DEAD SPIDER CURL • by Chip Houser

We’re loaded down with tampons and pads, and Mom’s heading straight for the cute checker’s lane. Seriously? I’d die if I had to stand there while he rung us out. It’s obvious, right? I totally get it, she’s distracted, sad about Lance and all that, but right now we’ve got bigger issues. I steer her toward the old lady’s lane.

I woke up at the hotel this morning with blood in my underwear—Mom thinks from the stress of the funeral and the move and all. She started getting all awkward, but I told her I was thirteen, not two, and I knew what was going on. We’re here—Kansas, I mean, not Walgreen’s—because my stepdad hung himself and Mom said we can’t afford our house because insurance doesn’t cover suicide. So we’re going to live with Aunt June in Utah. Yeah, Utah. Talk about Nowheresville. Mom’s been crying a lot, which was fine at first but started getting old about the middle of Kentucky. I’m sad, too, I guess, but not that sad. Lance was just my stepdad, and he was weird. I’m not sure how Mom didn’t see it, but whatever.

We load up the belt and the checker, this stocky older woman with helmet hair, says in this crazy deep voice, “How y’all doing today?”

Her—his—nametag says Geraldine, but there’s no way.

Mom pats my back and says, “We had a pretty rough night.”

“God, Mom!” I don’t mean to say that out loud, but she’s rubbing my back like I’m still five and it just comes out.

Geraldine looks at the pink and purple packages on the belt, then Mom, who makes her annoying frown-nod toward me. Geraldine looks back at me all grandma nostalgic and says, “Such a special time.”

Really? He has no idea how un-special this feels. The black tips of his wig curl like claws into his forehead. I don’t mind guys wearing dresses. Lance used to play dress up with me and my friends sometimes, which sounds weird but it really wasn’t. Honestly, he looked better than Geraldine. It was kind of cute, but also kind of sad. Especially after I saw him in the garage, hanging there, his hands curled up like dead spiders, toes poking out below Mom’s red dress.

“Oops,” Geraldine says. “Your card was denied, hon. Our system does this sometimes. Give it another try.”

Mom swipes. An old man shuffles into line behind us. He’s hugging a giant thing of Depends in his splotchy old man arms.

Geraldine says, “How nice to see you this morning, Mr. Cathcart.”

“Morning, Gerald.”

“It’s Geraldine, Mr. Cathcart.”

“Hell it is.” He’s doing that old person thing with his mouth, sucking on something that’s not there.

Geraldine looks over us, across the lanes. ”Why don’t you go down to Thomas? It looks like he’s open.”

“I’m fine here.”

“Are you?” Geraldine says. “I’m sorry, dear, your card was denied again.” When he smiles, these great long creases fold back into his cheeks. He has a nice smile, but the powder and stubble aren’t working together.

“What’s the problem?” says the old man. He’s pushing me with his Depends.

Geraldine says, “The machine’s on the fritz again.”

“I have cash.” The old man says. Then he makes this noise, a sort of coughing belch. Half a second later I smell smoke. Oh. My. God.

“Patience, Mr. Cathcart.”

Mom’s holding a ten. “Where are we if we take the pantyliners off?”

The old man is leaning into me, pushing his Depends against my back.

“Let’s see, hon,” Geraldine says, pulling the pantyliners out of the bag.

“Cut the schoolteacher crap, Gerald.”

“Her name,” I say, jabbing my finger into his Depends, “is Geraldine.”

The old man’s face bunches up like he’s got something to say.

I stare at him. “What?”

He grumbles something, but keeps his eyes on his Depends.

“That brings it down to twenty-three seventeen.”

“Here,” I say, digging into my pocket.

“No.” Mom grabs my wrist. “That’s your money.”

“It’s fine, Mom.” I’ve been saving for an iPhone, which doesn’t seem that important right now.

When I take the bags from Geraldine, he pats my hand. His nails are painted old lady pink and are all chipped and snaggled looking. His fingers are thick, stippled with plucked pores. He says, “Y’all take care now.”

Mom starts sobbing in the parking lot. I take her keys and help her into the car. She slumps into the driver’s seat, crying, hands cupped in her lap. “W-w-why,” the words hitch as she sobs, “w-would he do that t-to himself?”

I rub her back a little, and she slumps over the armrest into me. I hug her and tell her it’s going to be okay. Her whole body is shaking and her crying is more like moaning. She hardly cried at the funeral. I lay my head on hers and say all the nice things I can think of. Kissing her head seems to help.

I watch the old man for the hour it takes him to get in his giant car and drive off. By then, Geraldine is taking a smoke break, leaning against the side of the building, his legs apart, dress stretched tight. He holds his cigarette between two fingers, his hand hanging from his wrist. When he brings the cigarette to his mouth, it looks like he’s covering a yawn.

Mom’s still crying, but she’s stopped shaking. I find a smashed-up napkin in the glove box and press it into her hand. She squeezes my hand back and sits back up. She wipes her eyes and messes with her face in the rear view mirror. “I’m sorry.”

“No big deal, Mom,” I say. “I miss him, too.”

She looks at me like she’s surprised.

Mom drives past Geraldine and I wave. He tips his head up, hand covering his mouth, fingertips curling into his cheek as he draws on his cigarette.

Chip Houser thinks of himself as a fantasy author, but hasn’t actually published in the genre. He has published fiction in Rosebud Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Gemini Magazine, Kansas City Voices, Spark IV: A Creative Anthology, and Sixfold.

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Rate this story:
 average 4.7 stars • 43 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Justin DeFerbrache

    I loved this! The characters, the setting are so nicely drawn. This could be a novel!

  • Dustin Adams

    Just great!
    Wonderful combination of humor and serious. I, myself find this impossible to pull off. This is how it’s done.

    I was a little thrown by her defending Geraldine (“Her name”) then -thinking- of her as a him. I admit my brain does the same mental dance, “her” out loud, “him” in my mind, but in the story I would have liked the consistency.

    Still, a very engaging story.

  • Excellent.

  • Carl Steiger

    Well, that was peculiar, in a very good way. Not at all the kind of story I normally like to read, but I liked this one quite a bit. So thanks for getting me out of my rut for a moment!

  • MPmcgurty

    Very, very nice.

    @Dustin Adams: My take on what you saw as an inconsistency is that she really did see Gerald as a man, but she backed the old man off in an act of compassion (even if she didn’t recognize it as such). We sometimes defend people because they need defending against bullies, even if we don’t understand or agree with their situation or choices.

  • @MPmcgurty. I saw it that the MC is embracing her transition to womanhood and sees Geraldine as a kindred spirit, also in transition. This story is very much layered.

  • MPmcgurty

    @Paul Freeman. I can see that, too. I like stories that stimulate thought and varying take-aways among readers. This is a good one.

  • S Conroy

    This is one to be remembered. The 13 year old’s voice is perfect. I didn’t want it to end.

    I feel guilty nitpicking… The only point where I came out of the narrative was ‘toes poking out below Mom’s red dress’. It made me wonder if he was a very short man or if mom was a very tall lady.
    On the Geraldine issue, agree with MPmcGurty and Paul. It does feel complex. It also made me think of how she felt about Lance.

  • Scott Harker

    An interesting story, although it apparently didn’t grab me like it has others. The combination of the tragedy and the “coming of age” didn’t blend well. I don’t think either topic received the attention it deserved.

    The story, although written very well, seemed to be trying to address both issues and doesn’t really resolve anything. Nothing happens here. There are no epiphanies or serendipity. Not that those are necessary for a good story. I just thought this felt a bit lifeless. Perhaps that’s the feel the author was going for. I don’t know. It just didn’t work for me at all. I felt it deserved 4 stars based on the writing alone, so that’s what I gave it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • J.C. Towler

    One personal barometer for discerning a good flash story is one where I find myself wondering “is this really under 1000 words” without the sense that anything is being squeezed or compressed to fit under the word count ceiling.
    Smooth read, relatable characters and consistent voices. I enjoyed this story.

  • monksunkadan

    A really fine piece of writing in every respect. Thanks for
    sharing, Chip.

  • This story does pack in a lot and the teenage voice seems authentic.

  • Chinwillow

    Excellent read…love the title and the creepy draft under every door.

  • Denbe

    I agree that this is very well written. Definitely kept me reading. Given that, I have to ask myself why do I feel uncomfortable about the story, besides what’s supposed to make me feel uncomfortable. What I come up with: am I being too sensitive to question the juxtaposition of first time menstruation, pads and all (first timers usually don’t get tampons) with Depends and some grotesque transsexual? Also, there’s an implicit negative tone about this girl getting her period for the first time. “Usually” there’s some allusion to becoming a woman, and often congratulations. The closest the story comes to this sentiment is when Geraldine says “Such a special time” which I took as at least somewhat sarcastic. Anyway, sorry … we gals are often so sensitive…

  • Trollopian

    Very fine flash. I haven’t been a young teen for a long, long time, but I well remember avoiding the cute checker’s lane when I had to buy what are euphemistically called “feminine hygiene” products. (Congratulations to Chip for getting that right.) I was riveted, not just by the “grotesque” details (tampons, pads, cross-dressing stepdad, Depends, stubble and powder) but by the unexpected kindness of several characters. The narrator changes and grows. Five stars.

  • Best I’ve read in a long time. Fantastic detail and voice. 5 stars from me!

  • Oh, I missed the significance of the cute checker’s line. Nicely done. It reminded me of how much more kids know these days than when I was growing up.

  • Netty net

    Here she knows whats going she thirteen, here she has her peirod and her stepfather kills himselve, nice story.

  • Tony Press

    Good story, for sure, and it’s led to some intriguing comments, too — just a bunch of readers not wanting to let go of the experience. Well done.

  • L Martin

    I’ve been reading EDF for a few months, never commented before. I’m amazed how several elements (coming of age, edgy humor, compassion, grief, mother-daughter bonding) fit into a 1000-word space. A lot “happens” in the story in terms of emotional, rather than overt, action. MC is consistent; she defends stepdad’s cross dressing as cute, not really weird, and she defends Gerald/ine against an incontinent bully. The tampon/Depends contrast is brilliant (both absorbents, both used at different life stages). Only the author knows whether Mr. Cathcart’s name is intentional wordplay–a possibly catheterized heckler “carting” a giant thing of Depends??? One last thing: An earlier comment suggested tampons are an unlikely choice for first-timers. Both my granddaughters and their mom would disagree. 5 stars well earned, thanks!

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Well done. Five stars.

  • manjina

    damn, that was good

  • This was right up my boulevard. I rarely give 5 stars but I loved the heck outta this.

  • Cecile

    This story had me cackling out loud. Loved it! No really, I LOVEDLOVEDLOVED it – great work!

  • Ashley

    I was totally enthralled in this. So so good.