by Matthew Lyons
The boy and his father take turns cutting swear words into each others’ chests with razors, going deeper and deeper, just to see who screams first. The boy’s blood is thin and slicks the garage floor, while his father’s is thick and oily and gets clotted in the old man’s chest hair.
The competition goes on for months, years. His father wins again and again, always agrees to a rematch. The boy grows up, his chest a white lattice of misery that his lovers recoil from, then try to kiss away. The scars are so thick he can’t feel their lips on him, and he doesn’t want to anyway. He spends his time thinking of his next trip home, and when he dreams, it’s always in wet gradients of red.
One year, on his birthday, the man buys himself a straight razor with an ivory handle and gold inlays. Gets his father’s name engraved on the shank. Carries it around with him wherever he goes, but waits ’til Christmas to use it. When he walks in from the snow and ice, his dad tries to give him a hug, tell him how much he’s missed him, the the man shrugs it off, feels that familiar coal catch light in his chest. Out in the garage, the razor dips so easily into the old man’s chest, and the man digs and digs until he feels the blade click against bone. This time, for the first time ever, his father loses.
He leaves him there, crying on the garage floor in a creeping blot of his own blood, then goes upstairs and presses one of the nice hand towels to his chest ’til it sticks, then goes to bed. He doesn’t dream.
When they come downstairs the next morning, all the lights are on and twinkling in reds and greens and silvers and golds and the whole house smells like cut pine, and they find mom on the garage floor, watery yellow foam leaking from her mouth and a pill bottle clutched in one cold claw. The man calls 9-1-1 while his father, still delirious from his wounds, claps and sings carols and bleeds into his sleep shirt. After the ambulance finally comes, all the man can think about is carving sheets of meat out of the old man’s withered chest.
They wake her up in the hospital. She tells them how sick she is of their bullshit game, competition, whatever. She tells them they’re why she did this to herself, as if they didn’t already know. When they’re not looking, she opens up her morphine drip all the way. She used to be a nurse, she knows how to do it, and when she dies she’s glad to go just to be free of them. They bury her in the backyard and burn her clothes and the man screams for three days straight after that, and then he and his father don’t talk for ten years.
The man meets a woman and they fall in love and get married in front of her family and their friends. One day the woman tells the man she’s pregnant. They’re going to have a son. He can’t talk about it without shaking.
One night not long after the baby’s born, the man sneaks out of the house and drives for hours. When he stops, of course he’s in front of his father’s house. Nobody hears him kick in the kitchen window or the sounds of his boots on broken glass. He steals through the house, room to room. He finds his father’s old knife in his mother’s jewelry box, still pattered with his own brown blood, and when he finds the old man asleep in bed, he climbs on top of him and kneels on his chest so he can’t get air to scream. He smiles at his dad and slashes away his shirt, turns it to rags and ribbons. Panic pinballs around inside old eyes and this time the boy cuts deeper than he ever has before and this time he does it in the shape of his own son’s name. Red wells out of his father in hot waves and seeps into the sheets and mattress and he kisses him on the forehead and sings him sweet songs about love until he’s all the way dead. Buries him next to mom, even though it’s better than he deserves.
In the morning, the woman finds her husband cradling their infant son on the floor, both of them gasping and squalling and drenched in cold blood.
When she takes the baby and the both of them leave him forever, the man understands, and is thankful.