By Mark Budman
I. His face is all bones under his black hood. He holds something sharp with both hands. She wonders if his hands are sweaty and he will lose his grip. Probably not. He never sweats.
“Do you still love me?” he asks her. His voice is so cold that her breath is freezing.
She wants to say, “yes, until death do us part,” but she can’t part her lips.
II. She falls in love with a bony man who always wears a black robe and a hood and carries a knife. She found his clothing cool at first, but when she sees that he never disrobes, even when they make love, this begins to annoy her. She doesn’t complain. She’s happy to escape her parents, especially her stepdad. Both of them, really. When she gives birth, the doctor screams: the baby has the face of a skeleton. She runs away, dripping blood, but her husband finds her.
“Do you still love me?” he asks, raising his knife.
She stares into his empty eye sockets while gasping for air.
III. To her, love is subconscious, like breathing. Her mother is too busy for love, and her stepdad is too creepy for it, though he offers. So when she falls for a tall, bony stranger, swathed in black, she can’t help it. They have a wedding in Las Vegas. He carries her into the hotel room like a feather. They don’t go outside for days. She eats candies and drinks whiskey from the minibar. When she gives birth, the frightened doctor drops the hissing baby. She runs away, but her husband finds her a year later, thousands of miles way.
“I left for the baby’s sake,” she says. She is not sure if it’s true.
The baby watches them out of his empty eye sockets, grinning and bubbling.
“Do you still love me?” the husband asks her, raising his knife—he calls it scythe— above her head. He comes closer. She can’t breathe. She can’t run. She’s done hiding. She’s ready to nod.
IV. She’s always been a non-conformist. A contrarian, even. To her, love is subconscious, like trembling from fear or the beating of the heart. She watches her mother make love to her stepdad, and she bites her lip. When she meets this magnetic stranger at a party, her heart trembles, and her throat constricts. Her stepdad curses them, clenching his fists. Her lover punches him in his fat, ugly belly. She kicks the fallen body and takes his wallet.
They have a wedding in Las Vegas. None of her friends come. Her mother doesn’t even call. The minister wears a Merlin mask. Haunting music plays. The room is cold, like the Nordic hell.
On their honeymoon, her husband is relentless in making love. He’s supernaturally strong and virile. He doesn’t eat and she has never seen him going to the bathroom. Her body is raw, but she’s hungry for more. After seeing her baby’s face, she runs away from her husband as soon as she can. But it’s still her baby. So she takes it with her. Life is tough for them both. She steals and cheats for a living.
When her husband breaks down the door, it’s night. She sits on her bed, her room is dark. She can’t find the light switch. She has no strength to scream, and she knows it’s useless anyway.
“I left for the baby’s sake,” she says before he opens his mouth. “The baby has to have a normal father.”
“Do you still love me?” her husband asks her. He turns on the light. His scythe swooshes above her head, leaving swaths of dead air. When he stops, she can see herself in its polished blade, her eyes wide. And the baby’s too, who stops blowing bubbles and hisses like a Biblical serpent.
She thinks about the answer. She has to tell the truth while there is still air in her lungs. No one lies to their lawfully wedded husband. She blows him a kiss. It freezes in half-flight.
Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union, and he speaks English with an accent. His writing has appeared in Five Points, PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Short Fiction, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. He has co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton. His website is markbudman.com.