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Build-a-Grudge

Joy Kennedy-O'Neill lives on the Texas Gulf Coast and teaches English for a small college, where her husband and fellow DSF contributor KS O'Neill teaches math. Her stories have appeared in Nature, Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy's Edge, the Cimarron Review, among others. More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com.

Mari lugs two heavy suitcases into the office and heaves them into the corner. "Where's yours?" she asks.
I point to a half-filled garbage bag.
"That's all you got?"
"I've never done this before."
She tsks at my inexperience. Then she takes her cubicle's photos and cuts out her husband with scissors as sharp as her curses last week, when she found his secret texts. She dumps the massacred photos into one of her suitcases, along with a snow globe from their Saint Croix vacation. Finally, she tosses in an empty vase for good measure.
"Clean sweep," she says dramatically. She eyes my garbage bag. "Seriously, you couldn't find more stuff?"
I scrunch down in my chair. "It felt sort of... wrong."
I'd searched my apartment this morning for regrets. The advertisements for the Grudge store says preparing for a visit is just like a good house cleaning, but that's not exactly true. More like cleaning cobwebs with your bare finger. Unsettling.
"Why does it feel wrong?" Mari eyes me. "What's Gabe done for you lately anyway?"
"He's a good guy."
Mari snorts. She's never even met him. She's only heard me say, "I'd wish he'd--" too many times.
At lunch we go to the mall, to the Build-a-Grudge store. She makes a big show of her suitcases, huffing and angling up her elbows. A woman by the pretzel shop gives her a thumbs-up. "You go, girl!"
The pretzels smell great, but Mari says, "Don't eat. You want to be hangry when you do this."
Inside the store, she upends her suitcases' contents into a vat churning with agitation. Her shredded pictures, snow globe, and vase fall in first. Then clothes, books, old concert tickets, and dark clouds. It spins with lightning crackles, with the fury of a woman scorned.
Golden tokens spill out of a dispenser.
"Your turn."
My bag has some of Gabe's shirts and the coffee maker he promised to fix. Half-misgivings stir around in there, gray and nebulous. Foggy.
I toss them in and get tokens. Not many.
Mari feeds a machine her tokens and works a foot-pedal. Fluff rains down in a windowed box. It reminds me of the dust-bunnies under the bed that Gabe promised he'd vacuum but never did.
She then moves to a skin-machine and grips a brass wheel like she's steering a listing ship. Her fluff gets covered with green, warty fabric. Like bubbling bile.
"Excellent!" she says.
My stuffing gets wrapped in terrycloth, cocoa colored and soft. The color of Gabe's hair. It's kind of cute.
"You've got to concentrate," she says.
"I'm trying!"
She moves to eyeballs. Her grudge gets mean, jealous eyes. Mine are googly. We hold our noses by the scent machine. Hers gets smells of cheap perfume, nasty sheets, and sweat. Mine's like a mildewing shower. I had wanted more help around the apartment when I started night classes.
We step around summer-sweaty kids working a machine.
"Wait until you have kids," Mari says. "No one holds a grudge like an eight-year-old. Except them." She points outside where teenage girls drift by Hot Topic. They watch us with narrowed eyes, covered in body glitter and lip gloss. Too cool for this store.
I try to stay angry at Gabe, but I keep coming up with things I've done wrong, too. When his father died last year, did I do enough? What if he's been depressed?
The sound machine gives Mari's grudge squelches and wet slaps. Mine barks.
"We were going to get a dog," I explain sheepishly.
When we're done, her grudge looks like a fat gremlin with tentacles. Mine's like a drunk monkey. Both of ours have Velcro straps so we can hoist them on our backs. When Mari walks, her grudge makes meaty thwacks like two people humping.
She places it on a weight machine by the exit. "Fifteen pounds!" she says proudly. "Spite weighs a lot."
Mine barely registers.
"Seriously?" she asks. "What about all your talk about him not listening? Not paying attention to you?"
"I know, right?" I try to work up my anger. My grudge cocks its head. "But maybe if we had just talked more--"
"Oh please. Men don't talk." She jerks her head to the store next door. It's a new franchise of Eat Your Feelings. Full buffet, all you can eat, open 24-7, and sure enough, there are a lot of men in there. Maybe their wives are in the Served Cold revenge store next to Sears, but those windows are too frosty for me to see through.
"Come on. We're done here." Mari tosses all her empty luggage cases into a bin labeled "Old Baggage." Then we walk out past the dating store, where people wear hearts on their sleeves. Past the Chips-Ahoy, where folks come out strutting like admirals with chips the size of epaulets on their shoulders.
Back at work, Mari sets her grudge down with an exaggerated "omph." Everyone compliments her. She gets sympathies and tongue-clicks. Plus, now they know that Mari can carry a serious freakin' grudge. No one'll mess with her.
Even our boss compliments her. And she's been super nice since one of the temps built a grudge that looks just like her and demanded overtime.
So I suppose grudges are good things?
But my grudge's head flops. Its googly eyes stare straight through me. I hide it in a drawer where it barks once, then starts to disintegrate.
Later, I go to the store to try again. This time I think of things I did wrong with Gabe.
The machine whirs. I get so many tokens that they spill through my fingers. I crawl around the floor in supplication, picking them up.
This time, the machine makes lots of stuffing. Self-accusing button eyes. Guilt. Reproach. The bitter-sweet whiff of missed opportunities.
When it's finished, it looks a lot like me. I hoist it on my back and it's so weighty, I nearly fall over. With each painful step, I know exactly what I'd do differently.
I take it to the office and Mari shakes her head. "That's not how it works," she says. "You don't do you."
I shrug. "My first one sort of disappeared."
She arches an eyebrow.
"I like this one better. It's mine."
"Whatever." She carries her grudge to the copy room. It squelches and makes its slappy sounds along the way, even moaning a little. People practically fall out of their cubicles to look.
After work, I hoist my grudge on my shoulders. I walk down the street, past the library, and though the park, where Gabe and I met. Finally, I totter into our neighborhood grocery store. My shoulders ache and my back screams, but I don't care. When I shuffle to the produce aisle, bam! There he is.
His cart has soup for one and Tums. He looks terrible. He's hunched over, wearing a build-a-grudge too. And!!, surprise - it looks a lot like him. It smells like regret.
He sees me.
"Hey," he nods.
"Hey."
My grudge's button-eye falls off and rolls to the cabbage. Underneath the store's lights, Gabe and I look pale, aged, and stooped.
But the vegetables' misting system turns on with a green-song smell of new spring rain.
"I'm sorry," we blurt out at the same time.
We step forward to hug. But first, we lay our burdens down.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 2nd, 2021


Author Comments

Expressions are funny. The first time I heard "they can really hold a grudge" I thought it was a good thing. A talent, like holding a wriggly cat that needs a pill. Whatever a grudge was, it must be slippery, fighty or bitey. As an adult, I still wonder about this. If kids can build-a-bear, why can't we grown-ups add some padding and eyeballs to our resentments?

- Joy Kennedy-O'Neill
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