Responsible Fear by Alex McElroy

2016 Neutrino Short-Short Prize Winner, Selected by Lindsay Hunter

Then I say, So if I have five nickels what do I have? And any kid who tells me, A quarter!, gets a whap on the back of the head. There is no time for comparative thinking, I say. We must face the demands of reality.

Professionally, I prepare. For decades I have bunkered the earth and nailed boards over windows. I have transformed spuds into fire extinguishers, pulled electrical charges from cans. Humans are naturally unprepared. Our skin is soft, our desires contagious. We adapt too quickly to too many things. And children, I’ve learned, are the least prepared of the humans.

That is why I opened my studio, a mirrored box in a strip mall, where I teach children how to be scared. It’s the end of a session. The kids sit in a semi-circle, huffing and wet. Mickey, I say to a kid in the front. He’s underbitten and tubby, offensively freckled, a weeper when he entered the program, now hardened into cement. Mickey, I ask, what makes you afraid?

Bio-chemical warfare, he says. The increasing rate of infant obesity. Sea-level rise. Temperature rise. The decline of middle-class wealth. Drought, famine, and guns. The Chinese Military. Big Government. Small Government. Extra-terrestrial life. That no one will love me when I am older. The flatulent scent of gas in the kitchen. Aneurisms and cars.

Mickey is a prized student. He understands that preparedness is responsible fear.

After class, the kids and their parents convene next to the shoe cubby. The mirrored walls clone all the families, their bodies repeating into oblivion. The parents used to thank me at the end of every session. Now I’m lucky if they grunt me goodbye. My service confirms what the parents cannot admit to themselves: they brought children into a dangerous world. They hate me for reminding them what they have done.

*
I bike home. Car accidents account for 40,000 American deaths every year. Less than 800 people, by comparison, are flattened while riding their bikes. I stop at a pizza parlor where the lighting is grim and the booths trouble my back. The two slices I order shimmer with grease, cellophaning the plate underneath. I pat the slices with napkins then pinch a packet of turmeric powder out of my pocket. Normally, I sprinkle it over the pizza, to combat the damage it causes my arteries, but tonight I don’t see the point.

It should come as no surprise that I am dying. Death occasions this story. Nobody really says anything honest until they know they are dying. Death has made a screamer. Perhaps I can scare it away, I think, as if death were a herd of raccoons raiding my garbage.

The door jingles open. Inside step Mickey’s mother and father. They’re handsome people, and fit, their smiles stronger than horses. Mickey’s ugliness is a phase—at worst, an aberration. They collect a stack of boxes. I race to the exit, where the parents cannot avoid me.

First off, I tell them, I think you should know I am dying.

Our kids get nasty unfed, says the father. He tries to push through me, but I steel my arms over the door.

How are you dying? wonders the wife.

I tell her how it will happen: I will grow tired and feeble and take to sitting in chairs. My mind will falter. Faces will cease to make sense. I will thin to sticks. My organs will quit in succession, as if my body were a house and someone inside were skulking from room to room, snuffing its lamps.

That is a terrible story, says the husband, but—

I have no one else I can tell, I tell him.

The wife eyes the husband. Maybe let’s invite him for dinner, she mumbles.

That’s when I see it: Us and the kids eating pizza while watching an age-appropriate film, lounging on the floor, laughing and bumping out burps. The predictability pains me. Eating dinner with them will only intensify my isolation. I don’t want to die in their idea of comfort. So I say, I would like to make love to you both. I say, I am merely a man stricken with skin who longs for skin on my skin. I want flesh pressing into my flesh, bones digging into my bones, to see lamplight thrown over unfamiliar thighs, to taste indescribable loins.

I speak rapturously. Spittle pools at the edge of my mouth.

The mother is crying. Tears heavy as jelly ride the sides of her face.

The parents bolt, and I sit on the floor, pinned in place by the hateful eyes of the diners. A commotion draws me outside. Mickey’s father is slamming my bike on the ground. When he sees me he says, This is what happens to perverts, and slams my bike to a V. His wife drives up and he gets in the passenger seat. They flip me off, fantastically grinning.

I leave my mangled bike on the curb. I live five miles away, on the rural outskirts of town, and as I walk the night starts to expand: trees, stones, newts, ribbits, and squawks emerge from the void carved out by the windblown pace I normally make on my bike. I try to cherish the sounds, try to step into the night like a child into a dress, when a drunk doing 70 skids off the road and splits me in two at the hip, my top half moonwardly launched, snatched by a hawk that carries me through a thicket of stars to a nest, where its babies pluck me to pulp, all while foxes chew through my denimed thighs, sharing the meat with ants, maggots, fungus, and gnats. The driver recovers his wits and zips home thinking he pummeled a deer. I suspect there’s a lesson in that, but me, I’m too dead to know what it is.

Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, The Kenyon Review Online, The Georgia Review, Conjunctions, and New England Review. More work can be found at alexmcelroy.org. He is currently the fiction editor for Gulf Coast.

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