It seemed a shame to burn it. It was beautifully constructed, a fragile shell of coloured paper pulled taut over a wire frame. Hideous too, but beautiful in its way.
We have a long tradition of burning effigies in this village. We spurn the American import of Halloween, whose only real horror lies in the way it teaches children how to profit by extortion. Instead, we celebrate the foiling of a 17th-century terrorist attack, with fireworks on the common and an effigy on the bonfire.
These days, Guy Fawkes has given way to contemporary hate figures. The subject this year is particularly reviled. His crimes were nothing short of depraved, and the local press took great delight in picking over the grubby details.
He was unquestionably guilty, but a good lawyer and a friendly judge had managed to pick enough holes that the man was acquitted. It was a notorious miscarriage of justice; evidence of the Old Boys’ Network out in force. As the papers gleefully reported after the verdict, the accused’s father played golf with the judge’s older brother. But too late – the man was free, and there was nothing anyone could do except burn a replica on the Fifth of November.
My wife couldn’t be induced to attend the bonfire this year, so I trudged up the hill alone, muffled up well against the cold. I arrived in time to see the effigy being paraded around the fire prior to burning. It was cruelly accurate in its caricature, and really rather well made. He was depicted in prisoner’s stripes, giving a sly wink, with a bag of golf clubs slung over one shoulder and a ‘get out of jail free’ card in his top pocket.
The atmosphere was noticeably different to normal. People were fed up with the wealthy and privileged behaving however they damn well liked and getting away with it. They really hated this man. I saw some oik pick up a stone and hurl it. The missile ripped through the model’s cheek, leaving a ragged hole in the paper, then rattled down the hollow inside. Others went to grab at it, one pulling at the golf bag, another ripping off an arm. It was almost destroyed before it was even on the fire.
The over-enthusiastic were rebuffed, and to raucous cheers, two strong men swung the effigy up onto the pyre. For a second it was illuminated from inside, lit up demonically, before a sudden whoosh of flame engulfed it. It leered at me as it burned; my own features winking down at me from the fire.
I turned up my collar and disappeared before I was recognised.
When I was young, zombies only came out on Halloween. Kids would dress up in rags and make their faces look dead. They’d walk around with their arms outstretched, muttering and moaning for brains.
Now, I see zombies all the time. They wash their hair before putting on clean clothes and strong perfume. They appear human, but I see through their illusions. They walk around with their heads down and their hands outstretched, oblivious to the world around them.
I spend hours on my bench in the common, just watching. They hardly notice me aside from absentmindedly tossing me a few singles or cursing about my lazy ass.
Yesterday, I watched a group of teeny-bopper girls marching silent circles through the park’s trails without looking up from their phones. Back in my day, young girls couldn’t stop talking if you paid them.
Afraid I might be hallucinating, I went looking for Bobby G. I wandered off the beaten paths, looking for the telltale gleam of sunlight hitting aluminum foil. I found it under a cluster of rhododendron.
“Bobby? Is that you?”
“Who’s there?” he shouted.
“Hal, your old wing man.”
“Get your ass inside, CIA got a missile that can track people’s DNA. They can blow you up without ever leaving their bunker.”
“Bobby, those things don’t exist. I need to show you something.”
“It’s not safe. They’ll find me.”
“Bobby, if they do have a DNA missile, that bush won’t protect you. Besides, who’d want to blow us up?”
“The government! We know stuff from secret missions back in ’Nam. Hell, we’re among the few still livin’ above the influence.”
I snorted. “You smell like a liquor store. You haven’t been above the influence in decades. I just need you to come out for a few minutes and tell me if I’m seeing something right.”
“I don’t know, Hal, there’s zombies and shit.”
“I’ll buy you a fifth.”
“I want whisky, not the cheap shit.”
“Fine, I’ll buy you good whisky, if you come out and look with me.”
The bushes rattled as a man mummified in aluminum foil clambered out.
“I’ll sue you if I get blown to bits,” murmured Bobby, brushing ants away.
“This way.” I led him over to the girls.
“They’re real all right,” he said glaring at the girls. “Zombies. Probably been infected since birth. I bet they don’t know what it’s like to live above the influence.”
“Shit. Poor things.”
“They get ’em young now.” Bobby frowned and began lumbering towards a clump of trees. “I’ll be in there, where they can’t see me, waiting for my whisky.
The lush green swallowed Bobby whole, obscuring his telltale gleam. I memorized the deep groves and letters carved into the Elm’s bark before heading to the package store. I didn’t have any money, but I found one of those business type zombies with his eyes glued to his phone. He didn’t notice my hands slip into his pocket and liberate a couple twenties.
My dad once said that I suffer from “artist’s disease,” which I guess has something to do with my insistence that life be special. Dad never did well with malady.
“No one’s problems are so original,” he’d say, returning from a day of accounting to find me drugged on some boyish melodrama.
“Life isn’t a play, Arthur,” he’d say when I’d dance through the house because I got too excited about something—a high school date or my favorite song. The stink of freeze-dried coffee always tumbled from his words like chunks of lifeless dirt.
“Young love is an illusion,” he said after my first heartbreak. Or maybe he didn’t add the young part.
“She was sick, that’s it,” Dad said when I asked about Mom. I cried because I could only remember powderpuff snippets of her.
“She was depressed, forget it,” my older brother, Chip, would say. He’d been the one slapping at the locked door while Mom faded into blushing bathwater. He talked about it exactly once. “The Cubs are on,” he’d say.
Dad and Chip weren’t cold, they were just comfortable talking about taxes and baseball and not much else. They just wanted the same stability for me.
“I can’t be some dickless panda caged in a cubicle anymore!” I announced to Mr. Brimstone, who underreacted. “My calling is fiction.”
“Mistake,” Dad had said. “What about retirement?”
“I can’t help with money,” Chip said.
Two years of rejections, self-publishing, and dwindling savings, then I awoke to the realest anxiety I’d ever known. My mattress was soaked with the pungent sweat of unaccomplished nightmares, and a psychedelic dawn pierced me between the eyes like a missile trying to obliterate my bullshit.
The worst had come to pass: My existence was common.
I had been a cliché in the office, and I was as a struggling writer, too.
I decided to buy a gun.
“Money in the freakin’ bag!” I screamed through my Donald Trump mask. The teenage clerk fumbled and cried. She smelled like a seraphic mix of berries and lavender.
Outside the jewelry store, Halloween revelers laughed as they jigged from one college bar to the next. They seemed to think they were special.
God bless you kids, I thought.
“Now the safe in back!” I yelled, noticing the clerk’s breasts. I considered groping her, because my former self would never have been able to do that. I waved the gun around instead.
My finger slipped.
“Anderson, visitor,” the guard barked.
The clerk had survived, minus the crest of an ear. Twenty-one years for me.
The visitors were rarely Dad or Chip, but usually admirers. They were READERS. “The Case of the Starving Artist” had gone viral, and so had my fiction.
“Thanks,” I said, looking forward to an afternoon of writing.
She considered whether or not every creaturely face had a day of the year which suited it best as the long weak sunshine feebly baked the dunes. The cash for the seaside ticket had taken days to beg, her plea so common it was cliché: I need money for a train, please, I’m on the street. But it had come in the end, and with it this annual retreat, hidden beneath an overgrown old section of boardwalk.
All night the stars had creaked across the sky, their groanings hid by the waves’ white noise. At sunrise a few dogs began to draw sleepy owners across the pebbles. Their canine grins were early May, or the first snowfalls of December. The humans wore grim, late, bitter March or the half-dead of Halloween.
She stoked the covert fire she’d lit to heat a tin of beans nicked from the Reduced To Clear shelf of the Morrison’s next to the station, remembering a washed-up chef who’d told her how to bake crabs in the beach. Dig a pit. Build a fire. Insert large rocks. Let them heat up and the fire die down. Drop crabs in. Cover with sand. Wait some hours. Enjoy.
The beans bubbled and she stirred them with her metal spork. Leaning over to test their temperature, she froze when the dune grass rustled behind her. No one ever comes here this time of year. Let it be some animal. The noise grew. No animal moved so carelessly. She picked up her multitool, flicking closed the can opener and open the knife.
Out of the grass tumbled a small thing in a one-piece pyjama, a mop of hair no particular colour and light eyes. She could not tell its sex and could only guess its age—five? six? The youthful androgyne stared at her, at the knife, at the tin on the fire with its label long burnt off. Finally it spoke.
– Did you sleep here?
– Is that your breakfast?
– Where’s your house?
– I don’t have one.
The child’s eyes widened and it stepped closer. She lowered the knife. Uncounted seconds passed, both bold strangers holding each other’s gaze. Then like sudden lightning the child darted back into the grass.
She waited, wondering whether to find a different hiding place. Ten tense minutes later she heard running footsteps on the boardwalk: the child returning, faintly pursued by an adult’s calls. Kicking out the fire she drew her sleeping bag close and used a sleeve to pick up the hot tin, preparing to flee.
Above her, the footsteps stopped. The child stood and lobbed a missile towards her. It flew, landed and burst open: a battered picnic-bag, full of food. The child ran away, footsteps fading. The distant calls went quiet.
In silence she crept out and gathered the shrapnel gingerly, her face the autumn equinox’s warm, dark questioning and weary joy.
Summer doesn’t end around here. It just fades a little. Halloween decorations go up, Ugg boots come out, and the boys play football with their t-shirts on. Visitors arrive in smaller numbers, but their look stays the same, everything about them oblivious to our season of Less Summer.
On the surface, Mrs. Anderson was no different. She wore a wide-brim sun hat, oversized sunglasses, and a sheer, full-length kaftan to cover her custom-made bikini – common luxury items among the well preserved. But she talked to everyone as if they were her friends, and she never spent a moment on the beach in a way that would embarrass her later. These things made her unusual.
I spoke to her only once. She was in the restaurant, laughing with my father when I walked by. He reached out for me, his arm circling my shoulders and the trunk of his torso avoiding the tray in my hands.
“This is my Victoria,” he said. “Victoria, this is Mrs. Anderson.”
Her smile was warm and she told me to call her Holly. I could feel my father beaming.
I already knew her first name, though. I also knew she was here for a reunion and staying at the Orsan less than fifty yards away. Details spread quickly during Less Summer.
“Hello,” I said, spinning out from under my father’s grasp.
Two nights later, Mrs. Anderson and her friends occupied our front table until well past closing. She sat on the end, her every move a lesson in how to drink regally. A man I didn’t recognize sat across from her, a couple chairs down. They hardly looked at each other, but I could feel something between them and wondered if I was the only one to notice. As if reading my mind, Dominic, our sous chef, came up behind me.
“I bet his dick’s hard as a missile under that table,” Dom whispered, his lips against my neck and his left hand grazing my navel. We were a Summer fling that was still flaming out.
“Careful,” I hissed. “My father will see.”
Over an hour later, Mrs. Anderson and the man were among the last to leave, and I stole out the side entrance to watch them from the alley. As they lagged behind the others, he reached down and enfolded her hand in his. When all of their companions had disappeared through the large iron doors leading to the Orsan’s courtyard, he pulled her to him. Their lips met in a furor. It went on for what felt like ages, until her fingers curled around his collar and she ducked away.
“That’s enough,” she said, her voice husky.
“Please, Holly,” he pleaded. “Please.”
She opened the iron doors and slipped in behind them. The man stared at the ground for a few moments, then followed her inside.
I stayed in the alley, looking down at my Ugg boots. Summer had faded. It was time to go.
“Let’s do this house!” George yelled, pointing his finger like an accusatory pistol. The house creaked under its own weight, lumbering there in the darkness.
“George,” she said, trailing after him. “It’s past midnight. It’s not even Halloween anymore.”
“Mom said you had to take me to every house I wanted. Every. House. And I want to do this one!” he said, hauling his garbage bag over his shoulders. His Devil mask became askew, and he didn’t bother fixing it. The red of his costume blazed underneath the street light.
She grimaced, clutching at her own bag. Her witch’s outfit stunk and her training bra was itchy. She tried adjusting it without being obvious.
“Look!” she said, throwing her hands up and pointing towards the barren streets. “Everyone’s gone home. We’re the only crazy ones left.”
“Just this last one!” he whined.
She gritted her teeth, and imagined the flaying she would receive from her parents if the kid squealed.
“Fine!” she spat. George literally jumped for joy.
The trees cast angry shadows on the walkway up to the front door. They stepped onto the porch. Candace looked at the windows of the house; a shiver clutched at her spine. “You had to pick the creepiest house for the last one, didn’t you?”
She looked at him, and even with the mask on, she knew he was smiling. “Exactly.”
They rang the doorbell. They waited.
George rang the doorbell again, and again, and again. Candace slapped at his hand. “Stop! Whoever lives here is gonna kill us!”
George pushed her hand away. “Did you see that?”
“I thought I saw the curtains move—”
The door opened and they felt two strong hands. They were lifted off their feet and thrown like a missile into the darkness of the house.
They landed hard. They heard the door shut and then promptly lock behind them.
They couldn’t see him. All they saw were his twinkling eyes.
“Well, looks like I have some last Trick or Treaters to enjoy; young’uns too! Way past your bedtime, kids!”
Candace reached for her garbage bag, but he stomped on her hand and she screamed. “Not so fast!” the man laughed. “The adults need to check your candy first!” he said, picking up the hefty sack.
He undid the string that held the bag closed. The string floated to the floor and he gleefully opened the plastic sack.
There was a moment of silence.
And then, he gagged.
He dropped it. Several heads rolled out, onto his hardwood floor.
Frantic, he turned the lights on.
Both of the kids now stood there in front of him; Candace, favoring her injured hand, slowly slipped the knife from under her waistband. George tapped the scissors against his mask, a dull thud filling the room.
“Common mistake,” Candace said.
“You never let strangers into the house!” George shrieked.
“Especially on Halloween,” Candace whispered.
They jumped on him and collected their treat.
The bunker’s red lights alternated above her, their throbbing glow a constant reminder of all they had lost. Of all they were about to lose. The creatures in the hall, all variations of Specimen 718-96-B, occasionally knocked against the steel door, but most had gone silent. Jill couldn’t be sure without risking a look at the monitor hiding beneath Weston’s jacket, but she thought the majority had wandered off in search of easier prey.
Kohler remained, though. Or what had been Kohler. He lingered where he could watch, his face inches from the camera, like he could see through it to the control room. To Jill. His unblinking sub-human gaze said he knew exactly what she was doing, and it mocked her.
She had barely moved in the last four hours, except to hide the monitor. Braced against the console, she stared at the same three words until they were burned as deeply into her retinae as in her soul.
INSERT ADMIN KEY.
The admin key—Kohler’s key—peeked out of her fist. She didn’t even feel the jagged teeth digging into her palm anymore. The admin override would launch the missile no one beyond Deep Root 6 knew existed. A controlled explosion in the upper atmosphere would turn the clouds, and the very air, into agents of death, while a simultaneous subroutine forced the launch of nuclear missiles around the world. Scorched air, scorched earth. Nothing would survive.
Her chest ached with the sudden, crushing weight of isolation. Weston had stopped moving an hour ago. His blood was strangely dark in the pulsing red light. Pooled beneath him as it was, it looked more like a slick, black shadow than the vital fluid she knew it to be; like a cheap Halloween prop, not a corpse.
She looked into the console camera and hit record again, to explain—maybe to justify—why it had to end.
“We did this.” The thought was bitter and unoriginal.
“My name is Jillian Troy. I worked for Deep Root 6, and we did this. We made the creatures. We lost control. We had no idea they’d mutate so fast, or kill so efficiently. The spores got in . . . everything—they’re already out, out there.” She looked up toward the surface, a lifetime away. “There wasn’t enough time for the vaccine—”
Weston was stirring behind her. This was it.
“All transport between earth and the solar colonies ceased this morning at Earth Common 0400 hours. I only hope it was enough.” She shook her head. “It has to be enough.”
As Weston’s body struggled to its feet, she inserted Kohler’s key, and turned it, releasing the admin lock.
“Sacrifice many to save few,” she whispered. Weston’s words. His last. And now hers.
Weston’s cold hand grasped her shoulder as she closed her eyes and took one final breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the camera, and pushed the button.
It was one of those nights when the moon’s light bathes the world in anarchy. Abandoned dogs prowl in packs. Nurses in asylums demand double pay. And too many drinking sessions end in bar fights. Things get out of control.
Drew was busy packing away his tools. Another job completed. Another debt settled.
This particular job had been a tough one: a shoe cabinet.
But not any ordinary shoe cabinet.
This one was constructed from the finest ebony, with shelves made from scented sandalwood that glided along revolving coasters as elegantly as a ballerina. The coup de grace was an inlaying of silk, which presented every shoe with the pomp befitting of a princess.
It had been one of his most demanding tasks for one of his most discerning clients. A quest for excellence requiring the most delicate of carpentry skills, expensive materials and nearly two weeks of his sweat and specialist labor.
Unfortunately, this had been one job for which the client had refused to pay. Seemingly, they were unaware, or unwilling, to meet the cost such meticulous craftsmanship demanded.
Well, in this case, the price had become the ultimate one.
Drew mopped his brow.
Refusing to pay had been a big mistake.
He had taxes to pay, mouths to feed and the finest ebony and sandalwood that, while it did grow on trees, needed to be paid for. Thankfully, he knew there were bundles of cash, jewelry and other luxuries around the house now in need of a new owner. They were his by right. Any level-headed judge could see that.
After hammering in the final nail, the job was complete.
Drew took a final drag on his cigarette then dropped it, careful to leave the embers burning.
He wasn’t dumb. He watched CSI.
He knew the smell of nicotine would cloud his scent when the investigators arrived. He also knew the four gallons of acetic acid he’d liberally sloshed in his hastily reshaped cabinet wouldn’t raise too many red flags.
Its pungent smell and skin corroding qualities suited his purposes perfectly.
Had he claimed he’d bought it to make his own vinegar eyebrows would have been raised. Making his own wood glue was another matter.
That final thought gave Drew a wry grin. He was in the wrong line of work. His skills were wasted as a carpenter. Chemistry was more his style.
My hand tightens around the walkie-talkie the principal gave me moments earlier. Across from me, Chi-Chi clutches his presentation—oversized handmade ants, fake grass, paper logs. The edges of the cardboard base under his fingers are curled and stained from his sweaty palms.
“Shelter in place. You’ve got the boy’s lavatory. Anyone there…lock yourselves in. Wait for my clear.”
She didn’t say drill like she usually does. But it has to be, I remind myself as I stare at Chi-Chi. He is not in my class but his mom does some of the teachers’ taxes. She helps out in the schoolyard at lunch, too. I wonder if she is here today. She would be searching.
I crouch across from him with my back against the stall, not wanting to sit all the way, grateful I wore flats. He sits criss-cross next to the old-fashioned, column radiator and bobs one knee. His eyes, big as golf balls, dart around the room. They land on the keys coiled around my wrist. I finger the one that locked us in.
I try to recall the rules, the protocol. Sweat curls the hair at my neckline.
A smell finds my nose. Pungent. I dip my chin to sniff the sweat gathered under my blouse. It’s stronger though. Vinegar? Ammonia? I spot a puddle under Chi-Chi. Thankfully no other kids are here.
Sadly, the students understand this more-frequent-than-fire-drills activity. Even still…it doesn’t get easier. We can’t call it a game. We get to laugh in games. We all know we are not supposed to talk but I risk it as I reach up and grab a handful of paper towels.
“I like your bugs,” I whisper.
He looks at the black-smeared egg carton sections, pipe cleaners jackknifed out of each side, craft-store googly eyes overglued on top.
He shrugs and whispers back, “They’re carpenter ants.”
“You did a nice job.”
“My mom had to cut the holes for the legs though.”
I smile. He rests one side of the project on his knee, takes the paper towels I hold out and shoves them under his pants. I look at my watch.
Seven and a half minutes. I want to check my cell phone but know the screen glow is dangerous. Just a drill. It has to be.
“You’re very brave,” I say to Chi-Chi, too aware of the bulk of my tongue.
He shrugs again, half smiles.
We both flinch when my two-way crackles. All Clear.
Our eyes connect and we breathe out loudly together. My body cools and I shiver from the dampness covering my back. I push up from my squat, my feet tingling. The wet towels squish under Chi-Chi’s sneaker as he stands.
After I unlock the door, I put my hand on his shoulder and guide him out to the nurse in the next room. I sing softly, “The ants go marching one by one…”
He falls in. “Hoorah! Hoorah!”
The doctor comes by with an X-ray, holds it to the light: my hand, a broken web of bone with an empty circle in the middle glaring at us. And then he talks statistics.
“Honestly, he got a bit of sawdust on him once and after that he was a carpenter,” my wife says. Her laugh lines gullies of impatience.
The shed was her idea.
Any marriage will have shared passions, things you want to do, things you want to see, places you want to go. And then it gets quieter. Passions are whittled down, worn away to the essentials. You carve your space. But one person is always sharper. You won’t have noticed that you’re superfluous by the time the other invents or pulls at notions you could’ve mentioned a lifetime ago. You probably did, you agree; so, the shed.
I used to sniff every bottle of anything in my father’s shed, fall asleep in the grass, and wait for the house to get quiet again. Maybe I said this at some point, maybe I left out things. No lightweight now, even with the pills for my heart I stay awake for hours watching the animals behind our house, the quiet still long in coming.
The stitches shiver across my palm and on a tray somewhere are nails still shimmering with gristle and bone.
My wife talks to my doctor, whispering and glaring at me in a way that makes the doctor uncomfortable. Our daughter is here too, naturally. Everyone is concerned; my future extends upon patiently asked questions. I watch my daughter dab at the raw corners of her nostrils with off-white hospital toilet tissue. Her hands collapse to her lap. She whines questions at me in a small voice. The same voice I heard when she had to do her taxes for the first time. My wife grimaces and closes her eyes when she sits. She’d look away from us both but I don’t think she has the strength.
They leave before lunch, perhaps to avoid witnessing me eat. Who can blame them.
The meat and potatoes are soon one and the same, and the juice is like vinegar. The drips connected to me have left me more relaxed than anything in my father’s shed. The ice cream, surprisingly, was delicious, even as it dripped from my hand to the sheets.
Nurses come by in the evening to check on my machines, they smile and coo with pity, even distaste. I lie back, spreading my legs against the coolness of the sheets.
The gentle beep beep beep of the machine cuts off into a prolonged squeak, and then stops, I sit up on elbows to check if I’m dead. No one rushes in and it’s gotten quiet in the hallways. My head back on the pillow, I look through the hole I know is in my hand, at the night sky I hope is above me, thankful that the quiet has finally come.
In the simplest of terms, it is over. But as I sit in my sparse room I hear the heart of you still professing “I Love. I Love. I Love.” In response I say, “I Know. I Trust. I Love” ad infinitum. Yet it is over just the same, as so many sang on the last night that I held you.
In our beginning you were recalcitrant when I teased and prodded and I was so undeniably attracted to your sassiness. In my past I’ve known myself to swallow the bile of jealousy until it erupted in frightening ways but I instantly thought I could control it when I took you into my home and heart. In time you also showed me your real hunger for life and told me of how trapped you felt. “Set me free,” you’d beg. You whispered it in my ear at night. You screamed it until it echoed but no one could grasp your pain as I did. We are of the same restless spirit, you and I.
April 15th was the first night that I thought it was the last time I’d hold you. I find it interesting that it is a date associated with taxes since the spending of our time together ultimately incurred the cost of my emotional well-being until fortune taxed me with the task of giving you up. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that look on your face when I began my goodbye. Never waning in my feelings, I held on to you as tightly as I could until you ceased to shake and tremble and our vinegar tears stopped passing back and forth between our eyelashes.
That night, as I held your still form, the gentle carpenter who constructs my dreams presented me with a plan for the survival of our love. When I told you the strategy the next morning, you just gaped at me wide-eyed with implicit trust and understanding. I wish I could convey the enormity of how those little gestures made me feel absolutely wonderful. Peaceful, even.
But your passiveness in all that followed, I admit, left me with a dry taste in my mouth. Were you aware of all that I did to keep us far from those devoid of passion? Those that would propose to separate us, as my father did, when he suspected my involvement in your absences from school and work.
On May 12th, the last night that I knew I would hold you, you stared blankly at the red and blue lights flashing in the windows of our refuge. “It’s over!” they sang until I submitted. Your parents’ cried on each others’ shoulders and my father stood in stony judgement. The same shamed look on him then as was on his face in the trial.
And now, though I still love you, I can no longer reach you. They won’t even tell me where you’re buried.
Patient: J. Gibson
St. Caedwalla’s Hospital for Behavioral Health
I’ve been here before.
It’s always been like this. A man comes, hands me a package, and goes away. I open the package, see what’s inside—a task, an errand, a murder—and heck, I just do it.
It’s a different guy this time. Burly, his beard braided and tied with beads, a tattoo running down his left cheek, he occupies the chair next to me.
“What are you sippin’ there old man?”
“Apple cider vinegar.”
“What does it taste like?”
“Like it melts your soul.”
He glares at me. “You do know why I’m here, don’t you?” he growls. “The boss personally sent me for this. You got some nerve rilin’ up the Big Man.” He lifts his right sleeve and that’s when I see it –a tombstone with ‘R.I.P’ scrawled in jagged letters. I know who he is.
“Is it true?” I take another swig. “Do they really call you the Cenotaph?”
The man scratches his beard. He bares his teeth. “Yup! I get to kill ’em and then…I write the messages on their graves.”
People around are walking, talking, eating, oblivious to two killers among them.
“You killed Vicky, the boss’s son,” he snaps. “You didn’t think of the consequences, old man.”
“Family is family.”
“You don’t know the concept of deficit, do you?”
“Never had to pay any taxes,” I whistle.
I see him clenching his fists. His face twists into a snarl. “Get up,” he raps the table. “It’s time.”
Walking down the road, we pass by my favorite shop, decked with furniture. Polished chairs and almirahs are lined up. The carpenter has been busy. It brings a smile to my face.
We encounter a dead end and slide into a muddy pathway. Reaching the wilderness, he beckons me to stop. He draws a long, serrated knife and juggles it between his hands. “You didn’t do him any good, you know. Vicky had eyes for the carpenter’s wife. He shouldn’t have resisted, and you shouldn’t have interfered.” He leers. “After I kill you, I’m gonna kill everybody else.”
“You’ll never find them.”
“You doubt my abilities.”
“And you think I’m just an old man.”
“Last wishes?” he asks.
I raise my flask. “Drink with me?”
He nods. I take out another flask and hurl it at him. We drink.
“What does it taste like?”
He spits and bursts out laughing. Moments later he is clawing at his throat, his eyes bulging. He falls to the ground, foaming at the mouth, twitching. “Melts your soul, doesn’t it?” I ask.
He stops moving.
I turn around, going back the way I came, reaching the furniture shop. I pick one of the chairs and recline on it, drinking from my flask. I dig into my pockets, pulling out a cellphone. The call connects and a voice on the other side whispers, “Dad?”
Eight weeks into the insanity, and Marge was still dumbfounded. She leaned over the kitchen sink to watch her husband hammer away in the backyard. At least the backhoe phase was over, so she was the only one watching him, now. She flinched when Ralph leapt to his feet and tossed his hammer aside. He rested his hands on his hips and beamed with satisfaction at the only visible product of his labors, a low, narrow door. Was he done with his little bunker at last?
This was her brother’s fault. Ted was an accountant. Visiting in May, he’d been shocked to learn that Ralph, a successful self-employed carpenter, was bringing in so much money. Nothing else in common, they spoke of retirement plans, investments, taxes – and how to avoid them.
Pleased to see them getting along so well, Marge had foolishly gone off to bed. Much later, Ralph joined her but remained restless. No sooner had they seen Ted off the next morning, than Ralph started tearing out the lawn in the back yard.
Now, they had an underground bunker.
Ralph bent to inspect some aspect of his work, then gave a satisfied nod and headed toward the house. Marge considered locking herself in the bathroom, but it had proved unnecessary the last two times, so she stood her ground. The screen door slammed behind Ralph, who – oblivious to his wife’s discomfort, gave her a hearty hug and kissed the top of her head. “Almost done,” he sang out as he reversed course to retrieve the five gallon jug of vinegar he’d bought at the wholesale club.
“Ralph,” she began again, careful to keep her tone gentle. “I just don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
Happy to explain, he smiled as he pulled a kitchen towel from its hook. “Told you, babe,” he hefted the huge jug, “keeps the bugs off the money.”
“Not that,” she said, gesturing to the vinegar. “That!” Her hand flung out toward the yard.
Ralph laughed and set down the jug, folding the towel neatly atop it. “Aw, Marge.” He stretched out his arms to embrace her again, this time, holding her to his chest much longer and breathing in the clean scent of her. He spoke to her like she was a child awoken from nightmares. “It’s for our future, hon. If we play it Uncle Sam’s way, we’re screwed. We’ll end up in some half-assed nursing home.”
“I want us to be safe. From now on I’m going to work on a cash-only basis and thirty cents of every dollar will go right into our very own tax shelter.” He gestured toward the back yard, then gave one last squeeze, which was less reassuring than he realized. He headed into his bunker, vinegar and towel in hand, still wearing his father-knows-best smile.
Alone in the kitchen, Marge said it for the hundredth time: “I just don’t think that means what he thinks it means.”
Church folk say you see a light when you die.
I see that light, but I don’t think I’m dead. The blood spilling out of a hole that wasn’t there before makes me pretty sure I’m still alive.
Gutshot. Not even the common decency to shoot a man in the chest.
The light is the sun, and my sunglasses are in my truck. My goddamned truck. The one heading west on Highway 119 right now. The one carrying two guys, a gun, and the last run of my moonshine.
I understand the appeal. All cash. No taxes. Can’t blame them, but they’d make more in the long run as my bootleggers. Probably needed a score to get them out of whatever trouble they got into. That’s what I get for working with someone new.
As for me, I’m left to stumble my way down and die on the side of the road.
I can’t do that. I’ve got a barrel of the finest mash in Harlan County. If I die, all I leave is a barrel of vinegar.
I can hardly walk by the time I reach the still site. The mash is too heavy to pour, even when I haven’t just been shot, so it goes in one bucket at a time.
I’m drenched with sweat by the time I finish. The last thing I want to do is start a fire, but I need to get this boiling. Rush this part and I’ll scorch the shine. I won’t ruin my last run.
I’d use buckets to collect the shine, but I can’t guarantee I’ll be around at the end of the run so I use a barrel. It takes fifteen minutes of kicking away dirt with my feet to angle it in there just right. A jolt of pain shooting through me with each kick.
Nothing to do but wait and patch leaks with an oatmeal paste. I wonder if this stuff works on bullet holes.
Maybe when someone realizes I’m missing, my still hand Ricky will come looking for me. He’s the only other person that knows where the still is. He built it and helped me lug it out here.
I could trust Ricky. An apprentice metalworker, journeyman moonshiner, and master carpenter. I taught him everything he knows, but not everything I know.
I wish I had a jar now. I could use a few swigs. That isn’t something I do, but today, I’d make an exception. Just enough to numb the pain, which has settled to a dull roar.
I don’t have the strength to sit so I lie down, resting my head on a log. I wonder how many people celebrated with shine from that old still. How many drowned their sorrows.
I roll my head to the side, watching the clear liquid trickle out of the spout.
I close my eyes and listen to it pour.
Wake up. Stretch. Eat breakfast while reading the news. Leave the house at 7:15 sharp. Wave to the ghost boy named Oliver, but don’t be too friendly. You’re not neighbors, you’re catty-cornered. A patch of grass diagonal to a white house with red shutters. Dance around Oliver but never touch. Exist with him the way a thin slice of light exists between a door and its frame.
Work quietly and with diligence. Say hi to Rob. Ask Melissa how her kids are. Consider the similarities between you and Oliver, a ghost boy whose shoulders slump with all the unspoken melancholy of someone who has never felt the warmth of a sunset on their skin or tasted the tang a salt and vinegar chip leaves on the tongue and a man not strong enough to leave this world or be a part of it. Compare yourself and Oliver to the hands of a clock: him the hour, you the minute, and the catty-corner between you the second.
Sleep when you are tired, not when you are dog tired. Have four dreams in four days. Dream that the sun is a peach served with a dollop of marzipan and eaten for breakfast. Dream that Oliver was never dead. Dream that the trees around your house are old men with stiff bark beards that groan when a carpenter axe bites their ankles and dream of the way their skin cracks and their backs creak as they fall. Dream that you and Oliver are side- by -side neighbors who drink tea and do taxes together. After this do not dream for two days; you went to sleep dog tired. Have one more dream that Oliver was alive until you killed him.
Wake up ten minutes early and leave the house at 7:05 sharp. Do not wave to Oliver. Do not greet ghost boys with the same hand you used to take their life. Give up on your diligent work and stare out the window. Tell yourself that dreams are called dreams because they lack substance in reality. The days here are cloudy, the trees around your house are saplings, and Oliver is a ghost boy who has never lived or died.
Have a nightmare because you forced yourself into a tossing and turning sleep. Have two nightmares because dreams prey on the mind’s anxieties. In both nightmares dream of Oliver; the catty-corner was never enough distance between you two. Watch as Oliver sits in a chair in a room that is on fire and be unable to save him. Wake up sweating. Take a cold shower. Rationalize with yourself during your cold shower. You were never able to take your own life, how could you have killed Oliver?
Sleep when you are dog tired to ensure you have no dreams. Leave the house when you find it suitable. Turn your head from the catty-corner and feel moon eyes sliding over your back.
Don’t think about it; don’t think about it.
How many times had she heard Daddy say it? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. He’d said it to the men who’d stood on their front porch in clean Yankees caps and demanded he give up the house. But a few days later when the honey arrived in the form of a Tropic Oil check, Daddy had winked at Lula and dropped it down the toilet.
By 5a.m. she’d strapped down her rubber boots and tucked the hem of her flowered dress into her underwear. Another Daddy saying: The early bird gets the worm. Or in this case, the flies.
Turned out, bugs got busy in heat. Fornicating, procreating, aggravating. In the cold they were calmer. Hence, the pre-dawn assault.
Lula jammed her hands into rubber gloves and silently thanked Jesus that Spitter and Cooper had gone up north to find work. If they knew how bad things had gotten they’d laugh themselves sick. Then Cooper would toss her over his shoulder and carry her out of there. Meaning the flies would win.
She stepped down into the lake of the kitchen and stopped to mark her boot with a Sharpie: One quarter-inch higher. Clearly, the city’s channel wasn’t good enough. Or Florida wasn’t good enough. Something must be wrong with the land, that it could so easily slip into sea.
Before the sudden deluge and subsequent plague, Lula’s house had been fine. Her great-grampa, an amateur carpenter, built it over a century ago. A nine-bed, five-bath behemoth that survived epidemics, hurricanes, two world wars and countless floods—not to mention her brothers. Tropic Oil’s expansion made the property taxes shoot up after Daddy died, but Lula had no other complaints. Even the ancient plumbing worked.
Then came the rain. Boats floated between parked cars on the street, and gators appeared on motor home roofs. Tropic faked like there wasn’t any runoff in the soil, and then the plant closed and her brothers moved north. Now only Lula was left to defend the house. But she couldn’t save it until she remembered why she loved it. So up first: fly murder.
Tippy-toe inside her boots, Lula reached into the cabinet and gripped balsamic. If honey caught more flies, it stood to reason that some would be caught with vinegar. She sloshed to the bathroom door, bursting through it like The Insect Gestapo.
5a.m. was early, but not early enough.
Black swarms of shiny bodies fell on her flailing arms, buzzed against her earlobes, kissed the corners of her mouth. A blind grope and quick pour into a plastic Pepsi with the top sewn off, then place it on the sink and go, go, go!
Lula slammed the door behind her. Great-grampa’s wall rattled, and an evil buzz hummed through the wood. She gripped the bottle tightly.
Only four bathrooms more to go.
I yank open the old metal door. Of all high schools, why did Jared have to choose St. Jerome’s?
The smell of vinegar-wiped surfaces and old books grabs me and throws me into a locker.
A cheery Karen Carpenter rendition echoes through the school. At least somebody at St. Jerome’s is on top of the world.
I knock. Mr. Smith opens his door. “Chad?!” He blurts, then coughs. “Mr…Winsome. Sorry. I…”
It’s Paul Smith. I could palm smack myself for not connecting the dots. A.k.a. Bruiser.
Favourite pastime at St. Jerome’s: inflicting pain and humiliation on guys like me.
He sticks out his beefy mitt. “How’ve you been?”
I shake it, firmly enough I hope. “Good.”
Step step. I follow him in. He shuts the door.
I try to dodge the infestation of painful memories but, as inevitable as death and taxes, they corner me. Bruiser and his goons trip me, elbow my face, my glasses, my self esteem. Worse echoes: “You looking at her tits, Lose-All?”
That was the other thing: Chad Winsome became Chad Lose-All. That moniker stuck until college, like dog shit on a shoe.
I think of Jared. I need to focus.
Smith sits across from me in a swivel chair. “No doubt you’re as concerned about Jared’s low attendance as I am.”
“He’s being bullied.” I can’t quite sit upright in this student chair/desk contraption I’m sandwiched in.
“Come on. Beyond all the zero tolerance.” He air quotes. “We both know what goes on. Nothing’s changed.”
An elephant parks itself on my chest. I can’t breathe. I feel sick.
“My advice?” He folds his paws on his muscled belly. “This’ll all blow over. The less fuss, the better.”
Blow over? Like it did for me?
“No, this is unacceptable. I was hoping to settle this with you but I’ll go to the principal, and higher if I need to.”
“Okay, let’s say you do.” He closes his eyes, resembling a benevolent Buddha. “How long before word spreads that Jared snitched? How long before it takes these boys who’ve allegedly bullied him to figure out a million new ways to torment him?”
He snaps his fingers. “No time. Wanna know why? They learned it in kindergarten.”
“Listen.” He waves his hand. “These kids know the rules. You don’t rat out your peers. If Jared just ignores them, they’ll get bored and quit. I promise.”
He looks over at the clock. “I’ve got another appointment. Sorry.” Then he baritones, “Mr. Winsome.”
I’m led out, his hand on my shoulder.
Jared’s drawn, white face looms before me.
I stick my head out and announce into the hall, “Sorry, Mr. Smith and I aren’t finished yet.”
Smith turns to me, still the imposing figure from his glory days. He’s wrong though: things have changed.
I take my seat in his swivel chair. I can wait.
Finally, he shuts the door.
James felt as if his entire physical being had dislodged from space and slammed back down with a crash. There was a metallic taste in his mouth and the air was charged with electricity. A moment later everything shifted back into place. He was in a small kitchen and it was morning. A little yellow radio on the counter hissed static before returning to the Monkees singing Pleasant Valley Sunday. It was Saturday. He couldn’t remember where he was, or what he had been doing just five seconds ago, but he knew it was Saturday. He also somehow knew that the next thing out of that radio would be “If I Were a Carpenter,” by Bobby Darin.
Something was terribly wrong. James’ mind felt as if it were caught in a rapidly moving spotlight amid an ocean of darkness and his memory was struggling to keep pace in the small circle of light. He moved toward the kitchen table and nearly made it, but when Bobby Darin and the radio confirmed his prediction he felt his knees give out from under him and he began to fall.
James reached out with his elbow and caught the counter on his way down, stopping his fall. He knocked over a bottle of vinegar and watched as it toppled to the kitchen floor. He knew before it landed that it wouldn’t shatter, and sure enough it hit the floor and rolled under the table. It was white with foam, but fully intact.
James pulled himself to his feet, passing the refrigerator on his way to the phone. He didn’t have to glance at the calendar to know it was held there by a small watermelon-shaped magnet or that there was a perfect red circle drawn around the 15th, with the word TAXES written diagonally across the box. It was April, but he couldn’t say which year. He began to reach for the telephone on the wall even before it began to ring. A moment later the metallic taste was back and the air became electric. Everything shifted again. He was in a small kitchen and it was morning. A little yellow radio on the counter hissed static…
“Were you able to make contact?”
“No sir, not before the loop restarted.”
“Can’t you call him any sooner?”
The admin took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Cross-temporal communication is tricky, sir. There’s a one-minute window on either end of this loop that’s impossible to communicate through due to interference. It’s the same interference that’s impairing the chrononaut’s short-to-long term memory consolidation.”
The supervisor exhaled slowly. “How many times has he lived through the loop?”
“Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. Shall we terminate the cycle, sir?”
The supervisor shook his head. “Downgrade the incident to severity four and place the loop into the backlog with the others.” He walked toward the door. “Oh, and have the next candidate prepped–I need to go have a chat with legal.”
Turbulence chucked everyone out two hours early, at 1am. Sooz and I were laughing, clutching onto one another, the insides of our heads still glittering with the pill we’d split on the dance floor. Ejected clubbers thronged the pavement, vexed by the curtailment of their fun. A hundred drunken conversations thickened the air.
‘Taxi or walk?’ I asked.
‘Walk,’ Sooz said, sidestepping a sweaty-faced lad who looked in danger of hurling.
We headed to the chippy for fortifications. It was closing when we got there – the man had keys in his hand.
‘Please don’t be shut,’ Sooz entreated. ‘We’re starving.’
‘Sorry, miss,’ the man said, grim-faced. He tried to close the door, but Sooz stood in the way.
‘Just some chips,’ she said. ‘Go on, be a darling.’
The man sighed. He called to the guy who was clearing the food from the counter. ‘Do chips for the lady and gent, quick.’
We were presented with two cartons of warmish chips, doused in salt and vinegar.
‘But I wanted curry sauce,’ said Sooz.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ said the man. ‘Now scram.’
‘We haven’t paid you,’ I said, unfolding my wallet.
‘Free gift,’ said the man. ‘Lucky last customers.’ He shut the door in our faces, and locked it.
‘That was … weird,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they normally open later?’
‘Who cares?’ shrugged Sooz. ‘Free chips!’
We wandered along the middle of the road, munching and chattering. Sooz ate from my carton as often as she did from her own. ‘Taxes,’ she said, when I complained. ‘You’d have no chips at all if it weren’t for me.’
At one point, she tripped and grabbed my arm. Her dark fingers braceleted my elbow. For the thousandth time, I imagined turning towards her. Taking her face in my hands.
‘Sooz …’ I began.
‘Shit!’ cried Sooz, and shoved me, hard. We crashed to the ground, chips hailing everywhere – and a car roared past, so close that the exhaust scorched my face.
‘What the hell,’ I coughed, ‘was that?’
‘That was me saving your life,’ said Sooz, dusting herself off. ‘You all right?’
‘I guess…’ I sat up tentatively. My glasses had fallen off. I felt around until my hand closed on them. Both lenses were cracked.
We clambered to our feet, turned the corner – past The Walrus and Carpenter– onto the high street. And stopped.
‘Holy …’ Sooz breathed.
Hundreds of people were queuing for cash points. They filled the street, standing hunch-shouldered against the night. They were not clubbers. They wore overcoats, anoraks. Tense faces. Some were crying. Some carried sleepy, bewildered children. There was an air of quiet desperation.
There was a line of policemen shouldering firearms.
Sooz slipped her hand into mine.
‘What do you think’s happened?’ she asked.
‘We should ask someone,’ I said.
But we didn’t. We stood on the pavement and watched, as if it were some kind of newsreel. We stood on the pavement, waiting to find out what would happen next.
‘Still think that carpenter will save your soul?’ She nods to the silver cross hanging at my neck, the one I’d meant to take off.
I say, ‘Hi, Denny. I bought you a pot of tea.’
She slides into the plastic chair opposite. We don’t kiss or hug. We never did.
Her thighs bulge in black and red zebra print leggings, grey hair scraped back into a ponytail, making her skin goose flesh at the temples. She fumbles an e-cigarette from her handbag.
‘You’ve given up smoking.’ I’m surprised at how pleased I feel.
She shakes her head, inhaling scented vapour as keenly as sea air. ‘I use it indoors since that bloody ban.’
How didn’t I see her fingertips, coffee-brown fading to yellow by the second knuckle? The walls of our kitchen used to wear the same nicotine varnish.
‘You look well,’ she says, though I know compliments don’t come easy for her.
I see myself through her eyes: cream blouse with an embroidered collar, A-line skirt that stops just below the knee. Respectable, conservative – everything she loathes.
‘How’s Gordy?’ She looks blank and I worry I remembered his name wrong.
But eventually she says, ‘We’ve been finished two years. He went inside for a while. Something up with his taxes.’
‘Are you with anyone?’
The question hangs unanswered. She’s never alone ‒ not giving me a name just means she’s seeing more than one.
‘You still with that God-bothering husband of yours?’ she asks.
I look up, eager to catch a sneer, a tut of derision, but her face is unreadable. She really is trying.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘He sends his best.’
Stephen’s a kind man, but even he doesn’t think contacting her is a good idea. ‘We don’t want all of that back in our lives. Not now.’
The irony is, he missed her worst years: the drunks she brought back to the flat, the fights they had, ornaments breaking late at night. The knocks at my bedroom door when she was snoring on the sofa …
I need to finish this and leave.
‘I wanted to tell you.’
She looks up, black-rimmed eyes searching mine.
‘I’m going to be ordained as a vicar,’ I say.
Her laughter makes the other customers gawp before returning to their chips and fried eggs, their lakes of vinegar.
‘I thought you were gonna say you were expecting a kiddy.’ Gummy eyeliner clogs her vision and she cuffs it away.
Of course – she always loved babies. It was their growing up she couldn’t handle.
‘I just wanted to tell you.’ I feel stupid. As if this meeting would change anything. ‘I need to go now, Mum.’ She hates that word and maybe that’s why I use it.
I glimpse her shocked expression as I bend to kiss her head, smell stale smoke, greasy hair. I leave her alone with her cigarette and her oily tea.
I’m almost running as I reach the door.