Monday, November 27, 2023

Drum and Coke, fiction by Steve Liskow

By the time the pandemic lockdown lifted, our moving and storage business was history. Mickey and I sold the trucks and the building, paid off the other guys as much as we could, shook hands and walked into the sunset. I was twenty-seven, single, and had just enough in the bank for two months’ rent. Nobody was hiring people with my backgrounds, so I had to go to plan B.

A few promoters were scraping money together from two years of not gigging, and when Git Down opened off Six Mile Road, they needed security. I wrestled in college—heavyweight, at that—so when I showed up in a sleeveless T-shirt, they hired me on the spot. The place was basically a bar with every kind of liquor and microbrew you never heard of, attached to a six-hundred-seat auditorium. They considered local talent their top priority.

Six weeks in, they booked HunnyPott, an all-girl band I’d never heard of.

“They’re getting about fifty thousand downloads a week,” Norman, the owner/manager told me. “Check out their website.”

I did, and understood why they were getting so much traffic. All four musicians looked about seventeen in full make-up, and they wore more of that than anything else. Their vids featured lots of cleavage and tush, accompanied by music that was loud, fast, and subtle as a wrecking ball. The general theme was “I want to get laid.”

A week before the show, we were sold out. Norman hired another bartender to handle the rush. I wanted two more security guys, too, but he shook his head.

“Don’t want to mess with the ambiance.” In his mouth, it rhymed with “Ambulance.”

When the band’s truck pulled up at noon Friday, I saw speaker cabinets that wouldn’t fit in my kitchen.

“We’ve got a good sound system here,” I told the head roadie. His name was Truck, and his huge hands twitched.

“Not this good,” he said. “These puppies can raise white caps on Lake St. Clair.”

He and his entire crew rode the white line express. Just what I needed.

Rudolph, the band’s manager, was about forty and a little beefy, with eyes that told me the band members were about ten years older than his preference. After talking with him, I felt like I needed a shower.

But the women were a surprise. At the sound check, I discovered they all really could play. Tina, the bass player, studied cello for six years. Angela played violin and classical guitar along with her Les Paul. Wanda—Rudolph pronounced it “Wanna”—warmed up on keyboards with the Goldberg Variations, and Rika loved jazz. Her drum heroes were Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, and Tony Williams.

They all wore ear plugs during the sound check, and Rika gave me an extra set.

“I got to admit,” I said to her when we both stepped outside for a smoke, “I saw some of your vids and figured you probably knew about four chords between you.”

“Yeah.” She shrugged and I pretended not to notice. “But how many people would show up tonight if we wore choir robes and played chamber music?”

“Not many,” I admitted. “But still…”

She belched smoke from her nostrils. “My grandfather used to listen to the Stooges. They were good musicians, but managed to hide it.”

But they were guys,” I said. “They didn’t stick it in the camera while they played.”

She held another drag for a minute before letting it out. “If it makes you feel better, that’s not really my butt on the video of ‘Big Finish.’”

By the time they finished the sound check, people were already showing up at the bar. We had to check IDs, and a scary number of women showed up wearing stuff I’d expect in a porn video. Barely legal in more ways than one. The guys with them looked like they’d discovered heaven. I had visions of lots of babies being born next April.

Four hours later, HunnyPott took the stage, dressed for the Sahara in a heat wave. Angela leaned into the mic so everyone could look down her shirt. You could read the fine print on a contract through the fabric anyway, but…

Hey, Git Down,” she whooped. “We’re gonna do that tonight, right?”

The crowd roared, and she nodded so her patent-leather-black spikes bounced. “We’re gonna help each other git down, and git dirty, ‘cause it’s better together. You all up for that?”

The crowd whooped again and the band kicked into their opener, a song called “Candy Panties.” During the guitar break, Angela turned her back to the audience and bent over to flash flesh-colored hot pants. The crowd went crazy. The next song was called “It’s Better on Top,” and you can guess how that went over.

The first set lasted an hour, finishing with what they called their Beatles tribute, “I Wanna Hold Your Gland.” During the break, my crew stayed busy keeping guys out of the girls’ bathroom and vice versa. The bartenders needed roller skates and four arms to handle the traffic, and that was probably only a fraction of the medicine being shared. A statue could get a contact high in the men’s room.

The second set opened with “Share and Share Alike,” and I saw roadies handing out backstage passes like Halloween candy. I hoped the musicians would dash off-stage and get the limo to their hotel right away, but Jessie, my lone female security, laughed.

Not even in your dreams, Russ.” Jessie could bench press two-fifty and looked like a librarian with her wire-rimmed glasses. “There’s going to be enough hot young flesh backstage to repopulate Dearborn overnight.”

Milo, an inch taller than me and thirty pounds heavier, shook his head. “That bass player, you ever seen legs like hers?”

Only in my dreams,” Jessie said. “I wish I was her cello.”

Norman and Rudolph stood in the wings. Norman looked ecstatic and Rudolph looked even sleazier than before. Four guys tried to climb the apron between the monitors, but Milo and I pushed them back. Even with the ear plugs, standing between those monitors made my skull vibrate.

The band finished their set and moved to the apron to take a bow, flashing pretty much everything God gave them. The crowd screamed for more, probably not a dry seat in the house.

You’re gonna love this.” Rudolph’s voice seemed to float down a long hallway.

Sure enough, the girls came back onstage minus their shirts. They glowed with sweat, adrenaline and pheromones while they picked up their instruments again. Jessie, beside me, took deep cleansing breaths.

You’ve been great,” Angela purred into her mic. “We really like a crowd that keeps us going. And maybe coming…back.”

She waited for a lull in the screams.

Here’s our closer. It’s called ‘Big Finish.’”

The one with not-Rika’s tush on the video. Angela held the last note long enough to get another round of applause. She, Wanda, and Tina played an impossible riff in unison, Rika went ballistic on the drums, and they finished together a second before the lights went to black and the crowd went berserk.

My crew headed for the dressing room to repel boarders while the roadies moved onto the stage to strike the gear. Dozens of fans appeared—both sexes—with backstage passes and we tried to reason with them. Have you ever tried to debate with an avalanche?

I’ve got a pass,” one guy snarled, his saliva spraying my cheeks. “Do you know who I am?”

No, sir, sorry.” He wore a blazer with more sequins than they had in Nashville, and jeans so carefully distressed they had to cost three figures.

I’m Tyler Weinecke.” The name had italics when he said it. “My old man’s William Weinecke, President of the City Council. You let me in or you’ll be sweeping Woodward Avenue tomorrow morning.”

Two other guys and a woman wearing a latex top crowded behind him. Jessie and Milo argued with a cluster of other kids, mostly male. The Weinecke kid retreated, but he came back with Norman, who looked like he was trying not to mess his pants.

Let him in,” he said.

I shrugged. “Your call.” Rank has its privileges, and this kid was pretty damn rank.

Rudolph escorted young Mr. Wienecke through the door and slammed it behind him.

Truck and his crew moved hand trucks and dollies toward the loading dock, speaker cabinets stacked taller than I am. Another guy followed with rolled-up cables. They returned a few minutes later, Truck with drumsticks sticking out of his hip pocket and cases that apparently held Rika’s drums. His crew wheeled a dolly with guitar cases and mic stands and mics, that reminded me I still wore the ear plugs Rika gave me. No wonder the voices sounded muffled. I tucked them into my pocket and returned to the dressing room.

Jessie stood by the door looking pissed. Milo stood across the hallway from her and didn’t look any happier. Truck nodded curtly at them and disappeared through the door, raucous voices escaping until he slammed it again.

There’s gotta be two dozen kids in there,” Jessie said. “Any pronoun you can think of. That Weinecke jerk’s one of them.”

His face looks like he was eating a powdered donut,” Milo commented. “He’s somewhere around Uranus.”

Not mine,” I replied. Milo shrugged.

Well, somewhere no man has ever gone before.”

Which probably means he’s not with any of the band.” Jessie’s voice felt like broken glass. “Oh, did I say that out loud?”

You did.” I tried the door, but it was locked. That was a no-no. I knocked on the top panel.

Hey, unlock this and let us in.”

No answer. I pounded again, harder. I was about to tell Milo to help me kick it in when it opened and the voices spilled out again. This time, they sounded shrill and scared. Rudolph stood in the opening, his face pale.

There’s a dead guy in the shower.”

I pushed past him, Milo and Jessie behind me. The groupies and musicians stood in clumps, everyone craning their neck toward the two shower stalls beyond the hanging clothes. Rika clutched a towel too small to conceal that she was a natural redhead and sobbed into Trish’s chest.

Everybody shut up.” I said it loud enough so it worked. “Now, what happened?”

Rudolph spoke first.

The shower. There’s a kid. Rika says she found him.”

I always sweat like a horse when we play,” she said. “I was going to take a shower and…unwind…”

Two guys held their shirts in front of them, but they were naked, too, like they’d planned to help her. Their eyes danced around the room.

Who is he?”

I don’t know. He must’ve had a pass, but I…”

Milo, don’t let anyone in or out.” He moved Rudolph back and closed the door. He pulled out his phone.

You want me to call the cops?”

That’s Norman’s call. Text him and tell him to get his ass down here pronto.”

I threaded my way through the crowd to the shower stall. I saw feet in black sneakers and distressed jeans. I stepped closer and saw a sequined jacket, covered with vomit. Sure enough, it was the Wienecke kid, his eyes wide and his face bluish gray. The stench was so thick I could almost see it; his sphincter had let go. I breathed through my mouth and felt the side of his neck for a pulse I didn’t expect to find. I pulled him flat on his back and tried to clear his tongue for CPR, but my fingers felt something in his mouth.

A drumstick. Under the layer of vomit, the tip showed blood. The kid hadn’t OD’d, he’d been murdered, and I held the puke-covered weapon in my own fingers. Yeah, Norman had to call the cops, ASAP.

He burst through the door, almost knocking Milo off his feet.

What’s the problem?” he demanded. “What’s going on, Russ?”

I tilted my head back toward the showers.

Weinecke’s kid is dead back there in the showers.”

Oh, Christ.” Norman’s eyes grew big as Rika’s cymbals. “What happened?”

Everyone turned to look at Rika, who shook her head helplessly.

I held up the drumstick. “This was jammed down his throat. He may have been stabbed, or he may have choked on his own vomit, or both. But someone killed him.”

Rika, you stupid bitch.” Rudolph strode across the room, but Jessie grabbed his arm and yanked him back. He twisted free and glared at the naked drummer.

You friggin’ moron. How could you be so stupid? Christ, you do two or three guys every night, and now you get—”

I didn’t—”

No,” I said. “She didn’t.”

All the eyes in the room turned to me.

The kid’s fully dressed, and his clothes are dry. He’s lying in puddles because the other musicians have showered, but Rika was going last.”

I looked at Trish, Wanda, and Angela, all fully—well, partly—clothed. Then at Rika and her two admirers.

Rika’s hair is dry, and so are these guys. They weren’t in the shower yet. I’ll bet you smelled the kid first, didn’t you?”

Uh-huh.” Rika’s head bobbed up and down. “I did, then I looked down, and…”

The two guys nodded, too.

Besides,” I went on, “who takes a drumstick into a shower? I’ve heard of sex toys, but a drumstick? I don’t think so.”

So someone framed her?”

Maybe.” I tried to follow the train of thought that was just ahead, like trying to play along with a song everyone else knew.

But who would have killed the kid?” Norman snapped. “Christ, his old man will close us down. Our ass is dead meat.”

Maybe not,” I said. “The kid was giving us a lot of grief earlier, and we could all tell that he was high. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this was a drug buy gone bad.”

That’s a helluva jump,” Rudolph said. His eyes were still moving over Rika, inch by inch.

Yeah,” I agreed. “But if he was buying, it had to be someone he could only see here, not a regular friend, right? Or he’d have done it somewhere else.”

The room went silent and I saw Rudolph and the musicians process that idea. Truck, the only roadie in the room, stared at the shower stall and at the floor, but not at anyone else.

Truck, you were taking the drum kit out to the loading dock earlier, and you had drumsticks in your back pocket. Got any more of them?”

The guy whirled toward the door and shoved Norman out of the way. He yanked the door open, but Milo blocked it with his foot and grabbed Truck’s biceps. Truck tried to swing at him, but Milo blocked the punch and half-threw him back into the room. He glared at me and cocked his fist again.

Damn you…”

He swung, but I blocked it and punched under his arm. My fist sank into his solar plexus and his eyes opened wide. So did his mouth. His face turned red, then blue, and he sank to the carpet. Milo and I grabbed his arms and pulled them behind him.

Norman, call the cops.”

Truck threw up on the floor. I looked down and saw one drumstick still standing at attention in the hip pocket of his jeans.

# # #

At eleven the next morning, Rika rolled out of my bed and I admired the sun turning her whole body a warm amber that complemented her red hair.

If you want to take a shower…” I pointed to the bathroom door.

You want to join me?”

Um, that’s kind of kinky, isn’t it?”

She shrugged, which worked well with her naked. “Hey, I’m in a band called ‘HunnyPott,’ remember? I’ve got a reputation to live down to.”

The shower took longer than it would have if we’d taken turns. We toweled each other off and went back to the bedroom, where she bent over to pick up her underwear. She turned around and caught me looking.

I told you, that’s not my butt on the video.”

I know.” I found my own shorts. “Yours is better.”

She cocked an eyebrow at me.

You’re just saying that because you hope you’ll get another crack at it.” She frowned. “Maybe I could have said that better.”

I doubt it.”

She pulled her T-shirt over her head and found a pair of cut-offs. She slid them up her legs, not as good as Trish’s, but close. I wondered if Jessie scored with her, too.

I owe you. Owed you. You saved my ass—damn, there I go again, don’t I?”

Saved the club, too.”

There’s that.” She checked her phone. “Jesus, Rudolph’s sent a dozen texts. They’ve checked out of the motel and have my stuff. They’re leaving in ten minutes. We’ve got a sound check in Flint at three. The truck’s probably already there.”

I can drive you.” I stepped into my jeans and felt her eyes on me like everyone’s on her the previous night. The cops held everyone until they finished processing the crime scene at three a.m., so we reached my place at four. We slept about four hours after she finished thanking me.

You sure?”

No problem. Flint’s only about thirty-five miles up Seventy-five.”

I escorted her out to my car and heard my own phone ping. I checked the most recent message and learned that Truck had confessed.

You could watch our show in Flint tonight,” Rika said. “We could comp you in, no problem.”

Git Down’s got a show tonight,” I told her. “But maybe a rain check?”

Maybe. I don’t think Rudolph’d have to twist your boss’s arm much to have us back, either.”

Probably not.” “I didn’t look at her. “I wouldn’t mind closing with another ‘Big Finish.’”

That wouldn’t suck, would it?”

She sighed. “Damn, there I go again.”

Steve Liskow ( is a former English teacher, theatrical actor and director, and guitar player. He was the first to win the Black Orchid Novella Award twice, and he has been a finalist for both the Edgar Award and the Shamus Award. His latest novel is Words of Love, the fifth in the Chris “Woody” Guthrie series. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Tongues, fiction by Paul J. Garth


Brandon brought the car to a stop in a sandy wash out on the side of the road between a set of bending trees, their limbs drooping towards the ground as though tired from carrying the weight of the sky. Running his tongue over his teeth while Kent smoked out the window, they listened to engine ticking in the darkness. The cold metal of the .32 digging dug into his back, and, though nothing had happened yet - though nothing would happen if they stuck to the plan - he still felt his heart beating staccato against the ribs. Between the trees, the moon winked out at them, vicious and taunting.

Cool air slipped in beneath Kent's smoke and settled beneath the sweat on Brandon's face. He wiped away the chill and eyed Preacher Ferland’s house. The house was a squat, small mid-century farmhouse, sitting atop the crown of a low brown hill, alone on either side for a half mile or more. “That’s it,” he said softly.

They watched the house and the road and the emptiness of everything in this small out of the way place in silence. Neither said anything, but Brandon was certain that Kent was feeling the same thing he felt. A sense of fear. As though the place had somehow been irradiated by the man who lived inside. On the dashboard, the clock slid later and later. The edge of the coke dying inside him, Brandon turned to Kent. “You ready?”

Kent checked the chamber of his Glock and placed it in the front pocket of his hoodie. “Let’s go.”

They moved together, black hoods pulled up over their skulls, breath hanging fractal in front of their faces like wisping smoke. Above them, stars, ageless and innumerable, lay scattered across the sky, and the winking moon hung high and hysterical. Frosted ground crunched underneath their boots and the smell of cold and rot and dead crop filled their noses as they moved over the withered field, towards the Preacher’s house and the copse of trees that lay behind it.

The night hummed in stillness. No dogs. No cars. No signs of life other than their own footfalls and a porch light that hung next to the front door, gleaming dully in the night and illuminating the dead grass of the hill. Silently, they moved to the edge of the light, then circled the house before consulting briefly in the bones of the trees.

“What do you think?” Kent asked.

"I dunno, man," Brandon said. The cold was all the way in him now, and though movement had numbed his fear to a dull ache, it was still there. But so was the anxiousness of what Kent would think. "I guess I'm okay."

“Yeah. The light being on. Gotta be a mistake. Something he forgot to turn off. He’s gone. I know for sure.”

“Okay,” Brandon said, hyping himself up. Pushing the fear away. “Okay. Yeah. Fuck it, let’s go.”

Brandon took the lead. He kept low and moved quickly. Taking the short back steps in a single stride, he pressed himself against the back door of the Preacher’s house. His ears buzzed with blood. His tongue slid over his teeth, tracing the gaps. His hands were shaking.

He counted to five. Willed his hands to be still. He tried the door. Locked.

Kent rose beside him, hefted the Glock by the barrel, and swung it into the window of the door. Glass shattered and fell into the dark of the house.

Brandon rose, reached in and flipped the lock. The door swung open. Together, they went inside.

The kitchen was small and empty of furniture. Shards of glass covered the yellowed laminate floor, tossing moonlight. The floors were dirty, the cupboards an off-white, and the smell of dull smoke hung in the place, the ghosts of a previous resident.

“Where you think it is?” Kent asked, gesturing around with the gun.

Brandon shrugged. “Could be under the goddamn mattress for all I know.”

“Mattress? Man, you made it sound like this guy sleeps in a fuckin’ coffin.”

“Let’s find it and go.”

They moved into the front room, half-blind except for narrow slats of moonlight sliding through a gap in the curtains.

Somewhere in the back of the house, a board moaned, low and soft.

“Jesus,” Brandon said, spinning around, the barrel of his gun sweeping the dark. His feet backed up, reflexively, and he was almost halfway through the kitchen towards the back door when he felt Kent grab him softly in the dark.

“Stay cool, man. The place is empty. If he was as scary as you tell, He would have been out here already. Would have heard the glass break.” He winked in the dark. "It's just us and the ghosts out here now."

“Don’t say that, man. Fuck.” Brandon shivered. “I feel like I’m robbing the Devil. I mean, fucking snakes, man?”

The Preacher had come at the end of summer heat, blight and infection hot on its winds. He’d stood outside of town and promised forgiveness and deliverance, and the people had come. He handled snakes, they whispered, serpent’s that God protected him from. They claimed he’d cured the sick and offered salvation, not just to the damned, but to the town and the land itself, the vipers in his hands the whole time he spoke.

Brandon had heard the rumors - of Ferland’s Godly powers, of his command over the Holy Ghost, and that, despite the peoples’ interest, the Preacher stayed a mysterious figure, rarely seen by anyone outside his white revival tent on Sundays and Wednesdays. His interest grew with each new outrageous story he’d heard, until he felt compelled to see it for himself.

In the heat of the tent, Brandon had seen the snakes. But worse, he’d seen people he’d known his entire life overtaken by something he could not name, Prophecies of the End Times on their lips, their eyes shining in ways that made his arms burst in gooseflesh.

“They do that shit down south,” Kent said, trying to sound calm and worldly, though Brandon knew the furthest south he'd ever been was to Missouri to buy legal weed and fireworks.

He tried to shake the memory, but the white tent had bound itself to him, and even then the memory of the place and the humidity inside scared him, made the skin around his balls draw up tight and the hair on the back of his neck electric.

Kent started moving, deeper into the house. “Thing I don't get is, why would anyone in Nebraska sign up for that. We're not the south. We do things our own way here. And how does it work? Is God in the snake? What if it bites? That mean God hates the snake handler, or someone in the crowd?”

Brandon thought again of Ferland on his rickety stage, his face whittled into a grin. He thought of how he paced back and forth, rattlesnakes in each hand, the serpents flicking forked tongues and widening their jaws to strike. He remembered how he'd watched and wondered, slack-jawed, the question of what drove a man to do such a thing burning behind his eyes. He pushed the thought away. Focused instead on a different memory, the image of the wicker donation plate overflowing with cash, the Preacher blessing and raising it over his head at the end of every service.

“It's all bullshit,” he said, but even as he spoke he could hear the own rattle in his voice. Could feel the bone in the back of his throat. “None of it works. It just is. Let’s just find the money and get the fuck out.”

They began to walk again, moving deeper into the dark room off the kitchen, floorboards creaking underneath.

From somewhere in the shadows, they heard rattling.

They stopped, trading looks, fear written across their faces. Brandon reached behind him, grabbed the grip of the .32 for comfort. Breathing deep, he reached around the doorframe, found the light-switch, and flipped it on.

Dull, yellow light filled the room, barely pushing back the dark. The room was small. Unkempt. A bookshelf along the far wall filled with religious tracts, books on demonology, screeds against The Pope, and the “Left Behind” novels. A small desk pressed back against the far wall. Next to the desk, on top of an old nightstand, sat a red wooden box covered by a piece of warped plywood, cement bricks resting on either end. Muted rattling came from inside.

Brandon stared at the box, his eyes like cotton, dry and itching. It was the same box he’d seen the Preacher reach his hands into, rattlesnakes wrapped around his wrists as he pulled them back out, their hisses and rattles accompanying his apocalyptic witnessing.

Brandon took a step back. “Oh fuck, man,” he said. His bones had fallen loose inside his skin. Droplets of sweat broke out on his face. He imagined one of the snakes sliding past his teeth and down his throat, it’s tongue flicking the blood from his hammering heart.“I didn’t know he kept them here.”

“I didn’t either,” Kent said. “I thought they stayed at the tent.”

The rattling slowed to a dull drone and then stopped.

Brandon reached out and touched Kent's arm. "I’m not sure I want to do this, man. It was my idea, yeah, but, man, I don't want to be here. I don’t want to rob this dude. A normal preacher or priest of whatever would be bad enough, but this guy is another fucking level. This shit freaks me out too bad.”

Kent looked at him with cold eyes, yellow and slit in under the rooms lonely light. "You know why we wanted to do this, Brandon. Get it the fuck together."

Brandon need cut through his gut, swirling with fear. He thought of the nosebleeds, spilling down into his mouth. Of his gums, too dull to feel themselves giving up the root. He thought of Kent on the ratty bean bag, finally passed out after three days. Of how they always needed more to last them. Of how he’d finally figured a way to get out of the middle of fucking Nebraska and to a place where there was something. Better drugs, better women, better jobs. Something more than a tiny town off the highway that offered only a more bitter, angrier God, shit coke, and the same jobs at the silos. And now he wanted to throw it all away.

Because of the Preacher. Because of Ferland. Not because of the things he'd seen him do, but because of the glow he'd held in his eyes as he'd done them.

Brandon shook his head. “No. Dude. Seriously. I’m gonna wait outside.” He gestured around the room with his hand. “Fuck all of this. You wanna do it? Fine. Don’t even need my split. There are other ways we can get right. Other ways we can start over."

"You always were a pussy," Kent said. "But you better wait at the car. Cause I'm gonna find it.” He turned, walking across the small room toward the small hallway, the kitchen, and the rest of the creaking black house beyond.

Brandon looked away, shame and fear and need all twisting in him now, ringing him out until the sweat slid from his pores and the snakes smelled it and began beating themselves against the slivered wood of the container.

Behind Brandon, just a few steps in to the hall, Kent’s footsteps stopped. And then a scream rose up.

Brandon turned turned, a question forming on his tongue. From the room, he saw Kent raising his hand, the small black Glock swinging up in front of him.

The back half of Kent blew outwards, blood and muscle and bone, the gunshot thundering against the thin wood.

Gore painted the wall next to Brandon.

Iron in his mouth. Smoke burning in his nostrils. His ears went numb. Felt his heart beat through his empty gums. A scream spilled from his throat as he watched Kent’s body tumble forewards, his guts suddenly unzipped, and land face down on the wooded floor of the study, but it died between his teeth.

Brandon fell against the wall, stumbling and sliding on his friend’s blood until he ended on his knees, his eyes searching the dark where Kent had pointed.

The Preacher stood hunched in the dark of the kitchen, a shotgun leveled, a black outline against the dark of the broken back door. The man’s eyes haunted the darkness, reflecting the hoary light of the moon.

Slowly, the shotgun leading him, the Preacher walked into the room.

Brandon’s spine wracked. Fire burned through his brain, screaming for him to reach to the back of his jeans, to the pistol cold against his sweating skin, but he was frozen in place, his veins leeched of heat and blood. Behind him, the snakes in the box hissed furiously and thumped their rattles against the wood.

The Preacher stepped over Kent’s body, avoiding the spreading pool of blood, the shotgun sweeping around Brandon. "Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off," Preacher Ferland said, his voice softer than the rickety accented ever-rising Drone Brandon had heard in the tent. He slipped a foot under Kent's shoulder and kicked the body over on it's back.

Kent’s eyes, stuck open, stared at the bottom row of the bookshelf, a look of surprise and pain knit into his face.

In a terrible moment, Brandon realized that his friend’s twisted body, insides spilling over the wooden floor, looked like a burst snake in the middle of birth, and he fought the urge to vomit. Sweat ran from his brow. Mixed with blood. Stung his eyes. Fear, a deeper fear than he'd ever experienced, spread across the top of his skin and pounded in his skull. And below that, the urge for coke screamed.

He ran his tongue over the gaps of teeth to fight the urge. “It was a mistake,” he said, finally able to slide words from his mouth. “A mistake.”

Ferland stared in silence. Their eyes locked, and Brandon felt something, like the Preacher was probing his soul.

The snakes slowed their mad writhing, and the room became so still and silent Brandon was convinced the Preacher could hear his heart beating, and that, at the sound of it, the man’s tongue had become wet.

“Just let me go!” he screamed.

No answer. The Preacher’s body stood so still it seemed he were carved of stone.

He’d seen the Preacher speak in tongues and exorcise demons and boom to his flock - his voice always loud, musical, trembling with power - that in the very land they worked lived the Devil. But, Brandon realized, he’d never seen the man be still or silent, and in the pale of the room, the Charismatic’s quiet unnerved him even more.

Then, almost imperceptibly, the Preacher began to hum, airy and light, a hymn, like something sung joyously by a choir.

“Just let me go,” Brandon said again, his voice breaking now. He wanted to weep. Pray. Wondered if he would be able to pull out and empty the .32 before the Preacher fired on him. Knew it would be impossible. Crashed his thoughts in to one another, trying to decide if it'd be worth it anyway.

The Preacher stopped humming then. “Amen,” he said aloud, and Brandon realized the humming had been a prayer - a paean, maybe, for forgiveness. He watched as Ferland lowered the shotgun and came to him, his hand out, offering to help him up. “I’m sorry for your friend,” Ferland said. “But he was about to shoot me. I just hope he was right with the Lord. Now,” the Preacher paused, taking in all of Brandon, his ratty jeans, his worm boots, the sweat rolling across his forehead, his twisted and failing teeth, “You need to tell me why you’ve come here.”

“No,” Brandon said. “You killed Kent.”

The man’s eyes took on a determined set, the skin beneath them smooth and tanned. He stepped forward, the shotgun lowered, his hand out.

Brandon looked down and saw Ferland’s feet, slick with Kent’s blood from the spreading pool. “Just let me go,” he begged. “I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”

“Robbery, am I right?” the Preacher said, ignoring the request. “Because of drugs? Or is it a woman you’re stealing for? Either way, a whore has your soul.”

Shame soaked through him, mingling with the pulse inside that begged for a hit. Brandon nodded. “Drugs,” he said, then he reached up and took the Preacher’s hand, warm and somehow clammy at the same time, and brought himself to standing.

A dark humor settled into Ferland’s face. “But you don’t know where the donations even are, do you?”

Brandon shook his head, the bones in his neck grinding on each other. “Please, he begged, “don’t kill me.”

“What do you think of me?” The Preacher stepped backwards, as though he were offended at the thought. “That I judge you as evil for your addiction? Because you have fallen under evil’s spell? No. No, not at all. I believe in forgiveness,” the Preacher’s face grew softer, his voice calming, “I am not meant to kill you,” he said. “I am meant to teach you how to live.”

Ferland paused, then reached out and took Brandon’s hand in his own as though he were a child, the blood on their palms mixing. “In you,” he continued, “I see one of God’s children who has lost his way. That your way to Glory has been blocked by something else. And I believe — I have to believe — that you have been brought to me, delivered to me, so that I can guide you back to righteousness.”

Preacher Ferland leading, they moved across the room together, stepping over Kent’s blood, already gathering the smell of rot. Calmly, the Preacher led Brandon to the red wooden box on the old nightstand.

“It’s in there,” he said. “And you’re going to take it. A sign of God's love. Not blasphemous Serendipity, but something older. A perfect order. I can look at you and know, through His wisdom. That you are a fearful man. But tonight, you shake the fear off.”

Hissing leaked from the box as the snakes came alive again.

Brandon bent at the waist, retching up bile. The Preacher’s hand calmly rubbed his back. “Jesus Christ,” he gasped.

“Exactly!” Ferland clapped him on the back, then raised him back to standing before taking a step away.

“Go on,” he said. “It’s waiting for you.”

Brandon tried to stall, to grab something in his mind that would spare him, but everything slipped under the weight of his need. Of his shame. His fear. The anxiousness he could never seem to shake. “You,” he tried. “You were supposed to be gone.”

Disappointment clouded the Preacher’s face. “No man will know my coming and going. Don’t you recognize that? You? A thief in the night?”

He felt Ferland reach into the back of his jeans and pull the .32 from his waist. His temples hammering in fear, Brandon stepped to the box. With hands quaking, he removed the bricks from the corners, then slid the piece of plywood off, inch by inch.

The inside of the box was dark and still, the scales of the rattlesnakes cooly reflecting the overhead light. One of the things knocked its rattle against the wooden side then fell quiet while the other tasted blood in the air with its forked tongue. Their eyes beat black and cold. His legs tingled as if to lead him away, but he could not bring himself to move. A tail slid across the top of an old metal cashbox nestled between the vipers, filling the box with a tinny echo.

“You see it,” the Preacher said, taking a step back. “You just have to believe now. God brought you here for this. Put your faith in Him and you will not be harmed.” He gestured again at the box, an air of weariness flushing across his skin. “But those who don’t believe are punished.” Ferland raised the pistol. Pressed it, softly, against the back of Brandon’s skull.

Brandon stood, staring at the snakes, his vision blurring with darkness at the edges. He tried not to think of the gun at the back of his head. Tried not to think of Kent and all the nights they’d spent on back roads, passing the pipe or the powder between them, how badly he needed it now. Tried not to think of the insides of his friend’s body, now exposed and twisted and leaking on the floor.

His tongue worked the gaps of his teeth.

He thought of getting clean, how he might actually be able to do it now that Kent was gone. He thought of Preacher Ferland’s God, full of wrath and retribution and mercy for those like him, those who had fallen into the dark. He felt the Preacher standing behind him, as though he’d been placed there by God himself, and how he’d seen seen the man plunge his hands into the box, before pulling the serpents out, always unharmed, his face calm, serene, at one with the Maker.

Brandon swallowed. He tried to summon a calmness or faith. Tried to find a way forward without his own fear.

An electricity entered the room, soft but insistent, just over the surface of his skin.

“God is here with us now,” Ferland said, pushing Brandon forward. “You can feel it. Don’t let Him leave you now.”

Brandon raised his right arm and placed it over the top, a half-forgotten Psalm on his lips.

The rattlesnakes began to writhe, their bodies turning and twisting in the shadow of his hand, the ends of their tails rattling, beating against the cheap wood. Forked tongues flicked rapidly, the serpent’s eyes shining sick and wet in the shadows.

He closed his eyes. Tried to picture God and his Kingdom. The peace of it. The bravery. The Power and the Glory and the Joy.

Slowly, Brandon lowered his hand into the red wooden container, prayers flowing from his lips. Behind him, Preacher Ferland joined in, his voice loud and commanding.

The hissing and rattling of the vipers grew louder as he lowered his hand deeper, the tails of the rattlesnakes thumping against the insides of the box. Brandon raised his voice to match the Preacher’s, his eyes clenched shut as his hand descended into the whirling mass of scales and teeth, and amidst the electricity and their voices and the shaking of the snakes tails, the room became filled with a strange uneven melody, like a man speaking in tongues.

Paul J. Garth has been published in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Tough, and several other anthologies and web magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska, where he lives with his family. An editor at Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Qué Falta, fiction by Jake Stimmel

This place used to be the sea. I sit on a high cliff, overlook the town. Below me the red desert bows under the weight of a lonely city, a copper-stain cluster that huddles against pecan orchards and watches the sky. Twin scars of highway and dry Rio Grande split the downtown buildings. I trace those scars gently with my eyes, following them South to where the land rises up and is returned to the desert.

These cliffs are the highest place I could get to, but over this emptiness you can never see any further. Certainly not to El Paso, where the ground holds saltwater aquifers. This desert is endless rolling seafloor, broken only by ridges that pierce up through cracked dirt like stalagmites. As if brackish water has leeched upwards from the earth. The sky is agoraphobic in its expanse – stare too long and it pins your chest.

A great-tailed grackle leaps out above me, splays iridescent tailfeathers and drafts away from here, stretching toward the sun before flapping twice and twisting to the city below. It will perch on a dive bar, or maybe a limb over the turtle pond on the college campus. Each hexagon of floating turtle shell emerging from the surface will break independently from the surface and then disappear.

There is a remote chance – the hot wind presses the back of my neck – there is a chance my great-tailed grackle will coast low along Valleyview Drive and come to rest on Solitare’s neon road sign. That’s where I work. I sell prefab houses. I am late, but that doesn’t matter anymore. 


Solitare’s break room is in the back bedroom of a model home, a one-story ranch which acts as our main office. In the break bedroom, I sit on the starched sheets of an unused bed and listen as my coworker Arturo runs cold water from the bathroom sink tap. We do not have a water cooler.

Arturo returns from the bathroom with his water bottle and asks, what’s wrong with you. I don’t answer. I hold my conical paper cup. We got those. I’m hungover. He knows that. About the money, he knows nothing.

Arturo won’t give up asking about my life. He wants to know about my family, and what family, I ask back. He then says he knows about my family; I already told him when we were drunk and he’s just wondering how they are feeling.

How are they feeling, Arturo? How would I know? Didn’t I already tell you that we don’t talk at all? I hope that’s what I said.

Arturo rolls his eyes. Then how are you feeling? Arturo won’t stop with the questions. I say I’m feeling nothing, he doesn’t really want to know, and instead I ask him about his own family. They’re here and there, he says, one side and the other. Mostly on the other side. I’d like to know which border he’s referring to. He tells me about plastic toys, wax candles and hospital beds.

But I know you’re in trouble, Arturo presses, when we drink enough you start muttering about something you’ve lost and you won’t stop.

What I’ve lost… friends, purpose? I do not say I lost drugs. A lot of them, and not mine, I was buying on the margin to get out. If I am killed for it, they will destroy anybody who might know why. So I don’t say nothing to anybody. I’m already trapped. I don’t even talk to my sister or my mother… although that was a long time ago I decided that. Not like now – now we couldn’t talk even if I tried.

I didn’t think Arturo would ever attempt to be my friend. I offer him some water from my paper cup. I say it’s frigid. I know he likes the word.

Whatever, Arturo says, that shit is room temperature, and he goes.


That evening, after work, Arturo and I are getting drunk way in the back of the Solitare’s lot, sitting on the dirt behind a hideous mint green home with off-white trim. Nobody will ever buy this house. We lean against the fence, sitting in an empty backyard, and point a flashlight under the house to search for scorpions. The late summer sky is cold and clear above us and the nighttime desert is growing colder. We mostly do this on Tuesdays and Fridays, and Wednesdays, but it’s a special Monday occasion because Arturo just had a baby.

He says, you know, it felt like I was giving birth, nods like I must know and I really don’t.

I ask him if it hurt and he snorts, but I’m not joking. Maybe family only hurts later for some people, for us. Arturo is my only friend. I think he knows about the money and the rest. Although he has stopped his prying since this morning.

This morning, we were standing at the counter in the living room, we watched leased vehicles with heavy window tint roll past. When he asked me for the third time since they took my family, what is happening, I tell him that what is happening to me could happen to him. That shuts him up. I tilt the flashlight toward white picket fences and the tall chain-links that loom behind.

He doesn’t say anything except that our commission sucks at Solitare’s. I have to leave before I get too slammed and he gets out of me what I was hinting the other night, what I want to say about the money. He almost gets it out of me, that truth. They’ll kill for the truth – the money. With luck they’ll kill him first and not ask any questions, in that way that they ask. So I leave without saying more and drive home, collapse and cry on my buckling pleather couch.


The next day I call off work to take a trip. I want to go to the ancient dwellings at Gila National Forest; I want to see more cliffs, have some sort of esoteric and rejuvenating experience. I only recover from the hangover around noon and I don’t have time, really, but I leave anyways.

Before I even get out of town, around 4:30 in the afternoon, I arrive at a bridge across the Rio Grande by Arturo’s house. The river below is dry and the mud is cracked like a calloused heel. I spot a couple of O’Keeffe’s flowers growing pure-white and lovely in the center, and drop down to look. In the center of it all, a cracked skull of a bull. I want to raise it to the sky. I am expecting the head to smell like dust and nostalgia. But when I do, it doesn’t smell at all. And I am a lonely man in a ditch holding bones to the sky.

I decide to take tomorrow off as well, plot a different route to fulfillment. I still have time. I’ll sleep early and drive straight to the highway.


I mean to sleep and not drink. I can’t sleep, so I drink heavily and then drive through a hazy predawn morning headed for White Sands. The highway crests over the sharp bluffs of the Organ Mountains, my cliff among them, down through lush desert meadows, and is then straight and flat and dead the whole way. “LOAN FULFILLMENT”, an old billboard screams from the highway’s edge. It’s the first sign I’ve seen for miles. Chunks have peeled away from the frame, left the phone number incomplete.

I get to the park entrance and pay, drive some more until I reach the end of the road and a picnic parking area where I step out. The trail is marked by concrete bollards in the dunes. How do they stand straight among all this softness? Curious, I follow them, and the tiny obelisks lead me several miles out into the low, clean, sparkling white dunes. 

I dig my fingers into the hot surface. Just below, the sand is cool and moist. A beach with my sister, tall castles in the sand. I consider digging down for water, to see if I might find some. After a long time searching, the sun comes down again. I hike out and drive back to the mountains and Las Cruces, checking all around for headlights on the dark surface of the empty desert.


The next morning, again on my high perch, the sun is high. In patches below, that brown desert is shimmering. This money that I owe, it’s riding around in a car that the driver can’t afford. Or it’s in somebody’s hands, and they’ll spend it once I’m gone. And keep my family. Take Arturo, too. But make no mistake about money, here. It is the only thing that travels with impunity.

So I stand up and look over the cliff’s edge. Far enough down. I could go that way. But this is a religious transaction. The money doesn’t stop with me. Some kid will be in a new sports car that he can suddenly afford and driving down Picacho Ave, looking for me, and I’ll be way down there among the red rocks and scrub brush. He won’t be able to find me. And then he’ll pay my price, too. So maybe I can’t fall far enough down from this place. I look up again. No more blackbirds.

I can still squint out that thin dirt road winding just past where my body would land. It curves left and reappears further down, cresting a low hill before disappearing. On that road I see a glinting dot. Not what I pictured. Not here, and yet here they come.

Only one person has found me up here before, my sister. They are coming to take me back to her. I look once more for a grackle and find only heavy black rainclouds on the horizon. Virga thickens below, curls like steam. My ears are plugged and the cliff starts to lean one way and the other, and there’s no wind. On the road below, I hear my car is coming. I take one last look at that brutal speck beneath towering, rain-swollen horizon. 

He said he was happy, I think. I hope I forget about him… Everything could be forgotten when you look out on this scale, desert, sky, clouds, on and forever. I wait beneath the lingering sun, sit down on the edge of the cliff and scoot forward. I am ready for the blasting rain to fill every empty space, and for the murderers in the SUV. It is large now, an aging black Suburban, yes. Wind presses on my back and I move forward a little more, my tailbone pressing against the edge.

The car drives past. But this feeling, now, death is coming as sure and heavy as the downpour. It will feed the dirt, turn the riverbed to mud and nourish the lost cattle bones I found. A car disappears where highway bridges empty riverbed. I know what I’m doing when I get down from the rock.


Arturo’s house is about fifteen minutes away, on the other side of the river. Entering the neighborhoods at the edge of the city, I crank my radio and refuse to look at a mural’s cement fence, blue and yellow and screaming at me to turn around. At a stoplight, I open the glovebox. Of course there is a gun there, a cheap glock.

As I draw closer to Arturo’s house, down on Valleyview, my car passes a large neon sign advertising ATVs and quality firearms. But I don’t need a good one. I got mine for cheap at the recent gun show, at the convention center beside the pond and its turtles.

The rain is coming down hard enough that I stop in a couple places, wondering if the road is overflowing, if it might carry me away. That would be for the best. I consider using the shoulder, must be muddy. Losing control would mean worse for him and his family. The asphalt saves me, bald front tires pulling the back ones free.

Arturo’s house has a literal white picket fence, and I step out of my car and step over the gate. Face up, I clean the tears and sweat from my lips. How can I knock and tell him about the riverbed, those things that may grow after we walk away. Arturo saves me the trouble.

He walks out from his porch with an umbrella, splashes across his muddy lawn and hugs me and as his stubble touches my earlobe, I tell him I want to tell him about what’s happening. And neither of us are crying, his eyes are empty like he knows what I want to do. He doesn’t say anything, just nods, and we walk together. His fingertips touch the cold car door handle, but I splash ahead through the mud.

He follows me and opens the umbrella. The smell of rain and manure is thick in my nose, almost overpowering, so I start to jog towards the river. Arturo drags behind, stepping around one puddle and into another, his tennis shoes must be soaked and so are mine.

We come to the nearest bridge across the river. Water rushes over, around it. You can feel concrete shift beneath your feet. I turn and wait for my friend to catch up. Heavy in my pocket, the gun writhes like a pinned coralsnake, and my mouth is opening wide to shout.

Arturo walks up calmly and tells me that he can’t understand what I’m saying but he already knows, about everything, my family and what happened to them. He’s sorry, he wants to help. Below our feet, the river writhes and rushes, swollen with the power of heavy rain.

What I did, what did I do! What did I do, Arturo, you’re speaking in the past tense and I’m standing right here with this gun.

I take three steps back, pull it and point and Arturo doesn’t run. I don’t yet shoot. Neither of us speaks. If I could see his hazel eyes through the rain, maybe that would change things, remind me of something I’ve forgotten. I desperately want to remember… but no, this is the best thing. It only gets worse.

Again Arturo screams, Maybe they will come back, They will let them come back.

I aim badly and shoot him in the lower part of his face. He falls over, wet hair slack over his forehead, the lower half of his face dangling as he falls and slapping the water as he lands. Rain is pounding down and the wind whips in an awful way so I take two steps forward and shoot him many more times. The wind seems to stop. My teeth begin to chatter.

Up and down, things come and go, shadows of rain like vapor rising, or the sky like the roof of a cave. This world is a paradox, horribly vast and each person trapped in their own cold crevice thousands of feet down. And the cold water rushes on around us.

I haul Arturo’s corpse onto the bridge railing and embrace him. We roll over the side together, we make our escape from the cartel. We are stark flowers among the desiccation cracks by the time they find us, far down the riverbed.

Jake Stimmel is an educator and writer in Minneapolis. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. He is online at or, in real life, feeding the cat.