Written by Edward Lorn
Mark Simmons was sweating, wheezing, and feeling every bit of his five hundred pounds as he stepped off Corsican International Flight 600. The flight attendant at the gate asked if he was okay when he dropped off his seat belt extender. He waved her off with a limp wrist, staggering toward the seats just inside the departure area. He could’ve bitched about having to buy an extra seat to accommodate his size, but he’d had that battle before, and it never worked out in his favor.
Mark crashed into the plastic chair. The seat screeched and groaned while he tried to get comfortable. His massive rear end flowed over the edges, the steel armrests digging into his love handles.
“Look, Mom!” a little girl squealed. “He’s so fat!”
“Deborah!” The mother offered Mark a soft smile that might’ve said, “Kids say the darnedest things,” before turning to make a call on her cell phone.
The air conditioning from the vent above blew down like a saving grace. Basking in the chilly air, he felt the sweat on his face become gelid. He relaxed back into the hard plastic and worked on his breathing.
One… Two… Three… Four…
He counted his breaths like an insomniac tallying sheep. The routine calmed him. It always did.
Fifteen minutes, and a count of twelve-hundred, finally returned some of Mark’s strength. He still had to walk to baggage claim, then to Hertz, before trekking out into the parking lot to get his rental vehicle. The twenty-hour drive into New York would give him plenty of time to rest. He didn’t need sleep. He needed the road.
When the higher-ups decided there was money to be made in sending their fattest journalist to cover the withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq, Mark hadn’t refused, thinking maybe the time spent there would expedite a promotion. Four months earlier, before he had left for Iraq, he’d started Weight Watchers with the intention of losing fifty pounds before traveling to one of the hottest climates on Earth. That diet lasted all of two hours, ending in a refrigerator raid that rivaled the Bay of Pigs insurgency. Fallujah hadn’t been as hot as expected, so the failed diet hadn’t hurt him too bad, but most Iraqis studied him with a cautious glare. Mohammad must have spoken of the evils of fat people because those Muslims skirted Mark as if being obese were contagious.
Mark bent forward, using his belly as a counterweight, and pushed himself out of the chair. His hips caught on the armrests, but the forward momentum couldn’t be stopped, and he ripped a belt loop. Cussing under his breath, he looked up and found the little girl—Deborah, her mother had called her Deborah—staring at him. Her tongue lolled from her mouth, eyes crossed, fingers hooked inside her cheeks. She made one hell of a face. Mark smiled, but instead of contorting his own mug in response, he just flipped her off. The look on little Deborah’s face proved him the victor of their little battle.
It’s the little things in life, he thought as he shuffled toward baggage claim.
Deborah’s raised voice faded in the distance as she told her mother about how the fat man had just “made a naughty” with his finger.
Mark waited three hours for his single piece of luggage because someone had packed an ounce of Iraqi’s Finest Kush in her suitcase. Customs had a field day with the twenty-something woman, even dragged her off for a full-body cavity search. Mark figured he needed to change his career choice. Feeling up hot young females on a regular basis could serve him well. Being an overweight fifty-year-old with a whiskey drinker’s libido, he didn’t get much play. Sure, Private Johnson still stood at attention, but not for long. Doctor Patel said its functionality was being impaired by his gut. No shit. He couldn’t even jack off anymore. His dick-to-arm ratio was sorely impaired by the girth of his stomach, neither being long enough to reach around his rotund mid-section.
Finally allowed to procure his belongings, he moved on toward Hertz. He mentally thanked the inventor of the moving floor contraption. The thing wasn’t quite an escalator—escalators, by definition, escalated—but dragged people along at a normal walking pace across a smooth section of floor. He didn’t know what the hell to call the tank-track looking device. A lazy person’s treadmill?
He overcame the sensation to let his body carry on instead of stepping off the treadmill, almost losing his balance in the process. He caught himself on the chrome banister at the end of the track.
Hertz was off to the left, set back into the wall like a bank teller’s booth. The skinny Goth girl behind the counter looked to be no more than fifteen or sixteen, but Mark settled on at least eighteen, as she would have to be able to sign paperwork for her customers. She had purple hair and a glimmering diamond booger attached to the outside of one nostril. Her black lipstick screamed Elvira.
“Can I help you?” Gothy asked when Mark approached the counter.
“I have a reservation.”
“Name?” she requested, readying her fingers over the keyboard.
She snickered. “Sorry. Customer service humor.”
“Ah.” Mark didn’t get the joke, but he nodded politely all the same.
She asked for his address, license, and credit card information. He gave it all to her and waited until she updated everything before asking, “You do have a mini-van, right?”
“Oh, sorry, really, but all I have is a Prius and a Kia.”
“Is the Kia at least an SUV?”
She sucked air through her teeth, whistling through a gap he hadn’t noticed. “No. It’s a two door.”
“Did you happen to notice how big I am? How I waddle instead of walk? Jesus, if I chanced wearing corduroy pants, I’d start a darned fire. I can’t fit in either one of those cars… Melody,” Mark said, reading her name badge.
“I’m sorry.” She shrank away, smiling nervously.
“Oh sweet Hey-Zues!” He slapped the counter, causing Melody to jump.
A man with a handlebar mustache, dressed in Hertz garb and looking very serious, stepped out from a door behind the counter. “Is there a problem, Melody?”
“Yeah, because I’m not standing right here,” Mark scoffed. “Mind asking me if I have a problem, Fred?”
Fred put on his best customer service smile and came to the desk. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Yes, Fred. I need a bigger car than what Melody is offering me. I reserved a mini-van.”
“The cars are first come, first serve, Mr. Simmons,” Fred said, leaning over and looking at the computer. “I should have one back today, though. Right after five o’clock, looks like. Do you care to wait?”
Mark looked at the digital clock behind the duo’s heads and saw that it was just after four. He couldn’t believe it. He’d have to get used to the time difference again, but in reverse.
“I suppose I can wait around for an hour.”
Melody made that sucking sound with her teeth again.
Mark almost reached across the counter to slap her. “Now what?”
“That’s five… p.m.,” Fred corrected.
“Ah, fuck all.” Mark sighed, defeated. “Gimme the darned Prius.”
Mark walked out of the airport and through the taxi park. A guy leaning against a cab waved him over, but Mark kept walking, not wanting to know why the man wore women’s capri pants and lipstick.
He strode past the turnabout, lugging his suitcase over the curbing as he went. He was halfway down aisle 12-B of the parking garage when he noticed a pregnant woman trying to lift her baggage into the back of a minivan. Her keys jingled in her fist, the tag hanging from them unmistakable.
Mark paused and hitched his chin at the van. “Guess you got the last one.”
“You get lucky sometimes.”
She was big, about a month away from being a plus one to every social event she would attend for the next eighteen years, and Mark couldn’t stand seeing her struggling the way she was. He could just keep walking, fuming about being denied his ride of choice. But if he did that, he’d be cussing himself all the way to New York. It wasn’t her fault he had been held up in Customs. Heck, it wasn’t even Customs’ fault.
He sighed. “Can I help you?”
“Oh, thank God.” The heavy suitcase she’d been trying to stuff into the back of the van fell to the floor. “Would it be a bad thing to tell you that I was praying you’d ask?”
He gave her a small smile and shook his head.
“You’re a life saver.”
He bent and grabbed the suede luggage by its handle. When he came back up, he had something on the tip of his tongue, and it might have been funny, too, but the words died in his throat.
Half the woman’s head was gone. Red fluid oozed from the carnage that was the side of her face. It ran down her neck in thick strands, looking like crimson worms.
He backpedaled, tripped over his own bag, and hit the concrete ass first. The momentum pushed him back, and he cracked his skull against the asphalt.
The world went topsy-turvy. Lights flashed in his vision. He could hear the distant ringing of bells.
“Are you all right?” The pregnant woman filled his vision. Her face was a pool of concern.
The gory visage was gone. She was just as pretty as she had been when he had first seen her.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Tripped.” He didn’t know what else to say. He might have explained that she’d suddenly turned into a vision from his past, a memory he wanted to forget, but decided against it.
The pregnant woman was a stranger, a person in passing. He had to remember that.
“Am I really that ugly?” Her laughter was small and nervous.
“No. I’m just that clumsy.” He managed to get himself into a sitting position.
One… Two… Three…
His heart slowed. Much better.
“Can I help you up?”
He just looked at her, wondering if she realized what a stupid offer that was. “I got it.” He rolled onto his side and pushed to his knees. For a second he was in a very vulnerable position—ass in the air, balls to the wind—then he was up and on his feet.
He finished helping the woman load the van, then waited until she was inside and had the engine started. He felt protective and had no idea why. He assumed it could have been the hallucination, or perhaps the lack of a decent meal had clouded his head.
The van backed out, and the pregnant woman waved.
Blood ran from the hole in her head.
Mark squeezed himself into the small car, inching this way and that until he found a semi-comfortable position. Even then, his belly impeded his steering, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. The driver’s seat wouldn’t slide back any more. He’d have to write Hertz a wonderful little email about how pleased he was with their shitty “First come, first serve” policy.
He didn’t want to think about his imaginings. He’d decided it wasn’t a good idea to harp on past events. He had no idea why he should be thinking about her. Annabelle was over three months dead.
His cell phone went off, Für Elise on high volume, and he knocked his head on the roof of the sardine can in reaction. Grimacing in the rearview mirror, he pulled the Blackberry from his shirt pocket.
“Smilin’ Mark Simmons! Welcome back to the States. How’s it feel to be home, buddy?” Willy Montgomery, Mark’s boss, bleated like a sheep on the other end.
“Tight,” Mark said, surveying his cramped confines. He started the car, then tried to start it again because he couldn’t tell if the tiny automobile was running or not after the first go.
“Better than loosey goosey! Eh, partner?” They were not partners, nowhere near it. Willy only acted as if they were when he had a job for Mark to do that he knew Mark wasn’t going to like. “Hope you got some sleep on that flight of yours.”
“Why’s that, Willy?” Mark put the Prius into reverse and began to pull out of the parking space.
“You up for a hike?” Mark could hear Willy trying to cover his laughter, and the full-out rip of laughter from someone else on Willy’s end. A female? He couldn’t be sure.
“What kind of hike?”
“Ever heard of Waverly Chasm?”
“Sure. It’s between Chestnut and Bay’s End, a little over four hours from here. A touristy type of place.” Mark felt his stomach drop. “Why?”
“’Cause you’re doing a report on it this afternoon. Gotcha all set up for it. I’ll send the info to your email.” More laughter in the background.
“I haven’t even showered yet, Willy. Gimme a break.”
“You can shower when you’re dead.”
In the background, Mark heard a woman’s voice say, “It’s sleep. You can sleep when you’re dead.”
“Willy, who’s there with you? It better not be Julia. Please don’t tell me it’s—”
Mark sighed. “Hi, Julia.” His arch-nemesis, the Joker to his Batman, Julia Pitts was a monster if Mark had ever known one on two feet. “Why am I going to Waverly Chasm, Julia?”
“Because you’ve been demoted, Hoss. You’re now rural press. I got the International stuff covered. Hurry home.”
“Hey, Julia?” Mark straightened the car and threw it into drive.
Mark wished he could reach through the phone and rip her pubic hair out just so he could feed it to her and stop that patronizing tone. “How’s it taste?”
“No. Willy’s cock.”