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Bubblegum and Citrus

WARNING: Contains Disturbing Imagery. Discretion is advised.

art by Kim Holm (@denungeherrholm)

New York City, New York

Cities like New York are the only ones in this country our people can survive, the man in the dark glasses and baseball hat thinks. He walks down 31st Street as close to the buildings to his right as possible. Whenever a busy store front or homeless person forces him to swerve out of the shade, he feels his irritation bubble up like acid blisters. The worst times are when he has to cross a street intersection. He hates the sun. When he feels his skin start to burn, or when his blisters scab over, he curses those leeches for ever crawling out of their caves. Some of his kind praise these modern humans. 

They say their construction of concrete and steel jungles is a step up from the past thousands of years lurking in forests and caves. But this man isn’t convinced. His people ruled the shadows, hiding and hunting freely. People told their children of his people and they lived in fear. These humans now do not know fear. They’re protected by technology and wide open spaces and with all these damned shining surfaces. He hates those most of all. Even when he’s safe in a narrow alley, or hulled up in a building, a passing car or even those damned phone screens still reflect sunlight right at him. 


Some of his kind sneak around below the surface. Like rats, they inhabit the sewers and call it paradise. But when they come up to hunt, they reek of the stench their noses have gone blind to. Their attacks are messier, louder, and increasingly noticeable. 


He hates this new world’s rules. Before, all one had to do was survive by their own skills and nature. You could hunt and steal and overtake easily. Now, the whole world runs on paper and plastic. If you don’t blend in, follow the rules, the whole world turns its eyes to you. There are no shadows to rule now. They own the shadows. So the man copes, gets a job, holds down an apartment, dresses in a normal way, and gets by. Surviving. 


Besides, the man thinks as he walks into the bookstore he labors in, they wouldn’t recognize our people anyway. They think his people are beautiful celebrities with wit and charm. They think it’s all sex, blood, and rock and roll. Or, they think they’re shapeshifters who fly like deformed bags. Bats.  The only reason the whole bat thing came about was because the peasants thought it was bat screeching they heard. 


The man clocks in and goes behind the counter. No one wants to look him in the eye. He is gaunt, grey haired. His eyes are always bloodshot and his skin is liverspotted and faintly jaundiced. Everyone gives him a wide berth, but he gives no reason to be fired. He works, shows up on time, and takes the shifts he’s given. He survives. 


“Hi!” chimes a small voice. The man turns around to see a small girl standing at the counter. She looks up, rocking on the heels of her feet. Her cheeks are almost as pink as the highlighter hue of her jacket. Strawberry blonde is tucked under her yellow knit cap with small stray hairs curling around her ears. “I’d like to buy this book, please mister.” She puts a yellow Curious George Goes to the Hospital on the counter. She smiles with a gap where her front teeth are missing. The man says nothing but rings the book up. 


“Ten forty,” he says. His voice is dry as tobacco. The little girl lifts up a twenty dollar bill. He grabs it and makes the change in the register. As he’s counting the cash and coins, the little girl speaks up. 


“Do you want a bubblegum?” The man looks over. She’s holding a hand up. A cube wrapped in wax paper with “Bubble Yum” printed in pink sits on her open palm. It looks like half a stick of butter compared to her small hand. He doesn’t say anything. He holds the coins out and she puts the gum on the counter. He drops the coins and cash beside it. She stuffs the change into her small jacket pocket and takes the bag he lowers to her. “Thanks!” She walks away, the bag almost dragging on the floor. The man watches her leave, probably to a waiting parent outside. 


He turns to return to his task when he notices the gum still on the counter. Picking it up, he holds it up to his lips and inhales deeply. Wax paper and an overly sweet smell of the candy. He thinks of this age’s obsession with cavities and diabetes in children, yet every store sells dozens of candy bars and packs of gum. But he finds the smell he is truly after. Hers. It’s a warm, sweet and sour smell. The strawberry flavor of her shampoo, the oils in her skin, the scent of her mom’s laundry detergent, the faint musk of her father’s cologne, and the sour smoke of her mother’s cigarettes. And under it all, he can smell her blood. The iron isn’t strong until puberty, and in children her age it has a cherry like aroma. His mouth waters as he thinks about it. He craves that warm gush that leaves a citrusy aftertaste in the tongue, that first spurt that hits the back of the throat like a lonely man’s cum in a whore’s mouth. His dry lips curl over his sharp, yellowed teeth. He puts the gum in his pocket and gets back to work. 


All day, the faint smell of the gum drifts from his pocket. All day he helps people who reek of chemically dissolved roses and menthol cigarettes. Two teenagers reek of skunk spray cannabis and a fat man buying a set of manga graphic novels is a walking tub of salt and vinegar sweat and ejaculate.  In between the lines of people, the man focuses on the scent of her. 


Eight hours later, he clocks out and steps outside. It’s raining, which brings the musty smell of water to the rotten bouquet of smog, smoke, garbage, and shit. Time Square is bright as day from the billboards, but the sun has long set. He digs in his pocket and takes out the gum, unwraps it, and brings the wrapper to his nose again - the gum is thrown to the ground. With a deep inhale, he takes it in. The scent is faded, the linty smell of his pocket is very prominent, but not overpowering. It’s there. He can almost feel the smell stick to his nostrils and throat. There’s a shift in his brain and he opens his eyes. Everyone around is replaced by blobs of orange and yellow heat signatures. Smells all around him swirl in greens, blues, and purples. He exhales, and focuses. A faint trail of red appears close to the ground. At last, the moment he’s waited for. 


He walks intently, following the red trail for a winding mile and a half through the city, a mile through the dark green mist of Central Park, and another few blocks to the apartment building. He takes one last deep inhale of the wrapper, then crumples it and throws it to the ground. Looking up, he scans the building. At the fifth story window, a small red cloud emanates. He steps into the alley, close to the brick wall, and raises his hands. Iron hard claws dig into the slippery bricks as he climbs, climbs until he can peer in through the window. Her room is a fog of cherry red scent. She’s just a small ball of yellow bright light, sleeping on her bed. He rips the screen and silently crawls through the window. She’s all he can see as he stalks forward. He smiles and his smile widens, splitting his face from ear to ear. His jaw falls and the flesh of his mouth swells. Thick saliva drips from a pointed, swollen tongue and from the rows and rows of thorn shaped teeth. The vampire’s mouth flesh undulates as he leans down, a faint hiss of ecstasy escapes him.


She’s found in the morning, her body a dry, pale sack. Her head is nearly severed, the wound a ragged, shredded mess. And when the man clocks in to work that evening, he can still taste citrus and cherries. 

Text Copyright © Maximillion Almgren-Bersie 2023

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