ALL SAINTS BY ALEN TEN-HOEVE A STORY IN 3 PARTS

Horror, Short Stories

PART 3

The laxative I’d eaten after school had just taken effect. I’d been down the street begging for candy from behind a hockey mask when my stomach made that first unmistakable gurgle. I almost didn’t make it home in time.

While my insides emptied into the bowl and the stink rose around me, I heard trick-or-treaters on the street outside, laughing and whooping as they went from house to house, filling their bags and pillow cases, and remembered something Father Mognahan had said that week during his sermon: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.”

When the next morning arrived, I was one of only a few students who didn’t dress up for All Saints’ Day. My school uniform stuck out in a sea of fake beards, robes, and head coverings. The air was filled with the giddy anticipation that comes with any change to the usual, drab schedule. At lunchtime, kids shared and traded their Halloween candy from the night before. Piled it on the table in front of them to see who had the biggest haul. I opened my brown bag, set one single chocolate bar on the table beside my sandwich, and waited.

Saint Francis of Assisi and his disciples emerged from the crowd of other saints. They eyeballed the mounds of brightly wrapped candy on the tables and took anything they wanted. I didn’t watch, but I could feel Todd getting closer. As if we were connected by something spiritual. When he snatched my foil wrapped bar he slapped me so hard on the back I could feel it in my chest.

“Nice!” he said. “I was getting tired of those brownies.”

The smell of styling mousse and bad breath lingered as I watched Todd finish his rounds then sit with his buddies in the corner where they divvied up their take. One of the other saints reached for my chocolate bar. Todd smacked his hand away. I watched him rip off the foil, pull down his fake beard, and eat the whole bar, all twelve cubes in three big bites.

I unwrapped my sandwich and tried not to smile.

Next period I was sitting with my class in the church five pews from the front. The first row was reserved for those giving speeches. Mrs. Bonner, the organist, played a slow, indistinct tune as the saints, cloaked in the smoke of burning incense and led by Father Mognahan, slowly made their way down the aisle.

My body buzzed with anticipation. But I had to be patient. Father Mognahan talked for a long time. He read from Revelations, John, and Matthew. He gave a homily. And there were a lot of psalms and prayers to get through, a lot of standing and kneeling. More than in a regular mass. My ass went numb. It felt like it wasn’t there. I had no ass. I wondered if anyone else felt like they had no ass. I imagined leaning toward Sister Mary Ellen, loudly whispering, “Do you have an ass?” and tried not to laugh.

Finally it was time for the speeches.

Many of the girls had chosen to dress up as Joan Of Arc. They approached the pulpit wearing cardboard armor, hair tied up or hidden under short, dark wigs. It was hard to tell the boys apart. Saints didn’t care about individual style. Lots of robes, halos, beards and mumbling. The stained glass was dull. No sun. I watched the old Italian women light candles and pray.

Todd, the star of the show, went last.

I had watched the back of Todd’s head through the whole mass. He seemed calm. I started to worry something had gone wrong, but when he got up to give his speech, I saw the strained look on his face and forgot all about my numb ass. Beads of sweat trailed down Todd’s forehead as he read through the same script as the last two years. It dripped into his eyes and beard. Rolled down the long fake hairs. He wiped it away and knocked his halo crooked. The stigmata rubbed off, leaving a bright red smear on his forehead. He tried to read his speech faster but lost his place, stumbled over words. By the time Todd came to the part about how Saint Francis could tame wolves and flocks of birds, he was leaning on the pulpit like it was the only thing holding him up. Father Mognahan and the altar boys frowned at each other but didn’t move. Giggles bubbled up from the pews, followed by shushing sounds from nuns.

Todd came to the end. He talked about how Saint Francis died singing Psalm 141 and, breathing hard into the microphone, recited the words through gritted teeth, pausing longer and longer between each line. When he finished, “Guard me from the trap they have set for me, from the snares of evildoers,”he stopped short and clutched his arms around his stomach as a long, wet fart ripped through the silent church. The place erupted in screams and laughter that drowned out any shushing. Todd moaned into the microphone, backed away from the pulpit, and crumpled to the floor, ripping more farts on the way down. He tried to crawl away. A dark spot spread on the back of his robe. Something ran down his legs, into his stupid sandals. Then the smell crashed over everyone like an invisible wave.

“Todd shit himself!” someone called out.

Saints scattered from the pews. Todd’s buddies trampled each other to get away. Father Mognahan ran off into the sacristy with his stole pressed to his nose. A couple of nuns waddled up to Todd, tried to lift him to his feet and drag him away, their heads turned from the smell, faces pinched in disgust. Todd farted every time they tugged. A bird fell off his shoulder.

I stood up. Savored the tingling sensation as feeling returned to my ass cheeks. Looked around the church. Everyone fleeing. Retching. Laughing. Everyone except the old Italian women, who went about their business. Like nothing different was happening.


Alan ten-Hoeve wrote Notes from a Wood-Paneled Basement (Gob Pile Press), Burn-KLR10
(Malarkey Books), Bob and Me-From Parts Unknown Anthology (Daily Drunk Magazine).
Tweets @alantenhoeve

ALL SAINTS BY ALAN TEN HOEVE – A STORY IN THREE PARTS

Short Stories

Part 2

Mom had to get a second job. She couldn’t pick me up right after school. So an arrangement was made. At dismissal I walked to a nursery school a few blocks away and waited for her to get me between shifts. I kept it quiet. I felt embarrassed having to wait for my mom with a bunch of three-year-olds. But there was a Krauszer’s along the way. I’d stop in for a candybar. Eat it on a bus bench. I liked to watch the traffic go by on the boulevard. Listen to the birds. Or the conversations of the people waiting for the bus. I grew to cherish that time. Found myself looking forward to it during class. It was all mine.

Until it wasn’t.

On a Monday afternoon I was slow at packing up for the day and Sister Mary Ellen felt the need to remind me that mom would be picking me up at the nursery school. She said it loud enough for my classmates to hear.

Fucked by a nun.

Word made the rounds by the next day. From then on Todd and his buddies followed me to the nursery school almost every afternoon. They puffed on cigarettes and taunted me the whole way. “Aw, whatsa mattah? Lil’ baby need his diaper changed? Lil’ baby need a nap?” Then flick their half-smoked butts at me. They followed me into Krauszer’s so I stopped going. I hurried by its tempting red and white sign as fast as I could without running. But even once inside the nursery school I wasn’t safe. I’d be sitting in a tiny chair, watching cartoons with the little kids while trying to ignore Todd and his buddies as they made faces at me in the window. Cranked up their middle fingers. Formed an O with one hand and penetrated it with a finger on the other hand while mouthing my nickname. Stopping only when Miss Janet had enough and chased them off. But Todd and his buddies would reappear in the window a few minutes later.

In addition to the stalking and the lunchroom and hallway abuse, Todd started messing with me in the courtyard during outdoor recess. One time he tripped me in a game of tag he wasn’t even playing in. I fell to the pavement. Tore my only pair of pants. Everybody laughed. Todd smiled and flipped his hair. Girls swooned. The recess bell, a sound that once brought sweet relief from dreary classes, now only filled me with anxiety about what would happen next. How far it would go. Sometimes the nuns saw Todd’s behavior, but they’d just look the other way. Deliver themselves from evil.

Mom stitched my pants with some thread that didn’t quite match the navy blue fabric and yelled at me about being more careful. I told her about the fall but left out the part about being tripped. I didn’t want to bother her with it. Though my parents had divorced they still managed to maintain the fighting. Every time I was dropped off for visitation with dad there was more drama. Child support checks never came on time, if they came at all.

“Why do you pull this shit?” mom would ask.

Dad always said the same thing. “There’s more than one way to nail someone to a cross.”

So she was just too busy to care much about what happened at school. Whenever I had trouble her only advice was to tell the teachers.

“That’s what they’re paid for,” she’d say in exasperation.

There wasn’t anyone else I could turn to. I didn’t have friends to back me up if I stood up to Todd and his cronies. It seemed hopeless. I imagined the taunting would continue for the rest of my life. Todd was rich so he would never have to work. He’d just follow me around, show up to my job and make fun of me there all day. I had to do something. What that something was, I didn’t know. The answer came to me on Halloween day.


ALL SAINTS BY ALAN TEN HOEVE – A STORY IN THREE PARTS

Short Stories

PART 1

Mass was mandatory for students at Body of Christ Elementary. Three days a week during school hours. Like a regular class. The wooden pews had no padding. My ass cheeks would sweat and itch in my polyester uniform pants, then go completely numb halfway through the service. We weren’t allowed to move around. Unless told to stand or kneel, we were to remain in our place and face forward at all times. If no one was looking, I’d press my palms on the seat, push my ass up just enough to feel the blood flow back in and hope Sister Mary Ellen didn’t catch me “fidgeting.”

But I didn’t mind too much.

My aunt Marie said religion is what you make of it. In church I could zone out. Daydream without worry of being called on to answer a question I hadn’t heard. Watch the sunlight play with the stained glass windows. Or track the old Italian women from the neighborhood. They were always there. Wore all black with shawls tied over their gray heads and moved about like ghosts among the living. Independent of our mandatory worship as they lit candles in front of the Madonna and prayed for the dead. Faces folded in deep lines mapping years of pain. Their sorrow was the only thing that felt real inside that church. Sometimes I liked to pretend that I was the only one who could see them. Or that they didn’t really exist at all.

I wish I could’ve done the same for others.

During one mass at the beginning of fourth grade, I was trying not to yawn wide enough to draw attention from the nuns, when someone in the pew behind me tapped my shoulder and leaned close to my ear.

“Do you like doggystyle?”

I didn’t have to turn around to know it was Todd Evers. I could smell the styling mousse and bad breath. Todd was a year older than me. A popular fifth grader who always knew the right things to say to the right people. Girls looked at him with dreamy eyes. Swooned anytime he’d flip his hair, or flashed his perfect white teeth. In the cafeteria he and his buddies would swagger between tables and steal food from other kids’ lunches. This included the Little Debbie brownies mom packed for me.

When I didn’t answer his question right away, Todd asked again. I’d never heard the word doggystyle before. Had no idea what it meant. Not wanting to seem dumb or draw attention, I nodded my head. The smell of styling mousse was back near my shoulder. Hot, rotten breath on my ear. His voice barely a whisper, Todd called me another word I’d never heard before. This time I twisted around. I saw him and his buddies snickering. Their well-fed faces scrunched up in ruddy delight. I had given the wrong answer.

Sister Mary Ellen hissed my name. “Quit fidgeting!”

I snapped forward. Father Monaghan was at the altar, changing bread and wine into body and blood. Todd and his buddies were still laughing. Just loud enough for me to hear.

Before that day in church I was just one of the many faceless kids Todd picked on from time to time. Now I had a target on my back. He wielded my new nickname like a blade he’d spent all day sharpening. Combining it with other words and phrases. He stabbed me with it as he made fun of my high-water pants, clip-on tie, and stained shirt. A school uniform that broadcasted to everyone that I only owned one. Other kids would stare and laugh when Todd did this. Even the ones he bullied and stole from. They were just happy the attention was off them.

My pocket dictionary didn’t have the word doggystyle—it went from doggy bag to doghouse—but it did have the other word, which it defined as: “A drudge: menial. —v. To work to the point of exhaustion. Slang. A cigarette.”

It didn’t make any sense.

I thought about asking mom what the words meant, but something stopped me. An instinct that it could complicate things. Raise other questions I wouldn’t want to answer. I considered the possibility that Todd didn’t know what the words meant either. But I knew it wasn’t what the words meant that mattered. What mattered was that I wasn’t supposed to like it.

I yearned for my earlier troubles. It was better when Todd just stole my brownies and moved on. The extended, public taunts made my stomach hurt. Like it was tying itself in knots. I started to have trouble taking a shit. I’d sit on the toilet and nothing would come out. I imagined days worth of food rotting inside me. Mom noticed how much time I spent in the bathroom. She gave me laxatives to help me go. The kind that looks and tastes like chocolate. They came in large, foil wrapped bars sectioned into cubes you could break off. Twelve in all. But it only took one cube to send me hurrying to the bathroom with diarrhea an hour later. I didn’t care. I would take relief however I could find it.

Todd’s onslaught continued through the rest of September and into October. Every day I came home with a stomach ache and constipation. Pains that started on Sunday night and lasted until Friday afternoon when school let out. I considered not bringing Little Debbie’s for lunch anymore, but decided that might make things worse. Those brownies were likely the only thing preventing the situation from becoming physical.

An offering.

It’s not that I was scared of Todd. Even though he was bigger than me, he was also rich and soft looking. One on one I knew I could take him. I wasn’t afraid to fight dirty. And dad had blessed me with a high pain tolerance. But with Todd’s buddies always around, ready to jump in, I didn’t stand a chance. I might land a shot or two, bloody his nose or black an eye before they piled on, but once they did I was dead. I knew no one would come to my defense. My classmates either feared Todd or wanted to be accepted by him. And the nuns were too greedy. Todd’s parents donated a lot of money to the school.

Behind the altar in the school church hung a life size crucifix. Flesh and bone sagging from nails. Blood and thorns. I fantasized about crucifying Todd. Reenacting the stations of the cross. Making him carry his cross to the site of his public execution. Whipping him as he stumbled. When Simon of Cyrene tried to help Todd, or Veronica went to wipe his face, I would whip them too. I relished the idea of driving nails into Todd’s hands and feet, his whimpers and cries a sweet melody. The slow clink of hammer on nail providing the beat. I pictured hoisting him upright. The life fading from his eyes as his skin blistered and cracked under the hot sun. His face streaked in red. Instead of laying his body to rest I would just leave it up there until it rotted away and nothing was left but a pile of bones.

The final days of October arrived with a chill in the air. Jack-o’lanterns appeared on stoops. Cardboard witches and skeletons looked out from cobwebbed windows. The signs of the season were everywhere you looked. Except for one place. My school didn’t celebrate Halloween. Within the walls of Body of Christ Elementary, it was as if October 31st didn’t exist. Instead, we celebrated All Saints’ Day the day after. November 1st. All Saints’ Day was a big deal. Students came to school dressed as their favorites among the canonized. Some volunteered to give prepared speeches about those saints during a special extended mass that would start after lunch and last until dismissal. Participants received extra credit. Everyone else just got an extra numb ass.

For the last two years, Todd Evers had dressed as Saint Francis of Assisi. A saint whose devotion to God was expressed through his love of all God’s creatures. Todd wore a fake beard, brown robes with a rope tied around the waist, and an aluminum foil halo on his head. Little craft store birds perched on his shoulder. Stigmata drawn on hands in red marker. He received standing ovations for his speech even though it was the same crap both years. It was the highlight of the day.

I didn’t participate in All Saints’ Day. Like praying, saints never did me any good. But I was hopeful that with the holiday coming up, Todd and his friends would get bored or distracted and leave me alone. Or find someone else to pick on. But things only got worse.


DADDY by Kristin Garth

Kristin Garth, Short Stories

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                Inbox – iCloud  3:23 am

 

Fine let’s talk this way

 

To:  mgiddis@aol.com

 

Daddy,

 

Maybe this way you won’t hang up on me again or worry about my roommate knowing my sordid secret.  She’s not even here to peek over my shoulder at what I’m typing – actually would never do that – the nicest person I know in the state of Utah.  I’d never tell her what he did, but even if I did, she would never spread it around.  She wears a ruby ring her father got her to remind her of the value of a virtuous woman.  He’d probably make her change rooms.

 

I’m not going to press charges, okay?  Does that make you happy.  Nobody would believe me anyway, and it’s just going to cause a lot of trouble.  I just want to come home.  Please let me come home.  I’ll finish my degree at UWF.  It’s not going to work out here.  I’m begging you to understand.

 

Patty

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                         Inbox – iCloud 6:01 pm

 

Please don’t be mad

 

To: mgiddis@aol.com

 

Stayed up all night thinking after I wrote your letter.  To be honest with you, I haven’t been sleeping much since it happened.  Was already ashamed of myself and prepared to tell you I won’t be asking to come home again, before I read your letter — after, yes, even more so. 

 

It’s not like I want to talk about it either.  Things have happened though – more things beyond my control.  My friend Tia, the one person who knows everything – who saw me right after the camping trip, injured and not in my right mind, Daddy, you have to understand that – she’s told the Bishop.  It wasn’t her fault.  The Bishop saw me leave church early today.  They were singing “I Am A Child of God,” and I felt sick to my stomach and ran outside.  Tia says the Bishop cornered her after sacrament and said, “Did Patty do something she shouldn’t have done?”  I mean what could she said to that, Daddy?  She told him, “No, somebody did something to her.”

 

Bishop Perry came to the dorms.  I didn’t want to tell him anything.  Tia was there, holding my hand.  He said to me, “If you don’t tell me, Patty, what this young man did to you, he will do it to someone else.”

 

I mean, what was I supposed to say that?

 

I told him everything Marc did – all of it, as best I could.  Didn’t want to tell his name.  Like you said, we do not want trouble.

 

My bishop’s a shrink, Daddy – that’s his job.  I know how you feel about those – and how you said the church felt about them, but Mormonism is a lot different in Florida than it is in Utah.  I don’t know what to say.  It was never my idea to come here in the first place. 

 

He listened to every detail of it – all the stuff that you don’t want to me to speak about, that I was asleep when it started, how hard he choked me and the bruises but his soft words in my ear.   He said this kind of person chooses the smallest and weakest victims.  And then he said, “If he’s married, Patty, that means he’s going to have a child someday, and he will molest this child unless you do something right now.”

 

I mean, Daddy, I know he’s married.  He talked about it in the van on the way to the camping trip and that he just had a baby. 

 

I told him the name, and he wrote it down on his yellow legal pad.

 

I’m sorry, Daddy. 

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                    Inbox – iCloud 11:03 am

 

I am the worst daughter

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

 

Daddy,

 

Michelle called last night.  She said you’re sick.  I’m the worst daughter.  Haven’t asked about you in days.  Just me me me and it it it.  All I think about is myself.

 

Are you feeling better today?  I would call, Daddy, but I’m so afraid to say the wrong thing and have you hang up on me again. I think it’s better we communicate like this where I can finish my thoughts and you don’t have to worry about anyone listening and judging me or maligning my character with talk about “it.” 

 

I’m better.  I really am.

 

Bishop Perry came by to see me.  Joella told him I hadn’t been eating or sleeping, and so he’s sending me to the counseling center.  Please don’t be angry.  I know how you feel about that.  I even told, “My father doesn’t want me speaking to any counselors or anyone – especially about ‘it.’”  But, Daddy, Bishop Perry said, “Well, Patty, your Heavenly Father does.”  And he told me to tell you that.

 

Then the wildest thing happened, Bishop Perry told me I had to come with him and have lunch.  I tried to tell him my not eating had nothing to do with “it,” but he didn’t believe me even when I explained how Joy ordered all the female soloists’ costumes a size too small on purpose, so I have to lose five pounds by next week or someone who fits into the costume dances the part.  Bishop Perry said he didn’t care about any of that, and he took Joella and I to Cosmo’s and ordered bacon cheeseburgers and malts, without even asking.  It was the best meal I had all year.

 

I really miss your voice Dad and I hope you’re going to be okay.

 

Patty

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                         InboxiCloud  11:09 pm

 

I know we just got off the phone ….

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

Daddy,

 

Thank you for calling me tonight.  I know you say you’re getting better but I do wish you’d go to a doctor.  I’m doing it again, and I promised I wouldn’t. 

 

Is “break a leg” an appropriate thing to say to debaters too?  If so, say it to Michelle. 

 

I’m nervous about tomorrow.  I wish I had her strength.  Thank you for being understanding.  I know it’s not how you’d like me to handle my problems.  I wish I was strong enough to do it your way.

 

Patty

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                         Inbox-iCloud 3:23 pm

 

Counseling

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

Daddy,

 

I went to counseling today.  Cried for about an hour and a half straight.  My counselor does not look like a shrink at all —  or anyone else at this school.  He was wearing black jeans and a leather jacket and had a motorcycle helmet on his desk. His name is Dr. Graves.

 

Asked me so many questions, just getting to know me.  All about the camping trip, all the conversations I had with Marc on the way there, in the van.  Asked me, Daddy, why I didn’t press charges.  I told him everything you said.  He says if I was three months younger, he would have had to file a complaint himself.  But I’m 18, so don’t worry, he can’t do anything.

 

He wanted to know everything I knew about Marc – a lot I didn’t know.  I only knew him one night.  He’s 30 and has a wife, poli sci major.  Marc knows a lot more about me – even where my dorm is apparently.  I’m so stupid like that, Daddy.  I answered all those kinds of questions in the back of van surrounded by those older girls who knew him and acted like he was a saint.  Dr. Graves said Marc knew what he was doing, and it was not my fault, but I don’t know – I just feel like something bad is going to happen, again, for sure.  I can’t shake it.  I know you don’t want to hear that.

 

Dr. Graves asked if I had a boyfriend.  Told him about Roger and how he wants me to transfer to UT Austin to be with him, but how you said I need to be an independent woman.  He asked if Roger was Mormon, and I laughed. He asked me how you felt about that?  I told the truth, Daddy, that you hate it. 

 

I asked Dr. Graves about what Bishop Perry said about Marc having to go to counseling himself.  Dr. Graves said that he certainly hadn’t come in yet.  I was surprised he would just tell me that – I mean isn’t there doctor/patient confidentiality — but he did.  It’s what I like about Dr. Graves, I feel like for the first time he’s really on my side completely. 

 

I even asked him, “Well, I mean, couldn’t he be seeing another counselor?” Dr. Graves just said, “I mean, I’ll find out for sure, but men like him are usually sent to me.”

 

The time went so fast in there, and then he said he wanted me to give me a prescription for some sleeping pills.  Asked me if I was depressed, and I broke down crying and couldn’t stop.  He scribbled on a prescription pad.  Told me to take one tonight and go to bed early.  That I needed it – I was too pretty to do this to myself.  That was such a nice thing to say.

 

I have practice for the show tonight, but then I’m going home and going straight to bed.  I know you don’t believe in this stuff – counseling, medication, but Daddy I can’t tell you how nice it is to know I’ll be able to sleep.

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                                       Inbox – iCloud 7:13 am

 

Sorry I missed your called last night.

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

Daddy,

 

Sorry I missed your call last night.  Dr. Graves was right.  I slept through the night.  Joella couldn’t even wake me.  Got your message this morning and tried to call, but you’d already left for work.   Feel like my head is full of cotton, but Dr. Graves says it’s to be expected and will wear off in a couple of hours. 

 

Thank you for thinking about me.  I’m actually okay.

 

Patty

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                                       Inbox-iCloud 11:12 am

 

Opening night!

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

Daddy,

 

Tried on my costume two days ago, and it actually fit!  If I don’t eat anything today, I may actually look thin up there.  Even Joy couldn’t find anything negative to say.  Wish you were here. 

 

Patty

 

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                                       Inbox-iCloud 11:03 pm

 

 

I don’t even know what to say.

 

To: Mgiddis@aol.com

 

Daddy,

 

Dr. Graves and I got into an awful fight today.  I ran out of his office.  He keeps saying Marc raped me, and I keep saying that isn’t true, that what Marc did was not exactly that because Daddy I know that you said it wasn’t – that I wasn’t ruined.  Dr. Graves says it was rape.  He is angry with me that we won’t press charges – that I won’t make a formal complaint with the school, something on paper – he says paper trails are important when dealing with institutions.  I said I’m not dealing with anyone, and he said I’m being shortsighted and shouldn’t make any decisions yet. 

 

Nothing has been the same since the show.  I know I said I wouldn’t bring it up again, but I’m sure that I saw Marc there – in the second row.  Dr. Graves says something bad is going to happen to me while the university covers this up again.  He said it’s happened before, and this time he’s not going to be a pawn in a sick game, and neither should I. 

 

I don’t know what to do about Dr. Graves.  Sometimes he is so patient and nice.  Other times he is so demanding of me to do things his way, to talk about my body and very personal things.  To follow his advice and make a paper trail.   He says this is an evil place, and he knows more than anybody – though I should be starting to see it at this point.   He came to my show and sent gardenias to me backstage.  I told him about the bushes we had at home, and he remembered.

 

 

Why does he want to change me so much?  What is wrong with me?  It’s lunchtime and my head still feels stuffed with cotton.  Maybe that’s why this is all so confusing.  I don’t think I’m going to see him anymore.  Do you think that is okay?

 

Patty

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                              Inbox – iCloud 12:02 pm

 

Marc just called here

 

To: Mgiddis@aol.com

 

Marc just called here.  Just now.  Joella answered the phone.  Didn’t know who he was, but she woke me and said she had a bad feeling inside.  It was him, Daddy.  He said, “I want you to know that I know what we did was wrong.”  I didn’t do anything, Daddy, except go to sleep in a sleeping bag and wake up being choked and hurt by this man.  He told me that he very much wanted to see me, that he knew I lived in Meredith Hall, but we didn’t have to meet there; we could go to dinner and talk.  I could hardly speak I was shaking so much.  All I could say was “Never call me again.”  Joella had to take the phone away from me and hang it up.  What am I going to do Daddy?  How did he get my phone number?” 

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                         Inbox- iCloud 2:24 am

 

I did what you said.

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

I went to the Bishop and told him what happened.  Told him about the show and how I was sure Marc was there, too.  And now he has my phone number?  I asked him what was going on?  What are they going to do?

 

The bishop told me he gave Marc my phone number — that Marc is very sorry and that the Bishop only wanted to help me, that he and Marc’s bishop thought it was  a good idea.  He said Marc had come in and admitted everything to his bishop, said he was overcome and could not control himself, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make amends.  They think he is a good man who made a mistake.

 

I had the dream again about his arms, the one choking me while the other – I can’t talk to you about this, Daddy.  I’m thinking about going to go back to Dr. Graves.  I need a refill of this medication — only way I’m going to sleep.  I’ll go crazy stay awake another night.

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                                        Inbox- iCloud 3:04 pm

 

I didn’t go.

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

 

I did what you said and tried to pray but it just doesn’t work for me like it works for you.  Roger called me last night and said I need to get out of this place, that nothing is ever going to get better while I’m here.  I know you said, Dad, but when he said it just then, it sounded exactly right. 

 

School isn’t going well.  I’m failing French.  I don’t go to a lot of my classes because when I finally fall asleep I can’t make myself wake up.  I don’t know how staying here could ever work out.

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                       Inbox-iCloud 12:12 am

 

You would never believe who was just here.

 

To:  Mgiddis@aol.com

 

 

I know you wouldn’t like it, but it was Dr. Graves.  He’s allowed to be in the girl’s dorms because he’s a doctor, so please don’t be too upset.  I didn’t tell you that he has been calling me.  Joella gave me a couple of his messages since I stopped going to counseling.  He just said he was terribly worried and saw I renewed my prescription though I hadn’t been coming in. 

 

Got kind of nervous when he said that as a doctor he has full access to all my medical history with the university clinic and that Elavil is a powerful medication to be on without any kind of guidance.  I guess it makes sense.  It was still a surprise he came but I guess it just shows he cares.

 

We talked for a long time, and he told me he was sorry if he had pushed me too hard in his office the other day.  I told him that it was very important to me that I was still a virgin – I know it’s important to you.  And I was because Marc had not done that with me.  Dr. Graves agreed.

 

We went for a walk and then sat on a bench under the stars.  It was the most beautiful experience I’ve had in Utah.  I told him so many things – much more than I was able to in that bright office.  He is much more of a friend than a counselor.  I’m allowed to have friends, Daddy.  I need one very much.

 

I agreed to go back to counseling.  He says we don’t have to do it in the office.  We can do it in different places like this.  He walked me home and gave me my medication himself with a big glass of water and tucked me into bed.  It was the safest I’ve felt in a long time. 

 

Joella is being weird about it.  Says it was creepy, but it was the best night I’ve had since I came to this school.  I felt like I was home again.

 

After he left, I got up to write you this letter before this pill knocks me out.  I just wanted you to know things are looking up.  Maybe I can make it here after all.

 

Patty

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                                       Inbox – iCloud 11:12 am

 

I’m sorry that you cannot be happy for me when I’m making such progress.

 

To: Mgiddis@aol.com

 

It really makes me sad inside to know it’s only when I’m in the depths of depression that you and I can be close. I will not turn Alan (Dr. Graves) away because he cares about me.  It is nice to have that here.  It’s nice to have that.

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                         Inbox – iCloud 12:51 pm

 

Alan is saving my life.

 

To: Mgiddis@aol.com

 

I’m writing to you because the end of the semester is coming, and what I’ve been trying to tell you is that I’m failing, not only French but my dance classes as well.  There’s nothing to worry about that.  The important thing, as Alan says, is I am using this time to get well.  He’s saving my life.  I don’t have to tell you that before he came along, I couldn’t even eat or sleep much less live a real life – with any kind of pleasure. 

 

I know all you’re worried about is the grades, and it just shows how messed up your priorities — your whole worldview is – like everyone here.   I did what Alan said finally and made a complaint, and he’s helped me find a lawyer.  Not a criminal one — nothing is going to be in the newspapers or anything like that.  He’s going to – I’m going to sue the university for their oversight and cover-up of my assault. He knows a lot of insider information about how this happened here before – they have lied to the FBI and Alan has proof.  They school is going to have to settle out of court to keep him quiet.  Alan says they are going to have to let me withdraw out of my classes due to the psychological trauma they have created. 

 

He’s helped them cover it up before because they blackmailed him and threatened him about some of his practices – which of course, are beyond their puritanical understanding. We’re not afraid of them now though – either of us.  Alan believes, something good is going to come from this – for both of us and for a lot of other people, too. 

 

Alan has been ready to leave this place for a long time.  He’s doing a lot of groundbreaking work with repressed memories, reenacting childhood traumas to desensitize people and help them move on.  I have literally been reborn – you think that is some kooky psychological speak or insane, but it’s a literal truth.  He tied me naked into blankets, covering my face, for hours until I was strong enough to be reborn.  How I cried and screamed even – but then I fought my way out and into his arms and I am his now. 

 

He is my daddy — done things to protect me you never would.  I won’t be coming home over the break.  I’m very small now and cannot travel alone. 

 

 

 

 

PATTY GIDDIS                                                                                       Inbox – iCloud 2:24 pm

 

Do not bother Joella with your phone calls at the dorm anymore.

 

Time:  3:24

 

You are harassing other people now, and you need to stop.  I don’t live at the dorms anymore.  How could I live inside an institution I’m suing? That makes no sense.  It’s all for the best.  I never would have come here except it was your fantasy school.  I’m not Mormon or a good girl or a virgin anymore.  It’s not a place for me. 

 

Alan and I have spent endless hours talking about my childhood.  He knows what you’ve done to me – the other me, when I was yours to break, before I was reborn and in gentle hands.  None of your threats about pressing charges against Alan have any validity.  He doesn’t need a license anymore.  He’s not a practicing psychologist.  He’s creating his own spiritual retreat where he will not be constrained in his methodologies and he can help lots of people like me.  We have freedom of religion in this country, as you well know.

 

You, however, should think twice about threatening me when there is no criminal statute of limitations on sex abuse of children under the age of 16  – much less the age of five.  I used to be the kind of girl who wouldn’t press charges but I’m afraid if you persist you will understand how true it is that I am reborn. 

 

This is the last email you’ll receive from me.  This is the email address of a dead girl.  Alan doesn’t want me to open it anymore and be exposed to your poison ever again.  You sent a ghost to this place of a girl you killed, and Alan resurrected something else.  Leave us alone.  It’s naptime now.  I must go.

 

Penelope Graves

 

 


Pugnus – a short story by James Jenkins

James Jenkins, Short Stories

“Don’t play the fucking victim here Ronnie,” Micky Boswell bellowed over the pounding rain. “You asked me remember? I’m ready for more responsibility Mr Boswell,” he mimicked Ronnie’s nasally voice.

The rain shat down in violent and relentless sheets. The wind howled in all directions as Ronnie did his best to separate it from the oxygen he desperately needed. Suspended by his ankles from the impossibly strong grip of his boss’s henchman, he made the mistake of looking down the twenty-four-story tower block. The ground barely distinguishable.

“Please Mr Boswell! Give me more time,” Ronnie squealed as Boswell’s thug released his bear like grip for the briefest of moments.

“Not yet Charles. I want to make sure that Ronnie here truly understands the gravity of his actions.”

The joke was lost on Ronnie. Between the henchmen’s tight hands clinging onto his ankles and the blood that had long drained to his upturned head he struggled for air. The continuous downpour funnelled down his body into each nostril. A crude side effect of the unintentional water boarding.

“I… I can find it Mr Boswell! It’s gone. Please, please just let me back up.” Charles eased his grip again, the lactic acid easing for a welcome second.

It. Did you just say it Ronnie?” Micky Boswell had run out of patience. Ronnie sensed his time was up and struggled in his inverted position for something to grab. A ledge, drainpipe, something, anything! There was nothing except the questionable flat surface of the cladding.

“Drop him Charlie, I’ve had enough of this fucking weather.”

The henchman released Ronnie without hesitation. His commitment to the sadistic crime lord ever unquestioned. Neither man gave their falling victim another glance and headed straight for the roof door. Safe and dry at last.

Floor 19

Ronnie had already descended five floors before the reality of the situation dawned – he was going to die. He’d always wondered if it was true what they said about your life flashing before your eyes right before death. It seemed unlikely. The entire events of twenty-seven years playing out before he smashed into the concrete some two-hundred feet below. Such a short amount of time for such a long distance. His mind seemed to sense the perilous situation amplifying the images that flashed through his mind.

Floor 17

Ronnie passed the window in slow motion. He had time to look in and witness the deprived décor. The wallpaper long faded and peeling. Outdated kitchen units lacking doors and draw fronts. The layout the same as his own but without the same amount of pride or delusions of grandeur. Ronnie hated the fucking building. A grey colossal prick that stuck up into the polluted clouds. Thatcher’s legacy – a raging erection for any hardnosed Tory. A symbolism of the us and them. It was inevitable that he would find himself in the infamous tower block. If not this exact one, then an identical sibling with equal powers to paralyze residents into typecast rejects. Society’s unemployables, the uneducated and most certainly law breakers. The sharp sucking of breath through teeth when telling anyone from the outside your address. Ronnie had never accepted life had to be this way. He knew he had been meant for bigger things. After his mum died, he and his younger sister were kicked out of the family home. The council relocated them both to the tower block. The spice heads sketched out in corridors and the crackheads slumped outside the doors of well-known cuckoo nests. The only role models were the rare glimpse of someone like Mickey Boswell and his entourage. The pied piper to his army of prepubescent teenage boys playing gangster. Ronnie was intoxicated by the man’s wield of power. He enforced respect from all of those around him. A few weeks after Ronnie and his sister Tina had moved in, Mickey pulled up in his fancy black car and Ronnie watched with astonishment as the bodyguard hurried to open the door for the crime lord. Rumour had it he was here on official business. The buzz was going around that someone owed tick, and everyone knew that if Micky Boswell came personally – you were getting fucked up. Mickey’s very own unit of bulging muscles and steroids heading as one into the tenement. Micky watched on leaning on his car wearing those cool as fuck sunglasses and puffing on a Marlborough. Ronnie had watched as the powerful man stroked his panting dog through the open car window. Only Micky Boswell could own a pug and still look as hard as cement in a place like this. There wouldn’t be many takers to tell him otherwise. Ronnie had known then that he must prove himself to this leader of men. His fantasies had been interrupted when the henchmen dragged out a screaming lad in a grey tracksuit. The colour did nothing to disguise the wet trouser leg. They dropped him in front of Micky who’d already taken his cock out and proceeded to piss on the blubbering mess. The crowd had been waiting for this moment as the onlooking community gave their approval with cheers and diminishing laughter. The stage set, Micky played up to the crowd. He made a big play of shaking the drops of urine from his abnormally huge prick and finally put it away. Keeping his captive audience on side, Micky produced an array of offensive weapons to the approving shouts of the bystanders. Saving the best for last – a battery powered chainsaw which was quickly deemed the winner. In a stroke of genius, he stopped before bringing the tool down on his pleading victim.

“How rude of me,” said Micky acting as if he had just remembered something important. “Who wants a go? A grand to the lucky candidate!” He offered the chainsaw up to the baying crowd. Ronnie wanted to run down there and then to show his worth. To throw himself in front of the face of opportunity. But before he could even consider the seven flights of stairs he was beaten to the chance. He wouldn’t have made it even if the lift worked – if the lift had ever worked. Instead a well-known spice head stumbled desperately forward and made a grab for the chainsaw. The piss-soaked point of fixation tried to get away but one of the heavies punted him in the rib cage. He slumped back to the gravel without further protest. Micky laughed at the spice head’s enthusiasm and teased him with the tool.

“You sure you know how to handle one of these?” he laughed.

“Let me do it Micky!” someone shouted from the impatient crowd.

“Now, now. First come, first served and all that,” he said passing the chainsaw over to the filthy shaking hands of the spicer. He showed him how to work it and made a dramatic leap back much to the amusement of the crowd.

Ronnie turned away from his window as the desperate man fell upon the boy on the ground. The sounds of helpless agony mixed with gurgled blood and the chainsaw was too much to bear. The fantasy had been so much more poetic than the reality. He’d promised Tina he would get them out after that. That was seven years ago.

Floor 14

The blinds were closed but Ronnie caught a glimpse of the elderly couple watching TV on an old rear projector. The odd slat was missing, he could see the grime and dust stuck with nicotine on each one. A pigeon took off in fright from the unexpected visitor to its perch. Ronnie considered reaching out to grab it but realised that it was a fruitless effort and would only be cruel to the animal. Fuck animals! Wasn’t that the reason he was here now? Pelting towards the ground on a one-way trip to a combustion of shattered bone and splattered innards. Yes. It made him regret not punching the bird. The winged rat might have posed his last chance of fury at the animal kingdom. But could he really blame the dog, less the pigeon for his current predicament? He wasn’t so sure. Micky Boswell hadn’t been wrong – Ronnie had asked for it. After the public massacre with the spice head, Ronnie reconsidered his career path. The drug fiend had failed to deliver any instant relief to the victim of Micky’s discipline. Even the blood thirsty crowd had grown sickened by the prolonged agony that his lack of co-ordination entailed. Micky read the room – forecourt – and allowed his entourage to guide him back into the car and away from the distant but approaching sirens. The tinted windows lowering just enough for him to jettison the promised reward – he was a man of his word. The spice head grabbed the cash and left the unfinished job to bleed and moan as his life slowly ebbed away. Ronnie had tried all the usual haunts after that. The jobseekers did the best they could. Unfortunately, their best wasn’t very good. Despite his average school grades, Ronnie’s address and more likely colour of his skin was overlooked for any potential apprenticeship. He understood it wasn’t always strictly about race. He had white friends who had been treated the same, but when fifty percent of the interviewers asked What country are you from? He realised it wasn’t just because his surname was Aluko. Reluctantly and with great sadness he accepted his fate and worked through chicken factories, handballing and the occasional labouring job. Zero-hour contracts and companies that didn’t deliver redundancies when they utilised their government friend’s liquidation rights. Dumping Ronnie’s potential deposit funds into offshore bank accounts – at least there were food banks!

Ronnie passed down over the red glow of the thirteenth floor. Maybe he’d wanted it too much. Some crooked part of his sub-conscious pining for the realities within. A blurred chance of red lace and naked flesh were his only reward. It could have been titty, but then it could have just as easily been a shoulder, elbow or even a punters bald head. Ronnie knew he didn’t have much time left so chose to believe it wasn’t the latter. He knew some of the girls who worked there from his schooldays. The queens of their generation, unattainable to the likes of Ronnie for years as he watched their inevitable journey. The same who had ridiculed him with rejections now begged for the change in his pockets and offered their sex for much more. Gone were their flawless looks and perked bodies, now replaced with decaying teeth and needle marks. A little look still wouldn’t hurt though.

Floor 12

Ronnie appeared as a flashing blur to the occupant of the twelfth-floor flat, but to Ronnie it felt like an eternity. For the briefest of moments, he locked eyes with the man inside. He recognised him from the estate. Another discarded soul long forgotten by the government who had failed him, left to the mercy of a hardened way of life. Vulnerable due to his learning disability and abused by anyone who chanced upon him. He’d witnessed the public humiliation himself and reflected on the damage he’d caused others weaker than himself. And for what? To climb Micky Boswell’s ladder of vanity and violence. He used to think he was different from the rest of the community. Purer somehow and righteous but as he continued to cascade past floor eleven and ten, he realised that he’d been no different.

Time had eroded the memory of the chainsaw massacre. It was aided by the twelve hour shifts and unsociable working hours to earn a pittance that barely covered the rent. The rare but unforgettable occasions that Boswell visited the estate distorted Ronnie’s impression of the man even more. The public displays of gore and retribution to the unlucky few who dared to challenge his authority were more discreet since the cameras were fitted. The jovial man’s demeanour as he walked proudly through the building’s corridors. Pausing to make small talk with the natives, handing a young single mother a wad of notes and helping an old couple carry their shopping bags. It was on one of these visits that Ronnie seized his opportunity, kidding himself that it could be different for him.

“Hello lad,” Micky said walking past Ronnie in the building’s foyer.

“Hello Mr Boswell. How are you Mr Boswell?” he’d eagerly replied.

“See Terry. Some of these kids do have manners,” Boswell said to one of his muscle men. Ronnie had beamed with pride. The Micky Boswell had paid him a compliment!

“What’s you name lad?”

“Ron, eh, Ronnie Mr Boswell,” he’d stuttered.

“Hello Ronnie, please to meet you. Call me Micky. You don’t work for me do ya?”

“No Micky Sir. I work at the chicken factory.” Terry the heavy snickered at him and Boswell spun on his own man.

“What you laughing at Terry? The lads working ain’t he?”

“Sorry Micky,” the sight of the clearly physically stronger man cowering to his boss pleased Ronnie.

“But seriously kid, why you want to work there for? Manners like yours are wasted in a fucking poultry packaging plant. Why don’t you come work for me?”

Ronnie couldn’t believe what was happening it was moving so fast. Two minutes before and he’d never even locked eyes with the infamous governor of the underworld. Now he was being offered a job? He’d dreamed of this moment but now it was here he could barely control his stomach. Liquid shit churned inside of him threatening to burst the thin barrier of his sphincter.

“I’d be honoured Mickey. What… what do you want me to do?”

“You don’t worry about that now lad. You know where my boozer is? The Ivy Tavern. Come see me tomorrow. See you later Ronnie,” Micky took Ronnie’s hand giving it a firm shake before leaving. Ronnie babbled his thanks and goodbyes to the back of the most dangerous man the city knew.

Floor 8

Ronnie stared at the closed blinds of his own flat and cursed himself for leaving the light to blead out from around the edges of the window. Not that any of that mattered anymore. The utility company could fight over the pitiful amount of savings that sat frozen in his bank account. None would be satisfied. His legacy – £128. After he’d met with Micky, Ronnie accepted a job collecting glasses and the occasional bit of bar work, he was left a little disappointed. It didn’t carry the same weight and potential as dealer or enforcer. Having the shame of telling his sister and her new prick of a boyfriend the reality of his previous brag was hard on him. Tina had already grown distant from him since she met Jordan. He was younger, stronger and more gobby than Ronnie. His reputation for unpredictable and unnecessary violence often resulted in a stabbing at the least. Ronnie had tried to warn Tina about him, but this had only pushed her further away. The argument resulting with her moving out to Jordan’s. It was still in the same building, but the distance wasn’t only physical. Despite this Ronnie found that he enjoyed his new job and even he could tell he was good at it. The manager asked him to fill in on the bar duty more as her trust went up in him. The pay and hours were even better than his last job too. Unfortunately, the constant mocking from his sister and Jordan was something he couldn’t shake. He obsessed about it, even considered having a fight with Jordan but that was likely to only end one way. Eventually it got the better of him and so he waited for the next time he saw Micky Boswell.

Floor 7

Ronnie had to bide his time before he saw Micky again. The occasions had been few and far between. You had to pick your moment carefully with people like this. It’s not advisable to ask your boss for a promotion while he’s crushing the skull of his victim into the bar counter. A lot had gone well for Ronnie in the meantime. He’d been promoted to assistant manager over another colleague who had worked there for much longer. The man hadn’t taken it well and spouted off about equal opportunities and ticking boxes before being kicked out. Ronnie knew the man had been skimming the till for as long as he’d been there, but it felt good to have the backing of his manager. He’d even met a girl and it was going surprisingly well until he’d introduced her to Tina and Jordan. The ridiculing had started right away. The girl Rita had been kind about it, but Ronnie knew that he needed that promotion and the respect that came with it more than ever. Finally, Micky came into the bar. Alone and happy. The moment couldn’t be better as Ronnie was the only one working the bar that day.

“Mr Boswell. How are you today? Can I get you a drink?”

“Manners!” Micky boomed holding his hands up in celebration. “That’s why I employed you lad. Looks like you’re doing alright. What was it? Robbie?”

“Ronnie, Sir.”

“There he goes again,” laughed Micky. “Bloody sir. You’re a good lad Ronnie, now get me a Yamazaki and whatever you’re having.”

“Thank you, Mr Boswell. I’m glad you came in actually, there was something I wanted to ask you.”

“Get us a drink Ron and then we can talk about it. And for fucks sake, call me Micky.”

Ronnie did as he was bid and headed to the cellar where they kept the good stuff. He retrieved the Japanese whiskey that they only stocked for Micky. He used the time to psych himself up to the moment. He couldn’t let this chance slip through his fingers. He went back to the bar and saw a couple of Micky’s goons had joined him. Ronnie felt his moment begin to evaporate.

“There he is!” shouted Micky to his company. “Two pints of Stella for these two please Ron.” He hated being called Ron, but Micky Boswell could call him what the fuck he wanted. Ronnie started to pull the pints wondering if it really was his forte after all.

“What did you want to ask me Ron?” Micky said with interest.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry Mr Boswell, it can wait if you have company.”

“Nonsense Ron. We’re all family here, aren’t we lads?” said Micky to a chorus of –Yes Boss. Ronnie suppressed the overriding wave of fear and cleared his throat.

“Mr B… Micky. I really am grateful for everything you’ve done for me and I really do love working at the Ivy, I really do. The thing is though, I was sort of hoping that I might be able to do something else for you. Like, you know, take on more responsibility for you.” Micky had remained quiet throughout and looked at Ronnie with genuine interest.

“Look lad, different people are meant for different things. Take Terry here, he could run this bar but just look at him. Would you come in here if that mug greeted you? Would you fuck. You’re a good kid Ron, this is a good fit for you. Why do you want to get involved with all my other bollocks? Karen won’t be here forever. Bide your time and you could be manager. There’s a tidy little flat above here, could be yours Ron. Get yourself out of the towers.” Micky really was affording Ronnie a rare kindness that contradicted his usual character. Ronnie wasn’t giving up yet though.

“Please Mr Boswell. I just feel like if I could prove it to you. I could handle more responsibility then you’d see what I’m really all about,” he pleaded. Boswell shook his head in disbelief. Even his thugs were too stunned to add any jibes.

“Alright,” Micky said after a few seconds thought. “I’ve got a little job for you Ron. Little but really fucking important. You do this for me and then will see.”

“Yes Micky, anything. I’ll do it,” Ronnie said with excitement.

Floor 5

Ronnie feathered towards the ground and his impending death. The street was so close now that he wondered if maybe he would be okay. If he’d jumped from this height then maybe he would escape with a broken leg maybe even a fractured skull, but he could still survive yet. Inside the flat on floor five, Ronnie stared intently on the lush form of Rita Edwards bent over on all fours taking it from behind by Jordan. This was a bit of a shit show. Rita was the girl Ronnie had found himself falling for. His last living moments – the mental image of his sister’s boyfriend fucking her was quite depressing. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, only his sister who he wouldn’t be able to look out for anymore. Not even be able to tell her he told her so. At least she had the upper hand on their sibling rivalry. A departing gift. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t tell Tina and Jordan about Micky’s special job, but it wasn’t easy to hide a pug from everyone in the area. Tongues had started flapping and it didn’t take long for Tina to text him asking why he had been seen with the pug. He later found out that it was in fact Rita who had blabbed it to her. He was forced to divulge that Micky had assigned him the responsibility of his beloved pug. Micky was going away for the weekend and needed Ronnie to dog sit. The rules had been clear – The dog goes with you every-fucking-where! Ronnie tried to explain that he was still on shift at the bar, but Micky insisted that he take the dog with him. After the ridicule he’d endured just taking it out for a walk, Ronnie made his decision. He left the pug at his flat ensuring there was newspaper to relieve itself, fresh water and food. He’d take cleaning up shit over the embarrassment of walking the dog through the estate again. That street cred’ stood for nothing now. Instead, Ronnie was going to become one with the street in a matter of nanoseconds. Ronnie had been smug with himself once he’d finished his shift and walked home. It was late so he wasn’t even worried about taking the dog out for a quick walk with so few people about. He opened his door and was immediately hit with the smell of dog shit and urine. Ronnie flicked on the light switch to illuminate his pitch-black open plan apartment. He waited for the lively little fucker to scurry over to him, but he couldn’t even see the thing. Fear dawned on him rising like the bile in his throat. Ronnie ripped through his home in a painfully pointless search for the pug. Every unlikely cupboard he searched put off the inevitable realisation – the dog was gone.

Floor 4

He knew the flat would be empty. The tenants had been evicted a few days before and the way the council operated it would take an age before they turned it back over for those on the waiting list. It was one of the first places he checked for the dog. There was no rationale to his theory, just somewhere else to try. Ronnie walked with expanding panic fighting back the tears of his terrifying reality searching the tenement. His search had taken him to every floor and neighbouring block. There wasn’t a piece of open space in a country mile that he didn’t search. It wasn’t like you could put an advert out or start knocking on doors. If he found the dog or not, when Micky discovered he’d lost his dog he was a dead man. He risked asking his sister and Jordan but when he’d knocked on their flat door, he’d been told by a dangerously wired Jordan to fuck off and sort his own shit out. No one wanted to be dragged into the firing line for his mistake. Monday came and Ronnie knew his time was up. He didn’t hide from Micky. He had nowhere else to go and waited for the knock at the door. Patiently holding out for his impending execution.

Floor 3

Jordan’s flat. Ronnie knew he wasn’t going to see him there but was grateful to catch sight of his sister sitting on the couch. Tina was watching tv, a phone pushed to one ear. Blissfully unaware of her cheating boyfriend only a few feet above her and her brother hurtling to his death outside. She had her back to him, but Ronnie’s attention was stolen by a pair of prominent, globular, soft and solicitous eyes staring at him through the window. The pug even had time to tip its head, a trademark for the breed. The pug slipped out of view and with that Ronnie was released. For a split second he experienced the true velocity with which he was moving before he exploded across the ground. The heavy rain did its best to purge the streets of his entrails. Diluted blood rain funnelled into the gutters and disappeared under the sewer grates. Ronnie’s essence recycling back into the city’s water supply to be filtered into the water table and reused.

***

Tina held her breath over the dialling tone. She’d never even met Micky Boswell before, but Jordan assured her it was best he wasn’t associated with it. Boswell would recognise his voice he’d argued. This was their big chance. The bit of luck that they were owed. Jordan promised her that Micky Boswell would pay anything to get that fucking overly energetic creature back. Tina couldn’t wait. It wasn’t just the money; she hated the sight of the dog too. It hadn’t been easy to steal from Ronnie’s flat. Not emotionally at least, after all she still had a key. Jordan had been so convincing though. He’d chucked potential sums of money about and made her wet with the life he promised they could have. When she’d questioned her brother’s wellbeing he’d resorted to violence and manipulation. Threatening to do it without her. Besides, he assured her that Micky didn’t waste his time on people like Ronnie. No one was getting hurt he reassured her in his calculated way. The ringing stopped. Tina could hear the rain through the speaker and a man’s voice.

“Micky Boswell.”

“Hi Mr Boswell. We’ve got your dog. Here’s what you need to do if you want to see him again.”

Twinkles – a short story by Kristin Garth

Kristin Garth, Short Stories

By eleven, the Leonard twins were a regular spectacle at Twinkles Skateland. Aunt Ina had struggled to raise them, since the age of six, after their parents murder/suicide.  Ina was an Olympic figure skating enthusiast exposing her blonde nieces to endless televised performances of the great pairs.  Ina’s favorites were Gordiva and Grinkov while the twins were obsessed, for obvious reasons, with the Carruthers siblings.  It wasn’t a stretch for Kiera and Kaci, who not only looked identical, tween twin Barbies, but also did everything together, to imagine skating together, too — though Aunt Ina explained early same sex siblings were not permitted to compete in these events.

None of this performance fantasy, of the girls, was connected to any reality or literality.  They could have never learned ice skating in their small southern town where it never snowed and no ice rinks existed.  Aunt Ina could not have afforded such fancy lessons even it had.  She could barely feed her charges and save  gas money to chauffeur them around in her peeling Dodge Caliber.  But she managed somehow, scoping out all the free activities that Florosa had to offer its youth, squirreling away dollars from her shifts at Target. 

The most popular of these activities she found to distract her tragic twins from their poor run of luck in life was the free skate at Twinkles Skateland.  On Tuesdays and Fridays and Sundays, for specific three hour slots,  under-12 kids skated free.  The rental of skates was $5 per child which was still cost prohibitive for Ina, but when she told the girls they would have to first save up the $30 to buy their own skates they both managed to find odd jobs in the trailer park to accomplish this task within a week

Their first skates were a classic white boot with pink toe stops and wheel bearings.  These  instantly became Kiera and Kaci’s mutual favorite possessions.  The twins coordinated their thrifted wardrobe to match the skates and to create a cohesion they mirrored in their synchronized routines at Twinkles.  The girls practiced endlessly gaining speed and acumen, stealing the simpler choreography from videotapes of ice skating legends.  The effect of all this combined with the twins’ doubly blessed genetics created a show that stopped even the speed  skaters in their tracks.  By the time the twins were 14, the  DJ began featuring the girls each night with a motley mix of “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star, to highlight their grace,  merged a little jarringly with  “It Takes Two” as the girls exited

 to the delight of a mesmerized rink.

A little slow on the uptake that the twins had become entertainers at the roller rink (Ina enjoyed dropping the girls off and getting household chores done while they were so thoroughly occupied), their aunt caught on when 15 year old Kiera finally broke the news — they’d been asked to shoot a commercial. 

“They want to pay us $100 — each.”

Aunt Ina was no businesswoman, but she had impeccable common sense.  Twinkles was a chain of roller skating rinks.  Her nieces had endured an abysmal childhood — Ina knew only ended with the murder/suicide not started there.  Her brother was always a brute — even to her as a child.  She could only imagine what these young girls had suffered at his demented hands.  The girls never spoke of it — though they held in most things except, Ina imagined, with each other.   Whether it was a twin or a trauma bond, Ina couldn’t totally say.  Though Kiera served as the spokesperson of the two, always filling the air with a chatter of inconsequential information, it was clear there was always much about the girls’ lives Ina would never know. 

Her nieces were stunning squared.  Ina knew the most certain way out of their violent past and bleak present was to capitalize on that.   Stopping the car so she could study their inscrutable faces, she demanded to know everything they had been doing at the skating center each night. 

It was Kiera, of course, who confessed to the skate shows; Ina sighed.

“It’s how we’ve been going without paying since we aged out, Ina.  Please, you have to let us do it.  We’ll be skating on TV.”

“Oh, you’re gonna do it all right but not for $200.  Ina’s gonna sort it out.”

Sort it out Ina did.  She negotiated $1000 each for the girl’s commercial appearance as well as free pink princess skates with rainbow ribbons that the rink sold and matching pink outfits for the girls performances (two rhinestoned figure skating style outfits each and three pairs of matching shorts and tees and long socks with pink stripes).  They were Twinkle royalty now thanks to Ina. All she asked was that they never leave her out of the loop of their shared lives again when she could be so beneficial to them.  Kiera nodded and bounced her submission, but Ina wasn’t naïve enough to trust it. 

While Kiera certainly appreciated her aunt’s managerial skills.  Some Twinkles secrets, she understood, Ina could never know — like Kenny.  Kenny Stroyer became the new DJ at Twinkles two months after the twins turned 17  (celebrated at the rink with a 1700 pink balloons and a special pink light show.)  Kenny was 23, had a girlfriend who was active duty in the Navy, transferred from San Diego to Pensacola where he was forced to start over accumulating DJ gigs in a smaller town.   He’d only taken the skating rink job to get to know people when he’d arrived and was desperate to level up  the moment he walked in the Twinkles neon rainbow doors. Kiera had learned all of this in her many chats with Kenny while slipping ICEEs, sat on his work table inbetween the shows with her sister.

Kaci learned everything she knew about Kenny Stroyer through her sister.  Kaci learned most things in life this way.  Kaci felt, as long as she could remember, inherently inept at interactions while Kiera seemed gifted at the same skill. 

Kaci’s memories were rather limited to the time they’d come to Ina’s at six.  Before that time, memories were Polaroids of fragments of a crime scene that mutated and changed from tortures upon small bodies, still aching in the strangest places, to visions of actual blood and murder that made her sick to her stomach.  The Polaroid revelations were blessedly infrequently revealed — all shards of a mirror whose only purpose now was destruction of its intended beholder.   Kaci always feared if she began talking though – even casually, that these truths would all spill out from her, like the vomit that came with the worst of the Polaroids.  The disgusting truth of her insides would spill out, the ones took so much trouble to hide.

Nothing good came of talking or looking to the past, so Kaci closed her cherry glitter glossed lips and focused on the practiced perfection of the ice-skating routines, mimicking the choreography of innocence and beauty. Work made a magic of limbs that transcended the liminality of a lost adolescence.

Kiera was only eight minutes older than her sibling but the difference between the two socially felt like decades.  Kiera never knew a stranger or an obstacle she could not manipulate. Where Kaci clung to Ina and to Kiera, Kiera clung to anyone who she saw as a step away from the past.   At Twinkles, this person became Kenny.

Kaci could see it happening and guessed at its conclusion months before the girls were 18 and the inevitable coup de grace occurred.  Every time Kaci saw Kenny and Kiera in the booth, as the date  of their adulthood approached, Kiera was scooted closer, and their two heads tangled in whispers, Kiera’s long blonde locks covered Kenny’s.  In their double bed in the trailer, Kaci listened to Kiera’s side of the late night talks with Kenny that became part of their nightly routine. 

“You made that much on the dayshift?”

Kenny had been picking up open dayshifts at Sirens, a strip club, and had confided in Kiera, who’d filled in Kaci, that the dayshift DJ was completely unreliable (cocaine) and on  his way out.  The management had already asked Kenny if he could take over full-time within the next few weeks. 

As Kaci had guessed before Kiera broke the news, Kenny had broken up with his military girlfriend weeks ago.  He’d had enough cash squirreled away from his strip clubs shifts to get into a new place. Now she heard Kiera doing the mathematics of topless dancing in her head, Kaci knew what was coming.  They were both 18 in just weeks.  She didn’t exactly want to be a topless dancer; it was not a thing she’d ever imagined herself doing   Yet she knew she would follow where Kiera led.

It’s what she had always done.  No one else could understand what they had been through.  When Kiera held Kaci in the double bed, she did so knowing all the heinous secrets Kaci held tight in her throat. 

“How long do you think we can keep rollerskating for a living?  And what has it gotten us – rhinestoned outfits we hang on a curtain rod in a trailer?  It’s just choreography and a lot more money.  Kenny says it’s a classy place.  There’s nobody like us.  We’d kill.”

Kaci nodded.  There was no argument she could make.  Life was just a countdown until this new chapter with her sister began.  It certainly couldn’t be the worst chapter  — not even in the same book.

They turned 18 on a Monday but waited until Wednesday to make their move out of Ina’s.  Their aunt was doing a double shift at Target, and it gave the girls a chance to move all their meager possessions into Kenny’s new apartment in Pensacola across from the mall. 

Kiera moved into the bedroom with Kenny leaving Kaci, for the first time in her life, with her very own bedroom.   It was the first event in their emancipation from Ina  that Kaci had not expected.  It should have felt like a luxury, decorating one’s own room and stretching out under the covers as far as one’s limbs desired.  Instead it  felt lonely in a way that Kaci could not have anticipated.  Sharing a room had never been a choice.  Poverty had forced the girls together their entire lives, but it was all Kaci knew and being without it introduced a new pain to a girl who thought she had experienced all of them.  It was a shameful childish feeling Kaci could never confess just quietly cried herself to sleep the first week on the new premises.

There were other new experiences, and they were not all unpleasant.  Working at the strip club was surprisingly similar to working at the rink.  She followed choreography with her sister, a lot of the arms were the same.  Stilettos felt like roller skates in moments in the muscle memory of her legs.  A mistake would land one on the ground to the same kind of casual ridicule that could happen at the rink.  It happened to other dances there, but Kaci and Kiera never fell. 

Men had always worshipped the girls, even in their adolescence, at the rink.  Of course, most of them had contained their inappropriate feelings but the twins still read them in their long gazes.  It was the same gazes at the club; the  girls just offered more to it now.  One of the many secrets, Kaci’s cherry gloss lips kept now was that she enjoyed taking her top off for the men.  It made them quiet like her.  Speechless.  Their gaze became sad and desperate and worshipful.  Men were much more attractive like this.  Every other moment they reminded her of her father, and so she kept her distance. If they could always behave like this, she might not.  She finally understood her sister’s need to be naked with them.  When they were like this, it felt safe.

The girls worked nightshift and Kenny worked dayshift, which meant that he wasn’t around the apartment a lot while the twins were awake.  Kaci enjoyed this – the two sisters having the place to themselves.   It meant that their sleep schedule was different, too, and after a few weeks, something miraculous happened.  Kiera started sleeping with Kaci again.

“He wakes me up when he gets up so early, and it’s fucking killing me, dude.  Like Jesus Christ, I can’t have bags under my eyes – I’m the breadwinner here.”

We, Kaci thought, but characteristically kept it inside.  They’d be leaving this place soon.  Kenny, still a humble dayshift DJ, had outgrown his usefulness.  Kaci wondered if he’d learned his sister enough to know it, too, or would he be stunned like Ina when he came home one day to an empty apartment.

The girls were both asleep after sunrise when Kaci learned the answer.   It couldn’t have been more than three hours — nightshift ending at 3 am, post their regular Waffle House hash brown stop  and alternating  showers, it was always 4:30 by the time their heads got pillows. 

Kenny’s door, as usual, had been shut when the twins arrived, and the apartment was quiet.  Kaci assumed he was sleeping like usual — though each day, much like her sister apparently, she considered him less and less.  Only when Kaci felt the vibration of the bed did she remember Kenny.  For a second, remembering that she had, as she always did, lock the door to her bedroom, she  hoped  it was some PTSD of her childhood . 

Then she heard his wince and the whispered, “Motherfucker, and she knew that Kenny was really here, had pried open the door and was climbing into the bed.

Kaci smelled the liquor on his breath now as he carelessly flung himself between the two girls.  Kiera turning away from him even in his sleep.  Then he touched Kaci’s bare thigh — like it was just another limb of her sister, a limb he clearly thought he possessed though he never had — and certainly did not now.

Kaci knew there was no one to speak for her now.  She would have to do it herself.

“Kenny, stop it.  It’s me, Kaci.”

He’d laughed but the laughter was pointed and aggressive like his movements in the bed.   

“She speaks at last.  To what do I owe this pleasure?”

His face was almost touching Kaci’s in the dark.  She could almost taste the alcohol on his his breath.   The old, awful Polaroids of her childhood flashed inside her head — of nights like this with a man in her bed who didn’t care she wasn’t her mother.  She would just do.  The last was stillness and sadness and blood and then a darkness like a hole that her body floated into as she heard a scream that came from outside her body.

Was it Kiera’s scream or her own?  Kaci didn’t know.  By the time she woke, she was in her sister’s arms.  Kenny was off the bed as Kiera screamed at him.

“Get out.  You never touch her, you freak.  Get out of here.”

“This is my apartment, remember?   Mine before you ruined my life, you little bitch. You owe me — both of you owe me.”

Kenny’s face was red with rage and his body lunged at the bed as he spoke.  Kaci trembled in her sister’s arms terrified at what would happen next — until she heard her sister’s response.

“You expect two incest survivors to have incest with you?  Is that it?  What we owe you?”

Kenny was quiet.  Kaci was shocked to hear the words spoken so matter of fact and plain.  The girls had never spoken of it themselves though Kaci expected that was the privilege of a shared life, there was much that didn’t need to be spoken because it was a mutual experience.  She supposed this night would be another of such things.

“We’ll be out of here by the time you are back from work — that is if you want to continue working at the strip club.  I wonder what’s harder to replace there a dayshift DJ or two stripping twins..  Shall we find out or you wanna go to your room and leave us to our peace while we pack?”

Kenny’s stood staring at the girls an instant, his face sunken at the realization that in addition to losing Kiera, he was in danger of losing his job.  Certainly, she was right.  The girls were the most popular act at the club.  There was no doubt who management would choose.  

He walked out of the room.  Kaci took a deep breath as she heard his door shut.

“Goddamnit, so much for sleep.  Let’s get packed and I’ll call Roger at noon when he’s closer to awake and get him to pick us up.”

Roger was the night shift DJ and already Kiera’s new good friend. 

Kaci looked at Kiera.  Her squinting eyes and wrinkling forehead pronouncing all the doubt her lips dared not.

“Stop it.  We can’t afford Botox yet.  We aren’t staying with him.  We just need a car to go so see some places and somewhere to lock up our stuff. How much cash you got?”

“5,000?  Maybe a little more.”

“Fuck Roger.  Let’s call a taxi and get a hotel, a newspaper and find us a place.”

Kaci bounced and nodded and hugged her sister.  She didn’t say another word but as she hurriedly packed for what she considered her first real second chance at life, her blue eyes were full of twinkles.


Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Rhysling nominated sonneteer and a Best of the Net 2020 finalist, the author of a short story collection You Don’t Want This ( Pink Plastic Press), The Stakes (Really Serious Literature) and many more books.

MARCH HORROR THEME SUBMISSIONS

Flash Fiction, Horror, Short Stories

From 1-31 March, we are open to horror subs only, read by our guest editor Kirstyn Petras.

Guidelines

Looking for short/flash fiction and poetry with horror themes. Any horror themes accepted – psychological, paranormal, supernatural, or good old human evil. Ideal word counts 4,500 and under for short stories. Please keep poetry to standard formatting (no House of Leaves.) Submission should include an author bio & photo, and if you are open to edits or if you expect your submission to be published as-is.

Please submit your work at Punknoirhorror@gmail.com. We are aiming to answer within 1-2 two weeks.


About Kirstyn

Kirstyn Petras is a New York-based fiction writer but primarily identifies as caffeine in a human suit held together by hair spray and sheer force of will. She has been published in Punk Noir, Hoosier Noir, and City Lights Theatre Company. Her debut novel, the Next Witness, will be released May 2022 with Cinnabar Moth Publishing. When not writing, she trains contortion and aerial hoop. She is also the co-host of Dark Waters, a literary podcast exploring all that is dark, dreary, and wonderfully twisted.

Beasted by Simon Maltman

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

“7th May, 1945,

            Today, High Command General Alfred Jodyl signed an unconditional surrender document.”

            Lieutenant James Rooney paused his writing and chewed on the end of his pencil. He stared out through the grimy farmhouse window to the fields beyond. From this angle, no sense of the war could be seen that had raged for six long years. Jim returned to his journal,

            “France is free now. Hell, the war’s over, Hiter’s dead. The Jerries are defeated.”

            Jim scored a line across the bottom of the page and shut the book closed. He breathed in heavily; taking in the musty, farmhouse smells. He shut his eyes. It was glorious compared to the odour of gunpowder, human waste and smouldering bodies he had the misfortune to smell many times. Jim opened his eyes and returned to gaze out of the window.

            Should he feel elation? He didn’t know what he should feel. It was indeed a strange time.

Jim took out his battered old tobacco tin and began to roll a cigarette.

            There was a creak outside the room, then a loud knocking.

“Lieutenant, sir,” said the young private, opening and then peering around the door.

“Jenkins, what is it?” Jim said in his low, clipped Birmingham accent.

“We received a report of possible enemy soldiers, eight miles east of the village.”

“Don’t you know the war’s over son?” Jim said almost fatherly, despite only being a mere five years older than the lad.

“The other regiment rounded up seven Nazis separated from their troop this morning. They had to go back with some wounded, but they believe there’s more of ‘em out there sir.”

Jim finished rolling his cigarette and wet the end with his lips before lighting it. The smoke wisped languidly towards the open window.

“Those boys think there’s Nazis out there? One’s that haven’t surrendered yet?” Jim said thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair, the front two legs pointing up at Jenkins.

Jenkins nodded.

“Well alright then,” Jim declared loudly, forcing the chair back down with a bang before getting to his feet. He blew out a streak of grey smoke.

“Let’s be having it then.”

The march was stiflingly hot. The packs were heavy and the men were already exhausted. Their sweaty, sullied and torn uniforms made it almost unbearable. Jim had left a Second Lieutenant in charge of the small group left at the house, while they conducted a sweep. They would return before nightfall. Tomorrow they would be relieved of this posting altogether and most of the battalion would be commencing the long journey towards home.

They followed the main road out of the village, which was little more than a dirt track. Once they were beyond the boundary of the farm, everything was different. It was like emerging from a bunker into an apocalypse. Or perhaps like stumbling onto a war movie set after the actors had all gone home. There were huge areas of scorched land, torn barbed wire and abandoned outposts. They even passed two partly destroyed tanks, a church blown to rubble and many makeshift graves. In-between these areas of carnage were incongruous, vast fields- many with crops obliviously growing high and healthy.

“Some mess, ay Jenkins?” Jim said, as they marched on. There were six of them in total; all armed, all tired, all wanting to go home.

“It is sir.”

“You looking forward to going home, son?” Jim said, adjusting the heavy pack on his back, digging into one shoulder.

Jenkins eyed his superior with caution, “I’m looking forward to seeing my family, sir.”

“It’s alright to feel good about that Jenkins,” Jim said patting him on his shoulder. Jim upped his speed, his stocky frame settling into a new pace. “C’mon, let’s get moving.”

“Over there!” shouted one of his men urgently.

They all immediately switched into a low, defensive position, their rifles raised. There was a five foot tall and jagged wall made out of rocks, a hundred yards up ahead. Suddenly two heads bobbed above it, wearing German helmets. One of the younger soldiers opened fire. Then the other four including Jenkins, also launched a jittery volley of bullets. There was a cry and the two heads disappeared from view. Beyond the plume of gun smoke, a white rag attached to a stick fell over the top of the wall.

“Hold your fire!” Jim commanded, raising his arm to his men. One by one they stopped, each one looking nervously towards the wall.

Jim stood up straight, holding his rifle across his chest.

There was no movement from beyond.

“Hey!” he shouted, “Whoever’s over there. Achtung! We see your white flag, the war’s over. Come out with your arms raised.”

There was silence. The gunfire still reverberated in their ears. The late afternoon sun beat down upon their weary backs.

Then unexpectedly a call came back, “Bitte,’ bitte,’ Ich am German. We are… hurt,” a German voice shouted back in broken English.

Jim took a step closer. He licked his lips. His men flanked him with their rifles all trained on the wall.

“Stand up then Fritz. Lemme see them arms up,” he shouted.

“I will,” the young voice replied shakily, “There is another soldier. He here… with me. But he is hurt.”

“Alright Fritz, take it easy. We aren’t gonna hurt you lad. You just come up with your arms raised. And those hands better be empty, right Fritz?”

Jim gave a nod to his soldiers and they began to advance together towards the wall.

“Alright. I come up, now. No shoot.”

Slowly his head reappeared, his empty hands raised above him. His face was young- early twenties, but troubled and smudged with dirt. He had short black hair and deep, brown eyes. There was a small gash on his cheek from where one of the bullets had glanced him. His uniform was smeared with filth, a wiry body hidden somewhere inside it.

“Nazi bastard,” growled one of the soldiers, his finger hovering over his trigger.

“Easy there private”, Jim said calmly, turning side on.

The German stared back, wide eyed.

“It’s alright, the war’s over y’know Fritz? We’re just gonna take you back and we’ll get you processed. Alright?”

“Yah, I understand,” he said, a tremble in his raised arms.

Jim set down his rifle on the grass and walked towards the edge of the wall. “What’s your name?”

“I am Gefreiter Haneke’. Otto. I am soldier.”

“You’re a bloody Nazi bastard,” said another of the men.

“I am not Nazi,” Otto said plainly, “I am German soldier.”

“I’m sure you’re a great fella- the Bee’s Knees. Just come round that corner there,” Jim said, raising his hands and gesturing for him to move, “C’mon now.”

Otto looked Jim in the eye, then slowly made his way around the wall and out into the open. The soldiers took a step forwards at once, surrounding him in a semi-circle. “My friend is very hurt,” he said, glancing back behind the wall.

“Anyone else with you?” Jim said, squinting up his eyes.

“No, just two.”

“You sure about that… Otto? You be truthful now.”

“That is the truth,” he said evenly.

“Alright then- we’re gonna have to tie you up before we get back. No sudden movements.” Then he turned to his soldiers, “Go on now fellas.”

Otto looked wide-eyed as two scowling soldiers hurried across to him and roughly bound his hands behind his back with thick twine.

“Good,“ said Jim stopping just in front of him, chewing on the side of his mouth, holding his gaze. He was a few inches shorter than the German. “Let’s take a look at your buddy,” he said, moving around him and behind the wall.

“Jesus,” Jim said quietly. He was staring down at a panting man, not long out of his teens; bleeding heavily from a head wound. “He don’t look good,” Jim said looking back at Otto. The soldier closest peered over the wall now too, making a disgusted face at Jim.

“I don’t think your friend’s gonna make it,” Jim said, setting his eyes again on Otto, “It wouldn’t be a kindness to leave him that way.”

In one swift movement, Jim undid the clasp on the holster strapped across his chest and pulled out his revolver. He swung his arm around, facing down at the dying man, aiming carefully. A spatter of blood and flesh splashed against the wall. A milli-second later the crack of the gun reverberated around the desolate countryside.

“Bitte’, can I have drink?”

“You thirsty there Fritz… sorry- Otto?”

They were marching back to the farmhouse, Otto still bound and being led in the middle of the group.

“Get him some water Jenkins,” Jim said, before falling into step with the two soldiers marching at the rear. He turned to the one who had called Otto a Nazi Bastard; a corporal by the name of Murray. “Was the girl still up with her sick father when we left?”

“Yes sir… I believe so.”

“Fine, fine. When we get back, try and keep her offside while I talk with Otto in the barn. Alright?”

A meanness swept across the other man’s face, a cold look in his eyes. “Yes sir.”

On their arrival at the farmhouse, Otto was led up to the door of the barn.

“You lads all go inside, get yourselves some scran. You did good,” Jim said in a pleasant tone. They all filed past him, trudging up the outside stone stairs. Jenkins looked down at the ground as he passed, his face sallow. Murray was the last and gave a little nod as he did so.

“Just you and me then Otto,” Jim said with a dark smile, while hunting for a key in his knapsack. “Here we are.” He slotted the key into a padlock securing the door, pulled it open, then led them into the darkness beyond. He closed the large wooden doors shut behind them.

Otto narrowed his eyes, unable to see anything but the moonlight steaking through gaps in the wooden eaves. There was a terrible stench inside that he couldn’t place. Jim strode over to a table and lit a small oil lamp. It illuminated the interior dimly- casting long shadows at the same time. Otto took a step further into the barn. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he gasped.

“Mein Gott.”

“C’mere,” Jim said sternly, all pleasantness in his manner evaporating. He pulled him by his shoulders and led him into the centre of the barn. It was mostly empty, save for a few discarded pallets, broken tools and bundles of hay scattered around. Alongside the lamp on the table was a selection of implements laid out on an old piece of long cloth; knives, saws, tweezers and a wooden mallet. But Otto had been staring goggle-eyed at the work bench beside it. It was roughly six feet by four, standing just below shoulder height. There was a makeshift stretcher attached to the top of it. It was made of glued wood, with four metal clasps screwed in around the edges. Strapped to it was a man. Or what was left of one.

“Let’s take a look,” Jim said eagerly, pushing Otto forwards by his bound hands.

“Bitte’, no… please.”

Jim let go of the swaying Otto and leaned over the man on the stretcher. He was dressed in a German uniform that was all but unrecognisable; ripped and soaked in blood. His arms and legs were attached to the metal clasps- the man spread-eagled across the bench. There were gashes in his arms and legs, and something had pierced his stomach. There was a small puncture wound visible that had begun to scab over.

A finger had been severed from each of his hands.

 The face lay away to one side, at an impossible angle. Jim slapped the face hard, then again several more times in quick succession.

“Hey! Wakey wakey you Hun bastard.”

There was no movement other than the rippling of his bloodied cheek as it was struck, like tenderising a piece of raw beef.

“Gott,” Otto said dully, staring on in horror.

Jim turned the face around and two white, dead eyes, stared back.

“Christ,” Jim said and flipped the face back around in disgust. “I wasn’t finished with him yet.”

Otto doubled over and vomited bile onto the muddy floor.

Then Jim turned to Otto and smiled cruelly at him. “Just you and me then you Nazi piece of shit.”

“Bitte’, please,” Otto said, staring back, his voice struggling not to crack completely, “I have nothing I can tell you. The war is done. I told you… I am no Nazi. I am soldier only.”

Jim shook his head ruefully as if about to chastise the ignorance of a child.

“You’re a god-damned soldier of the Nazi bloody army. You’re a Nazi. And I don’t want you to tell me anything. This is our last night here. The last night I’m in charge. I’m just gonna have some fun with you.”

“F…f… fun?” Otto said, aghast.

“Yeah,” Jim said shrugging. “Real slow too.” Then he sighed again, “But I only have ‘till daylight, so you’ll be dead soon enough.”

Otto stumbled backwards, his eyes glazed, “No… nein, bitte’”

As swift as before, Jim pulled out his revolver, swivelled it in mid air and cracked Otto across the face. He cried out in pain, still stumbling backwards, “Help! Please… someone… help!” he screamed.

Jim lunged forwards and swung again. Two more blows and Otto was on the ground, bleeding heavily and out cold.

“God-damned Krauts,” Jim said under his breath, returning his blood-streaked pistol to its holder.

He strode across to the dead German on the board and began to undo his bonds. Jim undid the arms first and they flapped lifelessly over the sides. He began working on the feet when there was a noise from behind him. He shot around as the barn door creaked open.

Juliette Arnaud was standing in the doorway of her barn. Her face was hard, but flickering with fear. Juliette pushed a strand of her long, black hair away from over her eyes.

“Monsieur Rooney, what is going on in here?”

“It’s nothing, mademoiselle.” He quickly positioned himself in front of the table. He stared back at her. Not for the first time, it struck him how much she resembled Ava Gardner.

“I heard shouts,” she said, her eyes narrowing. She looked down at the injured German, worry filling her face.

Jim hurried across to her, fixing a smile on his face. “It’s nothing for you to worry about. We found a couple of Nazis. We gotta interrogate them. You go on back up the stairs there.”

“Interrogating?” she asked, as if trying the word on for size. She moved around him, toward the centre of the barn. “Mon dieu,” she said seeing the dead body, her hand shooting to her mouth.

Silently, Jim moved past her and closed the barn door behind them. “You best get on back to your father, he might need you,” Jim said stepping in beside her, his voice hardening.

Juliette questioned him with her large oval, brown eyes. “He is dead?” she said.

“Well, yes I’m afraid so. It was an accident. But he’s our enemy. Hell- how many of your family’s been killed by them?”

She ignored the question and looked sadly down at Otto.

“And him?” she asked quietly.

“No, I think he’s alive,” Jim said quickly, “I really think you oughta’ get back to your father.”

“The war is over. This is not what should be done.”

Jim made a clicking sound in his mouth, “I say what should or should not be done around here.”

“This is my home,” Juliette said in her clipped accent, her nostrils flaring.

“And we’re allies. We’ll be gone tomorrow and you can do what you want then.”

“I think your superiors would not approve of this.”

Jim took a step closer, now inches away from her face. He had discarded his mask, his face contorted fully into a scowl. “Like I said- you don’t want anything happening to your father, do you? Or to you for that matter.”

She took a sharp intake of breath, but continued to hold his stare.

“I will get some men from the village to help him inside. Then I will look after him.”

Jim blinked and shook his head, “I can’t let you do that,” he said, grabbing her arm.

“Get off me,” she said, her eyes bulging, trying to pull away from him.

Jim cracked her across with her face with the back of his hand. A drop of blood dripped from her nose and her cheek glowed scarlet.

“Merde, you’ll pay for this,” she said, steadying herself and taking a step towards the door. Jim grabbed a handful of her head and yanked her off her feet. He began to drag her backwards, back towards the middle of the barn. She screamed as he pulled her a few yards along, then shoved her down onto the floor.

“You bastard,” she cried, blood and tears flowing from her face.

Jim bore down on her, his eyes glistening with cruelty.” He pulled a long hunting knife from his belt, “I ain’t never killed a woman before. I think I’m gonna like it.”

Suddenly Otto launched himself from the ground where he had awoken and been listening in terror to the exchange. He shouldered Jim from behind with all of his might, knocking him off his feet, the knife spilling from Jim’s hand. Otto awkwardly pulled himself on top of Joe’s back. He pulled back, then thrust his head downwards, butting the back of Jim’s head with his own bloodied crown. Jim groaned as his face smashed into the dirt. Blood flowed now from Otto’s nose too.

“Bitte’, quickly- the knife,” Otto said urgently, looking up to Juliette.

She gathered herself quickly and scrambled across the ground and grabbed up the knife.

“Untie me!”

Juliette immediately began to cut his hands free. With a huge effort, Jim bucked upwards, sending Otto tumbling to the side. With his hands now free, Otto whipped the knife from Juliette’s trembling hands. Jim was getting slowly to his feet, his hands searching for his pistol. Standing again, Otto pulled back before plunging the knife into Jim’s chest. He pushed it in deeply, leaving it there.

Jim looked down at it, his mind barely comprehending what had just happened. He wrapped his hands around the hilt and staggered backwards, blood bubbling around the blade. With an almighty heave, he pulled it free and dropped it onto a bundle of hay, streaking blood across the yellowed straw. His eyes glazed over as blood began to pour out of him. He fell to his knees. Otto stood with his mouth open, beside him Juliette covering a silent scream with both hands. Jim’s life streamed from his and his head hung down over his chest.

“What now?” Juliette whispered.

Otto bent down and freed Jim’s gun from its holster. “I do not know,” he said straightening up and checking the chamber for bullets.

“Thank you,” Juliette said, placing a hand gently to Otto’s battered face.

He nodded, forcing a half smile.

They both froze.

There was a commotion somewhere outside. Then there was the sound of boots hurrying down the outside steps.


a dying moment by Gavin Gardiner

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

The moment froze as the woman from above hit the concrete in front of him. 

The wind continued to blast, making his eyes water and face contort in its command. This gale was the only thing untouched by fate’s freezing influence, with the woman before him stuck in her exact second of impact, suspended midway through her collision with the pavement. But why was he being forced to witness the obliteration of this stranger? Why had every twisted detail been paused for his consideration? He wished only to caress the knotted twine around his ring finger, the mark of his and Sophia’s love, but time had paralysed him completely. 

Unable to move, imprisoned in an instant, he gazed into this woman’s dying moment. 

He found he hated her. This plummeting thing entering such an ungodly state of ruin was nothing more than a rude interruption. The falling form was completing a journey from, presumably, one of the overlooking windows of the hotel above. But this sight wasn’t deserving of his attention; there was only one worthy of his thoughts. 

Sophia. 

It had been in her father’s barn one cool summer’s dusk when those poetry-loving lips had whispered how it was going to be. They’d lay in one another’s arms upon a mixed heap of her abandoned Coleridges, Miltons, and Whitmans, with his Foundations of Behavioural Neuroscience and Neuroscience: 6th Edition somewhere in the mix. With no colleges or universities nearby, they’d taken the studying of their passions into their own hands, but these shared study sessions were never very productive. Anyway, that was when she’d described the bonds of marriage as ‘immaterial’ to what they had, and explained that they needed no pomp or ceremony to seal their love. Hypnotised as always by Sophia’s carefully selected words, he felt his insides settle into a kind of tingling static of excitement as she tied the earthy twine around his ring finger. She then motioned for him to do the same for her. He did, and from that moment on he knew their families’ attempts to interfere were, also, immaterial. With the ragged strings picked from the bale of hay, they’d knotted their resolve to abandon the countryside that had defined their lives up until this point, and flee for the city. They would work, study, and build a future together. But what had this wilderness of towering concrete brought them? 

His terminal diagnosis, that’s what. 

He stared with rage into this stuck second, bitter that the fallen woman’s death would no doubt stay with him for the rest of what little time he had left. Furious at the thought, yet unable to look away, he glared down at this random woman’s final act of rebellion or depression or last desperate attempt to take control of her life. She was blurry, like the moving subject of an improperly taken photograph. He could barely make her out, such was her distortion, until suddenly he discerned something: her frozen, final conscious motion. In her moment of impact, she was reaching one hand up. 

For him. 

He squinted through the explosive gale and saw that, sure enough, her eyes were locked on his. He was surprised she’d have time to register someone so fully. Could she really be reaching? The synaptic connections of her brain were probably lighting up at incalculable speeds, like an orgy of strobe lights, so it could be possible. There were survivor stories of these things, you see. Those who had made suicidal leaps and lived to tell the tale gave all sorts of reports as to what they experienced, both aligning and conflicting with the opinions of the ‘experts’: the explosion of adrenaline could make you hyper-aware, or send you into shock, or cardiac arrest, or cause you to black out, or even make you forget what the hell it was you were in the middle of doing anyway. In the end it was still a mystery. What goes through the mind of someone in the crosshairs of concrete, whose self-inflicted mode of annihilation is so utterly bereft of hope or chance or luck, is still a sacred secret. 

He should know. He’d researched it enough. 

He’d been told the cancer would take him soon, but he’d made up his mind before he’d even left that cold, cruel doctor’s office that he was going out on his own terms, whether Sophia liked it or not. But he was afraid. Yes, of leaving Sophia. Yes, of all their grand plans for the future fizzling out. Yes, of never revolutionising the field of neurophysiological biochemistry. But it was the thought of that final moment that caused the cold sweat to break out across his back. He was going to end it himself, this he’d set in stone, but the dreaded instant before his return to the darkness of nonexistence was…well, troubling. And so, to prepare, he did what he did best: he studied and researched and learnt. 

Did dying moments stretch out like elastic, the final split second of your life protracting for longer than anyone could ever know? He’d learnt that male mosquitoes live for an average of ten days, yet their perception of time may allow for this short lifespan to feel to them like what we know as months. The smaller the animal, the faster its metabolic rate; the faster its metabolic rate, the slower the passage of time appears to them. Try to swat a fly and you’ll have your proof. He’d even skimmed some papers hypothesising a possible solution of mankind’s distant descendants to the eventual end of the universe: manipulation of their metabolisms to experience the final centuries of the cosmos as countless millennia. 

Speculative cosmology and bug study have nothing to do with you ending it, he’d told himself. But wasn’t there the chance that our biochemical metabolic processes, or at least the neurological signallers governing the outputs of these operations, could go haywire in the event of such a cataclysmic rush of adrenaline? Couldn’t that burst render our perception of time as skewed as the mosquito’s? His readings had validated time and again the popular opinion that stressful situations slowed time down for the individual, or at least sped up their senses. Many sleepless nights of research had sealed his belief that there had to be a connection between the overflow of epinephrine, noradrenaline, cortisol, and dozens more stress hormones in a moment of such intensity as that of one’s premature death – and your metabolic perception of time. 

As that physicist with the funny hair had once said, it’s all relative. 

He’d come to believe that however he did it would result in this final, stretched second. The pull of a trigger would warp into hours, the leap in front of a train would become a Hollywood slow-mo sequence, and the moment of the concrete’s ferocious arrival – as this woman was experiencing – would stick like a broken record. But he knew too much about the effects on the brain of failed overdoses, had seen too many images of blundered self-inflicted gunshot wounds or blunt force traumas. No, it was going to have to be a jump. That was the surest way. He would just have to suck up the goddamned final moment, just like this woman before him. 

He was going to be the master of his own demise, no matter what Sophia said. Except hadn’t she agreed that it would be for the best? Hadn’t he felt her bony pianist finger on his lips before he could protest at her not only wanting to be there by his side, but actually doing it with him? 

He left these troubling thoughts, such unbearable thoughts of any harm coming to Sophia, and turned his attention back to the jumper. Blurred breakages and anatomical detonations were becoming evident throughout the woman’s horizontal body as it slowly sank into the curbside. Was he inventing things that were not there in this hand seemingly reaching up for him from the pavement? Was her frozen motion nothing more than the desperate flailing of someone meeting their end? 

And still the moment did not resolve. Still the wind pummelled his paralysed being, causing tears to stream from his eyes. Still the woman was driven at a snail’s pace into the concrete. His hatred began to dissolve. Whatever she’d gone through, they were the same, really. This was what he was to become. Before long, his synaptic connections would be the ones blinking like a demonically possessed tangle of Christmas tree lights. That explosion of adrenaline making you hyper-aware, or sending you into shock, or cardiac arrest, or causing you to black out, or making you forget what the hell it was you were in the middle of doing anyway would soon be his. 

Come to think of it, what had he been in the middle of doing? 

Of course, he’d come from his temp office job, that grey, washed out excuse for a— 

Actually, it had been from the university campus, that beehive of academia, a buzzing furnace of innovation and discovery coiled like a spring ready to— 

Or had it been their apartment, so dingy and damp as it was, yet emanating a warmth produced only from two souls intertwined in a love so— 

Sophia. From wherever he’d come, he’d come with Sophia. 

And as the maddening gale snatched the tears from his eyes to carry them upwards, the image of the woman before him finally resolved into clarity. At long last he spotted the twine wrapped around the ring finger of the woman’s reaching hand, and abruptly realised his own hand had also been outstretched the entire time. Those manic synaptic connections suddenly brought it all back. 

He’d come from above. 

Also horizontal, also reaching, he felt himself floating above the woman in her final instant. Untethered, he stared down into eyes that were wide with all the knowledge of those who witness their own end. He begged this treacherous moment to allow those poetry-loving lips just one last breath. But this world, having given him more than he was ever meant to be given, could now only take – and take it would. 

In his dying moment, he reached back. 


Back East by Chandler Morrison

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

Ryland didn’t generally mind air travel, but returning to Pennsylvania filled him with such sour dread that the only recourse was to take two Valium and remain inebriated for the duration of the flight. He was on his second drink by the time the plane lifted off the runway. Sinking into his first-class seat, his earphones in to discourage the passenger beside him from attempting to engage him in trite conversation, he stared with heavy-lidded eyes out the window and watched Los Angeles shrink beneath him.

Walking toward baggage claim some five hours later in a congenially drunken haze—the only way he knew how to handle the Philadelphia airport—he found he had enough lucidity to be struck by how unpleasant everyone looked. They were tired, sallow, overweight. Their faces bore menacing scowls. People jostled into one another, cursing under their breath or barking into cell phones. Ryland spotted only three girls who were remotely fuckable, and they clearly weren’t locals.

He texted Lyssi as he waited at the baggage carousel, telling her he’d landed safely. She responded almost immediately with a nude photo—feet stockinged in thigh-highs, one hand between her legs and the other cupping her breast—captioned with, miss u and a string of heart emojis. Too drunk to be aroused, he replied with several kissing face emojis and put his phone back in his pocket. He looked up and watched his Louis Vuitton suitcase move toward him on the trundling black track.

The Uber ride to the Cold Spring Falls Marriott—the only decent hotel in Ryland’s quaint-but-irritatingly-rustic hometown—lasted over an hour, made longer than normal by the heavy rain sweeping across the freeway as the driver’s Lexus slowly made its way north. Ryland took another Valium about fifteen minutes into the drive, and soon the silver-gray water streaking up the windshield became pleasurably hypnotic, and even the jagged branches of lightning spiderwebbed across the dark afternoon sky seemed soothingly apocalyptic.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle when the Lexus dropped him off in front of the Marriott. As he got out of the car, he instantly became unnerved by the oppressive quiet. Nature’s whispering breath was the only audible sound—the soft patter of scattered raindrops, the rustle of wind in the trees. Without the steady, mechanical thrum of urban civilization to which Ryland’s body had become accustomed, he felt disoriented and weightless, untethered from gravity.

Mandy, the girl at the front desk, had been there for what Ryland thought was too long a time. She’d been standing in the same place the first time he’d stayed at the hotel five years ago, a little over one year after he’d moved to LA. Twenty-five and built like a cheerleader, spray-tanned and fake-lashed and emanating bright-eyed cheer and sprightly sexuality, she had come to Ryland’s room four consecutive nights after her shift and fucked him with memorable vigor and expertise. Now, at thirty, she was unrecognizable. Pale and bloated, her bleary, blotchy face unmade-up and her once-sleek auburn hair gone frizzy and unkempt, there was nothing left of the girl whose expired pleasures Ryland had long ago known so intimately. He noticed a cheap wedding ring on her finger that seemed to explain it all. There were probably children, at least two. A beer-guzzling husband who beat her. A ramshackle house somewhere rural, away from uppity, suburban Cold Spring Falls’ high property taxes.

As he checked in, his gaze met her sunken, washed-out eyes only briefly enough to see the despair there, the hopeless tragedy of the dead-end life which had befallen her. He looked away, thinking, This is what happens to all of them. They get stuck here in these small towns and it warps them into haggard beasts. He thought of his ex, Penelope, rapidly dying in her dilapidated apartment as the heroin and meth ate away at her brain, her body. He decided she’d been doomed either way. There was some consolation in that.

After leaving his suitcase and sport coat in his room and swallowing two Xanax, he went down to the dim, empty bar and sat nursing a scotch with his earphones in, thinking of his dead brother. He thought he’d feel guiltier about the calls he’d ignored and forgotten to return, but his conscience seemed satisfied with the justification that he’d “been busy.” It had been several years since he’d seen him in person; their paths had happened to cross in Vegas one summer, and Ryland had tagged along as Bruno bopped from brothel to strip club to brothel. Ryland, who disliked both brothels and strip clubs, had gotten progressively drunker as the night carried on, and he had vague memories of doing a lot of coke in what now seemed like an unusually high number of chromium bathrooms. He remembered Bruno strutting up the neon-bathed boulevards, surprisingly dexterous in his gait for someone of such considerable height and girth. He’d kept bellowing “TITTY CITY” at the sky, his tremendous arms spread wide. Ryland had skulked behind him, chain smoking cigarettes and trying not to appear associated with him.

“Money and minge,” Bruno used to say to him, grinning leeringly from his wide, bearded face. “That’s all that fucking matters.” He’d sip his beer, he’d hit his cigarette, and he’d say, “Minge, man, I said it. I know you youngsters like the cue-ball pussies these days, but fuck all that. I don’t want no bald beaver swallowing up my cock. I don’t want to go down on some shaved snatch, some tweezed twat. No.” He’d bang his fist on the table then. “Bruno Boy needs a nice, pillowy muff bush. I want to be coughing up cunty pubeballs for days.”

Ryland wondered how many people would truly miss his brother.

He finished his drink and paid the bartender, tipping too much, and then he went back up to his room and had a bottle of Cristal sent up. The waiter who brought it was a spooky-looking fellow with too-white skin and black eyes and fingers that were too long. For half of a fear-frozen moment, Ryland was certain he’d seen him somewhere before, that his presence here was both ominous and impossible, but he was drunk enough to conveniently lose the thread of what he reasoned was a false memory. He tipped the creepy waiter before shutting the door in his face and retreating to the bed, where he proceeded to drink himself into a cloudy sleep.
 

* * *


 The warm rain was light but persistent the next morning at the cemetery. Black umbrellas canopied the sparse mourners like rotting mushroom caps. Ryland stood hung over and stricken with headache, away from anyone, huddled beneath his own umbrella. The tapping of raindrops atop the canvas above his head was deafening, and the Valium/Vicodin/vodka cocktail was doing little to help. He tried to focus on the priest’s solemn sermon, tried to locate something in the words that would stir some semblance of emotion within him, but the address was garbled into something foreign and unintelligible by the rain’s bedeviling torment.

His parents stood close to the grave, crowded together. Their stern faces were more suggestive of anger and disappointment than of sorrow. Neither of them had said a word to him since his arrival. He couldn’t decide if he was hurt or relieved.

When the priest had finished his spiel, Bruno’s coffin was slowly and efficiently lowered into its grave plot. For a brief moment, Ryland felt a curious sensation of frantic helplessness as he watched his brother disappear into the earth. He imagined Bruno grinning next to him, his big hands in the pockets of his pinstriped pants. “One last hole, little bro,” the ghost said with a greasy chortle.

Bruno’s widow, Christiane, appeared before Ryland as the mourners began to scatter back to their vehicles. Christiane was a small, mousy woman who had been pretty a long time ago but now bore signs of weathering in her face and frailty in her figure. She was only, Ryland thought, somewhere in her early forties, but her marriage to Bruno had aged her considerably. “Hello, Ryland,” she said. Ryland’s nephews—Michael, fifteen, and Daniel, eleven—stood dutifully on either side of her in ill-fitting suits.

“Christiane,” Ryland said, shifting awkwardly, peering out from beneath his umbrella at the treacherous gray sky. “My, um…deepest condolences.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling tightly. “You lost someone, too, you know.”

Ryland couldn’t disguise the confused expression on his face as his intoxicant-addled brain spun uselessly, trying to recall to whom she might be referring. It took him several painful moments to realize they were talking about the same person. “Um, right,” he said, coughing into his fist. “I know he and I weren’t that close but, ah, I…you know, I…loved him.”

Christiane regarded him with an amused pity before telling her sons, “Boys, go catch Grandma and Grandpa and ask if you can ride with them to the restaurant. I want to talk with your uncle.” Ryland tensed up as his nephews wordlessly turned and jogged through the rain to catch up with their grandparents, who were nearly at the parking lot. Christiane leveled her eyes at Ryland and said, “You were planning on coming to lunch, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I remember my mom mentioning something about that.” He had not planned on attending. He wanted only to go back to his hotel and crawl into bed with a bottle of gin.

“I noticed you didn’t drive here. Come on, I’ll save you the Uber fare.” Ryland would have gladly paid exorbitant sums of money to avoid whatever conversation he was about to endure, but his head hurt too badly for him to come up with a plausible excuse. He grudgingly followed Christiane to the parking lot. She’d driven Bruno’s white Maserati Quattroporte, explaining, “I thought he would have liked that—he loved this damned car more than anything. I think, though, I’m going to sell it. It’s just so gauche. Michael will be disappointed—he gets his learner’s permit soon—but no teenage boy needs a car like this.”

Ryland gave a perfunctory grunt of agreement as they got into the car. Christiane pressed the ignition button with a brittle-looking finger. The stereo stayed silent. As they pulled out of the parking lot, Ryland said, “You, um…you wanted to talk to me about something?”

With a short, terse nod, Christiane said, “Bruno talked about you quite a bit these last few months. He said he’d been trying to call you.”

Ryland gripped the sides of the leather seat and looked out the window. “Right,” he said. “Yeah, I know. I’ve just been…busy.” In a gesture of bitter capitulation, he added, “It’s not an excuse.”

“I’m not admonishing you, Ryland. That’s not what this is.”

“What is it, then?” There was more brusqueness in his voice than he’d intended. It had been, he realized, more than thirty-six hours since his last dose of cocaine, and he could feel the razor-cut agitation sawing into his jangled nerves.

Slowing to a halt before a stoplight at an empty intersection, her fingers fidgeting atop the steering wheel, Christiane said, “The last year or so with Bruno was…well, it was better. He didn’t whore around as much. He drank less, went out with his work pals more infrequently. He hardly ever hit me anymore. Even the pot—and you know how he loved pot—even that tapered somewhat. He was more present. Did more with the boys, lost some weight, stopped working on weekends. It was a good year for us. Almost like it was in the beginning.”

“That’s, ah, really great. I’m…glad to hear it.”

The light turned green. Water jetted sideways as the car cruised forward. “Ryland,” Christiane said solemnly. “Listen to me. It was like he knew he was running out of time. There was a night, maybe eight months ago, when he took me to dinner downtown. It was such a surprise. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken me out. And when we got back that night, I caught him crying. Not weeping, of course, you know he’d never do that. But he had these great big tears in his eyes, and he was trembling, and he said, ‘I wasted it all, Christy. I thought it was what I wanted, but it was all a waste.’”

Ryland felt a fetid disdain for his brother then, irked near to the point of sickness at the cliché he’d apparently become. The happy hedonist turned penitent paragon in the face of his impending twilight. It was all so typical. He’d never particularly liked his brother, but in that moment, picturing him quietly crying over his “wasted” life, he liked him less than ever. For all Bruno’s faults, his crassness and his tactless vulgarity, Ryland had at least admired the unapologetic manner in which he conducted his sordid affairs.

“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” Ryland told Christiana, a beleaguered exhaustion settling into his bones, constricting around his joints.

“I think you do.”

“No, really. I mean, what even is this? Some kind of intervention? Am I supposed to burst into tears and tell you you’re right, I need to change my ways, that whatever light you think your husband saw in his last few months has now come for me and swept me into its benevolent arms? Let me tell you something. Bruno didn’t change. He didn’t experience some grand epiphany. He was just a middle-aged man with a bad heart and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels through the goddamn roof, and he started to get skittish the more he felt his mortality. There’s nothing special about it. It happens to guys like him all the time.”

“You’re taking this all wrong,” Christiane said quietly, pulling into the parking lot of a little Italian restaurant called Luca Lorenzo’s that Bruno had particularly liked. She parked the car near the back of the lot, turned off the ignition. She didn’t look at Ryland. “I’m not attacking you. This isn’t about judgment. I’m only telling you what he wanted to say himself.”

“Which is what, exactly?”

“Take it easy. Enjoy life. Find things that give you real pleasure, not synthetic substitutes. You’re right, he was feeling his mortality. It has a way of creeping up on you. I think Bruno was starting to realize the things that are important to have around you when it does.”

“I don’t think Bruno was starting to realize anything. And I’ll tell you something else—he never worked on weekends.” This last jab was an unnecessary cruelty which still felt coldly justified.

Christiane’s mouth drew into a thin line. “All I’m saying is you’re still young, Ryland. You still have chances left. Bruno didn’t start to wake up until he’d blown every chance he ever got.”

“I am awake.”

“No,” Christiane said. Her smile bore no amusement, no warmth. “You’re stoned. There’s a rather distinct difference.” Not waiting for an answer, she got out of the car and stood in the light rain, waiting for him to follow. Bitterly, he did, and the two of them walked briskly across the slick parking lot and into the restaurant.

Inside, sitting at the table with his family, Ryland was immediately put off by the small-town simplicity of the restaurant’s interior—the drab, generic wallpaper, the awful carpeting, the poor lighting. Menus printed on cheap cardstock and shoddily laminated, their edges trimmed unevenly as if scissor-cut by children. Faint Muzak drifted from tinny speakers. The staff were slouched and slovenly, the chairs ancient and creaky and uncomfortable. It was the kind of place Bruno loved; he favored places where he could flaunt his wealth, where everyone was force-fed the bitter awareness he came from a higher cloth. This was one of the most distinct differences between the two of them—ever since Ryland had started making real money, he liked to be in places where he was surrounded by people of his ilk, where he could comfortably blend in among the upper tiers of the social strata. Intermingling among the lower classes only grossed him out.

“Ryland,” said his mother, phrasing his name like a bland observation. “We didn’t think you’d come.”

“Yeah, well,” Ryland muttered, and then said nothing else. He ordered a Belvedere on the rocks. The waiter only blinked and asked him what that was, so Ryland sighed and rubbed his temples and asked for a glass of Chianti, instead. “Actually,” he amended, “just bring the whole bottle.”

“It’s awfully early,” his father said—quite hypocritically, Ryland thought, given the man’s own relationship with alcohol.

Ryland mumbled something about still being on California time, realizing too late that this didn’t make any sense because it was still morning on the West Coast, but no one challenged him. His mother protested when he declined to order food, fussing that he was “too thin, much too thin.” He silenced her with an upheld hand and an expression of exhausted impatience.

He tried to pace his consumption of the wine as the meal progressed, but he’d drunk the entire bottle before anyone else had finished eating. The weak alcohol was all that allowed him to tolerate their idle chatter and the maddening scrape of utensils across plates, and even then, only barely. No one said much to him—Christiane had already made her case, his parents had given up on him long ago, and his nephews knew from past experiences that he was incapable of patiently indulging the antics of children the way other adults could. Ryland’s alienation at the table afforded him the opportunity to observe things he might have otherwise ignored, like how drastically his parents had aged since he’d last seen them. The deeply set lines in his father’s face, the receding gums, the burst capillaries crowded around his nose…his mother’s ballooning weight, her thinning hair, the cloudiness of her eyes.

It came as something of a shock, seeing them so old—his father, particularly. He could see, faintly, his own resemblance in his father’s features, could see himself reflected back through the lens of advancing time, but he could not reconcile the notion that the image of the man on the other side of the table was what waited in store for his own life. Old age was not something Ryland had ever been able to envision for himself. He saw nothing particularly fatalistic or tragic about this blind spot in whatever foresight he thought he had for his future; it simply was not something he considered a possibility. Something else would happen, be it a medical panacea for aging or some blighting scourge that eradicated mankind—whichever polar extreme came first.

When lunch had concluded—Ryland had attempted to at least pay for his wine, but his father had dismissed him with a summary wave of his hand without looking at him—the family stood outside under the dripping awning, hugging and saying their goodbyes. Ryland stood slightly away from the rest of them, not engaging, feeling like an outsider and oddly comforted by this; he didn’t want to be one of them, had never wanted to be one of them. 

Christiane offered to drive him back to his hotel, but he politely declined. He wanted to get away from all of them as soon as possible. He’d expected her to say something stereotypical in parting, something along the lines of “Think about what I said,” or “Try and be good to yourself,” but she didn’t. She and her sons walked across the parking lot to the Maserati and none of them looked back.

Before taking their own leave, Ryland’s parents offered stilted words of farewell to their sole remaining son—his father limply shook his hand, and his mother hugged him briefly, but there was no warmth there, no sincerity. He was as dead to them as Bruno was. Maybe more so.

On the way to the hotel, he had the Uber driver stop at a liquor store, where he bought a fifth of Tanqueray. He tore the seal and took a long swig as he walked through the rain back to the Uber, where he continued to drink in the backseat, tipping the driver egregiously to avoid any impact on his passenger rating. He blacked out somewhere between the hotel elevator and his room, regaining consciousness the next morning on the plane, already airborne, wearing the wrinkled suit from the day prior and receiving wary, side-eyed glances from the passenger beside him. All he could do was order another drink from the frumpy stewardess and wait for the plane to deposit him back into his life on the other side of the country.

Chandler Morrison is the author of Along the Path of Torment, Until the Sun, Dead Inside, Hate to Feel, Just to See Hell, and the upcoming Human-Shaped Fiends. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He lives in Los Angeles.