Swallow

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The very thought of food made Lyle Greer want to plunge a steak knife in his gullet, and yet here was at Chux ‘N More. Legend had it that if the grease used at all the other totally health conscientious fast food restaurants were compiled into a location, one would have almost half as much oil in a single Chux Delux 3000. A side of fries though and the area would have to be expanded at least an extra 15 miles. He definitely would not consider it as first date material, but that’s what he got for letting his date choose the location. With his slicked-back brown hair and blazer, most would say he was way overdressed for this dinner date, with which he would concur.

“How’s it?” A blonde haired, blue eyed, mostly overweight Kathy leaned real close, she probably wanted Lyle to smell the red onions farting in her esophagus. “Pretty fuckin’ good, huh?” Her southern twang was nauseating. Lyle forgot to mention he was also vegetarian on his dating profile.

“It’s,” he was at a loss for words, “pretty fucking good.” Could he vomit yet? “I heard them triple Oreo shakes are amazing, too. You going to try them ones?” His grammar teacher of a mother gave him a cold slap from the grave for such a ridiculous and incorrect question, he felt his soul stiffen a little. He hoped Kathy couldn’t tell he was trying so hard to impress her.

Kathy’s eyes bugged like she just witnessed her prized cow give birth to a beautiful calf; except the calf inherited millions from his great granddaddy, was clutching a crimson faux leather Bible, and was also completely Caucasian. She appeared to have came twice in her chair and one of her eyes glazed over. “Triple Oreo? How much does that cost? Will you…? I mean…” Her puppy dog eyes were almost irresistible.

“Kathy, you have to try it. You have to. You won’t be the same; I promise you that.” Lyle took out his wallet and handed her $5. “This will cover a large for you, or a small for both of us. I’d like one too, but that’s all the money I have right now. You get what you think is–” Kathy snatched the money and galloped to the cashier’s counter. “…Best,” Lyle finished.

After a few minutes, an excited Kathy returned with one massive blue cup. Red lipstick already stained the rim of the straw where she had guzzled down a third of the delicious shake. “Sorry hon’, the girl at the counter said two smalls cost a smidge over five, and she wouldn’t spot a few dimes, but a large was only four and some change. What a bitch, ifyaskmuh,” Kathy started on another thought but she drowned it in the caustic lake of Oreo and regurgitated ground beef and mustard. Lyle’s stomach churned.

“It was probably best that I didn’t get one anyway.”

Kathy’s upper lip stretched, exposing a yellow french fry in her gum. “Come again?”

“A shake,” Lyle pointed at the now mostly emptied cup. “I’m lactose intolerant. That shake would’ve torn me up for days.”

“You ain’t one of them kind are you?” Slurp, slurp.

“A what?”

“Y’know…” Kathy popped the lid off the cup and dumped the rest of the dark chocolate contents down her mouth. A piece of cookie slipped out of her mouth and bounced onto the checked table top. It took less than a second for her to pick it up and put it back in her mouth.

Lyle glared, unsure how much longer he could put up with this lady. Although he was hoping to charm her over at the beginning of the date, it was starting to become obvious to him that maybe that was not going to be possible. “What?” He was getting agitated.

“Well you talk like me and you seem nice, but you dress so fancy like and now you’re lactose intolerant?” She tossed the cup in the trash but missed. “Next thing you be telling me is that you’re gay and vegetarian! Lordy, lordy. Please tell me you’re not a liberal fag.”

Liberal fag. Lyle sat on the words for a few seconds, speechless at how she could have reached that conclusion over the simple fact that he could not consume lactose and that he has a sense for fashion. “Kathy, I’m just like you. Don’t you remember why we sat for dinner in the first place?”

Their first conversation started on a dating website. It all started when Lyle sent a simple, Boy howdy! If I followed you home, would you keep me? Followed by a page full of heart-eye and puppy emojis. To be honest, Lyle didn’t think that despicable pick up line would work on anybody, but it got Kathy’s attention. Shortly after, he discovered her favorite cuisine was American and that she loved Rom-Coms. What a catch.

“Lyle, it’s just I don’t open myself up to a lot of people anymore. You’re the first since…” Kathy shifted uncomfortably, not keen on discussing any of her previous relationships. “It’s just been a while.”

People buzzed around Lyle and Kathy in the restaurant and their asses grew numb as they sat in silence, just staring at each other. Neither of them knew the right way to fix the conversation, not really.

“The movie’s going to start in a few minutes,” Lyle murmured, checking his watch. “I don’t think we could make it, and plus we kind of used my last five for your shake.” His eyes flicked to Kathy’s and then to the tiled floor which was surprisingly clean, unlike their table which was sticky and covered in chocolate.

“That’s okay. Truth is I’ve already seen it have a dozen times,” confessed Kathy. “I just like seeing Ryan Reynolds ass in it.” Lyle laughed, focusing on Kathy once again.

“How about we just take a drive, you and me? I’ve got the gas.” Lyle took Kathy’s hand. He felt an inviting warmth in her that he hadn’t felt before, or perhaps it was just gas from the awful dinner. “It’s getting dark out and the city looks remarkable at night.”

“You sound like we live in Vegas. Have you even seen Tarinberg? We’ve got like three buildings, counting this one. Are you sure you’re not some undercover liberal?” Kathy nudged. “I’m only joking!”

Outside, Lyle brought Kathy to his car, a bright red 2015 Dodge Charger his father bought him as a graduation gift.

Kathy especially loved the muscle cars. “I’d never consider you to be the souped up car type of guy.”

Lyle beamed. “Well, I’m a man of many surprises, what can I say?”

~~~~

Lyle took them down the interstate and through country roads, every mile he could travel to kill time, and Kathy was right. There was nothing to see in Tarinberg except darkness and the occasional stoplight. For the better part of an hour they listened to music and danced to the evening remixes, but after a little while Kathy stopped.

“I apologize for how I acted earlier. I was a bitch, I know I was,” she admitted.

Lyle squints, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve just got so much I haven’t told you.”

“You know you can be honest with me. That’s something we mentioned before to each other online that we’ve had issues with in our previous relationships. Just be yourself, Kathy.” He noticed a pair of headlights form in the distance in his rear view mirror. “If it’s any consolation, I think you’re fantastic.” His mother also hated liars; she wouldn’t have been so fond of him if she had been in the car with them at that moment.

Kathy sighed. “I’ve only had one other relationship, and it was ten years ago. I’ve only told my parents and a couple of people this, mostly for my own safety.” She paused. “I know that there’s a good chance that nothing serious will become of this or us, but I do consider you a friend.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Well, I’m not some killer or anything,” Kathy cackled nervously. “Fuck no, that’s not what this is about! It’s just, ten years ago, I looked a lot different — a lot. I was actually pretty.” She sniffled. “I modeled out of Atlanta and actually had a career. My manager, Eduardo, he promised that if I just trusted him, he’d put me on magazine covers.”

The country road that Lyle had been traveling on suddenly felt longer and longer as Kathy explained her story, and the truck behind them suddenly grew to a line of three vehicles. “Damn! That’s amazing!”

“I ended up marrying Eduardo, but not long after that he fucked me up pretty bad because I refused to whore myself out to other clients of his. So he broke my arm; I had bruises all over my body; teeth missing. My modeling career was over; he made sure of that.” More sniffles came from Kathy, who became almost inconsolable. “And just to see that someone like you, who obviously has a good job and a good mind and just a good everything actually stepped up and gave me a chance — it just means a helluva lot to me.” She reached down and clasped Lyle’s hand. “No matter what comes of tonight, thank you for being kind to me.”

“I, uh, that’s great. I, don’t know what to say -” Lyle was never a wordsmith.

“Are you okay? You’re trembling.”

Lyle slowed down and pulled into the driveway of an old trailer. There was a couple sitting in the front porch, their faces illuminated by a string of Christmas lights. Lights followed a path from the trailer house to a cellar and an old silo.

“Where the fuck are we? Lyle?”

“I think I’m going to be sick. I have to use the bathroom.”

“Lyle you’re not just going up to those strangers and asking them for their bathroom! That’s not how that works.”

“Please just stay in the car.”

As Lyle exited the Charger, three other vehicles stopped behind him. With every step towards the trailer, Lyle did not hear the click of the door handle inside his car — meaning Kathy wasn’t smart enough to try to escape, which was good. She could easily unlock the car and make a run for it.

“I’m here,” Lyle exclaimed, voice fragile. His fingers traced the outline of the car keys in his left pocket.

The couple sitting on the porch is revealed to be two brothers, Douglas and Van. In the darkness they almost looked identical, save for their vastly different height and Douglas’ long beard. “You have what I need as well?”

“In the car.”

The brothers gestured toward Kathy and suddenly two women and a man approached the vehicle, but Douglas held out his hand in a stopping motion. “This is the one, correct? Kathy Pliga?”

Lyle felt his knees buckle and his shoes sink into the earth. “Yes.”

“Unlock the car then.”

“Fuck,” Lyle whispered.

It happened almost instantly. The car unlocked, Kathy raced out, but was napped kicking and screaming by one of the goons. They administered a shot to her neck and in moments she collapsed. Her limp feet drew lines in the dirt as she was dragged into the cellar.

“Very good, Lyle. You did an excellent job,” Van observed. “Everyone, prepare the ceremony. We’ll join shortly.”

“I need the money,” Lyle commanded, his voice cracking the dry night air. “I was promised thirty thousand; I’ve upheld my end. Please.” Lyle’s hands balled up in anticipation.

“You’ll have to forgive me, I left the money in the office. You’ll have to come with me to get it.” There was a peculiar calmness to the night, a kind of order as if nature itself conformed to a new hierarchy — a hierarchy with these brothers leading the pack. “Come now,” they whispered. “We’ll get your reward.” Although Lyle knew the risks, the chances of him escaping were slim enough as it was, so he decided to play nice.

Lyle followed Douglas, Van, and their acolytes into the cellar. The place was kept in pristine condition despite appearing quite old and abandoned from the outside. Inside, the walls were painted black with a single red stripe leading to the center of the cellar: the grand hall. Lyle couldn’t see much else from his position, as he was surrounded by the followers.

“Chieftain, everything has been prepared; the moon is in phase — it is time,” a red cloaked acolyte whispered to the brothers. The brothers nodded and the follower disappeared into another corridor.

Slow, deep instrumental music filled Lyle’s senses as he walked with the brothers through the cellar and into the grand hall. Before Lyle could ask if they were almost to the office, the music grew louder and the brothers turned around. It was the first time Lyle got to really see the two so close up and under bright light.

Douglas was about a foot and a half taller than Van, with a much longer beard, which was neatly combed and braided. He was bald and had a face full of different black tattoos. Van looked far more professional but less menacing, with only a short goatee and no tattoos.

Suddenly, the music stopped playing and the grand hall filled with hooded figures. Everything happened in a flash. Strange symbols appeared on the walls and the ground began to shake. Everyone bowed their head and began to hum. Lyle’s jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide. He fell back in horror as two men carried Kathy into the room, now stripped naked and painted white.

“To praise our Brother Thygalsdi, we offer the Harbinger of the Filth. As her life fills us, the Era of Soot comes to an end and the Sacred Cleanse begins!” the brothers chanted, to which the others parroted.

Paralyzation wore off and Lyle finally picked himself up off the floor and scurried to the door, but he was quickly ambushed by the mob.

“Lyle,” the brothers spoke in unison. “You’re not leaving here without your reward.” They motion toward Kathy, now wide awake but completely silent, staring at him. Her eyes glimmered under the bright light. “As Harbinger, it is your duty.” A dagger is forced in Lyle’s hand. “Do it.” A hint of a smirk formed on Kathy’s face, as if she was taunting Lyle. Liberal fag, she mouthed.

The entire room erupted in chants of “DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT HARBINGER! FOR THYGALDSDI!”

But all Lyle could see and hear was the pathetic bitch Kathy. The cow who took his money and refused to get him a shake. The sleaze who considered a dinner at Chux ‘N More and a movie she’d seen a dozen times was a date. The liar who made him believe she was an abuse victim for no fucking reason before he sold her for $30,000. The FUCKING BITCH who scammed him from the very start. Yes, Lyle considered himself a hardcore gun control and anti-violence activist, but, fuck, he wanted to stab Kathy.

So he did. And Kathy didn’t even put up a fight. Nobody did. He plunged the knife first into Kathy’s arm, then into her stomach, and then her neck. Then it became a blur. All of his rage, a lifetime of buried anger and hatred and he decided to take it out right then on Kathy, a girl he met in person only hours earlier. A girl he only intended to sell to a couple of men for $30,000 and then he would leave, no questions asked. Now he was standing over her, relentlessly stabbing her over and over and over and over. He cried because she couldn’t; he never gave her a chance. She didn’t have a chance to take a final breath before he sank the dagger one last time into her heart.

The muffled silence was slowly broken by quietened praises for the cultists’ Thygaldsdi and for their blessed Harbinger, but none was as enthusiastic as before.

Instead of bandages, the cultists pressed cups to Kathy’s stab wounds. Red solo cup after red solo cup was filled with Kathy’s blood and passed around the room. Hearty cheers and happy tears were had, and finally Douglas approached Lyle. Lyle was still beside Kathy’s twitching corpse, dazed, his hand clutching the dagger.

“You did us a great service today, Harbinger; here, drink up. It will complete the ceremony.”

“Don’t… fucking call me that.” Lyle shrugged him away and stood up. “Now let me go.”

“Not without this,” he handed Lyle a suitcase. “Inside is the thirty grand. All you have to do is complete the ceremony, and you can leave.” All eyes were on Lyle and his red solo cup full of Kathy’s blood. “Just swallow.”

Lyle dropped the blade and peeked inside the suitcase. His money was in the case, sure enough. He grabbed the cup. “Here’s to forgetting every fucking thing that happened here tonight,” Lyle toasted, swallowing Kathy along with every ounce of his pride.

~~~~

After Lyle left the cellar and sped off with his $30,000, Douglas made a phone call.

“Valerie, it’s the Chieftain of Station 8B.”

“Y-Y-You’re calling, so, it-it’s done? The Cleansing has…?”

Douglas was quick and quiet. “Alert the council of our success here and begin taking the necessary steps for initiation.”

Click

Intermission + Some Updates

Thursday, November 29 will be the debut of Act II of Masquerade with my new short story Swallow.

From here on out you can expect to see new short stories (~1,500-2,500 words) posted regularly on Thursdays unless stated otherwise, with perhaps some super-short flash fics/poems (>400 words) sprinkled around randomly. (I do looooooove flash fiction.)

I’m overjoyed to return to writing to say the least. I’ve written a good part of Swallow and it just feels like I’m back where I’m supposed to be, like I’ve been on vacation for a year and I’m finally back at home sleeping in my own bed.

That said, having this creative energy flow through me once again is just as terrifying as it is exciting; some poor fictional soul is going to die. Who’s is going to be? My bet’s on the butler.

See you Thursday. 😈

Beautiful Life

He grew his hair out so you’d forget the ugly shape of his face
Sucked in his gut to hide the Bacardi pints from lonely nights past
A life drowning in vodka sweats and bad intentions, he swore he’d swim

Once your lover, the man stood before you a blue collar stranger
He rubbed his naked finger where once there was a ring
Daydreamed about the life that almost was

He smiled when he greeted you because you said you’d never forget his dimples
Sucked in his gut further so you’d see how much he had changed
But hopefulness turned to humiliation when he noticed your finger was bare no longer

Once your best friend, the man wept quietly in his room
Tears streaking the old ultrasound photo he had hidden in his wallet
Fractured, he turned to his past demons and welcomed them back with open arms

He drowned in the liquor so he’d forget your beautiful face
Slit his wrists to forget the baby girl you both had lost
As his blood slipped down the bathtub drain, so too did the pain and regret

Once your enemy, the man drifted away a lost soul
Forever dreaming about the life that almost was

Mother’s Day

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Photo credit: Patrick Dobeson
Mama Six loved that turquoise quilt, the one with the black horses and winding river. It reminded her of the time she was a little girl at the ranch, the first time she saw the wild pony grazing near the water’s edge. The thick blanket restored within her a sense of hope and youth, which is why we wrapped her in it after Cecil killed her.

“Isn’t it a little ironic?” Cecil huffed as he tore the rotten paddle through the algae-infested water. A brown leaf clung to his wet chin.

“Huh?”

Cecil stopped rowing for a moment. “It’s Mother’s Day, and…” His brown eyes darted from the turquoise quilt burrito at the center of the boat and back at me. He pulled his lips to the side, the same smirk that started it all. Who knew a sneer warranted an impaled shoulder? It gave another meaning to knife in the back.

The three of us skidded across the water in the boat, like a puck on ice hurling towards the net. Could he have been right? Had it really been Mother’s Day? Suddenly the ball of fire in my gut expanded. “Just keep rowing,” I spat, feeling his hot glare drill a hole between my eyes. “We need to make a story, a different one than last time.”

“What’s wrong with the one we used the first time? You can’t think they’d notice, or even care – just the thought of possible abuse knocks them sideways.”

We row in silence for the next twenty minutes, both of us simultaneously scanning for a good dumping spot and devising a convincing excuse. He could have definitely chosen a better day to murder Mama Six – that was for sure. I swear I could hear our skin scorching and bubbling under the hot, Texan sun. The water that splashed off our oars did little to cool us off, and only formed an annoying puddle at our feet. Mama Six’s blood leaking everywhere didn’t help matters, either.

Then suddenly I saw it. “There!” I pointed towards the darkest pit in the lake. “That’s where we’ll drop her.” Cecil begins unwrapping Mama Six, and I prepare the boulders. “One on each limb ought to do it,” I think out loud.

“I wonder what she would think of us.”

If Cecil kept it up, he’d be the one sleeping with the fishes. “What now?” I couldn’t tell if the exhaustion in my voice was from rowing God-knows-how-far with a boat full of stones, or from my brother’s sad attempts for small talk.

“Mom.” He smiled sheepishly.

I wait to reply after I got the last stone attached. “Who the hell cares, Cecil? She left us, despised us for being different. So why waste any thought on that bitch?” There’s no way I could tell him that I had wondered the same thing after all the other times. As each Mama stopped breathing, I can’t help but to think about a life where the accidents weren’t necessary. “We got each other. That’s all that matters, right?”

Cecil blinked tears away and gripped Mama Six’s ankles. “You’re right, Blaise. Now let’s drop this wench.”

On three, we heave the plump lady off the side of the boat, and she sinks like an anchor, the only evidence of her existence dancing bubbles disappearing on the green water’s surface.

“Now what?” Cecil asked. We both stared into the abyss, numb, hearts pulsing in our throats.

I took a breath before sitting back down and grasping the wet paddle once more. “Now we go back. I figured we’d use Mama Three’s story.”

Cecil giggled. “Seriously? That one again? I was thinking about Two’s, personally. I don’t know if I can fake that again. At least not as convincingly.”

We snickered together, tears staining our cheeks, but mostly from sheer anxiety and fatigue than from hilarity. My fingernails dug into my paddle, sending splinters in my nail beds. Blood dripped from my fingertips as I wept and laughed with hysteria. “Happy Mother’s Day, Cecil.”

Cecil barely held a straight face, forcing back frenzied shouts. “You too, bro. Maybe Seven’ll be the end?”

“Fat chance,” I chimed, winking. “There are still a few Mother’s Days in our future yet.”

 

Slash and Burn

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Photo credit: Kahlil Gibran

Another year, another harvest. Plow, sow, reap, repeat. It is this endless cycle of fragile expectation that keeps me at my post, always watching. Dale brought me in the day of his son, George’s second birthday; now, Dale’s long gone, and George has taken his father’s place at the farm. Every day is slave’s labor in the fresh oven of Hell, but it’s a living.

George looked at me, sweat dripping from his brow and neck, his shirt drenched and covered with soot. “I see you’re doing a swell job as always, Jem.” He sticks his pick in the parched earth and heads to the hose. “If only you can make it goddamn rain,” he spits.

The truth is that the old Whittaker farm’s seeing its last years; corn’s at an all-time low and the cows just ain’t producing like they used to. Much of the silo’s gone empty, thanks to a rough winter and an unplanned vacation to the Bahamas – George’s interest in the land has gone flat. I can see it in his periwinkle eyes; it’s in the way he walks – it’s hopeless.

“Take me with you,” I mutter, but the hot wind takes it away, just like it does everything else.

Suddenly, a glistening raven lands on my shoulder. Its beady eyes sported a moisture with which I am unfamiliar, like looking into a bubbling oil pit. Its very presence hushed the wind. “You know what happens to bags like you once the land is sterile?” it asks, tauntingly. “They burn ‘em. Burn ‘em all.”

“You’re lying!” I hiss, biting through my stitched jaw. “George will never let that happen.” Would he? But the raven was already gone, a single feather stuck tangled in my shoulder. It wasn’t the first time I encountered the black pest, this I knew, but the details of our past conversation are lost to me.

Hours pass, and nothing changes. George’s pick still rests where he placed it last, and his once full bag of seeds is reduced to a bag of bird feed and a wilted canvas. The bird’s words resonate in my empty head, and suddenly twilight arrives with a refreshing, cool dew; shiny crickets butt against my dilapidated post. The night grows thick quick, and before long I am left alone in the unwelcoming darkness. There is no light shining from George’s house; it’s the one that allows me to rest secure each night, one that shone consistently for the past 47 years. Extinguished and deserted, the wind steals my frantic pleas: “Please, maker, let it rain. Let it rain.” I don’t want to burn.

#

Another day, another second closer to oblivion. George has not shown, for days, and I am forced to endure the silence and shadows of the season without my best friend.

“What did I tell you?” The raven flutters above, before landing this time on my head, crunching my straw hat – it was Dale’s. “I have to say I’m surprised, though; you held up for nearly five decades and largely unscathed. You’re not like the others, Jem.”

Don’t call me that,” I warn, forcing the avian nuisance off of me. “They’ll show. He wouldn’t abandon his father’s land like that.”

No amount of thrusts can keep the bird from flying back on me. Its scaly feet ripped holes in my fabric. “Gone, gone, gone,” it sang, tearing stuffing from my interior, laughing. “So weeps the lonely scarecrow!”

Its cackles keep me awake for weeks.

#

Any sign of George and his family are obscured under a blanket of scorching sand. Sometimes I can make out the handle of the pick still stuck in the earth, and aside from the rickety, old house, it’s like they never existed. They took the truck late one night, along with the rest of their belongings. Looters got everything else. There was no goodbye, nothing at all, for me. All the time I kept the land secure amounted to nothing in the eyes of the deceitful human. Every modicum of hope I held in my flimsy body was eradicated with each thump of a hammer against a white For Sale sign near the house’s front porch.

The raven’s the only real friend I’ve ever had, I realize. While the traitors retreated into the unknown, the bird stayed at my perch, whispering its warnings and tales.

“Tell me about our first encounter,” I demand, my gaiety gone with the deserters. Visions of a different place, somewhere far away, fade in and out of my vision. “I recall a brown house and a little girl. What do you know about that?”

The raven is reluctant to speak, but eventually it gives in. “As I’m sure you’re realizing, this isn’t the first time you’ve been abandoned by the bipedal demons.” Rage boils within my sloppily stitched torso. “As a matter of fact, this is about the third time I’ve told you my stories,” the raven’s tone lifts. “I appreciate your attentiveness, given the circumstance.”

My eyes scan the empty, blue horizon, and suddenly it comes to me. “How many times would you like to tell those stories?”

The raven’s at a loss for words, ruffling its feathers.

Let me down. Let me ruin their world just as they’ve regularly ruined mine.” Passion surges from my head down to my arms and legs. In an effort to make me seem more familiar to George, Dale gave me a pair of gloves and some old boots – it’s a shame he had such a spoiled son.

It doesn’t take the raven long to clip my binds, and I fall to the ground. Memories of my past lives, of all my brethren’s lives, populate my mind, and I scream – my voice obliterating the thick wind. With renewed animation, I grasp the traitor’s old pick, the wooden handle cool against my glove.

Another life, another harvest. A cycle shattered. I get to work.

For the Silence

 

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Photo credit: Flickr

The way you look at me,

Hide yourself from me.

These euphoric dreams

Are all I need.

 

It’s not impossible

To cure this madness.

It courses through my veins,

But never lasts.

 

Now they’re calling me,

These hollow demons.

Please let them take me.

I’ll be their last.

 

The walls are closing in,

Going dark again.

It’s reaching for my hand;

Nightmare begin.

 

Shallow

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Photo credit: Javier

Time trickles away,

Moments merely whispers.

Weeks turn to months and suddenly I forget

What it’s like to be human.

 

I no longer recall the taste of her flesh.

The look on her face

When I told her she wasn’t the one

Is as familiar to me as a stopwatch is to a sequoia.

 

But not a second goes by

In this wretched existence

That I don’t remember

The sound of her shovel packing my grave.