A Long Metal Sigh
by Jeremy C. Shipp
It’s Jordon’s turn to feed Aunt Laura while she strokes his face with the furry nubs at the end of her arms, but he’s dead. And not the kind of dead that keeps you guessing. No, “Is he chatting up Benjamin Franklin in a golden café in the sky?” No, “Will he visit me in my dreams and haunt me with cryptic messages that will ultimately save my life?” He’s the kind of dead you can’t take back.
A ten year old boy struck him in the back of the head at my nephew’s birthday party. Candy didn’t erupt from the wound. The birthday clown offered to perform CPR, but when no one said anything, he walked into the house and closed the door.
The parents of the boy told their son that Jordon moved to Africa. So says my father. He also insists that the parents said, “Lies are cheaper than therapy.” My father laughs when he tells me this, disgusted, angry.
I say, let the boy live with a song in his heart for a few more years, though I don’t say this out loud.
Anyway, I would feed Aunt Laura myself, but I’m being held hostage by a very small man with a very small pistol and mustache.
Like you, I doubted the significance of this weapon. That is, until the demonstration on my pet chinchilla.
I hold the bleeding ball of fuzz in my arms. He’s so new that he doesn’t have a name yet, but I feel a part of me evaporating, drifting and funneling into the little man.
I want to kill him, the way I’d kill the boy if he were a monster. Not so monstrous that I wouldn’t recognize the human in him.
Just monstrous enough.
The chinchilla kicks and startles me. I drop him.
“He’s still alive,” I say.
“Kill him then,” the tiny man says. “I’m not wasting any more bullets.”
I scoot the chinchilla under my bed. On the way, I name him Franklin.
“Bring out the photographs,” the little man says.
“Family photographs! What do you think?” He paces back and forth on the dresser. For the first time, or maybe the second time and I forgot, I notice the man’s lack of reflection in the mirror behind him.
I almost ask him if he’s a vampire. However, I’m too busy pissing myself and saying, “I don’t think I have any photographs.”
“Everyone has photographs!” he says, and scratches at his mustache.
My Aunt Laura waddles in. She says, “Would you be a dear and feed me my stuffing?”
The little man points his gun at her. “What the hell is that?”
“She’s my aunt,” I say. What I don’t say is that she’s also a teddy bear. Or at least as close to a teddy bear a person could possible be, with hair transplants, amputations, and a mad swarm of cosmetic surgeries. Not to mention two dead parents and a substantial inheritance.
“Please let her go,” I say. “She’s harmless.”
“She’s not going anywhere,” the man says. “She could call the police.”
“She doesn’t have hands.”
“How do I know she doesn’t have a specially made phone she can use?”
“So says the guy with the gun pointed at his family. Where are those photographs?” He aims the gun at my face. “Get on it! Now!”
“Who’s your little friend?” my aunt says. She fiddles with the perky ears of living flesh attached to the top of her head and steps closer to him. “You look just like a little doll.”
“Stay back,” the man says.
“Why don’t you sit on my bed for a while?” I say. “I need to do something, then we can go eat dinner.”
Or maybe I’m not saying this. Maybe I’m not brave enough to say a few damn words, and I watch as my aunt holds out her hands to pick up the little man and press him against her hairy chest.
Before she can lay a hand on him, he shoots her. The miniscule pellet whizzes past the layer of brown fur which cost her more than a bullet proof vest.
She wanted to be lovable. Cuddly. She wanted to light up the faces of children when she entered a room.
Maybe three weeks before he died, Jordon told me over a couple bowls of steaming chili that he was thinking about quitting the caretaking job. He told me that he cried for Aunt Laura almost every night. He said people hugged her less than they used to, before the transformation. We finished the chili.
After this conversation, Jordon didn’t make an effort to hug her more often.
Neither did I.
I think about rolling Aunt Laura under my bed with the teddy bear I outgrew but never threw away.
When she opens her mouth, I think she’s going to tell me the meaning of life. Blood gushes out instead.
I open another drawer and toss out the innards.
“For god’s sake,” the man says. “They’re in the chest!”
So I open the chest, and find the photographs.
“Here,” I say, and hold out the cluster of memories.
“I don’t want them,” the man says, and I think I detect a hint of sorrow in his voice. A sour sort of sorrow.
“I want you to eat them,” he says.
“Eat them or die,” he says with the gun.
I eat them. At first they taste sweet, then bitter, then they’re gone.
“Now the birthday cards,” the man says.
“I don’t know where—”
“They’re in a tin box under your bed.”
I find them. I also find Franklin snuggled up against my old teddy bear.
I start with a birthday card from my grandma with flowers on the cover. Flowers that look nothing like the flowers at Jordon’s funeral, but doesn’t seem to matter. I remember anyway.
Then I take the wet wad of card out of my mouth. “You do want me to eat these, right?”
“Obviously,” the man says, looking smaller all of a sudden.
It goes on like this. He commands me and I obey. I eat letters and gifts and even my teddy bear. Aunt Laura would have tried to talk me out of it if she wasn’t so dead.
I dissect my room, devouring all the vital organs. I feel sick to my stomach, the way I felt at the birthday party right after I laughed. I laughed because I knew Jordon couldn’t die. I laughed because I already imagined us laughing about it over a couple steaming bowls of chili.
“I need to shit,” I say.
“Not yet,” the little man says. “You’ve got to eat me first.”
“I don’t want to.”
He waves the gun. “It’s either you or me.”
I hold him by the arm and lift him in front of my face. After all this, I guess I expect him to be happy. Instead, he looks as afraid as I feel.
His mustache falls off. Without it, he sort of looks like me.
I can’t say that I’m surprised, but I pretend that I am, for my own benefit.
I lift him higher and he says, “Damn it!”
“What?” I say.
“I dislocated my shoulder. Never mind. Hurry up and do it.”
So I do.
As his brittle bones snap and crunch in my mouth and his sweet blood oozes down my throat, I feel like a monster. Not so monstrous that I don’t recognize the human in me.
Just monstrous enough.
As for the gun, I forgot all about it, and it pops in my mouth, blowing out not one of my teeth.
Still, it’s my turn to die. And not the kind that keeps you guessing.
The kind you can’t take back.
It’s cheaper than therapy.