by Sunshine Barbito
1st Place Winner
2020 Ember Chasm Review Fiction Contest
We’d spent the day of the party mostly undoing things, hiding throw pillows in closets and taking curtains down from rods that I just drilled into the wall, only taking breaks to rub fingertips of Ketamine into our gums. Princess Izz told me to expect everyone to arrive late. Everyone, being the group from high school that I hadn’t seen since graduation. She didn’t want to run out before the party. You can’t rush on your way to heaven.
Izzy and I stood out on my porch and looked around, made sure we didn’t miss anything that would give away my put-together-Psych-major-life. An overlooked scented candle would’ve given me away. The lamp on the street off my porch clicked on. The gold glitter makeup that Izz had painted under my eyes itched my face. The Princess clicked her lighter on under her cigarette from the little blue pack. It smelled minty like toothpaste, different than the ones I used to smoke; the Marlboro Reds that B made me fall in love with.
B is Brandon is my first-everything is someone you might say I dated.
I pushed my nail under my lip and itched at my gums. Our group of friends, they were supposed to follow me to college after graduation, but they stayed together in our hometown, just a short drive from my school. They still got drunk together every night in the parking lot of the Home-and-More like we used to. They left me behind together. Izzy was the only one who still came around, she practically lived with me. Always, the Princess loved me.
Izz pointed to the outside of my house, by the sliding door that lead out to the porch. She said, “She won’t do.”
The wooden cherub that hung on a nail against the side of my house had wings that hung over her slouched shoulders and hugged her chubby, baby arms. The cherub was naked, open eyes and all painted white like milk, a swoopy, carved cloud of curls for hair. The Princess bit her lip at me and shimmied across the porch to the angel. Izzy’s red-brown, puffy hair made her look like somebody’s aunt. She got her name in high school when people started to make fun of her Jewishness. To show she didn’t care she had one of our Doc Marten, stick-and-poke-friends tattoo it across her chest, above her watermelon rack.
In high school boy handwriting, the tattoo said Princess. The I dotted with the star of David, and dollar signs for S’s.
This angel’s legs dangled shortly along the side of my house, her puffy ankles crossed over each other. She was outside the Home-and-More one night, in the garden tool display, next to the rows of Daisies easy for planting. Just lying there on an evening when B and I were together, in high school, in that parking lot, and we joked that she was our baby, our little angel, and you might say we stole her.
Princess Izz picked up the angel and held her in front of her stomach like holding a pregnant belly from over and under. She put her cigarette to the cherub’s lips to make her smoke, but the angel’s mouth was stuck in a kiss, not open enough for the cigarette to fit.
“We can just put her under my bed or something,” I said. My gums had started to go numb and sour, but my brain still felt awake.
“Let’s give her a makeover,” the Princess said. She handed me her cigarette and then rushed back into the house. She came back out onto the porch with the drill I bought to mount the brass curtain rod, to hang my crushed velvet curtains. Izzy sat down on the porch with the angel ornament.
“Lefty-loosey,” Izz said, and she squeezed the drill’s handle to make it buzz on.
“Okay,” I said, and held her minty cigarette away from me, “stop it.”
The Princess pressed the button to switch the rotation of the drill and said, “Righty-tighty.”
“C’mon,” I said, “we’ll just put her under my bed or something.”
She pushed the drill bit tight against the cherub’s lips and buzzed the drill on. It scraped through the angel’s mouth, broke all of her teeth that I imagined she had behind her lips. A cloud of white, like smoke, like her skin, turned to dust. I lunged for the angel and shoved the Princess. She swung the drill at me, and it just missed my nose, then she fell onto her side. I said what the fuck and backed away from Princess Izz with the angel in hand. The Princess sniffed hard a few times and itched her nose.
“Did you start lines without me,” I yelled, but then the smell made me sniff too.
Izzy swatted at her aunt-hair and screamed, and her cigarette came flying out of her curls. The cherub’s mouth had opened up cigarette wide. The Princess took the angel and hung her back up against the side of the house. She picked up her cigarette again, made mean eyes at me, and pushed the filter into the cherub’s drill-warm mouth.
The spit in the back of my throat burned. I said, “Why did you do that?”
“Is this about him,” Izzy said before walking inside. She said, “What if he shows up tonight?” She said that B would like the angel’s makeover. The Princess said, “He’s still with that girl, too, and she’s nice.” She said, “You gotta get over him,” and her voice shook.
Izz walked back into my house and yelled for me to come on, shook the little baggie of Special-K over her red head with a hand, and wiped broken, burnt hair away from her shoulder with the other. Before stepping inside I licked my fingers and pinched the cherry, killed the smoke before it killed our baby.
As a Psych major you start to see the people around you like word problems in your 101 textbook. Behavior speaks louder than words. A middle child who went mostly overlooked as a kid, never really seen by mom and dad, she grew up and turned into a sort of comedian. She’d let her hair run wild and let herself be the butt of the joke. She’d even get the joke tattooed across her chest, so people would have to see her. She’d be the one with the drugs, so people would have to need her. A nasty case of daddy-issues meets middle-born; she’d value her non-genetic relationships in place of parent-love.
If Psych-major-me had to name the role Izzy played in our friend group, I would’ve called her the clown. A joke.
My apartment looked naked without magazines on the coffee table, no curtains on the windows. The medicine pulsed through my veins, made me want to live forever and made me want to die, all at one. Each line scraped through my face, burned down my throat and took me above the clouds, where the angels fly. We sat in my bedroom and sniffed Ketamine from the cover of my Psych 101 textbook. The image was the side profile of a woman’s head. The side of her head was open, her brain full of smaller faces, some smiling, some crying, and things like flowers, a house with a picket fence, a lightbulb.
A fetus in utero.
Izzy tried to ask me about school. The party had started and music that high-school-me loved, and Psych-major-me tried to remember the words to, shook my bedroom walls. I sucked more Special-K up, down my nose, and told the Princess to shut up.
“Sorry,” Izzy said. She slid her hand across my million-thread-count-Egyptian-cotton sheets, then under the hem of my skirt to touch my thigh. She said, “It’s okay to do good,” her eyes swimming around in her head.
I pulled away from her and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes rolled around too, turned like planets. The lamp light made the gold glitter on my cheeks shine like treasure. The Princess appeared behind me. Her tattoo looked all gibberish in the mirror. She wrapped her arms around me, pressed her hips into mine. Her tiny tank-top let her naked belly touch my naked back, under my crop top. She breathed into my neck.
The Princess said, “You’re made of gold.”
As a Psych major they teach you that addiction is a learned behavior. Another thing to factor into your word problems. Like, maybe it wasn’t just the father that used to beat up on him, or the mother that used Xan-bars to forget it. Maybe the addicted boy learned getting high as an impulse that had little to no immediate consequences, and the impulse turned into desire.
Drugs turned into family.
Brandon liked to fuck right after the first few lines. He liked to finish right before the K-hole. I’d watch him on top of me all glow like the Milky Way, turning into a spiral, and wonder if his so good was meant for me or the medicine.
I felt good because he felt good.
A few months before graduation, before I told him about my plans for school, about the money mom and dad had set aside for me, B laid down onto his pilly sheets in his bed, in his parent’s house. His hands had started to shake, so he asked me to gum for him.
We were one body, we felt everything the same. Whether we liked it or not. I licked then dipped my finger into the baggie and pushed the K under his lips. His gums felt like silk, infinite thread count. Always, I did what he asked me to.
You knew you’d lost him when he stopped looking at you. I did whatever it took to keep his eyes on me. In the hole, B told me that if I ever got better, he wouldn’t love me anymore.
I left the Princess behind in my bedroom waded into the party that thumped in my living room, through my kitchen. Bodies everywhere. Perfect-tenant-me started to plan for a new coat of paint, watching people scrape into walls while they danced and with all the smoke in the air. My knees started to shake, it felt like the hole was close, like a million warm hands crawling up my body, then somebody screamed my name and jolted me upright. The Doc Marten boy rushed across the living room to me and threw stick-and-poke arms around me. He pulled me onto my Italian leather couch.
The Doc Marten boy leaned into me and yelled over the music, “What the fuck, dude!”
He took a sip of his beer then smiled and where his teeth were missing looked like black holes. As a Psych major you might categorize a Doc Marten boy’s missing-teeth-drug-addiction as addiction by immaturity. Stupidity and boredom.
He said, “This house is nice as fuck,” he said, “and you’re like gonna be a doctor?”
I looked around the room through the girls we used to sell weed to at lunch, through the cocaine-kids who played house shows and acted famous. Word problems.
“What about you man,” I yelled to the Doc Marten boy, tried to ask more, but my tongue went flat. My teeth felt numb and the roof of my mouth twisted itself into a knot.
“Same old, man,” he said, then kept on talking.
As a Psych major, you might learn the kind of unlistening I did as disassociating. I looked around my house. The hall closet door glowed, hot with my nice things inside. Put-together-college-student-apartment-renter-me wanted to scrape my scented candles and throw pillows and curtains out of their hiding places. And I couldn’t find B anywhere.
The Doc Marten boy caught my ears again when he said something about broken windows at the Home-and-More, something about the group getting finally kicked out of that parking lot. The click of his beer bottle onto my reclaimed wood coffee table turned my head.
I snapped back to face the stick-and-poke boy. “What the fuck,” I yelled and shot myself upright. I tried to grab the bottle away, but my fingers couldn’t curl to hold onto it. Izzy appeared and started to rub my back, ask if I was okay.
“Sorry, man,” the stick-and-poke boy said, and he took his bottle from the table.
“That’s vintage, man,” I yelled, “one-of-a-kind.”
Izzy squeezed my shoulder and shushed me. The Doc Marten boy walked away and high-school-me wanted to kill the rest of us. Izz sat down next to me and turned her back to the party. She tapped out a line of K from the baggie onto the back of her hand and held it up to my nose. I breathed in, then asked for more, and more, and she fed me till the kingdom of heaven felt near again. I sat in Izzy’s minty cigarette arms and pictured how, even when the party was over, there were treasures hidden throughout my house to uncover again. Gold upon gold.
From somewhere inside the crowd a drunk boy voice yelled at Izzy while she held me and said, “You people really will do anything for a deal on rent,” and other boy voices laughed. I sat up so she would take her arms off me.
A girl with a shaved head ran over and shook Izzy’s aunt-hair. The girl said, “Hey, Princess,” and then Princess Izz jumped up and hugged her. The girl’s bare head shined like the sun under the lamp light.
The Princess pulled me to my feet and held me up like a married couple standing together at an office party. She told the shaved head girl about how my parents paid for me to have an apartment instead of a dorm. The shaved head girl said it was so cool, and she said she liked my makeup, and pointed under her eyes. Izzy ran her nails across my naked lower back. I shoved her away. On my way to the bathroom I spread my fingers then tried to squeeze them into fists but couldn’t hold them together.
Under the yellow bathroom light my reflection glowed gold and blurry, blending into the organic linen shower curtain behind me. I dug my finger into the glitter compact and smeared more gold sparkles under my eyes. I imagined that my shower curtain must’ve had a higher thread count than the sheets of all my partygoers, and high-school-me hated the rest of us for it.
The high felt angry in my veins and the air tasted like a scented candle.
My reflection blurred into many faces, little green flashes jumped up from the glitter makeup like shooting stars. A knock knocked at the door. The voice in every me-face tried to tell the knocker to go away. The knob jiggled, then a glowing, freckled arm rushed into the bathroom. I dropped the glitter into the sink and slammed my shoulder against the door. The arm knuckled through and every blurry me fell backward, landed on the floor between the bathtub and the toilet.
A flannel torso, then black jeans squeezed through the door. A click, click like a lighter lighting, and then that smell ate up all the smell of the Field of Daisies candle, that sat on the toilet tank, forgotten to hide.
That scratchy Marlboro Red smell.
B looked like the same B I broke up with days before graduation. Perfect-tenant-me almost jumped up and ripped the Red from his lips. But high-school-me couldn’t move, stuck on the cold floor by the medicine and by him. Brandon took a long drag and then pointed at the Field of Daisies.
He said, “You’re funny, kid.”
Brandon got me up from the floor. When my eyes came back to me, the tip of his nose was almost touching mine. B took the glitter compact from the sink and asked me to give him some. My heart thumped a million beats fast and slow motion all at once. I swiped gold glitter under B’s eyes, across his freckles. He smoked close to me, the burning cherry tip lit up, warm, almost touching my chin.
I squinted and unsquinted my eyes to make sure it was him. B turned and looked in the mirror at his makeover. My hands couldn’t keep closed and the glitter compact dropped into the sink again. Brandon’s eyes met mine in the mirror.
“It’s you,” I said.
He took a long drag, then Brandon turned to me and pinched my chin, pulled me into him and he kissed me. His lips didn’t move, so mine didn’t move. He just ran his million-thread-count tongue over my gums. I reached out and petted his rolled-up flannel sleeves, pilly and soft on my sweaty palms, that stuck to him like glue. When B pulled away from me, he glittered like treasure in the yellow light. He asked me if I had any more, and he tapped his pearly whites.
I told him to meet me outside and started to wobble out of the bathroom. Brandon killed his Red in the sink and then turned the faucet on. Water mixed with ash mixed with gold. Perfect-tenant-me wanted to sponge the mess away. But everything is beautiful in a K-hole.
High-school-me felt dead and gone to heaven with Brandon waiting outside for us. Old friends and their friends all danced together, in my house, and breathed the room sweaty. The walls wept. I found Izzy with the shaved head girl, bragging about me and telling the girl that she practically lived with me. I tapped Izz on the shoulder, and she swung her red head around and hugged me.
“There you are,” Izzy said, “can you believe everyone’s here,” and she rubbed my arm till it burned.
I yanked my shoulder away and said, “I need the K.”
The shaved head girl said, “You two are so cute,” and her sunlight burned my eyes.
Princess Izzy grabbed my hand and said, “Oh, sweetie,” she said, “we did it all.”
My head caught on fire and I ripped my hand away from her. The Princess said she was sorry. “You’re not my girlfriend,” I pointed my finger at Princess Izz and said, “you’re supposed to have the drugs. That’s your job.”
The shaved head girl said, “It’s cool, I have shit,” and she pulled a baggie from her pocket.
I told The Princess that she didn’t get it, I needed the K because he was there, waiting outside. She threw her hands up and said, “My job?” she said, “I don’t have a job!”
Before I headed back to B I looked at Princess Izzy and said, “Everyone thinks you’re a joke.” The shaved head girl pulled the Princess away from me, and they walked away from me, toward my bedroom, together.
As a Psych major your goal is to learn to predict and control behavior.
We were dead until we met and all the time away from B felt like dead time, too. College was supposed to mean new friends and new life. But it wasn’t anything special. High-school-me wanted him to learn to love my nice things. I stepped through the sliding glass door and found Brandon standing in the light of the streetlamp. He puffed on a new Red then handed it to me.
I took a drag and coughed; the sound echoed in my head. B sat down on the porch and itched at the gold glitter under his eyes. He said, “You really did it, kid.” I sat next to him and gave him his smoke back.
“Didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” B put his hand on my thigh. He told me that my apartment was beautiful. He said, “I figured you went and turned into a nun or something.”
He said, “I miss you.”
Brandon used to bring the wooden cherub into bed, lay her down between us. He did that the truth-telling-by-joke-telling thing that you learn about as a Psych major. He said that since we could never let ourselves make and raise a baby, since we couldn’t really handle each other to begin with, we had to make non-baby things special.
Since we didn’t keep our baby, we had to have something to care for.
And no matter what we needed our medicine.
He leaned in to kiss me but stopped before our lips touched. B said, “Let me have it.”
I went to kiss him, but he pulled away and said that he meant he wanted the Special-K. I tried to tell him it was gone, but my tongue went flat, my heart rattled in my chest. He touched my lips and shushed me.
Brandon said, “It’s cool, I have shit,” and he pulled a baggie from his flannel pocket and started to shake the medicine out onto the back of his hand.
Brandon’s medicine scraped through my face. It tasted sharper than Izzy’s it stung like alcohol on an open cut it scratched down my throat it turned my blood into lightning. It bounced me to my feet and the edge of my skin felt electric. My teeth chattered. B jumped to his feet to meet me and grabbed my face and kissed me like the first time we kissed like laying down in a field of daisies like the softest sheets holding us, like sewing us together.
I pulled away to catch my breath and said, “What was that?” my eyes blinked and blinked and all the blurry Special-K vision turned sharp and brilliant.
Behind Brandon, through the sliding glass door, the Princess’s red head flashed, cutting through the party crowd. People scooted away from her.
People started to funnel out the front door.
Brandon pinched his nose and said, “Angel dust.”
“What?” I said, and looked at the wooden cherub on the side of the house.
B saw me looking and blew smoke in my eyes, made them water. He said, “PCP,” and started toward the angel.
In my apartment, my throw pillows were unhidden, scattered across the kitchen floor. Shreds of paper like magazines floated in the living room.
Brandon twisted his fingertip in the cigarette hole of the cherub’s mouth. He bounced up on his toes like a boxer. In the house, the Princess threw a scented candle at the wall and it shattered, glass glittered across the floor and onto my shower curtain, that she had ripped down and thrown into the mess. Princess Izzy looked at me through the glass and hurled my Psych 101 textbook at the door. It banged and shook the house. My throat tasted like blood.
“What the fuck,” Brandon said, and he looked at the textbook, at the image of the woman’s open head full of smiles and unborn babies, with mean eyes. Then he pointed his cigarette at the naked, white angel and said, “She’s ruined.”
I grabbed his flannel arms. He buzzed in my hands. The gold glitter makeup under his eyes mixed with his freckles mixed with the electricity in our skin the lightning in our blood made him look like treasure.
“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s funny.” I took his Red and pushed the filter into the angel’s lips.
Brandon closed his eyes and started to walk away from us toward the street. We were losing him. I followed him down the steps of the porch and called after him. He stopped in the middle of the street and turned around, his eyes still closed. Psych-major-me wanted to pry his eyes open, make him face us. High-school-me didn’t want to die again. He said that he shouldn’t have kissed me, he said he should go find his girlfriend.
“It’s stupid,” I said, “I shouldn’t have messed with her.”
“It’s never gonna be the same,” B wiped his eyes into his flannel shoulder, scraped the gold away. He said, “You’re not the same you.”
Every version of me felt like we could jump out of our skin.
Brandon opened his eyes and looked right through me. The smell of mint itched my nose and then the back of my head exploded, my eyes slammed shut and I fell forward, my lips and chin smacked onto the street.
My lips turned to liquid, and red dripped warm from them, onto my chin.
When I opened my eyes, the Princess stood in front of me, her tattoo rising and falling a million times with her breath. She gripped the drill in her hand, the base of it freckled with blood. The streetlamp made her shine. The Princess was the moon, she blinded me.
The back of my head throbbed where she had hit me. Princess Izz looked at my bloody mouth. She told me that she wasn’t a joke and her voice shook. She walked back toward the house and Brandon kneeled down next to me. B didn’t look at me. His freckles burned like stars on his Milky Way skin. His blue, burning planet-eyes turned and turned and turned and pulled like magnets, like gravity, my ruined face up to his.
I got to my knees and spit a red puddle of teeth onto the street.
I sucked the dripping blood up from my lips, back in through my shatters of teeth like saving soup spills from the side of a bowl. Brandon brought his thumb under my bottom lip and started to press the red away from my lips. I prayed my blood would make him stick on me, like glue. The gold makeup itched my eyes. I pushed my finger through the holes where my teeth used to live. The chipped edges felt dull and dead against my fingertip. Brandon pinched the little white chips up from the puddle.
I cupped my hands for him, and B dropped my teeth into my palm.
In the light of the streetlamp he looked like milk. I could’ve let all my teeth go, glued my hands into prayer position right there on the ground and begged of him. Begged him to come back to us; licked the freckles from his face and his arms.
The shaved head girl came screaming out of the house. I stood up and looked at the porch. All my nice things, my shower curtain, my pillows and vintage coffee table, my treasures, were thrown, scattered everywhere. The side of the house where I had put B’s Red into the cherub’s mouth burned bright like God, like the pearly gates, the white clouds of heaven, on fire and pumping black smoke into the sky. Perfect-tenant-me started to laugh.
Brandon stood up and started to walk away again, down the street.
The shaved head girl ran over to me. She said, “Your house,” and pointed at the fire. She called for Brandon to come help but he didn’t turn around. She said, “I’m sorry about Izzy,” she said, “She told me she had done it before.” And the shaved head, sun-girl, followed my B down the street, yelling, “Baby, wait for me.”
If Psych-major-me had to name the role Brandon played in our group I would’ve called him God. Always, I was married to him.
I got myself back to the porch, laughing at my ruined home, and high-school-me swallowed the lump in our throat, for the baby we couldn’t save. And the angel. I watched the flames eat the side of my apartment, lick the white cherub black and shriveled, wet and melted, dripping ashes. Izzy came through the sliding glass door, stepped over my treasures, and then she aimed the fire extinguisher at the flames.
A cloud of white killed the fire.
Izzy turned to me and dropped the extinguisher. It clinked, empty against the porch. Blood dripped through my fingers and rained down my arms. Izzy’s scratched her wild red head, scratched white powder from her nose. The Princess on her chest breathed up and down and up and down, the slowed to a steady rise and fall. Izz reached out and pressed her thumb against the gold under my eyes. She wiped our makeup away till it was just me and my naked face.
“It’s okay,” she said, and her voice shook.
Izzy pressed her body into mine, our naked bellies cold, breathing into each other. Her hair smelled mint and smoke and got sticky on my bloody chin like sewing us together.
The drugs will wear off. The uppers and downers will stop scraping through my face and we won’t feel like this forever. But you make me alive. Between final exams and all the word problems. You are my medicine. Our teeth are on your hands.
We will love you for the rest of your life, or ours.
Whether you like it or not.
Sunshine Barbito is a twenty-one-year-old fiction writer. She currently lives in New York City. Her short stories have been showcased in multiple literary magazines; her most recent publication being her story “Glory of Love,” which won first place in Ember Chasms Review‘s fiction and poetry summer 2020 contest and is set to be published in their forthcoming issue three. In October, three of her stories were accepted, including “Baby,” published by Sad Girl Lit, “Sleepover,” published by Fecund Magazine, and “Jump for Heart,” published by Prometheus Dreaming. Sunshine previously lived in the pacific northwest, where she worked as a freelance editor, collaborating on projects with Dark Horse Comics, including The Umbrella Academy and Fight Club 3. She spoke at a panel about crime stories in comics at the 2019 Portland Comic-Con to promote her first series as sole writer, Mafiosa, which is set to be released later this year. Sunshine attends a fiction workshop with a wonderful group of liars that not only taught her the basics of writing, but how to really see everything, the whole world, as a story.
Read our interview with Sushine Barbito by clicking here.