Layer By Layer by Wendy Hammer

It’s Onion Night at Rusty’s Shed.

The event is never listed on the illuminated box that hawks the drink specials. Onion Night isn’t like Happy Hour or Friday Karaoke.

It’s not for everyone.

Onion Night always begins the same way. I pick a table in a dim pocket on the quiet side of the bar and place the onion in front of me. Tonight’s specimen is particularly handsome—a firm oblate spheroid with papery skin drawn into a tight topknot. I turn it so the produce sticker faces the room.

Rusty responds to this signal, as he always does, by ambling over to drop off a mason jar filled with a dirty martini and a cocktail spear loaded with olives. I salute with the glass and take a hearty swallow. “It won’t be a long wait tonight. I can feel it.”

He nods. Slow. Like he feels it too. “I’ll send ‘em right on over when they come, Miss Vidalia.” Rusty tickles the onion with a gnarled index finger all shiny from the lotion he slathers on to combat bar rot. He’s fighting a losing battle and I can see some telltale swelling by the cuticle of his thumb.

I need to volunteer to cut the lemons and limes for his next shift. My hands are already cracked and dry, thick with calluses. I never moisturize or fool with fancy manicures, and I keep my nails short and strong. They aren’t pretty, but they get the job done.

Rusty finds my first customer before I’ve had a chance to finish half my drink. I see the boy lean in to listen to the pitch and pretend not to notice when he sneaks a peek at me. I try to project serenity. I let my eyelids droop and pull the corners of my mouth up in a little half-smile. When he turns back to Rusty I suck in a quick mouthful of martini.

The boy nods to himself and shuffles over. “The old guy said you tell fortunes.” He thrusts out a hand clutching a crisp hundred.

I gently tug it out from between his fingertips. “He’s right. Sit. Please.”

The boy obeys. He blinks at the onion and then at me. A blush creeps up his neck and comes to rest on the plump apples of his cheeks. He looks too young to be in a bar.

I could talk to him about the mystical power of onions—their secret hearts and layers. I keep quiet instead.

“So do you, like, read cards or something?”

“Sure thing.” I always let the customer choose what form their reading will take because they’re all the same to me. I rummage around in my bag for the right bundle and make a show of unwrapping the deck from its parcel of indigo silk. I push the stack over. “Keep your concerns in mind while you shuffle the cards. Then make your cut.”

The cards slap and burr as he handles them. Words pour out of him at the same time. I pick up all sorts of useful details in the flood of trivialities. His name is William. He’s a diligent student, a small town boy—a soft touch who couldn’t dissemble if he tried. In short, he’s a cold reader’s dream.

I suppress a sigh. I’d hoped this one would be easy, but he’s sweet and in need of something more than a show. I adjust my strategy and skip the preliminaries. I’m guessing he’s not here about the past and his present is likely to be something he’s given a fair amount of attention to. He wants what he can’t touch on his own.

I flip the top card and don’t even bother to look at it. “This represents your future.” I draw out the sentence, trying for a tone somewhere in between the mysterious and maternal.

William stares at the image like a kid sizes up the candles on his birthday cake—like if he does everything right it will grant his dearest wish. It doesn’t work that way, but I can use the extra moment. His distraction gives me the time I need to do this right.

I ease my middle finger up to my mouth, find the edges of a chunk of hardened skin, and sink my teeth in. Power gathers. It knocks and punches at me, demanding entrance. I stiffen, finish the bite, and spit the strip of flesh into my hand. I close my fist around it to keep it safe.

The Opening is tiny, just enough to let me capture the answer to his unspoken question: codes, compilers, vectors, good. I say, “Don’t change your major. Stick to computer science. Take the graphics class and don’t stop gaming. It’ll pay off.”

William jerks back in his seat. His eyes widen. “The card told you all that?”

I nod and bring my index finger up to my mouth. The move will pass as nervous habit. I nibble off another piece of skin and crack the Opening wider. More power filters in. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I see a message lit on a monitor.

“This is tied to a girl, right? Olivia? You might want to check your email later. She won’t be in the picture after tonight.” I clear my throat before adding, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

William pales and stutters out a halfhearted thanks. He bumps the table and almost knocks over the chair as he shoots to his feet. The onion wobbles, but remains standing.

I stay still. It isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. Most genuine readings have a sting to them—the salty prickle of tears or a catch in the throat that adds a pungent edge to any hint of sweetness. They tend to linger.

I have a hard time shaking them off too. The energy I’ve summoned continues to pulse and my fingers twitch in response. There’s only one way to shut it down. I place both pieces of skin on my tongue and swallow them whole. The Opening slams shut and the tension eases.

Rusty can’t feel it the way I do. He just laughs and shakes his head as he watches the young man haul ass out the front door. He turns to me and calls, “Need a refill yet?”

I gulp down the rest of my martini and give Rusty the thumbs up. I’m ready for the next round.

#

Kandi shows up ten minutes later. She breezes right past Rusty and makes herself comfortable at my table. “I asked around about you. Doreen down at the Piggly Wiggly said you read her palm one night and that what you said come true for her. She got that raise.” Kandi pulls a roll of greasy twenties out from her cleavage and flips it on the table. The money almost unfolds, expands like it’s fighting for breath, and goes still.

“I’d like you to do it for me.” Her voice is loud, but quivers. “I need some answers.” A yellowing green bruise surrounds her right eye.

I push the wad of cash back over to her. “I was thinking about knocking off a little early, and…”

Kandi glances at my arms.

They’re covered tonight, but I know she’s thinking about what’s underneath the fabric.

She saw my scars last week when I was in her lane at the grocery store. My sleeves were too loose and they slipped back when I hefted a gallon of milk up onto the conveyor belt. A ragged two inches of fresh pink snaked below a shallow arch of scabbed half-moons on my exposed forearm. Someday the set will fade and blend into the larger crisscross of pale thin lines, but at that moment it had still been tender.

Kandi had drawn in a sharp breath. Our eyes had met.

Her look had said: I know you. I know this. She’d reached out to pat my hand and her eyes had filled. Sister.

Kandi is giving me the same look now, and just like before, I know it comes from kindness. It’s still mistaken.

“Please?” Her request is barely a whisper. She reaches out and rubs the onion. It’s no Buddha statue and I’ve never known it to bring much luck, but who am I to judge?

I take the money.

“Rest your palm face up on the table. Sit tight and take deep, even breaths. Close your eyes. Relax.” I force my tone into something low and soothing.

As I murmur, I pull my sandaled foot up to rest on my knee. My fingertips run over the misshapen nail on my baby toe and find the notch worn in its center. I get a grip on the outer corner of it and pull. The nail has been weakened by years of this routine, yet it isn’t about to give up without a fuss. I wiggle it—rock it from side to side. The pain is sharp at first and grows worse.

I grit my teeth against it. I want to stop, but I need what it will bring.

This Opening is going to be deeper and wider—the amount of power it will admit into this world, much stronger. I can feel it battering against me.

I force myself to pull slowly. Yanking too hard can tear the nail. I give it a slight twist, hoping to draw it out like a cork from a bottle.

The pain screams up the length of my toe before the root loses its grip. A rush of endorphins floods through me as I draw the nail out of its bed. The little digit feels hot and stretched thin.

My fingers are slicked with blood and I can feel more trickling down my foot from the pool the extraction left behind. The hurt will catch up to me later. For now I don’t care. The throbbing recedes as the power streams out of the wound. I concentrate and channel it all into the nail I’ve got cradled in my fist. The force thrashes, yet I prevail.

“It’s time.”

I use my clean hand to trace the lines on Kandi’s palm. The future is tangled and layered. Following its twists and changes is never easy. I couldn’t do it on my own. I need the energy to lead the way, to give me a steady look at what’s ahead.

Sometimes I don’t like what I see. Sometimes the truth cuts deep.

I drop all that heart-, fate-, love-line nonsense. I need to give it to her straight. “Levi will kill you within the month if you don’t get away,” I say.

Kandi shakes her head, grabs my hand, and squeezes hard. Then she laughs. It’s an ugly laughter, the kind that sounds like a hacking cough. The sort that’ll bring up blackness as deep and bitter as tar from a smoker’s lung.

I hold on to her hand and try to ignore the images still flickering around it.

“Well, shit,” Kandi says.

We sit quiet for a minute or two before I let go and nudge my mason jar over.

Kandi drinks, shivers, and hands it back. “I guess I had a feeling it’d be something like that. Guess I knowed it for a long time. Only I wouldn’t let myself hear it until now.” She sags in her chair. “I can’t just pick up and go though, right? Where…”

The power flares and I shudder with the force of it. I cover up by reaching in my pocket to pull out a card. I keep a little stash and try not to think about how many times I’ve had a need for it. “Call this number. These folks can help get you out. Get you set up elsewhere. You won’t be alone.” I press it into her palm. “Do it. Tonight.”

Kandi lifts her chin. Sets her shoulders. She stands and taps the onion’s topknot with the edge of the card. When she walks out of the bar, her back is stiff and her head’s held high.

I let the power ride a moment longer, to see. Her future hangs on a thread, thin as an onion’s skin.

I bring my stained hand up to my mouth. I lick off the residue of blood and place the nail I’ve been palming onto my tongue. I taste more copper as I chew. The power begins to break down as the nail softens and loses its integrity. I know I’ve swallowed a moment too soon when I feel another surge of power. It pounds at both my esophagus and the clot on my toe as it tries to escape.

I clamp down and force it back under control. One last bit of information squeezes through—a glowing map with a little teardrop bearing the letters KJ on it. I’m not sure what it means and don’t have time to dwell on it before Rusty sends over the next customers.

I don’t waste any skin on them. I gaze into a crystal ball, cast some runes, and pretend to consult a spirit guide. I joke about finding lost car keys—the usual. None of the customers notice how I fish for responses, how I fold their answers into mazes that lead to sugary dead ends. I know I’m not cheating anyone. I give comfort, flattery, and support—whatever it takes—and everyone gets their money’s worth in the theater of it all.

Some people want drama, not truth.

All they need to know of onions can be found in cookbooks and vegetable bins.

#

By the end of the night, I’m feeling better than good. Even after I tip Rusty out, I’ve got nearly seven hundred dollars in my pocket. It means I can make rent this month and maybe even take an extra day or two off. He keeps after me to do it and it isn’t bad advice. I could use a break.

My toe starts to throb as I walk out the door. The pain reminds me I need to bandage it soon or risk infection. I can’t afford that kind of weakness. I can’t let Rusty down either. He needs me.

I left him polishing the glasses. Said I wanted to stretch my legs in the night air. It wasn’t a lie. I love the cool of it and how the black sky brightens to deep blue around the lot’s sole street lantern. It’s peaceful once everyone’s gone but the two of us.

Gravel crunches behind me.

I turn and see Kandi. Her face has been pulped and her right arm is bent at an unnatural angle. The only reason she’s probably still standing is that she’s being held upright by a hand clenched at the back of her neck.

I recognize the man from my vision. Levi. He’s lean and roped with muscle. His skin is yellowed and pocked, shriveled up like a cob of picked over field corn.

He fixes me with a stare and shoves Kandi forward. She goes down hard and falls still.

“You the stupid whore that tried to fill my woman’s head with poison?”

I look down to see she’s breathing. It’s a good sign, worthy of hope.

“You look at me when I’m talking. She come see you?” He smirks. “Don’t lie. I got an app that tells me every move she makes. Phone’s smarter than that dumb bitch will ever be.” He spits and it lands by Kandi’s feet. “Doreen told me about Onion Night. Only time that one’s quiet is when her mouth’s full.” He jerks his hand up and down and thrusts his hips forward. “Know what I mean?”

I scuttle backwards and reach into my pocket. My fingers brush plastic and I grab hold.

“You need a lesson.” His voice is brittle and chill.

My feet freeze in the gravel. I panic and brandish my vegetable peeler.

He barks a laugh. “What do you think you’re gonna do with that? Cook me dinner?” His grin is toothy and wide with contempt. His gaze crawls over my body.

I hold out my arm, place the razor sharp blade in the crook of my elbow, and slice off a long ribbon of skin. It hangs in a loose spiral at a point just above my wrist. I scream as pain and blood and power surge from my body.

I see Levi’s plans for us.

Fistropebloodditch.

Coldcoldground.

He stares at my arm and the blood as it streams from the cut. His mouth falls open and hangs slack. He doesn’t move.

I fear his shock won’t last much longer. I take another swipe and watch another shaving of skin curl from my arm. The pain is distant for now.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

I sever the pieces from where they dangle and throw them at Levi. The strips hit his chest and cling there. He squeals. Spots of red bloom and spread in the fabric of his t-shirt.

Rusty asked me once what would happen if I didn’t close the Opening—if I didn’t channel the power or eat the flesh.

This is the answer.

The power goes wild and grabs Levi. It knocks him to the ground and strips him down layer by layer. Threads fly as his clothing unravels. He thrashes and screams, but there’s nothing for him to get a grip on. There’s no escape. He’s peeled down to hairless pink, then to red as the power continues to feed.

I jump when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t notice Rusty’s approach. He wraps a bar towel around my arm and keeps pressure on it. We stand and watch.

After a while Levi stops screaming.

When it’s over the only things left are the two curls of my skin, all shrunken and dull red like old apple peel. They still hum with power.

Rusty checks on Kandi as I pick up the pieces. I shake the grit off before shoving them in my mouth. I refuse to gag and force myself to chew instead. My jaws work and my teeth grind as I break the tissue down. The repetitive motion soothes away all that fear and anger, settling it into something I can’t quite get a grip on yet. It’s all tied up in knots.

I swallow the last of the flesh. The power doesn’t fight at all this time. It’s sated and sleepy.

I stand, bathed in the light from the lot’s lamp and the smear of the moon above as I contemplate the situation. I try to bundle up the pain and shove it into a far corner. It’s going to be with me for a while and I’m in no hurry for it to settle in and get comfortable.

Rusty cradles Kandi, sings a sweet little song just under his breath. She awakens and looks up. Her eyes look like they’re focusing and she seems relatively alert, but I figure she’s too far into shock to really know what’s going on.

The crying will come later.

I give him a nod and he places the call to 911.

I don’t think she’ll remember much about what happened out here in the lot and I see better days ahead for her. I’m glad she’ll get to claim them.

This time there’s no pressing need to ask the onion to tell me what’s what—the picture’s pretty plain to see. Then again, I’ve learned to never turn away from what’s been paid for. It’s for the best and I know it’s true.

I look into our future and nod at what I see. My eyes brim and I blink away the salt. It’s a good hurt, this knowing—got a power all its own.

It says: little by little, layer by layer, we’ll all heal.

2 thoughts on “Layer By Layer by Wendy Hammer

  • October 11, 2015 at 1:28 pm
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    Shocking, original, beautifully written with a sad, honourable, kind main character. I liked this very much, and I still don’t’ understand the universe presented.

    Reply
  • October 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm
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    Wonderful way of toying with the idea that magic has rules, a price-tag in order to wield it. I was draw right in and felt myself seated at that bar with her and her customers. Loved your descriptions and the end was hopeful despite the darkness of the situation. Well done!

    Reply

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