cold

They woke up, just as they did every morning: him staring at the locks of her hair as they cascaded across the pillow, her brown curls lit in stripes by the blinds. He watched as she breathed, her chest rose and fell like the tide.

She watched the fan spin, counting the seconds in her head.

She crawled out of bed and put the coffee on in the kitchen. She moved a box off the stool and sat down watching the coffee boil and hiss.
He walked into the kitchen, as if drawn by the scent. He opened the cabinet and pulled down a mug, and then stared into the open cabinet.
He furrowed his brow, looking over his shoulder at her.
She raised her eyebrow just enough to be noticeable.
He wandered out into the sea of cardboard, his hands deep in his pockets. Peeling back a few folds, he uncovered a box of books, and another of kitchen utensils and placemats. He started in on a third before he felt her gaze on his back.
He caught her eye and opened the box anyway.
Ah ha, he nodded.
What?
You took my mug.
No, I didn’t.
He dug it out and held it up. He resisted the urge to say I told you so, but the look he gave her was enough.
Oh.
He looked it over as if it he were seeing it for the first time.
You know where I got this mug?
Here we go.
She sighed. He didn’t speak.
Where did you get it?
I don’t remember, I was asking if you did.
Oh. I don’t remember either.
I don’t know, it’s just been a long time since I had to think about it… It’s just always been, you know?
I know. I guess I just didn’t think about it when I packed it.
Wasn’t this a gift?
She shrugged.
Hmm. He took it back into the kitchen and set it near the coffee pot.
Silence stirred in the air. She absently picked at her nails. He poured two mugs and set one on the counter in front of her amid the boxes scattered next to her.
He held the mug to warm his hands. She traced the steaming rim with her finger.
Do you have any plans?
Like tonight?
No, like, she waved her hand around trying to think of a better word, at all.
I haven’t really thought about it.
I’m not saying this to force you into anything….
He raised the mug to his lips and blew. Yeah?
But, she continued, if you want to help me move some of this stuff we could go eat or something after.
Why?
Well it’d be easier to move…
No, why dinner?
I just thought it’d be a good, you know, final send-off, or goodbye, I guess.
I thought yesterday was the final goodbye. To be honest, I thought you would have moved out already.
I’m just saying, it’s an idea.
I’ll think about it later.

She took a sip from her mug and he did the same.
It’s weird.
She looked up, thinking he meant the coffee.
It’s weird to think about what I haven’t had to think about in a long time. It’s like everything’s new again.
It’s just like it was a long time ago.
Too long ago. It’s like I have to learn how to walk again.
Not that long ago.
He smiled, but just for one fleeting second.
She took a drink.
New doesn’t always mean bad.
He bit his lip.
Doesn’t always mean good, either.

Don’t be like that.
Don’t be like what?
So fucking pessimistic. All the time.
He threw his hands in the air.
No.
She squinted her eyes.
What do you mean, no?
No, I’m going to be as fucking pessimistic as I want. I suddenly have the freedom to do so.
Fine, I wont stop you.
No, you can’t stop me.
She held her face in her hand, feeling herself breathe.
Not anymore.

 

He wanted to say it but wouldn’t.
She did too, but couldn’t.

She left her mug on the counter when she went. The coffee was cold. It stayed there for days.
He hid his in a box with her books. When he carried it to her car, he made sure to put it on the bottom.

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neck

She had always been an unremarkable girl. Quiet, though not shy, friendly, but not popular, cute in her own way, sure, but not beautiful. She was just ordinary.  But today the halls were silent as she walked through. Hushes and whispers floated in the air behind her half-slumped shuffle. Her shrug and sigh as she adjusted her backpack echoed louder than her steps. They watched like hawks to see if her eyes spied any boys with her incriminating little looks, but she refused to look anywhere but at her own feet.

The rumors had circulated, reaching further than she could have imagined, suggesting the most sinister and most vile. Word got to the principal through a few “concerned” classmates, and it spread its roots across the rest of the faculty. It had been announced privately that there would be nothing done about “the situation” publicly, but rather to let her approach any member of the staff on her own terms. Both the counselor and the nurse protested, the decision was final.

The room was empty when she walked in. Taking her place near the front, she dropped her backpack and tried to hide her neck. Others walked inside laughing and talking but they all fell quiet when they saw her–sitting there so sheepishly, delicate like a wilting flower, like a lost puppy with a quivering tail.  The lecture started in unaccustomed silence, and as the scraping chalk started to dust the blackboard she began  to stir in her seat.

She slunk to the bathroom without so much as a word, all it took was a little welling in her eyes and Mr. Newhouse nodded without breaking his sentence. All the boys watched her as she left, she could feel it. The bathroom stalls were inked in curvy black letters half scratched out. She had checked the halls and had checked the stalls and now found herself alone. She splashed some water on her face to muddy and streak her eyeliner, careful not to disturb the fake bruises wrapped around her neck like a medal.

puke

For some reason, all he could think about were volcanoes. Spewing liquid fire and melted metal right out of a mountain–murdering everyone like Vesuvius. He should have been thinking of a broken oil well, but the mind’s a funny thing. He wretched again, unable to open his eyes for fear of his own stomach acid splashing back at him. Though not particularly fond of his own appearance, he carried with him an unexplored phobia of facial disfigurement. His palms were slick and he had trouble keeping grip on the bowl, but he’d seen the floor and decided to take his chances.

Thinking the worst of it was over, he squinted into the black depth where the toilet was supposed to be and his eyes snapped open. It was like the oil and tar he’d seen used on parking lots. Endless and color-consuming. He spat what was left on his lips out and wiped his chin with the tattered end of the only toilet paper roll left in the stall. He didn’t want to, but he focused on the lumps that floated to the surface and thought again of volcanoes.

He had just vomited Hawaii into a truck stop toilet. Well at least the big island. The rest of the archipelago came shortly after this discovery.

He couldn’t help but laugh as he struggled to his feet and walked to the mirror. He should have been planning the shortest route to a hospital, but the trucker’s face at the urinal was priceless. He gurgled water at the sink, watching, for whatever reason, the toilet stall he’d just left. Checking his braces for whatever remains that happened to snag on their way up, he didn’t want to admit that Jeanne was probably right about that burger. But it had to have been the milkshake. Something about it tasted spoiled. He gurgled more water, ineffectively washing out the lingering taste and smell. Though he noted it tasted markedly different from his “normal” batch of bile, he didn’t want it to last long enough to be classified.

He hung his head and breathed deep, soaking up the scent of soap and piss and he heard a churning slop as his stomach protested its fickle hunger. He glanced up to see a hulking mass of black dripping ooze rising up out of the toilet. All he could think about at that moment was whether it was the burger or the milkshake.  The sound of a thousand wet mops slapping tile filled the room as the black vomit stepped out of the toilet towards him.  You really seen the look on that trucker’s face, at this point he pissed himself and the surrounding area. Pukeboy, on the other hand just stood there with his stupid mouth hanging open, flashing his braces at the monster.

While failing to blind the oncoming mass of black sludge with his dental hardware, he recalled that the waiter at the diner had a weird lump on her finger he had assumed, until this point, was just a wort but now things seem a little more sinister.  Then he remembered that witches had worts on their noses and that theory made no sense, regardless of witchcraft being the cause of the ten feet of lurking black death dripping towards him. He laughed a little in his head at his own “black death” metaphor, before yelping like a miniature show dog. The pathetic cry echoed around the grungy bathroom and was quickly followed by an even louder sound from the puke monster resembling slurping the remains of a milkshake from the bottom of a glass. It had to be the milkshake. There was no other explanation other than the disturbing reality of mad cow being present in both the beef and the milk.

The mad cow monster split down the middle, reaching out to envelop him in the black tar of its fingers. Pukeboy, assuming his new identity yelped again, this time like an even smaller hairless show dog and headed for the door in full sprint only to slip on the accumulated puddle under the hand dryer. His head smacked flat against the tile, no doubt leaving a mark on his blotchy forehead. The heaping black mass crawled closer with every slip, plop, and squelch, it hissed in a weird slow way he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It looked like it would get stuck, there was no way in hell he’d try touching it. Then he realized that giving up and letting the thing consume him was a legitimate option, but he didn’t think he could stomach the smell.

As Pukeboy flopped and floundered around on the floor like a fish, he noticed a smaller door shadowed by the exit door that led to a janitor’s closet. He struggled to stand, cursing the lack of grip on his vintage work boots and half-ran, half-slipped, half-risky-business-slid to the closet and drew out a plunger that had seen considerable use to say the least offensive thing about the layers of caked-on shit that added a good three pounds to the existing device. He leveled the poop-stuck stick at the encroaching tar blob and it reeled back like a wave hitting a rock. Pukeboy wasn’t about to waste the gilded opportunity before him so he shouted: (insert wizard fiction nonsense catchphrase) as the tile imprint still on his forehead throbbed under the flickering florescents. The vomit beast reeled back, either terrified of the crusty plunger or repulsed by the maddening fandom and retreated back with every step Pukeboy took in his direction.

With a bravado only fitting with the absurdity of the situation and Pukeboy’s ridiculously quick yet unanimously hated wit, he recited a few more dumb catchphrases drawing from the key elements of scat humor and (insert title of “witty” adult cartoon), and successfully pushed the walking oil stain back into the stall and down into the festering toilet bowl. At last, striking the trademark pose of a respected naval officer, he flushed the toilet, watching the seeping blackness drain into the sewers with one last satisfying gurgle.

Exhausted and, frankly, smelling a little like shit himself, Pukeboy sat down at the toilet and pulled out his phone, praying to god the screen wasn’t cracked any more than it already was. He breathed a sigh of relief and typed away with his one clean thumb. The indignance was as as clear on his face as his mountain of cystic acne.

With a final shit-eating grin, Pukeboy hit send on his latest Yelp review. “6/10 would eat again.”

dust

the highway was still hot from the sun, even as it slowly set behind the often talked about but never seen ‘destination’, so he took to the rocky grass off the shoulder. Brown and white clouds kicked up with his every step soaking into the thread of his pants like a stain that would most definitely wash out. He only walked with the sun to his back. At mid-day he’d just turn around. He never stuck out his thumb to the sound of a rattling engine or the promise of headlights. Didn’t matter–or as he would say: “that’s just how it rolls.”  It’s not as if he were some unwashed, crazy-eyed, cousin-fucking, bearded prospector from the mountaintop, though he was very clearly unwashed. Not as if the cleanliness of your mind and soul count for anything if the edges of your beard are layered with the fine dust one only finds on the roadside. And, yes, he was near-sighted in one eye prompting a quite uneven prescription, not that he ever wore his glasses even when he did know where to find them. And before your ask, no, he did not, in fact, fuck his own cousin. Though he was unsure about the legal statues of the matter in the state regarding the fornication/marriage of relatives, it said somewhere in the good book that merely thinking impurely of a woman was adultery. Of that he was certain.  But it was not for that sin he walked.

the highway was hot all the time, he mused, welling up enough spit to wash out the grit he felt in his mouth, except when he slept. His pace slowed around what he presumed was one or one thirty, about when all the headlights stopped coming and all the taillights stopped going. He was alone with the stars but he’d stopped searching them a long time ago, claiming the deficiency in his ‘bum eye’ to blur them into one bright mist stuck in the sky like a dust-covered spiderweb. He slowed his pace, seeing the last set of taillights wander over the horizon or around the bend or up the hill. It was up the hill but he pretended not to know. He stopped and sat down at the rather large rock he pretended to not remember was by the roadside. He mimicked surprise when he found a splinter of chalk deep in the fold of his pocket, but he didn’t make a fuss when he scratched another tick mark next to a line of others. He actually couldn’t remember how many marks were on the rock, it rained once in a while, believe it or not. He claimed he was going senile, but what does he know.

He slipped off his boot and shook out the pebble he’d been slowly polishing into a gem for the last six miles. The other boot still had laces which he slowly worked off with the only unbroken or blister-free fingers he had–his pinkies and a thumb. His left thumb, in fact. The one the devil kept intact so he could signal for a ride whenever he gave up. His knees creaked a little like an old wooden floor, he thought they sounded more like an old staircase. He stepped heavy onto the gravel near the roadside before he felt the highway under his feet. The dust of the day had finally settled–a blanket thicker and heavier and less perceptible than the darkness of the night. He crawled underneath its covers and rest his head against the cool yellow pillow of the highway.

He fell asleep as the desert coyotes howled miles and miles away, trying to remember the number of times he’d marked that rock. He wouldn’t say even if he knew it for fact.

Headlights hurtled up the hill, sped around the curve, and dawned like two suns over the horizon. The radio was broken, not that it mattered. The tires were white, not that that mattered either. The driver was named Ronald, but it could have easily been anyone. It didn’t matter. The speedometer wobbled between sixty and seventy. Ronald found on his travels that the dust settled between the cracks in the road glinted in the night sometimes, like the road were just an expansion of the sky, but only when the headlights were off. Once he had climbed the hill and braved the curve, he cut the lights and found himself drifting through the starry asphalt river as the engine roared and his sleeve flapped in the breeze.

The headlights sparked back to life and washed out the fallen stars. Ronald peered over the steering wheel, searching for a sign. He was almost certain he had taken a wrong turn and almost wished for it to be true when the lump in the road filled his vision and blood rushed to his toes and his skin felt like it was gone. The tires twisted and hit the rocky dirt with a crash as the headlights shattered against the marked rock. The engine hissed and rattled  and coughed as Ronald felt the imprint of the steering wheel in his forehead. He was afraid to check for blood, not that he could see it in the dark. His heart thundered, louder now than the engine and the vile curses from the crazed bearded man ambling toward his window.

He mumbled something with a mouthful of blood, and even if it were discernable, it wouldn’t matter.

The dusty man’s hand came through the open window and struck him across the face.

God damn you! He shouted as the dust began to settle over the wreck and into the blood on Ronald’s chin.

God damn you! He shouted again, working the handle on the bent door. Ronald couldn’t focus through the tears welling in his eyes.

God damn you. His shoulders heaved as he spoke, that Ronald could see. The door opened, the squeal of metal on metal filled the air.

The dust covered man took Ronald by the shoulders and shook him.

You were supposed to be the one! The One, damn it!

Ronald said nothing, not that it mattered anyway.

God won’t let me die, you understand? Someone has to do it for him. And that was supposed to be you! 

The dusty man collapsed to his knees and began to sob as the dust filled his eyes and covered his head.

After a long time he stood to his feet and began to wander back to the highway, the dust now settled.

If he wants me to keep walking, he mumbled to himself, then I guess I’ll keep walking.

You ought to do the same, he said, looking to Ronald, because God knows you’ll be walking a long time too.