Monthly Archives: September 2014

Joint Custody

“I just, I just don’t see why you gotta be like that, is all.”

Janice twitched constantly and sniffed, as if getting over a cold. She frowned over at the mirror behind Ben’s back. Ben thought it a cruel touch, it just served to remind families of what they’d lost.

Janice had lost color, her red hair dulling into a shade of liver, her skin turning parchment beige. You could see her teeth when she talked. The gums had retreated, giving the optical illusion that the canines had lengthened.

“I want my babies,” Janice said.

Ben sighed. “I know. I know you do.”

“Not like that.”

“Of course,” Ben said.

“Don’t you ‘of course‘ me, gettin’ all high and mighty,” Janice sneered.

Dandridge, the lawyer, roosted in the corner, pretending to be engaged on the phone. Ben knew better. Burke&Slaw had made their name through cases like Janice, they called it charity work.

Ben wished they would go back to getting domestic abusers off on technicality.

Janice flicked her hair aside and glanced at the mirror again. Her gaze never stopped moving, she herself was always twitching in some remote corner of her body.

“I’m the one who pushed them out,” Janice prodded.

No, you’re not, Ben had to bite his tongue to keep from saying. Because she hadn’t. This wasn’t the same woman who had cried and sweated through hours of labor, it wasn’t the mother who taught Brittany the chicken dance or even the lover who had taught him to flip eggs.

Ben patiently laid out the various bylaws that had been put in place specifically to prevent her seeing her children. Rote repetition had been a good fallback defense, he found. Dandridge was good at arguing around convictions, rationalizing feelings into mist. But he could not step around the law without risking his position.

Janice clamped her teeth, working her jaw like a junkie. Dandridge dismissed the phantom client and oozed his way over.

“It’s like this,” he said warmly to Ben, “either you give us partial custody now, or we take full custody later.”

Ben said, “no jury in the world is going to agree to that.”

Dandridge tilted his head and smiled. Every face he made was like a toothpaste commercial.

“The US is making great strides in post-mortem rights,” he said.

“You’re right,” Ben said, “it is. They’re not all put to the torch the moment they pop out of the ground now.”

It was an awful thing and he regretted saying it. But he always had to say some variation of it, just to see the reaction.

Janice hunched her shoulders. Her face showed feral irritation, rage, and guilt. They had been thinking the same thing, he knew.

Ben left his seat. Behind him, the mirror showed Ben, prematurely graying and tired, and the lawyer. Nothing more.

“You can put it off all you want Mr. Brock,” the lawyer called after him, “we will get it.”

 

Brittany was balancing along the divider in the waiting room, arms airplaning out for balance. Pascal broke into a big grin when he saw Ben.

“Dahee!” he called. “pay fo’ guy! Pay fo’ guy!”

Ben picked him up, puzzledly kissing his brow. Brittany, having reached the limit of the retaining wall, did a supermodel turn and came back toward her father. Her little cowgirl boots made hollow clicking noises.

“Get down,” Ben said by way of greeting. “what’s he saying?”

Brittany rolled her eyes as if it should be obvious. “Penny for the guy, daddy.” She did a neat little pirouette when she jumped off, just to show him that she didn’t need to listen completely. The feeling of relief that had been flooding back at the sight of the kids ebbed a bit. He frowned.

“Mrs. Abaroa was teaching it to him with the other kids. She thinks it’s fun.”

Though it was clear by her tone how noncommittal she felt, Brittany could not stop her forehead from quirking a bit. Ben caught it. He kissed away the wrinkle.

He fanned her hair. “Get your bear, we’re going.”

 

“Ah, Mr. Brock?” Dandridge was jogging to catch up with them, one finger out. Ben tried to repress the rise in his hackles.

“What is it?” he said without breaking his stride.

“I wanted to discuss with you some conditions,” Dandridge said with an air of confidentiality.

Ben spoke while keeping his back to the lawyer. “There’s no conditions because there are no visits.” He buckled Brittany into her booster seat and handed her his phone.

“Ah, of course, but…” the lawyer let the sentence dangle, juicy and obvious bait.

Pascal poured lumpily into his seat. Trying to fit his arms into the straps was like juggling gelatin.

“There’s something I didn’t want to discuss in front of the…” Dandridge mouthed the word ‘children‘ as if just saying it would ignite their presence. Ben gave up on Pascal’s left arm and turned around, briskly confronting the other man.

“Look,” he said, “better lawyers than you have tread these waters before. You know, the last guy wouldn’t have even thought to make me bring the kids. He knew how to pick his battles.”

The lawyer seemed unflapped by this. “Please, Mr. Brock. It will only be a moment.”

Ben looked back at the car. Pascal sprawled like a lump in his seat. Brittany was busy in whatever brightly-colored candy land she had summoned up.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, auto-locking the doors, “no more.”

They walked to the lee of the building. Dandridge’s boyish combover was flapping in the breeze. Ben wished he smoked, if only for the excuse to blow something foul in the man’s face.

“Alright,” he said, “what else you got?”

“As you know, ah, Mrs. Brock–”

“Janice,” Ben said tonelessly, closing his eyes. “If you must call her something, call her that.”

“Of course,” Dandridge smiled without apologizing. “Janice is wondering after the state of her children’s schooling–”

“No she isn’t,” Ben interrupted, “you and I both know that.”

“Whether you were still planning to take the catholic route—”

“She was episcopalian, jackass.” Ben could no longer help himself. “and her thought on the schools was, and I quote, ‘the only thing those places are good for is churning out politicians with a wide piss stance.’ At least do some goddamn research before you put words in her mouth.”

Ben’s outburst hadn’t even dinged Dandridge’s confidence. Ben had to wonder about the man.

“Janice would also like to know if you are respecting her gluten-free dietary regimen. She would like to set up meetings wherein she can determine their health and safety.” Dandridge finished, smug.

Ben got close, got in his face.

“We both know that will never happen,” he said, “because she will never be alone with those kids. Not ever. I’m glad she didn’t get torched when she came back, I am. But it’s not Janice. It’s not. It’s just–it’s empty and hunger and anger, can you fucking see that? Can you—”

Dandridge’s gaze darted, just once, behind Ben. Ben turned and saw the back passenger door of the car hanging open. He bellowed and took off, leaving the lawyer to stumble along in his slipstream.

He didn’t slow down in time and hipchecked the side of the car. It stung.

Brittany sat small in the passenger seat, phone forgotten by her feet. She wasn’t crying, but her bottom lip stuck out and her eyes were big. The car seat was empty, straps hanging limp. Ben gasped. He hadn’t even been running long and already felt like he couldn’t breathe enough. He slammed the door shut again.

“I’ll be back,” he promised.

Ben scanned the area. The center was in a small dip between hills. There was the road out, with nothing but scrub all around. Too low for cover. That had been intentional.

The center backed up against the car in one direction, in the other was—

“A stream!” he gasped. He knuckle-punched the door and ran towards it.

He couldn’t hear anything as he came closer to the gurgling brook. Just the thrash of weeds dying beneath his boots and the delicate susurrus of fall insects. He forced himself to slow, to be methodical, to take breaths.

The bank was too spotty, disappearing completely at some points, to follow consistently. Ben tried the higher ground, away from the center, praying that it was the right direction.

There, on a knoll, was a glimpse of red hair and blue overcoat. Ben took a few breaths before approaching, praying.

“Janice,” he said like a plea.

Pascal cried out. Janice leapt to her feet, too late to disguise her actions

Janice had a nail dragging open her breast, letting out the blood that lay black and ichorous in branches beneath the surface to ooze velvety red from the wound. Her face showed shock, anger, and thwarted lust. No regret. None at all.

“Janice,” Ben whispered, reaching into his right pocket, “oh Janice…”

Janice hissed before he’d even taken the crucifix from his pocket, looping the chain around his hand. She dropped Pascal to the ground, holding barbed hands before her face.

With his free hand, Ben scooped up Pascal, who was now bawling his eyes out. Once the boy was in his grasp, Ben made the hand with the crucifix go limp, letting it slide back into his pocket. He turned away from his wife.

Janice hurled herself at his shoulder, swearing. She had wild-animal strength now. She tore at the back of his clothes and trumpeted out horrible pig noises that made Pascal force his head deeper and deeper into Ben’s sweater. Dandridge caught up with them, looking affronted and just a little bit scared.

“I must protest—” he began, and Ben closed his mouth with a right hook. The lawyer’s head snapped back and he wound up on his back in the dirt. Ben hoped he was already formulating a wrongful assault charge. He’d jumped the gun, been too eager. His betters at the law offices would make an example out of him.

Janice had fled, probably for the woods. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t cross the stream. They would get her within hours.

Brittany looked at him with too-grown eyes when he opened the car door and eased a terrified Pascal into his seat.

“Hot chocolate?” he asked.

Brittany nodded.

 

Back home, Ben made a quick phone call and got the kids situated, heating up milk in a saucepan.

Pascal giggled and gurgled in front of the TV, his terror forgotten. Brittany appeared suddenly at Ben’s elbow, silent and serious. She held a piece of paper out for him to inspect.

It was an art assignment. With peach and pink crayons, she had drawn her family. Balloon-headed stick figures were christened ‘daddy’ ‘little brother’ and ‘me’. On the far side of the page, almost an afterthought, was a flat gray rectangle with a curved top and a little black cross on its surface, labeled ‘mom’.

Ben lowered the picture and petted her hair. “It’s great, sport.”

That evening he heated up a can of soup and made grilled cheese. The kids absolutely refused anything extra in their sandwiches, so he loaded his up with mortadella and tomatoes and mushrooms until it was more pie than sandwich. It made the kids laugh to see him eat it with a knife and fork, and it did him good to hear them laugh.

After dinner he turned on the TV to an old black-and-white movie, because they always made Pascal drop off. He was finally starting to forget the day with the sleepy bulk of his son tucked in one arm when Brittany called from the window.

“Look, lights!”

Without getting up, Ben called. “it’s just a bonfire sweetie. Come back here.”

Without moving Brittany asked, “daddy, what’s a guy?”

Ben swallowed down a lump with more chocolate. “Well, sweetie, it comes from England. They had a holiday they’d celebrate with bonfires and they’d dress up these old dummies in rags and ask for money with them.”

Brittany giggled.

“Then they’d drop the dummies on the fire and let them all burn up.”

Brittany remained at the window, hands cupped around her face. Ben rested back, listening.

Then Brittany called out again: “look, blue!”

Ben sweated.

“So blue! Why would anyone put something so pretty on an old dummy?”

Ben swallowed dryly. Pascal was a dead wight on his left side.

“That’s enough sweetie,” he said, “come watch Sesame Street.”

Brittany finally turned from the window. “Eff that, I wanna watch Monkeypie.”

“Language, young lady,” Ben said, gathering her to him. He sat up long after they had gone to sleep. Not until the orange glow faded from the window did he dare get up.

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Why Did They Leave You Alone?

C’mon kid. Spill.

You’ll have to say something sooner or later, those are my buddies over there, dredging that hole.

Where did your parents go? Did they run off and ditch you? Are they catching a plane or train or just hoofing it to Canada? Did they just step out for a smoke? Maybe they’re in the bathroom.

You gatta tell us sooner or later, we’ll know anyway. We got ways. We got computers. We’ll scan everything you ever touched. Find the blood that’s been washed away, the spit, the semen. You think a few bars of motel soap and some bleach will hide your identity? We’ll ask your DNA. And DNA don’t lie to us.

Was it Shelly? Surely it was her or Daisy or Mary or Carrie or Jill. One of these girls. Look kid, look. You can’t keep those eyes closed forever.

A lot of girls won’t stop for some stranger on the street. Too smart. They’ll stop for a kid though. They’ll stop to play tag or kiss booboos or say hi to a couple with a kid.

Were they really your parents? Pssh. Why am I even asking? Like I could trust your answer.

You ever been in there? It’s a long, cold drop. Used to service a mine, now it’s just for dopers. No respectable girl would be within a mile of this place.

Oh hey! You hear that? That’s Phil. Phil just found something.

Great guy, Phil. Sharp eyes.

Your knee hurt? I can get a bandaid. But we gotta get to the station for that, and to get to the station you have to talk.

Were they nice to you? That don’t mean a whole lot. Nice people don’t do this. Nice people don’t break up families and leave mothers up crying all night. Did they buy you pop and let you stay up? Lemme tell you kid, that may seem like love but it ain’t.

They’ve got the chain going. That means something’s big. Something down there.

Did you move around a lot? Hell, I did that when I was a kid too. I used to look up to my pops. When I grew up I realized he was a no-good shit. Drank. Fought. Got kicked out of places too many times. But I still loved the shit out of him until he hit my ma. Isn’t that funny? They’ve got you until that one thing, the one thing they do turns the tide, makes all the love into hate.

Well kid? What’s in there? The one thing?

It’s stuck. Looks like they can’t winch it up. Makes you sick to think about it.

Did they tell you it was all your fault? That’s a lie. That’s the god-damndest lie I ever—

Huh. Too heavy for the truck? That’s gotta be a first.

Look, kid, you aren’t helping nobody. You aren’t helping your folks, you aren’t helping those girls, and you aren’t helping your case any, I can tell you.

Randy, keep it down! I’m talking to the kid here!

Yeah, just a second.

NO, DON’T CALL FOR BACKUP. IT’S A TEENAGE GIRL FOR CHRISSAKES, HOW COULD IT—

Times running out. You hear that? That’s the hammer coming down.

Just open up.

Open up. Open—

…kid.

What the hell did they do to your tongue?

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Mister Seahorse

He hadn’t wanted to return to the beach

the memory swilled inside him like a poison, never far, ready to clench his body in remembrance of pain, lash its tongue across his life to let him know:

it happened

he hadn’t wanted to go back to work

but they would notice. weeks of gastric upset, of furtive glances and hiding his oozing nipples, but absence was the one thing he could not, would not be able to explain to his coworkers. to avoid clenching when asked the old saw: what did you do for vacation? to lie as he ran his tongue over his teeth, still tasting iron and salt, tasting her, and smiling blandly: went to the beach.

he hadn’t wanted to get out of the car.

he could see from the road the distance he had swum, and now the image made acid back up in his throat. so far, so foolish. there were signs warning of riptide, but that hadn’t been the danger. the danger had been his own misplaced heroism, his idiot impulse to save and be seen. to look up and see what looked like a woman out on the rocks.

he hadn’t wanted to go on living

but something made him do it. he considered taking his own life, before he even considered a doctor, but both trains of thought were abandoned. if he forgot about it, it was like it never happened

except it did

he hadn’t wanted to set foot on the sand

he supposed the first mermaid must’ve been Venus, arising from the foam of Uranus’s severed head to set one virgin white foot on the shore. born of sea-foam, like the later daughters of Neptune, immutable, intractable,

fecund

he hadn’t wanted to swim out

too far at first because he feared the riptide. now he missed the world where the worst thing he had to worry about was getting dragged out to sea. a world where the mass he saw on the rocks, far from shore, looked a bit like a woman lounging on her side. where he, caught up in a playfully mythic spirit, called out to her. a world that ended shortly before “she” shifted, and he saw that the figure was only the top of something very, very, very big

he hadn’t wanted to come back

but there was nothing left. it was harder and harder to hide his growing bulk from his coworkers, excuse away the frequent abdominal pain, the vivid red slashes that decorated his back and buttocks as if something had grasped him to stop him thrashing—

he hadn’t wanted to get back in the water

but he did. he shed his shirt and shorts, kicking off his shoes in the tide. he half-hoped there was someone around to see him, someone who would call the police and arrest this indecent exposer, but he was alone. as he began to tread water, alone. as he fell into a simple breast stroke, alone. as the rip tide pulled him not out to sea, but to a familiar gathering of rocks, alone. as the pain became unbearable, alone.

and, as he gave birth in a tide of red foam, he wondered if they would call it Venus.

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Good Samaritan

They called him Ned, and all Ned wanted to do was make the world a happier place. Ned did everything he could to further that end. He was always smiling because when someone saw him smile, they smiled back. He was always doing favors for people. Even if they didn’t know it.

This morning he stopped to let a car make a turn against the green. There was nobody around but him, so he waved the driver through. The driver waved back, and Ned waved and waved until the car went out of sight.

A bee landed on his arm. He though the bee would like to sting him and so he let it. As the bee wrenched its abdomen from the stinger still embedded in his arm and flew away, Ned waved to it.

Up the sidewalk a short ways was Jack Kelly and a few other boys from Ned’s high school. Ned smiled and nodded to each in turn, which they repeated sardonically back at him, upper teeth exposed to jut over bottom lips in yokel fashion.

“Where you goin’, dogmeat?” Jack said.

“Oh, everywhere,” Ned said, “and nowhere.”

The fellas laughed. Ned was tickled. He loved talking to Jack and his friends, because they always smiled and joked around him.

Everywhere,” Jack repeated in a nasal whine. “bet you don’t have anything special planned for tonight.”

“I don’t know,” Ned said, “movies?”

Jack cackled and dug an elbow into his neighbor’s ribs. “Movies, huh? Your parents mind if we come along?”

“Oh no, not at all.”

Jack seemed taken aback. “Really? Your folks got that much money?”

Ned nodded. “Yes. Come to the movies tonight, my treat.”

Jack cocked his head sceptically. “Alright if we bring dates?”

“Oh yeah, bring everyone,” Ned said, grin never leaving his face, “there’s room for all.”

Jack actually seemed to soften a bit. “Wow…thanks, dogmeat.”

“No problem,” Ned said, giving a little bow, “no problem at all.”

They were discussing candidates when Ned walked away. He thought of how wonderful it would be to have parents who could afford to pay for their son’s friends and their dates at the movies. It was a nice thought. He hoped they had fun thinking about it.

A mail carrier stood in his path, mouthing words, trying to match labels to addresses. He flagged Ned down.

“Hey, you!” he called, “do you know where 9013 Maple Terrace is?”

“Yes I do,” Ned told him confidently.

The carrier breathed a sigh of relief. “Great. Could you give this to them? I’m running late already and I just spent ten minutes trying to find this place.”

“I’d be glad to.” Ned took the envelopes and waved the carrier down the sidewalk. Then he kept on walking. At one point he found a dirty old woman sitting on the sidewalk, with a cup marked change. He gave the mail to her. She probably needed something to read.

Next he saw a golden spaniel straining at the leash. The owner had tied it to a stake, and every time a car sped by the dog was stopped short at nine feet, barking arthritically. Ned unhooked the leash from the stake. The little dog licked his fingers. Ned walked a little ways until he found a truck stopped at a red light. Covertly, Ned looped the leash around the bumper. The light changed and the truck took off, the dog already scurrying frantically, lead tugging at its neck, barking and waving its tail as the truck disappeared over the next rise.

He walked around town and flattered people. He told a lady that a scarf matched her eyes. He told a man that he had the biggest gut Ned had ever seen. And everywhere he went, he smiled.

A girl with long auburn hair and glasses jogged up to him. He recognized her.

“You’re Beth,” he said, “from class?”

She bit her lip and shifted in her tennis shoes, as if undecided on whether she should be seen talking to him.

“And you’re Ned,” she said.

“Yep,” he said, “that’s me.” And smiled.

“Could I, um…” she darted her gaze back and forth, gripping her right arm with her left hand, “do you mind if I…can I talk to your parents about something?”

“Oh sure!” he said.

A few cars whizzed past.

“So?” she said.

Ned cocked his head.

“Are you going to…” she took a nerving breath. “can we go to your house?”

Ned nodded and set off at a brisk pace. Beth trotted beside him, still looking around them.

“Are your parents disabled?” she asked.

“Oh, yes.”

“Because we never see them at homecoming or things like that. Do they have MS or something?”

“Yep!” he laughed. Beth frowned slightly.

“That’s got to be hard. How do they get groceries, do they order online or do they send you out to shop?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Uh-huh, what?”

“What?”

“Which one?”

He paused to consider. “How about both?” he asked. Beth altered her path slightly, putting an inch more of room between their bodies.

“So…I guess they help you with your homework a lot, huh?” she continued.

“Another one knocked out of the park, Beth, you are so smart!”

That seemed to be the wrong answer. Beth furrowed her brow at him, mouth depressing into a thin pink line.

“I really like your glasses, Beth,” he said. This did not make her smile either.

“Thank you,” she said absently, still studying him.

It was a long walk. Ned lived quite a ways from the school, in a house that was the only finished house in a planned development park. He tried pointing out nice things to Beth, but the more he talked, the more she seemed to withdraw from him. It was that way sometimes with people. He never really understood why.

Beth crinkled her nose as they got close. “Is there a sewer line broken or something?”

“Yes,” Ned said, guiding her to the front door. Beth clapped a hand to her nose as they walked in the front door. She retched a little, then looked at Ned and forced her hand away from her face.

“Sorry,” she said, “I’m sure you can’t help it.”

“I can’t,” he agreed, “can I get you some water?”

“Sure,” she said absently, scanning the living room. The house was dark, as no one had paid the power bill for some time now. Ned grabbed a glass and turned the faucet. Nothing came out. He waited the space of a few heartbeats and turned the faucet into the ‘off’ position again. He left the glass on the counter and went back into the living room.

Beth had her shirt over her nose, she pulled it off when Ned came in. She looked quizzically at his empty hands, then at the kitchen doorway.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

Beth shook her head. “No, actually…I really want to talk to your parents.”

“Sure! They’re right up here.”

Ned took Beth by the hand and led her to the den, where it was even darker because there were no windows. Beth took a moment in the doorway for her eyes to adjust while Ned went forward into the darkness.

“Beth,meet the parents.”

Beth started screaming.

“I thought they would be happy if their son came back,” Ned called over the sound, “so I put on his skin and said hi. And then they were so happy they started screaming. They screamed and screamed until they died of happiness.”

Beth vomited.

“Good job!” Ned said approvingly.

Beth held her stomach and gasped. “School…said…household…unresponsive.”

Ned nodded. “I saw from the mail that Ned was going to start school soon, so I thought I’d make them happy by showing up.”

Beth gaped at him, a string of drool dangling from the edge of her mouth. “You’re not Ned?” she whispered.

“No,” Ned laughed, “do you want to see my real face?” and he pulled and pulled and Ned’s skin stretched and tore and Beth screamed and ran out the living room and out the front door.

Ned stopped stretching, but the skin was too loose now, and floppy, so he stepped out of it and walked out the front door, locking it behind him. The police would be very happy with the mystery he left behind, they would have to work years at solving it. And now that Beth had a story to tell, people would stop ignoring her at school.

Ned walked. Around midnight in the park, a mugger mistook him for someone in a black leather hoodie and held a knife to his abdomen. Ned thought the mugger would be happy if he died and let himself be stabbed, falling to the pavement while the mugger ran.

Then he got back up.

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