By Haylan Teel
Complete grayness. The sky was gray, the earth was gray; even the air was gray somehow. The heat hung in the dark space between every object, oppressive, heavy, and searing from the lungs out. It was easy to fill this kind of day with images of sweaty bodies, broken down cars, mirages gleaming in the distance. The couple had stopped, like many other cars that go through the area, to look at the antique and yard sale; to their surprise it mostly turned out to be women’s shoes. All sizes, all colors, all different materials.
The wife pulled her gritty foot out of her own dusty sandal and into a navy blue tweed wedge she spotted. Her skin made a dry raking noise as she slid into it; the wedge looked like it hadn’t been tried on or dusted off in ages, as if it had been sitting in the desert wind for its entire existence. Other people milled about sluggishly, and as she put her weight on her newly donned foot, she looked around at them; it occurred to her that it was strange so many people clustered in the middle of nowhere. She looked around with more focus; they looked at rusty items, shoes, fiddled with things but were not chatting amongst themselves at all. Where was her husband, she thought, has he noticed how strange this was?
A pain in her big toe seized her as she looked down to see a bull ant clasped to it; she kicked off her other sandal and shoved the little fucker into the packed dirt below, smashing him into a tiny mass of shapelessness. She was thinking how hot the ground was as she looked up again, continuing her search for his familiar face when she saw The Man who must have owned the place. He sat in a ratty lawn chair behind all the tables and in the shade of a drab, square, boring building he must live in. It looked more like a business, with large glass windows in the front and glass doors like you’d see on a convenient store. She could not pull her eyes away from him. He was old, very old, but she was not concerned with placing an age on him. He completely repulsed her. He had a large nose and was a horrible looking man all together. His black eyes just stared right back at her. In a normal situation she would have found this cause to turn away quickly and make a hasty retreat to the car, but instead she felt her leg move itself out of the wedge, leaving both her feet bare to gather dust that would suck any moisture out of her already cracking skin. Then, with a slightly blank brain, she began moving toward him. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t really care either.
The hot wind stirred up trash in the air as it rushed through her white peasant blouse, but she kept walking. She was close enough now to see The Man better; he was an odd shape, somehow he had skinny, boney limbs but his midsection was a plump fatness that almost seemed like he had a misshapen tire around himself, tucked under his clothes. He wore a cowboy hat and a western snap, and he didn’t move other than his head following her so they could keep eye contact. She felt her stomach churn and had the strong desire to look sharply to her left; there was a large old-timey thermometer on the wall.
It read 117 degrees.
Looking back to The Man, she lingered on his face for a few moments, before her body walked her into the double doors behind the chair. The thought of oddness and danger quickly fluttered through her brain, as loud as a distant cry on a windy night, but it was gone as fast as it came. Her body had numbness to it that she could not even fathom fighting; a joyless euphoria that just had her body do.
Inside was just as hot as outside, even hidden from the sun. She sat on a sad, dilapidated couch and waited. It’s not that she didn’t know what for; it’s that she never considered that she didn’t know what she was doing. After an indeterminable amount of time another woman walked in, younger than The Wife and she too sat on the couch without saying a word. The sun was lowering in the sky and cars were leaving, no body buys anything; the junk just piles and that’s the way he likes it. The Husband came in, sat in a chair across from The Wife and the Other Girl. There was still some light in the sky when a Third Girl came in and sat on the floor near the others; she wasn’t as young, but was in good shape and had long naturally bleached hair like she’d had a lot of sun exposure. They sat without saying a word for hours, not one of them had the least little desire to do anything differently; it was as if their will had been taken away from them and they simply did not care any longer.
When The Man came in they all watched him. He walked through the center of the group and over to a plastic table that was in the tiled kitchen area. Everything inside was just as it was outside; meaningless junk coated in years of dust. Paper and trash piled up on everything. The Man lit a cigarette he had retrieved from a pack on the table, the lighter stored in the plastic of the box. He looked over at them, where the Other Girl got up from the couch and lazily made her way over to him. She had on no shoes either, but a mini skirt and a tank top that said something about Cabo San Lucas on it. As she approached him in a zombie like fashion, The Man looked into one eye, then the other. She wavered a little where she stood as if she was dizzy staring back at him; her face like she was fighting sleep deprivation.
The Man curled his nose for a brief moment and broke his gaze at her. Looking down he brought the cigarette to his mouth and took a long drag as The Other Girl turned away from them all and dragged her dusty feet towards the open back door that lay to the left of the kitchen counters. She didn’t hesitate as she crossed the threshold, but kept her slow stridden gate as she switched from the tile floor to the sandy outdoors. A few feet from the door she stopped as a motion detector light came on. She stood wavering in place, maybe staring out into the bleak moonlight that was infiltrating the sky.
The Man looked up at the three of them left, all hazily looking somewhere in the general direction of him and the open backdoor. Nothing changed in their demeanor or postures as five razor thin dogs moved in on The Other Girl, grabbing different parts of her legs and arms, pulling her down to the dirt, growling and making a spread of soul-searing noises as they tore her flesh from her bones. She did not fight back, she simply fell to the earth and lay there as her blood pooled warmly around her. The dogs pulled with their teeth clamped tightly around her as they striped flesh and muscle off her as if they were separating Velcro. The Man watched for a few moments, casually smoking his cigarette, until finally he moved to the kitchen sink. His three visitors, whom would normally be the spitting image of terror in a situation like this, seemed drugged and obedient, not scared in the slightest of their captor; after all, they didn’t really feel anything.
After some clanking that was barely audible over the dogs clicking their teeth on the fresh bones below the mini skirt, The Man turned back to the table carrying a white ceramic plate, pulled out the chair that faced the group and sat back down. The dogs didn’t care that they were covered in the sticky blood-mud while they snapped at each other over the leftovers, but overall it was clean. There was no pleading, screaming, no noise, just silent obedience as if she had been lying down to go to sleep.
A knife and fork scraped the plate as The Man sliced the skin over the vertebrae of a large pan fish. He laid the utensils down and used his dirty fingers to slide inside the fish’s body, pulling out with a grinding rip, the backbone and a few ribs that remained attached to it. He gnawed on it non-committal like as he watched the other three. The raw fish had been dead quite some time, like the three others in the sink. Systematically and very much like a processing machine he ate the entire thing, bones, guts, and all.
Days passed into nights into days into nights. They did nothing. They ate out of aluminum cans or on whatever The Man would give them. They didn’t go out, they didn’t watch TV, they didn’t put up a fight, they didn’t say a word. They defecated and urinated in the very room they sat in. The first excitement came early one morning while The Husband was asleep on the couch and The Wife was asleep on the floor underneath him. They woke to a rustling somewhere down the narrow hall. There were only very few spots it could have come from since the other tiny rooms of the house were mostly filled with boxes, trash, and stacks of newspaper, making there no room to move or live in. The Husband, The Wife, and Third Girl had no curiosity as to what was down the hall. They had no desire to venture into their surroundings, no interest to see what lay beyond the living room they lived in. When the two of them woke to find Third Girl missing, they actually felt a fraction of what any normal person might have felt like when awoken in the night to a strange noise, in a strange place. The hair on the back of their neck and on their arms stood at attention. That paralyzing fear where your body knows it needs to get into action, but can’t seem to move a muscle. The feeling faded from them the more they woke up, only hearing a few dull dragging sounds and shifting movements. The danger seeped from their minds and bodies, and finally Third Girl slowly wandered from the hallway over the chair that lay across from the couch. Her white shorts were getting dirty, as were The Wife’s cargo capris and billowy blouse.
As Third Girl sat down on the chair, the hallway lit up after a quiet click. The little flickering orange light was brief, before its mission was complete and it extinguished back into its plastic casing. The rest of the night continued with only grayness.
The next few days passed just as the previous ones had; nothing remarkable and with nothing to note. Finally on the seventeenth day that changed, though they did not receive it with the human emotions and feelings they had before. The Husband had been motioned outside to complete some manual labor of sorts, and the two women sat on the floor between the chair and couch, as useless as dolls on a shelf.
As The Man approached the two women with an open can of creamed corn in one hand, he stared down at Third Girl. He peered at her almost-brown, had-been-white shorts and scowled. They were soaked with blood at the crotch, though she paid no heed to it. He pulled back the top of the can until the un-cut section held it upright, saw blade like edges pointing in every direction, and handed it to The Wife, who began, very numbly, digging her fingers into the can and bringing the yellow mush to her lips. Third Girl got to her feet and swayed before The Man. After a few moments of pause, she waveringly hovered to the back door. A motion light triggered in the darkness as she crossed to the outside. She walked slowly to meet The Husband, who was crossing the dirt yard returning from a chicken coop. They both walked at a paced speed, with no longing to hurry or reach each other with any haste.
When they did meet, The Man did not turn around to watch them. He stared at The Wife, still slowly eating the creamed corn as if it was the only action that existed in the universe at that moment. Outside in the porch light, in an extremely lack luster fashion, The Husband lifted the axe he had been carrying, wood chips still fresh on the blade, and brought it above his head with both his arms. With barely an effort and no expression on his face, he relaxed his muscles and let the axe fall onto Third Girls head; it was more of a blunt splitting than an a sharp chopping. The blow knocked her to the ground with a far less gratifying thud than could be imagined. The Husband did this several times over, again and again, the axe breaking skin and thudding on the bones and brain underneath. She did not protest in the slightest, just slumped to the ground, still, until her eyes glossed over. She faintly stared up at The Husband, who did not have a strained tendon in his body, or the smallest look of hard work on his face. When he was finished, he sprayed the axe off with a water hose attached at the back of the house and left it propped up on the siding. He walked passed the Second Girl’s mostly rotten remains that the dogs had left behind. The surrounding dirt was still a dark brown, dry, and stained with her blood.
He entered the house and stood with The Man, watching The Wife finish the can of creamed corn. Nothing else eventful happened for three days.
The Wife woke up with a start, not knowing where she was but conscious of the terror that had struck her when she was shocked awake, seeing the scene in front of her. She was entirely naked, sitting upon The Man, who was also completely nude, on what appeared to be a gurney. His skinny limbs lay at his sides, unmoving, but his eyes were open, staring up to the ceiling. The Wife brought her left hand up to her face and covered her mouth. She could feel his erection inside of her, and although he wasn’t moving, she could feel it squirming inside of her, then ejaculating a large portion of hot semen. She was unable to move and was frozen to the spot. The way The Man lay there, eyes dully gazing straight to the ceiling, The Wife thought, he looked like a dead man, or a man with no soul. Though his limbs were skinny and bony, his mid drift, belly and haunches were a packed, tight fat that made him look like some type of golem, complete with gray pocks and discolored splashes. The shock that had frozen her body and the haze that had filled her mind let loose and she bolted from on top of him, sliding off the stretcher. As her foot hit the floor it slid from underneath her, sending her smacking down into the hard white tile below and a tired and terrified scream from her lungs. She felt the warm trickle of wetness down her inner thigh and in a panic she started crawling away, frantically trying to remember where she was and where she could find safety. The Man finally clutched his hand on the side of the gurney, using it as leverage to sit up, and draped his legs over the side. His bones cracked and popped as he moved. He sat for a moment the fear left her and the hollow vessel returned. She didn’t consider that it was strange to go from sixty to zero so fast, because she didn’t consider anything at all; the switch had flipped. She recovered from her crawling position into a sitting, lazy cheesecake pose; as if she was at a picnic in a sundress. The Man was flaccid already, and did nothing further than sit there with her, as if he was waiting for something.
Blocks of time turned into days to where none of it was distinguishable for the most part. The Man did not attend his antique and shoe yard sale, there was no need. No one stopped and he wanted it that way. Early one morning as the sun was heating up the desert landscape, The Husband was silently ordered out for more chores. What they were didn’t really matter, how long it took was of no concern. Towards mid day, The Man stood at the back door, looking out into the glaring, barren landscape. Another thermometer, that had a cartoon kangaroo rat painted on it, read 117 degrees. Looking back towards the chicken coop, The Husband was making his way around the side; he was thin now, sun burnt and dehydrated from being worked everyday. The Man narrowed his eyes at the figure slowly pushing his way through the heat. The Man removed the tattered woven cowboy hat from his head, revealing the dark but salt-and-pepper hair he had stuck in slimy tendrils to his face and neck. He had a knot on one side of his forehead that looked like half a golf ball was stuck underneath his flesh. The Husband dropped the firewood he had been carrying and after walking only a few more feet, he slowly lowered himself, very carefully, to the ground, where he lay on the burning sand. His glasses glared up to the sky and his hands lay palm up on the ground, relaxed and limp.
The Man turned and went back into the house. The back door was always open; it was just a frame with empty hinges. Just a gaping door frame open to the elements and whatever may wander inside. The Man tossed the weathered hat onto the table, lading on old dirty plates and unidentifiable aged food products and wrappers. He picked up a can of corned beef hash and opened it with the rusty can opener. As he sat down in the only chair he ever sat in, part of a metal and plastic table set from the 60’s, he crouched over to roll the corned beef has across the floor towards The Wife. She let it roll into her hands and without joy or anger she began scooping it out with her hands and feeding it to herself. She was dressed in a light blue night gown now; airy and made of some dainty chiffon like material. It looked and smelled like it was from the giant yard sale outside and had stains down the front and around the bottom hem, drifting around her mid thighs. She wasn’t aware that she felt different, though she should have. She couldn’t think about it to place it or rationalize what it could be, her mind was simply thought free. Whatever natural instinct she had, native to her cells, placed her hands gently around her belly once she had discarded the hash can.
It grew fast. It was unrestricted in the muumuu style gown and it was unearthly in its progress. Her days went by with no memory of the ones previous and no hopes for the next. Her belly swelled and became engorged; the skin was taught and stretch marks took over, giving her belly the appearance of a zebra if one could see under the gown. Her brown hair was a rats nest of tangles, her fingernails were black with rotten food and dirt crammed so far underneath them that it was pushing her skin further and further in. All the while her husband lay outside. The first day he cooked in the sun, sweating until he had no more moisture left to spare. His skin reddened beyond what you’d fathom. He lay there, taking it. Finally, late into the day, as he was covered with blisters and pustules, the pain was great enough to break through the haze, just enough to have him writhing. Much like a mute man being held down to a red hot branding iron, he moved what little he could and whimpered small noises that escaped through the controls that were over him. He lay there until after sunset, when he was losing consciousness, The Man took a long deep sigh, stringing rusty fish hooks onto fishing line. With that The Husband fell silent, the proverbial spirit leaving his body and leaving it to decay in the next day’s heat.
There were several hundred of the little buggers, each unusable, but surely they still had some good in them. Each one tainted with brown, dry cancer; each of them different sizes, shapes, made for different purposes. It was two days of The Man stringing each one, slowly, onto the long string, much like children used to do during Christmas with popcorn. When he was finished he left them were they laid on the white grimy table top. With that, The Man disappeared into the hallway of the house.
The Wife slept curled up on the floor, in the same spot, against the front of the couch that looked like it had been retrieved from a haunted mansion. The walls were barren, but roaches and other bugs came out in the cool night temperatures to crawl about and feast on the cans left with substantial food inside and the raw fish bits that could be found on the kitchen floor, tables, cabinets, and sink. It was a dark place at night, as there were no working lights in the house and if there were, no one would be using them. With the still of night, the motion detector light stayed off, but the walls being so pasty white, they appeared to writhe and crawl as the cockroaches climbed about. A clicking woke The Wife, who groggily looked around until she saw something standing just inside the kitchen. Before she registered what it was-the light outside came on. The image of one of the skinny dogs came into focus just in the shadow of the doorway, with another standing in the sand outside in the light. They stood, head hung low, spine stretching out of the skin of their backs. For a moment she was able to sense the fear that she needed, but a sharp pain stronger than any she had felt before grabbed her innards. She let out a cry and with it the two dogs scattered out the door, one barely jumping, at the last minute, over the now mummified remains of flesh, bones and jean skirt. It was easy to think they were laughing as they high tailed it, almost like hyenas, The Wife thought to herself. She grabbed her bulbous stomach as she used the couch cushions to get herself into a sitting position. She cried in pain and grinded her teeth as The Man walked in from the hallway to stand over her. He placed his index finger over his lips and pinned his solid black eyes on her. She lost the tension in her body, although the pain was still present. Not able to hold herself up, she had become paralyzed and floppy, sliding down from her resting place against the couch onto the floor, limp like a doll.
She didn’t move from the position he had called her into. As The Man knelt in front of her, pulling her legs apart, her mental control left now the way her physical control had moments ago. It melted away into a whim, floating away into the night. The Man reached into her body and pulled the baby out in a quick, effortless motion. Red, white, gooey and new, it did not cry, but moved its arms and legs in jerky motions. The Man laid it on its back near The Wife’s feet and grabbed the umbilical chord with both hands, wrapping it around one fist and pulling it until it stretched apart, both pieces falling to the dirty floor. He rolled the baby over to look at its back, then its feet, then its head; he inspected all parts of it for a very long time. Blood pooled from The Wife, soaking her gown, her skin, the ground, until it had almost reached The Man’s shoes and the baby’s body. The Man finally picked up the baby by its left ankle and stood up, his knees popping and one boot stepping in the pooling fluid. He made a b-line for the backdoor, where, like tossing out feed for the chickens, the baby lifelessly flopped through the air, its head lolling to and fro, until it met the dirty Earth. The dogs were waiting as if this had been routine, after all, wasn’t it?
Walking back over to The Wife, The Man crouched again and grabbed handfuls of the placenta, umbilical chord, and other birth matter and stuffed it back into her before walking back to the hallway and disappearing until morning.
Sunrise came with the swift heat up of the country. The Man gathered his long string of fish hooks and left through the front doors after stepping over The Wife, who had not slept, but stared blankly along the floor for the rest of the night, eyes fixed on the bottom foot of the chair across from her. Her face had dirt and tear streaks which led down to the bosom of the blue gown and all along her right arm, where she had leaned on for the last few hours.
Only being outside for a few moments, The Man had sat the fish hook stringer on the table in front of the chair he would sit in for most of the day. When he came back in the house, he grabbed The Wife by her head of brown hair and pulled her, leaving a streak of blood on the tile, lifelessly towards the gaping back door. When her hip cracked hard on the doors base, she felt the fight stir in her. She didn’t know where she was or what was happening, but she felt the instinct to fight. As he dragged her through the dirt, what felt in her mind like the fight of her life, was in reality feeble and sad. She lifted her hands to grab his arm, to break free from the drag, but couldn’t hold them up for long and weakly flailed them, sliding off of his hands and wrists like she was drugged. She kicked her legs and tried to get her feet under her the best she could, to no avail and no real progress. As they approached the other side of the chicken coop, The Man used his free hand to open a set of double wooden doors, tilted at a diagonal on the ground. One door dropped open to the ground with a thud, sending a miniature wall of dust away into the air. He had moved with extreme grace in a sense, a speed that seemed unnatural. He dragged The Wife into the open well with the same ease, without a look of strain on his face or in his muscles. Her bones cracked and her flesh bruised as she bounced off of the uneven stones leading to the dank bottom of the unused well. He shut the door on her.
To the house, through the space and out the front glass doors, he picked up the fish hook stringer and dangled it from some nails stuck in the wooden building. He took his seat in front of the glass walls and looked out at the cars arriving and the people beginning to silently mull through the items, trying on shoes and browsing through books. The thermometer read 117 degrees. He would sit there for six more hours as if it was routine, because after all, wasn’t it?