Monday, August 6, 2007

Oscar's Soup

short fiction:

I felt a prickle in the back of my throat like a dry leaf. It hurt like hell to swallow.

"Eat your soup, Oscar," said my mom, arms crossed, forefinger tapping the bald head of her elbow. Her limbs were toned and shiny, but I could beat her in arm-wrestling because my guns were big, blubbery, and lethal. What could I say? Being a fatso had its upsides.

"Tastes spoiled," I said, gripping the drippy spoon. I was fourteen and I had a bad fever; I was in no mood for crappy soup. "You want me to die of food poisoning?"

She stole my spoon, raised it to her lips, and slurped.

Then she spewed the broth all over the tile floor.

I laughed hard.

"Fine, you win," she said. "It does taste a little funny."

It tasted like dirt. And I knew dirt. Ate a handful in first grade and would have tried more if Miss Zeeman hadn't stopped me.

"Dirt," I said aloud, grinning to myself, even as my forehead pounded so hard that my skin threatened to turn itself inside-out. "Tastes like dirt."

"I'll get you something else." She pulled away the sloshing bowl. "If that's what it takes for you to eat and get better. "

And then the soup talked.
Or it moaned.

I wasn't sure, but I did know that it was engaging in very un-souplike activity. The sound from the liquid came guttural, throaty: "Ugg," it croaked with a baritone, liquid burbling like Jurassic Park, "ugggggggg."

My mom and I locked eyes. This. was. weird.

"Ugg." A tiny bubble expanded to the size of a softball. It popped. "Uggggggggggg."

"What's happening, mom?"

She didn't answer.

It grumbled and bubbled like something physical and real, like something taking its last breaths, like something about to die.

And then it stopped.


Everything was normal again.

"I think," my mom began, carrying the bowl to the sink, "that both of us are feeling a little bit loopy." She upended the bowl, spilling the gruel down the drain with a glug-glug-glug.

My throat constricted: harder than before. I felt something painful deep in my mouth, pulsing or red, I didn't know what but it hurt. It hurt.

It hurt.

"Ugg," I growled. "Uggggggggg."

"You have a fever," my mom whispered, touching my collar bone. Her hand wobbled, like she was drunk. "It's just a little fever." That's when I noticed her crying. I wanted to say, "Don't cry, mom, you're right. It's just a little fever. And it's weird and all but don't cry."

But all I managed was "Ugg."

She gripped my collar bone tighter. It should have stung but I didn't feel a thing. Numb. I was numb. The way the tears dribbled down her cheeks, the way she tried to ignore them: she looked like a little girl. A scared, little girl. Not my mom anymore.

"Uggggg." I stuck a finger into my throat and retched, spewing out a stringy gray mess. The murky strands fell to my chin and hung there, dangling. I probably looked like a mental patient.

But my throat was clear. My head stopped pounding. My mom wouldn't let go of my collar bone and only now did I feel her sharp claws.

"You can let go now, mom."

"Marianne." He shook her through the heavy covers. "Marianne, are you okay?"

She opened her eyes. Early morning. Bedroom tinted in bluish grays. She noticed her hand clinging hard against her collar bone. With a blink she released her grip, feeling the bruise, deep and self-inflicted beneath her flowery nightgown.

Ken, with his stubbled chin and morning breath, loomed above her, his face inches away, concerned but calm in this light of dawn. "You were having that dream again, weren't you?" His eyes stoic, glazed. "The soup dream, wasn't it?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

Outside the sprinkler hummed, its revolutions spritzing water against their windows. A car honked lazily.

"The kid was sick." Ken stood up from the bed, tugging at the wrinkled neck of his undershirt. "You can't blame yourself forever, Marianne."

"He was fourteen years old." She felt too tired to argue, but she couldn't help it. "If it was your son, you wouldn't be so flip."

"I want you to get out of bed today."

"Oh, really?"

"Before noon." He tripped toward the bathroom, flipping on the light, a too-bright glow before the open doorway.

She turned to the nightstand and the framed picture of Oscar, twelve, posing like a football star on the Destin shoreline, fists clenched, floppy biceps flexed, an expression on his face that said now, now, I may look like a little kid but I'm strong. I am strong.

"I heard his voice."

"What's that?" Ken called from the bathroom.

"In the dream," she swallowed hard, the taste of a dry leaf. "I heard his voice in the dream."

The bathroom door clicked shut. With a swish the shower started running.

And then she got out of bed.


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