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  • Mary Ellen Swee

Prom Night

As an elevated train rumbled overhead, Brandon pulled up to the curb at his blind date’s house. He shut off the engine of his old Mini Roadster and pressed his hands over his ears to block out the screech of metal on metal.

Once the train passed, Brandon squeezed himself out of the car. He sprinted up a concrete walkway to the front porch. Before Brandon could ring the bell, his date’s grandmother pulled the heavy door open.

“Brandon,” she said. “Come in.”

Brandon nodded. “Hey Joy.”

Joy cupped Brandon’s elbow in the palm of her hand and guided him across the threshold of the wood house.

“Who’s the guy?” Brandon asked.

Joy looked out past Brandon’s shoulder at a dark figure under the elevated tracks. Kneeling between his droopy tent and a rusted garbage barrel, he shouted in the direction of the wood house.

“Repent!” he yelled. “Or burn!”

Joy rolled her eyes.

“New neighbor,” Joy said. “Just ignore him.”

“Cool.” Brandon patted his hair down with his free hand.

Joy cracked a smile. “Angel’s not ready yet,” she told Brandon. Joy pushed her bony fingers deeper into his elbow. “But I have a surprise for you.”

Brandon followed Joy down the long, dimly-lit hallway from the foyer to her office at the rear of the house. Framed photographs of a girl with graceful brown hair lined both sides.

“Hot,” Brandon said under his breath.

“Hot?”

“The girl. In the pictures.”

“Oh,” Joy said.

“Angel. Right?”

“Not Angel,” she told Brandon. “That was me.”

The temperature in the hallway went up as they got closer to Joy’s office. Beads of sweat gathered between Brandon’s eyebrows.

When they reached the office door, Brandon heard crackling sounds, and he smelled meat cooking in the nearby kitchen.

Brandon paused before entering the office. He sniffed loudly.

“Fried tongue,” Joy said. “For the dogs.”

“Whoa,” Brandon said. “Lucky dogs.”


***


The glass wall in Joy’s office looked out at a deep, rectangular yard. Steel webbing attached to tall posts surrounded the outdoor space.

In the middle of the yard, a stocky dog with a small head was chained to a peg that stuck

out from a patch of dirt. He licked nonstop at his front left paw. A large hairless dog lounged on one of the random grassy patches, its skin-covered bones poking out.

Joy came up from behind Brandon as he gazed at the dogs in her yard. Joy knew Brandon from the fitness club where she took yoga for seniors and he worked the front desk on weekends. Until tonight, she had only seen him in running pants and snug t-shirts.

Joy tapped Brandon’s shoulder.

“Let me look at you,” Joy said.

Brandon turned toward Joy. His tuxedo jacket had thin lapels and a black-on-black paisley print. His shiny midnight pants and vest showed off his muscles. And his white dress shirt matched a toothy grin.

Joy reached up to straighten Brandon’s bow tie. She ran the fingers of her right hand through a wave of dark hair that curved across his forehead and then flared up at the ends.

Brandon leaned in toward Joy. It was hard to tell how old she was. Lines in Joy’s skin radiated out from around her red lips in a sunburst. Her dark eyes were collapsed so far into their sockets that her eyelids only opened halfway. Looking into them was like trying to see into a black cave without a lantern.

Brandon touched the pink scarf draped around Joy’s neck. If he could check out her neck, then he would know how old she was. 

Joy guided Brandon’s hand away from her scarf. She pointed at a leather wingback chair that was pushed up against the glass wall. 

“Get comfortable,” she told Brandon.

The chair faced Joy’s oak desk and, behind the desk, a wall covered with long wood shelves. Wide-mouthed glass jars full of cloudy fluid and topped with metal lids were arranged

in rows on the horizontal planes that reached from floor to ceiling. Stuck to their fronts were white labels with lines of small black print.

Brandon eased himself onto the chair. He shifted his shoulders from side to side and, after he released his body into the soft leather, he laid his hands out flat on the tops of his thighs.

“What’s up with the jars?” He nodded his head at the shelves.

Joy put an index finger up to her lips. Then she stood as if in prayer while an elevated train thundered past her house. The office shook. The glass jars quivered. In the yard, the dogs barked at the train like it was trespassing on sacred ground.

Brandon sat still in the chair with the high back until the clamor died. Then the stovetop timer buzzed. 

“Excuse me,” Joy said. She winked at Brandon and left her office, closing the door behind her.


***


When the screen door slammed, it sounded like the crack of a rifle. Brandon shot up from the wingback chair. He turned toward the glass wall in Joy’s office in time to see her exiting the house. She wobbled down a short flight of uneven wood steps that descended from the kitchen to the backyard. 

In one hand, Joy gripped a cast iron skillet with her silicone oven mitt. Slices of fried tongue filled the pan. With the other hand, Joy grabbed onto the shaky railing. After she climbed off the bottom stair, she walked across the yard on her toes, so the spiked heels of her rose colored shoes would not sink into the earth.

Joy stretched her mouth open to call to the dogs. The hairless dog raised his lip to show some teeth. The dog with the small head kept licking his paw. 

Joy tiptoed over to the dogs. She poked the hairless dog with her high-heeled shoe. He jerked away from Joy, and the dog with the small head stopped licking his paw. Then the dogs rose up and rubbed against Joy’s sinewy calves until she tossed a handful of the cut-up pieces onto the ground. 

From inside Joy’s office, Brandon heard the high-pitched pulses of a smoke alarm. He knocked on the glass wall to get Joy’s attention. She turned to wave at Brandon before she went back to lobbing slivers of tongue to one dog and then to the other.

Brandon smelled the faint odor of smoke. A long white wisp curled up from under the edge of the office door.

“Crap!” 

Brandon made a tight fist and banged on the glass wall. 

This time Joy did not turn to wave at Brandon. Instead, her jaw tightened above the flouncy pink scarf. Then Brandon kicked the glass hard with his black patent leather loafer.

“Double crap!”

Brandon hustled to the office door. He reached for the antique brass knob to let himself out of the room.

“No!” he howled. 

Brandon snatched his hand away. His right palm and the underside of his fingers were bright red. The pattern from the knob had burned itself into his skin. Thorny vines swirled around a small circle the size of a collar button. Markings on the circle made it look like a tiny head with slanted eyes and compressed lips.

Brandon raised his hand up in the air and shook it frantically. He spit on the red marks to cool off the scorched skin. He heard the hissing and popping of flames on the other side of the office door.

“Joy!” Brandon called out. “Angel!”

***


Security lights snapped on in the backyard, flooding the space with artificial glare. The brightness drew the neighbor out from his sagging tent. He trudged underneath the tracks toward the garbage barrel where he was burning litter passengers tossed out of the train.

Yellow sparks shot like fireworks from the top of the big metal barrel, and orange flames ripped at its rim. The neighbor sunk down on a gravely surface near the fire, facing Joy’s backyard. He pulled his legs into his chest and leaned his chin on his kneecaps. 

Standing erect in the startling light, Joy dangled the last piece of meat over the dogs. Her hair shone, and the stain from her brown dye flared out along the border of her scalp. 

Joy swung the fried morsel back and forth like a pendulum. The eager dogs leapt up high to pluck the chunk from her fingertips, but they crashed into each other midair and dropped to  the ground. Then Joy placed the fried meat into her own mouth.

Inside Joy’s office, Brandon’s burnt hand throbbed. He circled around the end of Joy’s desk to get near to the big fluid-filled jars sitting in rows on the wood shelves. 

Their handwritten labels had names printed in black marker. Martin, Merrick, Owen, Shay…

Brandon reached out to touch a glass jar. It was cool against the seared skin. He tried to make out the contents. What looked like a pair of tiny feet was suspended in the murky liquid.

Brandon snatched his sore hand away from the vessel and stumbled alongside the shelves, scanning the contents. In one, he saw a small arm, bent slightly at the elbow, and, in another, a short leg with a crook at the knee.

On a far end of a middle shelf, Brandon found a label that said “Angel in capital letters.

“Angel.” Brandon choked on the fumes that penetrated Joy’s office door.

He wrapped his arms around the fat jar and hauled it over to the desktop. He set it down on the worn oak surface. 

Brandon flipped over his charred hand. Bubbles had popped up across his palm. His fingers were stiff and the joints unbending.

Then Brandon pressed his hip into the desk. He hugged the glass base between his right forearm and his torso. He fanned out his good hand across the metal lid on top of the wide mouthed jar. He gripped its edges with his fingertips and turned it counterclockwise. 

When it was loose enough, Brandon lifted the metal lid from the mouth of the glass jar.  He looked down into the cloudy fluid and blinked his inflamed eyes. He lowered his head closer to the liquid surface. Floating in the jar, Brandon saw the crown of a small skull. 

Brandon pushed up the sleeve above his right wrist. He held it in place to protect his rented tuxedo jacket and the cuff of his white shirt. Then, as an elevated train roared overhead, Brandon thrust his shriveling hand into Angel’s jar. 


E N D


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