Monday, December 10, 2018

Blood Standard, by Laird Barron, reviewed by Paul J. Garth


Blood Standard
Laird Barron
G.P. Putnam's Sons
336 pages
$26.00/10.99
reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Rumors of what would end up being Blood Standard, Laird Barron’s first mainstream crime novel, had been going around for years. As a devotee, I first heard whispers that Barron was writing a noir sometime in mid 2014; there were no other details to the gossip, no plot hints, character ideas, or even a sense of where the book would be set, but the rumors were more than enough to get anyone even slightly plugged into the gray area where crime fiction and horror fiction overlap very excited. Shortly afterward, when Barron confirmed in a Facebook post that he was in fact writing a noir novel, I don’t think anyone could have imagined a more perfect pairing.

Barron, the 21st century's undisputed king of cosmic horror has always had a soft spot for characters straight out of classic noir: whether it’s the Pinkerton or the private detective stumbling across unimaginable truths, the CIA spook or the grizzled military commander monkeying with things they do not truly understand, miners and geologists, comfortable only in solitude but forced to work together to stay alive, or the lavishly rich, surrounding themselves with potential victims. Barron’s collections were full of gruff men of action whose minds were destined to end up as broken as their bodies. The promise of those characters, and the language and atmosphere Barron used to wring every ounce of tension from their suffering, but set in a world in which Old Leech was not to reveal himself? It was almost too good to be true.

Enter Isaiah Coleridge, another of Barron’s signature hardscrabble heroes. A mob enforcer sent from the warm arms of The Outfit to the outer edges of the universe, in this case, Nome, Alaska, Coleridge witnesses a money-making slaughter scheme on the Chukchi Sea and, maybe for the first time in his life, does the right thing. Or the wrong.

Exiled for his sins against the Outfit to the quiet Hudson Valley of upstate New York and held in check by an awareness that the Outfit might come calling at any moment to collect their pound of flesh, Coleridge settles in to a quiet life on a farm. It’s only when Reba Walker, the farm owner’s granddaughter, goes missing, and Coleridge promises to find the girl, that he is pulled back into the world of greed and violence, and he jumps in with both feet.

The violence in Blood Standard isn’t meditative or philosophical as in the majority of Barron’s previous work. It simply is, an essential aspect of Coleridge’s life that is so commonplace it is barely worthy of note. Whether or not that is a good thing will be the cause of some debate among readers. The novel moves along at an almost impossible pace, most scenes action-packed and filled with growing mystery or tension or violence, but the language is clipped, especially in comparison to Barron’s horror work. In previous short story collections readers were treated to horrific imagery and the suggestion of the baroque and the grotesque awaiting behind even the most commonplace of items and incidents, elements which I think makes Barron one of the best prose stylists I’ve ever read. In Blood Standard, most of that is gone, excised instead for action and forward momentum, though Barron occasionally slows down the ass-kicking to deliver a knockout of a section, including the following plumbed from the depths of Isaiah’s fever dream:

I wandered through Elysian Fields and the Boar of the Wood hunted me, his tusks as sharp as spearheads. He felled the tall grass with each sideways swipe of his massive head. My grandfather, dressed in skins and a necklace of sharks’ teeth, floated always two places ahead his gaze serene as a storm cloud. He raised a flint ax and I woke, the blare of a conch horn trailing into the ether.


I’ll be honest and admit now that there were times when reading Blood Standard that I wished the Barron prose I’d fallen in love with would reappear, that I’d get more of the above, an exploration of the sense of cosmic doom that immediately follows a head cracking--an unconsciousness made of cold stars and the void behind them--but it’s also entirely possible that the only reason I wanted that is because that was the book I’d been imagining for four years, and it’s very likely that readers who haven’t read Barron's previous books won’t find anything amiss at all. Besides, Blood Standard is straightforward about the kind of book it is from the jump; if there’s ever been another book that greets the reader with a balled up knuckle sandwich right on the title page, I can’t think of it.

That’s not to say Blood Standard isn’t a recognizably Laird Barron novel, either, as it is absolutely packed with what some have come to call Barronisms, each circling one another, all of the converging and separating in Blood Standard s murky mystery. Lurking at the edge of the plot are unscrupulous FBI agents, a group of private military mercenaries working for an atrocity-prone organization known simply as Black Dog, mobsters (so many mobsters), a particularly bacchanalian Beltane fire celebration, and Isaiah’s father, a cold-hearted son of a bitch who, if he’d been copy-pasted into Barron’s first breakout story, “Old Virginia”, probably would have staved off all the miseries in that story and saved the day. Plus gallons of whiskey and racks and racks of guns.

It may seem amiss, at this point, that for book supposedly about the mystery of a missing girl, I haven’t discussed the mystery that much. That’s for two reasons. The first is that the mystery works perfectly well as a means to drive the plot forward, which is to be expected in a modern crime novel. Blood Standard performs admirably, each chapter deepening the mystery while also suggesting increasingly sinister explanations. But the more interesting reason to discuss everything but the mystery is that the resolution of what happened to Reba Walker may strike some readers as unsatisfying. At first, I might have agreed with those readers, but that’s only because it took me a while to understand that the potentially unsatisfying resolution of the mystery is exactly the point. Blood Standard is an action story wearing the skin of a mystery novel, but it’s also the story of Isaiah Coleridge and his attempt to find his place in a world where even the criminal rejects have rejected him.

A cross between Jack Reacher or Clyde Barr novels and some of Dennis Lehane’s more introspective and gothic work (Shutter Island and the displaced narrator of The Given Day seem like obvious touchpoints), Blood Standard is less about the mystery of what happened to Reba Walker and more about what Isaiah Coleridge--and men like him--have to do to survive the modern world. If Coleridge, with all his sins and his Barbarian nature, had been able to set the world right, it would ring false, like Barron were giving us a neat ending simply for its own sake, but as anyone who has read Barron before knows, he doesn’t believe in neat or happy endings: the universe is too complex for that, as even the section in which the resolution is revealed is titled “The Gordian Knot”.

A novel about an difficult man trying to resolve a hopeless mystery, while also trying to accomplish something else that may as well be impossible, starting a new life, Laird Barron’s first crime novel is as much a character study as a beat ‘em up, rich with all the signature themes longtime Barron readers know and love, while also being straightforward and action-focused enough to welcome a mainstream audience. Whatever comes next for Isaiah Coleridge will surely be haunting and difficult and expansive on the world created here, and if it’s half as much fun as Blood Standard, I can’t wait.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Tough News

Hi all--

Tough will return to regularly scheduled content in the new year. In the meantime, we'll still be posting occasional reviews and maybe even some interviews--I keep promising those, but they're back-burner for right now--as we work on print anthology 2 and catch up with a backlog of submissions. Speaking of which, we're still open for story submissions as well as reviews, and we've already got some dynamite stories lined up for 2019. In the meantime, be sure to keep up with things via Unlawful Acts and Do Some Damage, just two of the spots I visit regularly to keep up with subjects criminous.

Thanks for reading--

Rusty


Monday, October 8, 2018

Know Me From Smoke by Matt Phillips, reviewed by Bruce Harris

Know Me From Smoke
Matt Phillips
Fahrenheit 13  2018
193 pages
$13.95/$2.99
reviewed by Bruce Harris

Matt Phillips's Know Me From Smoke uses alternating chapters to bring two characters together, lounge singer Stella Radney and ex-con Royal “Junior” Atkins. Stella Radney is described as late middle-aged with a petite figure and nice lips, easy on the eyes, but internally beaten and bruised, from being on the receiving end of figurative hits for decades. Once married, Stella's husband Virgil is shot during a robbery of the bar he and Stella operate. During the murder, Stella takes a .45 caliber slug in the hip, a macabre souvenir she still carries. Virgil’s killer, our friend Junior, is never caught. Twenty years later, Stella’s love for Virgil has never waned. Stella’s identity is linked to Virgil. Despite his physical absence, he dictates Stella’s thoughts and behaviors from the grave. Stella perpetually lives the Day of the Dead, not so much in celebration, but in remembrance and acquiescence. At one point, she has a “conversation” with Virgil, asking him to release his hold over her so that she could fall guiltlessly in love with another man:  Royal.

Royal eludes capture for Virgil’s murder, but serves time for a different killing. He is released after 20 years due to a legal technicality. Although free from prison, Atkins remains mentally incarcerated, unable to escape his past or his self-inflicted death spiral. Immediately after his release, he befriends a pair of violent losers. It isn’t long before the threesome meet Stella Radney.

Atkins recognizes Stella. Although something about him is familiar, Stella has no idea that Royal is the one who shot and killed her husband and planted the slug in her hip. Despite half-assed attempts to avoid his new friends, Atkins gets more involved in their life of crime. First, Atkins becomes an accessory to armed robbery with the two career criminals. Their transgressions escalate quickly into additional robberies and murder.

Simultaneously, Atkins’s relationship with Stella Radney progresses toward intimacy.  Their relationship is the quintessential comedy / tragedy story and it plays effectively throughout the book in the shared giddiness and joy of falling in love, coupled with overriding feelings of fear and loss. In Stella’s case, the loss is Virgil, the love of her life. For Royal, it’s a wasted life, an ignominious past, a dark present, and an inevitable future. Ironically, Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy was initially Muse of Chorus. Radney, still living with an all-consuming tragic past finds life and vitality in music and song, defines this contradiction.

Stella is a sympathetic character who takes her livelihood seriously and learns to sing at an early age. Her mother sang while her father played the trumpet. Music  provides temporary solace as witnessed in this, one of Stella’s fatalistic thoughts:

Now forty years on, she understood that each song – for her mom and dad – was a small escape, a jail break. Stella knew, and saw how each life moment led to a place of no escape. It’s like each portion of life leads a person, somehow deeper into a maze. And the more you live, the longer you live, the more you understand the whole world’s a grift, all of life is one big sucker punch.

She doesn’t completely trust Atkins, knows he’s hiding something, but in addition to being a dedicated singer, Stella Radney is lonely. She’s a romantic and despite her doubts, falls in love with him. Atkins is the first man since Virgil’s murder with whom she could spend the rest of her life. Yet, she fights internal battles over her feelings for Atkins. The only time she is content, truly alive, is when she performs. For Stella, music is life. In the following passage Stella expresses herself beautifully, and with a rare tranquility for her about music’s magic:

You can’t live without hearing a soft purr from the throat of a lounge singer, that first subtle, imperfect note as it floats into a continuum of time and death and love - as it floats out over the whole wide world. You can’t live until you hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare in the early evening, until you’ve seen and heard a guitarist walk one hand up and down a neck, as if his fingers all have a tiny heart of their own. And you haven’t lived until you’ve been shaken from sleep by some enchanting melody, until you’ve burst awake in the middle of the night with a clever chorus bubbling on your lips. And love didn’t compare to music, because music is love – it’s love living in sound, and there’s no other place to find love but to find it in music. 

Early into Know Me From Smoke, The District Attorney's office reopens her husband's murder case, thanks to technological advances.This adds yet another force gripping Stella, dragging her back into the dark past. It’s only a matter of time before the world catches up with Royal Atkins. Few will have sympathy for this lowlife. The only question is will Stella’s love for Atkins overpower more rational thoughts? That’s the dichotomy. As Stella’s affections for Royal increase, so do her internal conflicts and justifications to continue the relationship.

Mystery publisher Otto Penzler stated, “Like art, love, and pornography, noir is hard to define, but you know it when you see it…noir stories are bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers--people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin.” This is Royal Atkins to a T. He personifies the “losers losing” meaning of noir. In contrast, Stella isn’t bad and has overcome tough breaks. Music provides meaning in her life, but love taunts her, a fool’s gold panacea to years of loneliness.

The characters, cops and cons and the supporting cast are realistic and the dialogue rings true. Humor is peppered throughout and strategically placed. I cared for and rooted for Stella Radney and hoped for the worst for Atkins. Noir succeeds when the atmosphere blends with the characters, defining and directing behaviors, becoming its own powerful driving force. In its darkness, gloom, and despair, Know Me From Smoke is reminiscent of noir master David Goodis. In fact, if Goodis were alive and writing today and had an apprentice, it might be Matt Phillips. 

Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: About Type. His story “Carried Away” won the 2017 September/October Mysterious Photograph contest in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.


Monday, September 24, 2018

She Goes First, by Mary Thorson

New York, 1928

Lula couldn’t remember when Tom started discreetly coming to and leaving their bed, but there must have been a particular day when he decided to be quieter. It didn’t matter, she was such a light sleeper that it wasn’t the bird or the phone call that woke her, it was the absence of his weight. When she came into the kitchen, he was moving very fast, almost so her tired eyes couldn’t keep up with him, and he blurred as he paced from one spot to another. Lula pulled her hair behind her ears and watched him. It had been a long time since she had seen him like this, and she was nervous.
“Who was on the phone?”
“Work, they want me for something big up in New York,” he said over his shoulder.
“New York? Why?”
A few months ago, they had moved into their DC apartment from his studio in Chicago. Tom had said it was too cramped for him there, and there was an opening at the DC bureau of the Chicago Tribune. But Lula didn’t think it was any bigger, now. Just emptier. The only furniture being the bed, a couch in the living room, and a kitchen table set that came cheap because it had been scratched in the store.
“You know that big case where the woman killed her husband? The dumbbell murder?”
Lula shook her head, she didn’t pay attention to the news, which Tom had liked at the start. She knew it made him feel good to tell her about things.
“They’re executing them next week and they want me to come in and take pictures.” 
“Pictures of what?”
“The execution,” he said with a too big smile. “Just her, though. They’re going to run it on the front page.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “You mean, when she dies?”
“Mmhmm.”
“Why would anyone want to see that?” Lula asked while letting her vision blur as she stared out the window. The snow was coming down in big heavy flakes as a few men in dark jackets started to make their trek to work.
“People can’t not look,” he said.
He would be working for the New York Daily News, he explained, because no photographers were being let into Ruth Snyder’s execution, just reporters. The editors thought it would be clever to bring someone in that the guards had never seen before. They hired another man to make them a camera special for the job. The body of it would be strapped to Tom's ankle, the lens facing out and angled up, and the shutter release would be wired up through his pant leg to the arm of his jacket, so he could press it as if he were clicking a pen. It was single use.
She turned to look at Tom. His face was always astonishing. Hard set features, nothing soft there, not even his lips. A nose that had been broken more than once and eyes set deep. He cut into the space around him.
“That’s sinful,” she said.
If he could have left earlier, if the Daily News would have let him stay in one of their kept rooms at a hotel in the city, he would have been gone already, but they made him wait. Lula could sense him vibrating underneath his skin. He could see an exit.
“What about the bird?” Lula asked.
“What about him?”
“Do you expect me to take care of him?”
“Actually, yes. I do,” Tom said. “It’s not hard.”
He walked over to the cage and let the bird out onto his finger. The bird twisted its head around to stare at her. Its neck bent unnaturally, and it made her put a hand up to her throat. Tom stroked it and whispered something that Lula couldn’t hear.
The bird loved Tom. It was his bird. Well, not to start with. To start with it belonged to her. His wife’s bird. During the divorce Lula and Tom had gone on an adventure; that’s what he’d called it. They went to the house he had shared with her and broke in. He hadn’t planned on it being dramatic as all that, but Margaret had changed the locks like she said she would. A rock the size of his fist got them in. One small broken window above the basement and it became something else.
Lula remembered the way Tom looked at her as if heat burned through his eyes. He helped her down and slid his hands over the length of her, touching every part. When her feet were flat on the ground, he held her there in front of him, against him. And when Lula turned, he had her there – it was the last time it went like that.
They walked right out the front door with the bird still in its cage and that black sheet over it. An African Grey. He had bought it for Margaret in place of an engagement ring. This bird looked as though all the color had been drained from him, everything but the tail which fanned out in a stark red cape. Lula liked the idea of getting Margaret’s declaration of love as if it could be transferred over like money in a bank account.
Turned out Margaret couldn’t stand the thing either, because she never came after it. Never said a word about it, and she always had a lot to say. This, Lula knew, had gotten under Tom’s skin. He was excited the first few days, waiting to hear from Margaret once she came back to town. Said she would fight like a wet cat for that bird. Then the week rolled over to the next. He would ask if she called. Lula would ask why he cared, but she knew. Back in the beginning, when he and Lula had just started, he had told Margaret that the love bites on his neck were from the bird. But the bird never bit him.
***
She read whatever she could find on Ruth and her lover. She hoped she could somehow learn more about them than Tom. Have an intimate insight into their lives that Tom wouldn’t be able to capture and show. Ruth was 32. She was unemployed. She was a mother. Her daughter’s name was Lorraine. Her husband’s name was Albert. She and her lover, Judd, had killed him. Judd was a corset salesman and losing money. Ruth and Judd held chloroform soaked rags over Albert’s mouth and nose. Judd tied a wire around Albert’s neck. Judd convinced Ruth to do it so they could be together. Ruth convinced Judd to do it so they could be together. Ruth and Judd had been lovers for two years. Ruth and Judd turned on each other in two hours. All of it Lula memorized. She wanted Tom to quiz her. She wanted him to bring something up, or get something wrong, and if he did, she would gently correct him. “No, that’s not what happened; it went like this,” she would say. And he would thank her. But Tom didn’t talk about it. He just kept checking his backup camera and taking pictures of the bird. 
***
She had trouble sleeping when he was gone. Even though they had turned away from each other, his weight in the bed was enough. If not enough, something – a pull she could feel. A reminder in physics. After Tom left, Lula ticked through those facts at night. When she did sleep, she dreamt of Ruth and Judd – but then it wasn’t Judd, it was Tom. They stood in a room that had been torn apart, and he stood behind her, tying up her corset before he left. He kissed her in the space between her shoulder blades, grabbing her shoulder as if he wanted to take a part of her with him. Lula would wake up sweating. It reminded her of before. He would do this with Lula when her breathing got caught up and uneven. He would touch her with a kind of determined pressure. He had an agenda. He pawed at her while attempting to disguise it as comfort. He wanted.
But, over time, that pressure she needed had eased. He wouldn’t touch her with any of his strength. She braced herself, ready to push back harder against him, but there was nothing. Quickly his hand would be gone altogether, leaving no imprint of where it had been. She used to be able to feel him the next day. Her hips would ache, and she’d stretch until she could feel the soreness. He bruised her neck with his mouth, and she’d open her collar up to the mirror as she examined the marks.  Now he didn’t leave anything behind.
***
The day that Tom was due back, Lula woke up in the early afternoon, and the bird was squawking. She put the pillow over her head to try and block it out, but it didn’t work. She threw the covers off of her and walked to the kitchen to make some coffee. She would not address the bird until she was ready. She would make it wait. When the coffee was ready, she poured it into a little white cup with delicate pink and blue roses on it and a gold painted trim around the rim. Lula had not bought this, it was not her style. She liked plain things—sturdy things. The bird squawked again. It was hungry. On her way out of the kitchen she tripped on the leg of the table, dropping her coffee cup on the ground. The thing seemed to shatter in slow motion, and she didn’t move to stop it. The handle flew off like it had torn along a seam.
“Shit,” she whispered sharply.
“Shit! Shit!” came back at her from the living room.
The noise the cup made when it fell sounded like it came from inside her skull, and she put her hands over her ears. Lula stepped around the ceramic pieces and walked into the living room, balling up the folds of her robe in her fists. If she kept them free, she’d be liable to swing.
The bird heard her coming, and the cage started to shake. The black sheet with white embroidered vines covered it as it rocked back and forth. A heavy thing, made so the bird wouldn’t be able to knock it off on its own.
“Please,” Lula said, putting her mouth to the sheet. “Will you please, just, be quiet? I need you to do this for me. Can you? Please?” She breathed out, thinking maybe the hot air from her lungs would do something, like a car in a garage.
“Please! Please!” came from behind the sheet, like a ghost.
The bird’s voice came out differently, this time. It sounded more like her, or how she thought she might sound to someone else. Desperate. Something was wrong with it. She wanted to be away from the bird, away from that voice, so she quietly walked to the front door hoping that it wouldn’t hear her leave. When she stepped outside, the sun hit her as if interrogating her, and she sank down on the stairs. It was cold and she held her coat tightly to her chest. Her feet were bare but she was testing herself. It was a game; how long could she stand it. She would turn around to keep them moving, and was facing the navy blue door when she heard a car pull up in front of the house. She lifted her head and watched him. Tom paused for a moment, staring at her. He looked as if he’d gotten out at the wrong place. He kept his hand on top of the taxi, then he smiled and reached inside his coat. He pulled out a small bunch of crushed red roses and shook them her direction. He hit the roof and started towards her.
“What are you doing out here?” This was a thing he used to laugh at, but now it was a quick smile. She would have missed it if she had blinked. Thank God.
“I was hot, inside.”
“You shouldn’t be out here like this.”
He opened the door and herded her through it. Inside, the bird started up again. Tom walked over, pulled off the sheet like a magic trick and leaned in.
“Hiya, buddy!” he yelled.
Lula put her hands up to her ears, fearing that her voice would come back out of its beak, but it was silent.
“There’s a good man.” Tom opened up the wire door and stuck his finger in. The bird marched onto it from its little swing. It flapped its wings and jumped onto Tom’s shoulder, then stomped around a bit before settling down. Glad to be home.
“Seems a little stir crazy, must have gotten up early,” Tom said, looking from the bird to Lula. His stare was accusatory.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I need to wash up.”
In the bathroom, she sat on the lid of the toilet with her hands between her knees. She leaned her head against the frosted window, and appreciated its coolness. Lula put her hand to her mouth and started to pick at the dry pieces of skin on her lips. Then she thought about lipstick – if she still had that color he used to like, or if he had ever mentioned liking one in particular.
Lula walked back to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. She curled her toes to grip the floor. Tom had started another pot with the mess on the floor just inches away from his feet. He had the newspaper tucked into his waistband the way a cop carries a gun. She didn’t want to ask about it, but had nothing else to say.
“How did it go, then?”
He turned and smiled at her, the kind of smile she hadn’t seen in months. She almost returned it. He grabbed the newspaper and unrolled it. He held it up next to his face as if he were posing with some big game he had hunted.
“Take a look.”
Lula couldn’t understand at first. It wasn’t something she could easily make out. She squinted her eyes causing the pain in her forehead to spread up underneath her hair and across to both temples. She became dizzy. In the picture, Ruth Snyder grabbed both arms of the chair with a grip that she never could have managed before that moment. Her ankles were straining against the leather strap, her feet kicked out to either side. She was wearing black loafers; Lula had a similar pair. Something black covered Ruth’s face; it looked like a muzzle made for dogs. The photograph was blurry, and Lula couldn’t tell if that was because she could actually see the electricity moving through Ruth’s body or if it was the way the picture had been taken. Every sharp line in the photograph couldn’t hold its content, the blacks and grays of her were bleeding out. At the bottom of the picture, there was something hard and shiny. A shoe. Tom’s shoe. It looked so large and invasive. Right above the photo was a single big, bold word: DEAD!
“You ever seen anything like that?”
“Of course not.” Lula rocked a little, placing one cold hand on the wall for balance. She felt as if she had been attacked.
“Here, take a look.” Tom brought it close to her face, and she put her hands up.
“Look! Look!” the bird yelled out.
Lula sat down, and Tom grabbed the flowers he had set on the table.
“I’m sorry about these,” he said. “They looked more alive when I got them.” He started to poke through the petals, seemingly trying to find something in between them. Lula could feel the silk coming off on her fingertips.
“You shouldn’t touch them,” Lula said, louder than she had meant to.
A rigidness set in his shoulders at the sound of her voice, and she could see his jaw clench.
“What was it like?” she asked.
She saw him relax, and he turned back with a slight smile.
“Fast,” he said. He pulled out a chair and sat down hard.
“The guard checked us.” His hands were suddenly on her, moving up and down her sides. Lula took in a sharp breath. “Patted us down and let us in the room. I thought he would feel the wire, but you could tell they wanted to get that door closed. Press went to the back of the room, but I shoved up for a good spot where I could see her. Then they brought her in. You could tell she was scared; her lip quivered,” he said as he moved his lip with his finger. “And her eyes were wide as planets, but she wasn’t crying. They sat her down, strapped her in, then shaved the top of her head.”
“Why?” Lula put her hand on top of her own. She imagined a draft.
“They put a wet sponge there.” He tapped the top of her head, and she could almost feel her brain shake. “Makes the electrocution go faster, more humane.”
“Did she say anything?” she whispered.
“‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.’ Then they flipped it. She grabbed hold of the chair with everything she had, then she went limp. I almost didn’t get it in time, but everything lined up perfectly, thank God.”
“Thank God.” Lula repeated it back to him, slowly but reflexively. She couldn’t help herself.
Lula stared at him as he looked over the picture—he couldn’t stop smiling. He had caught something special, someone’s soul on the outside of their body. He had caught it for himself, and it ignited him. There was nothing in the room now, not even him. He was still there, with Ruth.
“I felt bad for Judd Gray. When they brought him in you could still smell something, like metal. He was weeping and tripping over his feet when they sat him down. She went better than him; that’s why they had her go first. They knew she would be better.”
“I don’t like it,” Lula said.
Tom looked at her as if she had hit him.
“She wasn’t a saint, you know.” He crossed his arms over himself and hardness set back in.
Lula thought Ruth might have been, at the very least, some sort of martyr for herself. Everything had been taken from her and burned up.
“She only had dignity in dying, and that’s what I got here.”
It was quiet for a moment and then the bird squawked, making Lula’s heart jump. 
“Can you please get rid of that damn bird?” she said, putting her hands over her ears.
Tom stroked the bird’s neck with his finger, then got up from his chair. 
“I’m tired,” he said with his eyes down. He didn’t say anything else right away. The way he had said it sounded almost like a question that she should answer, the way it hung there between them. When he finally did look at her, she stopped breathing, wanting to be as quiet as possible.
“I like the bird,” he said, before he turned and walked away.
Tom had left the bird on the table. Lula watched it and thought about how stuffy the room felt and how hot it had gotten with the sun coming in. She thought about opening a window while she scratched at her neck. The bird jumped down from the table to the ground so clumsily it surprised her. The bird couldn’t fly – its wings were regularly clipped – but she didn’t know if it even knew how. It walked over to the puddle of coffee on the linoleum and, with its beak to the floor, stuck its dry, gray tongue out, stabbing at the coffee in a way that made Lula feel sick again.
She had the newspaper in her hand. She didn’t know how it got there, really; she must have grabbed it. The paper was thick – special issue heavy. She felt weak and swimmy, but she moved fast. Maybe faster than she had ever moved in her life. She got him on the first swing, and it made a terrible noise. A sort of scream that tried to be human but failed and cracked back into something else. It went on like that until it was over. She wished to God it couldn’t talk, because even in the silence, with Tom looking at her in the doorway, wet and naked from the shower, she could still hear it ringing in her ears. Lula wondered if that’s why they muzzled her.


Monday, September 17, 2018

With Hair Blacker than Coal, by Chris McGinley

Sometime in the 1940s, a young mother in Burley County gave birth to a baby girl. The mother was only in her teens, just a girl herself, and the shame of it was too great to be borne, especially around the little hollers of eastern Kentucky, the way people gossip and judge there. On top of it, the no 'count father was long gone by the time the baby came. The girl felt she deserved sympathy, not condemnation.

And so she did the only thing she knew to do. She hiked up Red Thrush Mountain one day and left the child in the woods. That night, she claimed the baby had been stolen from her crib. The sympathy she wanted came in spades, but it only lasted a day or so. An old granny woman who had helped with the birth sensed the girl was telling a lie. She grabbed her by the hair and slapped the truth out of her. Soon a party of lawmen, the girl, and the granny woman were all headed up the hill to see if the baby was still alive.

There was a tiny feed sack dress on the ground where the baby had been left, covered in feline hair. But it hadn't been torn, and there was no evidence of blood anywhere, though bobcat prints were all over the place.

The baby had disappeared altogether.

Over the years the story became a part of the local folklore, the details changing according to circumstance. But the core of the tale remained the same. The baby had been raised by bobcats, people said. They talked of a wild girl who roamed high up in the woods on Red Thrush Mountain, making her lair in caves and rotted out logs. As time went on, the girl of the story became a woman, a feral animal, not to be approached under any conditions. Like all mountain stories, there were other ones that helped to prop it up. One time a team of geologists working for the mining company found a deer skin, stretched and tied with sinew to a stick frame. The site was miles away from any area trafficked by even the most adventuresome outdoorsmen. The group claimed to have seen bare footprints there, too, narrow ones. Another time a mountain spelunker swore he found evidence of someone living deep in a cave, though he could never again locate the entryway. And there were many supposed sightings by hunters. A filthy, naked girl running wild through the dense brush. A girl wearing skins and carrying a fire- hardened spear. A wild-looking girl who walked with bobcats, her hair a tangled nest grown to the waist, blacker than coal. Most of the stories were dismissed for what they were, fantastical accounts with little basis in fact. But others were more believable, according to the source, and the story persisted.

***


To get to Indian Trace, Sheriff Curley Knott had to drive through the deep holler in Cyclops, a forlorn place that seemed never to end. He steered the cruiser around sharp twists and over rises, past run-down single wides that should have been abandoned, and between old coal company row houses about to fall over. Here and there someone sat on a rickety porch or leaned over the hood of a car. Mostly he got unwelcome stares.

At the back of the holler, a steep road with switchbacks that threaded through high limestone walls led the way to an old couple's homestead just below the Trace. The husband explained that he had heard a shotgun blast up on the rise behind the cabin a day earlier, and then another one seconds later. When he went to investigate he found two godless-looking men, harvesting a dead bear. "I told them boys there were two problems with what they was doing," he said. "First one is, it ain't bear season. Second one is, they was on my property without permission."

"What did they think of that?" the sheriff asked.

"The long haired one said I forgot about the third problem, that neither of them give a goddamn about number one nor number two. Said they was actually doing me a favor by leaving me the bear meat. But that if I didn't want it, they'd as like to kill me for being an ungrateful sonuvabitch. The other one pointed a gun at me and laughed. It was them Clatter brothers. I seen them up here before. They must've come across the bear just by luck. Bears are pretty rare around here. They mostly stay up above that notch. High up there. That's where them boys are headed, I think."

She had been quiet up until then, but now the old man's half-Shawnee wife chimed in. "That meat's befouled by them two. I wouldn't touch it. I said let the buzzards have it." She shook her head mournfully.

"Ok," the sheriff said, "let's go take a look."

The couple led the sheriff to the kill site, not too far from their little cabin. But about twenty yards from the animal, the old woman stopped short. "You all go ahead," she said. "I seen it once. And I wish I hadn't." The men went on without her. As they neared the animal, Curley could see the red and black gore that clotted the high grass around the carcass. He had seen hundreds of dead animals in his time, had killed many himself, in fact. But there was something profane about the black bear that unsettled him. For one, the paws had been removed. The old man said he watched Cornelius Clatter take an axe to the animal. The hide, too, had been harvested, but the meat was left to rot on the bones. Flies swarmed around the carcass in a continually moving black cloud. Smeared with blood, the animal's sharp teeth sat open wide in an agonizing howl.

"By God this is strange," Curley said.

"It's unholy is what it is. It ain't natural," the old woman shouted from back on the path. Curley wondered how she had even heard him.

When they returned to the cabin, the man said that he didn't want the Clatter brothers arrested so much as he wanted them to stay off his land. He feared them, yes, but he feared more for the animals. In fact, the old man said, he'd not have made the report at all, but the woods high above Indian Trace were home to plenty of black bear nowadays, and he knew that the Clatters would likely come through his property again, killing and defiling.

"They're unclean," the old woman swore, pointing a crooked finger at Curley, who now noticed her high cheekbones and near black eyes. "They're a pox on these hills. I only hope they go too far. Beyond that notch up there is where they're headed. There's bear dens up there, and God knows what else. Don't follow them too far, sheriff. What's up there can't tell between good and not good. That's a dark wood up there, is what my grandfather called it. Anyone that hunts up there is just as like to be hunted. You be careful."

***


After he radioed in, Curley outfitted himself with the hiking boots and light gear he kept in the cruiser. He was probably the best tracker in the county, but he didn't need to be. The Clatters took no pains to cover their tracks--cigarette butts, beer cans, shit and toilet paper. Not far from the bear kill, he came across a heavy canvas bag hung high in a tree. It dripped fluids and had already begun to stink. He figured it to be the hide and paws, and whatever else the Clatters had harvested from the animal they happened upon at Indian Trace. Curley wondered how the brothers ever got close to an animal, the way they hunted. But they were headed far up, beyond the notch. Surely they'd camp beforehand and start out early, using better cover, he thought. He hoped he would find them before then. Actually, part of him hoped he would never find them at all. He wasn't thrilled about going beyond that notch.

The fact was, the more he thought about it, and the further he hiked and the closer he got to the notch, the more he felt an impulse to turn around. He couldn't help but remember that time in the Mekong Delta. He wished he had turned around then, him and Brody. The two of them had to scout a remote area near a channel bank before a search and destroy mission. There hadn't been reports of any activity there, but they needed to be sure. According to Brody, it was supposed to be a half-hour in the woods, a "fuckin' nature hike," he said. Problem was, the area didn't match up with the map. They followed a tributary upstream, through dense palm trees and mangrove roots, but it seemed never to end. At length, Curley began to feel it. Not the enemy. It was different than that feeling. It was something else, something of the jungle, something primal.

At one point, an animal moved in the trees up ahead of them, a large mammal, Curley figured. It let out a low, guttural moan. The sound was foreign to Curley, but he couldn't mistake the meaning. Brody readied to fire, but Curley shook his head. "There's no people out here," he whispered. "None thats alive, anyway." They backed out of there, turned around and headed for the rally point. But it wasn't long before they realized they were off the map again, on a different route from the one they took earlier.

"Fuck," Brody said. "We're lost." And Curley didn't counter him.

When they came upon it, they were already deep in the bush, wandering aimlessly. Against a felled durian tree lay a dead VC, his gun on the ground, the body shredded and disemboweled by something clawed, with deep incisors. And then they heard the rustling again, behind them now, and the low moan. When they stopped moving, the noises stopped, too. They were being followed, Curley realized. At times, they were afraid to move an inch. "There ain't but one way to do this," Curley finally said. "And you ain't gonna understand it, Brody. But you gotta trust me."

It was nightfall when they finally got back to the rally point. They had left their rifles on the banks and floated down the tributary for God knows how long, maybe a few miles, trying to stay close to the mangroves. Brody thought it was crazy to abandon the weapons, but Curley swore it was the only way.

Something was out there.

***


It was a long trek over rough terrain, a steep grade, and some muddy patches, but when the time came it wasn't hard to get the drop on Cornelius. Up high on the hillside, the sheriff could smell smoke from a little camp he figured to be about a mile away. When he finally got eyes on the situation, he circled back around and drew down on the older brother from behind. "Nothing sudden, ole boy," he said.

Cornelius sat on a fallen chestnut on the edge of a tiny clearing. He didn't move except to drag on a cigarette. "You here about that bear?" he asked. "'Cuz we got bigger problems, Law Man."

"Turn and face me."

"You said 'nothing sudden.' I'm just following orders."

"Turn around, Cornelius."

Cornelius forced a mirthless laugh and spun around on the tree trunk to face the sheriff. His stringy hair, matted with sweat across his forehead, fell almost to his shoulders. A lower tooth was missing. In one hand he held a cigarette and in the other a pint of Early Times. "I killed that bear on that old man's property," he said. "Poached it, I guess you call it. I don't mind to be arrested for it neither. But I got business up here first." He looked the sheriff up and down. "You're Curley Knott, right?"

The exchange wasn't what Curley had expected. "Where's that brother of yours?" he asked. Curley scanned the area around the camp, his gun still drawn. Cornelius took a deep breath, and Curley noticed the red in the man's eyes. Cornelius ground out the cigarette, pulled hard on the bottle and then replaced the cap. "Here," he said, tossing the bottle to Curley. "Take a snort. You'll need it for what I'm gonna show you." Curley thought it better to wait than to ask just yet.

Cornelius stared up into the tree canopy, but whether to ponder one of the big questions or to keep the tears from falling, Curley didn't know. One thing was for certain. Something was wrong with the man. A turkey vulture swooped down from an opening above and landed on a low branch across the tiny clearing. Cornelius tore a piece of decayed wood from the chestnut and threw it at the bird. "Get on out of here, goddamnit." Then he dropped his head into his hands and began to cry. Softly at first, and then with some real volume. In time he started to convulse, his shoulders shaking.

Curley had seen this before. Had been there himself, in fact, in the Delta. He needed details, but Cornelius had begun a mourning wail Curley knew better than to interrupt. He scanned the area again and took up a rifle that lay against the log. For a long while he waited, standing there, his eyes on Cornelius. At one point he actually thought to comfort the man, but he just couldn't. The act would have taken him back to the Delta, and that he couldn't do right now.

Finally he asked, "What happened, Cornelius?"

He had to wait a long while for a response, but eventually Cornelius rose from the fallen tree. "It's this way," was all he said. Curley followed at a distance, his gun still drawn, but it wasn't Cornelius he was worried about anymore. Something bad had happened. Curley could feel it, even more so the further they moved along. They crossed several fallen trees and wound their way up through a series of sandstone boulders. It was tough going. "We're headed toward the notch," Curley said at one point. Cornelius kept moving, silently. They hiked for over an hour.

William's body lay at the base of a wide sycamore not too far from the edge of the notch. "He come out here to scout out a route," Cornelius said. "And because he liked to be alone in the woods, I guess. Anyway, he said he wanted to go alone. He was like that." Cornelius asked the sheriff if he could have the bottle again. Curley tossed it to him and moved to look over the body.

"Sweet Jesus," Curley said. The neck and torso had been raked deep by something with claws. And Curley saw some puncture wounds, too, from sharp canines. But nothing seemed to be ripped away. The flesh wasn't torn or shredded, though the ground was covered in blood, and flies buzzed everywhere. Curley looked for animal hair on the body, but he couldn't find any, and it vexed him. He felt the heat rise up inside of him, like that time in the Delta with Brody and the dead VC. He felt something else now, too, something feral in the air. Then, in the distance, he thought he heard a woman's cry, shrill long notes on the air.

"That's a bobcat," Cornelius said. "By God I will skewer that bitch."

"A bobcat didn't do this," Curley said. "This is something bigger. Maybe a mountain lion, or a bear. But not a bobcat."

The feminine cry sounded again, a long and desperate keening. Curley looked for prints in the area, moving carefully all around the body now, and out from it in a circle. He had to sit down when he finally saw it, on the other side of the tree. He would have fallen down otherwise. In the soft mud were narrow human footprints.

They led away from the body, toward the notch.

***


Back at the camp the sheriff said, "It's just a goddamn myth, Cornelius. There's no wild woman on Red Thrush. The prints were made by something else. Have to be. They just look human. We'll get some people up here and remove his body tomorrow, or the day after. Right now, we gotta get moving. We gotta get down the mountain, all right?"

Cornelius had opened another pint of whiskey from a backpack and had been drinking from it since they had got back at the camp. Curley really didn't think he had cause to stop him.

"I'm too fucked up to hike back down there now," Cornelius said. "We'll go tomorrow morning, first thing."

It wasn't the way Curley wanted it, but what could he do? An injury on the descent could be dangerous. He could end up with two dead brothers. And he had to consider the reaction of the Clatter clan. No doubt, they would look to blame the sheriff's department if Cornelius got hurt. And God only knew what that would bring on. No, it was best to stay the night and move out early. Curley even took a few pulls off the pint. "You need to be ready to hike out right after sunrise," he told Cornelius.

Cornelius nodded and looked toward the path they had taken to get to the body. "You ever hear the story about that scientist who come up here to study on coal seams and excavation for one of the companies? Then he got separated from the rest of his crew somehow?"

Curley shook his head. "There are lots of stories. All just stories. People around here . . . you know, that's just part of mountain life. Tall tales."

Cornelius pulled on the bottle and passed it to Curley. "Yeah, but this guy. He never come back down. My cousin worked for the company back then. He said they sent guys up there looking, but they never found a trace of him. Creekside Mining Company. Long time ago."

Curley sipped on the bottle. "Lots of people gone missing in these hills over the years. Accidents happen. People get lost. That sort of stuff. Could be any number of things. What's a bunch of scientists know about mountaineering anyway? You send people like that up here, you're bound to have trouble."

"Hmm. Maybe so," Cornelius said. He got quiet all of a sudden and Curley hoped the matter had been dropped. A barred owl sung out from a tree somewhere in the distance and something small rustled it the brush by the camp.

"Still, them footprints," Cornelius said.

Curley let out an exasperated breath. "Animal tracks, man. That's all."

"Maybe," Cornelius said. A light breeze shook the leaves in the canopy above and the owl sounded again. "You know, you and I could go investigate tomorrow. We got food. Hell, William's not gonna eat his share." He laughed at the realization, but Curley knew he didn't find it funny. "We could go across the notch and see what we find. I mean, we got a dead body up there. Ain't you supposed to look into that, sheriff?"

Curley said, "No. Your brother was not killed by a human being. He was mauled by some animal, or a pack of animals. That's not the business of the sheriff's department."

Cornelius dragged on his cigarette. "Since when did that ever stop you? Most stuff gets investigated by the sheriff's department ain't the business of the sheriff's department, you ask me." He flicked the ash on the ground. "I think maybe you're scared of what's beyond that notch."

Curley took a last pull off the bottle and screwed the cap on. He passed it over to Cornelius. "Cornelius, some old people call that place a dark wood. They say that what's on the other side of that notch should be left alone. People oughtn't to venture out there, they say."

Cornelius took a drink. "Hell, you're scared, sheriff."

Curley pulled William's sleeping bag up high on his shoulders and settled in. "You're goddamn right I am."

***


Shafts of grey light had begun to poke through the trees and a wood pecker had started his work somewhere close by.

"Ain't no point in taking the tent and this other shit if we're just coming back up here to get William's body," Cornelius said. " Let's get going. Time ain't on our side, right?" He was already packed up and ready to move out. Curley was a little surprised. He took Cornelius for more of a slow-starter.

"Ok, give me five minutes," Curley said.

"Story of the po-lice. We'll be there when we get there."

Curley let it slide. He didn't need a conflict with Cornelius at this point, and as soon as he had his things together, the pair began to walk out, with Curley leading the way. He hadn't quite got up to pace yet and Cornelius let him know it.

"You're a little stiff there, sheriff. Come on, now. We gotta move, right?"

"I'm movin'. No sense in making a mistake way up here."

Cornelius laughed. "Hell, I thought you was supposed to be some kind of bad-ass mountaineer." Curley didn't like it, and he made a mental note to run Cornelius ragged when they got close to the bottom.

Less than a quarter mile from the camp there was a little drop through a sandstone crevice where the footing was tough. Cornelius passed in front and said, "You best let me lead here, sheriff. It's a little trickier than the training course down at the sheriff's academy." He laughed.

Forbearance wasn't always Curley's strong suit. He grabbed Cornelius' backpack and halted him in his tracks. "Watch how it's done, Jethro," he said. But as he was about to descend into the crevice, he heard Cornelius rustling around for something in his pack. He knew then he had made a mistake. Before he could turn around, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his head. He was only alert long enough to curse himself. And he only knew he had been kicked from behind when he awoke some time later, halfway down the crevice. His head and kidney throbbed, and blood covered his shoulder and back. His weapon was gone now, too, and Cornelius had taken the food and water. The only good thing was that the bleeding had stopped.

"Goddamn," Curley said. "Son of a goddamn bitch."

He knew he'd eventually arrest Cornelius and put him away, once he got down from the mountain, that is. And he could handle the small embarrassment of it, too. The smart thing to do, especially without food or water, was to hike down, call for backup, and wait out Cornelius at the base of the mountain.

But smart didn't always figure in.

Once he got his bearings, Curley started back up the mountain. His head and back ached, but as he began to move ahead, he felt a little energy slowly returning, helped along by his rising anger. At the camp, he collected the dew from the tent into a small pool and drank it down. William's Bowie knife was still there, in his bag, and he threaded the sheath onto his belt. It was early yet and he drizzled the dew from pawpaw leaves and other trees into his mouth as he moved. He figured Cornelius to be maybe an hour or so ahead. He also figured Cornelius had not intended to kill him, but just to abandon him so that he could hunt whatever it was that killed his brother, across the notch. Even so, would Cornelius take a shot in his direction, to ward him off? Maybe. He'd have to be careful.

When he got to a point just beyond William's body, Curley began to question the wisdom of his decision. The notch on Red Thrush was about eighty feet across and forty deep, with a steep drop. It required some technical footwork and some real strength. But by now he was thirsty again, and he hadn't eaten anything except some wood sorrel and Autumn olives. Again, he thought about turning around. But he saw where Cornelius had started across the notch. The track was right there in front of him.

He started down.

Just as he thought, the navigation was tricky but Curley came up on the other side in under an hour. He picked up Cornelius trail on the other side and followed it through ever-thicker and thornier brush, navigating some rock formations and small crevices along the way. But after a few hours of circling back around and re-tracing his steps, finding and then losing the trail again, he realized that Cornelius was not to be found. Curley had lost the trail once and for all. He also realized that the longer he fumbled around up there, the more dangerous things would get. A brief rain allowed him to collect some more water, but he was in no great shape to keep on going. It was then that he decided to cut his losses and head back. He had made several trail markers en route, but he couldn't find any of them now. It was as if they had been removed. Finally he decided to climb to the top of a limestone boulder to see if he could get a better vantage point. When he got to the top, all he saw was forest in every direction.

And then he sensed it. Just as soon as he got down from the boulder. A feral note on the air. He felt it in his mouth when he inhaled. There was a musky, animal smell to it, but something else was there, a scent he couldn't place, underneath the animal scent. He headed back in the direction he thought he had come, moving with more urgency now, the sound of cicadas making a loud din everywhere around him.

It startled him when he first saw it, though it shouldn't have, and he had to tell himself that a dead squirrel was not at all uncommon in a forest full of birds and larger mammals. It was recently mutilated, the meat torn from its small bones. Its guts lay there, covered in flies. Further along was a raccoon, and then a woodchuck. Next was a deer, a good sized buck whose neck had been thrashed and snapped. Bloody bobcat prints led away from the animal and the smell of feline urine was all over the air now.

Curley kept moving, he hoped in the direction of the notch, charging through the brush where it was thick instead of looking for a navigable path around. His hands and face soon became a mass of welts and cuts. He stopped short when he thought he heard something behind him, a rustling in the brush. But when he stopped, whatever it was stopped, too.

"Cornelius, is that you?"

Only the cicadas answered.

There was no getting around it now. Deep in the woods across the notch, he was hopelessly lost. Insects buzzed and leaves shook high up in the canopy. But Curley could feel no wind on the forest floor. Somewhere high above a red tail cawed, but when Curley looked up all he saw were turkey vultures. They circled and dipped, gliding above him easily and without concern, their wings barely moving. They had the advantage now.

Curley drew William's knife from its sheath, but to what end, he really didn't know.

***


The details are hazy. At times Curley can recall large fragments of it, sometimes in dreams, or when he's out in the woods by himself. But he doesn't know whether or not he can trust them. His memory gets sharper the moment he emerged from the woods, dehydrated and famished, at the foot of the mountain near the old couples' cabin. The woman, the half-Shawnee wife, tended to him. He told the couple about how he confronted Cornelius at the camp, and about William's death at the hands of a bear, or maybe a mountain lion. Later he would lead a team up there to extract the body. But like the old woman when she saw the dead bear the Clatters had mutilated, he would hold back from the actual site itself.

Curley told the old couple that he camped with Cornelius and planned to bring him back out the next day. But Cornelius had gone on before daybreak without telling him, no doubt intending to cross the notch and kill whatever animal took his brother's life. He must've gotten lost on the other side of the notch. Without food or water, Curley said, it would have been stupid to go after him. Instead he waited at the camp for hours. His own injury, he explained, was caused by a fall on the way down. The old man took him at his word, but the wife knew it was a lie. She knew Curley had gone across the notch, to the dark wood her grandfather had warned about. She knew something had happened there, too. She could still feel it on Curley's skin when she tended to him. But she also knew it was better not to ask. For both his sake and hers.

Nowadays, the story all changes around in his dreams. Sometimes the memory comes on the heels of a flashback, the details shifting and moving, even flowing back and forth between the Delta and Red Thrush.

But this much is true. Or at least Curley believes it to be.

When he first came upon Cornelius' body, the scene reminded him of some prehistoric cave paintings he had seen in a book once, as a little boy. The images had fascinated him then, a mixture of photographs and artist's renderings of the people who lived 50,000 years ago. He had turned the pages with both excitement and fear. There was something compelling about the way people had lived, Curley felt, close to the animals, close to danger. There was something primal about it, too, something irresistible, and he felt it then again as he looked at the mutilated body.

Cornelius lay near the low mouth of a cave surrounded by bloody paw prints on the rocks and in the dirt. The prints emanated out from his body, almost in concentric circles, but not so regular a pattern as that. It was a marker, Curley felt. Something claimed, something not to be disturbed. There was a set of what looked like human prints, too, narrow ones, red at the balls and toes. And Curley could smell the strong feline urine again, along with that other scent he still couldn't place. Cornelius' mouth was locked in a silent scream, the missing lower tooth more pronounced now that his lips had been ripped off. Curley saw his own gun on the ground, but he knew better than to take it. Instead, he left William's knife there, placing it gently on the ground by the blade, the grip facing the cave door. He backed away from the opening, slowly, only turning to move ahead once he was well away. At one point on his way out he heard a noise, the feminine cry of the bobcat again. He turned to look back. In the dark mouth of the cave he saw the slow, feline movement of several animals at once. They swarmed over and under one another, in a serpentine dance of sorts. A buzzard landed near the body but quickly screeched and darted off, its wings working hard just to get airborne. Something else moved in the cave mouth then, but it disappeared just as quickly.

It looked like a long tress of black hair.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy, by Preston Lang

Two years earlier, the Poet Laureate of Delaware stole a 95,000-dollar table from Jean's parents' dining room. She'd met him at a bar when she was still a year too young to drink legally. Her friend Robbie introduced him as Samson, an old pal from lacrosse camp. She danced with this Samson, a dark-eyed beauty with terrific forearms. He drove a red pickup truck and knew how to nae-nae. While he was off getting her a drink, Robbie mentioned that he was actually the Poet Laureate of Delaware, but he didn't like to tell people because it seemed like bragging and he'd feel pressure to be lyrical all the time. But Samson barely talked. He just wanted to get out on the dance floor and press her close. And when he needed her to follow him, he'd gesture sensually with his forefinger.

Jean's parents were out of town for the long weekend, so she took that laureate home to her mom's queen-sized where they went at it, on and off, for about three hours. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone, but he'd left a note: Sarah, sweet and stealthy, I will always remember you. Did he really think her name was Sarah? Or was that some literary reference? She just didn't know.

It was only after breakfast that she realized one of the dining room tables, the one they didn't eat on, was gone. It was a limited-edition Rheinspahn, and it had cost her stepfather nearly a hundred grand. When her parents got home, she pled ignorance. "Someone must have stolen it in the night—isn't that scary." It didn't seem like such a big deal to Jean. The thing was insured. And anyone who could afford to drop 95 grand on a table he didn't eat on could afford to lose it. Her stepdad accused her of being in on the crime, though he didn't bring that suspicion to the police. Her mother called Jean a spoiled, irresponsible dropout, living in unearned luxury. The fight, a long time in coming, was big and vicious. Ugly things were said that couldn't really be taken back because they were so obviously true. A lot of hair was pulled. Jean took a knee to the stomach.

She'd been on the road ever since, staying on couches when she was lucky, meeting some interesting people and some very dull people, making lots of spectacular mistakes. She lost an incisor, and in the winter she was always sick.

One January night she found herself standing outside a bookstore in Wilmington where she saw a sign in the window for a poetry reading: three local writers, including the Poet Laureate of Delaware. First the non-titled authors read. Jean didn't understand any of it. Even words she thought she knew well--gift, remains, shortchange--were used in ways she just didn't get. It all felt mean-spirited and wrong, but no one did anything to stop it.

The laureate went last. She was a wide, silver-haired lady named Elaine Lind. She read a poem about being stuck in an elevator with a spider and then one about learning to French-kiss at Dunkin' Donuts. Jean didn't really know whether she liked the poems, but there was something agreeable and perceptive in the woman's eyes, she thought.

When it was over, the two other poets had friends and relatives. The laureate had no one, but it didn't seem to bother her. She loaded her plate with cheese and slices of ham then sat in a folding chair near the back.

"In the elevator poem I'm glad that the spider didn't start to talk," Jean said to her.

Elaine Lind nodded. "Yes, a talking animal is almost always a bad idea. In a poem."

Soon after, they were drinking wine together under a poster of John Grisham, and Jean told the whole story:—the laureate, the night in mom's bed, the stolen table.

"How heavy was the table?" Elaine asked.

"How heavy?"

"Yes. An estimate."

"It wasn't huge, but it was solid. I don't know."

"Could one man carry it out by himself?"

"Maybe a really strong guy."

"You said he had nice forearms. What's the word they use? Shredded? Was he all shredded, ripped, frayed, ruptured?"

"He was a strong guy. Maybe he could've done it alone."

"I'm just wondering if he would have needed a partner."

They were able to look up the table online. It weighed 170 pounds.

"I weigh 170 pounds," Elaine said. "A strong man could easily carry me out of a dining room. The truck he drove: Delaware plates?"

"No. I remember they were Connecticut plates. Local, you know."

"Maybe they spelled something clever, like Laureate69?"

"No. Sorry. Nothing I could remember."

"That's all right. Did you tell him about the table? You know, the night before, how much it was worth?"

"I don't remember. But I might have. I thought it was so stupid: a 95,000-dollar table. And I liked to tell people about the really stupid things my parents did."

On the laureate website, there was no one named Samson, and a look through the past 15 years of pictures didn't turn up anything either.

"Why are there so many of them?" Jean asked.

"The term is only six months. Not only that, for the past eleven years there have been two laureates at a time."

"Why?"

"Some feud between the governor's office and the state arts council. It's not important. Did you ever ask your friend Robbie about that night?"

"What do you mean?"

"The friend who introduced you."

Jean had never thought to do that, an obvious first step. Then again she hadn't really cared about the table or finding Samson. Now she did. It wasn't hard to track down Robbie's phone number. He worked a PR job in New York, and he answered on the first ring, happy to talk to a pretty girl from the old days.

"Yeah, I'd never met the guy before. He saw me talking to you, and he said he'd buy me a drink if I'd introduce him to you as an old friend. Then he said he'd buy me two more if I told you that he was chief poet of Louisiana or something."

"Delaware."

"Okay, Delaware. Did you go home with him?"

The poet laureate wrote on a slip of paper—Details about Samson

. "Can you tell me anything else about this guy? His real name, where he was from?"

"I don't really remember much about him. Handsome guy, though. Wouldn't think he'd have to play games to pick up girls. Hey, what's this about?"

Jean got off the phone, and for some reason she was a little embarrassed.

"I don't want you to think that I—you know—that I do that kind of thing all the time."

"What? Hook up with boys?"

"Yeah."

"Nothing to be ashamed of. A few weeks ago, I had sex with a man who sells shrooms out of his car."

"Did you do it in the car?"

"Yes, actually. We made love in his Saab. We made love in his sob? No, that doesn't work." Elaine shook off the bad verse. "No, what matters is finding the man who stole your table. Let me think."

The bookstore was closing up, so they went to a bar down the block where they drank cheap vodka.

"I just don't think someone claims to be Poet Laureate of Delaware out of nowhere. There's something behind that," Elaine said. "Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy? Are you sure that's what he wrote?"

"Yes, I kept it for a while. The scrap of paper. I lost it somewhere."

Jean didn't retain possessions. At the moment, all she had was a small purse that she'd found--no cash, no wallet--outside a Burger King just before sunup about a week earlier.

"It must be from somewhere," Elaine said.

They did a simple search for the phrase, but nothing came up.

"I've got a friend out at UD. He might know something, and even if he doesn't, we can use his password to get into the journal database."

"What's that?"

"It's got a ton of small literary journals on it, and we can do a phrase check on Sarah, sweet and stealthy."

"It checks every little magazine?"

"Not every single one, but a lot of them."

Elaine texted Dr. Sohn. He wrote back right away. He was still awake—come on over.

"Is it close?" Jean asked.

"It's Delaware, dear. Everything is close."

Dr. Sohn was about 70, a short man in an ancient bathrobe.

"But we have to keep it down. Dahlia is asleep," he said.

They gave him as much of the story as he needed to know. Dr. Sohn looked very familiar to Jean. It was as if she'd seen his face in connection with something dishonest and ugly.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Dr. Sohn said.

"I've seen you before. I think."

Jean felt tense, a little angry. On the road, she'd started to develop a sense, a very imperfect sense, of when she needed to bolt.

"Oh, I know," Elaine said with a little laugh. "You were looking at his picture only an hour ago."

He'd been laureate twelve years earlier.

"Yeah, I did my six months," he said. If you're a published poet in the state of Delaware you've probably been laureate at some point."

"The best part is when you accidentally rhyme and someone says you're a poet and don't even know it, you can just kind of give them a look," Elaine added.

Dr. Sohn poured out coffee.

"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," he said carefully.

They searched the phrase on the database. Nothing came up.

"Any students stand out to you: good-looking, fit?" Elaine asked.

"Always a lot of handsome boys. But none of them were fit until the late 80s. 1987, a guy comes into my class with deltoids." He stirred cream into his cup. "I have to say, though, the sweet and stealthy line. It does sound familiar."

"Like something a student wrote for class?"

"No, I feel like it's something I read, not something I heard out loud, which rules out anything a student wrote."

"You don't read your student's work?"

"Not for the past eight years. If they don't read it in class, I don't know about it."

"So we should check the journals not in the database?"

"And I would start eight years ago and work back."

"You stopped reading journals too?"

"The only poetry I read now is John Donne."

"So you haven't read anything of mine in the past eight years?"

"Elaine, I love you, but I'm not going to read your words."

Just then a very tired woman came into the kitchen in a thick nightgown.

"What is all this?"

"Sorry, we'll try to be more quiet."

The woman spotted Elaine.

"You."

"Good evening, Dahlia."

"He needs sleep. It's bad when he naps in a poetry seminar. That makes all of us look bad. You wouldn't understand that, Elaine."

"Honey, honey," Dr. Sohn said. "I'm fine. We're fine."

"And who is this?" Dahlia pointed to Jean. "Some homeless girl you brought into my house?"

"Maybe we should be going," Elaine said.

"I'd say look in Sonic Review, Pulsatwaney, and Matterhorn Review," Dr. Sohn said as Elaine and Jean made their way to the door. "I used to read those, but they aren't in the database."

With a few hours to kill before the library opened, Elaine and Jean drove to the Route 40 diner and had a big breakfast. Jean poured most of a bottle of syrup on her pancakes.

"Does it pay a lot?" she asked. "Being laureate?"

"No. No. Oh, no. God. No. Are you wondering how I can afford a feast like this?"

"You don't teach, right? How do you get by?"

"I'm sort of a detective."

"And people pay you? Because I can't."

"Sometimes people pay me. Usually they don't. I'm also pretty good at betting on college basketball."

Jean had nothing to say in response to that, so she ate everything on her plate and all of Elaine's bacon.

In the library, they found the old periodicals section and worked their way back through magazines that hid inside cheap leather. They started eight years ago then headed deeper into the past. To Jean the letters were like little bits of cereal on the page. She wasn't confident that she'd catch the phrase if she saw it, but Elaine worked efficiently and finally after two hours, she found it in a ten-year-old issue of Sonic Review.

"Hello, my friend."

It was there in a poem by a woman named Ruth O'Dowd who had attended Wesley College in Dover ten years earlier. She currently worked for a medical billing company in Chicago. They called to tell her how much they loved her poem.

"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," Elaine said. "That's a really interesting line. Do you remember where it came from?"

Ruth laughed. It sounded like she was walking on a crowded street, maybe on her way to work.

"Mark, the guy I was dating when I wrote that poem, he used to say it to me."

"Even though your name wasn't Sarah?"

"Yeah. He’d just learned the word stealthy, and he really wanted to use it. Like in a sentence."

"Was he a poet?"

"He seemed to think that anyone could just pick up a pen and call himself a poet."

"He was a good-looking guy, fit?"

"Oh, yes."

"You have any pictures of him?"

"Why are you so interested?" For the first time Ruth's guard went up. It was time to level with her.

"We think he stole something from my friend."

"Yeah," Ruth said. "He stole from me also. About fifty dollars and all my olive oil."

"Just ran off?"

"I met him in a bar one night, he basically moved in for a month. Then he took off."

"What was his last name?"

"Ulanger. He didn't tell me that, but I took his license out of his pants one time. This was maybe ten years ago. Such a funny time. I wore these sweaters, and I sat out on the steps and wrote poems in a little notebook. I was kind of a wreck, but also I looked down on everyone, everyone who wasn't me."

She sent them a picture of Mark. It was a bad, one blurry side shot, but you could see the kind of charm he put out there. This was their man.

"Maybe it was worth 50 dollars," Ruth said. "The sex was all right. I don't really use olive oil. I got one line of poetry out of it."

Mark Ulanger was as an assistant manager at a store in Indianapolis called Houseware Needz. It looked like he worked until closing on a Wednesday night.

"So he's gone straight?" Jean asked.

"It would appear," Elaine said. "If we leave right now, we should be able to make it."

The ride was nearly ten hours. Along the way Jean found a newspaper article from eight years earlier about a genuine Rheinspahn table abandoned in a courtyard outside a New Haven apartment building, warped and worthless.

She also found a website where Mark Ulanger posted an ever-expanding narrative poem about a young man riding across the country on a motorcycle, bedding women, cooking meat over an open fire out in the desert, teaching children how to whittle with a Bowie knife, playing dominoes with elderly men. He liked to describe sounds in detail. Like a campfire: cruh-crack. Or a horse trotting: clip-a-clop. Or sexual penetration: squeesha-squeeesh. Jean was able to follow most of it, but she didn't think that meant it was good.

Elaine had Jean check on basketball scores of the previous night. She'd gone six-and-five.

"That barely even covers the vig."

It made Jean angry that there were so many words she didn't understand. Even a tiny word like vig was completely foreign to her. She seemed to remember a time when she was much smarter, much more alert. There was also a time when she didn't need to wipe her dripping nose constantly, and all she had was a shredded tissue dug out from deep in a jacket pocket. When they stopped for gas, Elaine bought a new box of Kleenex.

"Sometimes I think I should be grateful to him," Jean said. "In a way he liberated me."

"How do you feel now?"

"I feel like he stole a table and ruined my life."

They made it to Houseware Needz about an hour before closing. It wasn't crowded, and they spotted Mark right away, standing in an apron, helping a woman find the right ceramic pear. There seemed to be more extra chit-chat between them than necessary:we've also got some truly excellent salad bowls. He mimed the shape of a truly excellent salad bowl, and the woman nodded enthusiastically. Finally she went to checkout, and Jean moved in on Mark while Elaine hung back two steps.

"Samson," Jean said.

"Sorry, my name isn't Samson," he said with a sunny smile.

"I just want to talk."

Quick vague recognition came into his eyes.

"Do you want me to stay?" Elaine asked.

"No. I can do this."

Jean spoke with real conviction, and Elaine went back to the car. Mark didn't admit to anything, but he gestured Jean to the cutlery section that same old, lazy forefinger.

"I don't really need an apology," she said.

"So why are you here?"

"Look at my hand."

She spread her left hand on a solid metal table.

"Okay. What am I looking at?"

"Now you. Put your hand out like this."

He paused a moment, but then complied. "Why not?" His hands were large and veiny. She remembered how strong they were. When she grabbed a cleaver from the display and brought it down on his forefinger, she was surprised how neatly it severed. She put it in her purse. She was out the door before she the commotion began behind her. The car was parked around the corner.

"All right. I'm all done."

Elaine waited until they were back on the highway to speak.

"What did you do?"

"I cut off his finger."

"Is it in your purse?"

"Do you want to see it?"

"No, I don't."

"Do you think I did the right thing?"

"Well, it can't be changed now."

They drove another ten minutes.

"Where should I leave you?" Elaine asked.

"I don't see that it matters too much."

The Poet Laureate of Delaware left the girl in Cincinnati with 20 dollars, three Luna bars, and a purse that was beginning to drip. One drop just before she shut the car door: an image Elaine could use, that justified the whole night.

The Houseware Needz Slashing was well-covered in the Midwest. The prints off the knife were good, but they didn't match anyone in the system. There was no footage of the actual attack, only some blurry shots of the girl on her way in and then again on the way out. It was an eye-catching story for a few days, but it wasn't a murder or even an attempted murder. The investigation died out fairly soon. But exactly three months later, a nine-fingered man was appointed Poet Laureate of Indiana.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Bag Girl, by Alec Cizak

Her supervisor, working the express lane, summoned her. “Bag girl,” he said. He snapped his fingers. She wondered if he even knew her name, if he’d ever bothered to read the plastic tag pinned to her black apron.

But she hustled over. Tough to get a job in Haggard these days. Especially for a high school drop out with nothing to offer but a smile and quick hands. She grabbed a paper sack from a stack at the end of the second conveyor belt and loaded the customer’s groceries. The customer slid his card into the credit machine and typed his secret code. Her supervisor asked him, “You want big bills, or little bills?”

“Twenties’ll be fine,” said the customer.

Her supervisor counted out five and handed them over, along with the receipt. The customer grabbed his eggs and bananas. He didn’t hide his effort to peek into the bag girl’s button-down dress shirt underneath her apron. She grinned, played along. She eased her hand into her back pocket and worked the keypad on an ancient BlackBerry phone—Bears jersey, khakis, boat shoes, dbag.

The next customer’s wardrobe must have come off the bargain rack at Walmart, a t-shirt with a bald eagle on it flying over the words, Don’t Tell Me How To Freedom!, and grease-stained jeans tucked into cowboy boots. On his hip, he wore a holster and handgun, just like those tea party dorks on television. When he spoke, he barely moved his thin lips, like being civil to another human being demanded too much. She asked him if he wanted his six-pack in a bag.

“Do your job,” he said to her.

She stuffed the beer into a paper sack and handed it to him as he walked by her. He didn’t look at her, didn’t ogle her cleavage. No matter. For the moment, the man meant nothing. He’d paid for his Budweiser with coins he’d dropped from a coffee can cradled under his arm.

Time crawled while she whipped groceries into bags and said, “Have a nice day,” like a robot. The automatic doors to her right opened and the guy in the Bears jersey stumbled into the store, holding his blood-stained hands to the side of his head. He spilled into two rows of shopping carts, fell on his knees and wept.

Her supervisor scratched at a Cuba-shaped meth scab on his forearm. He said, “Dammit, not again!”

***


Her boyfriend used the money to score a baggie of vikes. They each popped two and plopped down in front of his old fashioned, humpbacked television. The news talked about the hits at the super market. Three nights over the last two weeks. She’d only been with her boyfriend for a month when he’d come up with the plan. He’d found prepaid BlackBerry phones at a Quick ‘N’ Go outside of Pawpaw Grove. “This routine won’t last long,” he’d said. “Soon as the pigs catch on, we crack the phones and ditch them in Lake Arthur.”

The first time they’d tried the scam, she’d doubted they’d pull it off. If her boyfriend got caught, she’d slip the phone into a customer’s bag when they weren’t looking. But things went smooth. Several customers shrieked from the parking lot. The cops showed. Then an ambulance and a fire truck. All for a normal guy who’d taken two shots to the face from a solid steel meat tenderizer. Yes, it cracked his skull a little but, you know, so what? He had money. She and her boyfriend didn’t. Her boyfriend had been stealthy, moved in from behind the security cameras, dressed in black, wearing a ski mask. He smacked the guy twice with the metal mallet, reached into his back pocket, and ripped out his wallet. He’d been gone before anyone noticed the normal guy slumped over, bleeding onto the trunk of a cream-colored BMW.

That night, they’d celebrated, big time. Their man sold them some Oxy and they crushed and snorted it. Everything went fine until they tried to have sex. Her boyfriend’s penis lay still, like a bored slug. She said, “That’s all right, I understand.” For whatever reason, this infuriated him. He punched the wall and shouted at his crotch.

He said, “You piece of shit!” She suspected he’d meant to cuss at her. The wall, even, might have been a stand-in.

They stretched the first guy’s money for almost a week. Then they had to pull another hit. Similar target—Clean haircut, wedding ring, golf shirt, square face, smug expression of superiority when he glanced down the bag girl’s shirt as he took his groceries. She didn’t feel bad when he’d collapsed on the sidewalk, just outside the store.

The haul from the second guy didn’t match the first. They tried to make the pills last as long as possible. As the baggie emptied, her boyfriend’s temper blossomed. She did her best to get him going in bed. He must have been on dope a lot longer than her. His thing refused to respond. She only wanted to help. He finally shoved her to the floor and called her a bitch. “You see the fucker won’t stand, don’t you?” Like it was her fault.

The news report suggested the Lake County sheriff’s department would establish a task force to catch the Supermarket Bandit, a name decided upon by the normal people of Haggard. She said to her boyfriend, “This is getting serious.” She suggested they take it easy for a while.

“That makes no sense,” said her boyfriend. He grabbed her hair and jerked her head toward him. “I need you to think,” he said. “Don’t get goofy on me.”

She said, “I don’t want to do it anymore.”

At this, her boyfriend’s pockmarked face stilled. He said, “You walk away, I’ll rat out the both of us.”

She understood, then, her inability to plan ahead formed the foundation of all her problems in life. In high school, she’d partied and screwed around, as opposed to staying at home and studying, like normal people, the ones who now lived in houses, had children, new cars, mortgages, all the things normal people were supposed to have; When she’d started using pills every day, her conscience told her it might not be a good idea. She’d tried to quit, once. No way she’d go through that hell again—walls closing in, like the trash compactor scene in that stupid Star Wars movie normal people gushed on about. One of the boys she’d snagged in high school had, despite his good looks, been on the chess team. He explained to her how chess and life were the same. He said, “Every move you make, you must consider every possible counter. If you don’t, you’re dead.”

***


The bag girl and her boyfriend gobbled the vikes over the next four days. Then her boyfriend told her, “We’re going to need to borrow some more money tonight.”

She attempted, once more, to convince him it might not be a good idea. “They got cop cars prowling by every five minutes,” she said. “At least twice an hour, the pigs park in front of the store, get out, and stroll through the parking lot. It’s totally uncool.” Of course, she’d said the same thing every night since the task force had been created.

“I think we can get away with it,” he said. “You just send me customers. If shit looks cool, I’ll take care of business. If not, I’ll hang back and wait for your next message.”

“I really don’t think it’s smart,” she said.

Her boyfriend’s chest, covered in half-finished tattoos, heaved to an exaggerated rhythm. He looked like a man about to speak his final words. He said, “Is this going to get ugly?” His hands transformed into fists, his giant, walnut-sized knuckles doing what his penis couldn’t—stranding firm. Something in his neck creaked and popped as he turned to face her. The bridge of his nose wrinkled.

She said his name. She said, “Please don’t make me. . .”

Before she finished, he grabbed her hair and twisted her sideways. His free hand, still closed in a tight, shaking fist, hovered over her. “Bitch,” he said, his thin lips pursed like the redneck in the store with the gun on his belt, “I’m tired of you thinking you got some kind of choice.”

She wished she could have summoned the strength of the gods right then and blasted her boyfriend in the mouth. The more she resisted, the tighter he gripped her. His other arm trembled, as though building steam. She didn’t want him to know he’d scared her. She said, in halting, choking words, “Okay, okay. . .”

When her boyfriend let her go, she said she needed to get ready for work. She’d been with jerks before, but none of them had anything on her, not like this one. How long would she go away for? Would she be able to score dope in prison? What sort of awful shit would the bad girls in jail make her do for a fix? She ducked into the shower and wept as she ran a paper-thin piece of soap over her body. She lathered up the rest of the soap and used it to wash her hair. She tried dressing in the bathroom, alone. Her boyfriend insisted on keeping the door open. He leaned against the wall and stared at her. She wiped steam from the mirror above the sink with the cardboard tube from a dead roll of toilet paper. She spoke to her boyfriend through the mirror. She said, “What?”

He didn’t say anything, just bored into her with his half-open, bloodshot eyes.

***


Friday night. Normal people came into the store angling for fresh money from their bank accounts. Almost every other customer opted for cash when they ran their debit cards. Eighty bucks here, a hundred there, over and over. She offered her boyfriend one sacrificial yuppie after another. None returned with a bloodied face and empty pockets. Every time she glanced outside the giant window at the front of the store, a squad car either rolled by in the street or crept through the lot. On her break, she squatted near empty fruit crates behind the store and smoked a cigarette. One of her coworkers, a crumbling meth junkie who resembled a straggler from Dawn of the Dead, talked on his cell phone. He finished his conversation and went back inside. From the shadows between spotlights mounted on the roof of the store, her boyfriend snaked up and hissed at her. “How about sending me something when the place isn’t crawling with pigs?”

She shrugged. “What am I supposed to do?”

He wrapped his crooked fingers around the top of her button-down shirt. She dropped her generic cigarette as he hoisted her to a standing position. “You think you can survive an empty night?” He didn’t let her speak. “We both know the answer.” Maybe she sneered at him. Whatever look came across her face, it compelled him to tap her cheek with his monster knuckles. He said, “I’ll make this simple for you. You pay close attention to the lot and give me a goddamn customer when things are obviously cool. You take care of this real soon, or I’m going to call the cops and tell them I saw the bag girl texting someone before the last hit.”

This stunned her worse than the back of his hand. She said, “I’m on it. I promise.”

***


Closing time approached and she still hadn’t found a good prospect in conjunction with a cop-free parking lot. Plenty of normal people asked for money, like they hadn’t seen the news, like they didn’t know what could be waiting for them outside. She wondered if her boyfriend would be bold enough to march into the store and confront her. She imagined him pacing the alley separating the store and the nightclub behind it. Maybe he’d punched the nightclub’s brick wall a few times. Or maybe he’d used the meat tenderizer to chip away at it, thinking about the horror of sweating through the night without a fix. Around eleven-thirty, a normal guy in one of those musclehead shirts, the kind with ornate writing nobody could read, swiped his card and collected a stack of ten-dollar bills. Hardly any cars in the parking lot. No cops anywhere. The bag girl reached into her pocket, ready to text. Then she heard coins, rattling in a coffee can. The man with the gun on his belt counted out change for a six-pack three aisles down. He’d worn his gun again. His Walmart t-shirt, this time, said, I Loves Me Some 2nd Amendment! The bag girl made sure she described the man’s cowboy boots and his dirty jeans as she texted her boyfriend.

The next customer in her line, a normal woman in a tank-top and shorts showing off her perfect, unblemished thighs, told her to keep her yogurt and celery separate. The bag girl said, “Sure thing, ma’am.” Five pops, like firecrackers, erupted outside. She didn’t even turn her head as everyone else in the store, including the normal woman, craned their necks to see what had happened. The bag girl dropped the BlackBerry phone into the normal woman’s paper sack, right next to her yogurt. As the normal woman passed, refusing to make eye contact with her, the bag girl said, “Have a wonderful evening.”