Cigarette smoke swirled in the bright beams of light pouring in through the windows of Kathy Mae Gilbert’s trailer home. The smoke danced like willowy strands of ether within the pillars of luminosity that stabbed their way through her thin, Kmart curtains. Inside the trailer, the air was a dank, cough-inducing fog bank that never seemed to go away;, satisfied just to hang in the air and whirl over the faded velveteen couch. Next to the sofa, a worn, faux-leather La-Z-Boy roosted, the sheen of its fake hide rubbed off in the spots where it came in repeated contact with human skin. The furniture sat like squatters in front of an old, wood-veneered Motorola television set. Against one wall, half a dozen boxes from a move made six months ago waited to be unpacked. The place was a shit-hole, but for Kathy Mae it was home, a squalid fortress of solitude to come to and rest her bones after working double shifts at the Hog & Dog Ddiner and do exactly what she was doing now: sit and smoke and pretend for a moment that her life had gone a different way.
Kathy Mae had been a smoker since she was twelve and never once did she consider quitting. Her Daddy taught her to smoke when she was little. It had been one of his parlor tricks when guests came over to drink beer and work on cars. “Watch my li’l girl… she’s so damn growed up… she even smokes!” But even before that, she’d always thought smoking was cool. People in the movies smoked and they looked cool. Daddy smoked and he was also cool. These days though, Daddy was also dead and buried. Throat and lung cancer claimed him several years ago. Kathy Mae could still remember seeing him sitting on the porch of his house, smoking through the tracheotomy tube in his neck.
Before she knew it, nicotine had its hooks into her and she was fully addicted by the time she hit high school. Her smoking was like a lethal legacy handed down, just one of many bad habits given to her by her parents. Hell, she’d even smoked, despite her doctor’s warnings, through the entire length of her pregnancy. And why the hell not? She never wanted kids and would have been all too happy to have left her womb a barren landscape. Unfortunately, Billy Ray Beaumont saw to it that that was not to be.
Billy Ray had sweet-talked Kathy Mae at the Leslie County Swap Meet and wined and dined her on a spectacular buffet of frozen pizza rolls and Mad Dog 22. Theirs was a union made in hillbilly heaven, but from the start it had been destined for failure.
One dark and stormy night, when he informed her that he’d forgotten to bring a condom (a “jimmy,” he’d called it), she was just liquored up enough to say “What the fuckheck.” Billy Ray didn’t have it in him to drive straight, what were the odds that he could shoot straight?
Pretty good from the sound of the screaming brat in the other room.
“Okay, you little shit dispenser!” she shouted. “I’m comin.’”
She stalked into the other room and lifted the screaming baby by one arm out of the laundry basket where he, more often than not, spent the day sleeping and crying and swimming in his own shit. The baby wailed loudly and kicked its legs in the air, to little effect. The child, Johnny Garth Beaumont by name, had been brought into the world with a criminally low birth weight a little over a year ago and he’d gained precious little in the way of body mass. The little shit brat had been colicky for the last week or so and Kathy Mae’s nerves now bore the stretch marks of his foul mood.
“Jeezus H… Will you shut the fuck hell up!?!” Kathy Mae screeched into the baby’s wailing face.
Johnny continued to blubber loudly and flail his spindly limbs.
Kathy Mae slapped him twice sharply across the back of his legs and tucked him into the crook of her left arm. She unbuttoned the front of her grease-stained waitress uniform and hauled one of her pale breasts out from the sweat-sodden depths. Roughly, she pushed the nipple into the baby’s mouth, hoping he’d nurse or, at the very least, quiet down. Either one would have been just fine for her. She looked down, annoyed, and sighed in frustration when he didn’t. Johnny didn’t seem to want her nip, he just continued kicking and crying like a banshee. His lone tooth, sticking up from his gum -line like a headstone, glimmered dully in the dim light.
“Fucking kid…,” she said. “I cain’t give you what you want to make you stop cryin’ if’n you don’t tell me what it is you fuckin’ want!” The last word sounded like the desperate cry of someone at the end of her rope.
Johnny spit the anemic areola from his mouth, threw his head back, and let out another ear-splitting wail. The baby’s eyes were full of tears, the corners caked with a gummy sludge. A high fever raged like a fire within his little brain and nothing Kathy Mae did or could do would stop it. The baby had lain for far too long in the cold trailer; his body rife with a combination of the flu, colic, and rampant malnutrition. Kathy Mae’s breast milk was pitifully inept at providing the nutrients he needed in order to fight off the host of viruses that now coursed through his system. All his mother’s body was able to give to him was a lethal mixture of nicotine, alcohol, and cheap diner food with just a splash of methamphetamine.
“Gawd damn ya, ya ankle biter, eat will ya!?”
Kathy Mae propped up the child’s head and pressed his face against her breast with all her might, thinking that she could make the baby eat with a combination of brute force and strong will.
The child managed to pull back from her far enough to catch a quick breath and let out another wail of pain and frustration. Kathy Mae took the sides of his head in her hand and pressed his face back to the meat of her breast.
Johnny’s mouth and nose were smothered by the drawn flesh that surrounded the fatty tissue of Kathy Mae’s breast. He tried in vain to move his head in order to pull some air through his turned-up nose, but Kathy Mae’s grip was too strong and his underdeveloped muscles were far too weak. His little hands beat against her chest futilely. Saliva coated both the nipple in his mouth and his face, but still Kathy Mae pressed on.
“Eat will ya, goddamnit? Eat!”
Johnny’s lungs screamed out for oxygen, but his mother, either in apathy or anger, ignored his plight. His tiny fists beat with less and less force against her bony chest, his strength draining from him like water through a colander. The smell of tobacco and speed-laden sweat was the last thing to flit through his diminishing senses before Johnny Garth Beaumont died in his mother’s indifferent arms.
After a few minutes, Kathy Mae drew the baby from her breast and roughly wiped his mouth of spent lactate with the back of her hand.
“You done?” she asked, not registering in the sparse light the child’s slightly blue tinge. “You just lay here for a minute and I’ll change ya just as soon as you shit that out.”
She laid Johnny down on the tattered, yellow sofa and went off to fetch herself another cigarette.
~ * ~
An hour or so later, Kathy Mae had damn near forgotten about Little Johnny and his crying. He’d been so quiet since she’d fed him last that it was almost like he wasn’t even on the planet. She figured that, by now, it had to be just about time to change him.
“A goddamn cow on a milking machine, that’s all I am to you,” she said as she walked over to the couch. She plopped herself down on the sofa, puffs of dust springing up into the air.
Johnny lay where she’d left him and, thank the Llord, he seemed to be sleeping peacefully for once. She picked him up brusquely, his body limp in her hands. She slid him like a football into the crook of her arm and checked the back of his diaper. Finding it empty, she once again pulled her tit from her uniform. As she did so, she felt the child stir slightly in her arms.
“Now you take this with no more of your goddamn complainin’,” she said, pressing her breast to his cobalt-tinged lips. She slid her nipple into the baby’s slack mouth and sat back into the well-worn arms of the couch. The baby roused a little and his mouth began the gentle sucking sensation that told her he was feeding.
“You must be feeling better, ya brat. You’re eatin’ again.”
Johnny awoke with little knowledge of his brief life or of his reprehensible death just a short time prior. All his brain knew was that the initial confusing whirlwind of sensations—the lights, the sounds, the tantalizing smells—had finally started to settle down. Slowly, they’d begun to focus in on just one: hunger. As he nursed, the hot fluid coursing over his tongue became distasteful; milky and acidic to his palate. It was a sour and nauseating excuse for a meal. And while Johnny had never gotten a chance to learn what life had in store for him, he had learned in his short stay on the planet that his mother’s breast could yield something that almost resembled nourishment. Now, death showed him a new purpose for her breast. Instinctively, he clamped his mouth down harder, nipping at the soft flesh with his tooth, and sucked harder.
~ * ~
Kathy Mae sat dozing on the couch, her cigarette burned down to a cylinder of ash in her hand. Far off in her senses, she could still feel the baby nursing. He’d been at it for what seemed like an awfully long time. He would need to stop soon, she thought, since she was starting to feel a little woozy. She glanced up at the clock over the stove and realized that she’d been sitting there sleepy-eyed for almost half an hour. Her head felt light to her somehow and the floor seemed uneven beneath her feet. Her sight made the angles of the room seem… off. Her perception waffled like an image in a fun house mirror.
She tried to pull the baby away from her breast, but surprisingly, he wouldn’t let go. From the way he was holding on, he must have been hungrier than she’d first thought. Pulling gently, she attempted to dislodge Johnny from her chest, but he had latched on too tightly. She tried again, harder this time, only his little hands kept pulling himself closer.
“Well, you’ve managed to mess up my only clean uniform, Johnny Boy. Good God, it feels all wet,” she said. “I’m going toa have to go change now before my next shift at the diner!”
She reached up and forcibly dislodged Johnny’s mouth from her nipple. Her hand came away wet and coated in a dark, viscous fluid. She looked down at the baby and saw his mouth straining to get back to his nursing. His eyes were closed. His mouth remained pursed and sucking at the air.
“Goddam, Boy! What the… fuck? Did you bite me, ya little bastard?”
Johnny looked up to meet his mother’s gaze. His eyes were unfocused and still gooey from his infection. His pupils were now clouded and opaque.
Kathy Mae’s mouth dropped open as her child pushed toward her and latched back onto the place where her areola had once been. Blood flowed out of the side of his tiny mouth as he abruptly bit into her flesh in earnest. Pain screamed through Kathy Mae’s drug-addled senses and instinct commanded her to push him away. She tried to get a decent grip on him, but his new-found vigor confounded her. He chewed and tore at her breast, insistently demanding the only sustenance his newly reawakened system could now tolerate.
Kathy Mae stood up and pulled the child forcibly away from her chest. In disgust, she held him at arm’s length. With all of the wriggling and kicking, he jerked out of her grip and dropped like a stone to the ground. With an audible grunting sound, what little air that was held captive in Johnny’s dead lungs came out in a rush. Kathy Mae tried to get to her feet, but her legs went all rubbery from the loss of blood. She stumbled and collapsed in a heap next to the couch. She tried to crawl away from her child, but her coordination was off and her limbs felt weak.
Pressing her back against the sofa, she looked across the floor and saw Little Johnny dragging himself rapidly toward her across the beer-stained rug. His mouth was still working busily and the pupils of his eyes shone creamy white. His expression seemed filled with a hunger that was like something she’d never seen before. As his cold, little hands grasped at her ankle and he began pulling himself up her leg, Kathy Mae drew a stuttering breath and started to scream.
(first appeared in NO FLESH SHALL BE SPARED)