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 jakestimmel.com or, in real life, feeding the cat.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Glass Houses, fiction by Brandon Barrows

We were on the patio by the pool, under a blazing hot sun. Marie sipped a melon daiquiri from a sweating glass, taking a break from reciting the same complaints for the millionth time. Her pretty, heart-shaped face didn’t look old enough to drink, but that was the result of good living and a lot of money. She was almost thirty; she’d been married for ten years and, if you believed her, hated her husband for almost as long. I believed.

Pete, you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said.” Some people might have whined, but Marie was accusing. With her self-assurance and confidence she couldn’t be passive if she tried. She certainly would never whine. I wondered what she was like before marrying Albert Dixon and his money; was she born with this haughtiness or did she learn it? She never talked about her past, only how unhappy she was in the present.

Well, it’s your ass in the grinder if he finds out about us,” Marie said before taking another pull on her daiquiri straw.

Who’s going to tell him?” I asked. My eyes strayed beyond Marie to where Christopher, the houseman, was peeling an opaque, textured plastic film off of the big glass door that led from the patio to the house’s entertainment room. I’d never seen such a thing until a few weeks ago. When I asked about it, Marie said she bought it online a couple of years before, that it was designed for better privacy with glass doors or windows, but that it was really so her husband would stop stumbling into the otherwise crystal-clear door when drunk. It apparently happened several times, the big inebriated man thinking the closed door was open and walking into it. She didn’t care what happened to Al, but they used the room for parties, and the potential liability scared her.

Marie twisted in her chaise to see what I was looking at. As she did, Christopher started cleaning the window with a spray-bottle and rag. “Don’t worry about Chris. He knows where his bread’s buttered.”

I wasn’t worried.”

You should be.” Marie picked up a tube of suntan lotion and began spreading the creamy goo first on her arms and then across her chest. “Not about Chris, but when Al’s drunk, he’ll fly off the handle about any little thing and he’s jealous as hell. These last couple months with you have been wonderful, but it’s only a matter of time before he catches us. Want to hear what happened to the last guy?” She flashed a smirk like a mean little kid, handed me the tube and turned over, exposing her back, bare except for the tiny strip of white stretchy material keeping the bikini top in place.

I didn’t bother responding, just rubbed lotion between my hands then began massaging it into her skin, burned golden by the sun, feeling its silkiness and the smoothly taut muscles beneath. Finally, I said, “I think you want to be caught, having me in the house like this all the time.”

Marie’s head whipped around, anger in her eyes. “Maybe I do. Al’s got me trapped with that damned pre-nup. He knows I don’t love him, and he doesn’t care, but if I divorce him, I’m out on my butt without a dime.”

And a pretty little butt it is, sweetheart.” I patted her rear.

I’m serious, Pete. If he divorces me, I’d at least get alimony, but that’s chump-change. Maybe it’d be worth it, but most of the time, I’d rather put up with him than even think of living like some broke-ass. What I really want is to see him dead.” She turned back over, to better pin me with her glare. “Then I’d have plenty, even if I did have to split the money with his sister.”

What’s she like?”

Marie waved a hand. “I told you before, I don’t know the bitch. Al invited her to the wedding, but she never showed – just sent us a card and a god-damned Cuisinart. I guess they talk sometimes, but they never really got along and we never see each other. I don’t know why he keeps her in his will.”

I shrugged. “Family’s important.”

Whatever. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Even with the drinking, Al’s healthy as a horse. He’ll probably outlive us all, unless one of his drunken little accidents finally does the trick.”

That’s what I’ve been thinking about, baby: accidents.”

Marie scoffed, looking at me like I was the biggest idiot she ever met. “An accident? You’re out of your mind. The cops know every trick in the book. Believe me, I’ve watched enough Investigation Discovery to realize that. Get this into that handsome head: it’s impossible to fake something and get away with it.”

Sure,” I agreed. “Impossible to fake.” I looked past Marie, letting a smile play across my face. Christopher was examining the sliding glass door. He nodded in satisfaction, then picked up his bottle and rag and went inside. The plastic film he removed before cleaning the door was conspicuously absent.

Does he always do that?” I asked, jutting my chin towards the house.

Do what?” Marie turned to look and saw instantly what I meant. “Oh, the privacy film?” She looked to me. “Sure, he gives the window a few hours to dry before putting it back on so no moisture gets trapped. Why?”

Give the man the rest of the day off, and I’ll tell you after a little more thought.”

Marie frowned. “I can give Christopher the day; I don’t really need him anyway. But why can’t you tell me what you’re thinking now?”

Because, baby.” I leaned forward, tilted her chin up and lowered my lips to hers. Her mouth opened beneath mine and I felt a little shiver go through her as my tongue darted inside her mouth, then back out as I pulled away. “I’ve got other things on my mind right now.”

Her face flushed and her voice was husky as she said, “Let’s go inside.”


Later, we lay in bed. I was flat on my back, watching the tendril of smoke from Marie’s cigarette crawl towards the ceiling. I hated the smell of the thing, and I hated tasting it in her mouth, but it was a small price for all the benefits I was enjoying now and those still in the future.

It’s just wild enough to work, Pete.” Her weight shifted and I felt the softness of her breast against my shoulder. “People have been hurt, or even killed, like that. Mostly little kids, I think, but I read about a woman in India who died in some bank running into an electronic door that wasn’t working right. She went clear through it.”

Uh huh,” I said. “And Al’s already got a history with your door, right?”

He gave himself a bloody nose last time. He’s lucky. He might have crashed right through it if he was moving any faster. Christopher cleans it so well, you can’t even see it at night. That’s why I got the—“

She cut herself off, sitting up straight and gripping my shoulder tightly. “The film. Christopher took it off to clean the glass. That’s why you had me give him the rest of the day off, so he’d forget to put it back on.”

I grinned up at her, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to.

And tonight’s Al’s poker game with all his stupid little buddies. He won’t be home until one or two in the morning and he’ll probably be smashed.”

You said he always has a nightcap when he comes home?” There was an extensive bar in the entertainment room. Standing at it or sitting on one of its high stools, the room was designed so you had a perfect view of the pool through the sliding glass door.

Uh huh,” Marie said. “He can’t sleep without one last drink, the god-damned lush.” Her brow wrinkled; fine lines appeared around her eyes and mouth, making her look closer to her age. “But why would he go out to the pool? He can swim, but he hardly ever does, and never at night.”

Easy.” I shifted to a sitting position, my back against the padded headboard. “We wait ‘til he’s at the bar, drinking his schnapps or whatever, then you scream and throw yourself straight into the deep end. He’ll hear you and go smashing through the door to save you from drowning. He would save you, right?”

He’d try.” Marie sneered. “He likes to take care of his property and that’s all I am to him.” She took hold of my shoulder again, gripping so tightly it hurt. There was a mixture of excitement and worry dancing in her eyes now. “What if it doesn’t work, though? What if he remembers the door or accidentally touches it first or something?”

So we muff it, that’s all. He yanks you out of the pool and he’s your big, strong hero-man for a day or two. We’ll just have to wait, figure out something else, and try again.”

Marie stubbed the cigarette out in the nightstand ashtray, a thoughtful look on her face. After a full minute, she said quietly, “It’ll work.” She turned to me, wearing a grin of sly anticipation. “It’ll work, Pete. He’ll be drunk and he’ll either be flying high from winning at poker or he’ll be looking for a way to redeem himself if he loses. You know, boost his self-esteem. Either way, he’ll hear me scream, see me splashing around out there, and go crashing right through the glass trying to play Mister Hero. He probably won’t even think about the door, not with it freshly cleaned and the film gone. And if he thinks of it at all, he’ll just think the door’s already open.

You’ll need to be there, though, Pete.” She took my hand, lacing her long, delicate fingers through mine as she pinned my eyes with hers. “Just stay in the shadows by the cabanas and once he’s through the door, you’ll have to pull me out, all right? You know I’m not a strong swimmer, and the deep end makes me nervous.”

Sure, I know,” I told her. She owned more bathing suits than any woman I ever met, but I never once saw her in the water.

If it does work, you’ll have to be a witness. We’ll tell the police that you were having a drink with Al at the bar, and you heard me scream, and Al rushed right out through the door before you could stop him.” She paused. “And Pete?” She was studying me now, looking at me as if she could see inside me, like she was searching for something.


You know if this only sort of works what you’ll have to do, right? Are you sure you have the stomach for it? I mean, if he breaks the door, but he isn’t…”

She didn’t have to finish. If Albert Dixon didn’t cut his own throat smashing the glass door to pieces, would I be capable of picking up one of those jagged shards and doing it for him? I didn’t answer, not with words, and I don’t know what she saw on my face or in my eyes, but I knew what I was thinking and somehow, she did, too. Her gaze jerked away, and her fingers untangled from mine.

I gave her hand a squeeze, surprised at how cold it felt when it was so warm a moment earlier. “Relax. It’ll work out,” I told her. She nodded and forced herself to smile, but still pulled her hand free.


It worked perfectly, everything exactly as I planned.

At one-thirty-one the next morning, Albert Dixon came home from his poker game and went right into the entertainment room for a final drink before bed. From the darkness around the cabanas, I clearly saw him pour himself a big drink from a little bottle and swig half of it down in the first gulp. He was just lifting the glass to finish it off when Marie’s scream ripped the night apart. It was followed instantly by a splash. Al’s head whipped around, the glass, forgotten, dropped from his fingers, and he charged towards the pool.

First, the sliding door shattered with a sharp crack, like splintering bone, and then there were almost-melodic sounds as thousands of razor-edged shards tinkled to the concrete of the patio. Al Dixon’s form, already bloodied from dozens of cuts, went sprawling face-forward into a heap of deadly debris. The spurting blood, bright against the gray-white concrete, quickly pooled around his head, shining dully in the light spilling from the house. I was glad that his face was turned away.

Keeping to the shadows, I moved towards the nearest edge of the pool. It was maybe twenty seconds since Marie threw herself into the deepest part, but she was already struggling to keep her head above water and as I watched, she was quickly losing the battle. She screamed, she spluttered, she called out for me. All I could think was that my guess was right. She wasn’t a weak swimmer; she couldn’t swim at all.

Marie went down one last time. I stood watching for a few minutes more, but the night was already reclaiming its calm. The Dixons’ property was a couple acres and surrounded by both hedges and white-washed fences, so I wasn’t worried about nosy neighbors. I was just glad that it was finally over and taking a moment to regain my own equilibrium.

Finally, I let myself out of the back gate, walked through a short stretch of woods to where I left my car, parked on the side of a little-used dirt road. Driving back to my hotel, I thought over the last several hours. My only regret was for Christopher, who would probably feel personally responsible when he found the scene in the morning. After all, his not replacing the door’s privacy film was the direct cause of this tragedy, of the death of a man killed while rushing to save his poor, drowning wife.

In my hotel room, I packed my things. It would be good to finally go home, to see Allison again. It was only about nine weeks, but it was the longest we’d been apart since we were married the year before. Even with Marie to distract me, I missed my wife more than I would have thought possible. I needed to see her, to hold her in my arms, to feel her love again. This was all her idea, but she would be eager to have me back, too. Especially now – she would need someone to provide comfort in this time of grief. Even if they didn’t like each other, Albert Dixon was still her brother and no matter the time or distance, family is important.

Brandon Barrows
is the author of several novels, including THE LAST REQUEST published fall 2023 from Bloodhound Books. He has published over one-hundred published stories, mostly crime, mystery, and westerns. He is a three-time Mustang Award finalist and a 2022 Derringer Award nominee. Find more at http://www.brandonbarrowscomics.com and on Twitter @Brandon Barrows