This Week in Short Fiction


This week, Bryan Hurt gives us a fabulist story in which CEOs practice blood sacrifice to ensure quarterly profits. (Believable.) The story, “Contract,” went up on Lit Hub on Wednesday and is part of Hurt’s debut collection Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, winner the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. “Contract,” like the rest of the collection, is dark but funny, absurd yet sincere, as is evident from its very first lines:

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.

Hurt has lines like that all over his stories—lines presented so matter-of-factly that they buzz with the ring of truth. All fathers sacrifice their daughters eventually. Later in the story, we’re told, “All sons sacrifice their mothers eventually.” At its core, “Contract” is deeply concerned with the sacrifices we make on the altars of success, happiness, independence, love. The ways we hurt each other, and hurt ourselves, to attain the things we want. Here, the sacrifice is just a bit more literal:

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.

The CEO’s wife is also the daughter of a CEO, so she knows how the contract works. She’s already survived one sacrifice, when her father tried to sacrifice her on her college graduation day. She asked him to sacrifice something else—a cow, her roommate—but no. “It had to cost him something in order to be meaningful.” So when he took her to the nearest bone altar, she did give a sacrifice: she cut off her own left hand. And then she ran.

This is not a woman who goes down lightly.

After she escaped her father, she lived a life without contracts. Selfish, reckless, full, and free. A life that was hers and no one else’s. Until she met her second CEO, her future husband, and got married. Another contract, though a happy one, at first:

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.

The story is arranged like a contract, with numerals dividing it into sections and subsections, 1.1 through 10.10. Some may consider these headings a gimmick, but they do serve a purpose: they impose a choppiness to the story that forces the reader to slow down, take things piece by piece. They also lend to the tactical, business-like tone of the story and remind you all the way through that this story is about a contract. Unbreakable. Binding.

Because it’s easy to think, part way through, that the wife will be fine, the wife will get out. She’s smart; she’s plucky. But it’s not so easy to break a contract—a business contract, a marriage contract, a human contract. For success, we sacrifice time. For marriage, independence. For children, our bodies, our selves. One thing Hurt’s stories do so well is reveal larger truths through absurd situations, and this holds true for “Contract.” It’s an inescapable truth: For everything given, there’s something owed.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →