Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy, by Preston Lang

Two years earlier, the Poet Laureate of Delaware stole a 95,000-dollar table from Jean's parents' dining room. She'd met him at a bar when she was still a year too young to drink legally. Her friend Robbie introduced him as Samson, an old pal from lacrosse camp. She danced with this Samson, a dark-eyed beauty with terrific forearms. He drove a red pickup truck and knew how to nae-nae. While he was off getting her a drink, Robbie mentioned that he was actually the Poet Laureate of Delaware, but he didn't like to tell people because it seemed like bragging and he'd feel pressure to be lyrical all the time. But Samson barely talked. He just wanted to get out on the dance floor and press her close. And when he needed her to follow him, he'd gesture sensually with his forefinger.

Jean's parents were out of town for the long weekend, so she took that laureate home to her mom's queen-sized where they went at it, on and off, for about three hours. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone, but he'd left a note: Sarah, sweet and stealthy, I will always remember you. Did he really think her name was Sarah? Or was that some literary reference? She just didn't know.

It was only after breakfast that she realized one of the dining room tables, the one they didn't eat on, was gone. It was a limited-edition Rheinspahn, and it had cost her stepfather nearly a hundred grand. When her parents got home, she pled ignorance. "Someone must have stolen it in the night—isn't that scary." It didn't seem like such a big deal to Jean. The thing was insured. And anyone who could afford to drop 95 grand on a table he didn't eat on could afford to lose it. Her stepdad accused her of being in on the crime, though he didn't bring that suspicion to the police. Her mother called Jean a spoiled, irresponsible dropout, living in unearned luxury. The fight, a long time in coming, was big and vicious. Ugly things were said that couldn't really be taken back because they were so obviously true. A lot of hair was pulled. Jean took a knee to the stomach.

She'd been on the road ever since, staying on couches when she was lucky, meeting some interesting people and some very dull people, making lots of spectacular mistakes. She lost an incisor, and in the winter she was always sick.

One January night she found herself standing outside a bookstore in Wilmington where she saw a sign in the window for a poetry reading: three local writers, including the Poet Laureate of Delaware. First the non-titled authors read. Jean didn't understand any of it. Even words she thought she knew well--gift, remains, shortchange--were used in ways she just didn't get. It all felt mean-spirited and wrong, but no one did anything to stop it.

The laureate went last. She was a wide, silver-haired lady named Elaine Lind. She read a poem about being stuck in an elevator with a spider and then one about learning to French-kiss at Dunkin' Donuts. Jean didn't really know whether she liked the poems, but there was something agreeable and perceptive in the woman's eyes, she thought.

When it was over, the two other poets had friends and relatives. The laureate had no one, but it didn't seem to bother her. She loaded her plate with cheese and slices of ham then sat in a folding chair near the back.

"In the elevator poem I'm glad that the spider didn't start to talk," Jean said to her.

Elaine Lind nodded. "Yes, a talking animal is almost always a bad idea. In a poem."

Soon after, they were drinking wine together under a poster of John Grisham, and Jean told the whole story:—the laureate, the night in mom's bed, the stolen table.

"How heavy was the table?" Elaine asked.

"How heavy?"

"Yes. An estimate."

"It wasn't huge, but it was solid. I don't know."

"Could one man carry it out by himself?"

"Maybe a really strong guy."

"You said he had nice forearms. What's the word they use? Shredded? Was he all shredded, ripped, frayed, ruptured?"

"He was a strong guy. Maybe he could've done it alone."

"I'm just wondering if he would have needed a partner."

They were able to look up the table online. It weighed 170 pounds.

"I weigh 170 pounds," Elaine said. "A strong man could easily carry me out of a dining room. The truck he drove: Delaware plates?"

"No. I remember they were Connecticut plates. Local, you know."

"Maybe they spelled something clever, like Laureate69?"

"No. Sorry. Nothing I could remember."

"That's all right. Did you tell him about the table? You know, the night before, how much it was worth?"

"I don't remember. But I might have. I thought it was so stupid: a 95,000-dollar table. And I liked to tell people about the really stupid things my parents did."

On the laureate website, there was no one named Samson, and a look through the past 15 years of pictures didn't turn up anything either.

"Why are there so many of them?" Jean asked.

"The term is only six months. Not only that, for the past eleven years there have been two laureates at a time."

"Why?"

"Some feud between the governor's office and the state arts council. It's not important. Did you ever ask your friend Robbie about that night?"

"What do you mean?"

"The friend who introduced you."

Jean had never thought to do that, an obvious first step. Then again she hadn't really cared about the table or finding Samson. Now she did. It wasn't hard to track down Robbie's phone number. He worked a PR job in New York, and he answered on the first ring, happy to talk to a pretty girl from the old days.

"Yeah, I'd never met the guy before. He saw me talking to you, and he said he'd buy me a drink if I'd introduce him to you as an old friend. Then he said he'd buy me two more if I told you that he was chief poet of Louisiana or something."

"Delaware."

"Okay, Delaware. Did you go home with him?"

The poet laureate wrote on a slip of paper—Details about Samson

. "Can you tell me anything else about this guy? His real name, where he was from?"

"I don't really remember much about him. Handsome guy, though. Wouldn't think he'd have to play games to pick up girls. Hey, what's this about?"

Jean got off the phone, and for some reason she was a little embarrassed.

"I don't want you to think that I—you know—that I do that kind of thing all the time."

"What? Hook up with boys?"

"Yeah."

"Nothing to be ashamed of. A few weeks ago, I had sex with a man who sells shrooms out of his car."

"Did you do it in the car?"

"Yes, actually. We made love in his Saab. We made love in his sob? No, that doesn't work." Elaine shook off the bad verse. "No, what matters is finding the man who stole your table. Let me think."

The bookstore was closing up, so they went to a bar down the block where they drank cheap vodka.

"I just don't think someone claims to be Poet Laureate of Delaware out of nowhere. There's something behind that," Elaine said. "Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy? Are you sure that's what he wrote?"

"Yes, I kept it for a while. The scrap of paper. I lost it somewhere."

Jean didn't retain possessions. At the moment, all she had was a small purse that she'd found--no cash, no wallet--outside a Burger King just before sunup about a week earlier.

"It must be from somewhere," Elaine said.

They did a simple search for the phrase, but nothing came up.

"I've got a friend out at UD. He might know something, and even if he doesn't, we can use his password to get into the journal database."

"What's that?"

"It's got a ton of small literary journals on it, and we can do a phrase check on Sarah, sweet and stealthy."

"It checks every little magazine?"

"Not every single one, but a lot of them."

Elaine texted Dr. Sohn. He wrote back right away. He was still awake—come on over.

"Is it close?" Jean asked.

"It's Delaware, dear. Everything is close."

Dr. Sohn was about 70, a short man in an ancient bathrobe.

"But we have to keep it down. Dahlia is asleep," he said.

They gave him as much of the story as he needed to know. Dr. Sohn looked very familiar to Jean. It was as if she'd seen his face in connection with something dishonest and ugly.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Dr. Sohn said.

"I've seen you before. I think."

Jean felt tense, a little angry. On the road, she'd started to develop a sense, a very imperfect sense, of when she needed to bolt.

"Oh, I know," Elaine said with a little laugh. "You were looking at his picture only an hour ago."

He'd been laureate twelve years earlier.

"Yeah, I did my six months," he said. If you're a published poet in the state of Delaware you've probably been laureate at some point."

"The best part is when you accidentally rhyme and someone says you're a poet and don't even know it, you can just kind of give them a look," Elaine added.

Dr. Sohn poured out coffee.

"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," he said carefully.

They searched the phrase on the database. Nothing came up.

"Any students stand out to you: good-looking, fit?" Elaine asked.

"Always a lot of handsome boys. But none of them were fit until the late 80s. 1987, a guy comes into my class with deltoids." He stirred cream into his cup. "I have to say, though, the sweet and stealthy line. It does sound familiar."

"Like something a student wrote for class?"

"No, I feel like it's something I read, not something I heard out loud, which rules out anything a student wrote."

"You don't read your student's work?"

"Not for the past eight years. If they don't read it in class, I don't know about it."

"So we should check the journals not in the database?"

"And I would start eight years ago and work back."

"You stopped reading journals too?"

"The only poetry I read now is John Donne."

"So you haven't read anything of mine in the past eight years?"

"Elaine, I love you, but I'm not going to read your words."

Just then a very tired woman came into the kitchen in a thick nightgown.

"What is all this?"

"Sorry, we'll try to be more quiet."

The woman spotted Elaine.

"You."

"Good evening, Dahlia."

"He needs sleep. It's bad when he naps in a poetry seminar. That makes all of us look bad. You wouldn't understand that, Elaine."

"Honey, honey," Dr. Sohn said. "I'm fine. We're fine."

"And who is this?" Dahlia pointed to Jean. "Some homeless girl you brought into my house?"

"Maybe we should be going," Elaine said.

"I'd say look in Sonic Review, Pulsatwaney, and Matterhorn Review," Dr. Sohn said as Elaine and Jean made their way to the door. "I used to read those, but they aren't in the database."

With a few hours to kill before the library opened, Elaine and Jean drove to the Route 40 diner and had a big breakfast. Jean poured most of a bottle of syrup on her pancakes.

"Does it pay a lot?" she asked. "Being laureate?"

"No. No. Oh, no. God. No. Are you wondering how I can afford a feast like this?"

"You don't teach, right? How do you get by?"

"I'm sort of a detective."

"And people pay you? Because I can't."

"Sometimes people pay me. Usually they don't. I'm also pretty good at betting on college basketball."

Jean had nothing to say in response to that, so she ate everything on her plate and all of Elaine's bacon.

In the library, they found the old periodicals section and worked their way back through magazines that hid inside cheap leather. They started eight years ago then headed deeper into the past. To Jean the letters were like little bits of cereal on the page. She wasn't confident that she'd catch the phrase if she saw it, but Elaine worked efficiently and finally after two hours, she found it in a ten-year-old issue of Sonic Review.

"Hello, my friend."

It was there in a poem by a woman named Ruth O'Dowd who had attended Wesley College in Dover ten years earlier. She currently worked for a medical billing company in Chicago. They called to tell her how much they loved her poem.

"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," Elaine said. "That's a really interesting line. Do you remember where it came from?"

Ruth laughed. It sounded like she was walking on a crowded street, maybe on her way to work.

"Mark, the guy I was dating when I wrote that poem, he used to say it to me."

"Even though your name wasn't Sarah?"

"Yeah. He’d just learned the word stealthy, and he really wanted to use it. Like in a sentence."

"Was he a poet?"

"He seemed to think that anyone could just pick up a pen and call himself a poet."

"He was a good-looking guy, fit?"

"Oh, yes."

"You have any pictures of him?"

"Why are you so interested?" For the first time Ruth's guard went up. It was time to level with her.

"We think he stole something from my friend."

"Yeah," Ruth said. "He stole from me also. About fifty dollars and all my olive oil."

"Just ran off?"

"I met him in a bar one night, he basically moved in for a month. Then he took off."

"What was his last name?"

"Ulanger. He didn't tell me that, but I took his license out of his pants one time. This was maybe ten years ago. Such a funny time. I wore these sweaters, and I sat out on the steps and wrote poems in a little notebook. I was kind of a wreck, but also I looked down on everyone, everyone who wasn't me."

She sent them a picture of Mark. It was a bad, one blurry side shot, but you could see the kind of charm he put out there. This was their man.

"Maybe it was worth 50 dollars," Ruth said. "The sex was all right. I don't really use olive oil. I got one line of poetry out of it."

Mark Ulanger was as an assistant manager at a store in Indianapolis called Houseware Needz. It looked like he worked until closing on a Wednesday night.

"So he's gone straight?" Jean asked.

"It would appear," Elaine said. "If we leave right now, we should be able to make it."

The ride was nearly ten hours. Along the way Jean found a newspaper article from eight years earlier about a genuine Rheinspahn table abandoned in a courtyard outside a New Haven apartment building, warped and worthless.

She also found a website where Mark Ulanger posted an ever-expanding narrative poem about a young man riding across the country on a motorcycle, bedding women, cooking meat over an open fire out in the desert, teaching children how to whittle with a Bowie knife, playing dominoes with elderly men. He liked to describe sounds in detail. Like a campfire: cruh-crack. Or a horse trotting: clip-a-clop. Or sexual penetration: squeesha-squeeesh. Jean was able to follow most of it, but she didn't think that meant it was good.

Elaine had Jean check on basketball scores of the previous night. She'd gone six-and-five.

"That barely even covers the vig."

It made Jean angry that there were so many words she didn't understand. Even a tiny word like vig was completely foreign to her. She seemed to remember a time when she was much smarter, much more alert. There was also a time when she didn't need to wipe her dripping nose constantly, and all she had was a shredded tissue dug out from deep in a jacket pocket. When they stopped for gas, Elaine bought a new box of Kleenex.

"Sometimes I think I should be grateful to him," Jean said. "In a way he liberated me."

"How do you feel now?"

"I feel like he stole a table and ruined my life."

They made it to Houseware Needz about an hour before closing. It wasn't crowded, and they spotted Mark right away, standing in an apron, helping a woman find the right ceramic pear. There seemed to be more extra chit-chat between them than necessary:we've also got some truly excellent salad bowls. He mimed the shape of a truly excellent salad bowl, and the woman nodded enthusiastically. Finally she went to checkout, and Jean moved in on Mark while Elaine hung back two steps.

"Samson," Jean said.

"Sorry, my name isn't Samson," he said with a sunny smile.

"I just want to talk."

Quick vague recognition came into his eyes.

"Do you want me to stay?" Elaine asked.

"No. I can do this."

Jean spoke with real conviction, and Elaine went back to the car. Mark didn't admit to anything, but he gestured Jean to the cutlery section that same old, lazy forefinger.

"I don't really need an apology," she said.

"So why are you here?"

"Look at my hand."

She spread her left hand on a solid metal table.

"Okay. What am I looking at?"

"Now you. Put your hand out like this."

He paused a moment, but then complied. "Why not?" His hands were large and veiny. She remembered how strong they were. When she grabbed a cleaver from the display and brought it down on his forefinger, she was surprised how neatly it severed. She put it in her purse. She was out the door before she the commotion began behind her. The car was parked around the corner.

"All right. I'm all done."

Elaine waited until they were back on the highway to speak.

"What did you do?"

"I cut off his finger."

"Is it in your purse?"

"Do you want to see it?"

"No, I don't."

"Do you think I did the right thing?"

"Well, it can't be changed now."

They drove another ten minutes.

"Where should I leave you?" Elaine asked.

"I don't see that it matters too much."

The Poet Laureate of Delaware left the girl in Cincinnati with 20 dollars, three Luna bars, and a purse that was beginning to drip. One drop just before she shut the car door: an image Elaine could use, that justified the whole night.

The Houseware Needz Slashing was well-covered in the Midwest. The prints off the knife were good, but they didn't match anyone in the system. There was no footage of the actual attack, only some blurry shots of the girl on her way in and then again on the way out. It was an eye-catching story for a few days, but it wasn't a murder or even an attempted murder. The investigation died out fairly soon. But exactly three months later, a nine-fingered man was appointed Poet Laureate of Indiana.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Bag Girl, by Alec Cizak

Her supervisor, working the express lane, summoned her. “Bag girl,” he said. He snapped his fingers. She wondered if he even knew her name, if he’d ever bothered to read the plastic tag pinned to her black apron.

But she hustled over. Tough to get a job in Haggard these days. Especially for a high school drop out with nothing to offer but a smile and quick hands. She grabbed a paper sack from a stack at the end of the second conveyor belt and loaded the customer’s groceries. The customer slid his card into the credit machine and typed his secret code. Her supervisor asked him, “You want big bills, or little bills?”

“Twenties’ll be fine,” said the customer.

Her supervisor counted out five and handed them over, along with the receipt. The customer grabbed his eggs and bananas. He didn’t hide his effort to peek into the bag girl’s button-down dress shirt underneath her apron. She grinned, played along. She eased her hand into her back pocket and worked the keypad on an ancient BlackBerry phone—Bears jersey, khakis, boat shoes, dbag.

The next customer’s wardrobe must have come off the bargain rack at Walmart, a t-shirt with a bald eagle on it flying over the words, Don’t Tell Me How To Freedom!, and grease-stained jeans tucked into cowboy boots. On his hip, he wore a holster and handgun, just like those tea party dorks on television. When he spoke, he barely moved his thin lips, like being civil to another human being demanded too much. She asked him if he wanted his six-pack in a bag.

“Do your job,” he said to her.

She stuffed the beer into a paper sack and handed it to him as he walked by her. He didn’t look at her, didn’t ogle her cleavage. No matter. For the moment, the man meant nothing. He’d paid for his Budweiser with coins he’d dropped from a coffee can cradled under his arm.

Time crawled while she whipped groceries into bags and said, “Have a nice day,” like a robot. The automatic doors to her right opened and the guy in the Bears jersey stumbled into the store, holding his blood-stained hands to the side of his head. He spilled into two rows of shopping carts, fell on his knees and wept.

Her supervisor scratched at a Cuba-shaped meth scab on his forearm. He said, “Dammit, not again!”

***


Her boyfriend used the money to score a baggie of vikes. They each popped two and plopped down in front of his old fashioned, humpbacked television. The news talked about the hits at the super market. Three nights over the last two weeks. She’d only been with her boyfriend for a month when he’d come up with the plan. He’d found prepaid BlackBerry phones at a Quick ‘N’ Go outside of Pawpaw Grove. “This routine won’t last long,” he’d said. “Soon as the pigs catch on, we crack the phones and ditch them in Lake Arthur.”

The first time they’d tried the scam, she’d doubted they’d pull it off. If her boyfriend got caught, she’d slip the phone into a customer’s bag when they weren’t looking. But things went smooth. Several customers shrieked from the parking lot. The cops showed. Then an ambulance and a fire truck. All for a normal guy who’d taken two shots to the face from a solid steel meat tenderizer. Yes, it cracked his skull a little but, you know, so what? He had money. She and her boyfriend didn’t. Her boyfriend had been stealthy, moved in from behind the security cameras, dressed in black, wearing a ski mask. He smacked the guy twice with the metal mallet, reached into his back pocket, and ripped out his wallet. He’d been gone before anyone noticed the normal guy slumped over, bleeding onto the trunk of a cream-colored BMW.

That night, they’d celebrated, big time. Their man sold them some Oxy and they crushed and snorted it. Everything went fine until they tried to have sex. Her boyfriend’s penis lay still, like a bored slug. She said, “That’s all right, I understand.” For whatever reason, this infuriated him. He punched the wall and shouted at his crotch.

He said, “You piece of shit!” She suspected he’d meant to cuss at her. The wall, even, might have been a stand-in.

They stretched the first guy’s money for almost a week. Then they had to pull another hit. Similar target—Clean haircut, wedding ring, golf shirt, square face, smug expression of superiority when he glanced down the bag girl’s shirt as he took his groceries. She didn’t feel bad when he’d collapsed on the sidewalk, just outside the store.

The haul from the second guy didn’t match the first. They tried to make the pills last as long as possible. As the baggie emptied, her boyfriend’s temper blossomed. She did her best to get him going in bed. He must have been on dope a lot longer than her. His thing refused to respond. She only wanted to help. He finally shoved her to the floor and called her a bitch. “You see the fucker won’t stand, don’t you?” Like it was her fault.

The news report suggested the Lake County sheriff’s department would establish a task force to catch the Supermarket Bandit, a name decided upon by the normal people of Haggard. She said to her boyfriend, “This is getting serious.” She suggested they take it easy for a while.

“That makes no sense,” said her boyfriend. He grabbed her hair and jerked her head toward him. “I need you to think,” he said. “Don’t get goofy on me.”

She said, “I don’t want to do it anymore.”

At this, her boyfriend’s pockmarked face stilled. He said, “You walk away, I’ll rat out the both of us.”

She understood, then, her inability to plan ahead formed the foundation of all her problems in life. In high school, she’d partied and screwed around, as opposed to staying at home and studying, like normal people, the ones who now lived in houses, had children, new cars, mortgages, all the things normal people were supposed to have; When she’d started using pills every day, her conscience told her it might not be a good idea. She’d tried to quit, once. No way she’d go through that hell again—walls closing in, like the trash compactor scene in that stupid Star Wars movie normal people gushed on about. One of the boys she’d snagged in high school had, despite his good looks, been on the chess team. He explained to her how chess and life were the same. He said, “Every move you make, you must consider every possible counter. If you don’t, you’re dead.”

***


The bag girl and her boyfriend gobbled the vikes over the next four days. Then her boyfriend told her, “We’re going to need to borrow some more money tonight.”

She attempted, once more, to convince him it might not be a good idea. “They got cop cars prowling by every five minutes,” she said. “At least twice an hour, the pigs park in front of the store, get out, and stroll through the parking lot. It’s totally uncool.” Of course, she’d said the same thing every night since the task force had been created.

“I think we can get away with it,” he said. “You just send me customers. If shit looks cool, I’ll take care of business. If not, I’ll hang back and wait for your next message.”

“I really don’t think it’s smart,” she said.

Her boyfriend’s chest, covered in half-finished tattoos, heaved to an exaggerated rhythm. He looked like a man about to speak his final words. He said, “Is this going to get ugly?” His hands transformed into fists, his giant, walnut-sized knuckles doing what his penis couldn’t—stranding firm. Something in his neck creaked and popped as he turned to face her. The bridge of his nose wrinkled.

She said his name. She said, “Please don’t make me. . .”

Before she finished, he grabbed her hair and twisted her sideways. His free hand, still closed in a tight, shaking fist, hovered over her. “Bitch,” he said, his thin lips pursed like the redneck in the store with the gun on his belt, “I’m tired of you thinking you got some kind of choice.”

She wished she could have summoned the strength of the gods right then and blasted her boyfriend in the mouth. The more she resisted, the tighter he gripped her. His other arm trembled, as though building steam. She didn’t want him to know he’d scared her. She said, in halting, choking words, “Okay, okay. . .”

When her boyfriend let her go, she said she needed to get ready for work. She’d been with jerks before, but none of them had anything on her, not like this one. How long would she go away for? Would she be able to score dope in prison? What sort of awful shit would the bad girls in jail make her do for a fix? She ducked into the shower and wept as she ran a paper-thin piece of soap over her body. She lathered up the rest of the soap and used it to wash her hair. She tried dressing in the bathroom, alone. Her boyfriend insisted on keeping the door open. He leaned against the wall and stared at her. She wiped steam from the mirror above the sink with the cardboard tube from a dead roll of toilet paper. She spoke to her boyfriend through the mirror. She said, “What?”

He didn’t say anything, just bored into her with his half-open, bloodshot eyes.

***


Friday night. Normal people came into the store angling for fresh money from their bank accounts. Almost every other customer opted for cash when they ran their debit cards. Eighty bucks here, a hundred there, over and over. She offered her boyfriend one sacrificial yuppie after another. None returned with a bloodied face and empty pockets. Every time she glanced outside the giant window at the front of the store, a squad car either rolled by in the street or crept through the lot. On her break, she squatted near empty fruit crates behind the store and smoked a cigarette. One of her coworkers, a crumbling meth junkie who resembled a straggler from Dawn of the Dead, talked on his cell phone. He finished his conversation and went back inside. From the shadows between spotlights mounted on the roof of the store, her boyfriend snaked up and hissed at her. “How about sending me something when the place isn’t crawling with pigs?”

She shrugged. “What am I supposed to do?”

He wrapped his crooked fingers around the top of her button-down shirt. She dropped her generic cigarette as he hoisted her to a standing position. “You think you can survive an empty night?” He didn’t let her speak. “We both know the answer.” Maybe she sneered at him. Whatever look came across her face, it compelled him to tap her cheek with his monster knuckles. He said, “I’ll make this simple for you. You pay close attention to the lot and give me a goddamn customer when things are obviously cool. You take care of this real soon, or I’m going to call the cops and tell them I saw the bag girl texting someone before the last hit.”

This stunned her worse than the back of his hand. She said, “I’m on it. I promise.”

***


Closing time approached and she still hadn’t found a good prospect in conjunction with a cop-free parking lot. Plenty of normal people asked for money, like they hadn’t seen the news, like they didn’t know what could be waiting for them outside. She wondered if her boyfriend would be bold enough to march into the store and confront her. She imagined him pacing the alley separating the store and the nightclub behind it. Maybe he’d punched the nightclub’s brick wall a few times. Or maybe he’d used the meat tenderizer to chip away at it, thinking about the horror of sweating through the night without a fix. Around eleven-thirty, a normal guy in one of those musclehead shirts, the kind with ornate writing nobody could read, swiped his card and collected a stack of ten-dollar bills. Hardly any cars in the parking lot. No cops anywhere. The bag girl reached into her pocket, ready to text. Then she heard coins, rattling in a coffee can. The man with the gun on his belt counted out change for a six-pack three aisles down. He’d worn his gun again. His Walmart t-shirt, this time, said, I Loves Me Some 2nd Amendment! The bag girl made sure she described the man’s cowboy boots and his dirty jeans as she texted her boyfriend.

The next customer in her line, a normal woman in a tank-top and shorts showing off her perfect, unblemished thighs, told her to keep her yogurt and celery separate. The bag girl said, “Sure thing, ma’am.” Five pops, like firecrackers, erupted outside. She didn’t even turn her head as everyone else in the store, including the normal woman, craned their necks to see what had happened. The bag girl dropped the BlackBerry phone into the normal woman’s paper sack, right next to her yogurt. As the normal woman passed, refusing to make eye contact with her, the bag girl said, “Have a wonderful evening.”

Monday, August 27, 2018

No News is Good News, by Evelyn DeShane

The dead body looked like a mannequin.

Marsha knew it was a silly thing to say. She'd watched a dozen true crime shows on Netflix and every single person who found a body always said that. They thought it was a mannequin in the river, or in the dump, or on the street. Never mind how horrifically out of context a mannequin in those places was, or the fact that mannequins were not proportioned like most people were; they insisted the sallow skin of  a corpse was a mannequin before they made the grisly discovery. It always made Marsha think of her aunt's old consignment shop and how she'd spent her Saturdays as a teenager sorting through donation bins. Mannequins had been everywhere. She'd never mistaken any of those dead-eyed vacant stares for something human. No way.

But here she was, spouting the same cliché to the police officer as he interviewed her on her discovery.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" the officer asked. She noticed a twitch in his expression and a shift in his gait, as if he wanted to wrap his arms around her in a hug, but professional instinct told him not to. "Can I get you a glass of water?"

Marsha shook her head. She ran her long red nails through her black hair and tried to recreate the scene for him. Her clichés weren't going to cut it. So she started again from the beginning, from when she stepped out of the train station and turned the corner to the ravine by her bus stop. The officer, God, what was his name?--didn't bother to rewrite any of those details down. The bus stop was easy. So was crossing the street and noticing a red van pull away. She even remembered half the letters of the license plate: BRA. It was funny to her at the time and she had given those details to him quite easily.

But the body. It hung in her vision like a magic eye painting she could not bring into focus. "She was... un. I saw the red. Dress. And blood. And she looked so unreal."

"We know. That's a common response. We can interview about the rest later."

"No, no. I want to get this right." Marsha closed her eyes. There were no shoes on the body. That caught her attention first, because the toes seemed like they would be really cold. So I hadn't thought of her as a mannequin first, Marsha noted. It somehow made her feel better. She was aware of the humanity of the corpse; she wasn't an unfeeling monster.

She was able to get out her full description after that. The body had no shoes. The hair was blonde and matted, tangled into the bushes of the ravine. The woman's dress was open, displaying a chest that seemed to have no nipples. She didn't add that part to the description, though. She wanted to give the woman some dignity.

"You did really well. The license plate letters are going to help for sure," the officer said. He and Marsha both looked behind him as the body was lifted out of the ravine. Several workers became tangled in the bushes, struggling with the body. The dress ripped even more. From between her legs, Marsha noticed the penis. She thought it was another trick of the light at first, another way in which her vision had betrayed her and turned a human being into a mannequin.
But no, there was a penis. The woman was a trans woman.

The officer groaned, as if to echo her realization. "Another one?"

The other officers nodded their disdain. Marsha realized the way they handled the body now differed. They were careless, they were rough. The last strip of dignity was pulled back from the corpse. Marsha's eyes saw red.

"Another one?" she asked. "You have a serial killer?"

"No, ma'am. Nothing is wrong. Just a certain lifestyle leads to certain ends."

Marsha thought of the stab wound against the neck. Red like the woman's dress, artificial like her cause of death. Not a natural part of the lifestyle in the least. Though the officers had now covered up the corpse, the vision remained pressed to Marsha's third eye. She remembered the posters around the community centre from earlier in the week. The amount of women who seemed to go missing, and the women with stronger jawlines and names that didn't seem to match. Hazel. Andrea. And Violet.

A lifestyle injury. It seemed like a sick, cruel joke. As they loaded the body into the coroner van, a sickening sense of dread rolled through Marsha. "What do I do now?"

"Hmm?"

"What do you need me to do now? Will I be at a trial?"

The officer let out a low laugh that he quickly cut off as he realized the horror on Marsha's face. He put his notebook away in his back pocket. "Don't get ahead of the game. We still need to sort out what's gone on here. Find next of kin."

"And if you can't?"

"That's not your concern."

Marsha wanted to explain so much to him in that moment. But the sun was setting, it was getting dark, and her brother--her brother who used to be her sister, giving her access to understanding she never thought possible--was waiting for her to come home. "And after that?" Marsha pressed. "What is my concern?"

"Look," he said, his voice thin. "We will call if we need you. If you don't hear from us, consider it a good sign. You know the old saying? No news is good news. It applies here, too. You don't have to worry about this anymore."

The officer got into his car and slammed the door. Marsha tried to walk down the street, toward home, but glanced over her shoulder. The empty ravine haunted her.

Three days later, still without a phone call from the police to follow up, the ravine had grown over with a thin layer of snow. The white would cover everything. The silence would continue. Three more days passed with nothing. A week.

Marsha forgot about the mannequin woman until the next victim was found a month later. She was a nameless victim tossed inside an alleyway, only wearing a mini-skirt with a pink top. Tattoo of a dove on the left shoulder blade. The newspaper article laid out every last detail without actually saying anything at all. No transgender status was mentioned, but Marsha knew. Deep down, there could be no other way. She called the police station and found the officer who took her statement.

"I told you," he said, "we would call."

"I think you have a serial killer," she said. "There's another victim. She also doesn't have a name. But I think if you go through the missing people reports filed in the last little while, you'll find her. A lot of people from the Village have been going missing."

The officer didn't say anything. But she heard him breathing like a shadow behind her.

"You have to do something," she pressed. She's not the first and she won't be the last.

"We are doing all we can."

"That's..." Marsha closed her eyes. That was precisely what she was afraid of. The police were doing all they could, and it still amounted to nothing. She saw the woman--the mannequin--again. Her eyelids. "What was her name?"

"Hmm?"

"The woman I found. What was her name? Did anyone bury her? I want to see."

"Ronald Black," he said after a while.

"That's not her name."

"We don't have any other information at this time."

"But what was her name?"

When the officer only gave her silence, Marsha eventually hung up.

***

"Jessica?"

"Look again, sir," Jesse said. He splayed his legs to make his hips seem less wide, and his shoulder more broad. He cursed himself for shaving. The dusting of hair on his upper lip was never that much, but it at least signalled more than his still-out-of-date licence ever could. "It's not Jessica."

The convenience store owner glanced down again. He shrugged. "Jesse. Sure. What year were you born?"

"1988." Jesse beamed. "I'm twenty-nine."

"You look barely nineteen."

"But I'm twenty-nine. Born July 7th 1988. I can give you my mother's date of birth too. Maybe her maiden name and the street I grew up on as a child. Will that convince you it's not a fake ID?"

The store owner's stare turned from hardened to defeated. He tossed the ID back on the counter and turned to open a case where the cigarettes were kept. If not for the shaking hands Jesse got right before therapy, he would have avoided this place. He never passed in these kinds of stores. He was convinced it was the fluorescent lights, the cameras and mirrors around every corner. People were so prone to see theft in stores like this, or conning through fake IDs, that each and every last feminine mannerism still not yet worked out of him was highlighted and suspect.

But he knew it was really his ID. He glanced at the photo of himself two years ago, barely on testosterone, and the F marker where sex was listed. What on earth was the point of changing his damn name if people still saw a girl's one instead? What was the point of having any official ID with a brand new name if there still was a giant F in the centre of the thing? It was always the F that made people's sanity fall away. Always the damn F. Apple cheeks and small hands could be reasoned away by shitty genetics. But an F left no room to doubt his origins. Jesse Martinez was trans.

Jesse lit up his cigarette outside of the store. He should have been smoking at least nine metres away, but he wanted to show some disrespect back for what he'd just received. When Talia, a tall trans woman with a mini-skirt on walked by him, she splayed her hand in a wave.

"You comin' tonight, hon?"

"You know it. Not exactly like we have a choice."

"We always have a choice. It's just not the easy one, you dig?" When he said nothing in response, she gestured to his cigarette. "You mind tossing me one, honey?"

"As long as you stop calling me honey, then we have a deal."

"Pfft." She waved her hand away like it was nothing. Her dismissal grated on his nerves, but he figured he could spare a cigarette. She was one of the most talkative in group; he knew all her secrets if he really wanted to harm her. Talk a bit more about her grandmother whose name she wanted to honour, but who had spit in her face when she came out as trans.. Talia was also one of the favourites of Genie, the therapist who would eventually sign thee letters approving their surgery. Jesse figured he would get brownie points just from being nice to her;:gatekeeper acceptance via osmosis.

"So how are you and your boy?" Talia asked, trying to make small talk. "I hear he dropped out."

"He did. Yes." Jesse didn't want to talk about Anthony's betrayal, as he thought of it. He knew it wasn't a reflection of him or their relationship, but it was hard to accept no longer seeing Anthony in therapy. Anthony now had family money that would allow him to obtain surgery privately. A sister who would help him out when it came time to heal and help him out again if he ever lost his job because of his trans status. He had no use for the therapy sessions that mostly turned into a despair circle jerk. Jesse and Anthony had met bonding over their hatred of events like this, while also lamenting the therapist's necessary role in their lives if they wanted to live their lives as they wished as men. Jesse thought they'd shared a fantasy together about a world that would bend to their whim as soon as they got surgery; the city would be theirs, and they could take it over from all the cissies who had made them feel like shit.

Instead, Anthony was about to join the rank of the cissies. And Jesse, like always, was left to nurse his fantasies alone.

He took a long drag on the cigarette. Talia was reminiscing about group therapy as if it was fucking summer camp, talking about how much she loved Anthony's jokes and dry humour. She didn't seem to think it a hardship that he wasn't there anymore, or that therapy itself wasn't the most invasive and cloying experiences.

"You don't find it strange?" Jesse asked after a moment. "Spilling all our secrets to this place?"

"Nah. Just tell them what they want to hear and you get what you want."

"But it's not that simple."

"It can be if you let it. Remember Genie's advice from the first day? No news is good news. We should strive to be boring. We should strive for normal." Talia laughed while Jesse huffed. "It may be antiquated nonsense, but it's also kind of true. We need to just get our letters and move on. We don't need to make headlines, you know? Life doesn't have to be as hard as you make it out to be.

Jesse stared at the dirt in front of them, his mind reeling. How could any of this be easy? He'd just been called Jessica. He'd always be called Jessica because it looked just close enough to Jesse. He could change his name and start all over again, but even the most masculine name didn't matter if his body was found. They'd peel back the clothing and find a vagina. They'd examine the bones and see child-bearing hips. He was fucked in this life and fucked because there was nothing beyond this one. He would always make the headlines, but it would never be in the gender he wanted.

"You're always pouting," Talia complained. She stamped out her cigarette and gestured for them to walk. "I mean, you don't even have it that bad."

"I don't?"

"Yeah," Talia said, cutting him off before he could rant. "Have you even noticed just how many trans women go missing? We're being pegged off, one by one, because we're the gender fodder. The gender monsters. So people kill us. Trans men don't get that."

"Brandon--"

"Don't even say Brandon Teena because that was a lesbian story. He wasn't killed for being a man but fucking someone's woman. That's it."

Jesse wanted to scream. White-hot rage built inside of him and only cooled as he light another cigarette. Talia kept citing sources about trans women as monstrous, quoting the never-wrong Susan Stryker and Julia Serano. All names he knew. All theories he was familiar with. And really, all points that were valid. Trans women did disappear.

But so did trans men. They just disappeared in different ways than trans women, and no one fucking bothered to see it. Either they disappeared into their former feminine identities through lack of institutional recognition or they passed well enough to disappear into masculinity. Until their pants came off, of course. Jesse thought of all the ways in which he'd studied cis men in high school from afar, attempting to affect masculinity like a role he could slip into. The silent head nods, the flexing in mirrors, the quiet complacency. Trans men disappeared into hormones, into the  rage that came more easily and the muscles that clenched underneath skin, but it all fell apart once pants were removed and once that skin was peeled back.

Trans women were murdered, sure, he could accept that. But trans men became silent monsters.

Jesse stamped out the last bit of his cigarette before he entered the building. In the basement of a community centre, a group of sixteen trans people in the midst of their transitions all faced one another in a circle. They gave their names and preferred pronouns before the leader in the centre--always cis, always a medical professional--directed them. They were all pawns in a game. All playing a role.

When Genie called on Talia, she stood up and spoke eloquently. She smiled. She gestured. She was successful in the role and she knew it. It would take another couple weeks, but Jesse knew Talia would get approved for surgery. She would live the rest of her life as a woman. No one would disagree. She would make no headlines. No news would be good news, like Genie always said. Strive for boring. Strive for normal. 

When it was his turn, he mumbled. He grunted. He did not emote enough. He failed Genie's test of confessional therapy, but he knew he passed his own. His masculinity covered him like another skin, like a mask that hid his fantasies.

"Well, that was fun," Talia said once the meeting was over. "I suppose I'll see you next week."

"Yeah, something like that."

Jesse smoked as he watched Talia wander down the street. He fingered the knife in his pocket he always carried for self-defense. After he put out his cigarette, he followed behind Talia silently.

***

"I think something's wrong," Anthony said. He stared into the mug of coffee in front of him. The whipped cream topping had seemed too girly when he ordered it, something that Jesse would have lectured him about if he had been here. He should have been here, but he cancelled at the last minute in a sparse text. Anthony never thought he'd miss the gender-passing nitpicking so much.

Marsha leaned forward on her chair. She extended her hand to Anthony, squeezing him gently. "Want to talk about it?"

"Well, yeah. It's just hard. I know you don't believe me when I say that testosterone has wiped my memory of feeling words, but it's kind of true."

Marsha chuckled lightly. "Oh, I believe it. I just don't think it's purely chemical. It's cultural."

"Sure. Maybe it's both. The truth is often in the middle."

"So what's the middle of what you're worried about? Chances are, it's not benign, but it's probably not as big of a thing as you're making it out to be."

Anthony bit his lip. "I think he's cheating."

"Oh, no sweetie. No." Marsha's face softened. She squeezed his hand again as he went through all the evidence he'd accumulated. Jesse was moodier now than ever before. Already cranky to begin with, it was as if he was riding a wave of ups and downs that would not relent. He'd be sullen and not speak or leave his room for days. Then he'd disappear and come back with manic energy. He wasn't kissing Anthony nearly as much anymore, either. When he did, it was much rougher, and often coupled with his manic periods.

"And he's been going out for longer and longer, sometimes without calling or warning, Anthony said. "He's missing dates like this, too.

"And you're sure it can't be anything else? Maybe he's got a new job or a side gig to help pay for things? I know his parents haven't been great. Maybe he's trying to reconcile with them?"

"Not a chance," Anthony said, laughing a little. “"I think he'd kill his parents if he knew he could get way with it."

Marsha blinked. Anthony instantly regretted the words. "Sorry. Not to be so grim. It's just--"

"No, it's fine. I need to strengthen my stomach anyway." Marsha took a shaky drink from her coffee cup. Silence enveloped them. It felt like a wound.

Anthony had heard about the woman in the ditch on the night it happened. He'd dreamed about a graveyard full of mannequin arms between tombstones. When the next woman was found, he'd had the dream again. At first he didn't want to mention the next missing woman poster he'd seen around the city, thinking it would trigger Marsha, but she called him and told him about it. She'd found several more cases too, all trans women, all of whom had gone missing without a trace or  been found without being ID'd.

"Any more news?" Anthony asked tentatively.

"Some, yeah. I mean the police aren't helping but I think that the numbers are not as big as I once thought."

"Oh?"

"No. Because the police work with legal names or don't find the names to begin with, it's been hard to match up the victims with the missing. But there is overlap and I'm convinced I'm finding it. The numbers are going down. Not much, but some.

"That's... good." Anthony tried to drink his coffee. The words he wanted to say hung between them like a secret dream language that they'd once shared as sisters but had spread out and dispersed since his transition. She was always going to be there for him, but she was always going to be haunted by the negatives of this life. The murder and violence. Jesse's parents abandoning him and the doctors mistreating him. As much as he wanted her to see the better parts of this community, he was coming up on blanks.

"I still haven't found her name, though," Marsha added. "Which still makes me sad."

"I know. I'm sorry. You've done far more than anyone could have."

"But that's the thing. It shouldn't be me but the cops." She sighed and ran her hands through her dark hair. Her nail polish was chipped, the nailbed itself marked with flaked dry skin and red scabs from picking too much. Marsha forced a smile. "So let's not talk about that. Let's talk about your issue. Have you tried talking to Jesse?"

Anthony shook his head. "I could. I mean… Nothing is stopping me."

"But?"

"But I think right now I'm becoming that cop that told you no news was good news. You know a therapist once said it to us, too?"

"Oh, really? That's..."

"Gross, I know. But it also makes a strange type of sense. No news is good news. Don't rock the boat. Strive for boring, strive for normal." Anthony sighed. He glanced down at his chest, still inside a compression binder, and wondered what it would feel like flat. His surgery appointment was in six weeks. Would Jesse still want to fuck him then? Or would his jealousy take over?

Suddenly, the fog lifted from his vision. Marsha noted and raised her eyebrows in suggestion. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I think I figured it out, though. All of this started to happen when Jesse heard about the surgery money I had. When I dropped out of therapy. He's...jealous. He wants what I have so much more, but doesn't have a family who will help."

"He has you, though. He should be happy about that."

"He does, but I need to show him. More than before. Oh." Anthony sighed, feeling relief wash over him. "This is perfect. Thank you so much for talking, Marsh."

"I didn't do much." She shrugged and then held her arms out for a hug. Anthony embraced her easily and squeezed her tight. Under her large winter sweater, he could feel that she was all sharp angles and bones. She was losing weight. But he said nothing about it.

"Call me tonight?" she asked. "Let me know you're okay?"

"How about I call you if something goes wrong?" he suggested, then winked."You know, no news is good news."

Though Marsha rolled her eyes, she also let him go with another squeeze.

Though a part of him wanted to tell her to eat something more than coffee, he wouldn't. She was his older sister. She knew what she was doing.

When Anthony came into the apartment that he shared with Jesse, he found him already there. Jesse stood at the sink, his back stiff. He wore the same pair of jeans as earlier in the day, but he had on no shoes or socks. Dirt was caked onto the front hall mat. Anthony suppressed what he was going to say in greeting when he noticed pats of blood mixed in with the dirt. He moved into the kitchen and noticed blood marking the back of Jesse's shirt.

"Oh my God. Are you okay?"

A dozen scenarios repeated in his mind. Hilary Swank from Boys Don't Cry,
Drew Barrymore from the opening sequence of Scream. When he examined Jesse's face under the low kitchen light, he saw no injuries. Jesse's eyes seemed vacant, his expression immovable.

"You're home early."

"I am,"”Anthony said. "But I thought you wouldn't be home at all."

"Well, I am."

Jesse's voice was like ice. It made the hair at the back of Anthony's neck stand up. When he looked at Jesse's hands, he saw blood mixed with soap, runny with water. A knife lined the kitchen sink. The blood on his shirt had no origin, no trace of a wound.

Still, Anthony asked if he was okay again.

"I'm fine. Just a little scratch. Nothing to worry about."

"Okay." Anthony didn't remove his eyes from the bloodstain. "Are you sure? If something happened, you know you can tell me, right?"

"I know. I would."

"Good."

Silence stretched between them. The din of the running water hitting the metal basin became too much. When Jesse turned it off, all the blood from the knife was gone. So was the soap and pink suds on his hands. The only speck of gore that remained was the blood-stained shirt. Jesse seemed like he wanted to remove it, but couldn't.

Because he doesn't have a binder on, Anthony realized. His breasts were visible. Tightly bound with a sports bra instead of a compression tank, but still visible. And he is ashamed.

"I need some privacy," Jesse said.

"Right. Of course."

Jesse nodded. He left the kitchen for their shared bedroom around the corner. Anthony stood in the kitchen. He put his hands on the sink and looked at the knife. It was not a kitchen knife, like he once thought, but one that he’d seen in Jesse's bag in the past. The one for self -defense. He repeated Jesse's claims of self-defense over and over. Anthony suppressed all other dawning thoughts. He heard Jesse shift and change in the other room.

"I have something I want to tell you," Anthony said.

Jesse didn't say anything.

Anthony went on. "I was talking to Marsha and I realized that I was being unfair. I should have shared my surgery money with you."

The shifting stopped. Jesse's breath was heavy. "What do you mean?"

"I should have split it with you. That way we both work together to get what we need."

Jesse appeared in the doorway. The blood was no longer visible. Every trace of what Anthony had just witnessed was now gone, and because it was easier, he let it disappear. In between the two extremes, the answer was somewhere in the middle. Jesse was moody because he missed out on surgery. That was that. Everything else wasn't important.

"Are you serious?" Jesse asked.

"Yes. We're in this together, okay?"

Jesse wrapped him in a hug. It was rough, like usual, but there was tenderness inside it as well. Anthony was sure.. The two of them were happy. Their lives were taking shape together; he should have been focused on them as a unit, on their shared fantasy, rather than anything else.

"Are you going to be okay?" Anthony asked, after the hug was over.

Jesse didn't answer; he merely put the knife that had once been in the sink back into his pocket, and then took Anthony to the couch.

Anthony decided to take the silence as good news.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Grass Beneath My Feet, by S.A. Cosby

Anyone who tell you that they don’t mind going to jail is a goddamned liar. Oh, they’ll tell you how much of an OG they are. They’ll try and convince you how real they keep it. But what they won’t tell you is how they lay on their back on top of their cot ever night silently crying in the dark as they stare up at the ceiling. Praying that tonight isn’t the night a 300lb monster decides they have a pretty mouth. No, they won’t tell you that. Jail is Hell on earth. And just like Hell it’s filled with lost souls who have become demons. If you get a chance to find a way out of that Tartarus, you take it. Even if it’s just to go see your mama laid out at the funeral home. You cherish those few hours like you’re Persephone.

The Coldwater Correctional Facility van pulled up to the side door of a brick building that looked less like a mortuary and more like a bank. A short brother who hadn’t missed a meal since 2003 opened the side door and spoke to Officer Hardy. I watched them through the corrugated steel grate that covered my window. The brother was nodding like his head was on a spring. Officer Hardy came back to the van and Officer Martinez turned towards me.

“All right,Turner, you know the drill. You straight with us we gonna be straight with you," he said. As prison guards go Martinez was all right. Hardy was a piece of shit who probably jerked off to torture porn. I nodded. Hardy opened the sliding door then unlocked the inner cage door. Martinez stepped out and helped me navigate my way out the van. I was shackled at my ankles and my wrists. They hadn’t made me wear the waist chain because I hadn’t had any disciplinary issues in the last five years. That’s what passes as an accomplishment inside.

“Don’t freak out when you see your dead mama, Turner.” Hardy said.

All heart that guy is.

We walked into a large chapel that was muted browns and deep greens. Brown paneling on the walls. Green valances that ran along the edge of the ceiling. Dark green carpet. Sixty or seventy brown wooden chairs. There was a small wooden pulpit to the right. A huge picture of a redneck-looking white Jesus was hanging on the wall behind the pulpit.

In front of the pulpit in a gray doeskin casket was my mama.

The brother, who I assumed was the undertaker, closed the door behind us. Hardy turned to him while Martinez held me by the arm.

“Just so we’re clear, there are no other family members here, correct?” Hardy asked.

“No sir. We followed your instructions,” the undertaker said.

“Okay. You got an hour Turner,” Hardy said. Martinez let go of my arm. I took a deep breath. At first, I couldn’t move. My feet didn’t want to work. I looked down at the rug. It’s so dark and green it reminds me of grass. I haven’t walked on grass in fifteen years. Do you know how unnatural that is? I ain’t no granola-eating non-bathing vegan hippie but even I know people are not meant to lose that connection to the earth. I think that’s why some people inside go crazy. They’re untethered from the world. if you were like me you’re never going to feel the grass beneath your feet again. I’m doing an all-day bid. Big time. Life.

“Go ahead, Turner.” Martinez whispered.

I took a few steps forward. My sister Wanda had made all the arrangements. I’m a little surprised she put her in such a cheap casket. Not for nothing, but doeskin is the human equivalent of burying a cat in a shoe box.

There is a sickly-sweet aroma coming from the coffin. Like strawberries that have gone bad. After a little while I recognize it. It’s the cheap perfume my mama used to bathe herself in before heading out to a juke joint called Sharkey’s with my father. When I was a kid it was the only place in our small southern town that catered to black folks. Every weekend they would leave me to watch Wanda while they went down to Sharkey’s. They would come back stinking of liquor and bad decisions. Sometimes they came back kissing and sometimes they came back fighting like a pair of wild dogs.

I don’t want to look at her. But I need to make sure she’s dead.

I peer into the box. She’s lost a lot of weight. The cancer has ravaged her body like a wildfire. It’s devoured the curves she was so proud of. Her breasts are two hard cupcakes under a pink blouse. Her hands are crossed at her waist. Her face is slack like she’s sleeping off a good drunk. I know what I’m supposed to feel. My mama is dead, and I’m supposed to be overcome with grief. But all I feel is a dull sense of relief. You want the long story? You won’t get it from me. I’ll give you the Cliff's Notes version. One night my mama stabbed my daddy and my dumb fifteen-year-old ass took the blame.

She said the police wouldn’t believe it had been self-defense. They had a history of violence. A long history.

“But if you tell them you did it, Javon, they’ll just think you was defending me. They won’t send me to jail and we won’t get split up. We all we got,” she’d said to me as we sat on the floor near my daddy’s still-warm body. A butcher knife stuck out of his chest like a flagpole. When I was fifteen her plan had made perfect sense. What could go wrong?

Everything, that’s what. I got charged as an adult by an overzealous prosecutor who had his eye on the governor’s mansion. It took the jury less than an hour to give me 25-to-life.

I ran my finger along her cheek. Her skin felt like candle wax.

The bible tells you to honor your mama and your father. But that big book of fairy tales doesn’t tell you what to do when your mother gets you locked up on a murder bid. The first two years I was inside I stuck to the story. She assured me I’d get parole. I told myself I had to protect my mama. During my first appeal I kept my mouth shut. It was like I could see a floating neon sign above the judge’s head that said, “PROTECT YOUR MAMA”.

On the anniversary of my third year inside I got a letter from my sister. I hadn’t heard from my mama in months. Wanda told me how CPS had put her in a foster home because our mama’s new boyfriend couldn’t keep his hands to himself. She also told me how my mom had collected on a life insurance policy for my daddy. She and her new boyfriend had moved into a brand new double-wide and were driving around town in a new truck.

I vomited in my cell after I finished reading her letter. I called my lawyer and told her everything. She filed a new appeal and this time I told the truth. And guess what? Nobody gave a fuck. Not the cops. Not the prosecutor who was now the governor. Least of all my mama, who was now married to her touchy-feely boyfriend.

As I stood next to the casket I felt the tears begin to fall. My whole body started to shake. I raised my head and looked at the picture of Gregg Allman Jesus. Where was he when a tiny fifteen-year-old boy was shoved into a cage full of beasts? I looked down at my mama again. She was wearing a pink blazer to go along with her pink blouse. Attached to the lapel of her blazer was a large papier-mache rose. I recognized that rose. It wasn’t a brooch. It was a hat pin that my mother used as a lapel decoration. She never wore hats. She liked showing off her long black hair that she swore came from our indigenous ancestry.

I stared at that pin for a long time.

They are never going to let me go. My appeals ran out a long time ago. I’d given up my freedom for a woman who played me like a fiddle. A woman who had abandoned me in life. Maybe in death she could rescue me. Raise me from the depths of perdition on the petals of a rose.

I collapsed onto my mother’s body. Hardy and Martinez didn’t notice. They were busy debating the questionable outcome of last night’s football game. My fingers danced over her chest. I slipped the pin under the handcuff on my left wrist. My orange jumpsuit two sizes too big for me. The sleeves nearly came down to my fingertips. I straightened up and turned to face Hardy and Martinez.

“Hey yo, I’m ready,” I said.

“You sure, Turner?” Martinez asked me. I heard he was a single dad of two little girls. Hardy is an ass at work, but I know he’s big into the Knights of Columbus because he talks about it all the damn time. I push that shit out of my mind. I make myself go blank.

Hardy went to tell the undertaker we’re leaving. Martinez took a position behind me. Hardy came back and opened the door. He had his back to me. I let the hat pin slip into my hand. Somewhere deep in my heart I hear the boy I used to be whisper “no.”

But I’m doing this for him. For us.

I whirl around and stab Martinez in the eye. Eight inches of cheap steel slides through his eyeball and into his brain. It feels like I’m skewering a gum drop. I hear a soft gelatinous pop as I pull out the pin. Martinez stumbles backwards before crumpling to the floor. Hardy spins around. His eyes are as wide as dinner plates as he reaches for his gun. He’s too slow. I leap forward and shove the pin into his throat just under his double chin. I shove him back against the door and it shuts with a bang. I pull out the pin and blood spews everywhere. Hardy puts both his hands on the wound but the blood seeps between his fingers. He slides down the door still clutching his throat. I grab the keys and unlock my restraints. I take Hardy’s gun out of the holster just as the undertaker is peeping in the chapel.

“Give me your clothes and your car keys,” I say. He nods enthusiastically.

He is one nodding motherfucker.

I lock him in a storage closet in the back of the mortuary. I put on his suit and leave through the front door. I never learned how to tie a necktie, so I leave it behind. I hop in the undertaker’s Caddy. I silently thank my cousin Tay for teaching me to drive the summer before my daddy died.

After some fiddling I lower the window and turn on the radio. I don’t recognize the song but that’s all right. I hit the gas and leave the Coldwater Prison van in my rearview mirror. I know I won’t get far. I know I probably won’t make it out of this alive. But it doesn’t matter right now. All I want to do is find a nice big field. I want to kick off these Sunday shoes and walk across that field barefoot. Feel the cool grass beneath my feet. Feel like I’m home.

At least for a little while.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Once Upon A Time in Chicago, by Tia Ja'nae

A dead silence serenaded Carla’s nerves, under the streetlights.
  
That had never happened before during one of their backseat romps.  Arron laughed at her jumpiness, playfully teasing her insecurities to being afraid of the black snake between his legs that couldn’t wait to ravage her.
   
His mischievous smile gave her little comfort. 

Carla knew the dank Chicago streets well enough to instinctually sense danger lurking in the shadows.  The asphalt and grime were quiet enough to notice; her intuition wouldn’t let go the ominous warnings waiting to make their acquaintance without a proper invitation.  Ignoring her survival instincts, she compromised the gnawing feeling in her stomach to flee; instead she indulged Arron’s insatiable desires.

She knew better than to ignore the voices in her head, but it was a small price to pay for ensuring Arron would spring for the Coach purse she had her eye on at Marshall Fields.  Ordinarily, quick blow-jobs spread over a couple of weeks would be all the inspiration he needed for a shopping trip.  But Carla wanted it tomorrow, before any other boss bitch on the block could get their boosters to lift it for them when it debuted the next day.  

He had to pay to play; she’d have to indulge his fantasies to get him to ante up.

As Carla allowed him to twist her limbs into pretzel positions and hump away, she reveled in the satisfaction of earning the man despite the odds.  They’d grown up together, surviving a gang war that robbed them both of their siblings.  Hustling was second nature where they were from; the boxing career Arron stumbled upon was supposed to be his ticket out but he never made enough to keep him out of the street life.

Juggling the two kept her man in the spotlight, for better or worse.  Carla had no qualms about being his trophy piece, enjoying the spoils of his wars.  They both played their position well; marrying his high school sweetheart on her was a shock but not a big deal in her long-term plans.  His wife could keep the papers on him as long as she got all the extra cash and incentives of having the man.  

Arron aggressively took her, grunting in carnal pleasures as he punished every available hole at his mercy.  Silently, she took the punishment being at his complete disposal, knowing she had to do what the other women in his life would not.  Fabricated lust coming from her lips resided in the comforting thought of enjoying his paycheck while his wife was left behind to cope with their trough of kids.

With each rough stroke she imagined the travels he afforded her.  Arron flew her into every city he fought in, relishing their open secret within the confines of his coach and trainers on the road.  Only girlfriends were allowed in the gym during training, and Carla whispered all the things in his ear he might have wanted to hear as his personal cheerleader.  Their understanding became a thing that went beyond even their comprehension, and she went along eager for the ride.

Thinking about the pill breaking on her last month threw her concentration off.  

Arron was thrilled like a kid in a candy store at the news of having a baby.  Carla didn’t want the crumb-snatcher cramping her style, but Arron could afford to make the experience lucrative.  The thought of permanent paychecks covering child support and living expenses for the next twenty years helped her regain the swing in her hips he barely noticed had left.

Carla took a breath when Arron’s body finally shook on top of hers and collapsed in defeat.  Try as she might to get him up off of her, Arron took his time getting out of her honey-pot.  He wriggled in subjugated bliss against her while she adjusted to the creeping feeling in her gut she had before lust sidetracked her.  She felt vulnerable in the chaos of his playfulness, and her attention focused to the nickel-plated pistol tucked between the seat.

Streets were talking.  Rumor mills gossiped about Arron’s vices.  Everybody on the block knew cats were looking for him over unpaid debts.  Gambling with high rollers in back alley establishments had caught up to him.  The arrogance flaunting his purse money around in the faces of people that could barely hold water to snitch on his good fortune was careless to her.  The stone cold killers around the way were nothing to take lightly.  

Playing the tough guy role, Arron laughed in the face of danger like the king of cool.  Carla fed into his ego, telling him he was invincible even though she could see the hint of worry in his eyes he refused to admit to.  Nor did she want him to; they would both have targets on their backs if he showed any weakness like that in the street.  For both their sakes she fed into the lie to get her through the insecure seconds.

Much to Carla’s relief, Arron got it together before the relaxation he felt from his release left him succumbing to a cat-nap.  She hated being in the open with eyes watching in normal circumstances for this very reason, but Arron didn’t believe in paying for motels.  Backseats or the bathroom at hole-in-the-wall they frequently partied in were their only two options for their encounters, and neither afforded her the privacy she liked.

Her worrying eased as he hurried to get dressed and back to their reality.  They were behind schedule consummating their sin; his wife would be on the prowl for his whereabouts if he ran late far beyond a reasonable hour after the gym closed.  Arron was in good spirits.  He joked about baby names; Carla dropped hints on the colors for the purse.  Like he always did after he got a piece he put some bread in her hand. 

She counted it as he grinned; everything was everything.

Neither of them saw the old school roller with no lights on creeping up the block.  Or the staccato fire bursts coming from its shadowed interior once it symmetrically aligned next to theirs.  Carla heard sporadic shots shattering their windows before the pain registered she’d been hit.  Joints between her shoulder blade ached something terrible within the seconds the roller screeched down the block and out of her focal point.  But she was alive.

It never dawned on her, calling out to Arron, that he wouldn’t be.

She spoke his name softly; he didn’t respond, slumped over the steering wheel.  Panic set in her spirit; ferociously, she shook him thinking he’d fainted.  Sticky, wet liquids gushing from his wounds coated her hands like honey, dripping from her fingertips.  A mass of splintered muscle, bone fragments, and clotting blood bubbled from the remnants of his face and neck.  Carla checked his heartbeat; a shallow thump abruptly ceased.

Just like that, Carla knew Arron was gone.

For a brief moment she was paralyzed in shock at his passing; she’d seen dead bodies before in worse shape than his, just not as intimately.  Deep breaths did little to calm her adrenaline but did control the hyperventilating.  Nervously grabbing her phone, her first mind led her to call for help as if he could be saved.  However, the consequences of being found in his company as a witness to murder in his wife’s car kept her from connecting the call.  

Instead, she called Merc, a trained field medic in Vietnam known for patching up the gunshot victims around the way who didn’t have the luxury of hospital visits.  He was quick and didn’t ask any questions but was expensive and sewed up wounds without the benefit of anesthesia.  Carla knew her pain tolerance was low, but a bottle of vodka and a blunt would be all she needed to cope with the pain when he stitched her up in the kitchen.

And it would cost Arron dearly as a parting gift for leaving her behind.

Carla picked through Arron’s pockets like a common criminal, retrieving whatever remaining cash he had on him.  The two grand she retrieved plus what he had already given her would be enough for her to make major moves later.  Sirens began echoing from a couple blocks away, and Carla ditched her dead lover before she could be identified at the scene of the crime.  Keeping off the sidewalks she detoured down uninviting alleys, forging through what lay ahead.

Calmly, she told herself she’d be cool; the unfortunate hard luck was just a temporary setback.  All she needed to do was fight the feeling of passing out from blood loss and get home.  Everything would be right as rain once she got the bullet out of her shoulder and figured out what her next move should be.  Calls would have to be made to make sure she wasn’t on anyone’s list; once she was in the clear she could resume her hustle anew.  The cash would last long enough to get a come up with heavy pockets.  But first she had to make it to the sunrise.  

And if she hurried in the morning, she could make it to Marshall Fields and get her purse with enough time and cash left over for an abortion. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Masonry, by Rob McClure Smith

The late afternoon sky was that blue  called sky-blue. A sky so clear and true you could  put your fist through it. A plane cut a diagonal swath across it. Cowan wanted to be up there, oblivious to harm.

It was 2.30.

Near the turnstiles at King Street slouched a young man. His hair cut in a fade and topped with a purple do-rag knotted in front, wide-legged Rocawears bunched on a pair of reverse-laced red K-Swiss. He had the look, right down to the old RG3 sweatshirt over  a snow-white tee, and he was trying way too hard not to check out the arrivals. A blue knapsack nestled between his feet. It was the knapsack was off.

Cowan took the other exit. He crossed by the Amtrak depot and climbed Shooter's Hill to the Masonic Memorial. Crossing Callahan, he looked back to see a blue bag slung over a shoulder and a phone clamped to an ear.

The Memorial was fashioned after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But no Egyptian would have concocted nine floors of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian into this stone tier cake monstrosity. The information board was a dark solemn black. Open daily. No dogs. No filming. Proper attire required. This fucking donkey jacket would be the death of him. On top of the board a golden crest, sun at the top, moon at the bottom, columns at upper left and right surmounted with globes, sheaves of wheat, tools and pomegranates. In the center a "G" surrounded by a square and a compass and '1910.'  In crimson three stars and two horizontal stripes. In Memoriam Perpetuam.

He chose the curving path on the left, scaling another step tier, then another. Up and up. The embankments framing the steps stippled brown. Landscaping minimal, sparse bushes ranged symmetrically. No cover, a blank and deserted place. One tier from the top, a glass case with reproduction of Brady's 1864 panoramic view. The city of Robert E. Lee was gray and smoky, a military tent village erected where the train station now was, a row of arches, like on a rich man'ss croquet lawn. Cowan read about the Ellsworth Avengers on a sepia daguerreotype, located landmarks then and now, contemplated the hidden meanings of architecture. Sloping downhill, another stone G in the square and compass. To his right the young man from the Metro. He had followed him and it wasn't for his autograph.

"Aight." The kid tapped a finger on his do-rag, blue-black tat of a spider-web like a bruise on the side of his neck.

They stared at a distant horizon, low rooftops, distant snaking blue, a far away Ferris wheel, unturned. A flag flapped on a flagpole causing it to creak. Cowan saw the butt of a pistol protruding from the waistband of the kid's boxers. He was supposed to.

"What you suppose the big G stands for?" he asked.

The kid stared at Cowan like his question was mined.

"Big G on the stone there?"

"George."

"You think?"

"Uh-huh. George Washington, man, founding father freed the slaves and shit."

"Not God?"

The kid considered this. "Nah."

"Geometry then?"

"Don't give a shit, cuz. Whatev."

"You should," Cowan said, angrily. "Big difference between God and George.  God doesn't have a name, so the theologians say. But if he did it wouldn't be George.  Who'd take a God called George seriously?  'Come out the burning bush, George, you're scaring the kids!' George doesn't have the right ring to it. Doesn't that bother you any?"

The kid gave Cowan the heavy-lidded look he likely reserved for homeless D.C. crazies. "I ain't got to bother about nuthin' but be black and die, slim."

"What you think his name would be then?"

"God."

"Besides that."

"Fuck is with you man?"

"Seriously.  If God had a name what'd it be?"

"Sumthin like. . . " The kid pondered his knuckles. "Fuck I know."

"You're not even trying." The silence lasted about seven years.

"Sumthin like Mahabone maybe," the kid spat, finally.

"What?"

"Mahabone. I made it up. Got some serious ji voodoo vibe to it. See, I was God I'd want a serious motherfuckin name scare the shit out folks got me bent." He tilted his chin at the declining sun, content. "Mahabone, hell. I'm a liking that. They be shittin' their pants old Mahabone come round."

"You got a name?"

"You hear me ask yours?" He held Cowan's gaze. Finally, "Yeah. I got a name."

"That's good," Cowan said. "A name's useful. That's how come my cat is called Susan."

The kid unzipped the knapsack. Cowan watched. Instead was extracted a two-thirds full 40-ounce of Country Club. A cap unscrewed. Amber fluid sloshed.

"I see you brought your own urine sample."

"You ever shut the fuck up, man?  I'm here appreciatin’the nature and shit."

The kid took a deep swig of the malt and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He had to hold the bottle with both hands to tip it, like he was playing a brass instrument.

"Did you know beer is made from barley?" Cowan asked. "That gut rot is derived from corn."

The kid screwed the cap back on and adjusted the bottle on the parapet. "Do I look like I give a fuck?"

"That's the only Country Club you'll ever see the inside of." Cowan gestured at the Memorial. "Ever gone inside?"

"I ain't ever been in that joint." The kid grimaced. "Fuck is these creepy pillars and shit?"

A couple, in prosperous middle age, climbed the steps. The kid observed their approach, eyes flitting, evaluating terrain. They passed, on to the entrance, where they paused in an attitude of worship.

"I do like them boxers," Cowan said. "Very pretty. I knew a girl had panties the exact same shade of blue and red and white. I think her name was Wonder Woman. Is that the new concealed-carry underwear I've read about? What you plan to do with the gun? Shoot your balls off?"

The kid tilted his chin at him. "Kill your ass. Do the world a favor."

"Not here though." Cowan said. "All these sightseers. Look, here's Tiger Woods."
Prince Hall came down the steps backward, snapping a photograph on his phone.  He wore a green jacket.

"Tourists don't give no shit. You know how they do. They from Minnesota and such." The young man waxed philosophical. "See no evil, know what I'm sayin'?"

"You all getting acquainted?" Hall joined them. He wore a pair of too-large Locs sunglasses, a Redskins snapback high on his brow. "What's good cuz?" He offered his fist to the kid for a pound and they performed an elaborate ritual handshake.

"Man, I'mma keep it a hunnit, don't like this shit. Naw. Way in the open, know what I'm sayin'? Like the Kennedy Center. Should be in the cut for a deal like this."

"What you got there?" said Hall, gesturing at the bottle. "You can't be doing that here. What the matter with you, Jalil? Get a grip."

"Listen to this motherfucker talk for five and you be drinkin too."
Prince walked behind Cowan to fingerwalk his jacket pockets, hunkering to track with his palms the inside seam of his jeans, socks. He removed his wallet.

"I appreciate you hooking up with us, Mr. Cowan."

"If you're feeling frisky shouldn't you ask me out for a drink first?"
Prince palmed his chest pocket for a cigarette. "Smoke?"

"I'm looking after my health." Cowan grinned. "I'm figuring to live a long time."

Hall laughed, tossing the wallet to Jalil who rifled it.

"Next you'll be asking if I want a blindfold."

Hall lit with the flick of a Bic, inhaled deeply.  "I'm not with you."

"Before the execution. Like the last cigarette."

Hall blew a streamer of smoke. "That's a morbid thought. I'm going to finish this jack," he said. "Then we're going to stroll back around there admire the fine architecture."

"I'm not going anywhere," Cowan said, reasonably. "Sorry. I like it here. I can appreciate the nature and shit, that right?"

Jalil sniffed. "I think we got a crazy. Talkin' to me about the name of God and some shit." He finished with the wallet, finding nothing of interest, stuffing two twenty dollar bills in his pocket. "We bout done here?"

"This one says the G in the block there is for George," Cowan said. "I say God. Want to be the casting vote, Prince?" Cowan blinked a few times at him. "Prince. What a silly name."

"Giblum." Hall examined the tip of his cigarette like it was a Rorschach, flicked dead ash. "It means stone squarer."

"I'm surprised."

"You get a free education when you serve. You be all you can be, no one tell you that?" He looked in Cowan's eyes. "You'd have been better never come to this city."

The tourists returned and the men exchanged a glance. Hall made a delicate gesture with his hands, an oblique sign.

Cowan looked at the sprawl of city. "You get a good view up here. Where was it you served? Afghanistan? Iraq?"

"You don't want to know where I've been or the things I done."

"Prince," said Cowan, thoughtfully. "Say, you weren't named after the midget in the purple suit? The one sang Darling Nikki?"

Hall narrowed his eyes slightly. "Great song that," was all he said.

The tourists stopped by the emblem. Hall drummed his fingers on the railing.

The sun hung lower in the sky, an invitation to night. They moved away.

"I'm not coming with you," Cowan said, quietly.

"I think it's in your best interest."

"I'm finished either way." Cowan shrugged. "I'm just not up for making it convenient. You'll have to do for me here, like this."

Hall flinched. "It's a hard world. You know that."

Cowan needed to think carefully and act quickly. For now, jabbering like an idiot would have to do.

"Must be hard for you being a professional and here you have to work with amateurs like Lil' Wayne here."

Hall ashed his cigarette on the railing and a slow rain of orange flecks descended.  "You have to use what's at hand when you're building," he said, turning a complete 360, seeing no one for miles. "Different tools for different purposes." He flicked his butt on the grass, reached into his jacket pocket, made more significant eye contact with Jalil.

They wouldn't shoot him. They had something else in mind. Something quieter.

"What about this tool?" Cowan asked, edging closer to Jalil.  "When this is done, you going to do for him too?"

"What the fuck this crazy rambling ‘bout?" Jalil asked.

"Forget to tell you about that?" Cowan tut-tutted. "You didn't tell him how royalty cleans up after itself. That's a sin of omission."

"I hate to be rude, but you're starting to bore me."  Hall nodded at Jamil, who didn't move. Just stared blankly.

Cowan toe-shuffled closer, within arm's length of the bottle now.

"You need to kill here, cuz," Prince said, discomfited. "This one just trying to syce the situation."

"I been thinking about how that shit went down my own self."

"We talk about this later, aight?"

"Hold up, but way Carlton was buggin’. . ."

Jalil didn't finish because Cowan scooped up the liquor bottle with both hands and brought it down hard as he could on the purple do-rag. There was a dull hollow glassy thud and the cap popped. Blood and liquor sprayed on the stonework. Jalil staggered sideways like a stunned cow and Cowan smacked him on the cheekbone with the bottle so hard it shattered. He was left holding the wide jagged neck. Jalil's knees buckled and his eyes rolled back white, like a man far gone in drink. He toppled onto the embankment, thrashing, his legs kicking as though pedaling an invisible bicycle.

The gun spun between the railings and onto the emblem, clattering on the stone.  Cowan was trying to gauge where it went when Prince's body flew into his, a linebacker's hit. The momentum sent them off the parapet and onto the carved square. It was a four foot drop, but they landed hard and awkward on the stone G. Cowan's back spat rapid sparks of pain. Only a tsunami of adrenalin and terror got him upright.

Hall was hurt too, his right shoulder dislocated. His arm hung limp by his side and he had the look of a man who had failed to accomplish a basic task, targeting fury like a laser at his own ineptitude. He eyed Cowan through a mist of hurt and rage.

Cowan scrambled across the stone searching for the missing gun.

With the subtlest flick of his wrist a small ivory knife appeared between Hall's fingers. Cowan backed up across the G as Hall  advanced, dabbing the knife at his chest.  He felt the indent of the stone letter under his feet. The man was trained to kill hand-to-hand. But he was injured, switching the blade to his left hand. His semi-crippled status evened things up. The third time Hall thrust, wincing as he did so, Cowan skewered his wrist with the bottleneck.

"I'm going to kill you," Hall bared his teeth. He looked at the glass embedded in his wrist, blood spurting around it. He took a step, his face crumpled with pain. "I'm going to kill your ass. Kill your ass," he chanted. But the knife hung limp.

They circled one another on the emblem,in the attitude of dancers. Hall on the compass:  Cowan on the square. He expected to be numbed by panic, but this close to death he felt untroubled. How few thousand years ago it was other dancers had stood here, plodding slowly in a darkness of fetid caves, befouling themselves in ceremonies of fear with gestures bloody and offerings bloody given up with knives bloody to some impassive stone idols.He tasted swamp history in his mouth and scented in the wind an ancient, reeking odor and wanted very much to live and was no longer afraid.

When Hall made another lunge, Cowan  tugged on the elastic in his sleeve and the plywood with the razor blade embedded in it snapped into his fingers. He jinked and stroked the blade across the exposed cheek. It slit Hall temple to chin. The skin tore like paper. Hall gave a cry and fell to one knee. Cowan kicked him in the jaw.

The spurting made a red tributary across the indentation of the square and compass. Cowan crept to where Hall lay splayed on the stone. He wasn't moving.

"Prince,"he said, holding the razor's edge in front of him.

More red pooled now and the handle protruding from Hall's neck quivered each time a jet squirted under it.

"Isn't nobody killed me yet,"Cowan whispered.

The slab was veined with blood.



Cowan found the gun in a bush. He knew fuck-all about guns. He didn't even know how to take the safety off.

Jalil sat up, feeling at his face with his hands. One cheek was badly swollen and an eye closing fast. Cowan jammed the gun in his ear. "I told you drinking was bad for you," he said.

"What the fuck you do?" moaned Jalil, blood seeping between his fingers.

"You've heard the expression 'hitting the bottle'? This time the bottle hit you. I think you might be concussed. That'd be hard to tell with you, son.” Cowan tracked the cut on the kid's head with his palm. “You're going to need a doctor but--"

"I don't believe in them," Jalil groaned. "Fucks stick you with needles and shit."

"You need stitches. It won't hurt."

"'It won't hurt' always does," Jalil said, despondent.

Cowan hauled him to his feet and, shoving the gun in his back, forced him to look at the body on the emblem, arms forming a 90 degree angle, like a final signal of distress.

"Head hurts like a motherfucker," Jalil observed.

"That could be you," Cowan said. "Lying there. Just saying."

"Could be. But ain't." Jalil shrugged. "I didn't like him anyways. He had a bad attitude."

The blood made the stone slippery. Cowan had never once considered the slipperiness of blood. 

"Take off your jacket," he ordered.

"Nah."

"Give us the fucking jacket."

Jalil handed it to him. Cowan took off his own. "Here," he said, handing it over. "Wipe that stone off with this."

"You serious?"

"Do I look serious?"

"I dunno what you look like."

Jalil scrubbed. The declining sun freakishly seemed to dart its rays to the center.  Both of them looked up, disturbed. Then returned to the task at hand.

"Move the body off first," Cowan said. "And be careful you don't slip and fall.  That would be embarrassing." He pulled on the sweatshirt. "It's important not to embarrass yourself." He flipped the hood and sat hunched like a monk with the gun still leveled at Jalil. The hoodie made him self-conscious. His back hurt and his legs were shaking again. He wondered if he was going into shock. "Now how's about you drag it under that bush, see it?"

"You goin to shoot me or what?"

"Depends."

Jalil kicked the body into concealment, wiped his hands clean on the grass.

"You know how to make this all go away?" Cowan asked.

"How you mean?"

"I mean can you make a call to your people and make this go away? Like it never happened. You connected? Or is that what Prince did before he abdicated?"

"Maybe."

"Do it. Then go get some stitches."

"I think I got a number some place. You not goin’to shoot me?"

"I want to, but I need the bullets where I'm going."

"The safety is on."

"Yeah, I figured."

"Can't shoot nobody with the safety on. You retarded?"

"You going to make that call or not?"

"What I say?"

"Tell them you fucked up. Tell them the guy you meant to waste got away. Say he ran towards the Metro. Tell them you need a body disposed of."

Jalil's eyes never left the gun as he spoke. Cowan took his phone and threw it against the stone.

"The fuck?"

"The cell phone is destroying the art of conversation."

"That a new iPhone!"

Cowan took off the safety. "Go find my wallet."

Jalil came back with it. "You take bad photos, man. They do the license over you ask. Don't nobody have to go through life looking that ugly-ass."

"Keep the 40 and put it toward a new coat." Cowan stuffed the wallet in his pocket. "Then get yourself a new line of work. You're not cut out for this. Be an exotic male dancer or a postman or something."

"You not goin to shoot me?"

"You keep bringing it up I'm liable to."

Cowan lowered the gun and took off down the steps.

"You really goin to the Metro?" Jalil called after him.

Cowan turned and aimed the gun. "It matter?"

"I ain't say shit."  Jalil's lip was in a full pout. "You sure you need to be keeping that jacket?"

"Uh-huh."

He walked along King, glancing nervously at traffic headed east. The street whirled like the blades of a fan. He went into the Austin Grill, famished. Maybe that's what killing someone did. Gave you an appetite. He asked to be sat at a window table, one overlooking the main drag.

4:03, night fast falling, headlights on. He settled back, looked at the rack of glasses by the bar, the longhorns above the kitchen, the array of weird masks on the brick walls. Even that scary-ass Frida Kahlo looked seductive tonight.

The waitress was checking him out. She was young, a leggy sloe-eyed blonde in too-tight jeans and a low-cut blouse. He didn't attract that kind of attention from this young a woman anymore. In his early thirties, a cloak of invisibility had descended on him. Perhaps he had the look of a stone-cold killer tonight:  maybe the danger he exuded made him more attractive. Something evolutionary.

She returned with his Pepsi, big-eyeing him. She was staring so blatantly that he felt obligated to stare back. She was pretty as all get-out. When she brought his order, she put on the tray a glass of water without ice and a pile of napkins. She leaned her breasts across him and he deep-whiffed her perfume as she whispered in his ear. "Sir, there's blood. It's on your face." He looked at her. "It's, like, all over your cheeks."

He dipped the napkin and wiped the blood away. There was a lot of it, and it wasn't even his. He depleted the pile.

"I think I must have cut myself," he said.

Her look of concern was tinctured, Cowan realized, with horror.

"There's blood on your hands too," she said.

There was.