The hammer drilling a tunnel between your temples forces you to sink your head into the pillow in an unsuccessful attempt to drown its sound. What a hangover! What were you thinking? You’re no longer young enough to get away with drinking so much and you’re well aware of it, but who can blame you? The lockdown and the impossibility of leaving the house except to run essential errands—the lockdown that means you’re home alone all day while your sister, who did obey Dad and has a job that allows her to come and go every day, her life seemingly untouched, telling you all about her patients at the dental office—have tortured you long enough. This was supposed to last one or two months, but it’s been over a year (some people are still counting the days, how can they keep track?).
You were going to use this opportunity to reinvent yourself, remember? You told your sister you were going to take advantage of the quarantine to get yourself together. You promised to work out, lose weight, focus on what you always dreamed of doing but had never been able to: writing. Writing stories, articles, pieces that would nourish the gaze and hearts of the millions of other pandemic inmates who, like yourself, do not peek at life through their windows anymore but through their screens, where you assured your sister she’d see your name one day, soon, in large, bold letters, beneath the headlines in the most prestigious newspapers and literary journals. But the multitude of emails you’ve been receiving have done nothing but feed Tedium and Hatred, your sole companions in your daily routine. The only way to appease them, you’ve discovered, is through drink.
We regret to inform you that your story has not been chosen for publication. We received many submissions and were faced with very hard choices. We wish you the best of luck with your writing. Please do submit to us again in the future.
And that is when they actually send a reply. What is wrong with these people that they don’t think twice before they reject, toss away, and destroy the open, bleeding hearts that people send their way?
‘Are any of your patients editors at a publishing house, magazine, or newspaper?’
You dropped the question casually the other day when your sister was speaking about a singer who has been jobless since the beginning of this nightmare, her crooked teeth apparently the reason why her voice is so melodious. Go figure. You’ve never understood acoustics.
‘No, but if I ever get one, I will immediately put you in touch.’
She didn’t even look at you as she replied. Instead, she continued doting on Celery Stick, that scrawny cat she loves more than anyone and who stares at you with contempt the whole day long. Perhaps he’s been secretly keeping count of how many rejections you’ve received. Rejections that do not surprise him at all, of course.
‘No, I don’t want you to put me in touch with anyone. I just want for them to not only smell burnt bone as you work on their cavities, but also to taste their own blood, perhaps even swallow their own shredded gums,’ you said, your eyes glued to the nape of her ballerina-sized neck. ‘I want you to pull out their teeth without anaesthesia, to poke straight into their nerves with a hook, to draw landscapes on their palates with your drill.’ It was hard to hold back a smile when she turned to you. Finally! You managed to catch her attention.
‘Are you taking your pills?’ Her frown was a punch to your stomach, more so than the question itself.
‘Of course.’ You held her gaze. ‘Why are you asking?’
Your eyes followed as she went up the stairs towards her bedroom, holding a purring Celery Stick in her arms, eager to rest after a long day at work, a day of productivity that felt like a knife against your skin—no, not a knife, but rather a peeler that had left your skin and soul exposed. Raw. How many days ago did this conversation take place? Six? Eight? And then, all of a sudden, the final blow. Antonio.
She left you alone to spend the night with Antonio. Right in the midst of the second wave. Or is it the third already? Who cares? How could she be so irresponsible? And after denying it for so long, too! You knew, right from the beginning, that Antonio wanted something more to do with her. It was obvious. But she said no and even pretended to be upset when you mentioned it. Did she think she could lie to you? You, who were already there when she was born.
What do dentists who are in love say to one another? What beautiful teeth you have! What white teeth you have! The better to bite you, the better to kiss you with. Yuck. You feel nauseous. What if this one night alone turns into more lonely nights to crown your lonely days? What if she moves in with Antonio and leaves you behind? Because she’d take Celery Stick with her, no question about that.
‘You’re welcome for taking care of Celery Stick!’ you yelled at the front door, as she was leaving.
‘Stop calling him that, his name is Charlie!’ she replied fbefore dashing to her car, backpack in tow, ready for a night of passion.
Who cares what his name is? That cat’s personality is as appealing as that of a celery stick, you said to yourself, and Charlie is such a pedestrian name! Although perhaps it’s the kind of name this common, scruffy, stray deserves. Who does he think he is, the king of the house? Fuck him and fuck her!
You headed straight back to bed but couldn’t sleep. How long has it been since you have actually slept? You bury your head deeper into the pillow hoping to drown the hammer that is drilling a tunnel between your temples, but it’s useless so you decide to get up once and for all. There is a ton of laundry to be done, your hamper is overflowing. You should probably tidy up a bit before your sister comes back and lectures you again. She’s trying to keep the place as orderly as it was when Dad was alive, but it’s so hard. What’s the motivation, anyway? Before you decide what you’ll do first, however, you’ll need some Alka-Seltzer. And coffee. You go downstairs to the kitchen, straight to the sink—you forgot to do your dishes and the smell of last night’s spaghetti makes you want to vomit—pick up a glass and pour in some tap water. You’re on your way to the medicine cabinet when, glancing through the window, you see him.
Tied to a couple of wooden planks that are stuck into the ground
You let out a cry and the glass you were holding crashes on the ground and breaks into a million little pieces. The floor gets wet and your foot sustains a minor cut, but you don’t care about it because Celery Stick has died a horrible death. Who could do such a thing? What if any of the neighbours see him and call the police? What will you tell them then? What will you tell your sister? That because you were drunk you didn’t notice? Notice what? That the cat was crucified on the one night you were supposed to take care of him!
With a black garbage bag in hand and wearing latex gloves (the ones your sister buys for her office but you put on whenever you have to go grocery shopping), you open the door to the backyard. Celery Stick’s fur is covered in dried blood. Someone has slashed his throat. His paws are tied to the wooden planks with dental floss. If the police were here, they’d think that was a clue. This is personal. It’s directed against your sister, the dentist. And even though you’re concerned, you feel relieved that it’s not a message for you. An attack against you.
The cold morning wind stirs something inside you. You must protect her. She cannot find out about this. It would destroy her. Imagine! The very night she went to spend with Antonio, anticipating coming back home happy (or at least that’s what you hope!). You must protect her, it’s your duty as the oldest sister, what you promised Dad you’d do before you found out he had left the house in her name so you wouldn’t sell it and spend all the money on … What did he think you’d spend all the money on? What did he tell your sister before he died? They didn’t have the courage to say it to your face, but he left it very clear in his will.
You pull the crucifix out from the ground and, with Celery Stick still tied to it, put it inside the black garbage bag, just like that. It’s not easy to manoeuvre without getting dirty, and the sound of the dead cat plus the wooden planks hitting the ground makes you shiver. You check the surroundings to make sure no one has seen you. It’s a good thing about living in the suburbs: people never look outside. You close the bag with a double knot and drag it to the side of the house, behind the shed, where no one can find it. You’ll have to throw it away somewhere else, far away from home. It will have to be done today, as soon as possible.
The beating of your heart has caught up with the hammer between your temples, and their pounding is all you can hear as you enter the kitchen. You turn the coffee maker on, and proceed to clean up the broken glass and spilled water. Your hands are trembling, and you cut the tip of your index finger, which you immediately nurse inside your mouth. The taste of your own blood is real. This is real. It’s happening.
You have to calm down, think straight. Take a deep breath in, a slow breath out. Deep breath in: feel your thorax expand, listen to the air climbing up your nose, then relax your shoulders as you exhale. Everything must be ready, everything must be back to normal before your sister arrives. You dispose of the broken glass, stow the mop and broom, pour yourself a cup of Colombian blend. Think. Think.
That’s it! You walk to the guest washroom and open the window. It has been so long since it was last opened that there’s a spider web around the handle. You destroy it with your bare fingers and clean them against your pyjama pants. You’ll say you haven’t seen Celery Stick since you went to bed. As she looks for him, your sister will stumble upon the open window and realise he has escaped. Those things happen. Accidents happen. But what if the people who did this come back and try to hurt your sister? They’ll find this window open. You have to be ready to protect her. Better get the kitchen’s biggest knife and have it near you. Close to you. Just in case. You never know. Whoever did this to Celery Stick may want to do this to her, and you’re not going to allow that. She may disappoint you, and sometimes you may feel that you hate her, yes, but she’s your sister and no one will harm her. Not if you can prevent it.
You’re about to get into the shower when you remember that today they’re announcing the results of a literary competition to which you’d submitted what you believe is your best story yet. It won’t hurt to take a look at your emails before getting on with the rest of your day.
You place the knife on the desk and, after the computer wakes up and your inbox is displayed, the first message that catches your eye is one you sent to yourself last night. You blink in disbelief. You don’t remember sending it. Don’t remember anything. You open up the message and read: Beware of what you do. That’s it. That’s all. Beware of what you do? Then, as if it were a theatre, a curtain opens up in your mind and it comes clear. You search for clues, open up Google and check the websites you visited last night:
Then you remember the voice that told you that, in order to succeed, you have to sacrifice something, and the bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the triumph. And as you continue to recall the bits and pieces of the evening, your eyes open wide and you hold your breath, stop breathing for a few seconds. As you understand what you have done your body begins to tremble and your skin erupts and you feel a thousand fire ants crawling up your back.
You return to your email and, just below the message to yourself, you find another one. From the literary contest. You open it and it’s as if, at the same time, you were opening up your chest, as if you could watch your heart beat at a never-felt-before speed. Pearls of sweat sprout all over your forehead and the back of your neck. You read:
The Foundation is proud to communicate that you have been awarded the FIRST PRIZE…
You cannot continue reading. Your eyes are raining joy. You’ve won! First Prize. And because no success is ever achieved without support, it’s only fair to thank those who have helped you get here: Thanks, Celery Stick! He was not so bad after all.
You’re about to continue reading when you hear the same voice that visited you last night, deep, heavy, fleshy, whispering in your ear: ‘Is this all you will settle for? Don’t you want to be the world’s greatest?’ You freeze as if someone had nailed you to your chair, but in that very instant you hear the sound of the keys opening the front door, and your skin becomes all ears, ears fully focused on the light, careless steps coming up the stairs, the steps that will take you to your ultimate triumph.
Martha Bátiz is an award-winning Mexican-Canadian author, translator and professor of Spanish language and literature. Her latest book is the short-story collection No Stars in the Sky (House of Anansi Press, 2022). Follow her on Twitter: @mbatiz, Instagram: @martha.batiz and Facebook: @MarthaBatizWriterAndTranslator
By Martha Bátiz
Issue 2 | Spring 2022
Ni contigo ni sin ti | Camila Paz
An antonym for Marie Kondo | Natalia Figueroa Barroso