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2017 June 23, Friday
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# H
Chocolate Ex-Lax Cake and the Sucker Man
by Athena Workman
First published online on 2005 July 14.
Editor’s Foreword
“Sorry Agent Mulder, but we didn’t keep that thing!”
SFFH: Article

Mama’s chocolate Ex-Lax cake was what started it all.

She made it because of Daddy; tired of his carousin’, staying out all night drinking, and the puddles of puke on the seat of the car that even her screams and threats couldn’t make us clean up. She bought the chocolate-flavored laxatives after taking the bus down to the Rexall, sneaking them into the house while we were out at friends, Tommy was at the post office, and Daddy was out in the yard fixing Mr. Peters’ transmission for the umpteenth time. By the time dinner rolled around Daddy was good and hungry, and nothing but a meteor crashing into our house and roasting us alive would have kept him from eating a huge slab of that tainted cake.

We could hear his pained groans and grunts all the way from the hallway to the kitchen, where we sat with our measly dessert of canned peaches. I could see Momma through the open doorway to the living room, and at first she wore a satisfied smirk. But as the minutes ticked by and Daddy’s grunts became more pronounced, sounding like a lion that couldn’t get any satisfaction from his mate, her smile began to slip. When Daddy started crying, his sobs forlorn wheezes, Mama stood up and marched into the kitchen.

“Damn man don’t give me no pleasure,” she muttered, passing us. We numbered four: my ten-year-old brother Johnson; myself at sixteen; my pregnant sister Willa and her husband Tommy. Even though he hadn’t been a member of our clan long, he’d caught on quick enough to stay out of Mama and Daddy’s disagreements, and he simply sat there, lowering his gaze to the table when Mama came stomping through the doorway.

“Damn man always gits away with anythin’ he wants,” she grumped, taking the half-demolished cake and hefting it up to chest level. “You think he’ll learn a lesson from this? No sirree-bob!” And even though Mama had said the words, I could tell by the dark sheen in her eyes that she felt bad for turning Daddy’s bowels into an upside-down geyser. Still grumbling under her breath, she went to the back door and opened it, stepping out into the muggy night, letting out what little cool air the house had accumulated from the rattly old air conditioner in the living room.

Our back porch overlooked the river fifty feet below. We lived directly in its sights: if I wanted to, I could simply look over the wide porch rail and peer down into its muddy depths. The back of our porch was plumb with the granite cliff wall, and its location was perfect for dumping things best left private and out of reach of prying eyes, like Grampa Lonnie’s enemas, Daddy’s dirty magazines, and chocolate cakes flavored with Ex-Lax. With the door open, we heard the thump of her feet as they crossed the porch boards, the clink of the plate as it was set on the rail, and even a little grunt as she turned it upside down, letting the cake fall into the water, giving whatever fish that still dared live there a treat that would probably kill them. I imagined looking over the rail the next morning and seeing nothing but white fish bellies. There were a few moments of silence in which Tommy and Willa exchanged glances with a lot of eye rolling, and then Mama screamed.

“Holy shit!” I heard Daddy exclaim from his temporary prison, and then we all left the table to see what Mama was caterwauling about. When I reached the porch, Willa was holding Mama’s arms down to her sides–she’d backed away from the rail and was trying to claw her own cheeks.

“What, Mama?” Willa asked. Her baby was almost due, only two weeks away from arriving in this world. She was too skinny, her belly like a monster pimple, and she was having trouble keeping Mama from thrashing around.

“Thing–thing–there’s someone down there!” Mama said, her chest heaving rapidly and dangerously.

Willa and Tommy gave each other another look. What’s this holy hell? That Ex-Lax’s gone and drove your mama nuts. “Now, Mama Wanda, there ain’t no one down there,” Tommy said, stepping forward and putting his arms around Mama’s shoulders; maybe to comfort her, maybe to keep her from knocking Willa down. But my brother and I were younger, still laden with enough curiosity to kill a whole litter of cats, and when we heard her words, we rushed to the rail and looked down. Sure enough, we saw what Mama was going on about.

He (It? I never figured it out but since it didn’t have breasts I called it a he) was hanging about twenty-five feet down. There was enough light emanating from the moon that I could make out his vague, dark form, and one hand was stuck into a crevice, allowing him purchase. I couldn’t tell if he was wearing clothes, but his body seemed lithe, as stickish as Willa’s, and his eyes were wide and protuberant–night eyes, like a rat or big lizard’s. He was using his free arm to clutch the squashed cake to his chest.

“Whoa,” Johnson breathed, hanging so far over the rail that his uneven hair hung straight down. I wanted to say the same, but it seemed all my breath was gone. It hadn’t disappeared out of fear, but I couldn’t rightly explain why I didn’t scream like Mama and run back into the house to cower underneath my bed. Best I could do was that we were poor white trash, unwelcome and forgotten by most, like everyone that lived along the river, and we were usually not the type privy to the unusual, the regal, the grand. The thing stuck to the cliff like a fly on a wall was not regal or grand, but he sure was unusual. And when I saw his white, glowing eyes, I knew he was only ours for the seeing.

Tommy was still trying to reassure Mama that her eyes had only played a mean trick on her. As far as I knew, Daddy was still stuck on his throne. I looked over my shoulder and said, “She’s tellin’ the truth. There’s a man down there.”

“He’s got the cake!” Johnson said. My mama, sister and brother-in-law all stilled. A hard, stiff look came over Tommy’s face, but I didn’t blanche. Even though Johnson and I still walloped each other from time to time, never in my life had I had reason to believe a grown man would hit a girl. Mama and Daddy argued, but their heat had never gone to blows.

“Don’t make up stories, Terri,” he said to me. “You’re gonna upset your Mama even more.”

“She ain’t lyin’!” Johnson said, sticking up for me for once. He shifted forward until his feet were no longer on the porch but horizontal to it, his hands clutching the outer edge of the foot-wide rail. “He’s–hey, lookit his mouth!”

They joined us at the rail–Willa and Tommy with disbelief and scorn twisting their mouths, Mama with leaden feet, wringing her hands. When she took another peek over the rail, she gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth. I didn’t blame her; what was going on below was even weirder than, well, a man hanging on a cliff without benefit of cleats or rope.

His bulging eyes still rolled our way, his mouth and nose had elongated until they resembled a large proboscis. Still clinging to the crevice, his feet presumably stuck in others, he lifted the hand holding the cake and began sucking it in through his new mouth. It made a slurping, slithering sound, and I swallowed, finally feeling a bit of nervousness. It was as if a snake were up on the porch with us, inching forward for a bite of flesh.

“Good Lord above,” Willa breathed, her pimple belly dented into the rail’s edge.

Tommy watched until nearly half the cake had disappeared down that long beak, then stepped away from the edge, shaking his head. “Nah, I ain’t seein’ that,” he muttered. “There ain’t nothin’ on God’s green Earth that looks like that… can do somethin’ like that!”

Johnson, who usually worshipped the ground Tommy walked on, gave him enough of a glance to reveal that he considered the older boy stupid and blind. “He’s doin’ it! Come on, Tommy, it’s cool! We got… our very own sucker man!”

And so it was my younger brother, who couldn’t even tie his own shoes without sticking out his tongue and growing a crop of sweat on his forehead, that christened the thing on the cliff wall that hung as easily as a leaf to a tree.

“Somethin’ like that, it ain’t natural,” Mama whispered, as the last of the cake disappeared down the Sucker Man’s gullet. As if to prove her point, the thing spared us one last glance before turning tail and shimmying down the wall, his movements as easy as a fish’s through water. When he was ten feet up from the base of the cliff, he let go and swan-dived into the water, barely making a splash in the ripples. We waited, perhaps all with bated breath, but he didn’t resurface.

“What the hell’s goin’ on?” Daddy screamed. “Anyone out there?”

“Lord, I got to tend to your daddy,” Mama said, stepping away from the rail to join Tommy. She looked at all of us, the fear still whitening her face. “What was that thing? I never… I never seen nothin’ like that ‘round here before!”

“The Sucker Man!” Johnson exclaimed, still hanging precariously as only a ten-year-old can, but Mama marched over to him and yanked him back onto the porch. He landed hard and gave her an angry look.

“Mama–“ he started, maybe thinking he could dissuade her even before she started, but Mama had patented a look that would silence even the hardest of criminals. She gave it to him then, her hand still grasping the collar of his t-shirt.

“You stay away from that rail!” she yelled, and the sudden noise made us all jump. In turn, she looked at all of us, and it was then that I saw how truly terrified she was. It made me feel sorry for her, and I forgave her for trying to turn Daddy’s bowels inside out. “You hear me?”

“Yes, Mama,” Willa said, and nudged my back. I nodded.

“Okay, Mama.”

Johnson wouldn’t answer until Mama shook him a little. “Okay,” he groused, and she let him go.

“It’s settled, then,” she told us, and went inside, muttering, “No more Sucker Man.”

We stood on the shadowy porch until we heard the splash far below. The sound was more powerful than Mama’s order, and we all rushed the rail. But like before, the Sucker Man had disappeared, and I imagined him deep within the brown water, floating alongside a school of fish.

* * *

Mama discreetly asked around the neighborhood, offering slices of her prize-winning coffee cake, but no one else had ever seen anything strange in the river. I kept my mouth shut, as did Willa and Tommy, but Johnson was ten and prone to loose lips. His hide was tanned good when Mama caught him and several of his friends after school, hanging over the rail, dropping pieces of bologna into the water and yelling, “Sucker Man! Sucker Man! Come out and git your baloney!” I saw all this through the kitchen window, and even though I knew what he was doing–offering up our own unique unusual to his better-off friends–I still grinned when his face paled as Mama yanked him off the rail. He’d hidden my meager supply of makeup and his punishment was my revenge.

Out of everyone that Mama talked to, however, Grampa was the only one who made me suspicious. Self-sentenced to his room after Granny’s death six years before, he only emerged nowadays to the bathroom and out for his daily constitutionals, walking from the house he’d built with his own hands all the way to the hills three miles away. Sometimes buzzards would circle overhead in the area I knew he stopped and rested, floating on the currents in their nonchalant, patient way, and I would worry that he’d had a heart attack and was lying dead in the dirt road, but he always moseyed back in time to retrieve his dinner and retire to his room, leaving the dirty dishes on the floor outside his door for me to pick up. He’d come into the kitchen to get his dinner when Mama asked him if he knew of anything strange in the river.

“Like what?” he asked, quietly, picking up the plate I’d made for him: beanie weenies, fried potatoes, and fresh spinach from our side garden.

“Like… somethin’ on the cliff that ain’t supposed to be there?” Mama asked, her tone just a bit too idle.

Beneath bushy white eyebrows, Grampa’s gaze became stony. He looked at Mama for a long time until she turned away from the stove to give him a questioning look.

“Daddy?” she asked, and he shook his head.

“No,” he answered, gruffly, and shuffled away, his knuckles white and gripping the plate too tightly. The next day and for five days after that, he left the house with a Louisville Slugger in one gnarled hand.

Summer crested, and it was the night of the solstice when Daddy and Mama, calling a truce, decided to go play bingo in the basement of St. Ignatius. Johnson was spending the night with his best friend Dayton, who was even trashier than we were considered, but had a family that flaunted it more by displaying toilet bowls and two junkyard dogs in their front yard. Tommy was also out with friends, down at the Cock of the Walk. It was something he rarely did–he was a doofus but he was good to Willa, marrying her and taking responsibility with a girl that most men would’ve discarded–but Mama took the opportunity to warn Willa.

“That’s how your Daddy started,” she hissed, yanking her purse strap over her shoulder, wearing her best hat: a purple veiled thing that made her look like she was going to a clown’s funeral. “He went out carousin’ while I was pregnant with you!”

But Willa wouldn’t hear any of it, and turned away on the couch, settling her gaze on the t.v. A black-and-white Archie Bunker was calling his son-in-law Meathead, and my sister’s laughter was as canned as the studio audience’s.

I decided to stay downstairs with her, tucking my feet under and occasionally staring out the window at the dwindling daylight. I was thinking about the Sucker Man and if he’d eaten Johnson’s bologna offering when Willa gasped. I turned my head to see her staring at her overflowing lap.

“My water broke!” she said, and looked at me with rounded, fearful eyes a moment before the first contraction struck her and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Agh!” she cried, bending over. I simply sat there; sixteen years old and wholly unaware of the contraptions of labor and delivery. When the next contraction gripped her in its vise and held her, she gasped, “Get Grampa!”

I shot off the couch and ran upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, nearly tripping over my bare feet as I hit the landing. In my haste, I knocked over the empty glass on the floor and began pounding on the door.

“Grampa! Grampa! Willa’s gonna have the baby–we need your help!” I yelled. Inside his room, I could hear the t.v. He was watching “All in the Family” just as we were, but as I pounded and called for him, the sound from the set cut off. And then there was only silence. I stood for a minute more, calling out for him, but then backed away, panting and afraid and more than a little angry. Why wouldn’t he help?

“Terri!” Willa’s voice drifted up the stairs, and it was a terrified, anguished noise that made me forget about Grampa and hightail it down the stairs again. When I reached the living room, Willa had fallen to the floor, hunched over on her hands and knees.

“Terri,” she gasped, and looked at me through sweaty clumps of hair. “I think the baby’s comin’ now!” Another contraction made her clench her teeth together so hard they squeaked, and I cringed.

We had no phone. Tommy, Johnson, Mama and Daddy were all gone, and Grampa was locked in his own little world. It never occurred to either of us to have me go next door and ask a neighbor for assistance. Willa was only two years older than me and, without the sexual experience, just as naïve and senseless as I was. Anxiously, I asked, “You think you should be on your hands and knees like that?”

“It don’t hurt as much this way–Agh!” she cried again, and began rocking, her clawed hands trying to dig through the scuffed hardwood floor. “Oh–oh, Terri!” Despite her earlier words, Willa collapsed and rolled over, her knees pointed at the ceiling, her plaid dress bunched around her waist. Her belly was bigger than before, and looked firmer, and I half-expected to see her skin ripple as if the baby was fighting to get out of her womb.

“What do I do?” I asked, helplessly.

“Get my panties off,” she gasped, a runner of sweat trickling from her eye to her hairline. Then she yelled, “Doc Morgan said it wasn’t supposed to happen this fast!”

I pulled off her sopping panties and tossed them aside, where they landed with a splat next to the sofa. Shuddering, I asked, “What now?”

“I don’t know,” she said. I looked around, hoping to find inspiration in the t.v., the window, maybe the rack of record albums next to the wall, and leaned over to shut off the television. I couldn’t concentrate with Sally Struthers’ whining suddenly grating on my nerves. The room dissolved into silence save for my sister’s labored breathing and groans, but they weren’t loud enough to shut out what we’d missed before, and after a moment, Willa quieted, and we both turned toward the kitchen doorway. Beyond it, we heard the creaky turn of a knob, followed closely by a stealthy shuffling. The slide of a snake. The slither of the Sucker Man.

Willa whispered, “Oh my Lord,” and I stood up so fast my knees popped and I stumbled backward, knocking into the wall. He–It–was crouched in the doorway, a lean thing covered with blackened, iridescent scales that dribbled water onto the floor below. Webbing joined his fingers and toes, but they were not merged as fins but lengthened by claws. The better to cling to you with, I thought in a crazy jumble as my mouth opened, trying to scream but doing nothing but falling into a soundless gape.

His nose was squishy and flat, and the pupils of his bulging eyes, which seemed to take up half his face, were narrowed to slits. He was a night-dweller, a thing that worshipped darkness and scorned daylight, but ventured into our artificial light because of Willa. I knew that the moment he turned toward my prone sister, and the mouth and nose began to melt, the scaled skin merging and emerging as a long, sucking tube. Willa was the one to finally regain her wits, and she screamed as the Sucker Man’s new mouth squelched. He sounded hungry.

Her scream set him off, as if it were a pistol shot starting a race, and he scrambled across the floor as easily as an adept toddler. I was the one to scream then, digging my fingernails into my cheeks and raising welts as my poor disabled sister tried to crabwalk away from the Sucker Man. He reached her, put his slimy hand-claws on her knees, and shoved her legs apart, his proboscis dipping toward the place where the baby would emerge. Our screams were intercut by his eager sucking sounds.

He didn’t see Grampa, so intent on sucking Willa’s baby from its birth canal. I didn’t see Grampa, racing into the living room on his old man stalks, the Louisville Slugger hoisted high, his eyes wild and rolling. I didn’t see him until he stopped right behind the Sucker Man and slammed the bat down on his head. The Sucker Man may have looked half-fish, but his head was all skull, and the crack that rang out was louder than our screams and his sucking, and it silenced us all. The Sucker Man blinked once, then fell over in a heap, a puddle of thick ichor pooling beneath his shattered head.

Weeping, groaning in pain, Willa managed to drag herself a few feet away before slapping her hands over her face and crying outright. Grampa fell onto the couch, still clinging to the bat, his sunken chest heaving.

“Your mama never knew she had a sister,” he said, his watery gaze on the Sucker Man. Although I was horrified by what had almost happened and what I’d witnessed, I managed to get my voice box working properly.

“What?” I whispered, and my grandpa finally looked at me.

“That thing et it,” he said, and his voice was haunted, lost. “Our firstborn.”

My horror grew. All I could do was stare at Grampa, imagining what had happened so many years before, perhaps on this very floor, and not wanting to. But Willa’s hands fell to her sides and she looked at him with red hate.

“Well, why the hell didn’t you tell us about it?” she shrieked, before cringing with another contraction.

Grampa blinked himself out of his reverie and asked, surprised, “It never came back til now!” Again, his gaze strayed to the dead thing on the floor. Its proboscis was wilted and withered. “An’ I thought our baby was enough for it,” he whispered.

* * *

Grampa and I managed to drag the thing through the kitchen and out onto the porch. We worked quickly, for nothing would stop the baby but a cork shoved up Willa’s vagina, and the Sucker Man had to be disposed of before strangers came into our house. Our breath coming in short, fiery bursts, we hoisted him up onto the rail and gave him a mighty shove. The splash that followed the long drop was loud and ungraceful, nothing like the swan dive I’d witnessed after he’d eaten the chocolate Ex-Lax cake. I kept wiping my hands on my shirt, unable to get rid of the slimy, scaly feel of the Sucker Man’s strange skin. The feeling stayed with me for many days, and sometimes followed me into sleep, where instead of meeting the fate of a bat, Grampa never came and the Sucker Man slurped that baby right out of the birth canal. I usually woke up biting back a scream, my sheets a sweaty tangle around my body.

Before we ran back inside, before Grampa went to use the neighbor’s phone, he took my arm and peered closely into my face. “Don’t tell no one,” he said. “We’ll put a rug over the blood in the livin’ room, and you clean it up after they take Willa to the hospital.”

I nodded my agreement, but on the way back to the living room, my step faltered, and I had to cling to the refrigerator door to keep from fainting. The thought was so awful that for a moment, the world dissolved into watery, distant colors.

“What if he ain’t the only one?” I whispered.

No answer came to me as I peered over my shoulder into the night that had finally come.

Athena Workman is a thirty-four-year-old married mother of two living in the South. In addition to writing and editing the online zine Lost in the Dark, she enjoys careful gardening, experimental baking, and winning blue ribbons at the fair. Her fiction has been published in thirteen online and print magazines, and this year her work will be appearing in the anthologies Darkness Rising 2005 and Corpse Blossoms. She’s currently shopping around her recently-completed Southern gothic novel to agents.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any informational storage or retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
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