Skin the Teeth Sarah Cline
The woman from the county throws her shoulder against the bathroom door, and the hardboard coughs open, surrenders a narrow gap, then slaps into a mountain of plastic bottles filled with urine staling to lemon curry.
“Christ alive,” she whispers.
They think I’m in my death throes, now, having discovered the bathroom. Downstairs, the biohazard crew peels free sheafs of moldy wallpaper. Cats pelter helter-skelter, their dirty paws tickling my innards. And it’s bad in there, yes. Once the water gets shut off, the final descent begins.
That’s when I feel most alive. When I really have my grubby fingers knit into the house, and – with a heave – shoulder the mass of it onto myself, fleas and all, and become the house. Metabolizing the occupants. Growing.
Sounds cruel? Maybe. But we all know there are things in this world that grow stronger as another grows weaker. Call me a parasite. An evil spirit. A mental illness.
A force of rot.
After all, where a wound is left open, infection is sure to slip in.
Things that breed in sickness.
For my ilk, anything will do, though I am preferential to the taste of a weakening human brain, spongy and crowded. It tastes… like veal.
But after the glory, the fall.
The call from a concerned neighbor. The visit from the county. More calls, this time to loved ones. They come, sprinkle tears on my mildewing flesh, and retch in the yard. The psychiatrist tows in the estranged family, and with an unraveling of shouts and tears, it begins.
The Junk-Away trucks roll up at 6 sharp, and with hazmat suits and trash bags, they try to kill me.
“Oh Jolène,” the sister moans in the bathroom’s threshold as the crew pulls out the bottles. The sisters clutch each other, wan. Even Jolène seems surprised by it all, as if she hasn’t lived here for twenty years, watching our bond grow.
We had it good for a while, my Jolène and I. I gave her everything I could. And it was just enough, this healthy hoard, to make her feel together. Embraced.
Now she stands mute as these outsiders hack at the cords that bind us. They’ve been picking me apart for hours, picking us apart, but that – that bovine acceptance as she watches strangers shovel caked layers of cat shit from the tub into saggy garbage bags – that bothers me.
Others have screamed. Raged. Clung to the teeth and toenails of my temporary flesh as outsiders chuck it all into dumpsters. It’s inevitable, this dissection, but… I do like it better when they fight for me.
Death, I’m accustomed to. Last time it was the farmhouse in Texas, where my poor Kenneth puttered about in a yard crammed fence-to-fence with the rusted carcasses of Mustangs and Harley-Davidsons. I died there, as I died in Washington, and Florida before that. As I’ll die again today, though I gave it my all this time. What else could I have done?
Death does not bother me. There’s always the stirrings of new life. Always homes yawning, minds cleft. There’s always wounds, left open to fester.
Death is temporary, to one whose services are so greatly in demand.
But the betrayal. Why, in the end, the betrayal?
The house trembles with my anger. A weakening of the support beams. A hiss of dust from the vents. Why are you letting them do this, Jolène?
Where were all these people when Mike started hitting you? When Dad had his stroke and abandoned you? When CPS took Corinne away?
Did they protect you when, after everything, you found yourself alone?
You solicited me from the dust. And at your call, like a faithful friend, I came. Wrapped you in walls the outside world could not penetrate. Brought the cats in to keep you company, and when they had their kittens, together we made room for them in the walls, in the attic. I never judged you, even when you couldn’t keep up with the bills. I never hurt you, never left you. Of whom else in your life can you say that?
Only I have loved you without reservation. You know that, Jolène.
“You are choosing things over me!” the daughter Corinne shouts, in hysterics after only 45 minutes of raking yellow newspapers and dead mice off the kitchen counters. Lightweight.
The cleaning crew has been at it all day. The living room, the bedrooms. 117 baby dolls. 2719 articles of clothing. 18 sewing machines. Luggage, toys, books. Trash.
Tears slide down Jolène’s cheeks, watching it all go. Slow amputation. For both of us.
You can have her, doc.
But this isn’t over. Not yet.
My attention swivels. Mildew eyes blink open in the kitchen, fixed on the granddaughter. My poor Lela Antoinette.
Have you checked inside the refrigerator, Lela? You can reach it, now the bins have all been dragged outside. Yes, that’s mold on the back wall, what did you expect? Look closer. A plastic bag bruised with moldy scallops where something dark has sloshed against the inside. She pulls it out. Stares.
The dust in the house hovers as I hold my breath, and Lela wrenches open the freezer door. Screams. Covers her mouth.
Twisted carcasses. The ginger tabby, legs like broken chop sticks. The tuxedo tomcat, jaws caught forever in a snarl. The little calico, so much ammonia in the air that her eyes popped out.
Cats in bags. Cats coiled up, hair thinned. Scabby shells.
On the icetray, kittens, drained flat by fleas. Delicate husks, folded together like playing cards.
She didn’t mean for it to be this way, my poor Jolène. Didn’t want them to suffer. She’s saving them to be cremated. Honored. But never quite got around to it. Couldn’t quite let them go. Grasped too tight.
Lela stands, holding a liquified kitten in a plastic bag, and even with the cats’ phantom eyes on her, even then, the remnants don’t slip from her fingers.
PATREON EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Author Sarah Cline
FFO: What, for you, makes a piece of flash fiction memorable?
SC: For me, memorable flash fiction often conveys a single image, expression of character – maybe even a simple turn of phrase – that makes a lasting impression because it captures the imagination, or articulates for the reader a truth they’ve experienced in their own life.
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