Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-six.
Tonight we present Thirsty
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Gatecast!
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we seek to quench an endless thirst and learn the risks of bending low to the stream.
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Extracting herself from the couch was no easy matter. The build team was about to reveal the house they’d constructed for the Taylors, a family of ten whose youngest suffered from a tragic skin disease, so Ira’s attention was divided between the glowing screen and his failing attempts to cover for the fact that, behind his glasses, his eyes were welling at the tenderness of it all.
Amalia, however, was a master of escape. Swapping in a throw pillow for her lap, she managed to settle her boyfriend without upending the bowl of Cheetos resting on the sofa’s arm, nor awakening Mr. Bungles, the Labrador Retriever sleeping at her feet.
“Everything okay?” asked Ira, his gaze lost behind the reflection in his lenses.
“Yeah,” she replied, her phone slipping into her pocket, “I just need the phone charger and something to drink.”
It was technically Ira’s charger, as she’d long ago misplaced her own, but, if she were honest, her battery was still brimming.
“Grab me an orange Fanta while you’re there?”
Heading down the short hallway that led away from their apartment’s living room, she swung right into kitchen’s stark fluorescent glow. While it was true that her throat was dusty, it was actually an unexpected text that had sent her towards the chill black and white linoleum.
“Busy?” was all it had asked.
Her toes curled for warmth as she retrieved her cell.
Pulling open the fridge door she grabbed a pair of Fantas and considered the previous weekend. Ira had been called back to his mother’s home to move through the dance of supplication necessary to keep her co-signing his students loans, and boredom had driven her online. It had been a conversation about the closing of a local pub that put her into a back and forth with Alton Pierce, but it was his shirtless profile picture that had caused her to send him a direct message.
“You local?” had turned, over the course of two hours, into a meeting – a meeting that had, over forty further minutes, concluded roughly on his kitchen table.
Her thirst might have been what had pulled her from the couch, but the memory of his flexing abs was what caused her to hesitate in responding.
She regretted the incident, or so she’d been telling herself since, but now, with Ira limp on the couch and Bungles snoring on the hardwood, her thumbs hovered over the onscreen keyboard.
Stalling, Amalia opened her bottle and took a long sip, then the calamity of the family’s arrival at their new home finally drew her back into the hall.
Though she did not reply, neither did she delete the question.
The second message arrived three days later. She was at work, bored and willing the clock to swing its hour hand around to five, when Alton said, “I need to talk to you.”
In truth, Amalia had been thinking about him. Not constantly, but in these quieter moments, when her brain was desperate for something fun – something exciting – to attach itself to. Still, she was glad he’d broken the silence first. There was something satisfying in being wanted.
She smiled, having missed the connection with that morning’s events.
It’d been dark when she’d risen and stumbled into the bathroom. Her cubicle position, third stop in designing the company’s Excel charts, did not demand much in the way of physical presentation – so long as she avoided band t-shirts and ripped pants no complaints would be raised. Yet, as she’d rubbed a hand across her forehead in an attempt to wake herself, she’d heard a series of tiny, almost imperceptible snaps. When she’d lowered her palm, she found it filled with her right eyebrow.
Her fist had closed, instinctively hoping to unsee what had happened, and in doing so she’d felt the grinding of each strand into powder.
As the fingertips of her free hand touched her remaining brow each hair gave way with a pop and drifted down onto the white counter.
A full sixty seconds of panic set in, and her feet dug into the plush brown mat Ira had set before the bathroom mirror. She’d had to work hard not to give in to the alternating temptations of shouting for her boyfriend’s help or simply letting out a loud string of “fucks” in reaction to the mess of the situation.
Amalia had a bus to catch, however, and so, after that initial shock, she’d stopped herself from worrying about the why and had to focus instead on some sort of solution. The result was a six-minute YouTube tutorial that worked well with the materials sitting under her sink, and a ride to work caught just in time.
Three hours after the incident, with no coworkers questioning her sudden new styling and a promise to herself to up her vitamin A, she’d almost forgotten the scare.
Still, her lack of eyebrows dampened her enthusiasm to chat up Alton – at least for the moment.
She rose the following day to the smell of eggs and bacon cooking. Amalia shared only one day off a week with Ira, Saturday, so they often took turns rising early enough to make coffee and an extravagant breakfast for the other. Frying protein was her preference, but he was a bigger fan of her waffles.
Crawling from beneath their overstuffed ivory duvet she raised an arm to brush her hair from her face. The black strands shattered at her touch, falling in thick clumps as if her finger was a blade, and her throat locked with surprise. Amalia watched as the bundles hit the pillow with a plume, as if the bed was covered with a thick dust – but upon closer inspection she realized the soot was, in reality, the result of her locks crumbling upon impact.
Amalia was bald by the time she stumbled into the kitchen, having been unable to stop herself from checking the entirety of her skull – and discovering the same reaction across her now-barren scalp.
Worse, she found it wasn’t her only hair she was worried about – she was thirsty, so thirsty. Instead of answering any of Ira’s questions, at her entrance she simply tilted her mouth beneath the sink’s chrome fixtures and began to fill her belly with cold clean water.
Finally, when her thirst seemed quenched, she came up for air.
“What happened!?” repeated Ira.
“I don’t know,” she answered. Having taken care of her need she moved close for his comfort.
He hesitated only for the briefest of seconds before wrapping her in a hug, saying, “I hope it’s not communicable, but I guess it doesn’t matter much anyhow. We can be bald together.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I’m not sure, but we’ll head to the clinic. I’m sure they’ll have an answer. Besides, you seem fine beyond, you know, the obvious, so hopefully it’s just a nutritional thing.”
Her face buried in his shoulder, Amalia’s voice cracked as she asked, “what if it’s cancer?” – but she would not allow herself tears.
“Whatever it is,” Ira answered, “we’ll work through it together. Still, generally people lose their hair because of the treatment, not the illness. Waking up looking like Captain Picard isn’t the first symptom of any form of cancer I can think of.”
They decided, after a time, to finish their meal before heading out to see a doctor. The line was usually long, and at least she would have a full stomach. It was after her third cup of coffee, as Amalia used Ira’s shoulder to balance while pulling on her right shoe, that the knock came.
It was rare that salespeople made it this far up the building before being ejected by the rental agent, a smartly dressed woman whose eyes patrolled the lobby from her glass-walled office, but occasional cable company reps or tenacious Girl Scouts were known to slip the dragnet.
“Who is it?” she asked, unwilling to surrender her wobbling position to check the peephole.
“It’s Alton. I need to talk to you about – you know, about what happened last weekend. I may have, uh, given you something that night.”
“Wait,” said Ira, “is this guy saying – did you sleep with him?”
Her brain wanted to run, but instead her mouth said, “I am so sorry.”
Her boyfriend’s face moved rapidly through a number of possible responses, but eventually his quivering lip gave way to bared teeth.
Alton knocked again. “Hello?”
“To hell with this,” said Ira. “To hell with him.”
Ira – Ira who made soup every fall and froze it in individual servings to easily thaw when she caught a cold, Ira who had patiently taught her the butterfly stroke at the Y, Ira who felt so uneasy at heading to sleep without telling her that he loved her that he occasionally woke her expressly for the purpose – Ira took on that set of his cheeks that meant he’d made an unpleasant decision.
“To hell with you,” he said, disappearing into their bedroom.
He returned with Bungles’ leash, a plastic bag hastily stuffed with clothes, and his cellphone’s charger.
Passing by Amalia he spat out, “to hell with all of this. Take what’s yours and be gone by Monday.”
Then he pulled open the door and whistled for Mr. Bungles, who exited with a wagging tail that spoke of an expected walk. Alton’s eyes went wide at his appearance, and for a moment the interloping stranger seemed share the same thought with Amalia: Would Ira hit him?
Instead her departing ex-boyfriend only shrugged, repeating, “Monday.”
He did, however, slam the door behind him.
Without thinking through her instinct, Amalia slapped the deadbolt into place and retreated to the far end of the apartment – to the depths of her – their – his bed.
If Ira wished to return he had a key, if not – well, she needed time to think somewhere away from Alton’s renewed knocking and conversational attempts.
Silence finally found her, fifteen minutes later, when she heard Mrs. Clark’s buzzsaw voice in the hall. The words were indistinct, but Amalia knew what her neighbour wanted, because it was always the same thing: Quiet.
She would likely also threaten police intervention. This had worried Amalia once upon a time, back when the woman had first complained over the volume of their viewing of Love Actually, but she had eventually come to think of it as simply how Mrs. Clark ended conversations.
“That paint colour clashes – it’d be a shame if I had to call the police!”
Despite the new hush, Amalia’s mind continued to thrash its way through a steady cycle: How could she have let this happen? Was there any way to convince Ira to take her back? Was that what she wanted? Would she have cheated on him if she was entirely happy? Then she’d conclude that yes, her act was simply one of selfishness not a cry for help, and she’d question how she could have let it happen all over again.
She thought, she paced, she planned; give him time to cool then tell him how important he was. Better yet, show him.
After a day of churning considerations and exhausting despair the thought gave her enough hope to cling to that she might sleep, but, as she was drifting into unconsciousness, she finally fully processed Alton’s words. He had answers to what was happening to her hair, but any conversation they needed to have she wanted over with as quickly as possible. Besides, she hadn’t checked for messages in hours – perhaps Ira had sent something?
It was enough to drive Amalia from her sheets and through a sleepy-eyed search for her phone, and, after five servings of tap water chugged from Ira’s Jurassic Park mug, the hunt ended at the kitchen counter.
Her battery was dead, and, of course, the charger was gone.
Step one in taking ownership of her situation, Amalia resolved, would be either finding her missing cord or buying a new one – but in the morning. Now the weight of the day seemed to rest entirely on her eyelids, and she wanted nothing more than sleep.
Nothing more, that is, until shortly after three that morning.
She’d been dreaming of a desert of salt. In the distance, over the horizon, she saw sails – but no matter how far she marched she could not reach them, nor the water on which she assumed they sailed.
Finally her mind could no longer mask the reality of her thirst, and she woke.
The heat of Amalia’s nightmare had caused her to push away all coverings, and she stood unimpeded. She made it so far as the darkened kitchen without incident, but the act of brushing the switch was too much for her fragile fingers.
As she watched the white plastic nub passed through her pinky and lodged at the midpoint of her ring finger, then the severed digit tumbled to the ground, splashing into a sandy powder.
She stepped backwards, wishing to pull away from the sight, and her left shoulder landed on the door frame with little resistance. The unevenly painted corner sheared away her arm as if it were a broom parting cobwebs.
Amalia fell to her knees, but these too betrayed her, the impacts sending flakes of leg into the air and forming cracks across her calves. She attempted to crawl forward then, but her crumbling hands turned the effort into a fight to prevent the impending crush of her face landing upon the linoleum.
When Ira returned, that Monday, he found only another mess to clean.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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