Pens Down

ENGLISH LITERATURE GCSE MOCK EXAM

Name: Katie Miller

Seat Number: 121

“For the first time, I felt what the duties of a creator were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.”

In the light of Victor Frankenstein’s comment, discuss Mary Shelley’s presentation of creators and creation in Frankenstein.

[30]

Creation is a theme which is present throughout Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. The protagonist spends months constructing his masterpiece, secure in the knowledge that its unveiling will announce his genius to the world. It is at the eventualsparking of life that Frankenstein realises the horror of his creation and begins to regret the thoughtlessness with which he pursued his goal. Frankenstein does not learn from his error, however. Construction of a second creature is begun before the protagonist fully understands the selfishness of his actions.
+++++This self-centredness is in marked contrast to the creature who from an early stage in his existence seeks to integrate with the world, albeit unsuccessfully. The monster laments “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion…” He lacks a teacher, someone to nurse him into the world, and is forced to spy on a family to raise himself to a social level he considers appropriate to communicate with others. It is this difference between creator and created that forms the backbone of the narrative.
+++++Frankenstein is less concerned with responsibility than with the ambition to see himself placed on a pedestal above his scientific peers. Reckless aspiration is considered to be another major theme in the novel, but are the parents of modern-day children really that much different? Do their thoughtless creations do them any more credit?
+++++A quick glance around the exam hallprovides an answer. No.
+++++Exhibit one sits in my seat. A testament to my parents’ ordinary looks, I nevertheless seem to have cherry-picked the worst features from both, combining mum’s lank, mousey hair and lack of tits with dad’s overbite and cocktail-stick-thin legs. Add teenage acne bubbling away on my skin like molten lava and we’ve got ourselves a real horror show; the kind that makes boysstep back involuntarily on meeting me.
+++++This being a high school, I don’t have to look far for the next genetic mistake. Eugene Williams sits a few seats in front of me, huge sections of his arse hanging over each side of the chair like a bulldog’s jowls and sweat beading on his mushy forehead. Eugene is a guaranteed fail in this exam but the school forces him to sit here and humiliate himself, just to make sure.Next to him is Ruth Whitelaw. Aleper even amongst us geeks, she shat herself on the third year field trip to the science centre after swapping her lactose-free lunch for an egg and cress baguette.
+++++We were all born of our creators’ desire for happiness, not their urge to make us happy. My sitting here in this drab prison is a testament to that. Mum will probably be sitting in the sunlit living room with her book now, the mantelpiece clock tick-tocking contentedly. Contrast her and that with me and here-a child’s toy wound up and set down on the assembly hall floor to perform in front of bored invigilators. Do well and it’s all down to my parents’ shrewd tutoring. They’ll smile as my achievements are listed at their friends’ dinner parties, all the while stacking up cheese and crackers and glugging back red wine. Perform badly, however, and it will be entirely down to my own failure to prepare/hormones/too much TV (delete as necessary according to parents’ particular mood).
+++++They will not be quite so fucking smug after today. I have to lean slightly to my right to see it;a mother checking her infant in its cot.I patiently await its wakening.My creation.
+++++A teacher walks past the air vent at the base of the stage and my toes curl up in my plain black shoes. He doesn’t look. I’m not particularly worried though-I can think of nowhere better for it. I’ve lost count of the times I have had to sit in the assembly hall and watch the social elite of the school parade in plays, musicals, fashion shows etc.etc.etc. on that stage. I’m expected to be grateful simply to be in the same fucking room as them. For their acts to shine a ray of sunlight upon my drab little life.
+++++Such an alpha-arsehole is sitting to my left. I sneak a look at him.
+++++Strong jawline. Tick.
+++++Rugby player shoulders. Tick.
+++++Baby blue eyes and artfully messed hair. Tock.
+++++And then he looks! He actually looks! Olly Beddingfield actually looks at me. One hand buried in that shock of dirty blonde hair, he scansthe room briefly, pen still going like mad. It is only a dart of the eyes, but I know what it means-shared pain, shared frustration. Maybe the glance was to admit that although we are separated by the stupid rules of school society, they are all that divide us. That under different circumstances we would have been friends. That only in this exam hall, where appearance and status count for nothing, can we share something.
+++++I wait for his next look up. I’ll blow my cheeks out, raise my eyes to the ceiling, and maybe even mime a gun to the side of my head. We’ll share a small smile. Perhaps he’ll shake his head at my nerve before returning to his paper, a smirk still tugging at his mouth. That moment will lay the foundation of something. We’ll have a past; a shared experience; something to build from.
+++++But he doesn’t look again.Prick.
+++++And why would he? What has he to gain from interacting with social kryptonite like me? I’m barely a blip on his radar, hardly a footnote in his high school yearbook.Any smile coming from him isn’t by way of friendship. It’s to take the piss out of me for my cheap clothes and the fact that my stupid parents won’t let me wear makeup to cover my acne. His high school persona, polished and perfected, ensures him a flock of simpering female admirers and back-slapping jocks.
+++++“No-one is perfect,” my mum would say, and in this at least she is right. Everyone has a doubt about themselves; something hidden, something secret. I look at the clock out of the corner of my eye. Nearly time. I keep expecting to hear a rusty mechanism turning over or for someone’s attention to be caught by a blinking red light. It doesn’t work that way though. Relax. Soon the complicated social circuitry of high school, with its jealousies and petty intrigues, its bullying and cruel, CRUEL fucking mockery, will be overloaded.
+++++I set my jaw every time a teacher’s eyes brush over me. I needn’t bother. Blank, vacant expressions tell me that I could probably start dancing the can-can without attracting attention. Cheap polyester suits and sagging guts speak of thwarted ambition and poorer-than-expected degrees. It’s all about going through the motions with the staff here. Just make it through the tantrums and protractor stabbings until lunch, then make a run for the staffroom.
+++++I, of course, am as anonymous to the teachers as I am to the other students. Time is spent on the show-offs, the violent and the plain stupid, with anyone capable of thinking for themselves being left alone to do exactly that. I swear I saw Mr. Grainger glance down to make sure of my name before running through his kids-that-don’t-cause-me-much-hassle spiel at parents’ evening. “Quiet”, “well behaved”, “hard worker”, “will go far if she continues like this”.I could probably write this paper in my own blood and it still wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Pupil causes no problem leads to teacher writing good report leads to parents swelling with pride-the OFSTED triangle.
+++++Any assessment of me after today will read quite differently. Breaking news reports will be followed by profiles and opinion pieces, perhaps on violent video games and the dangers of YouTube. Local TV stations will show footage of students sobbing into each other’s arms outside the school gates whilst smoke still rises from the assembly hall. People who sat next to me in chemistry and geography will strain to remember the last time they spoke to me whilst telling reporters that I “just seemed so normal”.

Five minutes.

Normal will take on a new meaning after today though. I’m not so soppy as to think that my actions will bring people together. Creating something artificial is, as Frankenstein found, a shite idea. Rather it will separate them into more suitable groups. Me, the fanatic, the outcast, the monster; and the rest of the school.

Two minutes.

People will realise that Olly’s jawline and Marissa Bench’s flawless skin are all just pieces of flesh to be mopped up along with Eugene’s arse (admittedly in differing quantities). Flying stage splinters, shards of window glass and whirling desk legs will see to it that no-one will come out of this as prom kings and queens. There will be no open casket funerals. None of them will be lonely though. They will be forever bound; Olly, Marissa, Ruth, Eugene, Mr. Grainger and all the rest.

It’s time…

Pens down.

You appear to be making good progress Katy. You approach the subject matter thoughtfully and create a sound argument within your essay. You are a hard-working student and with sufficient revision before your real exam you should do very well.

Mr. Grainger

The Tall Man

I sit on a bench in the darkened park and watch The Slug get out of his car. I am dressed head to foot in black and holding a black briefcase. The Slug walks up to an apartment block and opens the front door with a key. He doesn’t leave a real trail of slime behind him, of course, just a metaphorical one.
+++++The Slug is a very bad man, for sure; drug dealing, loan sharking, money laundering, people trafficking. He has his grubby fingers in so many dirty pies. But he has friends in high places: power and influence. So he has remained untouchable by the law for a very long time.
+++++He is also a creature of narrow habit. Come rain or shine, hell or high water, each Monday, just after midnight, he visits his Colombian mistress in her luxurious penthouse apartment atop an expensive West London apartment block. One hour later, he returns home.
+++++I wait for fifty five minutes and cross the road to The Slug’s Daimler. I take the Semtex out of the briefcase and strap it under the car. The sciatica in my back and knee hurts as I bend and stand up again. I massage my joints. And then go home to sleep the sleep of the just.
+++++I have much in common with The Slug. Once upon a time I was a very bad person, too: working for people like him, killing for money, until what my creative writing teacher called an ‘inciting incident’ occurred and I changed my ways. After a fashion.
+++++I am also a creature of narrow habit. Each and every morning I have a cup of sweet tea and a bacon sandwich at The Star Coffee Bar, just off the Walworth Road. And as per usual, I listen to Jazz FM and read the tabloids. I open a copy of The Sun, a loathsome rag that I stopped buying after Hillsborough, and find out The Slug is still alive. The article says that he is in intensive care after a suspected terrorist attack and under 24-hour police protection.
+++++I take out my mobile phone. It’s an old Nokia: less easy to hack than a Smartphone. I send a one word text message: Coffee.
+++++Like The Slug, I have friends in high places. And low ones too. Detective Sergeant Steve Toshack is somewhere in between, I suppose.
+++++He arrives at noon and orders a black coffee with hot buttered scones.
+++++He sits in front of me. As always, he wears a waxy raincoat and his long moustache is ragged, in need of a trim. Tosh is also a creature of narrow habit. Maybe it’s an age thing.
+++++‘A bit of an oops moment, then,’ says Tosh.‘A faux-pas.’
+++++‘He’s either a lucky bastard or I’m losing my touch,’ I say. ‘Where is he?’
+++++Tosh hands me a betting slip.
+++++‘That’s the hospital and that’s the room,’ he says, tapping the paper. ‘The copper on duty is a bloke called PC Whittaker. He’s a useless sort, been on the take for years too. He’s due a suspension. If you do the job on The Slug he’ll be up shit creek without a paddle: might even be able to get him to name some names.’
+++++‘A win-win then,’ I say.
+++++We sit in silence while Tosh finishes his food and drink. I try not to look at him while he eats.
+++++After my inciting incident, I decided to go in to business for myself: getting rid of undesirables. I built up a large client base, too, including a couple of governments and police forces.
+++++Now, I use the name The Tall Man and give out business cards that contain only a drawing: the elongated silhouette of a man, and a mobile phone number. Very few people know who I am and even fewer others are able to guess my identity: especially since I’m short. And I’m a woman.
+++++Tosh leaves and I wait for fifteen minutes and get up: my sciatica bites.
+++++I straighten my tweed skirt and pull my tartan shopping trolley towards the front door, waving at Pete and Jason behind the counter. The shopping trolley jams as I try to get it out of the door.
+++++A massive builder gets up and helps me with it.
+++++‘There you go, pet,’ he says, straining with its weight. ‘Bleedin’ hell, that’s heavy. What have you got in there?’
+++++‘Slug repellent,’ I say and step out into the autumn rain.

The Designated Day

Jim knows today’s date even though he hasn’t seen a calendar in years. Eight years at least. Fear resonates from the sinews and marrow of his bones. His heart palpitates hard, unrelenting. The panic attacks aren’t new. They are a nightly occurrence and sometimes they strike in the middle of the day. But those panics are often based on past torments, this panic is about the future. About today. Now.
+++++The lights are on and his door is open. It’s time to get up. He doesn’t want to get up, but he must. Staying inside his room is a like a death sentence. Maybe he can get some place with some witnesses and a camera. Not that it would matter much.
+++++Standing is difficult for Jim. His right big toe is gone and his left kneecap is busted to pieces. He looks around with his one good eye, the only one. The other is a hollowed hole. Nobody is in his room, yet. Good. Teetering, he stands up and shuffles with agonizing steps to the can. He grabs the waistband of his drawers with the remnants of his hands. His right is thumbless, the left is missing the index, middle and ring. This situation makes life much tougher. He drops his trousers over the stool and squats. He can’t stand like he used to since there is nothing there anymore. Just a mess of pubes over a scar with a hole.
+++++Once he’s finished his piss, he walks out of his room and looks down the hallway. It’s quiet. Too quiet. The men he sees are in their rooms, watching him with cold, hard stares. Rivulets of sweat run down Jim’s face. Then he feels a heavy hand clamp down on his shoulder from behind. It’s happening. He would yell for help if he still had his tongue. Still he screams an incoherent babble as he is tossed back into his room. Three bulky men swollen with muscle and saturated with ink bound inside. One holds a Polaroid camera, another has a crudely made hacksaw. Jim shrieks in terror as the man with empty hands pulls him up off his feet and punches his good eye. Semi-conscious on the floor, he stares through his ballooning eyelid and sees the rusted blades coming towards his nose.
+++++Jim thrashes his head from side to side screaming to his lungs’ capacity. Meaty hands grab his temples to keep him from moving his head.
+++++“Happy anniversary,” one of the men says as the jagged blades start to tear into the cartilage before his eyes.
+++++In that moment, even with the intense pain, all Jim can think about is his face. I used to have a beautiful face. A face that people trusted. These assholes are destroying it. Making me into a monster.

***

Brenner sits at the table waiting. He sees a huge man enter from the back of the room after a guard opens the door. The hulk sits across from him. Although thick Plexiglas separates them, Brenner believes the material would not be an adequate barrier if this man wanted to break through. Which is to say the man is perfect for his job. Brenner and the brute grab their respective phones simultaneously.
+++++“It’s done,” the man with the handle Vicious says.
+++++Brenner nods. “Evidence?”
+++++Vicious looks both ways before pulling out a few Polaroid pictures from his shirt. This subterfuge shouldn’t matter, Brenner thinks, but you can’t take the paranoia out of the prisoner.  When the pictures are smacked against the window, Brenner is revolted. He wants to turn away, but he doesn’t. Not this time. Not any time. He paid for this. And all of the others. Jim the pedophile, abductor, rapist, and murderer is paying as well. One day a year for the rest of his life, one piece at a time.
+++++Brenner remembers that monster’s inhuman smirk throughout the trial. He remembers the horror of the other victims’ families when he testified, pleading with the jury to give the smug murderer a life sentence instead of the death penalty in spite of the heinous acts he had committed. That was one of the hardest things in the world to do: plead for the life of one who didn’t deserve it. But Brenner knew that justice would be slow and a lethal injection, regardless of what anti-death penalty advocates say, would be infinitely more painless than what he put his victims through. His beloved. His cherished. No more.
+++++Brenner refocuses, looking at the photo of the bloody gaping hole in the monster’s face and even more importantly the terror displayed in his eyes. The satisfaction he derives is limited. It will not bring back his daughter. He knows that. But it’s something, balancing the scales, maybe overburdening it…
+++++“Yo, man, you wanna see the nose?” Vicious asks, patting his waistband.
+++++Brenner shakes his head, unable to speak.
+++++“We doin’ this next year? There isn’t much more to take, if you get what I’m sayin’. I don’t mind doin’ it. My family thanks you for your, uh… generosity.”
+++++And so do the guards’ families, Brenner thinks. His house is triple mortgaged and he’s cashed in all his investments. Retirement is something he’ll never see. No matter. Since his wife left, nothing matters except this once a year event, the date of the abduction when Brenner’s agony transfers for a day to that monster.
+++++He studies the photo one more time. Is it enough? Pain and fear was captured on the monster’s face. Has justice finally been served?
+++++He hears his daughter’s faraway laugh, remembers her goofy smile. His heart hammers a surge dark energy, rattling his body. No, it is never enough.
+++++“Next year is on,” Brenner says with as much control as he can muster. “I’ll figure something else to take from him.”
+++++He leaves the prison knowing he is less a man and more a monster. He can live with that.

This notion of a fire

Dane Franklin lived in the far side of the forest close to where the tall, black pines shaved down to the moor as hair shaves down to a skull. He lived in the remains of an old caravan with his sister, Suzanne, who had, over the years, turned more than a little crazy. She’d wander the moors and woods in stone-cold rain and beneath clouds the colour of bruises in wind that ripped like a flail across bracken and heather. Dane, the wrong side of 40, with a nose that had broken more times than his heart, would stumble after her and drag her back to the caravan that served as home to the both of them. It stood on the corner of land belonging to his boss, Max Clifford, close to the dark water of the river, and Max would often wander down from the village with a bottle of cheap cider along with the wages he paid Dane for the odd jobs he did. He was an old friend, maybe Dane’s only friend. ‘Now listen,’ he’d say, usually after the third glass had gone down sweet as a baited hook. ‘You’re going to have to get ‘er put someplace she won’t get into bother, mate. You don’t know the half of what’s going on.’
+++++Dane, seated in a folding deckchair beside an electric heater, would gaze from the bars glowing like two bones in hot moonlight, to his sister laid on the cot; her dirty blonde hair hung over the side, sweeping the floor. ‘I promised my old man on his death bed I’d look out for her no matter what, that was on his deathbed, mate; she wasn’t always this way.’
+++++‘Nobody’s always any way.’
+++++‘I’m just saying she needs me more these days than ever she did.’
+++++‘And what’s it cost you?’
+++++‘Nothing I wasn’t ready to lose.’
+++++Max sipped from the cracked plastic tumbler before him. ‘Lost you Jane, lost you your job when you could have had her someplace safe where she’d be cared for.’
+++++‘A barmaid with a wandering eye and shit work in an abattoir aren’t the things to set your life by, not when there’s family and not when you owe them.’
+++++‘Dane, I’m just saying, you can’t be here all the time, and while you’re not here she wanders. I caught a few lads from town the other day, following her back into the wood. If I hadn’t been there, anything could have happened and, let’s be honest, there’s not a way you’d know. Doesn’t talk at all does she?’
+++++Dane turned and looked over at her. She’d walked eleven miles that day along the course of the river, through brush and thorns so tangled, he wouldn’t have believed a rabbit could pass. She lay sleeping, her breaths coming in frantic gasps as though she was some fresh-born beast testing natal lungs for the first bloody time. She’d been beautiful once, before the fire and, even now, beneath the scars smeared across her bones like thick clay, there was something of that loveliness remaining. ‘She hasn’t spoken a word to me in 12 years.’

***

The next day beneath a July rain that was hot as tea, Dane worked at repairing a wire fence on the river bank. The oily mud splashed as he drove a fresh post into the earth to replace one older than he was. He became aware of a movement on the far bank and looked up. Three young men stood watching him from beneath hoods. One, the closest to him, wore a baseball cap beneath the hood, and the legs of his track suit bottoms were tucked into his trainers. Another puffed at a cigarette he held away from the rain in a cupped hand. The third carried a child’s fishing rod. ‘Now then,’ the first said, ‘any good fishing round here, mate?’ There was arrogance to the voice, a scorn Dane heard all too clearly. He’d heard it all his life.
+++++‘No fishing round here lads, this is private.’
+++++‘You couldn’t look the other way, bud, just let us cast a few lines in?’
+++++Dane looked across the water at them. The river was the colour of old beer bottles beneath overhanging trees, flowing quickly down from the high moors behind. In spite of the rain it was hot, and he took the cloth cap from his head and wiped his face with it. ‘It’s just as I say, boys, it’s not up to me; it’s private all this.’
+++++‘Private?’ One of the men asked with a laugh.
+++++‘Aye,’ Dane said, confused by their lack of comprehension. ‘Private, as only he what owns it gets to use it.’
+++++The man with the cigarette said. ‘Like your sister, eh?’
+++++Dane stood very still. It felt as though a trap door had just opened beneath his ribs, and that his heart was falling like a bird with a bullet through the wing. The river washed darkly at the clay of the banks. ‘The fuck did you just say?’
+++++The men started laughing. ‘Take it easy Forrest Gump,’ the one with the rod yelled, ‘nobody wants to roll with a mental fucking pork scratching, no-one except you that is.’
+++++‘Fucking hillbilly,’ said the one with the cigarette. ‘Fuck your fishing and fuck you.’
+++++Dane stared down at the quick water. ‘If you were on this side …’
+++++But the boys were already walking back onto the trail headed to the estate at the edge of town. ‘You’d do fuck all, mate.’
+++++The rain eased up and a haze of small flies hovered over the fresh turned mud at his feet and it was a long time before Dane turned back to his work.

***

The sun was a blaze of gold in the pink misted clouds that washed over the hills. Dane sat on the deckchair in front of the caravan and watched it sink as he smoked a cigarette he’d rolled. He rolled them in the same way his father had and as he watched the sun he thought of the flames that had taken his sister’s house as he’d been passed out on the sofa, drunk on whisky and stoned, and of the two little boys’ asleep upstairs slowly choking to death on the smoke. He thought of the scream that woke him and how Suzanne, home from work early, dashed face first into the blaze too late and the scream of sirens and the last thing she ever said to him, “You killed them.”
+++++She came back close to midnight with her dress torn near enough to rags and her face beaten blue and bloody. She wasn’t crying, just came into the caravan, sat down, and started to comb her hair. He rose from the cot, walked across to her and held her face in his hands close to his. He knew it would be useless to ask sure as he knew who was to blame. He pulled the axe from beneath the bed and headed out into the night, locking the door behind him.
+++++Later, when he returned from the camp the boys had set up in a low field on the far side of the river, he tossed the axe into the river. His jeans were soaked in blood that wasn’t his and there were tooth marks on his knuckles. ‘Suzy, he said, ‘where are you?’
+++++The boys were half asleep and stoned on weed beside a fire that was more cinder than flame when he’d found them. He’d stood behind them and, with the blunt side of the axe head, despatched them one after the other the same way his Dad did the pigs back in the day. They had barely even screamed.
+++++He found her stood in the river, her yellow dress floating on water dark as obsidian, dark as a scrying mirror, the fabric pale in the moonlight like tarnished brass. He climbed down the muddy bank, slipping once or twice and stepped into the chill embrace of the water. ‘I’ve done something mad, Suzy, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry for everything. Sorry for everything I did and didn’t do and everything I am and everything you ended up as, and I’m sorry for the boys, yours and them, and I’m sorry,’ he listened to a distant siren echoing off the crowded hills, ‘I can’t watch you no more. I’m a stupid fucking man, a stupid bloody curse.’ He sighed and glanced at the silver stone of the moon hanging over a dark land. ‘I’m good and bloody sorry.’
+++++He reached for her and leaned her back into the river as though baptising her. The ruined beauty of her face vanished beneath the peaty water. She did not kick or cry out, and he held her there until the first police car burst into the valley in an explosion of light.

Long Black Veil

Every midnight Katharine Lee Jackson appears like a ghost in the live oak and ceanothus scrub on the hillside above the Azimuth County Jail.
+++++Speaking to no one, she drifts silently out of the darkness, a widow’s veil concealing her pale face. Sometimes the moon shows her clearly; when the weather is foul and rain soaks her mourning clothes, she is barely visible.
+++++Each time she visits, she reminds me of the woman in the song by Lefty Frizzell:

She walks these hills in a long black veil She visits my grave when the night winds wail Nobody knows, nobody sees Nobody knows but me

I watch for her because I dressed her in those widow’s weeds when I turned her husband into worm food.
+++++But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
+++++My name is Johnny Ray Deets and I’m a chain rigger, tree faller and straw-boss for the Daugherty Lumber Company. At least I used to be.
+++++I fell in love with Katharine Lee Jackson the first time I laid eyes on her, a couple of years before I quit school in the eleventh grade to take my old man’s place in the woods.
+++++I still love her today, but the real world got in between us and we took different paths.
+++++When I spotted her in the corridor at Horace Greeley High School, I thought she was the prettiest girl in the world.
+++++I’d heard her father was the new manager of the local bank. That didn’t mean anything to me. In my family we respected anyone who worked hard, regardless of whether they wore a suit or a hard hat.
+++++Most of the kids had dads who worked in the woods like mine. Many barely scraped by and had a low opinion of people higher in the pecking order.
+++++Their kids picked up the attitude like valley fever. They viewed the new girl with suspicion.
+++++One day as I looked for a place to eat my brown bag, I saw her in tears surrounded by three boys jawing at her about how her old man’s bank was bleeding their parents dry on the loans they’d taken to make it through rough patches. As I walked up, one of them spat on her and called her a “rich bitch.”
+++++I was pretty big as a kid—already six feet tall in the ninth grade and beefy enough that I got tagged to play varsity football in what should have been my redshirt year. I wasn’t just bigger than most of my classmates; I was faster and a hell of a lot stronger.
+++++Maybe because of my size my old man raised me to hate bullies and I’d jump into a fight with anybody picking on somebody smaller or weaker. Hurting a girl or calling her names were probably the most awful crimes I could imagine.
+++++Particularly a girl as pretty as Katharine Lee.
+++++I grabbed the kid who’d been running her down, swung him to face me and drove a left hand into his chin. As he fell back, I followed with a right cross, just like my pa had shown me. The bigmouth wound up coldcocked on the blacktop.
+++++“Learn some manners, you ignorant asshole!” I growled as his chums dragged him away.
+++++When they left, I turned and stared at Katharine Lee like an idiot. “C-can I sit next to you?” I asked, my face suddenly blood red.
+++++She wiped her tears away. Patting the bench next to her, she smiled and said, “Why not? Nobody else will.”
+++++We ate lunch together each day for the rest of the year.
+++++From that day forward, the teasing stopped. I was Katharine Lee’s protector, her champion.
+++++We dated at homecoming through my junior year. She had me over to her house twice for dinner with her family (her old man was delighted she had snagged a first-string football player who had decent table manners). When the Junior Prom rolled around, I even used the money I made summers pumping gas to buy her a corsage of gardenias and a decent suit from the Monkey Ward Catalog so she wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with me.
+++++Afterwards when I took her home in my pa’s pickup she kissed me at her front door. Her lips were the sweetest thing I ever tasted.
+++++But that same year, things went sour. My old man was helping to rig a turn for the cold deck when a bum tie-down gave way and one of the big-assed logs rolled up on him. His legs were pulped right up through the hip. He died a week later.
+++++We couldn’t live without pa’s paychecks. I was nineteen and big enough to fall lumber, so I grabbed my old man’s calks, helmet and beat-up McCulloch 3-25 and plugged into the Daugherty operation, working six shifts a week plus overtime during good weather.
+++++I was a perfect fit. I didn’t even have to change the name on the hard hat.
+++++Ma never got over pa’s death. A year later, she passed on herself.
+++++Clarence Daugherty, the company’s founder, ran Azimuth County like a cotton plantation in Mississippi. He was a tyrant and his word was law, but he was a lumberman to the core with sawdust in his veins. He took a shine to me because there was hardly a job in the woods I couldn’t do, usually faster and better than the men who’d been working there for years.
+++++“Johnny Ray is the best hand in Azimuth,” he’d say. “I’m proud to have him on my push!”
+++++When he died of a stroke two years ago his son Richard took his place in just about everything, including the day-to-day of running the company.
+++++Richard was about my age but never had a job that made him sweat. He didn’t care for the lumber business. He stopped producing finished lumber for homes and businesses and went to cutting Japanese Squares – unfinished logs for shipment overseas. He brought in suits from Los Angeles to make most of the show mechanical and he started going through the payroll and getting rid of older hands with real timber skills.
+++++Pretty soon nothing was left but a skeleton crew to operate the machinery and cable cut entire hillsides. All the old timers ended up at home, staying drunk on rocking chair money. When their unemployment ran out, they either lived off food stamps or starved.
+++++Eventually Richard Daugherty sold what was left of his old man’s company to some big outfit in Asia. The only thing they kept was the company’s name.
+++++Daugherty Lumber was pretty near the only show in town and most folks for a hundred miles in each direction depended on it for their living. Times fell hard in Azimuth County.
+++++I was one of the last to get the ax. That’s a joke, friend.
+++++Daugherty didn’t have the courtesy to tell me in person. I found out from the pink slip in my pay envelope. I’d gone from being one of the highest paid guys in the woods to living off unemployment like everybody else.
+++++I was trying to figure out what to do, but my options weren’t attractive. There was always working as a gyppo, but the work was irregular as hell and there weren’t enough indy logging operations to get steady income.
+++++I could always poach trees off private property but most of the good stands were gone leaving nothing but snags. Pirating firewood was another non-starter: there was no cash in beaver bait and blow downs, even when you hawked it to suburbanites.
+++++So I went on unemployment for two years.
+++++The bank in town is where I cashed my last go-to-hell check. There, sitting behind a desk in a little glass office, was where I spoke with Katharine Lee Jackson for the last time—only now the little black plastic plate on her desk said she was Katharine Lee Daugherty, Vice President.
+++++I watched her talking on the phone while I waited for a teller. She still was a stunner, the most beautiful woman in town, but she had a bruise around her left eye that was starting to fade from brown to green and her free arm was in a sling. Under it you could see a plaster cast that ran from her fingers to the bend of her elbow.
+++++She spotted me taking my cash and getting ready to leave when she was hanging up.
+++++“Johnny! Johnny Ray Deets!” she said as she got up and left her little office. She was walking with a slight limp and I noticed an elastic bandage around her knee. “Wait, Johnny! It’s me, Katharine!”
+++++She stopped in front of me, smiling through her pain at the effort. “Do you remember me at all?”
+++++It felt so good to see her and hear her voice I couldn’t help but smile back. “Hell, how could I forget you?” I said gruffly. “You’re the only girl I ever kissed. You were the love of my life.”
+++++She looked surprised. “Then why’d you quit school? I heard you’d gone to work as a lumberman.” She shook her head sadly. “I never understood it. You were all-state in football—had a chance to go to the University on full scholarship. But one day you were just gone. You never even said goodbye.”
+++++“I didn’t have much choice, Katharine Lee,” I said. “My pa got crushed on the job. I had to support my mother. That meant getting a job, and the only thing I knew was working the woods. I knew all the logging jobs ‘cause I’d been watching my pa do ‘em all my life.”
+++++I gestured to the sign on her desk. “Lest you forget, the Daugherty’s have this county sewed up. You want to make a real living, you best lug a saw or drive a log truck. Everything else is barely subsistence wages.”
+++++“I can see you did okay for yourself, though,” I said, a note of bitterness creeping into my voice. “It must be nice having a banker dad and a millionaire husband. Glad one of us grabbed the brass ring.”
+++++She blushed. “I started as a teller and worked my way up,” she said. “Had to take a test and pass an interview to get my foot in the door—with no short cuts. My dad died of a heart attack three years ago when I was still working the loan desk. Bank headquarters liked my work and made me his replacement.”
+++++“As for Dick, I married him because he was the only guy in town who showed an interest in me besides you,” she said. In a voice so low he could barely hear her, she added: “Believe me, having a millionaire husband hasn’t been a bed of roses.”
+++++“How do you mean?”
+++++She bit her lip. “He goes off at the slightest provocation. I think under all the money and fancy cars, he feels inadequate and tends to take it out on those around him. He’s wretchedly jealous. Every time another man looks at me, he thinks we’re having an affair.”
+++++I looked at her eyes. They looked haunted.
+++++“I thought he only treated us working stiffs like dirt,” I said, my voice softening. “Did he give you that shiner and break your arm?”
+++++She hesitated with tears welling in her eyes. “No, uh—I fell down a flight of stairs at the house.”
+++++She was obviously lying. I squeezed her uninjured hand gently. She didn’t pull away.
+++++“Come on Katharine Lee,” I said. “Tell the truth. Did he abuse you?”
+++++She leaned onto my chest, trembling and beginning to shed those tears.
+++++“Yes,” she whispered. “More than once. But for God’s sake don’t say anything to anybody about it. When he broke my arm two weeks ago, he said he’d kill me if I reported it to the sheriff. He said he’d know because Creed Moreland and his deputies have been in the Daugherty family’s pocket for years.”
+++++“The rotten son of a bitch,” I said, biting off my words through clenched teeth.
+++++Moreland had been sheriff forever. I knew when the elder Daugherty was alive, most every Saturday Creed played poker with him and Azimuth’s mayor, Carny Davies. My pa told me the only time he knew the old man to bug out of the game was the night Richard got drunk and ran his Corvette into a logger’s station wagon, killing the driver and critically injuring his wife and kids.
+++++Clarence stepped out “to make a couple calls,” my pa told me. Not only did Richard get off without so much as a traffic ticket, but there wasn’t a word about the accident in the local paper.
+++++By sheer bad luck, Daugherty Junior walked into the bank at that moment. He saw us with our heads together, holding hands. I could tell from the blank look he flicked my way he had no idea I was a former employee.
+++++“What the hell is this all about?” he demanded of Katharine Lee. “You shameless cunt! Are you hooking up with your fucking lovers in your damned bank now?”
+++++Snake quick, he grabbed her by her broken arm and pulled her away from me. Showing his teeth, he slapped her across the face and backhanded her on the return.
+++++I jerked him away from her and she fell to the floor with a cry of pain, a ribbon of blood trickling from her nose. I drew back my fist to pound Daugherty senseless but he was holding a snub-nosed pistol pointed at my middle.
+++++“Stand back, cowboy,” he said. “This is just between me and my so-called wife. I’m going to let you walk out of here intact. Just edge out that door. If you don’t, I’ll either shoot you myself or have the sheriff arrest you and charge you with something that puts you away for decades.”
+++++I’d grown three inches taller during my first couple of years working as a faller. A decade of wrangling logs, dragging chains and toting a McCulloch with a 30-inch bar had made me stronger and more limber than when I was playing free safety in high school.
+++++But I was shocked at how fast Daugherty moved. Only an idiot takes on a man who has a gun aimed at his belly so, fuming with rage, I half raised my hands and backed slowly out of the bank.
+++++Once I was outside my anger took over completely. I wanted to kill the son of a bitch, no matter what the cost. I could reach my pa’s red International Harvester with just a few steps. The Ruger carbine I use to hunt deer was locked in a rack behind its seat.
+++++But when I got to the truck, the coil of hooked log chain in the bed gave me a better idea. I pulled it out and wrapped enough around my hand to leave four feet of steel hanging and slouched back in the doorway of a boarded-up shop to watch the bank’s entrance.
+++++Daugherty came out a few minutes later and turned my direction as I ducked out of sight. I waited until he drew alongside and said quietly, “hey, asshole!”
+++++He turned, pulling out his snubbie and I wrapped the chain around his wrist with a single quick swing. The gun slipped from his shattered forearm and went off when it hit, telling me it had been loaded and cocked.
+++++He yelped like a kicked hound and staggered back, grabbing his arm as the chain unwound. I stepped up and chain-whipped his shoulders with a sound like a sledge hammer crushing a pile of walnuts.
+++++As he went to his knees, I wrapped the chain around his head with a final vicious lash. The pulpy crunch stifled his screams of agony permanently.
+++++Sprawling on the sidewalk, the cracks in Richard deformed skull oozed blood and a gray and pink goop that looked like cottage cheese. His eyes bulged between the loops of iron that seemed to be the only thing holding his head together.
+++++I let the rest of the chain unwind from my hand into a pile next to him. It seemed unlikely I would ever get a chance to use it again.
+++++It made no sense to run; I had nowhere to go. I figured wherever I ended up, I wouldn’t be there long, anyway. Count on it: murdering a millionaire gets you the needle these days.
+++++Sheriff’s patrol officers quickly arrived, followed by an ambulance and two paramedics. While the cops put me in handcuffs and stuck me in their black and white, the sawbones declared Daugherty dead where he fell.
+++++As the cops drove me away, I saw Katharine Lee watching through the bank’s front window. She was crying and she pressed her uninjured hand against the plate glass. Once again, I had been her champion and protector.
+++++I wanted to keep Katharine Lee from sitting through a painful trial that probably would have required her testimony so I pleaded guilty to murder one and was sentenced to die. No big loss. I would have been convicted anyway, what with Daugherty’s kin and hot-shot cronies in the driver’s seat.
+++++My only regret is that there isn’t a vacant cell in Death Row and I’ll be stuck in the county jail until the state is ready to stick me. I guess it makes sense: I spent my whole life in Azimuth and I’ll be here until they take me to San Quentin.
+++++That’s why I see Katharine Lee walking the hills in mourning clothes. Each night she appears on the pine-topped bluff that shields the jail from the Northwest wind. Sometimes I seem to hear the breeze carry her quiet weeping across the gulch near the razor wire fence. Or maybe I just imagine it. I can’t be certain.
+++++I am sure she knows I’m watching. After all, she isn’t there to grieve the man I killed. Her tears are just for me.

Fallen Phoenix

The bar was a skid row stage; its gamblers improv performers, their facial expressions skits apeing greed, desperation, disappointment, panic, hope, and they the only audience in an otherwise empty theater.
+++++An eclectic mélange of pop music from the past forty years; James Brown, The Four Tops, Sting, even Buddy Holly, and even older country stuff—Take This Job and Shove It—competed with the incessant thumping coins feeding starving hoppers of bar-top video poker machines lining the length of the bar. Mostly street wise Vegas locals crowded the machines. Jonesing rock-hoes played to earn twenty dollar rock double ups served up by the bartender, and with luck, they would not have to sell their asses this day to get sprung. Muscled up thugs contributed the proceeds beaten out of their prey; panhandlers gave up their day’s collections, then left to walk the median islands at busy intersections for more. All played peekaboo with the elusive progressive jackpot. Barring a Royal Flush, a less profitable return on their risky investments; a four of a kind, a full boat, even a dead man’s hand would do.
+++++The woman claimed a stool at the bar earlier that morning. A five dollar poker machine lay before her. Her back faced the entrance. “Country Honk” thumped base tempos two decibels too loud. A tinny treble twang distorted Jagger’s lyrics as if he had substituted an empty soup can for a mic with the string attached to the bottom end of it the twisted cotton conduit broadcasting his fuzzy lyrics to the blown speaker directly above her. She placed a large bill on the bar and said, “Gimme a rack and a Long Island iced tea.” A plastic caddy quickly appeared loaded with a mix of one hundred silver dollars and casino minted dollar size tokens equal in weight and size to the bona fide government issue coins. Her morning wake-up tea arrived thirty dollars into the rack. By noon the woman at the bar had nested six hours at the same stool, the same machine, drinking free and losing.
+++++The couple arrived well after lunch hour.
+++++A late August Santa Anna gusting wind hurried the couple in, ripped through the foyer and battered the woman at the bar. Mitch Ryder wailed “Girl with A Blue Dress” rattling the adjacent ceiling tiles. The woman’s hair flattened forward. Her back stiffened plumb. The automatic door closer struggled to beat back the belligerent desert gusts. The woman at the bar kept drinking, slipped five dollars more in the slot, and finger brushed her hair back, disturbed less by the couple’s blustery entrance than the losing hand just dealt her. “Another hundred closer to broke,” she mumbled to her machine. She hunched over her comped cocktail and became one once again with its content.
+++++“Damned wind, it beat me up; I feel like I just lost a brawl in a dark alley,” he said. He patted and brushed the desert off the portion of his clothes that weren’t sweaty wet, and slapped his frayed Oakland A’s ball cap against the thread worn knees of his blue jeans.
+++++“Can’t feel the balls of my feet,” she said. She was a veteran topless pole dancer in the Vegas strip clubs just off the strip locally known as Naked City. Her fuck pumps were designed to enhance her shapely calves on stage, not embark on an urban stroll along five city blocks of sun-seared concrete. “My hair feels like a burnt Brillo pad, and I just sweat off a pound getting here, coated in dust, and I need to pee.” The couple adapted their sight to the neon-lit dusk inside and moved on.
+++++The woman at the bar tipped her glass and emptied the last of her Long Island Ice Tea. She raised it high above her head and rattled the melting ice cubes inside impatiently gesturing for another comped refill, “And another rack too,” she said.
+++++He stopped further up the bar with his back to the woman. His lover headed for the lav. He leaned an elbow on the bar top at a vacant machine played twenty dollars, and earned a comped double off-brand whiskey neat from the well. He contributed another twenty to the progressive jackpot pool, flashed a two-dollar tip to the bartender, emptied the glass and played another twenty while he scanned the restaurant crowd for those he owed, those that owed him, and undercover cops in fake beards. No one. He ordered another double and guzzled it before she returned.
+++++The couple sought a place on the restaurant side. They settled on a cluttered booth in a sea of cluttered booths in need of bussing. They sat together on a faded abused bench seat with an equally tattered padded back. Parts of the vinyl upholstery had split and stiffened over time; the foam under it lost its firmness after the Mob, who still owned the tavern, town. Two concave molds had formed on the seats from the past twenty years of punishment by every shaped ass imaginable. Carved graffiti littered the aged soft pine wood table top. The couple faced the bar.
+++++“Damned wind’s brutal,” she said. She slipped her arm around his neck and closed in, leg to leg, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.
+++++“But this is Vegas—the best lit desert oasis in the world—Paradise,” he said.
+++++“Another county heard from,” she said. “Find work, get a car with air conditioning and tinted windows; that’s Paradise.”
+++++“But, I got work.”
+++++“Credit card fraud is theft hon, not work. I was thinking of an occupation that won’t land you back in the penitentiary too soon.”
+++++He glanced up at the bar and recognized the woman slumped over her already half empty refill. “I’m sick of your bug infested room at the Blue Angel too?” his date said. “Let’s lease a place together as far from Fremont and Eastern as we can, furnished, maybe Boulder City or Henderson.”
+++++“Sure thing, let’s get a cat too, buy bright shiny things, get monogrammed pillowcases, paper the walls,” he said. “Quit carping.” A pregnant pause occurred, then, “I wonder,” he said. “Is she anticipating some sign of monumental import rise in a mist from the backwash in her glass?”
+++++“What babe?”

***

He and the woman at the bar quit each other after twelve off and on years of arrests, prison, playing the streets smack back or sprung on rocks. Her sin? Too many long runners chasing the high until her current date ran out of money. His? Sampling her myriad bi-sexual rock hoe friends, at first with her involved, but toward the end without her knowledge. Since the breakup, they slept together on rare occasions both crossed paths half sober, sprung on rocks, sometimes nodding off on a dose of Afgan tar. Before, as a couple, they were an institution on Freemont Street, well known amongst the whores, slot cheats, drug dealers, thugs, and cops. The woman at the bar was bound to find them out; both knew each other from their tit dancing days together, and they remained chums since. He figured someone he swindled in the past might vengefully expose the couple to the woman at the bar. Come another time, another place, alone with her face to face; that was fine, he would tell her then. But not now, not here, not by a chance encounter in a downtown Vegas skid row bar, not at the risk of a Bukowski style Wanda/Tully catfight.
+++++“Look to the left near the end of the bar,” he said. “See her huddling with her cocktail. She’s almost wallowing in it?” She looked up toward the bar spotted her friend and groaned. In full blush, she turned to him, her breath raining humid warmth in his ear. She whispered, “What now? If she sees us, well, if she sees us…”
+++++“…You’ll lose a close friend.”
+++++She pulled away from him, “And you’ll lose a fuck buddy.” She no longer whispered.
+++++“Doubt I’ll miss that, long as you keep your motor running.”
+++++“We were close once, even before you. Not now, though. She’s distant, or too busy whoring to find time for me.”
+++++“Off and on, I squandered nine years of my life with her; years I’ll never get back.”
+++++“She cheated on you when you were in prison.”
+++++“Betrayal begins with implicit trust. I’d have done the same if she were locked up. She knew that. Look; she’s emptied another Iced Tea dry. She’ll be blind ‘til this time tomorrow,” he said
+++++“Do you trust me implicitly babe?”
+++++“And then her drinking,” he said. “She’s a sadistic mean bitch; loves to roll around in the dirt scratching and clawing anyone who offends her.”
+++++“Yup, she’s a scandalous drunk alright.”
+++++“Hell, she’d get blacked out stumbling drunk clock me in the jaw, call
+++++Metro, blame a two day old bruised wrist on me and off I’d go to the city jail overnight.”
+++++“Shouldn’t have slapped her around so much.”
+++++“I don’t recall ever leaving a mark.”
+++++“Still a bit bitter?”
+++++“No. Remorse? Yes. Bitter? No.”
+++++“After all, it wasn’t all on her; you worshiped that bottle just as much as she did.”
+++++“That’s what heavy drinkers do.”
+++++“She wasn’t street until you got to her. You turned her out. Her golden gash kept you supplied with a steady stream of rocks, liquor, and threesomes with her and her lezzy girlfriends. She’s your creation, your invention; now she’s just your cast off debris.”
+++++“I’ll call her over; we’ll have a threesome.”
+++++“I’ll pass. She was a decent pole dancer when we worked the tit clubs together in Naked City. She always walked away with two, three hundred dollars a night, more than the rest of us. No drugs and she never tricked. I think of what you did to her; you’re good at exploiting the worst in women. Makes me wonder what you have planned for me? Gonna turn me out? Share a needle with you?”
+++++“Naa, none of that, just your dirty love later.”
+++++“Look at her,” she said. “Probably drunk before we had breakfast. Bet she got new tracks, not on her arms, they’re sieves by now. Who but a smack back addict like her hides tracks wearing long sleeves in a hundred-ten degree heat? Stabbing between her toes now, I’ll bet. She’s got one foot in the gutter, and one on the curb’s my guess.” He glanced at his rolled up sleeves relieved they covered the crooks of his arms.
+++++“Got granite for a heart too,” he said. “Cold, lifeless; dynamite might chip off a chunk of it, but no amount of effort will ever penetrate it.”
+++++“You turned her cold,” she said. “Call it like it is.”
+++++The woman at the bar put a straw atop her drink got up from her stool and left with the man to her right. She came back alone twenty minutes later, called out, “Another rack,” and laid down a large bill she had just earned in the back seat of a ’62 Ford Fairlane.
+++++“She’s pinned her street degree back on her ass and gone to selling it again,” she said.
+++++“Now here she is, face down in a downtown shit hole bar,” he said. He caught a harried waitress in mid-stride with an authoritative, “Hey, order here.”
+++++“You again,” the waitress said. “Who’s the new squeeze next to you? Hell, forget it, I don’t care, just don’t stiff me when you leave. Interest you in a top shelf margarita? Maybe, a Maker’s Mark high ball?” the waitress said.
+++++“Naa, double sour mash whiskey here, double gin for her, neat in rock glasses. Just the cheap no name off brand swill from the well; we drink for effect, not taste,” he said. He nodded to the dishes still on the table. The waitress cleared the leavings away, wiped the table down, sneered a grin at his friend, wrote up their meal order and scrambled off.
+++++“Let’s sit on the other side of the booth, backs to the bar,” he said. “Less chance she’ll spot us.”
+++++“Why do you keep screwing her?”
+++++“This is as close as I’ve been to her since we split the sheets.” She caught him lying; all three mutually knew the street-wise cast offs on Fremont; rumors there spread fast as the click of a minute hand. Their last instance together occurred a few weeks earlier and stretched into a three-day carnal spree; him chasing rocks and smack, and her whoring for the money to buy the shit. Then there were the Extacy tainted threesomes with her and her rock fiend hooker friends. His current lover had heard about their recent runner before their first day together ended.

***

The woman at the bar signaled for a refill and invested five dollars more on another losing hand. The ice cubes were noisier this time; they had little chance to melt.
+++++Their appetites had dulled by the fourth round; their meals sat half eaten and cold. “Drink up,” he said. “Let’s hoof it to my crib. I got a bottle of Wild Turkey, and the liquor store is just across the street. We’ll shower up, do some lines; you dig up that hot pink thong and corset outfit along with the sparkly make-up shit you left behind last week. We’ll swing from the trees until they come to change the sheets Sunday.” Her eyes slit narrow with lust. She firmly gripped his inner thigh, stroked it softly from his crotch to his knee as a gesture of consent.
+++++“Ah yes, been waiting for you to mention rutting season. Let it begin,” she said. She squirmed closer to him as if she were an estrus doe spraying an overdose of pheromones in the direction of her randy buck.
+++++The couple kept their heads down avoiding eye contact on their way to the door. They made it unnoticed to the vestibule unscathed, both lit on ninety proof, wobbling a bit. He opened the door for her to pass. The storm had calmed; stillness intensified the desert heat. She brushed close up to him, copped a feel and kissed him. She hummed a throaty moan as her tongue stabbed past his lips, then she moved on. He looked toward the bar and cast an eye at his creation clutching a half empty chimney glass, her face wallowing inches above video screen. Then he turned his back to her assured he had successfully convinced another Phoenix of the streets to languish in her flames ‘till death than rise.

Carpe Diem

At first you don’t see the spiders straight on. You catch them out of the corner of your eye. Scurrying. It’s gone. Must have slipped into a crack.
+++++But a spider vanishing under cover doesn’t cause you to guess that you’re seeing things. Snakes or rats. Peripheral and then straight on.
+++++They say it’s the stage before you see pink elephants. And worse. By then you realize that Mother Booze has come to take you away from all this. And you’re crazy about her.
+++++But there’s no booze today. And no prospects. No check until the first of the month. And that’s four days away.
+++++Being sober hurts. At least it hurts enough so you don’t think about sad things like God, children, wives and how it might have been.
+++++You think about that stuff when you’re drunk.
+++++I had to find Chip. Somebody‘s probably already jumped him. Cleaned the dopey sap out of his money.
+++++But maybe not. That sneaky sonofabitch hides his loot better and better every day. He’s getting to be a low production roll.
+++++I walked into the bar and decided to stay. Bobby, the bartender, usually lets me vacuum the place for a drink. One drink might be enough to hold me over until Chip arrives. Come on, Chip, you bastard don’t get blind-sided. Stay clear of dark alleys.
+++++Bobby says okay to me vacuuming for a drink but he includes smashing the cardboard boxes out back. Then they gotta be put in the dumpster. That ought to be worth more than one drink.
+++++“Is that for two, Bobby?”
+++++“Fuck, no.”
+++++“Aw, Bobby. The boxes are gonna take me an hour.”
+++++“Then forget it.”
+++++“No, no, Bobby. It’s just…”
+++++“Forget it.”
+++++“I’m on it, Bobby.”
+++++The grind of the vacuum rips my brain. Stomping on the boxes makes me sick. I puke before I get done. I flick the bits of vomit off my jacket and chew on a cigarette butt to cover my breath. Then go back into the bar.
+++++Now, the drink. It ain’t no help. Not really.
+++++“Fill it to the top, Bobby.”
+++++I gulped it. It didn’t do anything for me but at least it tasted like booze.
+++++I decide to wait for Chip. He’ll be here before it gets dark out.
+++++The blaring television is my only diversion from the shit going on in my head. One show. It’s killing me.
+++++Maybe I’ll go back to my room. Bobby makes me stay on a stool when I’m here.
+++++Yeah, I’m leaving. As I turn for the door, it opens. Chip squeezes in and shuffles to the end of the bar.
+++++He passes by a light. A big wet cut shows up on his cheek and blood is oozing from a lump on the side of his head.
+++++I grab a handful of napkins.
+++++“Goddamn, they got you good this time,” I said dabbing the fluid coming from the lump. “It’s not thick blood. Maybe it’s not that bad.”
+++++“Kenny and that fuckin’ Indian. They nailed me outside Dolly’s,” Chip moaned.
+++++“How much they get?”
+++++He looked at me and then hung his head over the bar.
+++++I thought he was going cry.
+++++But he gagged and spit up a puddle of dirty bile.
+++++Bobby heard him from the other end of the bar.
+++++“WHAT THE FUCK YOU DOIN’?” Bobby shouted.
+++++“He’s beat up Bobby.” I intervened.
+++++“I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT HE IS. GET HIM OUTTA HERE!”
+++++Chip burped up again. This time something else came up. It was floating in his stomach juice, a soggy twenty dollar bill folded into a square. I snatched the bill from the puddle before Chip could grab it. I curled it up, out of sight in my hand.
+++++Bobby was striding down toward us. He looked pissed.
+++++He grabbed Chip, dragged him across the floor and threw him out the door onto the sidewalk.
+++++You heartless bastard, Bobby.
+++++I quick stepped to the bathroom and washed the bill in the sink. I was going to dry it off but the towel roll had come loose from the machine and sat on the floor where it was wicking up a puddle of piss. I slapped the twenty dollars on my sleeve. The bill was still wet but didn’t smell like vomit. Bobby hates puke.
+++++I walked out of the bathroom into the ball room and announced, “HEY BOBBY, PUT A DRINK ON THE BAR. I GOT MONEY!”

Neighborhood Watch

It’s true that I was on my third beer when I saw the blue squirrel. But I maintain that I hadn’t yet reached the point of hallucinations.
+++++I was on my back porch, and the sun was contemplating whether to set. I was thinking about mowing the grass, but the beer had only just started to dull the dose of vitriol I’d mainlined from my boss. I decided I should be fully functional before using any power tools.
+++++Anyhow, I’d just formulated another brilliant comeback to last week’s argument with my soon-to-be ex, when this bright blue rodent comes skittering down one of the trees that mark the end of my yard. It looked like a piece of cotton candy, and I wondered what kind of evolutionary designer would think this was a good idea. But when it hit the ground, I saw that the coloring was ragged at the edges, and its fur was matted. Some son of a bitch had spray painted the damn thing.
+++++I decided this was worth another brew, and I went inside to stock up. When I got back, the squirrel had disappeared, so I sat myself down to meditate on colors in nature. The rumble of the commuter rail train, fifty yards past my yard, interrupted my attempts to reach nirvana. Then again, maybe it helped. As I finished the beer, I realized I had a pretty good idea where the little bastard had come from.
+++++Four houses down and across the street, hunched over like a troll shitting in the woods, was the wreck of the house Frank Dixon used to live in. Once it had been the pride of the neighborhood: two stories, gables poking out from the roof line, and wrap-around porches on both floor. Its last paint job was yellow, but that was more than fifty years ago.
+++++Now, the rest of the area is getting gentrified. We’re seeing a surge in value and every house sports some kind of fancy deck or stone wall or solar panels. But Frank’s roof bows appreciably in the middle, most of the gable windows are glazed with cardboard, and from the right angle, you can look right up through that second floor porch. An unruly wall of hedges hides the yard and most of the ground floor like the spiked walls around a fort. The whole thing looks like it’s been knocked on its ass by one punch too many.
+++++When we moved into the neighborhood, going on twenty years ago, Frank had been ailing, and he’d let the place go a bit. Nothing serious, just an overgrown lawn, and the porch in need of paint. The kids called it haunted, but once in a while, when it got too bad, a neighbor would go over and run the mower around. It wasn’t like those Fascist neighborhood groups you hear about, who measure each blade with a ruler. Just friendly helping out, and Frank would wave from his living room window. We lived in an area where people watched out for each other.
+++++Then one day, his daughter and her husband moved in. There was a brief spell when the place started to get spiffed up, with the son-in-law taking care of the building while the daughter shepherded the old man on into the next life. At night, the both of them would get crocked, and they’d fight until long after midnight. I don’t know how Frank was supposed to get better with all that racket, but maybe they juiced him up on sedatives before they started their own self-medication.
+++++I was watching from the porch the night they finally took old Frank out. I told my wife when she got back from the gym that the ambulance didn’t hurry away. She shrugged and said it wasn’t like anyone would notice. I thought that was a bit callous, but damned if she wasn’t right. I never did know when or even if they’d held a funeral, because the drinking and fighting went on unabated every night thereafter. On nice days, the son-in-law made some fitful attempts at keeping up the place, but the two of them seemed to be more interested in their nocturnal fisticuffs. I admit I was one of the neighbors who called when the screeches got too loud, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. I mean, we had an image to keep up, and the daughter and son-in-law were the chip in the china. And at any moment, we thought it might all come crashing down.
+++++Just to keep things interesting, a swarm of other winos started floating in and out. On Halloween, the ghouls had a party that scared more than the local kids. The cops came twice that night, but all they could do was tell them to keep it down.
+++++Eventually, the ambulance came for Frank’s daughter. In just a couple of years, she’d become a bloated mad dog if I ever saw one. By that time, my wife spent only sporadic nights with me, so I had to shrug for her. I also had the new job of making excuses for her to the neighbors, which is probably why I got the job of speaking for the neighbors: it proved that mine wasn’t the second-most pathetic house on the block.
+++++After that, the son-in-law didn’t bother at all with pretense. He brought in a few drinking buddies, just so there’d be some noise around the joint. Kids knew to cross the street to avoid the drunken cackles of a rotating cast of monstrously fat men who sat on the porch and filled the yard with crushed cans of cheap beer. One time, I had to go over there myself when one of the neighborhood girls said she’d seen one of them taking a wizz right off the front steps. None of them fessed up, of course, but I told them in no uncertain terms they’d better learn to use a toilet like the rest of the civilized world. The next morning, I woke to find my own porch puddled in piss. I knew better than to complain, though. That would only embolden the assholes.
+++++No one knows exactly when it happened, but at some point, the son-in-law, who, presumably, had inherited Frank’s old mansion, gave up the ghost. No one saw him carted away, but after a while, the general consensus in the neighborhood was that he was no longer a presence among the trolls drinking and pissing off the porch.
+++++That’s about when the house seemed to give up on itself. Glass spontaneously broke in the window frames, shingles slid off the roof in a gust. During one winter storm, the second floor porch collapsed. No one laid a finger on the debris that stuck out of the shrinking pile of dirty snow, or during that first summer.
+++++Who knows who ever paid the bills, and eventually, Franks’s house stayed dark round the clock, even as the drinking and yelling continued. But the drinking crew stayed on, scrounging up a grill to cook up all their meals. The smell of charred mystery meat hung over the house like fallout. When winter came, someone lugged in a wood stove and vented it through a window patched with plywood. That’s when the floorboards of the ruined porch were finally cleaned up, and the trolls made occasional forays into the woods. I don’t think everything they dragged out of there was already dead, seeing as a lot of those trunks bore the signs of strokes from a dull axe. At least that told me some of the squatters, for that’s what they surely were, had some industry.
+++++It was around that time that my wife finally took off with some gym lughead. He’d left a wife of his own, plus a kid still in diapers. I think he suddenly realized that his childhood was over, and he couldn’t take the pressure. Last I heard, they were heading for fucking LA. Like that ever solved anyone’s problems.
+++++But that doesn’t say anything about the blue squirrel, now, does it?
+++++The sun had gone down by the time I finished drinking the reinforcements, and I realized that mowing my own lawn would have to wait another day. The next day, I was back to contemplating whether the weather was good enough to work in, and that’s when I saw a bright orange rabbit lurching through the tall grass at the base of the trees. Even without the bright paint all over it, the thing was doomed: it was dragging one of its hind paws, so each time it hopped, it crashed to one side. This time, I didn’t hesitate. Something was wrong in the neighborhood, and it was my job to investigate.
+++++Most of the latest crew was arrayed on the front porch. Two of them were scrawny fuckers, both wearing ratty wife-beater shirts, sitting on old beach chairs. Neither one had a full set of teeth in his mouth. The only way to tell them apart was that one had greasy blond hair trailing to his shoulders, while the other one had a dark crew cut. From the sidewalk, I had much too clear a view up his shorts. Judging by the wrecks of their faces, each was probably only about twenty-five. They’d be lucky to see thirty.
+++++The third was a brute of a porker, all wattles and tats on his flabby arms. He’d been here the longest, and as such was the spokesman of the group. In another time, he might have been a biker, with his hillbilly beard and ink right up to the last knuckle on each finger. I happened to know he didn’t go anywhere these days. He sent the two flunkies on scavenged bicycles to get beer and firewood. It must have been their version of paying rent. God knows where the money for the supplies came from.
+++++He grinned. “What’s the matter, neighbor?” he said. “Someone piss on your porch again?”
+++++The two skinny ones sniggered and bumped fists.
+++++“I think we have a rodent problem in the neighborhood,” I said. Something kept me from crossing from the sidewalk into the yard, so I had to raise my voice a bit.
+++++“Don’t blame no rats on us,” he said.
+++++“Tell him, Bobby,” said the blond one.
+++++Already this was spinning beyond my control. I wondered if I should even mention that I’d seen a pair of Technicolor beasts hopping through my yard. Hell, maybe I had been drinking too much, now that I thought about it.
+++++But there’s one piece of advice my mother gave, and that was to always see things through. I’d seen it through with my wife and her vein-popping lover, and I’d see it through with my supervisor, next time he asked me some dipshit question about how to run a report.
+++++So I said, “I wasn’t talking about rats. I’m seeing rabbits and squirrels, funny-colored ones.”
+++++“Sounds like you been hittin’ the sauce too hard,” Fat Bobby said. “Next it’ll be pink elephants.” Beavis and Butthead giggled into their hands.
+++++“Anyhow,” I forged on. “I saw a couple of spray-painted critters. I thought you guys might know something about it.”
+++++Bobby stopped smiling and leaned forward on his stool. His belly hung between his legs like a stone pendulum. “Now, why would you think it was us?”
+++++“Because it was!” blurted the dark haired one. He pointed to a spot just inside the yard, behind the hedges. There were two wire traps, both empty at the moment. “There’s a couple more round back,” he giggled.
+++++Just then a voice inside the doorway slurred, “What’s all the fuss about?” It had a slow, drugged cadence. I looked up to see a new addition to the cast, a slit-eyed woman with dirty hair and scabs on her hands and under her chin. She wore a hoodie unzipped enough to confirm that’s all she had on above. A pair of gym shorts hovered precariously over legs so skinny I wondered how they kept her upright. She leaned her head against the doorframe, closing her eyes against the light.
+++++“Leave it, sunshine,” Bobby snapped. “No one asked you to come out here.” She rolled herself back into the gloom like a wraith.
+++++“Anyhow,” I said. “Stop painting the wildlife, before someone calls the cops on you.”
+++++“And would that someone be you?” Bobby’s voice harbored more hatred than I’d ever encountered. I realized that seeing it through wasn’t so necessary, but before I could make a tactical retreat, Bobby was up on his feet, crashing past the two sycophants. He moved with the inexorable force of a charging rhino, and though there was nothing but malice in his eyes, something inside me really did want to see it through. In a fog, I let him lumber up to me and trap my elbow in a mighty grip. “Come on, Alice,” he said. “Let’s find you a rabbit to follow.”
+++++Just like that, the neighborhood disappeared behind the hedges, and Bobby propelled me through the tall grass and rusted junk to the backyard. We crashed past the carcass of an old stove, paper sacks overflowing with empties, four or five folding chairs leaning precariously on wounded legs. And sure enough, just like that jackass on the porch said, there was a row of traps like the ones out front. The only difference was that a can of spray paint stood guard next to each one. I saw the blue from the first sighting, as well as the fluorescent orange. There were two panicked squirrels spinning around inside the trap with the can of green paint in front of it.
+++++Somehow I found my voice and said, “You’re a sick fucker.”
+++++“Call it an experiment,” Bobby said.
+++++I gaped at him. “That’s twisted. What do you do with them?”
+++++“Told you, it’s an experiment. Catch and release. We got colors for every day of the week. We drop ’em off, oh, various places. Then see if they ever come back. Only the green ones never do.”
+++++Suddenly curious, I asked, “Where do you bring them?”
+++++“Out by the pond. I think the turtles eat them. That, or the paint washes off and we can’t tell.” He seemed genuinely perplexed.
+++++“You don’t actually eat them, right?”
+++++“Oh, we grill what comes back,” Bobby said, letting go of my arm. I could see the indentations of his fingers around my elbow. “Paint don’t go to the meat, y’know.” He laughed, a kind of drunken snort, and I thought his henchmen would come running, but we were alone.
+++++“That’s what this is all about, living off the grid?”
+++++“You think we’re just a bunch of boozers. Well, no harm ever came of a few brews. You should join us, ’stead of sitting there on your own porch. Least we’re sociable.”
+++++I wanted to take offense, but I maybe I was a bit of a loner. What harm could come of having a couple with the neighbors? It’s not like my wife would leave me again.
+++++“Who owns this house?” The rest of the watch would want to know I asked. “You?”
+++++Bobby shrugged. “No one comes asking, so what do you care?”
+++++Good question.
+++++“What you should be asking,” Bobby said, “is what anybody contributes to the general welfare. Look at us. I do the food. Jim does beer runs, and Dunc collects firewood. We pool whatever money we get.”
+++++“So you’re like a hippie commune?”
+++++He raised two fingers. “Peace, love, and understanding, man.” He let one finger drop and waved the middle one at me.
+++++It was all too obvious what Sunshine contributed to the household economy. “I suppose that woman provides the free love?”
+++++Bobby’s face darkened. “Don’t be nasty, pal. We ain’t saints here, but we’re not savages neither. What we got works. Now look at the rest of the neighborhood. Y’all are in your own little worlds, barricading yourselves behind stone walls and solar-powered security lights. Do you even talk to each other? Or is it just an arms race, so every time one house paves the driveway, somebody’s gotta build a new porch?”
+++++I made my excuses to go, but Bobby fixed me with a stare. “You came over here to say something,” he said quietly. There was no hint of that mountain man accent, just smoldering menace. “I’d like to see if you have the balls to say it.”
+++++At some point, Dunc and Jim had sidled up behind me. I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the setting sun. What had I come to say? Stop painting vermin? Clean up the yard and fit in with the rest of us? Or did I come to join their merry band and leave my rotten shell of respectability behind?
+++++“Well?” Bobby said. “Let’s hear your great proclamation.”
+++++My mouth popped open and closed like a trout’s.
+++++“Say somethin’.” Dunc pushed me from behind. My arms flew out to steady myself.
+++++“Don’t be starting what you can’t finish,” Jim said, swatting my hand away from him.
+++++I spun to face the two mongrels, but they hopped back, just out of reach. Bobby folded his arms and watched our little drama. Hemmed in by their stinking bodies, I gagged on a cloud of sweat and booze and mold. When I lurched toward one, the other flew in behind. The caged squirrels were flying around the wire traps, gibbering furiously. Jim and Dunc were laughing as they hectored me. I imagined I could get killed here, and no one would ever know. Then one of them rabbit-punched me. My ankle rolled, and I went down hard. The trap crashed on its side, right next to my face, and one of the squirrels sliced my forehead.
+++++“Maybe you should just mind your own business,” Bobby said. He still hadn’t moved, but the other two hovered over me, fists cocked, ready to finish me off. I was breathing hard, and every time I took in oxygen, I felt a sharp pain in my side. Was I already so old that I’d be breaking ribs in a fall? Maybe I should be going to the gym myself. Maybe if I’d gone to the gym, my wife wouldn’t have left me.
+++++Fuck that, I was better off without her. And maybe it was time to say something to my imbecile of a boss. This is what was was spinning through my head while I lay in the weeds with a trio of urban hillbillies ready to kick the shit out of me. I needed to see this through. With a grunt, I moved into a sitting position. There was definitely something wrong with one of my ribs. I had to take shallow breaths, and I was sweating and shivering at the same time. With another effort, I had my legs beneath me, and I thought I might be able to get up from kneeling, but Jim’s heel flew out at my shoulder, and I was on my back again.
+++++The squirrels shrieked and rolled the cage so the solid bottom was facing up.
+++++“I don’t want to see you or any other of your fucking pristine neighbors coming around here again,” Bobby was saying. His voice seemed to come through a thousand miles of ocean. I put my left hand down to push up, and it landed on the edge of the cage, giving me an extra bit of leverage. As I rolled on my front, my other hand found the can of paint. I took a sharp breath, telling myself this would be worth it.
+++++I came up swinging the cage, unlocking the door as I did. The angry rodents streaked out of the opening. One of them impaled its claws on Dunc’s shoulder and bit his ear. The other took off into the weeds. I clocked Jim with the cage, and he dropped to the ground. Bobby was in motion, his arms swinging like pistons. But I had the green paint held upright, and I let off a cloud in his face. He swallowed some, and the rest went in his eyes. His beefy hands flew up too late to protect his vision, and his bellow turned my legs to water.
+++++I didn’t stick around to see what happened next. I dropped the trap and the paint can and scrambled out of the yard as quickly as my broken rib would let me. When I emerged from the yard into the street, it was as if nothing had happened. No one was looking curiously out their windows. No one had stood up on the deck or peeked over a fence. Not even the junkie woman let herself be seen.
+++++I could still hear Bobby and the others swearing and threatening me, so I didn’t waste anytime hobbling back to my house. I called 911, barely able to breathe, let alone ask for an ambulance. The shivering got worse, and huge black spots floated in front of my eyes. I sat down on the curb in front of my house. The spots reminded me of the green mist, the last thing Bobby had seen before he dropped to his knees. The green squirrels never came back, he said.
+++++I was still laughing when the EMTs strapped me on to the gurney.

Scared Straight

It was cold and quiet and Nick surveyed his surroundings. A line of dilapidated buildings sat in front of him; their burnt out carcasses infested with vermin both human and quadruped. The traffic light across the street was flashing red for weeks. No city workers were willing to risk a shanking just to fix it. The asphalt was riddled with pot holes, bringing what little traffic there was to a crawl. Nick sighed, his breath hanging in the air like a smog cloud. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, constantly moving in place to keep the blood flowing. There was movement to his left and when he turned a black SUV pulled up to the curb where Nick stood with his handwritten cardboard sign that read; Homeless. Please Help. God Bless. The passenger side window rolled down with a gentle hum and Nick high stepped it to the door, the chain attached to his wallet jingling as he went.
+++++“What’s up?” Nick mumbled between furious chomps of his gum, not looking the driver in the face.
+++++“Hey there.” The voice was warm and friendly and Nick lifted his head. The man was dressed in a black suit and tie with one hand on the wheel, his sleeve pulled back slightly to reveal an expensive looking watch. The SUV was clean and well kept. Both he and the automobile were a strange sight under the tracks of the El. The man started to speak, but a train screeched by overhead, the grinding of the wheels drowning out his words. He waited for the train to move along before speaking again.
+++++“Why don’t you get in? Get outta the cold.”
+++++The heat from the SUV was pouring out of the window, caressing Nick’s face like a warm towel after a nice shave, something Nick hadn’t had in months. The man touched a button and the lock disengaged. Nick dropped his sign to the floor as he slid inside and tried to warm his hands up the best he could. He could feel the man staring at him, but his high was dwindling and the feelings of shame and disgust were replacing the euphoria of the heroin.
+++++“Thanks mister,” was all he could muster.
+++++“No problem.” The man hit the locks, rolled the window up, then shifted into drive, silently guiding the SUV through the darkness like the captain of a submarine. Nick pointed to an empty lot where an Italian restaurant used to sit. “That’s a good spot there.”
+++++The man hit the brakes.
+++++“A good spot for what?”
+++++“You a cop?” Nick asked.
+++++The man chuckled. “Absolutely not.”
+++++“Are we gonna do this then, or what? I need the money, you stopped to give it to me. I know what I have to do so let’s just get it over with.” He reached in his mouth and plucked out the gum, sticking it to the knee of his filthy jeans. Leaning over the middle console, he threw his head near the man’s lap and grabbed for his belt buckle. A blow, like the crack of a two by four, smacked against his cheek, snapping his head back.
+++++“Jesus Christ, dude.” Nick sat bolt upright, rubbing his cheek where the red imprint of a hand was starting to develop.
+++++“Are you gay?” the man asked.
+++++“No. What does that matter?”
+++++“Don’t degrade yourself, kid,” the man said, easing the vehicle back down the road. “It’s one thing if you like putting cocks in your mouth. It’s something else entirely if you’re doing it for drugs.”
+++++“I don’t need the money for drugs,” Nick said unconvincingly. “I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in days and-”
+++++“Look at your fucking eyes,” the man cut him off, slapping the overhead mirror down in front of Nick’s face. “That runny nose you got could be from the cold, sure, but I’ll bet it’s got to do with the junk. You’re either on heroin or you’re the only guy who gets poison ivy in December.”
+++++Nick didn’t even notice he’d been scratching away at his neck. He pushed the mirror away and put both hands under his armpits.
+++++“Don’t bullshit me with that ‘I’m hungry’ crap, either. I’m sure you know what bakeries or delis around here throw out their perfectly edible bagels or what restaurants get rid of their day old produce. You live in America. No one sucks dick for a meal.” He shook his head. “I hate liars. My brother was a liar. I watched the pills turn him into a complete stranger. He never did figure out how to beat it. He was weak. Sound familiar?”
+++++After the slap and the brow beating he’d just taken, Nick’s high was almost completely gone. They were fast approaching a red light up ahead. “Look, just let me out here, alright? I don’t need this shit.”
+++++The man cruised on through the light, not even bothering to look both ways. There wasn’t a soul on the road anyway. Nick yanked the door handle, but the lock stayed put.
+++++“Child locks,” the man said. “Works on adults, too.”
+++++“Unlock the fucking door, man,” he pleaded, his fright betraying the attempt at anger in his voice.
+++++“I don’t think so. I’m not done with you yet.”
+++++He eased down Frankford toward the now abandoned Catholic high school and turned onto Torresdale Ave. Nick reached across the console again, this time to try and undo the locks, but the man’s powerful hand gripped his wrist and bent it back. Nick let out a weak cry as he felt something pop in his arm. The more he struggled, the more pressure the man applied, never taking his eyes off the road.
+++++“Please. Stop. I think you broke something,” Nick whimpered.
+++++The man tossed his hand away. “Don’t try that again,” he said, his voice as calm as a mother speaking to a newborn at nap-time. Nick rubbed his wrist as hot tears made tracks in the dirt on his face on their way down to his chin. The man gave him a backhand to the side of the head.
+++++“We clear?”
+++++Nick nodded, his body wracked with tremors.
+++++“Good.”
+++++They drove a while in silence. A light rain began to fall, dotting the windshield and making it hard to see. Nick’s eyes scanned the sidewalks for any pedestrians he could get to look his way, but the streets were deserted; help was nowhere to be found.
+++++“What’s your name anyway?” the man asked, jolting Nick out of his dreams of escape.
+++++“Tim,” Nick said, giving his little brother’s name instead of his own.
+++++“Tim,” the man repeated. “How long have you been living on the streets?” There was genuine concern in his voice, a rather different tone than the one he’d gotten after the man’s two outbursts.
+++++“Six months,” Nick said, reaching down and peeling the gum from his knee and popping it into his mouth. Six long months. The good thing was he barely remembered a minute of it. When his parents finally kicked him out, he tried going to his aunt’s house, but they’d gotten the entire family on board with the whole “tough love” movement, which meant no help, financial or otherwise, from anyone. After a few failed attempts at rehab, (both times he was tossed for being caught with drugs) his parents decided the best course of action would be to let him live out on the streets, hoping he’d hit rock bottom. So far he’d made it out there robbing, attacking or blowing anyone who crossed his path. Rock bottom seemed like it was a long way off.
+++++“Six months,” the man repeated again. “Seems like you didn’t waste anytime whoring yourself out.” He looked Nick over. “You’re a young kid, too. Let me guess. Parents threw you out?”
+++++Nick didn’t answer, but his angry expression did.
+++++“Thought so. Probably started out taking some pills with your buddies. Next thing you know, your little party has become a full blown habit and you don’t have the cash to afford it, so you move on to the heroin. Nice and cheap, but you get that same high.”
+++++Even underneath the grime, the man could see Nick’s cheeks burning red. A razor thin smile spread across his face.
+++++“I’m pretty good at this game ain’t I?”
+++++“You don’t know me. You don’t know a thing about me.”
+++++“That’s true. But I do know addiction. I know weakness. And I can see that shit oozing out of you like hot breath in the cold air.” He turned the car off of the avenue and took some side streets until he was running underneath I-95, the world growing even darker and emptier. He parked the car alongside a chainlink fence that had a heavy chain looped through the gate with three padlocks hanging from it.
+++++“What do your parents do for a living?”
+++++Nick laughed. “What the fuck is this? You looking for work or something? Mom’s a teacher. Dad’s a carpenter. I don’t know if they’re hiring though.”
+++++“Any brothers or sisters?”
+++++The smile disappeared from Nick’s lips as quickly as it appeared. He hated his parents for what they’d done to him. Throwing him out with nowhere to go, no one to look to for help. But Timmy was an innocent. A good kid who looked up to his older brother even if he was a junkie. He loved him no matter what. In Nick’s mind, Tim was the only family he had left.
+++++“A brother,” Nick said, “but we’re not gonna talk about him.”
+++++“Hmm. I see.” The man killed the engine, pulled the key from the ignition and stepped out into the night. He came around Nick’s side and opened the door.
+++++“What’s with all the questions? What are we doing here?”
+++++“We’re almost done,” the man said. “You do what I say when I say it, understood?” Nick nodded his head faster than he’d meant to. “This way. And Tim. Do not fuck with me.”
+++++Nick stepped out of the warmth of the SUV and into the chill of the December night. None of the street lamps were working; the only light came from the moon shining off of the wet concrete as the rain came down harder. He thought about taking off on foot, but up close and standing in front of him, the man was much more than he’d seemed sitting down in the driver’s seat. His thick arms filled out the sleeves of his dress shirt. He was tall; over six foot, his shoulders blocking out the sliver of moonlight creeping in behind him. Besides the man’s intimidating frame, the stinging of Nick’s cheek and the pain in his wrist reminded him it might not be the smartest idea to run. He was a junkie, but he wasn’t a stupid one.
+++++The man pointed at the wide gap in the fence where the gates were chained together.
+++++“In.”
+++++Nick slithered through, followed closely behind by the man. Once they were both on the other side, the man grabbed Nick by his arm and led him along between the concrete piers that kept the interstate afloat. The ground was littered with a plethora of garbage, dirty diapers, scrap metal and hypodermic needles. Nick’s heart was hammering his chest like a snare drum; the smacking of the rain so loud he couldn’t hear himself think.
+++++The man stopped him in front of what looked like a rolled up rug surrounded by junk, but when his eyes fully adjusted to the dark, Nick could make out the body of an old man wrapped in blankets, his belongings scattered all around him. His chest heaved in and out and a thin line of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth and disappeared into a forest of matted facial hair.
+++++“Take a good hard look at him,” the man said, pointing to the sleeping vagrant. “This is your future, kid.”
+++++Nick tried to hide his smile once he realized what the man was up to. Most times when people tried to preach to him, it was just a quick word on the street or a blessing from some religious do-gooder. But this guy took things much further than anyone had before, including Nick’s parents. He’d opted for the old scared straight method.
+++++ Just let him get his whole good deed bullshit out of the way, Nick thought. Let him think he’s turning my life around and I can get the fuck outta here.
+++++The man let go of Nick’s arm and kicked the bum hard in his foot, jolting him out of his sleep. The bum smacked his lips like a dog with a mouthful of peanut butter and looked at the party of two standing in front of him.
+++++“What the hell you kickin’ me fer? I’m tryin’ to sleep here goddamnit,” the bum yelled over the pitter-patter of the rain. “This here’s my spot, so piss off.” A flash of lightning illuminated the darkness followed by a hollow thunk. Another flash came after it and Nick realized it wasn’t lightning at all, but the muzzle flash of a silenced pistol in the man’s hand. The homeless man’s face erupted like there were fire crackers under his skin. Warm blood dotted Nick’s cheek as the man fired again and again. The old man’s decrepit body slumped over his blankets, his legs tucked under him like he was doing some sort of homeless yoga. His face resembled a piece of raw meat that somebody worked over with a pitchfork. Nick wobbled as his legs betrayed him, landing hard on his knees. The big mac he’d eaten out of the trash for lunch began to force its way up out of his belly, chunks of it spraying the dirt. The man took a handful of Nick’s shirt and pulled him to his feet. He swayed there like a newborn fawn, turning his head away from the scene before him.
+++++“Look at him,” the man whispered into Nick’s ear. Nick was blubbering hard, the gasps between sobs wracking his body up and down.
+++++“I…. don’t want….to.”
+++++“Look at him or I’ll cut off your eyelids.”
+++++Nick obeyed, looking the old man over. The dirt was drinking the puddle of blood that was oozing out of what used to be his face. “Why the fuck did you do this?”
+++++The man chuckled. “You did this to him, kid. All the years he’s been out here, scrounging, copping, surviving. Now he’s dead because of some weak little piss ant who’d rather degrade himself than be a man and get himself straight. All of your life’s choices have led to this.” He motioned to the old man’s corpse. “Remember what this looks like. Let it sear into the back of that pea brain that’s resting in your skull. Now. Let’s go. We got one more stop to make.”
+++++The man drug Nick back to the gate, shoving him through and onto the sidewalk. Again Nick thought about running, only this time his legs barely worked. The man opened the passenger door and tossed him inside. He hopped into the driver’s seat, sliding the pistol out of his jacket and pointing it at Nick.
+++++“Is that chain on your hip attached to a wallet?”
+++++Nick nodded and offered the wallet with shaking fingers. He felt like he’d just run a marathon, his body achy and his breathing labored. The man rested the gun on his lap, slipped a pair of leather gloves on his hands, then opened the wallet, sliding Nick’s driver’s license out.
+++++“Nicholas Cheeseman.” The man glanced at Nick. “We’ve established how I feel about liars Nick.” He sighed. “I guess given the circumstances I can let that one go. 5754 Shellmire Street. That where your folks live I guess?”
+++++Nick nodded.
+++++“Hmm,” the man said, tossing the wallet back to Nick and slipping the license into his chest pocket. “I’m gonna hold onto this, Nick,” he said, slapping the pocket. “We are gonna do some experimental rehab, you and I. Now I’m a busy man, but I’ve got a soft spot for the youth of America, especially the kind that are really lost in life. Hell, I was lost myself, until I found my calling.” He held the pistol up for Nick to see before unscrewing the silencer and tucking it back in its holster.
+++++“It seems to me that you don’t really care for your parents, but I’d guess that has to do with them throwing you out on the street. Am I close?”
+++++Nick nodded.
+++++“Thought so. Well what’s gonna happen is this; I’m gonna be watching you. Making sure that you’re staying on the straight and narrow. You won’t see me, but I can guaran-goddamn-tee I will see you. I’m gonna make you my own personal project. If I get the slightest hint of you going back on the shit, Mommy’s dead and Daddy’s dead. If you go to the police, and I’ll know since I have people all over this city, they’re dead. Capiche?”
+++++“Okay,” Nick managed.
+++++“Now from our little chat earlier I noticed you didn’t want to talk about your brother. He lives with Mommy and Daddy doesn’t he?”
+++++Nick’s head snapped up, terror filling his eyes.
+++++The man smiled. “See, in my business, there are people who will only kill men. It’s very taboo to even consider getting rid of a woman or a child. It’s frowned upon. Me, however, I got no problem killing anyone as long as the price is right. Or the circumstance. Everyone is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. You remember that guy back there we just met?” he said, pointing towards the fence and the bullet riddled body of the old man. “Still got that image in your head? Close your eyes and picture his face. Go on.”
+++++Nick closed his eyes, tears squirting out from under his eyelids.
+++++“Think of that face next time you decide to go buy a bag. And know that I will shoot that brother of yours in his fucking head. No more drugs or I kill them all. And it’ll be your fault again, just like that old sack of shit back there. This is where you find out what you’re made of, kid.”
+++++“You’re insane,” Nick said, between sobs.
+++++“Maybe. What do you say we get you back home?”
+++++The man brought the vehicle to life and within minutes they were parked in front of 5754 Shellmire Street, the click of the locks making Nick flinch.
+++++“Here’s your stop. Remember what I said to you, Nicholas. I’ll be watching.”
+++++Nick stepped out into the night, nausea hitting him again at the thought of the old man’s face.
+++++“Good luck,” the man said as the door slammed shut.
+++++He didn’t wait to see if Nick went in. He knew he did. He could sense the fear in him. The fear was stronger than the withdrawals Nick would soon be feeling. Stronger than the sickness and the aching body. The fever and sweating and fatigue. He would get clean and stay that way, the man was sure of it.
+++++The man smiled. It’d been a long time since he’d done something to help someone. He’d be lying if he didn’t admit it felt pretty damn good.

Country Fucked

Ernest Miller turned his pickup into the Honeysuckle Ranch trailer park. He drove to the last single wide on the left and parked in front of a railroad tie. Kayla’s car wasn’t there so he guessed he’d sit in the truck and wait. Ernest checked his watch. He told her he’d be here at 11:45, and he was five minutes early. Kayla should be here.
+++++Next door Jasmine led a man onto the front porch. Her hair was a mess and his shirt was untucked and wrinkled. She kissed him on the cheek and said something that made him laugh. The man left her on the porch, hopped in his Mercedes, and left. Jasmine saw Ernest waiting inside the truck and motioned for him to let the window down.
+++++Ernest stretched across the cab and cranked the handle until the window was down. Jasmine had a cigarette in her mouth and flicked a lighter until the flame caught. She took a long drag on the cigarette and let the smoke out her nose. She asked Ernest, “How you doin, baby?”
+++++“All right, I guess.”
+++++“You here for Kayla?”
+++++“Yeah, where she at?”
+++++“Inside, waitin on you.”
+++++“Her car ain’t here.”
+++++“She had to take it over to Sturgill’s.”
+++++“What’s wrong with it?”
+++++“Hell if I know. Ain’t runnin right.”
+++++“I could’ve looked at it.”
+++++“She’s better off takin it to a professional.”
+++++“I know how to fix a car.”
+++++“Like you know how to eat a pussy?”
+++++“What?”
+++++“Nothin. Kayla knows how you like to be punctual, Ernie. Ought not keep her waitin.” Jasmine stubbed out her cigarette on the bannister of the front porch and flipped the butt into the driveway gravel. She didn’t speak to Ernest when she went back inside the trailer, and let the screen door slam behind her.
+++++Ernest stretched back across the cab and cranked the window until it was back up, he checked his reflection in the rearview mirror, and did his best to fix his hair. It went whichever way it wanted to and made Ernest wish he’d gotten a haircut. He opened the glove compartment, found his cologne, and sprayed himself down. He gave the scent time to settle and checked his watch. He was right on time.
+++++Ernest got out of the pickup, stepped up on the front porch, and knocked on the door. Kayla didn’t respond so Ernest knocked a little harder. He waited a minute or so and when she didn’t answer the door he let himself inside. Kayla knew that this was not the way Ernest liked for things to go, and if he was going to be a paying customer, she was going to do things the way he liked. He made a mental note to have a talk with her about the way he was supposed to be treated.
+++++Porno played on the living room TV, like Ernest liked, but the volume was turned so high the sound of hardcore sex agitated him. “Kayla.” He yelled but didn’t get an answer. “Kayla.” Ernest walked over to the television and shut it off. “Where you at, girl?”
+++++A strange man appeared from the bedroom. He was wide and burly and turned sideways to squeeze through the doorway. He wore a faded Skynyrd t-shirt, ripped blue jeans, and a Georgia Bulldogs hat was pulled low over his eyes. Ernest thought the face looked familiar but it was hidden by an overgrowth of beard. A smile stretched from ear to ear and he carried a glass dildo in one hand. “What you know good?” He asked.
+++++“Who the fuck’re you?” Ernest replied.
+++++“Kayla told me you liked it when porn was playin. Didn’t tell me which one was your favorite though. That one not any good?”
+++++“Where’s Kayla?”
+++++“I told her to take a couple hours off, grab some lunch.”
+++++“Why?” Ernest didn’t know why he asked the question. He needed to get out of here.
+++++“So me’n you could have a talk.”
+++++Ernest backed away from the man with the toy. He said, “I don’t know who you are, mister, but I think I oughta be goin.”
+++++He made his way toward the door and ignored the man when he said, “You know who I am.”
+++++Ernest jerked the front door open and stopped short. The largest man he’d ever seen blocked his exit. The man ducked inside the single wide, the neck of his shirt was stretched open because of his trapezius muscles, and his biceps bulged from their sleeves. The man with the dildo said, “Ernie, this colored feller here is my best friend Caudell, and I’m Peanut, why don’t you come on over here and have a seat?”
+++++Ernest backed away from Caudell but made sure to keep his distance from Peanut. The small living room didn’t provide him with many options of escape. He started to speak but Peanut interrupted him.
+++++Peanut asked, “You know why we’re here, Ernie?”
+++++“Can’t say that I do.” Ernest replied.
+++++“They ain’t no reason for you to lie to me.”
+++++“I ain’t lyin.”
+++++“You know good and damn well you are.”
+++++“Look, Peanut,” Ernest held his hands up like he was praying to God in the hope that He would appeal to Peanut’s better nature, “I don’t think they’s any reason for things to get violent. There’s two of you and one of me. Tell me what it is you want me to hear, and I’ll be on my way.”
+++++“Caudell,” Peanut asked, “Why you think it is that ever’one just assumes I’m gone be violent?”
+++++“Couldn’t tell you,” Caudell answered.
+++++“We haven’t even got to talkin’ good yet. Ain’t no reason for me to just fly off the handle.” Peanut waved the dildo around like it was a magic wand and he was casting a spell.
+++++Ernest brought out his wallet, opened it, and said, “If it’ll get you boys to let me go I’ll give you all the money I got. They’s six hundred dollars here.”
+++++Peanut used the sex toy to bat the wallet out of Ernest’s hands. It smacked against the wall and Ernest’s head jerked around to see it hit the floor.
+++++“That’s insultin’,” Peanut said.
+++++“Why?” Ernest asked.
+++++“We don’t want your money.”
+++++“Then what do you want from me?”
+++++“A promise.”
+++++“What?”
+++++“A promise.”
+++++“What kind?”
+++++“That you ain’t never gone come round here again.”
+++++Ernest hesitated to answer.
+++++Peanut said, “Be a damn good idea for you to say, ‘Yes sir, Peanut, I promise I won’t never come round none of your girls ever again.’”
+++++Ernest didn’t speak. He couldn’t promise that.
+++++“Caudell,” Peanut said.
+++++Caudell punched Ernest in the stomach and kicked his legs out from under him. Ernest landed on his knees and tried to puke his guts up, but his head was wrenched back, and his mouth was forced open.
+++++Peanut stood over Ernest, said, “You know what made me madder than anything, Ernie? The cigarette burns on the inside of Kayla’s thighs. They was what? Fifty, sixty of ‘em. She walked funny for damn near a week. Couldn’t spread ‘em for bout as long. Hurt too much to have a man between her.”
+++++Ernest forced out, “She asked me to.”
+++++Peanut smacked the glass toy against Ernest’s forehead and shattered his vision. Peanut said, “Don’t lie to me, boy. The girls all know my one rule is don’t do nothin that’ll make it so they can’t work. Means you’s stealin money outta my pocket.”
+++++“I swear she did.”
+++++“Ernie, I tell all the girls if they get anybody that’s into kinky shit to send ‘em on their way. That ain’t what we sellin.”
+++++“She liked it when I did it.”
+++++“Caudell,” Peanut said, “This motherfucker ain’t listenin.”
+++++“Nah he ain’t.”
+++++“Hold his mouth open.”
+++++Caudell squeezed Ernest’s mouth open wide enough for Peanut to shove the dildo inside. He forced the toy to the back of his throat and Ernest couldn’t even gag. He tried to fight but that made Peanut work the tool around until Ernest thought he might choke and die. When Peanut brought the dildo out of Ernest’s mouth he pitched forward and dry heaved until his spit turned red and blood drizzled from his mouth.
+++++“Caudell,” Peanut said, “How long you figure this thing is?”
+++++Caudell looked the toy over, said, “Bout a foot.”
+++++“Shit, the only time you see cocks like this’s in the movies.”
+++++“Usually.”
+++++“How much you think ol’ Ernie was able to swallow just then?”
+++++Caudell shrugged. “Five or six inches?”
+++++“Think he can take the whole thing?”
+++++“Doubt it.”
+++++“What’s that called anyway?” Peanut was hunched down close to Ernest. “When the girls’re able to swallow the whole dick?”
+++++“Deep throating.”
+++++“That’s it, deep throating.” Peanut poked the side of Ernie’s head with the toy, asked, “Can you deep throat, Ern?”
+++++Ernest shook his head no, and tried not to cry, but he couldn’t keep the tears rolling from his eyes.
+++++“You cryin, Ernie?”
+++++“No.”
+++++“Caudell, what’s with Ernie wantin to lie to me?”
+++++“Probably habitual,” Caudell said.
+++++“You right.” Peanut stood up, motioned for Caudell to prop Ernest up. “Ernie, it make you feel good to make Kayla cry?”
+++++“No.”
+++++Peanut thumped the toy against Ernest’s head. “Really, boy?”
+++++“It didn’t.” Ernest tried to put up his arms to keep from being hit but Caudell forced them to his sides.
+++++“Caudell, you know I can’t stand a lyinsumbitch.”
+++++“Me either,” Caudell answered.
+++++“Well, lets find out if Ernest here is able to deep throat this cock.”
+++++Ernest tried to squirm out of Caudell’s grip but he was too strong. He handled Ernest like a child and gave him no chance to get away. He pulled Ernest’s head back by his hair and squeezed his mouth open. Peanut didn’t give him a chance to take a breath. He shoved the dildo as far back into Ernest’s mouth as it would go and kept on shoving. Ernest tried to scream but there was no room for air or sound to escape his mouth. He tried to bite down on the toy to keep it from being shoved any further but its surface was too slick and scraped against his teeth. When he almost passed out from being unable to breathe Peanut took the toy from his mouth.
+++++Ernest tried to fall forward but Caudell held him upright. He coughed up more blood and slobber dangled from the corners of his mouth.
+++++“How much you think that was, Caudell?”
+++++“Eight, nine inches.”
+++++“Goddamn, Ernie, that’s impressive. Maybe I oughta hire you on. They’s queers in Confederate County that’d take a real likin to what you can do. You agree, Caudell?”
+++++“I wouldn’t know what queers are into.”
+++++“Me either. But I think Ernie here could be a money maker..”
+++++“No,” Ernie mumbled the word.
+++++“What’s that, Ernie?” Peanut asked.
+++++“Nothin.” Ernest bobbed his head to keep himself conscious. He thought his jaw might be broken.
+++++“Naw, you said somethin. What was it?”
+++++“Didn’t say nothin.”
+++++“This boy’s still lyin to me, Caudell.”
+++++“He is,” Caudell answered.
+++++“You’d reckon that all I’ve put him through he’d just tell the truth.”
+++++“You’d think so.”
+++++Ernest tried to confess the truth but Peanut talked over him. “Now, Caudell, why you think that is? We already established he’s a habitual liar, but what you think made him that way?”
+++++“Could be lotsa things.”
+++++“You right, could be. But I’m thinkin it’s one thing in particular.”
+++++“What’s that?”
+++++“Lack of respect.”
+++++“Makes sense.”
+++++“It does, don’t it? Just look at the way he treats women. I know the girls here at Honeysuckle Ranch ain’t nothin but whores, but you know what, they still women. They oughta be treated with some degree of respect. Especially since they work for me. You disrespect my girls, you disrespect me. So, Caudell, what you think I oughta do here?”
+++++“Teach him some respect.”
+++++“No.” Ernie burst out. “No. Please. I learned it. I learned respect. I won’t hurt nobody no more. I won’t even come back.” Ernest tried to pull away from Caudell but he couldn’t get away.
+++++Peanut smiled at Ernest as Caudell forced him onto his knees. “You believe him, Caudell?”
+++++“Don’t think so.”
+++++“Me either. Pretty clear he’s a liar.”
+++++“Yep. Pretty clear.”
+++++“You know what?”
+++++“What?”
+++++“I just thought of a good lesson in respect for Ernie here.”
+++++“What’s that?”
+++++“Bend him over.”

The Last Days of the Suicide

You wake up suddenly, prodded awake by the bitter, rotting taste of last night. You wake up suddenly, when the last drop of alcohol has been strained from your body. You sit up and the room swings pendulum-left, then right. You place your feet on to a sticky carpet and stand-up as the room swings left and then right again. You walk to the kitchen, your arms outstretched, your eyes half-closed. You make coffee and as you reach for the milk you glance to see if there is any beer left but there is not. You drink the coffee and listen to the radio. You listen to old tunes from the 90’s, when music was good, when life was good. You smoke a cigarette and then you phone Fat Frank. He tells you to come over at three, that he will have the money at three. You think about what to do with Fat Frank’s money. You think about buying groceries and cigarettes. You will not go to the bar. You do not want to go to the bar to listen to those losers talking about the bets that they missed that week. You do not want to go to the bar to listen to them talking in ifs and buts and should haves and could haves. You’re sick of those idiots, those leeches, those losers – you’re sick of those losers for friends. You look at your watch and wonder what to do for four hours. You could go to your mothers to cut her grass and she might give you a tenner, but you were drunk the last time you stayed there and she thinks that you pissed in her wardrobe. Instead, you clear away last night – the tins, the bottles, the glasses and the overflowing ashtrays. Then you see the splintered glass on the picture above the fireplace. You look around the room and you see the footprint on the wall and the cook’s knife that has been forced into the arm of the chair beside the window. You phone Soupy to ask him what happened last night but Soupy does not answer. You should never have let Soupy into your flat because it always ends badly. You sit down and don’t like that there are missing parts from last night. You sit down and feel a wetness seep through your jeans. You stand-up, curse and inspect your jeans and think that they are O.K. They are the cleanest pair that you own and they will dry soon. You open a window and let out the choking smell of a night of smoking and let in the stench of dog shit and rain – stale rain that gathers in the cracks of the pavements. It’s that stench that gets deep into your bones, that stench that comes from thirty-four years in a shitty street, in a shitty town. You turn on the T.V. and flick through a different life, one of renovations, antiques and second homes in sunny places. You turn off the T.V. and sit in silence. You let the silence surround and overcome you. You need to leave this place of quiet. You need to leave this place with no voices. You need to go.
+++++You see him from across the street. He is carrying a blue bag and you know that he sees you because his step stutters. You walk towards Fat Frank and he gives you a smile that is more gum than teeth. You walk towards Fat Frank wondering where he got the money from. You listen as Fat Frank tells you that the money came early, that he was on his way to get you. You don’t believe him but you don’t say it because he has beer and soothing cigarettes and the chance of an afternoon of something. You hold the bag of beer for him as he takes his dick out and pisses in the street, even though his flat is no more than one hundred feet away. You hear him ask about the trouble in your block last night but you say that you didn’t hear any trouble in your block last night. You wonder if you were the trouble. You wonder about the splintered glass and the footprint on the wall and the knife in the chair. You ask Fat Frank if he has seen Soupy and he tells you that he hopes that he never sees that fucker again.
+++++You put some of the beers into the freezer and the rest into the fridge. You hear Fat Frank tell you that you look awful and he offers you a blue pill. You pocket the pill because blue pills are for sleeping, not for drinking. You drink the beer quickly, the first one warm but you don’t care. You feel at ease for the first time today. You feel like the scream inside you has turned into a sigh. You ask Fat Frank if you look any better and he shrugs. You ask Fat Frank for a cigarette and he points a stubby finger at the box on the low table. You tell Fat Frank that you will have a couple of beers but then you need to go, that you need groceries. Fat Frank smiles. You have another beer and then another. You have a couple more and soon you watch as Fat Frank’s heavy head drops and then tumbles downwards into sleep. You open the fridge and count four beers, knowing that you can only have three of them – the fourth would be greedy. But you drink all four as Fat Frank sleeps, then you search his coat for money and then his wallet, his drawers and his mantel piece, you search his window sills, his cupboards and even his bread bin but there is no money. You sit down defeated with no beer and no money because Fat Frank is an unreliable, greedy bastard. You stare at the single fold of flesh that is Fat Frank and you want to scream at him, to stomp on him, to show him that you’ll not to be messed with, but instead you sit down, you do nothing. You save your show of strength for when you are alone in your flat, then you bury them all under your unheard words.
+++++You swallow the blue pill and wait, staring at Fat Frank as he sleeps contently in his chair. This is all he wants. He looks like a kind old grandpa who has had a heavy day, instead of the forty-year-old bar-fly who has had a heavy night. You watch his hefty chest rise and fall. Each time it deflates he makes a noise like a dying dolphin, a noise that is both hypnotic and horrific. You smoke a cigarette and feel the blue pill sneak up on you, feel it surround you, feel it smother you coldly.
+++++You wake and it’s late. You know that it’s late because the curtains are closed. You feel Fat Frank press a beer into your hand and it may as well be your dick as you have no use for either. You know that there are worse things than being alone. You know that there are worse things than being alone and one of them is being here.

Uck-fay My Life

My left hand started to shake at work. That’s how I first noticed it. I was driving the tow motor between plants one and two with pallets of styrene—the same thing I do every day between two and two-ten. I’ve been working in this shithole plastics factory since I graduated from high school—only to die of brain cancer. The doctors call it Glioblastoma Multiforme.
+++++They also told me it gets worse rapidly, much worse. The PET scan they showed me at this hot-shit clinic looked like some kindergarten kid’s finger-painting. The goddamned lump in my brain is moving up and sideways from the right side. That means I’ll be in full paralysis on my left side if they try to remove it surgically. I told them, “What the fuck’s the point of that if I’m going to be dead as a doorknob in three months?” Besides the hand tremors, my left eye is going lazy. Pretty soon I’ll have difficulty walking and I’ll need to go from a walker to a wheelchair for mobility. Mobility. That’s a laugh.
+++++They gave me a prescription for something called Temodar and sent me two more floors up to see another specialist on the seventh floor. This specialist turned out to be a shrink. Apparently they do this in case somebody decides to go postal after getting a really bad diagnosis like mine. As soon as he launched into this gibberish about my “situation,” I knew what was up. Motherfucker looked like a kid in his bow tie despite all the framed certificates on the wall to prove how smart he was as opposed to ordinary yahoos like me. He wouldn’t last a week in my factory with all that fiberglass dust floating around, guys yelling in your face because you can’t hear fuck-all with the noise from the presses, and all the crap the supervisors expect you to do on your shift. I turned around and walked out of his office while he was still babbling something about “bargaining” my way out of it. “So long, Doctor Phil,” I said.
+++++The first thing I did when I got free of that place, out into the sunshine, was to sit down on a public bench and think while the traffic whizzed by: people with lives and futures, going places. Me, I’m sitting here, I thought to myself, dying an inch at a time. I did what any sensible middle-aged man would do next: I found a quiet, dark bar and got shit-faced on Jack and water. I bought rounds for strangers until the bartender and some customers carried me out to my pickup and dumped me in the front seat. I woke up with the sun in my eyes, a blinding headache—and a desire to murder.
+++++I spent a month just brooding around the house not sure what I was going to do. I did go back to the clinic for another round of MRIs and PET scans, but I had an urge to leave before the results were in. This was a kind of torture, I felt, not something for me but for them, these bastards in the white coats who were only interested in charting the progress of the cancer ballooning in my head. I was a specimen to them, something to study and take digital photos of to store in their computer or gab about in the conference room at their regular meetings. “Oh, Mister Jones, he’s got a tumor in the medulla oblongata the size of a grapefruit and he won’t recall his name in a few more weeks” or “Miss Smith, well, she’s frigging hopeless. Got tumors like iron bananas in her cervix. She’ll be pissing blood by next week.” Fuck that.
+++++My bucket list now hadonly two thingstodobefore I died since I sure as shit won’t be outliving my ex-wife and pissing on her headstone is out of the picture. One says: “Do meth.” The other says, “Kill some worthless asshole before you die.” That’s all. That’s what I’m planning to do. I’ve got my death sentence, so I don’t have anything to fear—not jail, not death row, not anything. I’m free. If I take one person off the planet, I won’t die a loser. My life won’t add up to zero, zilch-point-shit. At the clinic, they told me there’s such a thing as a “cancer diet,” which would help to prolong my life. What happens to people at the end of stage 4 of Glioblastoma, trust me, isn’t pretty, and there’s no reason whatsoever why you’d want to prolong your life. I’d rather have my balls gnawed off by rats than endure that suffering.
+++++Accomplishing my first goal was harder than I thought. Half my town is stoned or drunk or hooked on opioids, yet try to find a little meth and see what happens. I went from one bar to another, talked to one twitching street addict after another, and all I got for my trouble was hustled out of my cash. I went to a cement-block redneck dive with a sleazy reputation just outside the township. I’d never been there and didn’t know anybody who did. It took a couple weeks of buying shots and beers until the regulars stopped eye-fucking me every time I walked in. They figured I was for real, and so I got hooked up with a guy I’d seen in there after eleven almost every night.
+++++He nodded toward the parking lot to do some business. I told him booze was my usual poison, but I wanted to see what meth does one time. They say it’s a hundred times more pleasurable than even the best drunk, I said to him. I told him the human brain isn’t designed to experience this much pleasure, and I wanted to try it. I got that last bit from the Discovery channel. I told the guy I didn’t want to smoke it. I wanted to shoot it up, and I’d give him fifty bucks if he’d do it for me.The guy’s eyes popped at me.
+++++“No fuckin’ way, man,” he said.
+++++“All right, then,” I said. “Twenty to tell me how to do it right so I don’t kill myself.”Dope fiends are always giving themselves hot shots and dying on some shitty rug. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
+++++He just shrugged as if I’d asked him to show me how to tie a granny knot.
+++++“What the fuck are you doing?”
+++++“I’m writing down the instructions,” I said.
+++++He slapped the notebook out of my hands and started to hand pat me for a wire. “Are you for fucking real, man?”
+++++I chest-bumped him off me, and said, “I’m serious as brain cancer. Tell me what I need to know.”
+++++He told me in simple words and repeated it twice like giving directions to a stranger from out of town. I never thought to buy a syringe ahead of time. I was so obsessed with finding the meth. “Use this one, it’s clean,” he said and handed me what looked like a used needle. Practice with an orange or something. That how they train nurses.”
+++++“Fuck that,” I said.
+++++He shrugged again. “Your funeral, man.”
+++++“Not yet,” I said.
+++++I left him standing there and headed for my truck.
+++++When I got home, I took what I needed to tie off my bicep and tapped the vein in the crook of my forearm until it swelled up like a fat worm. I poured half the powder from the glassine bag he gave me into the bowl of the spoon and heated it with my Bic. The next part was drawing the shit into the needle and being careful not to put an air bubble into my vein. I stuck myself with the needle two or three times, not being sure how to get it right inside the vein. Then I thought, What the fuck does it matter now? So I took one more good aim at that tiny bulge under my skin and slammed it home.There, motherfucker, got you!
+++++Now, I’m going to skip a lot of the dumb shit I did over the next thirty-six hours or so because this ain’t supposed to be about me getting high. But what a motherfucking ride, I’m telling you. Everybody should do serious dope like that if they’ve never done it. Me, I had to wait to get brain cancer before I put on themoon boots, as that drug-dealing jerk told me back in the parking lot. Shit, before I knew what was happening, I was climbing the drapes—if I had drapes and I don’t. I was sailing around my house in my own happy world, jabbering away at the TV and talking. I mean, I would just think of somebody from my past, like my ex, and my pin-wheeling brain would take over, cancer and all, just start up this amazing, intense conversation as if that person was standing in the room right there with me. Weird. I talked myself blue until five in the morning at nothing, or stared into the mirror just looking at myself and having a long conversation about life, and I’m not one for talking.
+++++The next part wasn’t so good, though. When I came down from thehigh, it wasn’t gradual like that lying fuck said it would be. I wentfrom a gorgeous feelingof bliss to feeling like I’m stepping off a burning building ledge with the flames licking at my ass and holding a manhole cover in my hands. I mean down, motherfucker, and fast. Suddenly my head’s all muddled up with crazy thoughts zigzagging around. I went from talking a blue streak to having somebody pour glue all over my tongue. My legs wouldn’t work right and my skin itched like I had fire ants crawling all over and stinging me.
+++++I finally snapped to sitting on the floor of my bedroom wrapped in the quilt my wife forgot to take when she looted the house while I was at work. I was a mess. Depression walloped me between the eyes like a fist. It was like the bad news they laid on me at the clinic over and over. Maybe worse, because there I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by whining like some pussy and begging them to save me. It took me a couple of days to gather myself together.
+++++The first task I set was to pick a worthy candidate—I mean, a worthless sack-of-shit the entire world would be better off without. Right off the bat, I wrote down a list of people I knew I’d like to see dead like my ex and my supervisor, maybe the plant manager, and the union steward who fucked me over. I tore it up. That was stupid. It would point the cops right at me. The point was to do it and to get away with it. I had to take my secret murder to my grave with me.
+++++My meth trip had taken a precious week off the time I had left. I had to get moving before I woke up one day and found myself unable to physically or mentally carry out the plan. Besides, I had not allowed for any travel time or set-up time that might be needed. I wasn’t going to pick the target and then drive him down in my F-150. That’s how drunk drivers do it.I read this story in high school—in fact, it was the only thing I did read in high school besides manuals in shop class—about this nut job in the olden days who wants to off an old codger living upstairs whose eyeball is always winking at him in some kind of way that really pisses off this wacko. The long and the short of it is he kills the old dude but fucks it up when the cops come round to question him. The fuckwit actually blurts out he did it and buried pieces of the codger under the floorboards.
+++++Stupid shit, but the point is if you want to get revenge, you have to tell the victim why you’re going to kill him. Only then do you kill him. Unlike that fuckwit in the story, you don’t run around telling people like half the criminals you hear about on TV or read about in the papers. I don’t intend to find myself in a small airless room with two detectives close enough to touch knees grilling my about my whereabouts on the night of blah-blah when I have just days left to live as a real human being.
+++++Then I found him by accident. He was perfect: a four-star, revolving, son-of-a-bitch. A no-good,motherfucking son of a motherless dog-fucking whore. As I said, perfect.
+++++His name was Chad Prevost III. I saw him on TV. This smirking prick was on CNN testifying before Congress about his charity that was accused of ripping off millions of dollars from donors to fund lavish parties at swanky resorts in the Caribbean for himself, his trophy wife, and their friends. The money was supposed to provide help for poor, handicapped Christian children made homeless in the war-torn Middle East. “Save the Innocent Christian Babies from the Wrath of ISIS!” was the charity’s catchphrase. I’d seen advertisements on Fox News and other channels. This Prevost was the CEO.
+++++I punched the Record button so that I could watch it over and over until I had every line of this guy’s face committed to memory. I did my research, starting then. I googled every fact the internet had on Mr. Fuck-You Prevost and his charity. I took notes. I was serious, cold-blooded, and every inch committed to what the prosecutors of my state like to call “a depraved-heart murder.”
+++++Mr. Prevost III and I were together on the seesaw now. When we reached the balancing point, eyeball to eyeball—well, then my life would be complete. I’d know what to do.
+++++Stage One: Pre-Game Prep. I live in Flint, Michigan, where the water puts real lead in your pencil. That means everything I owned went at bargain-basement prices except the house. A local house flipper wanted to buy my place at 10% of the original sale price. I told him to fuck off. I’d let it rot there on its foundation. The furniture, snow thrower, fishing gear, the whole kit and caboodle went in one giant yard sale and the rest to the Goodwill or a big rental dumpster. That is, except for the items I might need, which included my good field glasses, my Rossi-Braztech .38, aSavage M111 rifle, and a few hunting knives: a black titanium punch dagger, and a pair of Buck knives, one for skinning, a Macassar, and the other for filleting and peeling. I wasn’t planning on getting into any gunfights, but guns and a polite word are more effective than just a polite word. I think AL Capone said that. The one important piece of equipment was my Taser.
+++++I filled up the truck and never looked back in the rearview mirror.
+++++Stage Two: Stalking the Victim. Mr. Big Shot lived in Westport, Connecticut with the rest of the rich assholes who can flee the grime of New York City after making their bags of loot for the day. I rented a van from a U-Haul place and slapped a hand-painted sign proclaiming the fake name of a landscaping firm on the side. I even added a half-assed looking tree with some pretty flowers for it. You don’t drive around rich people’s neighborhoods looking at house numbers unless you have a reason to be there.
+++++Like his ego, his house numbers were gold-plated, oversized, and embedded into the fieldstone wall in the front of his estate; the wall stretched all around several acres of property. The house itself was some kind of plantation affair with giant columns and a balcony with fancy-looking spindles as rails. This wasn’t going to be easy. There was no place to hang around, and on my second drive-by, I slowed long enough to notice there were no cars in sight. There could be a garage twice the size of my house back in Michigan behind it but it wasn’t visible from the road. If I didn’t know what car he drove, I couldn’t follow him.
+++++I headed back to my motel room off the interstate, twenty miles away, and tried to rest. I had to think. I expected to be able to locate his house, note his vehicle and tag, and begin following him around right away. With a wife and kids at home, I figured he wasn’t likely to go off jet-setting with his rich pals right after his fracas at the hearing in DC. Of course, this smug bastard wasn’t the type to go hide away in a comfy bolt hole until the dust settled. I had to assume he was going to show up either at his house or at his headquarters on Riverside Drive and begin meetings to clean up his dirty reputation to keep the money rolling in from the suckers. When my plant cut back our hours to twenty a week during the Great Recession of oh-eight, the one-percenters like him were laughing it up, popping champagne corks, and awarding themselves huge bonuses. He wasn’t going to change his spots. Greed is eternal in the human soul. I heard a radio preacher say that on my way to Connecticut.
+++++I lay on my bed and wondered how much jizz had been shot all over it. This guy on TV, he had a luminol blood detector kit with him and he made the bed, the walls, and the rug glow. I thought about human beings and our stupid existence; it’s all squirting, puking, shitting, crying, spitting. A trillion ejaculations into the void—for what?
+++++When I awoke four hours later, my neck was stiff, and the throbbing in my temples was so painful that I had to lean over and throw up on the floor. It was a reminder I didn’t have much more time to waste. I showered, dressed, and headed for my target’s lavish house, hoping that some idea about how to get to him might come to me.
+++++I no sooner had that burst of exhilaration at spotting him than it was taken away. The Jag left me so far behind that I couldn’t keep close to him. When I came to the first junction sign, I knew it was hopeless. He could have gone anywhere. Something whispered in my ear not to give up. I drove back to his place and pulled off to the narrow shoulder. He was alone. Maybe he was running a fast errand, not taking a jaunt into the city to go clubbing or take in a Broadway show. It would be dark soon. I just sat there, and held my breath and practiced a story for when somebody eventually called the cops. I had one chance at this. If he came home soon enough, he’d see this crappy-looking van, and he wouldn’t like it sitting in front of his mansion and his manicured lawn with the landscaping just so. It would be like spotting a nose oyster on your mother’s white linen tablecloth. He’d want me gone and he wouldn’t give a shit whether the van had broken down or the driver had a fatal heart attack on the job.
+++++Seconds ticked by in my damaged brain like drops of water in Chinese torture. Finally, finally, Mister Fuck-Them-in-the-Ass showed up; his hi-beams sliced through my van and lit up the interior. I saw my own hands clenching the wheel and the knuckles white with the tension. Then the inside darkened. The light from his headlamps swung away to make the turn. I heard the subdued roar of the pipes from his downshifting. He didn’t take the bait. I was fucked.Fuck . . .
+++++. . . Wait, no. My heartbeat slowed to a reptile’s. He hadn’t made the turn in his driveway to the back of the house. I turned my head to see he’d gone halfway and stopped. The Jag’s big engine idled. More seconds passed. Then I saw the interior of his sportscar light him up. He was getting out; it was him all right, no doubt about it. He was coming toward me in a casual, Lord-of-the-Manor strut. A big jolt of adrenalin hit me in the belly as I waited for him to approach the window.
+++++He came around to my side of the van—even better. I wouldn’t have to fling myself across the passenger seat.
+++++I couldn’t see him yet, but I sensed him right there beside me. I rolled down the window ever so slowly—slowly,slowly, catchee monkey, as they say. The dash light wasn’t much but it gave me all I needed to judge the angle and distance of thrust.
+++++“What’s the problem here?”
+++++He barely finished the question before I had the Taser jammed into his neck. I’d used it on a dying deer I’d shot back in the U.P. one time just to see what it could do. He did a kind of jerky spasm backwards and then dropped straight to the ground, pole-axed by the juice knocking out his body’s puny electrical system.
+++++I was out of the van in a flash. I swung the side door open and had him scooped up in moments. He was light, and of course I was juiced on the adrenalin surging through me. A big man in his mind but a small bundle of expensive clothes even when he was dead weight in my arms. I thrust him into the van and had the plastic cuffs on his hands and legs and a strip of duct tape across his mouth. My heart hammered out the seconds and I had to keep the tunnel vision from making me waste motion in case someone left the house to check on why he wasn’t coming inside. Suddenly the interior of the van lit up again, and I knew a car was fast approaching; these people drove like drag racing teens down this narrow road unless there was something to see.
+++++I just got his legs out of the way and the van door shut as a vehicle passed us at high speed. I finished roping him to the eye bolts and tossed a blanket over himand in seconds more I was speeding back to my motel.
+++++I slowed to five miles under the speed limit all the way. I think I whistled a happy tune from my childhood as I drove.
+++++Stage Three: Let the Fun Begin. I had him spread-eagled on one of the twin beds and he was gagged with towels and more duct tape. I sat beside him and calmly told him I was going to kill him. I told him only that he was such a piece of shit that he didn’t deserve to live. I thought it might be better that way, leaving out the cancer, that is, because I didn’t want to give him even a smidgeon of satisfaction that I was not going to outlive him very long.
+++++He was a little short on personal courage, our trussed-up millionaire. He screamed behind his gag, wet himself, and shit his pants. I had to step to the door and breathe in some fresh air to keep from upchucking. The air in that parking lot where I had reserved the last two rooms at the end of this L-shaped dump was full of diesel fumes, but nothing like the stench from the second room where I was working—especially as it went into the second day. I’m not bragging here, believe me. He took his last breath in a kind of peace. Just to be sure, I rammed the punch dagger into his chest right up to the hilt. It was done.
+++++I pitied the maid. I’d bribed her to stay away. This place, let her think whatever she wanted. Whores, drugs, parties—I’m sure she was used to it. I left a couple hundred on the night table all the same. I was down to just enough gas and food money to get me back to Michigan.
+++++I took the van to a blighted part of Flint, which is almost anywhere you look. I removed the plates and torched the inside with a five-gallon can of gasoline. I slept for four days when I got back. I barely got out of bed except to shower and eat vegetables out of the cans from the pantry. When I was able to move around without too much pain in my head, I could see the red light winking on the phone recorder. The idea of talking to people or getting messages seemed bizarre like something I did in a past life but not now. My exit was all that needed to be planned, and I wanted it to go right. I mulled over a second and final meth trip. Why not strap on those moon boots for one last trip? Make it a good one, a hot shot that takes me away from the hideous pain creeping up on me like a dark shadow over my eyes. My dead millionaire, meanwhile, was all over the news. Westport detectives were looking for “a person of interest driving a white utility van seen in the vicinity of the house” and so on, every day, even in the news crawls at the bottoms of the screen. It was eerie to know all of this was for me. Major networks sent reporters to camp outside the millionaire CEO’s house in Connecticut and were milking every story possible from his bogus charity through his rich-boy, prep school background to his “sordid demise in a cheap freeway motel.”
+++++I was just on my way to the phone in the living room, its blinking red light semaphoring me like a siren’s call: Come get your dope fix, it said. The pounding on the door wasn’t the Meals-on-Wheels woman, for sure. It said “cops” better than any shouts could have. I hoped for longer, but I always expected this in the back of my mind. It was a shame, I remember thinking, I wasn’t going to get to use the other half of my meth stash.
+++++I took a peek out the side window and saw the flashing turquoise-and-cherry lights. No mistaking what they were there for. I only wished I’d had the goddamned sense earlier to put a gallon of antifreeze in the house. At least, it would have a sweet taste going down. I ran to the kitchen and rooted among the household products. It had to be faster acting than the ethylene glycol in antifreeze because they’d pump my stomach. I wasn’t going to give them the chance to revive me. I found a can of Drano and one of red Devil lye. I made a deadly cocktail in a tall glass and gulped it down. I coughed it up immediately and the acid flow scored deep burn channels down both sides of my mouth.
+++++Five weeks in ICU. Six more in rehab. I lost seventy-four pounds, six ounces (they told me this). I was skin and bones and had to be fed through a tube in my stomach and one that took out the “effluvia” (the tending nurse called it that, but she meant shit, blood, bile and anything else so foul I stank like a one-man body farm).
+++++The cops were there to do a welfare check. A kindly old lady whose paper I used to fetch when the idiot paperboy tossed it into the hedges called them because she hadn’t seen me since my garage sale. My second PET scan showed the cancer miraculously in remission. They couldn’t explain it. The doctor sounded jubilant on the phone.
+++++Naturally, my attempted suicide got them thinking about why and so one thing led to another and I confessed without any prolonged interrogation under the bright lights in that small room at the police station I used to fear so much. I have a life sentence to serve in a hospital for the criminally insane. There wasn’t any prison that wanted me or had the facilities to care for me in my condition. Sometimes I lie here in my own shit for hours at a time. I have nothing but time now. Bags of it, shitloads of it. I’m going to live a very long life according to the doctor who comes in twice a week to check up on me. Most of the people who work here are sadists. One guy, who works the night shift, is named Lamar, but they call him “Weasel” for good reason. He’s snapped photos of me in my condition with my face crisscrossed by burn scars and the tubes sticking out me everywhere and uploaded it to various sites that like this kind of thing.
+++++Last night, he told me he was going to put me on Gore-dot-com as soon as I died. I cuss him to his face but my words are slobbered, incoherent, like an infant’s tongue blowing raspberries. I finally communicated to him in Pig Latin—remember doing that as a kid?—which proved easier to create syllables from my damaged esophagus and palate. He’s just one demon in my private hell. At night, I see Prevost. I can hear his words in my head when the ward is finally asleep around three in the morning, that time mystics call the dark night of the soul. Mostly he echoes the last words I had said to him in that motel as I was showing him the skin of his face I had rolled up on my filleting knife like a kid’s party whistle: This is what you deserve, fuckface . . .

Mail Order

“Goddamnit, not again.” I looked up from the kitchen table over at the YouTube video playing on my laptop. Reaching out, I hit pause, then backed it up a little.
+++++The blonde stretched out on the table started to move, so I shoved the chloroform rag up against her face one more time. Blondie just wouldn’t quit.
+++++After a few seconds of the ol’ chloroform she stopped moving, and I turned back to the video. “Goddamned motherfucker,” I moved the little slider back, and picked up my knife, trying to follow along.
+++++Piece of shit movie was going too fast, I backed it up again.
+++++And now blondie was giving me a hard time. Fercrissakes, can’t a guy get a break around here.
+++++She just wouldn’t stay still; wriggling like a freaking worm on a hook when I’m busy and trying to do my job. I gave up with the chloroform and just kept going. The tape was holding her still enough anyway. The video showed a scalpel cutting through skin, and it peeling open nice an’ easy, like a banana.
+++++I got that part.
+++++Stretched out on the table, blondie twisted and tried to roll when the knife cut through her belly, blade dragging across her skin and opening her up. Duct tape held her pretty tight though, and her eyes stayed shut, so it was all good.
+++++I kept going.
+++++On the video hands in latex gloves lifted out the uterus, so I did the same, cutting as I went with the kitchen knife. I didn’t have any fancy clamps, so I used some pliers, and they did a decent enough job. I followed along with the video, using my knife just like the scalpel blade.
+++++I was getting pretty good; but you know what they say, practice makes perfect.
+++++Dropping the uterus in the Tupperware dish beside me, I reached for my needle and thread, ready to sew her up. Here’s hoping blondie’d last a bit longer than the others.
+++++As I wrapped my thread around those funny tube things, she started to buck, her face turning blue under the duct tape.
+++++Goddamnit to hell, not another one.
+++++She bucked a little more, but the tape on her hands and legs held her tight, and when she finally up and died on me, I tried to lift her into the garbage bag, and couldn’t. I had to cut her off the table first.
+++++Guess I used a bit too much tape.
+++++I tipped her legs into a garbage bag and lifted her off the table; letting her body hit the ground, and then tied up the bag with those twist ties that come with it. They’re actually pretty good garbage bags; I buy them at the Home Depot; industrial strength, the kind the contractors use, really good ones. Heavy duty.
+++++Nobody ever asks why I need so many.
+++++Bumping her body down the basement stairs, I dropped her beside the others; a few more black bags sat waiting. Guess I’d need to take out the trash pretty soon.
+++++Back up in the kitchen, I wiped up the mess blondie left behind and shoved the paper towels and Windex into another garbage bag, then popped the Tupperware in the fridge. I might get some use outta that later.
+++++Wiping off my hands with a fresh paper towel, I closed the YouTube video and opened up the order screen on my laptop; something about overseas romances or some such nonsense. I was planning on getting an extra one anyway, they don’t seem to last too long around here.
+++++Under quantity selected, I hit two.

Date Night

Friday nights were always the best. Not because it was the end of the work week, but because it was the day my girl and me would go out. She was five feet, ten inches of fiery redhead and I knew every inch of her like the back of my hand. From her ginger bangs down to those little piggies sticking out of her feet, I loved her the way a junkie loves smack. I could never get enough of my Marie.
+++++We’d see each other during the week: long stares, awkward waves, maybe even the occasional text or note.
+++++But nothing beat Fridays.
+++++We’d catch a flick, grab a bite to eat, and go back home for a little fun. It was routine, but whoever said that routine had to be joyless?
+++++The big hand struck five and I was outta the office before anyone could even say TGIF. Traffic wasn’t horrible for weekend rush-hour, which was a plus. It would give me more time to prepare. The trip home ended up taking thirty minutes instead of the usual forty-five, a near miracle. I bounded up the stairs and went straight to the bedroom. The closet was full of different options, most either business casual or smart casual. After careful deliberation, I decided to go for the Steve Jobs look. One black turtle-neck and a pair of jeans later, I was all ready for the big night.
+++++The timer went off, reminding me that it was exactly five minutes before date time. I put on a pair of thin-rimmed glasses, sans prescription lenses, and headed down to the garage. I backed the Volvo out and parked it on the curb. Just then Marie walked out of her house. She was stunning as always, wearing a tight, little, blue number held up by spaghetti straps and those big tits of hers.
+++++God, how I wanted her.
+++++Just as the blood started to head down my body, a Cadillac pulled up.
+++++“Brad.” The word came out more as a curse then the statement of someone’s name, but it was true. Brad was a blight, a parasite on the world that couldn’t die soon enough. As usual, Marie greeted the bastard with a kiss and stepped into the passenger seat of his Caddy. I took a deep breath. Brad was the un-bleachable skid-mark of my Fridays, always lingering. But just like underpants, no one said that a little skid-mark could ruin the whole thing. Skid-mark peeled out and I followed him at a safe distance.

***

Dinner was a real delight. Marie loved this little Italian joint off of I-80 and always insisted on a cozy table for two under the crystal chandelier. A few minutes after the hostess got them seated, I acquired a little booth near the bar. A server approached my booth and asked me what I wanted to drink.
+++++“Michelob Ultra.” Like Marie, I preferred light beers.
+++++“You want that in a glass?” the server asked me.
+++++“No. Just the bottle”
+++++She scribbled something down in her notepad and waddled off.
+++++Marie sat at the table with a hand under her chin. I stole a look at her and then buried my nose in the menu. When you were in the kind of situation that I was in, you couldn’t just stare with your tongue out like a dog on a hot day. Sooner or later she would sense my look and that would be it.
+++++The server returned with a bottle of Ultra and placed it down on the table. “What do you want?” she asked.
+++++Marie threw back her head and laughed, revealing a great shot of her cleavage. I grabbed the bottle by the neck and took a drink. I wiped my mouth and noticed that the server was still there, looking at me like I had three heads. “Veal.” I put the bottle down. “The veal parmesan.”

***

Next was the movie. Some Jennifer Anniston, rom-com piece of shit. But, Marie liked it and that was all that mattered. She was laughing so much, I was afraid she might choke on her Reese’s Pieces, which I would’ve gotten too had it not been for my damn peanut allergy. But like Marie, I made sure to get a medium diet coke. I was sitting a few rows back from her in-between a couple of bored, old forty-somethings. Yet even in the back of a darkened theater, I could still see those gorgeous red locks and that was all I needed.

***

The movie got out about quarter after ten. I followed Marie and douche-nozzle at a reasonable distance until they got into the car. I head straight for the Volvo and followed them home. After they parked and went inside, I bolted into the house. Marie, like a great performer, always saved the best for last and not even ole skid-mark could ruin the fun. I got up to my room and peered into the high-powered binoculars near my window. Marie and ass-face went straight up to the bedroom and started getting frisky. Fuck-stain ripped off his blazer and Marie popped right out of her tight, little, blue dress.
+++++The blood started rushing to my crotch and my grip on the binoculars tightened.
+++++Just as I was about to unzip my jeans and join in the fun, there was a ringing.
+++++I lowered the binoculars and turned around.
+++++The landline on the nightstand next to my bed was blinking.
+++++“Fuck.”
+++++It rang again.
+++++I put down the binoculars and hobbled over to the phone. Just as I approached, it rang again.
+++++I picked up the handset and jammed it back into the cradle.
+++++“Asshole.”
+++++I turned around and rushed to get back into the fun.
+++++The phone rang again.
+++++“FUCK!”
+++++I went to the landline and picked up the handset. “Who the fuck is this?”
+++++“A friend.”
+++++My blood was practically boiling. “Alright, buddy you’re interrupting me at something very important.”
+++++“I know. You look like you got a real handful.” The voice sounded refined, yet taunting, like a prep-school bully whose dad owned half the town.
+++++I snorted. “Okay, pal. I’m hanging up now.”
+++++“Tell me, did you get the circumcision after you saw that Brad was cut?” the voice giggled. “You must really want to impress Marie. Few men would trim their tip for a girl who doesn’t even know they exist.”
+++++My heart dropped into my stomach. He knew. He knew everything. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
+++++“Oh but I’m sure that you do. You got circumcised after you saw how much Kathy just loved Brad’s piece.”
+++++“Shut up!”
+++++“I’m just getting started.” There was a deep breath. “It’s been quite fun watching you, you know. You’re so deliciously pathetic. It’s a real turn-on. But now, I’ve grown bored and I think it’s time we wrapped this up.”
+++++The phone went dead and the lights went off. Before I could even gasp, I felt a rag go over my mouth.

***

I regained full consciousness slowly, but surely. My hands were bound and I felt like I had the worst case of hemorrhoids ever. The realization of what had just transpired hit me like a bucket of water.
+++++“God, that was every bit as good as I thought it was going to be.”
+++++It was the voice from the phone. He slapped the back of my head and ran a hand through my hair. “Now that I have that out my system, there’s only one thing left to do.”
+++++He pushed me on my back and got on top of me. His face was boyish; accented with green eyes and crowned with coal-black hair. The jade-daggers stared deep into my eyes.
+++++“I can think of no better way to do this.” He grabbed a black shopping bag and stuck his hand inside. “Nothing like a little personal touch.” He grabbed a hold of the contents and threw away the bag.
+++++“Oh God, no.”
+++++“Oh God, yes.” His fingers were wrapped around a jar of Skippy’s Extra Crunchy and a spoon.
+++++He screwed off the top and dropped it on the floor.
+++++“Please, no. Just fucking shoot me or something.”
+++++“Where’d be the fun in that?” He ripped the paper top off and stuffed his nose in the jar. “MMMM, smells like PB and J, the way mom used to make it.”
+++++The smell filled my nostrils and I could feel every particle. It was in the air, like a poison gas. I closed my mouth and stopped breathing.
+++++“C’mon. Don’t act like that.” He grabbed my cheeks and pinched my nose. “Open wide and say aahhhh.”
+++++I held out for as long as I could. My lungs burned. Every second felt like a century and the smile on his face grew larger.
+++++I couldn’t take it.
+++++I sucked in some air and he jammed the Skippy-laced spoon in my mouth. The deathly ooze spread into the gaps between my teeth and immersed my gums. The infected saliva trickled down my throat, turning it into an inferno. He let go of my nose, grabbed my cheeks and closed them in around the handle.
+++++My tongue swelled and my airways began to constrict. Every breath was shorter and shorter, despite the fast flaring of my nostrils.
+++++“That’s it,” he said through clenched teeth. “Take it. Love it.”
+++++My flesh turned to crimson blotches and the skin around my eyes swelled. Millimeter by millimeter, my sight eroded. The room disappeared and all I could see was that boyish face and seconds later, even that faded. All I could see were the eyes. Those green eyes.

Other People’s Blood

It is an ugly Friday, mid-morning. I am drinking in the softcore lounge at the Black Regent.
+++++At least it used to be called the Black Regent… the hotel was taken over by a national hotel chain two years ago, and the new name escapes me.
+++++Two men I don’t recognise walk into the TV lounge. The fat one is wearing a luminous-coloured t-shirt with the phrase ‘Amateur Gynaecologist’ emblazoned across it. I assume it is a joke, but in this town you never really know. After all, everyone needs a hobby…
+++++He is soaked in sweat and wheezing slightly, and although he doesn’t worry me, his companion does. The second man has a creased, savage-looking face, and his shirt is deeply stained with blood. He is holding a sawn-off shotgun. The barrel has been polished to a dark gleam, and I can almost see my bloodshot eyes in the reflection. Last year I saw a man shot at close range with a gun that looked a lot like this. Not in a suburban sex hotel, but in a derelict betting shop that had been preemptively decorated with industrial plastic sheeting. It made a real fucking mess.
+++++Come with us, says the Gynaecologist. I look around, to make sure that he is talking to me. I’ve been hustled out of plenty of bars in my time, but never a hotel TV lounge. I consider throwing a punch, but I really don’t want to spill my drink – not this early in the day, at least. I drain my beer and stand up – palms up, unthreateningly.
+++++The savage clubs me behind the ear with the shotgun butt, and my world goes black.

***

“Good morning, Mr Rey. I appreciate you making the effort not to get blood on my furniture.”
+++++I shrug. It wasn’t intentional. I’ve ruined my fair share of couches over the years.
+++++I recognise the man in the swivel chair. His name is Ted Columbus, and he is a disgraced televangelist. He has leathery skin and synthetic hair. I dislike him instantly, but not for those reasons.
+++++He offers me his hand, and I reluctantly shake the warm, pulpy flesh.
+++++“Can I get you a drink, Mr Rey?”
+++++I nod.
+++++“Two fingers of bourbon over one cube of ice.”
+++++“A sophisticate… I’m impressed.”
+++++“I’m no sophisticate. I’m just a small town drunk with a nasty hangover. This will help.”
+++++His loose mouth twitches.
+++++I down the drink and feel my liver quiver.
+++++“Can I be straight with you, Mr Rey?”
+++++I shrug, fingering the bloody lump on the edge of my skull.
+++++“Straight, gay… I’m not fussy.”
+++++He shudders slightly.
+++++“Your reputation precedes you, my friend. You seem to have a knack for finding those who don’t want to be found.”
+++++I don’t disagree.
+++++“I would like you to track down my step-son, Burke Pangbourne. It is a matter of some importance.”
+++++“Most people who want to hire me, they come to my fucking office and knock on the door. They don’t send their cronies to cosh me in a TV lounge.”
+++++He grunts.
+++++“I’m a busy man, Mr Rey. It isn’t always feasible to play by the rules.”
+++++I shrug again.
+++++“My fee is £100 per day. If I haven’t found your boy within seven days he is probably dead.”
+++++He looks visibly shaken, but nods.
+++++“Mr Rey, would you please follow me?”
+++++I make a beeline towards the spirits cabinet and splash another measure of scotch into my glass. I don’t bother with the ice cube this time.

***

“Are you married, Mr Rey?”
+++++“Divorced.”
+++++He grunts.
+++++“Some things are worth fighting for, my friend.”
+++++Now it’s my turn to grunt.
+++++“Believe me, Columbus, if I had fought for Alouette some bastard or other would have ended up in the trauma unit. Probably me.”
+++++He sighs.
+++++“Married men need to make difficult decisions, Mr Rey.”
+++++He opens a door that leads onto an adjacent room.
+++++“This is my wife, Audrey.”
+++++The woman on the bed looks like she is rotting to death.
+++++“My physician tells me she has the malady.”
+++++Physician? I hope he isn’t referring to the fucking Gynaecologist.
+++++“Her condition is deteriorating rapidly, and my physician has urged me to track down Burke as a matter of some importance. He is her only living blood relative. As you can see, the rot has already destroyed her gut and groin. A transfusion may be her only hope.”
+++++I walk over to the bed and take a sip of my drink. In all of my years as a private investigator I have never seen anything quite like this.
+++++The woman is clearly unconscious, but Columbus leads me into the corner to discuss terms. He withdraws a money-clip from the breast pocket of his navy blue blazer.
+++++“£1,000, Mr Rey. I will pay you a further £1,000 if the transfusion is successful, and my wife survives the procedure.”
+++++I nod, and pocket the wedge.
+++++“Burke Pangbourne is an ungodly man, Mr Rey, and as such I advise you to proceed with extreme caution.”
+++++“I’ve tracked down plenty of dangerous men in the past, Columbus. I’m not worried.”
+++++“With all due respect, you haven’t met my step-son.”
+++++He clears his throat.
+++++“I trust you will use your utmost discretion when tracking him down. I do not want the world to know that Ted Columbus has paid money for the procurement of a rent boy – even in these trying circumstances.”
+++++Now it’s my turn to look shocked.
+++++“Rent boy?”
+++++He nods.
+++++“Unfortunately, Burke never appreciated my attempts at career advice. Much to my chagrin, he chose his own path.”
+++++He dabs at his sweaty brow with a handkerchief.
+++++Abruptly, Columbus opens his jacket, revealing a shoulder holster.
+++++“If our little venture fails, Mr Rey, I will put a bullet in Audrey’s skull myself. Any good husband would… Leon will show you out.”
+++++The Gynaecologist melts out of the shadows and grips my elbow. He grins unpleasantly through small brown teeth, and I feel slightly sick.

***

In Thighs & Fries the plastic chairs are reserved for customers. I take one anyway.
+++++Good looking boys with bloodshot eyes employed to serve the chicken, but I have heard that most of them are on the books because of their other talents.
+++++The local chicken franchise is run by a man named Michael Millicent. He has served time in Channings Wood for procurement, molestation and other similarly unpleasant offences. Word has it that, back when he still used to trick out girls, he worked them so hard a couple of them developed gastrointestinal disorders and musculoskeletal problems. He sent them out to work anyway. One of them was his fucking niece.
+++++His business model changed after his jolt in the big house, and if I wanted to find a missing rent boy in this town I would roust him first, and roust him hardest.
+++++Millicent emerges from the kitchen and glares at me across the counter. He has a face like a character actor and hair like sweat-matted pubes. Even from across the room I can tell that his breath is rancid with brandy.
+++++“What the fuck do you want, Rey?”
+++++“It’s nice to see you too, Michael… Burke Pangbourne – is he one of your boys?”
+++++The low level of chicken-chatter behind the counter dissipates.
+++++“Sorry – never heard of him.”
+++++I know he is lying because his lips are moving.
+++++I grab a handful of his greasy chest hair and slam my forehead into his nose. He crumples like a takeaway carton – blood spraying across the grease-specked chrome counter.
+++++I look down at him. His eyes gleam like pools of raw sewage.
+++++I drag him to his feet by his hair. It feels disgusting.
+++++In the plate glass window I see reflected movement behind me. I yank Millicent round sharply and come face to face with one of his chickenheads, trembling and clutching a battered-looking pearl-handled revolver.
+++++“Put the piece down, kid – before you hurt someone.”
+++++He looks at Millicent, pleadingly, and I feel the pimp shrug slightly. I slam his face towards the gun and it clatters to the floor. Millicent lurches towards it – tearing a sweaty clump of hair out of his scalp in the process.
+++++He scrambles across the floor and fumbles for the gun. I stamp on his hands twice and leave him howling like a sick dog.
+++++I crouch down and retrieve the piece myself, dropping it into my jacket pocket.
+++++“Ready to try again, motherfucker?”
+++++“Alright, alright… He’s in the fucking Excelsior Hotel. He’s with a client. A high-roller called Dominguez. Knowing that rich bastard, they will be in the honeymoon suite.”
+++++“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
+++++He wipes his sleeve across his nose, smearing blood all over his face. Then he coughs up a streak of crimson phlegm on the floor.
+++++“If you cost me money, Rey, I will find you and I will hurt you.”
+++++I chuckle.
+++++“Not if I hurt you first.”
+++++I put my hand on the gun and back away from him slowly, keeping my eyes on Millicent’s boys. Now the adrenaline is fading, I feel as nervous as they look.
+++++I edge outside. The midday sun feels hot against my neck. I glance up at the swollen glare: it is the colour of a fake £1 coin.

***

I have fond memories of the Excelsior Hotel. My ex-wife and I spent our wedding night there. Not in the honeymoon suite, mind – in one of the cheaper, less appealing rooms. One of the ones overlooking the railway line and the litter-strewn hedge-rows.
+++++I take a seat in the lobby and pretend to flick through a week-old Herald Express I find on the coffee table. The hotel detective is an elderly man in an electric blue sports jacket and too-short slacks. He stands out like a wart on a freshly shaved pussy. From across the room I can see the bulge of his ankle holster. I can think of a number of hotels in this town that would be improved by a tooled-up hotel dick, but this place never struck me as one of them.
+++++Millicent’s pearl-handled revolver feels uncomfortable in my jacket pocket. I hope I don’t need it. Nobody needs to get shot today. If I fuck this up, the next hotel I set foot inside will almost certainly have bars on the fucking windows.
+++++I drift across the lobby, lurking behind the fake palm trees every time the rent-a-cop casts his rheumy eyes over the room. I take the service staircase rather than the lift.
+++++I knock on the door.
+++++“Room service.”
+++++The door opens a crack. It’s Burke Pangbourne. He has a blonde buzzcut. He is naked apart from his heart-shaped sunglasses. He looks happy.
+++++I slam my shoulder into the wood, sending him sprawling across the carpet.
+++++Dominguez is morbidly obese. He takes up most of the king-size bed. His has a doughy body and a pockmarked face. He is a wholly unappealing physical specimen. He doesn’t move an inch, and it crosses my mind that he is genuinely incapacitated.
+++++Burke slowly climbs to his feet, making no effort to cover his big dick.
+++++“Get dressed, kid. It’s time to go home. The old man has summoned you.”
+++++“Fuck him – and fuck you.”
+++++Out of the corner of my eye I see Dominguez pull a piece. It’s a tiny gun – the kind a hooker keeps in her handbag. He wedges his fat finger inside the trigger guard and squeezes. The bullet cracks the plaster above the door frame.
+++++“Hey!”
+++++Burke bolts past me – still stark naked – and heads towards the service exit at the end of the corridor. I fucking hate running.
+++++I glare at the fat man one more time and then take off after Burke.
+++++I take the service steps two at a time, and feel my lungs burn as I try to catch up with him.

***

The beach looks faded from the hotel rooftop. The town centre looks ugly and complicated.
+++++Burke is standing next to one of the industrial air vents, trembling.
+++++I take a step towards him. He doesn’t move an inch. I shuffle forward again.
+++++“Burke – it’s your mother – she’s dying. She needs your help. She needs your… blood.”
+++++He laughs bitterly.
+++++“She sure needs someone’s fucking help.”
+++++He steps towards the edge of the roof.
+++++“Listen, Burke. Let’s go back inside. Talk this through.”
+++++“Ted has had my mouth, he has had my arse. Now he wants my fucking blood? Fuck him.”
+++++Burke says something else, but his words are carried away by the summer breeze. He starts to chuckle as he steps forward – off the edge of the hotel roof.
+++++His laughter is the last thing I hear.
+++++Until the screaming starts.

Keepsake

I take the ear out of my pocket and slide it across the desk. Markus has been crying, on account of his dog, but he perks up at the sight of the ear.
+++++He smiles. His teeth are fucking shocking, his mouth a black hole of nicotined stumps and bleeding gums. I look away, towards the dog, a scrawny little mongrel called Lucky. Lucky’s ancient and flatulent, but he still has better teeth than Markus.
+++++Markus examines the ear, turning it over in his hands. He squeezes it and stretches it. Bangs it against the desk a couple of times.
+++++“I thought it’d be bigger,” he says, his eyes red from the crying. “You sure this is his?” He sniffs it, as if that might help.
+++++“I hacked it off with a box cutter,” I say. “Off the side of his head. I’m pretty sure it’s his.”
+++++Markus holds the ear up to the light, at arm’s length. You can almost see right through it.
+++++“You know what Vince was like,” he says. “Massive fucking ears. Taxi doors.”
+++++I’d never noticed Vince’s ears before. We’d worked a few jobs together, doing Markus’ dirty work, and I liked the guy. We talked, but not much. He said he had an ex-wife who was a nurse at St Mary’s and a kid he wasn’t allowed to see, but that was it. Vince didn’t say much, and that was fine by me.
+++++“Did he suffer?” Markus asks.
+++++“He suffered.”
+++++Markus nods. “Guys like Vince, they think they’re clever.” He smiles and tosses the ear into the corner. Lucky sniffs it and licks it, but half-heartedly. “But they’re not so clever.”
+++++Markus likes them to suffer. Pays extra if they suffer, and extra again if I bring him a little keepsake for Lucky. An ear, a nose, a thumb.
+++++I don’t tell Markus I shot Vince the second he walked into the basement. Back of the head. Didn’t need a box cutter because the ear came clean off. Ended up on the other side of the basement, in a puddle next to a leaking hot-water pipe. Wet, but intact.
+++++It didn’t take long to find the money, the hundred here and hundred there he’d been keeping for himself. I didn’t think he’d be that fucking dumb, to be honest. Not with Markus. Didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to stash it under his bed either. Nearly five grand.
+++++Markus leans forward, bony elbows on the desk. Something creaks: his elbows or the desk, I can’t tell.
+++++“What about the money?” he says, clicking his tongue and turning to Lucky.
+++++“Nothing,” I say. “Took a couple of the lads back to his place, little shithole he was renting near the station. Turned the place upside down. Nothing.”
+++++Markus shakes his head. He takes a filthy handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his eyes.
+++++“Look at him,” he says.
+++++I look at the dog. He’s sleeping, his eyes twitching.
+++++“Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?” Markus says. “Seeing him like that.”
+++++I nod. I want to leave, just so I don’t have to look at Lucky any more, or Markus.
+++++I’d like to say I did the right thing and dropped the money off at St Mary’s for Vince’s ex-wife and the kid he wasn’t allowed to see, but I didn’t. It’ll come in handy, when the time is right.
+++++Markus pokes his tongue into his gums, roots around in the rancid corners of that mouth. He winces and spits blood, before reaching into his jacket pocket again.
+++++He slides my money across the desk. Three grand. It’s a little light, but I take it. He looks away, deflated, and stares at the wall. His signal. Time for me to leave.
+++++He waits till I’m at the door.
+++++“Remember what I said,” he says.
+++++I turn back. Watch him dabbing his eyes with the handkerchief.
+++++“About what?” I say.
+++++“Guys like Vince. They’re not half as clever as they think they are.”

Home

I just wish she’d told me and I hadn’t found out about it in the pub. But that’s how it goes, something has to happen first before someone opens their mouth. I could’ve protected her if I’d known.
+++++I come over for the funeral. I can hardly remember the last time I was here. For an old girl she was quite handy with a computer, talked hours on Skype, and I watched her slowly grow old. She’d asked me a few times to come back home, but I was working, and avoiding the people I love.
+++++I got the phone call ten days ago from one of her neighbours. They’d called the police after nobody’d seen her for a week, and they found her lifeless body in bed. She’d passed away in her sleep.
+++++I’m staying in one of the holiday cottages. I’ve got two weeks to sort out her affairs. My boss wasn’t happy, but he knew he couldn’t stop me. She was the only family I had left.
+++++The first day I hire a skip, work my way through her possessions. Box the things I want to give to charity and throw the rest out. It’s raining and I’m soaked through to the skin, but it has to be done. I keep a few photographs, a watch that belonged to my father, nothing else. That night I fall asleep within seconds. The next night I go to the pub.
+++++It’s a Friday night. All the heavy drinkers are out, downing pint after pint. I take my beer and find an empty table in the corner. There’s only one chair left. The others have been taken by another table. There’s a group of about fifteen people. The guys are on pints of lager, the girls gin and tonic or something like that, playing some drinking game.
+++++“Next door up for sale yet?” somebody says.
+++++I prick up my ears.
+++++“No, but there’s a guy emptying the place. Boxes all over the house,” another one says. “Got myself a computer. Don’t think he noticed.”
+++++What the fuck? I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
+++++“Anything I might like?”
+++++“Dunno. Come over and have a look.”
+++++Both men are skinny. They have the same hair, same face. Fingers yellow from years of smoking. Brothers.
+++++“Remember Halloween?” the first one says. “The old bag nearly had a heart attack.”
+++++I want to go over and bury my fist in his face, but I stay where I am, drink my pint and listen, force myself to stay calm. They keep going like this, making fun of her, retelling stories of how they terrorised her. When I finish my drink, I’ve heard enough. I know what I have to do now.
+++++I get up and they look over. I don’t think the guy who lives beside her recognises me. I’d been wearing a rain jacket and baseball cap when I loaded the skip. I push past them and go straight to her house, wonder how the fuck they could’ve gotten in. I check the doors and windows. All are securely locked, nothing has been opened by force. I climb the stairs and open the hatch to the loft, pull down the ladder.
+++++The roof in the loft is high. There’s enough room to store the Christmas decorations and boxes of stuff she couldn’t bring herself to throw out. It’s behind there where I find the hole in the wall, leading directly into next door. I want to go through, have a look, but I don’t. I think about all the DNA I might leave behind, the fibres. I’m not stupid. I need to fix the hole, sell the house and go back home. I’d seen piles of bricks in the back garden from when her second husband was still alive. Bags of cement in the garage. I’d get right to it in the morning.
+++++I switch off all the lights. I know it’s just a matter of time before they come. I sit and wait, think about how they treated her, how she died on her own.
+++++It’s half past three when I hear them. They don’t make any attempt to be quiet. I’m ready. I can see the flashlight getting brighter, then the first one is through. Then the second — I hit him with a hammer, to the back of the head, and he goes down. Doesn’t move.
+++++The first one turns around.
+++++“You,” he says.
+++++I don’t let him say anything else, just do what I came for. With each blow I think of her. How frightened she must’ve been. The times she’d asked me to come back home, and I didn’t. I make it last, but at the end I just feel empty, and I’m ready to leave. In the morning I get the bricks and the cement.
+++++The cavity wall no longer has a cavity, but is beautifully finished off. There’s a new wooden floor. The old boards disposed of in the wood burner.
+++++The house sells in less than three weeks.

Fate Wears A Blindfold

I’m six foot four. I have a glass eye. I look like Steve Buscemi’s taller brother. By day I write film screenplays. By night I collect money for the mob. I am Manbag Bagman.
+++++And right now I’m going to be killed.
+++++All because of a dame.
+++++Marja.
+++++Polish for Maria. I call her Mire. As in quagmire. As in the Battle of the Somme. I wish she’d been a no – man’s land.
+++++I first met her a week ago. My boss, Ivor the Terrible sends me to Mountville Crescent, over on the Southside, to pick up a debt from Smalltime Limey. Smalltime Limey is a smalltime limey. Nicknames ain’t what they used to be.
+++++I blame the internet and social media myself.
+++++When I get there, there’s no sign of Smalltime- but she’s there. A goddess behind a plume of smoke. Well not that much smoke. Those e-cigarettes don’t cut it as far as I’m concerned. She tells me Smalltime has taken a powder. Blown town. But something about it doesn’t ring true. Like Smalltime’s hairpiece sticking out from that half-closed wardrobe door.
+++++“I don’t care what’s going on sister, Smalltime owes Terrible. Now hand over the dough.”
+++++Suddenly she lunges forward. E-cigarettes on human flesh? Child’s play. I push her back but with her left hand she’s already navigating towards my genital quarter. Major Tom is aroused. Before I know it we’re lost in a vortex of animal passion. I hoist her on my cement bag thighs, up against that half-closed wardrobe door. I thrust. She shrieks. Major Tom to Ground Control. Commencing countdown engines on.
+++++I withdraw after climax. She offers me an e-cigarette and Small time’s hairpiece falls on my still erect member.
+++++I start thinking. A man could do a lot with that dough. Like give him the time and space to develop as an artist. I’m tired of being an ‘emerging’ screenwriter. I want to exist in a post-emerged landscape.

***

We divvy up the 20G and go on the run. Not very far. Neither of us can drive. What are the chances?
+++++We decide to hitch.
+++++An hour later we are dropped off outside Tyrelldale. We find a small place where we hole up for a day or two. This is what happiness is. I’m writing. She’s smoking. And there is non-stop commencement of countdown engines.

***

One night in bed she thinks she hears something.
+++++“Maybe we should get out of here.”
+++++“No need.”
+++++“But what about Ivor the Terrible? Surely his men will be after us.”
+++++“No. He’s called Ivor the Terrible, because he is a terrible crime boss. He can’t organize anything. He probably doesn’t even know the money’s gone. You let me do all the worrying, baby.”
+++++I’m in love. And love does strange things to guys. Sometimes it hits you like a tornado. Other times it sneaks up on you like a tarantula. Marja is like a cross between a tornado and a tarantula. She is a force of nature with a rather small chest size.
+++++She looks over at me one evening.
+++++“What are you writing?”
+++++“A screenplay.”
+++++“What’s it called?”
+++++“Fate Wears a Blindfold.”
+++++“Oh. Let me guess. About some guy’s inability to control his destiny. That whole determinism versus free will stuff. Like some film noir. Sounds like old hat to me.”
+++++This doll surprises me. A philosopher, huh? And she knows about film noir. Not many people do anymore. A guy I know, once told me his favourite film noir was ‘Shaft’. There is so much idiocy in the world, nowadays.
+++++I blame the internet and social media myself.
+++++“So what’s the film about?” she wonders.
+++++I don’t answer. I suddenly feel inferior in her company. I don’t want her to think I lack depth as a writer. The screenplay is actually about a young girl called Fate who works in a circus and wears a blindfold during the knife-throwing act of her legendary father. The Great Daggero! Gee, maybe I’m wasting my time with this writing lark.
+++++I re-examine my approach to my work. Maybe I should take something from my real life. Write what you know they say. Maybe about looking like Steve Buscemi’s taller brother. With a glass eye.
+++++Next morning I’m on a roll. In my cocoon of creativity. That happens when you write. Don’t notice anything going on around you. Like when someone has a mauser 7.65 in your face. I look up. It’s Ivor the Terrible.
+++++“Your vaping vamp was in touch. She got bored with you. Did a runner. Took the dough with her. We’re going to have to kill you.”
+++++I look over at Ivor’s brother. Terry. The Terrible.
+++++“Wait a minute!” I say.
+++++But it’s too late. A shot rings out.
+++++I still think of Marja. She’s the reason I quit writing. Dumped my manbag the day after I left hospital. Ivor didn’t really shoot me in the face. More like the corner of the ear. Like I said, terrible at everything. I lead a normal life now. Well, sort of normal. I’m working for some lookalike agency.
+++++Why would anybody be interested in hiring somebody who looks like a tall Steve Buscemi with a glass eye?
+++++The world’s gone nuts.
+++++I blame the internet and social media myself.

Coyote

She crossed northwest of Sonoyta, just south of Ajo, in the Organ Pipe National Monument. Carli Echeverria was on the first leg of what would be a two-leg journey. After she made this drop, she’d make another run further north. To Tucson or Phoenix or Gila Bend.
+++++She looked over her shoulder, the rear window of the Nissan pickup pressed right up against her seat. The truck’s bed was just long enough for three small dog kennels. The first kennel, nearest the tailgate, held two dogs. The two kennels behind it were stuffed with blankets.
+++++Behind those blankets were people.
+++++Carli tried to fit five or six people in the two kennels with each load. Today, she had seven thanks to a couple of children making the run.
+++++After she picked the group up at a gas station in Sonoyta, they walked west toward the crossing point. The Nissan was tucked behind a collection of organ pipe that rose ten feet into the blue, desert sky. In her experience, getting to America was the easy part. Once there, she needed help. She relied on an old C.B. radio in the Nissan’s cab. If a lookout spotted Border Patrol, Carli would know. And she would adjust.
+++++They were on Highway 86 heading toward Three Points when Carli passed the spotter tower. Two weeks ago, the radio crackled just before she came across that same spotter tower. The lookout told her to hook a left and head further north down the dirt roads. A temporary checkpoint had been set up that day, and if not for the lookout, Carli would have been sent to secondary inspection. She would have been forced to sit while a dog sniffs up and down her truck, and they would have found her load.
+++++Not today. The highway was empty, quiet.
+++++Carli flipped down the Nissan’s visor and let a pair of aviator-style sunglasses fall into her hand. She put them on and pulled her white cowboy hat lower across her forehead. She watched the heat dance in waves across the recently paved highway.
+++++She wasn’t supposed to be there. Not in that moment. Not in that life. She was supposed to be better than her mother. And maybe she was. She was out here doing something while her mother was locked up. Or in the back bedroom of a one-room trailer with her legs in the air.
+++++She shouldn’t complain. The money was more than she’d ever make anywhere else. Even if she had gone to school—and goddamn, it seemed they gave scholarships away to Mexican girls just for checking the box that said “Latino”— she would never make the kind of money she was making now. Over time, she’d learned to convince herself what she did was just an adventure in the desert as she helped people to freedom.
+++++But it was hard to maintain that fantasy anytime she came across the charred body of a crosser who had succumbed to the heat.
+++++Most coyotes didn’t last more than a year. They needed quick money and got out when they had it. Or they stuck around too long and got caught. Carli, though, had made more runs in her time than every other runner in the crew combined. Yet, she could feel the weight of it lately. The ghost of the person she didn’t want to be was riding shotgun, and it was begging for the steering wheel.
+++++She watched the saguaros and barrel cactus slip past her on either side. She thought about the people she helped cross. They didn’t all make it, but everyone paid. Getting to America was never free.
+++++Carli kicked her boots together, letting her left heel run just above her right ankle. A reminder of the .22 tucked just inside her boot.
+++++She’d only had to use it once. Couple months back, a group tried to run on her as soon as they crossed into Arizona. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Carli rounded up this particular group, but one of the men tried to run again. She didn’t have a choice.
+++++After she put a round in his left triceps, the rest of the group fell in line. She caught hell when she dropped him at the stash house with a piece of his own shirt tied around the wound. She didn’t get paid at all on that run, which was bullshit. She’d delivered every one of them. Even if that big dumb fuck had a hole in his arm, he was alive.
+++++It was shit like that. Made Carli wonder if she could keep this up. You see so many things before your brain decides it can’t see them anymore. The real world was out there, waiting if she wanted it.
+++++She tapped the steering wheel and laughed, imagining what her responses might be now to job interview questions in the real world.
+++++“Tell us about a time you overcame a challenge.”
+++++“Well, I had to shoot a man just to make sure I got a job done.”
+++++“So you’re committed to your work then?”
+++++The smile faded as the thought slipped away. It was only going to get worse. There was a time when she thought she could control her life. Now, with every new job, every fight she had to have just to get paid, every horny old man trying to fuck little girls, it became clearer that the life controlled her.
+++++She tilted the rearview mirror toward her face. A few strands of black hair escaped the hat and dangled near her eyebrow. She was surprised by the wrinkles around her brown eyes.
+++++Carli shoved the mirror away and watched hints of a town spring up along the highway. A gas station. A small shopping plaza. Oases in the desert. The town barely existed.
+++++She turned down a dirt road and watched the dog kennels bounce as the truck fought the dips and divots. Eroded sand, baked under triple-digit heat, was hardly an excuse for a road. She passed a house every mile or so. Mobile homes parked on acres of land. Custom homes built decades ago. Constant reminders that Three Points was somewhere people chose to live.
+++++She parked the Nissan in a cleared lot south of what was meant to be a guest house. The main house was thirty yards to the north with an attached garage and a paved driveway—despite the nearest paved road being five or six miles back.
+++++She got everyone out of the dog kennels and led them to the guest house. She knew it’d be empty. A conveyor belt of order governed her life. One group cycled from the main house to a car or truck for the final run north. The group in the guest house moved to the main house to make room for the newbies.
+++++Carli unlocked the back door and led them in. The windows were barred. The front and back doors had multiple deadbolts. In the living room, she waited.
+++++In the beginning, she laughed at the reactions. She didn’t understand what they had expected when they agreed to let someone smuggle them into a foreign country. She used to feel powerful as these people saw their new home. Trash in every corner. Piss stains on the floors and walls. Shit swept into a single corner of the house. Now, she looked away.
+++++After leaving the group in the guest house, locking them in as she left, Carli backed the Nissan up the driveway toward the main house. The conveyor belt never stopped.
+++++The main house wasn’t much better than the guest house. The drywall had holes throughout—either from immigrants trying to punch their way out or an enforcer who just didn’t have the patience to watch another woman or child cry. As best Carli could tell, the benefit of being moved into the main house was the bucket. Like the guest house, there wasn’t any running water, but there was a five-gallon bucket in the living room.
+++++Leopoldo Ruiz ran the house. He was also second-in-command of the crew that worked with the cartel to smuggle people across the border. Carli considered herself more of an independent contractor, but she guessed Leo was technically her boss.
+++++She walked past the empty living room. Leo didn’t keep anyone in there anymore. Too much shit to clean up. Too big a space. He stuffed them all in the back two spare bedrooms. Carli made her way down the hall past the kitchen, toward the bedrooms.
+++++When she found him in one of the rooms, Leo was running his fingers through a teenage girl’s hair. The girl, like the rest of those in the room, was clad in just her underwear. A sweat-stained pair of panties and a tattered bra.
+++++The girl closed her eyes and turned her head as Leo whispered in her ear. Everyone else in the room pretended not to notice.
+++++“Having fun?” Carli asked, standing in the doorway.
+++++Leo jerked his head away from the girl and looked at Carli. “Si, siempre.”
+++++“Esa es tu novia?” Carli said.
+++++Leo pushed the girl away, and she huddled near the rest of the group. “Why you got to fuck up my mojo, Carli?” He stood and patted Carli on the shoulder as he passed by into the hallway.
+++++Carli followed him into the living room. “They ready?”
+++++“Ready as they will be,” Leo said. “As if my hospitality wasn’t good enough for them.” He spit on the floor, a mixture of tobacco and saliva that joined the other stains on the bare concrete.
+++++“Send them out then.”

***

Carli locked the two dog kennels in the bed of the Nissan. She slid the third one—the one with the dogs—back toward the tailgate, concealing her load as much as possible. The dogs barked until Carli slammed her fist down on top of the kennel. She looked into the two kennels full of people and did a quick count.
+++++Missing one.
+++++“Fucking Leo,” she muttered, looking back at the main house.
+++++Her boots clicked against the cracked cement driveway on her way back into the house. She scanned the property one more time before entering. No tracks nearby. No movement. Just empty, brown, dusty desert. The neighbors weren’t much of a problem because of the distance, but she didn’t want some kids on four-wheelers romping through here and catching a glimpse of something they shouldn’t see.
+++++Inside the house, Carli yelled for Leo. He didn’t respond. She shook her head as she went down the hallway. He wasn’t in either of the two spare bedrooms, so she stepped into the master. Leo was straddling the teenage girl. Her bra was flipped up near her throat, and Leo was staring at her breasts. He touched her stomach. Then her cheek. The girl squirmed, but she didn’t scream.
+++++“Jesus Christ, Leo,” Carli said. “I need a full load.”
+++++Leo laughed. “You don’t need shit.”
+++++“She paid, right?”
+++++“Sure. Her family wired the money a couple days ago.” Leo squeezed the girl’s cheeks until she cried out, kissed her on the lips. “But fucking look at her. Qué bonita.”
+++++Carli’s face felt hot. Her hand began to shake. “I need her. I’ve got to make the final drop.”
+++++Leo shook his head. “You’re not getting it. This one’s worth more. More than what her family already paid. The way I see it, I’ve got two options that’ll make us some extra cash. We rent her out—you know these old white fucks around here will pay for her. Or, we ransom her. Tell her family she’s going to be fucked six ways from Sunday if they don’t pay extra. A beauty tax. What d’ya think?”
+++++She watched Leo licking the girl’s ear and wondered how she’d been able to put up with this shit for so long. It wasn’t just Leo, and it wasn’t just the girl. Carli was a professional. She wanted things done right and on time. Leo fucking this girl was not part of the plan.
+++++Leo winked and told Carli to get the fuck out, but Carli stood in the doorway. She should leave. She should make her run north, but her face was getting hotter. If Leo made more money off the girl, it didn’t mean more in Carli’s pocket. Just Leo’s. In fact, her cut at the final drop would be less. She’d let shit like that slide too often.
+++++She felt the sweat on her forehead. Her hand trembled noticeably now. Turn around, she thought. Go. But she didn’t.
+++++“Leo, I’m serious. I need the girl for this run.”
+++++Leo stood and squared himself in front of Carli. “You don’t fucking tell me what you need, bitch. I tell you what I need. I need you to get the fuck out of here unless you want this to turn into a three-way.”
+++++Carli thought about hitting him, but she stepped toward the girl instead. Leo shoved her in the chest, and Carli stumbled then tripped and fell to the floor. She was up in a second. The heat from her face moved to her eyes, and everything went white for a second. She backed up a step, bent over, pulled the .22 from her ankle holster, and pointed it at Leo. He took a step back, but Carli was already firing.
+++++The first bullet hit Leo in the shoulder and he fell near the girl. The second sailed high. Leo tried to slide backward away from Carli. He held both hands in front of his face. Carli stepped across the room, but she felt like she wasn’t doing it. She felt like she was watching herself. Like she was hovering outside her body, unable to stop what was about to happen.
+++++Carli pointed the .22 at Leo’s forehead and pulled the trigger one more time.
+++++She blinked away the white heat as the gunshots echoed in her ears. When the ringing subsided, she holstered her gun and turned. The girl had folded herself into a ball in the corner. Carli looked back at Leo.
+++++“Fuck,” she said then punched the floor.
+++++She could run, but the girl was there. Terrified. “Esta bien,” Carli said. “Estás seguro.”
+++++She helped the girl to her feet and asked her name.
+++++“Mitra,” the girl replied.
+++++Carli pointed at the girl’s upturned bra. “Pon eso de nuevo.”
+++++They left the room together. The girl didn’t say anything, but she stood close to Carli. The run was over. Carli couldn’t take them all to the final drop. Word would get out. Someone would be waiting for her if she went north.
+++++“Dónde está la ropa?” Carli asked.
+++++Mitra pointed toward a bathroom set off from the living room. Carli followed her and found the group’s clothes thrown in a bathtub that was black with mold. She helped Mitra get dressed and gather the clothes then pointed her out the front door.
+++++In the driveway, Carli hesitated when she got to the dog kennels. She could leave them there. Maybe that’d soften the blow. No, she thought. No amount of goodwill now would change the end game.
+++++She unlatched the dog kennels with people inside. Five immigrants climbed out, confused. Two women and three men. Carli helped them down from the truck. Mitra passed out the clothing, and they all dressed.
+++++“No puedo tomar,” Carli said.
+++++Carli remembered the group in the guest house. She ran to the guest house and threw open each lock. She led the group she had just dropped off back out of the house.
+++++“Todos ustedes tienen que ir por su cuenta.”
+++++No one moved.
+++++Sal de aquí,” she yelled.
+++++After another moment of silent looks between each other, the group started to move. They began a trek toward the open desert, away from the main road. Carli grabbed Mitra by the elbow and held her back.
+++++“Quédate conmig,” Carli said.
+++++There was money in the stash house but not enough. Carli didn’t think there would ever be enough money to keep her alive after what she did. She lifted her hat, pushed her hair back, and closed her eyes. Behind closed lids, she saw Leo bleeding on the floor. She opened her eyes and pushed Mitra toward the main house again. Money bought a lot of things. If it couldn’t buy her life, it could extend it.
+++++Back inside the house, Carli led Mitra to the middle of the living room and told her to stay put. She went to the refrigerator and pulled open the door. The light inside had probably been out for years. There was a box of baking soda on the top shelf. Other than that, the entire thing was seemingly empty. Except the bottom drawer. It was covered with black electrical tape. As if keeping someone from seeing into the drawer was enough to keep the person from opening it. Nice, Leo, Carli thought.
+++++Carli pulled the drawer open and found three large envelopes. She ripped them open one at a time and lined her pockets. She stuffed as much cash into her pants as she could, but there was still a lot left over.
+++++She called over her shoulder for Mitra. She told the girl she wouldn’t hurt her if she helped. When Mitra came over, Carli began handing over stacks of cash. She pointed to the pockets of Mitra’s jeans, and the girl began stuffing. When all the money had been emptied from the envelopes, Carli walked Mitra back out front.
+++++When they returned to the driveway outside the house, the rest of the group had vanished. If they were nearby, they had become invisible. Silent. Carli smiled. She could disappear, too. For a while, at least.
+++++She couldn’t run, so she thought about the next best thing. A safe place to hide.
+++++She looked at the Nissan. She’d have to leave it here. Too many people in her crew and in the cartel knew it. She might have to steal a car. Or maybe she’d let her hair fall down her back, let her hips sway a little more, and walk along the highway with her thumb out. Whatever she did, she’d make it, and Mitra was coming with. Leo’s beauty tax plan wasn’t half-bad, after all.
+++++Carli pulled her hat low, watching the sun sink behind Kitt Peak. She took Mitra by the arm, and they walked. She was going home.

Windows

When us kids got wild, my mother would say, “tear the house down and throw it out the window.”  To calm us down we were sometimes put in front of the TV.  I would watch a cartoon where the Tasmanian Devil would unzip his skin and step out of it.  He was really Bugs Bunny on the inside all along.
+++++As I set fire to an anthill, I would pray that I was Bugs Bunny inside all along too.  The clock ticked no slower or quicker because of any of it.  I committed many such deeds.  Some of those around me said my behavior would have made the painting of Dorian Gray wither with a blush.
+++++Burning up small animals was all the rage with a few of my mates.  Personally I couldn’t see it.  Animals in the open required no fire to free them.  But I did use a high pressure hose to shoot diesel fuel into a rattlesnake den, and then apply the match.  I found out that snakes have a voice after all; they do not simply hiss.  They can howl if they need to.
+++++I did not care for things that hid inside where I could not get to them.  Fire was my solution for this problem.  As the fire burns, it learns singleness of purpose, economy of thought.  A rampaging grizzly bear in the forest did not bother me.  A rabbit cowering in a hole made my blood erupt.
+++++I had dreams that I was on an airplane when the cabin pressure was lost and the doors opened above the seats to drop the oxygen masks.  Only no oxygen masks fell.  The doors opened and hissing snakes dropped into the laps of the passengers.  Following protocol, people would fasten the snake to the throat of their small child first, before applying their own.   As this was happening I would gaze out the window of the plane, upon a seemingly tranquil sea that floated below us.  Just beneath the peaceful surface I could see the hidden animals; they roiled in a blood red stew of hatred and rage.
+++++I spent many nights standing naked before a mirror, examining myself.  The room was dark but the light from a neon sign blinked through the window, creating a strobe effect.  I could not find the zipper that would allow Bugs Bunny to step out.  I looked and I looked.  When a little dung beetle crawled up from a crack in the floorboards I crushed his tiny shell between my thumb and forefinger.  I felt like I was squeezing a handful of tinsel into a tight, hard ball so that I could throw it at the Christmas tree.  But the insect didn’t have Bugs Bunny either.
+++++One night when no one was home except my little sister, I tied her into a kitchen chair and sat her with her face just inches from the burner on the stove.  First I let the burner get red hot. Placing a cast iron skillet on the glowing stovetop, I poured in a half cup of vegetable oil and as it heated up I threw in a handful of popping corn.  The oil began to boil and pop and spit, and that was before the corn even made it to temperature.  When the corn started to pop and fly from the skillet, leaving tiny trails of scorching oil in the air, I clapped my hands.  Most nights my sister would lock herself in her room and stay where I couldn’t get to her.  Tonight she was howling like a snake.  When the howling stopped, I turned off the stove.  It was time to leave.
+++++Now I work my way along the interstate.  Truckers will give me rides – a young boy with a baby face, a little cowlick  in his brown mop of hair, why not give the kid a lift?  After all he only has Bugs Bunny inside of him.  I look out the window of the truck as we move along the road, and I pass the time thinking about the huge petroleum tanks on the truck rupturing in the ditch during a crash, right next to the herd of terrified cattle trapped against the fence.
+++++I never travel without a clean white handkerchief (like my mother always said), and clean underwear, and a new box of dry wooden matches.  Sometimes as I walk the highways in between rides there will be a little farmhouse just off the road.  I might sneak over and peek in a window to see the people inside.  They are inside where I can’t really get to them.  When I see this it makes me lose myself in a dream.
+++++In the dream I am inside the house with the people; I am not locked outside in the cold.  The people are like my family.  I will stand in the middle of the living room with the parents and the children and even the dog as they all huddle around me, as if for warmth.
+++++I will find the zipper finally, the zipper that keeps me closed up.  And I unzip it right there, in the room, with the family watching.  I’m sure the children are fond of cartoons and are waiting for Bugs Bunny to step out.
+++++But Bugs Bunny still isn’t coming out.  Instead it is a man of flame and he explodes into the room with such a flourish that before anyone can shout or even breathe, the house is engulfed and there is heat and howling and ashes and then absolution.
+++++When it is all done and the fire is out I step back into my skin and zipper up.  The house is mostly gone but there is a charred wall still standing with a window in it.  So I begin to throw the house out through the window.  The rain has begun and ashes and fragments slip across the soil, crawling like a narrow serpent – a serpent finally escaping the den.
+++++I find that it is a nice dream, when I can have it.

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