At ten years old, Scooper lived life through his mouth. For him, most things weren’t real until he felt them on his tongue, awash in sticky saliva. Summer days he wandered his development alone, his cheeks fat with blocks of cheese or sugar-coated jawbreakers, with chalky pebbles from the street or spiny chips of bark, with freshly picked leaves shaped like stars and knives and tears and eggs. It was the glide of these things in his mouth, the pungent flavors on his tongue, the clattering against his teeth, that gave life to the world.
Later that summer, on a hazy Saturday morning in August, Scooper went off to look for some new tastes in the woods behind the development. Just before noon he came upon the haunted creek the neighborhood kids always talked about. Growing up he’d heard ghost stories about a boy who had fallen into this creek and disintegrated into bloody chunks. That story had scared him when he was young, but he didn’t really believe in that stuff anymore, so he felt no fear when he kneeled in the soft dirt and cupped a handful of water for a drink. As he lifted the cool liquid to his mouth, he saw something weird sitting on the bed of the glittering creek: a gray, oval-shaped stone with a neon pink stripe wrapped around the middle.
Scooper pulled the stone out of the creek. It was a little bigger than his palm and felt oily and warm near the center. When he pressed his thumbnail against the pink stripe, the shimmery material flexed. Then, while trying not to think about the missing boy and the bloody chunks, Scooper carefully broke the stone in half.
The pink stripe crackled apart with ease and flaked into brittle sheets like mica. Some of the sheets fluttered to the ground and glinted with a greasy, metallic shine. Now Scooper looked inside the stone and found a clear, trapezoidal crystal; seeing this, he couldn’t control himself any longer. He dropped the stones in the water and slipped the crystal into his mouth.
The taste was glorious. Like a beam of light refracted through a prism to reveal all the colors of the rainbow, the crystal seemed to contain every flavor he’d ever tasted. It was sweet like watermelon, yet spicy like a jalapeno; it was creamy like a milkshake, yet sour like a Warhead; it was salty like a beach pebble, yet tarry like pine bark; it was bitter like an elm twig, yet savory like a mushroom. It was the entire world distilled into taste, and it was rolling on his tongue.
The crystal dissolved like a breath mint over the next thirty minutes. Once it was gone, Scooper scoured the creek for more of the special stones, but an hour of thorough searching turned up nothing. From here he decided to head back home for some lunch. He knew no other taste could ever compare with what he’d just experienced, but he didn’t have much of a choice. The crystal had coated his tongue with a thick paste, and his thirst had suddenly turned savage.
Scooper trudged through the sweltering woods back toward his house. With each step, the paste on his tongue thickened. Soon it spread down his throat and invaded his stomach, his lungs. Now fear overtook his mind and he began to run. Oaks and elms knifed past as he sliced down the trail, dodging exposed tree roots. His breath rasped painfully in his chest; a minute of running scoured his throat like a swallow of powdered glass. After a few minutes, Scooper realized he had made a mistake and had run in the wrong direction; but by then he was in too much pain to do anything, so he lay down on the trail and stared up at the diamonds of blue sky nosing through the canopy.
Scooper woke in the dirt some time later. His joints felt as stiff as solid rock. His muscles pulsed with sharp jabs of cold pain. Throbbing behind his teeth, his tongue lay cracked and huge and iron-hard; and when he tried to close his mouth, his lips wouldn’t meet. It seemed that his tongue was too swollen for his mouth to close. From here Scooper began to cry. If not for his vicious thirst, he might’ve stayed there forever, waiting for someone to save him.
The sky was pink when he got back to the creek. Crawling through the dirt to the bubbling water, Scooper noticed that it too had turned pink. Now he looked around and saw that it was not just the water and the sky that had changed: the entire world shimmered with the same greasy pink as the stripe of the special stone.
Scooper ignored the color and leaned his stiff body over the water. Only his thirst mattered now; everything else could be sorted out later.
The tip of his tongue touched the water first. Moments later Scooper shuddered in horror as a colorless crystal slid out of his mouth and dropped into the water with a loud plop. The trapezoidal crystal sank to the bottom of the creek and tumbled along the bed like a child doing cartwheels. Feeling an alien emptiness in his mouth, Scooper realized that the crystal was his tongue, and that the story about the missing boy had been true. From here Scooper lurched into the creek in a panic and clawed along the bed for the tumbling crystal; but as the water washed over him, his skin began to dissolve into heavy gray dust. Soon the world went dark and pink sheets of mica flowed from the orbits of his skull. Muscle, sinew, brain, and bone followed in the same way as skin and eyes; and by the time the sunset blazed pink that evening, a new stone was forming under the water. Contained within were all the flavors his tongue had ever tasted.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, Five on the Fifth, Asymmetry, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.