Delivery

What she learns, Colleen, later on, is that swallowing is the easier part. By then her throat, her jaws, her muscular stomach have grown hard and used to the unsteady traffic of billiard balls, live frogs, hat pins, human hair, soap bars, steel wool, razor blades. Going down is—not easy, never easy, nothing is easy anymore—but a practiced sequence of contractions. She is tough as nails, and her teeth are sharp and honed on tin cans.

It’s the return that gets her, still. Down, she’s working with gravity, at least, and there’s a pleasant tidiness to a table cleaned down to the boards. Up, though; she burns with the strain, aches to split herself open directly instead of passing a week’s worth of assorted garbage through the unready flex of her mouth.

She locks her teeth against the inevitable, but the six ball won’t be denied. Colleen jackknifes and deposits a whole pool set on the bedspread.

Cauled Home

Short days and long nights: you grow even pastier than usual in a light filtered almost entirely through a thin film of water. “You must love it here,” chuckles one of the others, digging an over-familiar elbow into your ribs for the last time.

True enough, you suppose (pause to wipe your lips clean, your chin, your jaw, your neck—you’ll need to replace that shirt now); there’s definitely more room here, more time, more empty corners waiting to be filled, but you find yourself missing the sun somehow more here, rather than less. At least elsewhere you could fret about what you couldn’t have. Here you can stare directly up at the sky at noon and see only a vaguely brighter patch of indifferent sky. It’s all so unsatisfying.

Then too is the cold. You’re always cold, regardless of the weather, but there’s something about the insistent watery chill here that plagues your dreams with images of decay: the eye of a possum misting over, a mouse mildewed into the upholstery of a car seat, mushrooms growing from the corpse of a fallen tree. You pick at your skin obsessively, terrified of moss taking root, of lichen blooming out of some disregarded crack.

Edith

The city was raw as a scraped knee when the strangers came, pleading to be let in. They were trouble, innocent trouble, and I told him so: safer to camp in the hills overlooking the plain, and I told them so, but he knew what was right and took them in regardless. Here where we live piled one upon the other there was no hope of privacy, and nowhere to run. “You risk their lives with this kindness,” I said, “and ours.” But he took them in regardless.

Salt, he said, bring them salt, and I brought what we had, enough for the four of us in our humility but not for honored guests. Bring more, he said; have faith, he said; the Lord will provide, he said. “There is no more salt,” I said. “You see it all there before you,” I said. Go you and find some, he said, so full of generosity, so what could I do but go and beg from our neighbors? And thus the secret spread, as I knew it must.

The rest you know: the city swarmed up like a kicked anthill, and he offered us over to their jaws, to no avail and no credit. We fled for our lives, into the hills overlooking the plain, for safety, for safety. “I told you so,” I said. Don’t look back, he said; doom comes in remembering.

A Bell Ringing In A Soundproof Booth

got away from him. Even that moment of anticlimax does not, cannot, exist. The hill starts to fall away into the sky, he starts to hope, in spite of himself, that this time is different, that he’s finally worked enough, strived enough, that he’s beaten them, that he’s won, and then—

There is no gap, no irritated, weary trudge down the hill. Too chaotic by far, that, too much chance for the boulder to build up speed, to escape. So, instead: he is merely mid-stride, lungs and legs already half-jelly, shoulder and neck pressed against the uneven surface of the rock, at the bottom of the hill, looking up, that half-moment of triumph still ringing in his ears.

He can’t be sure that he has done this before, that this isn’t the first time he’s set himself against the hill, the boulder, the gods. Time is slippery, here; the light never changes, the asphodel never crumples beneath him, the boulder never wears a track into the hip of the hillside. Memory is clear, clear and perfect, and the sentence laid upon him as fresh as yesterday.

Let him be perfectly clear: the boulder never

Minuteman

They tell stories about the outlaw, how he shot his father to death when he was only two years old—

“Just grabbed that gun out of his belt and shot him clean through the heart, pew, and him just barely old enough to walk.”

How he carried that gun in his own belt ever after, waiting for some child of his own to pull it out and drill him through the heart—

“Penance, they call it, but I say insurance that he’ll never have a kid. A reminder to always pull out, always keep his wits about him; the stakes are too high.”

How he shot a girl in church one time, shot her dead through a wall as he adjusted his belt coming out of a bathroom—

“Death in his veins, that one, death that lands on anyone foolhardy enough to come near him. You don’t blame a rattler for biting, do you?”

How he fell in love at last and had a child of his own, a boy that he loved more than life itself, and how he shot that boy dead in a shooting range teaching him how to shoot—

“Such a tragedy! Who could have predicted anything like that? A million to one chance, the heat of the barrel— the flinch— the ricochet— they say the boy was even more of a crackshot than his dad. Such a shame.”

How life went on, somehow— but at that point he passes out of history and into legend.