Summer 2019 - Fiction

Jessica Staricka

Welcome Back

 

I came to the city to be closer to Mother.

I came to the city to find a job.

In my head, I chant this mantra while I click down the sidewalk under a cool blue sky and between shining skyscrapers and past tattered people asking me for money I don’t have. A man in a pith helmet calls, “I know I’m an ugly guy, but I’m a nice guy. Ugly guys need help too! Can you spare a few bucks, snookums?”

I pause. I breathe.

I came to the city to be closer to Mother.

I came to the city to find a job.

I turn to the man. It’s not a pith helmet. It’s a bowler hat.

“I can break a fifty,” he says through a grin.

I blink. He’s wearing a baseball cap.

“I can even break a hundred,” he says.

I blink harder. He’s wearing a beret.

“I can even run a credit card,” he says.

I blink like I want to squeeze my eyeballs back into my brain. He’s wearing a fez.

“Have a digital wallet? I can run digital wallets,” he says.

I take out my phone, but only to check the time. The numbers are all upside down and backward. I hold it out to the man, whose face falls from eager to bored. He’s wearing a sunhat.

“Do you know why the sky is yellow in New Pangea?” I hear myself ask.

“Sure, snookums,” he says, eyes on the screen. “It’s ten after eleven. Why, you can’t read it yourself? Listen snookums, got Apple Pay or what? Ugly guys need help too!”

I suck in and let out another sigh.

I have coached myself in this. What I say is not what I say.

The man turns to a new pedestrian to harass. I squeeze my eyelids and click down the sidewalk away from the him. When I look back, he’s wearing a top hat.

I call Mother.

“Which bank is it?” I ask.

“Oh, honey,” she says, “it’s the big Duske National Bank, with the purple sign.”

“Thanks. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I thought I could do it.”

“Do what?”

“It. On my own.”

“Amber, your interview is at noon. You need to get up there, pronto.”

I hang up and pocket my phone.

That conversation went smoothly. I think. I should call her back and tell her my pulpapandroxin prescription has been lost for a week.

I pull my phone back out. But the clarity is gone. All my contact names are written in shapes and punctuation marks and symbols I know my phone isn’t really able to render.

Electronic billboards plastered to shining buildings show advertisements for prescription medications and new Broadway shows and slick politicians who hope to ride the war in New Pangea to power. They shake hands with veterans in front of rippling American flags. Their mouths move. They may be talking about the great glowing lake and the neon plants and the radiant clouds of hormones that steam out of holes in the ground and fog the air with cotton candy colors. It is unlikely they are talking about comrades left to rot in the water.

I see Duske National Bank on the corner and walk into a silver lobby almost as big as the great glowing lake. I stare back and forth between my phone, where Mother has texted me circles, boxes, and upside-down exclamation marks, and a digital building directory on the wall.

I show the text message to a woman behind a desk, and she leads me into the elevator, presses the button for me, and steps out.

I want to thank her. I say, “Please quit calling me snookums.”

As the doors close in front of her face, she says, “You’re welcome. Good luck.”

I watch my reflection in the tinted glass door as I cruise up and up and up. I’m wearing a green skirt and green heels and a green blazer over a green button-down. My hair is falling from its wispy blonde bun. The color is draining from my squat face.

Higher and higher and higher.

I close my eyes. I breathe.

I came to the city to be closer to Mother.

I came to the city to find a job.

The elevator releases me into a waiting room. Three other interviewees sit in suits. One has the head of a fat demon with a wrinkled snout and stub horns. I sign my name on a clipboard at the counter and sit far away from him. He is chewing his nails.

“Amber Sharpe?” calls a secretary leaning from an office door.

Closer to Mother.

Find a job.

“Here,” I announce. I think the words are right.

“Come on in and make yourself comfortable.”

“I haven’t been comfortable,” I hear myself say, “since I left the yellow sky and the great glowing lake and the neon plants sprouting in jungle puddles.”

My insides lunge. I want to apologize.

But I have coached myself in this. What I say is not what I say.

The secretary gives me a dull smile and closes the office door behind me. I find myself surrounded by leather and glass and shaking a big man’s soft hand. I sit before him and his giant desk and his giant chest. Through a huge window, the city jabs at the blue sky behind him. So boxy and cold and dry.

“I don’t like being this high up,” I tell him.

“Right, and I heard you’ve just completed an active duty tour. I’m sure you tire of people asking about its unique ecosystem, so I will avoid questions of aesthetics—especially easy for me, as my nephew has done three tours of New Pangea!”

“How could anyone choose to go back to that place?” I hear myself say.

“That’s perfectly acceptable. Could you explain some of your skills?”

“Being this high up is making me anxious.”

“Excellent. But would you say you retain these skills after your pause from civilian life?”

“It reminds me of flying up and away from the great glowing lake.”

“I see. And which of your military abilities do you think are applicable?”

“On a rope ladder. Under a helicopter.”

“How long since you came home?”

“I had to leave their bodies.”

“Then good for you for entering the workforce again so quickly.”

“I really hate being this high up.”

“That does sound promising. What was your education before you enlisted?”

“I think I have to go. I’m so sorry.”

“Well, there is some overlap between cyber security and systems analysts, but you can expect a bit of a learning curve if we offer the position. We expect that with most hires, though.”

“Please,” I beg, “quit calling me snookums!”

I bolt out of the room, heels wobbling under me, past the demon businessman, into the glass elevator. In my reflection, my skirt and heels and blazer and shirt are as yellow as the New Pangea sky. I run out of Duske National Bank and back onto the sidewalk, sweating.

A stocky dog with short hair licks my calves.

I call Mother and try to tell her that I ran away from the interview.

“That’s great news, honey!” she says. “I told you this company is favorable to veterans. I have a good feeling about this one. Say, why don’t you meet Jerry and I at Paulina’s Cantina?”

We hang up.

I look at the sky. Too blue.

I came to the city to be closer to Mother.

I came to the city to find a job.

I need to tell Mother I lost my pulpapandroxin.

I open my phone. Clarity comes, and I am able to punch Paulina’s Cantina into the map and follow the blue route it draws. Mother is the only one I can sometimes talk to. The VA doctor has been a disaster. The hospital receptionist was a disaster. The pharmacist was a disaster. The outer me tells them symptoms the inner me can’t hear because all I hear is myself telling them about the neon jungle plants I tripped on and the starchy water I drank and the massive insects being the only animals and the only food when the starchy water mixed badly with the MRE packets.

I don’t know if pulpapandroxin even helps.

I don’t even know what it’s treating.

I’m trapped.

I’m glad the interview went well.

Apparently.

Closer to Mother.

Find a job.

The dog is following me and sniffing at my calves. I turn around and find it’s not a dog but the skeleton of a dog, bleached white, clacking like my heels as it trots after me. My feet ache from these shoes. When I find Paulina’s Cantina’s glass door, my reflection shows me my heels and skirt and blazer and shirt are blazing red.

The dog is at my side. It’s made now of ropes of muscle and tendon. It looks wet, so I don’t pat it goodbye. I step into the dim restaurant. The walls are bright primary colors. Mariachi music plays. Then it turns to static. Then it blares again.

Mother and Jerry are sitting at a high-top in the corner. They wave me over and slide a margarita glass filled with blood into my hand. Mother looks exactly the same as when we said goodbye this morning. Her hair is perfectly parted. Her lipstick has superpowers.

Jerry looks different than when I saw him last Christmas. His flesh is kind of bloated, kind of drooping, kind of patchy and gray, and he smells like the corpse of a massive dragonfly I found in a foggy hormone vent and poked with my AR.

“I have a really good feeling about that interview, Amber,” Mother says.

“I do, too, kiddo,” Jerry says. “Love that blue suit on you. You look good. Your mother told me you looked good, but I didn’t know you’d look this good. You cleaned up well. You’re all cheek-bony. Are you wearing eye-shadow? I never saw you in eye-shadow before.”

“Those are just the dark circles left by all these sleepless nights,” I say.

“Keep doing what you’re doing, cuz you look sharp, kiddo.”

I don’t like when Jerry calls me kiddo. He is closer to my age than to Mother’s.

But I feel sorry that he’s decaying.

But I have coached myself in this. What I see is not what is.

Still, I hear myself say, “Are you feeling all right, Jerry? You don’t look too good.”

“What position exactly were you interviewing for?”

“Does it hurt?” I ask him.

“That sounds perfect for you. I hope you bragged about all your accomplishments.”

“It’s really hard,” I explain, “to brag about dragging your friends’ bloated corpses through the jungle, checking now and then that they are lying on their backs and not their fronts so the neon plants don’t slice their faces, debating whether you should gut their entrails to make them lighter, then hating yourself for considering it, then hating yourself for being too scared to do it, then hating yourself for still having eyes to look at theirs that are buzzing with flies.”

“You’ve always been so good at interviews, Amber,” Mother says with a grin.

The waiter stops for our orders. Mother orders a vegetarian fajita platter.

“I’ll have the vegetarian fajita platter too,” I tell him.

“Oh,” Mother says, sharp, like she’s in pain, and I watch her go bright red and flustered as she tells the waiter, “You’ll have to excuse my daughter. She’s only just come home from deployment, you know. Lots of adjusting to do. And we have some neurological things to look into, of course. But she’s on the way up, you know?”

My heartbeat is loud. I shrink into my chair. What did I say?

The waiter won’t look at me. He talks to Mother.

“Where was she stationed?”

“New Pangea, central.”

“Oh, wow. Combat?”

“Quite a bit, I understand.”

“Did she fly in, or submarine through the channels?”

“She submarined in. She flew out.”

The waiter turns to me and says, “Thank you for your service. Your meal?”

Mother fidgets. Jerry hides behind his menu.

“Same as my mother’s,” I try.

He accepts this one. I see the tension leave his shoulders.

From behind his menu, Jerry orders an untrimmed raw sheep’s stomach.

“What did you say?” I choke.

“I ordered the beef chimichangas,” he says. He sets the menu down. The decay has made progress. His flesh is spongy and cracking open wetly. Chunks fall onto the table. He starts absently eating them. “You sure you didn’t suffer hearing loss?”

“Don’t you want some, dear?” Mother asks me. She grabs a strip of Jerry’s orphaned rot and plops it in her mouth and chews and swallows. “They make the best pico here.”

I keep my eyes on the bones in Jerry’s hand that are revealed as globs of his flesh plop off. Mother and Jerry chatter about some vacation they’re taking in July. A piece of Jerry’s cheek tears and slides down his face and dribbles onto his shirt.

“Will you be alright without your mother for those few weeks, Amber?” he asks.

“Oh, of course she will,” Mother says. “You’ll be all adjusted by then, won’t you?”

No. I lost my pulpapandroxin. But I ask Jerry, “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

“How’s the new apartment?” he asks.

My pulpapandroxin. I should have it. It might help. But I tell Jerry, “You look unwell.”

“Well, that’s okay,” he says. “Once your job is secured you can bite on a bigger, more comfortable place. Ah, look! The food has arrived!”

Two steaming vegetarian fajita platters and one untrimmed raw sheep’s stomach arrive at the table. The stomach leaks greenish acid and twitches. I didn’t know a sack without muscle could twitch. The esophagus end wiggles like a worm, rises, slaps onto the table, and starts pulling the rest of its body toward me, crawling, leaving a trail of bubbling green.

“It wants an offering,” Mother says cheerfully.

“What?” I ask, voice fluttering like a bird.

“I said, my gosh, these servings are always bigger than I expect.”

I have coached myself in this. What I see is not what is.

But it keeps crawling my way.

I stab peppers off my plate until my fork is full and let the esophagus nibble on them. They slither down the ribbed tube and land inside the whitish organ and sit there as a lump for a moment until the acid eats them and the stomach goes flat.

It crawls back to Jerry’s plate just in time for him to tuck in.

Jerry is mostly rotten. He has one fortunate eye left. The rest of his meat has slid from his body, leaving his waxy skeleton exposed. Through his ribs, crusty organs bulge.

I wish I had my pulpapandroxin.

I don’t know if it helps.

I picture the prescription in my mind and ask Mother, “Why is Jerry naked?”

“Honey, don’t talk like that. You’ll get the job. I know it.”

I envision those little pink pills and ask, “But why is Jerry so sick?”

“You won’t need me by the time July comes. You’ll feel better by then. You’ll be independent. I think you’re doing a lot better than you think you are, Amber.”

“I am not doing better,” I say.

“They’ll call within a week, I’m sure,” Mother says.

“Jerry is dying, Mother,” I say.

“Of course. I’ll take you shopping for a new wardrobe.”

“The starchy water just didn’t mix with our meals,” I say.

“Well, you have to admit, you’ll need more than just a few outfits.”

“I dragged them to the shore of the great glowing lake,” I say.

“Well, I think Macy’s is in our price range.”

“I think I’m trapped,” I tell her.

“No, Sunday would actually work better,” Mother says.

“I’m trapped inside my body, Mother.”

“Of course they are.”

“I’m trapped. Why can’t anyone hear me?”

“No need. We can just walk. It’s a few blocks from your place.”

“Why can’t I hear myself?”

“I look forward to it, snookums.”

I drop my face into my hands. Hot tears pool in my palms. But Mother and Jerry jabber on, pausing to receive my sobs and tuck them into their chatter.

 


Jessica Staricka has a BA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing from University of New Orleans. When Jessica is not writing, she can be found drawing, eating something sugary, or having personal crises. Her work has also appeared in Water Soup and River River.


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.