Lunatic Fringe

by Shellie Richards

 
 
     Like all great ideas, it came to me suddenly and in the most unusual way. I woke up at around 5:30am, an hour too early, and without opening my eyes, I just started thinking about it. As it was coming together, I drifted off again and there it was. Just like one of those movie promos where the words fly towards you three-dimensionally setting up an epic film with a musical score that begins softly and rises to a crescendo, ending abruptly to emphasize the dramatic nature of the words. These were mine: Imagine a World. Where the donuts are always warm. Where (white) sweat pants are okay year round. And magnets stick to anything. Including wood. A world where one-hit wonders. Are. Never. Ever. Forgotten. Imagine a world that peaceful. Imagine a world without her in it.

 
 

IMAGINE

A

WORLD

WITHOUT

Her.


 
 

     I sat up straight in bed and felt the back of my matted head with my hands. For a minute, I imagined what it would be like if I had dreads but I caught myself (my mind wanders) and went straight back to the movie promo. My long flannel nightgown was twisted around my legs like I’d been hogtied, and it reminded me of how trapped I’d been by her—and by her, I mean Jeanine. My older sister had bullied me since the day I was born. I can’t recall the early years, but I’m sure she recognized it the minute I was born. That I wouldn’t completely develop into a whole person. That my low self-opinion would blossom under her careful hands if nurtured properly, thus stunting my psychological growth. Jeanine was a bully and people like me are blood in the water. Chum. That’s what she’d always called me. Chum. People who don’t know us think it’s cute, but it’s not. I figured that out while watching Shark Week on cable. My nickname’s Weeza, short for Louise, so Chum sounded like a pleasant alternative. It’s not. I’d suffered her for years. The jokes and the ridicule had become a part of my life. Everyday. I was always ready, always on guard. She’d whittled me a way like a piece of willow wood until, without realizing it, she’d turned me into something razor sharp and very dangerous.
     So I decided to get rid of her. Permanently. Then I had a thought. If I kill Jeanine, she doesn’t really suffer. So instead, I’m going after her #1. Our cousin Karla. She’s Jeanine’s BFFL (best friend for life) and has been instrumental in contributing to my underdeveloped psyche. Most days I avoid them by sitting in my room listening to one-hit wonders, eating donuts and watching television. Mama says I’m gonna get chubby if I’m not careful. Jeanine says I already am. She and Karla stick their faces in my door and puff their cheeks out really large while I’m eating my lemon filled. Thing is, I’m not chubby at all. If I was, I’d throw the donuts back up, but the truth is I’m skinny as a rail. Jeanine, on the other hand, is a cow. Last week they snuck in and took all of my donuts and ate them. Moo. I know it was them. They’re sloppy. They dropped a powdered cake several times on the way to Jeanine’s room and left a white trail from my room to hers. Geniuses.

     When they set the table for dinner at our house, I know they lick my fork before setting my place. I see them. Amateurs. I always replace it and, depending on who does the licking, I put it at the other person’s place. Last week they tagged a Facebook photo of me where I’d tried to go platinum blonde and only got halfway. From mousy brunette, orange is halfway. Orange. They told my grandmother’s lawn kid, Buddy, I “like like” him. Now he looks at me, my underdeveloped breasts and zits I never pop because the doctor says not to, like I’m the neighborhood anomaly. They plastered signs all over my bedroom door that said things like loser and one-hit wonders suck. That was it. I was never going to fit in, be cool. It’s like I’d studied some antiquated version of how-to for teens and nailed it. I think that was the last straw for me. Then it came to me. The movie promo. Then I thought, instead of killing Jeanine, I’d do one better. I’d take out the one person she loved and adored more than anyone else. Karla. She’d be lost without Karla. And what had allowed me to carry out this heinous task? My underdeveloped psyche compliments of Jeanine. She was responsible for what I’d become. She had undeniably and unintentionally masterminded her own demise. Karma sounds a lot like Karla. I thought of various things I might do, but due to the overwhelming amount of family time spent eating, poison seemed like the path of least resistance.

     Thinking about my plan makes me happy. I know it shouldn’t, but it does. I grab my hairbrush-microphone and sing “Lunatic Fringe” to my mirror image. I swing my head wildly and cross my buggy eyes for effect. The eerie beginning followed by lyrics that sum it all up. “We’re wise to you this time/we won’t let you kill the laughter/’Cause you gotta blame someone/for your own confusion/but I’m on guard this time/against your final solution”. Love me some “Lunatic Fringe.” “Fantasy” by Aldo Nova is next on the playlist. It couldn’t be more perfect. It’s as if some mystical message is coming to me directly from my iPod. I especially love one-hit wonders because these are people who rose quickly to the top with something great and they had to do it only once. Then they’re set for life. Kind of like my plan. I execute once, perfectly, and I’m set. A little strychnine in the cobbler at Meemaw’s house and bam! Food is a four-letter word. I wink at the poster of Kid Rock that hangs over my bed. With a sharpie, they’ve drawn horns and a mustache, and a triumvirate of ovals, one much longer than the others, now hangs from his tight jeans. Karma. It’ll come.

     Our neighborhood block is almost exclusively family. My grandmother (Mee-maw) lives next door and my aunt, uncle and cousins live across the street so family get-togethers are frequent (every night). On Sundays we eat at my grandmother’s after church. Pot roast. Potatoes. Carrots. Yeast rolls for mopping up gravy. Fruit cobbler for dessert. Meemaw can cook. Aunt Jane cannot. So on Tuesday and Thursday we struggle through. Dry pork chops. Instant potatoes. Sweet Cornbread…gluten free. And fruit cobbler minus the gluten-laden crust. So there’s just the insides. From a can. Aunt Jane never has pop or lemonade. Just skim milk. Mama claims Jane’s just healthy but I think that food that doesn’t taste good can’t possibly be good for you.

     I gotta say if Mr. Houston hadn’t asked us to read the daily newspaper for history class, my master plan might not ever have been realized. Plucked this baby right from the Ludington Times. Shout out to Mr. Houston! I read a newspaper article about a woman who slowly poisoned her husband over a year. Every morning she’d put a tiny bit of strychnine in his morning coffee until one morning, he simply collapsed in his bowl of Cheerios. His mother, who’d always been suspicious of the wife, had him exhumed and, sure enough, he’d been murdered. So, I googled strychnine. White. Odorless. Bitter. Even small amounts can cause severe effects. Nose. Eyes. Mouth. Karla had all three. This was perfect. Meemaw had the poison in her basement. She says she uses it to kill rats. It must work because I haven’t seen any rats. Now I’ve got my own rat and this powder’s my ticket to freedom. Freedom powder.

     I borrowed mama’s yellow rubber gloves from under the kitchen sink. Figured I’d better not touch the freedom powder with bare hands even though it only mentions nose, eyes and mouth. The bright yellow box of King Kong Rat Poison was on a shelf next to canned apples and strawberry preserves. I took a large Ziploc bag and filled it with the powdery pellets and 15 minutes later, I was in my room, hairbrush mic in hand. I’d offer to dish the dessert at Meemaw’s and set my plan in motion. Slow. I’d be slow about it. Just enough to make her sick at first. I’d slowly saturate her system then, when the time was right, I’d go for it. Bam!

     I served Jeanine and Karla last, mixing the poison into Karla’s bowl and to be sure I didn’t confuse the two, I put a spoon in Karla’s. Jeanine could get her own spoon. Sitting down to dessert, I couldn’t watch in case my unusually heavy gaze raised suspicions when Karla started to gag or vomit. I ate my cherry cobbler quickly, careful not to pick or play with it, looking only at Meemaw and occasionally my Aunt Jane. Poor Aunt Jane. This was the only way. I sauntered into the living room, my steps light and lively. I ran my fingers through my oily locks and over my acne covered forehead. The teen years had been unkind and my juvenile psyche was no match. Jeanine had to be stopped. She, too, must suffer.

     Meemaw’s French bulldog, Ulysses, walked into the living room not looking so good. His face was drawn up to one side and he foamed slightly at the mouth. After a few minutes, he began to convulse in dramatic fashion staggering to the left, then right, before collapsing to the floor twitching and contorting his spine. I didn’t wonder long about the cherry that dangled from his chin.

     From the kitchen I could hear Aunt Jane scolding Karla for giving her dessert to Ulysses. Cherry cobbler was not good for dogs…especially not the cobbler that Ulysses had eaten. Evidently, Karla’d given up gluten and in an attempt to save Meemaw’s feelings, gave her portion of cobbler to Ulysses. This wasn’t part of the plan. Epic fail. He fell to the ground and seized for about a minute and then went limp, his flaccid body perfectly still on the red and gold braided rug. The next day we buried him after dinner. I provided music – the one-hit wonder, Bad Day by Daniel Powter. “Where is the moment we needed the most/ You kick up the leaves and the magic is lost/ They tell me your blue skies fade to grey.” It was perfect. There’s a one hit wonder for everything. That’s what makes them so perfect. Variety. Never the same band, never the same sound, and a song for every occasion.

     Failure was not an option.

     Tuesday came and Aunt Jane summoned my help in the kitchen while Jeanine and Karla played gin-rummy with Buddy on the front porch. Any other time, I might’ve felt left out but in this case it was a welcome situation. I poured the milk in the glasses and while Aunt Jane was busy with the instant potatoes, I took the Ziploc of freedom powder and poured it in. Enough to cause a stomachache and perhaps an asthma attack, but not death. Not yet. It was too soon. I wanted the idea of her illness to sink in slowly. Give Jeanine enough time to ponder life without her bestie. I gave the pink glass to Karla. Her favorite color.

     Seems dairy no longer suits Karla. She’s too good for milk. It’s bad for her complexion according to Vogue magazine. We buried the cat 2 days later.

     Over the next few weeks, I found out the hard way Karla’d given up soy (2 hamsters), corn (1 sugarglider), red meat (1 python…it was time, really, it was), and caffeine (Meemaw – this was a close call). I’d poured a cup of coffee for Karla and when she didn’t drink it, Meemaw snagged it off the counter and went to take a sip…the rest all happened in slow motion I launched from the doorway like Superman, arms and legs vertical with the kitchen floor and as I sailed midair past Meemaw, her jaw unhinged in a Frankenstein-like fashion as I snagged the cup and sent the hot brown liquid streaming across her chest. Nose. Eyes. Mouth. Chest. It’d hit her chest.

      Karla had managed to avoid the freedom powder at every turn and the backyard was beginning to look like something from a Stephen King film. Our badminton area was now spotted with homemade crosses on mounds of freshly turned earth. It was downright creepy and it was all the talk at the dinner table.

     “I tell you something’s going on here. This just ain’t right.” Meemaw stirred the instant potatoes on her plate into something that resembled crop circles.

     No one spoke actual words, just some “uh huh’s” indicating they’d heard. I think I heard my uncle refer to Meemaw as a suspicious old coot. This type of attention to detail was a godsend. No one suspected anything, really. No one but Meemaw.

     Without moving my head, I searched the faces of everyone at the table looking for signs of knowing or suspicion. I felt Jeanine kick Karla under the table. They were talking to each other with their eyes. First Karla widened her eyes, then Jeanine widened hers, only slightly more than Karla had, and this went on back and forth for several minutes then Jeanine pointed with her eyes at Meemaw and Karla responded by pointing with her eyes at Aunt Jane. I was jealous of this closeness they shared. They’d perfected an uncanny ability to communicate without words.

      They finally looked at me and said (collectively) “You suck.” This type of understanding of one another takes years to form and I didn’t share this with anyone I knew. I told Mama almost everything, and what I didn’t tell her, I told Meemaw—but I’d never had someone my own age to share things with. Like my plan. I would’ve shared that with a friend. Maybe. All of my secrets, all of my understanding and intimacy was the first person variety. My secrets were known but to me. I’d never been cool or part of the “club,” not even in my own family. How could I suck any worse?

     Meemaw says relationships are messy. That’s what she tells me whenever she witnesses the heinous behavior of Jeanine and Karla. Like when they tag a horrible photo of me on Facebook, hide my tampons just when I need them, or call me “Chum” and lick my fork before dinner. “Relationships are messy,” she says and pats me on the head.

     The freedom powder was running low. I couldn’t afford any more animals or close calls and I didn’t want the “plan” to come up again at the dinner table. I decided to invest some time into watching what Karla did eat so I’d know what to target. Yogurt. Lettuce. Hummus. That was about it. I did see her eat some Tic Tacs but that won’t work with the freedom powder. Yogurt has a foil lid and lettuce would be obvious, so that left only the hummus. I took what was left of the freedom powder and mixed it into her hummus. Red pepper hummus and freedom powder. Yum.

***

     The ER was packed with people. Aunt Jane was at the nurses’ station asking all kinds of questions and dabbing her nose with a tissue. Mama sat with Jeanine and me and Meemaw worked on some knitting while she tried to read the lips of the nurse talking with Aunt Jane. Karla had vomited and suffered some respiratory distress, but she hadn’t died. Food poisoning is what they said.
“Food poisoning.” Meemaw ran the yarn up and over her needle. “Say she’s got food poisoning. We got to figure out what is happening in our house. Something’s got in our food supply.” Mama nodded in agreement. We sat silently waiting. The freedom powder had failed.

     Back at home things were quiet. Karla would be in the hospital for several days until she was stable. That night from the den, I watched Jeanine set the table. She placed the fork beside my plate. She didn’t comb it through her hair first. She didn’t scratch her pits with it. She didn’t lick it. When we sat down to eat, she passed the roast to me and glanced at me, only briefly, without insult or injury. She’d acknowledged me. She looked at me and she knew I existed and she said nothing. Not a smirk. Not a word. Suddenly, I felt very alone. I had no idea who I was. The only identity I’d ever had was the one Jeanine had given me and somehow that was gone. After dinner, I sat in my room and watched videos of one-hit wonders, amazed at how they’d made it work. One chance and they nailed it. I’d had several chances with the freedom powder and failed every time.

     For the next few days there were no jokes. No “Chum” this or “Chum” that. No missing donuts or tampons or drawing on my posters. Nothing. Silence. I passed Jeanine several times in the hallway, the kitchen and the front porch. Nothing. There were no jokes. No horrible photos like the time I tried to go platinum blonde and only got halfway there. Orange is halfway. Orange. In fact, I’m pretty sure Jeanine photo-shopped my pimples in one of the photos she uploaded. My skin looked near perfect.

     Eventually, Karla came home and she and Jeannine were best friends again. I waited and watched for them to lick my fork before dinner or spit in my dessert. I waited for the trail of donut crumbs across the hallway and for more juvenile graffiti on my posters. I sat in my room and listened to my one-hit wonders but I just couldn’t feel the music. Nothing seemed honest these days, not even my music. I stopped eating donuts and took down my posters. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. Relationships are messy.

     This morning Jeanine offered me a blueberry filled, her favorite, and I took it. I filled it with freedom powder and exchanged it for lemon. I went back to my room and waited for the music to begin again.

 
 
Shellie Richards’ work has previously appeared in Bartleby Snopes (Winner, story of the month, January 2012), the Belmont Literary Journal, The Chaffey Review, Vanderbilt University’s Tabula Rasa, Pyrokinection, Mindless Muse, Jellyfish Whispers and was recently published in the poetry anthologies (print) work entitled “B” and The 2012 Best of Anthology: Storm Cycle. She lives in Nashville with her husband and three children. She works at Vanderbilt University where she edits scientific papers for publication and is currently finishing an M.A. in English (writing). She has just completed writing her first novel.

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