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(an excerpt from STRANGER WILL)

 Caleb J. Ross
 Caleb J. Ross
by Caleb J. Ross  FollowFollow
Caleb J. Ross uses his middle initial so people don't confuse him with an actor on a show called The Tribe. Otherwise, he thinks using more initials is self-centered, as is self-promotion. His short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Flint Hills Review, Vestal Review, and online in Dogmatika, Word Riot, Present Magazine, and No Record Press among others. He is the co-editor of the zine, Colored Chalk ( Visit him at
Issue 21 · fiction
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WILLIAM MOVED HIS FIANCEE to Brackenwood just months ago citing its high death rate as promise to a more lucrative life for him, her, and their impending child. He removes stains for a living, those left by dead bodies. When a heart stops, his wife gets cable for another month.

He’d thought the cleaning chemicals had made him sterile. Hoped, really. They can’t afford a child. They visited a financial planner, their old neighbor, Gary, who invests mostly in aluminum cans and glass bottle deposits. “Think about it this way, for every baby that gets throwed off a balcony, that’s a month of diapers for yours.” William didn’t want to think about it that way.

The phenyl under his fingernails, pressed into his fingerprint crevasses warps every bite of food into fire. Fingerprints develop within the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy, he’s read. The olfactory lobes—the scent glands—form as early as six weeks. He didn’t know any of this until week ten when Julie finally revealed her pregnancy. By that time he’d already been inadvertently bathing the fetus in cleaning vapors, ammonia, too much peroxide, fumes he’d neglect washing from his clothes, letting them contaminate the air, fall into Julie’s mouth, down her throat, and into the amniotic fluid flowing through the fetus’s oral and nasal cavities. Scientists used to believe that smell depended on access to air. Now they could blame William should anything happen, could blame the bodies he cleans from the road as the source of his child’s any imperfections.

He’s read every book available at the modest Brackenwood library, searching for a possible loophole, a reason to believe that this child will be the one to outlive the trauma of a human lifespan. So far, nothing. The librarian, a hunched twig named Margaret, keeps the telephone near to her when William comes. She’s taken to hiding the parenting books.

William arrives home, sweat, phenyl, and blood claiming his pores equally. Julie pushes William’s hands back, tells him to wash with hot water before getting near her stomach. “The fumes could change it,” she says. “Could take years off its life.”

He read in one of the parenting books that infants crave touch, that the sensation of new skin to the surviving skin of a middle-aged father does something to an infant, like a formaldehyde high might, he thinks, when cleaning out a burned building. The book mentioned endorphins specifically, but formaldehyde, nothing calms the way breathing a biological preservative can.

With each phenyl breath William wishes the inhaled fumes were formaldehyde, solidifying his insides; making him capable of just a few more years, a reason to think he could mutate his genes to give any children a few more days than God could.

“How was work?” Julie asks, though only because their therapist, an old neighbor, Mauve, who tends to cats and head lice almost exclusively, said communication was important. He won’t tell her about the man, baked to his kitchen floor, dead for days amidst the hottest Brackenwood summer on record, his leathered skin and stink that goes with it. And the baby, unattended for during the same time, the same summer, just ten feet away. Instead, he’ll say, “We’ve got cable for another month and diapers enough keep our boy going for at least a few weeks.”



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