Good Psycho

This wouldn’t be his last case.  His last case would be his first case.  Gone cold like the uncanny L.A. winter.  The chill swept in every night like a revolving scythe, sending the citizens to kneel before gas heaters that blew dust, like waking a forgotten god from a deep slumber.  Quinn’s first case swept in on cold memories every night and forced Quinn to kneel before the aging crime scene photos.  The thirteen-year-old victim had a collection of Tiffany jewelry.  She had died violated and strangled in a rage.  She felt everything before execution.  A silver chain was twisted around her throat so tight that it cut into her neck.  Her head wobbled like a Dodgers bobblehead when the coroners lifted her body.  Quinn felt sick as the Alice’s murder swept in, the twenty-five-year-old vampire he invited on a nightly basis.  The jewelry Alice’s parents could not account for, let alone afford.  Her closest relatives from father to uncles had alibis.  His part in the case was twenty-five-years-old, but he had uncovered connections to similar murders stretching back even more.  Alice had been thirteen.  Quinn was now sixty-five.  Alice was his first case when he earned his detective’s badge in the LAPD.  Luck of the draw.  He had closed every case to come his way except for Alice’s murder.  Quinn promised himself before the mirror every night that he would catch Alice’s killer.  He had made the same promises whispering into his ex-wife’s ear as she slept in his arms for ten-years.  Divorce and a grown daughter who became independent gave Quinn the freedom to indulge in detective work full-time.  That’s what made him so good.  Quinn ditched his humanity to help others keep theirs, or at least allow their families to do so.

He dreamed of searching without fear of never finding.  He wished to play games with children and not with the bad guys or the dead they left behind.

A thirteen-year-old with $30,000 worth of designer gear.  It was the only clue worth investigating, everything else about Alice was precious and innocent.  Quinn made a fist and pounded his knuckles into the wall between the bathroom mirrors.  From hidden speakers a ridiculous fart issued throughout the tiny restroom.  The Magic Castle was full of gags and hidden gems.  It was supposed to be night of wonder and awe with his daughter and her friends.  But now there was a dead body out there and Quinn had the place locked up tight.  No one left or entered, so the guests, magicians, and waitstaff were all acting out a real murder mystery dinner.  Quinn was law and order in a den of illusion and mystery.

If Alice wasn’t my first case maybe I would’ve found her killer.

Quinn cleared his throat aggressively, tucking his tie inside his button down.  He walked out into the bar and for a split second he was confused as to where in the Magic Castle he was located.  The castle was really a mansion, and the mansion was really a maze.  From moment to moment Quinn wasn’t confused, but once he thought about the next room, or hall, or the whole building’s interior, Quinn found that he couldn’t understand it.  He felt the same way about Los Angeles.

The magician’s body was on the floor surrounded by blood.  Everything was cooling now, the blood turning black, the body would cool to room temperature and rigor mortis would set in within hours.  Quinn had tried to save the man’s life, but Precio, the dead magician, was a goner.  The next course of action had been to close off all the exits, hopefully trapping the killer inside.  The only people allowed in were uniformed cops to guard the exits and one medical examiner, Jeff.

“Knife wounds to the jugular and carotid arteries.  No defensive wounds.”  Jeff said.

Quinn revolved around the body, studying the blood spray.  He stepped into a clean space, orbiting closer and closer to the body.  Crip walking in slow motion through the crime scene’s negative space to avoid the bloody arcs.  If he still had hair it would have popped in a full afro from the electricity thumping through his veins.  People forgot he had degrees in sociology, psychology, criminology, and art history.  People saw an old black man, which made him invisible, and Quinn was fine with that.

Jeff’s eyes opened wide, like he was seeing what Quinn was seeing; a skilled killer who moved in the slim spaces where the blood was absent.  No bloody footprints, either, no discarded knife.  It was as if Precio fell through evaporating razors.  “Suicide, though?  Maybe?”  Quinn offered.

“The wounds could not be self-inflicted.”  Jeff looked around.  Cameras were embedded in the moulding around the ceiling, tucked into corners.  The security video gave Quinn nothing.  Quinn saw it for the thousandth time in his head, visualizing both the security video and his own memory side by side – the same thing, but different angles.  He saw Precio grip his throat, then blood spouted, then Quinn was shoving his way through guests and bouncers and got there just in time to see the man’s eyes cloud over.

“Nothing was caught on camera.”  Quinn said.  There were cameras all over the mansion.  The murder happened on-screen in a room full of people drunk on stiff cocktails.  The angle was askew, the crowd too thick to catch anything but the aftermath as people scrambled to get away from the spraying blood.

Given the laws of nature there were an endless range of combinations formed from only a handful of tricks.  This is true of crime and magic.  Unfortunately, magic tricks reminded Quinn that he could only deduce the solution after he was tricked, just as he could only solve a crime after it had been committed.

Alice’s killer was the greatest magician to ever live, according to Quinn.

Quinn came here originally to celebrate his daughter’s thirtieth birthday.  He didn’t believe in magic, yet it was magic that his daughter had a membership to the exclusive club.  He must’ve done something right as a single parent.  He checked in on her frequently over the hour that passed as the police inside and out helped him narrow down who killed Precio, the world famous magician he had never heard of in his life.

“Let the guests walk.  This was an inside job.”  Quinn told a uniformed officer and she relayed the order into a radio.  This would narrow down the suspect pool significantly, and keep anyone from live-streaming the gore, but if he was wrong the killer would go free.  Quinn raced up to the second floor dining room where his daughter had been in the middle of her party after the main stage show.  A surge of men in fine suits and women sheathed in thin luxury shuffled out the fire exit.  Everyone but his daughter, Gwen, and her entourage of friends were leaving.

“Kid, you don’t need to go home, but you can’t stay here.”  Quinn said with a smile.  He knew what was coming.  It was the same argument Gwen had taken up with him since she could rebel against bedtime.  He noticed that the bottle of bourbon he bought from the bar for her, rare aged Bib & Tucker, was still sealed.  Disappointment seeped into his gut.

“We’ll be quiet, promise.”  She said, and her tipsy friends giggled.  Gwen was sober, he was sure of that.  Gwen was a shade of black that accented red in a sudden flash of light, like she was slowly burning from within.  It was like she was on something more potent than alcohol or drugs tonight, something Quinn lacked.

When he first arrived three hours ago, Gwen gave Quinn a bear hug.  The only hug she knew how to give because he had raised her.  All upper body strength and a mix of I love you and I’ll kill you.  She introduced him to her friends, a mix of artists and entrepreneurs and Quinn could smell who would succeed and who would fail.  He kept these clairvoyant thoughts to himself.  Even a little bit of hope steers people away from bad behavior.  Knowing one’s future always changes people for the worse.  That’s why Quinn and his wife split up.  After Gwen made them parents his ex-wife saw their lives stretch out in predictable mediocrity.  She refused to condition Gwen to a lifestyle that was just enough and safe.  Quinn’s wife became reckless in her rebellion while Quinn stuck to fatherhood and the job.  Quinn arrested his ex-wife for a number of substance violations and endangerment/corruption of a minor.  That was a shitty night.  Gwen remembered bits and pieces, she was too young to process the details.  Gwen never asked and Quinn never told.

Quinn was granted custody for his stalwart adherence to the status quo.  Ironically, splitting up saved Gwen in the end.  His ex-wife cleaned up and found a great job at UCLA.  When Gwen was old enough she moved to her mother’s and earned degrees in business and finance for nothing.  If they had stayed together life would have been duller if not harder for Gwen, and it would have been a life without risk.  It took grit to move in with her mother and work for her own life, it was a great risk to become independent of either parent in a culture that taught people to be worthless.

Quinn worried that getting closer to his daughter would somehow ruin her.  It seemed his ex-wife felt the same way; she wasn’t here tonight and she never talked to Quinn.  What would happen to Mars if her moons got too close?

“Do we really need to go?”  Gwen said.

“Just stay up here.”  Quinn said.  A bouncer came by to ask how much longer this would take.  Quinn sent him away with look.

Quinn waited for the first interrogation of the night.  He was thinking of his suspect list, the most likely culprit was Precio’s assistant, a thirteen-year-old girl.  At the top of Precio’s act, a thirteen-year-old girl in a tuxedo stood center stage with a ghost light shining on half her skeletal body.  Her hair was pulled back tight and stuck in place with spikes that fanned out in a halo.  Renegade wisps of hair framed her face like delicate vapor.  He had already checked the spikes and none of them were sharp enough for murder.

Quinn thought of Alice, except this girl wasn’t a victim.  She was the number one suspect.

Quinn recalled the main stage magic show…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce the master of illusion, Precio D’avila!” The girl said and stepped aside into the darkness, but no one was there.  Her hands remained in the light and then the stage and house lights faded up.  Her hands did not move, fingers outstretched with palms up, but in the time it took for the lights to fade up her hands had become an old man’s, and where she should have been standing was now the old magician, Precio.  Quinn had no idea he’d be puzzling out Precio’s murder instead of the tricks Precio pulled on the stage.  In retrospect, Precio’s face looked dead under the stage lights, like if he sweated too much it might slip off revealing a clean white skull.

Precio looked around, wondering where his assistant had gone.

“I must do everything myself.”  He said in a fake Italian accent.  Precio walked to a table that had been hiding in the shadows.  He unwrapped a new pack of cards and began to shuffle with terrible skill.  Precio was a dud, but maybe it was part of the act.

“Since my apprentice has decided to vanish I find myself in need of a volunteer.”  Quinn grabbed Gwen’s hand and lifted it up.  Her mouth fell open and she stared gleeful daggers at her father.

“You!”  Precio laughed and threw a card at Quinn.  Quinn flipped the card onto Gwen’s lap and helped her stand up.

“Happy birthday.”  Quinn said and Gwen went on stage.  There was a hesitation on Precio’s part, as if he really wanted Quinn onstage instead of Gwen.  The moment passed without remark at the time, but now Quinn wondered what Precio had wanted.  The look in the magician’s eyes was somehow personal.  Quinn had never met the man before, but Quinn still felt a crawling de ja vu. 

Gwen did her best to follow Precio’s instructions that became more and more complex.  It was part of the act for her to fail.  Precio feigned frustration when Gwen could not shuffle the cards and come up with aces.  Precio needed his assistant.  Precio grabbed the deck of cards from Gwen who was laughing so hard with her friends she could barely stand.  Precio attempted a shuffle and failed.

“I can’t work under these conditions!”  Precio shouted and threw the cards into the air.  In the scatter of hearts and diamonds the spades and clubs seemed to freeze for a split second, suspended in the shape of a person, and when they fell the girl was there in the midst of the fallen cards.

They all clapped.  Quinn shook his head.  He’d never figure that one out, but he saw something more important.  A look that the girl gave Precio as they shared a bow.  A look that was criminal, intimate even, and then they both looked at Quinn.  Quinn raised his half-empty glass to them.  Later, Quinn realized the girl was the true magician and Precio was the assistant.  This made Quinn think of the girl’s motive: was Precio holding her career hostage?  Quinn felt for certain the majority of the magic show’s illusions were the girl’s invention, but the only way for her to perform them was to give them to a famous magician.

After the show the party moved to the dining room for a light dinner and more drinks.  Gwen held Quinn close, she was so glad he made it.  She had him talk about past cases, to tell them of the few funny things that happened on the job and the even fewer good days where justice worked without a hitch.

The conversation switched to Gwen’s personal life and she blushed.

“Stop, you guys!  It’s not time!”  She said and that’s when the screams echoed up from the lobby bar.  Quinn sprang into action, got there just in time to see Precio grip his throat, the blood rush, and the body fall.  Quinn grabbed a bouncer and got them to secure the whole building, then the cops took over.

Now, Quinn was back upstairs sipping club soda and ignoring Gwen’s questioning eyes.  They had all seen Precio’s final show.  Quinn wondered how much of Gwen’s excitement was shock.  Her friends seemed like they wanted to go, but it was Gwen’s night to lead this dance macabre.

“So… it must be a magician’s quarrel?”  Gwen said, putting together pieces of Quinn’s puzzle.

Precio’s teenage assistant stood at the top of the stairs at the other end of the dining room.  She was wrapped in a blanket, she still wore her tuxedo, and her stage make-up was turning to mud.  She looked wet-kitten-pitiful.

“I gotta go.  You sure you don’t want a real drink?  Could be a while.”

“No, club soda.”

“Ok.  I’ll be back.”  Quinn said and Gwen rolled her eyes.  She knew she and her friends would be going to the bar themselves.  Quinn had work to do and that work had nothing to do with entertaining them.  Quinn went to the girl with a kind smile and took her hand.  She was scared, she knew she was a suspect.  Quinn was conducting interviews in the seance room, which was on purpose to unsettle nerves.  Shutting the door, they were alone with a round table carved with runes.  There were sconces on the wall, a Ouija board with planchette, a crystal ball, silk handkerchiefs, ancient animal taxidermy that watched over them with glass eyes.  The girl had been here hundreds of times, but this time it spooked her.  There were no more games tonight, no more illusions.  This was Quinn’s castle tonight.

“You need to have a parent or guardian present.  Is there anyone I can call?”

“No.”

“There must be someone?  It’s after midnight.”

“Who are you?  My truant officer?”  She said and Quinn was surprised.  She huddled in the blanket, shivering, eyes wide and scared.  All the physical signs of an unsettling shakedown, but mentally she was cast iron.

“What’s your name?”  Quinn said, using his phone to record the interview.

“Eleanor Rimbeaux.”  Eleanor said with French lean on the “aux.”  Quinn saw that she was growing more comfortable and confidant.  Her testimony would be null if she didn’t have a parent or guardian present.  I gotta call someone.

“Am I under arrest?”  She asked.

“No.”

“Am I free to go?”

“Yeah.”  Quinn said, feeling sick for even thinking she was a killer, for picking her in front of everyone.  Why her?  There are at least seven male suspects.  They hadn’t lead her up here in cuffs, but whenever cops took someone away it never looked decent.  Quinn had chosen her to be first because of that look they gave each other and him during their show.  Quinn felt sick because he had no evidence to tie anyone to the murder.  It felt like trying to find Alice all over, again.  I don’t have the evidence yet, Quinn thought and realized he told himself the same motivators for Alice’s murder.  He was a broken record that had been skipping for twenty-five-years.

As if reading his mind Eleanor rolled her eyes and spat out a telephone number.  Quinn dialed on his phone.  Eleanor crossed her arms and leaned back in a huff.

“I’m just protecting you, Eleanor.”

“It’s not your job to protect people, you’re the one they call when protection fails.”  She said and Quinn got a taste of just how sharp Eleanor was, like seeing a blade slip from a dull sheath.

Finally, Quinn connected with Eleanor’s grandfather, Serval.  He agreed to come down from the Hills to rescue his granddaughter.  He was also a lawyer and made sure Quinn knew as much.  Quinn hung up on him.

“Need anything?  Soda, sandwich?”  Quinn said and she shrugged.

As they waited and the minutes ticked by slower and slower, Quinn saw that Eleanor was getting antsy.

 

The seance room door opened and Jeff leaned in.

“Quinn?”  Quinn went to the medical examiner.  “Two blades were used, one in each hand.  Nothing we’ve collected from the kitchen or the staff could make these cuts, though.  We’re talking extreme velocity and precision with hand-stropped razors.  I’d need a red hot scalpel and several seconds to cut four arteries so finely, and that’s during autopsy.  Your perp did this in one double-stroke on a standing, living victim.  Also, it’s a short blade, no more than three inches long.”

“What’re you saying, Jeff?  Someone has knives for fingers?”  Jeff didn’t have time to answer.  An old, distinguished gentleman huffed up the stairs and charged towards Quinn.  That was fast… Quinn thought, feeling his suspicion rise like he was being taken for a sucker.  He couldn’t say why, though, but he felt like he was still in the theater watching the magic show.  Maybe it was a stupid idea to hold interviews in this hokey room.

“I’m Mr. Rimbeaux, Serval Rimbeaux.  Her Grandfather.”  Serval introduced himself, he was tanned and suave right angles.  A face that was paper-stiff and at the same time ready ooze.  Expensive rings adorned his fingers.  Gold rings.  Quinn thought of Alice.  He looked at Eleanor and for the first time noticed she wore jewelry, too.  Silver bracelets and a black leather choker with a diamond stud.  He had tried to ignore jewelry on girls because it always sent him back to the one clue in Alice’s murder.  Jewelry; cold, calculated metal and stone that was supposed to signify love.  Alice’s jewelry would have broke the case if Quinn could only connect it to someone.

“Mr. Rimbeaux.  You’re Eleanor’s legal guardian?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have access to a lawyer?”

“I am a lawyer.  Eleanor, what in god’s name are you doing here?”

“I’m a magician.”

“Detective.  Did you to inquire about this before you involved my granddaughter in a murder?”

“While I don’t believe she committed the murder, Mr. Rimbeaux, she knows something.”

“That does not give you the right to hold a minor in custody.  Especially on a school night, doubly so for someone so young with delinquency issues.  You understand what I’m saying?”  Serval said as if Eleanor was not present.

“She’s an unreliable witness.”  Quinn said.

“I resent these comments, let that be known!”  Eleanor yelled into Quinn’s phone.

“Can we begin?”  Quinn said, pushing to keep everyone in the room and talking.

“Not until you answer two questions.  Is Eleanor under arrest?  Are we free to go?”  Serval said and watched as Quinn struggled to come up with detailed answers for the record.  Quinn could find no way to keep Eleanor here in the seance room.  She was obviously not the killer.  She was too short to slice Precio’s neck, and even in the grainy security footage Quinn felt he still would have noticed a teenager schmoozing with adults in a bar.

Serval rapped his rings on the table, a high-pitched gavel that made Quinn flinch.  Quinn found himself looking from grandpa to granddaughter.  His detective’s intuition was sparking.  It told Quinn there was a killer in the room.

Eleanor seemed to a be normal a girl; pizza on Fridays, concerts, middle school drama – unicorn pastel colors, bath bombs, selfies, birthday parties –  all the staples of a life provided by loving and caring adult sentinels.  Obviously, Eleanor found such an existence wanting, which was why she skipped school to learn magic.  Quinn was no stranger to girls delving into the world.  But what made Eleanor different was that the world wasn’t rejecting her.

“I intend to end this case tonight while we have the killer locked inside with us.”  Quinn said.

Serval had turned pale, “You mean… oh, no, no, no!  This will not do!  The killer is here?”

“We’re safe.  There are cops everywhere.”

Serval collected his granddaughter and Quinn had to let them go.

I’m going nuts.  Her jewelry does not lead to Alice.  Concentrate on the task at hand.

Quinn went to them, hoping to find the words to bring them back to the table.

“Wait!”  Quinn reached for Eleanor, but Serval got her out the fire exit door and into the chilly Los Angeles night.

“I will not have my granddaughter subjected to a murder investigation.  I recommend you erase the interview as it is proof of police misconduct.”  Serval stood in shadow and smiled when he saw his words register with Quinn.  The lawyer was right, Quinn who had played by the book most of his career was on unfamiliar territory.  “If you would like to schedule a formal interview during more appropriate hours I will be happy to oblige.”

“There’s no time!  It has to be done tonight.  She knows something!”

The girl and grandfather glittered like gods under the moonlight.  So much jewelry, silver for Eleanor, gold for Serval.  Quinn got that feeling, again.  He was looking at a killer, but which one?

“Just one more question, ok?”  Quinn demanded.  Serval didn’t move aside, but he did not leave, either.  “Eleanor, what am I looking for?”

“You’re really asking a child how she would commit murder?”  Serval pushed Eleanor to the stairs.  She looked over her shoulder, stumbling down the metal stairs back to normal life.

“Solve the case like it was a magic trick, not a murder.”  Eleanor said and Serval spun her around and moved her to the valet.

Quinn stepped onto the escape platform and watched the valet bring Serval’s Bentley.  Eleanor gave a defeated shrug, her body was a glittering silhouette like the split second before she appeared from the falling cards.

“Hey!”  She called, “Congratulations, grandpa!”  Eleanor was talking to Quinn, not her own grandfather.  Quinn let it slide, he was consumed with connecting Eleanor’s vague insight to the suspects he had left.

Serval didn’t look at Quinn as he got Eleanor inside the car and sped away.  Quinn turned, his coat brushed the bannister and he heard a delicate ping on the asphalt below.  Quinn glanced and saw silver down there.  A cop guarding the first floor fire exit found the object and brought it up to Quinn.  It was a silver ring shaped like a serpent.  Eleanor’s ring.  Quinn felt a single, numbing freeze take hold of his body as he squinted at the designer’s inscription on the inside of the ring.

The entire evening had been Eleanor’s steering him to this point.

Quinn grabbed the cop’s elbow.

“I want a lineup of every male apprentice.  Let the women go, let the waitstaff go, let the headliners go.”  The cop nodded and zapped off with electric motion.  Within seconds people filed out of the mansion and Quinn was looking over an employee and guest list with every name crossed off except for seven.  From over a hundred suspects down to seven in only three hours.  Eleanor had set him up to finish her show.

Alice, justice is on the way.

There were six young men lined up on the main stage.  All of them too young to be Alice’s killer.  There was one man missing, Quinn called officers on his radio, everyone checked in; there was no one else in the mansion except the police, the six men, and Gwen with her friends upstairs.  Gwen.

Quinn made his suspects wait, again.  He rushed upstairs.  “Ok, everybody outta the pool.”  Quinn said and waved the women to the fire exit.

“Come on, Dad!”  Gwen said, still drinking club soda.  Quinn had memories of her drinking whiskey neat, she was particular to bourbon and yet the bottle of Bib & Tucker was still untouched.  Of course, Eleanor had solved that mystery and the answer hit him hard enough for Quinn to forget about the dead body downstairs.

“You’ll need to catch up on sleep now while you can.  You’ve at least ten years of insomnia coming your way.”  Quinn said and the tears that jumped to Gwen’s eyes spoke volumes that pages could not contain.

“Oh, shit, Dad… how’d you guess?”

“I’m a detective, remember?”  Quinn said and her friends were crying, too.  They were snapping photos and selfies and filling their empty glasses with tears.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You’re the detective.  I thought it might be nice to figure out something different.”

 

“Want me to talk to the father?”  Quinn said, and he knew the answer and didn’t care Dad was no longer in the picture.  He knew Gwen was going to be fine.  She was his rock.

“Don’t you dare!”  Gwen laughed.

“Had to ask, kid.”  Quinn said.

“You need us to leave?  For real?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you when I’m done.  We’ll have a proper celebration.”

“Just tell us one thing, we’ve been betting.  You find him in a secret room?”

“What?”  Quinn said.  Gwen stood and her friends got up, too.

“Come on, Dad!  It’s the Magic Castle!”  Gwen said.  Secret rooms.  Quinn kissed his daughter on the cheek and waved goodbye to the party.  He hated to see them go.

Quinn skipped stairs and cops pivoted out of his way as he sprinted back to the main stage where his suspects were under guard.

“Which one of you was gonna spill on the secret rooms?”  Quinn said and knew why they didn’t answer right away.

“We don’t want to lose our apprenticeships for divulging Castle secrets.”

“Like… we know someone got killed, but I didn’t do it.”

Quinn let them talk over each other for a few seconds and kept a stone face for them.  One by one they shut up when they saw they couldn’t wear him down.

“Each of you will escort two officers to every secret hideaway or passage or whatever you got around here and you will find the missing apprentice or so help me you’ll be trying to escape San Quentin with everything you’ve learned here.”  The magicians and cops snapped to the task.  Quinn revolved from group to group, amazed at the hidden extensions inside the maze-like mansion.  They found the final suspect in a crawl space that still smelled like bootleg whiskey.  Quinn helped a cop haul the small man out.  He wore a leather fringe jacket, bolo tie, and spotless white cowboy boots.  Southern preacher turned illusionist.  He dusted himself off and smiled as if they didn’t find him inside a wall.

Quinn had the cops form a circle, enclosing him with this cowboy.

“Let the others go.”  Quinn said.  This cowboy was the killer.  But he was too young to be Alice’s killer.  Violence is hereditary, Quinn thought, knowing that once he revealed the evidence that connected the cowboy to Precio then Quinn would have complete freedom to investigate the cowboy’s family tree and uncover Alice’s killer.  How did Eleanor know?  How did she and Serval have the same discontinued Tiffany jewelry?

Quinn pushed away these thoughts as he circled the cowboy.

“He moves you shoot him, got it?”  Quinn said to the five cops surrounding them.  They responded by unbuttoning their holsters.

Quinn ignored the cowboy’s small talk.  He replayed the security footage in his mind.  The crowd was tight at that hour, hard to pick out the action and the actors until the blood sprayed and people fell away in waves.  Quinn frisked the cowboy and came up with a wallet, cell phone, and no blades.  He even checked business and credit cards for sharp edges.  The phone had no removable plates and it wasn’t in a protective case.  Quinn understood the guy still had the blades on him somewhere, that was part of the trick, making an audience believe in movement when nothing moved.  The cops had checked everywhere from kitchens to trash cans.  The blades must’ve returned to their sheaths.  Quinn tore the fringe leather coat off the cowboy and turned it inside out.  Nothing except pockets in the sleeves for cards and ball bearings.  No knives.

“Hey, I can be kicked out for this!”  The cowboy said, no longer good-humored.  Quinn checked the man’s dress shirt sleeves and came up with nothing.  Quinn frisked the cowboy once more, ignoring threats of sexual harassment.  Eleanor isn’t wrong, he kept thinking.  She had engineered the whole thing.  Thinking about the coincidence of the jewelry and this cowboy who almost got away with killing Precio upstairs, it was like watching the close-up magic acts where the magician used three cups to disappear balls or make them multiply.  It didn’t add up, especially with Quinn so close to the act and answer.

Getting close is part of the set-up, it doesn’t afford you an advantage.

Quinn took a step back. The cops tensed, thinking the cowboy was about to do something and Quinn got a premonition.  The guy didn’t have anything in his coat, up his sleeves, and his bolo couldn’t hide anything.

“Hands up.”  Quinn said and he saw that the cowboy had calluses on the thumb and forefinger of both hands, as if his hands had to adapt to sharp edges.

“Hold still.  I mean it.”  Quinn got in closer and felt the man’s collar.  They looked into each other’s eyes when Quinn found the knives.  They were the collar stays, three-inch steel slivers dimpled on one end for grip, tapering to an edge sharper than a scalpel.  Looking at it straight on the edge vanished it was so thin, yet when Quinn pressed one into a wood-paneled wall the wall gave way like butter.  “Take him away.”  Quinn said.

The police cuffed the cowboy, his mouth trembled, his eyes betrayed something that made Quinn’s mind race.

“Hold it!”  Quinn grabbed the cowboy’s collar, “Why’d you hide?  You would’ve gotten away with murder if you didn’t hide.”

“Because…  she told me I’d get away with killing’ Precio, but that’s not Precio!”

“What the hell are you saying?”

“She told me… Precio stole my tricks, she helped me plan revenge, but right when I… when I cut that man I saw he wasn’t Precio.”  Quinn remembered the moment when Precio had tried to get him on stage.  Precio was a terrible magician because the man on that stage was not a magician.

 

Eleanor helped you?”

“Is that her name?  She told me it was Alice…”

“Take him!”  Quinn shouted and raced back to the body upstairs.  Eleanor knew Quinn, knew about his police work… she knew about Alice and she had the same discontinued jewelry tonight.  The killer had given Eleanor that jewelry, but she was too young… she’s related to the killer… Alice’s killer is Eleanor’s grandfather… was her grandfather.  The old man he met tonight was Precio in disguise because her real grandfather is dead.

Quinn knelt beside the body and reached into the body bag.  There was a ripping sound and then a final thwack and Quinn’s hand came up with Precio’s nose.

“Holy shit…”  Jeff said and looked at Quinn.  They both knew what had happened.  Jeff had been preoccupied with the vicious wounds that had killed the man, and Quinn had been preoccupied with finding the killer on an evaporating deadline.  Precio was still alive and this dead man was Serval.  They had traded places.  Quinn took the handkerchief from the dead man’s suit pocket and wiped away the rest of the make-up.  The dead man must be Serval.   Which means Precio was playing the part of Eleanor’s grandfather and lawyer so they could get away with the murder.

“Eleanor set it all up.”  Quinn said, “This man here is not Precio the magician.  This man is Eleanor’s grandfather, Serval.  A man I’ve been hunting for a long time.  She found out about him, found me, and put us all in this place.”  Quinn said, lifting one of Serval’s dead hands and inspecting the rings.  Tiffany jewelry, a discontinued set released back when Alice was killed.  Serval must’ve spent a fortune on multiple sets and spent decades handing out these expensive trinkets to his would-be victims.  The leftovers passed on to his own daughter, then to his granddaughter.  Eleanor had grown up with a killer, she had received gifts from him all her life.  She loved him until she discovered the gifts were the same things he gave to little girls like her.  She got curious as to why her grandfather liked all little girls, but kept her at a distance.  Quinn knew he’d never find out the concrete details because Eleanor was gone.  She had set up Serval’s death and fled, a disappearing act she had learned from her serial killer grandfather.  No wonder she broke child labor laws to work here, she grew up with one of the greatest magicians Quinn had been hunting for twenty-five years.

She got her grandfather to put on make-up.  She made him think he would be arrested tonight and Serval could not give up the opportunity to brush so close with his hunter and escape.  I wonder if he realized the betrayal when he died.

Finally, Alice’s killer has been brought to justice.  Quinn had served the police force loyally, but tonight he was glad that Eleanor had taken care of Alice and dozens of other little girls.  How did she convince Precio to help her kill her grandfather?  Was it the thrill of creating the ultimate illusion?  Was it blackmail for stealing tricks and using his assistants to fuel his fame?  Eleanor’s scheme was as fragile as a spider’s web, but she managed to catch everyone in it.

Quinn told Jeff to forget it.  The truth was too goddamn convoluted for the public.  He dropped the prosthetic nose and grease-paint smeared handkerchief into the body bag and zipped it up.  Quinn decided not to pursue Eleanor and Precio.  Jeff nodded and got the idea.  The cowboy killed Precio and even if the cowboy speaks the truth no one will believe it.

Eleanor had given Quinn the magic show of a life time, she had released him from the spell that Serval had put him under for twenty-five years.  He wasn’t worried about Eleanor or Precio.  They would take up magic shows somewhere else, cruise ships and Vegas under new identities, maybe, or they would part ways and create distance and new lives.  Eleanor probably wanted to talk about the greatest trick of all time, but she had learned from Serval how to be quiet, how to nurse the pleasure of a secret.

Quinn guessed the cowboy was one more messed-up white man who would’ve killed eventually.  Eleanor found him just as she discovered her grandfather’s dark secret.  It was poetic that the cowboy, a blooming psychopath, was set-up to kill Serval, his future self.

She could have been a victim at any time.  Quinn thought with horror as he pictured Eleanor growing up while Serval molested, murdered, and mutilated girls.  No wonder she was able to kill him.  No wonder she was able to set Quinn up just as Serval set up his many victims.  She was a good psycho.

Quinn sent an email to his chief from his phone.  He tendered his resignation, his retirement effective immediately.  Quinn took a breath, shook hands with Jeff, and motioned for the cops guarding the main entrance to let everyone out of the Magic Castle.  He took his gun and his badge and handed them over to a cop outside.  The cool evening air woke him up with a kissing breeze.

Quinn thought of Gwen and found himself driving to the grocery store where he bought diapers, toiletries, snacks, water, aroma-therapy candles – anything that would curb pain, induce calm, spring warmth, and make the necessities of life no more than a walk down a hallway.  As he piled things into his cart Quinn realized this felt more natural than the detective work.  He missed being a parent and he had made the mistake of trying to be Alice’s guardian, trying to be the guardian of the dead instead of the living.  It was so backwards that he laughed in the middle of the feminine hygiene aisle.  It was a small miracle that he was alone at that hour of the morning.  He drove off to begin his new job.  He was going to be a full-time grandfather.

Quinn trucked the goods to his car and reached into his pocket for his keys.  He felt the serpent ring Eleanor left behind.  It was a perfect fit.

Sweet Tooth

It wasn’t a crime.  It was almost a year after they received the same dick pic image and they swore off dating in order to avoid more abuse.  Sasha was the first to break.  She met a guy, a great guy named Robert.  A rich boy with a custom Porsche and a reservation in Beverly Hills for their first date.  Her best friends, who were also her housemates, teased Sasha and tried not to hate her too much.  Sasha felt guilty because she was the one who had proposed everyone go dry after the dick pic incident.  She forgot her guilt when her date rolled up in that Porsche.

Brown eyes with a shimmery iridescence, clean smile, and the right angles of symmetrical masculinity.  Her heart stuttered when he looked at her.  It had been doing that all night, but more so now that they were parked outside her house hours after he had picked her up.  It was time to give him an answer to the question he was too scared to ask, but she didn’t want to be a “whore” and ask herself.  She also felt sick, blaming the drinks she had but also thinking something else was wrong.  She couldn’t say what, but she knew she needed to slow down and think.  Sasha had all the trademark signs of tremendous love: heart skipping, dizzying shallow breath, and the warmth of her entire body blushing.  She couldn’t wait to tell her housemates.  Couldn’t wait to tell them how the world wasn’t as ugly and antagonistic as they had been lead to believe through experience.

She couldn’t wait, yet something was wrong.  They sat in silence.  Sasha felt sick, a soggy dread crept down her spine and languished in her gut for no reason at all.

Dating still had its perils.  Most of time Sasha and her housemates hadn’t been on dates to earn the hate they received.  Walking down the street was like walking through sniper fire in a toxic wasteland.  Almost a year ago The Timmy Incident happened when Sasha received a grainy penis photo from Timmy, a man who seemed like a good guy, and he even made several remarks about being a good guy between calling her a “slunt.”  Sasha had to give the boy props for the clever mashup of “slut” and “cunt,” but the motive behind the combination was violent.  Creativity sparked by malice was the trademark of a true psycho.  Almost a year to the day Timmy had contacted Sasha over a dating app and it started off well enough until she neglected to message back.  Forty-three-seconds later she got a dick pic for ignoring his last message.  After that it was nothing but rape and death threats.  Timmy had done the same thing to other women, including all of Sasha’s housemates on that night alone.  He was like a serial killer with a nervous twitch and a sledgehammer thinking he was a surgeon and all women were in his waiting room.

Timmy’s cock was nothing extraordinary except that the photo’s white balance was off, giving the sex organ a green sheen, like something found rotting beneath fresh produce.  Sasha had sent the picture (plus screenshots of words and phrases Timmy used) to everyone Timmy knew, including his female relatives.

“Let’s see how he likes it.”  Sasha said as her housemates watched her send the blackmail materials.  Twenty-four-hours later Timmy deleted his presence from the Internet and that’s when Sasha and her coven of bitches made a pact to forgo dating for an undecided amount of time.  Even though the shaming worked, validating its use was not worth the requisite mental anguish and social anxiety of being hunted by strangers.

In the meantime, they concentrated on school and their futures rather than on “carpe noctem” as the English master in their group liked to say before they pelted her with whatever was at hand.  Sasha never threw anything, at least the English master had achieved her goal whereas Sasha had tried to become a doctor and failed.  This was not her only failure, it was just one of many disappointing aftershocks ever since puberty.

Tonight was different.  The air tingled with delight.  Her date seemed like a good guy.  A beautiful gentleman made rarer by the money and manners he flaunted.  Her guard was almost down.  Laughter came easy, and he listened to her nervous banter.  She wanted to grab him by the ears – do not fuck this up, stay this course, you are man’s last hope!

She wished she had taken selfies with the Porsche.  The restaurant for their date was located in a five-star hotel in Beverly Hills.  Neon lights faded through impossible colors, million dollar sports cars sparkled.  He was dressed in bespoke Armani, she wore an old prom dress revitalized by an amateur costume designer on Etsy.

The food arrived in five courses.  A whirlwind of clinking glasses, red to white wine to crystal thimbles of exotic port.  The dishes shrank as the sexual tension grew.

“No desert, thank you.”  Robert said, dismissing the waiter with a smooth wave.  Robert asked if she was alright.  In retrospect this was when she started feeling ill.  It began with happiness.

“Yes.”  Sasha managed to say between missed heartbeats, with a purr, no less.  She wanted to scream it.  She was glad the atmosphere was dim otherwise Robert would have seen that she was tickled (literally) pink by the glamour and his chivalry.  Still, skipping desert indicated things were about to change.  He was getting confidant and it excited her.  At first she thought he had the foresight to get a room, but on their way out he steered her past the reception desk.

“I don’t want to keep you out late.”  He said with a shy smile.  Like an idiot she had talked non-stop about her job.  She was a pharmacist just down the street from the hotel, in fact.  She had bitched about her early shifts.  Somehow she had stopped from telling him her life was a big disappointment, did I mention I could have been a doctor if I wasn’t so easily steered?  I’m not saying I’m easy… here’s an unrelated question, What’s your policy for carry-on baggage?  Is this normal to feel sick when I am oh so happy?  

She worked at five in the morning, and Robert was such a gentleman that he wasn’t going to impose.  Oh, no, please, do!  She wanted to say, but instead she wobbled on the wines and port to deliver a kiss that she hoped would destroy the gentleman inside him.  Robert dodged the kiss and caught her in his strong arms.  Robert embraced her so warmly that Sasha fell back into the chaste fairytale he had constructed.

He drove her home.  Somehow Robert knew where she lived.  Sasha started to disbelieve her good fortune.  It’s too perfect.  Of course I drank too much.  I fuck everything (let me finish!) up.

“Sasha?”  He said, a waver in his voice that killed the dead air and her inner turmoil.  Sasha blinked slow, drunk on hormones and alcohol, and something else in her blood, a sick anxiety pounding in her ribs that made it hard to breathe and her heart race.  She had always been nervous around boys.  Nervous not only because she had bad encounters before, but because she had been raised to be a good girl, which was as full of contradictions as the Bible.  She felt her mouth filling with spit.

“Yeah?”  she gasped.

“I had fun.  I hope you did, too?”  He said.  Sasha fumbled for the door latch, the Porsche opened suicide-style.

“Yeah.”  She choked. Not here, not now!  Sasha willed the vomit down.  She gulped and belched silently out her nose.  How does he not see I’m sick?

“I’ll walk you.”  He said as if to a dog.  Sasha staggered ahead, too sick to tell him to go home.  She wanted a goodnight kiss at her door.  A kiss from him.  She wished she wasn’t so sick.  Sasha decided to puke in the hedge row before staggering upstairs to her room.  Robert did not hold her hair.  He crept backwards to avoid the sludge streaming from her throat.

“Let’s get you inside.”  Robert shoved Sasha with such ferocity that she hit the front door and slid to the FUCK OFF mat, a clever housewarming gift from her mother.

Sasha’s lungs filled with air, but nothing happened.  It was as if her lungs weren’t connected to anything.  Her body pulsed and throbbed, muddy blood in heavy veins, her heart shook instead of beat.  Her lips felt cool and swollen and when she touched them her fingers came back slick with black bubbles.  Robert lifted her purse and rifled for her keys.  He unlocked her home and lifted her up.  Another shove and she landed in the foyer.  She heard him lock the door and with a voice tinged with nerves and anger he shouted.

“Hello?  Anyone home?  Your friend is sick!”  Robert sat on the stairs beside her, yet he didn’t help her or look at her.  He was waiting for something.  Sasha’s housemates were out on the town having fun staying single.  Sasha had declined last minute for the date she hoped would be her last.  Sasha hadn’t expected it to be so final.

They were alone, and now he knew that, too.

“You slunts are all the same.  No wonder serial killers developed alongside feminism.”  He said, his face cupped in his hands like horse blinders.  He didn’t want to watch.  Robert was scared, but it was too late to turn back, so he had to muster apathy and prejudice.  Sasha got up, the sudden shift from romance to horror granted her a second wind.

“Apologize for what you did.”  Robert said, looking up, his eyes stung red from fighting tears.

The love Sasha was feeling was some kind of poisoning.  Her lungs were not transferring oxygen, her heart shuddered as if it had been watching snuff films all night, and she had to lean over to expel black sludge frothing from her belly.  She felt red.  Cyanide poisoning.  She remembered this from medical school before she was coerced into easier pharmaceutical studies so she could keep her weak scholarships.  The professors used extreme cases to keep class interest.  No one would ever see these cases in real life, let alone see a Ph.D. in Sasha’s case.  Sasha was forever torn between immediate fun and future stability.  She had been conditioned by an invisible force to choose easy over difficult all her life.  Now, this force was telling her it was easier to die than to live.

Fuck that.  In her discarded purse Sasha found a lint-covered stick of gum.  She slipped it into her mouth.  Robert chuckled, a nervous titter to relieve his tension.

“You’re one ugly girl.  You would’ve been lucky to have him.”  Robert said.  Sasha felt lightheaded as the sugar worked its magic.  She could breathe in slight gasps that wheezed inside her head.

“You won’t get away.”  Sasha wheezed from the back of her swelling throat.

“I will.  Timmy did this twice, poisoned girls.  One died, the other told the cops.  No one did anything.  I wanted Timmy to get you back, but he liked you.  You’ll make three and that’ll teach you all.”  Robert said.

Sasha swallowed the gum and got up on her knees, then to her feet.  She needed to get into her drug safe, her collection of stolen items from her pharmacy.  Sugar was a mere salve.  She couldn’t get past Robert on the stairs, so she stumbled for the kitchen.

She raided the cupboard holding their bakery items.  A jar of powdered sugar shattered at her feet, filling the air with sweetness.  Sasha shoveled it into her mouth and choked on white dunes and spat broken glass.  The world returned slow and vague.  Her lungs whistled with faint life.  She’d have the energy for the staircase, now.  Robert stood in the doorway watching her, putting on black leather driving gloves with holes exposing his knuckles.

“Apologize for Timmy.”  Robert said, trying to command, but his voice wavered.  “Apologize.”

Sasha rocked back on her knees and launched.  She flung her fist, opening at his face.  Sugar coated his eyes.  Her fingers were laced with broken glass and cut deep into his cheek.  With her other hand she crushed the tenderness between his legs, a feeling similar to squishing kumquats in a produce bag.  Robert fell, curling into a ball with his hands between his thighs.  Sasha could either finish him off and die, or try to get upstairs.  She lurched for the stairs.

The stairs to the second floor extended, twisted.  Her brain thought in red thumps and warping illusion, like fresh Polaroids spitting into open flame.  The cyanide was growing in potency.  She got on all fours and scrambled up the steps, then slithered.  Her flesh blazed cold and her clothes clung to her.  The stench of her perspiration kept her going.

Master bath, under the sink, the fireproof safe behind the towels.  Sasha flung the safe out and unlocked it with a tiny silver key she kept on her ring.  They all had one.  The house was home to an active tribe of five girls on the prowl for life and the drugs in this safe aided recovery from concerts, parties, exam prep, and jobs that began to early and ended too late.  And for the first time, saving life.  Sasha calmed down seeing her collection of uppers, downers, Ritalin, Plan B, joints, Vicodin, Seconal, and muscle relaxers.  Everything she stole working down the block from the richest people in L.A.

Sasha selected a B12 vitamin shot.  She injected the classic 1960’s prescription and felt the rush ignite her lungs and veins.  She had no idea how the cyanide got into her system. She could have eaten it, it could have dissolved in her wine, some forms would absorb right through skin.

Her date couldn’t help high amounts of sugar in the wines and port, glazes and sauces, but he had declined dessert.  He had driven her home so the hotel cameras would record them leaving, rather than recording them going to a room where he would be seen leaving alone.  Odd things came back to her, odd now that his chiseled jaw and jade eyes were no longer thirst triggering. He was attentive only to see if the poison was working.  He didn’t kiss her to avoid poisoning himself.

Robert had contacted her over Facebook, which was not as random as she had lead herself to believe.  Stalking in retrospect.  She had been blinded by beauty, charm, and money.  The poisoning was well-planned, but this guy was blinded by rage.  And he was doing it all for Timmy.  Timmy must be dead.

She vomited and felt better.  Now that she could think, the dick-pic-shaming from a year ago came back to her.  It was the only thing that warranted revenge.  If she did die the medical examiner would figure out that cyanide killed her just by looking at her blushing flesh.  Robert was sure he was beyond justice and Sasha believed it, too.

Robert screamed, that deep-throated roar that super heroes do to gather strength in the heat of battle.  She would’ve laughed at the machismo baloney, but she wasn’t in any theater and Robert was no half-naked Spartan.  His stomps echoed up to her, she felt his footsteps through the floor.  His steps stalled halfway up and she imagined he needed to pause to nurse his tenderized loins and “man up” for murder.  She knew she was right when he started yelling at her, mansplaining his intensions as if to justify his crimes to one of those patriarchal deities who protect weak men.  It takes one to know one.

“Timmy had no life after what you did to him.  He couldn’t go anywhere without some woman laughing at him or some guy pushing him around.”  Robert said through the door.

Sasha’s fear had been spent on the suffocating agony of cyanide, all she had left was rage.  She still felt sick, so she took an amyl nitrate tablet from the drug safe and chewed it.  She’d get the same treatment in a hospital; Dr. Feel Good shots and amyl nitrate tabs.  Poison countered by sweets and sweetness.  Euphoria made a good chaser for revenge, too.

“Timmy was a CEO.  He was very important and you ruined him and he was the best thing that could’ve happened to you!”

Sasha hid the drugs under the towels.  She palmed an amyl nitrite popper and lay down beside the pool of black vomit.  She gagged and fumbled to attract him.

Her date opened the bathroom door.  He was so tense he was wooden, robotic.  Sasha would have prescribed marijuana or methocarbamol, both of which she had in the safe, but Robert was beyond the aid of medicine.  Sometimes death is the cure.

“He killed himself a month ago.”  Robert said.  Sasha gasped intelligibly.  He kneeled beside her.  Still too far away for what she needed to do.

“You could’ve just ignored him.  He would’ve gotten bored and he would’ve found some other girl who was cool. My best friend killed himself over your ugly stuck-up face, and now you’re gonna die and wherever you go you won’t be able to ignore him.  He’s waiting.”

Sasha whispered something he’d want to hear.  He leaned in close, his ear above her mouth.  His rank stench cut through his cologne, his breath had soured since their date.

“You think I’ll go to prison or worse, don’t you?  I’ll walk free because the world was made for me.  The only struggle in my life is reminding bitches like you.”  Robert said and Sasha stuffed the popper between his loose jaws.  The plastic vial exploded inside his mouth.  He sucked laughing gas.  The shock sent him flailing.  He dug a pocket knife from his jacket, but an unwanted grin cracked his lips.  He reeled and dropped the knife, then his legs gave out.  He ripped the shower curtain and it wrapped him up as he crashed into the tub.

Sasha pinned him under the curtain.  She had another popper and she cracked the vial over his screaming maw.  His screams flipped to insane laughter.  He couldn’t breathe with her hilarious weight on his chest.  A third popper sent him over the moon.  He died smiling.  He died laughing at her.

Sasha flipped the corner the of the shower curtain over his stupid face.  She felt like crying.  Not for him, but for what the night had done to her, the collection of decisions past and present that had been made for her and turned her into a killer and realist.  She had started the night out optimistic, excited, and had hoped for a fairy tale story to share with her housemates, but now she needed to make sure there was no story to tell.  At least not this story.

Sasha tended to her hands, cut by glass and scraped from falls.  She inspected her mouth and found no glass lurking from when she ate powdered sugar.  Her tongue was dry and stung, sick on sweet saturation.  She decided to worry later about whether or not she swallowed any glass.  She cleaned up the unused drugs and puke.  She left Robert in the tub with the spent poppers.  She placed the safe of drugs in the back corner of her bedroom closet.  The police would be snooping around in the bathroom.  She took out the trash, putting the trash bags in the neighbor’s bin on the street.  She walked back up to her driveway and called 911 from the kitchen.

Sasha pitied Robert.  He could have had her, he could have lived.  Robert did not realize that he had been a perfect man during their date.  Motives aside, he had been attentive and engaging, he had delivered what everyone ever wanted; Robert made Sasha feel alive, important, like she was more than just another mammal destined to eat, shit, and die for no reason.  Robert should have seen this reflected back at himself, that in making someone feel special he was special, too.

He was sweet.  Sasha thought.  Things are sweetest just before decay.  Sasha imagined Robert and Timmy impatiently searching through fallen apples, angered by fleeting and unsatisfying sustenance when everything they needed was over their heads.  They blamed anyone but themselves for eating the mealy fruit at hand, spitting out the worms at imagined enemies.

Red and blue flashing lights revolved through a window.  Sasha opened the front door.  The police car prowled up the road and pulled into the driveway.  Two officers climbed out and sized up the girl huddled in the doorway.  They knew there was a dead body upstairs.  They did not reach for their guns.  All the cops saw was a haunted girl who had found her date overdosed in her bathtub.  All the cops saw was a girl whose innocence had been shattered.  They didn’t realize that innocence breaks more than once.  The pieces get smaller and sharper, hurting at first, then you put it back together, and after the third or fourth break it’s just annoying.  Sasha imagined a vase filled with nothing, fragile and useless, glorified for no good reason.

Robert’s corpse was removed and they tried their best to feign shock and horror, but Sasha heard the cops and medics joke about Robert’s death-smile and the drugs he overdosed on.  Sasha tried not to laugh with them.  They all had a part to play.  They were in uniform and had a culture to represent, otherwise the world would end.

Sasha answered their questions with lies that fit their need to believe in innocence and then everyone left.

Back in the kitchen she found the spilled sugar covered by ants.  She got a dust pan and broom and swept away the sugar and glass.  She crushed lingering ants.  They were entering through a crack in the corner of a window pane.  She left a dead ant there at the mouth of the hole.  One ant came through, its antennae flicking about.  It lifted its dead comrade and marched back through the hole never to return.

Dear Jim Thompson

Paul Vance read every book written by Jim Thompson while he was in prison for murder.  He was getting out today, and he feared life out there would be how Thompson thought of it.  A world reflecting most of Thompson’s hard, deplorable life; banal squalor, talent trapped inside a dehumanizing system, dead ends at every turn, no one worth trusting, and in the end madness waited with a coy smile.  In other words, Paul was scared that life outside would be like prison.  He thought this way because after reading Jim Thompson’s oeuvre, Paul realized he saw life the same way.  Jim Thompson was his favorite author for the same reasons Bible-thumpers adore the Book of Revelations.  Thompson confirmed Paul’s own belief about reality.

Jim Thompson died the day Paul got on the southbound bus to Los Angeles, April 7, 1977.  Alcoholism, starvation, and a series of past strokes offed the unsung master of the psychotic thriller.  Thompson never answered Paul’s fan mail.  All Paul wanted was the guy’s own word that life wasn’t that awful, that things had changed.

Paul had his old clothes from 1952 in a plastic bag.  He wore his dead watch, winding it up proved useless.  His wallet held nothing.  He gawked at the new cars.  Cars without fins, cars that looked like sci-fi rockets.  He had watched cars change over the years from seeing the hacks park in the lot from the prison’s windows, but to see so much new technology huddled on the freeway was worrisome.  He wouldn’t dare say terrifying, yet he saw his reflection in the window and for the first time he saw that he had gotten old.  He went inside December 2nd, 1952.  Now is when I pay for my crime, he thought.  He had no idea what the world was about anymore.

He only knew that Jim Thompson had died because Thompson’s daughter inherited the estate and called the prison to formally request Paul stop sending letters.  Paul asked her if Jim had any last words.  His daughter hung up on him and the hacks came to escort him out of the prison.

Now he was on a bus headed to the city in which Jim Thompson had died.  Twenty-five years ago Paul had been driving for Jack Dragna and married to a woman who most likely forgot him.  The last he heard before going to prison was that Dragna might get deported back to Sicily and Paul’s wife, Ellen, was horrorstruck Paul was going away for murder one.  She hadn’t believed it, she had no idea where the money was coming from and up until the feds came knocking she thought he was winning races.  At the time Paul’s son had no idea invisible powers were changing his future.  Michael had only been six-months-old when the FBI trampled through their Beverly Hills pad.

Paul couldn’t tell Ellen the truth back then because it’d kill her and their kid.  Better that she forget he ever existed.  The feds locked him up, kept him isolated.  He hadn’t read a newspaper in twenty-five years and did not believe word of mouth thinking that the gumshoes were feeding him disinformation.  JFK? Communists?  Korea?  Nixon? Vietnam?  Goodness,  he went to prison for a lie, how could he believe anything filtering through the system?

When Paul was arrested he was a big deal, above the fold big.  The papers said he painted houses for Dragna.  He was a hitman, they believed.  Paul was placed in solitary and questioned everyday about La Cosa Nostra.  He said nothing in order to save his wife and child.  Values did not exist, honor was a dead catchword like chivalry.  The Mob started as a way of survival for Italian immigrants who couldn’t mix with White Culture and everything that came after was greed.  He got more respect in prison than he did in Dragna’s presence.  Over the years, however, Paul’s infamy transformed to disinterest.  The FBI stopped questioning him altogether at one point and he heard that they were gonna let him go after he served his time rather than waste money on death penalty proceedings and appeals.  Besides, didn’t he know the Mob was on its way out?  Didn’t he see that he had gotten old and the info he once had was only good for historians?  Didn’t he realize the threat of Communism was too important?  Paul believed none of it until he got outside.

It felt like a trap.  The bus parked at Union Station and Paul knew that Dragna was waiting for him with a bunch of guys to make sure he didn’t say a word.  He froze under the hot sun, squinting at the glare coming off the brilliant bird of paradise flowers and rose bushes.  The colors were intense.  People shoved and shouldered around him using language he knew was English but he couldn’t decipher the slang.  He saw a metal box that blasted guttural, whiny guitars.  What’s this noise?  Music?  Paul liked it.  He didn’t like the hair, however, the guys looked like scum.  Unkempt hair and beards, soiled clothes betrayed an unwillingness to grow up rather than a .  The women, well, he hadn’t seen the opposite sex in a long time.  They could do as they pleased as long as they were pleased to do so.  However, he could sense this new female freedom was more guerrilla tactic than actual freedom, a renegade behavior evolved to push back against invisible boundaries like he had learned to do in prison.  Paul and his fellow inmates did little things that almost broke the rules just to show that even in prison some things could not be bought, stolen, or governed.

“Creep.”  A lady said to him in passing.  Paul was gawking and he snapped his mouth shut.  His face burned red.  He moved on stiff legs, ready for a bullet that never came.  He didn’t want to believe it, but maybe Jim Thompson had been wrong about life.  Maybe things were better now, and would continue getting better.  The only thing he had to do was go to Dragna’s goons and make sure he was as square with them as he was now with the federal government.  Paul took a bus to Chinatown.

“We’re square.”  The guy said.  Paul didn’t recognize the outfit anymore, or the men running the show.  The message came down from the new leader of this broken pack of outlaws.  He also did not expect such a terse answer.  They didn’t want one last job and they weren’t scared of him.  They didn’t care about him.  While they didn’t want anything from Paul they weren’t going to give him anything, either.  He had done them a great service and he was expected to just move on

“What about Jimmy?”  Paul said the name he hadn’t uttered since he went inside.  The rage he used to feel was muffled now, almost drowned beneath his new life as a nobody.

“Jimmy who?”

“DeNicio.  Jimmy DeNicio.  I went inside for him, he–”  The guy hushed Paul with a dismissive wave that was almost desperate, as if Paul were about utter a curse.

“He don’t work for us no more and he don’t wanna see you.  Leave it.”  Paul did without another word.  He was free as long as he didn’t dig up the past.  He suspected that meant he shouldn’t try to find his wife and son.  With time and occupation Paul knew he could start fresh and forget about everything.  He found a job at the library’s main branch, janitorial work, but it got him off the street right away.  No one noticed that the fiction and literature floor was dirtier compared to other floors that were spotless.  He spent the time on this floor catching up on his reading.

On days off he went to the movies and explored the city he had abandoned.  It had grown, the populations had migrated.  Once wealthy areas were now rundown, and once unpopular or unpopulated areas had changed into havens for the rich and famous.  Driving around he found himself going to his familiar haunts.  The only one remaining was Cole’s downtown and he went everyday for lunch.  Beef dip with a manhattan.

She was waiting for him at the bar in Cole’s one afternoon.  She was drinking bourbon neat and beside her was his signature manhattan.  Paul’s first thought was why did Mickey Cohen send a woman to kill me?  Cole’s was a hangout for the rival boss and another reason why Paul felt safer there.  No one knew him in Mickey Cohen’s territory.  But she knew him and she had been watching him.  Routine kills more people than anything else in the world.

She looked at him in the mirror that stretched the back of the bar and he saw the white streak in her hair.  The rest of her long hair was going gray, too, so the lighting strike wasn’t so bright these days, but he knew her.  He blushed because he still loved her.  He hadn’t gone looking for his family because he didn’t want to get hurt.  It would have been better to hold memories and start over than to reconnect where his life had been severed.

“You’re so delicate for a killer.”  She turned to face him and he locked with her eyes, waiting for her to pass judgement.  Her lips jerked, wanting to be friendly but she was hurt by what she saw.  “They did a number on you.”  She slid off the stool and went to him, arms held up and he froze.  She hugged him, wrapping her arms around him and Paul felt her hands join at the small of his back, which was something she had never been able to do before.  He had lost at least sixty pounds without realizing.  She was the same, just more signs of life and stress pressing in on her like the ocean’s depths on a submarine’s hull.

Ellen smelled the same and he inhaled the happiest moments of his past from her scents of crisp earth, cabernet, and smoke.  There was something else there, too, a new stench of electric ozone and stress sweat.  Nerves jangled beneath a calm sheen of icy, tense muscle.    He wrapped his arms around her, his hands fell to the familiar points and he found them harder than ever before.  She was never one to be so tense, but given the circumstances he didn’t hold it against her.

Paul expected her to pull away, but she hung on, unlike the rest of his world that had vanished.  He felt stupid for not going to her now that she was here hugging him.

“You never visited.  You never called.”  He whispered, the words sneaking out before he could censor himself and save the moment.

“I’m sorry.  The feds wouldn’t let me the first two years and after that…”  Ellen said, her voice vibrating in his vacant chest.  Paul steered her back to the bar and they sat down.  He gulped manhattan and savored the syrupy burn.  He waited for the story of her life.  He knew what had happened, she had been heartbroken and desperate at first and then the love had died and she moved on.  He wanted to hear it from her so he could move on, too.

“Michael is engaged.”  She said.  Paul had a hard time picturing his son being old enough to marry, mature enough to have picked from the world’s population someone worth his time.  All he remembered was Michael’s tiny pink face in a lumpy baby blue towel, playing on the living room floor, taking Michael from Ellen’s arms so he could go to sleep in his.

“What about you?”  Paul asked, wishing she’d just say who she was now and what she wanted so he could know where he belonged.

“I’m here.”  Paul wasn’t expecting that.  He found himself scared and anxious, like the times he was naked in the prison showers, fearing the far corner but at the same time knowing that was the safest place just so he could see who was coming.  “We need you.”  She said and Paul hoped Ellen couldn’t see the dread that made him kill his drink.  She blushed hard and quaffed the bourbon.  “Anything you want, just come home right now.”

“What’s happened?”

“I can’t just tell you.  You need to come home first.  Give us some time.  Give it a week and talk to me, tell me straight what you think of everything.”

“What’re you saying?  You want me to tell you if everything’s all right?”

“Yeah.”  Paul laughed so hard he ended up coughing on lungs that had lost weight like his body.  Prison was reading, exercise, and smoking while waiting to stop a rape at his back or a sharpened spoon to his gut.  He was the last person anyone should ask for advice unless they were going to the can.

Dear Jim Thompson, Paul heard one of his dozens of letters to his favorite author and life coach, I’m a convicted contract killer and I just got out of prison.   I have no need to go back to the life and it doesn’t want me back, either.  My wife came for me, what’s the twist?  Paul hoped he wasn’t headed for one of Thompson’s unique existential hells, like the criminal utopia from The Getaway, or the madness of The Killer Inside Me.  If Jim were writing Paul’s life he’d be stabbing at a typewriter from some septic tank in the plumbing that ran between heaven and hell.  I’ll get everything I want and be too paranoid to enjoy it, Paul concluded.  That would be the sick sort of justice that only nature or a downtrodden author could come up with.

They finished their drinks and her hand trembled in his as she walked Paul to her car.  It was new, a custom black Dodge Challenger, black leather interior, chrome moulding and rims.  Down the center was a white streak, like Ellen’s hair.

“You wanna drive?”  She asked, the keys dangled from a pale wrist.  With a glance Paul saw the large car key and the house keys; garage, front and back doors and they were shiny.  New car, new house.  Where’d she get the money?  Paul left them with nothing, all the more reason not to get back with his family.  He read her fast and subtle, a habit he picked up in prison.  Everyone learned to hide their tells and to read everyone else, everyone learned to read upside down and backwards from twenty paces so they could see what was laying on desks during parole hearings or janitor duty.  Ellen read like a woman in a Jim Thompson novel, oozing sex and mystery and dreadful consequence, which was so unlike Ellen.  The Ellen from twenty-five years ago was alluring, clever, and alive.  She wasn’t missing any of that, but she was using her charm to hide motive when she used to be open to him.

Paul let the offer to drive hang between them.  This was how he got into the mob.  Fast cars bombing down Mulholland Drive.  He had transformed a 1940 Studebaker to take the curves.  He got into drag racing as a kid, moving for harder and deadlier roads in L.A. and that meant Mulholland Drive.  They raced at night to avoid the law, headlights on until you knew the track and then you went dark to feel the car and the road.  Squares used drugs to get the same release.  He met James Dean before he was James Dean and they agreed it was the meanest and most gratifying road in all the world.  Paul didn’t know it, but Dragna had goons placing bets on the races and scooping the losers into drug-running operations, the losers that the road didn’t kill.  Paul was one such loser.  Dragna kept the winners for his races where they lived lucrative and crime free lives.  Paul drove for bank heists and heroin all in the dead of night in matte black and no lights.  They called him The Shadow until he took the multiple murder conviction.

Is she appealing to my new freedom or is this a setup?  Ah, hell.  Paul took the keys and got behind the wheel.  Car designs changed in a big way, the engines under the hood, the brakes and wheels and transmission, but the basics remained the same.  He knew this car before he turned the ignition.  He looked into the empty back seat.  He popped the trunk and Ellen frowned as he got out and inspected.  He wondered if the drugs were hidden in the car’s frame.  Every time someone went to the slammer for drugs Paul overheard some new way to hide drugs.  One day a car would be made of drugs through some chemical magic.  Paul got back behind the wheel, took a breath, and left his shitty third-hand lemon where he had been parking it for the past three months.  The Challenger was impatient to move, getting grumpy with anything less than fifty mph.  Red lights turned it into a shaking,  volatile devil.  It put the “imp” in “impatient.”  It was a glorious machine to behold, but it wanted to be free, it wanted to be a blurry streak in the vision of anyone unlucky enough to not be inside it.

“It’s Michael’s,”  Ellen said, “mine’s in the shop.”  She had her eyes closed, her hands white-knuckled on the seat edges.  Paul was driving from muscle memory, easing past slower cars, feeling comfortable at top speed.  He slowed down to the lawful speed limit.  That life was over, he could not take it back.

“Is Michael in the life?”  He asked, ignoring the Challenger’s call for speed as it idled at a red light.

“No.”

“Where’s the money come from?”

“Nothing illegal.  But you’ll see.”  Ellen said.

“Sounds like you two did better without me.”

“We need you.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see.”  Ellen ended the conversation.  Their house was located on the west edge of Larchmont Village.  A nice place for families, an ideal location for upper middle class.  His family hadn’t fallen too far down the class ladder.  They had been secret royalty with Dragna’s payoffs for the drugs and bank heists.  Paul put Ellen and little Michael in a Beverly Hills address, but his conviction reduced them to paupers and after that he had no idea what had become of them.

“Don’t let it fool you, we’d be better off dirt poor and without Stacey.”

“Stacey is Michael’s wife?”

“Girlfriend.”

“Wife… soonish?”  Ellen pointed at a driveway.  She desperately wanted help but was reluctant to give Paul the details, as if telling him would increase his skepticism.  What’s so bad about her life?  It was all so alien to him after twenty-five years of being a serial number.  This was what the American Dream was; nice house, safe neighborhood, cool car, a kid on the right track, and stories to tell at cocktail parties to show how far you’ve come.

There was a young woman blocking the garage.  From Ellen’s shudder Paul guessed this woman must be Stacey, his future daughter-in-law.  This is too fast, I have so many questions that should’ve been answered before this.  Paul realized this was another reason why he hadn’t returned to his former life.  There was too much to learn before he could even know if he had a chance of fitting in, let alone actually going about the hard work of fitting in.

“Is this your house?”  Paul asked, but Ellen got out of the car as it was crawling to a stop.  Paul looked in the side view mirror back down the short driveway, the name on the mailbox was M. Vance.  Michael Vance.  Paul’s son.  Paul couldn’t help but smile despite the forbidding doom Ellen had cast.  Paul climbed out of the car.

“Hello, Ryan, we finally meet you!”  Stacey said, her hands outstretched and for a moment Paul couldn’t decide which one to shake but she came in for a bear hug.  She was rail thin and had no strength so the embrace was like jellyfish, thin strands enfolding around him just before a shock of poison.  Paul blamed his edginess on the past twenty-five years and Ellen’s ominous punctuation.  Ellen spoke before Paul could ask who’s Ryan?

“He just flew in from selling the land.”  Ellen said, her two-inch wedge heel smashing into Paul’s instep right through the prison leather.  Stacey stepped back and took them in, she smiled, they must look cute.  Then Stacey’s smile wavered as she studied Paul.  He still looked like he had just got out of prison.  No money, no connections, what fashion sense he owned had been exchanged for bland prison uniform.  Button down, jeans, brown boots.  It just made things easier not having to worry about daily attire, and Paul had never expected anything more from life, again.  “He’s exhausted, mind if I show him to our room.”  Paul bristled.  His anxiety hadn’t been this high since he had been trapped in a cell with a guy armed with a sharpened spoon.  The guy had been drunk on fermented apricots, and luckily whoever made the hooch forgot to remove the pits.  The cyanide from the pits wasn’t enough to kill, but combined with the moonshine level of ethanol Paul’s would-be-killer ended up dropping the spoon and puking for the rest of the week.  Paul had worn telephone books under his shirt, front and back, for the rest of his prison days just in case some other punk got the bright idea to kill a mob all-star hitman.  Now Paul was going to be locked in a room with a woman who should want him dead.  All because he couldn’t resist the Challenger.

I can walk away any time, I’m free.  Paul followed the women into Michael’s house.

Once inside their room Ellen pressed her ear to the shut door.

“What’s going on?  Who’s Ryan?”  Ellen ran at him and he backed up, checking his peripheral vision for a phone book.  She slapped a hand over his mouth and pressed her lips to his ear.

“Ryan’s my boyfriend.  They don’t know about you.”

“So you have someone else?”

“Ryan isn’t real.   You’re playing a part.  Michael doesn’t know about you and if you don’t tell them then they’ll act normal and you’ll see how bad things are here.”

“What?”  Paul said, hearing everything and understanding nothing because it was a complex plot being told by a woman who had gotten more beautiful with age.  She was pressed against him and he was sent back to high school when all the men were getting shipped out for the war, and he was feeling shitty for being too young to follow.  Then he met Ellen and the decades flew by until prison.

There was a knock at the door.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,”  Stacey said and the door swung open, “but I’ve got ribs in the oven and I was wondering if you’d love a drink.  Chianti?  Bourbon?  Once Michael gets home he can whip up a cocktail, I’m the foodie and he’s the alcoholic.”  Stacey said with a titter and a wink as if she were on the set of one of those stupid family comedies Paul was catching during the last few years of prison.  Nothing made him want to risk the sniper towers and electric fence more than the fucking transformation of television programming.

Paul had turned beet red the moment he was alone with Ellen, now he was going to ash being caught holding his wife.  He realized she had never filed for divorce.  For the past twenty-five years Paul had fought tooth and nail to never be touched or turned punk and now he was here pretending to be the boyfriend.

“Could we have some privacy?”  Ellen said.

“Ellen, I meant to discuss this with you… when you’re under my roof I’d like you to respect my family’s values.  Privacy is the devil’s playground.  Would you care for a drink?”

“You’re not family.”

“Bourbon, please.”  Paul croaked.  Stacey left them with the door open.

“See?”  Ellen studied Paul’s face.  “She’s a damn psycho.”

“Well…  well, I don’t know.  She’s weird, I guess, but… nice?”  Paul said, risking diplomacy because he had been in too many close calls not to give it a shot every time.  He talked his way out of a guard baton beating once.

“Don’t you remember what we were like?”

“I see no comparison.”  Ellen left Paul slumped on the bed.  He had forgotten what it was like to be winded by women.

At the dinner table Paul sipped chianti to be polite.  I asked for a bourbon.  He could see the bottle of Pappy Van Winkle on the shelf with the the other rare bottles of hooch.  He thought about apricots and cyanide.

“So, Ryan, we heard so much about you.”  Stacey said even though Michael had not arrived yet.

“Oh.  Far out?”  Paul said. He smiled, unsure of where the break in the silence was going.  He smelled the ribs and all he wanted was to run back to his ugly car and Cole’s.  He had just started building a manageable life without complications and he could go back to it at any time, but he wanted to know about his son and he loved sharing in this rich lifestyle after failing so hard and paying for it with time off his life.  But was it worth the apprehension that hovered over them like Communism?  Was it worth the prison-like conditions Stacey was imposing?  Was Michael happy?

A car parked outside.  Michael came through the door with flowers.  He wore a suit and glasses, but Paul saw his son in the sharp cheeks and cleft chin.  The eyes had gone pale, but the warmth was the same.  Michael walked like Paul with a suave assurance in his stride as if his every move were choreographed.  Stacey didn’t rise to greet him, didn’t bother to introduce Paul.  Ellen cleared her throat and stood, holding a hand out to Paul and he took it and rose to his unsteady feet.

“Michael, this is Ryan, my…”

“Cut the shit, Ellen.  I’m Paul Vance, your father.  I just got outta prison, five counts murder one.”  Paul said before he could think and hesitate any longer.  If there was mob trouble here Paul had to clear the air to clean it all up.  Ellen dropped to her chair, shaking with anger.  Stacey was the only one unaffected.  Paul focused on Michael, who wore a half grin and looked around for the joke that he missed catching.  Michael looked at Paul and saw the resemblance.  His smile shrank and one side of his jaw poked out, the tell that told the world he was grinding his teeth.  Paul had the same tick.

“Your mother thinks your lady is a bad choice.  That you’re in the mob.”  Paul said, pushing everyone towards resolution.

“Huh?”  Michael said.  I used to be this dense, too Paul thought and watched his son slowly turn to Stacey.  She wore a look of nonchalance, sipping chianti.  A kitchen timer far away rattled.

“When I went to prison I left you with nothing, now you got all this.  How?”

“What’s this about mobsters?  Are we in danger?”  Michael crossed the room to stand behind Stacey, placing a protective hand on her shoulder.  “What’s going on, Mom?  You say you want to get together, have a family weekend to get to know your boyfriend, by the way that’s weird enough you’re pushing fifty!  And now… this?

“Holy shit, Ellen.  Say something.”  Paul said.

“I will not have this language in my house.”  Stacey said.  Michael’s eyes flicked to the floor in shame.  She’s got him wrapped around her fingers with a noose, Paul thought.

“If you had just played along you’d see no one’s happy.  Now we’re all focused on you and that… crap.”  Ellen leaned over the table, menacing her son.  “Tell Dad what you told me last week.”

Stacey raised an eyebrow and Michael avoided her eyes.  He looked like a puppy who got caught after a furniture-shredding tantrum.

“Oh, get off it, Mom, I was just blowing off steam!”

“What did you say?”  Stacey said, drooping her shoulders so Michael’s hand slid off.

“Nothing.”  Michael said.

“He told me that you don’t care unless money gets tight, he goes for more credit or a loan from another bank and suddenly everything’s fine.  He said he was going to dump you and I think it’s a swell idea!”  Ellen said.  Paul felt pieces of himself die inside.  There was no emergency other than this domestic travesty, nothing illegal but certainly horrible.

Stacey switched gears, her face warmed with robotic precision, “This is how people get along these days.  Michael is a very good businessman.  Michael, baby, don’t worry.  You’re doing it right.  But did you really say that?  Are you done with me?”

“No, I just… things would be so much easier if we moved out of the city.  Like the desert.  And all these rules, what’s the point of your rules, babe?”

“There are no babes in this household.  Not yet, anyway.  Michael, we’ve had this discussion and I will not have it again, especially not in front of your tyrant mother or her killer husband.  I wasn’t going to say anything, but your mother has been trying to split us up for a long time, so I had to enforce rules in my house so that she couldn’t hurt you.”

Ellen jumped in, “You’re living on debt and one day all this comes crashing down.  Your father and I were there.  We followed rules, too.  Rules are fine, it’s the blind following that ruined everything.”  Ellen said and Paul marched to the bottle of Pappy and ripped the seal, popped the cork, and gulped straight from the bottle.  She was trying to setup a breakup.  This was the style of twist Thompson was famous for, the out of the blue plot change.  Paul didn’t understand how he was essential to this plan of Ellen’s.  It wasn’t likely that the sudden appearance of an unknown family member would change anything.

White smoke crawled from the kitchen and spread across the ceiling.

Stacey stood up slow like a silent movie vampire.  Her eyes were intense and cold as she commanded them to “Get out.  Please.”

Michael was speechless.  Paul felt a twinge in his chest.

“Son, I know this is a shock, but I’m not gonna invade your life.  Just answer one question… are you happy?”  Paul said.  Ellen was so shaken by Stacey that she was getting her coat just so she wouldn’t have to look at her.  Paul knew how to make a standoff last.  He wasn’t leaving until Michael answered him.

Stacey elbowed Michael, “Yeah.  I’m happy.”  Paul felt the air in his lungs turn to mud.  He had been the same way in prison, a mask, a shell, and in return he was able to believe he was happy because truth is easy to ignore in isolation.

“Good.”  Paul said and took Ellen’s limp arm and helped her into her coat.  He lead her out and held her steady when the front door slammed behind them and Ellen shook so hard she would have fallen if not for him.

On the ride back to his car Ellen told Paul about Michael’s life.

Michael was in debt.  Every business transaction he made stopped one collector and grafted a new one to his back.  The horrifying part was that the only difference between Paul’s former life and Michael’s present hell was that this was all legal.  The system had adapted to incarcerate people without sending them to prison.  Stacey had Michael locked in a cycle, dangling the carrots of future peace and prosperity by way of hard work right now.

“He said he’s happy.  If people live on debt these days who’re we to tell him to live different?  Or love different?”

“He has no idea what he’s in for.”

“You don’t, either.  I think you’re projecting.”  Paul said, his voice trailing off on the psychological term.  He wasn’t sure he was using it right.  His head spun.

“Last week he was ready to break it off.”

“How close are you to him?”

“We were close, but she’s been keeping him isolated.”

“Because she knows you hate her.”

“Because she knows that I know she’s a gold digger.”

Paul slowed down the Challenger and parked behind his beat-up junker outside Cole’s.  The restaurant was closed and he could use a drink and a French Dip.  He killed the engine and they sat in silence for several seconds.  Ellen gripped his arm.

“You don’t remember what it was like, do you?”  Ellen said with venom steaming in the back her throat.  Paul had no idea what she was talking about.  “Living in debt, goaded on by the woman you love.  Getting deeper and deeper and then you just forget where legal crossed to illegal and getting out meant digging more.”

“He’s not like me, and she’s not you.  In fact, their lives are fine.”

“Michael is following in your shoes.  The only difference is that when it ends she’ll make off with the money.  Michael’s gonna end up just like you, broke and alone.”

“It’s his life.”  Paul said, hoping Ellen would hold on to him and at the same time wishing she’d let go.  Hold me different, kid, please.

“You can’t want this for him.  You don’t want him to make a mistake he can’t fix.”

“And you think breaking them up will fix his life?”

“She’ll never let him go.  You saw it, tell me you saw that much.”

“Yeah, I did.”  Paul didn’t want to admit that, but he could tell that Michael wasn’t happy.  Paul thought back on his mafia days.  Michael was held captive by Stacey the same way Dragna had trapped over Paul decades ago.  “Ellen.  I can’t do what you want.”

“What’s one more?”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”  Ellen was not going to let him go without the secret he’d been keeping for twenty-five-years.  He looked her dead in the eye.

“I never killed any one.  I took the rap for Dragna’s killer.  But you’re right about living in debt.  Dragna cashed in when I thought I was invulnerable.”  Paul said and the truth came easy.  He’d had twenty-five years to think of the truth.

“You never killed anyone?”

“Not a one, kid.  I’ve never even shot a gun before.  I was a driver, not a killer.”

“But why’d you do it?”

“It was either go to prison in his place or get you two killed by the real hitman.”

“But why you?”

“Because Dragna needed killers to duke it out with Cohen’s killers.  Because I’d do anything for you.”  Ellen took a breath.  She had hoped for a killer.  Would she need me otherwise?

“Michael will do anything for Stacey.  She’ll bleed him dry.”

“I’m not killing her.”

“You must think I’m some kind of monster.”

“You wanna save your kid.  I did twenty-five terrible years for you both.  I’d do it, again.  But no one is putting a gun to Michael’s head.  Who’re we to judge?” Ellen nodded and smiled.  A weight had been lifted from her shoulders.  She looked sad and beautiful in the pale blue glow of the street lamps.

“I’ve been going crazy.  I tried to split them up I don’t know how many times.  I lost my friends, you… and I couldn’t fathom losing him.  For some reason I thought he’d end up like you when really it can only get as bad as divorce and bankruptcy.”  Ellen chuckled and wiped eyes that shimmered with tears borne from relief.

“There are worse things.”  Paul said and not even a heartbeat later she was on him, her lipstick and tears painted his face.  Her hands held him as if he were falling.  “I’m sorry.”  She said and when he opened his eyes she was so close he saw one large eye staring back.  “I’m sorry.”  Paul kissed her.  She tasted the same, her face and body had aged but that kiss had not.

“I’m sorry, too.”  He gasped.

“What do you want?”  She asked.  She had asked him that question so many times before and he never had an answer until now.  His stone facade crumbled.  He had fought for years to never show emotion.

“I want to start over with you.  I want to make sure Michael and Stacey are happy.  We can be a family if we just talk everything out and be patient, get to know each other without ambition and money gettin’ in the way.  I think Stacey is stricken with worry for the future, that kinda dread makes people do weird things.”  Paul said, thinking of sleepless nights and phone books stuffed in his pants.

“Take me home.”  Paul revved the engine and left his junker to rust in downtown Los Angeles.

Ellen lived in a quiet neighborhood far away from the spread out sprawl of L.A.  Her house was the size of a two bedroom apartment with a tiny yard and driveway without garage.

“It’s not what we used to have, but it works.”  Ellen said.  They both took their time to trek to the front door.  They were nervous.  Paul wondered if bra hooks had changed.

“It’s great.  It’s home.”  He said.  The backs of their hands brushed together.  His fingers found her palm and he held her hand tight.  She squeezed back.  She unlocked the door and he went inside.  He smelled lavender and laundry detergent.  In the shadows he saw a clean living room and a full coat rack with a hat on top in the far corner.  Paul shut his eyes and breathed.  Things were going to start over and he would get that rare Jim Thompson happy ending like in his later books that were awful.  Awful for for an audience, not the characters.  But this was his story, their story, and they were going to be happy for the rest of their lives.  Whether or not they deserved to be happy was another story Paul was not even going to consider.

Ellen slid a hand over his shoulders as she passed him to a light switch across the room.  A question came to Paul, “If you thought Michael was doing ok would you have come for me?”  Ellen answered by ignoring him.  She reached for the light and Paul felt the ruin he thought he had left behind coming back.

“No.  Leave it.  Come here.”  Paul said and held out his arms.  She turned and he saw her white teeth appear in the dark.

The coat rack and hat moved, and Paul’s open arms filled with the bright flash of a gunshot.  The silenced weapon snapped sharply and Ellen toppled to the floor.  Paul’s lungs filled with ice as did his limbs.

The lights turned on.  The coat rack and hat was a thick guy wearing a fedora.  He was the man Paul went to jail for a lifetime ago.  The hitman held a .22 caliber revolver with a thick tube screwed tight to the snub barrel.  The small caliber was a good choice.  Ellen’s head was intact, a neat hole the size of a pencil’s eraser leaked a polite stream of blood.  A small bullet had enough gas to punch through bone, but not enough to exit, which meant a cleaner getaway.  This was strictly business.

Ellen’s face was still smiling, frozen in the moment she heard Paul call to her in the dark.  She’d be there forever, now.  A limbo where she would always go to him and he would always wait for her.

“Get it over with, Jimmy.”  Paul said and straightened up for the bullet like a nervous groom waiting for holy permission to kiss his bride.  Jimmy used the gun’s barrel to tip his hat up above his brow.  Those smart brown eyes twinkled, the smirk made Paul want to knock his head off just as he had wanted to twenty-five years ago.  Jimmy had gotten fat.

“Don’t you wanna talk first?”  Jimmy said, sharp gravel voice from smoking.

“No.”  Paul said, unmoving.  Jimmy stepped over Ellen and got closer to Paul to inspect him.

“You can walk.  I know you won’t say nothin’.”

“You mean…?”  Jimmy shrugged an answer.

“I’m freelance and I ain’t paid for two bodies.  Besides, I never thanked you for taking my jail time.”  Jimmy tucked the gun in one of his jacket pockets, from another he brought out a roll of twenties.  Paul took it on instinct just as he had learned to do in the mob and inside prison; you took what was yours.  But this money was not his, or rather, it was not payment enough for what he had lost.

“You wanna drive me to the safe house like old times?”  Jimmy said, as if it were the bad old days.

Paul was too busy trying to understand all that had happened.

“I’m sorry, Paul.  But you gotta understand this life with her was over the minute you went to prison.  Don’t kid yourself, you woulda had a good night but not an ever after.”  Jimmy lay a hand on Paul’s shoulder, heavy and firm, pushing him to the front door.

“Who hired you?”

“Some twist, get over it.  Cocaine is cheap these days and women’s cheaper.  We’ll get stinko and forget this.  No one’s too old for disco.  You know disco, right?”  Jimmy was betting that Paul hadn’t changed, that Paul was still a guy who’d paint a town any color just for kicks.  What had Ellen ever seen in me?  Paul wondered, and thought of Jim Thompson on reflex.  By reading Thompson’s collection Paul had read about himself, from seedy youth to mob hotshot, and decided he either needed to change or end up loathing who he saw in the mirror.  He had chosen Thompson because the guy wrote pulp, but that was a disguise.  Thompson was a gateway into real literature and afterwards Paul saw through other lenses such as Dickens, Maupassant, and Salinger.

It was too late to get Jimmy into reading and seeing himself.  Sometimes violence was a good answer.  Paul swung his right open palm against the side of Jimmy’s head.  His hat flew off and before Jimmy could turn around Paul hit him with his left, inches lower, and one more time with the right.  The three off-center hits in quick succession broke Jimmy’s neck.  At one time towards the end of his sentence Paul had shared a cell with a former football star who used to do this trick when the ball snapped into play.  Thanks to him the NFL was changing its rulebook.  Thanks to Paul a professional killer was removed from society, but ironically Paul had committed murder after serving twenty-five years for not doing so.

“What’s one more?” Paul heard Ellen say in the eery hollow that followed death.

Paul knew Stacey hired Jimmy to kill Ellen.

Jimmy admitted he had gone freelance, Jimmy wasn’t hired to kill Paul, Ellen had said she had lost everyone but Michael, and Michael was chained to Stacey.  Stacey didn’t know about Paul until tonight.  Ellen wanted Stacey gone.  Ellen had been right all along.  Stacey was no good.

Paul took the gun from Jimmy’s pocket and shot Jimmy in the side of the head.  He shot two more times into the wall and door.  The last shot boomed, the silencer was spent.

Paul made it to the Challenger before he broke down.  Thick sobs wracked his chest.  He felt guilty, he had made it possible for Jimmy to stay in his line of work, but another voice whispered to him.  A voice in the back of his head as tiny as the bullet that killed Ellen.  Stacey would’ve found someone else to kill Ellen.  This was true.  Ellen had been trying to split Stacey and Michael up for who knows how long.  Stacey had planned the hit long ago, it wasn’t like ordering a pizza.  Paul was cleaning up someone else’s mess, again.  The first time was twenty-five-years ago when Jimmy was Dragna’s top button man and Paul took Jimmy’s murder charges to save his family.  Now, Paul was cleaning up another mess to save what remained of his family.

He sped back to Michael’s house.  He pounded on the door.  Stacey answered, wide awake and Michael followed, half-asleep.  Paul smirked, he could guess why Stacey couldn’t sleep.

There was no point in asking questions.  Stacey would dodge and run away, Michael wouldn’t believe any of it at first and then years would be spent correcting and managing the damage if she were caught.  If Stacey got away she would have no choice but to continue the life of a parasite and she had violent motivation to preserve such a lifestyle.  Either way Michael would spend the rest of his life dealing with a truth that would define his existence.  Paul had to create a new lie so Michael could move on faster and live a full life sooner.

Paul took a step back, raised the gun and shot Stacey in the face.  The tip of her nose flattened and her life snuffed before she hit the floor.  Paul leaned forward and put the final bullet through her left eye.  The two shots cracked and echoed up and down the street.

Father and son looked at each other.

“Don’t let assholes drive you around.”  Paul said.  It was all he could think of to pinpoint what he had learned over the course of his life.  He was hoping for poetry after reading classics for twenty-five-years, but not everything could be poetry.  Not everything had to be, or should be.

Michael did not see that it took far too long for Paul to point the gun at him, or that the gun was spent.  Michael’s legs gained strength and took him to the telephone where he called the police.

Paul went back to prison for life this time.  His only respite from the dangers and doldrums of prison life was reading pulp and thinking of Michael, hoping his son was using his past to make a better future.

Michael visited for a time.  Paul answered questions about his life and his mother’s.  Michael did not seem disturbed by Stacey’s death, which made Paul wonder if his son knew the truth, after all.  Then, his son stopped visiting.

One day years later there was a package waiting for Paul without a return address.  Inside lay a hardcover book.  A book written by Michael Vance, the true story of a hitman’s son.  Paul didn’t read the book, he knew how it went from reading Jim Thompson.  Instead, Paul flipped to the front of the book and read the dedication.

To those who lie to heal those they love.

And then Paul got it.  After so many years he finally understood why he loved Jim Thompson.  Hidden under all the inflammatory sexism, depraved crime and haunting lunacy, there was a love for humanity burning so furiously it could only be recognized in rebellion.  Thompson went further than showing how crime did not pay, what the Pulp King was after was showing the darkest humanity so that the only takeaway for the reader was rebellion against Jim’s dreary pessimism.  To trigger humanitarian action in the most nihilistic individual.  To make his readers want to build an existence that proved such a dark world view is a lie.  To do what he was unable to do in his own life because he had driven too long in the dark, thinking he knew the way when it was just by chance he never crashed until old age.  Jim Thompson’s only luck was the curse of a long life of hardships and he wanted desperately for everyone to not share his misery.

Paul flipped to the back of the book, where the author’s short bio was printed.

Michael Vance lives in the desert where he is happy.

Paul smiled and put the book under his pillow.  He went to sleep that night dreaming of Michael behind the wheel of the Challenger with the rising sun guiding his way on dark desert roads he knew by heart.

It’s Just a Game

Two years after her father’s death Barb was still getting rejection letters for his manuscript.  Ever since her father’s death she received crisp envelopes and the form rejections inside were sterile, printed on sharp copy paper.  On his death bed she had forged an acceptance letter for him.

“Oh, God, no… it’s all over.  I wished he’d never find it…  how did he?”  Were his final words.  He died with a look of horror on his face.  She had served him a lie in his final moment and the guilt was killing her, but the mystery was worse.  It didn’t help that she stayed on in the house.  The house Dad died in and before him the house Mom died in – they died in the same room years apart.  Now, Barb slept in that room because it was too much trouble to move furniture and too expensive to move out.

The rejections kept coming, a vengeful ghost was haunting her with these letters from all over the nation.  They were inhuman, computerized printouts, so at first she thought it was a software bug in an automated system, but after calling and connecting with a revolving door of secretaries and assistants at multiple agencies she discovered all the literary agencies she contacted had received her father’s manuscript queries no more than two years ago, some as early as three months ago.  He’d been dead for two years.  Someone was trying to rip him off.  Barb took it upon herself to find out who.

Plausible, her father’s name was Michael Brown making it a common name for an extraordinary man.  Extra ordinary.  Mr. Brown, her father, was so ordinary he had extra to spare.  Her mother always said that her husband was melatonin personified.  Now, Barb thought of her mom.  Mom was gone, too, and that was a sad memory.  She had never gotten to know Mom in life.  It wasn’t until she was cleaning out Mom’s room that she saw her mother’s happiness was just a mask, a stiff nuclear winter to go with the nuclear family.  Barb was surprised, their lives were complete, everything they wished for was granted.  Her brother was late for both funerals.  His excuse was he was older, his excuse was his family.  Barb had neither age or obligation.  Not even distance.  So, she went to Mom’s funeral with Dad and even through the wake he was ordinary.  Ordinary tears trembled down his face.  Ordinary service paid for from the church she no longer went to because she could not force herself to believe anymore.  She was sure Dad didn’t believe either, but that would have been out of his character, not very ordinary at all.

It had been up to her to go through Mom’s things and separate the trash from the keepsakes from the yard sale items from the donation junk.  Piles of odds and ends she had never seen before.  What took her breath away were the board games.  Old cardboard boxes with obscure company logos and even weirder game titles.  Morbid curiosities, spectral adventures, the games promised both fantasy and the obscene.  Her mother had collected board games from around the world and hid them in the attic.  She had a family to play them with and not once had they even played the popular ones like Monopoly or Parcheesi, which Barb found mixed with the odds ones.  The games were all opened and the pieces felt new, the cards and fake money were crisp, but Barb knew that her mother had rifled through the games, read the instructions, maybe even played herself all in secret.  Barb had asked her brother about the board games because she did not want to ask Dad.  She had moved into their parents’ house to keep Dad company, and Michael was there “just for the funeral” he kept saying, reminding everyone that he was needed more at his job and with his family.  Michael’s family did not come with him because of scheduling issues, but Barb was sure Michael forbade them to come just so he could use them as an excuse in case she or another relative asked him to stay longer.

“Those games?  I heard Mom playing with Dad one day.  I had to leave the house, lots of thumping up there, ya know?”  Michael said with a grimace after Barb asked about the board games, suggesting Mom and Dad had some kind of game-night kink.  Maybe that’s why Dad had kept the games after Mom died, but after seeing the rejection letters for her father’s book Barb wasn’t so sure.  The two were connected.

“You didn’t throw out those games, did you?”  Her Dad had asked, already showing signs of the sorrowful disease that would kill him.  She told him she did and would not throw them out.

“And don’t play them.  None of them.”  Her Dad said with such seriousness that she promised she would not.  She didn’t have anyone to play with, so it all worked out.

But now, two years later, Barb raced up to the attic.  She had kept the odd games, the foreign ones and morbid ones.  She kept one in particular that came in a red cardboard box and had a blank black square board.  This board was like Metallica’s Black Album, her favorite during rough teenage years, the album cover was black with embossed black designs.  This board looked blank, but when tilted in the light black symbols and lines appeared.  A two-dimensional labyrinth.  That was it.  No cards, no fake money, no instructions.  It was packed in a box too big for just this board.

Chills shivered through her like a supernatural flu.  The games were inside a trunk her Dad had made.  He had picked up carpentry after retirement along with writing and she was often kept up at night while he banged and sawed in the garage.  He wrote most days.  Dad used to be a general practitioner, just a family doctor, and she was sure he had no background in either creative writing or woodworking.  The funny thing was, he slaved away at each hobby, developing a lousy talent for both but determined to do better as if his life depended on it.  Barb let Dad go and saw he was disappointed with every project.  This trunk he had made was uneven, the wood splintery and knotted and finished in a sticky matte lacquer.  A real shitty job even by amateur standards.  A rushed job, as if the trunk had to be made quick.

She dropped the board and it hit the floor with a metallic clang.  Sheet metal.  The game board wasn’t painted black, it was solid harsh metal.  She hadn’t noticed before, she was so preoccupied with the funeral.  She tilted the board and saw symbols and letters flash embossed black on matte black.  There it was… the title of the game in the upper righthand corner.  The title of the game was the same as the title of her father’s novel.

The novel that would not rest.

But which came first?  The book or the game?

She pushed the spooky feeling in her stomach aside.  Her brother had their father’s name.  It explained the continuing query letters, but not why she was getting the rejections.  She laid the game board down and called Michael on her cell.

“Why are you querying Dad’s book?”

“Because I like to find money anywhere I can.”  Barb rolled her eyes, of course.  Michael was money hungry with two children.  One born just out of high school, ending his college career before it began, and another years later before Dad’s death.

“You know there’s a game up here with the same title as his book?”

“He was a nerd trying to capitalize on what he thought could be a franchise.”

“So, you know how the game works?  Which came first?”

“I have no idea.  Mom was the one into games.  She made the Parcheesi set.”

“I threw that out, I wish you told me!”

“Oh, you weren’t born then, I guess it must’ve been 1979 or 80?”

“Don’t ask me, you were alive.”

“I can’t place it, but she made the game pieces and the board and we played a few times, and she worked on other wooden thingies.  The game nights stopped, though.”

“At least… the nights including you?”

“Ha, yuck.  I guess so.”

“I don’t remember Mom doing anything like that.  I do remember an old guy, Dyer or Dryer.  Supposed to have been some kinda genius.  Weird guy, though.”

“I don’t remember him.  Did you get rid of all the games?”

“I kept the weird ones.”

“You would.  Hey, speaking of weird, the kids…”  Barb took a breath in frustration, she didn’t want to talk about Michael’s children, but Michael didn’t like to dwell on things that weren’t his office or family, the things in his life that made his life.

“Michael.  What made you move out?  It wasn’t the baby.  People become young parents out here, practically goes with the high school diploma.”  Barb said, remembering crying one day after school.  She got off the bus just as he was packing his shitty car, his pregnant wife-to-be standing by.  They didn’t even say goodbye, and she couldn’t remember seeing his wife before that day, either.  It was as if this new life of his sprung from thin air, but she had gotten used to abrupt changes.  Unsuspected Christmas gifts, passing tests she should have failed.  She had always felt charmed until that day.  That day would mark the end of charm and the beginning of tedious curse.

“Mom and Dad fought, it wasn’t good for Wendy and the baby.  I always wanted to ask if that’s why you stayed, if you thought you could fix things.”

“They didn’t fight.”

“Barb, it’s ok, you can talk to me.”  Barb bit her tongue, he was only saying that because he wanted dirt.  He wouldn’t actually help her.  The curious thing was that she was sure her parents never fought.  No game nights, either.  Michael was trying to dodge the present by diverting her into the past.

“You haven’t got any acceptance letters for your novel.”  She said.

“Worth a shot.”

“For two years?”

“Hey, I read online this sorta thing can take a long time for a response, if any.  I paid a company to send the queries.”

“So, you never read the novel?”

“No.  You?”

“No…”  Barb said, surprised with herself.  The game and the novel were joined.  Her Dad wrote the novel, her mother built the game.  Both felt unfinished.  There were so many questions, why did they play alone?  Why is this thing metal if all they did was woodwork?  Where’s the rest of the game?

Barb sifted through the games.  The black board from the red box was so entirely different.  It lacked the warmth of shared experience and care.  Barb turned the board in a beam of sunlight from the only window, an oval that overlooked the overgrown lawn.  The flashing embossed symbols on the board meant nothing to her, hard lines and squiggles that resembled ancient text, but her parents didn’t know anything other than English.  Then, again, she didn’t know about the games, so what else was hidden?

She repacked the metal board inside the red box and tucked it under her arm.  She wandered the attic, looking for signs of her parent’s life up here.

Barb knew what she had to do after finding nothing else in the attic.  She took the game downstairs and set it on the dining room table.  She went to her father’s office,  now her office, and pulled out a cardboard box.  Inside was the only hard copy of her father’s novel.

The title: Wish

The same title as the board game.  She opened the book and started to read, and then she knew why it would never sell and why Michael, her brother, would never reap their dead father’s royalties.  The enormous book was a manual for the game.  Detailed instructions and by the third page Barb saw that she was reading incantations, or so she suspected because she understood none of it.  Did Mom and Dad toy with witchcraft?  It would’ve been laughable if not for the evidence of conjoined madness in the lonely house her parents had died in.

Barb went outside to get a dose of sunshine she had never needed so badly until now.  She was a shut-in, unlike everyone else in her family.  Michael was always doing dinner parties and play groups with other families and their children, her parents were always out and she remembered more nights with babysitters than family dinners.  That’s what made this so odd, if anything she should be the one writing in-depth directions to a crazy game without pieces.

Instead she binged on streaming slasher flicks and read herself to sleep with only the cat to keep her company.  She worked ten hours a day as a secretary in her father’s hospital.  She read some more paragraphs and still understood none of it, it was written in some sort of verse and the language was English, but the arrangements were disjointed.  She understood one part of a sentence that ran on for pages – blood calls the challenger[…]  Did a blood offering start the game?

The hospital.  Her father’s things were still there, at least the files were and they’d be there for another eight years.  Barb didn’t know why she felt she didn’t have eight years, or minutes, but she grabbed her car keys and left the house in a such a hurry that she had to double back and lock the front door.  Something in the air made her feel like she should stay with the game, an invisible attraction not quite strong enough to stop her physically.

At the office, Barb went through the files containing all of her father’s former patients.  Barb found the medical record of a famous physicist, Donald Dryer, another weird thing she never knew about her past.  She had rubbed elbows with a Nobel Prize winner.  She remembered a strange old man who visited form time to time – could this be his medical record?  DECEASED was stamped on the first page of Dryer’s file and she read he had died ten years before her parents.  There was nothing abnormal in the file, but there was no date of death.  This wasn’t unheard of, the man probably switched to a celebrity doctor after getting the Nobel Prize.  Barb found her own file, the perk of being the daughter of a physician became creepy but she found nothing unusual about her physical condition, except the long standing vitamin-D deficiency.  She took supplements when she remembered, but getting real sunlight beyond going to and from work was not an option.  She didn’t care for people and there were too many of them under the sun.

She took a look at her brother’s file.  The file was old (her brother’s official name was Michael Brown II) and ended just before he left for college.  This was about the same time he had said their parents were getting weird and he got a girl pregnant and moved away.  Mom died a few months after Michael left to take on his new, mysterious life as a father and husband.  The file said Michael was sterile.  Barb wondered how awkward that  exam must have been and… but Michael had children…

She remembered going to the stupid baby shower in a strange city where the basic bitches finger painted on Michael’s wife’s bloated abdomen and gave her gifts they had bought on dwindling credit to one-up each other.  Barb kept the cat company and couldn’t drink the wine fast enough because the other women were inhaling it as if this was the last party they’d go to for a long time.  She had pitied Michael’s wife, it was like watching someone volunteer for indentured servitude for at least eighteen years.  Barb ended up with the cat because the gray tabby hated Michael and his family.  It liked her, though.  It was more gecko than feline the way it stuck to her screen door.

Ah, shit, where was Mother Fucker?  She thought to herself.  Usually there were morning cuddles, then afternoon Netflix binges with the occasional hairball for attention, then reading in bed and  Little Punkasaurus would fall asleep on her chest.  Wake up, repeat, just not today.  The perk of being a loner was life never got complex.  After Dad died she couldn’t afford to be complex.  They had been rich and enchanted, but ever since Michael moved it was hard enough to pay for food.  The social downfall isolated her from former rich friends.  The only miracle was that the house was paid off before Dad died.  It seemed that once the money stopped coming in, so did the people.  She was happy to be alone and no longer struggling.  She didn’t need anyone.  She thought along these lines of logic when she felt lonely and was on the verge of downloading Tinder for the fortieth time in a month.

She wondered if Michael had met the surrogate father on some sort of dating app.  “Husband sterile, please help.”  If that’s true then Michael made a profile pretending to be his wife, creeptastic!  But how did he talk his vanilla wife into that?  Barb didn’t care for Michael’s children, the older one was a tween wretch and the toddler was turning out the same.  No matter where the kids were or what they were doing they were always out of place and always on the verge of a violent tantrum.  They gave off a vibe thick as a stench that they were not happy, and so did Wendy, Michael’s wife.  But, finally!  Barb had a reason to endure a conversation about his kids!

She dialed his number on the drive home and he didn’t pick up until she was walking up the driveway.  It was a nice day out, Autumn, Halloween coming soon.  Maybe she’d carve pumpkins and leave the light on so she could hand out candy.  She had a sudden urge to see little ghosts and goblins and their parent’s half-assed costumes as Debt Reaper  or Mortgage Monster.  The cat had a little Dracula cape collecting dust somewhere.

“Are your children yours?”  She said, cutting to the chase to catch Michael off guard.

“No.  What?  In what context?”

“Biological.”

“Barb… did you find something?  Like a black game board in a red box?”

“Yeah, how’d you guess?”

“Don’t play that game.”

“I’m not playing a game, Michael, I got spooked by that stupid thing Mom and Dad made so I went through Dad’s office to see if there were any more weird things.”

“Just put it away and forget it.”

 

“Is it dangerous?”

“Yes.”

“Then why’d they keep it?”

“Because you can’t get rid of it.  Just the pieces.  Did you try to get rid of it?  You didn’t hurt yourself near it, did you?”

“No…  wait, why’d you try to sell Dad’s novel if you can’t get rid of it?”

“Because if you transfer the game instructions the board goes with it, but it’s gotta be paid for, blood or money.”

“Huh?”

The front door was unlocked when she inserted the key.  The key spun freely in the lock, like turning the dial on her fear.  This one goes to eleven.

“Look, I’ll deal with the game.  I just need to think of a good excuse for Wendy and I’ll fly out soon.”  Barb heard him, but she was preoccupied with the screen door on the other side of the unlocked glass door she opened.  This was the cat’s screen where he leapt onto it like a lizard.  The screen was bowed straight backwards, not hanging low like it did with the cat’s weight.  His little claws were stuck in the screen, too.  Sometimes that happened, one or two would come loose from him being stupid, but this time all of his claws were stuck in the screen.  It was as if he had been hanging there and someone had wrenched him off.

Michael was still talking, “You can’t give it as a gift, people throw it out and then it comes back to you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”  Barb said, hanging back on the stoop, afraid to go inside.  Why’s it always the stupid cat?  She thought, thinking of movies like Straw Dogs and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“I’m talking about wishes.”

“Wishes?”

“Mom and Dad found a way to grant wishes.  We had a good run, a charmed life because of that game but I…  I guess they didn’t like what I did.”

 

“You mean… your kids, you wished them to life?”

“Don’t do anything with that game.”

“Michael?   Are you ok?”

“Never better.  I’m glad we had this talk.  Don’t play that game if you value anything in your little life.  I’ll fly down ASAP.”

“Listen, something’s come up, my door’s open and something’s happened to the cat.  I’m probably gonna die soon.”  Barb said to dead air.  She didn’t believe for a second that a schizophrenic board game was the reason Michael had a nuclear family.

She pulled a tube of pepper spray from her purse.  A larger than normal spray, police issue and illegal for the everyday consumer.  She hoped it wasn’t past its expiration.  She checked so she wouldn’t have to brave her home just yet.  It was expired by two years, which was funny because that would mean she had bought it when Dad died.   Was I always like this?  She wondered as she opened the bowed screen door and stepped into her home, the pepper spray leading her line of sight.   Stop thinking so much.  Focus.

But she couldn’t focus.  The cat who had many names, mostly curse words, was limping in the dining room.  Barb stopped breathing, willed her breath to hold.  If she let go she’d be crying.  This fucking cat, unlike her brother, had been there for her.  Terrible dates, financial fiascos, bad days at work, this stupid cat’s puke was worth more than most people.  And it was limping with a dead look in its eyes.  Barb lived in a quiet town.  Families, schools, a playground without even a hint of dog poop.  The only bad things in the neighborhood was the rumor that a witch lived here.  Such was the fate of a single woman living on her own in a house she could never afford.  Barb also knew there was no better breeding ground for a frustrated man with violent needs.  If the invader was still here she would prove the witch rumors true.

She went through possible encounters and solutions.  If he pulls a gun I’ll run, distance and obstacles increases survival, if he gets close and pulls a knife I’ll use the spray and disarm him, if he’s unarmed and grapples I’ll sink my pinkies into the outside corners of his eyes, hook and pull -POP!  Living alone had given her a willingness to trade serious injury for another shot at life if it came down to a fight.  She had had no one but herself for a long time.  In fact, in this moment, she wanted to murder someone.  Her cat was hurt.  It was a friendship contingent on kibbles in the morning and inconvenient cuddles, but it was real.

What was also real was the metal game board stabbed into the dining room table top.  It stood still, so it must have been there long enough to stop wobbling.  The wood was splintered where the sharp corner had embedded into the heirloom piece of furniture.  She had left it there in its box, but the box was now shredded on the floor.

Her mind betrayed her with an attempt at humor, Hey!  This is great!  You’ve always wanted proof of an afterlife!

It couldn’t be that simple.  The game was unrelated to her invaded house.  The game was unrelated to her brother.   But if that’s true…?  She kept her mind blank and checked her home, pepper spray in one hand, and she grabbed a razor-sharp and curved cheese knife with the other.  She found no one in her house, no James Ellroy type creepers or any sign of intrusion.  She tried to pull the game board from the table but it was stuck there.  She even got on the table, straddled the vertical board and used her legs.  She cut her palms on the sharp metal edges, but the thing would not budge.  She felt sick, and there was a ringing in her ears and an invisible force was pushing and pulling her in waves.  She looked at the cuts on her palms and saw the blood drop on the table top and… the blood was moving against gravity, collecting on the vertical metal.

Barb forced her body to move away, to chalk it up to being scared.  She got a towel and cleaned her palms.  The cuts weren’t that bad at all.  If she calmed down she would be able to perceive her situation as it really was; nothing but awful reality.

She left the metal game board in the table and checked all of the locks and windows.  The house was just this side of air tight.  The house seemed bigger though.  Every shadow, nook and cranny held a world of evil devoted to her torture.  She knew it was all in her head, but she could not ignore the evidence of actual, physical wrongdoing.

Barb picked up Nameless and they huddled together on the couch.  Soon, the Cat Who Shall Remain Nameless was purring and warming her belly.

“Hey, little man, what happened?”  She said to the cat, ashamed of the stutter in her voice.  She had no right to be scared because she was alone.  She should be glad that she had no evidence or worse to call the cops, but Barb had the feeling the night was just getting started.

When she woke up Barb wondered if she were still dreaming, but the coolness of where the cat had been proved she was awake in a terrible house.  The cat was hissing, arching its back.  She woke up because the metal game board fell over with a sharp clang like a guillotine.  The pages of her father’s instruction manual turned and dented, some unseen presence was prodding and pounding a page, yet the only sound was the crinkling paper.  Barb forced her body up from the couch with the cheese knife in hand and as she got closer to the dining room table she felt repulsion, a physical withdrawing forcing her to move around a space just big enough for a large man who was not there.  Magnetism, the word jumped into her mind and as if on cue the knife in her hand, the blade, warped and snapped, flying away and stopping in the wall behind her.  Her body felt weak, syphoned of energy and it seemed that the board was sucking it all up.  Just when the nausea was too much the force was gone and the cat retched on the couch and went to its food bowl.

The invisible presence was gone.  It was just a normal day, again.

But it wasn’t.  It wasn’t even day, yet.  The sun was a whisper on the horizon and Barb knew she had to play the game or suffer poltergeist annoyance for the rest of her life.  She didn’t want to be pestered ethereally or otherwise, but she did not want to do the ghost’s bidding.  This demon gave my brother children!  The horror was palpable.  She thought hard about what she wanted out of life, Michael said their parents had found a way to grant wishes in this game.  In quiet and boring hours of the day, at her job or alone she felt like she wanted things.  A new car, a loving relationship, a cat who didn’t puke on the couch.  But now that she was faced with actually getting something she found that she didn’t want anything.  Except she didn’t want to have company, living or otherwise.

She read the page the ghost had been jabbing at, directions on how to build the game’s pieces.  There were no pictures, so she had to decipher the strange text.  She guessed there were four tokens that resembled stick figures, two die, shreds of paper that could be money or tickets of some kind, a curved shard of wood that was a deadringer for a Ouija board planchette, and an hourglass.  Imagine all those childhood games you played while drunk and bored in the middle of nowhere and mashing them into one desperate extravaganza to conjure excitement back into the evening and you might get this.

Barb was competing to reclaim her solitude.

She tried to stay awake, but the cat was asleep and she didn’t know the first thing about woodworking.  The instructions were so strange and specific she was overwhelmed every time she read them.  By the time she was feeling like she knew what the instructions wanted the strange ebb and flow of magnetic energy was long gone and so was her fear.  Barb picked up The Pest and they went to bed like it was a normal night, but daylight was streaming through the window.  She sat against the headboard, wondering if any of the crazy things that happened really did happen.  The cat was asleep, it must be safe.  She inspected the cat’s paws.  No blood, but the claws were gone.  The cat whined, waking back up.  Barb petted it and rubbed its belly and it purred back to dreamland.  Maybe Little Bitch really got stuck on the screen this time, worse than ever before and there was nothing dangerous going on.

Why wasn’t there a lock on the stupid chest holding this game?

Because that would have piqued your curiosity.  A voice didn’t say, she felt the energy of the thought squiggle into her mind.  She felt the repulsive energy from before, sitting next to her.  The mattress sank with invisible weight.  Undeniably male, this energy, a tension between potential violence and kinetic desire.  You looked because your brother was trying to get it back.

“How?”  Barb said, glancing out of the corner of her eyes.  She was alone with this invisible energy indenting the bed.  She felt hot breath on the back of her neck.

Selling the instruction manual, you can’t just give it away.  There are rules.

She turned to the source of the breath and couldn’t as her body tensed against a human form that was not there.  She felt a hand slowly close over her thigh, finger by finger.  Two bodies, but also she felt it was the same phantom.  The beings were closing together with her in the middle and when she shut her eyes she saw the thing, a man split in half and and cut deep from head to tow, his ribcage was pulling shut around her, his arms folding to lock her inside.  She was sitting on his spine, his blood pooling on the bed–

She lashed out and the field of energy broke.  The demon cried, his howl flashed behind her eyes.

If you don’t play the game with me I will win.  You named no challenger for your blood.  The challenge defaults to me.

“But if I don’t play there is no game!”  Barb shouted at nothing.  The energy wasn’t gone, just far away.  She heard a noise downstairs.  The cat was up, arched back, drool spilling from a hissing mouth.  This was real.

The game is indifferent.  The game moves on its own and those who win get what they want.

“Those who don’t?”  She didn’t know why she was humoring it.  It seemed more dangerous not to, like a child with a gun and a vague understanding of permanence.

That’s for the winner to decide.  Barb shut the bedroom door.  She didn’t want the cat to interfere.  She went downstairs slow, a hand stretched out to feel the mysterious entity, the energy that flowed and repulsed.  She found the game board set with the missing pieces.  Four stickmen, two lopsided die, a warped stone planchette, a stack of uneven cards, and an ornate bronze hourglass.  It was a true hourglass, measuring that exact amount of time in crimson sand.  The holder was the head of an androgynous human in agony.  Face down it vomited blood, face up it choked on blood.

The glass was choking, had been for at least fifty-nine minutes.  She had seconds to decide to play.  She had to play, didn’t she?  It was able to touch her, hurt her, and it would do worse if it won.

“How do I play?”  Laughter filled the room from a faraway place that echoed.  There was a visible ripple in the air, a chilling wave.

Barb flipped to the beginning of Dad’s novel.  She read. 10, she picked up the dice, 6, she rolled, 4, she selected a stickman and set him on the board.  The last second drained.  Nothing happened.

“Did you win?”

Yes.  Thank you.  I’m sorry I scared you.  I’m sorry about your cat.  I was angry, you would be, too, if they took–

The energy left and she felt empty without it.  Its final thought through her mind was sincere, the tone was utter joy.  She felt fine, herself.  What did you win?  She thought and knew for sure it was gone because there was no response.  The board was still there and so were the pieces.  Barb got the box and put it all away.  She knew everything was back to normal when she heard the cat scraping its litter box.  What had been taken from the demon? He didn’t sound evil.  Sounded betrayed, regretful..

The telephone rang.  There would only be one person calling.

“Holy shit, you’ll never believe it!”  Barb said, relief and awe of surviving an ethereal panic dropped her to the floor.  Even the cat seemed better, despite being declawed.

“You cunt.”  Michael said so sharply that Barb could not help but feel the demon was talking to her.  “You played that game and you lost.”

“Yeah, but it didn’t want to hurt me?”

“Of course not!  He wanted my family!  And you let him!”  His rage made Barb recoil in fear.  He had never ever been so angry with her.  Grumpy, quick to judge, but never raging.

“Your kids?”

“I was saying goodbye to all of them before my flight and then, poof, they’re gone.  See you in six hours.”

“What’s going on?”

“You’re gonna help me fix this.”

“What happened to your kids?  Are they coming, too?”

“They’re gone, Barb, you stupid bag of hairballs!  Gone!  Because you just had to play the game.  What did you want?  Money?  A man?”

“Fuck you!  I didn’t want anything!”

“Don’t do a goddamn thing until I get there.”

“You took his kids, didn’t you?”  But Michael had hung up.  Barb flipped the hourglass – vomiting, choking, vomiting, choking, vomiting, and halfway through the final and choking hour Michael burst through the front door.

“I looked for that thing for a long time.  Where was it?”  Michael said, pointing a meaty finger at the metal board between them.  It hit her, her father’s last words.  Dad had played the game one last time and wished that Michael would never find it, again.  She broke the spell by finding it and playing it.   But it was an accident… She thought.

“That’s why you wanted to sell Dad’s book.  Whoever bought it would get the game, then you’d know where it was!”  Barb said, putting it all together way too late.

Barb kept the dining room table between them.  The cat hissed, Skinny Bitch always hated Michael and until now Barb had no idea why – it knew his family wasn’t real and Michael was pretty fucked up for stealing them.

“You’re just so practical and serious I never thought you’d play it.”  Michael seethed.

“You took someone’s kids!”

“Not someone, another reality of me.”

“Another what?”

“Dad treated a physicist and the guy had developed some sort of dark matter portal access.  Dad played the game with him to help get some miracle drug that’d cure some disease.  Dad made us rich.”

“And it wasn’t enough for you.  You had to wish for children.”

“Wendy came from there, too.

“From where?  The aether?  The void?  What do you call it?”

“It’s a second earth.  You’re there, everyone here is there, but different lives.  The guy who developed this portal designed this machine to open up the path.”

“But it’s a game.”

“It could only be a game.  Rules, a sensory simulation of a reality that isn’t there, complete mental focus.  It had never been done before because the materials weren’t right.  The scientist went to the other side with a copy of Dad’s book.  You have to play with materials from both sides.”

“But there are other realities?”

“Countless.”

“But the game only accesses this one?”

“Right.”

“Lucky shot, another earth.  Could’ve been poison gas or aliens.”

“I don’t know.  It just is.”

“Why do wishes come true?”

“You’re focused on the game and if what you win is what you think then it becomes real here, subtracting from the other world.”

“You piece of shit.”

“I gave them a better life!”

“Did she want this?”

“I saved her.  And our kids.”

“But none of them were from here!  How would you react talking to someone who looks like your husband but in whole new reality?”

“Does it matter where they’re from?  They were happy.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Life is life wherever you go.  Ups and downs.”

“Wendy was a bitch, so was your daughter and your son was well on his way.  They didn’t belong here, they felt it.  I felt it playing this game with your other version, a repulsion.  I couldn’t live like that!”

“But I’m a good guy!  They have a future with me!  You know who I am over there?”

“Was Dad a good guy?  Were our lives built on wishes?  What the hell happened to the people we stole from?”

“I’m a goddamn car salesman on the other side.”

“And you stole your family.  These aren’t things you just wish for, Michael!”

“How would you know?  You’ve never done anything in your entire life!”

“I know because I don’t do what I don’t want, I don’t enjoy hurting people even if it means I lose.  I go after what I know I can get and it’s safe and it keeps things consistent!  I’m not lazy, I just know my boundaries.  People aren’t things, life isn’t something you can just design!”

“Are you telling me it’s not a game?”

“I’m telling you it shouldn’t be.  Games are something you go to when you want a break.”

Michael bit his finger and smeared blood on the board.  “I challenge you, Barbara Brown.”

The hourglass flipped.  Michael rolled the dice and the stickman moved three spaces on the black metal.  He touched the planchette and it swiveled across the board.  Michael watched the board, reading something that Barb could not see.  He cut the deck of cards, selected one, and moved his man a few paces ahead.  Michael played the card he drew.  The sand in the hourglass froze and in a blink the majority of the sand vomited to the bottom half.

“Looks like you’ve got twenty seconds for your turn.”

“I’m not doing this.”

“I had a feeling that’s how the other me won.  You refused to play just like you refuse to live.”  Barb leaned over the table.  Michael wouldn’t tell her how to play, he wanted to win and get his family back.  It was so sick, it was clear Wendy and her children didn’t want to be here and yet they had no choice.

“If you don’t play then I win.  If you do play I’ll still win.  Maybe they won’t feel so awful if you could be a better sister-in-law and aunt?”  Barb held out her hand for the dice.  10, Michael took three seconds to hand over the dice, 7, Barb rolled, the stickman moved two paces, 5, Barb selected a card.  It was blank.  3, she touched the planchette and it wiggled over the board.  1, she dropped her card on the discard pile and her stickman moved back to the start.

“You have no idea what you’re doing!  Didn’t you read the card?”  Michael laughed.

“There wasn’t anything on it!”

“You gotta focus.  You can’t win if you just play.  That’s why you have plenty of time to let the game absorb you.”

“I bet they feel more like these game pieces than they do your family.  No wonder they just did what you wanted, how could they argue with someone who pulled them from an alternate reality?”  Barb smiled when she saw her words cut Michael’s smug face.  He shut his eyes, rocking the dice in a heavy fist.  Barb’s hand darted out.  She thought about life and rules and games.  It all worked until it just didn’t.  Rules bent, mended, or broke, and games stopped working due to the players or… the pieces needed.

She felt bones snap in her hand as her hand forced itself against the negative energy forcing her back.  It wasn’t her turn, the game knew that much, but she was getting through and before she lost feeling from the elbow down she felt his game piece crush in her palm.  She pulled back her arm and cradled it.  Michael stood with his mouth open.

“You can’t do that.”  He said.

The hourglass choked on sand.

Barb ran away from the table, toppling a chair to give her a second or two to gain distance.  She only had to keep this going for an hour.  From out of nowhere the cat leapt and bit into Michael’s thigh.  Michael yelped and smacked at thin air because the Coolest Kitty On Earth was gone before he could get a hand on it.  How did it get out of the bedroom?  Barb spun around a corner and toppled a bookshelf.  First editions and signed copies spilled, dust clouded the air.  She kept going.  She heard him grunt and the squeal of wood gave her the mental image of him pushing the bookcase over.  She ran upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom.  She leaned into her dresser and it scraped up the floor all the way to the door just as Michael turned the knob.  He was kicking at it.  He had always been a sore loser.  Barb went to the window and threw the stickman out into the waning sunlight, but it came back at her, hit her in the face.  It clattered on the floor and slid across the hardwood.  She dove and missed it and it slipped under the door.  Going back to the game, she thought and she struggled to push the dresser back so she could get out.

Michael ran, she heard his panic stricken strides chase after the stick figure.  If he took his turn she’d have an hour to take hers, but she would not be able to pull this stunt, again.  The game rules said nothing about cheating.  Most games never account for cheats, but this is unrealistic given any world and any time with a fallible, free people.  Michael would either let her stay in her room or he would tie her up, or kill her to be sure he’d win.  He could just let her play, too, she had no idea what she was doing.

The cat jumped onto the dresser, meowing encouragement.  She got the dresser out of the door’s way and bolted downstairs.  Michael was on his knees scrabbling through piles of books.  The game piece was scraping over the floor under the piles of hardcovers.  It was attracted to the game, where it belonged, like gravity or reflecting light, invisible forces of nature called it.  She charged into Michael and sent him sprawling.  She made a grab for the game piece.  She caught it against the floor, but before she could curl her fingers around it, Michael wrapped his fingers around her throat, one by one, and the hot sticky sweat of his palms burned into her skin.  She felt the blood pulsing in her head just behind her eyes.  She got the game piece and stuck it in her mouth and it pressed against the back of her teeth.  Michael flung her against the floor, but she gritted her teeth against the wind flying from her lungs.  Michael was on top of her, peeling back her lips.

“You’re gonna watch.  You’ll see how happy they are!  You’ll see you’re a fuckin’ loser just because you think you can’t have anything!”  He was crying, tears of desperation and fear.  He didn’t really want to hurt her, but he was doing this for a fantasy only he believed in.  He had nothing else and could not even fathom earning what he had gained after getting everything so easy.  She felt blood pool in her mouth and choke her, he had torn her lips wide open and he got fingernails under her incisors.  His thumbs were prying her mouth open and even if he couldn’t do that the blood filling the back of her throat was going to make her cough and gag any second.

Her only other option was to stick her pinkies into the outsides of his eye sockets.  She did so, even with a broken hand her muscles forced her finger to obey.  Once dug in, Barb hooked her pinkies, feeling the squish of the white orb and the string of optic nerve against her curving fingers.

She ripped back her arms, yanking out his eyeballs.  She coughed blood into his face and the game piece launched into the air, arcing to the game board.  She heard it hit the metal and freeze in place.

Michael shrieked so loud and shrill there was no way the neighbors did not hear it.  He tried to get away, but she had his eyes gripped in her hands.  She let go and Michael flailed on the floor, torn between mauling her and coping with the worst pain of his life.  She got away, spitting her blood out on the floor, crawling over books and climbing up a dining room chair to catch her breath.  He was still screaming.

It was much easier to lift up the game board this time.  The metal didn’t cut her.  She raised it over Michael.  He was in mid-scream when she drove a sharp corner of the metal board through his skull.  She waited to get her wish, but Michael’s body was still there, his head bisected like Frankenstein’s Monster.  She stepped away from his pooling blood and sat back down at the dining room table.  The hourglass had about fifty-eight minutes left.  It happened that fast?  The game would wait that long to allow Barb to win.  In the meantime, she heard footsteps outside, then the doorbell.

Ah, shit.

Barb smoothed her clothes, sweats she reserved for her weekends.  The sweatshirt was printed with a tacky neon unicorn, but the blood made it grotesque.  She had to answer the door.  If whoever was on the other side heard the screams they’d start looking in windows and they knew someone was home because Michael’s rental was in the driveway.  Her car was hidden in the garage.  The cat was licking blood off its paws.  Barb thought fast and whisked The Dire-Wolf-Puma into her arms.

She answered the door.  Of course, super snoop Shannon was calling.

“Goodness, is everything ok?  I was walking the dog and heard the worst racket!”

“I’m fine.  Little Thing here got stuck in the screen.”  Barb said pointing out the claws still stuck in the bowed screen door she would not open for the worst neighbor.

“Oh, my god!  I thought there was, like, a murder or something!”

“No, cats scream like that.”

“But the car?  I thought I saw someone come in?”

“No, that’s a rental.  My car is shot, it’s coming back Monday.”

“But your lip!”

“Cats don’t know any better when they get in a panic.”

“That’s why I’m a dog person!”  Shannon said and Barb forced a smile so wide her lip bled worse.  It had the desired effect.

“Well, glad you’re ok!”  Shannon turned on her heel and power-walked away with her tea-cup gremlin in tow.  Shannon would spread the news and no one would be trick-or-treating her house.  Hell, no one would walk their dogs up this way anymore.

Barb locked the door and drew the blinds around the house.  She let the cat go back to lapping up Michael’s blood.  Barb respected the cat’s disregard for custom and the polite way of things.  That’s how these dummies survived evolution.  She sat and looked at her brother’s corpse.  He had forgot to be human in exchange for what?  A wish?  She pitied him, unable to find satisfaction in this world.  He gave up too soon and it wasn’t just the family he had wished for as she had  a feeling he started small watching their parents help that scientist.  Michael went after money, a job, maybe even his high school diploma – all taken from that alternate reality, destroying lives so suddenly.  Maybe the bad things that happened in your life were the result of someone else getting their heart’s desire.

Michael had never lived.  And me?  He was right… I haven’t lived.  But she wasn’t going to live a lie like he had, exploiting the other reality to do so.

It could do some good, but not if it took the good away from someone else.  Are we morally obligated to not just this reality, but others?  It was too much for her.  Barb listened to the hiss of the last grains of sand draining.  She felt that magnetic energy push her and she felt a voice invade her mind.

And what is your wish?  It was the mental voice of the alternate Michael.

“Nothing.  I can do this myself.”

But you helped me?

“Don’t worry about it.”  She wouldn’t wish this mess on anyone in this world or another.  This was her problem, the consequence of solving a problem before.  She was afraid to break the links of her life or lose track of them.  If she let the alt-Michael take care of this she might need him later to fix something else, which meant she would never stop playing the game.

The energy left the house in chilling waves.  The cat gnawed on one of Michael’s eyes.  Barb reached out and touched the metal board stuck in the floor through Michael’s cranium.  The pieces fell off the board and scattered.

She went to the garage and carried back tools to dismember Michael.  A grisly mess, but she handled it and disinfected and destroyed the evidence.  She suspected that Michael had done some of this work for her.  He had come here to hurt her, so he wouldn’t have told any friends where he was going, he wouldn’t have rented a car or used his credit card. When she got into the car she saw it wasn’t a rental, but a cheap third hand vehicle, which proved her suspicion.  He had paid cash for this junker.  He also no longer had a family who would look for him.  She took a short road trip and it felt good to get out of the house.  She transported Michael’s wrapped body parts and buried him across the rural outskirts beyond the small town she called home.  She parked the car on the bad side of town, which amounted to college parties and mild vandalism.  She left it unlocked with the keys on the seat and the pink slip on the dash.  She walked home in the refreshing Autumn air.  This work was a small price to pay in order to keep her freedom and solitude.

She cleaned up everything, and placed the game back into the chest.  She didn’t buy a lock for it.  That would only make people curious.  She hadn’t wished the game away because she didn’t want the alt-Michael or anyone else to deal with it.  She wrote a simplified instruction manual, a single page, to supplement her father’s tome.  One day, when she was gone, someone would find this chest and start the game.  Hopefully, her instructions would help the player think beyond greed.  Until then Barb ignored the pulls of energy drawing her to the attic where the game was hidden.    She didn’t think she would ever hear from alt-Michael, again.  He got what he wanted the only way he could, so he had no reason to play the game, either.  If she did answer the game’s call the challenge would be against someone new, someone wishing for something they didn’t think they could get and felt they deserved.  Barb ignored the calls, the push and pull of spooky magnetic energy.

But when the forces of the other world became too powerful and desperate Barb got out of the house.  She started doing things out there in her world.  When she returned home the energy was usually gone, it had lost patience, or maybe there were other game boards and other players around the world of both realities.  It didn’t matter, she refused to play.

She would grant her own wishes from now on.

Last Call

Post-apocalypse.  One survivor.  Her name is Claire.  She was working as a telemarketer in rural Pennsylvania.  Bloomsburg’s the town, home of the Huskies.  You’ve never heard of them unless you’ve been kicked out of any of the local bars because their linebackers make better bouncers than football players.  Claire was in the middle of a sale when it happened.  Not a removal via linebacker, the apocalypse.  The End.  Whatever it was that ended civilization and life she had no idea.  Could’ve been The Bomb.  Could’ve been something new, like a germ, or the deadly joke from Monty Python.  A week after the incident she had countless theories and nothing to explain how everyone died except her or how she continued on in perfect health.  When hunger and thirst forced her to scavenge the local shops and fast food restaurants she knew she wasn’t dreaming.

Claire enjoyed engineering.  She loved math and mechanics.  She adored design and structure.  She was in line for a full-time position at the local power plant when The End happened.  The unknown event that brought destruction terrified her because it had no explanation.  At the same time, all she had now was structure and regiment.  It was all hers.  She got the job as a telemarketer to make ends meet while she waited for job approval. She learned about supervising shifts and maintaining safe levels within the plant’s core and shadowed the control room operators.  The nuclear power plant was in constant war against the chaos of atomic energy.  Then the mystery apocalypse happened.  She was two weeks short of her review for official employment at her dream job.

Most nuclear reactors can only run for seven days without maintenance.  After seven days the internal diesel generators die and the plant goes into meltdown.  Claire broke into PPL knowing that the security system would phase out before the diesel generators ran out of juice and allowed the cooling rods to overheat.  She was so preoccupied with her own primitive survival over the previous week that by the time she got to the control center she had just seven hours to halt a nuclear meltdown.  She stopped the catastrophe in six hours and fifty minutes by triggering the SCRAM unit through the antiquated fire alarm system, adding pressure to the water mains so the pipes would overheat with high velocity steam and force the alarms to go off.  When the reactor was silent she felt a thrill rise up in her like she had never felt before.  She wasn’t worried about being lonely, she was like the man in the Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough At Last, where the main character has all the time in the world to do as he pleases without human interruption.  Now that the local disaster had been resolved, Claire set out to have the fun she missed out on because people might have judged her.

Claire raced around in various cars.  She’d find one empty with the keys still in the ignition and peel down route eleven.  Wherever she went, what ever she did, her fun was loud and fast so as not to hear the silence or see the dead bodies.  Her days were action-packed until she realized that no one was going to rescue her.  Claire had to save her resources for the long haul.  So, she walked to the grocery stores and fast food businesses to save gas for generators.  She stayed longer and longer at the call center, working harder and harder at a job she had hated while waiting for a full-time position at the power plant.  She hated telemarketing because it was forced socializing and coercive conversation to manifest sales.  Now, she had the computers dialing all the office’s outbound leads.  The phones called thousands of homes per second and as the days stretched to months, Claire hung around longer and longer hoping to not miss the one call that would save her slowly dwindling life.  If she missed picking up the one call that connected to a live human then the computer system would take over and a recording would do the talking.

Since the power plant was offline and its stored energy used up, Claire’s first order of business was to rig a series of generators in the call center.  This wasn’t so difficult, Bloomsburg was a small farm town and a tractor and industrial farming equipment store was next door.  Claire couldn’t move the generators to the call center, so she used a sledgehammer to pound a hole through the wall separating the sales floor from her calling floor.  Through the hole she ran the cables, rigging power to sustain the most amount of energy using the least amount of resources.  Her next order of business was to bring gas to the store’s lot by parking it full with trucks and SUV’s, vehicles with large tanks.

Claire had the computers calling the entire United States for almost a year.  No one had answered.  She marked the empty vehicles in the lot with an ‘X’ by using a bar of soap she no longer used to clean herself.  Fresh water was hard to find and the plumbing had stopped months ago.  Cars with full tanks of gas were rare these days.  Gasoline evaporated over time.  Claire used shreds of garbage bags to help seal the tanks beneath their caps. She had an inventory running on the front window of the call floor where she soaped a crude map of which cars were X’d out and which ones still had fuel.  She ran the five generators in a series, but as resources fell below a comfortable level Claire let one generator die before running into the dark store to start the next one.  When this happened she used a flashlight to navigate the farm supply sales floor.  She let her phone go because there were no more cell phone signals.  Something had happened to the satellites or the atmosphere no longer allowed signals to travel.  She panicked every time a generator died because she worried that the few minutes the computers were offline would be exactly when one would have connected with another survivor.

Claire also hated when she had to start the next generator because she had to fumble in the dark.  Even if it were day outside the light could no longer get in.  Claire could not spare any water for cleaning.  The grime had built up on the windows and during the day she was glad as the filth kept the hot sun out.  She had never been afraid of the dark before, but now that she was alone the darkness terrified her.  She heard people in the hollow whine of silence.  She saw the glimmer of human shapes in the sparkling colors her brain cast in her vision as it tried to process the pitch darkness outside the beam of her flashlight.  In those horrible moments of darkness she knew it was awful to be alone because it would never be interrupted.

To cope with her solitude, something she had cherished before The End, Claire talked to motivational posters on the wall featuring corporate stock models smiling in business formal attire.  There was a gray-haired CEO white guy, a dirty blonde babe with a saucy smile in a pencil skirt and a pencil in her tight hair bun, and a young, confidant man who was moving up the ladder from intern to supply clerk, but his face elicited higher expectation.  The posters boasted motivational slogans.  To the CEO she talked about the car fuel status and breakdowns of last quarter’s investment in calling a particular state.  She gossiped with the saucy blonde about the boys she imagined, all of them former crushes from a pool of celebrities she remembered adoring before The End.  The young man’s poster she flirted with and ultimately friend-zoned him because she knew one of her celebrity crushes would be coming to save her.  This was fun during the day, but once night fell the three posters were in shadows.  At night Claire returned to lonely reality where she knew no one was coming for her.  She feared suicide and she tried to remember warning signs from high school health class, but most of those signs required the mirror of a social life.  Without other people she had no way of knowing her mental health.  She knew she was in trouble because masturbating was no longer fun.  She had no sexual energy, let alone any playful creative interest in anything.  Claire had become a robot, a tool used by her billions of cells that wanted to survive despite her depression.  She felt like the SCRAM system in the power plant, always ready to jump in to stop the core from melting down.

Deep inside her mind she heard herself having the same conversations with the posters.  She couldn’t stop saying the same things because she had nothing new in herself to express, but her body knew she must express something in order to fool it into wanting to live.

In order to live like her pre-history ancestors her brain needed to regress back into an primeval stage that had no capacity for art, an animal brain just above a vegetative state with only drive enough for food, water, and shelter.  In the world Claire had just exited such a person would have been labeled “simple,” but here in this frightening new world such a brain would be a blessing because she would be happy.   Claire realized that her civilized brain needed more than sustaining instinctual needs to stimulate health.  Lacking the means for a lobotomy, like an ice pick and courage, she knew the only cure for coming insanity and suicide would be socializing with real people.  Even just one person.  Just a phone call to know that someone out there was alive.  If that phone call… no, when one of her calls was answered she would know the address of the connected line and she would pack her meager possessions and make a run for that address.  She would risk any hazard out there to be with someone.

Claire talked to the posters so she would not think about why she was the only one to survive.  She didn’t want to think about being the only human alive on earth, let alone maybe the only living thing left on earth.  She hadn’t had a perishable item to eat since everything went bad at the local markets.  The markets smelled worse than the bodies.  No one knew it was coming.  There was no warning.  Claire didn’t bother to look for evidence in news papers or people’s possessions, she didn’t bother to write her own thoughts and record history.  History no longer mattered without any one else to to bear witness.  Nature continued to record its own history in seasons and tree rings and Claire felt outcast, surviving on prepackaged goods filled with chemicals that would eventually make her dead body impervious to nature’s will.

These kinds of thoughts made her shout at the posters to drown the reason in her mind.  She was shouting out sales pitches for new products she made up.  The CEO listened with that smirk bosses give underlings, but she knew he wasn’t listening.  She grumbled about the CEO to the saucy secretary, but her smile told her that Miss Saucy was secretly fondling the CEO after-hours.  Claire wanted to talk to the poster of the young man, but his spot was closer to the filthy windows and his head was sun-bleached and faded.  Decapitated.

Claire shut her mouth with a sharp inhale and hands at her cheeks.  She had been shouting at the posters and had been unaware until generator three died.  She was in the silent dark, caught off-guard.  She felt around one cubicle and the next, trying to find her flashlight, trying to remember where she put it.

“It’s got my fuckin’ name on it you bastards!”  She shouted at the posters in the dark.  The flashlight did have her name on it, as if one of her paper coworkers would take it from the fridge and eat it if she didn’t assign her name to the flashlight.  She found it where she had left it beside her deflating air mattress and piles of Hostess snacks.  She flicked it on and felt the familiar shudder of seeing the light create spooky shadows that flickered just outside her vision and on the edge of reason.  She kept the light on the floor, watching her feet march to the hole in the wall that connected her to the farm supply store.  She didn’t dare lift the beam up.  She made that mistake once a month ago and found that the posters leered at her, the wrinkling paper formed lesions and bubbles on flesh, the moving light over the uneven surface gave the illusion of movement to her imaginary friends.  She made her way to the farm supply store, weaving through its aisles as to avoid the spring displays of scarecrows that would appear wholesome and cute had life been normal.  They were quite the opposite in the dark, in the hard shadow cast by her flashlight.  She had a gas can ready beside generator four.  This was the last of the gasoline for miles around.  She set the flashlight down on generator three, the beam aimed at four’s gas tank.  She unscrewed the cap.  The noise was enormous.  The grinding metal, the gasp of air equalizing pressure.  The metal neck of the gas can rattled on the rim of the generator’s tank’s mouth.  She was breathing hard, knees quaking.  She was thinking of those scarecrows.  The beady button eyes, the sewn up mouths, the arterial spray of hay and twigs from stumped wrists and ankles, the bulge of dark red wax leaves billowing up from their neckline.  The barn nails impaling them to two-by-four crucifixes like some hideous display of medieval retribution.

The tank gurgled a higher pitch signaling that it was almost full.  She capped both the tank and gas can and retrieved the flashlight.  She yanked on the pull-cord and the generator grumbled to life, filling the store with its hum and vibration.  She took a long, slow breath.  The air caught in her lungs.  There was a rattling sound close by, like someone walking, staggering at an injured pace or a murderous gait from horror movies she tried not to remember.  She could barely hear it over the generator.  She dared to shine the flashlight on the main aisle.  Was one scarecrow missing?  Maybe more?  She had never counted them.  It never dawned on her to do so in daylight and at night she always avoided the main aisle.   Had there always been a clearance rack of jack-o-lanterns?  The rattling was on her, never getting closer, but not going away, either.  The metal jangled and echoed in the empty store just under the roar of the generator.   She grabbed her leg to stop it from shaking and that’s when she found the mysterious sound.  Her keys, the sound was coming from all the car keys she had been collecting.

Claire laughed and felt wet tears run down her face.  It was just her keys.  It would be hilarious if this was the first time she had done this.

Her breath stopped again, her heart skipped beats, adrenaline pumped.  A new sound, one she hadn’t heard in almost a year.  A telephone was ringing.  She raced for the hole in the wall, tripping over a scarecrow’s leg.  She sprawled, listening to the ringing phone.  How much time do I have?  She didn’t know, she had always taken a call before The End because if anyone let their computer take over they would be docked pay.  She got up, was that scarecrow smirking at her?  Her feet pounded over the linoleum, her shirt tore and her skin scraped going through the suddenly tiny hole in the wall.  It’s shrinking around me, it’ll catch me and I’ll die listening to the computer answer the call!  Her thoughts weren’t controlled, her calm evaporated into the dark around her flailing flashlight beam.  There was one computer screen glowing beneath layers of dust.  The phone connected to this computer was, of course, on the other side of the long call floor.  Claire bounded down the aisle.  She saw the posters blur by, her fair-weather friends leering at her, hoping she’d trip, again.

She got to the cubicle.  She answered the phone mid-ring.  She listened to the hollow echo of the ringing fade away.  She heard someone breathe on the other end.

Claire had no words to say.  She couldn’t even choke on the air trapped in her lungs that burned from the sprint to this cubicle.  She shined the flashlight on the posters.  The CEO, Miss Saucy, Mister Friend-Zone.  Help me!  She thought to them, unable to cry out.

“H-Hello?”  The voice said.  It belonged to a young woman.  In that one word Claire heard a familiar loneliness, a desperation she, too, had not learned to live with because of the dread of succumbing to insanity.  Claire spun around, waving her flashlight as if she could capture her voice in the beam.  She only saw motivational words and sales script.

She heard the CEO in her mind say, “Smile and dial, they can hear your mood!”

Miss Saucy snapped at her, “Get off the phone, I’m waiting for a call!”

Mister Friend-Zone said with annoying smarminess, “I’m sure I could make the sale, why don’t you let me try?”

Claire heard pitches and sales prattle tumble around her.  She cleared her mind and let her last shred of sanity do the talking.

“Please, help me, I’m so alone.”  The woman said.

“Hello, my name is Claire,”  Claire said, finding confidence in her voice and authoritative approach, “I’m calling on behalf of Quail Communications with a great offer for long distance or wireless…”  Claire lost it.  There was nothing there to connect with this woman.  She had been living beneath the surface of humanity for too long.

“Oh, no… it’s a robot.”  The woman said to someone else.  The line went dead with an almost inaudible click.

Claire stared at the screen.  The address remained long enough for her to memorize the woman’s location.  Three thousand miles away.  The computer went on to the next call.  Claire lifted her jammed ring of car keys into the flashlight’s beam.  She didn’t have enough gas.

Social Currency

Ben sawed off the wing with a butcher knife.  The whole chicken, roasted in the oven, screamed for its life.  But it’s dead and smells delicious, Ben thought.  It had been two weeks of clicks and snaps in all of his senses, and like a worn out record, he could still understand reality but the breaks in his sanity were getting in the way of life’s music.  The first time he suspected his schizophrenia was returning was three weeks ago when his daughter cut her arm.  Just last week he had heard the table saw in the garage, but when he went to check on it the machine wasn’t on.  Things would taste different for a moment, a shadow moved on its own the other day, and now the roasted chicken screamed like a haunted house banshee.  The golden brown chicken hadn’t had a head since the slaughterhouse.  Ben was losing his mind, again.  He took his medication, Serpazine, like clockwork, so this should not be happening. Ben stabbed at the chicken to kill it again, but at the same time he knew it was just an auditory hallucination.

Maybe you should get rid of the snakes with the table saw.  A voice whispered.  Ben was definitely losing it.

He rinsed off the butcher knife and put it away.  Sharp objects would be a danger to himself and his daughter, Dana, if his antipsychotic was losing its power.  Ben wasn’t about to panic, however.  Giving in now would mean losing a long battle to be normal.  Ben believed he could overcome this change in his condition quietly and without incident.

Ben heard Dana shake herself awake in the living room where she had fallen asleep in front of the TV.  He wasn’t going to ruin her birthday and he had to be the strong one because she was sick, too.  He smiled when Dana slumped into the kitchen.  She was eighteen, now.  She had his green eyes and untamable waves of brown hair but Dana lost her olive complexion because her body was exhausted from fighting an infected laceration in her arm.  The infected area from her elbow to her wrist had the color of Victorian virgin cheeks that radiated heat in a diseased halo.  Her arm didn’t look like a part of Dana anymore, Ben thought, but that could just be the first whispers of his returning schizophrenia.

Three weeks ago Dana had stumbled and sliced her forearm on a jagged slab of rock while hiking a rigorous path in the Devil’s Punch Bowl.  It was the same arm she broke in a playground fight when she was eleven.  After cutting her arm on the rock, Dana refused to go to a hospital and would have refused First Aid from the park rangers, but Ben had listened to an inner voice that whispered violence and grabbed her arm like he was going to wrench it off.  Holding Dana like that was the only reason the rangers could do their work.  That was when he suspected the Serpazine was losing its hold on his sanity because he didn’t act out of love.  He held onto Dana like someone would after catching unknown animal that could be poisonous.  He had been frightened of being infected with her resolve to deny medical treatment.  Her resolve seemed suicidal at the time.  Later he realized she was just scared and he should have been there for her.

The bleeding stopped on the walk back to the car, but when he returned Dana to his ex-wife the cut reopened and seeped puss with a pink puffiness spreading up her arm.  Dana’s mother rushed Dana to the hospital and launched Ben into a legal gauntlet.  He succeeded in proving himself a responsible parent, again, thanks to the fact that he was still seeing his doctor and taking the Serpazine.  Dana was a trophy won against Mom.  He hoped she didn’t feel like an object.  He really did love Dana and cherished the bittersweetness of watching her grow up.

Dana’s visits broke up the monotony of the retail job he had advanced beyond minimum wage.  With his record Ben couldn’t get anything better.  The journey to control his schizophrenia was an unreal hell where he racked up two aggravated assaults and five public disturbances, and those were the charges that stuck to his record.  There were countless others he dodged because of his sickness.  Ben’s weekends with Dana were proof that he wasn’t a complete loser.  He had earned his visitation rights by staying out of jail and out of the asylum since the divorce.  He had been trouble free for seven years when Dana hurt her arm during that hike.

Ben set the table for three.  He felt the paranoia swell inside him like a balloon filling with polluted gas.  This was a sign of a relapse, suspicion edged into every thought and he’d begin to regard everyone, including Dana, with increasing judgement and fear.  If he started seeing diseased, oozy snakes, then it was too late and he’d be incapable of helping himself, or worse, incapable of saving Dana from himself.  He went to the bathroom and popped two Serpazines instead of one. He chewed them and braced himself for the uncut, absinthe bitter flavor.  The pills tasted sweet and made his teeth hurt.  Either his pills had magically changed to candy or his schizophrenia was messing with his senses.

Ben returned to find Dana itching her arm, a habit she had formed even with the special ointment that numbed the irritation of the stitches and bandages.

“Who’s joining us?”  Dana said.  Ben forced a chuckle and unset the third place at the table.

“I’m so tired these days.”  He said and it was the truth.  He couldn’t sleep, which was another sign his medications were wearing off.  His thoughts at night multiplied, all of them good ideas that crashed into one another.  His thoughts wanted him to do things, but the last remnants of the drugs in his system were still fighting back hard enough to make those thoughts unclear.

After dinner he got Dana’s medicine ready for the night.  She watched with an intensity that betrayed her anxiety.

“What is it, honey?”

“Nothing.”

“Boy trouble?”

“Shut up.”  Dana said and cracked a smile.  Ben was glad she was over the boy without legs.  He believed she said yes to a date with him out of pity.  It would be easy for a guy to use a freak accident to buy a girl’s pity.  By the time she cut her arm they had stopped going steady.  Now she wasn’t seeing anyone.  At first she’d get visits from friends, but as the infection raged on the novelty of a sick friend wore off.  Ben felt bad for her.  She was alone and Ben was thankful her condition was temporary.  The loneliness that mental diseases gift to their hosts is a disorder in its own right and far more terrible.  He set down the pills and a glass of water on a TV tray.  A tube of antiseptic ointment, a pain killer, and the last of the industrial strength antistaphylococcal penicillin.  Ben changed the bandage around the source of the infection, a jagged laceration ribbed with black stitches.  He spread the ointment over the bumps the stitches made of her swollen skin.

Cut it off.  Dana winced in pain and Ben had to remember that he shouldn’t listen to that voice, the voice that sounded like Dana’s and showed up in italics in his mind.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I can do this if you’re preoccupied.

“No, I want to.  Sorry.  Just thinking.”

“You think a lot.”  Ben finished with the ointment and wrapped a new bandage around her arm, gentle this time.  She knew he was slipping, or so he thought.  If she told her mother then he’d lose her for good.  The horrible thing was that he couldn’t ask probing questions to see if she suspected anything.  The best thing to do was act normal and sneak out to the doctor tomorrow when he got groceries.

Ben saw Dana’s antibiotics were shy a full day and the pain killers were almost gone, too.  The missing antibiotics had to be accounted for or Dana would have to go back to her mother’s not seven hours after she arrived.

“Did you forget some of your pills?”

“Mom packed my bag.”

“That explains it.”

“Don’t take me back, not yet.”

“In the morning you’ll have to go back.”

“But I’m be an adult.”  Dana insisted.  Ben stood silent.  He let his suspicions wander and connect dots as he stared at his daughter.  Maybe Dana was playing them both for affection, blaming her mom for sabotage while in his house, yet telling her mother that she left her medicine on purpose just to go back.  Then, again, his ex-wife was capable of engineering short weekends.  Maybe they were both in on it, trying to appease the crazy man in their lives without having to spend too much time with him.  Ben felt angry and betrayed.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?”  Ben asked.  She didn’t have much freedom with that arm and the feeling was exasperated by turning eighteen today.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, ok.”  He said.  He wanted to hang out with her, watch a movie or play a board game.  He also knew this was a cardinal sin.  He was already uncool for being her father, but being crazy on top of that was a reputation killer.  Leniency was his choice of credit with Dana.  Hers was obedience.  It all gathered interest in a joint account that wasn’t quite love.  Ben knew what they had was some form of currency they needed to survive in a world they did not enjoy.  Ben noticed normal people made similar exchanges everyday.  A mother appeased a child with some forbidden corn syrup candy, a wife made a husband feel like a man for two minutes just so she could be at peace for a few days.  Ben didn’t see love in the world anymore, just denominations of quid-pro-quo.

Dana was heavy on withdrawals in their father/daughter dynamic, but it would bankrupt their relationship if he were strict like her mother, who was plagued with snakes coming out of her sleeves.  Ben couldn’t tell if he was remembering a hallucination or if his ex-wife really did have snakes for arms and he was having a concrete memory.

Cut off her snakes, whispered the voice that sounded like Dana’s if she were speaking low without moving her lips.  Ben bit the tip of his tongue to snap him back to reality.  He hoped his cover wasn’t blown.

“Here.”  Ben said and she gulped her pills and chased them with tap water.  She listed down the hall to her room.  Ben searched for the missing antibiotics his daughter needed tomorrow.  He searched his memory for gaps in the timeline.  If he had hidden them in a fugue state then his schizophrenia had gotten the best of him.  If his ex-wife had set him up then she knew he’d have to bring Dana back.  He wished he had thought of this sooner because now he was delaying the inevitable.  Ben marched towards the phone.  Photos of Dana over the years watched him like the inmates of neighboring cells.

Ben shut his eyes, what would he say to Dana’s mother?  She had placed Dana in peril by sabotaging her pill count, yet he would take the blame.  The day their marriage ended she had found out what crazy really was and that was seven years ago.  She and Dana, eleven-years-old with her arm set in a cast, had caught him stoking a bonfire in the backyard.  He had cut the arms off all of their long-sleeved articles of clothing to get rid of an infestation of snakes.  He then tried to cut their fingers off with pruning shears believing they were baby snakes sneaking back into the clothing.  Once he was back on the Serpazine Ben had agreed to the divorce.  To his ex-wife his compliance was like finding a strand of soft hay in a marriage of needles.  She allowed him time with Dana after he proved he was more responsible with his illness.  There was no forgiveness for hiding his schizophrenia from her or himself.  The pills and behavior therapy had worked so well that he thought he could be normal on his own.  He thought he had built some form of credit with his wife, but her faith in him was counterfeit.

Ben thought of his ex-wife.  He missed her no matter how hard he tried to make her the villain.  He had never apologized for what he did because he didn’t want to admit he failed at being normal.

The telephone rang.

“Hello?”  He said, expecting the voice to speak at him.

“She’s gotta come home.  I found her antibiotics.”  Dana’s mother said in strained words.  She was fighting panic.

“Dana is home.”  Ben said.

“I’m not looking for an argument.”

“She’ll be fine until morning.”

“She’s hurting herself.”  Dana’s mother said.  The last time they were in a room together they listened to a doctor talk about Dana’s broken arm when she was eleven-years-old.  She had gotten into a fight in school with a girl twice her size.  His ex-wife asked if it was possible that Dana was schizophrenic like her father.  Now, those worries were back after hundreds of reassurances that Dana would never be like Ben.  They had argued about this over and over and he was sick of the worry.  Didn’t his ex-wife see their daughter was an incredible person?

Hang up, she knows!  Said the voice, but Ben thought maybe the voice came from the heating duct at his feet and not in his mind.  The voice told Ben to end the call because he would telegraph that he was backsliding.  He bit his tongue until the metallic tang of blood soaked around his teeth.

“Ben.  I found a stash of antibiotics in her room.”

“What do you mean a stash?”

“She’s been hiding them under her mattress.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“I thought I’d call you before I called the police.”  Ben’s gut smoldered.  Dana would be taken to a padded cell, a gauntlet of paperwork and social workers.  All judges of normalcy.

“Do I have to be the responsible parent?”  She said.

“She took the dose she had.  She’ll be fine until morning.”

“Is she awake?”

“It’s her birthday, I won’t ruin that.”

“Put her on.”

“Do you know what they call the paper shoes they give to patients?  Piss catchers.”

“That’s right, how is your alma mater?”  Ben clenched his teeth against the hateful words he wanted to spew into the mouthpiece.  He fought the words, but they were coming to life inside his mouth.  He felt his teeth break and the words slithered from his broken maw and into the phone.  Ben felt his mouth, it was still intact.  It was just a hallucination, but the dead air over the line told him that he had said something to his ex-wife, something he had seen and felt instead of heard.  If whatever slithered from his mouth took on the form of words it would be just as ugly.

“Did I just say something?  I didn’t mean it.”

“Ben… how are you?”  He hung up on Dana’s mother so he couldn’t hear her crying.  She knew he was off the meds.  He didn’t have much time.

If Dana wanted to get rid of the antibiotics then she’d have flushed them, not hid them.  Hiding the antibiotics meant she needed them for later.  Ben didn’t know why she’d want to live with the infection.

“Dad?”  Dana said from her open doorway.  Ben shut his eyes and held himself.  Her face was weird, like thousands of worms in congress forming the likeness of his daughter.  Ben got himself together.  Dana was still Dana, no matter what he sensed.

“We need to talk.”  Ben said, organizing what his ex-wife told him and combating the rage that threatened to scatter his thoughts.  “Why are you hiding your antibiotics?”

“Because…”  Dana began, but she waved her bad arm because she didn’t know how to put it into words.

“Listen, honey, let me tell you about me and you stop me when things sound familiar.”  He told her about his illness.  About the animals he hurt as a kid and the asylum he lived in for years until the doctors found a drug and behavioral therapy that halted his schizophrenic progression.  He told Dana that his drugs weren’t working like they used to, and if they had been working at the time of her fall he might have saved her.

“You wouldn’t have stopped me.”  Dana said.  He felt his heart plunge and he leaned against the wall.  The Serpazine stopped all emotion and now that he was feeling again the emotions were overwhelming.  Most of all was the feeling of love for his daughter and the dread of what revelations were coming.

“You remember when I broke my arm in that fight?  That wasn’t an accident.  Neither was this.”  Dana said, running a finger down her injured arm from elbow to the tip of her hand.

“What does that mean?”  Ben said with a skip in his heart.

“When I was eleven I paid that girl my lunch money to twist my arm off.  On our hike I pretended to fall.  You weren’t looking when it happened.  I leaned into that sharp stone on purpose.”

“But why?”

“I replaced your pills with sugar.”  Dana said.  Ben staggered back because he thought she said snakes instead of sugar.  He processed her words, fighting the anger and misfiring electrons that made him perceive a different reality.  She had done this to him, but maybe that was the schizophrenia talking.  The sickness made him unreasonably paranoid and angry, working its way up to a panic rage so he could combat the impossible visions that were already starting.

“I thought I could control you.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!  You and those snakes are crazy!”  Ben shouted, kicking at slithering shadows that used to be the grout between the kitchen tiles.

“Dad, I’m sorry.  You’ve been taking sugar for almost a month.  I thought… I thought you’d cut off my arm for me.”

“I’ll never see you, again.”  Ben said, shutting his eyes so he’d see a memory of Dana and not the shapeshifting, mangled form in front of his eyes.  The snakes had taken her away and you are seeing her imposter.

“Why did you do it?”  Ben snapped at the snakes, not realizing the question was relevant to the real world, too.

“I want to cut off my arm.”  Dana said, slapping her arm and gasping.  Ben opened his eyes hearing his daughter in pain. She was crazy like he was and she was having an episode right now.  Another part of Ben told him she was sane and only speaking from her heart.  Ben’s head pounded with the contradictory thoughts.  He made his way to the kitchen and he ate one of Dana’s painkillers, chewing it and savoring the intense bitterness that numbed his tongue and gums.  He swallowed the medicinal dust dry, the flavor reminiscent of his time in the asylum where he’d gone to get better long before he had ever met Dana’s mother.  Thanks to the asylum stay Ben became an automaton retrofitted for normal life.  As long as he took his antipsychotic.

“I’ve been trying to get the infection strong enough so they’d have to amputate, but you don’t have me long enough and Mom makes sure I get better when I’m with her.”  Ben threw an arm around her shoulder and Dana flinched.

“I may be crazy but I love you.”  Ben said, but removed his arm when he felt a sinister twinge in his muscles, like he wanted to strangle his daughter.  He imagined taking her injured arm and doing exactly what she wanted.  She had triggered a psychotic break to make him cut off her arm.  It would be just.

“I don’t understand.”  Ben said.

“I can’t make you, but it is everything to me.”

“You can try!”

“You don’t want me to go to a crazy house, like you, do you?”  If anyone found out about Dana’s secret they would lock Dana in a padded cell.  Ben would be held responsible because this was all possible under his supervision.  Ben would never see his daughter again and Dana would rot, never knowing herself, never living. 

She’s using you.  The voice said and Ben nodded to himself.  He was proud of her for such skillful manipulation and scared by her will to play with something as unpredictable as a mental breakdown.  Unpredictable except for the violence.

“I tried with the table saw, but it’s broken.  I can’t do it alone.”  She said and he felt that even if he were sane he would still humor his daughter’s wish for self-actualization.  It had been obvious for years in retrospect.  Family photos featured Dana with that arm stretched out of frame or hidden behind her back.  She only hugged with one arm.  The only photos she smiled in were those with her broken arm as a kid and on the day of the hike, which were the last photos he had taken of her.  She stood against the backdrop of the Angeles National Forest and the glacial slab she cut her arm on was a few feet to her left.

Dana’s only boyfriend had been the young man condemned to a wheel-chair after a car accident.  He had lost his legs.  Maybe that’s why they had broken up; she told him her desire.

She had taken action by creating diversions and accidents correctly assuming she would be punished for her desire to lose her arm.  Then she remembered how far Ben’s schizophrenia went that fateful day his illness sabotaged their lives.  It was a history he did not wish on his daughter.  He didn’t want to turn Dana into him, an empty shell thanks to the Serpazine that drained him of all emotion.

Normal is the new psychopathy, the voice said.  The only good that came out of his time in the asylum was an understanding that it was easier to act normal than demand tolerance.

“Do you still have my pills?”  Ben said.  Dana nodded and he followed her to her room where she pulled from under the mattress a Ziploc of white powder.

“I kept it just in case.”

“I need exact dosages.  It can kill me.”  He said, squeezing his eyes shut as he felt his reality shift and flicker.  The closest he could explain the feeling was being so drunk you were sober, watching your body and senses breakdown while at the same time you were logical and conscious.  Stress accelerated the change.

“Dad?  You ok?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.  You need help.”

“Your mother will think I changed my pills.  I’ll never see you, again.”  Ben said and touched the white powder inside the plastic bag.  This fine sand was all that kept him safe in a life he was never able to engage fully with his whole being.

“I’ll tell them the truth.”  Dana said.

“You’re an adult now, you’ll be punished.  And even if they don’t they’ll still lock you up.”

“I’ll find a way even if it means I end up like you.”  She said and even under the spell of his sickness Ben could tell she was serious.

“That’s why I have to do this.”  Ben said and he heard Dana follow him to the bathroom.  He upended the bag over the wide open mouth of the toilet.  If he had choked down antipsychotic powder to regain full sanity he would have died from an overdose unable to feel anything.  Serpazine took two months to reach adequate levels in his system and, thanks to Dana, a little less than one month to go away.  Ben also dumped the pills she had filled with sugar.  He was going to lose Dana and he wanted to feel something before the police took him.  His heart skipped beats as it heard new music in his blood.  There was only one snake, now.  Her injured arm was slick with slimy scales and her fingers flicked out in forked tongues.  No wonder she wanted to cut it off.

“Dad?”

“I’m good at killing snakes.”  Ben calmed down a great deal, so much so that he realized he was only calm when he was himself.  His medicine made him tired and put his mind on one droning track.  Dana had been sabotaging his medication since before the hike, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the energy to go in the first place.

“Come on.  Your mother knows I’m off my meds.”

“Dad?”  Dana said, the hint of a smile began in the corner of her mouth.

“Tell me you’ll visit me.  Tell me you’ll remember me, that you love me.”

Her glittering eyes told him she would and did love him.  Ben had never been closer to another person and the love stabbed right through his weakening sanity and gave him meaning.

“We need to hurry.”  Ben handed her the bottle of painkillers Dana slapped two into her mouth and chewed them.  Ben followed her to the garage where he kept his tools.  Ben used to be a handyman.  He had let dust settle on his tools since the Serpazine robbed him of ambition.

Ben took off his belt and cinched it around her snake-arm.  It hissed at him.  Dana smiled like she was about to get on a rollercoaster, all adrenaline and sweet anticipation.

“I tried this last week, but it didn’t work.”  Dana said, placing her serpentine arm on the table saw and it flicked tongues over the polished surface.  Ben turned on the table saw and the blade swung up from a slit in the metal top.  Ben grazed his finger on the blade and it retracted instantly.  Ben wasn’t cut.  The machine shut down when static electricity shocked the blade.  It was designed for wood, not flesh.

Ben took Dana to a vice on a heavy counter and locked her arm in its cool jaws.

“I’ll never see you, again.”

“You ok with that?”

“You can’t live with this snake.  Trust me, I’ve tried.

Ben got a hacksaw hanging from a nail on the wall.  The vice’s jaws turned the snake feeding on his daughter an angry purple.  Ben looked into Dana’s eyes as he put his weight into the hacksaw.

“Happy birthday.”

Beyond a Reasonable Shout

John came to the conclusion that every person he got to know was not worth killing.  The corollary being that strangers were expendable.  The paradox was that John had to get to know someone in order to know if they were worth killing.  He hadn’t met anyone deserving the hollow points in his illegal thirty-eight, but like any decent skeptic John kept his hopes up.

The thirty-eight caliber revolver rested on his hip in a tactical holster made for concealed carrying.   John bought the revolver at a gun shop with a shooting gallery where he tried out ten guns.  He liked the thirty-eight best for its compact size and reliability.  It was also the only gun he hit the target with and fortunately the law said nothing about accuracy requirements for purchasing firearms.  John only had to demonstrate safety and respect for the weapon and pass a background check that seemed less intrusive than the one conducted for his minimum wage job.  He also had to show proof of California residency, which he did using an old utility bill he grabbed from his recycling bin.  John was able to take home his brand new revolver registered in his name after ten days.

John had to erase his identity from the gun.  John would have to get rid of the gun without any way to trace it back to him.  A Google search told him exactly where to look on his gun’s make and model.

The serial number on the barrel he wore away with muriatic acid from the hardware store he worked at, one of those big box stores that are either blue or orange.  The store sold the acid to clean cement stains and smooth out metal.  John was given a raise for discovering a leak in one of the acid barrels.  He neglected to inform the store manager that he had made the leak with a defective screwdriver and hammer. He used eye protection, industrial rubber gloves, and a returned respirator to protect himself while he filled a glass tube made for testing pool water with the acid.  At home, John used the tube’s rubber cap to spread the acid in a thin film over the serial number.  He repeated the acid stripping on the inside of the handle after removing the grips where a second serial number was etched into the metal curve of the handle.  The last thing John did was shred his firearm license and buy his concealing holster off Amazon.

For a week, John clipped the holster to his belt and left the gun at home.  He got used to the feel of wearing the holster and moving with it.  No one was the wiser on the subway or at work.  John was too scared to carry the gun right away.  He practiced with the gun in the holster while in his apartment.  The first day he wore the gun concealed in public he didn’t even know it.  It had become a part of his body.

During that first week and into the second John watched people.  He eavesdropped.  He talked to his friends about the troubles they were having and overheard their complaints.  He formed a mental list of possible victims ranging from the homeless to celebrities.  People complained about other people all of the time, even wished total strangers to die for stupid reasons.  Towards the end of the last week, John thought he had found a person who needed to be killed.  She had cheated on a coworker of his and he found this out by overhearing the boyfriend’s enraged tirade against his now ex-girlfriend.

For three days John stalked the young woman.  She was pretty in a bouncy, spritely way.  Her new beau was equally attractive.  Seeing them together was like watching unicorns romp around east L.A.  They brunched Downtown at Eggslut.  They fell asleep to Netflix in her apartment.  She embraced him outside his place getting on her tippy toes to wrap her skinny arms around his thick neck.  John was weak at the knees watching them in love.  John could not kill this woman or her new boyfriend.  Their existence was not harming anyone.  Even if their love was ruining the world, John was hit with the sudden agony of having to decide what his rules were for murder.  The responsibility gave the gun at his side an ice cold aura.  John didn’t realize that the natural world would not provide him with a clear agenda.  John decided to focus on harm and actions that deprived people of their own rights and freedoms.

For the next three days John stalked the coworker who had wished his ex-girlfriend was dead.

The young man was a mess.  When he wasn’t partying with his friends he was failing at picking up women.  When he was alone he screamed at his Xbox and drank alone.  He cried himself to sleep most nights.  He came into work sloppy and stinking of Simpler Times.  When the coworker was fired, John girded his loins and loaded his revolver.  He’d put the sad boy out of his misery.  John waited outside the coworker’s apartment and as he waited he realized the coworker was pathetic, but did not deserve to die.  His existence, while less thrilling and more selfish than his ex-girlfriend’s, still was not a burden on anyone.

John spotted a homeless man trucking a shopping cart full of recyclables.  John followed at a distance.  He got closer.  The other two would-be victims he had gotten to know from a distance.  Maybe he had to get personal to really know if someone needed to be murdered.  John jogged to the homeless man, who eyed him with intense suspicion.

“What’s up?”  John blurted with what he hoped was a friendly smile.

“Qué?”  The man responded and stopped beside an overflowing trashcan.  He placed the trashcan between himself and John while he spilled the contents looking for glass and plastic.  John looked at the trash toppling over the sidewalk.  The noise of bottles clinking and clacking and plastic popping made John angry.  Not only was this man littering, but the noise was sure to wake people up.  John cooled his gun hand and his flaring temper because these misdemeanors were not worthy of capital punishment.  John asked himself why a person would hunt for recycling.  Pushing the heavy cart loaded with garbage was not an easy life.  The man was trying to make ends meet in a city that ended people daily.  The man’s existence was annoying, but no threat to anyone.  Even if the man was buying drugs and sleeping in cardboard he didn’t deserve to be shot like a rapist or murderer.

John helped the man load garbage bags with glass bottles and plastic containers for the rest of the night.  They didn’t speak.  John wanted to see more of this man’s life just to be sure he could not kill him.  John wondered if some non-violent offenders deserved to die, but he had no basis to go on.  He was making up the rules as he researched.

At daybreak, both of them were filthy from pilfering California Redemption Values.  The homeless man was like a dung beetle or other scavenging insects who dispose of the waste of larger animals.  They took the grocery cart to the Ralph’s on La Brea where a recycling center was located out back.  There, John saw men and women in a line with loads of recycling just like theirs.  The stench of whatever was left to curdle and vaporize in the recycled containers combined with the sour sweat and grime of a crowd of people digging for glass and plastic under the sun exercised John’s gag reflex.  No one else noticed the smell.  After helping sort plastic, paper, and glass the homeless man was paid seventy-five bucks for the trash.

“Now what?”  John asked the man.  The man looked at the cash in his hand with a sheepish smile.  John held up his hands in refusal.

“Gracias, amigo.”  The man folded the money and placed it into a worn bi-fold.  John caught a glimpse of family photos.  Two school portraits of girls and one wedding photo.  The girls, the man’s kids, were new photos, the wedding photo was no older than 1999.  This was how the man supported his family.  The thirty-eight felt heavy on John’s side.  He waved goodbye and scanned the crowd for someone who could lighten his pay load of hollow points.  Even if these people weren’t supporting a meager income and family they were doing no harm.  John walked away.

There were people who needed to die.  To say that everyone had worth was a lie just like saying everyone had to go was a lie.  The scales of nature were not prejudiced.  John wished the scales of social justice were as neutral.  John looked at the few pedestrians on the sidewalks, he scanned drivers stopped at intersections stiff with impatience in their cars.  The odds of him stumbling on a person committing a violent crime were slim.  He knew he wouldn’t stumble on such an event any time soon.  John also hoped he wouldn’t because he didn’t know that even witnessing violence was enough to pass judgement on someone he did not know.

John also did not have access to any warlords or dictators.  No way to plug a member of such-and-such terrorist cell.  He had to find a normal, everyday person who’s existence was more burden than boon.  This was an enormous undertaking.  The media made him believe that anyone he met would meet the criteria he was searching for in murder.  But that was why he started in the first place.  Proving his theory one way or the other would allow John to see the real world as it was, not as it was veiled by pop-culture and labels.  Speaking of which, there was no way John could stick his gun in the face of the latest sycophantic socialite and scatter his or her brains over some red carpet somewhere.  Celebrity was just as poisonous as terrorism because it pacified people into living their dreams vicariously.

And on that note, John didn’t even want to think about religion.

John had to settle for normal, everyday people for a few reasons.  One, he didn’t have the networking skills to get close to celebrities/politicians/clergy.  Two, even if he had the social clout to climb the classist ladders he wouldn’t because John wanted to get away with murder.  Three, proving even just one average person was worth killing or saving would speak more for humanity as a whole than chasing down someone who wasn’t anonymous.  While he hadn’t found anyone worth killing he also hadn’t found anyone worth saving.

The next day, John called out of work.  He took apart the thirty-eight by watching instructive Youtube videos.  He cleaned it, then put it all back together.  He even wiped the shells down so his fingerprints could not be taken from the spent casings.  He wrapped friction tape around the handle, hammer, and hair trigger for two reasons.  One, he wanted a sure grip, and two, he didn’t want to leave his prints on the gun or waste time rubbing them off when he needed to drop it and run.

John realized he was taking all of these precautions for when he killed someone, but he suspected he wouldn’t find that special someone.  He wouldn’t find that someone because no one deserved to die once you knew them beyond social labels and personal judgements.  John strapped the thirty-eight to his side out of habit.

At work the next day, John readjusted the pool chemical shelves.  Between hammering shelves out and back into place with a rubber mallet he watched customers and coworkers.  John felt ashamed that he believed he was justified in dealing out capital punishment.  Experiencing a few moments in another person’s shoes was enough to stay his hand.  What was most frustrating was he still believed there were people who did not deserve to live.  Then the obvious hit him as he watched a high school kid lift a bottle of soda from a refrigerator and stuff it down his pants.  John had to reverse his theory.  He had to get to know someone after the stranger committed a crime.

John followed the teen through Home & Garden into Hardware.  Here, the kid swiped a utility knife, slipping it from the shelf and into his sock.  John snuck up behind him and pretended to face a shelf of drywall screws.  He cleared his throat and the kid tensed up with a slow look over his shoulder.  John made eye contact.

“Can I help you?”  The teen shook his head and walked on towards the exit.  John followed.  The teenager was getting nervous and the soda sloshed inside his pants, the knife bounced inside his sock.  John picked up the pace and stomped behind the teen.  The kid broke into a sprint and went exactly where John needed him to go, out the emergency exit.

The exit lead to the back lot where no one was this time of day.  Even with the fire alarm going off from the teen rushing through the door, John knew they would have some time alone.  Enough time for murder.  John drew the thirty-eight.

“Stop!”  The teen looked over his shoulder with confidence until he saw John catching up to him with the gun leading his line of sight.  The teen whirled around, hands up.  John slapped a hand over the teen’s mouth before he could scream.

“Here!”  The teen said and kicked loose the utility knife from his sock.  He stuffed his hands down his pants to get the soda, but he got his hands trapped down there.  The teen shook from raw nerves that were used to video games, weed, and porn.  John thought the kid was going to have a heart attack.

“Why?”  John said and cracked the hammer back.  It was a satisfying sound and the hair trigger jolting behind his trigger finger was charged with sexual tension.

“I don’t know!  Just let me go!”  The teen shook so bad that his teeth chattered.  John had to make his decision now.  The teen wasn’t going to say anything intelligent and security would be on the way any second.  It was a school day.  The teen had skipped to spend his day shoplifting items he could either buy without a second thought or  never use in his shallow life.  John’s theory was based on harm to others.  He didn’t care what people did to themselves, or to corporations for that matter.  And he also wondered about Law itself.  Some things were legal and others not.  Odds of this teenager doing something good for humanity were slim, but John was conflicted because he didn’t know if he had the authority to judge an unknown future.

The soda in the kid’s pants burst from his nervous quaking.   Bright orange carbonation exploded between his hands and doused both his shirt and skinny pants.

John relaxed the hammer and holstered his thirty-eight.

John let the teen scamper away, too fast for two security guards and the store manager when they crashed through the emergency exit.  John leaned against the cold cement wall and pretended to be out of breath.  John pointed at the utility knife that was still in its packaging on the ground.

“Fucking kids.”  The store manager said, scooping up the knife.  “His parents should consider a post-natal abortion.”  They all went back inside.  One hour later John finished reorganizing the pool chemicals and clocked out for lunch.  The store manager called him to his office over the public address system.  John was followed by a cop and, upon entering the manager’s office, a second officer grabbed John by the neck and flung him over the manager’s desk.  The cop frisked him and found the thirty-eight.

“Jesus.  That kid saved us all!”  The cop exclaimed and turned to his partner in disbelief.  He held the thirty-eight between thumb and forefinger.  He took the store manager’s paper lunch bag, dumped the lunch inside, and dropped the gun into he bag.  He held it at arm’s length to his partner.  They both regarded the bag like it was a stool sample.  You take it!  No, you keep it!  The second cop set it on the desk.

“I’m gonna give his parents some store credit, their kid’s a hero!”  The manager said and tried to get out of his office.  The first cop stopped him.  He needed an official statement and John’s employee records.  The manager gulped and got to work with the first cop, the second officer grabbed his cuffs and tightened them around John wrists.  He lifted John up and pressed him into the wall.  John heard his Miranda Rights from far away.  If only I told the kid what was going on!  John thought, If he knew me this wouldn’t be happening!

“Listen.”  John said.

“Shut the fuck up.”  The cop told John.

“It’s not how it looks.”  John tried to turn around and look the cop in the eyes.  The cop smacked the back of John’s head and his face bounced off the wall.

“Shut the fuck up and stay still.”  The cop growled in John’s ear.  When the first officer got John’s employee folder they took him in handcuffs on to the sales floor.  The store manager lead the way like he was a four-star general with Hitler in-tow.  The cashiers stalled on customer transactions.  Customers gawked.  John looked around for someone who knew him, but of course no one did.  He opened his mouth to speak but the cop prodded John’s spine with his baton.

“Keep moving.”

Outside in the parking lot stood the teenager with his mother and father.  A third cop consoled the kid and asked him a question.

“Yes!  That’s him!  He stuck a gun in my face and dumped the soda on me when I wouldn’t take it!”  The kid said and tried to get tears to well up and roll down his bony face.  None came and none were needed to get sympathy freely from his parents.  The officer who made a show of standing in front of the teenager while John was ushered to a waiting police cruiser.  I should’ve shot him, John thought.

The police station was buzzing with rumors that had sprung from the teenager’s testimony.  John was charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy, planning a terrorist act, molestation of a minor, possession of an illegal firearm, and John blanked out from there.  No one gave him a chance to speak.  It was as if his fate had been decided once the cuffs wrapped around his wrists.  John was willing to pay the price for what he had done now that he was caught, but no one was interested in truth.  No one wanted to know his side of the story.  What they learned of John they got from his credit score, his employee records, and his laptop computer.  They interviewed ex-girlfriends, friends, and his parents.  No one was able to say anything to help him out because no one really knew him.  The detectives interviewed him once before his arraignment.  His court-appointed lawyer talked to him about plea bargains.  No one official or unofficial bothered to listen to his own pleas.  Life was easier when dealing with the anonymous and John sympathized.  His own life had been a breeze when he kept to himself and didn’t try getting to know anyone.

John’s speedy trial shipped him to San Quentin on a twenty-five to life sentence.  His possessions were placed in a box and he was given a prison jumpsuit and nondescript shoes to wear.  He looked like everyone else.  John’s tether to humanity had always been slack, but now he had been cut free.

The other convicts acted like they already knew him, just as the cops, lawyers, and judge had before them.  John looked into eyes that no longer contained identity except for what was provided by the Department of Corrections.  John’s only hope was to make himself known beyond the label given to him in the pursuit of justice.

Cold Moon

Blue Moon.  The second full moon in a month.  Won’t happen again for eighteen years, won’t have a blue moon on New Year’s Eve for… I don’t know how long.  Not long enough?  Too soon?  Maggie said a Blue Moon in December is a “Cold Moon.”  Every Blue Moon has a name according to its month.  It’s not actually cold in L.A.  More like “Lukewarm Moon.”  Cold, maybe, in emotion, in action.

One o’clock New Year’s morning and everyone is dying.  Two hours before most of L.A. was screaming “Happy New Year!” already drunk and then drinking one more in complete bliss and humanitarian spirit.  Maybe another for the road.

Two hours later, after the witching hour in this brave new world, people are screaming for help.  I hear nothing but sirens.  Police.  Paramedics.  Fire trucks.  I heard nothing but sirens at 2 am, when the celebrating citizens realized they had three too many and were drowning in their own filth, or crashed on a freeway, or victim to some other horror that happens when unarmed and intoxicated people walk the streets believing the world is a better place than it is.  So, there were many cries for help this morning of the New Year and those sirens were the first thing I heard, like the trumpets of Revelation.  The end.  Was it seven angels and their seven trumpets bringing down cities?  The analogy amuses me but I don’t believe in it.  The end is the beginning for those who survive.

I heard the world end this morning, but maybe those were the cries of a newborn. Wailing sirens sped past the hospital room window hoping to be there in time, hoping this wasn’t a year like all the others where people got hurt or died by ignorant and embarrassing means.  I was unable to rest and after the siren’s were gone I listened to Rachel sleep.  I wondered what she would think of it all when she woke up because I knew what I thought now and I couldn’t sleep because nothing had changed in world.  I couldn’t do anything, just like last year and the year before.  I wished I had drank as much as she did so I’d be unconscious during these first clumsy steps into the new year.

I sat awake knowing that those sirens were rescuing people who had made resolutions.  Millions of people thinking over and over “I am going to _____” or “I am not going to ____” and now those resolutions were forgotten in a panic of just trying to survive to see the sunrise, or drowned by intoxication to be forgotten in a fog of headaches and de ja vu.  Those resolutions were off to a good start.  I hadn’t made any resolution, I don’t think most of my friends did, either.  After so many years of wishing I noticed there was always more alcohol and drugs and larger screens than the year before.  Far less wishing and even less promises.  I was just waiting around like so many other young adults in L.A.  Waiting, wanting, waning.

I thought about the dinner.  Around nine last night we, that is, Rachel and I walked with Maggie to a swank restaurant close by, dressed to kill and die for, Rachel even wore heels which she never does.  It’s nice to play dress up and go out on the town, to down champagne in a fine place where everyone is smiling.  We huddled at the corner of the bar, waiting for our table, wondering what to drink.  It’s important to start the night off with the right drink, especially tonight.  I shamefully picked an amber ale, not even on tap, while Rachel and Maggie got the sales pitch for a champagne cocktail, something with top shelf bubbly and raspberries.  Rachel allowed me a sip, just one, and it was everything the waitress said it would be, a rare moment where advertising meets expectations.  Our table was ready and we took our drinks to a booth in the back, close to the restrooms and quiet.  We ordered fondue served with apple slices and bread, Rachel got a salad, I ordered something with meat and potatoes, and Maggie… I forget.  The night gets foggy from here.  I remember the food was excellent and then I had another bourbon with bitters and a slice of blood orange while Rachel and Maggie were going into their third raspberry champagne elixir.  I sipped bourbon the rest of the night and even with the heavy meal I was feeling buzzed.

Each of the drinks came with a little plastic animal hanging from the rim of the glass.  By the time I noticed just how drunk we were we had a zoo, two monkeys were mine, the other ten animals (four neon green gazelles, a lone blue elephant with half a trunk, two pink wolves, and three yellow monkeys) were split evenly between the women and they were trying their best to conceal just how drunk they were.  I was feeling pretty good myself and I sipped the last bit of bourbon and chewed on the slice of blood orange.  I gathered up the animals and Rachel slapped her credit card on the check that appeared out of thin air.  Rachel got up to use the restroom and I watched, hoping she wouldn’t fall flat on her face.  She made it to a short line of other tipsy young ladies waiting their turn, no longer smiling, just waiting and leaning hard against the wall, watching the ladies’ room door.  We had decided not to stay for the countdown and I was glad the plan was still sticking because the night was losing its original handsome luster.  The check vanished and returned, just in time for Rachel’s return.  She signed and complained to me that her phone wasn’t working.  I picked it up.  Her phone was vibrating and wouldn’t stop.  The screen was dark.  I knew she had dropped the cell into the toilet and she was too guarded to admit she was that drunk.

Outside, Rachel made me stop so she could gauge if her heels would be too painful for the trek home.  She decided to go barefoot and balanced against a divider separating the outside seating section from the sidewalk so she could take off her heels.  She lifted one heel off and I heard Maggie yell a warning.  Rachel fell into me and I was thrown back.  Our fall echoed all around Wilshire Boulevard.  The partition Rachel had held onto was now lying on top of her legs.  She removed one leg and whimpered.  The partition was not bolted to the sidewalk and I don’t know why I assumed that the part wall, part garden partition for the restaurant’s outdoor seating area would be secured to the sidewalk, but as I looked into Rachel’s watering eyes I couldn’t believe it.

I picked up the partition with Maggie’s help.  Rachel screamed, the leg she hadn’t moved didn’t look right.  Underneath the gardening soil from the partition and the increasing flow of blood I could see bone, a tiny sliver of white jutting out of her knee.  The people inside were pointing, laughing, and trying not to stare at the drunk people and their antics.  They couldn’t see what had happened now that the partition was back in place.  Maggie called 911 and I held Rachel’s hand.  I never thought I could see pain, but I saw it where I usually saw love in Rachel’s eyes.  Watery, intense, and blind.  I don’t think she could see me.  Her broken leg held her hostage.  I thought it was an awful thing for a body to do.  Pain was a message and Rachel had received it loud and clear and it was time for it to go away, but it wasn’t.  I helped her sit up and held her hair back as she puked next to me.  She gasped and said something to me, but her words were drowned out by the siren, the first of many to come.  Two paramedics climbed out of the back and pushed me aside.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t be like last year.”  Said one of the medics, the younger one, and his hard-boiled partner looked at him like it was already a long night.  The younger medic asked Rachel basic health related questions, allergies, that sort of thing.
“Make any New Year’s resolutions?”  He asked with a forced smile.  I appreciated him trying to cheer her up, but it wasn’t making anything better.  The older medic grunted, a sign for the rookie to shut up.

I sit in a chair next to Rachel’s hospital bed.  My mind comes full circle as I look up at the setting full moon, the cold light dying out and the sun only hours away from making its first appearance this year.  Rachel sleeps soundly, she’s going to miss the sunrise, but that’s fine.  Her leg is hoisted up and in a cast.  It wasn’t as bad as it had looked and from the hustle in the hospital I can tell hundreds of people are discovering they are getting much worse from the coming year.  I stroke Rachel’s hair and she murmurs in her sleep.  I wonder if she did have a resolution.  What would I resolve to do this year?  I thought about it while watching the revolving red lights from the ambulances.  The spinning lights cast Film Noir shadows across the hospital room in red waves.  I wouldn’t want to start over, to repeat anything, I had no regrets.  I made my resolution with no witnesses in the pale lunar glow and the swirling lights of emergency vehicles.  I resolved to do what I could, to keep trying, and to make the best of what I couldn’t control.  I would tell Rachel in the morning what I thought.  She would like it.  You couldn’t promise yourself so many specific things, only promise yourself you’d try to roll with the chaos, try to make some warmth in the light of a cold moon.