WITH POLISH • by H. L. Cassel

As Salem undid his school tie and slumped on one of the kitchen chairs, he listened for the kettle he’d just clicked on to whistle. His mother had been standing at the sink when he’d gotten home, dutifully polishing one of the big soup ladles. The bowl of it sparkled and reflected like a parabolic mirror, but she continued to polish like she expected it to do something more.

“You’re tracking blood in,” his mother grumbled, looking into the distorted reflection on the spoon. “You just killed your tutor, didn’t you?”

Salem looked back across the rug he’d crossed between the kitchen and the front door, dark spots dotting a trail. They could have been anything, he thought, except considering the last mess he tracked in, blood was not an unreasonable assumption.

“Maybe that’s my blood,” said Salem.

“You know full well it’s not your blood,” his mother sniffed. Salem didn’t answer and instead opted to chew on his thumbnail. It was a bad habit, and any other day his mother would have admonished him for it. Instead, she put down the ladle and picked up a pair of tongs from the sink.

“I’m just trying to make you happy,” he said.

“This is unsustainable,” she said curtly.

“That’s what I thought the first time,” said Salem, biting down on his nail. He really wished he had a cigarette — another one, at least, as he’d nearly had a whole pack since the lesson and home — but he couldn’t, not in front of his mother. Though she had to be able to smell all the smoke on him, it was still not a habit he had formally introduced her to, and now was definitely not the time.

“This was not an unsustainable plan to begin with, but when you keep killing them off without even thinking about what you’re doing — ”

“Who says I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing?” said Salem.

“If you had thought about what you were doing, you wouldn’t have done it without consulting me.”

“I can make my own decisions. I think I made the right one.”

“And you’re going to keep thinking that until you’re caught,” said his mother. “The same thing happened to my sister. There’s a reason you work slow. If a few of them die, it seems like it’s because of their own wicked devices. If there’s a particular student who keeps killing them off weeks after they’ve been accepted, they start to notice things.”

“I think it was necessary, this time,” said Salem. “You don’t know what he did.”

“Let me guess,” said his mother mockingly, swishing the tongs in her hand like a wand. “He gave you an envelope, and it had some hair from one of his other students, and he wanted you to practice a curse setup for him because the student was late paying her dues.”

“Mom,” Salem started, but she didn’t look at him, didn’t stop waving those tongs.

“And it’s a highly disproportionate curse, you note, and he says it’s because he wants you to try something harder than what you’ve been doing! It’s a wasting illness or seven years of bad luck or something like that, not a normal retribution for a kid with late fees like nightly charlie horses or never being able to find a pen when you need one. And you think, maybe, there’s a reason why this girl did not pay her fees. Maybe she came on some hard times, and it’s not her fault her parents couldn’t give her the money.”

“Mom, you can — ” But she couldn’t stop. Well, wouldn’t, anyway. Salem’s face began to burn hotter than the lamp he’d used to do the deed.

“Or maybe she has paid her fees, and there’s just something cruel and warped and twisted about this man, and you’re sure that if you refuse to do this thing, he’s just going to find a few hairs you leave behind and try the same thing on you with another student. So, you did what you had to do, and that was kill him before you left the lesson.”

The clock on the wall ticked down mercilessly.

“Am I wrong?” his mother asked.

“It was a boy, not a girl,” said Salem finally, the blood draining from his face.

His mother smiled. “I was thinking you were getting too lucky, not finding new tutors who do this sort of hazing.”

“Was I wrong to kill him?”

“You were wrong to kill him then, yes.”

“What was I supposed to do?”

“It never crossed your mind to oh-so-innocently mess up? To switch out some materials, maybe?” asked his mother. He had done that particular curse before, the one the tutor had asked him to do. And he’d done it exactly right and it had worked, and the cursed woman, the tutor, Ms. Matilda, had drowned in her own consommé the following week. “For such an apparently prized student you really are very dense.”

“You say that like it would have been easy,” said Salem.

“And cursing people is easier?”

“Yes! Yes, it is. It is.” It was shockingly easy, actually. He’d read Ms. Matilda’s obituary over and over again, and clipped it out of the paper to stare at it for the next week and had attended her funeral like a good student should. “It’s the only thing I’m good at.” His mother had laid out all the utensils from the sink on the rag. Tongs, ladle, fork, fork, knife, spatula, spoon…

“I’m sorry. I panicked. I’m sorry.”

“What did you do with the body?” asked his mother.

“It’s gone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Gone in the way you said to make it gone, for sure.”

“Just don’t do it again,” she said with a sigh. The kettle whistled, finally, and she said nothing more. A further scolding couldn’t fix the dead.

H. L. Cassel works as a private tutor, writes, and has a variety of other preoccupations. Fortunately for all uninterested parties, none of them will be listed in this bio.

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