Whitney liked to arrive early. Sit in the parking lot and get herself together. She had an unusually large vanity mirror, with lights on her visor. A major selling point. Applying eyeliner, she could ponder the contradictions of her girlfriends.

She could think of things even she didn’t agree with. And this is a hard thing to do. She poked her lips out, considering balm. She thought past that, then stopped at a name. Whitney could not always divide herself. Her girlfriends would approve, but her mother wouldn’t. Or vice versa. Or nobody would approve and certainly never her father. And getting herself to approve on top of it would prove harder still. So she didn’t tell anyone she was meeting Kelly to go thrifting.

She continued fussing with her hair, alternating between innocent eyes and vixen, devouring smiles, as she does in parking lots. Brief practice for the conversation ahead. A bearded man knocked on her passenger window mid careless-sex-pose. She collapsed the visor elegantly and gathered her things into her purse. Never looking up, never feeling startled. High on herself. She opened the door, took one step and spread her arms out. Kelly swept around the car and hugged her.

“I cannot believe you’re wearing that nasty beard.”

He rubbed it into her neck and she fell out of his arms like liquid.

“Straight granola these days,” Kelly said. He stepped back and put his hands in his pockets. He looked her up and down, asked her if she was getting better looking.

She dug through her purse and found her cell phone, put it on silent in a covert act. She wasn’t trying to blow anyone off specifically. She just thought it better not to be distracted. Kelly hadn’t seen her in a while. She hadn’t thought of him in a while. They broke up over a year ago. She knew the break-up was coming and so her life didn’t halt one bit. It may have sped up.

“So what do you want to show me?” Whitney perked up as the sun sank in her skin.

He told her she would find out once inside. They walked in and neither had to fight any nostalgic urges. Kelly was too rambunctious to hold hands while shopping. Everything stimulated him. This is what attracted Whitney to him. Though in practice she found it was too much. She had to scold him. She had to be a bitch. And worse yet, she liked doing it. She found her own angry face to be sexy and thought he must as well. Still, she felt guilty deriving pleasure in such incidents. This sort of conundrum would invoke itself on the two in everything they did.

The old ladies working the register were talking intensely about recipes or grandsons or blacks or discounts or medicine or republicans or vacations or Christmas or crocheting or work or church. They were not talking about true love. Whitney and Kelly slipped in unnoticed. Kelly went into the corner and pulled a fedora from a rack. There were feather boas and winter hats; a Playskool telephone was wedged onto the end. Kelly handed it to Whitney and said, “It’s for you.”

He told her that was it. The reason he had her come out.

“Really, come on. You know I’m bad at waiting,” and she rocked her shoulders a little. Mostly she could wait. She liked to make sure that Kelly still wanted to satisfy her. Whitney was a smart girl. She could rely on herself for trivial demands. She finished school.

Kelly laughed at her. She realized she overdid it with the Monroe-esque line. She laughed at herself and threw a feather boa around her neck. He peeled the fedora off and put a plaid cabbie hat on. They walked down the aisle with all the busted electronics. Kelly liked to scour for obscure VHS tapes. He collected a few. Whitney always thought they were junk, but she stole one from him. A copy of This Old House. Bob Vila inside Frida Kahlo’s. After her divorce. It was strange, but Kelly never asked for it back.

“Doesn’t Saul wear these hats?” Kelly asked. She knew it would come up sometime. Kelly didn’t bother with tact.

“Sure. He wears whatever he wants. I don’t keep track,” she said. But she did. She kept track. And she liked the hat with a particular set of dark glasses. And she didn’t mind it on Kelly either.

“Is that really what’s going on? I mean, I know it is. It’s our little quarterly check-up. I tell you about me and the artist. You tell me about some drunken hook-ups.” There, she thought, this is what we both wanted. His lack of articulating what they were both thinking is why she left him.

Kelly lifted his hands in arrest position. “Okay,” he said. “I don’t have any drinking stories. I’ve mostly been by myself. All my drinking is E. A. Poe style.” He thought this would intrigue her. She always said he was a weepy-philosophical drunk. It was one of those attract-repel things. Not now. Whitney saw in hindsight pure repellent raven.

“Oh my god. Are you still doing that shit? There, Saul would never do that. You think you’re classic, but you’re just corny. ‘Corny Kelly is crying because T.V. is ruining the world’,” she mocked. “Yeah, we get it. Jersey Shore is what’s wrong with America. But I got shit to do.”

Kelly smiled inside. It pierced Whitney, just a little, to pretend those things were so frivolous. But really, who had the time? She started thumbing through men’s shirts. Kelly knew she was looking for specific paisley patterns. They could’ve written dictionaries to each other’s daydreams.

“Are you still making scarves?” Kelly asked. They used to take weekly trips to thrift stores together. They would usually stop for the ‘bag for a buck’ deals. Whitney made scarves. The frayed old-western types that musicians wear. Along with vintage dresses and boots she would sell online. You get a variety of patterns cheaply at the thrift store, Whitney would say. It was an excuse. She always loved revitalization. Finding the brilliant flairs amid all the worn out. Sewing memories together for ‘hand-me-down happiness.’ The smell. Garage and attic. Hiding. Sharing that smell.

“Yeah, but ever since I started at the co-op I don’t have time. I mostly just make them as gifts now.” Co-op made Kelly’s stomach turn a little. Picturing all these artists rubbing elbows with each other. Pretending they have their lives together. For the instant they are together, knowing that they do have their lives together. Kelly was looking for t-shirts with wolves on them. Preferably in tie-dye. Whitney held up a shirt with gold piping and white and red paisley on brown. “Perfect,” he said.

“All right, I’m going to walk behind you and cover your eyes. I don’t want you to peek. You are really going to like this,” Kelly said. He got behind her and resisted the urge to nuzzle his big beard into her back, grab her by the waist and hump her. He was unsure if it was typical male or a fog from the oxytocin released in his brain upon sight of her. He walked her down the aisle without any sexual advances.

“Now keep your eyes closed until I say.” He leapt in front and said Ta-Da.

He leaned back, reclining on an orange corduroy sectional couch, circa 1970 whatever. She smiled brightly and it faded into a giggle. Whitney walked over and sat next to Kelly. Only three parts were in an orderly fashion.

“What do you think?”

She really didn’t know what to say. She had always wanted a vintage couch. None she had ever seen to that point fit her exact description of ‘vintage-couch’ like this one. Kelly was beaming. Proud of his discovery. She thought it was cute, but she knew the mess ‘cute’ could make. She thought about asking the price, but that implied wanting it.

“Oh my god, Kelly, too much. How did you find this? I suppose you expect me to fuck you now?” she laughed and laid back.

“You always said, vintage couches and shag carpet made you horny.” Kelly didn’t really honor that statement. He straightened up and told her upon finding the couch he thought of her. He sighed.

“It’s too late. I think I’m moving in with Saul. I don’t have room for it anyway,” Whitney sat back up.

“You’ve always wanted one. Suddenly you don’t?” He threw his leg over a fray in the upholstery.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the room. I can’t just rebuild all my décor around one piece of furniture. I don’t think Saul will even like it. He’ll think it’s tacky or ugly. He thinks the retro is there to serve the new. Not to be applauded,” and she cast her gaze at her feet. “Are you ever going to grow out of that stuff, evolve?” She looked at him.

“Whoa, whoa. Don’t think the couch thing is some metaphor. I mean, yeah, I can’t turn down public sex on a corduroy couch, but… This isn’t some effort to win you back. I just thought you wanted to see a great couch. I thought you would appreciate it,” Kelly demonstrated sincerity. She could tell he meant what he said. She always had a problem with his lack of concealing. She could see right into him. He was transparent except for a little core, like the seed of an apple that reflected Whitney right back. “Besides, I might consider not fucking you in this thrift store. Old Jenny would get pissed,” Kelly said and fingered a macramé hemp bracelet.

Whitney reeled a little. She had never suspected that the little core was capable of reflecting back whatever gazed upon it. Whoever. That his core could reflect back another. She stiffened up and gathered all the sex from the vanity mirror of her car. Composed she said, “Oh yeah? I bet I could seduce you.” And he didn’t respond. They were both rubbing their hands over the fabric of the couch until Whitney noticed. She reached into her purse absent minded. Her hand touched her cell phone. She pulled it out. One missed call. Two missed texts. Saul had texted that he saw her car at the thrift store but couldn’t stop. The second noted that she hadn’t told him she was going out that day.

“Excuse me,” she said and texted back to Saul. She said she was with Taylor grabbing shirts to make scarves. Then she texted Taylor to cement her story. She turned a little from Kelly so he couldn’t see her typing. “I’m going to grab a few more shirts,” she said.

The two walked out together into the purifying sun. It made them realize how truly dark it had been. The fresh air turned their bloodstream into southern California. Traffic and people and birds and garbage and carbon monoxide and vibrant colors and advertisements and train whistles and puddles and chocolate and that fucking-not-attic-air reminded them that it’s good to go to the thrift store, if only to leave.

They hugged near Kelly’s beat-up car. He stole a kiss at her cheek. She spotted a big tangle of hemp looking stuff in the back seat. “What’s that?”
“Jenny made it,” Kelly said. “It’s a hammock.”

“Hmmm…,” she wrinkled her nose. She thought Kelly’s car was a mess and all that rope wasn’t helping. She walked back to her car and closed the door. The solitude and the pent-up heat overcame her. She pulled the visor down and mussed her hair. Pursed her lips. When she started her car, she realized she never even asked the price of the couch. She wanted to know the cost.

~Benjamin Champagne

This short story earned first place in the annual student contest for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.

The Call of the Void

It was just a tiny pinprick, a little black dot, smaller even than the tip of a well-sharpened pencil. “Black as a vulture’s claw,” the doctor had told his patient, shoulders hunched and eyes squinted, staring at the computer screen. “Right over the left ventricle. A curious thing, that is. And you say you can feel it?”

“It pulsates,” his patient answered. “Not like my heartbeat… but like its own. Intermittently. And… it’s strong. Like when someone plays a bass drum and you can feel it all the way through your chest.”

“Is it painful?” the doctor asked.

“No,” the patient said, but added, quietly, after a grim pause, “Not yet.”

The doctor hmmed, focus constantly shifting from the file folders in his hand to the ultrasound of his patient’s heart on the screen to his immediate left. Finally his eyes remained glued to the files, taking a more careful consideration of what was written there.

“Have you experienced any changes in your health recently? Other than the pulsations, of course. Any other symptoms you can think of? Has anything happened recently that might’ve caused you some stress?”

The patient paused. “I killed a man last week.”

The doctor, too, paused, shoulders drawn taut, muscles caught mid-motion from setting the files down. Clearing his throat and gathering his bearings, he turned his eyes to his patient, who began kicking slipper-clad feet restlessly where they dangled from the examination chair.

“I beg your pardon?”

This time, the patient did not hesitate, though his voice was laced with anxiety. “I killed a man last week. He was—I don’t know what he was. But I killed him—I had to—and now this. Now I have this. Have since the moment his heart stopped beating. And I know because I waited—I waited for it to stop beating.”

The doctor was visibly trying to gather his bearings, to sort through the words his patient so desperately spilled, in two entirely different manners: to understand the gravity of the situation, and to understand what the situation was.

Adjusting the gray-framed glasses hooked on his nose, the doctor cleared his throat once more. “So—so you say you… killed a man? And this pulsation, this beat coinciding your own heartbeat, occurred immediately afterwards?” Though forcibly imbuing a sort of curious question to his tone, the nervous tremor underlying his words could not be helped.

“Yes,” the patient said, grasping on to the doctor’s temporary understanding. “Yes, that’s exactly it.”

“And you… believe these two events are related?”

“You must understand, doctor—this was not any ordinary man. I can’t even be sure he was a man.”

The doctor was caught between hearing his patient’s words and the new image that greeted him on the ultrasound monitor.

“Oh my,” he murmured, stepping closer to the screen.

“What—what is it?” the patient demanded.

“The spot. Before, it was a mere pinprick. Now, I think—I think maybe it’s more of a speck? As if it’s gone from the size of a needle tip to the size of a freckle.”

The patient moaned in fear. “It’s grown?”

“It appears that way.”

Having been presented with a more pressing matter than week-old murder—the life of a patient directly in front of him—the doctor’s thoughts were more easily assembled. The anxiety and hesitation he’d portrayed not a minute before had faded into a sharp sort of curiosity and a desperate need for answers.

“You said—you said he was no ordinary man?” the doctor questioned, unwinding the stethoscope from where it had been draped over his shoulders and approaching the patient to listen to his heart.

The patient nodded quickly. “He could do things. Things I’ve seen no other man do. I think he could read my mind, too. He knew what I was going to do before I even did it. I only managed to disable him by pure whim—he couldn’t anticipate what I, myself, didn’t know I would do.” Swallowing loudly, the patient looked to the floor. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”

The doctor continued pressing the stethoscope around the patient’s chest, listening intently, attention divided between the strange-double beat within the patient and the words pouring without the patient. “And what other things could he do?”

“I don’t think I know all of them. He moved fast—I could only really see him if I blinked rapidly, the way you can see the individual prongs on a fan if you stare at it and blink. It was disorienting. And he could move things. Without touching them.”

“Telekinesis?” the doctor murmured in wonder. Was he beginning to believe his patient? That, last week, there had been a man on this earth that was not a man?

“But you must believe me,” his patient pleaded, eyes—a stark blue, the color of the morning sky in mid-winter—searching the doctor’s own, as if the patient could see his very own fate in the man examining him.

The doctor stiffened, hand paused over the patient’s pectoral muscle, where the cold bite of the stethoscope pressed against the patient’s skin, directly alongside the ultrasound mechanism somewhat suctioned to the chest. “I—I didn’t—“The doctor paused, sucking a breath of air in to force the words out. “I didn’t say that out loud.”

The patient’s breath caught in his throat—the doctor knew because he could hear no rasp of air entering the lungs with the stethoscope pressed near those organs. Other thoughts seemed to flit into the patient’s mind, for in the next moment, he had the doctor’s wrist gripped, like a vice, between his hands. “You’re—“ the patient stopped and looked into the doctor’s eyes in confusion, as if he could see right into the doctor’s head. “You’re thinking of calling the police. Or the FBI. You’re not sure yet.” The patient’s grip on the doctor tightened infinitesimally. “But you can’t. You can’t.”

Just then, the patient’s eyes were drawn by something over the doctor’s back, which he quickly realized would be the ultrasound monitor. The doctor swiveled on his feet and examined the monitor, adjusting the glasses on his nose as if what he was seeing was merely a product of glare from the lens.

“It’s—it’s growing again!” the patient exclaimed, clutching at his chest. “And I can feel it. I can—what’s happening to me?”

The doctor stood frozen, half between the patient and the monitor, unsure of which to go to. The patient caught his eyes again, reading the doctor’s expression once more as if reading a mind. And the doctor realized, with a sudden jolt of disbelief at himself, that the patient was reading his mind.

He could feel it. It was like a skimmer over a pool’s surface, a feather duster over a cherry-wood bookshelf, a fly landing on a lake, a raven’s wing brushing a maple leaf—just barely there, just enough to sense something.

The patient spoke, edging closer towards hysteria: “You think I’m becoming him, becoming like him—the man I killed. You think I—you think there’s something wrong with me, really wrong with me, and I—“but he broke off and clutched his chest once more, sputtering a gasp. “Am I dying?”

The patient stood, now, and by glancing once more at the monitor, the doctor watched as the dark void, the shadow over his patient’s heart, began to grow exponentially. One moment, the patient was standing over the examination chair, and the next he was across the room with his hands pressed to his head, the veins protruding in his arms, as if by sheer force he could push whatever was occurring in his head right back out.

“I can’t—I can’t even—“and the patient was across the room again, again, and again, never staying in one spot longer than a second.

The doctor blinked, fluttering his eyes opened and closed so rapidly he couldn’t be rid of the shadow of his eyelashes even when his eyes were completely open. He staggered back against the countertop, checking the machine once more for the shadow’s progress over the heart, but, of course, the chords had been ripped from the patient, the device used to create the ultrasound image lay at the foot of the examination chair, discarded.

“I can’t—I need you to stop thinking so loud,” the patient was saying, darting here and there. “I just—I need—quiet!”

The hysteria in the room was escalating, gathering as if for some great climax. The doctor, without even a thought, grabbed a scalpel from the cabinet’s drawer behind him, wielding it like some grand sword rather than a thing with a five-inch handle and a one-inch blade, the most basic instinct of self-protection eclipsing much of the reason in his mind.

“You must calm yourself,” the doctor was saying, watching with pale lips and wide eyes as the patient began thrashing things. The examination chair had been ripped from its metal base; a dent was cut deep into a cabinet. A nurse could be heard knocking outside the door, asking in a rather high-pitched voice if someone should call the authorities, and then presumably running to do just that.

The doctor was given no chance to react, for the next instant brought the patient to a stop just before him, hands still pressed firmly to his head, face awash in tears, eyes painting a clear picture of agony.

“I need quiet,” the patient said again, though the quiet only registered briefly with the doctor, for words that had been uttered a mere minute or two ago now seemed like a lifetime in this madness.

And just as the patient lunged towards the doctor, the doctor’s hand—the very one wielding the diamond-tipped scalpel—was reaching towards the patient, hand set in a placating motion despite the obvious weapon held within its grip, and time slowed once more as the doctor watched the tip of the scalpel breach the soft neck of the patient, watched as the blade sunk right in, up through three inches of the handle, even, and as blood flowed, first like the beginnings of a newborn waterfall, and then in an angry current, spilling out over the patient’s hospital robes like paint, thick but slippery.

Slowly, the agony in the patient’s eyes softened to a lesser sort of pain, and his eyes once more rested on the doctor’s. The skim through the doctor’s mind halted as the patient dropped to his knees.

The doctor followed him there, folding his own legs beneath himself almost painfully. His hands reached for his patient’s throat, assessing the damage, trying desperately to hold the skin together so no more blood could slip past, but the reasonable quadrant in his brain told him it was already too late for that.

He, too, crumpled when the patient fell back to the floor. Blood looked almost black in its density as it surrounded the doctor on the floor, and the stethoscope that still hung from the doctor’s neck, like a noose, was pressed hesitantly against the patient’s now-softly moving chest.

The doctor listened for the heartbeat from the life he so hastily took, the thathud, thathud, swimming through his ears, until all at once, it stopped.

And started up again right in his own chest.

~Kayla Grose