My parents’ wedding rings were carved to resemble twists of barbed wire. They were so realistic that often, when my mother was typing, the ring would bite into her skin, flinging droplets of red onto the clean white of the paper.
The red does not stop there. It keeps falling, deeper and deeper, staining the edges of my dreams.
One night I dream that my mother’s ring has been transposed to my finger, shrinking itself to fit snug against my skin. My skin is covered with panicked cattle. My body is a pasture. The cows stampede back and forth, round and round, kicking up bruises on my skin. They cannot escape; they are trapped by the barbed wire rooted in my finger. Their udders swell painfully, bursting with pus. They moo pitifully. Beyond the spiky ring, my finger extends into a graceful bridge, beautiful and unreachable.
My grandfather was a TV news anchorman and a necromancer. I only ever saw him on the television screen, sitting behind a desk in a somber suit and a bright red tie. From time to time, he would pause in his delivery of the latest demoralizing news about the war and wink, and then address our family directly, as if he were sitting in our living room with us.
“Now, Bill,” he would say, speaking to my father as if he were a child, “you are remembering to chew your food before you swallow, aren’t you?”
My father would only grunt in response.
My father was dead, but my grandfather kept bringing him back to life. Each night, my father sat at the dinner table with my mother and me, his flesh rotting away. Chunks of his hand fell into the soup as he clumsily ladled himself a serving. Broth splashed, soaking my mother’s freshly pressed white blouse. But she continued chewing silently, staring straight ahead as if she wore blinders. She chewed and chewed and chewed, until surely the mashed potatoes had liquefied in her mouth. Still she chewed.
One night, I stayed up late, watching television alone. A horror movie was on, some low-budget production about a sadistic dentist who placed tiny bombs in his patients’ cavities.
Toward the end of the movie, the dentist’s assistant—an annoyingly perky blond woman—was eating ice cream when blood started to pour from her mouth. Thick and unnatural looking as lipstick, the blood flowed into the ice cream, swirling around and around like chocolate syrup until the camera itself tilted and spun and slowly fell into the disc of red and white spinning like a hypnotist’s charm. And then the assistant appeared onscreen again, chipper as ever, wielding the silver ice cream scoop as if nothing had happened. I wondered if the filmmakers were being surprisingly experimental, but when the scene began to repeat for the four or fifth time I concluded there must be some malfunction with the equipment at the TV station.
By now, the hygienist’s hungry smile and her exaggerated sighs of pleasure as she took the first few bites had taken on quite sinister undertones. Each repetition of the scene was like a fresh cut in the same line of skin, deepening the sense of wrongness. I winced when the blood spurted, despite its ridiculous, clearly fake nature. I shook my head when the assistant appeared once again, smiling brightly as she opened the freezer door.
Finally, my grandfather stepped in front of the spinning disc, looking like a game show host. He grinned and waggled his finger at me. It was the first time I had seen him standing, his legs not hidden behind a desk. His pants and his shoes were disappointingly normal.
“Most of the time, you understand, I draw my power from reruns,” my grandfather said. “The undead forms of shows shuffling ceaselessly across channels. But sometimes I need a little extra kick.”
Behind him, the blood-streaked ice cream began to rotate in the opposite direction.
“Once you know the trick, it’s not so hard. You just bend time into a little loop and then tie it round itself.”
I must have grimaced, for my grandfather chuckled and said, “Be careful making that face. It might get stuck that way.”
My dad pokes his head into my room, fresh faced and smiling. His skin is healthy and white, with no trace of rot.
“You up for a board game?”
I hesitate, thinking of the time his hand fell off as he was rolling the dice.
“Come on,” he says, “I’ll buy you an ice cream after . . . if you win.”
I grin. I can’t resist ice cream.
My dad sets out the Sorry board. It’s so good to see him like this, full of life and energy.
I reach my hand out to move a piece. He grabs my wrist. Something moves in his eyes, green and nauseous, like a rotten log falling through.
I know better than to protest. I remember now. This has all happened before.
My skin is still as ice, with bright red explosions frozen beneath.
My father lifts my fingers to his mouth and begins to chew.
The first time, I yelled, “Dad! What are you doing?”
He would only grunt, “Flesh of my flesh. I gave life to this body, and I can take it away.” Or maybe he only grunted nonsense syllables and I concocted words, cobbled them together from other places.
My father’s teeth gnaw into me like chainsaws, but when he is done my skin is smooth and unbroken. When he is done my skin is invisibly altered. It’s something beneath that he is devouring.
Each time he eats away a new part. My ankle, my shin, my thigh. My lips.
Later, when I look in the mirror, the skin there will be as white and bloodless as the petals of a lily.
Soon there will be nothing left of me.
And then my body will begin to rot, and my mother will stare straight ahead, chewing, as I clumsily poke a fork through my cheek and my tongue tumbles onto my white plate. And then my grandfather will use the power of reruns to bring me back to life.
The blood drips on the white of the page.
The finger plops into the steaming soup.
The ice cream swirls.
My dad’s teeth tear at my skin.
My grandfather chuckles.
The blood drips. . . .
My parents’ wedding rings were carved to resemble twists of barbed wire.
Willow Fagan lives in Portland, Oregon, which he likes to imagine as a giant terrarium. His fiction has previously appeared in Fantasy magazine, PodCastle, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2011. He also writes essays, which can be found in the anthologies Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power, Second Edition, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, and Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming, which was just published in October of 2013.