Mama Fish, page 1
By Rio Youers
A Macabre Ink Production
Macabre Ink is an imprint of Crossroad Press
Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press
Digital Edition Copyright 2014 / Rio Youers
This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to the vendor of your choice and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Meet the Author
Rio Youers is the British Fantasy Award–nominated author of End Times and Old Man Scratch. His short fiction has been published by, among others, St. Martin’s Griffin, HarperCollins, and Cemetery Dance. His latest novel, Westlake Soul, was recently nominated for Canada’s prestigious Sunburst Award, and has been optioned for movie by Hollywood producer, Stephen Susco. Rio lives in southwestern Ontario with his wife, Emily, and their daughter, Lily Maye.
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Every school has one. Every class, probably: the square peg, the kid that doesn’t fit. He (assume male, although they could just as easily be female) always sits at the back of the class and will not speak until spoken to. He doesn’t trade jokes or baseball cards, has no favorite teams—no interests at all, it would seem. He wears the same baggy clothes every day, sits alone at lunchtime, and always carries a letter from home excusing him from phys. ed. He gets ragged behind his back because nobody wants to be on his shit-list. Most people are scared of him, even the teachers. They would never admit it, but it’s true. They are scared of his rapt and resentful silence. He’s the oddball, the freak … the kid you would vote most likely to bring a semi-automatic handgun into the classroom and go postal.
1986. The school was Harlequin High. The square peg was Kelvin Fish. He was tall, big-boned, and had several huge boils on the back of his neck that you’d swear would glow in the dark. I am sure that no two teeth in his skull were the same size, shape, or color. He had a lazy eye. Scratch that—his left eye wasn’t just lazy, the goddamn thing was comatose. It would spend the day somewhere between open and closed, and by early afternoon there’d usually be a clump of orange gloop nesting in the corner (I once saw him dig this clump out with the tip of one finger and pop it nonchalantly into his mouth). Kelvin Fish. Not Fishy. Not Fishman. Never a nickname. When people referred to Kelvin Fish, it was always with both first and second names: When do you think Kelvin Fish last took a shower? Did you see that brown stuff growing in Kelvin Fish’s ears? The teachers, too: I’m still waiting for your homework assignment, Kelvin Fish. He’d swamp through the day, shoulders hunched, always silent. His hair was so thick that it never seemed to grow. It sat on his head, the same length, the same style, for almost as long as I knew him, like Elton John’s weave.
Have you seen the color of Kelvin Fish’s fingernails?
You might question my decision to get closer to him. You might think I was doing it out of pity or curiosity. I’m sure it was both of these things, but there was more … something I was too scared to admit, even to myself. I knew there was a regular boy inside that Herman Munster-like exterior. A boy with a heartbeat. A boy with a soul. He would have a home life, a family, a mother who loved him. I mean, he wasn’t spawned, was he? He didn’t crawl out from under a damp slab of rock, or fall from the heavens in a meteor, like Superman.
Kelvin Fish farted in social studies. And the stink! Oh Jeeeeez …
I was sitting behind Kelvin Fish in math, and I saw something moving under his shirt. Something on his back.
I never questioned my decision. Not for a moment. All I wanted was to get closer to him.
I wanted to be his friend.
Before approaching Kelvin Fish I had, on occasion, tried to imagine what life in the old Fish Homestead was like. It was a fine way to pass the time, particularly during those interminable classes where the minutes moved with painful, marshmallow stupor.
My imagination presented an assortment of scenarios, with a weakness for the outlandish. I envisioned Kelvin Fish’s house to be a bleak, tumbledown affair: peeling boards, rot spreading, windows shuttered and blind to the world. The garden was a sprawl of cancerous weed, choking the life from everything that was once green. It was a distortion, a ghost story. Children were afraid to go near it. There were no birds singing in the trees, no squirrels or chipmunks. Cars driving by were often prone to some irregularity: the radio switching stations, the heater turning itself on, the windshield wipers flipping into life. Even aircraft buzzing overhead experienced the occasional glitch.
There were corpses in the foundation—hundreds of them—and a dungeon in the basement with prisoners chained to the walls (their vocal chords severed so that nobody heard their cries). Masked guests assembled every full moon. They stripped naked, bayed into the night, and drank blood from a jeweled chalice. I had wiled away hours with imaginings of Kelvin Fish’s brothers and sisters: a brood of mutant children, brainless and nameless, locked in the attic.
Papa Fish had red eyes. He had a swastika etched in the middle of his forehead, like Charles Manson, and would often punish Kelvin Fish and his freak siblings with a stock prod and a broken bicycle chain.
Mama Fish, however, was the star of my reveries. I sometimes saw her as a small woman with a kink in her spine that caused her to walk sideways, but more often she was as fat as a bear. She walked with the support of two canes that were as crooked as an old man’s legs. Her hair was as red as her husband’s eyes, hanging over her face in dirty strings. She usually had a mouthful of something—chewing tobacco or Twinkies. Her spit was the color of used oil, and if she didn’t shave, she would have a beard like a hockey player in less than a week.
Algebra II was made more interesting when I indulged mother and son in a little carnal activity. Nothing too graphic (my imagination maintains a sense of decency), but sufficient to titillate my bizarre sense of humor.
Mama would sometimes lay with her meaty legs spread to east and west, sans underwear, while Kelvin Fish massaged the calluses on the balls of her feet (Like what you see, pumpkin?). She sometimes demanded an “inspection” of her boy—have him strip bare-ass and pirouette while she chain-scoffed Oh Henry! bars. Other times she would blow him, trying not to cry, hating every aspect of her tragic life.
Castles in the sky: imaginary sketches designed to pass the time and perhaps condition me for what was to follow. I must have known that the relationship between me and Kelvin Fish was going to get more interesting. I assumed my harmless mind-movies were a kind of defense mechanism, a way to help me cope with any situation.
But I was wrong. Nothing—no mental sensing, no X-rated movie, no natural disaster—could have prepared me for what was going to happen.
Nothing could have prepared me for Mama Fish.
I had tried to engage Kelvin Fish in conversation—several times, in fact—but was always interrupted: a teacher barking at me for talking in the classroom, or
“You’re a long brown stain in the gusset of life, Beauchamp. I ever tell you that?”
I nodded. “Just last week, Coach.”
“Right.” When he frowned, the wrinkles on his bald head ascended all the way to his crown, like steps on a pyramid. He balled the letter, had me construct uprights with my hands, and flicked a perfect three-pointer. “Looks like you’re cleaning the storeroom with Kelvin Fish. How does that peel your banana?”
I puckered my lips and scratched my armpits.
“Get out of here, and take your irritable bowels with you.”
The storeroom was in good shape already, which was to be expected; Kelvin Fish had been cleaning it three times a week for the last two years, give or take. There were a few things out of place, but an able pair of hands could have corrected this in no time. Kelvin Fish took the full fifty minutes. I sat and watched as he racked baseball bats according to weight, rearranged balls according to sport, stacked mats, folded bibs, pulled turf-clots from facemasks, and swept the floor. He could have sat with me the whole time, done nothing, and Coach DeLisi would have been none the wiser.
“You’re doing a swell job, my friend,” I said. I was wearing a catcher’s mitt, bouncing a baseball from floor to wall to glove, like McQueen in The Great Escape.
Kelvin Fish grunted in response. His good eye rolled toward me but flicked back to the head of the broom before making contact. Eleven years later, I would run a half-marathon and donate the money I’d raised to a local home for autistic children. I was invited to the home for a thank-you dinner and photo-op for the local newspaper. I handed over the check, shook many hands, and spoke with the children. They were engaging, often bright, but would not make eye contact. I thought of Kelvin Fish more than once that day. It was all I could do to keep from weeping.
It’s not easy to engage in conversation with somebody who has no interest in conversing with you. It may even be impossible when you’re somewhat intimidated by that person. My mind ran through a spectrum of subjects, hoping to find a color that appealed to Kelvin Fish. I knew nothing about him, however. It was like shooting in the dark.
“Did you see the Pats crush the Dolphins yesterday? They look good again this year.”
Kelvin Fish turned his back to me, working his broom.
“Have you heard Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi? It’s pretty good. If you bring me a blank cassette, I’ll copy it for you.”
Nothing. Not even a shrug.
“So, what do you do in your spare time?”
His good eye flicked in my direction once again, but he held his silence as if it were a secret.
I stopped bouncing the ball, wondering if the change of rhythm would elicit a response. The broom did hesitate for a moment, but then went right on sweeping, pushing up tiny puffs of dust. I was suddenly taken by the urge to throw the ball at him—pop a two-seamer off the back of his skull. It might not get him talking, but it would sure as hell get a reaction. I also considered pretending to throw the ball, just to see if I could penetrate his dull sense enough to promote a flinch. In the end, I simply rolled the baseball across the floor. It met the head of his broom, changed direction, and rolled slowly toward the corner.
Kelvin Fish stopped sweeping. His clumsy body became still, except for that one healthy eye, which tracked the ball’s progress. He reminded me of a baby whose irritation is diverted by some small thing—a bright object, perhaps. I watched him carefully as he looked at the ball, wondering if there would be a reaction. I thought for a moment that he would lose control, tear through his shirt like Dr. Bruce Banner, and bounce me off the floor and wall in the same way I had been bouncing the baseball. In the next second, I was sure he was going to burst into tears. If he had started to cry, I know I would have wept right along with him. The moment was so heavy that I would not have been able to help myself. We would have cried together for no good reason, maybe even hugged a little, finding comfort in each other’s arms … and what a treat that would have been for the jocks rolling in off the field. Jesus, I would have preferred him to go Hulk on my ass.
This is a turning point, I remember thinking. Whatever he does, whatever happens, this moment is going to bring us together. For better or worse, everything changes now.
This rare insight on my part would prove to be accurate. We were still a few weeks from the terrible incident that would bond us forever, but the initial connection was made right there in the gym storeroom. We were tethered—a gossamer thread, maybe, but real. Whenever we passed in the hall, we would nod and utter some salutation (although with Kelvin Fish it was always more of an incomprehensible grunt). He sometimes offered the thinnest of smiles—an event that managed to be both beautiful and mysterious, like a flash of sunlight on deep water. There was even an occasion during math—he must have sensed that I was struggling—when he angled his paper toward me so that I could copy. I never realized how smart he was until my paper was returned with a glaring red “A” scrawled across the top.
Right about the insight, wrong about the reaction; Kelvin Fish neither went ballistic, nor crumbled in a flood of incomprehensible tears. He simply leaned the handle of the broom against the wall, shuffled to the corner, picked up the baseball, and put it back in its rightful place.
I got to my feet and started toward the storeroom door. I heard the guys out in the hall, making their way to the locker room in an unruly fashion. The storeroom would soon be swarmed with bodies, haphazardly tossing in equipment (Kelvin Fish would patiently sort it while they showered and changed), throwing their jock muscle, barking their jock obscenities.
“You know …” I started, and realized I had no idea what I was going to say.
Kelvin Fish half-turned toward me. He grabbed the handle of the broom. I saw that he was trembling.
“I’m only trying to be friendly.” My voice was small. It held no weight, like a lie. Hell, maybe it was a lie. Kelvin Fish thought so; he shook his head and resumed sweeping.
I wanted to add something, to punctuate the “conversation” with a shot that carried a little more weight. It didn’t have to be poignant or clever, just as long as it didn’t sound hollow. My mouth opened, closed, opened again. Kelvin Fish turned his back on me to show that he had no interest in anything I had to say, anyway.
Well, fuck you very much, I thought. My mouth worked on its loose hinge a moment longer, while feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion washed through me. I had dodged phys. ed. because I wanted to learn more about Kelvin Fish. In the space of fifty minutes, I had managed to discover exactly nothing.
Even so, I felt that some progress had been made. Kelvin Fish didn’t know it yet, but we were going to be like Laverne and Shirley.
Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Everything was going to be great.
My name is Patrick Beauchamp, and I’m a thirty-six-year-old father of two. My oldest son—Kennedy, he’s eleven—believes with every beat of his young heart that I am ancient, and there are times when I think he’s right … like when I hear him talking on his cell phone (he’s an eleven-year-old, twenty-first century boy—of course he has a cell phone). It’s a different language, I’m telling you. But thirty-six isn’t old, despite what Kennedy believes. In an effort to prove this, I decided to introduce him to some of my favorite tunes. It was a cheap, your-old-man-is-actually-pretty-cool kind of shot, but I thought it would work (I had visions of Kennedy nudging his buddies on the school bus and saying something like, My dad is totally awesome—he has a Guns N’ Roses CD, and he likes Pearl Jam). So I booked some time between homework and video games, gathered up a handful of what I consider t
“What the heck is this?” Kennedy asked, holding up Nevermind by Nirvana.
“Education,” I answered, sliding the disc into the CD drive of his iMac (apparently, your traditional compact disc player is yesteryear’s product; the whole world is downloadable now). The metallic crunch of Cobain’s guitar shook the miniscule speakers with impressive volume. My instinct was to turn it down a notch or two, but I knew Kennedy would see this as a sign of age. I did reach for the volume control, but I cranked that little fucker five or six degrees to the right, and was rewarded with a look of wide-eyed wonder from my eleven-year-old son.
“ ‘Smells like Teen Spirit,’ ” I blared at him, fighting the urge to break out the air guitar.
“Smells like old man’s music,” Kennedy retorted.
“What? How can you say that?” Now I did turn it down, just a little, so that I could hear his reasoning. “This is Nirvana.” And there was no way—no fucking way, baby—that Nirvana could be considered old man’s music. If I’d broken out the Stones or one of my Zeppelin CDs, then yeah, maybe I could see where he was coming from. After all, my father used to listen to the Stones when he was a kid. But not Nirvana. No way. I’m not buying it.
Kennedy picked up the case, looked at the date on the back, and nodded. “1991—five years before I was born. What sounds were you listening to when you were eleven years old?”
“Me? Well …” Casting my mind back twenty-five years was an exercise that lent little fruit to my argument. I was being outsmarted by a goddamn eleven-year-old.
Kennedy offered a mock frown. “What year would that be?”
“1982,” I replied stonily.
“Wow. That’s a long time ago.”
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