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FICTION / Bone-In / Bailey Merlin

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“Sitting in a Sonic parking lot thinking about you.” I stare at my words with a thumb hovering over the send button. I mean, it wouldn’t matter if I went through with it. You wouldn’t get it anyway. 

A girl on roller skates holds a red tray with a greasy brown bag on top. She glances through the car windshield and slows down, face twisted into a look of concern. I roll down the window, fist full of cash. “Hi there,” she says, voice choked with forced brightness. “I’ve got a foot-long-chili-cheese Coney with extra cheese, a large order of mozzarella sticks with extra marinaras, a large tot, and a Route 44 vanilla Coke?”

It’s like she’s a priest who’s just finished off a list of my sins. “Uh yeah, that’s me,” I murmur, ashamed.

“$10.47.”

I pay and she glides away to the kitchens while the brown paper rustles in my lap, ice cubes already melting in a giant Styrofoam cup. I tear open the bag, not caring that a runaway tot rolls off my leg and into the dark abyss of my floorboards. Meanwhile, the stink of miscellaneous meats and cheeses combine with the heady fast food stench that is a testament to my six-week binge. I inhale the tots, prepping my stomach for the feast. Then, I take the mozzarella sticks and split them lengthwise, exposing molten mozzarella bellies that quiver a moment before being covered by red sauce. There’s a perverse pleasure to be taken from bloody-looking dairy products covered in breadcrumbs. I must like them at least a little, considering that I eat them all.

Now one might think that there couldn’t possibly be any room for the foot-long monstrosity that waits for me at the bottom; but one would very wrong. The funny thing is, since you died, I only eat once a day. I turn into this creature that can unhinge its jaw during the eight hours it’s conscious. I wash down the creeping pain in the back of my throat with a long pull of vanilla Coke. I don’t like vanilla, I think it perverts the pureness of real Coke; but you liked it, so this is another pathetic tribute. Sorry it isn’t more. Again.

On autopilot, I jet out of the parking lot into after-school traffic. I gotta admit that it’s pretty miraculous that I make it all the way downtown, find a spot on the street, and get to my apartment door. It’s unlocked. “Fuck.” 

I take in a steadying sigh. Only then do I detect the scent of pork chops spilling out of the small crack of my opened door. My body tenses with the vestiges of my survival instincts that haven’t abandoned me in your wake. Do burglars break into people’s houses to make delectable pig products? It seems unlikely. When I swing open the door, I’m not sure what to expect. I mean, I guess I expect someone standing in a black ski mask ready to kill me. What I do not expect is herin a dark blue t-shirt and khakis with white-blonde hair thrown into a messy bun, one chubby hand propped on her hip while the other one busies itself with flipping a browning pork chop. The pan sizzles in the momentary lull before I say, “Ma?”

 Her face shifts from shock to that relieved horrification that people sometimes give when a prank has been pulled on them. “Jesus, Arty, you scared the hell outta me!” 

I plunk my keys onto the entryway hook, noticing the stack of newspapers I have been collecting for the last few weeks have disappeared. “Me scare the hell outta you?” I ask, clicking the door closed behind me. “You’re in my apartment.”

She rolls her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic.”

My stomach rumbles with my 3:30 gluttonous habit and sixteen flights of stairs, reminding me that the adrenaline has quickly dwindled and I am once again plain, old Arthur. And plain, old Arthur really needs to vomit just now. I run to the bathroom where I throw up the lid and feel the fluid leave my mouth, tasting too much like a Coney. By the time I’m done, I begin to appreciate the light, pleasant scent of lemon disinfectant. Looking down into the toilet, aside from six pounds of masticated food, it’s relatively clean. By which I mean: there is no longer that weird grey-pink ring around the bowl where the water meets air. I stand up, flush, and rinse out my mouth. Now here’s the unpleasant bit: I look into the mirror and really see myself for the first time today.

My own white-blonde hair is dirty and standing up in every direction. Blue eyes bloodshot like dry eye after a late-night burn session. I poke my cheeks, which are puffy and saggy from an influx of saturated fats. I rinse my face and comb back my hair while I hear my mother pull plates from my cupboards. 

Emerging into my apartment, I’m surprised to find it bright with natural sunshine. I notice a lack of blankets, pillows, Chinese takeout boxes, photo albums, tissues, crumbs, and all other manner of stuff that I have a tendency to put whereverthese days. “Did you vacuum?” I ask her, watching the way she slops mashed potatoes onto your favorite pink plate. 

“Mhm. Go on, sit down.” She shoos me towards my cleared-off dining room table. The IKEA-grade wooden chair wobbles beneath me. “It was a sty in here, so I made some pig,” she sets the plate in front of me with a kiss on top of my head, “for my little pig.”

I roll my eyes to counteract the embarrassment. Mashed potatoes, green beans, two giant bone-in chops cover the bottom of the plate, so I can’t even really imagine you leaning over it, sitting with me. “Here, I made some gravy, too. Found a cast iron skillet in with the pans. I didn’t think I gave you one when you moved out.” My mother ladles two scoops of light brown to drown the meat and potatoes the way I liked as a kid. “Let me get you some applesauce.” She ruffles my hair, which is damp and mostly oily, and goes to grab a bowl. 

Yeah, the sauce smells great and I should want some; but now that I’m looking down, I’m not feeling hungry. For some reason, these chops aren’t as delectable as I remember. In fact, the gravy is a little gray. My stomach isn’t up to the challenge. “You know what, Ma? Can I have this later?”

She comes back to put the bowl on the table. “Sure thing, honey. You feelin’ alright?”

“Yeah. Just not really hungry. Throwing up kinda does that.”

Mom slides into the chair next to me, a cloud of perfume puffing out around her. It doesn’t smell like the stuff she used to wear. This is more like a funeral parlor: lilies. “What upset your stomach?”

I’m certainly not prepared to let my mother know that I’m basically a French fry addict now, so I tell her: “I dunno. Guess it was the shock of being in a clean house for a change. My body didn’t know what to do without the filth.” I place my elbows on the table to get a good look at her pond water eyes that make my heart ache. When was the last time someone looked at me like this? I mean, your funeral doesn’t count. Sure, people looked me in the eyes there, but they were all full of second-class pity. So sorry for your loss. These mini quiches are delightful, though.

“Why are you here?” I ask.  

“You haven’t checked in with us for a couple weeks. I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t…” she trails off.

“Offed myself?” I fill-in. 

I get up to clear my place, taking it back into the kitchen.

“If you want to be crude,” she chastises while I paw around for saran wrap.

“How the hell did you get in?” I rip off a tangled sheet of plastic, which leads to two more being discarded in a similar fashion before I get something manageable. 

My mother gathers her legs into her seat, looking younger than her fifty or so years. “I talked to the nice young man at the front desk—told him I was just a little worried about you and wouldn’t mind havin’ a peek in your apartment.” 

“That probably breaks a couple of laws, don’t you think?”

I open the fridge to add my plate to my hoard but gasp in horror instead. “What the fuck did you do?”

“Language,” she tells me. “I cleaned out that biohazard. Do you know you had cheese with fuzz on it, Arthur? I understand cheese is a mold, but I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t have hair.”

“Did you ever stop to consider that I liked it like that?” I fire back, caring very little about whether or not I make “sense.”

“Arthur,” she says sternly, “I’m not exactly sure you’re in the right state of mind to know what’s best for you.”

“Oh, that’s what we’re gonna do? That’s `what we’re gonna talk about?” I slam the fridge door shut. I can’t stand not being in control of my emotions. Anger is always so close to the surface these days, and that just pisses me off. 

“I cleaned your house because it needed to be done.” She’s standing a few feet away from me, arms crossed. I know that pose. Oh boy do I know that pose. That right hand of hers is gonna lash out across my face any second now. 

“I didn’t ask for your help.” Guess I’m feeling reckless.

Quick as spitfire, the hand is in motion. It doesn’t sting at first. The burning takes a minute to register before surging hot over my skin. “Christ, Ma!” I spit out, clutching at the pain. 

“Your apartment looks like shit, Arthur. You look like shit. I come in here and it’s like a bomb went off. Dirty clothes, half-eaten boxes of food—you’re lucky I didn’t find more roaches. And all those smashed up pictures of—”

My heart seizes. “Don’t.” 

“It’s been months, Arthur. I understand that you’re sad and hurt and whatever all of this is,” she softens her voice and stands close to touch my wounded cheek, “but you need to take a shower, brush your teeth, and eat something other than Orange Chicken.”

A tear slides out of the corner of my eye. “I like Orange Chicken, Ma.” 

“I’m surprised you can stand the smell with as much as you’ve been eating.” She pinches my cheek to rub in the pain, grins, and goes to the sink to turn on the faucet. “Make yourself useful, put away this food.”

I run a hand over my face, clearing the wet. “You don’t need to do that, Ma.”

“I don’t mind, hun. If you want, help me wash.”

I watch as she stops up the sink and squirts in some soap. “Sorry there’s no dishwasher,” I say sheepishly. 

“It’s kinda nice to do it by hand every once in awhile.” More lemon-scented soap fills up the room while I pull down some Tupperware for her mashed potato cauldron. 

My lips pick up at the edges. Although my mother and I have the same mercurial disposition, we have the habit of bringing out the light and dark in one another. As a result, this completely healthy emotional rollercoaster is standard fare when we get together. It makes me feel safe even as my face tingles with leftover pain. It’s fading fast. 

When I’m done, I rinse and stack the dishes she hands me onto the drying rack. It was the last practical thing you bought for us. Ma takes the skillet to task with a new rough scrubber, sans soap. The heat from the pan and water pries up the gravy residue with ease. When she’s done, she throws it in the oven to dry. 

She puts her arms around me and I’m swallowed up by lilies and pork fat. “I missed you.”

My throat clenches as my hands worm themselves around my mother and bring her in close. Suddenly, my body is wracked with convulsions. Her hands petting my back unlock a different kind of sob, a new breed of desperation. Like any good parent, she’s that rock in the storm as I’m set awash in my own moment of overboard. A twenty-eight year old man hiccups when he whispers: “I’m sorry I didn’t call.”

A few hours after, my mother leaves for her hotel despite my offer to give up my room. She tells me she’d rather take her chances in a potentially bed bug-riddled Marriott than sleep in my house, especially after she found a bucket of chicken bones that had fallen behind the headboard. A fair point.

In fact, as I lay beneath freshly washed sheets, I wonder when I slept in here last. It feels odd. Now instead of smelling you, all I can smell is detergent. It makes me sad that another one of your temples has been serendipitously removed. 

Yet, you’re here with me. Kissing my cheek, running your fingers through my freshly washed hair, biting my neck, grazing my thighs with your nails. When I close my eyes, I can imagine you’re not gone, which is a powerful aphrodisiac. I guess there’s still some life in me after all. While any therapist might consider this a step backwards in the healing process, I take my first sexual inclination in months as a sign of improvement. 

I’m imagining our honeymoon in the Caribbean, the way you looked. The way you—a sharp crashing sound breaks my concentration. “What the fuck?” I sit up, irritated. If someone’s in the apartment, I’m not going out with my hand on my dick. I get out of bed and grab the baseball bat from underneath the bed. There’s no time for pants.

I charge into the pitch-black hallway. It’s quiet. Coldness washes over me despite the summer breeze coming in from the open balcony door. I know I didn’t leave that open. Oh fuck, why didn’t I call the police before I came out into the hallway with my bat? Who do I think I am? Babe-fucking-Ruth? 

Something rustles in the kitchen. In the absence of noise and light, a soft whining takes roost in my ears while my heart pulls a double shift in my throat. The bat is lowered in the wake of fear. I start to step back towards my bedroom. At least there I can lock the door and pray to God that the police get here in time. As I move, I hear the noise in the kitchen get closer. Another step back, two steps towards me. My skin breaks out into goose bumps so tight that I think they’re going to burst. I reach out to the wall, seeking a switch. Footsteps running. The light comes on and…nothing.

Nothing there but my apartment, exactly the way I left it before bed. Nothing but an open door and kitchen shadows. I go to the balcony door and close it without rattling the blinds too much. I turn on the lights in the kitchen next, jumping when I see your pink plate back out on the counter, pork chops and potatoes in tow, saran wrap gone. It looks hot.

I’m not unraveling that riddle before I know for sure no one is lurking with a knife. I open cupboards, the linen closet; I check the bathroom, but luckily there’s nothing in the shower stall for me to worry about. Despite the lack of active attacker, my skin is crawling.

I lean the baseball bat against the hall wall and pad back into the living room to draw back the blinds. Beyond my naked reflection, Orlando sprawls along in a conglomeration of tall apartment complexes and shining billboards. As for a deranged lunatic, there’s none in sight. I begin rolling the sliding door back and forth on its track, but it moves as heavily as it always does. Whatever. The mystery of the steaming hot food remains. I lock the door and take a single step towards the kitchen. 

There’s a rocky crumple under me. My foot erupts in pain. “Mother fucker!” I jump. Fire shoots into the other foot viciously enough that it sends me backwards onto my bare ass, adorning it with rug burn. Shards of your favorite pink plate are stuck into the thick pads of my feet, along with mashed potatoes, gravy, and blood. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

Some part of my lazy lizard brain is ready to call the shots. I roll onto my knees, feet up in the air as I army-crawl back into my bathroom, haul myself into the shower, and reach for the faucet. The water is cold and I wonder if I’m going into shock. I think about the lifeguard first aid class I took while I worked at Disney. What are the symptoms of shock? Think, Arthur, think. You’re losing blood. Can you lose a lot of blood out of your feet? 

Now, I know I have to look, but I don’t wanna. I bring my right foot up and I can’t stop saying: “Oh my God.” There are four pink shards of plate sticking two inches out of my flesh, lacerating every inch of flesh, dripping blood from my ankles and swirling into the drain. There are pink mashed potatoes packed in between my toes. 

A picture of your own lacerated body is in my mind as the edges of my vision get blurry. I look into the hall to distract myself from the purple haze coming across my eyes. “Focus,” I whisper, but the sound is swallowed up by rushing water and a steam-distorted shadow in the doorway. All I can think of is you. There’s no time to scream.


Bailey Merlin holds an MFA in fiction from Butler University. Her work has been published by The Indianapolis Review, Anomaly Literary Journal, lipstickparty mag, among others. She lives and writes in Boston, MA. More of her writing can be found at baileymerlin.com