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WEIRD WORDS 2: “MAKING THE CUT”

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Another week, another finalist in our ongoing WEIRD WORDS 2 short fiction contest. This nightmarish little number comes to us courtesy of author Ethan James Petty. It’s called…

 MAKING THE CUT

By Ethan James Petty

            “Yes,
he’s mentally ill. No, that doesn’t automatically make him a pervert,”
said June, pinning her cell tightly between ear and shoulder as she hooked all
seven grocery bags onto her slender fingers. Her left foot nudged the “Healing
Helpers” van door shut, nearly causing her to topple. Embarrassed, she glanced
up at the old man’s smokey window. The curtains shifted.

            “Junebug,
a little secret from the book of men. We’re all perverts, we’re just very good
at hiding it until we’re mentally ill. What are you wearing?”

            “Hah.”

            “Not
for me. For him.”

            “Ew.
So now I’m the pervert?” June poked the call button next to the
water-stained smear that once read Carl Edison.

            “Don’t
want to give the poor old guy a heart attack. How often does he see hot young
thangs
?”

            “Just
me. And only once a week. Relax. His heart is safe. I wore my ugliest
turtleneck. Baggy jeans. My knees aren’t even showing.”

            “Good.
Got to be careful with old guys and knees. I’ll see you tonight. Bye bye.”

            “Bye!”

            June knew
this ritual well—ring once, wait ten seconds, ring again. That way Mr. E knew
it was a friend. He buzzed her up.

            She’s
flashing the cleavage again
, thought Mr. E from the opposite end of the
peephole. If he hadn’t been so preoccupied—no, so obsessed with the end of
everything, he might have achieved the pity-thrill she was throwing his way.
June was a class act, doing whatever she could to remind him that there was a
world outside his house, one full of exciting new people and  things to see. If that meant flirting, she
flirted. They both knew it would never come to anything.  She was a shoulder to cry on, a wall at which
to bounce ideas, and a limitless source of information about the world he’d
shut out decades ago. She’d once told him that she could fix him if he’d just
step out into “Junebug’s world,” but he knew what waited beyond the
door, despite her colorful stories: old things. Dead things. He was one of
them.

            Mr. E
processed his deadbolt, locks, and chains, knowing he had only five seconds to
retreat into the kitchen before June opened the gateway. Sure enough, he heard
the rustling grocery bags as, six seconds later, she stepped in and plopped
them down on the table. He heard the door thump back into place, followed by
the soothing click of each lock. Good girl.

            “Did
you get it, June?” Mr. E stumbled into his living room, startling her.
Usually, he’d grill her with a series of bizarre, specific questions, just to
make sure she was really June and not something else. Not today. Today was
moving far too fast and his time was running short.

            “I
think I got everything on your list, Mr. E, and some extras, too. I’ve been
clipping coupons and I managed to stretch your hundred bucks really far this
week.”

            “The
razor. Did you get the razor?” His voice was mud.

            She frowned
at his shaking hands and the way he turned his head sideways when he looked at
her. This was Mr. Edison from last year. Not Mr. E. As a volunteer, she’d
worked hard to tame the beast standing before her and she hadn’t seen it for a
long while. Mr. E had never trusted any social worker before, which bought June
the helper of the month badge twice last year. Today, though, he was way off.
Regressed. He hadn’t bothered untangling the wispy mess atop his head, nor had
he changed his grungy plaid pajamas. His eyes bulged. His nostrils flared as if
gasping for air.

            “Are
you finally going to shear off the beard?’ she asked. She hoped her perfect
smile might dig out his, as it usually did, but there was no emotion to be
mined from the old man’s face today.

            “The
beard, yes. It’s grown itchy.” It certainly looked itchy.

            “I’m
not supposed to do this—you know the rules: food only, but I know you don’t
have any other way to get things. Kind of feels like I’m smuggling a file into
a prison. You aren’t planning an escape, are you?”

            He
shrugged.

            June fished
through the bags, setting aside canned jumbo raviolis, fortune cookies (he
didn’t bother with the fortunes, just the cookies), and what few vegetables she
could sneak in each week without protest. Finally, she found it, not the
ultimate x-treme smooth glide disposable she wanted to buy, but what he’d
specifically demanded—a box of plain old razors. Razors-in-the-Halloween-candy
razors. Menacing little bastards. She wasn’t stupid—though she felt stupid
now—she knew this was risky business, but she’d felt she was at a crossroads
with him. That all progress would be flushed if she denied him his simple
request. Besides, if Mr. E wanted to off himself, he already had a pretty
impressive arsenal, didn’t he? His cabinets were filled with toxic cleaning products,
he wore a belt and certainly had access to bedsheets, should he choose to take
the hangman’s route. And of course, he could always just plunge into the urban
jungle outside his door, which he was absolutely convinced would kill him.
Still, she’d gambled and now she was doubting her bet as the roulette wheel
began to slow. Please don’t land on red.

            Mr E
exhaled hard. These were smuggled goods. These were game changers. He snatched
them from her hand whip-fast and ran his grubby fingernails around the package
edges looking for a breaching point.

            “Maybe
this was a bad idea,” said June. “I can get you something better.
I’ll pay for it myself. Hey! Maybe you can come out with me. There’s a barber
around the corner. Real close. It’s on me.”

            “June,
how old do you think I am?”

            “Thirty-five?”
She smiled again.

            “I was
born in ’36.”

            “I’ve
seen wars reshape the world, presidents shot, diseases cured, and new ones
born. You are a beautiful girl and a wonderful human being, but please don’t
try to parent me.” There it was. There was the tone that had convinced her
in the first place. “I’m tired, June. And it’s time to go.”

            “OK,
I’ll go. Just promise me you’ll be here next week. Can you do that?’

            “Of course.
Where else would I be?” asked Mr. E.

            Unsatisfied,
but without alternatives, June left. She listened for the inevitable ritual
behind her, knowing exactly which lock corresponded to each click.

            Do the
cuts go horizontally or vertically? The man in the mirror wasn’t specific
, thought
Mr. E. He stood before the glass, awaiting further instructions, but the
reflection was quiet.

            Elly
Otrava’s emergency dispatch assignment had been running five years. It was hard
to estimate the specific type of emergency her employer sought to intercept.
She didn’t know how the magic worked, but it always did. She had faith because
she’d seen the miracles. Today, they took the form of a panicking red light.

            “911
emergency, how may I help you?” asked Elly.

            “Hello,
I—I’m a social worker. And I think one of my friends is going to kill himself.”

            “Calm down,
hon. What’s your name?”

            “June
Janson.”

            “Pretty
name, June. What’s the man’s name and address?”

            “Mr. E. I
mean Carl Edison. He lives at 216B Glenn.”

            That was a
hit. She circled the address in her special list. Finally, here was her chance
to push the magic into motion. “June, why do you think Mr. Edison is suicidal?
What did he say?”

            “It wasn’t
anything specific, really. Well, he wanted razors… like really wanted them.
Just the blades. And he wasn’t himself. He was acting—they don’t like us to use
the word, but…”

            “But he was
acting crazy. OK, hon, I’m going to send over the police. I need you to leave
the premises. We don’t want you getting in their way. And if the man has
razors, you definitely want to keep your distance. Don’t feel bad, sometimes
people lose themselves for a little bit. We’ll take care of him. You did good
today. You probably saved a man’s life.”

            “OK. Hurry.
Please.”

            “Goodbye,
hon.”

            Elly dipped
a wrinkled hand into her purse and fished out a compact mirror. She popped it
open and waited for her reflection to change.

            “We’ve got
one. Mr. Carl Edison,” said Elly.

            “Fantastic.
Is there any chance at intervention?” asked Mirror-Elly.

            “No. I’m
deleting all traces. It’s out of our hands now.”

            “He’ll be
pleased, Elly,” said Mirror-Elly. “Perhaps you’ll be next.”

            “Oh, I hope
so. Do you think it’s possible?”

            Mirror-Elly
winked. Elly zipped up her purse and strutted off the job. She never returned.

            Where are
they?
It had been twenty minutes and June hadn’t heard so much as a siren yet.
Her 911 calls came up busy. She screamed at his window with no response, threw
rocks, and even assaulted his neighbors’ buzzers when Mr. E’s had no effect.
Nobody would help.

            “Please,
Mr. E. Don’t put this on me.” But it was completely on her. Her mistake. Her
lack of maturity, of judgment. Her fault. She could already hear the Healing
Helpers rationalizing why they would have to report her to the police. She had
to be the one to make this right.

            June
scrambled into the HH van and plowed it right onto the lawn, grinding yuccas
beneath her tires and grinding the door’s hideous fuchsia paint along the
complex’s jagged wall. She took one more shot at a reasonable response and
mashed the horn several times. Faces popped into windows, none of them Mr. E’s.
She swore at them.

            Mr. E ran
the tub full blast. It was a deep claw-foot, but the stream was heavy; the
water was already overflowing onto the tile. He didn’t notice. He was staring
eye-to-bloodshot-eye with the dead man in the mirror. This shell was spent,
dried up, worn out and nearly blind, but not deaf yet; he could hear some
maniac honking outside. Had they finally come for him?

            His
reflection spoke to him, as it sometimes did. It passed along further
instructions, whispering. The water must be deep. The cuts must be deep. Still
no specifics. This was a test of faith.

            Mr. E held
the gleaming blade between thumb and forefinger. Presented it to the mirror for
approval. It nodded back. It’s time.

            Even
perched atop the van, the second floor was out of reach. June was going to have
to scale the brickwork at least a couple of feet to reach his windowsill.  She kicked off her sandals and dug her toes
deep into the crevices. Goodbye, pedicure. She scraped her bare knees and felt
a warm droplet shimmy down her leg. When she managed to hoist herself up enough
to grab the ledge, dread reminded her that she’d never achieved even one
chin-up during Phys Ed. But this was a different moment, this one fueled by
adrenaline and chased by guilt. She put everything into one solid heft and soon
found herself balancing on the sill. Please be open. It was.

            She slid
down into the room and her bare, bloody feet dunked into cold water. The room
was dark and flooded. She pulled the chain on the single hanging bulb and
illuminated the sinister weapon. It sat on the rust-stained sink, a smattering
of blood pooled beneath it. No. No!

            She spun
towards the water, horrified by what she might find, yet hoping there still
might be time, but there was no body in the room, living or otherwise. Instead,
a single clown fish spun circles in the bathtub amidst severed chunks of
seaweed.

            “Mr E.!”
she shrieked, bursting from the bathroom and scouring his apartment. She tore
through every closet and corner. She double-checked the front door, hoping to
find it gaping, but the locks were unmolested. Nobody had left the apartment.

            Transported,
Carl Edison drifted naked through the depths of the ocean, his bloody bathwater
womb guiding him through the saltwater, deeper and deeper. He wasn’t the only
one; all around him floated similar bubbles, most of their inhabitants alive,
but many dead. Some of the dead ones had apparently killed themselves with
misguided cuts or wounds that were simply too deep. His own gashes, one on each
side of his neck, began to open and close as new muscles adjusted to new
functions. His tub-bubble soon collapsed, leaving him floating free in the
seawater. This is it. Survive your
birth
.  His new gills understood their
purpose and soon took over breathing for him. Then he saw it rise from the
black maw below.

            Whatever it
was, Leviathan, Kraken, or some vast underwater god, it was always changing.
Sea life burst from infinite abysses in its shapeless body – fish painted in
colors he’d never dreamed swam beside colorless, blind things that would soon
feed in the deepest chasms. Where a face might have been, a colony of squid
undulated and filled the water with ink as it articulated each of its malefic
syllables: FEED ON THE FAILURES. THROUGH THEIR SACRIFICE, YOU WILL GROW. WE
HAVE MUCH TO DO, CHILDREN.

            Weeks
later, June’s probation at Healing Helpers was over.  She tapped the bottom of the upturned fish
food canister, peppering the aquarium with orange flakes. Her clown fish darted
towards its meal, devoured it, and then floated around the tank. June imagined
he was smiling, so she did too.

            “Funny,
isn’t it, Mr. E? After all this, I’m still taking care of you. I guess you and
me were meant to be together.”

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Fangoria Staff
FANGORIA: The First in Fright Since 1979.
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