Short Story by Rebecca Kilroy
You wake up at 2 AM with rust in your lungs. You lurch to your feet and cough a clump of iron filings and old pennies into your hand. You can feel a roofer’s nail lodged in the back of your throat but a few minutes of tentative coughing can’t bring it up. You sip water instead and think about going back to sleep. The idea of waking up again unable to breathe makes you decide against it.
The apartment is cold and still. You dump the coins in your wallet and the filings in a cardboard box on the bathroom shelf where they clatter against other debris. At the end of the month, you’ll take it to the scrapyard and make maybe ten bucks. Probably more at the rate it’s filling up.
The stuff seems to be random: nails and screws and a souvenir penny from Boise, Idaho. Once there was a brass key that looked like it belonged to someone’s front door. You carried it around with you for a few days and thought about finding the owner but it disappeared before you could.
You shuffle into the living room and turn on the TV. This time of night, the only thing you can find are football reruns and conspiracy theory documentaries. You watch a middle-age man with tufts of hair stuck to the side of his head earnestly explain how JFK made his escape to the south of France where he is alive and well to this day.
The last few months, you’ve come to find something comforting about these shows. Sure, this guy thinks a former U.S. President is waiting tables at a wine bar in Avignon but at least he’s got an answer. You don’t have any idea why you’re coughing up rust. You read a fairy tale once about girls who had things fall out of their mouths when they spoke, rubies or toads depending on who they’d pissed off. And there was that Cortázar story about the writer who vomited rabbits. You suppose you have it better than him. You wouldn’t mind a few rubies but you can’t stand the thought of a living thing crawling out of your throat.
When you cough again, a brass gear lands in your palm. Its edges are sharp and shiny with blood. It looks like it fell out the back of an old clock or an automaton. You roll it along the couch edge and wonder if something’s stopped working because of it, if someone misses it. It doesn’t matter now. It’s lost. The documentary on TV has changed to one about how Martians built the U.S. Capitol.
You fall asleep without meaning to. When you wake up, daylight is coming in the blinds and the phone is ringing. You let the machine pick it up. It’s just the hospital again. They want you to come in for more tests, more scans, another round of treatment. Their theories on what’s wrong with you are as much a guess as anyone’s– anemia, iron surplus, tetanus. You haven’t told them about the ruby-and-toad story yet. It probably wouldn’t get you anything more than a psych referral.
You make yourself a cup of coffee instead and cough a few screws into your hand, phillips heads. You twirl one between your fingers looking at the little cross carved into the top. Rust has eaten out the edges and worn the threads smooth.
When you were a kid, your uncle collected old metal. Everyone called him Rusty and you never found out what his real name was. His house was packed with cardboard boxes full of spare parts. They’d started in the garage and spread until the whole place was swallowed up and he had to buy a shed for the backyard just to live in. You used to think that he was trying to clean up because anytime you saw him, he was sorting through a box– nails from washers, washers from screws, phillips head from straight head. But he never seemed to make a dent in the mess. It wasn’t until you saw him finish a box, turn around and dump it back out again that you understood. Your mother said he was a disgrace. She stopped letting you visit him after a box of penny nails almost fell on your head when you were twelve. No one even knew where he got all that metal from.
You sip your coffee. It burns going down. The hospital warned you this might happen. Your throat is scraped raw from all the screw tips and gear teeth. Eating will start to get hard soon. It’s the kind of thought that would keep you up at night except everything already does.
You decide to finish your coffee on the beach. You pour it into a travel mug and screw the top on. You’re more or less always dressed these days in sweatpants and a t-shirt, rumpled from your bed. You carry the mug onto the porch and down a flight of sandy wooden stairs, studded with rusted nails. Five years ago, when you moved in, your landlord said he’d fix those. Now he doesn’t see a point to it. The salt-air eats rust into everything, he says.
You take a deep, sharp breath of it, clear and corrosive. You hold it like the drag of a cigarette. You’ve never been a smoker but most of your family is.
You walk the seven blocks to the beach. It’s November. The water’s gray. The sand’s cold. You have the place to your self. You kick off your shoes and bury your feet in it.
You’re breathing hard. Your chest rattles like a kid’s piggy bank. You bend double and cough up nail files, washers, old coins, metal springs, soda tabs, magnet bars. They scatter in the sand at your feet. You kick a layer of it over them and think about the old man who will come walking here in a few hours with his metal detector in one hand and a cigarette in another. At least they’ll be something for him to find.
Published 20th April, 2023.
Rebecca is a novelist, short fiction writer and writing teacher based in New Jersey. She has been previously published in "Fatal Flaw" "Oranges Journal" "Capulet Magazine" "Neologisms" and others. She is also the founder-editor of "Thanatos", a death-positive literary and art magazine.