Brian’s grocery list reflected the usual haul. Since Mina had been gone, he’d shackled himself to a dull culinary routine—soups, baked potatoes, and the like—this after he’d begun eating regularly again. Not that the occasional impulse buy didn’t happen. This time he threw in the ring bologna he’d always looked at but never bought: pink meat product in a bright red rind, jam-packed with nitrites and a taste like nothing else. Its packaged shape always suggested the seat of a typical public toilet. He laughed, dismissing what he decided was a useless food hang-up. He left the deli meat section with the toilet seat bologna and headed toward the checkout line. A woman pushed her cart past him in the produce section; a small boy dangled his legs through the front holes. With a reflex as natural as breathing, Brian smiled at the boy, then at the woman. The child’s eyes grew big and he let out a loud scream, burying his head in his hands. The woman stopped.
“What? What is it, shugs?”
The boy kept whimpering into his hands.
Brian stopped and turned back in their direction.
“What is it? Did you see something?”
The child looked up and pointed straight at Brian. “Bad face, Mommy! Bad face!”
His mother gasped. “Honey, that’s not a very nice thing to say.”
His finger stayed put. “But it’s all tore up! Man’s face is tore up!”
His mother turned to Brian and gave an uneasy chuckle. “I am so sorry. It’s—I don’t know, his imagination. You know how little ones can be.”
Brian hesitated. “No worries.”
The boy covered his face again. “Wanna go Mommy, wanna go now!”
The mother mouthed something to Brian that looked like “It’s all good”.
At the checkout the young cashier studied Brian. “Are you okay?” When she repeated the question, he snapped to.
“Oh… yeah, yeah. I’m good.”
“You’ve been saying something about a bad face,” the cashier said.
“I-I’m sorry. Really, it’s nothing.”
The sacker, a gawky kid with a spider tattoo on his neck, leaned toward his coworker: “He probably saw your ex-boyfriend.”
She rolled her eyes and mouthed something at him; he laughed. Brian paid for his groceries and left.
The drive home seemed like a distraction from the things that began to add up. The little boy’s terror, Phaedra’s episodes, and whatever spooked the professor at Hyacinth Road amounted to a real and consistent traffic. Brian guided his Hyundai as a sick chill seized his core—the specter of new world forming around him, filled with things only cats, children, and other people could see and hear. Things loud and elusive. And tore up.
Indeed, it was often the little things that could make or break a moment. Things that settled the soul and reassured with familiarity. In this case, it was the taste of bologna. Microwaved in barbecue sauce, it made the perfect lead for sides of oven fries and green beans. Throw in a slice of Texas toast, and you had a decent home clone of a plate at most any barbecue joint. Brian sat, wolfing down chunks of the pink stuff, gourmandizing the idea of food as escape. Maybe comfort food wasn’t a myth after all, because the way it went down was a most satis—
The squeal came from directly behind him, as loud and piercing as an air horn. He shot up from the table. Phaedra! Is she hurt? But as quickly as this thought came, a fact came down harder: He couldn’t breathe. Every impotent lunge forward brought nothing. A ripped suit in deep space. Vacuum. He stood, made a fist, and cradled it in the other hand. He pumped feebly at his abdomen. Again. Again. And again. The mass of meat in his throat didn’t budge. Twice more, and it dawned on him that he was going to be the gluttonous kid in the first aid video he’d seen in middle school, only not so lucky. Worse, every pump began to aggravate a nausea that threatened to hasten his demise by flooding his lungs with undigested dinner. The chair, dumbass! Brian positioned his gut against the curve of the backrest and thrust against it. Nothing came but a sharp blast of pain in his abdomen. And he was about to throw up into himself. Death had a scale of nobility, and this was not going to be a hero’s exit. Brian shut his eyes, gave one more massive thrust against the sharp wood…and a wet clump of processed beef product flew onto the table. He toppled backward; his ass hit the floor and his stomach convulsed as the rest of the evening meal spewed into his lap. He worked himself to his knees, his stomach heaving bile between gulps of fresh, glorious air. He fell back onto the kitchen floor, his awareness at a new height. I’ve saved myself!
Brian changed into shorts and a T-shirt, scrubbed the kitchen, and did the laundry. He dumped clean clothes and towels on his bed. The shock from nearly dying had given way to a strange blend of duty and fatigue. A soft meow issued from behind him. Phaedra stood there with attentive eyes. I’m here, and I won’t judge you. He picked her up and pulled her to his cheek; she nuzzled him and purred as he carried her into the living room.
The pain from the chair knifed his gut as he plunked onto the sofa. As he had done while driving home from the grocery store, he began to run events through the central reality filter of his mind. A new wave of shakes hit him as he replayed tonight’s close call and fixated on how a fucking piece of meat nearly left him sprawled on the kitchen floor, open eyes still pleading for another shot at success, at love, at making an impact with anything he did. A couple of shots of rye steadied him enough to overcome this and to remember his obligation to two hard facts: He was alive, and a house had to be sold.
F.M. Scott is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he lives and writes. His stories have appeared in The Killer Collection, Sirius Science Fiction, The Horror Tree, The Tulsa Voice, and The Rock N’ Roll Horror Zine. A few of his drabbles were collected in Trembling with Fear: Year 2 Anthology.
Facebook and Twitter @fmscottauthor