I’m the kind of small town Texas guy who’s believed in God his whole life. Where I came from, the order of things was God, then family, then football. That’s just the way it was.
Everyone I grew up with fell into that order except a kid I remember named Tristan Goldsmith.
“You won’t catch me dead in a church,” he once sneered to a group of us in the school playground.
Instead of tossing the football with us, Tristan would collect rocks in little tin cans like he was an amateur geologist. He and his family eventually moved away. Nobody could’ve cared less. That’s just how it went.
I learned about Jesus Christ from my mother reading New Testament passages to me at bedtime. That’s how a lot of us heard about the poor fisherman from Nazareth.
“I want you to become a good, hardworking man like Jesus,” my mother would often tell me.
It was right after I graduated from high school when my mother got breast cancer. I was getting off work one night from the Coca Cola plant when she called me. She said I needed to come see her soon, that she had bad news. So I went over to see her that night.
She was lying on the left side of her bed, alone, as she had done for seventeen years. She was wearing her same old faded blue nightgown that she wore when she used to read Bible stories to me at bedtime.
She told me the bad news, and I felt an awful sort of nothing inside me.
“The doctors gave me six months to live, son,” she said softly.
“That can’t be right, Mom,” I muttered. “That can’t be right.”
“We just have to accept it, baby. I’m in God’s hands now.”
When I left her house that night, I looked up to the dark sky and cursed God out loud. As I wept, I thought about Jesus’ final moments on earth, his broken body on a wooden cross in Golgotha.
I got in my truck and sped off to my apartment, blasting a hip-hop station on the radio the whole ride home.
Two months after my mother died, I got home from work one night depressed and beat to hell. If there was ever a time where I needed more sleep, I couldn’t remember it. Without taking a shower or brushing my teeth, I collapsed into my bed and blacked out.
When I woke up in the middle of the night, there was a presence hovering above me. It looked like a meandering black storm cloud, blacker than anything I’d ever seen. One could say that my eyes were playing tricks on me, that my state of mind was in bad shape, and it was, but truth is, there was something there above me. It made the hairs on my arms stand up. It made my throat tighten up.
All of a sudden, I felt something long and pencil thin break through my lips and go into my mouth. It scraped the back of my throat, and I started to gag. I couldn’t move, couldn’t scream. All I could do was close my eyes and pray to Jesus out of habit.
As the situation was getting really bad, the thing went away. There was nothing in my mouth anymore. I opened my eyes, and the dark storm cloud was gone.
I felt a rush of joy so intense I wanted to cry. It was the same feeling I’d had after I caught a 75-yard touchdown pass to help get the Mighty Warriors to the playoffs. It was a twice-in-a-lifetime kind of feeling.
The next day, after I mulled things over, I convinced myself that it had all been just a nightmare. But as time went on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the thing would come back for me, with its long and pencil-thin demonic straw. I could feel the straw breaking through my lips and going into my mouth. The back of my throat felt scratchy, and I knew exactly why. The more I thought about it, the more I was certain that it was only a matter of time before the thing would meander back into my room and finish the job.
One evening, I took a girl I was seeing to the local Dairy Queen for milkshakes. She ordered a strawberry one, and I a chocolate. I couldn’t help but notice how she gripped her red straw and stirred her shake. She swirled the straw up and down and all around her cup.
I slurped my milkshake, and while it tasted great, the coldness irritated the back of my throat.
She continued to stir and sip, stir and sip, stir and sip. I started shaking my left leg nervously.
“Hey,” I said, “I know this will probably come off wrong, so don’t take offense, but can you please stop doing that?”
She looked at me with contempt.
“What, stirring my shake?” she asked, annoyed.
“Yeah. It’s just… It’s kinda bothering me. Sorry.”
That was pretty much the end of our relationship. It’s the little things that are the hardest to recover from.
Long story short, what I’m getting at is it’s been two years now since I’ve drunk a milkshake. Almost every day, when I drive by the Dairy Queen, I think about how I want nothing more than to sip on a chocolate shake in peace. I can almost taste its creamy, cold, sugary goodness melting on my tongue. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to drink another one. I just can’t. And I know the reason why, more or less. That’s just the way it is.
Talk about torture.
Alex Z. Salinas lives in San Antonio, Texas. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from St. Mary’s University. His flash fiction has appeared in escarp, 101 Words, ZeroFlash, Nanoism, and the Pecan Grove Review. He has also had a poem published in the San Antonio Express-News.