The Smallest Bones in My BodyRichard Chiem
Autumn embalms the hour. Sarah takes codeine to kill the dull pain in her head, and says, I kill any pain. I kill any pain, she says to herself in her eyes in the rearview mirror. Her skin starts to feel softer, almost luminous and featherweight. Her right hand bounces with the beat and flow of a pop song. Her left hand grips the steering wheel. Cool wind blows through the leaves in the tree branches and some are destroyed into a hundred thousand floating pieces. Baby lungs no more, she says, blowing weed smoke at the closed car window, seeing spots. She has a tingling all over: confidence. Outside the car is a picture perfect postcard view: gorgeous bright yellow leaves covering the sidewalks streetlamps and parked cars like wet stickers, children holding hands huddled in their coats crossing the street in a clumsy single file. Sarah takes another codeine pill and stares through the lit crack in her fingers, shielding the sunlight from her eyes, watching the children.
Sarah turns down the hypnotic music and nods knowingly. I believe in each and every one of you, she says to herself in her eyes in the rearview mirror.
Who are you talking to, asks David in a ski mask in the backseat. Only his mouth and beard are showing, with bread crumbs in his beard. His shotgun is pressed like a clipboard across his chest.
David in a ski mask, she says. Hide your fucking gun.
Don’t say my name, says David in a ski mask, sliding his gun down and out of view. His moving squeaks the cheap backseat leather. Light glares off the gun.
David looks disheveled, sweating through his faded black clothing.
Is your name Fuck Up? Sarah turns on the ignition, turns the music on louder, and looks to the clock on the dashboard. Thirty seconds, she says.
The children are downhill and long gone, the school bus has departed for school. She waits for the green light and speeds around the corner to the bus zone right outside the Wells Fargo.
Brian in a ski mask and Spencer in a ski mask walk out of the spinning glass lobby doors into the walking street traffic with large duffel bags, looking left and right as they approach the car. Heads of strangers bob and pass them by, though some pause in place, watching Brian in a ski mask and Spencer in a ski mask briskly walk away from the Wells Fargo, some taking out their phones to take pictures and point. Brian nearly stomps a pigeon rushing to the car, and crows watch silently from the rooftops. Sarah turns on an app on her phone, a police scanner: there’s nothing.
She feels connected to the car as though through a living bloodline, feeling completely in control of the vehicle, from the pistons to the radio to the stiff hairs on the tires. She can feel the cold air outside on the chrome body: feeling sweet familiar rushing adrenaline in her own body. There is so much risk in the world. Sarah takes a deep breath as though taking a dive into cold water, as she catches view of Brian and Spencer getting into the backseat, and throwing their duffel bags full of cash on top of David. David grimaces in pain as small crowds from the street gather near the car taking more and more pictures. The crows don’t make a sound, the pigeons are fat and stupid.
Before they can pull off their masks or even speak, Sarah speeds off through a busy intersection, the abrupt acceleration slamming the backdoors shut as she burns off. Black steam rises from the black pavement. In her mind’s eyes, she can see a map of the city and one hundred thousand streets and she is moving through secret routes like neon burning on paper. 90 on the dashboard and wind in her hair. The app comes alive the phone vibrates and the police are manically looking for their exact make and model, a silver Chevrolet Impala. One of the most popular cars on the road.
I come alive in the fall, Sarah says. She can see the half moon in the sky in broad daylight, and she feels closer to childhood, and accelerates even faster, cutting corners and drifting through traffic. Shrill horns blare and blare. Her black leather gloves have purple electric streaks stitched along the cut off fingers, and it matches her purple hair perfectly.
What is she talking about? Is she talking to herself? Asks Spencer, pulling off his mask. He holds on to the car, catches his breath.
She’s been doing this all morning, says David, red in the face. She called me David.
You are fucking David, screams Brian, still wearing his ski mask, taking a bump of cocaine from his left hand.
Seat belts! Sarah screams. I hate that fucking warning beeping sound.
She changes the radio for a basketball game, dipping into side streets away from the blaring sirens, her driving momentum slamming Spencer’s head into the car window as she drifts closer where they need to be: home base, headquarters. Dirt clods and pebbles shoot up into the hood. Spencer’s nose starts to bleed instantaneously the blood is beautiful bright red and they’re so ahead of schedule, she can hardly contain herself. Away from the loud city stars flood the black. Trees tower above them and the dirt road. Sarah’s right hand this whole time stays with the beat, and it waves up and down like a knife with the flow, 90 on the dashboard, killing any pain. She says, Because after a bottle of Hennessy everyone looked like an enemy.
Because after a bottle of Hennessy everyone looked like an enemy. They park on a gravel road near a hidden house in the woods: a shipping container home painted clear silver and gunmetal black. It reflects the rough dark acres surrounding them. There seems to be smoke rising from the roof. There is a lake on one side of the house like a dream with a small wooden pier that seems to extend all the way to the center of the starry water, waves lapping against the thick pillars. Killing the engine and bright headlights, the car disappears in the dark while tree branches continue to sway wildly in the wind. Moss dresses the trees and goes rogue to the roots. Sarah seems to wear power like a coat, unafraid of the fog and cold, and her all black shoes crunch gravel as she leaves the car. The only white on her outfit is her sharp white collar popped out from her sweater, and everything else is all black, her ski mask sticking out of her back pocket.
Nights this cold always remind her of childhood. The hair rises on her neck as though she’s staying up late for the first time ever, as though being awake at all this late is forbidden, and what little lights are out here, the half moon stars and fire from the rooftop, glow in her eyes with comfort. Sarah has a sense that she is crossing over a dangerous threshold and it’s exciting for her to keep walking as though growing braver by the second. She exhales a cloud and says, My headache is finally gone.
Spencer, with his face and nose still bloodied, climbs out of the backseat, limbs dragging on the gravel like a rag doll. I’m still bleeding, he says.
Yeah, I can see, she says. Sarah still has most of a joint left in her pocket, and she takes it out and lips it, still not looking at the men, each departing the Impala one by one. Brian still has his mask on breathing in the cold, still holding his gun ready for war, too coked out, too anxious to do something.
In the dark of the woods, stone cold air, Sarah lights the joint and inhales once. She walks over to Spencer and hands it to him, and he looks genuinely touched, still bleeding dark red running from his nose.
Spencer takes a hit too, and it slows everything down, the other men just watching them. Sarah stands tall and waits for him, thinking that if this was another time, perhaps another place, she would find Spencer attractive, for his height, good manners, and for this weird playfulness he has almost despite himself.
He looks stoned and he says, I’m a hemophiliac. Spencer points to his nose and says, This shit won’t clot.
Sarah’s breath stops and she says, What the fuck?
I’m just kidding, he says, still bleeding and looking very pale. I’m just kidding.
Spencer hands her back the joint and walks toward the house, waddling more than walking. His left foot drags on the little rocks.
He turns back once and says, There’s moose somewhere out there. He looks over them and not at them toward the deep dark woods again.
David, still sweating but less panicked, follows closely behind him. David whispers, He’s probably in shock or something. They both walk holding guns as though they have never held guns before.
Sarah watches the two of them enter the shimmering shipping container house mirroring the trees, but Brian is still waiting there, standing too closely next to her. Brian uses his gun to scratch his head, as though it’s just another extension of his body.
When you look at me, what do you see? He asks, What do you see?
Sarah barely looks at him, then stares him in the eye. She nods, No. The wind blows her hair in front of her face.
Brian says, I don’t sleep. I’m a soldier, I don’t sleep.
You should sleep, she says. I love sleep.
Brian finally takes off his ski mask and his eyes are somehow more bloodshot without his mask on. His face is remarkably simple, symmetrical, boring. He nods and stands there uselessly, no longer having any real relevance for Sarah. He looks absolutely fucking silly.
Brian finally walks to the shimmering shipping container home, and Sarah walks behind him.
Immediately upon entering the home, there is a steep staircase leading to the rooftop positioned underneath a single skylight. The moon glows on the steps, and Sarah can smell BBQ meat cooking somewhere in the house. There is almost no furniture, no paintings on the walls. Immaculate floors and carpets.
She takes stock of her surroundings, pays mind to the exits and corners, and it’s as though a mirror flips and flips behind her eyes and a complex puzzle is solved.
Go on, Brian says. He wants her to go up the staircase first, but Sarah doesn’t move. She hates going down any pathway or hallway or stairway first so she won’t and she stares at him.
You go, she says. Smoke rises from the roof, delicious meat is cooking. Sarah punches Brian in the chest. He seems as though hollow and faraway.
You go, she says. Go, now.
I want to see a show of hands then, says a voice behind the door. A deep voice resonates through good wood and steel and then there is the sound of glass breaking. A radio voice: I want to see a show of hands. At the top of the narrow staircase, there’s an immaculate loft with a worn out daybed right in the center. A ladder built into the wall leads to the rooftop. Sarah can still smell BBQ cooking, and her mouth waters. She has not eaten all day and the hunger clouds her brain for a moment. The voice comes from the rooftop and more glass breaks.
Once Sarah opens the heavy door, she can see a man in a gray Michael Mann suit with broad shoulders and his back turned to her. He’s throwing empty beer bottles from one side of the roof to the other, and Sarah watches his shoulder blades shift underneath his blazer. She loves watching fabric move. David, Brian, and Spencer are all standing nearby, all in a line with their hands raised in the air like children, quiet idiots in unison.
Spencer, shivering and looking as though about to die and keel over, turns his head back to Sarah and says, I’ve never seen someone drive so quick. He barely stands there. He says, She was magic on the street, man.
Spencer smiles at Sarah. His left eye twitches.
She gets my vote, for sure. Spencer’s face is whiter than teeth, his cheekbones are gaunt and ashen. He passes out and collapses to the cold hard floor, and Sarah watches each limb fold onto each other, and the floor drums.
David rushes over to him, and Brian in the background seems to be casually scratching his crotch with the barrel of his gun. Sarah wishes for a malfunction and imagines a boom.
David goes for Spencer’s neck to check for a pulse and waits a beat. David says, He’s out cold, man, but he’s good. Bad blood circulation or something but he’s good.
The man in the gray suit, straightening up, seems to be get even taller in the moonlight. The man in the gray suit says, Take him downstairs. The voice is calm, almost soothing and sleep-inducing.
David lifts Spencer over his shoulder with great effort and starts to carry him downstairs. Before leaving, David a little out of breath says, Spencer is right, you know. She was magic on the street, Jack.
Hearing them talk about her is a little intoxicating and she knows she has them on lock. The constant wind blowing makes her hands cold but she doesn’t show her discomfort. Sarah watches David stagger and disappear downstairs with Spencer on his back and she finally sees him as a strange gentle creature, someone out of place, a soft dude among hard men.
How is he even part of this crew, she asks?
Brian, slowly and greatly dazed, follows suit and says, I’ll be downstairs.
No shit, she says, not moving from where she is. Brian waddles off with his slouched gun.
The other men are gone and Sarah can hear the door downstairs click closed. The roof floor creaks as though about to cave in and Jack, the man in the gray suit, finally acknowledges Sarah and walks closer.
You passed the test, Jack says. His large tattooed hands grip her shoulders and he shakes her. You passed the test. If you didn’t, I would have shot you tonight.
Sarah doesn’t blink and chews her lower lip in the wind. She says, I made record time, and it wasn’t even fucking funny.
With his grip getting tighter, Sarah leans in as though about to smell Jack’s jaw line. He smells like Texas BBQ and she can see the dragon tattoo wrapping around his neck to his ear lobe, a kiwi spiked in each dragon claw.
Your boys are B minus, she says. I got the job done, I made the job shine. It wasn’t even fucking funny.
Sarah leans back and looks around her and enjoys the views. There really is just beautiful forest everywhere all around them, no other houses, and no more people. Lush tree branches sway and sway and she feels surrounded. He lets go, wiping a little BBQ sauce from his lips with the sleeve of his suit. I’m impressed, he says. You’ve done a lot to get here.
I like it here, Sarah says, smelling the BBQ again. At the edge of the roof, she spies the smoking grill.
Jack, taking off his blazer, walks closer to Sarah, blocking her view of the BBQ.
You like it here?
Why do you like it here?
I wanted to get you alone here.
You know, making love on a king size bed is different from a twin, he says. Again, Jack grips her shoulders and tilts his head, pupils dilated. Actually, there’s one last test, he says. It’s a special test. His fingers move from her shoulders to collarbone.
Sarah says, You know, you’re getting harder and harder to resist. Sarah leans in, and grabs his collar to bring him closer to her face and she openly smells him in the cold wind. Completely animated and invested, Sarah breathes in through her nostrils with all her force and might as though her life depended on it, taking in all the air she can which horrifies Jack. Waves and waves of confusion rise to his face. She keeps smelling him.
Kiss, Sarah asks?
Sarah leans in and sticks her skinny shiny dagger through his chin, his mouth, and his nasal cavity: squish.
Do you not recognize me? I hope you recognize me, Sarah asks, shaking while speaking. I’m flying out of here tonight to go after your brother next. His eyes fill with adrenaline and freeze open. His dead face touches her face and she pulls out the dagger. Jack falls backwards into the smoking grill, and hot coals and embers spill in all directions, some flung from the roof into the cold air like sad rockets.
A perfect drumstick remains on the grill, and it’s smoking there on the floor like nothing has happened.
Sarah picks it off the grill off the ground and takes a bite. Although she blows on it, she still burns the inside of her mouth a little bit, but it’s all so worth it. Her feet is surrounded by scattered BBQ meat, broken glass, and burning embers. She devours the delicious chicken skin and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand still holding the bloody dagger.
You can mail a knife in the mail, she thinks, even a bloody one, and the postal service worker behind the counter won’t even miss a beat nor bat an eye. You can’t mail food if you tried but you can mail a bloody knife. The sun crawls from one night into the next. Sarah throws a stone far overhead to see the black lake swallow it up in deep ripples.
She slips away in the dark down the pipes, takes the car, and leaves the gang stranded there in the woods. The highway expands into four then six lanes with the woods and glowing streetlamps on both sides.
Nothing is stress. All is good in the terrible world.
Sarah parks under a freeway overpass a mile away from the exit and walks the rest of the way to the airport along the highway. The duffel bags on her shoulders look too much and she smells like raw meat and cheap beer. Tired from the evening, her legs and knees ache and burn. Cars speed on the highway roaring next to her.
She takes out her phone and sends a poem in a text message walking in the dark:
and I hum
She receives a text message back, right when she gets to the gate, when she shows her passport to the person. Her phone vibrates and glows:
I miss you.
Can you please bring home some toilet paper Diet Coke and vodka on your way here?
I haven’t left my apartment since you’ve been gone.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.