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  • 18. Push Through Me

    By Christian Rose

    I first encountered Christian Rose’s fiction at last year’s Literary Upstart in New York, and I’m glad I did—this new story is as complex as some novels, yet raw as his hero’s bloodied palm. Proving once again that strong art is being made, or lived or both, on the beaches of Spring Break USA.

    My reflection’s out there on the other side of this tinted floor-to-ceiling hotel window, hovering five stories above the beach and staring back at me from a place in the night where the sea and sky would meet if I could see through this impassively dark and reflective tint but I can’t, I just know the horizon’s out there in the night like I know Dan and Pat are still out there in some emergency room, and it’s my fault because I’m the one who convinced them to drive twelve hours south to Myrtle Beach for spring break in the first place.

    I’m pacing, panicking, kicking the face of some televangelist who’s preaching on the TV with the sound off but the screen doesn’t break, the televangelist just keeps ranting, red-faced, pointing a finger, spittle leaping from his lips, beneath a banner that says Let Yourself Be Saved.

    I limp over to the dresser and drag it against the hotel room door, barricading it, then call down to the front desk for the hospital’s phone number but the woman at the hospital won’t tell me anything and when I try to set the phone down it slips from my hand, covered in blood.

    I peel the sopping Polo shirt from my right hand and glance at the deep cuts across my palm. The sharp, screeching pain is duller now, throbbing like a heartbeat in my hand.

    There’s a Nirvana In Utero t-shirt hanging in the bathroom, drying because Dan puked on it yesterday, blaming bad clams instead of the bottle of Barton Vodka we split while smoking a dime bag he bought from some biker who called himself the Hawk.

    I toss the bloody Polo shirt aside and rewrap my hand with the In Utero t-shirt, vaguely remembering how I didn’t even know what In Utero meant when the album came out five years ago and, remembering this, high school seems like a long time ago and being twenty-one feels old.

    I rummage in the cooler and open a can of Natural Ice, struggling to light a cigarette because my hands are shaking as I move toward the window, trying to see through my reflection to the beach where the Hot Body Spring Break ’98 banner flaps loosely in the wind. I remember the juicers parading themselves around on the stage earlier today as I blow smoke into my glassy reflection’s face, trying to forget something, everything. The smoke billows off the glass and hangs there in the room around me in the thick southern air like vapor from the smoke machines at the Friki Tiki Club and I can’t forget about anything.

    The In Utero t-shirt has a dissected uterus on it and a fetus with multicolored veins. My blood is already soaking through in a few spots. The word spotting rings in my head in my girlfriend Tracey’s voice and suddenly I see myself approaching the clinic in Allentown, holding her hand. There’s frost on the ground as we walk past one lone protestor, a woman in black holding a poster with Jesus on it and babies in different stages of development and I can’t look at the woman’s face, can’t meet her eyes. Then we’re inside the clinic and the nurse does the sonogram and tells us the date of conception and I’m doing the mental math, counting back, panicking as I ask Tracey if that was the weekend I went home. She blushes blood-red and says no, swearing there’s been no one else, and we convince ourselves the timeline works (but why did she blush like that?) and then they show us some diagrams and Tracey starts to hyperventilate and they push her away in a wheelchair and I’m in the waiting room, my head between my knees, trying not to hyperventilate myself.

    Later, driving to Old Navy, Tracey mentions how the doctor liked her Bolivia t-shirt and as he moved between her stirrupped legs, inserting something, he smiled and asked if she liked Bolivian boys. At Old Navy she leads me to the bikini aisle even though she already has at least ten bikinis and she picks the skimpiest ones on the rack while I try uselessly to dissuade her. Don’t worry, she says, annoyed, I won’t do anything in Cancun. The nurse said I’ll still be spotting.

    I’m shaking even worse now, my hand spotting through the In Utero t-shirt, and I’m thinking about the Friki Tiki Club again, the smoke machines and strobe lights and confetti cannons and the way the knife came up so fast and how Pat’s blood sprayed.

    A couple make their way up the beach, dark shapes holding hands. The swollen lump on my forehead throbs as I press my face against the glass, trying to see, all physical pain inconsequential now compared to the eviscerating sense of loss that sweeps through me as I remember Colleen.

    I met her our first night here, four nights ago, but it seems more like four years as I watch these shadow figures playing in the surf and I can’t shake the feeling they’re the ghosts of Colleen and me and Colleen and I were the ghosts of some other couple who were the ghosts of someone else, the beach eternally haunted by one-night stands.

    All I have is a blurry, drunken memory of Colleen appearing out of the writhing masses and strobe lights and smoke machines on the dance floor at the Friki Tiki as Ol’ Dirty Bastard sang me and Mariah, go back like babies and pacifiers and somehow she found me, chose me, and as we kissed I felt saved from my frozen life and we found a back door and stumbled out onto the beach, collapsing onto each other, drunk, rolling in the sand.

    I told her she was beautiful and she told me she was bisexual, asking hopefully if that shocked me. Shocked, I said no. As things got heavier she cautioned me, saying it was that time of the month, but it wasn’t a problem for her if it wasn’t for me and before she could finish explaining I pulled the tampon out and tossed it over my shoulder and she laughed, clinging to me, our teeth knocking together we kissed so hard, and I hoped she couldn’t feel the sand getting inside of her as she moaned and sucked my tongue and her long curly brown hair was spread out around her face, radiating from her head in the sand and there was no space between our tan faces and we were almost there, almost one. I could see the night sky reflected in her brown eyes and she whispered push through me in my ear and we were so close and then there was a thud near us in the sand. We turned and saw a huge juicer in a football jersey wobbling on a hotel balcony, drunk and slurring into the wind. He reached into a cooler and threw something at us again, missing grossly. I shouted up to him that it was obvious he wasn’t a quarterback.

    Colleen put her shorts back on and said she had to go because she and her friends were leaving Myrtle Beach early in the morning, their spring break was over. We kissed goodbye and she walked off, the length of beach spreading out between us until I couldn’t take it anymore.

    I got up and shouted her name but I guess she couldn’t hear me with all the wind and breaking waves so I jogged after her until I realized she hadn’t turned around once to look back at me.

    My jog slowed until I was frozen there in the sand, the warm waves breaking and washing over my feet, her silhouette getting smaller in the moonlight until it disappeared and something cold like the frost in Allentown spread in my chest and I collapsed in the sand, looking up into the depth of the sky, my breaths fast and shallow like something with gills left stranded on the beach by the tide.

    Later I stepped out into waist-deep waves to wash Colleen’s blood away. I could still hear the juicer howling somewhere in the distance and I imagined Tracey on the beach in Cancun, her thong bikini tossed aside as her tan thighs wrapped themselves around some drunk football playing juicer just like him, squeezing him into her, telling him the blood was just from her period.

    I hold the cigarette to the tinted window, the cherry casting a soft glow, illuminating my reflection as I press it gently into the glass, hoping to burn a small hole through the tint but the tint seems to be a part of the glass itself. The cigarette goes out.

    The ghost-couple disappears into blackness down the beach. I notice my eye, swollen and red, the bump on my forehead the size and color of a plum.

    There’s an icy bottle of Jose Cuervo in the cooler so I take a sip and hold the bottle to my swollen face, trying to remember how it happened.

    *

    Earlier that day I’d been tossing the Frisbee with Dan and Pat on the beach and I saw her, Colleen, far away, down toward the water, walking with some other guy.

    She wore a white Bob Dylan t-shirt and jean shorts and her curly brown hair rose and fell in the wind, like waves cresting and breaking. She was animated and carefree, kind of hopping around the guy, smiling, and as I watched her do a cartwheel, her tan, muscular legs momentarily pointing skyward, the words Blood on the Tracks flashed at me from the back of her shirt.

    The Frisbee bounced off my chest. I could hear Dan yell Direct hit! Pat laughed.

    I sat down in shock, unable to take my eyes off her. I felt a rupture in my guts, something caustic spilling out inside of me.

    After she was long gone I stood up, unable to understand why she’d lied and told me she was leaving, my hands shaking as I threw the Frisbee to Pat. It was a wild toss and he had to chase it into a pack of ripped juicers waiting to enter the hot body competition.

    Dan came over and punched me playfully in the arm but it hurt because Dan doesn’t actually know how to punch playfully. He asked what was wrong with me. I said nothing was wrong with me. He looked at me hard, saw the lie, and punched me in the chest so hard I almost fell down.

    Pat came over mumbling about the dicks who just threatened to shove the Frisbee up his ass, and asked us what the hell Dan and I were doing. Quickly I grabbed a bottle of Jose Cuervo from my backpack and said this and started pouring disgustingly huge shots into sixteen-ounce Solo cups. After we gulped them down, gagging, Pat told a joke about a pussy so big it had an echo and its own gravitational pull and maze inside of it with thousands of lost men wandering, looking for the way out, and as he talked I laughed harder and harder until it sounded like hysterical crying and Dan punched me in the chest again, the physical pain helping me recover, and I poured more shots.

    When night came I demanded to go to the Friki Tiki Club so that’s where we went. Dan was off buying pot from the Hawk again and Pat was dancing with some girl wearing a bikini top made of small, strung-together candies.

    I watched the swirling strobe lights and confetti blasting out of cannons in the walls and smoke machines dropping vapor on the gyrating girls in bikinis on stage while dance music thudded against my chest so hard I could feel it vibrating my internal organs, rattling things in my ribs, the female voice booming from the speakers singing you’ve got to lick it, before you stick it, you’ve got to get it soft and wet so we can kick it and I downed a double shot of tequila and drank half a bottle of Corona in one gulp and ate a handful of Tums to keep the acid down and my sweat smelled like piss because my body couldn’t filter the toxins out of me anymore. I could still smell it even though I drenched myself in Nautica cologne before leaving the hotel.

    Exhausted, I popped an Adderall, which Dan had a prescription for but refused to take, saying it made him sleepy even though it was pharmaceutical speed. I chewed the bitter blue pill for quick absorption and washed it down with a mouthful of beer.

    Soon the music sounded better and smoking felt great, so I chain-smoked, leaning back against the bar, hardly able to keep up with my own train of thought as I watched hundreds of people undulate, gyrate, and make out beneath the lights and layers of music and I imagined Colleen moving toward me, pulling me down by the collar, and whispering push through me in my ear.

    Between cigarettes I scanned the crowd nervously for Colleen, the heartache each time I didn’t find her a proponent of my inebriation, calling for another immediate tequila shot. Smoke billowed out of my mouth and drifted up through the strobe lights and the more I drank the more it felt like I could just drift away too. More than anything that’s what I wanted, to drift off like the smoke that left my mouth, up and out and free into the lights.

    Then I saw the juicer walking toward Pat, a tribal tattoo like a necklace around his massive neck. I knew by the way he was cutting through the crowd toward Pat, the way he looked at his two friends and smirked. It was simple and primal and obvious to me and I knew.

    I looked where I’d last seen Dan with the Hawk, Dan who always punched too hard. I scanned frantically but couldn’t find him.

    The guy with the huge neck walked by Pat and accidentally knocked into him on purpose. Clueless that he was being set up, Pat pushed back.

    Adrenaline dumped into my system in a massive, painful rush as I pushed through the crowd, holding my empty Corona by the neck in a hammer-grip, my hands shaking. I bit down squarely, locking my teeth together so it’d be harder to break my jaw.

    One of Neck’s friends wore a Big Pun shirt and the other had sideburns shaved into the shape of lightning bolts and both of them were both bigger than me, circling behind Pat.

    Neck bit a candy off the girl’s bikini top and it ripped and all the candies spilled down and bounced on the floor. As I pushed into the widening circle of onlookers Pat got scooped from behind by Big Pun, Pat’s face knocking against the floor with a disgusting thwack.

    I broke my Corona bottle over Big Pun’s head and before the shattered glass and blood hit the floor I swung at Neck, but I telegraphed the punch so he ducked and I whiffed so hard I almost fell down.

    When I turned around Sideburns hit me square in the forehead and I was blind, staggering, swinging until one of them got me in a choke hold and I went limp, helpless as someone kicked me in the balls.

    Just before I lost consciousness I saw Dan barging through the crowd, cocking his fist back, and in the moment before he swung I noticed the Marlboro Red clamped in the corner of his mouth and for some reason I focused on it, the cigarette, the glowing cherry, the light it cast, and then the last thing I heard was a crack like when a bat breaks in a baseball game.

    I woke up on the dance floor, convulsing as I regained consciousness. Big Pun was on the floor next to me, out cold, his jaw hideously dislocated, broken, and I could see Dan grappling with Sideburns, pulling the shirt over his head like they do in hockey and yanking his head down, kneeing him in the face until he fell. Then Neck, who seemed to come from nowhere, swung at Dan, leaving a gash in Dan’s upper lip and Pat was on his feet and trying to lift me from the floor but I couldn’t get off my knees and light glinted off something in Neck’s hand as he swung and Pat went down, blood squirted into the air like an ejaculation and Neck swung at my face and I grabbed at his hands, getting the blade instead, in shock as I felt it cut through my palm. Dan got Neck in a choke hold from behind and I pulled the switchblade from his hand.

    Pat was in fetal position, clutching himself, blood geysering from some part of him to the beat of the music, the strobe lights and smoke machines and confetti cannons all still blasting because this had all happened so fast and Neck, who had lost his shirt in the mayhem, kicked and scratched at Dan who struggled to keep him locked in a slippery choke hold.

    Dan’s eyes widened when he saw the knife in my hand he yelled for me to help him, his voice desperate, his face bloody and you could see his teeth through the slit in his upper lip where Neck had cut him. Neck was huge. He jammed his fingers in Dan’s eyes. He was getting free. Dan screamed for me to help him.

    I lunged forward and swung the knife across Neck’s rippling abs. It was pink at first, then red and peeling open and something puffy spilled out of him in a tangle of slippery cords and he collapsed to the floor, trying to put it back inside himself as people screamed and Dan looked at me wide-eyed and I thought I’d vomit.

    Then a gigantic bouncer rammed through the crowd and tackled Dan. Suddenly bouncers were everywhere, slipping in blood, restraining and punching people who weren’t even involved in the fight. Sideburns hit me and I went down, dropping the knife, crawling backward through the mayhem and running for the back door, the one I left through with Colleen, my bloody hand leaving a big red smudge on the glass.

    I raced down the beach and cut back behind another club to the strip where I took my shirt off and wrapped it around my hand to slow the bleeding, speed-walking back toward the hotel, flinching at my own shadow, trying to look casual, hyperventilating, a trail of blood droplets on the sidewalk behind me as cop cars and ambulances zipped down the strip in the other direction with their flashers on, pulling up in front of the Friki Tiki.

    I walked as fast as I could. Pickup trucks cruised up and down the strip with lights beneath them that made the asphalt glow neon colors. A group of drunk girls laughed at me, skinny and shirtless, until they got closer and one of them sucked in her breath and said oh my god in a southern accent and one said the hospital’s that way, pointing in the other direction and everything sounded far away, muffled, like I was wearing earplugs, and I knew from experience that a concussion was already setting in.

    In the elevator up to the room I tried not to think of what I did to Neck as a C-section and the elevator smelled like piss and vomit and semen and I tried to stop shaking but I couldn’t.

    *

    I finish the bottle of Cuervo and smash it on the wall, dragging the jagged edge back and forth over my wrist before I toss it to the bed, my hands shaking, deciding I’ll wait till they’re at the door.

    I step forward and my reflection moves in to meet me, drunk and scared. I look beyond him to the beach, remembering a day I spent with Tracey at her family’s home on a small lake in Pennsylvania, the way the house was all windows and the snow fell softly all around us as we held each other on the couch, protected, insulated, and remembering this now, somehow, it’s almost like she aborted me.

    I open another beer and swallow as the sun crowns up from the Atlantic, shimmering like a molten dome. I remember Colleen’s face, the sound of her voice whispering push through me. A gull drifts by on the wind without once flapping its wings.

    There’s a knock on the door. I freeze. Then someone’s trying to swipe in but they can’t get the door open because it’s barricaded and I’m shaking so badly I can barely get my hand around the neck of the Cuervo bottle. After some fumbling I raise it and slash at my left wrist but the wound seems superficial and just as I’m about to try again, more determined, gritting my teeth, my reflection says push through me and I look up at him, my reflection, the flickering colors of the TV jumping in the background.

    I drop the Cuervo bottle and run across the room to the TV where the televangelist is still ranting red-faced beneath the banner that says Let Yourself Be Saved. I bend down and hoist it to my shoulder, running toward the window so fast that the image is still on the screen for a second after the plug comes loose from the wall and I push the TV as hard as I can through my reflection. It hits with a whoosh and the entire window shatters and blows out, floor to ceiling, the TV sailing down soundlessly and landing with a thud on the beach, crumpling in on itself in the sand, and the shards from the window fall down five stories, landing quietly like icy snow in the bushes along the side of the hotel, the room instantly warm and bright.

    I step back and squint at the rising sun. The cigarette smoke that’s built up in the room curls and rolls out with the salty wind like a giant lung exhaling. I sit down on the bed behind me, looking out at the place where the sea and sky meet, where my reflection was before and the sun is now, rising fast, warming me. I make a choice. I pick up the Cuervo bottle and hurl it down to the sand.

    Security shouts as they kick in the door behind me. I light a cigarette, noticing for the first time that my hands have stopped shaking. I squint into the sun, exhaling smoke out into its light as the door gives way in the background and voices grow louder, approaching, cops telling me to get on the floor, but I just sit there on the bed, my back to them, looking out until angry hands are on me, shoving me to the bloody carpet, pinning my arms behind my back, and as someone cuffs me I exhale my last breath of cigarette smoke, and a part of me is with it, hanging there in the air, drifting out of the room into the light, free in the salty wind.

    *

    © by Christian Rose. Used by permission of the author.

    Read more by Christian here at Word Riot . . .

    Here at The Modern Drunkard . . .

    And here at Denver Syntax!



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