3LBE #12
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Swim in Sediment

by Gary W. Conner

 

He wakes up because he is choking. He takes in a great gulping gasp of air, a reflex, but he only chokes all the more as he realizes that he’s sucked in yet more of the tiny particles that try at his life. The crushing weight on his chest doesn’t help matters at all.

Is someone sitting on my chest?

As his lungs demand yet another grab at oxygen, he forces himself to sample only a small part of what passes for air in this tiny place. While the mouthful still tastes mostly of oxide and death, he finds comfort in the fact that the intense burning in his chest has subsided somewhat. He tries to calm himself, so that he might assess this brand new situation.

“My name is Chris Conyer.” The words are barely more than slight and hollow rasps within his throat, but instinct tells him to first attempt communication, to determine whether he alone faces this predicament. “Can you hear me?”

He is not rewarded with even an echo of his own words. He has drawn an involuntary dose of air, and he chokes it out yet again. He seeks out his arms and finds feeling, moves each one about in turn, feeling out his new quarters. He finds that he is mostly enclosed within a few small holes in what he can only think of as earth — he knows he’s planted beneath an awful lot of something, and he next realizes that he will probably suffocate within minutes.

Oh, dear God, not suffocation! Never that! Please, please, God. Never that.

Sucking air slowly through lips barely parted, he tries desperately to find clean air to soothe his screaming lungs.

Am I buried alive?

He tries to bring his arms across his chest inside the space he thinks a coffin must allow. When his hands, barely underway, quickly strike the rough ceiling, he realizes that a coffin can be made from many things.

• • •

Gail smiled when Ben, just now done with the last customer, looked her way and caught her eye. She watched as he absentmindedly smoothed his uniform vest and fixed his name tag.

“Mrs. Conyer. Do you have your Best Customer card?”

Gail giggled as she set her purse down on the counter, just beyond the belt. “I'm afraid I forgot it, Mr. Madison.”

Ben gave her a petulant look, then proceeded to bag her purchases. “Guess I’ll have to give you my best pricing, then.” He winked at Gail before turning his attention to Victoria, quietly asleep in her child seat. The seat took up almost half the shopping cart, but Ben was able to fit the bags in. He hummed a few bars of a sleepy dirge, then looked back to Gail.

“Comes to just under forty dollars, Gail.” Ben stood just outside of the beam cast by the fluorescent bulbs hung above the register. “Did he give you enough?”

Gail swallowed a strange lump that was forming in her throat; it tasted mostly of fear and anger and rot, and she had a hard time getting it down. She managed a smile. “Yeah, yes.” She found herself leaning across the counter, nearly collapsed, then hastily collected herself as best she could. She offered Ben the proudest smile she could muster; it seemed to make a difference. She fished two twenties out of her purse and handed them to Ben, muttered thanks, then grabbed the cart and made her way out into the parking lot.

Once at her car, she unlocked the rear door and flipped it open. As she transferred bags from cart to cargo space, she tried hard not to look at the bag already in the car. The brown paper bag, displaying some sort of greasy dampness at its base.

• • •

Panic sets in, and Chris begins to flail in this small space, throwing hands against unyielding rock, shaking his head wildly and cutting his face open in numerous places. His screams reverberate quickly in the tiny enclosure, and his ears numb nearly as quickly as his throat becomes hoarse. Blood pounds into his head at a staggering rate, dizzying him. Blackness — true blackness, that found only in the mind, and not in some airtight hole — overtakes him, and he is still.

• • •

Once the groceries were put away, Gail put Victoria’s seat upon the kitchen table. She went to the junk drawer near the refrigerator and found a pair of pliers that Chris used for the occasional do-it-yourself plumbing job. She returned to the table and stared down at the peaceful face of her daughter, eyes alight with curiosity and adoration. “Mommy will be back in just a minute, hon. I have to get something from upstairs.” She glanced across the table to the paper bag, the only one she'd not yet unpacked.

Gail went upstairs to the bedroom, the one she'd shared with Chris for four years. Four years of agony and hell. She quickly banished the thought and returned her focus to the mission at hand. Salvation. In the master bathroom, she kneeled in front of the vanity and opened the single door. She used the pliers to remove the trap, busting a knuckle in the process. “Dammit!” She sucked at the slow trickle of blood from the skinned joint, then stood, careful to keep the trap level. Once she was erect, she pulled the plunger to plug the sink and turned on the faucet. She held the trap beneath the flow, directing it through the pipe and forcing out any contents. As she suspected, as she hoped, it was filled with a good deal of hair. Chris had been steadily losing hair ever since she'd known him.

Before the sink filled, she shut off the faucet and replaced the trap. She drained the sink, careful to keep any hair from getting away. Then came the meticulous process of separating Chris’s hair from her own.

• • •

Chris realizes that he'd blacked out only after he realizes that he’s just come to. He tries again to squelch the screaming panic in his head, his chest, his heart. He finds that he is grabbing handfuls of whatever is encasing him, squeezing those handfuls into tightly packed fist casts. He begins again to sob, but this time a new sound joins in, and he quickly quiets his own moans of despair to better hear his accompaniment. After mere seconds, Chris recognizes the wails.

“Victoria? Oh my god, Vicki?!”

• • •

Gail carried Victoria’s seat out into the yard and placed it in the shade of the elder oak that borrowed a large part of the yard. She took care to ensure that Vicki was also out of range of the spray from the water hose — the washer in the nozzle had gone bad the year before, and it had never seemed important. Until now, until it threatened her daughter even with something as simple as over-spray — never mind something like threatening Victoria with fists and violence and pain. Gail might take it, had taken it. No more.

She looked at the tools she'd brought from the garage and selected the shovel and a pair of rough leather work gloves she'd purchased earlier in the day. She found a spot far enough from the tree to avoid roots, yet close enough to afford the birds some sense of cover, protection, and she began to dig. Nothing too deep, as a large hole was unnecessary. She was satisfied within minutes, after only a modicum of effort.

Gail threw the shovel aside and went to the wheelbarrow. She picked up the small bag of cement cradled in the bottom of the cart’s mouth and set it aright so that she might cut open the bag, which she did with a small knife produced from a jeans pocket. She dumped half of the contents into the wheelbarrow, then paused to assess the product of the effort. She stared for a moment, lost in an odd concentration, then shrugged and dumped the rest of the powder into the barrow. Next, she fetched the half-full bag of sand left over from Vicki’s sandbox — a sandbox she had yet to set foot in. Using one knee for leverage, she flipped the bag in her hands and allowed the remaining sand to flush quickly out of the bag and mix with the cement powder. She threw the bag aside and picked up the nozzle of the water hose, wincing slightly each time the random spray from the bad washer hit a part of her. She squeezed the nozzle slowly, finding just the right amount of pressure, the right spray pattern, before she aimed the nozzle at the pile of sand and concrete dust in the wheelbarrow — she didn’t want to send tiny particles of either ingredient sailing into the air, looking for a home in her child’s lungs.

When she was satisfied that the wheelbarrow held enough water, she grabbed the garden rake from the ground and began to stir the slop. Soon, she was happy with the consistency and she laid the rake aside, maneuvered the wheelbarrow closer to the hole she'd dug.

Breathless, she sprawled upon the lawn for a few minutes, staring up at the sky. For some reason, perhaps some cultural programming, she'd expected dark clouds to gather over her ritual. She found that she was a bit disappointed with the clear blue that filled the horizon.

Before she could allow such thoughts to consume her, she rose and located the brown paper bag. The one from the old lady on Linden Avenue, the one that she'd paid fifty dollars for, the one that might — pleasegodpleasegodpleasegodmight solve her problems. She sat by the hole, crossed her legs, and willed herself not to call that hole in the ground an open grave. It’s just a hole. That’s all.

Gail closed her eyes and unfolded the top of the bag, dying a bit inside at each tiny crinkle. When her hands remarked that the job was done, she leaned her head over the mouth of the bag and then opened only one eye. The dark throat of the bag convinced her to open the other and, when she did, nothing jumped out and bit her. No cops came running down alleys and flying in helicopters to arrest her and feature her on some Fox network exploitation. There was still only the slight breeze, the woman, the tree, the child… the hole. The bag. The bag, and the doll.

She drew a deep breath, then plunged her hand into the bag and brought out the doll, careful not to dimple its soft clay surface, damage its features, dampen its power.

She admired it for a moment before becoming once again sickened by its purpose. This time, she avoided vomiting. Drawing quick and shallow breaths, Gail lowered the doll into the hole, careful to place it face-up.

Your face must be the last face it sees, or it will not work. Mind me, girl.

Gail shook the old woman’s voice from her head.        

Victoria began to thrash and squabble in her confinement, and Gail walked over to her and kneeled. “Shh, shh, baby. Mommy’s here.” She instinctually rubbed her child’s head, never feeling the minute snapping sensations through the thick gloves.

Once the girl was again quiet, Gail stood and focused on the next ingredient: a sandwich bag, rolled and carefully sealed with spit, lying almost hidden in the thick grass.

She picked it up and grabbed the seam, shook it to unroll it. She held it up to the sun to admire her handiwork: twelve long, fine hairs, all a deep black, all mostly fresh from her husband’s scalp. She kneeled again at the hole, carefully removed most of the hair from the bag — she couldn’t get it all, not every single strand, because the gloves limited her sense of touch. But she got enough.

She stretched her fist out over the hole and loosened her fingers. She watched as the hair drifted slowly down to rest atop the clay doll; she became momentarily fascinated with the way the sunlight bent the color, swore that it was not at all black, swore that it might even be blonde — the exact color of Victoria’s hair. She shook her head again, clearing thoughts once more, then put a gloved hand to her forehead.

As she closed her eyes and then opened them once more, her vision focused on a small, fine hair stuck to the coarse finger of the glove over her hand. She threaded it out with the other hand and eyed it closely; black. Chris’s hair. She sighed, then stood and filled the hole with cement, watching the small clay mockery of her husband slowly disappear beneath the liquid entombment of a cement forever.

When the hole was filled, she stuck a short pole into the center of the mixture and eyeballed the plumb, then hung a small bird feeder on the hook that protruded from one round portion of the post. She looked at Victoria to offer a smile, a warm condolence, but she found only a scream.

• • •

Chris, nerves screaming and brain mostly agreeing with that response, tried again and again in his hot confusion to rise, to find his daughter, to save her. When he was nearly exhausted, when he was ready to call it off, he felt a trickle of lace against his wrist.

• • •

Gail’s baby was blue — too blue, way too fucking blue — and she had to do something. She grabbed the child from the carrier and ran into the house, learning all the while that her only child was most likely quite dead. She reached the phone in the kitchen and, as she reached up to grab the handset, she noticed that she was still wearing the gloves. Another stray hair protruded from some hidden snag deep within the folds of the glove, and it sent Gail into a refreshed fit of crying and despair and accusation. Victoria still lay on one damp arm, her tiny head bobbing along with Gail’s titillation, her face still quite blue.

Struck by inhuman inspiration, Gail ran back outside, to the grave that her husband’s soul was locked within. She found that it was still quite damp, still quite malleable, and she set Vicki to the side before she yanked off the gloves and started ripping into the earth with her bare hands.

• • •

Chris managed to land a hand on a thin wrist, a tiny wrist, and he carefully used that grasp to draw his daughter nearer to him. When she was by his side in the meager space afforded them, he looked deeply into her eyes and confessed his adultery, his misery, and his history. He spelled out stories of abuse, misuse, mistreatment, and ignorance, and, through it all, he prayed that his daughter had no idea what he was talking about. He prayed that his daughter might forget her mother, her father, her life — he prayed that she might be granted another chance, a cleaner slate. A way to forget.

• • •

Gail stood poised above the hole, now devoid of the pole that had earlier stood as a testament to her righteousness. She plunged the shovel into the pool of gathering concrete and mixed it around, trying desperately to unearth the doll she'd placed there only moments before. At last, the point of the shovel uncovered a significant portion of the doll, and Gail snatched it into her arms before she spun on her heels, singing all the while.

• • •

Chris has his daughter wrapped in his arms, and he sings lullabies. She seems comforted.

The ground is unsteady, and reverberations sound throughout his extremities. Suddenly, there is light from above — not much, but enough to raise in Chris a wild glimmer of hope. Then the hole widens, and widens again, and Chris is looking at the blue sky high above, his daughter safe in his arms, and he sucks in a great whoosh of clean air. He stands, and begins to laugh wildly.

• • •

Somewhere in a back yard in the middle of the world, Gail sifted into sediment, one molecule at a time. And then she went to seed.

 

 

Gary W. Conner’s work has appeared in Gothic.Net, Songs from Dead Singers, The Edge: Tales of Suspense, and Whispers from the Shattered Forum, among others. He has work in the anthology Beyond the Dust, due from Flesh & Blood Press in June, and is part of a three-author collection (Denying Death) due in trade paperback late this year from House of Dominion. This is his second appearance in 3LBE. For more information on Gary’s work, visit his web site.


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ISSUE #12

Winter 2003

FICTION

ART