The Ones Left Out by Sara Knudson

 
Grimm Tales

Grimm Tales

 

The Ones Left Out
By Sara Knudson

The orchard looked dead year-round, except it still sprouted limbs through the year. Sometimes these were hacked off and left in bramble piles beside the road. Adults couldn't navigate through it, but my friends and I liked it best when the orchard overgrew. We kept low to the ground while sharp limbs poked at adults trying to keep an eye on us.

            In the semi-darkness just at sunset, we played hide-and-seek in the tangled, knee-high grass. Kids came when they finished work or school, at odd hours, slipping in past bramble barriers. When one disappeared, we assumed they’d gone home, and when one appeared, we thought nothing of it. No matter if we didn’t know everyone’s name, or where they lived, or when.

            There was a house that watched the orchard. Its paint flaked, showing its yellowed white undercoats. One window overlooked the orchard like a lonely eyeball, and sometimes, the silhouette of a little boy hovered in its frame, a dark pupil moving back and forth, following our movements.

            Sometimes, I stayed there past dark. Some of us played best at night, under a harvest moon, heavy and yellowed, ready to burst in the sky. The air was cooler then, the light softer. But there were rules to follow here; I learned them as I went. We came and left individually. No one spoke about home. When one was found, they had to be a seeker or leave. And all agreed that nobody liked the house, even though we all caught ourselves looking toward it, feeling its window eyes watching. By night, the boy in the house was a shadow silhouetted by a yellow glow.

            Sometimes, curiosity was enough to pull me out of the orchard. I'd leave the long game of hide and seek to stalk the house, peer over its ivy-shrouded fence-line, and look for ways in. Animals had made all kinds of burrows, and a hole in a lattice revealed a door. It was locked tight. Half the house’s bottom floor was buried in the slope of ground, like a basement only half-submerged. The rest rose three stories up, surrounded by ivy and bush and ancient trees riddled with rotted holes. I wanted to see the inside. I wanted to ask the boy to come outside.

            No one else wanted to go with me. The house had a stance, towering above the orchard with a rigid squareness in its shape, and most of the kids didn't like how it looked at us. It was just as old as the orchard, but there's something less confining about gnarled fruit trees than the slats and nails and sliced limbs of wood made into four walls and a roof.

            Even Jen, who suggested she was afraid of nothing, had a funny way of talking about it.

Sometimes she thought it wanted to fall down on her, she said one day, kicking a rock through the grass. But then she thought maybe that poor girl in the window would finally get out. She was convinced that the boy in the window was a girl, and we argued about it a lot.

            If I was so sure, she reasoned, why not find out? She called me chicken.

            I made a show of going up to the house then, shifty, jumping between hiding places as if I could sneak up on it. Maybe it only locked up when it saw me coming. There were ways to sneak through the brambles of the orchard, if you picked carefully through. I came close enough to see through basement windows, hear the patter of feet on floorboards, then up a staircase. Small feet, like a little boy.

            When I reached the basement door, the handle turned easy, it opened, and the scent of moldy air wafted out. I stood at the door, not ready to climb the stairs down. I could see piles of crates with fruit painted on the side crumbling in a corner. A freezer hummed against a wall. A shovel leaned against it, damp with dirt, and a tree saw lay propped beside it.

             I called a greeting softly. I waited through a stillness before trying again.

            Someone yelled back from far above. It echoed against walls. It came from the stairs.

            Behind me, the voices of the others had a different echo. They carried on the wind— they didn’t ricochet off of confined space. They called out names, seeking, finding, coming and going. I wasn't brave enough to venture fully inside yet, but at least Jen couldn't call me chicken anymore. But I didn't see her again until that night, when we all saw her run out of the house, so fast she was only a shadow shape squeezing out of a hole in the ivy-shrouded fence. We looked for her until someone shouted, “Found her, found her!” from across the orchard. By the time I got to the others, Jen had left for home before I could ask her what she found inside.

            We sat down quiet after that to watch a pack of coyotes gathering at the edges of the creek. We watched their silent strategy, caught their movement in soundless rushes of air, shapes scraping through the grass until a rabbit’s scream pierced the night. Then we would see one pawing at the ground, a flash of yellow moonlight in their reflective eyes.

            The boy in the window continued to watch and pace and shadow us through the glass the next day. Jen didn't come back to tell me what she'd seen, and I figured she was upset and embarrassed for getting caught and finding out she was wrong.

            I felt bad for the kid having to watch all the fun we had. Some parents are strict with their kids. They don’t let them go anywhere. My mom used to say that kids used to get outside and play, or work, like picking fruit from the orchard. Now they’re all locked up inside for fear of what might happen on the outside. The boy in the house clearly wanted out, and there were too many girls around anyway. I felt outnumbered.

            The others didn’t want me to talk about what was in the basement when I returned. It interrupted the game, which required little thought, and I had begun thinking, which could slow you down. Everyone knew that.

            I thought of going home instead. My mother’s voice, cleanly outlining the hours I could play, reminded me to come home by eight-thirty. The sun had only just set, and there were hours left to the game. I considered my one-story home of sun-baked brick, my dad snoring in the front room before waking and going to bed, the chime of a cat clock ticking time with big eyes and curled tail, its pupils dancing back and forth hypnotically.

            Then someone darted past me, a gust of wind with a tap on the shoulder. “You’re it!” they called and disappeared into the evening.

           

            My mom taught me better than to break into people’s houses. But there was only one way to deal with this house. It required a round-about approach to avoid the windows’ gaze. The second time, I broke in through the kitchen window, which had been left unlocked.

            Kitchens usually smell like food, but this one smelled like Mr. Lieman: lemon-scented antibacterial soap and bleach. I smelled it on his hands when he gave away popsicles to kids in the street.

            I crept through the house like I crept through grass, watched footing, stepped on the joints of floorboards, where wood was least likely to creak. I learned lessons from the coyotes and treaded lightly. The house had old furniture, a lemon scent covering mold, walls flaking in the corners where spiders sat waiting in their feathery nests. There were no pictures on the walls or in the stairwell, and I remembered that Mr. Lieman had no family. Another step, I remembered the taste of a popsicle on a hot summer’s day. Another, and I knew what it looked like to view the orchard from the second story window even though I hadn’t arrived there yet.

            There were several doors upstairs, but I knew the window that overlooked the orchard was behind a gray door. There was a closet with no windows in it. I knew what it was like to look down out of the glass and wish I was back outside in the sun. Where I had the ability to dodge and run, hide and escape. I’d been here before.

            I heard the boy so sudden and violent on the other side of the closet door that I felt the splitting of wood all through my spine. His fists and knuckles hit and scratched. He screamed. His scream worse than a rabbit screams. He cried the way things cry when they want to escape, the way a rabbit shrieks in a coyote’s jaws, like the sound will travel somewhere else where the rest of it can follow later.

            He screamed with a wail behind it, so pitiful it made me grab at the door, like I could or would open it. I wanted to, badly. I could feel every sound scraping into my bones like a saw. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t the door, it was the way the knob turned, the way I know a door is made for a reason: to hold something back. I wouldn’t open a door to a stranger. But he didn't sound like a stranger, screaming on the other side. He sounded like a boy who had walked into a stranger's home, thinking this was a place to hide.

            Somehow, I opened it wide.

            I felt like a branch split in two. The sound of a stick snapping in the night, the way it seems to also snap in the spine just as much, because someone is near to finding me. It is the sense in the stomach, somewhere underneath a laugh, that tightens just before I run. Did the orchard rabbits laugh, thinking the coyotes would only tag them back and run away, and keep to the rules of fairness? At some point, the laugh and the scream split apart, fled or swallowed.

            Inside the closet, he lay on the floor. Me. Him. Split and bloody. I slammed the door shut.

 

            I don’t know how I left the house, but by the time I made it out, the sky was dark and empty. Misshapen branches closed the edges of the field to the rest of the world. I ran away but also into and toward, gnarled limbs snagging. I stumbled on a hole in the ground, maybe a rabbit’s hole, I thought. By moonlight I found the carefully gathered bones of a body, nothing body-shaped about them, limb joints folded at wrong angles, sawed.

            Nearby, grass rustled, first on one side, then another, sideways-approaching, and a voice called out and echoed from one to the next, like coyotes yipping in the night.

            “We found him. He’s over here.”

            “He’s over here!"

 

 
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Sara Knudson is a speculative fiction writer, enthusiast, and graduate writing student at Sarah Lawrence College. Originally from California where she used to live in a haunted house and train horses, she now resides in the 6th dimension of New York. She enjoys traveling, collecting encouraging rejection letters, and working on her science fiction novel.

 

Eye for Detail by Nicole Flippo


 
 
“Cosmetic” by Wynter Bresaw

“Cosmetic” by Wynter Bresaw

Eye for Detail
by Nicole Flippo


            The young girl sat in the doctor’s chair. She was very nice looking. Light brown hair, thin, big eyes. A bright light glared into her face. The doctor and her mother stood overhead.
            “Her nose is too bumpy,” the mother said, and the young girl believed her.
            “I can shave it down,” the doctor said. “If that’s what you want?” He turned to the young girl and smiled, as if to say, yes, this is exactly what you want.
            “Okay,” said the young girl, and she believed everything around her.


            During the surgery, the doctor discovered that the young girl’s nose was centered too close to her right eye. This created a subtle, unacceptable asymmetricity.
            The doctor went to the waiting room, where the mother flipped through glossy magazines, to inquire. “To get the nose perfectly centered, we’re going to have to smash both her eye sockets.”
            The mother considered. “Do it. It’s what she’ll want.”
            The doctor complied. He took a small hammer to the temples of the girl’s face. With a slight, intentional tap, her right eye socket cracked. A small sliver of bone pierced through her eyeball. Grey liquid bled out alongside her sight.
            “Oh, fuck,” said the doctor.

           
            When the young girl woke up, she found herself blindfolded. “I can’t see anything,” she said, but her numbed lips made her unintelligible to all but her mother.
            “The doctor tells me that’s because of the bruising,” said the mother, while the doctor excused himself to his office. There, he packed up his desk and pocketed his passport—he didn’t have malpractice insurance. “When your nose heals, we can take off the blindfold.”
            “Okay,” the young girl said, still numb, barely aware of the coppery taste in the back of her throat. Red spilled from her slashed sinuses, gushed down her gullet, and pooled in her gut.

            At home, the young girl laid in bed and tried to listen to cartoons on television.
            The numbness had worn off. She could not stand without getting dizzy. She could not eat without swallowing blood. She felt as if screws were driving deep into her brain.
            Worst of all, she could not breathe without keeping her mouth open, always open, ready to offer reception to stale, dusty air.
            Once, the young girl had heard the reason people instinctively breathe through their noses is because little hairs catch all the dirt and disease to keep them out of their systems. The mouth, wet and slick and bumpy-tongued, offers no such protection.
            “I think I’m getting sick,” the young girl told her mother, after she vomited water and blood atop paper towels in a small recycling bin.
            “You’re just feeling nauseous because you took your pain meds on an empty stomach.” The mother took the bucket and scrubbed it out in the sink.

            The young girl and her mother returned to the doctor’s two weeks later, for the follow up appointment.
            “I’m sorry,” the nurse said, as she finished boarding up the outside windows. “But no one knows where the doctor is. He’s either been killed or run off somewhere.”
            The mother put her hands on her hips. “But someone needs to take all the padding out of my daughter’s nose.”
            The young girl agreed. Several feet of tissue were stuffed deep inside her face, supposedly holding her bones in place. It felt more like they were pressing the cartilage outward. If left there, would the pressure get so bad her stitches would split?
            “I’m sorry.” The nurse was already walking to her car. “You’ll have to find another doctor.”

            That night in her room, the young girl paced, because that helped the panic. She had something in her face she couldn’t get out. She’d been depending on someone to help her, but now, was she going to be stuck like this forever? Would her nose heal around all that padding so that she would never be able to get it out? What if they had to cut her open again? She had trusted medicine—where had that gotten her?
            The pressure in her head became too much. She went to the bathroom. Without removing her blindfold, she tentatively pressed a finger into her nostril. The swelling made it impossible for any digit larger than her pinky, but she dug around, touching on the end of the padding, wondering if she could simply pull it out like a tampon. Her hot breath fogged against the mirror as she toyed with the idea…
            “Mom?” The young girl asked, stepping into the living room.
            The mother, who was researching how she might yet sue the vanished doctor, didn’t look up from her laptop. “What is it, baby?”
            “Will you help me get the padding out of my face?”
            “You need a medical professional for that. Give me a few days, and we’ll find someone else to take it out for you.”
            The young girl retreated to her bathroom once more. She’d asked for help, but help wasn’t coming, and she couldn’t take this anymore. Her skull would split in half. She braced a hand on the counter and dug her pinky finger back into her nose. Blood gushed afresh, but she hooked a nail around the padding and yanked.

            “She’s mutilated herself,” the mother explained to the receptionist at the psych ward. The young girl trailed behind, but a paper sack covered her head.
            The receptionist eyed the sack. “Are you sure she isn’t just shy?”
            The mother yanked the sack off to reveal a black and blue, smashed-in face. The young girl hung her head.
            “You see?” The mother demanded, tears springing to her sighted eyes. “She’s blinded herself and destroyed her nose.”
            The receptionist swallowed her disgust. She’d seen worse, after all. “Self-mutilation is very serious,” she agreed, and set about checking the young girl in.

            The young girl stared at herself in the grey light of the hospital bathroom. She could only see out of her left eye. Her right was a filmy mix of cataracts and burst blood vessels.
            “How could you let this happen?” She asked her mother, who was unpacking her belongings in the too-white, antiseptic bedroom.
            Her mother appeared in the bathroom doorway. “How could you let this happen? If you’d just waited for someone who knew what they were doing, everything would look and work the way it was supposed to.”
            The young girl had no idea how pulling the packing out of her nose had demolished her right eye. She said, “What way was my nose ‘supposed’ to look?”
            “Small. Symmetrical. Not…” The mother didn’t finish. She didn’t meet her daughter’s half-slain eyes head on, or in the mirror. She turned back to continue unpacking, looking anywhere but her own damnation.

            The young girl didn’t know how to fix her face. Neither did the doctors at the psych ward. In group, all they talked about was her tendency to self-mutilate.
            “I didn’t mean to hurt myself,” the young girl insisted. The hair on her thighs stood up from the electric current trapped in the plastic kiddie chair. “I was trying to fix myself.”
            “Yes, you were,” agreed the therapist. “But intentions don’t count for much, do they?”
            If intentions counted for nothing, the young girl didn’t know what to make of her mother. She remembered the intentions of the surgery. First and foremost, it was to get the bump off the ridge of her nose, and to center her features into symmetrical perfection.
            Just because perfection was unattainable—at least according to the therapist—symmetry was still within reach. That night, she stared at herself in the mirror once more.
            Her face was no longer blue—the bruising had gone yellow, and the burst blood vessels in her right eye had faded from an angry red to a defeated pink. Her nose was a sunken crater, but at least it was in the center of her face. Once the bruising and swelling went away entirely, there would only be one unsymmetrical feature left.
            The young girl broke off the hot faucet on the sink. The burst pipe sprayed treated water everywhere, like the blast of a rogue fire hydrant. She gouged out her left eye with the faucet’s jagged metal bottom.

            For months after the incident, the mother refused to speak to her daughter. To the blind and anosmic young girl, the added deprivation of sound made her mother functionally incorporeal. It was torture. It was bliss.
            The first instance of attempted reconciliation came when the mother successfully won a negligence case against the medical complex where the doctor had worked. She used the money to pay for a final surgery to fully reconstruct the young girl’s face—this time, with a different doctor, at a different clinic. And this time, when the young girl went under, it was in a medically induced coma set to last for weeks. She would not come to in time to ruin her physique.
            In the anesthetic state, the young girl dreamed. She dreamed of looking at herself in the mirror, post-surgery, in which the opposite of a beauty stared back. Her dream self was a misshapen clump of scar tissue. Like a rotten apple, white, dried and rigid in the sun.
            When she awoke, the mother cooed over her appearance, speaking to her daughter for the first time in months. “You’re stunning, baby, perfect. I wish you could see yourself.”
            I can, the young girl wanted to say, envisioning the scar tissue monster once more. But she held her tongue. The mother had abandoned the young girl in silence so long, her omnipotence had faded. Her words no longer merited belief or a response.

            The doctor stared out at the ocean from his beach cabana. The sunset was blood red. An exposed wound, oozing crimson across the sky and poisoning the waves. He’d cashed in his life savings and fled to an island in the Caribbean.
            A tall, condensation-dripping glass appeared on a platter to his right. “Your piña colada, sir,” said the attendant. She plopped in a little pink umbrella to shade the drink. The doctor considered such eye for detail the highest of virtues. He turned to thank her.
            The words gummed up in his mouth.
            Since arriving, the doctor had only bothered with female wait staff who personified the "exotic" beauty of travel adverts. This woman was not beautiful. She was a monster. An elephantine, misshapen beast, with a reptilian rash creeping up her neck, threatening her face.
            He blurted, “Did something happen to you?”
            The attendant laughed. “I got a haircut yesterday. Didn’t turn out the way I planned. At least it’s not permanent!”
            She returned to the bar. The doctor imagined putting her under the knife. Peeling off all that sickly scaled skin, shaving her bones into something presentable, and patching her up with lovely, donated grafts.
            There was no help for her, not really, but what good was imagination if it didn’t justifiably create its own sort of reality?
            This logic became the doctor’s curse.
            When night fell and he walked home, all he saw was disfigurement. Barefoot children kicked a worn soccer ball—weeping sores covered their legs. A woman changed too close to a window—lumpy green flesh spilled out from her cheap lingerie. Local vendors hocked souvenirs at bulbous cruise-goers—their witchy, knotted hands looked like dead trees, burnt and twisted by lightning.
            The doctor slammed the metal door of his condo and locked it tight. He licked nervous sweat from his upper lip. He reminded himself, “It’s not your fault.”
            Yet in his dreams, the genesis deformity returned: a goddess whose hauntings had at last spilled, uncontainable, from his unconscious. She was a mass of animated scar tissue; the personification of devastating, gory symmetry.
            Her eyes—a bottomless black socket the size of his fist, and a milky, cataract-strewn orb— bore down on the doctor’s innermost being. When she smiled, yellow fangs split through infected gums. “But isn’t it, doctor?”

            When the young girl finally returned from the psych ward, she locked herself in the bathroom to get some space from her mother, who couldn’t stand the reciprocated silent treatment.
            Her reflection, objectively gorgeous and intangible, came alive in the glass. Its crystalline voice dripped with judgement. “You didn’t even think a botched surgery was a possibility?”
            The young girl answered, “I assumed the surgery was what I wanted.”
            “No way you wanted this to happen. You’re fucking blind. You look nothing like yourself.”
            The young girl imagined stepping through the mirror, into her own mind, where the scar tissue monster crept up behind the objectively gorgeous reflection. It poised itself to attack but turned its wretched eyes on the young girl first. Asking permission.
            The young girl stood at her full height. “I look exactly like myself, because I am myself.”
            In the lucid world of the mirror, the scar tissue monster—hideous, glorious and invulnerable—devoured the objectively gorgeous reflection in a frenzy of flayed flesh.
            Perhaps, the young girl considered, she’d attained perfection at last.

 

 
 

Nicole Flippo is a current MFA in Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Previously, she received a BFA in Dramatic Writing with a concentration in Creative Writing from New York University. She has interned with Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. She is the Blog Editor for LUMINA Journal. Her writing has received awards with the Fusion Film Festival, Talent Factory’s Script and Storyboard Showcase, Oregon Short Film Festival, Oklahoma State One Act Festival, Union Film Festival, and others. She was a primary cast member on WNYU’s America News Now and has contributed to LUMINA Journal’s literary podcast, Firefly.