Associate fiction editor Krys Malcolm Belc on today’s bonus fiction: In this gritty flash piece. R.M. Cooper captures the aggressive mindset of a woman living deep in a lie of her own making. Short, relentless sentences and a high-stakes encounter make for an enchanting and unsettling quick read.
There’s nothing to eat in her trash bin. The insides are all credit card receipts and old medical bills and bank statements and a letter from her sister in Tucson. Check around back. There’s a big plastic cylinder that smells like chicken bones and soiled milk, but inside everything’s turned to dirt. Beside the cylinder are brown bags filled with similar-smelling dirt, each labeled in black permanent marker: For Garden. There are eight bags beside the cylinder. The yard is filled with wood chips which stick to your bare feet and require no watering in the dry mountain summers. Try the front door, the back door. A light comes on when you try the window. Flop face-down in the wood chips. Take shallow breaths for twenty minutes until the light winks out. Return to the trash bin and stuff whatever papers you can manage inside your coat. Leave.
Fold down the corners of papers with account numbers. Set aside an out-of-state receipt. Call and dispute the receipt with the bank: $15.95 at a nail salon. Make threats regarding the closure of your account. Ask to speak with a manager. Make Ted, the manager, stutter. Ted is only filling in. He usually doesn’t work weekends. Play stupid. Play belligerent. Keep playing until Ted relents. Find the folded paper with an address. With a home phone number. With the last four digits of the debit card. Write down the account number Ted surrenders.
Rent an efficiency apartment. Apply for a third-party credit card. Pay rent. Buy groceries. Afford new clothes. Get an interview at a movie theater. Get a second interview at a convenience store. Get a third interview at a daycare. Say you’re happy to work for cash. Off the books is fine. Employee health insurance, yes—Obamacare. Agree: It’s killing small businesses. Say you’re only interested in the children. Bike to work, even during winter. Say it’s for the exercise. Say it’s for the environment. Avoid libraries and post offices. Pay your bills on time.
Three years pass before the husband arrives. When you answer the door he looks surprised. He tries to look around you inside your apartment. He asks if you know Laura Peters. Touch your collarbone along the seam of your robe. Say that’s your name. Let him laugh when he tells you about the estate papers listing the apartment as a second address. Pretend not to notice the word estate. His eyes are bloodshot. His chin is unshaved. He says he thought his wife was having an affair. He tries to look past you again. Laugh. Touch his shoulder. Say you grew up with a Laura Peters too. Ask if there was a pop star with that name in the seventies? An actress? Ask if she went to your high school. Ask if he and Other Laura (you’ve called her this twice by now) would like to join you for dinner. Talk about death on his terms: passed. Offer condolences: cancer is terrible, the body turning on itself, the radiation sickness, the burden on the family. Give him a minute. Give him another. Try not to look impatient when he doesn’t leave your door. You’ll want to comfort him. You’ll want to send him away. Instead, step forward. Lean into the doorjamb and let your fingers drift inside the seam of your robe. Ask if there’s anything you can do. Say you’re sure he’s been strained, felt alone for a long time. His brow will furrow. His jaw will tighten. When he tries to look around you again, move to meet his eyes. Make sure he knows there’s nobody inside but you.
R.M. Cooper’s writing has recently appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review (2014 Fiction Award recipient), Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, Fugue, The Pinch, Portland Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. Cooper lives with his wife in the Colorado Front Range and is the managing editor of Sequestrum.