Monday, October 9, 2017

Saving the House, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

    On a warm spring afternoon Maxine returned from school to find her mother dancing across the porch on calloused feet, humming a mindless tune as she strung clothesline between porch supports. The sight of wet laundry on the railing made Maxine’s stomach clench. Her mother only did chores during the manic times, when she also burned herself with cigarettes and spent their money on useless trinkets.
Maxine stopped at the bottom of the porch steps, far enough away to dodge anything thrown at her. “Hi,” she said, shifting her backpack from her shoulder to her left hand, in case she needed to use it as a shield.
“Why, hello,” her mother burbled, holding up a handful of bright plastic clothespins.
“You’re cheerful,” Maxine said, steeling herself for the next revelation: the last of the living-room furniture sold, or their state benefits spent on lottery tickets. Not that many benefits came in, these days.
“We are about to make a whole lot of money.” Her mother pinched clothespins onto the line. “Mama’s going to make everything good again, you’ll see.”
“That’ll be a first.” I just want to go upstairs and do my homework, Maxine thought, except now I have to deal with whatever sad crap you’ve just pulled. “How are we making money?”
“We’re selling the house!” Maxine’s mother exclaimed, grabbing two handfuls of wet clothes and swirling them in the air like a pair of pom-poms, water and soap spattering the porch. “For a lot of money! A lot!”
“That’s great,” Maxine said, suddenly exhausted. Of course it was a lie. Who would buy their shit-hole? There was no working plumbing most months, the heat barely managed to keep the bedrooms above freezing in the winter, and the first floor always stank like something had died under the floorboards. “I’m happy for us. So where are we going to live?”
Her mother caught the tone in her voice. The colors stopped spinning. She stood there with a sour frown, limp clothes dripping onto her rough feet. Maxine could feel the anger crackling the air, hard and nasty as ozone after a lightning strike. Before her mother could hurl something at her head, she ran up the porch steps, tore open the door, and slipped into the cool interior of the house.
In the kitchen, she found her younger brother Brad at the rickety table by the back windows, doing his best with his math homework. Brad had a buzzcut and a long, angry scar on his forehead, the latter courtesy of a schoolyard fight against a kid four years older and two feet taller.
“Hey,” Maxine said, dropping her backpack on the floor before opening the fridge in search of food. The otherwise empty shelves offered a single piece of fake cheese, its plastic wrapper smeared with some horrible super-mold capable of surviving extreme temperatures and zero oxygen. Ugh.
“Hey,” Brad said.
Refusing to give up her quest for calories, Maxine tried the freezer, finding a single can of energy drink half-buried in the icy wasteland. “Mom sold the house?” she asked, prying the can free and popping the ring-tab.
“Yeah, some guy showed up.” Brad shrugged. “Told Mom she wouldn’t have to pay no more bills or anything.”
“What did this guy look like?”
Brad shrugged again, staring at the problem sheet in front of him.
“Tell me,” Maxine said.
Brad kept his gaze fixed on the table. “He had a fancy suit on.”
“What else he say?”
“He told Mom he would get rid of the mort-i-gage.”
“Mortgage. I don’t even know if we got one.” She slugged the energy drink, hoping its caffeine would ramp her up, strangle the fear in her guts. “Remember what I told you?”
“‘Never trust anyone in a suit.’”
“That’s right. Did you see Mom sign anything?”
Eyes down, Brad nodded. In the gray light filtering through the dirty window, a tear glistened on his cheek. Despite his capacity for fury (Maxine had once seen him sink a wooden stick, sharpened into a spear, a full inch between another kid’s ribs), Brad had a heart too big for this crappy place.
The screen door crashed open behind them, their mother loud in the house. Clenching her hands into fists, gritting her teeth, Maxine picked up her backpack and marched into the front hallway. “Mom, what did you sign?” she nearly yelled.
The question slammed her mother to a cold stop beside the front door. “Nothing,” she said, sullen in an instant. “Besides, it’s my house.”
Without answering, Maxine veered left, through the doorway that led to the living room, kicking through the mountain of debris atop the couch and coffee table. She spied a bright red folder atop a dusty tower of unopened bills, opened it to find a thin stack of documents bound with an irritatingly cheerful yellow paperclip, its paragraphs sprinkled with legal-sounding terms that made zero sense to her. What the hell was ‘deed transferred to LLC’? The business card pinned under the paperclip had a phone number, an address, an email, and a name: Alex Smith.
Standing in the doorway, Maxine’s mother squawked like a startled bird. As Maxine brushed past her, folder in hand, she reached to grab her daughter’s shoulder—her fingers frozen, an inch away, by the fury in Maxine’s eyes. “I bet you screwed us,” Maxine said, before crashing through the screen door, her phone already in her hand.
She dialed the number on the business card, unsurprised when a robot directed her to voicemail. Standing in the yard with its yellowing weeds, the dead car engine on cinder-blocks sprouting red flowers from its popped piston-heads, she wondered: why would anyone want to buy any of this? Why would Mom let herself get hustled?
People want to hope, her uncle Preacher whispered in her head. And they’re willing to overlook anything, even things that’ll hurt them, if they can live in hope for just a second or two. That feeling, it’s better than weed, better than junk.
Maxine heard the screen door creak open behind her, quiet footsteps on the boards. “I’m sorry?” her Mom said, voice quavering on the edge of tears.
“Whatever,” Maxine said, stuffing the folder into her pack. “Now I got to put all my own crap aside, try and fix this.” She had parked her bike at the end of the driveway, behind the rotted frame of the garage, its rear wheel locked with a massive clamp scarred from more than one theft attempt. Unlocking and heaving the clamp aside, she straddled the bike, twisted the electric motor to life, and purred onto the main road, never looking back at her mother.
The bike’s old motor, capable of maybe twenty miles an hour on a steep downhill with a hard wind at your back, nonetheless carried her to town in a few minutes. When her mother was a child, you smelled the place before you reached it, courtesy of the working slaughterhouse on the outskirts. The killing floor had long closed, taking a hundred jobs with it, and the only thing she could smell was faint smoke from the forest fire troubling the western edge of the county, leaving hills of gray ash in its wake.  
By the time she reached the traffic light that marked the beginning of Main Street, her rage seethed on the edge of nuclear, and not just because jackasses in three separate cars had honked and yelled obscene things about her body on the way in. The slow putter into town gave her time to relieve every bad thing that had happened to her family over the past few years. Her father shanked in prison, his ashes sent home with a bill for the cremation. The interest on their bills multiplying, and multiplying, and multiplying like cancer cells. Preacher throughout it all promising to help, to give them cash, to make a phone call, and never seeming to come through when they needed him most.
Rocko’s Tacos at the south end of Main had a bike-charging station, three bucks for a full battery and a wheel-lock while you ran errands. She tapped her phone against the payment nub, deducting the funds from her tiny balance, and headed inside for food. The fish in the joint’s signature tacos probably came from a lab, but so what? Given her family history, she would probably be dead by forty.
Eating at the counter by the windows, Maxine checked out the office across the street, listed on the card in her backpack as belonging to ‘Alex Smith.’ No movement or lights inside. Might as well check it out.
On the way over, she stopped to pick up a fist-sized stone from the gutter, scanning first for any witnesses. The sidewalks stood empty.
The target building’s front door was unlocked, opening onto an antiseptic space with three almost-barren desks and fluorescent lights overhead. She heard a toilet flush, and a door open. A moment later, a man in shirtsleeves wandered into the room, zipping his fly. He was absurdly muscular but short, his hands thick with black hair. Not a local. Nobody around here dressed in tailored shirts made of shiny material, with buttons that looked like pearl.
“You Alex Smith?” she asked.
He looked up, startled. “How did you get in here?” He had a slight accent, hard to place, maybe Southern.
She nodded behind her. “Door’s unlocked.”
His eyes flicked to the stone in her hand. “What do you want?”
“Are you Alex Smith?”
“Who are you?”
“I need to find Alex Smith. He signed a document for our house.”
The man looked confused. “House?”
Maxine jutted her chin at the small stack of red folders on one of the desks. “Don’t give me that.”
The man took a step toward her, brown leather shoes whispering on the institutional carpet, and Maxine flexed her grip on the rock, raised her hand an inch. He saw it and retreated a few feet, smiling at her. “We cannot discuss client business.”
Maxine recited her address. “This is client business. You made a deal with my mother today? We’re canceling that deal.”
Alex Smith—or whatever his name was—made a great show of shrugging his overdeveloped shoulders. “How old are you, little girl?”
“None of your business, jackass.”
He shook his head. “I think you are a minor. Whether or not that’s true, you do not have the authority to go against your mother’s wishes. This transaction is complete, as of this afternoon.”
“No. I’ll call the cops.” That was an empty threat, of course, considering how the local police regarded Maxine’s family as one step below cockroaches. Not that Smith knew that.
“Go ahead.” Smith swept his arms wide, as if showing off a bustling office instead of a couple of desks in a blank space in a dying town. “Get your lawyers, too. I am sure you have a lot of them, no?”
Maxine turned on her heel and left. There was simply no point in trying to reason with this showy jackass. Whatever scam he was pulling, he knew he had the upper hand over a high-school girl. Back on the street, Maxine decided to ruin his day in the only way she knew how. Hefting the rock, she hurled it as hard as she could through the floor-to-ceiling window fronting the office, punching a jagged hole in the middle of it. Through the cracked glass she saw the man gawping at her like a startled fish.
Offering him a middle finger, she stomped across the street toward her bike, head down so nobody could see the frustrated tears brimming in her eyes. If she couldn’t call the cops, she would reach out to the other authority around these parts.


Maxine knew that once she dialed her uncle’s number, there was a high likelihood of corpses in unmarked graves. But what choice did she have? Her uncle’s droog who answered the phone told her the Big Guy was busy, and to show up in the parking lot of a local bar in ninety minutes. Someone would pick her up.
At exactly the promised moment, a familiar pickup skewed to a stop beside the bar’s front porch. She loaded the bike into the truck’s bed and hopped into the passenger seat. While Preacher’s droog steered them onto the narrow roads beyond town, she stared at her phone to discourage conversation.
The droog made a few sharp turns in the woods before pulling up in front of a tall iron gate. He tapped a number into his phone, and the gate opened onto a paved lane, tree branches scraping the truck’s flanks as it rumbled toward the biggest house Maxine had ever seen with her own eyes, an expensive pile of logs and glass perched beside a small lake.
“Who’d he whack for this place?” she asked the droog, who hopped out of the truck without answering.
The front door opened onto a great room surfaced in dark wood, the massive chandelier overhead dripping with bleached antlers, a stuffed grizzly in the corner looking surprised at the state of its afterlife. A small flat robot passed Maxine’s feet, humming as it sucked dust off the floorboards.  
Preacher entered the room, dressed in a scuffed leather jacket and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, a tumbler of whiskey in his hand. Small cuts on his forehead and cheeks, a thick bandage on his right hand. He looked a little stunned at his own surroundings, his expression reminding her a bit of the bear. “The Warhog has entered the chat-room,” he said. “What’s up, kid?”
Maxine blurted it out: “Mom sold the house.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Great. She get good money for it?”
“That’s not the point.” Her voice echoed off the high ceiling. “Some jackass in a suit came in and took it. That’s. Our. Home.”
“Well, as many a lovely song has sung, you are not alone.” He crashed into a stuffed red chair in the corner, beside the bear. Ice clinked as he swirled his glass like a refined gentleman. “There’s a lot of that lately: shady dudes coming in, convincing people to sign over the deeds to their houses. They got these front companies they set up, so it’s hard to figure out who’s really behind it all. This guy who made the deal? The guy who’s really behind it, he’s probably, like, five guys behind that guy. He might not even live in this country. He may be a little gremlin.”
“They want all the land around here for fracking,” Maxine said, wondering just how much the drugs had mulched her uncle’s brain over the years.
The ice in his glass went silent. “How did you find out?”
“I did some research while I was waiting for your guy to pick me up.” She pulled out her phone, thumbed it to life so he could see a video of monster machines shredding a craggy mountainside. “There’s some new tech, lets them go deeper than ever, work on areas they couldn’t have touched thirty years ago.”
Preacher squinted at the video. “I don’t remember really clear, but I think your dad had some prospectors on your land at one point, and they didn’t find anything. He wanted the cash, so it really crushed his spirit. Well, that and being married to my sister.”
She ignored the quip. “These seismic machines, they detect gas over long distances. They don’t need to put boots on your land until they buy it. The technology’s crazy.”
“Give it a couple years, we’re all gonna be a laptop’s lapdog,” Preacher said. “Skynet. Sorry, that’s a reference before your time.”
“Whatever. You got anything to drink? I’ve been on the road all day.”
“Kitchen,” Preacher said, pointing to a doorway to their right. “It’s about a mile that way.”
The kitchen featured everything-new appliances, its wide windows overlooking the silvery expanse of the lake, two of Preacher’s droogs perched on rocks along the shore. From the fridge she pulled the last can of Coke, the good kind from Mexico, made with real sugar. The appliance beeped as she closed the door, a small screen by the handle flashing: ‘Order More Soda Y/N?’ She tapped ‘Y,’ thinking: how cool. From behind her came Preacher’s heavy tread on the floorboards. “We’ll get you a new house,” he said. “I’ve wanted to move you out of that shit-hole for years, anyway.”
“And yet you didn’t,” she said, popping the tab on the soda.
Preacher coughed. “There’s been a lot of heat. Hard to make moves.”
“You have to help us,” she said, slamming her can on the marble. “We’re family.”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“I found the guy who’s got the deed. Just come with me to talk to him.”
"Last time you called me for help, I had to dispose of a couple of bodies," Preacher laughed, his head swaying like a tired bull. "This gonna happen here, too? Should I grab some garbage bags and bleach?"
“As much as I hate the prick who did this," she replied, “I don’t want to deal with the mess of killing him, okay? It won’t help.”
His gaze on the marble, Preacher said: “Fine, we’ll go and talk to him. But I’m warning you now, it’s not going to change anything. Shell corporations, offshore accounts, hidden money. Untangling that stuff, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’m a local man.”
Maxine’s cheeks flared red. “When was the last time you brought my brother a present?”
“Okay, okay, okay.” Preacher sighed. “Let me down another beer, grab one of the guys, and we’ll go. I don’t want you getting whiny like your mom.”
As Preacher retrieved the brew from the fridge, Maxine opened a closet door she’d noticed earlier, in the short hallway that connected the kitchen to the front rooms. The coats inside had real fur, buttery-smooth leather she could pet all day, enough waterproof nylon to keep her family dry for years.
“Go on, take it,” said Preacher, now standing behind her. “These people can afford it.”
Fondling the dress, Maxine pictured her mother tricked into signing the papers in the red folder, taking away the roof over their heads. Once you started stealing, where did you stop? She wasn’t sure she had the strength—not yet, at least—to behave like Preacher, who only stole from corporations and outsiders. You need a code before you can become a righteous outlaw.
She closed the closet door. “Whoever owns this place, they gonna show up at some point?”
“The owners?” Preacher grinned. “I got them trapped in their own panic room upstairs. Don’t worry, they got plenty of food and water in there. And a bucket.”


For the ride back to town they chose a sleek vehicle from the garage, an electric-powered BMW with the latest silicon brain under the hood. Once they hit the two-lane, Preacher activated the self-driving feature and sat back, watching with drunk amusement as the wheel turned on its own. “What happens if I try to mess with it?” he asked.
Beside him, Maxine braced her hands against the dashboard. “Please don’t.”
“It’s okay, nobody’s coming,” Preacher said, and, gripping the wheel, spun it as hard as he could to the left. The BMW veered into the oncoming lane, tires screeching, before regaining its artificial wits and swerving back onto its original path.  
Maxine punched her laughing uncle in the shoulder, dismayed at his behavior. Whenever Preacher “borrowed” something, he usually did his best to return it in fine condition, whether or not he hated the owner. “Don’t,” she said.
“Oh, take a joke, kid.” Thunderclouds brewed around Preacher’s eyes as his high deflated. “I could have done worse.”
Maxine shook her head. Preacher in a mood was a four-alarm emergency, like your house on fire or someone beating your dog in the yard. So much like her mother, come to think of it.
“For example, I could have done this.” Preacher veered the wheel hard right, scraping the BMW against a line of concrete barriers along the shoulder, the squeal of tearing metal almost drowning out the sound of him asking: “Is this worse, dear?”
“Screw you.” She hit him again, full force, on the arm. He released the wheel, and the car dutifully corrected course, the dashboard screen beeping in alarm.  
    “Sorry, long week,” Preacher’s mouth set in a hard white line as he reached into his jacket pocket, extracting a handful of pills that he crunched down with a grimace. The dashboard screen flashed white as some worker-bee in a call center in Kabul or Kansas City tried to reach them, to figure out if they needed assistance.
    Maxine twisted around and flashed a thumbs-up at the pickup riding their bumper. The mohawked droog returned the sign and hit the brakes, falling back a little further. Worst-case scenario, Maxine figured, she could retrieve her bike from the back of the truck, return home, try to puzzle up another solution to her housing crisis.
    “Sorry,” Preacher said again.
    “It’s okay.” Anxious for a distraction, she punched open the glove-box and rooted through the rat’s nest of wrappers and random trash stuffed in there, her fingers scraping on something hard—a steel cylinder with a polymer bulbous tip, bile green.
The sight of it snapped Preacher from his funk. “Ho shit,” he said. “That’s a sick stick.”
“A what?”
“Ultimate in personal protection. Press the end against someone’s bare skin, and they barf everywhere, fever, chills.” He shuddered theatrically. “It’s like instant flu.”
“Why hadn’t I heard of it before?”
“Because they’re banned as lethal weapons. Use it too much on someone, their guts come out.” Preacher pounded the wheel, chuckling. “This is great. You never know what the day has in store for you.”
Pinching one end with two fingers, as if it were a dead rat, Maxine lifted the hardware from the glove box. The bottom half of the shaft had a slightly pebbled texture, presumably giving you a better grip in the event of your enemy upchucking their breakfast all over your hands.  
    Preacher glanced over. “Careful now,” he said. “Press and hold that big button on the bottom, the green one, and it activates. There’s no safety.”
“My thumb is my safety,” she said. The stick felt heavy yet comfortable in her hands, the checkered grip rough on her soft palm, that green tip begging for action.  
“Remind me to actually teach you some gun respect,” Preacher said. “In the meantime, get your new toy ready, because we’re here. Cover your eyes.”
Maxine glanced up, expecting to see the BMW politely easing its way into a parking space. Instead the bumper, already shredded by Preacher’s little adventure with the concrete divider, bumped over the curb, on a collision course for the cracked glass of Alex Smith’s front window. The dashboard screen beeping in fear, its reddening glow reflecting off Preacher’s teeth as he grinned wide and stood on the gas pedal, ass off the seat, buoyed by the colossal roar of six cylinders. Maxine threw her arms over her face.
In the last half-second before impact, Preacher removed his foot from the gas, and the BMW’s brain kicked into action to salvage the unsalvageable. The brakes screeched. The dashboard screamed. Maxine’s world went—


—white, as the mini-airbags in her door deployed.
Her skin stung. She clawed the deflating fabric out of her face in time to see Preacher pound the wheel, growling: “Whatever happened to the dream of full human control?” Through the miraculously intact windshield, she saw Smith peering at them from a few feet away, his mouth agape. The surprise was understandable. The BMW had come to a halt in the middle of the office, atop a desk smashed to kindling, the carpet littered with chunks of wood and broken glass.
“That’s him,” she said, pointing with the sick stick. Her hands tingled in a way that promised aching and bruises later.
“Oh yes,” Preacher replied, ripping away the sagging airbags and unbuckling himself, climbing from the vehicle with the wincing care of older men. “I know a hustler when I see one.”
Her own knees wobbled as she stepped into the office, adrenaline like a dead battery on her tongue. She had the sick stick raised, and Smith’s look of bloodcurdling fear said he knew what it could do. “Hey again,” Maxine said, her voice sharp with a sadistic cheer she didn’t feel. “I didn’t like how our last conversation ended, so I decided to swing back.” Focused on the little runt, she never saw Preacher dart in from the left, snatching the device out of her hand neat as you please.
“Tutorial,” her uncle said to her, lunging forward to grip Smith by his expensive collar. The sick stick hovering an inch from the man’s neck. “You know why we’re here?” Preacher asked him.
Maxine glanced over her shoulder, at the pickup pulling to the curb, the droog behind the wheel flashing her a thumbs-up with his eyebrows raised questioningly. She raised a thumb in return, and he put the vehicle in Park, wheels tilted toward the street for a fast getaway.  
    “Yes, I know why you’re here,” Smith said, lip quivering. “Even if you kill me, it won’t change anything.”
While Maxine didn’t consider herself a sadist, watching this bastard squirm made her feel warm and tingly inside. Walking over to the nearest intact desk, she flipped through red folders until she found the paperwork with her home address, signed with her mother’s shaky hand.
“Bullshit,” she said. “I got the contract right here.”
“She has the contract right there,” Preacher said. “So what’s this about not changing anything, huh?”
“That’s a copy,” Smith said. “We registered the transfer a couple hours ago. You know this is a good thing, right? You people are going to make some money off this.”
Preacher drove the sick stick into Smith’s neck, just below the jaw. The effect was immediate. Sweat bursting from his suddenly bloodless skin, Smith bent over and vomited on his expensive leather shoes.
“You want a little cotton ear swab?” Preacher asked him.
Something in Smith’s pained grimace suggested confusion.
“Because you must have some waxy build-up,” Preacher said, the sick stick hovering close again. “Hard of hearing and all that. We don’t want the money, we want the house. What’s your company’s name?”
Wiping his messy lips with the back of his hand, Smith husked: “Hot Properties, LLC.”
Preacher rolled his eyes. “No, the shell behind the shell. What is it?”
“Sunny Acres Properties, LLC.”
“Who owns them?”
Smith straightened, wiping the drool from his chin, a little more color in his cheeks. The sick stick wore off fast. Or maybe he had a bit of the strength that comes when you realize you have the upper hand. “I really couldn’t tell you,” he said. “Someone in Russia? Africa? We can form companies all over the place. For all I know, the deed’s held by a bunch of goat herders in Pakistan.”
“Is that right?” Maxine clenched her hands together in a white-knuckle ball. “Is he lying?”
“Maybe.” Preacher glanced at her, the tightness in his face imparting a whole conversation between the two of them. What was her uncle going to do, call the police? Walk into a government office and accuse a shell company of fraud?
“So you can kill me,” Smith said, voice stronger, “but you know it won’t change anything.”
“You’re right,” Preacher said. He stood there for a moment, contemplating the ceiling, before driving the sick stick hard into Smith’s ribs. Smith toppled to the glass-strewn carpet, dry-heaving and thrashing.
“But that sure felt good,” Preacher added, pocketing the sick stick as he opened the door of the BMW and climbed in, gesturing for Maxine to do the same.
Stepping forward, Maxine had every intention of delivering Smith some bonus pain, maybe a nice solid kick in the balls. Only as she neared, he glanced up, his eyes wide and human and full of agony. His look stopped her foot before it left the carpet.
Behind her, the BMW’s engine sputtered to life, the dashboard bursting into fresh damage-control screams before Preacher could smack it silent.
What good will hitting this chump do?
She had no good answer.
The BMW’s horn deafening in the enclosed space, snapping Maxine from her thoughts. Instead of kicking Smith, she spat on his hair—a weak gesture, but maybe enough to make her feel better, later, about today. Smith kept staring at her, eyes glassy as marbles. Offering the overdressed little bastard her second middle finger of the day, Maxine slipped into the battered car’s passenger seat and stared at her hands as Preacher eased them back onto the street. 

Preacher furious, cheeks red, teeth clenched, hands twisting the wheel. Maxine had never seen this many nukes going off in his head at once. The heat from that fury made her hunch against the passenger door, eyes averted, wondering whether she should have called him in the first place.
“You still want to be an outlaw?” Preacher’s voice high and tight. “You want to do criminal shit, just like your uncle? Let me tell you something: For all the money I’ve made—and I’ve made a lot—it’s nothing compared to what someone can make with a bunch of lawyers and a couple of forms. And you know the worst part of it, the thing that really gets me?”
“Just don’t swerve,” she said. “My stomach can’t take it.” Should have grabbed my bike from the pickup, she thought. You could’ve been home already, without this extra drama.
“That asshole back there, if he ever gets arrested for what he did?” Preacher laughed. “Probably won’t even go to jail. Or if he does, they’ll ship his ass to Camp Cupcake, somewhere they get to roast marshmallows around a campfire. White-collar crime is where it’s always been at: big profits, no blood on your hands, and if you get nailed, it’s just a slap on the wrist.”
“Okay. I get it.”
His gaze pierced her skull. “I’m taking you home. You’ll stay there until the moment those bastards try and shove you off it. I’m guessing they’ll wait a good long time, considering what we did to your little buddy back there. And when they come—because they will, the money coming out of the ground is too good—I’ll move you someplace new. That place was a piece of shit, anyway.”
Sure, she almost said, but at least it was home, and at least I saved it for the moment. But saying nothing seemed like the safer option at the moment.
When they pulled into her driveway, she saw Brad on the porch, waiting for them with a vacant look that promised supreme hardship in the days ahead. A heavyset man in a nylon jacket stood beside him, rubberized tablet in hand. The yellow letters on the jacket spelled ‘CORONER.’


    Two hours before, right around the moment Maxine and Preacher met in that expensive house to talk about settling scores, Maxine’s mother had loaded up a syringe too full and found a good vein in the moonscape of her left arm and pushed home the killer hit, blasting a hole in Maxine’s heart that never fully closed.  

Monday, October 2, 2017

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish, fiction by Tom Barlow

The last thing Ryan asked of Jenny before he left to photograph a member directory for St. Michael Catholic Church was that she carry the three boxes of Christmas decorations his mother had given them that were currently cluttering the hallway up to the attic of their rental duplex.
"I'm not your Sherpa," she muttered as she nudged one of the boxes with her toe to gauge its weight.
He hefted his camera bag and the case containing his umbrellas and backgrounds. "You don't work today. I'm thinking you could fit it into your schedule between Ellen and one of the judge shows."  
"Why is it I watch that crap one day when I'm sick and you never let me live it down?"
He chuckled. "If you really want to get your doctorate, you need to use your time more productively."
"There you go again ragging on me for having ambition."
"I'm not sure if you were Dr. Moss that you'd be happy living with a simple photographer." He was still smiling, but there was a sharper tone in his voice. She was familiar with his insecurity; dealing with it 24/7 was the most exhausting part of her life, even more than hustling tables at the local Olive Garden.
She was relieved when he finally left.
  1. ***
The boxes weren't heavy, but they were bulky enough that she couldn't carry more than one at a time. The final flight was up a pull-down ladder, forcing her to ascend with the box held over her head. When she set it down in the unfinished attic she kicked up a plume of dust, which triggered a sneezing attack.
As she wiped her nose, she took in the contents of the attic. Three straight chairs in need of recaning. An ancient school desk, complete with ink well. Rolls of old wallpaper. A dress form. A canvas Army messenger bag, gnawed upon. A bed frame, disassembled.   
There were a number of boxes. One, lacking a top, was full of books. She picked up a geography text, discovered that at the time of printing Arizona was still a territory. Curious about what else might be in the box, she dug deeper.
A few layers down she came upon a package swathed in many layers of tissue and held together with tape. The yellowed tape was so old it fell off the tissue as she lifted it.  
Jenny placed the package on the desk and gently unwrapped it. Within, she found four picture books by Dr. Seuss; And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Horton Hatches an Egg, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and The King's Stilts. They appeared to be in perfect condition, and peeking at the title page of each, she found they had been signed by "Ted (aka Dr. Seuss)" for a child named April. Each appeared to be a first edition from the late 1930s or early 1940s.
She left the books sitting on the desk as she made two more trips downstairs to haul decorations. As she worked, she deliberated. Did their landlady, Alice Appleton, know what was in the attic? The top books had been covered with as much dust as the floor, suggesting they hadn't been handled in decades. It was probable that a previous owner or renter had stored the box, and Alice had no idea what was up there.
Still, she thought, perhaps the books weren't worth much. She carried them downstairs where she went online and searched for similar books. She found that if indeed she had authentic signed first editions, the four would sell for something in the neighborhood of $12,000 apiece.
Jenny wasn't by nature a greedy woman, but she was obsessed with returning to school for her doctorate in comparative lit, with the goal of landing a teaching job at a university, and she couldn't help but consider the value of what she'd found. If she sold the books, even if she had to go through a dealer, she could probably clear $40,000. Never to wait on tables again, or end up driving school buses as her mother had done to put bread on their table. If she could just convince Ryan; he found a new reason to discourage her every time she brought school up, mostly financial.
The books were resting on the coffee table when Ryan arrived home after the all-day shoot. He dropped his equipment in the living room corner where it lived and joined her on the couch, where she was on her second Rolling Rock and rereading Chaucer.
"Have a rough day?" she asked, handing him her beer.
He drained the bottle and dropped his head back onto the couch cushion. "Everybody watches those reality shows, so now they all want to strike dramatic poses. Just try to get them to just look at the freaking camera and sit still." As he spoke, he noticed the books on the coffee table. "What are those?"
"My doctorate," she said, and explained how she'd come about them.
"$48,000? For Dr. Seuss? No way."
"I've checked the rare book auction sites."
She wanted to see excitement on his face, something echoing hers, but as usual she could tell he was looking for the black cloud.
His mouth screwed up into kewpie lips. "They belong to our landlady, don't they?"
"I figure they've been there for fifty years, and she only bought the place five years ago. She has no idea what's in the attic."
"So you're suggesting we steal them from her?" He crossed his arms.
"Do you think for a moment Bruce or Willard would pass on such an opportunity?" She was tired of him bringing up his brothers every time they discussed starting a family, and was rather pleased with herself for finding a way to twist them to bolster her point of view.
"Maybe so," he conceded. "But if they did, it would be for the betterment of their families."
"So it's OK to steal to buy braces for the kids but wrong to steal to launch a career?"
"It's not right either way, just more understandable."
"OK, then let's make a deal. I spend what I need for school, and we save the rest for our firstborn."
She hoped this would alter the conversation; Ryan, envious of his brothers' growing families, was hot to reproduce, while she'd postponed, diverted, all but declined. She had as her example her sister Elaine, who had her first child out of wedlock and was trapped now in the daily grind of working in a call center and parenting an autistic child. No time for a real life.
Sure enough, he leaped at the bait. "You're finally ready to start a family?"
"After grad school, once I've landed a faculty gig."
His eyebrows lowered. "I still can't see it. If Alice found out, we could go to jail, and what kind of parents would we be then?"
Jenny rubbed her forehead, where another headache was brewing. "Why don't I feel out Alice, see if she has any inkling of what's in the attic?"
"How are you going to do that? Hypnotize her?"
"Leave that to me."
  1. ***
            Alice lived in half of another duplex two blocks east of Jenny and Ryan in downtown Zanesville. Determined to quiz her about the attic contents, Jenny didn't delay, knowing herself well enough to know she'd only grow more anxious if she waited.
The weather was beautiful, a winter day in the thirties with blue skies and no wind, new snow accenting the trim on houses. As she walked up the steps to Alice Appleton's front door, the flicker of a television set reflected on the blinds. She rang the doorbell, stepped back to allow room for the door to open.
Alice answered a moment later. She was in her seventies, frail with a slight stoop and hunched shoulders, like someone who had spent her life scrubbing shirts on a washboard. She wore her white hair in a short bob parted on the left, and glasses the size of motorcycle goggles.
She stood in the doorway, didn't invite Jenny in. "Something wrong with the house?"
Jenny put her hands up. "No, no, nothing like that. I was out for a walk, and thought I'd stop by to ask if it was OK if we stored some boxes in the attic."
"Of course. I thought I told you that when you moved in."
"I must have forgotten. Anyway, I noticed there are a few rolls of old wallpaper up there. Would you mind if I used one of them as shelf liners? It'd be real pretty."
"I've been meaning to clear out those attics since I bought the place," Alice said. "Do people collect old wallpaper?"
"I can't imagine," Jenny said, trying to remain calm as she realized she might have just inspired the opposite reaction of that she was hoping for.
"Let me check before you do anything. I hate to leave money on the table."
"OK. But it's all right to store some boxes up there?"
"Sure. Just don't disturb anything that's already up there."
"Of course not."
Jenny said her goodbyes and walked double-time back home, cursing Ryan under her breath. If he hadn't been such a moralistic asshole the sale could be a done deal. Now, what if Appleton noted that the dust on the top books had been disturbed? Certainly, she would wonder if something had been taken. If they suddenly came into money and she found out, she would suspect them. She was that kind of woman.
"She doesn't know and doesn't care what's up there," she reported to Ryan that evening as he watched her shove a frozen pizza in the oven. The lie slid glibly off her tongue, to her surprise. She'd never been one to dissemble comfortably, especially to her husband, but perhaps she'd never faced such stakes before.
"Still doesn't mean it's right," he said.
"Damn it, listen to me. This is our chance. We don't take this, it could be years before we have enough money to start a family."
"You keep rubbing children in my face, and I don't think you mean it. I think you're afraid of kids.  And you'd do anything to get into grad school."
"And you'd do anything to keep me as a waitress," she said, tossing a potholder at his head. She strode out of the kitchen so that he wouldn't see her cry.
Jenny felt trapped; if she sold the books, she'd have a hard time concealing the transaction from her husband and if she left a paper trail that Alice could follow she could end up in jail.
However, her mother had spent Jenny's entire childhood complaining about her stubborn nature, and that trait hadn't faded as she matured, although Ryan had broken through more than a few times. Now, however, she was determined to make her discovery pay, but to do so she would have to be devious. Luckily, she knew a devious person who might help her, Ryan's sister Sarah.
Sarah was a few years older than Ryan, single again after a second brief marriage; her sultry beauty seemed to draw men like free beer, but they didn't stick. She was living suspiciously well off the income from a job delivering car parts to garages for a local retailer, taking frequent vacations to St. Kitts and Aruba.
Jenny had learned from a trusted friend that Sarah funded these trips by dealing coke, knowledge she hadn't shared with Ryan for fear he'd attempt to step in and set her right, which could only result in a family drama fest. Perhaps if Sarah was willing to take big risks for modest reward, Jenny reasoned, she would be willing to take a small risk for a big reward.
She waited for a couple of days, until Ryan had an evening shoot at a Lions Club fundraiser, to drive to Cambridge, a half hour east, to pay a call on Sarah. She'd called ahead to make sure she was home.
"Promise you won't tell Mom my house is a disaster," Sarah said as she waved Jenny inside.
"I'm the last person to criticize anyone's housekeeping," Jenny said, following her into the living room.
She was surprised at the furnishings, the 60-inch television, Bose sound bar, xBox One, leather couch and recliner, and a thick wool oriental rug that filled the room from corner to corner.
They took seats and chatted for a couple of minutes about family and work before Sarah said, "That's not why you drove all the way over here. You've been in the family for what? Four years? And you never visited before, so why now?"
Jenny reached into her bag and brought out the books. "I have a problem I thought you might help me with. It'll benefit us both."
She explained about the value of the books, how she came about them, what needed to be done to transform them into cash. She could feel herself blush as she talked.
Sarah finished the glass of beer at her elbow before saying, "So you want me to be your partner in crime? I believe they call what you want me to do fencing stolen property."  
"You wouldn't be the one doing the stealing; that would be on me. You could just blame me if anyone questions it."
Sarah wore a brittle smile. "You must not think much of me."
"Not at all. I just figured you for someone who would see this the way I do. As an opportunity that I shouldn't pass on."
"And we don't tell Ryan about it, because he's too honest."
"I don't know as he's all that honest, but certainly has a stick up his ass about this."
"And what's my cut?" Sarah said.
"Five grand. Seem fair?"
"For the risk you want me to take, I think half is more like it."
Jenny had figured all along that Sarah wouldn't settle for less than half, and $20,000 would cover most of her degree costs as a commuting student. "OK. Half."
"There's no question I could use that money. Give me the books. Now, how am I supposed to sell these suckers?"
Excited, Jenny called her faculty advisor Ben Bishop at Ohio State before work the next morning. She reached his machine. The sound of his voice reminded her of the crush she'd borne for him in Modern American Lit 401 four years before, in her senior year.
He returned her call within the hour. "I expected to hear from you long before now," he said, "as eager as you were to do grad work."
"Life intruded," she said. "In the form of money. That's why I'm calling, actually. I think I have enough to apply now. What should I do next?"
He explained the school calendar; she'd have to hustle to submit her application in time to be considered for the next class of masters candidates.
"I remember our last conversation," he said. "I came away from that wondering something. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but we get a lot of students who spend a shitload of money for a degree and discover when they're done that they had no intention of making a career out of it; they were just hiding out from life. If the latter, I usually counsel them to take the leap, get a job, and put school behind them."
Jenny chewed on his comment for a minute. Was she simply looking to leave her mundane life for the bright lights of university? Or was she ready to devote the rest of her life to literature?
"No," she finally said, "I'm in it for the right reasons."
"Well, then, congratulations. I'm sure that with your grades and our recommendations, you'll have no trouble getting in. If you can afford it."
"No problem," she said, crossing her fingers.
Jenny haunted the rare book sale Internet site she'd chosen for the sale. The books showed up two days later, coincidently the same day that Ryan thought to ask about them. She told him that she'd put them back, buried deep in the box of books. He took her apparent meek surrender as though it was a victory, making her even more content that she'd decided to circumvent him.
Fearing Appleton's visit, she collected a cup of dust from an unused corner of the basement and, using a flour sifter, carefully spread it across the books on top of the box in the attic, so that she would not suspect they'd been unpacked.
To her delight, the Dr. Seuss books sold for almost exactly what she'd expected. Jenny called Sarah the minute the auction ended, but she didn't answer, so Jenny left a message on her cell asking for a return call.
"You're sure in a good mood," Ryan said that evening when he came to find his favorite supper dish, steak poivre.
"It's our three-and-a-half-year anniversary," she said as she scooped Brussels sprouts out of the bamboo steamer.
"You must have a better reason than that." He pulled the cork on the cheap red wine she'd bought with the steaks.
"Well, I do as a matter of fact. I was talking to my advisor about grad school and he said that I might be able to get enough grants and loans to pay my way through the doctoral program."
Ryan quietly poured them each a few fingers of wine, picked up his glass, and drained it. "That's great," he said. "At this rate, you'll be forty and trying to conceive, and we'll still be paying off your loans."
Jenny kept calling Sarah for the next week, but, to her distress, the woman never returned her calls. Finally, one morning after Ryan left for a shoot she drove to Cambridge. No one answered at Sarah's house, so she stopped by the shop for which she did deliveries.
She had to wait for almost an hour before Sarah returned from running a cam shaft to Quaker City. When she saw Jenny standing in the store she pointed toward the door. Jenny stepped outside and Sarah joined her there a moment later, pausing to light a cigarette.
"You get the money yet?" Jenny said. She had not noticed until now that Sarah was so much taller.
"Yeah, about the money. I have some bad news." She was standing uncomfortably close to Jenny.
"What's that?"
"The thing is, I need it all; I owe quite a bit of money to people who have a nasty way of dealing with debtors. And it occurred to me that you can't tell anybody about it without incriminating yourself."
Jenny's jaw dropped. "You mean, you're keeping it? After we agreed?"
"You thought I was such a moron that you could set me up to take the fall if we were caught. I'm not that stupid.
"And here's something to keep in mind in case you're thinking of opening your mouth; I did the entire deal in your name. I even had a driver's license made with your name and my picture on it, so when I cashed the check it was as Jennifer Moss."
"How could you be so mean?" Jenny said, stepping back from her.
Sarah chuckled. "I'm the black sheep of the family, and I could give a fuck what they think. Or what you think. So thanks for the cash. And forget about revenge." She opened her coat far enough to reveal a holstered pink 9mm pistol clipped to her belt.
Jenny was at a loss for a reply. She was normally a passive person, but now a rage burned inside her; if she'd had a weapon, she wasn't sure she could control herself. But she could see from the sneer on Sarah's face that she wasn't afraid of Jenny.
Holding back tears, she returned to her car, avoiding eye contact with Sarah, who watched her the whole way.
Jenny started back to Zanesville, but before she reached the freeway, the rage broke through the numb veneer. Fuck Sarah. And fuck Ryan too. She stopped at the Home Depot and bought a crow bar.
Returning to Sarah's bungalow, she pried the door open and spent the next half-hour turning the place inside out looking for the money. She didn't bother to keep things neat, dumping drawers, dragging the mattress from the box spring, ripping the TV from the wall and letting it fall to the floor.
She left with nothing except the satisfaction of destroying Sarah's belongings. The cash was too well hidden.
Jenny knew she shouldn't answer her cell phone that evening when Sarah called, but she was still furious at the woman and wanted the chance to gloat. She was also emboldened by the bottle of wine she'd consumed in an attempt to quell her distress.
"You stupid bitch," Sarah said without preamble. "You think you can do this to me and get away with it, you're nuts."
"What are you going to do? Steal more money from me? Oh wait; you've already stolen it all."
"You still don't get it, do you? I'm not someone to fuck with. You're going to find that out."
"Bring it on. I've got nothing more to lose."
"You think not? Just wait."
A knock on the door the next morning after Ryan had left for work fulfilled Sarah's threat. There stood their landlady, scowling.
Apprehensive, Jenny opened the door. Alice stepped inside uninvited.
"I had an anonymous call this morning," she said, unzipping her coat. "The caller told me you found some old books in the attic and sold them for $40,000. I looked at the online auction site where she suggested I look, and guess what? There they were, some old Dr. Seuss."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jenny said, struggling with her composure.
"You know how I came about this house? I bought it from my great-aunt. In a way, it's been in the family for a hundred years. I called my mom's cousin. She remembers my great-uncle buying those books for his daughter April on business trips; he was a gem dealer and made trips to New York City four times a year. She thought they'd been lost."
Jenny felt as though a cold hand was running up and down her spine as her dream of grad school, now destroyed, gave way to a new vision, of prison. Rage and fear contended again within her, and she couldn't think of anything to do but lie. "If there were books up there, they should still be there. I haven't taken anything."
"Then let's go check, shall we?" Alice started up the stairs. Jenny followed.
When they reached the second floor landing, Alice grasped the rope that pulled down the ladder. As Jenny watched, panicked, she began to climb.
Acting on instinct, Jenny waited until Alice had climbed the first four steps before she stepped over, grabbed both ankles and tugged them free of the ladder. Her landlady came flying down, striking her head on the third rung, landing at the head of the first floor stairs, then tumbling down them to come to rest by the front door.
Jenny raced down the stairs to the supine body, reached out to her neck, aghast at what she'd done. She found no pulse. She sat numbly for few minutes waiting to make sure Alice didn't come back to life, before calling 9-1-1 to report that her landlady had fallen down the stairs.
After the emergency squad, then the police left, both satisfied that Alice's death was an accident, Jenny, shocked at her own behavior, found that the guilt over what she had done did not entirely override the rage at losing her dream. Having murdered, she was forced to face the fact that she was no longer the mousey academic she'd thought herself to be. She felt emboldened, reckless, with a sense of unfinished business.
Ryan wasn't due home for a couple of hours yet, so, after stewing over her situation for a while, she grabbed her purse,  a roll of duct tape and her latex gloves and headed to the local gun shop. There she purchased a Taser she couldn't afford and a can of pepper spray.  
The sun was setting behind her as she arrived in Cambridge. She pulled into a space in front of the house that Sarah rented. Her sister-in-law's Silverado was parked by the front door.
Jenny approached the stoop, her gloved finger on the pepper spray in her jacket pocket. Swallowing nervously, she knocked on the front door, then stepped to one side so that she wasn't immediately visible when the door opened.
Sarah answered a moment later. As she opened the door, Jenny stepped forward and sprayed her in the face. Sarah spun away, bringing both hands to her face and coughing violently. Jenny stepped inside, closed the door, pulled the Taser out of her other pocket and fired it at Sarah.
As soon as the contacts hit her in the back, Sarah convulsed and fell to the floor, temporarily paralyzed. Jenny plucked Sarah's pistol from her holster, then quickly spun duct tape around her arms and legs until she was incapacitated.
Jenny stood over her. "Where's my money?"
Sarah shook her head as she regained control of her muscles, laughed, coughed, laughed again. "Jesus; what's got into you? You some kind of Ninja killer now? Like that could ever happen."
"You made me whatever I am now."
"Oh bullshit. You're the one that decided to steal the books. There's a streak of larceny a foot wide down your back."
"Fuck that. Where's the money?"
"What are you going to do? Kill me if I don't tell you?"
"Good idea," Jenny said. She ripped off one piece of duct tape and pressed across Sarah's mouth, another to cover her nostrils, then stepped back and waited, feeling powerful like she never had before.
Finally she saw panic in Sarah's eyes as she thrashed around on the floor. She waited until the woman was turning blue before she removed the tape.
"Had enough?" she said.
"It's in my purse," Sarah said between gasps. "You know I'm going to kill you for this."
"Not if I get you first." Jenny ripped off two more pieces of tape, applied them again to Sarah's mouth and nose.
Sure enough, the money, in hundreds, was in the bottom of Sarah's voluminous purse.
Jenny was surprised to find she wasn't particularly upset by her actions. Unlike the murder of Alice, for which she felt contrite, this felt like justice.
By the time Jenny left, the woman had quit struggling.
At Sarah's funeral, Ryan, Willard and Bruce struggled to accept that their sister could have been killed, as the Cambridge Police believed, over a drug deal gone bad. "They said they'd been watching her for over a year, trying to catch her wholesaling shit to local dealers," Bruce said.
Jenny eavesdropped, hoping that Ryan bought the story too. Her application had gone out that morning, and she wasn't about to allow anyone to come between her and grad school.
Not even her husband.
           She fingered the pink pistol in her pocket.