Monday, April 16, 2018

Love-Honor-Cherish, by J.D. Graves


"You know my wife," Tom told the grocer, "and you know what they say, happy wife equals a happy life."

The grocer smiled and nodded despite the fact no one had seen Carmen Sloane for five years. Her husband, Tom, on the other hand was always around. Tom stopped by weekly and purchased the same thing every time: box of Fels-Naptha, four large pork roasts, and a gallon of apple sauce. The grocer rang up the total, watching with a pained patient smile as his best customer counted out spare change. Tom ignored the exasperated sighs of the people queuing behind him. A few patrons put their meager items back or dropping them where they stood before bolting for another bodega.

The grocer spoke up, "Tom, I--"

"Yeah?" Tom asked without ceasing his count.

"I just wanted to let you know that, there was a detective come in yesterday asking about you."

"Asking about me?"

"About you--your wife mainly. I told him you were one of my best customers, like clockwork. He wanted to know what items you bought."

"Did you tell him?" Tom asked finishing his math.

"No, I told him to beg off."

"You shouldn't do that, not to a policeman, they have a tough job. They deserve our respect. 
Listen if you see him again tell him where I live, I'd be happy to answer any questions he might have."

"You sure you wanna do that?" The grocer said sweeping the coins into his tray without recounting them.

"Absolutely, me and Carmen got nothing to hide."

Tom gathered his purchases and left. He pretended the news of the detective didn't bother him. He ignored the whispers behind his back as he walked down the street. Suspicious words about the man whom everyone believed murdered his wife. Tom knew Carmen was very much alive. He knew too that no one, in her present condition, could ever see her to verify that fact.

It was impossible.

The damage to his reputation and her good name would be catastrophic. So he allowed the hushed accusations to continue unabated. He donned an air of unflappable good humor and took the time to chat up acquaintances anytime they passed. Always assuring them of Carmen's good health. All part of his daily regimen. Tom knew the truth. And since Dr. Fielding's accident Tom was the only one left alive who knew. Although Carmen lived, her quality of life remained questionable.

Tom knew, it wasn't always this way. In the beginning, like all beginnings, Carmen's beauty turned heads everywhere she went. Tom sometimes wondered, how he got so lucky to have met her, wed her and bed her. But he did. He fell into the euphoria of love. The euphoria never stays long once the honeymoon is over and both spouses reveal their warts and farts. How does one maintain a marriage, without it falling into humdrum boredom or completely apart?

At stressful times, Tom remembered the vows he spoke that warm day in June so many years ago. Anytime he felt overwhelmed, Tom remembered his promise, in sickness and in health. It pacified most notions of fleeing.

Tom felt certain other men would've fled at the first sign of trouble. If the shoe were on the other foot, he prayed Carmen, with her charming good looks, would've kept her vows too. Personal sacrifice, he reasoned, is a learned trait.

Every day he walked the twelve blocks to work and home. He didn't mind the trek, it established a mind-clearing routine and provided good exercise. He'd return home later to care for his wife and agonize over the mountain of medical bills. He could file for bankruptcy, but he knew he'd lose not only his wife but his small business as well. 
SLOANE'S SNACKS was the only mom and pop vending machine company left in Queens.

Before he met Carmen, his business was his pride and joy. These days however, just a means to an end. At its height, SLOANE'S SNACKS profited two million a year with a fleet of seven trucks and twenty employees. When the law passed making junk food and soda almost forbidden, all of Tom's business slimmed. He still owned the warehouse and their apartment building, but they were the only tenants and he was the only one loading the truck, driving the route and collecting coins. The number of machines dropped just enough to keep the lights on in Carmen's room.

She grew agitated and thrashed about anytime it went dark. Tom empathized. He'd be disgruntled too, if he'd been plunged into a black solitude with little communication, besides muffled grunts. But he loved her all the same and knew the feeling was mutual.

As Tom entered their apartment he could already smell her from downstairs, a moldering fetid aroma. He realized he couldn't remember the last time he'd checked in on her or given her a bath for that matter. How long had it been? Tom feared his days blended together. Surely it hadn't been longer than a week at the most.

Under her room Tom installed a drain pipe that led to the downstairs kitchen sink. This drain became necessary when Tom realized Carmen's mobility was no longer possible. He ducked under it setting aside the soap, apple-sauce and put three of the four pork roasts in the fridge. He knew she'd be hungry but it would have to wait. Her body odor demanded tending. When he passed by her room, the one they'd reserved for a nursery, her stink repelled him.

"Gee whiz honey."

Tom bit his lip in disgust pressing onward for the upstairs bathroom to fill the five buckets with soapy water. He sat on the edge of the tub as water gushed out the spout. It needed to be hot, by the time he carted each bucket to her room the water would've begun to chill. Carmen never responded well to a cold bath, and He wanted to avoid anything extraneous tonight. Besides it was the little touches that reminded her of his commitment.

Tom let the water and his mind run. He remembered after their honeymoon Carmen expressing a desire for a baby. Tom was more than pleased to make his beautiful wife happy and relished every romp.

They tried for months.

Every time, Carmen checked her status she saw the same pink dash, like a sinister hyphen between their vows to each other and the family she wanted. She would go on for days, in distraught fits and rages. At the height of this despair, Tom often worried Carmen might leave him.

Except for lack of pregnancy, Tom considered their marriage comfortable, yet Carmen saw their inability to conceive as monumental.

They visited their physician, initial tests revealed nothing wrong on Tom's part, but Carmen's tests were inconclusive. At their physician's recommendation, the Sloane's submitted to the conventional treatments.

In vitro fertilization at the time cost ten thousand dollars a pop. Tom was happy to write the check, besides business boomed. Each IVF treatment, just a drop in the bucket and it pacified Carmen's growing anxieties. A happy wife doesn't guarantee a happy life, but it's a good start. However, after the eleventh failed treatment. Tom wanted to pursue other options.

So began their relationship with Dr. Fielding’s Fertility Clinic. Fielding suggested they try his new, unorthodox approach, the Athena Process. Tom's semen would be injected directly into Carmen's ovaries. During her cycle, at least one already fertilized ovum would drop into her uterus, partially formed. The Athena Process sounded like the right medicine for the Sloane's despite its ridiculous price.

Dr. Fielding warned the couple about minor side effects. Tom brushed this off as typical fine print, insisting on trying the Athena. Dr. Fielding stopped speaking and looked at Tom. Tom looked into Carmen's eyes, smiled and signed all waivers. After the two separate six-figure checks cleared, Dr. Fielding performed the twenty minute procedure.

"Only time will tell," Tom remembered the Doctor saying.

However, the month passed with no changes.

Dr. Fielding suggested they try again. Tom wasted little time writing a second set of checks, even though Carmen seemed less than enthused.

It’s a lot of money, honey,” Tom recalled her saying, although he couldn’t place his own response. He noticed a growing divide between them. Right around the time SLOANE’S SNACKS began tanking, Carmen spent less time at their apartment. He’d return to a dark home. No food in the kitchen. No wife by his side. She returned later with distance in her voice as she offered plausible excuses: a sick friend, et cetera. However Tom, certain of her duplicity, couldn't help harboring a suspicious heart. One day Tom lied about going to work. He waited around the corner and followed the taxi driving her into the city. To a high rise apartment. To him, her lover.

In the confrontation that followed, Carmen begged and pleaded for Tom to stop. He remembered how she swayed him from killing the other man. How pitiful she looked on her knees groveling and blaming herself. Oh, how she made promises, confessing nothing but love for Tom and only Tom. The gasping whimpers from her lover’s bloody body angered Tom, but when he looked into Carmen’s crying eyes he couldn’t help believing her. He told himself, this is just a bump in the road. What is a successful marriage without them?

Tom forgave her and contacted Dr. Fielding’s clinic. The doctor was hesitant, but Tom doubled the check’s amount and all parties agreed.

The month passed and finally the glorious day came when Carmen saw a pink plus sign.

She was pregnant.

When the Sloanes made their follow up, Fielding's expression seemed downright shocked. He breathed deeply and folded his hands across his desk.

"Please allow me to speak frankly. If I seem surprised it’s only because you’re the first successful patient who’s gone through the Athena."

"How many have you had?" Carmen asked.

"I'm not at liberty to say, as tests are ongoing. But I'm very happy for you. And everything looks normal."
***

Tom felt steam rising off the tub and began filling the buckets, remembering Carmen the night she found the first lump.

It appeared between her breasts near the end of the first trimester. Soft, squeezable and yet firmly rounded as if she'd grown a superfluous third breast. The Sloanes visited their regular physician who ordered a biopsy. The results came back negative for cancer, and the young physician stated that it was a benign tumor filled with healthy cells. He sighed at the couple then added, "I've never seen anything like it before…I don't really know what it is."

Since Carmen was pregnant, surgery would be put off until after delivery. Carmen became despondent over her tripled bust. Tom, try as he might, failed to soothe her. One morning, she awoke to find a new growth on her lower back. A week later, Carmen developed a pair on her abdomen. That morning, the Sloanes stopped by Dr. Fielding's for a sonogram, only to discover their fetus was abnormal. Small and embryonic, far behind schedule for the second trimester. Dr. Fielding sat there perplexed and muttered, "This just can't be."

"What, doctor?" Carmen asked.

Dr. Fielding parsed for the correct explanation, "The fetus has regressed to an even earlier stage of development. It appears to be a zygote again--"

***

Tom lined the buckets of water outside Carmen's room. When Tom pressed on the knob, the door didn't budge.

A streak of anxiety rippled across his face. How could she lock the door from inside? Tom leaned in and pushed, hearing the hinges give and squeal. He felt strange pressure from the other side. He pushed again and the door inched open a crack, a sliver of light splashed from the top of the doorway. Tom stepped back realizing to his horror what blocked the door. At once he saw the entire awful picture. He didn't bother asking himself why. He'd known all along that eventually something like this could, nay, would happen.

The night Dr. Fielding died, he called to explain his hypothesis. The Athena had accelerated her fertility and ovulation beyond a quantifiable measurement. Now, Carmen's ovaries, literally contained hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs that, bombarded her womb every day. This state of constant ovulation, forced her body to reject each old fetus for the new one. But instead of passing them normally, her body absorbed the growing child inside her. Which led Dr. Fielding to conclude, the tumors which emerged at an alarming rate, were in fact fetal manifestations. And worse, she would soon be overtaken. The only way to reverse the condition, required a full hysterectomy. This meant they could never have children of their own.

Tom pressed harder against the door and the crack inched open. His fingertips brushed against the flabby flesh that spilled out of Carmen's stinking room.

"She must've fallen over," Tom told himself picturing her body breaking free of the tresses and moorings he'd installed, ”Carmen!"

Tom moved a knee into the works heaving into the room, barricaded by Carmen. Her swollen blob-like skin seeped into the hallway. Tom knew he needed to find her face. He needed to check her airway was clear. Tom chucked a hand against her loose billowy body. Tom felt its soft dampness as he clamored his head through the crack and scanned the room.

A sea of naked flesh rippled from wall to wall almost reaching the ceiling.

"Carmen!"

He gripped a fold pulling himself through, crawling delicately across her, sticking his hand in every crease looking for any sign of her hair or her face, but the roomful of sore-covered skin offered no clues.

Carmen was everywhere, and yet she was nowhere to be found.

He traversed this epidermal landscape and slid off to a rare square of floor. On his feet he 
muscled under her frameless form as this heavy ocean engulfed him.

The smell was worse than ever before, as he crept in the reddish dusk of her body. After much pushing he pressed on, finally finding an eyebrow. He knew the rest of her face was around somewhere. His mind reeled and he remembered, shortly before her body rejected her skeleton and grew out in all directions, the last full words she said that day.

"Please Tom, if we don't find a cure, please don't let me go on like this hideous--"

"You're not hideous," Tom said ignoring the fact that her forehead drooped over her eyes and her cheeks sagged past where her chin once firmly rested.

"I don't want to live like this…if there's no cure."

"Trust me my darling, Dr. Fielding and I won't let that happen."

At that point, Tom was in no condition to tell her the truth. That a patient's husband had rampaged into his clinic, and shot Dr. Fielding full of holes.

Tom could've taken her to see their regular physician for the operation, but he just didn’t do it. Besides if she had the operation, she'd never have children, and Tom couldn't bear the thought of her leaving him again.

Now he needn't worry.

Tom could not bring himself to admit this to her. And on the last day she was able to speak words, he assured her that he loved her and he'd never leave her. For that was the only truth that mattered then as it did now. He knew how lucky she was to have him as her husband, lover and caretaker. Not to mention, father of their children.

Tom navigated his way to her red mouth. The only part of her body that remained attached to her bones. Tom quickly realized she was not breathing. It was too cramped to attempt CPR or any other lifesaving measure.

Carmen was gone.

Tom was too late.

He took her misshapen face and held it close to his own. He was seized with grief. But this grief, quickly dissipated into anger, when Tom realized they weren't alone. Somewhere under the vast corpus of his wife, he heard the tiny muffled coos of another one of those things.

Tom frantically pushed and plodded until he found the source of the noise. And there, bloodied on the floor lay an infant girl still attached to an expelled placenta.

Tom cursed it madly before collecting it and pushing his way out from under Carmen's dead girth into the hallway. He cut the umbilical cord and swaddled it in a dish rag, just like he done for all the others, and made his way to the bathroom.

As he twisted on the cold water, He remembered fondly that first one, so many years ago and how unprepared he was for it. It appeared normal, but Tom knew better. This little pink thing twitching in his hands. Its little toes and fingers fanning out in a state of newborn shock. And then he remembered the noise. The god-awful screams of this tiny creature. And Carmen, his poor dear Carmen, unable to hold the thing or breast feed it, or help Tom in anyway. How she just lay there, propped against the wall in her room. He remembered looking down at the first one with awed disgust, and how much he hated it.

For that small parasitic life form had destroyed his wife.

He remembered how clumsily he disposed of that first one, which Tom recalled distinctly as male. A year would pass before he stopped keeping records of boys and girls. By then he'd fully embraced the proceedings.

The parasites arrived once every two weeks.

Some arrived in pairs.

With Carmen's care his top priority, there was no room in Tom's life for these other things that kept falling out of her. She needed uninterrupted attention, and Tom was more than happy to provide for her, as he'd always done. He was not, however, willing to suffer these horrid creatures any longer than needed. Tom would've preferred to drag out their deaths for he knew, they deserved to suffer, just as they made his wife suffer. But their mere presence aggravated him and he wanted rid of them as soon as possible, so he drowned these horrible things in cold water. The furthest thing from a mother's warm womb.

Tom became very skilled at carrying out the process, and found that it gave him a thrill like no other. He felt like a superhero or Carmen's very own white knight, gallantly arriving and slaying the screaming demons. Once the little things stopped moving, their executioner, would bury their remains in the cellar. Just another set pattern in the routine of his life. No different than brushing one's teeth or picking ticks off the family dog.

Tom placed the stopper in the drain. The lime encrusted spout droned out any audible noise from the bundle of cloth on the tiles.

The water rose and rose. He moved a hand through the water to check the temperature. Satisfied, Tom twisted off the tap. He collected the thing, stood above the tub and submerged his charge in the water. He held her there counting the seconds, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three...Tom enjoyed watching the life float out of these vermin. He gazed down at the thing under the water and smiled triumphantly at his work.

Tom couldn't help but note certain similarities. The thing looked familiar. He knew in the genetic soup of the womb, each one was different and unique, yet all the same. This pest was particularly cunning, for it had developed certain features of its mother.

A mother it would never know. A woman whose beauty was beyond compare. A woman who had loved Tom, despite everything and vowed to be his wife until death separated them. A sacred vow for a wife whom Tom cared for relentlessly over the years, forgiving all her transgressions. Who, now, was just a moldering lifeless blob.

Tom felt his arms slacken. His wrists relaxed. His fingers still clutched the evil thing, but his mind soared elsewhere. Tom's emotions swelled in him, as he realized that this baby, would be the last one ever. He’d never again feel the joy of being Carmen's champion. Slayer of her demons. Killer of her disease. Keeper of their vows.

Tom pressed forward, if it was going to be the last one, he needed to make it count. He was going to execute it with supreme malice. He stared with dagger eyes at the tiny thing in his hands. But it only smiled back at him from below the water's surface.

Twenty-five Mississippi…

The thing appeared calm.

Twenty-six Mississippi…

It glowed innocence.

Twenty-seven Mississippi…

She radiated love.

Twenty-eight Mississippi…

She looked just like--

Twenty-nine

Tom looked at the drowning child's face and realized that this need not be the last one ever. 

He'd need to change his routine, go on an extended hiatus, but in the meantime he'd have someone to care for. Not just anyone, but a newer version of--

He lifted the baby out of the water and patted her intently. The baby appeared to be unharmed by the ordeal. She held no grudge against him and breathed in a calm hiccuping rhythm. Tom looked over this child with awed amazement and christened her, Carmen, in honor of her mother.

He noted the small size of the child cradled in his arms. He counted ten fingers and toes. Two eyes and a very hungry mouth. To Tom, Carmen appeared healthy, which to any new parent is a moment of great relief. He was now, after waiting so many years, going to be a father. And he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would protect her from all the evils of the world, especially when the time came, for Carmen to have children of her own.

Carmen's delightful coos soon turned as she became visibly upset. He knew at once what his crying daughter needed, warm milk or formula. The pair headed for the door, but he stopped short of opening it.

Tom realized he couldn't go shopping with baby Carmen. The grocer would ask questions. He countered that he could present Carmen as a foundling, but then foster services would surely take her. He'd again lose his Carmen. She'd come of age never knowing anything about her parents and how they loved each other, and what lengths they went to bring her into this world. Then he thought of the basement and the buried treasures that they’d discover there.

"That just won't do."

Tom at once formed a plan. They would walk the twelve blocks to the warehouse, climb into the delivery truck and drive to the country where they would start a new life together. The city, after all, was no place to raise a family.

He lay Carmen on his bed, packing a bag with clothes. He paused for a moment outside her mother's door and thanked her for everything.

Then together they scrambled down the stairs and hurried towards the door. In this haste, he failed to see the flashing red and blue lights outside his windows. As he pressed the knob the doorbell rang. In one swift movement the door opened and Tom faced a bewildered cop on the stoop. A neighbor had phoned in a complaint about an awful smell coming from his apartment and they'd come to investigate.

The cop's bewilderment subsided instantly once the opened door emitted the rancid reek wafting from upstairs. He recognized at once the putridity of dead flesh and drew his sidearm. The neighbors crowded the sidewalk and whispers chattered amongst them, about the man who murdered his wife.

Tom stood smiling in the doorway, unflappable as always, and displayed baby Carmen to the onlookers. Then beamed with pride at the policeman and said, "We couldn’t be happier. She's what my wife always wanted."

Monday, April 9, 2018

run, Jennifer, by doungjai gam

Friday evening at Shenanigans and happy hour is in full swing. Rob sighs when he sees the party of ten come roaring through the door, ablaze in their loud polo shirts and even louder blather.

Elizabeth comes over and drops her happy hostess fa├žade. "I'm sorry," she mutters. "Yours is the only ten top open."

"It's fine. The way my day's been going, how much worse can it get?"

"You really want me to answer that?" Their laughter reeks of bitterness.

After tending to his other customers, Rob grits his teeth and takes a deep breath before approaching the table. "Hey guys, welcome back to Shenanigans! I'm Rob and I'll be taking care of you tonight and—hey, Jennifer! Good to see ya."

"Hi Rob!" She gets up to hug him. She's the only one not wearing a company polo and she looks out of place in her dress slacks, blouse and pink highlighted hair.

"What are you doing hanging with these guys?" He points to her coworkers, hoping that his smile looks natural.

"I just started working with them a couple of weeks ago."

"Very nice."

"Rob is a friend of my brother Errick," she tells the group, who smile in utter fake interest while he takes their drink orders.

He hates judging people, but he's waited on this group before and they've never struck him to be anything more than empty suits who give out unwanted nicknames and crappy tips. Their polo shirts range from pale to bright red, all bearing their corporate logo.

Whether it's on the streets or in a cubicle seat, gang colors all the same.

As the evening rolls on, customers come and go but the raucous corporate party sticks around, drinking and occasionally snacking on a half-price appetizer. He brings Jennifer another beer and tries not to glare at the guy next to her, a blond dudebro whose hands like to roam. Rob's seen him in here many times with his coworkers and on dates, never with the same woman twice. Kevin, he's sure his name is. Rob sees Kevin's hand on Jennifer's knee, inching up ever so slowly. She looks uncomfortable but none of her coworkers seem to notice or care.

She excuses herself and damn near runs to the bathroom, purse in hand. Rob overhears her coworkers talking as he reads the specials to the table next to them.

"What is with the pink hair?"

"She's an odd one. Did you see what she was eating for lunch the other day?"

Then the dudebro chimes in, his voice grating: "Don't be talking about my girl Jenny like that."

His declaration is met with "Dude, you wish!" and much laughter. He responds with, "You just wait, you just wait" on a loop as if repetition will make it true. He hears them call out to him, "Hey Roberto, we're thirsty!" and ignores them.

On his way back to the kitchen Rob runs into Jennifer.

"Hey." She smiles. Her face is pale and one hand clutches at her stomach.

"You okay?"

She shakes her head. "I feel. . . off. Anxiety's kicking in hard."

"Nice bunch of coworkers you have."

"They're not my type, especially…" She trails off, leaving Kevin's name unspoken.

"If you don't feel good, you should go home. Fuck 'em."

After a moment's thought, she reaches into her purse and gives him a fifty. "Can I pay my portion now? I'm going to go back and tell them I'm not feeling well."

"Sure thing." He cashes her out and writes two words on her twenty. When he brings her change over he hands it to her so that the message is visible. She looks at it and nods, handing him a healthy tip.

"It was so great to see you, Rob. I'll see you soon." She hugs him and whispers, "Thank you."

Kevin stands up too quickly and wobbles. "I'll walk you to your car."

"I'm fine, thanks." She gives Rob's hand a quick squeeze before dashing away.

While the corporate schlubs razz on Kevin's failure, Rob heads to the bathroom. It's another hour until his shift is up but he can't wait that long. Happy hour is long over and the bar is quieter now. While he washes his hands, someone bangs on the door. "Be right out," he says.

The second he unlocks the door it flies open and whacks him in the face. Stunned, he staggers back and sees Kevin's ugly sneering face looming in on him fast.

"Motherfucker," Kevin says as he locks the door.

"The hell, man?" Rob tries to maintain his friendly waiter face but that mask is melting fast.

"I saw what you wrote on her change. Who you want her to run from?" Kevin's in his face now, all loaded up on alcoholic swagger.

"You need to get out of my way. And once you're done pissing, don't even bother washing your hands. I want you to get the fuck out of here."

Kevin growls as he charges and knocks Rob back against the wall. Rob shakes his head and notices the other feeling around in his pockets for something. He takes advantage of this and grabs him by his overstyled hair and bashes the side of his head against the sink. The wannabe ladies' man slumps and falls to the floor. Rob pats the guy down and finds a switchblade and a vial of clear liquid in his pants pocket.

That piece of shit. He wonders how many of the ladies he'd come in with had fallen for his average looks and slobbering attempts to slide right in, and how many of them became another unwilling unknowing bedpost notch.

It takes all of Rob's might to not open the switchblade and finish the job. Instead, he grabs the bottle and dumps the contents straight down Kevin's wretched gullet. He immediately gags and coughs as he struggles to get up off the floor. He grabs him by the hair again and slams his head into the sink – once, twice, and one more time for good measure. Finally the sonuvabitch goes quiet.

Rob pokes his head out of the bathroom and sees no one around. Working as fast as he can, he grabs Kevin underneath his arms and lifts him. He drags the guy down the hall past the kitchen to the back door. Once outside, he bangs his head one last time against the side of the dumpster and shoves him in through the door. He considers closing it, but if it's open it could look more like an accident, that in his inebriated state he could have been looking for a place to get steady and then—whoops.

He wouldn't be the first drunk that ended up in their Dumpster.

Rob heads in, making a stop at the bathroom to fix his hair and make sure the scene is clean. He curses when he spots a cell phone under the sink—how did I miss that before? The lock screen photo is a terrible selfie of the scumbag with a girl who is all teeth and mascara. He powers the phone down and rushes back outside. All is quiet in the dumpster. He wipes it down before tossing it in the trash and walking back in.

One last bathroom check and now all is good. He starts for his section only to be stopped by Elizabeth.

"Your ten top is demanding their check."

Rob readies their check and puts on his best smile as he hurries over, where they're sloshed and laughing about who knows what.

"Hey, have you seen our friend? This guy here." One of them motions at the empty chair next to him. "He went to the bathroom and he hasn't come back yet."

He pretends to think. "I'm pretty sure I saw him heading out the back door. He looked like he needed some fresh air."

They laugh at this and talk over each other:

"Fucking Kevin."

"He's probably trying to skip out on the bill."

"I'll cover his beers. . . he owes me for this."

They pay their check and predictably leave a terrible tip. Rob watches them from the bar as they leave. A couple of guys go around back. Rob waits for something—a scream, any of them to come rushing back in demanding justice, a blast of sirens.

But nothing comes.

Monday, April 2, 2018

And They Shall Take Up Serpents, fiction by Chris McGinley

There were no pews to speak of in the Coombs County Holiness Church. But in and amongst the folding chairs were some newly made pine benches that counteracted the moldy smell of the old cinder block building. Harlan and James sat together on one of them and watched the preacher testify. He held a pair of timber rattlers in each hand and boomed out scripture and admonishment. His hair was matted with sweat and his tie loosened. One of his shirttails had come untucked. Here and there, congregants convulsed and shouted proclamations. A few held snakes and howled streams of gibberish.

The boys had seen it all before.

"Preacher's puttin' on a good show today," Harlan said, just loud enough for James to hear.

James laughed through his nose. "You're too cynical, man. What's it to you if he believes in something besides oxycontin?"

Harlan smiled and revealed a dull silver cuspid. "Oh, you're a funny one, you are. You should consider a career in comedy."

"Someday," James covered his smile with his hand. "Stop now. We gotta do this thing."

When it was over the congregants lit cigarettes and piled into cars. A few stragglers and zealots hung around and talked with one another. A married couple hopped on an ATV and tore out onto the road, the fat wheels of the vehicle throwing gravel everywhere. With their Mountain Dews in hand, the boys waited by the church van to talk to the preacher.

"Now how's your momma, James?" The preacher lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up in the air.

"She's ok, Reverend. She's got the cancer, you know. But she said to tell you she's gonna make it back to church one of these days."

"You tell her I'm prayin' for her. And what about your daddy, Harlan? Has he been to that clinic like I told him?"

"Yessir, he has. They got him an oxygen tank and some medicine to help him breathe. Thank you, Reverend."

"By God," the preacher said, "Black lung. Coal keeps us and kills us, don't it?"

"Yessir," the boys answered.

"So, you wanna borrow the van, right?" the preacher asked, his cigarette bobbing up and down as he reached into his pocket for the keys.

"Yessir," James said. "We got all kinds of baseball equipment to move out of the gym and into the building by the field."

"Can't you use your pickup?"

"No, sir," Harlan answered. "We need something enclosed, something with lots of room. Otherwise we'll have to make four or five trips."

The preacher gave Harlan the keys and told the boys to be careful. Get the van back by tomorrow night, he said, and avoid the devil's temptations, by God.

They agreed to all the terms and James followed Harlan to his trailer in the pickup.

***


"Look at this goddamn piece of shit," Harlan said in the driveway.

James gave the van a once over, though he had seen it hundreds of times before in the church lot. The once white Econoline was hand painted in a wild mix of upper and lower case letters, covered in scripture and misspellings. They shall take up serpints. And if they drink any dedly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recuver.

"Could've used a proofreader," James said.

Harlan shook his head. "Look at the state of it. Has he ever thought to clean it out? What would the Lord think of this kind of tribute?" He pulled on a half pint of Early Times and handed it over to James. "Fuckin' fast food bags and cups all over the dashboard. By God!"

James laughed and pointed a finger at Harlan. "Mocking a man of the Lord. That's sinful, you." He pulled on the bottle and looked in the windows of the van. "Well, so long as it gets up up that mountain and back down, I don't care what state it's in. The whole point is cover. Cops ain't gonna stop a church van."

"Yeah, let's hope so. And we'll need to move the baseball stuff afterward. To make it look good. Make sure Coach knows we're doing it, too."

"That part's easy," James said. "I just want to get up on that hill, get the shit, get it to Jubal's, and get paid."

"Damn straight," Harlan said.

Inside the trailer, Harlan's father sat on a La-Z-Boy and watched a game show. A tv tray of remote controls, a spit cup, and a vial of prescription pills sat within reach. There was a stack of official-looking letters from doctors and the insurance company, all demanding money or referencing some previous dispute. There were explanations of denials for coverage and urgent declarations of past due dates and actions to follow. Harlan had been reading them for years. Once he even wondered if the same person had written all of them. Each one sounded exactly like the next. The old man's oxygen tank sat on the floor on a little hand truck with wheels, though the only traffic it ever got was to and from the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. He said something to the boys that got lost in the oxygen mask and they nodded. Thirty years in a deep mine and fighting the insurance company for the last fifteen to see if he could buy another ten. That was his story. There were a lot like it around there.

"You need anything, Dad?" Harlan asked.

He lifted the mask long enough to say, "I need you to stay away from drugs is what I need."

Harlan rolled his eyes and slumped down on the couch with James. They passed the bottle back and forth. Then it was Harlan's dad who rolled his eyes.

"It ain't drugs, Dad. Just a little snort now and again. Good for a man," Harlan said.

Lifting the mask, his father hissed, "You got to live righteous."

"Yup, tryin' to. We just got back from church, matter of fact."

Harlan's father nodded an approval and the three of them sat there, the game show blaring, until Harlan judged enough time spent to justify a departure. "We're gonna go out, Dad. You need anything?"

Harlan's father shook his head and extended his hand in a gesture that nearly made James cry every time he witnessed it. Harlan rose and took the old man's bony hand. He held it in both his own and rubbed it gently, his fingers going over the collapsed veins that ran under the paper thin skin full of liver spots. Finally, he kissed the old man's hand and placed one of his own on the back of his father's neck, giving it a little squeeze.

It was the same thing his father used to do when Harlan was just a little boy.

***


At around 4:00 a.m., there was no one else on the mining road. Still, Harlan drove carefully, and though the boys passed a pint of whiskey back and forth, they took only tiny sips. "A little for courage," James said. Harlan slowed to navigate a hairpin on the steep slope.

"What are you gonna do with your share?" Harlan asked.

"Don't know. My mom's behind on rent, again. So help out, I guess."

"Where you gonna say you got the money, dumbass?" The van slowed as it climbed the narrow mountain road, and something in the back slid and banged against the rear doors. "What was that?" Harlan said.

James turned to look but he couldn't see anything. "Not sure. Nothing important. Drive on, Jeeves." He looked in the back again, but didn't see anything. Then he said, "Where do I say I got the money? She knows better than to ask that these days. What you gonna do with yours?"

"Two words, my friend. Oxy Contins."

The boys laughed and James said, "Was it you who done the lettering job on this van?"

Harlan chuckled, "I will try to pay some of them medical bills. But it's a losing battle, you know? Fuckin' coal company. The guy worked, like, 30 some years, and the insurance is refusing to pay for half the stuff he needs."

"The system's fucked. All of Appalachia is fucked, actually. I can't wait to get outta here someday."

"Yup. Someday. That's what they all say."

"Tell you what," James said. "The day my dad died, I declared war on the company. On all coal companies, I mean. That's why I don't mind stealing from them. I'll use the money I steal to get the hell out of Kentucky once and for all. It's justified theft, way I see it. You oughta see it that way, too. Your dad is going the same way mine did, not to be morbid. Same stuff, though. Black lung, the respirator, the drugs, the letters from the insurance agency. Same stuff I saw for years. My old man dying was a blessing, in a way. Fuck this place. Fuck coal."

In the preacher's voice Harlan said, "Coal keeps us and kills us." He took a sip of the whiskey and passed it over to James. The van leveled out on a stretch near the top of the mountain and picked up a little speed. "So, I'm justified in stealing this shit because of my dad's situation, you're saying?"

"Damn straight," James answered. He took a sip of the whiskey.

"Good to know. You think the judge will go for that if we get arrested?"

James laughed in spite of himself, "Don't even joke about something like that."

Harlan slowed down as they neared the outbuildings furthest from the strip site. "Seriously, though. I'm with you. If I could leave today I would. But I can't. Not just because of my dad."

"Why, then?" James asked.

Harlan capped the whiskey bottle and slowed the van to a crawl, craning his neck and scoping the area. "Well, I don't know where I'd go or what I'd do. I mean, when we finish school. If we finish, that is, what are we gonna do with high school degrees? I don't know anyone outside of these hills. Do you? And you know something else? Everybody we know who left this place has come back. Every godddamn one. Hill folks are like fish out of water anywhere else. It's crazy, but I don't think I could make it outside these hills."

"You're not making it now, Coal Miner's Daughter. We gotta steal to pay our parents' rent and medical bills. This is one fucked-up cycle we're in. We need to get out, boy."

"Yeah, maybe. Look, let's get this done. We'll talk about it later." Harlan scoped the area again and pulled the van close to one of the outbuildings. "That's the one Jubal said's got the tools and the saws. We grab those, rip out the wiring, and we're outta here. Let's go." He opened his door.

"Hold up," James said.

"What?"

"Let's just listen for a minute. We haven't done anything yet. We ain't in trouble. So just listen. See if you hear anything first."

"What the fuck are you talking about, man? There's nobody up here."

James took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. "You know, there's supposed to be a haint up here."

Harlan laughed. "Jethro, there ain't no such thing. Jesus, you do need to get out of these hills."

"I'm just sayin', let's be careful. There's been some accidents up here. Jubal said one of the guys he used to work with saw a haint one night, just as the sun went down, and the dude got his neck broke out here the very next day. He said she attacks the workers because of what they're doing to the mountain. She comes outta the woods. That's the story, anyway. That's what Jubal said. Lots of guys getting hurt on this site."

"Hellfire, a tree-hugger haint. Wonder what the preacher would think of that? It's a woman? Is she, like, a hippie? Good-looking, did the guy say? Before he broke his neck, I mean?"

"Fuck you. Let's go." James unscrewed the bottle and took a long pull. The boys opened the back doors of the van.

"Shit! This is what we heard before," James said, pushing aside a low wood box. "A fuckin' snake box." He moved closer to get a good look. "And there's snakes in it. Goddamn preacher. Leaves them in the van."

"I didn't see anything back here before," Harlan said.

"Must've been under the bench," James answered. At the disturbance, one of the snakes sounded its rattle, a long hiss that rose and fell, then rose and fell again.

"By God," Harlan said. "It's Satan's work we're doin'. The snake's trying to tempt us."

The boys laughed as James sat a heavy tire iron on top of the box. Their gear in hand now and headlamps on, they moved away. Jubal had a key made of the outbuilding and the boys were in quickly. They found the tools in a storage room and made several trips to the van. Once Harlan hauled out the copper wire, they broke a window on Jubal's instructions and headed to the van. It was a done deal.

But Harlan thought he heard something when he tossed the wire and his tools in the the back of the van. "What the fuck was that?" He flipped on his head lamp and the two of them looked toward the trees just beyond the access road into the site. A shock of long white hair flew out from behind the large trunk of an elm and disappeared again.

"Shit! Did you see that?"

"I sure as hell did," said James. "Let's get outta here. C'mon, hurry up with that shit."

As Harlan tossed in the bag of tools the hiss of a rattler startled him. "Shut up, you." When he moved to close the van doors, the the snake got him on the hand. "Goddamn!" he yelled.

"Fuck," James said. A lone rattler slithered down onto the pavement and headed in the direction of the tree line. The other snakes in the box began to hiss all at once. "Goddamn. Did he get you deep?" James asked. "He must've got out when the box slid against the door. Shit. Is it a deep bite? Is it a dry bite, or wet?"

"Hell if I know," Harlan said. "Motherfucker!" Fear was rising in him and he started to sweat.

"I'll drive," James said. "We gotta get you to the clinic. They got anti-venom there, don't worry, brutha. I saw a med kit in the building. Let me get that first. Gotta put a bandage on it. Let it bleed for a few minutes, though. Be right back. You're gonna be ok, man. You gotta breathe slowly. Take deep breaths. Don't accelerate your heart rate."

James ran toward the outbuilding, got inside with Jubal's key, ripped the med kit from the wall, and headed back to the van. Harlan was gone. James looked around and called for him, but got no answer. He felt the sweat falling in beads from his temples and he could hear his own heartbeat in his ears.

Then there was a muffled sound that came from the woods across the access road. James flipped on his headlamp and rushed over. When he got close he thought he saw some movement deeper into the woods where he heard something rustling in the brush. There was another sound, too, like a bobcat's wail, but lower, more guttural. He thought he saw a flash of white moving deep in there.

For an hour he looked for Harlan, first walking in the woods, and then driving the van all over the site and calling out his name. But when he saw the first signs of light in the sky, he knew he had to go. He told himself over and over that no one dies from a snakebite, and that surely Harlan would have enough sense to say nothing about the robbery when they found him.

Eventually, he made it to Jubal's and unloaded the gear. He didn't bother with details, though, just said that Harlan had to get home to his daddy. He took Harlan's cut for him and Jubal knew enough about the friends that he didn't suspect anything shady. The next day, James moved the baseball equipment with the assistant coach and returned the van. It was only later, when Harlan didn't turn up, that Jubal began to wonder about James' story. But what could he do, except wonder? He sure as hell couldn't go to the cops and explain that the boys were up on the strip site and that they should search for Harlan there.

Strange as it was, though, it wasn't the cops that Jubal was most worried about. "That goddamn haint," he said to himself. "Damn that goddamn haint."

***


At some point, Harlan finally fell down at a spot deep in the woods. And that's where it happened. There was definite pain, a hard throbbing in his hand and arm. But there was something else, too, a feeling not exactly like the oxy he loved so much, but more like that acid he took that time with James. He lay on his back in the leaves and looked up through the tree canopy. The light was coming in pale patches and he thought he felt the sun on his skin. But now his breathing seemed to come easier and he began to feel a heightened sense of things. There was the raw smell of the wet earth, and now and again the sound of a red-tailed hawk somewhere nearby. Harlan let himself take it all in. He was no longer worried, even when the timber rattler sounded somewhere close to him. Then, just before he went out, he was sure he saw her. She stood above him, naked and covered in splotches of dried black earth, her wrinkled breasts hanging flat against her torso and her skin sagging at the joints. The knees were rubbed raw and trails of blood, dried to almost black now, ran down the shins and over the feet. The last thing he remembered was the snake. It had begun to slither up her leg, but she took no notice. The sound it made now was deafening.

***


Harlan's body was never found and James never got out. Years later he was still working at the welding and metal fabricators' shop where he got on after high school. But it seemed like they were always cutting into his hours. Once in awhile he would run into a miner who knew someone who supposedly saw the boy haint. It was always second and third-hand stuff, though. Inevitably, the story ended with an injury to someone on the mining site where the boy was seen. Some people thought the sites were cursed, and, supposedly anyway, some miners wouldn't even work them, though James never met any such person. He always listened to the stories, politely, expressing wonderment at all the appropriate places. But he tried not to give the story much mind.

Still, he had a tough time of it when someone would mention the haint's scar, one that ran from fingers to elbow. The telltale sign of a snakebite.