Coal


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They're buying a lotof poisoned foods: Land O' Lakes butter, Paul Newman's salad dressing, Sprite,Burgers 'n' Buns, and way-too-orange carrots and Cheetos. I know it's all poisonedcoz only safe foods are safe. I try not to stare, unlike my mom, I know she'strying to figure out what they are. If they're secret agents of the coal, tryingto tempt and trick us. They might be innocent victims hypnotized by the forcesof black coal about to be poisoned accidentally, but their pastel pink outfitsmatch too exactly so my guess is they are forces of evil. I tug again at her sleeve,so long her hand is buried in it's protective sheathing. It was $15 at the SalvationArmy, just bought today soon after we discovered the black coal was active.We tried to find a black raincoat for me, but in my size they were all yellowsand greens covered in bunnies and turtles. She said after the dye I'd be safeeven without a raincoat. The dye is in our cart,buried under six packs of Canada Dry and the red Pringle's cardboard canisterwith the vacuum seal, and I wish it wasn't. I could slip it in the waist ofmy jeans, even though stealing only fuels the judgment of the coal. I hear the swoosh swooshof my mother's nails scratching up the inside of her vinyl raincoat sleeves.Her barefoot heels bounce inside her black rubber boots. I'm still in civilianclothes. My t-shirt is dirty white as are my Keds, even my socks. My jeans aredark blue, not black. The Laundromat is next. I'll lay naked in theback seat staring up at the stained white cheesecloth-like interior of our Toyotawhile she dyes my clothes in the washer. The pink sportswearspy couple are next on line. She keeps grinning down at me, catching me staringat their Cheetos. It's poison, all poison, I chant silently to myself, louderthan my rumbling stomach. Then she, like a true demon, reaches for a Hershey'sbar from the rack above the conveyer belt, opens and bites into it. Hershey'scan be safe sometimes but now I know it's a trick because the chocolate smellsinks into me. I look up at my momto see if she's noticed but her eyes are switching to the walls, judgingtheir distances, measuring the inches of movement, she doesn't trust me to thatjob completely. I tug lightly again at the frayed sleeve. The woman catches myeye and smiles hugely, her lipstick lines extending in matching pink way beyondher actual lips, her eyes narrowing to Chinese slits with wrinkles like catwhiskers racing from the outer edges. I hold on to my mother'ssleeve; the woman leans over so her face is near mine. I smell the sugary chocolateon her breath and look up into the dark patch of nose hairs with snot thingscaught inside. "Would you like a piece of chocolate?" she asks. My mothershakes herself as if trying to pull her body from a trap. The woman looks uptowards my mother, her smile disappearing as she speaks, and my mother scowls. "He's standing so quietand good...I thought he might like..." My mother's head sways like a caged horse's,long swoops back and forth: no. Her eyes are focused on the brown and whitecheckered floor. "Sorry..." the womanstarts, her face contorting into a grimace. She steps back. "I just thought..."The hand clamping my wrist makes me jump; I look down to see my mother's knucklessqueezing tight around my arm. She says nothing to me or to the lady in pinkstill holding out a Hershey bar now turning to whisper to her chubby pink husband.She jerks my arm as we walk quickly down the isle trying to find the way out.I can hear her panting, and my heart's booming. All lines are filled, thereare no clear checkouts to escape out through. Her nails are digging into theskin inside my wrist as she pulls me with her until I crash into her. She'sstopped dead still and is staring at the wall directly in front of us, stackedwith cigarettes, logs, and charcoal, framing the way out. It had moved. "I tried to tell you,"I whisper, but I know she can't hear. I look down the row to the entrance turnstileand an empty isle with a closed chain gate across it. Silently I jerk my arma few times 'til she follows, still gripping tightly on my wrist. She walkssideways, staring at the wall, her mouth hanging open in an "O." When we get to the gateI lift it as high as I can. "Drop under," I mumble.She stands frozen, staring at the wall. I shake my arm hard. "Go under." She only stares. A man with a name tag puts down the apples he's stacking and startscrossing the floor towards us. I drop the chain and push her stomach as hardas I can. She turns down to me, anger flashing across her face, tightening mystomach. "Duck under," I orderand I lift the chain rope up again. I keep my face hard, I bite my lip underso she won't see it shake. I watch as she bends her head, leans down, and crouchesunder the chain, still gripping my arm, pulling me under with her, as if we'rein a sudden game of limbo. "Excuse me, miss," Ihear from behind us. "Miss?" My mom walks out, oblivious, almost running throughthe front door; I gallop to keep up. The heat from the parking lot blasts upat us, making the air visible lines that waver into shapes. "Miss..." I hearfrom right behind us, before I see a thin white hand reach out for her. It barelytouches her black padded shoulder when she spins around, her teeth bared, hereyes too wide. "What!" "I need you to openyour coat...or come back inside the store..." He clears his throat, lookingaround, but not at her. "You think I fuckin'stole? At a time like this? You think I fuckin' stole!" Her hand clenches tighterwith each word, around my wrist, like a tourniquet. "Uh...miss?" "You will be very, verysorry..." she starts, and without releasing my arm, unbuttons her raincoat. I turn away and watchsome kids in the back of a station wagon stick their tongues out at me. "Okay, okay, okay ma'am.Thank you, thank you..." "Wanna check my cunt?" I turn to see my motherholding her coat open, her naked body sheened with sweat and exposed. She dropsmy wrist and turns her pockets inside-out. A small lump of coal falls with adead thud to the ground. Her neck stretches out like a turkey's over a choppingblock towards his red face. "Ma'am?" He looks intoher protruding grin with a mixture of fear and sadness that frightens me morethan when he wanted to arrest her. "Are you okay?" he askssoftly. A man driving past in a pickup whistles, and I follow his stare to thebristly blond clump of hair between my mother's legs. She takes a deep breathto respond, her face a dark scarlet. I turn silently towards her and reach upto grab the ends of her raincoat below where she holds it clamped open withher fists. I tug gently but firmly and her hands follow mine, pulling the coatclosed like a curtain. "C'mon" I whisper, feelinga strength I treasure and dread. "Is she all right?"he asks from behind me, talking to me for the first time. "Just tired," I sayinto my mother's black vinyl raincoat that I hold sealed shut over that darkyellow curly patch. I hear him take a breath to say something, but he only releasesa sigh. I look up into my mother's face, afraid she's preparing to say or dosomething, but all I can see is the top of her chin, because she's looking straightup into the sky, watching, waiting. "She'll be okay," Isay to the man behind me. "You sure?" he asks,but I can hear him take another step back. It's always easy to convince peopleit's okay because if it isn't they'd have to get involved, and they always wouldrather not. "Yeah," I nod yes, lookingup at her, and squeeze her coat closed tighter. "Okay...uh...thank ya..."he says, walking away fast. "Sarah?" I tug on hercoat lightly. "Sarah?" "The sky has black firecoming," she says, her neck strained up. A pretty woman in tanshorts pulls her cart up next to the car in front of us. A little boy is inthe baby's seat. She starts to unload brown grocery bags into her truck. Sheglances at us. "Hot," she says, andsmiles. "Ice cream," the littleboy says. "Soon as we get home,Billy," she tells him. "Fire's gonna come downfrom the sky," my mother says, staring up. "Pardon?" she says,lifting Billy out of the cart seat. I can see the colorful tops of food labelssticking out the top of the bags. It's poison I tell myself. "You're gonna burn youtraitor!" my mother says, and I look up fast to see if she's talking to me,but she's turned toward the woman. The woman blinks at my mother a few times,shakes her head, and turns away. I watch her strapping Billy into a baby seat.My mother stares back up at the sky. "Mom...let's go..."My throat is dry and I can hardly swallow. I watch the woman give Billy a bottle.He sucks on it with his eyes half closed. Poison, I think. "Mom..." I turn backto her. The sun is blasting down on the black tar, and I see the sweat runningdown her neck. My scalp feels wet. "Sarah?" I let go of the raincoat she's nowgripping closed, and I tap her hand. She doesn't move. "Please?" The woman in the carstarts the engine. She doesn't look at us. I watch them drive away. I try notto picture the baby bottle filled with milk, filled with poison. "There's another storedown the road." I poke at her hand beaded with sweat. She doesn't answer fora minutes. I stand waiting, squinting at her face in the sun. Suddenly she looksdown, and around us. "Where are our supplies?" I look around too likethey're missing. "I don't know," I tell her. "It's all black!" shealmost screams, pointing to the tar, parking lot ground. "It ate everything,"I say, and nod at the ground. And suddenly she drops down, grabs up the coalpiece that had fallen from her pocket, and runs. I start running to catch her,past our car, out of the lot, onto the sidewalk. She runs down the broken concretesidewalk to a little thatch of bushes behind a deserted nightclub. I see hercrawl inside it. I catch up, panting, and follow her into the bushes. She'scurled up, the jacket over her head. She's rocking. I know I lied aboutthe supplies and them getting eaten but I was hoping she would forget; timeslike these she forgets things easily. If she remembered what happened in thestore she might say it was my fault the walls moved, my fault we have nothingto eat or drink, my fault we have no dye and I'm still in a white t-shirt andblue jeans. She might start thinking I'm the traitor. She might decide I'm theevil. I need to be very careful. I hope my lying doesn't raise the punishingwrath of the coal, but I had just witnessed its destructive abilities. It hadburned our house to the ground, maybe killed my stepfather, and maybe burntup my best friend... Excerpted from Terminator'snovel-in-progress.





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