Showing posts with label paul j garth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label paul j garth. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Tongues, fiction by Paul J. Garth


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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?” Kent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s find it and go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From somewhere in the shadows, they heard rattling.

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

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

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

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

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

The rattling slowed to a dull drone and then stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gore painted the wall next to Brandon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just let me go!” he screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His tongue worked the gaps of his teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 4, 2020

Paper Boats, fiction by Paul J. Garth

reprinted from The Desperate and the Damned

They had only been gone a few hours, just long enough to see a movie and pick up some food for the kid, but somehow that’d been long enough for Taylor Olsen to die, the boy still strapped to the metal folding chair Neil had tied him to before they left, his face blue, his little clenched mouth filled with vomit.
Neil stood there, refusing to go any further into the small bedroom they’d kept the kid stored in, his back pushed against the doorframe, the circuits of his brain suddenly overloaded. Acid surged in his throat. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” he asked. “God, he’s dead, isn’t he?”

A dizziness had fallen over him, throwing the world out of tilt, and in that sudden vertigo he had felt something fall away inside of himself, something almost physical. His hands had gone clammy and he ran them down the curve of his belly, searching. It was as though there had been a great fundamental piece of himself that’d been suddenly sheared away, swallowed by an invisible abscess. Sweat burst across his brow and he became obsessed with the idea that if he could somehow make the kid alive again, the new and sucking abscess he felt inside himself would close.

He fought to breathe.

“Yeah,” Rex said. He stood stopped in front of the body, turned back, holding Neil’s eyes, watching Neil’s panic crest like a wave. His face was smooth, his voice calming, unflappable. “He’s dead, but Jesus, you’ve got to relax, man. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Nothing has changed. They don’t know. They’re still gonna drop the cash.”

“But they’re not going to get the kid back.” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement, as though there was still a possibility, a chance, that somehow Taylor’s parents would get the kid back. He swallowed, his words hanging in the air, his tongue thick in his mouth and swollen as though with salt, like a man gone overboard. He was on the verge of tears. Of tearing out his own hair. Of going to the back of the house and pulling out the shotgun he knew Rex kept on the top shelf of the closet and putting both barrels in his mouth. “I can’t believe I let you to talk me in to this.”
They’d been in the back of a darkened bar when they first worked the outline of the plan, drunk on cheap beer and resentment. “No one will get hurt,” Rex had promised. “And with the money, when we’re settled, you can send for Meredith if you want. You can try again. This kid can be your shot.”
Neil nodded along, the taste of bitter anger and aged yeast in the back of his throat. He was unsure of what Rex was saying, but even more unsure of the remaining paths his life had left to explore, and in his anger, the plan made a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get another job. It wasn’t even that they’d been laid off - it was winter, and work had slowed to a trickle anyway. It was the way he’d been treated that pissed Neil off. It was that Mr. Olsen, who’d known all about Neil’s troubles, who’d had a man to man discussion with Neil after he’d had to call in several times the year before, had still somehow not seen him as a person, but instead as a figure to be removed from a spreadsheet. It would be a victimless crime. Not even a crime, but an investment in his future, in a chance to rebuild his life. The fact that the funds would be provided by the man who had only pretended to care about Neil’s life, right before kicking the last leg of stability out from underneath him, was too perfect to ignore. “Yeah,” Neil had said, sloshing his pint glass towards the water damaged ceiling. “Let’s goddamn do it.”
Three weeks later, they grabbed Taylor from the lobby of a suburban megachurch while the boy waited for his mother to pick him up from Wednesday night youth group. They wore masks, just in case the boy had seen them before while visiting worksites with his dad.
Neil spent the entire drive back to Rex’s house promising Taylor that he would be okay, that they weren’t going to hurt him, that none of this was his fault. “We’re just going to have a talk with your dad,” Neil told the boy. “And then you’ll see him and your mom right after. It’ll be like a camping trip. Like a dream you had once, but won’t remember later.”
And now this. A dead child tied to a chair and a rotting emptiness swirling inside of him.
Neil moved to the body, snowpack flecking off his boots. With a hesitant finger, he reached out and poked the little knees strapped together underneath the chinos, half expecting them to still kick. When they didn’t fresh bile rose in his throat.
“Dude, would you fucking stop it?” Rex grabbed Neil by the shoulder and dragged him back towards the door. “Would you just stay fucking put?”
“But they’re not going to get him back,” Neil said again, his voice breaking. His vision tunneled. His hands clasped and unclasped mindlessly. The abscess spun deeper and darker inside of his gut and blood roared in his ears. He couldn’t understand how Rex wasn’t as close to coming undone as he was, why Rex didn’t seem able to grasp how fucked they were. A kid was dead. His parent’s weren’t going to get him back. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could walk away from. That wasn’t the kind of thing that could be undone. “There’s no way for us to give him back.”
“God damn it, they don’t know that, though. They won’t know until after. And by then, we’re going to be off, living another life far the fuck away from them and from here.” There was anger in Rex’s face, but his voice remained calm, sure of the situation. Rex let go of Neil’s shirt, then went back to Taylor. He reached down and pried the boy’s little mouth open. Vomit, dried and flaky, fell out over Taylor’s baby teeth and into the lap of his little chinos. “I just don’t get how it happened, that’s all,” he said.
Neil began to pace. The smell of the fish sticks and greasy tartar sauce hung in the room, mixing with the tangy scent of the dead kid’s vomit until Neil thought he was going to be sick himself. He remembered Meredith then, how when she'd been pregnant she’d vomited almost the entire time. How, eventually, he’d gotten used to the smell as he sat on the bathroom floor next to her, rubbing her back. Neil held the memory, allowed it to buoy him, until finally the hole he’d felt inside himself seemed further away. “They’re calling soon,” he said. “Like two hours. What the hell are we going to say if they want to speak to him?”
Rex went to a dresser that stood along the far wall of the room. “We tell them no deal. They talked to him yesterday. And if they drop the money, they’ll see him tonight. Make it threatening.” He pulled a blanket from the dresser, a child’s blanket, one with tattered, worn, edges and white Nebraska football helmets on it. “You know Olsen, he’s a pussy. Won’t risk anything. If they did call the cops, that oughta call them right the fuck off.”
The football helmets on the blanket reminded Neil of something he had half known and ignored those nights they’d spent drinking and planning the abduction of Taylor Olsen. “Shit.” His voice came out flat, monotone. “They brought back the death penalty here. If they find us, they’ll kill us.”
Rex laid the blanket on the bed, then moved behind the folding chair Taylor was strapped to. He untied the ropes holding the little arms and legs. “No one is going to find us, or put us in the fucking chair. We’ve got a plan and this doesn’t change it.” He tossed the ropes behind him, then stood and slid his hands under the boy’s shoulders. “Here, help me get him onto the bed. By the time they find him, we’ll be long gone, living in one of those little Mexican towns down by the sea.”
The thought of the sea focused Neil. The abscess was still inside, swirling somewhere deep and unreachable, but the cloud of panic that had fallen over him had begun to lift at the thought. The sea. It was where Rex had promised Neil they would go after the kidnapping. A new and far away place, free of the numbing pain of the past. When he’d imagined it, lying awake in the bed he’d shared with his wife before she left, the sea had been more than just a place without his memories of Meredith and the empty room he had painted baby blue and the job he had been laid off from; it’d been a place of peace, a place where the past didn’t matter, a place on the edge of something so powerful that history forgot to exist. It was there, at the sea, where Neil and his wife would be reunited, where, together again, they would bury their grief in the constant churning of the waves.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil moved over to the chair Taylor Olsen sat dead in, then bent to lift the body by the ankles. He hadn’t noticed before, but now he saw Taylor’s shoes were boat shoes, gray canvas with leather strap laces. The shoes alone probably cost more than the suit Neil had been married in. He took them gently, the insides of the shoes were light, as though filled with bird bones, something too fragile to be held between his own ugly hands, then lifted. Trying not to squeeze too tightly, Neil pretended he was carrying a sandbag, something necessary and vital that would be carefully lain to keep a sudden surge of brackish water at bay. Together, Neil and Rex placed the body on the bed, then wrapped it in the threadbare Huskers blanket.
They left the house several hours later in separate cars.
The call had gone exactly as Rex said it would, and though Neil had allowed himself to believe Rex when he said they’d make it through, that they wouldn’t be caught, he remembered how he’d felt in those first moments after seeing the body, how he had felt something open up inside himself, a hole too dark to see the bottom of, it’s edges muddy and crumbling. It didn’t help that he was the one with Taylor’s body in the trunk of his Camry. That while Rex was off collecting the cash, Neil was stuck with the physical reminder of everything that had already gone wrong.
Neil took the highway towards Omaha, then exited near South Bend. The radio off, he followed surface roads until he came to a narrow tree covered turn off leading to a small campground that sat on the bank of the Platte River. The abscess swirled in him as he turned down the lonely road. He tried to think of the money, to imagine a kind of hope in it, but he knew a hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough to erase the memory of a dead kid. It wasn’t enough to forget how cold the skin of Taylor’s ankles had felt against his hands or the strange inert weight of the child’s body.
He doubted a million would be enough to forget.
The road emptied into a small snow packed lot. Camping signs and cement trash containers and small standing charcoal pits lined the edges of the lot, the black shape of the river churning beyond. Dirty snow lay on top of gravel and frozen mud. Wind pushed through empty trees. Neil parked at the river's edge, the yellow headlights of his car shining out over the thin capped crests of the slow moving water.
An image came to his head then, startling him, something he’d seen on TV once, back when Meredith had been pregnant: a parade of slow-moving paper boats with little lanterns set softly inside, moving down the silver river of some far off European city. He remembered how moved Meredith had been by it, how her feet had felt in his hands, how warm and comforting their living room had been, and he remembered wondering what happened to the boats when the water finally broke the seal of the paper, if they continued floating without shape or if the weight of the lantern dragged them down to the bottom of the river. He’d meant to look it up, maybe try it with the kid once he was old enough.
The memory passed, leaving him uncomfortable in its wake. When he felt calmer, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. Rex would be at the mall now. He would be picking up the cash any minute.
Tell me when you got it he texted, then placed his phone in the cup holder by his side.
Neil waited for a response. Time stretched out, deep and unnavigable. He took long, drawing breaths, each an attempt at stilling the swirling emptiness inside. If things had gone according to plan, Rex would be headed back to the house with the cash. Or, because he’d insisted on going to the pick-up armed, he’d could be lying dead on the floor of the Oakview mall, his life and their money gone, just like the boy in Neil’s trunk.
Five minutes went by, then ten. No answer.
“Okay,” he said to the empty car. “Okay.” He picked up the phone again, hands shaking. The abscess inside settled as Neil dialed the number from memory.
“Neil? I can’t talk now. You don’t - ”
“Mr. Olsen, I’m so sorry.”
The phone was silent for a long time, and in that silence, Neil imagined he could hear the sound of waves and the pounding of blood in Mr. Olsen’s temples and the scream his wife would make when he gripped her by the arm and told her what Neil had said. “I don’t know how I got talked into it. And I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you how sorry.”
When Olsen spoke again, his voice was clear and surprisingly soft. ”It’s okay, Neil. Whatever you did. You did the right thing by calling me, you know that, right? I want to help you. I can help you make it okay.”
“I wish you could, but you can’t.”
“What are you saying, Neil?”
“It was Rex…”
“Rex? Neil, is that who picked up the money? Is that who it was, Rex Piccillo? He has the money, Neil. He has it. All of it. If you didn’t want to do it, it’s okay, just tell me where Taylor is and I’ll help.“
Tears crowded the corners of his eyes. Neil wiped them away, then went to the trunk, Olsen telling him all the ways he could help him as he moved. Neil opened the lid, then looked down at Taylor Olsen’s body.
“We can make this okay, Neil,” Olsen said. “We can make it like this never happened. It was Rex. I know it was Rex. I know you, Neil. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. I know you wouldn’t have meant for things to go so far.“
In the dim light of the trunk the boy’s face was a peculiar shade of newborn pink. Neil reached down and touched it the way he imaged Mr. Olsen had done the first time he’d ever held his son. The child's father still in his ears, Neil wiped his fingers over Taylor's open eyes. He tried to close them, but the lids yawned up again, the clouded pupils staring up past Neil and the open lid of the trunk and into the overcast winter night. “I thought you’d want to say goodbye,” Neil said. “I know I would have liked that.”
A screaming sound grew from the phone, alien and wordless but something Neil recognized and knew intimately. It was the sound of overpowering pain, deep and ancient and made all the more wretched by its commonality. Crying again, Neil reached down and held the phone to the boy’s ear. He didn’t think Taylor could hear his father, but he wanted to believe that somehow some part of the boy could feel the vibrations of his father’s sound through the skin.
“That’s okay,” Neil said, unsure if he was talking to Taylor or Olsen or himself. “That’s okay for now.” He placed the phone in the back corner of the trunk, then picked up the dead boy, cradling him in his arms. He walked down the bank of the river, his feet sliding over the hardened mud. With every step he felt that strange hole in him grow deeper, the bottom a suctioning pool that spun and spun, pulled by some unseen underground current, widening the crevasse. He wondered how long it had been there. If there had always been an emptiness in him, or if there’d only been the potential for one, an area of soft ground just waiting for some horrible tide to wash everything away.
At the water’s edge he paused, the lights of the car shining over the small waves. A small sheet of ice moved past, broken off from one of the larger floes that gathered around the pillars of the bridge spanning the interstate just upriver. The cold biting at his face, Neil wondered if Rex really had gotten the money, or if Olsen had lied to him. He wondered if Rex had kept to their plan or run off on his own, and if he had kept to the plan, how much cash would be back at the house? But if he hadn’t run off, why hadn’t he texted Neil back?
As he stepped into the water, Neil decided he didn’t care.
The coldness of the river shocked the breath from his lungs. He felt his legs go numb up to the thighs, his jacket weighed down by the sudden soaking. Neil took another step, his boots sticking in the muddy bottom. He almost slipped, righted himself, then moved deeper into the river, Taylor’s body still held tight. He waded in until the water was up to his chin, until the boy had become loose in his arms, buoyantly tugging at his grip. Neil’s teeth smashed wildly against themselves and his clipped breaths fell out of him, fogging his vision until all he could see was the body of the child and the water and the night.
The river bottom had torn away his boot and sock, leaving his toes suddenly free. He flexed them, enjoying what little he could feel, then moved on. He was deep into the river now, almost halfway to the middle, the current pulling all around him. He was far enough out to let the body go and ensure it would be carried downstream, that it wouldn’t wash ashore against the dirty brackish bank of the campground, but the idea of letting the little body go here, where it was still shallow enough for Neil to stand, seemed disrespectful somehow.
He kicked off, pushing towards the heart of the river.
Neil moved with the body until his feet could no longer feel the river bottom and the water that splashed against his face slid down his throat. Kicking to stay atop the small, rushing waves, tears and river water frosting over his eyes, Neil finally let go of what was left of Taylor Olsen.
Water pulled at the creases of the boy’s pants and the joints of the boy’s knees and arms, and Neil watched as the current grabbed the facedown boy and carried it further and further away until the body was gone, as indistinguishable and dark to Neil as any other ice floe on the river’s surface.
When the body was gone, in that darkness and cold, Neil felt a strange calmness settle over him.
His arms had grown heavy and he found his whole body was now difficult to move. Small waves sloshed against his face and eyes. Water slipped down his throat and chilled his teeth. He turned and looked for the headlights of the Camry but could not see them. He’d moved downstream, away from the riverbank and the recreation area he’d parked in.
He kicked harder, trying to right himself against the current and the river bottom below, but his knees had gone stiff and his only movement was a kind of bobbing along the surface. There was no panic, only a dim awareness of himself and the water and the shape of the river stretched out before him. The banks of the river grew no closer, and he lost himself in his rhythm, his mind going foggy and then blank, his only thought of the pull of the water and the slow cycle of his up and down movement on the surface.
The river carried him further along, the current pulling at the seat of his pants and the spread of his jacket. Neil took a deep breath and felt his legs be pulled out from underneath him. He thought of the paper boats then, of how they had glided down the glass surface of the river in that far away stone city. He thought of how much he would have liked to take his own son there to watch. They would have stood on the cobblestone bank and watched the fleet of boats flowing by, his son’s hand in his own. He could not remember what he and Meredith had planned to name the boy, had he come, but now he knew the boy should have been named Taylor. The boats would go by, and after watching silently, the boy would have looked to him and asked what happened to the boats, and Neil would have answered that, while he didn’t know for sure, he imagined the weight of the lanterns eventually tore through the paper, opening a hole, and when it did the bodies of the boats filled with water, and as the water came in they would spin and spin and then be pulled under, where they would dissolve and break up beneath the waves.
Neil was on his back now, the current moving faster.
It had been cold, but he’d become used to it, just as he'd gotten used to the smell of Meredith’s constant sickness as she’d carried their doomed child. The hole inside, the abscess that had felt bottomless and churning was gone now. Instead, he felt at peace, as though he belonged there in the river. He could feel its waters filling him, making him whole.
His head slipped underneath the water, and when it broke the surface again, Neil realized he wasn’t sure how long he had been under. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore. He could not see the darkness of the sky. He barely felt the water washing over the edges of his face. It wasn’t so bad, floating like this, Neil decided. He could go on a while longer.
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil let the current carry him downstream.

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