Monday, September 20, 2021

In Nomine Patris, fiction by Elena Sichrovsky

Chiba, Japan  

Shanghai, China  

Vienna, Austria  

Cartagena, Colombia  

Athens, Greece

Cebu, Philippines  

Santa Monica, USA

 

Otosan

The word fits around his gums like a mouthguard. He purses his lips, trying to unravel the vowels of the word. The girl shakes her head and pronounces it again: “Otosan,” the weight landing on the “t” like a blade to cleave the heart from the body. A dapple of sunlight moves across her face, illuminating all the patches of sympathy he has been trying to avoid. She fingers the edge of the photograph lightly. She’s looking at the black and white image with too much reverence. There’s no piety to be commanded from the portrait of the guilty.

They stand under the blood-red pillars of a tori gate that leads to the shrine behind them.  The taxi driver told him on the way there that the shrine is dedicated to a protector of military men. The solemn gray lines of the shrine’s roof bow in folded hands, a slanted prayer to honor the bravery that bloomed in the whispers of history. History is what he is hunting down now, but there are no prayers to be offered. God is the second person on his list, but the first name is the one pictured in that photograph, the one whose scent he’s tracking across continents.

He stands there a moment longer, waiting for the girl to find some trace of recognition in the photograph. His chest aches. His lungs are pushing against the bars of his ribcage like a water balloon squished between a child’s fingers.

She shakes her head regretfully and returns it. “Gomen nasai.”  

 ***

Fuqin

The two Chinese characters seem uncomfortable standing beside each other. He knows they read as “father” only because the hotel manager told him so. He had asked the manager to help him translate the questions he wanted to ask at the police station. Amid the scribbled indecipherable lines, the manager had circled those two characters with a thin red pen. The character on the left is simple, two intersecting strokes crossing in the center, but the other one is tall and woven with strokes like scaffolding.  

At the police station, he pushes the photograph along with the written note under the slot in the window. The young officer behind the glass takes one look at the paper and immediately looks up at him with too much pity. His dark eyes flit between the scribbled words and the photograph before turning around and beckoning to another officer in the next desk.  

He stands and waits, wondering if he should have had the clerk translate more. If he should have had him translate how he wasn’t looking for the man in the photograph for reconciliation, but for retribution. He imagines what the officers might be saying; how they might wonder what kind of parent would leave their child with nothing but a colorless image and a grown echo of their likeness staring with eyes too hollow to have been dragged down by years.

 ***

Vater

Aside from the language lesson, he also gets a drag from the young man’s joint. “You look like you need it,” the youth tells him. 

He angles his head away, muscles clenching with the barrage of coughs charging out. Smearing a hand across his lips, he wipes the blood away and finally takes the joint.  

“Fathers are overrated,” the youth goes on, hands in his pocket and back pressed to the spine of the bench. “My old man kicked me out long ago. Best thing he ever did. I’ve made my own way, to the States and back, and now I’m getting married to a girl I’ll make sure he never meets.”

Smoke escapes from his lips and withers away into the September air. The shrinking joint passes between their fingers, a union wordless and true.  

“Why are you hunting down your dad now?” The blue eyes of the youth travel up and down his rumpled suit jacket and crooked tie. “Do you need money from him?”

He shakes his head. The joint dangles between his knuckles as he rests his hands on his knees. Inhaling deeply, he tries to pull a few ribbons of air into his battered lungs. “Not money,” he says at length. “I need something more than that.”

 ***

Papa

The knife slices through the soft flesh of the lulo fruit, opening its orange facade to reveal a quartet of green seeds joined elbow to elbow like petals. Chunks slide through the woman’s fingers and into the empty blender before they are buried in a scoopful of ice cubes. A fight unleashes the moment the blender button turns on, sharp frozen angles resisting the plump softness of the fruit. After a moment, the struggle is lost, and they yield to each other, purring into a blend of sunshine orange.

Mi papa,” the woman gestures to an older man sitting at the back of the fresh fruit stall. Her eyes crinkle with a smile, and he tries to match it with his own, a line on his face that barely curves.

He’s never been able to say those words, to turn and introduce an old man as his own. He thinks of his father in aging strokes only because of the calculation of his current age and not because he’s actually ever seen him like that. Somehow the imagined portrait feels more genuine than the actual photograph he’s been carrying around. The image in the photograph merely taunts him with the idea his father once knew how to love someone other than himself.

The woman wipes an arm against the curls sticking to her forehead, jabbering on in a language he only understands flickers of. The blender tips over, spilling the frothy sweetness into a tall glass, and she hands it to him with a twisty blue straw.

“Sientate,” she motions to the plastic stool beside the older man she just identified.

He sinks down into the seat, body sagging from the perilous weight of standing. With a practiced motion, he lays the photograph out for the man to see. As he waits for the now-familiar shake of the head and sympathetic noise, he faintly wishes he was this man’s son. He would much rather die in this stranger’s home than have the eyes of a traitor be his final vision.  

 ***

Patera

He scribbles out the name of the painkiller his doctor once prescribed, and the pharmacist frowns at the inscription before turning to the shelves behind him to investigate. Words like morphine and fentanyl massage his mind, a placebo to help ease the pain more than any local equivalent will. The doctors had advised against his pilgrimage, of course; they would rather have him turn over the contents of his savings so they could hook him up to needles and drugs that would not prolong his life but would extend his suffering.  

The day after receiving his final diagnosis, he had summoned up enough energy to demand to be allowed to go home to die. He paid his landlord the last month of rent and then had taken his gun out of the safe under the bed and put it on the bedside table. While preparing for his apartment to become his mausoleum, he found the photograph of his father in the box of his late mother’s belongings. It was a picture from their wedding day; his father’s young face filled the frame, cheeks pinched in a boyish grin. 

It was then the idea bloomed in his mind. He could shift the burden of what he was carrying onto the shoulders of the one who remained unjudged by the gavel of the world. He had a reason to live now, because there was still justice he could serve. For what could be crueler than reuniting a father with his son, only to tell him that he was dying?

The pharmacist turns back, holding up a small bottle, and he hands over the crumbled bills without question. With his half-formed hand, motions and the pharmacist’s broken English he figures out directions on how to get to the beach. Truthfully he’s never been one to cherish the bitterness of sand and scratchiness of ocean waves. But he wants to allow one more curse upon himself; he wants to feel the fury of the sun to burn his pale skin so he will be even more unrecognizable to his father when he meets him.

The pharmacist points to a bottle of sunscreen, and he shakes his head determinedly. What’s one more cancer to his decaying prison of flesh and bone? He walks out, disappearing between the married scents of grilled meat and crumbling white cheese. 

 ***

Tatay

The skyscraper looms over him like a parent offering a shoulder to shield him from the buffeting rains. The smooth metal of the wall he’s leaning against leaves a dent in his forehead, but he doesn’t care. Elation is coursing fast and reckless through his veins. He forgets the photograph still in his hand as his fingers form a fist, reducing the image to a wad of crumpled lines.

“Jonathan Clark went back to his hometown a few weeks ago,” the man at the trading company had told him a few minutes ago. Suddenly a ribbon had appeared at the end of the marathon, a red line to snap at the brush of his fingertips.

Five weeks. That’s how long the doctor had given him. That’s how long he had to survive crisscrossing the globe to find a father whose voice he cannot remember.

It’s been nearly three weeks now. His body has become a fearful thing, a torpedo wrapped in sweating bed sheets, and yet he is ready. He is ready to hurl the dark shape of himself onto the spike of the sun.  

Above his head, palm tree fronds flop against the typhoon winds determined to tear them from their trunk. The browned fronds know they cannot survive the gale; still they cling desperately to what little remains of their string of fate.  

 ***

Father

He meets his father coming out of Saint John’s Health Center. 

They speak to each other in the cafeteria, sitting across diagonally.

“I’ve been looking for you,” his father says.

He doesn’t want to know why. He looks around at the vacant halls of white death and he knows why.

 “I’m dying,” his father says, and he simply shakes his head.

“No.” No, because he has been dying, and being able to deliver the news to his father was the one twisted rope he’s been burning his hands by hanging on to.

“Why were you looking for me?” his father asks.

Why now is the unspoken refrain. Instead, he fixates on the first word of that question. Why indeed. Why would the spawn of your DNA cleave to you like residual cake crumbs? Why would the boy who shares half your likeness beat his fists against the world to find you?  

“Because,” he starts, and then a bout of coughing ambushes him. He grabs the corner of the table to keep himself from folding over. Against his chest, a battering ram sings, and he pushes his palms against his ribs as they creak and cry.

A hand lands gently on his shoulder. The hand of his father. It is a strange shape that does not fit right.

“You’re not well,” his father says. “What’s wrong?”

He sits up, pushing the hand off. It is far too late to be kind. “Because,” he continues, letting the blood dribble from his lips down to his chin, “I wanted to have someone to leave behind.”

The macaroni salad remains untouched on the plastic tray. He leaves before his father even opens the berry yogurt cup.

 He goes back to his apartment and puts the gun from his bedside table into his backpack.

 That night the nurse lets him in past visiting hours because his father is scheduled to go in for surgery the following morning. “He has a good chance of surviving this,” she tells him, pink sleeves rustling noisily as she leads him down the hall. “The doctor caught this tumor in time. It could save his life.”

“I hope so,” he says and means it. Survival is the only sentence fit for someone like his father.

He sits on the chair beside his father’s bed until the old man stirs.

“You’re here,” he whispers, raspy, surprised, grateful.

“I am.” He releases the photograph from his grip, and it lands on the edge of the blanket. A few grams that sink down like a ton. There are more miles on that small piece of glossy paper than in his entire lifetime.  

He moves his hand into the backpack and holds his father’s gaze. “I was three years, three months, and twelve days old when you left me. I am now thirty-three years, six months, and twenty days old.” His finger caresses the lump nestled there before he pulls it out, the silver teeth of the pistol winking in the moonlight. He presses the muzzle to his own forehead. “I won’t let you abandon me twice.”

A spasm of terror from the old man fills his final vision, enough to make him smile as he pulls the trigger. 

Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian-Tawainese writer living in Shanghai, China. She's a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Through her work she seeks to find the beauty in the terrifying and the terror in the beautiful. You can follow her on Instagram @elenitasich or Twitter @thesoundbtween.


Monday, August 9, 2021

Amends, fiction by C.W. Blackwell

He wheeled onto the dirt road in a mid-nineties F-250 with a bad muffler and a rash of rust eating up the rear quarter panel. It was still early, the time of day when workers sweated in the fields or under rough-running cars, busting knuckles and building dirt in their nails—or maybe catering to the lunch crowd in one of the seaside grease traps down on Beach Street. Even though Gene Akers had taken the day off, he still planned on getting his hands dirty. 

He found Avery sitting on the front bumper of her Jeep, watching the creek surge and sputter around a bend. She didn’t look much different than last time he’d seen her, at least not physically. Same wild brown hair pulled back. Same way she’d fold her arms and stare off in thought. But she had a certain peace about her now that only comes after running on the streets and finally getting clean.

He hoped she’d notice that about him too.

“Looks like the worst is over,” she said. He assumed she was talking about the storm, a tropical nightmare that drowned the county for three days straight. The governor even made a disaster declaration on account of a busted dam the next county over. It was the reason she’d called him so concerned, after all. Not about the storm itself, but what it might uncover. She looked him over, gave a quick smile. “You look good, Gene.”

“So do you, Ace.”

A hug. The kind with a couple of pats like old friends.

Still, it wasn’t enough to cut the tension.

***

It took some effort to hike the creekside trail, even with boots and shovels to keep steady. Despite the clear blue sky, the forest felt swollen with water. It dripped from the redwood boughs in quarter-sized glops, settled on the trail in ponds that stretched from edge to edge. At one point, Gene had to lay out the blue poly tarp so they wouldn’t sink to their knees in the soft mud. 

“There,” said Avery. They’d come to an old growth redwood, scarred and hollowed from some long-ago wildfire. Maybe eight feet in diameter. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Gene leaned on his shovel. “Could be.” The tree looked right, but the memory had to rinse itself of all the dope grease from back then, like looking up from one of the puddles they’d walked through. “I think we went inside of it, didn’t we? Or was that just you?”

Avery didn’t answer. She’d already started up the embankment opposite the hollow redwood, grasping at tanoaks as she went. The sucking sounds of her boots in the wet forest silt made Gene think they’d never be able to reach the site, but he followed her anyway. It wasn’t long before Avery called out—a shriek that left no doubt what she’d found. She stood stock-still with her mouth covered.

Gene saw it too.

“It’s a good thing we came,” he said after a long silence.

“I don’t know if I’d call any of this good.”

None of the flesh remained, at least none that Gene could see. The skeletal figure wore a skin of dirt and redwood needles. Mud-packed orbitals. Crescent ribs curling from the earth. Some of the clothes remained, but in tatters.

He tugged at the corner of a filthy wool blanket buried in the mud.

“How much of our DNA is on this blanket, you think?”

“You tell me, Gene. It’s your blanket.”

He knew he shouldn’t laugh but he couldn’t help it. “I imagine plenty.”

“There you go.” 

“I once went a few weeks without thinking about him,” said Gene. “Some drugstore commercial brought it back again. What’s the longest you’ve gone?”

“A day or two.” Avery tapped the skull with the tip of the shovel, as if searching for an exit wound. “Can you blame me? I’m the one who fucking did this.”

They hammocked the bones between them in the blue tarp and dug another grave beneath the redwoods, this time deeper and further up the hill. When they dumped the last shovel load, Gene stood over the hole as if he were about to say something but nothing came. After a moment, Avery turned to him with wet eyes and said quietly, almost inaudibly: “Could you give me a minute alone with him?” 

***

Twelve years ago, they spent a rainy Friday night watching Halbert’s Pharmacy from the parking lot of a Foster’s Freeze. Dark storefront windows, no cars out front. Gene had found a little cash in an unlocked car earlier that day and scored a couple Suboxone strips to get them through the night. But one night was all they had, and inside the pharmacy they could have all the nights they wanted. All the days too.

The alarm would sound, they knew that.

Three minutes inside would be too much.

They had to be quick.

They kept the car running and the trunk lid popped. They’d throw the pills in the back and Avery would drive them as far north as they could on a tank of gas. Maybe all the way to Redding, then Spokane. They’d cold-plate the Honda along the way for extra insurance. The pills would go for twenty a pop whenever they needed cash.

That was the plan. 

Avery flipped her phone open and shut it just as quick. “Where’s Mike?”

Mike Sandhoff was Gene’s friend from high school, fresh out of CDC for boosting a minivan from a Kohls parking lot. Gene asked him for help with the break-in and to keep eyes on the place from the outside, give a few honks if he saw any heat—but now he was a no-show, and Gene felt embarrassed for asking him in the first place.

“Forget Mike,” he said. “We won’t need him if we’re fast enough.” 

He used an eighteen-inch pry bar on the back door and had it open in a matter of minutes. It was an old store, the kind every small town had. One that had stayed in the family and kept the Halbert family name. It also meant dry rot in the jamb and an easy break-in. Once the door popped its hinges, something happened that Gene initially took as a stroke of good luck but would soon deem otherwise: the alarm didn’t go off.

No sounds, no blinking red lights on the control panel.

Nothing.

As they slipped behind the counter, Avery wondered aloud: “Is it a silent alarm?”

“I don’t give a shit, Ace,” said Gene. He swept an armful of Diazepam into a Hefty bag, a few bottles clattering onto the linoleum floor.“Silent or not, we get out just as fast.” 

 A few armfuls later they had two bags of dope, all under a minute and a half. Gene thought about taking the pry bar to the cash register but decided against it. The silence toyed with what little judgement he had. Did they just forget to set the alarm? 

The sound of footsteps broke the silence. 

Someone cursing in the dark corners of the pharmacy.

They bolted toward the back door, Hefty bags rattling as they went. Avery made it out, but Gene felt a hand pulling him backward, tearing at his clothes. A man’s voice growling and spitting. Threatening to blow his fucking head off. They struggled in the doorway, Gene and some half-naked old man trading blows, grappling for a silver revolver that seemed to pop around their frames without discharging. They fell into the alley, rolling, punching. The storm had turned into a heavy downpour and neither man could find his footing. When the gun finally slid out from under them, Avery picked it up, planted it on a hairless patch of the old man’s scalp and pulled the trigger. 

***

Todd Halbert’s wife had gotten tired of his drinking and kicked him out for the night. Too cheap to spend money on a motel, he’d been sleeping on a couch in the lobby of the pharmacy. At least, that’s what Gene and Avery gathered from social media as they spent the next few months touring gritty mountain towns in the Pacific Northwest with a trunkful of pills. Gene remembered the cheap booze on Halbert’s breath, the rage in his eyes that he’d seen before in other drunks woken from a deep vodka stupor. 

What remained unspoken between them was a drizzly Friday night in Tacoma. Their stash running low, and after a few close shaves with the State Patrol, Gene woke alone in a Comfort Inn as Avery rocketed down I-5 with what little cash and dope remained. It took a month to make his way back to California, and a few years after that to quell the resentment he felt for waking up double-crossed and dope-hungry at a roadside motel. 

Now they stood in Gene’s tidy cabin, the dark circles from those days mostly gone, the hollowness of their cheeks filled out. That night at the pharmacy felt like a lifetime ago, maybe ten lifetimes. Still, in the bed of his F-250 lay the filthy shovels they’d used to dig Halbert’s second grave. That was happening now, not then. 

The past had caught up to them.

“A hiker would have found him,” Gene said, as if looking for reassurance—as if he could hear Halbert’s bones stirring in that far-off place in the woods. He’d just returned from incinerating the wool blanket in a burn barrel at the edge of his property and he smelled faintly of gasoline. “That hillside just completely spit him out.”

Avery nodded, glancing around the cabin at the tokens of Gene’s new life. “I used to see people hiking with their dogs up there,” she said. “Only a matter of time before one of those dogs turned up with a jawbone in its mouth. It had to be done.”

“We should sleep easy tonight. We’re finally done with it.”

“Maybe you’re done with it. But it’s not over for them.”

He studied her carefully, trying to decipher what she meant. She told him that she followed the family’s social media accounts, that she learned Halbert’s wife still lived alone, never remarried. She went on about Jesse Halbert taking over the store when the old man went missing. It made him uncomfortable the way she seemed so invested in their lives, but he tried not to let it show.

“So you’re Facebook buddies with the Halberts?”

“I don’t know about buddies, but I keep up. I know they go to his empty grave plot every year on his birthday. Margaret never misses an anniversary.”

“Who’s Margaret?”

“His wife. If you followed them, you’d know how much we wrecked their lives.” She offered a small shrug that signaled a change in topic and she gestured at the walls. “You did good, Gene. I like your place. You look good, too.”

He laughed. “You told me that earlier.”

“Well it must be true, then.” She settled into his brown corduroy couch and pulled her knees up to her chest, making herself at home. “You know, I never had a chance to apologize for what happened in Tacoma.”

A sarcastic laugh. “What happened in Tacoma?”

“Stop it, I’m trying to say I’m sorry. I was a wreck back then. You must have been furious.”

“Can’t imagine I was happy about it.”

“I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“Thanks, Ace. You don’t mind if I still call you that?”

“It’s been a while since I heard it, but I don’t mind.”

He sat on the other end of the couch, gave her a soft kick with his toe. “We were both wrecks back then. I don’t think we made one smart decision between us.”

“If we did, I can’t remember it.” 

“But you know what? You look good too. Even prettier than I remember, if that lands okay.”

“I’ll take it.”

He rose and washed the grave dirt from his fingernails in the kitchen sink and shook his hands dry. “Hungry? I have a couple of filets in the refrigerator. It won’t take long.”

“You were always a great cook.”

***

She found him in the night. 

Gene had laid a bedroll in the living room for himself and set Avery up in the bedroom, and when she slipped under the blankets beside him, he woke, briefly forgetting where he was. After twelve years, she still felt familiar. Maybe her touch was lighter, lips more patient. In the glow of the woodstove they could have been young again, could have been any age, really. For a moment, he let himself forget why she’d come back. For a moment, he forgot about the drugstore and the skeleton in the forest—about Tacoma and the double-cross.

She ran her hands over his chest, kissing his neck.

“Is this okay?” she asked. 

He didn’t respond, just pulled her closer.

***

Around 5:00 am, he woke and added a log to the woodstove. Avery stirred, watching him in the darkness. She thumbed her phone and the light brightened her face. 

“Did you sleep?” she asked.

“Yeah. I dreamt a lot.”

“About what?”

“I dreamt that a crow flew into the cabin.”

“You mean into the window, or it actually got inside?”

“It got in. It made a nest in the cabinet. Is that some kind of omen?”

She ticked away at her phone, green eyes shining back the content on the screen. Then a smile and a quiet snort. “It says dreaming of a crow in your house means you’re exploring the deeper parts of your subconscious so you can move past something difficult. I’d say it fits here, don’t you think?”

“Not sure if I believe in that stuff, but yeah it fits.”

“I think you can learn a lot from dreams, Gene.”

“What do you dream about?”

“I don’t know. I never remember them.”

He put a kettle on and fried some eggs. They drank coffee and chatted about their new lives, about how and when they stopped running. He told her that his old man passed away and left him the cabin and a fishing boat, and now he made okay money chasing salmon around the Monterey Bay. She told him how she managed a feed store up in Chico and how it earned her enough for a used Jeep and a double-wide in the foothills. Just a little place to hide out and put on her vinyl records. She said it like she was happy how things turned out, but her eyes told a different story. 

He didn’t press her. 

“You can stay another night if you want,” he said. They were now standing in the gravel driveway, the sun yet to break through the redwoods. The smell of cold field grass and chimney smoke in the air. “Stay as long as you want.”

She toed at the gravel, arms crossed and head full of thoughts. “I’m going to say hi to a few people in town and head back today.”

Gene heard sadness in her voice. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Just that something feels unfinished to me.”

“With Halbert? What’s left to do?”

“Don’t get mad. It just isn’t sitting right. I thought it would, but it's not.”

“Tell me what you're thinking.”

She shook her head, lips rolled to one side. “Goodbye, Gene.” She gave a quick hug and opened the car door. “Call me sometime.”

He watched her coast down to the main road. She gave a little wave when she straightened the Jeep and then she was gone. But whatever went unspoken remained with him. She’d left a ghost of it haunting the driveway, rattling its chains.

***

Bones have memory.

Avery thought about this whenever she took pills for a headache or a fever. It woke something in her marrow. It made the old junkie nerves flutter. She felt it now as she stood in aisle three of Halbert’s Pharmacy, the aisle marked ᴘᴀɪɴ ʀᴇʟɪᴇғ. She turned a bottle of Tylenol in her hands—that hollow rattle inside like the sound of tires on a gravel road. Her bones knew that sound, too. 

The man behind the pharmacy counter looked thin and athletic. Wiry muscles down his arms and neck like a runner’s physique. Prematurely gray. He didn’t look much different than his online profile, only the confident smile was now more menial as he shuffled from his computer terminal to the back of the store, filling orders and answering phone calls. Jesse Halbert didn’t favor his father’s side and Avery thought that was probably a good thing.

She waited at the counter until she caught his attention, then lifted a bottle in each hand, asked, “Which is better for a headache, Tylenol or Advil?” She shook the bottles like a pair of maracas. “I can never remember the difference.”

He watched her over the rim of his glasses. “Most people take Tylenol for a headache,” he said. “But both will work. There’s bottled water in the coolers if you think it might be dehydration.” He dragged out the last word as if something had crossed his mind.

Avery caught the look. Part of her hoped he’d recognize her. She’d spent an hour on the street, watching the pharmacy—talking herself into it. She didn’t have anything worked out, nothing that she wanted to tell him. Just a nagging urge to be inside those four walls again and to try and make sense of the past.

She decided to beat him to it.

“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” she said. 

Jesse Halbert smiled, flipped his hands in the air. “Wow, crazy. I was going to say the same thing. You grow up here?”

“No, but I lived here a while back. I’m just visiting an old friend.”

“Hold up.” He held a finger in the air as he scrolled his phone, squinting at the screen. He kept looking up at her and back to the phone. Maybe he was searching for a news article about the robbery. Maybe looking at a composite sketch. A wanted poster. Avery wanted to run for the door and take the nearest freeway onramp with her foot jammed in the pedal. She’d found herself halfway between running away and making amends, and neither direction felt safe.

“Instagram,” he said, smiling again. “We’re friends on here somehow.”

Exhale. “Oh. I thought maybe that was it.”

They went back and forth, guessing at mutual friends and distant acquaintances. The warmth she’d sensed from his online persona was starting to show, and she played innocent well enough. 

After a few minutes he looked at his watch. “There’s a diner across the street, you hungry? I usually close up for the lunch hour.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if you’re hungry or don’t know if you want to eat with me? It’s okay either way.”

It took all she had to keep up the charade. 

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Maybe that’s why you have a headache.”

He went to the back door and entered a five-digit code into the alarm control panel and hopped the counter as if he’d done it every day of his life. “Hurry,” he said. He gestured to the front of the store. “We only have two minutes before the alarm goes off.”

She didn’t have to be told to hurry.

Her bones remembered that, too.

***

Gene had just sold ninety pounds of Chinook at the municipal wharf and was waiting at the intersection of Mission and Laurel when he spotted Avery outside the pharmacy. She was standing at the corner with Jesse Halbert, waiting her turn at the crosswalk. The light changed and they strolled across the street, laughing like old friends. He watched them until the car behind him honked, then he hooked right onto Mission and pulled into the Arco station and parked by the air compressors. 

Dammit, Avery. He tracked them in the side mirror of his pickup as they disappeared through the double-doors of the diner. What the hell are you up to?

He thumbed his phone and opened the message app, cursor blinking in the text box. He wrote three versions of what are you doing before erasing it all and clicking the screen to black.

He went to the minimart and took the restroom key and changed out of his fish-stained overalls with clothes from his truck box, washing off as much of the stench as he could with gas station soap and second-gen paper towels. When he came out of the restroom he opened the message app again, stared at it a moment, then slipped it back into his pocket and jogged across the street toward the diner. He circled the building and went through the kitchen where a few line cooks gave him sideways glances, and when he came out near the diner counter he sat in an empty swivel chair and pulled his hat down low. 

Avery and Jesse sat in a booth within earshot, talking about family, childhood. He could see the top of her head just above the wooden partition. When Jesse told her about his father, she began to dab her eyes with a paper napkin. Whether she really gave a shit about Jesse’s story was anyone’s guess. Gene figured it was the burden of guilt more than anything. Avery went on about her own father, and how his early death derailed her childhood—and from what Gene could remember, that part wasn’t a lie. Still, it made Gene queasy. Whatever was happening between the two of them sounded like some kind of goddamn love connection. 

He hammered a text: turn around

He heard her phone chime. She unzipped her purse and spun around so her eyes just cleared the partition. She played it cool, told Jesse she had to make a phone call and then she came around the corner and grabbed Gene by the elbow.

“Come with me,” she growled. She went down the hall, pushed open the women’s restroom. She shook her head and pointed to the men’s. “In there.”

Gene swept the men’s room and Avery bolted the door behind them.

“Why are you following me?” she said, eyes hot.

“Don’t turn this around on me. I saw you at the pharmacy on my way home.”

“So what? Now you're my minder?”

“Just cool it, Avery. Nothing good can come of this.”

“You don’t decide what’s good for me.”

“This affects me, too. I actually like my life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He rested his hands on her shoulders. “Ace, please. Whatever you’re up to, it’s too hot for me. I don’t want anything to do with it. You hear what I’m saying?”

She noticed herself in the bathroom mirror and she straightened, pulled her hair back, and fixed her hair tie. She lifted her right foot and grimaced. “Jesus. Do you men just piss all over the floor?”

“Some do. I don’t know why.”

“And you smell like fish guts, Gene.”

“I know.”

She blew a long, anxious breath at the ceiling. “I’m just so tired of carrying this around with me. It gets heavier every day.”

“I get it. So call me, talk to me. Not him.”

Another sigh, this time with tears. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“My father just died, too.”

“That’s not what I meant. You didn’t kill anyone.”

The door rattled. A man’s voice grumbled on the other side.

“Tell Junior there’s an emergency,” said Gene, thumbing a fresh tear off her cheekbone. “Then come back to my place and we’ll talk about it. This was a mistake. You understand? I don’t blame you. But it was a mistake.”

She gave a small nod. “Maybe you’re right. I just wanted to take it all back.”

“I get it. There’s a lot I’d like to take back, too.”

Another rattle. A loud knock.

She checked her shoes again. “Goddamn. Is it getting deeper in here?”

“Just get rid of him—and leave now. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And meet me back at the cabin.”

***

Avery didn’t show.

Gene paced the hallway, circled the cabin until the sun went down. He stood in the gravel driveway with his arms crossed, eyes hard on the road, listening for the sound of her car. He must have looked at his phone a hundred times. Depending on what Avery was cooking up, he worried that any messages between them might come back to bite him. He considered buying a prepaid phone down at the minimart just to place an untraceable call, but as anxious as he felt, he wasn’t certain he could walk out of there without a case of Old Milwaukee under his arm. He cursed himself for letting Avery back into his life, however briefly. Goddamn he wanted a drink.

Just after midnight a car raced up the driveway. Headlights brightening the trees. He heard footsteps and an urgent knock on the door. He took the nine-millimeter from his gun safe and crept half-naked into the kitchen. Through the window he saw Avery standing at the front door. She was calling his name over and over. He tucked the gun behind a couch cushion, flicked on the lights and unlocked the deadbolt.

She looked injured—leaning into the jamb, favoring her left foot. Clothes mudstained and torn. Blood smeared her face from a gash on her forehead. Before Gene could ask what happened, she burst into a long rant about Halbert and how she just needed to make it right, how she couldn’t sleep another night with the thought of that empty family grave plot. 

Gene looked her up and down. “You dug him up again, didn’t you?”

“It took me hours, Gene.” She talked fast and wild. “Then I fell and hurt my foot. My head. Oh God I fell so many times. I just really need your help. I don’t think I can finish this by myself.”

Gene glanced at the Jeep. Engine running, high beams on. He kept his voice in a steady monotone so it wouldn’t get away from him. “Do what, exactly?”

“Bury him in his family plot where he belongs.”

He didn’t know what to say. Avery looked like she’d just crawled out of a grave herself. He pictured her out in the darkness, hacking at that cold mountain dirt. He thought about the gun, too. He didn’t want to think about it, but he sensed it there behind the cushion. Just an arm’s length away.

“You know where his family plot is?” he asked.

“The cemetery on Ocean Street.” She lifted her phone in the air. “I have screenshots of their last visit. It’s between two ginkgo trees.”

“Then what? You going to give him a eulogy?”

“No—then we go separate ways. It’ll be done.”

“I thought we were done yesterday.”

“I mean really done. Done done.”

“What if I don’t help you?”

“Then I spend all night digging with a bad ankle. Straight through till morning.”

Gene bit his lip and gave a slow nod. He could control his voice, stop himself from reaching for the gun, but he couldn’t help the hard, glassy glare. As tattered and sideways as Avery looked right now, he didn’t think she could manage what she was about to do. Not alone. He’d have to help her if he didn’t want her to get caught and drag him down with her.

Or he’d have to kill her.

“Let me get dressed,” he said. “You lead, I’ll follow.”

***

A few minutes later they were snaking down the mountain, past the town of Boulder Creek. Night mist in the valley, no cars on the highway. Avery flicked the radio on, tuned to a vintage punk broadcast from the college. She wondered why you could only find good radio music in the middle of the night. Gene followed behind, and she kept an eye on his headlights in the rearview as the dark redwoods rolled by, mist collecting on the windows and running off in little furrows. 

She knew he didn’t trust her instincts, but that didn’t bother her. 

His part would be over soon.

She took a dirt road along the river and killed the headlights when they got near, rolling to a stop behind a grove of bay laurels. They each took an end of the tarp, Halbert’s bones and a couple shovels rolled up inside. A few yards downriver, they found a path leading up the embankment where the backlot of the cemetery sat. 

“It’s the second row down,” said Avery. “Just over there by the ginkgo trees like I told you.”

Avery clicked on a small flashlight and read the names on the gravestones. According to the engravings, the Halberts had buried their kin in this section of the cemetery for at least a hundred years. After reading four or five epitaphs, they found Todd Halbert’s name etched in granite.

They still hadn’t filled in the death date.

“Is there anything buried here?” said Gene.

“Who knows,” said Avery. “I’ve heard of folks burying photos, mementos.”

“Whoever finds him will have a hell of a mystery on their hands.”

They unrolled the tarp and went to work, Halbert’s skull gaping at the sky all the while. The earth still held much rain, and despite Avery’s twisted ankle, the digging went smoothly. Together they looked like antagonists in some gothic horror film, sinking into the grave as the hole deepened. By the time they climbed out, the mist had become a heavy drizzle. With hair pasted around their foreheads, they dragged the skeleton to the rim. They took a moment, not saying anything at all. Not even the slightest of eulogies. Just the sound of the river and the quiet of their thoughts.

One quick tug and the bones toppled into the hole.

Avery looked across the cemetery and back down over the river. A few lights blinked across town, but everything felt still and final. Like they’d buried the last man on earth. She could already feel the weight lifting.

“We better get going,” said Gene.

“I’m staying,” she said, resting on her shovel.

A blank look. “What?”

Avery’s face lit up with the glow of her cell phone pressed to her ear.

“Yes, I’d like to report a trespasser,” she said.

“What are you doing?”

“That’s right, in progress. Santa Cruz Memorial.”

A sharp whisper: “Are you crazy?”

“A woman. Mid-thirties. Digging with a shovel.” She hung up, then: “You better get out of here Gene, you don’t have much time.”

He looked as if she’d hit him with the shovel. “I don’t understand. Why go through all of this if you were just going to call it in?”

“Maybe they’ll know I tried to make it right.” Crying now. “Go, dammit.”

“I didn’t want this.”

“You’ve made amends now.” She gestured to the muddy grave plot. “You can move on. But I can’t. I lied to you when I told you about the feed store, about the double-wide. I haven’t been able to move on from this, Gene. Clean one year, using the next.”

“I could still help you.”

“You can't. No one ever could.”

“It’s not just about you. We did this together.”

Sobbing. “Well, I’m the one who pulled the fucking trigger.”

“They’ll ask you about me, won’t they? I’m not ready for this.”

He reached under his jacket, hand stalling there. 

“I saw the gun while you were digging,” she said. “Kill me if you have to, but I don’t think it’ll help you.”

“How can I be sure you won’t rat me out?”

“I’ll tell them it was Mike Sandhoff with me that night.”

“I thought he was dead.”

“Exactly. They’ll buy it. As long as they have me.”

His gun hand fell to his side. “Ace. Avery. Don’t do this.”

A police cruiser passed on the main road. Spotlight sweeping in the dark.

They both saw it.

“Go,” she said.

He gathered the tarp and shovel, took a step toward the river. He stopped and watched her for a moment. The way he looked at her made her feel so alone. Part of her wanted to go back to his cabin where they could have another night together. Maybe more than just one.

Another pass of the searchlight. 

A second cruiser up on the road.

She mouthed the word: please.

***

Down the embankment.

Through the bay laurels.

Gene chucked the shovel into the river and coasted the pickup as far as it would go before hitting the ignition. Then up the mountain. The whine and click of the windshield wipers all the way up. When he reached the cabin, he built a fire in the burn barrel and set the tarp ablaze. By now, she’d be in custody. Maybe she’d play it smart and wait for a public defender before confessing to the whole ordeal. She could plea down to manslaughter and get out in ten if everything went well. She’d still be young when she got out. In prison terms, middle age was still young.

The flames grew.

The sky began to change.

A crow perched on a young redwood tree, eyeing the burn barrel. It dipped its head and cawed and then it dove through the branches and coasted out of sight. 

He listened for it. He could still hear the wings pumping.



C.W. Blackwell is an author and poet from the Central Coast of California. His recent short fiction has appeared with Down and Out Books, Fahrenheit Press, Gutter Books, and Mystery Tribune. He is a 2021 Derringer Award winner. His debut poetry collection "River Street Rhapsody" will appear Spring 2022 from Dead Fern Press. 


Monday, July 19, 2021

Disposable Women, fiction by Michael Bracken

Riverview Estates had no river and no view, and the small patch of dirt surrounding each of the West Texas mobile home park’s forty pads could not easily be mistaken for an estate. I once had it all—big house, big car, big office, and big debt to maintain the lifestyle—and I had been lucky to drive away with my Glock, my license, and the clothes on my back when Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, where I had been vice president of investigations for one of the largest firms of its kind in Dallas, had been shuttered by authorities after the owner had been indicted for tax evasion and other accounting anomalies. With nothing better to do because affiliation with my former employer was job-search poison, I spent my mornings sitting in a folding chair in front of my six-year-old Ford F-150 in the dirt yard outside my grandmother’s mobile home at Riverview Estates drinking Lone Star and watching my neighbors queue up for their ride to work.

Many of them were illegals—Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Panamanian, and others from south of the Rio Grande who came to America seeking a better life and instead wound up in West Texas working twelve-hour shifts for subsistence pay at Chicken Junction’s meat processing plant and who lived four or more to a bedroom, sleeping in shifts. The other residents of Riverview Estates complained bitterly about their new neighbors even as they were bought out and their single-family single-wides were turned into communal housing that brought the park owner greater revenue as sardine-can dormitories than renting the pads on which they were situated ever had.

An old school bus with Quarryville I.S.D. still faintly visible on the side stopped at the end of the drive to collect my neighbors and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. An hour later, the bus returned to disgorge plant employees coming off shift, including Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.

Though she still rented space in one of the communal residences three doors down from mine, Sofia walked directly from the bus to the empty folding chair at my side and dropped into it. I handed her a beer from the cooler between the chairs and asked, “Rough night?”

As she opened it, she said, “Aren’t they all?”

We had met one evening at the Dumpsters, Sofia dropping off a trash bag before queuing up for the evening bus while I made room in my place for more empty beer cans. Then, as she did that morning, she wore steel-toed work boots, faded jeans, a man’s denim work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a blue bandanna that held her shoulder-length black hair away from her face. The evening we met, my hair was as long as hers. I had not cut it since moving into my grandmother’s mobile home, had not shaved in several days, and had not showered in two because I had stopped caring about my place in society.

Good evening,” I said that night, making polite conversation.

Sofia hesitated so long I wondered if she spoke English. Then she smiled. “It is, isn’t it?”

She walked away before I could respond, and she told me later she hesitated because I was the first norteamericano at Riverview Estates to greet her with anything other than a racial epithet or other form of verbal abuse.

By the time we finished our beer, the other bus riders had disappeared into their respective residences and the school bus had returned to the meat processing plant where it would remain until the next shift change. Sofia took my hand and led me into my grandmother’s mobile home. She removed the bandanna from her hair and let it fall unfettered to her shoulders. She smelled of offal, but that didn’t stop me. I pulled her into my arms, kissed her deeply, and began unbuttoning her denim work shirt. She pulled away and held the shirt closed with one hand. She pressed the other hand against my chest. “I need to shower first.”

I’ll be waiting.”

Though I still wore my hair long, I bathed and shaved every morning before Sofia returned from the plant. I stripped, slipped into bed, and listened to her through the thin walls as she sang an unfamiliar tune barely audible above the sound of the shower. Soon she turned off the water and I heard her moving about the bathroom. Then she stepped into the bedroom and dropped the white bath towel with which she’d covered herself.

My gaze followed the towel to the floor and then traveled back up the length of her body—long legs, slender hips, firm breasts—her skin the color of honey and speckled with water droplets. Her towel-dried but still damp black hair framed her oval face, and her hazel eyes were deep pools beneath long black lashes and thick eyebrows never plucked. She wore only a small, gold, heart-shaped locket on a thin gold chain, a gift from her mother she never removed. She joined me in the bed, and her full lips found mine.

Afterward, as she lay in my arms, we talked. That is, Sofia talked because I had little to say about my evening spent drinking beer and watching boxing with Red Barker, manager of Riverview Estates. She told me about Juanita, who dreamed of moving north to Minnesota where her brother worked as a short order cook; about Carlos, who sent nearly every penny he earned back to his parents in Xalapa; and about Skeeter, the supervisor who treated Sofia and her co-workers as if they were no better than the hundreds of cattle they butchered and processed each shift. I wasn’t paying attention because I’d heard much of it before.

Then something I’d not previously heard caught my attention.

Three women have disappeared since I started working at the plant,” Sofia said. She had worked there for three months before we met, and we had been together almost six. “Nobody knows what happened to them and nobody cares. They just got replaced.”

I mumbled something non-committal, certain that employee turnover at the meat processing plant was greater than three every ten months if the ever-changing faces queued up for the bus twice a day was any indication.

Sofia turned, snuggled against my side, and soon drifted to sleep. When I felt certain I would not wake her, I slipped out of bed, pulled the sheet over her, and dressed. After I ensured the drapes allowed no stray daylight into the room, I closed the door behind me. Some mornings we prepared breakfast together, eating eggs scrambled with chorizo and served on warm flour tortillas, but that morning I was on my own and ate stale Rice Chex downed with a fresh bottle of Lone Star.

Then I went outside, folded up the chairs, and moved the cooler against the concrete steps. As a child visiting my mother’s mother, I had roamed the rolling hills around Riverview Estates, running through the prickly pear, juniper, and mesquite while playing Army and Cowboys and Indians with the children who lived in the mobile home park. I had climbed the one live oak still clinging to the edge of the property, and I had explored the vehicles—two Ramblers and a Chrysler—abandoned in the wash.

The children I had known then had all moved on, one way or another, but their homes had not. Several, much like my grandmother’s, had been there since the park opened and were clearly showing signs of age. Only one—the park manager’s residence—was less than twenty years old. As her only grandchild, I’d inherited my grandmother’s single-wide and all the plastic-covered furniture and doily cozies inside, when she passed away several months after I’d lost my home to repossession and my debts had been discharged through bankruptcy. Her death also meant I received a small but steady income from shares in a family oil trust I inherited because my mother had preceded her into the grave.

You busy?” I turned to see Red standing behind me, holding his battered gray toolbox. “I got a problem over to the washhouse. Thought I might get you to give me a hand.”

I glanced back at my grandmother’s mobile home. Sofia would be asleep for several hours, I owed Red for snaking my sewer line a few weeks earlier, and I really had nothing better to do than keep him company. He had been manager of Riverview Estates since before the first home was drug into the park, and he had been my grandmother’s closest friend—perhaps even her lover—during the last few years of her life. I handed him a beer from the cooler, took the toolbox from his hand, and walked with him to the washhouse on the far side of the park.

Just took possession of the Swanson place,” he said as we walked. “The family wanted out from under it the moment old man Swanson died, and they took the first offer. The family already cleared out everything they want, so I just need to give it the once over before we look to fill it.”

More employees for the plant?”

Long as the plant keeps employing illegals, they’re going to need a place to sleep,” he said. “Nobody in town wants anything to do with them, so where else they going to go?”

I didn’t have an answer for Red, so I said nothing.

We had reached the washhouse by then. I helped Red pull one of the washing machines away from the wall so he could determine why it had abruptly stopped while agitating a load of Mrs. Medeiros’s unmentionables.

* * *

Even though Sofia still paid her share of the rent for one of the sardine-can dormitories, she rarely returned to it. Instead, she spent most of her time away from the meat processing plant with me in my grandmother’s mobile home. She packed away the doilies, fifty-state shot glass collection, and photo gallery of long-dead relatives, and she rearranged the furniture to take better advantage of the afternoon and early evening sun. Though we did not always have breakfast together, we never missed dinner. We ate around six, finishing just before she had to queue up for the bus ride to the plant for her eight o’clock shift.

One day, after she found my holstered Glock and my laminated private investigator’s license in my underwear drawer, she asked about it and asked why I did not work. I told her.

Did you do these bad things?”

I shook my head. “That I was an officer of the corporation is enough to taint my name. No one will hire me.”

You can start over, yes?” she asked.

Maybe someday,” I said. “Not today.”

She tilted her head to the side and examined my face. “Are you happy, Cade?”

I suppose.”

Are you happy with me?”

I realized what she was asking, so I pulled her into my arms. I stared deep into her eyes, brushed a long lock of black hair away from her face, and kissed her. “Of course,” I said between kisses. “Yes. You’re the best thing in my life.”

Then one morning, she did not return.

I watched as more than three dozen weary people filed off the bus, and I did not become concerned until the bus drove away. Sofia had never missed the bus. In English and broken Spanish I asked the few bus riders who had not yet disappeared into their homes if they had seen her. They remembered her riding with them to work the previous evening, and a few remembered clocking in with her, but none knew what happened after that.

Where is she?” I demanded. “Why didn’t she get on the bus?”

Suddenly, none of them understood me.

No hablo inglés,” they said as they shook their heads and hurried to distance themselves from me.

I walked to the mobile home Sofia ostensibly shared with seven other women, three of whom worked her same shift. I knocked on the door until one of them finally opened it as far as a safety chain would allow. “Where’s Sofia?”

She backed away from the door, and I heard them consulting with one another before a different woman came to stare at me through the gap. “Sofia’s not here.”

I know that,” I said. “She wasn’t on the bus this morning. Where is she?”

You aren’t the only gringo who likes Mexican girls. Maybe you do not satisfy her, Mr. Wilcox. Maybe she found someone else.”

The women behind her giggled as she closed the door.

As I returned to my grandmother’s home, I pulled my cellphone from my pocket. I called the meat processing plant and asked the woman who answered if I could speak to Sophia Maria Montoya Delgado.

She said, “I’m sorry, sir, employees are not allowed to take personal calls on company time.”

Sofia’s off shift,” I said. “She would have clocked out at eight.”

Then she’s already gone home.”

Well, she isn’t home,” I said, my voice rising in frustration. “I want to know if she’s still there.”

Employees are not allowed to remain on the property after they clock out,” said the woman. “Therefore, she’s not here.”

What happens to employees who miss the bus?”

Sir, if Ms. Delgado missed the bus, then she likely is in for a long walk home,” she said. “Thank you for calling.”

She disconnected the call before I could ask another question.

I went inside, took my truck keys from the kitchen drawer, and then moved the folding chairs and cooler out of the way. Soon I was driving toward the meat processing plant. I took the most direct route, a road that skirted the northwest corner of Chicken Junction, and I drove all the way to the plant’s main gate without seeing anyone walking along the side of the road. The guard stationed at the gate was even less helpful than the woman on the phone.

I returned home, driving slower than before so that I could look down each intersecting road and stopping at the one convenience store along the route to see if Sofia had, perhaps, stopped there. She hadn’t.

After parking my pickup in its spot beside my grandmother’s mobile home, I climbed out and checked the cooler beside the porch. The beer inside was still cold, so I opened one and sat on the concrete steps.

Something wrong?” Red asked from behind me. When I turned, he continued. “You tore out of here like a bat out of hell.”

Sofia didn’t come home this morning.”

He helped himself to a beer from the cooler and sat on the step beside me. “That’s what got you all het up?”

She’s never missed the bus.”

First time for everything.”

One of the women she lives with implied that she’d gone off with someone else.”

You think that’s a possibility?”

I shook my head.

Then it’s likely you’ll hear from her soon.” Red slapped my knee. “In the meantime, I got something to take your mind off your worries. There’s a problem with the plumbing at the Swanson place and fixing it’s more than a two-handed job.”

I stared at the Riverview Estates entrance and the road beyond, and saw no one approaching from either direction. I finished my beer and stood. “Let’s get your toolbox.”

* * *

Old Man Swanson’s mobile home had more than a plumbing problem, and Red kept me busy all day helping him prepare it for rental. I returned home near dinnertime, showered, and stood in the kitchen wearing nothing but my boxer briefs and an undershirt while I stood before the open refrigerator. I had not eaten dinner alone in more than five months, and I did not know what I should prepare.

I finally settled on corn tortillas wrapped around leftover carnitas Sofia had prepared the previous weekend. As I sat at the kitchen table eating, I watched the door, expecting her to rush in at any moment. She had less than an hour before she had to queue up for the bus, and she had never missed work.

After I finished eating, I sat at the table nursing a Lone Star until I heard the bus come and go. I nursed another beer and waited until eight-thirty before I called the meat processing plant. A different woman answered, and I asked, “Is Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado working this evening?”

I’m sorry, sir, we can’t put calls through to employees.”

I’m not asking to talk to her,” I said. “I just need to know if she’s clocked in for her shift.”

I’m sorry,” she said again. “I can’t provide that information.”

You can’t or you won’t?”

Thank you for calling,” the woman replied. Then she disconnected the call.

I left my phone on the kitchen table, walked to the bedroom, and went through Sofia’s things. She did not have much. At one end of the closet hung a pair of jeans, a pair of black dress slacks, four men’s denim work shirts, two frilly white blouses, and a lightweight jacket. I checked all of the pockets and found them empty. At the bottom of the closet were a pair of sandals and a pair of low-heeled black pumps. In her one dresser drawer were a white soft-cup bra, a half-dozen pairs of white cotton underwear, four pairs of heavy woolen boot socks, and four blue bandannas. In the bathroom, in addition to her toiletries, I found her make-up bag filled with assorted eye shadows and lipsticks, and a small jewelry box containing five pairs of earrings, three necklaces, two bracelets, and two keys—a door key and a padlock key. Anything else Sofia owned would be in the mobile home three doors down, and the roommates she no longer stayed with were unlikely to let me in to examine her things.

I spent a restless night. Though I did not often sleep with Sofia due to our opposing schedules, I missed her lingering presence in our bed, the way she left the covers cast aside when she arose late each afternoon, the peculiar arrangement of the down pillows that she often wrapped around her head, and the faint scent of her perfume and her sweat that clung to the bed linens.

The next morning I waited until my neighbors boarded the bus at seventy-thirty on their way to the plant for the eight o’clock shift. The employees who clocked out at eight would not return until eight-thirty, so I had one uninterrupted hour to visit the mobile home three doors down. I used the door key I’d found in Sofia’s jewelry box to let myself in. The sparsely furnished living room contained a couch, a recliner, and a console television, all of which appeared to have belonged to the previous owner. The kitchen table and matching chairs were made of chrome and yellow Formica. I passed through both rooms and down the hall to the bedrooms. Each bedroom contained two twin beds and four padlocked footlockers, none of them labeled. I tried the padlock key on each footlocker in turn, finally opening the fifth one.

Inside I found more clothing and a bundle of letters written in Spanish. A quick glance revealed they had all come from the same woman in Puerto Vallarta, and my limited ability to read Spanish—which allowed me to order from the menu at Taco Bell and little else—led me to believe that woman was her mother.

I put everything back as I had found it and slipped out.

Red caught me closing the door as I stepped onto the concrete steps. “Sofia ain’t back yet?”

I shook my head. “She didn’t run off, though. She left her things behind.”

I thought she’d moved in with you,” Red said, nodding toward the mobile home I had just exited.

Not quite,” I said. “She left a few things here.”

By then, more than twenty-four hours had passed since Sofia was due to return home and more than thirty-six hours had passed since I had last seen her.

I drove into town, past the locally owned businesses lining Main Street, past the town’s only bank, and past the limestone castle that was home to the meat processing plant’s owner. I found the police department occupying half of a building that also contained the city’s administrative offices. To the officer behind the counter, a man near as old as Red, I said,    “I’d like to report a missing person.”

He looked me over, taking in my long hair, black T-shirt, and blue jeans before he pulled a form from a stack of forms. “Who?”

Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.”

When did you last see her?”

Getting on the bus to work yesterday morning.”

And where was that?”

Riverview Estates.”

He put down his pen. “Are you trying to report a missing wetback?”

I had not heard anyone use that term in years. When I didn’t respond in the negative, he glared at me and tore the form in half. “They ain’t missing if they ain’t supposed to be here in the first place.”

* * *

I returned to the meat processing plant and was refused entrance by the same guard who had turned me away the previous day. I visited the town’s emergency care clinic, Catholic church, and several other places known to serve Chicken Junction’s growing Hispanic community, finding few people who admitted to knowing Sofia and none who had seen her since our Saturday visit to the grocery store and to Dairy Queen. I drove the bus route between Riverview Estates and the plant, and then I drove alternate routes, exploring possible shortcuts someone on foot might have taken.

Tired and frustrated by the time I returned home early that evening, I stood at the bus stop and questioned every one of the night-shifters when they queued up for their ride to work. They could not escape my attention but my badgering gained me little information. They all remembered riding to work with Sofia two evenings earlier, the same few remembered clocking in with her, and one remembered walking with her until Skeeter Henderson pulled Sofia aside. None remembered seeing her since then, not on the line nor during dinner break nor at the bus stop for the trip home at the end of their shift.

I even tried to question the bus driver, but he would have none of it. Red saw what was happening, and when I started to climb into the bus after all the plant’s employees had boarded, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “Let these people get to work.”

But—”

The bus driver snapped the door shut.

These people won’t tell you anything if they think you’re going to cause problems for them,” Red told me.

The bus roared away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and diesel fumes.

Red still had a firm grip on my arm, and he pulled me out of the noxious cloud toward his mobile home. Once inside, he calmed me down with a cold beer, and I told him about my experience at the police station.

You’re not likely to get any cooperation from the locals. Most of them resent people like your Sofia,” he said. “And you for sure won’t get any cooperation from her people, either, if you treat them like you did a few minutes ago.”

So, what do I do?”

You find another approach,” he said. “Have you talked to her supervisor?”

I shook my head. Until a few minutes earlier, I had known him only as Skeeter. “Do you have a telephone directory?”

He did, and I flipped it open. The listing for people with the last name of Henderson was two pages long, and it didn’t include anyone who had given up their landline. None of them were named Skeeter.

I no longer had access to the databases I had used as vice president of Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, but I still had connections. I called Studebaker Johnson, a private investigator working out of Waco to whom I had subcontracted work a half-dozen times over the years. He answered on the third ring. After a few minutes spent reminiscing about the past and glossing over the downward spiral that had taken me from Dallas to Riverview Estates. I told him I was looking for any man named Henderson, nicknamed Skeeter, first name unknown, who resided within an hour’s drive of Chicken Junction.

Stu called back a few minutes later. “I have one—Samuel ‘Skeeter’ Henderson on Huaco Road.”

He gave me Skeeter’s street address and a quick bio. “The subject is a forty-two-year-old Caucasian male, six feet tall, two hundred and forty pounds. He’s a single, never married, high school graduate who rents his home, has one DWI conviction, and his credit cards are maxed out. He has a concealed carry permit.”

The DWI—?”

“—was eight years ago, too far back to cause problems getting the permit.”

I thanked Stu.

Anytime, Cade,” he said.

Red had been listening to me, and when I ended the conversation with Stu, he asked, “What are you going to do now?”

I’m going to take a look at Skeeter’s place while he’s at work.”

I finished my beer, used Google Maps to pinpoint the location of Skeeter’s rental home, and then drove through town, past the limestone castle, and several miles out Huaco Road to a string of aluminum-sided ranch houses that were in no better condition than the mobile homes at Riverview Estates. I parked on a side road and approached Skeeter’s home from the back. The wooden doors of the detached single-car garage stood open, revealing a disorganized collection of junk that prevented the garage’s use for its intended purpose. The inside of the house, what I could see of it through the windows, was in no better condition. Most importantly, no dogs announced my presence.

After I returned home, I cleaned and loaded my Glock, and then spent another restless night missing Sofia. I had been aggressively single while working at Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, never certain if the women I dated were interested in me or if they were interested in my money and the status of my position. I hadn’t cared, because I used them just as I thought they used me, exchanging one salad-eating, Pilates-addicted bottle-blonde for the next until I could no longer remember their names and called them all “Honey” and “Sweetie” and “Babe” as if I were using terms of endearment and not displaying my own disinterest in their individual personalities.

Sofia had changed all that.

After meeting at the Dumpster, we found other ways to accidentally cross paths until I finally stopped drinking alone every morning and took a cooler full of beer and pair of folding chairs into the front yard so that I could wave to Sofia when she stepped off the bus. She returned my wave, greeting me some days with “Buenos dias” and other days with “Good morning” until one day she broke away from her roommates and came to sit in the chair beside mine. We talked for several minutes before she excused herself and went home to sleep.

This continued for almost two weeks. Then one evening she appeared at my door dressed for work and carrying a grocery sack filled with food. She said, “You’re not eating.”

She pushed past me into the kitchen and began going through the cabinets until she had what she needed to prepare chiles rellenos with rice and beans. She had to rush to make it to the bus on time, leaving me to clean up afterward.

We had dinner together every evening after that, and before long, we were as good as living together. I still did not know what she had seen in me, but she made me want to be a better person. She taught me to stop dwelling in the past and to live for the future, whatever it might bring.

I woke early the next morning, slipped my private investigator’s license and concealed carry permit into my wallet, strapped on my shoulder holster, and then pulled on a leather vest to cover it. Nervous because I had not done any investigating more confrontational than a sharply worded email following my promotion to vice president, I used the toilet a third time.

When I flushed, wastewater backed up into the tub. I didn’t have time to deal with it, so I left it and headed outside. I was unlocking my truck when Red caught my attention.

Going to talk to Skeeter this morning?”

I told him I was. Then I told him about the wastewater in my tub.

I’ll take a look at it a little later,” he said. Then he winked. “Right now, I’m on my way to breakfast with Mrs. Medeiros.”

I left him, drove through a town that had yet to fully awaken, and out Huaco Road again. I parked on the same side road and again approached Skeeter’s home from the back. I was sitting in his kitchen when he arrived home around eight-thirty, surprising him with my presence.

Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?” he demanded as he reached behind his back.

I raised the Glock from my lap. “Two fingers,” I said, motioning toward a chair I had placed on the far side of the room. “Remove your sidearm with two fingers, place it gently on the floor, and kick it in my direction. Then take a seat in that chair.”

Skeeter hesitated, perhaps considering his options, and then did what I asked. After a Glock that was a kissing cousin of the one in my hand slid across the floor toward me, he sat. Sunlight from the window shone brightly on the side of his face, revealing a thin scar on his right cheek. The scar brought back a memory long forgotten and I asked about it.

You break into my house, point a gun at me, and that’s what you ask?” He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he continued. “When I was ten, me and another kid were playing in some abandoned cars in the wash behind the mobile home park where I lived. I fell, cut my face on a Chrysler. My mother rushed me to the doctor. Thought I was going to lose my eye, but I didn’t. The kid wasn’t from around here and he disappeared before I came home from the hospital.”

You’re Little Sammy?”

His eyes narrowed. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Nobody’s called me that in years. These days, my friends call me Skeeter.”

I didn’t correct him, but I was the kid he’d been with, and we hadn’t been playing. He had been bullying me, and I had pushed him onto the Chrysler. “Okay, Skeeter, I want to know what happened to Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado. She didn’t come home from work a couple of days ago, and you’re the last person anyone saw her talking to.”

So, you’re the guy who’s been calling the plant and asking about her all over town?”

Word traveled fast. I nodded.

I sent her upstairs,” Skeeter said. “She didn’t return to finish her shift, and I haven’t seen her since.”

Why’d you send her upstairs? What’s upstairs?”

She was a looker, that one. Little heavy on the eyebrows, if you ask me, but an ass to make a grown man cry. That’s what the boss likes.”

What do you mean?”

Every three months or so, he lets the shift supervisors know he needs a new assistant.”

What’re you supposed to do?”

Pick out the lookers, send their names upstairs. If he calls one of ours up, there’s a five-hundred-dollar cash bonus slipped into our locker. Sofia’s my second. The first one was almost two years ago.”

Sofia had mentioned three women missing during the ten months she’d been working at the plant, but Skeeter was telling me there might have been others, at least four a year since— “How long has this been going on?”

I’ve been a supervisor almost eight years,” Skeeter said. “It started before I was ever promoted.”

What happens to the women after they get sent upstairs?”

Skeeter shrugged. “Employees—especially the illegals—come and go all the time. Some quit without notice and never bother picking up their last paychecks, so I never asked.”

Aren’t you curious?”

Curiosity kills,” Skeeter said. “This is a company town. Everybody relies on the plant one way or another, so you go along to get along. Nobody cares about a few illegals. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been.”

I stared hard at Skeeter for a full minute, but I had no more questions to ask and he had nothing to add. I picked up the Glock he had kicked across the floor to me. “I’m taking this with me,” I said, “but I’ll leave it someplace where you can find it later.”

* * *

Chicken Junction was awake when I drove back through town, and I realized how insular the town really was. Other than the Dairy Queen and a few service stations, no other national businesses had established a foothold. Walmart, H-E-B, and Whataburger, all nearly as ubiquitous in Texas as Dairy Queen, had no local presence. I was out the other side of town and almost home when I was passed by a fire engine with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

I caught up to it when I reached Riverview Estates and saw my grandmother’s mobile home ablaze. The park entrance was crowded with the fire engine, two police vehicles, and two pick-up trucks belonging to neighbors who had been unable to get through to their homes. I parked on the roadside just beyond the entrance and walked in. The neighbor on one side of my grandmother’s blazing mobile home was spraying his with a garden hose, and several dozen park residents, clumped together by primary language were milling about watching the firefighters unspool hoses too late to save my home. While the firefighters brought the blaze under control and local police kept the spectators well back from the scene, I searched for Red.

None of my neighbors had seen him.

Then one of the firefighters came out of the charred and half-melted aluminum husk of my grandmother’s home and announced to the others, “We got a body.”

I saw one of the police officers smile, but it was fleeting and I doubt anyone else noticed. I edged closer, remaining as inconspicuous as possible until I was close enough to the officer to overhear his conversation when he used his cellphone. He said, “It’s done. He won’t be asking any more questions.”

A moment later he added, “Of course it was him. Who else could have been in there?”

I backed away, knowing Red had been snaking the sewer line inside my grandmother’s mobile home when it went up in flames. As soon as I reached my truck, I drove away, leaving Riverview Estates and Chicken Junction in my rearview mirror. I didn’t stop until I reached Quarryville, and I sat at a picnic table outside a smokehouse that had once been a Conoco station, picking at a lunch plate of chopped brisket and potato salad.

When Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations closed, my house repossessed, and most of my possessions lost prior to bankruptcy proceedings that cleaned out the last of my savings and investments, I thought I’d lost everything. I was wrong. What I lost were possessions. Replaceable things. People were not replaceable.

I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Not then. Not there.

After finishing lunch, I looked for a place to hole up, and a horse-faced woman rented me the far-end unit at Quarryville’s six-room motel. The room was nothing special and had last been decorated in the 1960s. Unsure if the primary color was orange or tangerine, I avoided looking at it by staring out the window at the only vehicle in the parking lot. Mine.

After a few minutes, I called Stu Johnson.

You must be working again,” he said.

This is something personal,” I told Stu. Then I told him what information I needed.

I’ll see what I can get.”

While waiting for his return call, I explored Quarryville. There wasn’t much to the town, but I did find a pawnshop, where I purchased a thin pair of leather gloves and an inexpensive gun cleaning kit. Back in the motel room, I stripped, cleaned, and reloaded the Glock I had taken from Skeeter. I had just finished when my phone rang.

What do you have for me, Stu?”

Just like you figured,” he said. “Directly or indirectly, the Potter family owns that town. A family trust owns the meat processing plant, the bank, and the mortgage company. Through various subsidiaries it controls most of the rental property in and around town, as well as two of the largest cattle ranches supplying beef to the plant. The patriarch, H. F. Potter, just turned ninety and no longer takes an active role in decision-making, as best I can tell. His son Crawford runs things and has for many years. Crawford had some problems when he was younger, transferred twice from prestigious Texas universities, and finally graduated from a diploma mill. The family spent good money to make Crawford’s problems disappear, but the Potters weren’t the big fish in a little pond at Rice and Baylor like they are in Chicken Junction.”

So what happened?”

I might be able to get specifics if I had more time,” Stu said, “but there were allegedly several incidents involving inappropriate conduct with co-eds.”

What are we talking about? Stalking? Assault? Rape?”

Yes. Probably. Campus police didn’t get involved back in the day unless things were seriously out of hand. Hell, most rapes went unreported, and the few that were, were blamed on the women. Men like that don’t change, especially men who feel empowered by money and social position.”

They became the kind of men who trolled their workforce for new assistants.

Crawford is a fifty-five-year-old Caucasian male, five feet seven inches tall, weighing in at a buck ninety. He’s never married. Other than allegations of inappropriate behavior from his college days, there are no blemishes on his record.”

That’s what happens when you own the police force.”

Do you want me to dig deeper?”

I think that’s enough on him,” I said. “What did you find out about the castle?”

I’m not certain it qualifies as a castle.”

Have you seen it?”

Only pictures. The two-story, eight-bedroom Potter Mansion, designed in the Romanesque Revival style, was the first limestone building in the county when it was constructed in 1871. The home has been renovated several times since, but there is no record of any significant changes to the original floor plans. I’m emailing them to you as we speak.”

That it?”

There’s one other thing,” Stu said. “Have you surveilled the house?”

Not yet.”

I gave it the once over on Google Street View. There are bars on one of the bedroom windows. What’s in that room that’s so important people need to be kept out?”

Or kept in,” I said. “Which bedroom?”

Second floor, northwest corner.”

I thanked him for all the information and ended the call. Then I settled in to wait until nightfall.

* * *

I drove several times around the Potter Mansion, saw no security of any kind because a man who thinks he controls everything doesn’t think he needs it. Crawford’s arrogance would be his undoing, and I decided to take the direct approach. I parked at the curb, walked up to the porch, rang the bell, and waited until a man fitting Crawford Potter’s description answered. “You Mr. Potter?”

Who are you?”

I’m a dead man walking.” I revealed Skeeter’s Glock, showed Crawford the business end, and pushed past him.

You must be Mr. Wilcox,” he said. He remained poised as if he thought he was in control of the situation. Maybe he was. “I think someone’s going to get fired for this.”

Take me upstairs, to the bedroom in the northwest corner.”

If you insist.” He led me up the sweeping staircase and to the bedroom. A combination lock secured the door.

I motioned with the gun. “Open it.”

I think you’ll be disappointed,” Crawford said, but he spun the dial on the combination lock until it unlocked. Then he unhooked the lock and pushed the door open.

You first.”

He stepped into the room and switched on the light.

No one rushed into my arms, screamed for help, or greeted me in any way, because there was no one in the room. Except for the lock on the door and the bars on the windows, nothing seemed out of place until I saw the marks on each of the canopy bed posts where restraints of some kind had worn groves into the polished wood.

What were you expecting, Mr. Wilcox? A harem of Mexican girls?”

A glint of reflected light caught my eye, and I saw Sofia’s locket under the edge of the bed, the chain broken.

I returned my attention to Crawford. “Where’s Sofia?”

Your Sofia was a good-looking woman, a real firecracker in bed.” Crawford’s eyes twinkled and his mouth twisted into a grin I may never forget. “Did you really think she’d still be here after you started asking questions?”

Where is she?” I repeated.

The smile twisted further. “Do you have any idea how much meat gets processed at the plant? Do you think anyone notices a little extra now and then?”

My stomach turned over, and I shot him. I didn’t think twice, just squeezed the trigger until the clip was empty. Then I dropped Skeeter’s Glock, picked up the locket, and hurried toward the stairs.

Crawford?” I heard an old man yelling. Crawford’s ninety-year-old father was somewhere in the house. “Crawford, what’s all that noise?”

I drew my Glock from the shoulder holster, thinking his father may have phoned the police, and it led the way down the stairs and across the foyer.

Crawford, answer me!”

I eased out the front door, pulled it closed behind me, and was in my truck rolling out of town before the first patrol car responded.

I drove from the Potter Mansion to Riverview Estates. I used Sofia’s key to enter the mobile home she had shared with seven other illegal immigrants, none of whom were as beautiful as her. The four day shifters present when I bulled my way in all woke and began screaming at me in Spanish. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were calling me, but I understood the attitude. I ignored them, marched down the hall, and opened Sofia’s locker. I grabbed the letters from her mother, returned to my truck, and headed toward El Paso, intending to cross into Juarez.

As I drove, I phoned Studebaker Johnson. I didn’t tell him what I had done, but I did tell him what I had learned. Texas Rangers, Immigration, the FBI, the USDA, and other state and national agencies would all be interested, and I knew he could use his connections to direct their attention to the meatpacking plant and the surrounding town.

When I finished, I told Stu he might never hear from me again, and he wished me good luck. When we finished, I turned my phone off and threw it out the window so I could not be tracked.

I had a long drive ahead of me, all the way to Puerto Vallarta. I had to return the locket and tell Mrs. Delgado that her daughter was too beautiful to live.

I wouldn’t cry until I did.


Michael Bracken (www.CrimeFictionWriter.com) is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. His crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and he has edited several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods.