Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State where he lives on a lake with his wife, son and assorted wildlife. He’s an editor at the literary journal “Metazen,” Guest Poetry Editor for the Fall Issue of 20Twenty Journal, and Judge for Scribophile’s Flash Fiction Contest. His writing appears widely in print and online as well at such places as Pipe Dream Fiction, In Between Altered States, Lower Eastside Review. He shares his thoughts about art and other things ever few days at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.
My daughter starts hiccuping two days before her twelfth birthday. At first they are barely audible, coming every few minutes, but then their pace quickens, the jolts of choked air getting more expressive, turning into brassy gasps, as if she’s just come up from a long span of being underwater.
I ask my wife what we should do. Terri’s prepping for a deposition she will give tomorrow. She flicks her eyes over the edge of a page and says it’s a phase. “Kids have them, all kinds.” Terri is used to being direct, as well as correct.
That night I have the dream where I dive off a cliff into the ocean and I’m beneath the surface for hours and hours and even the fish are jealous of my lung capacity. When I wake up, the bed is sweat-soaked, smelling briny.
Terri’s already gone because she has drop-off duty and I’m a stay-at-home painter. The phone rings right after I’ve started mixing a new red hue to use as blood where I’ve painted a woman’s slashed neck. I know before I answer my cell what it’s about.
Later, at Natty’s school, I know the principal is going to meet me outside his office, just as I know the words he’ll use: “Everything okay at home?” His stare is steel-strong. He thinks I’m hiding something. I feel like punching him. I’ve got paint on my hands and he sees it, noting the resemblance to dried blood.
On the drive home I turn up the radio to camouflage Natty’s hiccups. Her eyes go wide and her nostrils flare just before each burst, as if she’s going to explode. When she starts to cry, I flick off the sound and tell her a story the way I did when she was a little girl.
In-between the hiccups, Natty says, “tell me about you and Mom.”
I know what she means, but instead I tell her how I was working in a bookstore when I met her mother, how Terri filched a copy of “Infinite Jest” and, instead of turning her over to the cops, I made Terri go out to lunch with me.
Natty actually grins. “Nuh uh! Shut up.”
“But Mom’s a” yick-up! “lawyer.”
“She wasn’t then. She was just your run-of-the-mill petty crook.”
Natty laughs. I tell her more stories about her parent’s courtship and the hiccups fade as I knew they would.
There’s so much I know.
When we pull up to the garage, Natty hugs me hard and whispers in my ear, “I saw something.”
The hiccups return.
The Sin Jar
She keeps her sins in a jar that sits on a shelf in her closet. To reach the jar, she has to use a step ladder. This adds a tragic pageantry to the task and sometimes her heart will thunder so hard as she climbs up each squeaking step that urine dribbles down her thighs and her knees literally knock and her breath comes out stuttered and sour.
She writes every sin down on paper. Some are just strips, no different than a fortune cookie message. Others take up an entire page. She kisses the ink and places the offense in the jar and says aloud, “I am so sorry. I’ll try not to let that happen again.”
The jar belonged to her Grandmother Esther. Gran always carried a wooden spatula with her, even when she wasn’t in the kitchen. It was a weapon she liked to beat the girl with when the girl did incorrect or displeasing things. After Grandma Esther died, the girl went through the old woman’s house, looking through every drawer and nook, searching for the origin of the woman’s evil deportment.
She found the jar on a shelf, hidden beneath worn boots and shawl-type garments.
Inside it were antique, card-sized photographs of ancient people doing sex things to each other. The images did not shock the girl; she became fascinated with the contortion of the participants’ bodies. She wondered over the photographer, what he had intended, what he looked like, if he was someone the girl might know, a relative perhaps.
After she’d memorized every lurid image, she burned the pictures in her bathtub, then ran water over the ashes, watching the charcoal chunks being swept down the drain, some stubborn pieces collecting like gray unforgivingness around the rim.
Then she claimed the jar as her own.
It smelled of decadence and dust, of dead things that did not choose to die. It gleamed a dull green-taupe sheen. Raised glass spelled out a name and a date.
It was the perfect canister to store her misdeeds, her immorality and iniquities, and she had so many to record. Some were her own fault, others had been thrust upon her as she’d reacted in selfish self-defense.
She’d started sinning young. Grandma Esther knew that. The old woman was so good at pointing out the girl’s flawed character.
The first word the girl had ever learned was Please. The next: Stop. Then: Stop that. Then: Stop that, please! Stop that!!
She must not have been very convincing. Her articulation must have been weak-lilted, her words too crumbly, like blue cheese clods.
Now she’s given up using words with the bad boyfriends she can’t seem to shake. They see the darkness in her and it’s the very thing that attracts them, sharks sucking down bloody water.
Tonight she places another sin inside the jar. She kisses the message with her swollen lips, smearing the ink over new bruises.
She says, “I’m sorry for being bad again.”
The Veracity of Certain Demons
The demon did not resemble any image of evil the girl had ever seen before. Still, it was just as terrifying.
It came first as a claw near the back of her throat, a scratching of the skin when she coughed, which was often and grew more frequent and harsh until she spat up blood-tainted spittle.
The girl’s mother took her to the emergency room. Doctors tapped her and gave her tests, took X-rays, questioned her with their pruned and leery skins.
“It’s something inside me,” the girl managed to say, though the demon was at that moment savagely chewing through her intestine.
Dr. Wright scoffed, sucking down a chortle and a snot bubble. He asked the girl’s mother out into the hallway.
The girl looked at illustrated posters of sawed-in-half heads, mouths, throats and learned the correct spelling of esophagus. But then the demon punched her heart and fisted her down below with a quick pop, and so she kicked, almost reflexively like when Dr. Wright used the medical hammer with the tiny tooth against her knee. She kicked the cabinet and knocked a plastic lung to the floor where it broke open, hollow and clattering.
At home a priest visited.
The girl had never seen the movie, but she knew all about “The Exorcist” and the actress little girl who spun her head and puked up avocado slime.
Her mother said, “I’m sorry honey. I don’t know what else to do. I’m desperate.”
The girl capitulated; this was no ordinary demon.
The priest spoke somber incantations in a stilted foreign language. He sloshed her with water labeled as holy. He called on God to strike down Satan. He asked God to turn the demon into swine and send it squealing off a cliff.
After half an hour, the satisfied vicar rose from bended knee and pronounced success. “That should about do it,” he said.
Many sighs and thanks came from the girl’s mother. Gasps of relief. A nervous smile and a nod. A whispered, “I love you,” to the girl before escorting the priest out.
The next night, the girl’s father returned from a trip. “She looks pretty good to me,” he said in a flat voice, the irony only noted by the girl and this man.
Her mother smiled, “You are better, aren’t you, sweetie?”
The demon reached his hand under the table. It stung the girl’s knee like a smoldering skittle.
She nodded and watched the demon at the head of the table flash a brazen wink.