Short Fiction Contest • Second Place
If you are reading this, we’ve been shot.
I know how disappointing it must be to find out we were mortal. The crucial thing to remember is that you don’t have to be. Always wear the aluminum foil.
Always apply the Clinique 24-Hour Cream.Swear you’ll keep the old ways and stay strong. Have faith in Chuck and Chuck will provide.
The letter bore his father’s signature and a wobbly X, his mother’s mark. “Whatever, asswipe,” Edward said to the letter before ripping it into shreds and spitting on the scraps. He did not believe in Chuck, whom he had never personally seen and whose prophecies brought nothing but sorrow. He was tired of and crippled from doing everything Chuck promised his father would lead to eternal life. The five stages of grief passed quickly and by midafternoon on the day of his parents’ death Edward had arrived not only at acceptance but at exhilaration.
Too late for his mouth: permanent canker sores from salt and vinegar. Too late for his forehead muscles: Botox injections. And forget about his genitalia: infant-sized, like a Chinese noblewoman’s bound and broken feet, from tight encasement in aluminum foil.
But his eyes were OK, and his eyes were ready to party. They wanted to cut loose and had a hankering for the only alpha hypnotic brain waves Chuck expressly disallowed—public television. Because it was full of the most decrepit of old but not immortal people, British old people, Edward’s father had prophesied public television to be a very bad influence. Edward couldn’t wait to try it.
Edward ran downstairs to his new television and his new Mommy and Daddy, who had promised a big dinner to celebrate their first meal together. On the table he found none of the Chuck-verboten preservative-free foods he’d dreamt of, no organic vegetables or steam-distilled bottled water. Instead, on fine china and crystal, were artfully arranged dill pickles, chick-shaped Marshmallow Peeps, pickled beets, Twinkies, kimchi, Ho-Hos, red wine, and thousand-year-old eggs. He recognized with horror the ritual meal of the Feast of the Epiphany, a commemoration of the vision in which Chuck revealed to Edward’s father the most sacred formula: to live forever one must eat foods that last forever.
New Mommy and new Daddy waited expectantly for Edward.
“The lady from social services told us about your dietary restrictions,” new Mommy said.
“How’d we do? We want mi casa to be su casa,” said new Daddy.
Despite the trouble she’d gone to, Mommy was not upset when Edward wouldn’t eat. She came over to kneel before him and said, “Honey, your parents got shot because they were squatting on federal nuclear waste lands and firing at the FBI, not because of their religion. Don’t you ever forget that.”
They put Edward to bed early swathed, as Chuck had commanded, in bubble wrap to seal in the essential life juices. (The 21st commandment was that Edward shalt not deplete the chi life essence through random acts of kindness, senseless acts of beauty, or through sweating or, when the time comes, ejaculation.)
“You’re just a little tired and cranky,” new Mommy said. “How about you get some sleep, and tomorrow morning we’ll give you a Diet Pepsi bath and take you to visit your landfill. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” She sat next to the bed and stroked his hair soothingly for so long he felt bad and pretended to fall asleep so she could leave.
Above his bed they’d hung framed icons of the Anointed Ones: Elizabeth Taylor, Pope John Paul II, and Joan Rivers. His foster parents knew too much. Edward feared that the social worker who pulled him from the compound’s wreckage after the firefight had unearthed the Book of Chuck, the tentatively titled compilation of commandments his father had transcribed. The Anointed Ones were aging, certainly, but they had come the closest to eternal life of any human thus far. Until him, Edward the Immortal, who would surpass them all. At least that’s what Chuck had proclaimed. Dumb fake Chuck.
“The Pope doesn’t have to look so old,” Edward’s box spring said, “but he continues to defy me by refusing cosmetic enhancement.”
“Geez, it’s just me,” the voice said. “Me Chuck.”
Chuck rolled out from under the bed and dusted himself off. He looked nothing like an angel, more like an everyday half-human, half-prototypical bedroom monster. He lacked wings but did have features that distinguished him from an ordinary man, including extreme pallor, cat-pointy eyes, a strangely stretched face, bee-stung lips. A nose with no bridge that was little more than a tiny bump above the bow of the mouth. Cheekbones like lumpy sacks of kumquats under the drum-leather of his skin. His sequined military jacket bore fringed epaulets and ended above too-tight white tights that disappeared into red knee-boots. His shoulder-length black hair looked like a wig.
Edward wanted to pull the covers up tight over his head, but the bubble wrap sealed his arms to his sides. He settled for thrashing violently back and forth on the mattress.
“Not only did John decline surgery, but stem-cell research, too. Might have helped him. It’s a pity, I thought he was going all the way. And the ladies aren’t looking so hot these days, even with my devoted assistance, have you noticed? Now you’re all I got.”
Plastic bubbles popped as Chuck grabbed Edward, forcing him into stillness.
“Am I dreaming?” Edward asked.
“Is your mom dreaming?” Chuck replied. “Sorry, that was a bad joke,” he followed quickly. “It doesn’t even make sense, because you’re not dead!” He guffawed.
“Go away!” Edward tried.
“Listen, I don’t like this any more than you do,” Chuck said. “Kids and me? Not exactly a winning combination. But now my messenger’s been shot and I have to go direct. I got places to be, so here it is for today. Your old man would have liked this one.”
He sucked the breath up into his chest, puffing himself out, and adopted a deeper, more prophetic tone. “All that is old must one day become new. And then become old again. Seven years, seven times seven, the chicle sleeps in the belly of the boy. When the gum tree bears fruit, the righteous will flourish.” He raised an eyebrow meaningfully and said, “Think about it.” Then he checked his pocket watch. “Cool. Later.” Chuck dropped down to his knees and lifted up the bed skirt, then paused and turned back to face Edward.
“Hey kid, it’s a shame about your dad. You know that he did it all for you, right? All he wanted was what any good parent wants for their child, a happy life near the sustaining energy of the radioactive waste repository.”
With that, Chuck disappeared little by little under the bed until only one red boot remained, then nothing at all.
Edward found Chuck’s prophecies oblique and difficult to understand without the mediating translation of his father. Despite his apparent reality, Edward still did not want to trust Chuck. For one thing, Chuck had always been on his dad’s side. The fitness fight, for example. Edward’s mother had thought yoga and t’ai chi would be good ways to keep the body nimble and the joints lubricated. But Dad had said absolutely not, and the next day, in a vision, Chuck seconded him. Exercise depletes the life juice of muscles, Chuck said. Chuck said they all needed Jazzy motorized chairs, and Chuck won. There could be no theological gray areas with Chuck ready to settle the score. In the Jazzy period Edward’s legs had atrophied somewhat from disuse. They supported his body now, but barely. Afloat on a sea of memory, Edward drifted off to sleep with only the garish grins of the Anointed Ones to keep watch over his dreams.
The next morning, besieged with stomach cramps, Edward locked himself in the bathroom, shitting sticky pink and blue. He ran the faucet, hoping to shield his shiny new parents from the grotesque sputtering of his bowels. He knew immediately what was happening: the chewing gum his father had force-fed him from infancy was finally working its way out. (Fortifies the bowels, Chuck had said.) He marveled at its resistance to digestion, the way it could travel through miles of intestines and come out the other side, unchanged. Maybe its life was just beginning. Chicle, Edward remembered from all the bilingual packaging, was Spanish for gum. Chuck had predicted this.
At the landfill, new Mommy and Daddy made Edward perform the service, even though that hadn’t been his job. Father had always done it.
They seemed eager. “It’s OK,” they urged him on. “We’re very open-minded.”
They would probably convert if he asked them to, Edward realized, they would probably do anything for him, a crippled orphan sustained by extraordinary faith. It made him feel sad that they felt sorry for him. He didn’t have extraordinary faith, but he did have a growing desire to do for new Mommy anything she wanted.
He climbed to the top of the heap of garbage that hadn’t been buried yet, and stood, teetering on a pyramid of old televisions and computer monitors, surveying the waste below.
From a square bottle he sprinkled mauve drops of the ceremonial Clinique Age-Defying 24-Hour Cream on the rotten compost and rusted junk, the sweet scent of the lotion almost penetrating the stench.
He reached down and sank his hands into the mound beneath his pulpit, sifting the detritus with his fingers, separating the wheat of plastic, space-age polymer from the chaff of carbon-based decaying fruit and coffee grinds. He selected a simple plastic spoon and baby’s rattle from the mess and held them up to the heavens like lightning rods to conduct Chuck’s message.
Chuck would provide, he told them from his pulpit, suddenly using a vocabulary that was not his own. Channeling Chuck like his father had before him. He began the opening recitation, invoking the spirits of permanence: the pyramids at Giza, bread abandoned on the kitchen tables of Chernobyl, lead X-ray aprons of dentists, self-doubt, the lava in the lamp.
Renounce your modern construction methods, Edward boomed. Your flimsy walls, your mold-inducing burst pipes. Renounce all love relationships apart from the maternal bond, give up sexual attraction, your tenuous earthly connections, your fragile-boned bodies.
New Mommy’s eyes were closed and she smiled slightly, moving her mouth in concert with the refrain of Edward’s sermon.
Chuck and I have everything you’ll ever need, Edward preached to her. Have faith in Chuck and Chuck will provide.
And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest
An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
What Was Janie Looking At? (12/2/2009)
Little Eggs, Little Bacon (6/27/2001)
Fiction - First Place
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201