Shiner

I heard Uncle Jasper’s tractor rattle to life behind the house; every shudder was amplified by the tin roofed shed he stored it. It wasn’t a monster like you’d see at large farming operations around the valley and in the flatlands. No, it was just an old John Deer that Paw-Paw used to putter around the field and haul supplies down to the family garden. The tractor had been part of the house and the land since before I was born, and was the legacy given to my uncle, Jasper, and my paw, Calvin. I suppose it was partly mine now that my paw had passed after coming back from Viet Nam, a man changed my maw would say, and Jasper had no sons of his own.

The garden was as much a legacy as the tractor, and Jasper out of obligation or just a chance to rekindle memories of Paw-Paw worked it religiously every weekend despite putting in a hard week managing a roofing crew. This time of year, the mornings heated up quick, and since the pickings were mostly roots like carrots and potatoes, my uncle would work it only as long as tolerated. That would be close to noon and would give him the afternoon to enjoy some fishing.

If it were up to me, I would probably let the roots grow a little more and go directly to the fishing. Jasper was a man of deep work ethic, something sorely needed to work roofing across three counties under a beating sun with a crew that rather drink a Pabst than lay a sheet of tarpaper. This was the first summer my uncle brought me along, and it wasn’t to lollygag. I had to put in my hours just like the other men, but we discovered quick that I wasn’t cut out for the roof. I was helping down at the big house adjacent to our property that was owned by The Colonel. That’s when I discovered my notable fear of heights, and from then on out I was grounded. I was the gopher and errand boy.

I didn’t look forward to a beer like the other guys, I hadn’t acquired the taste, but I sure did enjoy my weekends. I’d help in the garden if asked, but this weekend Uncle Jasper said I could go to the State Fair with my pal, Easy. We’d made arrangements with The Colonel for a ride and I was waiting on Easy to come skittering down from his house up on the hill. Normally, he’d be down for breakfast before even the first egg was cracked. He sure enjoyed the scrapple. I wasn’t much a fan, but Jasper would get it from one of his roofing suppliers who came down from Pittsburg.

That old tractor puttered around the bend and towards the front of house, and I could see my uncle wave me up. I jumped off the porch and scurried up the hill quick.

“Ray you done good this week. I wanted you to know that, just as hard as the rest of the men. You got your money for working?” I nodded. “Well, here’s another five so you can have a little extra at the Fair.”

My eye grew to saucers at the additional money. I knew that Jasper paid himself last on the jobs, and sometimes there wasn’t a lot left over. “Thank you, thank you,” I said exasperated.

“And don’t let Easy spend it all on RC Cola.”

I laughed.

“I won’t be spending any on him if he don’t show up soon.”

“I noticed that.” Jasper said, looking at his own watch. “You better run and fetch him before The Colonel shows.”

I did as he said, turned tail and ran up the hill. Halfway to the tracks I stopped and yelled back, “Thank you, Jasper.”

***

Easy lived with his paw in a cabin up the hill, across the tracks that run coal from the mines. The senior Cook was named Everett like his son, but folks called him Buddy, though I rarely ever talked to him and when I did it was ‘Mister Cook.’ While people might call him Buddy to his face, no one I knew really considered him one. He was a drunk, and a mean one at that. Easy said it was due to his back, that his paw had been in an accident in the mines. He’d been on disability ever since.

If you didn’t know where the Cook’s cabin was, it was easy to overlook as the forest around it creeped so close that you couldn’t tell where the forest ended the cabin began. I had only been a few times, but Easy had worn a regular trail down to the tracks and back. He really does like his scrapple in the morning.

As I approached the cabin, I could hear Buddy Cook hollering to the heavens. Or loud enough to shake the trees.

“Gawd dammit, boy! Open the door before I bust it to splinters. Do it now, Junior, or I’m gonna give you a whoopin’ you’d not soon forget.”

It was only just passed eight o’clock, and Easy’s paw sounded like he was already down the bottle. I could hear him pounding on the hard wood of the door as Creedence cranked on the player inside. The harder his paw pounded, the louder the music got.

“Boy…” I heard him give a final warning. The feeling I felt was like the time I was up on The Colonel’s roof. The sky began to spin, and my stomach twisted to knots. Pure fear, but there was something else. I was more afraid for Easy.

Without letting another word thunder out of the elder Cook’s mouth, I shambled across the dilapidated porch and through the unlocked door. Unexpected, Buddy turned with a start.

“What in blazin’ Hell’r you doin’ here, boy?”

I wasn’t sure what to say, but I stood as firm as a fourteen-year-old could — though I suspect fear had ample to do with my rigidity — towards a grown man fueled with liquor and hate. Before I could formulate a response, Creedence cut out, and Easy opened the door, pushing passed his paw. He grabbed my arm and pulled me along out the door.

We were nearly to the tracks before we stopped to catch our breath. That was when I saw Easy straight on, and what Buddy had done to his face.

“Lordy, look’t that.” I was tempted to reach out and touch his eye, but Easy lifted trembling fingers to the purple blossom. He winced.

“That’s some shiner. Did your paw do that?”

Shame washed across his face, and Easy nodded. It wasn’t the first mark I’d seen on Easy, but never right there in your face — well his face.

Buddy didn’t sleep last night.” He said his father’s name with contempt, “Spent it in his chair drinking beer, and he must have found a bottle of somethin’ else, too. Liquor makes him ‘specially mean. Like stirring up a hornet’s nest.”

Easy touched his blackening eye again, wincing while a tear snaked out.

“He cornered me on my way out. Hit me with his own stinger.” I could see Easy turning red, “I thought I could hop out the window, but the old bastard nailed it shut. The Hell, Ray. I was about to break out the glass when you came riding in on your horse.”

Easy wrapped his arms around me, and gave me a hug. “You saved me, Ray. That’s the honest truth.”

“You’d done the same, Easy.”

“That Jasper ain’t no sumbitch. But we got to watch each other’s back, brother.”

We clasped hands in a shake, and I noticed my watch.

“Oh, shit,” I exclaimed. “We better haul down to The Colonel’s lest we gonna to miss our ride to the Fair.”

And we both cantered down Easy’s trail as fast as our legs could take us.

***

The Colonel drove an old, green 1949 Ford pickup that looked as good as the day he bought it thirty years ago, or so he claimed. Not a spot of rust or even a chip of paint, and the only variance was a new logo for Texaco. I don’t know if The Colonel served in an actual war, but everyone called him that being a man of stature around valley. He had made his money in the gas station business, owning almost a dozen around southern West Virginia. And now he was a Texaco man, through and through. And the money allowed him to buy the big house a half-mile down the river from my uncle, both properties shared the same sprawling bank that hugged the Greenbrier, and luckily for Easy and me, the same access road. Just as we came across the tracks, here came The Colonel and his green pickup.

The rutted gravel road crunched beneath the braking tires of the Ford, and The Colonel leaned out the already open window. As pristine as the truck looked, it never came with A/C.

“Well, I’d ‘bout given up on you two. You still wantin’ to see the Fair?”

We both shook our heads in agreement, “Sure do, sir.”

With a big grin, and most of his teeth, “Well, you better hop in back so we can be off.”

It took about forty minutes by truck, though it was a bumpy ride to the Fair.

If you have been to a State Fair, and maybe not all State Fairs are the same, you would know that the Fair is one part farming, with farmers showing off their cows, hogs, sheep, and a goat or two. And don’t forget produce of extraordinary size. I had once seen a pumpkin bigger than my Aunt Bertie who hadn’t moved from her recliner in three years. Then there were the crafts. Country artisans who built and made everything from wind chimes, to mail boxes to embroidered quilts. For kids, the animals had a lot of interests, but it was carny side that interest Easy and me.

With the fifteen bucks Uncle Jasper gave me burning a hole in my pocket, I bought us a couple hotdogs each and pops to drink. Easy, missing out on eggs and scrapple this morning, scarfed down his dogs in a couple bite. And I put short order to my own before Easy got any ideas. The sun was already heating up the Fair, and the cool RC colas we held beaded on the glass bottle with perspiration. With the heat, so far, I knew we’d be needing another bottle of pop before the day was done.

“So, what to do first?” Easy asked.

I thumbed behind us, “I don’t know, I saw they had a shootin’ gallery.” I placed a hand on my belly, “And I want to do the tilt-a-whirl, but maybe wait ‘til my food has set a while.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Easy laughed.

We turned ourselves back towards the shooting gallery when I went headfirst into Woodrell Daniels’ chest. He must have had the same idea about hotdogs as his white t-shirt was now a canvas of smashed hotdog and mustard, with a flourish of ketchup. I stepped back wiping the remains from my face, when I acknowledge Woodrell, who was with his brother Donnie Ray.

My brain and my mouth disconnected for a moment and all I could think about is that I ran into “Boner” Daniels. Though, no one was supposed to call him that, and hadn’t since he’d sprung up to the size of an oak. That boy was every coaches dream. But that’s all I could think of when I saw his reddening face, and I’m sure my smirk didn’t help at all. In the moment, I just remember being told how Woodrell was a fan of singer Woody Guthrie and when he was twelve he told everyone to call him Woody. Only the older kids, then, thought it was funny to call him “Boner” instead. And for a while it stuck.

So, in that disconnect the words tumbled out, “Oh, my gawd. I’m so sorry, Boner!”

As soon as the name left my lips, I knew what I had done. All I could do is stand in shock as the six-foot-whatever all-star turned a shade of red I didn’t know was possible. He looked like a thermometer about to burst.

I didn’t see the fist.

I fell back before I even knew Woodrell clocked me, scraping my elbows on the pea-stone covered causeway. Immediately, spectators circled, making a wall around Woodrell and me. A tiny colosseum where I was already fallen.

“I didn’t mean nothing,” I pleaded from my backside, looking up the Goliath to my David.

“Don’t you touch him” I hear Easy call out from behind.

Woodrell snickered.

“What you going to do about it?” Came another voice came from behind. I recognized it as Donnie Ray, Woodrell’s younger brother. I glanced back and saw he had Easy by the arms, all tangled up behind and twisted in hold of some kind. Easy attempted pull out, but with little success.

Donnie didn’t have Woodrell’s oaken stature. No, he was lankier with hard sharp features. If you didn’t know them, you’d never guess they were brothers, much less related, save for their mean disposition. My father called them Irish twins once because they were only ten months apart. Being younger of the two, Donnie had never seen their father, who was sent up to Moundsville and sat in the chair for killing his best friend Tupper Laughton. I’ve been told that Tupper was lanky fellow himself.

I figured my best option was to stay put and not move. Woodrell was three years older and a hundred pounds heavier, and god knows how much taller. He wrapped his thick hands around my shirt collar, deciding he didn’t like my option. Woodrell lifted me off the ground, and there was little I could do to resist.

Once he had me to my feet, Woodrell looked confused. I could tell he was attempting to form to words, but all that blood squeezed into his radish head wasn’t sending the right transmissions, and all I got was the heat huffing from his gaping mouth.

“I got money,” I blurted, not thinking again.

Woodrell’s face dropped a shade, his grip lessened, and maybe a thought was knocking around after all. But then his left fist tightened on my shirt collar and he drew back his right. He actually started to grin.

“I’ll pound you, and take the money. How about that?”

I heard Donnie Ray grunt, and then saw Easy break through the wall of spectators. The younger brother was on his knees, clutching his heritage.

Easy Cook hit Woodrell Daniels like a cattle rod, pure force hammered from a piston. Unstoppable. They toppled to the ground, Woodrell shocked, unable to comprehend what had happened, as Easy flailed his fist with mindless accuracy. It was all the larger boy could do to protect his face.

I was on my feet, and Donnie Ray was still on his knees contemplating his fatherhood. I could see that Easy was nowhere near ready to stop, but it had to stop. I grabbed at his arm, and yanked him off Woodrell.

Easy’s eyes were filled with rage as he stared up at me, but I held my gaze and he snapped to, and clambered to his feet as well. I gave him another tug and we ran, breaking through the human arena. I glanced back only for a moment to make sure that the “king of the field” was still moving, and I saw him press his meaty hands against his bloodied face. Seeing he was alright, I urged my legs to keep moving, my hand still tethered to Easy.

***

Deciding it wasn’t the best idea to hang around the Fair, we found The Colonel’s old Ford, leaving a note to say we were going to walk home up the tracks. It’d take us all afternoon, and I’m sure we would be thinking about those cold RC bottles before the afternoon was over.

“What made you do that?” I asked.

We hadn’t really spoke or even stopped to think about what consequence our run in with Woodrell might have.

He shook his head uncommittedly.

“I don’t know. I mean, I knew that I wanted to stop him from pounding you. I couldn’t let him hurt you over some stupid accident.”

“Yeah, but you could… I don’t know… just knocked him down. You hurt him.”

He nodded.

“I wanted to hurt him.”

I knew then that it wasn’t Woodrell he was hitting. All those strikes were hitting someone else.

I hugged him. He pushed me off and looked me in the face. And laughed.

“What?”

“You got a shiner too. We’re brothers.”

With all the adrenaline, and the nonstop flight, I hadn’t even considered the pain gnawing under my left eye. I didn’t dare to touch it. And a queer notion came to mind.

“Yeah, the Shiner Brothers.”

“Maybe, we should go on the road? Be bigger than Woody Guthrie.”

“You know how to play guitar?” I asked, “’cause I can’t sing a lick.”

We laughed. If we’re lucky we’d get home by supper.

I wonder what Uncle Jasper will think about the adventures of the Shiner Brothers?

The Dog Catcher

“Fuck no!”

I clicked off the phone and rolled over. It was Mitch’s goddamn morning to work, but the asshole ditched another shift. Not my problem, and fuck me if I was getting out bed.

My cell rang again. Fuck. Me.

I clicked it on. Irlene would call until the battery was dead. Then show up on my stoop. No way out.

“Irlene, goddamn it, I just got to bed. Harass Mitch. He’s the asshole”

Irlene laid it real straight. Either I filled the fucking shift or I find myself another damn job. As tempting as it was, I rolled out of bed and said I would.

I choked down a stale beer from the nightstand.

Goddamn Mitch.

Thirty minutes later I rolled into the lot and I could hear the dogs already. Irlene was waiting for me at the door with keys and clipboard.

“RayJay, appreciate this.” Big old slant tooth smile. “Got you a call already, so you need to turn your butt around and get yourself up to Red Oak.”

“Whatever,” I took the keys and the clipboard.

Bitch.

Red Oak was on the other side of town and the clipboard request was an Officer Needs Assistance.  I should pull over. Take a nap. I wasn’t in no hurry to help a pussy cop.

There was a cruiser waiting in the drive. I pulled behind . No cop inside, so I got out and walked up the house.

I knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked again and tried the door.

“Hey, officer? Somebody here call for Animal Control?”

I strolled down the main hall, peering around, wondering where the fuck’s the cop? I grabbed a picture from a side table with a familiar middle aged dude and a smoking hot Asian chick.

“I’d put that down, if I were you.”

“Shit.” I nearly dropped the frame, catching it in mid-bobble.

“Mr. Z wouldn’t appreciate you touching his stuff.”

I looked at the photo and then at the officer standing at the end of the hallway.  Shit. “J.C., so you’re the pussy cop I’m looking for?”

“Guilty as charged.” He turned and waved me down the hall towards the kitchen. I put down the frame and followed.

“Been a while. So this is Mr. Zacharis’ joint?”

“Yep. You heard?” J.C. opened a door to the basement and clicked on a flashlight.

“A bit, the hag at work has son in his class. The boy was all balls up over Zacharis taking a dirt nap.”

J.C. nodded and I followed him down into the dark dankness of Zacharis’ unfinished basement. A rank roiled up the stairs. The prick, J.C., already covering his face didn’t even warn me. My stomach tried to lurch.

“What the fuck? Dude.”

“Dunno. We got a call from a neighbor about some noises, so I got sent over. The house was clear, but then something fell in the basement.”

He flung the light in my face and saw I had it deep in the crook of my arm. I was trying not to wretch.

“You’re going to be cool?”

I wave him on. Sure just as soon as I lose my beer breakfast.

“Something’s down here. Found a bowl and a makeshift bed for a dog, I figure.” He flashed the light over into the corner. “Heard something over in that corner, figured it was an animal and called AC.”

Wasn’t like the upstairs. The basement was stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and junk. This is where Zacharis kept his skeletons.

I gagged. “Seen this kind abuse of shit before. Didn’t pin Mr. Z. as a punk.”

I scanned the floor with my own flashlight and what open areas I saw. The ground was wet, piles of shit in the corner.

A box rustled and both our flashlights swept catching two pale brown eyes. “You see that?”

J.C. was pushing through the boxes, throwing them side to side. Making a path.

I looked around the room at the shit, the dog bed, the dish. Lights burst behind my eyes, knees weak. “Fuck…” I bent over and puked.

When I looked up, J.C. emerged from the boxes with a stick thin, flat faced girl with matted black hair and in a soiled oversized t-shirt.

“It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get you safe.” He said soothingly, carrying her up the stairs.

I puked again.

Until Again

Methuselah. That’s what they call him, the regulars that ride my train. Other things too, but Methuselah is the one that sticks in my mind. It seems to fit. It’s not as cruel.

I’d say he’s pushing ninety. What hair he is missing from his scalp is well compensated with a long full, white beard. If he wore a robe and carried a walking stick or a staff of some sort, Methuselah would be a perfect fit. He’s not wearing a robe. No, he’s dressed kind of young, though the denims look more worn than acid washed and the once stylish tee is tattered around the collar and sleeves.

Methuselah stares off, avoiding eye contact with the regular suits and skirts leaving Manhattan. Trying to avoid the heat of their stares, the condemnation of their whispers. No one talks to him, just about him. If they do, it’s some asshole trying to talk him out of his seat.

I feel self-conscious. But I watch him anyway.

What’s his story?

He turns his face and for a moment our eyes meet, then he looks away again.

Strange. I hadn’t noticed that before.

He has a small gauge in his ear. They look new. Silver and black centered in an elongated lobe. I’m sure there must be a mate on the other side.

Methuselah, you crazy kid.

The train stops and the woman who sat beside him jumps to the exit, so I slide in to take her seat.

Methuselah doesn’t move.

From a distance, he looks like a transient. You’d expect him to smell. Either of the street or of age. That old man smell, living decomposition. Methuselah didn’t. And his clothes — well worn — were not dirty.

“Hello”

It popped out. I can’t count how many times I thought about saying hello. Saying anything, but here I did it and he turned to me.

A smile with perfect white teeth opened up from his long white beard. Methuselah’s eyes rippled pools of blue.

He did indeed have a matching gauge.

“Hey,” he returned.

He shifted his body towards me. What do I do now?

“Thanks.”

Confused I said, “For what?”

“Nobody talks to me. Name’s Benjy.”

He extends a weathered hand. I notice the outline of a sleeve — looks to be intricate — on his forearm as I accept his hand in mine.

“Jeremy.”

I expected his grip to be less firm, frail. It’s not, tight and intense. Eager.

“Where’s your lady?”

I start to reply, but my tongue catches, feels fat in my mouth.

“You usually ride in the evenings with a dark-haired girl. She’s a nice bit.”

“Thank you, I think?”

He smiled without comment and I continued.

“Clare. My wife. She was sick this morning. A stomach flu. It’s been a couple days so she took today off. Was supposed to see her doctor, but she didn’t call.”

I must have looked worried.

“She be alright. I’m sure of it, Jeremy.”

“Do you have any family, Methu…”

“…uselah,” he finished, “They what they call me, isn’t it?”

“Um… Yes. Benjy, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. I guess I do look a thousand years old in comparison.” He looked around the car, many young faces dressed older than they wanted, wrapped up in the attire of old business men and women.

Methuselah seemed free of that confinement.

“The folks live in Queens.”

Folks? Parents?

I wanted to ask, but his face sunk, his eyes saddened.

“An old lady too, but I lost her.”

“How?”

“I lost her.”

“I mean, how? Did she die? Leave you?”

Methuselah became perplexed. His body ridged. He scratched his forehead, an attempt to pluck out an answer I’d understand.

“Do you ride the same train into Manhattan?”

“Yeah, Northbound. Get to 207 about 8:30.”

We came to a stop and he briskly got up.

“Try to be on this car. I’ll tell you more in the morning.”

Methuselah — Benjy — exited with a quick step.

***

The commute into Manhattan that morning was a blissful blur. I was tired and elated all at once. Despite fatigue I was sure my face was a great big glowing smile.

“Happy, Jeremy?”

“I am,” I said turning.

The kid looked at me with knowing blue eyes. Looked like a student dingy blond hair, the hint of a scruff on his chin and twin gauges in his ears.

“Who?” I asked, but as I looked at him, I knew.

“Benjy, bro. We talked, remember?”

Yes. No. “Sure?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird. I wanted to tell you, but not the kind of thing that’s believable, you know?”

“How old are you Benjy?”

“About 28, I suppose. Days kind of blur.”

I began to shake my head. “I’m 27. You, you don’t look 28.”

“It’s early yet. You’ve seen.” He bobbed his head. ” But I should be 28 when I find her. Be done with it and move on. That’s what I’m hoping.”

I wanted to throw the pressman’s handbook at him — who, what, where, when and why.

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, at first I didn’t think it were no big deal. We’d be drinking, Lacy, my girl, and myself, and things’d go sideways and we be fighting. So riding the train back home to Queens she went off on something, threatening to ditch my ass. Been said and done before. She always came back. This night, well we had an audience and she became an active participant. It were an accident, but Lacy got pushed into the old lady.

We was drunk, so we didn’t throw down any apologies. The door on the car opened and Lacy split. What street I don’t remember, the doors closed too quick. I figured she’d make her way home. We’d gone through it before, but we tight despite.

She didn’t come home that night. I didn’t pay no mind to what the old lady said. Thought she was babbling.”

He looked tired, older.

“I didn’t didn’t even know what  a baba yaga was. Witch. She cursed me.”

Benjy shook and laughed. “Cursed. Ain’t that crazy?”

I nodded in agreement. I was sure this was some elaborate trick but as we got closer to 207 he seemed to age.

“I don’t know what she said, but what I’ve figured it’s like the hot cold game I played with my pops as a kid. The closer I get to Lacy the younger I stay, the further… Methuselah. So I ride the trains all day, every day, starting young growing old.”

“Have you ever gotten close?”

He shrugged.

“A few times, maybe. It’s a big place.”

The doors opened at 207. As we exited, he said “Thanks. Tell your wife congrats.”

Methuselah crossed through crowded platform and got on the Southbound.

I never saw him again.

Killing Hope

I was six years old when Mrs. Greene introduced our first grade class to Hope Parsons, my first crush.

Hope was beauty before I even knew what beauty was with her golden pigtails, brilliant blue eyes and an infectious smile — even after Jamie Delano flung his Frisbee, knocking out Hope’s two front teeth.

It had been an accident, but before Jamie could say he was sorry I was on top of him flailing my fists, each repeatedly finding its mark.

Hope smiled through her tears and her purple fat lip.

***

I eyed her when she walked into the bar, a gorgeous fuck on heels. Long blond hair teased back to yesterday, a peak-a-boo skirt receding north with the ebb and flow of her stiletto boots. My eyes traveled up and down, settling on her tits; both jumping out her cheap low cut blouse deliberately bought a size too small.

The townies knew her. Like Adam knew Eve.

Setting her round ass on the stool next to me, she rummaged through her purse before leaning close.

“What’s a girl gots to do to get a drink around here?”

The regulars laughed on cue, knowingly.

“What do you want?”

Her blue eyes smiled, “What do you got?”

I didn’t answer. I pulled a fat wad of twenties from my pocket and peeled one off, laid it on the bar. I walked out and got into my car. She followed.

We went to her place, a room at a rundown lodge that rented by the week, the day or the hour.

“I ain’t a whore.” She insisted, but she didn’t mind the twenties I laid on her nightstand.

We skinned out of our clothes and got to business.

The bed springs squealed as she rode me. Hair whipped, I could feel she was riding fast to an orgasm, so I held on. We came together.

She flung her hair back and shot me a toothsome smile.

I bucked her off and the bitch crashed into a battered dinette.

I sat up. My face was hot with tears.

I thought of Hope.

***

Hope Parsons vanished on her eleventh birthday.

The town mourned, filled with sadness and flyers. Every telephone pole and shop window was littered with her picture. Her blond hair now straight, with a hint of a curl, her blue eyes were brighter and she still had a captivating smile.

Hope was never declared dead, but on her twelfth birthday the town dedicated its new park in her honor. It was an abandoned field, a favorite place of hers to hide and play.

I tried to remember that last day.

***

They found the body a day later. Her face was crushed and impossible to identify. Blood splattered violently across the walls and bedding, and pooled around the body.

The red blue neon of a dozen cruisers — local and county cars — flooded the parking lot. Officers stood around, whispering. Seasoned cops were smoking while several rookies were bent over sick.

They all saw the woman in the middle of the room, grotesquely bludgeoned, same as the nine before. A painted red message again read — No Hope.

***

Hope’s field was smothered with asphalt and covered in useless shops. It had been her favorite place to be, but now it was no longer a field. Not even a park. The town had forgotten Hope, moved on.

I remembered.

She snuck down to the field after her party with my promise of a special gift. Hope smiled when we met and I took both her hands, guiding her deep into the overgrown field. She didn’t mind.

We laughed.

My chest fluttered when she asked about her gift. I pulled her close like I’d seen older kids do and pursed my lips.

I didn’t expect Hope to pull away, so I tried to hold tighter, but she tugged harder, falling backwards.

The metal spike punched through her chest, a bloody pop. Her eye rolled, her skin paled and her perfect smile withered.

A final body spasm and Hope was gone.

Treading Water

I am going to die.

***

I was nine when I saw my first dead body.

During the summers growing up, I lived with my cousin Whit and his Dad.

Whit’s dad owned a cabin down along the Greenbrier. We spent those summers picking berries, hunting squirrels and coons, and wandering the woods and shores along the river.

It was mid-July and the river was so shallow in places you could practically walk across. It was an easy swim either way. So Whit and I trunked across and made our way up the river bank about a mile up to Chandler Creek to an abandon fishing shack that sat just above where Chandler met the Greenbrier.

We liked to nose around and have fun at the shack. There was a nice pool of water that fed off the slow currents.

That’s where we found the body.

At first we didn’t know that’s what it was. We’d hauled all kinds of garbage out of our favorite fishing hole. Old tires, trash bags left behind and even once a mattress.

Walking up to it it looked like garbage. Flies were buzzing busily about it.

Whit took a branch and started poking at it, as I ankled in to the pool.

The smell of it burned to the back of my throat and I gagged.

It bobbed in the water as Whit poked at it, then an arm came free from underneath.

A fat fleshy hand with fish nipped fingers waved at me.

I staggered back out of the pool with a scream.

***

Around the turn, Cranmer Ferry Road vanished where it usually snakes between the mountain and the Mud River.

***

Whit sat outside the gates inside an old white Chevy with a sloop back. I was never good with cars, but it looked to be the same one his dad tooled around in when we were kids. It was old then.

He waved me across the road. The rain was relentless.

“You picked a hellava time to get released Cuz.”

He said as I slid into the bucket seat beside him, tossing my trash bag of belongings in the back seat.

I looked out Whit’s window at the gates of Mount Olive – my home for the last twenty-three months – one last time.

“They don’t generally give you a choice.”

I tried to smile, but it didn’t take.

He threw the car in gear and we cut down the road.

“So what do you want to do?”

The rain hammered the windshield as the wipers sloshed back and forth. My mouth began to whet.

“I could use a cold beer or six. Why don’t we stop off and get a case?”

Whit smiled.

“I know just the place.”

***

When I whipped the white Chevy around the flashing barricade, the patrolman, covered in raingear desperately tried to wave me down. All I could think about was I was less than two hours out of prison with a pistol lying on the passenger seat and Whit knocked out in the trunk.

Whit had gotten me in trouble again and I wasn’t about to go back.

***

As quickly Cranmer Ferry Road vanished, Whit’s Chevy slid sideways over a slight embankment down into the Mud River. Sinking and floating all at once. The water hugged the old white sloop back Chevy and the doors wouldn’t budge.

The river water slithered through every crevice the old car had available, racing the outside flow to the roof.

I wasn’t going to die. Not after doing twenty-three months. Not for Whit.

Whit?

***

We pulled into Charlie’s Git N Go. I went in ahead, while Whit topped the tank.

The bell jingled and old Charlie Danver look up from a cart of cigarettes he was marking. A great big smile grew out of the forest of white whiskers.

“Bobby Talbot, that you boy? I ain’t seen you around in a good while. Seen that no good cousin of yours a bit too often. All squirrely each time he comes by.”

I shuffled, “Yeah I’ve been away. Whit’s out at the pump.” I thumbed behind me.

The bell rang again. Charlie’s eyes went wide.

“Boys, I don’t want no trouble.”

“Then you best step aside and let us do what we came here to do.”

I turned and there Whit stood with a nickel plated revolver pointed square at the round belly of Charlie Danver. I didn’t say anything, I just swung my arm down hard on his pistol hand. The gun flung to the floor.

“What the fuck, Bobby. They make you a sissy in the pen?”

He tried to crack knuckles to my jaw, but I shifted as the bony fist swished by. I used the momentum to throw my knee into his gut, following up a hard fist to the side of his head as he went prone.

I picked up the gun, tucking it in my belt, and then grabbed Whit’s slack body by the arm.

“We wasn’t here” I told old Charlie Danver as I drug Whit out the door.

***

The trunk of the white Chevy was open, so I threw Whit in, thinking when he came to he’d have time to cool down before I let him out. Last thing I needed was for him to throw a fit as I was racing as far away from Charlie’s Git N Go.

The car was all but submerged and if I didn’t do something soon the car and the trunk would be our watery casket.

The water inside was swaddling my waste and the water outside pressed hard against the doors.

I took the revolver, pulled hard on the trigger. Again and again. The empty chambers rolled one after the other.

Click. Click. Click.

“Damn it, Whit!” Who brings an empty gun to a robbery.

Outside the car was bobbing its last bobs. Inside my chest soaked with river water. I slammed the pistol butt against the window. The water absorbed the hit.

Not much time left.

I am going to die.

I remembered Chandler Creek. I was going to be that body.

***

I dreamed of illuminated fish swimming under the shore, slashing streaks of light and bursting in thunderclaps, one after another. I was floating free, lifting through the bubbling waters up towards a tunnel of light.

I was ready.

A thunderclap hammered my chest, my heart seized.

I coughed a spout of water and tried to sit up.

“Relax there son. You’re going to be alright.”

I coughed more and sat up anyway, the cold mud of the bank against my palms.

The rain was no more than a drizzle as the sun finally broke.

The Mud River was a torrent of brown water, swallowing anything its wake.

It would be days, maybe weeks, before Whit’s car was pulled from its muddy base.

The Greenhorn

Until sundown. That’s how much time Deputy U.S. Marshal Brady Hawkes had to get out Prosperity.

Most men — tougher, bigger men — wouldn’t have hesitated to scoot. No options to it really, but the Marshal rode in on the torrid sands of drought baked prairie with the weight of justice hanging on his chest. A lone figure of the law come to clean up the town of dangerous men and lost women.

Prosperity rose up like many towns in the West with the promise of wealth and ironically prosperity. Sheltered at its back by a fierce, wild ridge of hills and a particularly rich vein of silver up to Clout’s Rock, Prosperity sprung up of its own will. The silver flowed like a river for nearly a year on the backs of pack mules and prospectors alike. The town like a molting snake shed its skin and grew and grew. Then the silver was gone.

Backed by the low ridge of Rockies and facing an inhospitable prairie, no good for beast, feed or green, a town like Prosperity should have dried up like the silver and vanished. It were those hills and the mountains above that offered more value than a rich vein of ore. A man or a gang of men could hide out for weeks within the dense treeline. And the wild ones would find shelter among the rocks and the Bighorns.

Prosperity became the haven of bad men who spent their ill got gains on loose women, watered down whiskey and gambling.

Prosperity knew no law.

And so his esteemed Governor John Long Routt of the Territory of Colorado sent marshal after marshal to clean up or clean out Prosperity. Brady Hawkes were the fifth and Routt hoped the young marshal would be the last.

Hawkes came from a line of military men, who knew only duty and obligation. He wouldn’t turn tail like his four predecessors.

The sun gave the horizon one last kiss before the day gave way to dusk. The swaddling heat of the day loosened its tethers and Prosperity clamored to life as the rowdies came down out of the hills.

Hawkes pushed out the double doors of the Hotel Del Toro and looked onto the earth baked and hoof hardened Main Street.

“I guess we had a misunderstanding, Marshal.”

Hawkes eyed Curly Godot, the unofficial mayor of Prosperity and the biggest snake in the territory.

Curly was sunbaked, flesh turned leather from years of punching cattle before realizing his real talent of rustling and killing. Under that coarse hide sinews of muscle wired tight and were ready to spring. With the best he could make of a smile, Godot looked over to his right hand man, Slim Wilkins, who held tight to a Winchester.

“I’m pretty sure I told this greenhorn that if he wanted to see another day he’d be out of here by sundown.”

Godot flung his arms as a show. No sun on the horizon and the sky was nearing black with a canopy of stars.

Slim, a good twenty pounds heavier than Curly, gave a broken toothed smile before spitting a glob of tobacco juice onto the dry earth.

“It looks like you have overstayed your welcome. Marshal?”

The Marshal didn’t falter and stepped off the planks of the hotel’s porch, boots meeting hard dirt.

“Godot, I’d try to reason with you. Maybe, plead a case that this situation doesn’t have to come down to who’s standing last. We both know this town isn’t going to change until you’re gone and well … there’s only one way that is going to happen. Am I right?”

What little smile Curly had whimpered and his hands settled on the butt of his guns. Slim’s hands wrung tight on the Winchester as a fat finger snaked towards the trigger.

Wilkins felt the gun press against his back, and I whispered, “This is just between the Marshal and Curly. You want to flirt with death?”

Slim’s head shook as his hand slid away from the trigger and we both stepped back off of the street.

Curly Godot grimaced, his weather worn features were hardened by the stark light from the torch lamps and the luminescence ebbing from the lit saloons and the parlors lining the street.

Men like Curly Godot were a dime a dozen and only as strong the men around them. It was likely that someone would step up and take Godot’s place were he to fall, just as it was so that the Governor would send another man to Prosperity.

Hawkes and Godot squared off. Both men hands ready.

“You can still get, Marshal.”

“I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not a coward like you.”

Within a breath both men drew down, the gun hammers cocked back during a frozen moment of time as the dueling guns rose up to release their deadly load. The street was a silent pan of emotions.

“Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy? You better pick up now cause who’s your daddy?”

Everyone’s head turned.

The director sprung up out of his chair and turned a shade of red that I’d never seen on a man’s face.

“Cut! Mother. Fucking. CUT!”

He looked across the gallery.

“Who the fuck is the stupid ass-fucker who brought a mother fucking mobile phone to my set?”

All eyes turned to me. My hand slipped out of my pocket holding the offending weapon.

He walked over, grabbed my phone out of my hand and slammed it into the dirt. Then literally flipped his wig as his toupee flung forward as he stomped my phone.

Veins throbbing along his reddened temples and forehead.

“What the fuck is your name?” He flung up his hand up in my face to stop me from answering. “No. No, don’t tell me. I don’t even want to breath your name. You’re done kid. It’s over. Get this mother fucker off my mother fucking set.”

He turned, walking away, cursing as he went.

I was done.

Fish Stew

It made a satisfying ‘pop’ when Donnie’s nose crushed under my knuckle-scared right. I threw another to his jaw, and then a left into his gut. It had forced the air out and Donnie crumpled to the floor gasping, half sitting, gurgling through his nose.

Wasn’t Donnie Braggio a sight for sore eyes?

I lifted him up by the collar and set him up against the bar. I steadied him, and laid one into the breadbasket. Reflexively he started to double; I pushed him back with a hard palm. Pinned upright, I hammered away at Donnie’s face with my right. Had he lived, I’m sure he’d be sucking through straw the rest of his life.

He never was much of a fighter. Not one on one. Donnie fought with back-up, with the odds in his favor. Bad odds tonight.

I let him drop.

A second time I asked, “Remember Fish?” No laugh this time.

A swift kick to his side, I imagined my steel-toed boot shattering Donnie’s ribs and fragments tearing into his lungs and spleen.

Donnie gasped and wheezed, dying for some blood-free air. Fish hung on for ten hours. I wasn’t going to let this play out. My boot slammed down on his already beaten face, again and again.

What a bloody mess.

Drained, I looked at the body. At what was left Donnie Braggio, the little boss of Hagers Juvenile Center.

I never forgot Fish.

It was still early morning and I found myself on an upscale block lined with renovated brownstones. I climbed up a set of cobbled steps. Standing in the doorway, I wasn’t sure that I was ready for this. It had to be done.

I buzzed. No answer. So I pounded on the door. After what seemed like minutes, a light flickered on. I heard the bolt and stood back.

He stood in front of me in a loose robe over his short wiry frame. Hair matted flat, bed head, and his glasses hung crooked on his long bent nose. He regarded me.

“William? It’s very late.”

“Early,” I corrected him.

I pushed my way in. I didn’t bother to look around; I’d been here before, though never invited.

“I need to tell you something.”

I walked down the narrow hall towards his office, the one he kept for private patients.

He followed me in. “What is this about?”

I took a seat in front of his uncluttered desk, a computer monitor sat to one side and a family photo of his wife and son to the other. Warily, he sat, facing me. His tired eyes were eager get on with it.

“I killed Donnie Braggio.”

His eyes widened. Not out of shock, but recognition. During our sessions downtown, I never mentioned Donnie, but it was a name he knew. I could see his confusion.

“Remember Fish?”

He nodded. We had talked about Fish, a friend who died when I was a kid. It was an accident I had said. He suggested my anxiety was misdirected guilt. But I was guilty.

“I haven’t been honest. I was responsible. I let Donnie beat Fish until there wasn’t anything left. He asked for my help and all I did was listen to his screams. Fish didn’t belong at Hagers. He was a good kid who made a mistake.”

His eyes began to well.

“I promised Fish that I’d make things right. Get some redemption.”

He wasn’t paying attention; instead he mooned over the family photo.

“I was there when Fish died, after Donnie had beaten him, in the infirmary watching him grab his last breaths. You know who he blamed?”

He didn’t respond, but there was look of understanding. I tipped over the name plate on his desk: Dr. Richard Salmon.

I pulled the snubnose from my jacket. He didn’t flinch. I shot once.

Good-bye, Fish.

Cross Country

The train seemed unusually empty this morning. Not that I minded, the night before the train had picked up three travelers which brought the car’s capacity to about half. Two men and a woman. Luckily, I wasn’t burdened with any as a seating companion. Making polite conversation with strangers is almost unbearable. I can manage, but it makes me uncomfortable, especially the chatty ones. You can only listen to so many stories about cats, work or the family. Normally putting in my headphones and throwing up my hoodie is enough to derail unwanted conversations. Inevitably there is always someone who can’t take a hint.

I am single, no family, no pets. I lived in a small, sparsely furnished studio apartment. I didn’t have a regular job, not a typical nine-to-five. Despite my spartan ways, I could never acclimate myself to a routine, a schedule. I watch very little TV and despite being well compensated for the job I do, refuse to pay ticket prices at a theater. So that leaves out most of the trivial conversations.

I do like to read. Travel by train is my preferred method, especially when a job doesn’t need expedited, it leaves a lot of down time. Books and magazines fill that void. As long as I don’t have any chatty Cathys, I’m fine.

Waking to a nearly empty compartment, doesn’t throw me at all. It makes me feel at ease. There is a guy towards the front of the car asleep, blissfully unaware the car is so vacant and free. Everyone else is probably in the dining car, or possibly got off during one of the early morning stops.

I get up from my semi-reclinable seat to stretch. I see the guy up there is really knocked out, probably how I looked fifteen minutes early. Then I spy something in the corner of my eye as I twist my back around, stretching. A man standing in the rear doorway connecting the adjoining car. He’s on the other side of the glass, watching me and talking to no one.

Casually I sit back down, turning forward. I notice in the shadow of the facing door another man. Watching.

I pull out my laptop. It had been tucked into one of two bags I carried on in LA. The other I had stowed away a couple cars back.

I watched the mystery man at the front with quick glances while I used the camera on the laptop to see behind me, watching his doppelganger. Neither moved, but continued talking to no one.

The train rolled across the Illinois landscape towards the East Coast, destination NYC. Ten minutes had passed since I woke and aside from my sleeping companion, my stalwart watchers, none of the previous nights passengers returned. I felt uncomfortably alone. Oddly, I wanted to chat.

“Hey, buddy.” I hollered ahead.

He shifted, but ignored me. At least he wasn’t dead.

I’d give him a few more minutes, maybe he’d rouse and be more talkative. The bookends didn’t appear to be any immediate threat. I flipped closed the laptop, set it aside and dug out a dog-eared copy of THE BLONDE from my bag.

A couple pages down and the sleeping stranger lifted himself up from his seat. He looked at me and then lost balance, catching himself on the cushioned seat. He shook his head, gave me a wilted grin.

He saw I was watching him, eyes no longer focused on the book. He shuffled forward. He looked sick.

Three steps short of me he collapsed. I jumped out of my seat.

“You OK? Buddy?”

He didn’t answer immediately. Looking up, the mystery man at the forward of the car was gone.

“I’ve been poisoned,” the man at my feet said in a low groan.

I bent down, grabbing his arm, turning him. He was about my age, twenty-seven, twenty-eight. Similar build, a white guy. Probably from the West Coast, too. He extended his hand and I took it, and as I lifted him up he coughed right in my face. I dropped him.

“What the fuck. Dude!”

“You’ve got it now. You have to help me.”

I grabbed him by his collar with both hands, bringing him inches from my face.

“Or you die.” He gurgled.

I slammed him back against the floor. He went “ummf” and started laughing. Hysterically.

I drew my arm back, hand clenched in a fist.

He threw his hands up, laughter gone. “The book. The book.”

I withdrew, stood up and though, What book?

Sitting up on the floor he pointed to my chair. I didn’t look away, instead took a step back. Spacing myself.

“I saw you were reading Swierczynski. I must have read THE BLONDE three times. Kind of a crazy plot. Nanotech. Proximity. Clandestine organizations. All kinds of crazy. Have you read SEVERANCE PACKAGE?”

He lifted up, looked me eye-to-eye and extended a hand. I took it.

“Conrad Tuttle.” He said it matter-of-fact. Then reached to his side with his free hand, pulling up a Glock. “Agent Conrad Tuttle.”

He smirked. His grip on my hand tightened. The gun pressed against my collar bone.

“Mr. Brand we’ve got a situation.” Tuttle must have seen a glint of surprise, “It is Michael Brand? Please, tell me a lie and say you’re not.”

“No, you got me agent. You are an agent, right? You’ve got a badge?”

I halfheartedly tugged my clutched hand, it got him to hardened the grip even more. He pushed more with the gun, biting into the fragile bone.

“This is all the badge you need to see, Brand.”

“That’s not good enough.” I grabbed his extended arm with my free hand and fell backwards.

Agent Conrad Tuttle propelled forward, releasing his grip. Tucking as I rolled back, I managed to flip him under me. Momentum and weight buried my knee deep into his groin. He curled and I jolted up, pushing off him. I glanced at both doorways. The book ends were paired up again and inside the car now, guns drawn. Both cautiously approaching, one slow step at a time.

I grabbed my laptop and sprinted towards the back exit. The moment slowed and I heard twin triggers. I dropped into a slide, hitting the closest goon at the knees. His neck ripped open as the twin’s bullet hit. Blood erupted and I pressed him out of the way, avoiding most of the spray. At the door, I look back and see the other goon met a likewise fate.

I pulled open the door just as the rhythmic sound of the track changed, the muffling earth converging into flowing air and rippling of a distant river below. How’s that for timing.

“Stop!” Agent Tuttle had managed to lift himself on wobbly legs. His gun again extended.

I flung my computer at him. He dropped to catch it. I pushed my way through the next two cars, retrieved my other bag from a compartment and strapped it to my back.

I look up and there’s Tuttle again. I stood between cars, shaking my head in disbelief.

“Dude, you got the computer. What more do you want?”

I jump out into the open air, water rushed closer. Tuttle watches as I fall.

“You guys are really way too serious about music downloads,” I yelled through the rushing air, “Aren’t you?”

I pulled the cord on my pack, deploying the chute. I flipped him the bird as I glided away and the train railed on.

The Needle And The Damage Done

“She never knew her, you know?”

Chief Jack Gardner, retired, said to the duty officer absently, thumbing a well-worn photo in his rough calloused hands. His gravelly voice cracked a bit when he said it, catching his throat.

“A girl ought to know her mother, don’t you think? Ava didn’t. She was just a babe when Alice clocked out. Her mother took the H Train, if you know what I mean?”

He choked, holding back a spasm, and cleared his throat. The old Chief’s hands trembled.

The officer noted Gardner’s condition. Judging by the oxygen tank and the audible wheeze when he breathed, Chief Gardner was a sick man. Little was left of the man who was feared from one end of the valley to the other.

He was a withered man holding onto a past that was dead and gone.

“This here picture is the only one of the two together. At least that I have.”

He showed it to the young officer who regarded the candid photo of a mother and daughter, Ava a newborn and fresh to the world. Alice looked as if she were ready to let go, relinquish everything. Still she managed a smile, a glimmer of hope.

“Alice gave me that photo when she was done with this world. The girl too.”

His eyes watered near to bursting. He fought, refusing to shed a tear.

“I told her mother once, after one of our indiscretions, that she reminded me of Ava Gardner. An actress way back when I was a kid. You wouldn’t know her. She was a beautiful brunette and I told Alice she could be that gorgeous if she’d just get off the needle. She’d be able to find her a good man.

“I didn’t know I was setting myself up, setting her up. I didn’t think. After two wives, one dead and one divorced.” Gardner shook his head, clearing the thoughts. “I didn’t need that responsibility. I couldn’t be that man. I rejected her. Alice vanished.”

The old officer peered through the one-way glass, into the other room. Disgusted by what he saw, grimaced. “Bastard!”

“What was that Chief?”

“Nothing, just talking to myself. I do that a lot now. You don’t need to call me chief. That Whitmore kid’s the one in charge now. I’m just an old man.”

“Sir, you’re still vital …” the younger officer started to rebut.

John Gardner waved off the comment when his chest seized, curled over with a raking cough. It was wet, gurgling as it rose up through his lungs. He leaned against the wall, forced his throat to clear and wiped the sputum from his mouth with a napkin. It came back pink.

“Sir, are you alright? Can I get you something?” The officer panicked.

“Fine. I’m fine.” He insisted, “I could use some water though. The cough tears my throat up something fierce.”

The officer rushed off leaving the retired officer alone. Gardner decided not to take the time alone to rest.

He stared at the man intently in the room on the other side of the glass. The guy, Roger Rocket, as he was known on the street, was a twice convicted Meth dealer. From the looks, Rocket was also a habitual user. Packets of crystal found with Ava linked back to Roger Rocket. He probably thought it was clever branding putting rocket stickers on product.

He pushed the interrogation room door open and shut it behind him.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Chief Jack Gardner, retired, pulled out a .38 from inside his jacket.

“Whoah, whoah, old man? Don’t go all Charlie Bronson on me. I ain’t done nothing”

He slammed the gun into the side of man’s head.

“I’ll tell you who the fuck I am, before I blow what little brains you have out the back of your skull.”

He placed the well-worn photo on the table close enough for Roger’s bloodshot eyes to see.

“You killed my baby. My Ava. My Daughter. She was all I had left, and you took her a way.”

“Dude, I don’t mess with kids. You got the wrong guy. I’m a business man. Legit.”

Jack pressed the barrel to the Rocket’s forehead. “Then I’ve got some business to share with you.”

“Don’t do it Jack. I don’t want to shoot you.”

He recognized the voice. “Whitmore, it doesn’t matter. I was dead when I walked in. With the cancer and the damage done, you’d only be doing me a favor.”

Jack pressed harder against the Rocket’s head. He smelled piss. It made him smile.

The gunshot drummed through the station. The damage done.

Mary Lou’s Lost Shoe

“Why aren’t shoes ever abandoned in pairs?” She said.

Soft, under her breath, the question floated out. I saw her reflection in the flickering black window. She stared out into the night. Light occasionally showered over her, bathing her in an unnatural glow as headlights swung across glass from oncoming cars. It gave her an ethereal ghostly pallor. Mary Lou didn’t blink.

“What about shoes?” I asked.

She said nothing. Not even a turn of the head. Stared out into the night, watching sign posts and mile markers race by.

“You can’t stay mad all night, Mar. I need the company.”

Mary Lou hadn’t talked in three hours. Not since Colorado. Now she didn’t acknowledge me.

“Mary?” I said again.

Mary Lou got that way when she was upset. Cold. Silent. A real ice queen.

She had learned silence hurt more than words. Not that she wouldn’t throw an occasional tantrum. Screaming. Slamming fists. We had had some epic fights. Followed by the best sex.

Not tonight. Not after Colorado.

I reached out to touch her red hair. The curls were inviting. Soft. Supple. How many times had I run my fingers through Mary Lou’s hair? Whispered in her ear? Told her we were going to take the world by storm? Too many, too many for sure.

Mary Lou.

The windshield flooded with light. A big farm truck wound around the bend half in our lane, half in theirs. I withdrew my hand quickly, gripping the wheel hard and swerved along the gravel shoulder. The car stalled, coming to a stop.

I looked back as the lights vanished around the next bend. I slammed my hands against the wheel

“Fuck all. That bastard nearly killed us, Mary.”

I cranked the car. It coughed back to life after the third time.

“You OK? Did you see that asshole? Must have been half asleep and didn’t even stop to see if we’re alright?”

Mary Lou didn’t answer me.

“I have half a mind to tear off after him. Catch up and put a pounding to him. What do you think? Mar?”

She wasn’t buying my bravado. Not since I let that cop pull us over in Colorado.

“You can’t let them push you around, Lester. They can smell a cunt.”

What was I supposed to do? Race the cop to the border. Hope he didn’t chase us right across into Kansas?

“Mar, don’t worry. I got this.”

I didn’t. What was I thinking? Driving a stolen car belonging to that old man in Elizabeth. He was probably dead. That was a mistake. I tried to tell the cop. Tried to explain it was all a mistake.

All he wanted to do was tell me was my tail light was out. I spilled the beans.

He cuffed me. Sat me on the rear of the stolen sedan and called for back-up.

Mary Lou pushed open the passenger door.

“Don’t get out of the car.” He said, hand on his service revolver. “Ma’am. Do. Not. Move.”

She stumbled out anyway. Toppled onto the dusty shoulder.

Unlatching the gun, the cop repeated “Ma’am. Do not move. Are you alright?” He stepped cautiously.

Mary Lou vomited. Her body convulsed.

He dropped any pretense and rushed to her side. Rolled her on her back and looked over at me.

“Does she have any medical conditions? Has she taken anything?”

Shocked, I shook my head. And before I could say anything Mary Lou had grabbed his gun and slammed an elbow deep into his crotch.

She patted him for keys. The cop rolled his body, knocking her hard to the ground. They were a ball rolling in a tangle, fighting for the gun. The gun went off.

“Mary Lou!”

She stood, then wedged a red pump firmly into his balls. “Bastard!” She spat at him.

He groaned.

Thank god. He wasn’t dead.

“Mary, lets get out of here.”

I shook my cuffed hands.

“We’re going to get, Lester.” She unlocked the cuffs and handed me the gun.

“Do it.”

The gun was uneasy in my hand. The cop groaned again, hands clamped to whatever manhood he had left. I was shaking.

“Lester. Fuck sakes. Do it.”

I couldn’t. Not again.

Mary Lou grabbed the gun back. “Start the car.”

I did. The gun popped twice. She got back into the car.

“Mary” was all I could manage to say.

She cut me off with glare.

“Cunt.” She turned away. That was the last thing she said.

I was. I shouldn’t have let the cop pull me over. Shouldn’t have spilled my guts.

Mary Lou knew what I was now. A coward. All the brave words in the world weren’t going to change that.

So I pulled back onto the road, driving deeper into the night. In silence.

A couple more hours wheeled by. The dash clock flicked past 4 am. I hadn’t seen a car or a truck in more than an hour. The passing darkness was slowly lulling me to sleep.

We’d pulled all-nighters before. We robbed twenty seven houses in four states. Stolen at least a dozen cars. I was the wheelman and Mary Lou the navigator. Not tonight. I was defined. I was the guy who crumbled under pressure. A cunt who let her do the dirty work.

When the old man walked in on us, fucking on his couch, it was the first time we’d been caught. He wasn’t supposed to be home for a week. Plenty of time for us to play house and loot the home. Maybe steal the car. But he caught us.

He went for the phone. I tackled him and his body crunched under me. He didn’t move. Silent.

Mary Lou was silent. I wondered if she was even awake. I could see her faint reflection on the passenger window, but I couldn’t tell if she was asleep.

If she’s asleep, I wondered, should I wake her? Two hours of Mary Lou chiding me was better than struggling against sleep. Once we got into Missouri she could zip her lips for a week and I wouldn’t care.

I pushed against her shoulder.

“Mary Lou?”

Her head lolled. She was knocked out.

I was going to give her another shove, but I saw the pack of L&Ms sticking out of the dash.

Mary Lou hated me smoking. She was asleep, so what would she care. If she woke up, at least I’d have some company again.

Seemed like a win-win to me. I lifted the pack and shook one loose.

L&M wasn’t my brand but I wasn’t going to complain. I bent forward and pushed the lighter. After a moment it popped and I yanked it out of the dash. The hot coiled lighter flung from my hand, falling down onto the passenger side floor. I could see the cooling amber light next to Mary Lou’s bare foot. She was missing a shoe. I bolted down to grab it before it burnt her.

“There’s a cop.”

“What?” I said. I barely heard Mary Lou’s words.

The county cruiser’s light slashed through the night. Lifting up, I could see the pooled blood in Mary Lou’s lap. It stained the flowered pattern of her dress.

I didn’t bother to grab the wheel as we missed the turn and the car tumbled through a cornfield. Stalks flattening as the car rolled.

Mary Lou’s body hung from the passenger’s chair, buckled in safe.

I couldn’t feel my legs and my head hammered. Lying with my back against the ceiling of the car, my head dangled out of the shattered window. I saw the body of a cop step into view. His gun was extended.

“Don’t move.”

I hadn’t planned on it. He spoke into a walkie on his shoulder.

“County. We’re going to need an ambulance. Two suspects. One’s a possible DOA.”

I saw more lights on the horizon. Another voice, more shuffling. I couldn’t turn my head to see the approaching voice.

“So which one do you think is the shooter?”

I looked over to Mary Lou. Silent. Red hair flowing, curls dangled down.

“It doesn’t matter. They’re both dead.”

There was a twinge in my neck and the night went black.