Monday, April 12, 2021

California Dreamin': Reckless, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, reviewed by Anthony Perconti


  • Image Comics
  • December 22, 2020
  • 144 pages
  • ISBN-101534318518
  • ISBN-13978-1534318519
  • Price: $14.95


The creative duo of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have worked  together for several decades, amsssing a robust body of work:, most of it with an emphasis on crime stories. Early works such as Sleeper and Incognito explored the supervillain underworld through the standpoint of active participants therein, while The Fadeout focused on the James Ellroy-tinged milieu of Golden Age Hollywood. The duo’s longest running collaboration, Criminal, follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the Lawless clan.. Brubaker and Phillips excel at chronicling the trials and tribulations of their hard luck, morally-compromised protagonists, while making the reader empathize with them. During the COVID-19  pandemic lockdown of 2020, this creative team shifted  from producing monthly ‘floppies’ to more sustainable, self-contained graphic albums, as exemplified by the European comics industry. Pulp was their first offering in this new format, followed at the end of the year by the debut of Reckless. Reckless is their first foray into a series character crafted in the tradition of the Men’s Adventure novel subgenre, that was ubiquitous on bus station and drugstore wire spinner racks several decades ago. As Brubaker states in his afterword: “And for years, I wanted to do something along those lines in comics, our version of that kind of series paperback “hero”  Reckless pays homage to such characters as Parker and Travis McGee, all the while adding some nuanced flourishes to the genre as well. Reckless is pulp fiction written for the Robert Stone crowd. 

Reckless takes place in Los Angeles in 1981. If you have a problem and cannot go to the legal authorities, you can call a certain 1-800 number.. If the party takes an interest in your message, for a fee, they can provide assistance. This is Ethan Reckless’ business model--he is the person you contact for extralegal  discreet help.  Reckless works out of a shuttered movie theater, his base of operations, El Ricardo.  Brubaker paints a compelling backstory for Reckless. In the early 1970’s, he was nearly killed in a bomb blast that was orchestrated by  fellow leftist revolutionaries (think the Weather Underground). Although he escaped with his life, he did not come out of the explosion unscathed. Ethan has lost some of his memories just prior to and directly after the blast. He is also suffering from a subtle form of traumatic brain injury, in which all of his emotions are distant from him. Cognitively, he can remember events and emotional situations, but at this stage of his life he cannot feel them anymore-he is self-described as ‘flat’. The only time in which he receives an emotional jolt is when he feels anger and even that is a rarity. As a byproduct of his condition, Ethan is also a chronic insomniac-he self-medicates in order to get some rest.

When his assistant, Anna drops a new case in his lap, concerning a woman looking for a man named Donovan Rush, Ethan’s past comes roaring back.. Rush was Ethan’s alias back in his revolutionary days. It turns out that the woman looking for him is Rainy Livingston, Ethan’s first love (and fellow revolutionary). Rainy has been on the run from the authorities for nearly a decade, moving around from place to place and utilizing various aliases. Rainy reveals to Ethan that she needs help in procuring her share of a Kansas City bank heist, to the tune of one hundred thousand dollars. Rainy plans on using the funds to leave the country for good, so she can start over, free from being hunted. Ethan agrees to help (naturally) and sets off on the trail of Lloyd Wilder, the double-crossing bad man of the piece. Ethan’s quest takes him from Los Angeles, upstate into the Eel Valley Reservation Casino. Along the way, as these things go in hardboiled crime fiction, Ethan is lied to, roughed up by heavies and generally dissuaded from  sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. For the sake of transparency, let me come clean- I am being intentionally vague when it comes to the specific plot points and beats of Reckless. Brubaker is a master craftsman when it comes to writing stories in the hardboiled genre. There are a variety of sneaky twists and turns that Brubaker employs in throwing the reader (and even Ethan) off track. To give more away would ruin the reading pleasure derived from this graphic album. Suffice it to say that you can never truly outrun your past and still waters run deep (sometimes, murderously so).

Aiding and abetting Ed Brubaker as usual, is Sean Phillips. Phillips is the ideal illustrator for this graphic album. His photorealistic style complements Brubaker’s plot perfectly: his depictions of the various characters, the environs of Los Angeles and the rural landscapes of northern California lends this project a level of verisimilitude second to none. Jacob Phillips’ colors are a complementary addition to his father’s line work: the hues are all mellow greens, oranges and yellows. You can practically imagine this ‘film’ playing out in your head, starring Robert Redford during his Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid or Jeremiah Johnson days, directed by Terrence Malick or Michael Cimino at their  prime.

What sets Reckless apart from the larger paperback “hero” genre in my view, has to do with the depth of storytelling. In the character of Ethan Reckless, Brubaker portrays an individual that is emotionally distant, absolutely comfortable with violence and yet at his core, is trying to be a good human being: his services do not necessarily go out to the highest bidder. Reckless is a tarnished knight errant: a man who uses his skill set to help others in need. “So, I figure if we’re all doomed…if we’re all suffering…then why not try to help people? Make someone else’s life a little better, even just for a few days.” A fatalistic, yet romantic outsider character, in the vein of Thomas Pynchon’s Doc Sportello, by way of Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer. Reckless is also a thoughtful meditation on the failed dreams and aspirations of America (or perhaps, the American left), during the Vietnam Era. An era in which political violence was de rigueur, where agents of social change were either arrested, co-opted or killed. An era that was synonymous with COINTELPRO and the (supposed) extralegal mechanizations of The Company on American soil. California surfer pulp noir, with brains and a ton of heart.


Brubaker and Phillips have created something special with Reckless. If you are a fan of intelligent storytelling, damaged protagonists with complicated pasts, evocative art or just good old fashioned pulp fiction (with a little extra food for thought), do not hesitate in picking this volume up. This opening salvo sets up the character, his motivations and mission and his supporting cast perfectly. I eagerly await the release of A Friend of the Devil, slated to ship in spring of 2021.

Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums.  His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Sugar, fiction by S.A. Cosby

My phone vibrated so hard it fell off the night stand. I rolled over and let my arm slide from around Mara’s waist. Cursing, I reached blindly for the phone. When I finally felt the slick hard plastic rectangle, I realized it wasn’t my work phone. That one has a heavy-duty rubber case on the off chance I drop it when I’m climbing out of my tow truck. It was my personal phone that was currently dancing across the floor. 

I picked it up and stared at the glowing name on the screen. 

Sugar. 

“Fuck.” I whispered. Mara let out a soft groan then turned over on her belly. I knew she’d let out a hellacious fart in about five seconds. It’s funny the things you learn when lust turns to love and you find yourself with the same person for ten years, the last five spent as husband and wife. 

I touched the screen. 

“It’s three  in the morning. “ I said. 

“Hey brother. Glad to see you can still tell time. I’m in a little bit of a situation here. I was wondering if I could get you to come pull me out of the swamp. I ran off the road near the West River bridge,” Sugar said. His deep radio DJ voice slithered over the airwaves like a snake coated in honey.
 
I didn’t respond. Not at first. 

My brother’s given name is Samuel but my Mama called him Sugar Son because she said he was her miracle baby and he was just so damn sweet.  Born eight years after me. Eight years after the doctor told her she couldn’t have any more children. Her miracle boy. The sweetest little boy who ever lived. And just like overripe fruit he spoiled quick as a hiccup. 

I was just a regular baby. Nothing special about me. 

“You always in a situation Sugar.” I said finally. Now it was his turn to be quiet. If his rage was a fire I could have seen the first plumes of smoke. 

“I’m in a bind here man. And you just happen to have a fucking tow truck. You can’t help your brother?  Mama always said we supposed to look out for each other. “ Sugar said. 
Our mama did indeed say that. But anybody worth asking would have told you that road only went one way. But he was my brother. 

Anyway, the sooner I got him out the weeds the sooner he could disappear again. 

I got up , kissed Mara on the forehead and climbed in my tow truck. I turned onto Rt .624 and headed for West End River bridge. The “river” was more like a deep-ass creek and the bridge was only twenty feet long. Just a little concrete spit of a thing to get you from one side of the creek to other. It was so narrow two cars couldn’t pass on it. If you saw  somebody coming you gotta pull over and let them go by. If you’re  inclined to be nice. My brother Sugar never pulled over. 

My Mama saw things in Sugar that weren’t there. Illusions and hallucinations that she embraced instead of seeing him for who he really was. Sugar wasn’t the kind of kid to pull the wings off of flies. He was the kind of kid that would collect grasshoppers in a coffee can then put the can over a fire and watch them try to hop out. 

Then crush the ones that escaped. 

My Mama might have seen him as an angel but our Daddy knew he had a devil in him and a hornet’s nest where his heart was supposed to be. Mama coddled him. In my mama’s eyes  Sugar could do no wrong. Every girl who said he beat her had lied on him and ever boy who he whupped was jealous of him.  The funny thing was the boys probably were jealous of him. As we both grew he got more and more handsome on the outside even as he got more and more rancid on the inside. Sugar never picked up a dumbbell in his whole life but he had a six pack when he was fifteen. He was the best of my mama’s café au lait Indian and black family tree and my daddy’s ebony nightshade Virginia country DNA.
 
I turned down Stamper’s Creek Rd. Red Hill was a small county that rolled up the sidewalks in town when it got dark. This time of night in this part of the county the only people I encountered on the road were ghosts. 

My daddy didn’t let Sugar slide one inch because our mama had already him a mile. As Sugar got bigger and Daddy older they seemed to circle around each other like two rabid lions. 

When I was around 25 and Sugar was 17 he got mad because Mama didn’t have enough money to pay for his prom tux and Daddy wouldn’t give him the rest because he had just bailed him out of the jail the week before for trying to burn down Linwood Lester’s shed. Why had Sugar tried to burn down the shed?  Same reason he did most things. Because he wanted to. I was living in a trailer with Mara by then out near the soon to be closed ice plant. So I wasn’t there to see what happened but from what little Mama told me Sugar had gotten that look and when she said no again with tears in her eyes , that she just didn’t have the money and Daddy wasn’t gonna ask for an advance from his boss at the paper mill Sugar backhanded her so hard it sound like a rifle shot. 

When Mama told me the story she swore it was an accident. 

Right. 

Daddy got up from the table where he was eating his dinner . He went to the closet and pulled out an axe handle. A good hickory handle he said he was gonna fix with a new axe head one day, and proceeded to beat the everlovin shit out of Sugar. He kicked him out and told him don’t ever come back. 

Two weeks later my Daddy got locked in his work shed behind the house with a beehive the size of a basketball. My daddy was deathly allergic to bees. 

I’d been in that shed a week earlier and I hadn’t seen no hive but my mama swore on a stack of bibles ten feet tall that she had asked my Daddy to get rid of the bee hive weeks earlier.
 
Sugar faded for awhile after that. I didn’t see him for four years. You know how water takes the shape of whatever you pour it in? Sugar’s like that. He just twist himself into whatever shape suits him best. The next time I saw him he was driving an Escalade and working for Luther Barnes out of Norfolk. 

“What you do for him?” I asked him once. 

“I’m a garbage man.” He said flashing me a pearl-white smile. I figured he’d finally found a use for that wicked storm that live inside him. Whenever I saw a murder on the news that was suspected of being drug-related out in the city that was especially horrific or brutal I always thought of Sugar and them grasshoppers.

My headlights illuminated him like some ethereal being as I came down to where the road narrows at West End river bridge.  An old big body Bonneville, banana-yellow, had slid off the side the road. The front and rear passenger tires were up to the middle of their hubcaps in the muck. I stopped the truck and killed the engine. 

When I climbed out Sugar came strutting on over and gave me a hug. It felt like something he thought he should do not something he wanted to do. 

“Johnny Boy. You a life saver, brother. “
 
“Hey Sugar. “ I said. I was taller than him but he was still built like an African god cut from obsidian with light greenish eyes that shined like chips of peridot. 

“What you doing in town?” I asked.  He smiled at me. It made my belly feel like a mouse had run across it. He didn’t speak for a long time.

“How long you think it’s gonna take to get me out?” he said finally. 

I latched a hook on the frame of the Bonneville just behind the rear bumper. As I worked the winch, Sugar played with his phone. The Bonneville was a big old piece of American muscle. Despite the mud and sludge, I could see it had been well-cared for. It was heavy as hell so I pushed the hydraulic switch a little harder than I intended. The car lurched out of the mud like a demon released from the Pit. The rear wheels came up then slammed back down on the asphalt. 

The trunk popped open but the car was free. I started for it to unlatch the hook but Sugar cut me off.
 
“Let me  close the trunk, “ he said. The look was there in his eyes. It wasn’t  evil or scary. It was the absence of. . . anything. A blankness that seemed to stare through you. 
But I’d seen. I’d seen what was in the trunk.
 
A blue tarp wrapped around two forms. One had a large pair of brown Timberland boots on their feet.
 
The other form was smaller. The feet were tiny, clad in sneakers. Pink sneakers with a floral print. The light in the trunk was painfully bright.
 
“Why are you in town? Who the fuck is that,  Sugar?” I said. 

“You don’t wanna know. In fact, you gonna forget this. All of it. “ he said. He stepped closer to me and I could almost smell the crazy coming off of him like the stench of a dog that’s crawled under the porch to die. 

“I don’t wanna come see you and Mara one night Johnny Boy.” He said and I know without a shadow of a doubt he meant every word he was saying. I took a deep breath. 

“Close the trunk and unlatch the hook.”  I said finally. He went over to the car and slammed the trunk down. He dropped to his knees to undo the hook. 

I grabbed a yellow tie-down strap off the back of my truck. The strap itself wasn’t very wide. About the width of a ruler you used in school, but they were  unbelievably strong. 
Sugar unlatched the hook but before he could stand up to his full height I looped the strap around his neck and pulled it tight. He tried to buck loose but I fell back against the blacktop and pulled it the strap even tighter. He scratched at my hands but my oil-stained work gloves gave him no purchase. He kicked his feet and scuffed his Gucci loafers against the road.

I closed my eyes and saw my Daddy’s face float up out the darkness. 

I thought of him in that shed as the opening in his throat winnowed down to the size of the eye of a needle. 

I thought of that man in the trunk and what he must have felt watching Sugar do whatever it was he’d done to his daughter because I sure as shit knew he did her first. 

I held on until I he stopped kicking. Then I held on a little while longer. 

I popped the trunk and put Sugar inside on top of the tarp. I shut it, hooked it up to my truck and drove to Burkes Mill Pond. I pushed the car down the embankment. I watched it sink until the bubbles stopped breaking the surface. Burkes Mill Pond is really an empty quarry. People say no one really knows how far it is to the bottom. 

I hope it’s deep as they say. 

God let it be deep. 


S.A. Cosby is the award-winning author of BLACKTOP WASTELAND and the upcoming RAZORBLADE TEARS.

He resides in southeastern Virginia.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Revise and Resubmit, fiction by Nick Mamatas

1. You find HTML difficult to learn, and you don’t trust those various blog platforms. There are still the old ways—the weapons of the X-ACTO knife and mimeograph. The truth must get out. 

Here is the truth as you recall it. The subways used to be clean. When a man felt the call of nature, he could use the restroom right on the platform. It would be clean, well appointed with liquid hand soap—clear, not pink!—and TP rolls cut to industrial standard. It wasn’t even the blacks who ruined the public bathrooms with their lack of care for the commons, their desperation to sell copper pipes and chrome taps for drug money, it was the homosexuals. They just had to suck one another, bugger one another, all hours of the day and night. Evacuation is a revolting enough activity under the best circumstances, but the mouth meeting the penis, the penis meeting the anus, the anus meeting the mouth, the anus meeting the penis, like filthy Tinkertoys…

Now even the white man has to hold it, or piss himself, or somehow find a quiet moment behind a concrete pillar on the subway platform, just like any savage.  No shopkeeper or restaurateur is kind enough to do a well-dressed, perfectly groomed, white man the favor of letting him use the facilities without a purchase. Your grandmother worked in a coffee shop when you were young. She’d let people use the restroom; she’d offer a first free cup of coffee after midnight to the late custom. Her Jew boss would have surely complained had he wasn’t already abed with his obese wife likely clammy from Lord knows what exertions, but what the Jew didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. She wanted to be alone at night with men sitting at her counter. It made her feel safe to be surrounded by white men.


2. You aren’t the man you used to be, and not only because the Jew took your job and drained your bank account of the precious funds your father and mother left you when they passed. You’ve lost a step. Your peripheral vision is collapsing into a dark tunnel. The pamphlet is ready, but you dare not hand it out on the streets. For every interested person you make contact with, there might a Jew or black who can somehow “pass”, despite the years you spend studying the science of racial realism. Plus, those black-masked terrorists with their homemade weapons and swarming numbers are just a text away. Jobless children supported by the miracle of compound interest, with nothing better to do with their lives than assault others for their opinions in the hope of “going viral”, whatever that is.

They’re already a disease.

You dare not publicly solicit, so instead you once again use the old methods. Wheatpaste and a bucket, late at night, when the traffic lights give orders to streets empty of traffic, when the diners are closed, when you can piss down a flight to steps to the subway station without audience or embarrassment.  Wheatpasting is really an endeavor designed for two, but you are at the moment of a movement of one. You have comrades, but they’re all far off in other cities, and you communicate entirely via a circle of round-robin correspondence, and then in code. The Jew owns the internet, but more than a few of your comrades work for the Postal Service. They revealed long ago the trick to free letters—just put the address you’re mailing to as the return address, and your own address as the destination. Leave off the stamp. The letter will be “returned to sender” every time. If the government insists blindly on treating everyone as equal, take advantage of the blind spots.

It’s a long night, but the streets seem longer, and it’s a challenge to hold the folder containing your leaflets by pinching it between your left arm and ribs, the bucket handle hanging from your elbow, as you brush the paste onto a lamppost with your right. Then you must gently put the brush back in the bucket in such a way as it doesn’t fall into the mush, slide a leaflet out of the folder without ripping the paper or dropping the folder, and plaster it up without getting your hands sticky, or glue under your finger nails. A block’s worth of available pasting space takes twenty minutes. Your arm cramps as the folder grows thinner and you have to keep your muscles tensed. For the white race you’re doing this, for your white children and for the two of your grandchildren who are white. Little Cicero, well…

It’s nearly three o’clock in the morning when you arrive home. Do people even call this hour three o’clock in the morning anymore? Three AM seems to be the fashion. Everyone is like a machine these days.


3. Waiting is the hardest part. Possible contacts are often the last to call the number on the leaflet. It’s not even pranks, vulgar children, and threats that fill your answering machine. It’s journalists, the maggots. Always wanting a quote, offering a coffee, even wondering if they could visit “headquarters”—you can tell from their tone that they already know that White Political Allegiance is headquartered out of your three-room railroad apartment. Wouldn’t it be a laugh, to show the man who wishes to lead the Master Race sitting in his boxer shorts on a stained old reclining chair positioned right before his television set? Then come the hysterics screaming “Nazi!”, which just showed that they only skimmed the leaflet—you’re a race realist libertarian. Monkeys don’t have markets! Then the punks with their threats and challenges, which they wouldn’t dare make if this godforsaken chocolate city allowed for concealed carry.

It takes weeks for your co-thinkers to reach out. You’ve learned not to grow upset when your handiwork is ruined, when the contact information at the bottom of your leaflets are scraped away. It’s these men, and twice even women, who do it. They need to meet you, but these exemplars of the West and the Race aren’t quite so courageous as they should be.

Truth be told, even those who reach out to you rarely do much more than accept the reading list you proffer them over coffee. It’s your fault, truly. The logo, the rhetoric, it all hints at a large worldwide movement to reclaim the world, to cleanse it. There are perhaps forty of you, and you are one of three men in this city. Who wouldn’t be disappointed to find that the future of white children and families depends on a handful of old men who have been crushed under the weight of Marxist oppression and horrific black violence?

You’ve grown used to disappointment.


4. You vote in every election, from President down to county coroner and school board, though with the school you often find yourself just spoiling a ballot. Nothing but a list of names such as Martinez, Washington, Ho, McDonald… You haven't met a white Washington or McDonald in this city in a very long time. Voting is like flossing—mandatory but it never seems to help with bleeding gums.

Then one day there is a candidate seemingly worth voting for, and not just for county committee of the Republican Party, or local sheriff. You’re not as enthusiastic as the race-denier right, not a sucker for his glad-handing and simple slogans, but the man is a wedge. He says what Presidential candidates must not say, and he does it without apology. And what he says shifts the Overton window. People are talking about whiteness again, and without hissing the end of the word as though the very notion were a curse. 

But what did it mean for you, old soldier in the race war? Your PO Box was filled with crudely drawn cartoons of pink-haired girls and sad frogs, and these were gifts from the people…children? simpletons?...purportedly on your side? More journalists to ignore, but a few public gatherings to attend. One young fellow who had the backing of family money and the genetic advantages of perfect Aryan physiognomy greeted you warmly at an event, and turned to talk into the smartphone of a comrade to introduce you to the internet. Your early writings inspired him, he said. He misquoted you, but only slightly.  Your actual famous phrase, the one that has become a meme, is There is no one else who will fight for us. We must fight together, for the future of the worldwide white race. He put it, “If we’re to have a future, we must, the worldwide white race, fight together.” No wonder he stammered twice. And you just had to stand there, unsure whether to offer an avuncular smile or a stoic and determined frown.

Ultimately, you grimaced.


5. You wonder now, why bother? We’re much alike, you and I. We’ve both been fighting for our causes, diametrically opposed as they are, for decades, in the old way. Steady leafleting, pamphlets, the creation and cultivation of small yet flexible affinity groups. Always an arm’s length from violence and street battles, though always armed and ready if “it goes down” as the kids these days say it. Yes, that probably is a borrowed phrase from African-American vernacular. I can see that grimace again, despite the sack over your head.

How right am I? I give myself a solid A-. Perhaps I’ve made a few assumptions, trafficked in cliché a tiny bit. Perhaps you once had a wife who supports your politics, or a common-law husband who doesn’t. You wouldn’t be the first fascist to be caught up in the ironies of masculinities, social progress, and the law. Champion the Aryan physique, declare the woman inferior and undomesticated, you’ll find that some of your comrades have joined the movement for access to lonely men.

Not a twitch, despite the ties binding you to your chair being fairly loose. Stoic or just uninterested in my theories? It hardly matters. What matters is this. You don’t count, not any more than I count. Nobody reads my pamphlets either, my presentations on post-state post-kyriachy futures at various anarchist gatherings and socialist fora are as poorly attended as your funhouse mirror versions of the same, and like you I was never much of a brawler. I have over one hundred students per semester, and almost none of them ever do the assigned reading, much less comprehend it. I’m as poor a revolutionary as you are a race warrior.

What I am good at is demographic divination. My masters degrees in sociology and English are good for something beyond teaching rhetoric and composition at the community college. I spotted you. You’re hardly the only older white man to skulk around on the periphery of the meetings we hold on campus—even an adjunct can reserve a room in the evenings—to ask questions at the end of a panel that mean nothing more than “But why not consider that which you have already rejected—that which I believe?”

You referred to globalism, not corporate globalization.

You claimed that since race is a social construction, it is “scientifically ignorant” to treat people of color differently, and instead suggested “that each group seek its own way.”

You discussed the importance of focusing on “the nation’s working class and small producers” instead of appealing to the international proletariat.

That’s the funny thing about you fash. You can’t simply pretend to have utterly mainstream politics. You have to signal to your fellow travelers, even as you try to infiltrate the far left; centrist politics; the garden-variety right-wing of the petit bourgeois, the banker, and the God-deluded. You fascist creeps, always attempting the fascist creep.

No, we on the left don’t do any such thing. We don’t want to associate with you, we don’t want to penetrate your spaces, enter your parties. You need to be crushed like insects. Not after we gain power, not after capitalism is overthrown. Anywhere and everywhere.

6. Fascism is ultimately capitalism, and especially capitalist morality, metastasized. If you could speak, if I hadn’t stripped you of your briefs, coated them in Krazy Glue, and shoved the mass into your mouth, and tied you to your own recliner, you’d try an appeal to horseshoe theory. You know, how Communism, most often Stalinism, is indistinguishable from fascism? How left anarchism smells like right-libertarianism? The political spectrum bending into a horseshoe, both extremes arcing toward a black hole of violence, oppression, and genocide.

But but…this is torture! Wouldn’t that make you as bad as I am?

You’re nodding, but that isn’t quite right. You’re old and clever. You’d say as bad as I supposedly am? You’re not a violent man, I can tell that much from the conspicuous lack of scars. Your limp is that of a sedentary office worker whose only socially necessary expenditure of labor is the sequestration of carbon, not that of a former street fighter. You’ve never harmed a hair on anyone’s head. Why do this to you and not to one of the badasses who have put my comrades in the hospital?

Embedded in that argument is an axiomatic masculinist demand. Untie me and I’ll show you, you bitch! Neither of us are any good at fighting; we’d just throw haymakers, roll around the floor for a bit, I’d try to scratch your eyes and crush your testicles; you’d try to mount me and punch and grapple in a manner similar to sexual assault in the hope of triggering me. We’d both be exhausted after two minutes. I might have a heart attack. You would have a heart attack. You hide behind phalanxes of boneheads and star-spangled meth-addled bikers. On my side of the line, I’m a medic. I do my bit. I have my ways. 

Also, you’re in no condition to fight. You may not recall precisely what happened, but I’ll tell you: I saw you on the street weeks ago, putting up your leaflets, and recognized you from your skulking about at the edges of one of my events. I tore a number of your leaflets down. When you didn’t rush out to replace them the next night, or the night after that, I dug one of them out of the trash. Then I waited a couple of weeks and had an older, white, comrade, call you to arrange a meeting. He no-showed, but I was there.

Well-dressed women of color are invisible to you. That which you cannot conceive you cannot perceive. Whores, maids, mammies, or leeches. That’s all you ever see of us.

It was easy to follow you home. I didn’t even have to wear a hat and sunglasses. That was two weeks ago.

You live in a dump, and you’re an old white racist. You have a couple of unofficial deadbolts on your door, but I had your leaflet and your building superintendent is a nice man from Puerto Rico whom you mistakenly call Juan—that was the name of his brother, the former super. Both were once part of Los Macheteros; lucky break for me, but I would have found a way in regardless. Tonight Yeriel and I worked together to take the front door off the hinges so I could gain entry, then we put the door back up behind me.

Why? Because something has to be done about you, and I have the capability. I don’t hold to bourgeois morality. You and yours may fancy yourselves übermenschen, but in the end you’re just men who came in second in the game of Monopoly Capitalism and seek to start over with more property cards. We seek to overturn the board.

When you walked in, wheatpaste bucket in hand, was the first time I ever successfully used my Taser.

It’s recharging now. According to the instruction manual, it’ll be hours before I can use it again. That’s okay. We have all night.


Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Bullettime and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and several volumes of Akashic's city noir series.




Monday, March 8, 2021

Giving the Light, fiction by Nik Korpon

La primera regla,” Lalo started, then paused, regrouping. “La unica regla es,” he said again for emphasis, “we don’t stop for no one. ¿Entienden?”

He surveyed the group standing before them, beads of sweat cutting rivulets through the dust coating their faces. Many huddled close to loved ones, mothers holding children, grandparents and their grandchildren making an already-dangerous trip even more so. A small girl, not more than two, kept her eyes pointed down, her arms wrapped around her father’s leg as if that would protect her from whatever awaited them on their trip across la frontera. The father cleared his throat, calling for Lalo.

“Pero…la migra?”

“No me importa la puta migra, eh?” Lalo made a point to look down the line again, ensuring everyone was paying close attention. “You see la migra, you hide. If you can’t hide, you run.”

“Pero,” the father said again.

Lalo whipped his glare toward the father. He could feel the sun beating down with a hundred small razors, pummeling the crown of his head, splitting his skull as they remained hidden behind a rock outcropping five kilometers from the shallow river they’d cross to reach el norte. He’d barely slept the last ten days, what with Pilar’s sickness getting worse. His abuela told him the first trimester was always the worst and it’d get better, but it seemed like the opposite: They didn’t even realize she was pregnant till she was nearly twelve weeks. But as she got closer and closer pa’ dar la luz, she seemed to be getting more and more nauseated. 

And answering all these pinche questions was making Lalo even more irritable. He just wanted to get these people across la frontera, get his money from el Tuerto’s man, then get back home to el Llanto and be with Pilar. Just a few more hours till dark then, they’d be on the move.

The father cleared his throat again.

Lalo exhaled hard. “¿Qué?”

“Pues,” the father stammered. “What about los Cazadores?”

Lalo swallowed, setting his face to remain stern and maintain the group’s confidence. El Tuerto’s people had people inside la migra, so they could get their patrol schedules and reduce the chance one of their coyote groups ran into armed agents. But los Cazadores? Those crazy-ass redneck gringos who couldn’t get it up without holding an AR-15? Hell, they called themselves the Hunters, which was all anyone needed to know.

The father fixed his gaze on Lalo while he waited for an answer, his nervousness seemingly awakening the daughter, who finally raised her head, making Lalo’s hair stand on end. Her eyes were impossible, an aberration, like the entire sky above el Llanto compressed into two bright dots in her cherubic face. They were the same color as Pilar’s, the same color he imagined his daughter’s would be. He felt a pull inside him and considered walking away from this whole thing for a moment, heading directly home to Pilar and resting his head on her stomach to listen to his daughter’s heartbeat. But as soon as the thought arose, it passed. He wasn’t helping people cross to score points with el Señor. He did it to earn money for his family.

“Si tú ves los Cazadores,” Lalo said, “reza.”

Because praying was all they could do.


Debris pocked the river bank. Clothes tossed aside to cut weight during previous trips. A rusted propane tank. Metal scraps fashioned into weapons to defend against desert predators of various species, some on four legs, others not. The wallet of someone who had underestimated the current.  

From where they crouched behind scrub brush, it appeared as if the water was lapping low against the soil, which was a good sign. The river was less than two meters at its deepest, enough that an adult could normally cross it with their head held up. But when a freak storm hit the mountain range a few kilometers miles upstream, water would rush down the gully fast enough to catch even a strong swimmer unaware and sweep them into a muddy abyss.

But tonight, Lalo watched the moonlight glitter on the surface like the tiara he’d place on his daughter’s head at her quince in fifteen years and hoped it was a portent tonight would be uneventful. He crept toward the edge of the brush, reminding the group of the plan as he passed, then peeked through an opening, up to where his partner Sergio waited, surveying the area with binoculars.

From this point, they could see faint headlights tracing up and down Route 9 in New Mexico. After Lalo led the group across the river, they would run as fast as they could to a small hideout on the US side el Tuerto’s people had dug in the sand where they could regroup, drink some water, address anything that needed addressing before making the last push across the highway to a truck stop where they’d be loaded into a produce truck and taken to wherever Tuerto said to take them.

“Estamos jodidos,” one of the group said.

Lalo came back around. “What’d you say?”

Everyone in the group looked at each other, a combination of shrugs and unwillingness to snitch on another.

“You.” Lalo pointed at the man, a scar running from his temple into his hairline, where it disappeared. “What’d you say.”

Not a question.

“Dije que estamos jodido.”

“Why are we fucked?”

“Should’ve done like my nephew. Got a visa and just never left.”

“He get a student or worker visa?”
 The man hesitated. “Student.”

“For what university?”

Again, the man hesitated. “Stanford.”

“Could you get into Stanford?” Lalo said.

The man didn’t answer.

“Then shut the fuck up and get ready to run when I tell you, ¿vale?”

He pulled back his shoulders, looking around for support from the others, but quickly crouched back down when he found none. A quiet moment passed, the group either whispering novenas or watching Sergio or seeing whether Lalo would strike out against the dissenter. When nothing happened, the man felt confident enough to speak up again.

“Should just go over and claim asylum. Demasiada violencia. Enough of us seen heads in our pueblos to claim that, ¿no?”

Lalo sighed for what seemed like the thousandth time, then crept back over to the man, staying low and out of sight. “You want go over there and claim asylum with those Nazis lording over them?”

The man started to argue, but Lalo cut him off.

“How’d you get that scar? Cartel fight? Smuggling drugs up your culo?”

“Someone doesn’t know how to use a scythe, how I got it.” The man postured like he was indignant.

“And you think that’ll matter to them?” Again, Lalo gestured toward el norte. “They see a scar, they think criminal. They’ll put you and any chamaco near you in a cage as quick as they say freedom fries, ¿entiendes? So you want to claim asylum? Hágale, pues. Buena suerte con ese.”

The man snuffed from his nose a few times, trying to save face before settling down, resigning himself to the situation. Lalo didn’t like working like this, for a man like el Tuerto, but what kind of choice did he have? A degree and work experience didn’t mean shit when there was no one to hire you. And as much as he hated herding these people across, the idea of them hauling their kids over a thousand miles of jungle and desert in order to get away from heads tumbling through the streets of their aldeas only for them to rot in cages like discarded fruit nearly brought him to tears. All he could envision was his future-daughter duct-taped to his back as he slogged across the barren land.

A sharp whistle cut through the night. Sergio waved his hand.

“Chicos. Vámanos,” Lalo whispered, motioning toward the river for the group to follow.

Sergio helped lead everyone toward the safest place to cross, a thin sandbar that only reached waist-high. It wouldn’t be quite as easy for the ones carrying small children but was better than any alternative. He stood in the middle of the river, herding everyone across as Lalo brought up the rear, keeping everyone together. The man who’d challenged him passed by, not raising his eyes and gladly accepting Sergio’s help when he stumbled on a rock or something hidden beneath the surface, as if by profusely thanking one of the coyotes, the other would also receive gratitude. Lalo didn’t care; he just wanted this night over.

The father was one of the last ones to come to the river’s edge. His daughter hesitated, testing the water then jumping back as if something had bit her toes. Lalo felt the night tilt around him. Then the father snatched her up and carried her, which Lalo was infinitely grateful for. He followed them as they crossed, the others on the far side already making their way toward the dugout.

Then the father slipped.

It wasn’t much, more like being knocked off true-north than slipping on a banana peel, but it was enough to make him throw his arm out to keep from falling, which threw off his balance on the other side. His arm swung out, dislodging the daughter just enough for her to slip from the crook of his arm.

She yelped as she touched the warm water, as much from surprise as her being two-years-old.

The father reached for her but wasn’t quick enough to stop her from splashing.

She fell to the side, away from her father. She yelped again, this time worse, the tone of her voice sharpened.

Her father lunged over at the same time as Lalo, the father falling into the water to make sure he reached her. Lalo, still upright, missed. The father rose, water cascading off him, his daughter held tight in his arms, protecting her from all else unseen as Lalo shepherded them across the last part of river.

On the other side, dripping but safe, Lalo finally exhaled.

“Por fin,” he said, then pointed at the rest of the group heading toward the dugout. “Vámanos.”

“Espera.” The father was knelt down, tending to his daughter, who was babbling something Lalo couldn’t understand. Zapotek or Lacandón or something from much farther south, the words smothered in wet banana leaves and dense moss.

Lalo cursed under his breath. He thought babying children was an American thing, not wherever they were from. After all, she was just wet. Lalo and his brothers spent most of their free time in the river near their house.

The father looked up and caught Lalo’s gaze, his eyes conveying something paternal that Lalo had never felt before: the urgency of an injured child.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Ella está herido.”

“Hurt? She’s just wet. Muévete ya.”

The father lifted up her leg, displaying a gash on the back of her calf, the blood now glimmering in the moonlight.

“Ella tiene hemofília.” His voice was thick with fear for his daughter.

Lalo felt the air tremble around him, the humidty pass over him. “So stop it.”

His hand shook as he pulled a small tube out of his pocket and held it up. Lalo didn’t know what he was looking at, especially not with the moon as the only light.

“Este es desodorante pero solo lo funciona para heriditas.”

It only worked on small wounds? Lalo fought the urge to scream. The cut wasn’t huge, but her skin was wet, making the blood flow more easily. And if the deodorant wouldn’t stop the bleeding on a wound so large, they were going to have to make the wound smaller because Lalo couldn’t let this girl who had his future-daughter’s eyes bleed out in the middle of the desert.

Think think think think.

Lalo had an idea. He called out in whispers. “Sergio, ven acá.”

“Nadie pare,” Sergio called back.

“Ya sé,” Lalo said, trying to convey the urgency of the situation without shouting at Sergio to get his ass back here so they could fix the girl and get gone. “Pero ven acá, ¡ya ahora!”

Sergio told the rest to wait a second while he scurried back to Lalo.

“¿Qué?”

“Gimme your needle and thread.”

Sergio didn’t ask, just dug into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out the contents, dumping it in Lalo’s palm.

“You take them to the spot,” Lalo said. “I’ll take care of this and we’ll meet you.”

Sergio nodded, hurried off without another word.

Lalo held the needle up to the moonlight and slid the thread through, then looked down at the father.

“Tapa su boca y sujétela fuerte.”

Even in the darkness, terror radiated across the daughter’s face. Lalo averted his eyes and focused on the cut.

The skin puckered as the needle touched it, bouncing back when the sharp point slipped through. She gave a muffled yelp and bucked against her father’s firm grip, then jumped again with the needle’s next pass, over and over. Tears glimmered down her cheeks, down her father’s.

Lalo worked his way up, clenching his jaw harder and harder as he cinched the cut further closed, the needle flashing in the moonlight. 

He repositioned himself, trying to keep the wound in the light to make sure it was completely sutured. But the father took the movement as his being finished and relieved the pressure on his daughter’s mouth, just as Lalo shifted her leg, inadvertently pulling the thread tight. 

The daughter’s eyes went wide, almost as big as the sky over el Llanto. Her yelp echoed through the darkness, across the sand, before the father could clamp down on her mouth again.

The father and Lalo froze.

Breath crashed against the inside of his mouth. Blood thrummed through his veins.

A desert rat shuffled through the brush to the west, its feet scrabbling over the hard dirt. A bat flapped overhead, chittering as it chased bugs across the sky. A cereus not ten meters northeast from them breathed a sigh of relief, its blooms opening for nocturnal pollinators. The wind shifted, carrying the faint smell of cigarette smoke.

Lalo scanned the area. No one in sight, not even Sergio and the others.

Then another shuffle, due northwest, maybe fifty meters away. Not a rat. Not a snake either. Bigger.

“La migra,” the father whispered.

Lalo pushed aside a quick thought, looked around frantically, though he knew there was nothing to hide behind. They were caught in the open. The scrub brush would only give them momentary cover. Only real options were to run north or head back across the river, across la frontera and out of la migra’s jurisdiction. Dile a Dios, he thought. “When I say, you grab your girl and you run.”

The father nodded.

Then the heavens opened, bright white light raining down, blinding them.

A bolt of cold shot through Lalo. La migra would call out, tell them to freeze, put their hands up, all that shit. But now: nothing.

Which meant….

“¡Los Cazadores!” the father yelled, already scooping up his daughter in his arms.

Lalo shoved the father northward then took off, feet pounding on the desert floor. Puffs of sand exploded behind Lalo as he ran in the opposite direction, drawing fire away from the father and daughter. He zigged and zagged, cutting across the land, but the puffs drew ever closer. Lalo faked right, then bolted left, toward the river. It wasn’t deep, but maybe he could bound out to the middle, baptize himself in el río, hold his breath tight and let the current take him down—

Lightning tore through his calf. His face slammed into the desert, sand coating his mouth and face as electricity eviscerated his muscle.

His fingers clawed at the ground, pulling his body toward the river. Twenty meters. Eighteen meters more. Fifteen—

A foot smashed against his spine, pinning him in place.

“Looks like you caught one.” The hunter’s voice was thick with smoke.

“Not the one I was aiming for. Them tiny ones are faster than they look,” another hunter said.

“That’s why they’re a good challenge.”

The foot relented, but only to flip Lalo over. The two faces were backlit against the moon, only moving shadows where features should’ve been.

The first hunter said, “Pegged you as the soft touch, stopping to help out that little girl and all. That’s y’all’s rule, right?”

His words had too many vowels in them, distended them, so they became hard to understand.

“‘No stopping,’” the other hunter said, readjusting the rifle slung over his shoulder. “Not for no one. But wherever the cargo go, the boss ain’t far behind.”

“Yeah, I’ve had my eye on you a spell. That bounty on your boss’s head’ll set me right for a long time.” The first hunter crouched down, took a long drag on his cigarette, held it for effect, exhaling only when he spoke. The air shifted around him. “So I’m gonna ask you once, and only once: where’d your friends go?”

Lalo sucked in his breath, steeling himself, staying quiet. Wondering how far away the father and the girl were, if they were hiding, if there were more hunters in the area.

The first hunter laughed to himself. “One of the strong, silent types, huh?” He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and regarded it for a long second. “Okay, then. I think I can help with that.”

And as he lowered the burning cherry down to Lalo’s eye, all Lalo could see was the part that burned hottest, the bright blue part, the same as the sky above el Llanto, where Pilar was waiting for him, pacing their bedroom with a hand on her stomach, counting the seconds between contractions.


Nik Korpon is the author of Radicals, Wear Your Home Like a Scar, The Rebellion's Last Traitor, and Queen of the Struggle, among other. He lives outside Baltimore.


Monday, March 1, 2021

The Good Life, fiction by Richie Narvaez

 Reimagining Ernest Hemingway’s Indian Camp


Chibenashi was out of breath from running with the dogs. The dogs followed Chibenashi all the way from the camp, but when he found Larry, they turned and ran back. 

Larry sat on the soft loam at the edge of the pines by the lake. There was an empty bottle between his legs. The young man stared out at the lake. It was a cold night and much colder by the water. Larry had a poor fire going and half a dead fish near it on the sand. The fire was threatening to go out. This disappointed Chibenashi. He had taught Larry better than that.

“Larry!” Chibenashi said. “Ayashe is in a bad way.”

“I can hear her from here.”

“We have to get the doctor. She’ll die if not,” Chibenashi said, trying to catch his breath. He grabbed Larry under the arm and pulled him up. The young man was soft as a boned fish and stank of anti-fogmatics. Chibenashi pulled him up and walked him toward their rowboat, beached a few yards away.

“Move your feet,” Chibenashi said.

“Will Boonoo George be there?” Larry said. 

“What does it matter? We need his brother, not George.”

“I don’t like Boonoo George. Peezhickee don’t like him either.”

Chibenashi was going to say it didn’t matter if Ayashe’s husband Peezhickee liked George, that Ayashe’s husband was more full of anti-fogmatics than Larry was, but instead Chibenashi said, “Peezhickee’s in a bad way, too, on account of his foot. It don’t look good. Maybe the doctor can look at him, too.”

“Boonoo George is a leech.”

“You ought not to say that.”

“I won’t sit near him in the rowboat if he comes. You sit near him.”

“The rowboat is not that big, Larry.”

“I don’t want to sit near him, is all. If I do, I will jump overboard, and you can row those white men to Ayashe by yourself.”

“Fine. I’ll sit near him. Now help me.”

They pushed and pulled the rowboat into the water. Larry sat in the front of the boat while Chibenashi took the oars.

“I’m not sitting near Boonoo George is all I’m saying,” Larry said across the rowboat.

“Fine.” Chibenashi said. The rowing made him sweat, and the sweat drying on his skin in the cold air made him shiver. But he didn’t mind it. It woke him up and kept him awake.

The doctor and his family camped every summer on the other side of the lake from the Ojibwe camp. They usually didn’t bother anybody, and it was good to have a doctor close by. Their medicine was different than Ojibwe medicine, and Chibenashi had to admit it worked sometimes when the Ojibwe’s could not.

The rowing was going hard, and Chibenashi looked over and saw that Larry had fallen asleep.

“Larry! Wake up.”

Larry sat up straight and rubbed his eyes. 

“How can you sleep when your sister is in danger?” Chibenashi said. 

“If she dies, it’s her own fault.”

“You ought not to say that, Larry. You know better. I know you know better.”

They pulled their rowboat up the shore, near the doctor’s rowboat. The doctor’s rowboat looked brand new.

“That sure is a pretty boat,” Larry said. “I could use a pretty boat like that one.”

“You already have a boat.”

Chibenashi walked up the beach and toward the doctor’s camp.

As they approached, the doctor and his brother stood up from around their fire, looking as if they were ready for a fight. White men always looked if they were ready for a fight.

Their camp smelled of burned fish and liquor and cigars and piss and lilac soap. Chibenashi bowed to the doctor and told him why they were there, and the doctor turned to go back to the tent.

George teetered on his feet. He had a short face, with a hawk nose and a dirty bald head. He had a bottle in his hand. More anti-fogmatics. 

Some nights men just have to drink. Chibenashi would save his drinking for later, after Ayashe’s baby was born and she was safe. No one liked being in the camp, no one liked peeling the trees, making them naked to the sun and the wind and the insects, leaving them to rot. But it was the only work left. But that was the reason the men at the camp drank. One of the reasons, anyway.

The doctor came out of the tent, and a thin little boy stumbled out after him. The boy was just putting on a coat and stood like a newborn colt. The doctor was a younger version of George. He was a smart one. His eyes looked bright but not focused. His beard was very neat.

The boy was an even younger version of both men, not old enough to shave.  He stood behind the father, holding his hand, and stared at Chibenashi and Larry as if they gave him the heebie-jeebies, as if he thought they were going to scalp him.

Larry said, “Why are they bringing the boy? He looks like he’s going to loose himself.”

“I don’t know,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s just go.”

“We’ll have to take two boats now, so I can row the pretty one.”

“Sure, Larry.”

“As long as I won’t have to take Boonoo George.”

“George can speak Ojibwe, Larry. He can understand you.”

“I don’t care.”

The scared boy and the doctor started walking toward the new rowboat, so Larry ran over to it ahead of them. Chibenashi headed toward their own rowboat.

The doctor and the boy stopped. The doctor was saying something to the boy, who looked as if he were about to cry. When they moved again, they changed directions and headed toward Chibenashi.

“Oh no,” Larry said. 

George waddled up to the white man’s rowboat and dropped in.

“No! No! No!”

“Shut up, Larry,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s get a move on.”

On the lake, Larry rowed smoothly, the way Chibenashi had taught him. Larry was still young and full of fire. Chibenashi rowed as best as he could, but he didn’t have the strength. He had peeled bark all day, then stacked it, and then helped load more to go to the tannery. He was exhausted and had eaten only a spoonful of rice for dinner.

They had known Ayashe was in trouble for days. Nokomis told them what she was doing was not helping the baby to be born. So they decided someone had to go get the white doctor, and Chibenashi said he would go.

In the boat, Chibenashi got a better look at the doctor’s boy. He had red cheeks and long eyelashes. His head swiveled and his big eyes seem to be trying to see the entire world. The boy crushed himself against his father, who held the thin boy against his chest, with one arm over him, as if he was trying to shield him. From the cold? From the animals of the night? From the entire world maybe. With his father’s big arm around him, the boy didn’t look any less frightened.

On the other side of the lake, the doctor and his boy got out of the boat. Chibenashi pulled the boat onto the shore.

They were in a hurry, but George had stopped on the sand and was puffing on a cigar. He took cigars from his pants pocket and handed them out.

“Have a gall stone,” George said in Ojibwe. “Have a gall stone.”

Larry looked at Chibenashi. “What is he doing with the cigars?”

“Shut up and take one. Don’t insult him.”

“I want to insult him,” Larry said. 

“A free cigar is a free cigar. If you don’t want it, give it to me.”

Chibenashi took the cigar from George and in English said, “Thank you, Mr. George. Thank you.”

“Armpit,” George answered in Ojibwe.

“You said he speaks Ojibwe,” Larry said.

“I thought so,” Chibenashi said.

Larry snatched a cigar and smoked it on the long walk through the logging road back to the camp. Chibenashi kept his cigar in his shirt. The logging road was wider than it used to be because many of the trees were gone. One day you would be able to see straight from the lake to the camp.

“Why do you hate George so much?” Chibenashi asked Larry. 

“He cheated me at cards. More than once.”

“More than once? Then it is your fault you kept playing cards with him. You should know better.”

“And he likes our women. He will not even look at a white woman.”

“That’s because they won’t look at him,” Chibenashi said, trying to be cheerful.

“He likes our women a lot. And he goes with them, even when they don’t want to go. Especially when they don’t want to go.”

“Don’t say things like that.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

Chibenashi looked back to where the doctor was leading his boy by the hand. George was farther behind, pissing on a tree he was leaning on and getting his feet wet.

“You shouldn’t gamble, boy,” Chibenashi said. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“You’re no good at it. It’s what did your father in.”

“That’s not what killed my father.”

Chibenashi put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Leave it be.”

Larry shook the hand off. “You’re always taking shit, bowing and scraping to them. You’re shit to them, you know. Less than shit.”

Chibenashi’s eyes welled. “Leave it be, you stupid drunk.”

Nearby Ayashe screamed. The dogs exploded into the forest and straight toward Chibenashi. They yipped and ran around him. “Git from here,” he told them. “Git.” But the dogs went on, wagging their tails fiercely.

Nokomis stood outside Ayashe’s shanty with a lantern. She yelled at them for taking so long.

Larry stopped and said he was going back into the woods. “I’m not sticking around for the rest.”

“That’s your sister in there.” Chibenashi tugged at his arm.

“I can hear how she’s doing all the way from the other end of the camp.”

“Come on. Let’s go in. The doctor may need our help.”

“No.”

“Larry.”

“No.”

“Listen. I’ll buy you a drink. Stick around and I’ll buy you a drink afterward.”

“In town?”

“In town. Where else? I don’t get drunk alone in the woods like a fool. We’ll find a place you haven’t been thrown out of.”

“You’ve been thrown out of a few yourself.”

“Not in a long time, boy. Let’s go to Ernie’s then.”

“Not Ernie’s.”

“Fine. We’ll go to Gilby’s, although they don’t like us there as much.”

Chibenashi shooed the dogs away and entered the cramped shanty. Inside, it smelled of smoke and the sour smell of peeled hemlock. There was the way a room smells when a woman is giving birth, of blood and sweat and shit and something sweet and musty. But there was something else there, too, something foul and sick.

Chibenashi looked up and saw Peezhickee in the upper bunk. He had a pipe in his mouth and his head lolled back and forth against the wall. Maybe the doctor should look at him first. Peezhickee had been in much pain since he hurt his foot, and, since his wife starting giving birth, he had spent two days drinking.

Things had been bad for them for a long time. Peezhickee and Ayashe had been together since before they were teenagers. Chibenashi had once been sweet on Ayashe, too, when she was a girl and Chibenashi almost a man. She had eyes like glittering river stones, and she loved to sing although she sang like a hungover bird. She knew that and enjoyed herself anyway. She knew Chibenashi was sweet on her, but Peezhickee was the one she picked, the one she stuck with, which was only right. Peezhickee and Ayashe held hands when they were only kids. As they grew up, when one or the other was missing, which was a lot of the time, everyone knew they were together and knew what they were doing and knew they were out necking by the back of the camp.

When they got married it was a good thing. But then a year or so ago, Peezhickee had started talking about moving out of the camp, about going to California maybe. He thought they could live a better life, a good life out there. But Ayashe’s family lived in the camp and she wanted to stay near her family. So the couple started arguing, and Peezhickee started drinking more, even during work. Then just three days ago Peezhickee had an accident peeling bark and chopped into his own foot. He hadn’t kept his mind on the work. You could see there was no way that foot was going to heal. You could smell it.

Another Ojibwe, Oshkaabewis, stood in the shanty, ready to help. Chibenashi went to stand next to him, pulling Larry to stand next to him.

On the bunk Ayashe screamed, loud enough to hurt the ears. 

On the top bunk, Peezhickee’s face was in pain, too, like he was giving birth himself. 

Nokomis remained in the shanty. The doctor ordered her to heat some water and after she got it he shooed her into a corner. 

Ayashe kept screaming and the doctor put himself between Ayashe’s legs. He told Chibenashi and Oshkaabewis to hold onto her ankles. He told George and Larry to hold down her arms. As George came close, Ayashe bit him. But still he held her down. There were five men squeezed onto the small bunk holding her tiny body down. 

The white doctor put his hand inside her. The look on his face told Chibenashi that something was wrong. The doctor took a jack-knife from the hot water and cut into Ayashe, tearing her belly open. 

Chibenashi turned to look at the boy standing there alone, away from his father’s arms. His eyes were as big as the sky, and it looked like he really was going to loose himself.

There was lots of blood on the bed and the doctor reached for the baby inside the wound and yanked it out and cut its connection with its mother. 

Chibenashi saw the baby’s face and saw that it was another half-breed. Nine others had been born in the camp. He stared at the baby for a long time, and he looked at Ayashe, whose glittering river stone eyes were closed. Larry touched him on the shoulder and pointed toward the door where Boonoo George stood. “Him,” he said.

“You can’t know that for sure,” Chibenashi said in a small voice.

“Does it matter?”

The white doctor sewed up Ayashe with catgut. She was covered in sweat and her skin was hot as fire, but she was alive.

“Nokomis will take care of the rest,” Chibenashi said. He stood up to congratulate Peezhickee, but he saw that Peezhickee had used a razor to open his own throat. He had done it so quietly and quickly they hadn’t noticed.

Larry said, “I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him at all.”

Boonoo George was stumbling out the door.

“I am going after him,” Larry said. “I want my money.”

“Leave him be, boy.”

The white doctor was whispering to his son, and the son’s face was covered in snot and tears. The white doctor led the boy out of the shanty. He left behind his jack-knife. 

“I want my money,” Larry said. He bent down and took the white doctor’s knife.

“Come on, boy,” Chibenashi said. “It’s almost morning. We got to get to work soon. Let’s just go.”

“Come with me,” Larry said. “I want my money.” And he stumbled out the door, past the doctor and the boy, and after Boonoo George. 

Chibenashi looked at Oshkaabewis, who stood and said nothing. Then Chibenashi took the cigar from his pocket and put it on the bunk next to Peezhickee. He took the razor from Peezhickee’s still warm, wet hand and he followed Larry out the door.


Richie Narvaez is author of four books. His most recent novel is the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and his latest book is the anthology Noiryorican.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Twitch, fiction by Brandon Barrows

There was almost eleven-thousand dollars on the low-slung table in front of me. The neatly-banded blocks were all relatively small bills, none larger than a twenty, and were lined up straight and piled into little towers, organized by denomination. It looked like a city skyline in miniature. It was the most money I’d seen in a long time. It was mine—mine and the kid’s, rightfully—but I didn’t dare spend a dollar of it. It was too hot. But that wasn’t my fault. Not a bit.

I looked across the motel room at the kid, Dennis. His legs were pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He talked to himself in a constant low drone. 

I realized I couldn’t remember his last name, just that it was different from his sister, Mattie’s. They had different dads, I remembered that much. None of it meant anything now, though. The only things that mattered were the blood splattered across the kid’s t-shirt, slowly turning brown as it dried, and what would happen next. I should never have let him have a gun. Mattie warned me that he was a little twitchy, but it didn’t make sense to go into the place with only one of us armed and he swore to me that he could handle it. Believing him was my first mistake.

My second mistake was letting the girl drive the car. She held up fine the two other times she drove for me, but that was with my old partner, Jake, and nothing ever went wrong with Jake Barsi around. God, I missed that big, stupid bastard. He was dumb as a post, but his nerves were rock-solid and he took directions well. Who could have guessed that he would end up in prison for not paying child support? All those years and I didn’t even know he had kids.

That left me in the lurch, though. Mattie wasn’t really a partner so much as a fill-in, and the kind of job I could do alone wasn’t worth even trying to pull off. Too much risk for too little pay-out. When Mattie suggested her brother as a new third, I said no way. She told me to just meet the kid, give him a chance. He was an amateur, with no more experience than nickel-and-dime stuff. Literally–he busted open vending machines, Mattie told me, going on about how clever he was. A little twitchy, a little weird maybe, but clever and eager to learn.

Nothing about what she said seemed clever to me. I read once that crime, when you broke it down year by year, was the lowest-paid “profession” on the planet. Risking two to three years for maybe a few dozen bucks stolen from a vending machine didn’t seem smart to me. That’s why I went for the big stuff, and before now, I never had much trouble. 

Maybe Jake was my good luck charm. Aside from a couple early jobs, he was my only partner and without him, I was seriously considering finding another line of work. But Mattie liked the excitement of being with an outlaw, pretending  as if  we were Bonnie and Clyde. She wouldn’t like the idea of my getting out of the racket. We’d also been balling long enough for me to know that she wouldn’t give up until I at least agreed to meet her brother, so I caved.

The kid was maybe twenty-three. He was small and wiry, with short, sandy hair and cheeks that looked like they never needed shaving. But he spoke well enough, and he had more or less the right answers to the questions I asked him. After a couple hours, I told him it was nice meeting him and that I’d let him know. When Mattie and I left, she wanted an answer. I told her I’d think about it and maybe we could try something if the right opportunity came along.

A few weeks later, it did. A buddy of mine told me about a check-cashing place, way on the other side of the state, where a friend of a friend used to work. This acquaintance got the can, doesn’t matter for what, and wanted a little revenge. He sold everything he knew about the place—its routine, its security, and so forth—to my buddy’s friend, who was willing to pass it along in exchange for a percentage. 

My buddy offered me the same deal and when I heard the details, I figured it sounded safe enough. Two employees, one manager-cashier and one guard, came in for pre-opening around seven in the morning, and then another cashier came in at eight to open the place. It stayed open until seven at night, Monday through Saturday, two cashiers and a guard on at any given time. On Friday mornings, they had an extra cashier because a lot of people got paid that day. They were flush with cash for the same reason. That came in Thursday afternoons.

The security sounded solid, but unexceptional. All electronic locks, the PIN for which would be changed whenever an employee left. Except there were manager’s master codes for both the doors and the safe which were never changed, cuz the guy worked there for years and thought nobody knew about them. At least three people knew them now and at least one of us was going to make use of that knowledge.

I told Mattie about it, giving her enough detail to let her know what was going on and that, if I thought Dennis was up for the challenge after talking to him again, I’d give him his chance. She was pretty pleased and I was happy with the way she proved it to me. They may only have been half-siblings, but she wanted good things for her little brother–better than robbing vending machines, anyway. 

So I agreed to bring the kid in, figuring this was probably the safest way I’d find to test him out. With the manager’s codes and only three people in the place, I almost figured Mattie and I could do it alone, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving an empty car running out back of the place. That would only draw attention. That, and Mattie never used a gun; she preferred to drive. She told me Dennis used to go plinking with his dad, so he knew the basics of firearms, at least. Since he really only needed to point a gun at a couple of people and make sure they stood still, it should be fine. Anybody could handle that much, she argued. I caved again.

The next Thursday afternoon, I got Mattie and her brother into the motel room I rented a day earlier. I outlined everything to them, all the details. The girl was excited, and Dennis pretended to be. It got into his nerves before I even finished talking. Mattie could tell it was bothering me, the way the kid was acting, but she took me aside, reminded me it was too late to back out and promised Dennis would be okay. “It’s just nerves. It’s his first time.”

“Sure,” I told her. “And what happens if he blows it all up in our faces?”

“He won’t.” She leaned up and kissed the side of my neck, the way she knew I liked. “Love me?”

I didn’t think I did, but I liked her well enough, and now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Sure.”

“Then trust me, Paul. I know my brother. He’ll be fine.” She kissed me again, on the lips this time. She broke away and said, “And when it’s all over, when we’ve got the money, I’ll really show you how much I appreciate you giving him this chance, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to imagine it, but succeeding only in thinking about how everything could go wrong.

As bad as my imagination was, the reality was worse.

We waited until just after seven before barging into the back door of Cash Express. It opened into a counting room where a withered-looking little woman in a yellow and red polo-shirt with the chain’s logo embroidered on the sleeve was seated at a cramped desk, sneaking a smoke. The safe, a waist-high job bolted to the floor, was to her right. She turned left as we entered and her eyes went wide, stretching the folds of skin around them. But she didn’t say a word, just let the cigarette fall to the floor and raised her hands over her head. We were both old pros.

“Who else is in here?” I asked.

“Just Sunil, the other cashier, and Hank, the evening guard.”

“Get them in here.” I gestured with the .38 revolver in my fist.

The old woman went to the door and called out, “Sunil? Hank? Come back here a sec, will you?”

Behind me, I could feel the energy pouring off of Dennis. I risked a glance over my shoulder. He had his own gun, a .380 automatic Mattie got for him somewhere, clasped close to his chest. His knit ski-mask was identical to the black one I wore, except his was red and it was already showing darker spots on his forehead where the sweat was soaking through. I could practically hear his knees knocking together.

The old woman turned back to the room, nodded at me and stepped off to one side, pausing only to grind the cigarette into the floor before again raising her hands over her head. A moment later, a handsome, dark-skinned guy a little older than Dennis appeared in the doorway. His eyes met mine and went as wide as the old woman’s had, but he never got a chance to do anything else. A bam sounded right by my ear and then a bright-red spot appeared among the lively colors of the handsome kid’s shirt, dead-center on the heart. He fell to the floor without making a sound, collapsing face-first onto the linoleum. A pool of blood began to spread beneath him. 

The old woman screamed and made for the door, colliding with a middle-aged guy wearing a grey uniform coming from the other side. I turned to see Dennis holding the gun at arm’s length, his eyes huge and staring through the holes in his mask.

“You stupid fuck!” I spat as I made for the front of the room, leaping over the dead kid, avoiding the pooling blood. I slammed the door shut, wedged the desk-chair under the handle, and then turned to the safe in the corner.

My fingers were clumsy with nerves, anger, and adrenaline, but on the third try the manager’s code for the safe worked just as well as the one for the door had. I started shoveling banded bills into the plastic grocery bags I brought for that purpose. Every instinct told me to run, to cut my losses, but I’d be damned if I left empty-handed.

I threw another look at Dennis and saw the kid had pulled his mask off and was on his knees, leaning down over the guy he shot. The gun was on the floor nearby and he was trying to turn the other kid over. “What the hell are doing? Grab a bag!” 

Dennis shook his head. “He might still. . . I didn’t mean it! Maybe we can help him!”

“Too damned late! We got maybe thirty seconds before that guard thinks of the back door!”

I turned back to the safe. Two bags full of cash. I had two more, but decided not to press my luck. It’d be a miracle if we got out of here and another if we didn’t get picked up right off the bat. I should have listened to my gut and ignored Mattie’s arguments about her brother.

“Pick up that mask and gun,” I said, shoving a last packet of bills into the pocket of my jeans as I stood. The kid was motionless, just staring down at what he’d done.

“Get your god-damned shit together!” I shouted, leveling a kick at the kid’s ribs. It connected and seemed to jolt him back to himself. He looked at me, tears in his eyes, then snatched the mask and gun up, found his feet, and stumbled to the backdoor. 

That was when the shit really hit the fan. The alley was empty, except for a couple of dumpsters and the kind of crap that accumulates in alleys everywhere. No car. No Mattie. My heart jumped in my chest, the same way it did when Dennis fired the gun. My hand went to the burner in my back pocket, but that was no good. Even if Mattie answered, the cops would be there before a call could connect.

We were fucked, but there was no time to dwell on it – not unless I wanted nothing but time to think, sitting in a cell somewhere. I wasn’t going to let that happen, not if there was any way to avoid it.

“Run!” I told the kid, shifting the bags to my left hand and setting out at the kind of fast lope I learned as a cross-country runner in high-school. It was a long time since my school years, but I was still in reasonably good shape, and there wasn’t any other option. I could hear sirens not too far off.

Keeping to alleys as much as we could, somehow we found our way to the cross-street that connected with the highway where the motel was. We saw other people on foot and every once in a while, a passing police cruiser, but fortunately it was dark enough that nobody noticed Dennis’s shirt. 

It took maybe half an hour to reach the highway and two hours more, walking far off the edge of the road, to make it back to the motel. Every few minutes, I tried calling Mattie’s cellphone, but there was no answer. Along the way, I ditched the masks and Dennis’s gun in a foul-smelling slough a couple of miles from the motel. There was no reason for anyone to go in there and I hoped the smell would keep the stuff from being discovered any time soon. 

Dennis chattered the entire way, mouth moving a mile a minute, alternately making apologies to the kid he killed and worrying about the cops coming after him. Sometimes, it sounded like he thought they already had him and he was trying to explain what happened, as if that would do any good. More than once, I told him to shut the fuck up, but it was like he couldn’t even hear me. After a while, when we were out along the highway, I punched him squarely in the jaw out of sheer frustration, knocking him to the ground, but even that only quieted him down for a couple of minutes.

I was angry enough to shoot him, but I’d never killed anyone before and now wasn’t the time to start. Another body wouldn’t do anyone any good. More than ten years in this business, and I’d never had a job go so badly wrong. At least I knew what Dennis’s problem was–he was “a little twitchy.” That didn’t explain his sister leaving us high and dry. I’d give her a chance to explain, but who knew? I might still kill someone that night.

The moment we got into the motel room, I dropped the bags on the scarred coffee table and tried calling Mattie again. It began to ring–from the bathroom. She used it before we left and must have taken the phone out of her purse for some reason then forgotten it. That was just great. 

I spent over an hour stewing, counting the money, and listening to Dennis ramble--to himself, to a handsome dead kid, to imaginary cops. Mattie had my car and I had no way to contact her. Dennis had no change of clothes—my shirts would all be suspiciously big on him—and his face might well be on camera at the check-cashing place, so we couldn’t go far from the room. There wasn’t much we could do but wait and hope Mattie came back. 

After a while I started to calm down a little. Soothed by the sight and feel of all that money, my thoughts came together better. Things went just about as bad as they possibly could, but despite everything else, as long as Mattie didn’t get picked up and she came back before too long, I wanted to believe that we might still be okay. 

That stopped me. With what already happened, Mattie being picked up was a possibility I hadn’t even thought about before. When did she leave, exactly? When Dennis fired that shot? Or did something else spook her first? In all the confusion that was happening inside Cash Express, I had no clue what might have been happening outside. Maybe she knew something I didn’t. 

I was getting worried all over again and about something I had absolutely no control over. I stood up and began pacing the room, trying to think of something, some way forward, some path out of this fucking maze I was trapped in. My eyes fell on the piles of cash and I wanted to spit. All that money and it couldn’t do me any good–not until I was far, far away from this place.

I walked back and forth, trying to squeeze an idea out of my brain. I was drawing a blank. I grabbed up my jacket from the back of the chair by the door and said, “I’m going out.”

Dennis hadn’t really shut up in hours, no matter what I said or did to him. It was like he was in his own world. Now, finally, somehow I got through to him. “What?” His voice was small and lost-sounding.

“I’m going out.” I slipped my arms into the jacket.

“Where?”

There was a convenience store across the highway from the motel. There was really no place else to go and it was as good a destination as any. “Across the street. Gonna get something to eat. You want anything?”

Dennis shook his head, his eyes falling again to the table, to the money and my gun. I put it down the moment we got back to the room and I intended for it to stay there until we checked out. Unless you’re actively on a job, carrying a gun is stupid. In a lot of places, that’s inside time right there, even if the cops never connect you to anything else. So the gun stayed here, along with the cash and Dennis. I wasn’t too worried about that, anyway. I figured what happened tonight would turn him off guns, maybe permanently. 

Dennis tore his eyes from the table and looked up at me. His lips started moving again, but now, no sound came out. I went over to stand in front of him, but he wasn’t really seeing me anymore.

I said, “Maybe I can get you a shirt over there, too. You should get out of those clothes and take a shower.

The kid’s voice started getting louder, saying he was sorry over and over again.

“Hey,” I said. “Look at me.”

There was no answer except the chanted “sorrys”.

“Hey!” I clapped my hands right in his face.

Dennis jumped back so hard he half-turned over the chair he was in, setting it thumping back against the wall. If there were neighbors, they’d love that.

“Listen to me, you little fuck.”

Dennis finally looked at me again. There were tears in his eyes and his lips were still moving, but I knew he saw me.

“Don’t go anywhere, okay? And don’t open the door for anybody.”

“I can’t go to prison,” he half-whispered. He grabbed my arm and said, “You can’t let them take me. I didn’t mean it.” The tears were running down his cheeks now.

I sighed and pried his fingers from me. Part of me wanted to grab the bags and start walking up the highway just to get away from him. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said, not really sure if it was meant for his benefit or mine. I went out without waiting for him to respond. 

Across the highway, the lights from the convenience store were like an island of light in an ocean of darkness. I went inside and saw a dark-skinned guy, Indian or Pakistani maybe, behind a plexiglass-protected counter. I flashed on the kid Dennis killed and a little pang went through me. Nobody ever got hurt on any of my jobs before. This wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t really help. It wouldn’t fly with the cops if we got picked up, either. Either Mattie had to come back or I needed to find another way out of town.

“Evening,” the guy at the counter said. I nodded, grabbed a basket, and went around the store, gathering up snacks and drinks. I wanted a beer in the worst way, but I needed a clear head. 

Up by the register, there was a corner stuffed full of hats and t-shirts and hoodies, all with the logos of local sports teams. I picked up a shirt with a pair of stylized red socks on them and winced. The price-tag said forty-five bucks. Sometimes, the legal ways to rob someone seem more dishonest than just doing it with a gun. Gritting my teeth, I paid and got the hell out.

Outside, I stood for a moment under the night sky, wondering what was going to happen next. At the very edge of the parking lot, headlights flashed. I turned and after a few seconds, it happened again. All my senses went on high alert, but I forced myself to relax. Cops wouldn’t flash their lights at me, not headlights, anyway, and nobody knew I was here except Dennis. Was it possible the kid did something useful and found us a car?

I walked towards the car, just out of range of the sun-bright lights that splashed the tarmac around the gas-pumps. I recognized it as my own and when I was within ten feet, the window rolled down and Mattie’s voice said, “Paul! Paul!”

I kept my pace casual, pretending to be unsurprised, and angled towards the passenger side. I opened the door, slid into the car, grabbed her arm, and squeezed as hard as I could. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Mattie flinched. “I got scared. I heard the gunshot and just sort of took off. I went back, after, but there were cops all over the place. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove around and then kind of ended up here. Are you okay? Where’s Dennis?”

I let my grip loosen. “At the motel and no, I’m not o-fucking-kay. Things were going fine until your dipshit brother randomly started shooting.”

“Oh shit. . . ” she whispered.

“He killed a kid.” 

My hand fell away from Mattie’s arm, but then her hand found mine in the semi-darkness. She squeezed gently and said, “I’m sorry. I really am. But I never been so close to a gunshot before and all this crap started popping into my head and I got scared. That never happened to me before. Everything worked so smooth the other times.”

“That’s because Jake was with us.” 

We were both silent a moment, then Mattie asked, “You got the money?”

“I got some money.” 

I shook off her grasp, but her hand was persistent and found my thigh. “Dennis is okay?” she asked.

“I guess. . .” He was definitely not okay, but there wasn’t a thing either of us could do to help. 

“Cops didn’t see you, obviously.”

“Not me, no. I got no idea who might have seen your brother. The little fucker took his mask off and actually tried to help the kid he shot. His face is probably on video.” I turned to her. “You swore to me he’d be okay.”

Mattie’s hand roamed across my lap. “I was wrong. . . I’m sorry. I really thought he’d get over the nerves. But it’s all gonna be fine, right? Nobody knows us around here and we got the money. We just gotta get out of the area.”

I moved her hand away from my crotch. “Let’s go. We’ll talk about it later.”

“We got a little time, don’t we?”

I turned and in the light that reached the car, I saw she was giving me a puppy-dog look, the kind she always used when she wanted to make extra nice.

“Paul. . . I told you I’d show you how much I appreciate you giving my brother a chance, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but—”

“And I wanna show you how sorry I am. I was so scared something was gonna happen to you. We got a little time, don’t we?” she asked again.

Again, I ignored my instincts, and admitted we did. Mattie’s hand was in my lap again, fiddling with my zipper now, and a moment later, her head followed.

When we were done, we switched seats. I started the engine and drove across to the motel. I parked the car in front of the room. The lights were out inside. Maybe Dennis finally went to bed. It would do him some good, if so. I could use some sleep myself, for that matter. 

I said to Mattie, “I wanna get out of here, but we better stay ‘til check out in the morning. Look bad if we just disappear.”

“Sure, if you say so, Paul.”

I pulled her to me and kissed her forehead. Despite myself, I tried to forgive her for screwing me and her brother over by disappearing. I wasn’t the type to forgive easily, but I did a lot of thinking while Mattie was hard at work proving how sorry she was. I decided that, aside from the handsome, dark-skinned kid’s death, the plan wasn’t really that changed. I felt bad about that kid, but I didn’t pull the trigger and getting caught wouldn’t bring him back to life. Maybe there was a way to give Dennis up without getting myself arrested, but Mattie would never forgive me and she knew too much about me and my life to risk pissing her off and then cutting her loose. There was no way I was ever working with her brother again, but that was a discussion for another day.

“Before we go in, just a word of warning. . .  your brother’s not okay. He’s kind of messed up over what happened. He’s been rambling about how sorry he is and shit like that.” 

Worry flashed across Mattie’s face, but she just nodded. We both got out of the car. Mattie grabbed the bag from the convenience store without my even asking. She really was eager to be forgiven.

I looked up at the sky again. I had a good chunk of money, I had the car and my girl back, and nobody saw my face. Things would work out okay as long as we kept a leash on Dennis.

At the door of the room, I turned to the girl and said, “Shooting that clerk really screwed with his head. Just give him the kid gloves, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. 

I put the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. The key fit fine, but it was like something was holding it in place, keeping the cylinder from turning. “Son of a bitch. What now?”

“What’s wrong?” Mattie asked.

“The god-damned key.”

I jiggled the key and it shifted a little. I thought I heard something move inside the room, but I wasn’t sure. Something like hurried footsteps. Mattie looked at me; she heard it, too. “Dennis?” she called softly. 

There was no answer, though, and the sound wasn’t repeated, so I twisted the key again. Finally, it gave with a small, metallic sound and the lock turned. Mattie flashed a sheepish grin. “Some night, huh?”

I opened the door, and gestured for Mattie to go ahead of me. The room was dark when I opened the door, but it was immediately lit up by an explosion of light and sound. Mattie screamed and fell backwards, the bag flying from her hand and blood spewing from her neck. Before I had a chance to understand what I was seeing, a giant fist punched me high on the side of the head and I joined her on the concrete curtain of the parking lot. 

“I won’t go!” Dennis screamed, his voice just barely audible over the sound of repeated gunshots. “You can’t take me! I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t my fault! I won’t go!”

I fell on my side, Mattie directly in front of me. As my vision went dim, she stopped thrashing and lay still. 

The sound of a hammer clicking on empty chambers and Dennis screaming began to fade out, like I was moving away from him, down a long padded hallway that absorbed all sound. 

I tried to push myself up, but my arms and legs ignored me as ice began to spread through my body. Every instinct I’d been ignoring for days was screaming at me again, mocking me now. A little voice in my head sneered, “Just a little twitchy.”

Then everything was black and quiet and none of it mattered anymore.

Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels BURN ME OUT, THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD, and NERVOSA, as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Find him on Twitter.com @BrandonBarrows and at www.brandonbarrowscomics.com