Tag Archives: fiction

NAÏVE

Tracy looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She was disgusted. She was a big girl. It had always been that way, ever since she could remember.

+++++The doorbell rang.

+++++Tony Possino was 17, only a year older than Tracy, but seemed much older. They had met at the Pekin mall outside the record store. Tony had just purchased an album and Tracy was sitting by herself on an island with palm trees, listening to the fountain and waiting for her mother to come back from the bathroom. Tony smiled at her. She liked his smile, mainly because it was directed at her. He was a big, Italian looking kid, with a slight mustache. He had big hands and a big nose. He wasn’t good looking but he had a charming appeal. He walked over to her and began talking, which seemed unbelievable to Tracy. He asked her out and before she could think, she said yes.

+++++Two months later he stood ringing her doorbell in the middle of the afternoon.

+++++“Hi,” Tracy said, opening the door and squinting into the autumn sun. Tracy lived in a rural area outside of Glasford, Illinois. From her yard, you couldn’t see another house.

+++++“Hi,” Tony said, stepping in. “Anybody else here?”

+++++“No, my mom’s at work and Mark is at school,” she said.  Mark was her brother, two years older than her, a senior at Glasford High, home of the Tigers.

+++++“Did Mark like that album I lent him?” he asked.

+++++“Yeah,” she said, “he loved it. He really loved it. He said he’d like to see what else you have.”

+++++“I could tell him about some bands.”

+++++“Just tell me,” she said, “and I’ll tell him. It’s nice having something to talk to him about. We never had much in common.”

+++++“Is he still dating that girl from Peoria?”

+++++“Holly. Oh yeah, they’re together all the time. He’s been skipping school and getting mom really upset.”

+++++“We’re skipping school right now,” he said, smiling and pulling her down onto the couch, where he had settled himself.

+++++“I know,” Tracy said. “And if mom finds out she’ll kill me.”

+++++“Nobody’s going to find out,” Tony said, “and if they do I’ll just have my uncle snuff ‘em out.”

+++++“Oh, right,” Tracy said, sarcastically. “I forgot, you have an uncle who’s in the Mafia.”

+++++“You still don’t believe me?” Tony said.

+++++“Well, come on,” Tracy said, “whoever heard of a Mafia in Pekin?”

+++++“They’re very low key,” he said, looking out the sliding glass doors of the living room. There was a big yard with a clothesline at the back. It sagged with laundry. There wasn’t much of a breeze. Every once in a while a shirt sleeve would move a little, like a slow wave by a ghost. Beyond the clothesline were the woods. All the trees were shedding their leaves. It was late September, getting chilly. The trees looked very hungry and naked and huddled together. And at the same time they seemed proud, and stark, and brave, bracing themselves for the winter.

+++++“Hey,” Tracy said, stroking his leg, “If you say your uncle’s in the Mafia, then I believe you.”

+++++“You do?” he said.

+++++She nodded.

+++++“I knew you were different from the minute I met you,” he said.

+++++“What do you mean, different?” she said, defensively.

+++++“I mean different in a good way,” he said, coming closer. “Different in a sexy way.”

+++++“Sexy?”

+++++He leaned forward and began kissing her. She let him, and kissed back, tentatively. Tony began putting his hands all over Tracy’s body. He began grabbed handfuls of fat through her sweater, kneaded it and squeezed it. Then he got under the sweater. He leaned into her and began kissing with more ferocity.

+++++Tracy made a noise of protest. Her hands were down at her sides and she was very stiff and unyielding.

+++++“Stop,” she said, trying to push him away.

+++++“Why,” he muffled, kissing her fat neck.

+++++“Because,” she said, “I can’t, I’ve never…”

+++++“Come on Tracy,” he urged. “We’ve been dating for two months now, I think I’ve waited long enough.”

+++++“Tony, I can’t, I can’t,” she said.

+++++“It’s ok,” he said. He reached into her sweater and ripped her bra. You could hear it snap.

+++++“No,” she said again, starting to cry.

+++++He grinned at her and put his hands to her throat.

+++++“Don’t fight me,” he said. “Be a good girl.” He tightened his grip and she closed her eyes and gasped. He turned her over and pulled her pants down. He pushed her face into the cushions of the couch. Tracy heard the sound of his zipper. His full weight was on her, and he was a big kid, very much bigger than her.

+++++“It’s ok,” he whispered in her ear, pushing her head violently into the couch and pinning her hands behind her back with one hand. She screamed as loud as she could but there was no one around for miles.

*

+++++A rock song was coming from the tape in the boom box, which was thrown on the back seat of Mark’s Dodge Airies K-car. Mark was driving and singing the words to the song. The sun was shining, a beautiful autumn day. His girlfriend Holly sat in the passenger seat smoking a cigarette and laughing at him. When the song was over she reached back and turned the volume down.

+++++“Where’d you get that tape?” Holly asked. “It’s great.”

+++++“My sister’s boyfriend,” Mark said.

+++++“Tracy has a boyfriend?” she said.

+++++“Can you believe it?” he said.

+++++“What’s he like?” she asked. “Some kind of psycho or something?”

+++++“Oh, no,” he said, “he’s a nice guy. The only weird thing is he claims his uncle is in the Mafia.”

+++++“What Mafia?”

+++++“The Pekin Mafia,” he said, laughing.

+++++“Don’t laugh,” she said. “My grandpa used to talk about a Pekin Mafia.”

+++++“Well,” Mark said, “he’s got this Italian name so maybe it’s true. Who the hell cares? I figure the Mafia won’t bother me if I don’t bother it.”

+++++Holly leaned over closer and with a devilish grin put her mouth to his ear. “Speaking of being bothered…” she whispered.

+++++The little K-car groaned with fury down the country road.

+++++Holly had, only seventeen months earlier, indoctrinated Mark into the world ofsex. Now they were in love, or at least they thought they were in love. They said the words. Holly loved to say them. I love you, I love you… It took a while for Mark to say it the first time but after that it was easy.

Holly was always very loud and vocal during sex, especially when they skipped school and went to Mark’s house, because he lived so far out in the country and there was no one around to hear anything, but this afternoon she was particularly demonstrative and encouraging. At one point she was literally screaming. Finally, an hour and half later, they lay back onto Mark’s bed, exhausted.

+++++“My god,” Holly said, wiping her eyes. “I’m crying.” She giggled a little.

+++++Three feet away, on the other side of the wall, Tracy lay curled on her bed, her eyes shut tight and her hands pressed hard to her ears.

*

+++++Clara came home from work at 6 o’clock. She walked in with a grocery sack and put it on the counter. She noticed the refrigerator door was cracked open and she frowned. She closed it and looked around. The place seemed very quiet.“Tracy?” She called. “Mark?” She walked across to the stairs and looked down and then began to walk down. She walked over to Tracy’s door and listened. She thought she heard something move. She knocked.“Tracy?” she said.“You in there?”

+++++“Go away,” Tracy said.

+++++“What? Why?” Clara said, getting alarmed. “What’s wrong?” She tried the door and opened it. Tracy was sitting on her bed. Her eyes were red. She was looking off into space. She was in her bathrobe. “Are you sick, honey?” Clara said, rushing over and sitting down next to her. She reached up to feel Tracy’s forehead for fever. Tracy slapped it away. “What happened?” Clara said, “Come on, you can tell me.”

+++++“It’s nothing,” Tracy said, “It’s just…”

+++++“What, honey?” Clara put her arm slowly around Tracy and pulled her to her. “Something happen at school?”

+++++“I didn’t go to school.”

+++++“Are you sick?”

+++++“Yes,” Tracy said, “I didn’t feel good so I stayed home. I’m sorry, I should have called you.”

+++++“That’s ok,” Clara said, “Is there anything else? Something happen with Tony?”

+++++Tracy shot her a look. “No,” she blurted, “No, that’s not it, it’s just, well, Mark skipped school again today.”

+++++“That little shit,” Clara said, “I warned him, I’m going to send him to his god damned father’s if he doesn’t shape up.” She stopped and looked at Tracy. “How did you know he skipped? Did he come here?”

+++++Tracy nodded and looked down at the bed.
“Did he come here with her?”

+++++Tracy nodded again.

+++++“What did they do?” Clara asked. “As if I have to ask.”

+++++“Oh, mom,” she said, “Don’t be too hard on him, it was all her fault, she was just so loud, it was like he was hurting her, and she wanted him to hurt her.”

+++++“Oh, honey,” Clara said, “And while you were sick and trying to sleep. That little slut, I’m going to call her mother this time. I’m really going to. This can’t go on like this.”

+++++“Just drop it, mom, it’s ok, really.” She tried to smile and Clara smiled back.

+++++“Oh, poor thing,” Clara said, pulling Tracy’s head to her shoulder. They sat there for a minute.

+++++“Is that the way it is, mom?” Tracy asked her.

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++“Is that what love is?”

+++++“Some people think so,” she said.

+++++“Do you?”

+++++“God no,” Clara said.

+++++“I thought it was supposed to be nice,” Tracy said.

+++++Tracy was trembling and it was suddenly clear to Clara how frayed her nerves really were. The two looked at each other in shock. Clara pulled her closer and hugged her again. “Oh, honey,” Clara said. “Me too.”

*

+++++Clara pounded on Mark’s bedroom door, which was locked. Mark opened the door. Deep, heavy, dark music played in the background.  One dim light shone from the desk in the corner. There was cigarette smoke in the air.

+++++“Turn that fucking music off,” Clara said, walking in and flipping on a light switch. “I thought I told you not to smoke in here.” She stood for a second looking at him while he blinked his eyes to adjust them to the sudden overhead light. “How dare you bring that little whore of yours to my house, how dare you ” Clara said.

+++++“What? How did you…”

+++++“Tracy was home today,” Clara said, pointing to the wall that separates the bedrooms. “She was right in there the whole time you were doing your little dirty deeds.” She talked like there was some horrible taste in her mouth.

+++++Mark sat down on the bed. “Oh,” he said.  “Sorry.”

+++++“Sorry?” his mother said, “I lived with a man just like you for twenty years and I’m not going to do it again. I’m through, I tell you, I’m through with it ”

+++++“Everything is always dad’s fault, isn’t it mom?”

+++++“You just keep that little slut out of my house ”

+++++“She’s not a slut,” he said, standing up again. “And there’s nothing wrong with sex, it’s perfectly natural.”

+++++“If you keep skipping school you’re not going to graduate and then you’re not going to go to college and then what?”

+++++“I’ll graduate,” he said.

+++++“And don’t get her pregnant, by god don’t get her pregnant, whatever you do.”

+++++“We love each other,” he said.

+++++“You don’t love her,” she said. “You only think you do.”

+++++“What’s the fucking difference?” he said, lighting a cigarette.

+++++“What’s the difference?” Clara said. “There’s a difference.”

+++++“We love each other. Not everybody is as hateful as you are, mom,” he said, with a finality that sapped the strength, temporarily, out of Clara.

+++++She waved angrily at the smoke in the air. “You don’t know anything about life, yet, mister,” she said, slightly out of breath. “It doesn’t get any easier, from here on out it gets a lot harder.”

+++++They looked at each other.

+++++“I’m going to have to call your father,” she said. “I can see I’m not getting through to you.”

+++++“What’s to get through?” he said. “You’ve made your point, just leave me alone.”

+++++“Fine, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. You turn eighteen next month, and on that day I want you out of here, out of my house. I’m calling your father right now.”

+++++“Fine,” he said. “I’ll fucking leave right now.” He darted to the phone and picked it up and dialed a number.

+++++“What are you doing?” Clara said, softening and becoming alarmed.

+++++Someone answered on the other end of the phone. “Troy?” Mark said. “You still need a roommate? Good. I’ll be there in an hour.” He hung up.

+++++Clara’s mouth hung open. “Well,” she said, “You don’t have to go off in the middle of the night…”

+++++“No, that’s it,” he said, going to the closet for a bag. “I’m leaving.”

+++++“I’ll call your father, he’ll have the cops on you so fast it’ll make your…”

+++++“I’m turning eighteen in a month, you just said it yourself.”

+++++Clara looked at him and she wanted to cry. “Can you leave me alone please? I have to call Holly and tell her,” he said.

+++++Clara backed out of the room and saw the door shut in her face.  Then she walked slowly up the stairs.

+++++A few minutes later Tracy walked from her bedroom to Mark’s bedroom door and stood ready to knock. Her raised hand was shaking. In her other hand she held a music tape that Tony had made for Mark. She had promised to give it to him. She stood at the door listening to Mark’s voice talking into the telephone.

+++++“She’s so incredibly naïve,” Mark said. “She’s terrified of the world and she’s probably going to be that way forever. That fat little bitch, I wish I could just get it through her fat head that it’s ok to live a little bit and break a fucking rule once in awhile.”

+++++Tracy lowered her hand and turned away.

+++++“I know, I know,” Mark said into the phone, throwing some clothes into a bag. “Nobody understands us.”

THE COLLECTOR

Mr Henry James Franklin and Miss Martha Emma Sparrow were married in the summer of 1946, in the small town of Ashton-over-Hill in the county of Suffolk. During the next forty years of marriage they were almost inseparable.

+++++When they first met, Martha was the only daughter of a local Stipendiary Magistrate, and Henry had been a junior administrator with the FCO; later, as he grew in seniority, Henry became an Attaché and was sent on temporary diplomatic missions to developing countries; assisting the Ambassador with areas of finance or intervention. This work naturally required frequent overseas travel. Even when Henry was asked by his government to go to work in a hot, dusty region in some far-flung Asian country, Martha would accompany him. If the mission was short term and unaccompanied, and the government was only paying for Henry to go, then Martha would pay all her own expenses to accompany him. The only time he went alone was if it was a very short visit of three days or less, where Martha would not have time to enjoy and explore the place, indulging in her passion for collecting old or valuable artefacts. India, Africa, Eastern Europe, Pacific Islands, The Far East, and The Middle East… their travels were diverse and seemingly endless.

+++++Martha came from “old money” and her passion did not impact on Henry’s relatively low salary. It was a passion in which Henry shared, but of which had little knowledge. Martha was the one who before the trip would research a country’s history and heritage and decide on the type of items for which that the country was renowned. Martha was the one who would then search the bazaars, markets and curio shops for such items… things that were beyond the pocket and shrewdness of the usual tourists and bargain hunters. In some Pacific Island she would seek out fine examples of scrimshaw carvings; she would cast an amateur but expert eye over the bases of delicate statuettes in Hong Kong or Taiwan; in Kinshasa or Nairobi her fingers would run gently over the grain and texture of ebony masks; her eyes could pick out fake from real; and she had the grit to beat down traders who were treating her as an ignorant tourist looking for souvenirs.

+++++Over the years, her collections grew; fine paintings and tapestries filled the walls of their big old country house; inherited from Martha’s father, when the ageing Magistrate passed away from a heart attack; while, somewhat fittingly, seated on the Bench and just moments after sentencing a criminal to ten years in prison.

+++++The house was large and rambling, set in its own grounds. Wonderful carpets from Tabriz and Istanbul covered the floors; oak bookcases held, among leather-bound first editions, various gold and bronze artefacts; knick-knack shelves and mantelpieces displayed delicate porcelain figurines and pieces of ancient jewellery, silver and gold; carved tribal masks hung on the curving walls of the staircase; Zanzibar trunks made for exotic coffee and bedside tables upon which stood old brass lamps and silver candlesticks; intricately worked samovars stood on occasional tables in the library and lounge. The place was a virtual museum of travels around the world. The total monetary value of these collections was either unknown or forgotten; the value was aesthetic and sentimental and no price could be put upon that.

+++++Henry loved his work and travel, and Martha loved to be with him and build on her collections. The only thing missing from their lives was a child. Martha was forever unable to bear children.

+++++In 1986, while working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Henry died from a bad and late-diagnosed case of malaria. 60-year-old Martha returned to England, to Ashton-over-Hill and to the Manor, and after a respectable period of grieving became very active in The Woman’s Institute and various other community or local charitable ventures. However, her lessening agility and failing eyesight gradually restricted her activities and she became more and more confined to home; relying on a daily help to do the housekeeping and cooking.

***

+++++“Bobby, it is four thirty.” His mother called from the kitchen, where she was peeling potatoes. “Get yourself over to the Manor to read for Missus Martha, there’s a good lad!”

+++++Twelve-year-old Bobby Garfield begrudgingly put aside his toy Corgi cars and stood up from where he had been playing on the living room carpet; his shoulders hunched in reluctance. “Okay, mum.” he sighed, walking slowly to the front door.

+++++“Be back by six thirty, love” his mum continued. “I am making sausage and mash for supper.”

+++++The boy left the two-bedroom rented council house where he and his single mum lived, walked across the empty field at the back of the scruffy council estate, passed through the ancient village of Ashton-over-Hill and walked down Upper Dyke Lane to Ashton Manor; one of two big old country houses that stood within the town’s boundaries.

+++++Bobby had to go to the Manor three times a week to read newspapers to the blind and wheelchair-bound Mrs Martha Franklin. It was a chore he did not enjoy; the old woman was nice enough to him, but he didn’t like being hugged and kissed by her every visit. She smelled of soap, lavender and old age, and her horny, arthritic old hands dug into his back like claws when she squeezed him in a hug.

+++++Bobby would let himself in the back door with spare key that the daily help, Edna Johnson always placed under a planter after she left work each day. He would make his way to the library, where Mrs Martha would be sitting in her usual place in a large, high-backed wheelchair; her white cane resting against the arm.

+++++“Hello Missus Martha.” He would call out from the doorway, announcing his arrival.

+++++“Hello, Bobby!” The old woman would say, turning her unseeing eyes towards the doorway. From very early on she had learned to recognise his voice, and her acute hearing compensated for her blindness. “How are you today?”

+++++“Fine, Missus Martha,” He would answer, sounding as cheerful as possible.

+++++From a side table where Edna had left them, he would take the two folded and pressed newspapers – the previous day’s and that day’s – and, sitting in an ancient leather armchair opposite the old woman, would read them in date order from front page to back, If there was something that did not interest her, Martha would tut, tut, wave a wrinkled, blue-veined hand and say simply, “Skip that!” This was not a frequent event, as she liked to know what was going on in the wide world and loved news from the places to which she and Henry had travelled. In any case, she had little else to occupy her time in the long, lonely evenings. She even let Bobby read the sports pages in an effort to extend his visits.

+++++The reading usually took about forty minutes to an hour, after which Bobby would stand, reluctantly go to the old lady for a hug and a kiss, and to say goodbye.

+++++“You are a good boy, Bobby!” She would say the same thing each visit. “Thank you for reading so well.  Help yourself to a chocolate from the box over there.” She waved vaguely in the direction of a side table. “See you on Wednesday.”

+++++“Bye, Missus Martha.” Bobby would reply. After taking his treat and leaving the library, he would wander secretly around the house. His eyes cast about in wonder. The place was packed with ornaments and antiques; statues and carvings; gold candlesticks and bronze lamp-stands; brass telescopes and ships’ compasses; jewelled boxes and polished trunks, and hung with paintings and tapestries. It was a virtual museum. Sometimes he would even sneak upstairs; creeping up the carpeted stairway alongside the electronic chair lift that ran up one wall. He opened the door of the first upstairs room. It was used as a storeroom for many of Martha’s collections that were not displayed around the mansion Bobby gazed into the storeroom and was amazed at the amount of stuff in it. He found Martha’s bedroom along the corridor. It was fairly small and delicate, very lacy and feminine.

+++++Downstairs, Martha, her acute hearing tracking Bobby’s secretive movements, smiled contentedly. She was happy that the young boy showed such interest in her collections. She never mentioned to Bobby that she knew of his explorations, but sometimes after reading she would ask him to fetch an item from somewhere in the library or lounge, and tell him of the history and about the country from where it came.

+++++He never once thought of taking anything from the house.

+++++Bobby had no idea why his mum had made this arrangement with Martha Franklin. He also did not know that Mrs Martha paid his mum five pounds for each visit. It was a welcome addition to her income; she worked every day in the local garden centre, including Saturdays, but even so, the money was hardly enough for a single parent to survive.

+++++Martha had met Mrs Garfield several times when shopping in the garden centre; gardening was another of Martha’s passions, and ‘Roots ‘n’ Shoots’ was a favourite venue to shop for bulbs, potted shrubs and gardening paraphernalia. On a few occasions, on Saturdays, Bobby had been there with his mum and Martha had always made a fuss of the young boy. This, of course, was before her failing eyesight had diminished into legal blindness and her general frailness prevented her going out as often as she would have liked.  One day, several weeks after Martha’s blindness and disability had taken their final toll and she had become virtually housebound, she asked Edna to go find Mrs Garfield at the garden centre and invite her to come to the Manor to discuss a little proposal.

+++++Her curiosity aroused, Joan accepted the invitation, and over cups of Earl Grey tea and wafer biscuits, she and Martha made the arrangement for Bobby to come and read to her several times a week.

***

+++++The readings continued for three years. Martha Franklin became even more frail and dependent on home help. She refused, however, to go to a care home. Bobby was now a teenager of 15 years, with teenage needs that could hardly be satisfied in the poor council estate of Ashton Vale where he lived and where there was nothing for a young boy to do once he had outgrown his childhood toys. Immigrants fleeing war zones and humanitarian abuses had slowly moved into some of the houses over the past couple of years… families from Eastern Europe with teenage children the same age as Bobby; low income families, many unemployed and relying on government payouts from the Department of Work and Pensions. With little to occupy their free time and with little money in their pockets, the teenagers began to hang around the street at night, forming little cliques or gangs and dominating certain “corners” as their own turf. Harmless enough at first, with only the occasional complaints from residents about excessive noise, littering or small cases of criminal damage. But, later, drugs slowly entered the council estate; weed and acid tabs to begin with; then  came cocaine… much of it smuggled in from Europe. Petty crime increased in the village and surrounding areas; shoplifting; stolen cars; criminal damage; muggings and other assaults. A scourge of criminality and abusive behaviour that plagued many similar areas of Britain. Bobby became friends with several of the new youths, and although being in the same boat as them, he respected his mother’s wishes and continued to visit Mrs Martha three evenings a week. However, there was one other thing that persuaded him more than his mother to continue the arrangement; Mrs Martha had, commencing on Bobby’s fifteenth birthday, begun to pay the boy some pocket money. Five pounds per week was a lot of cash to a teenage schoolboy from a single parent family with little spare money. But, the money was no longer spent on Corgi toys or Star Wars figures… the emerging teenager Bobby had been led by his new friends into the world of illegal substances and was attracted by the profits that could be made from reselling drugs. Unfortunately, he also became a ‘user’.

***

+++++“Are you sure about this, Bobby?” Janeck asked. “How do you know about it all?”

+++++“When I was a kid,” Bobby replied, “my mum made me go to the house to read the newspaper to the old girl. She is blind, you see? The old woman, I mean… not my mum. I had to do that crap three times a week after school until last year when I reached eighteen. I told my mum and Martha that I was no longer a little kid and had better things to do with my time. Martha was unhappy but understanding, and my mum was really pissed off for some reason. But I stuck to my guns.”

+++++“Well, at eighteen we can do what the fuck we like, right?” Janeck asked.

+++++“That’s what I told my mum… but I didn’t swear!” Bobby said, laughing “Anyway,” he continued, “I had loads of chances to look around the place. Of course, I didn’t know what any of the stuff was worth, but I remember the place was packed. There was loads of ornaments everywhere, china figurines on the mantelpiece, little statues and carvings in every corner; some a gold colour, others a sort of white, like bone. I guess those were probably ivory. There was all sorts of expensive looking stuff.”

+++++“But, are you sure they are valuable?” his pal asked

+++++“Yeah, Janeck. Everyone in town knows the old girl is rich, so I don’t reckon she would fill her house with cheap shit! She and her late husband travelled a lot when they were younger. He was some sort of diplomat; always working in exotic places around the world, before he popped his clogs in Africa. It’s how they collected all the antiques and stuff. I saw things that looked made of gold and silver, some things encrusted in jewels or gems, old swords and sabres on the walls, oil paintings, you know, that sort of thing.”

+++++Janeck frowned, “Any cash there, you reckon?” He asked. Cash and drugs were the only currencies Janeck and Bobby normally dealt with.

+++++“I dunno. Maybe, but I never saw any laying around,” Bobby replied. “I guess she didn’t need cash. She had food delivered from the grocery shop in town almost daily. I was there once in the daytime and saw her housekeeper just sign for it at the back door. I imagine she had an account or something.”

+++++“Look, Bobby,” Janeck said. “It’s a bit fucking risky, especially if there is no cash.” Janeck was already known to the police for shoplifting and petty theft. He didn’t want to get involved in stolen property that could be traceable.

+++++“But the place is packed with valuables, I tell ya!” Bobby protested. “Small stuff, easy to shift and sell somewhere far away from here where no-one will know us. Fuck me! It’s a treasure trove. We will make a real killing! Loads of cash to buy more coke!”

+++++“Okay, okay! I get it, alright?” Janeck threw up his hands in defeat. “So when are we gonna do it?”

***

+++++Martha Franklin’s health had deteriorated even more since the days when Bobby read to her. She now had a full-time registered carer named Rosemary Perkins living in the house, but the daily help continued to come to clean the vast place and help prepare meals. Edna’s long habit of leaving the spare key under the planter at the back door had not altered one bit.

+++++Martha, now spending more and more time in bed, had asked Rosemary to move her into the larger storeroom where there was more room for the nursing equipment, oxygen bottles and medical trolley containing medications, etc. The many trunks, boxes and valuable items from the storeroom, with the combined help of Edna and Rosemary, now changed places with Martha.

+++++At the end of each day, after dinner and after Rosemary had bathed Martha, medicated her and and put her to bed, she would retire exhausted to her own room and watch TV for an hour or so before going to sleep herself.

***

+++++Bobby and Janeck, their bravery fuelled by the lines of cocaine they had just snorted, entered the grounds of the Manor, walked carefully and quietly up the garden path that ran along the left side the house and around to the back door. Bobby tilted the planter and slid out a key that was so familiar to him. The two youths entered the house and immediately pulled ski masks over their heads. Both switched on small penlight torches and then crept through to the lounge; unfolding large zip-up nylon bags that had been concealed under their jackets. Bobby swept his torchlight around the familiar surroundings.

+++++As they wandered around, the youths indiscriminately picked up various small, valuable-looking objects and placed them carefully in their swag bags, but there was not enough portable stuff to satisfy the two thieves.

+++++“Let’s go upstairs,” whispered Bobby. “There is a large storeroom up there.”

+++++The two followed Bobby’s torch beam into the hallway and up the carpeted staircase. Janeck tried to lift a couple of tribal masks from the walls, but they seemed to be screwed into place rather than hung. He swore angrily under his breath. Reaching the landing, Bobby walked up to the door almost opposite that he knew to be the storeroom. He turned the handle and slowly pushed open the door, shining the torch around; under the ski mask a frown appeared upon his face. Suddenly, the torch beam lit upon an occupied bed.

+++++Martha Franklin sat up, holding the duvet under her chin with both hands. “Rosemary?” she asked, “Whatever’s the matter?”

+++++“Oh shit, Janeck!” Bobby exclaimed. “She must’ve changed rooms!”

+++++“Bobby? Bobby Franklin?” Martha asked, panic entering into her voice. “What on earth are you doing here in the middle of the night?” Her voice raised into a weak squeal. “What’s going on?”

+++++“For fuck’s sake, Bobby!” Janeck hissed. “The blind old bitch has recognised your voice!”

+++++“He-lp!” Martha screamed, her voice cracking. Before she could scream again, Bobby ran to the bed and clamped a hand over Martha’s mouth and pushed her head back onto the pillow. Martha was too frail to struggle, but Bobby could feel her mouth moving as she tried to mumble something. He turned to face his fellow thief; “What the fuck are we gonna do, Janeck?” He asked in a loud voice, beginning to panic. “She knows who I am!”

+++++Bobby glanced down at the struggling old woman. He could see her spittle oozing through his gloved fingers. Martha tried to speak, but he clamped his hand down firmer. “Stay quiet, Missus Martha, please!” Bobby hissed.

+++++“Martha?” A new voice came from the open door, followed by a short scream. Janeck spun around in time to see Rosemary Perkins heading for the stairs.

+++++Janeck dropped his torch, leapt out of the doorway and tried to grab Rosemary’s flapping nightgown from behind. He fumbled the grab and his lunge pushed her forward; she stumbled, hit the chair lift, spun around and fell backwards, cartwheeling down the stairs.

+++++Back in the bedroom, Martha had gone limp under Bobby’s firm restraint. He let go of Martha’s head and she lay lifeless on the pillow.

+++++“Oh shit!” Bobby whispered, staring down at the dead woman’s face, as he backed away. “Janeck! We’ve gotta get the fuck out of here!”

+++++Janeck came back into the room and picked up his dropped torch; shining it onto the scene at the bed. “Oh Christ, Bobby! Is she dead?”

+++++“Yeah, let’s get out of here now!”

+++++The two thieves hurried from the room and down the stairs, stepping over the unmoving form of Rosemary Perkins laying sprawled on the hallway floor.

***

+++++“Look, Bobby” Janeck said, grabbing Bobby’s lapels in both fists to get his attention. They were sitting on a bench in a small park on the outskirts of the village. “I don’t know if that other bitch is dead or not, but if she’s not, she don’t know who we are. We was wearing ski masks. She can’t identify us… and there’s no fingerprints ‘cos we was wearing gloves.”

+++++“But fuck me, Janeck. I killed Missus Martha!” Bobby was almost in tears.

+++++“The old bitch is dead. We can’t change that.” Janeck released his friend’s jacket and sat back. “No-one to tell tales. We’re clear.”

+++++Rosemary Perkins was not dead, however; she had been knocked unconscious in the fall. A broken arm and several huge bruises, plus a mild concussion, were the only injuries she sustained. When she came around, she crawled first to the hallway phone and dialled 999 to call the police. Then, dragging herself to her feet, she limped painfully upstairs to discover the dead body of Martha Franklin.

***

+++++Rosemary, being a professional carer, had from day one at the Manor installed a baby alarm system between her bedroom and Martha’s. It was one of those devices whereby, if a baby in its crib cried or called out, the sound would be transmitted from the nursery to speakers positioned in the parent’s bedroom or other rooms in the house. Rosemary had installed the same system for a similar purpose; if Martha awoke in the night and felt ill or needed something, she could call out to Rosemary, who had a receiver speaker on the bedside table of her adjoining room, turned up to full volume. Rosemary had been sleeping lightly the night of the murder and the voices from Martha’s bedroom had immediately roused her. She had clearly heard the name “Bobby Garfield” being spoken by Martha through the medium of the baby alarm.

+++++Bobby Garfield and Janeck Kalenov were both arrested the next day. After a month held in remand while the case against them was formulated, they were tried in Ipswich Crown Court. Being over eighteen years old, they were tried as adults. The baby alarm evidence given by Rosemary Perkins, Edna’s testimony as to the hidden spare key being used to enter the house, and Martha’s DNA from the saliva found on Bobby’s glove… it was all concrete and conclusive. Both of the boys were found guilty of murder, aggravated assault and attempted robbery. Each was sentenced to a total of 40 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.

***

+++++Mrs Martha Franklin’s lawyer, Mr Crispin Longfellow, who was also the appointed Trustee of her Estate, was tasked with managing and disposing of the property according to Martha’s Last Will and Testament, drawn up by him only the previous year.

+++++Two months after Martha Franklin’s death, the lawyer sent out letters to all the named beneficiaries, inviting them to attend Ashton Manor for the reading of Martha’s Will,

+++++On the day of the reading, almost all those invited assembled, with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, in the library of the Manor. Mr Crispin Longfellow was seated behind the late Henry Franklin’s antique desk. Martha’s Will; a formidable document, many pages long, was on the desk in front of him. It contained many beneficiaries; but there were no living relatives named.

+++++After an explanation of the proceedings and a formal introduction to the Will, Mr Longfellow began reading from the document; relating Martha’s wishes in the first person, as written.

+++++“To the Ashton-over-Hill Women’s Institute, I bequeath one thousand pounds; to the RSPCA, I bequeath one thousand pounds, to the local Hee-Haw Donkey Sanctuary, I bequeath one thousand pounds, to the RNLI, I bequeath three thousand pounds”…The lawyer continued in this vein for several minutes, listing beneficiary after beneficiary and the amount to be bequeathed… before he looked up from the desk and cleared his throat.  There was a pregnant pause in the room.

+++++“To Mrs Joan Garfield of Ashton Vale, I bequeath two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.” There was a collective gasp from those present in the Library. Joan’s jaw dropped in shock. The lawyer peered around the audience over the top of his half-moon glasses, commanding silence. His gaze settled upon Joan. “This money shall be used, under my trustee’s management,” He continued,” to build a Youth Club and Community Centre on the field to the rear of the Ashton Vale council estate. The field has long formed part of my Estate and the Land Title Deed is in possession of my lawyer, Mr Crispin Longfellow. I further request that Mrs Joan Garfield, if she is willing, be appointed Manager of the Club, once built, with a salary of two thousand pounds per month, paid from my Estate, for the first two years of operation.” Joan was, fortunately, speechless. All eyes in the room were upon her, as she wiped away her tears.

+++++The lawyer continued. “As to my property and possessions, I bequeath to the Help the Aged charity shop in Ashton town all my personal clothing, linen, kitchenware, and other such usable and saleable items as listed in Addendum One to this Will.” The manager of the charity shop, present in the Library, was overjoyed. She smiled until her grin reached her ears.

+++++“I bequeath the house and gardens known as Ashton Manor and its entire contents and collections, as listed in Addendum Two, to the care and management of the National Trust.” The NT representative, already forewarned and standing at the rear of the room, nodded his approval.

+++++“And finally,” said Mr Longfellow, looking up once more and, with a very solemn look upon his face, gazing around the room at all those there present, “I bequeath one hundred pieces of fine, portable property – as listed in Addendum Three, and valued in total for insurance purposes by the auctioneering house of Thurman and Levi of Ipswich at five hundred and seventy five thousand pounds – to my good young friend and sometime reading companion, Bobby Garfield.”

THE END

Closed Doors on the Cul de Sac

Sunday evening. No kids on the street. Few lawn mowers buzzing in neighboring yards; got to start the week manicured. Grills cool. Moms sneak out onto the deck for a glass of wine and a cigarette. Dads go downstairs into their caves and put on the game, open a beer, doze. Idyllic lives.
+++++And then the scream.
+++++Jessica drops her cigarette. Watches it slip through the gaps in the boards. She sits very still.
+++++“This is over!”
+++++Jessica knows the man’s voice. It’s Bobby Rhadigan. Big guy. Former jock who plays like he still is. Keeps his edge by teaching world history to ninth graders. Coaches football. He and Allison just had their first baby. A little girl. Sheryl Ann.
+++++“We are no longer involved with any of you!”
+++++Allison screams. Begs Bobby to stop. Begs him to be quiet. Begs him to go inside. She promises him it’ll stop. She promises him she’s through. She promises him.
+++++“Shut your whorin’ mouth!”
+++++Bobby is pissed. Jessica twitches. So much raw power in him. His hand on her back as he walked around her at deck party almost launched her over the rail. Days later, alone with him, that power filled her.
+++++Jessica slips out of her reverie.
+++++Odd sounds. Smack. Uhnn. Hands striking flesh. Dazed response.
+++++Jessica wants to look. Wants to look. Wants.
+++++“Jesus, Bobby, stop it!”
+++++New voice. Jessica stays in her plastic Adirondack. Strains her ears.  It’s Mikey Prough. Lives in the house between Jessica’s and the Rhadigans. He’s telling Bobby to stop something.
+++++“Go to hell, Mikey.”
+++++Bobby tells Allison to go inside. Allison screams. Tells Bobby to stop hitting Mikey. Mikey yells for help. No one shows. Mikey curses his neighbors.
+++++“I’m warning all of you. This. Is. Over!”
+++++“Bobby—please!”

+++++Quieter voices. Bobby tells Allison to get in the house.
+++++Jessica’s glass of wine trembles in her shaking hand. Two houses down Allison steps out on her deck. She hasn’t bothered to do more than smear the blood from her nose. It makes her mouth look like a child tried to apply lipstick. She lights a joint. Looks over at Jessica. Flips her off.
+++++Bobby steps out onto the deck. “Get your ass in here, Alli.” He looks around at Jessica just as Mikey and Kylie step out onto their deck. Kylie is trying to put a bag of ice on her husband’s eye.
+++++“Kylie, stop it.”
+++++“But your eye.”
+++++“It’s fine.”
+++++Kylie turns her wrath on Bobby. Throws the bag of ice at him. “It didn’t have to be like this.”
+++++“How else was it going to be, Kylie? The people on this court have a fucked up understanding of bedroom community.”
+++++“It was ending,” Kylie said.
+++++Bobby looks directly at Jessica. “Was it?”
+++++Jessica sits paralyzed by Bobby’s glare. Those dark, menacing eyes. Eyes she knows hides who he is when the neighbors aren’t around. Eyes that Brad doesn’t have.
+++++The screen door behind her slides open. Brad steps out with his own drink in hand. He stares at his neighbors then looks at his wife and asks. “So tonight’s off I take it?”
+++++The doors on the cul de sac close.
+++++At least for now.

Eye Contact

I turned the handle, but the door was locked; searching the surface for a latch, or a bolt, I found nothing.  Apart from the stainless steel knob, the facade was as smooth as marble.  Peering in the semi-light, afforded by the small window on the opposite wall, I could see no means of unlocking this door.  There was no keyhole, no visible mechanism, nothing.

+++++My attention was drawn back to the bulge in the middle of the bed; did she hold the key to my escape?  Had I been too hasty in my actions?  She wouldn’t be much use to me now.

+++++“Stupid bastard,” I muttered.  “You should have thought this through properly.

+++++Fuck! What you gonna do now?”

+++++Feeling the sticky, wet slime beginning to seep through my clothes, I realised I needed to get a bath, wash all this blood and snot off me.

+++++I kicked the bed in passing, the heap wobbled; “Fat bitch!”

+++++Sitting down on the lavatory seat to take off my shoes and socks, as I turned the bath taps on, I racked my brain; how did the silly cow get in and out of the flat? There must be some way of opening the door?

+++++I was about to remove my pants when I suddenly realised that the bath was still empty. Turning both taps fully, I waited for the sound of running water.  When nothing happened I reverted to the old remedy of bashing the hardware with my shoe to force it to work; no joy.

+++++No fucking water, this was great. Then I had a thought, maybe it’s just in here? Could be just the bathroom not working.

+++++Striding into the kitchen, I gave the sink taps a good twist.  Same thing; dry as a redundant crotch. Temper rising, I drummed my fingers on my lips, things not boding well so far.

+++++My stomach growled and I suddenly felt ravenous; it had been hours since I’d downed that greasy burger while waiting for her to emerge from the bank.

+++++I flicked the cooker switch on and pulled open the fridge door, a white vacuum greeted me. Not even so much as an old dried up carrot or mouldy piece of cheese.  I darted a look back at the cooker. “Fuck.” There was no electricity either.

+++++What the crap was going on?  Why was nothing working?

+++++I searched her desk for a telephone book, she must have numbers for emergencies; I could pretend to be a relative and tell them there was a fault.

+++++Going through the telephone numbers, I almost yelled in glee when I came across what I was looking for.  I snatched up the phone, then immediately lashed it across the room; it was as dead as a fucking dodo.

+++++Stomping about the room, throwing things as I went, there must be something here to explain why all this was happening.  I searched her desk again, picking up letters that I had previously flung about.

+++++Ah! Southern Electricity; I quickly scanned the page.

+++++‘Thank you for your instruction to disconnect your supply.

+++++We can now confirm that this request has been actioned

+++++with immediate effect.  Please contact us on your return

+++++so we can re-connect you.’

+++++“Bastards!” I scrambled on the floor, rummaging through the discarded papers.

+++++Again, disconnection notices; the water, the telephone.

+++++Shit! Everything had been turned off.

+++++From the conversation I’d had with her earlier, I should have guessed.

+++++I banged my fists on my temples, “Think, come on you stupid prick, think!”

+++++I was in the penthouse, top floor, out of sight.  I tried hammering on the windows.  The triple glazing was doing its job in preventing the sound to break through; even if I could be heard no one could see me anyway.

+++++I should have been more thorough when I read up on her.

*

+++++Belinda Black, rich, famous author and one time socialite, now a virtual recluse.

+++++I had been searching through the list of ‘Who’s Who’ and came across this rich bitch that lived on her own.  She was a bit of an eccentric and had moved into the penthouse at the top of the tallest building in the city where I lived.  The builders had been given instructions to make the place entirely soundproof; the renovation had also included reconstructing the windows to replace the panoramic view with small triple glazed ones.  Apparently, she didn’t like any distractions when working.

+++++I had been watching her movements for some time now; for the last month the recluse had been very active.  Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, she had arrived at her bank with a briefcase; it always seemed heavier when she left than when she arrived.  I had put two and two together and come up with thousands.

+++++As she left that Tuesday, I snuck into the building wearing one of the electricians overalls.  There was a continuous stream of workmen in and out doing alterations all the time, so I was able to slip in undetected.  Once inside, I quickly made my way up to the top level where her lift was situated.  After a slight tampering, I managed to immobilize it.

+++++When she emerged from the bank, I’d slipped back ahead of her, and just happened to be on hand when she found herself unable to get the lift to work.  As it was the only means of accessing her apartment, she had allowed me to help.

+++++As soon as the lift doors opened, I had pushed her inside and held a knife to her side.  Once we were in the lobby to her apartment, while she let herself in through the door, I scanned the area.  The door had clicked shut behind us.

+++++She took quite a beating before showing me where the safe was.  Oh how I laughed and danced as I threw bundles of notes into the air. I couldn’t believe it, there was far more than I ever could have imagined.  Stuffing it all into a large holdall I’d left it by the front door.

+++++“What the fuck were you gonna do with all that dough?” I asked her.

+++++She had become so scared of me by now that she blabbed everything.

+++++“I’m going back to France, I have a secluded place in the south; I just wanted to disappear. My ideas dried up and I can’t meet the commitments that I’ve already been paid for; the tax man wants his share too. I’ve told my publishers that I’m going away to a retreat for a few months to get some writing done. I thought it would give me time to vanish for good and still keep the cash. I’ll share it with.” She had that pleading ‘don’t hurt me’ look in her eyes.

+++++“You crafty old bitch,” I said.  “I’m not good at sharing, but I’ll help you to vanish alright.”

+++++She screamed as I plunged the knife into her chest.  It was a pity about her insistence on soundproofing the penthouse, as no one could hear her screams and pleas for help, and because she was a very large lady, it took a quite while for me to finish her off.

+++++Now here I was, trapped inside this hell hole with her.

+++++There must be something that operates the lock? I thought.

+++++I hadn’t noticed any keys when we came in, and I’d been too busy checking that all was clear to notice how she opened the door.

+++++I went back over to it and, inch by inch, examined the surrounding surface.

+++++It was so small, it took me a while to find it, but there it was!  It looked like a peephole, a tiny circle fixed into the wall; it had been camouflaged by the busy wallpaper, but it was there alright.  I guessed it was an eye recognition device.  I’d heard about this type of lock; was it something to do with the retina?  Oh, fuck, I didn’t know, but I knew it was like a fingerprint and only worked for one person.

+++++Could it still work? I’d have to get her over to the door.  I dashed to the bed and threw back the cover.  Holy shit! What was that stink?

+++++As I tried to pull her off the bed I realised that she must have emptied her bowels and bladder during the attack.

+++++Grabbing her scarf, I wrapped it around my face; I then attempted to move her mighty bulk.  She was probably twice as heavy now; a dead weight as they say.  I was never going to shift her on my own.

+++++“Think, think, what now?” I screamed, banging my temples again.

+++++Right, I don’t need all of her to make the lock work, just her eye.

+++++Racing into the kitchen, I grabbed a soup spoon out of the drawer.  Hurrying back, I thought, this better work or I’m going to be stuck with this fat fucker forever.  So anything that had to be done, I was up for it.

+++++The eye wobbled in the spoon as I ferried it over to the door, and it wasn’t easy to handle as it slipped between my fingers, but after a couple of tries I managed to position it in front of the scanner and waited to hear the click of the door unlocking.  Fuck all happened!

+++++After a couple more attempts, without success, I lashed the eye across the room and watched it bounce off the headboard and roll down the bed coming to rest by her hand.  It seemed to follow me as I walked around the room. Oh God, I had to get out of there!

+++++I tried to lift the typewriter but it was too awkward, so I picked up a big, round, glass paperweight from her desk and heaved it at the window. Unfortunately, I was standing too close and felt the full impact as it bounced off the toughened glass and smashed into my chest breaking a couple of ribs; it then dropped onto my foot, smashing my foot in the process.

*

+++++As days rolled into weeks, I became more emaciated.  I had drunk the water from the lavatory, rationing myself to a few sips a day; I was now sorry that I had pissed in there first.

+++++My stomach had stopped growling, but apart from a packet of mints I’d found in her handbag, the flat was devoid of food.  This was it; I’d just have to wait for the end.

+++++Night followed day without any sound.  Even that tapping noise in my head had stopped.

*

+++++Then today, I hear the click of the door and voices as someone enters the room.

+++++“Whoa! What a stench” he shouts. “Oh Jesus there’s no windows to open either. Hey Joe, two body bags up here, and quick,” he calls into his radio.

+++++Something screams in my brain; two body bags?  No, not me, I’m not dead.

+++++I feel someone lifting me up and placing me on a plastic sheet.  As the zip rolls up over my face, I try to scream. Nooo!

+++++I can hear muffled voices through the plastic.

+++++“Hey, look at this, Joe; it looks like this guy has typed up a confession.  The last paragraph says he only had lavatory water and mints to live on, I wonder how long the poor sucker lasted after that?”

+++++“Wonder why he didn’t leave?” Joe asks.

+++++“He couldn’t mate,” the other guy answers, “she held the key? One of those new eye recognition jobs; we had to get them to override it for us to get in here today.”

+++++I hear the swish of a curtain and a sudden rush of cold air surrounds me.

+++++“What’s that mate?”  One of the guys shouts.

+++++“It’s the fire escape, don’t know why he didn’t use it; it’s a bit obscure, but you just pull this lever here, see.”

Dry Salvage

Spaulding was in his eighties, and looked far too vulnerable to put a proper beating on, but I had agreed to give Marie Andretti at least five of his teeth in order to get my full fee. They came loose effortlessly, and the old bastard bled like a stuck pig regardless.

+++++Last year Spaulding and his associates performed 24 black-market kidney transplants in a makeshift operating room up at Paignton Yards. The way the scam was set up, middlemen took most of the money, and the surgical procedure was so shoddy that the recipient often contracted hepatitis or even HIV from the dirty medical equipment.

+++++One of Spaulding’s most recent clients was Marie’s nephew, Johnny Angelillo.

+++++No sooner had Johnny received the transplant, Spaulding’s stooges grabbed him and dragged him back into the operating theatre – ripped the organ right out of him, and let him bleed out on the gravel. Apparently, they had received a higher offer… In this town, everyone has a price.

*

+++++When I eventually arrive back at my rooming house, the desk-jockey eyes my bloody shirt suspiciously. He probably wants to know how soon before he rents the room out again. As I trudge up the stairs the drops of blood are barely noticeable on the maroon carpet. I inspect the gaping knife wound in my shoulder in the mirror of the communal bathroom. It looks fucking ugly. I pack it with cheap toilet paper and stumble down the hallway to my room. The door is ajar. I rub my eyeballs with bruised knuckles.

+++++“Wet-Look?”

+++++My least favourite ex-cop. He is sat on my bed in a greasy suit, rat-tail sap in his right hand, cock pulsing against his tight trousers.

+++++He doesn’t look well. His skin the colour of cement dust, and big clumps of his lank hair seem to be missing.

+++++He points at my shirt with a ragged, over-long fingernail.

+++++“Still whoring yourself out to the highest bidder?”

+++++“Don’t blame me, blame market forces.”

+++++“Quite.”

+++++I take a hard look at him. He was always fat, but he has bloated up like a waterlogged corpse.

+++++“I thought you had left town?”

+++++He shrugs.

+++++Earlier this year he was chased out of Paignton by his ex-cop buddies after sodomising two rent-boys with a retractable baton. Afterwards, he apparently made them sodomise one another, while he wanked into a jam jar. He’s a sick fucker.

+++++I heard that he was living in Plymouth, with his ex-brother-in-law, above an ‘extreme’ tattoo parlour.

+++++I slowly reach into my boot for my pig-knife.

+++++“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart. I’ve won better looking boys than you in poker games.”

+++++I grunt, but keep hold of the blade.

+++++“Why are you here?”

+++++“Everyone comes back to Paignton sooner or later – even if it is just to die.”

+++++He offers me a brief, demented cackle and coughs into his handkerchief melodramatically.

+++++“Do you know Harlan Deloitte?”

+++++Paignton’s richest man.

+++++“Not personally.”

+++++Philanthropist.

+++++“But you know of him?”

+++++Collector of the occult and the arcane.

+++++“Sure. His fucking reputation precedes him.”

+++++Hoarder of unknown horrors.

+++++“I have a job for you.”

+++++Motherfucker.

+++++“What is this, one last pay-day, then you disappear into the sunset?”

+++++His yellow eyes twinkle, and he scratches his balls with the leather edge of the sap.

+++++“Something like that.”

+++++I glance down at my bloody clothing and feel the loose teeth in my pocket. My life feels like a series of lurid little moments – stitched together, badly.

+++++I nod, and Wet-Look offers me a rancid smile.

+++++His eyes bore into me, and I feel my balls creep up into my gut.

*

+++++24 hours later.

+++++The watery-looking winter sun hangs low above the ugly, scattered guesthouses on Newton Road, and casts long, awkward shadows across the railway line. One of those misshapen buildings is a halfway house for recently paroled sex offenders. At least two are crack-dens.

+++++I climb the loose breezeblock steps and enter the dented aluminium trailer that doubles as an office at Lock ‘n’ Roll Self Storage.

+++++“Mr Rey. Long time, no see.”

+++++I nod, wordlessly.

+++++Karl Krazinsky is slumped across a swivel chair behind a second-hand desk. His white cropped hair stands out against his garish purple and black jogging suit.

+++++The tracksuit is a size too small, and bulges in all of the wrong places.

+++++His eyes are blank and bloodshot. It’s after midday, so his black coffee will be laced with liqueur, or something else strong enough to dilute the bad memories. I understand all too well, but I don’t sympathise. Not after the things he and his family have done.

+++++“There has been a lot of water under the bridge, Mr Rey.”

+++++“A lot of other stuff, too.”

+++++He grunts. I put one of his brothers in hospital, another one in prison. Both of them deserved it.

+++++Frankly, I’m surprised I’m here.

+++++I knew Krazinsky when he was still called Giancarlo Rossi. Before witness protection. Before he managed a low-rent suburban self-storage unit. He was always dumber than a box of shit – a leg-breaker not a grifter. Even so, he moved up the ranks at an impressive clip.

+++++So many Andretti Family affiliates turned snitch over the last decade, local criminals nicknamed the witness protection programme the ‘Mafia Meat Locker’.

+++++Everything turned to shit when Tommy Andretti ended up in an actual meat locker, down in Plymouth, with his hair slicked back and his lips sewn shut. The wise-guy wisecrack didn’t seem so funny after that.

+++++Three of Rossi’s cousins were discovered in a self-storage unit later that month. Same ghoulish shtick. It may even have been one of the units on this site. No wonder Krazinsky looks so haunted. He can probably hear them whispering his old name as he waddles around the site at night with his fucking flashlight.

+++++He splashes another two fingers of Galliano into his coffee mug.

+++++“Drink, Rey?”

+++++“Sure.”

+++++Why break the habit of a lifetime…

*

+++++Wet-Look told me that Krazinsky was holding a stash of mummified body parts for Harlan Deloitte. Most people would dismiss Wet-Look as a fantasist, but I’ve learned not to underestimate him. According to his source, the limbs belonged to Latin American Nazis, and were found buried in Lanares Province, Chile, wrapped in a Swastika flag.

+++++Deloitte is bad fucking news. Whenever his name crops up in the kind of conversations that I have, a little piece of me dies inside. I had assumed that his interests were strictly local, but it appears that I am wrong. However Wet-Look found out, I’m impressed. This isn’t the kind of information you can shake out of a Winner Street stool-pigeon, or slap out of a bus station rent-boy.

+++++Krazinsky gazes at me thoughtfully.

+++++“Do you think you’re the only ghoul out here making me an offer?”

+++++“Honestly, I have no idea.”

+++++He looks uneasy, as well he might.

+++++When the bottle of liqueur is finished he leads me down the steps and into the labyrinthine, rusted steel maze.

+++++“Say, what’s the worst thing you have ever found in one of these units?

+++++He bristles.

+++++“I don’t look in the units, Rey. I value the customers’ privacy.”

+++++“But if the money runs out?”

+++++He shrugs.

+++++“Human ashes… shrink-wrapped parcels of marijuana… the dried-out husks of dead reptiles… jam-jars full of bodily fluids. I once found four Lithuanians sleeping on cot-beds. Hell, most of these damned units are empty now. Customers prefer newer facilities. Cleaner places with better security. Better management.”

+++++He trails off – bored, disinterested, so I stop talking.

+++++His eel-skin boots splash through the stagnant puddles, splattering the legs of his cheap tracksuit. Bloody rubber gloves dangle from his waist-band.

+++++We walk in silence, covering a lot of ground, until we are in the far corner of the lot – under the pines, where the sun never shines. I remember these woods. The care home I grew up in was nearby. Older boys with camouflage trousers, cigarette lighters and flick-knives would lead us into the bowels of the woods to show us their secret porn stashes.

+++++Krazinsky gestures to a rust-ravaged unit with his battered-looking flashlight. It looks older and more decrepit than him.

+++++“This is it.”

+++++He withdraws a bunch of keys from the pocket of his jogging suit, and unfastens the padlock.

+++++He steps back to allow me to pass, and hands me the flashlight. I switch on the torch. Its weak glow barely registers in the cavernous gloom. This unit must extend right back into the tree-line. I shuffle forwards, and stumble against something on the floor. I point the flashlight towards the ground.

+++++It’s a skeleton – face collapsed with rot, bones a deep, sick shade of yellow.

+++++Further back, I see a flicker of movement in the murkiness. I raise the flash-light.

+++++Too big to be a rat. Much too big. An unholy groan emanates from the back corner.

+++++I hear the creaking sound of old bones. A face with a complexion like a skinned rabbit lurches towards me from out of nowhere. I smash the butt of the flashlight into its face and it keels over with an inhuman shriek.

+++++I turn sharply towards Krazinsky in the doorway.

+++++He offers me a thin, bloodless smile.

+++++“I’m sorry, Mr Rey. Sometimes, the only way to succeed is to corrupt yourself.”

+++++He tries to slam the door, but I manage to thrust my fist into the gap. I feel the bones in my hand shatter. I slam my shoulder into the door, and send Krazinsky sprawling into the gravel.

+++++He tries to kick out at me, but I stomp his left knee. It gives way with a queasy crack and he screams in pain.

+++++I was always led to believe that anyone who crossed the Andretti Family ended up as landfill. They were well known for employing men with dark appetites to bury, dismember or dissolve their secrets. Maybe I was wrong.

+++++“I’m sorry, Rey…”

+++++“You will be.”

+++++I drag him back toward the doorway by the collar of his jogging suit, but the cheap fabric rips. He tries to scramble across the gravel, away from me, but a stamp sharply on his back. I crack open the door and haul his lumpy body through the gap – towards whatever fresh hell lurks inside.

+++++I retrieve the over-sized key-ring from the gravel and snap the padlock shut.

+++++As I walk away – broken hand throbbing with pain, Krazinsky’s wretched screams ring in my mangled ears.

*

+++++Inside Krazinsky’s office I retrieve a fresh bottle of Galliano from his filing cabinet. Helpfully, the dumb bastard filed it under ‘G’. I recline in his patched-up swivel chair, and half fill a stained coffee mug with the sickly liqueur.

+++++I start to work my way through the files, in search of Deloitte’s nasty Nazi shit, but quickly give up.

+++++Eventually, the pain from my shattered hand subsides. Eventually, a passing train drowns out Krazinsky’s howls.

*

+++++Overhead, the smoke from the hospital incinerator blurs the winter sky like a memory.

+++++When I get to the front gate, a drab, olive-green estate car is parked sideways across the dirt-track, blocking the exit. There is a bullet-hole in the windscreen.

+++++The driver unfolds himself from his seat and stretches. He has a Russian 8mm Baikal self-defence pistol, originally used for firing CS gas, in his left hand.

+++++His name is Butterknuckle. He has a shaven head and a badly pockmarked face. He’s big, but he’s not hard. He’s a standard-issue small town hood – the kind I’m not overly surprised to find myself going toe-to-toe with.

+++++He doesn’t point the gun at me, but I stop regardless. I take a closer look at the car.

+++++Harlan Deloitte is sat in the passenger seat, smoking a cheroot.

+++++He is 60, but looks 40. Fuck, I’m 40 but look closer to 60 on particularly bad days.

+++++He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans and an expensive-looking overcoat, unbuttoned. He has a diamond stud in his left earlobe.

+++++He smiles easily.

+++++“Mr Rey, I presume?”

+++++I nod.

+++++“Where is Mr Krazinsky?”

+++++“Don’t worry. He’s among friends.”

+++++He looks disappointed, but his lips quickly curl into a nasty sneer.

+++++“Are you surprised to see me, Mr Rey?”

+++++“You know what, Harlan. Nothing much surprises me anymore.”

+++++“Hmm. Butterknuckle – pop the trunk.”

+++++“The trunk?”

+++++“Open the car boot, son.”

+++++He backs away, still training the gun on me.

+++++He opens the car boot and drags Wet-Look out by his hair. It comes out in clumps, so he hauls the fat man by his collar instead. His face is covered in minor lacerations, and his eyes are puffed shut. His trousers are soaked in blood, where it looks like he has been kneecapped.

+++++“What are we gonna do with these motherfuckers, Harlan?”

+++++“Throw them into a pit with a couple of broken bottles.”

+++++“Aw, man. Do I have to dig the pit?”

+++++Deloitte chuckles.

+++++“I was joking, son. Shoot them in the back and kick them into the weeds. They can die like rats.”

+++++Wet-Look is on his knees on the gravel. He looks disorientated. Butterknuckle raises the gun.

+++++“No last meal for you, fat man…”

+++++Wet-Look smiles his sick smile, and then leans across and clamps his yellow teeth on Butterknuckle’s right thigh. He screams. The gun discharges into the pine trees. Wet-Look adjusts his position and takes a bite out of the hood’s genitals.

+++++I can taste blood in my dry mouth. I lunge towards Deloitte and hit him – just about as hard as I have ever hit anyone. Only after I have punched him, do I realise that I’m using my broken hand. Like a corpse, his smile remains in place, even as his head crunches against the car’s metalwork. He keeps grinning, so I stop punching and start stomping.

+++++Wet-Look crawls across the gravel on his belly and places the Russian handgun against Deloitte’s scrawny neck. He pulls the trigger without a word, and we are both plastered in blood.

+++++Butterknuckle starts to hobble away from the bloodshed. Wet-Look aims the gun at his spinal column and squeezes, smearing him across the gravel.

*

+++++Two days later.

+++++I like my explosives the same way I like my pornography – homemade and volatile. I lob the improvised Molotov Cocktail towards Deloitte’s mansion with my left hand, and it smashes the window with a sharp crack. It wasn’t the window I was aiming for.

+++++“His study. That will work.”

+++++I turn to Wet-Look. He looks far too big for his NHS wheelchair. His head has been shaved, but there are small pink craters on his scalp where his hair was ripped out. The flames dance in his bleary eyes.

+++++“You’re a violent, predictable man, Joe Rey.”

+++++I shrug.

+++++“That’s why you keep hiring me, right?”

+++++He doesn’t answer me, just stares into the fire – until I wheel him back across the landscaped garden, back to the rest of our rotten lives.

The Reference

It is important to garner exemplary references in my profession. Good, very good are not good enough. They must be exemplary. It is for that reason I went to those professors who were most familiar with my teaching and scholarship.  I was a dutiful graduate assistant, a hard-working adjunct and saw no reason why I would not get references in accordance with my academic standing.

+++++But professors can be sneaky, they can be devious. There are many things that can be said of professors, but being upfront and honest are not among them. They can send a reference that to the layperson’s eyes appears to be positive, and glowing in praise, however scrutiny will show it to be equivocal in its support of the referent. And equivocal is a death warrant for anyone who is applying for a teaching position. The best one could hope for would be as a teacher of Freshman English 101 which is little more than being a glorified high school teacher. I wanted to verify my references were truthful; that is effusive and laudatory. I applied for a non-existent teaching position to a small college in Tennessee. I had a friend who worked there, and he would receive all my transcripts and references and send them to me sight unseen.

+++++They were exemplary examples of objectivity. They were universal in their praise of me, my studies, my research, my teaching abilities, and so on and so forth including my chairman’s Dr. Wilmut. I risked asking for his support, as I suspected he harbored personal animus toward me. He was, however, highly respected in his field, and it would help to have his recommendation.  It appeared his personal feelings, whatever they were, did not get in the way of his professionalism. So, I thought.

+++++Wilmut was a short, tyrannical, balding, middle-aged man with a nasally, wheezing voice. He was prone to flatulence usually displayed during department meetings, and telegraphed by slightly lifting his rear and shifting his body to one side. The result was usually a muffled, rather apologetic emission but often, either for a joke or an expression of disdain for whoever was speaking; a full blast would erupt.  Only full, tenured, professors were bold enough to acknowledge his behavior.  Even tenured associate professors, one step away from the Olympian stature of full professorship, were resigned to do something for which they were well versed; play dumb.

+++++The only reason I could find for him not liking me was jealousy. He was unseemly and old, while I was young and good looking, and as he could only leer and dream of luscious 19 and 20-year-old coeds, I was able, and willing, to do more. I was sure he was unaware of my trysts with his wife; a handsome, stern looking woman, with a wonderful body who underneath her public façade of academic aloofness was a tigress in bed. There certainly would have been talk about it throughout the campus had it been known.

+++++In an attempt for him to even the score so to speak, I often left him alone to keep my wife, who of course is a knock out, company during parties and social gatherings. It would be a great opportunity for him to ‘make his move.’  He could endlessly chat and hope she would find his recent paper on Chaucer’s The Wife from Bath, an irresistible aphrodisiac. Little did he know that what really turned on my wife was a reading of Beowulf in the original Olde English.  I joke.

+++++Wilmut assured me I would have a one year appointment as assistant professor upon completion of my dissertation, but it was scrapped for, so I was told, budget cuts. I was suspicious of course. It would not be beneath him to sabotage me. I did land a teaching position as a one year replacement at a small, rather non-descript college in upstate New York.

+++++It wasn’t what I wanted, but I taught two literature classes and only one composition class.

+++++“It’s a good sign,” my wife told me. “I heard from Jan and she said she’s got a job at small state college in Wyoming, and she’s teaching three composition classes.”

+++++“Jan would be that happy with that. She’s lucky to have it.”

+++++“David, that’s not right. She worked hard.”

+++++“Good for her. Tell her I said hello.”  But, in all honesty I was optimistic about our future.  Things were wonderful for us. We bought a new car and Camille was pregnant. Buoyed by the relative ease I had in getting my position, temporary as it was, and since I had two articles published in literary journals, I believed a full-time, tenure tracked position would be my next position.

+++++My one year position was extended for another. I was lax in sending out applications so the extra year was much appreciated. We were still very happy, Camille and I, but the baby was very demanding, and that, along with an astoundingly drastic reduction in our sex life brought moments of strife into our household. I sent out 136 applications and for my troubles I did not get one damn interview.  My heart-felt plea to return for a third year was declined. I was lucky to land a job at Hansen-Toulour Community College teaching freshman composition.

+++++In the world of the academe, respected professors would rather go through un-anesthetisized surgery than teach English 101.  It is a form of punishment relegated to graduate-assistants, students working on higher degrees, and in my case, a Ph.d who couldn’t find a job. I was to teach two literature classes and three compositions classes! A five course load! I prayed no one at my previous school was aware of my fall.

+++++I spent one year at HTCC and it was enough for me to become bitter, frustrated and disillusioned.  I tried to internalize my feelings but often expressed them in constructive, perhaps injurious criticism, in the margins of students’ papers. There were also sporadic, passionate outbursts directed at fellow members of the faculty. There were moments, few and far between however, when I lashed out at my wife.

+++++There was never any violence. The arguments we had, most couples would consider mild, but for Camille they were volcanic. My wife is quiet and gentile in nature. She had never seen me like this, and as innocuous as my loud, yet highly controlled manifestations of displeasure were, it troubled her and she reacted badly to them.

+++++“You could have taken,” she said one time, “that position offered to you at Meade University. It was full time.”

+++++“Full time teaching a four course load and three of those courses wet nursing the semi-literate to understand the differences between, to, two and too.”

+++++“It was full time, and a pay increase, for God’s sake.”

+++++“I’ll find something better. I’ve submitted another article for publication.”

+++++“What’s that, three in three years?”

+++++I gave her a look. “Everything will work out.” And I did her a big favor by walking to my study and locking the door.

+++++Ashley at that time was waking up three or four times a night and I could not dedicate myself as fervently as I wanted to on job hunting, and on my academic research. We argued more and when I complained how the demanding Ashley was cutting into my time she said, “Your time? So what? Your time is all a waste of our time!”

+++++Our life was not as we expected it to be. But, was I to blame? I didn’t think so. It was a hectic year, a bad year with the only positive to come out of it was I found the reason for my joblessness.

+++++My friend in Tennessee called to say that he had received an updated reference a while back and was going to send it, but it had been misplaced and he only just found it. It was Dr.Wilmut’s. He had replaced his original reference with a new one backdated to correspond with the original. In his new version words like ‘volatile,’ ‘under-achiever,’ ‘temperamental’ stood out as if written in bold-face. There were phases like, ‘could improve if given the right circumstances,’ ‘doesn’t seem to get along with his contemporaries as he should,’ and, ‘at times is confrontational with his students.’

+++++I had found the reason for my unfavorable situation, not only in my professional career but also for the slow dissolution of our marriage. Our feelings toward each other had been altered seemingly irrevocably. Neither of us felt the joy, nor the sense of optimism, we once had. It was difficult to suppress my bitterness and hatred for my situation and too often my wife felt the brunt of my dissatisfaction. She became judgmental and criticized every little thing I did, and was not hesitant to compare me to other men, comparisons in which I did not fare favorably. Ashley kept us together but there’s only so much a two year old can do. I swore that my child’s life would not become damaged as ours had become. I swore I would ensure my family had a fair shot in the future.

+++++During our mid-term break I drove to New Jersey where I booked a room at a Motel 6 in Pompton Lakes.  I told my wife I’d be reading a paper on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. I thought she would be happy to have some time alone, but instead she became angry and a violent argument followed. I could say we kissed and made up and all was honky dory, but it would not be true. She threatened to leave, and I would return to an empty apartment. She said I was leaving to meet one of my students, Victorian Literature Groupie Whores, is what she called them.  What an imagination! Ashley was as frightened as I’d ever seen her. I promised them this trip would bring things back to normal, and we’d never argue again. My wife laughed. We argued and Ashley cried. I arrived in Wayne that evening with the image of my little girl in tears fresh in my mind.

+++++Evening classes were in session and Dr.Wilmut was in his office. The door to his office was ajar and I heard him tapping, tapping so gently on his computer keyboard.

+++++“Dr. Wilmut,” I said. The man was so deeply immersed in his work he nearly jumped out of his seat.

+++++“David?” he asked, “what are you doing here, aren’t you still teaching?”

+++++“The reference you wrote for me needs to be revised,” and I flung the copy at him. “You made too many typos. For example you spelled genius as m-e-d-i-o-c-r-e. And look, you meant to say ‘dedicated’ but erroneously wrote ‘lackadaisical.’  There are more; had we the time.”

+++++“How’d you get his?” he asked.

+++++“What’s it matter? I have it.”

+++++“I heard you were teaching at Houghton University in Pennsylvania.”

+++++“New York State.”

+++++“Of course, yes, New York State.”  Are you no longer teaching there?”

+++++“No. Do you know what I’m doing now?”

+++++He shook his head no.

+++++“I’m a part time instructor at a junior college in upstate New York teaching three, as in thirty students per class of writing composition.”

+++++“It’s a start, David, you’re still new in the profession but must understand that the market is tight. What matters is you’re still in the game.”

+++++I picked up the copy he had let fall and held it in front of him. “And this glowing recommendation is going to help me?”

+++++“David, I want you to listen to me.”

+++++“Ohhhhh, you must have had a good time fabricating this spurious revisionist reference. You did it right here, at this desk, and on that computer. I can see you laughing your fat, balding head off at my expense. And when your work was done you must have had a great time thinking about all those prospective chairmen and chairwomen and chair people, reading your reference, didn’t you? Well, good doctor there were over 136 of them, that guffawed and chuckled and slapped their knees and thought, ‘What the hell is this guy thinkin,’ ‘this guy’ being me, ‘of applying for our position?  Oh, my,’ they further thought, ‘the poor sap must be delusional.’  Right; a wonderful time was had by all.”

+++++I put my briefcase on an empty chair and took out a gun.

+++++“David, let’s talk. I can explain everything. Could you please put that gun away?” He looked up at the wall clock and I cursed my stupidity. In a short while night classes would end. I had to hurry. My mind flashed back to our most horrific arguments and I saw my daughter, my little Ashley tugging at her Daddy’s leg crying for us to stop our fighting.

+++++“David, in retrospect I should have left the original in and for that I admit I was wrong, but when I found out you plagiarized one of your term papers I felt I had to do something. But it’s no big deal, really. A minor case of copying that’s all. Many students do it. I’ll be more than happy to write you another reference much more representative of your talents.”

+++++“Plagiarized?”

+++++“Yes.  Last year I read a paper that struck me as highly suspicious. It seemed to me I had seen it before, and I remembered it was a term paper you had written for me in your senior year.”

+++++Plagiarized. I remembered. I had paid four hundred dollars for a sure A+ paper. That miserable son of a bitch finance major told me papers were used only once.  The bastard then sold it to some moron who couldn’t revise it a little to differentiate it from mine.

+++++“I keep some copies of student papers, and his was almost word by word similar to yours. I dug deeper and discovered the original was from an obscure dissertation written in 1962.”

+++++“Who is this student?”

+++++“The student?”

+++++“Yes, the one who plagiarized my paper.”

+++++“She’s still in school. Here, let me get her address.” Wilmut scurried to his desk, and quickly ran through the papers. “Here, here, she’s still in school. I had to fail her of course, but it was only an elective, she’s actually a public-“

+++++“Shut up!”

+++++“Yes, of course, I’m sorry. You see, David, if I had withdrawn my original referral it would have caused a lot of red flags.”

+++++“And you couldn’t keep it the way it was?”

+++++“It would not have been honest.”

+++++“It was honesty that drove you to do what you do?”

+++++“Yes, academia has a very stringent ethical code.”

+++++“And your being mad at me had nothing to do with it?”

+++++“I was disappointed someone with your ability would do such a thing.”

+++++“You’re not mad because I had been screwing your wife?”

+++++He looked as downcast as a beaten dog. “We have an arrangement. I’m an old man now, but even as a young man it was difficult for me to keep-“

+++++“Her satisfied,” I said and smiled broadly.

+++++“Yes, damn you! My wife is intelligent and we had that in common, she’s also very physical with a remarkable earthiness, a robust sensuality to her that, as you succinctly said, was problematic for me to satisfy. So, we made an arrangement.”

+++++“You knew about us?”

+++++“Yes, we even made tapes.”

+++++“Tapes; of me fucking your wife?”

+++++“Yes.”

+++++The bell rang. I moved quickly. The gun was only to get his attention. I pulled a knife from my brief case and repeatedly stabbed him.  I told my wife I was to speak on, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, so I looked down at his lifeless body and said: “’It is lawful and hath been held so through for all ages, for any who have the power to call to account a tyrant, and to depose and put him to death.’

+++++I felt a sense of relief and relaxation. With this matter closed I could get back to normalizing relations with my wife. We could, once again, be a happy family. But, I had to see Prudence Wilmut one last time. I parked in their driveway as close to the house as possible. I rang the doorbell and waited, then rang again.

+++++I could hear her from the hallway as she approached the door. “Did you forget your keys?” she asked?

+++++“I gave the house key back to you, remember?” I replied.

+++++There was a moment of silence.  “Who is this?”

+++++I stepped back so she could get a good look at me through the spyhole. She quickly opened the door. “David! What are you doing here? He’ll be home soon.” I walked in, and by force of habit took her in my arms and kissed her deeply.

+++++“I ‘ve just seen him. He won’t be here for a while.”

+++++“Oh?”

+++++“He said there are tapes of our love making. He said he made tapes of us. Is that right?”

+++++“That’s ridiculous!”

+++++I slapped her hard across the face. My voice remained calm. “He said they were here and I believe him. I’ve got no time to play now get them!”

+++++I grabbed her by the arm.

+++++“You’re hurting me, I’ll get them. My husband and I had an arrangement.”

+++++“So he said.”

+++++“We showed them to no one. No one knew but us. We told no one.”

+++++“So you say. Where do you keep them?”

+++++“In the bedroom.”

+++++I led her up the familiar stairs into the familiar room and saw the very familiar bed.

+++++“It’s in here.” She opened the door to the walk in closet door, and pointed to a row of innocuously titled films on a shelf. There were twenty of them. She pulled several out.

+++++“These are all we have of you, honest.”

+++++“Honest! You? Don’t make laugh. Put them all in here.”

+++++“Please not all of them.”

+++++I laughed. “Yes all of them. So, this is how you and your husband got off, huh, by watching these tapes?”

+++++“Just take them and leave. He’ll be home soon.”

+++++“I doubt it.”

+++++“What do you mean?”

+++++I nodded toward the bed and asked, “How about one more time?”

+++++“He’ll be home soon, please go. Maybe we can see each other tomorrow. Let me know where you’ll be, and we’ll meet.”

+++++When she turned her back to shut the closet door I pistol whipped her.

+++++She lay prostrate on the bedroom floor her breathing was heavy and labored. I took the pillow from her side of the bed and held it tightly over her mouth until she breathed no more. I looked into the closet, and imagined him with his little camera filming us, filming all of Prudence’s lovers. He was such a sick bastard. I’d never film anyone screwing my wife, never!

+++++I arrived home the next day. Ashley was so happy to see her Daddy. I sensed my wife’s apprehensiveness.

+++++“Things are going to get better, darling,” I told her, “I’ve had time to reflect. I prayed like I never prayed before. I realize how lucky I am to have you and Ashley. Please forgive me.”

+++++She unfolded her arms. “It’s good to have you back again.”

+++++Camille took Ashley to see her mother the next day and it gave me time to view the tapes. It wasn’t what I expected.  It started with Prudence in front of the full length mirror playing with her nipples. The camera followed as she moved her hand between her legs then a full zoom on her mouth as she faked orgasm (I knew Prudence, it would take more than what she was doing to make her orgasm). Then the title appeared. Wilmut must have had pretensions of being a big time film director. There was the name of a production company, then the title, “Prudence and the Dunce, Part 1,” and below it, ‘starring Prudence Wilmut and David Bolton.” That sick bastard! He called me a dunce. I looked at the other tapes.

+++++They all had the appearance of a low budget shoe string film. There were, “Prudence and The Clown Prince,” with the male lead being a newly hired assistant professor, “Prudence and the Perpetual Graduate Assistant,” who was Ronald LeForge, and there were others. I had to laugh. All that was lacking was for Prudence to lie on the bed, legs spread and say, “Mr.DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’ It was hilarious. And when I thought of them dead I laughed harder.

+++++Without exception all the leading men were faculty members. It’s no good to play those tapes in select theatres, so I would have copies made. Those tapes were going to be my ticket to a full tenured job. I’d let them know if they didn’t use their vast network of contacts and academic pull, I’ll let their wives, their deans, the university president have their own tapes. I lay on the bed, and daydreamed of me in my big office with windows overlooking the campus and taking various coeds in a variety of positions and teaching one, maybe two classes a semester.  Life looked good.

+++++The next morning I was still flush with expectation and hope. “You know, darling,” I remember telling my wife and putting my arms around her. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but things are going to change.”

+++++“I hope so, David, but you’re acting the way many people do when they come back from a vacation. What will happen when the real world sinks in again? A real world of me, a family, and what you consider a dead end job.”

+++++“A dead end job. Are you saying this is as good as it will get for me?”

+++++She paused for a moment and took my hands from her waist.

+++++“I’m not saying that at all. Time will tell.”

+++++What happened next was like one gigantic wave sweeping over me at the beach.  It is difficult, even now, to differentiate events just as it would be impossible to differentiate one part of a long wave from another.  But before I could answer her our doorbell rang. Camille led in three detectives with two patrolmen behind them.

+++++“They said they wanted to see you.”

+++++“Why?”

+++++“Mr. Bolton, I’m Lt. Shaw from the Ithaca police department, these two gentlemen are Detectives Gizello and Franklin from the Wayne police department. They drove all the way up here just to see you.”

+++++A Jersey detective, Gizello said, “We’d like to question you about your whereabouts a couple of nights ago.”

+++++“I took a little trip to clear my head. I stayed a couple of nights at a Hotel 6 on Rt. 23”

+++++“In Pompton Lakes?” the other asked.

+++++“Do you know of any other?”

+++++“David! Please can you tell me what this is about?  Yes, Detective, he was away yes, we were having some troubles at home, nothing serious. He left to clear his head. It gave us time to think.”

+++++“Mrs. Bolton two people have been murdered. An August Wilmut and his wife Prudence. You know them of course?”

+++++“David!”

+++++“Of course we knew them. How could we not? You don’t think for a minute, for a nanosecond that I had anything to do with it?”

+++++“We’re taking him in for questioning, Mrs. Bolton. If he can clear this up, we’ll have him back soon.”

+++++It was a blur. They sat me and said they had proof. One detective, not sure if he was supposed to be the good one or bad one, said it was murder one, but if I confessed they would tell the D.A. how co-operative I was and he might knock it down to murder two.

+++++They had no proof. It was all a bluff. I smiled smugly and said nothing. I’d let them earn their money before they let me go. Then the other detective came and put a tape in the VCR player. “We brought this tape with us all the way from the Garden State.”

+++++“What the hell are you talking about?”

+++++“Doc Wilmut liked to take movies, but you already know that, don’t you?”  I smirked at him. I had been in that bedroom enough times to know there are no security cameras, and before I left I went over that room with a fine tooth comb. Bluff, bluff and more bluff.

+++++The tape lacked the same, albeit simple, production values of the ones he made of Prudence made. There were no titles, no credits.

+++++“Pull up a chair,” said Monahan, “sorry we can’t offer you any popcorn. We found a camera behind a poster of Edgar Allan Poe. Shhhh, quiet the movie’s started.” A male student walked in, they exchanged pleasantries then began to kiss.

+++++“Ooops,” said a detective, not sure if it was the good one or the bad one, “Let’s fast forward it to the good part.”  He did so, and my mouth dropped. There I was entering his office.

+++++“This is it, Bolton. The big time. Mr.David Bolton enter stage left. Here’s you’re big scene. Action!”

+++++I watched myself murder Dr.Wilmut.

The Loss

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

THE END

Murder Me

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

The Good Fortune of Augusta

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

 

END.

Road To Nowhere

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

Pizza Mama and Dairy Queen

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

*

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

Purpose

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Devil Be Strong

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

The Last Shot

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

re-Pete

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Big Fish

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

Cure

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

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

Then work as usual.

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

And back home.

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

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

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

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

Slippery When Wet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dominant Hand

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Permanent Exit Strategies

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

***

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

***

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