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.

Devil’s Morning by M.M. Harrold

Short Stories

Detroit Police Department 

Internal Affairs

October 29, 2003 

 

I’d done the things I was accused of over the years.  All of them.  Except what I was accused of this one time.  This time, I had played it straight.  Hell, I even gave that woman a break.

The Internal Affairs detectives had me sitting in a room just like one you’d see on TV.  The table in the middle of the room.  The metal chairs.  An exposed light bulb with a wire cup serving as a fixture.  I gripped a cup of weak black coffee in a Styrofoam cup.  My knuckles were busted from fighting and I had permanent callouses that had formed from all the blisters from the fires.   I was in uniform.  My shirt and pants were starched but my leather boots and gun belt were scuffed.  I was no rookie.  I was grandfathered in before they banned the tattoos.  I had a full sleeve, and my shoulders and chest were covered.  There was even an electric piranha swimming up my neck from my collar.  I’d gotten a few since they banned them on exposed areas, but the brass wouldn’t know the difference.  They didn’t know shit.  Even the ones that had come up through the ranks seemed to forget what it was like on the street.  A white shirt or a suit seemed to suck the experience out of guys who had probably done the same shit I had.  Maybe worse.   But I did what I did for instant gratification.  Those assholes played the long game; they collected dirt and then climbed the ranks on the rungs of secrets they knew.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of questionable shit to let a woman out of a traffic ticket or, on a few occasions, a shoplifting charge.  Even took the stuff from the store and said it was “evidence” and then let her keep it.  A couple of times I’ve returned after locking up a husband or boyfriend—or even girlfriend—to “comfort” a vulnerable woman after a domestic. I’ve stolen drugs from the evidence room. Used them and planted them.  I’d hit people I was pretty sure were guilty with a leather sap to get a confession.  Three years earlier I shot and killed an unarmed suspect but quickly dropped a Smith and Wesson K-Frame I kept in my cruiser hidden behind the tire jack next to his right hand.  I played the odds.  Most people were right-handed.  He was.   A “South Florida throwdown” the cops called a dropped gun, not that I was near South Florida.  Detroit was about as far away as you could get from South Florida.

So, the two detectives were in suits.  Cheap suits but suits, nonetheless.  I hated these rats.  I had no idea how you made it through the academy and hit the streets with your brothers and sisters only to go after cops instead of the perps.  They asked their questions; it was easy to keep my story straight because it was one of the exceedingly rare times I was telling the truth.  

“Officer, you don’t want a lawyer or union rep?” the more senior detective said.

“Don’t need one” I said.  And I didn’t because I hadn’t done anything.  This time.   The woman was saying I pulled her over and made “sexual advances,” I wasn’t worried.  They told me the timeframe she was alleging, and I knew I’d been halfway across town getting gas at the city pumps and knew the CCTV cameras would clear me on this one.  I’d pulled her over hours before she said I did.  Ironically, I gave her a break.  If I’d called in the stop on the radio and issued a citation my alibi would be even stronger.  She was stepping out on her husband, was late and was blaming it on me.  Saying I’d kept her pulled over for an hour when it was less than five minutes.  No good deed.  

After the pumps I’d been off my beat getting dinner at a taco joint the DEA had told us to steer clear of.  I didn’t.   This whole thing sounded like bullshit.   I had no idea if this was just to sit me down so they could ask me real questions.  What did these guys know?  Did they know what I really did for the Motor City?

Did these pricks know how I saved this crumbling city?  By setting fires.  Fire by fire.   They didn’t; and I wasn’t about to tell them.  Rats.

I knew what they didn’t know.  

One way to save a neighborhood is to set fires.  It’s all about aggressive zoning.  

An unexpected flash thunderstorm had left the streets slick, the potholes filled to the brim.  I drove my marked Ford Taurus down a one-way street littered with trash.  I pushed the ray of the strobe light against the projects lighting up clusters of people huddled in doorways and at the edges of the narrow hallways.  The windshield wipers slapped, paused, and slapped again in a steady rhythm.  Throngs of people scattered as I turned the corner.   They always did.  It was a one-way street going east with a parallel street one street over going west.  It created a type of drive thru for crack.  Pay on one side, around the corner pick up the dope.  Dope and money never together.  There was a short street running perpendicular from a main road to the eastbound street, with a bodega at the intersection.  There was a payphone.  Anytime there was a payphone on my beat I disabled it during midnight watch when nobody was around.  Usually, I’d cut the cable with bolt cutters; sometimes I’d put gum or super glue in the coin slot.

This bodega even sold a crack kit.  Seriously.  Paper bag with a pipe, brillo.  Just add crack.   It was time to burn it down.  Literally.   I was thinking about it when my sergeant raised me on the radio and asked to meet.  We pulled our cruisers alongside each other with the driver’s doors facing each other so we could talk.

            “Hey sarge,” I said feigning interest in what he had to say.  He had five fewer years on the force than I did.  Shitty cop, good test taker.  Intelligent but stupid.  Bad at chasing perps.  Good at shining shoes and kissing ass.

            “Uh, huh” I kept saying not sure what I was agreeing to.  It sounded like it was a complaint from one of the female officers on my shift.  Something I said, I guess.  About a stripper maybe.  I wasn’t sure.  I couldn’t remember.  I didn’t care.  Wasn’t the first time; wouldn’t be the last.  But it was being handled in-house so I knew it wouldn’t amount to shit.

He seemed to be waiting for me to say something.  I just stayed silent.  I like annoying this prick.  

            “Krebs?”

            “Yeah, Sarge it’s me, what’s up?” I asked.

            “Yeah what?” the sergeant said… “will you sign it or not.”  He was talking about a discipline form he had shown me earlier, right after roll call.

            “What’s the rip on it?” I asked, sure he had just told me, but I wasn’t really listening.

            He had.

            “I just told you Krebs, three days.  Unpaid.”

            I went silent again.  I would agree but this guy and his three stripes were going to have to wait another minute or so.

            “Krebs!

            “Yeah, I’ll sign it,” I said.  

            “Fine,” the sergeant said, “this week, Wednesday through Friday.”

            This was a punishment?  Halloween night and the nights before and after were a nightmare in Detroit.  The night before, Devils Night, and Halloween the Detroit Fire Department answered over 100 calls for service. 

I would add a few to that.  Having the nights off would make it easier to go on a spree, but it would erase my alibi.   Being on duty is a hell of a good alibi when the embers started to glow.  It was one I’d used many times in the past.   You knew how to work the radio and you could be anywhere in the city.  Or not be anywhere.

            I had a van.  I bought it at a sheriff’s auction in some small town in rural Michigan.  It was only the four lights on the roof away from being the A-Team van.  Black with the red stripe.  Bar across the rear top, even had the red rims.  It was a little conspicuous for its intended use; ironically, my marked police interceptor was less conspicuous in the projects, but it would have to do. 

Even off-duty I heard the dispatcher talking in my head.  On-duty it was all 911 calls, who needed help, who was getting slapped around, who wanted who out of the house since the monthly check had run out.  On and on.   Off duty, it was still my dispatcher’s voice.  I heard it.   All the time.  She was telling me which houses to burn.  

            I wore black cargo pants and a black sweatshirt.   Black boots.  I had a shoulder holster with a Sig 9mm under my left arm.   

            I was going to torch a crack house.  

To the ground.  

It made me a good cop.  A great cop.

I ignored the fact that they rarely hurt anyone and that they were casualties of the endless drug war, a cure clearly worse than the disease.  Mental health.  Not crime.  If anyone was acting like a warrior, it was me; I was the only combatant.  

I hoped the houses were empty.  

Hoped.  

The idea wasn’t mine.  The brainstorm came from a legend with the LAPD when crack first hit the streets in the early 1980’s.  He set fires for years, him and two other guys from his precinct would throw a flash bang in, disperse the dope fiends, and leave a slow burning Molotov cocktail with a long wick in their wake.

The Legend and his crew never got caught.  Only cops knew about it.  Word spread.

            I did the same.  Ten times before tonight.  Two before midnight on Devil’s Night.  

            My plan was to torch a thirteenth house, then the bodega on my beat and call it a night.   Thirteen was not my lucky number.  

Halloween Morning.  2 a.m.

            Devil’s Night had been over for two hours when I stepped into the abandoned one-story dilapidated house on one of Detroit’s most lethal streets.

            “Where did the dog come from” I thought as it barked and lunged at me.  I thought about shooting it, but I didn’t normally shoot dogs.  I had a conscience.  Through a gap in the moldy, clapboard wall I saw two uniforms approaching the structure.   I had no idea how they found me.  

            Even though I have a conscience, survival instinct kicked in.  I threw the Molotov cocktail at the dog and then shot it between the eyes.  The crack of the round leaving the barrel with a flash ricochet against the silence.  The dog slumped.  The uniforms drew their weapons.  What I had going for me was their training.  They didn’t rush the house.  They crouched for a second out of instinct and looked for cover. Then, they approached.  Tactically. 

            I moved quickly to the rear door of the house walking over what had become a mud floor interspersed with crack pipes and garbage as the wood had rotted and been absorbed by the grainy black soil.  As I began to move, my breathing accelerated, causing the smell of urine and shit that pierced my nose to become more intense.

            I ran out the rear door and cut through the backyards of the neighboring houses.  Fortunately, most of the fences I had to scale were sagging and the laundry on the lines partially blocked the sightline of the cops who were now chasing me.   Still, they stayed on me.

            “Stop! Police! Stop! Police!” they both yelled.

            I didn’t.  I just hoped they didn’t shoot me in the back.

            I made my way to a corner and then a short cluster of trees that allowed me to double back towards the van.  They had lost me in the shadows.  As I knew, chasing armed perps was no picnic.  Every corner they rounded they had to stop, peek, and then proceed without rounding the corner into the barrel of a gun.  

            I ran to my van, opened the unlocked rear door, made my way to the driver’s seat and cranked the engine.  The cops were running behind me, down the middle of the deserted street.

            I pulled away.  In the rearview mirror I saw one of the cops, the younger one, with his hand across his body gripping the mic near his shoulder.  Talking.  Calling in backup.  I drove with my left and lit a Molotov cocktail sitting on the passenger seat with a lighter in my right.  The slow burn of the wick began its deliberate path to the bottle.  I took my hand off the wheel and lowered the driver’s window.  I drove with my right, reached across with my left hand, and grabbed the cocktail.  I pulled it across my body.  My plan was to hurl it back towards the officers running down the street. Maybe hoist it into a parked car.  All I needed was a distraction.  A second to dip onto a side street and disappear.  The running cops knew they didn’t have to catch me, just keep me in sight.  The radio would catch me.

            I never got the chance.  A ghetto bird appeared above me, and the floodlight sprayed light upon my van.  I could hear the rotors cut against the cold Michigan air.  It blinded me for a second.  I jerked the wheel without thinking, in a moment of panic.  

            I dropped the cocktail.  It pitched over my left shoulder and landed behind my chair.   Out of reach.  I estimated the wick only had about twenty more seconds. If it was still lit, but there was no reason to believe it wasn’t.  It was all I would need.

            The bodega was a hard left turn one hundred fifty feet ahead.  I opened the door and got ready to bail.  I steered towards the store—my ultimate target—my service to the Motor City—my swan song.  I was going to bail and let the van roll.  I figured I still had ten seconds to get out while still steering long enough to save the neighborhood.

            I was just about to plow in through the front door.   There was nobody around.  The store closed at midnight.  I heard sirens wailing; the helicopter hovered.  The running cops hadn’t caught up yet.  I’d have time to bail and snake through the narrow alleys of the projects to escape.  The van was registered to me, so my cop life in Detroit was over.  But I could start a new one.  One on the run.  I could still protect and serve.  One fire at a time.  And fire is eternal, like I would be.  A legend.

            I was wrong, by ten seconds.  

            The van exploded.


M.M. Harrold is a frequent crime and trial TV pundit, former law professor and former cop.  He lives outside Washington, DC.

Since You love her so much by Robert Ragan

Short Stories

This fucking dope head, Ronald Wiley, was a real piece of work. He was doing good buying enough coke and ice from me to support his habits and make a little extra money on the side.

I didn’t mind letting the kid hold something and then pay me later because he was good for it. But then Ronald decided he wanted to play homewrecker and start talking to a married woman who lived across town in some fancy housing development.

I’ve been around, seen, and heard a lot. I even fell for some broads myself. But Ronald Wiley wasn’t in love with the woman; he was obsessed with her to the point of insanity.

Everywhere he went, he talked about getting a handgun. I could have sold him one, but there was no way I would be linked to Wiley killing anyone.

Me and my best buddy Plug-Water both told him she was playing mind games and probably wouldn’t ever meet him.

Plug had a blunt hanging between his lips as he cut playing cards on the table in front of him. He looked up at Ronald and exhaled. He told Wiley he was crazy. Man, this woman is way out of your league. You better leave her alone before her husband kills you.

Ronald looked like those words scraped the skin off of his soul. He looked at me and said, “That’s if I don’t get him first.”

Cutting the nonsense, I said, “Wiley, you don’t have it in you to hurt anyone. So you best listen to Plug-Water and leave her alone before you get your heartbroken, or you get killed or something.”

When he walked out and got in his car, I told Plug that I’d seen Wiley with a few attractive women over the last few years. For him to have lost his mind, this married woman had to be something mighty special. It made me want a piece of her myself. I wouldn’t become obsessed or fall in love with her; I’d just fuck her like she wished her husband would. Then I’d send her right back to him.

Plug smiled and asked if I wanted him to do some investigating. “No,” I told him, “I had other business for him to take care of.”

Some stick-up artist was hanging around one of our labs. I knew he was plotting on the people I had working there. So I told Plug-Water to make it really bloody. That’s all I ever had to say. Plug didn’t have many screws left, but he was the most loyal friend I had.

Anyway, our buddy Ronald managed to get lucky. This woman, who I found was named Haley Snow, actually agreed to meet this addict piece of dirt. Man, Plug was right; she was out of his league. A sexy brunette real estate agent who wore skirts, pantyhose, and high heels. So, what the fuck did Wiley say to make her come and visit the slums? I don’t know, but I even smiled.

Mrs. Haley Snow had no idea what she was getting herself into. But it was none of my business; I was happy for the kid, but then in the midst of his intense joy, he fronted a good amount of ice and powder from me. I gave him plenty of time to pay me back.

Two months to be exact. Believe me, I was more than understanding. First of all, don’t add your drug connections on Facebook if you don’t plan on paying your debts.

I saw this little addict fuck post about jewelry he bought her, fancy restaurants he took her to. I’ll hand it to him; he went out of the way to make her happy and show her a good time.

Plug-Water said it best, though; Haley was used to living an extravagant lifestyle, so Wiley wasn’t doing anything her husband hadn’t done a million times before.

Come to find out, he was about to lose everything he owned out spending money to impress a woman who had her own money. She didn’t need anything from him.

I sent Plug out to have a talk with him and ask politely when he planned on paying me back. Plug-Water drove all over Harnett County, looked for him in Dunn, Erwin, and Lillington, but couldn’t find him. Someone said he might be staying out in Sanford with a cousin, but we couldn’t find him there either.

By then, I was pissed the fuck off. Wiley wouldn’t answer my phone calls or reply to Messenger. Plus, he deactivated his Facebook after Haley refused to leave her husband.

Fucking idiot could have been in a mental hospital after hacking himself up and sharing the bloody pics on Facebook. A guy like this you couldn’t scare.

He definitely wasn’t the same Ronald Wiley I met three years ago. He did ok with the ladies but let Haley Snow fuck his head up big time. He should have expected what happened. Haley snuck away and spent time with him, but it was nothing worth leaving her husband and ruining the cozy life she had. Poor Wiley, anyway, I was about ready to have Plug-Water put him out of his misery. One bullet through his temple, and it wouldn’t matter if she wouldn’t leave her husband for him.

Wait, fuck that! We can’t kill him but damned if he won’t, at least shed a little blood. Leave him alive, let his flesh and bones ache right along with his soft heart.

Anyway, he kept trying to get away from us. So I got this bright idea on how to bring him out of hiding. Haley’s office was in Durham, and it wasn’t hard to find at all.

Plug drove smooth as we played Nas and D-Block. Somewhere along the way, he turned down the music, lit a blunt he’d rolled while driving, and asked me if we were going to tag-team Haley. Laughing, I said, “No, I don’t mean her any harm. I just want her to get in touch with Wiley.”

Plug-Water exhaled smoke through his nostrils. It traveled through his neatly trimmed beard. “I thought you were trying to fuck this chick, man,” he said, “You don’t care if I hit it do you?”

“If she’ll give it up to you,” I said. “Go for it.”

“I’m cooler and better looking than Ronald Wiley, so I think she will,” Plug said.

He was my right-hand man, but Plug-Water wasn’t as cool with the ladies as Wiley. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him.

We pulled up outside Haley’s office just in time as she was on her way to her car. Damn, she was one fine little thing in a pink blouse and black skirt that showed off her long nylon-covered legs.

Plug said, “Goddamn, she’s one bad fucking hottie.”

I called her over to the car. She was reluctant but eventually walked over. The sound of her heels clicking the pavement was arousing.

“Can I help you?” she asked me.

I was trying to handle business, and Mr. Todd Kyle, aka Plug-Water, was nearly drooling when he interrupted me and said, “Damn baby, you one bad motherfucker.”

She was visibly repulsed and about to walk away. “Hold on. I was just wondering if you could get in touch with Ronald Wiley?” I said.

She turned around and looked especially disgusted then. “No, there’s no way I’m ever speaking to him again; he’s fucking crazy!”

“I’m not asking you to hook back up with him. Just tell him Nelson Riley said he better have that money soon.”

“No,” she said. “I’m trying to save my marriage. I’m not contacting Ronald again.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still didn’t want to hurt Haley. But she didn’t give me any choice but to get out and force her into the backseat at gunpoint. She was terrified, even after I told her she was safe and no one was going to hurt her.

Haley cried all the way back to Lillington. She just would not believe that we weren’t going to kill her.

Plug said, “Baby girl, you sound like you want to die or something. Trust me, I’ve got you, but you have to let me get some of that good loving first.”

I asked, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not normally this much of a creep.”

Riding beside Haley in the backseat, I said, “You have this way of getting men all out of character, don’t you?”

She said, “Ronald was depressed on social media. So I reached out and told him we could talk. I never knew he would become an obsessed lunatic. I shouldn’t have talked to him anymore after he threatened to break my nose, but he just had this tortured romantic thing going on that I loved.”

We were back at my place in West Hills when she finally made the phone call. Of course, I’d made her lunch and a rather strong mixed drink. I told her when she got Wiley on the phone to sound as terrified as she did when I forced her into the car earlier.

“Tell him that some guy name Plug-Water keeps touching your legs; plus, he threatened to rape you at gunpoint.”

Haley pulled the act off perfectly. Wiley even asked to speak to me. I said, “Well, it’s nice to hear from you. We all thought you might be dead.”

Bold, he said. “I’ll kill you and Plug if you hurt Haley!”

Just to fuck with him, I said, “Well, come on and kill us then,” before ending the call.

I told Plug-Water that Wiley would show up with a gun and to be prepared. Pulling out his huge 45, he said, “I’m ready to drop his ass.”

Haley had no more use for Wiley, but she still asked us not to kill him. He needed help, and it would be wrong to hurt him in any way.

Plug said, “What’s wrong is him owing Nelson money and running around spending every dime he had on you.”

Squinting her brown eyes, Haley said, “I never asked him for anything. In fact, I offered to send him money, but he wouldn’t accept it.”

Ten minutes later, we all heard a car door slam outside. Plug went to the door, and Wiley tried to push him aside and walk in. The two ended up locking up. Each had one hand on Plug’s 45. Haley screamed as I stood back in case the gun went off.

Eventually, Wiley overpowered Plug. I was about to move in and help him, but he regained his composure and ripped his gun away from Ronald, who went to reach for his own piece.

Wasting no time, Plug pulled the trigger. I couldn’t see the bullet leave the barrel, but we all saw the blood splatter on Wiley’s white t-shirt once it hit him in the chest. That’s all it took.

I had to tell Haley to shut the fuck up. Gunshots were nothing around West Hills. But a woman screaming afterward wasn’t good.

Plug was a little shook. “Damn!” he said. “I’m lucky the motherfucker didn’t get me!”

He walked over to check Wiley’s coat for a pistol, but all he found was a knife. We were both surprised, expecting him to be carrying a gun.

I said, “You’re ok, man. Now do something with his body while I drive Haley back to her office.”

The look in his eyes was sinister. He said, “You know what? Fuck that! I killed him, you do something with the body, and I’ll drive Haley back.”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t work like that. If you want, we’ll both go.”

Plug ignored me and started in on Haley. “What’s up, baby? You gonna let me have some of that sweet little thing or what?”

With fresh tears in her eyes, she was hysterical. Leave me the fuck alone, you creep!”

Plug-Water moved closer to her, and I told him to back the fuck up and leave her alone. He couldn’t believe it when he turned around and saw my 45 pointed right at him.

“What the fuck, Nelson!” he said. “You’d really shoot me over this bitch?”

“Damn right, I will! I told you I didn’t mean her any harm. Now, you asked if she wanted to fuck, and she said no, so leave her alone.”

Plug shook his head and said one day he would get me back for pulling my gun on him.

Haley and I went and got in my car. During the ride back, she said, “I can’t believe he killed Ronald.”

I said, “You said yourself he was fucking crazy, and plus, he didn’t give Plug much of a choice.”

It didn’t matter because she still cried, and as soon as we got to Durham, I noticed the cops were everywhere. When we turned down the street her office was located on, I saw the police were parked outside and saw officers step out of the building.

I couldn’t drop her off there. So, I held the gun to her side and told her to be quiet as I drove right past it.

I said, “I’ll drop you off somewhere else safe and sound, just not here.”

Robert Ragan, from Lillington NC, has been nominated for both The Pushcart Prize and  Best Of The Net. You can find his work at Vext magazine, Synchronized Chaos, Punk Noir Magazine, Yellow Mama Webzine, Close To The Bone, and Switchblade Magazine. He also has two story collections Mannequin Legs And Other Tales and It’s Only Art. Both published by Alien Buddha Press.

The Basement by Clea Simon

Short Stories

The basement. That’s where it all happened. Where we came together. Before the gigs. Before the airplay. Before we hit the road.

You’d have laughed. I know I did. We were such a bunch of misfits, dragged down into that dank hellhole by one crazy idea. Dragged back here by … Well, fuck it. I mean, at first, it sounded like fun.

“We’re gonna be a band. The best band in the world.” That was Rot – Rob, still, in those days. Tuesday afternoon, some vocational class in our old school. Mandatory if you wanted to collect but a waste of time for anything else, and Kurt had been drumming on the desktop with his pencils, making the stiffs glare. I remembered him from around and had gone over, scattering the nobodies with a look and squeezing into that little kid desk to sit beside him. Rob had found us there when he came in, late as usual, dragging Karma over, both of them still bleary-eyed from the night before. “Kid here’s got the beat. And you’ve got a bass, right?”

Band? We didn’t even have a place to play. But it wasn’t like any of us had anything else going on, so when Kurt suggested his basement, we all said what the hell. Karma had a car – a cast-off from her ex – and she moved us all over that night, maybe the next. With the snow that winter, the corner was slow. My amp was too heavy to lug around much anyway, and Kurt’s drums were already in the building, up three flights but still. There was a lock on the front door that mostly worked, and the far side looked dry enough. Rob plugged in the first day and shorted something out. Old pipes, a leak, but the other plug worked. And so it began.

Band. What a joke. Only Karma had that voice. You know – the one that stops you cold? In those days, though, she was so shy she couldn’t sing in front of us. We’d all heard her, nights when she was high. That’s why she was there. We’d all seen her, out on the street, too, and figured she’d be game for anything. But singing? Guess we all have a weak spot. Guess I should know.

Her’s almost broke us. Ending us before it began, half a night dragging our shit around town for nothing. Tromping through the ice and the muck. It was Rot who figured it out. Told her to stand in the janitor’s closet, door open for light.  He’d been poking around, looking for something to sell.  Figured she’d want to get out of there, so full of junk – construction shit, repair shit – there was barely room to stand, even after we ripped the pipes out. Took a while though. She made herself comfortable, lounging on those old sacks of Quikrete like a queen. But we could hear her, even then.

We all had our part. Rot got a real guitar. Copper paid good. Me on my bass, the deep thrum-thrum that kept us steady. God knows, Kurt didn’t. A wild man on the set, he was all power and speed. Unreliable as hell, though, especially when he was high. Tempo going like his heartbeat – faster, faster, fast. Didn’t matter. He was a big guy. Loud, and we needed that. We each had a part to play.

Good times, bashing away, and with Kurt going nuts we kept cranking it up. My old amp heating up so hard the walls were steaming, and Rob windmilling like mad. We were onto something – an energy if not a tune – the beat so loud we couldn’t hear anything else. Didn’t hear the angry dude until he was right in front of us, hands on his hips and a face like he was going to fire us all.

“What the fuck? Didn’t you hear me?” The cold coming in behind him.


“No, man.” Kurt must have known him from the building. He sounded sort of sorry. “We were just practicing.”

“This isn’t a practice space.” He scowled like that was supposed to mean something. “Some of us need to sleep.”

“Sorry.” Kurt put his sticks down and the guy stormed off.

Just in time. My fists still bunched as Karma came out, giggling, eyes wide in the light. “Whoa, what an asshole.” She took in our faces. Mine. “Don’t worry guys. I had my knife.”

Girl talk. We weren’t worried, but we did stick to daytime after that. Most afternoons, when we didn’t have to clock in. Time passed, and we were getting pretty good.

“Hey, man, cut the artsy shit.” I spoke without thinking. Rot – Rob – playing rock star. “You’re ruining the thrust.”

“Thrust is what it’s about.” He lunged with his Strat, but Kurt was with me by then.

“No, he’s right,” he said. “Keep it stripped down. Basic. Real.”

A shrug. I’d won. “We going again?” Karma, calling from the closet.

Kurt grinned. “One-two-three-four!” Another day, another practice. All of us just looking for something to do.

“So, I talked to someone. Jimmy – from the Five Spot?” Karma made everything a question, so I nodded. I’d become the leader by then. I guess the bass always is. Setting the tempo. Keeping everyone in line without even throwing a punch.

“We’re ready.” I looked around. Kurt was Kurt. He didn’t respond, but Rob was into it. “Shit, yeah! Let’s do it!”

Two weeks later, we loaded our gear into Karma’s car. Two sets at the Five Spot. Then a party at the Locals’ loft, and someone had a van that we could use. By July, we were gigging all over. Rob had become Rot, and Kurt had shaved his head.

“It makes me look mean.”

Not that mean. “Play that song again.” Some bratty kid had pushed his way up. “The one that goes pow-pow-pow!”

July, and we had fans. People who showed up at our gigs without knowing us beforehand. I laid down the rules. Buy us beer and you could make a request. That worked out well for the clubs too.  Plus, it made me laugh. All our songs were the same, pretty much. Didn’t matter. They didn’t notice, and we all got off on playing. The power, the energy. Rob posing out front, and Kurt bashing away. Besides, Karma’s singing gave us an edge. Set us off from the other thrash bands. I knew it, even if she didn’t, and I wasn’t surprised when the kid from Banger Records started pestering us to go into the studio.

“You paying?” Wiping my bass down. The club was a sweatbox, and I was soaked.

“Not our deal.” Suburban kid, playing at punk. His teeth were too good. “We split the costs. I handle distribution, airplay.”

“We’re getting airplay.” Some college DJ had taped a show. Kurt had wanted to kill him, until that zine writer had shown up. She was cute, and she liked them big. The exposure didn’t hurt either.

“Not like I could get you.” The kid, head tilted to one side like he could play me. “Four track, proper mics. You’d sound huge.”

“Huge, huh?” It was going to cost. I knew that. My unemployment was running out, and the record store wasn’t having me back. Not after the fight, the blood sprayed up high on the wall. Didn’t matter, none of us had money to spare. I saw how Rob was hopping about, pupils like pinballs. Happy, high. But I’d also seen how Karma’s eyes had lit up as the kid talked. She wanted this, so, yeah, I did too.

We called a band meeting, next day in the basement. What got me was how into it even Kurt was. I guess he liked banging away. Maybe it was the girls.

At any rate, I laid out the plan. Every gig, half whatever we got paid would go into the pot. We were playing for the door, most places, so I knew there were workarounds. Rob let his dealer pad the list, and Kurt’s bar tab cut into our take. But it was a plan we could all live with, especially once they agreed I’d keep the money. Keep it safe.

Two nights later, we had a deal. October, we’d go into the studio – some place over in the South End. The kid would front the money for the time, but we had to get our share in before we started. And by the way? We needed songs.

“You’ve got something. I know that.” Those good teeth bared in a smile. “But, come on, two songs? Two that don’t sound exactly like each other? How hard can that be?”

“Fuck you.” Bait and switch. I should have seen it coming. Itched to shove those white teeth into red. The band, though, they’d heard him too.

“We can do that.” Rob, on the rise, pulling me aside. Kurt nodding along. “Come on, man. Let’s get to it. I bet we can write ten songs in a week.”

We started practicing in earnest then. Coming together for more than to bash and laugh. Kurt got discipline, somewhere in there. His rhythm became rock solid. His attitude changed too.

“Stop, stop.” Standing. Sticks pointed at me. “Back at the bridge, you keep fucking it up.”

Any other time, that would have been it. Kurt wasn’t that big. But I held back. It felt good, that summer. Like we were heading somewhere. Had a goal. Practice every day, no excuses. Got to the point I didn’t notice the smell. By then, I’d stopped skimming off our earnings, even when I was short.

Karma had moved into my place, which helped. Still bringing in some money and I didn’t ask. A girl has to eat, right? More to the point, she’d gotten over her shyness. Tough as she was, everyone loved her. And that voice.

She still liked the closet though. “You guys, I can’t hear myself.” She’d shake her head, taking the mike with her, the cord like a rat’s tail over the gritty floor.

She was in there when the guy came down again, the asshole from upstairs. We’d forgotten about him. Forgotten about the daytime rule. Weekends, whatever. We had a mission, and who was he to us?

Angry, that’s what. “What the fuck?” Staring at us like we each had two heads. “I thought I told you jerks to get lost ages ago.”


“Hey, I pay rent here too.” Kurt. I didn’t think he did, but I wasn’t going to interrupt. “Basement’s public.”

“You wanna tell the landlord that?” Leaning forward, like he knew something we didn’t. “You wanna tell the cops?” Kurt starting to stand, when Karma came out.

“Cool it, everybody.” She knew Kurt. Knew me. Stepping forward with that swagger that said so much. “I’m sure we can figure something out, Daddio. Right?”

The asshole looked at her. We all did. Sweaty from the closet, from the summer heat. Her tank top sticking to her like paint. The water dripping from the wall the only sound. My girl. My band. We’d all worked so damned hard. He reached out, a leer spreading across his face. Karma, and I saw red.

Later she told me what she’d meant, wanting to keep me sweet. We were gigging, she said. We could afford a practice space. Use the Five Spot, even, as long as we kept on with Tuesday nights. Dip into the kitty, if we had to. That was all. It was too late by then, of course. We were halfway to Texas before we knew it, calling every college station that had aired our tape. Playing hard and fast and moving on.

“Think we can go back sometime?” Karma and me, sitting on a levee. Cold-enough beer and concrete down into black water. “Say we’ve been on tour?”

“We’ll come back heroes.” I threw my can, waited for the splash.

They caught up to us outside Vicksburg, the heat like a hand pressing down.

“Was I speeding, officer?” Karma, big-eyed, beside me. Rob, or maybe it was Kurt, snoring in the back.

“This isn’t about your driving, son.” The cop looked sad, which threw me. “Why don’t you step out and we’ll have a talk.”

I haven’t seen Karma since then. Rob either, though he calmed down once Kurt was on the ground. A big guy goes down hard. But it doesn’t matter what any of them say. I’ve told you what happened. What I know.

I guess Rob was wrong about the Quikrete. Maybe the mix, the closet just too big. That leak didn’t help things. Even with the mold, a stench you couldn’t ignore.

All I know is, I don’t wanna go down to the basement. Not again, not now. We had some good times, though. Damn.


Clea Simon is a former music critic turned mystery novelist. The Boston scene that she used to cover serves as the setting for her 2017 mystery “World Enough” (Severn House), which was named a Massachusetts Book Awards Must-Read, and also for her upcoming “Hold Me Down” (Polis, Oct. 5, 2021). She also have a bunch of books out featuring cats. 

I didn’t ask by Judge Santiagio Burdon

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

When I was a teenager I worked  for my Uncle Floyd  in the summer stocking and maintaining amusements  in Grocery Stores, Pool Halls but mostly Bars. Cigarette, Candy and Chip Vending Machines, along with Juke Boxes, Pool Tables, Pinball Machines and Tampax, Kotex also Condom dispensers. He even had the penny gumball machines anything that could turn a buck. I sometimes was given the job of slapping on the new Big Brothers Big Sisters or Kiwanis Club donation stickers on the gumball machines. I’m pretty sure they never saw a penny. I can’t be certain because I knew better so I didn’t ask.

Floyd was actually my 2nd uncle. He is my father’s uncle, my grandmother’s brother on the Italian Capelli side of the family. He had three children Anthony pronounced “Ant-knee” and Alonso “Lon-zoe” their sister Angelina “Ange”. All their names started  with an “A” because their  grandfather’s name was Angelo. It was some dago show of respect bullshit. I  thought the reason was because they were all “assholes”. 

People were always so hard on me as a kid, not bellyaching just saying. I was small for my age and older family members especially cousins on the Italian side called me ‘short-load’  My older brother filled me in on the derogatory meaning.   

I usually rode with Ant-knee in the new truck delivering smaller amusements, restocking vending machines, maintenancing and collecting the change from  every machine in service.  You wouldn’t think a bag full of quarters could be so heavy but the weight made hauling them a task.  Ant -knee when emptying the machines would have me follow him with a red tool box containing only a screwdriver, pliers and  crescent wrench with a piece of foam rubber on the bottom. When  collecting change from a machine he’d ask for a tool. I’d open the tool box and hand him a tool in exchange he’d deposit a bag of quarters skimmed from each machine. When we  finished the red box  would be packed full. He would sit at the table with the manager or owner and they’d  count the change together putting the coins into paper rolls.

“Santi take the empty  bags and tool box to the truck and bring back my ledger  in the center storage compartment and don’t forget to lock the doors. You got it?”  Barking orders at me like he was my ole man. Others witnessed the kind of treatment  I  was subjected to and assumed it was acceptable behavior to treat me in the same degrading  manner as my old man.

The split for the owner  was 15% of the take in some cases 20% if the machine required electricity like juke boxes pinball machines. Some bars  are money makers netting three hundred, four hundred dollars a week. The bar owner would get 15% of the net except for the cigarette machine, usually 10% because the cost of  the cigarettes.   However my uncle had that covered as well. Cigarettes were smuggled from Missouri , Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee because the tax on cigarettes in those states was much less than  Illinois. Ant-knee never discussed his skimming activity and me being half Italian was aware of the rule. So I didn’t ask.

There were territories assigned to every business operating in the Downtown Chicago area and they were strictly enforced. I couldn’t tell you by whom because I didn’t  ask.

Capelli Amusements territory was considered one of the most profitable and referred to as the Cherry Grounds.  North of  Grand…West of Racine\Clark …South of Montrose….East of Kedzie. An extremely large area although Wrigley Field, Hotels and the Loop were off limits. We couldn’t even drive through other areas in a company vehicle; it was considered a violation  and resulted in punishment.  I don’t  know what the punishment entailed because I didn’t  ask.

I disliked install deliveries  because of the lifting and moving involved.  And when pool tables were included in the delivery my enthusiasm and work ethic was close to nonexistent.  It wasn’t due to me being lazy,  I  was always given a task to perform that was nearly impossible to complete by myself.  They’d  watch me struggle with a pool table or pinball machine on a Dolly  pushing and pulling without success. Standing there laughing making comments in mispronounced Italian and in an  English dialect from a Jimmy Cagney Gangster film.

There was another guy working for my Uncle, a teenage kid older than me they called Magilla after a gorilla cartoon character. He was a tall muscular  quiet type with a scary  kind of smile. If he was working and noticed my planned dilemma he’d help me out much to my cousins dismay. He was  enormous  with superhero strength.  Smoked, drank beer and when he did speak he  was articulate voicing complaints  about my cousin’s sadistic behavior and racist attitudes.  He was a Holden Caulfield  type character protecting those unable to defend  themselves. A Catcher in the Streets whose unsolicited assistance I  appreciated  without ever having to ask. For some odd reason the cousins and others never made him the subject of jokes or ridicule. I never knew why because I didn’t  ask.

It was a Saturday in late June and we had a work order to supply a new bar owner with the full assortment of Capelli Amusements with Uncle Floyd accompanying  us to the location. It was a rare event when the “Capo” came along on a mission.  You could bet there was some major situation requiring his immediate and masterful attention.  I didn’t know what it was because I didn’t ask.

We were wrestling with the juke box pushing it through the front door when the yelling started.

“Get your shit outta my bar. Ya understand fucking   whop bastards?”

The bar owner eloquently stated his objection to joining the many satisfied customers of Capelli’s Amusements. 

“I’m not gonna let youz tell me how to run my business! Now turn around and get your dago ass  outta my bar.”

Uncle Floyd reacted in the exact opposite manner than I would have expected. He leaned over the bar and whispered something to the owner then shook his hand. He calmly asked us to take what we unloaded and put it back on the truck. The bar owner’s small dog barked non stop nipping at Floyd’s ankles as he left. He didn’t say a word on the ride back to the warehouse. I have no idea what he whispered to the owner because I didn’t ask.

Back at the warehouse we finished unloading the trucks and Uncle Floyd gave us the rest of the afternoon off with pay. Magilla asked me if I wanted to go to Wrigley and catch the Cubbies in action against the Cardinals. 

“I’d really like to go but I can’t afford it. I’m broke until we get paid next week.” I answered in a disappointed tone.

“Didn’t ask if you had any money. I asked if you wanted to go to a Baseball game. So whatta ya say there short stuff?”

“Let’s giddy up I’m in!”.,

We had to transfer three times on the bus to get to Wrigley Field. You don’t have to be a  sports fanatic even a baseball fan to feel the electricity, the fever and the awe attending a Big League Ball Game. The air tastes of Hot Dogs, Popcorn and Peanuts (never a big fan of Cracker Jack).

On the bus journey to Wrigley Mecca  I  found out my new friend’s name because I asked. We exited the bus with me following Frankie as he passed the ticket windows, the park entry gates then into a tunnel manned by two  monstrous security guards that waved us through with smiling faces.

“Hey man this is awesome, who are you Frankie some kind of Celebrity?”

He gives me the all too familiar Italian don’t ask stare.

“Never mind. ‘ I squeaked

We stopped at some large red doors guarded by a couple of  Chicago Cops not saying a word to Frank and I. One of the cops got on his Walkie-Talkie telling someone to come over. When he finished he said to Frankie;

“He’s on his way Little Tuna.”

Little Tuna? Why the hell would the cop call him a fish? That’s not cool .

“Hey officer his name is Frank. He’s my buddy and you shouldn’t be calling him names.” I speak up in  defense of my friend?

“What do we have here Mike?” The cop says  to his partner.

“A Mini Guinea. Little Grease Ball with a big mouth.”

“It’s okay Santi. He’s just a grumpy ole cop that doesn’t like my father. Maybe I should tell my father the “Big Tuna” you don’t like him. What do ya think there Officer Joyce?” Frankie mentions looking at the cops name tag.

“Come on kid I was only razzin ya! Just a joke, I didn’t mean anything by it. What’d say, buddies?” Officer Joyce nervously replies.  Frank never said a word back to the cop; he just gave him a stare.

We waited for a couple minutes, then  a guy in a Cubs  uniform appears and walks straight up to Frank. He gives him a light slap on the back then speaks.

“Hey Frank good to see ya back. See ya brought a buddy. So section eighteenth  behind Home Plate or twelve behind the Dugout?”

 “Where ya wanna sit Santi? Behind home plate or Cubs Dugout?” Frankie asks me.

“The Dugout for sure! Are you kidding me?” I scream with excitement 

“Ok then boys tell the Andy Frain Usher to put youz in Section twelve Seats six and seven. And Frank no orderin beer ya hear me. I caught hell last time.”

“I won’t, Mr. Amalfitano. Thanks for the seats. Ya didn’t see my old man or Sammy Giancona around did ya?”

“No sir  you’re  on your own. Have a good time. Go Cubs!” Mr. Amalfitano  says 

“Go Cubs” I yelled back, unable to hide my excitement. 

The Usher leads us to our seats and I’m doing everything I can to not act like a kid. I wanted to jump, scream and slap Frank on the back . I’m close to pissing my pants from the excitement. 

“Frank this is great! Thanks for inviting me. You’re a real buddy to bring me with ya. Did I say   thanks? Thanks” I’m talking fast without  punctuation Chicago style.

“You’re welcome Santi. Want a Coke or something? “

I check my pocket and find two dollars with maybe sixty  seventy  cents .

“Don’t worry about it, I got it. You don’t have to pay. What about a hot dog too? You like mustard  and relish?” Frank asks.

I shake my head yes .

“Be right back.”

The players are so close I can tell who they are without seeing their  numbers.  Beckert , Kessinger, Santo , Hundley taking infield practice. I can’t believe this is happening. There’s Billy Williams, seeing him sends me into    idol fever. Suddenly  I’m unable to breathe, my body starts to shake and my vision momentarily becomes blurred.  A bat someone had set on top of the dugout rolls off and lands at my feet. 

“Hey kid hand me back that bat . Will ya please?” Someone asks from below in the dugout. 

I can’t move my mouth is so dry I can’t speak. 

“Hello? Please champ give me the bat.” The player asks again 

I find the strength to free myself from my paralysis and pick up the bat and hand it to “MR. ERNIE BANKS.”

“Thanks. You ok there buddy?” He asks

“Uh huh”  Is all I can say.

Uh huh damn it. Uh huh! That was Ernie Banks! Ernie Banks! And I act like a dope. What a complete jerk I made of myself in front of one of my idols.

I sit back down and an old guy smelling like cheap Whisky and cigars slaps me lightly on my back.

“You know who that was son? That was Ernie Banks.  He plays for the Cubs.” Says Old Crow breath. 

Why is it that people  ask you a question then without giving you the chance to respond they answer it for you? And on top of it tell stuff you already know.

“Hey kid.”

“My name is Santiago not kid.” I inform cigar odor guy.

“Ok San Diego.” He answered 

“You’re not funny Mister .Why do you want to piss me off?”

Then one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen up  close sits down right next to me.

“Barbi this here is San Francisco.  This is Barbi”

Whisky breath jokes with the her.

“You’re very pretty . Your father thinks he’s funny calling me by the wrong name. I’m Santiago, nice to meet you Barbi.”I shake her hand introducing myself politely. They both begin to laugh with Old Crow reaching over to shake my hand.

“This beautiful lady is my wife Santiago not my daughter. You’re not the first to make that mistake.”

Frank shows up loaded with drinks and food. 

“Hello Mr. Hefner hey Barbi . Santi give me a hand will ya.”

I stand grabbing the two large drinks and Frank walks past me sitting to my left leaving me next to beautiful  Barbi.

“Frank how have you been? Haven’t seen you in awhile. What have you been up to?” Hefner asks

“How’s your father doing?’

There he goes again asking question after question before Frank can get a chance to answer. 

Frank takes a large bite of his hot dog . I’m wondering if it’s  because he’s hungry or it’s to   avoid having to answer with a mouth full. 

“Your friend Santiago.  Did I get 

the name right?”

Hef looks at me smiling like a kid who just answered a question correctly in school. 

“Yes sir I’m very proud of you.” I fire back.

“Santiago made friends with Ernie Banks earlier .”

“Frank gives me a punch in the arm then takes another bite of his Red Hot . He gives Hefner a thumbs up.

“Are you working Frank?  I told you I’d give you a job at the Playboy Club but you never called me back.  That was a month ago.”

“I know Mr. Hefner but my mother didn’t like the idea. I called the Club and left a message. “Frank answers.

Then like a kick in the ass it hits me. (I know you most likely put it together a short while ago).  I’m not slow in the mind, I was so caught up in the Ernie  Banks meeting I wasn’t paying attention. And  I was distracted by the beautiful Barbi.

Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton; I’ve seen her naked in Playboy and watched her on Hee Haw.  Frank had an opportunity to work at the Playboy Club? Could I be any more retarded?  Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton and Ernie Banks all in the same day!

Play ball the Umpire hollers.

Frank wolfs down three Red Hots, a bag of chips and a super sized Coke.

“Santi, I’m going to get a Corn Dog. Do you want something else?”

I’ve still got another hot dog, chips, bag of peanuts and half a coke left.

“I’m good Frank thanks.”

“Hef or Barbi can I get you anything?”

“If you wouldn’t mind I could go for an ice cream bar or popsicle .”Barbi tells him

Hef (that’s right I said Hef my new friend ) pulls out a twenty dollar bill and tells Frank to keep the change. Why didn’t I think of going for a Corn Dog?

The fifth inning ends and the Cubs come off the field to bat. They haven’t done  well with only three hits.

Hef gets up and walks over to the side of the dugout. He turns then calls me to come over motioning with his hand. Hef steps back and Ernie is standing there motioning for me to come over. I walk up and this time there’s no tongue tied kid.

“Mr. Banks, I just want to tell you that you are my favorite player .”

“I’m  happy to hear that young man. Here I’ve got something for you. It’s a baseball signed by most of the players. I appreciate your help earlier.” Banks says handing me the ball.

“I’m overwhelmed Mr. Banks thank you so much.  I will keep it forever.”

“You’re welcome but you should thank Mr. Hefner as well. He’s the one that suggested the baseball. ” 

“Mr. Banks..

“Call me Ernie!”

“Ernie can you please just get a base hit. That’s all.”

“Give it my best effort. “He says disappearing into the Dugout. 

I thanked Hugh Hefner, my new friend and talked with Barbi most of the time. When I mentioned College after  I finished High School Hugh pushed the University of Illinois on me. Told him I’d definitely attend if he helped pay my tuition.  He laughed it off and took immediate interest in the game.

Frank had been gone an inordinate amount of time. Seventh inning stretch and Hugh and Barbi get up to leave. 

“Santiago you’re a pretty smart kid. Keep up that attitude of yours. Here take my card it has my personal number. Give me a holler if you ever need anything.  Let me know if you get into U of  Illinois .”

“Thanks Mr. Hefner I’ll do that. Thanks again for everything.”

Barbi grabs my chin and gives me a kiss right on the lips.

“Bye Santiago you be good.”

“Uh huh.” Really  Santi just uh huh?

Frank returns and hands Barbi her ice cream as they leave. It’s obvious he’s high I  can smell the beer and marijuana on him.  He doesn’t say anything about where he  was. And of course I didn’t ask.

“Hey Frank I should be headed home. My old man will be pissed off if I come home late. So I’m gonna catch the bus and I’ll see you at work on Monday.    Thanks again man I had a great time.”

“Relax you aren’t going anywhere. I called home and the driver is coming to pick us up. I’ll give you a ride right to your front door.  And if there’s a problem with your old man Giovanni will talk with him. Got it buddy?”

“I don’t wanna be a problem, I can take the bus. I’ll be ok. You’ve been more than generous with me today. Buying me food and getting me this great seat. I’m not sure I know what I did to deserve all this?”

“Ya wanna know why? Why? Never before has anyone ever stuck up for me. Nobody.

My old man has  never offered to defend me or my brother. After you talked to the Cop like that, told him to lay off  and you being just a little guy, it told me a lot about who you are. Thank you Santiago. Now relax he’ll be here in about fifteen minutes. “

We listened to the Cubs lose the game on the radio in the Lincoln Continental driving to my house. Giovanni was a huge guy with a wonderful sense of humor who talked surprisingly very similar to my father. Unable to pronounce the “TH” sound making three sound like tree etc.

Frank and he spoke some Italian for a while which I am not very proficient at speaking. I understand more than I speak knowing Spanish and three years of French I’ve taken in High School. They are all somewhat similar being the “Romantic Languages” especially Spanish and Italian. My grandparents from Italy didn’t want us children to learn Italian the reason being the United States was the new world Italy was the old world. Plus they remember when  bigotry and racism toward Italians was commonplace . They lived in an intolerant society back in the 1900’s when they first came over.

Frank admired my autographed baseball and I offered it to him as  a thank you gift. He didn’t take me up on my offer explaining that he already had a couple. 

We arrived at the detention center and I said my farewells to Frank and Giovanni. 

“See ya at work on Monday Frankie. Thanks again man. You’re the best.”

“Hey Santi now that I’ve got your number I’ll give ya a call tomorrow to see if you’re doing anything.  Alright? “

“You bet Frank ciao.”

The old man was missing in action and my mother was on the phone with some relative  I  figured because she was speaking Spanish. She motioned for me to come over then she sniffed me up and down then made me give her a kiss on the cheek.

I didn’t discuss my day because it would’ve  just open up a  go round with me fielding 

questions that would somehow end with having me done something wrong. 

The remainder of the weekend slipped by quickly with the old man never showing up. I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t ask or care. 

Frank didn’t call on Sunday  and I was ok with it.

Monday morning I made it to the warehouse early with just Floyd and Ant-knee inside. My uncle told me to wash the truck and  clean out the bed because we had an installation today. Shit, great way to start off the week.

The rest of the crew showed up just as I was finishing with my job. Frank seemed to be feeling well wishing me a good  morning and immediately began  carrying the items I had unloaded from the truck bed into the warehouse. 

It took us close to two hours to load all the machines and pool tables onto the truck in between Lon- so and Ant-knee screwing around with a new pinball machine. 

I rode with Floyd and Ant-knee sitting in between with Floyd driving. I can count  on both hands how many words were spoken during the ride. 

We pulled up to the same bar that we were thrown out of on Saturday by the irate owner. I didn’t say a word and started pulling machines off  the back with my cousin. Once inside the owners attitude had done a complete 180. I was rolling  the jukebox past the back end of the bar and confronted the owner.  He told me where he wanted it and  where the electric outlet was located. 

His right arm was in a cast, his eyes both black and blue and he walked with a crutch tucked under his left arm. Looked like he had been hit by a bus. We finished rather quickly with the now soft spoken bar owner thanking us. When Floyd walked over to him for his signature on the contract I heard him say…

“It’s gonna be hard to sign with my goddamn right arm broken. And tell me why they had to kill my dog?”

“Terrible thing that happened to you. Hope they don’t have to come back for any reason.” Floyd answers.

There is nothing amusing in the word amusements.

Capelli Amusements.

I had a suspicion  who  suggested the bar owner  change his earlier decision concerning having Floyd’s machines in his bar. Although I’ll never be sure because… I didn’t ask!