by Ryan Bradford
Issue Two: May 23, 2019
The day the man appears in the field, Mama says, “Oh no.”
Out in the field, there’s the grass. There’s where the cows used to roam. Far off, there’s a tree. Just one tree. And now, a man. He’s as tall and thin and crooked as that tree. Too far away to see his face.
“Not again,” Mama says.
The man arrives after the storm, a storm that chased all the cows away and turned all our chickens dead. Not that we need the animals for anything except the occasional hand-licking. We’re not hurting for money, not since daddy squirted out from underneath a rolling tractor and left a shitload of money for Mama, Jenny, Jessup and me. “What’s a shitload?”
“Don’t cuss, Jeanie,” Mama tells me. Everyone’s telling me not to cuss because I’m the youngest, but only by a minute.
Mama watches out the window. Her jaws work through her cheeks as she stares at the tall twig man standing in our field. She closes the blinds. “Let’s go eat, girls,” she says. “Maybe he’ll just go away.”
I lie awake at night, knowing that Jenny and Jessup are still awake. Light from the moon turns our room blue and white. Outside, the crickets chirp a song that’s both sad and victorious. The air still smells like rain.
“Two more days,” Jenny says.
“What are you going to ask for?” This is a game we like to play: Guessing Birthday Gifts.
“I want a cake,” says Jessup. “All for myself. I want it to be chocolate with white frosting and it’ll have a cow on it.” Jessup misses the cows, I can tell.
“I want a dog,” Jenny says. “Some big ol’ dog to play fetch with.” She pauses. “You think he’s handsome?” she asks.
“The man out in the field?” I ask.
“Hell if I know.”
“Jeanie,” says Jessup. “Don’t cuss.” She’s oldest by twenty minutes and, for some reason, thinks she’s the boss of me. And Jenny’s always thinking about handsome men. She paws through the magazines Daddy left behind—National Geographic, Time, Consumer Reports—and drawing hearts around the men she likes. “Hunks,” she calls them.
We lie quiet for a long time. The crickets sing louder, and it feels like they’re singing directly to me. My stomach flutters, low, and I reach up underneath my bed shirt to rest my palm on my belly. The fluttering settles.
“I bet he’s handsome,” Jenny says. “Dark, tall and handsome.”
“Shut it,” Jessup says, but the bossiness is gone.
The stomach thing returns, fiery. Feels like I’m burning up inside. Maybe it’ll go away if I just touch everywhere.
Jessup and Jenny have stopped talking, too.
In the morning, the man is still there. We watch from the windows, and when the sun rises higher, we watch from the porch. Jessup wipes her forehead with the length of her arm; Jenny lets her face stay shiny. She likes when zits sprout on her face, likes the sound of her skin cracking open when she unloads them onto our bathroom mirror.
“I hope I get one right here,” Jenny says, pointing to her shiny forehead. “A big, yellow thing.”
I laugh. I wouldn’t ever say this out loud, but Jenny’s my favorite. She makes me laugh all the time.
“Don’t be gross,” Jessup says. She walks up to Jenny and rubs the sweat off her face, and then displays her hand, glistening with Jenny’s oil and sweat. She jumps toward me with arm extended and I dodge.
“Don’t touch me,” I say. But I want her to chase me. This is fun. I like when Jessup is fun. Sometimes it seems like Jessup tries too hard to hold back. Afraid of being happy, or something. Afraid of letting loose. She takes after Daddy in that regard, except not dead.
Jessup chases me around in circles. We kick up dirt. Soon, we’re running in a knee-high brown haze. Jenny laughs so hard.
We run near the tall grass. My foot catches something and I stumble. I taste dirt.
“Oh shit,” Jenny says. “You okay?”
“Jenny,” Jessup says. “No cussing.”
Dust covers my lips, like me and the dirt just made out. The blood comes next. Honest: the blood and dirt don’t taste so bad. I push myself up onto my knees and look at the culprit, a goddamn weed. It’s a hard knot of fresh grass. Deer grass, maybe. It looks like the top of someone’s head, sprouting up and ready to be plucked from the earth. I look out to the field and see that similar knots have sprouted everywhere. They remind me of what will erupt on Jenny’s skin if she doesn’t keep the sweat off it. I stand up and kick the weed until it’s uprooted. The little tendrils that once held it to the ground now stand straight up in the air.
“Die,” I say.
“Girls, what are you doing?” Mama stands on the porch with fists dug into her waist.
“Just playin’,” I say, but Mama doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t notice my busted lip. She looks past us, to the man out in the field. Her eyes look watery.
“He’s not doing anything, Mama,” Jessup says. “Just standing there.”
“How’d he get so tall?” Jenny asks.
“Who is he?”
Mama doesn’t answer. Instead, she takes a few deep breaths, inflating herself. Her lips move silently, practicing whatever hell she’s going to say to the man out in the field. She walks down the porch steps, slow and deliberate. The rotting wood creaks and bends under her feet. Daddy was supposed to fix those.
“I told you to never come back,” she screams. “You leave us alone, you hear!” She walks right up to where the dirt meets the grass. “We don’t want your kind!” The man in the field does nothing except cock his head to the side. Mama stomps up a dust cloud, and pushes into the tall grass. We watch her march right up to the man by the tree until they’re both silhouettes. She comes up to his belly-button.
Jenny steps over to the uprooted knot and kicks it back to me. I kick it to Jessup. We pass the weed around until we hear Mama coming back. Grasshoppers jump out of her way—so many that it looks like the field is just upchucking them. Ever since the storm, there’s been a shitload. The winged insects flutter and smash into each other without grace. Framed by the approaching dusk, it’s easy to see how someone could love them.
“Come on, girls,” she says, grabbing me and Jenny by the hands. Jessup follows. Before Mama pulls us all into the house, a lonely melody cuts over the tall grass. The sound drills into my head, stirs up my sinuses. It’s coming from the man in the field. He’s singing.
Mama cooks a stew for dinner. We eat in silence—just the sound of our wooden spoons clicking against bowls. Jenny kicks me under the table hard enough to make me jump. I kick back, and she laughs.
“Cut it out,” Jessup says. “Whatever you’re doing.” She always gets so pissed when she feels left out. Jessup looks at Mama to back her up, but Mama’s staring over her stew, through the wall, out to the field.
“Whatcha thinking about, Mama?” I ask.
The question pulls Mama back. She looks at each one of us, her eyes wide and unrecognizing. “Nothing,” she says, finally. Mama takes a spoonful and slurps; most of the soup falls out of her mouth and dribbles back into the bowl. “What do you remember about your papa, girls?”
I start to laugh because it’s a funny question: Papa hasn’t even been dead long enough for the pieces of him to return to dirt. But then I realize that I don’t really remember anything about him. I remember nothing except the mess he left behind.
“He was the sloppiest eater. Worse than a baby,” Mama says. “He used to put the cows to shame.”
“Aw,” says Jessup. Remembering the cows opens up some fresh wound.
“Who’s the man out there, Mama?” Jenny asks. “Is he handsome?”
“You don’t worry about him,” Mama says.
Mama tips her bowl to her mouth; we follow suit. The kitchen fills with our slurping. We’re all sucking down Mama’s stew when Jessup coughs. She drops the bowl and broth splatters the floor.
“Sweetie,” Mama says, standing up. She rushes over to Jessup and uses the meat of her palm to pound on Jessup’s back.
“Is she dying?” I ask. She’s dying, I just know it.
“Shut up,” Jenny says. She sips broth while watching Mama perform her brutal Heimlich.
Jessup’s coughing becomes dry, wheezing. Her eyes swell up like the orbs are being pushed from her sockets. A vein worms its way into her temple.
“C’mon,” Mama says, swinging her palm.
A lump appears in Jessup’s throat— a growth the size of two Adam’s apples. Mama stops beating, kneels down and takes Jessup’s chin between her thumb and forefinger. She pulls Jessup’s mouth open and sticks her fingers in. Mama nearly has her whole fist in Jessup’s mouth when she gets this eureeka! look on her face. Mama pulls back slowly, and the lump snakes up Jessup’s throat as Mama extracts it. The object touches Jessup’s gag reflex and Mama’s hand gets washed in bile and stew.
Mama holds the object in her drenched hand: a grassy knot, like the ones growing out in the field, although now it looks like a drowned rodent.
Jessup spits on the floor.
“Ew,” Jenny says.
Mama holds the weed up to the light. Jessup’s spit drips from it, trailing down Mama’s arm. She squeezes the wad out like a sponge onto the floor, and walks out the front door.
“Hey, I got a present for you!” she screams into the darkness. She winds back and hucks the ball of grass toward the man in the field.
Mama walks back in, slamming the door behind her. She sits down at the table. Jessup has stopped coughing.
“I swear I don’t remember eating that,” Jessup says.
“It’s okay, darling,” Mama says. “It’s okay.” She pushes her spoon around in the dregs of her stew “I think it’s going to rain again tonight,” she says. “I smell it.”
Then, Mama puts her face in her hands and starts to cry.
It’s scary, the storm. Lightning fills our room with white light and makes the shadows jump at me. Even with my ears stuffed with pillow, the thunder sounds like a gunshot.
“Jeanie, you can come over here and sleep with me,” Jenny says. It’s a gamble because Jenny’s bed is closest to the window, closest to the terror, but we’d be together. She holds her blanket open for me, a welcoming mouth.
I wait for one more thunder crack before jumping from my bed to hers. My feet don’t even touch the floor. I land in her embrace and she wraps the blanket around me. She nestles her nose into the back of my neck. She grabs my hips, pinching the bones.
“Ow,” I say, but it also tickles and we both laugh.
“One more day,” Jenny whispers in my ears. She crawls her fingers up under my shirt and lays her palm flat against my belly. Some sort of medicine in that touch. Outside, the world’s being torn apart, but all I feel is warmth.
“What are you going to ask for?” I whisper.
“I want a man,” Jenny says. “Someone tall, and handsome.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Jessup asks from across the room. Her voice still sounds fried from that ragged thing Mama pulled out of her throat.
“Birthday stuff,” I say.
“We didn’t know you were awake,” Jenny says. She removes her hand from my stomach.
“Well, I am,” Jessup says, indignantly.
We all go quiet, and I hate that Jessup ruined our game, but I also hate that I hate Jessup for just wanting to be included. It’s not her fault that she’s not my favorite.
Outside, another lightning bolt streaks the sky; I feel the thunder in my teeth. The crickets go mad, screaming as they’re blasted out of their homes. If the cows were still around, I’m certain they’d be cooked tonight. I can’t help but smile at the thought of our field covered with barbecue, and I want to talk about it with Jenny, but I keep my voice down as to not break Jessup’s heart with dead-cow talk.
“Hey, what if the cows were all struck by lightning—”
“Shh,” Jenny whispers. “You hear that?”
I strain to listen. Below the sound of the rain, someone is screaming. Howling. It’s Mama, out in the field. Jenny and I both jump up on our knees to peek out the window. Behind us, Jessup says, “What are you two doing,” and the old springs creak as she jumps from bed to bed to bed. She wedges herself between us.
Out where the dirt meets the tall grass, Mama is on all fours with her legs splayed open. The tall man squats behind her, pushing against her pale bottom; his spidery legs bend out to his sides at impossible lengths. Mama’s nightgown is pushed up, bunched around her neck. Her hair, drenched, covers her face. Her knees dig deeper into the mud each time the tall man pushes. I try to see the tall man’s face but the weather blurs it. Mama lifts her face to the storm and howls something wild which, I swear, is the same song that that tall man sang when he first arrived in our yard. Next to me, a low timbre vibrates in Jessup’s throat, almost a whisper. It matches the pitch of the song Mama’s singing, just quieter. It’s beautiful. Jenny and I look at each other, and then we both look at Jessup’s mouth, which is bruised and chapped from whatever it was that Mama pulled out.
“Holy shit,” I say “When did you learn to sing?”
Her voice grows and grows until our room is filled with her pretty tune and I wonder when Mama’s going to pull the secret out of my throat.
Finally, when her song’s over, Jessup says, “Jeanie, don’t cuss.” She doesn’t look at me.
The blanket is soaked in the morning, a cocoon of sweat. Fibers glow a muted white from the sun touching them, and I know the storm is gone even before I emerge. I push the blanket off my face and gulp the fresh air. To my right and left, Jenny’s and Jessup’s beds are empty.
I stand on shaky legs. Nightmares and adrenaline seem to have sapped my limbs of mass. I feel lightheaded—a sensation that quickly becomes nausea. My mouth fills with saliva and I puke a tiny weed right out onto the floor.
“Jeanie, is that you? Are you all right?” It’s Mama, downstairs, making breakfast. It smells delicious. I kick the little wet, barfed thing off to the side and watch as it rolls against a baseboard.
She waits for me at the bottom of the stairs. I jump from the third-to-last stair and she catches me in a hug.
“Happy birthday,” she says.
“Where’s Jenny? Where’s Jessup?”
Mama’s forehead crumples with concern. Her eyes shine over. “How about we get some food in you, okay?” She grabs my hand and leads me into the kitchen. My foot kicks something soft and I almost fall over. I look down and see skin and pieces of hair. Sheddings. The edges are bloodless and jagged, as if a delicate shell fell to the floor and shattered.
Mama keeps pulling.
“Mama, you’re hurting me,” I say, but her grip tightens. She opens the door to the kitchen and that delicious smell ties me up.
Pieces of Jenny lie on the table. Above her, Jessup chews. But she’s new. Hard and slick and shiny like the inside of a seashell. Her antennae flick in my direction.
Jenny’s lonesome, separated head stares heavenward.
In the corner, the tall man stands with his back to us. He’s so tall that he bends his neck to fit his head in the room, like he’s listening through the ceiling. Mama leans down and wipes a tear from my face. She’s crying, too. It looks like she’s got something to say. She opens and closes her mouth several times, until finally she says, “Your daddy came back to celebrate your birthdays.”
The nausea returns, full blast. I fall to the floor, folded in half. Shivers run through my body. A steady stream of pale liquid runs from my mouth and puddles onto the floor; I see the reflection of our kitchen lights in it. The pain is white behind my eyes, but the shivers feel good, like when I look at the hunks in Jenny’s magazines. It’s like I’m looking at all the men—eating all the hunks, chewing them into little pieces. I feel bigger than my skin. Suddenly, I can sing like Jessup, and I can hear all the animals in the field.
Mama leans over me. “You’re going to be beautiful,” she says. She walks to the tall man and puts her hand against his back. She, too, faces away.
A fissure splits my arm, bloodless. My skin feels hot, trying to contain everything, but now it’s just a barrier, no longer part of me. I call out for Mama, and she ignores me. She runs her hand up the tall man’s back. “He’s not my daddy,” I say, and I sense the pain inflicted by my words. It feels good to hurt. Funny, even. There’s a strange sound when everything breaks apart. I think it’s laughter.
Ryan Bradford is the author of the novel Horror Business, as well as the founder and editor of Black Candies. He is the winner of Paper Darts’s 2015 Short Fiction Contest. His writing has appeared in Vice, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, New Dead Families and PANK. He also writes the regular column “Well, That Was Awkward”; for San Diego CityBeat.