by Cristina Vega
Her parents are sitting in the living room couch pretending to drink coffee like the commercials and TV shows where actors take an imaginary gulp. Frankie knows this because she’s passed them behind the couch one too many times to visit the restroom, and each glance over their shoulders show coffee untouched. There’s no brown line marking the height, or a dirty smear as the drink recedes like a drought recedes a lake. On the second to last return to the living room, she finds Coughdrop Man amongst them.
She recognizes the odor before she sees the man. The air’s spiced with medicinal cherry and cinnamon. Frankie wasn’t long in the restroom, yet Coughdrop Man has made a hill with wrappers. He mimics her tricks with a crude sleight of hand. Tablets slide from his sleeves like marbles. They pop out of his wide, oversized ears. They burst from his mouth untouched by saliva. It isn’t perfect. His fingers can’t always get a grip, so the tablets sometimes jump from his hands and hurl themselves in the air. His hands are twisted, gnarled things, as if branches grow in place of fingers. His skin’s baggy around his face like Coughdrop man’s shrinking inside. There’s a suggestion of bruised blue patches when a sleeve dips too far down his arm. Today, his sleeves are firm over his arms and a drop moves around his pitted cheeks like a trapped insect.
“Frankie,” her mom says, a condensed prompt. She didn’t need to nod or point with her head at the props that sit alone where the armchair used to be. Or rather, where the armchair will be. Frankie sees it watching her in the corner of the room like a predator as if to say ‘I’ve been here longer than you, usurper. This is my place now’. It leaves a pale, flattened patch on the carpet. Frankie wonders what she’ll leave behind. Certainly not her things. They’ve been loaded in boxes and waiting for a truck to gather them up. Certainly not her image. They’re in her parents’ harddrives, out of sight, out of mind.
Frankie looks at her parents. Their hands touch their mugs, her dad even bringing his to his lips, but doesn’t drink. Their pallor and limited, stiff movements turn them to complex robots, one step away towards uncanny. There aren’t notebooks or forms on their laps. Frankie breaks out in sweats that clashes uncomfortably with her numb, cold feet and equally frigid fingers. She waves them over a sweaty pack of cards and her generic magician’s tophat her brother Nolan gave to her as a gift. Shakes her hands, wiggles her fingers and plays an invisible piano as she closes her eyes.
‘We’re getting old,’ her parents told her, like old is a disease that spreads so their skins hang loose around their chins and arms like tumors, skin pocked with liver spots similar to bruised bananas.
‘We know we couldn’t keep you.’
‘But we loved having children.’
‘You’re special because you’re the last.’
‘And we know you’ll make Mister Verlaney happy.’
Coughdrop Man, who will always be to Frankie just as Mya and John will always be Mom and Dad, watches her when she opens her eyes. He smiles warmly around a cherry drop, his teeth a bright, bloody red.
“So I have here a regular deck of cards.” Her voice sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of her hat. She looks at her tiny audience, but they blur and shift like a sweaty mirror. Pulling the cards from their cardboard sleeve takes an eternity because her fingers became cockroach legs, each one wanting to go their way. She fans the cards out to show them, and they clump together like cold rice. Cards jerk towards and against one another as she plays an invisible accordion. Her lips are so tight that if she opened her mouth, she might tear through the skin above them. The cards shudder and wobble, but don’t scatter, and she loosens a little at the applause, at something accidental turned intentional. When she lifts her arms, she lets the cards run down her sleeve like a snake, and more applause comes as they come out the other sleeve into her hat.
“Nice, nice!” Coughdrop Man says.
For all his attentiveness, Coughdrop Man isn’t Nolan. Nolan, with his bright, button eyes and corkscrew smile, who let her play with his cello by letting her drag the bow across the strings while he holds the instrument, and sometimes sit on his lap in his car to steer while he worked the pedal. Nolan’s the firstborn and her parents’ bloodchild, while her surrogate was some woman who had to have her by law because men shared her bed. It was something you only allowed once you got married. It scared Frankie so much that whenever her friends came over to play, she kept them far away from her room as possible so that none of them ever got to sit on the bed, much less lie in it. It was okay for Nolan to sit on it, since he’s family, and Dad, too.
Nolan’s lucky from the start, even though he works too hard and has ulcers because of it. Frankie wouldn’t mind going to him if it meant she can help. She hasn’t seen him in years. Their parents tell them that it’s less painful this way. Much like how they gave away the family dog, a black poodle/basset mix named Shortstop. Aging got Shortstop too, half his teeth gone, one eye clouded with cataract, and legs bent with arthritis. Her memory of Shortstop got smaller and smaller until he’s as weightless as the foam balls Frankie’s hefting. She can’t be able to pick out Shortstop from a lineup of poodle mixes.
Unlike most of her audience that peers at her hands like they could see through meat and bone to the escape holes where she keeps her stuff, Coughdrop Man gazes at them with a dreamy, downcast expression. It was the same look that slid over Mr. Evans, her PE teacher when he shows up after a week’s absence remade, glowing with Jerry Auley’s talent as an expert basketball player. He’s skinnier, taller, his stomach less defined, yet Frankie thought he can’t dribble the ball as fast as Jerry could. Her teacher makes more mistakes, but he says it’s a result of fitting in. Frankie knew he could do better if he practices, instead of using his talent as a side-hobby.
The foam balls in Frankie’s hands waver until one hits her wrist. The others quickly follow as they spin and bounce along the floor.
Frankie’s mouth goes dry, the saliva in her mouth replaced with nothing but hard bread crumbs, making it painful to swallow.
Dad drops to scoop up the fleeing props. Coughdrop Man makes a soft noise—it might’ve been an “Oh” or a wince—as Frankie’s mom stands beside her and says, “She’s just nervous.”
“I understand.” Coughdrop Man’s teeth are pink, fading to peach. He looks at Frankie before he asks, “May I speak to her alone for a minute?”
The fear doesn’t go away when her parents are gone, not like in other situations where they take the event with them. She pulls her hat with her cards and wand and stuffed birds tight against her chest because it’s all she has, it really is all she has, she’s reached her full potential.
Coughdrop Man presses a leaf-light corded hand over hers. “I’ll take good care of them,” he tells her.
It only makes her fingers tighten around her hat, crumpling the rim into a knot of fabric in her fists.
“What is it that you’re afraid of?” he asks softly.
Her mouth moves soundlessly in practice before she can speak, and even then it comes out as noises like she’s testing pitch and tone. What’s she afraid of? That he might not practice to make her talent better? That she wants to stay longer with her parents because she’s not sure, that she’s not ready?
Coughdrop Man tries to soothe her nerves by making the tablets appear and disappear like gophers. He’s wincing, and when tablets clatter to the ground, his peach-toned teeth clench in a grimace of pain or anger. “I’m always practicing,” he says as he scoops up the drops, “even if my hands hurt and my fingers are too stiff to be flexible. So, you see, I’ll give your talent the most respect. I won’t discard it. I’ve always wanted to be a magician, but I never was able to dedicate as much time on it as I wanted. With your help, I’ll be able to pursue my hobby and turn it into a career. I’ll even call myself The Amazing Frank in homage to you. Is that okay?”
The Amazing Frank. Saying
it felt oddly adult, like taking up drinking or holding a gun. Even when she
thinks the name it becomes fake, for under the hat and
oversized hand-me-downs she’s a child and years away from eighteen. It makes
sense that The Amazing Frank came from
And that’s what she wants, right? To be wound up with an identity, even if it’s beneath someone else’s? It’s not like Coughdrop Man’s a big person. His hands might as well have been her size if wrinkles and disfigurement haven’t gotten them all swollen and twisted. She’ll be noticed even if it’s only Coughdrop Man that looks down at her hands and maybe when he touches his receding hair that her hair manages to touch up. It wouldn’t be wasted talent like with Mr. Evans. So what did she have to be upset about? She’s done all the growing she can now, and all the times she spends buying decks and punching holes in some of them to run a string over or tape them together or spray paint the back all black to make them blend in the dark…it all has to lead somewhere in the end, right?
“Okay,” she says.
Okay, she says again.
It’ll be okay.
Cristina Vega is a transmasculine writer that grew up in the inhospitable desert of Las Vegas, and now lives in the rain-whipped city of Gothenburg, Sweden. She has a Bachelors in English from the University of Malmö. Currently working as a freelance writer, she has been published in Halfway Down the Stairs and Hello Horror to name a few. Her work is currently ongoing.