Included in the 2019 Best Small Fictions Anthology
Sheila is failing eleventh grade math because she cannot stop staring at Fergus McMillan’s blowhole. Okay, so she knows that the fibrous bulb of skin that juts out from the back of his neck isn’t really a blowhole—nothing ever spumes out or gets sucked in—but the hard flesh is folded over on itself in a grumpy scowl so it looks close enough to the real thing. She spends fourth period eyeballing it, counting the freckles along Fergus’s skin that surround the growth like witches crowding around a cauldron. Sometimes she imagines lines connecting those blurpy blemishes, creating new constellations that she names after her sister’s stuffed animals: Marcie Mouse, Teddy Blondie, Narbo the Dragon.
Fergus is tiny, stooped, his neck and chin swallowed by a crooked clavicle, and he constantly has food stuck in his braces, remnants of the bologna and cheese sandwiches he eats at lunch speckling his teeth and making his breath smell like the meat department at the grocery store. His hair, unkempt and curlicued under the green trucker hats he wears every day, is the color of a sun-withered apple. He trips over himself as he gathers up his books, shoving them into a faded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack that Sheila is pretty sure he owns unironically. She’s almost certain he’s partially cross-eyed.
And yet she thinks about him. She dreams of Fergus’s alabaster skin, exposed as he lays draped next to her on a bed dressed in red satin sheets the color of blood. That skin: always hidden away under soda-stained polo shirts and a long-sleeved white Henley that he tugs down over his wrists with fingernails a quarter inch longer than any other boy’s, yellowed like a smoker’s. In Sheila’s dreams he kisses her and his dry lips taste like sardines, but she wakes up breathless and moved, her stomach queasy like everything in her body has shifted to one side, a fist pressed and throbbing between her legs. She knows she should be pining after Jackson Sanders, the tall, blond football star whose skin is the color of caramel, his muscles the shape of contracted snakes from surfing all summer. Or perhaps Peter Nelson, who, while not particularly athletic, smokes cigarettes as he hops into his father’s ancient Mustang after the final bell rings, black hair pomaded into a swoop like a water slide. Or Ricky Anderson, the lacrosse king who somehow makes windbreakers look sexy.
No, Fergus McMillan, blowhole and all, chases her through her daydreams and haunts her diary entries. In English class she hears his spit-encrusted voice while fat Mrs. Farwig recites Shakespeare’s sonnets, and she pictures his tongue sliding with dexterous ease over the iambic pentameter, voice pitching and rushing at just the right moments. Sheila knows she should talk to him, tap him on the shoulder and ask if he wants to study for their upcoming quiz on parabolas and derivatives, but when she thinks about the feel of his bones beneath her fingers, the breakable pliancy of his body that must be like touching crepe paper, she becomes queasy and unsure. She shudders. This, after all, is love, isn’t it? Like faith, it is absent reason, a kaleidoscopic, dizzy confusion, like when she was nine and skidded off her bike and clomped her head against the grainy, broken sidewalk. A pleasing nausea, blending sour-sweet vertigo and the coppery taste of pressure placed on a blue-black bruise, followed her for a week. So, she tells herself, she’ll admire Fergus from afar, waiting for his blowhole to whisper her name, to create a gust of air that the two of them can ride up into the sky, where they’ll be able to taste the stars and marry the moonlight in the wordless black, whirling an elliptic track around the sun in a silent vacuum, a place where sight and smell count for nothing.
Joe Baumann possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and his work has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Zone 3, ellipsis…, and many others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism.