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.

Ammunition

He was at his desk with his headphones on, watching something loud and hard, so he didn’t hear her come up the stairs. Didn’t hear the click of the safety disengage. Didn’t hear the wrap of knuckles on wood, or turn to see the shadow under the door. So when the blast filled the room and the door behind him shattered, he believed—for an instant—that there’d been an explosion outside, out on the street, and he looked up from the screen, down through the window, expecting to see smoke.
+++++Instead he smelled it. And gunpowder.
+++++He looked left, and he saw the hole high in the wall, the plaster crumbling down to the floor. Turned right, saw the splintered maw chest-height through the door, the hallway light bleeding through. A haze of smoke riding ceiling-ward, as though a dragon sat the other side.
+++++She had one shot left, he knew, and he knew she would use it. The first had just been a warning. She would make herself heard, she’d said. If he chose not to listen she would find a way to make him listen. She was reasonable, the things she had to say were reasonable things to say to a person, but if he refused reason then she would find a language he understood.
+++++He dropped to the floor, pressed his belly to it, tried to make himself flatter than he was. Listened for movement past the door as he executed several log rolls across the carpet, like a man on fire. He thought he had told her about the piece he had stowed in a drawer in the study. If she remembered it she would be expecting him to use it, and she was perhaps waiting to see if he would make for it and return fire.
+++++He was, and he would. Though perhaps she had not remembered. He had mentioned it only in passing, when she’d said the shotgun was terribly big, perhaps more than she could handle. He’d allowed that he kept something a bit smaller upstairs, but told her not to fear size but come to love it. Which is when she’d smiled and pressed the barrel into his belly and cocked an eyebrow and through pouted lips said, Boom. Which had made her irresistible, so that for a moment he forgot about the others, taking the gun from her hands and her into his own and felt himself stiffen to her body.
+++++Why he kept it in the top drawer rather than the bottom he couldn’t say now, and he cursed himself for it as he lay hunkered against the floor beside the dresser. Whatever scenario had played out in his head when he’d done so, it had not been this.
+++++She had made no sound yet and he pictured her on the other side of the door, thinking perhaps she had hit him, but choosing cat-like to wait and listen in case he was still viable.
+++++He had not shown her where he kept the box of shells behind a false panel under the gun and she was being conservative now and cautious. She was reasonable and rational and she was finally making herself heard. Meanwhile he needed to make himself silent as he reached for the drawer and eased it open and thanked himself for buying a new dresser with smooth, well-oiled runners.
+++++The important thing was to not tip your hand. But people wanted to know things, and you wanted to believe it good for them to know, so you allowed yourself to tell them. Just as you shared other things with them—investment tips, thoughts on politics, all the shit you’d done in your past of which you were no longer proud. Stories of the many lovers you had had in the years before you met. When asked, what you really thought of the girl passing on the street. The pass code to your lockbox and the combination to the cabinet where, months ago—because she expressed interest, and because you thought it was good that she know how to defend herself in the event you were not around—you showed her where you kept the twelve-gauge. Which you removed and demonstrated how to load and how the safety worked and to hold it like this, with your feet planted so, not like that—the kickback would bruise your shoulder and knock you to the ground. Things that then seemed like good, sensible, useful things to share with her, but which in retrospect may not have been.
+++++As in cards, so in life. Wise to always keep something under the table in the event that things did not go as planned and turned against you.
+++++Don’t ever turn your back on a man with a gun, his father had told him.
+++++They’d stood around the table in the Number 10 Saloon where Wild Bill Hickok had sat playing poker when someone put a bullet in him. Wild Bill’s chair sat in a recessed cubby hole over the bar, like a shrine, and his hand of cards—the Dead Man’s Hand—lay fanned on the table. He’d stood looking at the cards. His father had said to always keep your back to the wall in the event of things unforeseen, and then they’d grabbed stools at the bar and put their backs to the door and drank sarsaparillas. When he’d asked what about what you just said, his father nodded at their inverse selves in the mirror and said, What do you think that’s for?
+++++So if you couldn’t see straight-ahead, second best was being able to see behind you without turning. Yet hindsight, like mirrors, distorted things, and it was best to be ready to face them head-on.
+++++Some version of which he’d repeated for her as she’d fumbled a shell into each chamber and locked the barrel and clicked the safety off, then on, and repeated this, practicing her stance, seeming to pleasure in the gun’s surprising heft, the cold blue of the barrels, the firm handshake of the stock.
+++++He dipped his hand into the drawer and felt around for his father’s old single-action. He kept it wrapped in a hand towel under a slim stack of worn magazines he kept facedown though he’d torn the covers from them. Some things you could not see coming. The revolver lay just to the right of where his hand anticipated it, and as he lifted it from the drawer and unwrapped it, and his fingers touched cold steel, he thought he could sense her breathing through the wall. Her ear pressed to it, listening. His own breathing he knew must fill the room, though he could not hear it past his heart and the wash of blood past his eardrums.
+++++He tried to still himself the better to hear, lowered himself again onto his gut, felt the floor punch him in the chest. Except it was his heart throwing itself against the floor, trying to break out. A remarkable muscle, like a coiled bicep excised and installed just under of his throat. Soon it would switch course and turn south and search out another route.
+++++A floorboard the other side of the wall groaned and he pressed the gun’s stock to the place between his eyes, felt it there like an icepack. He shaped his mouth into an O, emptied his lungs. He had six rounds to her one—good odds by any measure. But in her state what would take her one might take him three, four—perhaps a full six to bring her down.
+++++Then there was the berth. He looked at the ruined door, the splintered wood like a hand thrust through it pointing out the slug buried in the wall. A person could survive multiple gunshots, they could dig the slugs from your flesh and tie off your frayed arteries and patch you up. You could go on with a normal life. You heard of such things. You never heard of walking off a shotgun blast. A severed spine if you were lucky. You might wheel away from it. Take your food through a straw.
+++++Still, the odds might favor him. Even if he had to squeeze off three, that didn’t bode well for her, and she knew it. That’s why she was waiting. Well, let her wait. She would come down from wherever she was soon enough, and then he might reason with her on his terms.
+++++He looked at the chair. Imagined its back caved in, shards of it embedded in him. Saw the Dead Man’s chair in its little cave in the wall. Here was not a case where a mirror could help you much nor even to face the door. Here was something you couldn’t see coming no matter where you put yourself. That was not a thing his father had ever talked about, possibly hadn’t considered. This was a new thing.
+++++Not that he’d spent much time on it himself, but at least he’d been wise enough not to show her the extra shells. Never tip your hand.
+++++Was there an answer here that didn’t involve him shooting his way out of it? They’d talked plenty and what more was there to say? It would just be her yelling as always, him trying to defend himself with what little he had. All of which she’d anticipate before it was out and which she’d already have disarmed. She was too smart for anyone’s good, least of all her own. She’d done one year at the Academy, had a detective’s mind, a way of rooting things out and knowing your next move. She was a natural gambler and if she were not so disgusted by his own habits she’d make a brilliant card player.
+++++No, a shootout was what she wanted, what she’d been after for some time, hounding and threatening and trying to bait him. It was what she’d come up for, why she’d aimed high, why his head was still on his shoulders while the bullet had almost pierced the ceiling.
+++++Well, fine, a shootout is what she would get.
+++++He drew his thumb down over the hammer. Its sound in that still moment was like a deck of cards poorly shuffled. Something off. You played long enough, you knew what it should sound like. Knew when something was missing.
+++++He heard her now, at last. Heard her feet come quick down the hall. Saw her pale fist slide through the ragged hole in the door. Watched the shells spill from it in quick succession, counted them out—one, two, three, four, five, six. Heard them ring off the floor like an alarm. Watched them bounce and roll and hum in slow revolutions.
+++++He lowered the hammer and drew his thumb back and flipped out the cylinder. Stared down at the floor spinning through the chambers. Like peering through a kaleidoscope.
+++++He looked up. Saw the fist gone. Heard her footsteps—hard and fast over the floor—coming for him. He’d given her all the ammunition she needed.

Art Attack

“So what happens with all this lot then? Guv?”
+++++Jonathan peered into the skip’s laden depths. There must be the equivalent of half a bus in there. Knives, machetes, blades. Made his blood run cold. He was glad it was locked away in the squad’s secure store and not out there on the streets. Just think what the local thugs could do with this lot. “I mean, I assume it’s going to be melted down?”
+++++“Not this time.”
+++++“Yeah?” Jonathan watched as the Sarge slicked down his newly-gelled hair. For like the three thousandth time that afternoon. If you asked him the bloke was too old for that sort of rubbish – barely had enough hair left to stick the gel on and it looked a bit ridiculous. Sort of wet and smooth, like one of those seals you saw on the telly, poking their heads out of the sea. Just before they got ate by a whale.
+++++“Yeah. Chief Constable’s got some bonkers idea about Raising the Profile of Knife Crime in the Community. Not to mention Giving Something Back.”
+++++“Seriously?” Jonathan could hear the capital letters in the Sarge’s voice. Not to mention the sarcasm. “How’s he going to do that with a skip full of blades?”
+++++“Artwork.”
+++++“Huh?”
+++++“Turn them into art. Or something.”
+++++“What? Glue them to a canvas and hang it on the Town Hall wall?”
+++++“Maybe. Beats me and all. Still, you’re supposed to give this guy a call. He’ll arrange the rest.”
+++++Jonathan took the Post It note and tried to decipher whatever was squiggled on it. Looked like someone’s name. Ralph something. Sounded posh. And a phone number he could just about make out. “This the artist, then?”
+++++“Yup.”
+++++“So, er, who’s responsible for security? Guv? Once it’s gone? And how the hell’s he going to take it away? Sodding thing must weigh a ton.”
+++++The Sarge smoothed his hair again. “One, it’s his responsibility the minute it leaves police property. And two, how the hell should I know? Maybe he’ll hire a trained elephant to come and drag it away. Now get on and phone him, there’s a good lad. I’ve got custody reports to see to.”

***

Ralph stepped back, wiped his face on one sleeve and grinned. Not bad if he did say so himself. The Chief Constable would love this. All the right symbolism. Turning swords into ploughshares, whatever a ploughshare was. Sounded agricultural anyway. Something practical and as un-war-like as you could get.
+++++His artwork wasn’t practical but it ticked every other box. Something symbolic, the Chief Constable had said. Something that drums home the message that we’re getting on top of knife crime. Winning the war against the thugs. Something that says peaceful streets. Well, you couldn’t get much more peaceful than this. Three months work and three thousand blades, and there she was. His angel. He’d call the piece Art Attack. Yeah. That was appropriate.
+++++Now to celebrate. Make the most of the post-creative glow. Wash all this glue and stuff off his hands, then break open a beer. Or maybe a bottle of wine. Or even bubbly, if he still had one at the back of the fridge. This was going to make his name. He could feel it. Nothing up to now had quite made the mark, but this piece was huge. In all senses of the word. And the publicity the Chief Constable had promised… well, he could see it now. Big money clients, his own gallery, name in all the right art magazines. It was his ticket to success.
+++++He patted the angel’s arm, then winced. Bit sharp, that. Maybe he should have ground the blades down first. He could always run a sanding disc over the edges tomorrow. First thing, before he made the call. Before he got the Chief Constable and the reporters in. Wouldn’t want any of them injuring themselves. He couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

***

“Hey, Pete, get a load of this shit!” Brad wiped his hands on his jeans then shoved the local paper at his mate.
+++++“What’s that? Jeez, it’s all over chip fat.”
+++++“Can’t help that, it’s what Chip Off the Block uses to wrap their nosh. Anyway, take a look. If you can stand to get your hands dirty that is.”
+++++Pete took the wilting paper gingerly. “What am I looking at? Apart from the remains of your lunch?”
+++++“That.” Brad pointed with an equally greasy thumb. “That picture there.”
+++++“What, the artist tosser? What’s so good about him?”
+++++“Not him you moron, what’s standing behind him?”
+++++Pete squinted. “Can’t really see for the stains. Looks like some kind of bleeding angel.”
+++++“That’s exactly what it is. Made out of knives.”
+++++“You what?”
+++++“Knives. You know, pointy things with blades.”
+++++“Okay, okay, I know what a fucking knife is. Just can’t see how making a nice pretty angel out of them is any good to us.”
+++++“Because they’re still knives, you muppet. All the hardware handed in at local nicks during all them an-amnes- thingies last year. Normally they’d be stored in the police lock-up – lasers, key pads, armed police dogs, you name it – and we’d never get near enough to get our hands on them. But this is in some poxy artist’s shed. All we have to do is take the pick-up round, load it up and all those lovely blades are ours. Either we take it apart and flog ’em off to the local lads one by one. Or we chop it up and sell it off for scrap. Either way we’re quids in. Might go some way towards paying off that gambling debt you’re always whingeing about.”
+++++“Was not whingeing, you’re not the one that’s got to pay ten grand back.” Pete took another squint. “See what you mean, though. It’s printed his full name and everything. Bet we could look him up in the phone directory.”
+++++“My thoughts exactly except I was going to check online. Then pay this artist, what’s his name, Ralph something, a visit, before they ship the statue out.”
+++++Pete sucked newspaper print and chip fat off his thumb. “Better be tonight, then. I’ll bring the pick-up round.”

***

“Goodnight my sweet.” Ralph took a last look at the angel. Funny how attached to her he’d got. Then again, he had spent nearly every waking hour with her for the last three months. You could get close to any woman after that much time. Especially when she was as beautiful as this. But he had another commission to start next week, so he needed to clear some space. On his workshop floor and in his head. Needed to focus on something else. Needed to let his angel go. He’d miss her. For the first few days, until the new project sucked him in. Then she’d be something he thought about now and then. A warm place in his heart, a memory of good times spent in each other’s company. But nothing more.
+++++He glanced around. Windows shut, door would soon be locked. Everything secure. The firm hired by the police would be here in the morning to pack his angel and transport her away. Not quite on wings of gauze; more in the back of a hefty truck. But still. She’d be gone. She’d have taken flight.
+++++A worthwhile piece of work. Satisfying. He hoped the next one would be as good. He flicked the light switch off.

***

“Bigger than it looked in that picture.”
+++++“Yeah.” Brad stood in the workshop and scratched his balls, his stomach and his head. It was bigger. In fact it was sodding enormous. Taller than him. About as tall as Pete. And Pete stood six foot four in his stockinged feet. Or socked, if you preferred. Tall, anyway. And looked like it weighed a fucking ton.
+++++“How we going to get that into the pick-up then?” Pete was on the same wavelength for once. Too much so. He needed time and space to think.
+++++“We, er, could try lifting it.”
+++++“What, just the two of us? Get real.”
+++++He supposed Pete had a point. That much metal came with a serious warning to their health. Danger to limb and possibly even life. He scratched his balls again. “Get a few more of the boys in?”
+++++“It’d take half the gang and if you think I’m sharing the loot with them you’ve got another–”
+++++“Okay, how about a winch?”
+++++There was a moment’s silence, then, “That might work. Got some rope in the pick-up. If we wrap that round just under her arms we could use the truck as a counter-weight.”
+++++“Exactly what I was thinking.” Brad had no idea what a counter-weight was but it sounded good. “Go for it, mate.”
+++++Pete was back in minutes with a decent length of rope.
+++++“Right, how d’you want to do this? Under her arms, you said?”
+++++“Yeah. Toss it over her head first then wiggle it down. Hope she isn’t ticklish har har.”
+++++Brad winced at the joke and tossed. The first time the rope bounced off. He tried again. Same result. It was worse than those bloody hoopla stalls at the local fair. He’d never won a single thing at those. Not even the giant teddy his girlfriend had asked him for. Had to cheat in the end and threaten the guy on the stall with a blade. And then she’d got bored with the bear after a couple of weeks and thrown it away. He should have thrown her away first.
+++++He’d lost track of that blade soon afterwards; shame as it had a good sharp point. Be funny if it had got handed in to the cops. Be even funnier if it had turned up here, welded into this bloody angel thing.
+++++“Third time’s the charm.” He tossed again, and this time the rope slid home. Slid and slithered and… caught, on the angel’s left tit. He stifled a snigger and reached to hook it free. Forgot about the other end of the rope. Caught his foot and tripped. Not much but just too much. He lurched forward. Straight towards the angel’s outstretched right hand. Tipped with pure cold steel. Oh shit.

***

“Everything okay? Guv?” Jonathan thought the Sarge was looking bad. Smoothing down his hair like he was going to tug it out. His face a nasty shade of puce. Didn’t look healthy, that. Ought to cut back on the beer or the fags, or both.
+++++“There’s been a mishap. With the angel.”
+++++“You what?” Now he knew something was badly wrong. The Sarge was an atheist through and through – had no truck with what he called ‘all that religious guff’. The department had heard enough about it over the years. For him to be banging on about angels was well out of character. “I’m not sure I understand.”
+++++“The Chief Constable’s artwork, you idiot. The one made from all those knives.”
+++++“Oh. Yes. That.” Jonathan had never understood. He’d seen a picture of it in the paper the other day, when he’d bought a bag of chips. Huge great thing, all sprouting wings and barbs. Looked quite ugly, he thought. Not to mention deadly, with all those blades pointing out. Someone should have taken an angle grinder to them. If anyone fell it’d take your eye out. Or slit your throat. “So what’s happened then?”
+++++“Some of Mick Geraghty’s gang broke in to the artist’s shed.”
+++++“What, and they’ve run off with it?” Good luck to them, he thought. Thing must have weighed as much as an elephant.
+++++“Not quite.”
+++++“Oh?”
+++++The Sarge had his head in his hands. “It was all arranged. Haulage company, security detail, everything in place. They were taking it to Victoria Square. They’d even erected a plinth. And now this. The Chief Constable will have my balls.”
+++++If Jonathan hadn’t got to them first. The suspense was killing him. Just get on with it. Tell me the worst. “So what’s happened?” he said again.
+++++“One of the burglars tripped and fell. Landed on the angel. Slit his throat.”
+++++“Well if half what they say about Mick Geraghty’s mob is true then that’s no loss to the world.”
+++++“Yes but it gets worse. The artist heard the screams and came rushing out. Fainted at the sight of all the blood. Landed on the angel and took his right eye out. The haulage guys took one look this morning and downed their tools. The security guard threw up in the nearest bush. And the Chief Constable’s told me he wants the whole thing to go ahead. I feel like I’m having a heart attack. What am I supposed to do?”
+++++Jonathan was unimpressed. “Buggered if I know. Funny thing, though.”
+++++The Sarge smoothed his hair again. “What’s that?”
+++++“Saw a piece in the Evening Mail about that angel. The reporter described it as cutting edge art.”

The Guest In The Storm

The storm came in around 3 p.m., earlier than when the weatherman had said it would, and so Joe’s Tiki Bar cleared out early. The sea was a grey, rolling menace, and the sky seemed to meld with it in a grey sheet, like a veil – the other side of which no one could see. To several of the worried island goers that day, it felt like they had been closed in, trapped in a sealed-off room.
+++++But Joe’s Tiki Shack just stayed where it was, shuttering its windows and turning on the overhead light, giving the wooden shack of a bar a strange, intimate hue that it did not usually have on normal days when passersby could converse with those sitting on its patio and island music and reggae and blues blared out like nothing had changed since the balmy 1970s that the older patrons now remembered so fondly.
+++++The bartender and now-owner, Chris Lawton, lived above the bar in the tiny studio apartment that had come with the bar’s ownership since the inception in 1956, when Joe Waters opened the place that had become a local institution. Chris had divorced his wife two years previous, just no chemistry between them, no spark anymore, and moved to the coast on a whim without a job.
+++++He’d just felt the itch to change it all. His office job had gotten cloying and he felt if he kept on in the same way, he would have blown his brains out eventually. It sounded hyperbolic, he knew – but he couldn’t divorce himself from the feeling in the pit of his gut.
+++++His parents, living in their roomy California condos, and his sister, married with two children in New York City where they all hailed from, had thought he was joking when he told them. But he felt that one’s life couldn’t always stay on the same course. He felt an immovable hot firestone in his gut compelling him to move and go somewhere else. Ignoring it was futile – he could not ignore it.
+++++The tall, skinny man with the baseball cap and the skin dry as sandpaper and the cold green eyes came in right as Chris was closing up the windows. He told Chris his name was Bobby and that he needed a drink.
+++++Chris said, “You been following the news, man?”
+++++“I’ve been busy driving,” the man said. His voice was like music – smooth and rich and deep. Chris wondered if he was a singer of some kind, someone famous, His face didn’t look familiar, but these days there were so many more famous people, and who could keep track of them all?
+++++Chris put on a smile and said, “Well, there’s a big storm coming in. Everything’s on lockdown here. The city’s imposed a curfew.”
+++++“Shit,” the man said – the profanity coming out unnatural from his beautiful voice. “My gas tank’s in the red, and I’ve been driving all damn day. I was hoping to grab a drink and then head down to find a hotel somewhere.”
+++++Chris shrugged. “You’ve maybe got a chance of finding a hotel, you leave now.”
+++++Bobby looked out the door he’d come in from, saw the sheet of grey clouds and mist, rolling towards them like a tank in a war zone. He said, “Not sure I want to chance it anymore. I want to survive, you know what I mean?”
+++++Chris nodded and sensed that he was about to do what his parents had always warned against, and help a stranger in a situation that didn’t benefit him. He had never been good with charity and doing for others what he’d want done to himself. Chris was a product of the American conservative lifestyle, with a skeptical eye towards the Outsider, a lack of trust in what lay beyond his American front door. But he was in a new place, here in Florida on the coast, and how could one live that sort of life anymore in this kind of climate. Immigrants were all over the place here.
+++++So he said to Bobby, sure, come on in. Stay a while.
+++++Bobby hung his coat on one of the bar chairs, and put his hat on the bar. Inside, with the door closed, his eyes and face seemed that much brighter and more energized.
+++++Chris told Bobby he could have a few drinks while he finished up closing down the bar – what was a few beers? Bobby drank Guinness and became more talkative, the more he drank. Outside, the storm was steadily approaching, in an unchanging march, a sentinel with an eye on their small island town that didn’t know what it had done to deserve this.
+++++Bobby spoke about his job and where he was going. He was a salesman, selling electronics to various markets, iPods and iPads and the like, and he was on his way to Miami for a conference where he’d peddle his company’s wares in the biggest forum yet.
+++++“You ever think you’re just made for something, man?” Bobby asked.
+++++“Made for it?” Chris said. “I don’t know about that. I thought I was made to do somethin’ similar, sellin’ things back up north. But that isn’t how life turned out.”
+++++“It’s so weird, though,” Bobby said. “It’s such a trivial, mathematic thing. Just selling these big companies our brand of the product. I think it’s the sheer adventure of it. I just love being able to drive. See that big open road. That’s the life I want. I never wanted to be chained to some desk. I think that’s why I’ve been having so much fun.”
+++++“I can relate to you more than you know,” Chris said, washing a plate in the sink, the smooth buzz of the water drowned out by the winds outside, crashing against the tiny bar.
+++++“How’s that?”
+++++“Huh?”
+++++“How can you relate? Tell me something about yourself.”
+++++Chris felt a twinge of oddity, of wrongness – just in the way Bobby postured himself, in the peculiarly open nature of his conversation, but he wrote it off yet again as the relic of his past. So he told Bobby a general, sanitized version of his coming there – of his wife and the boring, mundane decay of their marriage, of his increasing discontentment.
+++++“Why’d you leave her? Your wife, that is,” Bobby said.
+++++“I don’t know exactly,” Chris said after a pause, and it was close to the truth. He didn’t intend to get too deep into this, but it began to spill out anyway: “You ever just sort of reach a point where you can’t go on anymore? Like when everything in you, from blood to bones, is telling you it’s all wrong? We were like that, you see. It wasn’t working. We’d married right out of school, real early, you know, and we had the fucking stars in our eyes. Whole world was ahead of us. Thought it’d last forever… or, well, to be less cliché, we thought it would last longer than it did.”
+++++Bobby was silent and patient, listening and attentive, while the wind outside battered the building and the thunder groaned and rumbled on the horizon. Chris supposed he liked Bobby’s willingness to listen. His sister had told him to go to therapy, but he had always assumed himself stronger than that. And plus, in their hometown? If anyone had found out he would’ve been mortified.
+++++But now, here, in the dark bar in the storm coming, he found it oddly comforting. He made a mental note to tell his sister she had been right.
+++++Bobby said he’d never felt anything like what Chris had described, that take-on-the-world kind of love.
+++++Chris said, “That’s too bad.”
+++++“I’ve often felt like a stranger, in a way,” Bobby said. “Like I’m always standing on the outside of a window watching the rest of the world.”
+++++“That cause of your job?” Chris asked. “Like, are you just moving around too much?”
+++++“What’s that?” Bobby asked, and there was such a blank, earnest confusion on his face that Chris was surprised. Chris’s warning bells started to go off – the idea that this man was not who he seemed – but he told himself he was being paranoid and jumpy, especially in the storm that was currently all around them.
+++++“Your job,” Chris said, speaking slow as if to a person who was hard of hearing. “You told me you worked as a… a salesman, if I recall?”
+++++Then the light came back in his eyes, that knowing spark, and he said, “Yeah. That’s right. I mean, it doesn’t help. But I think it’s just me that’s the problem. I’ve never exactly been sociable.”
+++++Chris nodded. “Fair enough.”
+++++The storm came in a torrential display, a cyclone of dark clouds the color of obsidian sand altars in the east and winds with the strength to topple semitrucks. The sounds of the cracking lightning followed by the low, guttural bellyache of the thunder became routine, every few minutes, and the hissing of the wind, like a firecracker’s wick newly lit, and the rain slapping on the pavement and the wood and concrete, became like a symphony. Chris found it oddly soothing.
+++++The power went out after about thirty minutes of it, and so he and the man who called himself Bobby sat alone in the dark; Chris on the stool behind the bar and Bobby at one of the circular wooden tables that sat around the floor. He got up and pulled back the cloth curtain over the window facing out toward the beach, peering out the window.
+++++“Jesus,” Bobby said, “it’s really coming down out there. It always like this here on the coast?”
+++++“When it rains, it pours,” Chris said.
+++++Bobby nodded. “See, yeah. I’m a Midwestern boy. Grew up in Kansas. We had tornados to worry about, but that didn’t happen all that often.”
+++++“Guess you got lucky,” Chris said.
+++++“Yeah, until now,” Bobby said.
+++++They had lapsed into silence again when Bobby spoke up: “It’s refreshing, in a way. To be able to just sit here without all the fucking noise of the cell phones and the technology and the always-moving. It’s nice to be able to just exist.
+++++Chris looked at him and chuckled. “Odd way to see it.”
+++++“How so?”
+++++“How’s it odd, you mean?”
+++++“Yeah. I don’t see it as odd at all. I think people would be very happy if they just quit using the technology. If they’d just free themselves, you know? People weren’t meant to spend all their time staring at screens.”
+++++“Yeah, but you’re saying all this in the middle of a goddamn storm,” Chris said. “Not exactly encouraging people to do it. They just have to. They’ll turn them back on right after the power comes on.”
+++++Bobby shrugged. “Then I’m glad they have the chance to experience a freer life right now. I think sometimes people need a bit of a push.”
+++++“A push towards what?”
+++++“Towards something they may not have been willing to do otherwise,” Bobby said, and the way he said it, quiet and reverent like a missionary of some kind, sent an odd chill down Chris’s arms, put his arm hairs up like there was some electricity about the room. “Something good for them,” Bobby was saying.
+++++Chris decided that there was something he fundamentally just didn’t like about Bobby – something off-kilter and strange. It was a fundamental something that was broken in him. Chris resigned himself, mentally, from the conversation, and told Bobby he was retiring to his upstairs apartment to read a book and rest from the day, and all its perils. He told Bobby he could stay downstairs and relax until the storm passed if he wished.
+++++Bobby gave him a toothy grin and a wave. “I’ll hold down the fort,” he said. “Protect it from any intruders.”
+++++Chris nodded. “That’d be great, yeah.”
+++++The book Chris got from the library was a Stephen King novel, Misery, and he read it for a half-hour in bed, clothes and shoes still on, with the storm browbeating the world outside, the wind and the rain forming an almost relaxing symphony. Then he was falling asleep, eyes heavy, and he woke up with his book on his chest and the light through the window slightly different. It was 5 p.m. by that time, and the storm was still going. So far as he could tell, it had not ceased.
+++++Chris put the bookmark back in his book and went downstairs, his joints aching and tired, his head a bit fuzzy from the nap. He’d never liked taking naps in the middle of the day, not when he had other plans later at any rate.
+++++Bobby was downstairs leafing through a tourist manual of the area, which Chris kept in a stack by the front door for people who had somehow come to Joe’s Tiki Bar with tunnel-vision, not seeing anything else.
+++++Bobby looked up and smiled. “Hope you’re rested up. Looks like the storm’s not leaving us yet.”
+++++Chris said, “I suppose not.”
+++++He poured himself a glass of whiskey and leaned back against the bar.
+++++“Drinking with me now, huh?” Bobby said.
+++++“Why not? Not like I’ll be needin’ to drive anywhere.”
+++++Bobby said something, but it was drowned out by the sound of the storm surge. Bobby went to look out the window and said, “Holy shit. You’ve gotta see this.”
+++++Chris went to the window and looked out. The storm had met the land, had encroached and devoured the beach. The water was flooding the streets. Cars left parked there were now half-submerged in water. It was seeping through the doors of businesses there. Joe’s Tiki Shack was only two blocks up the road and Chris felt a kind of tug in his soul, a terror – it was the inevitable, really; was what it was. It was the sense that everything he knew was about to end. He was being dramatic. But he wasn’t. The fear of nature was the most innate thing in a man – the primal thing, the original fear, really, aside from death itself. Man had been conquering nature forever and nature bit back.
+++++The water was coming closer to the door.
+++++Chris’s brain kicked into action at last. He remembered the materials in the closet, stored there for the worst-case thing. He ran and fetched two sandbags from the closet and handed one to Bobby, told him to put it under the door. And so they did. They sat back at one of the tables together when they were done, both with drinks poured before them, and Chris didn’t feel much better about their chances. They were quiet and listened to the storm battering everything.
+++++“I’ve got to tell you, man,” Chris said. “You’re a weird guy, and I’m not sure we’d get along under normal circumstances. But I’m damn glad you’re here now.”
+++++“What makes you say that?” Bobby said. “What kind of manners is that?”
+++++“Man, you just rub me wrong,” Chris said. “I’m sorry I offended you. But that’s the truth.”
+++++They sat in silence and Chris felt something rotten in what he’d said. He hadn’t been raised that way.
+++++It was Bobby who spoke first: “Let’s start clean, then. I can tell you’re stressed the hell out right now. Let’s go back and start from zero.”
+++++“How’s that?”
+++++“Look. If we’re going to be stuck together, in this damned storm? May as well try to be friends. Clearly, I’ve offended you. That wasn’t my intent. So I’d like to go back to the beginning and start fresh. Act like we’re just meetin’ now.”
+++++Chris sighed and said sure, why not. He didn’t know why Bobby was so insistent. People came in all types, he reminded himself. And maybe he had been wrong. And what did he really have to lose, here in the storm? If anything it would be a good way to pass the time.
+++++So he offered his hand.
+++++And Bobby shook. Bobby’s hand was cold and smooth and his grip was firm.
+++++They kept drinking. Chris would get up and refill their glasses with rum and they sat there while the storm pounded and pounded against the door and the walls and the roof, like a desperate stranger, pleading to be let in. They talked about their love lives, Bobby spinning tales about his crazy exes spread across the country; girls he’d met and spent a few days with at a time and then they drifted apart, girls whom he sometimes called when he got lonely and who sometimes called him for any variety of reasons. He spoke of the colorful personalities they had, their wild hippie opinions and their odd hours painting and playing music and all other manner of things. They had enriched his life, all of them, he said.
+++++Chris said his wife had been the primary relationship in his life. The bedrock, really. She had been the girl who stuck by him and in his experience that was the most important thing. He said over the years they had grown stale in a way, less excited, the fire died.
+++++“So you were wrong,” Bobby said.
+++++“How’s that?”
+++++“You were wrong. It turned out that it was less important than you thought, to have that stability. Me personally, I’ve never found that to be true, that it’s more important to have someone there than have someone good for you. I’ve always found it better to just be honest. You don’t compromise. You don’t settle for less.”
+++++Chris nodded and couldn’t meet Bobby’s eyes. These were the thoughts that had consumed him in the night even when he was married. They had gnawed and eaten at him, and eventually driven him to leave, just up and go, on impulse. He hadn’t even said goodbye to his wife, had just taken his stuff and gone and called her when he was two states away. She had been so furious that she hung up on him then. They hadn’t talked since. Fitting end to the whole mess, he thought.
+++++By that point he and Bobby were both drunk. Bobby was standing up and swaying in the room, coming dangerously close to hitting the tables or the chairs and knocking them over, but he didn’t. He said, “With the storm out there, this place feels like an old pirate’s ship. I’ve always enjoyed old bars like this. Can’t ever get enough of them, you know.”
+++++Chris was seeing doubles by that point, his head swimming and his limbs feeling soft and pleasantly lit, the whole room feeling very light and swirling in spite of his dread from the storm still resting in his gut like hot coals. Chris laughed at Bobby swaying about. He said, “Man, I’ve never met a soul like you before.”
+++++“That a compliment, or are we going at it again?”
+++++“It’s just a statement,” Chris said. “Of fact. You’re an interesting guy. That’s all. I’m just drunk.”
+++++“So you’re telling me that with no clear reason to say it?” he asked. “Words, just floating in the aether, no point or rhyme or reason? Seems rather pointless to me. Rather lackadaisical. I expected more from you.”
+++++Bobby was clearly drunk – he’d just taken another gulp of his rum. He was swaying now like a madman.
+++++Chris said, “So I’ve been opening my soul to you. What about you, though? What’s your deal? You said you just never felt like you fit in, something like that?”
+++++Bobby cast his eye at Chris and said, “That’s better. You got a point to it now. Real conversation. It’s a lost art.”
+++++Swaying on his feet almost like dancing, he took another swig of the rum – the glass almost empty now. He said, “I have walked through life like a drifter, a tourist. I never felt like I belonged. Hell, most of the time, I barely feel anything at all. Like my insides are goddamned frozen, you feel me? It’s infuriating. It’s like I’m living in some glass case, but I can walk around, but no one can get in and I can’t reach out.”
+++++“Jesus,” Chris said – he hadn’t expected this.
+++++“I did find a solace,” Bobby said, eyes cast to the floor, slurring his words, but Chris knew he wasn’t bullshitting – his tone was too somber, and Bobby didn’t seem the joking type anyway.
+++++“What’s that?” Chris said.
+++++“I can really only feel a damned thing when I put a knife in someone,” he said. “It’s fucked up, but… that’s what it is. I can feel alive when I’m feeling someone else die. It’s like a compulsion and I can’t be rid of it.”
+++++Chris sat there and felt a chill go through him colder than any stormwinds. He felt like he had to choose his next words very carefully. But the alcohol in him was surging and raging back and forth like its own miniature storm, microcosm of the chaos outside, volcanic hot bile. There was nowhere to go. He couldn’t go outside, lest he be swept up in the floods, cast out to sea.
+++++He wondered which was more preferable then – dying by the storm or by the hand of the man sitting across from him, obviously mentally unstable.
+++++Bobby was still talking, drunk honesty spewing forth: “I’ve actually just killed another, this past week. It was in northern Florida and I used a knife. A man probably on his way to some business conference. I left him in the bushes in a small town off the highway. His car’s probably impounded by now. I wonder if anyone’s found him. But it was good for now. Saturated me for now.”
+++++Chris realized he couldn’t think straight. Bobby looked him dead in the eye, blank naive concern, like he’d just confessed to something much more innocuous, an embarrassing hobby perhaps. “I understand if you’re troubled,” he said.
+++++Chris heard himself saying he needed to excuse himself. Needed to think.
+++++He found himself next in the upstairs bathroom in his private apartment. It was a small place with faded yellow tiles, no longer so chipper as they had once been, instead now retirement-home-shade, placating and dull. The mirror was smudged from the years. He told himself to clean it but hadn’t gotten around to that. There was a small rectangular window high up on the wall he could usually see the coastline from. Now it was all covered in rain, coming down like bullets. The whole world was rain. Nothing but the grey smog and the water rushing and the destruction of all things man had made.
+++++And below, downstairs, the man who had, apparently, killed other men for no reason beyond his own gratification, the need to “feel.”
+++++He was trapped, as it went, between a rock and a hard place.
+++++Trembling hands, he took out his phone and looked up the murder Bobby had been talking about, browsed through the northern Floridian news.
+++++And there it was.
+++++A man, Peter Shaw, had been found stabbed in the gut five times in the bushes off the highway I-10 between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. He’d been on his way to a business conference on the coast. His family was quoted, tearfully, as saying they didn’t know who did it or why it happened.
+++++The whole thing had an air about it of years ago, when things were murkier and the war had ended and all the drifters were out. This just didn’t “happen” anymore. Not like that. It was alien territory. Chris felt like he should stay in the bathroom until the storm passed. Just wait it out.
+++++But he couldn’t.
+++++If Bobby came up here, perhaps with some weapon he’d kept hidden this whole time… well, he wouldn’t have any defense. And why would Bobby tell him any of the things he’d just said if he planned to let Chris live? That made no sense.
+++++So, Chris deduced, he was now in a fight for his life.
+++++Shaking, he got to his feet. He looked in the mirror. His hair was matted to his forehead with sweat. His whole body was weak and shaky and he felt like he had lost a lot of weight, like he hadn’t eaten in days. The power was out now, and the storm raged outside and seemed like it had grown closer somehow…
+++++When Chris came back downstairs, every footstep on the stairs creaking like an old pirate ship and feeling like it was going to give out and he’d plunge downwards, Bobby was not facing him. Instead, Bobby was looking out the window at the storm. In the dark, he seemed smaller and thinner. The window provided some light through the dark bar and Chris could see Bobby’s bare neck, thought about how easy it’d be to take a knife from behind the bar and just end it all now, just put a punctuation mark on this whole odd, surreal affair…
+++++But he was too slow.
+++++Bobby turned around, his eyes gleaming, and Chris could see the storm in his eyes, all the rage and turmoil and the force-of-nature, and Chris felt like he was going to fall down, from all the fear of that moment.
+++++But he stayed standing, though his hands gripped the stairwell enough for his knuckles to turn white.
+++++“It’s really coming down out there,” Bobby said. “Sheets of rain. The streets are all flooded. You’re lucky this place is so well-fortified. Otherwise we could be talking knee-deep in water right now.”
+++++“Yeah,” Chris said. “Lucky.”
+++++He came down to the floor and faced Bobby, feeling like he was now in some old Western. Good guy faces bad guy. A standoff. He wished he’d had a gun, had given into the impulse to buy one after opening the store. He saw now in retrospect that it may have been a good idea after all. But then, who could have predicted this?
+++++Bobby said, “I don’t like the way you’re looking at me, man.”
+++++“You know what you said,” Chris said. “It’s just because, you know, I’m not sure I can trust you anymore.”
+++++“I haven’t done a thing to you so far,” Bobby said, and it struck Chris how sober he seemed now, how little the alcohol seemed to be influencing his movements now. “If I was going to hurt you, I’d have done it by now.”
+++++“I didn’t know your secrets before,” Chris said. “No way you’re letting me live after this storm passes. Not now that you’ve told me what you do. What you are.
+++++Bobby smirked; a toothy, almost sharklike grin, wide and predatory, and said, “My name’s not really Bobby. And I’ll change the way I look after I leave here. They won’t find me no matter what. I know it might be hard to believe, my compadre, but I don’t care about you. I’ve got no beef with you. I just wanted to have a conversation. I’m an honest type of guy. And you enjoyed it – don’t deny that. Don’t deny that you got something from this.”
+++++Chris said, “You’re a murderer. You kill men.”
+++++“Labels,” Bobby said, shrugging. “I can’t defend what I do. I don’t pretend to be able to fit into normal society.”
+++++“Even then,” Chris said. “You should be locked up. You can’t be allowed in normal society.”
+++++Bobby looked hurt, genuinely hurt. “It’s such a shortcut though. To condemn me that way. I think you’re being reductive. I don’t think you’re thinking this through properly. We were having a good conversation earlier, when it was about you.”
+++++Chris’s hand was on the knife in the drawer by the sink. He kept a firm grip but his hand was shaking; whole body was shaking… he wasn’t used to this at all, this kind of conflict. He wanted to just sleep and sit back, watch the whole thing through someone else’s eyes, a movie and not his own life.
+++++Bobby was approaching. Hands up and his face deceptively innocent, soft like a teenager’s. He looked like anyone. Like a guy you’d see in the park with a girlfriend minding his business. But there had been blood on those hands he was holding up as a sign of innocence.
+++++Chris could feel the next moments for the rest of his life. He thrust the knife out in front of him and felt it enter flesh, piercing both it and the clothes that surrounded – he had stabbed Bobby in the gut. It was such an odd feeling, the knife entering flesh; he’d never felt anything like it before. For a split second, as he turned his head up and his eyes met Bobby’s shocked, pained eyes, Chris knew what Bobby felt to some degree. And he was afraid of it, afraid of that part of himself…
+++++Bobby howled in pain, his scream piercing the air, timed right as another thundercrack sounded and seemed to shake the Earth. Bobby looked at him with revulsion and surprise and maybe a bit of hurt, and for a split second Chris felt he should apologize.
+++++But as Bobby turned and ran for the door, the impulse faded.
+++++Chris watched Bobby run.
+++++Into the storm.
+++++The door flapped open like a broken jaw and the rain flooded in. The storm howled outside. Nothing but a gray miasma, all rage and wind and Mother Nature taking her revenge on the earth. And Bobby was gone, lost somewhere in all of it.
+++++The storm would pass and things got back to relative normalcy. There were repairs to be done. The road had been washed away in parts by the beach and they’d have construction crews out repairing it for two days straight. They would find out that two people had died because they refused to leave their trailers, tenuously rooted to the ground, and one old woman had a heart attack when a particularly nasty lightning bolt struck.
+++++Chris cleaned the knife of Bobby’s blood in the sink, watched it flow down the drain and pondered how easy it was to cause harm, draw blood and wash it away, pondered the fleeting nature of human life compared to the things they made, the things they constructed, the things nature did of its own chaotic whims. Humans were so fragile, he thought.
+++++He would check the paper and the internet for a day or two to see if any stabbing victims had been admitted to a hospital the day of the storm. Nothing. Of course Bobby wouldn’t do that – he wouldn’t draw attention to himself. He would be off somewhere on his own. Licking his wounds.
+++++So Chris, warily, got back to normal life. He drank with friends of his, other local workers around town and unemployed barflies and all other manner of people who came into the bar. He went out on a date or two in the fall, women who were attractive and nice and fun, but who he couldn’t see a feasible future with. Everything seemed faded and in a fog. Life was muted.
+++++The day of the storm faded from everyone’s mind as time rolled on. Chris would think of Bobby in dreams, and when he’d wake up he would forget most of them, but have the vague sensation that he had a nightmare. When he passed people in the street he sometimes got the vague sensation that eyes were on him, that somewhere in the crowd, he was there, moving slow and sure, the glacial-paced death coming for him.

Scrapper

Still handcuffed, Butler Simmons lay on the steel bench, his back against the riveted iron latticework of the town’s musty jail cell. He was nauseous, his head pounded. He drifted in and out of consciousness. During a lucid moment he blinked and tried to clear his blurred vision by focusing on the old stumblebum who lay curled up on the floor in the adjacent corner. And then he closed his eyes as a dream began to filter through.
+++++He was a teenager in his room at home, his jaw and ribs aching from a fistfight. His normally well-groomed father, Bill, wearing a wrinkled, dirty yellow shirt, hovered over him. Unshaven, mouth taut and twisted, he poked at Butler with his finger. “I’m not home but a few days a month to visit with your mother. I’m not here to deal with any malarkey from you.” His father glared; saliva gathered at the corners of his mouth. “What’s wrong with you, boy? Rest of the time I’m home I don’t even want to know you’re in this house. You got that?”
+++++Then a grizzled face hovered again, and the yellow shirt partially blocked the view of the hallway outside his bedroom door where his father and his mother, Ruth, stood talking. “I’ll say one thing for him,” Bill said. “The kid’s a scrapper. Two punks on him and he was still taking care of business.”
+++++The words were an unexpected balm that momentarily washed away all Butler’s aches and pains. Then Bill pulled Ruth roughly against him and kissed her. She giggled as they stumbled through their bedroom door.
+++++“You been fight’n, have ya?” Butler came to for a moment and looked up through the blur as the bum in the yellow shirt stared down at him. Butler’s head began to throb; he winced and closed his eyes.
+++++Butler Simmons stood five-eight, thick and muscular, with a ruddy complexion and a buzz-cut that now showed an egg-sized lump covered in dried blood on the crown of his head. His large hands were permanently gloved in calluses from years working as a brick layer. He was thirty-one, but looked fifty.
+++++Since he was seventeen, Butler had been in and out of jail, always for fighting and often for resisting arrest. It confused his friends who knew him to be generally happy and easy going. Butler didn’t fully understand why he fought either. All he knew was that whenever he was hurting inside, it was his drug of choice, and an easy drug to find. There were always loudmouths in the bars and clubs, or gangs of foul-mouthed toughs walking through the mall. The numbers didn’t matter. The bigger the brawl the better, because all Butler cared about was the banging, dizzying, breathtaking fury of the fight that, in the moment, he wished could go on forever.
+++++Footsteps sounded on the jailhouse stairs and a door opened. Butler tried to focus but could see nothing but the blurred image of a man. “You ready to calm down now?”
+++++Butler struggled to sit up but had to stop and lean against the bars to quiet the pounding in his head.
+++++“I’m talking to you, Simmons.”
+++++It was the smarmy desk sergeant with the Errol Flynn moustache. Through the pain Butler nodded his head and then slurred, “I’m good. How bout taking these cuffs off.”
+++++The sergeant fingered a key and motioned him to the cell door. Butler stood up, then wobbled and collapsed onto the floor.

***

Butler awoke in a hospital room. His mother sat in a nearby chair reading a magazine. He scanned the room for his father.
+++++“He’s not here, honey.” Ruth closed the magazine and pulled her chair closer to the bed.
+++++Butler’s father was a high-altitude iron-worker, and proud of it. Hard and wiry, and several inches taller than Butler, Bill worked on bridges and skyscrapers all over the country and was only home a few days each month. When Butler was growing up, he would listen in awe as his dad bragged about places he had been and things he had done. Bill spent most of his visits in the bedroom with Ruth, having noisy sex, or in neighborhood taverns drinking with friends. Throughout his childhood Butler yearned for his father’s attention but Bill had no interest in his son. Still didn’t.
+++++Ruth smiled at him. “How do you feel?”
+++++Butler carefully felt the bandage on his head. “I’ve been better. At least the headache’s not as bad and I can see okay. I think someone got me with a cue.”
+++++Ruth leaned back in her chair her expression tight as if she were trying to hold something inside.
+++++“What’s the matter?” Butler said.
+++++“You’ve got to stop fighting, Bubby.”
+++++“I know, Mom. I’ll work on it.”
+++++“It’s different this time.” She startled him when she grabbed his hand. “They had to operate. You almost died.”
+++++He stared at her for several long seconds then looked at the ceiling and swallowed. “What day is it?”
+++++“It’s Thursday. You’ve been here four days.”
+++++“Anyone checked on Smoothie?”
+++++“He’s okay. I was over there this morning. Cats shouldn’t be so fat, you know. It’s not good for him.”
+++++“What about the cops?”
+++++“They dropped the charges. I think they’re worried you’re gonna sue them.”
+++++“Maybe I should.” He tried to sit up.
+++++“No, no. You’ve gotta be on your back for a while.” Butler settled into his pillow. He had never seen his mother so concerned.
+++++“Your dad was here to see you.”
+++++Butler’s mood instantly brightened. “Yeah?”
+++++“It was Tuesday, I think. The doctors were still real worried about you then.”
+++++“That was nice of him. I didn’t know. Did he stay a while?”
+++++Ruth motioned toward a chair next to the door. “He sat right over there.”
+++++Butler stared at the chair and the room grew awkwardly silent. Since he was a teenager, Butler kept a picture of his father standing on an iron beam thirty stories over the Chicago waterfront. It still took his breath away every time he looked at it. There was Bill, strong and confident, surrounded by a vast and luxurious openness, with the world of streets and buildings far below. Butler had tried to become an iron-worker but was dizzy and immobile at significant heights. Bill never missed a chance to humiliate him over it. Even at thirty-one, Butler was devastated by Bill’s criticism and, equally, savored even the smallest and often insincere bits of acceptance and praise.
+++++“What about Silvia?”
+++++Ruth hesitated. “I called her, Bubby.” She forced a smile and shook her head no.

***

Butler was twenty-eight when he married Silvia. She was an old high-school friend who fell in love with him during one of his longer periods of stability. She was intrigued by his easy nature and his bizarre need to fight, and was convinced she could help him put an end to it. In fact, Butler kept things under control for two years and was very happy. Then the economy went bad and he was laid off. They were about to lose the house until his father finally stepped in and loaned them some money. But then Bill started to needle him and Butler finally lost it. In the aftermath of seven separate fights and subsequent trouble with the police, Silvia’s tolerance and understanding wore out. She moved into her own apartment. Their divorce was finalized three months ago.

***

“You’ve had a skull fracture, Mr. Simmons.” The young doctor put on his glasses and slipped the x-ray film into the clip over the lighted board by Butler’s bed. “It looks like it wasn’t the first.”
+++++“I’ve had a few lumps along the way. Lucky I’ve got a hard head.” Butler grinned.
+++++The doctor didn’t smile back. “When you first got hit did you black out?”
+++++“No, I went down for a minute but I got right back up. It hurt like hell.”
+++++“You could see and function okay? Your speech wasn’t slurred?”
+++++“I was fine. I was going strong until the cops came and threw me in jail. That’s when I started feeling sick, couldn’t get my eyes to work.”
+++++The doctor nodded. “Right. It’s because, along with the fracture, you developed a swelling between the brain and the skull, what we call a subdural hematoma.”
+++++“Huh.”
+++++“Untreated, the swelling might have caused permanent damage to the brain, or even death. We had to drill several burr holes to relieve the pressure. Fortunately the procedure was successful.”
+++++“Well, I’m glad of that. Thanks.”
+++++The doctor sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Here’s the problem, Mr. Simmons. Patients who have experienced subdural hematomas become more and more prone to them. With any additional head trauma they’re likely to appear again, and it can happen days or even weeks after an event.”
+++++Butler tried to think of something clever to say, but couldn’t.
+++++“So we need you to stay on your back for the next week or so, make sure this one is behind us. After that you’ll have to take it easy, re-assess your lifestyle. We can get into more details at our follow-up examination but in the future you’ll have to avoid certain types of activities. No rugby, hockey, boxing, wrestling, football, no contact sports of any kind. If it takes a helmet, you’ll have to avoid it.”
+++++Butler felt as if he had just been given a life sentence.
+++++The doctor smiled. He stood up, took off his glasses and slipped them into his breast-pocket. “I wouldn’t worry, Mr. Simmons. Most people make out just fine. Take it easy and I’ll see you in two weeks.”

***

Silvia had liked a clean, orderly house. That had been a big change for Butler, who as a bachelor had been happy living amongst piles of laundry and counters filled with dirty dishes. As he lay on the couch Butler thought about a day early in their marriage. Silvia had been working on the house and had finished the kitchen with new white lace curtains and placed a large bouquet of cut zinnias on the table. She had just returned the broom to the closet as he came through the door. The afternoon sun was streaming in the window. And there was beautiful Silvia wearing white shorts and a dark tank-top, smiling at him as she wiped her hands on a towel. It was a small moment, but his heart was so full. Seeing her there in the center of the sparkling kitchen, he realized how much better his life was going to be now that they were together.
+++++She had given him a puzzled look and said, “What?”
+++++They had hugged and he had been unable to speak, but she had him in her arms and everything was okay.
+++++Now, as he lay on his couch with Smoothie curled at his feet, his heart full at the remembering, that speechless feeling came back to him again. But he was alone and empty and the feeling stuck in his throat and pulled at him and he felt as if he were descending into a great darkness. He needed to fight, but his head throbbed and he knew he couldn’t.
+++++He scanned the room. Since Silvia had gone he had drifted back to his old ways. He hadn’t vacuumed or dusted. The coffee table was filled with glasses, coke cans and dishes. Papers and magazines littered the floor around the couch and lounge-chair. An overflowing laundry basket sat on the floor by the front entrance where his jacket hung over the newel-post. When he had gotten up and gone to the kitchen to refresh his coffee he had to hold the cup when he poured because there was no place to set it. At least now he had an excuse for the clutter, he thought. The doctor had insisted he remain on his back for another week.
+++++Someone knocked at the door and it immediately opened. “It’s just me, Bubby.” Ruth came into the house with a grocery bag in one arm and a handful of mail in the other. She was wearing a scarf and a rain-coat with dripping-wet shoulders. “It’s nasty out there. How are you doing?”
+++++“I’m doing fine.”
+++++Smoothie stood and stretched. Ruth handed Butler the mail and went into the kitchen, the cat following close behind. Butler shuffled through the letters and tossed them on the coffee table. In the kitchen dry cat food clattered into the bowl.
+++++“Smoothie’s almost out of food,” Ruth said. “I’ll pick some more up for you.”
+++++“There’s a big bag in the closet.”
+++++“Oh, good. I can’t stay now, honey, but I’ll come back later and do some of these dishes.”
+++++“Maybe you could bring Dad with you.”
+++++Ruth stepped into the doorway. “He left today, Bubby. I thought he called you.”
+++++Butler shook his head and said, “No.”
+++++“Sorry. You know how he is.”
+++++“Yeah. If you talk to him, tell him the union hall called. They’re putting me on a big commercial job next month. It’s supposed to last a year.”
+++++“Don’t you need to wait and see what the doctor says?”
+++++“It’s four weeks from now, Mom. Besides, I’ve gotta work.”
+++++“Well… I guess. Dad will be happy to hear that. I know he worries about you.”
+++++Butler put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling.

***

His hand shook when he picked up the phone and dialed Silvia’s number. It rang three times.
+++++“Hello.”
+++++He closed his eyes at the sound of her voice.
+++++“Hello?” she said again.
+++++“Hey… It’s me.” He heard her take a short breath. “Don’t hang up. Please.”
+++++Rustling sounded through the phone and then a moment of silence. “What do you want?”
+++++“I just wanted… I just wanted to talk to you. I’m going nuts here in the house.” Butler shifted the phone to his other ear and settled into the couch. “I have to lie flat on my back for a week. I’ve got another three days and then I go back to the doc.”
+++++“Your mom said it was bad.”
+++++Smoothie jumped onto the cushion and lay down next to him. “I’m over the hump now.”
+++++“Until the next time.”
+++++“No. I can’t do that anymore. It’s over.”
+++++“I hope it is, Butler. For your sake, I hope it is.”
+++++“Come see me.”
+++++“You know I can’t do that.”
+++++“Why not? A quick visit with a sick friend. Besides, Smoothie’s been asking about you. Come see him. I’ll stay in the bedroom.”
+++++She laughed. “How is Smoothie anyway?”
+++++“He’s fat. And he wants to see you.” There was a long pause. “Just come to the front door and wave. It would mean a lot to both of us.”
+++++“Butler… It’s over. You know that.”
+++++“I know. I’m just so bored lying here.” His voice cracked as he said, “I was hoping to have something to look forward to.”
+++++She sighed. “Maybe I could stop by after work tomorrow.”
+++++He sat up. “Oh, that would be great.”
+++++“It’ll just be for a few minutes, Butler. It doesn’t mean anything. Visiting a sick friend, that’s all.”
+++++He worked until after midnight cleaning up the clutter. His head was pounding when he went to bed but he was fine when he woke up. He called the florist first thing and ordered a bouquet of cut-flowers for the table, then he washed the rest of the dishes, cleaned out Smoothie’s litter-box, and mopped the kitchen floor. He organized the mail and dusted and vacuumed the living-room. He did a load of wash and put fresh towels in the bathroom and kitchen.
+++++At three o’clock he shaved and took a shower then put on a fresh pair of jeans and a rust-colored polo-shirt. In the living-room he slipped in a CD and lay down on the couch, closed his eyes. He was tense and maybe it was his imagination, but his head felt a little tingly. He made himself a promise that from now on he would strictly follow the doctor’s orders. He had begun to doze when someone knocked at the door. He leapt from the couch and grabbed his head with both hands as a sharp pain hit him like a shot, then just as quickly subsided. He opened the door. It was the delivery from the florist.
+++++On his way into the kitchen with the flowers the phone rang. He picked it up.
+++++“Hello.”
+++++“It’s me.” There was a sense of stony strength and immediacy in Silvia’s voice. He braced himself.
+++++“Hey.”
+++++“I just wanted to let you know I won’t be coming by.”
+++++Butler set the flowers on the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. Smoothie rubbed against his leg and meowed. “How come?”
+++++“It’s just not going to work. I should never have agreed to do it.”
+++++“You’re just visiting a sick friend.”
+++++“Butler, I hope it all works out for you. I really do, but I have to go now.”
+++++“But…” She hung up.
+++++Smoothie rubbed against his leg again. Butler set the phone on the table next to the flowers and went to the closet. He pulled out the bag of cat-food, returned to the chair and picked at the braided-string closure. He pulled a loose end but the braid just tightened into a hard knot. He always had trouble with these. He tried the other end and the cat meowed again. Butler finally went to the counter, took a knife from the block and slashed the bag twice across the middle. He ripped it open and left it on the floor. Smoothie looked at him, then hunched down and started eating.

***

It took four of them; a cop, the bouncer from the Blue Duck and two civilians, to get Butler Simmons handcuffed. They jammed him, still struggling and kicking, into the back of the police-car. His body was wedged between the rear seat and the steel mesh partition, his head on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The cop, breathing heavily, the side of his face smeared with blood and the sleeve of his leather jacket ripped at the shoulder, pulled open the rear passenger door and stomped on Butler’s head several times. He slammed the door and scanned the crowd of onlookers, his angry glare daring anyone to speak. The crowd, sporadically lit in red and blue by the rotating police-car bubbles, headed back into the bar.
+++++Butler gasped for breath through the acrid smell of the heavy rubber floor-mats. He thought of the picture, his father on the steel beam, the endless sky, the buildings far below.

Still Not Dead

CHAPTER 1 – STILL NOT DEAD

So, I wake up and I’m still not dead. What’s worse is there’s bright lights and white walls everywhere. I feel like I’ve been reincarnated into some strange Keanu Reeves film, only I obviously took the wrong pill. There’s someone coughin’ like they’re trying to retch up a lung at the other side of the room and all the time I hear this beep of a nearby monitor. I try to move my arm and feel it held by something. I look to my left side and see a drip connect to my arm via this clear plastic tube. A clear but obviously viscous fluid is sliding slowly into my arm and I hope with all my heart that it’s fucking poison slowly killing me. I wouldn’t be so lucky. There’s this background pain somewhere around my spine but I feel like I’m warm and floating up near the ceiling, I can see a small cobweb in sharp relief. I drift off.

I’m in the white room again. I see a woman in a uniform scowling down at me as she ticks off some things on a clipboard as she glances at the monitor by my bed. I guess she sees my eyelids flutter coz she smiles at me but it doesn’t reach her eyes. I see her shaking her head as she walks away. I drift off.

My Mum is sittin’ by the bed. I can see her lips movin’ and tears tricklin’ down her prematurely lined face. I briefly feel her touch my hand. It’s weird coz although she’s there I can’t hear no words. It’s like there’s a film playin and I’m viewin it with the sound off. I drift off.

There’s a guy in a white coat at the end of the bed havin a whispered conversation with a blonde nurse over a clipboard. They must be arguin coz they are in each other’s faces with and seein nothin but each other, especially not me eyeballin em. She grabs the clipboard from him wiv an angry gesture and puts it on the end of my bed. The nurse turns to leave and the guy in the white coat give her arse a little squeeze. She glares at him and storms off. I feel sick but my eyelids are heavy. I drift off.

I’m runnin through a forest and I can hear it behind me. I crash through the trees feeling every one of em scratch at my skin as if they’re reaching out for me. I stumble into a clearing and stop to catch my breath and look up at the moon. It’s full and fat, it looks so bright I feel like I could reach out and touch it. I hear a howl. It’s close, after me. I plunge once more into the trees my breathing getting faster but my legs keep moving. I feel the pain of a multitude of cuts all over my arms and my face. I hear it now, catching up to me closer. My heart hammers in my chest as if it wants to escape. I finally escape the trees, I’m standing at a cliff edge, and I can’t even see the bottom. Nowhere to go. The beast is seconds away. I jump and feel a scream building in my lungs.
+++++I awake sat up in bed sweat pouring on my brow. A nurse has rushed over. I blink at her stupidly.
+++++“Are you ok pet?” she asks with a faint Durham accent.
+++++I blink and look around; I must have been thrashing in my sleep as I’ve pulled the drip from my arm. The nurse spots it and sorts it out.
+++++“You were making a right racket and that scream, I nearly jumped out of my skin!”
+++++She leans close to me and I smell her perfume. It’s a musky pleasant aroma but I suddenly feel sick. Without warning, I vomit down my front in one quick convulsion. The usual carrots mixed in the mainly fluid. I retch but nothing more comes out. I gasp for breath for a moment.
+++++The nurse touches my arm for a moment in a strangely tender gesture.
+++++“Never mind pet, it’s the painkillers. We’ll get you cleaned up in a moment.”
+++++This act of gentleness has my eyes watering and I fight back the tears that try to come. I have to lie back and suffer the indignity of my Durham angel cleaning and changing me. I drift off.

CHAPTER 2 – LECTURES AND PIES

So, I’m sat in this tiny little office. It’s too bright and I’m finding myself squinting against the harshness of the fluorescent lighting. I’m sweating from the heat as like every other room in this damn hospital it’s too hot and the radiator seems huge in this cramped space.
+++++So this Doc ain’t smiling and he’s lecturing me about my actions. All I can focus on is the forest of nose hairs peeking out from his left nostril and he thinks I’m actually payin attention. He starts to wag his finger, goin into overdrive now. I hear the words liver and kidney and all I can think about is food; a steak and kidney pie. I imagine it in my mind with crumbly flaky pastry and steam risin of it. He stops talkin and pushes some paperwork across to me and a couple of leaflets. A quick signature and that’s it, I can go.
+++++I’m dressed in some jeans that are hanging off me and a t-shirt my Mam had brought in for me and carrying a bag with a few toiletries in it. I walk in a daze, tired from all the drugs and the lying around for days doing nothing. On the way out of the hospital, I drop the discharge form and leaflets in the bin. I hesitate a moment and chuck the toiletries in there for good measure. I only keep a prescription slip, which I slide into my jeans pocket I step outside and the biting wind takes me breathe away. After days stuck indoors, I’ll need to get used to this. I trudge down the hill and towards town. The skies are grey and I’m not surprised when it starts to rain. Within ten minutes, I’m soaked to the skin and shivering. At the bottom of the long hill into town, I see a little cafe. I rummage around in my pocket and fish out some coins, a grand total of £4.80. I look into the cafe and it looks grubby but warm and inviting. A little sign says I can get a large breakfast with tea and toast for £4.50. I head inside.
+++++I find a little table, slip my coat over the back of the chair and take a seat. It’s one them plastic chair like you see in schools. It’s cold for a moment but that’s a pleasure after the constant stiflin’ heat of the hospital. I put my forearms on the table and immediately regret as I feel them stick to the surface, which doesn’t look like it’s been wiped down this morning.
+++++A short tubby little woman wearin an apron shuffles over to me. She doesn’t look as if a smile has graced her features in a long time.
+++++“What can I get you darlin?” She asks.
+++++I mutter, “Big breakfast.” Hopin this makes her go sort it, but she stands there lookin vacant. Pen poised over this little pad like she’s waitin for divine inspiration or something.
+++++Finally, she says, “Tea or coffee?”
+++++“Tea.”
+++++“White or brown?”
+++++Fuck me. All I wants is a meal, not a bloody quiz. I sigh.
+++++“White.”
+++++“Coming right up.”
+++++She wanders off, her broad hips swingin from side to side. I’m sweatin now, even that small exchange has taken so much out of me. I feel all nervous and anxious and I want to bolt but the hunger is winnin. I just sit still and try to control my breathing as they taught me.
+++++She comes with tea. I try to smile but she just looks unsettled by it. I slurp on the tea and soon the breakfast is here and I’m demolishin it, chewin on cheap sausages and salty bacon. I leave the toms, can’t fuckin abide tinned toms.
+++++When I’m done I leave all my coins on the table and hurry out without thanking her. Outside its still bloody rainin.

CHAPTER 3 – I WANDERED LONELY

So I find myself once more in the driving rain. I briefly wonder if Mum has discovered I’ve discharged myself yet. I stare into the brightly lit shop windows and think how many kilowatts of power shop lighting wastes. How many homes would all of the light that’s doing nothing useful illuminate? How many poor folks that can’t afford to pay their energy bills would benefit from this fucking waste.
+++++I realise that as I sink into my dark train of thought that I’m stood staring at a lingerie display but not seein it. An old guy walkin a wiry jack russell shakes his head at me as he passes me. For his part, the dog doesn’t even acknowledge me, aloof little twat. I shrug and wink at the old geezer to wind him up even more. Why do people judge you? Are they so perfect? I picture him at home wanking to Lorraine Kelly with the little dog looking up at him bemused.
+++++I trudge on further into town. I swear my trainers are squelching now. A statue in the square depicts a learned looking bloke strokin his chin and holding an open book, which he’s starin down at. There’s a plaque but I have no motivation to wander or and read. With a flutter of wings, a pigeon flies past and shits on his face. Everyone is a fucking art critic these days.
+++++I’ve been wandering now for a couple of hours and my feet are aching. I head to the library which narrowly escaped closure in the last round of council cut backs.
+++++I stand in the hallway a moment looking at posters for community events that I have no part of or interest in. Writers groups, amateur dramatics, line dancing, politics. I suddenly feel more lonely and alienated than ever. The walls start closing in on me and have to lean against the wall and catch my breath. I close my eyes and take deep breaths, letting them out slowly as I’ve been taught, oxygenating the brain, calming me.
+++++I finally open my eyes and across the hall, there’s a frail looking old lady starin at me like I have two heads. She has a romance book under her arm. She must be seventy if she’s a day and I think it’s the saddest thing in the world that she’s reading about something she can’t ever have again. Suddenly, a door opens from the gents and an old geezer appears. He smiles at her and takes her hand and they leave. I’m sure I hear her mutter, “freak.” But I know this is probably my imagination.
+++++I pop into the gents and look at mesen in the mirror. A young face stares back at me, green eyes jaded and ancient stare accusingly right at me. I feel tired my body still recovering from the overdose. I lean over, splash water on my face, and clumsily attempt to dry it on the hand dryer.
+++++I exit the gents and turn right heading into the library hall itself. A bored looking young librarian looks up from tapping away at a PC and glances at me. Her casual smile lessens in wattage as if she’s disappointed I came. I know how she feels. I’m disappointed to still be alive. I ignore her because it’s so much easier than acknowledging her.
+++++I come to a rack of compact discs and start idly leafing through them. Marvin Gaye, The Shadows, ELO, James Last, The Smiths. Covers in every colour but none of them excite me. All I see are plastic guitars and fake smiles. I’m not buying what they’re selling.
+++++I walk over to the books and pick up a random book on World War 2. I find a comfy seat and sit, as I sit the aged leather makes a sort of squeaky farty noise that seems deafening in the quiet library. I steal a quick glance around but no one is looking.
+++++I open the book at a random page. An air raid warden is talking about the regular air raids. He says everyone tried to live day-to-day coz you never knew when it was your turn to be bombed. People were happier, more tolerant even coz they had bigger things to worry about than someone pushing in front of you in a queue or beating you to the last loaf on the shelves. The old blitz spirit I think they call it
+++++Suddenly, I’m a mess, big fat tears rolling down my face and onto the page. I feel like I’m collapsing in on myself and I want with every fibre of my being to be transported to that time, to have that positive feeling. I don’t want this emptiness I have inside me where real feelings used to be.
+++++I drop the book with a clatter and bolt for the door with tears still streaming down my cheeks. The librarian is looking at me with utter disgust as I flee.

CHAPTER 4 – MEDICATED ME

I’m looking around eyes wild and unfocused from the tears still flooding them. I make a decision and run to the left, I don’t know why I’m running I just feel the need to flee this feeling and it is good to feel that adrenaline pumping through my veins. I dodge around an old lady, knocking her wheeled shopping bag flying. I dodge around open-mouthed shoppers. Finally, I crash straight into a guy in a business suit who was looking down at his mobile phone rather than looking where he is going. I stand, brush the dust from my knees and continue running. I hear abuse being yelled at me from some people but I’m passed caring now, just an emotionless blur of motion.
+++++Eventually, having run through the one green space in the middle of the city I stop. My lungs are bursting and my legs are throbbing. I feel so alive in this moment. I wish that it could last forever but my traitorous brain tells me that no, it will be short lived like all moments of joy. I sit on a wall to let me breath reach something like normal. I’m getting odd looks from passers by. I feel their internal laughter and almost hear their thoughts. Look at that skinny freak trying to be normal. I get up and wander once more amid the maze of shops; all seem the same – altars of glass, chrome and neon, shrines to nothing of importance, Churches of money where the feckless trade yet another bit of their soul for shiny, worthless baubles.
+++++I find the place I didn’t realise I was searching for, the chemist. I hand over the one piece of paper I’d kept from the hospital. The woman behind the counter gives me a patronising smile.
+++++“Take a seat. It’ll be ten minutes okay?”
+++++I nod.
+++++Fifteen go by and she finally calls my name and checks my address with me.
+++++Then I’m out of there and opening the white plastic bag which contains my medication.
+++++I open the packet and stare at the little green and white pills like Neo contemplating how his life might change forever. I shake my head and dry swallow two of the pills, stow the others very carefully in my pocket and walk down the high street towards my next goal.

CHAPTER 5 – BRANDED

I slide past the shambling undead of weekday shoppers like a ghost. I’m not one of them and if they notice that I’m doomed. I try to be as invisible as I can but still I feel the eyes on my back, hear their whispers and occasional sniggering insults. I cringe inside and pray for my tablets to race around my bloodstream quicker – deadening nerve endings and quietening my overactive mind. I’m in the unfashionable end of town now, the places where the nerds and Goths hang out, where people WANT to be different. I give a bitter laugh at that thought. I just want to the same, to be boring, to be normal, whatever that means.
+++++I wander inside where there’s a small market of arty shops, comic stalls, student clothes stalls and the one shop I am looking for. Even here, where hipsters fear to tread, there is division. I see a group of Goths pouring over a rail of dark clothing. The nerds are pouring over comics; one or two have skateboards under their arm. I see a couple of girls wearing vintage clothing. Here, with all of this variety, I feel just a little more relaxed, more able to be me without fear of judgement and yet I conform to none of these groups either.
+++++I shrug and step forward towards the tattoo shop. Fortunately, it’s currently empty except for a bored looking guy flicking a screen on a smartphone. I enter and smile at him; he looks up and nods back at me. He has a long bushy beard and one of those earlobes that a huge white plastic earring has stretched. I mooch around the shop for five minutes looking at and admiring the fantastic artwork. There are dragons, spiders, Celtic bands all manner of tattoos. I get quite lost in them. I suddenly hear a polite cough behind me.
+++++“Can I help you at all?”
+++++“I erm…”
+++++He smiles and opens his arms in a friendly gesture.
+++++“I promise you won’t shock me. Whatever it is, I’ve heard it or seen it before.”
+++++I point to a tiny sample on the wall. The picture is of a semi-colon.
+++++He looks at me and his smile grows even wider. It’s a friendly and encouraging smile.
+++++“It’s your lucky day. We do those free. Come in the back and we’ll sort you out, okay?”
+++++I follow him obediently. For now, at least, I choose life.

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