“The Milk Toss” Dark Psychological Fiction by N.D. Coley

The boy standing at the counter of the game, a ball toss where the contestant must throw softballs into large milk cans, has never made a fuss over possessions, and has never had many to fuss over. His jeans, a light gray denim that have faded over time, are the only pair he owns, and he is worried that his companion, the brown-haired, brown-eyed girl from study hall, will notice the smell. A hot wash cycle and a sample of expensive detergent have not gotten the stench out, and if she gets too close she will catch the smell of someone who goes home and sits on old sofas atop old carpets, and who pulls cheap food—pastas and off-brand snacks—out of cheap cabinets.

   The boy has wanted things before, of course, but not in a way that consumes people. He has always had a place to eat and a place to sleep, and he is ok with that. In the warm months his stomach becomes hungry when he walks down the street and catches the aroma of steaks and sausages, but he can live with boxed macaroni and processed meat and fish sticks. When he becomes hungry for more he thinks of the double shifts that his mother works, and he is ok again.

   But now he has, at the age of 15, been struck with something unusual, a desire for something silly and idle. Behind the display of milk containers there are rows upon rows of stuffed animals—purple hippos and green serpents and orange gorillas, and in the back, resting above all of the prizes, a giant teddy bear, stitched so that its face is in a smile, and its tongue is sticking out and to the side, resting on its cheek, as if the bear is trying to lick the last morsels of some treat. The bear holds a milkshake in one hand and a chocolate chip cookie in the other.

   The brown-haired girl from study hall slides her arms around the elbow of the boy and squeezes him. She can see herself holding the bear, squeezing it to herself and giggling. In her mind she is skipping away from the counter, the animal pressed under one arm, as she swings her cotton candy with the other. This is what the boy senses as she tugs at his arm, and he is glad that his yard work has put a few extra dollars in his pocket. He closes his eyes and sees himself throwing the ball, and on the first try it lands in the can perfectly, without even scraping the opening. It plops in the bottom with a dull, metallic thud, and the bear is in the girl’s arms, and her mouth is on his mouth and her tongue is on his tongue. He has never imagined such warmth before, but he can taste it. It is wet and salty, and it only seems fair to him that this should happen.

   The boy takes out three crumpled dollar bills and puts them on the counter, and as he does so a clerk appears from behind a white curtain. He does not take the money, but studies the boy. The clerk is tall, dressed in a tattered suit and a bowler hat. His face is thin and drawn in, with harsh lines on his cheeks and grey stubble on his neck. His eyes, an ocean blue, are set deep in puffy eyelids, like two marbles pressed into putty. He places his palms on the counter, and his hands are so thin and grey that the boy thinks that the hands are bones.

   I am sorry, the man says, but I have to close the game down now.

   The boy protests. He crosses his arms and says that he saw people playing at it only a few moments ago, as he and his date sat on a crooked bench and chewed on the opposite ends of a jumbo soft pretzel.
   I am sorry, the man says, but I have to close the game down.

   The boy, who has never wanted anything before, at least not in this way, is angry and confused. He snatches the bills and holds them close to the chest of the clerk, and he says that he just wants one try, and that if he misses he will cut his losses and leave.

   The dollar bills hang in the air for an eternity, and the boy can see nothing else around him but those pieces of paper, stinking of gasoline and motor oil and grass clippings. A breeze blows through the carnival. The bills flap,  and the boy tightens his grip, and he leans forward and mouths please, oh please, just one chance please.

   The man narrows his eyes and looks at the boy, through the boy, and the boy looks back and doesn’t see eyes but storms—two tiny typhoons trapped in white orbs. 

   He crosses his arms and, in a voice that sounds more like croaking than speech, says that he does not like the look of the youth in front of him, and that kids like him are not careful. The boy looks at the pile of softballs and the milk cans and asks how he would need to be careful for such a silly and harmless game. The man just stares harder and grunts.

   Before the boy pushes the dollars towards the man, he notices that the bills are gone. That they’ve been snatched up by the thin fingers, as if a skeleton had plucked fruit from a tree.  The boy looks down, and there are three softballs sitting on the counter, white but stained with black and brown smudges. He picks one up and studies it, and he thinks about how many hands have tossed this ball before, up and towards the container, hoping for the biggest score that one can get at a carnival.

   The girl from study hall pokes him in the arm and points to the display of prizes, her sights set on the teddy bear, and she steps aside and gives her companion space. The boy steps back, shifting the ball from one hand to another, his mind weighing the advantages of over and underhanded throws. He sees the ball move in a perfect arc, not flying but floating, every motion calculated against the breeze and the position of the destination.

   He realizes that, without his permission, the ball has left his hand, that it is barreling  towards the can without his intent. He hears a dull thud as the ball smacks against the side of the milk can, nowhere near the target.

   He is aware that he is sweating, that his face and neck are coated in cold perspiration, and as he reaches down for the second ball something occurs to him: his arms are limp. His hands have no feeling. No energy. The moment has put his fight or flight chemicals into motion, and his body has told him that he had better get away, get away, far far away.

   The boy places his fingers around the second ball, his eyes locked on the fingertips and knuckles that he can no longer feel. He pulls the ball up and into position. He is terrified that it will simply roll from his hand and onto the counter, where it will plop down and roll off at the feet of the clerk.

   He looks at the clerk, who is standing off to the side, arms crossed and with no expression, and he returns his gaze to the cans.  They seem so much further away now, as if something has stretched the space between the counter and the targets. The cans are far away and the holes in them look too small for the projectiles.

   He brings his arm down and back and up, letting the ball fly from an underhanded toss, and he is sure that he has come close this time. Perhaps very, very close. The ball lingers, almost pauses, and then smacks the lip of the container. It bangs against one side, and back against the other, much like a pin-ball between two bells, and it starts to spin around the top, round and round, so fast that the boy can hardly see it at all. He bites his lip, anticipating the moment where he can celebrate, but as he does so the ball spins  around the top of the can and flies up and out to the side, landing squarely in the palm of the clerk.

   There is no fancy motion for the final toss. No pause. The boy throws and watches the ball fly to the can, hit the side of the lid, and fall to the grass below. The boy looks to the girl from study hall, who has turned her head and pretends to pay attention to something off to the side, perhaps some commotion at the cotton candy cart, or the marquee lights on the Ferris wheel. He gently elbows her in the arm, gives a wink and says hey, no worries. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game like this but I’m just warming up.

   He produces more bills from his pocket, and instead of waving them he smacks them on the counter, confident that his currency is now good in this establishment. He closes his eyes and envisions success because that is what people have said about success, that if you just  push out negative thoughts with portraits of the right trophy or office space or bank account, that simply making the picture in your mind will be enough.

   When he opens his eyes there are three softballs in front of him again, and the clerk is standing to the side, and the girl from study hall is resting one hand on the counter and twirling a lock of her brown hair with the other, and it seems that in one motion his arms are drawing back, and then forward, and then back again, and in a single moment he sees all three tries go close, but fall short, and he hasn’t a moment to think before he’s reaching into his pocket again, producing more cash, and throwing again, and reaching in his pocket again, and throwing once more. He is in the moment, with no surroundings, and all he knows how to do is pay and try and pay again. His mouth is dry, and when he reaches into his pocket he realizes that he is down to his last funds.  His fingers, sore and stiff, fumble for the bills, and as he pulls them from his jean pocket he sees that things have changed.

   The wall of stuffed prizes is not an assortment of stuffed toys, but a congregation— a sea of spectators with tiny black eyes and grins that are wide and lined with sharp teeth. This is true for all of the prizes, for the snakes and hippos and gorillas, and for the giant Teddy Bear, which is no longer holding a milkshake and a cookie, but two open palms, hands coated in something goopy and red. The bear tilts its head back and, as the boy throws the first ball and misses, opens its mouth in laughter. The ball, missing its target, finds itself in the jaws of a snake. The ball slides down the throat and into the belly of the serpent. It settles and flattens and is gone.

   Two tries left.

   The boy pulls back and releases, and the ball sails wildly, worse than before, up and over the canister and into the eye of one of the hippos. The ball smacks the eye and squishes, sounding like a ripe watermelon splattered against pavement. The animal wails, tossing its limbs about, and in a moment the serpents are on it, slithering over the mangled eye and the trails of blood around the creature’s face, and there  are bites and chomps, over and over, right before one of the gorillas grabs the front arms of the victim and rips them, tears them off. There is one more cry, and then silence.

   The carnival prizes are as they were before: rows of purple hippos and green serpents and orange gorillas, though there is one less hippo in the display, and there is only one more ball on the counter. The boy’s pockets are empty. There are no more tries after the next one.

   He tosses his last shot, and it is perfect. He knows that it will sink into the can and it does, disappearing into the container without a sound. He hears it swish and whirl inside the cylinder, and he throws his arms up in celebration. He leaps on the counter, planting his shoes atop it, and in an instant his hands are around his love, his girl, his crush, and as he leans in for the kiss he hears a sound, a popping noise, a thump with a high pitched tone.

   He turns to see the ball shoot out from the canister, up and over the row of prizes and against the roof of the tent. It falls to the grass, where it is quickly scooped up by the clerk.

   The boy feels something that he has never felt, something that he does not know how to process: rage.

    He moves, but has no control of his new self. His shoulders and arms and legs have become another person, and they take him in a single motion, up and over the counter, until the boy tackles the clerk. His hands find the skinny neck of the bony man, and the two tumble over each other and disappear behind the curtain and outside the tent.

   The boy looks up and sees that it is just he and the man and the darkness and the thousands of stars that dot the sky. His hands grip the clerk’s neck. They squeeze it, and the parts of his mind that would shut off aggression have stopped turning. There is only pressure and instinct, and as his fingers squeeze around a neck that turns white, the boy takes joy in seeing the face above that neck turn red and blue and purple. The clerk’s eyes bulge more, and the boy thinks that he will scoop these orbs out, just as he might use a crust of bread to extract the yoke from a soft boiled egg.

   The boy feels his hands tighten further. The clerk spits and gurgles, and underneath these sounds the youth can hear something beneath the flesh buckle and crack. He is not sure if  he is really this angry at the clerk, or if he is just trapped in some dream, and in this state he constricts the neck further until there is a distinct, harsh snap. The clerk’s body goes limp, and his eyes, though still bulging from the sockets, are suddenly dim and without expression. It is as if someone has flipped a switch. The clerk is a doll and he has been turned off, and he will not turn on again, and if the boy looks for the panel in his back to change the batteries he will find the chamber useless and corroded.

   The clerk’s body, still warm in the moments after death, becomes warmer. The boy can feel it heating up, just like a skillet with fresh slabs of bacon. The body sizzles and smokes, and the boy leaps back in horror, checking to see if his own skin is cooking. It is not, and though he is alive his skin feels stiff and cold.

   The boy watches as smoke rises from the clerk’s clothing. From the victim’s eyes and nose and mouth. The sizzling is louder, and there are spitting noises. Popping noises, and in a moment there is too much smoke to see, but there is a smell, a deep and rich smell, one that might strike one as delicious, the boy thinks. Just like the fresh sausages on his walks in the warm months.

   The smoke clears, the sizzling stops, and there is no clerk anymore; only the impression of someone who might have taken rest in the grass, but nothing else. The smell lingers.

   The boy panics, and in a moment he envisions himself in pursuit by the police, and then in handcuffs, and then in a frogmarch to the courthouse, and then in an old transport van, followed by a prison hallway that smells of mildew, where he is processed and stripped and sprayed down and assigned a number as he is tossed into a ten by ten room with a concrete bed.

   He turns and dashes back into the tent. He thinks that he might see the clerk there, but he does not. What he does see is a line of customers at the game, and all of them look at him expectantly. At the front of the counter is a tall boy, perhaps his age or a year older, but much stronger and better groomed. He is wearing a tank-top with the logo of a local high school football team, and around his arm, the boy notices the girl, his girl, the brown-haired brown-eyed girl from study hall.

   At least it looks like her, but the marquee lighting on the booth and the neon signs at the fishing game across the lane and the lights from the Ferris wheel and the scrambler all blur together in something like time-lapse photography, and suddenly the boy is not sure if the girl at the counter is that girl. The lights fade and twinkle and flash, and each time they do he is sure, and then unsure, and then sure again.

   He finds that he is breathing heavily, so heavily that he cannot hear the youth at the counter say hey. Come on man I just want to play a round ok?

   The boy, thinking himself a killer, is confused. He looks down at this feet and runs his hands down his thighs, and he realizes that he is wearing the same outfit that the clerk had on moments ago, down to the shoes and socks, with the same bowler hat on his head.

   At this moment two carnival workers move behind the line of customers. They are carrying something rectangular, and it appears heavy. They strain under the weight of it, and as they pass the booth they look squarely at the boy, and he can see that they are short and impish, with scraggly limbs and hunched backs, and their eyes are red and they glare at the boy as he stares at their cargo. The cargo is a mirror, a warped mirror designed for the mazes of a funhouse, and in that mirror the boy sees not his own face, but the face of the clerk,  blackened from burns and sizzling, infected wounds spurting puss. Before the boy can scream the imps and the mirror have gone, disappearing into the thick of the carnival.

   The boy knows that there are sounds, but he does not hear them. He only sees the youth and his girl, or some girl, standing in front of him, and the youth is waving a clump of dollar bills. New ones. Crisp ones. As if by habit, as if from year’s worth of muscle memory, the boy takes the bills and pockets them and places three softballs on the counter. The boy steps to the side, and a single ball flies through the air, uneventfully, right into the center can. The ball makes a thud and rolls around the bottom of the container and stays.

   The boy does not think on things further as he hands over the giant teddy bear, the cute one with the milkshake in one hand and the cookie in the other, to the girl who might very well be the one from study hall with brown hair and brown eyes, who was very glad to say yes, please, I would love to go to the carnival. As she squeezes the bear and leaps away with the youth, he thinks on nothing as the next customer, a lanky kid with freckles and a thick pair of glasses, approaches. The kid looks up and, with a smile that is nervous and hopeful, asks how many throws he can get for a dollar.

N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently a college English composition instructor. His work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Coffin Bell Journal, Close To the Bone, Bewildering Stories, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, The Mystic Blue Review, Teleport Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Funny In Five-Hundred. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife.  You can irritate him at ndcoley1983@phil795

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