The dusky light had gone out. The blinds lay beige and dull with no sky behind them. Only the phone screen remained, and the quiet waves, and the suckling embrace of a hotel mattress. He shifted and pressed send.
I do love you
Sorry… I know.
I love you.
It’s hard Ted.
More than the open road and ocean
Keeping me up all night
*the waves are
I shouldn’t be keeping you up.
Close your window, then.
I like it open
It’s the waves, besides I don’t want sleep
I have another show tomorrow
I’ll bring you a souvenir
I don’t need more pretty baubles, Ted.
Not from the coast. I left that place behind.
*I want to think I did
*did I use the asterix right?
Lol yes, the first time
Good. My texting is getting better.
We can call if you like
No, I like this.
I mean, you were practically feral when we met
Oh shut up haha
I miss the food there.
Something to eat would be fine.
Bring me something to eat.
There’s good food here, seafood and poultry.
Tell me about all the pretty
Girls you’ve met on tour.
Ted pulled the comforter around his armpits. It was cold with the open window.
Haha there arnt any
And I’m not “on tour”
You’ve been gone long enough for one.
Tomorrow’s the last gig. I’ll come back the day after
All evaluative statements are based on comparison
I keep a picture of you on my phone
I look at it and—Crack! Pretty girls vanish.
Hahaha true. Come on though…
It was the silence which woke him. Ted sat upright in the dark. His ears were pounding. His hand scrabbled at the bedside table. He checked his phone, no new messages. Sleep wouldn’t take him back. An interminable period of time passed before he realized what was wrong. He got up and opened the window.
Ted couldn’t remember when it had been shut.
Ted was a little drunk, half from wine and half the relief of a good show. He felt like a celebrity, a real star filled with that faint afterglow. His shoes were well made, his long coat fit well, and even his hair riffled with relief and luster. The dark air smelled cool and nutty. He could see the sky. Pink and yellow paper lanterns were strung up around them, mousy stars with moth planets in orbit.
The restaurant had been good. It was a charming, brick building with a jaunty neon sign and a little bell which rang when you opened the door. They had wine and chicken alfredo and outdoor seating where you could be close to that quiet night hum of civilian biomass.
Three people sat with him, two women, one man. Audience members once, now they all were bonded as equals by intoxication and a lack of pressing obligations.
“Exotic pets like parrots?” Laura questioned. The other woman, Clara, who was hawk-like and quiet, raised an eyebrow.
Ted shook his head. “More bears and big cats.”
“True. If it can’t rip your face off then what’s the point?” This was Chris, Laura’s fiancée. Chris was the kind of guy who couldn’t sleep at night, who went to the gym and spoke in a loud voice, who tapped his foot in the perpetual motion of fraying nerves. Ted wondered if he knew Laura was too good for him, and that she would leave him one day, ring or not, like an oiled salmon between bear paws.
“Sure,” Ted said. He paused. “Well, you have to understand they’re not pets. I mean they haven’t been tamed. You don’t negotiate with a tamed animal. If a dog pisses on the rug you can shove its nose in and call it a day. Tigers and bears aren’t tame. Humanity doesn’t have a hold on them. Humans who bond with the inhuman have a different kind of relationship, something… Special.”
“And they’re outcasts because of it?” Clara interjected.
“I never said that.”
“But that was the point of your joke.” Clara said. “The man who left his wife for a grizzly bear with a big ass.”
Ted said nothing, examining her.
“There is something uncomfortable about it,” Laura mused. “You know, I wouldn’t marry Chris if he bought a pet tiger.”
“It’s not legal here,” Ted said. “You’d have to go to Idaho or Nevada first.”
“Too much,” Chris said with a careful belch. “Too much for me. If I wanted to philosophize I’d read PETA’s manifesto.”
“This is interesting dear.”
“Not very funny though,” Chris said.
Taking mercy, Ted changed the subject. “Nice town, how long have you all lived here?”
“Oh, we’re born and raised. We know everyone. This town wouldn’t run without us you know,” Laura said, with a glance at the other woman.
Clara didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes cut Ted, clean and blue like two moons in a clear sky. A smile fluttered below. Her whole body was streamlined, compact as a hawk and with a little mouth which flashed white teeth when she smiled. She was wearing a red-brown jacket with a flower sewn onto the breast in yellow thread. There was a black dress under that, and curling black hair over it, but she was really just eyes, round and white and blue with black pupils in the center.
It had gotten cold, and her breath exited in small clouds.
“That’s nice…” Something was getting very hot. It wasn’t the wine, and it certainly wasn’t the weather.
Laura smacked her crimson lips and wrapped the puffer jacket Chris had been wearing tighter around her. The synthetic material flashed like fish scales in the near darkness. “I think we should call it a night babe.”
“It is night,” Christ said sagely, and took a sip of red wine.
“Then let’s go home.”
“But the night is long! And oh! So lonesome without a philosopher comic.” He shoved his chin in Ted’s direction.
She leaned into Chris and whispered about heat and wine and long, sleepless nights. Still, Chris hesitated.
Ted raised an eyebrow. “Thinking about that pet tiger? I can hook you up.”
The other man flushed and stood.
This was the picture on Ted’s phone. This was a picture of the most beautiful woman on earth. The most beautiful woman who’d ever walked earth. It was taken one month after they met. The only picture of her and the ocean she’d let him keep.
The shimmering figure was standing with her back to a grassy cliff that overlooked a blue horizon. She faced the camera and was wearing a white dress that left her arms bare. The picture looked cold and windy. Her hair was being swept into a dark river, blowing to the left, and there was a tan blur mid-air, a hat, blown from her head.
She didn’t quite know where to put her arms, but her eyes were wide and looking at the camera. She was halfway between candied smile and real laughter. Her lips were red and full. They had been pursed before, carefully holding teeth out of sight, but now were parting slightly.
The heat was wine and nothing else. The heat was the threatening hum of a cell phone’s electricity in his pocket. He needed an escape. Or he had needed an escape, an open window. Was that how he ended up here?
“You watched me during your show.” Clara’s voice was quieter now, almost a whisper.
“I always watch my audience. You can’t tell jokes to a crowd.”
“You watched me the entire time.”
They were walking close. Shoulders played a danger game. The scent of the bar and restaurant hung around them, around her. Basil and human bodies and sweat and tears of laughter drenched in a brown light.
“You were watching me,” Ted said, carefully watching dark storefronts which passed beside them.
Clara laughed. “I was in the back row.”
“You looked familiar.”
Their footsteps turned to gritty hisses, and then woody thumps as they left the street behind, moved onto a sandy path, and then a pier over the water. It was endless sea and endless sky, and the two human creatures were terribly small. The moon was full and shining.
“I’ve seen you before,” Clara admitted. “I saw you perform in Salem.”
“Is that where you’re from? I knew you were from out of town.”
“What gave me away?”
“Laura didn’t know you. Do you have family here? Friends?”
“No. I suppose I’m on a road-trip.”
“For now, I’m meeting my grandmother in a few days and we’re going to drive inland… What about you? Do you have anyone? On the road?”
They stopped at the end of the dock. The planks and pilings were pale, fresh, and new against the brine. The was an iron bench on one side, but he did not dare sit.
“No, only strangers… Though some of those aren’t so bad.”
Even in darkness she was beautiful, and when she laughed, and Clara did, it was not clouds, but galaxies which flew from her. She wasn’t pretty. She was beautiful. But the moonlit darkness and small jacket and little to hide the faint limp which she walked with, or the way her eyes cast aside as often as up, or the faint scarring of acne across her right temple. It was these things he noticed most of all in the shivering thing beside him.
Perhaps she wasn’t beautiful. Perhaps she was human.
“It’s getting late,” Ted noted. The throbbing muscle was hard in his chest, lodging blood in his ears and fingertips.
“What will it be? My place? Yours? The car? A blanket on the beach?” Waves kissed at the dark planks of wood, dipping gently into the cracks before retracting, before entering again. Ted met her gaze despite himself.
“I can’t. There’s someone else.”
“I know. I saw you checking your phone. Betrothed? You seem the type.”
“No. Why didn’t you leave?”
“Because you told me to walk with you.”
“I shouldn’t have done that. I can’t. I can’t. Clara I can’t.” And there was the heat and gravitational yearning which comes from using the name of a stranger so intimately. But this was familiar. Ted understood this conversation at every level of analysis and knew how the night would end. He only wished it hadn’t been someone like Clara. She would make it difficult, maybe even impossible.
“There’s no one on this dock but us Ted.”
His whole body was quivering, though it was only from the cold. His fist was clenched so tight that a nail cut skin. A drop of blood touched him.
“Let’s go back to my car.”
He hadn’t parked at the bar where he and Clara met. This town was so small he could park by the beach lot and walk from there. This town was so innocent that he could leave the car alone without fear of a baseball bat smashing the window.
There were few streetlights, fewer people, only them actually. They approached his car and Clara hitched her breath and looked around nervously. Ted opened the door to the backseat, but stopped her from entering.
“I can’t. But I can give you something. A souvenir…” Even Clara’s eyes didn’t see everything.
“Oh… What is it? A lock of hair?” She was disappointed, and not in the usual way. Not at all like a person expecting a quick lay, and a quicker goodbye the next morning. Her eyes glistened as she cast them to the side.
Ted said nothing and bent inside the car.
There was a pause. “What’s she like?”
He was searching half blind because the lights in his car had never worked. She was behind him, moving a little and resting against the trunk as if about to pull out a cigarette and smoke it.
“Vast,” he said eventually, “like an ocean of perfect glass.”
“She must be very beautiful.” There was no bitterness in her voice.
“You must be happy.” There was only an awful grey solitude, resignation deeper than any ocean, deeper than any sky. It was as if Clara, too, had played in this scene many times, and was used to the ending. But Ted had decided. This ending would be different, and Clara did not see so keenly.
“I often am,” he replied.
She didn’t see him either, not really, as Ted found the heavy bat he kept under the seat for just this occasion. He clambered from the car, and struck her cleanly in the side of the head.
Not long, 4 hours
Will you be alright? It’s late for driving.
I don’t want to fall asleep unless its next to you
Are you bringing me something to eat?
Yeah. I know you get hangry otherwise
Don’t want you eating me
*The wrong part of
Is it pretty?
He flicked on the left blinker, and merged into the carpool lane. It was listed as two plus after all. He accelerated past a hippy van with the broken tail-light. Ted knew he shouldn’t drive and text, one of these days it might get him killed.
Honesty is sexy.
I’ll put on kettle.
And something in the oven so you don’t starve.
Saltwater mixed into his vision and the road blurred. Highway lights merged with tears and darkness in the worst way, and Ted was unsure if he was crying for grief, or relief.
Pre-dawn light cracked the sky as he pulled into their suburban drive. The garage door opened, and Ted rolled forward. She was waiting for him, huge and deep as the ocean, and yet not very tall at all. She had on a shining green sundress and hair the color of dark spaces between bright stars. Her jaw was muscled and perfect.
They embraced. When she moved, it was as if to the sound of running water, or wind chimes. She smelled like salt and her body fit onto his in a way it had not always done. When they kissed, she retracted her teeth and barbed tongue so he was not cut.
The garage door closed.
A muffled banging could be heard inside the trunk. She looked at him with a mixture of lust and surprise, almost awe.
“You brought a live one.”
He nodded mutely, and passed her the car keys. She took them with greedy, bladed fingers. Her oily black eyes slid off his face and onto the rattling trunk. Ted had been been afraid Clara might die from the bat, that her bones and skull were as thin as a robin’s. He’d hoped she might die. Ted had been weak. He couldn’t bring himself to wrap rope around her neck and pull until her unconscious form lost its heartbeat.
He’d always known weakness was adjacent to cruelty.
“Coffee on the counter?” Ted asked.
She affirmed, already drifting toward the trunk. Her finger savored the act of depressing the remote, and the lid opened with a wet chuckle. Muffled noises no human should ever make, or hear, poured forth. It was not at all like the chirping of an injured songbird. There was nothing beautiful about it at all. The sound licked his skin with a harsh tongue, rasping off layers and layers of flesh until he was nothing but a grimy iron plate.
Ted shut the door behind him.
He poured coffee with shaking hands. He took a sharp knife and cut the mushroom and spinach quiche she’d made for him. He pulled back the blinds and threw open the kitchen window and the dawn chorus of a hundred ignorant birds drowned him.
There was a tuft of ratty yellow hair, torn out by the roots, and a splash of maroon on the rug. Ted threw the hair in the trash, and resolved to clean the rug tomorrow. If you lived with a stray cat you should expect to find the remains of a mouse every now and then.
The walls were thin. The walls were so terribly thin. He lay awake in the bedroom for two hours before she joined him. Her hair was wet and silky and she wore nothing but a thin towel. She slithered under the covers and nestled into his arms. He was relieved. Her lavender shampoo was thick and he could smell nothing else. The shower had washed off the iron juice, the red gore, the yellow snot and purple tears, and left her slightly damp in a not unpleasant way. She’d gotten better at cleaning up.
“What are you doing in bed? It’s halfway to noon.”
“You said you wouldn’t sleep without me beside you.”
“But you’re not tired.”
“I’ll read a book.” She smiled and kissed him.
There was something between her teeth.
After they separated, he felt inside his own mouth with two fingers. There it was. Ted pulled a small lock of hair from his tongue.
It was black and curly.
Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay
16 thoughts on “The Souvenir by Nick Satnik”
So well constructed. It flows beautifully to the unexpected finish. Well done.
Hey Leila! Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
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Nice twist, thanks for the fun read!
Glad you enjoyed! Always happy when a twist goes over well.
Oh very good – creepy & brutal! And I liked the way it was left open exactly what ‘she’ was. A good shivery one!
Thanks Steven, always happy to hear of a few shivers! I blame reading too many different myths about mysterious people who come from the sea.
Well, this was very mesmerizing, until the protagonist hits Clara with the baseball bat, then it kind of moved into a Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka thing. I liked the texting idea, and there’s a lot of poetic language, the discussion about wild pets was quite interesting, I guess foreshadowing the latter part of the story.
Thank you Harrison. I’ll have to look into Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, I haven’t gotten to encounter their work yet.
It can’t be easy living with a hungry, cannibalistic monster no matter how beautiful they are. Chris told Ted “If it can’t rip your face off then what’s the point?” I guess Chris was preaching to the choir. Good story.
Hey David! Glad that came across so well and that you enjoyed the story.
You flatter me.
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The switch between narrative and text messages was really effective and already, somehow, gave me a sense of something impending. I also found the writing beautifully balanced – great description, but not overwrought, and superb dialogue, and excellent plot.
I’m glad to hear it! The texting sections were certainly some of the hardest to measure and fit against the rest of the writing.
I can only echo what everyone else has said.
Maybe I could throw in an ‘inventive’ and you got the balance of the story perfect!!
Hope to see more from you soon.
Hi Hugh, thanks! I strive for invention. And I’ll look forward to following up on that, I definitely hope to send a few more pieces to ‘literally’ in the future.