Agonal Respiration by Caleb Michael Sarvis

Spencer and Josie are hosting a house warming party. I bring Dakari, because Megan’s left him and we arrive close to the end. I meant to arrive on time, but we saw a fox when we stepped out of our Uber and followed it briefly into the woods. It watched us from behind a fallen tree and we passed the boxed wine back and forth, content to wait for its return. I would have offered my meatball of a heart had it meant one caress of that fox’s tail.

It never did, and now we’re shirt-stained and late.

Spencer and Josie bought their place in Bartram, a newly-developed area of town surrounded by forest awaiting more destruction. It’s an end-unit townhouse, succulents planted underneath expensive rocks. When we step inside, familiar teeth play cards around the dining table. Spencer asks us to take our shoes off, Josie recommends a glass of Garfield’s sangria, who I recognize to be the husband of the woman I love. In the coming weeks, I’m supposed to raise their newborn baby because neither wants to be a parent. He and I’ve never met, and I don’t think he knows who I am. She and I decided the adoption over pizza.

I realize Garfield looks exactly like me, only beardless, with different eyes. His eyes are all white, no pupil, and I’m not sure where he’s looking.

Josie’s plastic wings shake as she deals the cards. I avoid the Sangria, though Dakari’s finished off our box, and my thirst is only worsening. For a while I was sober, but I can’t remember the value in that.

The three other friends leave, they’ve been there for hours. Dakari deals and Spencer asks me how I’ve been. I tell him my new job has a lot of free snacks, plenty of dead time, and I can swear as much as I want. Spencer nods, he was a copywriter long before I was, is part of the reason I fell into it. I’m supposed to have edited this novel we’re going to publish through our small press, which I haven’t, and he’s avoiding asking me about it.

“How do I get a job like that?” Garfield asks.

“You have to be an artist,” I say. Dakari snickers at this and throws me a thumbs-up, shoves grapes in his mouth.

“You could be an artist, Garfield. Just have to become a little less practical,” Josie says. The wings she’s sewn into her shoulder blades look weathered and torn. She needs to replace them, just as I do my windshield wipers, but I imagine the process is plenty more difficult. Josie believes she is a fairy – has chosen to be a fairy – and doesn’t want any children of her own. Spencer waves it off, thinks her youth currently speaks for her, and like her youth, this mindset will fade.

Garfield pulls a pill from a zip-lock bag. He washes it down with some of his sangria. There isn’t much about him I dislike, I guess, other than he’s married to the woman I love. He shuts his eyes, smiles, and returns to the conversation. Creases slowly fade from his brow.

“Everything will be fine soon enough. Just a waiting game now,” he says and collects his cards.

“Game isn’t over,” I say.

“Evidently, you’re mistaken.”

I’m worried the baby will have his blank eyes, his smug stillness. How will I ever trust it? Dakari is out of his seat, dancing without music. Josie laughs and takes the hand he offers, teeth marked purple. Garfield pulls cigars from his shirt pocket, motions them towards Spencer and me. We join him on the porch.

The smoke is chalky and stale. I’ve never been good at this.

“How does the world look to you?” I say.

Spencer peers over his shoulder, watches Dakari and Josie.

“Different than you, I imagine,” Garfield says. He can puff rings, tiny and large. When he relaxes, smokes normally, it scoots from his lips like a seahorse. “How does the world look to you?”

“Hard to explain.” But it’s not. The world is a finely-painted aluminum ball. We’re the afterthought of someone else’s lunch. I spend most of my day wondering how to peel it all open. I won’t say this aloud. Instead, I say something stupid, like, “Babies are an art.”

“Hmm.” Garfield’s eyes appear to be made of the same smoke he spews into the night.

Spencer laughs at this, cheeks fat with drink. “My intuition only works in hindsight. I think I’m broken.” He sucks on his cigar, blows a large cloud to the sky, “She had me cut slots in the back of all her shirts.”

We sit in silence, listening to the minute crackle of our burning cigars. Smoke leaks from my mouth, a foggy sort of drool. I don’t believe in souls, but I imagine mine to be a little droopy, heavy with nonsense. I forwent efficiency in exchange for meditation long ago. No turning back now. A fox, perhaps the same as before, trots around the man-made lake behind their townhouse. It appears present, immediate, hungry.

Dakari knocks on the sliding glass door. We turn and see his face, eyes in bloom, face sagged. In his hands, he holds Josie’s wings.

Spencer opens the door, takes the wings from Dakari, then runs up the stairs. “Josie!” he says.

Dakari grabs three beers from the fridge, joins us on the porch.

“What happened?” Garfield says.

“She went to get comfortable. Her dress got caught, so she pulled harder.”

The fox returns, begins its second lap. I feel for it, the chase. Perpetual.

We drink our beers, content to watch the lake and overstay our welcome. Garfield’s voice grows soft. He tells us he doesn’t want to go home, that it doesn’t make a difference, either way.

Spencer’s returned downstairs. He has blood on his hands, his shirt, no concern for us. He’s flushed, hair slicked back. He washes his hands in the kitchen sink, returns upstairs. He leaves the water running.

Dakari finishes his beer, orders an Uber. “Beach bars?” he says. I think he might be asleep.

Garfield walks backwards, away from us, towards the lake, leaves his cigar and beer behind. When I think he’s looking at me, his eyes are lunar. “Make sure you do it right,” he says. The fox approaches lap three, fearless. When it passes, Garfield takes off after it, a pacing sort of trot, and my chest swells like the Hindenburg.

 

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Dead Aquarium or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Mastodon Publishing 2019). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Press and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Fjords Review, Eyeshot, and others. You can read his column on FX’s Atlanta at barrelhouse.com.

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