Monday, July 8, 2019

The Whores Go Down With the Stars, fiction by Sarah Jilek

I wait in the hotel lobby while June blows him. We usually give them the option—me, the ballerina-small brunette, or June, the thick, tall blonde, panther tattoo wrapped around her muscled thigh. She sometimes falls asleep with that thigh, that jewel-eyed panther, draped over my hips.

The clock on the wall above the spectacled receptionist reads 6:23 PM. It doesn't take thirty-two minutes to suck someone's cock. Something's wrong.

I push my cuticles back with my thumbnail. I keep accidentally making eye contact with the receptionist, who's reading a book called The Power of Today. A big, red-lettered quote on the back cover reads, “This book made me realize my own invincibility!” She smiles awkwardly every time our eyes meet. Honey, I want to tell her, stroking her straw-blonde hair, there is so much more than this middle-of-nowhere nothing Illinois town. At the edge of the horizon, past the sunset, there is a shining desert beacon, a glimmering oasis by the sea. That’s where I’m going: to the land of palm trees and pep pills. I’m going to be a star.

I stand and walk to the elevator, pacing in front of it. I can't go up there. It could turn bad and he could leave and not pay, and then we'd never get to L.A., would never rise from our warm haven of West Hollywood bedsheets to clink mimosa glasses together at the Ivy.

Instead, June wouldn’t talk to me for days. When we’d stop for gas and I’d ask her what she wanted from the convenience store, she’d just keep staring at the pump instead of me. I’d buy her a thirty-two-ounce raspberry slushie and it would turn, untouched, to warm blue syrup.

I bite off my thumbnail and spit it onto the tile. What is taking so long?

My finger hovers over the elevator button, but I drop my hand, sighing. A boy squeals nearby, startling me, then bolts around the corner. He’s maybe six or seven, wrapped in a wet hotel towel, hair spiked. He smells like chlorine. His slim, acne-scarred mother follows him, staring at her phone. The boy presses the button, jumping in place, and when it dings, the mother glances up. I give her a thin smile, and, after a second's hesitation, she smiles back. She holds an arm out to block the door from shutting.

“Oh, no, that’s—” I blurt out, shaking my head.

“Oh, okay,” she replies. The boy wraps his arms around her waist and presses his damp face into her stomach. She smooths down the spikes in his hair, a calm smile washing over her face. Is she remembering how she used to hold her baby? As the door slides shut, her eyes flash to mine. Me, the awkward, pacing woman in the hotel lobby. She knows exactly what I do.

I inspect my blurry reflection in the door, combing through my dark hair with my fingers and wiping the smudged mascara from under my eyes. I take a deep breath, running my tongue over my straight teeth and practicing my angles, my soft smiles and my grins. The crack between door panels bisects my thin face, warping it: the left side smooth, smiling, but the right side sagging, dissolving into smudged ripples.

My stomach sinks, and I punch the button and climb onto the elevator, which smells like old cigarettes and lingering chlorine. June is probably fine, but at least I can listen outside the door for the usual sounds: the strangled grunting that means he’s about to cum, or the soft moans June sometimes makes to hurry it along, the ones that send a twinge between my legs.

The door opens on the third floor and I get out, my heart pounding. As I approach room 308, my steps silent on the teal geometric carpet, I feel like I'm sneaking into my sister's room to read her diary, find out about the sex with her high school boyfriend, my eyes scanning too fast to understand—tongue, pressure, dried cum in my underwear— and my cheeks burning.

Two more rooms to go. I lean against the wall, stepping slowly. An angry bark. I freeze, inhaling sharply. A woman’s shriek. I swallow, holding my breath. June can handle it. She once pulled her neck knife on a guy who grabbed her ass at a Quick-Stop. Almost got us arrested. She keeps that knife under every hotel pillow.

A loud thud. Another. A sound like heavy clapping. It’s skin hitting skin, I realize. I'm frozen, stuck to the wall, still holding my breath. I take a few steps, then stop again. The fluorescent strip of light above my head flickers.

"Stop," a small, tame voice pleads. It takes me a second to realize it's June. Grunts and a whimper on the other side of the wall. The door— 308, staring me in the face.

I could go back downstairs. Creep back the way I came. If June can't fight him off, what's my skinny ass supposed to do?

More grunts and thuds, something smashed. A sob. Another.


My key card is slippery in my hand. My thumb oozes blood where I bit off skin.


I push the card in and shoulder open the door. It's dark in the room, the hallway light cutting a triangle onto the carpeted floor.

The man stands at the foot of the bed, pants around his ankles, his bare ass pale. He turns toward me, squinting. June lies on her back beneath him, wrists bound with something— a zip tie? He's holding the room phone above June's head, his arm ready to swing down, the receiver dangling, brushing her bare stomach. The phone’s shadow hangs long and dark on the wall.

June meets my eyes—hers wet and bruised—and blinks. Her mouth moves, and she rolls slightly to the side beneath the man's body, uncovering a corner of the pillow.

The knife. I run to the side of the bed and dive onto it, fumbling under the pillow. I grab the handle—hard, cold wood, and something slams into the side of my face, knocking me off balance and off the bed. The hard plastic block of the phone. My ear rings—I'm deaf. Hot pain stings my ear and cheek.

I face him, holding the knife, his fat, sweating face still shocked. A strange, whistling rattle fills my head and it hits me what I’m about to do. June half-gasps, half-sobs, and I stick the three-inch blade into his gut, watch his jaw go slack. He raises the phone again and I put up my left hand and knock it away, stabbing again and again and twisting the knife, my face still burning, my ears still rattling.

He grunts and coughs blood into my face and onto June, gurgling. It tastes like hot metal. Like a fever. I keep stabbing him, spit pooling at the corners of my open mouth, until he slumps forward on top of June.

I pant, adrenaline pounding in my chest. My ear rings. The air conditioner rattles in the corner. I realize only now that it’s what I was hearing the whole time.

I help June shove off his body. She looks down at her black bra soaked in blood. I let out a sigh and cut through the zip tie binding her wrists. They’re marked with red. She sits up, wiping her face, smearing blood over her nose and mouth. I swallow, holding up my hands.

"Look, I fucked up," I say, my voice breaking. "It was too long—"

She kisses me hard on the mouth. She tastes like sweat, like his sour skin. I lean in.

8:02 PM

At the hardware store, we lift everything from the cart onto the belt: a 64-pack of Hefty garbage bags, a huge Bissell steam-cleaning vacuum, a gallon jug of bleach, a bucket of Rug Doctor carpet cleaner, a Libman Wonder Mop and three empty five-gallon buckets, a jug of Certol International bathroom cleaner with hydrochloric acid, two Craftsman claw hammers, two Ace twelve-inch hacksaws, and a five-pack of Craftsman carbon steel pliers.

June walks to the cashier ahead of me, reaching for the dead man’s trifold leather wallet full of cash in her back pocket. Her wet hair smells like lavender shampoo from the shower we took together. I remember the softness of the skin under her eyes, how her eyelashes brushed my thumb when I wiped blood from that spot under the hot water. I reach out and hook that thumb into her belt loop. She turns, startled, her mouth open.

I glance at the cashier. He’s maybe in his early twenties, with a stubbly half-goatee and spaghetti-noodle arms sticking out of his black polo. His eyes flit between my finger in June’s belt loop, the heap of stuff we picked out, and the cash-filled wallet. My left ear pulses, ringing again. June gives him an awkward smile, standing up straight so that her tits lift and her nipples show under her tanktop. She has crazy eyes, though, and the cashier doesn’t even glance at her tits. That’s never happened before. He hesitates, hand hovering over the mop handle, then glances over his shoulder to the other register, where his red-polo-clad manager has his back turned to us.

I reach across the belt for a red lollipop from the impulse-buy rack and tear off the wrapper. The sudden motion makes him pause, and I stick the lollipop into my dry mouth—sickly cherry. I suck on it, twirling the stick around, then pull it out of my mouth with a wet pop. I give him my best soft smile, making sure that it reaches my eyes— a romantic comedy smile; a girl-next-door smile.

He blushes and starts scanning.

11:12 PM

“We’ll have to flush him,” June says as we stand over the unmelted body in the tub.

We filled it up with the acidic bathroom cleaner, poured it thick and pale green over the pudge of his stomach, into the gaping stab wounds, across the patches of wiry hairs on his chest. We watched a House Hunters marathon on HGTV, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the pile of bloody sheets. June said House Three’s mint-green retro fridge didn’t go with the granite countertops. I disagreed: a pop of color was just what the kitchen needed, especially with all the natural light. As we watched, the sun set behind the curtain and the bathroom fan whirred behind the closed door. Every so often, a whiff of searing citrus fume made my eyes water and my nose run.

Dissolving his body didn’t work, and June says we can’t risk carrying him out—too many cameras. We have to cut him up in tiny pieces and flush those pieces down the toilet.

“Checkout time is noon. We’ve got just about twelve hours,” June says. She hands me a hacksaw and a hammer and gets to work sawing, the muscles in her tanned, confident arm pulsing. I can barely breathe in the bathroom, but we can’t open the door. I stare at myself in the mirror as she saws back and forth, at my Beatles t-shirt hiked up over my nose and mouth. I look funny with the tools—the hammer’s too heavy for me to hold without my arm shaking. June’s sawing is rhythmic, and I wiggle my eyebrows along with it, raising one eyebrow and then the other as the blade works back and forth.

Then June holds out an arm to me by the wrist. Blood drips from the sawed-off end, just below the missing elbow, onto my white ankle sock. My gut churns. June wiggles it around, like, we don’t have all day, the limp fingers flopping against her hand. I set down the hammer on the bathroom counter and grab the forearm. It’s cold and sticky from the bathroom cleaner. My thumb stings where I bit off the skin hours ago. We forgot to buy rubber gloves. In the mirror, I hold the arm, blood dripping into the sink. I meet my own eyes, hold them, and take a deep breath. It’s a new role, I tell myself. A role I’ve been practicing for. The role of a lifetime.

I lay the arm on the bathroom counter, hold down the wrist with my left hand (try not to think about the pulse that used to pound there), and cut into the skin with the hacksaw. The blade bites in easily, blood blooming onto the metal teeth and spraying onto the white laminate counter. I work the saw back and forth until it hits bone with a horrible scrape that jars my wrist. I glance at June, who has the other forearm already resting on the rim of the bathtub, palm up, and is at work on the left upper arm, her jeans rolled up around her ankles.

I lean into the blade, sawing with all my might, splinters of bone flying, embedding themselves into the skin of the arm and into my raw hand. I keep sawing, the smell of blood and chemicals pressing in on me, wet and sharp. The friction gives off the stench of warming meat. My eyes water and snot leaks from my nose and over my lips, tasting salty. Every now and then I wipe the blade on a bath towel to clean the teeth of muscle, fat, and bone shards. My left ear throbs, ringing intermittently.

I drop small pieces of him into the toilet, flushing it as I go: first and second thumb joints, first ring finger joint, whole pinky. His cock, taken from June and chopped into three pieces after I caught her staring at the severed thing bobbing up and down in the bathwater. Eventually I have a system down, and June and I are in sync. I imagine myself as the star of a thriller, camera focusing on the piercing blue of my eyes, darting over the shining blade and the gleaming muscle and fat of the limbs. My slender fingers cracking ribs, blood and marrow flecking my forehead and eyelids.

I dump the rest of the foot I’ve been chopping into the toilet and flush it. The toilet sighs and stops with a clunk, and the foot chunks swirl in the rippling water. June’s head jerks up, pliers in her hand. She’s got a bunch of his teeth lined up on the bathtub rim.

“It won’t flush,” I pant, suddenly lightheaded.

She wipes sweat from her forehead with her upper arm.

“What do we do?” she asks me, glancing at the toilet, like I’m supposed to know.

“One of us needs to get a plunger from the front desk,” I say, and she looks down at her pliers, at their jaws covered in pulpy blood.

“Okay,” she says, nodding. My stomach sinks. I thought, like always, that she’d offer to handle the problem. But she’s already back to work, grasping a molar and yanking it out.

4:16 AM

The hallway air feels fresh and cool. I’m in my last clean outfit, a tight, butter-yellow minidress. I’ve put my hair up in a bun and covered it with a baseball cap to hide the flecks of blood on my scalp. I’m just a manic pixie dream girl, I tell myself as the elevator bell dings and I step on. They wear weird shit like this all the time. The elevator lurches to a stop, and my empty stomach rears up. I grab the smudged metal bar with a raw, red hand.

When the door slides open, I stroll to the front desk. The same receptionist is there, a steaming paper cup of coffee next to her; she’s nearing the end of her book. I think of everything that has happened above her head since she started it, and heat blooms on my cheeks.

She looks up as I approach and smiles. I smile, too, but it’s like I’ve forgotten how—my mouth jerks unnaturally, and my eyes feel too wide. I clear my throat, glancing over the desk at the upside-down book. “Nothing prepared me for the day I realized that I was invincible,” a sentence reads. The receptionist’s eyes are watery—is that from lack of sleep, or is it the book? Has it resonated with her that deeply? Has she changed?

I’ve been quiet too long. “Um. . . can I borrow a plunger?”

She frowns, staring at my arm. A clump of glistening flesh sticks to my bare bicep. My hand twitches to wipe it off, but I realize that I can’t. That to remove it would be to acknowledge it. So, I don’t blink. I will my eyes to water. Seize the day, I tell her with my eyes. You’re invincible. She searches my face, eyes widening almost imperceptibly behind her square glasses. My vision blurs. This is the most important thing you will ever do. Her mouth twitches, and her nostrils flare—does she understand? She purses her lips. Finally, she gives me a glorious nod.

4:21 AM

I can hear June laughing from outside the door to room 308. It’s a maniacal laugh, a deep chuckle punctuated by high-pitched cackles. The only other time I’ve heard her laugh like this was when she was stoned out of her mind at a porno theater in Nashville. But, no—even that laugh wasn’t this crazed. I slip in the key card and open the door, making sure the powder-blue “Getting Some Shut-Eye” sign stays in place.

When I open the bathroom door, the smells hit me again, harder than before. Shit and blood and acid and vomit (mine, in the sink). June squats in the tub, shaking with laughter. Tears roll down her cheeks. Next to her, two broken hacksaw blades and a gouged thigh.

I set down the plunger and crouch next to the tub. June giggles and takes a breath, exhaling hard. Her eyes are red and watery. For a second, I think she might be high, but I don’t smell weed. The panther on her thigh shrinks away from me, lips curled over its fangs.

“We’re fucked,” she says, wiping her nose and tapping the femur, her fingernail hitting the jagged groove she cut into it. Half of me wants to cry, too, seeing her like this. The new half, the half just born tonight, wants to smack her.

“No, we’re not.” I reach for the hammer on the countertop and hand it to her. She takes it, cradling it in both her chafed hands, sniffling.

“Come on,” I tell her. “It will be dawn soon.”

When the toilet finally flushes again, after I’ve plunged it for what seemed like an hour, I cry. We keep working. June pounds the bones with the hammer until they break. I use my hammer to crack the skull, prize it apart with the claw. I hold it over the toilet, let the brain leak and splash into the bowl, force down the gagging in my throat. It smells like sickly meat, like diseased fluids. I wonder which part of that brain wanted to smash June’s head with the phone. If there was a part that just wanted to cum in her mouth. I wonder how my brain looks, if I could glimpse that new half of me sparking inside it.

The last of the brain plops into the toilet, and there’s a rapid, hard knock on the door. I freeze, glancing at June, tear tracks oiling her cheeks. I’ve never seen her so scared.

I swallow. “It’ll be fine,” I whisper, my throat raw. “They’ll go away.”

But they knock again, three times, even harder. My whole body shakes. I set down the mangled, dented head on the counter.

“Don’t answer it,” June pleads, crouched in the tub, her eyes hooded and dark.

“We have to.” I flush the brain and then wrap my hair in one of the few clean towels buried in the stack. I wipe blood smudges from my cheeks and hands and leave the bathroom, shutting the door behind me. I change back into my minidress as another succession of knocks comes.

“Be right there,” I call, my voice wavering. I kick the pile of bloody sheets behind the bed, along with all the bags and packaging from the hardware store. The walk from the bed to the door is slow and sickening. I flick the lock and grab the cold door handle, licking my lips and tasting blood. I crack open the door, wedging myself in the doorway.

It’s a large man in a too-tight gingham button-down and khakis, with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist. He reminds me of the youth group leader at the Vacation Bible School my mom made me go to one summer. I smile sleepily at him.

“What is it?” I ask.

“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am, but according to some of the other guests, there’s a bunch of loud noise coming from this room,” he says, gesturing with his hands and then wringing them, pursing his lips at me like he’s sure he’s giving me a good scolding.

I tilt my head, feigning surprise, then nod slowly. “That must have just been the music. Sorry. My friend’s really into goregrind right now,” I say, shrugging. “We’ll try to keep it down.” The man narrows his eyes at me, glances behind me into the room. Can he see the bloody handprints on the bathroom doorframe? Is he explaining them away in his mind? He takes his walkie-talkie off the clip. What would June do? I keep myself firmly planted in the doorway, allow one smooth leg to jut out over the threshold, my toe curling on the hallway carpet. He glances at the ridged muscle of my flexed thigh, then nods, shifting uncomfortably, replacing the walkie-talkie.

“Well, good. Okay. If it gets loud again, I might have to—”

A deafening clatter from the bathroom. It sounds like June threw a goddamn hammer at the mirror or something. My ear starts its dizzying ring again. A cackle, then June starts singing. The man touches the door like he’s coming in. “The goldfish sing all night…” June sings. I almost back away, but I plant my feet and hold my ground. He frowns, lets his hand drop.

“What was that?” he asks.

June sings, “The whores—” then erupts into laughter again. It’s that poem she’s always mumbling—Bukowski? —but she’s never sung it before, much less to a made-up tune.

I shrug, pulling up the strapless dress so that more of my thighs are exposed and adjusting my tits beneath the top. His eyes linger there.

“My friend is a little bit drunk,” I say, grinning and rolling my eyes, looking him up and down, like, I’m a little drunk too—maybe enough to think you’re cute. “. . . go down with the stars. . .” June sings, stars long, low and melancholy.

I trail my finger down the doorframe—there’s caked blood beneath my fingernail.

He sighs, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. I’ve got him.

“Just try to keep it down,” he says. He actually winks. I give him a wink in return before slinking backward into the room and slamming the deadbolt.

11:26 AM

The vacuum whirs, its steam bathing my face. Dawn broke under the bottom of the curtain hours ago. The stained bedclothes rest in black garbage bags. I scrub the vacuum hose over the carpet, the sound of it deafening. On my hands and knees, I scan the floor for tiny specks, my lower back achy and sweating. June scrubs the wall and the fake headboard.

On one of the beige leaf patterns in the carpet, there’s a bell-shaped spot that won’t come out, no matter how hard I scrub. I sit back on my heels, sighing, and glimpse something black in the corner of my vision, at the foot of the bed. June’s sheathed neck knife. I pick it up, that cold wooden handle still bloodstained, and slip the lanyard over my head, tucking the knife under my Beatles T-shirt.

A tap on my shoulder startles me. June stands over me, staring at the door. I switch off the vacuum, my ears ringing in the sudden silence, and turn.

The hotel maid stands in the doorway, one hand on her cleaning cart, her mouth hanging open. She takes it all in: the half-scrubbed stains on the wall, the hulking garbage bags, the bare mattress, the trail of blood leaking out from beneath the bathroom door. She’s pale.

June doesn’t do shit but stare back at her. I scramble to my feet and hurry to the door, grab her warm hand and pull her in. The woman yanks her wrist free, her long braid swinging.

“Wait,” I tell her. I snatch the dead man’s wallet off the TV stand and fish out a handful of hundred-dollar bills.

11:57 AM

I wash my hands. The bathroom gleams white, the grout spotless. The toilet smells of bleach and lemon. The vacuum shudders to a stop in the bedroom. I come out and June unplugs it and stands, panting. All the blood smears are gone from the leaf-pattern beige carpet and the walls and the headboard. The sweating hotel maid tosses her sponges into her bucket of bleach water and loads it onto her cart. She leaves without a word, the cart’s wheels squeaking on the carpet. June gazes at me across the room and opens the curtain, filling the room with daylight. It’s blinding. Spotless.

We lift the garbage bags and our suitcases into the trunk of the Mustang, and June slams it shut. Outside, it’s cool, and a light breeze lifts our damp hair. It feels good. I pull her close—at first she resists, but then she relaxes, pressing her warm, chapped lips to mine. My chest swells. We both laugh.

We are hungry, so we drive to the Jewel down the road. June pushes the polished cart, and I walk in front of it as if in a dream, passing through aisle after colorful aisle, grabbing everything that looks good, my stomach rumbling. A hot rotisserie chicken, perfectly golden-brown. A pound of macaroni and cheese from the deli counter. Bunches of fat, black grapes. Jars of dill pickles and green olives. A tub of rainbow sherbet. Glazed chocolate doughnuts. A package of hardboiled eggs. Pistachio fluff, brilliantly green. Bags of ridged potato chips and bricks of cream cheese. Two-liters of cola and lemonade and grapefruit soda. A gallon of two percent milk. A can of cherry pie filling. A 24-pack of Miller Lite and a bottle of cabernet. A red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and, at a tiny kiosk right before the checkout line, like it was waiting the whole time, a bouquet of white roses.


I drive us to the forest preserve on the edge of town and we hike a quarter-mile uphill on the gravel trail to the scenic overlook, panting. Behind me, June complains about the straps of the plastic bags cutting into her sore hands.

There’s no one else at the top, I’m thrilled to find. We shield our eyes with our hands and gaze out over a rolling meadow that’s impossibly green.

I choose a spot in the shade of a massive sycamore tree. I lay out the tablecloth and we dig through the plastic bags, pulling out our feast. The heroines, battered and bruised, arrive at the glorious end of the film. The smell of the chicken makes my mouth water, and I pop open the plastic lid. We didn’t buy a corkscrew, so June uses her lighter to nudge the cork out of the bottle of cabernet. It pops, and she hands it to me. I take a long swig, the mouth of the bottle still warm from the flame. The rich wine runs down my throat, acidic and buttery, and warms my belly. I hand it back to her and dig into the chicken, twisting one of the legs loose.

It breaks, exposing the gleaming white knob of bone. The wine sloshes in my gut. The red-purple streaks in the wet meat, the crispy flesh. The sycamore leaves rustle overhead, and sunlight stabs the tablecloth, burns the red and white into my eyes. The blood-dark wine stains June’s teeth. The meat in my hand is warm. The mass of macaroni noodles, wet and tangled and sloppy. The dark clots of cherries rolling in syrup. June tears off a chicken wing and sinks her teeth into it, those wine-stained teeth scraping bone, tearing flesh. I run my tongue over my pearly teeth, remember her grinding his to powder with the hammer. How she pulled them from his pulpy, bleeding gums as expertly as a dentist.

I set down the chicken leg. June has stopped eating, too. She gazes at the bounty of food spread out between us, her throat working. At the sweating gallon of milk and the blinding sheen of the cream cheese packages. The panther’s ruby eye glares at me, its sleek body curled around her smooth, muscled thigh. June’s eyes are bloodshot, creased around the edges, as if one night has aged her a decade. I stare until I can’t bear to look at her anymore, and then I turn my head and gaze out at the wide green field, the neck knife pressing into my sternum. My left ear rushes and pounds. The sun’s so bright that it hurts, but I hold my eyes wide open, even though they water and ache. When I finally close them, my vision fills with acres of bleeding grass.

Sarah Jilek is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her novel, Jiada, was published by Indigo Sea Press in 2015. Her work has appeared in Switchblade Magazine, Alcyone Magazine, and in the Illinois edition of America’s Emerging Writers. She has read at Noir at the Bar in St. Louis, and at several other bars throughout Southern Illinois.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Mistress, fiction by Nikki Dolson

I am the mistress. See me lurk in the near dark. See that man walking into the suburban dollhouse—the guy in the good suit with the well-trimmed beard that is softer than you can imagine—he used to be mine.

He hasn't seen me yet. I’m parked a half block down the street. If he were to look this way though he would recognize me. I'm not in a wig or dressed in cat burglar black, head tucked into a balaclava. I'm in that blue dress he likes. The gun, a Beretta subcompact (a gift from a different boyfriend) is in my purse. The only concessions I've made to my task are the kitten heels I'm wearing and they have bows on the back. I check my lipstick and hair in the visor mirror and smile. If I get caught, I'm gonna look good for my mugshot.

See the mistress kill time by swiping left on the dating app she met him on. I see men hugging women in their profile pics. Couples looking for thirds. Men writing about wanting a long-term relationship but still listing casual sex under wants.

Left Left Left

Mr. Adulterer's profile had none of these things. There were only two pictures of him, each showed off his sweet smile and intense gaze. I got chills looking at his picture.

You're beautiful, he wrote to me. Gorgeous lips. I would like to do things to you. But first, you should let me buy you dinner.

So I did. Then I let him take me to his hotel room where he unzipped my blue dress then contorted my body in all the best ways. He is a talker and it was how he spoke to me, his voice low and smooth, that did me in. I felt the reverberation of his voice in me for days after.

He severed contact with me three weeks ago.

It's full dark now. His street is empty. All the luxury vehicles snug in their garages. Teacup dogs and the wives who own them, all drugged for the night. Often we met at his house. Glorious afternoons spent in each other’s company thrilled by the possibility his neighbors might see us. Sometimes we met in hotel rooms on the Strip. Rarely, we met at my apartment downtown. He didn’t like my place. “It’s too. . .something.” He meant it was too me. All my dresses and heels and pinup-girl style. I should have known he was about to end things.

I am the mistress. See me make to his house, peek through the windows and gaze into darkened rooms. His is a dollhouse of perfection. Everything just so. But a doll is missing. Where is his Mrs? I wonder if she’s left him. She did sound upset when I called her this morning. Upset but not surprised. All that matters is that he’s home alone right now.

The house doesn’t have an alarm but it does have a broken lock on the sliding glass door. He didn’t fix the lock because his wife nagged him about it. “As soon as she stops, I’ll fix it. Fifteen years of marriage, you’d think she’d know me. She doesn’t get me at all, baby. Not like you do.” Then he pushed me to my knees. Mr. Adulterer likes his mistress on her knees. I wonder how much time the Doll has spent on her knees in her perfectly appointed home. Did the cold seeping up from the kitchen floor tiles make her knees ache like it had mine?

I wonder how he will look on his knees.

I am the mistress. See me move silently from room to room on a path of artfully strewn rugs. I loop the kitchen twice and run fingers down the marble counters. I caress the stainless steel appliances. I peek at the laundry room. I wonder about the stack of half folded towels. I decide the Doll has left him. I nearly giggle but refrain. I wonder what he will say when he sees me.

I stop in the dining room and admire the cherry wood table with its eight place settings. Hundreds of dinners were eaten here while Mr. and Mrs. feigned happiness. I wonder how long he was married before he stopped being happy with her. I wonder if it was longer than the four months it took for him to get bored with me.

I hear a noise and press myself against the china cabinet, purse clutched to my chest. I hold my breath and listen. Again the sound. Panting? Like someone exercising, maybe? Mr. Adulterer suddenly worried about the extra pounds? Or perhaps he’s found a new playmate. I think of his last email to me after I begged to know why we were over. He wrote, It was just sex, baby, and you looked like you could use the attention.

I can’t wait to give him some attention.

I pull the Beretta and move quickly into the living room. The noise stops and so do I. It’s dark except for the television, which is on but muted. The back of his favorite chair is in front of me. His hand dangles off one side. I step onto the hardwood floor. My kitten heels tap-tap-tap as I walk around the chair but he doesn’t say a thing.

“Hello, love,” I croon as I walk around the chair then stop. She rises from her knees leaving the knife protruding from his belly.

I am the mistress, come face to face with the Mrs. The television bathes us in awful light. She is speckled with blood from pale face to bare feet. Her ballerina bun is perfectly messy. She folds her arms over her chest.

“You won’t need that,” she says eyeing my gun.

I look at him. If I ignore the blood, he looks like he’s sleeping. I wonder why I don’t I feel sad. “I guess not,” I say.

She reaches out and pats my bare shoulder, her fingers still slick with blood. “Let’s have a drink.”

Nikki Dolson's stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Bartleby Snopes, and others. She is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Bad Luck Opal, fiction by Joelle Lambert

The trooper’s lights flickered behind our van. That was it. Curtains. Just like that, all in one instant the operation was over. All of our time, money, and effort went out the window. It was out of my control. I couldn’t breathe.

“Dava, this whole time I’ve been nothing but a getaway driver to you.” Allie said, pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. Had she been speeding? She was nervous, too. Her hands trembled where she gripped the steering wheel. We were only ten miles from the destination.

“You know that’s not true,” I put a sweaty palm on her thigh, “Play stupid. You aren’t going down with me.” My attempts to breathe felt like knives in my stomach as I watched the trooper approach the window.

“License and registration,” he demanded, taking the documents back to run the info. I looked at Allie but her gaze was elsewhere.

“How could I be so stupid?” she said, “I’ve been blinded by my feelings for you, how much fun we have, how high we always are.” Allie pushed my hand away and got out of the car.

The trooper, seeing her, demanded on his speaker, “Stop what you’re doing and put your hands up!”

“Allie, what are you doing?” She pulled open the backdoor and rummaged through our belongings. I watched the opal ring on her finger glimmer in the harsh light of the sun. She just had to have it.

Turbo had warned me about a lot but he hadn’t prepared me for this. What do you do when your partner in crime completely snaps? This wasn’t in the script. I hadn’t known Allie that long, after all.

I met Allie when she started bartending where my buddy Turbo bounces. Although I think Turbo wanted to shoot his shot, I had taken a liking to Allie and found her completely irresistible. She had pouty lips, a stern gaze and thick thighs. All of her attitude and curves were wrapped in an eclectic style of thrift-store cable-knits and harem pants. She was sassy and audacious and soon she was hanging out with me and Turbo all the time.

We liked Allie a lot. She was good company; liked to drink, smoke, and play euchre. It wasn’t a surprise that she fit in with our circle of friends.


It wasn’t long before Turbo and I trusted Allie enough to show her the scorpion lab. It was originally Turbo’s little hobby that I had later become part of. Turbo bred a new species of scorpion and was extracting its venom to sell on the black market.

“Scorpion venom is the most expensive liquid known to man.” Turbo said, revealing his operation to Allie for the first time. Our collection was up to 87 scorpions. Turbo had been extracting and collecting venom for years. Allie closely inspected the glass tanks, tools, beakers, and piles of paperwork.

“This is the freakiest shit I’ve ever seen.” Allie looked closely at the scorpions and back at us in disbelief.

“Want to hear something even freakier?” I said, “These little monsters are going to make us rich.” I walked her around the lab. “This machine milks the venom. It’s a very delicate process.”

She scanned the entirety of the lab in silence. Her eyes were wide like a surprised child tasting sugar for the first time. She watched the crawling scorpions in their individual tanks.

“A gallon of this stuff is going for 40 mil. Liquid gold.” Turbo said.

“I never would’ve expected this out of you two,” she said.

“I am a firm believer in throwing people off my trail.” Turbo said.

“But, poison? You’re going to sell the venom? To kill people?” Allie said. Turbo and I chuckled.

“This venom is going to Michigan to a lab where it will be used to make medicine.” I said, walking closer to Allie and offering her my hand. I looked at her and worried that this was a mistake. I hoped she wouldn’t rat us out.

“Dava and I want to know if you’re willing to help.” Turbo said.

“This is all unauthorized, unregulated?” she asked, gripping my hand. “There’s five million dollars cash in it for you if you can drive me and the venom from Albuquerque to Michigan.” I said. She held my hand but her eyes were off dreaming, calculating in the distance.


Turbo taught me everything I know. From selling pot and pills in high school to growing mushrooms in college, Turbo was a very thorough mentor. The name of the game was covering all your bases, preventing anything that could possibly go wrong. Have plans. Have lies. Have backup. Turbo was neck-deep in investments and these scorpions were his cash cow.

“People trust female drug dealers way more. They’re not intimidating and usually pretty reliable. There’s one downfall,” he said, “their emotions run stronger than their greed.”

Allie was resistant to get on board. She asked a lot of questions. We almost lost her participation entirely when she got mad at Turbo for ordering supplies to her house.

Before leaving, I went to Allie’s to beg for forgiveness.

“I told you, I’m out. Drive the venom yourself.” she said.

“You know I can’t do it alone. It’s a 24-hour drive with no stops.”

“Make Turbo go.”

“Turbo has done enough leg work and now if you want a cut, you have to help, too.” I said. I looked at her and wondered how it had come to this. Allie looked broken. She had lost the glow that attracted me to her in the first place.

“What is something you want? Anything you want? A vacation? A house? A car? Whatever you want just name it and I can make it happen.” I said.

She sat and thought for a while without saying anything.

“I’ll give you equal parts of my cut.” I offered. Still, she was quiet.

“A ring,” she said, finally.

“A ring?”

“An opal ring. With rose gold accents.”

“Okay. Yes, great! An opal ring. Rose gold accents. Whatever you want, just please, drive me to Michigan.”

“Fine.” And we shook on it.


Allie and Turbo packed the van together. I counted my savings to buy Allie a ring from one of Turbo’s friends. I knew after tomorrow I could buy anything I wanted.

That’s how after 24 hours of driving, we ended up in a shoddy shack on the outskirts of Flushing, Michigan. We were there to buy an opal ring from an eccentric, old man who made us put our cell phones in his turned-off oven. Booger, he called himself. Figures, Turbo only dealt with the best in the business.

“Ya just never know who ya can trust,” Booger said, scratching his patchy cheek-fuzz, “wire taps get smaller and smaller. Come on in, meet the old lady, this is Pendle.” Booger gestured to an equally scruffy looking lady-hippie sitting on the couch. She was watching Harry Potter on a tiny TV.

“Have a seat, I’ll fetch your ring.” Booger disappeared while Allie and I sat down on the opposite side of the room as the one called Pendle. I sat on a plastic lawn chair and Allie took the flattened beanbag.

“Have ya’ll ever heard of the Anunnaki?” she asked. We shook our heads, no. “Ya’ll don’t wanna know,” she whispered, clearly disturbed yet she didn’t take her attention off of the movie.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” she said, “The Anunnaki are coming.”

Allie looked frightened and I felt guilty for putting her through all of this. She deserved this piece of jewelry, a treasure of my affection. I put my hand on her thigh for reassurance.

“Here it is.” Booger said, presenting the ring to Allie. She leapt up to retrieve it.

“Oh my gosh, it is absolutely gorgeous,” she said, easing it onto her finger.

“Rose-gold ring, Australian opal. $500. That’s a family discount right there since yer a friend of Turbos.” I handed Booger the money knowing that in just a few hours, a couple hundred would seem like chump change.

“We appreciate it more than you know.” I said, standing to leave.

“Hold up, ya’ll wanna smoke some opium?” Booger asked. Pendle snapped to attention, her eyes finally left the TV with the offer of drugs.

“No, thanks, we’ve gotta get going.” Allie said, looking terrified still.

“DMT?” His eyes widened, and I suddenly thought of my grandpa. My grandpa used to offer me Doritos and Mountain Dew. I never imagined hearing someone offer me things like opium or DMT. It seemed exotic somehow.

“No, thanks, really. Just our phones out of the oven would be great.” I said.

“The ring is really lovely. You do amazing work.” Allie said.


We scurried excitedly out of Booger’s house and I wanted to run, laughing, straight to the van. I looked at Allie and her face looked as if she had just gotten off a rollercoaster. I grabbed her hand and kissed it.

“Hey, watch the ring,” she said, and I shoved her playfully. We weren’t done yet. It was ten miles to the address Turbo coordinated. We fired up the van and headed to the destination once again.

My emotions swirled through my stomach and shot from my lips to fingertips. It felt like a windmill in my stomach was sending electricity to my appendages. I looked at my girl. Her fingers danced on the steering wheel. Her ring glimmered in the sunlight. Allie was happy. It all felt like a success far too soon.

“Dava,” the urgency in her voice pulled me from my daydream, “That car is following us.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“110. They’ve been behind us since Booger’s place.”

“Find the nearest highway.” I said, “Drive around a little before heading to the address.”

The onramp was right down the road. I watched the car that was following and urged Allie to focus on the road. We merged on and the car didn’t follow. They kept driving. Allie picked up to the speed of the highway and I could almost catch my breath in relief.

“Don’t speed. Just drive normal until we make it there.”

When I saw the trooper pull out and catch up to us, I knew it was all too good to be true. My hands started to drip sweat. My tongue went numb.

“Dava, there’s a cop.”

“I know, I see it. Just chill.” It all happened so fast, I couldn’t think clearly. It could’ve been a routine stop. Allie snapped. She wouldn’t listen to me.


“Allie, get back in the car.” I said. The trooper ran toward her. Allie started throwing all of our belongings out of the car and onto the highway. Boxes, clothes, magazines, snack wrappers, make-up. “What are you DOING?” I got out of the car and tried to pull her away. She had completely lost her mind. “Allie, stop!” I charged toward her.

The trooper restrained me and called for backup while Allie kept ripping through the van. She spilled a container of hair gel, tore open a box of cereal and then she got to it, the gallon jug of venom. We had it in a milk jug, no disguise, just the groceries it was packaged with. We were just two innocent girls on a road trip.

“You don’t care about me, Dava! You’re stupid and selfish. It’s always all about you!” Allie screamed at me as she poured the jug out at our feet.

I cried as forty million dollars seeped onto the highway. The trooper restrained Allie just as backup arrived. Turbo would never let me live this down.

“Some domestic drama and littering.” he said to his partner. “We’re gonna have to take one of them in.”

“It’s my fault.” I said, “I upset her. It’s all my fault.” The troopers looked at me, Allie, and the mess on the highway. “Allie, I’m sorry I’ve been a crappy girlfriend. I don’t want to upset you ever again. This should be a lesson learned.” Allie started crying, but I couldn’t console her. They cuffed me, mumbled about paperwork, and shoved me into the car.


I only served seven weeks of my eighteen-month sentence for conspiracy.

Someone had posted my twenty-five-thousand-dollar bail. A plane ticket was waiting to take me from Michigan back to Albuquerque.

I looked for Turbo, who I’d assumed would be picking me up. He was nowhere to be found. Outside, Allie was there.

“Dava!” She embraced me, “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry for everything. I never should’ve gotten you into this mess.”

“Relax,” she said, “C’mon I’ll give you a ride--

“No, wait.” I said. Taking her hand, my fingers touched the metal of the opal ring, “I never meant to make you feel like I was using you as a getaway.” I smiled. “You still wear it?”

“Of course. I’ll take you wherever you wanna go,” She said. “Milkshakes?”

“Maybe after we go see Turbo. Is he mad?” I asked. We got into her car and sped away, down the desert road.

“He’s not mad.” She said, turning on the radio. “Actually, he has a surprise for you. Check out what’s in the back.” On the floor of the backseat was a very plump duffle bag. I slowly opened it to reveal stacks of green money.

“How? Where did you get this?” I asked.

“You really don’t know?” Allie laughed.

“I watched you dump the venom.” I said.

“They never found the real jug of venom. I dumped a decoy I planted. Well, Turbo planted.” Allie’s valiant smile relieved me of the guilt I had felt.

“A decoy you planted? It was all an act?” I asked.

“Your bail money is coming out of your share. I’m just kidding, we split it into equal parts. About 12 million each, after taxes.” She winked.

“Rookie. I’m impressed. I’m speechless.” I put my hand on her thigh and watched her fearlessly drive us into the desert evening.

“I am a firm believer in throwing people off my trail,” Allie said.

“Sounds familiar.” I said, thinking of my friend who taught us everything we know. Allie was happy and we were prosperous. We sped into the Albuquerque sunset together, toward Turbo’s house. After all of this, I was relieved and excited to see my best friend.

Rainbow rays glimmered from Allie’s ring finger.

“Want to hear something funny?” she asked. “My mother never let me have opal jewelry growing up. She told me it was bad luck to wear if it’s not your birthstone. It’s intoxicatingly gorgeous, isn’t it?”

“That’s what you picked to wear on our biggest adventure yet? Something presumed bad luck?” I asked her.

“Even though people do crazy things for beauty, I think it’s all superstition. Meeting you was the best luck I ever had.” She smiled at me with glowing radiance, more beautiful than all the opals in the world.

Joelle Lambert is a certified, holistic practitioner and the founder of Dirty Girls Magazine. She is an undergraduate student at Youngstown State University where she was awarded 2018 Outstanding Creative Writing Student of the Year. Her work can be found in Volney Road Review.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Laird Barron's Black Mountain, reviewed by Paul J. Garth

Black Mountain
Laird Barron
G.P Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by Paul J. Garth

There are several scenes in Black Mountain, Laird Barron’s second crime novel, that see the protagonist of Barron’s series, Isaiah Coleridge, reflecting on a life lived in the shadow of inescapable death. The Shade has always been waiting, Coleridge recollects deathsheads and cosmic gloom as constant parts of his life.Through the course of these recollections, peppered throughout this gloriously plotted, violent, and fascinating novel,  Isaiah reveals he’s done what most men cannot: instead of attempting to escape the shadow of death, he’s felt himself drawn to it. In Alaska, Coleridge’s former home before a mob-enforced exile, the two were joined as seamlessly as night falling over a distant, darkened peak.
When we first met Coleridge, in last year’s Blood Standard, this past before exile from the Outfit was only hinted at, shown in asides tossed between mobsters and mentors, quips made to button men, white supremacists, and mercs who had made the mistake of trying to intimidate Isaiah while his feet were still wet in a new setting, but the genuine weight of Coleridge’s past experience was mostly mentioned in asides or as window dressing to let you know how dangerous Coleridge could be. Blood Standard is a good book, a haymaker introduction to a wonderfully complex, caring, yet hostile new character operating in a non-traditional location, written by one of the last decade’s most exciting writers. Like Isaiah, however, there were times when it felt as though there was a component missing, some piece of the puzzle that had not yet been formed and placed. In short, it was very close to the book readers had imagined when they heard Laird Barron was trying his hand at writing noir novels, but not quite the whole.
Black Mountain changes that. In Black Mountain, all the pieces cohere, and Barron places each one meticulously, including some new ones, revealing something exciting, elemental, dark, and formidable. Black Mountain, in a just world, would put the rest of the crime fiction world on notice.
Set close to real time, Black Mountain sees Coleridge, still off his game by a step or two after working through the investigation in Blood Standard, hanging out a shingle as a PI. When his former associatescome to Coleridge looking for help tracking down who might be responsible for a made man ending up headless in a local lake, Coleridge takes the case.  Through his investigation, Coleridge is thrown into a shadowy world of almost mythological hit-men, sinister corporations (including one that longtime Barron fans will relish seeing again), mob politics, femme fatales, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and dysfunctional families.
In lesser hands, Black Mountain could read like something overly familiar, a mix between Red Dragon and a Quarry novel, perhaps, but Barron eschews cheap plot twists and the know structures of the genre, preferring to take the story to new, stranger territory. That Coleridge’s ensuing search for answers is expertly plotted and ultimately leads to dark truths will not be a surprise for anyone who has previously read Barron, but what may be surprising is how organic and natural the investigation is. Isaiah Coleridge is not a trained detective, and he is certainly not a detective with enough experience to find someone even the FBI has spent years looking for, but he is tenacious, and he knows how to make people talk. Add in a deep personal insight into others and a doomed sense of self, and you’re left with a fantastically unique, even more deeply fleshed out protagonist in his second outing, one more comfortable with animal cunning than any kind of traditional investigative logic to lead him to the next inevitable step. Again, in less skilled hands, this would feel like a cheat, a series character being right because the plot demands it, but Barron is better than that. On occasion, he lets Coleridge fail or be wrong (this seems to be a theme with Barron and Coleridge--the fallibility of the investigator--that some may find off putting but others will think lends a level of authenticity to the proceedings). By working the clues and relying on his confidants, including an FBI agent who passes along critical but confounding information, Coleridge soon finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy both larger than most presented in noir fiction, and also one that is much more deadly: The Croatoan, Coleridge’s quarry, is ruthless, brilliant, and, the wiseguys whisper, potentially supernatural. A serial killer created by private corporations and the alphabet soup of nameless government agencies, the Croatoan is literally pulled from the innards of the earth, and just as Coleridge is hunting him, the Croatoan hunts Coleridge.
     The plot of Black Mountain is fast-moving, intricate, expansive, and mysterious, but the major achievement of the novel is the atmosphere Barron creates, infecting the reader with some of Coleridge’s own sense of predetermined cosmic doom. The prose in Blood Standard was good, but it sometimes felt as though it had been muted or toned down, focusing more on birthing Coleridge’s voice than the prose style Barron was previously known for, but in Black Mountain, the two elements have been joined beautifully,  establishing both a mood for the novel, an outlook for Coleridge, a sense of dangerous psychogeography with the setting, and a cold and brutal sense of impending death for everyone involved. Take, for example, the following scene, in which Coleridge investigates a warehouse in which the Croatoan might have worked decades before:
Hush prevailed as I moved inward and reached a set of doors marked RECEIVING. Old, old metal doors with metal handles. The left door was painted crimson, the right black, and, to either side, brick walls pallid as a dirty eggshell. The doors had been frequently repainted; a detail that inexplicably heightened my disquiet. Whatever had transpired in this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s lingered as a dim, psychic taint.  
All the above paints a picture of Black Mountain as a grim, death-obsessed book, but though the novel is made up of those elements, and though they are thematically necessary, such a picture would not fully capture Black Mountain as it is, as, amongst all the darkness, there are moments of light, as well. The supporting cast of the Isaiah Coleridge novels was perfect from the beginning, but they take on new life here, including shading Coleridge’s sidekick, Lionel, who, though he is almost as dangerous as Coleridge frequently behaves like a funny lovelorn teen; Devlin, a precocious kid who lights up the proceedings;  Meg, Coleridge’s girlfriend, who delights in Coleridge and whose affection for him is contagious, yet she still relishes giving him a hard time;  and an ever-evolving set of mobsters and wiseguys,  all of whom seem to be as interested in throwing zingers as they are making money, committing crimes, and figuring out who killed their compatriots. In addition, there are scenes with Coleridge that move from blackly humorous to just flat out hilarious, including an encounter between Coleridge and a would be intimidation squad that somehow manages to be laugh out loud funny between all the gunshots and broken ribs.
Laird Barron has been writing professionally for almost two decades now, and his body of work is deep and full of incredible stories, but the move to crime fiction has given him a second life, stretching his skills and unique understanding of our world onto a genre that seems ready made for him. Asked a year ago what stories best showcased Barron’s talent, I may have replied with a long list of personal favorites: “Bulldozer”, “Hallucigenia”, “The Imago Sequence,” “The Broadsword”, “Occultation”, “--30--”, The Croning, “The Men from Porlock”, “The Redfield Girls”, “Hand of Glory”, “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees”, or “Frontier Death Song”.
     Now, the answer is simple: Black Mountain. In Isaiah Coleridge, Barron has perfected a series protagonist who, though their survival is (mostly) assured, still plumbs the depths of genuine noir. This is the book crime fiction, a genre sometimes known for treading water, needs right now. This is, so far anyway, the best series crime novel of the year.