This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.
On her 32nd birthday, Thomas brings home an unmarked cardboard box.
Keep an open mind, he says.
Inside the box, in bubble wrap, is a flesh-colored vibrator. Realistic-looking, veined and arched, a switch at its base. Bigger than Thomas.
It’s supposed to be the one that’s closest to real, he says.
But why? Maggie says.
I’m the only man you’ve ever been with, he says. This is a safe way for you to experience something different.
She leaves it in the box and puts it inside a suitcase beneath her side of the bed, where the children won’t find it. And when he asks—Can we try, here, you run it under hot water —the first time she holds it against her skin, it’s as if she’s withdrawing into herself, away from Thomas and reality.
Can you? he breathes. I mean, will you?—if it feels OK—
She’s lying on her back. He’s kneeling beside her on the bed, watching from above. She inserts just the tip. Pushes a bit farther, arching to get the angle right. Thomas makes a choked sound, falls onto her, shudders. The tentative wiping off with a towel. She grabs it from him and does it herself.
You didn’t like it, he says.
It’s an object, she says. I don’t have an emotional connection to an object.
I know, he says. But for me to watch, I mean it’s so—
Don’t ask me to do that again.
I’ll get rid of it right now, he says, stuffing it into the box.
At night they hear Kate’s voice hours after they’ve put the children to bed. Maggie goes upstairs and finds her sitting cross-legged in the dark.
Everything OK up here? Maggie asks.
I’m talking to my friends in heaven, Kate says.
Just some girls. Actually one’s a boy.
Maggie sits on the edge of the bed.
What are their names?
They won’t tell me.
What do you and your friends talk about?
They ask me questions. Only now they stopped because you’re here.
Can you remember what you were talking about, just now?
Something about a cat, she says.
Kate begins to cry every night at bedtime, saying she’s scared to go to sleep. One night, when Thomas switches off her lamp, she throws up on her quilt. She starts to throw up after dinner, as soon as she starts thinking about bedtime. Thomas and Maggie take turns lying on the floor beside her until she’s asleep. She wakes up in the middle of the night and comes downstairs to get into bed with them.
My friends won’t talk to me, she says, her thin body quivering.
Let’s let her sleep in our room until she’s out of this phase, Maggie says the next morning.
I don’t know. Won’t it feed things, to cater to her fear?
The following week Maggie takes Kate in for a haircut.
The stylist comes to the waiting area a few minutes after she’s shampooed Kate’s hair.
I’d like to show you something, the stylist says.
Kate’s curls are wet and combed flat. From the back of her head sprouts what looks like the tip of a tiny saguaro cactus.
We have a little breakage back here, the stylist says, chipper.
Where? Kate says, a hand flying to the back of her head.
Have you been pulling your hair, Katie bug? Maggie says.
Sometimes, Kate says. I promise I won’t do it anymore.
Excerpted from Jamie Quatro's upcoming book, Fire Sermon, out next month from Grove Press. © 2018 by Jamie Quatro