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FICTION / Submarine / M.C. Zendejas

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As the potential buyers make their way through the façade, into the family room, they see your body strewn loosely across the couch. You’re pretending to have shot yourself. There’s spurts of vibrant crimson food coloring flung across the cold wood floors. Your neck is sore from having to position the head just right while wearing a prosthetic skullcap purchased at the costume store around the corner. It squeezes the sides of your head numb and its industrial plastic stench raids your nostrils. The footsteps stop at the front of the family room. Their gasps form a crescendo. You hear a woman shriek. Mom chases them as they sprint away screaming. She says you’re only joking, that her therapist says this is how you cope. “It’s all a joke!” The front door bangs shut and you’re both left there, surrounded by echoes. 

She turns to you and says your dad needs his cut of this sale for an apartment. He doesn’t have anywhere to go when that woman kicks him out every time they fight. You say he can always come home, but she shakes her head. She tells you he doesn’t want to. He’s in love. “Plus,” She takes a deep breath, gesturing around her. Half of the house is shut away in boxes, or about to be, or in a pile of things waiting to be thrown away and forgotten. “Does this look like a home to you?” Frames that used to hang along the walls have been removed, leaving behind rectangular stains the color of shadows. She looks down, quickly walking to her bedroom, sniffling. Her feet echo off the floors like she’s in a mausoleum. 

You sit in the middle of the room and think. Think of when you tried talking to them about it, about how you felt, but they seemed too busy with legal proceedings and their own emotions. It was like you were translucent. That’s when you realized you needed to buy the skullcap and food coloring. Open houses are the perfect time to do it. That’s when they need you the most. Need you to be on your best behavior, to help clean up before anyone gets there, to stay as far out of sight as possible. That’s when you can let them down, and you do. Because they’ve let you down. 

You glance around at the same place that held birthdays, barbeques, movie nights. The memories burst from their unmarked graves at the back of your mind. They form a pool behind your eyes, congealing into bitter teardrops that are on the verge of falling. You blink them away, making it all nothing but a few wet spots on your sleeve before slouching to your room and locking the door.  

Mom’s knocking wakes you up the next morning. She says you don’t have to take the bus. Dad wants to drive you to school. 

When you get in the car, you close the door more harshly than necessary and don’t say hi or good morning. Dad drives in silence for a bit, then tells you to throw away the skullcap and the food coloring. You lean your head against the seat and look out the window, watching the town twist by from behind the thick glass. Trees and buildings are flung far behind the car like pieces of debris. You watch them become dots on the horizon in the rearview mirror, doing your best to tune Dad out.

“She’s going to kick you out if you didn’t stop scaring away the buyers. She wants to get out of there. Staying in that place isn’t easy for her, ya know?” You see a piece of graffiti. It’s a bleeding anatomical heart with a pair of wide, crying eyes. It reminds you of Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. It was on display at MFAH when you were fifteen. Mom and Dad took you. You forgot what time of the day it was, but sunlight flowed through the high arched windows, making the faux marble floors shimmer beneath your feet. A layer of glass protecting the painting reflected your parents behind you, arms around each other.

The memory bursts into flames when he pulls over to let you out, saying he loves you. When you look at him your fists are clenched and you can’t stand the sight of anything. 

The school entrance looms ahead, but you can’t stop thinking about the graffiti. It’s been splattered and tainted with memory. You won’t ever be able to feel better if it stays untouched. When Dad’s car rounds the corner, you turn around and walk to the paint store down the block.

When the cashier asks for an I.D., you ask her what for.

“You have to be 18 or older to buy spray paint. Are you 18 or older?” There’s a moment of silence, then you snag the can from the counter and bolt for the entrance. The veins in the security guard’s forearms are like threads in a spider web when they wrap around you. 

 

Mom’s sandal arches through the air before smacking into your temple. She asks how you intend to get to community service. You tell her you can walk. 

On your first day at Beacon of Hope Homeless Shelter, you’re in charge of the donation table. Piles of faded clothes are stacked in no particular order. Each person is allowed to take one pair of shoes, or three t-shirts and a pair of pants. It’s right next to the cafeteria, and you spend most of your time staring at the families eating together, their heads snapping back with laughter. You wonder if that’s how your family used to look. The soundwaves bounce off the smudged white of the walls until fading into the cheap, cracked urethane of the cafeteria chairs and the clanking of plastic-ware into trashcans. 

People come and go, asking if there’s any green t-shirts in extra-large or if there’s any Nike running shoes. You rummage through each pile, usually coming back with nothing they want. Some get mad and say it’s your fault, that you aren’t looking hard enough. They complain to the Director of Volunteering about your laziness.

So many end up complaining that they send someone from the laundry room to help. She has lavender hair that flows like grass under floodwater, and a submarine tattooed on her left thigh. She tells you her name’s Delila. “Court-ordered?” You shrug and say “Kinda. Took a deal.” She says she did too. A woman asks if there’s any clean red shirts. You both delve into the piles, but every shirt is either too faded or torn. She complains on the both of you.

When you ask what she did to get here, she says “Assault” without blinking.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. A guy wouldn’t stop sending me pictures of his junk one weekend, even though I kept telling him to stop, so when I saw him at school the next Monday I used my Doc Martens to stomp on it.” You laugh until your vision blurs with tears. 

Once you’re out, Dad makes you go to a bookstore with him. He stiffly waddles around the rows of paperbacks and hardcovers, occasionally picking one up and reading a sentence or two out loud. Tanya kicked him out again, and the friend’s couch he’s been sleeping on is stiff with multiple broken springs that poke through. He picks up a collection of poetry. 

“‘The world is exhausting. All we have is love.’ Shit,” he says, groaning while putting it back, “love is exhausting too.” Looking at him wince in pain reminds you of when you were little. Every time you’d get hurt, he would pretend to cry with you. It calmed you down, knowing you weren’t the only one hurting. You ask if he’s okay, and he starts nodding his head, but lets out a groan and shakes it instead. The two of you laugh so loudly the cashier asks you to leave.

 

You and Delila got too many complaints at the donation table yesterday, so they assign the both of you to the laundry room. The whole place smells like bleach. Ivory tiles that make up the walls and floors are chipped and yellowed with age. Old fingerprints are smudged all over the dulled chrome of the washing machines that line the walls. In the middle of the room are three steel tables where the clothes are separated by owner into large mesh sacks before being washed. They remind you of the tables used for dissections or autopsies. You stand next to each other and watch the clothes float around together in a soapy dance. 

She looks up into your eyes and smiles. It feels like you should say something, but the words are vague outlines that dissipate in your grasp like smoke. The silence bulges and swells, burying everything around you. She starts looking away. You panic. You hear yourself telling her about how Dad has fallen in love with a thirty-seven-year-old waitress. Her name is Tanya. She never stops talking about her mother, or how much she needs money. You even tell her about all the fake suicides, and the spray paint. It pours out all at once, before you can try to stop yourself. When you finish you stare at her without saying anything else.

She’s quiet for a while, then asks if you’re busy after this. You think of how much better it would be to go anywhere besides the empty labyrinth of cardboard boxes that leads to your room. Mom said she’d be staying late at work for extra hours since there was no open house scheduled today.

“Cos if you’re free I have this thi-” 

“Yeah, I’m free!” You catch a view of your reflection in the glass window of a washing machine. It’s stretched and flattened, completely distorted. 

            

The coffin is a dark mahogany that reminds you of the wood floors at home. Delila’s grandma is wearing what you’re told was her favorite powder blue dress. Her lavender eyeshadow is the same color as Delila’s hair. The sharp chemical smell that’s stinging your nostrils could either be the embalming fluids she’s filled with, or the bleach and detergent from the laundry room. 

“One time, while gardening, she fell into a cactus. When she was done picking espinasfrom her side, she chopped it down and cooked it for dinner. Have you ever had cactus? It tastes sort of like green beans, but with a different texture.” You stare at her grandma, the way her lips are glued into a permanent, subtle smile.

“I can’t believe you brought me to a funeral.” Delila says she didn’t want to come alone. Her parents are here, somewhere, but she doesn’t point them out to you. On the way here, she told you they haven’t spoken to her since she started her hours at Beacon of Hope, that they were too disappointed. The two of you walk to your spots at the back of the room. The smell follows. 

When it’s over, halfway down the chipped stone steps of the church, she grabs you by the shoulders and puts her lips on yours. Someone shouts her name, and when she pulls away you can’t count how many eyes are fixed on the both of you. She walks away without saying anything. A man with her nose and eyes leans down, whispering something to her before they disappear somewhere into the crowd. You stand there for a second, not sure which way leads home. 

After hours of scouring cracked-up sidewalks beneath neon lights as small pellets of rain pierce the night, you find your house. You wish you hadn’t. The “Sold” sign in the lawn might as well have been driven through you. Mom’s in her room already. All the lights are out. You kill the quiet by watching Harold and Maude on Blu-ray in the living room. 

When the scene of Maude dying comes on the screen, and Harold tells her he loves her, she says “Oh, Harold, that’s wonderful. Go and love some more.”

            

Slimy forks and spoons sizzle in the dishwasher steam until its ring lets you know it’s ready for the next batch. Chunks of soppy food sink down into the brownish-pink foam of the dishwater. She still isn’t here, even though it’s your last day.

Afterwards, you go to the Director of Volunteering for a signature as proof of the hours. “Congratulations,” She says through a smile, “you’re finally free!” You warp your face into a smile and say “thanks,” hoping your voice doesn’t crack or sound wobbly. If it does, she doesn’t notice. 

You stop by every day for the next few weeks. Each time the woman behind the front desk tells you she isn’t there, your hopes and wants shrink just a little more, having bits and pieces chiseled off like sculptures when they’re just cold, useless blocks of stone. 

            

The new schoolyear has just started. You’re walking to the day’s first class when you see a head of lavender hair bobbing among the masses. You push your way past groups of people gossiping, couples with each other’s tongues twisted into knots, friends whispering tips for the quiz in Economics. You say her name but the crowd must be too loud, because the head of purple hair just keeps bobbing towards the staircase by the girls’ gym. You run to catch up to her, but when she turns around you realize it isn’t her at all, and that anyone can dye their hair purple. You think of Harold and Maude. 

  

While moving, a thin silence hangs between Mom and you as boxes are loaded into the U-Haul. She tries helping lift a dresser, but even though her muscles and veins are popping out, it doesn’t help much. “Sorry.” She starts to cry. “I’m weak. I know you wanted to stay here, but I couldn’t…” You fold her into your arms and say she isn’t weak. That she’s strong. The breeze picks up as you weep in each other’s arms, and a blue bird zips across the front lawn, disappearing somewhere into a bundle of trees set against a light orange dusk. Before leaving, you pour the food coloring down the drain, and place the skullcap in the trash with everything else you don’t need to keep anymore. 


M.C. Zendejas is a fiction writer from Texas. He is currently studying creative writing at the University of Houston. His work is featured or forthcoming in Z Publishing's anthology: Texas's Best Emerging Poets, X-R-A-Y, and Your Impossible Voice. He likes candy corn, museums, and slamming brutal death metal.