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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
With David Wu next to me on a barstool, my mind turns to froth. I know him from town. His family makes up the entire Asian population in Daphne, Alabama. His Western name doesn’t fit the epicanthic eyes or the rustled accent that swallows the end of his sentences. He obsesses over Algeophysics, a subject he developed himself, a blur between math and science. When I hear people say genius, I know they don’t mean to compliment him.
David orders a root beer float. Sweet tooth, I think, and smile to myself. Numerals inch over his arms in ink. He writes atop older scribbling until Pi cannot be deciphered from Pythagorean’s theorem. Next to him, I continue to insert needles in the chest of my voodoo doll.
“Do not stick the pins in too far or you might harm the recipient,” I say.
“Excuse me?” Says David.
“Pin it in the chest. Pin it in the stomach. Pin the head, but not too hard. “
He wipes his lips with a napkin.
“What is all of that?” I ask as I ball my hands so he can’t see the webbing linking my fingers. “Homework?”
“Trying to construct a vaccine,” he says into his napkin.
“A vaccine? “
“Or more like a cure,” he says. “They’re everywhere.”
Jo comes with my check, and I reach for the bill. Tough scaled skin spreads between my thumb and pointer. David’s eyes follow the path, but he does not utter any aquatic asides. Nor does he stare with amusement at the defect that’s disbarred me from swim tryouts.
“Want to see something?” David asks.
Gulps of silence pendulum between us. David takes me along the banks of the Black Warrior River, over the blacktop behind school, and across the dilapidated railroad tracks. The voodoo doll sticks out of my back pocket. A thought slips between my ears about the needles and the possibility of depositing unwanted magic into my bloodstream. A gnat lands on David’s neck. He squashes it against his tendon. A pin of blood appears on site.
He shows me the bush. We check behind our shoulders and climb across the swollen, arthritic roots that cordon the area. The gate of undergrowth closes behind us. The bush’s mouth opens to a raw, strep-inflamed passage.
“Where does it lead?” I ask. “The McDonalds?” It’s the only thing I can think of anywhere near here.
“Not the McDonald’s,” he says. “You go first. Your hands are perfect for digging.”
My fingers dive for my pockets at the sound of their invocation. Fear melts through my throat like ice. We begin the crawl. Muck globs onto my knee scabs. I paw at the dense arboreal matter with my webbing. Brown paste squishes between my fingers. Spores of mildew and yeast clog my nose. Something fungal crinkles under knee.
We climb through a halo of black moss, and I am glad to be out of the ground’s soft innards. My eyes dilate under the white pressure of relief. The new space careens bright and blue in all directions.
“The sky,” says David, pointing up. “Goes right through us.”
Our shadows, I realize, didn’t follow us. They sit huddled together at the door of the bush in crumbled piles of velvet, waiting. Rays bleach the ink from David’s face until his equations recede completely. The light fills us.
David takes me to a kumquat tree and knives off a sticky octagon of fruit.
“It’s not even hot,” I say.
We stuff triangles of citrus down our gullets and take turns running through the fields of elephant grass.
The change comes slow at first, as a throb behind my temples. Then vision floaters, dots of non-color, scatter over everything. I can’t blink them away. David coughs and a cramped smell curdles out. Fruit pulp drifts in from the east and sticks to my lashes. Instead of drenching me in vanilla, the wind tastes yellow, and the breeze looks as sour as my insides feel.
“What is happening?” I ask.
“The same that always does,” he says. His cough is sandpaper filed against my left ventricle. “I always leave when it starts, but you’ll stay with me. We won’t do it alone.”
“It?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.
We lean toward the glass of the pond until our noses touch the cool water. The cold does not bring relief, only the memory of sweat and the feeling of fevers.
“Our bodies,” he says. “Can’t handle so much light.”
I grab his hand. He strokes the webbing in between my fingers. We burp. Callouses the size of peach pits form under our eyes. We crawl on our stomachs toward a tree and lay in a fiery patch of chaffed grass. David’s skin is the dark purple of uncooked chicken. A whistle attaches itself to my breath. A vein of blood creeps from behind the drum of his ear and breaks toward his collarbone.
“I’ve never wanted to see a storm cloud so bad,” I say.
Limes lay around us like comets flung from orbit. I look at him. We lay like that, touching eyes, for whole hours until I realize it’s time. I can’t cook any longer. I pull my torso over crusts of uneven dirt and belly through an anthill. The insects march in lines along my sternum and stick marks into my skin. At the mouth of the bush, I see my shadow and a fever of relief floods my stomach. David tugs on my belt loops, but I keep crawling toward my shadow, hoping he will follow.
Mosquitos shift in the breeze like dandruff. It’s how I know I’m home. Shade swarms my shoulders and my face finds the cool of it. I take my doll, which fell to the muck at the bush entrance and insert needles in its fingers. Nothing happens. David coughs on the other side. I walk away until I can’t hear him anymore.
Genevieve Hudson is second year in Portland State’s MFA program. Her stories have appeared in Word Riot and NANO Fiction. She is at work on her first novel.