by Victoria Griffin
Her Goose is Cooked
We fucked like beasts. Like creatures. Like brutes.
He knotted my hair around his fist and pushed me against the wall. I let him. My leg knocked against the old table, sending a cobweb-covered picture frame skittering across the hardwood floor. Rain leaked inside through windows broken by stones and baseballs hurled by generations of neighbor kids.
This house had been empty since 1972. Lord knows the last time it had seen sex like this. Raw like fresh kill stripped of its hide. He peeled my shirt away, and I pressed my body into his like a snake following the contours of the ground. He breathed heavy on my neck, his scent mixing with my sweat and waking my senses, making my flesh shiver.
I ripped his shirt away and bent to kiss the lines of his stomach.
He undid his jeans and fucked me, ripping my panties and covering my mouth so that my cries fell dead and useless beside the broken picture frame.
When he was done, he covered himself and left. I lay on the old oak floor, staring up at the dusty ceiling, scales and fur and claws spinning somewhere in my peripheral. Blood leaked onto the wood, hot and sticky beneath my bare buttocks. My side was torn open like a stray dog had smelled meat on me.
I thought I heard a howl.
I’d only met him a few hours before. It was hot. Kids dropped eggs on the sidewalk and watched them sizzle. Teenagers flocked to the pool in droves, stringy bathing suits tucked inside massive pool bags.
I was wearing dark aviators and cut off jeans, my nearly white hair tucked inside a Budweiser ball cap. I decided to skip work today—one of the many advantages to running my own business. Some days I was sick. Some days I was hung-over. Some days it was just too goddamn hot. People could wait until tomorrow to buy their vitamins and protein shakes.
I held my palm up against the sun, casting a shadow over my face as I dropped my blanket beneath a shade tree, looking out over the lake, and I left one ear bud drooped across my chest so I could hear the sound of the salty water rocking in its hole. It sounded sweet. This damn drought had me on edge.
I had been sitting there almost an hour before I realized I’d left my phone in the car. My first response was to leave it—it felt good to look out at the water and the trees and even the little pukes playing Marco Polo in the swimming area without wondering if I had a voicemail or a text or a notification. But then I wondered if Dad had called, and I wrapped my headphones around my mp3 player, folded my blanket, and went to the car. All remnants of my brief serenity passed through me as though I were vapor.
No missed calls. I put the car in drive and headed for the hospital, anyway. Traffic was good—nobody felt like being out in this heat—and I pulled into the parking lot in less than twenty minutes.
I passed silently by the receptionist and tried to make myself small as I navigated the hospital halls. I felt like I should take my ball cap off, out of respect. But then I wouldn’t be able to drop my head and let the bill cover my eyes. Sometimes I see a goose’s face and think it’s upside down. What’s the point of a bill if you can’t hide your eyes?
The white hallways—too clean, too orderly, too predictable—made me feel like a crab toting my shell on my back. It protected me, yes, but carrying the weight left me vulnerable. Catch 22.
Catch me if you can.
Duck, duck, duck, duck…
That’s what happened, I think. To Mom. God tapped everyone on the head and said, “Healthy, healthy, healthy, cancer!”
Dad was sitting in the hallway with his hands folded in his lap. His back and neck were arched like a drooping willow.
“Dad?” He didn’t respond. I moved closer. “Dad? What’s wrong?”
When he raised his eyes to mine, it was like looking at a fish in a bowl—big eyes blurred by water. He spoke with the voice of a man much older than he.
“She needs to go.”
I squatted beside him. “Go where?”
“She needs to go.”
His eyes burrowed into mine, scraping along the walls of my irises until I caught his meaning.
“Dad, you’re just tired. I know it’s hard, but—”
“She’s hurting. She’s hurting bad.”
He half nodded, half shook his head. “She’s about used all the fight in her.”
“Don’t say that.”
I stood up and turned away, put my hands behind my neck. She’s hurting. The words resounded through my body, beginning in my skull and echoing within my stomach, ricocheting off the inner walls of my thighs, and settling in the soles of my feet, weighing them down. I felt rooted to my place in the hallway. Doctors scuttled around me like I were a rock in a stream.
When I finally turned, Dad was hunched again, resting his elbows on his knees. I walked past him into Mom’s room, wordlessly.
She was asleep. Tubes sprouted from her body, tying into machines like an intricate root system. The glint of metal was cold and hard against her rotting skin, pale and thin like parchment paper. I dropped my purse in the chair and stood beside her bed.
She could have been dead except for the heart monitor’s heavy voice. I remembered the way she looked when I was little—thick, dark hair, eyes wide like a kid who’d eaten too much sugar, hands slender and strong from gardening and mountain hikes. Now she looked like the skins chickadees leave latched to the trunks of trees. Her hairless face and bone-thin arms churned my stomach. I turned away.
She was gasping for air. The heart monitor began to shriek. My mom’s mouth was gaping, her throat begging for oxygen. Her fingers uncoiled, every limb stretching, reaching, grasping for something to cling to. Grasping for life.
A nurse rushed in, and I rushed out. I didn’t look at my dad as I went, but I could guess he saw my sandals beating a quick rhythm against the tile and knew that he was right.
The hot air latched onto me as I opened the door. The sun wrapped its rays around my skin and grew thorns, digging into my tender flesh. The air was thick and heavy, and I forced it down my throat.
As I slid into the car, I felt like a raw piece of fish being put in the oven—set to broil. The steering wheel burned my hands, but I turned up the air conditioning and let the road take me to the closest bar.
I didn’t feel any better when I pulled into the parking lot. I felt worse when my ass plopped onto the barstool. But as soon as that first shot worked into my bloodstream, I began to feel better. At the very least, I began to feel less. Three shots of Jack, a margarita, and six Buds later the image of my mom lying sick and rotten in that hospital bed was almost blurry enough to ignore. I had one more beer before hopping down from the barstool.
My knees buckled, and my head knocked against the floor.
“Ah, shit, girl. You okay?”
The bartender peered over at me as I struggled to stand, like a spider on roller-skates.
“I’m fine! I’m fie-ee-ine. I. am. Oh-kee-doke.”
“Why don’t we just get you up now?” Another voice. It was attached to a man’s hands pulling me up by my armpits. I tried to tell him not to bother with me, but the words got caught in my saliva, and then we were out the door, and I was in his car, and it was too late to say anything.
I felt like something was raking at my mind (the car began to move), turning over old dirt to reveal fresh soil (he asked where I live), hacking away at the sunken parts of my brain that no longer worked, no longer served any purpose.
Shit, I was drunk.
He said something. Duck, duck, duck…
His words were quick and slimy in my ears. I didn’t catch them. I sat quietly in the passenger seat trying to keep all my limbs where they belonged—my arms in my shoulder sockets, my head on my neck, my stomach in the tight, churning feeling. That’s where it went.
There was a horse. A fucking horse—why did I remember that? It was a mare, beautiful, chestnut, sweet as the pancakes Mom fried up on Sunday mornings. She belonged to my uncle—the mare—he rode her in the evenings, wouldn’t let anyone near her, loved that damn horse. My aunt was jealous.
Eventually the mare got old. Laminitis and abscesses in her hooves, arthritis, DSLD. My uncle had to stop riding her. The pain made her aggressive. She wasn’t herself. She was hurting.
It broke his heart to put her down. But he did it.
My aunt cried when they buried her.
“This can’t be right.”
The car had stopped. The man was looking at me, one hand on the wheel, one hand scratching his head—both his heads. I swayed side to side in the passenger seat before steadying myself.
“Are you sure this is where you live?”
I followed his gaze out the window and saw the abandoned house that sat at the end of my road. The image was hazed by alcohol and rain (it was raining!). I nodded and stepped out of the car, stumbling onto the sidewalk, cold droplets soaking my clothes. He came after me and put an arm around my waist. I started down the sidewalk, toward my house a quarter mile away, but he must have misunderstood because he ushered me into the old house. I tried to point him in the right direction, tried to get out the words, but they hadn’t even made it to my throat yet—they were stuck in my esophagus, drowned by the heavenly liquid falling in beads.
When he opened the door and led me inside, he must have realized his mistake. The place was buried beneath inches of dust, and spiders and roaches crawled over cracked and rotting wood. He must have wrapped his arm around me to point me back toward the door, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was the wrenching pain in my gut and the strong arm encircling me.
I flopped my forearms over his shoulders and pulled myself to him, kissing him hard and wet and sucking the summer sweat from his lips. In an instant he had pushed me against the wall. I felt his body on mine, felt his stomach rising and falling against my chest as he breathed. I tore off his shirt and went to kiss his abs.
Green scales covered his stomach. They were sharp like armor and drenched in an oozing slime. I screamed. When he dropped his pants, I saw his thighs were coated with coarse fur, and his prick was big and gray—and hard.
After he’d closed the door behind him, as I lay bleeding on the hardwood, I didn’t think of my mom or my dad. I thought about that goddamn horse.
I thought I was imagining it when I heard the door open and footsteps rattle the floor beneath my head.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sharp claw, long and black. The point rested for a moment on my temple before piercing my skull.
Even the beast knew I was hurting.
previously published in The Lyricist
As animated mice and ducks bounced along the television screen, Sarah felt herself sinking into the couch. She would get lost between the cushions like a dime slipping out of a jean pocket. Maybe someone would flip the cushions in a few years and come across her body. Her golden hair will have turned gray and died, her fair skin will have taken on a deathly translucence, and the glimmer of her soul will have been lost from her green eyes.
Sarah gasped and felt as air poured into her lungs. She checked the couch beneath her, the walls around her, the two boys lying in the floor, and the girl asleep on her daddy’s lap as he lay sprawled out in his armchair. Sarah had been the one to decorate this room, when she and her husband, Bryan, bought the house five years ago. She picked out the wall color, daydream blue, and speckled them with white picture frames. When she looked at the walls, she could almost pretend she was looking at the sky, and she could be anywhere in the world. Anywhere but here.
“Mom, I’m hungry.”
“You just ate,” Sarah said to her son without turning her head. Her twin boys were all stomach. Sometimes they seemed more like pets, begging for their next meal. The girl, Mary—she was all heart. She was only six, but her spirit was already shining through her eyes. Sarah was afraid for her. The brighter the light, the darker the world seems when the light’s finally snuffed out.
She had been married three years when Sarah got pregnant with twins. Her friends told her how incredible it would be, holding her babies in her arms for the first time. They said there was nothing like it. They said she would be in love before she had time to think about it. When after six hours of labor, the doctor handed her a pair of blue bundles, all Sarah saw were shackles. Those babies chained her to this place, to this house, to this man. She was trapped.
Sarah was eighteen when Bryan proposed. They were sitting in the bed of his truck, parked on a dirt road that no one used anymore. It was the day before graduation, and the sheltered life they’d been leading, tucked away in the high school’s cinderblock walls, was about to end.
They were talking about graduation—what the speeches would be like, who would trip up the stairs, who would get kicked out—when Bryan leaned over and kissed her.
“I love you, Sarah.”
“I love you, too.”
That was a lie. When he asked her out for the first time, Sarah said yes because she had nothing better to do. She stayed with him for a year and a half for the same reason. She needed some distraction from the boredom, the repetition.
He dropped to his knee and reached into his pocket. Sarah’s eyes widened, and her lips formed the word “no.” She had been planning to work until she had the money for a plane ticket, maybe teach English overseas, get out of this backwoods town. But Bryan was down on one knee.
“Sarah, will you marry me?”
And it just seemed a lot easier.
Now Bryan was the breadwinner and the father of her children. She had a comfortable two-bedroom house in that same backwoods town, and she never had to worry about anything. This was definitely easier.
“Mom, can I have some ice cream?”
“Yeah, ice cream!” Both boys were perked up like meerkats on the floor.
Sarah checked the time on her phone. “It’s too late for ice cream.”
“Ah, come on.” Bryan’s voice emerged to the twin’s delight. “Let them have some ice cream. It won’t hurt anything.”
Sarah sighed and got to her feet. As she made her way into the kitchen, she heard her husband call, “Bring me a bowl, too!”
The cold air sought her warm skin as Sarah pulled strawberry ice cream from the freezer. The carton was covered with a thin layer of ice, and it slipped from her hand as she tried to sit it down, landing with a clunk on the white countertop. She tried to scoop it into a bowl, but the ice cream was frozen solid, so she ran some water into the sink and filled it with suds. She could do the dishes from dinner while the ice cream thawed.
The sponge was coarse in her hand, and as she scrubbed the pan, remnants of tonight’s lasagna dirtied the water. Sarah looked at the window above the sink, the windowsill littered with baby pictures. The glass was divided into four squares, black and opaque—little viewing holes. People could see in, but she couldn’t see out. That was alright, she supposed. Why should a mouse look outside its cage?
She put the clean pan on the drying rack and carefully reached into the foggy water, retrieving the cook knife she had used to cut the lasagna. It was stainless steel with a wooden handle that absorbed the water from the sink. She wiped away the sauce and cheese and scrubbed it until it reflected the light. As she held it over the water, the handle resting against her palm, the tip of the blade pinched between the thumb and forefinger of her other hand, she rotated it back and forth, watching the light skip over its surface.
Then she held it still. Reflected in the the knife’s smooth finish was a woman’s green eye. It was rotten, like bread that had been left out to mold. It was dull and dead. It could have belonged to a corpse.
She braced herself against the edge of the sink, her breathing suddenly strained. Her high school senior picture sat beside photos of her children on the windowsill. Sarah stared at it, trying to remember who she was then. Her green eyes were luminous, even in the photo. Maybe she hadn’t had plans, but she’d had dreams. She was going to see the world. Every night she fell asleep to visions of oceans and airplanes and foreign faces. Now the only foreign faces she saw were Mexicans at the grocery store.
When she was lying in bed at night, all that played through her mind were scenes from her past, decisions she’d made that were still haunting her. She remembered a conversation with Bryan, a year after they had been married, before she got pregnant with the twins. They were having dinner. They were living in a trailer at the time, and Bryan had just gotten back from work at the paper plant. It would be another few years before he’d get laid off and find his current job, sitting in an office selling auto parts.
“Bryan, I think I want to go to work.”
He put his fork down and laced his hands under his chin. “Why?”
“I just need to do something. I’m in this trailer all day long, and I’m getting stir crazy.”
“Why don’t you call some of your girlfriends?”
Her head fell to the side. “You know that’s not what I mean.”
Bryan picked up his fork and continued eating. With a mouth full of green beans, “Well, you don’t need to work.”
“But I want to.”
“You’re not going to.”
Bryan gave her a long, sharp look. Then he shoved a bite of pork chop in his mouth, and the conversation was over.
A tear dropped from Sarah’s chin into the dirty water. The knife was pressed between her palm and the edge of the sink. She didn’t know why she was crying. Every decision that brought her here had been her own. Every step had been made with her own feet. She could have said no when Bryan said, “Marry me.” She could have said no when he said, “Let’s try for a baby.” She could have left him when he said, “You don’t need to work.” But she didn’t. It was just easier to say yes.
She had stumbled so far down this path, she wasn’t even sure who she was anymore. That girl in the photo above the sink was nothing more than a ghost haunting the halls of her mind, moaning and whispering about dreams long gone. Sarah looked down at the knife in her hand, the blade shimmering like her eyes used to. It was sharp and smooth. She laid the edge softly against her wrist, soft and white, and pressed until it broke through the skin. Blood leaked from the cut and trickled down her forearm. She moved the blade a half-inch toward her palm and sliced, this time deeper. Blood dripped into the dishwater, stagnant in the porcelain sink.
Sarah felt the sting of cool air on the fresh wound, and she thought that this was the most she had felt in a long time. She felt her lungs drawing in quick breaths. She felt the flesh covering her body. Staring at the blackened window, she remembered a moment long ago, something she had almost forgotten.
Sarah was fourteen. Her mother was on the front porch smoking, her one vice. She was a good housewife who cooked and cleaned and took care of Sarah. She went to church on Sundays and said a prayer every night. She prayed for peace and for her family’s happiness, and she never asked for anything for herself. Sarah never respected her mother, not as a person. How could someone live like that? How could someone bear going to the grave with nothing to show for her life but a clean house and a yard full of kids?
Sarah made her way through the house. She pushed open the screen door and felt the welcome mat under her bare toes. Her mom was sitting on the porch swing, her hair wet from her bath, wearing pajamas and a cotton robe with one sleeve rolled up. Smoke surrounded her like a halo of smog, and she scrambled to toss away her cigarette and hide her forearm when she heard the screen door open, but Sarah had already seen the dark red marks. They lined her mother’s skin like potholes on a country road, each one a reminder of her pain.
They never talked about it, but after that Sarah saw her mother differently. She wasn’t sure if she respected her more or less, but she thought that she would rather die than end up trapped, burning herself on a porch swing.
The knife fell into the red dishwater. Sarah ran through the house, past the ice cream melting in the carton on the counter. She skidded into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. The polished mirror revealed her frenzied expression. She turned the faucet and tried to wash the blood from her skin, but the moment she removed her hand from the stream of water, it was again overtaken by red.
Breathe. She felt the air rush into her lungs and slowly exhaled. Just calm down.
“Sarah, are you okay?” Bryan called from the living room.
“I’m fine, just feeling a little sick.”
She stepped quietly to the door and turned the lock.
“Do you need anything?”
“No, really, I’m okay.”
I’m okay. I’m okay. The words echoed in her ears, the lies. Sarah plugged the drain in the bathtub and turned the knob, sighing as warm water flooded the tub. She just needed to relax. By the time she stripped away her clothes and mixed a cap of bath salts into the water, the tub was nearly full. The water was warm on her feet and ankles, then her hips and spine, her shoulders. It took a moment for her skin to get accustomed to the warmth, but once it did she felt her body begin to relax and let her mind drift, ignoring the red spreading like ink through the water.
When Sarah found out she was pregnant with her third child, all she wanted was a girl—a beautiful little girl with soft golden ringlets she could pin up with bows. But when the doctor handed her little Mary, she wished it had been a boy. What was there for this girl but to have dreams as big as the sky? To hope and pray and watch her life play out a million times in her fantasies, only to watch reality sulk along before her, demolishing any dreams that she once held. Mary would grow up being told she could do anything she wanted, so long as she believed. But in the end, there are decisions to be made. The road less travelled is a difficult choice to make when there are warm meals and warm baths waiting for you in the other direction. You say you’ll get there someday. Maybe you’ll wander back and take that road you passed. But way leads onto way, and sooner or later you wake up and look in the mirror, and the face you see is strange to you. You become someone else entirely, something else, and the person you once were drifts so far into the distance that you can’t even remember what she looked like.
Sarah ducked her head beneath the water.
Holding her breath, she looked through the wall of water, the light on the ceiling like a glowing sun in the corner of her field of vision. What if she just stayed here, under the water? Who would miss her? Bryan would find another wife within the year. She was nothing but a chef and chauffeur to her kids. She had no friends anymore, since she spent her days locked in this house. Her dad was dead and her mom was living out the rest of her life in a nursing home that Sarah never visited.
She had let herself slip away, and she didn’t know how to get back to who she used to be—not with the chains of this life latched about her wrists. Bryan would never allow her to become the person she wanted to be, and what could she do, leave him? No friends, no family, no job, no experience, nowhere to live. She would starve before the first week was up. Bryan was no longer her husband. He was her keeper, and she needed him—she hated being dependent like a child.
She didn’t have to be dependent on anyone. Sarah parted her lips and let the water rush in. She inhaled and felt it burn its way into her lungs.
It just seemed easier.
Her throat was on fire, and she felt a pressure like an anvil resting on her chest. She pressed her shoulders against the bottom of the tub to keep her head underwater, and she felt her throat closing itself off. The weight on her chest grew heavier, and she gasped for air. Her body begged for it, but she gave it nothing but water.
Burning. Her whole body was burning like she was on fire, and a weight heavier than all her past regrets was driving into her chest.
A tranquil kind of peace passed over her. There was a silence like she had never experienced, and she was calm and still. Death nestled close to her body, whispering pleasantries into her ear, preparing to bring her home.
Sarah pulled her head out of the water. She sat up straight and coughed and hacked the liquid from her lungs, drinking in the air and clutching her chest. She looked around at the bathroom, her eyes stinging. She was alive. That was either the strongest decision she had ever made or the weakest. Sarah just hoped she didn’t regret it.
She pulled herself out of the tub, the water pink from the cuts on her wrist, and sat on the edge, wrapped in a towel. She sighed at the realization that she felt no better now than she did this morning. Her eyes were barely visible in the mirror across from her. They were still rotten.
Sarah put her hands on her knees and pushed herself up, then took a step toward the door, following her daughter’s voice. She screamed when her bare foot slipped in a puddle of water, but when her head struck the edge of the tub she was silent.
Bryan kicked the door down as his sons screamed. He found his wife’s naked body on the floor, a towel strewn beneath her, blood seeping through the clear water like poison. He saw the cuts on her wrists and the blood in the sink, and later he would find the knife soaking in red dishwater.
Mary saw it all, too, as she peeped around her father’s figure in the doorway. Mary saw even what her father did not, and when she was older she swore she would never end up like her mother.
She would rather die.
Victoria is an East Tennessee native, currently studying English and playing softball at Campbell University. Her short fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Octavo Unbound, Synaesthesia Magazine, and FLARE: The Flagler Review, among others. Find her at victoriagriffinfiction.com.