EDITORS’ NOTE: As the more than 200 stories poured into our inbox for our annual Fiction Contest, my dark heart fluttered. This year’s theme — “The End” — really allowed our readers to explore and exorcise their demons. In fewer than 2,000 words, our short-story submissions covered death, violence, aging, loss and more than one zombie attack. The 10 Inlander staff judges each read through a stack of stories and selected our 25 favorites. We then read through those pieces and spitballed, argued and compromised our way to the four writers whom you’re about to read. Without further ado, we proudly present this year’s contest winners.
— Joe O’Sullivan, contest editor
With this year’s theme, it was hardly surprising when so many of the entries ended in death. It’s clear from the first few lines of this story that whomever this narrator is speaking to is going to meet this recurring fate. But what set this apart, at least for me, was the way author Erika D. Price worked through this deathbed scenario with such attention to sensory detail that it brought the reader into the hospital room without even knowing it. We don’t often walk with someone through the events that brought them to death’s proverbial door, but this story did just that. (Mike Bookey)
Right Before the Aneurysm
By Ericka D. Price
You’d just had a chiropractic readjustment and were waiting for a taxi. You were standing beneath the bridge that held the rails up, in the shade because you hated the sun. Taxis stuttered past but you didn’t reach at them. You had called a cab before the appointment and scheduled a pick-up. You left little in life to anticipation.
Before the cab came you noticed a warm trickle of blood from your left nostril. At first you tried to discretely wipe it away with your thumb, thinking it snot. Then you saw the red and dug into your bag for a tissue, finding only a hard, slick receipt.
You looked up and down the avenue and you felt a pinch in your right shoulder. Some tension had been missed, or else was squeezed too tightly in the chiropractor’s grasp. She was an old woman with a germ phobia and many crystals; she wore latex gloves when she worked on you, like a dentist. It left dusty white marks on your skin, by your tendons.
You squinted through the sun even though you stood in shade. The cars all looked small and blurry until the last second, when they flew past you, suddenly huge and in color. You always suspected you were color blind. When you unsquinted your eyes, the dim image didn’t improve, or change at all.
You smelled: your new shaving lotion, which you thought was too perfumey and musky; imitation bangers and mash from the patio of the Elephant and Castle; the oppressive burnt-hair body-odor of someone unwashed and broken down; exhaust in a wide array of fruity, smoky, stinging varieties; Dunkin Donuts; rotting meat; fecund jam like you found in the back of your grandmother’s closet when you cleaned it out after her death.
You saw a cab driver nod at you from behind his darkened window. You stepped into the street, toward the slowing vehicle. Your calves felt asleep, tingly and tense. Your left temple and left eyebrow throbbed; the throb moved down continuously into the muscles of your right hand. The tips of your digits went cold.
You were planted at the door of the cab but did not let yourself in. The tension in your shoulders and arms forced your bones up, and in, and forward, almost fetally even as you stood. Everything was slightly gray and fuzzy, turned down and out. The cab driver came impatiently around and opened your door with mock obsequiousness and you tried to stutter that no, no you didn’t need his help, you didn’t mean to insult; you tried to shake it off but you could scarcely remove your heavy, leaden foot from the ground.
It was calm. You kept asking yourself if it was real, what was happening, until even your brain could not find the words to ask. Below that, or behind it, was a calm, confused animal feeling that presaged the question. And you felt but didn’t see yourself buckle and be grabbed, lifted, and you knew what was happening but wondered dully if this was truly it. And with the gift of higher-order awareness, you might have reflected that animals did have consciousness of a sort, and could comprehend death in a way.
But instead you put your deepest, oldest feelers up, the ones that functioned and collected even in thought’s absence. You felt: cool, wet pavement; warm hands; gloved hands; silky pants-legs; cool, clammy hands; latex-covered fists; thickly mittened hands; soft, padded cotton; thin metal; needles; plastic and elastic like clamps on your face and your limbs; and the sun, the sun out from underneath the train tracks, it’s warmth making your unseeing eyes squint and your upper lip tingle and squirm like a caterpillar about your face.
Thoughts receded and then seeped back in. No one could talk to you. Perhaps you remembered a hypothetical you’d shared on the dusty floor of a college dormitory 15 years prior: what if you lost all control of your body? You looked incredulous, we remember, when you heard the rest of us say pull the plug, plunge the chemicals in, kill us, smother us, let us not live as human plants or reptiles.
You dissented. Books on tape, you said. Radio plays. Prairie Home Companion. Diane Rehm. You said you’d blink out the punctuation of your memoir. As long as there is a passage to the outside world, you said, keep me alive.
Will we have to rub you with washcloths and plastic beads to keep your brain stem interested? Will you hear us humming beside your bed? Will you feel us tug your hair in Morse code, telling you our stories? Will you remember words and syntax from the other side? Will we ever know that, when you blinked out, this was still what you wanted, that you still wanted to survive?
About the Author
Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist living in Chicago, Ill. Her work has been published in the literary magazines decomP, Smashed Cat, Red Fez and Efiction Horror, and she has authored a short novella published by Thunderune Publishing. In her spare time she makes felt animals, eats dried fruit and wanders Chicago’s lakeshore. Her fiction can be found at processproduct.tumblr.com.