Monday, April 8, 2024

Mine, fiction by Eleanor Keisman

A fragrant breeze drifted over me just as the pregnant woman passed by. I like to imagine it was her I was smelling. It surprised me how nice it was, like lilac scented soap. I always thought women who were that pregnant smelled gross, like swollen, sweaty flesh. When I thought of pregnancy, I thought of gas and leaky nipples, of a body oozing with double the fluids as it could handle. But the breeze around this woman smelled fresh and taught, much like the fit and hairless legs that carried her. Her hair was sandy blonde, straight, without tangles, fly-aways or frizz, and tied in a low ponytail. She seemed peaceful, like a body that had never cried out in existential agony before. Like someone that had never tasted their own blood in a fit of rage.

I was carrying a bag of groceries: salty things that burned my mouth, sweet things that sent my head spinning but ached in my stomach, crunchy things that felt good when I was angry and filled my ears with sound, soft things for when I wanted to sink my teeth into something, frozen things to stuff my freezer with, pretending I had a family to feed, bitter things that snapped me back to reality, and alcohol, for when I couldn’t bear to feel it anymore. A bag filled with calories that I didn’t want yet couldn’t stop gorging on. And though the frozen peas were melting, and I was only minutes away from my house, I backtracked: The scent of her spun me on my heels.

We were on a cul-de-sac, lined with houses, little and pastel colored and identical, as if made of ticky-tacky, like the song says. How many doctors and business executives lived in them? And how many lawyers? And how many dishonest ones, like mine? I hated the sight of it and had only agreed to move here in the first place because my husband had promised it would be temporary. It was near to the law firm, he said. It was affordable, he said, and would give us a chance to save money to move someplace not so suburban. He coerced me into giving up my financial independence and said it was teamwork.

And then it wasn’t teamwork. Then he had an affair, took the car, and never came home again, while I had a miscarriage and had to stay home every day. He called me a burden, said our marriage was a sham from the start, and turned himself into a hero for the charity of continuing to pay the bills, which, as he put it, I could never pay for myself. Now, isolated in the suburbs, the tepid puddle of my melted pride stagnating in the July heat, it turned out he was right.

The heat from the pavement rose through the soles of my shoes, baking my legs from the inside out. Still, I followed the pregnant woman, watching her cotton shorts swish and fan her with every step. She walked with a man of similar height, of similar skin color, and hair color. Their gait was synchronized, and they reached out their hands to one another at the same time, linking pinkies and swinging with ease.

And then the man laughed.

The woman had said something. He tipped his head slightly back and let out a ha-HA! It was almost a question, that second ha. The first, an unstoppable ejaculation – perhaps much like the moment that got them here in the first place – but the second ha had something fearful in it. As if her power terrified him and he sent out a call to those in his periphery to ask: Am I still a man if she has this control over me? May I still be the ultimate owner of this reality if I allow her half of it?

The HA lingered there in the air, echoing over his head, and then in my head. It started faint and then became high-pitched, glinting in my brain like a knife’s edge. A sound like that has a way of opening time sideways, extending within itself. Even in the linear space of a second, it held a depth that went on forever. It wasn’t even a human voice anymore. It raised itself above and beyond the tone of a question and pounded and screeched like a siren, causing my frustration to build. It felt like opening the door to my own house and having an alarm go off that I didn’t know the code for.

Or maybe there was no question. Maybe he just thought she was funny. Or maybe she hadn’t said anything at all, and he laughed at something he thought of himself, acting as both actor and audience. My husband laughed that way, and I used to get such a thrill every time I made it happen. But he was only using my humor to demonstrate how clever he was. Because who else would ever get my obscure references?

She didn’t do anything when he laughed, and the breeze felt once again hot and oppressive, the dwindling lilac scene was replaced with a faint odor of raw sewage. My swollen legs ached to turn me around back toward home, back to the airconditioned interior which would remain that way so long as he kept paying the bills, from wherever he was and whomever he was with. There were no phone calls or emails, divorce papers went unsigned. Me and my body rotted together in climate-controlled boredom, and no one laughed at my jokes anymore. I was pure passive receptivity, significant only in the requirements he felt were needed to keep me alive.

I’d been following the couple, trying to look inconspicuous, but when I focused back on the woman, I noticed that her hair was shorter. But her hair wasn’t shorter. It was him, with his big mitt-like hand, rubbing the back of her neck. He was slathering her with her own sweat, carelessly tangling her silky hair. I hadn’t seen her sweating before, and based on how she smelled, I couldn’t imagine it. But I was sweating, and because of that, I knew that she was too. I felt his hand on her neck as though it were my own. I felt his fingers, feigning concern, the palms of his hands, giving a touch that could be mistaken for security. They were firm and loving if you didn’t question why they lingered a little longer and held on a little stronger than they ought to.

The back of my neck felt suffocated, smothered in a gluey coating, and no fresh air could reach me.

The smell of rot punched me in the face.

There was an icy, aching sensation in my hip as the frozen peas I’d bought melted. Cold water dripped down my legs, lukewarm by the time it reached my feet. The cake I’d bought to binge on was soggy by now, and the potato chips were crushed. My pace had slowed, but the couple never left my sight. I had to find out if he was laughing at her or with her, if his hands meant to cradle her or control her. A block ahead of me, I saw them turn up the pathway to a light blue house and go inside. They closed the door on their little box. A few moments later, an electric sound clicked, and the house hummed.

After an hour loitering in a zigzag pattern up and down their block, my groceries hung limp and warm at my side, and I decided to go inside. The door was unlocked and the airconditioned breeze washed over me like absolution the moment I walked in. I set my bag down in the entrance and stepped gently. It was like walking into someone else’s dream. The parquet flooring led into a living room with a dark wood coffee table, two grey armchairs, and a light blue sofa with beige pillows. And on that sofa, the lilac-scented woman with the sandy-blonde hair and the man with the big hands and the loud laugh, napped together.

The man’s hair had looked sandy brown, but up close it appeared darker. It was curly, lighthearted in the way it sprung across his forehead. He was curled toward her, but only gently so, making space for her belly, and for her breath. Up until this point, I’d known him only from the back and from his piercing HA of laughter, but asleep on this blue-sky sofa, he looked like something from a magazine. He looked gentle in a way that could only be staged. Men like that didn’t really exist, anyway, none that wanted me.

What sort of a person does a woman have to be to find a man like that? I wanted to know, to know her, to know how she got to be her. To know everything about her, inside and out. I needed to get inside and understand where her lilac scent came from, how it was possible to be human – ugly, wrinkled, greedy, weak, reeking with the intrinsic odor of fluids and cells – and still attract something that had love in it. She had to be made of some other stuff than I was.

I sat down on the floor, right next to her mouth, and sniffed her breath. She was so perfect, that there was none. It wasn’t bad smelling, or sweet smelling, or warm or cold. It just wasn’t there, as though she were a doll. I put my hand over his open mouth, and also felt nothing. They were perfect. Nothing to argue with, dislike, or offend. I put my mouth to hers and inhaled. I wanted to feed off her like a baby bird. I wanted to be the baby in her belly. I wanted her to be my mommy and teach me how to do it all again, only this time, better.

Neither of them moved. I inhaled until I was filled with the saltiness of her insides. They made me dizzy. I lifted her shirt and tried to crawl inside, but it wasn’t the warmth I was seeking. I wanted her to hold me, to make me a part of her so I could know, really know what she was and how I could be that too. I clawed at her belly, and she rocked back and forth from the weight of me. There was no movement from either of them, as though they were not only asleep, but paused in time, and waiting for me to join their lives. As though I were the baby they were waiting for.

I clawed, like a child trying to get attention. I pawed at her arms and linked my fingers through hers. I hugged her. I held her palms open to see if the secret to her was hidden there. I licked them, and then, I bit. First, I ate her fingers, long and gentle, and then once I got her stomach open, using a letter opener on the coffee table, I ate the baby’s fingers. Adorable fingers of promise, fingers made by love, fingers, not only that I was denied, but that no one wanted from me anyway. But these, I could have. I could swallow them and walk around with them inside me in defiance of my own undesirability.

Then I kissed his mouth to understand what she felt when she kissed him. I wanted to know what kindness felt like in flesh. I sucked and chewed on them and pressed myself against them with such force that it hurt my teeth. His lips were soft, and they made me wet, so I unbuttoned his pants and took off mine, sat on his lap, and rocked until I came. And then I ate them, and they were soft and crunchy at the same time. Then I ate his penis so it would always be with me.

I reached up into her chest, carved out her heart, and ate it, tears and blood running down my face and chest. She was what I wanted to be, and now I’d have her inside me. Both of them, all mine. I fell asleep on top of him, my head on his chest, my arm cradling her head, fingers tangled in her hair.

is an American writer living in Vienna, Austria. She holds a bachelor’s in Liberal Arts, an MBA, and is currently an MFA candidate working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Litro Magazine, 21-MAGAZINE, and The Bangalore Review. When she's not developing her own writing, she's working on a series of translations of Rainier Maria Rilke from the original German to English. 

Monday, April 1, 2024

Home to Roost, fiction by Zakariah Johnson

So, where’s Morrie keep his money?” I asked his new wife, casual-like, as I rolled off her sweaty, post-coital body to grab the cigarettes on the motel night-stand. It was late summer, the AC barely worked, and the sheets hadn’t been fresh to start with.

I dunno. He doesn’t, like, share that stuff with me?” McKenzie said, then added, “But I know he doesn’t pay taxes on most of it. I think he told me that to make himself look smart?”

McKenzie seemed like she’d have to concentrate to remember her middle name, but she’d paid enough attention to know Morrie’s first wife got two million dollars when he traded her in on a younger model. She had to know something useful.

Does he keep offshore accounts?” I asked.

How should I know?” she said. She plucked the burning cigarette from my lips with a moist hand and dragged deep.

Could you find out?”

I guess? I don’t know how hedgerow managers get, like, paid and all. I just like spending it!” She giggled, crinkling her nose in a way that was less attractive each time you saw it.

Ask him,” I said and reclaimed my cigarette. “How hard could it be?”

Ooh! I don’t know, Peter.” She giggled at the double-entendre of my name and crinkled her damn nose again. “How hard could it be?”

The afternoon turned into a long slog, but a man’s gotta do who a man’s gotta do.


Truth is, it felt good fucking Morrie’s wife. It felt like getting my due.

Morrie and I had been inseparable in elementary school, played Little League together and all that. Weekends, we’d trot through the woods to find owl pellets or red efts, the baby salamanders said to be the most common animals in the state but that no one ever sees. I wanted to be an ornithologist; Morrie wanted to save the whales. They were good dreams while they lasted, but class—economic class, not the kind in school—got in the way.

Sophomore year in high school we were lab partners in honors biology, our last real time together. I pulled an A but Morrie got an A-, not that anyone but him kept score. He made me pay a hundred times for outdoing him. The day we got our grades back he asked me in front of the other rich kids why I hadn’t signed up for a summer program he knew damn well I couldn’t afford. He spent that summer on a UNH research vessel in the Gulf of Maine, but something changed after that. When he got back, it was goodbye whales, hello finance and statistics. And goodbye to me. At graduation, the only thing that made his valedictorian speech tolerable was knowing he’d leave forever the next day. Or so we’d thought.

So, it was a topic of interest when JoAnne Gilder, our local real-estate queen, spilled the beans about her latest client over pitchers of Miller Lite at Baron’s.

It’s the golden boy,” she sneered. “Morrie bleeping DeRoche. He calls me out of the blue like we’re still on yearbook committee. Says I’m the first one he thought of, too. Soooo flattering.”

What’s that shrimp doing back here?” her husband, Tom, asked, gently rubbing her neck to calm her down. “He getting a summer place?”

No,” JoAnne said, “He says he’s ‘retiring’ here. Says he ‘Came back, to give back,’ whatever that means.” She picked up her ten-ounce mug and drained it. When she banged it down, her face had a hard look “The little shit came back to rub our noses in it is what.”

He’s retiring at thirty-eight?” I snapped.

She shrugged. “I guess he did good out there. His wife’s hot enough. Tightest clothes I ever seen. Don’t know how she moves in them.”

Morrie married a babe?” Tom snorted. “Now we know he struck it rich.”

JoAnne punched him in the arm, but he wasn’t wrong.


Back to the wife.

I’d heard the name “McKenzie” shouted at little girls on playgrounds, but before Morrie’s wife, I’d never met a grown-up called that, if grown-up she was. I assumed she was of legal age for marriage, but she could’ve sat in any high-school classroom and not raised suspicion.

Morrie had been back in town a month when he left a voice message on my cell. He said he just knew I had to be the best landscaper in town and he had a few little projects to throw my way if I needed work. I knew any job from Morrie would be his attempt to turn me into his houseboy, but work had, in fact, been a little slow. Work’s always slow in Ossipee, New Hampshire. A few days later, I texted him that I’d stop by when I had time. I had no other work lined up, but I still waited a week before I drove to the address he’d given.

When I pulled into their circular driveway, McKenzie was out front, bent over at the waist to pour water from a sprinkling-can over a dried-up patch of Canadian bunchberry. JoAnne hadn’t been wrong: the trophy wife’s yoga pants looked painted on, and their abstract pattern obscured neither curve nor cranny. I let my truck rumble at idle, but she pretended not to hear it. She didn’t turn around or straighten up, just kept bobbing up and down with her ass pointed my direction as she dabbed water over the dead groundcover. When I’d seen enough, I got out of the cab and slammed the door hard.

Hey,” I said.

She cocked her head over her shoulder to smile at me without straightening up, and then she slowly unbent at the hips. She stretched all the way up and practically touched her elbows behind her back while looking me in the eye.

You must be Morrie’s wife?”

Yeah. I’m McKenzie. You’re Peter?”

That’s what the truck says. You’ve got good balance.”

Yoga does that for you.”

So, is Morrie around?”

No, he left early. For Boston? He probably won’t be back until late.”

He told me you’ve got a bush that needs trimming. Want to show it to me?”

Yeah, I was being an asshole and trying to piss her off, but, as with all things Morrie, I couldn’t help myself. I expected her to tell me off, but instead, she did a little laugh and crinkled her nose (it was cute the first time I saw it).

He told you that, huh? Yeah, come have a look out back...”

Given my history with Morrie, I didn’t feel a single twinge of guilt over what happened next. Later that afternoon, I did some actual yardwork and double-billed him for my time.


The thing about guys like Morrie is that when they start banging hot women half their age, they get so high on their own testosterone they forget she’s only after their money. And unlike a set of perfect abs (like mine), money can flow from man to man with remarkable speed. Morrie should have looked in the mirror more, but he was too enamored to look at anything but McKenzie’s ass. Sliding into her twisted body from angles I could never have invented (she was right about yoga—great for balance), I understood how even a smart guy like Morrie could get distracted by a partner with such limited conversation.

In the privacy of their home, McKenzie proved even less inhibited than in the motels. I was surprised their bed’s giant headboard hadn’t already knocked a hole in the bedroom wall, but I guess her sessions with Morrie were more subdued.

A week after the motel meet-up, we clutched hands and gasped breathlessly with our heads on opposite ends of their marital bed as she panted out the magic phrase: “I found the account numbers.”

I tried to hide it, but when she squeezed my hand, I knew she’d felt the twinge of excitement shoot through me at her words. “And the passwords?” I asked.

Yeah,” she said. “I got them all. We’re almost free, Peter.” When she spoke again, there was a note of concern in her voice that worried me. “You will go through with it, right?”

I’ll stick to the plan.” Silence reigned in the bed. “McKenzie?”


Why are you doing this? Robbing Morrie? You’ve already got everything.”

A low and husky laugh escaped from deep in her throat. It was a sound she hadn’t made before, and it put the hairs on my neck on end. I raised up on my elbows to see her, but her tone switched back to baby talk: “Morrie was married when I met him, but he screwed me on the couch in the office only two months after I’d come to work for him. He’d have fucked me sooner if I’d let him. He left his wife for me, but only because I was first in line. So, yeah, I’ve got all this,” she whirled an arm to indicate the bedroom, “but only on loan until his next lay turns up and takes it away.”

After that, I finally believed in our partnership. Never trust a wolf that tells you she isn’t hungry. And never turn your back on one that is.


The only flaw in my plan was that I had no idea how to pull it off.

I’m not a complete fool about money—I run a small business after all—but the intricacies of international finance might as well be astrophysics. McKenzie had the account numbers and passwords, I had the muscle, but we still needed somebody with banking bona fides to do the transfers. Our third partner was McKenzie’s pick.

Charis? Morrie’s ex? That’s crazy,” I said, laughing at her naiveté.

We worked together at my old firm,” McKenzie said. “She’s good.”

You mean at Morrie’s old firm. Won’t she know who you are?”

Of course, she knows—that’s why she’ll help us. Think about it. You told me how Morrie treated you in high school. Do you know anybody who wouldn’t want to get back at him? Especially her?”

Doesn’t she hate you for taking her husband?”

Hardly. Charis got two million bucks, the house, and no-ass Morrie out of her life. She’s probably grateful.”

I had my doubts, but the yoga-inspired sex helped bring me around. I agreed to drive into Boston to sell Charis on the deal.

It’s got to happen by the first of next month,” McKenzie added. “He’s moving all his money into a single account to prep for some deal. The bank in Panama won’t expect the cash to sit there for more than a day, and they won’t care where it’s going.”

You seem to have learned a lot about finance.”

I’m not as dumb as you think.”

Correction—you’re not as dumb as Morrie thinks. I never called you dumb.” Which was technically true; I’d never actually said it. Besides, she had me wondering.

Come here, Big Peter!” she cooed. My wondering ceased.


McKenzie made the call, and her intuition proved correct. The ex-wife agreed to at least listen to our pitch. I drove down alone to Newton, a wealthy suburb west of Boston, to work out the details. I didn’t want any neighborhood busybodies to remember my truck, which has my company name on the side, so I rode down on my motorcycle and showed up at Charis’s mansion in black leather chaps. I caught my reflection in the glass door when I rang the bell, and I knew no male on that street would dare challenge me.

She answered the door wearing white slacks and a matching sweater. No darkened roots betrayed her blond hair, which had to be dyed but could pass for natural.

Peter?” she asked. “I’m Charis. Come in.” A hint of perfume lingered in her wake as I followed her into the house. She was twice McKenzie’s age, but she wore it better and always would. McKenzie’s ample bloom would be a spent force by thirty; Charis’s type was built to last.

She led me into an all-white living room where she picked up a glass of golden wine she’d already been drinking. A large glass.

Can I get you a beer?”

Sure,” I said. “You’re not what I expected.”

Neither are you,” she said. I followed her into the all-white kitchen that mirrored her outfit. The house’s whole interior seemed white, as cold and sterile as a walk-in freezer. Frigid. “What did McKenzie tell you about me?” she asked.

Only that Morrie dumped you for her, so you’re mad enough to help us bankrupt him.”

She laughed. “That little bitch. What gall.” She saw the look on my face. “Don’t worry. She’s not wrong. I’m just surprised—impressed, I guess—she had the guts to call me. Or maybe the stupidity?”

She’s not the brightest,” I said. She handed me cold beer from the fridge—some canned domestic crap she must have figured a landscaper would like. “How about we look at the files?”

After she’d looked at the paperwork I’d brought, Charis agreed the money wouldn’t be hard to siphon away once Morrie had it in the new account—especially not with the information McKenzie had filched.

But if he gets loose before we’re done, he’ll not only take back the money, he’ll be able to prove we stole it. There’s no way around that. You’ll need to handle him permanently.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “I just wanted…what are you suggesting?”

If we get caught, it means prison. You hate him, right?”

Yeah, but…Jesus. I just want him to know it was me that took his money. I don’t want to kill him.”

Peter, do you trust McKenzie?” she asked. She raised the goblet to her lips and fixed me with her gray eyes over the rim as she drank. My silence answered her question. I hadn’t worried about trust until then. McKenzie seemed too dumb to have a plan. But then again, McKenzie had bested the woman in front me, both in love and money.

No,” I said. “Of course I don’t trust her.”

Then is there any reason to split Morrie’s money three ways instead of two?” She held out her goblet toward me and I clinked it with my can. “Why don’t you take those leathers off?” What happened next seemed inevitable.

I’d heard about rich women like her—ivory tower ice queens on the make for blue-collar guys. They think working men have more frustrations to work out in bed or something. Maybe we do, but if so, Charis had some deep frustrations of her own to work out (she wasn’t so icy after all.) Beyond that though, it felt good running up the score on Morrie: first McKenzie, then Charis. Who knew who’d be next?

The next time, when I drove down to see her, I didn’t tell McKenzie. Charis had convinced me, and with similar methods, but thankfully without any nose crinkling.

You will kill him?” Charis asked as I lay sweaty and spent in another bed Morrie had once called his own.

That’s the plan.”

Really? McKenzie seems to think you’re a big softie,” she said. “You’re screwing her, too, right?”


She gave a crisp laugh, pinned my shoulders to the mattress and nipped my ear. “Relax. I don’t give the slightest, solitary little shit. Just do your part, OK?”

Yeah, sure. I will.”

Good…Have you ever been to Rio?”


The first of October drew near, and then it was showtime. McKenzie would fly home to see her parents for the weekend to establish her alibi. Then I’d snatch Morrie, force him to sign the paperwork, do what needed to be done, and then rush to Boston so Charis could transfer his funds into a shell company she’d set up in the Cayman Islands. She was convinced Morrie had hidden millions from her when they divorced, and, judging by what I could understand from the documents, she was right. Even if Charis didn’t give me a fair split (and why would she?), I’d be on a plane to South America before McKenzie discovered her share was missing. Moving to Rio with both Morrie’s millions and his ex-wife meant leaving Ossipee, New Hampshire, behind forever but I’d dry my tears. From the brochures Charis had shown me, Brazil seemed like a great place to take up birdwatching again.


Morrie’s house stood alone at the end of his private road. The side door was unlocked like McKenzie had promised, and I slipped in without a sound. She’d assured me they didn’t own any guns, but I still brought my own—a long-barreled .44 Magnum my dad had left me. I decided to keep it holstered under my arm until it was time for…to be honest, I wasn’t sure for what. Charis and McKenzie both expected me to leave Morrie at the bottom of a nearby pond, but I had other plans: plans to let him know I’d kicked his ass, screwed both his wives, and taken his last dime. I wasn’t going to waste a revenge like that by killing him. At least not right away.

Morrie was alone in the basement playing with his gigantic model train-set when I found him. He was even wearing an engineer’s cap that made him look like a faded version of the kid I’d played baseball with three decades earlier.

Whoa!” he blurted out as I stepped into view, but then he smiled. “Holy crap, Pete. You scared me to death. How’s it going?”

We’re going to take a little ride, Morrie.”


Come on.” I gripped his spindly arm in my calloused hand. I didn’t even have to hit him, just turn him around, duct-tape his hands, and lead him outside to my truck. I’d suggested that we make him sign the papers then and there, but Charis had insisted he’d crack faster in an unfamiliar setting. In line with her plan, I drove him to my family’s old hunting cabin near the border with Maine and tied him to a chair. I got the woodstove going, then threw the transfer papers down in front of him.

I guess you aren’t so smart after all, are you, Morrie? Sign these.”

How can I?”

Oh. Right.” I un-taped his right arm and ordered him again. He leafed through the pages, signing and initialing as he went.

Pete, this is nonsense. I could undo all of these signatures with a phone call. You want me to sign, I’ll sign, but it won’t do you any good.”

You know what, Morrie?”


I hate it when people call me Pete.”

But I’ve always called you Pete.”

Exactly.” I grinned as he stared at me. “I guess you didn’t think it would turn out like this when you called me to be your yard boy? Didn’t see this happening when you decided to rub my nose in your money one more time?”

What? No, you’ve got it all wrong. JoAnne Gilder asked me to call you. When I bought my house, she told me you’d been hard up and needed work. You and I are friends, man! We’ve always been friends, right? That’s what friends do!”

Friends? Like the time you tried to get me to sign up for the SATs? Bringing it up in front of the whole class? Got a good chuckle out of that, didn’t you?”

But you’d have aced it! I was looking out for you. You could have gone to any college you wanted. You know more about biology than—”

Shut up!” I said and tuned out his lies. It was my turn now. “You know what the best part was? Every time I visited your house when you were out of town, I got to charge you extra for my services!”

What do you mean?”

You’ve been paying me to split your wife, you stupid cuck!” His face drained of color. “I guess that makes up for Jeana in junior year, huh? Huh?”

Jeana? Who’s…you liked Jeana?” he said. He looked at his feet and sagged his shoulders. “You’ve hated me this whole time, haven’t you?”

Hell yes, I hate you! Everyone hates you, Morrie! McKenzie. Charis. Tom. JoAnne. Probably everyone you’ve ever met.”

How do you know about Charis?”

Hey, dummy, who do you think drew up the papers for you to sign?”

He made to grab for the stack, probably to rip it in two, but I snatched them out of his reach. That’s when he broke. He sat there taped to the chair and poured out his heart. I collapsed into the other chair in laughter as he told me how he’d had too much to drink at an office party and ended up sleeping with McKenzie while his wife was at a conference. Told me how he’d hoped it was a one-time mistake but then thought he had to marry her when McKenzie said she was pregnant.

By the time she miscarried, it was too late to back out,” he said.

Oh my God!” I heard myself cackle but couldn’t stop. “You fell for that? A smart guy like you?” I banged the table and held my sides in laughter until I heard his sobs. I looked up and saw tears streaking his face. With his hair poking out from under his engineer’s cap, he looked like the little boy I’d climbed trees with back in elementary school. That was when I realized I couldn’t kill him—to win was enough. To hell with crinkle-nosed McKenzie, ice-queen Charis, and the money as well. Whatever happened, I’d already gotten what I needed: to hear Morrie beg, to see him cry, to know he knew I was the better man.

Morrie was catatonic as I re-taped his right arm to the chair. “Don’t worry. You’ll just have to stay here a couple days until—”

The door behind me creaked and I spun around to see McKenzie walk in.

How’d you find this place?”

I followed you,” she said. “Did he sign? Let me see.”

I handed her the documents and she flipped through them as Morrie pleaded with her. “McKenzie, I was just trying to do right by you; can’t we—”

Paperwork seems in order,” she said.

You understand those?” I asked.

Well, duh, I was his secretary. What did you think I did?” She turned toward the pitiful man in the chair and said, “Goodbye, Morrie.” She pulled a chromed-up little semi-automatic from her coat pocket and shot him twice before I could move.

No!” I shouted and lunged for her, my revolver too big and long to draw in time to stop anything. She pivoted and shot me in the arm, then the chest. I staggered against the counter and slid to the floor. I saw Morrie’s head was tilted back and blood covered his shirt.

McKenzie tossed the papers onto the table and stood over me with her pistol leveled at my face. She crinkled her nose once more as she spoke. “Well, Peter, it’s been fun, but not that fun. Charis and I both knew you wouldn’t have the guts to follow through.” I started to beg, not to make her stop but to cover the sound of Charis’s feet as she stepped through the open doorway.

I flinched at the gunshot. Blood splattered my face and I wasn’t sure who’d fired until I saw the dark wet spreading over McKenzie’s chest. Her arm lowered and dropped the gun as she stumbled around to face Charis, who shot her twice more. Blood splattered out McKenzie’s back as the bullets exited and then she fell across my legs.

I’d finally gotten the big gun out and Charis smirked as I struggled to raise it. We fired at the same time. Her 9 mm struck me in the stomach but I canoed her forehead with a single round from the .44 and her body hit the floor like ice off a roof.

The smells of shit, blood, and gun smoke mingled in the silent air. McKenzie lay face-up over my lap. In death, she no longer looked even pretty, her youthful vitality gone. I couldn’t feel my legs, but my stomach burned like a hot poker was stuck through it. I dropped my gun arm and leaned back. Each breath came harder than the last. I watched through the open door for what might have been minutes or hours as the setting sun cast its streaks of gold over the pond outside. As dusk fell, a long-eared owl called from somewhere among the flame-colored trees. Autumn is beautiful in the north country, and I realized my friend had come home because he loved it, as he loved us all.

Morrie, listen,” I said. “Listen to the owl.”

Zakariah Johnson plucks banjos and pens horror, thrillers, and crime fiction on the banks of the Piscataqua. He’s the author of the collection Egg on Her Face: Stories of Crime, Horror, and the Space in Between (2022) and the ’90s-nostalgia-driven, eco-horror mystery Mink: Skinning Time in Wisconsin (2023).

Monday, March 18, 2024

NEGATIVE TILT, by Bobby Mathews, reviewed by Wes Browne

Bobby Mathews’s story collection NEGATIVE TILT is brimming full with bangers that run the gamut from literary to crime—the best of which straddle the line. Sentences hum, sharply-drawn and layered characters propel the action, and the pacing and plotting are right on point, luring us along as he pours out a trail of the good stuff.

Mathews is at his best when he treads the ground he knows well: the death throes of the newspaper industry. Several stories explore this territory, but none better harnesses that strength than the title story, NEGATIVE TILT, when a pragmatic lifer who has been cast out of his position as a writer continues his relationship with a former colleague from behind the wheel of a tow truck. The story is certainly a noir, but it hues more literary than crime, to grand effect.

The first purely crime story that grabs you by the shirt and gives you a shake is THE GHOST OF BUXAHATCHEE CREEK. As it turns out, even a righteous kill can haunt the doer, and in this story of seedy vengeance, what can’t be undone can still be doubled down.

Mathews proves himself adept and versatile, weaving lanes between lovers done wrong, to tales of double cross and vengeance. He flexes his hard-earned newspaperman chops time and again by sticking to what’s interesting and building suspense all while moving stories along on the way to a final payoff.

If I had one wish for the collection, it would be that it was a little bit tighter. At 263 pages and twenty-eight stories, NEGATIVE TILT feels more boxed set than greatest hits. There are just a few “B” stories included that that don’t quite measure up to the rest, and a couple other stories are similar in structure and theme. Hard choices could have been made. In the back half there are also several consecutive flash stories, all of them good. Interspersing them throughout would have provided a welcome change-of-pace.

NEGATIVE TILT has staked its claim as one of the standout noir collections of the year. Fans of the style will eat this one up and ask for more.

Wes Browne's new novel THEY ALL FALL THE SAME will be published January 7, 2025 by Crooked Lane Books. His 2020 book HILLBILLY HUSTLE was named one of Merriam-Webster's 17 recommended lockdown reads. He is the founder and host of Pages & Pints Reading Series at Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. He has practiced law as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, and public defender in Appalachia for over 24 years.

Monday, March 4, 2024

The 18th Hole, fiction by Stephen J. Golds

Like all bad ideas, it started out life as a simple one.

Richard was an awful golfer and a degenerate gambler with an ex-wife he despised. I was making moderate bank as his golfing coach-cum-therapist at the Cedar County Golf Club, while I built up my book.

Richard had a lot of cash and liked to spread it around. Making bets and losing them. He always paid out big. Put my eldest boy through his first year of college.

You could say he was my best customer and my best friend.

One afternoon, we were on the eleventh hole, and he started in on the ex again. It was routine, but I was disappointed as hell. While he was ranting, he wasn’t gambling. He’d be cussing her out for hours. No cash injection for me that week. I’d been counting on that money. Had alimony to pay for my second wife. The State had been on my back about it.

Richard tossed his club down on the green. Turned to fix those black eyes on me and put a manicured finger to his temple like a pistol. Told me he wanted to blow his brains out. Said he was passed depressed because he couldn’t protect his two little girls. Told me his ex-wife, Elizabeth was beating the kids. Ditto the piece of shit she’d taken up with. Some kind of doctor or pharmaceutical salesman or something or other.

I just nodded. Making the same sympathetic noises I’d been making for the last nine months since the pair of them had split. Taking a couple of steps back. Richard spat when he talked. He waved his skinny arms around in the air, raving he’d tried every kind of legal means to get her to stop the abuse. Nothing had worked, he said. The Justice system had failed him. He was at his wits end.

Divorced two times myself, I felt bad for the guy, but he’d brought i

t on himself. He’d fucked every waitress at the golf club. Got one of them pregnant even. Richard may have been a millionaire, but he wasn’t smart. Making stupid life decisions and stupid bets. Maybe having that kind of cash made a man foolish. I wouldn’t have known either way. I was smart and broke.

On the twelfth hole he suggested it. A beating. A beating would get her to stop, he said. I laughed at first of course, that kind of laugh you do when someone says something completely insane and you’re sure they’ve got to be yanking your chain. Richard wasn’t joking. He glared at me. I shook my head, told him that was only going to make things much worse. It was crazy talk, though I didn’t say that. He was my best customer and best friend.

I changed the topic. Talked about the weather and baseball for the last couple of holes and then gave up, fell into a sharp silence. Richard ruminated.

Driving back to the clubhouse, he told me to pull the golf cart over into the shade underneath an oak tree and said, “I'll give you thirty percent.”

“Thirty percent of what?” I said.

“You know I’m investing twenty million dollars into that new golf-course project, right? Well, I’ll give you thirty percent of that. If…”

“If what?” I said.

“If you handle the thing with Elizabeth. That thing we were talking about earlier.”

“Come on, man. I’d never slap around a woman. It just isn’t me.”

“You know people who would though. You’re a bookie for Christ’s sake.”

“Maybe, but I still wouldn’t feel right about it.”

“Thirty percent to help a friend in need. Seems pretty straightforward to me. Think about your son.”

“My son?”

“The one with the problem walking or whatever it is he’s got there.”

“Michael’s got Vestibular problems is all.”

Well, whatever. What I’m saying is, think about how life changing thirty percent of a golf course would be for him. I know he probably can’t play golf with the Testicular problems, but the money. Life. Fucking. Changing. Money.”

“If I get someone to slap Elizabeth around?”

“No, not that. That’s cola-lite. I want her crippled in a wheelchair, no offense to your boy. I want the tongue cut out of her head. She needs to pay for what she’s done.”

I didn’t laugh. I popped prickly heat and needed a drink from the clubhouse bar.

“Nah, man. That’s not going to fly. Not with anyone I know,” I stuttered.

“She’s abusing my kids, goddammit!”

Spittle flew and touched down on my left fist gripping the cart’s steering wheel.

“I don’t know, man. Maybe if it was just a few slaps and that was it. I really don’t know... I’d have to really give it some proper thought.”

“What’s to think about? Don’t be dumb, be smart. Look it, I can give you $14,000. In cash. As a down payment. Today. Today! It’s in the trunk of the car. You give it to whoever you want to do the job. I'll give you the rest after it’s been done. And then, you my friend, you become a partner in your own golf course. Just think about it. No more coaching. No more caddying. No more scrabbling around taking bets from lowlifes. No more of all the bullshit.”

I stared at a group of silver haired old aged pensioners practicing their swings over by the rough.

Richard put his hand on my shoulder. Squeezed. “But I want that bitch hurt. Badly. I want her to pay for what she’s done to me. To my kids, I mean.”

He’d been talking up the golf-course project for months. He was right too, with thirty percent of that, I’d never have to work another day in my life. My own kids’ futures would be set. Probably their kids too. Like a generational wealth kind of deal. Richard’d been talking about the abuse for months too. So there was that. I’d tell whoever did the job to go easy on Elizabeth, give her a black eye. Job done, Richard couldn’t refuse payment. Everyone would be a happy winner.

“What about the cops?” I said.

“What about them?” Richard said.

“The last thing I need is something like this leading back to me, if it all goes to shit.”

“The key word here is: compartmentalization, my nervous friend. Whoever you get to do the job, you tell them to get someone else to do it. Like a chain of command or whatever the fuck. I don’t want anyone knowing my name. Or yours. If no one knows who’s at the top of chain, and you choose someone smart, we’re all in clover. You know me, when have I not gambled smart?”

As soon as Richard said that, I should’ve walked. But I didn’t. I took the cash.

The wad so thick I couldn’t push it in the pocket of my slacks. It felt good in my hands. Goodbye alimony payments. He handed me a scrap of paper with his ex’s address on it and a recent photograph of her hugging one of the kids at what looked like a birthday party. She was pretty and had these kind, blue eyes. The picture gave me a shitty feeling in the guts, but I said I’d see what I could do. Reminding myself over and over, Elizabeth wasn’t a good person. She beat her kids and was a bad mother. It would only be a couple of slaps anyway. That number of thirty percent bouncing around in my skull like a deranged golf ball.

Even though I’d said I’d see what I could do, I already knew who I was going to get to do the job before Richard’s Mercedes Benz even sped out of the club’s parking lot.


Scotty was another caddy at the club. He helped me collect bets for my book on occasions when I needed to impress debtors. He was big. Scary big. But dumb as a mule. The kid did whatever I told him to do. Liked to tell people he was my bodyguard and he was connected. Not averse to a little violence or law-breaking and knew when to keep his mouth shut. He was ideal.

The next night I caught him leaving the club and told him to jump in the car. I needed to talk.

“Okay, Boss.” The poor schlub said.

When he got in the passenger side of my Cadillac, he almost flipped the damn thing over. Looking at me the same weirdly hopeful way he always did.

“Someone not paying what they owe?” He asked.

“Nah, it’s something just a little heavier than that this time, Scotty.”

“You need someone clipped?”

Clipped. The kid had been watching too many episodes of The Sopranos. I played along to the wannabe’s fantasy.

Nah, you’re not going to get your button as quick as that, Scotty. You gotta put more of the street work in. Show your down for the life. You get me?”

Sure, Boss. I’m down. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

All right, listen, there’s this guy. A rich guy. He’s having trouble with his ex-wife. She’s kidnapped his kids and is abusing them and all this kind of horrendous shit. The guy wants the woman hurt a little so he can regain custody of his kids.”

Scotty looked as though he was about to burst into tears.

The kid said, “No women, no children. That’s my code and I live and die by it.”

Don’t bullshit me, Scotty. Since when did you have any kind of code?”

He shrugged and wiped some yellow crud from the corner of his eye. Put his thick fingers on the door latch to get out. I placed my hand on his massive arm. Squeezed, “Scotty, its just a little slapping around, that’s all. A little slapping around. Nothing more. Besides, if you do this, I’ll talk to my boss. See what we can do about bumping you up. Getting you your stripes.”

Scotty wasn’t the only one with HBO. The kids face lit up. Elated.

Really? I could get made?”

Yeah, sure.” I looked away from his face and out of the window. Biting my tongue. “We need people like you in the… family… sure.”

I want to be a made man but still, I don’t know. I’ve never raised a hand to a girl in my life.”

The kid didn’t seem to know we weren’t Italian. Like I said, he was big and dumb.

You won’t have to hurt the girl yourself. You can get someone else to do it. But get someone smart, someone scary. You tell them to just give the ex-wife a fat lip and a swollen eye. That’s all. Like I said, nothing heavy.”

“How much would this guy pay anyhow? Twenty thousand dollars maybe?” Scotty licked his thick lips.

“Don’t be a dumbass, Scotty. No one’s paying that kind of money for a light sparring session.”

“So how much?”

I did profit calculations in microseconds.

“Five thousand. Two and a half before, two and a half after.”

“That’s for the guy that hurts the girl, right? So what do I get?”

“No, I give you the five; whatever you pass on to your guy is up to you.”

“What am I supposed to pay them?” He whined.

“Pay them a fucking nickel for all I care.”

He stared through the dusty windshield. Sweat glistened on his upper lip.

I needed to close the sale, “think about what you could do with five thousand bucks, brother. You could buy something pretty damn nice for your ma, I reckon. She just got out of the hospital, right?”

“Yeah, she busted her hip.” He looked as though he was going to cry again.

“You could take her on vacation with the cash. She’d love that.”

His face lit-up like a streetlight.

“Yeah, sure. That’s right, I could. Hawaii or somewhere nice like that,” he smiled, obviously imagining the old woman hobbling around on some sandy beach somewhere hot. “Okay, I’ll do it. I think I know a guy.”

I gave him the two and half and the photograph. He read the address on the scrap of paper aloud, like he was reading Spot the Dog and then pushed it into the half-torn breast pocket of his shirt. He got out the car and it fell back to horizontal.

He waved as I drove away. I didn’t wave back.

Not a week later, I start seeing the headlines:




Round the fucking clock news coverage — flashing up the image of the woman whose photograph I’d placed in the sweaty hand of an imbecile.

Cops had arrested some vagrant fucking meth head for the murder.

As soon as the crackhead gave up Scotty, I’d have, maybe an hour or two, before half the city’s police department came knocking on my door. I was going to rot in jail for the rest of my life.

Unless, I got to Scotty, before the cops did. Compartmentalization. Tie off lose ends. With the kid gone, there’d be nothing leading back to me. I’d be free and clear.

I ran round the house into the garage. There was an old refrigerator underneath a workbench I used for keeping beer. I reached behind it and retrieved the bundle of cloth wrapped around the .38. Checked the cylinder. Five bullets. One was all I’d need.

I took deep breaths, pulled the cellphone from the pocket of my slacks and dialed Scotty. The prick didn’t answer. I screamed at the lawn mower and dialed again.

Boss, is that you?” He sounded like he had shit his pants and was sitting in it.

Yeah, it’s me. Where are you?” I said, attempting to keep some thread of composure and sanity in my voice.

Did you see the news? He… he… he killed her. He killed the girl.” The kid started blubbering and drooling down the line. There was not a shred of doubt in my mind he was going to drop my name to the cops as soon as they flashed their badges at him. Scotty had to go.

Yeah, I saw. Where are you? We need to lam it, kid. I’ve got your money, too. Double what we agreed.” I said through gritted teeth.

Really? Double?” He stopped blubbering. I imagined him wiping his snotty nose on his shirtsleeve.

Yeah, sure.”

You’re not angry at me? For hiring that guy because I wanted to save money.”

Nah, Scotty. Look, you’re going to be a made man, but we need to meet somewhere out of the way, so I can pay you the cash and we can split to Mexico for a week or two.”

Okay, Boss, I suppose. Where should I meet you?”

Good. Good. You know the old dump, right? Just out of town.”

Sure, I do. The place where everyone throws away their old cars and refrigerators and stuff?”

Yeah, meet me there in twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes?” he whined.

You want to spend the rest of your life in jail?”

No, sir.”

Then leave now. I’m on my way.”

I hung up. Wiped the sweat from my eyes. Ran back round the house into the kitchen. Snatched up my car keys from the breakfast nook.

My cell rang.

Just get in the car and fucking go,” I screamed down the line.


My best customer and best friend. Richard’s voice.

Ah, Richard, I take it you’ve seen the news then.”

Yeah, a little more extreme than what I’d asked for, but I’m happy.”

He didn’t sound happy. Voice cold and monotonous, I could’ve been talking to someone at a call center.

We need to meet somewhere quiet,” he said.


You want to get paid don’t you? Plus, I’ve got a couple of contracts I want to go over with you.”


For the golf course. We’re partners now, brother.”

I see… When did you want to meet?”

Right now, of course,” he said.

A long void down the line.


You know the boathouse I’ve got out on the lake? Let’s meet there. It’s nice and relaxing.”

Okay,” I said and hung up.

One word bouncing around my brain like a deranged golfball:


Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He writes in the noir/crime genres, though is heavily influenced by transgressive fiction and dirty realism. He is also the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine