Fiction by David John Baer McNicholas
They lay on her daughter's faded pink baby blanket. The sand was dark and moist, and the waves crashed and plundered the lowest part of the beach. The air was a grey prism of fog, like they were trapped in a sooted snow globe. Their backs were warm and wet from beach blanket osmosis and they stared into the blankness scrying private meanings. This was their 69th date. An hour ago, they went for smoothies at the juice bar after swimming in the river and fighting. Boris wore the blanket like a sarong. Everyone was staring, smiling. It was obvious she’d caught a live one.
She turned her head to the right, the sand mushed under her shoulder. His eyes were pinched, the fog bright enough to burn. His belly rose and fell beneath a cotton button-down. He was miles away from her. “This is so weird,” she said to no-one. The waves clapped once for her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like this.” The wet susurrus played over the thoughts in her head. She asked, “You?”
His fingers played in the sand beside the blanket. “Yeah.”
“Yeah? You have?”
“I’m sure I have, but yeah, it’s special.” His chest rose and he let out a sigh through his teeth. His black side-bag sat in the sand, opposite her on his left.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“I can’t believe you wore this blanket in public. Well, that’s not true, if anyone was going to do that, I’m sure it would be you. That was kinda hot though.” She pulled herself up on her elbows and scanned the waves. The water fought against the rhythm, every so often scoring a rest note. “Hey, do you still want to have a three-way with Edward?”
“I don’t think I ever really did, but, yeah, I’d do it, if he wears a condom.”
“Because he wants to fuck your ass? He says he can’t wear one because he can’t get hard.”
“His loss, I guess. Why do you want to do it, anyway?”
“I’ve never done it before, and you seem like the right kind of partner for that sort of thing. You don’t care about me, or at least you aren’t jealous at all.”
“We’re just friends.”
“You fuck all your friends, I bet.”
“Change the topic much?” She leaned over on her left elbow, turning on to her hip and placing her smiling face over his. He smiled back. She hung there a moment, waiting for him to kiss her. When he didn’t, she reached a tentative hand over him toward his purse. “Can I have a cigarette?”
His placid faraway look twisted quickly and his hand grabbed hers. “Don’t be snooping around in my things. Yes, I’ll get it.” His hand was hot on her wrist. For a moment, it felt like they might fuck or have another fight, or both. He said, “I’m hungry. Let’s go have dinner.”
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“My place. Chicken and French fries.” He put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle push. She sat back; her face felt warm. “You got a baby-sitter tonight?”
“Yeah, Kiley is with her grandma. We should move to California.” She sat back in her place, sand ground into her wet denim. He got up on one elbow facing his bag and reached a hand inside, producing a pack of Camels.
“Huh? You just want to move to California because you wrote a screenplay.”
“I also wrote a medium article about a filthy fuckboy who broke my heart. Don’t you want to go too?” She took the cigarette he offered her. Then he lit it with a lighter which he produced with a wave of his hand.
He stood up slowly. His feet put dents in the blanket. The sand had consumed the pink fibers and it looked like nature reclamation porn where he had been laying. He tugged one corner lightly.
“Oh, am I sitting on your skirt?” she asked. She bunched the blanket in her fingers and tugged back, smoke curling around her face the way it does on warm, wet days. She coughed. “LA is a good place to be a magician.”
“I’m not a magician.” His lips were flat.
“That’s good, I’d never date a magician.”
He let go of the blanket and stared into her eyes. His back was to the seawall, which was built like a misplaced highway project boulder pile. Some of the massive rocks were quarried using dynamite and had long holes drilled through them which were halved by charges splitting them into boulders about the size of baby elephants all thrown into a pile to protect the mansions built along the shore. Movement over his shoulder drew her eyes from his. He turned to follow her gaze. “What is it?” he asked.
“I thought I saw something. I don’t know,” she said. She stood up and walked closer, squinting her eyes. “Whatever it was, it’s gone.”
He extracted the blanket from the beach. A cascade of hourglasses spilled out of it. He shook it and sand blew into their faces and against their bare arms and legs. The blanket was wet. He folded it anyway, taking great care to make sure the edges aligned. “What did it look like?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
“It was nothing,” she said, “maybe a chipmunk.”
“A chipmunk on the beach?” His eyes widened.
“Sure, why not? Are you saying there’s no chipmunks allowed?”
“I got nothing against chipmunks.” He slipped his arm around her waist. His fingers spread wide across her left butt-cheek and squeezed. He kissed her forehead. She grabbed his face and kissed his lips. Their eyes met. His were inscrutable.
Over the seawall they got into her gray Hyundai. He placed the wet blanket on the back seat with the rest of the fallout from single-motherhood. Happy-meal toys, grade school papers with big handwriting in fill-in-the-blanks and scores in red at the top crumpled from the book bag they’d been shoved into, extra clothes, kids' size and adult, a missing sock that wasn’t really missing; it just couldn’t quite make the journey to the hamper on its own. He placed his bag at his feet. She started the car and drove the mile and a half to his apartment while the invisible sun set.
“There’s a spot,” he said, pointing to a space between a Honda and a Dodge Charger. She pulled in headfirst. Her headlights cast into the wooded area between parking lots. She squinted into the pines. The ground was carpeted in dry orange needles. Small plants and shrubs tried in vain to gain ground in the barren under-story. “What are you looking at?” he said.
She flicked her lights off. “Nothing,” she looked at him, he was sandy in patches, salty all over. He opened the passenger door and stood, leaving behind a sandy butt-print that shook when he shut the door. She gathered her purple backpack with her sleepover gear inside, locked and shut her door and followed him into the three-story flats where he lived on the second floor.
His roommate Julie was home. She was watching TV from the couch in the living room. “Hi guys,” she said when they came in.
“Hey hon, how you doing?” he asked. They took off their shoes at the door.
“Oh, you know, just trying to make it through another day.” Julie’s face was unnaturally bright in the blue light of the TV. Her eyes darted from the screen to Aliane’s face, then to Boris.
“How are you feeling today?” he insisted.
“I’m, I think I’m alright. A little tired, but I can’t sleep.”
“You hungry? We’re gonna have dinner.”
“Sure, yeah, I can eat.”
Boris went into his bedroom and deposited his side-bag on the floor beside the couch. Then he went into the kitchen. Aliane brought her backpack into his bedroom and unzipped it on his bed. She pulled out her toiletries in a smaller pouch and set them on the comforter. The room was packed full of too much furniture. There was just a narrow pathway around the bed, flanked on the walls by dressers, desks, a couch, and about ten houseplants. In the dying light of the grey overcast sky the plants were silhouetted against the window.
She froze, her gaze in the window. There was movement in among the ficus, cacti and pothos. Her spine felt like a cold iron rod. Boris and Julie continued to care-take each other, their voices from outside the bedroom sounded far away. Aliane heard a smaller voice or several voices that were coming from the houseplants in the window.
She grabbed her toiletries and backed out of the room. She shut the door and pulled it tight until the latch clicked. She stared at the white door in front of her. Then she let go of the doorknob and turned. The other two were in the kitchen now, neither of them looked up or saw her face. She went to the bathroom, set between the two bedrooms. She turned the lights on and shut the door. Aliane sat on the toilet with the lid closed and stared at the towels on the rack in front of her. Never use the colored towels, he’d told her. The sounds from the kitchen came through the hollow door. There was the gong of a baking tray being yanked from the dishrack, followed by the shush of parchment paper pulled from its package. The crinkling of bagged freezer food being dumped in a tray. The beeps from the oven temp being set. Over all that a constant back and forth between Boris and Julie. Words lost through the wall were muffled, indistinct.
Aliane left the bathroom. Her dry clothes were in the bedroom with her backpack. She looked at the shut door, then she joined the other two in the kitchen. On the counter she saw a package. She read the label, Vagina distribution center. She blinked and read it again, Virginia distribution center. She was still wearing her stiff salty jeans. Her t-shirt covered a halter top that was rubbing sand into her ribs. She looked at Boris, still wearing his shorts and button down, sand raining off him onto the kitchen floor. “Do you want to change into something dry?” she asked him.
“That’s a good idea,” he said, “do you?”
She nodded her head at him and waited. He put the tray into the oven. “Well, lead the way,” he said. With uncertain steps, she led him to his bedroom door. “Why’s the door shut?” She could feel her heart beating outside her chest. She stopped and leaned back into the wall, waiting for him to open the door. Her breaths were short and ragged. He looked at her funny, then took hold of the doorknob. Her eyes were on the plants as she followed him inside. He flicked the lights on and there was nothing to see. Just his bed with the handles screwed to the headboard and the black bullwhip laying across it above the pillows.
He strafed his way around the bed to the window where he picked up a red lighter and lit a big, scented candle. The smell of boiling christmas trees filled the air. He stripped and sat naked on the couch, his back to the several plants in the window. She shut the door and pulled her pajamas out. She changed her clothes while he watched. Then she sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you gonna put some clothes on or you gonna finish making the salad like that?”
“Yeah,” he said and stood up, his dick waggling back and forth like a puppet with a less than enthusiastic puppeteer who couldn’t be bothered to articulate. He put on a pair of gray sweatpants and a t-shirt. She could still see his dick, but she also continued to check the window behind him for signs of movement. There were none.
Over dinner, Julie announced that she liked it when Boris had loud sex, because it meant that she didn’t have to stand behind his door to listen. Aliane laughed and Boris grinned. They all agreed that he made the best salad. The lettuce was chopped so fine it was like wet confetti stuck to the cucumbers and tomatoes. The chicken and fries left a grease exhaust on their plates. The centerpiece of the meal was a plate with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and sriracha for dipping. Julie was animated while she talked about being at a Radiohead concert and thinking she saw Johnny Greenwood staring at her daughter in the crowd. She was convinced there was a connection. Boris ate fistfuls of fries and responded to everything with an “uh-huh” or an “mmm.”
“You sure are a fancy chef,” Aliane said.
“Mmm-huh,” said Boris.
“He likes his privacy,” Julie said.
From her seat at the table, Aliane was facing the hallway with the bedroom door in it. It was open and the light was still on. A band of lamplight stretched across the carpet. A shadow ran across the swath of light, and she dropped a piece of chicken on her plate.
“Hey, is that chicken still alive?” Boris joked.
She recovered and laughed at his joke. “No, this chicken may never have been alive in the first place. I think this is one of those lab grown chickens.”
After dinner, they retired to his room and Julie went back to watching TV in the living room. The smell of the candle was thick. She put her backpack on top of a dresser and got into bed. He sidestepped around the mattress and got in on his side. They pulled up the sheet and comforter. She felt him lean on his side and put his palm on her stomach. His hand was hot, and it circled her navel. She felt his fingers dip low and brush her. “I um, am having my period, but I can still make you feel good.”
He withered off her like a dying vine and fell onto his back. Her stomach felt cold where his hand had been. She pulled the blanket up more. He picked up his phone and started a playlist. He was playing INXS again. At least they weren’t fucking to INXS. While she watched him, he started to cry. She reached out and touched his shoulder. He said, “I have tiny daggers in my heart, Aliane.”
She looked at the window. The flickering from the candle disguised any other movement that may have been there. “This guy could have fucked anyone in the world, but he died of auto-erotic-asphyxiation while jerking off in a hotel closet.”
“Well, that’s… “ her words left her. He rolled on his side facing away from her. His naked back was a patchwork of bruises and hollow spots. “Oh my god, what’s wrong with your back?” she said.
“I’m in a lot of pain, all the time,” he said, “it’s chronic.”
“I’m not surprised, you’re a mess back here.”
“You can see it?”
“Yeah, I can,” she said, and she reached out and pressed a fingertip into a particularly deep dark well in the center of his spine. He gasped and she withdrew her finger, feeling like it had been pricked. She bit her lower lip and then spread her palm out, placing it in the center of his back. His spine was cold. The space between them warmed slowly. In ten minutes, he was snoring.
She moved slowly to avoid disturbing him. Once she had turned over right before falling asleep and he sat up and screamed like he was being murdered. It had scared the shit out of her, but the next day he assured her it was harmless. Still, she was quiet. The playlist had stopped and the only other sound in the room was the candle sizzling.
Aliane slipped out of bed. She squeezed past the dressers and the desk and made her way to stand before the couch and the window. She squinted at the plants. Then she leaned closer. There were several tiny naked women shivering among the leaves and stems of a ficus. They held their hands up over their faces when she peered in on them. The candlelight danced over their huddled forms. They lowered their hands, one at a time and stared back at her.
Aliane leaned closer. She saw sand crystals, some dispersed among the potting soil, some stuck to their feet and hands. Their faces were exquisite, but there was something animal about them. They looked at each other, passing secret messages with their eyes.
The tiny women turned back to Aliane. They all stood up at once and bared their teeth at her, making a hissing sound. Aliane fell backward onto the bed. Boris shot up from his pillow and shouted, “There’s no more salad!” He fell back to sleep immediately. She crawled across the bed to her backpack and grabbed it off the dresser while her feet were finding the floor. Then she ran for the front door. Julie, without breaking eye contact with the TV said in a near whisper, “Good night Aliane.”
Aliane ran down the front stairwell of the building, her thudded footfalls echoing up the foyer walls. At her car she stopped, fumbling for her keys. When she got in the car, she locked the doors. And started the engine. She paused then. Her backpack was on the passenger seat beside her. Aliane was about to shift it into reverse when she saw the canvas moving. Something was struggling to get out of her backpack. It shook and jumped and there was a faint sound like a muffled scream.
She reached her hand toward the bag on the passenger seat. Her fingers grasped the zipper toggle and the movement stopped. It was waiting. Aliane pulled the toggle towards her and unzipped the bag. Then she sat back, her breath rattling. A tiny hand grasped the edge of the zipper. She stopped breathing. The woman who emerged from the sack was no bigger than a chipmunk. She was stark naked and looked unwashed. Aliane had a closer look at the woman’s wet face and red eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
In a voice like the squeak of a mouse, the miniature woman said, “I can’t leave.”
“What? Why not?” Aliane leaned closer, her voice a cracked whisper.
“He has my children.” Her tear-streaked face twisted as she spoke.
“What can I do?” Aliane was crying now too.
“The whip, on his bed. If you take it from him, he loses his power over us.” She was shaking.
Aliane said, “Is that all? Just steal his favorite toy?” She wrinkled her nose.
“That’s it, we can handle the rest.” Her body relaxed and she let out a balloon squeak sigh.
Aliane sat still for a moment in silence. She looked at the black passenger window. The tiny woman pulled the arm of a sweatshirt out of the bag and wrapped herself in it. She sobbed into the hem of a sleeve. Aliane turned the ignition off and reached for her backpack and the woman crawled back inside.
She walked up the steps to the building. The front door was constantly falling out of it’s jamb and it never closed right, not even when women were fleeing the premises, flinging it wide. She knocked on the apartment door and Julie smiled when she opened it. “Back for more salad?” Aliane gave a weak smile, which Julie didn’t notice as she was already headed back to the couch.
She left her backpack by the door. The tiny woman climbed out, unseen. In the bedroom, light snoring from Boris comforted her nerves. She closed the door behind her. He still had his awful back to her. She watched his sides heaving gently with his breath. The whip lay across the headboard. It glowed black in the dark room. She picked it up and Boris began to stir. Before he could move from the bed, he was swarmed with what looked like an ant farm, but it was hundreds of tiny women, even smaller than the one she met in her car. They went for his back and they climbed inside the holes there. His eyes were open, but they looked through her. He shouted, like he was being murdered, thrashed around on the mattress. Then he was still.
Aliane curled the whip around her elbow and palm. She waited for something else to happen, but the room felt at peace. She took the whip with her as she left, saying goodnight to Julie, who looked at her and said, “thank you.”
David John Baer McNicholas is a wizard who lives in a spray painted shuttle bus in downtown Santa
Fe, NM. He is the author of Lemons: In an Orchard, L.I.E.S., and Callously Wanton. Mr. McNicholas
is also a ghost hunter and a liar, who believes that misinterpretation is everything. He can often be
found talking to animals or playing electric noise guitar inside his bus. He enjoys skateboarding, yoga,
and cigars. Honors include: second place in the limbo on the Sir Thomas Leighton Absolut Vodka
harbor cruise of 2005; second place in a free-style dance contest at 2:00 a.m. local time in Patong
Beach on the 27th of January 2016 at the Illuzion night club. In both cases the first place winner was a
five foot tall blonde woman. Coincidence? We think not.