When we got back to my flat she began judging as we all do. Our stuff is the external representation of our inner selves. So when she headed straight for my CD collection I offered her a drink with a wry smile, confident in the eclecticism of my musical tastes. Without raising her eyes she said, “Coffee, please.” I brought back two beers and she cracked open hers without comment. She was at the bookshelf now.
I went to put some music on then threw myself into the sofa. As if waiting for a cue she came and sat close to me. I yawned and stretched my arm around her shoulders and she couldn’t help but giggle. My bladder was bursting. I surreptitiously reached into my pocket and switched the device up a notch.
“Lots of posters,” she said, blinking heavily. This was true. The room was full of the faces of my favourite musicians and filmmakers. She turned to me and it struck me for the twentieth time that night how she had the most dizzying smile. She leaned in and kissed me. I pushed against her and she went gently onto her back, graduating us to heavy petting. This went on until my bladder rang out again. I broke off and went to the bathroom. When I returned she was sat upright with her feet back on the floor, seeming to somehow occupy less space than before. It would not be possible to go straight back into necking. There would have to be another lead-in period. I should have slipped the device beneath a cushion.
“I notice you don’t have any psychbite posters up,” she said in an off-hand manner, as if I hadn’t just had my hand up her thigh. “Who do you bite to?”
“Nobody,” I said, slouching next to her and grabbing my beer from the floor. “I’m psychblind.”
She turned her whole body to face me as if for the first time.
About ten years ago a group of geneticists managed to clone a number of trilobites from a frozen consignment found under the vast plains of Siberia. These hitherto extinct bugs had been on ice for 300 million years and were so perfectly preserved that it was relatively straightforward to drag them into the realm of the living. As the first generation of clones reached maturity the geneticists began to feel thoughts being forced into their heads. Not fully-formed ideas, more like scratches of emotion across the canvas of the mind: desire or horror, for instance. They discovered the trilobites were emitting an electromagnetic field that they would use to send base communications to each other about proximity, food, danger. By some twist of coincidence the human brain was perfectly equipped to receive and interpret these signals.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I can’t believe you can’t psychbite. I… I didn’t even realise all night.” She took a drink from the can. Her attitude had changed. “You must think me insensitive. I’ve just never met anyone who couldn’t psychbite before.”
Something in her speech seemed genuinely dismayed for me.
“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s not like I know what I’m missing anyway. It’s like, you know, you can’t ever fully explain music to a deaf person. Really, it’s okay.” I moved to put my arm around her again but she swivelled her legs up onto the couch to examine me face on. I tried to mask my irritation by engaging her interest. “Go on,” I said, “see if you can explain psychbiting to me.”
“Oh my God, I don’t know,” she said. “It just… is. You know, it’s like… in your head. I can’t explain it.”
By isolating and manipulating the electromagnetic regions of the trilobite brains the scientists were able to harness their ‘psychic’ energies and direct thoughts into people’s minds. By the time the military realised the potential the team had already released a working emulator to the public. Beetle-domed oscillator units which transmitted signals across a diffuse new spectrum were soon adopted by avant-garde circles that saw artistic potential in the technology. They designed and beamed customised signals into each other’s brains. They called it psychbiting.
“Just a minute,” she said, leaving the sofa to go ferreting around in her handbag for something. She came back clutching a black almond-shaped device, similar to the one she didn’t know I had in my pocket. “Here, let me show you.” She held her thumb to its back and it responded with a slow pulse of clean light. Her eyes closed over peacefully. “Can’t you bite that?” she said. “It’s so beautiful.”
“It’s no good,” I said. “I can’t hear anything.”
“No, no, it’s not about hearing…” I could see that she had become completely occupied by her psychbiter. Her head started to roll on her shoulders in tune with something beyond me. Having been through this psychblind rigmarole a hundred times with friends and family and co-workers and anybody else who happened to find out, I began to get bored. They all sit around saying how great it is, what a great thing I’m missing out on. She switched off her device and returned to the world of my little apartment. I could already sense what she was going to say before she did. She sipped her beer and began to rise.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, “but I have to be up early in the morning.”
After closing the door behind her I saw her can still glistening with condensation. I kicked it heavily and sent a spray of beer across my poster collection. I took my own psychbiter out of my pocket and studied the settings. All night it had been emitting a low-level cocktail of certain emotions that had pulled her close to me… But not close enough, it seems. It’s simply a matter of striking the right balance between docility and arousal — trial and error. It may take time but I will pin my tail on a donkey.
Your neighbor’s the one that starts the whole thing. He’s got a friend at the newspaper, he says, always on the lookout for human interest stories and your dog, he says, would fit the bill.
But the dog’s not human, you protest.
Close enough, your neighbor says. Close enough.
Before you know it, there’s a photographer and a reporter at the door, asking you how your dog got so fat and can we take pictures?
It’s glandular, you say.
Your wife had tried putting the dog on diets and exercising it, but nothing helped, and she died in bed with the dog lying at her feet.
Fatty, fatty, two-by-four, she used to sing to the dog, couldn’t fit through the kitchen door.
The dog would always wag its stubby tail when she sang.
Her death was unexpected, like the reporter at your door.
A brain aneurysm, said the doctor. Sometimes they just… happen.
And you’ve tried, since she’s been gone, getting the dog the same brand of diet food and dragging it round the neighborhood on its leash, but it just gets fatter and fatter.
When the article is published, you show the dog its photograph in the paper and proudly call it fatty, fatty, but its stubby tail doesn’t move. The dog has always liked your wife best and, until it got too fat for the climb, had gone up the special steps your wife had ordered from a catalogue (look, the selling point is For Fat Dogs Especially, and she laughed, and the dog’s stubby tailed wagged), and slept at the foot of the bed. Now, the dog looks at the stairs and looks at you and looks at the stairs again, balefully.
You’re too fat; I can’t lift you, you tell the dog. Besides, she’s gone.
Your neighbor worried about you, all alone after your wife’s death.
I’ll be all right, you assured him. I’ve got the dog.
And now, thanks to your neighbor (bit of a nosy one, isn’t he, your wife always thought), you have the visitors. They’ve come to see your dog, sitting on the front step, stubby tail unmoving.
Aren’t you just so fat? grey-haired old ladies coo admiringly, and teenagers snap photos with their cell phones.
It’s glandular, you say, and someone recommends calling Guinness Book.
He doesn’t like the attention, you tell the visitors, but your dog doesn’t really seem to mind, even when you catch a young couple trying to wrap measuring tape round his belly.
We just wanted to know, they say when you send them off after confiscating their measuring tape, how fat is he really?
Your dog spends the day on the front step, only leaving it to do his business, as your wife used to say, and then waddling in at night, when you open the front door for it. Its belly scrapes against the threshold, and you briefly consider the measuring tape, which you’ve left on the counter, but decide against it.
Your dog putters down the hallway and stands in front of the pet steps for-fat-dogs-especially, and turns its round head to gaze at you.
I was always her favorite, you know, you tell your dog. It isn’t very nice to taunt a dog, especially not a fat one, and it probably can’t even understand anyway. You think of apologizing, but then the doorbell rings.
Someone has called Guinness Book, it turns out, and standing at the door is a representative, wondering if he could see your dog.
Come back tomorrow, you say, and: It’s glandular.
When you’ve finally shooed the Guinness Book representative away, you see the dog has left the bedroom and retreated to its second-best spot, beside your chair at the kitchen table, where your wife would admonish you: Stop feeding him off your plate! He’s fat enough as it is.
You’re not so fat, you say to the dog, still feeling guilty about your earlier mockery, are you? Are you?
Your dog’s stubby little tail jerks up and down several times, just like it did when your wife was still alive, and you’re so moved by the gesture that you put your half-eaten dinner under the dog’s chin before retiring for the night.
In the morning, you’re woken by your neighbor, who has come to apologize for contacting Guinness Book (I get overexcited about these things; you know I do), and you regret giving him a spare key as you wrap yourself in your robe to direct him out.
On your way back through the kitchen, you and your neighbor see your dog, still in the same place you left it last night, plate under its chin, instant mashed potatoes stuck to its nose.
Well, says your neighbor, prodding your dog’s body with the toe of his boot. He died doing what he loved.
Cathy S. Ulrich has a dog whose current favorite hobby is hiding under the bed and waiting for spring. Also, rolling in horrible, horrible things.
“MATT!” Sam Sworen’s bellow thundered over the intercom. Under the purplish fluorescent lighting in his cube, Matt cringed. He’d transferred to this office a month ago, but already he regretted it. With a heavy sigh, Matt smoothed his hair, straightened his tie, and went to see what Sam wanted.
“You rang, sir?” Matt repressed the urge to wrinkle his nose in disgust as he eyed the steep piles of papers, scuffed manila folders, and soggy paper coffee cups that littered Sam’s desk.
“You’re damned right, I rang,” Sam growled, his thick eyebrows furrowed into a V. “I can’t find the Hawkins file. I asked you to get it to me yesterday! What the hell’s taking you so long?”
“Hawkins?” Matt frowned and smoothed a small wrinkle in his purple paisley silk tie before adding, “I sent the file to you right after you asked me for it, sir.”
“Where the hell is it, then?” Sam gestured at the pile of files in front him as he glared at Matt, a gleam of triumph in his eye at catching an Associate unprepared.
“In there, sir.” Matt pointed at the unused computer terminal at Sam’s elbow. “I scanned and emailed it to you, right after you asked me for it.” Sam’s craggy face crumpled in disgust as he glared at the computer; the only thing Sam Sworen hated more than Junior Associates was email. One corner of Matt’s mouth curved into a fleeting smirk.
Sam heaved a sigh, and sent Matt away with an imperious wave.
Back in his cubicle, Matt crunched numbers, his work interrupted at regular intervals by bellows from Sam. As he worked, Matt fantasized about showing Sam up in a variety of delightful ways. By lunchtime the quitting fantasy had evolved to include making an impassioned exit speech while standing on Sam’s desk, then yelling “I QUIT!” over the intercom for the whole office to hear. Feeling better, Matt grabbed his jacket and headed for the elevators to go find a sandwich.
Matt didn’t notice he wasn’t alone in the elevator until the mirrored doors closed and he saw Sam’s reflection, glaring at him in the glass. Too late, Matt realized that his dismay at being stuck in an elevator, alone with Sam, was written all over his face, and clearly reflected in the mirror.
“MATT!” Sam chuckled as Matt flinched. Their eyes met in the mirror before Matt dropped his gaze to the floor. “I know you think I’m too hard on you,” Sam grumbled. “All you twenty-somethings are the same, too soft. You can’t make it these days if you’re soft. One day you’ll thank me for toughening you up.”
Whatever else Sam might have said was cut off as the elevator stopped at the first of the Executive floors. A distinguished looking man of about Sam’s age entered. As the doors slid closed Matt admired the man’s expensive suit; success was written in every stitch. Sam’s sparse comb-over, off-the-rack slacks and wrinkled white shirt, punctuated by a baby-poop colored tie, looked even shabbier by comparison. Matt saw the sleek executive’s eyebrows lift as he came to the same conclusion. As he eyed Sam in the mirror, a look of recognition dawned, and his mouth formed a small, cruel smile.
“SAM!” The man bellowed. Matt’s mouth fell open at the sight of granite-hard Sam, visibly flinching. The look of bald dislike that passed over Sam’s thick features wasn’t unlike the one that Matt himself had worn only moments ago.
“I can’t believe you’re still alive and kicking!” The executive’s chiseled features rearranged themselves into a smirk as he looked Sam up and down with distaste. “You’re not still in Accounts, are you? I thought you would’ve retired by now, you old dog, but then again, who could afford to retire on what they pay down there?” The elevator shimmied to a stop. “Too bad only one of us got that promotion, huh, Sam?” The executive cuffed Sam on the shoulder in a fake gesture of good will before exiting onto another of the executive floors, leaving behind a cloud of spicy cologne.
Matt hardly dared look at Sam. Sam stood stock still, jaw clenched, eyes fixed on the illuminated numbers over the door. Matt could feel the burn of Sam’s humiliation radiating in waves. When the doors opened, Sam exited without meeting Matt’s eyes.
After lunch Matt had no sooner settled in at his desk when he heard Sam’s bellow, but for once, the bellow wasn’t directed at him. Sam was hollering at Ted, the other Junior Associate. Free from Sam’s constant stream of demands, Matt worked steadily.
En route to the copy room Matt encountered Ted scurrying down the oatmeal colored hallway, his arms loaded with dog eared manila folders. As Matt passed Sam’s office Sam looked up, expecting Ted, and their eyes met. Sam harrumpfed and looked away, but not before Matt saw the mottled flush creeping darkly up his beefy neck.
Matt stepped aside to let Ted and his load of files enter Sam’s office. As he listened to Sam grumble and Ted stammer, Matt thought how easy it would be to slip away, make his copies, and forget about Sam. But the cruel smirk on the face of the executive in the elevator lingered in his mind’s eye. Matt fingered his paisley tie as he cast a last glance down the hallway in the direction of the copy room. He squared his shoulders and took a resolute breath; There was more than one way to climb the corporate ladder.
Matt pushed the door to Sam’s office wide. He strode in and reached across Sam’s disaster of a desk to power up the dormant computer. He felt a muscle in his jaw twitch as Sam’s wary eyes met his. “You old timers are all the same,” Matt drawled, “too stubborn to use the computer. You can’t make it these days without technology, Sam. You’ll thank me one day for making you learn.”
Kelly Ospina lives in central New Jersey with far too many children and animals. When not writing, she can usually be found doing laundry, yelling at children to pick up after themselves and cleaning up dog hair.
Jaan was enjoying the party in his honor, when he saw Margret harmonizing with Keets in a corner. Jaan had been listening to Britny Geeroo-Straows puffing away on her bassoon about network sales, when he caught Margret’s fluttering crescendo on the flute, a riff of joy and pleasure he had once known intimately. Keets’ arrogant oboe overlaying her sweet octaves. She was opening more holes than needed, he thought. Then, there followed a string of notes rendered con fuoco, with a smattering of giocoso that drove him to tears. Even before they sunk into pianissimo sequences, Jaan knew his wife was having an affair.
She had cheated on Jaan before, like he had countless times with his litgroupies and Upperdiv students. That was how their marriage had evolved — they cheated in silence within a cold but pleasant coexistence. But sleeping with Keets Steevens was a game changer.
He left Britney licking her reed and about to resume another morose measure on the future of streamnet publishing. Brandishing his trumpet, the poet confronted the two with heated blasts of scorn, the horn spewing arpeggios full of staccato shrill notes. Jaan’s performance, uncontrolled bravura and fire, silenced the room. Keets’ oboe slid to his side. Margret lifted her flute and responded with two crisp bars, malincolico, lamentoso. It was one of the saddest pieces of musicspeak anyone present had ever heard.
Jaan threw his trumpet to the floor and stomped on it, crushing the bell. Before he turned to the kitchen, he blew a raspberry at both of them through his mouthpiece. Mykel Porder, his agent, concerned about how his client’s outburst would play out across the national feeds, ran to Jaan. But Porder’s clarinet could not allay Jaan’s sinking into despair; in fact, it made it worse.
He yearned to scream. To yell at his wife for being an unforgivable and unforgiving slut. She had screwed Keets on purpose to spoil this moment, he thought. His success, his happiness, even if only fleeting, was too much for her miserable, depressive worldview. She could have screwed others, but no, she had to choose Keets. That bastard who publicly called his poetry “soulless.” Who appeared on Worldvisuals with that squeaky oboe only to musicslam his work.
In the kitchen, Margret gingerly raised her flute, but he tore it from her hands and snapped it over his knee like a conductor’s baton. Her eyes flared with disgust and anger, which he enjoyed, but then they softened with pity and that was intolerable.
The cooks and catering staff crept to the safety of the walls. They signed to each other, their hands and facial expressions frantic, as the couple scowled at one another. In a flash, Jaan slapped Margret and opened his mouth to release a string of guttural sounds that came from somewhere distant and foreign. He could not stop, becoming redder with every airy, spit-flying emission. In frustration, his hands clutched tufts of hair and tore clothing; saliva frothed on his lips, tears pooled around his eyes. Witnesses say he managed a long howl. Others described it as a barbarous yawp. And then he seized a knife and slashed his throat. As blood splattered the white kitchen, he wished he had his trumpet—to play a muted, jazzy coda.
J.L. Torres is the author of The Family Terrorist and Other Stories (Arte Público, 2008), the recently published novel, The Accidental Native (Arte Público), and a collection of poems, Boricua Passport (2Leaf Press). He has published stories and poems in numerous journals and magazines such as North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Connecticut Review, Tulane Review, Puerto del Sol, and the anthology Growing Up Latino. A Fulbright recipient, he teaches American literature and creative writing at SUNY, Plattsburgh, where he is also the Executive Editor of Saranac Review.
She sits naked on the floor of her hospital room, knees drawn to her chin, rocking back and forth. Her hospital gown, shredded. Fingertips, red and bleeding from stuffing bits of cloth into imaginary holes in the walls.
The door to her room unlocks and opens. The doctor’s heels click across the concrete floor as she walks toward the girl. The doctor softly calls her name.
The girl looks toward a vision on the wall.
“Don’t make me do this again, momma.”
In the cellar of their farmhouse, the refrigerator laid on its back like a white and chrome coffin. The door propped open. A mouth ready to devour.
“Don’t make me put you in the box again, lassie,” her father warned.
That’s how it was for the girl after her mother drowned trying to save her.
Four years old. A daughter the father didn’t want. Intolerable competition for affection. Now, a daily reminder of his loss.
Holes bored around the refrigerator’s sides gave the girl enough air to survive hours of captivity if she lay still. Mouth pressed to a hole.
Screaming did no good. It only depleted the oxygen, so she learned to lie in silence. The heat from her body and the moisture in her breath turned the closed fridge into a sauna of darkness. Her body quivered in the wetness of her perspiration mixing with her pee, sometimes her filth.
She tried to imagine what her mother looked like. What she smelled like. Certainly not tobacco and whisky and fear like her father. She had neither memory nor a picture. Content to create her own, she imagined a woman with the smile of a Christmas card angel with skin the softness of clouds, dressed in a white gown flowing with love. Ephemeral visions wisping across the pond beyond the barn.
In the “box,” her limbs lost all feeling. Numbness whitewashed the pain. Her mind counted the passing of the minutes. One, two, three … forty-nine … seventy-eight.
Oxygen deprivation muddled her brain. She drifted through the colors in her crayon box. Red, purple, yellow, black. Passed out reciting the alphabet — C, D, P, G, X.
When her father opened the door, the musty cellar air hitting her lungs gave the feeling of a newborn taking its first breath. Each time she cried, “Why, Daddy?”
The answer cowered in her head before he spoke the horrid words, “’Cause you killed your mother.”
His answer never changed.
“Now clean yerself up,” he’d say, pushing a bucket of water and a rag across the concrete floor with his booted foot. “And the box, too, lassie. ‘Less you want to lie in your own stink the next time.”
Eyes buried deep in a face of hate glared.
The last day, reeling drunk and laughing. Her father lifted the door and sprayed her with his garden hose. She remembered him tripping on the hose. Slipping on the wet concrete. Falling backward.
His head resonated like a melon as it hit the floor.
Ten years since her mother’s death, now nearly his height. She dragged his unconscious body to the fridge, lifted him to the edge, and pushed him in. Folded his arms. Tucked his knees. Closed the door.
The latch clicked.
When her father came to, his yelling and threats, now muffled and weak, held no power. “Lie still and breathe through a hole, Daddy,” she whispered as she ripped a piece of cloth from her dress and plugged a hole.
They found her sitting naked on the cellar floor, knees drawn to her chin, rocking forward and back next to the fridge.
Eyes staring. Chanting, “Don’t make me do this again.” Her dress torn to strips, strips to pieces, pieces to threads.
That was a year ago. The doctors saw progress. Until the day her screams pierced the hush of the women’s activity room.
The day she looked at the magazine picture of the old white refrigerator with its chrome latch handle.
When her chest constricted, pulling her wrists to her shoulders.
When her hands curled downward and in.
When she went back into the refrigerator.
Jeff Switt is a retired advertising agency guy who loves writing flash fiction, some days to curb his angst, other days to fuel it. His words have been featured online at Dogzplot, Boston Literary Magazine, Shotgun Honey, 50-Word Stories, 100 Word Story, A Story In 100 Words, 101 Word Stories, Postcard Shorts, and Nailpolish Stories, as well as Every Day Fiction. His latest venture is A Story in Three Paragraphs.