She closes the book. Her fingers break open on the edge of the pages, small slits like half-asleep eyes. Crying. She stains the paper red, but only on the outside. If you open the book and read, you’d never know she bled, or how, when she looked inside, the coiled letters called her snake, pressed hard flesh against her in the back hallway near the restroom until the smell of even her own piss fifteen years later would bring her back to his tongue and teeth, the plastic buttons on the front of his shirt marking the skin over her spine, stapling those forever brief moments to her nervous system.
Seashell against the ear, whooshing like wind on sail beneath the sun, until the father’s hand collapses mollusk carcass into the boy’s memory. Goddamn it. Goddamn it, kid. The whooshing goes on.
They sit on the edge of the unmade bed, mouths moving with no sound. The indent on the pillow looks new, and if you come closer, inspect, you’d see the hairs from her head, right there, closer, and the pillow moans, too, remembers the illness, the sweat, the godawful stink like something an ancient grizzly might spit up just moments before it’s undone from this life. Hot, hollow, noxious.
I. Her eyebrows worn like black moons in a brown universe; her eyes, the planets, the stars. All around, the wreckage of spaceships sending broken glass like satellite signals: Stay back. Stay back.
II. I flick a beetle from the edge of the table and watch it spin, then hit the door frame. Its legs immediately pop out, and it staggers a few inches, wings awry, cracked from the sliver of red shell. The non-face looks at me, says nothing.
III. I roll “antique” on my tongue, cut it with teeth. False incisors.
IV. Goblins doze below the hill if what we eat is forgotten flesh; how much it weighs depends not on how many lies we’ve told but how many truths we’ve abandoned.
V. She watches me with her eyes closed; sews mine shut so I can see her more clearly.
VI. In a diary, thumbprint your age on every page you turn. The words can only be read by touch. Fire lives in love-cradled paper, will blister fingertips and call you all those names you wish had been forgotten.
VII. You do not stay back.
IIX. The beetle is older now, crisp on the dining room floor, its carcass surrounded by cat hairs and potato chip crumbs, unmoving. This time, the face doesn’t even bother to look.
Her knives belong to him, passed through a generation with old watches. Time, dead. You can hear blades sharpening themselves on bones.
The edges of the knives sing silent songs until we choke.
All is false, and fiction wears a breastplate of truth.
Watches make dry music sung by skeletons.
Brian Baumgart is the author of Rules for Loving Right (Sweet, 2017). His writing has appeared in a number of journals, including South Dakota Review, Cleaver, Whale Road Review, and Midway Journal, and he’s twice been nominated for the Best of the Net (2019 and 2020). He is the Director of Creative Writing at North Hennepin Community College, near Minneapolis, and was 2018 Artist-in-Residence at University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecological Science Reserve. For more: https://briandbaumgart.wixsite.com/website.