At the Center by Chelsea Sutton
With a dash of horror and a hint of the surreal perfectly suited to the season, Chelsea Sutton’s short story “At the Center” subverts and expands a myth we all know: Theseus and the Minotaur. Sutton discusses “circling the question of how we define what a monster is or isn’t” in her author’s note. While we have here a Minotaur, he is not necessarily the monster. With strong dialogue that sets a creepy tone and informs character, Sutton guides us through our narrator’s unraveling—there is an inherent dread caught between the lines. And the eerie elements of suburban living come through extremely well: “The long, winding asphalt streets. The same five ladies in tracksuits. Their matching poodles and yellow Labradors. The street names that sound alike. Lovely Valley. Sunny Valley. Valley of Love. Valley Sun Circle. Moonlight Valley. Valley of the Moons.” Sutton manages to defamiliarize the labyrinth that is the American suburbs, amplifying the uncanny and slightly horrifying undercurrent running beneath this piece. —CRAFT
When the sun sets, the whole neighborhood glows red and I taste blood around my teeth. Maybe I’m not flossing enough. I can’t afford to go to the dentist; I can’t pay someone else to clean up my mess. Trash Day. Today is Trash Day. The day before Trash Day.
I take the trash cans to the edge of the sidewalk. A rumbling of eggshells and aluminum cans and cooked chicken bones drained of every ounce of nutrition. I’ve been out of work for nearly a year, so I use all the scraps I can. Bones go into soup. Old meat beaten into meat loaves.
My wife says not to worry. She makes more than enough. But I hear her paycheck in her voice. We have an agreement. Before I lost my job, she took over the books. Changed the passwords. Reset the pin on the debit card. Stripped my name from the electricity bill, the house, the car, all our accounts. I get a small wad of cash for groceries. The credit card I maxed out months ago on plumbing repairs is tucked in my pocket, hugging the leather of my worn-thin wallet. The card is the last thing that bears my name. I barely exist on paper.
I watched my mom recycle food scraps growing up, finding creative ways to make every useless piece have a place and a purpose. When there’s no money, every scrap is worth something. Nothing can be wasted. I haven’t earned the waste. Not yet. Forty years old and still grabbing for the brass ring.
Trash day. Trash. Day. I line the cans perfectly along the sidewalk. If they aren’t arranged just so, the trashmen won’t take them. I had them in the wrong order last week, the recyclables cockeyed. We were the only house on the block the trashmen skipped over. I’ve been smelling last week’s pickle jar, chicken gizzard, and rotting coffee grounds every day, unable to hide it beneath my wife’s cinnamon apple air freshener. Cinnamon gizzard. Apple rot. My mind may be fuzzy, but my sense of smell is in overdrive these days.
It’s not exactly unpleasant. It mostly makes me hungry.
Mike waves at me from a lawn chair on his roof, where he’s drinking one of his home brews and watching me. His trash cans aren’t even out yet. I can smell his underarms from here and it makes my eyes water. He switched to natural deodorant a few weeks ago. There’s the yeast of the home brewery, the compost pile in his backyard. He’s “forward thinking.” I can describe Mike’s smell much faster than I can describe the details of his face or clothes.
“Having trouble with the razor, buddy?” He laughs.
I run my hand over the stubble of my face, the bloody tissues sticking to the cuts. A loose piece of plastic on the trash can digs into my hand. I’m sweating from the hot night air, and the salt stings my open wounds. A tiny cry vibrates at the bottom of my throat. Ever since I moved here, I’ve been more prone to cuts. To bleeding. Like my body is bursting.
I wave back at Mike. He’s leaning back in his chair in a way that makes me nervous. “You watching the game tonight?” My voice cracks. It’s a Sunday so I assume there is a game somewhere, sometime.
Mike doesn’t respond. He’s staring out across the roofs of the neighborhood, his face stoic and suddenly dark. Like he’s watching something. Like the game is just over the ridge, somewhere.
The houses here are all the same—two stories with beige stucco walls and light brown trim, lush green lawns, and bushes two feet, four inches high, shaped to perfect cubes. White gardenias, five blossoms to each bush. One tree shaped to a beautiful sphere.
We bought the house a year and a half ago, when it felt like an act of heroism, of accomplishment. Our first home. A home I insisted on because I thought it would fix everything. A home that doesn’t seem to register on the GPS of my cracked, blipping-out phone. A home that hides from me as I drive back from the store. I get lost easily.
The long, winding asphalt streets. The same five ladies in tracksuits. Their matching poodles and yellow Labradors. The street names that sound alike. Lovely Valley. Sunny Valley. Valley of Love. Valley Sun Circle. Moonlight Valley. Valley of the Moons.
I once left a trail of chalk arrows from my front door to the main highway, driving slowly, stopping every half block to jump out and draw on the sidewalk, arrows as big and thick as I could make them, pointing me home. They were all washed away by the time I came home. Lawn sprinklers. Neighbors with their hoses. A short, localized, afternoon rain.
I stare at Mike, seeing if he’s going to answer my question about the game. I wonder if the chicken soup on the stove is burning. I’ve been away too long.
“Hey, you get one of those bobbleheads yet?” Mike’s toothy, deviled egg–flavored voice hits me at the back of my throat.
I have no idea what he’s talking about. I turn back to squint at him even though the sun is setting behind us somewhere.
“We all got ’em. The bobbleheads. It’s a charity thing,” Mike says.
“I don’t know…” I’m dizzy and not in the mood for sales pitches.
The chicken soup has been giving the whole house a fatty smell. I’d been enjoying it curling in my nostrils as I cleaned the floors in the kitchen and dusted the glassware in the hutch, as I vacuumed. Before I remembered Trash Day. I take a hard sniff of the air out here in the yard, concentrating on the soup’s aroma. Nothing burning yet. My stomach growls aggressively, like it might rip itself away from me and go back inside on its own.
When I turn back toward my house, there’s a guy in an olive green, fitted suit leaning against my doorframe, a cardboard box lodged under his arm. Fine muscles pushing and flexing against the fabric, sweat stains bleeding through his jacket. I’ve seen this oily face before. His forehead gleams, his fingers clicks against each other in manic rhythm. His clothes smell like bar soap and french fries. Pine and honey skin. Mustard on his breath. Bacon grease in his pores. It’s more than I can concentrate on and it makes me sneeze. The sneeze echoes down Love Valley and Valley Moon and Sunny Valley drive.
“Who are you?” I ask. “Mike, who is this?”
I turn back toward Mike but he’s disappeared from the roof.
“How ya doin’, buddy?” says the green-suit man.
“How do I know you?” I ask. Maybe it was the neighborhood council meeting. I’ve never lived somewhere with a council just for the neighborhood—a whole town or city, sure, but a neighborhood? Ever since I lost my job, my wife has been urging me to be more involved in the neighborhood. Change starts at the local level, she said. What’s more local than this? I suspect she just wants more time to herself, which is also why she stays late at work, why she rolls into the driveway hours after I’ve gone to bed. But we’re new here, and I’m the one with time on my hands.
“This is Stan,” Mike says. He’s standing next to me, one yeast-smelling arm wrapped around my shoulders. My eyes are watering. My stomach growling louder.
“From the neighborhood council meeting?”
“Oh,” I say. “Right.”
“We’ve got these bobbleheads we’re selling,” Mike says. “It’s a fundraiser. Show him, Stan.”
Stan in the green suit reaches into his box and shows me a bobblehead of an old man, long white mustache and wild blue eyes, a grin reaching from ear to ear with one gold tooth in the center.
“It’s Mr. Carlson,” says Stan. “You know? The president of the neighborhood council.”
I shake my head. “Can’t say I’ve met him.” I sigh. In my head I’m counting the cash in my wallet, a few measly ones and fives, just enough to last for another trip to the supermarket for milk and bread, just enough to hold over before my wife gives me the next wad. She never gives me more, never gives the money over early. Making it work is part of my job, my only job. From where I’m standing on the lawn, I can smell the last dollars in my wallet, the grease of the hands that have held them, the fibers of the pants they have crumpled within, upstairs in our bedroom. Blood is there too.
“Everyone in the neighborhood’s got one,” says Stan, shoving the thing into my hands. “It’s for a good cause. Mr. Carlson really insists you have one. Well. Pay for one.”
“And what’s the cause?”
Stan and Mike share a look. Like I just told a terrible joke. “Keeping the neighborhood clean, of course,” says Stan.
“It’s a pretty clean neighborhood already,” I say.
“Dirt has to be swept up on the regular, my friend,” says Mike.
I look at my house, my yard. I spend nearly six hours a day doing some repair or another, painting over imperfections, clipping the grass and the bushes, gluing bits of broken fence. I tell all this to Mike and Stan. There’s no dirt here, I can guarantee that.
“There’s many kinds of dirt,” says Mike, clapping me on the shoulder.
“Right.” I leave a pause here. I want to ask how much the stupid bobblehead is, but I don’t want it to seem like that matters to me.
“Those are some nasty cuts there,” says Mike, indicating my face and hands. Blood soaked tissues still cling to my skin.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Something in the air around here. Makes it hard to clot. Like the body just wants to bleed itself dry. Especially if you’ve got any underlying issues,” says Stan.
“I don’t have any underlying issues,” I say.
“I got just the thing.” Stan pulls out a half-empty tube of ointment from his pocket and hands it to me. Stan’s face smiles up from the packaging. I think it winks at me. “This really does the trick. Seals it up. Reminds the body what it needs to do. Reminds it of its purpose. Like magic.”
I open the container expecting to smell pine or bacon or yeast or the chicken soup on my stove that is definitely starting to boil down and burn. When I look inside, the ointment is green like Stan’s suit, so mint would make sense. Or cedar. Sage. Lime. But it smells like nothing.
I hold it to my nose. Emptiness. Barely a tickle.
“I suppose this costs extra?” I say.
Stan and Mike don’t even crack a smile. “That’s on the house,” Stan says. “But Mr. Carlson is sixty dollars.”
I nod at Stan. At Mike. At the bobblehead of Mr. Carlson. “I can’t swing that right now,” I say.
“You can’t swing it?” says Mike.
“Waiting on the next paycheck,” I say. “Don’t have the cash right now.”
“I’ll take a check,” says Stan.
“I don’t really use checks,” I say. That’s a lie. There are stacks of unused checkbooks in a small desk in the hallway. But I’m not on the account anymore.
“That’s too bad,” says Mike. It’s a grumbling sort of sound in the back of his throat. Something like a far-off animal screaming.
“Yeah, uh,” I start. I’m no good at lying. “Come back in like a week? I should be good then. Yeah.”
“The neighborhood will be quite dirty by then,” says Stan.
I laugh. They don’t.
“I heard you guys are having some marital trouble,” says Mike.
“Where—where’d you hear that?” I say.
“Secrets don’t survive around here,” says Stan. “They all go to the same place.”
Every day I try to put it out of my mind. The things I did two years before. The reason I do not control the money. The why of my disappearing into this house. If I couldn’t keep this home afloat, what good was I?
“It’s a shame. I feel for you, brother,” says Mike, cracking a smile. “A man like you should have a purpose.”
“I’m loo-looking for work,” I say.
“The right job is just around the corner. But for now, you have to invest in your home,” says Stan.
“Yes, investing. That’s the word,” Mike says. He’s squeezing my shoulder so hard I can taste blood rushing away from his fingertips. “It’s not just about one person finding one job. We all have to sacrifice. We all have to have purpose. For each other. Something doesn’t fit, we gotta correct it.”
I’m not getting out of this. “Sixty dollars?” I ask.
“How about you give me a couple bucks now, and we just square up later,” says Stan.
I look at Stan. He nods. I nod. I’m worried about the chicken soup now, really worried.
“That’s a good man,” says Stan. “Now how about you go grab that cash? You can spare two bucks, can’t you?”
I count the dollars in my head. I roll them around my head. My tongue burns with the taste of their dirt. Maybe I’ll grab bread from the discount rack this week.
“Sure,” I say. “Sure.”
I leave the house the next evening to spend the last five dollars in my wallet. In the car, Mr. Carlson the bobblehead greets me.
The bobblehead bounces his head on my dashboard, the spring in his neck squeaking with each bump in the road. The cuts on my face and hand have stopped bleeding but the ointment burns. It’s not just smells now. I taste the wind and Mr. Carlson and Mike’s voice from his rooftop lawn chair. I hear rumblings and whispers everywhere I go. A far-off roar. Everything is taking on a yellow hue. I must be sick.
And I’m lost again on the way home. I’m definitely sick, I think. I’ve lost all sense of direction. I shouldn’t even be driving.
The street keeps curving around and around, the bushes, the trees, the houses, all the same. I’m looking out for Mike and his lawn chair, but I can’t see him. It’s Valley Heart or Sunny Lane or some other stupid name that I can’t keep straight. I curse at Mr. Carlson for allowing these terrible names and it makes me snort at my own joke. The radio plays a sad-sack soundtrack to my weaving and whining and snorting.
At a crossroads, I slow down to catch my breath. Driving like this is exhausting. My cuts burn wild. I add more ointment to my face. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say my blood was sizzling. A growling grows in my lungs. I cough.
“Where do we go, Mr. Carlson?” I look at the bobblehead for direction. For a moment, it just bobs slightly with the humming of the car. But then it turns.
His gold tooth points to the left.
“Okay,” I say. I move the car to the left and drive slowly, watching the bobblehead.
At the next crossroads, it moves to the right. And so do I.
The creamy smell of the milk in my shopping bag is potent. The smell of the bread. The eggs. My mouth is watering.
Another right. Then a left. Then straight. Straight and straight through a part of the neighborhood that looks the same but seems darker. “Clouds must have blown in,” I say out loud to Mr. Carlson. But he doesn’t answer. He only swivels his springs down a dark road, Valley of the Moon or Moon Valley Circle. Something that disappears from my mind as soon as I read it.
A cul-de-sac curves around empty houses with green trim and brown lawns, trees shaped into cubes and bushes into spheres. The gardenias are dead but I can still smell them, even through the closed car window.
I’ve reached the center of the neighborhood and I know it by the coolness of the air and the wetness of the earth and the weeds springing up through the sidewalk.
Here are the whispers and the rumblings. The burned chicken soup smell. The reek of piled up garbage. The yellow air. The sick of the place that has followed me for days. Weeks.
And this house at the center. Dilapidated, decaying, but not abandoned. Like an old haunted house from children’s stories. Shadowed, a deep shade of rot permeating the shingles, the porch, the sidewalk. Windows cracked, broken, like dry, ancient eyes. Every house around it is perfect, brightly lit, well kept, and empty. But the house at the center is pulsing with something I recognize right away. I step out of the car and I can smell it. The dust of its skin and horns and sharpened teeth.
“You found your way,” says the man in the green suit. Stan is leaning against the door frame of the house’s entryway, the door long gone, ripped from the wood by something strong and terrible.
The ointment on my cuts burns my skin. But when I look down at my hands to wipe it away, the wounds are gone, replaced by wiry black hair. I touch my face and the hair is there, too.
“I wasn’t so sure about you,” says Stan, smirking. “But you really must be lost.”
I walk toward the house, stopping on the dirt lawn, steps from the caved-in porch. The eyes of the house are wide and dilated and locked on me, taking me in. The house, yes. But also the creature inside it.
“There always needs to be one of us,” says Stan, “waiting and boiling in the middle of it all. It’s the only way to keep the neighborhood in order. Sweep the dirt into one concentrated landfill. We take turns.”
“Take turns doing what,” I say. Something moves inside. I can smell it. It’s a body, like mine, the gut of a middle-aged man, hairy arms and thick veins. And the head of a bull, snorting nostrils, a brass ring.
“What men do,” says Stan. “You said you were looking for a job, weren’t you? You owe me $58. You’ll work it off in no time.” Stan waves for me to follow him and disappears inside.
I can hear Mike rooting for me across the neighborhood, an obnoxious whoop whoop like he does for football games. He’s sitting on his roof watching us. My hearing has amplified. And my sight. Just like my smell—as if my nose knew before I did. That I would end up here.
One monster hidden at the center, concentrating everything we are so ashamed of into one, tiny spot. You, the house, the thing inside. You were chosen, like I was. Every man needs a purpose. I can see you perfectly now.
You’re licking your lips. I’m licking mine. The sudden hunger. Tasting blood everywhere. Stan is waiting for me to come inside, to fight you or free you or whatever he’s planning.
You are lying down on the second-floor landing, waiting. You’ve waited so long, what’s another few minutes? Just a few more minutes. The saliva pools in my mouth, my stomach gargles, my hair grows longer, curling around my head. Soon I’ll be the new monster and you’ll be free.
My wallet sizzles in my pocket. I fumble to get it out, my fingers have grown thick and hard as hooves. But as I do, the leather disintegrates in the heavy air, my credit card, the last thing with my name, falls and burns itself into the sidewalk.
I turn to run toward the car where the bobblehead seems to be laughing at me, bouncing like there’s an earthquake in the dashboard, but you are already there, too impatient to wait inside any longer. And I wait for the death throes, the blood, the teeth sinking into my neck.
But you fall to your knees instead. A soft cry escapes your throat. You are weeping. Stan watches us from the house, and I don’t have to turn to look to see the disgusted sneer across his face. How pathetic, he is thinking.
I brush away the sharp hair around your eyes and you flinch at the touch, something you haven’t felt in so long. I want to say, “It’s okay.” I want to say, “Don’t cry.” But all that comes out is a grunt. I drop my keys to the ground beside the minotaur and turn toward the house just in time to see Stan’s disgust change to fear.
I’ll take it from here, I think, as the car roars back to life behind me.
CHELSEA SUTTON writes weird fiction, plays, and films. She was a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and is a member of the Clarion UCSD 2020/21 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her short story collection, Curious Monsters, was the runner-up for the 2018 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize. Her writing has appeared in Bourbon Penn, The Texas Observer, Exposition Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Luna Station Quarterly, and Pithead Chapel, and is forthcoming in Blood Orange Review, Sequestrum, and F(r)iction. She was a 2018 Sewanee Writers’ Conference Playwright Fellow and a Humanitas PlayLA award winner. Her plays have been finalists for the O’Neill Playwrights, PlayPenn, and Seven Devils conferences, the Ingram New Works Lab, the Stanley Drama, Woodward/Newman Drama, Reva Shiner Comedy, and International UNIMA Young Writer awards, and a semifinalist for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. MFA UC Riverside. Chelseasutton.com.