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betterthisway.jpg
Art by Jeff Karnick 2011

It's Better This Way

 

 

Bint Arab

 

 

Dahlia would have suffered so much without me to take care of her. Dad took off before I even started going to school, and Ma was always drunk. She fell off the porch one day and cracked her head open, and then Dahlia and me were on our own. I protected her, did everything for her—

no one could ever have loved her more than her big sister. My little angel. She was the pretty one; I got the brains. With hair so light it was almost white and eyes like big marbles, she looked like the lady in the stained glass window at St Olaf's. Not the Virgin Mary, the other one: Mary Magdalene.

 

The whore.

 

The first time it was some loser from high school kicking her around. Her "boyfriend," she called him. He popped her cherry, and Dahlia thought she was in love. I brained him with a baseball bat after a pep rally. Little sister forgot all about her "soulmate" by the time the Winter Ball rolled around.

 

Then that scrawny Andersson boy came home from college one summer, and she spread her legs for him. Maybe she thought he'd take her back to Ann Arbor with him or maybe she really believed he'd marry her someday. The shiner he gave her told a different story. I took care of her delusions by holding him face down in the lake. The wimp didn't even struggle long.

 

The next year it was Clay. He left long purple streaks on Dahlia's throat when he choked her, and he dotted her arms and legs with cigarette burns. It was easy to take care of him: I put water in the brake fluid of his 'cycle. Too bad—that was an excellent bike.

 

But Dahlia didn't get it, and I watched her hook up with one dumb, heavy-fisted asshole after another. Always thinking that love made them push her skirt up. Always believing their promises that they'd never hit her again. Always giddy when one of 'em bought her some cheap ring from the Dollar Store.

 

The day she came home from Peter's house with a black eye, I got an idea. Took me a while to plan it so it'd look like an accident, but I figured it out: I smashed her face with the front door. Blood everywhere, and her screaming like her heart was coming out of her face. I guess I took her to the hospital too fast—we never found her teeth, but they set her nose right. A couple of months later, you couldn't tell it had ever been broken. I thought it'd work to uglify her and keep the losers away, but she learned to smile with her mouth closed and to use that gummy gap to her advantage.

 

Dahlia always was stupid. Beautiful, but stupid.

 

I had to figure out something more drastic. She surprised me by coming into the kitchen before the oil was super hot, but I was smart this time and didn't take her to the hospital right away; I let her squirm on the floor. I told the secretary in the ER that we didn't have insurance or money, but they did the skin grafts anyway. Still, it worked: Dennis dumped her after that first time he visited her in the hospital and saw her face. I told her that no one could ever love her as much as family, but I think she was crying too much to listen.

 

When Dahlia finally came home, she lathered on concealer every day and penciled in the eyebrow. It looked pretty good. She screamed a lot in her sleep, but she'd started locking her door at night. I couldn't get in there to comfort her and chase the nightmares away. Truly, I didn't care as long as the assholes stayed away from her and my little sister was safe.

 

The changes came on slowly. She quit her job as cashier at the Food Palace—just like that, without even asking my advice. She borrowed student loans to pay for beauty school and got a job sweeping hair clippings at Greta's Salon. She bought a car. I knew what was coming next, but I couldn't figure out how to keep her from moving out. Panic gave me heartburn every night. I needed to fix up another "accident," but what? Something crippling, I thought. She couldn't move out if she was stuck in a wheelchair—she'd need my help. She'd see that.

 

Now, of course, I don't have to worry about her. Dahlia wised up real fast. She learned how to punch and scratch and fight dirty. She's been beaten up so many times that she doesn't care about sex anymore. Only seven more years before she's up for parole, but I'm not worried about her handling herself once she's out. She looks older than she really is 'cause her lips are all sucked in. She won't wear the dentures they gave her in the prison clinic so the other inmates won't think she's too pretty. Besides, she can fight better without the fake teeth. That's my girl!

 

Anyway, no dumb shit's gonna try to hurt her now they know what she can do. It was all over the news: Woman Axes Sister. Dahlia knocked me out, tied me up, and chopped off my hands and feet. I couldn't have done it better myself. She even thought of sealing the stump ends with a hot iron so I wouldn't bleed out, that's how much she loves me.

 

If she'd do that to her only family, what wouldn't she do to the next guy who tries to take a swing at her? There's nobody will lay a hand on her now. Nobody.

 

I'm so proud of her.

 

 

 

Home Is Where the Heart Is

 

by Bint Arab

 

 

Tate climbed out of the hatchback and eyed the cracked paint on his mother’s house and the overgrown lawn. He pulled a shoebox from the back seat and shoved it under an arm. Muffled beating tapped against the cardboard from inside.

 

The front door creaked, and the hall stank with the moldy smell that old people’s houses had. Tate didn't linger. In the backyard, it took less than an hour to dig a shallow hole and shove the still-warm heart in. He pushed dirt over it with his bare hands and spoke a few words.

 

Done.

 

Tate returned on the night of the full moon and waited by the sagging shed.

 

A coughing sound began at midnight, wispy at first but then increasingly phlegmy. The ground bulged at the spot where he’d buried the heart, but it took some time for the figure to break through the earth layer: A young woman turned startled blue eyes on him.

 

"Hello, Mother," Tate said. He held out her threadbare towel with outstretched arms.

 

She examined her unlined hands in the moonlight.

 

"I made you young, Mother, so you won’t have to worry about your heart problems any more." He swiped some of the dirt off her face and wrapped her in the towel so he wouldn't have to touch her as he guided her to the house.

 

Once indoors, she balked at sitting at the kitchen table. "I need to . . ."

 

"It’s okay—you can wash up at my house."

 

She paused. "H-how did it happen?"

 

"You had a stroke."

 

"When?"

 

"A week ago. I did everything like you told me to, and it worked just fine. Now I’ll take you home—my home—and you can stay with me—"

 

"No!"

 

"It’s better this way, Mother. I can take care of you—"

 

"You can come here, Tatty. You never come by anymore."

 

"You know I’m busy—"

 

"Too busy for your own mother?"

 

Tate gritted his teeth.

 

"I can’t leave, Tatty." She went to a drawer and pulled a cleaver out. "My heart is here."

 

"Mother . . . ?"

 

* * *

 

The coughing sound rumbled, and a boy struggled out of the ground, spitting out grit. He looked down at his small hands and feet, and then turned in surprise to the woman standing nearby.

 

"Mother?"

 

"Welcome home, Tatty. I made you young so you won’t have to worry about your heart. Now come inside and wash up."

 

 

 

 

 

This story was first published as a podcast on Pseudopod on June 24, 2011 and is available for free at

http://pseudopod.org/2011/06/24/pseudopod-235-flash-on-the-borderlands-viii-warped-love/

 

 

Born in Baghdad, raised in Brooklyn, living in Texas, Bint Arab is perpetually out of place and comfortable with that. She is an emerging writer, with stories published online at Toasted Cheese, Every Day Fiction and Expanded Horizons, and in print in Best New Writing 2013. She administers the writers' forum at www.bibliophilia.org/forum/index.php

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