FETAL BAIT APOCALYPSE
3 Collections in 1
and Other Stories
The Kindness of Strangers
At dusk the cabin looks like a brooding face, the way the sun throws deep wrinkles across its knotted and gnarled logs. Two front windows stare lifelessly out at the surrounding forest and the door is like a blockade across an ancient mouth, keeping its secrets from spilling out and poisoning the weeds outside the threshold. At its base, dark gray rocks creep up like dead, swollen fingertips. No one has lived here for a long time.
Gary Nelson kneels with his back against a nearby oak. Tears trail down his cheeks. His eyelids resemble fat, bloated leeches. He places the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun against the roof of his mouth.
“Barbara,” he says around the barrel.
His tongue flicks against the rusted metal. He gags. He is thirty-eight years old. Barbara left him three months earlier for an insurance salesman. Nelson caught them on the living room couch. As if they wanted to be caught. As if they got off on being caught.
He shakes the memory away. He’s got nothing left to live for. No family. No home. He shuts his eyes and pulls the trigger.
There is a dry click but nothing else. He opens his eyes wearily and removes the shotgun from his mouth, spits the taste of metal on the forest floor, and wipes the tears and sweat from his eyes. His breath is shallow and noisy as he checks the breech. A cartridge winks at him in the dying sunlight. Nelson calms down and sets the butt of the gun back on the ground, placing his finger upon the trigger. Once again he positions his head over the barrel. Closes his eyes.
That’s when he first hears the whispers.
His eyes pop open in surprise. He moves the gun away from his face and quickly stands. This is supposed to be a private act.
“Who’s there?” He can’t see anybody, but there are plenty of places to hide. “Who’s there, goddamn it?”
No one answers. Yet now he can see something in the short distance. A shape through the dark, twisted trees. The shape of a cabin fading quickly with the sunlight. Funny how he hadn’t notice it before.
He feels the shotgun heavy in his hands, but before his thoughts turn back to the task at hand, he hears the whispers a second time. He is unable to distinguish any words, barely able to discern it from the howl of wind through the trees.
“Who’s there?” he calls again. A wisp of smoke creeps up from a black pipe in the roof of the cabin. He steps toward it.
Inside, a single log smolders in a black wood-burning stove. A worn mattress lies in the corner hidden beneath a tattered Army-issue blanket. There is a weathered pine table. Some empty cabinets above a rusting countertop. A round disc of sawed off oak, five inches thick and two feet across, still ringed with rough bark and cured with blood, sits heavy on the counter; a crude butcher’s block. Next to it is a hatchet, its blade nicked, its handle splintered and dark with grease.
Nelson sees a five-gallon pail full of thick red water on the floor next to the wood stove. He sets down his gun and peers in. A severed hand floats to the top. He wants to vomit, wants to get back to the simplicity of placing shotgun in mouth and pulling the trigger, but again he hears the whispers. They come at him from all directions.
“Welcome,” they say, a hundred voices united in a child-like chorus, tickling his brain. “Welcome.”
The door to the cabin shuts quietly behind him and he hears footsteps, slow and heavy and dragging. Rough callused fingers squeeze his shoulder. The floor comes up to meet him, but he doesn’t feel a thing.
He dreams of the shotgun. Dreams of the barrel in his mouth. It tastes like black licorice. The shell perspires in the chamber. It looks alive, like flesh. He pulls the trigger. Instead of an explosion, he hears loud, throaty laughter as the bullet rips through the roof of his mouth and into his skull. Instead of the instant gratification of death, the bullet eats slowly away at his brain.
He wakes. It is night. An old Indian squats at the foot of the mattress on which Nelson lays, silhouetted darkly against the crimson glow of the wood-burning stove.
“You got piss poor dreams,” the Indian says.
“Who are you?” Nelson’s head feels light and he has trouble focusing. “Are you some kind of medicine man?”
The old Indian answers with a soft, wheezing chuckle. “Hell no,” he says. He gets up and saunters over to the wood stove. “Name’s Hump.”
Hump is bare-chested, his skin dark and wrinkled like beef jerky, full of pale welts and scratch marks. He wears a stark white ponytail that reaches down to the belt loops of his jeans. On his cowboy boots are tooled a pair of intricately detailed eagles hidden behind a thick layer of dried mud and grease. His eyes are sewn shut with thin strips of deer hide.
Hump holds something in his hand. Nelson’s shotgun shells. He throws them one at a time into the belly of the stove where they explode, sending a spray of ash onto Hump’s cancerous grin.
He turns to Nelson. Despite the missing eyes, Nelson feels as if the old man is seeing him, seeing deep inside of him. He feels a chill settle in him from the inside out.
“You can hear ’em, huh?” Hump says.
“Hear what?” Nelson asks.
“The children. Singing in your head.”
Nelson doesn’t answer. He looks away.
“I know you hear ’em.” Hump laughs. “Lucky for you, or else I’d have to kill you.”
Nelson thinks briefly it’s a joke, but then remembers the hand he saw floating in the pail by the stove.
“But hey, you wanna die anyway, no?” Hump says.
Nelson isn’t sure how to answer. By his own hands, yes. In his own way. But to have it done at the mercy of some stranger? He glances at the bloodstained butcher’s block. That’s not the way to do it, he thinks. That’s not the way to die.
“I want to be alone,” he finally says.
Hump gestures toward the butcher block. “Hey, don’t worry about that shit. That ain’t nothing.” He stands. “I got something that’ll make you forget about your troubles. Make you wanna be alive.”
Alive? What for?
Nelson remembers the look on Barbara’s face. No sorrow. No regret. Merely smugness. Then a slow, creeping smile followed by laughter.
“I want to go now,” Nelson says.
Hump laughs. He walks over to a small oval rug on the floor and pulls it back. There is a knot of rope beneath it, which he lifts, opening a small trap door cut out of the floorboards. Darkness rises out from the hole in a thick, miasmic mist.
“You can’t go now,” Hump says. “Once you hear ’em calling you, you can’t never go.”
A foul odor rises, too, like fish rotting in the sun. Nelson’s stomach lurches and threatens to spill its contents on the floor.
“Aw, hey,” Hump says. “Don’t worry none about that. You get used to that in a hurry. You get to like it, even.” He slowly descends the set of stone steps that the trap door reveals. The darkness devours him.
Nelson looks at the door of the cabin, the door that leads outside. He sees his shotgun sitting there, but remembers the shells Hump threw into the stove. All he would have to do is stand and run. Run back into the forest. Perhaps take the hatchet with him and hack a couple jagged lines in his wrist, hold it under the flowing waters of the nearby river and wait for the black nothingness to overtake him.
But again he hears the whispers.
“Come,” they say, a thousand voices all whispering at once.
Nelson tingles all over.
He can’t resist. He follows Hump into the darkness beneath the cabin.
Outside, the limbs of the surrounding trees shiver in the wind. The animals in the forest avert their eyes. They run away in fear. The cabin looks alive. It looks hungry. The deer flies, the mosquitoes, the gnats, strafing and buzzing the cabin’s exterior, fall to the ground in a stunned death.
Beneath, all is black. “Just wait and see,” Hump says, leading Nelson through the darkness. “This is your Heaven now.”
Nelson can feel shapes all around him, large shapes that are immobile, yet somehow alive. His hand brushes across something hard and mossy. The sound of dripping permeates the cavern. A constant drip, drip, drip, like the beating of a watery heart.
“We’re almost there.” Hump stops. Gently pushes Nelson forward.
Nelson still can’t see anything, but he steps forward. The toe of his boot hits something solid. He takes a step up. Then three more steps up.
“Now sit,” Hump says.
Nelson’s eyes finally begin to adjust. There is a tiny bit of light coming from above and Nelson realizes it’s the light of the cabin seeping through the cracks in the floorboards. He looks down at Hump. He sees the pale white welts on Hump’s body move. They crawl down Hump’s arm and gather on his hand, a writhing mass of white worms. Hump reaches up to Nelson’s leg and the worms cross over. They squirm up his leg and across his body where they come to a rest.
His body tingles all over. He realizes the hard, mossy mound he sits on is a conglomerate of bones. A huge pile of bones.
“You’re the man,” Hump whispers, a look of ecstasy on his haggard features. “You’re the man.”
A throne of bones.
The old Indian leaves him. Nelson hears the trap door open and close. He can feel the white worms sticking to his body. He can hear the whispers all around him.
He sees more mounds. Bones everywhere, ancient and new, animal and human.
“Yessss…” The whispers caress his brain. “Yessss…”
He hears an explosion from above, the sound of his shotgun discharging. Hump must’ve saved a shell.
He looks up at the floorboards above and sees Hump’s blood dripping through them. It drips in a rhythm—
A rhythm like a beating heart, hypnotic and soothing.
He feels his own heart slow down. Matching the tempo of the drops.
And the visions begin. Like a floodlight turned on in his brain. Barbara is there. Naked and flushed, she takes him into her embrace. Her tongue darts in and out of his ear, her warm, moist breath penetrating into his skull. The rancid smell Nelson experienced before has turned into something sweet. He smells the blood of the insurance salesman on Barbara’s breath. Her teeth nibble at his ear. They’ve become pointed and sharp.
But Nelson doesn’t mind. He has found a reason to live.
He ejaculates blood. The worms on his body dig in.
“Welcome,” the chorus screams. “Welcome.”
It was a cold January when Paul Robinson parked his flatbed pick-up on the edge of Shady Lake. The ice was ten inches thick. Plenty thick, yet it still didn’t compare to the rind of ice that had settled around his heart.
He let the tail-gate drop, hauled out his wooden fishing shanty and slid it over the ice to a spot a good fifty yards from the other fishermen. It was dusk, and many were already leaving, their perch, walleye, and trout packed in coolers to take home to their families.
He began to arrange the inside of the shanty, a homemade thing of clapboard and two by fours. He lit a pile of pre-soaked coals in an old coffee can for extra warmth, the flame swirling for a moment like a dervish, then settling to a comfortable glow. As he slid his Styrofoam bait bucket across the shanty’s floor, steam seeping from beneath the lid, he heard the crunch of cleated boots behind him. He turned.
“You’re getting a late start today.” It was Sven Gustafson with his gas-powered auger. His chocolate lab Blackie followed close behind, clumsy on the ice. “Can I cut you a hole?”
Paul nodded. “A wide one.”
“What for?” Sven smiled. “You expecting a couple big northerns to come your way?”
“Just like a bigger hole is all. And keep your dog out of my bait.”
“You got smelt in there today? Blackie loves smelt.”
“Just keep him away from me tonight. I’m in no mood.”
Sven laughed and started the auger up, its whine accompanying the wind, the whir of the blade through ice setting Paul’s teeth on edge. The smell of gasoline and exhaust filled the air. When Sven was done, he whistled at Blackie. “C’mon, git, before Paul here sets a hook in you.” The dog pounced away a few feet then stopped, waiting. Sven started to leave but hesitated. He turned to Paul, kneeled down on one leg and pulled back the hood of his thick black parka. He cocked his head to the side, studying Paul.
Paul looked up, annoyed. “What?”
Sven turned his eyes to the fresh hole in the ice. When he spoke again, it was with a soft, quiet voice. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about your son. I know you and Peg have been having a hard time of it.”
Paul looked out the shanty across the lake to the far shore. The last light of the day bled through a skeletal wall of birch. He squinted at the pile of stones he placed there. “It’s a hard thing,” he said.
“If you need anyone to talk to—” Sven started, but Paul waved the words away.
“I’m getting by.”
“How’s your wife? How’s Peg been?”
Paul hoped the tears he felt welling up stayed put. He cleared his throat and spat. “You know how it is.”
Sven waited, and when Paul said nothing more, he nodded and stood, hefting the auger up with him. “Well, if you need anything — anything at all — you know where I’m at.”
“I’ll be fine.”
He watched Sven leave, and then finished setting up the small six by five shelter. It was almost tall enough for him to stand up in but not quite, although he’d cut a twelve inch diameter hole through the top the year before so he could watch the stars through it with his boy.
His boy. Jack. How many times had he been able to look at the stars with his son, point out the few constellations he knew, point out the ghostly strip of the Milky Way? Not enough. Goddamn, that was for sure. Not nearly enough.
He heard the bark of Blackie echo across the lake, clear and sharp in the crisp January air. He leaned over the freshly drilled hole in the ice, took his old rusty skimmer and scooped out the slush and ice chips from the surface. He shined his flashlight at the hole, a dark pupil within an iris of frozen water. How could anything live in such a place?
Time for some coffee. He opened the thermos, poured some into the lid and sipped. Too goddamn strong. Peggy never made it this strong. She made the best damn coffee in the world, just the way he liked it, but he had to make it today. He’d try to remember to put less in the filter next time.
Get used to it, he told himself. Get used to being lonely, because you’re going to be lonely a long, long time.
He swallowed the rest of the coffee in the lid with a shudder and grimace.
Get used to it.
His son Jack had died the year before. Drowned in this very lake. Only thirteen years old. After it happened, Paul didn’t think he’d have the stomach for fishing anymore, didn’t fish all summer, in fact. But when the lake froze up once again, he couldn’t help but think about his son, and coming out here on the lake brought him that much closer.
They had argued that day. Another bitter regret. Jack wanted to go fishing and Paul told him no, the season was already over.
“It’s not safe.”
“Can’t we at least try it?”
“How many times do I have to tell you—”
They’d had some damn good times that winter out on the lake, and Paul wanted it to last as much as his son, but you can’t break the rules of nature. Ice melts. It’s as simple as that.
But Jack didn’t listen. He hopped on his bike and struggled for five miles over roads covered in slush and wet gravel, his jigging rod wobbling behind him, an antenna tuned into the frequencies of cold, deep water.
The ice still looked strong enough on top of the lake, even though there was not another fisherman to be found. Paul knew his son’s heart was filled with such a longing, the lake, the fish luring him — that he must’ve ignored the telltale signs of thin and rotten ice. First was the fact that there were no shanties left on the lake. And second, there was open water along the shore in places, and surely that must have been a clear enough sign. Paul thought he had taught his boy well, taught him about the intricacies of ice, that he should never go if it’s thinner than four inches. But apparently the pull was too great in the boy’s soul.
They found his mountain bike that first day, and two frantic days of searching later, his Twins cap and denim jacket washed up on the shore, belched up from beneath the receding ice cover. Once it melted, they dragged the lake, but it was large and deep, and they had no luck finding his body.
That was one of the hardest things to deal with. The lack of closure. Paul wanted to believe that Jack was still alive somewhere, just run away, or perhaps abducted but still alive, for these are the fantasies of grown men who have lost their children. But deep in his soul he couldn’t deny the overwhelming probability that his boy still laid on the murky lake bottom, communing with the fish he used to dream about in his warm bed at home.
They had a funeral. There was a polished granite headstone in the cemetery, but Paul couldn’t bear to visit it. Instead, he piled up the stones he collected from the lake’s shore, made a mound of them just for him and his son. Silly, probably, but he thought of it as a beacon. A beacon that made no sense except to himself. A beacon he could focus his loss on.
He started coming out to the lake again with his fishing gear in December, when the ice was first thick enough. And he’d come out most days since, even with Peggy fussing about how he should stop torturing himself.
“It’s not going to bring him back.”
“You don’t understand, Peg.”
“How can you say that? How can you tell me I don’t understand? He was my son, too.”
“But it’s not about that.”
It had gotten harder and harder to be with her, to come home to her after work and face her, the guilt of Jack’s death like a dulled ax blade pressed slowly into his gut. If only he would’ve taken Jack to show him how thin the ice was. If only he would’ve…
The list was endless.
So he came out here when he could, which was most nights now, after work. Watching. Waiting. Wondering what would bite.
There were times when he didn’t even drop a line in. He’d just sit, hovering over the dark hole, his thermos of coffee slowly growing cold next to him. He’d sit and watch, the exposed skin on his face and neck not registering the sub-zero temperatures, his breath blossoming before him in ghostly whispers before being snatched away through the hole in the shanty’s roof.
He’d sit and wait, wondering at the movements he sensed not far below the surface. When the wind died to a whimper and all he could hear was his own heart and the deep, dull crack of settling ice — he was sure he felt something stirring below him.
One night, only his second night out this winter, as he sat eating a cracker and thinking about his son, he felt a tug on his jigging rod. He jerked it back with a flick of his thick wrist, feeling the hook set. He concentrated on the hole, on the weight that bowed his rod. Must be one damn big walleye, he thought. A heavy one with not a lot of fight in him.
He began to reel in his line. He’d been using one of Jack’s favorite lures, one that Jack had carved and painted himself. Using it brought Paul that much closer to his son, and now with a big old walleye appreciating his lost son’s abilities, Paul couldn’t help but smile. He continued to reel the line in, hoping it was strong enough.
The tip of the rod bent to the surface of the water. Paul kept turning the reel, his hands growing numb from the pressure, his head steaming with perspiration. He thought he saw something in the dark, murky water, a large shadow slowly rising.
A log? But it couldn’t be a log, could it? Hadn’t it tugged a bit, played with the line at first? Could a log do that?
He pulled at the rod, strained at the reel, now worried that his son’s lure would be lost forever in the cold depths. He squinted. Thought he could see a large silhouette close below the surface. It was a familiar shape. He felt his heart in his throat, his breath spurting from his mouth in frozen blasts.
My God, it can’t be.
But just as Paul’s desperate hope turned to a longing to believe, the line snapped. He fell hard on his back, seeing real stars blur above him through the hole in the roof. He blinked and shook his head, sat up and scrambled to the hole, leaning over it until the tip of his nose touched the cold surface of the water, hoping, praying that his eyes could penetrate the impenetrable murk. He saw nothing but his own panicked face reflected back at him.
He rolled over onto his side, curled his knees up to his chest, and stared at the plain wooden walls of the shanty. What had he hooked? His mind told him one thing while his heart told him something else entirely.
But that was over a month ago. Now he sat twitching his jig, wishing Sven’s dog would stop its miserable barking. He wanted silence. He wanted to be able to listen, to hear the shifting subtleties of ice and water.
He’d spent the last month wondering what had brought about that tug on his line, and it finally came to him just the night before.
It had been Jack’s favorite. Perhaps it still was.
Paul had to find something else. Another lure. He had to try again. He’d gone through both their tackle boxes, spreading the contents out on the surface of his worktable at home. There was nothing else; nothing like the lure Jack had carved only the year before.
What else could he use? What else would coax his son to the surface, cross through the icy threshold back into this world?
The answer was simple, really. Obvious. He twitched the jig up and down, up and down, trying to entice that which he knew deep in his soul resided below the frozen surface.
Something tugged hard at the line, almost ripping the pole from his hands. He fell forward hard onto his knees as the tip of the rod arched dangerously, it’s tip smacking the water. He hoped the line would hold, hoped the rod wouldn’t snap.
The bait was working. Whatever had grabbed it pulled it frantically deeper. Paul strained at the rod, staring wide-eyed at the unblinking hole. Why was the line playing out so fast? He didn’t want that, didn’t want the bait to be taken like a token to whatever lair existed below. The bait was meant to be an enticement. A lure to this world above.
“Don’t be so greedy,” Paul whispered hoarsely, struggling not to let the rod jump from his hands. He wedged the handle between his arm and chest so that he could free one hand to grab the bait bucket. He knocked off the lid, the smell of the bait bringing fresh tears to his eyes. He reached into the warm, steaming contents and grabbed a handful of the bloody mixture. He dropped it into the hole, grabbed another handful and dropped that in, too.
“Come on. There’s more where that came from. Come on.”
The rictus of the hole turned a bright red where the chum touched. Chunks of bait floated in the small circle of water, some of it sinking, some of it clinging to the edges. The spin of Paul’s reel slowed. It stopped. There was hesitation below.
Paul ignored the stinging sensation of the chum freezing on his bare hand. He cranked the reel. There was a bit of give. He slowly took in the line. Grabbed another handful of bait and tossed it into the hole.
“That’s right,” he whispered, his hand moving faster now on the reel. “That’s right.”
It was a mad elation, an excitement filled with terror and love, his mind racing as fast as his hand. What would come of this reunion? What secrets of that strange other world would be shared? There was so much Paul wanted to tell his son, so much to catch up on, yet Paul knew that perhaps his son wouldn’t be the same, the Jack he knew already gone, this thing on his line only the husk of a long drowned boy inhabited by tiny worms and instincts both primal and fierce. But he kept reeling in the line, all these emotions incendiary in his mind, all these thoughts overridden by the need, the complete and relentless need, to see his son one more time. How dare he be taken from him without any warning. How dare he disappear from the face of the earth without a chance for Paul to experience one last smile, one last laugh, one last squeeze on the shoulder. How dare—
He could feel him rising to the surface, could feel the heavy bloated weight nearing the lips of the hole.
The reel suddenly jammed. He tried to force it, and the handle snapped off. Paul’s eyes fixed on the hole, the wind outside howling over the thin wooden walls of the shanty.
“Jack!” he cried.
He was so close, yet the water was too dark, the chum on the surface clouding it even further. He grabbed his flashlight, a sturdy black metal one, and flicked it on. He pointed its harsh beam at the hole, threw the rod to the side and lay flat on his stomach, his face hovering over the water.
“Jack!” he called, the flashlight merely bouncing off the surface. He thrust his arm in the water, the wetness biting through his flannel shirtsleeve and into his arm. The flashlight beneath the water caused a red glow through the surface chum. He tried to scoop it away, but most of it slid back through his fingers.
There was something there all right, something so close. Even though his hand felt like it was being jabbed with a thousand tiny shards of glass, the water so cold it burned, he felt something brush against his fingers, something large and solid. He yanked his hand out to free it of the flashlight. It lay precariously close to the edge, shining sharply into Paul’s eyes. But none of that mattered. He thrust his hand back into the chill of the lake, reaching blindly, his face pressed onto the ice, his arm in the water up past his elbow. When he felt a hand clamp around his forearm beneath the layer of ice, he knew it was his son. He knew it was Jack.
He pulled with all his strength. The fingers of his dead son were even colder than the water that cradled him, so cold, Paul felt as if all the bones in his arm had turned to ice. Jack’s fingers erupted from the water, slender bone poking through loose milky flesh. Paul pulled until most of Jack’s arm had emerged. He reached frantically behind him for the ice chisel. He needed to widen the hole. There was no way Jack could fit through.
“Damn it, hold on,” Paul said.
And then there was Jack’s face, rising an inch above the surface, his lips peeled back and sputtering, gurgling sounds erupting from the back of his throat, the hook that held the bait firmly set in his blackened cheek.
Paul watched, listening, trying to make out the words issuing from the purple swollen tongue and chalky white chunks of remaining teeth. He listened, watched, realized his son wasn’t talking at all, but rather continuing to bite at the chum that clung to the surface in a thick crimson film.
“Look at me.” Paul lost all the feeling in his arm as Jack continued to squeeze. “Open your eyes, boy.”
And Jack did open his eyes, the tattered lids fluttering back to reveal empty sockets. A minnow leapt free from one only to land between Jack’s gnashing teeth.
Despite the horror of it, the knowledge that Jack was no longer the same boy he’d taken fishing a year ago, was in fact a cold rotting thing, Paul said, “Listen Jack. Listen closely. I love you, okay? I love you.”
The words were like a torch set against the wall of ice that had built up around Paul’s own heart over the past year. His free hand brushed across the ice chisel behind him. He grabbed it and began stabbing at the ice around the edge. He would free him. Free Jack. Pull him up out from the cold waters of death and bring him into the world of the living. The ice chips flew.
Wasn’t it worth it? So what if Paul had cheated a little. So what if he tricked Jack to the surface with the only lure he knew would work. That was the sign of a good fisherman. It was the sign of a good father. The one thing that would bring Jack back to him.
And it had worked hadn’t it? Wasn’t it worth it to see him once again, a reunion of father and son where love had coaxed a dead rotting thing from the bottom of a deep, dark lake? A boy’s true love.
The love a boy has for his mother.
The door to Paul’s shanty burst open. Blackie bound in, his loud barks ringing sharp and painful in Paul’s ears. Jack’s hand loosened its grip. Paul tried to grab hold, but the dog jumped between them, lunging for the worm-riddled flesh of Jack’s wrist. The dog missed, kicking the black metal flashlight into the hole. Jack slipped once again beneath the surface, the flashlight caught on the protruding bones of his rib-cage. Paul watched the red glow diminish into the depths, his eyes wide with loss.
He didn’t hear the crunch of Sven Johnson’s cleated boots behind him, Sven’s admonishment of Blackie. Didn’t hear Sven gasp at the stink of the open bucket of bait.
“What the hell is that?” Sven asked.
The red glow of light was barely visible now. Paul reached into the ice hole and touched his fingertips to the water’s bloody surface.
“What’s a wedding ring doing in your bait?” Sven asked.
The retreat of the flashlight’s glow stopped, barely visible, a beacon to the bottom of Shady Lake. Paul looked at it with longing. He imagined himself going in after it, now his son the fisherman, the flashlight his lure.
There was no way he could fit through the hole. He’d have to wait.
He finally noticed Sven behind him, heard him puking on the ice.
He’d have to wait until March, April at the latest, until the ice had grown thin and rotten. Wait until there was no one around, no one to drag him kicking and screaming from the pull of the lake, the pull of his son.
Paul stood up, the bucket that contained what was left of Peggy still steaming. He picked up the ice chisel. Turned to Sven as Blackie barked at him, the choppy breath of the dog rising in small bursts through the twelve inch hole in the roof.
He could wait. He could wait.
He lifted the ice chisel in the air. Brought it down hard. Again and again. Until there was only the barking of the dog.
And soon after that, only the sound of Paul’s labored breathing and the sound of blood dripping over the hole’s edge into chilled water.
Some Things Don’t Wash Off
I’ve seen a lot of things here. A lot of things you don’t necessarily see anywhere else.
Name’s Nate. I run the tattoo parlor here at the Slaughterville Roadhouse. Been doing tattoos for well onto fifteen years now. Started here three years ago when Jim came into my shop in Hayesville and I gave him a tattoo of Crazy Horse across his left shoulder blade. Guess he liked how it turned out, cause he asked me to come work here.
You can pick a design off the wall or bring in your own. Don’t matter to me. I’ve got a good eye and a steady hand. The only rule is, if you’re drunk, come back later when you ain’t drunk. Then we can talk tattoos. Last thing I want is some scrappy bitch come in asking me why the hell I inked the name of her husband’s old girlfriend across the cheek of his ass.
I suppose there’s been a few times I bent the rule. Every now and then a college kid comes in all shit-faced, showing no respect for my parlor, no respect for me, acting all belligerent. So I tell ’em, ’Sure, sit on down here’ and I motion them over to my chair. Maybe I misspell their name. Maybe my needles slip.
But that’s few and far between.
Mostly I’ve gotten a lot of compliments, a lot of referrals. Like I said, I’ve got a good eye and a steady hand. I’ve got a good reputation.
But it wasn’t too long ago that my reputation had me on the verge of seeking another line of work.
I was already packing my needles away when I heard his hard black boots stomping slowly, deliberately on the wooden floor.
I didn’t even look up. “Closed,” I said.
I heard him stop, felt his shadow on me. Felt his eyes on me.
“You’re a black man.” He had a German accent.
“I guess you win the prize.” I still didn’t look up. “Black as they come.”
The floor creaked with his weight. “I hear you’re good.”
“I do alright by the folks here.”
Finally I looked at him. Bald, thin, muscular and his body covered with tattoos. I mean everywhere. On his face. His ears. All up and down the front of his back. He wore jeans and suspenders. No shirt. Just suspenders.
I caught myself staring at his teeth.
“Scrimshaw,” he said, widening his smile to expose more detail. “An art practiced for centuries by sailors.”
Each tooth was etched with a picture of a man hanging from a tree. The etchings disappeared into his throat.
“I’m familiar with the term,” I said. “Never seen it on human teeth, though.”
He circled the room, his hands behind his back as he examined my Polaroids of past customers. There was a large SS tattooed on his back over a red and black swastika. He flexed his shoulders.
“Any part of you not tattooed?”
He paused. Turned to look at me as if he’d been waiting for me to ask. “Why, yes.” He nodded. Turned his attention back to the walls. Hands behind his back. An eagle covered his chest. Its talons clutched an iron cross. He continued to circle the room.
I knew Jim was out at the bar, a quick shout away. I also had a hunting knife strapped to my calf. But I’ve never been one to start trouble.
“I’m getting ready to call it a night here. Why don’t you come on back tomorrow.”
He pulled a wad of cash from his jeans. Peeled off three one hundred dollar bills.
“It’s late,” I said.
On his right bicep was a tattoo of Adolph Hitler. On his other arm was a figure in a white sheet illuminated by a burning cross.
“Do you want me to call Jim in here to show you the door?”
It’s usually a reaction they’re after. An excuse to blow up in your face with verbal or physical violence.
“I’m going to count to two,” I said. “And then I’m gonna call on Jim.”
He held up his hands. One hand said NIGGER in flaming letters. The other said DIE JEW. “I’ll be back later. When you’re not so — “ He sighed. Then smiled. “ — tired.” He nodded. Turned swiftly on his hard leather boots, so shiny they reflected the room like a collage of photo negatives.
As he left, I saw another image on his back just below the left hook of the swastika. An image of Martin Luther King, a bullet slamming into his chest, blood spurting out and dripping from his outstretched hands, his face. The phrase ‘DIE NIGGERS’ was scrawled below it.
You might wonder why I said nothing about his tattoos. Why I didn’t tell him they were offensive, why they caused my fists to clench and my jaw to tighten. Why, you might ask, didn’t I tell him to get the fuck out of my place and stick his white dick up his daddy’s Aryan ass.
I could tell you that I believe it’s best to turn the other cheek, best to let him waste away in his own ignorance. That God’s glory shines upon me and the pits of hell await his kind. I could tell you that, but I’d be lying.
Truth is I was just tired. And I wanted him to go away and leave me alone. Simple as that.
There are anomalies in this world and always will be.
Simple as that, too.
I thought of staying home the next day.
While I lay in bed that night, I told Rhona about him. Told her I felt like taking a day or two off. “I don’t need that shit,” I said.
She kissed me on the bridge of my nose. Her breath smelled like white Zinfandel. “You think he don’t want exactly that?”
“Don’t care what he wants.”
I rolled away from her. Rolled away from her eyes, the moisture in them shiny and serious. I didn’t want to smell her wine-coated breath, didn’t want to feel the righteousness ooze from every pore of her naked body. I pretended to sleep. A married man gets to be good at pretending sleep after fifteen years.
She rubbed the small of my back. “Baby,” she whispered in the loving way only a wife knows how.
In the morning, I fixed myself a plate of scrambled eggs. I went out back of our small brown house and split wood for the fireplace. I guess that’s when the rage really came out. Started out just hacking at big old logs, splitting ’em half-heartedly, then all of a sudden I couldn’t swing hard or fast enough. And when I was done splitting logs, I kept hacking at the goddamn tree stump where I done the splitting, kept hacking big chunks of it off, splinters of wood flying at my sweaty face, into my tear filled eyes until I heard Rhona screaming at me from the door jamb.
I stopped. Wiped the sweat away. Looked at the work I’d done to the stump and let the axe drop to the ground, the long wooden handle bouncing off my work boots. I walked past her into the house. I couldn’t look at her. Not then. I didn’t like it when she saw me like that. Losing control like that. I didn’t like it.
I showered, changed into clean clothes, and drove to the Slaughterville Roadhouse.
I’d just finished a plate of egg rolls straight out of the bar’s deep fryer when I heard his jackboots echo on the wooden floor. His shadow disappeared into my dark skin as he waited in the doorway.
“Are you awake tonight?” he asked. “Do you have time for a scumbag like me?”
“Just what the hell do you want? Don’t look like you have space for any more tattoos anyway.”
“There’s one space left,” he said. “One place that hasn’t been touched by the needle. One place that is still pure.”
“And you trust a nigger to do it? How you know I ain’t gonna fuck it up?”
He smiled at my sarcasm. Pulled out his wad of cash, peeled off not three, but five hundred dollar bills.
“No,” I said. “Keep it ’til I’m done. Then you can pay me.” It was all I could think of at the moment to keep from plunging my needles into his neck and filling the wounds with ink.
“Fair enough,” he said. He eased himself into the chair. I couldn’t help but stare at his chest, his arms, his neck, images of hate covering every square inch of his body.
“Where do you want it?” I asked. “And what do you want? A couple more swastikas? A pile of burning babies?”
“Please.” He closed his eyes. Reached down to his jeans.
He pulled a switchblade from his pocket.
I froze. My mouth turned dry as ash.
I don’t know why I wasn’t more prepared. I don’t know why I didn’t jump and try to take the knife away.
But I wish I had.
I wish I had.
He pressed a button on the switchblade’s black pearl casing. A mean looking knife sprang out with a click.
“Redeem me,” he whispered.
He could have easily stood from the chair and plunged the thing into me. Could’ve taken his damn time for as frozen with fear as I was.
But he didn’t.
And I swear to God this next part is true. I swear to God on the life of my wife. On the grave of my mother.
“Redeem me,” he said again, his voice pained as if something unseen had its hand around his neck.
He turned the knife’s point to the top of his chest. Stuck his arm straight out, then brought it in quick with enough force to plunge through his sternum.
My legs went numb, my whole body. Why I didn’t fall off my stool, why I didn’t shit myself, I’ll never know.
He opened his eyes. That’s something I won’t ever forget, something I see every time I try to sleep.
I realized at that instant that even his eyes were tattooed. What I thought had been blood vessels were tiny robed figures bowing toward his pupils. I wanted to look closer at his eyes, try to see inside his pupils, because I knew, I knew deep down in my soul that the tattoos continued on inside his eyeballs.
But my own eyes were drawn away. Drawn to the knife that sliced an uneven line down to his own belly. He set the knife down, breathing heavily. With long sharp fingernails (and my God, I swear, even those were etched with figures) he pulled back the skin on either side of the long jagged cut. I saw his ribs. Saw the intricate black etchings that covered them.
“Scrimshaw,” I whispered, was all I could think of to whisper like some idiot child.
Each row of ribs depicted scenes from Hell. The bottom rows held creatures both human and non thrashing about and copulating in a sea of fire, and each row above that another scene, scenes of torture, mutilation, death, the figures gradually rising upward, reaching toward the sky, toward Heaven, their faces scratched with agony.
No. That’s not right.
They weren’t reaching toward Heaven.
They were reaching toward his heart.
It beat fiercely. The only organ, the only thing of this man’s body left unadorned by the mark of a needle.
He pulled out one rib, then two, the crack of each making me jump. I watched his heart beat, watched it force blood through his arteries, watched the blood flow in and out, becoming purified in an endless cycle.
Blood spilled from him, soaking his jeans, pooling around his hips and dripping off the blue vinyl chair. His hand shook as he picked up one of the tattoo needles from the tray next to him. Sweat poured down his face.
“What?” I asked. My teeth chattered so much, I could barely speak. “What do you want me to do?”
“Finish it.” His eyes bulged. “You know what to do. Finish it.”
I wondered again what those hooded figures scratched into the sclera of his eyes bowed to, what was it exactly that was tattooed within the soft folds of his brain.
I took the needle from his hand, its buzz drowned out by the sound of my own heart beating in my ears.
I looked at his heart. I slowly reached in. Took hold of it. Felt it warm and pure in the palm of my hand. Never before had I experienced such an intimacy. It pumped hypnotically, forcefully.
I brought the needle to it. Started to draw.
Not a picture. But a word. The same word. Over and over. In large letters. Small letters. Block letters. Cursive letters. Over and over as his heart continued to beat in my hand, the main arteries still attached, strung between my thick fingers.
That was the word I wrote.
Over and over.
Over and over.
The only word pure enough for the sanctity of a heart.
He gasped as I placed it back in his chest. I took the pieces of rib from his hand and stuck them back loosely in place. I folded the flaps of skin back over the bone and noticed how even the insides of his skin were covered with tattoos.
He smiled at me.
Grabbed hold of my hand.
“Danke,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
I left him there to die. To live. I don’t know which.
But I do know that when he finally left my chair it was as a redeemed man.
A pure righteous man.
I still got a good eye, but my hand ain’t so steady anymore.
“Bourbon on the rocks with a twist of lime.”
Dinah’s usual. She let the edges of the ice smooth before taking her first sip.
Control, she thought. That’s the key.
She sat with one elbow on the worn wood of the bar, a Camel in one hand, the glass cool and wet in the other. The band hadn’t arrived yet, their instruments standing mute and waiting on the Slaughterville Roadhouse’s small platform stage. Dinah blew smoke rings that blurred and dissipated into the already thick haze over the bar. She closed her eyes, nodding along with the music.
That’s the great thing about music, she thought. Takes you away on a momentary vacation, turns your mind back in on itself, and for a little while you’ve elapsed back in time and you’re in high school again, drinking beer, smoking pot, not worried about much other than whether or not Dan Griffin, the boy you finally got to go out with you on a date brought condoms along. And if he didn’t, well you’d probably fuck him anyway, cause what the hell, you only live once.
All that brought back by a song, by a smoking guitar riff.
And when the song ended and Dinah opened her eyes, the past disappeared, her age caught up with her like a mean dog, and she waited for the next drink, the next song.
The sound of a pool cue hitting the wall. Dinah flinched. Cigarette ash spilled across her knuckles.
“Bring it on, man. Bring it on.”
She swiveled on her stool to check out the commotion. Troy Hanson circled the pool table, holding the white cue ball in his fist, his arm cocked back ready to throw. Troy was a regular. Always getting in trouble one way or the other as long as his brothers were with him.
But the other man circling the table, the one with the broken pool cue, was someone — had she seen him before? A man with slick black hair and sideburns, a black leather jacket, his worn-brown wallet attached to faded blue jeans by a long chrome chain. Like someone out of a B-grade biker movie.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the stranger said, his voice quiet and hoarse, like faraway radio static.
Troy’s two surly brothers rose from their chairs, ready to step in if necessary.
They continued to circle the pool table. The other patrons backing off, hooting and chanting ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ over The Door’s L.A. Woman screaming from the jukebox.
Troy’s younger brother Dirk yelled, “Kick his ass!”
His older brother, Elvis Jr. shouted, “Don’t be a pussy. Throw it!” He grabbed Troy’s beer and guzzled it while Troy’s eyes were fixed on the stranger’s broken cue.
Then there was the unmistakable kerchunk of Ben Hooper’s twelve gauge, the sound cutting through all the hollering, the music, like an arrow shot through wet toilet paper. Everyone turned to look. Ben pointed the gun at Troy.
“Drop the goddamn ball right now.” Ben had tended bar at the Slaughterville forever. He was often seen carrying two full beer kegs at a time, one on each shoulder.
He turned the gun on the stranger. “Put down your cue.”
He did as he was told.
“Next time I pull out my gun, you can bet I’m gonna start firing until I hit somebody.” Ben set the shotgun behind the bar, his eyes still fixed on the two men. “Now shake hands.”
They shook; Troy with a sneer, looking like he was going to spit, and the stranger with eyes that floated in their sockets, reflecting the bar lights back at Troy in a glare of dead calm. They backed away from each other, Troy sitting down with his brothers, muttering, “Ain’t worth it.”
Dinah could tell he was spooked.
The stranger put his hands in his pockets and turned his back on the brothers. He stepped quietly over to the bar, his chain jingling, and took a seat next to Dinah.
She blew a thick ring of smoke at him. “Have I seen you before?”
The stranger shrugged, then nodded at her half-empty glass. “What are you drinking?”
He jerked his chin at Ben. “Two bourbons.”
When Ben set the drinks down in front of him, the stranger laid a fifty on the bar. “Sorry about the pool cue. Didn’t mean to break it.”
Ben pushed the fifty back at the stranger. “Forget it. First drink, first broken cue is on the house.” He nodded toward the brothers. “Just watch your back when you leave tonight. Ain’t a bigger buncha assholes ever walked this planet.”
“Thanks.” The stranger lifted his glass to Ben in salute.
Dinah did the same. “Thank you, Ben. “ He nodded and turned to pour drinks for a couple of farmers at the other end of the bar. Dinah swiveled toward the stranger. “Ben’s nice enough. Just don’t get on his bad side. Where you from?”
“Out west. Name’s Billy.”
“You ride a bike?”
He looked at his drink. Nodded.
Dinah shoved the remains of her cigarette into the ashtray and pulled out two more. “Aren’t you going to ask me my name?”
Billy produced a match from somewhere below the bar and lit it with the nail of his thumb. He held it to the two cigarettes in Dinah’s glossy red lips. “I figured you’d get around to telling me sooner or later.”
Dinah sucked in. Handed one over to Billy. Winked. “Smoking’s bad for you.”
“Smoking don’t affect me.”
Dinah smiled. Tilted her head back and blew a mist at the idle ceiling fan above. “What brings you here?”
“Just passing through.”
“What about tonight?”
Billy laughed. “You get right to the point, don’t you?”
Dinah shook her head slowly, in rhythm to the jukebox. “I’m no slut. Just being kind to a stranger is all.”
Billy drained the rest of his glass, chewed on a chunk of ice. Turned to the empty stage. His face seemed to flicker through the smoke she blew at him. And when the moving colored lights of the dance floor hit the exposed skin of his neck, it looked for a moment like it was melting, like a piece of film stuck in a movie projector.
Damn, he’s cute, Dinah thought.
He stood from his stool. “I have to go.”
“Hey, wait. I didn’t mean—”
“I know what women like you want.”
Dinah blinked. “And what’s that?”
“You want a knight in shining armor. Someone to walk through that door and sweep you off your feet. A fantasy man. A movie star. But all you ever meet are drunk assholes and losers.”
She stared at him. Her drink was empty and goddamn, did she want another one. Her fingers shook as she tapped the ash off her cigarette.
“I have to go,” Billy said. “It was nice meeting you.”
But he didn’t move.
Dinah finally looked up at him and his eyes made the pit of her stomach ache. His pupils were depthless, black, the irises bright blue, and she could see the surprise in her face reflected in them. A sadness swept over her. She wanted to hug him. Slide her hand up under his leather jacket. Take him to her apartment and tuck him into bed. There was a hollowness deep in his eyes that enveloped her and she wanted to caress it away from him.
“Please,” she whispered, not knowing if she could be heard over the jukebox. “Let me take you home.”
Maybe the hollowness she saw in his eyes was her own hollowness staring back at her, a longing she’d felt for years, dreamed of since she was a teenager. Everything was possible back then, and now — nothing.
That was what she saw in those eyes, reflected back at her a hundred times over, making her want to crumple on the floor in a heap, crumple and let the night pass, wait for the day to come and warm her, wait in a heap of wrinkling skin and graying hair on the chilled dusty wood of the roadhouse floor.
Billy turned from her and walked away. The three brothers shoved their chairs back and followed him out the door.
Part of Dinah suddenly wanted them to beat the shit out of him. Shred him to bits, because he was an impossibility, nothing more than a dream she’d had a million times over. But the bigger part of her wanted to run to him, wrap her arms around him, yell out to him. But she couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Her neck craned back to the bar. She stared at her drink. It glowed golden in the bar’s yellow lights. She lifted it to her lips. Let it fill her throat. Again and again.
“Just one more, Ben,” she said five more times until finally he shook his head gently.
“Come back tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow you can have some more.”
The next night was another slow middle of the week night. A couple pool games going on. The house band playing to an empty dance floor. Spaces left up at the bar. Dinah sat in her usual spot.
“Have you seen him?” she asked Ben.
“Who’s that, sweetheart?”
“That biker. Billy. That bad-ass biker.”
Ben shook his head. “Nope. But the Hanson brothers were here earlier. Looked like they’d seen better days.”
“Think they hurt him?”
Ben shrugged. Poured her another drink.
The cigarette smoke, the odor of beer and whiskey hung in a stubborn cloud around her head. Had he taken off already? Was he holed up in a ditch somewhere, bleeding to death? Everyone knew the Hansons never played fair.
Why should I care, she thought. He’s nothing. A phantom.
Something she could never have, save for maybe just a taste, brief as a Sunday matinee.
She looked at her watch. “Shoot,” she said. Almost closing time. She turned to Ben. “One for the road? No ice this time?”
“I don’t know about you, Dinah.” But he poured her half a glass. Knocked on the bar with his thick knuckles. “On the house.”
She closed her eyes and let it slide down her throat all at once. She shivered at the burn that erupted in her gut and flowed to the ends of her limbs. Shook her head. Rose carefully from the stool and gathered her purse, her jacket, her cigarettes.
Ben nodded. “You take it easy.”
Billy waited for her out in the gravel of the parking lot, a silhouette with eyes reflecting the flickering neon of the Slaughterville Roadhouse sign. He stamped his cigarette out on the ground, the sparks not wanting to go out just yet, and with a tilt of his chin, motioned her onto his bike, a big old Harley — every mother’s nightmare and every kid’s dream.
Dinah got on, wrapped her arms around his belly, waiting for her warmth to heat the leather of his jacket. But it stayed cold. She shivered.
“Loneliness is cold,” Billy said, as he kicked the Harley into life. It roared with a fierceness that vibrated through Dinah’s heart, forcing it to pound and pump blood with the same ferocity as gas through the cycle’s chambers. Billy revved the engine and bolted forward.
Shadows flew by. Dinah leaned to the side to catch the wind in her hair and on her face. The wind never tasted so good. And the sound of that bike, the feel — the vibrations tore through her clothes like a hundred pairs of frantic hands.
He slowed to a stop, Dinah’s arms still wrapped tightly around his chest. She recognized this place. The old Starlite. She looked up at the remnants of the movie screen. Bare branches poked through what was left of it, yellowed panels, the edges splintered, the right corner with a nasty burn mark running down it from a lightning strike. Thistle, poison ivy, oak and birch saplings crumbled the lot’s asphalt in its own glacially determined way. Weeds clutched at the cracked and rusting speaker-posts as if keeping them from sinking into the earth.
“Why do the good things always disappear?” Dinah asked.
Billy took his time answering. “It’s best that way,” he finally said. “Then it can never sour. It stays in your memory and gets sweeter as the years go by.”
“Are you gonna disappear on me?”
Billy said nothing, his face still turned toward the screen.
“Take me with you,” Dinah said. “Take me wherever it is you need to go.”
“I don’t think I can.” Already the moonlight was playing tricks on the back of his pale neck, making it appear to fade in and out. Dinah closed her eyes. Felt the leather jacket crumble in her arms. She stood alone. No bike. No Billy.
She looked up at the tattered movie screen. The moon played tricks on that, too, because it looked like he was there, a flickering silhouette expanding and bleeding off the edges into the tree branches, making them shudder with the heat of the Harley’s engine. Riding off into the sky, clouds forming in the wake of exhaust.
Dinah turned away. Shivered in the cold. Looked at the concrete square that once held a concession stand. Bent over and picked up the jagged remnants of a broken beer bottle. She sat down in a heap, threw off her shawl and rolled up a sleeve.
The best things never last. The best things disappear and become an imprint in the memory. But she would try to find him. She would try.
She looked up at the screen. It was a jewel, a diamond with its spectrum of colors sparkling through the cool night air, filling her eyes, filling her with a longing for another life. A life full of color and excitement, full of rebels, bikers, black leather clad Jesuses who just might set her on the back of their bike and take her away.
Take her away.
From all of this.
She pressed the glass onto her wrist. Closed her eyes. Was this the way to become nothing more than a celluloid dream projected onto the night-time sky?
She gasped. She couldn’t do it.
When she stood, dizziness swept over her. What she wouldn’t give for a good stiff bourbon. No ice. Make it a double.
She looked around the overgrown lot. There was no one there.
No one at all.
She started to walk.
A week later he showed up again. She watched him from her stool. Watched him sway in front of the stage to the rhythm of the house band’s set of 60’s music. Hendrix. The Doors. The Stones. She stood and walked over to him. He was crying. She reached up and wiped a tear away. Put her arms around him. They danced like that. Slowly. Gently. Questions were for later. After the band was finished. After last call was announced. After the bartender rapped his knuckles on the bar.
“Why did you leave me there?” Dinah asked Billy.
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“But you did hurt me. You hurt me by leaving.”
“It would’ve been worse if I stayed.”
Once again, they stood in the lot of the old drive-in. The air was humid and mosquitoes and gnats swarmed in the cone of Billy’s headlight.
“I’m too old for you, aren’t I?”
Billy shook his head and grinned. “Naw, I like older women.”
“You don’t think I’m ugly?”
“You make me shiver inside when I look at you. You make me want to take you in my arms and never let go.”
“Then do it. Take me. Take me wherever it is you have to go.”
“I wish I could.”
“You don’t understand.”
“All I need to understand is that you make me feel special and young and appreciated and wanted. All I need to understand is that you’re what I used to dream about when I was a teenager. You were my dream, a biker just like in those movies. I wanted to ride off across the country. Never worry about this life again.”
Billy looked up at the broken down drive-in movie screen. Dinah looked, too. There was movement on it, tricks of the moon tossing shadows across it.
Billy said, “Out here color fades when night comes. But up there on the screen, color stays sharp and clear.” He motioned for Dinah.
She gave Billy her hand. Let him lead her to the cement footing where the concession stand once stood, the smell of popcorn and hotdogs and teenage lust lingering in her memory. Billy stood with her in front of the blackened fire ring. He took a cigarette from beneath his black leather jacket. Lit it and tossed the match in among the ashes. He took a deep drag. Held it in and brought his lips to hers. Exhaled into her mouth. She sucked it in hungrily, filling her lungs with it, letting it sit there as long as she could before it seeped out through her nostrils.
Billy tossed the burning cigarette into the ashes. Stepped into the fire ring. The ashes swirled around him. They traveled up his body in a small tornado.
Then he was gone.
Dinah peered into the fire ring. Could see nothing but the still burning cigarette. She heard the motorcycle rev from far away — a growl of lust and need.
Ironic, she thought, that the thing she had been longing for, the love she thought she could never have, was centered within a crude circle of ash and blackened beer cans, cigarette butts and fire charred wood.
She stepped inside. A sharp pain shot through her leg. She shut her eyes.
Ash swirled around her, traveling up her hips, her breasts, her head. It shot up her nose, filled her mouth and ears. She felt herself sinking. The cement base had turned into something wet and pulpy. She gagged, trying to spit out the ash. A multitude of hands grabbed at her from below. The ash filled her, the spent cigarettes of a thousand outcasts, loners, the neglected and abused. Her whole body stung and she felt herself melt into unconsciousness.
But all the while, there was that part of her that remained filled with hope and longing. The memory-feel of Billy’s kiss remained on her lips, the smell of him trapped in her clogged nostrils.
When she came to, she found herself looking out over the overgrown lot of the drive-in. No.
That wasn’t right.
Something was different. There were different trees. Sycamores instead of pine and birch. And beyond, she recognized the tufts of cotton plants instead of withered stalks of corn.
She heard the roar of a motorcycle. Her heart filled with joy when she saw him. Riding circles down below. Looking up at her and smiling.
But there was another sound. She thought it was a generator at first. A low hum barely heard over the motorcycle’s engine. It was coming from each side of her, from above and below. She tried to turn her head, but it felt as if it was encased in quicksand. She forced it to turn. Slowly. Painfully. And when she saw them, all the joy leapt from her heart as if forced out by the blast of a shotgun. There were hundreds of them. All of them women. All moaning. All mourning. A collective hum of loss, their faces painted in agony pressed against the remnants of a tattered movie screen, looking out.
Billy revved his engine. Stood up, straddling his bike. Another smile. Another wink and wave.
The groans grew louder.
Billy turned. Rode away into the night, his taillight disappearing.
It was at least an hour before the three teenagers came. She felt all the trapped faces watching apprehensively. The teenagers sat around a fire. Dropped broken up palettes onto it. Smoked cigarettes. Drank beer. Again, Dinah slowly, painfully turned to look at the others. One by one, their mouths opened in screams.
Even before opening her own mouth, Dinah knew that the teenagers below would not hear her.
Soft Notes From a Hard Guitar
John Baxter was a skinny man with hunched shoulders and a large protruding Adam’s apple. A dark purple birthmark stretched across his throat from the tip of his chin to the top of his chest. Random patches of black hair bristled from his forearms like weeds.
But goddamn could he play the guitar.
Up there on the small stage with a row of red lights making his sweat look like blood, he was a temporary god that made people stare at their beer and contemplate their fucked-up lives.
As he neared the end of a love song, the chords creeping like poisonous snakes into the hearts of the bar’s patrons, he looked up and saw her sitting on the edge of the stage. Three hundred fifty odd pounds squeezed into black leather pants and jacket, her hair dyed just as black, staring up at him. She was hard to miss. Her chin quivered with the music.
John caressed the twelve strings of his Gibson hungrily. The woman swooned. John thought she was going to flop over in a faint, but just as her body teetered forward, she forced herself back. Forward and back. Forward and back. Like a life buoy bobbing in the ocean.
He’d never seen her before. The Slaughterville Roadhouse was a place of regulars, the same farmers, bikers, mechanics, and antique-shop owners night after night. It was rare to see a fresh face. Rarer yet to see a woman watching him without staring at his birthmark. Without that look in her eyes of pity or disgust.
He dove straight into a fast, lively instrumental before the last one sunk in too far to ever get out. There was clapping and whistling. Beer bottles and shot glasses clanked on chipped pine tables in rhythm. The large woman on the edge of the stage swayed back and forth. Forward and back. Hypnotic. Her own special rhythm pulling at John, and he caught himself staring at her. Caught himself altering his tempo slightly to match hers. The large woman’s eyes slowly opened and a smile journeyed across her face.
John finished his set a few songs early. Took a sip of tequila from the bottle kept behind his amp to calm his nerves, then moved his equipment aside to make room for the next band.
The bartender handed John a twenty dollar bill, payment for the gig. “Everything okay?”
“Sure. Just got a headache is all.” John felt the woman’s eyes on his back.
The bartender nodded toward her. “You watch out for her. She looks like trouble to me.” He winked.
John grinned. Rapped his knuckles on the bar. “See you tomorrow.”
He followed her out the door, carrying his guitar with one hand, an old leather hat in the other. In the gravel parking lot, she stopped. Turned. John swallowed. Nodded toward his pick-up. She squeezed in without a word.
The life of a musician, John thought.
He’d had groupies before. Lost, wayward women who became a bright shining light for a few brief moments. But they were few and far between. And he learned long ago to grab hold of that brightness when he could.
The truck bounced on the washboard surface of the dirt road, leaving a flurry of dust and dead autumn leaves in its wake.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Chryse,” she said.
John’s eyes darted briefly to her reflection in the rearview mirror. The dashboard lights spun a green aura around her.
“You’re an angel,” John said.
Chryse smiled. “I’m no angel. I like musicians.” She put her hand on his thigh. He flinched. “And I know how to take the pain away.”
John slowed down. Heard a branch scrape across the shell of his truck. He wanted to ask her what pain, but knew it would come out sounding like a kid trying to lie.
Instead, he cleared his throat. Said, “My place is a mess.”
“I don’t mind. Life’s a mess.”
“You like beer?” He pulled to a stop in front of his trailer home.
“I just want to feel you.” She pulled his hand to her mouth and kissed his rough, callused fingers. “I want to know you.” She poked out her tongue and slid it slowly over his strumming thumb. “I want to take the pain away.”
In the darkness of the trailer they undressed. Her hands slid over his chest and she pushed him back onto his bed. She crawled on top of him, her weight pressing him into the mattress. Then he was inside of her, and the bed creaked violently with each sliding, bouncing movement. John felt a warm fire igniting his groin. He watched her flesh turn dark, watched the ceiling spin, heard a loud hum in his ears that sounded like a chorus of cellos all playing a single sustained note. He couldn’t breath.
“Get off me,” he gasped.
Her face turned to the ceiling, her chin wiggling, her stomach like a sea of oil undulating in shadow. John thought for a moment he could see the top of his trailer open up, the light of a thousand stars stabbing his eyes.
* * *
“Ugly fucker! You stupid ugly fucker.”
Tom Pike. It’s always Tom Pike who starts it. Whenever Ms. Darrow steps out for a cigarette. The eyes of the entire class turn on Johnny.
“What kind of monkey did your mother have to fuck to give birth to you?”
He feels himself shrinking behind his desk, wishes he could disappear in a cloud of smoke.
“Ever heard of a shower? Why don’t you wash that ugly stain off?”
And the giggles start. First, the two girls tittering in the front row, then a couple more start in behind them. The sound quickly ripples across the room, turning into a giant wave of pointing and laughter.
Johnny shuts his eyes, trying to retreat into himself, his skin feeling like it wants to turn inside out, his birthmark throbbing and hot.
“Stupid ugly fucker!”
He can’t take it. Jumps from his chair. Slaps the top of his desk so hard his hand feels like it’s full of angry bees.
“Shut up!” he yells. “Shut up you stupid cocksucker!”
And the teacher walks in. Ms. Darrow dressed so nicely in a blouse and black skirt, Johnny’s words hitting her, stopping her cold as if he had just thrown shit across her face.
“Johnny Baxter! Get to the office right NOW!” Her face is bright red. She seethes as Johnny passes her, the class still chuckling as he passes from the room with his head hung low.
He thinks about running away. Why did his mother have to move here?
He thinks about killing him. Killing Tom Pike.
Life would be so much easier without a bastard like him around.
“Stop!” He slapped at her buttocks, gasping for air. With a jerk, he rolled onto his side, forcing her off.
His world came back into focus. She sat on the floor in the corner, her hands covering her face. He heard her crying softly, saw her belly jiggle with each sob. He sat up.
“What the hell was that? What were you trying to do to me?”
She looked up at him through her tears. “I can take the pain away,” she whispered.
John ran his hand through his sweat-slicked hair. “I think you should get out.”
He stood in the corner while she dressed. “I know who you are,” she said gently. “I know what you did.”
“Get out.” John had trouble finding his breath. “Get out now, damn it.”
The next night at the roadhouse, the crowd was smaller. John doubted if he’d clear fifteen bucks. He started to play an old Leadbelly tune, but had to stop halfway through the song when his hand seized up. It stiffened and hurt. Felt like a skewer had been jabbed in his palm.
He grimaced and bit back the pain. Started over, but only got through the first few bars when the pain worsened. “Sorry folks. I’m takin’ a short break. Be back in a moment.”
He set his guitar down and stood from his stool. Pain shot up his spine. He doubled over, coughing.
“You all right?” the bartender asked.
John nodded, hacking up a wad of phlegm into his handkerchief. He walked to the men’s room, feeling his muscles quivering beneath his skin.
He sat in one of the stalls and leaned over, his face hot in his hands. Another coughing fit overcame him, his lungs feeling like they were covered in mud, and this time when he spit, there was a tinge of red to it.
So many ways of paying for your sins, he thought. And when does it end?
Finally he was able to stand again, but he still felt weak and dizzy. He looked at himself in the mirror. Looked at his big ugly stain of a birthmark. Maybe some people are made for paying. Make up for all the ones who never have to pay a goddamn dime. Cause I been paying since the day I was born.
He couldn’t play like this. Not tonight. He shuffled out from the bathroom. Went straight to the bartender.
“Sorry, man, but I feel like shit. I can’t play tonight.”
“I don’t know. Fever I guess.”
The bartender looked him up and down. “Can you make it home okay? Need a shot of whiskey before you go?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Let me know about tomorrow. If you can’t make it, I’ll send Lydia over with some chicken soup.”
“S’alright if I leave my amp here?”
“Course. I’ll stick it in the basement.” The bartender winked at him. “Sucks getting old, don’t it?”
The life of a musician.
When John pulled up to his trailer and yanked the Gibson out of the back of his pick-up, part of him expected to see Chryse waiting for him at the door. But there was no one. He went inside and looked around just to make sure. He sat down on his couch and laid the guitar across his lap, closed his eyes and began to play. At first, he plucked nimbly at the strings, quick staccato notes that disappeared into the trailer’s crevices. Then he strummed the strings with the tips of his fingers, tossing the pick aside. He saw Tom Pike’s face as he improvised, saw Chryse’s face, both of them part of an audience in his mind.
The notes stretched, grew louder as he culled the vibrations of the instrument into a long series of sustains. His emotions were a hurricane in the hollow of the guitar.
As he played, his eyes shut tight, he relived the night he killed Tom Pike, relived the feel, the sickening, satisfying feel of slicing him belly to throat with his father’s fish scaling knife. Relived the warmth of blood on his hands as he strummed chords that weren’t meant to be, chords of disharmony and pain.
The warm feel of blood. A momentary satisfying feeling. An eternal painful feeling, and he could not forget it, could never forget that feel, even though as he cut through Tom Pike’s skin, the revenge was so damn sweet. Because even without him around, life never became any easier.
He opened his eyes. Looked down at his hands as they froze in mid-strum. He’d been playing so hard, his own fingers, fingers that were hard and callused from years of pressing steel string into wooden frets, were bleeding. The strings dripped with it, with his memory, his passion. His blood.
He stood. Held the guitar by the neck. Faced the television. He saw himself reflected on the screen, an obsidian shadow teetering back and forth on scuffed black boots. He raised the guitar. Held it in the air. This was his lifeblood, the thing he earned his meager living with. But wouldn’t it feel good, wouldn’t it feel just goddamn fantastic for one incredible instant—
He swung the guitar, felt it smash into the TV screen. There was an explosion of wood and glass. Smoke poured from the ruined set. John’s irises danced with the image of a small flame forming in the electronic components. The smell of burning plastic made his eyes water, made the snot loosen and drip from his nose. He clenched and unclenched his right hand, trying to hold onto that feeling, that momentary feeling of the guitar exploding into the screen.
There was a knock on his door.
He forgot for a moment that he still held the broken
neck of the guitar in his left hand. He looked at it as if he wasn’t quite sure how it had gotten there. He dropped it onto the floor. Knew who would be there even before opening the door. A tremor ran through his body. A tremor that wouldn’t stop.
“I’m sorry,” Chryse said as she stood on the front step. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“What did you do to me?”
She looked down at her feet. Her face was so pale, so white it almost glowed within the frame of her stark black hair. Her eyes glistened, two bits of shiny hard coal pressed into her face. John reached out and tilted back her head. Looked deep in those glittering eyes. The blood from his fingers smeared across her chin.
“I want you to finish it,” he said.
He stepped aside as she entered his trailer.Followed her into his bedroom.
The room smelled of sweat and mouthwash and cigarettes. John quit smoking over a year ago, but some things never seemed to go away. They undressed in silence.
“Close your eyes,” Chryse whispered. John lay on his back on the bed, his one pillow thin and hard beneath his head. He sensed her standing over him, could smell her skin, the dim light beyond his eyelids blocked by her form. He felt her squatting over his face, could feel the short soft wisps of her tiny black hairs on his forehead. He opened his eyes as she spread herself for him.
And he saw it. It shined inside of her. A swirling bright red river full of clots and pieces of bone. Her ribs glowed through it all like the framework of a cathedral. She squatted closer, squatted onto his eyes. Forms floated inside of her. Forms of men. So many of them.
“We all pay a price,” she said. “Just for being who we are.”
She began to bounce.
“I’ll take the pain away.”
So many of them. All the old blues men, the rock ’n’ rollers, the jazz musicians, all of them dead and gone to the world, all of them overcome by the pain of their world.
And she bounced faster. Harder. The bucking movements, the weight crushed John Baxter’s skull, broke his windpipes, snapped his neck. Yet he was still aware.
John Baxter knew where he was going and where all the others had gone before him.
John Baxter, his music, his soul, his pain, was sucked inside.
“Burn, baby, burn.”
The forest looked surreal. Ann Leroux lit a cigarette and inhaled. “Guess it doesn’t matter too much if I toss my butts wherever I feel like it.” She blew a wavery ring of smoke that dissipated over the slow moving vinyl of the Wakkamungus River.
Patchouli rolled his eyes.
“Just kidding. Geez,” Ann said.
Charred skeletons of pine trees stood black and velvety against the early morning sun. Jagged stumps protruded from a thick layer of ash like rotted teeth. Renegade clusters of cinders floated on the river’s surface. It was only a week ago that the inferno had swept through the area. Small patches on either side of the river continued to smolder on the forest floor. The smell of burnt wood was thick.
Jay set down a cooler full of beer and soda on the river’s edge. “Will you look at that. It’s like we’re on another planet. Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?”
Patchouli shrugged. “I don’t see any signs that say we can’t.”
Kelly Lambert pulled back her auburn hair into a pony tail and secured it with a purple binder. She handed a bottle of sunscreen to Jay. “Rub this on my back?”
He shook the bottle and squirted it directly onto her skin. Kelly flinched.
He wanted to tell Kelly over a month ago that it was over between them, but he couldn’t do it. Whenever he tried, he imagined her breaking down, crying, yelling at him, throwing a fit. Hell, he didn’t know. He just couldn’t bring himself to find out. So instead of saying the things he wanted to say, he swallowed the words and let inane things bubble up from his mouth instead.
But not today. Today he was going to tell her. He couldn’t keep leading her on like this. Especially when she was already talking about things like engagement rings and bridesmaid dresses. He didn’t want to waste his last year of college on a dead-end relationship.
He smeared the lotion on her back and rubbed it half-heartedly into her skin.
“Come on, put a little muscle in it,” Patchouli said. He pushed up his sunglasses and grabbed a beer from one of the coolers. His skin was tan and smooth under a tie-dyed tank top. He helped Ann tether the inner tubes together between gulps of beer.
Damn. It was hard not to look at Ann bent over the tubes in her bright orange bikini. Jay felt his heart pump an extra liter of blood each time he glanced her way.
Kelly jabbed him in the ribs. “Stop drooling.”
Patchouli, you lucky bastard, he thought. Kelly was good looking, too, but it wasn’t all about the looks.
Patchouli held up an inflated pink flamingo about the size of a terrier. “What’s with the kid’s toy?”
“That’s Ju-Ju,” Kelly said. “My good luck charm.”
“What’s it do? Ward off the spirits of good taste?” Patchouli looped the remaining rope around the flamingo’s leg and dropped it in the water where it floated on its side behind the make-shift raft.
They loaded the two extra tubes with the cooler, towels, sunscreen, and Patchouli’s boombox.
“Make sure the box doesn’t get wet,” Patchouli said.
Ann blew him a kiss. “You can get my box wet anytime.”
Patchouli bowed to the others. “You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve got dibs on Ann’s wet box.”
Jay barely heard them. Why did I agree to this? Why is it so hard to tell her no?
“Hey. Earth to Jay.” Patchouli cracked open a beer and handed it to him. “What’s up, bud?”
Jay took the beer. “I don’t know. This place gives me the creeps.”
“I think it’s the coolest,” Ann said. “Now how about we get our asses in the water?”
They drifted with the current, the water murky with sand and grit. But it felt cool and good on their butts and on their dangling feet and hands, while the rest of their bodies soaked up the sun.
They had followed the progress of the fire on the news for weeks as it cut a huge swath through the Calistoga forest. Bright orange flames consumed hundred year old trees in a matter of seconds, jumping from canopy to canopy spurred on by hot winds. Smoke jumpers were called in, the National Guard flew helicopters over the inferno, dumping loads of fire retardant. Fire ditches were dug.
At least a dozen vacation homes were destroyed and one small town had to be evacuated when the flames got too close. But before the fire reached the town, the winds changed direction, there were a few much needed rain showers, and eventually the fire wore itself out. What remained was one hell of a lot of ash, large splotches of it still seething.
Patchouli clapped Jay on the shoulder. “Nature’s way of cleaning up the forest. All that deadfall was like kindling.”
“Okay, nature boy.” Jay turned over on his tube. “Ya goddamn hippie.”
They all laughed.
Eventually they closed their eyes to the world and let themselves be pulled gently along by the river. Patchouli even turned off his boombox.
Okay, fuck, Jay thought. What am I gonna do? One year left of college. Then it’s off to the real world.
Hah, the real world. Doesn’t seem so real now. Who says I have to get a job right away? Why not take a year or two off? Hitch-hike across the US. Backpack across Europe. Things Kelly would never understand.
“Earth to Jay.” Patchouli again. He handed Jay another beer.
Jay cracked it open and glanced at Kelly, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a smile on her face.
Patchouli gave him a wink and turned his face back to the sky. Silence felt right out here. When they spoke, it was like breaking the silence of an empty church.
Kelly sat up, her skin squeaking on the tube’s rubber. She pushed her sunglasses onto her forehead and squinted at the forest. “What was that?”
“What?” Jay followed her gaze.
“I thought I saw someone.”
“I mean it looked like somebody — all covered in soot or something.”
Jay lifted his ass out of the water and scanned the decimated trees. “I don’t see anyone.”
Kelly looked up and down the shoreline. “Huh.”
“Just a shadow,” Jay said.
Kelly’s sunglasses dropped back on her nose and she settled into her tube again. It was hard to tell behind the dark gray lenses what she was thinking.
The sun inched its way up into the sky. It was hot for early September, but there was hardly anyone else out here. In July and August — at least before the fire blew through — the river was packed with tubers. College kids, high-schoolers, parents with children, oldsters — anyone and everyone took advantage of the chance to float leisurely down the cool, clean river on a hot, sunny day. But now it was deserted. The only sound was that of water swirling over the rocks and roots protruding from the muddy banks. It was as if they floated in a bell jar.
The river flowed like blood through snow. Ann slid quietly off her tube, not wanting to break the silence, and swam to the shore. Should’ve just peed in the damn water, she thought.
She slipped on a pair of sandals she carried with her and trudged over the ash. With each step, it rose from the ground and coated the tops of her wet feet. Not a lot of cover here, all the foliage having been burned away, but she squatted behind a charred tree trunk. She leaned forward to see if the rest of the gang was still in view, but they had already floated out of sight.
“Burn, baby, burn.”
She closed her eyes, swatted at the few flies circling her head, and when she opened her eyes again, she realized there was a hand sticking out from behind a blackened tree stump only three yards away. She yelped and fell backward, jumped up and yanked her bikini back up.
“Hey,” she called out, her voice shaky. “Guys?”
She stepped carefully around the huge stump and saw the rest of the man’s body.
His eyes were coated with soot, his nostrils filled with ash.
“Somebody!” She stepped quickly to the bank, and saw that the others were already a good hundred feet away. Their laughter echoed hollowly through the still forest. She cupped her hands over her mouth, took in a deep breath and yelled as loud as she could. “Hey!”
Patchouli’s head turned. He waved. Held up a can of beer.
His voice reached her a second later. “Okay!”
Satisfied he was coming, she stepped back to the dead man. A breeze blew across her shoulders and raised goosebumps. She shivered. Forced herself to look.
What happened to him?
He was dressed in hunting gear, his exposed skin gray, blending in with the ash around him. The nozzle of a rifle stuck out of the ash next to him. Did he get caught in the fire? But she’d seen pictures of burned bodies on CNN and this guy — well, he didn’t look like he’d been burned. Looked more like he was coated with powder.
Ann lifted her sandaled foot. Touched the body lightly with her toe. The man’s skin made a rustling noise as her toe connected. When she took her foot away, he split open like a pricked balloon, his skin falling away on both sides, leaving a pile of loose ash in its wake. Ann jumped back. A scream stuck in her throat like a chunk of ice. The wind blew the ash, and the shape of the man’s body disintegrated.
She stared at where his body had just been. Jesus.
Burn, baby, burn.
“I’ll go see what she wants.” Patchouli rolled off his tube into the river and splashed his way to shore.
Jay’s eyes were closed. Kelly nudged him. “Wake up.”
She didn’t answer for a moment, then said, “I’ve got a surprise.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
Kelly shifted in her tube and wrapped her arms around him. She rested her head on his shoulders. “I’m pregnant.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. His throat grew dry, his skin went numb. He felt like he was shrinking in a vast ocean. Just him, the ocean, a blank white sky.
Ju-Ju, the pink flamingo.
“Jay? I’m not joking. Say something.”
“You didn’t just miss your period again like last time?” The question sounded ridiculous — callous — the moment it left his mouth.
“Nope.” Kelly’s eyes were bright with tears. There was a tremor in her voice. “I took the test last night. Took it again this morning to be sure.”
Jay opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it. What happened to his voice?
“Wow,” he whispered.
“Okay, what is it?” Patchouli hovered over Ann, dripping water.
She hugged her knees close to her chest and studied the river.
Ann looked up. “I don’t know. I thought — I thought I saw something…”
She shivered, then looked back to the river. “I don’t know.”
Patchouli knelt next to her. His knees sank slightly in the warm, soft ash. He put his arm around her shoulders.
She was no longer sure if she did see it. How could she have seen it? It wasn’t possible for a body to just disintegrate like that, was it? Like a balloon stuck with a pin? But she saw it. She did.
“I saw a dead man.”
Patchouli stared at her. “What? You sure?”
Patchouli nodded toward the forest. “Up there?”
He slowly stood, his knees popping, and cautiously walked up the slight incline. “I’m not seeing anything. You’re sure about this?”
She swallowed. “I don’t know. I thought—”
“It wasn’t a fallen log or something like that? I mean it’s pretty creepy here. I’d probably be seeing shit like that, too.”
Ann didn’t answer. Maybe.
She saw the body clearly in her mind. There one moment, then gone.
“I hate to say this,” Patchouli said. “But I think you need a cigarette.” He took hold of her arm and hoisted her up. “Let’s catch up to Jay and Kelly.”
Jay’s mouth hung open. He didn’t even know what to think, let alone say. This was so out of left field. Of course, he knew these things could happen. In the back of his mind, he knew it, but—
Kelly ran her fingers back and forth across Jay’s chest. “I wish you’d say something. Are you going to be okay with this?”
Jay closed his eyes and exhaled in one long, endless breath. Was the river still moving? It felt like he was stuck in a large eddy, turning in slow, endless circles.
“C’mon, Jay. Talk to me.”
He blinked. A smile fluttered across his lips and stuck there. He kissed the top of Kelly’s head. “Wow,” he said. “It’s just so unexpected.”
“But we’ll be okay, won’t we?”
“We’ll be okay.”
It was almost like he could see the last year of college as an object now, and it was in flames, disintegrating into a pile of nothing.
Kelly said, “I thought you’d be more excited.”
“It just needs a little while to sink in.”
Jay nodded. He reached for the cooler and flipped open the lid. He plunged his hand into the cubes of ice and pulled out a beer. He ran the icy aluminum body over his face and neck. He gazed out at the blackened limbs and timber lining the shore. The ground smoldered. Wisps of white smoke bled into the air. He felt Kelly’s lips dance lightly on his neck.
They heard Ann scream.
To catch up to Jay and Kelly and the inner tubes, Patchouli and Ann decided to hike along the shore. The banks on that side of the river had grown steep, and they had to walk inland about five feet to be on navigable terrain.
They spotted Jay and Kelly between the forest’s charred remnants. The ash under their feet fumed.
“Damn, this is getting hot,” Patchouli said. “Like we’re on Daytona Beach in the middle of summer.”
“Yeah, but you don’t get all this beautiful burnt shit at Daytona.”
Patchouli looked back at her and smiled. “That’s my girl.”
The ground between them exploded in a burst of hot cinders.
Jay was off his tube in an instant, swimming toward shore. He called back to Kelly, “Stay with the raft.” As he neared the steep bank, he saw Ann running one direction and Patchouli the other. Between them was something large. Something moving. It was made of—
But that can’t be.
Ann’s feet seemed to stick to the ground with each step, like the earth itself was trying to stop her.
Another mound of ash rose up to her left, exploding from the ground, taking shape. Two arms. Two legs. A torso. A head.
My God, this isn’t happening.
She wanted water. More than anything, she wanted water. Plunge her head in it and suck it down. That, and she wanted to wake up.
But she could tell from the feel of the air on her arms, the way the swirling ash distorted the sun, the way her body perspired that this was real, all too real, and she knew you can’t wake up if you’re not really asleep.
Another one burst from the ground in front of her. She froze. Watched it form. A creature shaped by invisible hands. No eyes, no mouth, no nose. Just the featureless shape of a head on a featureless body. A swirling wall of soot and ash.
It opened its arms. Stepped toward her.
She swung at it. Her arm passed through it. The particles of ash stuck to her skin.
It doesn’t hurt, she thought.
She remembered the man she’d seen. What about him?
I’ve got to get to the river. Which way was it?
More of them emerged.
She was surrounded.
My God, my God, how do you react to something so completely insane…
She knew this couldn’t be happening, but it was. It was.
What are they?
There was only one option. She leaned forward and ran straight into one of them.
It doesn’t hurt, she thought. Maybe -
She spotted Patchouli, only twenty yards away. He was surrounded as well.
She didn’t have a chance to finish his name.
The creature dispersed into a frenzied cloud and burrowed into her mouth and nose.
It coated her eyes. Plugged her ears. All she could hear was the fast rush of blood to her head.
She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t—
Her insides boiled and withered within her. She crumpled to the ground. A hot intense wind lifted her body and slammed it into a pile of smoking timber.
She broke apart and scattered like a dead, brittle leaf.
Jay reached shore.
“Ann!” he called. He cupped his hands over his mouth. “Patchouli!” His voice was lost in the wind. Ash danced in the air. He grabbed hold of some thick roots, which protruded from the steep bank and pulled himself up and over. His feet sank in the soft ash. His eyes teared up as he walked through the particles of airborne soot. He coughed into his fist. “Ann! Patchouli!” What the hell happened to them?
It was Kelly. She’d made the short distance to the river’s edge, dragging the raft of inner tubes behind her.
“Wait there,” Jay said. “You shouldn’t breathe this shit in.”
“I don’t know. This ash is all stirred up. It’s hard to see.”
“Just wait there, okay?”
He spotted Patchouli’s tie-dyed shirt in the distance, surrounded by trees and—
Shapes. Moving shapes.
Mounds of swirling ash jumped from the earth. Patchouli ran toward one, then spun and dodged it. Particles of soot tickled his skin.
Another one leapt from the ground, fuming gray wisps of smoke.
There was another.
Patchouli dug his bare heals into the forest floor. Sweat poured off his bangs.
Okay, think. Think, Mr. Calm-cool-and-collected. Didn’t get that four-point-oh grade average for nothing.
It felt like his heart was going to burst through his chest.
They moved with a fluid grace. Dust, embers, soot, bits of bark and dirt all swept up into their forms as they moved closer, growing. They seemed to have their own internal wind, still-glowing embers hovering within them.
Okay, no time to study them. Maybe I can run through them. What the hell are they? Ash?
More of them exploded from the ground. Patchouli looked for the smallest one. The one closest to him.
He took a deep breath. Held it.
Its eyes glowed like the coals of a campfire, hypnotic and beautiful. The swirling embers that gave it shape fluctuated in elegant, fluid patterns.
More ash drifted up from the ground and joined it, making it grow. Patchouli saw a cluster of cigarette butts whip around inside the thing, making him think of Ann.
Burn, baby, burn.
He needed to breathe. He needed air. Just one more quick breath and I’ll close my eyes and run through the goddamn thing. Just one breath. One tiny breath. One more breath is all—
The entire mass of smoking cinders rushed forward in a hurricane. Patchouli opened his mouth to scream, but the ash filled it and forced the scream back down into his lungs.
He fell over in a bloated heap, all the moisture in him bubbling out through his skin until there was nothing left but a dry, burnt husk.
It felt like the powder under Jay’s feet was becoming — excited. He felt it move between his toes and dance around his ankles.
That can’t be a good thing, he thought. He had to get off this ash and into the water. He turned back toward the river.
Kelly trudged through the ash toward him.
“No!” he shouted. “Stay down by the river!”
But his voice was drowned out by the hot wind. He ran to her, but skidded to a stop when—
One of the creatures rose in front of him.
It was huge. It stepped toward him, its mass towering above him. As he stared at it—
fwoomp fwoomp fwoomp
- he heard more of them shoot up out of the ground.
What the hell—
The mass in front of him undulated like a cobra waiting to strike. Coals, embers, danced within its body, making patterns that held his gaze. For a moment, he thought it was trying to communicate with him. He tried to read into what the movements meant.
His mouth hung open in awe.
The creature hovered just in front of him, moving, swirling, its mass a wall of circling, seething formations.
He felt ash touch his lips, his tongue.
“Goddamn it, Jay — close your mouth. Close your eyes!”
A hand reached through the creature and roughly grabbed his arm.
It was Kelly.
“Shut your damn eyes!”
She pulled him into the creature.
Ashes to ashes to ashes.
A cyclone of hot, tiny pin-pricks stung his chest, his face, his legs. It hurt. It tickled. It burned. It made him want to scream and cry. He didn’t know what would come out of him if he opened his mouth. Maybe he’d start laughing and never be able to stop.
Don’t even think of opening your mouth.
Kelly’s nails dug into his wrist. She jerked him forward. Forward? He couldn’t tell up from down.
Oh God, oh Christ, it fucking burns!
He tripped on something. A branch? A root?
He fell forward into open space, Kelly no longer holding him, and his arms flailed out for something to grab, something to—
He hit the river’s edge with a splash. The pain of sharp rocks bit into his knees, forcing his eyes to open, forcing a scream and a desperate intake of breath.
He could breathe. He’d fallen off the steep river bank.
The chill of shadow grew over him. And then Kelly—
“Get in the water!”
He lunged into the water, ducked under to get all that damn ash off of him. He felt Kelly next to him. When he surfaced, he looked to the shore. The creatures stood together, a wall of soot and ash. They spilled down the bank, then rose up again onto the dry land as if testing the water.
“They’re not coming in,” Kelly said. She grabbed hold of Jay and hugged him. “They’re not coming in!”
The raft of inner tubes still floated against the shore where Kelly had left them. She swam to it and pulled it into the center of the river. “Get on,” she said.
As Jay climbed on, the creatures dissipated into the air in a rush, swept up by some unseen force, creating a blinding cloud. It edged out over the river. Kelly and Jay watched as it floated above them, the cloud swirling and glowing with hot embers. Tiny bits of burnt wood and debris fell on them like pepper from a grinder. More creatures crawled or walked to the shore and were swept up, joining the cloud that now spread from shore to shore.
Jay and Kelly continued to stare as their raft spun in a lazy circle. The cloud glowed. It was beautiful. More debris rained on them. A thick ash fell on Kelly’s eyeball. It stung. She blinked. She tore her gaze away from the cloud, and as she did so, realized it was slowly descending. The bottom of the giant mass was only ten feet above them.
“Jay!” Kelly shouted. “Look at me!”
He kept his gaze skyward. “It’s incredible.”
“Look at me!”
A smile spread across Jay’s face.
He stopped responding to her as the cloud continued to descend.
Kelly jumped off her tube, swam under Jay and flipped him out into the water. The ash cloud closed in on them. Its belly kissed the top of Kelly’s head, swept Jay’s hair up into it.
They looked at each other. How long would it let them breathe?
I want that baby, Jay thought. I want to grow old with Kelly. I want to get married and have a wedding out under a cool blue sky on a field of green grass. Just blue sky and lots of green, green grass. I want to watch our baby grow. I want to grow old. I want—
I want to live—
—his mouth underwater, nose just above the surface, his scalp felt like it was burning—
God, I just want your baby, he thought as he watched Kelly’s desperate, pleading eyes, her nostrils twitching as water splashed up into them.
Her eyes widened. She plunged under water.
She swam beneath the inner tubes, grabbed one of them, her fingers searching along the inside. She found the air nozzle. Pulled it to her lips. Bit into it past the metal pin, bit hard, the pain coming so close to making her suck in a mouthful of water, until she felt the nozzle give and a rush of bubbles tickle her lips, her nose, pouring over her face. She sucked in.
Stale. Rancid. She nearly gagged, but wouldn’t let herself. She forced her eyes open. Could hear the fizz of ash hitting the water’s surface. Her chest felt like it was on fire. She sucked in another mouthful of air. Was there any oxygen inside? But she had to breath it in, had to for as long as she could.
Where are you, Jay?
Jay had plunged into the water, but could see nothing in the murk.
God, I need air.
He couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he couldn’t.
God, he wished he could see his baby.
He heard the light fizz of ash pelt the river’s surface. Maybe it’d be all right. Maybe he could keep his face just above the river. Maybe there’d be enough air for him there.
And maybe the baby would be fine and they’d get married and he’d get a regular job and they’d get a regular house, and that would be okay now, because now he knew, now he knew, that that would be a much better option than this.
He couldn’t stand the pain in his lungs any longer. He had to breathe. He had to stand up. Maybe, maybe, just maybe…
He stood up. Raised his head above the water’s skin. Blinked river away from his eyes. For a moment, he could see. For a moment, he thought whatever had been there before was gone.
But only for a moment.
He heard it, saw it, felt it at the same time.
The water directly around him sizzled.
This is a test. God’s testing me to see if I’m worthy to have this baby.
Kelly reached out for Jay, wanting to touch him, touch something human, something warm and solid. Something…
Keep your mouth on the tube. Keep breathing.
But it tasted so awful, so dirty.
She felt Jay’s shoulder. Felt him tremble. Her eyes stung in the murky water and she could not see him. Couldn’t see anything. She squeezed his shoulder. Felt him shake. Her hand brushed across his neck, up his face.
At her touch, his head split apart.
oh God keep breathing keep breathing
She felt the ashes that filled it flow over her hand, sticky with blood and brain. It swirled around her fingers, lodged itself in her nails. She pushed Jay’s body away, scrambled backwards as best she could, her legs moving painfully slow in the dense water. It was all she could do not to pop up above the surface to scream and scream, all she could do to keep her mouth over the small air hole and keep sucking in that awful, dirty air.
She squeezed her eyes shut tight, waved her hand back and forth in the water’s current, trying to dislodge the bits of Jay that had dissolved in that cloud. She lifted her feet slightly to let the current carry her down-river. It was hard, though, to keep immersed in the water, the tug of the tube trying to lift her up and out.
She stayed under the river’s surface, taking small sips of air from the shrinking tube. There were five more tubes if she needed them. If she could stand it. Five more tubes, and her goddamn pink flamingo.
If the baby was a boy, she’d name it Jay.
She pumped her legs and moved with the current, hoping, hoping.
I’ve been here a few years now. I know people think I’m dumb. I know I’m a little slow at figuring things out, but I get it eventually. And just because my voice is a little syrupy and thick, it doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. Just a little slow on account of being in the war.
The kids here are pretty nice to me. Some of them say, “Hi, Hank,” when they pass me by, and I’ve gotten to where I remember some of their names now. Others make fun of me. I know that, but they’re just kids, junior college kids, and it doesn’t really bother me like it used to. At least it shouldn’t. I know that.
I live close by in a halfway house, but I don’t like it much there. I don’t like the others who live there. There’s one fellow, he’s kind of nice, but the rest of them I’d just as soon do without. So I spend a lot of my time here in the dugout at night. It’s real peaceful and quiet for the most part. I like to sit here and have a smoke or two, drink a soda. They don’t let me have beer no more. Said it messes with the pills they give me, and I don’t want to make any more of a mess than I have to. I like looking across the baseball diamond, watching the sprinklers shine in the moonlight. You can hear crickets singing, too, and I like that.
I like the smell of the place, too. The smell of baseball gloves and cut grass and dirt. I have an aluminum bat I keep with me and sometimes I go out to the batter’s box and take a few swings at the air.
Sometimes, some of the kids will sneak on the field at night to drink beer and smoke weed. Sometimes they’ll make out in the middle of the field or in the bleachers. I don’t pay them much mind, and half the time, they don’t seem to know I’m even there. I’ve scared more than a few kids in the dugout, their pants down around their ankles, humping each other the way kids these days do. I don’t mean to scare them, but I don’t really feel like waiting for them to finish just so I can have a smoke, and all it usually takes is for me to clear my throat, and then they run the hell away like I’m some kind of ghost or something.
Some nights, the boys will come out here and give me a twenty dollar bill for keeping quiet when they have their initiations, but I’d probably keep quiet for just a ten.
The other night they brought out this kid wrapped in a dirty shag carpet. I could hear him trying to scream, but it wasn’t doing him much good. There were about ten of the boys, and they set him on the pitcher’s mound and all took turns throwing baseballs at him. Some of them could throw pretty darn hard, and I even winced at a few of the zingers that hit the carpet. He stopped screaming after a few of those.
After the boys left, I unwrapped him, and he was barely breathing. He looked pretty near like every bone in his body had turned to mush. His skin was all blue and purple and black like an eggplant, the kind some folks put on their salads.
He tried to tell me something, but I didn’t pay him any mind. I could already hear the ambulance coming — the boys are thoughtful that way. So I left him there and gathered up my smokes and soda and walked up to the top of the bleachers and watched the doctors work on him. They didn’t see me up there. They never do.
I know the difference between good and evil, and the world is full of both. It’s like they’re two sides of one of them old fashioned scales, the kind in the movies where they’d weigh the prospector’s gold on. And on one side is good and the other side evil. And they have to stay in balance. If things get too bad, something good is going to happen. And if things get too good, something bad is coming along shortly. These boys, as far as I’m concerned, were just trying to keep the scales balanced.
Like in the war when I was a prisoner for four months and they poked out my left eye and threw it against the bamboo cage and about a hundred rats jumped on it and fought over it. I was weighing down the bad side of the scale so there could be some good done somewhere else, is the way I see it.
A few weeks ago the boys came down and had a new pledge with them and they had him stripped down to his underwear. His hands were tied behind his back, and they laid him out on the pitchers mound. One of the boys sat on his legs so he couldn’t get up, and another boy squatted behind him, holding his mouth open. The other boys took turns peeing in his mouth. I could tell they’d been drinking beer because they came over to where I sat watching, and asked if maybe I felt like taking a leak. I told them no thanks; I’ll just take the twenty.
Sometimes I see them during the day when I’m working and they’re jogging around the track for phys-ed. I see them jogging and sweating just like everybody else, and they won’t look at me or say “Hi, Hank,” they just keep their eyes ahead like I’m invisible, and I don’t pay them any mind. Sometimes I feel like sticking out my foot and tripping them just to get their attention, but then I think why would I want to do that? It would just get me in trouble and their parents would complain and I’d be out of work again, and maybe they wouldn’t even let me stay at the halfway house, they’d put me back in the hospital.
One night though, just last week, they brought out another pledge who I recognized because it was one of the kids who would always smile and say, “Hi, Hank,” to me when he passed on by. Not only that, but he’d sometimes stop and talk to me, ask me how my day was going, how I was getting along in life. A real nice kid.
They had him wrapped in duct tape all the way up to his eyes, and I was wondering how he could even breath, but then I saw they’d poked a hole for one of his nostrils. His eyes looked scared as shit, and they laid him out and started smoking cigarettes, laughing and joking, and this boy all laid out on the pitchers mound looking like a gray piece of wire. Then when their cigarettes were almost sucked down to the butt, they put them out on his forehead and in his scalp, and you could smell the skin burning, but the sound of the sizzle was swallowed up by the crickets. They came over to where I was in the dugout smoking my own cigarettes, drinking my soda, and handed me a twenty-dollar bill.
“I can’t take that,” I said.
“What? Why?” they asked.
“No,” I said. “Not tonight.”
“Are you getting greedy?” one of the boys asked. “You want more money?”
“No,” I said, looking at him with my good eye. “You pay me to keep quiet and I don’t feel like keeping quiet about this one.”
“Are you crazy?” the boy asked. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”
“I don’t know, I just feel like telling someone, is all.”
The boy turned to the others, but they all shrugged. He pulled out a fifty dollar bill. “Take this,” he said. “And shut the hell up.” He tried to grab my hand, but I jerked it away.
“What’s your problem? You want us to send you back to the loony bin? You know we can do it.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to go back there.”
“Then take the goddamn money and shut the hell up.”
“He was just a nice boy is all,” I said. I looked at the twenty-dollar bill in his hand. “No,” I said. “You keep your money.”
“I’m serious,” the boy said. “You say a word about this, and we’ll get you sent right back to the crazy farm.”
I thought about it for a moment. I didn’t want to go back there. No way. But I also couldn’t take the boy’s money for hurting the kid like that, the same kid who always would say “Hi, Hank,” and smile, and ask me how my day had been. Like I was part of his family. I couldn’t take that money.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m not taking the money, but I won’t say anything to anybody.”
The boy looked at me like he didn’t really believe me, but then he nodded. “Have it your way. But remember who we are and what we can do to you.”
I looked away. I didn’t look up until I could hear that they’d left.
I sat back down in the dugout watching the kid lying there on the pitcher’s mound. His body was hitching up and down like he was still having trouble breathing. I could hear the ambulance in the distance, and then the sprinklers went on. The kid squirmed on the mound as the water came down upon him.
Sometimes you have to do your own balancing of the scales. Sometimes you have to adjust a little here, a little there. It’s hard to always know, though, which way the scales are leaning.
I decided to unwrap his face. Let him breath a little easier. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, because the ambulance siren was getting pretty loud by now.
I had to tilt the scales back so they were even. I leaned down, the sprinklers soaking me through, and gently pulled the tape from his mouth. He sucked in a lungful of air. I could see the burn marks on his forehead, the singed strands of hair.
“Thank you,” he said.
“No,” I told him. “Thank you. Thank you for being so good to me.”
I pulled the aluminum bat from behind my back and beat him into the ground, tipping the scales back into balance.
He lives with his son in a cabin next to a cold, rusty river. The rust reminds Tab of blood spilled in the Mekong. His blood. His mother and father’s blood. Caught in a hail of bullets as they swam toward freedom. But that was many years ago, and this rust comes from the taconite processing plant twenty miles upstream.
His cabin has two bedrooms, a small living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a fireplace that pops and hisses during the winter and the cool, spring nights. Tab wishes his wife was still alive. She always talked about living in a home with a fireplace.
The Kraemer River smells like fish and rust and pine. The walleyes and northerns are sparse, and those caught are thrown back in. The DNR says the mercury levels are too high, that eating the fish is dangerous. But sometimes Carl and Tab sit on the bank and throw in their lines and struggle with the slippery fish, reel them in with whoops of joy, admire them briefly, and throw them back in. It’s time like these when Tab feels he’s getting his son back.
Forest. Deer. Moss. Pine. The air tastes sweet and cool. The sun is a mellow orb through the trees, the rays neither harsh nor demanding. The forest can be dark, even when the sun is high in the clear sky, but the pine and birch branches shelter, not menace. A big change from New York City. No gangs. Carl is sixteen now.
“Are you bored here?” Tab asks.
“What about your school friends?”
Life is so much better here. During the year, Carl became involved in basketball, his grades improved. Good people here.
Carl says, “People in school call me a gook.”
Tab’s smile vanishes. “What? Why is this the first time I’m hearing this? Who calls you that?”
“Some of the kids.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, anyway.”
“When did they call you this?”
“A bunch of times.” Carl looks at his father, his eyes steady and cold. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want us to move again.”
“You know why we moved.”
“I liked New York. I had friends there.”
“Thugs and hooligans. We live here now. These are good people. Maybe some are ignorant, but soon they’ll see we’re good people, too.” Tab smiles encouragingly at his son. “We’ll survive here. We will, Carl. We’ll survive.”
An aluminum canoe with fading red paint washes up on shore while Tab and Carl cast their lines to the river’s poisonous fish. There is crude lettering on the bow. FARBANTI. There are dents, too, but they can be pounded out with a rubber mallet.
“Help me push this out into the river,” Tab says.
“Why don’t we keep it?”
“Because. Maybe someone is waiting for it.”
They slide it over the muddy bank into the water where the current takes hold. It straightens like the needle of a compass, and disappears into the evening’s dim light.
New York. As many people as insects. Ceaseless noise.
But this is where Tab married. Where Carl was born. Where Mina died.
One sweltering night, when Carl was only fourteen, there was a knock on the apartment door. Rare to get visitors. Tab opened the door a crack, leaving the chain attached.
Carl. In handcuffs. Smelling of beer. Cigarettes. A cut on his face. An ugly bruise. Suspended between two policemen.
“This your kid?”
Tab unlatched the chain and opened the door wide. “Yes, this is my son.”
“We saw him jump out of a van, throw a punch at a college student. When we intervened, the van took off.”
“Is this true?” Tab asked.
Carl’s jaw was set. He stared at the floor, breathing sharply through his nose.
“He said it was his initiation into the Laughing Tigers. A Vietnamese gang.”
“We’re Cambodian. American, now.”
“Yeah, well. He didn’t give us much trouble, said he lived here. I told him as long as you were home, we’d turn him over to you.” The cop unfastened the handcuffs. Carl hurried past Tab into the apartment. “Keep an eye on him,” the cop said. “I won’t be so nice next time.”
“Yes, sir,” Tab said. “Thank you.”
How do you keep hold of your son, your only son, the only family you have left, when you don’t know what he does during the day? When he doesn’t come home until two in the morning on school nights?
You move. Move someplace safe.
The river. Always moving. Giving and taking with indifference.
The canoe washes up again, its stern caught on the protruding roots of an ash tree. The bow bobs in the flowing river.
Again, Carl asks, “Can we keep it?”
Tab looks up and down the river, wondering where it came from. “If no one else claims it.” He pulls it onto the shore so the tug of current won’t reclaim it. “Go inside and grab some rope. We’ll tie it to this tree for now.”
“Let me take it out on the river,” Carl says. A warped paddle lays across the canoe floor. Carl looks up at his father. “Come with me. It’ll be fun.”
“Neither of us knows how to ride this.”
“I do. It’s easy.”
“I don’t think—”
Carl shoves the canoe into the water and straddles the bow. “Forget it,” he says. “I’ll go myself.” He pushes off from shore, carefully steps across the bottom to the stern, sits, picks up the paddle, and straightens the canoe.
“Be careful,” Tab calls.
Carl and the canoe slip easily around a bend in the river and disappear from view.
Tab fashions a flier on yellow paper and carries it to the roadhouse. There is no community center up here, no coffee shop, no VFW. There is only the roadhouse, and if anything needs to be said or learned, this is the place to go.
Tab sits at the bar. “Anybody missing a canoe?” he asks Jim, the bartender.
“Haven’t heard anything.” Jim pours a cup of coffee for Tab, and slides a container of half-and-half across the bar.
“It washed up at our home the other day.” He shows Jim the flier. “May I put this up?” He staples it to a bulletin board by the door on which other fliers announce items for sale, property for rent, dogs and cats lost and found, rides offered out of town to Duluth and the Twin Cities.
Tab comes back to his cup of coffee. Sips it. Carl has already taken the canoe out on the river each of the last two days, and was gone for hours both times. This is good for a boy his age, isn’t it? Out in the forest, in the branch-filtered sun? Good exercise. Fresh air. Better than sitting in his room all day playing video games and watching television. Why is it, then, that Tab feels the familiar pangs of worry in his heart?
“Something wrong?” Jim asks.
“No.” Tab looks up. “Nothing is wrong.”
But what about drugs? Maybe that would explain Carl’s melancholy. Once, Tab found marijuana in his room in New York. But here? Up here where there is clean air and warm sun and a pleasant river flowing nearby?
No. Not here, Tab decides. Carl’s lonely. He’s a young man. He has no girlfriend. That’s all it is.
Three round, pink scars throb like fluttering moths on Tab’s back and shoulder. Three round, pink scars left by bullets all those years ago while crossing the Mekong River. Maybe someday Tab will tell Carl about them. Maybe someday. But it is too hard to talk about now. Too hard to think about. Maybe someday.
River. Slow and steady. Carl gone all day long. What is downriver that interests a teenage boy so much? When he comes home each evening, he is full of sweat and quiet. Goes straight to his room as if he’s got a secret. Three weeks have passed since the canoe showed up. Every day, Carl has taken it out, letting the current ferry him away, only to come back in the evening, paddling hard.
And last night, Carl didn’t come back until past midnight. Tab drove the Volkswagen down a service road adjacent to the river, shining a flashlight through the trees, looking for the talcum red glow of hull in the cone of light, but saw nothing. He stopped at the roadhouse and asked if anyone had seen him. No one had. When Tab drove back to the cabin, there was Carl in bed, snoring heavily. He would wait until morning to scold him.
But come morning, Carl is gone, the rope that kept the canoe tied to the ash tree frayed and loose, floating in the river like a dead, sun-dried snake.
Tab works a drill in Walt Emory’s machine shop three miles upriver. He’s worked there since arriving; just shy of a year ago, drilling holes in chunks of die-cast metal. But so often as he works, his mind is back there, back on the Mekong, drifting along the current. The sweat on his brow becomes river water splashed up onto him from the force of bullets.
The memories make Tab close his eyes. He tries to force the memories back so they can’t overwhelm him — concentrate — but sometimes they are impossible to ignore.
So long ago.
Bullets. Muddy water. Pain.
In the Mekong, thrown off the raft they had paid river pirates so much to take them on.
Mother screaming. A bullet ripping through her chest, her neck, spraying blood on the boy she carries. Tab grabs the boy, his baby brother, as his mother sinks beneath the murky water. His father is gone, too, the only trace of him a brief patch of rust on the river’s surface. The brother squirms in Tab’s arms, screaming, crying. Bullets slap the water around them. Tab holds his breath. Holds his brother close against his chest. A bullet catches Tab in the back of the shoulder. Another in the back. Another below that. Intense pain, like spears of ice. More bullets zip past his ear, kiss the water like hot drops of rain. He smells cooked flesh — his own — where the bullets entered. Water bites into his eyes.
His brother’s forehead is warm against his chin, his brother’s breath is wet against his neck.
I’m sorry, brother. I’m sorry.
Tab sinks below the surface. Holds his brother with one hand, swims with the other, as brother struggles, tries to break free of Tab’s weakening grip.
Underwater, the bullets sound like grease splattering on a flame. Tab swims deeper. Swims back, to the right, forward, to the right. Impossible to see past the blood rising off his wounds in the dark water. He surfaces. Takes a breath. Plunges back in.
His brother stops squirming.
I am so sorry.
How many times has Tab woken at night, crying, panicking, the memory so fresh and urgent? How many times has he gotten out of bed to check on Carl, to make sure he was okay, make sure he was breathing? How many times?
Night. Dark. The sounds of flowing water and chirruping frogs. Carl snores heavily in his room. Tab rises from bed and creeps barefoot through the cabin out onto the pine needle strewn ground. He feels his way over the short path that leads to the river, finds the rope that holds the canoe, and unties it from the tree. He tosses the loose end into the canoe and pushes until the current grabs hold. Moonlight glimmers on the water, the canoe a black void traveling slowly down the middle.
Tab walks back to the cabin, feeling guilty. Relieved.
But — morning—
Carl is gone. Tab steps into the daylight, his eyes turning to the tree where the canoe was tied, and his muscles tense at the sight of the rope secure around the tree.
How can that be? He didn’t release the canoe from the rope, he released the rope from the tree. And now there it is again, tight around tree. Had he only dreamed it last night? But there on the ground are the impressions of his feet in the soft pine needles.
Did the canoe come back?
And did Carl take the canoe out again?
Tab hurries back inside and goes straight to Carl’s room. He digs through the drawers, rifling through the clothes and books and videotapes. What am I looking for? Drugs? No. Maybe, yes, but…
Nothing. He finds nothing. He opens Carl’s closet. Pushes the clothes aside. Freezes. Scrawled on the back of the closet wall is the word Farbanti. And curled up in the corner of the closet is a heap of black cloth. Tab picks it up and shakes it out. A black, hooded robe. And beneath that lies a bundle of black candles, bound together with the same kind of rope that held (did it really hold?) the canoe in place.
Carl comes home late. He isn’t sweating.
“Where have you been?”
Carl eyes him suspiciously. “What do you mean? I was on the river.”
“Where does the river take you? What do you do on the river all day? Who do you go see?” Tab holds up the robe and candles. “What are these?”
“You went in my closet?”
“Nothing. Just stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Carl’s eyes harden. “You wouldn’t understand.”
And Carl’s neck. A red scratch disappears beneath his shirt…
“Take off your shirt,” Tab says.
Carl takes off his shirt. Tab gasps. His chest is covered with long, deep gouges.
“They’re just scratches.” Carl puts his shirt back on. “It’s nothing.”
“Who’s doing this to you?”
“What friends? Who?”
“I’m going to my room. I want to be alone.”
“No,” Tab says. “What kind of friends do this? What would your mother say?”
“I don’t care what Mom would say. She’s not—”
Tab grabs Carl tightly by the throat.
Carl’s eyes widen. “Stop it. You’re choking me.”
Tab shakes. “Don’t ever talk about your mother like that again.” His anger is intense, but brief. He drops his arm. Swallows. “I’m sorry.”
Carl sucks in his breath, chokes back tears. He turns and flees to his room, slamming the door behind him.
Soon Tab hears the sound of Carl’s television, the volume shaking the small cabin’s walls.
Is it gangs all over again? Even up here? In the north woods?
What can I do? Lock him in his room? Forbid him to go out?
We’ll survive this, Tab thinks, not really believing the words even as he thinks them. We’ll survive.
The roadhouse. Packed. Loud. Full of cigarette smoke. The reek of beer.
“Who’s this?” Tab scribbles Farbanti on a napkin and passes it to Jim.
Jim squints. “Hell if I know. Why?”
Tab looks up at the bartender, the only man in the area with whom he’s ever had a decent conversation. His voice cracks. “I think I’m losing my son. I don’t know what to do.”
“He’s what? Sixteen? You gotta let ’em go sometime.” Jim places a shot glass in front of Tab and fills it to the rim with Jack Daniels. Tab drinks. Sets the glass down. Nods at Jim, his face blank. Jim fills it and says, “It’s a bitch. Don’t I know it.”
Gone. When Tab gets back to the cabin that night, Carl and the canoe are gone. Tab sits at the edge of the river, throwing handfuls of sticks, pine needles and dirt into the water. The moon is a bright pearl through the trees. A female moose splashes clumsily through the water thirty yards upstream.
Tab stands and brushes debris from his pants. When he looks downriver, he sees the black silhouette of a familiar shape. The canoe. Floating upstream against the steady current. Tab squints, shields his eyes from the glare of the moon. The canoe is empty. Tab steps back, away from the shore as the canoe glides to a stop where he’d sat. It rocks gently from side to side as tiny ripples of water slap against its hull.
Is this a trick? Tab looks down the shore as far as he can. Is Carl just out of sight, laughing? But Tab sees no one, hears no movement.
“Carl!” he yells. He cups his hands around his mouth. “Carl!” His voice echoes through the forest, the cry of a wounded bird.
The canoe slowly turns in the water, its bow pointing downriver, yet maintains its place despite the pull of the current.
Tab steps toward the canoe. He cautiously leans over it. There is only the paddle, yet its blade rests in a pool of dark liquid. Blood? It is hard to tell in only the moonlight, but if it’s blood—
“Carl!” Desperate now. “Carl! Please answer!”
He steps warily into the canoe’s stern. It wobbles, but Tab holds out his arms and the canoe steadies. He sits carefully. Picks up the paddle. Holds it close to his face and smells the blade. Is it blood?
The canoe slips slowly from shore and the current grabs hold. Tab sits frozen in place, barely able to breath, remembering the bullets, the blood of his mother and father, remembering the moment his baby brother became still in his arms…
“No!” he cries.
He lifts the paddle. Sticks it hard in the water. If the canoe is to take him somewhere, than he’ll be the one to guide it, to conform it to his own pace.
Sweat. Paddle. Propelling forward through the thin, rusty river.
How much loss can a man take?
He paddles on one side, then the other, determined to find his son.
Sweat. Muscles screaming.
We’ll talk. About where I come from. What he means to me. We’ll talk, father and son, and we’ll fish and canoe together. I won’t be afraid to share my pain with him. He’ll understand. We’ll be friends. We’ll be together. We will survive.
I will not lose you.
A wooden flute. Voices through the trees. Tab feels eyes all around piercing his skin. He sees torch-light in the distance.
Murmuring. Whispers. His paddling has no effect on the canoe. It slows. Drifts.
Altar. On the river. The cold, rusty river.
The canoe turns toward shore.
Chanting. The sound of the flute close by. Figures in black robes appear and pull the canoe onto gravel. The gravel scrapes the aluminum hull like bony fingers.
“Where is my son?” Tab asks, his voice unable to conceal his fear.
Pale arms appear from beneath the black robes and lift him from the canoe. He struggles, but has little strength left. They carry him to an altar made from rough planks of knotted pine and lay him on his back.
“Stop this,” Tab says. “I just want my son.”
They secure his wrists and ankles to the altar with copper wire. Stuff a rag in his mouth.
The chanting intensifies. Tab grows dizzy. This can’t be real.
A figure leans over Tab and pulls back a deep, black hood.
He pulls the rag out of his father’s mouth.
“Carl,” Tab whispers. “You don’t have to do this. Please. I have so much to tell you. So much you need to know.” He’ll tell him of Cambodia, of the Mekong, the family who died there. He’ll show Tab the bullet wounds on his back and shoulder. Then he’ll understand. He’ll see how much his father loves him.
“We can survive this,” Tab whispers. “You and me.” He smiles encouragement at his son. Nods. “We’ll survive.”
Carl blinks. Slowly stands. He pulls the hood back over his head, his face disappearing in shadow.
“I don’t want to survive, Father.” He steps back. “I want to belong.” He lifts an axe high into the air. “I want to belong.”
Rick Lamont looked down the rusty barrel of the shotgun shoved in his mouth. He tried not to gag, but the taste of it, the feel of rust flaking off on his tongue, the scrape of metal between his teeth forced his tongue to jerk the barrel up against the roof of his mouth. His throat spasmed as he took a step backward.
Rough hands grabbed his shoulders from behind. “Stop squirming.”
He fought against the panic. Shifted his jaw back and forth over the gun’s barrel. Let himself choke a bit so that he could concentrate on breathing through his nose. Concentrate on ignoring that awful taste.
He was cold. His shirt was soaked with sweat and the night air was a frozen hand pressing it to his skin.
He didn’t know what time it was. Hell, it was almost closing time when he left the Slaughterville Roadhouse. Almost closing time when he opened his car door and…
And then nothing. And then here he was.
With these two.
He had no idea who they were.
The one in front spoke, the voice harsh and murderous.
“Why’d you fuck her?”
He tried shaking his head, but with the shotgun lodged between his teeth, mashing down his tongue, he could barely do that. His lips closed around the barrel trying to form the word ‘No’ but the only sound that came out was half moan, half wheeze.
“Don’t lie to me.”
The beam of a flashlight struck his eyes. The rough hands of the man behind him moved from his shoulders to his throat, the fingernails digging painfully into his goose-pimpled flesh.
“He’s lying, Silver. He’s lying.” The voice behind him was like a mosquito in his ear, the breath hot and putrid.
The name was familiar.
Tears streamed down the sides of Rick’s nose, falling off his cheeks and collecting on his upper lip, making it that much harder to breath.
He’d heard stories of Silver. Stories that would make even a cop cringe. He’d seen Silver’s aftermath. The bandages, the casts, the thick white scars that ran like snakes down the flesh of those unfortunate enough to cross him.
But what have I done? Fucked who?
He wanted to say You got the wrong guy, wanted to say I don’t know what you’re talking about, but he couldn’t say a goddamn thing. All he could do was fight back the urge to gag and vomit and shake so that he wouldn’t nudge the gun just a little too much and the goddamn fuck on the other end would accidentally slip and blow a hole through the back of his skull.
Tears and sweat stung his eyes. The flashlight beam felt like it was burning holes into his brain.
The worst was knowing that if the trigger was pulled, it wouldn’t even have time to register in his mind. From standing there in terror to nothing. Fucking worm food and nothing more in the blink of an eye.
Silver’s voice penetrated his thoughts like a chisel.
“Why’d you fuck my sister?”
His mind raced. What? His sister? He thought he’d been talking about a girlfriend or wife, but sister?
The gun jerked painfully against his teeth. A molar popped out of its socket and warm salty blood flowed over his tongue. He started to hyperventilate. Shook his head as best he could.
Last thing he remembered before waking up to this was getting out of his car at the parking lot of the Slaughterville, his left foot crunching on gravel, then the lone sodium arc light in the parking lot eclipsed by a huge shape. There was a single sharp blow to his temple and the next thing he knew—
“I think he’s trying to say something,” the one behind him said.
Bruce. That must be Bruce.
“I think he’s trying to say how good her pussy felt.”
The barrel lurched painfully to the back of Rick’s throat, blocking even the air pulled in through his nose. He jerked back, took a breath of air, but was shoved violently forward. The rim of the shotgun broke off his two front teeth. They fell to the back of his throat and rattled with each breath like dice in a wet paper cup. He’d never felt such pain.
Oh God, oh Jesus…
He tried to see into Silver’s eyes, but he only saw two bright glints of moon staring back at him, chips of ice that smoldered in a cold, cold void. And where did the dark side of that moon go? What was on the dark side of Silver’s moon?
He felt the shotgun barrel twist back and forth between his teeth. Heard Silver breathe hard between clenched teeth. Heard the snot escaping Silver’s nose in tiny bubbles.
He forced his eyes to be still, forced his eyebrows up and together in a plea. It was all he had left. The only facial muscles he could send a message with, a message that could only be read as Please don’t kill me.
“What’s that?” Silver asked. “You trying to tell me something?”
Bruce squeezed his shoulders tight. “Trying to say how good she tasted. Trying to say she was the best piece of ass he ever had.”
“You fucked her ass?”
Trembling, jerking his head back and forth, no, no, no…
“You fucked my sister’s ass?”
Oh Jesus, make them stop. Let me wake up. Let this be a dream. A nightmare. Let this end. Now.
“He sure did, bro. He fucked Cassie’s ass real good. She even told me. Said he forced her to do unnatural things. Just like all them others did.”
“He says her ass was the tightest thing he ever put his dick in. Tighter than a rubber hose.”
The grip on his shoulders tightened. The nudge of the gun barrel in his mouth grew violent, breaking another tooth as it slid in and out of his mouth, poking the back of his throat with more force. What if he pushes it all the way through? All the way out the back?
And part of him wished Silver would pull the trigger. Pull the goddamn trigger so that the bullet would rip through his throat and explode into that idiot brother behind him. Rip his face off, and he wouldn’t have to hear another stupid, ignorant word issue from that mouth ever again.
The gun pounded into the back of his throat.
Another tooth. Blood smearing over the barrel, pouring down his chin, the pain so intense it felt like every nerve in his head and neck had been lit on fire.
Then the gun was out of his mouth. Rick spat. Coughed up his teeth and spit them to the ground. He gulped in oxygen, swallowed the air. Such a relief even though it still tasted of rusted metal.
The beam of the flashlight blinked off. There was nothing but blackness and two phantom spots hovering in the air.
“I’m giving you one chance,” Silver said. “Did you fuck my sister?”
He heard crickets. Shut his eyes, but the two phantom spots remained.
“Did you fuck my sister?”
Twelve years ago. Tenth grade. Cassie.
Took his virginity like it was a piece of licorice. Practically attacked him. Making out on the couch in his parent’s basement and then her face was in his lap and all he could see was the top of her head. Wild brown hair. Bits of dandruff. She dug her nails into his hips. Sucked so hard her teeth left tiny bruises on him which he didn’t notice until an hour after she was gone.
He forced his eyes open. That was twelve years ago. Twelve years. They were young. They were kids. He shook his head frantically. No.
“No,” he said, his voice hoarse and weak. “No.”
Silver stepped back.
Rick’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness. He watched Silver’s hulking silhouette turn away, heard the sound of his boots crunching gravel, the jangle of metal on his belt. The click and squeak of a car door opening. Silver clearing his throat. A cap being unscrewed from a bottle, and the glug of whiskey into Silver’s gullet.
Then Bruce. “Save some for me, eh?”
The bottle smashed onto a rock. The car door slammed shut. Boots on gravel and a growl of rage.
The shotgun barrel swung up again and Rick swung his head back and forth, his lips shut tight.
“Hold him,” Silver barked.
Firm hands squeezed his head, kept it still.
No way. No way was he going to open.
Bruce dug his thumbs into the hinges of Rick’s jaw, forcing his mouth open. The barrel plunged painfully inside. The taste of it came back in full force, and the blood of another tooth lost to the force of the old hard metal.
He waited for the blast, waited for his life to blink out in an instant of heat and light. Through his sweat and tears he saw that Silver held something where the flashlight had been. A book. It lay open within the stretch of his long bony fingers.
“March 31st, 1990,” Silver read in the faint glimmer of moonlight. “I let Rick Lamont fuck me.”
“I let him stick his penis in my mouth. I sucked it until he came. And then—”
Silver’s throat hitched. Rick watched as tears filled the man’s eyes.
“—and then I let him fuck me again.”
Cassie kept a diary?
Silver read the last line again, this time the tears audible in his voice.
“I let him fuck me again.” The book snapped shut. “How could you?” Silver asked. “How could you soil my sister like that?”
All Rick could say around the barrel of the gun was “Nnnggg.” He tried to shake his head. His gag reflex kicked in.
It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that at all. She fucked me. She fucked me.
The wind scraped across his face cold as cadaver fingers. His jaw ached from being open so wide and so long. The saliva, the blood, made it hard to breathe.
Each time his throat muscles constricted out of reflex, it pushed the barrel of the gun into the roof of his mouth.
Bruce bit his ear, then raised his head up and sniffed the air. “He fuckin farted! Ha ha haw!”
A sound came from Silver’s throat, a gurgling sound like a boat motor starting in a bay of seaweed. The motor revved into a roar, and Silver pulled the gun all the way out of his mouth, screamed, Silver’s tonsils, tears, and eyes all glistening with the moon, a scream that ripped through the night like a chainsaw through bone, and Silver pumped the shotgun.
And Rick remembered.
Cassie telling him after she swallowed for the second time…
“You can’t tell no one this. You can’t tell no one. You gotta promise me. Especially don’t tell my brothers. You understand me? Especially not my brothers.”
He never did tell them. She told them. Through her diary. Didn’t she know that’s what brothers do? Didn’t she know all brothers look through their sister’s goddamn diaries?
Silver’s scream echoed through the woods. The crickets stopped. The wind surrounded the trio like a lasso.
“Give it to him.” Bruce’s voice was like an ice pick in Rick’s ear, his hot breath like nails piercing his neck.
Rick closed his eyes. Felt Bruce behind him in perfect line with the direction the bullet would take.
Yes, give it to me. Give it to me you dumb ignorant fucks.
He tries getting the words out, the words erupting as grunts around the gun’s barrel.
Give it to me now!
Silver gives it to him. The gun explodes in his mouth. The bullet shreds its way through muscle, bone, skin. And out the back.
Out the back.
Don’t tell no one. Especially my brothers.
Out the back.
The only one who ever swallowed.
Out the back and into nothing. Into blackness. Into air.
And in the split second between the release of the bullet and the onslaught of nothingness, Rick heard one more set of words surrounding the laughter still flowing from Bruce’s mouth.
“That’s one down, Silver. Only twelve more to go.”
Twelve more to go.
All because she swallowed.
All because she swallowed.
He was used to the ribbing he got from Chuck and John about his bow. He was used to being called Papoose and Dances with Drunks and Little Big Gland. Hell, he got to the point where he didn’t feel quite right if they didn’t tease him a little. They had the high-powered rifles, the telescopic sites, the camouflage vests, the duck blind with the beer cooler. But Brent was taught to respect what he was hunting, make it fair, so he always used a bow. His father taught him that, and using a rifle with a telescope didn’t seem as much of a sport as bow hunting.
“That’s why they had their land taken away,” Chuck said, jabbing him in the ribs as they drove to Belly-up Lake. “We had the guns.” Chuck was the largest of the three, his jacket tightly hugging his ample gut.
They had never been to this lake before, but Chuck heard about it from an old guy he sold life insurance to. The old man said it had more ducks than mosquitoes. Enough ducks to stuff a thousand feather beds.
John blew on his duck call, making Brent jump in his seat. “It’s magic,” John said. “I carved this puppy myself, and it’s pure magic. Last time I went out with it, a mallard dove out of the sky and started humping it. I could’ve reached out and broke its neck if I wanted to.”
“You didn’t?” Brent asked.
“Naw,” John said. “Rather see the feathers fly.” The call was on a leather strap around his own long, skinny neck, and he tucked it back in his shirt. His hunting hat was too big on his head, and the earflaps looked like mutant sideburns. Whenever he’d turn his head, the hat refused to follow.
Chuck leaned over the steering wheel, squinting. There was a slight wheeze in his voice. “Where is this place?”
“Look for the sign that says ‘No Trespassing’,” John joked. “Look for the sign that says ‘Explosives Used Here.’ You sure this guy wasn’t pulling your crank?”
“Sounded legit to me.”
“Remember, you were his insurance salesman. Some people think you’re only one baby step above lawyers when it comes to morals. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s waiting there in some tree, nose of his rifle aimed right at your meaty red ass.”
“Fuck you.” Chuck slammed on the brakes, cringing with the effort. “Whoa — here it is.”
They turned down a narrow dirt road, dark with the shade of tall deciduous trees, their leaves the color of rust and orange juice and coffee stains. It was a crisp fifty-two degrees.
“How’s Blackie doing back there?” Chuck asked.
Blackie was Chuck’s black lab. Eight years old and still loved to retrieve game.
John looked over his shoulder into the back of the truck. Blackie sat, tongue hanging out, tail flailing like mad, looking in the rear window of the cab at the three men.
“Your dog’s retarded,” John said.
“Don’t talk about him like that.”
“Okay, he’s mentally challenged. No, seriously, he’s the dumbest thing I’ve seen on four legs.”
“You’re the dumbest thing I’ve seen on two legs. Never had a dog as good as Blackie, so you just watch your mouth.”
“Hey,” Brent said, pointing through the front window. “Look at that.”
Chuck leaned forward. “Aw, sheesh. Wow.”
John, in the back, pressed his head against the glass, trying to look into the sky. “What?”
“A whole shit-load of birds,” Chuck said.
The sky was filled with ducks, flying high over the truck in the opposite direction the trio was headed.
“Stop the truck,” John said, still straining to see.
“We’re not there yet.”
“Come on, let’s get out and start plucking a few out of the sky.”
“There’ll be plenty more where they came from.”
Duck poop splatted on the hood of the truck. Another big glob landed on the window.
“White gold,” John whistled.
The sound of their honking filled the air seductively.
John lifted the duck call to his mouth and gave it a honk.
“Put that away, you moron,” Chuck said. “There’ll be plenty.”
Chuck and John had been hunting together since high school, and Brent turned it into a trio four years ago. Still, he was the new guy. Add that to the fact that he used a homemade bow, and Chuck and John couldn’t help but tease him.
“Hey, Cochise,” Chuck said. “Reach in the glove compartment and pull us each out one of them cigars.”
Actually, Brent was mostly Norwegian; his closely trimmed beard the color of rusting tin. But he had about a toe’s worth of Pembina Sioux in him from some tryst far back in his family tree. “Okay, Kemo Sabe,” Brent said, opening the glove box. They were cheap cigars, the kind that cost less than a dollar each. The kind that reeked and clawed at the throat. But hunting without sucking in at least a couple of them was unthinkable. Brent handed them out.
“And here we are,” Chuck said, slowing to a stop and drumming his fingers on the dashboard.
The road ended, narrowing abruptly into a short walking trail lined by dogwood and gooseberry bushes overseen by aspen and red pine. Blackie jumped out of the pickup, his tail swinging with a mind of its own. The men got out and stretched.
“So where did all the ducks go?” John asked, squinting disappointedly into the sky.
“You scared ’em away with your damn whistle,” Chuck said.
They unloaded their gear from beneath a dark green tarp. Chuck and John put on waders, checked their rifles, and loaded their hunting vests with bullets. Brent strung his bow and gave it a pluck, the sound of the string like a high note on a washtub bass. He kept on the worn out sneakers he came with and slung his father’s old leather quiver over his shoulder.
Chuck nudged John and nodded toward their companion. “He’ll probably bag a few birds just because they feel sorry for the poor son of a bitch.”
Brent laughed. “If they feel sorry for anybody, it’ll be for your wives.”
“Hey!” Chuck said.
They carried their gear down the narrow trail, unlit cigars clenched in their mouths, while the dog raced ahead to the lake.
“Blackie, get back here,” Chuck hollered. “You’ll scare away everything.”
They heard a splash.
“That’s one fine hunting dog,” John said, lighting his cigar. A grimace shimmered across his face, then turned into a smile.
“Blackie, get back here, damn it,” Chuck called.
Blackie swam jerkily among the cattails that lined the edge of the lake. The water surrounding them was covered with green algae, which disappeared about fifteen feet from the shore.
Blackie gave a yelp and turned back, snout pointed in the air. When his feet touched the ground, he leaped up, splashing water, and then took another leap onto the shore. He shook himself frantically and started to whimper.
“What’s the matter with your dog?” John asked.
“Aw, sheesh. He’s just pissed because I switched from canned to dry food.”
Brent leaned over and stroked the dog’s wet chin. “What’s the matter boy? What’s bothering you?”
Blackie licked the back of Brent’s hand, then ran in a circle and stopped at the edge of the lake, giving a quick bark. The dog look backed at Brent.
“Just ignore him,” Chuck said as he helped John set up their blind. “He just wants the attention.”
Brent looked out over the lake. The water was as still as tar. On the other side, which was only fifty yards away, the rocky shore erupted abruptly from the water. The trees shivered like cold old women in the wind. The sky made Brent think of light blue cellophane. He turned his attention to the trees on this side of the lake and spotted a good one to climb and wait in. Everyone settled down, even the dog, and the only sounds for a good while were the sounds of carbon dioxide shishing out of freshly opened beer cans.
Twenty minutes later, Brent’s cigar was near its end, and he mashed the ashes against the tree truck and stuffed the butt in an empty beer can. He allowed himself only one beer on these outings, occasionally a second one when they were finished. He had appointed himself designated driver. If it wasn’t him, it wouldn’t be anybody.
He straddled a big branch about fifteen feet off the ground, his back against the main trunk. So far there had been no ducks since arriving at the lake. But he didn’t mind. He wasn’t here for the ducks.
He breathed in deeply the fresh air and the smell of the fall leaves. Not a better smell in the world, he thought. In the distance, beyond the trees across the lake, the ground sloped upwards a bit, and he could see a large cornfield covered with driven over, withered stalks. The lake in front of him was small, but looked deep, the water in the center black and impenetrable.
Like Sheila’s eyes, Brent thought. It was hard to ever know what she was thinking. They had been married six years, but she was still a mystery in a lot of ways.
When they were first married, he’d go hunting by himself. Not to actually kill anything, but more as a way to get out into the woods, breath in the smells, take in the sight of the fall leaves. Meditate and think. After two years of doing this, he realized it was upsetting Sheila. As if it was his way of saying he wanted to get away from her.
It wasn’t so much that he wanted to get away from her, it was more like he wanted to be alone. He had been alone a long time before he met her, and he still liked the occasional solitude.
He looked down at the duck blind. Could hear laughter coming up softly from below. He didn’t know how they did it, how they could stand each other down there. But they had been doing it forever. And they were a good excuse to get out into the woods. Instead of getting away from Sheila, now he was just going out hunting with some buddies. Buddies who insisted he come along. What was he to do? They insisted, for goodness sake.
Brent thought he heard a plane flying toward them, but quickly realized it was coming from below. It was Blackie. He was growling.
Chuck’s voice came muffled from the duck blind. “Hush, Blackie.”
Brent looked out over the lake, trying to figure out what Blackie was growling at, but the lake was still, and he couldn’t see anything on the other side. But something was definitely bothering the dog. Blackie didn’t get riled too easily.
Chuck and John’s subdued voices rose up to Brent.
“What’s the matter, boy?”
In the distance, the unmistakable sound of a flock of ducks could be heard. Brent spotted them first. Three large V’s.
Blackie growled louder, sounding like a car trying to start on a cold winter morning, then slunk out from behind the blind.
“Hey!” Chuck whispered harshly. “Get back here.”
Blackie trotted to the edge of the lake, sniffing the ground. The ducks were almost overhead.
They’re not going to land now, Brent thought, chuckling. He whistled at the dog, but Blackie ignored him.
John started in on the duck call.
“Might as well forget it,” Chuck said, not bothering to whisper any more.
“Blackie. Hey, Black!” Brent called down from the tree.
Blackie stuck a paw in the algae coated water. Then he leaped in and began swimming toward the other side.
“Stupid dog,” John said. Then he laughed. “What the hell’s gotten into him, Chuck?”
“Hell if I know.” Then Chuck called, “Get back here!”
“Just let him be. He’ll be back soon enough.”
Another V of ducks flew overhead. Brent counted thirty of them.
Another group followed.
Brent watched, scratching his head. He looked down at Blackie.
Blackie swam in circles in the middle of the lake and started barking.
Chuck and John got out from behind their blind. Chuck walked to the edge of the shore.
“Come on, you stupid mutt. Get back here.” He looked up and saw the ducks in the sky, flying low overhead, their squawking echoing and mixing with the barks of the dog.
“Jesus, look at all of them,” John said. He gave two frustrated honks on his duck call. “Blackie, damn it!” Then he said to Chuck, “Looks like you’re buying pizza again.”
Brent watched another V of ducks fly in low overhead. But this time, a couple of birds veered off and flew down over the lake.
Chuck scrambled for his rifle, which he’d left behind the blind. John was about to give another honk on his duck call, but decided against it.
Brent knocked an arrow and sighted one of the ducks.
They dove at the lake and landed on Blackie’s head.
“Hey!” Chuck yelled. “Get off him!”
Two more ducks dropped out of the sky and landed on the other two.
Blackie’s barking stopped as he struggled to stay above water.
Chuck stepped into the lake, aiming his gun at the ducks. But Blackie was thrashing around and there was no getting off a good shot without risking the dog’s life.
John fired his gun in the air, the sound like a slap in the face.
The ducks jumped. Chuck fired and knocked one out of the air, but the other three dropped back on Blackie’s head.
Two more ducks swooped down and landed on the dog.
“Aw, sheesh.” Chuck pumped his shotgun. “Get the hell off him!” He fired into the air. This time the ducks barely flinched. Blackie could no longer be seen among the wings and beaks and feathers.
Two more ducks dove in, their quacks sounding gleeful.
Chuck dropped his shotgun to the ground and walked out into the water.
Brent wiped sweat off his brow. He felt helpless. What could he do? He didn’t trust his aim.
“Stay on the shore. The water’s too cold,” John said.
“I gotta go in,” Chuck said, tossing his vest onto the shore. “They’re killing him.”
Blackie was about thirty feet from the shore.
“Take off your damn vest then.”
Another duck dove from the sky. John fired at this one before it landed and knocked him out of the air.
Two more ducks replaced it.
Chuck belly-flopped into the water. He began to swim through the cattails toward his dog. “Blackie!” he called. “Hold on!”
Once he got into the open water, it was obvious that he was in trouble. Despite taking off his vest, he was still weighed down by too much clothing. It was like wearing an anchor. But Chuck strained and struggled against the suck of lake bottom gravity and managed to keep his head above the surface.
When he was ten feet from the mound of ducks, they gave a communal quack and lifted into the air. Brent let an arrow fly and knocked one down. John blasted another one in two. But that was all.
Blackie had disappeared from the surface. Chuck was working too hard to call out anymore. When he got to the spot his dog had been, he managed a weak, hoarse cry.
Brent watched as Chuck reached into the water and pulled Blackie up next to him.
“Aw, sheesh,” Chuck wheezed. “Aw, God.”
The dog’s eyes had been pecked out. One ear hung by a mere thread of cartilage. Chuck had to let go of him in order to stay afloat.
“Come on back,” John called, waiting at the shore, one hand held out for Chuck, even though he was still twenty-five feet away. Chuck dog-paddled slowly back, spitting the lake water out of his mouth that kept splashing in. “Come on, buddy,” John called. “You can do it.”
Brent dropped his bow and quiver to the ground. He was about to drop out of the tree when something caught his eyes. It was the cornfield he had been looking at earlier. It appeared to waver.
“You can do it,” John called again.
The cornfield seemed to rise up, the stalks lifting into the sky. Brent realized they weren’t corn stalks at all, but more ducks. Hundreds of ducks. Thousands of them. They all rose into the sky as if in answer to some ethereal signal.
Brent dropped quickly out of the tree. He stood next to John.
“You can do it!” he yelled to Chuck. “Come on, man. Keep kicking!”
At twenty feet, Chuck stopped. He stayed in the same place, treading water. “I just have to rest a moment,” he gasped.
“No,” Brent yelled. “You gotta keep moving toward the shore. You don’t have far to go.” He began to look for a long branch, but froze when the sound of quacking thundered out of the sky like the screech of a dozen tires.
Ten ducks swarmed out of the sky and landed on Chuck in a shroud of undulating feathers.
“Christ!” John yelled. He raised his rifle to his shoulder and aimed.
Brent yelled at John, “No!” He ran toward him. “Don’t fire!”
“They’re drowning him.”
Brent began to kick off his sneakers. He’d have to go in.
John fired into the air. The ducks didn’t move.
Brent took off his jacket. Started taking in deep breaths.
John lowered his gun. Aimed at the mass of ducks.
“No!” Brent yelled.
John pulled the trigger. The crack of the rifle could barely be heard above the terrible squawking.
The ducks rose into the air.
A bullet hole appeared where Chuck’s nose used to be. Blood poured out in a fountain just before he was swallowed up in the lake’s blackness. Feathers floated in an expanding circle around the spot.
John lowered his rifle. “What the hell? What the hell was that?” He threw the rifle to the ground as if it had burned him. “Just what the hell was that?”
He stepped to the edge of the pebble-covered shore, the toes of his waders breaking the green slime on the water’s surface. His jaw quivered, his Adam’s apple jumped up and down. He pointed to the center of the lake and looked at Brent. “Did you see that?” he said. “My God, I shot him right in the face. Did you see that?” His eyes darted between the sky and the lake. “What the hell am I gonna tell his wife?”
Brent watched the surface of the lake, part of him expecting Chuck to come sputtering to the surface at any moment. But the lake remained deep, black, and impenetrable. He looked up at the sky. It was clear.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. Chuck was gone.
“What do you mean?” John asked. “Just leave?”
“Do you want to go out there and get him?”
John’s mouth fell open. He looked up at the lake and back at Brent. “But what am I gonna tell his wife,” he asked, shaking his head.
“C’mon. Let’s go. We’ll call the police. Come back for our stuff later.”
“Yeah. Come on.”
John seemed to accept this. He picked up his rifle carefully with the tips of his fingers, as if he were picking up a poisonous snake.
Brent put his shoes back on and grabbed his bow and arrows. He picked up Chuck’s vest and dug out the keys.
“Come on,” he said, putting an arm around John’s shoulders.
“Yeah, Chief. Yeah.”
They walked back over the narrow trail, John with his eyes to the ground in a daze, his mouth open, snot collecting on his upper lip. Brent kept his eyes trained on the sky. It remained clear. Suffocating.
As they got closer to the truck, Brent thought he could hear something. A soothing sound. The sound of vibration.
The sound of warbling.
Hundreds of ducks stood between them and the truck.
John slowly looked up, comprehending. Brent could feel him shaking.
“Just take it easy,” Brent said.
Their feathers and wings were tight against their inert bodies. They looked as motionless as decoys, yet all of their eyes were fixated on the two hunters.
“What do they want?” John asked.
“Hell if I know.”
“Come on, man,” Brent said.
“I’m not moving an inch.”
“We’ll have to get past them, get to the truck.”
“No,” John said. “No way.”
“They’re just ducks, John.”
John shook his head. “Are you nuts? Did you see what they did to Chuck? To the damn dog?”
“They were in water. We’re on land.”
“They got beaks, not teeth. They can peck at us, but that’s not going to kill us.”
The eyes of the ducks remained on them. The sound of the warbling continued hypnotically.
“You go first,” John said.
Brent nodded. “Okay.” They were just ducks, after all.
He walked forward. The ducks calmly parted, quacking lightly as he stepped past them. He kept his eyes trained on the truck, but could feel his ankles and calves brushing against the birds.
The pickup was covered with duck shit. Brent slowly pulled the pickup’s keys from his pocket and slid them into the lock. He turned the key gently and winced at the sound of the lock popping up on the other side of the glass. He pulled up on the handle. Turned around slowly to face John.
“Come on, John,” he said as evenly as possible. “It’s cool.”
John pulled his duck call out from under his shirt. He rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger.
“Come on, John. Let’s go.”
John shook his head. Brought the duck call to his lips.
Brent said calmly, “Hey, don’t do that.”
John said around the call, “It’s magic, man. It’s magic.” He blew on it. Two loud honks.
There was a sudden whirlwind of wings and beaks. Brent covered his face, felt the rush of wings and webbed feet against his body. The quacks were deafening. But they flew away from him. He lowered his arm.
They covered John, beating him with their wings, pummeling him with their beaks. It was a mass of ducks, completely shrouding him.
The mass fell over.
The wings continued to beat, the beaks continued to pummel. Brent opened the pickup’s door and slid in, watching, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
When the ducks flew off of John’s body, John lay still. His face was bruised. It was blue.
The leather strap of his duck call protruded from his mouth. He had swallowed it.
Brent fumbled with the keys in the ignition. He managed to turn them. The truck started with a roar.
The ducks turned toward him.
Brent floored the gas pedal, backing up and turning one hundred and eighty degrees, then shot forward. He made it the short distance to the highway, blindly turning onto it. He heard a screech of tires and the honk of a car horn, but it missed him. He started accelerating.
Ten ducks dropped from the sky like kamikazes and smashed into the windshield. Brent swerved, slamming on the brakes. He turned on the windshield wipers. The wipers couldn’t lift the corpses off the glass. He couldn’t see. He slowed the truck to a crawl. A mist of blood started spraying out of the air vents. Brent closed them and pulled over to the side of the highway and stopped. He stared at the dead ducks on the windshield, the feathers of their smashed, broken bodies.
Brent shook his head.
What would they tell Sheila when they found him?
The ducks on the windshield seemed to stare at him. They seemed to wait. Patient.
Brent closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. He could taste the molecules of duck blood that hung in the atmosphere of the pickup’s cab.
He opened his eyes and opened the door.
What will they tell Sheila, was all he could think. What will they tell her?
He stepped out of the truck. Didn’t look up, instead looked at the gravel at his feet. The ground turned dark. The sound of the warbling was like the cooing of a mother soothing her child. He raised his arms, spreading them out like wings.
What will they tell Sheila? he wondered one last time.
They poured out of the sky.
Some of you might remember my sister, Kelly Holmsted. At fourteen, she made the papers when she pried open an American pearly freshwater mussel from Lake Pepin and pulled out a perfect white sphere nearly the size of a cherry; the largest Mississippi pearl ever found. A dealer offered her five thousand dollars for it, but she refused. He offered seven thousand, and again, she refused.
“Think of the tuition it would cover,” our father said.
“You can save it for your wedding,” Mom said. “Think of the honeymoon you could have. You could fly somewhere.”
I was only eight at the time, and the answer seemed simple. “I’ve got marbles bigger than that,” I said. “Take the money.”
But Kelly wouldn’t part with it. She brushed a lock of light auburn hair from her eyes. “How can I sell something so beautiful? So perfect?”
She kept the pearl secure in a small black velvet pouch attached to a silver necklace Mom had given her for her thirteenth birthday. Although the chain never left her neck, she often lifted the pouch from her deepening cleavage and carefully plucked the pearl from its folds to feel the cool, smooth hardness in the palm of her hand. She’d stare at it, mouth slightly parted, eyes filled with the pearl’s reflection. I’d have to shout to get her attention.
She let me hold it only once, watching my every move, as if I might try to steal it if she so much as blinked. I tossed it in the air just to see how it felt to catch something so valuable.
She nearly choked on her own gasp. “You’re done,” she said and pried the pearl from my sweaty palm.
But as careful as she was, vigilant to a fault, she lost it only five weeks later.
She stood outside the screen door crying, both hands pressed against the wire mesh, her khaki shorts and white blouse muddied and soaked with rain. Several of her fingernails were broken, and her forearms and knees were scraped and bleeding. “It’s gone,” she said through the screen.
Mom hesitated only a moment, looking her daughter over and swallowing back a look of anguish that frightened me. She yanked open the door and took Kelly’s hand. “Oh, honey — what happened?”
My big sister didn’t seem so big anymore as she stepped across the threshold and collapsed into Mom’s arms. Dad and I watched stupidly while she bawled, until Mom finally coaxed her into the bathroom and shut the door. Running bath water muffled any words that were said.
Later, this is what Mom told me;
Kelly dropped the pearl while walking home. A rush of rainwater swept it into the gutter and washed it down a storm-drain. Kelly bloodied her skin by lying on gravel and broken glass trying to reach through the rusty grate for it. And she’s very upset about it, Michael, so don’t you dare bring it up to her. Understand?
I nodded. I’d wanted to ask about the small bruises on Kelly’s neck, but Mom’s eyes insisted that the subject was closed.
And it was.
But that was over thirty years ago.
* * *
It’s early March and I’m ready for winter to be over, especially after the white-knuckle drive to my parents’ new house on Lake Krenshaw. I’m surprised at how big the place is, surprised they could afford a lake home like this, but I guess that’s what you get for being thrifty your whole life. My wife Corinne and daughter Amanda are home with the flu, and a big part of me wishes I stayed with them. But Kelly’s visiting from Nebraska, and it’s rare that I get to see her.
Mom’s got peppermint tea on. Dad and I munch on homemade chocolate chip cookies. Kelly’s husband Bruce stands at the bay window scratching his neck and draining a glass of bourbon.
“Nice view,” he says, staring at the snow swirling in the darkness.
His sarcasm grows more pronounced with each drink that slides past his well-oiled tongue. I’ve only been here thirty minutes, and I’m already sick to death of him. But instead of giving into the urge to tell him to shut the hell up, I ignore him and divert my parents’ attention.
“Am I crazy, or does anyone else recall a junked up Cadillac sitting out on Lake Pepin when I was a kid? Folks took bets on when it would fall through the ice?”
“You’re crazy,” Dad says around a mouthful of cookie.
“I remember that,” says Mom. “You’d buy a ticket and write down the date and time you thought it would fall through the ice. Sure I remember that.”
“You think a car could still drive out there?” Kelly asks.
Bruce grimaces. “Are you nuts? You’d fall through in a second.” He swirls the melting ice in his glass. “I could use another drink, Kel.”
Her shaking is worse than ever. It’s mainly her head, and we’d feared Parkinson’s, but her doctor insists it’s just stress.
She starts to stand, but I wave her down. “I’ll get it.” I pour his drink and set it on the table with a loud thunk.
“Russian Park,” Dad says.
My mind back-pedals. “What?”
“That’s where they put the cars in at. Russian Park. Drained the oil and gas so they wouldn’t leak. Attached a chain to the axle so once they broke through they could winch them back in.”
Cars on the ice. Back to that again.
“They stopped doing it once kids started spray-painting cuss words on the exterior. Ken Olson said they found used condoms in the seats. Remember Ken Olson?” he asks.
Mom nods. Her and Dad’s hair have turned the same shade of silver, and it’s already hard to remember it any other way.
Bruce finishes his drink with a loud slurp and comes back for another.
When I arrived that day, the ice out on Lake Krenshaw looked rippled and distressed. The fishing shanties had been hauled off, except for one that broke through two weeks ago and refroze half in and half out of the lake.
“I bet you could drive out there,” Kelly says. “As cold as it’s been lately.”
“Take the goddamn truck out there and try it, then,” Bruce says. “But when you break through the ice, I’m going after the truck before I try saving your sorry ass.”
“Bruce,” Kelly says. It’s just the one word, but we all catch the inflection she gives it.
Bruce’s eyes harden. He’s a piece of work, all right; a blustering, unkempt, alcohol slurping piece of work. “What?”
Kelly ignores him. The shaking of her head seems like an attempt to hold in her anger.
But Bruce won’t let it go. His lips twitch. “What?”
Kelly nods at his drink. “Take it easy.”
He grunts and pours himself another.
The intensity of Dad’s breathing increases through his nose. Mom searches the cupboard and pulls down a container of Tylenol, pops two in her mouth and follows it with a swig of tea.
“Enough, already,” Kelly says.
All five-foot-three of Kelly stands and grabs the drink from his hand. She dumps the contents into the sink. “Stop embarrassing me.”
Bruce grabs another glass, slams it on the counter and fills it to the top. “Me embarrass you?”
Funny thing is, now I want a stiff drink. I want to numb the shit I’m hearing. I want to make it easier to deal with this stress.
Huh — stress.
Listen, stress is driving behind a semi spewing slush on your windshield. Stress is your baby burning with fever. What makes Kelly’s head shake, doctor, isn’t stress.
“Bruce,” Kelly says.
How many times have I imagined my arm uncoiling like a snake, my fist connecting with the bridge of Bruce’s nose, the feel of his cartilage and bone crumbling beneath my knuckles?
How many times?
But tonight, his hand flies out. Connects with Kelly’s cheek and nose. Makes a sound so awful, the sound of skin hitting skin, and damn it, I could sure use a drink, I could sure use permission to cover my ears, close my eyes and chant “nah nah nah” loud enough to take away that sound, that sickening sound that no one should ever have to hear.
Kelly’s face turns bright red. Blood trickles from her nose. Her eyes grow wide and wet.
The rage, the anger I feel, immobilizes me. I look at my mother. My father. Mom’s frozen, too. Dad says, “Hey,” and starts to stand, but he stops. Frozen. It’s so foreign to us. So unreal. See, this isn’t our world, this isn’t our life.
We sit and watch like deer caught in headlights. Why can’t I speak? Why can’t I do something?
Then Mom, God bless her, rolls her shoulders back, sears Bruce with her eyes, and says, “We do not hit in this house.” In her voice are forty-some years of teaching crowded elementary school classrooms.
Bruce grunts, grabs a pack of Camels off the kitchen counter and walks out the front door into the cold, slamming the door behind him. We let out a collective breath.
Mom wets a washcloth and hands it to Kelly. Dad drops onto the sofa. His eyes find refuge in a basketball game. Kelly wipes the blood off her nose and tears from the corners of her eyes. Mom takes the washcloth from her and rinses it out in the sink. I wonder if Dad sees the game, or does he still see Bruce’s hand striking his daughter?
“C’mon, Kel,” I finally say. “Let’s go watch the snow.”
I take her hand and lead her out to the screened-in porch beneath the deck out back. Wicker furniture stands covered and stacked against the walls. Cold wind blows through the screens and stirs up the smell of freshly stained wood. I feel light-headed and hollow. “How often does he hit you?” I ask.
Her trembling stops for a moment. Her eyes fix on the lake, on the dark pools of water forming on top of the ice. “He’s slapped me a few times,” she says. “When I’ve done something dumb.”
I stare at her. Crumble inside as her head starts shaking again. “God, Kelly. You’re not dumb.”
She wipes at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Gotta be dumb to still be with him, don’t I?”
“You can’t live like this.” The words come out in ragged syllables, and I almost choke on them. “You’ve got to leave him.”
The snow and wind stops as if someone’s flipped a switch and the moon appears as a dirty talc haze behind emaciated clouds.
Kelly’s cheeks are streaked with the trails of hot tears.
“Kelly? Look at me.”
She looks, her lips pressed tightly together, breath forced slowly in and out through her nose. Then she looks out at the lake. I follow her eyes. The ice is covered with dirty slush and deepening pools of black water.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Come stay with us.”
She smiles, her eyes still on the ice, head trembling. Then the smile disappears, and she says quietly, “I don’t think Bruce would handle that very well.” She turns away. “I better go check on him. Make sure he hasn’t passed out in the snow.”
Inside, Mom is sitting with her elbows propped on the dining room table, the backs of her hands supporting her chin. She looks her sixty-four years and then some. Why is it in times of distress that a person’s age really shows? I gently rub her back.
“It’s hard to watch that,” she says.
“I don’t know what to do.” She rubs her forehead with the palm of her hand.
“We’ll think of something,” I say. An empty promise, I know.
Dad’s never been one to hold back tears, whether from a movie or a beautiful song or news of a dying child. Tonight is no different. He dabs at his eyes with the handkerchief he keeps in his pocket. I lean over the back of the couch and hug him. “Love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too, Mike.”
“We’ll think of something,” I say again. He’s worn Old Spice for as long as I can remember, and the familiar smell fills my nostrils as I kiss the top of his head.
“I’ll kill the bastard,” he says.
“We’ll think of something,” I whisper.
I decide to check on Kelly. It’s been fifteen minutes, and she still hasn’t come in. I find her out front, sitting on the bed of her pick-up truck, legs swinging over the edge like a little girl. For a moment, I think she’s shivering from the cold, but the thought, the wish, quickly leaves, and I realize it’s just the shaking. Bruce lies on his side next to Kelly, a thick green blanket covering him. For just a moment, I wonder if she’s killed him, but then I hear a loud, muffled snore.
“Remember that pearl?” Kelly asks without looking up.
The question catches me off guard. “The pearl?”
She watches Bruce, listens to his drunken snoring. “I lied about losing it,” she says. “I never dropped it. It never fell down a sewer drain.”
It’s strange how snow can look like stars drifting down from the heavens, stars you’ve been told your whole life are massive balls of gas and fire. Then they land on your skin, merely pinpricks of cold.
“But Mom said — “
“I know what she said.”
“You came home crying. You were all scraped up.”
Her eyes shine. She rubs her hand over Bruce’s thigh, an act of affection I can’t reconcile. “You remember Carl Johanson?”
At first I don’t, but then I do. He used to carry packs of Juicy Fruit on him, and when he’d come over, he’d always toss me a pack. “Sure.”
“We were making out in the woods behind Jenson’s orchard. You know? But — I didn’t — I didn’t want him to…”
She stops swinging her legs and becomes still.
“Want him to what?” I ask. Then I get it. “Oh.” Then I get it some more. “Oh. Jesus.”
She leans forward and puts her face in her hands. Her body heaves with sobs. It still hurts to hear someone cry. I put my arm around her. “I’m so sorry. Kelly. Jesus.”
“I swallowed it,” she says, her voice cracking.
“The pearl.” She looks up. Her eyes are wet polished agates. “I’d never had something so beautiful, and after he left -- I needed something beautiful inside of me.”
The entire sky falls in growing white flakes. It melts as soon as it touches us and turns our hair to cold wet straw.
“It went down easily,” she says. “I was down on the ground, you know? Rotten apples all around, and sticks poking my arms and knees. I’d never felt so dirty.”
She puts her head on my shoulder. “It went down so easily,” she says again. “I wanted it to stay inside of me, so every few days I swallowed it again.” She looks down at her husband. “He’s never seen it.”
Maybe it’s the darkness, the cold, the hypnotic swirl of snow. Maybe all we need is some light. Some warmth. “Come inside,” I say. “It’s too cold out here.”
“You go ahead. I won’t be long.”
The way she says it…
Bruce is dead to the world, his tender white throat bare to the elements. I watch Kelly, look in her eyes. Try to see past them into the workings of her mind.
She chuckles. “I’m too damn tired to take an axe to the son of a bitch,” she says.
I lean over and hug her tightly. “Okay,” I say.
As I go inside, the snow grows heavy and wet, hesitating toward rain. Dad dozes on the couch with the basketball game droning on. I see a strip of light beneath the bathroom door, and hear the slosh of water; Mom’s only vice — her nightly bath.
I don’t look forward to the drive home. With this weather and the way the roads are, it will take at least an hour. I consider spending the night, but with Corinne and Amanda sick, I should get home and be there for them in the morning. Pretty lousy of me to have left them. I envision Amanda crawling into bed with Corinne, their feverish bodies dampening the sheets, communicating their misery to each other through fits of coughing. But damn it, it’s so rare that I see Kelly anymore.
Of course, I wish Bruce had never laid a hand on Kelly. I wish he’d never insulted her or berated her or ignored all of her birthdays. I wish he’d never met my sister. I wish he’d never been born. But I also wish that Mom and Dad hadn’t seen him hit her. I wish they could remain ignorant of Kelly’s situation and go to sleep believing their children live happy lives. They shouldn’t have to spend their golden years worrying about us. I kiss Dad lightly on the forehead, careful not to wake him, then don my coat and gloves. I decide not to disturb Mom, either. I jot a note saying I’ll call them in the morning. Maybe we can figure out what to do then. I head out into the cold, damp night, looking for Kelly to say goodbye.
As I walk out to the driveway, I notice two things simultaneously.
One, Kelly’s pick-up truck is gone, and two, there’s an envelope tucked beneath one of the windshield wipers of my SUV. When I pull it from beneath the wiper and feel the hard lump between my fingers, my heart lodges in my throat. I take off a glove and pull out a smooth, round bead, something I’ve held only once before.
The largest Mississippi pearl ever found.
I see her jagged handwriting on the back of a gas receipt that flutters from the envelope like a dead leaf to the ground. I pick it up.
For you, it says. I don’t need it anymore. Love you, little bro.
I try to swallow my heart back into place. Tire tracks veer off the driveway and cross the lawn to the back of the house. I don’t think to go inside and wake up Mom and Dad. I don’t think to call 911. I only think to run.
My leather shoes soak through as they splash through the slush of tire tracks. The snow has turned to rain, and the rain feels like cold bullets on the back of my neck. The tracks continue across the back lawn to the lake.
I hear ice pop and groan. Catch a whiff of exhaust. Two bright red eyes in the distance grow slowly smaller. Tail lights. Their glow briefly illuminates the half-sunk shanty less than a hundred yards out. Even at that distance, the crunch of tires on dirty ice is audible over the crackle of icy rain.
I try to scream Kelly’s name, but there’s nothing in me, no air. I struggle to fill my lungs, to suck oxygen from the rain-drenched atmosphere. My throat burns.
If the ice can hold a pick-up truck, it can hold me.
I step out onto the ice. Slip and fall. But I find my voice.
I rise, soaked and freezing, and force myself to run again.
Brake lights glow fiercely as the truck stops. A figure sits up slowly in the truck bed. In the hellish reflection of red light, I recognize Bruce’s sodden shape.
My foot breaks through the ice and the freezing black water feels like sharp fingernails digging into my shin.
I’ve never felt so desperate, so helpless. This can’t be happening. This isn’t real, is it? I have to save her.
I pull my leg from the hole and limp forward.
Bruce falls off the pick-up bed and lays immobile, face up on the ice. I see the back of Kelly’s head silhouetted against the glow of the dashboard. She sits in the driver’s seat completely still. Even her shaking has stopped.
I stumble, slide, lurch and run. The truck is thirty yards away. “Get out,” I yell. The pearl is hard and cold against my thigh, pressing through the wet pocket of my jeans.
Kelly’s head turns slightly.
“Please,” I whimper.
I hear a click. A truck door opening. But it opens only an inch. I hear a loud groan, pitiful, awful, and at first I think it’s Bruce regaining consciousness. Kelly must hear it, too, because the truck door clicks again, and I realize Kelly’s shut herself back in. The groan grows louder, inhuman, and I stop as I realize it’s not coming from Bruce. It’s the ice.
With a sharp crack, the walls of the half-sunk shanty split and collapse. Its mass rises, shifts, then disappears from the surface. Kelly’s eyes shine briefly in the rearview mirror, two glistening pearls infinitely more perfect and pure than the thing in my pocket. She lifts her hand and waves to me, slowly. Then with a dull splintering noise I’ll never forget, a noise I still hear when everything else is silent, the truck jerks forward and down. Bruce rolls in after it and disappears.
I stop running, and when I scream, it doesn’t even sound like me. The blood in my veins feels like slivers of hot glass. I’m frozen in place. I have to help her. I can’t help her. That’s Kelly, that’s my sister. Oh God Kelly what did you do, what were you thinking, why did you drive out onto the ice?
Swim. Kelly, swim. Get out of the truck and swim.
Maybe she’s swimming to the surface. Maybe right now she’s swimming to the surface and she’s going to get out and she’s going to be okay. I can still see the faint glow of tail and brake lights beneath the surface. Maybe she’s—
I hear something, like birch-wood popping in a hot fire. I realize it’s the ice cracking beneath me. The entire surface swells as if the lake is breathing.
I don’t know what to do. What can I do?
Oh God, Kelly.
I find myself slowly backing up.
The taillights fade beneath the heaving ice.
I want to lie down. Curl up in a ball and suck my thumb. I fear my body will never stop trembling. My fingers are raw and stiff. What can I do?
I keep backing up. Why can’t I stop? Why can’t I force myself forward? Why can’t I save my sister? I keep backing up until the ice stops moving, until the black and gray horizon becomes still.
What can I do?
I slide the pearl out from the cold wet folds of my pocket. I kiss it. Hold it up against the hazy glow of an emerging moon. It’s almost a perfect match.
The rain stops. What can I do?
Sometimes we all need something pure and perfect within us.
So this is what I do.
I tilt back my head, open my mouth and let the pearl drop.
I try to hold onto the memory of Kelly’s rare smile and perfect jewel eyes as it slides easily down my throat.
When the Heart Dies
The walls of the dimly lit garage swelled together, and the smell of oil and gas and the hanging buck’s inner smells were too much for Pearce. He opened the garage door to let the cool autumn breeze sweep out the old smells and replace them with the smell of fallen leaves and cold rain. He frowned.
He stood beneath the raised garage door, his thick hands dripping blood, and squinted at the red house across the street. Limp, white snakes of toilet paper hung from two massive oak trees and lay cluttered on the lawn in wet lumps. It dripped from the juniper bushes on either side of the front door. A bloated wad of it bulged from the mailbox.
Damn kids, why pick on an old lady?
Pearce had only seen her the few times she’d dragged her trash bin out to the street. She wore baggy clothes, a brown wig, painted on eyebrows. A little creepy, sure, but still no reason to harass her.
He went inside, stripped down, cleaned himself up. Took a paint-splattered aluminum ladder down from a pair of wooden pegs in the garage and grabbed a handful of trash bags. He crossed the street blinking away the rain and started picking up the soggy bits of tissue. He felt her darting eyes on him, but she never opened her door, never called out a thank you.
That was okay. It just felt good to be out in the rain.
Bob Davidson let Pearce hunt on his property ten miles out of town in exchange for a cooler full of venison. A fair exchange. Davidson was retired. Mrs. Davidson was buried out front under a large oak tree heavy with acorns and excited squirrels. The land was full of trees and creeks and whitetail deer. Good hunting land.
Today, the snow fell in flakes as large as moths, knee deep, and each step a struggle. Pearce trudged through it, only fifty feet from the road, when a semi roared by, flushing out an eight-point buck from a stand of old white pine. He lifted his rifle, aimed and fired, but the buck zigzagged through the snow. Pearce fired again. A piece of hide burst from the buck’s shoulder, but the animal didn’t go down. It leapt and sprinted, leaving a bright red trail of blood in the snow.
Pearce stumbled after it, lifting his knees high in the air. Jesus. Sweat ran down his face and soaked the collar of his coat. The blood trail turned the snow into a pink slush.
Pearce’s temples pounded. His vision blurred. He sucked in lungful of icy air. He wasn’t the man he used to be. Not since Mary died. But he wiped his eyes clear. Sharply breathed the cold air in through his nose.
There. A tan and white mass trembling over the snow.
The buck stood with its head low to the ground, looking at him. White mist poured from its nostrils and rose from the blood that trickled from its wound. Must’ve done a little more than nicked him, Pearce thought. The buck’s front legs buckled, but it remained standing. Pearce raised his rifle. Took a deep breath.
A wrecking ball slammed into his chest.
Pearce dropped to his knees in the deep, wet snow. His gun fell uselessly beside him. Heart attack. I’m having a -
The deer staggered into an island of tamarack and collapsed onto its side.
Pearce clutched at his collar. The pain stretched down his arms and up through his jaw. Rays of November sun bit at his eyes. I’m going to die. He heard the wheezing of the deer, even over the sound of blood pounding in his ears. He heard flakes of snow touch the earth, felt them melt on his skin. He waited for the harsh yellow of the sun to fill him and carry him away. It would be okay. If he could be with Mary again…
He waited. The deer’s wheezing stopped.
He waited. The silence was magical. His breathing slowed. The pain melted away. He blinked. Wiped away the sweat that dripped into his eyes.
Why aren’t I dead?
He struggled to stand. Used his rifle as a crutch and got to his feet. The world teetered, started to turn bright white, but he bit down hard on the tip of his tongue, and the forest became a crystal clear contrast of black tree trunks stitched into a background of thick, white snow.
“You could have died.” Dr. Leroy sat next to Pearce and pushed his glasses up off his nose. “Is bagging a deer worth your life?”
Pearce didn’t answer. How could he explain his reasons for staying with the dead deer, gutting and cleaning it there in the tamarack despite the trip-hammer of his own heart, the flutters of muscle up and down his arm? How could he explain dragging the buck’s remains through the deep snow a half-mile to his truck?
“If you would’ve come in right away, you’d have been right as rain in a few months. But since you waited a week before coming in, your heart is infarcted.” The doctor pronounced the last word with disgust. “You’ve got a dead spot on it the size of a quarter.”
Bigger than that, Pearce thought. Six months pregnant. Mary had been six months pregnant.
The doctor wrote a handful of prescriptions; beta-blockers, ace-inhibitors, cholesterol reducers, Nitroglycerin. Pearce winced at the list.
Dr. Leroy sighed. “You have to take it easy for a while. No hunting, no shoveling. I don’t want you to change a goddamn light bulb unless you have to. You need rest. Okay? Take the meds I’m prescribing. Come back in a week.”
The days passed slowly. Pearce missed the guys at his construction job. They sent him a get-well card, called now and then to shoot the shit. But it wasn’t the same. To be here. Shut in here, an invalid, surrounded by all these memories of her, of Mary. Her essence seeped from the walls, the furniture. It was comforting, but sometimes it was too much.
He wrapped the tanned hide of the deer around him and sat outside on his front step. He’d been ready to die out there in the woods. When he stared into that dying deer’s eyes, he’d wanted to take its place. He pulled the hide tight around his body, held it close to his face and breathed in its musty odor.
A shadow spilled over him. He looked up, embarrassed in his intimacy with the deer hide. A woman hovered over him holding a black plastic bag.
She pointed back at the house across the street. Her mouth was an awkward line, her cheeks puffy and flush. Even before she pointed to the Bolt house, Pearce knew she was related. The same face, the same posture, the same lack of style. A daughter, perhaps?
She mumbled something, her mouth barely moving.
Pearce leaned forward. “Pardon?”
“Ankoo. Ma say ankoo.”
Again, she pointed back to the Bolt house. She reached in the bag and pulled out a blanket. Shook it open. Panels of colorful fabric exploded on Pearce’s lap. A quilt.
No. It was more than a quilt.
Pearce’s pupils dilated at the ménage of threads and fabrics. He’d never seen anything like it. Entire dioramas had been needle-pointed and stitched, so many different materials snipped and shaped and sewn onto it. The detail was amazing. Pearce easily recognized himself in some of the scenes.
Silks, satins, cottons, denim. Pearce became lost in it. Feathers. Dried flowers. Seeds. Bits of bark. What other materials had been used? He saw himself with his rifle, stalking a deer, and goddamn, if it didn’t look like the very deer he now wore — there was even a spot of red on the deer’s upper shoulder where it had been shot, a trail of blood sewn into the goose-down snow.
The woman hovered over him expectantly.
“Oh,” Pearce said. Looking up from the thing felt like being pulled from quicksand. “Thanks. I — this is too much.”
She shook her head. “Ankoo,” she said, pointing at him.
She held out her hand. Pearce shook it, her grip light and clumsy. He watched her leave. When he turned back to the quilt, his heart froze.
Mary sitting at an easel, painting.
Her favorite hobby. Her passion. And here, on a panel in the middle of the quilt, in stunning detail, was Mary. Painting.
Wearing the clothes she wore the day she died.
The day a drunk driver drove into her head-on.
Pearce held the quilt up to his nose and breathed in. Jesus, her smell. The smell that had faded slowly, agonizingly, from her pillow until Pearce thought he would never smell her again, never remember the fragrance of her, but here, now, on this quilt, it was her, her smell, and Jesus, oh Jesus, what is happening to me?
He spent that night wrapped inside of it. Although its surface was decorated with a multitude of textures, the underbelly was a smooth salmon-colored silk. He took in deep breaths of Mary, afraid that the scent would wear off and he’d be left with only the memory once again. He wanted that memory to be strong.
She filled his mind—
—painting in overalls — Osh Kosh B’Gosh — and nothing else. Concentrating on the canvas, the paint, the brush. He’d slide his hand over her shoulder, over her breast, roll her nipple between his thumb and forefinger, and she’d giggle, sweet and girlish, but she wouldn’t stop moving that brush, spreading the paint on the canvas, her eyes as focused as laser beams.
—casting a fly-rod on the Firehole River on that trip to Yellowstone, the grace of her casts something uncatchable on film, because it included everything around her, the air, the current, the sparkle of sun at the point where her fly kissed the river’s surface.
—six months pregnant, making lists of girl names, rubbing her hands lovingly over the swell of her belly, her eyes lighting up like stadium lights when she felt those first kicks — ‘Here, feel.’ She made Pearce listen, put his head on her abdomen, rubbed his hair until he felt it, felt that tiny foot or hand knock him a good one in the cheek. That was all Pearce knew of the daughter that was never born. That was the last time he talked to his wife of eight years, unless you counted later that evening when he identified her body at the morgue. “Yes, that’s Mary,” he whispered to the coroner as he held her lifeless hand.
And this was Mary; being there when he needed her, wanted her, just her presence enough to make him happy.
Morning. Pearce rolled out of bed and looked across the street, the quilt still wrapped around him. Black patches of windows on the dark red siding of the Bolt house stared blankly back at him.
He dressed. Folded the quilt, slid it in a garbage bag, donned a parka and boots, and walked over a starched blanket of snow to the old woman’s house. He knocked on her door.
Ms. Bolt opened. Struggled with a smile.
Pearce held out the bag. “I can’t accept this.”
Ms. Bolt looked at the bag, but made no move to take it. “Come in,” she said. Her mouth hardly moved, her lips a straight line, her left eye shut, her right eye open partway. She was small and frail, her knit pink sweater worn thin in spots.
“Please,” Ms. Bolt said.
Pearce stepped into her house. He momentarily forgot about the bag he held.
Color dripped everywhere, splashed in patches on the walls, on the furniture. It disoriented him for a moment, and he hesitated in the foyer and gaped at the quilts spread over the living room — over the walls, the furniture, the floor. Everywhere.
Ms. Bolt cleared off a wooden chair. “It keeps me busy,” she said. “Please, have a seat. And please — call me Eugenia.”
“You’ve done all these yourself?”
She tilted her chin toward the ceiling and regarded him down the bridge of her nose. “Angela and I. You met her?”
The ankoo girl.
“Yes. Your daughter?”
Pearce’s eyes roved.
Colorful, intricate needlepoint. Dyed pieces of cloth arranged in wild geometries. Fields of flowers. Orgies of fabrics. Self-contained worlds of cotton and thread and silk and batting, all of them different, all of them intense.
“What is it you want?” Eugenia asked.
Pearce realized he still held the bag in his hand. He came here to give it back, but now — “I don’t want anything.”
He noticed the image of a bird, made of tiny black and white squares and triangles hidden in the quilts, its head turned to the side, its visible eye a shiny fleck of obsidian. It was everywhere, like a trademark.
His days of boredom, of loneliness suddenly weighed heavily on him, and even as he sat there, he felt it crushing him. He sighed. Maybe there was something he wanted. “Can you teach me? Teach me how you do this?”
She scrutinized him with her right eye. “Why?”
He remembered Dr. Leroy—
No hunting. No shoveling. No…
He shrugged. “Because I can’t do anything else.”
She gave him a list of materials. Simple things. Needles. Threads. Fabrics. Batting.
“Must all be done by hand. No sewing machine. Only by hand.”
She started him out with a simple quilt. An easy two-foot by two-foot square divided into sixteen six-inch squares. She guided him through the process. “You must listen. Pay attention. Remember.”
Sometimes Angela worked with him instead of Eugenia. Angela, who rarely talked, rarely smiled, rarely looked at him. But if he got stuck on something, she silently took his hand in hers and guided it through the correct motions. Sometimes, her soft, silken hands lingered on his and massaged his stiff knuckles.
He was slow. Clumsy. Yet he was consistent. Each project grew progressively harder. He worked with different fabrics, different textures, ones he’d never imagined used in quilts.
Weeks passed. Months. His house became cluttered with scraps of material, thread, works-in-progress. It wasn’t just the feel of the needle piercing the fabric that made him continue, or the way the quilt glacially spread a comforting warmth over his lap. There was something more. A quilt had a front, a back, an inside. Three dimensions. Something tangible. Something you could see, feel, hold.
The winter turned frigid. A crystalline silence spread over Pearce’s street. Calls from friends grew infrequent, almost non-existent. But he hardly noticed. His rough, callused fingers grew deft, manipulating the needle and thread smoothly, precisely. He’d never been more focused. The walls of his house, the entire world, melted away as he worked, his fingers moving in a ceaseless, meditative rhythm.
One night, there came a soft knock at his door. Pearce ignored it at first, his fingers coaxing a needle a thread through a circle of thick leather. The knock came again, as softly as the first time, but now Pearce put down his needle and thread, his patch of leather, and threw on a shirt and sweat pants. He opened the door, the cold air sending shivers through his body.
Angela stood there, a forlorn smile streaked with thick lipstick spread across her face. She stepped inside, stepped past Pearce, turned and stared at him, that pitiful smile stuck there.
Maybe it was a way to pretend, to go back in time, blot out the present and pretend. Maybe it was the pent-up loneliness, the longing that allowed him to accept Angela’s outstretched hand, soft and dry, let himself be pulled to his bedroom, let her hand slide inside the waistband of his sweats and grab hold of him.
Maybe it was a hundred maybes, but he let her wrap her body over his, fall back onto the bed and pull him onto her.
A dry rasp escaped her throat. Her limbs frantically tugged at him, wound around him.
She was smooth, but dry. She bucked at him, and he thrust into her, the friction almost painful, turning his skin raw until he lost himself, becoming a wet oasis in her dryness. She left him on the bed staring at the ceiling, wondering if he’d dreamt the whole thing, the tears in his eyes glistening like shiny needles.
No. This wasn’t right. He got up. Pulled on a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, his hunting boots.
He crossed the street, the cold penetrating his clothing, his skin, turning his blood to slush. He stood at the Bolt’s front door, his breath spilling from him, fickle and ghost-like. He didn’t knock. Instead, he circled through the dry snow to the back of the house. Everything was dark, save for a single shaded window that glowed with a soft, amber light. There was a narrow space between the shade and the frame that was wide enough for Pearce to see inside, wide enough for him to see—
Angela’s skin fall off.
Her back to him, her shoulders slumped, her head folded forward, one hand tugged at her face, and—
—her skin fell off.
Sloughed off in one piece like a loose dress, catching a moment on her hips, then continuing on to the floor.
What was left was a framework of yellowish bones, speckled with black mold. Inside the ribcage, something moved. Not a heart. Something alive, smacking back and forth against the bones like a trapped animal. She bent down. Pulled something else up around the rotting frame-work. A new skin, only it went up and over the bones like fabric, like a blanket, a quilt.
And when she turned around, it was no longer Angela.
It was Eugenia.
She tucked the edges of the fabric-skin under her brunette wig and stepped out of view.
Pearce threw up in the snow and ran.
He sat on the edge of his bed rocking back and forth, rubbing at his forehead with the heel of his palm. It felt like something had crawled up his esophagus, some fidgety creature clawing at his tonsils.
What had he seen? What had he just seen?
Eugenia’s words from all those months ago when he first went to her house came back to him.
“What do you want?”
Now it took on a whole new meaning. What was she? What else could she do?
What do I want?
His head filled with a patchwork of thoughts, a sewing machine buzz in his ears, and he rubbed his forehead again. Rocked back and forth, thinking.
He wanted — he wanted—
What do I want?
He banged the side of his fist hard against the old woman’s door. (Old woman? Could he think of her as a woman any more?) He waited, tried to listen over the sound of his own heavy breathing, over his heart pounding hollowly in his chest, for the sound of her footsteps padding toward the door.
“I know what I want,” he called out to the solid, stubborn door. “Let me in. I know what I want.” Three more hard, stinging raps with his fist. It was a sting he wanted to feel.
The door opened. Eugenia looked so small, so inconsequential, and the blood raced through Pearce with such force, that all he could do was let out a guttural laugh.
Her body ragged, her clothes off-kilter, her painted eyebrows too pointed, one of them higher than the other.
He pulled a picture from his pocket. “Her,” he said. “I want her.”
Understanding worked its way across Eugenia’s features. She studied the photo with her obsidian eyes. “Your wife.”
“I’ve seen what you are. I know what you can do,” Pearce said.
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
He felt the rest of his heart dying, the fibrous tissue crumpling in on itself.
She bowed her head and Pearce heard the bobbin-rattle of her breath. “Throw away everything. All your thread. All your needles. All your fabric. We use the real stuff now.”
And this time, instead of writing out a list for him, she whispered into his ear.
He paced distractedly through his house, glancing at the pile he’d gathered on the dining room table. The blinds were shut, the curtains pulled. He broke the seal on a bottle of rum that had sat in the cupboard for the past year, stared at it, then took a quick swig. He grimaced and screwed the cap back on.
He lit two dirt-brown candles the old woman had given him and turned off the lights. Thick green smoke belched off the burning wicks, carrying the musky odor of decaying leaves. He coughed. Picked up the strange needle Eugenia had given him — a feather, the black and white bristles slick along the quill with an oily substance she’d spit from her mouth.
He wrapped it with the thread she’d given him, a thread glistening with drops of his own blood. He inserted the needle into one of the dresses that Mary used to wear. Even over the scent of the candles, he smelled a trace of her perfume. He began to sew.
The needle was thick. It took some time getting used to the way it punctured the material, took some getting used to the slickness of the thread, of remembering to dip it in the dish full of blood that continued to drip from a small slit under his right nipple.
He didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, only got up reluctantly — joints groaning, muscles stiff — to use the bathroom. Days went by. He found himself shaking, sweating, his skin itching. He forced himself to eat. The floor around him piled up with garbage, scraps of fabric and thread. He ignored the growing stink of rotting food that filled the air.
Finally, he had to rest. Shaking, trembling, tears brimming in his eyes, he lay on the couch in the living room, not caring about getting its surface coated with the filth that covered him. He stared open-mouthed at the flat white ceiling until he fell asleep.
He dreamed of Mary, of her quilted form rising up from his worktable, bits of untrimmed thread and fabric poking out from her ragged seams. She came to him. Straddled him. Unblinking. Un-emotive. A dumb thing constructed of rags, poorly stitched, bits of batting peaking out through jagged holes in her body. But then her mouth opened, her eyes blinked, and she looked at him, really looked at him, into his eyes, and whispered, as if waking from a long, deep sleep, “Pearce? Honey? Is that you?”
The materials he used; moss, grass, dirt, tree bark, mud, feathers, cotton, wool, satin, silk…
A week passed. His fingers moved nimbly, as if they were separate entities. His work spread like a fever over his lap.
Leaves, fingernails, hair, blood, sweat, Mary’s old clothes, her perfume…
It slowly took shape.
He began to recognize her in it, in the form, the design. This recognition propelled him, his fingers moving faster, while the rest of his body seemed to melt into the heavy, hot atmosphere around him.
Large black circles formed under around his eyes. He was constantly thirsty, constantly hungry. But he mistook this for longing, for the anticipation of that which was nearly complete.
He put down the needle Eugenia had coughed up from her very own lungs, that feather, now worn to a nub. He took a deep breath. His skin burned with sweat and patches of rash.
There was one more step.
He gathered up all of the pictures of Mary he could find. Wedding pictures. Vacation pictures. The annual Christmas pictures they mailed to their relatives and friends. He tossed them all in a metal trash can. Doused them with lighter fluid. This was hard — the last vestiges of Mary, the last images, but Eugenia had said this was the most important step.
He flicked a wooden match against his thumbnail and felt it pop into flame. He hesitated, standing in the garage bare-chested, in underwear that hadn’t been changed for a week, the light of the match spreading deep pools of shadow throughout the garage’s interior. The photographs in the can winked back the yellow light. Mary’s smile was the last thing he saw before letting the match drop. The burst of fire was brief and hot. The pictures caught, burned, the stink of melting Polaroids making Pearce’s eyes water. Soon, the contents of the trash can merely smoldered. It was the ash he needed. The ash of her image.
His work was done. He sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the thing (no, not a thing — it’s Mary, damn it, it’s Mary!) he’d created. She lay on the bed as if sleeping, a rag-doll cadaver with obsidian eyes aimed blankly at the ceiling. Even though she was made of cloth and moss and ash and so many other bits and pieces, she looked life-like. He waited. Waited for her to sit up and take him in her arms. He had to believe she could. Without that belief, she was nothing but an it, nothing but a human-size doll, limp and cool with rough needle holes visible in her skin.
He had to believe.
He sat there watching her. Believing.
Seven hours passed. He’d barely moved, barely blinked.
What had he done wrong? What had he left out?
Where was the shine in her eyes? Where was the life? They stared back at him, the sclera a dull silk matte, the pupils opaque and blind. Was this what he’d worked so hard at? This lifeless thing? She was no more than a — a doll.
As the sun dribbled through the bedroom window in a growing yoke, the squawk of a blue jay penetrated the thick, cotton haze that had fallen upon his mind. He stood and walked stiffly to the window, squinting, and saw the jay sitting on the branch of a silver maple.
Maybe Eugenia hadn’t told him everything. Maybe she didn’t want him to succeed in this — endeavor.
His heart tapped against his ribcage.
His heart. Infarcted.
A piece of it dead.
But what of a heart that’s all dead? What of a heart that’s not even there?
He remembered the wild thing inside Eugenia’s ribcage when she’d shed her skin, banging back and forth as if trapped in a cage. Was that what gave her life? Kept her alive?
The jay squawked angrily. Pearce loaded his rifle for the first time since his heart attack.
Questions pierced his mind as he crossed the street carrying his rifle.
He knocked. Eugenia answered, an appliqué of fear stitched across her face. He pushed her back and entered.
“What am I missing? What aren’t you telling me?”
“You are not pleased?”
“Tell me what’s missing. Why isn’t she alive?”
“Is it wise to play God?”
He grabbed a fistful of her chest. Felt frantic movement inside. “What’s in here?”
She didn’t answer, only watched him, her eyes sucking in the light of the room.
He stepped back. Pointed the gun at her face.
She only stared at him, her chest bulging in a frantic rhythm.
Pearce fired. The bullet pierced the fabric of her face like a blunt, angry needle, threading a path of emptiness through her delicate skull. She collapsed in a heap. Her insides sizzled and smoked.
Pearce squatted over her. Slid his deer-gutting knife from its sheath. With practiced skill, he cut a slit in her chest from neck to belly. He reached in. Felt something move inside. He gripped it and pulled it free.
It was coated with an oily substance. Speckled in black and white. The answer had been all around him. In all of Eugenia’s quilts. The image of the bird. Black and white bits pieced together in its shape, infused in each of the designs.
Its wings unfolded in Pearce’s hand.
It was the size of a sparrow, its black and white body covered in sores and tumors. Its right eye was welded shut with scar tissue, and oozed something thick and green. Its other eye blinked open and stared at him. A quiet, wet squawk issued from its beak.
That night, he finished stitching shut the new incision on Mary’s chest. The bird inside thumped and squawked in its new home. Pearce lay beside Mary, waiting. There was nothing more to do. His fingers, despite the thick calluses, oozed blood from his last days of frenzied work, leaving crimson kisses on his bed sheets. He fell asleep.
It was a long time before he awoke. Night had come dark and black outside the frosted windows. His eyes were heavy, and it took many false starts before they would open. When they did, when they filled with the soft light of the bedside lamp, he saw that Mary still lay there, a lifeless pile of cloth and thread. He reached out to her. Ran his hand down along the fabric of her cheek, the rise of her ash-filled breasts. Down along her stomach.
His heart screamed in his chest.
The bedroom spun.
He breathed in quick, shallow gasps.
Slowly, with great effort, he sat up and leaned over the Mary-thing, laid the side of his head on her stomach, and felt the thing which grew inside of her belly kick the side of his face.
Even through the layers of material, he heard that its heartbeat was strong.
Day has come. Snow swirls in the street, adds to already smothered lawns, whips past jack-o-lanterns shellacked with ice. Piles of bagged leaves sit snow-covered on curbs, while ornamental scarecrows stare at the ground, ice-sickles hanging off their faces. The smell of lawn clippings, tulips and marigolds are all memories so far distant that maybe they never existed at all.
Around the Griffins’ place, the wind shifts the snow, revealing fading patches of pink. The glimpses are brief, and the snow keeps coming. Weather forecast says the snow is here to stay. Says it will keep coming down for another couple days, and the cold will continue through the rest of the winter.
No one will go look there. No one wants to know.
Spring is a long time coming.
The Griffin residence sits two houses in from the north end of our street. Children must pass it on the way to school unless they take the long way around the block, which some choose to do — even when the temperature plummets below zero.
Johnny Griffin, thirteen, is suspended from school for possession of marijuana. I’ve seen his father, J.T., smoke weed from the shadows of their garage, the odor carried toward our house over the summer breeze. How long will it be before the Griffin boy offers it to the kids on our street? Has he already? Darren, our twelve-year old, swears he’s never touched the stuff.
The mother, Juanita Griffin, is a drunk, and her cussing fouls the air. J.T. and Johnny work on two old Harleys into the early morning, the revving engines cutting through the darkness, while thick, gray exhaust spills from the garage.
Their lawn remains unkempt throughout summer, dandelions and pigweed tangled amidst under-watered grass. The shell of their house needs fresh paint, the windows filthy.
I know Johnny Griffin can’t help the way he is. How can a child with parents like that have a chance? But does that mean our children have to put up with him? Should we give them extra lunch money so that after Johnny steals it, they’ll still have enough to eat with? We’ve tried talking to J.T. and Juanita, but they laugh, tell us kids will be kids. And then they turn mean and tell us to mind our business.
Aren’t our children our business?
Two years ago when the Griffins moved onto our street, Lydia and I brought a sheet cake and bottle of wine over and introduced ourselves. They looked surprised — a pair of rabbits caught in headlights. Juanita at least thanked us between drags on a cigarette, but J.T. said, “I’m more of a beer guy.” Later, we invited them over for Thanksgiving, but J.T. refused without so much as a thank you, without so much as a smile or handshake. I felt awkward standing in his doorway.
“Anything else you want?” he asked.
“No. That’s all.”
He shut the door.
“Johnny Griffin’s been harassing Brittany.”
The recently widowed Jill Bryant has called a meeting. Most of our neighbors are there, except the Griffins. “He pushed her into the grass, rubbed her face in the dirt because she refused to kiss him. She’s only eleven. I don’t want my daughter putting up with that.” She looks at each of us. “What’s happened to this neighborhood?”
She serves coffee and hot apple cider, thick sliced pumpkin bread and cherry chip cake. There are caramel apples for the kids gathered around a Disney movie in the upstairs den.
She invites me and three others to the basement. We huddle around a card table. I used to play poker with her husband here before he was hit by a drunk driver.
“I want to do something about those Griffins,” Ms. Bryant says.
Bill Swarthout’s got a pair of five-year old identical twin girls and says, “You can’t just ignore a cancer like that. Let ’em go on the way they are, and next thing you know, you’re no longer you. No, what you gotta do to cancer is burn the fucker off.”
There is little eye contact here in Ms. Bryant’s basement. It’s like the lighting is too harsh, and everyone has to look at the floor to avoid damaging their eyes.
Finally Todd Kaufmann — husband of Katrina, father of eight-year old Ellen — puts forth an idea that we’ve all thought of before, but were too afraid to say out loud.
“There’s one thing to do,” he says. “One thing that’ll return this place to normalcy.”
We listen. We grow in turn sickened and excited by his words. But in the end, we agree with him. Damn it, we agree.
Here’s what I want; a peaceful, quiet place to live and raise my son. I don’t want the bad influences in this world to touch him. Is that so much to ask? I want to sit on our front step, look up and down the street and know that all is right with our little corner of the world. People mowing their lawns, parents pushing kids in strollers, playing catch, shooting baskets. Barbeques, walking dogs, dressing up for church, eating dinner at a table, not in front of the TV like I’ve seen the Griffins do. What kind of values does a family like that have?
I know tolerance is important. We have our differences. But at the same time, we have only one life to live. One life to enjoy, to do and be the best we can. So should we be so tolerant as to let the evil out there affect and change our lives? To the point where our wants and desires become compromised?
We can tiptoe around evil, swerve out of its way when it comes at us.
Or we can eliminate it. Take control of our lives, our destinies. Sometimes you have to do something unpleasant to make things right.
Last week, Darren comes home from school, asking if he can sleep over at Johnny Griffins’. At first I think he’s joking, but my smile soon fades. “Isn’t he the same boy who takes your lunch money? Isn’t he the same boy who chases you on your way to school, who hides in a tree and jumps on top of you when you pass beneath?”
“We’re friends now,” Darren says.
He looks away, his cheeks turning pink. “We got in a fight yesterday.”
I run my fingers through his scalp, feel for abrasions. “Why didn’t you tell me? Did he hurt you?”
“I’m okay. I clocked him pretty good.” He looks up at me and grins. “Knocked him on his back. Then said I was sorry, but I was tired of him picking on me and my friends all the time. And you know what? He says he wants to be my friend. Says he was sorry, and that he was mad at us because he thought we made fun of him behind his back. Which we did. But he wants to be friends now, and wants me to sleep over.”
Emotions swirl through me. Pride at my son’s actions, but anger at Johnny Griffin. This is what it’s come to now; Johnny pulling out all the stops to corrupt my son. He’s learned that the best way to influence someone is to pretend you’re a friend, and just when they’re most vulnerable—
“No,” I say. “Absolutely not.”
“But Dad, I thought—”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want you with that boy.”
Darren sighs. He looks up at me and shrugs. “But he seems so lonely.”
“You’re a good kid. You’re kind, and you look for the good in people. Those are admirable qualities, Darren, but you’re also naïve. I don’t want you hanging out with Johnny Griffin. End of story.”
We gather a few more times around the card table; Bill Swarthout, Jill Bryant, Todd Kaufmann and me. We discuss things that shouldn’t be discussed, but feel it’s our duty to do so. Duty to our families. Our neighborhood.
The plan we finally agree on is Bills’.
“Members of firing squads,” he says quietly, talking to the table, “used to be given blanks. Only a few had live ammunition. This way, none of them knew who fired the fatal shot.” He raises his eyes and looks at us in turn, and each of us, with only the slightest movement, nods acquiescence.
Our plan will take place on Halloween night, when it won’t be unusual for disguised figures to wander the neighborhood after dark. It’s the only night, really, when our plan will work.
I’ve been assigned only one task until that time; buy a costume. I find a grim reaper outfit. It comes with a plastic scythe, which I won’t need come Halloween night.
Bill has the most items to gather. Mostly things from his father’s farm where he grew up. It’s four hours from here, located amidst cornfields stretching in withering rows as far as the eye can see. He gathers old burlap feed sacks and frayed rope, takes down a real, honest-to-goodness scythe from the barn wall, where it’s hung on a couple four-inch rusty nails for forty-five years. He stacks five bales of hay in the back of his pick-up on top of these things, whips a plastic tarp over that, and drives back to our neighborhood on a quiet Sunday night.
Jill Bryant has a knack for crafts. Sewing, quilting, flower arranging. She sells decorations made from Indian corn to hang on your door come autumn. She takes the old burlap, the hay and the rope, and cuts and shapes it until it’s just right.
And when the time comes, Todd Kaufmann’s contribution will be his strength.
Three days away, now. Tonight, from my window, I see two figures smoking cigarettes behind a tree in the Griffin yard. They must think they’re hidden, but even though the night is moonless, I clearly make out Darren from the light shining from the Griffin’s windows. I watch him for twenty minutes. He goes through two more cigarettes with a practiced ease that makes me dizzy. I know I should go out there and stop him, grab him roughly by the shoulders and drag him away, but I find it impossible to move, impossible to take my eyes off this boy, my son, who suddenly appears to be a man I’ve never known.
When he comes in, hair and clothes reeking of cigarettes, I ask, “Have you been smoking?”
He hardly looks at me as he brushes past. “You’re paranoid.”
I’m frozen in place, unable to respond as he disappears into his bedroom and shuts the door.
Halloween night. The children in the neighborhood are home plopped in front of televisions, eating the candy they’ve gathered, watching Disney movies, some already asleep, bits of missed Halloween make-up mottled behind their ears.
It’s just the adults now. The weather starts turning ugly. A storm is forecast for late in the night, but so far, it’s just windy and cold. Small, white flakes dance over the lawns.
We stop at all the houses on the street, say “trick-or-treat” in jovial voices, and those who are home to hand out candy nod at us and give us handfuls of sweets. Their smiles seem forced. They pretend not to recognize our voices. Just nods. A few knowing glances. I wonder how many Bill has hinted to about our plan. After we receive the candy, the doors shut quietly to the building storm.
We creep through the neighborhood, walk down the street, the glint of steel hidden behind the increasing snowfall. Our forms are shadowy and feral. Each of us in turn walks to the Griffin house with our bag of candy clutched in one hand, our other hand beneath our costumes occupied with handles made of wood.
It’s my turn. The wind darts through my costume, pressing my nipples uncomfortably against the polyester. I stand in swirling snow on the Griffin’s lawn. Six forms sit on the porch. They look like Halloween decorations many of us have on our porches. Burlap bags in the shapes of witches, vampires, ghosts. Filled with raked autumn leaves, old newspaper, hay.
But here, only three of the shapes are filled with these things. I try not to look too closely, afraid of figuring out which form contains what. I step up to one of the shapes propped lopsided on the porch. The hood of my costume falls over my eyes. Does Death contend with this? Fabric tripping his worn feet, snow blinding his hollow eyes?
I blink away moisture. Lift my scythe. I had practiced swinging the day before, making sure I could do it easily without bouncing the side of the blade off its target. I suck in a lungful of freezing air. Shake my head to shift the black hood from my vision.
“Go for two of them. That’s all,” Bill had told us, his firing squad analogy coming into play.
I step onto the porch. The shapes in front of me are still. They sag forward into the chairs they’ve been tied to. I lift the scythe into the air and bring it down quickly. As I do so, I notice that the dusting of snow on the porch floorboards is already tinged with pink, like a spilled cherry snow cone. I can’t stop the scythe’s momentum. It strikes the burlap, slices through with ease, and I feel the slight resistance of (newspapers, leaves) against the blade. The blade sticks. I yank it out, turning quickly so that I won’t have to see anything (leaves, newspapers) that might spill out.
I pick another target and swing.
I hear a low, muffled moan. I close my eyes. Let the snow blow against me. I can’t tell which bundle the moan comes from. I hear it again and force myself to walk away.
Maybe it’s not a moan. Maybe it’s just the wind through the trees. I can’t know, not for sure. I can’t know, and the sound of liquid splattering on the snow behind me…
I walk faster, careful not to trip over my cheap black robe. The warm lights of my home draw near. I see the glow of the television through the window. The scythe is light in my hands, and I stop suddenly and plunge the blade into a snowdrift to clean it off. What if I had put it in the garage only to have my son find it the next day, freshly stained?
When I enter, Lydia is calling his name. I shake snow off my costume. There are blisters on my hands.
“Darren?” Lydia comes into the kitchen as I slide my costume up over my head. “Have you seen Darren?”
“He’s not in his room?”
“His jacket’s gone. His hat, his gloves.”
I look at her, search her face. She can’t be serious. She can’t be—
I race out of the house without a jacket, sweat shiny and freezing on my skin. I run to the bottom of the driveway. “Darren!” I call. “Darren!”
Daytime reveals unpicked apples, fragile as glass, hanging from brittle branches. There is a subtle shift in white where the earth meets the sky.
Down at the Griffin house, the snow is piled thick, and the six bundles have been hauled away. There is no trace of trick-or-treaters in their driveway or on their lawn. One of their cars sits on the curb cocooned in white.
School is called off due to the storm.
Darren is still not home.
Finally, our phone rings. Jill Bryant’s name appears on the caller ID, but there’s a long pause during which she only breathes.
“I’m sorry,” she finally says, “but we had to do it.”
My fingers grow numb on the phone. “What are you telling me?”
“I want a peaceful, quiet neighborhood to raise my daughter,” she says, her voice trembling. “That’s all.” She hangs up.
I run out onto our driveway and call and call my son’s name until my voice grows hoarse and useless.
Spring is a long time coming.
A Healthy Glow
It’s a hard life here on the farm. Harsh winters. Summers hot and dry as ash. Crop failures. Disease. Sven drinks too much. Gets a bit too loose with the tongue and fists. I have the marks to prove it, and I know for a fact there are marks on my brain from some of the names he calls me. But I’ve got my babies. Thank God I’ve got my babies. Whenever things get me down, I just look at my belly, see and feel the little kicks and wiggles, and know that life ain’t so bad.
I’m working on number eleven now. You’d never guess Sven was so potent from the looks of him. But I’d guess he’d say the same about me. Calls me Fertile Myrtle. Calls me worse things, too. But it’s gotten easier and easier to tune him out. He’s just a bunch of white noise, like a fan on low, it’s blades whirling in endless circles just to move a little air from here to there.
I don’t let him touch me when I’m with child. Least not in a biblical way. He still touches me in other ways. The back of his hand. The heel of his boot. He leaves bruises most of the time, but I tell him, “You stay away from the baby.”
“What you care about that for?” he asks. “What you care if the baby gets a little taste?” And he smirks, like he’s daring me to say something more. Usually I hold my tongue, and the times I can’t, I turn enough so that the bruises land on my sides and back. But he doesn’t hit as hard when I’m with child. And that’s a good thing.
There are nights he comes to bed after drinking in the barn, drinking that terrible moonshine whiskey Matt Hemple makes, and lays his head on my stomach. He likes to feel the baby kick against the side of his face. I stroke the back of his head. It’s the only time he lets me touch him without hitting back. I almost love him then.
And sometimes he comes up with names for the baby. Silly, desperate names, like he’s grasping, trying to get a hold of I don’t know what.
“How do you like Criminy?” he asks.
“What kind of a name is Criminy?”
“It’s a good name.” He stands there a moment, his eyes blank and bloodshot. Then he goes back to the barn. Tends to his tractor or his cows. Like he woke a moment from a dream, and then the dream grabs back hold of him.
What shall I name him? Or her? With the others, I started out with bible names: Matthew, Luke, Mary, Ezekial. Then I went with Presidents and their wives: George, Ronald, Nancy, Jackie. And the last two, Johnny C. and Reba, I named after my two favorite singers.
I think if this one’s a boy, I’ll name him Jesus. Not Hay-Seuss, like a goddamn Mexican, but Jee-sus. As in the Son of God. As in crucified, died and gone to Heaven.
Sven’ll think I’m blaspheming, but I’ll just tell him to go to hell. And then I’ll ask him, “Don’t you want your son to be named after the Son of God?” He’ll hit me. I’m sure of that. He’ll punch me a good one in the face.
But not in the belly. Never in the belly these last weeks with child. It’s the one power I have over him. The one thing I have that he doesn’t.
He’s got his tractors, his crops, his barn, his booze, his fists, his tough talk.
But I’ve got the womb.
And goddamn, if there’s nothing he wants worse than this child…
This baby in me — I feel it kicking now. Mostly at night when I’m lying in bed and Sven’s snoring next to me. I feel it moving around, like it’s dancing to the beat of my heart.
When I put my hand on my belly, it calms me. Makes me forget for a moment the aches and pains, the bruises and welts. The scars that have been there since our first days of marriage.
“Enjoy yourself in there, Jesus,” I whisper. I feel like it’s going to be another boy this time. Been right with most of them. “Enjoy yourself while you can.”
I turn and look at Sven’s face just above the covers. Sometimes when he’s asleep like this, or passed out on the living room couch, I think he looks like a little boy, and I feel sorry for him, sorry for the bastard he’s become. And I reach out and run my hand gently over his cheek, feeling the wrinkles and the tough old skin of his, oily and bristled. I feel sorry for him and wonder where the child in him has gone and run off to.
I’m due any day now. My belly’s as big as an apple basket. This is my favorite time. Now. When I know the child inside me is fully formed. A whole little being squirming inside of me. When I look in the mirror past the bruises and the tiredness, I look radiant. I smile, and the smile is genuine. Sven doesn’t dare touch me now. Not these last few days. He stays away mostly, knowing how easily his rage gets the better of him. He only comes around when it’s supper time, sits at the table, eats the food I’ve cooked, and only talks to me after dabbing the grease from the corner of his lips.
“Please,” he says. “Let’s work things out.”
But it’s always too little, too late. He knows it, but the want in him is so great. It sobers him up these few days where at least he has to try.
I sit there. Look at him from across the table. The smile on my face is genuine, and my skin shines with that healthy glow. I don’t say a thing. Soon he pushes away from the table. Walks with his head down out to the barn. He’ll spend these last couple nights sleeping in the hayloft.
It’s the only time I have any power over him. And I know after this one is born, the beatings will come harder than ever. And after a few months he’ll take me again. Night after night. Take me in that angry way of his until I’m pregnant with number twelve.
Now, sweet Jesus, I think tomorrow is your day, the first day you’ll see this big, bright world. I put the pills in your daddy’s moonshine, so he’ll sleep all of tomorrow. Enjoy this last night in my womb. Enjoy the warmth of my blood, the beat of my heart. Because tomorrow you’ll meet your other brothers and sisters, out behind the barn.
I’m resting today. I need a good night’s sleep. It’s tough giving birth by yourself. It’s even tougher digging deep into the earth looking for the bones of your children. Tougher yet to pile the dirt on your newest one as he cries his first cries.
Down there with his brothers and sisters.
It’s the one time of the year I feel any power over Sven, but the glow I feel inside will last another week at least, even after Sven wakes from the drugs, beats me with his leathery old fists and asks me, “Why? Why? Why?”
When the Grim Reaper came for John Pepper, instead of a scythe, she carried a cell phone. It took a moment for John to realize what was happening, but he rose from the ground and saw his earthly body on the kitchen floor. Blood trickled from his nose and his eyes stared lifelessly from their sockets. What happened? He’d been scooping chocolate ice cream, and now…
The scoop laid at his feet, a circle of melted chocolate filling in the crevices between the floorboards. He stared at his body lying there, trying to comprehend what was happening, until movement beneath the Reaper’s cloak distracted him. The black fabric billowed and swayed as if agitated by an invisible wind. The Reaper’s skeletal hand gathered the dark fabric about her throat and clutched it tightly.
How did he know it was female? There were no signs, no telltale features, yet something about the figure made him certain.
Her arm creaked as she extended the cell phone to John. He looked at it as if it might be poisonous.
The Reaper pushed it closer. “Listen,” she said. Her voice was sonorous, like the dying vibrations of a large, thick bell.
John reached for it and froze. It wasn’t a real cell phone. It was a toy. A Barbie phone.
He’d rather it was something poisonous, something sharp and deadly. Not something this painful. Why this? Why Deirdre’s phone?
“Listen,” the Reaper insisted.
Deirdre was only four when a car driven by a drunken teenager ran her down. It happened two years ago, but John still could not sleep at night until his quota of tears had found their way to his pillow.
He placed the phone to his ear.
Again, the Reaper gathered her cloak about her. The fabric bulged, rippled, as if something moved beneath it.
“Daddy?” Deirdre’s voice was muffled. It sounded far away.
John’s jaw trembled. Words caught in his throat like chunks of wet coal.
“Daddy?” There was desperation in her voice. A glimmer of hope, perhaps?
John whispered, “I miss you, honey. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Can you play with me?”
John looked up, trying to read the expression on the face of the cloaked figure, but there was only the dull talcum of skull deep in the shadow of her hood. “Is this real?” he asked, watching her closely.
The Reaper slowly nodded.
Again, he heard Deirdre’s voice over the toy phone. “Daddy? Are you there?”
“What do I tell her?” he whispered.
The Reaper looked down so that all John saw of her was cloak and shadow. But she spoke, a hitch in her voice, the sonorous tone turning to a sad rasp. “Tell her yes,” she said.
John looked at the Reaper, heard his daughter’s voice in his ear over the phone. “Daddy, please — are you there?” she pleaded. “Please, Daddy. Play with me.”
He shut his eyes tightly, translucent tears streaming down transparent cheeks. “Yes,” he whispered into the phone. “Yes, Deirdre. Daddy’s gonna play with you.”
The Reaper reached for the phone and pried it from John’s tight grip. He looked at her questioningly. She signaled him to follow.
Was she taking him to her?
There was a mewling sound, a dry rasping. The Reaper’s cloak moved. John saw a flash of bone as she turned away. She tightened her grip on her cloak. John followed as the world around him turned to dusk. He took one last look at his earthly body before it was swallowed by the growing shadows.
The Reaper sighed. Her body quivered beneath her cloak. John felt a mounting excitement about seeing his daughter again, but he asked the Reaper, “Are you cold?”
The Reaper paused. She slowly turned. She shook her head and loosened her grip. She looked down at herself as her cloak fell open. “I’m not cold,” she rasped. “But he is.”
A small skeleton gripped her ribcage, his mandible making sucking motions at the place her breast would be. The baby stopped sucking for a moment and started to cry, its tiny bones rattling with cold. The Reaper quickly closed her cloak and the crying soon stopped. She turned away.
“Come,” the Reaper said. “Your daughter is waiting.”
I’ve been a sound engineer in this business for over thirty-five years. Worked with some of the best bluesmen and rock n’ rollers to ever set foot in this city. I heard something special in the Blues Blasters. A real passion. I knew they had it in them to make it big if they wanted to.
But for some, passion is just this side of mania.
The Blues Blasters were a local favorite, a bar band that had a gig almost every weekend for the last three years. They played blues and rock covers, slipping in a few of their own songs every now and then.
There were four of them. Billy Ray was on vocals and lead guitar. He first picked up a guitar at the age of five and had his first paying gig by the age of twelve. Colin Glassman played bass, Nick Healey played keyboards, and Smokin’ Jon Blith played drums. He could rip a beat out of his kit faster than a bullet through a dead man’s back.
I’d done sound for them on previous gigs, so I knew what they were after. An in-your-face plugged into your brain sound. I should have gone with that. Stuck with it for the whole demo. But instead, I thought I’d surprise Billy Ray with something that in hindsight should have best been kept under lock and key.
One of Billy Ray’s heroes was the legendary bluesman, Niles Ordonez. Mr. Ordonez had grown up in Keel River, a small hamlet fifteen miles to the south. Although in and out of jail for petty theft and assault as a teenager, he became a magician on the slide guitar. He gave it emotion, made it cry, breathed life into the steel strings and bled from them a sound that haunts me to this day. A freak fire during a recording session thirty-some years ago ended his life. His whole band died with him.
If it wasn’t for the glass separating the recording booth from the musicians, I’d be dead, too. I was there. The only witness.
It’s one thing I don’t like to talk about, one of those instances almost impossible to speak of, because once the words start forming in your mouth, you realize just how crazy they sound. But I’ll try this one time, because it might put what happened later into perspective.
As if perspective is even a possibility.
The fire started in one of the amps. This was back when they used vacuum tubes. There was a pop, then an explosion, and the entire band — who had just been playing one of their favorite songs — became engulfed in flames.
It happened so quickly. Bottles of whiskey and beer popped like party favors, screams seared through the microphone feeds, blue and orange flames danced everywhere, pounding against the sound booth glass like a hellish fist.
I didn’t know what to do. The glass began to crack under the heat, but my eyes were drawn to Niles Ordonez. His hair was on fire, his clothes engulfed in flames. Yet, he walked right up to the recording booth window. He pressed his face to the glass, his teeth, his tongue moving behind fire-blackened lips. He was trying to tell me something.
And I could hear him. The bass of his voice steady and solid, penetrating through the cries of his band mates, cutting through the explosions and unending feedback.
“Did you get that one?” he asked. “Did you get that one, Sonny?”
The glass broke.
Flames shot in, pummeling my face, my chest, my hands. I dropped to the floor, my hair and clothing on fire, and rolled around like an upended turtle on the linoleum. The smoke clawed at my throat. It felt like I’d swallowed burning sand. Just as a calm settled over me, a deadly calm of acceptance to my fate, a hand grabbed me and dragged me out of the recording booth. I felt the slap of a canvas jacket on my body smothering the flames.
I’ve seen pictures of the recording studio taken after the charred bodies were removed. What were once amplifiers, guitars and drums, were now twisted metal and melted black humps all fused into a hellish landscape. I was lucky to be alive.
I had nightmares for months afterward. Watching the band members burn one by one as the music continued to pulse in my head. A figure stood next to me in the shadows, watching, applauding, smiling with a set of teeth that reflected the flames leaping off the musicians. Every time he turned his smile on me, I woke up sweating and gasping for breath.
One thing aside from myself also survived that fire.
The mixing board in the sound booth remained intact. A little smoke damage, sure, but it still functioned. I can’t explain why. I guess it’s like when a tornado strikes, leaving a path of destruction, yet not touching that one house right in the middle of it all, even the leaves on the tree out front still intact, as if the house was blessed. Protected.
I guess the mixing board was like that. Protected.
“I’ve got a surprise for you guys.”
I led the Blues Blasters back to the recording booth. They crowded in the doorway. I pulled a white sheet off of a large object at the back. It was the old mixing board, the edges slightly blackened by the old fire.
I’d kept it in my basement all those years, never thinking it would see the light of day again, but sometimes the cosmos all comes together in a neat little loop, and things long forgotten come up and say hello.
“Wow,” Billy Ray said, fingering it tenderly. “Is that what I think it is?”
I nodded, unable to keep from smiling. Believe it or not, it still hurts to smile, the scars from that long ago fire stretching painfully across my face. But that day, I didn’t mind. That day it was a good pain.
“Niles Ordonez. Used on his last recording session. The only thing to survive the fire.”
“Wow,” Billy Ray said again, shaking his head.
The rest of the band took turns touching it, examining it, like it was some beautifully wrought tombstone and they were paying their respects.
“I thought we could use it for ‘Niles Big Sigh’. Give it an old vinyl feel. A crackle and pop feel. What do you think? A little tribute to Niles?”
‘Niles Big Sigh’ was one of their favorite tunes, an all out instrumental full of soul wrenching guitar riffs. A tribute to Niles Ordonez
The rest of the band nodded. They liked the idea.
We got down to business, recording tracks for some of the other songs on their tape. We decided to record Niles Big Sigh at the end, when they were really warmed up and ready to jam.
The day was a long one, and the band sat down for a short break before the last song.
I remember it clearly. Everyone beaming, cracking open fresh beers, shooting the shit, easy laughter. One big happy family. I’d like to remember it that way, keep that image in my mind above all the others. But I can’t.
It’s impossible now.
They started to jam.
A year earlier, after one of their live performances, Billy Ray confided to me, “It’s better than sex. It’s like I’m lost out there and floating on a giant wave.” The smile on his face was radiant. Sweat gleamed like pearls on his upturned face.
He was talking about that ultimate peak in music where everything works together, the notes blending, swooping effortlessly out of thin air, audible gifts from the gods.
“Damn, Billy Ray,” I said. “You must’ve been riding a big one tonight.”
He wiped a clean white cloth along the neck of his guitar. “It was a nice one, but not the big one.”
“How often do the big ones come?” I asked.
He winked. “Once in a lifetime, Sonny. Once in a lifetime.”
After ten minutes of playing, I thought they were ready to stop. The song reached an incredible plateau, then started it’s smooth descent. I knew I had something special on tape, the reels revolving as if spinning gold. I gave them a smile and a thumbs-up. Billy Ray shook his head at me.
They kept playing.
Five more minutes went by. The music swept me away. I closed my eyes and breathed it in, like it was something palpable, something you could ingest and carry with you for a lifetime. How long could this last?
When I opened my eyes, I watched as Jon broke a stick. He effortlessly grabbed a new one from a bag close at hand and kept on playing without missing a beat.
Colin’s face was in shadow, but I could see the drops of sweat falling onto the shiny blue surface of his bass. His hands flew across it as if possessed. It was amazing how they moved. Mechanical, yet brilliant.
Possessed. That’s how Billy Ray played. His solo cut into my soul, lifting the music into a new plane. The sounds seared. At any moment, I thought his guitar would burst into flames. Just listening to it, I felt ravenous. I didn’t want it to end. It was pure ejaculation. But just when I thought the solo was about to peak, it went in a new direction, soaring higher, the notes plugging directly into my brain.
A beatific smile spread across Billy Ray’s face. Sweat poured off it in a river. His eyes danced and sparkled.
Musicians, especially those who’ve played together for many years, have subtle signals. They know how to cue each other with the slightest nod or a barely noticeable lift of the guitar neck. They get to know each other’s signals, each other’s nuances, and in times when they gel, it seems there is some sort of psychic connection, where a player just needs to give a tiny mental push, and the band will start taking a song in a new direction.
But behind his drums, Jon’s eyes were more than subtle. It looked like something bothered him, like he was in pain. A grimace spread across his face. It was as if he was enduring the heat of a flame held under his wrists or trying to lift a car off of some crushed child. I figured he’d been pushing too hard. His chops were too damn tired.
I held up my hand, signaling them to wrap it up. If they kept up at this pace, Jon wouldn’t be able to last much longer. It would be a damn shame for the jam to just peter out like a train running out of fuel in the middle of a desert. Better to end on a high note.
That’s when Nick fell face forward onto his keyboard. The instrument buckled under his weight and crashed, causing a scream of clashing notes and feedback.
I stood up from my console, banged on the glass with my fist, but Billy Ray didn’t even look up. He kept playing. Jon and Colin glanced over horrified, but they too, kept playing.
This was ridiculous. Why wouldn’t they stop?
I pounded on the glass again, then tried to turn the mixing board off. When I flicked the switch, nothing happened. I dove beneath the console to unplug it, but when I touched the cord, I received a shock that sent red-hot daggers up my arm.
I crawled to the door of the sound booth. The brass door-knob glowed with a deadly red light. I was afraid to touch it.
I slowly stood. I turned to face the glass that separated me from the musicians. Billy Ray’s head was tilted back, his eyes thin white slits. There was a smile on his face, yet the sounds coming out of his mouth were screams. Howls. Bubbles of spit broke upon his chin, mixing with the sweat that glowed in the studio’s red lights.
The strange thing was that the cacophony of the keyboard feedback, the clash of all the notes pressed and screeching at once, somehow added to the overall effect, giving a new dimension to the music.
Music. Was it really music?
Or was it the tongues of Hell licking at my brain, pressing upon the areas of pleasure like an old prostitute?
Or was it the delirious cries of Niles Ordonez? Was he somehow contained in the electronics of the mixing board I’d so innocently cared for all those years? Was he jamming one more time through these hapless musicians?
Or was it something worse?
One stick after another broke in the drummer’s frenetic pounding, yet each time, he effortlessly reached down and produced another one from his bag of sticks like a magician. His hands were raw and bleeding, blood splatting on the drumheads, speckling his face. Tears dripped from his wide-open terrified eyes. Yet he still reached into his bag, bleeding hand clenching onto fresh stick. I couldn’t hear his screams over the music.
Shadows hid Colin’s face, but his right hand continued to move swiftly, mechanically, over the two bass strings that remained. The other two had snapped. Sweat poured onto the surface of his bass like rain. He no longer used his pick, and I realized that the skin of his thumb and forefinger had worn off while picking at the strings. The tiny bare bones of his fingers gleamed in the red light.
I looked over at the door. The knob glowed with that deadly red light.
When I looked back through the glass, Billy Ray stared directly at me. His smile beamed wide and bloody. His hands worked violently over his guitar. Three of the strings had broke and hung writhing off the guitar’s neck like snakes.
Colin fell forward onto his bass amplifier, creating a low throb of feedback. Jon crashed onto his drum set, sending the cymbals toppling over. He somersaulted over the toms and lay there twitching.
Billy Ray kept playing.
He walked slowly to the sound booth’s glass, his hands working over his hapless blood smeared guitar, screams issuing from his madly grinning lips. I couldn’t take it any longer. My head felt squeezed in a vice.
I closed my eyes, unable to look at him. I held my hands over my ears.
The music stopped. When I looked up, I saw that Billy Ray had collapsed.
A voice came over the sound system. A deep, sonorous voice. A voice I recognized from long ago.
“Did you get that one?” it asked. “Did you get that one, Sonny?”
My right ear received a seventy percent hearing loss, which I can correct somewhat with the help of a hearing aid. Other than acting as a holder for my glasses, my left ear is useless.
When I finally got up the courage to listen to the reel of tape, I didn’t know what to expect. I pressed play. There was a static hiss. I turned up the volume. There they were, the Blues Blasters, jamming like they’ve never jammed before.
The song ended after only ten minutes, followed by static. What happened to the rest of the song? The screams, the caterwaul of instruments and musicians possessed? Gone. All gone. The static continued. I thought I heard laughter in the static. Deep and sonorous.
For years I wondered who pulled me out of that sound booth so long ago, who saved my life from the smoke and flames that destroyed Niles Ordonez and his unfortunate band.
Now I believe I know.
I sold the Blues Blasters last recording session to Cathouse Music for two million dollars. They became instant legends, just like Niles Ordonez, just like all the musicians who died at the peak of their game.
I’ve been living high and mighty for the last three months in my house in Malibu. Every night I fall asleep to the sound of the ocean crashing outside my back door. Life is good. I did someone a favor all those years ago, and this is my reward. Perhaps I didn’t realize it then, perhaps I was an unwitting pawn, but the agents of Hell don’t forget a favor.
The mixing board is in a vault in my basement. A little smoke damage, sure, but it still works. Works fine, in fact.
I still record bands. A hobby now, more than a necessity. And I’m looking for just the right band. A band that wants to become legendary. A band that will give everything to reach that ultimate peak.
If you know of any, give me a call. My name and number are on the card. As for a reward?
It will come in due time.
The Apple Tree Man
Let me tell you a little something about apples. They scare me. Scare the shit out of me.
Olmsted County Fair, little over a year ago. With my son, William, age nine. We’re walking on the midway and pass a booth selling caramel apples. I try to hurry us past, but they catch William’s eye and he stops right there in front of the booth, squeezing my hand tight. I give him a tug, but it’s like he’s stuck in cement.
I close my eyes. Try to fight back an acidic bubble working its way up my throat. I try to find the courage to say no. I can say no other times. No when he wants an extra hour playing video games. No when he wants to watch some violent movie. But to say no to this? To a caramel apple? I don’t want him to grow up with a bunch of crazy little phobias like his father has. So I dig out my wallet, pull out a couple crumpled ones. Hand him the money and look away, look across the midway at a kid trying to break balloons with a dart, look over at a woman carrying her baby on her shoulders, the baby’s hands and face sticky with blue cotton candy.
My son comes back. I feel him at my side. I glance at the shadow the sun throws in front of us and look quickly up at the sky when I see the apple’s silhouette, the round fruit impaled on the stick like something from the dark ages.
I hope my son doesn’t notice how fidgety I’ve become. I want him to live a normal life. I want him to grow up healthy. Isn’t that the hope of every father?
He takes a bite and I hear the squish of his teeth in the apple’s pulp. As the nausea builds in me, the world swivels on one big spindle, and I can’t help but turn to look.
His face is covered with blood.
He takes another bite and I feel the world falling out from under me.
More blood spurts from the apple, splattering his chin, his neck, drenching his yellow tee-shirt with it.
He looks up at me. Smiling. Chewing.
I swat the thing from his hands, a good hard smack so it goes flying and smashes against an overflowing trash can. I gulp air, ignoring the stares from passersby, watching the apple as it falls stickily down the side of the trash can, leaving a snail trail of clotting fluid.
I look at my son. His eyes brim with tears, his mouth quivers.
There is nothing on his face. No blood. Nothing on his shirt, his chin. A few pieces of caramel but that is all.
“Sorry,” I mumble. I hate to lie to my son, but feel I have to in order to protect him. “Saw a worm. You almost bit into it.”
He’s still stunned, my words only beginning to register.
“I kind of over-reacted didn’t I?” I give him a chuckle. “Jeez, sorry Will. Didn’t mean to get you too.”
He accepts this with a nod. Looks back at the perfectly good caramel apple laying at the foot of the trash can, trying to see the worm I claimed was there.
“Can I get another one?”
“Shoot. That was my last couple bucks. I think it’s time to go home now. Mom’s going to be wondering why we’re taking so long.”
I put my arm around him. Ruffle his hair. Even as things are okay again between us, I think I see a small drop of blood on the corner of his lips. I ignore it. Look away.
“Davy, I don’t know what to do. I can’t live like this. It’s eating me alive.”
My brother Spencer’s words only two days ago.
“I came so close to telling someone.”
I speak quietly into the phone. “But you didn’t.”
“I came so close, Davy. I even got in the car. Turned on the engine. I sat there in the garage. Even thought about shutting the garage door, and—”
“Don’t talk like that. You hear me, Spence? Don’t say things like that.”
“I gotta tell someone.”
“I have to.”
I hear him breathing on the other end. “I’m coming down there. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I picture him shaking his head, the receiver pressed into his forehead.
“Spence? You hear me? I’m coming down. We’ll work through this. Okay?”
There’s one more sigh, then, “Yeah. Okay. Sure.”
Spencer first told me about the Apple Tree Man when we were kids. It was the middle of October. I was twelve, Spencer fourteen. His friends, Paul and Jack, rode their bikes alongside of us down the gravel road to Nathan Hench’s farm. Hench owned a dozen acres of field corn, a few scrawny dairy cows, and two rows of apple trees.
Paul was short for his age, with a full head of black, curly hair. He often had bruises on his arm from where his dad hit him. Jack was thin and ropy; always on the move. Even when sitting, his limbs were in constant motion. Jack was Spencer’s best friend.
My brother Spence — what can I say about him? He was my brother, and I’ll always love him. That’s all you need to know about him.
It was dark. We wore sweaters, could see our breath wisp past us as we pedaled. We slowed at Hench’s long dirt driveway. Saw him within the golden glow of his kitchen sitting at a table, tending to a brown whiskey bottle. We heard the barking of a far-off dog. The wind rustled through the apple trees, carrying the faint scent of manure. We dropped our bikes at the side of the driveway, skirted around a barbed wire fence ’til we faced the side of an old barn.
We stepped through the fence. Paul and I held our backpacks open as Spencer and Jack plucked ripe apples and loaded us up.
When the backpacks were full, we pushed aside the dead and fallen apples beneath one of the trees and sat there, each sinking our teeth into the fruit. Nothing tastes as good as an apple picked right from the branch. They were crisp; felt good on the teeth. We licked the cold juice that dribbled down our chins, wiped our faces with the sleeves of our sweaters.
“You ever hear about the Apple Tree Man?” Spencer asked between bites.
We shook our heads.
“You’re supposed to leave the last apple of the season for him or else you’ll have a bad crop the next time around.”
“Yeah, right,” Paul said.
Jack threw his apple core at him. “Did you hear the story about the time I fucked your mama?”
Our laughter was cut off by the slam of a screen door. We looked toward the house and saw the silhouette of a man. The beam of a flashlight jerked violently among the trees.
“Who’s out there?” Mr. Hench coughed up something from his throat and spit it on the ground. “I said who’s out there?”
We scrambled to the fence. The beam of his flashlight caught us.
“Stop,” he said. “I got a gun.”
We didn’t stop. We’d gone through this before. Yes, he had a gun. We’d seen it; a WWII standard Army issue revolver. But it was just old Mr. Hench. He wasn’t going to shoot at a bunch of kids.
We scrambled through the fence.
We heard the strain in his voice. We stopped and turned. He stood on the other side of the apple trees, the beam of his flashlight pointed to the ground. He was doubled over, his breathing harsh and asthmatic. The smell of whiskey drifted toward us.
I know we should’ve left him alone. I know we should’ve hopped on our bikes and rode away into the night. But something about Mr. Hench brought out the worst in us that night. His vulnerability was a fuse to our anger.
Jack threw first. The core of his apple hit Hench in the knee. Paul reached through the barbed wire fence and grabbed a soft brown apple from the ground. His throw was perfect. The apple hit Hench in the forehead.
Hench lifted a hand in front of his face. “Stop it! Stop it, now!”
Spencer and I found our own rotten apples to throw.
Hench turned away as one after the other, the apples hit their mark. “You’re hurting me!” Hench fell to his knees. Crawled toward his screen door. “Please stop. Please.”
We kept throwing, whooping when they exploded across his back, laughing when they broke upon his skull.
He dragged himself to the screen door and fell inside, the door slamming shut behind him.
We kept throwing. At the windows, the door, at the rusty old pick-up sitting in the long dirt driveway. We threw until our arms ached. Until the laughter, the adrenaline left us and all that remained was the feel of the moon, bright and sharp in our eyes.
As the days passed, the legend of the Apple Tree Man grew. He became a skeletal old thing that lived in the canopies of apple trees, a skinny old pervert waiting in the cold autumn nights for children to pass below. He’d reach out a long bony hand, grab you around the throat with fingers strong as steel, and lift you up into the tree. He’d rip your heart out. Eat it as you watched. Throw your carcass to the ground as his laughter carried through the night in the blustery autumnal winds.
When we whispered to each other these tales of the Apple Tree Man late at night, we’d laugh. But there were nights when the moon threw perplexing shadows, nights when the wind rustled dry leaves, that we couldn’t help but look nervously over our shoulders, jump at the sound of creaking branches, the scamper of feet across tall dead grass, the thunk of an apple falling to the ground. We kept close together. Our eyes grew sore trying to penetrate the cloak of night.
Another October was nearly gone. We never planned on going to Hench’s farm, but so often at night, we found ourselves there.
This night was no different. The moon projected a silver sheen across the grass and trees, already budding with a light frost. Our breath rose visibly from our mouths.
We crawled through the barbed-wire fence, whispering, stepping among the rotten apples.
Spencer started it. Picked one off the ground and flung it at me.
It hit me in the chest. I retaliated. Scooped a small, hard one from the grass and threw. He ducked and it disappeared in the darkness. Paul and Jack joined in, grabbing ammo from the ground and chucking it at one another. The apples were cold and stung, but we laughed when we were struck. It was a joyous sting.
Suddenly, Paul yelped. “Hey!”
We looked up. It was Hench. We hadn’t heard or seen him sneak across the frosted grass, and now he had one hand clamped on top of Paul’s head, and in the other hand he held his revolver, its muzzle digging into Paul’s temple.
Hench’s hand shook as he cocked back the hammer. The sound it made — that click like a knuckle popping — caused us all to freeze, caused the world to turn into something dream-like and unreal.
Tears ran down Hench’s cheeks. His eyes rolled wildly in their sockets. He shook his head back and forth, his breath escaping in choppy bursts.
We stood among the trees panting.
His voice was ragged. Torn. “You think this whole world’s yours to do what you want with?”
He pulled Paul closer to him. Squeezed the top of his head, fingers digging into his short red hair, twisting it. “Stop squirming.”
Paul’s eyes strained toward the revolver.
Jack said, “Leave him alone!” His words were like pebbles swallowed up by a deep well.
Paul shut his eyes. His face quivered. Snot bubbled out of his nose.
“Answer me or I’ll shoot you, I swear, you goddamn punk.”
Paul held his breath, his facial muscles tight, cheeks bright red, forehead salted with sweat. He stood as still as possible until his breath burst out and he sucked in enough air for all of us.
Jack’s hands clenched and unclenched, but he wouldn’t move from his spot by the fence.
Spencer tried to hide behind a branch the thickness of his finger. I was frozen in place. I felt that if I moved, Hench’s finger might slip on the trigger and Paul’s head would explode like a rotten apple.
Hench’s eyes widened. His lips trembled into a grin. He leaned down until his mouth was on Paul’s ear. “Come on, boy. Time’s a-wastin’.”
“Speak up. This whole world your playground?”
Paul tried getting the word out, that one simple two-letter word, but he couldn’t quite manage, just the N sound followed by a spray of spit that coated his chin.
Hench dug his fingernails into his scalp. “I can’t hear you.”
“N — n — n.”
“N — n — n?” Hench mocked.
“Leave him alone,” Jack said.
Hench rubbed the revolver’s nozzle in a small circle on Paul’s skin. “One last chance. Answer the question. I’m counting to three, then I’m pulling the trigger.”
Paul’s mouth moved again, but this time I heard nothing.
“One — two—”
The gun fired.
My heart stopped. I fell to my knees. God, no—
I heard Hench laughing as the echo of the gun faded. I looked up.
Paul’s head was still there. No gaping hole, no blood. Hench had moved the barrel away from Paul’s skull before pulling the trigger.
The front of Paul’s jeans grew dark.
Hench wrinkled up his nose and dropped Paul to the ground. “You shit yourself! You goddamn shit yourself! You really think I was gonna shoot you? You think I’m gonna go to jail for a little shit like you?”
He backed away, his gun still smoking. “I’m calling the police. I know where you live. Understand me? I know where you live.”
We grabbed hold of Paul and dragged him quickly toward the fence. We lifted him up and over, ignoring the stick of metal barbs piercing our arms and legs. We dragged him over the rough ground to our bikes. He screamed for us to stop. He stood up wincing, holding his ear.
“I shit myself?”
None of us said anything. We got on our bikes and pedaled home in silence.
I cried that night as I laid in bed. It wasn’t so much that Mr. Hench caught one of us and pulled a gun. I never really thought he would shoot Paul. The reason I cried that night was because I knew Paul had believed him. He honestly thought he was about to die, and he had frozen up and fouled himself. It was his humiliation I cried for. He’d remember that night for the rest of his life, a memory that wouldn’t go away, and when he raised own family, with his own kids looking up to him, he’d have trouble looking at them without remembering that night.
At least that’s how I saw it. A lot for a boy of twelve to think, I know.
Spencer and I saw Jack and Paul in school for the next two weeks, but we didn’t hang out after the bell rang, and we stayed away from Hench’s farm.
Until one night. After midnight.
“Get up.” Spencer shook me awake. There was panic in his voice. “Get up!”
“Shhh! Come on.”
He threw a pair of jeans at me, a gray sweatshirt and shoes. I followed him quietly past our parents bedroom and out the door. We hopped on our bikes. I followed him to Jack’s house. Jack waited in the driveway with a knapsack slung over his shoulder.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
They took off down the street. It wasn’t until we reached Hench’s farm that I caught up to them.
Spence and I followed Jack into the orchard. I was too out of breath to protest. What was in his knapsack? Spray paint? A gun?
Jack jogged past the apple trees across the grass to Hench’s barn. I kept looking toward the house, kept waiting for the light to pop on, the sound of the screen door swinging open and slamming against the frame of the house, the sound of Hench’s drunken ‘Who’s there?’
But I heard none of that.
Jack stopped at the barn. Took off his pack and opened it. He pulled out a flashlight. Looked over his shoulder before opening the barn door.
We heard the nickering of a horse, the wind blowing through the barn’s rafters, the creaking of old wood.
“What the hell are we doing here?” I asked. “If Hench finds us—”
The look in Jack’s eyes stopped me, froze the words in my mouth so fast, I nearly choked.
“What?” I whispered.
Jack turned and headed to the far stall. The smell of hay was strong. The smell of mold and horse manure, owl droppings, tractor oil. Before opening the stall door, Jack paused, wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He looked at me.
“Davy, you gotta promise not to tell. Not ever.”
I stared at him. “Tell what?”
Spencer stood next to me, barely breathing.
“You gotta promise.”
“Okay. I promise.”
Spencer nodded. “Yeah. I promise.”
Jack nodded. Opened the stall door. Shined the flashlight inside.
I saw the boots first. Then the jeans. A flannel shirt. And when I got to the neck—
I fell to my knees. The world spun. The supper I’d had earlier came up in a rush.
Jack put his hand on my shoulder. He squatted so that his face was level with mine. He picked up some hay from the ground and used it to wipe off the remainder of vomit on my chin.
“You promised, okay? You can’t tell any one.”
I nodded, fighting to keep the rest of my food down.
Jack stood up, shaking his head. “I didn’t think he’d do this. I really didn’t.”
Spence and I stared at the body in the stall. I felt numb. “Where is he?” I asked. “Where’s Paul?”
I looked in once again at the body. The neck ended abruptly at the dull metal of a gardening spade. The edge of the spade was embedded into the dirt floor, separating Hench’s head from his body.
“He’s at home,” Jack said. “He’s doesn’t want to leave his room.”
I nodded toward Hench. “What are we going to do with him?”
“Leave him be,” Jack said. “No one’ll know it was Paul.”
“Maybe we should tell someone he’s here,” I said. “Make an anonymous call.”
“Leave him,” Jack said. “Don’t call anybody.”
Spencer spoke up. “Let’s bury him.”
We turned to him.
“We can bury him out in the orchard. Bury him deep so no one will find him.” He stepped over the body. Yanked the spade up from the ground.
We took turns digging out in the orchard under an apple tree using the spade. We dug as deep as we could, wanting nothing and no one to find him. It was cold that night, but the ground had still not frozen. Our sweat soaked our shirts and chilled against our skin. Steam drifted off of us and disappeared into the branches above. When we finally set him in the ground, we were tired and dirty. We spread out the fallen apples over the grave. Buried the spade under some hay in the barn. Rubbed the muzzle of the horse, who stood and watched, its big eyes rheumy and nervous.
The apple tree man. Old and withered, a skinny bent pervert nestled in the crotch of apple tree branches. He reaches out with long bony fingers. Strong enough to lift a twelve year old kid from the ground up into his brittle lair.
I promised I would never tell a soul about what we did that day, what Paul did, what we all did when we buried Mr. Hench beneath the apple tree. Twenty-five years have gone by. The promise becomes more difficult to keep. Guilt plays its hand, seeps into the most hardened of souls and picks at it a little at a time, disintegrating the foundations.
We were kids. We didn’t know any better. It was self-defense. Hench almost killed one of us.
Rationalizations. The list gets longer as we grow older.
Meanwhile, we’ve grown into lifestyles we’ve become comfortable with. I have a wife. A child. I don’t want them to suffer the consequences of old childhood secrets. I don’t want them to become smeared by scandal. There’s safety in keeping secrets secret.
It’s been a hard choice for all of us. For Paul, for Jack, for Spencer.
But I’ve made up my mind. Just as the others have made up theirs.
I drive to the town of Hendricksville, an hour drive from where I live, past rolling hills, fields of corn, soybeans, the autumn sun turning the dead stalks a rust-tainted gold. Flocks of geese fly overhead. There is the smell of farms, hay and manure and soil, a smell I like, and I breathe it in deeply. It’s the smell of natural things, and it feels as if I’m preparing the soil of my own soul, strengthening it for the oncoming winter, the task ahead.
I wait until night and drive to what was once Hench’s farm.
The land was bought up by the Braemer Family Orchard. A couple more rows of apple trees were planted. A pumpkin patch. Raspberries. The barn was torn down years ago, and a Quonset hut sits where the house once was.
There’s a new fence now, too; straight rows of wire stretching into the distance, evenly placed signs warning of the electricity that flows through them. I stand a moment, leaning on the handle of my shovel. I can see no break in the wire, but there’s a maple tree close to the fence with a large branch just low enough for me to reach. I toss the shovel over. Jump for the branch. I feel like a kid again as I swing up and over. I retrieve the shovel. Find the tree I’m looking for. It’s late in the season and I see no apples left in the branches. I stop and listen. Look. It seems safe. I kick aside the layer of dead fallen apples beneath the tree and begin to dig.
The dirt comes up easily. The roots have already been broken through.
There is something cleansing in this. I pause to light a cigar, digging slowly enough so as not to let the growing ash fall with the effort. It falls when I hit the marker I’d placed there six years earlier. Another shovel. There’s a plastic bag knotted around one end of the shovel, and inside that is a bloodied pillow case and a gun.
Not Hench’s gun.
A different gun.
Another secret I’ve promised not to share. A promise I made to myself.
Let me tell you another reason why apples scare me.
End of summer, four years ago. Our first summer in our present house. You’d think I’d have noticed our neighbor’s apple tree before purchasing our house, but we bought it in the winter, when the unpruned branches were bare, and it looked no different than the other trees scattered throughout the neighborhood. But when the blossoms appeared in the spring, I became frightened.
By the time the fruit was the size of walnuts they dripped blood.
They whispered to me.
As they grew, eyeballs appeared. Dismembered fingers and toes. Lips moved. Tongues clucked disapproval. I heard them at night, giggling, commiserating, splintering through the wall to my soul.
Middle of the night, late September, I slid a black windbreaker over my pajamas, and grabbed a hacksaw from a hook in the garage.
As I sawed at the base of the apple tree, I ignored the apples dangling above me, ignored their accusations, the feel of blood dripping on top of my head. I ignored the smell of rot, and the sound of a gun being fired through a pillow into an old friend’s head.
Guilt is a dangerous thing.
I sawed it into small parts. No one woke up that night, no lights came on. The only sounds were the screams of dying apples as they hit the ground in a series of sickening splats, like the sound of skin being broken, like the sound of blood squirting across the ground.
Or across the sheets of a rumpled bed.
I will say this only once.
Six years ago, I killed one of them. One of my friends. I shot Paul through the head with his own revolver. He begged me not to, but he gave me no choice. It had to be done.
The day before, he called me on the phone and talked about guilt; of how he could no longer live with it, how he’d recently found out that Mr. Hench had family down in Tennessee who still visited the grave they’d erected when he disappeared from the face of the earth. Paul told me how he called Hench’s brother and talked to him, and told him he knew Mr. Hench, of how he’d pestered him, and how he was sorry for all the trouble he’d caused.
“What else did you tell him?”
I heard Paul crying on the other end. “Nothing. But I don’t know how long I can hold it in. It’s killing me.”
“Think of what it would mean to Polly. How could she support herself with you in jail?”
“I was only a kid.”
“Doesn’t matter.” My grip on the phone tightened. Sweat trickled from my ear into the receiver.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I can’t live like this.”
I paid him a visit the next night. Luck was with me. His wife was playing Bridge across town. He was asleep in bed when I found him. I told him I was sorry, but we’d made a promise.
I intended to hold him to it.
I grabbed his wife’s pillow, held it firmly over his face, and pumped two bullets into it. I worked fast to remove him, remove any evidence.
Polly came home a full hour after I left.
I pull up the old shovel from the grave beneath the apple tree and look up at the moon through the tree’s branches. Something catches my eye, silhouetted against the moon, a black pulsing orb, breathing like some hungry creature. There’s an apple left, after all.
I set down my shovel at the edge of the grave, my cigar halfway done, and walk quietly back to the electric fence. I hoist myself up and over via the maple branch, find my car and open the trunk.
Two years ago, Jack called.
Told me of how he wanted to tell someone, how he was thinking of seeing a psychiatrist to get some of the past off his chest.
“Have you told anyone yet?” I asked.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
“Is that what you told Paul?” he asked, and hung up.
At least Jack was still single. I didn’t have to worry about a wife, kids. When I entered his house, I found him sitting in an easy chair, a bowl of apples on his lap. He’d taken a bite from each one, and it was hard for me not to look at them, as they beat red and bloody like tiny hearts.
“I hear them sometimes,” he said as I emerged from the shadows dressed in black. “I hear them whispering to me.”
I waved my gun at him. “You want to talk about this?”
He set the bowl down. Lifted his own gun from his lap. “I knew you’d come,” he said. “I know you killed Paul.”
I kept my eyes on his weapon. “Is this how it’s going to be?” I asked. “A shoot-off between two old friends?”
He smiled. A sad smile. Tears in his eyes dripped down his cheeks, and met beneath his chin. “No,” he said. He lifted the gun. Pressed the nozzle to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Within the echo of the shot, I heard the bowl of apples at his feet laughing.
At least Jack had a proper funeral. I left him there like that. The only thing I didn’t leave alone were the apples. I picked up the bowl, holding them away from my body as they continued their wretched laugh, and put them down his garbage disposal one by one.
“Davy, I don’t know what to do. I can’t live like this. It’s eating me alive.”
Spence. Two days ago.
I didn’t think he’d break. Of all of us, I was sure he’d be the one to keep it together.
I invited him out to my house. Sent the wife and kid away. I didn’t bother trying to talk him out of anything. He was my brother, and I loved him.
Best, I thought, just to get it over with.
I pull Spencer out of the trunk of my car wrapped up in dark blue flannel bed sheets and hoist him over my shoulder. It’s a struggle getting him over the fence, but I manage.
I drag him to the grave. Lay him on top of Paul. Cover him with dirt and sod. Spread the dead fallen apples over it all.
One last apple high in the tree.
I hoist myself up into the branches, grab it, and twist it off its stem. I drop down beside the grave. Snuff out the remainder of my cigar. Polish the apple on my sleeve.
I’m able to look at it this time. Able to see it for what it really is.
The apple tree man doesn’t seem so old any more. He’s gotten younger as I’ve gotten older.
I bite into the last apple of the season.
Guilt is a monster that never goes away. Maybe it will catch up to me. Perhaps the need to tell someone might infest my soul like it had with Paul, Jack, and Spencer. I’m prepared for that. There’s a bullet left for me in case the need ever arises, and I’m ready to use it.
The bare branches of the apple tree are stark against the bright silver moon.
The apple tastes good. I take another bite.
BEDTIME STORIES FOR THE APOCALYPSE
Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse was originally published in print by the wonderful Sam’s Dot Publishing. Please visit them at www.samsdotpublishing.com and support the small press.
Even over the acrid odor of an old school bus’s burning tires, a woman dressed in rags smelled coffee. Her mouth watered. Coffee. How long had it been? She stepped from behind the twisted metal that had been the bus.
“Care for a cup?” A young man sat by a small fire of burning detritus, a dented tin pail resting on the glowing coals.
“Is it real?” The woman stepped carefully over a path of broken glass and sharp stones. A smile fluttered across her lips.
The man held a cup out to her. Steam danced off the top. Her hand trembled as she took the cup and drank. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose, savoring the bitter taste.
The woman dressed in rags nodded.
“You’ve got family left?”
She didn’t answer, taking another quick sip.
“It’s okay. I’d love the company,” the man said.
The woman handed back the cup. She looked back over her shoulder and whistled; two sharp blasts, followed by a long, high trill.
Two men emerged from behind the twisted bus, followed by another woman. They held makeshift weapons; a charred two-by-four, a piece of twisted rebar, a sharp-edged rock.
The young man bowed. “Welcome.” He stood and handed the single cup to one of the men, who took it and sipped slowly.
“Beautiful day,” the young man said.
“Yep.” The man holding the coffee swished the liquid around in his mouth and handed the cup to the other woman.
Their host looked at the sky. He smiled widely.
The smile grew. His head tilted back further, as if searching for the sky’s zenith.
His mouth opened. His jaw unhinged like a snake’s.
One of the men yelled, “Shiner!”
The woman holding the coffee threw it at the young man, but his jaw opened wider.
The four ran in separate directions, while the young man remained. His skin glowed and pulsed with an unnatural light, until a thick beam of it shot skyward. It was met by another beam of light that shot down from the roiling clouds above. The two men, two women and their host were all caught in the blinding explosion that followed.
Two miles away on the side of a talus-strewn hill, Gibson winced as the beams of light connected, a bright golden beam from the shiner on the ground, and the Hubal’s brilliant red beam that raced down from above to meet it.
Gibson rubbed his eyes after the explosion that followed. Damn it. What had lured them this time? Chocolate? Fresh fruit? Coca Cola?
They kept falling for it — the promise of something long thought gone, ever since the sky had come alive. Ever since the Hubal came.
How many had been caught this time?
Gibson carefully picked his way down the slope, the explosion a ghost on his retinas.
At first it was the large gatherings, but lately it had been groups of six, seven, eight — sometimes as few as four. The Hubal were afraid of groups. An individual couldn’t do much against them, but if enough got together, if they had time to think and plan and devise — that’s what they were afraid of. That’s what they destroyed.
Gibson finished descending the hill and started toward the freshly burned area. The surrounding landscape was a patchwork of flora and ash — rough circles where the Hubal had attacked scattered amidst rich farmland gone fallow. Stands of trees stood here and there to mark what used to be property lines and windbreaks. The cities in the distance were no more.
Gibson spotted the girl lying on her stomach drinking from a languid creek. Her clothes were too large, and a pair of men’s shoes hung ridiculously loose on her feet. Gibson cleared his throat. The girl froze. “You should boil it first,” Gibson said.
The girl pushed herself up, turned and sat to face him, crossing her legs in front of her. “It’s good water here,” she said.
“There’s no such thing.”
She wiped the back of her sleeve across her mouth.
“You alone?” Gibson noticed that her hand hid something on the ground next to her. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Go away,” the girl said, picking up the thing beneath her hand and clutching it in front of her; a stainless steel butter knife. “Please?”
Gibson held up his hands. “Okay. Just passing through.” He started to circle, giving her a wide berth.
The fear on the girl’s face turned to a frown. “Wait.” She stood, brushing dead grass and dirt off her clothes and reached into her shirt. She pulled out a small square and held it out.
Gibson stopped and regarded her carefully. Finally, he took the square — a photograph.
“Mom and Dad,” the girl said. “You seen ’em?”
Gibson studied it. A thirty-something couple smiled at the camera, the sun glimmering off a small lake behind them.
“Nope,” Gibson said. “Sorry.”
“Probably dead,” the girl said.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He handed her back the picture. “But probably.”
She tucked the photo back into her shirt and put a hand on her belly.
Now Gibson saw how it protruded, despite the oversized clothes. “How far along?” he asked.
She looked to be only fourteen or fifteen. Sixteen at most. She didn’t answer.
“There are shiners around here,” Gibson said.
The girl said, “I saw the lights.”
Gibson’s own daughter would’ve been fourteen by now. “Why not tag along with me for a bit?” he said. “Just the two of us should be okay.”
She patted her belly and smiled shyly. “There’s three of us, though, aren’t there?”
“What’s your name?” Gibson asked.
“Like the Beatles’ song.”
Julia shrugged. “Mom said I was named after an aunt. Didn’t mention any song.”
“I’m Gibson. Named after the guitar.”
“Why would someone name a kid after a guitar?”
Gibson chuckled. “I like the name.”
“Better than my boyfriend’s name; Tabor.”
Gibson nodded at her belly. “The father?”
“What happened to him?”
“The first wave took him out.”
“Sorry to hear.”
She shrugged. “He wasn’t all that great.”
He led Julia through the fresh burn. They stepped carefully around the charred bones and tree stumps rising stubbornly from the smoldering ash. The frame of an old school bus, burned and twisted almost beyond recognition except for the letters ISTRI on a miraculously untouched orange spot of painted metal, smoked with heat. Maybe a year ago, Gibson would have avoided the area; protect the girl from the horror strewn about. But now he figured she should see this. Smell the burned flesh and bone, experience the dead silence within the rough ashen circle.
He asked again, “When are you due?”
She stopped. A gentle dusting of ash rose from the ground and danced around her. “It’s not like I can see a doctor.” She looked hopefully at Gibson. “You’re not a doctor, are you?”
“An accountant,” he said.
Julia looked down. “You go on,” she said. “I shouldn’t be with you.” She put a hand to her chest and coughed. She dropped to her knees, retching, producing only a thin line of pink drool.
“Ouch,” she moaned.
Gibson held out his hand. After a moment, she took it and stood, brushing the ash off her knees. She nodded at the ground. “It’s still hot. But it’ll make good soil someday.”
“Come on,” Gibson said.
“We shouldn’t be together.”
“Just the two of us. That’s okay. They won’t bother just the two of us.”
“Promise you’re not a shiner?”
“What kind of alien would name themselves after a guitar?” He winked. “We need to trust each other. At least for a while. Can you do that?”
She rubbed her hand lightly over her belly. “I’ll try.” Then she smiled. “She likes your voice. Whenever you talk, she kicks.”
“You know it’s a girl?”
“I just want a girl, that’s all. Wishful thinking.”
They walked. Gibson wanted to keep her moving, keep her mind and legs busy while the rest of her body prepared for the delivery. But on the second day, Gibson realized she was the one leading him somewhere — the way she nonchalantly walked slightly ahead, but with a definite purpose and in a definite direction.
“Wait a second,” Gibson said. “Where, exactly, are we headed?”
She cleared her throat. “I know where there are some caves,” she said. “They were on my parents’ land.” She turned away from him. “I was in one of the caves when the first attack came, in a small alcove about thirty feet in. I don’t think anyone had been in there before me for a long time. I found pieces of flint, some broken arrowheads. I used to sit in there with a flashlight and journal. I was going to bring John in there — he was my boyfriend — but…” Her voice trailed off.
“How far away is it?” Gibson asked.
Julia looked up and brightened. “Another day or two and we should be there.”
That night, Gibson and Julia slept on a small hill thick with pine trees, the fallen needles soft beneath their bodies. Occasionally, they saw flashes of lights in the distance, where the Hubal attacked more people gathered dangerously, plotting against them, perhaps, but more likely seeking simple companionship.
They walked slowly most of the next day, taking frequent breaks so that Julia could rest. At one point, Gibson caught a crippled rabbit, a small dirty stump were a forepaw had been, and roasted it on a coat hanger spit over hot coals. He boiled enough water for the rest of that day, letting it cool before they continued on. They arrived at Julia’s farm, the place she’d grown up, shortly before sunset.
There was nothing left, save for misshapen hunks of metal that had once been tractors and pick-ups, and the jagged cement bases of a silo, house and barn.
Julia stepped carefully through the area. “There’s nothing here,” she said. “Nothing.”
Gibson put his arm around her as she cried. When she was done, she looked up at him. “Something’s happening,” she said, beads of sweat springing to her forehead. “Something’s going on with the baby.” She wrapped her arms around her abdomen. “Jesus, it hurts.”
Gibson looked around for something — anything — that might help. “Get up,” he said, helping her to her feet. “We need to get out of this ash. Where’s the cave you mentioned?”
She lifted her hand weakly and pointed to the rough limestone surface of a nearby bluff. Dusk threw long shadows across it. They took a few steps and Julia gasped, clutching her stomach. “Oh, geez.”
“Just a little further,” he said. He looked toward the rocky surface of the bluff, trying to figure out which of the shadows hid the cave’s entrance. Something flickered within. Gibson froze. “Wait.”
Julia looked up as a woman emerged from the rock, carrying a torch in one hand, a stone in the other.
“Stay away,” the woman said.
“She needs a place to lie down,” Gibson said. “She’s giving birth.”
The woman squinted, raising her torch. “Oh, my.” She dropped the stone. “Beth! Get out here. Someone’s about to have a baby right here in front of me.”
Julie fell to her knees. The woman rushed toward her, shoving the end of the torch into the dirt. “Beth!”
She was older — fiftyish, Gibson thought. A younger woman appeared next to her, eyeing Gibson with fear.
The older one smiled as she carefully slid down Julia’s too-large pants. “What’s your name?”
“Julia,” she gasped.
“I’m Nancy. This here’s my daughter, Beth. I’ve delivered before, so don’t you worry.” She nodded at Gibson, eyes remaining on Julia. “He ain’t a shiner, is he?”
Gibson stepped forward into the torchlight. “Gibson,” he said. “Named after the guitar.”
“Guitar?” Nancy said.
Julia said, “He’s okay.”
Nancy asked, “You the father?”
“No,” Gibson said.
“Well, give us some privacy, then.”
“Can’t I help?”
“Help by getting out of my light.”
While Nancy gave Beth instructions, Gibson backed away. Above, clouds darted back and forth across the moon. A black mass of them edged closer, obliterating the stars, sparks of light dancing within. Gibson rocked back and forth on his heels, watching. He felt Beth staring at him.
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” she asked, slowly standing.
Nancy looked up at her daughter. “Get down here. I need you.”
“He’s one of them,” Beth said, pointing at Gibson. “He’s a shiner. Look at the sky!”
“No,” Gibson said, stepping back.
“Beth, I need you. The baby’s coming.”
Julia screamed. Beth squatted next to her head, wiping the sweat away with her shirtsleeve.
“That’s right,” Nancy said. “Push, honey. Push.”
“It hurts,” Julia cried.
“Scream, then. Get it out,” Nancy said. Then, “Push!” Then, “Here she comes!”
“A girl?” Julia panted.
“A beautiful girl,” Nancy said.
Something sparked and flashed above.
Gibson took a step closer to the women.
“Stay away!” Beth shouted.
Gibson realized the baby wasn’t crying.
Static played with the ends of his hair.
“Is the baby okay?” he asked.
“Is she?” Julia asked.
Beth’s attention turned to the baby in Nancy’s arm. Nancy rubbed the baby’s skin with her thumb.
Gibson stepped closer.
“Let me see my baby,” Julia said, her face flush, hair soaked with sweat.
“She needs attending to, first,” Nancy said.
Gibson looked down at the baby. A beautiful girl.
But she was gulping at the air, fighting to inhale.
Nancy and Beth tended frantically to the child, Beth wiping away amniotic fluid and blood, Nancy swiping a finger into the child’s mouth.
“What’s happening?” Julia asked.
Gibson kneeled next to Julia’s head, caressing her cheek. “Shhh. She’s in good hands.”
Then Nancy said, “Oh, dear God.”
Julia struggled to push herself up on her elbows, tried to look between her upraised knees. “Jesus, what’s happening?”
Gibson heard a cry. The baby.
“Run!” Nancy said. “Run, Beth!”
The baby cried again.
“Let me see her!” Julia demanded.
Nancy shook as she slowly rose with the baby. The torchlight flickered off the woman’s face.
And another light, as well.
She bent over and carefully placed the baby in Julia’s arms. “She’s beautiful,” she whispered. Then she rose. “I’m sorry.” She turned and jogged toward the face of the bluff and disappeared within the dark folds.
Again, the baby cried. As the glow intensified within her and seeped from her widening mouth toward the waiting clouds, Gibson said, “She has your eyes.”
Julia nodded, sobbing, holding her child tightly. “Stay with me,” she said.
Gibson stayed and stroked Julia’s forehead, even as the light within the baby intensified and shot skyward. Even as the clouds above answered with a light of their own, and the world around them turned explosively from night to blinding day.
He carried Amy into the narrow, rough-hewn tunnel. Graffiti marred the entrance; epithets spray-painted crudely in Spanish. A trail of crushed beer cans, empty tequila and rum bottles, disappeared into the darkness. They passed an abandoned fire-pit. A quilt of yellow fur, bone and gristle rippled with maggots. His shoes splashed through ankle-deep water.
Amy felt like papier-mâché in his arms. She’d grown so thin. So pale. The soft fuzz of new hair was reddish-blond now, instead of the caramel luster it used to be.
Her eyes fluttered open. “Dad?”
“Sssshhh. Yes, hon?”
“Where are we?”
Luke’s chest hurt, his back and shoulders. “Mexico.”
“I know, but where?”
For such a slight thing, she’d grown so heavy in his arms. But he feared that the stagnant water at his feet wasn’t clean. Full of parasites, or something worse that might wreak havoc on her already ravaged immune system.
“A tunnel,” he said. “Outside Guanajuato.” He stopped. He had to set her down. “Reach around in my backpack and pull out the plastic bags. They should be near the top. Put them over your shoes.”
“To keep your feet dry. I can’t carry you anymore.”
“You’re not wearing any.”
“Please. Just do as I say.”
“I want to go home.”
“I do, too.”
She pulled the bags from his pack and slipped them over her shoes, then slid from his arms into the stagnant, murky water at their feet.
And so the argument went:
“When will you accept the fact that she’s going to die?” Jenna had asked a month earlier.
“I can’t stop trying,” Luke said.
“You’re making her miserable.”
“How would you know? You’re never home.”
“I’m working. I have a job.”
“I take care of Amy,” Luke said. “That’s my job.”
“Take care of her? All you do is drag her across the country, giving her false hope time after time after time.”
“You want me to throw in the towel like you?”
“I want you to accept the fact that our daughter is going to die. And damn it, Luke, let her die here, at home, with her family and friends. Someplace familiar. Not out there. Not in the middle of nowhere. Please, Luke.”
And so the argument went.
Now here, in the tunnel, Amy looked so small in Luke’s black leather jacket. “It smells like old books in here.”
Luke pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. Is it the mold? “Wrap this over your mouth and nose.”
Luke stopped and listened, thinking he heard movement. He had no desire to run into anyone, especially not with his daughter here. But it was only the hollow echo of dripping water; the tunnel walls perspired with it, glistening in the weak beam of Luke’s flashlight. Bats clung like burnt lichens to the limestone.
“Can you please tell me what we’re doing here?”
Dim light ahead. Luke turned off his flashlight. Cool air chilled the sweat on his arms and neck. The tunnel stopped beneath a grate embedded in the limestone ceiling. Light spilled through the gaps between the bars.
Luke wiped the sweat from his forehead. He surveyed the small area beneath the grate, finding a jagged ledge protruding from the tunnel wall. He motioned to it. “Here. Sit here.”
Amy rested her back against the hard rock. “I’m tired.”
“Close your eyes, honey. Try to sleep.” He dug a blanket from his backpack and placed it over his daughter. He sat next to her and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him. He looked up at the grate, took a sip of bottled water, and waited.
But wouldn’t all the endless miles, the rest stops, the gas stations, the cheap motels be worth it if they found a cure? He knew there were charlatans out there, crooks taking advantage of desperate people like him for a quick buck. He wasn’t completely naïve. But maybe the doctors back home didn’t have all the answers, maybe there really were miracles out there waiting to be found. And besides, how could he live with himself if he didn’t at least try?
He’d scoured the internet, joined discussion boards, frequented chat rooms, grasping, groping for any piece of information out there, but it was like trying to build a bridge by tossing pebbles into the ocean.
One night, an email from a stranger; “Have you heard of Padre Sapo in Guanajuato?”
He didn’t even know where Guanajuato was. He looked it up on the Internet. Middle of Mexico. So far, he’d kept his search to the U.S. Couldn’t afford to globetrot. But Mexico — that was close enough, wasn’t it? And cheap?
He replied to the email, asking for more information, and received a brief message with an attached J-Peg. Padre Sapo, the caption said. Father Toad. A poor quality picture, but Luke made out a man standing on a platform of rock in a small amphitheater carved out of a mountain. An elderly woman kissed his chest, while a line of the afflicted waited their turn.
The email contained only an address and the brief message; “From his ugliness, I was cured. May he bless and heal your child.”
A burst of feedback woke Luke up. The light spilling through the grate had turned orange. He heard voices now, too, voices from the amphitheater above. He looked at Amy. She stared back at him, eyes wide, as if trying to figure out whether or not she was still dreaming. Luke ran his fingertips lightly over her cheek.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s just me.”
Recognition filled her eyes. She shivered. “How long was I out?”
He checked his watch in the dim orange light. “Little over an hour.”
Luke stood on the ledge and craned his neck trying to see past the iron bars of the grate. “Sounds like they’re getting ready.” He couldn’t see much, except for stage lights and the thin metal pole of a microphone stand.
Footsteps thudded above. Amy looked up. “Would you please tell me what’s going on?”
For a moment, Luke looked like a little boy caught playing with matches. He shrugged. “They call him Padre Sapo. Father Toad.”
He smiled weakly. “They say his skin looks like that of a toad.”
Amy shivered. “Why are we waiting for him?”
“They say the moisture from his skin can heal anything.”
Amy stared. Shook her head. “Jesus, Dad. You’ve got to be kidding me.” She looked so tired, the shadows of the tunnel turning the dark circles beneath her eyes into a black paint.
“We’ve got to try,” Luke said. “We’ve got to try.”
When they’d first arrived in Guanajuato, they tracked down the address Luke received in the email. Amy waited in the pickup truck with the windows rolled down to let in the gentle breeze, while Luke went up to an apartment perched above a laundromat.
“Fifteen sousands.” The senorita who beckoned him in was large and sat on a wide wicker chair. She leaned forward, her jostling forearms crossing over the silver head of a cane. She smiled at Luke. A web of saliva formed between her toothless gums when she opened her mouth. She reminded Luke of a turtle. A young boy stood next to her, his skin as brown as his eyes. He tilted his head, parted his lips slightly as if in amusement as he watched Luke.
“Fifteen thousand?” Luke tried to calculate that into U.S. dollars.
Senorita seemed to read his mind and laughed. “Fifteen sousands American dollars.”
She chuckled, her gums forming a cat’s cradle of spit. “No kidding.” She dabbed at the back of her neck with a white handkerchief. She nodded at her boy and mumbled something that Luke didn’t understand.
The boy reached for Luke’s elbow. “We go now.”
The woman shook her head and waved at him as if shooing away a fly. “Go,” she said.
Outside, the boy nodded toward Amy. “What’s wrong with her?”
Luke stared at the boy. His tongue felt thick and dry. The sunlight felt sharp on his eyeballs. “Why don’t you ask her?”
The boy turned to Amy. “What’s wrong with you?”
Amy took the scarf off her head. “I picked the wrong beautician.”
Amy shook her head. “I’ve got cancer.”
“Oh.” The boy nodded. “Sorry to hear.” He reached out and ran his dark brown fingers through the fuzz of Amy’s hair. “You got very pretty eyes.”
Amy squinted at him. She smiled. “Thanks.”
The boy turned to Luke. He seemed to study him. He grabbed Luke’s wrist. “Come,” he said. “Gimme the keys to your truck.”
“Come on. I show you another way.”
“Another way to see him.”
Luke stared uncomprehendingly.
“Padre Sapo,” the boy said. “The toad.”
“I can’t take this anymore. I want to go home.”
Luke looked down from the grate, looked at his daughter slouching on the cold rock ledge, so pale and thin. How fast her thirteen years had gone by. Luke remembered the moment, the exact moment Jenna had told him she was pregnant; the smell of the lemon ammonia tile cleaner he’d just used, the sound of snowmobiles outside their window, the rerun of Cheers playing on their twenty-four inch Sony — it was one when Coach was still on. These memories were so deeply imprinted on his mind, because good God, how hard they had tried to get pregnant. It took them five years. Five years! And two rounds of in-vitro. And haven’t those thirteen years flown by so damn fast?
Amy’s cheeks darkened with anger. “Why do you keep falling for this crap? You think some guy with freak skin is going to cure me?”
Luke sighed. “We’ve come this far. We’re not going to back out now.” What else could he say? That he was selfish? That he couldn’t imagine life without her?
“Don’t you get it, Dad? I’m tired of this. Of all of this.”
She began to cry. Luke lowered himself next to her. It was so rare that she cried anymore. He put his arm around her, wiped at her tears with his thumb. She leaned into him, her shoulders heaving. Dampness spread across Luke’s shirt. What else could he say? He stroked the back of her neck. He whispered, “I have to try.”
Soft music spilled through the grate. Cello and violin. Amy sat back against the tunnel wall and wiped her tears away. Luke stood again, trying to see through the iron bars. Over the music, Luke heard muffled voices through the rock. How many were up there? How many could afford such a donation? Yet the buzz of people entering the amphitheater quickly grew.
Amy coughed into her fist and grimaced. “That one hurt.”
More feedback over the PA system. More footsteps on the stone stage above. A sonorous voice rose from the speakers, rapid-fire Spanish Luke couldn’t follow. He glanced from the grate in the ceiling to Amy sitting so fragile on the rock ledge. He had to stop doing this to her. Jenna was right. Amy couldn’t take this any more. No matter what the outcome of this trip, he knew he had to take her back home. Back to her mother. Her friends. He prayed it wasn’t too late.
But this one last time…
He had to try.
A shadow fell over the grate. A large, lumbering shape stood over Luke’s upturned face. The announcer stopped talking. The applause that followed shook the tunnel.
The boy had been right. Luke was incredulous when the boy told him the priest performed his healings over a storm grate, but there he was. “Sometimes he pours like rain,” the boy said.
Amy strained to see past her father. “What’s going on?”
Luke held his finger to his lips. His eyes remained on the man above him. The padre shifted, letting in a small stream of light, and shed a blue velvet robe. Gasps and shrieks burst from the audience. He wore nothing but a blue swimsuit pulled tightly around his massive hips. Bumps, welts and cysts cratered his skin.
Padre Sapo. The healer priest.
His voice reverberated through the amphitheater, through the stone, through the tunnel walls like aftershocks.
“Por favor,” he said, his voice hoarse, as if his vocal chords were covered with sores as well.
Numerous feet shuffled and thudded onto the stone platform. Luke could barely make out the shapes of those who approached. He shifted to get a better view, his neck sore from the strain.
A woman with a deformed hand stood in front of the priest, leaned forward and sucked at one of the cysts. She sagged and backed away. Others approached. A man with arthritic knuckles the size of golf-balls licked at Sapo’s skin. He moaned as a man in a black suit gently pulled him away. A woman held out a baby swaddled in a tattered blanket. She swiped her finger across the priest’s oozing skin and put it to the baby’s lips.
“Gracias,” she cried. “Gracias.”
More people came. They sucked and licked at the lizard-like body.
“Dad? What’s happening?”
Luke snapped out of his trance. He reached into his backpack and grabbed an empty Tupperware container and handkerchief. He pushed the handkerchief through the iron bars and pressed it tentatively to the bottoms of Sapo’s feet. Could he feel this? Luke squeezed the handkerchief over the container, releasing little more than a drop. He repeated the process, pressing the handkerchief between the unyielding bars, lightly dabbing it against the bottoms of the scabrous feet, squeezing out scarce drops. Was it enough? Soon the soles of the priest’s feet were merely dry riverbeds of calluses.
Above, more people ambled forward and sipped at the liquid that oozed from Sapo’s skin, from his chest, legs and face.
How much time did they have? Luke wished the gaps in the grate were wider. It was impossible to maneuver the handkerchief through them any higher. Besides, what if he was seen? What would happen if someone saw a piece of white cloth poking up through the stage?
A man in a wheelchair sucked on the priest’s fingers. A boy on a splintered crutch lapped at his elbow. An old woman knelt to the floor and sucked on his shin. All of them offered their thanks in muffled Spanish.
The hollow thud of footsteps diminished. A man bent over, a tongue slipping from his deformed face, and suckled a cyst on the priest’s belly.
There couldn’t be much time left. Luke looked at Amy. She stared back with wide, frightened eyes. Could she see the monstrosity above them? Why did he bring her here? Why didn’t he leave her back in the truck? Padre Sapo turned in a slow circle. Luke dug in the front of his backpack. There was a pocketknife, but the blade was too short. He pulled out one of Amy’s spiral-bound notebooks. It was a journal she’d kept religiously since learning she had cancer. Luke tugged and yanked the metal spiral, ripping it free.
Frantic now, he straightened out the end of the spiral. Sapo began to lumber away. More light spilled through the grate. Luke wiped sweat from his eyes, then grunted as he jabbed the wire through one of the gaps still covered with Sapo’s foot. He jabbed again and again, holding the Tupperware container in his other hand, catching the thin streams of liquid that trickled between the bars.
The container quickly filled with Padre Sapo’s blood.
Luke stopped and fumbled with the container’s cover, trying to press it on tightly. The light from above disappeared. When Luke glanced up, he realized that Sapo had dropped to his knees, and was now peering through the iron bars of the grate. Luke looked away, finally able to snap the cover into place.
“Get up.” Luke touched Amy’s arm. “Time to go.”
The priest’s deformed fingers hooked around the bars. “Por favor,” he croaked. “No vayas! No vayas!”
Luke shrugged on his backpack and scooped Amy into his arms. Sweat streamed into his eyes, making it hard to see.
“Sangre,” the priest bellowed. “No lo bebes tu. Malo! Malo!”
Luke ran. The cone of his flashlight wobbled over the tunnel walls. He expected someone to appear in its feeble beam at any moment. Guards. Police. Someone who would try to stop him from saving his daughter.
Sapo’s cries echoed through the cavern. “No lo hagas. No lo hagas!”
Surely someone waited for them at the entrance. Someone waiting to take the priest’s healing liquid from them and spill it onto the ground. Someone waiting to throw them into jail, or worse.
Luke stopped. Listened. All he heard was his own breathing, his own heartbeat.
He set Amy down. Tugged off his pack and took out the container of fluid. He pried off the cover and held the container out to Amy. If they were caught, at least the elixir would be working its way through Amy’s body.
“Drink it,” he said.
Amy looked at him with disgust. “No way.”
“You have to.”
Luke’s voice trembled. “What harm can it do, huh? You’re already at death’s door, so what’s a few sips of this gonna do?” He felt like shit saying it, but what else could he do?
He heard something. Footsteps?
“Here, look.” He lifted the container to his lips and took a sip. “See?” He thought a moment. “It tastes like broth.” He wiped the residue off his lips with the back of his hand.
More tears welled up in Amy’s sunken eyes. She took the container from her father. Stared at him. Gulped the whole thing down without taking her eyes off him. She threw the container to the ground.
“Can we go home now, please?”
Luke reached out and hugged her. “I promise.”
Luke slowed at the tunnel entrance and peered out. The landscape was still and dark. Where were the police? The Federales? But there was no one. Luke slumped against the rough rock of the entrance. “Shit,” he muttered.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Luke sighed. “The truck’s gone.”
They walked hand in hand along a gravel road. Luke wasn’t sure how far they were from town, but at least the night was warm, and the sky clear.
“I feel funny,” Amy said.
Luke watched her, wondering what to do. Surely he could make it back to town, but what about Amy?
Stop pushing her so hard.
He guided her into the brush a short distance off the road and found a small clearing. He set the backpack down. “Lie down. Put your head on this.”
Amy no longer questioned. Luke laid next to her, putting an arm over her, the blanket over them both. A cool breeze rustled the brush around them, and Luke rubbed Amy’s back until she began to snore. He closed his eyes against the starlight. Drifted in and out of sleep. When he opened his eyes again, the stars appeared muted. Fuzzy. They seemed to pulsate. His stomach felt scooped out. His throat threatened to close.
But what about Amy? What if she doesn’t make it through the night?
He felt her forehead, listened carefully to her breathing, watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall. She seemed fine, but he couldn’t trust his own senses any more. The stars looked like they’d been smeared across the sky with a paint brush. His skin tingled.
What’s happening to me? Was it happening to Amy as well?
What is that thing’s blood doing to me?
He opened his mouth to call out to Amy, to wake her and ask her how she felt, but his tongue no longer worked. It felt like dozens of tiny ants skittered over his teeth and gums. He fell back on the hard ground, losing consciousness to the sound of crickets chirping, singing his name.
The violet haze of an early dawn…
Luke woke in long, slow stages. When he tried to speak, there was only a wet, whistling sound. The right side of his body felt sticky and numb. Snot dripped from his nose into his mouth. He felt something next to him. He struggled to turn his head.
“Amy?” he finally managed. He couldn’t focus.
There was no answer, and his heart tried to beat out of his chest in panic.
But then — movement.
His ears felt stuffed with wet cotton.
“Amy? You okay?”
Something wasn’t right. Something…
Then he felt it, felt what was wrong, as Amy moved next to him, as feeling returned to his body. Their skin — it oozed clear liquid onto the ground around them. Their skin — full of welts and cysts.
—fused together where his arm lied over her chest.
“Jesus,” Luke croaked.
What else could he say?
His vision cleared, and he saw that she was worse off than he was, her entire body a mass of suppurating sores.
“God,” he said.
“Dad?” Amy turned her dripping eyes toward him. “It’s okay.”
“No.” Luke tried to shake his head.
“We won’t charge people. We won’t make them pay.”
“We can heal now. Don’t you see?”
And he did see. Out of the corners of his eyes, thick with matter, he saw the hard, rocky ground around their bodies sprouting small, green shoots. His attention turned back to his daughter as a tube-like appendage unraveled from her mouth. She spoke around it.
“There are so many who need us,” she said. “So many…”
The appendage wavered for a moment, as if sensing the air. It hovered in front of Luke’s eyes, and then gently, it settled onto a cyst widening on Luke’s forehead. With soft sucking sounds, it began to drink.
Narcissus in Links
I’ve seen fog in the valley many times, but never quite like this. Rivulets of blue swirl and eddy through it like blueberries blending into vanilla ice cream. At first, I thought it was a trick of the light, of clouds flying quickly through the bright blue sky, but now I have to wonder.
A week ago, I conducted a computer search on my name. I’ve been getting a few things published lately, and I wanted to know; had I become somebody on the wide-open plains of the World Wide Web?
In the real world, my wife Jill is the breadwinner of the family. She does well enough to pay the mortgage on our 3,000 square foot home, as well as letting me take a sabbatical from work to pursue a career in writing fiction. I assured her I’d easily make five grand the first year, then gradually increase each year after that, what with the book deals, the sale of foreign and movie rights, etc, so that she’d be able to quit and we could move to a ranch in Montana, own horses and have parties where our new friends would trade recipes for home-brewed beer. I’ve been at it over a year now, and my gross receipts for short stories have totaled $87.21. That didn’t even cover my bar tab at the last World Fantasy Convention. And of the five novels I was planning to write this first year (one every two months with two one-month working vacations where I’d travel and do research) I’ve filled five pages up with notes. And of those five pages, two of them have phone messages I jotted down for Jill.
Maybe — just maybe — I was gaining some momentum on the web.
I typed in “Ben Cleaver” with quotes around the whole thing, waited a few seconds, and up popped the first ten links. Ten out of 497. Wow! 497 links to Ben Cleaver. My presence was alive and well on the virtual silken weaves of the ‘net. But as I scrolled down the page, my head deflated. Apparently I wasn’t the only Ben Cleaver in the universe. In fact, most of the Ben Cleavers listed were not me.
There was a Ben Cleaver on the East Valley High wrestling team in Colorado. A Ben Cleaver who dealt in Meerschaum pipes. A Ben Cleaver who was principal of an elementary school. And look at this guy! A Ben Cleaver who was vice-president of Val-Corp, apparently a large company by the number of links pointing to it. Mostly press releases quoting him on things like “chain supply management” and “cost-effective global networking.”
Then there was a Ben Cleaver who died in the civil war. This one intrigued me. I clicked on the link, and for the first time ever, found myself face to face with another Ben Cleaver. He stared stiffly over my right shoulder in full Union garb. It was one of those old, grainy sepia-toned prints. Odd to see someone who once owned my name over a hundred years before I was born.
And look at that! Finally. A link to a message board on which I lavished praise on Don D’Auria, editor at Leisure Books. “Don, I appreciate you publishing the works of…”
The computer froze up. Damn it!
As I waited for the computer to get its act together, I wondered how many other Ben Cleavers were out there. I wanted to leave my mark upon this world, but who was to say my mark wouldn’t get lost among a multitude of other Ben Cleavers? A feeling of pointlessness ran its scrawny fingers over my thighs, plucking at my little black leg hairs.
The computer sparked back to life.
I entered“Ben Cleaver.”
420 hits. Hadn’t there been more last time?
Another intriguing link took me to a site called The House of Platinum, founded by one Ben Cleaver. It looked as if an Arabic street bazaar had vomited a tray of baubles and trinkets across the screen. In the center was a Taj Mahal-looking place encrusted with jewels. Was it a record company? A strip club? Nope. It was a cult.
Thoughts ran through my head, the silly thoughts of a once care-free man—
Perhaps I should start my own cult. Use my middle initial so as not to be confused with the House of Platinum guy. Maybe I could call it The House of Vinyl Siding.
What if I contacted these other Ben Cleavers? We could create a Ben Cleaver Society. Pool our resources and buy a ranch in Montana. Populate it with nothing but Ben Cleavers!
Thoughts like that.
I hit the back button.
My computer froze up again.
Hadn’t I wasted enough time? I’d already eyeballed the first hundred links, and as far as this Ben Cleaver was concerned, there wasn’t much to write home about. If anything, it made me feel like a grain of sand in a dirty kitty-litter box. I apparently didn’t rank very high on the Ben Cleaver totem pole.
Ben Cleaver; vice-president of a large company.
Ben Cleaver; faced death and caught it in the civil war.
Ben Cleaver; principal at an elementary school.
Ben Cleaver; leader of a cult.
And what could be said about me?
Ben Cleaver; message board stalker of writers much more talented than I.
I hit the restart button, logged back onto the net, brought up the search engine and typed in my name.
396 hits. Huh. Did I do something different this time, or is the net really such a fickle mistress?
I skipped ahead to links 120-130.
Another blurb of mine on a message board.
“Mort, I’m a big fan. Where do you get your ideas?”
Okay, did everything need a fucking link to it?
Then there was the web page of a Steven Ben Cleaver. A youngster, apparently, who’d made it on some honor roll.
I never made the honor roll.
Another Ben Cleaver who was an endocrinologist.
More of Ben Cleaver, vice-pres of Val-Corp. The same press release over and over.
More civil war links to Ben Cleaver.
Shouldn’t a name be like a snowflake? A fingerprint? A strand of DNA? Something unique like a domain name, a patent, a social security number?
Jill shouted from the bedroom. “Aren’t you finished checking your email?”
“Be right there.”
I logged off.
As I write this, all is silent on the highway that winds past our backyard. No roar of semis or cars or motorcycles. And there’s no singing of birds, or the playful holler of the neighborhood children. And that fog — that blueberry swirl fog — is creeping up the hill.
I stopped checking the links to my name for a few days, but two nights ago—
I typed in “Ben Cleaver.”
I realize it can change daily, but that’s less than half of what it was when I first conducted this search.
More silly thoughts from what was still, at that time, a care-free man—
Was a conspiracy underway to get rid of all the Ben Cleavers of the world? Was the idea of a society of Ben Cleavers too much? Perhaps one of the other Ben Cleavers wanted to eliminate us one by one until only he remained. I suspected Ben Cleaver, vice-president of Val-Corp. To reach a position like that, you have to be crafty. Ruthless. He was only one step away from being on top of his company, so why not dominate the playing field of names as well?
Thoughts like that.
I scrolled through the search results. There was the usual cast. Civil War Ben Cleaver. Val-Corp vice-president Ben Cleaver. House of Platinum Ben Cleaver. Honor roll Ben Cleaver. Another inane blurb I left on a message board. Is it really necessary for these to be linked? I’ll have to watch what I say in the future, or at least not post after four rum and Cokes.
“Hey Mort, man — you rock! I mean, you really rock!!” I felt like pounding my head onto the keyboard.
Jill again. “Ben? Honey? You coming to bed?”
The women I’ve known don’t value the importance of alone time. Jill has said that if she were never alone for the rest of her life, it would be fine with her. In fact, she’d prefer that. Prefer constant company, continuous companionship.
I used to think this was a strange defect particular to women. But maybe I’m the one with the defect. Maybe Jill’s longing for constant companionship, whether it be with me or her family or friends, is a symptom of altruism, pure and simple. A desire to share. Maybe that’s the true sign of unselfishness.
Maybe I should spend more time with her.
My computer stopped working only ten minutes ago, so I’m going to write as fast as I can the old-fashioned way; on a pad of paper. With a pen.
I can no longer see the valley below. The phones aren’t working. I don’t know where Jill is. I shut the computer room window this morning, because what if that strange fog seeps into our house?
Last night. Paranoia set in. Only 103 hits when I entered “Ben Cleaver”. The vice-president of Val-Corp and all his captivating press releases were gone. Maybe their computers were down. Their network? Hell, I didn’t know how it worked. But other Ben Cleavers were gone, too. The elementary school principal. The honor roll student.
I hit reload. The hits dropped to 98. I stared at the screen.
Hit reload again.
I noticed that civil war Ben Cleaver had disappeared.
Jill called out from the bedroom. “Ben?”
“In a minute.”
“How long are you going to be?”
“Just a minute!”
I tapped on the mouse. Hit reload again.
Exhaled. The number of hits remained at 97.
I had to stop. I had to pry myself away from the screen. I didn’t know what this was all about, but it couldn’t be something bad, could it? The worst it could be was some computer virus roaring across the virtual highway like a PCP freak on a Harley. Right?
I pushed the chair away from the computer, walked zombie-like down the hall and fell into bed.
“Sorry I snapped at you,” I whispered, but Jill was already out. I kissed the back of her neck and watched her sleep. She looked so vulnerable. A sleeping child. I rolled onto my back, but the pillow wouldn’t conform correctly to the shape of my head. It’s hard to fall asleep when you have so much to say, but don’t know how to say it, or are afraid to say it, or don’t want to wake up the one you want to say it to because she’s so goddamn beautiful laying there, and you feel that if you wake her, you’ll ruin something so pure and perfect and rare.
But mostly, I thought about the links.
What was going on?
And why should I care if tomorrow there were only fifty hits? Twenty hits? What difference would it make?
I told myself I wouldn’t even check. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Forget about it. I won’t even check my email until Friday. It was Tuesday then, so I figured three days of no checking. Jill’s right when she says I’m too damn obsessive about my email. Especially since all I get is spam about enlarging my penis and *** HOT COED COLLEGE GIRLS *** and Look and Feel Younger in Just 10 Days!
So who cares? Who cares if I don’t find out until Friday? Not me, boy. No way.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of cotton candy. I haven’t had cotton candy in over a decade, but I woke up craving it.
Before Jill woke up, I snuck down to the computer and fired it up.
How could I not look? Just a quick peek. I brought up the search engine.
Typed in “Ben Cleaver”.
Only two hits.
The note I’d left on Mort Castle’s message board. (Hey Mort, man — you rock!)
The other was for The House of Platinum.
Doesn’t matter. No big deal.
I tapped nervously on the mouse. I looked outside.
The valley below was engulfed in the blueberry swirl ice-cream fog. It crept up the hill in softly rolling waves. My hand trembled over the mouse. I was afraid to hit reload.
She didn’t answer.
“Jill? Wake up!”
I clicked on The House of Platinum link. Instead of the website, an error message popped up informing me that the site no longer existed.
I hit the back button. Hit reload.
I looked out the window. The blue haze rolled up gently to the highway that wound past our house. Concrete crumbled and dissolved as the haze drifted over it.
“Jill, damn it, wake up!”
Where was the smoke and dust? The sounds of explosions? Screams? Where was the fire and brimstone and the blare of Gabriel’s trumpet? Where, oh God, where is Jill?
It’s so quiet. Peaceful. Beautiful. The fog laps at the foundation of our house like a playful kitten. It rises softly. Quietly. Reminds me of cotton candy.
I keep staring at my reflection in the blank computer screen. Once I put down this pen, it’ll be all I have left.
The children gathered at the fence of the corral, jockeying for position as the cowhands separated the calves from their mothers. The calves bawled, jumped and kicked to the amusement of the students, while their mothers groaned with eyes rolling wildly and milk dripping from their teats onto the dusty ground.
My class had three children who stayed home that day, which was better than previous years. The first year we took a field trip to Culver’s Farm, only nineteen of my thirty-four third-graders attended. Parents retain the right to keep their kids home on branding day, but they seem to have grown more tolerant of the excursion. I think it’s a good way for the kids to see how the world works. And hell, any reason to get out of the city, with its gray skies, buildings and sidewalks, and into the fresh air of farm country is good enough for me.
All three third-grade classes from Lincoln Elementary were there, as well as the third graders from Roosevelt and Martin Luther King elementary schools. A lot of kids, and it was already a hot day.
I passed out popsicles and bottled water to the children in my class. Even though we had to pay for these out of our own pockets, I felt it was the least I could do. Most of the other teachers did the same, except Ms. Durphy, also from Lincoln, who filled up plastic gallon milk jugs with lukewarm tap water. I felt sorry for her students. They eyed our fruit-flavored popsicles with longing. I wished I’d brought enough for her class, but that would be an affront to Durphy’s authority. She was one of those gems who took out her personal problems on her class and passed it off as a way to get through to them. Frankly, I think all she needed was another bull dyke to come along and give her a couple good nights with a strap-on. Might put her in a better mood for a few days.
I waved at her when she glanced my way. “Morning, Janet.”
She nodded curtly, her eyes narrowed. She hated it when I didn’t address her as Ms. Durphy in front of the kids. As if they gave a shit. I encourage my class from the get-go to call me Ben. If you want to get through to the kids, show them some respect.
A student of mine tugged at my shirtsleeve. Tim Crocker. “Does it hurt?”
I put my hand on his shoulder and squatted. “Remember what we talked about in class? It doesn’t really hurt. Maybe for a little while, but they have thick hides.”
He looked nervous, as if a handful of bees buzzed around his frizzy black hair.
“It’s like when you get a shot,” I said. “A little sting, and that’s it.” I gave him a pat. “Okay?”
He looked me in the eye, trying to find a lie in there somewhere, then nodded. “Okay. I guess.”
Good enough for me.
“Ben?” It was Cal Sellers, the third of our trio of teachers from Lincoln.
“Hey, Cal. How’s it going?”
He bit off the end of a grape Popsicle and looked out at the dust rising in the corral. “Fine,” he said. Then he shook his head. “I hate these days. Wish I could stay home. Call in a sub.”
“Why don’t you?”
He glanced up at me, blinking from the hot sun. “Why don’t I what? Call in a sub?” He squinted at the enthralled faces of his students as they watched the events unfold in the corral. “I’d feel like I’m shirking my responsibility. You know? I mean, I spend one hell of a lot of time gaining their trust, and if I didn’t show up on today of all days…”
Good old Cal. Even on a day like today, he wore a shirt and tie, trousers, good shoes whose polished sheen was already coated with dirt.
As for myself, I’d opted years ago for jeans, a flannel shirt and shit-kicker boots for branding day. This was a farm, not an art museum.
“I better check on Culver,” I said. “Make sure the kids are behaving.”
Cal nodded. “I’ll hold down the fort here.”
Good boy, Cal.
I walked through the children huddled up to the corral fence. A wave of excited chatter arose, and I saw that the first calf had been roped by the hind legs and pulled to the fire. Two cowboys wrestled it to the ground, while a third untied its legs and held onto them. One of the cowboys who’d tackled the calf knelt on its neck, while the other pulled a brand out of the fire and pressed it to the bawling calf’s flank.
I heard groans, cheers and hoots. I heard a child wretch, followed by a slew of voices saying “Eeew!” and “Gross!” but when I looked toward the perpetrator, Cal was already next to her, wiping at the poor girl’s mouth with his handkerchief. I headed over to the barn.
The barn was big and red and had stood for seventy-eight years, raised by Bertrand Culver’s father and a host of neighboring farmers. There’d been a big celebration the day of the raising, and Mrs. Culver proudly showed anyone who cared to look an album brimming with black and white photos of the event.
As I entered, I felt like Jonah being swallowed by the whale as I moved from bright sun to deep shadow. My eyes adjusted quickly, and I sucked in a sweet lungful of hay dust and cattle smells. Soft strands of sunlight spooled from fractures in the roof and walls.
We let in ten children at a time while the branding went on outside. They huddled around Bertrand Culver — current patriarch of the Culver family and all-around head honcho of the farm. He held up a branding iron of cold, black steel, and let the kids inspect, touch and pass it around.
I stopped just outside the circle of children and listened to his soft, gravelly voice.
“Every farm has their different brand,” Culver told them. “Their different mark. Back in the old days, there weren’t the fences like there are today, so we branded cattle in case one of our cows wandered onto someone else’s land. That way, we could tell whose cows belonged to who.”
I got his attention with a nod and a smile. “Mr. Culver, how’s everyone behaving today?”
He winked, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth stretching. “Just fine, Ben. Haven’t had to whup one, yet.”
Some of the kids giggled.
He passed along another brand. He’d acquired quite a collection over the years from auctions and antique stores. His own mark was a stylized CFF, or C double F, which stood simply for Culver Family Farm.
Jennifer Bately, one of my smartest students, raised her hand.
Culver nodded. “Yes, m’am?”
She pointed to an area behind him. “What are those ones for? Why are they smaller?”
Culver looked over his shoulder and adjusted his black cowboy hat. He smiled at Jennifer. “We’ll talk about those next. But let’s get back to what I was saying.” One of the brands passed around the circle came back to him. He held it like a riding crop. “Another reason we branded was ‘cause of cattle rustlers. It was a lot easier to get our cattle back if they were marked.”
Tow-headed Gary Billings raised his hand. “Are there still cattle rustlers?”
Culver nodded. “Long as cattle are worth something, there’ll be rustlers. Just like there’ll always be bank robbers and muggers and kidnappers. Always someone around who wants to take something that ain’t theirs. Understand?”
Gary nodded, his mouth hanging open around an overbite.
Then Jennifer Bately, her eyes having never left the area behind Culver, gasped and put a hand to her mouth. She stifled a cry, turned and walked outside the tight circle. She gagged, as if about to vomit, so I went over to her while Culver continued his talk. I knelt and put my arm around her.
She wiped at the tears collecting in her eyes. “I just realized—” She composed herself. Looked up at me.
I patted her back. “It’s all right.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.”
I wiped at a drop of sweat that hovered on the tip of my nose. “It’s part of life. Something we live with, you know?”
She nodded again, looking up at the hayloft.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“I think so.”
“Do you need to go outside?”
She wiped at her cheek and took a deep breath. “No. I’m okay.”
I stood up and gently guided her back to the circle. The children listened intently as Culver reiterated what I’d already told them in class about the way things are in this day and age.
Once all the students had been through Culver’s lecture and demonstration, Barbara Culver, Bertrand’s wife of forty-some years, rang the dinner bell, and her own children passed out paper plates, cornbread, slices of watermelon, corn on the cob slathered with butter, hot dogs and hamburgers.
We ate our lunch scattered about the property around the corral and under the shade of maple and oak trees and by the side of the barn. The cowhands also ate lunch, and I wondered how many years they’d been doing this — how many classes they’d tended to, how many students. Were they used to it by now, or were some of them still green around the gills? Could you ever get used to it?
A few of the cowhands ate together, leaning back casually against the corral fence, while others sat with the children and let them try on their cowboy hats, feel the leather of their chaps. Some told jokes, or answered questions about what to expect later in the day.
I took my paper plate and lemonade over to Ms. Durphy and Cal, who sat in the shade of the big red barn. I eased down to the ground and spread my legs out.
Cal Seller’s plate sat half-eaten next to him.
“Not hungry?” I asked.
He looked at his plate. Shrugged. “You know — just the day.”
“We’re halfway through it,” I reminded him.
“But that was the easy half.”
“Easy for you,” Ms. Durphy said. “I can’t stand the smell of this place.” She waved a hand over her plate, trying to rid it of the half-dozen flies hovering over her cornbread.
“The smell’s the best part,” I said. “That, and the fresh air.”
“You call this fresh air?” Durphy said. “It turns my sinuses to mush.” She elaborated by blowing her nose into her napkin.
Then Cal said, “Maybe it smells fine now, but every time this day ends, I can’t get rid of the other smell. The smell of the branding.”
I looked over at the students as they finished their lunches. They were brave kids. Taking everything in stride. I was proud of them. Not just my students, but Durphy’s and Cal’s as well. Looking from one child’s face to the other, I didn’t see a frightened one in the bunch. They were excited, yes, and some talked a mile a minute. Others giggled nervously or paced and fidgeted over the grounds, but not one looked like they wanted to turn tail and run.
“We got a good bunch this year,” I said.
Ms. Durphy rolled her eyes and stifled a belch.
Cal wiped his chin with a handkerchief and said, “We’ve got a good bunch every year.”
For a moment, I thought he was going to cry. Even Janet Durphy took her eyes off her plate and looked up at Cal with concern. But Cal cleared his throat, stood and dusted off the seat of his trousers.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said. He blew the whistle he wore around his neck and called out to his students, instructing them to line up at the barn door.
Ms. Durphy gathered her students together and made them wait in line behind Cal’s class. “Keep your voices down,” she said, her voice stern. “Stop shouting!”
Why didn’t she just let them play for another half hour? It would take that long for Cal’s class to take their second turn in the barn, this time as one group. I wasn’t about to gather my students yet. Let ’em enjoy this beautiful early summer day. Let ’em play tag and Frisbee. Let ’em explore the farm and look at the animals. This was a rare thing for them to be out of the city.
I sat outside the corral fence. The cowhands had finished lunch and were helping inside the barn now. The corral itself was empty, save for the fire that still burned, and the branding irons stuck in it, waiting to be taken out and cooled down and put away until the next time they were needed.
Again, I heard Durphy telling her kids to behave and stay in line, and how she didn’t want to have to give anyone detention for misbehavior. I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up.
A shadow fell over me and I looked up at Jennifer Bately. She squinted at me. Her hands were behind her back. She moved dirt around with the toe of her sneaker.
“Jennifer? You okay?”
She nodded, then asked, “You sure it doesn’t hurt?”
The sun shined in my eyes as I looked up at her, so it was hard to see the expression on her face, hard to see whether she was frightened or nervous, but I didn’t hear either of those emotions in her voice. What I heard was an eagerness to hear me tell her that it didn’t hurt, it’s only like a sting, like getting a shot. I knew that’s what she wanted to hear, and I knew she wanted to trust me with all her heart when I told her that.
So I nodded into the sunlight. “I’m sure. It doesn’t hurt. Not much. It’s just like getting a shot is all. No different than that. Okay?”
I guess she nodded. I couldn’t tell in the sun’s glare, but she didn’t say anything else. She turned and walked away.
I wondered if there was anything different I should tell next year’s batch of third-graders. Whether or not I should fine-tune my lecture to make them less afraid or less anxious about branding day. As it was, I tried my best to explain how branding was a way to find something when it got lost or had been taken by someone who shouldn’t have it. Much like Culver explained it to all the kids he talked to. I told them about how their mothers and fathers would want the same kind of thing for them. Their parents wanted the best for them, and would want to find them if anyone ever took them who wasn’t supposed to. And with all the budget cuts, there really wasn’t a better way.
I blew my whistle.
The last of Ms. Durphy’s class disappeared into the deep shadows of the barn.
“Let’s line up,” I said. “A through Z.”
Jennifer Bately was second in line behind Jason Aldritch.
They lined up and I walked down the line to make sure they were all accounted for. I also wanted to be available to answer any last questions they may have had.
I stepped back to the front of the line. “Okay.” I smiled. “Here we go.”
We walked into the smoky expanse of the red barn. A pit of coals glowed at the far end. Squeals and yelps of Ms. Durphy’s students got swallowed up in the hayloft and the old barn wood. A lone cow chewed and shuffled in its pen.
Beyond the hot coals was a table set up with gauze, bandages and ointment. Barbara Culver sat in the hayloft on a bale of hay. She played a fiddle and sang, her sweet voice drifting over us like a soft kiss.
Iron rods protruded from the coals.
The nearer we got, the quieter my students became.
I watched Bertrand pull a rod out from the coals and show the hot end to one of the last of Ms. Durphy’s students, a red-haired boy with wide brown eyes.
“See,” Culver explained, “how the brand is cooling to that ash gray color?”
The boy barely nodded.
“That’s just the right temperature.” He winked at the boy, friendly as could be. “You ready?”
Again, a slight nod.
Culver tilted his head back to two of the cowhands standing at the ready. They wore facemasks to protect them from the smell. One grabbed the boy’s arms, while the other held the boy’s legs steady. Culver pulled up the boy’s shirt.
I put my hand on Jennifer Bately’s shoulder.
At the end of the iron were the initials L.E. Lincoln Elementary. Beneath that was a small set of numbers identifying our city, state and school district.
The hot iron neared the boy’s skin.
I winked at Jennifer.
“Just a sting,” I assured her. “Just a sting.”
Night of the Cold Caller
“How are you this evening?”
“Uh, geez — look, I just sat down to dinner.”
“When’s a more convenient time?”
“How about never?”
“How was dinner?”
“What? Oh. Hey, let’s be honest here. I can’t stand you people, always interrupting meals, T.V., time with my family. Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”
“I apologize, but — “
“I thought I told you—”
“Did you listen to the message I left?”
“You mean when you called, what, twenty, thirty minutes ago?”
“You’re a persistent little prick aren’t you? Calling from a different number so I wouldn’t recognize it on the caller I.D.—”
“Did you listen to the message?”
“If I could just take a few minutes of your time.”
“Do the words ‘Do Not Call List’ mean anything to you?”
“Please. It will only take a minute.”
“No. N. O. No. No, no, no!”
“Listen, you idiot, I’m calling the cops. I’m giving them all the numbers you’ve called from. Then I’m suing your ass, your company’s ass, and if your mother’s still alive, I’ll sue her ass, too. You got that?”
“Got it, but Mr. Arnold, just let me say three words.”
“You’re digging a deeper hole, buddy.”
“Kraaken Zum Tweenz.”
“Kraaken Zum Tweenz.”
“Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes. Yes, I understand. Sir.”
“Be ready in ten minutes.”
“You should’ve listened to me earlier. Give your mate and spawn a kiss goodbye, then prepare for transport. Our time has come.”
“Nine minutes. Midnight.”
“Honey? Who was that?”
“Nobody, dear. Just another phone solicitor. Go back to sleep.”
“You haven’t kissed me like that in a long time.”
“I love you. Now go back to sleep.”
It was dark and hot, and the smells were those of rot and perspiration. Clay moved with a mechanical precision through the tunnel, the light on his hard hat moving from the bottom of the wall to the top in a sweeping zigzag pattern. If a chunk of glass or metal winked at him, he’d take his dulled pick and dislodge it as best he could. Sometimes, if he was careful, he could remove an entire glass bottle that way without it shattering. He’d place it, along with the plastic containers, aluminum cans, bullets, and other items of value, in his cart. He thought it was best to have a method, best to focus on one’s work. It made it all the easier to get through the day that way. Made it possible not to lose his sanity and try digging his way out to the top like others had. He’d come across more than one miner who tried desperately to dig their way out, all the old bones and debris crushing them in a suffocating avalanche.
He had spent his first fourteen years on the surface. The waters had receded, but what good had that been? There was still not enough room. And the Game had been going on for the last fifty years.
The rules were simple. You’re placed deep in the mines, and you have to find your way out. This could take years, and you had to work for your food. You had to mine the precious remnants of past generations. Aluminum. Plastic. Steel.
They called it a game, but it really wasn’t a game at all. How many people had Clay known to make it out alive when he had been above? Had he known any? Even his father never made it out. His father had been a strong man, levelheaded — if anyone could make it out, he could.
Yet he hadn’t. Clay had not seen his father in five years.
Sometimes, when the oxygen was low, Clay imagined his father down there next to him, watching him work. Was it possible he was still alive? Could he have survived all these years in the tunnels? Did he make it out in the year and a half that Clay had been down here?
He remembered watching his father being hauled into the tunnel’s entrance on a mining cart, arms and legs manacled. His father looked up at him and smiled just before the entrance of the tunnel swallowed him in one pitch-black gulp.
Maybe that was the worst — the fact that he remembered the surface. Remembered feeling the fresh air on his skin, the sun like a kiss on his face. Fresh water, the sound it made lapping at the shores of old crushed rock and bone.
Best not to think too much. Best not to let fading memories instill too much hope.
Some of the men sang to keep from thinking too much. But Clay didn’t believe in that. To him, their voices sounded pitiful and lonely ricocheting through the tunnels, and whenever he tried to sing, his voice returning to him unheeded in diminishing echoes, it reminded him of how much of his life had been wasted in the mines.
No. It was best to concentrate on the swing of the pick, the connection of metal to bone. Keep the senses tuned to the rhythm, the *chink* an accent to every fourth beat of the heart. Even though it made a crude clock, a cruel reminder of the glacial passage of time below the surface — at least it denoted progress. Momentum. At least each strike at a tunnel wall was a strike toward freedom.
Two cubic meters of compacted bone and dirt loosened and tumbled around his work boots. He held his breath a moment, listening for signs of instability, the telltale rumblings of a potential cave-in. But the debris settled around his ankles and the tunnel’s walls held tight. He leaned over, kicking apart the remnants of a not-too-distant past. There was a femur. A jaw-bone. Half of a skull. A set of ribs.
Amidst the rubble, something winked at him in the weak cone of his helmet’s light. He reached down, but stopped short. It was a copper penny. He looked behind him into the tunnel’s dark throat. He waited, straining to listen above the sound of his own breathing.
You can never be too careful. That’s what his grandmother always told him. They’re always watching, Clay. Always listening. And she was right. How else could they know where to find you, to dole out their pitiful ration of food, have it delivered to within ten feet of where you toiled? Their little rusty-can robots on squeaky wheels, the food tray balanced on top of their short squat bodies, and if the food spills on its way to you, that’s your own tough luck. Another good reason not to dig at too sharp of an angle. If the damn things have to find you on a steep upsweep, half your food’s going to be soaking into the ground, soaking into the upturned bony mouths of the hundreds of skulls that lined the tunnel floors.
He squatted over the penny, pretending to dig at a phantom stone in his boot, then quickly slid the penny between the boot’s hard leather, and his own callused skin. He stood.
You can never be too careful.
He filled his cart with the bony detritus hewn from the tunnel. Pressed a button on the cart that signaled another worker, another Player-of-the-Game, to bring an emptied cart and haul the full one away.
There’s always someone lower than you, he thought. Always someone worth less no matter how worthless you are.
He heard steps coming toward him, the dull crunch of hard boot rubber on old bone. He didn’t turn around to look. What if it was one of them, one of the enforcers sent to terminate his play? Had they seen him take the penny?
The light from another helmet threw Clay’s shadow flat against the tunnel wall. If he had been caught, if it was time to leave the game, he didn’t want to see it coming.
He felt a presence behind him, waiting. Clay stared straight ahead. Lifted his dull pick and swung at his own shadow. It struck weakly against solid bone.
Get it over with, he thought, the back of his neck hot in the glare of the other light. But there was only the receding squeak of the cart’s wheels as it was hauled away.
His shoulders sagged. The smell of his own sweat, the feel of heat prickling his face, overwhelmed him. He wanted to drop to the ground and sleep until the game was over. Sleep until the sun engulfed the planet. The sleep of eternity. He often envied the previous owners of the bones he picked through.
But he heard his grandmother’s voice again. The last words she said to him before he was swallowed up in the tunnel’s maw.
“We’re not quitters, Clay. Don’t you ever give up.”
He rolled his shoulders back. Let the tears flow down his dirt caked cheeks. He took a deep breath, the dust-filled oxygen like glass shards in his lungs. He swung his arm, the pick bouncing impotently off the mass of bone in front of him. But he forced himself to keep swinging.
“Did you hear it? Eddie made it out.”
“Hey, did you know — Frank broke through.”
The miners thrived on them.
“They’re sending people down from above to show us the way out. They’re going to help us. They’re actually going to help us out of this goddamn mess!”
Rumors of the sunlight above, of how far they had come, of how close they were to the surface. The rumors gave them hope. Yet the rumors could kill. There were times they stirred a man’s heart past the point of acceptance, shook it up until he couldn’t take it any more, and he had to get to the surface right the fuck now. He’d dig like a madman, burrowing up through the dirt at a dangerous angle, not paying attention to the intricacies, the textures of the earth. More often than not he’d become trapped. The earth, the bones, would cave in around him, crushing him, jamming his fingernails, his teeth, his eyes full of countless generations of the dead.
Clay ignored the rumors as best he could. What good were they? If he was near the surface, he’d find out soon enough, rumor or not. Best not to let glimmers of false hope lead to pain and agony further down the line.
He believed that the only way out was to work methodically. Dig slowly, carefully, consistently. Eventually, his pick would break through the surface and the fresh air would fill his lungs, the sun fill his heart.
“I know your father.”
The voice arrived at Clay’s ear like one of the many insects that scurried about down here. Clay continued to face the wall of bone and dirt, his heart quickening.
The stranger was only inches away, his breath painful in Clay’s ear. “He made it out. I saw him on the outside.”
Clay struck his pick hard in the conglomerate before him, hard enough to make his hands go numb and his wrists scream with pain. He let go of the pick and stepped back, the metal tip deeply embedded, the wooden handle vibrating with the force of the blow. He wiped the sweat from his face, tried to keep his breathing under control.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice quiet and hoarse from disuse. He knew they sent spies down here to gather information and tempt the miners to lose their cool. “How do you know who I am?”
“He sent me down to find you.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“No. It’s true. He made it out.”
“You didn’t answer my question. How do you know who I am?”
The man took a step back, looking Clay up and down. “You think I wanted to come back down here? You think I’m enjoying this?”
“You’re not a miner?”
“Don’t you get it? He made it out. He won.”
Clay studied the man. A light tan, a lack of calluses. The dirt on his face was only surface dirt, not deeply ingrained in the wrinkles and pores.
“Shit, kid. What’s your problem? I thought you’d be pissing yourself with joy right now.”
Clay turned away from him.
You can never be too careful.
“Wait.” The man pulled a small gray envelope from his shirt pocket. He opened it and slid out a photograph. “Here. Take it.”
Clay turned. His fingers trembled when he touched it. He slumped forward, grabbing onto the handle of the pick, still protruding from the mine’s wall, for support. It was a picture of his father. Standing on the surface. Squinting from the sun. Even though Clay hadn’t seen his father for five years, he knew the picture was recent, knew it couldn’t have been taken before his father was sent into the mines. He looked older. Deep wrinkles. Hair gray and balding.
“Why didn’t he come himself?”
“Are you kidding? It took him four years to get out. You think he’d want to come back here, risk getting lost? Maybe he thinks I’m full of shit when I tell him I know where you are. Maybe he thinks it’s a trick to get him back into the mines.”
Clay couldn’t take his eyes off the photograph. Tears made pink slash marks through the dirt on his face. “How do I know this isn’t a trick?”
“Can’t help you with that, kid. That’s up to you to decide.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. On it was drawn a map. “Here’s where we are now,” he said, pointing. “And here’s where you wanna go.” He traced his finger through a convoluted maze of tunnels, criss-crossing and switching back on each other, all rising steadily to the surface. “Once you’re in this area, you can dig your way out. That’s the main thing, kid. You still gotta dig yourself out. Otherwise, if you follow me on up to the main entrance, they’ll cry foul and toss your skinny ass back down to the bottom.”
Clay took the map. Studied it. Used his fingernail to mark his current location.
The man gently pried the photograph from Clay’s hand and pocketed it.
“Can’t I keep it?” Clay asked.
“That’s not the way it works.” The man turned, looking up the dark maw of the tunnel from which he’d come. “I have to go now.”
Clay nodded. His eyes went back to the map.
“What should I tell him?” the man asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Should I tell him you’re coming?”
Clay didn’t answer. He stared at the map, the narrow hand-drawn lines like thin dark worms on the paper, the trembling light of his helmet making them dance.
He’d been in the tunnels for so long now, kept to himself so much he didn’t know whom to trust, wondered if trust was merely a commodity of the past, discarded like so many glass bottles and cans and bullet shells. The inside of his mouth tasted of bitter bone dust.
He didn’t know what to do.
Ten hours later, he had traversed most of the map. At least he thought he had. He couldn’t be sure. The map was hard to follow, the proportions off. He’d passed only a handful of other miner’s, most of them resting against the tunnel walls, their eyes glazed over, the pupils wide and hungry for light. He passed a fresh corpse, only the feet sticking out of a collapsed wall, as if the remains of the long ago dead had devoured him.
He trudged forward, his body aching, his heart racing. It was hard not to let the excitement eat him alive, hard not to sprint ahead. What if this was a trap? Just one more twist in the game?
The map ended. He looked ahead, following the dim cone of his helmet’s light. Had he made a wrong turn? He saw nothing beyond the light. He stood still. Tried to quiet his own breathing. There were no other sounds. Not even the far-off echo of the other miners’ picks connecting with the tunnel walls. Not even the drip of moisture as gravity sucked it hungrily from above.
Where do I go? he wondered. What’s left?
He stepped forward. Stopped. Turned around. There was nothing. Nothing. He looked at the tunnel wall. Reached out and touched it. Felt the debris crumble beneath his fingertips.
He closed his eyes. Thought of his father waiting on the surface. Is he standing over me? An earthly angel above this dehumanizing crust?
He made up his mind. Stepped back. Hoped his father would be proud. Lifted his pick in the air. Took aim at the tunnel wall, his cage, his prison, and swung.
Over and over again, he swung. The earth crumbled around him. He kicked it away. Kept swinging. The earth fell in great clumps. The air was thick with dust. He quickened his pace. Clink! Clink! One swing after the other until his muscles burned, his head spun with the lack of oxygen, yet still he kept swinging.
He struck higher. His father, the one he’d glimpsed in that picture, filled his mind. Beckoning him. Urging him forward. Swing! Clink!
And the earth caved in around him.
The earth swallowed him whole.
He was encased in it, like a caveman frozen in ice.
He pushed his hand forward, the only part of his body that could still move. He sucked in the stale, rancid air, bits of dirt and decaying bone entering painfully into his lungs. Don’t panic, he told himself. Don’t panic.
Think. Take it one step at a time. Slowly. Methodically.
He forced his left hand forward, the only appendage he could move, through the putrid soil. A shard of glass from a broken bottle cut into the base of his palm. Coarse dirt embedded itself deep beneath his fingernails. The pain was intense and he wanted to scream, but he couldn’t even do that.
He remembered the copper penny he had found. Would some miner in the future pry it from his rotting bones?
Find a penny, pick it up…
He struggled once more for breath, inched his hand forward, feeling the skin peel back, exposing raw nerves.
Father, he tried to whisper, but could not.
When he inhaled for the last time, dirt filled his mouth, and his bloody fingertips felt the sting of fresh air.
He had won.
Mr. Blue had always been Mr. Blue. At least for as long as he could remember. He did not remember any other life. Not his arrival on the train, nor his stop at the Melanin Alteration Room, nor the pneumatic elevator ride up. He did not remember the days in the isolation room as his dosage of Happy and Sad pills was perfected, nor the slight discomfort that had occurred. But as soon as his dosage was correct and the contentment process began — none of it mattered any more.
And although he didn’t exactly remember marrying Mrs. Blue, it seemed she was as natural a part of his life as anything. Like a pill on the tip of his tongue. As good a match as any.
The wonderful thing about living on the forty-first floor of building #812 was that every possible biological desire was fulfilled and every urge was accommodated. For one thing, everywhere the eye could see was an orgasm of color. The eye couldn’t help but be pleased. There were enough visual stimuli to satiate an army. All the citizens of the forty-first floor were free to come and go from their rooms as they pleased. They could gather in the commons room. Gather in each other’s rooms. In the dining area. The hallways. The rumpus room. They could gather in the view room and watch the ColorMaster on the television all day long if they so chose.
They could eat when they were hungry. Take Happy pills when sad. Sad pills when the happiness became too much to bear. They could have sex whenever and wherever they felt like it; there always seemed to be someone ready and willing to perform the act. Strategically placed vibrating phalluses were abundant for the women, and masturbation tubes were always ready for the males. It didn’t matter whom it was done with, either, all jealousies having been genetically removed.
What more could a person want?
* * *
Nick Johnson was a Controller who lived on the sixth floor of building #812. He was assigned eight Melanin Enhanced citizens. He distributed the Happy and Sad pills via pneumatic tubes and measured the amount of sperm collected and distilled in the masturbation tubes. His main job was to watch his charges on monitors and make sure they were content at all times.
Contentment was the number one priority of a Controller.
The problem with Nick Johnson — being a Controller and not being as constantly content as the Melanin Enhanced — was that he had retained the traces of a sense of humor. What an embarrassment! In the Controller Recruitment Act of 2005, potential Controllers were courted with the promises of free will. Free this, free that… Although it sounded good at the time, the Controllers often looked upon their charges with a certain envy. A certain longing.
Of course, the Controller Recruiting Act of 2005 was abridged in 2006, 2007, and 2008, each abridgment altering the free will sections, one of the abridgments being the removal of a sense of humor. And since the process of humor removal had yet to be perfected, there were those Controllers who still retained trace amounts.
Nick Johnson tried his best not to let it show. But there were times when he could not help himself. Changing the dosage of Happiness in Mr. Blues’ Happy pills was one of those times. When Nate Johnson giggled after typing the change into his computer terminal, he pretended it was just a hiccup when the Controller next to him looked discreetly in his direction. He excused himself to get a glass of water.
* * *
The ColorMaster was a favorite TV show of the residents of the forty-first floor of building #812. It was a favorite show of all the Melanin Enhanced citizens throughout the city. He changed colors like a psychedelic chameleon at regular five-minute intervals, so that nobody watching would feel superior or inferior, nobody’s bodily function monitor would fluctuate from the prescribed guidelines.
On his show were puppets, singing animals, dancers, singers, comedians, sex performers — always ending each hour-long show with the words — often mouthed by the residents of the forty-first floor of building #812—
“Won’t you be my friend?”
Of course the ending of one show always meant a new one would soon start. The new one would begin with the ColorMaster singing the words — also mouthed by the residents of the forty-first floor—
“Hello friends, so happy to see you. So happy, so happy, to see — you.”
Although many of the residents ate food, swallowed pills, or sexually interacted in the commons, most of their faces were turned to the five-meter square screens placed throughout the floor. Unless one decided to put on Quietgear, it was impossible not to hear the soothing sounds of the ColorMaster’s hour-long shows.
* * *
Mr. Blue wasn’t quite sure what was happening to him. He ate his favorite dish (cheese pizza) watched hour after hour of The Best of the ColorMaster, had sex with not only Mrs. Blue, but with Mrs. Peach, Mrs. Pink, and Mr. Cadmium as well — then used one of the Masturbation Tubes until he was ready to fall asleep. Yet, there was still a part of him that wasn’t quite satisfied.
What a strange feeling. Not to be completely satisfied. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. He scratched his thigh, scratched his shoulders, his belly — yet there was still something not quite right.
He looked around the common room, hoping to find solace in the contented faces of all the other Colors. It was as if he was looking at them in a different light. What is happening to me? he wondered.
Every tile on the floor, every panel on the wall, every square on the ceiling was a different color. The Happy Pills were a different color each time he received one, as were the Sad Pills. But for the first time in his existence, he realized that — wait — the sheets on his bed were always white. Why is that? he wondered. And the tubes that protruded into his room, into every room, distributing the multi-colored pills — they were gray. All of them. In every room. Gray. Never green or orange or burgundy. Just gray, gray, gray.
Is that the way it’s supposed to be? It seemed rather unfair.
Mr. Blue began to notice other things as well. Inconsistencies and disconcerting patterns. For example, even on his favorite TV show, the ColorMaster’s desk was always brown. How strange, he thought. The ColorMaster, who was the very epitome of color-conscious thinking — had a brown desk. Not just on certain episodes, but on all of them. Did he favor the color brown?
Mr. Blue walked into the commons. The ColorMaster’s guest on this particular show was a talking horse, whose name was Mr. Ed. The horse was entirely white. Or black. Depending on which part of it you looked at.
“Won’t you be my friend?” the ColorMaster asked Mr. Ed. The horse said, “Of course. Of course.”
The show ended as it always did. Predictably. Comfortably. With a shot of the city, a shot of all the evenly spaced buildings, all evenly built and uniform, the same size, the same shape, and the same — color.
Hmmmm…thought Mr. Blue. All the buildings are an off-white. He looked across the room at Mr. and Mrs. Off-White. They held hands while performing an acrobatic sexual act. Do they get some kind of special treatment? Mr. Blue wondered.
“Won’t you be my friend?” came the ColorMaster’s voice over the view of the city. The residents of the forty-first floor of building #812 mouthed the words along with him and smiled when the next hour started.
All of the residents, that is, except Mr. Blue.
* * *
Nick Johnson got another glass of water after his second bout of ‘hiccups’ that day. He had been watching Mr. Blue on the video monitor, and had noticed the strange look on his face. He altered the dosage a bit more, looking to his left and right to make sure no one was watching.
But there is always someone watching, someone monitoring every move everyone makes, he thought. He hunched over his screen, his uncontrolled smirk reflected in the monochrome monitor, like an invitation to intercede.
* * *
For the first time in his life, Mr. Blue noticed that there was an almost invisible outline on one of the walls of the cafe. The cafe walls consisted of squares of every color Mr. Blue had ever laid eyes on. Yet there was this faint outline. An outline of indistinct, musty — what was it? Gray? Black? An outline in the form of a rectangle, the same shape as the portals between each and every room.
He walked over to it. Touched it. Ran his fingers along the outline and felt an emptiness in the line. It wasn’t a line at all. It was rather, an absence of line. A space. Empty. Lacking solidity. He put his face to the line — it was much like a crack in one of his drinking mugs — and tried to see what he could see. Of course, he could see nothing. There were no lights glowing on the other side of the crack.
The doorway hadn’t been used in years.
* * *
Nick Johnson watched in disbelief. Mr. Blue had actually noticed the door. Didn’t look like he knew what to make of it, exactly, but just the fact that…
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Is something wrong?” came a soothing voice slightly over and above his left ear. He could feel the humidity of breath on his neck. He tried to keep from visibly cringing, and turned around nonchalantly.
“No. Nothing’s wrong, sir. Nothing at all.”
“Nothing wrong at home? The wife? The kids?”
He almost told him he didn’t have any wife, any kids, but decided not to push his luck. “No, sir. Nothing at all.”
The man paused, his chin lifting into the air as if filled with helium, then settling at a place just above his Adam’s apple. “All right then,” he said. “Okay.” He turned and walked to his large cubicle at the end of the hall, his eyes still on Nick Johnson even as he shut the door…
* * *
“Won’t you be my friend?”
The ColorMaster waited for the light on the video camera to click off. He got up from his chair and walked to his dressing room. Although a handful of Controllers passed him, ones he had never seen before, none of them asked him for his autograph. Nobody ever asked him for his autograph. Not since the Great Separation.
His dressing room was plain. Ordinary. No bundles of roses. No notes written in flowery script left by young nymphos asking to be his friend. He looked in the mirror at his pale white skin, saw a zit forming on the end of his nose, popped it, relishing the release of pressure, the release of the milky white ooze that smacked against the mirror’s surface without a sound. One of the few remaining pleasures in the world, he thought. The satisfying eruption of a ripe pimple.
He worked ten hours a day, six days a week, with Sundays off. Three hour long episodes a day were filmed. The remaining seven hours a day were spent going over the thin scripts, talking to the guests, reapplying make-up, talking with the director about the blocking. Et cetera…
He was tired of it.
Of course, the changing of his skin color every five minutes was done by special effects. He would not have known it was done, except he had happened to stop by the director’s office for a raise one day, when what on earth should be playing on the video monitor, but his show, the show, the only show legally produced.
He was seen by millions every day, hour after hour, yet he hadn’t been asked for his autograph in years.
He looked at his five o’clock shadow, rubbed his chin, pulled the razor from his dresser drawer, looked at the inviting blade, wondering….
* * *
Mr. Blue sat in a comfortable armchair watching Mrs. Blue getting it on with Mr. Lime and Mrs. Indigo. His head bowed to his lower neck and his eyes narrowed. He pressed his hand into the fold of his lap out of reflex, but felt nothing stir. He stood up and went to the vend-machine, ordering up a large cheese pizza. It was in his hands within five minutes, and although he felt a slight rumbling in his stomach, he looked at the pizza as if it were made of excrement. He tossed it in the waste slot.
He ordered a chocolate-caramel-mocha malt. It appeared with whipped cream and a glistening red cherry, things he also loved, but hadn’t ordered. The malt ended up in the waste slot, too, and Mr. Blue trudged to his room, wondering if he had some virus. He pressed the button labeled ‘HAPPY’ three times, and three different colored pills plopped happily out, accompanied by passages of his favorite music. He swallowed them without water. They tasted bitter and left a bile-like aftertaste in the back of his throat. He grimaced, waiting for the happiness to overwhelm him.
* * *
Nick Johnson read the memo that had been placed on his desk in a crimson envelope. He frowned, the words like the third strike of the ninth inning of those long forgotten baseball games. The words like the days just before the Great Separation. The words a foreboding. A directive hinting at the shape of the future. Hinting at the tint, at the hue of the future.
The words — “Prepare for Directive Thirty-Nine” — taking on the same color as the envelope in which they arrived.
As he read the words over and over, the firm hand of the director clamped onto his shoulder like the grasp of ice on a long, potholed dirt-black road.
The director’s eyes said to Nick Johnson — “Into my office. Now.”
* * *
A hand clasped firmly on Mr. Blue’s shoulder as he ran his fingers gingerly along that strange crack in the multi-colored wall of the cafeteria. He turned and looked into the flush face of Mrs. Blue. One of her hands was busy between her legs, the other sliding from his shoulder down to his chest, to his belly, to the place between his legs….
“Hey, mister,” Mrs. Blue said seductively. “How about we go back to our room and take out the good ol’ cat-o-nine.” Her voice was hungry. Erotic. Moist.
Yet Mr. Blue gently pushed her hand away. “Not right now,” he said.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“Nothing.” Mr. Blue knew that if he told her what was wrong, something bad might happen, although he didn’t quite know what that might be. Bad was a foreign word. Nothing ‘bad’ ever happened to anyone here, ever, but there was the word. The word existed. BAD. Usually used playfully in the many sex games, but now the word had a different meaning — bad — a meaning he associated with the feeling in his gut, in his heart, in his brain.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said again, feigning a smile. To prove it, he placed a hand between her thighs until her eyes rolled to the back of her head and her lips parted into a prolonged “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh………”
* * *
The ColorMaster had never really been all that interested in color. The program’s colors were all inserted after the actual recording had been done, the original disc it was put on being itself black and white until digitally manipulated.
Never had been interested in color until he saw the color red flow from his wrists like air currents into the running water of the sink he held his throbbing hands into. He became suddenly fascinated with it, the color of blood flowing from his wrists in red, blossoming banners. The blood danced in the sterile sink waters. It polluted the ionized, fluoridated water so deliciously, so finally, so — colorfully.
He looked around his room, noticing for the first time the other colors there. Even the dirty, dusty grays began to fascinate him. Even the color of the world fading quickly from his line of vision, the fade itself becoming a color, distinct, clear, haunting, creating a longing, a satisfaction, a finality…
* * *
“It seems that there has been a lack of communication between you and I,” the director said to Nick Johnson. The director’s chair was twice the height and width of the chair Nick Johnson sat in.
“A lack of communication?” Nick smiled a perspiration-inducing smile. “What do you mean?”
“It doesn’t matter what I mean. The meaning has always been classified. But what I say should be as clear as black and white. Whatever I say is as simple as saying turn left or point up or stand on your tiptoes. They are directions. Orders. To be followed implicitly. The meaning of those orders has nothing to do with you.”
“I see,” Nick said.
“Whether you see or not makes no difference to me.” The director’s chin jutted out accusingly. “You are to report to the Melanin Alteration room in ten minutes. Enough time to take a shit and smoke a cigarette.” The director smiled.
Nick smiled, then stood, trying to lunge at the director. But of course, the force field between them only sent a numbing shock to Nick’s abdomen and temple as he was propelled back into his seat. He shook his head, stood up resolutely, and walked to the door, his head held high, but his eyes focused on the bridge of his own pale, white nose.
* * *
Mr. Blue’s fingers were once again roaming the rectangular edges, misty gray/black/midnight-blue, the edges of the secretive doorway that hadn’t been opened for years. But suddenly it creaked open, to the amazement of Mr. Blue.
For the few seconds it took for the door to swing slowly open, he thought — what have I done? I was only running my fingers along those lines, feeling the — mystery…
But by then, the door was open and a figure stood there, gently grabbing a hold of Mr. Blue’s arm, saying, “Come with me, please.”
“Yes. Certainly,” Mr. Blue said. “Most certainly.”
He walked for the first time — the first time, at least, that he could remember — out onto the steps (steps?).
“What color are you?” asked Mr. Blue, to the man who helped him walk shakily down them to the floor below.
They got into an elevator and drifted down like an angel to another floor so many levels below, so many countries away, it seemed. As Mr. Blue walked into a room with a sign above that said “Melanin Alteration Room” he passed a man who was his same color. A blue the color of a ripe, bruised blueberry.
“Hello,” Mr. Blue said, surprised.
But the man did not answer. He only looked at him confused.
Mr. Blue swallowed a pill given to him by a friendly man dressed in a pale green robe, and when he woke up again, his skin was a strange yellow-pinkish color.
“Am I dying?” was the first thing he asked to the smiling man in the pale green robe.
“No,” the man said. “You’re just fine.”
* * *
Mrs. Blue of the forty-first floor of building #812 squinted at the five by five meter screen in the commons area as Mr. Beige and Mr. Chartreuse were each having a go with her.
The ColorMaster looked a bit different, she thought. He looked — familiar? But her orgasm overtook her as Mr. Blue walked up to her and placed a hand on her breast through the mass of moving flesh already surrounding her.
“Are you all right?” she asked him, her voice out-of-breath, her blue skin darkening a bit.
“Yes. Of course. Why do you ask?”
“You just look — I don’t know — not quite yourself today.”
He grinned, squeezing the flesh of her upper thigh. “I’m quite all right. Quite fine, indeed,” he said. He kissed her, and although his saliva tasted a bit different, a bit off, Mrs. Blue said nothing as he entered her and they fell to the floor, along with Mr. Beige and Mr. Chartreuse, one big sweating heap of multi-colored flesh.
* * *
“Five, four, three, two — “ the cameraman counted down with his fingers.
The ColorMaster looked at the video camera and smiled. How odd, he thought. How odd. He had been shown a copy of Directive Thirty-Nine. Read its contents with interest, in fact.
He looked at the camera, his face a pale white, only the slightest tinges of blue going unnoticed in the skin of his scalp and the space behind his ears.
Directive Thirty-Nine. Hmmmm…..
“Won’t you be my friend?” he asked the video camera. The bright red light shined at him, and he thought only for a moment, It’s staying the same color.
But the thought disappeared quickly, finally, like a dream forgotten upon waking. He told the video camera who the guests were to be for that hour. Asked the unseen audience to stay tuned throughout the entire hour, and to — to—
“Please ignore the misty smoke seeping through the vents,” he said, reading off the video screen to his left, in a calm, reassuring voice. “They are just happy gasses. A special treat from me, the ColorMaster. Enjoy. Breathe deeply. If you feel like sleeping, do not resist. Breathe deeply and enjoy.”
It was a live broadcast, the first live broadcast ever for the ColorMaster’s show. The list of guests was shorter than usual, only enough material to fill about twenty minutes, and then they would be off the air. Twenty minutes was all the time they needed for the gasses to take effect.
* * *
Nick Johnson had already forgotten his name as he copulated with Mrs. Blue. Had forgotten his name even before setting foot on the forty-first floor of building #812. The smoke came in through the vents in different colors.
How nice. Greens and golds and pinks and yellows and even his own color, blueberry blue, and my — wasn’t it just the nicest smell? Wasn’t it so awfully nice to breath in? He began to feel tired as his latest orgasm dissipated from his body. His eyes began to shut, and he noticed Mrs. Blue and Mr. Beige and Mr. Chartreuse already snoring. He only noticed their breath stopping as his eyelids fell shut irretrievably. He noticed their breathing stopped, but didn’t mind, the stopping of their breathing no more worrisome than premature ejaculation.
* * *
“Five, four, three, two…” The cameraman counted down to the end of the show, the last show for a long while, not caring if his voice was heard over the live broadcast.
The ColorMaster — newly appointed, but still the same — squinted at the video camera, at the bright red light that winked unceasingly at him.
“Won’t you be my friend?” he asked. The red light winked for the last time and turned the color of soot. The television crew began turning off the lights. The camera was rolled away and the ColorMaster was soon left in darkness.
Yet still — he repeated — time after time, as if the words had their own taste, their own color — “Won’t you be my friend? Won’t you be my friend?”
Harvey’s Favorite Color
“Here ya go. Take it.” The stare-down lasted five seconds, but Harvey finally gave in and freed the hot dog from the bleached hands of the street vendor. Harvey paid the guy, thanking him with a sneer, and headed toward The Park.
Passing dirty white buildings and grimy apartment complexes, Harvey soon spotted the entrance to The Park. It was a wrought iron gateway that simply read PARK in cold block letters on top. The gate extended around the entire park in the shape of a square. Harvey walked through the entrance and onto The Park’s dull concrete ground.
“I smell ducks,” Harvey said, and grimaced. He bit off half of his gray hot dog and swallowed. He felt it swim down his esophagus.
The Park was a city-mandated nirvana of silicone and cement, containing iron trees scattered in computer designed patterns, a central lake, and numerous benches. Most of the benches were coated in slime formed by decades of gum, spit and crushed cockroaches. Harvey spotted a fairly new one with about a two-foot space free of muck. He sat down, holding the remaining half of his hot dog over his head.
“Quack!” Harvey yelled. He waited and listened. “Quack!” He watched the ground intently. A cockroach skittered out from behind an iron tree. Cockroaches were the only wildlife in this area, apart from a few species of mutated flies.
Harvey followed the cockroach closely with his eyes. “Quack!” he yelled again, and flung the remainder of his hot dog at the roach. He missed, with the bun flying to one side of the bug, and the meat flying to the other side. The cockroach waddled toward the hot dog as if running to the aid of a fallen comrade. It grabbed the meat and pulled it behind the tree.
“Damn ducks,” Harvey said, getting up. He peered around the iron tree and spotted the cockroach. He stomped on it three times before it stopped moving. “Goddamn ducks getting bigger every year.”
The Park was Harvey’s favorite getaway, his favorite retreat. It was a rationalized Eden of geometric shapes juxtaposed around manufactured liquid waste. The liquid waste constituted the contents of the cement-encased lake. Harvey’s attention slowly shifted toward it.
The lake was a perfect oval in the exact center of The Park, one hundred meters long and fifty meters wide, with an indiscernible depth. The surface of the lake was what had lured Harvey Waller to this spot years ago. It was covered with swirling rainbows of spilled oil, dancing and turning the fluorescent light of morning into a palette of shifting color. Harvey could watch for hours if he’d had the time — red bleeding into orange bleeding into yellow bleeding into green. There was nothing more beautiful, nothing more sensuous on earth, than the surface of that lake.
Except, of course, for Harvey’s color book.
He looked nervously about for signs of people. Normally, he wouldn’t dare look at his color book — not here, not at this time of day. But the ethereal display on the lake’s surface was of exceptional beauty today, and instead of satisfying Harvey, t made him want more.
He sat down on the bench, lifting his briefcase to his lap. He looked around again, listening for signs of any movement. He opened the briefcase slowly, lifting up the papers inside. Underneath was a false bottom, one he’d constructed himself, specially designed for the color book. He unlatched the false bottom and reached inside, grasping the book’s binding. He pulled it out.
Lifting open the cover was like glimpsing into the blinding glory of Heaven and Hell combined. Each of the first three pages of the book was a block of primary color — red, yellow and blue.
This was foreplay.
The rest of the pages consisted of various mixtures, various shades of these colors. Blue-green. Dark purple. Light pink. Orange. Lemon yellow. Fluorescents. Pastels. Colors that reached out and touched Harvey’s soul, contrasting greatly with the real world, whose primary colors were black and white, mingling with various shades of gray.
Harvey’s favorite page of the color book was filled with a deep red-orange. It flared out at him, lapping at his heart, giving substance to feelings that often flashed through his mind. It made that confusing flash of heat in Harvey’s brain almost tangible. Harvey ran his fingers over the page, caressing the red-orange color, wishing it would leap out at him, engulf him and form a cohesive bond with his entire being. He hoped it would fill the emptiness he felt.
There was a sharp tap on Harvey’s shoulder. His body went rigid as he slammed the book shut.
“Harvey Waller!” the voice over his shoulder boomed. “It’s decision time.”
Harvey turned and looked into the smoke-filled eyes of the man behind him. Harvey’s heart turned to cold metal, while the man’s face remained granite, carved with saw-toothed wire, jagged and rough.
“Do you love your country?” the man barked. “Do you love your country?”
Harvey stumbled for a reply, feeling the hot dog rise in his stomach.
“Don’t let your hesitation give me the answer,” the man said, his eyes boring a hole through Harvey’s retinas, through his bleached irises, lighting his brain on fire.
The heat in Harvey’s brain was a wonderful feeling. A wonderful color. It warmed Harvey’s mind, sparking off of the metal plate in his head.
“Do you love your country?” the man asked again, grabbing Harvey’s shoulder, digging in with hard fingers.
The pain shot more fire into Harvey’s brain and flashed through his eyes.
“Yes!” Harvey cried. “I love this country more than anything. More than life. More than my mate. More than my children.” Harvey sneered. “I love this country even more than death.”
“Then give me that book,” the man demanded, his buttoned-up trench coat bulging with the promise of a quick, violent end.
Harvey ran his fingers over the cover of the book, feeling the indentation of the word COLOR ripple under his skin. “I won’t look at it again,” Harvey said. He looked sheepishly into his lap. “”I’ll keep it shut.”
“Give me the book and this will be forgotten.”
Harvey slowly handed the book over. The man grabbed it and threw it on the concrete. He produced a vial from one of his many pockets and poured a clear liquid over the book’s surface. It immediately smoked and spit, the acid disintegrating the cover, then the pages, leaving nothing but a pulpy slush.
“I ought to make you lick that up,” the man said. He turned and started to walk away.
“Wait!” Harvey shouted. He stood up. The man stopped and turned.
“I love this country more than anything.” Harvey took a step toward the man. “I love this country more than life. More than my mate.” A sneer grew on Harvey’s face. “More than my children.” Harvey took a giant step and stood looking up into the man’s eyes. The smoke in them began to clear.
“And I love this country more than death!” Harvey cried as he threw his arms around the man, hugging him tightly.
The man was caught by surprise — Harvey felt it. The red-orange glow in his brain told him so.
“Quack!” Harvey said.
“Quack?” the man said.
“Quack!” Harvey said as he reached into the man’s trench coat and wrapped his fingers around cold metal, squeezing it as fire raged through his brain. Red-orange. The color the sun should be, Harvey thought. The color of fire.
Squeeze. A charge went off, filling the man’s nose, Harvey’s nose, as the man slumped forward. Harvey let him drop and heard the crunch of a hundred glass vials as the man hit the concrete. He began to smoke and spit, bubbling, dissipating into the air, becoming nothing more than a vile odor.
Harvey sneered and walked to the edge of the concrete encased lake. He watched the oil swirl and dance, the colors bleeding into each other endlessly.
Working Class Hero Worship
I’ve got a secret to tell you.
I can sing you songs you were never meant to hear. They were his songs. Beautiful songs. I’m the only one alive who’s ever heard them.
Here’s another secret. Mark David Chapman did not kill John Lennon.
This is what I know.
I see his breath rise in front of his eyes. Feel the chill in Chapman’s face, his beating heart. I see through his eyes. Hear with his ears, feel with his skin. I smell Central Park, I smell sweat and excitement through his nose. I hear the voices in his head.
The gun is heavy in his pocket, a five-shot short barrel .38 caliber Charter Army Special containing five hollow-point bullets. I know that unless I stop him, unless I can fight through the legion of voices in his head and take control of his body, four of the bullets will hit their intended target, rip apart his body as if it were a piñata, and end the life of one of the greatest songwriters in the world. The voice of a generation.
I have to take control.
I have to stop him.
A white limousine pulls up. A woman steps out. A woman I recognize. Black hair cropped short over a complexion of cream-kissed coffee.
Then he steps out.
The man I’ve idolized since the age of ten. The man whose music, whose voice, whose words and actions have become almost a religion to me.
The body I’m in reaches a chilled hand into its coat pocket, wraps its fingers around the dense metal of a gun.
The words are out before I can stop them.
I have to take control.
Concentrate. Make his fingers move.
It’s like trying to bend steel.
I recognize his glasses from the cover of Season of Ice. On the album’s cover, they are still coated with his blood.
The skyrockets going off in Chapman’s mind nearly overwhelm me. His arm rises with the gun.
I have to stop him. I must.
If you’re old enough, I bet you remember exactly where you were when you heard that Kennedy was shot, the moment deeply chiseled in your heart.
But that was before my time.
My milestone of shock and grief happened on a cold December night in 1980. I heard the news during a football game. Howard Coselle, of all people, made the announcement.
John Lennon had been shot.
It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. Life stopped as I lay in bed that night, my heart beating painfully in my throat. John Lennon was a singular voice of honesty and clarity and intelligence in this world, and now he was gone. The earth seemed to falter in its rotation, as if it, too, wasn’t sure how to proceed.
But even the worst effects of tragedy become malleable over time. The immediate hurt turns to a dull pain turns to an emptiness evoked by things like anniversaries and songs heard on the radio.
And my talent remained.
It used to frighten me. Images slid unbidden into my head. Images from nowhere, it seemed, distorted and dim and confusing. As a child, my schoolwork suffered. Why did my mind wander? Why wasn’t I paying attention? Eventually, the images became clearer. Cohesive.
Mr. Marpoli, my third grade teacher; images of his affair with Mrs. Cravitz, the Kindergarten teacher.
Images of the undulating webs of Ms. McKay, my fourth grade teacher, as she battled with demons who quietly insisted she hang herself.
—the assistant principal, Mr. Olaf; I felt the guilt he suffered, saw it as a slow-turning pinwheel of crimson-tinged blue. The guilt he felt for offering a janitor twenty bucks to suck his cock. The janitor threatened to tell Olaf’s wife if he didn’t pay him two hundred dollars to keep quiet.
I learned to control whose head I was in. If I focused, if I concentrated, I could be there in moments.
December, 1980. John Lennon was back in the public eye after five years of caring for his son Sean. Double Fantasy was released and was an immediate success. Once again, John Lennon was on top of the world. He seemed so happy this time around, so full of hope and excitement. Maybe that’s what made his death that much harder for so many of us. The world was anticipating so much more of his music.
But that night — December eighth, 1980.
Lennon turns, his face flush and happy after a night in the studio. Chapman’s arms rise, both hands on the gun now, and Lennon squints at the gleaming metal object aimed at him.
My talent. I practiced. I learned to focus. It got me through those tough months, those months of shock and grief that followed the death of the one person I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed to call a hero. It filled part of the void left within me.
Life continued. I graduated from high school. College. Met Jill. We had a baby. Brianna. Bree.
Jill found humor in my obsession with John, but she accepted it and let me put up my Beatles posters and framed Beatles albums and agreed not to throw out my box full of magazines and books about John. She even went along with buying the Carter’s collection of Lennon baby paraphernalia when she was pregnant with Bree. Baby blankets, crib bumpers, wall hangings, lamps, bookends, all featuring the whimsical artwork he’d created for Sean.
Yet, I continued to practice, to learn. I spent hours shut in our den, the lights out, shades and curtains pulled tight. At first I told Jill I was suffering headaches and needed the rest. Then I began coming home over lunch while Jill was at work and Brianna was at daycare. I simply lay on the couch with a pillow beneath my head and traveled. That’s what I called my talent. Traveling.
You’d think that over the years, the shock of John’s death would wear off. To some degree that’s true. But even twenty-six years later, there were still those times while hearing a song of his on the radio, I felt the wound left in my heart widen.
So I made a decision. A decision to use my talent for something important. Something monumental.
I traveled. I searched.
I reached out into the gauzy ether, grabbing onto thin threads of time and space, following them, backtracking, jumping to other threads and seeing where they led.
See, here’s another secret; space is not an empty void. It’s an endless mesh of multi-dimensional threads leading like highways back and forth across time and distance, mass and brainwaves. Finding a particular thread is like untangling a thousand greased and electrified fishing lines hopelessly knotted together, trying to work to the center in search of one particular hook.
And I found it. I found the right thread, the right hook. And I followed it. Followed it back, twenty-six years to that cold December night in 1980.
John turns. He squints. A flicker of recognition plays across his eyes. Maybe you’ve seen the infamous photograph of John signing an album for Chapman earlier in the day.
The body I’m in drops to one knee. Even now, I can feel the struggle in Chapman’s mind. Two sides of a coin. Heads. Tails. Yes. No. Shoot. Don’t shoot. A brief, violent struggle.
I have to focus. Act quickly. Take advantage of the quickened pulse, the flood of adrenaline rushing through his body.
I push. Push hard.
His finger tightens on the trigger.
I make his nose bleed. Make his eyes water. I become another voice in his head. Stop it! Don’t!
I send a sharp pain through his head.
No no no no no
He squeezes the trigger. The gun jerks in his hand.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Oh, God. Please, no. But the shots — all five of them — go wide.
Why not Gandhi? Why not JFK? Why not prevent the events of 9/11? Gandhi and JFK were too far in the past. It would’ve taken many more years of practice, and there was too much involved that I didn’t know about. And the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, involved getting into too many minds. I would’ve killed myself trying, and not a damn thing would’ve changed.
I woke up in a hospital after saving John Lennon’s life. My head pounded. IV’s dripped into my veins. I had no idea where or when I was. It took me a while to remember my own name. I fumbled for the cord that held the call button for the nurse’s station. Even as I pressed it, I felt the phantom vibrations of a discharging gun. A nurse arrived, tall and pretty and young.
I smiled stupidly at her.
“You had us worried,” she said.
“What year is this?” I gasped.
She told me.
I was back.
I emerged from the hospital into the bright sunlight of summer. I searched my new memory for who I was. Where did I live? Instinct led me to a studio apartment above a noisy pizza joint, but on the way there, I stopped at a Tower Records. I looked under L.
My mouth dropped open. I barely held in a shout of joy. There were eight compact discs of Lennon’s music that had been recorded after 1980.
I’d done it.
This was the world now. The new world. Here John Lennon still lived and breathed and wrote music. Eight CD’s! I carried them to the counter as if carrying a handful of diamonds and pulled out my wallet. The clerk rang them up.
All I had was a ten-dollar bill, a driver’s license, and a library card. What happened to my Citibank MasterCard? My World Perks Visa? My Platinum American Express? What happened to the pictures of Jill and Brianna?
I looked at the clerk. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. “I—”
The clerk sighed, as if to say Thanks for wasting my time.
Jill and Brianna.
The clerk asked, “Are you okay?”
I turned and stumbled out the door, gasping, choking on the stale air that filled my mouth.
I ran to the apartment without thinking, my new memory guiding me there. I didn’t notice what a shit-hole it was at first, because I was so desperate, crazed, thinking about Jill and Brianna. Where were they? What had I done to them?
Ray Bradbury wrote a story called “A Sound of Thunder” about a man who travels back to the time of the dinosaurs and accidentally kills a butterfly. When he returns to the present, he realizes with horror that this one misstep has changed the course of history.
I always knew it was possible. But I never thought I’d lose Jill because of my actions. And God help me, I never thought I’d lose Brianna. Sweet little Bree. I don’t know how, exactly. What different steps through life I took due to John Lennon surviving that assassination attempt all those years ago. But now I owned two sets of memories. The old one turning slowly to fog, the new one solidifying like coal into a diamond.
I never met Jill, so we never had a daughter.
What, then, had I become?
I searched my apartment. It already felt familiar. I knew where everything was even before finding it — not that there was much to find. Pay stubs from a place called the Rigel Company. What did I — I was a mailroom clerk there. Jesus, I already felt a pang of the job’s drudgery.
In my old life (I’m calling it “my old life” already?) I was an accountant at a software company. Not the best, but it paid well. A lot better than a mail clerk position. Jill was the one who got me out of the world of dead-end jobs, encouraging me to finish my college degree, to give myself some credit.
But here in the trash and piled up next to it were empty pizza boxes, empty cans of tuna and Campbell’s soup and three empty bottles of Jim Beam. God, how long had it been since I’d had a drink? In this new life, apparently not long. Already I felt my tongue slide across my lips in anticipation of a bourbon and Coke.
This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. But—
Something caught my eye. A stack of compact discs piled next to a portable CD player. Within that pile were six post-1980 John Lennon CD’s.
I forgot about my loss, my newfound poverty, and picked out a CD.
On the cover was a picture of John and Yoko walking through Central Park with a seven year old Sean. I slid a disc into the CD player and pressed play.
Strangely enough, the songs were familiar, like old friends, already stored in my new set of memories. And just like John’s pre-1980 songs, these cut to the bone. He sang with such raw emotion and power, I wondered how he was able to keep from breaking down during each take. It was amazing. Tears dripped from my eyes in a slow, gentle rain.
Music bypasses the skin, the muscle, the bone and travels directly to the heart and mind. It amplifies our feelings and reminds us of our soul. Music, like nothing else, spreads our humanity from person to person like the shockwave of a nuclear bomb.
I spent the rest of the night listening to his CD’s, not eating, not sleeping, only stumbling from a worn-out beanbag chair to use the bathroom.
But also — I was afraid. Tremors ran through my body like a colony of ants. Here was the voice of a dead man. A man I’d resurrected.
And I found myself longing.
Longing for Jill.
Longing for Brianna. My daughter. By saving John Lennon’s life, I had snuffed my daughter out of existence.
I found a bottle of Jim Beam. I held it up to the light. The seal was broken and a third of the contents was gone. I stared at it as if I was staring at a shiny bauble. The label blurred. I tilted the bottle to my lips and drank.
Later, I curled up into a corner, shivering with fever, John’s music playing, filling the room with the sound of a modern-day Lazarus. At times, it wrapped around me like a warm blanket. At other times, it unsettled so much that I pressed my thumbs into my temples to keep my head from exploding.
How could the joy of changing the world be so fleeting? I felt empty, I felt like I’d been hung by my ankles over a rocky abyss. One day in this new world and my life was already unbearable. Was this the price I had to pay? And to whom was I paying it? No one would ever know what I’d done.
And what was the reward?
The CD player stopped. I popped in another disc and pressed play.
The music was my reward.
The next morning, my head throbbing, the taste of rot in my mouth, I searched for Jill. What had become of her? In this new world, we’d never met, yet why did I still remember her? Why did I remember Bree? Why didn’t my old memories get washed away the moment I saved John’s life? The memories were painful, a curse. How could my daughter weigh so heavily in my mind when she was a mere dream, a fragment of shadow from some other life?
I couldn’t find Jill in the phonebook. Perhaps she had married. I called her parents. I told her mother I was an old high school friend.
“Oh, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.” Her mother sounded as I’d remembered her, always cordial, always in the middle of a cigarette.
I choked out the words — “Is Jill — is she married?”
Her mother laughed. “Five years. They just celebrated their anniversary in Bermuda.” She exhaled and I could almost smell the smoke through the receiver. “I offered to tag along and take care of Danny, but they said they’d manage.”
I cleared my throat. “Thanks. I’ll give her a call.” I hung up. My stomach lurched.
I vomited. I cried. An hour went by before I had the will to clean up the slick mess.
And all the while, I listened to his music.
At least there was that.
He still sang about love. About peace. About the frailty of men and women, their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He sang about the strength of the heart. The resiliency of the soul. Mostly, he sang about you and me and how the world is a crazy, strange place, and how we should embrace it for what it is. We should love each other for who we are.
Yet there I sat, with the people I cared about, the ones closest to me, wiped from existence, like chalk from a board of slate. And John’s songs, old and new, told me that this is not right. They told me that in my attempt to save the world by bringing him back, I destroyed my own world.
The phone rang, but I didn’t answer. I unplugged it from the wall. I grew hungry, and I welcomed the hunger as punishment for what I’d done. I listened to his music, listened to it all, the old and the new. I listened to it over and over, rocking on my knees, leaning over the kitchen sink with eyes closed, swaying, swooning, drinking in his music and letting it fill the deepening fissures of my psyche. Twice, I held a razor blade over my wrist. I took off my clothes. I poured bourbon over my head, letting it rain over my face and sting my eyes. I screamed. I cursed myself until my voice gave out.
I listened. I danced.
Though my voice was broken, I mouthed the words in a rasp.
Other tenants pounded on the walls, but I ignored them. I rolled on the floor and cried and hit the refrigerator with my fists until I lost all the feeling in my hands.
And then I made a decision. I knew what I had to do. I knew how to make things right.
I lay on my back on the floor with an old Army surplus blanket rolled beneath my head. I cleared my mind. Prayed I had the strength. The strength to travel far enough, long enough. The strength to make things right.
There’s a famous picture of John taken by Bob Gruen in 1974. In it, John stands at the base of the Statue of Liberty giving the peace sign. He looks so human in that photograph, like he could be your brother or friend, and just looking at that, to think that this man, this very man I’m looking at, was shot — not once, but four times — the hollow point bullets merciless as they devoured him…
It made me ill.
I had a postcard of this photograph in the apartment, and I stared at it, no longer feeling hunger, no longer feeling pain. My tears had long since dried up, and all I could do was croak out the words, “I’m sorry.”
Words, printed words, appear, come into focus, and at first I’m afraid I failed, I grabbed hold of the wrong thread, the wrong hook. But as my eyes skim the words, I recognize the sentences, recognize the voice in the words. Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye. Mark David Chapman’s eyes, the same eyes I see through, devour the text like holy scripture.
He looks up. The Dakota is a huge brick mountain in front of us. The gun is heavy in his pocket.
The white limousine pulls up. First the woman steps out. Black hair cropped short over a complexion of cream-kissed coffee.
Then he steps out. My hero. My idol.
I fight through the voices in Chapman’s head, trying to gain a foothold. My hands rise steadily. Jesus, no. But it’s not me, I remind myself through the cacophony. It’s not me, it’s him. It’s Chapman. This is how it was meant to be. I had no business changing the course of history. I had no business changing something that already was.
Do it, I tell him. I’m fighting my own conscience as much as his.
Do it, do it, do it!
“Mr. Lennon.” The voice comes out of my mouth, his mouth, and again I watch John turn. Again, I watch his eyes, his kind eyes finding me through the night, and this time I let the fingers, my fingers, his fingers, do their work, the work they were meant to do. They firmly squeeze the trigger.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
The hollow points rip into him, into the man I most admire, and it is me pulling the trigger. No, it’s him, it’s Mark David Chapman, but this time I don’t fight him, this time I am complicit in the deed.
Blood splashes across the ground beneath the Dakota lights.
“I’ve been shot.” John’s voice. This is the first time I’ve heard his voice undiluted by electronics, his voice floating unhindered into my — into Chapman’s — ears. Jesus.
But I think of Jill. I think of Brianna. This is how it was meant to be. They — my wife, my child — were meant to be, and this is the only way I can get them back.
“Do you know what you’ve done?” the doorman asks.
I shove him aside and lean over John’s body, now sprawled over the steps of the entryway. I ignore Yoko’s screams, ignore her pounding on my back. I push and force Chapman to grab John’s collar. I force Chapman’s mouth to open. Force words out. Force him to say,
Force him to say,
“I love you.”
John is still alive, but he can’t talk, and already a squad car screeches to a halt, and with one last push I force Chapman’s arm to rise and bring the gun smashing down on John’s skull.
I had to be sure.
I need to go back now. It’s done. The world is right again. I need to get back to Jill. To Brianna. I’m ready. I’m ready. Take me back. Take me back.
But — I still feel Yoko punching me, kicking me. I feel the rough hands of cops pull me away and throw me to the ground. I hear Yoko screaming. I hear I hear I hear
Attica prison. 2006. There are times I remember the old me. Times I remember the man who loved Jill, who loved Brianna.
But every day, I forget a little bit more.
But the songs. I still remember the songs. They are wonderful songs. Beautiful songs. I sing them every day so that I won’t forget them.
I sing them out loud.
I sing them to the tiny cracks in the walls, and I sing them to the voices in my head. There are so many voices.
His songs and the voices in my head are all that keep me sane.
and Other Stories
Portman lay sick in the back of the pickup, his throat like a sponge drying on hot asphalt, the crystalline glare from the stars making his skin ache. China had thrown together a bed for him: the two blankets they haggled for in San Miguel, and a small pillow she’d made in home-ec over twelve years ago. The pillow was soaked through with his sweat.
The drive was endless. Over 1100 miles from Mexico City to El Paso through central Mexico, and at night the countryside was all looming shadows edged with silver.
He slid in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he’d sit up with the wind howling through his hair, unable to tell how far they’d gone, or where they were. Sometimes it seemed as if they’d traveled 200 miles in a few minutes, while other times, it seemed to take hours just to burrow through the deserted streets of some shit-hole town.
“How are you doing back there?” China had to yell to be heard through the small window at the back of the pick-up’s cab.
Portman sat with his back to the cab, the blankets pulled tight around him. He turned to the open window and shook his head. He saw China’s eyes in the rearview mirror, wide with worry, darting between him and the endless, snaking road ahead. His mouth felt full of sand, but when he hefted the plastic water jug up to his lips and sipped, his abdomen clenched in protest.
“We’re making good time.” Most of China’s words were swallowed by the wind and the noise of the truck’s engine. “We should be in Chihuahua by morning.”
Portman closed his eyes tight against the harsh starlight. He had tried averting his eyes earlier by looking down at himself, but it had made him nauseous seeing his stomach, feeling it churn and recoil and writhe within.
The truck hit a painful series of bumps in the road, and then there was China’s voice.
“—the chicken or maybe the chocolate. Could’ve been the chocolate. Wasn’t wrapped. That’s not a good sign. That’s never a good sign.”
Portman wondered how long she had been talking. He had given up responding to her conversations earlier in the evening, shortly before the sun had finished stretching long shadows across the highway like dirty taffy. It took too much effort to talk. Too much energy to respond. He sensed that China knew this, and felt maybe she was talking to him to keep herself awake. Sometimes he was thankful for her voice, and other times it was unbearable.
He took another weak sip of water. It felt like a dull knife jabbing him in the guts. But he was dehydrated. He needed more. He took a deep breath, raised the jug to his lips and poured it down his throat. When the water hit his stomach, it was like an explosion of glass. He fell to his side gasping for air, wheezing, trying to hold the water down. The thing in his stomach—
China was yelling again.
“I said how are you doing?”
Portman felt the truck begin to slow down. He forced himself to sit up, his stomach screaming in protest. He looked through the small open window into the cab and shook his head. Even that was hard. “No,” he said, his vocal cords shredded. “Keep going.”
China glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “You look like shit.”
“Keep going.” Portman wrapped his fingers loosely around the cold metal at his side. He wished she would just keep her eyes focused in the cone of the headlights and shut up. He closed his eyes again and concentrated. Constricted his wrist and triceps to lift.
“Keep going.” His words were swallowed by the long silver-lined throat of night as he pointed the gun at China’s neck.
“Hey, okay. Okay. Put that down.” She peeked at him one more time in the rearview mirror, then turned her attention to the road ahead. Portman felt the truck accelerate, the vibrations of the passing road turning from a trot to a gallop. He let his arm drop to his side, his fingers too tired to unwrap themselves from the pistol’s grip.
They had known each other for only two months before embarking on their journey. Met the last month of their sophomore year in college, their passion consuming and sweaty, increasing at a feverish pitch. They wanted to see the world. Expand their minds. Fuck like animals.
Neither of them knew much Spanish or had ever been to Mexico, but they poured over the guidebooks. They didn’t want to experience Mexico from first class resorts and restaurants. They wanted to starve a little, hurt a little. What better way to experience the world than through the crystal clarity that a little suffering can bring. Besides, most of their money was already earmarked for their last few years of school.
The trip south had gone great. Seeing the countryside of the central highlands, the colonial towns, the small villages in between. They ate mysterious meats from street-carts, tortillas hand-made by little wrinkled women squatting at the sides of roads. They drank cheap beer and tequila. They wanted to remain lucid, but a slight buzz was better than no buzz at all.
Yet even after all the driving, the hours and hours of driving, they didn’t really know each other. But hell, the sex was great and it seemed to get better the hungrier they were, the dirtier.
They fucked like animals. He buried himself in her, felt the primal force of her heat turn him inside out, like snakes coupling, their limbs twisting about each other, shaping, reshaping.
When the time came to head north again, they were worn out. Almost out of money. Walking the fine line of getting too much of a good thing. Neither of them said it, but both knew that when they got home, they would take a break from each other. Not break up, but cool off. They knew the dangers of flying too close to the flame.
One of the last towns they stayed in was Guanajuato, about four hours north of Mexico City. China turned in early, but Portman wanted to drink up a little more culture. He watched China fall asleep next to him, and then stepped out of their simple motel room. Only two blocks away, he found the tavern—
—“Don’t you dare fucking stop.” Portman struggled to lift the gun. He didn’t want to hurt her, and hoped to God his finger didn’t slip on the sweat-slick trigger. But the truck had been slowing down.
He almost didn’t notice it. Sleep had overcome him, dreams of vibration and the sounds of things sliding wet and slimy over the earth. But when the truck slowed, the hiss of the wind died, and it was the approach of silence that screamed at Portman. He tapped the barrel of the gun on the frame of the cab’s window. “You can’t stop.”
“What’s happened to you?” There was fear and exhaustion and frustration in China’s voice. “I can’t go on forever. I can’t.”
Portman sucked in a mouthful of air. “You have to,” he managed. He touched the gun’s nozzle to her cheek. “’Til morning.”
She barely winced, but the engine roared back to life as she pressed heavily on the gas.
“Good girl,” Portman whispered. He let his hand drop to his side.
The hot, smoky tavern glowed with candlelight reflected off the polished wooden tables, off the mirror and liquor bottles behind the bar. He’d already had one too many shots of tequila and hadn’t paid for a single one.
“Here, friend, have another.” Juan slid a fresh shot across the table. It left a trail of spilled tequila in it’s path. Friends were easy to make when you were the only white guy in a bar full of Mexicans. A novelty.
“Whoa.” Portman leaned back, waving off the tequila in surrender. “No fucking mas.”
Juan laughed. “C’mon. The last one. I promise you.”
Portman exhaled a watery sigh. He wasn’t sure how he’d make it back to his motel room, let alone the flight of steps that led from the tavern to the street below. They’d probably find him the next morning passed out in the zócalo covered with vomit and bird shit.
“Okay.” He picked up the tiny glass. “This is it.” He tilted back his head and swallowed, well past the point of feeling the burn. He decided he better get back to China.
Juan leaned forward in his chair. “I’ll help you down the steps.”
“I can make it.”
Portman started to get up but felt a hand squeeze his shoulder. He squirmed around and saw a pockmarked face staring at Juan.
“I brought the gringo a drink.”
“Leave him alone, Benito.”
Benito’s glazed eyes were crisscrossed with tiny red veins that looked like snakes hungering after his pitch-black pupils. Portman could smell the alcohol on him even over his own potent breath. Benito produced a pint-sized mason jar from a paper sack he held.
“Homemade,” he said. He lifted the jar up so that the golden tavern light shined through it. It was full of a cloudy, amber liquid. “I call it leachaté.”
Juan started to get up. “Leave him alone.”
Benito ignored him. When he tried to smile, his face twisted up into a grimace. “Tequila,” he said.
Portman looked at Juan. Juan shook his head gravely. Portman felt Benito’s fingers burrow deep into his shoulder blade.
“Just a sip,” Benito said.
Portman didn’t want to be the cause of a fight, particularly if he was going to be in the middle of it. “I think I can handle a sip.” He held his hand out for the jar.
Benito pulled it away from Portman’s grasp. “Only if it’s okay with Juan here.”
Juan’s eyes smoldered. “Just a sip,” he said finally. “A small sip.” He sat back down.
Benito swirled the tequila. Something stirred in the bottom of the jar. He grinned at Portman. “Wanna swallow the worm? Can’t say you’ve been to Mexico if you haven’t swallowed the worm.”
“Just a sip,” Juan said once more. “No worm.”
Portman tried to focus on the jar. The residual swirl of the tequila made the worm dance. It was pale white, the size of Portman’s index finger. “I didn’t think they got so big,” he said.
Benito laughed. The small crowd gathering around the table laughed. Juan did not laugh.
And just for a second, as the candlelight glowed through the glass, it glowed through the body of the worm. A trick of the light, of the occlusions in the tequila, perhaps, but it appeared as if a small heart beat in the middle of the worm. Appeared as if the worm had a dozen tiny legs grasping helplessly at its own chest.
“Just a sip,” Juan warned.
“Drink,” the crowd began to chant in Spanish. “Drink. Drink. Drink.”
Portman lifted the mason jar to his lips and took a sip. It went down like water. Not bad at all.
“Drink. Drink. Drink.”
The chant was verbal adrenaline. It gave Portman a feeling of power, made him want to show them that even though he was a foreigner — worse, a tourist — that he could join them for a moment. Become one of them.
He ignored Juan’s pleas to stop. He tipped his head back, relaxed the muscles of his throat. The homemade concoction rushed in, flooding his mouth, a few drops spilling out of the corners. But he got it down.
And then there was the worm. Bleached from the tequila. Portman looked down his nose at it as it left the glass. He saw its mouth open just before it entered his own mouth. He gagged as it slid down his throat. Gagged at the feel of it grabbing at his esophagus, trying to latch on, trying to climb its way back out. Portman gritted his teeth and forced it down.
The crowd cheered.
Juan helped Portman back to his motel room. Only two blocks away, but he never would’ve made it without Juan’s help.
Along the way, Juan whispered urgently into his ear, “On your way home, don’t drive at night. You understand? Listen to me. Don’t drive at night. That’s when they come out.”
“Right.” Portman had heard this many times from friends back home. “Federalés. Banditos.”
“No.” Juan squeezed Portman’s wrist painfully so that he felt it. “Listen to me. Do not drive in the countryside at night.”
“Banditos,” Portman murmured.
Juan let Portman drop onto the motel bed unconscious.
“I have to pee,” China said. “I really have to pee.
Portman couldn’t look at her. He could barely wave the gun anymore. “You can’t.”
“What do you mean I can’t? What the hell do you mean I can’t?” She was losing it. Had lost it long ago.
“I’m sorry.” Portman’s breath came out in quick wheezes. “You’re going to have to hold it or just let it go.”
China was already out of tears, but their trails remained, thick and pink. “In my pants? You want me to go in my pants?”
Portman didn’t answer.
China began to hyperventilate. She hunched her neck, her shoulders, her face contorted into a tight knot. Then she relaxed. Her whole body relaxed, except for the tear trails that grew a darker shade of red. The stench of urine filled the truck.
He dreamed of the worm. Of its mouth and the tiny rictus of teeth, pointed and sharp. He dreamed of it crawling inside his belly, eating its way through his guts. And all the while, there was the vibration, the feel of the ground rumbling, of things large and lumbering sliding wet across the earth.
Portman was jolted awake as the truck bounced along the shoulder of the lonely Mexican highway. The smell of stale urine was almost gone. He struggled to sit up. His gut was on fire.
“I can’t stay awake.” China’s voice was hoarse. Defeated. “I can’t do this.”
“You have to,” Portman said.
China slammed her fist against the dashboard. “I almost drove us off a fucking cliff! I can’t do this anymore.”
“I have to get to a doctor. It’s killing me.”
“I can’t stay awake.”
Portman felt the truck slow down, the gravel at the side of the road popping beneath the tires. He lifted the gun up and pointed it at China. “Don’t.”
She stared straight ahead and ignored him. They rolled to a stop. This wasn’t right. Portman had the gun. He had the gun. How could she stop?
“Don’t,” Portman said again, but she already had. And he knew, had known it all along, that he couldn’t shoot her. He couldn’t shoot anybody. He set the gun down gently next to him. He was going to have to drive.
China opened her door and got out. She stood with her back to the side of the truck, leaning over, her hands on her knees, taking in deep breaths of air.
After a short struggle, Portman managed to open the pickup’s gate. He slid out of the truck’s bed, his stomach feeling like a knife thrower’s convention. When his feet touched the ground, his legs buckled, and he collapsed onto his butt. The world swam, the stars above, so many of them, all bright, glaring, dug into his eyeballs. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to fight away the dizziness that swept over him. The cacophony of crickets was everywhere.
Then stopped dead.
The silence fell upon them like a plastic bag pulled down tight over the head.
Portman looked up. He could hear China sniffling. Could hear the sound of her joints crackling when she straightened up. She too sensed the silence, complete and desperate.
Then the hum started.
At first it sounded like an airplane in the distance, and Portman tried to focus on the sky, trying to see the moving lights of the airplane against the thousands of bright pinpoints already there.
But the sound grew. Portman looked down at himself. It felt like his heart was beating in his abdomen. When he touched the skin on his stomach, he could feel it moving. He realized the hum was coming from inside him.
China loped over to him. “Why are you making that noise?”
Portman couldn’t answer, his mouth too dry, his jaw too rigid. Instead, he shook his head, his eyes wide, sweat pouring from his face. When China saw his stomach move — a shape beneath the skin — she screamed.
The hum intensified. The movement in Portman’s stomach increased. The shape of tiny legs, at least a dozen of them, pressed at his stomach lining from inside. Then a mouth. It looked like a child pressing his face against a sheet of pale rubber. Portman couldn’t look away.
China grabbed his arm. “Get back in the truck,” she said.
Portman shook his head. They began to hear them. A low throbbing sound in answer. A vibration. More than one. From all directions.
“I think I can drive now.” China tugged frantically at Portman’s arm. “I know I can.”
“I can’t stand up.” The ring of tiny sharp teeth pressed against his skin. A few of the teeth poked out, then retreated, as if the worm inside of him was testing the temperature of the air. Small specks of blood remained in their wake.
“You have to get up.” China pulled on Portman’s arm, leaning back with all of her strength. But Portman did nothing to help, his body dead weight.
“You go,” he said. “Leave me.”
They could feel the ground rumbling. As if something heavy was sliding across the earth.
China let go of Portman’s arm. His face was the color of bleached flour. Sweat soaked the collar of his shirt.
“Go,” Portman pleaded.
China turned and sprinted to the pickup’s cab.
“I’ll send help,” she called before shutting the truck door. The engine rumbled to life. Portman felt the breath of an exhaust pipe on his back. He was unable to hold himself upright as the support of the truck squealed forward.
On his back, the stars wavered in the night sky. They danced, suspended in the liquid blackness. He closed his eyes.
He wanted his mother. He wanted her homemade chicken soup, wanted her to place a cool, damp washcloth across his feverish forehead. He wanted the safety of her closeness, the reassuring sound of her voice. As he felt the vibrations grow within him, emanating from the creature inside, as he felt his bones knock a rhythm into the barren dirt road, he suddenly understood what was happening. The creature inside him was frightened, also. Alone. And it was calling out for its own mother. It’s own family.
It began to emit a high pitched wail, the sound piercing and urgent. Portman knew they must be close, knew the thing inside him could sense their nearness.
In the distance he heard the screech of brakes, the squeal of tires over a slick surface, the abrupt crunch of metal. He heard the plants and trees on each side of the road crackling beneath a tremendous weight. The pungent smell of freshly turned earth invaded his nostrils. He opened his eyes, not knowing what he’d see, only that they were already there, surrounding him.
He counted five of them and wondered briefly how something so large could be so quiet. They swayed slightly as if sniffing the air, giant replicas of the thing inside him, eight feet high and twenty feet long. He could barely see the stars shine through their pale, moist skin as they hovered over him.
It was touching, really. He understood their need, their love for the thing held captive in his guts. One of the giant creatures slowly loomed up directly over Portman, its slippery skin dripping silver mucus. It wavered back and forth as if in contemplation. Portman could feel the love it emanated, the sense of satisfaction at finding one of its own. A smile crept over Portman’s pale face. It was so beautiful. An eternal love.
A soft, reassuring hum rose from the creature. Portman looked up into the velvet translucence of its gaping mouth. The muted light of a thousand stars blinked at him sleepily through the creature’s skin. Everything was going to be all right.
Everything was going to be all right.
The creature hovered only a second longer. Once it fell upon Portman, there was nothing but eternal darkness and pain.
“Tell me why.”
The doctor wore no nametag. He stood over Rudy Teague, shaking a handful of sunflower seeds in his left hand, occasionally popping a few into his mouth.
“I need to lay on my side,” Rudy said. “Please.”
The doctor, younger than the rest of them, shrugged. “Tell me why.”
“God, please. I just — my stomach itches and I can’t reach it this way. It’s driving me crazy.” A funny phrase to use, since Rudy’s hands were tethered to his sides, his legs slightly apart so his ankles fit in the strong canvas stirrups at the bed’s foot. A dark gray strap kept him from lifting his head.
“I think you’re lying,” the doctor said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“What the fuck does it matter? Why can’t I lay on my goddamn side?” Tears, sweat, and snot sluiced down Rudy’s cheeks, painfully tickling his ears and adding to the stains on the yellowed bed sheets. His belly itched like a son of a bitch. He just wanted to lay on his side. That was all. They could truss him up like a hog if they were so afraid of him. He didn’t care. Just so he could lay on his goddamn side. He felt his navel grow red and swollen like a tiny puckered mouth waiting to suckle.
The doctor sighed. He tilted his head back and tossed in a few more sunflower seeds. He looked thoughtful as he chewed and swallowed them. Then his voice softened, his tone lowering an octave. “Don’t you want to see your son?”
All of Rudy’s muscles constricted as if he’d been hit with a jolt of electricity. He began to hyperventilate.
“Mother,” he hissed. “Mother…”
The doctor dragged a heavy wooden chair over to the bed and straddled it. He popped a few more seeds into his mouth and chewed. He placed the back of his right hand gently on Rudy’s cheek, leaned down to his ear, and whispered, “Tell me why.”
Rudy calmed slightly. “Because—” He spat out a bubble of snot that had collected between his lips. “Because it’s my goddamn birthday.”
* * *
Exactly one year before, Elaine was seven months pregnant as Rudy drove over the freshly plowed two-lane highway to his mother’s house. Snow piled high on the shoulders, and the sky was a harsh crystalline blue. The shadow of the minivan wavered alongside like a parasitic phantom.
Rudy almost reached over to push the long dark hair out of his wife’s eyes, but decided not to wake her. She looked so beautiful sitting there. He hoped it wasn’t a mistake bringing her along, but he no longer had any choice. The time had finally come.
Elaine shifted in her seat. “What’s bothering you,” she asked, startling Rudy. She rearranged the pillow behind her neck.
“Nothing. I thought you were sleeping.”
“Every time we go to see your mother, you’re like this. What’s the deal?”
“There is no deal.” He switched the radio on and fiddled with the tuner until an oldies station came in, the static making all the old crooners sound like they sang around mouthfuls of crushed glass.
When they pulled into Catherine’s driveway it was already dark, the maple trees lining the long driveway gaunt and brittle. Her house was a large old colonial, the porch lined with wicker chairs turned upside down. Even though it was early March, Christmas lights still hung from the gutters, the red blinking bulbs like tiny pinpricks in the light blue paint of the exterior. The forlorn silhouette of an artificial Christmas tree stood still and quiet in the living room window.
Rudy took a deep breath. “Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Rudy knocked first, then opened the door. This was the house he grew up in, and it always felt a little strange going back, as if all the years he’d spent as an adult were an illusion. It was like time was a cord that had twisted back upon itself.
Catherine hovered over the kitchen sink, her bony, wrinkled hands full of suds. She looked up from the dishes and cleared her throat. “Rudy. Elaine. I didn’t hear you come in.” She dried her hands on a dishtowel and hugged Elaine carefully around her protruding belly. “It’s so good to see the both of you.” She coughed lightly into her fist and frowned. “I have an apple pie in the oven,” she said, motioning them into the living room. “Make yourselves at home.”
Already, Rudy didn’t think he could handle this. Catherine kept the thermostat high and he felt he’d suffocate if he didn’t get some air. He jerked his thumb back toward the door. “I’ll get the bags.”
Outside, he leaned against the minivan and gasped, the air like cold nails hammered into his lungs. The urge to race back inside, grab Elaine and drag her the hell away from there nearly overwhelmed him. How could he tell her? Even while they said their vows less than a year ago, even as he leaned over to kiss his new bride, he knew this day would come. He’d have to tell her the truth about Catherine, about the secret he shared with his mother.
“You can do this,” he whispered, watching his words disappear into the raw night air like an apparition. “You can do this.”
He opened the van’s side door and grabbed hold of their luggage, yanking it out into the cold.
When he re-entered the warmth of the house, suitcases in tow, he felt better. Catherine kneeled in front of Elaine, patting her belly. She leaned forward and put her ear to it, her head bobbing with a slight tremor. “He’s coming along just fine.”
“He?” Elaine laughed hesitantly. “Is there something I don’t know about?”
“Oh. I thought—” Catherine looked up, her gaunt cheeks coloring slightly. “I’m just guessing, of course.” She rubbed Elaine’s belly in a soothing circle. “But everything is fine, yes?”
“So far, so good.”
Rudy watched his mother. Catherine glanced up at him and smiled. “It’s going to be fine,” she said, and Rudy knew she wasn’t talking about the child floating peacefully in Elaine’s womb.
“I’ll take these to our room,” he said.
Catherine slowly stood, her joints popping. “I’ll slice up some pie.”
Rudy placed the suitcases in the guest bedroom, then walked as quietly as he could up the stairs and over the creaky wooden floor to the room he’d occupied as a child. There was a single bed in the corner covered with a blue quilt Catherine made for him when he was five. The top of his old dresser served as a runway for numerous model airplanes. Maps of different countries hung on the walls, and an open closet door revealed a heap of dirty old sneakers, above which hung the stiff wool suit he wore at age eleven to his father’s funeral. Rudy remembered the way the collar had scratched unbearably at his neck.
Above the suit was a plain wooden shelf. He reached up and felt to the back of it. At first he thought perhaps his mother had moved it, feeling only clumps of dust and distressed wood, but then his fingers felt the small wooden box he was after. He pulled it out and blew dust off the top, revealing his name he’d carved long ago with a Swiss Army knife.
He lifted the lid; reached in and pulled out what looked like a thin delicate rope. He handled it gingerly, making sure not to break it, then gently placed it back in the box before closing the lid.
Rudy swirled around, his mouth gone dry. Elaine stood in the doorway, watching him.
“It’s nothing. Just something I made when I was a kid.”
“Can I see it?”
Rudy held the box out to Elaine but kept his fingers tight on the lid.
Rudy pulled it gently away from her. “We better go have some of Mom’s apple pie if we don’t want to upset her.”
“I wouldn’t want to upset her.”
Rudy didn’t catch the sarcasm in Elaine’s voice as his heart pounded in his ears. He set the box down carefully on the dresser among the bombers and fighter jets and let Elaine lead the way downstairs.
Shortly after they finished their pie, Catherine excused herself for bed and slowly climbed the stairs, the steps barely whispering with her slight weight. It was only nine o’clock. Elaine turned to Rudy and asked in a whisper, “How long has she been like this?”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. She looks so much older.”
“Oh, come on. Surely you see a difference since the last time we saw her.”
“Well, she is getting up there in age.”
“But it’s been less than a year.” Elaine shook her head. “Remember at our wedding reception how she danced until midnight? Now she looks like she needs a walker just to get around.”
Rudy almost lied, almost said, ‘It’s her arthritis acting up.’ But as the truth drew near, was in fact only hours away, he figured lying was a waste of breath. So instead, he just shrugged.
Elaine stared at the remains of her apple pie, the dried crust, the bits of filling coating the edges like baby spit. She pushed it away from her.
“Oh,” she said, putting her hand to her belly. “What a strong little kicker.”
Rudy slid his hand beneath her blouse, feeling the curve of her smooth, taut skin, the protrusion of her belly button. He had to tell her. He had to. He opened his mouth to speak, but found that he couldn’t. The words evaporated from his lips like water spilled on hot asphalt.
Elaine yawned. “I’m tired,” she said. “I guess I’m getting old, too.”
After Elaine fell asleep on the queen-sized bed in the guest room, her snores delicate and benign, Rudy crept to his childhood room. He picked the wooden box up and carried it to the bathroom at the top of the stairs. He turned on the tap water, adjusted the temperature until it felt lukewarm, and let the sink fill. Last year, only a month before they had married, he’d come alone to visit his mother. Although Elaine had wanted to celebrate his birthday with him, she’d been too busy preparing for the wedding. And this year, when he’d said he had to go, Elaine had asked if perhaps they couldn’t wait until after the baby was born.
“Besides, we just saw your mother at Christmas.”
“I know, but it’s important,” was the only excuse Rudy had come up with.
Elaine had finally agreed to go.
And now Rudy opened the box’s lid, his fingers responding to the familiarity of his name carved carefully into the top. He lifted the dried cord from it and placed it carefully in the water. It reacted to its new environment, expanding and uncoiling in the water’s warm comfort. He took a small penknife from his pant’s pocket and jabbed his middle finger. Small droplets of blood welled from the wound and he let them fall into the warm tap water. A few drops were all it needed.
The thing in the sink squirmed and writhed. He took off his shirt. Took a deep breath. Looked at himself in the mirror. Funny, the little surprises life tosses you, he thought.
He picked the thing up from the sink and carried it to his mother’s room. He felt it warm and fleshy in his hands, felt it pulsing urgently against his fingertips. His belly tingled.
He pushed open the door. Catherine sat up in bed, waiting for him. She wore a blue terry-cloth robe. Green towels were spread out beneath her on the mattress and thin white sheets were pulled up to her waist. Fat pillows supported her frail back.
“Where’s Elaine?” she asked.
“But Rudy, she has to see. She has to know.”
“My God, Rudy, you have to. For the sake of your baby.”
“How do we know this one won’t be different?”
“Has it ever been?” Catherine smiled tenderly. “This is the way it’s always been. It’s the way our lineage works. You know that.”
Rudy stood mutely in the doorway, the snake-like coil squirming in his hands for attention.
“Go get her,” Catherine said. “Bring her up here. We’ll make it as easy for her as we possibly can.”
Rudy refilled the bathroom sink and set the fleshy cord in the fresh warm water where it slowly writhed and coiled in upon itself. Rudy stared at it a moment. When he reached down and stroked it, it responded eagerly to his touch. His belly button itched. He scratched at it lightly with his other hand. It was time to wake Elaine. Things would be different for her from now on.
Downstairs in the guest room, he gently shook her awake.
“What is it?”
Rudy tried to keep his voice from quaking. “Get up, dear.”
“Nothing’s wrong. There’s something I have to show you.”
Elaine’s voice was groggy, and her eyes squinted at Rudy in the dim light. “Can’t it wait until morning?”
“No,” Rudy said, tugging at her arm, the itch in his belly growing. “You have to get up now.”
He led her upstairs to Catherine’s room, where a blue nightlight illuminated the walls with a soft, gentle glow.
Catherine smiled weakly. “Elaine. I think you better sit down.”
Elaine shook her head. “What’s going on?”
Elaine backed up to a small love seat perched in the corner and slowly sat down.
Rudy touched her shoulder. “Trust us — this is going to seem weird, but you’ll appreciate it in time. You’ll come to realize how special and amazing it is.”
Elaine reached out for his hand. Now her voice shook. “Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s best to show you,” Catherine said. “Don’t be afraid, dear.”
Rudy tugged his hand out from Elaine’s grip and went back to the bathroom, where he lifted the dripping cord from the sink. The itch in his belly instantly grew, a burning sensation spreading slowly out from his navel as he walked quickly back to his mother’s room.
When Catherine saw the thing he held, she smiled and held her hand out for it. “I know it’s not going to be easy for you to watch,” she said to Elaine. “But it’s the most beautiful thing. It’s pure love.”
The burning in his belly was intense. Rudy grabbed his pocketknife from the top of the dresser and, without any inhibition, jabbed it into his navel. Before too much blood spilled, he placed one end of the cord against the wound. It attached itself eagerly with a squishy, suction sound.
As he handed the other end to his mother, he grew light-headed.
But it was too late to allay her fears, too late to hold her hand and convince her of the beauty she was about to witness.
Catherine spread her knees slightly apart and let go of her end of the cord. It burrowed between her legs. Her eyes fluttered.
Rudy crawled into the bed with her. Felt the old familiar feeling of the umbilical cord tug at his belly. He relaxed. It was best not to resist.
It didn’t hurt as much that way.
He no longer heard Elaine’s screams as he re-entered his mother’s waiting womb.
It was amazing the peace inside. Amazing the warmth and love he felt despite the contortions his body made, despite the incredible stretching Catherine’s body endured to accommodate him in her belly. But like every year on the anniversary of his birth, he was able to curl into a fetal position. He felt himself flowing back into his mother through the ancient umbilical cord, nourishing her, giving her back the much-needed vitality she had lost since the last time he was inside of her. Part of him knew Elaine was having a hard time of this out in the cold, harsh world, but this was a reality she had to accept if she wanted to live much longer after she gave birth to their new child.
He listened to his mother’s voice warbling through the red fluids and layers of tissue.
“Come here and hold my hand,” she said. “Please, Elaine. Don’t be afraid.” Her voice was a soothing coo. “Touch.”