The following is from Bryan Hurt’s collection, Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France. Hurt is the editor of Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest. Born in Cleveland, he now lives in New York state and teaches creative writing at St. Lawrence University.
When the CEO took his children to the bone altar, the girl turned her head and exposed the softest part of her neck. She was ready for it.
She knew that all fathers sacrificed their daughters eventually, so didn’t protest much when the knife went in.
The boy resisted. Bit at the CEO’s fingers, thrashed, and screamed. Betrayal showed in his eyes long after expression had left the rest of his body. Blood seeped from the line that the CEO had drawn on his neck.
What else could the CEO do?
He’d already sacrificed the dog, the cat, the guinea pig, the goldfish. He’d sacrificed his personal assistant, which was sad because she gave really good blowjobs. So in a sense he’d sacrificed those too. He’d made all of his vice presidents sacrifice their families and then he sacrificed his vice presidents. Everyone who worked for the CEO sacrificed and was sacrificed on his alter of bone.
But it wasn’t enough.
It was never enough. Every three months the CEO had new quarterly profits to report, investors to satisfy. He put his knife in his belt and drove to his home by the ocean. Washed his children’s blood from his hands and watched it rinse down the sink, through the pipes that would deposit it into the water below.
His wife asked how it went.
Next time it will be you, he said. I have nothing else to sacrifice.
I see, she said. She was not surprised. She’d always expected this, her turn in the sacrifice.
Her own father had been a CEO. She’d seen her mother’s blood on his sacrificial knife, her mother’s body slung over his bone altar.
She herself had escaped the sacrifice once already, escaped first by going away to boarding school in Switzerland. In Switzerland there were cows and cowbells and endless fields of bluebells and buttercups. There were no CEOs in Switzerland. At least not until her father showed up on graduation day to complete the sacrifice.
Sacrifice a cow, she’d said. Sacrifice my roommate.
She pushed a slim French girl towards her father.
For four years the French girl had clipped her toenails off the top bunk so that sometimes the CEO’s daughter found them in her bedsheets or in her socks or worse between her own toes when she forgot and walked around the room barefoot.
The CEO shook his head. That wasn’t how the sacrifice worked. It had to cost him something in order to be meaningful.
What about the bone altar? said the daughter.
The CEO said that he’d chosen her boarding school specifically because of its proximity to bone altars. There was a church in the town across the lake, he said, with an altar of skulls.
Each skull bleached and wearing a crown of edelweiss.
There’s nothing to be done, said the CEO.
So the daughter sacrificed herself. She took her father’s knife from her father’s belt and hacked off her own left hand.
It took three hard hacks for the hand to come off.
Then, still bleeding, she paddled a boat across the lake to the boys’ school where she slept with the cricket team. She slept with the chess club and Model United Nations.
She rode out of town on the back of a motorcycle, helmetless, stump wrapped in cotton, but still bleeding through.
She smoked unfiltered cigarettes, snorted cocaine off the plump butts of prostitutes. She got a hook for her stump, got syphilis, got antibiotics, got pregnant, got an abortion.
Each time she was arrested for shoplifting or smashing a lover with a wine bottle or setting fire to the curtains or tossing a coffee table through the hotel window, she said that she was the CEO’s daughter. She gave her father’s full name, spelled it out, so that when the arrest was reported in The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, her father had to issue a press statement denying any sort of connection.
I have no hook-handed daughter, he’d say. We are not related.
He was never able to satisfy investors who knew all about perception and the bottom line.
Then he died of CEO’s disease.
A heart attack.
On that day his daughter went to the prosthetist’s and replaced her hook-hand with a more hand-like hand. Went to the jeweler’s and bought a ring for her new plastic ring finger.
The ring was white gold with a yellow diamond.
The diamond was almost the same yellow as the yellow in the edelweiss crowns that sat on the skulls in the skull altar in Switzerland.
It served to remind the CEO’s daughter of the reach of fathers.
She liked to stand in front of mirrors, hold the ring next to her face and admire the way that the diamond nearly matched the yellow ribbons that were threaded through the browns of her eyes.
It was because of her eyes that she caught the CEO’s attention.
Not her father the CEO, the other one. The CEO who would become her husband.
Every day he came to the coffee shop where she worked as a foam artist, making milk swans and hearts and flowers on the tops macchiatos and lattes.
Every day he ordered a black coffee.
And admired her eyes, the sadness that lived deep in the bottoms of them.
All CEOs are experts in loss so he recognized hers instantly. Saw her father drama in the yellow threads, her sorrow and sacrifice. He knew that she’d given up much and so had profited tremendously. As a CEO he wanted to share in her profits, to possess them.
He left notes for her in the tip jar folded inside brand new twenty dollar bills.
I like your eyes more than money.
I’d sacrifice my mother for a chance to hold your hand.
One day he did. Brought his mother’s bloody head and dropped it next to the tip jar.
The head oozed on the counter; its stump on the countertop made a sucking sound.
My mother’s head, he said.
What could the CEO’s daughter do? She knew the rules, understood the CEO’s sacrifice. The head wobbled and she considered its expression. Not surprise so much as resignation. Like the mother knew, had always known, exactly what was going to happen.
All sons sacrifice their mothers eventually.
The CEO’s daughter tapped her hand on the counter so he could hear the plastic thump. My hand’s a prosthetic, she said. He said it didn’t matter. He’d hold it anyway.
At the French restaurant he did.
In the candlelight, which reflected off the brushed silver of knives and forks and spoons, he held her hand across the table, their hands snaked between champagne flutes and small plates: warm Camembert, trout tartare, wild mushroom fricassee.
He held her hand while a French singer sang “La Vie en Rose.” He rubbed her ring, caressed her plastic ring finger, told her that she was beautiful.
For her part, the CEO’s daughter didn’t want to fall in love with the CEO.
Did not want to.
After all, she’d sacrificed her hand to be free from one CEO. Why should she sacrifice her freedom to be with another?
But when she looked across the table and saw the bruises on his lips, the scratches on his cheeks, the blood that had crusted in the corners of his nose, she knew that his mother hadn’t died easily.
His sacrifice had cost him a lot of effort.
When was the last time that someone had worked so hard for her?
It was back at the boarding school in Switzerland. Her roommate, the French girl. They’d kissed a little, the roommate and the CEO’s daughter. It was just making out, the CEO’s daughter would tell herself as the roommate vacuumed her toenails, let the CEO’s daughter copy her chemistry homework. The roommate went down to cafeteria to bring back breakfast for two, omelettes with goat cheese, sausage, and spinach. Maybe she would skip class, the CEO’s daughter thought as she lay in bed, waiting for breakfast and watching dust float in the sun slants. She would skip class and copy her roommates’ notes and then they would kiss some more. They were young and there was no harm in being young and kissing.
Then the CEO asked her to marry him.
This was not a surprise.
She saw it coming from a hundred miles away.
After the horse riding in the park, the picnics at Point Dume, the wine tasting. After the dinner parties with his CEO friends, yacht trips, a vacation in Bahamas. After the candlelit dinners alone at his house, dinners he’d cooked for her. I’m sorry I’m not a better cook, he said. Which wasn’t true, a humblebrag. He’d studied in Provence. Made her coq au vin. The chicken steamed in wine, seared in fat. I just wish I were a better cook, he said again, without modesty. He added blood to the sauce, for thickening.
They were sucking meat from the bones when he asked the question. She tried to act surprised, but she was not surprised. As unsurprised as the CEO’s mother.
She did not want to marry her father.
She told her therapist this, who said that this was a common concern, something that many people worried about, so was perfectly normal.
But who cares, said her therapist. Marry your father or anyone else you want to marry. It doesn’t matter so long as you’re happy.
So father fear aside, she married the CEO. Married him because even though he was a CEO, she liked everything he did for her, liked the way he held her hand and looked into her eyes, liked that he used blood to thicken the sauce, liked the way he made her feel. Which was valued, loved, and happy.
They honeymooned in Hawaii.
It was in Hawaii while they sat on a bluff of volcanic rock and watched the sun set into the ocean that the CEO sacrificed his cellphone.
Tossed the phone into the water and promised that for a week he wouldn’t answer to shareholders or boards of directors. Instead, he said, he’d answer to her alone, be her CEO completely.
But on the drive back to the resort hotel a seagull flew into their windshield.
It flopped off the windshield and onto the road where it on the yellow line, flapping.
And at the hotel the concierge met them with message slips, said that since sunset the CEO’s room phone hadn’t stopped ringing.
A dead bird was an accident. But a dead bird and phone messages, said the CEO, that was an omen.
In their room the CEO turned on the flatscreen and saw a plummeting red line. His stock was down, and dropping. He paced the room from bathroom to balcony, muttering. Mutter, he said. Mutter, mutter.
It had been a mistake, a miscalculation. A CEO is not free. He cannot give his heart away, cannot toss his cell phone, cannot do whatever he pleases. There are always shareholders everywhere. Ubiquitous shareholders. For all he knew the concierge was a shareholder. He could be in the lobby right now selling his shares, reporting on the CEO to his board of directors.
The CEO fumbled for the knife in his belt. Apologies, he said to his new wife. But you understand how it works, he said. My sincerest apologies. Sorry.
She did understand, was not naïve. After all, she’d survived her father. Had the ring and plastic hand to prove it. But she had not expected it to come so early in their marriage. Still, while he fumbled for his knife she reached for hers, the one she’d hidden in her suitcase between the lingerie and bikinis.
Knives to necks. Pinch, pinch, blood, blood. One red line and then another.
When he applied pressure, she applied the same amount of pressure back. When he twisted the tip of his knife, she twisted hers.
Not that anyone got killed. You know that. Not here in this hotel room, obviously. Because the story has made certain promises to its readers. Obligations. Children that will be murdered some years later. Another standoff, similar to this one but in a kitchen with marble countertops and stainless steel appliances. The blood of his children still wet on the CEO’s knife, drying.
So you know all about the knock on the door. The concierge with the silver platter. Did someone order room service?
Room service? The CEO moved his knife away from his wife’s neck. His wife kept hers steady. Ha ha, he said. It’s not what it looks like.
The concierge did not care what it looked like.
He had seen everything.
For example, the orgy that was happening two floors above them. If you really wanted to see something, then you should have been paying attention to the orgy. That, he thought. That was something.
He hoped for a tip but did not expect one. He asked: Where should I put the platter?
Upstairs at the orgy, bodies slipped between bodies, humping, kissing, all tongues and sex parts and fingers. The CEO’s wife joined in. Her body moving with the bodies. Her mouth meeting mouths, fingers touching soft flesh. Hot breath, humid breathing.
As far as orgies went, it was an okay orgy. Conventional with blindfolds and handcuffs and satin. She had been in better. The chess club orgy in Switzerland, for example. The cocaine orgies in Paris.
But she enjoyed the human contact. Human contract. The promise of bodies.
As when two sets of lips meet on a Tuesday morning in bed in Lausanne, two mouths meeting and the brains behind the mouths ignoring the fact that across the quad class is happening. Or when two hands hold each other on a white linen tablecloth in a dimly lit restaurant, one hand cold and the other hand plastic. Or when the hand with the knife meets the wrist of the hand without. Or when the hand meets the knife and the knife meets the neck and the neck meets the blood and the blood thickens the sauce and the sauce meets the lips and escapes, is ingested.
When flesh makes an agreement with flesh, enters into something indissoluble, binding.
Contract: to make or become smaller.
A state of being contracted.
As when the concierge puts the platter on the bed because he has to, it’s his job, and waits a moment for the tip he knows will not be coming. Or when the CEO steadies his hand and lifts the lid and his hope for a coq au vin, steamed mussels, or fresh strawberries vanishes. Under the lid is a yellow ring that matches the yellow ribbons in the wife’s eyes.
A reminder of the story’s contract. There was always only one way this story was going to end. There is only one way out of this story. She will die, she will die, he will kill her.
From EVERYONE WANTS TO BE AMBASSADOR TO FRANCE. Used with permission of Starcherone Books. Copyright © 2015 by Bryan Hurt.