by Melanie Anne Phillips
Jason slowly placed his hand in the toaster and pushed the lever down. At first, he felt no more than a gentle warmth penetrating his fingers like hot mittens, fresh from the drier after shoveling snow. Then the heat grew stronger, more intrusive.
A gossamer veil of smoke rose tentatively above the appliance, twisting like a slight spirit lost in reverie. Pain seared across his skin, blistering the surface. Choking back an involuntary gasp, he pictured five scorched hot dogs, plumping on a grill. His hand began to tremble, and a puffy blister brushed against the glowing coils, cutting through the skin to release a hissing exhalation of steam.
Teeth clenched, Jason’s face contorted over drawn tendons, muscles locked in grotesque battle with his will. Then, waves of nausea washing the immediate pain from his self-defensively numb fingers, he ripped his hand away, leaving small sizzling bits of flesh stuck to the smoking metal grid of the toast cage.
He knew that, for now, the damage would look worse than it felt – the body’s natural defense against pain which allows an injured creature to seek safe refuge before the excruciating agony returned to make it defenseless to the predators alerted by its screams.
He would just as soon not examine the damage he had just inflicted on himself. But, acknowledging the permanence of the act was in itself part of his penance. And the pain would return soon enough to remind him of the price that must be paid for his transgressions.
Outside, the pavement slapped at the worn soles of his over-tight shoes as he half-ran toward the bus which was already loading the last of the dead-eyed lemming-sardines into it’s cramped belly.
Jason stole a glance at the yellow-brown sky, chewing on the last rind of the breakfast toast that had followed his hand in between the coils. It tasted like after shave.
“God, the running,” he thought, and lost cadence because running and thinking at the same time clogged the path between his feet and brain. “What,” he stammered in his mind, “is the alternative to running?”
And then, as was his custom, his thoughts were yanked backwards to the look of his grandmother’s eyes as she stared at the ceiling after three strokes in four months. A long life made meaningless by the final lingering years somewhere between living and rotting.
Grabbing the slick steel pole by the door, he swung himself into the bus dropping change and toast crumbs into the bin. He took his usual seat in the back, or would have, had it not already been occupied.
For a moment he stood motionless. In 17 years that seat was always vacant, waiting for him. Nine years ago they had replaced the upholstery as a media-made example of urban beautification, and it had taken him from June until Christmas for the taut naugahide to approximate the permanent cast his bottom had bent in the old, but decomposing, leather that had been removed. He still longed for it.
But in all that time no one had ever sat in his depression. Until now.
The bus jerked to a start and Jason lurched into Mrs. Maggit, nearly choking her on the three Twinkies she had already shoved in her undulating mouth.
This is a segment of a story I'm working on for a book called "Fragments," which will contain a number of short and unfinished but potent pieces.
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