Thursday, June 16, 2016

Flash fiction from Gods and Monsters

Tails You Lose

The people on the coin were eating dinner. Or maybe lunch. Sarah tilted the coin to catch the light and looked more closely. A long table with a bunch of people sitting around it occupied the center of the coin, and she could swear they were eating a meal. She turned it over. On this side, it looked like a phone booth with a couple of people in it. Was this the obverse or the reverse? The side with the phone booth (and what were those people doing in there, anyway?) had a date at the bottom, if “666V13.1” was a date, and around the rim some kind of writing she’d never seen before. The other side had more writing around the rim, and the dining-room scene in the middle (was it supposed to be the Last Supper?). That was it. The coin was shiny and unworn, as if it had been minted just minutes before she found it lying on the ground. She flipped the coin and caught it, and was just about to stuff it in her pocket when something caught her eye. Had one of the people at the table … changed position? She really couldn’t see the details well enough, but she could have sworn she’d actually seen one of the people move. A thrill ran through her of mingled fear and excitement. She had always secretly believed that someday, something magical would happen to her. She could hardly keep from breaking into a trot as she hurried home to look at the coin with a magnifying glass.

Back at the apartment she sat in full sun, scrutinizing the coin with a 5X lens. She didn’t see anybody move, but she was almost sure that the table scene had changed slightly. “This is crazy,” she muttered. She turned the coin over, looked through the lens again. The people in the phone booth definitely were fucking. And hadn’t the woman been looking the other way before? Sarah tilted the coin to enhance the shadows. The woman’s expression seemed … strained. She didn’t look like she was having a good time. Back to the other side. With the hand lens she could read the tiny letters around the rim. She sounded them out loud as she read them:

Aach phthuighltn d’sjarathgh chu’ulgthln. Mngwlthnath fesht’ g’harashkkt.

It was odd, she thought: the words looked unpronounceable but they rolled off her tongue as if she’d said them a million times.

As she’d begun speaking a peculiar feeling had come over her, and as she spoke the last word it swept over her like a speeding train. She fell out of her chair and squeezed her eyes shut, head spinning and stomach lurching, feeling around on the floor for the coin. She found … a fork. Her vertigo receded and she sat up. Somebody wrenched the fork out of her hand and her eyes flew open on a scene of chaos. She was sitting on the floor beside her overturned chair. In front of her was a long wooden table, and all about her people were scrabbling about on the floor, feeling underneath her, sticking their hands into her pockets (and elsewhere) and shoving and slapping each other in their eagerness to find whatever it was they were looking for. A grossly fat man plunged both of his hands inside her bra. He seemed to be checking her breasts for lumps. She slugged him as hard as she could and stuck an elbow in whoever was feeling around inside the back of her panties. She pulled herself to her feet and readjusted her clothing. Everyone else stood up too, except for one tall, emaciated woman who kept crawling around on the floor and trying to lift up people’s feet.

“Did anyone find the coin?” the fat man asked.

“Nah,” replied a middle-aged man standing beside her, “she must have dropped it.” He stuck out his hand. “Welcome to the feast,” he said, “my name is Roger.”

“Crap.” The fat man waddled to the head of the table and sat down.

“Um.” Sarah didn’t really know what to say. A young man smiled and patted her shoulder. She stepped back.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I dropped mine too. I’m Bill.” He reached to pat her again, then thought better of it.

Roger picked up her chair and placed it in front of a clean place setting, offering her the seat. She hesitated, then sat down, and he seated himself in the chair on her left. Everyone else drifted back to the table and sat down. Even the tall woman crawled out from under the table.

To Sarah’s right a plump gray-haired woman with heavy eyebrows scowled at her and resumed eating fried chicken. Sarah looked around. About 20 people sat at the table, which filled about half the room. The walls were covered with what looked like medieval tapestries. The subject matter seemed to be entirely gustatory. She did not see any doors.

She examined her place setting. She had a plate, soup bowl, cup, wine glass, silverware, and cloth napkin. She even had a damp washcloth in a small bowl. She didn’t have any food, but a double row of dishes down the center of the table was piled high with cornbread, bread sticks, dinner rolls, boiled shrimp, hush puppies, chowder, barbecued ribs, fried chicken, six or seven casseroles, at least three stir-fried dishes, mounds of steamed and fried rice, salads, a pile of corn on the cob, cake, cookies, several different soups, and a lot of stuff she couldn’t see very clearly from where she was sitting. There was plenty to drink too. She saw at least a dozen carafes of wine, as well as tea, water, and pink lemonade. Everyone else at the table was eating and drinking steadily, if without obvious signs of pleasure. Many of them were watching her surreptitiously.

She turned to the woman on her right and introduced herself.

“Hettie,” the woman said, and put down her drumstick. She wiped her lips and took a sip of water. “You want to know how you got here, what is this place? Et cetera? Ask one of the men, they’ll be delighted to fill you in. I’m hungry.” She picked up the drumstick again.

Bill was sitting directly across from her. He smiled and brushed his hair out of his eyes. He poured some white wine into her glass from a carafe. “It’s the coin,” he said, “you read the spell aloud and it transported you here. This place is just … this room. There’s nothing else. No windows, no doors, no alcoves or vestibules. Nothing. We eat. Sometimes we throw food.” He took a drink. “Have some wine. It’s good.”

She sipped cautiously. The wine was almost tasteless. She set the glass down. “What do you do when you have to, um, relieve yourself,” she asked.

Hettie laughed shortly. “Did you see a bathroom on the coin?”

“Yeah, that’s what we have windows for,” called the fat man at the end of the table, “and we don’t have any windows.” He belched loudly and stuffed a dinner roll into his mouth.

“Come on guys, go easy on her.” Bill smiled at Sarah again. “You don’t have to … you know. You never get full either. And we don’t run out of food. I don’t know why. Want some chicken?”

Sarah shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”
“You will be,” the tall thin woman declaimed in a piercing voice. “You’ll spend eternity here, eating the same bland food day after day, getting hungrier and hungrier, never being satisfied. It’s Hell’s version of the Last Supper. We are all being punished. What did you do?” She pointed at Sarah with a bread stick.

‘Well, I don’t know,” Sarah replied, “as far as I know I didn’t even die.”

“Look,” an old man about half-way down the table said impatiently, “here’s how it works. You read the words aloud. You end up here. You stay here until you get ahold of a coin, which those of us with a little presence of mind bring with us. Someone else can use that coin to escape. We don’t know where they go, but they get the hell out of here. You’re going to be here a long time. Pass the beans.”

“Don’t mind him,” Roger whispered, “he’s been here a very long time and most of the food disagrees with him. Gives him terrible gas.”

“What about the phone booth?” Sarah asked. “Is there any way to get there?”

The old man snorted in disgust. “Obviously, you read the words on the other side, you go to the god-damn phone booth. And don’t pay any attention to those two love-struck mooncalves. They haven’t been here long. Soon enough they’ll be able to think of nothing but food, same as the rest of us. Pass me some more of that tasteless garbage.” He pointed at a plate of ribs.

“Trust me, you don’t want the phone booth,” Hettie said. “The guy in there is hung like a humpback whale.”

“Tell me about it!” added Roger. He picked up his fork and resumed eating.



Published in Gods and Monsters, a collection of speculative flash fiction published by Popcorn Press. Available there and from Amazon.

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