Micro-fiction: The Crime of Life, by Jack A. Urquhart

©2012  (826 words)

blood in a bathtub

He thinks it disappointing, the way the initial sensations—the blade slashing his arms, his chest, the searing, briny sting of sweat seeping into open wounds—have all bled away, deadened by endorphins.  Now there is only the pressure of her fingers on his wrist like the ghost memory of a limb gone dead in the night—that and the cold, numb weight of gravity when she lets go.

“You asked for it,” she says, her breath like a blast of spearminted winter when she leans over the tub.  “What a mess.  There’s like, blood—everywhere.”

Strange that he can still hear her given the ringing in his ears.

For a moment he thinks to open his eyes, to pull her into focus one last time.  But it is too much effort and there is no need anymore.  He’s seen her well enough.

“Christ!” he’d exclaimed that first afternoon stumbling upon her in one of his tenements.  “You were nearly the death of me.”

She’d never flinched.

“Wait,” she’d begun, brandishing her lip gloss.  “A girl has to like, prepare.

He’d appreciated that—appreciated the way she took the lead, certain that he would follow her into the derelict lavatory.  He’d appreciated that everything about her looked thieved: the heavy makeup (purloined at the mall?), the schoolgirl-plaid pinafore, those god-awful clodhopper boots scuffing up splinters (lifted from Goodwill?).

“You’re trespassing,” he’d countered, unable to tear his eyes away from her crazy-making legs as she preened before the mirror.

“Says who?  Anyway, this place is like, a dump.”

He’d made up his mind right then—the chilblains prickling at his groin—how it would be.

“Yes, but it’s my dump,” he answered.  “You can’t be here.  Unless I say so.”

It was when she moved out of the shadows that he’d noticed her forearms—the scrimshaw network of pencil-thin scars and scabbed over incisions, dozens etched into the pale under flesh.  Some of them still beading blood.

He’d been unable to stop himself snatching at her arm.

“How can you do that?  Cut yourself?”

A more cautious man would’ve anticipated how sharp she’d be, the knife (in the folds of her skirt?) suddenly at his throat.  She’d been accurate to the millimeter in pinpointing his pulse.

“I scratch,” she purred leaning close enough for him to see the proof—the knife-shaped gaps in both irises, like black slashes in amber.  “Coloboma vision, it’s called.  Eyes like a cat,” she said, grinning.  “And I’m ambidextrous.  I can do my makeup and slit your throat at the same time.”

Most men would’ve been afraid.

“It was a simple question,” he’d deadpanned.  “No need to overreact.”

She’d liked that.

“I’ve only like, broken the skin,” she replied, tossing the knife into the sink.

He remembers the louche mobility of her mouth, her skill at summoning precisely half a smile.

“You guys are all the same,” she laughed.  “You’re what, like forty? In the crime of life, living off ruin?” she said gesturing around them.  “Don’t tell me you haven’t drawn blood.”

Yes.  Laughable, he thinks—the inevitable lead up.

Three times he’d come to her there, the price always higher—before she’d let him watch.  Before she’d let him see how standing in the rust-streaked tub she drew the blade across the underside of her arm.

“It helps to feel something, don’t you think?” she’d said.  “But you need to like, know the major arteries.  The jugulars, the carotid in your neck, femoral in your thigh.  I’ve nicked around all of them, ‘though it’s best to start small.”

Two cuts, then a third was her standard practice.  Each one a shade deeper.

Together they’d watched the crimson bloom, watched the beads become thin rivulets splattering on rusted enamel.

Weeks passed before she’d handed him the knife.

“Remember how I showed you,” she’d said, taking his money.  “No pressure on the first cut.  Just the weight of the blade on your arm.  If you can get that far, the rest is easy,” she’d assured him.

But she’d been wrong.

A foregone conclusion, he understands—how he could never have done it on his own.  He can smile at the truth now.  At what it takes to commute a life sentence.  As little as two words.

“Help me,” he’d said, offering her the knife.  That simple.

“Help me.”

“Too late now,” she sighs.

Her voice is fading fast.  Fading into darkness.

“I read it takes like, five minutes when you get the jugulars; only two or three if you go for the carotid.  The smaller ones empty slower.”

He imagines her repairing her makeup—and suddenly, he is sad for her, wonders how long she will wait.  And where she’ll find help.

“They’ll say I’ve like, committed a crime, won’t they?” she laughs.  “They’ll claim I need to be incarcerated for life.”

Yes, he would laugh too, if he could.  Laugh at the notion that need has anything to do with it.

***
Author note:  I wrote this piece for a writing contest sponsored by Central Florida-based Pulse Magazine.  Entries were to be “inspired” by the work of local artists.  This story owes its impetus to a Steve Williams photograph that you can see here (scroll down).  PS:  I didn’t win the contest.

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About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in southern California.
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6 Responses to Micro-fiction: The Crime of Life, by Jack A. Urquhart

  1. Sessha Batto says:

    Love love love this 😉

  2. Jane Isaac says:

    This is both impactive and intriguing, Jack. Great story with excellent imagery.

  3. rlboyington says:

    “Like” is not quite what I have in mind – but the writing is, as usual, exceptional.

  4. marydpierce says:

    I read this first thing Friday morning. Then the Sandy Hook shooting happened, and I haven’t done much since. Nevertheless, I thought this story was superb, dark as it may be. I hope you’re submitting these flash fiction pieces to various places and not just to the contest for which they were written. They’re too good not to send out into the world.

  5. termitespeaker says:

    I have to confess – this kind of story is not my cup of tea, no matter how well done it is – and it is well done. Sorry, Jack!

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