SD Short Story Contest Finalist: No More Than You Can Salt – Basilike Pappa

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Show me someone who doesn’t want to make their parents proud and I’ll show you a liar. Or, worse, I’ll show you a weakling who shies from hardship. Or, even worse, a heartless, ungrateful bastard. For it is a truth secretly whispered that, when parents bring a baby into their home for the first time, and the sleepless nights start, and the crying turns to howling for hours on end, one question keeps gnawing at their minds: Why did we do this to ourselves?

Strange as it may sound, no one puts someone else before themselves without expecting something in return. And what better way to make it up to one’s parents  than to say one day: ‘Parents, your sacrifices were not for naught. I’ll make you proud.’

Such is the case with me. I can’t deny the fact that from an early age I had been burning with desire to make my parents proud. The seasons came and went, the years passed, and the conviction that only by accomplishing this task would I conquer my own happiness grew stronger. Then came the day when I stood before my parents as a young adult.

‘We haven’t raised you to be a heartless, ungrateful bastard, have we?’ father said.

‘God knows you haven’t,’ I reassured him. ‘No fancy talks about freedom of choice, living your life the way you want and such. Besides, mother is stunningly lifeless. There can be no doubt of my legitimacy.’

‘Or a weakling,’ he added.

‘Absolutely not,’ I said. ‘You must have noticed that, for a girl, I don’t cry as often as expected. And I’ve never –not once– fainted in my life or demonstrated excessive sentimentality of any sort.’

‘Or a liar.’

‘Every dictionary should have a picture of my face next to the entry Truth,’ I said. ‘Remember, parents, that every time you asked me how this or that went wrong, I always told you who was to be blamed. It’s not my fault that it wasn’t my fault but someone else’s.’

‘Then it’s payback time,’ father said.

‘Sacrificing yourself for your loved ones is the truest kind of love,’ mother said. ‘And cleanliness is next to godliness.’

I knew that making my parents proud wouldn’t be easy but, then again, how hard could it be? All I’d have to do was fulfill in their place whatever dreams they thought they had abandoned while playing the noble sport of bringing me up. At the same time, I’d have to not lead a life too different from theirs. Failing to repeat your parents’ mistakes is downright disrespectful.

It would be like adding salt to a dish without making it salty.

‘Parents, your sacrifices were not for naught. I’ll make you proud,’ I said.

And with that promise I went out into the world.

*

‘There is no such thing as boring mathematics,’ father had once said wistfully while watching TV. I was surprised to hear it. Until then I thought it was the devil who had invented mathematics, in the hope that people would get so bored by it they would have to sin in order to feel alive again. All the same father didn’t think so. Therefore I started thinking about general abstract nonsense; I became the monumental mathematician every newspaper in the world wrote about. I raised the art of numbers to such levels it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. And though I often felt stiff and close to tears, not once a blasphemous word escaped my lips.

Lying on my bed one night, looking at the stars from my window and adding up my monthly expenses to lull me to sleep, I realized it was time I reached higher goals. After exposing myself to grinding training, I was ready to defy my weakness –motion sickness– and become the acclaimed astronaut whose handshake with an alien the whole cosmos watched on their TV screens. And though I was often sick during my conquering space, I was proud to be shooting all over the stars.

The order of the universe passed through my soul, turning me into an aesthete. I saw beauty and wisdom in the composition of human laws; I found escapism in loopholes. I became the laureate lawyer whose court epics were repeated word for word by every respected magazine on the globe. And every time I had to sit down and produce some work, I never uttered an obscenity while trying to achieve suspension of disbelief for the public.

It was during my first semester in medical school that I met a tall, dark stranger.

‘You look like a woman of principle,’ he said.

‘I owe that to my father.’

‘You also look like a spotless housewife.’

‘I owe that to my mother.’ It goes without saying that I never started a day without scrubbing every surface in my home with maniacal virtuosity and polishing my cutlery, counting it at the same time to make sure they hadn’t left me for someone else. Then I would look over all I had made and see that it was very good, but next time I would do it better.

‘Will you marry me?’ he said.

‘Are you also rich or just handsome?’

‘I am the owner of the world,’ he said, not without the appropriate mixture of pride and humbleness.

‘In that case the answer is yes. My parents couldn’t have asked for a richer and better looking son-in-law,’ I said.

The wedding ceremony took place in a fairy castle located on its own island, in the middle of an enchanted forest, and left our celebrity guests with a gaping inferiority complex. Exactly nine months later I became a mother. The baby cried and howled for hours on end and I kept thinking: Why did I do this to myself?

It was time to go back to my parents and collect some recognition.

*

‘Your hair is uncombed,’ mother said, trying to rearrange it with her fingers. I pushed her hand away.

‘Parents,’ I said, ‘I stand before you today as an accomplished promise keeper. You must have noticed how much I have achieved and in how many fields of expertise – hell, the whole world has noticed. I now want to see some tears of joy and to hear that I have made you proud.’

Silence held the house, broken only by the ticking of the antique clock over the fireplace and the buzzing of a bee around a vase of fake flowers.

‘Did you have to drop out of medical school?’ father said.

*

I performed all the movements in a perfect succession of balance and contrast. My parents’ heads were units of a larger piece of work, but could also stand by themselves as an independent composition on the mantelpiece. There was one thing missing – salt. I threw handfuls of it over their bodies to create dynamic whiplash motifs.

These were my most sensational headlines ever. But once again I wasn’t very pleased with the photos. I had posed with the fire iron and the chef’s knife, standing tall and grinning from ear to ear, but somehow I managed to look mad instead of happy. Even though things would never be the same, my unphotogenic face would follow me in my new way of life. Oh, well…

Sometimes I replay it all in my mind, to see if there is anything that I could have done better, a chance for improvement now lost forever. But no. The prickling of a thousand needles on my skin, the sweat that never breaks but boils under it, the vise gripping my head, the nausea – they aren’t here anymore. I always see father’s eyes in wide open praise before his body collapsed to the floor as if it were empty. I always hear mother crying out her last words to me: ‘Kill no more than you can salt!’ How proud would she be that I took her lessons to heart.

I replay it all in my mind, and tears of happiness roll down my face. I taste them with the tip of my tongue and find them saltless. I’m always on my best behavior after that.


Basilike Pappa lives in Greece, where she doesn’t work as a translator, a copy-editor or a historian. When she doesn’t write, she reads, walks her dog and cooks without salt. She fights anxiety by singing in a loud, bad voice. Her prose has appeared in ‘Intrinsick’ and ‘Timeless Tales’, and her poetry in ‘Rat’s Ass Review,’ ‘Surreal Poetics’ and ‘Bones Journal for Contemporary Haiku.’ You can read more of her work on her blog, Silent Hour.

 

Update on the Sudden Denouement Short Story Contest

 

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We have had a lot of inquiries about the Sudden Denouement Short Story Contest.  We received 129 submissions to the contest from all over the globe and the editors recently completed their first round of judging, choosing the top 24 stories.  We are currently finishing a second round of judging and will begin publishing our favorites on the site as early as next week.  We hope you enjoy them as much as we have!

Husk – Howl Davies

I’ve got one hour until my parents are back from the theater.

I’m at my typically cluttered desk. Textbooks and notes bathed in the glow from a budget mass produced lamp, designed especially to fit the Swedish specifications of a stylish and productive student workspace.

There are only two things on my desk which are important right now. On the table is a photograph of me and my best friend, Hugh. It was taken a couple of years back. A school excursion, the typical outdoors experience that’s supposed to build character. It was a weekend of early mornings and shitty experiences, but we made the most of it. Hell, we made it fun.

To my left is a small plastic bag, containing a coarse white powder. Give it to a pharmacist or a chemist and they’ll identify it as ‘Desomorphine’. Show it to a kid my age, or a junkie down on their luck and they’ll tell you you’ve got a cheap shipment of Husk. It’s a drug that appealed to the latter for a few years. It was an alternative to heroin, but a tenth of the cost. There was a reason for this. You had your typical long term side effects; heart palpitations, stunted brain cell development, rabid gum disease, but that’s to be expected.

Husk had a much more obvious and worrying long term effect. Necrosis of the skin.

You can probably begin to imagine it, but I can tell you, it’s worse than that. It’s like a section of your body doesn’t get the memo that your heart is still beating and it just – gives up. It rots. The skin falls away and reveals the blighted muscle tissue and discolored bone that the drug has got to and ruined. Deploy. Discover. Destroy. The drug follows every teaching of our founding fathers. So, you’re left with these stinking, rotting masses of flesh hanging off your body.

It’s unpleasant;

                                    but I have no intention of getting to that point.

Another way the drug differs from typical opiates is the overdose. Take too much heroin for your little heart to handle and it’ll just give up on you. Boom. Time’s up. Husk won’t kill you however. It’ll just – change you. Reduce you to a blabbering fool for the rest of your life. Motor skills, language ability, sense of reasoning – out the window. You’ll be lucky if you can even pronounce your own name at the end of it. You’ll be reduced to the equivalent of an adult new born. A shell of your former self. Hence the name – Husk.

All this didn’t deter the most desperate people looking for a fix. It got big in the darker corners of Europe, and then made its way over to America. The authorities and the DEA didn’t pay it much attention until it started making its way into high schools. As soon as it threatened the suburban middle class, they mustered up a crusade to stop the blight, because someone just has to think of the children. Well, the privileged ones. I’m saying this as someone from that world. My father’s a doctor, my mother a lawyer. They own their own house. I am the very embodiment of my own cynicisms.

So why do I have the drug? Well, I’m not looking for a fix, and I’ve never had an interest in getting high. I tease the picture of me and Hugh in my fingers.

He overdosed on Husk six weeks ago.

When I found out, well there’s little that can prepare you for that. I knew him better than anyone, and I knew it wasn’t an accident. He was a smart guy. One of the smartest people I’d ever met. He had been accepted into his first three colleges of choice. He was going to be a doctor, and a good one at that.

He wasn’t the first to overdose at my school, and he wasn’t the last. These weren’t copycat actions, and these weren’t the actions of followers.

Daisy Thompson – she was published in several student literary collectives – she overdosed eight weeks ago, the night before receiving the school’s English prize.

Paul Erikkson – he could have got a sporting scholarship to any college of his choosing – he overdosed five weeks ago, nine days before he was set to go to an invite only football training camp.

Holly Davies – I sat behind her in my further mathematics class and she overdosed just six days ago. She wasn’t that special. She was just always nearby.

The brightest minds, the most charismatic and prosperous individuals were dropping like flies. This wasn’t suicide, but it was their escape. I didn’t want to believe it, but you can’t just ignore a correlation like that. They all had a lot ahead of them, but sometimes you got to think, is that what they really wanted? We’re barely learning to think for ourselves, and we’re already sizing up the mountain we are going to have to climb for the rest of our life.

I understand why they did it. I wouldn’t have bought the drug if I didn’t.

Being constantly told what you’re going to amount to, being reminded about your bright future, it’s merely a constant reminder that you have expectations to fulfil. It’s hard to be happy when you’re constantly measuring your next step, as well as the distance of the fall if you miss it.

Human nature is simple; we just want to be happy.

I mean real happiness. Not the fleeting kind we get day to day – going shopping, watching a film you like, watching people you’ve never met win at a sport you’ve never played – this isn’t that. These little anomalies of content will always be tarnished by the next little dilemma to come along.

I mean pure, unadulterated, unconditional happiness.

The kind I saw last week, in Hugh’s face.

He was sat in the cafeteria, spooning yoghurt out a bowl with one hand and throwing it onto the floor, his other hand playing with his genitals. People don’t die when they take husk – this was the equivalent of an adult new born.

Never in my ten years of knowing him had I ever seen him laugh so hard, or seen him as care free as he was that lunchtime, painting his strawberry flavored masterpiece with his dick in his hand.

He was painting his Sistine chapel. I doubt Michelangelo ever looked that happy.

He doesn’t even recognize me anymore, but that doesn’t change a thing for him.

Maybe the first was an accident. Allen Jones – he always had troubles with what he was going to do after high school. He didn’t have the grades to go where he wanted, and I guess he just wanted a release. When he came back to school – well it was strange to see. Always smiling, always content, always at peace. He used to have panic attacks like clockwork. Now he just sits around sticking the pages of books together with glue. Every single kid in that school, from the honor students to the kids who’d huff solvents in the toilets after school, every single one is the middle child of history. There’s no more American dream to strive for, and the concept of correcting the instabilities left by it is too far off.

We are just filler. We are the commercials for European sports-cars and male impotency medication that crawls through the early morning television schedule.

When you think of it like that, I’m not surprised all the kids did it, and I’m not surprised Hugh did it. He was setting out to spend half of his life in med school, and then the other half to follow would be there to pay it off. You don’t get a break in this world. The only time when you aren’t plagued by responsibility is as an infant, or when you finally cash in your twilight years, slowly dying but out of your mind on medication.

The years of med school cramming and bills was just one aspect for Hugh though. There are other reasons people take Husk. Not just to escape, but also to forget. Not just to forget, but to purge something from ever happening.

Take Marla Parker – sure she wasn’t the brightest kid at school, but then she had a gift more important in high school – she was hot, and her tits came in early. She was attractive, and this made her noticeable. Popular. This is what made her instance so tragic.

It’s always worse hearing a tragedy about someone who’s attractive.

Do you think people would have given a shit about Jesus if he was ugly?

Marla was on a lot of the guy’s radars at high school, and she knew it. She liked it. Like Icarus in a C cup, she got pregnant a month or so into this whole ‘Husk’ pandemic. Not many knew at first, just those involved. Marla was someone I would never go near. Hugh, on the other hand, was crazy about her. Things worked out for them at Diiasio’s birthday party. Hugh was beaming for two weeks afterwards.

Until Hugh found out that Marla was pregnant.

I don’t think that’s why Hugh took the husk though. I explained to him the slim chance that the kid was his. He seemed uneasy when I worked out how many people he was competing with for that ‘World’s #1 Dad’ mug. It did slim down the prospects though. As I said, Icarus in a C cup.

I don’t think it was Marla’s pregnancy that made Hugh decide to overdose.

I don’t think it was Marla telling him that her ‘super Catholic’ parents nearly kicked her out the house and forbid her from getting the abortion that made him do it.

I don’t think it was hearing about how they found Marla in her parents’ home, foaming at the mouth from a near lethal dose of Husk that made him do it.

I don’t think it was about them rushing her to the hospital. Her blood-soaked thighs that made him do it.

I don’t think it was the visits, seeing her a few weeks after that with the mentality of an infant and no recollection of the life she traded in, nor the child she lost.

I don’t think there’s any one reason why Hugh, why these kids, why we are doing this. It’s the weight of it all combined that breaks our back.

I’m not trying to say what these kids did, what I intend to do, is right. I don’t need to justify my actions.

It’s just easier –

                                    And things seldom come easily.

 I’m pinching the bag in between my forearm and thumb, and looking at the picture of Hugh. He’s never coming back, so I may as well join him.

The substance should be dissolved in water. I’d seen it a million times in films. I never thought I’d be at this point, but hell, life’s full of surprises like this.

I’m holding a lighter under a spoon with water and the husk. Too much for a first-time user. Enough to overdose on. What I didn’t understand from when I saw this in films is that when you’re doing it for real, it’s a much slower process. I flick on the television I have next to my desk. The news flashes on the screen and they’re showing a report on Husk. It’s strange to watch it whilst I’m dissolving a fix in one of my parent’s silver spoons. These anti-husk reports are on every couple of days.

But, this isn’t that.

It’s live footage, from an airport. I let go of the gas compression on the lighter and move closer.

The whole airport is in lockdown. Apparently, there’s a kid – he’s locked himself in one of the bathrooms, and he’s threatening to overdose.

His uncle is there outside the bathroom, distraught, begging the kid to come out. There are passengers, pilots, baggage staff, air hosts and hostess’, all watching. All waiting. Every single close-up shot of the crowd reveals a face heavy with empathy. The reporter is talking to a woman slumped on a chair, crying. I assume it’s the kid’s mother, but it isn’t. The woman chokes out that her daughter overdosed a couple of months ago, and then she creases in on herself, crying frantically.

There isn’t a single shot of the crowd where there isn’t someone as distraught as this.

There isn’t a single shot which doesn’t have someone who’s whole life was torn apart by this drug.

The reporter is rushing over to the airport bathroom. The kid came out. He didn’t do it. He’s crying. He’s shaking. His uncle rushes over and hugs him.

And everyone’s clapping for this kid. They’re smiling through tears.

How must this feel for those whose kids went through it?

I can’t even begin to imagine, and the logical step would be to think about my parents. For them to come home and I’ve –

I can’t even think about it.

I throw the spoon in the bin, the lighter, the bag, the syringe. Everything.

I pick up the picture of Hugh again. I look at his goofy smile.

After the overdose, he can’t use a mobile phone. I doubt he’ll ever wrap his head around it again.

I reach over to my phone and address a text to him. I tell him he’s an idiot, and then I tell him I miss him.


 

An uplifting story for Friday!

[Howl Davies is the spectral puppet master crawling in The Sounds inside.]

Must The Misfit Be A Masochist – Mick Hugh

You told me to buy presentable clothes and I did, a whole new outfit from Target. Neat slacks and spiffy shirt, even found shoes to match. And now here I am dressed like a fish trying to understand what it means to breathe air. We’re toddlers on a see-saw, you and I, for the first time trying to find stability. But this gala is full of coroners. My first big affair for a serious career, and my editor escorts me to a corner booth to meet the district managers who pay us both. I laughed at the right jokes but I kept my mouth shut, and they never once saw the tattoos ‘round my gums. The molars I had pulled from eating rocks as a drop-out. Clean-shaven clean-cut and dressed like the guest of a judge who doesn’t recognize my face from four years before, I could maybe fit in if my conscience didn’t heave. The walls are turning purple. Faces start to swirl with open jaws of twisting laughter, vortices of features. The chandeliers are bleeding light. The hotel porters are cackling rapists out in the foyer looking for a fix and I don’t know what I’m into but I’m out in the rain. I am the news man who screamed out the window and tossed himself to pursue his echoes. There is a limo parked in the curbside puddles, seven porters to open the limo door. Out steps the Big Man himself, CEO of Gannet. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” My editor masturbating through his pocket. I am pouring vodka into champagne so no one will notice the changes bringing back the alcoholic. Unemployment gets me paid about half as much but if I don’t need a car or to keep my appearance, well, that’s money well saved and spent at the bar. No – I should give you a call to keep my head grounded but our conversation cannot be heard by these howling de Sades. Their suits are worth more than the hearse they’ll wheel me out on. I am cackling at the bar. Am I the Marquis in the mirror? Behind me spins the eloquent calculations of Murdoch’s publications, wives and the mistresses of breaking war stories and the talking heads from GE that just won’t quit. I am performing Coyote Ugly on the bar, finally shouting all the things that should be said. I haven’t had a care in the world since Makers’ Mark let me forget the debts I owe and the kids we support and I may be the Marquis in the mirror but god damn these cruel fools, our see-saw will stay stable if we place a god damn trailer on it.


[Mick Hugh is the genius behind the neon fog, and is a #1 bad ass.]