sure how long he could remember the face of the little boy that he had left on the other side, sitting  on the stoop. That sad little face that believed him when he said he was coming back. That sad little face that believed him when he said he was going to fix everything.

“Bobby?” he said, pulling open the door. The stoop was empty. The little boy wasn’t there. John ran down the sidewalk, looking around wildly for his son. “Bobby?” he shouted, once more. All around him, in the street, in the sidewalks, people were lying down on the ground, as if they were asleep, except their eyes were open, staring at the sky. Some of them looked as though they had been run over by a car, with big, comical drag lines bisecting their bodies, while others were in perfect condition.

Overhead, something huge and noisy was making another pass of the neighborhood. John looked up at the huge gray object, the gigantic flat metal disc that was blocking out the sun. He thought he recognized a word on the underside of the big thing, that really thing blocking out the sun, a company logo, graffiti. Damn kids. Something about kids. He couldn’t remember. But it was really huge! He giggled. What in the world could be that big? And noisy! He put his hands over his ears, trying to block out the wave of noise that seemed to be rushing at him from all directions. His hands were just not big enough.

* * * * *

Holly Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her poetry and fiction has recently appeared in Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Oxford American, and Slipstream. Her book publications include Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar-All-in-One for Dummies, and Music Theory for Dummies, which has recently been translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese. Her contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

November Night Near the Grape Vines

It’s time to get up from a North Pole
to put an end to the endless peeking
at neighbors and passers-by
or if you said you had no knowledge of it
you couldn’t shake  off
on sudden long November nights
deafening polyphony.

Once there was a grandmother
near the grape vines
which seems twice as long
with the sun/slant on the two chairs
put there to represent us
and  manifest purpose
since you don’t  stick to the poem
as if bed is the only way to deal with
or sew a rip in his pajamas;
when the clocks were set back
he says you should have thrown them out
and you know he can turn it on or off  depending
because the machine doesn’t lie.

She worked in china in a toy store
for a little while
then fired for no adrenalin rush
on down the line
listening to yourself sing

So you are here for breakfast- eggs in
something re: sentient something
for the day is clearly blue except for
asking why are you tracking umber leaves.

There was some good news and some bad news,
she gave the grandchildren a Teddy Bear
sadly they didn’t love  but hid in the leaves
where we met an old friend;
in the village, always planning a future event
it was so odd we found nothing was moving
still there never is time to evolve
singing multiple amens.

* * * * *

Joan Payne Kincaid has published a collection of work entitled Greatest Hits with Pudding House Publications. She has also published a book with Wayne Hogan entitled The Umbrella Poems in which we both contributed drawings of some of our poems.  She has also published a collection of haiku entitled Snapshoots on the web at <TMPoetry.com>. Her work has been published in Hawaii Review, Limestone Poetry Review, Licking River Review, Iodine, Hampden,Sydney Poetry Review, Main Street Rag, Santa Clara Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, South Central Review, The South Carolina Review,  Cross Currents, Georgetown Review, Edgz, 88,  Oyez, Modern Haiku, Iconoclast, Lynx Eye, Yalobusha Review, Mother Earth Journal, Tule Review, The Quarterly, Cairn, among others. Her contributions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.