Monday, March 18, 2019

In the Morning Hour She Calls Me, fiction by Russell W. Johnson

Most days Mary Beth Cain enjoyed being Jasper Creek’s first female sheriff. The job certainly had its perks: free breakfast at the Waffle House, guest of honor speeches at the local lady luncheons, and one hell of a company car—a Camaro with a V8 and party lights that gave her a license to open it up any time she wanted.

But then there were days like when she got the call for an assist out of McCray County and the raspy lady working dispatch insisted it was something Mary Beth needed to handle personally.

“Call came in nearly 30 minutes ago, Sheriff. Shots fired on McCray deputies responding to a domestic. Some old coot has ‘em pinned down, but they can’t give us an address. All we know is it’s some shack a few miles off Rural Route 4 near Cottonmouth Ridge. That’s all we got to go on. We’ve had two cars circling around who can’t find it. You know what it’s like in McCray. All those hollers and mountain roads are like a maze.”

Mary Beth’s chief deputy and best friend, Isaiah “Izzy” Baker, was riding shotgun and told dispatch to, “Just get the GPS coordinates.” But Mary Beth shook her head, knowing that wouldn’t work. You could never pick up a consistent satellite signal in McCray. Her Sirius XM cut off every time she drove through there--maybe the last place on the east coast where you could still get off the grid.

Dispatch confirmed that GPS had been tried and was a no-go and added, “They said, you’d know how to find it, Sheriff. The old coot who’s raising hell out there is supposed to be some relation of yours. James Logan.”

“Oh, shit,” Mary Beth said, looking at Izzy. She told dispatch they were en route and flipped on the party lights, pulling a 180 in the middle of College Avenue and gunning it up past 70 before fishtailing onto Sycamore. From there she got on Highway 123, which would have taken her all the way into McCray but she veered onto Rural Route 6, down toward Crawdad Holler.

“What are you doing?” Izzy asked.

“If we’re going to see my Uncle Jimmy, I want to take him a present.”

***


Mary Beth brought the Camaro to a hard stop where the pavement gave way to a dirt road that led up onto Cottonmouth Ridge, knowing the path was way too rough for her low-riding car and they’d have to walk it from there. She and Izzie made it to about a hundred yards from the clearing before Uncle Jimmy’s cabin, when Mary Beth felt a whoosh pass by her left ear, then a rotted-out birch tree exploded, sending wooden shrapnel flying everywhere, followed by the crack of a high-powered rifle.

“Get down!” a man’s voice called out from somewhere up ahead on their left.

Mary Beth and Izzy both dropped to the ground just as another bullet took down a large branch from a sycamore. It fell to the ground in front of them, providing enough cover for them to slither off the road into the thick stuff.

Mary Beth heard the same man’s voice yell, “Keep your head down! The old bastard’s crazy!” Her eyes tracked left until she spotted them. A gray McCray County Ford Explorer pulled off-road behind a semi-circle of shrub pine and evergreens that made a nice screen between them and the madman on the hill.

“This is Sheriff Cain and Deputy Baker from Jasper County,” she called out to them. “Who all’s over there?”

“Deputies Hawlings and Jenkins,” the man yelled back. “And one of the old man’s daughters is with us too.”

Mary Beth raised an eyebrow. “Which daughter? Janice or Raelynn?”

She could hear some whispering like the men weren’t sure, then the same man called back, “It’s Raelynn.”

“No shit? How you doin’ Rae?”

A woman’s voice responded, sounding scared and shaky, “Okay, Mae B. How you?”

“Well, I just got shot at a couple of times but other than that, I’m doing fine.”

“I know, right?”

Mary Beth hadn’t seen Raelynn in a few years but had heard she was back home with her daddy, rebounding from a nasty divorce.

“Hang on,” Mary Beth said, “I’m coming over there.”

She ordered Izzy to hold his position then cradled the brown paper bag by her stomach and made a hunched-over dash across the dirt road. Mary Beth ducked behind a shrub pine just as a bullet struck a rock behind her, making a sound like a church bell. She was crouched near the Explorer’s tailgate and scooted around to the side where the two deputies and her cousin Raelynn were cowering.

“That was close,” said the first deputy. His name tag identified him as Hawlings. He was the older of the two, mid-40s and leading man material, with a strong square jaw. Hair was more salt than pepper and he had a dark little mid-life crisis soul patch on his bottom lip that was shaped like a triangle. Mary Beth noticed Raelyn was sitting awfully close to him, rubbing shoulders as she did her damsel-in-distress routine.

“He’s had us pinned down here for over an hour,” Jenkins, the second, younger, more scared-looking deputy said. “You know this guy?”

“Sure, Uncle Jimmy’s a peach,” Mary Beth said, staring at her cousin. Mary Beth hated to admit it, but Raelynn looked good, like she’d gone on a revenge diet to let her ex-husband know what he was missing, and she’d cut her blonde hair, into a stylish little bob. Raelynn had Hawlings coat wrapped around her shoulders and when she shivered it separated revealing a skimpy little outfit underneath, like a waitress for one of those breasteraunts.

“He’s off the deep end,” Raelynn said. “Won’t take his medicine. Totally paranoid. Was plannin’ to go into town shooting the people who he thinks are out to get ‘em. I tried to hide his keys but when he heard the police pulling up he went off in a rage. I ran down here to try and warn these guys not to come no farther and he started firing on us.”

“Are his keys still in the house?” Mary Beth asked.

“Yeah, his are. I got mines.”

“How well hid are they?”

Raelynn frowned. “I did my best but I’s movin’ quick. It’s just a matter of time ‘til he finds ‘em.”

Mary Beth pushed her hat back on her head as she thought. She heard some branches break and peered around the back of the Explorer. She saw Izzy. He was still on the opposite side of the dirt road but had advanced his position to where he was even with the others, finding a good spot to hide behind a hickory stump.

“Izzy?” she called to him.

“I’m here, Sheriff.”

“We got a wild one up there, threatening to head into town, guns blazing. I’m gonna go up there and distract him.”

“How?” Izzy asked.

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a plan. But while I’m distracting him, I need you to creep around back to the barn where he keeps his truck and do something to disable it.”

In addition to being the only black member of the Jasper Creek Sheriff’s Department, Izzie was also, by far, the shortest—not quite five feet even with his boots on. He made up for his lack of height though with a big personality and an even bigger gun, a .44 magnum with an extended barrel as long as his forearm that he pulled in a flash. “You want I should shoot out his tires, Sheriff?”

Mary Beth shook her head. “I was thinking of something a little more subtle. Like maybe pull out the distributor cap.”

“Oh.” Izzy holstered his gun. “Roger that, Sheriff. I’ll take care of it.” “Good. Oh, and Izzy…”

“Yeah, Sheriff?”

“Stay low.” She winked at Izzy who saluted her with his middle finger.

Mary Beth crawled back to the side of the Explorer. “You got a loudspeaker in there?” she asked Hawlings, gesturing toward the SUV.

“Sure,” he responded. “What are you gonna do?”

“Just talk some sense into him.”

Mary Beth opened the driver-side door and crawled inside. She switched on the loudspeaker and stood on the door jamb. She could just make out her uncle’s cabin through the evergreens, listening to the echo of her amplified voice reverberating off the mountainside: “Uncle Jimmy. This is your favorite niece. Your sister Mamie’s girl, Mary Beth—”

A shot fired, tearing through the evergreens, clipping pine cones just above Mary Beth’s head. She fell, landing flat on her back, all the air leaving her lungs.

Mary Beth was dazed. The world was spinning. Izzy was yelling, asking was she okay, sounding like a grunt in a war movie who just saw his platoon leader get shot.

“I’m okay,” she said when she was able to breathe again. She got to a seated position and shook her head to clear out the cobwebs.

“Where’s my hat?”

Raelynn handed it to her. Mary Beth snatched it jealously and examined it carefully, thankful to find it uninjured.

“His memory ain’t good, Mae B,” Raelynn said. “He’d probably know you by your nickname.”

Mary Beth groaned. She found the CB mic hanging out the door. Crouching down, staying safely behind the shield of the Explorer this time, Mary Beth said, “Uncle Jimmy, I’m the one you used to call Strawberry Shortcake.”

She heard a chuckle from the opposite side of the dirt road. Mary Beth picked up a small rock and whipped it, side-arm, in Izzy’s general direction.

“Now listen, Uncle Jimmy,” she said, slipping into her McCray slang, “I done brought you some of your favorite blueberry moonshine.” As Mary Beth spoke she pulled a mason jar of clear liquid from the brown bag she’d been carrying. “I’m gonna walk it down this here dirt road and bring it to ya. But first, I’m gonna take the lid off.”

Mary Beth screwed off the gold lid and tossed it aside, catching a whiff of ethanol so strong she felt a contact buzz just off the smell. “So, you be a good ole boy and don’t shoot me, cause if you do, I’m gonna spill all this good ‘shine—and that’d be a tragedy.”

***


Izzy watched Mary Beth in disbelief. “You’re gonna get your head blown off!” he yelled.

Mary Beth waved for him to be quiet. “I swear she won’t be happy until she gives me a heart attack,” Izzy muttered. Mary Beth was brave. There was no doubt about that. Some said she was fearless. But reckless, was the word that more often came to Izzy’s mind when he thought of his best friend.

“You’re not gonna shoot are ya, Uncle Jimmy?” he heard her say. “Cause this here shine sure smells good.”

Izzy peered through the trees up toward the cabin, trying to get a fix on the old man, but all he could make out was a shadowy form up on the porch. A few seconds went by. No shots.

“Okay, I’m comin’ up now,” Mary Beth said. “Just me, Uncle Jimmy. ” As Mary Beth said this she looked over at Izzy and nodded for him to get moving.

“Shit. Here we go.” Izzy hated the woods. If he came within a country mile of poison ivy he’d have a rash for weeks. He crawled out from behind the hickory stump and crouched as low as he could, making a wide sweeping maneuver to his right so he could safely flank the house without alerting the old man. But staying quiet wasn’t easy, there were so many damned twigs and pine cones hidden on the leaf-covered ground that kept cracking and snapping no matter how delicately he stepped.

Izzy was a good distance from Mary Beth now, watching her slowly walking down the dirt path but he caught her glaring in his direction, mouthing for him to, “shut the hell up.” Izzy stepped on another branch that made a loud crack. He closed his eyes and held his breath, waiting for the sound of a gunshot. None came. Instead, he heard Mary Beth start singing at the top of her lungs.

Country Roads—West Virginia’s unofficial state song, singing it loud enough to cover up the noise Izzy was making trying to trek through the woods and he swept farther and farther to his right, little twigs popping with nearly every step. He lost sight of Mary Beth just as she was hitting the line about the misty taste of moonshine.

As Izzy drew closer, he realized the cabin was a lot bigger than it looked from a distance, and it was no shack. Built from light brown logs with thick white mortar like vanilla frosting, he could tell it had been recently stained and was well maintained. Looked almost like a gingerbread house. Two stories. Had a brick, wrap-around porch on three sides and a large detached garage, separated from the house by about 20 yards. Izzy was coming up on the back of the house, making a beeline for the garage past an antique tractor on display, surrounded by fountain grass and planters full of posies.

The garage must be what Mary Beth had referred to as Uncle Jimmy’s barn. It was built of the same wood as the house and had double barn-style doors that swung out.

Izzy found it unlocked but a rusty hinge squeaked as he pulled on the heavy door. Izzy froze, training his ears on the front of the house to see if he’d been detected. He could hear Mary Beth still singing, the old man actually singing with her now, really getting into it.

Izzy opened the door just enough to wriggle inside. There he found not one truck but two. A little white Chevy S-10, the hood at Izzy’s eye-level, and a big black Ford F-150 that he’d need a good-sized step-stool to reach. Izzy wasn’t sure how much time there’d be to accomplish this little mission and took a guess that the big truck belonged to the old man. The little one was probably Raelynn’s.

Fortunately, the F-150 was unlocked, so popping the hood was no problem. Reaching it would be. Uncle Jimmy had a large, red, Craftsman tool chest in the corner that looked big enough. Izzy unlocked the wheels and rolled it close to the black truck, locked it in place, and after several failed tries, eventually climbed on top of it, using it as a step ladder to sprawl under the hood of the F-150. He located the blue distributor cap that housed the spark plugs but found it pretty well protected by some type of exhaust tube.

Izzy made a half-hearted effort to remove the tube, before he decided to change to a more expedient course. He fished a pair of snippers out of the tool chest and simply cut the wires leading into the distributor cap. It would be a lot harder to restore power to the truck that way, but it wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

After climbing down from the truck, Izzy rolled the tool box to the rear of the garage and noticed for the first time the two stickers on the rear bumper of the F-150. One read, REDNECK PRINCESS. The other, WARNING: MY BOOBS ARE BIGGER THAN MY BRAINS. Using his highly-trained powers of detection, Izzy guessed that the vehicle he’d just disabled belonged to Raelynn.

“Son of a bitch.”

Izzy went back to the door to see if he could hear Mary Beth. He couldn’t. The singing had stopped. He wasn’t sure what was going on out there or how much time he’d have. For all he knew, the old man could be headed this way

Izzy moved quick. He fished the snippers back out of the tool box and went to work on the S-10. It was a lot lower and easier to reach but he wasn’t going to waste time trying to neatly remove its distributor cap. Izzy found the wires leading into it and started cutting away.

He ‘d just closed the hood when he heard Mary Beth scream, “Uncle Jimmy! No!”

Then there was a gunshot. After that, Izzy heard what sounded like a woman in the distance, howling in pain. It was an awful, primal sound. Then there was another shot and the howling stopped.

***


Mary Beth was doing John Denver proud, singing Country Roads with all the gusto she could muster. The old man actually started singing with her as she got close, closing his eyes as he belted out the chorus, sawing back and forth in his white wooden rocking chair. She’d made it to within ten yards of the porch without getting shot by the time the song was over.

Mary Beth had remembered how much Uncle Jimmy loved Country Roads—used to line the kids up and make them sing it right before the head-standing competition at the family reunions. Piping it out, loud and proud, was the only thing she could think of to distract Uncle Jimmy from all the damn racket Izzy was making trying to creep through the woods. She’d lost sight of Izzy some time ago and didn’t know if he’d made it to the garage yet or not. Unless Uncle Jimmy asked for an encore, Izzy’d have to move a lot quieter or else he was likely to get shot.

“You got a good voice, Strawberry.” Uncle Jimmy was a wiry little thing, shorter than Mary Beth and probably didn’t weigh 140 pounds dripping wet. Had snow white hair slicked back like a greaser with too much pomade and wore black-framed, sixties style glasses, coke-bottle thick, that looked like they should come with a pocket protector.

“Thanks,” Mary Beth said. “You know you ought not shoot at people who are tryin’ to come visit ya, Uncle Jimmy.”

Uncle Jimmy shrugged. He had an old M40 rifle with a high-powered scope laid across his lap. “Those were just warning shots, Strawberry. If’ I’d wanted to hit ya, I’d a hit ya.”

“Well what a ya want a go scaring me for?” Mary Beth was turning on the little girl charm, syrupy sweet.

“I thought you’s with them.” Uncle Jimmy pointed his rifle toward the stand of evergreens in the distance.

The pit bull jerked at his chain, violently yanking his head around trying desperately to pull free of his collar.

“Say, Uncle Jimmy, does your dog bite?” she asked. Jimmy looked down at the mastiff as though just realizing he was there. “Nah, Two Dogs don’t bite,” he said. “Sit down Two Dogs! And shut up!” The dog complied, sitting next to Uncle Jimmy like a stone gargoyle.

Mary Beth looked around to see if there was another dog on the porch that she’d missed somehow. There wasn’t.

“Why do you call him Two Dogs?”

Uncle Jimmy looked at her like she was stupid. “Cause it’s his name, I reckon.” “Yeah, but why’d you name him that—seeing as there’s only one of him?”

“Cause there used to be two, but one got kilt, tusslin’ with black bear. After that I kept hollerin’ ‘Two Dogs’ and this one kept a comin’. So no need to change it. Your name’s whatever you answer to.”

Mary Beth, who was used to being called all manner of names and nicknames—Mary, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Beth, Mae B., MB, Sheriff, even Strawberry Shortcake—had to admit that made some sense. Uncle Jimmy had always been full of little nuggets of hillbilly wisdom like that. He could have gotten a job writing fortunes that they stuck inside something unique to West Virginia—pepperoni rolls, maybe, or the bottom of a moonshine jar—if there was such a thing.

“So how ‘bout that bottle of blue?”

“Right.” Mary Beth stepped timidly up on the porch, staying as far as she could from the dog and gave her uncle the jar. He wasted no time getting into it. Mary Beth let him. She took a seat in the empty rocking chair that backed up to the mountain side of the porch and gave Uncle Jimmy a few minutes of quiet sipping as they both enjoyed the view.

The whole time she was thinking about Izzy. How much time would he need to get the truck disabled? Quite a bit, she feared. Izzy wasn’t exactly mechanically inclined. Once in high school she’d had to show him how to check the oil in his grandmother’s El Camino. She’d better keep Uncle Jimmy talking.

A strong gust of wind came off the mountain and whipped around the porch. Mary Beth buttoned the top button of her coat, shivering from the cold and noticed Uncle Jimmy was just wearing a flannel shirt, no coat, but didn’t seem bothered by the elements. “Sweet Jesus, Uncle Jimmy, it’s colder than a mother-in-law’s love up here. Don’t you wanta put on a coat?””

Uncle Jimmy held the mason jar out to her. “Have a hoot. That’ll warm you up.” Mary Beth wanted to keep her wits about her and knew from long experience just how strong Colby’s shine could be. “I’ll pass,” she said.

Uncle Jimmy gave her a dead stare. “I said, have a hoot.”

Mary Beth took the jar tentatively, eyeing the fermented blueberries floating inside like dead bodies.

“Well what should we drink to?” she asked.

“Let’s drink to the Flash.”

The Flash, was a reference to Elwood Gray, a local folk hero. One of the first black men to ever play for McCray County High School after integration who led the team to back-to-back championships in ‘64 and ’65. But, unfortunately, the Flash had recently gone down in flames—literally. Wasn’t more than a fortnight ago he’d got drunk in his Mapelton apartment and fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand, setting his easy chair on fire.

“To the late, great, Elwood Gray,” Mary Beth said, and took a healthy sip from the jar. The liquor hit her instantly, burning down her chest and turning her cheeks red. She hacked a little from the overpowering taste.

Uncle Jimmy cackled. “God damn. That’s good ain’t it?” His teeth were yellow and sharp, much like the dog’s. Probably needed dentures if you could ever get him to a dentist.

“Sure is,” Mary Beth said in a hoarse voice, handing back the jar. Uncle Jimmy helped himself to a few more sips.

Her goal was just to keep talking, give Izzy all the time he needed to disable the truck, and keep Uncle Jimmy drinking for as long as she could. She figured if she could get him halfway through that jar, he’d have to go take a long alcohol-induced nap, and Raelynn could handle him from there. Just start mixing his meds in with his mashed potatoes and he should be fine.

“Raelynn, says you don’t want to take your medicine,” Mary Beth said.

“Raelynn,” he said with disgust. “She’s in it with ‘em.”

“With who?””

“All of ‘em. Them prospectors wanting to buy up everybody’s land for nothing, keep mining around, looking for clean coal. Clean coal. Dumbest damn thing I ever heard. Coal ain’t s’posed to be clean. If it’s clean, it ain’t coal!”

“Well, you need your medicine, Uncle Jimmy. Every time you stop taking it you get yourself in trouble. Remember a few years back I had to come up here and smooth things out for ya?”

Uncle Jimmy seemed to be grasping for the memory but not quite reaching it. “I don’t recollect,” he said.

“Remember Buck Davis?”

Uncle Jimmy scowled and ran his gnarled hands through his hair, fluffing out the feathers of his duck-ass hairdo. Mary Beth could see it coming back to him. It was then that he took note of the star on her hat. “That’s right. You’re the law ain’t ya? Over there in Jasper Creek?”

“That’s right,” Mary Beth said.

Uncle Jimmy had a plug chew crammed inside his lip and spat, leaving a trail of it running down his chin, clinging to his beard stubble. Mary Beth didn’t know how in the hell he could chew that stuff and drink at the same time.

“Can’t trust the law ‘round here,” he said. “They’re all in on it too.”

“In on what?”

“They work for the coal companies. Always have.”

Jimmy took another sip. He breathed real deep, enjoying the burn of that one. “They want me to take my medicine to numb me out. Keep me from takin’ care of my business.”

“What business is that, Uncle Jimmy?”

He gave her a hard stare. “Revenge, little girl. Revenge for the Flash. I know they kilt ‘em.”

Mary Beth didn’t like the mean look on Uncle Jimmy’s face. Not while he was gripping that rifle he’d kept from his Marine days. She tried to sound extra calm. “Now why would somebody wanta do that?”

Uncle Jimmy took a long drink and leaned back in his chair, looking at places far away. His eyes were already a little glassy and Mary Beth could tell the wheels of his damaged brain were starting to turn slower and slower.

“‘Cause Gray took a stand against ‘em see. Against big coal. Telling it like it is. Tried to block the strip mining and get some new businesses in here. Made all kinds of enemies. You say something bad against coal and folks around here are on you like stink on shit. They think coal is mother’s milk. But what they don’t realize is, the milk is poison.”

Mary Beth had heard a little about Elwood Gray’s opposition to a new strip mine in McCray. He had some pie in the sky idea about attracting green energy companies to come in and revitalize the area. Mary Beth had her doubts about that but didn’t think it was fair how some folks had labelled Gray a job killer.

“So, who is it you’re seeking revenge against? Who’s the bad guy?”

Uncle Jimmy wasn’t in a mood to let relevant questions like that get in the way of the delusion he was swimming in. “They!” he shouted. “Them!” He shook his head angrily. “I don’t know exactly who, but I’m gonna find out.”

Mary Beth knew she probably shouldn’t provoke Uncle Jimmy but she had some small hope she might be able to reason with him a bit. Get him to talk through what he was thinking and realize it wasn’t rational.

“The way I hear it, the Flash killed his self,” Mary Beth said.

Uncle Jimmy didn’t like that. “Uh, uh. Ain’t no way.”

“That’s what the paper said. They say he got drunk and fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and got burnt up.”

Uncle Jimmy slapped the arm of his rocking chair. “The man didn’t drink!” “How do you know that?”

“Cause I just saw him this past April. We was both ridin’ a car in the Easter parade and got to talkin’. He told me he gave up the drinkin’.”

“So, suppose he lied?”

“The Flash don’t lie.”

“Okay, so, suppose he was tellin’ the truth at the time, that he’d quit drinkin’ but then later he started up again.”

Uncle Jimmy squinted hard at her. A frightening expression formed on his face. She’d seen it once before. Back when she had to smooth things over for him after his incident with Buck Davis. It was his war face. In one quick motion, Uncle Jimmy raised up his rifle, pointing it in her direction.

Mary Beth barely had time to yell, “Uncle Jimmy! No!” before he pulled the trigger.

***


The sound was deafening from such close range. Mary Beth’s ears were ringing as she started to register the fact she was still alive. She heard some kind of terrible shrill howling noise that grew louder as her hearing recovered. Then Uncle Jimmy squeezed off another shot and Mary Beth turned her attention up on the ridge behind her, where she saw a dying bear curled around the base of a tree.

“We’re in the revenge business today, Two Dogs.” The dog looked up at Jimmy licking its lips, asking permission. “Go on Two Dogs,” he said, as he undid the leash. “Go and get you some revenge for what they did to your brother.”

***


“I thought the old man had shot you,” Izzy said, when Mary Beth finally returned to the clearing, thirty minutes after watching Two Dogs drag the big cat back to the house. “I came around the corner ready to fire and I see a crazy dog tearing that bear to pieces and you and your uncle up on the porch sipping moonshine like you were just watching TV or something.”

Mary Beth smiled. “Had to wait around until he finally fell asleep.” She turned to Raelynn. “Just slip his meds into his coffee whenever he gets up.”

She was thinking about what her Uncle Jimmy had said, wondering if the old coot might be onto something about the Flash. What if his death wasn’t what it appeared? What if the law in McCray was crooked? And Lord of Mercy what a mess that would be.

Mary Beth brushed past them, eyeing what was left of the shine, swirling it around the mason jar.

“Where are you going?” Izzy asked.

“After all that,” Mary Beth said, “I need a drink.”

Izzy looked down at his watch. “It’s 10 am.”

Mary Beth hollered back. “I know. It’s fixin’ to be one hell of a day.”


Russell W. Johnson is a North Carolina attorney who got so sick of billable hours he began writing crime fiction. His debut story, "Chung Ling Soo's Greatest Trick," won the Edgar Award's Robert L. Fish Memorial prize for best short story by a new author. Since then he’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the Claymore Award. More information at www.russellwjohnson.com .

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Heat, fiction by Shannon Hollinger

The smell of damp earth mingles with the sharp tang of oil, tickling her nose, and for a moment, Police Officer Penelope Holden wonders what she’s doing in the basement of her grandfather’s old farm house. She rises reluctantly from the memory, pulled by the nagging feeling that there is something important that she’s supposed to be doing. Then, in the blink of an eye, her eye, she’s back in the present, one quick instant of awareness before she moves and a sharp pain knifes through her head, clouding her thoughts and vision.

Holding still, breathing deeply, she looks around, taking in the hard dirt floor beneath her, dark stains of dampness spreading across the soil like hungry vines searching for prey, looping tendrils creeping from the edges of roughly cemented cinderblock. In the dim light she can just make out the exposed beams that cross overhead, the rickety staircase with no railing that leads up to the house above, the huge oil tank hunched in the corner. She might not be under her grandfather’s farmhouse, but she is in someone’s basement. Struggling to sit up, she finds her wrists and ankles are zip-tied. Duct tape stretches tightly over her mouth, pulling at her skin. Penelope rolls onto her back and rocks her torso up. Her body pulses with pain, an uncomfortably intense pressure threatening her bladder.

***


It was late afternoon when Penelope knocked on the door. She’d been canvasing the neighborhood all day, one house after another, hoping for any lead that might prove useful in furthering the investigation into the disappearance of Sammy Kohlner, a six-year-old boy who had gone missing from his family’s backyard that morning. The lead investigator thought the boy had probably wandered off and focused his efforts on organizing search teams to explore the nearby woods for any sign of the boy. The boy’s mother, though, had been adamant that he wouldn’t have left the yard by himself, and that he couldn’t possibly had gotten farther than she could see in the time the child was left alone.

They say that a second is all it takes, and it’s true. In the time it took Sammy’s mother to run inside and answer the phone, her son disappeared. “I wasn’t even gone a minute,” Penelope heard as she watched his mother sob. “I would have been back even sooner, but a motorcycle was driving by, and I couldn’t hear who was on the other end of the line until it passed.” By then it was too late. The boy was gone. And though her superior officer thought the child had wandered off, Penelope was struck by the conviction in the mother’s voice.

Perhaps someone had taken Sammy, snatching him from the yard the very second his mother went inside, the sounds of the abduction concealed by the din of a passing noisy motor. That tiny seed of what if had been enough to make Penelope volunteer for the door to door inquiry. She had no idea that doing so would lead to this, her bound and gagged, and from the feel of the tender bruises covering her body, tossed down the stairs to end up on the dirt floor of someone’s basement.

***


The door opened like the others before it. Penelope smiled at the woman, and though something inside her whispered danger as she took in the weathered face framed by gray hair, the stout, matronly body squeezed into a pair of too tight jeans, she kept her guard down, suspecting nothing. Her instincts cried wolf all the time, after all. When she went out on a rainy night to pick up some take out, or when the good-looking guy with the great smile standing behind her in line at the grocery store made eye contact. But, even as a police officer, Penelope had encountered little real danger in her life.

Perhaps, if she had considered how a less prepared driver may have responded when her wheels hydroplaned on the slick road, of if had she ever gotten the cute guy’s name and ran his record, discovered that he had a long history of domestic abuse, she would have realized that it was her instinct that kept her safe. Maybe she would have trusted her gut when it spoke to her, sweat pooling on her upper lip, beading at her temples as the red door swung open, revealing the husky woman.

Penelope introduced herself to the woman who opened the door. “Good afternoon, ma’am, I’m Officer Holden with the Waverly Police Department. I’m sorry to bother you today, but a little boy went missing down the street, and I’m checking with all of the neighbors, seeing if anyone saw anything, maybe a child walking alone, something that struck you as suspicious, anything out of the ordinary at all.”

Noticing a piece of mail that had fallen across the threshold onto the toe of her boot, dislodged from the mail slot when the door opened, Penelope bent to pick it up. Handing the letter over, her eyes darted from the name printed on the envelope, Dr. Lee Chin, to the picture of the Asian family on the hall table, finally meeting the gaze of the late middle-aged white woman standing before her. The woman tracked the path Penelope’s eyes had taken. Turning to look at the photograph behind her, a smile spread across her face as she turned back towards Penelope.

“I’m the nanny,” she said. “One of the children is actually in the bath right now, so . . .” she gestured with her head over her shoulder.

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry. I can stop back later,” Penelope said, taking a step back, unable to shake the feeling of unease that had settled over her shoulders like a heavy coat.

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want you to have to do that. No reason to go through all that trouble. Please, come in. I just need to keep an ear open. I can do that and talk at the same time.”

She stepped back, making a sweeping motion with her arm, indicating that Penelope should enter. Penelope snuck another glance at the photo as she passed, anxiety building with each step that carried her further into the house, worrying that she was wasting too much time, that each moment that passed allowed the missing boy to slip further from her grasp, but also something else, a worry whose source she couldn’t quite pinpoint.

Leaving the foyer, walking down the hall, it struck her, not like lightning, but as a subtle thought that slowly rose up, breaching the surface of her consciousness like a bubble. Both of the kids in that picture looked like teenagers. Why would they need a nanny? Or a bath?

The synapses in her brain fired, making connections, sorting through the jumble swirling inside her head, the daily juggle of what needed to be done that day, whether she had turned the coffee pot off, hope that the little boy would be found quickly and safely, wondering when would be the right time to approach her superior officer about entering the detective program and taking the exam, the discomfort of her pants’ button digging deeply into the soft flesh of her belly from the weight she’d recently gained. Reaching the living room, one thought broke through, and she had a single, glorious moment of clarity. Then a wave of pain crashed against her head, bringing with it a dark blanket that dropped, blocking from her vision the motorcycle parked incongruously on the living room rug and the little boy sitting in front of the TV.

***
A bead of sweat traces its way down Penelope’s cheek. Raising a shoulder to wipe at her face, she thinks she smells something burning. She draws a deep breath. She does smells smoke.

Penelope tilts her head to look up at the door. It looks hazy at the top of the stairs, but that could be from the lack of lighting. Is it her imagination, or is that a finger of smoke reaching out from beneath the door, beckoning to her like a waving hand?

A smoke alarm sounds from the house above, the high-pitched beeping echoing off the walls around her. Penelope tugs at her bonds, knowing that struggling against the zip ties is futile. Bending in half, she brings her wrists to her ankles, tugging her right shoelace out of the eyelets of her boot. When it’s half free, she pulls the lace through the zip tie between her wrists and puts the end in her mouth. Gripping the aglet firmly between her teeth, she saws the zip tie against the lace, the hard plastic biting deeply into the flesh of her wrists, her skin raw and burning. She pauses, inspecting the tiny trench eroded into her plastic bonds, then resumes her efforts, drawing her wrists up and down, back and forth, until the tie breaks, her arms flying wide with freedom.

She rips the tape from her mouth and undoes the lace the rest of the way from her boot, threading the cord between the zip tie and her ankles, grabbing the ends in each fist. A crash upstairs makes her flinch. Faintly, above the pounding of her heart, she thinks she can hear the crackling of fire. Her eyes water and burn. Sawing through the last of her bonds, Penelope rolls onto her knees and pushes herself to her feet, eying the door at the top of the stairs. Amber shadows flicker against the wall, like candlelight from a jack-o-lantern.

An engine thunders to life, the noise pitching to a roar then quickly fading. Late afternoon light seeps in around the edges of a bulkhead. The promise of fresh air propels Penelope forward. She moves unsteadily towards the bulkhead, her limbs stiff, back sore. Standing on the bottom step, she pushes against the heavy pressed-wood doors. They give a foot but do not open. Penelope peers through the gap, eyes studying the thick chain that prevents the doors from opening completely. Crouching, she climbs higher on the stairs until she is curled under the doors. Raising only one side up, she contorts herself, pushing her head through the gap. Squirming, she fights to get her shoulders through, her legs bracing hard against the wall, her torso squeezed and scraped, breath forced from her lungs as she slowly inches her way through the narrow space until she flops clumsily onto the ground, completely birthed from the basement.

She lies flat on her back, panting, inhaling greedily. Staring up at the sky, squinting against the still visible sun, Penelope realizes not much time has passed since she had knocked on the front door. She must not have been unconscious long.

Pushing into a sitting position, her vision clouds, each beat of her heart throbbing through her skull. She pauses, letting the pain subside. As the grey haze recedes to the edges of her sight, her eyes focus on the tire tracks etched into the soft soil of the yard beside her. She studies the ruts which lead across the yard, to the house, then back over the yard through the back gate, unable to determine which set was made when the bike arrived, and which when it left. Does it matter? She feels like it does.

Penelope struggles to her feet, stumbles, wary eyes watching the roils of black smoke swarming angrily behind the windows of the house. She needs to call this in. She needs to report the fire. Yet she finds herself drawn to the tire tracks, approaching the design that repeats back and forth across the yard, a pattern not unlike like a set of fingerprints. The deep, pristine impression of a freshly inked finger, the first finger pressed against the FD-258 card when she books a perp at the station, then a lighter imprint, like when she presses the entire hand all at once without re-inking. Only the difference in these markings aren’t due to ink transfer. The tracks were made by a motorcycle’s tires. They were formed by the weight pressing the bike down against the earth.

Penelope’s head snaps towards the house, adrenalin flushing hot beneath her skin. There’d been less weight on the back of the bike when one set of the tracks were made. The kidnapped boy was brought to the house on the bike. If his weight wasn’t on the bike when it left, then that meant . . .

Running to the house, Penelope peers through the window, but the dark smoke, like low-hanging storm clouds, blocks her view. She tries the handle on the back door, the knob twisting under her grasp. Shoving the door open, she’s smacked in the face by a wall of acrid smoke. Penelope drops to her hands and knees, eyes stinging, lungs burning as she coughs. “Sammy?” she chokes out, crawling forward into the inferno-like heat of the house. Her sweat-drenched skin prickles. The low growl of flames rustles in her ears, the noise grower louder as she continues forward, blinking rapidly against the heat and smoke, struggling for each breath. She feels herself weakening.

Panic wells inside her, every instinct in her body shouting for her to retreat. She can barely think above the noise–crackling flames, rasping gasps, gnashing teeth, frenzied thoughts. When she rounds the couch, and sees the shoe, she thinks she’s hallucinating. She is too late, has pressed too far, has sealed the fate for both herself and the boy by making the wrong decision. She should have called for help.

Sprawling on her belly across the carpet, she musters a small burst of energy and reaches for the tiny tennis shoe, an image of scuffed, dirty white leather with a red cartoon car across the side filling her brain as her eyes close. It must have been part of the description she had taken from the mother. Funny how your brain fills in details like that. Her fingers stretch to wrap around the phantom image. Penelope expects a fistful of air. When her hand clenches around something solid, she forces her eyes open, lids peeling back from the dried orbs with the resistance of Velcro. She squeezes. The shoe weakly tries to pull from her grasp.

“Sammy.” She feels the name leave her lips but can’t hear the sound. She strengthens her grip on the tiny foot, pushing herself forward with every ounce of strength she has. The panel on the bottom of the couch brushes across her cheek, rough material that smells like feet and dust. Penelope squeezes her face into the space under the couch, her lungs greedily drinking in the cooler, cleaner air. Her thoughts clear. Giving the small shoe clenched in her hand another squeeze, she’s shocked to feel a hot, damp hand wrap around her fingers. Releasing the foot, she takes the hand in hers. Drawing one last breath from under the couch, she reenters hell, smoke swirling, flames spitting, licking at the fabric of an armchair only feet away.

Her gaze settles on Sammy’s soot-stained face, sweat and tears streaking paths through the grime. She draws him towards her, pulling him under her, guiding him towards safety. Penelope feels like she’s being boiled alive as they slowly inch toward the door, Sammy crawling under her with his hands and feet bound. Something grazes her back and she yelps, fire searing through her uniform, the flame dying against her flesh. The skin on her back scalds and tingles, itching as it flares into blisters. She wants to give in, to collapse, but she can’t. They’re so close; she can smell the drafts of fresh air mingling with the smoke, feeding the fire.

Wrapping one arm under Sammy’s stomach, she crawls forward on three limbs until she feels the soft forgiveness of earth under her knees. She presses on, getting Sammy as far from the burning house as she can before flopping onto her back, letting the heat from her skin leech into the cool soil beneath her.

***


A weeping sound tunnels through the darkness, into Penelope’s head. The world beneath her jolts and she panics, tries to throw her arms out for balance, but she can’t. They are bound to her sides. Forcing the heavy drapery of her eyelids apart, she struggles to focus her vision.

“Ssh, Officer Holden, it’s all right.”

Following the sound of the voice, she finds herself looking into a pair of concerned blue eyes above her. “You have some second degree burns on your back, and we’re treating you for smoke inhalation. We’re going to take you to the hospital for further treatment.”

Eyes flying wide, Penelope searches the crowd of officials and curious neighbors gathered on the streets around her. “The boy?” Muffled words bounce off the oxygen mask strapped to her face.

“He’s just fine. In fact,” the eyes disappear from view and she feels the brake on the stretcher beneath her click down.

The back of Sammy’s head appears. He and his mother cling to each other. His mother holds an oxygen mask to his face with one hand, cradling him against her with the other. Penelope smiles towards the mother’s grateful face but is unable to take her eyes off Sammy. His arms wrapped tightly around his mother’s neck, his little black Nikes tucked snugly against her hips.

“His shoes,” Penelope croaks.

Sammy’s mom stops gushing gratitude at Penelope and glances down at her son’s feet.

“I thought they were white. With red cars.”

“I must have described the wrong shoes earlier,” she says, her head tilting to the side. “I’m sorry. I forgot he had these on. I forgot he even owned them I was so panicked, but you found him, Officer Holden, and I’m so truly grateful for everything you’ve done. Thank you.” Her voice breaks. The woman buries her face into her son’s neck, muffling a sob.

Stepping forward, the paramedic releases the brake on the stretcher and loads Penelope onto the ambulance. No one hears her say, “But I saw the shoes you described.”

The ambulance door slams shut and a familiar face looms into view. Detective Shaw takes a seat next to the gurney and gives Penelope a smile. “That was some good work today, Officer Holden.”

Penelope opens her mouth to speak, then stops herself. Had she really seen Sammy’s shoe in that burning house, or had she imagined it? Had she even found him? Or had he found her? Could she allow herself to take credit where it wasn’t due?

“Sir, I . . .” her voice trails off, not knowing how to describe what may or may not have happened inside the burning house.

Detective Shaw glances at the paramedic, busy inserting an IV into her arm. Lowering his head closer to Penelope’s, his voice low, Shaw asks, “Did something happen back there, in the fire? Something you can’t explain?”

Penelope blinks. Her eyes feel like they’re tearing up but are still beyond dry. She whispers, “Yes, sir.”

Leaning back, Detective Shaw clears his throat and says, “You’re a good cop, Holden. But what happened back there, whatever it was? That’s what’s going to make you a great cop. There’s no way to explain it. You’ve just got to go with it. That innate instinct, that gut feeling? Never doubt it.”

Thinking back over the events of the day, Penelope knows he is right. She nods, a small smile curving the edges of her chapped lips. Detective Shaw’s words don’t just allay her fears; they infuse her with an inner calm she’s never felt before. A feeling that comes from knowing that she’s on the right path. This is what she is meant to do. Officer Holden is who she is meant to be.


With degrees in Crime Scene Technology and Physical Anthropology, Shannon Hollinger hasn’t just seen the dark side of humanity–she’s been elbow deep inside of it! Her short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. To see where you can find more of her work, check out www.ShannonHollinger.com.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Midlife Crisis, fiction by Neva Bryan

The school bus rolled onto a road furred with oil and coal dust. It crawled along the spine of a mineral-stripped mountain before descending into the first of many dark hollows. Leather and lace leaves skittered in its wake, sailing across the hood of Mac McHenry’s car.

Mac gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. He was stuck behind the bus on a narrow road. The vehicle stopped often and started again with an arthritic lag, expelling children amidst blue clouds of exhaust. The kids looked happy.

Bet they wouldn’t smile if they saw the body in the back seat.

Not just a body.

My wife.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. Her red curls sprang out from beneath the quilt that he had thrown over her. Shelby’s wild hair was the first thing he had noticed about her the night they met.

That was a long time ago.

He cursed the bus driver and shifted in his seat. Beads of sweat rolled down his back. He tugged at his shirt, pulling it away from his damp skin.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”

The woman in the seat next to him stared through the windshield. “You’re kind of a hot mess.”

Bette was his girlfriend. She looked her age, twenty. Smooth skin. Shiny brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Blue eyes that didn’t crinkle at the corners.

She had been his student, a senior in last semester’s abnormal psychology class. He was an adjunct instructor at a small college in Kentucky. Mac was forty-five. In sunnier times he had joked that he was old enough to know better…too horny to care. It didn’t seem so funny now.

Mac could have screamed with joy when the bus turned down a side road. He pushed the accelerator and the car seemed to leap forward. He was glad to leave the school children behind.

Please God. No more delays. An acrid smell rose up from the car as he sped along back roads, ascending hills, descending into valleys. A few houses and trailers clung tenaciously to the steep slopes, most of them dilapidated, deserted, or covered with kudzu.

“We’re almost there.”

“Good.” Bette’s voice was steady, almost languid.

How can she be so calm?

Two hours ago he had called her to meet him, offering no explanation. They had agreed to meet in the parking lot of an abandoned church that was within walking distance of her house.

Bette had strolled across the weed-pocked pavement with her head bent over her smart phone. At his car, she had peered into the backseat window, then asked, “Is she asleep? Sick?” She had leaned close to him and whispered, “Dead?”

Her breath on his ear had made him tremble, as it always did. Not in pleasure this time, but in fear.

Mac trembled now, thinking about it. He turned the car up a deep rutted road. It bounced along the path as it curved through the woods that snaked along a high ridge. It skidded at a spot where a hard rain had washed out the road.

He spun the steering wheel to get back on course. Moments later he pulled onto a soft bed of pine needles and parked beside a ragged house.

Mac pulled his keys from the ignition and turned to look at Bette. Her usually porcelain skin was flushed now. Two bright spots of pink highlighted her cheeks. He realized she was excited by what they were about to do. Excited by what he had done.

He leaned over the seat to pull the quilt away from Shelby’s face. Her skin was pale as buttermilk, her lips blue. He touched her cheek. It was cool. Her hair was still damp from her bathwater.

He had drowned her in the tub.

He withdrew his hand and swiped at his eyes with his knuckles. Bette frowned at him, then climbed from the car. “Let’s get this over with.”

She didn’t wait for him to gather Shelby into his arms. By the time he got his dead wife out of the car, Bette had reached the front porch of the old house. He followed her fast, though his legs felt like the might crumple beneath him.

The front door was partially open, hanging crooked on its hinges, and it wouldn’t move when Bette pushed it. He laid the corpse at their feet, then set his shoulder against the door and shoved it hard. It flew inward. Mac hesitated, waiting for mice to scurry into the dark corners of the room. Sure enough, he heard them skitter across the floor. Once it grew quiet, he walked inside.

Dirty windows filtered the sun so that it cast a dark amber light across the room. A thick layer of dust covered every surface. Pale weeds reached up through cracks in the floor. He jumped when something shifted in the chimney.

“Birds,” Bette muttered. She put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the room. “So where is it? The thingamajig?”

“Cistern.” He swiped at a cobweb, then motioned for her to follow him. “In here.”

They stepped into what was once a kitchen. An old cast iron cook stove hulked at one end of the room, rust flaking its surface. The spot where the sink used to stand was empty but the outline of it on ancient linoleum was visible through the dust. Mac looked around, then pointed to a crude door cut into the wall. “There.”

He tugged at the door, wincing as it scraped the floor. When it opened, cool air wafted over them. The scent of it brought to mind pale fungi and other vegetation that thrived in darkness. He peered into the space but didn’t step through the doorway.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go down there. Granny was afraid I might fall into the cistern. I snuck down a few times, but she finally caught me and wore me out. Never went down there again.”

“How long has it been since anybody lived here?”

“I’d say thirty years, at least.” He took a deep breath. “We’d better hurry. I don’t want to be up here after dark.”

“You afraid of boogers and haints?” Bette’s voice was teasing …cruel.

“Bears,” he said.

Mac returned to the porch and retrieved Shelby’s body. He carried it to the door of the cistern room, then climbed down a set of nine rickety steps. He could feel them give a bit when he stepped on them.

Bette had set her cell phone on a half-rotten shelf near the door. Apparently she had engaged the flashlight app, for most of the shadows had fled the space. Mac lifted his chin at a thick wooden circle in the center of the room. “That’s the lid. Slide it back.”

Bette grabbed the lid and shoved it to the side. It tilted, but didn’t fall completely away. A large part of the hole was revealed. A current of dank air drifted upward from it.

Mac shoved the corpse into the cistern feet first. He expected it to splash. Instead it thumped, then made a squelching sound as it slid farther down. Bette grabbed her phone and illuminated the hole with it. It revealed a thick black muck. Only the back of Shelby’s head was visible, her bright curls in high contrast to the dark mud.

Mac slid the cover back over the hole and they hurried outside. When they climbed into the car, Bette threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard. Her tongue seemed like a tiny darting serpent trying to crawl between his lips. He shuddered, resisting the urge to wipe his mouth.

They drove off the ridge as dusk was softening the hard edges of the world.

“Look.” Smiling, she pointed toward the woods. “Lightning bugs!”

He was stunned by the childish delight in her voice.

***


Mac wrinkled his nose at the scent of grease. Bette had insisted that he take her to a drive-thru restaurant for fast food. She refused to go home.

Reluctantly he had taken her to his house. Now she sat on his couch, dipping her fries in ranch dressing while she watched a rerun of The Vampire Diaries.

The paper fry pouch, soaked with oil, was almost transparent. Mac moved it from the couch to the coffee table and swiped at a greasy spot it had left on the upholstery.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here,” he said.

She answered him without looking away from the flickering screen. “Why?”

“Tomorrow I’m going to call the police and tell them that Shelby is missing. You know they’ll take a hard look at my activities. The husband is always the first suspect. If anyone sees you going in or out of my house, there better be a damn good reason for it.”

“So tell them I needed to talk to you about an assignment.”

He glanced at his watch. “At ten-thirty at night?” He shook his head. “Besides, you’re not even taking a class right now.”

Bette shrugged as she sucked on a straw stuck in the lid of her Diet Coke. She picked up her phone and swiped the screen, then tossed it onto the couch. Looking up at him, she asked, “Why’d you do it?”

Mac opened his mouth, then closed it. I can’t explain it, he thought.

The act had been spontaneous, a moment of madness. Shelby had called him from the bedroom to hand her a towel. When he entered the room, he had caught a glimpse of her body, her life chronicled by a caesarian scar, stretch marks, sagging breasts. His own body hadn’t aged any better.

Resentment had filled him in that instant, as red and furious as a fast-moving fire. The very sight of her had confirmed the certainty of his own mortality. Without hesitation he had murdered her, the mother of his son. A son now grown and studying abroad halfway around the world.

He walked upstairs and stood in the doorway of the bathroom. The scent of Camay soap was still suspended in the damp air. Shelby never wore perfume, preferring the simple fragrance of the old-fashioned soap on her skin.

Mac moved into the room and perched on the side of the bathtub. The water in which he had drowned his wife of twenty years had grown cold. He let his fingers trail through it, then pulled the lever to drain it. He winced at the slurk sound the dregs made. It was too reminiscent of the sound her body had made when it sank into the cistern muck.

He grabbed a towel and used it to wipe water from the floor at the base of the tub. Shelby had kicked a lot as he held her under the water. He dropped a sopping wet towel into a hamper, thankful it had been a bloodless murder.

When he turned, he found Bette standing in the doorway. She was using both hands to twist the ends of her ponytail.

She used to do it in his class. She would pull her hair to one side so that it draped across her shoulder, then twist it and release it.

Twist and release.

Twist.

Release.


In the classroom he had found it beguiling. Now he realized it was an affectation, a tool she used to draw the male gaze. Suddenly he felt old and stupid.

Bette sauntered over to the bathtub and flipped the lever so that it would hold water. She turned the handle for hot, then for cold, and waited for the tub to fill. After a quick glance around the room, she grabbed a bottle of bubble bath and squirted some into the water.

Mac stared as white, slightly iridescent bubbles multiplied on the water’s surface. When they formed airy mounds, Bette removed her jeans and t-shirt. She didn’t have on panties or a bra. She never wore underwear. That was the first thing he had noticed about her the day they met.

She stepped into the tub and sank slowly into the bubbles, Venus in reverse.

He moved across the room and stood over her. She lay with her eyes closed, her head resting against the porcelain. Her mouth turned up slightly at the corners, as if she found the whole situation slightly amusing.

“How’d you do it?”

Her question startled him.

“Do what?”

“Drown her. How did you actually do it?”

She opened her eyes. Her pupils were enlarged, so much so that her blue eyes looked wholly black. Mac found the sight disturbing.

“Why would you ask me that?”

“I’m curious.”

He held up his hands and made a choking motion. “Held her under the water,” he whispered.

Bette scooped a cloud of bubbles between both her hands and blew on them. They flew through the air and spattered Mac’s pants. The girl giggled.

Bile rose up in his throat. He swallowed hard, then fled the bathroom.

Downstairs he flopped onto the sofa and stared sightlessly at the television screen. He slid his hands flat across the couch cushion. Its rough fabric felt soothing. His fingers touched Bette’s phone.

Mac picked it up and examined its black silicone case. Bette had painted white skulls and red flowers on the back of it. Shaking his head, he turned it over and swiped the screen.

Her Facebook page was filled with selfies in lewd poses and in various states of undress. Most of her friends were male and many of her posts were direct messages to boys and men. The majority of them were crude. Sighing, he swiped out of her feed and peeked at the phone’s search history.

Some of her website visits were typical of what one would expect from a young woman her age: celebrity news, beauty tips, funny memes. However, she seemed to regularly visit darker sites.

These websites featured graphic horror stories, art, and movies. Others were dedicated to true crime. He was shocked to discover that she had posted on discussion boards for torture enthusiasts.

There she had shared her original fiction. The stories appalled him. After reading one in its entirety, he gagged and threw the phone across the room. It landed on the floor, its screen cracked.

Mac wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He gazed at his knees for a long moment, then stood and trudged up the stairs. In the bathroom doorway, he paused to watch Bette soak in the tub. She was paddling her feet in the water, humming a tune unfamiliar to him.

He walked over to her and sat on the edge of the tub. She smiled at Mac and playfully splashed water at him. He chuckled. When he leaned over her, she turned her head to offer him her cheek to kiss.

Instead, he wrapped his fingers around her neck and squeezed it with all his strength. He pushed downward as he did so, so that her face was underwater. You wanted to know, he thought. Here’s how.

She fought her death longer than Shelby did, perhaps because she was younger and stronger, but her attempts were as futile as his wife’s. When he was certain Bette was dead, Mac released her. Her eyes were blue again, wide open, surprised.

Shelby’s death had disturbed him, but he felt oddly satisfied by Bette’s, as if he had done the world a favor.

Mac shook water from his fingertips, then wiped his hands and arms against his pants. Pulling a keyring from his pocket, he thought, I better get that quilt from the back seat of the car.

“I’m going to need it one more time.”

***


The drive to his grandmother’s house was in total darkness. He didn’t feel the panic that had threatened to overwhelm him earlier in the day. There were few cars on the road. No school buses lumbered along the curves to delay his trip.

Mac pulled his car close to the old house. He had grabbed a flashlight from a kitchen drawer before putting Bette’s body in the car. Now he flicked it on and laid it on top of the girl before pulling her from the back seat. The light bobbed up and down as he walked with the corpse, but it was sufficient to keep him from tripping in the dark.

Inside the house, he could see signs of their previous visit: footprints jumbled in the dust. He staggered across the space and laid Bette’s body on the floor of the kitchen. The flashlight dropped off her corpse and rolled across the room, highlighting cobwebs and bird nests in a whirl of illumination. Something larger than a mouse scuttled in a corner.

Probably a raccoon or a possum.

Mac ached all over, but especially in his arms. The muscles of his forearms burned from the strain of strangulation and heavy lifting. He massaged them while he rested.

When he was done, he retrieved the flashlight, grimacing at the aged grime that now coated its handle. He set it back on Bette’s body, heaved her into his arms, and started down the stairs into the cistern room.

The steps creaked, louder than before. He hurried to the bottom and half-dropped the corpse onto the floor. The flashlight fell again. Light shined on Bette’s face, turning the curves and hollows of it into a grotesque mask. It reminded him of his childhood, when his older brother held a flashlight beneath his chin while he told Mac scary stories.

Shuddering, he grabbed the light and set it on the shelf Bette had used earlier. He slid the cover from the cistern and peered into it. Shelby had disappeared completely into the thick muck.

Good.

He lifted Bette by placing his hands in her armpits. They were damp. Grunting, he dragged her to the opening and shoved her into it. The body fell head first and sank as slowly as Shelby’s had. Its descent was accompanied by a disgusting squelching sound, like the slurk that had occurred during the first disposal. After a few minutes, only the pale soles of her feet were visible.

Mac replaced the cover of the cistern, then sat on the bottom step to catch his breath. He hadn’t realized until this moment that his heart was hammering his rib cage hard enough to break bone.

That’s not possible, but it sure feels like it. He massaged his sore arms again. They hurt more than before, the pain radiating upward into his shoulders and down his back.

I should have used that gym membership Shelby bought me last year. Didn’t realize I was so out of shape.

The room began to spin. Mac clutched the stair post, nauseated by his sudden dizziness. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. The spinning had ended.

Using the post as a crutch, he stood. He shuffled to the shelf and reached for his flashlight. When he did, the ache in his shoulders and back became unbearable. Mac cried out and dropped to the floor, where he curled up, his only defense against the pain.

The shadows in the room stretched toward him. He thought the batteries in the flashlight must be dying, but when he lifted his head to look at it, the beam was bright.

The batteries aren’t dying.

I am.

Mac groaned.

If he had been able to, he would have laughed at his own folly.

You can’t forestall death.

The shadows gathered close around him. His vision narrowed to a pinprick.


Fifty of Neva Bryan’s short stories, poems, and essays are published (or soon-to-be published) in literary journals, online magazines, and anthologies, including Shotgun Honey, Weirdbook Magazine, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. She is a contributor to the 2018 Anthology of Appalachian Writers and the anthology We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Neva lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and their two dogs.