This short story served as inspiration for the screenplay for STUNG (2015)
A man appeared in my prison cell right out of thin air. I’m not making this up, okay?
Kid just flicked in here like a light switch, asking for J-Swish, the gangbanger two cells down. I was fuckin’ speechless at first, but I told him J-Swish’s house was about ten feet away. The kid was holding one of those black rods with the lights on the top. The ones that came from inside Parks-Gallagher. Okay, wait, wait, wait you probably have no idea what’s going on here. Parks-Gallagher? Sometimes I get ahead of myself.
I’m in prison for killing Charlie Barnes. I was seventeen, and I was one of his corner boys, Philadelphia, this was 1992. Barnes was making South Philly into a warzone. All I’d ever wanted was to work for him, since my brother used to be in his crew. But I saw Charlie Barnes do terrible things. I saw him burn a guy’s face off with a blowtorch once. One time he made me hold a loaded gun to a whore’s head while she blew him. There was more, and they were all traumatic to me. I started acting out, talking about telling the cops. My mistake, cause Charlie Barnes woulda done anything to stay in power. One night he called me into his club, it was called Smiles, out on Rt. 22. Nothing smiley about it, you ask me. It was empty, except he had my little sister Dee-Dee in there. He made me watch while he raped her. This time there was a gun against my head.
Stupid me, thinking that taking out the crack kingpin running things around there would just make everything shiny and wipe the slate clean. Some people call that a utopia. It never happened. What happened was I blew his brains out with a little .33 snubnose, got caught, charged with murder, and handed maximum security prison for 99 years. Charlie Barnes died, and he was a motherfucker, so I guess that was good. But his kid Chuck Jr., an even worse motherfucker, well he stepped into dad’s shoes about a week after I was arrested. Since I got sent to Upstate, Chuck Jr’s tried to have me killed seven times -- eight if you count the one on the bus coming here. So, yeah, like I said, he’s a fucking motherfucker.
After a time, they put me in the hole. For my own protection, the warden said. Been in this concrete slab near ten years now. Solitary isn’t as bad a you might imagine, actually. Sure, I’m in here twenty-three hours a day. There’s no windows, but they let me have a TV. It’s not a normal TV, it’s made from clear plastic so I can’t hide anything inside it. It only gets two channels. But, hey, Chuck’s guys don’t come at me anymore.
Times change, though. Oh, do they ever... I swore that before I turned 40 -- I would put in an appeal. I worked my way through an online degree in law. I was supposed to represent myself, man! The night before the hearing Sonny, the guard, snuck me extra ramen and told me exactly how it was going to go down. He gonna come get me at eight AM sharp, put me in shackles, and they’ll bus me uptown to the courthouse. Well, Sonny never showed. Not that morning, not to slip me my slop, not to shout “lights out” that night. Not a single guard showed up for the next nine days. I had enough rations (ramen, candy bars) to keep me going for at least a week, and I could see everything going on with Parkes-Gallagher on my crap TV... but at a certain point things are gonna run out. That’s now, buddy. I been licking the Styrofoam inside of my Cup Noodles for about three days.
Two weeks ago that thing appeared in Sydney, Australia -- a place I’ve never been to, never wanted to go, until now. But look at me, I’m in fucking prison. I guess my expectation was I’d never go anywhere else ever in my life again. Just so you know, I am making my way back to that guy who just appeared in my cell, I am, but you gotta hear about Parks-Gallagher in order to understand that.
It wasn’t like it was in those movies about spaceships making these grand entrances. There was no fire in the clouds and things like that.
People in Sydney went to bed one night in February, and the next morning there was a great big fucking space ship the size of twelve football fields hovering right above the harbor. Cameras all over the city captured the moment it appeared. One second it’s not there, the next second there it is.
They call it Parks-Gallagher after the two scientists who went inside first. The two of them didn’t have to drill a hole or blast through some impenetrable force shield or whatever -- it was wide open. Parks-Gallagher is shaped like a giant warehouse and the entire south wall has been lowered like a welcome ramp since it got here. Just come on in. So they did and, like I just said, things changed.
The news was playing a video of Drs. Gallagher and Parks coming out of it with something they’d found inside. Looked like a small little black cube. They took it. Then they set it down on the grass and it grew. It kept growing, but not like it was inflating, more like it was unfolding kinda. And it grew and grew and by the time it stopped, it was this big structure the size of a building. The scientists went inside this new structure, and it looked like it was made of the same kinda stuff as the ship that brought it. It was super strong, you couldn’t burn it or smash it -- people in the video were talking about building houses out of those little black cubes, they were talking about ending the homeless problem... They were talking about a lot of stuff.
Like how, in another video, Parks and Gallagher scrape this clear gel off the inside of craft and they bring it to a little box of sand. Gallagher, he puts a seed into the sand, he says it’s a tomato seed. This isn’t soil, or even dirt, it’s dry sand -- so that tomato isn’t supposed to grow in it. But they pinch off a little glob of that gel and drop it in with the seed and sure enough, in a few minutes, there’s a tomato growing where one shouldn’t be. In a few minutes! They were talking about using this gel all over the world, they were talking about ending hunger.
In my favorite video, Parks comes out of the ship and he’s carrying this black tube, like the leg of a table. Some lights make a little halo around the top of the thing, so it looks like a flashlight, but it’s totally fuckin’ more than that. Parks holds it, standing on the grass, turns a little dial on the bottom of the tube, and suddenly he flicks across the grass about ten feet. He flicks himself back and forth like this while Gallagher does a little happy dance in the background. Parks smiles at the video, points the tube with the lights on the top at Gallagher, and he flicks him across the grass. Gallagher flops over, disoriented, and then the both of them are cracking up. I don’t know what they’re talking about using the tube-thing for, but if they asked me I’d tell them I have a hell of an idea for how to break me and my buddies out of this joint, yeah baby!
Parks-Gallagher was empty though. Meaning there were no little green men with their fingers in V’s to greet the humans. It was silent and very comfortable inside, not too hot, not too cold. No, those scientists they came up with this theory, see? That the ship was the alien. That ship was kinda alive, in a way we maybe don’t understand, and because of that we should be speaking with the ship.
Here’s how they spoke to the ship. You just put your hand on the black surface of the wall, the floor, anywhere inside -- and you kinda hook up to it, like a giant computer. Gallagher and Parks, they’d spend days and days just downloading all the cosmic info from inside. The way they spoke about it, must’ve been a trip. I’d just spent five years reading books and trying to get a fucking law degree from inside prison... the people who went inside Parkes-Gallagher were learning how to change the laws of nature in seconds. I dreamed of going there myself, but then I thought no, asshole, you’re stuck in here.
It took them two more weeks of exploring the ship named after them before they found the engine. Sonny said it was the engine, but it was the most goddamm bizaro engine I’d ever seen. Okay, picture this -- stacks and stacks of boxes, these glass boxes. They’re piled neatly, floor to ceiling, inside Parks-Gallagher, which was about ten stories high. And you can see through the glass, but it’s still fuzzy, sort of steamed over. But there are things inside the boxes -- each one a different thing. Different shapes, some look like animals, some look like they’re made from metal, some look like things I can’t even describe. None of them look like us.
Gallagher comes on the video and says that physically touching the ship was like being transported to a classroom where the teacher had the answer to any question about the universe you could think to ask. He says he asked about the glass boxes and that’s how he knew they were the engine. Inside each one is a single specimen from every world that this ship-sized alien has visited. Parks interrupted and said that they weren’t killed by the ship, how could a ship kill anybody? No, instead, they offered themselves up to Parks-Gallagher -- they gave their lives and the contents of their minds, which Parks-Gallagher absorbed and made accessible to the next species it encountered. There was even a processing chamber at the center of the glass pods, a divot in the floor, kind of. All someone needed to do was stand there and the ship would convert the energy in their body into enough fuel to travel to their next destination. Probably just blink out of existence like it did when it showed up... But who would ever be dumb enough to put themselves in that little divot? Scientists took to calling Parks-Gallagher a library. Some people thought, with all those alien creatures in the glass pods, that it was like a zoo. Nobody called it a prison.
They figured out a lot of things in those first two weeks, and soon the world was truly changing. The more tech that came out of Parks-Gallagher, the more people began giving up their normal, day-to-day jobs. Yes, even security guards in this piece of shit prison stopped showing up. I guess they didn’t think about what to do with us. I mean, I killed a guy. There’s a guy on death row here who killed 11 people. This is where the worst of the worst gets put. Not exactly the formula for building a utopia, huh? Some guys in here have phones that they have smuggled in. I figure they must’ve called out, tried to get someone to come and set us free. But how would I know from in here?
So, okay yeah, we’re expecting to just rot in here and nobody would ever care, but then this kid appears -- “Where’s J-Swish?” he says. And I see he’s holding a little small black stick version of the tube Dr. Parks was carrying in the video. The kid looking for J-Swish adjusts the dial on it and flicks away after I tell him he’s in the wrong cell.
He flicks back in after a few seconds.
“Shit, sorry,” the little punk says, and it’s clear he doesn’t really know how to use that little stick with the lights at the top. He disappears again and I think, “If he comes back, I’ll grab him--” but then he does come back, so I tackle him, punch him in the gut, and snag the little black stick. It feels like I fall down, but when I turn around, I’m outside my cell. There’s that punk kid, only he’s still inside. He slams his fist against the tiny window and screams: “Give it back to me, you fucking asshole!” I studied those videos, so I know pretty much how to use the thing. The lights at the top actually mean coordinates and I think about what the coordinates are for Philly. I zip away as that punk is screaming at me in my old jail cell.
I go to Philly. I go to my mom and my sister. They were really excited to see me, but of course wanted to know how I got my hands on the black stick from inside Parkes-Gallagher. They waited to tell me the terrible things Chuck Jr’s been up to in the neighborhood. He’s been using the tech coming from Parks-Gallagher to do unspeakable things. He’s fortified himself inside his apartment tower, you can tell by the weird black addition jutting out from it -- like it was unfolded there. And he’s still sore about me killing his pops.
I always fantasized about what I’d do if I ever got that parole, if I ever got out. I’d get a gun as fast as lightning, that’s what I thought I’d do. But now I don’t need a gun. In my hand I hold a new weapon and I can send Chuck Jr. as far away from here as possible with it.
So that’s what I set my mind to doing.
X X X
This was the last Christmas the world would ever see, and it was all Bobby Blicker’s fault.
Little Bobby, who had turned seven back in July, knew that the world around him was changing. He could hear it in Pop’s voice when he spoke of North Korea, that far away land. He could see it in Ma’s trembling hands as she counted cans of vegetables in the pantry of their farm house. He could even see a difference in Sadie, their Cocker Spaniel, as she began to scratch behind her ears so bad the skin there scabbed over, bloody.
Increasingly, tensions rose in the household. Pa said they’d have to turn the heat off. Ma said that would only happen over her dead body, because it’s zero friggin’ degrees out these days. Pa said she could take it up with the power company if she liked, but that would be pretty derned hard with the phones acting funky. A door or two would slam. Very often, arguments would explode between them and Bobby would be sent outside to play in the yard. He didn’t mind playing, especially with Sadie, but she couldn’t return his snow ball volleys, and her energy levels these days were pretty low. The last bag of dog food had gone dry weeks ago.
He missed his friends from school. Bobby wondered if Pete Loeman’s parents were fighting as much as his were. Or if Katie Dicks, whose parents had split over the summer, had to turn her heat off too. The books on his shelf were boring to him now. His army men were brittle in his tiny hands; they did not march the same way anymore.
- - -
On December twenty-third, there was a warm spell. The snow outside trickled away pretty quickly and the farm was draped in a thick fog. Bobby waited by the window to see if anything would come out of the mist. Mr. Deekon, his bus driver, would pull up to the mail box, honk his horn, and shove those glorious double doors open as he greeted Bobby with a smile.
“Lookin’ good, Bobby Blicker! Climb on up and let’s get you a’ learnin’!” And Pete and Katie would be there, too.
But there was no school bus. No Mr. Deekon. Just the fog and Ma folding and unfolding her apron with those trembling hands.
Pa touched Bobby on the shoulder.
“Stop looking out that window all day, Bob. It’s not gonna do you no good.” Bobby turned to meet his father’s gaze. “Come on and watch your Daddy chop some wood. You can even carry it back in the house.” Bobby climbed down from his perch to the playful nipping of Sadie’s jaws. Then Pa kicked her across the room angrily.
- - -
In all the fog, here was only one gnarly tree left behind the shed.
“Planted this tree ‘bout ten years before you came to us. Whad’ya think of that, Bob?”
Bobby shrugged, as he was apt to do these days. Pa stood taller than the sapling. He could just about wrap his fist around the skinniest parts of the branches.
“Yup. Normally, I’d let her grow tall and full and she probably’d be here when you had kids.” Pa paused before this next part. “Do you know why I’m going to cut down this tree today, Bob?”
Little Bobby paused, thought about it, then said: “Cuz Ma wants a fire.”
Pa tapped him on the brim of his hat, smiled, and felled that tree in three mighty swings. Bobby helped him carry the branches back inside, where Ma sat waiting to warm herself.
- - -
The fire from that tree lasted the night and into the next. The entire Blicker family slept by the hearth and Bobby woke on the morning of the twenty-fourth to a whopper of an argument. Pa called her brainless for not realizing and Ma called him a prick for not telling her.
So what, if it was Christmas eve? Just what the hell did she want him to do about it?
Bobby wandered to the kitchen and interrupted, wiping his eyes sleepily. “Go play with the dog,” was the good-morning he got. “Now!” Bobby obeyed.
Sadie and he played until she could play no more. Bobby was disappointed, sure, but she lasted longer than most days. He patted her on the head, saw the pleading in her eyes to go back inside and lay down. What was one more, right? One more throw couldn’t hurt. So Bobby launched Sadie’s favorite ball into the fog. When she took off running after it, knowing it as the only thing to do, Sadie’s legs gave out and she collapsed on the muddy ground.
- - -
Pa dug a shallow hole in the mostly-frozen dirt that night while Ma and Bobby stood idly by. His parents spent that afternoon convincing the boy that it wasn’t his fault; that Sadie was an old soul and that everything goes, sooner or later. It was Bobby’s first lesson about D-E-A-T-H.
Ma and Pa hung their heads for a moment while Bobby felt the hairs on his arms stand up. The fog around them was breaking with the coming of a cold front. Bobby looked up. He saw brilliant speckled stars appear overhead and a full moon bathed their farm in a cool glow. Bobby didn’t know where the thought came from, but he decided then and there to make a wish upon those stars. This was Bobby’s wish:
“I wish, I wish... I wish Ma and Pa would quit their arguing. I wish Sadie hadn’t died. I wish the phone lines would come back and I wish the school bus could pick me up so I could see my friends.” He paused, then added: “And I wish for a white Christmas. That would be cool. Amen.”
- - -
Bobby Blicker’s wish floated toward the night sky in the vapor of his breath, and hung just beneath the stars. It would be impossible for his seven year-old mind to distinguish between the request he had made for a snow-blessed holiday, and the nuclear fallout that was to blanket the earth and block out the very heavens Little Bobby had appealed to. That night, while the family clung to the remaining embers of the sapling tree, Pa’s greatest fears came to fruition. World powers were thrust into a volley of megaton warheads that lasted only eleven minutes.
Then -- silence, stillness the world over, and the very bright, white, Christmas Bobby had wished for.
FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED. APRIL 11, 2119:
“ANOTHER LIVING BODY”
By Arlene Morris
When the info-cube landed in Sydney, the whole world was watching. The Japanese picked it up on their long-range sensors, then the Koreans, then the United States, then everybody else. We knew it was coming, and we knew where it was going to land. What we did not know was how it would change the world we lived in forever.
But this isn’t about the info-cube -- that craft the size of a warehouse, geometrically perfect in every way we could measure. This isn’t about the wonders of technology that were gifted unto the human race when it’s east wall lowered, bathing Sydney harbor in blue light, inviting any and all to share in the previously unknown knowledge of the universe. This isn’t about the quantum enlightenment that spread around the globe at a pace we could barely keep up with. We had cured much of what ailed our planet. Hunger, poverty, pestilence -- all forgotten by now. The cube brought with it a sense of giddy wonder at first, shared by yours truly, but that wonder faded once we had unlocked its knowledge-drive and begun to build the teleportation hubs that would eventually allow us to be anywhere, anytime. No, instead, this is about one man and the complicated choice he made leading up to January 19th, 2119. As the world watched the info-cube close its east wall and float away through the sky, we all wondered who had given themselves to that empty center chamber. More importantly -- we all wondered why?
His name was Dahab Jayjan, and he was the third born son of a poor Sudanese farmer. His mother and two sisters were taken as slaves shortly after his birth by a local Muslim warlord, known only as Hassan. Hassan had taken to calling himself king of the Warab province, and when the cube landed he used its gifts to further his nefarious agenda. Hassan inflamed his favor for murder and rape, and devised twisted techniques using much of the tehnology coming from the cube. It was Dahab Jayjan, he called himself simply Jay, who opposed Hassan in the region. In his thought-blog, which has since been deleted, but which The New York Times obtained an archived copy of from a source that whishes to remain anonymous -- Jay clearly saw how he could use the gifts of the info-cube to dethrone Hassan, thereby improving the war-torn region.
“[Hassan] was killing our women and our children, and he was doing it still after the coobe (sic) landed here. While other governments were taking the knowledge and making good with it, Afrika was still suffering.”
Jay was right. Other militants in the Congo had adopted some of the cube’s technology, but they were using the gravity rods and Kleiner-spheres to exert pressure on an already oppressed populace. Hassan was a warlord nefarious for using child soldiers, and he made headlines again when his child army murdered a Russian tourist, and obtained a teleportation rod he was carrying. Hassan wielded the weapon like a veritable staff of Moses, banishing men who opposed him to the top of Everest, or the bottom of the sea. Jay makes reference to the idea in his thought blog, dated two years after the info-cube landed: “[Hassan] thinks he can use the coobe’s gifts to stay in power, but he has given me a grand idea which I will not post hear because I don’t want anybody to no about it.”
At some point during the summer of 2114, Jay used his resources within the community to illegally (according to Hassan’s laws) obtain another teleporter. Some evidence suggests that he picked it up on a trip to Cairo. In either case, he never showed it to anyone. He did make a cryptic reference to his cousin, Abit, who spoke to The New York Times on post-cube day +18, saying “Dahab had taken to standing guard outside his hut for two weeks before the incident, which I thought was strange.”
It was clear what drove Jay to assassinate Hassan during the Ramadan fast which lasted through June of that year. He wanted freedom for his sisters, after he got word that his mother, who he hadn’t seen since his birth, had been murdered within the confines of Hassan’s palace. Hassan’s people were starving, so the irony of Ramadan coming during the hottest month of the year was not lost on Jay. Hassan had erected gravity rods around his compound to keep the riffraff out. Yet, every day he made an appearance on the rear patio to pray with his advisors. Jay used this short window of opportunity to teleport onto the roof of the compound. Security footage shows everything rather clearly; one second Hassan is kneeling in Salah, and the next his space is empty. What Jay had managed to do was, at the time, perhaps the first successful teleportation from the surface of the planet into deep space. Without proper gear, Hassan was killed instantly. Jay instantly vanished from the compound, but the teleporter he used tells us exactly where he went next.
Dahab Jayjan had always been a curious boy, Abit told a local reporter after Hassan’s assassination. So it was with an open-mind that he traveled to Sydney to see the info-cube for himself. After the technology it had brought was used against his people, Jay quickly learned that it could be used for great things, like the British had done to end the salt famine.
At this point the info-cube was open to the public and there was no sign of the riots to come, or the security measures that Jay would eventually have to get around in order to return to it. We were still six months before world currency became obsolete, so Jay still paid inflated prices for his motel room nearby and probably walked -- as so many had before him -- right through the open east wall. He saw the black, smooth surfaces, upon which you could place your hand and connect directly to the cube’s knowledge drive, surf it’s cosmic encyclopedia, and explore the universe here on earth.
Jay toured the menageries of deceased extraterrestrials. Encased in their individual opaque sarcophaguses, a natural history museum of the beings and planets that the cube had previously visited. Who built the cube? What did its knowledge mean to these thousands upon thousands of species? These are questions I wondered myself, and I can only imagine Jay had dozens more to ask -- only the frustrating nature of the cube prevented us both from doing so. There was no pilot, there was no crew. It was a monolith that brought with it answers to questions we didn’t even know we had. That, undeniably, was it’s purpose. Traveling the universe, searching for signs of intelligent life, upon which it would impart its vast schooling.
And, of course, the chamber at the center of the cube and the panel beside it where, if your palm was placed there -- the instructions for how to send the cube on its way, to spread more information to other distant and far-off worlds, would play through your mind:
“In exchange for this gift you have received -- we require only another living body to power this vessel and continue its mission of enlightenment.”
The thought of prospering here on earth, of living in a world that the info-cube had improved, was certainly more attractive to me (and to the millions of others who were given the chance to experience this message) than the idea offorfeiting a life lived for an eternity spent in the mausoleum with those other foreign bodies. World leaders, and shopkeepers had all dodged the question of “Would you step on that pedastal?” Jayjan, on the other hand, ruminated on it for the duration of the rest of his time on earth.
From Jay’s thought-blog, dated September, 9, 2115: “I have seen the inside of the cube and I have seen how to continue.” That short, cryptic entry informs us when we seek motivation to Jay’s actions in the coming years.
He immediately returned to his village in the Sudan, where Hassan had merely been replaced by one of his underlings in what had amounted to a bloody struggle for power. Jay vanquished them in much the same manor as he had Hassan, however he did it with a flourish nobody expected -- the entire executive mansion, teleported to the surface of Mars. He rescued his sisters and made them his advisors.
Jay built a new compound, open to all members of the community. He used insta-bricks to forge a small city where once stood straw huts. Crops grew in previously stony soil, Jay erected a medical tent where disease was eradicated one neo-scan at a time.
Four years passed, and the Warab province became an Eden from which Jay’s edicts spread through the region, and eventually the world. His thought-blog was read by technicians in Antarctica, working on closing the hole in the ozone. “The info-cube has given rise to the goodness of humans,” an entry from March of 2118 read. “And if we can all find that goodness within, we will be a testament to the untold species still out there on untold planets -- because we have the capability to spread goodness.” This edict would be tested when Jay’s youngest sister came to him, cradling her still-borne baby in her arms, begging him to find a way to bring it back to life.
During those four years of prosperity, the situation surrounding the info-cube had deteriorated. Various world leaders stepped in, and a terrible technology was applied to protect it from the hordes of people waiting to find salvation inside. After curing the world’s troubles on the surface, the cube became like a splinter in the world’s mind. Much like Jay’s sister, seeking immortality, several factions of perfected people now had questions the cube could not provide the answers to. In reality, the cube had overstayed its welcome. Jay knew this.
The Australian government put into effect a shield, an invisible dome that covered the cube. It was an escalation that eventually set off the riots around the world when teleportation dampers were applied in a fifty mile radius, effectively rendering the cube inaccessible. It is Abit’s belief that Jay did not solve the problem of the dampers, as well as the dome shield, because he sought answers like the rest. “When his sister brought in the dead baby, Jayjan -- he stormed out of the room. I asked him what he was going to do about it, because I too was under the impression that the answer was there, we just didn’t have a way to ask the right question. But Jay said nothing, which I knew was a bad sign.” Jay retreated to his private compound. He worked night and day on the technology which Australia still holds in contempt of seven local laws. And on the morning of January 19th, the night after the beginning of that year’s Ramadan celebration, Abit arrived at Jay’s compound, only to find it empty.
Using a quantum listening device during his research on the dome and the dampers, Jay made a startling discovery about what the Australian’s had planned for the cube. He posted this entry to his thought-blog the night before vanishing: “Australians plan disassembly of info-cube within the week. I have heard their communiques.” Jay could not allow it.
It’s clear that Jay had constructed a suit of some kind, which not only incorporated the teleportation rod, but also the technology which allowed him to disable the dampers, and literally walk through the force shield and into the cube. This much, we have from surveilance. What I am more interested in, however, is not what we know. I am more interested in the moment Dahab Jayjan gave himself to the info-cube. Did he feel pain as his body was converted into kinetic energy? Did he feel a sense of accomplishment as the east wall closed up? Was he, as many have speculated, actually granted the knowledge his sister was seeking -- the answer to immortality -- in that very moment? As the cube floated into the sky, and Jay was surely boxed up, and added to the menagerie, we wept. Not for him -- for Jayjan, we shouted curses to the heavens. We wept because suddenly there was no more knowledge for us to conquer.
I remember gazing upon those boxes of untold species for the first time, mere months after the info-cube had landed. For me, there was a feeling of reverence. On each planet the cube had visited, there was one individual, one voice, willing to sacrifice itself to further this mission of quantum enlightenment. Greedy as we seemed then, the true power of the cube could be seen all around the planet. It was when we perfected ourselves that we became reluctant to let this power go. Even after money was deemed useless, we remained avaricious. It must be in our very nature, then.
But Dahab Jayjan left one last thought-blog entry, only recently discovered by The New York Times. It said, elegantly, “I did it so that, when the next species receives the same gift, we will be remembered as good.”
Arlene Morris is an author of technical manuals. She is currently working on a book about nano space travel.
At the base of the Rocky Mountains, headed west on Route 70, away from Denver, Colorado, there is a way-station, a stop-off, a kind of limbo for the unmanned. It’s a squat building in what was once a truck stop resupply called “AC FOOD AND FUEL,” but now it’s just called WAYSTATION-908, which consists of two buildings. The Subway/Taco Bell/convenience store has been shuttered and converted to a massive supply room. Where the gas pumps once stood is now a giant garage that can house up to five chassis at once. Jerry and the boys could slap chains on the tires of those robo-trucks all day and night -- hell, they practically lived to do it.
The driverless transport had replaced what used to be known as long-haul tractor trailers some fifteen years prior. The change came quickly and there was little the drivers of said eighteen-wheelers could say or do to stop it. The dull roar of progress had picked up speed, downshifted, and bored full speed toward this very day. Jerry, Bob, “Pigpen,” Phil, and Bill -- the fearless five. Truth be told, they were just a bunch of arthritic, weed-smoking geezers who used to drive trucks themselves. On the road they barely knew one another (except Phil and Bill, who were a tandem team back in the day). But here, at the Waystation, they were comrads in arms. The last bastion of manpower needed by a system that operated mostly with GPS, LIDAR, and 600gigs per second of constantly changing road conditions. These guys were the greasy hands, the stubble, the back aches, the very blood pumping through this operation.
And boy did they love it. All the other drivers they knew were forced back home to wilt, or worse. (Bob told them about his brother-in-law, also a long-haul driver like them, who, after getting pink slipped, resorted to a job at a greeting card store in Cheyenne.) And the Waystation used to be home, in a different sort of way. While all the transports had gone electric, Jerry’d swear he’d catch a whiff of diesel every now and then. The stuff was practically soaked into the ground here. A place they’d stop off for food, maybe tip their hats to one another on the way to the showers, was now the last beacon on the way west, and they were the lighthouse keepers.
There was a constant stream of trucks looking to make their way through the switchbacks that would take them over the Rockies, headed west. There was another stop off, Waystation-201, in Grand Junction, and the two functioned as a place for the robo-trucks to either get chained, or to have them removed, depending on which way they were headed exactly.
Jerry and the boys, they had a short hand, a camaraderie, but the guys who ran 201 were jack-offs who barely knew one another. Besides, one of them slept with Bob’s wife a few years back, so they didn’t like those guys too much.
After work, you might find Jerry and his fearsome five at a little hole in the wall called Susanne’s, a dive in Denver. You might saunter up to the bar, order a beer, and Pigpen or Jerry would get to talking to you. They were the most social of the bunch, anyway. They’d introduce themselves, get to know you a little, and inevitably talk would turn to “Hey, what do you do for a living?” “I work on trucks,” Pigpen would say, sipping his beer through that shaggy handlebar mustache of his. And you’d say, “Trucks?” And Pigpen would look to Jerry with a knowing smile, and he’d cut you off before you could say “I thought the whole system was--”
“Automated, right, right.” And then Jerry would take over (it was kind of a song and dance at this point). “What’s the one thing a truck CANNOT DO on its own in these parts?” He’d ask. And he’d let you think about it for a moment. Sometimes people would guess correct, especially if it was cold and snowing out. Then Pigpen and Jer would go back and forth, giving you the details of what it’s like to put chains on the tires of trucks without a driver in ‘em.
“It’s hard not to think of them as people,” Jer says. “I mean, we’re used to a guy or a lady behind that wheel. Now they don’t even have dashboards -- or windshields for that matter. You seen ‘em out there, never stopping, never swerving, just chugging along at the speed limit 24/7. We got this pink one that comes in about every week. Call her Daisy. ‘Up, here comes Daisy Dukes, she must’ve seen the alert -- there’s a storm a’comin’ and she wants to trade in her high heels for snow boots.’ And they can sort of see out there on the road, so they just hump themselves into the garage, one of the open lanes, and sit there waiting. There’s an override button on the side, and when you’re done slaggin the chains over the outside tires, you mash that red button to let the system know they’re ready to go over the mountains, on to Waystation-201, where those dickheads take our chains off.
“Sometimes it’s strange to put a hand on something so cold, when they used to rumble and spew black smoke... but, it’s the memory of what used to be that does us all good.” Jer and Pigpen will inevitably invite Bob, Phil and Bill over, introduce you. If they like you, they’ll buy you a boilermaker, maybe even shoot some pool with you and your buddies. Let you win, too... Over the course of the evening, you and several of your buddies will ask: hey, how’d you get the nickname “Pigpen?” Bob will say his mom called him that, and Jeez, is that a crap name to get from your mom? Jer will tell your buddy he got the name in Iraq, which was where he learned to ride a motorcycle. Phil and Bill will claim that they gave him the nickname. And if you ask Pigpen? He’ll stroke his thinning hair back, feign being annoyed, and tell you to ask one of the guys. It’s kinda their own private little joke -- but the truth is none of them really knows why Pigpen is Pigpen. Maybe he never told them, or they just never thought to ask. He is Pigpen.
Now it’s Thanksgiving, and Jer’s got a turkey going in the old oven where they keep the pallets of graded chains. Bill’s whipping up the potatoes and greens, and Phil and Bob are working on two pies each, enough to bring home to the wives. Pigpen’s probably in the can, making room.
The trucks don’t stop running for the holiday, so the gang’s on call. They’ll hear an alarm bell if a truck’s waiting to be chained up, but for now, they hang with each other in what used to be the Taco Bell kitchen, though they’ve modified it.
The set up’s got a card table and a ratty couch Pigpen hauled all the way from Estes Park. Someone hung a poster of the hologram reunion show that Pink Floyd played at Red Rocks in 2019. Jer lights a joint of some of that fine first-to-be-legal Colorado kush, someone’s streaming Hendrix, and Phil just came in with some beer. They’ve done this night the same for years. Well, Bob used to make cherry sauce for the turkey, but Pigpen developed an allergy some years ago, so they nixed that from the menu.
“Yo, let me hit that,” coo’d Bob, pinching the joint between his fingers as he took it from Jer. He took a nice long drag and then suddenly acted excited about something. Whatever it was induced a coughing fit, but he got through it, then told the boys how his daughter had just been accepted to CSU, and they all congratulated him. Phil said he was wondering just yesterday about when she’d hear, as the whole gang had all been crossing their fingers. “That’s fantastic news, man. And she’ll be in state, so she can be around for holidays.”
“Go Rams!” Said Bill.
They sat down to eat, all of them in a pretty good mood. Bob remembered a story about growing up not being able to afford a turkey at all on Thanksgiving. The boys grumbled, Jerry finishing his story for him -- they’d all heard it before. Bob said he only brought it up because he liked to state what he was thankful for every year, and he just wanted to say that last year it was Mary getting through the chemo, and the year before that he was thankful for their new dog, and so on and so on.
“This year,” he said, “I’m just so thankful for you guys, for being able to have Thanksgiving with the finest dudes around.” That set everyone smiling again, and Jer got a couple fresh beers from the refrigerator.
The alarm bell rang and Bob said that four robo-trucks were pulling in, he could see them on the feed from the garage. Bill and Phil hopped up excitedly, and the other two set down their forks, also ready to get their hands dirty.
“Aww, ahat are you in a rush for?” Asked Jerry. “We just sat down!” The truth was that the trucks could wait -- they would wait, like they were programmed to. Palming the red override button on the side was the only real control Jerry and the boys had over the trucks. They didn’t exert said control very often, but Jer felt that tonight was as good an exception as any. “The fuckin’ trucks ain’t gonna tell y’all what they’re thankful for...” he mumbled.
But the dudes were already pulling on their coats, their ears already ringing with the the jangle of the chains which they could practically attach with their eyes blindfolded. Jerry waved them on, sipping his beer heartily. He’d wait here for them to return. “Cross your fingers there’s any leftovers by the time you get back...”
Suddenly Jerry found himself alone in the kitchen looking at four other plates of half eaten Thanksgiving dinner. Every now and then, “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead got stuck in Jerry’s goard... this was one of those times. He hummed the guitar riff to himself quietly as an alert came in on the main console. Usually Phil took care of company dispatches, as he was the only one who could stomach typing back and forth with an AI system based somewhere in New Jersey. But something compelled Jerry up and away from the table to check this one. He opened the email and it read:
To: Gerald McKernan, Robert Garcia III, Philip Weir, Ronald J Kreutzman, and William Lesh.
Be advised that your employer, Quest Logistics, has developed a new system of auto-deploying snow tires for their entire fleet. As such, your services are no longer needed. Please find your last pay stubs attached. You will need to vacate Waystation-908 by midnight tonight, at which point the power will be turned off.
Please have a nice evening.
Jerry kind of harumphed and let the news wash over him. He sighed deeply to himself, resigned. He glared at his watch. This wasn’t just the last Thanksgiving that he and the guys would celebrate together... this was the last few hours they’d have at Waystation-908. His first thought was to pull on his jacket, dash outside after the guys and tell them all this terrible news. This was it, this was the day they’d all feared. On the console he could see the feed from the garage. They were happy, joking, horsing around. Pigpen was doing some kind of a jig, flubbering his belly at Phil, who slapped it for good luck.
Jerry knew he would have to be the bearer of bad news. Just the thought of going out there to tell them and he felt himself welling up with tears, a great swelling in his gut that threatened to instantly make him a messy, snot nosed baby who just found out his favorite plaything was being taken away. But it wasn’t that, was it? It wasn’t the smell of long-evaporated diesel, or the chain grease on his hands, or even the little game he and Pigpen played with the drunk patrons at Susanne’s. It was something else, something intangible. It was the dull, white-noise roar of progress and it drowned out everything else.
Then the boys were awash with a new pair of headlights as a fifth and final truck pulled into the garage. After the lenseflare passed, Jerry could see that it was Daisy, come to have her laces done up. He’d have to pull himself together and go meet his girl one last time.
“I have in my possession a plasma cutter,” came Garanova’s voice from the rafters. Baldo smiled to himself. “That can mean only one thing.” A long, whimsical pause. “We make our escape in five days time, according to my calendar. Rest up, dear friend. You will need your strength.”
- - -
The very next day, Baldo awoke to full-on sunlight streaming through the stained glass window. He thought perhaps his eyes were deceiving him. There was a great commotion from outside his cell. The guards were stomping through the corridor, shouting with glee, “The sun-season had arrived!” How jovial they were at that first light. The commotion died down, all Baldo heard was silence.
Wood splinters began raining down from the rafters above. A grunting, the smell of the plasma cutter. A rugged square fell from the ceiling, a few moments after the spindly frame of Alessandro Garanova. Despite the scabs and the unkempt hair, he had the same kind of glow about him Baldo remembered from their brief run-in months earlier. Piercing eyes. He immediately offered his hand for a shake, Garanova did, and Baldo heartily took it.
“I know I said five days, but I fear my calculations off by a bit. Can you forgive me?”
“Only if you help me move this wretched armoire... one last time.”
Garanova clapped Baldo on the back and they moved to the bulky piece of furniture. Instead of moving the thing aside, they pushed it over with reckless abandon. It crashed to the floor and splintered, even fell in the same manner Baldo had dreamed about before observing his fated doom. He became transfixed as dust rose from the floor--
The sound that shook him was Xiomar, clanging at the bolts on his cell door.
“Ho! What ruckus?”
Baldo scrambled toward the door.
“Nothing!” A terse, quick response, and a poor lie.
The latch jiggled and Xiomar announced: “I’m coming inside!”
Garanova was quick on his feet, and withdrew to where the open door would conceal him. As Xiomar swung the portal open and shadow passed over Garanova’s face, Baldo witnessed him draw the plasma cutter from his belt.
Xiomar immediately eyed the mess of the closet (which conveniently merged with the ragged section of ceiling that had fallen when Garanova made his grand entrance) and went wide-eyed. Then his gaze flitted to the hole the thing had been concealing in the wall behind. Xiomar raised his eyebrows, then opened his mouth to sound the word:
But he was silenced by a dull THWACK from the butt of Garanova’s plasma knife. Xiomar slumped to the floor and joined the mess of the armoire. Garanova immediately gripped him by the wrists and began to drag his torso out of the cell. Baldo cried out.
“What are you doing? This is our window!”
Garanova paused, huffed. “Where is your sense of justice, friend? Now grab his legs and make haste!”
- - -
Together they carried Xiomar through the empty hallways of the prison. The guards had gone out to see the light. Garanova led them to the metal room where Baldo had first met this sinister sheriff and they placed his body into the shell of the transport pod that would lead down to the core, were it not obstructed by the twelve-month storm surging below.
Garanova moved to override the emergency stops while Baldo kept a look out. He worked in silence with great speed, his malnourished fingers moving over the keyboard with surprising grace. A resounding BLEET from the console and the pod closed over Xiomar just as he began to come around. His fist rose to the porthole as the transport pressurized. The whole room quaked as the pod was ejected into the storm, and Xiomar passed through the underside of the city, only to be volatilized in a puff of vapor.
- - -
As the people of Serrenis turned their eyes up toward the coming of light and warmth for the next few months, they did not notice the vein of prisoners slip across the roof of the Supreme Chancellor’s palace, court, prison, execution hall.
Arriago Baldasarrio and Alessandro Garanova set free each and every man locked away there. When they had shimmied down the rear of the building, they each went their separate ways. All of them but Baldo and Garanova. They remained together all the way off planet, to Io, and not before they paid a visit to the nearest gargoyle, mouth waiting to be fed an incriminating data-stick.
Serrenis had been exposed by an unidentified submission to the secret Archive. The city was undone by so many accounts of corruption and homicide. The Supreme Chancellor, having the onus on his head, promptly had it removed via plasma guillotine.
The city languished, it’s commonwealth a failure. It remained a lure for tourists, but it soon became unsafe to walk the lawless streets (pickpockets, rapists) and then the people stopped coming, only going.
Soon after, the city sank out of the safety of that ever-thin band of oxygen and -- forgotten -- was swallowed by the gaseous giant Jupiter.
Alessandro Garanova, with his penchant for tall tales, published the account of he and Baldo’s escape from Serrenis in a highly sought-after tome entitled: Fuga ed Intrigo in una Terra Straniera. (Escape and Intrigue in a Foreign Land).
They traveled the solar system and were the closest of friends for the remainder of their days.
X X X
The slop door opened in Baldo’s new abode. With the bowl of porridge came a book, the title sloughed off the leather binding long ago. Baldo cracked the spine and a letter dropped to the floor:
I trust you find yourself in a comfortable setting, such as it was for me. The cell you currently occupy was my home for the past two years. Your previous accommodations, the ones I currently reside in, are a wretched place and I see now why you were so indisposed when I first laid eyes upon you. I fear that in a short amount of time, I too will share your grim visage. I can not allow this to happen.
Look for my calling,
- - -
Baldo was woken from sleep three nights after by a voice calling out to him.
“Wake up! Hello there! Wake up!”
Baldo sat bolt upright on the cot. It was too dark to see anything in his cell and, even though he could not remember if he was dreaming or not (he wasn’t) his first instinct was that something had carried over from sleep and startled him into consciousness. There echoed a soft whistle and Baldo looked up.
“Comfortable, hmmm?” The voice was coming from the rafters of Baldo’s cell. “The floor just doesn’t compare to that splendid cot.”
Baldo stood now. “Who’s there?” He croaked. Despite the blissful bed and airy quarters, he was still in bad shape.
The rafters creaked under the weight of someone above.
“I trust you received my letter?” Baldo did not answer. “My name is Alessandro Garanova. What is yours?”
Baldo told the voice from above his name.
“And for what crime are you imprisoned?”
Baldo told him the crime. “But I am an innocent man.”
“Yes, of course you are.”
“You don’t believe me. The voice in the rafters does not believe me.”
“I believe you. Even though you cannot see my face to judge my frankness, I implore you; listen to the cadence in my voice.” He repeated: “I believe you.”
Baldo paused. “And what are you locked away for?”
“Unlawful access to the Archive, they’ll tell you.”
“You lie. Only the Chancellor’s advisors have access to the secret Archive.”
“Ah. And who do you think the advisor’s wives occupy themselves with while their husbands are away? Alessandro Garanova, that’s who.”
If they had been face-to-face, Garanova would have seen Baldo’s raised eyebrow. Instead, his silence was a substitute.
“I am deemed an enemy of the state,” Garanova continued. “I have successfully seduced most all their better halves. Taken them on as lovers, yes. Magnificent, orgiastic encounters you probably would not even be able to imagine. When they are drunk with my virility... I have my way with their husbands’ unlocked offices.” The rafters groaned, satisfied. “So, you see. I’m not only a threat to their sacred nuptuals, but to the very architecture this city is built upon. And let me tell you, my friend. The foundation is weakened. This is why I believe your claims of innocence. With what I know, I would be surprised if any man in captivity here is truly guilty of the crimes he’s been convicted of. I myself can only be considered an adulterer. I did nobody any harm, and stole nothing, besides merely a glance... They are threatened by the information in my head.”
Baldo sat back down on the cot.
“And this information?”
Garanova cleared his throat. “There was one particular circumstance I came across. Perhaps it is much like yours. A man, I forget his name, was a mason for the city, an honest man on paper, at least. He owned property to the north, where they have been expanding the tourist quarters, yes? A swath of canal was to go through the very spot he made his home. Serrenis’ council members had convinced the man’s neighbors to move and he was the last hold-out before they brought in the plasma cutters and all their devilry. He had no family to speak of, no leverage with which to be bribed. He was contented with his artisan profession, and they could not convince him to look for work elsewhere. So the man’s finances were poured over. And even though he had paid his taxes on time and submitted his employment forms well before they were due, this was where he was found to be most vulnerable. Someone, a clerk, an advisor, dare I say a member of the Chancellor’s high court, waltzed down to an informa-port and submitted the man’s name with an addendum of forged financial records and... presto! The man winds up mining the core while his house is bulldozed and progress is paved.”
“I lived in the southern islands. What would they want with my house?”
“I didn’t say this happened to you exactly. Who knows what interests the state has in you or your property?”
“Are you saying they murdered my family to...”
“All I’m saying is that I believe your claims of innocence. I alone do not hold the answers.”
Baldo made fists with his hands, his mind swirling. He could not, for the life of him, wrap his head around what this Garanova was implying. Until now, he had deemed his family’s death a case of malicious, evil intent, the act of a crazed person. The way they were lined up on the bed like that...
“And how do you propose I seek these answers, locked up here, waiting for this storm to pass?”
“You break out of this prison. With my help, of course.”
Baldo sat up on the cot again. “My mind must be playing tricks on me, then. I have imagined a voice in the rafters and this is my final glimpse of sanity before I dive down toward the core of madness.”
Silence from above. Baldo was about to congratulate himself for calling out the specter, sealing up his cracked psyche.
“Is the armoire still against the far wall?”
Baldo’s gaze flitted to the hulking closet through which he had once dreamt of an escape route.
“Go to it,” whispered the voice.
Against his better judgement, Baldo obeyed.
“Can you move it? It is heavy. This is why it remains. Knowing all of the court’s secret motives allows for certain... privileges. Alas, this particular piece will not fit in my new quarters. Well, can you?”
Baldo shoved the thing. It gave the impression of being bolted to the floor. He shoved from the side, but it would not relent. The sounds of his struggles did not go unnoticed.
“Try to shimmy it, from the rear.”
Baldo scooted down, observed the thick legs of the closet. He gripped here and inched the thing away from the back wall. There, carved through the wood beams, was an impression, a breach, a hole. The beginnings of one, anyway. Baldo gasped.
“You see it? Yes. The cell you occupy is the only possible means of escape. There is a passage to the rooftops through the walls. I was making great progress until they decided to transfer me. That wretched Xiomar thought I was living above my means. Well, I made a similar crevice in your old cell, only to find that it buttressed all the others. Either way, the possibility remains. Of escape. You and I.”
Baldo stared at the fissure in the wall for some time. A low wind echoed back at him from the nethers of the prison. After a time, he shoved the armoire back, covering the hole.
He could hear the rafters creak above in anticipation.
“I am sorry. I cannot accept your offer.” Baldo lay back onto the cot. “I have made my peace. Perhaps you should as well.”
Baldo’s night visitor said no more. The rafters were silent.
- - -
Sleep did not come to Arriago Baldasarrio easily that night. Where previously his mind was free from visions, he found himself plagued by a terrible dream--
Baldo stands before the fissure in the wall of his cell, the closet hacked to pieces on the floor by his own doing. After a moment, a hand grasps from the inside of the wall, then another. Both work to pull a figure free from the darkness; Masha, his love.
He cannot understand the state she appears in. Healthy, bright, the most beautiful thing he’s seen in forever; not the gutted skeleton he remembers from before. She stands there, holds her hands to her heart.
“Baldo,” she coos. “How I’ve missed you.”
“What do you want with me?” He can barely breathe.
All she does is smile that bright smile he thought he’d never see again. Masha turns to the hole in the wall, cocks her head. “Have a look for yourself.”
Baldo approaches the breach where a pinhead of light seems to hover before him. As he passes his head, then his shoulders, through the hole, the pinhead blinds him, becomes a spark, then a fire of things to come.
Baldo sees an image of himself, slaving on Jupiter’s core. Worked beyond the threshold of death, toward an empty shell of the person he once was. This mirror image, much like the one he feared gazing upon from the palace chamber, frightened him beyond any capacity for fear he thought possible in the human psyche. If his mind was not broken now, this viable future-self was evidence that it would be soon. Baldo’s vision continued as a dark cloud rose behind his doppelgänger, went unnoticed as he chipped away at worthless rock. The cloud undulated toward him like a great wall. The second-Baldo was evaporated in a pink mist, wiped from the memory of existence by an unstoppable wind--
Baldo woke, drenched in sweat. It was Masha who convinced him. He stood, removed a page from the back of the book Garanova had slipped him, and began to write with lose piece of carbon filing.
- - -
I regret refusing your offer. Please allow me to assist you in any way possible.
- - -
Ho! My savior and good-luck charm! You cannot imagine the jubilation that is coursing through me while writing this. We are but feet from each other, yet we are reduced to writing on paper like our forefathers! How dull-witted is the guard who delivers books between us? He must think you a voracious reader indeed!
Here is my (and your’s, now) plan to escape:
1. In three days time, so as not to arouse suspicion, you will receive a large book from me. Hidden in said book’s spine will be a plasma cutter I had previously smuggled here inside my favorite gilded chair.
2. You will need to tunnel further with the cutter. It carries a weak charge, so this will take you some time. The progress I have made myself took almost a full year.
3. When you are finished (you will know this to be the case because the wood paneling should give way to a metal air duct. Cut through this as well and we will have access to the rooftops where we shall flee) return the plasma cutter to my cell via the same novel. I will then use it to enter your cell at the time of our escape.
4. Regarding said time. I have long thought the first day our grand city is blessed with sunlight would be a proper date. This, in four months time, should give you an ample stretch in which to work. Most of the citizens will have their gazes focused on the sun and we will have a much easier time. It must be this day, when their irises are not yet adjusted to the light, that we make our breakout.
Stay focused and work with gusto. Forget your past life, and the one here in limbo, and your future will await you once you are free.
Mere paces from you,
- - -
Upon receipt of the plasma cutter, Baldo was consumed with a sense of purpose he barely had a memory of. Slowly chipping away at the wood with the knife (a low charge indeed), the feeling reminded him of his endeavors in the piazza. He was making a bargain with the very walls of this prison. Release me and you will never have to see me again, was the wager.
Baldo’s dreams of Masha subsided. She had done her part at convincing him. He was glad his last picture was of her whole and perfect, not torn and broken on their bed, bookended by their children.
He turned his tortured mind to other things in the tedium. Nights were occupied instead by the small flame of the plasma knife and frequent visits by Garanova in the rafters. Baldo could tell from the sound of his guest’s voice that the confines of the cell he’d previously lived in (the mites, the stale air) were taking their toll.
“If you can manage, will you tell me about your wife?” Garanova asked him one night. He seemed to want to occupy himself with far off thoughts.
Baldo stopped cutting. With the low flame extinguished he sat in the darkness of his cell.
“I can remember the first time I laid eyes on her. I had come to Serrenis looking for work and the first landmark I set out for was Zulé bridge.”
“The sun was just... golden over the city. It blinded me for a moment and I had to look away. When my eyes adjusted and I returned my gaze to the same spot, there she was. Blocking out the sun, casting a cool shadow over me. And I just...”
The rafters were silent for a time.
“In all my travels,” Garanova continued, “this is the one thing I was deficient in. I tell you, I’ve been to nearly every planet in the solar system. I spent quite a bit of time on Mars, seducing martian women, as it were. But I never had what you speak of. A woman, to cast her shadow-spell over me. I haven’t a use for it.”
“Perhaps, now you do.”
The room fell silent and, after a time, Baldo returned to the carving out of their passageway.
- - -
By the time Baldo reached the metal duct that would lead them to the roof, the days had already begun to illuminate the sliver of stained-glass in his cell. Not bright enough to see by, mind you, but a reminder of the coming light and their dwindling calendar. Baldo worked with haste to slice through the vent and when he peeled the copper back he felt a rush of fresh air over his cheek. He gulped the stuff greedily down into his lungs for as long as he could stand it, then returned the armoire to cover the hole.
- - -
End Part 3.
Baldo, as his friends had come to call him, remembered very clearly the events of that evening, even though they had passed more than ten months prior.
He had returned from the market where he sold his trinkets to space tourists, come to Jupiter to see Serrenis in all its splendor. To gaze upon rows of carbon-blown glass (for a price!), to ride the gonds through the vapor canals. Serrenis saw the dark side of the planet for thirteen months, and was in the sun for only three. It was this precious span of time when business boomed and Baldo was there to reap a harvest for his family. He sold figurines, small sculptures of Serrenis’ landmarks. The leaning tower, the polka-dotted gond operators, the white marble palace he now found himself imprisoned in.
How they liked to bargain. There were guidebooks published that said the local merchants reveled in such exchanges; this was not actually the case. An attempt to talk down the price of a kerchief or a silken tie was usually met with a grunt or, in some cases a terse “No,” then the presentation of the merchant’s back, a sign to seek business elsewhere. Baldo, perhaps ahead of the curve, saw an opportunity here. Where others (the Gypsy woman who often set her kiosk next to his, for example) would turn down a sale due to an overzealous tourist, Baldo relished in taking the opportunity to peddle his wares. Make the husband from Ganymede think he was doing himself some sort of service. It was the day-to-day, the coming and going of the tourists that Baldo found satisfying, not necessarily making the highest profit in the piazza. Other merchants took note -- Baldo often had the most crowded kiosk -- but a part of their dignity would have been lost along with the few dollars they’d sacrifice in a bargain. Baldo, like a gentleman, never met the Gypsy woman’s gaze after parting with a tourist fulfilled, for that would have given away his own sense of enjoyment. Instead, he kept to himself.
He did not live in Serrenis proper, but instead on one of its outlying islands. Most of the population of the city center was tourist-based. The actual residents could not afford the high prices of the city so most worked as hoteliers, waiters, merchants, like Baldo. And at the end of every day they would take inventory, close their kiosks, and make their way home for the night, only to return the next day and continue their wholesaling. Baldo took a vapor taxi half an hour out of the city.
His home was less than modest, but with three children and a wife who couldn’t work because they could not afford to send the kids to school, this was all he could offer them. Baldo was often struck by his own lack of monetary gain when it came to his neighbors, his friends. He didn’t have the fortitude or the confidence to change professions (he’d tried, for one day, to operate a gond but the results were as close to disastrous as one could come). Like many others living off the peak season in Serrenis, he resigned himself to the lower strata he was born into. Baldo’s father, grandfather, great grandfather, all the rest, were merchants. The game of buying and selling was the stuff that coursed through him; his very life-blood.
Baldo noticed the setting sun behind the ramshackle apartment he called home before he noticed the open front gate. The fact that he didn’t need to undo the latch and nudge the thing open with his thigh didn’t occur to him until everything was already said and done. Had it given him pause then, would he have turned and gone back the way he came?
No, the first real sign of things to come was the bottom door pane, cracked open, the security latch dangling in front of it. Forced entry, to be sure. And the beeping.
When Baldo found the front door unlocked, the rational part of his brain became overwhelmed by the more emotional, animal part. The part that screamed out for Masha and the kids; the part that jumbled his words before they made their way to his lips so they only came out as moans; the part he wished had kicked in at the unlatched front gate. Still, that beeping from beyond.
Baldo made his way into the kitchen, where utensils were scattered across the floor like a painting he’d once seen. The beeping from the oven, declaring to nobody that whatever was inside desperately needed to be extracted. This was Baldo’s first task. He shut the oven off (silenced the beeping) and opened her up to a gust of black smoke from whatever Masha had prepared, now burned beyond digestibility. He singed his hands on the pot taking it out.
He did manage to croak, “Masha!” amidst the smoke. He was stifled by a coughing fit, then he set off toward the dining room where the radio wall was also on. He shut that off and paused, hands trembling from the rush of adrenaline, listening to the sounds of his home. Absolutely silent. So he climbed the stairs, strewn with glass from a vase in the upstairs hallway. Dirt and plant debris fell under his boots as he stomped up two-by-two.
A pounding in his ears. Bathroom; empty. The children’s room; empty (was that blood on the carpet -- yes, that was blood, quietly drying, on the carpet). The one room left, he and Masha’s bedroom, the last place he looked (always the last place) was where he found them. Lined up, neatly arranged on the mattress, stripped bare for some reason. Quiet, like the rest of the house.
- - -
There was too much to remember after that. So much that Baldo was still missing great big pieces of it, even ten months later. Had he called the police? Yes. Had they come immediately? Yes. Did he spend hours recounting for them? Yes. Did they believe a single word of his story? No.
There was one shattering moment for Baldo that came the very instant he was convicted of three counts of murder in the court of the Supreme Chancellor. All the advisors were there, each from the tiny islands that made up Serrenis. The Supreme Chancellor himself was at the center of it all, sitting higher than the rest on his gilded throne. He even made eye contact with Baldo several times.
“Your honor, I would like to remind the court that Seniori Baldasarrio was seen by three, I say three, eyewitnesses leaving the piazza du San Argo--”
The Gypsy woman, now Baldo’s foe, pursed her lips at the prosecutor's gesticulations.
“--who all, remember, saw him leave that very piazza at least half an hour before six, much earlier than normal. I will remind the court, his Honor, of Seniori Baldasarrio’s outstanding tax debts, made public by anonymous submission to the Archive. This illuminates a clear motive, as the death of his family would have made him eligible to have his finances become a burden of this very city-state. That is a gift we do not grant under the pretense of murder.”
A nod of the Supreme Chancellor’s head, just the faintest of motions, signaled for his advisors to adjourn, to converse. But there was little discussion. A textbook fraud, in the eyes of the committee. There had been numerous attempts in the past, countless ones to come.
Baldo was sentenced very soon thereafter. The rest of his life delegated to the mines on Jupiter’s core; a life not worth living, regardless of how short it would be. The core was a wasteland, an in-between world where heaven was smote by the darkness of toxic vapors and thousand-mile an hour gusts that could evaporate a man. Baldo was surely condemned to death disguised as a fair sentence.
The palace guards were quick to escort Baldo out of the courtroom (there was nobody there to mourn his conviction) and through an antechamber into a larger room that seemed to have no exit other than the door they had entered from. The floor was a checkerboard optical illusion, giving any visitor the impression that they might be falling. Lest they look up, where a mural of angelic extraterrestrials touching palms and descending from one of Jupiter’s tempests above -- a calming image that had no such effect on Baldo. Instead, he concerned himself with a large reflecting mirror, with two wardrobes, great big looming closets, that stood on either side of it.
All he saw was the haggard face of Arriago Baldasarrio; once merchant, husband, father. Now, convicted murderer. Was this hunched image of himself to be his last? Were there mirrors that could judge as harshly where he was going? Were there even mirrors there at all?
This shattering moment came when one of the wardrobes lurched open and a palace guard emerged from within, from the rear where an inky blackness stood in place of the wood paneling.
Baldo was summoned by this guard, and another who appeared from the shadows. At first he thought the whole scheme to be an optical illusion (Wake up, Baldo, your eyes are playing tricks on you!) But he adjusted his point of view as he slowly stepped toward the gaping wardrobe, the light from the window behind him bloomed, and the path before him was illuminated. A staircase, cut from stone, made a steep ascent into the upper reaches of the palace walls. He climbed the stairs and, as the wardrobe behind him sealed off any light from the palace proper, Baldo’s entire impression of Serrenis, it’s people, and the way they had been governed through the ages was dashed against any semblance of hope.
- - -
Ten months had passed since. In that time, Baldo had became aware of many other secrets that the palace was hiding.
It seemed Baldo’s doom was hovering before him. The people of Serrenis, precariously situated on that ribbon of breathable air, were also at the mercy of Jupiter’s variant weather conditions. Such was the great storm impeding Baldo’s descent to the core. A pink, swirling thing that caused the poison clouds beneath Serrenis to funnel, giving the impression that the entire city, glistening mechanisms and all, could be swallowed whole at any moment.
So he waited...
And in this waiting, Baldo’s emotions betrayed him. He utterly lost his sense of what was real and what he might be imagining out of thin air. The staircase leading impossibly up was one thing, but what it lead to was quite another.
In the piazza, in his previous life, Baldo sold small trinkets of the city, carved from wood by his own hand during the dark months. Subsequently, he had studied all of the landmarks the tourists paid good money to see. The leaning tower, it’s undulating roof, it’s graduated arches. Zulé bridge, sloped like a mountain, golden edifices gleaming. The Supreme Chancellor’s palace, in all its splendor, was the hardest to reproduce with a paring knife; it required most of his attention. Some days he would have his lunch and a stroll, observing the building from afar. He would toss the wrapping Masha had placed his sandwich in, then walk painfully close up to the stone walls. He knew the façade of the entrance so well (118 steps), knew the number of stained carbon windows by heart (38 in all). Baldo watched with great curiosity as members of the Supreme Chancellor’s court came and went, discussing matters of Serrenis’ economy, how to properly irrigate its canals. He would lean close as they exited the palace, but always their conversation eluded him. Baldo was fascinated by what they did inside, how they kept Serrenis a well-oiled machine, a stand-out from most of the other Jupiterian settlements, spoiled embarrassments to the Republic of Planets writ large.
He remembered his fine attention to detail as the palace guards marched him up the stone staircase that first time. He could see out of one of the 38 stained glass windows as the stairs cut their path behind it, the colorful frontage masking the very passage he was taking.
The stairs led to a sweltering chamber where Baldo was processed, stripped of his civilian clothes, shaved of his hair. Even here, Baldo could see several of the refined glass windows, their yellows, reds and greens casting shadows on the room like a kaleidoscope. From the outside they were simply decorations, ornate masks worn by this secret boudoir.
Baldo was led higher yet, toward the very rafters of the palace, where he first heard the screams of the other prisoners. Past an auditorium, built from wood beams, where a man was fastened to a block of stone by a set of ropes bolted to a pulley system above. Another shirtless man, his oppressor, yanked the ropes in time with muffled questions, drowned out by the cries of the poor mortal. What had this man done to deserve such torture? Had he killed his entire family? Surely not, for Baldo did not recognize him from any of the circulated radio images (of which he himself had become a fixture of lately). Baldo trembled as he was led past, imagining horrible tortures far worse than this that awaited him. And it was not by accident that he was privy to this particular chamber. Was every prisoner forced to take this Walk of Fear upon first arriving?
His walk culminated in Baldo’s first encounter with Luccio Xiomar, a thin rail of a man dressed in worn leather. Baldo was presented to him within a metal chamber, where an open transport pod stood waiting. Xiomar was positioned fiddling with the controls, observing the weather conditions beneath the city.
“You belong in this,” he said, his voice all phlegm and sputum. He presented the transport pod that would take Baldo directly to the core, shoot him through the atmosphere at who knew what kind of speeds. Xiomar laughed.
“But, for the time being, this planet sees fit that you stay right where you are. Do you know where you are?”
Baldo shook his head.
“You are arrived at the house of truth. My house.”
Xiomar wafted his hands at the guards who removed Baldo from the mechanical chamber and toward his waiting cell.
- - -
The House of Truth.
Baldo couldn’t get it out of his head. Even after he’d been led to the waist-high door, practically had to crawl on all fours to enter the putrid cavity he’d call home, scurried like a rodent away from the husky guards into a cloud of mites that took to his skin like magnetic filings, Xiomar’s edict rang through his head. As the terrible bugs began to feast on his sun-smoothed skin, Baldo’s mind cracked and a vision plagued him:
--Baldo stands in his children’s bedroom and calls out to them. At present, he cannot remember their names. They come nevertheless. He does not greet them with open arms but instead with the dagger he uses to carve landmarks and make a living. The youngest watches as blood pours from her brother. Baldo does not hesitate and spills her blood, also, onto the carpet. Dreadful silence. He moves into the bedroom and scoops out Masha’s throat with the same knife, still warm from the blood of their two beautiful children. The silence of their house fills his ears like a circus. Baldo begins the task of arranging them on their bed--
But then he swam back from the vision, gulped at lungfulls of the thick air around him as the door to his cell slammed home. Baldo knew the vision to be false, a lie perpetuated by the state. He did not know the reason, nor was he likely to find out, locked up here. So, the months crawled onward.
- - -
“Today. Is moving day.” Xiomar smiled, hunkered down, his face appearing in between the metal slats on Baldo’s cell door. “No trouble from you, right?”
By now, Baldo’s skin had crusted over from the mites, his left eye a constant state of infection and wormy puss; he could barely open it. He was kept in solitary confinement save for a bath once every other week. The summer months had passed and the thought of the shadowy corridors outside the palace (prison, torture chamber) did nothing to help his cloistered state of mind. Darkness was all he knew, for now.
The guards entered and helped Baldo stand, something he couldn’t do without having to cock his head to the side due to the low ceiling. As he did this, and Xiomar undid the latch to the door,
Baldo caught his first glimpse of the man he would come to know as Alessandro Garanova, skewed by the Dutch angle of his gaze.
They locked eyes for a moment as Baldo was led out. He could see this mysterious man’s glistening, perfect skin, his bright eyes. In comparison, he looked nothing like Baldo. Healthy, fresh-faced, even well-fed. Baldo squinted at him, the man nodded back, then was forced into the retched space Baldo had called home for the past ten months.
Baldo was led down a corridor of cells, past haggard men much like himself, some reduced to sobbing. At the end of the hall was a full-sized door that stood ajar. Men were moving ornate furniture into the hallway, carrying a gilded chair back the way he came. Xiomar personally ushered Baldo into his new cell, a full-sized room with a portion of one of the 38 stained glass windows visible through the interior wall. There was a massive armoire that stood against the far wall and looked immovable. A soft breeze lapped against Baldo’s scabbed-over cheek. A heavily barred transom window opposite was the source. There were no pestering swarms of mites to be seen.
“Consider yourself lucky,” Xiomar said. “You went from the worst to the best, just like that!”
There was even a mattress to sleep on. Baldo turned to meet Xiomar’s gaze with his one good eye, but the jailer had already exited. All Baldo got was a glimpse of his cell door closing, ever closing.
He moved to the transom and let the cool breeze wash over his face, feeling for the first time the thick shell of despair that had been his burden begin to slough away.
On a whim, Baldo opened the wooden armoire, half expecting to see another secret staircase, this one leading to freedom. Instead, he found the back to be a dark grain of wood, thick and lifeless to the touch.
- - -
End Part 2.
There was a storm brewing high in the stratosphere of Jupiter. It would not be a storm to remember, nor one to fear, but it was tempestuous in its inception. Whisps of grey-green mist swirled, wrung out from the sky like a great rope, frayed strand by strand. And the wind, the wind. Gusts of it corkscrewed down through the layers of ethane, hydrogen sulfide, and phosphine toward a thin, ever shifting stratum of oxygen where sat the city-state of Serrenis, floating like a dream amidst the vapor.
- - -
The stranger stepped from the gond, onto the slick cobblestones of the piazza. The amonia rain made it impossible to traverse the square without a slicker. His chimed to him that he was entering hazardous conditions, but he paid it no mind. The message must be dispatched. The stranger would do anything to accomplish this. He pulled his slicker tight, hunkered through the deserted square.
It was one thing to walk the corridors of Serrenis, quite another to know them intimately. The stranger sometimes thought that the forefathers of the city intentionally laid out the most circuitous of routes on purpose. One could easily get lost among the twisty-turny passages, through the vapor canals on which the city floated. The stranger, however, knew these alleyways better than anybody.
He moved with purpose toward the other end of the piazza, scattering a flock of doe-pigeons, wings like obsidian, just about the only living things around when it rained. They fluttered away, nested in one of the cupolas over the archway the stranger was headed for. As he hurried under their perch, he wondered to himself if the birds knew his secret.
He passed, unnoticed, over one of the hundreds of bridges arched like a frightened cat. He thought he saw a figure in an open window high above. The thick globules of rain and the gathering fog obscured the stranger’s view, but he hurried on nevertheless. Head down. Slicker taut. Nobody could know he had come this way (the reason for his venture in the storm) and the stranger would like to get on thinking that this was the case. Even if it were not.
He came to a three-way fork in the alleyway. Ahead, to a smaller piazza. Left, toward rows of shuttered shops. Right, toward his destination.
It was like all the other informa-ports scattered throughout Serrenis. Sculpted into the rock, a gargoyle, a face pressing through the façade like a ghost through a bedsheet. Horns, reptilian eyes, a gaping, pronged mouth for any passer-by to submit to. An anonymous line that lead directly to the Supreme Chancellor's court. Whatever information passed through that cement maw, meant only for eyes in the highest office of the land, was to be certified, fact-checked before submission. For a wrongful proffering was worth nothing and, consequently, punishable. Not by death, but something financially akin to it. This was why he could never be seen. The stranger was about to submit information he could not personally vouch for. He was but a messenger, the data his way out of monetary woes that had plagued him since before he could remember.
It was necessary to remove one of his gloves in order to retrieve the data stick. As soon as he did, the slicker belted more warnings at him. He ignored them and worked quickly. As he pulled the small plastic piece from within, a bead of rain landed with a HISSS! onto the back of his hand. He gritted through the pain, knowing it would be an angry reminder of his deed here today. He slipped the data stick into the gargoyle’s mouth, quickly returned the glove to his hand and marched back through the deserted alleyway. The stranger could see the merciless clouds above begin to dissipate and rays of far-away sunlight stream through. As if his deed today had been washed away by the withrawing lambency, scorched clean by the harsh precipitation.
- - -
The data packet passed through the city’s nest of wires and reinforced fiber-optics. Down through years of metal, laid upon ages of exposed technology keeping the city from being sucked into the abyss. It was the underside of Serrenis that bore the most incredible view of Jupiter’s depths. On a clear day, some said, you could even see through to the planet’s rocky core, exposed like a stone smoothed by millennia in a river of venomous gas and poison rain.
The information zipped up, diagonally through the city’s core processor and was sorted by way of the Chancellor’s court. There, it was fed into a grouping bin, blinking, waiting for one of the court’s minions to unfurl the packet and read the name it bore in its first line of decree:
- - -
End Part 1.
Hello, and thanks for choosing Kill Club, the premier provider of bespoke in-home murder kits delivered right to your door. Recommend a friend at get a 10% discount on your next delivery!
This murder: Home Invasion. Difficulty Level: Intense
Electronic voice changer
Heavy workman boots
1. PREPARE YOUR LOCATION: Pick a home on a secluded street, preferably one where a helpless family lives. We recommend staking out the location for at least a week before the murders in order to get a sense of the family’s habits. During this time it is also recommend that you alter the animal mask by spraying it one uniform color.
2. ENGAGE IN PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE: When the family is least expecting it, insert yourself into the mundane moments in their life. Call the house repeatedly and use a combination of heavy breathing as well as mysterious threats by way of the voice disguiser. Let them catch your reflection in a mirror, or see you standing across the street doing nothing but watching. Be careful not to give them any reason to flee or call the authorities at this point. This is merely a warm up for what’s to come. Reduce your chance of getting caught by eliminating any animals on the premises, severing the power to any motion detectors, alarms, and land line telephones. (PLEASE NOTE: Always keep your animal mask on through parts 2-6).
3. STRIKE and RESTRAIN: Once the family has been sufficiently drained by the emotional stress of knowing someone is waiting and watching, it’s time to strike. Dip a handkerchief in chloroform and hold it over each victim’s mouth for ten to twenty seconds. Be sure to take out the strongest member first and work your way down from there. Once you have them subdued, set to restraining them with the rope as shown in the figure below. Arrange family members in a circle atop the tarp. Be sure to destroy any cellular phones or any other devices that could be used to alert the authorities.
4. DEAL WITH ANY UNWANTED AUTHORITIES: In the event that one or more family members was able to contact the authorities, deal with first responders accordingly. Ideally, let your victims believe that they have been saved, using them as bait, and strike at the very moment they have let hope override their fear. Use the first responders’ radio to let their dispatch know that all is well, then destroy said radio equipment. If no authorities have been alerted, skip this step and move on to #5.
5. KILL: This can be done in any number of ways, but a swift slit of the throat with the machete is preferred for dramatic effect. A jab to the heart will be more subdued, and will also allow you to control splatter. No matter how you decide to do it, have fun -- it’s the only way to cement yourself as a member of KillClub! We recommend standing over each family member in order to watch the life slip from their eyes.
6. DISMEMBER: Congratulations! You’ve got dead bodies to deal with. Sever the limbs of the bodies with the machete, taking care not to spill blood off the large tarp. Once the bodies are fully dismembered, wrap up the tarp with the remaining rope or duct tape and dispose of your victims in a secluded area away from authorities.
We hope you enjoyed your KillClub! experience.
Connect with us on Twitter and Instagram: @_KillClub. We love to see what our killers cook up.
NEXT MONTH’S KILL: Chainsaw massacre!
Hey, how you doing?
I’m Art, I’ll be your driver.
You alright back there, buddy? You want some water? There are some bottles in the console here. Gum? You need to charge your phone before you hit the flight? Course you don’t.
You look like a seasoned traveler to me. I can tell. You want to know a trick I just heard about? You like to drink when you fly? Okay, okay, I gotta ask, don’t want to offend people. Anyway -- what I heard was: you can bring all the booze you want on a flight. Would you believe it? The TSA, they made the liquid limit 3.4 ounces. How I know that? My son, he works security at Newark, terminal C. TSA for about three years now. Damn proud of him. Hey you see a good looking kid named Chris, he’s got a goatee, you tell him his pops says he should call him back... ungrateful schnook! Anyway, he’s a smart guy. He told me those little single serving bottles, you see ‘em in the little baskets in liquor stores -- well, 3.4 ounces exactly. They’re like a buck a pop. Airline charges, what, like 5, 6 dollars for a drink? You roll up through security with a handful of those things... 3.4 ounces, TSA can’t touch ‘em. And you’re gonna have a good flight my friend. A real good flight.
I been driving a long, long time. My day job, I sold cars down in Weehawken. Yeah, but I got out of that about four years back. The money’s no good no more! These car dealerships, they don’t incentivize the salesmen. It used to be a people job, you know, talking, shooting the shit. Then, hey, sure I’ll sell you this car. Your wife wants one? How old’s your kid? Cuz he’s gonna need one soon. Maybe your kid’s a she. Whatever. You call Art. But now, it’s just a numbers game. Yeah, I had to get out of there. I’m all about people you know. Hey, you from around here? Take my number down. It’s 973-727-9451. You need a ride anywhere, any time, you call Art. I’m serious. 3 in the morning, you’re in bad shape, you call me. I’ll be there faster than a cab. I do it all the time.
What’s that? Me? No, I’m not that busy. Everyone else is busy! It’s almost Christmas. Tell you the truth, really, though, you’re my first customer. Yes sir, you are the first ride hired at Art’s Livery. Can you believe it? Hey, how’d you hear about us? See? I told you my kid was smart. It was his idea to make one of those Facebook pages. Huh? Ah, you’re a good listener my friend. That goes a long way with the ladies -- eh? I did say I’d been driving for a while. Nearly 20 years, you know. But you are the very first customer of this particular limosine service. I used to be with Catena Livery. No, no, of course you haven’t heard of it. Catena’s. Yeah it’s closed now. Ray’s done.
But like I said, I been driving for around twenty years and let me say one thing that you won’t hear any guys like me saying to their clients -- driving is hard work. I’m sure you’ve taken long car trips before, you know. But every day is like one long car trip for me. You have to concentrate on the road. You have to be aware at all times. Anything could go wrong. Now, a guy like Ray Catena, he had a whole fleet of guys like me. He’d rotate us around, make sure we didn’t work more than 12 hours. 12 on, 12 off. That was his rule. I was so good when I started, man. I had people calling Catena just to request me. He says to me, what kinda racket you running, huh, Art? You selling drugs or something? I says, Ray, no, I’m just good with people. I talk to them, I listen to them. What’d I do right when you got in here, huh? I gave you my number. Go ahead, call it. Whatever. I do that for every person I drive. And I’ve gotten those calls man. I’ve gotten them at 3, 4 in the morning. “I want Art. Get me Art.” I never ask for anything in return. I guess the price you pay is listening to me talk, talk -- on and on.
This one woman, uh, well on second thought, are you busy? No, I mean I don’t want to bore you or anything. I can appreciate that, sure. Okay. Well, if you’re sure you want to hear me ramble -- there was this woman, Mrs. Shaw. She was a real upper crust woman, I used to drive she and her husband back and forth to their penthouse in New York out to the country in Far Hills, Chester area. Anyway, her husband died about 10 years ago, but he lived a full life. She was all alone. I kept driving her, she was still a nice woman. One day, I start to notice her mind’s going. She can’t remember things, she’s getting frustrated all the time. I stopped seeing her for a little while, but then I get this call from her daughter, Marianne -- inviting me over for dinner. She says her mother’s been asking for me, she won’t shut up. “I want Art,” she’s been saying. So I go over for dinner -- and there’s Mrs. Shaw. She got no friggin’ idea who any of these people are, her own family, but as soon as I walk in the door, she remembers me. She gives me a big hug, she asks me all about my son. Her family’s amazed. Her daughter starts crying, she’s so happy. She starts paying me to do nothing but drive her mother around, running errands with her, just talking. They thought she got better around me, but the truth was she just remembered me. Mrs. Shaw still struggled with everything else. It was hard. The one good thing that came out of this was Marianne. She and I became real close. I’d drop Mrs. S off at her house, she goes for a nap. It started over coffee, then moved to kissing. Ah-ha, I told you I’m a people person, man! Yeah, she’s got a kid from another marriage too. He and Chris get along real well too. It was going good.
Then, one night, she calls me -- Mrs. Shaw. She never called me. It was always Marianne. But she was really upset, she was really confused. She kept asking me to take her to Marianne, and I explained how late it was, etcetera.
She was really going through something, like a panic attack or something. I could hear it in her voice. It was time to get her some real help. And I was close enough with the family to be honest with them. So I called Mare, finally get her on the phone, she’d been sleeping. And she agrees. But she also asks me to bring her over, her kid’s sick, otherwise she would have gone.
Now. I’d just worked a shift for Ray, this was about this time last year. You know, it was crazy. I was real tired. Bone tired. But I’d do anything for this woman, you know. I tell Mare how tired I am. She asks me if I think I can make it -- the drive’s about 45 minutes to 1 hour round trip. “You can pass out here.” And I thought about it real hard. I’d done that drive so many times I’d lost count. So I made a judgement call and said yes.
I shoulda called the shop, had Ray send someone else out there. But he woulda charged her account. I thought she was confused enough as it was. She needed me. So I went over there, and I was okay for that leg, I didn’t fall asleep or nothing. And she recognized me when I knocked on the door. She smiled at me. She seemed alright, to be honest, with a familiar face around.
Anyway, I got Mrs. Shaw into the car and we head out. And I’m just so tired, my man. Because driving is hard work. I dozed off. When I came to, Mrs. S was screaming and we were headed into a ditch. Skidded right off the side of the road. The car rolled seven times. I broke my arm. This one. Mrs. S... we got her to the hospital, we sure did. She died three days later. Head trauma, they said. There was nothing they could do.
Yeah, it was pretty rough. First, I got in all sorts of trouble for driving the company car when I was off the clock. They’re liable in this case. Ray, he had to let me go. It was about to get real bad, but Mare, she decided not to press charges or anything. It was an honest mistake. She blamed herself as much as me. We don’t talk no more.
What’s that? Oh, hey, I’m fully rested and caffeinated my friend. You got nothing to worry about. Look at me when I say this and tell me if you think I’m lying -- I’ll never make that mistake again in my life. What happened was that, Catena, he got hit bad by the insurance. It got out about what I’d done. Words were passed, and his business took a dive. Perception is everything, you know. I wish it had been different. Some people, they’ll tell you Ray’s shop was on the decline, that this was just the nail in the coffin. And there’s some truth to that. The world’s changing, with Uber and whatnot. We’re all just trying to stay afloat. What’s that? How’d I get this going? Oh, well with my own spit and polish. I know it’s going to be hard, but I’m up for the task, man. I’m good at this because I love it.
What airline? You bet, terminal C. What time? Oh, you got plenty, man. Take your time, get something to eat... Here we are, buddy.
Hey, just one second. Thanks for letting me share that with you. That means a lot. You know, you being my first customer and all -- let me get this ride. Nah, nah, come on. What’d I say? You’re dealing with a former car salesman here. There will be no negotiation, my friend. It’s on me. Yeah, but you get on Yelp and write a review or something, tell your friends.
You got my number. Just call Art.
Originally performed live at The Spoken Word, New York City, July 25th, 2016.
In 1924, in Paris, France, three great artists carefully staged a new opera entitled Danse de Nuit, or Night Dance. The Russian choreographer collaborated with the German composer who recruited his wife, to play the lead part, so beautiful was her voice. The opera was performed flawlessly. However, upon the finale, during the rapturous applause, an interdimensional portal to hell was opened inside the grand Palais Garnier. It would not be the last time such an event occurred.
The composer always waited for the sweet sound of applause before taking his place for curtain call. From behind the curtain, the audience’s clapping and cheers suddenly drew inward, the entire theater draped in a hushed silence. He stormed through the curtain, sensing something was wrong. The composer’s eyes betrayed him.
The entire audience was on fire, their heads great jack-o-lanterns of white-hot pain and suffering. The center of the auditorium had collapsed into a glowing red sink hole, taking half the seats with it. A blood-red harpee crawled out of the chasm, flew into the air, and landed on the composer’s head. As the creature plucked his eyes from their sockets and began to eat them, dozens more of the winged creatures emerged and descended on the line of performers. The entire cast was dismembered and maimed. Then, a great rumble echoed from the hole in the auditorium as a humongous, horned monster rose up.
“I am Abaddon, angel of the bottomless pit! Who dare summon me?” he asked. Abaddon, a great and powerful beast, declared that her would bow to whoever was responsible for his summoning and call them his master.
The choreographer and the dancer stared at the composer’s maimed body and said nothing. The creature snatched them both up and gobbled them down in one gulp. Then the great Abaddon retreated into his bottomless pit, the throngs of harpies following after. The theater burned, there were no survivors, and the Parisians mourned the loss of so many.
Scholars of the arts lamented the supposed genius of the opera and longed for it to be performed again. Extensive notes on the staging of Danse de Nuit were kept, and they were able to recreate the Opera perfectly.
So on the anniversary of the Paris tragedy, the opera was revived, this time on the great stage in Vienna. Tickets to the show were nearly impossible to get, with throngs of people showing up simply to wait outside. From the street, they could hear the final drum beat crescendo, signaling the end of the opera. Applause, then an absence of noise as the ornate stone facade of the theater crumbled and Abbadon lurched forth, his great black horns steaming in the night air.
“I am Abaddon, angel of the bottomless pit!” And again he asked: “Who dare summon me?”
The mayor of Vienna stepped forth and claimed himself Abaddon’s master, but the creature smashed him into jelly with his palm and screamed “Liar!” He scooped scores more into his gaping fanged mouth, gulping them down like ripe fruit. With nobody left to claim responsibility for his summoning, Abbadon retreated again into the pit, leaving Vienna to burn. The story spread far and wide, even making headlines in the united states. “Opera of Death?” asked the New York Times. Inevitably, the people only craved more.
In 1943 Hitler staged a performance in Berlin. It was widely believed to be an assassination attempt and the death toll numbered in the thousands. Many survivors claimed that Abbadon, the star of the show, barely made an appearance. While his harpy army reaped all the spoils, survivors insisted that the great horned beast looked rather bored and retreated into the great pit soon after being summoned.
On New Years Day, 1950, in Chicago, the opera was staged beneath a great glass dome which had been blessed by clergy from seven different religions. The orchestra performed with precision, their heads exploding in unison upon playing the final notes. The performers were decimated when Abbadon unleashed a stream of molten fire from the center of his chest, vaporizing many in an instant. Upon discovering the glass barrier, the demon became enraged, banging his fists against it. Abaddon could not escape and he snarled at the thousands of people who had come to gawk at the great and powerful angel of the bottomless pit.
“Who dare summon me!?” He screamed yet again.
Several people attempted to claim responsibility, but Abbadon denounced them all as liars.
Just before he was to return to his pit, a young woman approached the glass and placed her hand there. She explained that no one person was the author of Danse de Nuit, and that each time the demon was summoned, in fact, dozens of people were responsible. Singers, musicians, the nice young man who operated the spotlight. Abbadon did not fully understand, and decried that he was being made to suffer each time he was summoned to the surface world. For without a single master, he was useless. He could not be a servant to many. “Cease calling upon me, lest humanity suffer for eternity!” he bellowed.
The young girl explained that there was no way to ensure the performances were going to stop -- the opera had been copied many times over. Abbadon proclaimed that humanity had made a mockery of his power, reduced him to nothing but a cursed curiosity. He was Abbadon, angel of the bottomless pit! Fear him and despair!
Someone in the audience muttered, “Isn’t he in a mood?”
Abbadon began to chant a spell. He grew in size ten-fold and finally burst through the top of the glass dome. He stormed the city, crushing everything in his path, reducing Chicago to dust. Abbadon stormed across the globe, searching for any and all copies of Danse de Nuit. The creature seemed drawn to them, and many people believed he was using some heightened ability, the way a dog can hear frequencies humans cannot. Copies of the show... they were calling the great beast. Armies around the world attempted to fight back, but his power was too great. Cities burned and many souls were stolen to the great pit below. Finally, after weeks of destruction, Abbadon declared that he had rid the world of the ability to summon him. He would prefer if they left him to dwell peacefully in the lake of fire. Before he crawled back from whence he came, he surveyed the destruction he had caused. Abbadon rejoiced for the first time in ages and the pit closed up with a great churning of the earth.
Humanity cursed those they once lauded. They who first opened the door and invited the beast. Rebuilding the world would take many years. Such a lesson was the coming of Abbadon, that generations began to pass down the story as a cautionary tale. Then it became a tale of almost unbelievable proportions and, as children were born who knew nothing, curiosity set in. Abbadon had indeed destroyed every copy of the opera he could find. But surely there might be a way to piece it back together again. To remake it, to do justice to the original and yet find new meaning in such an old and well-worn story.
There have been whispers of an underground performance of Danse de Nuit, of a secret location, of tickets selling out in minutes.
And people are willing to sell their soul for a seat.
For Philip K. Dick.
There was a professor who, one summer away from University, decided to build a mechanical fly. He labored for days attaching its wings and legs and eyes -- and finally brought it to life with a fateful zap of electricity.
The professor’s work bench was down in the basement of his small suburban home. His wife could hear him laughing from upstairs in the kitchen and she knew he had done it. Now he could rest and she could be with her husband who had been absent, like he always was, while working on an invention.
He came barreling up the stairs, grinning from ear to ear, dancing and singing. He grabbed his wife’s hand and escorted her down into the basement where it was dim and dry and cold. He tried to show his creation off to her, but the fly had perched itself somewhere in the shadows and he could not find the tiny, metallic insect. Later, he promised her. Later, he would catch the fly -- for in his haste he had forgotten to program it. Then he would take it down to the lab at the University, show it to his colleagues, and they would become as rich as he had always dreamed.
But, first they were going to celebrate. They locked up the house and dined at their favorite restaurant downtown. While they were gone, the fly simply stayed in the shadows, quietly waiting. Then, in an instant, it took flight and began charting and mapping its surroundings, measuring air temperature and remembering what it was learning. The mechanical fly escaped into the house propper at some point (perhaps through an air duct, the professor later thought) and on its second night, it woke the professor in the middle from a deep slumber. Buzzing, always buzzing, never letting up. He swatted at the thing absentmindedly, forgetting his pledge to capture it, and went back to sleep. He saw the fly numerous times the next day, but every time he went to catch it, the damned thing darted away. He tried under a glass, in a net, and with some electronic pulses from a Tesla coil as bait. None of them worked and the fly went on ticking like a well-built clock.
At first the professor was amused. Then he was boastful -- he’d built a fly that even he could not catch. This tickled his wife, who saw it as a joke that would help pass the long days of summer. But, like all things in his life, the professor soon became possessed with the will to catch this fly. And so he began to examine other means of entrapment.
- - -
He toiled many more days and, on the fifth day, his wife watched him emerge from the basement, looking tired and hungry, with a bell jar in his hand. He held it up to the kitchen window and marveled at his mechanical spider.
The abdomen of the arachnid glowed a tiny orange with the power of a micro-combustion engine inside (five times the size of the one he’d built the fly from). It almost growled, a tiny vibration when the professor held the bell jar. He opened the glass, shook the spider onto the kitchen counter, where it landed and scuttled off and away.
The next morning, the professor awoke to find that the spider had spun a magnificent web across the kitchen window. And, low and behold, she had caught the mechanical fly also. It was still alive (of course it was still alive) as he plucked the thing from the web and dropped it into the bell jar. The spider was nowhere to be seen as the professor kissed his wife goodbye, and headed off to the University to show off his invention and get rich.
- - -
His colleagues had always been weary of the professor. He was quiet, reserved, often seemed to be working out complex problems in his head. For he was always inventing. Sometimes his calculations were wrong. He would be graced with what he called “open thoughts,” where suddenly and idea would be fully clear to him. In this instant, he knew exactly how to produce what he imagined. These windows were short, and most of the time closed too quickly for the professor to remember much. It was his memory that often failed him.
But his colleagues were impressed by the fly. They told him that they needed to see more before investing any time or money. He had neglected to tell them about the spider he’d built, but their interest goaded him. He would dash home and collect his mechanical spider for their inspection.
- - -
When the professor returned home, he could not wait to tell his wife the good news. He would find the spider and return immediately to see his colleagues. Instead, his wife was nowhere to be found. He called out to her and looked everywhere, until he came to the basement door and opened it to find the stairwell beyond thick with mechanical spider webs! Shocked, he made his way through the tangles of webbing and down into the basement where he found his wife encased in the strands, wound tight against her body like a spool of wire.
With much haste, he cut her loose and brought her up to the kitchen where he made her some tea to calm her nerves, for she was very upset from the whole ordeal. She explained to him that she had been down in the basement doing the wash when she was attacked by dozens of arachnids. The professor scoffed at her, clearly pointing out that he had only built one of the things...
As the professor leaned against the kitchen sink, discussing with his wife what to do next, a whole phalanx of mechanical spiders came clinking up the drain. They were all exact copies of the one he’d built and they moved in synchronization -- meaning they could communicate. The one spider alone had somehow managed to clone itself down in his laboratory; to build in its own image. This frightened the professor and the sight of the little things emerging from the sink almost made him faint. He gasped for air and then brought his fists down upon the mechanical spiders, smashing their tiny torsos to bits, pieces of their metal legs getting stuck in his palms like twitching splinters. With each spider killed, there was a tiny explosion and a small sliver of smoke, like a match going out. After smashing a dozen or so, the rest stopped their ascent and began retreating down the drain. How could there be this many? He guessed that, after catching the fly, the spider had gone on to other things -- things the professor hadn’t told her to do in the first place. All he had programmed her with was the will to survive, to be more successful than the fly in every way. He certainly hadn’t anticipated this...
The professor knew then what he must do. There would be no way for him to get at the mechanical spiders without dismantling his entire house. If they were in the pipes, then they must also be in the walls, in the attic, in the floors. No, his wife would never allow him to run amuck tearing the house apart. He would have to build something else to do it for him.
- - -
He worked quickly and, in eight days, his creation was complete. It took him most of the time to work out the tongue -- a synthetic pad of electrodes that would zap the spiders on contact. He was very proud of the final touch: a sleep cycle so that he and his wife would not be up all night listening to its fluttering wings.
Then, in a spark, the mechanical bird was awake. It hovered upon first flight, then zipped across the room, leaving a sputtering, sparking trail of smoke behind as it went. The engine of the bird contained one single piston that the professor purloined from their station wagon.
By now, the workshop was infested with spiders. The bird hovered for a few more moments, its scanners recognizing their tiny heat signatures -- then it went to work. It lashed its tongue and struck the first spider dead.
The professor whooped at this as he gathered up the lifeless spider into a bell jar. The bird got another, then another, all the while the professor collected them for his colleagues to marvel at. Just as they had done at the sink, the mechanical spiders began to retreat. They scurried back into tiny holes, and the bird did a remarkable thing: it lashed its tongue out, striking the wall, and let it hang there as it cycled through several electrical sequences, charging up for an attack. Suddenly, the entire room was electrified, current arcing here and there on the professor’s metal workbench. The professor watched as, all across his workshop, the spiders tumbled from the walls, their micro-motors flickering, dead. The bird simply hovered there as the professor approached, the wind from its wings mussing what little hair he had left on his head. Just as he reached out to shut the thing down, it took off up the stairs and tore right through the metal door that guarded the workshop from outsiders. Heat radiating from its body cauterized the edges of the hole it punched right through the steel... A shrill scream from upstairs sent the professor dashing up to the kitchen where he found his wife cowering in the corner as the bird fluttered around the, shocking the walls and various appliances.
The professor calmed his wife by showing her the dead spiders he had collected. The bird cleared the kitchen and darted down the hallway toward the living room. They could hear its tongue charging -- ZZAPP! He smiled at his wife, who looked frazzled, and he promised to repair the basement door when he returned home from the University.
- - -
The bird, however, was incorrigible. Once it cleared the house of spiders (the professor filled several more bell jars), the bird flew to the rear of the living room and perched on the fireplace mantle where it went to sleep, in effect. The Professor rubbed his hands together and approached, ready to disassemble the bird now that it’s task was complete. He reached out and grabbed the thing -- suddenly its eyes blinked, its single-piston motor whirred to life, glowing red the both of them.
The professor let go just before the wings engaged and the bird lifted off, flitted away from the professor.
Behind him, his wife chuckled at the sight of the bird retreating, as if it knew the professor planned to take it apart, to make it no more. “What catches birds?” She wondered aloud, mocking the cycle of artificial life her husband had begun.
There was a zipping sound and the professor felt his hair blow in a sudden wind. He looked to where the bird hovered, but the space was empty. He looked to his wife to see that the bird had done to her what it had done to the basement door. Right through her heart.
The professor ran to his wife as she collapsed, dead already. She didn’t make a sound as the professor lowered her weight to the carpet. Behind him, the bird went manic. It proceeded to mow through the walls and floors, even once dipping back down into the living room from their bedroom, as it made swiss cheese out of their house. The professor simply rocked back and forth amidst the whirring and puncturing of dry-wall.
* * *
The house was a ruin, unsalvageable. The professor carried his wife’s body down to his workshop, where he was crushed by the unbearable weight of despair. What more could he lose? In his anger at himself -- for never planning, for finishing too quickly, for this whole chain of events -- he had in his mind one last “open thought.” Deep in the shadows of his workshop lay abandoned projects that the professor hid, even from himself.
Failure to build a successful creation would cause him to spend days disassembling what he’d slaved away on, amassing a large heap of broken machines on the far side of the room. A garbage heap to the heavens. This was his solution, his answer. For even though he did not have all the parts to make a champion breed out of the rubbish pile, he knew he could at least construct a mutt. A mechanical mutt to finish what he started.
* * *
He tore through the junk pile, fixating on a V6 engine to start out with. This was going to be a haphazard creation, one that he knew he could not control. The professor did not want control anymore.
He built and built -- and brought the dog to life on the ninth day. The amount of electricity it took to wake the beast drained the light from the room for a moment, so that when that V6 turned over, all the professor could see was the flamed ribcage of the beast’s torso ignite a furious red. After a moment, the lights returned and the creature eyed its creator for the first time. The mutt was sucking all the ogygen out of the room, spewing a black exhaust. The professor could feel its gaze, knew it was... thinking. Suddenly, it tore up the stairs and ripped the basement door right off its hinges. The professor had to catch his breath as he heard it hulking around one floor up.
The professor crawled up the stairs where the house rumbled with sounds of destruction and mayhem. He could not bare to see any more obliteration. All he wanted was some fresh air, he was gulping for it. He pushed through what used to be the kitchen, into the back yard. He hadn’t been outside of the house in so long that he’d forgotten what the sun felt like on his face. He was entranced by it for a moment, by the cool summer breeze. It was going to be fall soon and he should be returning to the University.
There was silence, then a revving of engine as the mutt exploded through the back of the house, through brick and wood, where it rolled to a stop. Sure enough, the mutt had the bird trapped in its mouth. The professor watched its powerful jaws clamping down, as the bird slashed its electrode tongue, repeatedly shocking the dog. Then the bird flashed in an eruption of fire. The mutt’s mouth was left smoking with the wreckage.
The dog dropped its kill and pawed at it. It was soon bored by the dead bird. The grass around it began to turn brown, then crackled with flames.
The professor knew what was coming next. The air around him drew tight and thin, every breath he tried for was stifling. The grass by his feet began to curl and ignite, but he didn’t make any effort to get out of the way. He was tired and he could do no more. “It all started with a fly. Such a tiny thing.” He said this aloud.
The mechanical mutt bit its master.
X X X
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“My mommy and daddy had a fight.”
“Was anybody injured?”
“Can you give me your name, son? And your age?”
“I’m Lance. I’m eight. I can’t reach her.”
“Alright, Lance. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.”
“Mommy and daddy fought, there was a loud bang, and daddy left. I can’t get the door open, and there’s red coming under it. The cats are inside now.”
“Do you know how badly hurt your mommy is, Lance?”
“When I cry, she always comes to see me. I cried a lot, and she didn’t say nothing.”
“Lance, I want you to stay near Mommy, and I want you to know that police are on their way. Can you tell me something? Do you know where your father went?”
“No. He drove off real fast.”
“What kind of car does daddy drive?”
“A big one. It’s red. I’m afraid that he’ll come back.”
“Okay, Lance. I’m going to stay on the line with you until someone gets there. What else happened today?”
“Daddy found out that I was playing in the well.”
- - -
The Jack In The Box had opened a week and a half ago in Mercury, California but Chris hadn’t been. It was while he was sitting in the cruiser in the drive-thru line, waiting for lunch to be handed to him, that he got the call to check out a 9-1-1 dispatch up at the Gehlert ranch. He frowned, fired up the lights and siren. His tacos and potato wedges would have to wait for another day.
Mercury was one big dust bowl. When the sun was up it was a pit stop for people on their way to San Francisco, or Reno. When the sun went down, it was a town nobody knew existed save the meth addicts and cattle ranchers who laid their heads there at night. California State troopers took care of the speed trap out on Rt. 80 and anything else exciting. But Chris was a people person and he liked that aspect of the job. Just last week, he’d responded to Mrs. Lonnergan’s call that there was a dead cat in her driveway. Chris stood over the stiff hunk of brown fur, practically baked into the cement, noting that one of its ears was black, the other brown, and asked old Mrs. Lonnergan for a shovel and a trash bag. Officer Chris Corey wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Gehlerts lived right on the edge of town, headed west on 80, not too far from the town dump, where Chris had taken the cat’s body some weeks prior. Chris drove down the tree-lined driveway of the Gehlert’s ranch, his stomach growling at him for not waiting just a minute longer at the Jack In The Box. He stepped out of the cruiser and surveyed the property. It was quiet up here. The ranch grounds were scattered with odds and ends, mostly trash, some husks of burned out cars. Probably items they’d taken from the nearby dump, no doubt. Chris jogged up the stairs running their names -- the wife was Audrey (he had known her from Central, where they went to high school) -- Harry was her husband, and he knew they had a kid... he rang the doorbell, which didn’t make a sound, so he knocked loudly. “Mercury Police. Open up.”
He heard a voice that belonged to a young boy -- “Someone’s here now,” it said. The latch on the door opened, and the boy stood there with a portable phone in his hand. He was shaggy, and had a thin sheen of grime to him, like he’d been playing outdoors in the dust. “Hello,” he said. The boy spoke plainly, with a calmness that betrayed any obvious sign that he’d just called 9-1-1.
“Did you call the police?” Chris asked. The boy nodded and opened the door further. “I need help. I know she’s behind there, but I can’t push it open.” Chris entered the house and took in the wicked smell of cat piss and the sepia-toned way the light was in here. “What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Lance,” the boy said. “And my Mommy’s just through here.” Lance led Chris through the kitchen to a dark hallway where a brown door stood only an inch or two ajar. There was a puddle of deep red seeping from underneath it, and half a dozen cats that were padding through the puddle, meowing mournfully. One of them was lapping at it with its tongue. Chris shooed them away, kneeling to inspect. There was a distinct smell of gunpowder about. “Lance, I want you to stand back, okay?” Chris’ stomach growled again as he pushed against the door. Something heavy and unmoving was blocking it from the inside.
“I couldn’t reach her, I think there’s still time,” Lance was saying. Chris’ heart was pounding in his chest. He knew what was on the other side of the door, and he didn’t want the boy to see. “Just -- stay back, okay, Lance?” Chris braced himself, careful not to step in the blood, as he forced his weight against the door, pushing it a few more inches, just barely enough for--
Lance scurried past Chris and squeezed through the space in the door. His tiny kid shoe smeared some of the blood as he did -- “Hey, Lance, don’t--” Chris grappled for him, trying to shove the door open enough so that he could enter -- and as he did, his arm brushed up against something stiff and wet. Chris recoiled, his hand came back soaked in blood. He could hear the kid whispering behind the door, Chris pushing with all his strength... when suddenly, the weight holding the door closed was lifted and Chris burst inside.
It was the master bedroom. The window hung open, one of the curtains billowing in the light breeze, the other torn off the rod as if someone had fled through the window. Sitting on the bed was Lance and a very frazzled looking woman who Chris recognized as Audrey Gehlert, Lance’s mother. Her shirt and jeans were covered in blood, her skin pallid. She was breathing in short bursts, like she’d just run quite a far distance to get here. The boy was stroking her blood caked hair.
Chris stood in the doorway, face contorted in confusion. “Ma’am, are you injured?” he asked. She met him with a vacant gaze, then looked to the boy. “Lancy, you called the police?” “I couldn’t reach you,” the boy said sheepishly. Audrey kissed him on the head. “My sweet boy.”
“Mrs. Gehlert, I need to know what’s just gone on here.”
Audrey scrunched her brow. “I... I can’t remember, really.” There was a shuffling sound behind her and Chris turned to see the back of the door splattered with blood and viscera. Bits of bone and grey brain matter were a patina across the wood, scattered also with buckshot fired at close range.
Chris reached for his walkie. “Officer needs assistance out at eight-eight-eight Mercury Cross Road.” There was a squawk from the other end -- He knew Fat Ron (Chris only called him that because it was true), the other officer on duty at this hour would be at dispatch.
“Be out there in twenty, Chris. Everything okay?” Chris paused, gazing at the blood on the door, then the woman and her son sitting on the bed. “I, uh, don’t really know. Just hurry.” Chris exhaled.
The cats were back, lurking about. One of them pushed the door open with its snout and lept into Lance’s lap on the bed. Chris flinched when he saw it. One ear black, the other brown. The cat purred knowingly. A heavy air seemed to permeate the bedroom, but the moment was cut short by the squeal of brake pads and the crunching of gravel from outside. Lance began trembling and Audrey looked at Officer Corey, her eyes suddenly clear. “He’s home.”
- - -
Harry Gehlert, a tall, broad-shouldered man, stood outside in the driveway eyeing Chris’ dusty police cruiser, his hands held behind his back. Chris exited onto the porch first and the man turned to meet him. Harry, the father, revealed his blood-splattered shirt, yellow under the arms. Chris immediately drew his service pistol -- “Show me your hands, sir. Slowly.”
Harry flashed a smile at Chris as he removed his hands from behind his back. He carried what looked like a piece of smooth stone, about the size and shape of a bar of soap. “Drop it!” Chris screamed. Harry silently refused. “Drop it, or else!”
The father began to chuckle a bit. “Corey, right?” he asked. “You really don’t got any idea what’s going on here. Trust me when I say that.”
“My partner is on his way so I’m going to need you to drop what you’re holding. I’m going to place you in handcuffs, you’ll have a seat there on the hood of my car, and we’re going to talk while we wait...” Audrey and Lance arrived on the porch behind Chris, the boy still trembling. Harry eyed them.
“I see he fixed you up pretty,” the man said to his wife. Audrey nodded. She pulled the boy close to her. “It’s not right, Aud. Our boy’s just not right. And you and I both know -- that the stone giveth, and the stone taketh.”
“Drop the rock, sir,” Chris reminded him. Finally, Harry did drop it into the dirt. Chris approached pistol first, eyeing it as he made his way toward Harry. The rock was pocked with strange markings, inscriptions. He holstered his weapon and fished for his cuffs, instructing Harry to turn around. But Harry didn’t turn around. Instead, he let Chris get in close enough to smell the man’s body odor, his reeking breath. “I never wanted it to be like this,” Harry said.
“Turn around, sir. I’m not going to ask again--” The boy’s father lifted his boot into Chris’ crotch, stunning him with an electric pain that spread from his groin up his spine. Harry unholstered Chris’ sidearm. Chris, lousy with agony, barely even registered it. The man pressed Chris’ pistol to his abdomen, into the place where his bullet proof vest left a gap near his belly button. He fired the pistol three times, each one muffled by Chris’ shirt. The officer screamed out in pain.
Harry marched forward toward his wife and son. She tried to run, so he shot her in the leg, and she tumbled down the front stairs of the porch. On his way forward, Harry knelt and picked up the rock he was carrying earlier. The boy, Lance, remained frozen on the porch. Harry aimed the gun, but didn’t fire on the eight year old. He shouted something Chris couldn’t hear, and the boy reluctantly came down from the porch. “The stone giveth, and the stone taketh,” he said, and this time Chris could hear him. Harry swung the rock, and hit the boy over the head with it. Lance fell into the dust. Harry, his father, continued to bludgeon the boy while he lay in the driveway.
Faintly, Chris remembered that he had felt hungry when he arrived. Now, his belly was on fire.
Harry Gehlert stood over his son’s body. Chris could see bits of bone and the boy’s hair clinging to the blunt end of the rock. Harry dropped the rock, put the pistol to the side of his own head, and pulled the trigger with a muffled spray of red mist. Chris’ world view became as narrow as a pin hole, then all he saw was black.
- - -
Chris awoke to the sound of rushing water. He was being dragged through dense trees by someone. “Come... fucking... on... now--” It was Audrey who pulled at his collar. Chris mumbled and his resistance told her he had regained consciousness. She stopped dragging him. Chris could see the Gehlert’s farm house through the trees. He turned, noting the pain in his abdomen, and saw that Audrey had dragged him toward a boarded-up well at the edge of their property. The ring around it was cemented with smooth, round rocks, each one pocked with those strange engravings. A conspicuous indentation where one of the stones was missing. Chris could hear the rushing water from inside the well. It sounded clean and clear and crisp.
He wondered how long he had been out -- how long before Fat Ron showed up? “Okay, listen to me. There’s something inside the well. It didn’t work for me or Harry. But it did work for Lance. Whatever it is -- it might work for you, too.” Chris shifted his weight painfully, and before he knew it Audrey had rolled him over the edge of the stone ring. His abdomen flared with pain, his legs unable to work properly.
The well was dark and deep, and Chris didn’t have a chance to debate. He felt his center of gravity topple forward, he scraped the back of his head on the inside of the well, flipped, and watched Audrey recede away from him as he fell. The water was warm and flowing from an unseen source. It rushed over Chris’ body and this is what he saw:
- - -
Three men are covered in soot and sweat. They dig together with shovels and pick axes. One of them stops digging as water begins bubbling up through the sand. Later the three men argue over the muddy pit they’ve dug in the sand. One of them produces a flint lock pistol and executes the other. He flees on foot. The third man, now alone beside the pit, weeps for his fallen friend as his blood runs over the sand and into the pit.
The dead man’s hand twitches.
- - -
Chris found that he was out of air. He opened his eyes and could tell that he was under water, a tiny pin hole of light above him. Chris swam furiously to the surface, gasping for oxygen, and saw that he was inside a cave with a great underground river flowing through the heart of it. The sound it made was deafening. He pulled himself to the edge of the river, cringing at the pain still in his gut.
Chris looked up, and saw that the pinhole of light belonged to the underside of the Gehlert’s well. A series of steps cut into the rock led up to the well, these steps covered in similar markings that the stones were drawn with. There was a tingling in his abdomen and he looked down--
The three bullet holes that Harry Gehlert had put there were flexing open and closed, like pulsating mouths. From one was expelled a bullet, as if from lips who didn’t care for the taste. Then the other two spit up the invading pieces of metal and they lay there near his belly button in a pool of watery blood. Chris watched as the holes stopped cupping open, and simply closed over themselves. His legs, previously useless from whatever was severed, now felt strong and sturdy. Chris stood up and felt something familiar in his gut. He was hungry again.
- - -
“Audrey!” He shouted up. There was a meek moan in response. “Audrey, I’m coming up...”
It was a long struggle, but Chris paced up the length of the well using his back for support, his legs for leverage. He reached the lip and pulled himself free -- and immediately saw Audrey lying in the dust, her leg soaked with blood from where Harry had shot her. The dusty ground around her was also soaked through, and her skin stood out pale in a sheen of sweat. “Look at you,” she croaked. “Good as new, huh?”
Chris looked down. His hands were shaking. He could faintly hear a siren approaching in the far, far distance. Fat Ron would be here momentarily.
But he also knew that the way Audrey was bleeding, the way the ground was soaked... she didn’t stand a chance in the time it would take for an ambulance to arrive. So Chris knelt down to comfort her as best he could. He laid his hand on her forehead, brushed some of the matted hair away from her face. She felt cold to him -- but then he could feel a warmth rush up to meet his touch, as if a fire was lit from deep inside her. Her breathing became less shallow. Chris jolted his hand away from her face, looking intently at the wound in her leg. It was gone, erased, closed up. His mind made the connection, but slowly, as the siren grew louder. Audrey smiled at him.
“You’ve got it now,” she said. Chris looked down at his hands again. They were no longer trembling. “Lance,” she said. Chris helped her to stand. Together they crossed the property to where her son’s body lay, his caved head already buzzing with flies. Some of the cats had taken to circling Lance, the brown-and-black one that Chris swore he scraped up from the driveway of old Mrs. Lonnergan was quietly cleaning some of the blood from its paws. Chris looked away, the siren reaching a crescendo behind him. He knelt down and slipped Lance’s tiny pant leg up, exposing his calf. Because Chris thought he needed to touch skin to make it work. He knew a lot more now than he did just this morning, and isn’t life strange like that?
Chris gripped the boy’s tiny leg and heard the rushing of water somewhere very far away.
Joanie hated weddings. All the bullshit that goes along with them, too. The cake, flowers, the very words “You may kiss the bride,” made her want to vomit all over the dance floor. So, it was to everyone’s surprise that Joanie grew up to become a wedding planner. And a damned good one, at that.
In the past year she had supervised the nuptuals of thirty-three happily wedded couples. “Happily wedded.” Another term known to tickle her gag reflex. Because there was one thing constant to all the weddings she’d overseen: certainly not happily wedded. If anything there was a vacuum of happy. Joanie could see it all over their faces. The groom with his thousand-yard stare. The bride’s smile so wide, you could park a 747 right through her teeth. The respective in-laws, wringing their hands (honey, two-thirds of all marriages end in divorce). And the guests -- weepy-eyed some of them, with their Canon Powershots at the ready -- unaware they were witness to catastrophe.
Come to think of it, there hadn’t been a single couple Joanie’d worked for that she could honestly say were “in love.” She had known love well with Brad, her boyfriend of nine months, who was killed in an unfortunate cement mixer accident. He was to propose, she found out, when the authorities discovered the engagement ring while excavating his corpse from half a ton of concrete. She retreated inward after this, and began to despise the very people she called clients. Had Brad been alive and able to pop the question, would Joanie feel any different? Perhaps. Probably.
They were Kenneth and Dana -- soon to be Mr. and Mrs. Feister-Harris. Kenneth (not Ken) was a droll, soft talker of a man who’d clearly relinquished command of the wedding to Dana, a control freak who remarked to Joanie, upon numerous occasions, that this was her “blessing wedding, and it’s going to go according to blessing plan.”
Joanie turned her pent-up hatred toward the minutiae of bridaldom. Dana’s dress was like a glove and not a strand of hair was askew. Everything would be “blessing” perfect, right on down to the flowers woven into the lattice work of the altar, where Joanie found herself directing her attention this morning.
Fernando, her flower guy, had gotten sick during prep. A nosebleed, she heard from the caterer. Joanie had to drive to the site in order to finish what he’d started, despite herthrobbing sinus infection (she was sometimes prone to these). Mouth breathing was not Joanie’s preferred method of respiration, but this morning it would have to do.
She quietly cursed to herself as she wove the stems into the cheap plywood trellis in the arrangement Dana had picked out months ago -- a gigantic heart to swallow them whole.
The flowers came from an exotic island off the coast of Borneo. When Dana insisted they be special ordered (spiking the budget of the service through the roof) all she had was a low-res picture on her iPhone, and an address with a funky name and a stretch of numbers tacked on the end. “A friend of a friend said she saw them at her cousin’s wedding and they were just stunning. Stunning, you know?” Whatever Dana wanted she’d have. This was the slavery Joanie had sold herself into.
It was only when she saw them in person that she understood what Dana’s fuss was worth. They were spectacular blossoms. Psychedelically colored, no two were exactly the same. They surely had an intoxicating aroma; if only Joanie could unstuff her nose to smell them. She reached to carefully cradle them from inside the box and noticed a residue, a sticky, pink mist, perhaps insecticide or... well, if Joanie really let her imagination run wild, the inside of those boxes were speckled with blood. A morbid thought on this, a wedding day.
- - -
And now, Pastor Mike got the part everyone was waiting for. A few more words and Joanie could get on home and shut the shades and let this throbber of a skull-cramp subside.
“...to have and to hold, from this day forward?” Pastor Mike posed the question like a pro. Dana smiled and said: “I do.”
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. Kenneth, you may ki... You may kiss... you mah-- Excuse me...”
Pastor Mike’s nose scrunched up. His left eye twitched like he was about to sneeze. And sneeze he did. Once, twice, five times in a row, and didn’t show signs of stopping. Joanie watched from the rear-most pew, tickled at the sight of an allergy-prone pastor and, especially, Dana’s bridal bitch-gaze. After at least a dozen volleys, pastor Mike, held his hand up. “It must be these derned flowersssss--”
Kaaaaachuuummm! Even from Joanie’s vantage point, she could see the red flecks of mucus splatter Dana’s pearlescent gown. Kenneth groaned, Dana gasped, and Pastor Mike wiped his nose on the back of his hand, only to see more red smeared there.
“I’m sorry about this folks,” pastor Mike said, only to launch into another fit. Joanie knew she’d catch shit for this after the fact, but if a tickle of the nose was the worst that could happen...
Slowly, like a ripple effect through the crowd, there echoed the cacophonous sound of more and more violent expulsions. Joanie’s gaze flitted to the cuppola, covered in flowers. The stations of them at the end of each row of guests. As the hankies came out, there was no two ways about it: these damned flowers were to blame. The woman next to Joanie snorted red into her cupped hands. Joanie backed away and suddenly became the world champion of mouth breathing.
Pastor Mike clearly had it the worst and blood was now trickling down his mouth and chin. He moaned something incoherent, then he lunged for Kenneth, the sudden bulge in Pastor Mike’s eyes the last detail she could make out. Dana tried to intervene, but Pastor Mike shoved her away into the lattice work. Joanie watched Pastor Mike wrap his hands around Kenneth’s bow-tied throat and begin to choke him so hard she could see the veins glisten on the minister’s arm.
By now, people on both the bride and groom’s side were having violent reactions to whatever pollen was in the air. Grandma hocked a clot-filled lugie onto Grandpa’s cumber bun before attacking him, squishing his eyeballs between her arthritic fingers. Uncle Martin was strangling his nephew Richie in the aisle. Everything was tinged red.
A scream snapped Joanie’s attention back to the altar, where Dana rose from the crushed heart of flowers like some Romero wet dream. Joanie covered her mouth when she saw Dana shove Pastor Mike from atop Kenneth, then gasped as Dana threw herself at the man who was moments away from becoming her partner, and twist his head all the way ‘round.
“I blessing luuuuuhfff you!” Dana screamed. “Luuuuuhhhhfff!” She stalked on toward the videographer (Stan, a reliable guy) and tackled him out of Joanie’s eyesight.
Grandma was chanting something similar: “My beloved, my beloved, my beluuuuuuuhved,” as Grandpa staggered around looking for his eyes. Even little Richie was getting praised by uncle Marty as he gave his neck the indian burn from hell: “You’re such a dear! You’re a sweet little dear, you are!” And Joanie couldn’t help but wonder what kind of toxins went to which part of the brain in order cause people to pummel their loved ones while at the same time professing their fondest emotions for them. It was the purest form of crazy. Joanie’s sinus infection became a pulsing thing in her skull and the need to get the fuck out of here overwhelmed her--
One of the bride’s maids sneezed a gout of pink mist onto Joanie’s leg as she crawled across the center aisle. Joanie got a look at her eyes -- bloodshot, tearing with allergic reaction -- before the woman lurched forward and asked: “Are you my sweethaaaaaaaaahhrt? Please be my sweeeettthaaaarr--”
The toe of Joanie’s pump connected with the woman’s jaw, silencing her. But the din of the rest of the guests crescendoed and Joanie realized she was going to have a tough go-round getting out of here. Fucking weddings.
And the love zombies descended upon her.
Mr. Skerritt called him “Lucky Lenny,” because everything worked out right when he was around. When Lenny was on the job, no matter how dicey shit got, it all had a way of coming together. But tonight, Skerritt was taking the ultimate nap in Lenny’s trunk.
As he sped down the deserted blacktop of the Garden State Parkway, Lenny’s luck tank had just about run dry. Skerritt, no mater his opinion about Lenny’s Karmic ability, was a son of a bitch from way back; a racketeer, a thug, a gangster. Lenny’s Pop used to be in Skerritt’s employ until his battle with cancer of the bladder made him week in the bowels. Lenny was just old enough to fill his shoes. His father’s son. The day after his Pops was buried, Skerritt asked Lenny for his pledge.
Lenny thought he’d made it. He’d finally done something with his life. Couldn’t finish high-school, couldn’t make his pecker get hard. But Mr. Skerritt validated his humongous frame with a pat on the back and a brown paper bag filled with Andrew Jackson’s mug.
Pop. He’d raise the dead if he knew what drove Lenny down this dark road tonight. It was over a year ago. Lenny was taking Mr. Skerritt home from Newark. Skerritt was drunk on Brandy. What started as a rant ended with: “Your Pop, God bless ‘im, was laid up in that hospital, shitting in a bag, when State Police fingered him for bunch of crap he didn’t do. So, I paid him a visit the night he... It’s what your Old Man would have wanted, don’t you think?” Lenny remained silent for a long while, tempted by violence (he could have driven right through a telephone pole), and nodded “yes,” obeying the speed limit. He had dreams for months after. Dreams where Skerritt was standing over Pops in the hospital with a pillow, about to do him in because the cancer wasn't quick enough. And Lenny had to watch every time, his pistol gone from its usual place under his coat.
It wasn’t until Kincaid, that enemy bastard from Hoboken, approached Lenny with a deal. One million dollars if he offed Mr. Skerritt, his boss, and protection from the heat for doing so. Lenny didn’t have to chew it over for long. It’s what Pa woulda wanted.
- - -
Kincaid’s stipulations were this: he didn’t care how Lenny did it (bullet, rope, hell, a baseball bat); he didn’t care what he did with the body (Lenny’d sink it in the pine barrens). He only demanded Lenny cut Skerritt’s right hand from his wrist. The one he wore that clunker of a ring on. Not so much for proof that the deed was done, but instead so Kincaid could stick the thing in the freezer and look at it from time to time as a trophy of his takeover of the South Jersey families. Kincaid would have control of the ports, the shore, the very pine barrens where Skerritt’s body would rot. But it was his hand he wanted.
It was closing time at the Black Horse Pub. Lenny brought the car around back, like usual, and helped Skerritt into his wool trench coat (he was stumbling-drunk.) As he helped the man into the back seat, Skerritt asked Lenny for a smoke. Lenny fished in his pockets for his cigarettes. He lit Skerritt’s butt. “Boy, you are a people pleaser. You’re supposed to tell me to quit smoking, you know? Hell, you saved my life from everything else in this fucking world. You’re just gonna let my lungs rot?” Skerritt puffed like a pro. Lenny smiled. He shot Mr. Skerritt through the mouth while the car idled. Guy talked too much anyway.
Severing a human hand at the wrist was not a problem for Lenny. He had done it many times before. A circular saw and a pair of workmen’s goggles were all he needed to get the job done. Lenny wrapped Skerritt’s hand in a pink pastry box, sitting beside him now in the passenger’s seat. He drove on with Skerritt’s body in the trunk of his LeSable, and a shiny Parkway token to pay the coming toll in his palm.
- - -
Exit twenty-nine, toward Ocean City, was coming up on the right. There hadn’t been another car on the road for miles, something Lenny had anticipated this dreary February night.
The toll plaza lit up the night like a landing strip. Lenny slowed to a crawl. He rolled down his window and tossed the token, inhaled sharply as he waited for the light overhead to turn from red to green, signaling his deliverance... Only, the red light held strong and steady like an all-seeing eye. Pops had taught Lenny that even the smallest slip-up could lead to a big headache. He wasn’t going down for something as stupid as an unpaid toll. So Lenny did what all Jersey-ites were trained to do in such a situation: He honked. And honked. And waited. Then honked some more--
A figure jogged across his windshield. A wiry man with a faded Yankees cap on. His face was in shadow as he stalked toward the toll booth and reached his arm elbow-deep into the gaping receptacle, like a grubby dentist fishing for a rotten tooth. Lenny could read the word “COLLECTOR” across the shoulders of his jumpsuit. The man came back with Lenny’s token. He rapped his knuckles against the glass.
Lenny rolled down the window and the man held out the token. “Don’t take this currency anymore. It's obsolete.” His voice reminded Lenny of John F Kennedy's, except dressed down, casually soothing. “Exact change only, sir,” he cooed.
Lenny didn’t have exact change. He had a fifty in his back pocket, but not a penny, nickle or dime in the car.
“You kidding me? I used these tokens last summer.”
The man smiled at Lenny. “Plenty of summer folks are used to the tokens, but Trenton’s going for the upgrade.” The toll collector pointed to the purple letters that read “E-Z Pass” above the toll plaza. Sure. Upgrade.
Lenny didn’t sound pleading, instead he sounded stern: “Spare a guy passing through?”
“Sorry. No can do.” The red stop light glared at Lenny. For a moment he seemed entranced by the glowing red orb. What if it never turned to green? What if this was the end of the line for him?
The man leaned his head closer to the car. Lenny could make out the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin, the silver sheen of his shaded eyes. A cat’s eyes.
“You got anything else in here?” He spoke close, precise. The only thing Lenny’s mind’s eye saw, the only other thing in the car, was Mr. Skerritt’s face, frozen in surprise with splinters of teeth glued to his cheek in blood. The turgid smell of the toll collector’s breath drew him back to the here and now. “Hmm? Anything else might be worth my time?”
Lenny fished the fifty from his pocket and rubbed two ends between his thumb and forefinger. The toll collector threw his head back and let out a hearty laugh into the night. Lenny would only remember later that he couldn’t make out the man’s breath even in the freezing temperature.
“Ah, come on. You must have... something.”
The man moved suddenly; a leopard. He snapped his hand through the window and grabbed Lenny’s arm. His fingers were a vice as Lenny felt something -- a bolt, an arrow, quicksilver -- rush through him like someone dumped a hot pot of Wawa coffee down his collar. In this instant Lenny confessed to all his sins; every man he’d maimed, killed, buried, and forgotten came rushing out of him like decades-old undigested slop. It wasn’t pretty, out there for the world to see, Skerritt’s rigor-mortised limbs like twisted cherries on top of it all. As the man released and withdrew his hand from the car, Lenny slumped forward and pissed himself in the driver’s seat, mumbling something unintelligible.
“Ahha. There it is.” The man’s molesting hand let off steam where the rest of his being remained cold as ice. Lenny looked down at the flesh of his arm where a red hand print seemed to be burned there, already crisp at the edges.
“What the... fuh... fuck...” It was as if Lenny were waking from a deep, nightmare-riddled sleep. He needed to get his bearings. His eyes rolled in his head.
“It’s not an accident, you and I meeting here tonight, Leonard. Your friend in the trunk liked to call you ‘Lucky,’ but... well, he’s in the trunk then, isn’t he?” That voice, smooth as silk.
Lenny had regained enough motor function by now to go for his pistol. He drew back the hammer before it was out of his coat and shakily aimed the thing at the toll collector. He pulled the trigger but the gun just fell apart in his hand, the weighted stock clanking to pieces on the asphalt.
The man leaned in again, wafting his rotting breath. “You pissed someone off, Lenny. Someone you want to steer waaaaay clear of at all times, let me tell you first hand.”
“I did everything Kincaid asked me, I swear.” Lenny’s lap was cooling now. He felt like a fucking toddler.
The toll collector with the cat eyes chuckled again.
“Kincaid? Let me explain something, Lenny. This guy you pissed off... my boss, you could say, he makes the calls around here regarding when people come and when they go. You do know what I mean? You're proficient in such things, correct? You got a kill list longer than my pecker, and that’s a hell of a pecker. We have a system, see. And Mr. Skerritt -- your boss -- he was a part of that system. He was one of my best reapers, and if you want to kill a reaper you need special permission from you know who. You’d understand if you were in that position, yes?”
“You’re loyal.” Lenny’s vision steadied.
“Oh, to a fault.”
“What do I gotta do?”
“You’ll have to pay the toll.” The man winked at Lenny.
“Say I don’t. Say I take off. What then?”
There came a scratching sound from Lenny’s right. The pastry box was wobbling. Back and forth, back and forth. Something inside was moving around. Lenny’s mind cracked slightly, a moment that probably would have had him piss his pants, had there been any piss left in him. The box leapt off the seat, landed upside down on the floor of the passenger’s side, and was still for a moment.
If that was Skerritt’s severed hand scraping around in there (and Lenny was certain that it was) then this man standing outside his car made it move. Lenny looked up at those feline eyes again, knowing that it was something in them that had caused the flesh and bone inside the box to move. There was great power in those eyes, and it made Lenny tremble with fear. This man with no breath, no heat inside him, no soul. An emissary, courier, a summoner. What else could those eyes command?
He smiled at Lenny. “I think you know what needs to be done.”
Lenny glared at the red light, holding fast ahead of him above the toll booth. He slowly reached down into the well of the seat next to him and lifted the pastry box to his lap. The hand within lied still, but he could feel the weight of it nonetheless. He quickly pushed it through the threshold toward the man, who took it and tucked it beneath the crook of his arm.
“The trunk, too, my good man.”
Lenny popped the LeSable’s trunk and stared straight ahead at the unblinking red light. He listened as the man walked around to the back of the car. He felt the chasis lift as Skerritt’s body was removed from the dark space. Or did it climb out on its own? The toll man appeared in Lenny’s window again.
“You’re nervous.” He said.
“You bet your ass. I’m gonna show up at Kincaid’s with nothing. I’m done for.”
“Forget Kincaid. I’ve got a new job for you. You think you’re up for it?”
He gripped the wheel and felt the blistered hand print on his arm searing through to his bone. He finally exhaled, his mind made up. The red light ahead of him silently switched over to green.
It was Tom-Bob who actually came up with the method, and Tom-Bob who rented the cement mixer that very next day. After all, the last part of the fence we had left to finish was the gate foundation joint, at the very front of the property where we’d started in the first place. Everything came full circle, is what I’s trying to say. We actually needed the mixer for that. But we didn’t need all that other stuff he bought too. It didn’t matter to Tommy, because he’d drawn up a contract where he got a cut of my money himself. Not an actual contract, we just shook on it. A man's word and a little spit between the palms is as good as any contract there ever was. All I needed to do was let Tracy know that I was good for it.
So I called the house, which I knew was risking a lot, but it was the only way I thought I could get in touch with her without going down and ringing the bell on a Sunday. Our last day was the Monday coming up -- and it’d be a little suspicious if we were hanging around past Labor Day. When I dialed the number from the invoice, it was Ray who answered, like I’d imagined. “Yeah?” was how he did it. I cleared my throat, and asked for Tracy.
“Who is this?” He asked. I thought he might’ve recognized my voice, just from the way he said it, but I knew there was a chance he’d pop this very question, so I’d prepared an answer: “This is Chris, from down at the Rite Aid. I’m just calling to confirm a couple of details on her perscripts.”
Ray let out a sigh, like the thought whatever I needed from Tracy annoyed him. “Hold on,” he said, and his voice got muffled and quiet -- then she came on the line.
“Tracy. It’s Mikey. You don’t have to say anything, because I know he’s probably nearby. Tell him the pharma guy needs a copy of your insurance card to submit. Trust me, it’s something I’ve gone through myself.” It was true, because I needed a dose of dope a few years back, and between you and me, I don’t got no insurance card... I put that pharma man on the ropes for a couple of weeks. “Anyway, tell me thanks, hang up the phone, and meet me out at that diner on 22. Thirty minutes. Goodbye to you.”
As I removed the phone from my ear, I briefly heard her fading “thanks,” and what might have been the beginning of Ray asking her “who was that on the line--” before I had to jump into the truck myself and take off. One of the longest drives across town I can remember taking.
I ordered two coffees and had to wait an extra fifteen minutes before she showed up. My leg was jiggling so damn bad, you’da thought I was hopped up on anything but just plain old nerves. When she walked in to the diner with her sunglasses on, I just about jumped for joy. By that time, her coffee was cold and I ordered her a fresh one.
I’d never seen Tracy outside of the confines of her own home. It was a tingly experience, like we was getting away with something we weren’t supposed to, which is actually what we were there to talk about. But at that point, we was just talking and nothing bad had happened.
I told her I had thought long and hard about what she asked me to do, and that I was ready to do it. She smiled just about the brightest smile I’d ever seen her do. She leaned in close and took my hand, and she squeezed it nice and hard, like I was afraid to do to her way back when.
When I explained to her the way we meant to go about doing it, she raised an eyebrow, but she understood. The last detail was what I actually needed to sit down with her for. And that was the money. “Fifty large?” I asked. She nodded, and sipped her coffee. See, Ray Junger was -- well, you already know all of this, but for clarity -- Junger was one of them Wall Street Fat Cats, and he screwed over a bunch of other rich people, only the government let him off the hook. But she knew where he was hiding all that money! Again, she had the statement with her, so I got to see the numbers on the lines. As for what it actually said, I don’t read like the best of them, so I had to just take her word for it. From the looks of the trouble I’m in, I don’t think she was lying about the amount, and let’s just leave it at that. She might have been lying about a lot of other things, but that was a number I could see on the page.
Anyway, I needed to know just how she planned to disappear with me. Karly liked to watch some of those cops and robbers shows on TV, so I know’d by them that you can’t just go out and buy a ticket to Paris -- because the police can trace that kinda stuff, and whatnot. She said that she had the perfect plan, and then she told it to me. Tracy was smart, this I knew from the moment I saw her. The plan was indeed perfect:
“It’s not like in the movies, Mikey.” She’d taken to calling me Mikey for some time. I didn’t like it much, but I didn’t feel I was in the position to say so. “He’s going to be presumed missing. Then, after some time, if you do everything right, of which I have no doubt, they'll stop searching. I’ll have to mourn, and pretend like I’m going through the motions that every widow goes through. But that’s my burden. You? You just keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t want to see you at the memorial service that we’ll surely have. But, after a couple of months, you pay a condolence visit.”
“Months?” The idea just didn’t work in my brain.
She nodded calmly. “One day, you’ll get a call from me. And I’ll say -- for us to meet at this very diner, how about? That’ll be the sign. You’ll know then that I’ve got that money all figured out, and we’re free to go wherever our little hearts desire. Where do you want to go first, Mikey?”
Shit, what a question. I’d never even been further south than Cape May, New Jersey. The thought of moving north, east, or west was just never one I’d entertained. “Paris!” Was the first one that come to mind. She smiled, and said “Paris is nice, but I think you can do better.” I thought and thought, harder than I’d thought about something in a long time. The word sounded so exotic and rare.
“Africa!” Tracy smiled again. “I’ve never been to Africa,” she said.
“Well, that makes two.” I held up my coffee mug and we toasted to that far away country. Africa. It sounded like a place we could both get lost in, and nobody would ever be able to find us.
Tracy didn't want to order anything. She said she needed to get back to Ray, before he gets suspicious. She didn't kiss me or nothing. She reached and squeezed my hand underneath the table and she left. I turned and gave Tom-Bob a little thumbs up. He was sitting across the diner cuz he'd insisted on being there to make sure I sealed the deal. Then I asked for the check.
Karly might’ve slept out on me, but Tommy’s her brother now, so the business venture he and me had (we split that kiln) wasn’t just gonna go away because his sister was unfaithful. I think it was one of the reasons Tom-Bob thought I was an idiot, because I’d fallen for his sister, who he probably knew was a trickster on account of them growing up together. My momma always said that if the whole world had a sister, this’d be a much different place to live. Well, I ain’t got myself a sister, so I can’t speak to how different things might’ve turned out. Three brothers don’t teach you nothing about women, ‘cept for where to put it.
Tom-Bob, he had a bit of a fire in ‘im. He liked to smash things when he was drunk, and he liked to fight, which was why I went to him in the first place at Vinny’s wedding. He had some twisted things going on behind his eyes, and when he told me how we aught to do Ray Junger, I knew he didn’t just come up with it on the spot. He’d been turning and turning it over in his mind for some time, maybe even since he was a kid. Like it was all ready to go, just missing one little piece, and that piece was me askin' him.
I can speak to one instance with Tom-Bob. Before I married his sister, he took me a huntin’ out by Allentown. I always kinda thought he was testing me, like to see if I was real man enough to go with Karly. I wasn’t no greenie with a shotgun, but it was Tommy who shot the doe. I helped him track her out into the hedge, where we found her still breathing, but only barely so. I asked Tommy if I should put her down, but he already had his knife out and was gutting her fresh, while she was alive. The doe made sounds I’ve never heard another animal make before, then she lay still. It was still a cold spring, and her belly split open and those three babies came spilling out, all half-formed and not ready for the world. Tommy laughed, shook his head. He used his knife like a fork and lifted one of them babies up to show me like he was planning on tossing it on the grill whole.
“Fuckin’ deer in these parts. Inbred sons of bitches.”
In the end, Tommy didn’t even haul that venison out of the woods. He just cut it up some more, and insisted we go back cause he was getting cold already.
We worked all day digging out that last hole, and Tommy had it all set to go. We did some more busy work till the late afternoon, then took a longer break that we usually did, just to stall time. Tommy had a flask, and we passed it silently, listening to the crows squakin’ in the trees. We didn’t need to say nothing, cause there wasn’t nothing to say.
Tracy'd gotten the locksmiths to work at the doors on the house all day, but they was gone long before five. Around six thirty, Tracy come out, and got into her Benzee and drove off. Even though there was just the three of us for miles around, she didn’t pay me or Tom-Bob any mind. It was like she thought them crows was gonna tattle on us, so she might as well keep up the act. I threw her a wave as she drove on out of the driveway, but she didn’t return it.
Around seven forty was when Ray Junger come rumbling home. To him, it looks like the property is vacated, like we’d planned for it to look. We pulled the truck around the side of the house, positioned just right. It was getting dark by this point, sun was about ten minutes from setting, and that time of the day always used to give me the creeps. It’s like the world is trying to make up its mind -- between night and day -- but it can’t really decide. It was a perfect time to be doing what we was about to do.
Ray, he humped all his bulk up to the front door and jangled with his keys. We had the windows rolled down, so we could hear his cussing and fussing when he realized that they didn’t work no more. She’d changed the locks. He started screaming for Tracy, hollerin’ at the top of his lungs like a big, bad wolf trying to blow his own house down. That was my cue to flick the truck’s brights on, and shine ‘em right in Ray Junger’s face.
“Rev the engine!” Shouted Tommy. I didn’t hear him at first, so he reached over and turned the key in the ignition, looked me right in the eye. “It’s do or die. Now rev it, and let’s get the hard part over with.”
By this point, Ray had calmly begun to approach the truck, but as soon as I got her into gear -- she lurched forward, roaring like a lion -- he turned and hightailed it back toward his own car. I was quick with the gas pedal, though, and he didn’t have no time to unlock it, not with those headlights shining down on him. So he ran, like we’d hoped he would. Ran right to the edge of his property, where that fence (all nine feet of ornate wrought) kept him inside the property like a pig in a pen. I edged the truck to the right, and he went left, again like we’d planned. As I bore down on him, and Tom-Bob was screaming some blood-howl in my ear, I could see those pit stains ruining Ray’s five hundred dollar dress shirt. The man was a’scared, and he should have been, because he was about to die.
I run him all the way back toward the entrance to the fence we’d spent those seven weeks building. It might’ve just been the finest work me and Tom-Bob’d ever done. And, like we’d planned, Ray Junger hit the final stretch -- which we’d covered over with pine needles -- and fell down out of view of the truck’s headlights.
I remember how silent it was when we stepped out of the cab of the truck. I walked over to the hole we’d dug, about seven feet deep and planted that extra re-bar inside like pegs in a board. Ray was layin’ there, stuck through the leg and the belly, face and shirt soaked with blood already. He didn’t say nothing, only just stayed real still, panting, trying to catch his breath. He only started yelling when Tom-Bob started pouring the cement into the hole, but by then... it was too late. We marked that last part of the fence with his body.
Four days passed by without me hearing so much as a word from Tracy. Tommy and I’d go by the house on our way home from this job we’d snagged up in Somerset. The place was always dark. I chalked it up to her going to a hotel or something, but Tommy knew better. He said she’d conned us, that the money was all a ruse. I asked him what a ruse was and he screamed at me that it was like a lie, a big lie. He was awful paranoid at that time. On the fifth night with the house all dark, Tommy was real angry like I’d never seen him before. He was like a simmering pot of water, just waiting to boil over, if you’da asked me. And it was his turn to drive, so when he pulled the truck onto the property, I couldn’t do nothing about it.
We broke in through the back door and immediately my heart sank when we set foot inside that house. It had been cleared the hell out of most of their worldly posessions. She musta done it when we was up working. Her clothes were gone, and the pots from the kitchen were gone. All those bottles of perfume too. Tommy tried to turn on the stove, but the gas wasn’t giving and he said that was a sure sign that she’d gotten the hell outta dodge. Let me tell you, Tommy was fuming. Me? I was just numb. A little sad, but mostly numb. I got to thinking of all the times we’d mussed the sheets and that time I’d said the word Africa. I must’ve sounded like a goddamn fool to her.
So I just stood in the empty hallway while Tommy stormed out through the front door and rifled through the truck. I didn’t really snap out of it when he come back in either. It wasn’t until he started pouring the gasoline, when the fumes hit me, was when I really started paying attention.
“The fuck you think you’re doing?” I asked him.
“The right goddamn thing, Mikey.”
“You’re just gonna burn it all?”
Tom-Bob stopped pouring and looked me dead-serious in the eye, a look I wasn’t accustomed to getting from him. “Don’t you see what she done to you? She played you, man. She let you stick it in her, and she got what she wanted outta you. She knew you were dumber’n a sack of rocks, so she used you, Mikey. Anybody coulda done it, but you had to go and fall for some broad with more smarts than you!”
That wasn’t a fair thing to say, I thought, so I decided to hit Tommy across the jaw right then and there. He took it like the champ he was, but he drawed his little .44 snubnose from the back of his pants. I’s surprised at that, yes I was, because that meant that Tommy had the gun on him more often than not, it being just a normal Saturday and all. But then I thought he probably was gettin’ pretty paranoid about this whole mess anyway, and it made sense. In the time it took for me to come to this conclusion, Tommy was cussing and coming at me with the butt of the thing -- so he hit me across the mouth with it and screamed: “Let me finish this the right way,” but I stopped listening soon as I spit blood on the tile and saw my reflection in the black marble. Tom-Bob had knocked my front tooth out. Seein’ myself this way, with that gap between my face -- it just sent everything over the top, you know? Like I said before, nobody takes a man seriously when he's missing a tooth. Now I’s the pot that was boiling over.
Tommy had already gotten back to dumping the gasoline, so with his back to me he was easy to tackle. We rolled around in the petrol for a little, but this wasn’t some half-tussle. At a certain point the gun became what we was both after, because Tommy must’ve seen the look in my eyes and know’d I was serious as hell. Soon after that, it went off with a loud bang, and the bullet sparked off the tile and set the gas on fire, and it also set Tommy on fire. He was screaming and screaming, but I was covered in gas myself, even had to kick my boot off cuz it was melting to the floor. I ran from the smoking house and waited until Tom-Bob stopped screaming. I didn’t know we’d tripped the silent alarm when we broke in anyway, so the whole thing didn’t really matter. By the time you showed up, and that big house was turned to cinders, the only thing left standing was the fence we spent all summer building.
What can I do to help, officer? I’m not a bad man. The real bad man is buried under a couple hundred pounds of quick-dry. You’ll find him if you dig him up. I guess me just telling you this story is a help. I got nobody else left to back me up, now that Tom-Bob is gone. Hell, I should stop calling him that. Tommy Buckland was his real name. And he got kilt because I was too stupid to know that woman was playing me. Maybe it was because I ain’t got no direction in life, maybe it was because my Pa died when I was real young and he never got to give me the right direction. I don’t really care no more, to be honest. I just want it to be over and done with. So, what you said is still true? I told you all about what really happened to me, and you believe me, right? I can help you get in touch with Tracy, yes sir, I can. I still got some things to say to her, anyway. So how about that for a plan? I help you draw her out, and you can get at that money Ray had stashed away. Wouldn’t that be something -- all those people he screwed over, they’d be able to have some of the fifty mill back, right? And you’d protect me? Because people are gonna come outta the woodwork, probably people Ray Junger worked with in his scheme. And I just want to help, so you’ll have to keep me safe, am I right? Like, I don’t know, witness protection, I think they call it on those shows? Cuz I’m just looking for a way out of this mess. And that seems pretty darned fair to me.
My name is Mike Stokes. People around these parts of Pennsylvaina know I didn’t get no college education. But I don’t have to be smart to know me a pretty girl when I see one. I did, round about eight months ago. Boy-oh, did I ever. See, I was riding up Rt. 76 with my brother-in-law, Tommy -- we call him Tom-Bob, on account of him bobbin’ off to sleep when he gets to drinking -- me and Tom-Bob was riding with a bed full of iron, some we scrapped, some we salvaged. Didn’t matter none how we got it. See we don’t work for no man. And it just so happen that our daddies, they was trained in the fine art of fence-raising. Not some hop-scotch construction site fencing, neither. No sir. This here’s some old-country iron-working. We’ll melt it, forge it, weld it right in place. All on-site and all for the best price-per-foot. You better believe it.
Tom-Bob and I, we do what we always done, riding up and down Rt. 76, knocking on rich people’s doors, and offering them our goods and services. I even got a fine laminated look-book for them to pick out styles like a goddamn diner menu. You want that iron straight as an arrow, or all loopy and artistic-like? Tom-Bob and I can do it custom for ya. Anyway, we find this clunker of a white mansion, looks like the one the president lives in. And it’s just sitting out there in horse country, couple of trees lining the driveway. I took one look at it, told Tommy to pump the brakes, hold the phone, that looks like a house that could use a fence!
We was eating our burritos in the parking lot -- this was a couple hours before, now -- and Tom-Bob and I got to talking, like we usually do. This and that. But I’d been meaning to ask him a question since my Momma passed, which was last winter, so you’re not confused. When she passed, I was all alone. I wasn’t gonna get married, not after what happened with Karly sleepin’ around on me. Everybody thought I was a fool, yes they did. The only thing keepin’ me around was Tom-Bob, and he’d be the first to admit -- he didn’t even like me that much. Everybody around here thought I wasn’t worth shit. But they were wrong, which is really what this whole mess is about.
“Tommy?” I said, cause he didn’t like the nickname none. I says, “Tommy? What do you say we finish up the day, take what we got, and just drive on down out to Atlantic City, buy a boat, and sail the world. How’s that sound? Just get the hell outta Pennsylvania, get the hell outta the grip of this shit-for-nothing job, cause it’s getting tighter and tighter each day.”
Tom-Bob laughed, spit a little of his burrito down his shirt, which made him laugh some more, wiped his face, and said: “Mikey, that’s just about the dumbest shit I’ve heard from your mouth. And you say a lot of dumb shit.”
“I’m serious, man.”
“No -- you’re not.” He laughed some more. “Who said you even knew how to drive a boat?”
“It ain’t that hard, man. You just... go straight. With no roads, and whatnot.”
Tom-Bob crumpled up his burrito wrapper, started the truck up, and didn’t pay me no mind till I pointed out that house, and told him to hold the phone.
The bulky man who answered the door of the white house had a big stain on his shirt. It was the first thing I noticed. Like, spaghetti sauce, or something. And I thought -- man lives in the lap of luxury. First thing I’d do, be change my shirt.
“Why hello, sir.” I started out my usual pitch, the one I heard my daddy run through thousands of times as a kid. You can see it right away. Either they get that look like they’re about to slam the door in your face (and a lot of times they do), or they cross their arms, settle in, and wait to hear ya out. Raymond Junger (’cept he pronounced it Younger, with a Y) stood there, heard me out, and smiled. He was a large man. Not fat really -- just large. Myself, I’m considered on the skinnier, shorter side. Ray Junger was like Goliath. I don’t know if I counted as a David, but you could say we was about to do battle, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
Turns out Ray’d just built this monstrosity of a home only last year. He’d been hearing quotes from contractors come way out from Patterson, but none had met his price. Me and Tom-Bob? Hell, we blew those other quotes right out of the water. I flipped out my laminated menu book and he picked one out right then and there. “Gothic.” Turns out, that was the first one I ever learned how to do, so I know’d he was gonna like it.
Didn’t lay eyes on her till we set up the kiln a couple of days later. They had them three cars parked in the circular driveway. A Benzie, a Rolly, and his squat little Porshee I seen him pull up in. Tom-Bob and I saw her come out the front door, dressed in a tight little pair of jump-rope shorts, with her earbuds dangling, boppin’ to her own tune. Thing was, she didn’t pay Tom-Bob no mind, on account of the thin wistle he let out like a man admiring his own handy work. Nope. She looked straight at me. Looked me up and down, she did. Now, I ain’t been blessed with no James Dean looks or nothing, but I got that spark just as fast as she did. You know the feeling. The spark that lights the fire.
Later that day, she brought us out a cooler filled with bottled water. Just sauntered on out, dragging the thing on its rolly-wheels. It’s when I learnt her name. Tracy. Tracy Junger (Younger). She smiled as she popped open that cooler and handed me a bottle. Some of the, uh, wetness -- ran right down her arm and dripped off the tip of her elbow. I swear I saw it in slow motion, and I just about died.
Working with wrought iron is like a fine art. Tom-Bob says they got some machines’ll tamp out the styles you like in Philadelphia, but I know the only way to truly go about doing it right is with my mitts. So, July the fifteenth, according to my books, me and Tom-Bob set up our kiln and anvil, right there on the Junger’s property, and there we planned to stay until Labor Day. Seven weeks to get that iron up and looking fine, all 900 feet of it. And damn if we didn’t pick the hottest spell the county had seen in some ten years! Man, it was so hot, we’d just about strip down to our skivvies if we could -- professionally speaking. We got ourselves a Mr. Bob porto-John as well, so we didn’t have to track mud and cement through their fine house. But that thing was like a shit-box of stench and fumes, like the Devil heself open up a doorway he’s standing down there hollerin’ “Come on down ya two shit for brains! The water’s fine!” With that kiln running on high, it must’ve been at least a hundred and fifty degrees downwind.
And Tracy, she’d make it a point every day to bring us a fresh cooler of water, like she was growing the bottles on a tree in there. We was about, I’d say two weeks into the job when Tom-Bob come down with the runs -- blamed it on the heat -- and he took his trips to the porto-John on the regular, every half-hour. By the time two o’clock comes around, he’s looking all pale and dehydrated. We done drunk all the water already. So I made it my business to go and knock on that door. That’s really where all the trouble started. Yes, sir. Right then and there.
Tracy answered, glowin’ in the afternoon sun. She wasn’t wearing much, and I could see those skinny legs of hers were as slick as ice. She had a pen in her ear.
“Can I help you?” She asked, like we was completely new to her, like we was first meeting. She had a way about it.
“It’s mighty hot out here, Missus Junger,” I says. And like that, she turns her body to the side, and swings her arm -- for Tom-Bob and I to step right in. She closed the door behind us and that cool-as-hell A/C starts running over my greasy skin like heaven on earth.
“...and we could sure use us some more of that water. If you got some to spare.”
Tracy smiled, and said: “Why of course I do. And don’t ever hesitate to ask!” She even touched me on the arm for a moment, got her fingers all dirty with the kiln dust on my skin. There’s a moment between us...
But Tom-Bob gets that bent-over look, his face all slack. I know what’s shakin’ in his bowels, but she sure don’t.
“Missus Junger, I hate to ask this, but do you think I could use your wash room?” Looked like a down-right shit emergency over in Tommy Land to me, but he was kind enough to keep it together. Tracy shifted her weight, didn’t seem to think too much of it (even with the Mr. Bob outside) and directed Tom down the hall, past the kitchen, and to the left. Tommy didn’t think two seconds before taking off away from us, practically undoing his coveralls as he did.
Tracy, she looked at me and smiled, now that we were all alone.
“Mike, right?” She actually extended her hand, on account of the fact that we hadn’t been properly introduced. I shook it, firm at first, like my Pa always taught me. But when I looked into her bright green eyes, I loosened it up. I didn’t want to hurt her any. “I’m Tracy. None of this Missus Junger. That makes me feel old.” I nodded, and my throat caught for some reason. Tracy removed the pen from her ear and clicked it absentmindedly. She looked the way Tom-Bob went. “Seems like your friend might be a while. Would you come and have a look at something for me?” She smiled again when I didn’t say nothing, just gulped and nodded my stupid head. “Only -- take your boots off first.”
If I’da known she was gonna take me back into the master bedroom, I probably wouldn’t have accepted. The house was cool and quiet, but Tom-Bob coulda hollered for my name at any moment. Hell, Ray, the damn master of the house, he coulda walked in, hollering for his wife as I was doing the most carnal of things to--
But that all came a little later. To begin, Tracy showed me into the bedroom for professional reasons only. Lookin’ back on it, she was real crafty in the way she went about doin’ what she did to me. And let’s not split hairs about that...
She and Ray had some ornamental iron over their fireplace, kinda like a crown on top. It was all twisted and really beautiful, but as soon as she led me past the well-made bed and across the carpet where there was this little sitting area -- I could see that the craftsmanship was just no good. Maybe they got it tamped out from one of those machines in Philly. In any case, the whole piece would have to be reforged from scratch, that much I could tell her. She said Mister Junger was all pissed of because he thought he’d gotten a good deal on it, and she wanted to surprise him with the one I was gonna make for her. That word, surprise, it made me get a funny feeling, kinda like what people call butterflies. I don’t think they feel like that, cause butterflies are nice, but that’s what people call ‘em anyway. She’d even pay me extra. “Like overtime,” she said, with her hands on her hips. Only, I don’t punch a card, so practically all my time is “over time.” I didn’t say that to Tracy, I just thought it in my own quiet little way. “So, it’s just between you and me?” That damn smile, like it was one of a kind. I nodded. Then she led me outta the bed room because Tom-Bob was hollerin’ for us like a lost little puppy.
Well, turns out Tommy come down with much more than just the runs later that week. Full blown bug, is what I’d call it. I didn’t mind going down to the Junger site without him, especially since I didn’t want Tommy knowin’ about the little side project Tracy had assigned me. So, while we wasn’t working in the strictest sense of the word -- I was. “Over time.” By that point, I’d played out every possible scenario in my head, every way it could go. I’d finish up that piece, and ask to be let in so I could install it, and really make sure everything was perfect. She’d be in shorts and a halter -- no bra, nipples all hard. And she’d lead me back, I’d start to make my measurements, but she’d stop me, and we’d just do what us animals were meant to do. She’d take me in her mouth when I was done, and I’d scream her name into the empty halls of that giant house.
I fired up that kiln and it was a scorcher, so I took off my shirt while I worked. Must have sweat a whole swimming pool, hammering at that wrought -- and damn if I didn’t see her peering at me through the drapes.
Mister was out golfing, I seen him leave in the Porschee... So after I took my lunch, I went up and donged that bell. But when Tracy answered the door in dumpy old sweat pants, hair all oily, her face slack like I seen in one of those sad movies -- hell, I just wanted to turn around and drive right on outta there. She looked like she might’ve just gotten word that her Momma had died, cause I know what that feels like. You know I’d built that moment up in my head to a point where it had to be just about perfect to live up. But she saw me holding the piece of wrought by my side, and her mood seemed to cheer up, if only one notch.
I asked her if it was a no-good time, but she insisted, and my god it was hot out there, I must be thirsty. I smiled and she led me inside, where I actually hung the thing and took the old one for scrap. She sat on the edge of the bed and watched me, asking me this or that about how I learned to do what I did. And I told her, like I told you. When I was done, I asked where I could wash my hands, so she showed me to the bathroom -- her bathroom. His was separate, I guess. It had all these dainty little bottles on the counter, filled with perfumes and lotions. And a jar where she kept her Q-tips. Yeah, they got their own jar.
As I’m washing my hands, I can see her in the mirror, coming closer to me. It was a completely silent thing, although I guess the water was running the whole time. But she came up right next to me -- and she turns off the sink. I still had soap on my hands, so I look up, playful... but what I saw in her eyes wasn’t playful. She wa’ant scared of her husband coming home, she wasn’t scared of anything. I could tell. This was something she needed, what we were about to do.
“It takes a strong man to do that to the metal.” I didn’t say nothing to this, because frankly it sounded like it also come from one of those movies. But what she said next, that I did respond to: “You hammer it, you twist it, right? I’ve been watching you, from that window--” and I could see that the bathroom did indeed overlook where we set up our kiln. And when I turn back, she says: “I want you to do to me... what you did to that metal.”
And I says, “I sure can.”
She asked me to be firm, and firmer still when it wasn’t enough. We mussed in those little bottles on her counter, and one of them smashed on the marble, stunk up the room with flowers. But she didn’t mind none, so I didn’t complain. I drug down those sweatpants and gave it to her right there, like all hot and in the moment, as they say. It only lasted a few minutes, and it was in fact her that shouted to the empty hallways. I told Tracy that I was about to finish, and she just kept screaming for me to not stop, so I finished in her, which was what I thought she wanted.
It wasn’t until after, when she pulled off her pants to change, did I see the bruises all up and down her legs.
And just like that, we was makin’ it a regular thing. I’d make some excuse to go on inside (when Ray was out, only when Ray was out) and we’d make it quick. Tom-Bob told me he caught on around the 4th or 5th time, and he confronted me right there in the truck after we’d finished for the day.
“You outta your mind to be fuckin’ a woman like that? Let alone if her hubby find out, the things he gonna do to you. But you go down this route, ain't nothing good gonna come from it except you commin' a few times.
“Say what you gonna say.”
Tom-Bob -- he just shook his head as we came to a stop at the off-ramp to Virgil. He starts laughing to himself. “Shit, boy,” he says. “That’s just what you want, ain’t it?” And again I didn’t say nothing. But that’s what happens when you spend pretty much every waking moment with a person. You get to know them, and they get to knowing you.
Tom-Bob got a great big smile on his face and started laughing. "Shit, man, you gonna tell me how she was in bed, or what?"
I laughed right back and told him we ain't actually done it in the bed yet.
We was about a week and a half to finishing the job, and I got real down on myself. I knew what was gonna happen after that. I’d move on with Tommy to some other site, then winter’d come along, and I wouldn’t have a good excuse to see Tracy no more. And I liked spending all the time with her I could, even if it had to be quick. We had gotten to knowing one another, oh for surely.
For instance, she done told me all about big bad Ray Junger and how he liked to beat on her. She was sure he only did it to make her humiliated, that he didn’t even really like to cause the pain -- well that was part of it, but she said he mostly liked what it did to her when he wasn’t hitting on Tracy. He’d hold her down and strike her in places he know’d her clothing would hide. Winter time it was the legs and arms, with the pants and long-sleeves. Come summer, he’d move in tighter to the body, striking the ribs and whatnot. I seen the bruises, big yellow and black ones across the middle of her back like you’ve never seen.
So the best I could do is try to just hold her after we made it. Sometimes she’d cry, sometimes just lie still. But one time she looked up at me, and she smirked.
“You know why he’s having you build that fence, dontcha?” I shook my head, because I really didn’t know. “To keep me in here. Always.”
That night, as I was four beers in, it kinda hit me like a lightning bolt, the thought that Ray was keepin’ her prisoner in there, and that I was building his cage for him. That, and the fact that Tom-Bob knew that all I wanted to do was get the hell outta Pennsylvania, or America, or Earth. We all kinda trapped, then, ain’t we?
It was on one of the last few days of the job, and we hadn’t made it in a few days because Ray’d been around a lot more than he had before, that she invited me in and told me what she’d been planning. That’s when she asked me to help her kill Ray, and run off with her and all his money.
She said that Ray had stashed somewhere around fifty million, after he’d gotten off the hook with the Feds. And she even showed me a copy of the bank statement! She was carryin’ the damn thing in her robe all day, she said. She begged and pleaded with me, but I just stood up and started putting my pants back on. Because that was not where I thought this whole thing was ever headed, let me tell you. I told her -- bold-faced -- a big, fat, no.
And when she tried to pull the string about knowing I wanted outta this shit hole just as much as she wanted out of her marraige, well that just about set me off. I didn’t like how she said it, and maybe it was the tears, and I just felt like she was graspin’ at straws. But underneath everything, I kinda knew she was aiming straight. Looking back on it, I probably shoulda never even told her how I felt about anything. But she had my heart in her hand, man. In the damn palm.
That day, however, I did walk out of the bedroom leaving her with a “no” answer. And I’m glad I did, too, because as I walked out the front door, here comes Ray Junger driving down the cobblestone, listening to Jazz or some shit cause I could hear it from outside the car. My heart practically flopped outta my mouth as he slowed down and looked me right in the eyes from behind those sunglasses. I could feel it. But, damn, he’d been close to finding us out. Imagine that?
Tom-Bob gave me his usual hard time about it when I came back, grumbling about how it wasn’t fair that I was the one who got to wet his dipper. That next day was a Friday. ‘Swhen I saw Tracy poke her head out for just a second when the Fed-Ex truck came. And I see’d that black eye he’d given her. She was quick about it. But I see’d the importance of that black eye now. Ray had seen me coming outta his home, and he got so furious with the implications of that, he didn’t care if Tracy walked all over town with a big sign on her face, sayin’ “I’ll never do it again.”
And also how it was all my fault to begin with.
That Saturday was Krystal and Vinny’s wedding, and it was a big, black hole of drunk. I needed to just shut it down, anyway. So I drove on out to the lake, where they had it all set up with the stage, and I waited through the damn poems and speeches, while the mommas cried and the rest of the men all waited for the drinking to begin. I just let it all take hold of me, and by the time Tommy shows up, I’m fuckin’ hammered. When he handed me his flask, I done puked in the bushes at the sight of it, told him I felt better, and chugged what was left inside. He clapped me on the back and then I told him I wanted to go get in a fight, so me and Tom-Bob, we picked ourselves a fight. It was a good one, too, because it was the groom’s brother, so at some point it became an out and out brawl between six or seven men. I held my own, Tommy said, but in the end I woke up with the sun in my eye on the grass, missing a tooth. Luckily it wasn’t one of the front ones. I’m not vain or nothing, but not many people take a man seriously without his front tooth in.
Tommy and I got waffles and coffee to nurse our hangovers. And that’s when I told him what’s been going on. I had to tell someone, and Tommy was pretty much all there was. And you know what he says to me? “Let me help,” he says.
END PART 1.
Exactly one week after she found out that Pete Meyer had asked Jennifer O'Connell to senior prom, Shannon awoke with a strange tingling feeling in her right cheek. She hadn't been picked by Pete to walk with him through those big gymnasium doors, and it was all she thought about. In fact Shannon was thinking about it as she padded to the bathroom, and examined a small red puckering just beneath the skin. She could feel the round nodule with the tip of her tongue inside her mouth, sandwiched between two slabs of skin, just festering there.
The trouble was that Shannon and Jen were friends. In their girl-club, known by students and teachers as "The Ponytails" because of the way they wore their hair, Shannon was widely considered to be Jen's consigliere -- playing defense for her in the lunch room against sub-par suitors, gladly hurrying to Jen's locker when she’d forgotten her lip gloss, or tracking down the answers to the Spanish final when one of the tech nerds scored them from Mr. Molina’s computer. If a murder of Ponytails were walking down the hall, it would be Shannon's job to quell the asides, something out of a Baltimore street corner: "Ponytails comin'!" When the lacrosse team found out that the Ponytails would be making their presence known at Dan, the captain’s, party earlier that year, and one of them wrote on Dan's Facebook wall: "There will be blowjobs," Shannon very proudly nipped that one in the bud.
"Nice third eye," joked Shannon's dad from behind his e-reader when she came down to join him for breakfast. She shot her dad a shit-eating scowl, and dove into her granola. The stuff tasted like she'd felt recently. Chalky and grey, a poor substitute for anything. Shannon’s application to Vanderbilt was rejected, and she was wait-listed at Brown. It seamed like everyone was getting into their dream schools, on their way to doing great things... While poor Shannon got left behind in the dust. Mr. Perkins, her softball coach, even pulled her into his office to tell her she looked like a zombie out there. Then, like the icing on the cake, Pete asked Jen. Word on the street was that he'd had eyes for Shannon initially, especially since they'd hooked up on the senior trip. Now all The Ponytails were cooing over the snub. So Shannon took all her disappointment and anger, and she balled it up inside. It festered for a week, but now it was coming to a head.
When she excused herself to the ladies room during third period, the pimple on her cheek had inflated into a shiny, red pustule with a perfect little white-head in the center. The thing just screamed "Pop me!" So she did. All over the bathroom mirror -- a squirt of fine, white puss speckled with milky, red. Shannon could feel her cheek drain gloriously... and in that moment, a voice played thinly through her mind, like the voice of a very sick, very ancient woman. Even though the voice was foreign, unfamiliar to Shannon... she smirked at it, taking satisfaction in the very dubious things it said. The voice was right. Shannon had played second fiddle for far too long. She deserved to be in Pete's arms, not Jen. Like a witch, the voice said: "Jenny O'cunt. She deserves what's coming to her!!" She blotted the pimple, applied some coverup, and returned to class feeling a weight had been lifted. She knew now how to proceed.
The next day at school, Shannon met up with three other Ponytails at their locker. They shot her a concerned glance, and when she asked them what was up, one of them laughed and rolled her eyes. The three girls parted like the red sea when Jenny showed up, face red, and eyes wet. She stormed up to Shannon and pointed her finger at her: "YOU'RE the cunt for doing that you did," she shouted, turning several heads. Jen eyed the crusty, red, about-to-burst-again fistule on Shannon's face with disgust. It was now three times the size it was the day before. Then she stormed off in a fit of tears, coddled by her subordinates. "How could she? We were friends!" Shannon heard her say.
The night before Shannon had made a Facebook account under the avatar "Jenny O'Cunt" and left a scathing tirade on Jennifer's wall. "I heard Jenny sucked a guy's cock in the men's bathroom at a Girl Talk show last June." (All The Ponytails had been there, and they all knew it was true, but were sworn to absolute, triple pinky-swear secrecy) The post linked to Pete's profile, and asked him directly: "Still want to take this slut to prom???" Shannon clocked the maneuver as a success when she noticed that Jen and Pete were not sitting together during lunch period like they had been all last week. Shannon sat by herself, occasionally fielding stern looks from the other Ponytails. Her turkey sandwich tasted absolutely divine.
That morning, Shannon had raided the skincare shelf at Wall-Greens on her way into school. After quickly finishing lunch, she booked it to the ladies room. She laid out the creme, the foaming face wash, the benzyle peroxide... In the mirror she could see that the pimple was ready for another draining, something she had been looking forward to all day. She picked the scab open with her fingernail. As she squeezed and squeezed, cheek turning bright red with the pressure applied, the white infection squirted out like toothpaste from a tube. It was really remarkable how much was in there, Shannon thought. This time, however, Shannon's eyes went wide with concern. There, buried deep in the flesh, was a small black node, a seedling-sized discoloration just below the surface.
A sharp pain suddenly pierced her cheek like a hot coal, sending searing lightning up into her eye socket, her sinuses, and beyond. Shannon stood bolt upright from the pain, and squeezed the infected skin between her knuckles, which only turned the pain dial up to 15. Her eyes watered and her vision became blurry for a moment... The voice in her head spoke once again. This time it told her to do something even more egregious than harmless word-slinging. "It's time to step this puppy into high gear, Shannon. Prom is only 8 days away, Shannon. It's do-or-die, Shannon!"
Shannon, entranced by the other-woman shrill in her mind, lowered her hands to the sink, cluttered with the skincare products she had purchased that morning. She gazed from them, back to the weeping wound on her face. Shannon lifted the bottles and jars up in her arms and dumped them in the trash just as a hipster chick walked in on her. She stopped to look at the bloody open wound on Shannon's face for just a beat too long. "The fuck you looking at, bitch?" snarled Shannon as she walked out. "Zen out, Ponytail," the hipster laughed as Shannon dashed back out into the hallway.
The next morning Shannon awoke to a spectacular pain in her cheek. She went to inspect, and found that the pimple there had multiplied into a small cluster of puss-filled sacks in her face, arranged like scales on a reptile, one on top of the other. That black node beneath her skin had grown in size as well... almost seemed to be coiled up, an embryonic form of infection waiting to be birthed. Shannon resisted the urge to pull her hair back into a ponytail today. Instead, she let her dark locks hang down over the right side of her face. The witchy voice inside her head told her it would all be over soon. “So soon.”
At the end of lunch, Shannon approached the Ponytails at their table. She carried with her a baking tin filled with cupcakes she had baked the night before. She noticed the way some of the girls regarded her... then Tess Lautner tapped Jen on the shoulder, alerting her to Shannon’s wraith-like presence. Her hair hung in strings over her right cheek, exposing only her left eye. She looked pail, used up, and tired. Shannon offered the tin to Jen, hands outstretched. “I made you these,” she said meekly. Jen pried open the tin, revealing the chocolate covered delights. “Mrs. Fields. Your favorite.”
Jen laid the tin out in the middle of the table. She glared around at all the other girls as she addressed Shannon: “Why the fuck would I eat anything you made me?” Shannon lowered her head. “I’m sorry for what I did. It was totally wrong, and I know now that I was just being... a bitch. I made these as a peace offering.” Jen still looked skeptical. “They’re not poisoned or anything,” she said. Shannon snatched a cupcake and took a big, gluttonous bite out of it. As her face stretched to engulf the tasty treat, she could feel the pull of the scab, like a piece of too-tight tape. She wiped some of the frosting from her mouth, smiling with teeth stained black. “See? I’m not dead.”
Jen reached for a cupcake, then retracted her hand again. “Still. That was some crazy talk, Shannon. We tripple pinky-swore! I’ll never tell you another secret.”
Shannon smiled. “Cupcakes make everything better, Jen.”
Jen mulled that detail over, and then finally took a big old bite... and the rest is history. After the ambulances came and took Jen to the hospital, Shannon was panged with thethought: “If only I’d put just a little more peanut butter in there. It just might’ve done the trick.”
Jen was severely allergic to peanuts, which Shannon knew full well. She took one swallow of the laced cupcake, and her throat began closing up immediately. As she tilted back in her chair, readying for a full-on episode of anaphylactic shock... Shannon’s heart rate elevated, and she realized that she could feel the gash in her cheek pulsing with each downbeat of her heart.
Shannon came home bathed in a euphoria of revenge. She had seen the paramedics loading Jen into the cab of the ambulance, and it had filled her with great joy. When she saw her father sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for her to return, her glow faded. “Have a seat,” her dad said. “How was your day?” He asked.
Shannon averted her eyes. “Fine.”
“Fine? Okay, because I just got off the phone with your principal. She said Jen got sick today. She said that you had something to do with it. Your own friends... they say you knew that she had an allergy. They say you did it intentionally because of--”
“Oh, what the hell do they know?” Shannon growled. Of course The Ponytails had ratted her out. Shannon’s dad crossed his arms. “I saw those things you wrote on Facebook. Shannon. Over a guy? Come on...”
“Daddy...” she pleaded. Her pulse increased, the fissure on her face throbbing. She could feel it up in her eye socket.
“It was all an accident,” she said.
Dad was having none of it. “Well, they’re barring you from going to prom anyway,” he said.
Shannon couldn’t believe her ears. An anger rose in her. Her dad went on to say more, but her world was filled with a white-hot searing sensation, a whine which drowned out the world. Shannon stormed up to her bedroom, absolutely fuming. She slammed her door, and found her phone ringing: PETE, it said. She quickly answered, breathless. “Oh god, Pete. Thank god you called.”
The voice on the other end was hushed. “I can’t believe you would do something like this,” said Pete. “I’m here with her now. Jen could have died.” The witchy-voice inside Shannon’s head spoke up, but Shannon pushed it away as she listened to Pete continue: “We might’ve hooked up that one time, but... for you to go and do this... I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re a terrible person. You need to hear that. You’ve totally lost sight of everything that’s--”
Shannon recoiled from the phone like it bit her. She hung up in Pete’s face, her very core vibrating with regret. But it was already too late. She’d ruined everything for herself, for Jen, for any semblance of moving forward in a happy way.
As she sat there with her head in her hands, the dull pulse in her face sent her mind reeling. Shannon stood up, slowly padding over the carpet in her bedroom... toward the desk... where she swiped an open pair of scissors from atop it. “What are you doing, Shannie? What’s running through your pretty head? ‘Cuz I can’t get a read on ya.”
Shannon felt the cold tile underneath her feet as she flicked on the bathroom light. Her face in the mirror was almost unrecognizable to her. Gaunt, yellowed, the patch of oozing skin on her cheek the only place where a flush existed, as if it were drawing the blood to it unnaturally. She didn’t bother to examine it any closer.
Instead, she brought the point of the scissors up through her cheek, filling her eye with blood. The pain was incredible, dribbling down through her body like poisoned milk through the depths of a cup of coffee. When the pain reached her feet, Shannon twisted the scissors fully round.
She felt something weighted and twitching, something -- dare she say it -- something alive tumble out from between her flayed cheek and land with a splat in the blood-filled sink. Shannon fell to her knees, the feeling of pressure blissfully relieved. She toppled forward in a heap, and it was lights out for her.
In the momentary lapse induced from loss of blood and shock, Shannon dreamed the following (and it had to be a dream, because it was just too fucking weird):
Shannon awakes again, face down in a puddle of her blood. She briefly has the sensation that someone or something is watching her. She groggily turns over to see a small, scraggly figure standing on the edge of the sink, looking down. Lit from behind, this pale, four-inch pygmy is covered in blood and infection. Thin strands of hair hang down from its head, and it is distinctly female. Shannon just stares at it, wondering and knowing at the same time about its origin. Then the tiny thing sprints along the counter, leaps onto the toilet, and lands in a puddle of Shannon’s blood on the floor. It’s here that she can see it clearly, she can see the loose way its skin hangs, she can see the way its face looks... like a tiny, scrunched up version of her own. The thing laughs at her -- and when it laughs, it laughs the laugh of the witch-voice from inside her head. Then it takes off running, leaving tiny, demented footprints of blood across her bedroom carpet. Shannon begins to woozily follow the footprints down the stairs in her house, through the foyer, and eventually out the front door, before the dream cuts to a hospital room--
--Jennifer O’Connell’s hospital room, where she sleeps soundly, her allergic reaction under control. Shannon sees the tiny, bloody footprints across the floor... the streaks of it that run up the IV tubing, pitter-patter across Jen’s pillow, and lead to a terrible tableau. There is the creature born from the infection in Shannon’s face -- there it stands, trying to crawl its way into Jen O’Connell’s cheek now. The thing has torn a hole in the young girl’s face, and is stretching it to make room for itself inside a new host, to hibernate and fester there and grow into hell knows what.
Shannon snatches the homunculus between her thumb and forefinger, snatches it by the head. It twitches and tries to get free, all the while screaming at her in witch-speak. This thing has been inside her body for some time, and in the dream logic, it knows all her darkest secrets and desires. It screams them at Shannon -- but Shannon doesn’t fall for it this time. She squashes the atrocity mid-tirade between her palms. The residue of it runs down like so much jelly, and when it splashes at her feet--
--Shannon woke up, remembering the dream from a few nights before. She was home now, resting. The doctors had sewn up her cheek and ordered her to undergo some psychiatric testing. She was saying some pretty strange things. The shrink told her she’d experienced an episode, and that self-mutilation was more common in girls her age than people thought. This made Shannon fell a bit more at ease... but she couldn’t shake the dream, or the feeling that there had been something real about it. The voices were gone now. Shannon was left alone with her thoughts.
Shannon spent prom night with her dad. They went out to Chinese food and then watched a movie on Netflix. It was a pretty great night. When the movie ended, she pulled the blanket up to her father’s chin and left him sleeping there on the couch. She went upstairs and absentmindedly browsed Facebook... where kids were already posting pictures from the dance. She scrolled through several of them, until she came to the one of Jen and Pete donning crowns, voted King and Queen. Shannon smiled, thinking that they looked so happy, backlit by the blue twinkle lights hung across the auditorium. How perfect for them.
The next photo of the happy couple was washed out by another camera’s flash. Shannon leaned in closer. She could see it in the harsh light, even though Jen had used concealer. A small, gnarled bump on her cheek.
And it looked just about ready to be popped.
The first time Nancy saw the man in the good looking suit was at her housewarming party, right after the new year. Nancy decided to throw the fiesta to help herself cope with the post-holiday blues, that long stretch of time between January and March when the sun never comes out in San Francisco. Her best friend Vera was sitting with Nancy, gabbing away on the couch. Several people had come already to tell her how lovely the place was, how the built-ins were cute, and isn’t the view just the tits? Nancy glared between the crowd standing in her living room, and got just a peak at him from behind, standing on her fire escape with a group of others, smoking an unfiltered cigarette. The timeless style of his suit was revealed as he turned, staring at her intensely, and walked to the left.
“Who invited that guy?” Nancy asked Vera. She motioned to Good Looking Suit as he walked out of view. Vera just missed him. “Did you see him? He’s kinda overdressed.” Vera laughed her off.
“I don’t know, Nance. It’s your place. Maybe you should go and check him out.”
Nancy’s gut reaction was that Vera was right. But she hesitated. And she a had good reason to. His name was Dan. Dan Brubaker, her previous boyfriend of eleven months. The last time she saw Dan, he said some pretty awful things to Nancy. She never told Vera, or anybody for that matter, exactly what he said. She simply told them they were over, done, kaput. On to the next one. And she certainly didn’t tell anybody about that night she’d popped over to Dan’s apartment, and caught him. Doing what, exactly, she sometimes refused to even let herself believe. No, she’d never tell about that.
After Dan, Nancy had gone through a long bout of the shut-ins. Straight to work, then back to her broom closet in the southern part of the city where she sat watching trash TV, and trying to forget what had happened. In truth, Nancy stayed in because of that plastic bag and the sound it made. Then the phone calls where Dan said nothing on the other end of the line. And the hate texts. Then, one day in November, Nancy awoke to Dan knocking on the door of her apartment. He was there to make good on his promise, that terrible last thing he’d said. Nancy screamed so loud the lady across the hall knocked on the door, and lo-and-behold, Dan did not get to finish. The next day, Nancy began looking, and the apartment in the Embarcadero fell in her lap. She acted quickly, and she certainly didn’t tell Dan Brubaker where she’d gone.
But she wasn’t ready to follow after the man in the good looking suit. She’d already had a few beers, and was nursing the glass of wine Vera had poured her and she worried she'd come across drunk. Plus, it was cold out there in February. She suddenly felt very sad about her predicament, knowing that the party would eventually dwindle. She would most likely wind up in her pajamas in a couple of hours anyway, and spend tomorrow nursing the hangover she deserved for mixing wine and beer...
...three hours after her new apartment had cleared out, she saw the man in the good looking suit again -- standing on her fire escape, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, watching her through the open window. It was raining. That was the first thing that struck her as odd. That it was raining, and he was out there smoking. Only she had watched all her friends leave. This apartment was palatial by bay area standards, but Nancy would have known if someone else was here with her.
She stalked over to the window just as Good Looking Suit broke his gaze with her, and took a few steps to the left, out of sight. Nancy threw open the pane and followed out onto the fire escape, soaking wet nine stories up... But the man was gone. She glared over the railing, hoping he hadn’t chosen her house warming party as the perfect setting for some suicide grab, and found herself relieved that there was no crumpled body lying in the glare of a streetlight below. “Okay, weird...” she told herself. But she was tipsy and her neighbor could probably see right through her blouse it was so wet, so she’d better go inside--
WHAM! The window to her apartment slammed closed behind her, giving Nancy a fright. When she went to open it, the window was stuck shut. Nancy shoved, putting her shoulder into it, but the thing just wouldn’t budge. As she drunkenly thought to herself, “See? This is what you get for moving to an apartment you can barely afford, and throwing yourself a congratulatory party you can barely finish--” when she saw the man in the good looking suit behind her in the reflection of the rain-splattered glass. Nancy gasped as the man’s reflection... smiled at her. That smile said -- “Hello, nice to meet you, Nancy. Even out here in the rain.”
But when Nancy turned around -- the man was gone again. Just as suddenly as it had slammed shut, the window behind her raked open with a SCREECH. The billowing curtains, flecked with fat drops of rainwater, beckoned Nancy back inside... but suddenly she didn’t want to go. Suddenly, her flesh broke out in goose pimples. Suddenly, she wished she’d never even moved here in the first place.
She stood there several moments in the rain, coaxing herself back into her home. “Do it, Nancy. You’re seeing things Nancy. Go to bed, Nancy. Sleep it the fuck off.”
Nancy took a defiant step off of the fire escape, and back into the warmth of her apartment, expecting to see the man in the good looking suit there -- standing, smoking, smiling. But he wasn’t. Instead, there was nothing.
Nancy turned, and closed the window, pausing for a moment to look out into the rainy San Francisco night, just to make sure she wasn’t crazy. She stood close enough for her breath to fog against the glass, and then lept away from it when she saw, written in the condensation, the words: SAFE LIFE.
SAFE LIFE. She began to see it everywhere in her apartment. It was scrawled into her wallpaper, so she patched over it. Her printer suddenly spit out pages and pages, SAFE LIFE written in every font available to her word processor. So Nancy turned off the printer. She’d gone through a few phone numbers already, due to the text messages. SAFE. LIFE.
Always coupled with a vision of Good Looking Suit gazing intently through her windows. It was a gaze reserved for men trying to attract the attention of a woman across a crowd of people, at a bar, or a concert. It was a gaze that said this man wanted her. A gaze that made Nancy shiver each time she saw him. He never spoke, he only ever looked at her through the windows. She’d walk by one, see his reflection, and then it’d slam open. The doors too. Hinges splintered when she saw Good Looking Suit in the bathroom mirror, and the door -KRAM!- flew unbolted. She’d find the front door wide open in the mornings sometimes, puddles in the living room from the gaping picture window. Finally, the kitchen knives. Always on the tile floor in the morning. Woken from sleep one night by her bedroom door slamming open, Nancy went to the kitchen for some water, where she witnessed the top drawer slide open, all her steak knives jump out on their own volition, and fly across to the wall opposite, where they stuck there. “Nancy, get the fuck outta here,” she said to herself.
When she went online to start looking for a new place on Craigslist, the cursor on the browser just kept ticking: safelifesafelifesafelifesafelife.
Nancy stood up from her desk so hard her chair fell over. She screamed at the empty apartment, dialed Vera on instinct, got her voice mail, and stormed out of her home.
Nancy had never dealt with... a situation quite like this one. Naturally, she thought the only solution would be to quietly step away from this, like she did with Dan. She calmly entered her SafeWay, looking for the Real Estate Weekly, because the man in the good looking suit certainly couldn’t stop her from doing this the old fashioned way. She bought her paper, and as she stood in line at the check out... there was Dan Brubaker, watching another clerk put some oranges into a plastic bag. “Better double up,” Dan said.
Suddenly filled with a pang of oh shit please don’t let him see me paranoia, Nancy turned and edged down the aisle, edging out the door. The three blocks home were a tunnel vision of anxiety, and she felt pissed at herself for allowing Dan to have this effect on her, almost a year later... but it was seeing those bags in his hands, and thinking about what he’d done with the last one, that set her stomach in knots.
Nancy swore she heard his footsteps behind her the whole way home, the bag with the oranges in it making a swish-swish at his side. No, no, no. He hadn’t seen her. She couldn’t even bring herself to turn and look back. Especially not the footsteps in the stairwell behind her, coupled with the sound of someone crinkling what could only be a plastic bag, soft thuds on the cement -- oranges falling out? -- as she briskly entered her hallway, digging for her keys. Nancy entered her front door, and turned to slam it closed -- but Dan had followed her home from the grocery store... it was, she realized later, the first time in months she hadn’t thought of the man in the good looking suit.
Dan took advantage of Nancy’s unlocked apartment door, and shoved her inside, knocking her onto her ass. “Nice place you got here, Nance,” he said. Dan removed the crumpled plastic grocery bags, empty of their oranges, from his back pocket. He stared at them with great intensity, as if somehow possessed by the crackling Celloplast.
“You thought you got away, Nance,” he said, standing over her on the floor. “But after what you saw?” Even though she’d put it out of her mind all these months, the image came flooding back to Nancy. Dan, in his living room, with the woman in the short leather skirt. She was topless, his pants were off, and he had that plastic bag over her head, the bottom pulled tight around her neck, her lips shown in relief, her panicked breath sucking the bag in-out-in-out with a sickening, repetitive, crunch-suck-crunch. Nancy knew why she tried to forget it. Because of this very moment. Because of what Dan had said after she’d dumped him. “I’ll find you, Nance. I’ll show you what it’s like to have the bag. And I’ll make you like it.”
Dan stomped forward, and Nancy tried to crawl out from under him -- but she was too shocked and he was too quick. The plastic grocery bag crinkled in front of her face and she read the oncoming words. SafeWay: Ingredients For Life. As the bag was shoved down over her head, Nancy could see the word SAFE in her left eye, and the word LIFE in her right one. And it was here that Good Looking Suit popped right back into her head.
Nancy knelt there on the wood floor of her apartment, gasping for air. She could feel Dan against her back as he stood behind her, choking the life out of her wind pipe. SAFE -- LIFE. These two words she’d seen all around the apartment, so clear and vivid before her eyes now. Not a taunt from the ghost in the good looking suit, but instead: a warning. “Too bad,” thought Nancy, as she struggled beneath Dan’s grip. “Too bad I didn’t decipher that earlier.”
Nancy refused to let this thought of defeat and regret be her very last, but it was all that ran through her head as her vision of the two words SAFE and LIFE began to fade, the inside of the plastic bag becoming wet and slick with her heavy breathing. Her world faded, becoming a narrow pin hole of light.
Nancy faintly made out the sound of something crashing open across the room, the zipping she heard made by multiple projectiles grazing past her. The THUMP on the floor beside her... the feeling of the bag over her head suddenly coming loose -- her hands, prickly with sensation, reaching up and tearing the thing from her face. Nancy turned...
...to find Dan, askew on the carpet, his chest and neck riddled with every kitchen knife Nancy thought she owned.
Nancy stood, coughing, in her empty apartment. She watched as Dan spat blood in his death throws, gurgling, then lay still.
Nancy ran to the front door, desperate to get out and away. When she opened it, Nancy got only about three inches of purchase, before it slammed closed again on its own volition -- like a pressure had suddenly been applied from the inside out. Then all the windows in the apartment smashed open so hard, the glass broke -- gusting cold air all around Nancy.
Nancy spun round in a circle, eyes frantically falling on Dan’s plastic bag twirling in a corner, pinned there by some unnatural force. From the fire escape, the man in the good looking suit glared at Nancy with that lusty, across-the-bar stare. She swore she could smell the smoke from his cigarette waft into the apartment. A warm quivering ran through her torso as she looked from the spectre to Dan’s body on the floor. She realized that he had saved her from Dan, from certain death. It was the nicest thing anybody had ever done for her.
Then suddenly Nancy was ready. She was ready to introduce herself to this dashing man in his dashing suit. “How can I ever thank you?" she asked. "I don’t even know your name."
The man’s lips did not move, but his cool voice ran through her head -- a voice filled with vibrato, the hint of an accent Nancy couldn’t quite place. It was beautiful.
“May I come in?” said the man in the good looking suit.
"Yes, of course," replied Nancy.
And then he told her his name.