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The Girlfriend Game, stories by Nick Antosca



Word Riot Inc.: Kicking Small Press Into High Gear
Short Stories

Dead in the Head by Chelsie Bryant

He winked at me when I went in Big Boy. He was at a booth near the kitchen in the back, slouched down, chin up, watching me walk. He winked and spit, pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. Then with a grunt like a whistle he burned me with it, between my thumb and pointer. I thought he had a fucking ashtray—thought he was going to reach for it, say sorry. Like a movie, hold my hand. I’m sorry. I deserved that much. But then there was a sudden weight stinging my skin, a yelp. People looking. My eyes watered. Then a waitress asked if I was okay, and I said call the cops, call the fucking cops. I wanted it recorded. I wanted people to know that Dude Teacup was crazy.
     The lip-pierced waitress poured iced tea on the burn; she’d been delivering fries. She looked at Dude Teacup, said, “You better get out of here. The cops are on their way.” She got me in the nearest bathroom—the men’s room—as Dude Teacup stood, and she had my hand in the sink and good God would I hold still? Would I fucking hold still? Dude Teacup was yelling from outside the door, “Just like your mom.” I was standing next to urinals. My feet were sticking to the floor. The hum wasn’t the light bulbs. It wasn’t the water rushing in my burn. It was the waitress. It was the waitress humming, “Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go,” like she was washing dishes, which was when I really started sniffling. Dude Teacup’s stunt had left a spot that was dripping all over my Kate Spade ballet flats.
     It was sudden because it had been all shits and giggles when we’d first met at the shop, and Dude Teacup was telling me about the bear’s snout he’d knifed out of wood for the upcoming show. He liked to think he could start trends because he sculpted. His new thing was on his phone, some ringtone he pirated that sounded like a lion’s roar. To be honest, I secretly liked it, but I never told him that. I laughed because that’s the way he wanted it—secret envy. Which was how our friendship worked. And that’s exactly what it was: there was nothing between us.
     But it wasn’t till the waitress took me home, and was like, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, and Mom said I looked like the screaming guy in that Edvard Munch, that I realized how much it hurt. Mom had a fascination with hands even though hers were dry and split. She liked to think that she was delicate and her fingers were a part of that. So when she saw the blister, she reacted in her typical way. She appraised it like she appraised pieces in her shop. To artists, she’d say, “I see what you did here.” To employees, she’d say, “Too obvious.” To me, she said, “Why didn’t you get a tattoo instead?” She liked the excitement, I could see, because she was doing the thing with her mouth when she licked her lips. She hated the piece, but she liked hating it. She said Dude Teacup had really fucked himself over now. She would tell all the other shop owners in the area. They wouldn’t sell him anymore.
     So I blamed her for the cigarette episode. Dude Teacup was a sculptor she sold, and we’d been hanging out almost every day since I met him after school one Wednesday, three months before, in September. Dude Teacup and Mom were making fun of some artist who tried to sell a painting of a girl climbing a tree in the shop. He’d said the artist was old and why doesn’t he quit? Just throw the whole fucking thing away. And Mom agreed.
     Dude Teacup was wearing his suspenders, and he had on Ray Bans in the dark. I didn’t like him because he was at least thirty, and he was hanging out with my mom. I could smell the beer they were sipping out of teacups. His was shaped like a mallard, and he was holding it the way I used to pretend to be the Queen of England. Mom introduced him by some name I didn’t hear, so I said I was just passing through. I was getting brushes out of the back for a project when I heard her laugh. I peeked out of the door’s window, and Mom had her hand on his knee. He had his hand on her neck, his thumb tickling her earlobe. I think he was going to kiss her before I rattled the brushes against the glass and ducked.
     She came swinging through. She said, “Is there something you need?”
     “Is there something you need?” I said. “The bio for English. I’m supposed to do it visually. You know, mom and daughter.”
     She sighed. “I’m on the cusp of an art deal out there. Let’s do it later, okay?”
     “The cusp of fucking. Yeah. Okay.” I leaned the door backwards, nearly tripping over the boxes of paint, the frames settled along the walls and easels, as I turned. Dude Teacup had his feet on Mom’s desk. I said, “Does that look like a footstool to you?”
     Mom was yelling about my language and watching it. “Manners,” she yelled, but I plugged in my headphones, and slid out the front and into the sun, acting like I couldn’t hear.
     I didn’t think I’d see Dude Teacup again. I didn’t plan on meeting him at Nova’s later that night. Only real creeps go to the bar on Wednesday anyway. I was just there because I was trying to get out of the house so Mom could entertain some artist from Seattle. Plus, they didn’t card on weeknights. I was at a corner booth, beneath a low-hanging light, and I was listening to music, drinking coke that I pretended was spiked with rum, and looking down when anyone met my eye. The trick was to watch and not get caught, and I was pretty good at it. At least, I thought I was until the idiot in the plaid pants turned around and was Dude Teacup. He did this thing with his head like a half nod. He threw a bill on the bar and came over.
     He said, “Your mom’s considering one of my sculptures to be the main piece in a show a couple months from now.”
     “So?”
     “Think you can put in a good word for me?” He sat down. “I’m carving a bear out of wood.”
     “No.”
     “It’s going to be wild,” he said. He talked with his hands, using his fingers to illustrate on the table. “It’s fucking genius.”
     “Whatever,” I said. “She says she’ll do a lot of things.”
     Then, and maybe it was because that was the second time Mom blew me off for the bio, or because I was always having to sweep the shop, or because she was always entertaining some artist, drinking beer out of teacups, that I felt it important that I in some way or another show her the way it felt to be screwed over time and time again when it came to previous engagements. Maybe it was the coke, the hum of the bar, but I believed it my responsibility at that moment to scoot a little closer to Dude Teacup, to accidentally touch his knee against mine. He accidentally touched his knee against mine. Not that I cared, but the bio determined my grade. It was supposed to help me figure out who I wanted to be.
     And that’s how we came to hang out. In the beginning of October, it was throwing water balloons off the overpass. Then by Halloween it was Big Boy every Friday and Nova’s every Wednesday. Then, somewhere in between, it was me and Dude Teacup secretly in my room. Me hoping he’d leave when she was home, on the couch, amusing some street artist, smoking and doodling on a Post-It. I didn’t know I’d be burned.
     He became Dude with the Duck Teacup. Dude Teacup for short. Turns out his name was Roger.
     We watched documentaries because that’s what his Mom left on when she went on dates when he was a kid. He liked wild animals and had a tiger tattooed on his calf. He grew up like me, alone with his mom. Only, she worked two crap jobs in Oregon and paid for him to take art therapy classes to get over his abandonment feelings since his dad skipped out. During the documentaries, he would start to talk about when he was seventeen like me. He would roll up his hoodie’s sleeve and show me where he knifed himself. Turns out he didn’t just carve wood. Below his elbow, he’d cut a picture of what he said was a stick-figure wolverine. I had never seen one, and I thought it was cuter than what I’d heard. He said it was wild and rare. And when I asked him why he’d done it, why not get a tattoo, he said there was beauty in the control it takes to self-mutilate.
     I had him over mostly when Mom was supposed to be home, which wasn’t often, that’s how we ended up at Big Boy and Nova’s. It wasn’t like I minded our hangouts. Whenever he came to the house, Mom would look up from the computer, and she would lick her lips. She would tell me not to be easy. He was too old for me. Keep him out of your room. But I wasn’t putting out, and it wasn’t like she was into enforcement. And, okay, so maybe there was that one time when I stretched and my shirt dipped low, but it wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t trying to lead Dude Teacup on. Like he needed incentive. I just wanted to piss her off. And Mom was busy with painters at the shop anyway. Dude Teacup treated me older. He said he got me and maybe he did. He showed me where the pines in our backyard had signs of animal life. He even told me how deep to cut myself if I wanted a scar. If I wanted my own wolverine. Sometimes, maybe when she was feeling really motherly, Mom would bust in my room to ask about the bear or my homework. Dude Teacup wouldn’t talk as much then. He wouldn’t say polar bears evolved 200,000 years ago or that wild turkeys were North America’s largest game birds. He would finger his scars. Sometimes there would be cigarette burns, and he’d finger those, too. But he wouldn’t look up from the TV or acknowledge Mom or me talking about school, except to say that the bear would be ready for the show and that he noticed she was talking to other sculptors.
     Then, one night, a little while before he burned me, I really got drunk. He was leaning against the wall touching my bed, and he had the brown and orange blanket my grandma had knitted over his knees. We were drinking beer. He asked me if I’d ever thought about what it was like to make something with my hands. He lifted my palm off the remote, turned it over and traced the veins from my knuckles to my elbows. I said, God, closed my fist, watched the otters splashing on TV.
     We had the lights on low and the window open. A car was driving past outside. Lightning bugs in the trees. I crossed my arms and leaned back against the pillow. I could hear Mom typing in the other room. She was always networking, looking for new artists and buyers. It was the same day that my bio was due, and that morning, when we were supposed to finally talk about it, when she was supposed to tell me some crazy story about when she was my age, she’d been scrambling eggs with Dude Teacup in the kitchen. She had her hair clipped back. He was wearing the same clothes he’d had on the night before at Nova’s. He wrapped his arm around her, sidled closer, poured beer into the skillet. I did what I’d seen people do on TV. I cleared my throat, but Mom only leaned in closer to him. She told me to have a good day in class, that she’d be working late. I asked her about the bio. I reminded her that it was due, and she told me to make something up, things I’d done with my life were more interesting probably.
     They were both there when I got home from school, too. I heard them arguing about Dude Teacup’s bear from behind my slammed door and minutes later, he came in silently, an open beer in one hand, and one hidden beneath his hoodie. He popped the latter open, dropped down next to me, and I switched on the otters, which was when he started tracing my arm. He always came around me when they fought. About the bear: it wasn’t good enough; she’d told him he’d lost focus after the snout.
     That’s when things got weirder.
     I liked to pretend I could drink a lot, but I was feeling a little dizzy because I’d drank some before I got home, and Dude Teacup was leaning toward me, getting closer, as he explained that otters have sharp teeth. Mom was banging around outside my room on the phone with some glass blower in Chicago, and I thought she might come in. I let him inch his head toward my shoulder, rest his arm on the sill behind my back. He sighed sharply. My throat throbbed. Cicadas buzzed loudly. I linked my arm in Dude Teacup’s. I told him I didn’t feel lucky.
     He said we were fortunate because tigers hadn’t preyed on us, and I said I was more worried by the turkeys. Then the TV changed to grizzlies, and he said, “Black bear mothers grunt when they sense a threat. The cubs run up the nearest tree until she signals it’s safe.”
     “Like she cares really,” I said. “Like she’ll stick around when they’re grown. Better to leave like the dad—while they’re still young. They won’t know the difference then. You only feel something when you become aware of it and think you should.”
     “Our world is dangerous. They’re glad just to survive.” He spread his legs, leaned forward and fell back against the wall. He started singing “Imagine,” but he only knew up to “no religion, too.” Then, from the other room, I heard, “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” a soft, “Stop it.” And Mom started hitting her keyboard louder to the beat of the song, as they sang together, a “stop it” here and there. His voice gibberish. Hers muted. I didn’t know the lyrics, but Dude Teacup took my wrist, pulled me off the bed, and led me to her. Together, they sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us.” She was on the couch, her body stretched the length of it, her computer on her lap. Dude Teacup kissed her head, drew me to him, and waltzed me around her, as she slapped the keys and sang along. He kissed my nose. Mom quit singing. We kept dancing.
     “What are you doing?” she said. I didn’t know who she was talking to. “Stop it.”
     Dude Teacup spun me. I was going to get sick, but I didn’t care. I pressed my chest against his.
     She said, “I mean it. It’s not funny.”
     “You stop it,” I said. “It’s not like you care unless you’re the one losing something.”
     Dude Teacup dipped me. He said, “It’s about the show.” He said to me, “Don’t misstep. She’ll replace you.”
     “Get away from her,” she said. Her eyebrows came together. She leaned forward. “She’s too young.”
     Dude Teacup pulled me up and instead of stopping like I think he thought I would, I kept going forward. And that’s when I kissed him. Or that’s when he kissed me, rather. And that’s when Mom started screaming, pounced from the couch, punched Dude Teacup in the shoulder.
     He said, “Now.” To my mom, “It’s not like you care unless you’re the one losing something.”
     I said, “That’s right. Let’s leave.”
     Then he twisted me again. Mom reached for the phone. He said, “I’ll stop. Just one thing. I’m guaranteed the show.”
     But she couldn’t promise. How could she commit when that’s not how she was? She crossed her arms, blazed me with her eyes.
     I said, “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
     And when we left, Mom followed us to the car, yelling that it was a school night, that I wasn’t allowed. But we slammed the doors on her anyway. And she kept screaming as we took off down the gravel street, but we kept going. Except there was nowhere to go. I felt dizzy. I felt directionless. Dude Teacup just drove. We went along back roads with the windows open for an hour till he needed gas, so we made our way to Wal-Mart. He told me I needed to eat. It would make me feel better, gave me a few dollars for Doritos and told me he’d meet me inside after he filled up.
     The greeter asked me if I needed a cart, and I took one to keep me steady. Not many people were out. Those that were looked even more tired than I felt because of the lights. Everyone was quiet like they knew they should be sleeping. I made my way easily into the produce, guiding my cart toward what I thought was a stray avocado on the floor. But, as I got closer, it took shape and flew into the air, hopping onto a nearby shelf. It was a sparrow. It taunted me, taking flight whenever I got close. I followed it into the music section where it landed, panting, on a display for a new CD, which was where Dude Teacup found me dividing my attention between tracks like “You, Me, Baby” and the bird waddling from side to side on a TV at the end of the aisle. Dude Teacup had an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
     “You’re not allowed to smoke in here,” I said. We’d taken it too far. Mom had probably called the cops, and they would arrest us.
     He rubbed the back of my neck. He said, “You know what you’re doing.”
     I shook him off, unsure of whether the track I read was called “Start Over” or “Move Over.” The bird fluttered from rafter to rafter near the ceiling. It went toward the light, bounced off, and landed on a beam. One of its wings was damaged, causing it to lean like it was attached to a string when it flew. It was pooping everywhere. It sounded like a fan.
     “It can’t get out,” I said.
     “It was dumb for getting trapped in here in the first place,” he said.
     “It didn’t know. It didn’t mean to,” I said, and I moved down the aisle away from Dude Teacup, bumping into a pyramid of DVDs with my cart, knocking them over. I bent to restack them. He stuck his hands in his pocket, rolled another cigarette, offered it to me. I ignored him. He said, “Hey, listen. We’re in the jungle,” and he pulled out his cellphone, pressed a button. It was like in the documentaries—the lion sitting like the Great Sphinx of Giza in the weeds, its paws stretched out in front of it. In movie trailers, lions always roar. And that’s what happened. Dude Teacup played his ringtone, letting loose a low growl that seemed to thunder off the shelves at Wal-Mart and that definitely scared the shit out of the bird, which had been flapping frantically at the light when the roar reached it. Panicked, the bird flew in a final circle, looping wildly around us before flying straight into one of the TVs, breaking its neck and landing with a thud on the cement floor, still.
     “You scared it,” I said.
     “Birds can’t hear,” he said. I was pretty sure he was making the whole thing up. He’d been lying about the animals, probably about a lot. He wanted to leave—wanted us to leave—to travel with me. That would show Mom. That would let her know that she couldn’t pretend I wasn’t alive, to act like I was the dead sparrow, neck squished at impact. But I knew he was an idiot like her, like me, like the fucking bio my fucking English teacher assigned, like John fucking Lennon. Dead in the head. The answer was no.
     That’s when he started going on about how he should be famous. His bear was fucking genius. Glory deserved. Glory Mom should give. Then he said he was a loser. He needed this to show his dead mom, to show her she hadn’t worked hard for nothing, and I wanted to grab him, slam his head into the TV. That’s when I saw the bird’s body jacked over, and I felt the bright lights making shadows on my face. We were tired. The black screen on the TV showed us the red in our eyes. And, when he took me home, when Mom finished yelling at me, forbidding me from seeing Dude Teacup again, banning him from the shop and from the show, I decided that the bird’s body I’d smuggled out of Wal-Mart was less of a loser than Dude Teacup, that I was an idiot for hanging out with him in the first place. Why had he any power over Mom or I? That’s why I didn’t talk to him for a week. There was nothing between us. But, then, later on, after he’d texted and called me, I agreed to meet him at Big Boy. I thought he might apologize, and we could watch documentaries again. Maybe be real friends. Only, he was pissed about Mom kicking his bear out, and that’s when he stung me with his cigarette, tattooed me with his anger.
     And, after the cops came, and the waitress took care of me, Mom and I went together to talk to the police about the burning. She hadn’t been surprised when I’d come home after the assault. She took me down to the station, sat with me while they asked questions about what happened, defended me when they asked about my relationship with Dude Teacup. No, of course it was not sexual. What kind of mother did they think she was? My legs felt restless. My flats stuck to the floor, as I shifted one foot atop the other. When I leaned back, the chair made a squeak and there was a pause in the note taking, Mom’s accusations. The lights were like Wal-Mart’s. No, Roger and I did not spend a lot of time alone together. She wouldn’t have allowed that. Yes, she was a working mother, but she knew her kid, she knew me, knew I wouldn’t let myself be victimized. Roger was at fault here. Roger, alone, was at fault.
     The cops nodded, clucked, like they knew the type, seen it all the time. Older men using daughters to get to their moms. They would be in touch to let us know the outcome.
     It was late when we were on our way home, and it occurred to me then that we were more like regular mom and kid than we had been since I was little. Dude Teacup would just be one time in our lives when we were against each other. There would be other men. I knew that for sure. And I knew she would lick her lips the next time I was in the shop, the next time I talked to an artist, just the way she was at that moment when she had the nerve to ask me how the bio went. I told her all the kids at school were impressed. I told her I told them that my Mom was an explorer. She was always off in Africa or South America, besting cougars and sharks. She was outside so much that she had a shirt tan, and she wore those hats with the string like people on safaris do. When she returned, she showed me all she learned. The university was giving her a fellowship for her research, and we had won a prize for raising ducklings that could hide in the weeds and stalk their prey, as whatever it was idly licked water from the pond nearby.

About the author:

Chelsie Bryant is currently obtaining her MA at the University of Cincinnati. She is an Ohio native who, in her spare time, enjoys videotaping cats. She teaches composition, and is a fiction advisor at Short Vine.

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