It all started with a cell; a single, microscopic human cell. One cell became two, two became four; on and on for hours, days, weeks. It was several months before she noticed the faintest trace of anything.
A small, pinkish stain had begun to grow in the center of the hand-me-down recliner chair that sat in the center of Teks� TV room. She had gone out of town for the summer, and by the time she returned, the stain was waiting for her. Teks smiled at it the first time she saw it. Every day she checked on it and every day it grew larger, darker, and more vibrant. Exactly one year after the stain started, it grew its one trillionth cell; it was officially a blob. Trillions of cells and six months later the blob was a human torso.
Teks beamed at her brand new torso. She made it a daily routine to pet the torso, to coo at it; coax it along in its growth. �You�re such a good boy,� she would say to it; after all, it was clearly a masculine torso. By the end of the second year the torso had grown legs and arms; a month later it grew a penis. After the genitals formed Teks decided it would be best to clothe the nearly full-grown body and she dressed him in blue jeans, boots and a plain white t-shirt; a neck was beginning to form and Teks was glowing with pride. The body was a brand new child to her.
The head formed on the third anniversary of the first cell. Teks waited and watched her brand new body all during the day. The instant that the last hair follicle formed, the brand new head�s eyelids popped open.
�Mommy?� the body asked.
�Yes, sweetie,� Teks told her newly formed man-child. �I�m your mommy, and I love you very, very much. I�ve been waiting for this day a long, long time and I�m very, very glad that you�re finally here.�
�From now on I�ll call you Anthony,� she said as she pet her son�s growing hair. The thick black hair was growing by the second as she stroked it. Within minutes of his first words his hair had grown down to his shoulders. �You�ll need your first haircut soon, baby.�
Teks kissed her brand new Anthony on the forehead and held him close to her. The mid-June sunlight leaked into the living room through the blinds and poured down on the newly formed family.
For many years, things were good with Teks and her newly formed family. They laughed together and played in the sun. They went to the park when it rained and they stayed in when it was too hot. Mother loved son and the son adored his mother. Each lived for the other and neither wanted anything more.
Every day Teks would give Anthony money and send him to the store for milk, and every day Anthony would walk the four miles to the corner store, take a fresh gallon of milk off the shelf, put the money into the wrinkled old hand of the store owner, Mr. Hus, and head home. Every night, Teks and her son would split a gallon of milk and they always made sure to thoroughly enjoy it.
One day a young man was waiting outside the corner store at the same time that Anthony was going to buy his daily milk. The young man had a large brown bowler hat and a bushy brown moustache. He was wearing a smart tweed vest, brown overcoat and had expensive looking boots that were mostly hidden by a fine looking pair of slacks.
�How ya doing, mister?� the young man with the moustache asked Anthony.
�Me?� he looked at the young man who was nodding. �I�m doing very well, thank you. What is your name?� he questioned the stranger.
�Name�s Austin; good to finally meet you Anthony.� Anthony was not surprised that the young gentleman knew his name; this was where Anthony bought his milk, after all.
�Now, Anthony, I know that you have been buying your milk here for a long time,� the mustachioed man smiled as he talked.
�Well then, sir, you are as wise as you are dapper,� Anthony smiled back.
�Many thanks on the compliments, Anthony,� they smiled at each other again.
�Now, Anthony, like I said, you�ve been buying your milk here for a long time. And you know what? I get that. I just want to let you know that I respect that. It seems like a good decision, I know. Hey, I�m gonna go buy my milk at that corner store right down the street! It makes sense, Anthony. And no one, no one, is gonna fault you for getting your shopping done in a timely manner,� he paused. �I bet,� he began wagging a gloved finger at Anthony, �I bet that you�re a pretty punctual guy. Am I wrong to assume that you are a punctual guy, Anthony?�
�Why no, you would not be wrong in assuming so, Austin,� Anthony beamed. Along with his own carefully groomed moustache, Anthony�s punctuality was his number one source of pride; he was glad someone had finally noticed.
�Ah, I thought not!� Austin exclaimed as he slapped his knee flamboyantly. �Punctuality is a virtue. And one that is getting rarer and rarer in our modern times, I daresay.� Anthony nodded in agreement, he indeed agreed.
�But, is punctuality all that counts, Anthony?� Austin asked as he took off his brown bowler hat. �What about,� he paused and looked down at the inside of his hat, brushing a bit of lint off as he continued, �what about thriftiness?�
Anthony was stunned. All the years he�d been buying milk from Mr. Hus and he�d never once thought about fiscal responsibility!
�Great God, sir! I�ve neglected my financial duties nearly entirely! I was so set on buying my milk and consuming my milk- because, after all, I need my milk- that I never even bothered to shop around! I�m sure there must be a better price out there somewhere!� Anthony slapped himself in the forehead; ashamed at his irresponsibility.
�I knew you were a smart fellow, Anthony! I just knew it. I see you walk up to this store, cash in hand, and I say to myself, �this here looks like a smart, fiscally responsible fellow!� I tell you I just knew you were smart, Anthony,� the man grabbed Anthony�s shoulder and pulled him close.
�Now, Anthony, what if,� he paused and stroked a gloved finger and thumb over his bushy brown moustache. �What if I told you that there was a way to get your milk at a much more reasonable rate. Would you be interested?�
�My goodness, sir, I�d expect you to know the answer to that already; unless you assume me to be a fool, that is.�
�I assume the opposite, in fact,� he paused. Austin looked at Anthony; his eyes deadly serious. �I happen to have come into a large quantity of milk at a very, very reasonable rate, Anthony. I�d like to sell you some of that milk at half,� he made a motion as if karate chopping a vertical board, �of what you�re paying in here. I know that�s a good deal, Anthony. I�m not gonna lie; it�s the best in the world. No one else is gonna give you that milk at that price. I mean, I�m practically giving it away.�
�I do understand that it is a very good deal on milk that you are offering me. I shudder to think of the money I�ve been wasting on full-priced milk,� Anthony shuddered.
�Do you think we can make a deal?� Austin held out his hand in anticipation.
�Why,� Anthony paused, �most certainly. I will be more than glad to give you my milk money in exchange for your newly acquired milk,� he smiled as he shook Austin�s hand.
�Excellent! Terrific! Splendid!� they high fived and exchanged information; Anthony was to meet Austin behind the Hus store, everyday at his usual time of milk purchase. Austin would provide Anthony his daily milk supply, and they would both be in what is typically known as a win-win, situation. What Anthony didn�t know, was that Mr. Hus had hired Austin to sell the milk to Anthony. Mr. Hus was playing Anthony for a fool, and Anthony was unknowingly playing right along.
For the first week all went according to plan. Anthony bought his milk at a new, lower price, and drank it with Teks every night. �You did a great, smart, wonderful thing,� she would say as she stroked his hair. �How did I get such a smart, loving, wonderful son?�
Anthony, basking in the praise that his mother was showering him with, failed to notice at the beginning of the second week when Austin sold him a gallon of expired milk. It was only a couple of days expired, nothing serious enough to make a person ill, or to even be noticed by most people; however, Austin began to sell only expired milk to Anthony, and even worse, the expiration dates began to reach back farther and farther. The milk was getting exponentially more expired over time and it eventually reached the point were even Anthony could tell that the milk was too old. He decided to confront Austin about the expired milk situation.
�I don�t mean to be improper or rude, Austin,� Anthony said as he looked down at Austin.
�Then don�t be,� Austin interrupted. His moustache had been replaced by a smooth, white, upper lip and devilish leer.
�Well, I�m afraid I must, you see,� Anthony rubbed his hair, �the milk you�ve been selling me� well, it�s expired. I understand that it might be a mistake or��
�Nah, no mistake,� Austin cut him off.
�Oh,� Anthony froze. �I see. Well, I am afraid I don�t quite understand then.�
�Here�s the thing. I sell you the expired milk because it�s cheaper. I only got one shipment and you�ve been buying from that shipment the whole time,� Austin lied. �It�s not old enough to the point of being dangerous to consume,� he lied again. He was a first rate liar. �Now, you can either keep buying your milk from me, at half price, or you can go back to being a fiscal idiot,� he put his hands in his pockets and with one leg up, he leaned back against the wall of corner store.
�I don�t want to be un-thrifty. These are financially insecure times,� he hesitated.
�They are indeed, my man. They are indeed.�
�Well then, Austin, I�m afraid I must keep buying from you,� Anthony conceded.
After Anthony had taken his expired milk and headed home, Austin walked inside the store.
�What�ll it be, Austin?� Mr. Hus asked Austin in a gruff, store owner voice. �The usual?�
�Yeah,� Austin nodded as he looked out of the store�s window, watching Anthony walk down the street. �Just the regular.�
�You know the saying, why fix it?� Hus poured a drink for each of them as he talked.
�Milk profits are up,� Austin remarked as he picked up his shot glass.
�To milk!� Hus exclaimed as he raised his shot glass.
�To profits,� Austin joined in.
The two friends took their shots of milk; both men emptying their glasses in an impressive, single gulp, and then they proceeded to slam the shot glasses down on the counter so hard that each glass broke. Blood began to seep out from underneath Austin�s hand and a small peppermint pool formed and began to drip off of the bar.
With all the money that was being saved on milk, Anthony and Teks were able to live a more fabulous life than they had ever imagined. �Did I do good, Mom?� Anthony asked one day as they sat on the porch of their new apartment.
�You did very well, sweetheart,� Teks said as she pet her son�s head. �Why don�t you go have some fun tonight; go to a bar or something.�
�Are you sure, Mom? I�ve been going out a lot lately. I�ve been spending a lot more than I used to��
�It�s okay, sweetheart. I used to have to budget very carefully. With the discounted milk, we are able to be far less frugal. We now know excess and it�s all thanks to you.� Teks beamed at her son as she told him this. She felt warm when she looked at her son and watched him swell with pride after she complimented him.
Anthony looked his mother in the eyes. �I�ll never let you down, ever, Mom. I promise that I won�t ever do something so awful.�
Teks pulled her son into a tight embrace. As she held him, she whispered. �I�m sure you won�t, sweetie. I�m sure you won�t��
Anthony threw up from the spoiled milk on a cold winter night, exactly three months and one week after he first bought his half-priced milk. He was in a rage when he went to see Austin the next day. Austin told Anthony that there was nothing he could do and that if the milk made him sick, then that was his problem. Anthony took his daily milk home, and cried in the living room for the rest of the day. That night Teks threw up from the milk. The next day Anthony took a hammer, and went down to visit Austin.
Anthony got to the meeting place behind the store exceptionally early. Once there, he crouched on all fours, waiting. Austin got to the meeting place a few minutes later than was usual.
�You made my mom sick!� Anthony yelled, springing up from his crouch, spittle flying from his mouth. A vein was bulging just below his left eye. His face was more purple than red. Austin would have laughed, but when he looked down he saw the hammer in Anthony�s hand. �I told you I wanted fresh milk, but you didn�t listen!� Anthony waved the hammer over his head as he yelled. Austin was surprised that Anthony looked so menacing.
�Woah, woah, hold on there, guy,� Austin stammered, waving his hands in front of him. �Now,� he choked, wiping the sweat from his forehead, �you and I both know that you could have gotten your milk anywhere, why, from right inside this store even.� He pointed at the store vigorously to emphasize just how close the store was.
�But�� Anthony started, stammering. �I�d have lost money!� he yelled, pointing the hammer accusatorily.
�Hey!� Austin yelled; his arm crossing with Anthony�s at the elbow as Austin pointed right back in Anthony�s face. �You were just fine with paying the original prices! It never bothered you to pay them before, you just got greedy. Admit it. You know that you are the one to blame; you are the one who made your mother sick.�
Anthony�s arms dropped to his side and his gaze dulled as the impact of Austin�s words shook him. The hammer dropped from his trembling hand; the head of the hammer dropped square on Anthony�s big toe, but he felt numb and distant and didn�t even wince.
Austin watched in confusion and amusement as Anthony said: �but we never saved any of it. We never saved any of it�� over and over, and then turned around and walked face-first into the wall of Mr. Hus� shop. While Anthony walked into the wall for a second, and then a third time, Austin slunk over to where the hammer lay, picked it up and headed off to the pawn shop. Pawn shops were always looking for hammers and Anthony had left a first-rate hammer.
Anthony went inside the corner store; his shirt and pants were stained with the blood that had begun to spray from his nose on his third trip to meet the wall.
�Hey Mr. Huss!� he beamed. �Remember me?� he smiled; two of his teeth were gone.
�Oh, Anthony, my boy!� Hus looked surprised. �Of course I do! Are you okay? You look hurt.�
�Oh, don�t worry about me. Thank you though, sir.� He walked over to the shelf, where he grabbed a gallon of milk, �I�ll just have the usual Mr. Huss,�
�Ok, lemme just ring you up.� Hus took the gallon and rang it up.
�That�s double what I used to pay here!� Anthony shouted. A bloody lip began to tremble and Anthony raised a hand to settle it. �I would like the old price.�
�I�m sorry, kid,� he held up his hands. �I can�t do anything for ya, that was the old price, this is the new. And, just to let you know, if you were still a regular costumer, you could be getting a slight discount. Ask anyone else who comes here, it�s why they like it� Milk prices are up all over the city.� Mr. Hus paused and shrugged his broad, pudgy shoulders. �What can ya do?�
�Nothing, I guess,� Anthony murmured as he brought the money out from his pocket and placed it on the counter.
The milk was getting too expensive. Anthony and Teks could no longer afford the high priced, full gallons. They had to start buying half gallons after a month, and when the prices again went up, they started buying in pints. Teks looked down at her son. His face was gaunt and his skin was sallow and hung underneath his eyes. She saw that his spirit had been broken.
It was a cold winter day when Anthony went to the corner store for the last time. The graffiti that lined the walls of the buildings on the way to the milk shop were becoming more frequent, more vulgar. Mr. Hus� store had managed to stay, more or less, the same as always on the outside, and�except for the prices�everything was mostly the same inside, too.
Anthony grabbed what would be his final pint of milk from the shelf and hefted it over to the counter. He was feeling weaker every morning. As he pulled the money out of his pocket and went to put it on the counter, one of his fingers fell off.
�Whoops,� he exclaimed softly before he began muttering quiet apologies. �Not sure how that happened.�
�You don�t look good kid,� Mr. Hus said. �You should go home to that ma of yours and get some sleep.�
�Will do Mr. Hus,� Anthony muttered as he walked out into the cold.
The decay continued for days, then weeks, then months. Eventually Teks had a trash bag full of various digits and limbs; a grab bag. By the time summer, and Anthony�s birthday came around, all that was left were a set of lungs, a trachea, a spinal chord, and Anthony�s head.
�Bring me a cigarette will you, Mom?� the head choked.
Teks brought the head a cigarette and lit it for him. The head could no longer drink milk and she didn�t consider it a real person anymore. Her son was gone. She shuffled out of the room and behind her a head inhaled on a cigarette; the smoke traveled down the windpipe and into the lungs. The lungs inflated and a little bit of smoke seeped out of them before they deflated and the rest of the smoke poured out of the head�s nose. As the head continued to puff on the cigarette, its eyes fell out and to the floor, where they rolled away. Tears welled up in the tear ducts, but they had no way to get out. The head still felt that he was the same person, still alive and vibrant, but he was lying to himself. All that had made him a human had long since decayed. His failure gnawed and tore at him until it had completely stripped away his humanity and then it was time for him to let go. The last thought he ever had was that everything was a lot more painful than it was supposed to be and then his jaw fell off like a door where the hinges had rotted away.
BIO: Anderson Rodriguez is currently a student at the University of Texas, where he is working on his English degree. He lives with his cat and enjoys beers. Some of his favorite authors include Bret Easton Ellis, Mark Twain, and Flannery O�Connor. �Decay� is his first published effort.