Payback Is a Bitch  |  Trina Allen















             



I PARKED THE PORSCHE a few houses down the street from the target. I’d borrowed the car from a couple brunching at Saint Jacques French Bistro, conveniently located in North Raleigh near the home of the asshole I would be visiting. The unlucky couple would have an unhappy surprise when they went to look for their posh sports car after finishing their risotto solei and apple tart tartin.
             I watched a terrier walk its owner, circling, yipping, and straining on its leash. A student rode by on a bike, no helmet, earbuds blocking out street noise—preparing for a future as roadkill. Shaking my head at the stupidity of the educated masses, I opened the glovebox, shook some white powder into the crease of an envelope, and inhaled. I took another hit, feeling the coke rush, and put the empty container in my pocket.
             It took me less than three seconds to close the distance from the car to the front steps. I cautiously scanned the street in both directions as I climbed the stairs. My target’s front door was a joke, simple wood in an even cheaper wooden frame. He apparently thought being a New York police lieutenant meant he didn’t need decent security. He obviously hadn’t met Red Riding Hood, a.k.a. me, his worst nightmare. He might as well have left the door open for me.
             I checked the Beretta in my shoulder holster. I took a second Beretta out of my pocket, opened the chamber—a round was there. Both guns were full-size .45 caliber pistols, each with a four-inch barrel—a man’s gun. I’d carried a .45 as a homicide detective in Raleigh. Old habits die hard.
             One hard kick to the door—it burst inward with a satisfying crash. Unless he were deaf, the target had heard my entrance.
             Sure enough, he didn’t disappoint. A burly man ran toward me swinging a Glock, a towel wrapped around his six-pack waist, his hair dripping from the shower, muscles rippling in his six-foot frame. I would have been impressed, but when his towel fell, I was embarrassed for him—his equipment was inadequate by my standards. Little Bob the Wonderworm, needle dick the bug fucker.
             “Need a hand?” I asked and fired the Beretta. His Glock dangled and fell from what used to be his hand. I kicked the gun across the carpet.
             “Son of a bitch,” he swore, spittle dripping from his quivering lips. “Goddamn motherfucker.” He wrapped his bloody hand in his towel, sucked in a breath, obviously in pain. “You … are dead.”
             “You got that wrong. ’Cause I’m the one holding the gun,” I said, my voice low and gravely. I aimed the Beretta for his kneecap, pressed the trigger. Nothing happened—the damned gun jammed. A chill ran up my spine—that’s why I always carried a spare.
             I reached for the gun in my holster, but he was faster. He delivered a blow to my mouth, followed by another to my stomach. I saw stars. So much for not leaving any of my DNA on the scene, I thought, red spittle dripping from my lips onto his carpet. He delivered another blow to the gut. My opinion of him went up a slight notch, but that didn’t change my objective.
             Shuddering, I sent an elbow to his neck, straightened and roundhouse-kicked his kidney. It wasn’t enough. He gut punched me again. I leaned into it, tightening my abs. No stars, but it still hurt like hell.
             There’s an art to beating up a man larger than you—it’s in the legs. So, I delivered a kick to his solar plexus, hard, and a second to his bloody hand. “Your wife sends her regards.”
             He went down, finally, but grabbed for the Glock with his good hand.
             I kicked the gun away. I had to give him credit. He had stamina.
             When he could talk, he gasped out, “What do you know about my wife?” His eyes narrowed to beads. “My wife’s visiting her sister.”
             “You are quite wrong. Your wife is safely in my underground. You will never see her again.” Kick to the other kidney. “Do not try to find her.” Kick to the neck. “Do not even mention her name.” I stomped his bloody stump.
             He screamed and then gasped out, “You will never get away with this.” He sucked in a breath through quivering lips. “Do you know who I am? I will find you … and … kill you, fucker.”
             “Not likely.” Then, I pulled the other Beretta, shot his kneecap, and pointed the gun higher toward his crotch.
             “Don’t shoot.” He squealed like a baby. How pitiful. I had hoped better from this rock of solid muscle who beat his wife on a daily basis.
             “Payback is a bitch.” I ground my boot in his face, hearing the crunch of bone. Blood ran from his nose. A broken nose is about the worst pain imaginable. I rubbed the bump on my nose, remembering. “It’s a bitch to fight someone who actually fights back. Isn’t it?” I shifted the gun and scratched my beard. “If I hear you are trying to locate either me or your wife, I’ll be back.” I shot the other kneecap and raised the gun. “If I come back, I won’t be shooting at your knees.”
             I left him alive. He would call 911, but he would never find the man who attacked him.
             I ran a quarter mile to a gas station, went into the bathroom, and locked the door. I found the plastic bag I’d left behind the toilet, pulled out women’s clothes, and began to change. First, I cut the binding holding my breasts. Ah, that felt good. I put on a woman’s business suit that showed some cleavage, removed the false beard, teeth, and makeup. My lip had quit bleeding. It was swollen, but makeup covered it pretty well. I completed my new look with a red wig and cherry-red lipstick, noting new crow’s feet around my eyes. I thought I could pass for a trendy, college professor.
             Putting the men’s clothes, beard, and guns into the bag, I walked out of the restroom and drove off in an old beater car I’d left parked in the lot.


♥♥♥


             The door jingled, announcing my entrance to Big Bad Wolf, Incorporated.
             “Hello, Molly.” I nodded to my receptionist. One of the jobs she had listed on her résumé was “circus clown.” I wasn’t sure she realized she’d changed professions. There was enough foundation caked on her face to paint a battleship. Red blotches on her cheeks, blaze-blue eyeshadow, and jet-black hair made her look like a real Bozo. I doubted that she could even type. She spent her days painting her nails and refreshing her clown look.
             I settled in the office chair, put my feet up, and called into my service for my phone messages. Although most of my business came from word of mouth, I ran an ad in local newspapers of some of the major US cities:
             Big Bad Wolf, Incorporated. Got a problem? Need help? Call Red Riding Hood. Fees negotiable.
             I meant it. I took care of problems, many of them nasty. All of them unsolved—and many unsolvable—by the police. My fees varied. The higher-paying jobs took care of the pro-bono cases, like the lieutenant’s wife. A Google search for “need help” or “desperate” called up the Big Bad Wolf, Inc.’s website.
             “A Mr. Little is here to see you.”
             A heavy, dark-skinned man walked to my desk and sat down. Rings of perspiration wet his underarms. His eyes on my cleavage, he said, “But … you’re a woman.”
             “No, really? I didn’t know.”
             “Word on the street is that you solve problems.” Digging at his greasy combover, he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow. “But this is not a job for a woman.”
             “Then, I’m probably the man for you. I can handle whatever you got.” He didn’t look convinced. “I’m sure the person who recommended me told you what I did for him.” I raised my eyebrows, remembering.
             I’d done some initial research on Mr. Little. His real name was Ned Bearskin, a member of the Saponi Nation. Bearskin lived in south Raleigh and managed a thriving car dealership. His marriage failing, he checked into the Super 8 each week, dusted off the old schwanzstucker with a local hooker.
             None of that interested me. But his daughter had been killed a week ago, shot during a robbery gone sour. That interested me. The police had made no arrest.
             “I know about your daughter. Whatever you need, I can handle it. Name’s Red.” I was born Rosa Cabalina, but I hadn’t used that name in years. More recently, I’d been Detective Rosa Wolfe with the Raleigh Police Department. Until my husband died, a victim of the Iraq War. Unable to cope, I had lost my badge for beating a man to near-death while working a case. Now, I got paid for the same.
             Mopping his brow, Bearskin looked me straight in the eye and described a job that nearly made me lose my lunch.
             “What you describe is horrific, even by my standards.” I named a high six-figure fee that I knew would clean out his savings, sure he’d decline my services. Instead, he agreed.


♥♥♥


             I carefully packed my workout bag, but not with gym clothes or sneakers. The most important piece of equipment was the hunting knife, a skinner with a four-inch blade.
             The sun was just peeking out on the horizon as I drove to the Raleigh Country Club. I parked, the sky oozing pink and orange. I opened the car door to a wall of humidity, took a breath of heated air, smelling the familiar scent of leaves, flowers, ragweed, and musty soil. My shirt already plastered to my back in the predawn, I considered living somewhere with a milder climate, but knew I’d never move away from the city.
             I had grown up at Chavis Heights public housing complex in Raleigh. I was ten the first time someone shot at me. My brother and I were walking home from school when a group of young men drove up to us and started firing, a gang initiation. My brother died in the ambulance. That was the day I decided to become a policewoman. End gang crime in Raleigh. I shrugged, perspiration trickling down my back. It hadn’t worked out quite the way I expected.
             I wheeled a road bike out of the back of the SUV, perspiration trickling between my breasts. I put a Smith & Wesson double-action .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol in my back holster, which I covered with a loose bike shirt. Next, I belted my knife case to my waist, inserted the knife. Absently, I felt for the badge clipped to my belt—my fingers swept nothing but belt. Even now, years out of the force, I still felt naked without the gold.
             I shook my head and pulled my hair into a band at my neck, then completed the outfit with a helmet. Anyone seeing me would think I were a member of the country club.
             I cycled the backstreets, whistling and trying to look carefree. Houses got older and seedier. I swerved to miss a drunk who staggered into the road in front of me. “Eat road somewhere else,” I yelled.
             At Beauty Avenue I rode past a house shedding what little blue paint was left on the wooden siding. I turned my bike around, got off, and wheeled the bike into a garage a couple houses down. I’d driven this street at various times over the last few days. I knew that the couple who lived there never came home during the day. The bike would be safe in their garage. I opened a small vial and sniffed, feeling the coke rush. I took another hit and opened my bag. I put a Glock in the right pocket of my bike shorts. I felt confident with the new gun. After firing it over 2,000 times, it hadn’t jammed once. I was no longer using Berettas—too unstable.
             I walked cautiously to the street, glancing both ways. A man walked toward me wearing a dirty coat, torn jeans, obviously homeless. Who else would wear a coat in August? I was in no mood.
             “Some help, lady. Anything you’ve got.”
             I recognized Nick the Nick, real name Nicholas Nicholson. I’d used Nick the Nick before, and I trusted him. I never liked using a partner, but I needed backup on this job, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut.
             During my surveillance, I had counted five people living in the house, my guy, a.k.a Prince Charming, two other men, and two women. Others came and went, but the five were permanent residents. Prince Charming had shot Mr. Little’s daughter. Her life in exchange for electronics that had a street value of a couple hundred dollars. He was stupid enough to sell them after the shooting. I tracked him down through his fence. I had methods of persuasion that the police could not use.
             Charming was my target, and could expect no mercy from me, but a little collateral damage could be expected.
             Nick the Nick and I used the shrubs for protection. I pulled two stocking caps from my bag. We each pulled one on and walked warily up the porch steps. They hadn’t left the door open for us. Unlike the police lieutenant, these gangbangers had a good-quality aluminum door. I’d break my foot, ankle, and leg before I kicked in that door.
             I took the lock pick kit out of my bag, nervous about the noise it’d make. I had hoped to catch them asleep. Nick the Nick grabbed my shoulder and shook his head, pointing at the old wooden doorjamb. I decided I liked working with Nick. He was always prepared.
             I pulled the Glock out of my pocket and tried to stop my heart from hammering. I was more than a little scared. I always felt an adrenaline rush at the start of each job. It was all part of the challenge. Nick pulled a crow bar out of his long coat and pried the door open in less time than I could have picked it.
             I rushed in, the Glock steady in my gun hand. Nothing. A woman slept on the couch, dressed in panties and nothing else, a six-pointed star tattooed on her tummy—a Crib gang sign. How cute!
             I gestured. Nick covered the woman’s mouth with duct tape and tied her wrists and ankles with plastic ties. We both crept toward the bedrooms: there were three. I opened the first bedroom door while Nick the Nick watched the hall. A woman and a man lay naked in bed. Not our guy. I started to back out of the room, but the man roared up in bed, a pistol aimed at my head. I shot him between the eyes. The .45 sounded like thunder in the small room. That ought to cause some attention.
             I nodded toward the door. The woman took the hint, grabbed the sheet to cover herself, and ran out the door with me close behind.
             Two burly men burst out bedroom number two, both brandishing knives—Charming and a close friend. Hmm. No sign of the other resident.
             I shot Friend in the knee. He kissed the carpet, screaming, still grasping his knife.
             Charming—not too smart, apparently—kept coming. I guess he thought his knife trumped a pistol. I almost felt bad about killing him. Almost.
             That’s when all hell broke loose. Gangbanger number five must have just gotten home because I felt movement behind me and then a thundering shot. I turned to see number five go down, shot through the heart by Nick the Nick. I definitely liked working with Nick, I decided.
             I shouldn’t have been so careless as to turn my head. While I was distracted, Charming slashed my shoulder, dangerously close to my carotid artery, causing me to drop the gun in my right hand.
             Friend staggered toward me, slashed at my Achilles tendon with his knife. I lost my balance, went down. Friend scooped my gun off the floor. He had some intelligence, I thought, as I reached for the S & W in my back holster. I was fast. Friend was faster.
             Friend aimed my own .45 at my temple. I cursed my stupidity and prepared to meet Satan. Two loud shots. Blood ran into my eyes. I felt a heaviness in my chest, but no pain. I realized I wasn’t hit. Instead, Friend’s body was smothering me, his blood covering me. I rolled Friend off me, swiping blood off my face. The hole between his unseeing eyes left no doubt he was dead, courtesy of Nick the Nick.
             Charming lay in a pool of blood, not dead, but gasping for air, probably a collapsed lung—Nick’s second shot. I knew that Nick hadn’t aimed for Charming’s heart. If he had, Charming would be dead.
             Nick and I searched the house. Three men were dead, the woman on the couch still tied, looking terrified. The pain in my ankle was intense, but fortunately, the Achilles was not severed, just cut.
             Now, I would begin the job. With Nick on the lookout and wishing desperately for a hit of coke, I pulled Charming upright. Limping, I got behind him, thrust my knee in between his shoulder blades, seized a tuft of hair in one hand, and with my hunting knife in the other, cut around the skin of his head. He was in no condition to fight back, barely able to groan. I slid the knife under the skin where I’d cut and pulled the whole piece of scalp away.
             I said the words Ned Bearskin had paid me to say, “Life is sacred and should be respected. You have violated the balance of life and upset the spirits. The spirits must be appeased.” Then, I inserted Charming’s scalp into his mouth, shoved it all the way into his throat with the end of my S & W. What was left of him tried to gasp for air.
             I added my own farewell. “Payback is a bitch.”


♥ End ♥




Trina Allen is an educational consultant and longtime writer whose stories can be found in magazines such as The Dead Mule, Chiron Review, Word Catalyst, and Thunder Sandwich. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and two Lab-mix dogs. This story first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly.

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Frequencies Between  |  Eric Shonkwiler















             



DRIVING DOWN US-50 and it hits. At first like she’s gone onto the shoulder and the rumble strip is shaking the car, something like a whale singing in her mouth mixed with a jackhammer. She puts both hands on the wheel to guide the car toward center and finds it already there. A sign passes on the left, black and white, broad strokes: HELL IS REAL. And gone. And the noise is gone, and she puts her hand up to her ear, grabs her jaw, fumbles her fingers around her face like her sinuses itch.
             It’s gray out, faded swaths of leaves carpeting yards and the untended roadside. There’s a radio tower topping the hill, blinking red. The highway is a winding capillary. The road undulates, ribbons through hollows. The grass is yellowing, the trees bare, and between them the houses are visible, the trailers, the broken-down cars rusting away on blocks. Barns with caved roofs. The entire county looks like it’s been smoked.
             She turns onto Tarkiln Road. Abby is fifteen today and though there’s enough money to go just about anywhere for dinner, she told Sarah to meet her at the Pizza Alley. Her jawbone is still tingling when she pulls into the parking lot. The corner of the Pizza Alley sign has been smashed, right where the ball should hit the pins. It looks purposeful. When she gets out and shuts the door the sudden bang clears something, and she can hear the highway, and a second highway, a low thunder that stops when her fingers leave the car door.
             She gets a blue gift bag from the backseat and walks inside. She smells grease and smoke and the not-unclean smell of people and breath in a closed system. Abby and a few of her friends are sitting at one of the round tables set back from the bowling alley floor. No parents, no mothers. Not even Abby’s. The lanes aren’t open yet but they will be, and that end of the building is still unlit. When she gets to Abby she puts her hands on the girl’s shoulders and looks at her friends.
             “Pizza?”
             They all say yeah. She asks Abby for her topping preferences and goes to order at the counter by the blank arcade machines. She places the order and waits for the clerk to ring her up. She knows most of the girls, has gone dress shopping with them and her sisters. The clerk takes her cash and opens the drawer and when he slams it home the arcade lights up, Pac-Man is hunted by ghosts, lights whirl on a pinball machine, glow behind a woman’s Daisy Dukes and thighs. The bumpers retract on the lanes and the pins come down from out of the black. Everything hums, chunks into place. The screens over each lane start to flicker and warm up, the grids burned into the glass. Behind everything there is a lower noise like from before, a faraway engine, a furnace.
             Sarah turns away from the pizza counter and pulls up a seat beside Abby, girls scooting to let her in. One of the girls leans across the table and reaches toward Sarah’s arm.
             “Guess who’s got a—”
             The sound cuts out when the girl makes contact. When she lets go and leans back she is laughing, and Sarah smiles. She managed to lipread “boyfriend” and tries to keep her composure. She looks over at Abby.
             “When did this happen?”
             “Today at school.”
             The other girl cuts her off. “Dalton came right up to her locker after fifth period. He brought her a rose.”
             “Niiice. What’d he say?”
             The girl goes on. Sarah shifts her body toward Abby. “Why don’t you tell us?”
             She blushes and does. Sarah listens, and then the girls all break in and start talking over each other. Sarah sits back. All of them wearing clothes her sisters or she bought them, otherwise it would be ratty T-shirts and worn-out jeans. When the sorority started the group, they made it a point to start the girls off with enough good clothes to make it through a week at school. When they moved on from there and bought them decent dress clothes the girls went crazy. Sarah had been there through everything, picking outfits with Abby, renting a dress for the spring dance last year and getting Abby’s hair done. Things Sarah’d taken for granted.
             The clerk calls her name and she stands, brings the pizza back. When she sits there is a roar. Like after a concert but not a ringing. The girls keep gossiping, asking Sarah her opinion on occasion. It doesn’t seem long and they have finished their pizza and are shuffling back from the table, standing. One of them has a car and will take the other girls back, but Sarah and Abby stay. Abby starts cleaning the table and Sarah slaps her hand away, smiling.
             “It’s your birthday. You chill.”
             “Oh, I can help.”
             Sarah shoulders in front of her and picks up the table, taking everything over to the trash by the counter. The clerk is in the back but sees her through the window, just his eyes. For a moment the roar is real and full and gone. More jarring without an echo, and she leans doubled over the trash and rights herself. Shaking her head like she’d drain water from her ears. Abby is looking at her and she smiles.
             “My ears have been funky. I keep hearing things.”
             “Weird.”
             “I guess it’s the elevation?” She points toward the exit and they go out. The highway surrounds her, semis and cars. Diesel. Abby is ahead of her for a moment and she spins around, slinging one of her gift bags open to pull something out. With her hair up and whirling, Sarah sees a bruise on the side of her neck.
             “Can I play this CD? Colleen got it for me today.” She holds up the jewel case. Some rapper.
             Sarah tries to keep her face bright. “Sure. Anything you want.” She unlocks the car and they get in, shut the doors. She waits for some new pop but there is none. “Lead the way.”
             “Okay.”
             She starts the car and Abby holds the CD in front of the player, looking at Sarah before she slides it in. There’s a moment before the music starts, and Sarah’s already brought the car to the edge of the lot. Abby points right and the music is nothing but a shrieking, scratching records and plastic wrap jammed into her ears. Abby is staring at her and Sarah sees her own hands are white on the wheel, they’re halfway onto the road. She looks in the mirror long enough to see a car coming and hits the gas.
             “Could you turn that down?”
             Abby winds the dial back and instead of getting quieter the sound changes entirely. Keening, whistling. Stellar sounds. Electromagnetic fields and radio waves.
             “Are you okay? You got pale.”
             “Yeah. It’s this ear thing. I should probably take a Tylenol or something.”
             “You’ll go left here.”
             She moves into the turn lane and cuts across the other side of the highway, onto the county road. They pitch down quick and then level out. Surrounded by gray tree trunks. A shed behind a barbwire fence, the door open. “Is this your road?”
             “No. There’s another turn at the top of the hill.” Her face buried in the blue bag, looking at the skirt Sarah got her.
             The road starts upward again and Sarah can feel the vibration of the engine channel through her fingers to her arms and to her face, her cheekbones. Topping the hill she looks at Abby. “Which way next?”
             She glances up. “Right.”
             The road curves for a hundred yards and then she sees the fork and takes it. The trees back off for a moment as the road dips and she sees the sky has gotten dark. Rain on its way.
             “How’s your mom doing?”
             Abby shrugs. “She’s fine. She’s been picking up a lot of extra shifts at the hospital.”
             “That leaves you at the house alone a lot, right?”
             She shrugs again. “Sometimes. Mom’s boyfriend is around most of the time. He said they’re trying to get some money together for a vacation.”
             “That’ll be nice.”
             Faint smile. “If they invite me.”
             Tiny screams come chorus-like from Abby’s teeth and cut out when she turns away. The song changes, the stars moving to a different rhythm, and Abby turns to the window. A farmhouse and behind that, a brief glimpse at sweeping land, bare dirt and corn stubble. Turning back to the road Sarah barely misses a squirrel and she swerves, corrects.
             “Geez.” One more surprise and she thinks her heart might blow. The heat is on in the car but she cracks the window and in pours a cold wash of air and the roar, nearer. It is no longer small.
             “Right up here. Here.”
             Sarah follows Abby’s pointing, slows and pulls onto the short gravel drive. The house is a good distance from the road and the yard bare until the house itself, guarded by trees and bushes. Some hull of a truck is pushed back in the sideyard. The car stops and when Sarah opens the door and steps out she swings with it at the full roar driving toward her. She crouches, is surprised that the ground is blurry, her eyes watery, knees wet in the dirt.
             “Sarah? Are you okay?”
             She waves Abby back. No sound comes at first. “I’m okay. I just need some … Do you have some painkillers in the house?” Sarah hears a strange note.
             “Yeah, we do.”
             Abby holds her hand out and Sarah takes it and stands. She follows Abby, watches her jimmy the screen door up and step inside. It’s dark in the house and before Sarah can shut the door behind her the roar turns a corner, and she waits a moment to see if it will come down the road. She wonders if she’s going insane. Near the right age for onset.
              “The bathroom’s this way.”
             Sarah turns toward the voice, vision spinning. A light reveals blurs of old furniture, dark shag carpeting, smoke-yellowed curtains, a new TV. In the kitchen the microwave has turned a shade of nicotine. Abby reaches for Sarah’s hand again and leads her to a hall. Stairs at the end, a doorway now lit and white. Abby opens the mirror over the sink and the roar comes through it with a wretched belch of heat. Sarah slams her back to the wall in the hallway and closes her eyes. It’s coming from the mirror and from down the hall and now the house is shaking and her heart is expanding, depressurized, beating, vacuumed, banging against her ribs like a rocking chandelier. Abby has pulled her up into the bathroom and sits her on the toilet. Water and two pills in her face. She is speaking through the roar and it comes reassuring but wordless. She swallows the pills and in the bright light Sarah brushes Abby’s hair aside. There is a column of bruises on her neck, blue fingertips. Abby straightens. The mirror is still open and she shuts it. The roar halves and now Sarah can hear it coming. Moving. A train, a tornado, an end.
             Abby lifts Sarah to her feet and they go out to the living room. The roar is louder. She sits them on the couch and Sarah smells the smoke rise from the upholstery. Abby is looking away.
             “Do you feel any better?”
             Sarah nods. “Yeah.”
             She says something else and Sarah can’t make it out. She shakes her head and tries to fix an expression beyond pain on her face.
             “How’d you get the bruises?”
             “It’s nothing.”
             She twists on the couch, heavy and weak suddenly. “Abby. You know I can’t let that go. What happened?”
             Abby sighs. Smiles weakly. “Mom’s boyfriend. Braden. He gets drunk and high and goes a little crazy. He’s not bad most of the time.”
             Beyond the roar and the pain of it now there is something pushing at her and she feels her brain ripple like the skin of a waterbed. “What did you give me?”
             “Oxy. Braden has a prescription.” Her voice is distant, facing the wall. “You should stay here until you feel better.”
             Sarah leans back against the couch and breathes slowly, tries to think the roar quiet. “Why didn’t you tell me anything?”
             “Mom likes him. He’s okay when he’s sober.”
             “Has he hurt you before?”
             “Just once.”
             The roar and the waves and now someone has drawn all the strings in her arms taut. Her knuckles curl and reach her shoulders. She stands. She feels drunk but through it and all the swimming there is something she now suspects. She is at the door. Abby’s mouth is moving. Moving toward Sarah.
             “Is he coming home now?”
             She nods.
             Sarah opens the front door. The cold and dim light, the gray trees. And the roar. It is fire, blowing, and smoke. And when the truck comes into view it is small and black and without gleaming. It tears open the gray and Sarah sees flames. Gravel kicks up under the tires. It parks behind her car and out comes a thin man in a blue vest and cap, blue jeans. Each uneven drop of his boots is a drumbeat, a gout of fire. Abby is pulling her back from the door and the man steps through. The roar is everything now. It is everything, and they are made of its wires. He eyes Sarah up and down, looks at Abby and asks her something. Sarah forces a smile and the man moves on into the house. Up the stairs. Abby tries to take her back to the couch but Sarah will not move.
             Pounding. The bathroom door opens and Sarah sees the light. She turns around. Behind the open door is a child’s aluminum ballbat. She leans to grip it in her hand and she doesn’t need to see him coming; his footsteps are lights in her brain and his presence is hot and dry. She turns to swing the bat and she sees him with a hand up and finger pointing and his mouth opens. Before he can speak and deafen her she brings the bat over their heads and smashes his. A look with no expression, his eyes cowed in the flesh of his face. He hits the floor and with another one-handed swing the roar is hushed. The blood coming from his lips is bright and singing.
             “Sarah!”
             She looks at Abby. The room is warped, bowing outward but coming back. She wants to say something to make her feel better and nothing comes. But she knows what to do. Putting her hands on Abby’s shoulders she hugs her and opens the door. She goes to her car and gets the phone out of her purse. There are no sounds but the normal ones. She knows to call. Looking into her hand the phone has no signal.


♥ End ♥




Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He was born and raised in Ohio, and has lived and worked in every contiguous United States time zone. His first novel, Above All Men, is due in March 2014 from MG Press. [Author photo by and © Sabrina Renkar. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Golden Bowl  |  John Vicary















             



             Winter was coming. Anguselus could sense it in the unforgiving bite of the wind from the north. The ache in his old joints had intensified with the onset of bitter air. He sighed and tried to settle into a comfortable spot, but no matter how he turned, a root seemed to find the small of his back or lodge in the hollow of a rib. As rest eluded him, so did a peaceful mind. Like a stone in his shoe, his thoughts kept turning to incidents from long ago that he couldn’t quite make peace with. His time was growing short in which to salve his conscience, and he was too tired to keep the memories at bay any longer.
             He had once been a king, a great ruler of the proud and mighty Scots. Lothian was no backward province, no kingdom of little worth, but he’d given it up so long ago that he hardly remembered the title had ever been his to claim. He’d fancied himself a saint instead. Anguselus turned and stared up at the bare branches of the trees above him. That past was so distant in his mind that it had faded away into the dream of another man’s life.
             Had it been the right decision, to leave behind his subjects and to travel so far with nothing more than his sword on his back and his zest to change the world as his only shield? He had been so sure of everything back then. Ah, the perfect righteousness of youth. If only he had the same comfort in his old age. Anguselus frowned. Why was he thinking on days gone by? The past could not be changed, no matter how much he might wish otherwise. The tread of his thoughts was as worn as a village footpath. If regret could turn back time, he would be eighteen again. Yet, here he was, an old man alone under the fading trees.
             Might for right
             Anguselus sat up, startled. There was no one there, merely the creaking of the wind through the branches playing tricks with his mind. Still, it seemed as if he could hear him speaking …
             If people reach perfection, they vanish, you know ...
             It couldn’t be! Anguselus searched the shadows, but he knew it was futile even as he glanced around. It had been too long since he’d heard that voice, too long ago even to bother thinking on it. Why was he imagining Artorius here, now?
             Anguselus swallowed. He had vowed never to say the name again, not even in his own mind. The cause of his greatest shame, the man whom he’d betrayed. He didn’t want to think about this now. He wouldn’t.
             But it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough
             “Stop! Stop!” Anguselus shouted, the words echoing around him. He covered his ears with his hands until he could hear only the sounds of his own breathing. The naked trunks of the silent forest mocked him.
             He had blocked the memories for too long, and now they were coming back to haunt him. They trickled in like water through cracks in a dam; once the flow began, he was powerless to resist the urge to remember.


♥♥♥


             He could still see the banners of Tintagel as if it were yesterday. Anguselus had traveled south with little more than faith and rumors to guide him, each one more outrageous than the last. They said that in Camulodunum, it never rained until after sundown. When he crossed the borders, though, he hadn’t seen evidence of any of the sorts of things they’d been saying. This was no new Holy Land, where miracles of temperate regions were enforced. In fact, he’d ridden through a fog bank that very morning, in direct contrast to what he’d been led to believe.
             “Halt!” a voice said. “Who goes there?”
             Anguselus peered through the gloom, up past the sentinel. Tintagel’s pennants drooped, an anticlimactic sight after the long build-up of hopes he’d been carrying all the way from Lothian. He’d abdicated his throne for this?
             “No one,” Anguselus called back, and turned away. The myth didn’t stand up to scrutiny. He should have known better. He could already taste the bitter crust of the humble pie he would have to eat in order to regain admittance to his own kingdom.
             “Not the image of what you’d expected, hm?”
             Anguselus turned his head to see a man leaning against the outer wall, buffing an apple on his tunic. “How could it be? I’ve been hearing tales all the way from my homeland. Here, I come to find it is a castle, just like any other.”
             “Not quite like any other,” the man said, taking a bite of the fruit. “You sound as though you’ve traveled far. I’m sorry we are such a disappointment that you won’t even partake of an evening’s hospitality in your haste to be gone.”
             “Who are you to apologize? It’s your king who should be sorry,” Anguselus spat. “He perpetrates preposterous rumors designed to entrap the noble!”
             The man laughed. “So the fact that the snow does, indeed, slush upon the hillside is the cause of your perturbation? Tut, tut. Such things should not upset a knight of the realm.”
             Anger flared in Anguselus’ breast. “You make sport of me? It is not the precipitation; it is the fact that your monarch shows himself a liar. He purports to be Godlike. I can see that he is not in control of the weather, his own reputation, nor anything else, for that matter! It is best that I go to a holier place, where men speak plainly and keep to their pledges.”
             The man’s gaze turned steely. “Hold, friend. You make quite an accusation of our king. How can he help what the bards sing of him? And you have not given him a chance to prove his cause to you when you turn away at the gate without audience. Rather it is you, methinks, who have committed the sin of pride.”
             “How dare you address me thusly? Who are you to speak on behalf of your king? You are not a knight, but a peasant! Silence your tongue, or I shall silence it for you!” Anguselus placed a warning hand on the hilt of his sword.
             “Ah, but you do not understand the simplest virtue of this realm, do you, Sir Knight? I need not be entitled to speak my mind. Here we preach might for right, not the other way around. That is what you have come to seek, have you not? The Round Table? That is the idea that Artorius espouses: equality for the common man. And the protection offered those who haven’t the muscle to provide a voice to the populace for themselves.” The man nodded at the castle. “There is justice, my friend, within these walls. That is the salvation you are seeking. It isn’t about miracles in the snow and fog. I’ve heard the songs they sing, and I’m here to tell you that there is no legal limit to the winter here. But you are welcome to come and sit at my table if you want to work as one of us.”
             Anguselus stared, unblinking, at the man before him, who munched on the apple. The man wasn’t seven feet tall, with hands that could uproot a mighty oak tree and shoulders so broad they blotted out the sun. He was of reasonable stature, yes: he stood but an inch shorter than Anguselus himself. How could this be? “King Artorius?” he croaked.
             “Mm?” the man answered.
             Anguselus fell to his knees. “Forgive me, King.” He bowed his head, the burning shame lancing through him to his very core. “Forgive me for my impertinence. You have shown me the meaning of true humility. I am your man. You shall never doubt it. My sword is yours, always. If by my life or death I can be of service, you need never even voice it. I am yours to command.”
             “You don’t understand the nature of our mission, er ...” King Artorius waved the core about. “What was your name?”
             “Anguselus, Majesty.”
             “Ah, yes, of course! Please, rise. It is I who am indebted to you, Highness. Word of your … commitment to our cause has preceded you. Your sacrifice is greatly appreciated.” The king cleared his throat. “I know it is difficult to adjust to the idea of equality. Those who have been nobility often feel as though they are losing the most. Yet, I hope to show you how much you will gain in our cause.”
             “Of course, Majesty,” Anguselus said, rising.
             “None of that, now. Everyone just calls me Artorius.” He clapped Anguselus on the back. “Come in, and join us for dinner. No doubt you are weary.”
             “Yes, Maj—Artorius.”
             It had been the beginning of a friendship unlike any other Anguselus had ever experienced. He didn’t know if it was because they both had been kings—he’d heard whispers that Artorius had not been raised as royalty and didn’t have the blue blood of true nobility, but Anguselus had always turned a deaf ear before finding out more—or if it was merely complementary personalities, but whatever the reason, Anguselus had never shared closer kinship with another person. Artorius was a man of principle, someone Anguselus could respect; where one was the thought, the next was the passion. Together they created a dynamic that sparked life into the ideal of Might for Right, the campaign under which the Round Table labored and flourished.
             “And so I was thinking of hosting a tournament. What say you?” asked Artorius, as they practiced their swordplay on the bluff overlooking Trebarwith Strand.
             Anguselus grinned and took the offense with a dritto technique. “Bloody brilliant, Artorius! What better way to call attention to the growing popularity of your knights?”
             Artorius countered the attack with a crucibus parry and fought back with a blunt downward blow. His strength had always been in the forthright attack, while Anguselus’ skill lay in the subtle dance and parries. “It has been a while since we have had entertainment. And I admit, I have special cause to celebrate.”
             “Oh, and what is that, my friend?” Anguselus performed a series of floryshes, and ended with a foyne.
             Artorius neatly avoided the display, choosing to step back out of harm’s way. “Did you not wonder why I chose this place on which to call practice?”
             “I did think the beach a strange spot to sport with you, but who am I to deny you a beautiful venue for your disgrace? Prepare for defeat!” teased Anguselus. In truth, they were well matched in skill. He raised his sword and stepped in to perform the coup de grâce.
             “We are here to greet my wife.”
             “What?” Anguselus faltered. He was sure he’d misheard.
             Artorius took advantage of Anguselus’ misstep to grab his wrist. In an instant, Anguselus found himself pulled close against his opponent, his own blade stifled against Artorius’ shoulder and a cold length of steel throbbing gently in time with his own pulse against his exposed neck. In his confusion, he’d let himself be captured by the disarmo-soprano.
             Artorius smiled. “Do you yield?”
             “I don’t understand, Artorius.” He could hear himself begging, and he didn’t like it. “What are you talking about?”
             “Do you yield?” Artorius’ breath was hot on Anguselus’ cheek.
             “Yes, dammit! Tell me what this madness is all about!”
             Artorius dropped his sword. “Turn your head, and see for yourself.”
             Anguselus looked out to sea and saw the shape of the ship carrying their destiny ever closer with each break of the wave upon the shore.


♥♥♥


             A sharp gust of wind brought Anguselus back to the present. That had been so long ago. He hadn’t thought about those things in years and years, yet he could still remember standing there on the Strand, sparring with Artorius like it was yesterday. They had been in their prime and all was bright, but Anguselus shivered even now at the remembered chill of foreboding that reached its long shadow through the years and grabbed him by the neck with its icy fingers. He’d known, somehow, that they were standing on the edge of a precipice. It was that moment right before the fall. The golden bowl, unbroken. And yet, there was nothing he could do to stop it from slipping from his fingers and shattering into a thousand pieces at his feet. Only, he was the vessel of destruction. His was the hand that had thrown it down, and once it was falling, he could only watch, in soundless horror, as it fell to pieces around him. His life—their lives—would never be the same as they were that day on the beach in Trebarwith Strand.
             Gwenhwyfar was a force to be reckoned with right from the beginning. In the midst of her dark-haired countrymen, she stood out like a beacon of light. She was all things bright, with hair the color of flax and eyes so blue they could make the sky, itself, jealous. It hurt to look for the beauty of her, and she was nothing short of Venus rising from the sea when she arrived from Castell y Cnwclas, a gift from her father, King Ogrfan Gawr of Wales.
             Anguselus knew then that whatever he might have felt, whatever he had known in his life before that moment, it was nothing. He had never really been alive. Seeing her was like taking his first breath. He had been dreaming, and now he was awake, and life had more color than anything he could have seen in his sleep. What was this feeling? Anguselus reeled, as if he had been caught by a blow from a broadsword, yet, he was intact. He could breathe and see and feel with a passion he had never known existed on this mortal plane. There were tingles in his hands and butterflies whirling in his stomach. Gwenhwyfar did this to him. She had made him a man instead of the cold figure of a saint that he had always aspired to be. Why had he never seen how empty he had been without her?
             He had thought that love such as this could only be felt in the afterlife; he had given himself over to prayer and celibacy to find it when he met his end. Never had he thought to experience for himself the jolt of ecstasy that was reserved for the purest of love.
             And not with another man’s wife.
             The dark side of the dream echoed itself in Artorius’ eyes. His friend, his brother, looked upon Gwenhwyfar with the same eyes that Anguselus, himself, did.
             Jenny


♥♥♥


             Anguselus wrapped his blanket around himself to drown out the sound of Artorius’ voice. He could hear him now, through the years. He thought that perhaps he always had. Anguselus had loved her so. Anyone who cared to look could see it plainly. It was there in the way his eyes had followed her around a room, and in the way he touched her cheek. He would stand on the battlements and watch her dance the Maypole. He had delighted in her free spirit, even when he, himself, was weighed by so much more. The two of them would stand together and enjoy her delight in the simple things, in ribbons and spring.
             Artorius had loved her enough to look away. He would swallow and take down a book. He would rest a hand on Anguselus’ shoulder, that small act absolving them both.
             Artorius had loved her enough to let her go. Anguselus had been the coward. He’d pretended not to see the tears, but instead kept his head down. He couldn’t look Artorius in the eye and keep his honor. But neither could he give her up.
             The best thing for being sad is to learn something
             “What have you learned?”
             Anguselus opened his eyes. It couldn’t be. … Was that Artorius standing over him? “You look so young!” he marveled. “Just as I remember you. You haven’t a strand of gray in your beard!”
             Artorius inclined his head. “But the years have weighed upon you, my friend. You are burdened by grief.”
             Anguselus lowered his chin. “I am. I have never been able to ask your forgiveness. I do not deserve it!” He couldn’t stop the tears from escaping his eyes and leaking down the deep ravines that creased his cheeks.
             “You do not need to seek forgiveness. You have lived your life in penitence. I would not see you sickened any longer by your regrets. Come, put aside your sadness. It is a day for healing.”
             “I cannot!” Anguselus sobbed. “I betrayed you! You cannot know how sorry I am about Gwenhwyfar. But I regret ever more your Table. That we caused the fall of Camulodunum is a sorrow I shall bear until the end of my days.”
             “Then, you shall be sorry no longer.” Artorius held out a hand. “It is time for you to come and join me at Avallon, where the mighty kings of old come to find their reward and their peace. Join me now.”
             Anguselus blinked. “What is this? You are a vision to take me to my death? I do not deserve reward, not for all I have done in this life.”
             Artorius sighed. “You are hard on yourself, much harder than I would have you be. For one brief, shining moment, we made a difference. History shall remember us kindly for it. We shall survive the telling in our own way. We have played our parts, Anguselus. The miracle was never about any sword in the stone, but about man seeing the change he wants in this world and making that happen. We did that. You were my friend, for your part, and I loved you. I loved you and Jenny both, and I would see us together again at the end. You have earned your rest. Take it.”
             “I cannot forgive myself.” Anguselus felt the snow upon his face, and he shivered. “I will never be able to.”
             “If people reach perfection, they vanish, you know.” Artorius grasped his hand. “It is time.”
             Anguselus closed his fingers around Artorius’ fist. He stood up and shook off the cold for the first time in longer than he could remember. Everything was light; he had just needed a friend to guide him. Perhaps that was all he’d ever needed. “Show me the way home.”


♥ End ♥


*Author’s Note:
This is a retelling of the Arthurian myth. Some lines were taken from T. H. White, and some were alluded to from the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. I did extensive research in this tale, and some of the names, places, and details may not be familiar, but I have sources to corroborate and support this version. Please remember, however, that this is an extremely varied and disputed myth with a ton of material to draw from. I know that a lot of people feel very protective of this tale, but I hope that readers are able to read and enjoy this version, be it less traditional.




John Vicary is an author from rural Michigan. He’s been published in various anthologies, including Dead Men’s Tales, Plague, and The Longest Hours. He enjoys playing the piano and hanging out with his five kids.

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Above All Men, a new novel by Eric Shonkwiler, available for pre-order from MG Press. Don’t miss the author critics are saying, “takes the world on his own terms, and wrestles it to the ground.” (Tom Lutz, The Los Angeles Review of Books).
         Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.
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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Time Out of Mind  |  Alan Catlin















             



                                     “Storm late at night, heavy rain, a
                                     thunderstorm racket, the windows
                                     shaking. I heard my name called. A
                                     woman’s voice in hell, pleading with
                                     me to join her. I sat up in bed and
                                     listened, and was then too frightened
                                     to go back to sleep.”
                                                 
—Leonard Michaels

             The noise in the bed, not of my own making. What could it be? And the body part, this arm, not my own, bare and limp beside me. I am awake, awake enough that I cannot be dreaming, cannot be dreaming myself awake, as if I were in some hypnogogic state. A state where I am seeing myself in this rumpled bed from a great distance, from a great height, as if out of body, out of mind.
             The only certainty is: I’m more than a little drunk. My body feels limp, flaccid, as if all the energy had been siphoned from me while I slept. As if all my bones have been removed with some kind of human-skeleton knife by an expert practitioner in the lost art of boning a dreamer.
             The dreamer asleep within the dream. Is that how I feel? Is that who I am? Or is that the body next to mine? The dreamer of the dream? Separate pieces of the same reality. Or separate realities with the same pieces?
             I am afraid to find out. Afraid to roll over and find out what part of myself I am sleeping with. Or is it the separate pieces of myself that I am afraid of? In my confusion, within the sub layers of my alcohol-induced coma/sleep, even my skin feels as if it belongs to someone else. Belongs to someone else in another dream that does not end well.
             Dreams for me have often ended on the edge of nowhere, in a holding tank so fetid and inhospitable, it is almost inconceivable that anyone could ever have fallen asleep there. Of course, what I was doing there was something like sleep but not sleep itself. Unconsciousness is not sleep. Not really. Not when you are as drunk as I have been. Have been and continue to be.
             Other dreams have ended in rooms with bars for windows and a constant low hum of electric light fixtures. Somewhere beyond the cell, the distant sound of radios improperly tuned into popular music stations: Talking Heads, golden oldies distorted by static and power surges, a disharmony that makes the music sound more like a torture device than something vaguely rhythmic.
             Other dreams have ended on hard floors, amid an overwhelming stench of body fluids, a riotous mixture of forced-out insides and blood, combining to create something so disgusting, it is almost beyond the scope of humanity. Waking thus, my body feels the full effect of that awful wrenching, the horrible effort of expulsion. A feeling that has left my body drained and exhausted, left me leery of finding the way out to somewhere else less inhospitable than where I have awakened.
             None of these dreams has ever involved a bed, with covers and blankets and pillows, though many of them have involved bodies. Some of those bodies were impossible to move. Were discolored and cold beyond belief, or seemed not to be bodies at all, but replicas of bodies. Imagined beings. Alien things. Those were the most difficult dreams to forget; the most difficult dreams to reconcile once it was determined I was actually awake.
             All of these dreams are disconcerting. Involved a gradual process of personal examination, of memory searches for a key to the insoluble riddle—the riddle of how I had managed to arrive at this particular place, at this particular time.
             All of these dreams involve a black hole in my life swallowing vast chunks of what I am. Swallows, even as I try to recreate the sucking morass of memory from which I have arisen—into which I continue to fall. Life has been like this for so long, it is impossible to imagine it otherwise.
             I open the eye not pressed down into the mattress, trying to determine whether this is one of those rooms with bars for windows. As far as I can determine, it is not one of those accursed, ill-fated other rooms, as well. There is hope for me yet. Hope that, whatever this place is and whatever I have done to arrive in it, my remaining here would not prove too awful.
             Cautiously, I reach over the side of the bed, reaching about, in the vain hope that I might find a glass or a bottle waiting for me. Often, before passing out, I leave a bracer for these moments of complete confusion that come with waking as I am now.
             Often. Sometimes. Maybe.
             More often than not, however, I am too greedy a drinker to leave anything untouched before I crash completely. The only sure way to find out is to grope carefully in the darkness or, worse, in the awful blinding light of a new day, actually looking for the strategically placed, salvation-providing drink.
             My search is not progressing well. My hand touches nothing. Nothing resembling a drink.
             The body beside me snorts awake and speaks, “Hey, you,” and it touches me in what could only be thought of as an aggressively familiar, sexual way.
             It is human, female, and appears inordinately fond of me. Not bad, I think. I’ve done a hell of a lot worse.
             “Hey, baby, you’re not going to stay asleep on me?” she said, fondling me as she nuzzled closer.
             Baby, I think. Oh, my. She slept with me and still feels affection. The night is long and empty, but it has so many wonderful creatures in it.
             “Yeah, baby,” she says, as if she can look inside me and sense my confusion, the missing parts that make up what I am. “You’re my main man, my hard-driving man.”
             I smell smoke, taste the beers and whiskeys we must have drunk. Feel her lips on my back, her tongue tracing a slow, languid circle on my skin, and I wonder where we’ve been, wonder where we are going.
             I see us somewhere in the night, see us coming together, down and out, slumming in some sad café like refugees from a Carson McCullers novel. Jesus, I hated not knowing for sure, where I had been, how I got there, or where we came back to. But once I got going, there was no stopping what would happen. Not wanting to, either, not caring, just going on and on and on. There is no point speculating.
             No point to anything.


♥♥♥


             Once upon a time, I made reference to McCullers to some female creature in a bar. I was trying to be all smooth and sophisticated, and she said to me, like she was bored as hell—she couldn’t be bothered to move the wad of gum she was chewing, from one side of her mouth to the other, so that a spray of spittle accompanied what she was saying, not that anyone noticed, not that I noticed—“Carson McCullers. Sounds like some kind of one-horse town in the middle of nowhere Nevada.”
             Well, she was half right, in a way, pulling down her too-tight skirt as she got up from the vinyl barstool. The imprint of her ass on the cushion, the only reminder she had ever been there at all. And that was covered almost immediately by a swarm of giggling girls, hugging the bar as they used their older sisters’ proof of age to buy drinks. Drinks they had heard mentioned in some movie they had gone to see with boys in drive-ins, between sessions of heavy petting, when they sat up briefly for air or called for a piss break.
             “Come on, baby. Tell me a story as if you adore me.”
             Still, I wonder how we could have hooked up, in what run down, off-alley, cheap flat-beer and greasy shot glass, no name, dive bar we could have met. One where a folksinger could be found, displaced in time and place, twenty years too late for acoustic guitar solos. A place of poems set to music, of protest songs about masters of war running amok in a world gone crazy, or worse. I would have thought, What kind of bad habits did the singer have to sustain that would compel him to perform at all, at any price? Why bother, when no one was listening? They weren’t listening then; they’re not listening now.
             I expect the singer also swept the floor, played for tips and whatever booze he could grub from the dead souls clustered along the bar. If you weren’t a regular in a place like that, or knew someone who was, you would have to work overtime to find it, even by chance. I wondered if I were a regular there? I was a regular in a lot of places. Places I didn’t even recall ever having been to. Thoughts such as these were disconcerting, but much of my life was disconcerting when you really thought about it. I didn’t like thinking about it, so I didn’t any more than I had to.
             No one else ever had, either. Until now, apparently.
             “Come on, baby. The South will rise again, and so will you.”
             It was difficult to hate a person of the female persuasion for persistence when it came to sex. It might have happened to me before, but it wasn’t likely. I’m not sure if I would remember, even if it had. Remembering was something I was getting less and less good at as time went by.
             “Baby. Sweet cheeks. Give your momma some lovin’.”
             Sweet cheeks! Man, whatever this girl has for me, she has it for me bad. I almost hate to disillusion her. Not that I want to necessarily, just that I would. I always do. Disillusion is what I do best.
             I’m not sure what I want more: her or a drink. Usually, a tie went to the drink. It’s not hard to imagine what happens after that.
             There didn’t seem to be any alcohol handy, so there isn’t really much of a choice. I try turning toward her. I hope she looks vaguely familiar. It always helps if they do. Sometimes, I might recall a name or a place or something familiar. Usually, they like it when you could call them something other than the all-purpose, “Babe.” Whatever happens, I am going to have to face facts. First, the woman; then, the booze.
             Turning, I see myself standing in an alley outside a bar. A door opens, and a young woman steps outside into the light rain near where I stand. I think I see a stage inside, a band highlighted by deep blue and red spotlights flashing on and off in the otherwise totally darkened room. The darkness heightened by a thick haze of smoke: cigarettes and pot and who knew what else.
             I am leaning against the bricks, inhaling deeply on a Marlboro Red, as I lean forward from my hips. The hand not holding the cigarette is shoved inside my jeans pocket, the collar of my maroon CPO jacket turned up to prevent the rain from sliding down my back.
             “Too crowded in there for you?” she was saying.
             “Yes. No. Maybe,” I said.
             “A man who knows his mind. I like that.”
             I forced a smile and raised my head slightly.
             “Got a light?”
             I handed her my cigarette. I watched as she held the glowing end of mine to the unlighted end of hers and puffed hard. I could see she had deep blue eyes. Eyes you could lose yourself in if you tried.
             “Thanks. Wanted a breath of air myself. Hotter than a fucking bitch in there.”
             “A breath of air and a cigarette. That makes sense. I like a woman who knows her mind.”
             She must have thought that was funny. I could hear amusement in her voice as she spoke, “I could like someone like you. Maybe.”
             “Maybe what?”
             “Maybe, if I tried. You’ll have to help me some. So far this relationship has been pretty much one-sided.”
             “So, this is a relationship. I often wondered what one of those was.”
             “Sort of. At the beginning stage. You know when people meet and exchange things, personal stuff. Like this.” She leaned forward, kissed me hard on the lips. Like she meant it. Felt good. Excellent, in fact.
             “None of the bullshit stuff for you,” I said. “You cut right to the chase, don’t you?”
             “That’s me. What kind of bullshit were you thinking of?”
             “Little stuff: names, dates of birth, astrological signs, phone numbers. Say, what’s your major?”
             “I don’t go to college. Might have once. Too long ago to remember now.”
             “You’re not old enough for that to be a distant memory.”
             “No? Try me; I might fool you.”
             “Don’t think I’d mind trying you at all.”
             “Be my guest.” The way she was saying it made it feel like a dare.
             “Drink?” I asked.
             “What kind of question is that?”
             “A good one?”
             “Damn straight.” She had my attention but good now.
             “Here or somewhere else?”
             “Here is as good as any,” she replied. “Hell, it’s even Happy Hour.”
             “Happy Hour. What could be better than that?”
             Nothing could be.


♥♥♥


             Inside a bar. Some bar, some place, sometime later. An old, out-of-the-way place, dimly lighted, tarnished back mirrors, dust settling on the top-shelf bottles, the brown-colored solution pickled eggs float inside of, like scientific experiments gone wrong, and left behind in glass gallon jars as exhibits for some atrocity exhibit. An antique wrought-iron, hand-crank cash register behind the bar, and an old man who spoke through a hole in his throat with the aid of an appliance that looked like a microphone but wasn’t.
             “Before you ask, it weren’t no cat got my tongue. Was the cancer. Saves a lot of time explaining it up front. People always ask. Wasn’t the tongue, neither, that got cut out. Two more of the same?”
             I nodded yes, though there was no one with me at the moment. One greasy beer glass in front of me, and another nearby he filled to the brim. I watched the heads evaporate, the beer turning flat in the glass immediately after he had placed it on the bar. I must have been buying, as he left change in a small pile near my glass. I seemed to have several piles there. Seemed to have been here a while, with someone, who might return from wherever he or she had gone.
             I looked around the bar, hoping for more information. The requisite older men leaning forward on the wood, staring into a distance only they could see the end of, cigarettes burning down toward their yellow-stained fingers, as they sat motionless as carved statues of old men. The smoke the only movement in the dark.
             The acrid, dank smell of old beer and piss, burnt wood, and all manner of human waste, an almost living presence in the room, in the spaces between the bartender’s strange amplified voice and my thoughts. I reached for my beer glass and a voice spoke behind me.
             “One false move, and you’re dead.”
             I felt a hard, stiff object thrust into my back. I froze, my arm in midair halfway between the glass and nowhere. Raised my head slightly to try and see what or who was speaking to me reflected in the bar mirrors but could see nothing. I waited.


♥♥♥


             Waited for a long time.
             Trying to receive more information to process. To determine who, what, where I was. But there wasn’t much to process. In this place, in a high-backed, vinyl, padded booth. A glass pitcher of beer on a Formica-topped table before me, almost empty. Two glasses on cardboard coasters, and an ashtray full of still-smoking butts. A warm hand on my upper thigh, holding me, caressing me slowly. The closeness of another body somewhere in the dark. Somewhere close by. Rain on the picture window, drops of light sliding down the glass, a bright neon flash of color, rhythmic, hypnotic, hypnogogic.
             “Finish your beer,” the voice nearby said. A female voice. “Finish mine, too, if you want. I don’t want anything anymore. Don’t want anything but you.”
             I turned toward her. Felt those thick, giving lips on mine, the savage slashing tongue caressing my lips, easing inside my head as she sucks the very breath out of me. As her hand kneads my thigh, nails digging into my skin: hard nails, deep pressure.
             “Where are we?” I asked.
             “Nowhere. We’re together; that’s all that matters. You and I. Together.”


♥♥♥


             Together.
             A blinding, moving light, approaching where we stand in the rain. The distant sound like car brakes. Of skidding tires, metal impacting on something solid. Something solid that gives and breaks and moves in the night.
             Voices. Spinning lights. In the rain, different-colored blinding lights. Neons and halogen. Brightly focused lights. White and antiseptic. Cold and metallic, like a stainless-steel slab, a stainless-steel carnival ride. Without the carnival, just the blinding flash and the night and the rain.
             Two of us. Together.


♥♥♥


             Together.
             In an alleyway between buildings. Old Victorian buildings, constructed in the heyday of a city that had died long ago of natural causes, leaving only the shell, the body behind in the form of block upon block of near-derelict buildings. Period pieces for a downward progression, a recession into a night that never ends. Carved faces in the stonework, in the masonry: gargoyles and death heads, replications of lost civilization that couldn’t be.
             “Light?” she asked.
             “Why not?” I said.
             “Want a hit?”
             “What is it?”
             “Does it matter?”
             “Not really.”
             “I thought as much.”
             “Sure, what the hell. What if it kills me?”
             “What if it does?”
             “I guess that doesn’t matter much, either.”
             “No, it doesn’t. Not really.”
             “Didn’t think so.”
             “You’re a fast learner.”
             “That’s what they tell me. This is good. How long does it last?”
             “As long as you want it to.”
             “That could be a long time.”
             “You got that part right.”
             “Will you always be here to share it with me?”
             “Maybe. You’ll have to wait and see.”
             “Wait and see. The story of my life.”


♥♥♥


             I turn to face the woman in the bed with me. The one I couldn’t wait to see.


♥ End ♥



Alan Catlin worked at his unchosen profession as a barman for thirty-four years in college bars, banquet houses, hotels, restaurants, a nightclub, and a neighborhood Irish bar, the latter for the last twenty-five years of his so-called career. He has published thousands of poems and stories since the mid-70’s and has over sixty-five chapbooks and full-length books of prose and poetry to his credit. His most recent full-length collection is Alien Nation, a compilation of four thematically interconnected chapbooks. Among his many awards and citations are twenty Pushcart Prize nominations. He is currently the poetry editor of the online journal, Misfit Magazine. [Author photo by and © Valerie Catlin; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.