What We Offer
Nick sat by himself in front of the auditorium’s empty podium, listening to murmurs all around him. “Another night for stories!” he yelled. Squirming in his chair despite the thick, rigid bandages around his legs and neck, his eyes wandered the darkened room.
Nobody else moved—he felt equal parts excitement and aggression as he sized up his potential competition, noting how the others either glared or hid from him. “Who’s first? Who’s first!”
“I’ll get mine out of the way,” said the guy in jogging gear, already hurrying down an aisle. Brightly colored band-aids dotted the volunteer’s arms. His name tag read, “Hello my Name is Eric.”
At the front of the theater, the young man waited while a small box rose from the pedestal, which he opened. Reaching inside, he removed the ceremonial lancet, clean from the night before. The room went silent.
Nick grinned when he saw Eric hesitate, suspecting he might not do it. But Eric took a deep breath and began pricking each finger with the knife’s tip. Droplets fell upon the podium, sizzling like ice on a hot stove. The young man squeezed his thumb to make sure nothing went to waste.
Seeing this, everyone cheered.
The room dimmed, and the central stage lit up like a giant movie screen, displaying images above everyone’s heads—at first, Eric’s story seemed to be about a few people running up an endless staircase; the story formed further, and the audience realized it wasn't stairs but an escalator which kept a young man and his family running against its flow.
Nick recognized Eric from other stories, and laughed to himself, “Classic Eric, can’t talk about home without all that silliness.”
Eric’s character smiled as a long line of family members merrily pursued him. “You better… stop for… a second,” chuckled an older man between strained breaths. A grandmother shoved ahead of him, while a younger woman kept losing her footing, tripping as her high heels got stuck; red in the face, she called out, “Honey, listen to your father!”
But when they’d all nearly reached the top, the flight of stairs flattened as if in an old cartoon, and the young man tumbled back down the slide-like slope, knocking over each family member along the way. After they got back up, the endless escalator returned to its normal shape so the group could begin their chase anew.
Polite applause followed Eric as he stepped off the stage—yet before he found his seat, somebody new stood up. In the dark, the young woman’s nametag lay hidden, buried beneath a trench coat and chain necklace, but Nick had no problems identifying her. The scar around her throat made it clear—Gail, like himself, was a regular.
Gail regarded the lancet, and set to work. Watching the ease in which she ran it along her forearms, leaving red velvet lines, Nick admired how Gail didn’t hold back as much as their supposed peers. Still, he felt slightly disappointed as he joined the cheering audience, remembering that time she’d left him in awe by really letting it flow.
The podium continued lapping up all Gail would give, until not a spot could be seen. No sooner had Nick noted its surreal cleanliness did the stage suddenly flare, making him smile as others shielded their eyes. Blinking, he watched an apartment form overhead, filling itself with tables, chairs, and accessories. Once the bed and bookshelves whirled into place, an older version of Gail walked in, carrying a newborn baby.
As she sat rocking her child, a small troop of ethereal forms materialized, oozing out of the walls and floorboards. They looked like incomplete infants, globs missing from their bodies.
“What about us?” they asked with tiny mouths, interrupting each other with echoes of the question. She waved her hand through their wailing shapes, scattering them, only to see them re-form.
“What about us?” they repeated, following her into another room.
“I’m sorry,” cried Gail. “I’m sorry.” But the forms wouldn’t relent, maintaining their presence when she sat down to nurse her child, or lie in bed, or leave her apartment for good.
Nick shook his head during the applause. “Oh Gail, you poor thing. Must be too much to talk about.”
When she stepped off the stage, he waved his crutches to motion her over. Her chains clinked together as she sat beside him. She looked uneasy, but managed a grin. “So really, what’d you think?”
“Well, you know,” said Nick, “not your usual style, but I can respect that.”
Her face lit up. “It’s a new idea, actually, so it’s definitely rough.”
“Then don’t beat yourself up about it. Nothing lots of revision can’t fix.”
“Thanks…” Gail rolled her eyes. “So what about you? Got something like usual, right?”
Nick sat up. “Yeah, I’m super excited. Brought something special.” He reached inside his coat to reveal a glimpse of a thick wooden handle, only to realize Gail’s attention had already been snared elsewhere.
He couldn’t recognize the new young woman who now stood at the podium. No nametag. Her dawdling about on stage made him laugh—it’d been a while since a newcomer stumbled in.
She timidly picked up the lancet. Looking at her audience made her blush. “T-this is kind of my first time up here,” she said. “So, yeah, before I forget, call me Steph.”
Nick rolled his eyes at the thought of an introduction, and looked for validation. But like the others, Gail seemed quiet and attentive—he cursed her for going soft.
The new girl examined the lancet and the room hushed. Raising the razor above her, she closed her eyes and spread her palm on the podium. Though a little sob slipped out her lips when she brought down the blade, she surprised her viewers with a follow-up gash for good measure.
“Damn,” whispered Nick, “not bad for her first time.” Gail nodded, but didn’t shift her view from the stage.
Equally satisfied, the podium responded in kind, illuminating the room—a girl sat on a couch, dressed with two large shells, while a guy sat nearby, wearing a starfish costume. Between them, movie credits flickered in an otherwise dark room, casting glimpses of several tubed arms stretching toward her.
She rose and turned off the television. “I think I’m going to leave now.”
“No,” said the starfish, grasping her with several arms. “You should stay.”
“Damn,” groaned Nick. “Already see where this is headed.” Gail shook her head.
The girl in the story tightened her shell shut and screamed as the starfish climbed on top of her, wrapping more of his spiky-skinned arms around her casing. People readjusted themselves in their chairs, watching as the thing tried prying her open. And Nick knew what the girl in the story knew—she’d eventually weaken enough that the starfish could break in, detaching its stomach to thrust inside her, digesting all that soft flesh within.
Yet in that last moment, just as the girl’s shell loosened and swung open, the images came to a halt. The podium barely glowed, but it was still enough to see the new girl sobbing.
Everyone gradually applauded, except for Nick, who watched Gail stand and give him a look. Walking off, she hugged the girl before leading them both to a nearby bench. He sighed as he watched. “A shame, especially when things were finally getting raw.”
When the clapping stopped, the podium remained empty. Nick looked around, glancing over the storytellers in the auditorium. So many came and left, never to return. He spotted Gail, arm already around the new girl, and saw her look up. She winked at him before gesturing to the stage.
“Fine, fine,” said Nick, grabbing his crutches. “Time to show ‘em how it’s done.”
Hobbling up to the podium, a bandage around his shoulder unraveled, exposing a half-formed scab surrounded by pink, puffy skin. Nick looked down at the little lancet and smirked. “Oh, it’s fine. Brought my own.” He reached into his coat, waving a large cleaver for an already-cheering audience.
Nick dropped his crutches, leaning on the podium for balance. Slowly, he peeled away each of his bindings, revealing a long series of sutures snaking along his chest and back, zigzagging across fresh, tender blemishes. He heard some of the people gasp.
With that, Nick chopped into his arm, reopening every stitch and scar. Barely able to hold himself up, he took a deep breath before resuming his work, dragging in one continuous gash, cleaving arteries and skin all the way to his chest.
Blood splattered on the podium faster than could be absorbed—it bubbled, a thick oily muck running down the sides. Nick tore into himself yet again, continuing even when the audience stopped cheering. He heard Gail shriek, “Is somebody going to stop him?” and he smiled her way.
The stage stalled, as if not knowing when the donation had been concluded, only for an emission of light to reveal the crowd. But as everyone looked up to watch his story, he noticed their surprise at seeing a distorted image of himself, more scarred than in life, trembling before the crowd.
Nick’s character dug his fingers deep beneath his skin, peeling with ritualistic care. Wincing, he presented each dangling piece of himself to his astonished spectators.
The audience remained mute, even when the story faded overhead. Seeing this, Nick felt his legs buckle as he fell from the podium. Struggling to lift himself up, he hoped his offering had been sufficient before he collapsed, witness to his ovation.
Christopher Morgan is the Chapbook Editor / Chief Bartender for Nostrovia! Poetry, an Editor for tNY Press, and the Editor at Large for Arroyo Literary Review (formerly Editor in Chief). He grew up in Detroit and the Bible Belt of Georgia before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he received his M.A. in Creative Writing and American Lit. His fables have been published at Gargoyle, A cappella Zoo, Voicemail Poems, Little River, Bartleby Snopes, Fruita Pulp, and Skydeer Helpking, among others. He loves Tumblr, Twitter, chess, hiking, and happy hour margaritas.