Fiction: Talisman

Read More: A brief interview with Matt Hall

Flu season came early for the Mitchells that year. Flu-like season, anyway, because Dr. Stevens wasn’t sure what they’d come down with. Did it matter, though? Tom had it coming out of both ends, and his wife, Cindy, was running a fever of 102. Same story with Brandon—their youngest—who’d already missed two days of school. Paige, however, avoided getting sick by avoiding them. “It’s just that I’m starting Friday’s game,” she said from behind her bedroom door. And Tom got that. She’d worked so hard; she deserved this.

Starting varsity as a sophomore was a big deal, especially at Warren Prep. Tom and Cindy had shelled out plenty for that summer soccer clinic. “All the girls go,” Paige told them in May, handing Tom the brochure. After a week’s discussion, Cindy acquiesced with one condition. “We’ll have to discontinue the math tutor,” she said. Music to Tom’s ears, because 1) Paige’s algebra average still hovered in the B- range 2) his fifteen-year-old daughter had become infatuated with her tutor, Max, who had that nerdy/cute, college-boy thing going that Tom recognized as major trouble and 3) fierce as the competition was at Warren Prep, his daughter would need straight A’s from here on out to break into the top 20% of her class. All this added up to a difficult truth for Tom and Cindy: unless they found another way, Paige was destined for a state school. An athletic scholarship just made sense. Don’t tell him that all those gals on the National Soccer Team attended top tier universities because of their academic prowess.

That Friday morning, however, as Tom sent off an email to his boss—Working from home, again—he worried he’d miss Paige’s debut as centre forward for the Warren Hawks. The tragedy of that, after all they’d been through last year, was not lost on him.

untitled Last Year

“I just don’t get it,” Cindy said in the kitchen. Tom thought he understood the situation, but knew she wasn’t asking for his input. Not yet. “She doesn’t have a learning disability or some disorder.” Cindy still wore her scrubs; she’d recently left Premiere Dentistry and was now with Family First Dental, where she made a little more and her commute was a little less.

“Certainly not,” Tom said. After a long meeting early that afternoon with Ms. Fury—Warren Prep’s headmistress—they’d driven Paige home and told her to march upstairs to her bedroom. They’d call her down when they were ready.

“Not to mention the illegality of it all,” Cindy said, opening the fridge, then closing it. “She could wind up in major trouble here.”

“You’re right about that.”

Brandon sat cross-legged on the living room carpet, drawing in one of his giant pads. If he was listening to his parents, he didn’t let on.

Tom’s son hadn’t said his first word till he was nearly two, and though Dr. Stevens told them not to worry about this delay, Tom saw the writing on the wall: his son would have a challenging life. When he did start talking, only Paige was able to decipher what he was saying: “He wants apple juice,” she’d tell them. Again, Dr. Stevens told them not to worry. Now, as a sixth grader, Brandon had found his niche in the art world. And, fine, he’d never make a great living, but he was passionate and—from Tom’s novice point of view—talented.

“Did you notice anything off about her?” Cindy said.

Since starting Warren Prep that fall, Paige had been logging impossible hours. There was soccer practice, of course, and the long bus rides for away games. And the homework—piles of it, and what were these teachers thinking? That fall, Tom wondered when Paige managed to sleep.

“She’s been studying a lot,” he told Cindy, adding, “but that’s what it takes these days.”

Cindy moved to the sink. Got the faucet running, squeezed soap onto the sponge, and then busied herself washing silverware.

When they were in the headmistress’s office, Tom had asked Ms. Fury to bottom line it for him.

“Paige, along with five of her classmates,” the headmistress said, “will be suspended for one day and then put on academic probation.” It was like cheating, she explained. “An unfair and highly dangerous edge.”

Tom knew that many students took Adderall—the magic pill that kept squirmy kids’ asses glued to their seats. But they hadn’t been called to the high school that day because of ADHD. Paige had been caught buying pills off her classmates.

In the kitchen, Tom watched his wife scrubbing silverware. “I smoked pot in high school,” he said, though he wasn’t sure why he’d offered this up.

“Yeah, well,” Cindy said, not bothering to turn around, “this isn’t some kids having fun or whatever. It’s like Ms. Fury said, an unfair edge—a dangerous one.”

“Yeah,” he said, and she was right—per usual—but then why did he sympathize with his daughter? He’d slacked off in high school (most of college, too). Sometimes, he wished Paige would fail a test, just so he could explain to her that shit happens and it wasn’t the end of the world. Except, he’d be lying.

In the living room, Brandon tore out a big piece of paper from his pad, crumpled it, and then threw it against the wall.

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Present Day

Cindy and Brandon stayed home that Friday night. “Are you sure you’re up to it?” Cindy asked him. She was upstairs in bed, wrapped inside the comforter. A cold bottle of Gatorade sat on the nightstand. Her red hair was tied in a ponytail, like Paige wore it.

“Actually, feeling a little better,” he lied. She told him to send her text updates from the game. “Will do, babe.” Then he was out the door.

At the high school, he sat high in the bleachers, second to the last row. The temperature hovered somewhere in the low seventies, but Tom was shivering. Typical game-day smells—hotdogs and popcorn and funnel cake—wafted up to him, and he made a pact with the devil for his soul if he could put a temporary hold on vomiting. He was miserable. But being here was important. (Though he knew it was silly, Tom still resented his parents for never attending a single one of his high school track meets.) The plan: stay until halftime, at which point he’d tell Paige she’d played well (even if she hadn’t scored) and that he’d see her at home.

An hour later, Tom was still in the stands—on his feet, and he wouldn’t dare dream of leaving now. Paige already had three goals and two assists. Tom thought of Jordan at his best: driving toward the basket, every shot swooshing in. His daughter was in the zone. Her lean frame zigzagged between defensive players. Whenever she passed the ball, she wanted it right back. No one could touch her out there.

Minute 52: she sailed one over the diving goalie, and Tom yelled “G-o-a-l!” like one of those announcers on Telemundo. He texted Cindy for the fourth time: Paige is on fire. That soccer clinic had really paid off. But Paige deserved the lion’s share of the credit here. All those nights kicking the ball against the garage door. That summer, Tom drifted off to sleep listening to that metronome like thumping.

He overheard someone in front of him say, “We could have used this Mitchell girl last season.” Despite his nausea and pounding head, Tom had never felt better.

His daughter was the best on the team—the star.

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They celebrated the next morning at IHOP, Paige’s favorite. Tom’s appetite had returned and he ordered an obscene stack of chocolate chip pancakes, which he drowned in maple syrup. Cindy and Brandon were feeling better, too. They looked better, color back in their cheeks, and Cindy even considered hitting the gym later for a quick workout.

“Here’s to Paige,” Tom said, encouraging his family to join him in raising their glasses of orange juice. “The best soccer player the Hawks have ever seen.” Brandon was busy coloring something in his pad, but Paige and Cindy clinked glasses with Tom’s.

On the drive home, he eyed his daughter in the rearview mirror. “You know this means you’re gonna have your pick of schools, right? I’m talking full scholarships here.”

Paige didn’t look up from her phone. “Dad, it’s only been one game.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, pulling out onto the highway. “No pressure. You just keep hitting the back of the net, kiddo.”

He felt Cindy’s look. Waited.

“Your father’s excited,” she said to Paige, but her words clearly meant for him, “but maybe he should also explain how important keeping up on your school work is. Sports aren’t everything. We have SATs coming up next year.”

“She knows that,” he said. “Right, Paige?” And his daughter nodded, well aware that her dad was only looking out for her best interest.

Brandon changed the subject. “Can we stop for ice cream?”

Cindy turned around. “We just had breakfast, sweetie.”

“Why the hell not?” Tom said, not wanting their celebration to end quite yet.

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Tom had been with Jacob & Caplan Public Accountants for twelve years. His cubicle was cozy. Framed family portraits going back six years sat between plastic ferns on his desk. His pens poked out from a Garfield coffee mug.

That Monday morning he played catch up, and then worked through lunch, gobbling down his ham and cheese on rye. The firm’s newest account—a nationwide chain of Chinese Restaurants, Kung Pow!, a major get for the firm, which he’d spearheaded—promised to keep him busy for weeks. Listen, this was not earth shattering stuff. Two years from now, no one would remember he’d been the one to snag Kung Pow!, or the Johnson Electronics account (last May). But that was okay. He had a steady paycheck. And a desk. He was sitting for Christ’s sake. His father had laid tile for thirty-five exhausting years; Tom could still hear the groan of the Lazy-Boy’s old springs as his father plopped down, beer in hand, at the end of each day. Tom and his younger brothers were told to leave their father alone.

Around four that afternoon, Cindy texted him about dinner. Think I’ll be home too late, he replied. Probably gonna order something here.

The pizza arrived a bit after seven. He tipped the kid, then headed to the bathroom, where he pumped antibacterial soap into his palm. As he washed his hands, he regarded his weary imagine in the mirror. The fluorescent lights were no friend to him today, revealing purple bags under his bloodshot eyes, the deep lines creasing his forehead (Cindy often teased him about this), and the loose skin of his neck…god, he was turning into his father. Then he caught it. Quick, just a flash—something swam across the white of his right eye. His vision blurred as his pupil was eclipsed. Then the anomaly disappeared into his eye’s red corner. He moved closer, his tie draping over the automatic faucet. Opened both eyes wide. Then it happened again, same eye, from left to right, the slender, no bigger than an eyelash, thing—yes, certainly a thing, something alien, not part of him. Was it a parasite of some sort? Where the hell could he have picked up a parasite, though? He splashed cold water onto his face, then moved to the hand dryers. He was losing it. Overtired, overworked. He’d pushed himself too hard after being sick. He thought about calling Cindy, but that would send her to the laptop, where she’d get sucked into the black hole of WebMD. Now his stomach growled, and he remembered the pizza.

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Tom pulled into his driveway just after nine that evening. The front porch light was on, which meant Cindy was still awake. He stayed inside the old Honda for maybe fifteen minutes, staring in the rearview mirror, waiting for it to happen again. It didn’t.

He found Cindy at the kitchen table with a glass of white wine—unusual for her on a Monday night.

“Brandon had some trouble at school today,” she said, swirling the wine, as if she were an aficionado.

All he wanted was to head upstairs and crash. “What kind of trouble?”

“He stole a boy’s hot lunch,” she said.

Now Tom sat down across from her. “He forgot to bring his own?”

“No,” she said, “he brought his lunch. According to the vice principal, Brandon just reached over and took this boy’s lasagna.”

Cindy stopped swirling her wine. “He was very agitated when I got there. And apologetic.” She exhaled, and he could see how exhausted she was. “He claims he doesn’t know why he did it.”

“That’s not an acceptable answer,” Tom said, all business now, thinking that his son had had it too easy for too long. They’d permitted him to doodle for all hours of the day without asking if he’d opened a single one of his textbooks. And forget about sports. Brandon was uninterested in football/baseball/wrestling; Tom had tried, over and over again, encouraging him to run track—“Just like your dad did”—but his son wanted no part of physically exerting himself. This was their fault, no doubt about it. But didn’t Cindy deserve more of the blame here? She’d warned Tom to stop pushing Brandon. “He’ll end up resenting you,” she claimed, and this had scared Tom straight. Of course he didn’t want his son to grow up thinking his father was a bastard. So he backed off, allowed Brandon make his own decisions and express himself in whatever manner he saw fit.

Cindy said, “The vice principal thought it was best to send Brandon home early, to let him regroup or whatever.”

“Ha, regroup, yeah, that’s rich.”

“And then,” his wife continued, “Brandon informed me that he wanted to stop for McDonald’s on our way home. Haven’t you had enough to eat today? I said.”

Tom watched his wife’s fingers worrying the edge of the cloth placemat. His thoughts traveled back to the office, nearly two hours before, when he’d pulled himself away from the bathroom mirror. Convinced that his tired brain was to blame for his hallucinations, he walked back to his cubicle and opened the pizza box. Steam rose from the large pepperoni pie, bringing with it the irresistible aroma of cheese and meat and garlic. And then he didn’t so much as eat the pizza, but devour it, like one of those sharks on the Nature Channel—eyes rolled back into his head, mindless, a perfect eating machine. Never in his life had he polished off an entire pizza by himself, let alone one from Michelangelo’s, where they give brave souls a free T-shirt for finishing one of their impossibly large pies. Well, here he was, nothing left in the box but grease spots.

In their kitchen, Cindy said, “Strange, right?”

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Two-thirty in the morning, Tom carefully closed the creaky bedroom door behind him; Cindy was a light sleeper, and he was in no mood to answer questions. He padded down the staircase as if he planned on opening the laptop and looking at porn, which he sometimes did. This time, however, he was only seeking a late night snack.

Brandon was already in the kitchen—Tom had a feeling he would be—working his way through a second tub of chocolate ice cream. Tom went to the fridge and gathered ingredients for sandwiches. He piled roast beef high on poppy seed rolls, which he slathered in mayo and mustard. Brandon went to the pantry, and Tom grunted, “Chips.” And then Brandon reemerged with Doritos, Ruffles, and Señora Rosa’s Tortilla Chips pressed to his chest.

Father and son stood at the counter, eating and eating until there was nothing left.

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Paige scored five goals against the (top-ranked) Panthers that Thursday night. This time, the entire Mitchell clan sat in the stands. And while Brandon mostly stayed busy drawing in his pad, Tom sensed that even his son recognized what a miraculous game his big sister was having.

“She’s really good,” Cindy said for the third or maybe fourth time.

Tom reached inside his jacket and pulled out the container of antacids. While chewing the fruit-flavored chalk, he said, “Good doesn’t quite cover it. She’s the best out there. It’s not even close.” He swigged from his water bottle, cooling his burning throat, where it was high tide for stomach acid. Why he’d needed a third hot dog was beyond him.

The last three days had been a blur of consumption. No matter how much he ate, his appetite was never satiated. Cindy had been horrified by the state of the kitchen after his and Brandon’s eating marathon. “What happened down here?” she wanted to know, but Tom only said that they were making up for all those days when they’d been sick and not eating, and maybe they’d gone a little overboard. “A little?” she said, more confused than angry, and Tom could work with that. He promised to replace everything, and he had—went to Wegmans that afternoon, filled two carts, spent over three hundred dollars. Driving home, he kept one hand on the wheel, while the other reached inside the rotisserie chicken bag and tore off chunks of greasy meat.

Tonight, Tom kept a close eye on Brandon. An hour before, his son had refused cotton candy from the snack stand. A good sign. It seemed that the kids’ lunches at Holly Middle School were no longer in danger of being stolen. Unlike his father, who was sluggish and bloated, Brandon appeared to have plenty of energy. Prior to leaving for the game, Paige and Brandon had kicked the ball around in the backyard. They used to be so close, but high school had its demands and Paige was busier than ever; it was nice to see them out there laughing together. Tom had long ago lost his ability to make Paige laugh. It used to be a superpower of his—no matter how down she was, he could get a smile or giggle out of her. Now his jokes were rebuffed and categorized as Dad Jokes. He was an embarrassment, a nuisance. Cindy continued to hold on (too tightly?) to her position as the compassionate, bring-you-a-tissue-in-the-
middle-of-the-night-if-she-heard-you-sneezing-parent. Tom supposed his kids, especially Paige, saw him as the nagging, serious parent. Fine by him. There was an ebb and flow to parenthood, and as long as his children knew that he loved them and was invested in their futures, he was happy.

Paige was currently dominating the Panthers’ defense—the ball an extension of her body; her focus unwavering; her eyes zeroed in on the white nylon net that might as well have been one hundred feet across, because no matter which way the goalie dove, she never came close to getting a glove on the spinning ball. It was around Paige’s fifth goal when Tom’s attention moved from the field to his sour stomach. No surprise there. With the amount of crap he’d ingested tonight—between hot dogs, he’d snacked on waffle fries and deep fried Oreos—he was surprised it didn’t hurt more.

And then it hurt a lot more.

A wave of nausea washed over him, similar to seasickness, which he’d experienced twice before; he didn’t need to see his own face to know it was green. His stomach bulged and then audibly gurgled. He instinctively reached for it like a pregnant woman who’s just felt the baby kick. He had to get to a bathroom or else he was in major trouble.

“Look how quick she is,” Cindy said, clapping her hands, as their daughter slipped between a sweeper and fullback.

“I’ll be right back,” Tom said, standing up.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He was already stepping over Brandon to get to the middle aisle. Sweat slicked his forehead. His stomach pulsated like a heartbeat. He gave himself a fifty percent chance of making it to the bathroom before throwing up. And now a pair of girls blocked his path, heads down, eyes on their phones, and what was it with this generation? He sort of elbowed his way past them and one of the girls, stadium lights twinkling off her braces, said, “What the hell?”

He did make it into the stall, where he flipped up the toilet seat and dropped to his knees. He resembled a man in prayer on the pee-darkened concrete floor, head bowed to the porcelain. Instead of pleading with god, though, he pleaded for his body to rid itself of all the shit he’d ingested that day. He promised his stomach he’d treat it better. He’d make amends. Looking up now—maybe it was time to turn to god—he read a message scrawled on the cinderblock wall in black sharpie: Kevin’s mom sucks dick. Then it came, all at once, automatic, the body taking over—stinging bile that shot up his throat and gushed from between his lips, The Exorcist-style. He grabbed hold of the toilet seat. It was as if he’d tapped some deep reservoir of stinging death within him and there was no off switch.

Someone rapped knuckles on the stall door. “You all right in there, buddy?”

Tom coughed, smearing the wall behind the toilet with a black tar-like substance. He was dying, no doubt about it now.

Then something bigger pushed up, overwhelming his throat, blocking his airway. He watched it pour out of him—pure black, snake-like. It splashed down into the water. For a moment, he actually felt better; he was empty, nothing left to offer the porcelain god. Then the snake turned inside the bowl, looked right at him, though it didn’t seem to have eyes. Its head shot up and thumped down on the toilet seat, its black maw gaped—it wanted more of him. He didn’t think, just stood up on shaky legs, palmed the stall walls, and stomped the snake’s head. Its body wriggled in the toilet, until the head was reduced to a bloody spot on the seat. Tom used his sneaker to push the pulverized head into the polluted water, then flushed. […]


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Matt Hall has an MFA from Virginia Tech. Hall’s fiction has appeared in Redivider, The McNeese Review, and Fiction Southeast. He currently teaches at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Read More: A brief interview with Matt Hall