Monday, October 4, 2021

Near MInt, fiction by James Hadley Griffin


Artist: Street Drugs
Album: Dead Snitches
Format: 12-inch, Limited Edition, Numbered, Black vinyl, Promotional Only
Year: 1985
Label: Plume Records
Genre: Punk/Hardcore Punk
Notes: Only 50 copies printed. 49 accounted for, in the hands of collectors or the original band members. Record Collector magazine named this the number-two rarest record in punk.

FROM A REVIEW OF DEAD SNITCHES. Published in the Benson Sentinel. By Derek Olson, 19 yrs. old.

Mark it in your calendars, people. Music was finally invented in 1985. Its creators? A band called Street Drugs. The album? “Dead Snitches.” Twenty-six minutes of identity-altering, tectonic mayhem designed to make you want to set your school on fire, kiss the girl of your dreams, and pick up a guitar and start your own band. The songs are loud, fast, smart and catchy as the flu.

FROM “THE CASE OF THE MISSING ALBUM”. Published in HeadCase. By Derek Olson, 46 yrs. old.

As you all probably know, for most of my life, I’ve lived and breathed vinyl. The ceiling above my garage sags with the weight of records in boxes in my attic that I have yet to even properly catalog. My basement walls are lined with custom-made, floor-to-ceiling shelving that wraps around every corner. My collection is organized by genre, then alphabetical by artist, then chronologically. I am serious> about records.

I go through obsessions, sometimes fixating on a certain musician or band or label. I systematically track down not only every record they released but often multiple versions of every release. Hell, I own thirteen copies of Fun House by The Stooges. I live for rare color-vinyl editions, misprinted sleeves, subscription-only releases, and Japanese bonus tracks. But there has always been an empty spot on my shelves, one I have been unable to fill for twenty-seven years. I have scoured the earth in search of it, to no avail.

I like to think that what draws one (your humble writer included) to heavier music — music that makes your mom pray for your soul a little extra hard at night — is not that it serves as an outlet for the pent-up anger and frustration of your local loser burnout, but that it translates into sound waves the feeling of what it means to be free. Punk is about freedom. Rock is about freedom. Metal is about freedom. And when are you freer but when you’re nineteen years old? For me, Dead Snitches by Street Drugs is the sound of what it meant to be a dumb, free nineteen-year-old.

I was working at my college newspaper, the Benson Sentinel, doing some record reviews and probably skipping class, when this mystery item showed up on my desk. The sleeve was plain white cardstock with a yellow-and-black hype sticker that read: “For Promotional Use Only. Street Drugs. Dead Snitches. Coming This October.” At the bottom, in pen, someone had numbered this particular copy 19/50. That was all I had to go on.

When I finished listening to it for the first time, I was trembling. I had to steady my hand before I placed the needle back down on track one to experience it again. It was a perfect record. I couldn’t wait to see this band live, to meet the people who made it, to write my review so I could tell everyone I could about it. In fact, that review got me my first professional gig reviewing for the local alt-weekly rag.

Well, I never heard anything ever again about Street Drugs. The album was never officially released in stores. The band never toured. The label never released anything else. Except for the fact that I once owned a copy of the record, I’d be hard-pressed to even say that it ever existed. So it haunts me, like a beautiful dream or the vague memory of a stolen kiss.

Maybe this longing is just the sad bluster of a pudgy rock critic who is losing his eyesight and his hair and wants to regain a shard of his youth. Or maybe it’s about tracking down one of the rarest rock records in the world. Everyone likes a treasure hunt, right? Or maybe it’s just about celebrating the feeling of freedom music can bring. Whatever the reason: if you have any information on the location of this album, please reach out. I will make it worth your while<.

I’ll end on a memory.

It’s Spring Break 1986, and I’m driving my ’79 Buick Electra with the driver’s door that rattles above 55 mph. My cassette-dubbed copy of Dead Snitches is in the tape deck, and the first track, “Here’s to All Us Bastards,” is playing. My girlfriend Jessica and I are headed to go camping in the mountains for the week. The sun is just setting below the peaks, the air smells like spruce, and Jessica looks at me and smiles, her lips shiny from that cherry lip gloss she always wore. Even in the moment, I somehow knew my life couldn’t get much better.

I will never forgive myself for giving that record to Jessica (the other love who got away) in a grand romantic gesture, just before she dumped me and changed schools. I had even written, “I love you more than this record” on the sleeve. God, I was an idiot.

But what can I say? I was nineteen.


We’ve only got today.
So let’s make our mark and have our say.
Who cares that we’re not on the news?
Who cares whose fuckin’ shampoo we use?
Who cares that we were born to lose?
Here’s to all us bastards! (repeat x4)


• Hey, Jessica! It’s Derek Olson. Can you believe it?! I just randomly spotted your profile and thought, My God, is that really Jess the Mess? What’s it been? Like twenty-five years or something? How ya been?

• {No response}

• I know you probably don’t really check this thing very regularly. It’s just, I’ve been thinking a lot about those days back at Benson. I guess because I like being a middle-aged cliche. You’ve cropped up in those memories more than once. Remember that camping trip we took?

• {No response}

• I see you’re “Jessica Butler” now. You’ve got a really good-looking family. Things have been kinda rocky in my life lately. I’d love to try to meet up and just, you know, reminisce.

• {User Derek Olson Blocked}


Subject: Street Drugs LP

Derek, First off, man, I just want to say that I love, love, love your column. No one writes about rock-n-fucking-roll like you. You get it. So, for that, thanks.

Anyway, I read your column last month about your search for the long-lost Street Drugs LP of your youth. About how you would do anything to get it back.

Well, I think I might just have a line on where that particular piece of wax wound up. It belongs to my roommate. We call him Shake Rag. I don’t know his actual name. He’s a friend of a not-very-good friend, and he needed a place to crash for a few weeks. That was five months ago. Sketchy as all hell. Once, he claimed he played bass for Aus-Rotten back in the day. I called bullshit on that, and he flipped out. Threw a fucking ashtray at my head. A genuine crazy-ass lunatic. But he is a pretty good cook, so we’re not kicking him out just yet.

But, yeah, this is the record. Definitely. It even has “I love you more than this record” written on the back and 19/50 on the front. Just like you said. How Shake wound up with it, I’ll never know. He’s currently out getting some Chinese food, and if he knew I was going through his stuff, he’d beat the shit out of me.

The other thing is, I’m absolutely certain Shake Rag would never sell it to you. Money doesn’t mean anything to this guy. Fucker’s as crust as they come. If you gave the guy a million bucks, he’d run it through a paper shredder and laugh while he did it. Anarcho-socialist in the extreme. I mean, I consider myself a pinko commie leftist or whatever, but this guy...he’s the Bill Gates of whatever the opposite of Bill Gates is. It makes it real hard to get rent money out of him.

But I’ll go ahead and ask him if he wants to sell, and if he does, I’ll send you our address, and you can come ask him yourself. You’ll have to see him in person. He doesn’t have a phone or use the internet. Of course.

• Poison Pig

Subject: Re: Street Drugs LP

Poison Pig,
Oh. My. God. When I submitted that column, I literally aspirated a little prayer to Whoever Is In Charge In The Cosmos that it would find its way in front of the eyeballs of someone who knows something. Lord, I hope you’re right. Yes, please, see if Shake Rag will sell and tell him that I will pay whatever it costs.

With bated breath,


Crime: Homicide
Officer: Sgt. Jerome Campbell

Victim Name: Malcolm Howard Agee
Alias: Shake Rag

White male. 33. Thinning brown hair matted into dreadlocks, tied together with multi-colored rubber bands. Large spacers in his ears. Track marks up and down his legs and arms.

Identifying Marks: Numerous tattoos, most of them homemade. The most prominent tattoos are the word “Crass” above his navel and large spiderwebs on both elbows.

When the body was discovered, he was wearing black jeans bearing numerous patches, a studded faux-leather belt, a black t-shirt featuring a skull above the word “Discharge,” a black denim cut-off jacket also featuring numerous patches, and a new pair of black Doc Marten boots.

Cause of Death: Exsanguination. The victim’s jugular vein had been severed by a puncture from a crude blade of some kind. An analysis of the victim’s blood revealed the presence of heroin and hepatitis C.

    The murder weapon has not yet been recovered.


Subject: Henry Lester Powell

Alias: Poison Pig

Q: How do you know the deceased?

A: He was my roommate.

Q: Can you repeat what you told me earlier about the day of the murder?

A: Look, man, I don’t want to get Derek in trouble. He seems like a good dude. I love his writing.

Q: Please just repeat what you told me earlier.

A: All right. Well, I told Shake Rag about him wanting —

Q: Him?

A: Derek. I had emailed Derek about this record he’d been hunting for. He wrote an article about it for Headcase magazine. I wrote to Derek that I knew where it was. Shake Rag had it. Hey, can I get some water?

[tape paused]

Q: Continue.

A: Well, I told Shake Rag about Derek wanting to buy the record, and Shake got this big weird grin on his face and said he wanted to meet up with him. This seemed really weird ‘cause I was certain he wouldn’t be interested in selling it. So I asked why he wanted to meet, and Shake said when Derek got here, he was planning on snapping the record in half in front of him, you know, as a cruel joke or something, a statement on capitalism or some bullshit. I told him he shouldn’t fuck with people like that, but he just laughed. I’m pretty sure he’d shot up just before. He sadistic when he was on junk, so I chalked it up to that. Anyway, I emailed Derek back and told him Shake would see him, though I had a totally bad feeling about the whole thing. When Derek was supposed to come by, my girlfriend and me were out. And when we got back, we found Shake just lying there, you know? Facedown. Giant cut on his throat. Blood everywhere. You saw it.

Q: And the record?

A: Yeah, I checked. The record was gone. I mean, when I sent Derek that email, I never thought... (subject trails off).


Dispatcher: 911. What’s your emergency? Caller: I’m not sure if I should even be calling ‘cause I don’t know if it’s technically an emergency.

Dispatcher: Can you tell me what’s happening, sir?

Caller: Well, I just saw my neighbor get out of his car and go walk inside his house, and well, it looked like he had blood all over the front of his shirt.

Dispatcher: Was he injured?

Caller: He seemed okay. I called out to him, and he waved at me.

Dispatcher: What’s his name?

Caller: Derek Olson.

Dispatcher: Where does he live?

Caller: 4093 Kennison Drive.

Dispatch: We’re sending a car. Can you tell me anything more?

Caller: Well, He’s been acting really strange lately. His wife just left him. Took the kids. I saw him crying in his driveway a couple of weeks ago. Just sitting there crying. I went up and asked him if I could help, and he said — I’ll never forget it because it was so weird — he said, “Who cares whose shampoo I use? Who cares that I was born to lose?” That was it. So strange.


Description: One 12-inch vinyl record entitled “Dead Snitches” by Street Drugs.

Location: Discovered by Sgt. Campbell in a box labeled “Memories” in Derek Olson’s master bedroom, on top of a stack of college yearbooks and letters from someone named Jessica Albrecht.

Condition: Broken into two large, jagged pieces.

Relevance: One of the pieces tested positive for the presence of Malcolm Howard Agee’s blood.

James Hadley Griffin
is a teacher who has lived, at one time or another, in most of the Southern capitals. Currently, he's in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two hounds. He has been published by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Pulp Modern Flash, and Popcorn Fiction. Connect with him on Twitter @JHadleyGriffin.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Price of Copper and Brass, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

It was important to remember where you came from, to call up at the appropriate time the requisite grit. Nonetheless, Gustafson knew himself to grow wistful, driving in the old neighborhood. The cliché was like a secret code everyone from North End should be able to decipher and know: Don’t forget your roots. No matter how distant you wander from that rougher than rough diamond place, recall that you grew up there.

His mother raised her nine children—their old man would sometimes drop-in, in port, off the boats, drunk and abashed, but with cash—two blocks from the shipyard. Her old clapboard two-story was torn down ten years ago by Gustafson, up from Minneapolis for a long weekend. He sold off the salvageable wood to some artsy-fartsy folks from Duluth, and some Ojibwe guys bought the Monarch wood and coal-burning stove. The majority of Gustafson’s brothers and sisters now lived in northern California, in coastal cities and towns, and in Ohio, on Lake Erie, always drawn to water, always far from North End. Raymond, the oldest brother, like their mother, was in the grave. Her house gone, what remained, he saw from the alley, was a small residential lot overtaken by seemingly every trash tree and shrub dreamed of in creation, ugly under the sun, or in rain or snow, much like the rest of the neighborhood, the surrounding blocks. The down-in-the-mouth leached out, visible, in different ways.

Rodney, a kid he’d grown up with, hobbled out to the black plastic dumpster by his garage with a large kitchen trash bag. A wan little girl with lunchtime smears of peanut butter and grape jelly around her mouth followed alongside him, twirling an open Powerpuff Girls umbrella. Gustafson rolled down his window, stepping on the brake. “Hi there, Rodney.” He nodded at the girl.

The other man smiled, wiped his hands on his dungarees before shaking hands with Gustafson. “My granddaughter. Nancy.” He had to be sixty-five, sixty-six, a few years older than Gustafson. Rodney lived on disability from the long-gone steel plant in Duluth; Gustafson had always liked him. Honest kid. Honest to a fault. His smile now, that was questioning. “Patrolling the alley there, are ya?”

Gustafson lifted his eyebrows: maybe, maybe not. “Just up for a few days. Any changes?”

Rodney sucked his lips in like he had no teeth. “No.” He took a look down the opposite side of the alley, then back at Gustafson. “Nope. Same old same old.”

Gustafson thanked him, said goodbye to the little girl, told Rodney to take it easy, told them both to watch out for the rain.

It was that particular house toward the end of the block that Rodney had glanced at. That house, its yard, was all of a certain North End setting.

Continuing his slow roll down the alley, Gustafson could see the backyard of the place was mud and clay ripped up and churned by wide truck tires, big boy toys, the orange-brown slime rooster-tailed against the owner’s garage; the neighbor’s garage befouled in the same manner. Gustafson understood the people next door wouldn’t complain. And as if anyone would dare trespass on this rutted muck, the owner warned them off with a tire-and-two-by-four barricade—two stacks of tires, at least six feet apart, an old dark two-by-four stretching from one stack of gray-black rubber to the other, a tire on the top of either end of the wood crossbeam, weighing it down. The two-car garage that went with the property, besides the muddy decoration, had its door dented and askew, likely rammed in the past by a pickup truck, probably driven by the property owner.

Gustafson knew these people. They used their world up until it was dead. It didn’t bother them in the least. The dead didn’t bother the O’Neills. Not one little bit.


The sky was a heavy, washed-out blue flannel; April, cold and wet, the month when the smelt ran off Wisconsin Point. Raymond should have run. Gustafson’s brother’s life began roiling that afternoon, forty-plus years ago. He’d been washing his ’72 Plymouth Satellite, a sea-green four-door, at a Connor’s Point slip. The slip was east of a yard where an arm of a corporate monolith dismantled and scrapped Great Lakes ships past their prime. Gustafson could see the spot yet, all these years later, past the shipyard and across Howard’s Pocket, from the old neighborhood alley he eased down.

The way Raymond told it, the two of them in the kitchen of the upper duplex apartment Raymond lived in with his wife and five kids, each man with a sweaty brown bottle of Hamm’s, was that he had been washing his car when he noticed the chain. He chuckled. “The chain was looped around a piling, the other end slung tight over the edge, into the water. I’d wiped down the car — it was that sunny day—remember?—so I thought I’d give the chain a tug. It was heavy. Oh, boy.” Raymond’s eyes shone like a banjo ringing, a phrase the older brother often used to describe delight in others.

“Buckets, not just one. I eased them up, one after another.” He’d set his beer bottle down on the table, dramatized the drawing up of the chain, hand over hand. “Each of the buckets were full of scrap, copper, and brass. From those old boats, they were busy scrapping down the point.”

Raymond was proud of his discovery; his younger brother, thought differently. “Goddammit, you know who probably stole it all in the first place—”

“Fuck them.” His eyes widened to emphasize the point. “I told myself, ‘Ray, you’ve got yourself, Ellie, and five kiddos to support—”

“But the O’Neill boys. Raymond.”

“Fuck. Them.”


Wet, like the short-straw Jaycee dropping into the Tri-State Fair dunk tank, the sky opened up, and the rain came down. Gustafson looked again at the backyard mire before pulling away. By nightfall, it would be a thick soup.

At the motel across from the steakhouse on Fifth, Gustafson watched the local news. The smelt run was the second story in. The run would peak that weekend, like the night the O’Neill boys got Raymond on Wisconsin Point.

Gustafson thought of the boys now: Arne housed at Waupun; Clifford at a prison in Minnesota; Gene and Lawrence perished one Fourth of July near Pattison Park, throwing M-80s from their speeding car. Stuart, or Stu, he still lived in town, a never-to-retire con-of-all-trades.

Growing up in North End, the Gustafsons and O’Neills played football on Rusk Avenue, and baseball too. Swimming in Lake Superior in summer, skating on Howard’s Pocket, and the neighborhood rink in winter. Neighborhood kids who grew up together grew up and away from each other, the Gustafsons turning into strivers for at least the middle ground in life, the O’Neills looking to turn the easier buck, they believed, through criminality. The families managed the neighborhood cordiality. They knew each other; they shared a common history.

No one mentioned the copper and brass haul; Raymond’s filching of the O’Neills’ boodle, no one knew about it, perhaps wouldn’t care, as Raymond believed, if they did.

As he had in years past, Raymond went smelting with the O’Neills when Stu invited him along.

Gustafson heard about it later, how the O’Neills got his brother. The O’Neills and Raymond, along with the other neighborhood buddy, Rodney—someone to pass the word: Don’t fuck with the O’Neills—drove out to the Point for the smelt run.

They arrived late. Everyone was back on the beach, nets pulled in, the small silver fish in washtubs and buckets. Boomboxes pumped out the Stones and Bowie. “Rebel Rebel.” Rodney remembered that one. The beer flowed from kegs, cans, and bottles, and the bonfire flames snapped, the driftwood popped, the noisy partyers cast in orange. The O’Neills trotted Raymond down the beach and away from the firelight toward Dutchman Creek, Rodney tailing them warily. The raucous gathering of smelters flickered, a dying star.

The O’Neills beat the hell out of Raymond, Rodney told Gustafson. They didn’t have to do the other thing, but they did. “Who did it? Did they take turns? Just one of them? Their leader?”

Rodney nodded at that last: Stu.

He had pressed Raymond’s face into the wet sand as if attempting to create a death mask. After he was sure Raymond had suffocated, he had his brothers roll him over. At that moment, a wave rolled in, dissolving the imprint his terrified face had made in the sand.


Gustafson held open the storm door and knocked, the rain pattering down as if there would be no end to it ever, his boots thick, slippery with mud. An older man pulled open the backdoor, looked back into the house, then joined Gustafson on the back porch.


O’Neill nodded. He was an old sixty-five, looked like an orangutan with the belly, the long arms.

Gustafson pictured what he had planned for so many years: suffocating, drowning Stu O’Neill in the backyard slurry, packing his nose, his mouth, his throat — choking him. A crowd would gather under the evening rain in the backyards on either side of the mudflat. The few neighbors, old-timers, they would know. They would watch from the other side of the fence, smoking their unfiltered cigarettes, drinking Old Milwaukee. They knew. They wouldn’t call anyone.

“I always wondered when you’d show up,” O’Neill said. He looked away, peering at the hidden moon, and then his seven-inch prep knife swung up for the evening’s opening move, slicing Gustafson to the sternum.

Gustafson folded. He fell.

No one would be calling anyone. Those who peopled Gustafson’s dream of this night, they were not there to watch. Only Rodney, standing in the shadow of a garage, holding his granddaughter’s umbrella over his head. When O’Neill finished, Rodney turned and walked home.

Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have previously appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Close to the Bone, Crime Factory, Mysterical-E, Mystery Tribune, Pulp Modern Flash, Rock and a Hard Place, Shotgun Honey, and Tough, as well as in Midwestern Gothic, Cheap Pop, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas. He, his wife, and their goldendoodle hellraiser live in Wisconsin at the head of the Great Lakes.

Monday, September 20, 2021

In Nomine Patris, fiction by Elena Sichrovsky

Chiba, Japan  

Shanghai, China  

Vienna, Austria  

Cartagena, Colombia  

Athens, Greece

Cebu, Philippines  

Santa Monica, USA



The word fits around his gums like a mouthguard. He purses his lips, trying to unravel the vowels of the word. The girl shakes her head and pronounces it again: “Otosan,” the weight landing on the “t” like a blade to cleave the heart from the body. A dapple of sunlight moves across her face, illuminating all the patches of sympathy he has been trying to avoid. She fingers the edge of the photograph lightly. She’s looking at the black and white image with too much reverence. There’s no piety to be commanded from the portrait of the guilty.

They stand under the blood-red pillars of a tori gate that leads to the shrine behind them.  The taxi driver told him on the way there that the shrine is dedicated to a protector of military men. The solemn gray lines of the shrine’s roof bow in folded hands, a slanted prayer to honor the bravery that bloomed in the whispers of history. History is what he is hunting down now, but there are no prayers to be offered. God is the second person on his list, but the first name is the one pictured in that photograph, the one whose scent he’s tracking across continents.

He stands there a moment longer, waiting for the girl to find some trace of recognition in the photograph. His chest aches. His lungs are pushing against the bars of his ribcage like a water balloon squished between a child’s fingers.

She shakes her head regretfully and returns it. “Gomen nasai.”  



The two Chinese characters seem uncomfortable standing beside each other. He knows they read as “father” only because the hotel manager told him so. He had asked the manager to help him translate the questions he wanted to ask at the police station. Amid the scribbled indecipherable lines, the manager had circled those two characters with a thin red pen. The character on the left is simple, two intersecting strokes crossing in the center, but the other one is tall and woven with strokes like scaffolding.  

At the police station, he pushes the photograph along with the written note under the slot in the window. The young officer behind the glass takes one look at the paper and immediately looks up at him with too much pity. His dark eyes flit between the scribbled words and the photograph before turning around and beckoning to another officer in the next desk.  

He stands and waits, wondering if he should have had the clerk translate more. If he should have had him translate how he wasn’t looking for the man in the photograph for reconciliation, but for retribution. He imagines what the officers might be saying; how they might wonder what kind of parent would leave their child with nothing but a colorless image and a grown echo of their likeness staring with eyes too hollow to have been dragged down by years.



Aside from the language lesson, he also gets a drag from the young man’s joint. “You look like you need it,” the youth tells him. 

He angles his head away, muscles clenching with the barrage of coughs charging out. Smearing a hand across his lips, he wipes the blood away and finally takes the joint.  

“Fathers are overrated,” the youth goes on, hands in his pocket and back pressed to the spine of the bench. “My old man kicked me out long ago. Best thing he ever did. I’ve made my own way, to the States and back, and now I’m getting married to a girl I’ll make sure he never meets.”

Smoke escapes from his lips and withers away into the September air. The shrinking joint passes between their fingers, a union wordless and true.  

“Why are you hunting down your dad now?” The blue eyes of the youth travel up and down his rumpled suit jacket and crooked tie. “Do you need money from him?”

He shakes his head. The joint dangles between his knuckles as he rests his hands on his knees. Inhaling deeply, he tries to pull a few ribbons of air into his battered lungs. “Not money,” he says at length. “I need something more than that.”



The knife slices through the soft flesh of the lulo fruit, opening its orange facade to reveal a quartet of green seeds joined elbow to elbow like petals. Chunks slide through the woman’s fingers and into the empty blender before they are buried in a scoopful of ice cubes. A fight unleashes the moment the blender button turns on, sharp frozen angles resisting the plump softness of the fruit. After a moment, the struggle is lost, and they yield to each other, purring into a blend of sunshine orange.

Mi papa,” the woman gestures to an older man sitting at the back of the fresh fruit stall. Her eyes crinkle with a smile, and he tries to match it with his own, a line on his face that barely curves.

He’s never been able to say those words, to turn and introduce an old man as his own. He thinks of his father in aging strokes only because of the calculation of his current age and not because he’s actually ever seen him like that. Somehow the imagined portrait feels more genuine than the actual photograph he’s been carrying around. The image in the photograph merely taunts him with the idea his father once knew how to love someone other than himself.

The woman wipes an arm against the curls sticking to her forehead, jabbering on in a language he only understands flickers of. The blender tips over, spilling the frothy sweetness into a tall glass, and she hands it to him with a twisty blue straw.

“Sientate,” she motions to the plastic stool beside the older man she just identified.

He sinks down into the seat, body sagging from the perilous weight of standing. With a practiced motion, he lays the photograph out for the man to see. As he waits for the now-familiar shake of the head and sympathetic noise, he faintly wishes he was this man’s son. He would much rather die in this stranger’s home than have the eyes of a traitor be his final vision.  



He scribbles out the name of the painkiller his doctor once prescribed, and the pharmacist frowns at the inscription before turning to the shelves behind him to investigate. Words like morphine and fentanyl massage his mind, a placebo to help ease the pain more than any local equivalent will. The doctors had advised against his pilgrimage, of course; they would rather have him turn over the contents of his savings so they could hook him up to needles and drugs that would not prolong his life but would extend his suffering.  

The day after receiving his final diagnosis, he had summoned up enough energy to demand to be allowed to go home to die. He paid his landlord the last month of rent and then had taken his gun out of the safe under the bed and put it on the bedside table. While preparing for his apartment to become his mausoleum, he found the photograph of his father in the box of his late mother’s belongings. It was a picture from their wedding day; his father’s young face filled the frame, cheeks pinched in a boyish grin. 

It was then the idea bloomed in his mind. He could shift the burden of what he was carrying onto the shoulders of the one who remained unjudged by the gavel of the world. He had a reason to live now, because there was still justice he could serve. For what could be crueler than reuniting a father with his son, only to tell him that he was dying?

The pharmacist turns back, holding up a small bottle, and he hands over the crumbled bills without question. With his half-formed hand, motions and the pharmacist’s broken English he figures out directions on how to get to the beach. Truthfully he’s never been one to cherish the bitterness of sand and scratchiness of ocean waves. But he wants to allow one more curse upon himself; he wants to feel the fury of the sun to burn his pale skin so he will be even more unrecognizable to his father when he meets him.

The pharmacist points to a bottle of sunscreen, and he shakes his head determinedly. What’s one more cancer to his decaying prison of flesh and bone? He walks out, disappearing between the married scents of grilled meat and crumbling white cheese. 



The skyscraper looms over him like a parent offering a shoulder to shield him from the buffeting rains. The smooth metal of the wall he’s leaning against leaves a dent in his forehead, but he doesn’t care. Elation is coursing fast and reckless through his veins. He forgets the photograph still in his hand as his fingers form a fist, reducing the image to a wad of crumpled lines.

“Jonathan Clark went back to his hometown a few weeks ago,” the man at the trading company had told him a few minutes ago. Suddenly a ribbon had appeared at the end of the marathon, a red line to snap at the brush of his fingertips.

Five weeks. That’s how long the doctor had given him. That’s how long he had to survive crisscrossing the globe to find a father whose voice he cannot remember.

It’s been nearly three weeks now. His body has become a fearful thing, a torpedo wrapped in sweating bed sheets, and yet he is ready. He is ready to hurl the dark shape of himself onto the spike of the sun.  

Above his head, palm tree fronds flop against the typhoon winds determined to tear them from their trunk. The browned fronds know they cannot survive the gale; still they cling desperately to what little remains of their string of fate.  



He meets his father coming out of Saint John’s Health Center. 

They speak to each other in the cafeteria, sitting across diagonally.

“I’ve been looking for you,” his father says.

He doesn’t want to know why. He looks around at the vacant halls of white death and he knows why.

 “I’m dying,” his father says, and he simply shakes his head.

“No.” No, because he has been dying, and being able to deliver the news to his father was the one twisted rope he’s been burning his hands by hanging on to.

“Why were you looking for me?” his father asks.

Why now is the unspoken refrain. Instead, he fixates on the first word of that question. Why indeed. Why would the spawn of your DNA cleave to you like residual cake crumbs? Why would the boy who shares half your likeness beat his fists against the world to find you?  

“Because,” he starts, and then a bout of coughing ambushes him. He grabs the corner of the table to keep himself from folding over. Against his chest, a battering ram sings, and he pushes his palms against his ribs as they creak and cry.

A hand lands gently on his shoulder. The hand of his father. It is a strange shape that does not fit right.

“You’re not well,” his father says. “What’s wrong?”

He sits up, pushing the hand off. It is far too late to be kind. “Because,” he continues, letting the blood dribble from his lips down to his chin, “I wanted to have someone to leave behind.”

The macaroni salad remains untouched on the plastic tray. He leaves before his father even opens the berry yogurt cup.

 He goes back to his apartment and puts the gun from his bedside table into his backpack.

 That night the nurse lets him in past visiting hours because his father is scheduled to go in for surgery the following morning. “He has a good chance of surviving this,” she tells him, pink sleeves rustling noisily as she leads him down the hall. “The doctor caught this tumor in time. It could save his life.”

“I hope so,” he says and means it. Survival is the only sentence fit for someone like his father.

He sits on the chair beside his father’s bed until the old man stirs.

“You’re here,” he whispers, raspy, surprised, grateful.

“I am.” He releases the photograph from his grip, and it lands on the edge of the blanket. A few grams that sink down like a ton. There are more miles on that small piece of glossy paper than in his entire lifetime.  

He moves his hand into the backpack and holds his father’s gaze. “I was three years, three months, and twelve days old when you left me. I am now thirty-three years, six months, and twenty days old.” His finger caresses the lump nestled there before he pulls it out, the silver teeth of the pistol winking in the moonlight. He presses the muzzle to his own forehead. “I won’t let you abandon me twice.”

A spasm of terror from the old man fills his final vision, enough to make him smile as he pulls the trigger. 

Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian-Tawainese writer living in Shanghai, China. She's a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Through her work she seeks to find the beauty in the terrifying and the terror in the beautiful. You can follow her on Instagram @elenitasich or Twitter @thesoundbtween.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Amends, fiction by C.W. Blackwell

He wheeled onto the dirt road in a mid-nineties F-250 with a bad muffler and a rash of rust eating up the rear quarter panel. It was still early, the time of day when workers sweated in the fields or under rough-running cars, busting knuckles and building dirt in their nails—or maybe catering to the lunch crowd in one of the seaside grease traps down on Beach Street. Even though Gene Akers had taken the day off, he still planned on getting his hands dirty. 

He found Avery sitting on the front bumper of her Jeep, watching the creek surge and sputter around a bend. She didn’t look much different than last time he’d seen her, at least not physically. Same wild brown hair pulled back. Same way she’d fold her arms and stare off in thought. But she had a certain peace about her now that only comes after running on the streets and finally getting clean.

He hoped she’d notice that about him too.

“Looks like the worst is over,” she said. He assumed she was talking about the storm, a tropical nightmare that drowned the county for three days straight. The governor even made a disaster declaration on account of a busted dam the next county over. It was the reason she’d called him so concerned, after all. Not about the storm itself, but what it might uncover. She looked him over, gave a quick smile. “You look good, Gene.”

“So do you, Ace.”

A hug. The kind with a couple of pats like old friends.

Still, it wasn’t enough to cut the tension.


It took some effort to hike the creekside trail, even with boots and shovels to keep steady. Despite the clear blue sky, the forest felt swollen with water. It dripped from the redwood boughs in quarter-sized glops, settled on the trail in ponds that stretched from edge to edge. At one point, Gene had to lay out the blue poly tarp so they wouldn’t sink to their knees in the soft mud. 

“There,” said Avery. They’d come to an old growth redwood, scarred and hollowed from some long-ago wildfire. Maybe eight feet in diameter. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Gene leaned on his shovel. “Could be.” The tree looked right, but the memory had to rinse itself of all the dope grease from back then, like looking up from one of the puddles they’d walked through. “I think we went inside of it, didn’t we? Or was that just you?”

Avery didn’t answer. She’d already started up the embankment opposite the hollow redwood, grasping at tanoaks as she went. The sucking sounds of her boots in the wet forest silt made Gene think they’d never be able to reach the site, but he followed her anyway. It wasn’t long before Avery called out—a shriek that left no doubt what she’d found. She stood stock-still with her mouth covered.

Gene saw it too.

“It’s a good thing we came,” he said after a long silence.

“I don’t know if I’d call any of this good.”

None of the flesh remained, at least none that Gene could see. The skeletal figure wore a skin of dirt and redwood needles. Mud-packed orbitals. Crescent ribs curling from the earth. Some of the clothes remained, but in tatters.

He tugged at the corner of a filthy wool blanket buried in the mud.

“How much of our DNA is on this blanket, you think?”

“You tell me, Gene. It’s your blanket.”

He knew he shouldn’t laugh but he couldn’t help it. “I imagine plenty.”

“There you go.” 

“I once went a few weeks without thinking about him,” said Gene. “Some drugstore commercial brought it back again. What’s the longest you’ve gone?”

“A day or two.” Avery tapped the skull with the tip of the shovel, as if searching for an exit wound. “Can you blame me? I’m the one who fucking did this.”

They hammocked the bones between them in the blue tarp and dug another grave beneath the redwoods, this time deeper and further up the hill. When they dumped the last shovel load, Gene stood over the hole as if he were about to say something but nothing came. After a moment, Avery turned to him with wet eyes and said quietly, almost inaudibly: “Could you give me a minute alone with him?” 


Twelve years ago, they spent a rainy Friday night watching Halbert’s Pharmacy from the parking lot of a Foster’s Freeze. Dark storefront windows, no cars out front. Gene had found a little cash in an unlocked car earlier that day and scored a couple Suboxone strips to get them through the night. But one night was all they had, and inside the pharmacy they could have all the nights they wanted. All the days too.

The alarm would sound, they knew that.

Three minutes inside would be too much.

They had to be quick.

They kept the car running and the trunk lid popped. They’d throw the pills in the back and Avery would drive them as far north as they could on a tank of gas. Maybe all the way to Redding, then Spokane. They’d cold-plate the Honda along the way for extra insurance. The pills would go for twenty a pop whenever they needed cash.

That was the plan. 

Avery flipped her phone open and shut it just as quick. “Where’s Mike?”

Mike Sandhoff was Gene’s friend from high school, fresh out of CDC for boosting a minivan from a Kohls parking lot. Gene asked him for help with the break-in and to keep eyes on the place from the outside, give a few honks if he saw any heat—but now he was a no-show, and Gene felt embarrassed for asking him in the first place.

“Forget Mike,” he said. “We won’t need him if we’re fast enough.” 

He used an eighteen-inch pry bar on the back door and had it open in a matter of minutes. It was an old store, the kind every small town had. One that had stayed in the family and kept the Halbert family name. It also meant dry rot in the jamb and an easy break-in. Once the door popped its hinges, something happened that Gene initially took as a stroke of good luck but would soon deem otherwise: the alarm didn’t go off.

No sounds, no blinking red lights on the control panel.


As they slipped behind the counter, Avery wondered aloud: “Is it a silent alarm?”

“I don’t give a shit, Ace,” said Gene. He swept an armful of Diazepam into a Hefty bag, a few bottles clattering onto the linoleum floor.“Silent or not, we get out just as fast.” 

 A few armfuls later they had two bags of dope, all under a minute and a half. Gene thought about taking the pry bar to the cash register but decided against it. The silence toyed with what little judgement he had. Did they just forget to set the alarm? 

The sound of footsteps broke the silence. 

Someone cursing in the dark corners of the pharmacy.

They bolted toward the back door, Hefty bags rattling as they went. Avery made it out, but Gene felt a hand pulling him backward, tearing at his clothes. A man’s voice growling and spitting. Threatening to blow his fucking head off. They struggled in the doorway, Gene and some half-naked old man trading blows, grappling for a silver revolver that seemed to pop around their frames without discharging. They fell into the alley, rolling, punching. The storm had turned into a heavy downpour and neither man could find his footing. When the gun finally slid out from under them, Avery picked it up, planted it on a hairless patch of the old man’s scalp and pulled the trigger. 


Todd Halbert’s wife had gotten tired of his drinking and kicked him out for the night. Too cheap to spend money on a motel, he’d been sleeping on a couch in the lobby of the pharmacy. At least, that’s what Gene and Avery gathered from social media as they spent the next few months touring gritty mountain towns in the Pacific Northwest with a trunkful of pills. Gene remembered the cheap booze on Halbert’s breath, the rage in his eyes that he’d seen before in other drunks woken from a deep vodka stupor. 

What remained unspoken between them was a drizzly Friday night in Tacoma. Their stash running low, and after a few close shaves with the State Patrol, Gene woke alone in a Comfort Inn as Avery rocketed down I-5 with what little cash and dope remained. It took a month to make his way back to California, and a few years after that to quell the resentment he felt for waking up double-crossed and dope-hungry at a roadside motel. 

Now they stood in Gene’s tidy cabin, the dark circles from those days mostly gone, the hollowness of their cheeks filled out. That night at the pharmacy felt like a lifetime ago, maybe ten lifetimes. Still, in the bed of his F-250 lay the filthy shovels they’d used to dig Halbert’s second grave. That was happening now, not then. 

The past had caught up to them.

“A hiker would have found him,” Gene said, as if looking for reassurance—as if he could hear Halbert’s bones stirring in that far-off place in the woods. He’d just returned from incinerating the wool blanket in a burn barrel at the edge of his property and he smelled faintly of gasoline. “That hillside just completely spit him out.”

Avery nodded, glancing around the cabin at the tokens of Gene’s new life. “I used to see people hiking with their dogs up there,” she said. “Only a matter of time before one of those dogs turned up with a jawbone in its mouth. It had to be done.”

“We should sleep easy tonight. We’re finally done with it.”

“Maybe you’re done with it. But it’s not over for them.”

He studied her carefully, trying to decipher what she meant. She told him that she followed the family’s social media accounts, that she learned Halbert’s wife still lived alone, never remarried. She went on about Jesse Halbert taking over the store when the old man went missing. It made him uncomfortable the way she seemed so invested in their lives, but he tried not to let it show.

“So you’re Facebook buddies with the Halberts?”

“I don’t know about buddies, but I keep up. I know they go to his empty grave plot every year on his birthday. Margaret never misses an anniversary.”

“Who’s Margaret?”

“His wife. If you followed them, you’d know how much we wrecked their lives.” She offered a small shrug that signaled a change in topic and she gestured at the walls. “You did good, Gene. I like your place. You look good, too.”

He laughed. “You told me that earlier.”

“Well it must be true, then.” She settled into his brown corduroy couch and pulled her knees up to her chest, making herself at home. “You know, I never had a chance to apologize for what happened in Tacoma.”

A sarcastic laugh. “What happened in Tacoma?”

“Stop it, I’m trying to say I’m sorry. I was a wreck back then. You must have been furious.”

“Can’t imagine I was happy about it.”

“I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“Thanks, Ace. You don’t mind if I still call you that?”

“It’s been a while since I heard it, but I don’t mind.”

He sat on the other end of the couch, gave her a soft kick with his toe. “We were both wrecks back then. I don’t think we made one smart decision between us.”

“If we did, I can’t remember it.” 

“But you know what? You look good too. Even prettier than I remember, if that lands okay.”

“I’ll take it.”

He rose and washed the grave dirt from his fingernails in the kitchen sink and shook his hands dry. “Hungry? I have a couple of filets in the refrigerator. It won’t take long.”

“You were always a great cook.”


She found him in the night. 

Gene had laid a bedroll in the living room for himself and set Avery up in the bedroom, and when she slipped under the blankets beside him, he woke, briefly forgetting where he was. After twelve years, she still felt familiar. Maybe her touch was lighter, lips more patient. In the glow of the woodstove they could have been young again, could have been any age, really. For a moment, he let himself forget why she’d come back. For a moment, he forgot about the drugstore and the skeleton in the forest—about Tacoma and the double-cross.

She ran her hands over his chest, kissing his neck.

“Is this okay?” she asked. 

He didn’t respond, just pulled her closer.


Around 5:00 am, he woke and added a log to the woodstove. Avery stirred, watching him in the darkness. She thumbed her phone and the light brightened her face. 

“Did you sleep?” she asked.

“Yeah. I dreamt a lot.”

“About what?”

“I dreamt that a crow flew into the cabin.”

“You mean into the window, or it actually got inside?”

“It got in. It made a nest in the cabinet. Is that some kind of omen?”

She ticked away at her phone, green eyes shining back the content on the screen. Then a smile and a quiet snort. “It says dreaming of a crow in your house means you’re exploring the deeper parts of your subconscious so you can move past something difficult. I’d say it fits here, don’t you think?”

“Not sure if I believe in that stuff, but yeah it fits.”

“I think you can learn a lot from dreams, Gene.”

“What do you dream about?”

“I don’t know. I never remember them.”

He put a kettle on and fried some eggs. They drank coffee and chatted about their new lives, about how and when they stopped running. He told her that his old man passed away and left him the cabin and a fishing boat, and now he made okay money chasing salmon around the Monterey Bay. She told him how she managed a feed store up in Chico and how it earned her enough for a used Jeep and a double-wide in the foothills. Just a little place to hide out and put on her vinyl records. She said it like she was happy how things turned out, but her eyes told a different story. 

He didn’t press her. 

“You can stay another night if you want,” he said. They were now standing in the gravel driveway, the sun yet to break through the redwoods. The smell of cold field grass and chimney smoke in the air. “Stay as long as you want.”

She toed at the gravel, arms crossed and head full of thoughts. “I’m going to say hi to a few people in town and head back today.”

Gene heard sadness in her voice. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Just that something feels unfinished to me.”

“With Halbert? What’s left to do?”

“Don’t get mad. It just isn’t sitting right. I thought it would, but it's not.”

“Tell me what you're thinking.”

She shook her head, lips rolled to one side. “Goodbye, Gene.” She gave a quick hug and opened the car door. “Call me sometime.”

He watched her coast down to the main road. She gave a little wave when she straightened the Jeep and then she was gone. But whatever went unspoken remained with him. She’d left a ghost of it haunting the driveway, rattling its chains.


Bones have memory.

Avery thought about this whenever she took pills for a headache or a fever. It woke something in her marrow. It made the old junkie nerves flutter. She felt it now as she stood in aisle three of Halbert’s Pharmacy, the aisle marked ᴘᴀɪɴ ʀᴇʟɪᴇғ. She turned a bottle of Tylenol in her hands—that hollow rattle inside like the sound of tires on a gravel road. Her bones knew that sound, too. 

The man behind the pharmacy counter looked thin and athletic. Wiry muscles down his arms and neck like a runner’s physique. Prematurely gray. He didn’t look much different than his online profile, only the confident smile was now more menial as he shuffled from his computer terminal to the back of the store, filling orders and answering phone calls. Jesse Halbert didn’t favor his father’s side and Avery thought that was probably a good thing.

She waited at the counter until she caught his attention, then lifted a bottle in each hand, asked, “Which is better for a headache, Tylenol or Advil?” She shook the bottles like a pair of maracas. “I can never remember the difference.”

He watched her over the rim of his glasses. “Most people take Tylenol for a headache,” he said. “But both will work. There’s bottled water in the coolers if you think it might be dehydration.” He dragged out the last word as if something had crossed his mind.

Avery caught the look. Part of her hoped he’d recognize her. She’d spent an hour on the street, watching the pharmacy—talking herself into it. She didn’t have anything worked out, nothing that she wanted to tell him. Just a nagging urge to be inside those four walls again and to try and make sense of the past.

She decided to beat him to it.

“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” she said. 

Jesse Halbert smiled, flipped his hands in the air. “Wow, crazy. I was going to say the same thing. You grow up here?”

“No, but I lived here a while back. I’m just visiting an old friend.”

“Hold up.” He held a finger in the air as he scrolled his phone, squinting at the screen. He kept looking up at her and back to the phone. Maybe he was searching for a news article about the robbery. Maybe looking at a composite sketch. A wanted poster. Avery wanted to run for the door and take the nearest freeway onramp with her foot jammed in the pedal. She’d found herself halfway between running away and making amends, and neither direction felt safe.

“Instagram,” he said, smiling again. “We’re friends on here somehow.”

Exhale. “Oh. I thought maybe that was it.”

They went back and forth, guessing at mutual friends and distant acquaintances. The warmth she’d sensed from his online persona was starting to show, and she played innocent well enough. 

After a few minutes he looked at his watch. “There’s a diner across the street, you hungry? I usually close up for the lunch hour.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if you’re hungry or don’t know if you want to eat with me? It’s okay either way.”

It took all she had to keep up the charade. 

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Maybe that’s why you have a headache.”

He went to the back door and entered a five-digit code into the alarm control panel and hopped the counter as if he’d done it every day of his life. “Hurry,” he said. He gestured to the front of the store. “We only have two minutes before the alarm goes off.”

She didn’t have to be told to hurry.

Her bones remembered that, too.


Gene had just sold ninety pounds of Chinook at the municipal wharf and was waiting at the intersection of Mission and Laurel when he spotted Avery outside the pharmacy. She was standing at the corner with Jesse Halbert, waiting her turn at the crosswalk. The light changed and they strolled across the street, laughing like old friends. He watched them until the car behind him honked, then he hooked right onto Mission and pulled into the Arco station and parked by the air compressors. 

Dammit, Avery. He tracked them in the side mirror of his pickup as they disappeared through the double-doors of the diner. What the hell are you up to?

He thumbed his phone and opened the message app, cursor blinking in the text box. He wrote three versions of what are you doing before erasing it all and clicking the screen to black.

He went to the minimart and took the restroom key and changed out of his fish-stained overalls with clothes from his truck box, washing off as much of the stench as he could with gas station soap and second-gen paper towels. When he came out of the restroom he opened the message app again, stared at it a moment, then slipped it back into his pocket and jogged across the street toward the diner. He circled the building and went through the kitchen where a few line cooks gave him sideways glances, and when he came out near the diner counter he sat in an empty swivel chair and pulled his hat down low. 

Avery and Jesse sat in a booth within earshot, talking about family, childhood. He could see the top of her head just above the wooden partition. When Jesse told her about his father, she began to dab her eyes with a paper napkin. Whether she really gave a shit about Jesse’s story was anyone’s guess. Gene figured it was the burden of guilt more than anything. Avery went on about her own father, and how his early death derailed her childhood—and from what Gene could remember, that part wasn’t a lie. Still, it made Gene queasy. Whatever was happening between the two of them sounded like some kind of goddamn love connection. 

He hammered a text: turn around

He heard her phone chime. She unzipped her purse and spun around so her eyes just cleared the partition. She played it cool, told Jesse she had to make a phone call and then she came around the corner and grabbed Gene by the elbow.

“Come with me,” she growled. She went down the hall, pushed open the women’s restroom. She shook her head and pointed to the men’s. “In there.”

Gene swept the men’s room and Avery bolted the door behind them.

“Why are you following me?” she said, eyes hot.

“Don’t turn this around on me. I saw you at the pharmacy on my way home.”

“So what? Now you're my minder?”

“Just cool it, Avery. Nothing good can come of this.”

“You don’t decide what’s good for me.”

“This affects me, too. I actually like my life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He rested his hands on her shoulders. “Ace, please. Whatever you’re up to, it’s too hot for me. I don’t want anything to do with it. You hear what I’m saying?”

She noticed herself in the bathroom mirror and she straightened, pulled her hair back, and fixed her hair tie. She lifted her right foot and grimaced. “Jesus. Do you men just piss all over the floor?”

“Some do. I don’t know why.”

“And you smell like fish guts, Gene.”

“I know.”

She blew a long, anxious breath at the ceiling. “I’m just so tired of carrying this around with me. It gets heavier every day.”

“I get it. So call me, talk to me. Not him.”

Another sigh, this time with tears. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“My father just died, too.”

“That’s not what I meant. You didn’t kill anyone.”

The door rattled. A man’s voice grumbled on the other side.

“Tell Junior there’s an emergency,” said Gene, thumbing a fresh tear off her cheekbone. “Then come back to my place and we’ll talk about it. This was a mistake. You understand? I don’t blame you. But it was a mistake.”

She gave a small nod. “Maybe you’re right. I just wanted to take it all back.”

“I get it. There’s a lot I’d like to take back, too.”

Another rattle. A loud knock.

She checked her shoes again. “Goddamn. Is it getting deeper in here?”

“Just get rid of him—and leave now. Okay?”


“And meet me back at the cabin.”


Avery didn’t show.

Gene paced the hallway, circled the cabin until the sun went down. He stood in the gravel driveway with his arms crossed, eyes hard on the road, listening for the sound of her car. He must have looked at his phone a hundred times. Depending on what Avery was cooking up, he worried that any messages between them might come back to bite him. He considered buying a prepaid phone down at the minimart just to place an untraceable call, but as anxious as he felt, he wasn’t certain he could walk out of there without a case of Old Milwaukee under his arm. He cursed himself for letting Avery back into his life, however briefly. Goddamn he wanted a drink.

Just after midnight a car raced up the driveway. Headlights brightening the trees. He heard footsteps and an urgent knock on the door. He took the nine-millimeter from his gun safe and crept half-naked into the kitchen. Through the window he saw Avery standing at the front door. She was calling his name over and over. He tucked the gun behind a couch cushion, flicked on the lights and unlocked the deadbolt.

She looked injured—leaning into the jamb, favoring her left foot. Clothes mudstained and torn. Blood smeared her face from a gash on her forehead. Before Gene could ask what happened, she burst into a long rant about Halbert and how she just needed to make it right, how she couldn’t sleep another night with the thought of that empty family grave plot. 

Gene looked her up and down. “You dug him up again, didn’t you?”

“It took me hours, Gene.” She talked fast and wild. “Then I fell and hurt my foot. My head. Oh God I fell so many times. I just really need your help. I don’t think I can finish this by myself.”

Gene glanced at the Jeep. Engine running, high beams on. He kept his voice in a steady monotone so it wouldn’t get away from him. “Do what, exactly?”

“Bury him in his family plot where he belongs.”

He didn’t know what to say. Avery looked like she’d just crawled out of a grave herself. He pictured her out in the darkness, hacking at that cold mountain dirt. He thought about the gun, too. He didn’t want to think about it, but he sensed it there behind the cushion. Just an arm’s length away.

“You know where his family plot is?” he asked.

“The cemetery on Ocean Street.” She lifted her phone in the air. “I have screenshots of their last visit. It’s between two ginkgo trees.”

“Then what? You going to give him a eulogy?”

“No—then we go separate ways. It’ll be done.”

“I thought we were done yesterday.”

“I mean really done. Done done.”

“What if I don’t help you?”

“Then I spend all night digging with a bad ankle. Straight through till morning.”

Gene bit his lip and gave a slow nod. He could control his voice, stop himself from reaching for the gun, but he couldn’t help the hard, glassy glare. As tattered and sideways as Avery looked right now, he didn’t think she could manage what she was about to do. Not alone. He’d have to help her if he didn’t want her to get caught and drag him down with her.

Or he’d have to kill her.

“Let me get dressed,” he said. “You lead, I’ll follow.”


A few minutes later they were snaking down the mountain, past the town of Boulder Creek. Night mist in the valley, no cars on the highway. Avery flicked the radio on, tuned to a vintage punk broadcast from the college. She wondered why you could only find good radio music in the middle of the night. Gene followed behind, and she kept an eye on his headlights in the rearview as the dark redwoods rolled by, mist collecting on the windows and running off in little furrows. 

She knew he didn’t trust her instincts, but that didn’t bother her. 

His part would be over soon.

She took a dirt road along the river and killed the headlights when they got near, rolling to a stop behind a grove of bay laurels. They each took an end of the tarp, Halbert’s bones and a couple shovels rolled up inside. A few yards downriver, they found a path leading up the embankment where the backlot of the cemetery sat. 

“It’s the second row down,” said Avery. “Just over there by the ginkgo trees like I told you.”

Avery clicked on a small flashlight and read the names on the gravestones. According to the engravings, the Halberts had buried their kin in this section of the cemetery for at least a hundred years. After reading four or five epitaphs, they found Todd Halbert’s name etched in granite.

They still hadn’t filled in the death date.

“Is there anything buried here?” said Gene.

“Who knows,” said Avery. “I’ve heard of folks burying photos, mementos.”

“Whoever finds him will have a hell of a mystery on their hands.”

They unrolled the tarp and went to work, Halbert’s skull gaping at the sky all the while. The earth still held much rain, and despite Avery’s twisted ankle, the digging went smoothly. Together they looked like antagonists in some gothic horror film, sinking into the grave as the hole deepened. By the time they climbed out, the mist had become a heavy drizzle. With hair pasted around their foreheads, they dragged the skeleton to the rim. They took a moment, not saying anything at all. Not even the slightest of eulogies. Just the sound of the river and the quiet of their thoughts.

One quick tug and the bones toppled into the hole.

Avery looked across the cemetery and back down over the river. A few lights blinked across town, but everything felt still and final. Like they’d buried the last man on earth. She could already feel the weight lifting.

“We better get going,” said Gene.

“I’m staying,” she said, resting on her shovel.

A blank look. “What?”

Avery’s face lit up with the glow of her cell phone pressed to her ear.

“Yes, I’d like to report a trespasser,” she said.

“What are you doing?”

“That’s right, in progress. Santa Cruz Memorial.”

A sharp whisper: “Are you crazy?”

“A woman. Mid-thirties. Digging with a shovel.” She hung up, then: “You better get out of here Gene, you don’t have much time.”

He looked as if she’d hit him with the shovel. “I don’t understand. Why go through all of this if you were just going to call it in?”

“Maybe they’ll know I tried to make it right.” Crying now. “Go, dammit.”

“I didn’t want this.”

“You’ve made amends now.” She gestured to the muddy grave plot. “You can move on. But I can’t. I lied to you when I told you about the feed store, about the double-wide. I haven’t been able to move on from this, Gene. Clean one year, using the next.”

“I could still help you.”

“You can't. No one ever could.”

“It’s not just about you. We did this together.”

Sobbing. “Well, I’m the one who pulled the fucking trigger.”

“They’ll ask you about me, won’t they? I’m not ready for this.”

He reached under his jacket, hand stalling there. 

“I saw the gun while you were digging,” she said. “Kill me if you have to, but I don’t think it’ll help you.”

“How can I be sure you won’t rat me out?”

“I’ll tell them it was Mike Sandhoff with me that night.”

“I thought he was dead.”

“Exactly. They’ll buy it. As long as they have me.”

His gun hand fell to his side. “Ace. Avery. Don’t do this.”

A police cruiser passed on the main road. Spotlight sweeping in the dark.

They both saw it.

“Go,” she said.

He gathered the tarp and shovel, took a step toward the river. He stopped and watched her for a moment. The way he looked at her made her feel so alone. Part of her wanted to go back to his cabin where they could have another night together. Maybe more than just one.

Another pass of the searchlight. 

A second cruiser up on the road.

She mouthed the word: please.


Down the embankment.

Through the bay laurels.

Gene chucked the shovel into the river and coasted the pickup as far as it would go before hitting the ignition. Then up the mountain. The whine and click of the windshield wipers all the way up. When he reached the cabin, he built a fire in the burn barrel and set the tarp ablaze. By now, she’d be in custody. Maybe she’d play it smart and wait for a public defender before confessing to the whole ordeal. She could plea down to manslaughter and get out in ten if everything went well. She’d still be young when she got out. In prison terms, middle age was still young.

The flames grew.

The sky began to change.

A crow perched on a young redwood tree, eyeing the burn barrel. It dipped its head and cawed and then it dove through the branches and coasted out of sight. 

He listened for it. He could still hear the wings pumping.

C.W. Blackwell is an author and poet from the Central Coast of California. His recent short fiction has appeared with Down and Out Books, Fahrenheit Press, Gutter Books, and Mystery Tribune. He is a 2021 Derringer Award winner. His debut poetry collection "River Street Rhapsody" will appear Spring 2022 from Dead Fern Press.