Monday, September 11, 2017

Weatherman, fiction by Greg Barth

Blaine fidgeted with the zipper pull on the cuff of his leather jacket, flicking it back and forth with his finger. "Thing is, man, Jessie's gonna have another baby."

There was a long pause before Vinton spoke. “You mean, you and Jessie are gonna have another baby,” he said. “That’s what you mean.”

They were in the dry-goods storage room in back of Vinton’s convenience store. The gas station had been built in the late ‘60s. Now days, most goods were shipped in weekly from a warehouse, so there wasn’t much to keep on site.

Vinton had put a couple of desks and tables back there and used the room to manage his various businesses. It was dark and smelled like cardboard, dust, and rat poison; but it served well as a private meeting room.

Vinton was on one side of the desk, sitting on a tattered office chair, leaned back, playing with a red rubber band with his fingers.

Blaine sat on a metal folding chair on the other side, facing him.

Yeah, of course. We’re both having the baby. But she’s the one that up and got pregnant. That shit’s on the girl, you know? She’s the one responsible for the—” he raised his hands on either side of his head, making quotation marks with his fingers “—narrow waterway and the lily-pad at the end. Just ‘cause I pitch one upstream don’t mean she’s gotta catch it. Fucking dodge-ball on her part’s all it is. Barrier shit, man.”

Vinton closed his eyes. Shook his head. He didn’t bother countering the error of Blaine’s logic. He took a deep breath. “So how can I help you?”

While not tall, Vinton was a large man. He stood just over five foot, but he was big around the middle. He walked with an exaggerated lurch due to a bad hip joint and a worse knee. His gray hair was receding and slicked back. A double-chin spread out over his neck under his pale, frog-like face. He wore an oversized Hawaiian shirt with the top buttons loose, his grey chest hair pushing through the top.

Shit, man, I just need more work,” Blaine said. “Something that pays more. I got a bunch of 
debts. Jessie keeps wanting to get furniture and shit. And she’s always buying these clothes. I don’t know what she does with them all. Then she’s got the credit card. And they’re cutting our hours back at the plant too. I just can’t get ahead, man. You know how them fuckin’ credit cards work? You gotta pay that shit, man.”

Blaine was a young man, mid-twenties at best. He was tall and skinny. His dark hair waved over his collar and the tops of his ears like he had been putting off a haircut. He had a thin black soul patch affixed to his lower lip.

Jessie still hooking on the corners?” Vinton said.

Fuck, man. What the fuck? Why you gotta ask that shit for? Jesus, man.”

Cause I gotta know,” Vinton said. “I bring you on. She gets picked up. I gotta know what we’re dealing with. Risk management is what it is.”

No, man. No. Fuck no. She ain’t doing that shit no more. Goddamn.”

Vinton closed his eyes. Frowned. “What did you have in mind, Blaine? More collection work? ‘Cause if it’s that, I gotta tell you, I don’t have a lotta cash out on the streets these days. Nobody can pay no matter how hard you hit ‘em, so I’ve been putting money in other stuff. Stuff that pays.”

It’s that fuckin’ Reagan,” Blaine said.

I know it. ‘Course Carter wasn’t shit either. But that Reagan son of a bitch, worst president ever.”

What’s makin’ money these days?”

Drugs. You know drugs are always good. Drugs and pussy. People always want those no matter what the economy looks like. In fact, the economy goes down, those go up. Those are sound investments.”

Yeah, I don’t know nothin’ about making anything with those.”

Vinton frowned again. “I don’t know that I’ve got anything for you then.”

Blaine’s face fell. “Come on, man. I can do anything. Anything. Just give me a chance.”

Vinton’s forehead scrunched. Creases formed above his nose. He leaned forward. “Okay. There is one thing I been thinking about having done. I’m not even sure I want to do it. You know? Just something I’ve had on my mind.” He paused and thought for a second. Nodded. 

“Yeah, I mean, I might want to do it, if I could find the right guy and all. Thing is, I hesitate to even put it out there. It might be up your alley, I think, but I don’t know. You’ve never done a job like this before.”

Blaine sat up. “What is it? I could do it. I’m good at learnin’ shit.”

Hang on, I’m thinkin’ about it.” Vinton put a finger out and bounced it up and down in the air as he thought out loud, flicking the rubber band. “It pays good. But it’s a real shitty job. 
And it’s a one-time thing, I think. I mean, you do good, it could turn into more, but that’s uncertain. It’s not steady work.”

I’d like to have something regular, you know? But this thing sounds kinda good to start with.”

It’d be the biggest job I’ve ever given you. You couldn’t fuck it up. You couldn’t.”

You know I can do it, man.”

I’d be putting a lot of faith in you just telling you this. Once I say it, I can’t take the words back.”

Come on Mister Vinton, sir. You know you can trust me. Whatever it is, I want to do it.”
Vinton took a deep breath. He bit the inside of his jaw as he studied the man in front of him. 
He nodded. Blaine was clearly eager. “All right. You know Jake Carbone?”

Man that owns the pool hall,” Blaine said. “Yeah, I know him.”

Vinton leaned over his desk toward Blaine. “I want him gone,” he said in a low voice.

Gone where? I’ll get him there for you.”

Vinton smiled. “Gone to the place nobody comes back from.”

Where’s…?” Blaine’s eyes widened. “Oh, you mean…?”

Gone, Blaine. Gone for good. And you gotta be careful. It don’t have to happen today or tomorrow. You pick the time. No witnesses, you understand? You do this. I’ll pay you when the job’s done.”

Blaine’s jaw went slack. He sat there stunned by the weight of the job. “How…how much does something like that pay?

Vinton quoted a figure. “You do this one right, who knows. This shit’s not steady, but I’ve got people who ask for help now and again. This kinda help.”

Why do you want…gone?”

You don’t need to know the details. In fact, the less you know the better. Just know there’s a damned good reason for it. This is a guilt-free job, you ask me. Much worse hassling some poor shlub to repay his loan.”

Yeah…yeah,” Blaine said. Then once more with confidence, “Yeah. I can do this. I can.”

Good,” Vinton said. He opened a file cabinet drawer next to his desk. He pulled out a box of Brown Mule gloves and handed them over to Blaine. “Here. Get a couple and put them on.”
Blaine pulled two gloves from the box and put them on his hands.

Now come with me,” Vinton said. He got up. One hand on his hip, he half limped, half hobbled to the other end of the storage room.

Blaine got up and followed.

Vinton fished a key ring from his pocket and selected a key. He unlocked a set of file drawers and opened the top drawer. “Now, get that pistol there.”

Blaine reached a hand inside the drawer. He saw an old army Colt automatic and reached for it.

Not that one. The .38. The Smith.”


Yeah. That one.”

Blaine took out the pistol. It was a revolver with a short barrel. The walnut grip was busted and black, electrical tape was wrapped around it.

Where’d you get this?”

Don’t matter,” Vinton said. “Thing is, it can’t be tied back to you or me. That’s the important part.”

I see prints on it. Like on the sides.”

Yeah, they can corrode onto a pistol. But they ain’t mine and they ain’t yours. So don’t worry about ‘em. Now, once you do it. You throw that away. Like immediately throw it away. If they catch it on you, then fingerprints and tracing serial numbers and that kind of police shit don’t matter. It’s yours if they catch you with it. And you’re guilty.”

Got it. Throw it away. Yeah.”

Once you know he’s gone. Drop it.”


Yeah, right here.” Vinton fished out a clear sandwich bag containing .38 caliber bullets and handed them to Blaine.

Shit man. Now I’m a fucking hitman. Ain’t that some shit?”

Yeah, you’re gonna be, anyway.” Vinton patted the young man on the back. “Get it done. You make me proud of my decision, got it? Get it done fast, and maybe I’ll throw in a few extra bills. Get Jessie something nice. And something for the baby.”


When Jake Carbone locked up the pool hall and got in his Charger, Blaine was watching from his own car on the other side of the street.

It was late December and damned cold, but Blaine didn’t have enough gas to keep the engine running while waiting on Jake. He started the car and turned up the heat.

He let Jake get halfway down the block before he turned on his headlights and followed. It was late and the streets were nearly empty. It was hard not to be conspicuous while following; but with the lack of traffic, Blaine was comfortable staying well behind the Charger. The Charger had distinct taillights also, which made it easy to follow on the dark streets.

Carbone parallel park outside a massage joint. Blaine made a right turn at the corner before he got up to that block. He made a two-point turnaround on the street and drove back up to the corner. He turned his headlights off. He looked down the street and saw Jake opening the door for a small woman with a faux fur coat. She got in the car and Jake shut the door. 

He walked around the front of the car and got in on the driver’s side. The car pulled away from the curb.

Blaine put the car in gear and followed at a distance.

It was not a long drive. The Charger pulled in at a self-service carwash and parked in one of the wash bays.

Blaine parked at a VHS rental store next to the carwash. He read the movie posters on the dusty front glass. Three on a Meathook. Ghost Town. The Model Killer. He turned his lights off and left the engine running. He checked his gas gauge. An eighth of a tank. This was his chance.

He got out of the car and looked around. This was a shitty part of town. The only thing open was a liquor store two blocks up that was bathed in red neon. Further up was a strip club with its own shade of neon—a blend of pink and purple, a color that you’d need the big box of crayons to figure out the name of.

Blaine zipped his leather jacket up as high as it would go. He turned his collar up. He started across the lot to the carwash. He remembered the gloves and fished them out of his jeans pocket. He put them on his hands. The thin brown cloth helped hold in some heat, and his fingers warmed inside them. He wore a knit cap that was rolled up on the sides and front.
Blaine put his right hand in his jacket pocket and put his fingers around the pistol grip. His cheeks stung from the cold wind; his breath made white puffs of steam in the dry air. He crept up to the car wash bay and stopped at the corner. He pulled his knit cap down over his face. It had holes cut for his eyes and mouth like a balaclava mask.

He peered around the corner. He could see Jake in the driver’s seat from behind. He looked relaxed. Blaine could not see the woman. Getting’ a knobjob, looks like, he thought to himself.

He crept up to the back of the car. The car was moving slightly in a rhythmic manner. Blaine walked up along the driver’s side until he was next to the window. There was a thick coat of ice on the pavement inside the carwash. He had to step carefully to keep from slipping. His feet crunched in the ice, but music playing inside the car, something by Billy Joel, masked the sound.

Jake was inside. The back of his chair was reclined. Jake’s eyes were closed, his mouth open.

Blaine could see the back of the woman’s head bobbing up and down. Her dirty blonde hair pooled across Jake’s lap, all teased up on top. His hands were pressed against the back of her head.

Blaine leveled the pistol at Jake’s head. The muzzle bumped the window glass, and Jake opened his eyes.

Blaine squeezed the trigger. The sound of the shot was deafening inside the carwash bay. Blaine’s ears rang from the shock. The window glass shattered and rained down the inside of the car.

There was a leaking red spot on the side of Jake’s cheek. His eyes were open wide. His 
mouth was open as though gasping for air.

Blaine leveled the pistol and fired another shot into the side of Jake’s head.

The woman inside the car jerked away. She pressed herself against the passenger door. She drew in a long breath and screamed at the top of her lungs. One of her hands was clawing for the door handle. Her shirt was open and her breasts were exposed.

Blaine leaned through the busted window. He pushed the pistol forward. He felt something warm and wet on his hand. He looked down. Jake’s cock was still standing straight up, but a stream of warm piss was flowing from the tip.

Blaine moved his hand out of the stream.

The woman continued to scream and pressed herself as far away as she could.

Blaine shot her just above the waistline. A thought flashed through his mind, She’s the one responsible for the ovaries.

The woman screamed louder. She pressed her hands tight against her belly.

Blaine raised the pistol higher and shot her in the sternum. Her screaming stopped, but she still made a high-pitched mewling sound. She looked at Blaine. He saw the look of squinted anguish in her eyes.

He put a bullet through her chest, and she stopped making any sound at all.
Blaine stepped back. He pushed the mask up over his face.

He looked down at the pistol in his trembling hand. He put the pistol back in his jacket pocket.

He took another step back and slipped in the ice. He caught himself with one hand against the block wall.

Oh god,” he said. “Oh god, oh god. Mm. Oh sweet heaven.”


You did good, son,” Vinton said. He handed Blaine and envelope full of bills. “There’s a few extra in there for you.”

It wasn’t so bad,” Blaine said. “Think I’ve got a knack for it.”

It’s not pleasant work. But sometimes it’s gotta be done, you know?”

So when do I go again?”

What do you mean?”

I’m ready for the next.”

Vinton shook his head. “You mean the next job like Jake?”

Yeah. Let’s do it.”

Now hold on. This kind of work, I mean, it’s steady for somebody that’s got the stomach for it, but this ain’t an everyday thing. These jobs are few and far between. You’ve got good money now. This on top of what you get from the plant, you should be flush for a while. Just enjoy.”

But you mentioned you might be able to hire me out to some others that need help.”

And I will. You seem to take to it. But I don’t have anything lined up for you today. Just relax. Go buy something nice for Jessie. They got pink cassette players down at Jays. She might like one of those.”

She’s got a stereo already.”

Get her a Monchichi doll, or one of them Pound Puppies. You know. For the baby.”

Blaine nodded. “All right. Got it. But I done good, yeah?”

You did great. First time out or not, you did great.”


Where you going, hon?” Jessie said. She was lying on the couch with an ashtray on top of her chest. She tapped her cigarette on the rim.

Blaine was zipping up his jacket. He had his black knit hat on. “I gotta get out for a bit. Something I got to do.”

Can you afford to pick up some Pizza Hut on your way back?”

Yeah. No problem.”

Grab some Chardonnay too. No wait. Sauv Blanc.”

That kind tastes like cat piss,” he said.

So Chardonnay, then.”

Might not be good for the baby, you drinking so much.”

Jessie took a long draw on her Virginia Slim. “First trimester. She don’t even have a stomach yet.”

Yeah. Good point. I’ll pick it up. Still, that don’t mean you gotta knock back the whole bottle.”

Some chocolate too.”

Okay. That’s it. The damned pizza alone will be a hassle. Now I gotta make two stops.”

Get two bottles. Love you, babe,” Jessie said.


It was so damned cold out. Blaine lowered his head to the wind, his arms shivering. He was in a sketchy part of town. The kind of place where people would be out alone and in the shadows.

He walked the sidewalk. Few people were out this time of night. There were a handful of streetwalkers on a corner. He saw one off to herself. She was wearing shorts, stockings, and a heavy winter coat. She had short dark hair that stuck out in every direction. She wore thick makeup and dark eyeliner. Blaine could see that her face was weathered and lined under the makeup. Her belly was rolled and round under her tight shirt.

He approached her.

Fucking cold,” Blaine said. “Your legs. Gotta be cold.”

She smiled at him. “Hey there,” she said.

Hi,” he said back. “Wanna go someplace warm with me?”

Hell yeah. I can get us a good deal on a room at the motel across the street.”

You know what? Nah, let’s go back to my car. It’s warm.”

Works for me.” She locked her elbow around his and leaned into him. “Lead the way.”

They walked a block down the street, making small talk. They came to the mouth of an alley, and Blaine said, “Right here.”

They turned down the alley. It was dark, but the lot on the other end was well lit.
Blaine pointed down the length of the alley to a car parked on the other side. “That’s me right there.”

Halfway down the alley he stopped walking and pulled her up short.

What is it?” she said.

Blaine was breathing heavy. The air felt thick in his lungs. His heart pounded inside his chest.

You okay, sweetie,” the woman said.

Yeah. Mm. Just a second,” Blaine said. He pushed her away from him and turned his back to her.

You sure?”

He turned back to face her. He had the pistol in his hand.

She gasped. “No,” she said.

He pointed the pistol at her belly and fired. She fell to the ground, her hands clasping her stomach. “Oh,” she said. “Why did you do that?”

Blaine stood over the woman and shot her in the face.


Sonya was getting all worked up. The way Brad was kissing her and his hands on her breasts under her shirt—she hated to put out on first date, but she was losing control fast.

He had the best hands. His kisses were soft. She loved the feel of his hot breath on her neck.
They were in the back seat of his car. He drove old Ford with a bench seat in back. They were parked out behind the abandoned bleach plant. A light snow was falling outside the car.
Sonya couldn’t fight it, so she decided to give in, to relax and enjoy. The next thing she knew, Brad’s hand was inside her pants, tracing the warm slickness between her curls with his fingertip.

Bra-ad,” she said.

He pulled away. “Yeah?”

I’m not that kind of girl.”

I know you’re not,” he said. “But tonight is special.”

But…you won’t want to…you know, see me again…if I…”

He leaned back in and kissed her. He worked his fingers in her pants. “I never want to see anybody else ever again.”

She relaxed. Might as well enjoy.

A crunching sound outside.

She leaned up. “What was that?”

Nothing. A raccoon or something.”

No, Brad. I hear something.” She looked out the window. It was too dark out to see anything.

That sound again. Crunch, crunch, crunch…like footsteps.

Somebody’s walking out there.”

It don’t matter,” he said. “Just some hobo.”

We should go, Brad. Please. I’m scared.”

Oh, baby. Just a few more minutes, okay? I’ll protect you.”

Crunch, crunch, crunch

A tall shadow took form by the window.

Oh my god, Brad. Somebody’s out there!”

He looked over his shoulder. “Where?”

Right there. Right there!” She pointed at the window behind him.

There was a white flash of light. The window exploded. Something splashed on her face. 

There was a deafening roar. Her eyes adjusted to the flash. Brad was slumped in the seat, his head on her chest. There was blood in his hair.


She looked out the window. She saw a pistol pointed at her. She screamed.

The bright flash of light again, and then everything went black.


How’s Jessie doing?” Vinton asked. He had his reading glasses on, a newspaper spread open on the desk in front of him.

Being a bitch. She thinks I’m cheating on her,” Blaine said. He shook his head and chuckled.

Hey, now. That’s the mother of your child you’re talking about there.”
We’ll get through it. Just I’ve got some other stuff going on. Keeps me away sometimes. I go out at night. She don’t like it.”

Might explain why you look so much different.”

What do you mean?”

You look tired. Kind of haggard. Like you ain’t been sleeping good.”

Oh, yeah. No, it’s just this other shit.”

Well I hope you’re up for what I want to talk to you about.”

I’m good, man. Never better. And Jessie, Jessie’s gonna be good too.”

You ready for another job then? Nothing local, but I got a friend who could use some help up the road a piece. You know. A job like Carbone.”

Yeah, man. I’m good to go. Plant’s still cutting hours. I could get a few days.”

Good. Hey, you know, funniest thing. That job you did for me? Old Jake? Yeah, well that’ll never come back on us. That gun you tossed? Somebody grabbed it, see. They grabbed it, and they are using it all over the place. Our thing looks like part of some sick psycho killing spree. Like that Zodiac guy. Pretty cool, huh? Fucking bastard’s out there shooting up people at night going all crazy, and it’s covering up our thing.” Vinton laughed.

Huh. Yeah,” Blaine said. “Some bad crazies out there, man.” He grinned.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tinder by Marie S. Crosswell

Northern Apache County, Arizona


The Mustang gas station is a weird outpost of humankind off Highway 191, white LED lights glaring in the middle of pitch blackness at eleven forty-three PM. Spark pulls her ‘64 Chevy Malibu up to an empty pump. It’s dead silent outside except for her boot heels knocking the pavement as she crosses the lot to the convenience store, no one on the road and only the clerk’s vehicle parked in one of the spaces facing the storefront.
She doesn’t like the bell on the door jingling. She doesn’t like having her presence announced. Doesn’t like the clerk, name-tag: Luci, glancing up from her magazine. She moves to the coolers on the wall to the right of the entrance and scans the alcohol, even though she knows what she’s buying.
The bell rings again, and she turns her head to peer over her shoulder, down the aisle behind her. Two people, one male and one female, in their twenties.
Hey, Luci,” says the male.
Hey, guys,” the clerk says. “Where you coming from so late?”
The female stranger disappears into the next aisle. There’s a rustling of candy wrappers.
You know Jake Howland?” says the male, his voice young and hushed. “Lived over by Del Muerto? He had that red Dodge pickup with the cracked windshield?”
Spark leans into the cooler and pulls out a tall can six-pack of Coors.
It was his funeral. We didn’t know him real well, but our friend did.”
The female stranger slaps a bag of something onto the counter. The male stranger asks for a bottle of Wild Turkey.
How’d he die?” the clerk says, the register beeping as she rings up the items.
Shot himself,” the female tells her, tone louder than the male’s and laced with apathy. “The story we heard at the after party was, some sicko killed his brother and left the body in the desert somewhere. What was the brother’s name? Rob? He was missing for like ten days or something, and then Jake found his body. He was naked and tied up. They lived together, so I guess Jake couldn’t deal with being alone.”
They know who the killer is?”
No,” the male stranger says. “I don’t think they’re going to look either.”
He and his female companion walk out, the bell ringing after them.
Spark turns around and crosses the store, fingers curled into the cardboard handle of the Coors pack. She swings it up onto the counter and says, “I want thirty on four. Gimme two packs of Marlboro Reds and a bottle of Red Stag.”
The clerk picks the cigarettes and whiskey off the shelves behind the counter and sets them down next to the register. Spark takes her leather billfold out of her back pocket and puts some cash down on the counter. She sticks one cigarette pack in the breast pocket of her jacket and the other one in the brown paper bag with the whiskey, curls her arm around the bag and walks back outside with her free hand clawed into the beer.
The two strangers and their vehicle are gone. She listens to the faint buzz of the canopy lights above her, as she fills her tank and smokes. The noise reminds her of a fly trapped in a jar.
She starts the car and catches a glimpse of herself in the rear-view mirror—sees something in her eyes she hasn’t seen in a long time.
Spark drives up to Del Muerto the next morning. She looks for Jake Howland’s red Dodge truck until she finds it parked alongside a little house at the end of a narrow dirt road northwest of town. A smaller, older, white pick-up is parked in the carport on the opposite side of the house. Must’ve belonged to his brother.
The house is whitewashed with sea green trim on the window frames and roof. The screen door creaks on its hinges when she opens it. The front door is unlocked.
She stands on the thin carpet in her cowboy boots and surveys the home. The living room’s furnished with an old TV, a brown plaid sofa, wood coffee table decorated with a dirty ashtray and empty liquor and beer bottles. The kitchen’s in the back, with another door leading outside that she can see from the entrance. She steps into the corridor off to the right of the living room and finds a small bathroom with a shower and one bedroom with two twin sized beds pushed against opposite walls. A single barrel shotgun is mounted on the back wall between the beds. No pictures. Nothing of women or children.
She searches the night tables, the spaces between the mattresses and box springs, the dresser, and the closet. Walks out of the bedroom and through the house cradling the shotgun, a long handled axe, two knives, and a loaded .357 revolver in one arm.
The kitchen’s bright, as if the threshold on the floor separating it from the rest of the house is a boundary that sunlight won’t cross. There’s a cheap, plastic table with three chairs and another ashtray full of cigarette butts. A few dirty dishes in the sink. Beer, bread, and moldy cheese in the refrigerator. Cold coffee still in the pot.
She steps outside through the back door, still wearing her sunglasses, and lights another cigarette with her free hand. Her eyes track across the landscape behind the house, left to right, where the rust-colored desert meets the sky. She debates which truck to check first and settles on the brother’s.
Sure enough, the bench seat in the white Ford F-150 is stained with blood, sunlight turned red where it filters through the cab’s rear window on the passenger side. Empty bottle of Jim Beam Devil’s Cut in the floor. The stench of death still hasn’t faded from the interior.
This is where Jake shot himself, sitting next to his brother’s empty space.
A dream catcher woven with bright pink and green threads still hangs from the rear-view mirror.

The Second American Civil War lasted three years, eight months, and six days. The exact number of dead is unknown, but anybody would guess in the millions. Once it ended, the West became territory for every flavor of deviant, a place of self-imposed exile. Western Escapism amounted to the good, sane and polite settling down in the eastern half of the country, and everybody else running in the opposite direction. There is no organized, state sanctioned police force here. No trials by jury. No prisons—except for the kind where sadists keep their hostages. Crime is avenged with more crime. Inhibitions are abandoned at the regional boundary line, and all that’s left in the weird wasteland of the West is the ugliness of pure freedom.
The desert’s littered with ghost towns from Texas to California, rejected as living space except for a handful of squatters and people on the move. Outside the big cities, occupants of the West shun anything resembling community like stray cats living in the same neighborhood. Too much proximity leads to violence.
The wilderness is dotted with trailers and cabins and small houses built by their inhabitants, hotels and motels converted to long-term residences, some vehicles serving as shelter for nomadic types.
Spark’s been living in a vintage Airstream Tradewind camper parked in the middle of nowhere south of Chinle and the Canyon de Chelly, since she killed the bastard who originally owned it. She can see her nearest neighbor to the east of her if she squints, but they’ve never met.
Some people know of her, throughout Navajo territory. They’re the ones who nicknamed her Spark. She’s heard different stories behind it. The one about her smoking a dead man’s cigarette, after she stabbed him in the throat. The one about her gouging out some dude’s eye with a spark plug, when he got too handsy with her. The one about her starting a brush fire in Duval County, Texas to cover up a drug deal gone wrong, of which she was the lone survivor.
She’s not interested in talking to people long enough to confirm what’s true and what’s bullshit. They can call her whatever they want. Her birth name’s buried in a cigar box with her brother’s ashes, outside of San Antonio, and if they want to know what it is, they can go find it.

No one’s a stranger to murder in the West, but a new one turns the locals skittish. Their eyes shift onto Spark when she walks into a campground the night after her visit to the Howland brothers’ house. Tattooed, bearded men in leather and bandannas who reek of alcohol and tobacco and sex. Long-legged women in studded skinny jeans and denim miniskirts, tits hanging out of their tops, looking like they scraped their mismatched cosmetics out of a looted drugstore.
A large bonfire burns at the center of the party, flames licking the chill air. A handful of people sit around the fire in rubber poolside chairs, a few of the men with women in their laps. Others stand around drinking and chatting and smoking cigarettes. A small circle of men play poker. An assortment of trailers, vehicles, and motorcycles are scattered on the outskirts of the party. A few guys are grilling burger patties, steaks, and hot dogs. People sit in truck beds with their legs dangling over the end as they watch two men brawl. A man’s got a woman pinned to the back of a trailer, the two of them groping each other as they suck face. Another woman screams from inside a different trailer as somebody screws her, and the couple must have an audience because male voices hoot and holler in harmony with her.
Spark doesn’t make eye contact with anyone as she beelines for Fat Buffalo, who’s sitting off from the crowd with his own small group of five companions seated on the ground at his feet. They’re passing around a bong, the smell of marijuana reaching Spark’s nose as she approaches.
Fat Buffalo is a lanky white guy in his late twenties who goes around wearing a giant Indian headdress with feathered tails reaching his ankles, his face always striped with paint in bright blue, red, and yellow. He rotates through mary jane, LSD, and peyote, and likes to wax pseudo-philosophical bullshit whenever he’s tripping. His followers consider him a mystic, a prophet, a spiritual teacher here to guide them through their desert exile. Spark pegged him for a dumb, racist piece of shit the moment she laid eyes on him. He’s stayed alive as long as he has because he’s a pacifist who knows how to avoid the hot-tempered. For a stoner, he’s got pretty good ears—which is why she wants an audience with him.
He glances up at her when she reaches him, smiling through a haze of smoke. He passes the glass bong to the woman sitting on his right and spreads his arms. “Sugar pie,” he says. “Where you been?”
Fuck you,” Spark says. “Tell your groupies to get lost.”
Fat Buffalo hooks one arm behind him over the back of his chair. “You want a hit on Juicy Lou? I think it’d chill you out. You’re never in a good mood. What’s up with that?”
Spark just stands across from him with her arms folded tight against her chest, glaring.
He reaches behind him, arm flailing until his hand closes around the metal leg of another chair. He pulls the chair up alongside his own, the ashtray sliding forward on the seat and spilling cigarette butts everywhere. He grabs the ashtray and drops it in the center of the circle before him, brushes the chair off, and gestures at Spark to sit.
She uncrosses her arms and rounds the right half of the groupie circle, hands in loose fists at her side. She sits in the chair and shoots the groupies a mean eye, warning them not to speak, eavesdrop, or look at her. They avert their gaze and busy themselves with the bong and rolling papers.
Spark leans toward Fat Buffalo and says, “What do you know about the Howland brothers?”
Fat Buffalo wrinkles his nose like he smells a rotten corpse. “That’s bad juju you’re bringing in my field. They ain’t been dead long enough to speak of. Didn’t someone teach you about energy of the dead?”
Do me a favor and shove the superstitious bull crap up your ass,” Spark says. “I need facts. I heard one of em was murdered. Sounded like something I’ve seen before.”
Fat Buffalo gives her the kind of look that tells her he’s not as high as he seems. The bong comes back around, the woman sitting to Spark’s left holding it out to Fat Buffalo without paying Spark attention. He takes it and sets the round base on his seat between his thighs. He reaches down and grabs a handful of ice cubes out of the little cooler under his chair, drops them into the bong’s long neck, and ignites his lighter into the bowl. He sticks his face into the mouthpiece and inhales, white smoke traveling up from the water in the base through the ice-filled neck.
Rob Howland,” he says, blowing a stream of smoke through his teeth. He faces forward, staring into space, hands curled over the ends of his chair’s armrests. “The older brother. He was missing, then appeared in the middle of a playa. Pretty clear he’d been strangled. There was a bruise line on his neck. I didn’t see the body myself, but I’m sure he must’ve been raped a few times, before or after expiring. ‘s what the Gopher does.”
Who the hell is the Gopher?” says Spark.
A whack job. Doesn’t talk to anyone. I don’t know if he can. He’ll disappear for months, then show up somewhere unexpected. Just lurking. Looking for his next victim, I guess.”
You know he’s killed other people?”
Sure,” says Fat Buffalo. “He always leaves the bodies the same way. I think there was three others, before the Howland dude. Women.”
Why the fuck hasn’t anyone put him down?” Spark says, her voice pitched low.
Not many people know of him. Ones who do, don’t care to mess with him. He hangs around the Tire Factory, when he’s out of hiding. Mostly just watches, I hear.”
The Tire Factory is an old warehouse on the outskirts of Chinle, looks like a barn made out of metal, where a bunch of sadomasochists hold torture orgies. Sometimes, they film themselves and sell the porn. A few people have died there. Nobody knows if the deaths were deliberate or accidental.
Where’s he live?” Spark asks.
Fat Buffalo looks at her again, his eyes bloodshot, his clean shaven face juvenile past the paint and headdress feathers. “You know I don’t participate in violence, one way or the other.”
If you think there’s such a thing as neutrality, you can fuck yourself. Do you know where he lives or not?”
He reaches down between his legs for an ice cube and runs it over his bottom lip, now looking away from her. “I don’t. But if I had to guess, I’d say the Canyon.”
Spark turns her head to the left and peers at the bonfire. A man’s stoking it with more wood, and the orange embers whirling in the air look like glow-in-the-dark dust motes.
Why don’t you leave it alone, dude?” Fat Buffalo croons, drawing his words out.
Spark watches men file out of the screaming woman’s trailer. A minute passes in between the last man leaving with his belt still unbuckled and the woman herself appearing in the trailer doorway, smoking a cigarette, the neckline of her sweater drooping off her left shoulder and exposing her bra strap.
What’s the Gopher look like?” Spark says.
Fat Buffalo leans forward to take the bong from the girl next to her. “Like Satan,” he says. “If Satan were a caveman who buys his clothes at Walmart.”
Spark cuts through the campground again on her way back to the car. This time, hardly anyone pays attention. She takes a look at the party once behind the wheel, the reflection of the bonfire flames dancing across her windshield. She reaches under her seat for the bottle of Red Stag she stashed there and drinks.

She starts staking out the Tire Factory at night. She parks behind the building and keeps her distance, the thick blackness of night swallowing her car. She keeps her window rolled down and smokes, tapping the ash onto the ground outside and watching the back door for a crack of light. The shape of her prey. On occasion, she’ll hear a muted scream from the inside. She stays until she’s buzzed from the whiskey and can’t stand to breathe the air anymore, three or four in the morning. Most of the vehicles in the dirt lot around the front of the warehouse remain.
Late in the second week, what must be a Thursday or Friday, she’s listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” on an old cassette tape, haze of cigarette smoke lingering inside the car. Thinking about her brother. Not as he was in the last few months of his life, not even in the last couple years. She sees him when he was twenty-three, when he still smiled, sees his clean-shaven boyish face and his black leather biker jacket, sees him driving the Malibu with a Camel hanging from his lips and the sun in his aviators. Before the War. That’s how she wants to remember him—and herself.
Somebody steps out of the Tire Factory’s back door, shedding white light into the desert like a ghost. She rolls the volume knob down on the radio to silence and tracks the silhouette as it moves out of the shadow of the warehouse and into the paler dark. A man, with a woman’s limp body folded over his shoulder, her long hair swinging behind him. He carries her around the corner to the south side of the warehouse, out of Spark’s sight. She hears a vehicle engine starting.
She waits until she sees the car pulling onto the paved road several yards from the Tire Factory, then starts her own. She switches off her headlights and keeps her eyes on the man’s red tail lights as they slink down the two lane highway.
He takes her south, then east. She knows he’s heading for the Canyon del Muerto ten minutes on. She watches him disappear toward the northern rim and slows to a stop, idling the Malibu on the road. She waits a few minutes, then switches her headlights on and makes a U-turn.

Spark was twenty-four years old when the War started, twenty-eight when it ended. Now, she’s thirty-two, and she feels ancient as the desert bedrock. Time drags on and slips away, untraceable in her solitude and inattention. Nothing changes in the West, except her own face in the mirror one grain of sand at a time. She’s just as hollow and low down today as she was when she crossed the boundary at the Texas-New Mexico state line. She lies awake in her bed every morning, staring at the steel ceiling, feeling it. The bottomless hole. Her grave eating her from the inside out.
She contemplates her gun. She realizes that her life has become a circle the whole of which she’s seen. It has nothing good in store. Most people come West to sin. All of them come to die. Maybe she didn’t know what she was doing when she drove into Arizona—but nah, she thinks, denial isn’t the same as ignorance.
Her brother was a few months shy of his thirty-second birthday when he died. She’s older than him now, older than her big brother. She can taste the bitterness of that in her blood, feel it blackening her heart. They’d talked about staying together forever, life partners regardless of the sex he had with other people. Spark told him she didn’t want to get married or take a lover, and he said to her one day on the Texas plains, halfway through the War, “I don’t want you to be alone, Bumblebee. And I like you too much to live without you.”
They fought the War together and survived. It was some belligerent drunk who shot him in the parking lot of a saloon five months after the country’s truce that killed him. She’s looked at the raised scars on her body hundreds of times since then and wondered what he did to earn his death. Once in a while, she acknowledges that it could’ve been him alone in the West, becoming what she’s become, and the selfless part of her is relieved it isn’t.
He’s better off dead than in her shoes.

Spark rides into the Canyon del Muerto on a black horse, the scars and tattoos on her bare, muscular arms and shoulders like war paint. Her Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver and her battle knife weigh against her chest, one in each shoulder holster. A knife she took from the Howland brothers’ home is sheathed in soft leather and tucked into the back of her waistband. She holds onto the horse’s wild mane with one hand and grips her tomahawk in the other. A Marlboro Red hangs from her lips. She can taste the whiskey she drank earlier on her tongue.
Thin clouds streak and curl through the sky like cigarette smoke, the sun a shrinking blood orange in the teeth of mesas, buttes, and hoodoos. Shadows are filling the canyon, chasing out the light, obscuring the rust red color of the rock. There are Native American pictographs on the walls throughout the Canyon de Chelly National Monument: hunters on horseback, weird creatures that look half-man and half-lizard, person-shaped things with horns, hand prints the color of old blood. Reminders that the desert has been soaking up human life with unquenchable thirst for thousands of years and will outlast the species.
She remembered something when she was cleaning her weapons this morning—a dead body, her first year in Arizona. The woman was naked, wrists bound behind her and ankles bound, dry blood matting the hair at the back of her head. Somebody found her in the middle of the Painted Desert, south of Tuba City. Word got around and strangers showed up, until a small crowd circled around the corpse to speculate. Spark looked at her a long time, until the corpse’s image began to blur with all the dead she’d seen since becoming a warrior: who she’d killed, who she’d helped kill, who she’d watched die and who she’d come upon later. She left the naked woman and the spectators behind, knowing nobody would bury or burn her. The body would rot in the sun or feed scavengers, the bones abandoned clean and dry. Tarantula in the skull, rattler curling in the rib-cage.
The Gopher isn’t the first or only killer to leave his victims in the open desert, but Spark is sure that body was his doing. And there must have been others, between the woman and Rob Howland. Son of a bitch has been slithering in and out of this hole unchecked long enough.
She rides the well-worn trail that follows the arch of the northern rim, taking her time descending to the flat canyon bottom, eyes roaming over her surroundings. Come nightfall, the canyons will be pitch black, like a hidden mouth in the earth lying in wait for something to swallow. The stars are thick enough in the remote desert sky that she can count on them to guide her out. Guide her into the Gopher’s den.
She and her brother knew a man in the war who taught them how to track. She follows the signs the Gopher’s worn into his route through the canyon, as cool darkness sweeps through it and conceals her. She stops the horse when she sees an artificial light glowing in a cave a football field’s length away, white as the LED bulbs in the gas station canopy, and heads for it on foot.
She pauses at the cave entrance and listens for noise. Silence. She starts to venture in. Clothes are strewn throughout the entrance: a dress flung over a boulder, pants and shirts and jackets on the ground, bras stretched out like scraps of cowhide in a tannery, women’s underwear and separated shoes. A battery-powered flood light shines on a high up ledge near the back of the cave, the kind sold at gas stations throughout the West.
A woman’s naked corpse sits in a filthy fold-out chair, arms raised over her head with wrists bound and tied to a sharp upward-pointing snag on the rock wall behind her. She isn’t wounded, that Spark can see, but covered in new bruises bluish black and violet purple. Her mouth is open and her lips so dry, the skin cracks and flakes. She has long black hair and hasn’t been dead more than a day or two. She must’ve been the one carried out of the Tire Factory’s back door, over a man’s shoulder. He must’ve been the Gopher, scavenging that cesspit like the turkey vultures that search this desert for meat. Maybe the woman was already dead when he carried her out of there. Maybe she was just unconscious, and he tortured her a while before killing her.
Spark turns around when she hears a noise behind her. The Gopher’s standing less than two yards away, holding a bloodied club in one hand and a dead jack rabbit in the other. He’s wearing the horns of a ram on his head like a crown, and he stares at her with blue eyes clear as well water.
He drops the jack rabbit, she reaches for her gun, he lunges at her with his club raised. Before she can get the revolver out of its holster, he swings the club at her head, and she drops into a squat. Spark stands up again without her tomahawk, punches him in the face and wrenches the club out of the Gopher’s hand so fast, he doesn’t have time to resist. She throws it aside. He thrusts his hands out and starts to choke her. She knees him in the groin, he lets go, she picks up her tomahawk and slams it into the side of his neck at the base, too low to cut anything important.
She lets go of the handle and he staggers away from her with the weapon still lodged in him, a little blood running onto his skin and his shirt. His eyes bug out of his head in shock, and he makes a wet, harsh noise as he breathes. He looks only half-human, but somewhere in his face, she can see who he was long ago before succumbing to his urges, before letting the West take him into the depths of his lusts.
She pulls the revolver from her shoulder holster and shoots him three times, once in the head and twice in the chest. The gun blows most of his skull off, splattering the cave wall behind him, and the ram horns fly away and disappear. He collapses on his side, staining the ground with his blood.
Spark takes a deep heave of a breath and drops her arm, holding the gun at her side. Now, the air smells like fire. The cloud of white gun smoke hangs before her, slow to dissipate inside the cave. She coughs and grimaces, looking back at the woman in the chair.
She steps past the Gopher, gingerly in her boots as she holsters her gun, and severs the rope binding the woman’s wrists with the Howland brothers’ knife. She lowers the body to the cave floor and drags it out by the hands, into the darkness and starlight. She’s not going to go to the trouble of taking this dead weight out of the canyon, but she as sure hell isn’t going to leave the woman with her killer.
Spark finds a thin stream of water on the open canyon floor, that seems to flow deeper in than she can see. She leaves the body there, folding the hands around the Howland brother’s knife with the blade pointing up toward the woman’s chin like a bouquet. She stands back and catches her breath, then turns around and sees the horse waiting several paces behind her.
She rides up out of the Canyon del Muerto smoking a brand new cigarette, hankering for a whole bottle of Red Stag. The horse takes her back to the highway where she parked her car and disappears, folded into the night’s palette of blacks. She starts the Malibu, splits the dark with her headlights, and sits a minute at the wheel without shifting gears.
She looks at herself in the rear-view mirror. The drunk who shot her brother is still out there somewhere, maybe dead or maybe alive. Somebody else’s brother has been avenged.

She’s no different, and neither is the world.   

Monday, August 28, 2017

Arson On The Eastside, fiction by Morgan Boyd

I couldn’t rouse Big Dave as the fire spread through the living room. He had been up for days smoking crystal and drinking cheap beer before falling asleep. I yelled and punched him, but he remained unconscious as the flames leapt around us.
Nate and my girlfriend Tiffany had safely exited the burning house. Tiffany screamed from the front lawn for us to get out. I tried dragging Big Dave, but he was too heavy. The smoke was thick, and the heat unbearable. Begrudgingly, I left my friend and roommate, and crawled on my hands and knees out the front door as a wall exploded behind me into red cinders. In the distance, sirens approached.
Nate, Big Dave, Tiffany and I rented the three-bedroom house near Portola Drive on the Eastside. Our friends called it the Bro-Hive because we partied there night and day. When we weren’t partying, we were surfing Pleasure Point.
Big Dave was an enforcer, controlling the peak at Sewer’s. He’d dunk or chase off anybody that dropped in on us, so we always got the best waves. Nate and I were sponsored, and destined for the pro-circuit. Tiffany worked at a nearby retail shop, selling over priced t-shirts and sunglasses to tourists. She had long blonde hair, blue eyes, a little button nose and just the right amount of curves in all the right places. During bikini season, I felt like the luckiest man alive.
Tiffany told the firefighters Big Dave was still inside. They suited up, and made their way into the burning Bro-Hive. After several tense moments, two firefighters appeared through the smoke, carrying Big Dave. We stood over our friend to see if he was okay, but he wasn’t okay. Big Dave had burned to death.
“Ryan did this,” Nate said as I coughed and hugged Tiffany. “He’s as good as dead.”
We’d been friends with Ryan since middle school. We grew up together surfing the Eastside. Ryan was one of the boys in our pack, and we spent countless nights knocking back beers and burning green bowls with him. The trouble started when Ryan’s parents bought him a jacked-up four-runner for his eighteenth birthday.
He pulled up to the Bro-Hive in his new ride. Nate and I hopped in with a twenty-four pack of beer, and we headed to Hollister Hills for an off-road session. Ryan did some donuts, and then he gunned the engine, launching from a huge dirt mound. He hit the jump off-center, and less than twenty-four hours after his parents bought him the truck, Ryan rolled it. Nate wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and was thrown from the vehicle. The truck narrowly missed crushing his scull by a few inches, but his right arm wasn’t so lucky. I also wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and broke my back. Ryan was strapped in, and didn’t get a scratch.
Rehabilitation took almost a year. When I finally paddled into the lineup again, my skills had diminished. I couldn’t snap off the lip or punt for big air anymore. Nate never regained full mobility in his damaged arm, and our surfing dreams evaporated faster than saltwater.
The firefighters doused the inferno, contained the destruction, and halted the threat of the flames advancing toward the neighbors’ homes. When the blaze was extinguished, the Bro-Hive was gone. Like Big Dave, only the charred frame of what once was remained.
The police and arson investigators interrogated us for several hours, but it was all a blur. I was grieving the loss of Big Dave, and coming down from meth. I wanted to forget everything and sleep for a week. When the authorities finally let us go, we walked to Nate’s mom’s place. She lived in the trailer park behind the 7-11 on the Eastside. She bought us several frozen pizzas for dinner, and went to bed. I wanted to crash too, but instead we stayed awake, smoking crystal.
We weren’t always meth-heads. I never touched the stuff before breaking my back. Ryan introduced us to the drug. I can’t speak for Nate, but a profound depression rattled me to the core while rehabilitating. We lost our sponsors, and the lack of physical exertion drove me crazy. The meth got me through those low points. Before long, Big Dave and Tiffany were also smoking, and we began selling for Ryan to supplement our income.
The fallout with Ryan had escalated over money. Ryan owed Nate for a surfboard, but Ryan snapped the board on his first session in the water, and refused to pay. Nate and Big Dave went to Ryan’s mom’s garage where Ryan lived, and demanded money. When Ryan refused, Big Dave knocked him out. They went through Ryan’s belongings, and took his cash and crystal. After their confrontation, Ryan said he’d kill Nate and Big Dave. Nate wasn’t taking the threat seriously, but he was laying low.
We stayed up all night at Nate’s mom’s smoking meth. At dawn Nate pulled out the hide-a-bed in the couch. I didn’t like the idea of Tiffany lying next to Nate. At one point I dozed off, and when I woke, I suspected they were groping under the blanket. Nate’s mom left us a box of donuts before she went to work. I nibbled at an apple fritter, but after smoking more meth, I lost my appetite. Nate went into his mom’s room, and returned with a .38.
“Let’s find that fucker,” he said. “There’s a swell in the water. I bet Ryan’s at The Point.”
“What are you doing?” Tiffany asked.
“Payback for Big Dave,” Nate said.
“But you’ll go to jail.”
“It’s him or me.”
“Severn, please talk some sense into him,” Tiffany pleaded.
“What is there to say?” Nate asked. “Dave was your boy too. You just going to sit there and let Ryan punk us?”
“We should think about this,” I said. “Before doing something stupid.”
“I’m taking my mom’s beach cruiser to Pleasure Point,” Nate said. “You can either get out, or use my sister’s mountain bike, and come with.”
Tiffany should have taken the pink mountain bike, and Nate should have given me a pump on the cruiser’s handlebars, but instead, Nate boosted Tiffany, and I rode the pink mountain bike. We pedaled to Pleasure Point. The tide was low, and the swell was up. An offshore wind hollowed out the curls, making for ideal conditions. Sewer’s Peak was beyond crowded. Back in the day, Big Dave would have managed the herd, and we’d have feasted on the best waves.
“See him anywhere?” Nate asked.
“Nope,” I said. “Maybe he’s surfing the Westside.”
“I’m not rolling over there,” Nate said. “He’ll show up eventually.”
Tommy approached us, and said he was sorry to hear about Big Dave. Nate wouldn’t talk to him because Tommy was Ryan’s boy. I asked him if he’d seen Ryan around, and he said he hadn’t, but there was something in his response that made me think he was lying.
“Come on guys,” Tiffany said. “I’m getting cold, and I have to go to work. Do you think I can borrow some of your mom’s clothes Nate?”
“I don’t see why not.”
We pedaled back to Nate’s mom’s trailer. Nate went into the bathroom, and didn’t come out for a longtime. When he finally reappeared, Tiffany exchanged a glance with him, and also disappeared into the bathroom.
After Tiffany left for work, I called my mom. She heard about the fire and Big Dave, and was concerned because she hadn’t been able to reach me. I asked her if I could visit. She seemed hesitant, but said Scott would pick me up in front of the 7-11 in half-an-hour.
“New ride huh?” I said as my stepfather pulled along side me in a cherry red BMW.
“Don’t slam the door,” he said when I entered. “We saw the fire on the news. I hope you don’t think you’re moving back in with us.”
We didn’t talk much on the drive. It was no secret Scott and I didn’t get along. He thought I was a lazy bum, living off my mom’s money, and I thought the same thing about him. Scott was an alcoholic. He had one of those veiny red noses old people acquire after years of drinking. I never understood what my mom saw in Scott. As we drove through the Capitola Village, I thought about the falling out with my mom.
I had bought a new surfboard with the money I saved working as a security guard at the boardwalk. The next day Scott took my new surfboard out of the garage, and left it on the lawn overnight. In the morning it was gone. I was furious, and demanded he buy me another board, but Scott laughed in my face, so I took my skateboard, and smashed out the windshield and headlights of his truck. He had a conniption fit, and we came to blows. It was the last straw for my mother, and she booted me. I hadn’t been back since.
Scott parked in front of the two-story house my grandfather bought fifty years ago. The house sat on the edge of a bluff over Soquel Creek. Before my mom married Scott, she told me that someday the house would be mine. Scott had other designs. He didn’t want her to leave the place to me, and was constantly pressuring her to sell.
I went straight to the refrigerator, and opened one of Scott’s Sierra Nevada’s. I didn’t see my mom anywhere inside, so I went out back, and found her working in the garden. She gave me a suspicious look, and then she took off her gloves, and gave me a hug.
“Sorry to hear about your friend,” she said. “How are you doing?”
“Still in shock,” I said. “Fortunately I have a great girl helping me through.”
“Why didn’t she join us?” My mom asked.
“She’s working.”
“Is there anything I can do to help? What do you think of Scott’s new car?”
“I’m all right,” I said.
“I know you don’t want to hear this right now,” she said. “But Scott and I have decided to sell. We found a nice ranch out in Corralitos, and with the extra money we can retire.”
“But you said grandpa’s house would be mine someday.”
“I know, but plans change,” she said with a hurt look in her eye.
“This is bullshit,” I said. “What about me?”
“I can help you out with school.”
Scott sat on the couch, watching a local news channel as I stormed into the house.
“Don’t slam the door,” he said.
“This beer tastes like shit,” I said, and hurled the bottle at his head.
He ducked, and it shattered against the wall.
“Get the fuck out,” he demanded, standing up.
I slammed the front door as hard as I could, and walked back to the Eastside in a rage, snapping parked car’s antennas along the way. When I arrived at Nate’s mom’s trailer, Nate and Tiffany sat side-by-side, but they moved apart as I entered.
“Ever heard of knocking?” Nate asked.
“What’s wrong?” Tiffany asked.
“I thought you were working,” I said.
“They felt bad, and sent me home,” she said.
I told her my mom was selling the house. Tiffany tried to console me, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. We smoked meth, and Nate said he had something that would cheer me up. He took a smart phone out of his pocket, and turned it on.
“Do you remember this?” He asked.
“You’re old phone,” I said.
“Yup,” he said. “The one I got before my I Phone.”
“So don’t you remember?” He said, and turned it on.
He found a video, and hit play on the screen. I watched the scene unfold on the tiny monitor. Several years ago when we were still friends with Ryan, we had beef with a Westsider named Jerry Fields and his buddies. They thought they could surf wherever they pleased, and tried to muscle in on our peak, so Big Dave sent them packing. After the incident Ryan discovered ‘Westside’ spray-painted across the windshield of his mom’s car. Later that night, Ryan bought a gallon of gas, and we rolled up to Jerry’s parents’ house. Jerry’s green Cadillac convertible was parked at the curb. Nate took out his phone and started filming as Ryan doused the Cadillac’s interior with gasoline.
“Adios motherfucker,” Ryan said to the camera, striking a match, and throwing it over his shoulder into the Cadillac.
The image on the phone went completely white as the fireball exploded.
“Whoops,” Nate said when the video ended. “I accidently sent this incriminating evidence to the police.”
Tiffany was scared that Ryan would retaliate, but Nate assured her that the best defense was a proactive offense. He said Ryan’s hands would be full explaining the video to the police, and that if he went to jail, that meant he wasn’t on the street trying to kill us. Tiffany wasn’t buying it, but there was no arguing with Nate, so she dropped the subject.
Tiffany’s father was on a business trip for a few days, so we stayed at his apartment near downtown. This worked in our favor because Nate’s mom was growing weary of us. Nate scored twelve hits of acid from a UCSC student, and bought a twenty-four pack of beer. After we each dropped two hits, the walls in Tiffany’s dad’s living room rippled in an imaginary breeze as we ploughed through the beer.
Nate gave me twenty bucks, and told me to buy another twenty-four pack. I didn’t want to leave the apartment, but after several hits of meth, I felt up to the challenge. I borrowed Tiffany’s dad’s beach cruiser, and set out for the liquor store. As I pedaled onto the street, a Honda Civic sideswiped me. I went down on my head, and when I got up off the asphalt, I felt half-flattened. Blood dripped down my face. The Honda pulled over, and a young woman exited from the driver’s side.
“Oh my god,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you. It’s like you appeared out of nowhere. Are you okay?”
“I think so,” I said. “The bike seems okay too.”
“Thank god,” she said. “Here, take this.”
She handed me two twenty-dollar bills, apologized again, got in her car and drove off into the twinkling haze. I climbed onto the bike, and continued to my destination. When I arrived at the liquor store, I felt fuzzy. I grabbed a twenty-four pack of beer, and stood in line.
“What happened to you?” Tommy said, tapping me on the shoulder, as I was about to pay.
“This chick hit me with her car,” I said. “She gave me forty bucks.”
“No way,” Tommy said. “What are you all about?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just dosing over at Tiff’s dad’s place.”
“For real?”
“Yeah,” I said, and paid. “See you around.”
Holding the case of beer with one hand in my lap, I held the handlebars with my other hand, and pedaled to the apartment.
“What happened?” Nate asked, popping a beer.
“Are you okay?” Tiffany asked.
“I’m already tired of telling it, but some chick hit me with her car. She felt bad, and gave me forty bucks.”
“Who else did you tell?” Nate asked.
“I ran into Tommy at the store.”
“What did you say?” Nate asked.
“That we’re tripping at Tiffany’s dad’s apartment.”
“Jesus Severn,” Tiffany said. “He’s been here before.”
“What the fuck,” Nate said. “You know he’s Ryan’s boy.”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” I said as Nate grabbed the .38 out of his backpack.
We spent the night chugging beer, and arguing about what to do. Nate paced the floor paranoid that Ryan would find us. At sunrise, the acid was fading, so we dropped the rest of it, and walked to the park. We lay in the grass, smoking cigarettes.
Eventually we grew restless, and returned to Tiffany’s dad’s apartment for more meth. When we arrived at his second floor landing, the front door was wide open. Inside, the place was trashed. Tiffany was furious. She cussed me out, and hit me several times in the chest. I apologized, but she ignored me, and went out onto the porch to smoke.
It wasn’t safe at Tiffany’s dad’s place anymore, so we walked back to Nate’s mom’s trailer on the Eastside. On the way, we passed the remnants of the Bro-Hive. The sight of the burnt out house angered Nate. He gritted his teeth, and said he’d get even with Ryan. I wasn’t thinking about revenge. I was thinking about Big Dave. I missed him, and felt vulnerable without him.
We stopped at the 7-11 for supplies. Our money was getting low, but I still had the forty-dollars from the woman who’d hit me with her car. We bought more beer, cigarettes and some frozen burritos. I was coming down from the acid, and the left side of my head throbbed.
Screeching tires flooded our ears as we exited the convenient store. A pickup truck bore down on us. I grabbed Tiffany, and got out of harm’s way, but Nate got tagged, and tumbled onto the truck’s hood. The impact caused the beers under his arm to explode as his body shattered the windshield. The truck stopped, and Nate crumpled down the hood onto the asphalt. Tiffany screamed, and tried to run to Nate, but I held her back as the truck revved its engine. Slowly, Nate sat up. Blood dripped down his face. He looked confused, but then his eyes focused. He reached for the .38, and fired several shots through the busted windshield as the truck peeled out, and crushed Nate under its tires before climbing the curb onto the street. The truck passed, and I saw Ryan behind the wheel. Our eyes met, and he pointed at me before speeding away.
Nate lay crumpled on the ground, laboring to breath. Blood trickled from his mouth and ears. Tiffany cradled his head in her arms and sobbed as sirens approached. The police made Tiffany and me get down on our stomachs while they searched us. Medics arrived, and Nate disappeared into the back of an ambulance.
Tiffany and I were cuffed, taken to the police station, and interrogated separately. I came clean, and described to the police the events of the last several days. Nate and Ryan had a dispute over a surfboard. Ryan wouldn’t pay for the board, so Nate stole Ryan’s drugs. Ryan retaliated by burning down the Bro-Hive, which killed Big Dave. Nate returned the favor by texting the police the video of Ryan setting fire to Jerry’s Cadillac, and Ryan struck back by trashing Tiffany’s dad’s apartment, and running down Nate in the 7-11 parking lot.
I told them that Tiffany was my girlfriend, and that we were friends with Nate, but that we had just been caught up in the dispute, and hadn’t wanted to get involved. When I was done explaining things, they held me for most of the day, but didn’t charge me with anything, and eventually I was released.
I didn’t know where to go. My mom’s was out of the question, so I walked to Tiffany’s dad’s apartment, but nobody answered the door, so I walked to Nate’s mom’s trailer, and found Tiffany packing a bag. She said Nate was in critical condition, and had been medevaced to Stanford. His mom would be home from work any minute, and they were driving to the hospital. I said I’d go with them, but Tiffany said no. I tried to console her, but she pushed me away.
“Come on Tiffany, you’re my girl,” I said.
“No I’m not, and I never was,” she said.
“You’re fucking him aren’t you?”
“Get out.”
“I’m not stupid,” I said. “I know what’s going on.”
“I’m not beholden to you,” she said, trying to get by me.
“Yes you are. You’re my girl.”
“No I’m not. Let me go,” she screamed.
I grabbed Tiffany by the wrists, but she struggled free, so I hit her, and she collapsed onto the couch. She held her cheek, and kneed me in the balls, so I wrapped my hands around her neck.
“It should have been Nate,” I said, looking into her wide eyes as I squeezed. “Not Big Dave. Had it been Nate, everything would be okay. We’d still be together.”
Her face turned purple, and spittle dripped from her mouth. I loosened my grip when she went limp, walked into the kitchen, and opened the gas on the stove. Returning to the living room, I lit a smoke, and stuck it between my girl’s lips.    

Monday, August 21, 2017

Envelope, by David Rachels

A redhead with bandages on her wrists sits down across the table from me. I stop reading my newspaper. I smile. She doesn’t smile back. She doesn’t even look in my direction. I take a sip of my coffee.

Her age is hard to read. She was attractive once, but not anymore. Her red hair isn’t natural. She’s skinny like she doesn’t get enough to eat. Her face is burned and weathered, drawn down with deep wrinkles. She looks fifty, but she could be twenty-five. She doesn’t have to tell me that life is hard.

Good morning,” I say to her.

Morning,” she says, no adjective attached. We still haven’t made eye contact because she’s staring out the window at the parking lot.

I have no idea who this woman is or why she’s sitting in my booth at the diner. There are empty booths where she could have sat to look out the window. Why is she sitting with me? I start to ask if she’s waiting for someone, but she obviously has no interest in small talk, and I have a newspaper. I go back to reading and leave her to monitor the parking lot. A minute later, I’m surprised to hear her speak.

There,” she says.

I look out the window, but I don’t see anything new.

You can count it if you want,” she says.

I crumple the newspaper in my lap and look down at the table. A white business envelope has appeared in front of me. I look at the woman, but she is still turned toward the window. I smooth the newspaper, fold it, and put it on the table next to the envelope. I pick up the envelope and look inside. Money. Benjamin Franklin five times. Five hundred dollars. I put the envelope back on the table.

The woman is still looking at the parking lot, but she knows I have counted the money. She says, “Half now and half after, right?”

My waitress comes to the table. She says to my companion, “Did you need to see a menu?”

No,” she says without looking away from the parking lot.

You know what you’ll have, then?”


I say to the waitress, “Can I get my check?”

The waitress looks relieved. She tears a page from her pad, puts it on the table, and retreats.

The woman across the table still hasn’t looked me in the eye. Does she know what I look like? Maybe not. I pick up the newspaper, unfold it, get behind it.

I say, “Change of plans. I need the full amount now.” It can’t hurt to ask, right?

I hear her shift on the vinyl seat. She might be looking toward me now, but she’s seeing the newspaper.

She says, “We had an agreement.”

But now I’ve done my homework,” I say. “You’re a flight risk. I might do it and find you gone.”

No!” she says, and then lowers her voice: “No. You know I can’t run. If I run, they’ll know I did it, and they’ll come after me. The only way I can get away with it is if I stay.”

Okay, then. Time to choose. Do I take the five hundred dollars and go, or do I push the bluff? Pushing the bluff will probably mean giving her a good look at me. It’s tempting, but a bird in the hand and all that.

Okay,” I say. I reach around the newspaper and take the envelope.

Good,” she says. “My alibi’s all set for Friday night.”

Good,” I say.

Now I just have to get out of here. I fold the newspaper again. You couldn’t pay this woman to look at me. She’s found the most interesting parking lot in the world. I stuff the envelope into my back pocket. I’ve just got to pay my check and go.

We’ll meet here the day after?” she says. “Same time on Saturday?”

Sure,” I say.

I’m reaching for the check when a customer sits in the booth behind the woman. He and I are facing each other, and we’re both wearing red baseball caps. He’s not paying me any attention, but I’m looking right at him. Trying to seem nonchalant about it, I take off my red cap and hold it under the table.

I glance at the clock hanging behind the counter. 2:05. So the man in the red cap must be five minutes late. Does he know what she looks like? How long will he sit there alone before he catches on to my accidental impersonation? If I get out of here fast enough, maybe the answers won’t matter.

I’m reaching for the check again when the woman jumps in her seat and looks away from the window. For the first time, she looks right at me. She shifts her body so the window is behind her.

He’s here,” she says.

My response is involuntary: “Who?”

Tony. He’s here. Walking across the parking lot. I thought he might be following me, and now he’s here.”

I glance at the man in the red cap, who is looking at his watch. If he heard the name Tony, if the name Tony means anything to him, he isn’t showing it. He probably didn’t hear. But will he know Tony if Tony walks inside? If so, how will he react? Am I supposed to know Tony? Have I just accepted half payment for killing Tony? Now it’s really time for me to get out of here.

Go,” she says. “He can’t see us together.”

She doesn’t have to tell me twice. The envelope is in my back pocket. My newspaper and cap are in my hand. I grab the check and go to pay.

But as I’m leaving the table, the man in the other booth finally catches on. He sees the red cap in my hand. He glances at the back of the woman’s head. He looks at me. He knows.

But how much can he know at this point? Will he go to the woman, or will he come straight for me? I try to pay him no mind, but my heart pounds so hard that it vibrates my tongue. I go to the counter, and I hand over the check along with $100 from the envelope. I had meant to take cash from my wallet, but I’m a little bit distracted.

I hear the man in the red cap say to the woman, “Helen?”

For a moment, she freezes. Then she says, “Leo?”

The woman behind the counter says, “I can’t change this. Do you have anything smaller?”

Keep it,” I say, and I head for the door.

I reach the door the same time as Tony. I let him enter the diner, and then I go outside. Holding the door open between us, I say his name. Tony stops and turns.

His look is part surprise, part challenge. “Yeah?” he says. His face shows thoughts processing. I was in there with Helen, and I know his name. Those are strikes against me. But would I talk to him if I were up to no good?

I say, “Sorry to bother you. I know it’s none of my business, but Helen is in there meeting a man in a red baseball cap. His name is Leo, and I overhead her hire him to kill you.”

Before Tony can think what to say, I release the door and let it close between us. Without looking back, I walk to my car and climb inside. I am putting my key into the ignition when I hear the gunfire start.