Mushrooms were growing around the dog bowl. I wondered if anyone would notice. Would my sister, Silka? Maybe when she got her cereal, or when she poured her coffee, half cream, and stared out the kitchen window while she ate. It was early. Mist was thick and blue in the yard. Birds were making a racket. At around eight or nine Silka would come thumping down the stairs in running shorts, her skin brown from the sun, her feet dirty as if she had been sleeping outside.
I didn’t look much like her, especially with my hair cut short. I wore contacts even though they made my eyes burn, while Silka kept her glasses in her pocket, taped them together when they broke, and always put them on before she looked at anything.
I was examining the mushrooms—tall tan innocent stalks—when a man came to the door. He smiled at me through the door’s small window, which let him see right into the kitchen. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t there.
“Is your mother home?” He had a bland and charming voice.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He was probably one of her university friends. A professor maybe, or a researcher. My mother had written a book in the 90s on sexual psychology—more of a diary, trite and depressing, I thought. Some graying academic was always coming around to visit. This man looked just the type—his face was so average as not to register, like not having a face at all. The man pushed his way inside, talking comfortably.
“Your mother is my old friend. A brilliant woman!”
He walked into the kitchen and hung his coat on the back of a chair. He stretched, went to the fridge and opened it.
“And beautiful, of course. But I can’t say you resemble her.” He poured himself a glass of milk and laughed suddenly, as if I had told a joke. “Not that you’re bad to look at! Maybe the haircut is all I see, eh?”
As he laughed, I walked to the counter and absentmindedly withdrew the biggest kitchen knife from its block. The man looked unconcerned, settling down at the table with his milk, pulling papers from his vest pocket. Unsure what else to do, I got out a carton of strawberries and began cutting their tops off.
“What do you do?” I said politely.
“I’m a mechanical engineer,” the man said, perking up. “I work on t-shirt guns, like the kind you see at a baseball or hockey game. Euthanization guns—” he mimed shooting our dog Pretzel, asleep in her little bed in the corner, then he continued, “Some people recently called up about alligators, for the alligator farms. So we designed a euthanization gun for alligators. It was an interesting project. Have you ever seen one?”
“A gun?” I jammed a strawberry in my mouth.
“An alligator!” I was pleased to see frustration briefly cross the man’s face.
“Yes,” I said. “At the putt-putt. There’s a hundred of them.”
“Oh, those tiny things. Those are just the babies!” the man cried. “You haven’t seen the real animal. What a shame.” He shook his head. “You know, one day you might be as beautiful as your mother.”
“I don’t care about being beautiful,” I lied. “I’m training for the Olympics. The long jump.”
This was, in fact, what Silka was doing.
“An athlete!” said the man. “Very ambitious! What are you, fifteen?”
“What are those papers?” I said, pointing with my knife to the stack in front of him.
“These?” The man grinned. “Nothing, nothing. Silly things. Not important to a thirteen-year-old such as yourself.” Then he looked concerned. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, do you spend enough time outside? A young girl can’t spend all her time indoors, daydreaming. Too much of that and your gums will start bleeding. Take it from me!” He hooked a finger under his lip and pulled it out, revealing a dark shiny expanse above his teeth, caked with blood and rot. I tried not to flinch, but must have anyway, because he grinned again. “Runs in the family,” he explained. “My father had a terrible case: gums bleeding and veins bursting, all sorts of things growing out of his mouth. He ended up in the madhouse, licking his own guts off the floor like they were coconut ice cream!”
It seemed important that I not let the man see I was frightened. I shrugged as if his story was one I had heard too many times. I wished my mother or Silka would come downstairs. The house was quiet except for the clink of the man setting his milk glass on the table, where its cloudy sides caught the light.
“My mother will be awake soon,” I said.
“I suppose you are a slut like her!” the man said cheerfully, shuffling his papers.
It felt as if Mom and Silka and even the snoring dog were all in a different world. The only people that existed were me and the strange man.
The man said without looking up at me: “These are the papers to sell your house.” He smiled benevolently, uncapping a pen and scribbling something.
“And where will we live?” I said. I could feel a whistling in my ears, so loud my own voice sounded far away.
“Oh, somewhere much worse, I’m sure!”
He scribbled some more, then said, “Hey, why don’t we take this upstairs to your room? I’ll show you a real time, you know. Not like these kids that jump on you for five seconds and jump off.” He winked.
“Disgusting old man,” I said. “I don’t believe anything you say.”
“You can try to get out of it. You can spin flax into gold. You can find some little children for me to eat! Oh, you see I am joking! I won’t waste your time.”
“Stop lying,” I said. “What are you selling?”
“Fish heads!” he said. “Timeshares! Does it matter? I’m here on behalf of the company, Red Moon. You already signed your contract with them—your family did. These things have been decided.”
“Never heard of it,” I said. A strawberry bled between my fingers.
“No, of course not!” he said. He stood and crossed the room quickly to the counter, leaning close over it until I could smell the milk on his breath. “You don’t know much, do you?”
My hand still gripped the knife, though now it was shaking. The man did not seem to be aware of it. He was still talking.
“You know what Pontius Pilate said when Jesus was brought before him? He said, ‘For the king of the Jews, they don’t seem to like you very much.’” The man broke into a smile. “I’m at the mercy of this world, too. The day will come when they call, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ and I will follow along. I’ll be happy to.”
I slashed at him, leaving a line on his cheek, a scratch. He grabbed my wrist and twisted until the knife fell to the counter. A trickle of blood ran down his face. I thought he might break my arm, but he dropped it.
The man wiped away the blood and cleared his throat.
“A little about me. I’m the eldest of ten. My mother was born without a face, and was in labor for a month—”
“I’m not interested in your stories,” I said.
“Oh, yes you are. Tell me you are!” he said. He licked his lips.
I grabbed the knife again. “Go on!” he said. And so I struck, pressing the knife into his chest and withdrawing it. The man made a wheezing sound. He staggered and fell, slumped on the floor, half sitting.
I looked up to see Silka standing at the foot of the stairs, staring bleary-eyed.
“Are you crazy?” she said.
“He attacked me!” I said.
She carefully put on her glasses and walked over for a better look. For a moment, the corpse changed. His eyes hollowed and were replaced by yellow beetles. His mouth was caked with mud and worms. A horrible little flower grew out of his ear. Then, as quickly as he had changed, he returned to normal.
“Listen,” she said. “I’ll tell the police I saw him attack you. Then you have a witness. It’s as simple as that.” I fell into her arms and cried.
“Silka, where were you? Where were you?”
“I was here,” she said, “I was right upstairs.”
red moon company
leah smolin lives in south carolina. she is a writer and the editor of Rattlesnake Art Magazine.