"Seaweed, Sickly, and Mint" by Evelyn Combs
Green. A couple cars puttered off. At the start of this town there were three stop lights, like pendants hung from one filament. They all flashed green at one time, but none were quite the same shade. On one end was deep seaweed. In the middle a sickly swirl, and then the lighter,
brighter shade of mint chewing gum. Charlotte saw this from the roadside. Lily saw nothing but teeth. Green ones. The kind of strung-up crocodile teeth that bit you and tore you to pieces. Lily and Charlie were twins. They weren’t joined at the hip, but only entered this town when together. Sometimes in Spring, they wore their best Sunday dresses. Organdy with wide sleeves, and ending just above the knee. Charlie’s was pastel pink, and Lily’s baby blue like they were five. Their mother loved her matching sets. They’d found them on their beds one Easter morning, though lately they’d worn them by choice.
Charlie walked like a music box dancer. Ballerinas with pink-painted bodies, and whispers of tulle on their waists. The ones who kept spinning, spinning, and spinning until they were simple. She did this wholly on purpose, but knew that she shouldn’t want to.
Lily toyed with her knuckles. Pressing fingers like keyboard keys, and slowly sloughing all the skin off. She hoped to one day pluck grasses with skeleton hands. While she walked, she held her face to a clear, clinical sky, and tried to will any clouds far away.
The two of them strolled with shoulders brushing. In the midmorning sun, footfalls on asphalt were all that there was. Just them and the blooming weeds.
Their mother was a fool who didn’t know the half of things.
She’d sent them out for ingredients. Celery, peas, and carrots. For dinner was chicken pot pie. The farmer’s market was in town, so those old wooden crates teemed with soil, the sun, and the very best produce around. On market days, there was life in the town. Normally, you’d be pressed just to find a true neighborhood. Scattered like chewed wads of gum, all the houses had crashed into verdant fields. Paint peeled like sunburned skin from their frames, mostly dull grayish white. Some tried for chipper pastel hues, but only one was any different from the rest.
This house they came upon was so much nicer. White shutters thrown to the breeze, it was a pleasing shade of seafoam green, like light on tiny vials of salt water. Above the walkway was a lacy trellis, draped with azaleas and chipped just enough to be charming. Hydrangeas burst in flower beds. Arranged in gradient shades, they teemed with honeybees and memories of iced tea in the summers. It seemed that pollen threaded through the picket fence, and the bees were like these little submarines. Colorful pots were clustered on the porch, and even windows fell victim to crowding. Despite the succulents, and cactus blooms, and other plethoras of plant life, only one thing caught the girls’ eyes. Emerald leaves of spearmint. They’d been tucked into a pot on a second story ledge. Charlie gritted her teeth, and Lily ground her fists into her legs. “Charlie…” Lily spoke distractedly, “Don’t let him get to you…”
But her words trailed off. It wasn’t much farther to the market. They had to keep moving on.
Soon, they’d walked into the town proper. Home to strip malls, gas stations, and all the other staples. Not much caught their attention. Then, they wandered towards a restaurant and stared at its facade. This was where they’d shared a meal once.
The place was a pile of blank playing cards. All were made of metal and stacked into a hut shape, smacked with dusty windows and doors. A poster inside advertised the specials. Above the entrance, jade-hued letters spelled out: “restaurant”, though some had fallen off. Their first meal inside had been their last.
It was over a year ago now since this had happened:
The walls looked like they were bathed in pea soup. Greasy smells wound their way from the kitchen, things like old bacon and stale hash browns. As a bell clinked above the door, linoleum squeaked with the shifting of seats. Beside the entrance was a local news rack, and Lily grabbed some random magazine. She and Charlie were seated near a window.
Once their server came around, he smiled. He smelled of spearmint leaves. His eyes were like carpets of moss, his hair was honey-blonde, and Charlie grinned stupidly. Lily flipped through her magazine. When he placed their food on the table, Charlie met his mossy eyes, and her thoughts were as mushy as the mashed potatoes on their plate. She hardly noticed the cold biscuits. Barely picked at the hard, woody carrots. The chicken dripped gravy like liquid concrete. Still, her only thought was of being on display, the way he made her feel. She didn’t want to be a ballerina in a music box. Not really. She only wanted to pretend, which was a strange state to be in.
On their way home, she bickered with Lily.
“You never even met him, yet you’re acting all goopy and doe-eyed.” Lily clasped her hands before her chest, melting like a damsel in distress. She’d left her magazine at the news rack. Charlie waved dismissively. “Shut up, you old priss.”
“We’re the same age.”
So then they walked in silence. At some point, Lily got bogged down. Her face drained of color, and her stomach hunched into her arms. Once at home, she dashed for the bathroom. She fell before the toilet to vomit. Charlie rushed to pull her hair back, asked “are you okay?”, and said that she was sorry. She did this until Lily got better. Pinkish light slanted in through the window by then. It was dinner time, so they went to pick at some crackers. At the table, Lily told Charlie that she apologized even when things were not her fault, and this was more or less the end of it. It had been many moons now. It had been many moons, and a lot had happened since then.
Lily came to the present.
Standing on that sidewalk, she turned to Charlie and whispered. “I remember it was awful.” It had been all this time and by now, they could see the cloth coverings of market stalls.
They arrived at the market soon after. The first thing they saw was a stall selling plants in bright buckets. There were butter sunflowers and apricot blooms. This array was like waking up to a sunrise. Others wore dark, autumn shades, and some were like feathery lace. Something about them coaxed Charlie to speak.
She and Lily were weaving through stands. “At one point I’d have… burned through the roof of a house…or something.”
Lily nodded. They stopped to peer at sticks of celery, carrot bundles, and fresh bags of peas. “He made me that mad. I’d crash through the grocery mart window. Just to scream, and cry, and throw things. They’d try to kick me out, but I’d hide in the aisles with my cart. Stealing things.” Lily nodded again, handing cash to the vendor. The girls could head home with their groceries, but so much was there to take in. Beside them was a basket of plump pears. Other produce sat on racks, in crates, and laid out plainly on tables.
“What would you steal?” Lily wondered.
“Probably…jars of caramel… and olives. Applesauce, and soup cans. A birthday cake, and vegetables, and the most disgusting, moldy cheese I could find. All kinds of things.” As she spoke, they wound through the rich displays. Vibrant fruits almost dripping with juices. Nut clusters and spiced jerky, samples in paper cups. There were mushrooms and nuts in compostable boxes, and eggs were perched atop straw. The whole scene was bleached in the sun. “And then…”, She continued with vengeance, “I’d ride on my cart to the space station.” “Why the space station?”
“Because. I’d blast away in these big mushroom clouds. Off to Saturn or someplace, and I wouldn’t even eat what I’d taken. It’d all roll off in the abyss, so I’d sit on Saturn’s rings and just vomit. If I went back to Earth, I’d be too pissed and too sick to go anywhere or do anything. Except I might puke all over him, and then…” Charlie’s thoughts trailed off. “What…?”
The girls stopped. By this time, they’d almost seen the whole market. One stand sold jars of jam, each covered with a cloth and tied in twine. Tightly sealed. They were burgundy, velvet, and syrupy orange. You could see bits of fruit, blackberry, raspberry, and peach, all suspended in sugary sweetness. The appearance of flies was unreal. They circled about and landed in clumps. Like something was rotting. Not far away, the same thing happened to jars of dripping honeycombs, yet no one seemed to notice.
“That’s weird.” Charlie tensed. Close by, somebody baked strawberry pastries. The smell of them was heavenly, but mixed with something awful. Something that decayed. She quickened her pace, rounding every corner at a run.
“What…?” Lily rushed to keep up. Soon enough, though, they both screeched to a halt. Charlie found what she’d been looking for.
The boy said nothing in return, just grinned that warm grin, and tucked his hair behind his ears. Charlie felt her face burning. Lily widened her eyes with concern. The cloth over his stall was raggedy, soiled, and torn. A macabre approximation of the market. On his table were bloody chunks of meat, all writhing with maggots and flies. Everything was green, even if it wasn’t supposed to be. Broccoli covered in cruddy fuzz. Wilted leaves of kale, cabbage, and chard. The eggs were putrefied, slimy like a swamp, and the buzzing of flies was deafening. Decibels rose until Charlie pressed her ears with her hands and her body racked with sobs. She sensed her legs crumbling. She felt herself fall, but she couldn’t go down without seeing his eyes. Those stupid, vile eyes. That moss in the old-growth wood. Once, she saw his eyes like these great moss carpets, but now they were slick wads of seaweed. She had been clueless. They were seaweed, sickly, and mint like this whole venomous town. Her skin crawled like parasites, and she felt that she would burst. She’d burst in a splatter of guts and ectoplasm, and then… Lily’s hands on her back.
“Char-lee!” Lily grasped her by the shoulders. Tight and panicked, like she might turn to stone.“Charlie, what’s the matter?”
Charlie snapped back, and the stall was gone. Just gone. Somehow, she knew that if she ducked past everyone, wound her way through every twist and curve, she’d still never find it again. Lily knew that she was hurting.
“Charlie, what happened?”
Charlie swiped at her face.“Nothing, it’s just…” She shook her head. “It’s stupid.”
Lily blinked a lot, and her eyes kind of darted around. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Charlie sighed. “It’s like you’re standing in a music box.”
“I know, it’s-”
“No.” Lily cut her off. “I know what you’re talking about, and it’s…well, it’s screwed.”
Lily nodded. “It’s like you’re standing in a music box. Because there are so many sides to yourself. You’re like those dice with twenty different sides, so sometimes you want to take the most immediate thing about yourself and blow it out until that’s all there is. The thing is that you’re pretty. And it’s not like…it’s not like you only want to be pretty. You just want to take everything else and lock it away somewhere and let people think what they want to. Let them think you’re just cute, and if they can’t stop boiling in their own pus about it, then all the better. Not that it’s wrong to want to be. You just know, in keeping with the music box, that you’re all that’s inside, you know, the bracelets and things that make a music box worth having in the first place? You’re all of it, even that tiny little dancer. I guess it’s just…God, I don’t know. I really don’t know. You’re right because it’s just stupid.”
By the time she finished, Charlie’s eyes had glazed over. The most dazzling, wondrous expression crept onto her face.
“Who are you?”
Lily helped Charlie get up. Afternoon had faded, so the market glowed in bronze tones. They wouldn’t get home until late. Their mom would be pissed, perhaps a little bit worried, but they couldn’t care any less. In the fields, flowers bloomed with the clover and brambles. Clouds were pulled apart like cotton balls, turning sweet as all the fruits in the market. Lily turned to Charlie as the sun set.
“So?” She asked. Awkwardly, she nudged her on the shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know.” Charlie shrugged. “Sometimes I want to burn this whole place to the ground.”
“I know.” Lily spoke as they passed the stop lights. “It bites sometimes. It still bites.”