As a child, I was easily terrified. After watching a scary movie, I slept with the lights on for whole weeks, I had trouble looking into bathroom mirrors, and I took quick, frantic showers. I was afraid of the dark for a few years, and I had a significant vampire phase. I never thought I would actually come to enjoy horror, much less write it, but the main draw to the horror genre was how it accommodated writing honestly.
I try to write with honesty, which is not always easy to accomplish. Honesty is often linked to truth and fact, and fiction is inherently defined as “not fact”. Suffice it to say, “The Smile On Her Face” was inspired by factual events. My mother did actually experience minor digestive issues—granted, they were not life threatening symptoms, and they could have been brought on by stress, weather, or any number of environmental influences. My mother is also never one to eat large meals.
However, the honesty here comes not just from those semi-factual events, but from the deep seated emotions surrounding family, loved ones, and sacrificing everything to keep those things whole and free of suffering. That is difficult to convey, especially given the mundane subjects of indigestion and a small appetite. The great thing about genre writing—horror in particular—is that it accommodates some of the more routine aspects of life. Consider the concept of the haunted house. A house, on its own, remains a fairly tame, uninteresting object, but a ghost or a swell of paranormal activity suddenly changes the house into something else entirely. The Ring series perpetuates fear surrounding a videotape.
The genre becomes a framework over which we can mold the everyday fears in our lives, those things that haunt us, break our hearts, or eat away at our very beings. Interesting enough, the motivations for my honesty—the sense of preservation and sacrifice—became the main points of fear in the story. While not many of us would resort to cannibalism, we have all probably considered sacrificing lifesavings, personal morals, or our very souls to maintain who we love. I do not want readers to subscribe to nightlights, but I do hope they can confront some of those intrinsic ideas that can be quite honestly horrifying.
Under the trees, I saw my mother. She stood in the window, staring out at a neighbor's car, and part of me thought she was a ghost. But I knew better. The way she stood there in her white nightgown, her eyes so sad but that smile on her face. Hopeful, I guess. Something I forgot.
I threw a handful of grass into the wind and headed inside while I watched the green bits escape.
The table was set. A plump bit of fish sat on a nest of golden, buttery rice. I sat down and forked a small chunk of the salmon into my mouth. Perfect tender, salty and sweet and a bit like lemon. My mom sat across from me and smiled.
I looked down at her empty plate and said "Are you not eating?" She lifted her eyes to mine and said "I'm not feeling well. I had a lot for lunch, anyway." I shrugged but I felt my heart land on the empty plate. Curious.
I tucked myself into bed that night and my mother came in, kissed by forehead, and told me "Sleep well and long." She left the door ajar behind her and I heard the TV turn on.
A week later, I was in the doctor's office with my mother. "So why is she constipated? Why doesn't she have an appetite?" The doctor shrugged, pushed the glasses up his nose. He spoke words I couldn't understand then took a white pill from his pocket and told mom "Take one every day." We shook hands and left.
My mother got no better. I tried to feed her but nothing stayed down. She threw food away. I found steaks and jams and bananas in the trash. "I'm just not hungry" she said.
We went to the doctor again. And again. Each time he'd say meaningless things and give my mom pills. "Take one a day." Each time the pill was a different shape and color. Blue ovals, red octagons, yellow raindrops. They were like candies and she loved sweets.
I tried feeding her everything. Things that weren't food, like plastic buckets, frying pans, batteries but nothing worked. She said "I'm just not hungry." I went out hunting some days. Mice and foxes and coyotes and once a deer, but she couldn't keep any of it down.
She was pale and you could almost see through her bones. Neighbors mistook her for a ghost when she stood by the window.
I was desperate. I stole a baby. That's how desperate. She wouldn't even look at it, so I left it in the park and called the cops and forgot about it.
I cried, dropped to my knees, and told her she had to eat something. "I'm just not hungry," she'd say.
I stared at the empty plate and had an idea. I told her and she licked her lips as the tears came. I gave her a fork in one hand and a thick carving knife, the one for Thanksgiving, in the other and I lay down.
It hurt only a little bit and only when she cracked through the bone and the first rib. She dropped the fork and the knife and gently picked up my heart with the hands that had once held me and protected me and washed spaghetti sauce from my face.
With each bite, the color returned to her face. I almost saw the flesh grow back onto her bone. And I became a part of her. We watched each other the whole time, our eyes so sad but the smiles on our faces.
* * * *
I was born, I went to school, I graduated, and here I am two years later. I began my writing career in college as a poet. I was published by some lovely, online small presses, including unFold, Juked, a handful of stones, and Gloom Cupboard. Suffice it to say, I was not a great at poetry and something about it remained unsatisfying.
I only recently made the transition from poetry to short fiction, and I somehow found myself writing horror or at least some form of it. I’m still learning the ropes, but being chosen for Penumbra’s Rising Talent is a great honor and has me even more excited about writing stories.
I enjoy all facets of writing, even when I am not sitting with pen and paper or word processor. Exploring the world and taking things in is just as important. My loves outside of writing revolve around the four M’s: movies, music, milkshakes, and Mom.
Talk about the shoulders of giants!
Penumbra's next issue will be released on December 1, 2011.