What Happens At Home Since I’ve Gone Away

I learn fast that there are rules in the underworld. If you want to get by, you have to work their system.’

Don’t eat anything, not even a seed.

Don’t let one of them touch you, the damned with their eyes big as serving dishes. They’ll follow you around, sniffing your hair, which doesn’t smell like death, a not-smell they haven’t smelled before; you’ll go around in a haze of their sour breath, never get it out of your clothes.

When he rolls over and says he wants to have a child, I let him say his piece. I take it as a come-on. “Let’s make a baby.” My stomach rumbles and he begs me to eat and I say no. Not until my own people’s hunger ends. With me down here, nothing up there grows. They’re starving, their guts turning inside out. “Do you know that? Are you even aware of that?” He’s aware.

As if to stick it to me, his servants choose this moment to wheel in the buffet. Two of the damned, raisin people with indigo lips like him, their breath a mustard gas cloud, pushing a metal cart to my side of the bed. Everything I could want piled on it. White cheese on toast points, pomegranates, Cornish hens. Someone has spelled out my name in cherry tartlets. It isn’t their regular food, a sad porridge they suck from straws; they’ve gone to the ends of the earth for this.

The day I rolled into the city, they slipped like eels around me. Each time the chariot paused, more and more of them climbed on the back, creeping around to get a look at me. Death metal thrashed from the castle, prophetic music, like this was a day that had been foretold. He turned around in the chariot and asked if I was afraid of the dark. I’m not. His lavender teeth flashed under the black lights from their version of a sky. “Watch the road,” I told him. Already, an old couple. He laughed because it’s his road. “I do what I want.”

The damned clogged the way, only letting us pass when he whipped the horses bloody. They’ve never had a queen, not even a volunteer.

I tell them to take the cart away, but they leave it. They leave their stench of rotten fish and sauerkraut. He’s their boss man. They don’t respect me yet.

Korē,” he calls me. Girl. Not my name. He says this in the dark, too. Not the regular dark they live in most of the time, the dark-dark after the black light goes out and the whole underworld puts their lavender teeth back behind their lips. They don’t smile in the dark, I can tell.

Cracking under his fingers, the pomegranate splits in half. Juice all down his arms, blood from a fight he’s won. I know he’d split my skull this way even though he thinks he’s in love with me. Maybe he is. He loves me the way you love people you know from trains and coffee shops. People you don’t know or love.

He hands me half the fruit with the hull still on, and I let it fall on the sheet, bloodying it. It’s me telling him I’m not going along with this. He can kill me if he wants.

He laughs. “You’re already dead, stupid.”

The tattoos on the insides of his wrists are no joke. Part of some old awful story. The left says Regret. The right says Nothing. That’s the other rule down here, not to ask about that. I wouldn’t if I could; I’m afraid I’ll get sewn into the story and it into me and I’ll never get out of here.

At home, I’m life. Wheat in the fields and bread in full bellies. Cabbages sprouting whole behind my step, straight out of the earth. If I ever get home, my mother can stop worrying the earth bald.

His wrists look slashed, as if I’ve torn him with my nails. He tries again, asking for a child. “Hell is for lovers,” he says, though we’re not lovers; that’s not what this is even sort of. I creep toward my edge of the mattress, trying to come back from the dead. I take a bite from the pomegranate moon that fell onto the sheet, spitting the seeds like teeth he’s knocked out. I smile with my bloody mouth and ask for a kiss.

Emily Koon is a fiction writer from North Carolina. She has previously published work in Bayou, Atticus Review, Hot Metal Bridge and other places and can be found at twitter.com/thebookdress.