It starts when Nora and I see the black-and-white flyer on one of Ember’s Grocery tack boards by aisle 7.
24th ANNUAL EMBER COMMERCE STREET FAIR
SATURDAY JUNE 28
FOOD CRAFT MUSIC FUN!
We turn on aisle 8 and I stiffen, rubbing the back of my neck.
“Why do you keep doing that?” Nora says. My wife looks at me, her eyes luminous and accusing.
“Do what?” I reply.
“This.” Nora stoops forward in the cold air of the grocery store and rubs the back of her neck briskly with her left hand, her arm bracelets jangling. “Always when we get to the baby aisle.”
“I’m just walking, Nora,” I say, knowing where this is heading.
I see her let several weeks of pent up frustration go as she slap both hands to the sides of her white summer dress. She studies my face and then says, “Stop pretending, Alan. It’s not just the damn grocery store anymore. It’s everything. You go all stiff and start rubbing your neck like that. It drives me crazy!”
“What are you talking about?” I say and see a grocery stock boy walk by us, eyeing us briefly to catch our little soap-opera. I stare back at his preadolescent face and he looks away, walking past the rows of stacked Huggies.
I take a patient breath. “Do you really want to do this here?”
“Why not?” she says. “Why do you think I cut through here all the time?”
I close my eyes, letting out a long tired sigh. I then look at her and try to smile a degree below patronizing.
“Nora, all I want to do is pay for our stuff and get out of here. We’re going to the street fair. Right?”
She stares at me for a moment and then says in a gritted hiss, “Just take me home.” She drops the grocery basket full of comestibles we planned on smuggling into the town fair and storms off, tucking her purse hard to her side. I watch her leave, her thin dress flowing wildly behind her.
The miscarriage was three months ago and ended Nora’s chance of ever carrying again. After her surgery, my attempts to support seemed hollow and pretentious to her, angering instead of comforting. So I left her to herself and waited for the normality of our three years together to resume. I’m still waiting.
I run after Nora, catching her near the exit. People stare when I turn her around and hug her tight. She goes rigid and then shudders. I raise her head to look at me, seeing tears fall on her pleading eyes and knowing what we both want. We want the pain to go away.
Nora smiles slightly and skirts her eyes to see our audience. She then looks at me and crunches her brows together as if in pain.
“What is it?” I say. She goes slack, dropping her purse. Her eyes become chalky stones in their sockets. I hold her tighter in my panic when I see her mouth droop open to an impossible length, her howls of pain cut short when the lower half of her face suddenly falls off and splatters to the ground. I hear my own screaming when I see the rest of her fold inward, her skin becoming diaphanous, revealing the dark meat inside. Her bones crackle and her coppery smell ripens the air. She becomes slippery in my grasp, like a giant gleaming internal organ. She squirts out of my arms and drops to the ground in a splash and I stare in horror at the bloody dress and the clump of flesh on the tile floor, a ruined mass looking nothing like Nora or anything remotely human.
I move my head up slowly, my wide eyes searching through a haze of blood-pounding shock.
Someone has to come to me.
No one does. I walk slowly in a mindless stupor. When I bump into an ice bin near the wall, I come to and see the other bodies. Bloody messes spot the grocery store like droppings from some large animal. I see the crimson-drenched garments on the floor in loose piles and I reconstruct the image of their former wearers: an overweight man in jeans, a young girl in a Hello Kitty shirt, a cashier lady in a beige Ember’s Grocery work shirt. All of them reduced to what looks like slabs of mangled butcher meat.
A car crashes through the face of the store. Brilliant shards of glass scatter. The sound of it brings me above the numbing cotton of disbelief and I start to run. The car, a pearl-like Cadillac, plows into rows of check-out counters, catapulting candy bars and magazine stands toward me. I watch the car teeter to stillness and can see through the gloom of the passenger window the writhing things that splatter dark-red into the windshield. Outside air rushes through the gaping hole in the wall the car left in its path. Several dead birds line the sidewalk leading to the parking lot.
I run around the car and head back toward the exit where Nora is. There are sounds of collision and destruction outside; a chorus of car alarms screech endlessly in the distance. I look through the automatic sliding doors, pulled instinctively to exit this place. I pause to look back down at Nora’s ruined remains. I kneel down, feeling the loss of her strike cold and hard inside my chest.
I pick up Nora and cradle her slick form into my chest, holding her like a baby. Like our baby, the child that defied us its life and struck Nora barren before it died. I whisper the song. Hush little baby…
The car alarms continue their crying outside, blocking out my toneless singing. Nora begins to stick to me, the glistening coat of blood of her gluing against my forearms and neck.
The pain is slow, a kindling heat deep in my stomach. I cough the foaming blood up from my mouth, letting it spew onto Nora.
My eyes go dark, dissolving into mucus-like tears down my cheeks. The unseen takes me. Consumes me.
One trickling afterimage.
A parting thought.
©Jack Lee Taylor 2016