DAISY CHAINS by BLUE COUTELL an episodic novelette
episode three: the three bite rule
The air bites into Astrid’s cheeks, as she walks back home after dropping off her copy of J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. It has become imperative that Ivy read A Perfect Day for Bananafish; it is the only way to tell Ivy what is coming. Her own words cannot encapsulate the nuance required to make Ivy understand. Astrid shuts the door, and the smell of meatloaf floods her. Her father sits in his chair half asleep with remote in hand. Her mother is in the kitchen wiping her hands on her half apron. Their gazes land hot on her as she hangs her coat. “Were you with that lesbian again?” her dad asks sharply, now very much awake as he sets the remote to the side. “You didn’t ask if you could leave,” her mother chimes in. “Ivy is my friend,” Astrid says fiercely. “C’mere,” her mother says insistently. Though a small pause exists, Astrid doesn’t fight the command. Her mother grips her chin roughly. “What is this?” She starts yanking on the collar of Astrid’s teal turtleneck. A blatant purpled mark proudly stands out even on the tan of her skin. How her mother knew it was there was simply otherworldly. Automatically, Astrid moves to cover it up. She had told Ivy to be more careful. She couldn’t wear turtlenecks forever. “What did we tell you, huh?” Her father speaks up. The recliner creaks and moans as he rises. “I was just bringing her a book,” she explains. As the words leave her mouth, she doesn’t know why she bothers. “We’ve enrolled you in a conversion therapy with the Church,” her mother tells her. “They fix gays.” “But I’m not gay.” Tears sting at the back of her eyes. “Don’t stand there and lie to us, Astrid,” her father bellows out. “She put the devil inside you, and we’re going to get it out.” Her mother goes back to toiling at the stove. The smell of dinner feels oppressive. “Go on, sit,” her father snaps. She sits at the table gently, like the chair might break. The hair on her skin is raised. She can feel a storm coming. He leaves for the living room, and she feels momentary relief. But he comes back with his pack of Marlboros and a hideous green ashtray with ash so thick you can’t see the bottom. He tosses the ashtray on the table, letting ash rise into the air. Her father lights the cigarette and pulls up a seat next to her. “Arm. Give me your arm.” Astrid offers her arm and he sets it on the table, roughly pulling up the sleeves of her sweater. He takes the red end of the cigarette and puts it to her arm, holding it in for a moment before retreat. Her cry catches her mother’s attention, but her mother just goes back to mashing the potatoes. She thinks about maybe saying “please,” or even saying she’ll never see Ivy again. But did it really matter? Her mind is made up. He moves to do it again and she holds steady. She refuses to cry. This is just her version of Seymour Glass’s war. When it was all over, she has burns all over her forearm. Twenty-one, she counts. They form in capital letters: “DYKE”. Wear your sin.
Meatloaf is ready now. They call her name from the kitchen. Her arm still feels like fire. The table is set, like it always is. They both sit at opposite sides of the table, forks in hand ready to dig into the oppressive meatloaf. As Astrid sits in her chair, she realizes that there is not meatloaf. Her dog, Atlas, sits at her feet. His dish is on the table, crusted with aged slobber, full of dry kibble. Suddenly, the meatloaf doesn’t seem so bad. Stunned, she doesn’t know what to say. She just stares at it. This is not as bad as the last time, she tries to tell herself. “May I be excused?” “You know the rule of the house,” her mother says between squishy bites of meat and potato. “You can’t leave until you’ve had three bites of each thing on your plate.” “I’m not going to—” Astrid’s father’s hand slams on the table so loudly. Atlas disappears with his tail between his legs. “You will do as you are told.” With a shaking hand, she reaches for utensils that aren’t where they should be. They mean to make her eat like a dog. Her arm still burns fiercely, and she doesn’t want to make this any worse than it must be. It will all be over soon. She bends her face down to the bowl, which smells like Atlas. She closes her eyes shut tightly. She isn’t going to cry. No. She can practically hear her father’s grin and see the disdain on her mother’s face just from memory. She didn’t have to see it; she knew it was there. The kibble feels overly dry as it begins to stick all over her mouth, making it hard to swallow. She reaches for water, but that too is absent. Not even in one of Atlas’s bowls. Just get it over with. Astrid takes another bite, trying hard to keep from retching. If she throws up, they will probably just make her do it again. Her mouth is caked in kibble, but she takes her last bite. She shoves across the table and flees to her bedroom. She climbs to the bed and grabs water from her bed stand. She rinses her mouth and regurgitates what she can. Her eyes are running and her skin is clammy. She can’t get the taste out. She can hear Atlas clawing at the door to get in. She pulls her journal out from a stack of textbooks near the desk. She tears out a piece of paper and writes a note for Ivy: “If you’re reading this, it means I got stuck. At least now, you’ll know what that means.”