The Loss

Fuck.  How much had he had to drink last night?  Shit, had he passed out on the toilet?  His head rolled from side to side, the room swum; at least he had his boxers on, green and white stripes, no piss stains on the crotch, hooray for small miracles.  He shook his head, drool dripped out his mouth and landed on his knee.  What the hell had happened last night?
+++++He tried to stand up.  Ugh, what was that?  He tried again.  No.  His arms were dead, his legs felt like he had just run a marathon, his head dazed; none of that mattered.  He was tied up.
+++++Rope was tied around his wrists and elbows.  Yellow and bristly it cut his skin but only when he flexed or tried to sit up, there was a little slack there.  His legs were tied tighter, he couldn’t see with what but it was some type of cord, wrapped right under his knee and around his ankles.  He was tied to a chair.
+++++He looked around.  It was dark, not pitch black.  He could already see better than when he first opened his eyes.  In front of him, a bit to the left, the outline of a door, slightly cracked, light pouring thru the corners.  Sunlight.
+++++To the right of the door was metallic and dirty, the garage door.  To the right black plastered to the wall.  Trash bag.  Someone had taped a trash bag over the window.  He turned his head all around, at least as much as he could, dusty red, a car behind him.  He looked back to the window.
+++++Why did the trash bag over the window scare him more than the ropes around his wrists?  Premeditation.  It definitely would take several odd series of events to tie someone up but the fact that this person had a ready-made place to keep him scuttled the spur of the moment kidnapping.
+++++Or did it?  Bags over the windows could be that his captor didn’t want people looking in, or it could mean that the glass had cracks in it and they didn’t want the elements coming in.  He shouldn’t start ascribing malicious intent to everything around him.  Except of course being tied up to a chair, that was malicious.
+++++He grinned, good to keep a sense of humor, situation wasn’t ideal but panicking wasn’t going to help.  He paused, why exactly wasn’t he panicking more?  He was calmly looking around, cracking private jokes, occasionally swearing and that was it.  He was glad he wasn’t screaming or anything but an elevated heart rate would help.
+++++He had been drugged, he felt like he did after he had got his wisdom teeth taken out.  The ropes seemed impossible to break but he was in no position to do anything right now.  At the bar?  Yes, that made the most sense.  Shit, was it still night?  He had no reference for time, had he been out for… stupid.  The sunlight, it was morning, at least.  What did that tell him?
+++++That whoever had done this was serious.  As unlikely as a prank as this was, as it definitely had broken several laws, keeping someone for the night seemed to discount the prank idea.  His chest was cool with sweat but it had no crude slurs written on him in marker.  No mirror so he couldn’t check but he doubted that there was a phallic image drawn on his face.  He sighed, no prank.
+++++He blinked, stuck his tongue out, and licked his lips.  There it was, that moment when the Vicodin or laughing gas wears off, he was back.  Hooray.  He was also in his underwear tied to a chair in a garage.  He lifted his arms up again, at least as much as he could.  Midway between the wrists and elbow he was getting less than an inch, shit, he was getting nothing, though he could feel that the left was slightly weaker.
+++++He tried moving forward.  More movement there, his chest wasn’t tied so he could lean forward.  He did that several times.  He stopped.  That was getting nowhere; all he was getting was a better view of the floor, cracked cement with stains.
+++++Not blood he told himself, not blood.  No, clearly not blood, it was just light discoloration, not the copper tinged splotch blood would have surely left.  He checked his legs again.  There!  His ankles were tight, tighter than the wrists, but his right knee had hope.  He couldn’t move forward for shit but he could lift it up towards his face a bit.  If not for the ankle he might be able to bring it out of the rope.
+++++Rope and cord.  Two different types.  This was the persons first time, they had the foresight to block the windows but not have enough rope on hand.  Or to shut the door completely.  Or to use a basement instead of a garage.  He might be able to talk his way out.
+++++Talk his way out?  That can’t be the plan he thought.  That was stupid, lazy, and cowardly.  Yes, if someone came, the fact he wasn’t dead yet and had been passed out for at least eight hours, he stood somewhat of a chance of talking his way out of it but that couldn’t be plan A.  He needed to get out.
+++++He took a breath, with each passing moment he was feeling stronger.  His limbs still felt a little weird, lack of circulation or drug side effects who cared?  He felt good now, his mouth wasn’t open, his eyes were focused, his limbs, while tied up, were not limp.  This was it.  He flexed his right leg and lifted, he sucked in, moved his arms up… all of one inch.  He exhaled.  The ropes and cords were too tight, wrapped around the chair.
+++++The chair!  That’s what he had to do, break the chair.  It was wooden.  He looked over to the right.  The table with tools was his best bet for getting a weapon to defend himself but there was no saw laying fortuitously off the edge nor a vice grip attached to the edge, nothing to ram his chair against.  Could he even stand though?  He smiled.  He kept on answering his own questions.  He wondered if it was his hobby that made him so analytical, so careful.  Probably.
+++++He looked to the left, looked to the right.  Nothing in his way.  Forwards meant face first and behind was a car.  Go left, to where the table was.  He tilted his head to the right, no point in knocking himself out.  He lifted his left arm up, as much as he could.  Took a deep breath and rocked to the left, a tilt, more, one more, he felt himself falling…
+++++…”Fuck.”  He had hit the ground hard, moving his head to the right hadn’t really helped, his head had just whiplashed to the ground.  He blinked, it hurt but that was it.  His head was the last thing he needed to be worried about.
+++++He had heard a crack, though it could have just been the thud of impact.  He had landed perfectly on his left side, too perfect, he was exactly on his left side.  If there had been any change on the left side of the chairs structure he couldn’t tell, he was stuck, sideways like a turtle on its shell.
+++++He twisted again; he closed his eyes, bam.  Another hit to the head.  Now he was face forward on the ground, ass in the air, chair stuck to his back.  For a brief moment he felt like laughing.  He moved his arm.  He gave into the urge and let out a little laugh.
+++++There!  His right arm.  Movement.  It was the wrist, the elbow was still tight.  He should have gone to the right; his left arm was still as immobile as ever.  He tried moving his legs, it was hard, from this angle he couldn’t try to stand, he could only try to push.  His right leg definitely had more slack now; if he could get right side up he might be able to…. No, his ankle was still stuck, though the left seemed like it had some give to it.
+++++Smile.  A little give here, a little loosening there, he could roll over to the left, roll to the right and continue doing that over and over again until he was free.  His head was on the ground, it didn’t hurt but blood was rushing up there and given the drugs he had taken he needed to be careful, rolling around and knocking himself out wasn’t going to help.  This one he didn’t need to worry about, a shift to the left or right would have his head away from the ground, looking at a sideways prison.  So, left and loosen the ankle more or right and loosen the upper leg and wrist?  Either way would be fine but he needed to…
+++++Slam.  A door.  His first instinct was to shout out, help, come here, anything.  He held his tongue.  The door was really close.  He heard the crunch crunch crunch of leaves being stepped on.  His stomach tightened.  The door opened.  He closed his eyes.

***

A soft kick to his shoulder.  “I know you are awake.”  His eyes remained closed.  Don’t let them know anything.  A sigh, the footsteps walked away, outside?  No, to the bench, they came back.  Cold metal pressed up against his cheek.  He grimaced but kept his eyes shut.
+++++“I heard you, I heard you,” reverberated through his ear and the garage.  “You said fuck and were trying to escape.”
+++++He opened his eyes, not metal but plastic, a walkie talkie pressed up against his ear, his captor spoke into the other one.  The walkie talkie was set down; now something metal was placed against his face.  A knife.
+++++“I’m going to prop you up, if you try anything I’ll cut you, understand?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++A pause.  “Are the ropes loose?”
+++++“No.”
+++++Tug.  Tug.  His captor checked all, let out a little hmmph.  He struggled not to smile, by checking it loosened his right a little more.  He wasn’t mobile yet nor did he have an arm free but he was closer.  Time, he needed time.
+++++He was grabbed, struggled with, his captor was not strong, a grunt and there, he was upright, no, he almost fell to the left, he jerked out and his captor steadied him.
+++++The husky voice and situation he was in had  clouded his mind.  Husky, but not deep.  He hoped his face didn’t betray his excitement.  His captor was a female.
+++++She grabbed the chair next to the table and sat it in front of him.  She went back to the table and grabbed a small duffel bag and set it by the chair.  She sat down.  Tall and big for a girl, he figured five nine somewhere near two hundred.  Large shoulders for a girl, maybe she played volleyball or basketball in high school but she still had a pear shape and dollars to donuts she hated her ass.
+++++Dark brown hair cropped short and pushed to the side, he hated that look.  Most every girl who had it either regretted it or was a lesbian.  Maybe both.  Her clothes weren’t helping her case, who wore sweaters like that anymore?  Certainly none of the straight girls that frequented the bars he went to.  But weren’t gays supposed to care about their appearance or was that just guys?  Careful here, she might be a chunky girl with a bad haircut but she still had the upper hand.
+++++“So Alex,” she said, leaning forward, “how’s it going?”  Say nothing until you know what kind of game you are playing he reminded himself.  “Heh, stupid question right.  God, I’ve wanted this for so long and I don’t even know what to say to you.  I set up the walkie talkie because I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as you, you horrible little…” She caught her breath, gripped her knees and looked down.  If he had his arm free he could reach out and finish her.  He flexed, a little better, he needed to prolong this conversation.  She had let him know she wasn’t violent but also that she was angry with him.
+++++“Okay, let’s try again.  Alex, I’m using your name, do you know how?”
+++++“Uhh, wallet?”
+++++“Nope, wallet is still in pants.”
+++++“I said it last night?”
+++++“Nope.”
+++++“Don’t know how then.”
+++++“I’ve been following you; have now for the past two weeks.  Been to your apartment, inside in fact.  Yes that’s right; I’m not the only one breaking the law here.”
+++++His breath caught, he offered up what he hoped was a puzzled glance.
+++++“You do know why I’m following you, right?”
+++++“No. I mean, I’m flattered but…”
+++++“Stop, just stop,” she snapped.  “I am not attracted to you, you are scum.  Lying rotten scum, though you put up a good act, I can see how you were able to fool the cops.”
+++++“Oh geeze that, no, you can talk with them, I wasn’t anywhere near the park that night, I mean a block away but so was…”
+++++“But nothing, you raped and killed her.  Along with four other beautiful young women.”
+++++“I was at the bar with her, I don’t know when she left, I went outside for a smoke and I came back in like five minutes.  My waitress remembers that, it’s not like I was gone for thirty minutes or something.”
+++++“No, but you were gone long enough and you did kill her.”
+++++“Look.” He paused, she didn’t give a name, he continued, “I told the cops this, they checked it out and it checked out, there were a lot of other guys at the bar.”
+++++“But only you match the description.”
+++++“You weren’t there, I don’t know what you’ve heard but take it from me, there were several other white guys in their mid-twenties with brown hair and a slight build, whatever that’s supposed to mean” he said with a chuckle.
+++++“You are good.  I wonder if you’ve rehearsed this or are you just playing it by ear?  Not that I’d believe you if you told me.  I know you’re lying, I guess I just wanted to see if you would lie.”  She reached down into the duffel bag and pulled out a necklace.  “She was wearing this the night you killed her.  Heather Robinskie, the fourth girl, I gave this to her.”
+++++“You broke into my apartment and found a necklace that is similar to one you gave your uh, friend and…”
+++++“It’s the same, it’s the goddamn same, there’s a scratch on this that’s just the same as hers, she got it, never mind, I’m not telling you the reason, you took her life, you don’t get to have her history.  Did your ex-girlfriend leave three other pieces of jewelry in a box you keep in your dresser?”
+++++There it was.  She had stalked him, she had gotten evidence, and she had captured him.  All because she knew that slut?  The Calendar Killer done in by some dyke.
+++++“Then call the police, I’m sure they could do a DNA test, fingerprint analysis, something that…”
+++++“And then it gets tossed because I broke in, no, I don’t think so Alex.”
+++++“So…” he asked, regretting it immediately.  The perfect opening for her to cackle about torture or murder.
+++++“I see it on your face; you think I’m going to kill you.  Well, I’m not you, I don’t kill.  I do want you to hurt.  I want to stop you.  Any physical pain you receive is a merely a  byproduct.”
+++++“So, what then” he asked, hoping his question landed him on safer ground.
+++++“We talk.  You about Heather.  And Catherine.  About Kelsey and June.  About why.  And I’ll talk about what it did to me and all her loved ones.”
+++++“You want me to confess.”
+++++“That’s the idea.”

***

He sat in silence.  Let her think it was his reluctance to confess.  He had been dying to tell someone.  The problem was not the tape recorder she had either in her bag or on the table, that was an easily solved problem.  The problem was her.  Was she really not going to hurt him?  He bit his lip, she raised her eyes, he struggled not to laugh.  I’m not grappling with my conscience you dumb bitch, I don’t know if you’re going to hurt me or not he thought.
+++++The way she had said she wasn’t going to kill him was with the same smug superiority vegans announced their lunch plans, the way nonsmokers passed on a cig; the way bitches had refused him.  As if the idea was beneath him.  He breathed in, and twisted a bit.  Arm was still tight, her eyes on him, maybe he wouldn’t even need another fall if the dumb cow wasn’t going take her eyes off of him.  Story time.
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“Yes what?”
+++++“Yes, I killed them, I’m the uh, Calendar Killer.”  He tried to back up; the look on her face was not one of approval, why had he said that?
+++++“Go on, I swear, I am not going to kill you.”  She looked him square in the eye, “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.”
+++++Alex smiled, her look of disgust returned.  It was better than laughing.  That last line had been recited.  He wondered how many arguments had she thought she had won by delivering that line?  He shook his head, he had been captured by an overweight liberal slogan spouting dyke.  He only needed his legs free, he doubted she could even throw a punch, he could just ram her against the wall.  And then later?  No, she was definitely lesbian by choice.  What guy would want her?  You don’t need to rape every girl you kill he told himself, valiantly suppressing a smile.
+++++“Uh yeah, so what do you want to hear?”
+++++“Heather.”
+++++He could see the shake in her shoulders, the hitch in her voice.  Ideals were just that, don’t give her a reason to give them up.  “Uh, last girl, the one by the dumpsters, right?”  She nodded.  Stupid broad, he was already laying the seeds to get out.  “Well uh, I uh saw her walking down the street, I followed her and uh grabbed her and uh killed her I guess.”
+++++“Why do you rape, why do you kill?”  Her voice was small and whining, he was in control.
+++++“Hmm” he paused, wait a couple seconds here.  Important to do that.  He couldn’t sound too eager but how exhilarating was this?  Being able to tell someone finally.  “It started with uh a neighbor at an apartment.  She wanted me to help her move and I uh, after I was done with her sofa, I uh, raped her.”
+++++“What a gentleman.”  She shook her head, “I asked” she muttered to herself, “Go on.”
+++++That you did.  It felt so good to talk about; he couldn’t tell the whole truth of course.  He hadn’t raped the bitch in two twelve.  He had gotten the slut in one eighteen, friends apartment, drunkenly fumbling for her keys.  He was, ha, the gentleman.  “Yeah, well, after that I uhm, let’s see, got worried so next time I killed so there would be no witnesses.”
+++++“Catherine, her name was Catherine.”
+++++“Her, no, she was my second.  My first was this skinny little bitch from across the street, bad dye job and uh…”
+++++“Fuck you.”
+++++Alex didn’t bother hiding the smile now, he was in complete control now, he was talking of killing her friend, of raping other women, insulting her and she was doing nothing.  Christ, she’d probably let him go.  Then the real fun could start.  “Anyway, she was my first kill but I buried the body, didn’t want to get caught but that was no good, took too long.”
+++++“What was her name?”  He shrugged.  “Well do you at least remember where you buried her?”
+++++“Oh sure, ten steps away from the signpost in Nolan Woods, going toward the street, can’t miss it.”  Of course you couldn’t, he played there all the time as a kid.  And there was no dead woman there.  See detective, I was just humoring her.
+++++“Okay.  Why the deal with the dates?”
+++++He had gotten away with it!  The non-existent dead girl.  Could he tell the truth here?  He supposed he could, or at least close to it.  “Uh first two uh, just kinda happened by accident and after that uh, I just rolled with it.”
+++++She glared at him.  “You’re telling me that the dates, how everything just fits, it’s just coincidence?”
+++++Yes!  I had no idea that the first two had birthdays two months apart.  I knew I was killing four months apart but I didn’t think that’d be that strange, seventeen is just a lucky number.  After that I decided to have fun with it.  And the last girl, June?  Only because I couldn’t find a May.  They think I’m some nutjob; I’m just going with what they gave me.  They have numerologists trying to find out my next move.  I can do what I want whenever I want because they think I’m going on some set schedule and whenever I do kill next they’ll make it fit their theory.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m having a blast.  If I could find some twins I’d kill them on the goddamn winter solstice and watch their heads explode.
+++++Alex sighed.  “I don’t know what to tell you, that’s the truth.”
+++++“Okay my turn.  You killed my roommate and best friend, oh fuck you.  She wasn’t a lesbian, she liked me for who I was and I her.  She didn’t have a boyfriend.  There was a guy at work, I didn’t really like him, but it would’ve happened.  You killed her and you took away a four month relationship that she would’ve learned from.  You killed everything that would have ever happened to her, good or bad.”
+++++“We were going to go tubing that weekend.  Going to barbeque with the rest of her friends afterward.  I can’t see watersports without thinking about her.  I can’t see hot dogs and hamburgers without thinking about her.  Or eggplant because Lyssa and Amy were bringing that.  Anything pink, because her mom survived breast cancer and had to bury a daughter.  A raped brutalized daughter.”
+++++“It’s not just birthdays or holidays, it’s every day.  Everything.  A TV show we didn’t like, I remember how we laughed at it.  Frozen dinners, dogs, the color yellow.  It’s not just the stuff she liked, or disliked, it’s what we shared.  And you took that from me.”
+++++And you say you guys weren’t lesbians.  Maybe not her, but you wish you had what I have; a dick.  And you wish that you had used it on your friend.
+++++“Anything, do you have anything to say?”
+++++“Uh, sorry for your loss.”
+++++“The loss that you made.”
+++++“Uh yeah, sorry.”
+++++“I don’t believe you.  Are you turning yourself in?  Seeking help?  Suicide because you can’t live with yourself?”
+++++“No, guess not.”
+++++“You’re just sorry that I caught you.”
+++++“Yeah, so how did you, I mean the newspapers didn’t print my name or anything.”
+++++“Didn’t see me coming did you?  I succeeded where they failed.”  A triumphant grin.  Whatever, keep smiling bitch, he now had space between his arm and the chair.  Ten more minutes, tops.  “No, not a name, but I talked with the victims friends, with witnesses, not just the witnesses that talked with the police but everyone and your face kept popping up.”
+++++“The description is vague.”
+++++“Not your car, and once it came up twice, well pretty easy from there.   I even had help from a, well I guess I shouldn’t say her name, she was sure you were innocent but she didn’t mind me ‘playing Nancy Drew’ as she put it.”
+++++There it was!  A cop or at least someone working in the police department.  Harassment.  He could sue.  Or, threaten to sue because he didn’t want them looking to close into him anymore than they wanted a lawsuit.
+++++“Huh.”
+++++“Pretty much, I think we are done with the interview, I know what I want to know, and that is that you are unrepentant in all aspects, you think only of yourself.”  He nodded.  “Never turn yourself in, never kill yourself, right?”  He nodded.  “You will rape and kill again, you are twenty four, let’s say you go to jail for sixty years, you’ll be eighty four, who knows if you will get it up, but I know you’ll try.”
+++++“Wait a sec, you said you weren’t going to kill me” he cried, backing his chair into the car.  “No please, if you hurt me the tape will be worthless” he cried as she reached into her duffel bag.
+++++She looked up puzzled, “Tape?  If I was recording you it’d be worthless because you’re under duress” she said as she plunged a needle into his leg.  He screamed and shook, she pushed the top and the liquid emptied into him.
+++++“You promised” he said stupidly, head already spinning.

***

Whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  He opened his eyes.  Grass.  White door.  Garage door.  He was in the garage again?  He looked around, grass and trees everywhere.  No, he was outside the garage.  Trees to the left, it looked like a forest.  A house was far away to his right.  Go to the forest when you get your legs under you.
+++++Whrrrrrrrrrrr.  He looked up.  There she was, by a woodchipper.  She turned it off.  He  grinned, he wouldn’t need to run.  He looked to the house once more, no one was outside, the windows were dark.  Groggy or not there was no chair, no ropes.  He pushed himself up and fell down.
+++++“Even without thumbs I could get a good grip when I practiced” she said flexing her fingers with her thumbs tucked into her palms.  “When I went like this,  I couldn’t grasp the neck at all, I could still hold a key and a fork, so you’ll be fine on that, not too much power though so I don’t think stabbing is a concern.”  She held her hands up with her thumbs against her palms and the ring finger halfway down; he looked down at his fingers, white gauze covered his stumps.
+++++She grabbed a bag by her feet.  White plastic with a small red lump sagging down.  It looks like the bag dog owners put their crap in he thought.  Except it’s my thumb and finger.  Part of finger.  Partial finger?  This didn’t matter, was it the drugs or shock from blood loss?  He tried to stand again and fell on his ass, sitting like a rapt kid listening to a story she continued.
+++++“Your murdering tools, your digits, I have taken them from you” she said dramatically.  Going from a prepared statement, she’d be prone to a rush.  She might have a weapon but, and he checked once more, no one else was here.  No one was hiding, if she had recruited anyone else they would’ve shown themselves.  He blinked.  Just like before he was coming to.  He’d have a chance, a moment and he’d rush her.  A syringe wouldn’t help her now.  She paused and looked in the bag.  That smug look, did she think that a little disability would save her?  He bit his lip, good he could feel it.  Soon so would she and…
+++++“Testicles, now they provide the sex drive.  I left you those.  I want you to know that you are being punished with what you can’t have anymore.  You’ll be able to look, and touch, just not as well” she laughed twirling her fingers around, “But nothing else.  You took my friend from me, I have returned the favor.”
+++++She continued talking, he didn’t hear.  He stared down.  Still in his boxers, still striped green and white, now with a red crotch.  He reached his mangled hand down.  He tried to scream.  The whrrrrrr of the woodchipper came back on and he watched as white and red confetti sprayed everywhere.

THE END

Murder Me

THANATOS:  Please, somebody, I just want to be killed.
ABADDON:  Well go on and die, spineless bastard. Haven’t got the guts to do it yourself?  ’ll do it for you.
+++++I pressed the Send button and closed the page. I can’t be doing with the crap people talk on the Net. What kind of a stupid site was that anyway? Autoassass? Not as if I was looking for a site full of sickos like that. I was only browsing true crime and somehow it popped up.
+++++Makes you wonder what goes on behind those blank faces you see on the street. Mostly nothing – half of them barely alive, never done nothing, never thought anything past the next football match, pizza night or mortgage payment and the other half are raving bonkers behind their empty faces. God knows what’s going on there.  You can understand why people run amok with guns, putting a load of them out of their misery. People deserve to die if you ask me.
+++++That night I dreamed about hiding out in the wood overlooking our town with a telescopic rifle, picking off everyone who ever gave me a hard time: school teachers, bullies, Mum, Dad and most of all my horrible brother Brian.
+++++I kept thinking about the dream all next day at college. I’ve had that dream so many times and while the lecturer was droning on about T.S.Eliot and J. Alfred Prufrock, I was thinking that if I had a gun in my desk I could take out half the class before anyone stopped me. I made a list in my head of the ones I hated most and their proximity to the line of sight but it was all just a daydream like the way I imagine sniping at the zombies on the bus and in the street.
+++++I’d forgotten about Autoassass till I got home and went upstairs to log on. There was the URL in my recent history and I couldn’t resist clicking on it.
THANATOS:  Abaddon? Really? I want to die. I mean it. Are you in UK?
+++++This was a laugh. I hit Reply.
ABADDON:  Happy to oblige. I’m in North West. What do you fancy?
+++++The reply was almost instant.
THANATOS:  I don’t need to know. You choose.
ABADDON:  Joker. You almost had me there.
THANATOS:  I’m deadly serious. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always daydreamed about it, hoping someone would kill me. You don’t know how many times I’ve hung around dark alleys, hoping to meet a serial killer. When I read stories of people being murdered or hear about them on the news, I think how lucky they are. No one ever takes me seriously. I thought you might be different.
+++++I didn’t know how to answer that. Surely he didn’t mean it? I was assuming it was ‘he.’ I was getting a creepy feeling; it wasn’t such fun any more. I felt like he could see me, see that I was getting scared. I logged off. Good job because the next thing I heard footsteps thumping up the stairs and I closed the site down quick before Brian burst in.
+++++‘Clear off Ashley, I need to use it now.’ He almost pushed me out of the chair and sat down in it himself.
+++++‘I hadn’t finished,’ I said, even though I had.
+++++‘Use your phone,’ he muttered, already scrolling through his Facebook timeline.
+++++I aimed an imaginary gun at the back of his fat neck and went back to my own room. I played some music, messed about on Facebook and tweeted a few mates. I didn’t really believe Thanatos but I was thinking about it after all. It was stupid to be scared, it was only a game, only a laugh. He didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know him. I brought the Autoassass site up on my phone and logged into the chatroom. It was like something I couldn’t stay away from even though it was crazy.
+++++There was another message for me.
THANATOS:  Well?
+++++I thought about it. Hadn’t I always wanted to kill – ever since I could remember? Every time I couldn’t get what I wanted that rage would rush up and now all the time it boiled in my head. All I could think was how stupid people were and how they all got in my way, none of them deserved to live and spoil life for people like me. Maybe it would make me feel better, going along with it, just playing the game to see where it went.
ABADDON:  OK

***

Things went on as always the next day; usual crap at breakfast, Dad reading drivel out of the paper, Mum rushing round dishing out toast and slathering herself in lipstick at the same time, Brian slurping cereal like a pig.
+++++College was boring, boring, boring. I kept my phone under the desk on silent and I kept checking Autoassass. It was like I was the hero of some game designed especially for me; it beat playing Candy Crush any day but hours passed with no message from Thanatos. So, he was just a knob acting stupid after all, then just as the day had stretched its boredom to snapping point in the last hour before home time I felt the phone vibrate and there it was, Thanatos, and there was a photo.
+++++He was old, old as my dad if not older. Dark hair and glasses, he looked a bit like the bloke who had our corner shop but it wasn’t him. He looked like any zombie you could see on the street any day and I thought, why am I bothering? He could be a paedo trying to get me to meet him and then I thought people like that deserve to die anyway. I thought of all sorts of things I’d like to do to him and while I was still thinking about it the class broke up for the day.
+++++On the bus home I got another message.
THANATOS:  We need to talk
+++++I typed, Later and put the phone away.

***

When I got home no one else was back yet. I went up to the study and turned on the computer. I scrolled through family photos till I found a head and shoulders shot of Brian taken on the beach at Pwlheli on last year’s holiday. I brought up Autoassass and posted the photo to Thanatos.
THANATOS:  Handsome lad.
ABADDON:  Thanks.
+++++I really was starting to think he was a perve, a blind one at that if he thought our Brian was handsome. Suddenly the door opened and I jumped.
+++++‘There you are,’ Mum said. ‘Come on, we’re going out for pizza, just us three. Brian’s got his evening class.’
+++++Big deal. She obviously thought so. Boring Pizza Hut full of dickheads and their squawking kids shoving sticky fingers everywhere. I silently machine-gunned the lot and checked my phone.
THANATOS:  Are you up for it then?
ABADDON:  Maybe
THANATOS:  Why would you want to?
ABADDON:  I’ve always wanted to.
THANATOS:  I was hoping you’d say that.
ABADDON:   How do you want it done?
+++++‘Have some more coleslaw,’ Mum shoved the container under my nose.
THANATOS:  I told you it’s up to you.
ABADDON:  I like guns but I don’t have one.
THANATOS:  There are lots of other ways.
+++++‘Stop fiddling with that bloody phone.’ Dad said with his mouth full of stuffed crust. ‘What are you doing anyway?’
+++++‘Just playing a game.’
+++++‘Can’t you wait till you get home?’ He puffed crumbs across the table.
+++++‘It’s boring here,’ I said.
THANATOS:  There are conditions. I don’t want to see you, or know the moment. You must surprise me.
+++++‘Put it away, Ash.’ Mum cut me another slice of pizza. ‘Honestly, you kids.’
+++++I clicked the phone shut. I was thinking he’d get a surprise all right if I turned up instead of Brian. It was really fun, almost as if it was real and the more I thought about it, the more real it got. Soon as we got home I ran up to the study and the computer.
THANATOS:  Are you there? Don’t mess me about.
ABADDON:  I’m not.
THANATOS:  You’ll really do it? I’m desperate.
ABADDON:  What’s your name?
THANATOS:  No names, no info. I told you. How do I know I can trust you?
ABADDON:  I told you, I’ve always wanted to kill someone and it’s getting worse. If it’s not you it could be anybody in the street.
+++++As I typed this I realised it was true and suddenly it stopped being a game. I took my fingers off the keys and for a moment I couldn’t breathe.
THANATOS:  Wouldn’t want that on my conscience, lol.
+++++I couldn’t go on. It was like standing on a cliff. He was serious and it was up to me which way we jumped. ‘You haven’t got the nerve’ a voice said in my head and that tipped me over the edge.
ABADDON:  Leave it with me, I need to think. 

***

I thought about it all night. I didn’t have the strength to strangle or drown someone and even though he might want to die surely reflexes would take over to make him struggle at the end. Hit men always did a clean job in the films and I wanted to be the same. I didn’t have access to poison darts or anything like that and it was no use planning to slip something in a drink if I wasn’t supposed to let him see me.
+++++I went into the garage and looked in Dad’s toolbox. Peter Sutcliffe used a hammer but was I strong enough to do the same properly? I looked at the screwdrivers but they didn’t look sharp enough to make a deep thrust, unless I went for his eyes and that meant coming face to face with him too. No, it had to be one of Mum’s Sabatier knives. She kept them really sharp.
+++++I was still thinking about it at breakfast the next morning after dreaming about gouts of blood in gushing fountains. What would it be like to stab someone? Would the blade slip in as if into butter or would the skin resist, a tough layer to be pierced before the knife slid into the organs?
+++++I spent the morning in class looking up the structure of the body on my phone. It wouldn’t do to hit a bone or miss a vital spot.

***

THANATOS:  St John’s Gardens, Liverpool, 9th July, 1 pm. Don’t let me see you. I love you so much for doing this.
ABADDON:  Is this for real?
THANATOS:  Don’t doubt it. Don’t let me down.
+++++Saturday was only two days away. Of course I wouldn’t go – or if I went it would only be to look – but I went down to the kitchen and took Mum’s knives out of the block, testing their sharpness on my finger.
+++++‘What are you doing?’
+++++I jumped when Mum came in. ‘Er – nothing.’ I turned away to the fridge, stuffing the knife under my tee shirt. ‘Just getting a Coke.’
+++++‘You drink too much Coke,’ Mum said. ‘What have you done to your finger?’
+++++I looked down and saw blood leaking out. ‘Cut it on the printer paper,’ I invented. ‘Trying to print my coursework.’
+++++‘Well, don’t stand there dripping,’ Mum said. ‘The plasters are in the bathroom. Honestly!’
+++++I went upstairs, sucking the blood and thought about putting the knife into Thanatos. I might get only one stab, from the back, should I go for lung or kidney? Maybe I should go for the neck, it wouldn’t do for him to survive. The thought excited me. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it and I knew if I didn’t do it, I would regret it all my life. I would never know peace.
+++++But even on the bus with my mother’s knife in my inside pocket, the blade pressing in my chest, I still didn’t believe it was real. I thought I would go to the gardens and nothing would happen, Thanatos wouldn’t be there, and I wouldn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
+++++There weren’t many people in the gardens, it was a dull day. I looked around for a while, thinking he’d been having me on all the time. I even thought maybe he was an undercover cop looking for potential criminals but then I hadn’t actually done anything wrong, had I? Then I saw him, or I thought it was him, sitting with his back to me on a bench down at the bottom end of the gardens, away from the path people used to cut through to the Walker Art Gallery and the museum.
+++++I walked up and down a bit, even walked right past in front of him to make sure it was him. He was expecting Brian, not me, so he wouldn’t recognise me and I needed to make sure, I didn’t want to hit on the wrong bloke. He smiled as I went by and he just looked ordinary like some guy who was sitting there waiting for his wife to finish her shopping or until his train was due at Lime Street station just across the road.
+++++My heart thumped as I circled round to the back of the bench and I wandered up and down still not knowing what I was going to do next. ‘See, you can’t do it,’ the voice said in my head and I took a deep breath and looked round. There were people walking along the path at the top of the gardens but no one down this end. I took the knife out of my pocket and I just went up quickly and slid it into him, making sure I aimed at the right lung. It went in between his ribs like it was just a joke. I pulled it out and it was like nothing had happened, except that the blade was streaked with red. He sort of went, ‘Oof’ and fell forward and I stuck it in again on the other side to make sure both lungs got it.
+++++He didn’t move after that, just slumped down and made a funny, rattling noise. I didn’t dare wait to make sure he was dead. There was hardly any blood which was good, wouldn’t attract attention. I looked back as I headed out of the gardens. He just looked like some old drunk sleeping it off on the bench. I went out of the lower gateway and melted into the crowds round St. John’s Precinct.

***

I was on a high that I’d actually done it. I was different to everyone around me but I’d always known that.  At tea-time I couldn’t eat for excitement but there was nothing on the news so I felt a bit deflated and had to keep telling myself it was real, not something I’d imagined or dreamed.
+++++‘Have you had my vegetable knife?’ Mum said to Dad.
+++++‘Me?’ He looked at her across the kitchen table.
+++++‘You’re always taking my knives to tinker with things in the shed.’
+++++I’d forgotten about the knife, still in my coat pocket. I went upstairs and washed it clean in the bathroom sink. Watching the bloody water swirl down the plughole I felt so important.
+++++It was on the late night news but only on the local bulletin. I guess murder isn’t so unusual any more. It didn’t say much, just that a man had been found dead with stab wounds in St John’s Gardens. A few hours had gone by before someone found him and no one had come forward to say they’d seen anything suspicious.
+++++I switched off my TV and lay back on my bed. How clever I was; how easy it had been. I burst out laughing.
+++++‘What’s so funny?’ Brian came clumping in my room. The knife was on my bed and I covered it quickly with my pillow.
+++++‘Get out! Don’t you come in here without knocking.’
+++++He hung in the doorway so I pretended to scroll through my phone messages, ignoring him and after a minute he went away. Later I took the knife downstairs and put it in the dishwasher with the rest of the cutlery. I slept like a baby. All that tension in my head had gone, just as I’d hoped. From now on I would be happy.
+++++The next day everything was normal except that I carried the secret inside me like a hidden jewel. At lunchtime I went into town and treated myself to a cheeseburger. I went window shopping to Curry’s, looking at laptops and tablets and wondering if Mum and dad might get me one of my own for Christmas instead of having to share with Brian.
+++++All the TVs in Curry’s were on the news and I stopped dead when Thanatos’s photo flashed up on the screen. His name was Andrew Wilmslow, a nerdy name that suited him but the photo of a hard-faced blonde took his place and the newsreader announced that his wife Shirley was being questioned in connection with the murder. I couldn’t think what he meant, it didn’t make sense.
+++++‘Everything all right?’ I opened my eyes. A sales lad touched my arm. I saw everyone in the shop was looking at me. I realised I was clinging to the shelf at the edge of the counter and I was shaking all over.
+++++‘I’m fine.’ I pushed him away, went outside and walked till my head cleared and then I started laughing. It was perfect for me if they hung it on her. No wonder he wanted to die, hitched to an ugly cow like that. In all the crime programmes I’ve watched the partner is always the main suspect but of course this time they were barking up the wrong tree. They’d probably soon realise that.
+++++Why was everyone on the street staring at me? I realised I was laughing out loud, so hard that tears were running down my cheeks. I felt light as a feather. I gave them all the finger, all the stupid sods, and made my way back to college.
+++++I was right about the police. When I got home there was a cop car outside and at first my legs shook but of course they’d come for Brian, not me. One of the plods had Brian in handcuffs. That was awesome. My heart swelled. Not so big now, I wanted to laugh in his face but instead I put on a concerned expression.
+++++‘What’s going on?’
+++++‘This is my daughter, Ashley,’ Mum said. Her blue eyes looked black against the white of her face.
+++++‘What’s up?’ I said but she just shook her head and Brian looked like a cow that’s been hit with a stun gun.
+++++‘I’ll have to go with him.’ Mum dragged on a jacket. ‘Your dad’s on his way home. You’ll be all right love.’ She pulled me into a hug. Over her shoulder I saw another cop coming down the stairs with the computer wrapped in clear plastic.
+++++I went upstairs and looked at myself in the mirror. I was grinning from ear to ear. I brushed out my long blonde hair and practised a demure smile, a bit tremulous and fearful. Who would ever suspect me?

‘It’s crazy.’ Mum looked bewildered. ‘Our Brian’s never heard of this chap. But they say his photo was on the man’s computer. They say he’s been sending messages to him on the internet, on a site for people who want to be murdered.’
+++++‘What?’ Dad roared. ‘Is it someone’s idea of a joke?’
+++++‘The police say he told this chap he wants to kill someone. He must have thought it was some kind of game.’
+++++‘I never heard such nonsense,’ Dad shouted, ready to explode. ‘I don’t believe it. Our Brian wouldn’t do anything like that. Ashley, do you know anything about this?’ They both looked at me. I decided it was time to let fall a few tears.
+++++‘Oh, love,’ Mum said. She sat down and put her arms round me. I leaned into her, felt her body shaking and the next thing I was sobbing against her chest.
+++++‘He has been a bit strange lately,’ I murmured when I got control of myself. I looked up at Dad through my tears. ‘And he never lets me near the computer.’
+++++It was pretty awful listening to them crying and moaning so I went up to my room and thought how much better life was going to be, just the three of us, without Brian. We’d have to go and visit him of course but I could put up with that, in fact I would rather enjoy it.
+++++The phone had been ringing all night, all the stupid aunties and uncles, nosy neighbours who’d seen the police at the door. I was watching the ten o’clock news to see if there was anything about Brian being charged with the murder when Mum walked in my room without knocking. I put on my sad smile.
+++++‘Ashley – Janet next door’s just been on the phone. She said you must have had a lucky escape.’
+++++‘You what?’ I took my earphones out, wiped my eyes as if I’d been crying for poor Brian.
+++++‘She said she was in town yesterday, saw you coming out of St John’s Gardens. She said it was just about the time that poor man was killed.’
+++++‘She’s a dirty fucking liar,’ I snarled and it was only when I saw the shock on Mum’s face that I realised what I’d let slip.

***

That was it really. I couldn’t believe my parents would grass me up like that. Well, I could because they’d always really preferred Brian to me, I knew that. Dad took my phone and even though I’d deleted everything the police soon found all the messages.
+++++Dad kept shaking his head at the police station and saying, ‘I can’t believe it,’ while Mum just seemed too stunned to say anything but the one who got the biggest surprise was me when they accused me of plotting to kill Wilmslow with his wife Colleen.
+++++I’d refused to speak until then but my mouth just opened of its own accord. I barely recognised my voice. ‘What?’ I shrieked, ‘I never heard of the woman.’
+++++‘Come on Ashley,’ the detective leered at me.’ She’s already confessed. She was having an affair, common knowledge apparently. She might have got away with it otherwise.’
+++++‘I don’t get it,’ said Dad. Neither did I.
+++++‘She pretended to be her husband on the internet, put up a photo of him saying he had a death wish and she waited to see if someone would come along and oblige. She says that Brian agreed to do it, said he had a compulsion to kill, but of course it wasn’t Brian, was it, Ashley, it was you?
+++++‘She arranged the meeting with you, told her husband she had a hair appointment in Liverpool city centre and arranged to meet him afterwards in St John’s Gardens so they could have lunch together. He fell for it and there you go. What we need to know, Ashley, is, did she set you up too, or did you know it was her masquerading as her husband and went along with it?’
+++++I shut my mouth up then and didn’t say anything after that.  I couldn’t believe I’d been so easily taken in and I certainly wasn’t going to admit it to anyone else. Of course they let our Brian out and he, Mum and Dad went home to play happy families.
+++++All the time I was on remand I only kept going by thinking of a hundred and one slow and painful deaths for them and our Brian. Mum came to see me once but she looked at me like I was dog shit – as if I cared.
+++++‘How could you, Ashley?’ she kept saying and I got bored and told the warder to take me away. She didn’t come again and Dad never came at all
+++++But the one I had it in for the most was that witch Colleen Wilmslow. I thought if I could just get at her when we stood trial…
+++++Thing was, I never got to court, instead they sent me to this place, hospital for the criminally insane, it’s called.  Me! It’s all of them should be in here, I’m the only sane one. But it’s not too bad in here and I’m only young. When I get out I’ll go for that witch first and then I’ll take care of my loving family.

The Good Fortune of Augusta

Estelle simply hadn’t considered it. Why would she? How could she? While Ike was still alive, her sins still had an enactor, her silenced thoughts a catalyst. But now that Ike is gone?
+++++“When?” she asks.
+++++“Yesterday,” Reginald tells her. The collar of his blue shirt swallows his thin neck, the gold P.D. pins chomping like teeth.
+++++“How?”
+++++“Yea,” he touches the back of his head and the stubble there, “that’s the ironic thing. Well I guess it ain’t ironic but, he was hit by a car. Walking his dog at night. Didn’t wear one of them protective vests. With the reflectors on it? You know the kind.”
+++++To Estelle, it’s the finish line of a marathon she was never qualified to run. Not because Ike is dead, but because neither of them are alive anymore. The injustice somehow felt worse when one was breathing and the other wasn’t. But now, with both men gone, her mind surmounts some opaque obstacle in the path of equilibrium, scales balance; even more so than when Ike was released from prison all those years ago. Prison hadn’t solved anything. She doubts if it ever does for anyone.
+++++“I thank you for coming here to tell me.” She grips the handle on her screen door.
+++++He takes his hat off, rubs it between two fingers.
+++++“Mrs. Kline, I wanted to ask you something else as well.”
+++++She nods, looking somewhere far beyond him.
+++++“I know what this means to you,” he shakes his head. “I don’t mean it to sound like that, like something good or bad. I just mean, my pop was so close to this case. I know so much, about you and Stan and Ike.” He clears his throat. “And my mom of course.”
+++++“You’ve always been a very sweet boy, Reginald.”
+++++He laughs. “I think my mom is the only one who calls me that.”
+++++“I never had children, but I do know your mother.”
+++++He turns to his squad car and his partner sitting there, impatient and whapping his thumb to some invisible beat.
+++++“What is it?”
+++++He doesn’t turn back. “Do you want to see the body? I know it’s morbid, but it’s not like Ike had any family. There ain’t going to be a wake or nothing, not that you’d want to pay respects. I guess,” he faces her and she notices the flat, wrinkle free pallet of his brow, pressed with sincerity but unblemished by time. “If it’d bring you some measure of closer, I can get you in.”
+++++A hand at her mouth, Stan would chide her for the small bite marks on her forefinger when she was nervous.
+++++“Is that normal?” Her voice waivers.
+++++He stiffens, the cop coming through. Despite his age, too many generations of blue pump his heart, too many badges and citations hang in his memories. He’ll make detective like his father, sooner too if he avoids the old man’s Johnny Walker habit. He has better friends, of that they are all certain. “I wouldn’t say it was normal, no. But then, nothing about this situation is normal.”
+++++She agrees and leaves with him, taking only her small handbag and a picture of Stan. Reginald takes her arm as she negotiates the concrete steps. It’s her vertigo, she tells the young man, small in her youth but ballooning in severity along with her age. The world never quite sits still anymore, something’s always moving, always falling away.
+++++The officers drive her to the precinct while the leaden Alabama heat presses on the car’s struggling air conditioner. Reginald tries to talk to her a few times, but she is silent, and after awhile the three of them just watch the southern live oaks scroll past and the children play in sprinklers.
+++++Outside the stone precinct walls, a brown dog lays atop a chain leash, licking his paws. A near empty water bowl rests beside his flopped right ear.
+++++It isn’t Estelle’s first time in a police station. She’s seen the calm flurry of activity before, the measured balance between urgency and boredom. It reminds her of what Stan said about combat, but only reversed; the long uneventful days, the horror filled black nights.
+++++“I’ll take you over to the ME’s office in a bit. It’s just across the lot,” Reginald says.
+++++He is kind and quick. Once at the office he walks her down the steps to the morgue, opening the door and helping her through before waiting in the shadows.
+++++Like stone, Ike’s skin, scaled as though braised, a left arm torn and broken open but with petrified blood. The slab below extends past his head, but his feet hang over. It could be an alter, she thinks, an offering to silence. Or maybe to her husband, to Stan, Ike’s body finally there, finally lifeless. It’s definitely Ike though. She couldn’t forget the cleft eyebrow, the weak chin. She remembers the anger. She remembers the violence.
+++++“It made my dad’s career,” Reginald says from the darkness lurking behind her. “Bringing him in.”
+++++She does not approach Ike, the body. Was he even a he anymore?
+++++“It wasn’t just him,” she tries to find her smile there in the dark.
+++++“Sorry. I know. Stan was there too.”
+++++“Of course he was. They were friends.” She listens to her echoing steps. “Isn’t that right Ike? You and Stan were friends.”
+++++She thinks that may scare the boy, a crazy old lady talking to a corpse. But it doesn’t. She’d forgotten he is a cop. And it doesn’t matter how young, a cop knows death better than all but a soldier.
+++++“Friends don’t do that to each other. Friends don’t kill.” Reginald’s voice joins the hollow sound of her footsteps.
+++++And then her balance fades, a halo forming around the pale light above Ike’s body. Reginald rushes and grabs her elbow, propping her up. It’s this damn vertigo, she tells him again. There’s nothing that can be done for it.
+++++It’s okay, he says, they can leave whenever she wants. He was never sure this was a good idea. He just thought it right to give her the choice.
+++++They walk out together, arms linked like to-be newlyweds without a religion to consecrate them.
+++++“Officer,” an older man calls after them once they’ve passed back through the precinct. His suit is ill-fit around the waist.
+++++Reginald’s partner is still in the car, still tapping his thumb, entertaining a beat she cannot hear. She lowers herself into the backseat while Reginald excuses himself to talk to the man.
+++++The spider-webbed protective screen splinters the officer’s entrapped eyes from the rearview. There are creases there, long fractured wrinkles no man his age should have to endure.
+++++“He’s not allowed to do this ya’ know.”
+++++She adjusts the bag on her lap and twists away from his eyes. Outside her window another squad car pulls up, officers emerge with young black boys in chains.
+++++The partner pauses and they listen to the boys and the officers and the ageless inequity of The South.
+++++“I told him it was a bad idea. Told him he’s asking for disciplinary going to get you.”
+++++“His father and I had history.”
+++++“I know your history.” He adjusted the gun belt on his waist. “Robbing banks ain’t no history. Don’t get you any special treatment far as anyone is concerned.”
+++++“A man can have redemption.”
+++++A struggle, the cops wrangle the boys into the precinct. One boy in particular, he’s thin but strong, arches his back until the low slung pants on his waist fall away and he loses his balance on the tangle of his own fashion.
+++++“Not in my world he can’t.”
+++++“They’ve all paid.” Then, “we’ve all paid something.”
+++++He half-turns his head towards her, still not making eye contact. “Reggie’s dad never paid for shit. Just because your dad’s a judge and you’re a cop shouldn’t mean you get off that easy and it especially shouldn’t mean you get rewarded.” He shakes his head and laughs, bitterly. “You should feel that more than anyone, lady. Your bill was the highest out of all of them. Other than your old man, I mean.”
+++++She doesn’t say anything, watches the police drag the boys across the same steps she had just been helped down. The dog barks and wrestles against his tie, leaping until the chain digs into his throat and stifles his voice to a yelp.
+++++One of the officers notices their car. The partner rolls down the window.
+++++“Whose dog is that?” the officer asks.
+++++“Dead perp,” Reginald’s partner says.
+++++“Looks healthy,” he yells over the barks.
+++++“Whatever. They’re gonna put her down.”
+++++“Shame, that’s a nice looking dog.”
+++++The partner waves and rolls up the window. The dog keeps at it.
+++++“I’ll take her,” she says.
+++++“You’ll take who?”
+++++“The dog. I’ll take the dog.”
+++++Reginald appears from the precinct. He takes his time walking down the steps. He too spends a moment looking at the dog.
+++++“Lady, you ain’t owed shit.”
+++++Reginald joins them.
+++++“Told you you were going to eat shit for this,” the partner says.
+++++“Fuck off.” Reginald turns to Estelle through the gate, “Sorry for the language Mrs. Kline.”
+++++She pulls her bag into her chest. “May I ask you a question?”
+++++“Yea,” he shifts back. “Yea, anything.”
+++++“May I have his dog?”
+++++Reginald startles, as though he only just now hears the dog’s cries.
+++++“It was Ike’s dog.”
+++++“I already told her no,” his partner says.
+++++She slaps the grate and both young men jump. “No sir.” Her voice catapults from her mouth. “You told me I was not owed anything. Which is false. The world is owed to me. It’s owed to everyone. You just have to be willing to take it. And I always take what’s mine.” She addresses Reginald directly. “A dog bears no fault of its owner. I will take her, if you will let me. If money is the issue, I can take care of that too.”
+++++He nods, tells her he’ll see what he can do but it shouldn’t be a problem. They pull away and on the short ride back to her house, he’s already made the call. Reginald drops her off and says he’ll be back to drop the dog off within the day.
+++++A week later, she invites Reginald’s mother, Helen, over for tea. They speak about the weather, and about the president, whom they both think is doing a poor job of running the country. Within the guts of their first long pause, Estelle gets up and lets the dog out into the backyard.
+++++“Reginald told me about that dog,” Helen says.
+++++Estelle closes the screen but leaves the heavy backdoor open. The dog runs to its hole, the one it’s been digging for hours. Of course Ike’s dog would find it. She should’ve assumed that before she even brought her home.
+++++“You’ve raised quite a handsome son, Helen.”
+++++“At times,” Helen tilts her head, wandering in her thoughts, “he reminds me too much of his father. It makes me hate and miss Tom all at the same time.”
+++++The dog circles the hole, sniffs its depths, and then climbs in. She read somewhere that dogs don’t do their business where they sleep. She knew the same wasn’t true for humans. “All sons bear the scars of their father’s inadequacies.”
+++++“Estelle, I wanted to talk to you about Ike.” Helen sips tea Estelle knows has gone cold. “I don’t know how I feel about it so I can’t begin to imagine what you’re thinking.”
+++++“It’s not about thinking.” The dog settles in the hole, rubs the side of her face into the dirt or against what she’s found beneath. Estelle will have to name her at some point, have to make her real. “What we did, Helen, that was all the thinking I could tolerate for a lifetime. Everything since then has just been acting, pretending.”
+++++Helen pulls her pocketbook from the floor, something heavy weighing it down. She uses two hands to place it on the table. She digs through, producing a yellowed photograph and pressing its creases until it’s flat on the floral print tablecloth.
+++++“I want to give you this before I leave. I’ve had it forever, but hadn’t looked at it again until I heard Ike was finally dead. Now that he’s gone, that all three of them are, I wanted to destroy it. But I thought you ought to see it first.”
+++++Estelle leans over to look, catches a glimpse of something metal in the handbag. “The state fair.”
+++++“Of course.” Helen laughs. “We were so young.”
+++++“No we weren’t.” Estelle walks around the table, picks up the picture and stares at the cold yellow eyes of her dead husband and his two best friends. Stan, Ike, and Tom, all three of them smile with high-waist pants and short ties. In the background, a tilting Ferris wheel slumps to one side.
+++++“I know it’s been forever,” Helen says, gathering her things, sensing her time to leave is imminent. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t say I’m sorry.”
+++++“It was the only solution that worked, that kept Stan out of trouble and Tom from sacrificing his career,” Estelle waves the picture in her hand, almost fanning herself. “I may have always done the same thing.”
+++++“No you wouldn’t have.” Helen drapes her bag over her wrist. “We couldn’t have known Ike would’ve done that.”
+++++“Everyone knows a trapped dog will fight for his life.” She walks over to the waste bin and tosses the picture in. “That it’ll kill anyone in its way to escape. We knew.”
+++++“It was the money. If Ike had only told us where the money was, we could have all made it work.” Helen says with her own cold yellow eyes staring through Estelle.
+++++“It wasn’t about the money. It was about finding trust.” Estelle straightens the creases in her dress, brings herself rigid. “And four people can balance trust better than five.”
+++++“Or so we thought.”
+++++Helen leaves it at that. She doesn’t say what they both know, that they did end up with four people, just the wrong four. But balance eluded them still. Even after Tom’s liver finally gave way and there was just the three of them, Helen, Estelle and Ike, left alive. No closure ever sought them out. No peace is ever found in odd numbers.
+++++They hug and Estelle sees her to the door, kissing both of her cheeks, the way the French do. She watches her from the doorway as she saddles into her 1960 Ford coupe, a gift from Tom. She doesn’t wait for her to drive away.
+++++Ike’s dog meets Estelle in the yard. She pats the dog’s stomach. She’ll need a name. Maybe something Greek, Hera, or what about Roman? Yes, that’d be perfect. She’ll call her Augusta, and absent a man, she will inherit the empire.
+++++She tosses a blackened stick towards the fence and Augusta hustles after. Estelle walks to the hole.
+++++She knows what she will find. Estelle has dug it out before, moved it even though no one but her and Stan ever knew where it was. When she arrives, and the plastic edge, tattered from the dog’s imprecise digging, flaps from its tomb, there is no hesitation in her belly, no immediacy to bury her shame.
+++++Augusta returns, scratching again at the dirt. Estelle lets her extra paws unveil the last of it. Without much more trouble, Estelle pulls free the first of many items entombed there.
+++++The bills are all still intact, though a few have ripped from the dog’s claws. But overall, the bag has preserved them well. Beneath the first she sees the second, shrink-wrapped and still tightly bound together even after all this time. Four more huddle below those.
+++++In forty years, she’s only needed to exhume two; such is each bag’s value.
+++++She meant what she said, about knowing, about the entropy caused by the havoc of greed, of people and their desire to kill. Helen can’t hide behind naiveté. It had been her idea, to frame Ike. She had the most to lose of course, her husband had just made detective and there he was covering up a bank robbery for his two childhood friends. But Helen never understood greed the way Estelle did. That’s why the money had to always remain hidden, from all of them. It would be her and Stan’s reward, for protecting Tom and Helen, from Ike, from themselves. At least, that’s what they had planned.
+++++Augusta scratches her ear in rhythm with Estelle’s rubbing before darting back to the house. She barks at the backdoor until Estelle sees Helen, silhouetted in the frame, the waning afternoon light burning the tip of her nose orange and glinting off top of her husband’s 9mm service handgun at her waist.
+++++“With Ike gone, you were the only one left.” She says through the screen door.
+++++Augusta’s head aligns with the ground, a snarl replacing the lapping tongue that has until now been her only form communication. How strange, that Ike’s dog should be the one here in the final hour, the last defender of her wretched life.
+++++“I thought you knew.” Estelle stands, wipes the dirt from her wrinkled hands. “After all of these years I just assumed you knew Stan and I had the money all along.”
+++++Helen pushes open the screen door, rusty hinges whine against the warped and weathered wood frame.
+++++“Stan always loved you so damn much. I should’ve figured he’d make sure you were taken care of.” She looks down at the gun and the growling animal at her feet. “And no. I assumed Ike had it. Thought that was why he left us alone all these years since he’s been out.”
+++++“No.” Estelle closes her eyes, lets the wave of nausea and vertigo lap against the back of skull. She opens them again. “Ike had no more use for us, never knew it was us that called the police. Your Tom was already dead when he was released after serving his twenty-five, and the money he thought confiscated a lifetime ago.”
+++++“I guess in a way it was.” Augusta’s low growl boils to barking. “I wish I didn’t have to do this. But that was my Tom’s money too, at least a third of it. It just isn’t fair that you got to keep it for all these years.”
+++++Estelle shakes her head, the vertigo is gone, anger bringing the blessed equilibrium so long denied to her. “It was never Tom’s. Keeping your mouth shut isn’t the same as putting your neck on the line. I paid the highest cost. My Stan. The money was the least of it.”
+++++Helen pulls the hammer back. “That may be true. But with Tom gone I have to look after Reginald. This is his inheritance now.”
+++++“And you know I can’t let you do that.” Estelle steps atop the hole, straddling it, guarding her land.
+++++“Don’t make me do this, Estelle.”
+++++Spiked hair, matted and dirty but enraged, sprouts from Augusta’s back. Estelle lowers her glasses, lets them sway from her neck and stares down Helen from the twin barrels of her stalwart eyes. “And I’d say the same to you, you incompetent old dullard.”
+++++In the fading Alabama heat, a gun fires and a dog charges and two old women fight over one last plot of dirt.

 

END.

Road To Nowhere

Don’t you hate it when you rent a car and the damned thing breaks down on the side of the road?
+++++There I sat with the engine ticking as it cooled, although the Southwest sun beat down so hot that ‘cool’ was a relative term. The engine wouldn’t turn over, but I keyed the battery and found enough juice to lower the windows. There was a hint of breeze that didn’t keep my shirt from sticking to my back or sweat from beading on my forehead. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and wished I had the Hertz clerk in front of me so I could punch him in the nose. Fifty miles from nowhere, three hundred miles from my destination, on the shoulder of a deserted, sand-swept two-lane that disappeared in both directions between occasional cacti and rolling tumbleweeds.
+++++I’d burned a new set of identity papers getting the rental—driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, credit cards; bogus, of course, but excellent forgeries that would withstand all but the most meticulous examination. Now I’d have to use my last set to get me home. I hadn’t foreseen needing the last set, but I hadn’t foreseen breaking down alongside the road in a brand-new rental car, either.
+++++I know what you’re thinking, why not call Hertz or AAA or a tow truck? All good ideas if I’m you. But I’m not you, I’m me, and I’ve got three hundred thousand dollars beside me on the seat and a body in the trunk.
+++++I checked my watch. I needed to call Carlson about the change in plans, but that could wait. Normally I would stay with the rental until help came along, but the body in the trunk nixed that idea. I wiped down the Caddy’s interior then got out and slung the knapsack of money over my shoulder. At least I was dressed for the part; jeans, pullover shirt, hiking boots, and a straw cowboy hat. I crossed the blacktop and set off on foot in the direction from whence I’d come. I’d passed through a crossroads town about thirty miles back and started hiking it.
+++++After a couple of hundred yards I stepped down into a shallow arroyo and dug a hole in the sand so I could bury my old identity then load the new one into my wallet and resumed walking. Two more miles of hot, sweaty hoofing and I managed a ride with a Mexican family in a battered pickup truck older than I was. Senor had a gold tooth in front and his overweight senora had a toddler on her lap. I rode in back with three nut-brown ninos, two goats, and a potbellied pig. I dug a pack of gum out of the knapsack and offered sticks to the kids. They grinned their thanks and the four of us chewed away until the truck squealed to a stop in the town square and I got off.
+++++It wasn’t much of a town—Taylorville—just a collection of a couple of dozen houses and an assortment of small businesses; a two-pump gas station, hardware store, feed and grain, a run-down strip mall, and a place called Ma’s Diner. I thought about my uncle’s admonishment to never eat breakfast at a place called Ma’s, never play pool with a guy named Pops, and never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own. Over time I’d done the last two, so I went for the trifecta.
+++++Worn linoleum, cracked leatherette stools, mismatched tables, and a window air-conditioner that lowered the temperature from broil to merely bake. I sat at the counter and studied the menu while the middle-aged waitress brought me coffee and silverware. She had carrot-orange hair, matching lipstick, and a pencil behind one ear. She was thin in a stringy, desiccated way, so skinny that when she stood sideways she looked like a zipper. She had a nametag with Mabel lettered on it. I ordered the lunch special which I suspected was last night’s supper smothered in today’s gravy. While I waited on the food, I mulled over what to do next.
+++++I’d seen a used car lot at the edge of town, but that was out. A stranger paying cash for a decent vehicle would raise eyebrows. Besides, I didn’t want to use my new identity until I had to. The corpse in the Caddy wasn’t a problem—there was no ID on it and if/when they ran the prints they’d find out he was a loan shark and fence. They’d also find he’d died of a coronary. I knew because I’d sat and watched him clutch his chest until his heart stopped. As for the money, it wouldn’t come up missing since I’d found it in a cardboard box in his garage. I’ve always been lucky; a stash of cash and a dead man I didn’t have to kill after all.
+++++My meal arrived just as an SUV pulled up out front. It had a light bar on top and a star on the door with the words Basque County Sheriff wrapped around it. Out stepped a tall, lanky, past-middle-age character complete with snakeskin boots, kahki uniform, smokey hat, and a badge the size of a pie plate. His utility belt held an assortment of equipment, not the least of which was a .44 magnum revolver with staghorn grips. He took a stool two down from me, ordered coffee to go, then turned and put his elbow on the counter.
+++++“I’m Sheriff Kershaw,” he said conversationally. “You new in town, or just passing through?”
+++++I am an excellent liar. I spun him a tale about having been on a construction job east of Taylorville until the work ran out, how I was now waiting to take a southbound bus home. He asked where home was and I told him.
+++++“That’s right on the border,” he noted. Y’all have trouble with illegals down your way?”
+++++“They’re thicker than flies on roadkill.”
+++++“Same here, and more all the time. Got a shanty town out past the gypsum works. Ten, twelve to a shack. Living on cabrito, beans, and tortillas. Cheap labor for the mine owners and farmers. Money makes the world go ‘round and the less you pay, the more you keep. By the way, the bus station is just across the street. The next one going south will come thru in an hour or so.”
+++++Mabel brought him a styrofoam cup with a plastic lid. He stood and said, “Put this fella’s meal on my tab.” When I protested, he said, “Don’t be proud, son. We’ve all been down on our luck at one time or another. The county’s pleased to do it.”
+++++The bus station was a long, narrow affair attached to the side of the hardware store. I bought a ticket going south and saw I had forty minutes to spare. There was a wooden pay phone booth in one back corner. I dug out a handful of change, closed the door, and called Carlson. When I explained about the broken Caddy, he was pissed. “I wanted to see the fucker in person,” he said. “Wanted to look into his cold, dead eyes and spit in his face.” I told him he’d have to settle for a couple of cell phone pictures instead. In true form, his last words before I hung up were, “The least you could do is bring me the bastard’s head in a gunny sack.” I let his anger drain off of me then called Annie, making it short because she was at work and old man Boatwright didn’t take kindly to personal business while you were on the clock. I told her when I’d be back and added, “We’re in high cotton, baby. Pack your suitcase, I’m taking you home.” She squealed her pleasure, “Do you mean it, honey? Home as in back to Carolina?” I said yes and let her coo in my ear until I heard Boatwright bitching in the background.
+++++The bus pulled out on schedule and I had a seat to myself. The other passengers were few and kept to themselves. Thirty miles down the two-lane I held my breath when the busted Cadillac came into sight. There were two squad cars and the Sheriff’s SUV parked behind it. The car’s trunk was open and county cops milled around it. I saw Sheriff Kershaw hunkered over looking at something on the ground. I slipped down on the seat and watched as we went past. I looked back nervously until the scene was out of sight.
+++++Actually, there was nothing to worry about. They couldn’t tie the body to me or me to the Caddy. Come to that, the guy in the trunk hadn’t even been killed—not as in murdered. He managed to croak before we got to that part. What’s the worst they could charge me with, transporting a body across state lines? Still . . . After a time, I leaned my head back and drifted off to sleep. The hum of tires on the blacktop made for a comforting lullaby.
+++++The fat driver shook my shoulder to wake me. He pulled his pants up over his gut and said, “Thirty-minute rest break.” I looked out to see we were in the gravel parking lot of a roadside restaurant. Everyone else had debarked to stretch their legs or go in for a meal. I wasn’t hungry so I crossed my arms and closed my eyes again.
+++++I heard the seat beside me squeak and opened my eyes to see Sheriff Kershaw sitting there with a smile on his face.
+++++“Howdy, son,” he said pleasantly.
+++++My belly tightened and a foreboding finger of fear ran up my spine. “Uh . . . hello. What’re you doing here, Sheriff?”
+++++Kershaw took off his Stetson long enough to mop his forehead with a patterned bandana the size of a dish towel.
+++++“It’s a good thing I’m the law, I broke six kinds of speed limits to beat you here.”
+++++A foreboding finger of fear poked me in the spine and I straightened up in the seat.
+++++“Why the hurry, Sheriff?”
+++++“Well, sir. There’s a chunk missing out of the back of your left bootheel. It makes a little vee-shaped notch in it. I noticed it back at Ma’s place, but it didn’t mean anything then.”
+++++I lifted my foot enough to looked down and there it was big as life. “Well fuck me to tears,” I said under my breath.
+++++“Later, out at the Cadillac, I saw it again—boot marks in the dirt—around the car and across the road where you started walking back to town. Seeing those prints got me to wondering what you have in that knapsack you’re carrying.”
+++++“My knapsack? Just personal stuff,” I lied, feeling a bead of sweat trickle down my temple.
+++++“Is that right? Well, son, let me tell you something. I’ve been Basque County Sheriff fourteen years and a deputy ten years before that. I plan to retire at the end of this term and don’t look forward to living on social security and a piss-poor pension.”
+++++I sighed, shrugged my shoulders, made a sour face. “So, what happens now?”
+++++“Well, if all you’ve got in there are dirty clothes, I reckon I’ll arrest you and take you back to the calabozo. On the other hand, if it’s money I’ll just sort of relieve you of the burden and let you go on home.”
+++++I blinked and swallowed hard. I knew he could read my face like a book. “It’s a lot of money,” I said honestly.
+++++“Even better,” Kershaw said.
+++++I cleared my throat. “We could split it?” I offered hopefully.
+++++“I like a man with a sense of humor. You’re young yet. Plenty of time to make another score. Me? I’m getting older every day. I always wanted to see the Mexican Riviera, lay on the beach watching the senoritas and drinking cerveza. I speak the lingo pretty good. I can see a brighter future already.”
+++++He held out his hand and I reluctantly passed him the knapsack. He smiled at the heft then slung it over his shoulder.
+++++“You sure you can’t leave me some of that?” I asked morosely.
+++++“Can, but won’t,” Kershaw said. “Don’t beg, it’s unseemly in a fella your age.” With that he tipped his hat, flashed me another smile, and said, “Adios, pardner. Oh, and if I was you I’d steer clear of Basque County from now on.”
+++++Long after Kershaw was gone, long after the rest break ended, long after we got back on the road, I sat there going over everything in my mind. I couldn’t see where I’d fouled up—except for my bootheel, of course. Who would have ever thought?”
+++++I checked my watch and saw I had another five hours before I reached the border. Carlson would be fine, I had cell phone pictures for him. Not as good as the dead guy’s head in a sack, but enough to satisfy the contract.
+++++No, Carlson wasn’t the problem. Finding more work wasn’t the problem, either. I had a reputation, word got around. I was known for leaving no loose ends. Satisfaction guaranteed. But Christ, three hundred thousand dollars. Found money, untraceable, enough to get out of the business entirely. Enough to settle down and become a civilian, a regular joe. Pfffft.
+++++No, Carlson wasn’t the problem. The problem was figuring out how to tell Annie I wasn’t taking her home to Carolina.

Pizza Mama and Dairy Queen

I was down on my knees behind the Dairy Queen when the idea hit me. Buddy standing before me had no idea what was going through my head, and I don’t think he was thinking much at all, just making a godawful racket about things, moaning away like it was his first ever blow job.
+++++In fact, it might’ve been.
+++++I snuck a peek back down at the bar to make sure nobody was checking up on him. Dairy Queen was just down the alley from the bar, close enough to make a quick in and out, but far enough away that the patrons of that fine establishment couldn’t hear buddy moaning away behind the dumpster.
+++++The bar kept the back door propped open, mostly for staff going out for smokes, but it helped Jenna and I make a quick exit. It was our front office, you might say.
+++++All the action happened in the alleyway, along the back stoops and receiving doors of other buildings along that block. We had a good thing going.
+++++Buddy’s thighs shook, and he had the whole thrusting hip action going on, his hand wrapped into my hair, and when I looked up his eyes were practically rolled into his head, groaning to all get out. I was counting down from ten when he blew his wad at seven.
+++++Goddamnit.
+++++I liked to pull off just before they shoot – they’re gonna cum anyway, may as well not be inside my mouth. Honestly, once you’ve done a few of them in a row, something about the taste never quite leaves you by the end of the night.
+++++I was trying to spit real discrete-like and wiping at my mouth when I saw Jenna walking with her guy behind the pizza place on the other side of the bar.
+++++We each had our own territory, see.
+++++She was Pizza Mama and I was Dairy Queen, or at least we were to our regulars.
+++++I was already on my feet when buddy was blushing and stammering like he was asking to marry me, or anything to make things less awkward while he tried to wipe the dribbling cum off his cock and tuck his sack back inside his pants.
+++++“Uh – yeah, that was – I mean, can I –” he stood there, still breathing heavy and blushing like a fool. Clean shaven college kid, poor guy, probably just hard up.
+++++Though it might of been his first ever decent blowjob. Gets hard to tell after a while.
+++++I smiled and brushed my lips to his cheek, “That’ll be twenty, tiger.”
+++++He blushed even deeper, and then fumbled for his pockets, pulling out two twenties. “Uh, a tip – do I – can I tip you?”
+++++I tried not to burst out laughing, and smiled sweetly, which is just what he wanted. I picked the bills out of his hand, “Oh, that’s so nice of you, honey, you come on back anytime now. Just out look for Dairy Queen.”
+++++He stared blankly at me.
+++++I waved my hand at the building behind me, a sign for ‘Dairy Queen – Receiving’ posted above the back door.
+++++He nodded.
+++++“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to see someone back inside the bar.”
+++++“Uh huh.”
+++++As we walked back to the bar together, his hand brushed mine, I guess to make himself feel like we were dating or something, and I picked up his hand as I stepped in the bar. “Well, honey, I hope I’ll see you around.”
+++++He nodded, a stupid grin still plastered across his face.
+++++I did a quick turn into the ladies’ washroom, and as the door shut behind me, I knew he’d be back. Maybe even tomorrow night.
+++++Bending over the bathroom sink I pulled my mouthwash and toothpaste out of my bag. Time for some serious dental hygiene. I know some girls use condoms and avoid this whole mess, but the guys complain about them. Swishing my mouth out, I horked into the sink, and looked up as the bathroom door opened again and Jenna walked in.
+++++“Mind if I borrow some?” She grabbed the mouthwash.
+++++“Help yourself.”
+++++Between spitting and rinsing I laid out my plan.
+++++It didn’t take much to convince Jenna to switch things up a little between us. We’d still pick up the guys, take them out back, and the other one would be there waiting with a baseball bat. When one of us went down, buddy’d get knocked out, and we’d go through his pockets.
+++++Even splitting the proceeds between us, it had to pay better than twenty bucks a pop.
+++++I grabbed the mouthwash and rinsed and spat again, and then blotted my lips with a tissue. “You know, what if we get a guy with no cash – everybody’s got debit or credit cards now.”
+++++She shook her head. “I got a friend who’d take cell phones. Jewelry. We’d always come out ahead.”
+++++“But what about the guys? When they’re knocked out, I mean.” I was starting to think things through a little bit more. I forgot about the unconscious body thing.
+++++She shrugged. “Leave them beside the dumpster. Nobody’d find them ‘till morning. Or they’d probably just think they blacked out or something.”
+++++I nodded. She was smart, that Jenna.
+++++Jenna leaned over the sink and studied herself in the mirror, swiping on fresh lipstick and as she pulled out her compact, she paused, and pressed her finger to the dark splotches around her eyes; green bruises fading to sickly yellow.
+++++“Do they look bad?”
+++++“Naw, you just look tired. Nobody’d see them out back.”

*

+++++We were ready the next night. I was sitting beside the bar when a familiar looking guy came up to me, and pretty soon he followed me out back to my usual place behind the Dairy Queen, half buried in the shadows alongside the dumpster.
+++++I smiled at him as I dropped to my knees and tugged at his fly, and suddenly his hands twisted themselves into my hair, shoving my face into his cock. “You like it rough, don’t you bitch.”
+++++My mouth opened out of reflex, and he shoved it inside; I gagged, retching, and trying to twist away. My stomach rolled and I thought I’d puke while he slammed my face, his cock hitting the back of my throat again and again.
+++++Fuck – where the hell was Jenna?
+++++Somebody was screaming – it might of been me – and then there was a thud, and buddy just kinda went stiff, standing still. Then another flat thud of wood on flesh, and he dropped like a ton of bricks, slow whoosh of air leaking out of him like he’d deflated or something.
+++++He lurched sideways and I managed to move out of the way as he was coming down. He sprawled on the blacktop, face up.
+++++As he lay between us, Jenna stared at me, the bat still raised above her head. She was breathing heavy, and her eyes pretty wide. I guessed she was a bit shocked, and I started to go through his pockets when he twitched, a little, his eyes rolled into his head all fluttery.
+++++Jenna didn’t say a word, she just raised that bat above her shoulders and brought it down again, this time on his head.
+++++There was a sharp crack and a wet sound, like a melon just split open. His whole body jerked, as if a jolt of electricity shot through him, and then he was still.
+++++She raised the bat again.
+++++I jumped back. “Hey – what’re you –”
+++++Jenna brought that bat down again, and again; a whole spray of pulpy pink followed every upswing and shot out everywhere. Everything – the bat, her arms, and mine – got spattered with goo.
+++++“Hey – wait – that’s not the –”
+++++I stopped talking. There was no point. She wasn’t hearing me anyway. Jenna sometime gets like that.
+++++Eventually she got tired, and she stopped. “Do you wanna go through his pockets?”
+++++I nodded, still keeping my eye on the bat. I tried not to look at the place his head had been, pink stained flecks of goop, like oatmeal were everywhere. As I pulled out his wallet, and opened it to a couple hundred bucks in small bills, I smiled at her. “Looks like he was planning to score big tonight.”
+++++“Yeah,” she shrugged. “He was one of my regulars.”
+++++I stared down at the body for a long while and then looked up at her. Jenna wiped at her arms with her hoodie.
+++++She shrugged again. “Sick bastard. Always wanted to cum in my mouth.”

Purpose

Finally, the world had ended. In a good way. The human race had been wiped out and Earth was more beautiful than ever. The town I lived in that was usually polluted with thousands of college students had been emptied out. This had to be a dream come true. Although my head was hurting, I was more focused on the possibility of being the only human left. The bars that were usually filled with drunken students no matter the time or day were empty, the many families that went to brunch after Sunday service didn’t flood the restaurants, and the roads were free of lifted redneck ego machines the college students called “trucks.”
+++++It was weird, but a good weird. I had the town to myself. From what I remember hearing on television and reading in the tabloids, the world had wiped out its habitants in three waves. The weakest people went first with their deaths being the most disturbing. From what the newspapers said, the first wave of humans to die were those that had known love all their lives—children who were loved by both parents, two lovers entwined in a happy relationship, those who had genuine friendships, and those who accepted themselves for who they were. But what was the cause of it? Eventually the news sources stopped broadcasting stories and I assumed it was because they were the weakest. They were the first to die for a reason. The world didn’t need them anymore.
+++++The first wave had caused a third of the human race to commit suicide in various ways. People jumped off buildings, caused car accidents, shot or asphyxiated themselves, and set themselves on fire. They didn’t commit suicide because they were unhappy. It couldn’t have been that easy for them to escape. But here I had to face the world alone. There weren’t any dead bodies piling up in the streets, the bars and restaurants were empty, and there was no sign of human life. There had to be something wrong with their brains. They didn’t know what it was like to be lonely, and if they did, they sure as hell couldn’t have been happy. They were too joyful, too confident, too perfect, and that’s why they needed to go. The world didn’t need to meet those kinds of standards.
+++++The next wave was people who had love before, but couldn’t keep it. They were given two choices it seemed; to live without love or to die knowing they once had it. They were torn. They were torn between being happy and being sad. It’s not possible to be happy and sad at the same time. The world didn’t need that kind of confusion. Those that chose to die with love went by stabbing their loved ones first, and then themselves. It was believed that if they didn’t die from mutilation, they died from a broken heart of watching themselves kill their beloveds. Those that chose to live without love made it to the last wave. They became those who had never known love. They hadn’t even heard of it, let alone felt it because they couldn’t remember. They died in their own ways. Maybe because they had nothing to show for.
+++++My memories were coming back. I knew everyone’s assumptions were true because I had seen it with my own eyes. I remembered now.

***

“Daddy! Daddy! Look how high I can go!” I was seven and my favorite past time was going to the park to play on the swings while my favorite person, my dad, watched.
+++++“Look at you go, honey!” half of his face was hidden behind a video camera. We spent hours at the park whenever we could. Times like those meant the most because my dad was a busy man who spent most of his time in his lab. It made me cherish his time a lot more before he died of cancer.
+++++As years went by, I watched my mom’s happiness slowly wilt away. I was old enough to know that my mom would take action, but not like this. I was almost 21 now and almost finished with my third year of college. I remembered now. This was just the other day. I looked at my phone to see that I had a 3-minute FaceTime call with my mom. I remembered that video call. I was lying in my bed reading World War Z by Max Brooks when an image of my mom buzzed on the screen. I always hated picking up her calls, especially on the weekends.
+++++I was finishing my last sentence on the page before I looked at my screen and asked, “Hey, mom. How’s it going?” My God. My mother was holding a gun to her head. She was in a living room I didn’t recognize. She was crying.
+++++“Mom? Mom! What are you doing? Please put the gun down.”
+++++“I can’t.” The will to survive in her voice was gone. She sounded broken.
+++++I knew she had been dealing with depression, but I didn’t think it would come to this. “Please don’t do this, Mom,” my voice cracked. “You’re all I’ve got left.” I blinked and all my tears came pouring out.
+++++There was no talking her out of it. She was dead set on dying. “I just can’t live like this anymore. You take care of yourself, honey; you know you’ve always been able to. You’ve always been my pride and joy. I love y—” Within the second, my mom’s finger fired backwards on the trigger and the sound of the pistol going off screamed into the speakers of my phone. I jumped. The tears from my eyes had washed over my nose and cheeks, and I had blood on my finger from biting it too hard. I was left staring at the blood splattered on the screen. And then my memory went blank.

***

Why didn’t I fit into any of those waves? Maybe it was because I didn’t care about love and I didn’t care about not having it. So why was I still alive? Was it because I wasn’t as weak as everyone else? Or was it because I wasn’t as strong as the people who died last? Where was my place in the world and why am I the only one still here? This wasn’t living. But my living began when I saw him.
+++++He looked so calm, like he was okay with what had happened to the world. He made it look easy being alone. He made me wish I were alone because he looked so good being it, but I knew I wouldn’t be anymore. I immediately found him intriguing. He was so noticeable and I don’t notice anyone, but maybe that’s because he was the only person I’d seen since everything happened.
+++++He was walking towards me with his hands in his pockets, wearing retro sunglasses and a beanie, with a ridiculous galaxy print sweatshirt with cats on it. I should’ve been more excited seeing that there was another human being walking this planet, but he wasn’t exactly jumping for joy when he saw me either. He was much taller than me in the way that if he looked straight ahead, I wouldn’t even be in his peripheral. He said something first, but I couldn’t hear him very well. I had spent my teenage years blasting heavy metal music into my eardrums to escape reality, so I took a couple steps closer to him to greet him.
+++++I looked around. Not a single person in sight. “Why are you still alive?” I asked. I couldn’t see his eyes, so I focused on reading his lips.
+++++His voice echoed through the empty streets, “That’s kind of a personal question. I was under the impression that I was the last person left when I found out I survived the last wave. Where’d you come from?”
+++++“I go to school in town. I thought I was the last one alive.” I sneered.
+++++His hands weren’t in his pockets anymore; they were lifted towards the sky to catch what seemed to be snowflakes falling. It wasn’t winter. “I enjoy being alone, but you’re in good company. In my opinion, the world has never looked better. The human race was such a sad life form.”
+++++“You’re not wrong. So, do you know why are we both still alive?” I asked.
+++++“I can think of a couple of reasons. Do you ever feel like you’re meant for something more than what this world has to offer?”
+++++“No.” I noticed the town smelt of burning flesh. “Do you smell that?”
+++++He chuckled, “Yes. Hey, do you think mankind is a joke and to be pitied?”
+++++Why wouldn’t he be more concerned? “What?” I started to look around. “Yeah, I’m ashamed to be a part of it,” I said. I don’t think this guy was trying to be my friend. “I think I’m going to go my own way from here.”
+++++He started to get defensive. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” he said as he started to block my way. “I just came from the southern part of town. There’s something burning down there.”
+++++He was starting to creep me out. “Don’t you want to find out what it is?”
+++++“No,” he sighed, “Not really. That’s why I headed north of town. Plus, I think I have an idea of what’s burning.”
+++++Why hadn’t I seen the smoke before? Maybe it was because Evergreens and Maples surrounded the town or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough.
+++++“Whatever. I suggest you follow me if you don’t want to be left here alone.” I started to walk towards the smoke and then I felt sharp pain in my head, which had caused me to fall to my knees. I remembered again.

***

I was leaving for the grocery store earlier today when I heard the couple that lived upstairs in my apartment complex screaming at each other. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I heard thumping, glass breaking, and the dog barking. And then it went quiet. I took one step towards the stairway that led directly to their door before it was slammed open and a girl’s body had stumbled down the stairs. Beyond her body lying at my feet, covered in blood and stab wounds, her roommate, boyfriend, husband, whatever, was whimpering.
+++++This made me nervous. “Are you okay?” I shouted upwards. It was funny to me. I figured I would’ve been more concerned with the body lying at my feet and not the crying man looking down on me with a knife pointed at his jugular.
+++++“I killed her and now I have to kill myself,” he trembled. Before I could tell him to stop, he pinched his eyes shut, clenched the knife’s handle, and punctured his throat. What the fuck just happened? And then my memory went blank.

***

My vision was blurry, but his voice started to creep in. “Wake up! Wake up! We have to get out of here!” Who was talking? It was the guy I met on the street. He started to lift me off the ground, but my legs wouldn’t move. “They’re coming for us! We need to go!”
+++++They? I couldn’t make out the two figures coming toward us, but my legs started to wake up. My feet hit the ground like I was a baby deer trying to figure out how to walk. I was hesitant to follow him, but I felt like I had no choice. The two men looked like they wanted to hurt us.
+++++“They haven’t been planted with the drug yet! Get them!” the man in all white yelled towards us. What drug? Once I had control of my legs, our run turned into a sprint and we had finally lost them amongst the town.
+++++We found a safe spot in one of the rooms of the coffee shop I was familiar with on 18th street. “What just happened?” I screamed. The room didn’t echo.
+++++“Shhh! Keep your voice down,” he said. We were both out of breath. “You fainted and as you came to, these two weird men charged for us, and now we’re here.”
+++++“I fainted?” I was confused. I had never fainted in my life, but the episodes seemed to be happening often.
+++++“They said something about us not having the drug planted in us and that’s why they ran after us. Do you know what they were talking about?” he asked.
+++++“No, but we should scavenge the town to search for more answers.” I started to reach for the doorknob before I had the chance to react.
+++++“Not a chance,” he said curtly. There was a syringe jabbed into my head and I started to drift off. Something happened. Something bad.

***

Had he killed me or was I dreaming? I was in a dream-like state as I watched him drag my body out of the backroom, out of the coffee shop’s front door toward what looked like his fellow comrades that were crowded in the street to lay me out like a trophy fish. I wasn’t dreaming. I was murdered.
+++++“She was the last one,” he said. “A sad one, too.”

Devil Be Strong

She was my height. I mean a perfect hug going on here. My face was on her hair. I was happy. Her hands were on my back and she hugged me. We hugged a long time. I didn’t want to let go. I never wanted to, but I pulled my face to the side to see her. I could do what I wanted. I could kiss her. I could eat her pink pussy. Dad loved eating the pink pussy, that’s what he said, not to me, but I’d heard him talking to the traitors he thought were friends. He said one thing he hoped to do before he died was eat up on some black woman’s pussy. Dad used the N-word to describe that particular brand of pussy. That is not my style. I am an improvement over my dad.
+++++I doubt Dad ever did eat up on no black pussy. Is a black woman’s pussy pink? I think it’s a regular old black color if you ask me, or brown or something and everything and stuff. I can’t say for sure on it one way or the other, but I wasn’t thinking of it. I was lost in my hug. My new friend shook. She looked scared. I said was something wrong? She took her hand off my shoulder to put on her forehead, like she was checking her temperature.
+++++“You afraid of something or anything and stuff?” I said.
+++++She knew I could eat her pink pussy up. She knew I could bite her if I wanted, if I pleased, but is that me? I pulled her hand down off her forehead and run my hands through her long soft silky hair. I brought her hand up and kissed it. I winked at her and turned my back.
+++++I went to my fort, lit the candle, thought on that girl’s titties pressed against me on my chest and everything and stuff. I got to thinking she could visit me in the dark hours of night. I’d have to go back tomorrow and hide behind the same bush in case she came along again. I’d tell her all of what happened. I’d show her my fort. She could bring me bags of bread and meat scraps from the table. I didn’t ask her name. She looked to me like a Susan. She could’a been a Lisa or a Mary. In my mind I settled on Susan. I said to myself, Oh Susan.
+++++I knew I’d got injustice from that ugly bitch hag woman. Injustice is rampant in the world. I know somewhere a judge waits to tell me I’m guilty, that I need to be punished, but that judge knows what he can do. Only judge is Jesus, Dad said it, that in Jesus’s eyes all things are fine so long as you are honest with yourself.
+++++I did not want my candle to burn out so I blew it out. I sat in the dark light. It’s not all dark. I got a towel hanging down at the end of my little dirt hallway. It’s a pink towel. It was glowing some. It’s nice to look at, makes you feel soft inside, like furballs are hopping around inside your body. I got to thinking on Susan, how if she was here I’d take the towel down. She’d get back on it. I’d put it to her. If she visits me in the dark hours, that’s what we’ll do. I never tried to stick a baby in a woman, even though that ugly bitch hag woman accused me on it, and got the whole world on my ass for it.
+++++I got my left hand going, jamming it down on there. I dug a little hole in the dirt and shot it in and buried it. Makes you feel sick. You wouldn’t think that’s what babies was, that that’s what everybody is in there and stuff and everything, just grown big. I sometimes wonder if, say, there was a antlion down there, like if it ate a bit and carried it around and was pregnant, what kind of creature would come out, and what it would grow up to look like.
+++++God didn’t make us for no things like that to happen. I know. But if he did, think of all the strange halfdog people and halfchicken people. They’d be all over the place. It would be a much different world.
+++++I pulled the towel aside, crawled through it on down the hall up through the hole. When I leave my fort I take a different way out. I don’t want no tracks leading up to it to where people can find me. The sun had done dropped behind the trees and the shadows covered the ground in a lace pattern. I crunched through the leaves, and busted through the woods into the field around Jepson Lake. I seen the skinny black guy over there with his pole. I’d seen him before. I crossed over and said, “Still fishing?”
+++++Black guy cast his line.
+++++“I bet you got a bunch of fishes now,” I said, and leaned over his bucket. Sure enough, that bucket was filled. I said, “You could stick those fishes in a blender and make you a fish drink. You ever drink a nanner milkshake?”
+++++“What you want, white boy?” black guy said. He was real skinny, and the skin on his face was pressed close to his face bone. You could see the skull shape and his eyes looked dry.
+++++I said, “Nothing, you ole skinny thang.”
+++++“Why you keep coming over here looking at my fish?”
+++++“I don’t know.”
+++++“Shoot,” the man said.
+++++“I thought you might want to be my friend,” I said.
+++++“What? What kind of stuff you talking?”
+++++“Look,” I said, pulling my picture out my back pocket. I uncrumpled it for him.
+++++Black man looked at it. He looked my face over. He looked at the green water. He said, “Don’t got nothing to do with me.”
+++++“Thousand dollar reward,” I said.
+++++“I seed it.”
+++++“Ain’t you gonna turn me in?”
+++++“Maybe I will.”
+++++“Come on. Won’t you be my friend? That woman lied. I didn’t do none of what she said to her old ugly bitch hag self.”
+++++“Don’t surprise me.”
+++++“What’s your name?”
+++++The black one, ole Skinny, pulled one in. He pulled it off his hook and dropped it in his bucket. He looked me head to foot and said, “Get on,” and flicked his hand.
+++++I walked around the lake, cut over to the tracks and walked along the rail. When I got to Johnny’s the red Corvette was gone, so I threw me some rocks at his house. I was trying to hit Johnny’s chimney, but one rock slipped in my fingers to go hitting on a window. I knew Johnny would know who done it over he’d caught me throwing rocks at his house once before. Soon he saw that rock he’d come looking for me. I figured I’d best make it look like somebody broke in. A train was coming along, so I dropped off the tracks. The conductor saluted at me as he chugged by.
+++++Was a stack of cinder blocks to the side of Johnny’s house. I took one over to the window and tossed it through. I climbed in and found my rock, put it in my pocket. I’d never been in this room and everything and stuff before. It was Johnny’s bedroom, nice, with a water bed, a gun rack with rifles on it, and one them huge-ass TVs. Then I seen on the shelf how it was lined up with movies. On the movie boxes was pictures of naked ladies all and stuff. A lot of them was getting it in the ass where everybody knows babies can’t come out. I looked them over, but didn’t see none with no black women so I never did find out if they had the pink pussies or if they pussies was black or brown or some other funny color. I supposed they could be purple.
+++++There was a few blank movies. One had Terry’s name on it, so I pulled it out. I poked my head in the closet, opened the plastic trash sack in there and seen it to be filled with reefer. I put the Terry movie in the bag. I put some of those other movies in. I opened up the dresser drawers looking for money. All it was was clothes. The bottom dresser had some artificial wangers in it, and handcuffs, the keys poking out of the locks. I took one of those, put it in the bag. I thought if things came down to things I could use those handcuffs on Susan, like if Susan decided she didn’t like me or something, which I didn’t think would happen, but if it did.
+++++On the night table I seen a pistol. I took that. I went to the kitchen, got a six pack of Budweiser from the fridge, put it in the bag and crawled out the window like Santa Claus, that’s what I felt like with that big old bag, and headed up to the tracks.
+++++Up at Jepson Lake I seen Skinny still fishing. Don’t ask how I knew it, but I knew he had a mind to clear out when he seen me hauling that bag over the field his way. Here comes Santa Claus, I was thinking in my mind. Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, and I don’t know what the words say after that. But Skinny started reeling his line in, clickety click, clickety click, and I picked up the speed, understand? When I got up to him I said, “You want a beer?” Skinny shook his head like hell no I don’t want no beer, keep walking, but when he seen the beers I pulled out, one for him and one for me, with all them cold drips running down the stickers and the glass, he said he didn’t mind if he did. I give it over and he popped the top and cast back his line.
+++++I sat on the grass beside his bucket and looked for the moon on the water. I seen it in the sky, the moon, round, the color of a peach, but I could not find it on the water, no matter how hard I tried. The moon wasn’t high enough yet to be on the water, understand all here everything and stuff? I said, “You ever eat a antlion? Antlions is good eating, buddy. You might not think it, but you pop one in you mouth. You’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s the only thing I ever ate still alive.”
+++++“I guess you never ate no raw oyster,” Skinny said.
+++++“Shit, oysters ain’t alive. Oysters ain’t but big snot globs.”
+++++Skinny was looking down on me, looking at my bag and all and everything and stuff. He said, “You done robbed somebody.”
+++++“Johnny ain’t somebody. Johnny’s a man with no head. My daddy cut the heads out of all the pictures of us together and then put them back in the album. All Johnny’s got where his head is is white.”
+++++Skinny laughed.
+++++“I’m serious. Johnny is the major traitor. If not for Johnny, I can’t tell you how happy I would be.”
+++++“Robbing a man of his beer,” Skinny said, and sucked his teeth like Dad always did when something he didn’t like was on the radar. When Dad suspected Terry had eaten more than twelve chips, which is what we was allowed to eat, he sucked his teeth. Terry confessed that she had done ate fifteen, so he laid her over the arm of the cozy chair, pulled down her tights and smacked her in front of the folks all over at the house drinking beer and playing music that day. People said Damn, they’re only chips, but Dad said No, it’s the principle. “How many beers you got in there, white boy?” Skinny said.
+++++“Enough to drink. You want another?”
+++++“I just started on this one.”
+++++“You want some bread?”
+++++“Naw.”
+++++“Have some bread.”
+++++“Naw, man, I’m on my way out.”
+++++“No you ain’t,” I said. “Lincoln set the slaves free in nineteen thirteen. You can do anything you want. Have some bread, brother.”
+++++“I got to get this fish on back to the house,” Skinny said.
+++++“Don’t you want to be my friend? I need somebody to bring me food while I’m hiding out in my underground fort. I don’t think Susan is going to come through for me. I love her, but she has things to do, places to go, you know what I’m saying?”
+++++Skinny reeled his line in, clickety click. He ripped the worm off the hook and threw it in the grass, and he hooked the hook onto the ring of his pole. His junky-looking car was sitting over there. I poured the movies out on the ground and said, “Look at that.” I picked up the one with a darky fucking a white woman on it and handed it over.
+++++He took it and looked at it a second and said, “How much you want for it?”
+++++“Nothing. You can have it. I got one of my sister. Daddy said once he was dead, Johnny was to make Terry his sex slave. I didn’t believe it. Johnny’s my uncle.”
+++++“On your father’s side?”
+++++“No,” I said. I said, “You know what else Johnny did? He fucked my mother, right out here.”
+++++“Well,” Skinny said. “I don’t need to know that, do I?”
+++++“It could be in the very spot I’m sitting. No way to tell. Lots of people fucked my mother. Did you fuck my mother? It’s okay to admit it, I won’t hold it against you because we’re friends.”
+++++“I ain’t got time for this,” Skinny said, and took his pole and bucket of fish on up to the car. He was leaving, just like that, with not even saying thanks for the beer or goodbye or anything at all and stuff, so I ran up there. I just thought we could wrestle or something, but in the scuffle his bucket fell over and his fish took off to swimming over the grass. I said, “Oh, man, I’m sorry,” but he was looking at me like I had done something unforgivable, which was just a lot of bullshit. I was tired of that shit. It made me so mad and I thought about smacking him. I had him pinned down beneath me. I said, “You want me to hit you, bitch?” He shook his head no. I said, “I didn’t say you could leave. If you get up without that I say you can leave, I’m’a come over here and shoot your ass. I got a gun in that bag, you understand what I’m telling you and stuff?”
+++++Black guy nodded yes, and I got up off him and went to the bank of the lake and sat there looking at the pictures on the movies. My friend Skinny was making groany sounds back there,but then he shutup. I think he thought he might should best not to test my nerves.
+++++About then is when I noticed I was hungry, and had been for a long time. Instead of going for the bag of bread, I looked at those pictures on the movie boxes. When I finished looking at one box, I threw it on the water, and picked up another. It’s weird looking at the pink pussies and all when you’re hungry. It’s like a trick somebody plays on you, because you can’t eat a pink pussy in the regular eat way. To be hungry and looking at those women wide open with eyes looking at you makes you not yourself, makes you question who you even think you are, like you could be somebody else that you don’t even know who he is. I tried to think of Susan to distract myself, but all I saw was my sister laid over Dad’s cozy chair. I was in the couch that time, and she looked at me, but I just bit into my hamburger. One of the guys in the room held a potato chip down by Terry’s mouth, tempting her to eat it as Dad smacked her fifteen times, once for each potato chip she ate. That same night, after everybody left, Mama—or the whore, which I guess is what I’m supposed to call her—called the cops after dad beat her up for fucking Johnny. She didn’t even admit that she fucked Johnny, but Dad said he could smell him in their bed. He beat her up and the whore put that court order on him. He broke the court order the next month when he sat down in his chair and blew his heart into the cushion. Was terry who found him first after coming off the school bus.
+++++I threw Terry’s movie out there in the water where it floated with them other pink pussies opened to the sky. The moon I could see on the water now, like a eye floating there, and just then Skinny come to life. I guess he done got tired of waiting for me to say he could leave. He said, “I thank my elbow broke.”
+++++That was the last straw. If he was Terry he would’ve got another punishment coming. Terry wasn’t allowed to whimper. People coming to the house always were like why is Terry standing with her face to the wall? Dad was hard on Terry more than any of us because he didn’t want her to be a whore and a liar like he said our mother was. It’s just a thing I guess we’re scared of, and I don’t wanna be like my daddy neither.
+++++“You gots to quit this shit!” Skinny shouted, but I got the pistol. I got it out of the bag and hopped up there and by the look on Skinny’s face he thought his life was done. In his eyes I seen all the black pussy in the world flying off on wings. He said, “Please,” and I pulled the trigger. All it did was click. “Oh, thank the Lord!” he said, “Thank you Jesus,” and I helped him up and started telling him all about my sister and stuff and everything, how after dad left the world for greener pastures, Terry went up north into Georgia somewhere with some thirty-year-olds. She came back pregnant two months later and was in the house right now, fourteen years old and fat with could be anybody’s baby, what did he think on that?
+++++“Devil be strong,” Skinny said.
+++++“I know that’s right,” I said. “I think whenever I get mad it’s the Devil got in me. I need some glasses so I don’t get tricked by some ugly bitch hag woman when I thought it was a nice looking girl from the college. That woman lied about me, I’m telling you. I think you should turn me in so you can get that thousand dollar reward. I’d rather you get it than somebody else. Come on, have another beer, my friend.”
+++++Ole Skinny said he might as well, and we sat down on the bank together and looked out at the moon on the water. Its color had gone from orange to white. It was growing dark out, and we drank our beers and talked on stuff, just the best of friends you ever could think of. Skinny started telling me how he’d once been a pastor in the church. I had some real questions for him now, like what color is the inside of the black pussy, and does it really say in the bible that if a man kills himself he goes to Hell? Was that how much our daddy loved us? I had lots of questions, but I most to listened on his talk on Jesus while one by one, the pink pussy movies got filled with water and were swallowed by the lake.

The Last Shot

I was ten minutes late. Chunky Baines stood in the crisp factory doorway with his hands on his hips or at least where his hips used to be. He was wearing a grubby string vest, stained tracksuit bottoms and a pair of worn tartan slippers, despite the fact that it was pissing down with rain. He chomped on a bar of chocolate.
+++++I jogged up to him, sweating like a pig.
+++++‘You’re late,’ said Chunky, grinning.
+++++‘No shit Sherlock,’ I said.
+++++‘Yes, I know Sherlock’s shit,’ said Chunky. ‘But Wilson’s been looking for you. He knows you’re late.’
+++++Chunky went into the factory and I followed. I took off my raincoat. Wiped my brow.
+++++‘I’m sweating like a nun in a sausage factory,’ I said.
+++++Chunky snorted and plonked himself down in a leather armchair.
+++++‘Catch your breath and then let’s get a move on,’ he said.
+++++He farted.
+++++The disused crisp factory was almost empty. In one corner there was Chunky and his chair. In another there was a table that had a kettle and two chipped mugs on it. There was a crate of diet coke and a box of Lion Bars. All were well past their sell-by dates.
+++++In another corner there were three wooden crates that contained a collection of rare pornography. And in the middle of the room was Sir Edward or The Antiquarian as he was sometimes known.
+++++He was almost sixty and wore a tweed three-piece suit and riding boots like some lord of the manor, which was probably fair enough since he actually was one. He held a riding crop in one hand and smoked a cigar with the other.
+++++Wilson marched into the room puffing on his inhaler. He was casually dressed in expensive clothes. His real name was Pierce but many years ago someone had commented that he looked and sounded like Sergeant Wilson from Dad’s Army and the nickname had stuck.
+++++‘About bloody time,’ he said to me.
+++++He took a video camera from one of the crates.
+++++I stripped to my boxer shorts and walked over to Sir Edward.
+++++‘Action,’ said Wilson and Sir Edward slapped me on the chest with the riding crop. He smirked.
+++++‘Can I do it again?’ he said to Wilson.
+++++‘You’re paying, Sir Edward,’ said Wilson. ‘But remember we’re on the clock.’
+++++Sir Edward licked his lips and slapped me across the face.

***

I daubed myself with TCP and ointment. Cleaned up my wounds. Sir Edward had certainly got his money’s worth. Wilson had gone off to convert the video he’d recorded to DVD. The business was becoming a nice little earner
+++++‘Have you heard about the Mandela Effect?’ I said.
+++++‘What’s that, then? Some sort of progressive-rock band?’ said Chunky. .
+++++‘Naw,’ I said watching Chunky opening a Lion Bar.
+++++‘It’s like a collective illusion. When loads of people believe something’s true even though it isn’t.’
+++++‘Like an urban legend?’
+++++‘Yep, a bit like that,’ I said.
+++++Chunky bit into the Lion bar and grimaced.
+++++‘Not exactly five star cuisine then?’ I said.
+++++‘Naw, it’s way past it’s sell-by date. Tastes a bit … fishy.’
+++++I dressed. Picked up my raincoat.
+++++‘So, what were you saying about the Mandela band or whatever?’ he said.
+++++‘The Mandela Effect,’ I said. ‘Well, it’s just that there are people in the pub who believe they’ve seen you get a round in but we all know that’s never actually happened.’
+++++I chuckled.
+++++‘Could say the same about you,’ said Chunky. ‘You never even go out these days.’
+++++‘I told you. I’m saving up.’
+++++‘How close are you to your financial target then?’
+++++‘Three hundred quid and my precious will be all mine.’
+++++‘Best make sure all that cash is safe, then. Stanley’s been hanging on to that car for you for six months now. The Aston Martin DB6 is a well sought after car, You know. He’ll be well peeved if you don’t buy it. And you wouldn’t like him when he’s peeved.’

***

‘It looks like an amateur job although it could be a professional job made to look like an amateur job,’ said DS Ronnie Burke.
+++++He popped a Nicorette into his mouth.
+++++My flat had been trashed and, of course, my savings were gone.
+++++‘Are you sure nothing was taken?’ said DS Burke.
+++++‘Nothing,’ I said.
+++++‘Could well have been a smack-head. Probably looking for cash or something valuable to sell.’
+++++‘There’s nothing valuable here that’s for sure. It was a shithole even before they trashed it.’
+++++DS Burke gave me his card.
+++++‘Call me if you spot that something is missing or if you have any ideas of who could have done it,’ he said.
+++++Of course I had a pretty clear idea of who had done it but I wasn’t going to share my suspicions with the law. I’d sort things out my own way.

***

+++++‘The thing with stupid people is that they are too stupid to know how stupid they are,’ I said. ‘They believe all they know is all there is. Know what I mean?’
+++++Chunky was sobbing, hanging from a girder in the crisp factory. It had been a pain getting him up there but Wilson and I managed in the end.
+++++Sir Edward was chuckling as he slapped Chunky with the riding crop.
+++++‘Stop, stop …’ he moaned.
+++++‘Have you got enough footage?’ I said.
+++++‘Pretty much,’ said Wilson.
+++++He moved closer to Chunky. Pointed the camera at his face.
+++++‘Just time for the last shot,’ said Wilson.
+++++Which, of course, was when I pulled out the gun.

re-Pete

One eye was stuck wide open. Dry, angry red veins, thick behind the eyelids, branched out to thin tendrils that appeared to tease a scarred iris.
+++++Above the eye, the paralysis had seized the brow into a thick black arch that sloped all the way across a face that rarely saw sunlight.
+++++The other eye was functional. It was stuck half-closed, watered incessantly, and was sort of… bent. But he could see out of it most of the time.
+++++Pete ran a finger under his eye, swiped it on his shirt. His face un-blurred in the mirror. He continued brushing his teeth. As Aquafresh spittle accumulated on his reflection he stared at his scarred iris, unable to look away. His heart beat faster. His throat tightened. Breaths coming in short gasps through his nose, toothbrush tearing hard and fast on his teeth, Pete leaned forward and pressed his forehead to the bottom of the mirror until he couldn’t see himself any longer. Short gasp as the toothbrush popped out, a huge sharp breath. He spat into the sink with a shout. The toothbrush clattered in the sink basin.
+++++Pete lost his balance and fell to the floor.
+++++A shadow fell across him. “Pete?”
+++++“I’m okay, Mother.”
+++++“Sure, Pete. Sure. You look okay.”
+++++Pete wiped sweat from his forehead and sat up. He jumped as the toilet flushed behind him. Looked up and relaxed at the sight of his mother’s smile.
+++++In a soft, quiet voice she said, “You didn’t flush or put the seat down.” The toilet seat and lid slammed hard in the small, tiled room. “Wipe the mirror.”
+++++“Yes, Mother. I was going to flush the toilet.”
+++++“Sure, Pete. I know you were.”
+++++In the hallway a bedroom door opened, booted steps approached on the linoleum. “Hey Bev. That fucking idiot do it again?” A man filled the bathroom doorway, head and shoulders brushing the frame. His old cowboy boots thumped to a widespread stop. He displayed large teeth, looked down at Pete. “You little pussy. You’re scared of your own reflection. Every fucking day.”
+++++“Eagle!” Bev moved to stand in front of the man. “That’s not helping. That’s not how it works. He has severe obsessive compulsive disorder. He’s been diagnosed.”
+++++“Yeah, he’s made it clear he’s severely disordered. But you’re the one obsessed with it.”
+++++Pete wrapped his arms around his legs. Buried his face between his knees.
+++++Bev clucked her tongue, glanced at her son. “Talking to him like that only makes it worse.”
+++++Eagle ran a hand over his facial stub, glaring at the two. He raised his voice. “No, talking to him like that will toughen up his little ass.” He narrowed his dark eyes. “And talking to me like that will get your ass toughened up. Go make me some coffee, Bev, before I make you scared of your own reflection.”
+++++Bev closed her mouth and dropped her eyes. She pressed her lips together and shuffled past Eagle into the hallway.
+++++Eagle smiled after her. Turned to Pete. “Your daddy ain’t around here to coddle you and your mother anymore, boy. And I ain’t gonna be the man of a weak family. You hear me?” He leaned down and gripped Pete’s shoulder hard. Shook him. “You better toughen up if you know what’s best for you…” He jerked his head toward the hallway. “And your mom.”
+++++Pete fell over when the big man let go and left the bathroom. He wiped his eye and stood. Peered through the doorway, holding his breath. A drop of water splat in the sink and he gasped, looked around wildly. Looked at the mirror and the Aquafresh spittle.
+++++Grabbing a roll of paper towels from under the sink, he tore off a couple and started to wipe the mirror. One quick swipe and his reflection smeared. He let out a breath. He repositioned the paper towel and tried to keep breathing as he leaned over the sink to wipe again.
+++++As his hand inched closer he tried to keep focused on the smeared spittle and ignore his paralyzed eye growing larger in front of him. Sweat trickled down his sides from his armpits. His fingers pressed the paper towel to the mirror but his hand wouldn’t make the wiping motion; it only trembled.
+++++Eagle cursed Bev in the front room – he scalded his lips with “her” coffee – and Pete squeaked in pain as his elbow hit the sink. He held his breath and ran from the bathroom.

***

“He’s a ‘repeater’. So recurring obsessions are not abnormal.” The doctor turned off his optic scope and focused on holding a neutral expression. He glanced at Pete, knowing the kid sensed his disgust, gave a small smile, then turned to the mother. “The experience that caused the disorder, and consequently the paralysis, was extremely traumatic. And relatively recent.”
+++++Bev fiddled with her purse strap. She hated examination rooms. Hated hospitals. She uncrossed her legs, stood and smoothed the back of her shirt over her shorts. Shouldered her purse. “I don’t know why I even bring him here. It seems like I’ve spent my entire life in this place. Certainly spent my life savings… I give up.”
+++++The doctor frowned, adjusted his glasses. “Your son’s diagnosis is not one that can be healed with a prescription or home remedy. I’ve personally never administered to a patient with such severe OCD. For mild OCD, Prozac or Wellbutrin works fine to inhibit compulsions and repetitive behavior. Time and understanding – patience – is what Pete needs. And you are giving that to him.”
+++++“I got it.” Bev motioned for Pete to get off the table. He slid down, turned and grabbed his shirt. Pulled it over his head, watching his mom. She folded her arms and sighed. “Except for the patience part. My patience these days is shit.”
+++++“Well Ms…” He held up a clipboard.
+++++“Bev. Just Bev. Hello? I’m here three times a month and you still don’t know my name?”
+++++“Well Bev.” He cleared his throat. ”The brain is a wondrous organ. The plasticity allows damaged neural pathways to find new paths. Keep doing the eye exercises, and one day the eye may regain some functionality. The discipline of the physical exercises may help alleviate the OCD. It’s a long-term solution, but it’s the only solution in today’s medicine.”
+++++“That’s your opinion,” Bev muttered.
+++++“Excuse me?”
+++++“Thanks for your opinion.”
+++++He frowned. “Ah, also, as to the, ah,” he glanced at Pete, “inconvenience of his recurring obsession, that also may change with time. That particular behavior may cease altogether. But most likely it will be replaced with another, sometimes similar, act.”
+++++“Another? Are you fuc – ” Bev looked at her son, who continued to stare at her. She put a stick of gum in her mouth, stuck the pack back in her purse. Tried not to glare at the doctor and chewed while talking. “Are you seriously telling me this right now? Another obsession? How? What can I expect?”
+++++A group of nurses walked quickly past the exam room. One turned back and knocked before opening the door. “Doctor,” she said with quiet urgency.
+++++“Sure.” He looked at Bev and Pete as he backed out of the room. “Expect? Hell if I know.” He chuckled. “That’s part of the fun.” With a big grin he was gone.
+++++What a fucking asshole. Bev scowled, stroking Pete’s hair. I swear, I should go slash his tires…
+++++Pete swiped his eye and kept watching his mother’s face.

***

Pete didn’t like sleeping with the lights off. He didn’t like the quiet of dark. And didn’t understand why his parents always made a fuss about making the whole house dark and quiet before bed. It made him scared, not sleepy. And it made his parents mad at him because he talked or got out of bed to play with his toys by the light coming through the window.
+++++They got really mad when they had to keep getting out of bed to come into his room to shush him or yell at him for playing when he should be sleeping. So they made him sleep with them most nights. But he didn’t really sleep.
+++++How could he sleep when it was so quiet and dark?
+++++Since Daddy had gone to Heaven and the big man became his new daddy he didn’t sleep in his parents’ room anymore. So he slept in his own bed, and Mother didn’t check to see if he was playing by the window. And whenever he got scared and talked about things the big man just yelled instead of coming to his room like Daddy used to.
+++++Pete didn’t like the yelling. But he was glad he didn’t have to sleep with Mother and the big man.
+++++He went to his room. He was very tired after the doctor visit. The hospital was a scary place. Every time Mother drove them to see the doctor Pete saw people that were hurt. Most of them were hurt so bad they were in beds – and those same people would be in the same beds the next time Mother drove them to see the doctor! That scared Pete, too.
+++++The only thing Pete liked about visiting the doctor was the nice ladies in pajamas. They were very nice because they didn’t make fun of his face. And they had some really cool pajamas!
+++++Pete climbed onto his bed and pulled a race car from under his pillow. He rolled it back and forth over his stomach, wishing he had pajamas like they did…
+++++The nice ladies told him how handsome he looked in his new Scooby Doo pajamas. He smiled at the cartoon dog that was all over his arms, his stomach and legs. He laughed with the nice ladies.
+++++One of the nice ladies stepped in front of the others. She became so big the other nice ladies disappeared. Her laugh hurt his ears. He cupped his hands over his ears and pushed the sound away. He closed his eyes.
+++++In the darkness the nice lady stopped laughing. Pete couldn’t see her but knew she was gone… And he wasn’t at the doctor visit anymore. He was at home. In his parent’s room. Daddy was sleeping next to him; Pete always knew when Daddy was sleeping because he made funny noises with his nose. He liked how Daddy always smelled like his truck. Mother wasn’t in bed. He knew when she was gone because he got cold and had to get all the way under the sheet. Sometimes she left after Daddy started making funny noises. Pete didn’t understand why she left. He liked the funny noises. Hearing them made him sleepy and made the scary quiet go away.
+++++Pete tried to move closer to Daddy but couldn’t find him. The whole bed was cold. And the scary quiet came back. Pete sat up when the hallway light came on. It was bright under the bedroom door and hurt his eyes. Two shadows appeared in the middle of the light like missing front teeth. The shadows moved wide right before the door crashed open. A huge black bear stomped into the room holding his paws out to his sides. The bear growled and turned its head. Pete saw it was a very big man, and he was very mad.
+++++Daddy was making funny noises again. Pete sighed as the scary quiet left and looked at the bedroom door. It was closed. The bear hadn’t broken it down. Pete scooted over to curl up behind Daddy and the door crashed open.
+++++Daddy shouted, “Who is that? Who are you?” and leapt from the bed. “Where’s Bev? BEV!”
+++++Daddy grabbed for his pants off the dresser. The big man stepped in and hit Daddy really hard in the face. He fell onto the table next to the bed, crushing a lamp.
+++++Pete pulled the covers over his head. He couldn’t breath. The men fought on the floor, upending the chair and table, shoving the dresser into the door. Makeup and coins scattered, and old magazines were shredded under their legs.
+++++Pete shouted, “Mother!” and scrambled off the bed away from the scary fight. He got under the bed, pulling the sheets with him.
+++++“Fucking my girl!” the big man thundered, punching Daddy.
+++++Daddy growled in pain and turned the big man over on top of the bed. Something cracked and the bed suddenly smashed down on Pete. He shouted for Mother then couldn’t breath. He shut his eyes tight. Above him legs kicked the walls then he could breath as the men thumped over on the floor. He opened his eyes. Right in front of his face Daddy lay with the big man on top of him. Daddy was shaking bad, spitting huge breaths, but couldn’t push the big man off.
+++++The big man roared and Pete saw the huge bear lean over Daddy. Light coming through the busted door made the long blade gripped in the bear’s paws shine. It quivered and the paws became hands pushing down. Daddy yelped like a puppy that had been stepped on, then yelled loud as the big knife pressed into his chest.
+++++The big man’s eyes were wide and shaking. His lips, wet and open, showed large white teeth. “Fucking my girl? Huh? DID YOU FUCK MY GIRL?”
+++++“No!” Daddy yelped.
+++++“No? That’s what she said. At first.” The big man sat up. He slowly pulled the knife out of Daddy.
+++++Pete, unable to close his eyes, heard a sound like his foot being pulled out of thick mud. The mud turned as red as Daddy’s blood on the knife.
+++++“Tell me how you did my girl.” The big man pushed down again. Daddy screamed a sound that made Pete start panting. Pete saw the blade slowly bite into Daddy’s chest again. Daddy’s arms poured sweat, feebly pushing at the big man’s hands.
+++++“It wasn’t me… wasn’t me!” Daddy said. “I – ” He gasped as the blade twisted. His legs, under the big man, kicked and slammed his heels hard on the floor.
+++++“You fucked her! You fucked her!” The big man’s spit sprayed all over Daddy’s face. “You did! She told me you did!”
+++++The red mud appeared, Pete’s foot dragging clear…
+++++The point of the knife disappeared into Daddy’s side. Pete was becoming dizzy. His throat pulsed, sucking in small wheezes of air. He watched Daddy scoot around, squealing. Daddy’s hand fumbled over Pete’s face and squeezed it. Pete wheezed louder, eyes staring through Daddy’s fingers. The hand let go, pushing at the bed.
+++++The big man put a hand over Daddy’s mouth. The squealing stopped. Their noses almost touched. The big man shouted, “Tell me how you did it! Tell me!” He twisted the knife.
+++++Daddy made a sound like a big frog, then he hummed against the big man’s hand. The light coming into the room made the tears in Daddy’s eyes turn yellow. The bear paw moved off his mouth. “I’m sorry!” Daddy said.
+++++“Sorry? That’s the same fucking thing she said. Sorry. You two were made for each other. Two sorry motherfuckers!”
+++++“I am. I’m really sorry.” Just like Pete, Daddy couldn’t breathe right. “It just… happened.”
+++++The bear sat up and roared. Then he slammed the knife into Daddy’s head. It sounded like a big watermelon when Mother stuck her “good” knife in it. Pete liked watermelon.
+++++Pete’s panting slowed. His eyebrows felt funny. And one eye hurt really bad because it wouldn’t close. He saw Daddy’s stomach stop moving. Then his mouth stopped moving…
+++++Pete saw himself as he did every morning in the bathroom and started panting fast again.

***

Pete walked out of his bedroom holding his favorite toy: a big fire truck, the kind with real lights and a siren that works and a ladder that moves up and down like a real ladder. He didn’t play with it last night by the window. But he wanted to.
+++++The fire truck was longer than his arm. He carried it with both hands, keeping an eye on the ladder. Sometimes it shot out and scraped the wall. Mother got angry when his toys scraped the walls. Pete knew it was because the big man gets really mad at her whenever Pete makes a mess or breaks something.
+++++He held the fire truck in front of him whenever there were no lights on in the hallway. Pete could just use the lights on the fire truck. He saw the bathroom light was already on and turned to carefully place his favoritest toy back in his room.
+++++As he walked into the bathroom he noticed his hand didn’t shake when he pushed the door. He stared at the doorknob, knowing it would make his hand shake. But it didn’t. He wiggled his fingers and frowned. He wanted to keep watching the doorknob but he had to pee really bad!
+++++He finished and flushed the toilet, put the seat down. Turning to the sink he looked up at his reflection: big ears sticking out of long dark hair that covered his funny eyebrows and the eye that wouldn’t close. He didn’t like his hair long, in his face. Mother wanted it like that. She said he embarrassed her.
+++++The sink had tiny hairs all over it from the big man’s beard. Pete wrinkled his nose, grabbed some paper towels and wiped it clean. Then he brushed his teeth. Leaning forward, he watched his teeth and gums closely to make sure the toothbrush moved the way Daddy showed him.
+++++Rinsed his mouth, cleaned his Scooby Doo toothbrush, and looked at the mirror. He was surprised he didn’t have to wipe it clean. He shrugged and went back to his room to play with the fire truck.

***

Bev heard her son in the bathroom and sighed. Blew out a breath and grabbed Eagle’s coffee mug off the TV – the TV! – and walked into the kitchen. Stopped at the sink. Bracelets jingled as she swept her long dark hair back into a ponytail. She grabbed the sink sprayer and began washing the mug. Her cheekbones poked out, lips pursed. Tiny wrinkles sprang from narrowed eyes. On top of the fucking TV… Eagle is such a dick. She shook her head. It’s a nice dick, but that’s all the fuckhead is good for.
+++++Wiping down the counter she heard Pete’s fire truck siren blaring. She stopped, frowning. Then went to the laundry room to trade out towels on the way to check on Pete’s daily bathroom crap.
+++++“Huh. Son of a bitch.” Bev stood in the bathroom doorway looking around with her mouth open. The toilet seat was down. The mirror was clean. And he had even cleaned Eagle’s bullshit out of the sink. “I’ll be damned.”
+++++As Bev walked over to Pete’s room she remembered what the doctor had said. She hoped whatever new crap he started was better than the old crap. Easier to clean up.
+++++And she hoped whatever new crap he started wouldn’t piss off Eagle… or give him a new reason to hurt her.

***

“Just watch him. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
+++++“Watch him do what?”
+++++“You know what I mean. He’s sleeping. You don’t have to actually watch him. Just be here in case something happens.”
+++++“Oh, yeah, because this is the place where things happen. What could possibly happen in this little Disney dump?”
+++++“Just stay, Eagle. Damn. It’s my uncle’s funeral. He was a good man and I’m going to see his family. And there’s no way in hell I’m bringing you or Pete. I’ll be embarrassed enough on my own.”
+++++“I don’t want to stay. The boys are still at the bar. It’s two-for-one night, and I just got that new cue…”
+++++“Let go. Stop, Eagle!”
+++++“Well, if I can’t have beer and play pool I wanna play with you.”
+++++“No. I have to go. We can do that in the morning when Pete has his bath.”
+++++“Ah shit, Bev. That’s the only thing worth staying here for. So if you want me to stay, come here… Now.”
+++++Pete listened until the big man started taking off Mother’s clothes. He knew the big man was going to hurt Mother. He always got really scared when he hurt her like that. So he stopped listening and went to play firefighter.
+++++Pete pushed the fire truck into the light and made the ladder go up to the window. He pretended the light was fire and the wooden frame was a giant house. He wanted to turn on the siren and lights and play like real firemen and fight the fire. But he was supposed to be sleeping and didn’t want the big man to yell at him.
+++++Fighting this fire was not easy. It took all of Pete’s G.I. Joes to do it. Smiling, he took them down off the window ledge, one at a time, sliding them down the ladder to climb off the truck and stand together like real firemen do after they put out a big fire. He wished he could feed them sandwiches like people do on TV. He didn’t have any sandwiches. Not even pretend ones.
+++++Pete stood up quickly, excited. He knew where something even better than sandwiches was. It was in the kitchen.
+++++Watermelon!
+++++Pete smiled and walked to the door. He could give each of the firemen a piece of Mother’s watermelon. And Mother would never know because the firemen were small. He could give them each a small piece.
+++++He swiped a finger under his eye and peeked out into the hallway. It was quiet. But the hallway light was on so it wasn’t scary quiet. He knew Mother was gone. Her car makes a lot of noise when it leaves the garage.
+++++He walked into the living room. The big man was sleeping in Daddy’s chair. Pete looked at the TV as he hurried past it. A cowboy movie was playing. There were horses running fast, and the men riding them had big funny hats and were shooting guns. Pete wanted to stop and watch the cowboys but he didn’t want the big man to wake up and yell at him.
+++++Walking into the kitchen Pete saw Mother’s good knife on the counter. He slowly walked up to it. Reached up and touched the handle. Mother didn’t want him playing with her good knife. She didn’t want him even touching it. Or any knife.
+++++He turned and looked at the big man. His eyes were closed. Pete grabbed the knife and looked at the blade. It was very shiny. He wondered if his firemen could use a good knife. Smiling, he swiped his eye, looked up at the refrigerator and remembered the watermelon.
+++++The cold air pushed out against his face, blowing hair out of his eyes. It smelled like watermelon. Pete opened the refrigerator all the way and leaned in to look at the watermelon in Mother’s big dish. She hadn’t cut it up yet. He lifted the knife and pressed the blade into the green part people weren’t supposed to eat. It didn’t go in very far. He pulled it out and stuck it back in, harder this time. His hand slipped down the handle and scared him; he almost touched the blade.
+++++Pete left the knife and walked away from the refrigerator. Then he stopped. His squinted eye stopped its rapid blinking. His panting slowed. He chewed on his lip. Then he went back to the watermelon and grabbed the knife with both hands. He jerked it clear and, without thinking, rammed it down hard into the melon. The handle thumped under his fingers, but didn’t slip. He smiled and pulled the blade out slowly. Dark pink showed where the knife had been. Pete stared at the hole. Then he looked at the other end and pushed the knife in. Using both hands, he pretended they were paws and he was a giant bear. He pushed the knife in all over, making the green part have big holes that leaked pink water. Playing with Mother’s good knife was really fun.
+++++“What the hell?”
+++++Pete gasped and spun away from the refrigerator. He put his hands behind his back.
+++++“Who were you talking to? Aren’t you supposed to be in bed? What the fuck time is it?” Eagle peered around the kitchen, wiping fingers over his eyes.
+++++Pete stood, frozen, scared the big man was going to yell and call him stupid names.
+++++Eagle smacked his lips and staggered towards the refrigerator. He stopped suddenly and looked down at Pete. He threw his hands out to his sides. “Well, you little fuck. Why are you just staring like a little pussy? Tell me who you were talking to. Fucking woke me up. You having a sleepover or some gay shit?” He glanced around, then leaned in and grabbed a beer, closed the refrigerator.
+++++Pete shook his head. His eye watered. He wanted to wipe it. But he was scared he would hurt himself if he let go of Mother’s good knife.
+++++“Ah, you crying now little pussy? Did I hurt your little pussy feelings?” He took a big swallow of his beer. Sighed. His eyes narrowed. “Hey. You hiding something? What do you have behind your back?” He stepped toward Pete.
+++++Pete held his breath. He gasped when the big man grabbed his shoulder and squeezed really hard.
+++++“I asked you a goddamn question, boy. What’s behind your back?”
+++++The big man took hold of Pete’s neck. His giant hand wrapped all the way around it, fingers touching thumb. He snatched Pete toward him.
+++++Pete squeaked as he was yanked off the floor. The big man pulled him up so their faces almost touched. He tried to grab the big man’s arm.
+++++“I told you I will not be the head of a weak fam – “ Eagle wasn’t expecting the little pussy to hit him. And damn did it hurt! He dropped the boy and felt the side of his neck. His eyes widened. Beer sprayed from the can as it hit the floor. He started coughing and suddenly had trouble seeing. He felt sick, worse than any hangover. He felt for the counter and tried to move his feet over to the sink. But his feet wouldn’t move. He opened his eyes wide and saw he was on his knees. He tried to resist coughing. It came out and the pain in his neck flared down his spine like a burn. It spread into his arms and legs, turning cold. Hot blood poured over trembling fingers. He gently touched the knife handle, thinking he would pull it out real quick. He grabbed the handle, eyes closed tight, groaning. Then lost his courage. He would wait for Bev. She’ll be home any minute…
+++++Pete watched the big man move around the kitchen. He moved like he does whenever he comes home from playing with his friends. It was funny. But it wasn’t very funny this time. Mother was going to be really really mad about this mess.
+++++The big man tried to pull Mother’s good knife out of his neck. He couldn’t. Pete walked over and took the handle in both hands, pulling it all the way out. It made a sucking sound. Pete froze, staring at the blade. Blood shot out of Eagle’s neck and he screamed because it must hurt really bad. Pete felt blood running down his face. It felt gross but he kept looking at the knife.
+++++Eagle clamped a hand over his neck and fell on his back. He coughed and pink spittle covered the cabinets he lay next to. His breaths were shallow. His eyes were locked onto Pete, on the knife the boy was staring at. Holding his eyes open made him want to puke. He was glad he didn’t drink much today. The pain from puking right now would certainly kill him.
+++++Pete’s face turned toward the big man. Chewing on his lip, he held his hands out wide and waved the knife in front of him. He stomped over to Eagle. “You fucking my girl?”
+++++Eagle jerked and blew out a high pitched wheeze. He screamed. His boots pushed at the cabinets, sliding him into the pink beer.
+++++Pete jumped and landed on top of Eagle. He shouted in a deep voice, “Tell me how you did it!” and pushed the knife down into Eagle’s chest. A boot caved in several cabinet doors, heel thudding on the tile.
+++++Eagle pushed at the boy with all his strength but couldn’t budge him. He tried to say “stop” but only coughed. His chest made him forget about his neck. He grabbed at the blade, cutting his fingers. Nausea swamped him. He groaned loud as the boy leaned back and slowly pulled it out. He managed one gasping breath before the knife plunged into the other side. He heard that deep voice say, “You’re sorry? That’s the same fucking thing she said. Sorry. You two were made for each other. Two sorry motherfuckers!” and then he heard no more .

***

Bev parked and got out. The garage door rumbled over her head, closed and locked. She walked around to the trunk and took out several bags of groceries. Closed it and walked inside the house.
+++++She was dead tired. She hadn’t slept much lately because of Pete’s weird crap and Eagle’s drunk bullshit. She nearly fell asleep during the long drive. Almost died… Shit, I hope Eagle is sleeping.
+++++She hefted the bags and walked through the laundry room, into the kitchen. Groceries hit the floor, cans rolling into a pool of blood. On the other side Eagle lay against the counter cabinets. Bev screamed. Her eyes seized on Eagle’s neck and chest and she kept on screaming.
+++++Pete appeared from the living room. Bev jumped when she saw him. She started to run to him but saw the knife. She froze again.
+++++His face…
+++++“Expect? Hell if I know,” the doctor had said, then laughed. “That’s part of the fun.”
+++++0h my fucking God.
+++++Pete held his hands wide and waved the knife. He stomped over to her. “Fucking my girl?” He said in a thunderous voice. “Huh? DID YOU FUCK MY GIRL?”
+++++Bev started screaming again.

Big Fish

Captain Bleaker stood on the dock in the cold, wet predawn air, in front of his fishing vessel. He popped a menthol cigarette between his teeth and said, “I do it for one guy. Private. Nobody bothers me, long as I’m not chumming near shore.”
+++++“Chumming,” George said under his breath.
+++++“Don’t like sharks, George?” The captain smiled and popped a few aspirin without removing the cigarette. Sea lions barked from behind the fog. Captain Bleaker took a drag from his cigarette and looked west toward the dark horizon.
+++++George showed him a duffel bag of cash.
+++++“I take this, what’s to say I’m not dead next?” The captain flicked his smoke into the water.
+++++“Men die, Captain. This guy, likes to go in the water with sharks, bad people want him. Me and my partner might be the best of the bad guys coming, and believe me, they’re coming.”
+++++“I count it, what am I looking at?”
+++++“Enough to help with a new boat or a new life,” Julien said. He blew warmth into his hands, the injured one already numb from the cold.
+++++Captain Bleaker took the bag of cash and let the men board. “Ecclesiastes,” Captain Bleaker said. “She’s sound. Tough as she is old and she’s old as hell.” He lit another cigarette and walked into the cabin to count the money. He came out a few minutes later and said, “Off to the races.”
+++++George looked over the railing. The cold, dark water swirled when Captain Bleaker started the engine — the smell of diesel churned his stomach.
+++++“Don’t look at the water, George. Make you sick.” Captain bleaker stuck another menthol between his teeth, hardly finished with the last one. “No fun being sea sick.” He lit his smoke and looked toward the sky.
+++++“Sea sick is bad times. Worse than anything I caught down in the Congo.” Julien pulled out a can of chewing tobacco, he offered some to George, who gave him the finger.
+++++“You’ll be alright, Georgie.” Julien patted him on the back.
+++++The old fishing vessel lumbered through the Nehalem Bay toward Fat Frank Biancollo’s second home. Light from the rising sun danced on the calm water. George trained his eyes on the thick grass along the shoreline. Now and then, a fish jumped.
+++++“His place is two more houses up, starboard. That’s your left, George,” Captain Bleaker said.
+++++George wanted a joint to help with the nausea, but a clear head was necessary. The engine rumbled to an idle and momentum carried them to the private dock of Fat Frank’s home — an expansive mid-century ranch with a croquet lawn that touched the shoreline. Three dogs came charging at them but stopped and ran back to the house at the sound of a high whistle.
+++++“Malinois,” Julien said. “Mean fucking dogs.” He spit tobacco juice over the side and sheathed the long blade he’d taken out for the potential fight.
+++++Fat Frank Biancollo walked toward them with purpose and confidence. In his youth, he was left tackle for Texas A&M. Snapped his femur in a bowl game. TV kept showing the footage over and over, his face screaming behind the facemask of the A&M helmet. That was twenty years ago, but now he barely had a limp.
+++++“Captain,” he said. His mass swayed the floating dock.
+++++“Frank,” Captain Bleaker said.
+++++Frank looked at the two men on the boat then made eye contact with the captain.
+++++“They got interest in killing the sharks not swimming with them,” Captain Bleaker said.
+++++“Killing them?” Frank ticked his head sideways.
+++++“Not today, Frank. Just showing them where to look.”
+++++“I don’t really like that idea, Captain.” Frank moved closer to the vessel, again the dock moved under his mass.
+++++“My ship,” the Captain said.
+++++“Your ship.” Frank walked off to grab his gear. George wondered about the tanks, what they would look like, how to rig them.
+++++Back at the motel the night before, Julien said that he had it figured out. “Up the C02, lower the 02, he’s dead.”
+++++“How’s that kill him?” George asked. The fluorescent light from the motel kitchen gave off the hue of a white trash wedding on a midnight in July.
+++++“Passes out under water, he’s still breathing.” Julien heaved his chest in and out then drank from a glass of red wine. “Fucks his blood up. He passes out. Drowns. He’s dead. It’s an accident.”
+++++The boat rocked when Frank climbed aboard, his size even more apparent. George couldn’t help but consider sinking. He latched on to the railing and gave a weak smile. Frank glanced at him for a beat then moved on to the task of loading his gear.
+++++Julien whistled and followed Captain Bleaker’s orders like a seasoned first mate. They pulled from the dock and headed to open sea.
+++++Frank placed his gear in an aft corner near the cabin and started his inspection of the shark cage. The pulleys, the weight supporting bar. He moved on to the oxygen tanks.
+++++George watched him like a predator stalking its prey. Julien stole glances — both wanted to get it over with.
+++++George motioned for Julien to come in the cabin with him. Frank gave a sidelong glance at Julien’s injured hand. The open sea rocked the boat more than George thought it would. His stomach flipped. Julien sat across from him at the small table in the galley cabin.
+++++“I say we kill this fucker now, dump him in the water,” George said.
+++++“The accident angle? That’s out?”
+++++“I don’t like being on the water,” George said.
+++++“No accident, no pay.” Julien looked off toward the disappearing landscape. “We kill him now, do it our way — we piss off Mr. Sands, his crew comes for us, nobody wins.” Julien put in a fresh chew of tobacco. “Suck it up, George. We need the cash and don’t need the headache.”
+++++“You can get to the tanks with that big fucker mad-dogging us?” George asked.
+++++Julien spit into an empty beer can. He smiled, knowing it would give George a little more nausea. “Hand is killing me,” he said.
+++++The cabin door slammed open. The two men looked up to see Fat Frank Biancollo holding a Smith and Wesson Governor.
+++++“You mind telling me why there’s a scatter pistol pointed in our direction, big fella?” George rested a Beretta .45 on the table.
+++++Frank motioned to the Beretta. “Put that on the ground, slide it over to me.”
+++++“You shoot us, then what?” George shifted in the small bench seat.
+++++“Slide that pistol over.” Frank’s massive frame took up most of the doorway.
+++++“That pistol you got there, is it loaded with .410 shells or .45 long?” Julien asked.
+++++“You here because of Mr. Sands?” Frank asked.
+++++“That scatter pistol, you loaded it with .410’s, turn us into ground meat, turn this table into kindling. You got nerve for that?” Julien smiled just enough to show his gold tooth.
+++++Frank hesitated.
+++++Julien pounced. He buried a serrated blade into Frank’s Vena Cava and twisted. Frank made the sound of a man unprepared for death — fear, pain and realization in one breath. Julien cut down and to the left, splitting Franks Diaphragm, opening the Vena Cava even more. As the big man spasmed for breath, Julien and George pushed him backward through the doorway. He dropped the pistol, fell onto the deck of the boat and bled out. The grey Oregon sky over the North Pacific faded to black for Fat Frank Biancollo. No accident.
+++++George kept missing the shoulder joint, hitting the thick Humerus bone instead. He went for another swing with the small hatchet and cracked the clavicle.
+++++“Have to get them at the joint,” Captain Bleaker said from somewhere.
+++++“Just get us to the sharks,” George said.
+++++“Why can’t we just slide him off into the water when we get there?” Julien pushed back from the body, blood up to the elbows. “This guy is a lot of meat to deal with.”
+++++George stopped and sat back against the railing of the old fishing boat. “We can’t lift this big bastard, especially with your hand like that.”
+++++Julien looked down at his bandaged hand, his index finger missing thanks to the henchmen of Mr. Sands. With his good hand, he thwacked a leg and it popped off below the knee. George went for the other arm. Two good whacks and it popped off. Julien had each leg cut into four pieces by the time they reached the sharks, and Frank was nothing more than a butchered hunk of meat on the deck of the boat. His eyes were open and Julien closed them with the gentle touch of a friend, then he started in on Frank’s teeth with a ballpein hammer.
+++++Captain Bleaker put the boat in idle position. The swell was growing and the stagnant ship rocked hard.
+++++George heard the first bump of a shark before he felt it.
+++++Another bump.
+++++“That a shark bumping the boat?” George clutched the railing. He wanted to move to the cabin.
+++++“Dump him and let’s get.” Captain Bleaker marveled at the clear sky while he lit a cigarette.
+++++“You heard the man,” Julien said. He started chucking limbs overboard.
+++++Another bump.
+++++“Sharks don’t do that, right?” George said. He threw an arm from where he stood, too far away, it hit the railing and bounced back onto the deck.
+++++“Strange,” Captain Bleaker said through the menthol between his teeth. “Strange indeed.”
+++++Bump.
+++++“Fuck.” George braced for another bump, held the railing and tried to lift the bloody torso with one hand. “Christ, he’s heavy.”
+++++“Dead weight is always heavier.” Julien lifted the torso onto the railing.
+++++George looked down at the water. Julien slipped in the blood. The massive fish, dorsal fin circling, turned toward the boat, blood dripped into the water.
+++++Bump.
+++++George slipped. Frank’s torso fell on top of him.
+++++Julien laughed. It was too much, him and George laying on a bloody deck, surrounded by sharks. George squirmed out from under the mass of flesh. Another bump, harder this time.
+++++“Getting more aggressive,” Captain Bleaker said. “Blood in the water.” He stole a nip from his flask. “Get the rest of that body in the water. Great White feeding frenzy isn’t something I want to be a part of.” Captain Bleaker lit another smoke.
+++++Julien heaved. George heaved. The rest of Fat Frank went over in a splash of red churning ocean. Teeth and slapping fins finished him off.
+++++George couldn’t keep from watching the sharks. The size of them, the teeth. Two, maybe three of them now. He threw up on the deck, too afraid to let it go overboard, afraid he’d be taken in the water among the frenzy.
+++++George and Julien unhooked the cage. It sank with slow determination to the bottom of the cold North Pacific.
+++++“Guess it’s no accident.” Julien chucked the tanks over the side. He used sea water to clean the blood from the deck — it could have easily been fish blood — a big fish.

Cure

Suffocation. Invasion. Intoxication. Addiction. Hope. Pain. Misery. Abrasion. Deceit. Deception. Disappointment. Disaster.
+++++Noise. From the moment he wakes until he is finally able to fall asleep at night, there is noise.
+++++Whiny advertisements and complaints as proclamations, answers with solutions lacking validity or support, and someone broadcasts something far too personal in an insincere attempt at imaginary friendship, yet another disinterested participant.
+++++Everyone shouts over each other to like or sell or hate or ask or recommend or plead or bitch or buy.
+++++Submit to the sound of their voice, swoon over their command of the written word, everything appeals to an indifferent audience. Everyone waits for the quiet, finally, to corrupt with their own bullshit. They can voice an opinion, and distracted strangers might listen, but only long enough to remember something else to grumble about.
+++++The alarm sounds at five in the morning, a smartphone set to vibrate, the buzz from the nightstand the closest to quiet he will experience today. Without waking his wife or children, he pads to the bathroom where he shits as he checks his email and bank account, then hops into the shower to shave, shampoo, and rub one out. His only preparation for the painful day ahead. Because it is Tuesday. Afterward, he grabs a mix of clothes from the dryer and the floor, a pair of boxers from the hamper – and with a quick sniff – they pass the test. It is only work anyway.
+++++The assault begins as soon as the car starts, the day comes in bursts.
+++++The commute.

“…accident not your fault…”
“…greed…”
“…problems with erectile dysfunction…”
“…sometimes…”
“…get rich selling real estate…”
“…lies…”
“…struggling with addiction…”
“…tired…”
“…fat…”
“…opinion…”
“…everyone…”
“…needy…”
“…donate blood…”
“…your problem…”
“…give money…”
“…your responsibility…”
“…hatemonger…”
“…Cheeto…”
“…God hates you…”
“…hopefully…”

Then work as usual.

“…new policy…”
“…why…”
“…because…”
“…hate this place…”
“…I’m important…”
“…incompetence…”
“…management…”
“…numbers…”
“…annoying…”
“…do this…”
“…I’m pretty…”
“…wrong…”
“…too busy…”
“…laziness…”
“…can’t do my job…”
“…call the union…”
“…don’t understand…”
“…employment has been terminated…”

And back home.

“…feed us…”
“…dinner…”
“…clean up…”
“…dishes…”
“…that smell…”
“…trash…”
“…still hungry…”
“…never enough…”
“…money…”
“…bills…”
“…I’m thirsty…”
“…never finished…”
“…I’m sleepy…”
“…goodnight…”
“…need…”
“…of course…”
“…monsters…”
“…dead…”
“…love you…”
“…me too…”
“…want…”
“…no…”
“…hate you…”
“…I know…”

Stuck in traffic tomorrow, the noise swells to fill his ears and spill out; the overflow swallows him and muffles a cry for help as he drowns. He cannot think. He cannot breathe. Everything questions and contradicts and complains to interfere with the quiet.
+++++The light burns red, the gearshift clunks to park before the brake is activated, and he steps from the vehicle.
+++++The trunk opens with a small click, and everything is muted. The noise moves to the background, bubbling violently just beneath the surface, as he looks to the pain relief stored there. A working prototype for the new cure, resting comfortably in the cool silence.
+++++After a few beautiful moments, even his mind doesn’t respect the quiet. Another victim of corporate brainwashing and globalization, it vomits disposable claims into the brain of a perfect consumer.

“…fast and effective…”
“…clinically tested…”
“…as seen on TV…”
“…doctor recommended…”
“…same day shipping…”
“…safe and simple…”
“…drug free…”
“…non habit-forming…”
“…buy online or in-store today…”
“…money back guarantee…”
“…your friends will respect you…”
“…your family will appreciate you…”

Definitely not new, but redesigned for a better overall experience. Pain Blast! With a fucking exclamation point. That means serious business.
+++++The cure is beautiful. Breath-taking.
+++++Black plastic and steel run from the ported barrel to the tactical handgrip, light, for the twelve gauge shells it uses. The eight-round magazine tube has been replaced with an inexpensive, yet extremely effective modification. Greater capacity, and straight out of a fucking comic book. A twelve round drum and a vertical foregrip, rapid reload simplified, the opportunity for more mushrooming slugs to be carried and fired quickly. When you really need to blow a motherfucker in half with one shot.
+++++But he only needs one. People talk too fucking much. Four F-bombs and the fucking ellipses. Five. He is a hypocrite.
+++++The cool steel muzzle sits silently under his chin, and he closes his eyes against the noise.

Slippery When Wet

I killed my husband by pushing him out the haymow door.  He didn’t have no idea I was gonna do it.  He was up there straightening the hay bales left over from winter.  It was a fine spring morning the day I done it.  I was downstairs in the barn sweeping out the feedway and the idea just come over me.  I climbed up the ladder to the loft and pushed him right out.  He landed on a pile of rocks we was saving to fix the foundation with.  The fall broke his neck and crinkled his head pretty good.  I climbed back down and finished my sweeping.  Then I fed the chickens, gathered my eggs, and started dinner for the chil’ren.  They only had half a day of school that day and when they come home I sent them out to fetch their pa to eat.  George is the one who found him.  George is the oldest, after Henry.  George come running into the house screaming that his pa was dead.  I sent Jenny around the road to use the neighbor’s telephone to call the doctor.  The doctor said their pa broke his neck and crinkled his head pretty good.  No one ever suspected I was the one who done it.  We buried him with a fine Christian service and that was that.  I’d have liked it better if he’d had some insurance, though.

Agnes Hazlowe is seventy-four years old.  She dips snuff and is bald from a childhood bout with typhus.  She wears a nightcap, even on Sundays when she dresses for church.  She does not sleep well and__when looked in on at night__is often found awake and staring up at the ceiling.  Her eyes are the size, shape, and color of ripe blueberries.

Jenny!  You stay away from that springhouse before you fall in and drown.  That’s what I used to yell at her.  If I yelled it at her once that summer I yelled it at her a hunderd times.  Stay away from that spring, I’d holler.  But Jenny didn’t listen.  She was out there looking at herself in the water.  She thought I didn’t know what she was doing, but I did.  Mothers have a way of knowing things.  I knew she was looking to see what that new boy from around the road saw.  I knew she snuck off to see him on the sly, too.  Letting him put his hands on her and her liking it.  I knew.  I could see it in her eyes.  The girl had no modesty.  No sense of shame.  Between times with that boy she’d sit in the springhouse looking at herself in the water.  Making herself pretty.  She’d fall in and drown one day, I told her.  But Jenny never listened.  She did fall in, too.  One Saturday.  And I held her under with a mop handle until there weren’t no more bubbles.  Henry and George had gone to the store for me.  When they come back I sent them out to look for their sister.  George is the one who found her.  George is the oldest, after Henry.  George come running into the house screaming Jenny was dead.  I sent Henry around the road to that new boy’s house to use the telephone and call the doctor.  The doctor said she must have hit her head on something and drowned.  They never once thought I helped.  We had a very nice funeral.  That new boy from around the road cried and cried and cried.  But I knew it was only because he missed touching Jenny.

Agnes Hazlowe drools from one corner of her mouth.  Cataracts have formed in her left eye, giving it a milky look and causing her to squint.  She sits most days with a Bible clutched in her lap.  When left unattended she fingers a tattered, velvet-ribbon bookmark imprinted with the words Jesus Loves Me.

Henry was too much like his pa.  That was the problem.  He begun to bossing George and me around like things had become his responsibility of a sudden.  He prob’ly did it because he was the oldest.  He started to cussing sometimes, too, and he was all the time after me about frittering away my egg money.  That’s what he called it whenever I walked down to the store.  Frittering away my egg money, he’d say.  I told Henry he was getting to be just like his pa.  He thought I meant it as a compliment.  That’s why I burned him up.  I told him and I told him he was getting more like his pa every day.  But Henry didn’t listen.  So I finally burned him up.  He was out to the barn currying his horse.  We was in the middle of a hot, dry summer that year.  It was the driest summer anybody could remember.  Fires was very common.  I went out to the barn and hit him over the head with a chunk of firewood.  Then I closed up all the doors and piled loose straw against one wall.  I thew a lit match in the straw and the barn went up like you’d soaked it with kerosene.  Woof, and just like that it was all flames.  The fire roared so loud it hurt my ears.  I never even once heard Henry scream.  I went back to the house and laid down for my nap. George is the one saw the barn burning.  George was the oldest, after Henry.  He come running into my bedroom yelling that the barn was on fire.  I sent him around the road to telephone for help.  Volunteer firemen come and used water from the well to wet down everything in sight, but they was too late to save the barn.  They didn’t know Henry was in there till they poked around in the ashes.  Everybody knew how Henry smoked cigarettes.  They never once thought the fire was set.  I used some of my egg money to buy him a nice headstone.

Agnes Hazlowe has all the infirmities of her age and sex.  Her medication is measured and constant, dosed with and between her meals.  Her speech is monotonous, but not slurred, and she speaks as if from a prepared text.  While she talks she unconsciously plucks at the bodice of her dress with arthritic, grapevine-knotted fingers.

George is a good son.  He’s the oldest, after Henry.  He always minded me and still does.  He pays all my bills so I don’t have to fret over them.  I have a little money of my own, but George won’t take it.  He makes me spend it on myself.  He’s not a bit like his pa.  George is a good child.  Not like Jenny and Henry.  He’s got a daughter, though, and she’s been a trial to him.  Her name is Susan.  She’s real snotty and has a smart mouth.  George makes her come visit me sometimes, but I can tell she hates it.  Susan doesn’t like to visit her granny.  She doesn’t wear any underclothes, either.  She says she does, but I know better.  She wears tight pants and puts her hair in pigtails.  She wears makeup, too, and her only thirteen.  She always has a lollipop stuck in her mouth.  Slurping on it and talking around it in that snotty voice of hers.  When George makes her come visit she sits in that chair and stares at me like I’m a fly on the wall.  Just sits and stares with that lollipop sticking out her mouth.  Susan, I tell her, Susan, you’re indecent.  Put some underclothes on.  Don’t look so trashy.  She just laughs at me.  Susan, I tell her, one of these days you’re gonna fall down with that sucker in your mouth.  Fall and choke to death.  That thing’ll get shoved down your throat and you’ll strangle, girl.  It’ll be the best thing for your parents, too.  Save them a lot of trouble when you get older.  You’re gonna cause your pa heartache, Susan, and don’t I know it.  That’s what you’ll do, cause him heartache.  Unless you choke to death first.  When I tell her that she just laughs at me.  She won’t get it shoved down her throat, she says.  She says she knows better.  I know better, too, but she won’t listen to me.  She don’t believe her granny.

Agnes Hazlowe picks at her food.  She talks to whoever is nearby, seeming not to care whether they listen.  She fantasizes, the doctors say, and is unable to differentiate reality.  She is often recalcitrant, almost childish.  She suffers from progressive senility, the doctors say.  Recalcitrance and senility, though, are standard diagnoses for the aged.  Although difficult to manage at times Agnes is__the doctors assure us__otherwise well mannered and harmless.

Do me a favor, won’t you please?  On your way out tell that cleaning lady I need my floor waxed again.  Tell her she’s got to wax it every single day like I told her.  The slick wears off so quick when she don’t wax it every day.  Tell her I want it waxed every single day between now and Friday.  Friday’s the last day Susan is coming to visit her granny.  And thank you for stopping by.  You be real careful on your way out, hear?  That floor gets slippery as sin when it’s been waxed and I wouldn’t want you to fall and hurt yourself.

The Dominant Hand

‘I met him on a Monday and although my heart didn’t stand still, per say, it certainly skipped a beat or two, I can tell you,’ said Martyna. She giggled. ‘But then that was Philly Bailey. He was a charmer, alright. Not to everyone’s taste I know, a bit rough around the edges and that. But he always had something about him. A twinkle, you know?’
+++++Martyna finished her gin and tonic. She sucked on an ice cube.
+++++‘He was certainly a hell of a ladies man,’ said Ryan. ‘I’ll give him that.’
+++++Ryan was feeling uncomfortable. He couldn’t relax.  Astros Wine Bar was filling up with after-work office drones and although it wouldn’t have bothered him back in his boozing days now that he was on the wagon he found that he had less and less tolerance for pissheads. He’d successfully survived Philly Bailey’s wake without the urge to break his three year dry run but now he wasn’t so sure of the strength of his resolve.
+++++For one thing, Martyna was looking well-fit in her little black dress and he wondered whether maybe he should try to comfort the grieving widow. Maybe a drop of Dutch courage would help oil the wheels of opportunity.
+++++‘Can I get you another drink?’ he said.
+++++‘Don’t mind if I do,’ said Martyna.
+++++Ryan went over to the bar and pushed through the crowd. He was a big man and had no problems getting to the front of the queue. He moved directly in front of one of the barmaids.
+++++‘What can I get you, love?’ she said.
+++++‘Gin and Tonic, please pet,’ he said.
+++++‘Ice and a slice?’ she said.
+++++‘Yes, please,’ said.
+++++‘Anything else?’
+++++His heart beat quicker.
+++++‘Er, a pint of John Smiths will do nicely,’ he said, feeling as if he were falling into a void.

***

Cokey hadn’t thought the kid would shoot. Hadn’t thought that a kid barely out of his teens would even know how to use a gun. But there he was lying on the kitchen floor while a snotty nosed kid stood over him with what looked like a Glock. The kid was holding the gun like a cop, too.  Gripping it with two hands, legs spread. Giggling.
+++++Cokey cursed himself for not casing the house properly before he decided to rob it. He’d let greed get the better of him. That and his desperate need for a fix.  
+++++ What was weird, though, was why the bullet hadn’t really hurt. In fact, it had been like a sharp stab now he thought about it. And now he couldn’t feel a thing. The kitchen door opened and a tall man with a silver beard came in. He was dressed like some sort of doctor.
+++++‘How many darts did you use, son?’ said the man.
+++++‘Just the one, dad. And then he fell over,’ said the kid. He started giggling and the man laughed.
+++++‘He’s not the sharpest tool in the box this one, eh?’ said the man.
+++++Cokey opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t for some reason.
+++++The man crouched in front of Cokey.
+++++‘It’s a drug,’ said the man. ‘Experimental. My own creation actually though my smart son here helped a fair bit.’
+++++The kid giggled.
+++++‘You’re paralysed now. And it’ll spread so that all of your organs give up and then, well, you’ll die.’
+++++Cokey tried to scream.
+++++‘But I’d like to thank you for coming here. For giving us to opportunity to test our new toy on a real person. I’m fishing to sell it off to the highest bidder over the dark web and you’ve just made pitching that sale a lot easier.’
+++++The boy crouched next to his father and used his phone to film Cokey. To watch him die.

***

‘We’re all on a road to nowhere, though,’ said Ryan. ‘That’s the funny friggin thing. That’s what’s so friggin hysterical about the song. That’s what it’s really about.’
+++++He spat as he spoke and Martyna leant back, away from his projectile spittle. Earlier, she’d though that Ryan might be worth a shag. Funerals always made her horny and he wasn’t in bad shape for his age. But then he’d started on the beer. Then the strong lager. And now he was knocking back cheap whisky – the Weatherspoon’s pub they were in had a two-for-one deal on.  
+++++He was becoming an embarrassment. She could see the bearded bloke who was having lunch with his son watching them. The boy couldn’t stop giggling.
+++++‘Oh shit,’ said Ryan.
+++++He looked pale. He jerked to his feet and ran. He burst through the toilet door but he didn’t make it to a toilet cubicle before he puked and then he slipped in the stuff as he struggled to get to the toilet bowl. A group of guttersnipes were stood outside the cubicle filming him with their iPhones. Laughing and taunting.
+++++He wished he hadn’t given in to temptation. He wished a lot of things. He tried to stand but slipped and cracked his head on the toilet bowl.

***

Ryan trudged through the dark fog into consciousness. His head hurt. His mouth felt arid. He peeled open his eyes and saw that he must have been in hospital because there was a doctor stood over him. A tall man with a silver beard. He wondered who the giggling kid next to him was. It was a strange scene, to be sure.
+++++Still, at least he was in safe hands.

Permanent Exit Strategies

The day after he comes home from the hospital, Davis gets busy building. It’s the perfect time to do it, really: nobody’s expecting him to do much of anything these days anyway, and he’s got the whole house to himself from now on. It works out nicely. He has to take taxis going to and from the Home Depot, though, since the car was declared a total loss by the insurance company months ago. No surprises there. Still, the payout’s basically funding the entire project, so Davis can’t really be too upset about that.
+++++ A whole lot of other things, sure. He’s raw about plenty.
+++++ But the car? Eh, not so much. It’s just a car, and where he’s going, he’s not going to need it anyway. It’s better this way.
+++++ He spends the first week going all around town, still wrapped in bandages, hunting for supplies and moving them into the house and turning the girls’ room into a sort of storage locker for everything he buys. He stacks it all against the wall, organized in order of what he thinks he’ll need most and first. There’s a process here. Davis has a system and a schedule that he means to cleave as close to as he reasonably can. He has a plan.
+++++ The next week, he has the shed delivered, except shed is sort of a misnomer, maybe undersells the thing by a hair. Truth is, it’s more like a silo than anything, which is actually perfect for Davis’s means.
+++++ It’s huge, standing at least as tall as the house itself, all gleaming metal and proud as hell. He has them set it up in the backyard, right in the middle, pays them and sends them on their way. Some of the neighbors keep their distance (well, to be fair, all the neighbors do that) but can see over the fence Davis installing a series of heavy industrial locks on the shed-silo’s only door. Standing away from their windows, they call each other to gossip and speculate.
+++++ “I wonder…”
+++++ “Have you seen?”
+++++ “What do you think his plan is?”
+++++ “What’s he hiding from us?”
+++++ “Do you think…?”
+++++ Nobody knows what the hell to make of it, but nobody in the neighborhood is rude enough to go and ask. Especially considering everything else. At this point, Davis can grieve and hopefully heal however he damn well pleases, poor man. But that’s not going to stop them from talking.
+++++ Especially not after hearing the noises that come out of the giant steel monstrosity at all hours of the day and night. Hammering, clapping, crunching, the squelching whine of power saws, the crackle and hiss of welding torches, the blare of smoke alarms. People hear it all so often that they start to doubt that Davis is sleeping at all, and to be fair, he probably isn’t. They see him around every few days, always looking worse than the last time they saw him: eyes bloodshot to glowing, skin like wet newspaper, cheeks all socked out and hollow. The new thatch of scars that covers the hairless side of his head looks heavier, darker, deeper. Almost like it’s spreading, like a tangle of slow pink vines. Once, a few months in, Mr Lairden approached him on the sidewalk, tried to strike up a conversation like a normal person might. That didn’t go so well for Mr Lairden. They had to hose the blood off the cement, and the day after, one of the neighborhood kids found three broken teeth in the gutter. After that, everybody decided it was probably best to leave Davis be. After all, except for Mr Lairden, it’s not like he hurt anybody, and Mr Lairden’s sort of an asshole anyway.
+++++ Davis doesn’t talk to anybody, doesn’t look at anybody, doesn’t give any outward indication he’s aware that he shares the planet with any other people at all.
+++++ But he knows. When they’re not looking, Davis watches them back, and he knows.
+++++ Whatever. Fuck them. They’re not going to have to deal with it for very much longer.
+++++ He disappears inside his silo for whole days at a time, and when he emerges back into the outside world, they can’t help but notice how diminished he looks, worse and worse, like there’s less of him left inside his skin. It’s ghoulish. Davis has packages delivered to his house all the time now, heavy and wrapped in brown paper and stamped in languages nobody around speaks or even recognizes. They appear on his doorstep in the deep of the night by no apparent delivery service, and by the morning, they’re always gone. Some people sneak over before dawn a few times, just to try and see, but it’s no good and they’re too scared, jumping and running at the slightest of suspect noises. They never learn anything, so they turn back inward, going over and over what they think they already know. He’s broken. He’s strange. He’s alone, now. They liked him a lot better before he was alone. He used to go places and do things. He used to work. Some of them think he used to be an engineer. The sounds coming from his property give them nightmares, sometimes. Every once in a while, someone will think they can hear Davis somewhere in the mess of noise, crying or laughing or worse, maybe both.
+++++ This goes on for a full year, nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until one Friday it all just stops, and for the first time since he came home, the Davis house goes still and silent.
+++++ Nobody knows what to make of it. They’ve been living with the clatter and clang for this long, it’s weird—almost painful—to not have it around anymore. The silence is brutish and overwhelming, a physical presence pressing against all of them, ballooning out to suffocate the entire neighborhood in its absoluteness.
+++++ It only gets worse when they notice the house’s windows are all newspapered over and the doors are hanging open, black portals into nothing. None of the neighbors go on their own to look, none of them are brave enough to. Is he even in there?
+++++ Saturday morning, they gather on his front lawn, under the long shadow of the silo, all together now to go inside and look around. They tell themselves it’s because they’re concerned, they just want to make sure he’s okay; maybe some of them even really believe that. Except it doesn’t change the end results. The excuses are just that. Excuses. They swarm through his crumbling home, gawping at the piled-high fast food wrappers and empty pharmaceutical bubblepacks and broken-down cardboard boxes, the black trash bags filling up the kitchen, the tools scattered across every available surface. They inhale it all, consume it, these tragedy tourists. Rubberneckers. Bastards.
+++++ Some of them stand in the hallways and try to parse out the meaning of the finger-trails cut through the dust caking the photos on the walls. One of them is missing from its frame, but nobody there is astute enough to notice that. They pore through the archeology of what his life used to be, trying to decipher whatever the hell it turned into. Some of them are almost sentimental about it. A few men break off and move rapidly from room to room with practiced efficiency, playing detective and quietly hoping to find Davis long-dead on the floor, calling out Clear! to one another every time they don’t. He’s not anywhere in here. They don’t even bother hiding the disappointment in their voices when they reconvene to agree. By the look of things, Davis hasn’t been in here in a long time.
+++++ Then they hear it.
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++ With dread synchronicity, they all turn toward the back of the house and the strange, enormous silo that looms over them all. As one, a coiled-tense, many-legged animal shot through with nervous eyes, they scutter to the back door to look out.
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++ One by one, panels of the silo are falling away from each other and tumbling to the grass below, a steel house of cards coming entirely undone, the bolts and bonds snapping apart with such sudden singularity, it can’t be unintentional.
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++ The pieces break off, and in the bright yellow morning light, underneath the self-shattering silo, they can see
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++something. They all lean in to try and get a better view, waiting for another
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++to show them a little bit more. They realize too late what they’re looking at, understand the shape of the thing inside the silo only in terms of old Looney Tunes and Twilight Zone episodes. They’re the only frame of reference for something like
+++++ CLANG
+++++ WHUMP
+++++that.
+++++ It takes them all a second to register that the last panel’s finally fallen away, and another for one of their own—none of them are exactly sure who—to say the only thing that’s on their minds.
+++++ “Holy Christ, it’s a rocket ship.”

***

Laying there in the hospital, his body and his life shattered in all the time it took for one drunk motherfucker to run a red light, Davis made up his mind.
+++++ If the world insisted on taking away the only parts of his life that made staying even remotely worthwhile, it was time for him to go. Maybe there were places elsewhere that would hurt less than this one. Out beyond the cosmos. Maybe he would even find somewhere he could see them again.
+++++ So the day after he came home from the hospital, Davis got busy building.

***

He stands above them all. Dressed in his homemade flight suit and helmet, he watches them mill out of his house and onto the back lawn, faces turned toward the sky and the sun and God. He tries to imagine missing them but can’t manage it. In time, he’ll forget they ever existed.
+++++ Behind the glass faceplate, he gives them a smile he doesn’t mean, and when they don’t react to that, he gives them all the middle finger. That gets a reaction. Good. Davis opens the cockpit hatch and swings in, sealing the pressure locks after him and buckling himself tight to the single seat. There’s an intercom system he installed in the side of the rocket, and for half a moment he considers saying something to them by way of farewell. Anything. Even just, Ha-ha, bon voyage mother fucks, but decides not to waste the energy. They wouldn’t understand anyway.
+++++ He runs through the pre-flight checklist, checking all the systems he built himself, making sure the little blinky lights blink just right. Good. That’s real good. For a moment, his hand lingers on the photograph plucked from its frame and stuck to the dashboard with a wad of Bubblicious. One of those posed shopping mall studio jobs, cheeseball and plastic. He admires the smiling faces he sees there, the idle, idiot happiness they wear like bulls-eyes because they don’t know how fast everything can go so wrong. Sitting there in his DIY rocket ship, Davis is ashamed to realize how much he resents them, even hates them. For their naivete, for how much he loved them, for making him believe and then abandoning him here. He tries to shove the feeling away, but it’s already there, stuck in his head and his heart like a burr. Fuck. Fucking… fuck.
+++++ Tears play at the corners of his eyes, and he blinks them away as hard as he can. None of that. Not today, of all days. Today, he’s got bigger plans than this horrible little blue marble.
+++++ Today, he’s leaving for infinity.
+++++ He goes through the list one last time, just to make double god damn sure. Pay attention to this. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is real. Not anymore. Thrusters, fuel tanks, onboard navigation, environmental controls. They’re all just ghosts now. Okay.
+++++ Let’s do this.
+++++ He floats his hand over the big red GO button, takes a deep breath, looks outside at the shambles that his life used to be. The ruined house and the brown-blotched yard and the shitty neighbors and all the empty spaces where people used to fit. He tells himself he doesn’t need any of it anymore. There’s a whole universe out there waiting for him. A billion-billion worlds, just waiting to be found and explored, by someone with gumption enough. What does one ruined world matter, compared to all that?
+++++ Davis presses the button.
+++++ Boom.
+++++ And it’s beautiful, and it’s perfect, and people can see it from miles away: a black and orange lily of flame and annihilation blooming out of the earth, ringed in a halo of smoke. The sound of it is great and terrible, the sky tearing itself apart, the Book of Revelations. For one shining moment, it’s really happening—just like all the NASA launches people used to see on TV. Oh, my god, he did it. The crazy, broken son of a bitch really did it.
+++++ But Davis isn’t an engineer. He never even passed high school physics.
+++++ He’s a 40 year-old claims adjustor from Burlingame.
+++++ So he burns.
+++++ The explosion tears up the length of the rocket and strips skin from flesh and flesh from bone. Davis claws at the straps with blackening, skeletal hands, bellowing for his life, breathing fire, struggling wildly to get free, too stubborn and scared to realize he’s already dead. His hair turns to ash, his eyes burst, his lungs carbonize and crumble inside his chest. It all happens within the span of a second and a half, while just past the edges of the launchpad, the blast shreds the gathered onlookers and, beyond them, the house.
+++++ Shrapnel from the flightless rocket chews the neighbors to rags an instant before the heat burns what’s left of them into Hiroshima shadows on the earth. Further out, the shockwave shatters windows, triggers car alarms, deafens the unwary, sets children crying. It claims it all, this wave of destruction.
+++++ Then it’s over just a smoldering black crater the only sign that they were ever there. Smoke rises from the earth in a drifting column, staining the sky above to murky gray. Sirens converge on the neighborhood in a narrowing gyre, and while it will take them months to piece together what happened there, almost none of them will ever fully understand exactly why Davis did what he did. None of them will want to. Maybe the unfortunate ones that do, they’ll pretend at ignorance, play blind man.
+++++ Maybe it’s better that way.
+++++ But one amongst their number—maybe more, but at the very least one—will see, and they’ll know. It’ll take seed, deep in the fabric of their mind, and after a few days, or a week or a month, or a year, it’ll break them. And then, one day, perhaps without even knowing why exactly, they’ll wake up, and they won’t want to be a part of this world anymore.
+++++ Then they’ll start building.

A Yarn Shop Yarn With A Bit Of Noir

It was one of those really beautiful sunny summer days on State Street. Shoppers, many of them just window shoppers, ambled up and down the street enjoying the day and sometimes going into one of the many little retail stores to browse.
+++++“Hi, I wonder if you could help me find some yarn,” said Meredith Simpson to the clerk in THAT’S QUITE A YARN.
+++++“I’m sure I can. Is there something special that you’re looking for?” asked Beth Miller, whose name tag proclaimed her a “CUSTOMER SERVICE SPEICALIST.”
+++++“Well, I’m planning to knit a suit of long johns for my boyfriend for next winter; he’s always cold…”
+++++“Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a beer in this joint?” came a call from the checkout desk up in the front.
+++++“Excuse me just a minute, please” said Beth. “I’ll be right back.”
+++++“Oh, do you serve beer here?” asked Meredith. “I could sure use a beer.”
+++++“No, we don’t serve beer,” said Beth. “I’ll just go and see what the misunderstanding is.”
+++++Beth walked up to the front where a tall good-looking thirty-something was leaning on the checkout counter. Even though the question he had yelled out had sounded fairly aggressive, he had a smile on his face and Beth didn’t feel afraid of him. Not afraid, but still cautious. She’d had some experience in her personal life with guys who seemed harmless at first and then later had turned out to be real jerks. She thought she would play the “customer service specialist” role and see if she could get him out the door without too much disruption.
+++++“Hi, I’m Beth Miller. May I help you?”
+++++“Well, maybe ya can,” he said. “Ya see, I’m a character and I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch recently.”
+++++Beth didn’t doubt that for a minute; he sure seemed like a character, all right. “This is a yarn shop, Mr. …?”
+++++“Smith. Spencer Smith. My folks named me Spencer rather than something like John or Robert so that I wouldn’t have trouble with other people having my same name. Besides, John Smith kinda sounds like an alias, don’t it?”
+++++Geez Louise,” thought Beth to herself. “Whacko City right here in the ol’ yarn shop.”
+++++“Well, Mr. Smith, this is a yarn shop. We sell yarn and knitting supplies. This is not a bar; no beer here,” said Beth in a patient professional manner. “Now, there are a couple of nice bars in the next block if you just walk out our front door and take a right….”
+++++Just then, Meredith Simpson walked up from where she had been waiting. She eyed Spencer and gave him small smile.
+++++“Buy a girl a drink?” she said.
+++++“Well, hello,” replied Spencer. “If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”
+++++“Now wait a minute,” said Beth. “What’s going on here? No cheesy pick-up lines, please.”
+++++“I told you I was a character, didn’t I?” said Spencer. “I’m a character in a lot of bar stories. A lot of writers are having trouble lately finding literary sites that accept bar stories. Says right in their submission guidelines: ‘No bar stories.’ Bar stories are fun. They’re loud, rough and tumble slices of Americana….”
+++++“I’m sorry,” said Beth. “We are not going to have a conversation about submission guidelines. This is not a bar and this is not going to turn into a bar story. This is a yarn shop and this is a yarn shop story. At least it was before you came in. I don’t know if yarn shop stories sell or don’t sell, but you’re an out of work barfly and you have to leave. This story has already had more bar references than knitting references as it is. Somebody’s going to have to do a major rewrite before it gets accepted anywhere.”
+++++Beth looked at Spencer and Meredith with her hands on her hips as if daring one of them to disagree.
+++++“Come on, Spencer,” said Meredith. “Let’s blow this pop stand and go have a couple of beers.”
+++++“Sounds good,” said Spencer. “And Beth, ya didn’t really think a story about a yarn shop was gonna go anywhere, did ya? Why, there’d have to be somethin’ like an armed robbery to save a story with a setting that lame….”
+++++“All right, you three, down on the floor. This is a stick up,” yelled a tough looking character holding a large caliber handgun. “Just don’t try anything funny and nobody gets hurt.”
+++++“You’re holding up a yarn shop?” asked Spencer, as he, Beth, and Meredith lowered themselves to the floor. The robber, Max Smith, no relation to Spencer, ignored Spencer’s sarcasm and put his efforts into opening the cash register.
+++++While he was working on it, a clown came in the front door. “Do you have a restroom I can use?” he asked. The gag flower on his lapel then squirted a stream of water into Max’s face. Max coolly leveled his pistol at the clown and shot him once in the forehead. The clown crumpled to the floor next to Beth who quickly scooted over a bit to make room for him.
+++++“God, I hate clowns,” grumbled Max as he started stuffing wads of bills from the now open cash register into the pockets of his trench coat.
+++++Beth turned her head to face Spencer and Meredith. She had taken a .22 from a holster in her boot and had it pointed at the back of Max’s head.   “Noir, anyone?” she stage whispered out of the side of her mouth.
+++++Spencer and Meredith both smiled broadly and gave her the thumbs up.

That Damned Ol’ Hog

When Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes entered the ramshackle shack at the edge of town they found Dickey Bub McClung on the kitchen floor and Jocko Fayette at the table.  Dickey Bub had a butcher knife in his cold, dead hand while Jocko had a jelly glass of corn likker in his live one.  The table was littered with dirty dishes, the floor with empty beer bottles. The air smelled of cordite.
+++++“What happened here?” Clayce asked from the doorway.
+++++“I kilt the sonuvabitch is what happened,” Jocko said.  “He come at me with a knife so I shot him.” He nodded toward the revolver on the table next to the Mason jar of moonshine.
+++++“Why did he come at you?”
+++++“It was that damned ol’ hog again is why.”
+++++“Hog?”
+++++“Uh huh.  Two year ago his hogs got loose and I found one rooting in my garden.  I kilt it and cured it for bacon.  Dickey Bub didn’t much like that.  Ever’time we got to drinking he’d bring it up again.”
+++++Clayce moved into the room and took the revolver from the table.  Opening the cylinder he checked the loads then put the gun in his jacket pocket.  Luther followed Clayce into the kitchen, his dark eyes taking in the details.
+++++“Look around while I talk to Mr. Fay-ette,” Clayce said, then waited to take a chair until Luther slipped thru the doorway into the rest of the shack.
+++++Jocko slapped the table top with the flat of his hand and raised his voice. “Twoshoes, my woman’s back there somewheres, and she’s nekkid.  You don’t be taking no free looks, y’hear?”
+++++“Free looks?” Clayce arched an eyebrow.
+++++Jocko leered and reached for the Mason jar. “Ain’t nothing free in this world, mister Chief of Po-lice.” He took a drink of moonshine before adding, “If the price is right I’ll rent her to you for a bit.” Then, after belching loudly, “I don’t like yer pet injun snooping around my place.”
+++++“Too bad,” Clayce said mildly.  “I didn’t know you had a woman.”
+++++“Neither did I ’til a couple of weeks ago.”
+++++“Where did she come from?”
+++++“She got tired of being married to Dickey Bub.”
+++++“Oh.”
+++++“That’s Dickey Bub’s gun in yer pocket, too.  She brought it along with a cardboard suitcase and two quarts of likker.”
+++++“A makeshift dowry as it were,” Clayce said without humor.
+++++“A what?”
+++++“Forget it. How did Dickey Bub feel about her moving in here?”
+++++“About like you’d expect, I reckon, but he had to know she wadn’t gonna stay with him.”
+++++“Why not?”
+++++“She was on the prowl is why not.  Sometimes us boys played cards over to their place on Friday nights.  She was all the time running around half-dressed and Dickey Bub mad if he caught you looking.  I never once saw her in a full set of clothes.  Now that she’s living here, I just keep her naked. It’s easier that way.  She’s one of them, uh, what’a’ya call it when a woman wants is all the time?”
+++++“A nymphomaniac?”
+++++“Yeah, what you said—nymphomaniac.”
+++++“So, tell me what happened tonight.”
+++++“Ain’t much to tell.  We been drinking since supper and Dickey Bub got onto that damned ol’ hog again. That and Arvetta moving in here after cleaning out the bank account and stealing his gun to boot. He bitched about me not shutting the windows at night. Said he could hear the two of us going at it, what with Arvetta being kinda loud when she gets wound up. Then he allowed as how his life had basically gone to crap the last couple of years, which took him right back to that damned ol’ hog.  Next thing I know, he grabbed a butcher knife off the drainboard and come at me with murder in his eye.  It was self-defense, plain to see.”
+++++“So you grabbed his gun and shot him?”
+++++“No, I grabbed my gun and shot him.”
+++++“You just said the gun is his.”
+++++“Truth is, I misspoke.  It maybe was his ’til Arvetta brought it with her.  What’s that they say about having something being nine-tenths of the law?”
+++++“Possession?” Clayce provided.
+++++“Yeah, what you said—possession.”
+++++Luther reappeared in the kitchen doorway and leaned a shoulder against the jamb.  Both Jocko and Clayce looked to him, but Luther looked only to Clayce.
+++++“Arvetta McClung’s in the bedroom naked as a jaybird, hoss.  She’s got a black eye and bruised ribs and swears she fell down the stairs.”
+++++“What stairs?”
+++++“That’s what I asked, but she didn’t have an answer.”
+++++“Does she want to press charges?”
+++++“I asked that, too, but she said how do you arrest a flight of steps?”
+++++“Anything else back there?”
+++++“Nothing illegal if that’s what you’re asking?
+++++“So, what do you think, Luther?
+++++“About what, Arvetta?  I think Jocko smacks her around for whatever reason or maybe no reason at all.”
+++++“And Dickey Bub?”
+++++“Oh, Jocko murdered him alright, hoss.  No doubt about that.”
+++++“What?!” Jocko barked as he sat up straight.  “You’re fucking crazy. I tole you it was self-defense, didn’t I?”
+++++Ignoring Fayette, Luther said to Clayce, “You remember a year or so back when Dickey Bub and Ross Fugate went at each other in that juke joint parking lot out on Route 60?”
+++++“I do,” Clayce said.  “Cut each other up pretty good as I recall.”
+++++“They did,” Luther nodded.  “Had what we call a two-quart-of-blood fight.   By the time we broke it up it looked like they’d been butchering beef.  Anyway, hoss, Dickey Bub was a blade man.” Nodding at the corpse on the floor, he added, “Look at the way he’s holding that butcher knife.”
+++++Both Clayce and Jocko looked down at the dead Dickey Bub.
+++++“No knife man worth his salt holds it that way, with the cutting edge down like you’re gonna slice meat or chop carrots.  A knife man comes at you with the cutting edge up so he can gut you like a carp.  I figure Jocko put that knife in Dickey Bub’s hand after he shot him.”
+++++“That’s a lie!” Jocko spat. Then with a sly look, “And even if it ain’t, you can’t prove different.”
+++++Clayce pulled out a pair of handcuffs and tossed them to Luther who snatched them in mid-air like a camp dog catching a biscuit.
+++++“I don’t have to prove it, Jocko,” Clayce said mildly, “that’s the prosecutor’s job.  You’re under arrest.”
+++++“Well, I’ll be go to hell,” Jocko snarled as his right hand dropped into his lap under the table.
+++++“Don’t,” Clayce warned.  Dickey Bub’s revolver had somehow appeared in his hand, the muzzle leveled at Jocko’s belly.  “Maybe you have a gun under there, maybe not, but we already know this one works, don’t we?  Put your hands up.”
+++++Jocko’s empty hand reappeared. He grabbed the Mason jar and guzzled the last half-inch of moonshine before offering his bony wrists to Luther. Looking through the open doorway, he yelled, “Arvetta!  Put some clothes on and get your ass out here.  Call my daddy, tell ‘im I’m gonna need a lawyer and bail money.”
+++++There was the padding sound of bare feet on hardwood floor somewhere back in the shack.
+++++Rattling his shackles like Marley’s chains, Jocko hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat it between Luther’s boots. “Fucking injun,” he said as if commenting on the weather. Giving Clayce a look that would freeze water he said, “If I’d knowed you was gonna arrest me, I’d’ve shot you crossing the yard.”
+++++“Not likely.” Clayce waggled the gun barrel. “Get on your feet.”
+++++“I still say it was self defense,” Jocko grunted as he rose. “Hell, me and Dickey Bub’d still be swapping ends with Arvetta if it hadn’t been for that damned ol’hog.”

Two Fingers Of Jack

I should have known better. But dammit, it was the end of a long day and I was propping up the bar at O’ Malley’s with my elbows. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
+++++The bar was crowded; it usually was on Wednesdays. Hump day and all. The three guys on my left were squeezed in a little too close. The air around them was rank with Aqua Velva and the smell of wool suits gone too long between dry-cleanings.
+++++Paulie saw my empty glass, turned and reached for the Drambuie on the glass shelf next to the mirror. I heard the guy next to me say, “Two fingers of Jack.” He walked away from the bar before Paulie acknowledged the order.
+++++Before the words could cross my smooth liquor haze, the other two guys turned on me. Paulie paused as he poured my drink and I saw his eyes go wide just before a massive fist eclipsed my view.
+++++A shoulder hit me low, right in the breadbasket, bouncing me off a couple stools and their occupants. My breath hammered out as I landed on my back with one goon on top of me.
+++++I pulled my gun, but a swift kick from the other guy sent it skittering under tables and chairs. People scrambled for the exit. The guy kneeling on my chest pinned my arms. Goddamn he had one ugly mug. A pink puckered scar scrawled an angry line from his left eye to his chin. The other guy pulled a goddamn cigar trimmer out of his pocket.
+++++Ah shit, two fingers of Jack.
+++++Out of the corner of my eye I saw Paulie round the bar with a baseball bat. The guy with the cigar trimmer reached into his coat and pulled out a gun. Pointed it at Paulie. “Uh uh,” was all cigar-man said and Paulie dove back behind the bar.
+++++Stepping on my wrist, the guy bent down, clicking the trimmer. I felt my finger slide into the plastic hole and knew the razorblade was next.
+++++Ugly leaned over, his knee digging a divot in my chest. A wicked grin bunched the scar tissue on his cheek.
+++++He leaned just enough. I rolled my hips, toppling him from my chest, and yanked my hand as the razor blade snicked shut. There was no pain, but I saw the blood as I rolled up and swept an armbar across the back of the standing guy’s knees. Blood arced. There was a meaty smack as Paulie’s baseball bat came down on his head. The cigar trimmer bounced away and the guy crumpled like a paper bag.
+++++Ugly stood and lunged toward me but it was a feint as he spun a roundhouse kick across Paulie’s jaw. He snatched the bat before it even hit the ground, while poor Paulie spun a beautiful pirouette and smashed into a jumble of chairs and tables. The old wood furniture splintered.
+++++Paulie pulled himself up and with the tip of his boot, kicked the splintered remains of a table leg to me. I ducked under a whistling bat-swing, feeling the breeze on the back of my neck. I grabbed for the table leg. Half my goddamn finger was missing, blood was dripping like a washerless faucet and the leg skittered from my grip.
+++++I dodged another swing and this time used both hands to scoop up the three-foot length of wood. It was splintered on the end I held, but from other end four inches of oxidized nail stuck out like a bent finger.
+++++We circled once, then he swung hard. I turned with it. The bat glanced off my shoulder. As I spun back, I swung the table leg out with my left hand, backhand. Best damn tennis swing ever. There was a pop, like the sound of biting a firm grape. The makeshift club was yanked from my hand. I watched the guy drop to his knees, the nail holding the wood tight to his temple. The rusted metal pushed his left eye slightly out of its socket making him look surprised. Shit, he probably was surprised.
+++++The guy fell face down and Paulie limped over to me. Pulling a bar towel from his apron, he wrapped my bleeding hand in it. As the adrenalyn left my system, it was beginning to throb with sharp heat. Paulie went behind the bar to get some ice and I pulled one of the fallen stools upright and sat down.
+++++Yeah, shoulda known better. I rested my towel-wrapped hand on the ziplock bag of crushed ice. I smiled when I realized my drink of choice still sat right where Paulie left it. I slid the glass over to me. The overhead lights cast golden hues of Scotch and Drambuie on to the dark wood. The ice clinked as I raised a toast to Paulie and downed my Rusty Nail.

The Job Interview

The sax player had come on at 9:00 and bar owner, Eddie Monroe, was pleased the guy was actually better than he had expected.
+++++At 8:45, a cab driver had opened the door for Charlie Vincent and had led him up to the bar. Charlie wore sunglasses, wielded a white cane with his right hand and carried his instrument case in his left. Eddie had paid the cabbie and had led Charlie up to the little stage. He told him about the surroundings and introduced him to Benny Erskine, the house drummer, who sat in as accompanist for anybody who needed back-up. Eddie had then gone back to the bar and had left Charlie and Benny to talk about the first set.
+++++Now Eddie was wiping the bar and he once again checked the front door as if he might be able to will people to come through it. It was 9:30 on a Tuesday night and he had exactly eight customers. There were three couples at tables and a man and a woman sitting at the bar. The two at the bar weren’t together; there were three stools separating them.
+++++“Inez,” called Eddie to his waitress who sat reading a book at the end of the bar. “Get orders from the couples at the tables and tell ‘em this one’s on the house. Maybe if we keep ‘em here the next folks through the door will think the place has somethin’ goin’ on.”
+++++Eddie went over and stood between the two sitting at bar. “Drink up folks; I’m buyin’ the next round. Whadda ya think about the sax player? Pretty good, huh?”
+++++The man, Johnny Briskie, raised his glass to Eddie as if to toast him, and then raised it to the woman sitting a few seats down. She nodded, smiled, and toasted him back. They both finished their drinks and Eddie went about getting fresh ones for them.
+++++“I’m Bonnie Martino,” she said.
+++++“Johnny Briskie. Nice to meetcha.”
+++++The sax player was playing a pretty good cover of Coltrane’s “Blue Train.”
+++++“Actually, he is pretty good,” said Bonnie. “I like jazz. You?”
+++++“Yeah, I do. I like jazz when I’m in a mood for reflectin’. I like blues when I feel like actin’ up.”
+++++“So you’re reflecting tonight?”
+++++“Yeah, I’m thinkin’ about whether I should follow up on a job opportunity.”
+++++Johnny reached inside his sport coat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Bonnie caught a glimpse of a shoulder holster and wondered what that job opportunity entailed. She pulled her purse a little closer to her. She opened it and made sure her .32 was within easy reach. Bonnie was thinking that maybe there was a chance she was the job opportunity.
+++++Eddie put an ashtray on the bar in front of Johnny. “If anybody complains, you’ll have to take that outside.”
+++++“Sure thing,” said Johnny as he lit up.
+++++Eddie had also seen the holster under Johnny’s coat. He had seen Bonnie move her purse closer and open it. Eddie had been around the block a few times and didn’t miss much. He took his .38 out of the drawer and put it on the ledge under the bar in front of him. He nodded to the drummer and pointedly looked at Bonnie and then Johnny.
+++++The drummer acknowledged him and said something to the sax player, who moved from Coltrane’s “Blue Train” to Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”
+++++Bonnie noticed the smooth transition, recognized the tune, and raised an eyebrow at Eddie. Eddie cut his eyes at Johnny and patted his chest as he did so. Bonnie smiled and said, “Hey, Johnny, could I have a cigarette?”
+++++“Sure,” said Johnny. When Johnny reached for his pack of cigarettes, Bonnie pulled her gun from her purse and aimed it at his face.
+++++“Give your gun to the bartender, Johnny,” said Bonnie. “He’s going to hold it for you for fifteen minutes while I take my leave.”
+++++Johnny took out his revolver and made like he was going to hand it to Eddie. Instead, he backed off his barstool and pointed the snub-nosed Smith & Wesson at Eddie.
+++++“Put your piece on the bar or he’s dead,” he said to Bonnie.
+++++Johnny hadn’t noticed that the sax player was now playing solo. Benny Erskine had stopped drumming and had picked up a sawed-off shotgun from behind his drum set. He walked up to the bar with the shotgun close to his leg, shielded from the audience, and leveled it at Johnny.
+++++“Hey, you,” he said. As Johnny turned to face him, Benny pulled the trigger and sent Johnny into the stools and onto the floor. He put the shotgun on the bar and walked back to his drumset.
+++++The six people at the tables gathered their stuff in a hurry and made for the front door.
+++++“Hey, hey,” yelled Eddie.   “Ya don’t have to leave; everything’s under control. The house is buying another round.”
+++++Two of the couples decided to stay and took a table together. The other couple left without looking back.
+++++“I heard him say somethin’ about a job. Whadda ya suppose that was all about?” said Eddie to Bonnie after he had called 911.
+++++“Yeah, he said he was mulling over a job opportunity. I’m in town because I was recently offered a job opportunity too. I think we may have been competing for the same job. Thanks to you and your drummer, I think I did pretty well on the initial interview.”
+++++“I best put your piece and mine in the drawer back here. In a few minutes some of New York City’s finest will be in askin’ lotsa questions. You okay with that?”
+++++“The guy pulled a gun and threatened to kill you if you didn’t give him all the cash. The drummer saw what was happening and shot him. The drummer okay with that?”
+++++“Sure. Benny knows the cops and they know him. Should be no problem.”
+++++There were sirens in the distance and Charlie Vincent was now into the Billie Holiday classic, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

Perfect Timing

James Arlen Roth took something from me, something important. Her name was April. We were going to be married in the Spring. She’d said that was the best time to get married, and who was I to argue. We set the date and made all the arrangements. Then along came James.
+++++He walked into the store where April worked at 9:47 PM and walked out at 9:53, he left with $142.36. In six minutes this man changed my life and ended hers. She didn’t die right away. It took some time. Slowly she bled out on the dirty floor behind the counter. A customer walked into the store at 10:17 and found her still alive. April was a fighter, but she’d lost too much blood and died before the ambulance got there.
+++++James Arlen Roth put us on a collision course. He set in motion something that neither of us can stop.
+++++The only evidence the prosecution had was video evidence from several different cameras. One from inside the store showed someone wearing a ski mask. He entered the store and pulled a gun, revealing a rose tattoo on his right hand. April gave him all the money in the register. She cooperated and he shot her anyway, and then calmly walked out. Videos from outside, at an ATM machine and a pawn shop entrance, showed a man the same build and height wearing the exact same clothes. These videos also showed a face, the face of James Arlen Roth and they showed a rose tattoo on his right hand.
+++++His lawyer argued that while his client, who was gainfully employed and had no reason to commit such a heinous crime, was in the area at the time of the robbery. He didn’t commit the crime. Anyone could have been wearing clothes that were similar.
+++++The tattoo that sold me on his guilt also helped get him off.
+++++James had gotten the tattoo when he was nineteen, just a kid. He was in a street gang and the tattoo was part of the gang’s colors. His lawyer then showed the jury mug shots of other members and pictures of their tattoos. Each one had the same rose on their right hand. He argued that anyone of them could have committed the crime.
+++++The most valuable part of his defense was that Jimmy appeared to be walking casually and in no hurry. Wouldn’t a man who just robbed a convenience store and shot a clerk be in a hurry or perhaps even running away from the scene? All the evidence was circumstantial. The jury found him not guilty. I don’t care what the jury says, he’s guilty and we both know it.
+++++For James life went on. For me life fell apart and became all about James. The countdown had started.
+++++After his acquittal I followed him for three months getting to know his routine, his timing. I studied every facet of his life. I could tell you where he is going to be and what he is going to be doing at almost any given minute. From poker games on Wednesdays and his once a month haircut, to the two women he’s seeing. I know more about him than he knows about himself.He’s regular, like clockwork. This is all information I need to know to do what I have to do.
+++++I’m ready. Tonight’s the night.I’ve decided to wait outside of the Highlight Club and do it when he gets into his car. It sounds easy but there is always a chance of something going wrong. Timing is the most important thing. Today is Wednesday, he’ll leave alone. He left alone last Wednesday and the previous three.
+++++The Highlight Club is a seedy strip joint. It’s located off of the downtown express way and across from Smitty’s convenience store. Set back along the property line all parking for the club is up front and along the roadside, well lit.
+++++I drove downtown, obeying the speed limit. I’ve always been a law abiding person. Pulling into the Smitty’s I glanced across the street over to The Highlight’s parking lot. His car was there, a 67 Mustang Fastback. I knew it would be. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut and waited until two thirty, last call.
+++++People started to exit the club. Knowing James would be one of the last to leave I crossed the street and lingered outside in the parking lot. I shook, a little from the cold but more from the chore before me. The lot slowly emptied.
+++++At 3:05 he walked out, like clockwork. Wearing his customary leather jacket and gold chain around his neck he looked like the thug I knew he was.
+++++Walking to his car I fell in step a few paces behind him. He looked bigger this close up. It must be his gym routine-three nights a week- he never misses a workout.
+++++“Hey Asshole,” I called out.
+++++“What’d you call me?” he said and swung around fast, taking a defensive stance.
+++++I’m not a big man by any stretch of the imagination, weak some might call me, non threatening. A smile crept on his face. He didn’t even recognize the man who sat behind him in a courtroom every day for three weeks.
+++++“Listen buddy you’re gonna be in a world of hurt if you don’t turn around and walk away right now. I have things to do,” he said and turned his back on me.
+++++“I know. You’re going to play poker, uptown at Sid’s Café, or is that on Fridays?”
+++++It knew it wasn’t on Fridays, it was tonight.Slowly he turned, surveying the situation as he did.
+++++“What did you say?”
+++++I stood my ground and smiled. “No, you’re going to see Angela. Does Marie know about Angela? Does Marie’s husband know about you?”
+++++“What the fuck?”
+++++“What about April, do you remember her?”
+++++My smile disappeared. This was the moment I’d been heading toward since he walked out of the court room three months ago.He looked in my eyes and suddenly knew who I was.
+++++“Why’d you do it? She gave you what you wanted. Why did you kill her?”
+++++He smiled but said nothing. Seeing the smug look on his face I could feel the rage building inside of me. I touched the outside of my jacket pocket. His eyes darted from my eyes to my hand and back. Fifteen feet separated us, too far for him lunge. I reached into my jacket pocket. At the same moment he reached for the bulge under his coat. I’d seen the bulge before, a shoulder holster. He always wore it.
+++++I’d practiced this a thousand times standing in front of a mirror, like De Niro in Taxi Driver or an old time western.I knew how fast I could draw. I didn’t know how fast he would be.
+++++Time slowed. I could see his jaw clench and brow furrow as his hand slipped into his coat. I imagined his thumb flicking the snap off his holster as my hand slid into my pocket a second faster than his. Fluidly his gun slipped out and arm extended as my hand was just exiting my pocket. He was too fast. I knew he would be, but when you have nothing left, you have nothing to lose.
+++++His hand seemed to explode as his gun went off. The slug hit me squarely in the chest, shattering my sternum and tearing through a lung. The impact threw me back and my body slammed to the ground. When I opened my eyes James stood over me, his gun pointed at my face. My hand, finally free of my pocket, went to my chest, still clutching the only thing that had been inside of it, a picture of April.
+++++I coughed through a bloody smile. As life drained out of me I and turned my head to Smitty’s. A police car had just pulled into the lot, same as last night and the night before.

Cleaning Up The Neighborhood

Rainbow Street is one hundred yards of concrete by twenty-five yards of nothing. Every other house is rewarded with a dead tree. There are eight, cookie cutter triple-deckers, on each side of the street.
+++++Back in the day we called it the projects but now it’s just low-income housing. Working people or people in “transition” trying to get by or catch a break of some kind. Just like me.
+++++I’d been here for about three months and one thing that I’d learned, as I walked my dog up and down the street, is that you don’t see too many people. This isn’t a block party kind of place. There are no backyards for one thing. My second floor apartment looks right up the ass of the house over on the next block.
+++++You do hear gossip though. Rainbow was a place ripe with stories. I got into the habit of looking up the police fire beat on the Internet to see who got busted for cooking meth in their kitchen or BBQ-ing pig in their bathtub.
+++++Tuesday is always a good day to catch up on the latest dirt because it’s trash day. I dragged my barrels from the back of the building and I always stopped by the first floor to see if Edna Washington had anything going out and that’s when I ran into the neighbor in the house to my right. Known to me only as Hank. “Hey, he said. You hear about that wife-beating bastard up the street, Bill Wilson?” “No.” I said. “You got any proof to back that up? Otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking out of hand like that.” “Oh, it’s true.” Hank said. “It’s most definitely, true.” He dropped his bag on the street and headed back to the rear of his house.
+++++Later that evening I checked the Internet for news on Bill Wilson and sure enough there was a complaint of a couple arguing loudly at his address.
+++++Next Tuesday, I woke to the sound of the garbage truck. I pulled on a pair of sweats and leashed my dog for a walk. It looked like the barrels had lost another war as they lay haphazardly across the field of battle. My neighbor, Hank was standing there straight as a rigid dick with his hand lightly touching the top of one of those giant industrial trash bags, his fingers nervously dancing across the top.
+++++My beagle, Rocky, went straight for the bag like it was filled with raw meat. “Whoa, boy.” I said and gave him a yank. “Get that fucking dog away from me.” Hank screamed. I was shocked at his reaction and pulled Rocky in the other direction, deciding to take the back stairs up to avoid Hank, who was obviously off his fucking nut this morning. I’ll get the freaking barrels later.
+++++Upstairs, I pored myself a cup of coffee and watched as two brutes got out of the truck and heaved his bag of whatever the fuck, into the back and take off after lowering the boom on the thing.
+++++It was business as usual until one morning I came out and saw one of Hanks’ giant industrial bags of shit sitting unattended on the curb. I had Rocky with me and he started to grrr at the bag and I looked around for any signs of Hank. I got closer to the big grey monster and kind of toed it a bit. My balls almost hit the ground as I heard what sounded like a muffled harrumph come from inside the bag.
+++++But before I could explore any further the trash men came by and the same two brutes jumped out like they just saw me tongue their mother. “Something we can do for you Mr. Dog Walker?” “No.” I said. Good comeback, asshole, I thought. “Well, if you don’t want to see the inside of one of these bags I’d clean up after your pooch and take off.” Brute One pointed to the ground where Rocky had dropped a steamy bomb. I bent down and picked it up in a plastic bag tied it off and tossed it into the back of their truck. “Kind of territorial, aren’t you?” I gave them my best, fuck you sneer, and walked on. They tossed in Hank’s bag and the rest of the trash and crushed it. I listened for any sound that might be human but couldn’t hear anything over the metal on metal screech of the blades.
+++++I started to obsess about crime in the area and particularly on Rainbow Street and even started to buy the local newspaper in fear of missing something on the Internet. I also dug up a pair of binoculars so that I could keep an eye on Hank, who after some research in the public records I find out is, Henry William Curtis divorced father of one, 51 years old, unemployed city worker drawing a pension, fired for “excessive drinking” on the job. I never knew there were tiers of drinking on the job. I thought you were either caught drinking on the job and got fired. But, apparently you could work until you hit the, “excessive drinking” at work, level. Then you got fired. Live and Learn. I also started to map out the street. Names and addresses, moved in and out dates and crimes and misdemeanors.
+++++If Hank was into some kind of kill club, then I had to get close to him. But, putting on a friendly face was difficult for me. I am not the most engaging guy and I had to do this without the help of man’s best friend and magnet, with whom Hank had taken a disliking to.
+++++I saw Hank out my window one day with a plastic white shopping bag picking up scraps of paper. His lips were moving faster than a chicken’s ass.
+++++I stepped out on the stoop and he perked up and said, “Look at me, cleaning up the neighborhood.” “Yeah, how bout that.” I said. “Here, let me give you a hand.” I started to pick up soda cans, cigarette packs and vodka nips. He offered the bag to me and I dropped the trash in.
+++++“This was never a nice neighborhood.” He said, apropos to nothing. “You know the saying, money goes to money and shit goes to the dump.” “No, can’t say I’ve ever heard that one.” “The people that rent these dumps?” He went on. “They just keep renting to the same maggots, whores and niggers.” “Whoa boy.” I said. “Do not let me hear you talk like that again, you hear me?”
+++++Shit, I thought if I blow my cover now I’ll get nothing from him. But I’ll be damned if I’ll become Jimmy the friendly neighborhood racist. “Whatever.” He said. “I do think the local PD could come down harder on local crime.” I offered up feebly. He bit. “Yeah, that’s right. Hey, I’m going to a local town meeting next week. You should attend with me.” “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.”
+++++He was tying up the little trash bag when he asked if I’d like to come up for a coffee. He looked me in the eyes and kind of titled his head like he was thinking about something else or maybe just checking me out. I got a chill up my spine and a lump in my throat, which I cleared and said, “Sure.” No turning back now.
+++++We walked up to his third floor abode. All of the apartments were the same in these tenements. Some were singles, like mine, his was a three bedroom. One bedroom he used for storage, another as an office. The kitchen was adjacent to the small living room separated by a wall with a tiny bathroom off to the right.
+++++What hit me as soon as we entered was a metallic smell like he had been painting. I caught a splotch of red as we passed the bathroom and thought he must be doing the walls over. We walked into the kitchen. He had coffee already brewed and it smelled good. He asked me to sit and I took a spot at a teak table under a seascape he had hung on the wall. The table had a place setting for one, some paper napkins in a wire basket and a set of knives in a teak block with matching cleaver. I nervously grabbed the cleaver by the handle and realized that Hank had been carrying on a one-way conversation. I came to when I heard him say, “Your black neighbor, Edna Washington is a nosey bitch. I don’t know if you knew that.” “What?” I asked. “What about Edna?” I said. “That black woman is nosey. “Always butting into everyone’s business, especially mine. I see her looking out her window at me and I think she’s making notes of some kind.” “My NEIGHBOR is just an old broad who doesn’t bother anyone and you’re a paranoid fuck if you don’t mind me saying.”
+++++That said, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and started planning my exit. Whatever I had thought might be happening here didn’t amount to shit and I needed to spend my time at a gym or trying to get laid or trying to get laid at the gym.
+++++I headed to the bathroom before he could stop me. That’s when I discovered the corpse of Edna Washington in his bathtub. I turned and Hank was standing there still holding the glass pot of coffee like he was about to offer me a refill. My own hand still held the meat cleaver. I swung it and nearly split Hank’s head down the middle. Hank dropped the pot of coffee, which miraculously didn’t break, spun around a couple of times like he was doing some kind of zombie twerk, before falling on his face. Dead.
+++++The apartment was so quiet you could hear the piss dripping down my leg.
+++++My brain went into overdrive: Edna Washington will be reported missing. Cops will go from house to house asking everyone what they knew. They’ll get to Hank’s apartment. He won’t answer. They’ll go away or they’ll open up. If the open up they’ll see the mess and put two and two together and figure he killed her and took off. The only way I’ll get caught is if someone sees me coming and going. I have to be stealth and I have to get moving. I have two bodies to dispose of.
+++++Edna was a twig. I could circle her wrist with my finger and thumb. So hacking her up wasn’t a problem. I kept my brain busy by reminding myself to wipe everything down and to keep the blood in the bathroom, so I planned to clean up there and not the kitchen. I put the remains of Edna Washington in one of Hank’s giant bags and put it near the back door. Hank was more of a project. I worked him over diligently and when I looked up, three hours had gone by. It was dark out. I cleaned up and pinched some sweats and a tee shirt from Hank’s wardrobe. Tossed my clothes in a separate bag that I’ll bring back to my place and dispose of later. Mr. Curtis went out the back door with Edna.
+++++I wiped everything down. It was Monday night. Tomorrow was trash day.
+++++Look at me, I laughed. Cleaning up the neighborhood.

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