At the corner shop she ignored the way her ankle monitor bit into the bone while she hunted through the shelves for something to eat. Dust covered everything. The prices were three, four dollars higher than anywhere else because you certainly paid for convenience when you couldn’t walk or take the bus to a grocery store four city blocks away. Not without going to prison at least.
At this dark hour, the corner shop was quiet, save for the occasional drunk who wandered in and muttered violence to themselves or the street people who shuffled through, buried in their cocoons of blankets and coats. She felt safe. No Probo to ask her what kind of life are you making for your child, Miss Larron? No ex-boyfriends to glare at her baby bump and moan why are you ruining my life? For a moment she was free of a certain type of bullshit, and it might have been peaceful if she hadn’t been so hungry.
Larron pushed aside the growl in her gut and examined what groceries the corner shop had to offer. Dented cans of vegetables, paper boxes of pasta nibbled by rats. The shop cat slept at her feet, curled up on a case of microwave noodles, too fat to care about much. Larron didn’t want to buy noodles or any of this junk, but the ache of hunger kept her there. She touched her baby bump and thought of all the times canned ham made her puke. The little jerk, she thought with fondness, is already picky.
Beans, her WIC advisor suggested. Beans and shelf-stable cheese, but all the bricks of cheese were in packages stained brown and decades old. Dubious. Larron leaned down to peer into the shadows between the shelves and maybe she saw something good.
Before she reached her hand into the dark hollow, she paused. Bitey things likely mulled about in there. Spiders, rats, whatever the shop cat had determined too dangerous to pursue.
After her stomach growled again, Larron thought fuck it and reached in to root around in the dark of the shelf. Her fingers grazed a cool corner of cardboard.
When she pulled back her fist she found in it a pristine but vintage box of dried red beans.
The box was narrow and tall like a monolith, and on the front was a picture of beans in a bowl heaped with yellow pats of butter. Above it, Jackelsons’ Beans raged in atomic age font. The box looked new. Larron gave it a shake and the dried beans inside rattled like loose teeth in a skull.
“YOU gonna EAT that?”
One of the street people had wandered close. Larron regarded the figure, genderless within their layers of clothes. Their sun-damaged face peered out from beneath a spray of gray hair, and they spoke with a voice like cracked concrete. “I said YOU GONNA EAT that?” The person eyed the box of beans.
Suddenly, Larron wanted the beans more than anything else. “I’m gonna eat this.”
The street person pointed at her with a crooked arm encased in gloves. “Bitch, you don’t know how to eat those. You’re gonna cook them or something.”
“You’re supposed to cook beans.” The response tumbled out, and she instantly regretted it. Do not engage, she thought. She inched her way out of the conversation, shuffled down the aisle to the cashier, who looked stoned or asleep.
“No! You EAT them RAW!” The street person tugged at their cheeks madly. “You gotta crack them open with your teeth to get to the little screaming souls inside!”
At the register, Larron gave her empty basket to the cashier, and he woke up a little with the noise. Larron gave him a look like I didn’t start this.
The street person continued their rant. “Those beans are special. You bite them open! If you cook ‘em you ruin ‘em, and a ruined bean calls the Jackelsons to you. They got a big house full of things you can’t even believe. They’ll show up right on your doorstep and when they will show up motherfucker you’ll be sorry sorry sorry.”
The cashier glanced at the box with an arched eyebrow, and when the price didn’t scan he punched in the number on the yellowed sticker.
Forty-five cents. Larron smiled. It was almost like stealing.
Larron walked to her building with her beans in the pocket of her sweatpants. The night was crowded and loud, bright with traffic. She reached her building as the ankle monitor bit deep into her leg and a chill wind chased gutter trash past the alleys. Her building was a brownstone complex built in the 60s, six floors full of cramped one and no bedroom units. The entry door screamed on hinges about to crack. Larron passed through the hall to her battered mailbox full of court letters and reminders of unpaid fines that she would not address that night or maybe ever.
Once she reached her studio, Larron set the beans by her hotplate and shuffled to the back window. She gazed out at her view: an alley crowded with dumpsters and old tenements, beyond that a horizon of big box stores and a tangle of highways. Several floors below her fire escape, a racoon or a stray cat rooted in the dumpster, scattered cans and shredded plastic. The landlord had put concrete rocks on the dumpster lid, but such was no match for the animal.
Larron watched the raccoon wrestle with whatever dinner rotted at the bottom, and with her pregnancy nose she could smell all of it, sweet and rancid and cloying. Her stomach curdled. Her newly sensitive stomach was the only reason she didn’t dumpster dive herself. Barely anything made her vomit. Although she was well aware that if you picked the right places the stuff you could find was actually pretty fresh.
Not that she could get to those places at the moment. With a scowl she lifted one leg of her marshmallow sweatpants and poked the ankle monitor, the black digital barnacle on her leg. Then she shut the window to avoid the dry heaves.
In the kitchenette by her hotplate, Larron heated a pot of water and opened the box of red beans. The carboard crinkled like new. She soured at the thought of how long they’d take to cook, and when she dumped the content of the box into the water one bean tumbled out onto the floor.
With a hand cradled over her bump, she picked up the bean and peered at it. The bean was surprisingly large, a round flat thing in vivid crimson, the red of an organ, like some kidney full of blood and hardened with formaldehyde. The sides of it pillowed out as if it contained multitudes.
Larron plopped it in the water with the rest of them.
While she waited, Larron laid on her futon and read and fell asleep, maybe. The city lights streamed in through the window and pooled on the floor in strange shapes. As her eyes fluttered shut, she half-dreamt of a tree with a dark hollow. The tree grew tall and gnarly, and it told her it had gems inside, jewelry and watches and maybe even some Traveler’s Express checks, unsigned. It was one of those fairy tale trees with ribbons and flowers, but the ribbons were organs draped about the branches like party streamers and the flowers glistened in deep jewel tones from a mist of blood.
The robins and sparrows that nestled in the tree had black eyes like her old fence, Harvey at the pawn shop. Big black eyes like mirrors. They chattered in Harvey’s voice; Sorry I had to tell the pigs where I got the watches. Next time steal something shittier. They held little crowbars in their beaks, like hers, the one confiscated by the cops for evidence in the string of smash and grabs.
The sight struck her with longing. She loved that little crowbar.
Then the robins fluttered off with broken window wings and bloody breasts. The dark inside the tree hollow quivered with strange shapes that might have been worms or maggots. Long muddled things with glossy backs and fat legs and mismatched wings. Her sleep brain interpreted them as souls, crispy soft little souls that screamed when you cracked them open. And the street person was there with her sun-cragged face to say crack them open! If you cook them the Jackelsons will come. That’s when the water boiled over and hissed on the hotplate loudly enough Larron woke up with a start.
The moon was fat and seemed to fill the window.
Something screeched softly.
It took Larron several minutes to focus. Her head felt like a bloody socket packed with cotton. She wondered when she last ate a truly good meal.
The screech came from the hotplate in long anguished notes, and pinkish foam covered the folding table and dripped onto the crap linoleum floor. The beans in the pot had turned to a murky redblack soup that reeked and made her instantly retch. It was not a thing to be eaten, and she had the sense it would stain her walls, forever linger as a ghost scent in all her clothes and skin. Ruined, she thought. Everything ruined. Only out of morbid curiosity did she stick a spoon into the stuff to see what horrors swirled inside.
On the spoon appeared a red bean, swollen three times the size of its dry self. Its sides burst and leaked a sick gray substance. Larron covered her nose and squinted at it. The stuff dripped down the spoon in sticky strings that terminated in globs that looked like small heads trapped in ichor. There she made out tiny faces. Eyes pinched shut and mouths open in stark terror.
With her breath held, she threw the bean back into the pot. It splashed there and more bean goop floated to the surface, more of those tiny tortured human faces like skulls stirred up in a swamp.
Larron dry heaved at the sight and did not cry out or scream but instead hustled the pot to the window, to the fire escape above the dumpster.
Once outside she chucked the pot into the alley, and the contents sailed to the depths below. Inwardly she apologized to whatever racoon might remain there. The pot smacked the side of the dumpster with a dull clang and bounced to the concrete, where it rolled and came to a stop. Its guts puddled out and seeped into the cracks, into the soil beneath.
The moon was so heavy and close Larron felt like it was the blind eye of some luminescent giant pressed against a glass jar. She squinted to look up at it and that’s when she saw the trees.
The alleyway and the adjacent buildings were swallowed up in tall, gnarly trees that hung with bulbous fruit. A manner of murky kudzu wound its way up around the trunks and into the branches with leaves like moongray knives and nothing moved, nothing made a sound. It was if the traffic and the neighbors and the wild creatures had all gone extinct.
Larron wavered at the top of the fire escape, her face slack in disbelief, her hair askew as some sleep-stoned Rapunzel.
Pregnancy induced psychosis, she thought.
A warm breeze skipped across her cheek.
In the air was the smell of food. Something delectable and savory and unrecognizable, something steamy-salt-crusty-crisp, a smell so fat and delicious Larron thought she could live on the smell alone, whatever it was. Her stomach clawed at her. Even the little lovely jerk fluttered like a patch of gas inside her guts and seemed to say ah hell, that’s the shit.
The smell seemed to emit from a place in the trees, near a flicker of red light between shadowed trunks, and as her eyes focused she made out the shape of a window. Lace curtains and a yellow glow. A windowsill box full of flowers the color of blood. Around the glow little bricks like some fairy tale cottage, some gloomy gingerbread vision with ivy crept between the mortar in splintered greenblack fingers. Chimney smoke curled from between the tree branches in a lazy gray snake.
Larron glanced between the house and the monitor on her ankle and wondered just how many feet lay between her and the warm delicious-smelling place. Her movements would be marked on the outdated computer in her Probo’s office, a little dotted line in GPS but only after thirty or so feet. Sir Ms Probo Sir, Larron practiced, I was just taking out the trash.
The smell strained her thoughts and at the edge of it was a little mad voice that said, if it were only about you, now…
Larron grabbed her slipper shoes and crept down the fire escape.
Larron crept between the trees and eyed their glossy-wet fruit like hearts and spleens that dangled from the branches. Her slipper shoes crunched softly in the dry grass, which sounded like delicate little bones every time she took a step.
The cottage itself was larger than she first discerned from her fire escape, wider and taller with a peaked roof like a crooked pope hat. Larron crept past a mailbox that hung on a moldy post and moved into a lawn crowded with overgrown garden plots, the plants leafy and greenblack. On the path between them was a scattering of red specks. As she took the path through the garden she stooped to pick up a single red bean that had tumbled from the leaves.
She pinched it between her fingers. It wriggled, screeched in a mad cicada voice loud enough to wake the neighborhood dogs.
The red shell cracked like a carapace and out scrambled a wormy legged thing with a human face and eyes pinched shut like agony and wings glued to its back in an afterbirth mucus.
It tried to scramble up her wrist.
She shook it off and swallowed her scream.
When it skittered back into the garden, Larron checked behind her to make sure her fire escape was still there. It was. On any other night if another world opened up in her back alley she’d have turned the fuck around and gone back to sleep. It was the smell that pulled her forward, tugged her as if by hooks snagged in her gut. Her stomach churned eagerly, as wild and sharp as a racoon in a dumpster. It was a desperate stomach, pressed to the limits of its ability to function with all the action going on below, those cells that multiplied and patched together like a little construction site. A flicker of movement pushed at her guts, and she told it, just wait a minute, she’d figure out what that smell was here in a sec. Human soul harvest or not.
She crept closer to the house. The uppermost windows came into view, frames that glowed orange and hosted a shadow play of monstrous shapes. The figures that moved behind the lace curtains looked not remotely human. They lumbered past with their elongated limbs and necks like sagged praying mantises. Giants of strange proportions. It almost broke her resolve.
She caught a whiff of the delectable scent from a downstairs kitchen door that stood cocked open. No shadows moved across those windows. From the kitchen leaked an aromatic steam.
With one eye on the beasts of the upper floors, Larron crouched low and crept to the kitchen, peeked in with one eye.
The kitchen was a fairy tale, all wood and stone and naked fire. A hearth burned with a massive red blaze and the black pot inside burbled. Skinless carcasses hung from one wall and bled out into ceramic basins. Blood made the floor slick. In the center of the kitchen was a table like a massive chopping block heaped with platters of meat roasted to a golden hue. The impossibly delectable smell came from that table, she was certain.
Larron nearly lost herself and leapt forward, buried her face into it, but an instant before she went mad her thief’s instincts took over and she bent down to tiptoe inside, her eye focused on the biggest chicken leg she’d ever seen.
At least, she thought it was a chicken leg.
She moved up to the table where a number of forks had been laid out, huge silver things for a hand ten times her size. With a tremble, she picked up a fork and moved to skewer a fine morsel, a strip of glossy gold savory flesh with the sinew still draped off it in silver ribbons. It was all imaginary, she thought, and she was probably standing in the alley about to stick a dead cat with a stray piece of wire, but the illusion certainly looked good enough to eat.
The tines sunk deep into the meat. She had it inches from her face when she heard someone whisper, “Someone cooked the beans.”
She froze, the fork gripped in her hand as though she were a toddler with a mini trident. The source of the voice seemed to come from behind the heap.
She peered around the edge of the table and saw no one there in the kitchen. Footsteps strained the wood floors overhead, the movement of those large and malformed creatures she’d glanced in the window, but whatever dark purpose engaged them it did not at the moment intersect with her goals. The voice, she decided, had to be another figment within this figment, and in any case her stomach insisted that she put that juicy cooked morsel straight into her mouth.
Larron began to eat again, and another voice said behind the mountain of meat, “Someone cooked the beans!”
Larron ducked down, sure she’d been caught. No footsteps or shadows moved, and the voices seemed disembodied, hovered somewhere near the center of the table.
Her stomach in a violent churn for want of the morsel, Larron breathed deep and calmed herself, then stalked a full circle around the table, fork still in her fist.
Behind the mounds of roasted flesh were several smaller platters heaped with round shapes that blinked and stared.
Before her scream betrayed her she clamped a hand over her mouth.
Heads. Human, if she assessed correctly. Cheekbones and noses and forward facing eyes. Stripped clean of hair and flesh. Some gazed at her with milkblind roasted eyes and apples in their mouths. The few who did not maintain their apples were toothless, the teeth still embedded in the soppy red sides of the fruit.
As Larron stared at them with stark horror, one head whispered, “Someone cooked the beans.” Then they all began to say it in a tangle. Someone cooked the, someone, someone cooked…
One head suddenly screamed, a freakish wail of a noise, and the rest followed suit. Larron crouched, her pulse frantic. Although clearly lungless, they all screamed with an intensity and volume that had them thrash about on their platter together like baby birds in a life-and-death struggle.
Larron stabbed at the heads with the fork, jabbed the table near the edge of their plate. “Shut the fuck up.”
They all fell silent, silent.
Immediately, something thumped upstairs.
Larron backed away slowly with her fist still clamped around the fork in a grip that fear would not let her untangle. She kept one eye on the heads and one ear on the footsteps upstairs, which had begun to clomp loudly. Closer. There was an insectoid skittering from the upper floors that could have been the speech of mad cicadas. Despite the scent of lovely food that gnawed at her Larron thought, cannibalism, not the best choice, and began to retreat, give up on the hallucination in a careful quiet step towards the door….
She nearly tripped on something beneath her. One slipper shoe slipped off, and when she chased it back onto her foot she saw the corner of the kitchen, behind the door. There, thrown unceremoniously into the bloody dust, was a pile of human bones. Discarded bodies. The things once attached to the heads on the table, their ribcages, spines, femurs, tiny metacarpals in a scatter.
About the bones were littered the things the heads once owned, items kept on their person. Shreds of clothes, eyeglasses, hats, dusty things in which spiders made their home. But also watches and rings, diamond earrings and strings of pearls strung about decapitated neck bones. Wallets tumbled out of pockets and vomited up yellowed IDs and crumpled leaves of cash.
Larron eyed the heap. When her dry heaves had stilled from the sight of cobweb dry cartilage and death, she made a quick estimation of the value of items there. It was no small amount.
She glanced quick to the heads on the block, then to the door that led out of the kitchen and into shadow, where the cicada screech grew louder. Then she grabbed a fistful of the monied stuff between the bones and thrust it into the pockets of her marshmallow sweatpants. In went several palmfuls of wadded bills and strings of precious stones before they began to strain at the seams.
One of the heads on the table wriggled its lidless eyes towards her. “You cooked the beans.”
The rest murmured in agreement with their toothless lisps. You did, you did.
Beyond the kitchen, the floors wheezed under the weight of the large owners of the house. They stomped closer. With her pockets full Larron decided it was not a time to meet them. (She had visions of the owners with bulbous, demonic heads, cleavers and pitchforks in their elongated hands, sinister grins full of teeth as they scooped her up and put her and her little jerk on the chopping block. The idea shook her and from within her baby bump came little palpitations, like the unformed creature there thrashed about as if in the throes of nightmare.) Dizzy from her elevated heart rate, Larron slipped out the kitchen door with a glance behind her. Long and spindly shadows stretched out over the gore-splattered kitchen floor.
She hustled silently out into the dark of night, bent low and lopsided for the bulge in her pockets, but she didn’t stop. When she crossed into the garden there was a screech from the cottage, and when she peered at the house she found monstrous shadows had filled the kitchen window. She picked up the pace and kept her eye to the threats inside and in so doing she slammed into the mailbox and fell with it to the ground. Jewels tumbled out of her pockets into the brittle grass. For a terror-fazed moment, she tried to put the mailbox back up on its post, but her hands shook too terribly.
From the house, the owners wailed, a sound inhuman and enraged.
At that Larron abandoned the mailbox, dropped it to the ground and bolted toward her studio, the dim pinprick of light through the trees. But before she vanished across the alleyway and up her fire escape, she caught a glimpse of the mailbox’s side, the jagged burnt letters written there: The Jackelsons.
Back in her apartment, the blinds pulled, Larron ordered takeout. Chinese. Cashew and noodles. Spring Rolls. Piles of them. All vegetarian.
She half expected the delivery driver to look down at the flattened wads of cash she handed him and tell her she was out of her mind, that she handed him newspaper or leaves or alley shit, some product of madness birthed by whatever psychotic break she’d experienced. Larron thought she had to be out of her mind, and the idea came with a calmness she wished she’d had when she’d been arrested.
The delivery driver looked down at the wad of green bills and said, “Thanks for the tip.”
Larron wolfed down the meal and fell asleep on the couch immediately after. Her guts turned peaceful, the little jerk nestled among a pillowy soup of calories and msg.
Before she drifted off, she wondered, when else had she ever felt so good.
The following night, Larron slipped on a dark blue sweatshirt to go over her sweatpants and under it she strapped a flatpack: a bag that clung to the body so when on the run, one might not look as though they carried anything at all.
A knock came at her studio door, and it was absolutely a cop knock, so right away Larron knew it belonged to the Probo, a large woman with a sour chin and decades of abuse seeped in deeply through the crinkles of her forehead. The woman wore a heavy canvas peacoat even when it was warm, like some street person with a drinking problem, and Larron had wondered not more than once how long the woman spent out of doors herself.
At the door, the Probo glowered and stomped over the threshold without being invited. “Quick check-in.”
Larron moved to the couch and sat casually, made sure to place herself over the black ski cap she’d laid there. When she crossed her legs her bare foot stuck out with the ankle monitor mean and heavy against the bone. “Am I in violation?” A touch of panic fluttered inside her, but she wasn’t sure if maybe that was the little jerk, to whom often a shot of adrenaline meant playtime.
The woman didn’t sit or answer. She cradled a tablet in the crook of her arm and scrolled through the blue glow. “You’ve been spending a lot of time out back in the alley.”
Larron nodded. “Fresh air is good for the baby.”
“Is it?” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You been talking to Harvey?”
The joke fell flat between them.
Larron chipped the edges off her smile. “No,” she said. She wondered what it was about corrections that ruined a person’s sense of humor.
The Probo took a long look around and poked at a heap of clothes in one corner and examined the dried bean disaster around the hotplate. The folding table had melted a bit and the stains left on the linoleum were deep, deep red. “How are you eating?”
Larron smiled. “Good.”
When the Probo left Larron gave it some time before she grabbed the ski mask and stepped out onto the fire escape. A warm breeze rifled through, and she wondered if the Probo had noticed it as she stood in the studio with her canvas peacoat, the warmth or the smell that still wafted up, delicious and sinister.
On the fire escape Larron gazed across the alley. The trees remained. The smell drifted like a savory ghost, although less delectable now that she knew its origins. From between the garden plots, a long, crooked shadow moved, rooted around, as if in the middle of harvest.
On the fire escape sat the mini crowbar Harvey had brought her.
Larron pulled the ski cap down over her face.
“Fee fi fo fum,” she whispered. Then she moved softly on thieves’ feet into the night.