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ISSUE #26

December 2014

FICTION

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Front & Back cover art
by Rew X

Where You Came From

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

 

You were familiar to me. Not as familiar as the town I grew up in; no one could ever be that familiar. But I smelled and saw you everywhere. You had a bowl cut like the Beatles. It made me laugh. You were not attractive until I saw you up close.

I came home one night from a party, my breath whiskey-soaked. You were sitting on my couch like you belonged there.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, wobbling, holding my key out at you like a weapon.

Andrew stood in the doorway. He sniffed twice at the air. “Calm, Nora, this is Grayson,” he said. “He works with me at the warehouse.”

Of course, I thought. My roommate knew everyone. He was always bringing people back to our house. I knew then what kind of person you might be. You didn't have a lot of friends. Why else would you be here with him? You were awkward and adverse to authority. Otherwise, Andrew’s conspiracy theories would have scared you away. You didn’t do your homework or go to class, or else you wouldn’t be in a stranger’s house on a Wednesday night. You smelled like the woods far, far away from this town, farther away even than the town Andrew and I grew up in in.

“Want to smoke a joint with us?” Andrew asked. You still said nothing. I wondered if you could talk. I’d never seen you smile.

“No,” I said, walking past you to my room.

• • •

The town I came from is called Agape. The name means love without body. The name means love without sex. No one leaves Agape.

No one but Andrew and me.

• • •

The first dreams I had about you were nightmares. You were standing in my doorway as I slept. I woke and bolted from bed. I made sure the door was locked. I could hear laughter and the roil of bong water from the living room.

In the morning, you were passed out on our couch. The blanket had slid down your chest, and I could see your flabby stomach, pasty white as the moon. My stomach growled. I grabbed a white bread bagel on my way out the door. I never skipped class. I never got hangovers. Not from drinking, not from drugs. I walked to class with your blank gaze burning behind my eyes.

The second dreams I had about you were sweaty. I woke to slick sheets. I woke to blood and cramps. I woke to tingling skin and the deep belly urge to plunge my fingers between my legs until my breath came out hard and quick as a chased predator’s. Your skin, in those dreams, tasted like sunlight and honey. You were always naked.

The next time I saw you, sitting on a bench outside the history building, you smiled at me. Your smile was as ugly and crooked as death. No wonder you rarely smiled. Your smell was overwhelming, then, like the scent of a home I'd never realized that I had. I knew with a gut animal instinct that you were not who I had thought you were. I was willing to give you a try.

• • •

In Agape the people starve themselves, of food, of blood, of water, of rosy cheeks and sex; they go to school and church and then to their houses where they lock themselves in and try to ignore the howls in their own throats. In Agape a group of high school friends used to sneak out and lose themselves to the moon every month. There was the wind against our skin as we ran through streets empty of life. There were the bones we buried in our parents’ backyards. Small towns are full of secrets.

• • •

The vodka slid down our throats like water. I was parched. The moon was full. Without liquor, I grew restless. Every night, caged in my room. The vodka set me free. So did your smell, of that other place I wanted so badly to see. But I never thought you could last, even though I suspected you might be more than met my eye. Men never lasted long.

We did not sleep together then. You were my roommate’s friend, and his scent was all over you, too, like cologne. Instead I took home other men, made rough love to them with my eyes shut tight. I pretended they were you. Still, you went with me to bars, to parties I sniffed out. We walked down streets until we heard laughter, until we sniffed the skunk smell of dank weed. At parties we stuck side by side at first, until the moon trembled tentatively in the sky and it was time to pick a partner and go home.

Each night I hugged you goodbye so close I could smell your sweat stink. I let it rub off onto my shirt. When I fucked those other people, I left my shirt on. I let them go in the mornings with bite marks across their necks.

Sometimes you were on the couch, pretending to sleep. Once, when I asked why you had come there, you said Andrew asked you over. Sometimes Andrew went to the party with us. But always you clung to him as though he was the leader of your pack. I came to know the reason; you wanted to be close enough to protect me, if I needed it. I never needed it. You could hear the gasp screams that came from my room. I imagine that to you they were a sick lullaby.

I was not good to you. I don’t know why you stomached it.

• • •

In Agape there were two boys and three girls who ran their claws down each other’s bodies and made moan noises to match the coyote howls. There were hideaways in the hills. There was a playground with a plastic slide where I had my first boy. There was a taste of his lips like rotten meat in my mouth, happily never after. There were five kids who just wanted to fill themselves to the brim with whatever food they could find: muscle and fat and skin like jerky. There were kids who did what they could to survive in a town with no life to it.

• • •

I go back and forth. I should have let it simmer longer, the lust. I should have taken you sooner. I should have left you alone. I should have taken you and you only. But it was good when we finally fucked. You would hate it if you heard me call it that. You had a gentle way of saying things. I loved to watch you blush.

We went camping, all of the pack. Me and you and Andrew and the temporary people who floated in and out of our lives like specks in the corners of our eyes. In a college town, that was bound to happen, people still getting to know themselves. Very few people liked me once they got to know me. Too predatory and wild and ambitious. You, though. You stuck around and made friends of an enemy.

We had a tent to ourselves. I insisted on my own tent. We swallowed three grams of shrooms and went walking. The river was a snake. The water was your spilled blood. Not yet, I said. You thought I meant sex. I meant death. I took you by the river. You were soft and sweet and your skin hummed and shifted. In the dark you looked familiar, like your old town might have been like ours, like you might be like us.

“Are you one of us?” I asked.

“I’m one with you,” you said.

It wasn’t what I meant. We zipped the tent and unzipped our pants and unzipped our skins and knew each other bone by bone.

“Not yet,” I whispered.

When you came, you howled like a dying dog.

• • •

“This is where you came from,” you said. “This is who you are.”

In Agape I drove you around the city on the main street which wrapped like teeth around the fire station, past the lone cop car that sat empty in the church parking lot, past the BBQ joint with the smell of roasting flesh, past the house I had been raised in.

“Can we go in?” you asked.

“No.”

“It’s so quiet,” you said. “There’s no one. Is anyone home?”

"They're home. They're hiding. They all hide, here.”

I kept on driving. The streets were as dead as the day I had left them.

• • •

We shared shots of vodka like it would make us drink less. You told me I needed to drink less. I told you to shut your mouth and kissed you. I bit you so your lips bled. You liked it. But we had become used to each other, used to the noises we made when in heat. I knew every scratch on you. You knew my scars from those Agape days. Boredom makes even a feast taste like ash on the tongue.

“Take me anywhere,” you said. “We need to get away for a while.”

I wanted you to drive. I wanted to see where you came from. But you shook your head. “Too tired,” you said. “Too tired to drive.”

There was only one place I knew the way to.

• • •

In Agape there is a sign. Welcome, it reads.

“Do you feel welcome?” I asked you.

You looked over at me. Already, I was forgetting everything I had learned since leaving. In Agape I am the same stupid teenager I was in high school. In Agape I am as hungry as a growing girl. My stomach growled. You were kind enough not to mention it. But you had a look in your eye; you were wary of me. You saw that my pupils were dilating, that my eyes were darkening. You saw that I was who I had always been.

“No,” you said. “I don’t know you here.”

We came to the playground behind the church. I wanted to show you the spot where it had all begun, where I had first bled for a boy. I would bleed for you, I wanted to say. I should have bled for you. But you weren't one of us after all.

Some things never change. You smelled like the first time. You bled like the most intoxicating liquor I had ever tasted. You did not bite back.

• • •

Now I gather your bones and the bloody shroud of your skin and drive home. Out of Agape, back to the house I share with Andrew.

“Where’s Grayson?” he asks, but he doesn’t expect an answer. He knows without looking at me. He has always known. We are two of a pack.

Together we bury your bones in our back yard. We build a garden over them.

Some nights I still dream about you. I wake up with your taste on my tongue. Times like these, I go out to the garden and pick red tomatoes from the stalk. I sink my teeth into them. Juice drips all over my hands, my feet, my thighs. I imagine that you are here with me. That you are the pulsing moon. That you are in Agape, waiting for me to retrieve you, to save you, to carry you home.

 

 


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Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Interzone. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program and curates an annual Art & Words Show, profiled in Poets & Writers. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: bonniejostufflebeam.com.

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