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Boto

lone car

She was out of my league, that was for sure. Not just that I had no chance with her. I mean I don’t even think I was allowed to look at her, really. Not short, pudgy me, coming out of the Quick Mart, gas station hot dog in one hand, Slush Puppy in the other.

She was cursing, in a southern twang that went with her husky voice. What made me notice her then, and not before when my fat ass was too distracted by the promise of sugar and tubes of meat, was the way her tank top jumped when she kicked the flat tire. It leapt as her flip flop slapped ineffectively against the rim. The sight was near-religious for me.

I looked away before she could catch me scoping her out, heard her yell into her phone. “Babe, c’mon! It’s not like I ran over that nail on purpose! Don’t be that way…I don’t know, I’ll call a cab or…”

I’d already tuned out by then, not eager to imagine the hunky, likely depressingly superior male specimen she was talking to. I’d set my junk food on the roof of my Acura and was fishing for my keys when I heard her say “Hey, excuse me? Excuse me!”

I wasn’t trying to be rude. There was just absolutely no reason for her to be talking to me. I didn’t realize what was happening until her voice, jarringly close, said “Hey, hold up!”

I turned, chili dog in one hand, jumbo Slush Puppy in the other, the breeze emphasizing how desperately baggy my shorts and tee shirt were.

“Hi,” she said, giving me a small smile. Auburn hair. Tan skin. Freckles on her nose, almost invisible under the halogens of the gas station. Every part of her lean, soft. I was almost hot enough for someone like her, once upon a time.

“Hey.” I dropped into the driver’s seat, still under the impression that there was nothing this Homecoming goddess was going to need me to stick around for.

“Where you headed?”

“Uh…just, just home.”

“Where’s home?”

I searched her eyes. They flickered down the road.

“That way,” I told her, pointing down the highway. She lit up.

“Oh, awesome! Can I get a ride?” She was beaming, already assuming she had her answer.

“Well, I’m kind of low on gas…” You’d probably want to call me an idiot, but really, what chance would I honestly have had with her? Do you really think I was blowing anything?

“Oh, I’ll pay you! I’ll totally pay you!” She swiped her hand like it was a done deal. “But my boyfriend has the money, so…”

“I dunno…” I said. Look, sex was not going to happen, okay? No matter what heroics I performed. Why go through the trouble when I already knew the outcome?

“Please?” She made a pouty face, reached through my open window and grabbed my arm. The way she was bent over, I could immediately tell she was a B-Cup.

“Okay,” I agreed immediately.

***

She told me her name was Britty. I thought that sounded fucking stupid for anyone else who wasn’t hot enough to instantly render men retarded. On her, however, it was perfect. She ran back to her car, reached inside, grabbed her bag. She banged her head on the door frame, and in her anger she kicked the car again.

“OW!” she screamed, immediately falling and grabbing her foot. Her face was scrunched in a look of pure agony.

I climbed out, jiggled over to her. I felt like a big strong man, despite my gut bouncing even more than my knees were. She was sitting almost Indian-style. The toe beside the big one on her right foot was swelling up.

“Looks like ya cracked it,” I said, hating how high-pitched my voice always was.

“Can you help me up?” She sounded so small and hurt I felt bad about the constant sexual thoughts I was having about her. She reached out her arms, wrapped them around my neck as I scooped an arm under her knees and shoulders and hoisted her up. I’ve carried heavier bags of groceries.

I got her into the passenger seat of my car. “Thank you,” she said sheepishly, smiling an embarrassed but grateful smile at me. It made me feel like a hero, despite my complete lack of definition.

She curled forward, cupping her injured foot as I closed the door. I jingled my keys as I walked to the driver’s side, using the sound to distract myself from my jiggling gut.

***

She called her boyfriend, told him she’d caught a ride with “some guy.” Apparently he wasn’t pleased with that. “Don’t get that way. Jesus, you know that’s not gonna happen. Ugh!”

Guess he was the jealous type. Whatever.

“So how far to your boyfriend’s place?” I asked when she hung up.

“About twenty miles.” She’d taken some pills she had in her purse, and her foot seemed to be bothering her less now. She was leaning back, looking out the window, when suddenly she sprung forward in her seat. “Shit! You have gas for this, right?”

I hadn’t thought about that. Honestly I’d just popped in because I have zero regard for what I put into my body. I checked my fuel gauge. “Uh, yeah…probably.”

“Damn, I’m sorry! I didn’t even think…” She fished around her purse. “Let me get you gas, okay? At least a gallon for the drive? Would that be enough?”

“This is a Prius. A gallon would get me to the next state.”

“Cool. Pull in here.” She waved me into a Citgo, handed me a credit card. “I trust you,” she smiled, looking me in the eye, clamping the collar down hard on my sense of ethics. Ugly boys can do no wrong to pretty girls, and she knew it.

I took the card, got out, ran it through the slot on the pump. She told me her zip code, and as soon as I punched it in, the computer read “DENIED.”

“Uh…it didn’t work.”

“Weird. Try it again.”

I did. “Nothing.”

“Shit!” She opened up her purse and climbed out. She winced as she balanced herself on her injured foot, shifted her weight, and hobbled over to the ATM. She swiped her card, punched numbers, yelled: “What the FUCK?!”

She jammed in her PIN again, stabbing the keys like they’d insulted her, apparently got the same response. “AHHH, GODDAMNIT!”

“Everything okay?”

“No everything’s not fucking okay? GODDAMNIT! GODDAMNIIIIIIT!” She balled her fist like she was preparing to punch the machine, but probably remembered her injured foot and dropped her arm. “My money’s gone! MY FUCKING MONEY’S GONE!”

“Fuck,” I said, as sympathetically as I could.

“I had two-thousand dollars in there! Oh no! Oh no!” Her voice had that whine that told me she was about to panic-cry.

“Hey, it’ll be fine. Just call the bank. Most of ‘em have fraud protection. They’ll put your money back.”

She didn’t seem convinced, but it seemed to comfort her somewhat. “You think so?”

“Totally. Same thing happened to me once. Got my money back the same day.”

She pouted, scrunched her eyebrows. “I’m sorry I can’t get you gas.”

“Shit, don’t worry about it.”

She hobbled back to her car, her foot clearly hurting her more than it was a second ago.

“You sure you don’t want me to take you to an emergency room?” I asked her.

“No, I’m fine. I’ll just…I’ll have my boyfriend take me to the doctor tomorrow.” She made a small, sick sound as she pushed herself into her seat with her foot.

I filled up my tank, and we were back on the road.

***

Her foot was really bothering her. She was moaning in discomfort two minutes in.

“Maybe you should take a couple more, um…pills.”

She looked at me then, unsure if I was judging her or not. “I’m not an addict.” She didn’t say it defensively. It sounded more like she was trying to convince herself.

Well, I thought, that was unprompted.

“Oh, no, I just…I mean, if you’re not going to the doctor about your foot until tomorrow, I just figured you’d want it to hurt less. I’m pretty sure you broke something.”

“Yeah, maybe…” She was staring through the floorboard, trying to convince herself that she wasn’t trying to convince herself. Finally she dug through her purse.

“I’m only gonna take a few.” She was telling herself, trying to make it sound like she was telling me. She spilled a small handful out of the bottle, rolled a few back inside, then tossed back the rest. She took out a bottle of water and took a deep swallow. When she put the cap back on, I smelled that it wasn’t actually water she’d just swigged.

She was completely out before I could ask her which road to turn off on. Shit.

***

It was completely dark when she started awake, taking a rushed breath and blinking her eyes. I’d pulled into a paved lot for a hair salon that hadn’t been built yet, waiting for her to rouse and tell me where to go. She’d been out for a couple hours

“Shit! What time is it?”

“About eleven.”

“Fuck. Fuck!” She dug out her phone, swiped her finger over the screen. She shook the knee of her good leg as she waited for an answer.

“Hey Brian? Jesus, babe, I’m sorry. I’m on my…don’t be that way! Jesus! I hurt my foot and took something for it. See for yourself when we…the fuck are talking about?! You fucking ashsole, you know I wouldn’t…what do you…?”

She had a look of disbelief.

“What? You can’t be serious! Babe, I would never do that! How could you think that? I told you! I hurt my foot! I took some pills and…Brian, please listen!” She was crying, sobbing actually. The kind of sob that hits you by surprise, so you don’t have time to mask the panic. “No! No! Babe, I moved all the way down here for you, why would I…babe, no, listen! Why would I…babe, please. No! No, Brian, I…!” She looked at the phone, fear rising, swiped her finger over it, held it back to her ear. I heard what sounded like voicemail. She dialed again. Voicemail. Again. Answer this time. Couldn’t make out the words clearly, but it sounded like Brian didn’t want her coming home.

She started sobbing, bawling, and smacked her phone into the dashboard as hard as she could. I heard the screen spider web, and she hurled the little box through the window. She curled up, eyes against her knees, her tears making dark streaks across her jeans.

I sat in uncomfortable silence, not sure what would be the right thing to say. Obviously the plans had changed.

“Wrong guys. I was pick the fucking wrong guys…”

Abruptly she opened the car door. I assumed she was going after her phone at first, then I noticed she was dragging her bags with her.

“Hey! Where you going?”

She sniffled, wiped her eyes, then in a disgusted voice she said “Well, obviously you don’t have to take me anywhere now. But I appreciate your help.”

“What?”

“I’m gonna go. I gotta…I gotta go catch a bus or something…”

“The bus station is miles away! I can’t let you out here this late! We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“It’s alright. I can make it.”

“Bullshit. Your toe is broken. No way you can walk this highway like that.”

“I’ll be fine…” She sounded less sure, and glanced over her shoulder down the dark road.

“Look, let me take you to the emergency room.”

She shook her head. “I can’t pay for it. I don’t have any insurance or…” She started crying again. Holy fuck, was she having a shit night.

“Come on,” I pleaded, figuring I was being more genteel than creepy. I wanted so much to help her out, to be enough of a hero for her that maybe, maybe, in some fucking way, she would overlook the fact that I looked like a pimply bag of shit. “We have to get that foot looked at. You won’t make it far off the bus if it isn’t treated.”

She seemed to be considering this.

“I can’t leave you out here,” I told her. “I just…can’t, man.”

She smiled. Her eyes had that sad light girls get when something touches them.

“You’re so sweet!” She said it to me like I was her fat-assed little brother. But I would take that over abandoning her any day.

She gave the highway another glance, then climbed back in. In another moment we were moving.

“You’re just the sweetest thing ever,” she told me, her voice thick with her melted heart. In her tenderness, I had become simultaneously heroic and, consequently, devoid of sexual intrigue.

I could live with that.

***

The hospital was another ten miles. It was a sleepy, spread-out Georgia town. Nothing was a close drive away.

She’d taken some more pills for her foot. Fewer than before, but enough to put a dopey smile on her face. “You’re so amazing,” she said, almost with a slur. “You’re like, my fucking hero.”

I smiled. She scooched up, leaned over, gave me a clumsy kiss on the cheek. “Fuckin’ knight in armor,” she told me, and started giggling. She fell back into her seat, punched me playfully in the shoulder. My arm rippled where she hit me. Everything on me was so loose nowadays.

She moaned, contented, wrapped her arms behind her head. “I feel so fucking safe around you.”

“I’m glad, Britty.”

She gave me a smile of instant friendship. “Hey, what’s your name?”

I shook my head. “You probably couldn’t pronounce it.”

“Try me!”

I shook my head. “It’s an old name. They don’t really make the letters for it anymore.”

She scrunched her brows, shook her head. Tried to make sense of what I just told her.

“Wait…what?”

“How’s your foot?”

She sighed. “Still fuckin’ hurts.”

“You should take some more pills,” I told her.”I mean, what harm could they do now?”

“Yeah,” she said, slick and lazy. “What harm could they do now?”

She tapped a few into her palm, swallowed them.

“Sure that’s enough?” I asked.

She smiled. “Fuckin’ right.” She poured more, a small handful. She chased them with the rest of her vodka.

“Sure that’s enough?” she slurred back at me.

I smiled. “You would know, wouldn’t ya?”

She nodded. “Shit yes, I would.” She drained the rest of the bottle.

“You good?”

She leaned back, got comfy. “Mm-hmm,” she murmured. “Hey, where we goin’ anyway?”

“To my place.”

“Hey – but what…”

“Don’t worry…I’m a gentleman.”

She laughed, barking and uncomprehending. “Ha! Yeah…fuckin’ knight an’ armor…”

“Yeah,” I said. “Night.”

***

She was still warm when I stopped the car behind my house. Her breath hissed out of her when I picked her up and carried her inside. Rotten floorboards threatened to give under my weight and hers. Light from the half moon peppered in through holes in the roof.

She’d died before her gag reflex could kick in. Thank Christ. I hated having to scrub out my car.

I hear my brothers smacking in the night. They’re hungry, but she’s mine.

“No, you handsome devils,” I tell them. “Sate your lusting bellies elsewhere.”

They growl, irritated, but any of them would say the same to me. They would have no trouble finding prey. They’re so beautiful, all of them. Some could even slip into dreams.

But seduction is such a misunderstood art. There are other ways to break down the walls between prey and their trust. And it’s the trust we need. To feed. To fuck. It’s the trust we take, so that we may live. The infinitely harmless can be as inviting as the sensuous nighttime lover. We all have our guile.

I kick aside the loose boards in the floor, step into the dark, flowing water. Country plumbing, in days before daylight could travel through wires.

I step into the rushing water, my bulk consumed by its chilly froth. I sink with her, down to the dark place others only see in dreams. My gorgeous brothers spread into the night. They only have so long before daylight robs their looks.

Demon lovers. Nightmare beasts. Forceful and potent. Lean and beautiful. Fat and hungry.

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Buggy

scary bug 2

So I’ve had a problem with bugs ever since I moved into my apartment. The super insisted nothing was wrong, but of course he would, right? But the maintenance guy said the same thing, and Tony’s a pretty straight-up fella. I still saw bugs even after he looked around, but I thought, hey, he’s maintenance, not an exterminator. Can’t fault him when I ask him questions outside his field.

But then I called, like, three professionals, and they all said the same thing. No bugs here, man. Place is clean as a whistle. Not even a freakin’ mite, they told me, and they ran UV lights and shit over everything.

So, right, the exterminators tell me there’s no bugs here either. And admittedly, it’s not like they’re everywhere. They don’t pour out of my cabinets of clog the drain. They’re just always there, out of the corner of my eye, scurrying into some crack I can’t see before I turn around. But I always see them. They’ve gotta be stacked a foot deep behind these walls.

Anyway, I guess it’s not all bad. They don’t get into my food or anything, so that’s a plus. Still, I sleep better at night knowing there’s a can of Raid by the bed.

***

So it’s been three months, right? And every time I bring friends over, I always have to look around, feel through the couch cushions, because I’m afraid one of my cuter female friends is gonna reach for her drink and get a handful of bug.

I still can’t prove anything, but I know they’re here. Fuckin’ scurrying out of sight whenever I try to get a look at ‘em. Sometimes I get lucky, see one in retreat before it vanishes. Jesus, they’re ugly things.

They aren’t roaches. I…I really don’t know what the hell they are. They almost look like spiders, but I’m sure they have six legs, and spiders have more than that, right?

I know they have six legs ‘cause the fucking things are huge. Like pipe cleaners covered in rose thorns. Just big, gnarly, awful things, bright yellow with spots of…I dunno, green I think.

And sometimes I see antennas. I definitely see the antennas. Sometimes I’ll just look up and see ‘em wiggling over the edge of the cabinets, long, orange, just waving around like how you’d hang your arms if you were laying in a hammock.

But as soon as I get a magazine or something, they’re gone. I don’t know where. Seriously, I don’t even think there’s any cracked paint in here.

It pisses me off, but what am I going to do? Can’t knock a hole in the wall, not without voiding my lease anyway. Can’t ask the other neighbors if they have bugs ‘cause, well, I don’t know. Fuck the neighbors, really.

They still don’t seem to bother me much, but it’s hard to go about my day knowing they’re there. I hear them when I sit down to watch TV, and I have to turn the sound up sometimes just to drown them out.

***

Shit, it’s a real problem now. I woke up thirsty last night and thought I’d get a drink of water. Then I hit the light and there it is, on the foot of my bed, just walking around like it’s scoping out property.

I screamed like I was ten and kicked the sheets. That thing dropped to the carpet with a thud heavy enough to make me wonder what else I’d kicked off.

Then I grabbed a magazine even though now I wonder what I was thinking I’d do with it. Piss it off, I guess. But it was gone, like they always are.

I need all of these fucking things gone. Soon.

***

So they mostly stay out of sight, which is good, since me and this one girl are kinda getting serious now.

I like her. She’s got black hair and black eyes and she fucks me like a demon. Sometimes her legs wrap around me so hard I wonder if she’ll dislocate my thighs from my hip.

It’s good right now. It’s real good. She’s naked all the time when she’s over, and I love that.

I’m always looking over my shoulder, watching for those fucking things, but they stay hid out when we’re together.

Which is good for now, but I might want her to move in with me, and if I do that I’m gonna need to know these damn bugs aren’t going to be a problem.

***

So I was plucking my hairline, ‘cause I got some weird patchy widow’s peak that’s not sharp enough to be cool, and if you tell anyone I pluck I swear I’ll eat your mother. And I guess I haven’t been getting enough sleep because while I was yanking out one really thick and gnarly hair I passed out. Just…BOOM. Right to the floor.

But that’s not the important part, even though, yeah, I know, it should be, but look: when I came to, I didn’t see too clearly at first. Just a lot of blurry spots, wavering around like I had a bad drunk on. But then I finally blinked my vision clear, and when I did I saw them.

Just…fucking saw them. So many of them, just standing there, those gross legs bouncing up and down as they skittered around, waving those freaky orange antennas. They were everywhere.

And one really big one had a stinger.

I freaked the fuck out and kicked at that one, and it squealed and smacked the shower wall, and I grabbed my sneaker and swung at the others. I was knocking them everywhere, and they were making these weird squeals and ducking for cover. They hid really fast, just vanished into God knows where the fuck.

Anyway, they’re all gone now, even the one with the stinger, and that pisses me off because I kinda wanted to super-kill that one, but whatever.

What worries me now is this spot that looks like something stung me, right on the side of my neck. It’s not swollen, not like most stings are, but it’s red and there’s a hole in the center, and it’s got me worried. Real worried.

***

So I’m still alive, thank Christ. Place where it stung me didn’t even start to itch, though I’m pretty sure it’s what made me pass out, so I definitely don’t wanna get stung again.

Yeah, so I need to get these fuckers gone. My girl still hasn’t seen ‘em, so that’s good, but we’re talking about her moving in, and I kind of want to make it soon ‘cause her crazy-ass ex is starting to leave her threatening phone calls. I know I can’t take the fucker in a fight, but at least she’ll be somewhere where we can both lock the doors.

She doesn’t seem to hear them either, whenever she stays the night. I ask her sometimes if the noise at night ever bothers her, and she usually just gives me a weird look and goes “What noise?”

***

Nobody fucking hears them, which, I’m not gonna lie, has me a little worried.

I know crazy people say they see and hear bugs all the time. And my mom…my mom kinda had a little of that. She was able to keep it under control pretty well, but I remember her yelling about bugs whenever she forgot to take her meds.

So it’s got me a little worried that no one else seems to know they’re here. They never hear ‘em, and actually they always ask me why I have the TV so loud.

But I can’t help but gag when I see them shoveling handfuls of cereal in their mouths. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that I don’t tell them. Still, I can’t see how they don’t know already. I hear those things all the time. They’re so damn loud.

***

Her ex-boyfriend comes over. It’s her first night in, and already he’s freaking the fuck out. I don’t know how he found out our address, but he’s kicking on the door so hard I feel like he’s gonna dent the aluminum.

She’s curled up against me, scared and shaking and I wanna go out there and punch the guy, but we both know I’m not gonna hurt him like he can hurt me. The guy’s huge, bigger than both of us combined.

So we sit here, and she seems to like me holding her tight in my arms ‘cause soon she’s kissing the side of my neck, close to where I got stung, and I feel her tongue on my ear and she’s whispering these little sexy things and soon we’re fucking.

And I mean fucking hard. Her on top, holding her tits and yelling, him outside hearing everything and losing his fucking mind. I’m pretty sure it turns her on and I’m not gonna lie, I liked it more than a little bit.

Finally a neighbor says he’s gonna call the police, and the guy yells back at him, and the neighbor says he ain’t afraid of some punk ass, and they yell a little at each other before the boyfriend finally leaves. And through it all she’s whining and grinding and I’m moaning, and everybody’s making all kinds of noise.

Especially them. I hear them loudest of all, their squeals needling their way in my brain. Those hairs I plucked the other day are back, and at every squeak I feel them tingle.

***

I walk around at night, too keyed up to really sleep. She’s sound asleep, too spent to be bothered, I guess. But I’m up and looking in every nook and cranny I can find, spraying bug spray that I’m not entirely sure is legal for me to own.

I don’t see how they can get in or get out. There’s not a loose board in the place. But I hear them. I hear them everywhere I go in here. I can’t sleep, and I feel this weird pressure in my head. Like I’m going to pop.

That low squealing. It’s like I hear them whistling inside my skull.

***

A few days pass. Good days for us. Constructive days, ya know?

But soon he’s back, banging on the door and shit. It sounds like he gives up after a while, but later when I open the door to go get the mail he’s there. He throws his weight against the door and barges in. I’m almost thrown off my feet, but I stumble around till I’m steady.

He comes up to me, yelling and waving his arms and I get real tired of it, real fast. That weird, cross-eyed look he’s always got is getting to me. I’m already having a shitty day. My head’s been killing me all day, and my mood was already shot before this ass wipe dropped by.

He doesn’t care, of course, just pushes me so I stumble a little more and keeps yelling. “Where is she, you little shit?” And without even giving me any time to answer he rears back and comes at me.

Then he looks over my shoulder and screams.

I don’t really get why he’s screaming so much. She’s pretty safe, and it’s not like she can hurt him or anything. That cocoon’s, like, four inches thick, easy. She’s gonna sleep clear through the molting.

But he won’t stop screaming, and I can’t have him going ape shit all night, so I come up to him to ask him to keep it down. And he jumps back like I’m poisonous, which is silly but he does it anyway. And I have a feeling he wants to escape but he stumbles into the door and it closes against his weight, and he doesn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind for figuring out how to open it back up, especially after my jaw comes off.

Jesus, I can’t tell you how much better that feels. They’ve hollowed me out pretty good, but it’s still pretty crowded in here. With my jaw gone they can pour out a lot easier, and that cramped feeling in my head disappears. My antennas have grown pretty impressively, now that I’ve stopped plucking them. They twitch as the hive tells me they’ll take things from here.

They come spilling out, two, sometimes three at a time. And he covers his face with those heavy tattooed arms of his but really, what does he expect that to do? Not get him cocooned? Please.

He’ll be a good one. Lots of meat on this guy’s bones. I’m pretty sure we can eat around the tattooed parts if we have to.

Most of the hive is busy wrapping her ex, so I sit down to watch some TV. They’ll call me when they need help hoisting him to the ceiling. I’m pretty sure I can catch Weeds before I gotta do any heavy lifting, though.

I turn up the TV, and the hive does its best to keep it down while I watch, but I don’t mind the noise. I don’t really have that much of a problem with bugs.

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There Is No Moonlight

moonlight

 

June 1967

Gracie Ellington didn’t know she’d backed over the boy until she saw him twisted and wriggling before the nose of her car. She almost didn’t even see him then, with her tires kicking up the hot Alabama dust.

Nothing worked right for Gracie. The little boy had black hair and the kind of skin that looked like it never darkened, no matter how much summer sun it got. She hated the boy in the dust, the mangled little bully. There would be problems because of this. Gracie Ellington was a meek woman, and the world took notice when you didn’t bite back.

She hit her head on the horn a few times and started crying, huffing with frustration through her tears. She felt like she was drowning in them. They trickled over her lips and teeth and dripped down her mouth. She could feel them pooling up inside her. Nothing was on Gracie’s side.

The morning shopping never got done. Gracie was still crying and slapping the steering wheel when a passing trucker knocked on her window. The man was black, scared to be in the presence of white people experiencing tragedy. Such people had a habit of inventing blame to level against the blameless.

The black man eventually radioed for the police, and a trooper on his way to Birmingham came by near sunset. He scolded the trucker, saying if he’d known the man was calling on behalf of a white woman he’d have gotten there sooner. It was sundown before the cold boy was hauled away, in a white pickup the county used for dead bodies and hurt blacks. The trucker was given a citation for unlawful trespass.

Ms. Gracie was given a pill and driven to Doc Shore’s house. The doctor wasn’t there, but his wife gave Gracie some bourbon and another pill. It wasn’t until after ten when Gracie mentioned her husband wouldn’t be there to pick her up.

Gracie sat through the night on the doctor’s porch swing, drinking coffee with chicory. Her shaking hands made her slop a lot of it. By sunrise the dried coffee had formed thick stains on the whitewashed boards.

Doc Shore drove her home. They had to go through the side door so as not to cut through the police tape out front. Ed’s hand lingered on the side of her bottom after he’d gotten her into bed, and when he realized it was there he snatched it back with a jerk.

Later, the stains in the dirt driveway looked a lot to Gracie like coffee spilled on whitewashed wood.

June 2014

Delia is crying over the shriveled woman in the hospital bed. Gracie does her best to quiet her daughter. She can’t bear the idea of anyone morning the lifeless creature before them.

This dying thing corrupted Delia for ten years. There were nights where Gracie had been violently ill by the involuntary understanding of what her daughter did with Naomi. The woman was a predator, twenty years older than the girl she’d stolen. She’s defiled her in probably every way, tasting her and being tasted by her, a communion taken over the course of a decade.

Naomi is forty-seven, but the lymphoma has edged her closer to two hundred. Her skin is red and dry, peeling off in little square flakes, cracking wide wherever natural lines have formed. A little less than a dozen tough, wiry hairs are stuck across her head. Her eyes were closed long before the coma; it had been a hard fight before then just to keep them open.

The nurses come, and disconnect the machine that breathes for Naomi. The monitor records her slowing heartbeat. A doctor marks the time of death. Delia weeps in her shuddering mother’s arms.

“We did all we could,” she coos to her daughter. It was even easier than it’d been with Ed.

***

Children make faces as they pass Gracie’s house. Sometimes if they see her in the screened-in porch they’ll yell and call her “Murder Lady!”

In her kitchen, Gracie balances her checkbook, scribbling in the pink notepad she’s favored for two decades. Garish red and purple flowers overcrowd the cover, matching the rose vines etched in the heavy pen Ed gave her their first anniversary together.

The passing children throw rocks at a stray cat in Gracie’s yard. They think it belongs to the old woman. They’re excited by the excuse for cruelty.

The cat doesn’t run away. It hisses, charges, cuts a boy on the leg, and then darts into the woods. Later an angry mother pounds on Gracie’s door, yelling to the old woman to control the animals she doesn’t have.

“Do you want to kill the rest of the kids around here?” the middle-aged woman yells. Her slaps excite a yellow jacket resting on the doorframe, and it stings her above the ear. She flails her arms and runs back to the road.

***

Delia won’t stay with Gracie. She’s got her awful red cases packed inside the dead lesbian’s Volkswagen, red cases the lesbian bought for her. There’s almost nothing left of Delia that the dead woman’s lust didn’t conquer.

“You should stay,” Gracie begs. She was always short, but stooped as she is she could tumble into Delia’s chubby stomach.

“I can’t Mom. Naomi had affairs I said I’d settle…”

“Damn the affairs. What does she have left anymore?”

“Mom, I owe it to her.”

“You’re finally loose of her and you still can’t let anything of hers go.”

“I love you, Mom. I’ll call when I get there.”

“What kind of woman flees from family this way?”

Delia tries to kiss Gracie’s cheek, but her mother slaps at her, missing her with her palm but grazing her with stained nails. Red marks that will vanish in five minutes flare on her daughter’s cheek.

“I love you,” Delia reminds herself, and goes to the car. “I’ll call you soon.”

“You’d be better off dead!” Gracie shrieks. “For God’s sake baby, don’t you see…?”

The Volkswagen mutters to itself and bounces down the clay road. Gracie’s scared. She knows they give jobs to women up in Massachusetts, even those who submit to other women. Hell, she could get a job anywhere; things are different nowadays. Her ties won’t bind much longer. Gracie pulled her money from Delia’s college fund, but Delia graduated anyway. Soon it won’t matter how many dollars Gracie hides away behind invented shields of poverty.

***

There’s a nest of baby birds that won’t stop squalling, and Gracie takes Bobby’s air gun and shoots a pellet into the dark. There’s a squawk, and she hears wings flapping. The baby birds squall louder.

Gracie goes out. It’s after nine, during that summer hour when the sun fights with all it’s got to stay above the horizon. In the dim dusk Gracie sees a single wing slowly wave to her. A thrasher is on its side, its beak wide open. It doesn’t breathe. Something like water is spilling from its mouth, staining the concrete porch.

The other thrasher won’t go up to the nest when it returns. It flicks about, chirping and beating the dead bird with its wings. There’s a long moment when it bends down, like it’s listening for something. Gracie shoots it through the eye. The bird flops on its back, its legs making slow, swimming kicks while the rest of it lies prostrate and stiff.

The baby birds keep Gracie up all night. At some point she hears the growling of a cat and the hiss of a possum. In the morning the dead birds are still there.

***

Mothers pull their children away from Gracie while the old woman walks through the Food Tiger. A tall trooper with a skinny build and a lumpy gut comes up to her.

“How’re ya today, Ms. Gracie?”

“Can’t you people just leave me alone?” she begs, looking to the floor. She whispers it almost; any louder and she might cry.

“We won’t hurt you, Ms. Gracie,” the trooper tells her, almost like he’s sorry for her. He tips his hat and moves over to the meat cooler.

The cashier wrinkles her nose like Gracie smells bad, and practically throws her change to her. The trooper stands by the door while the bag boy loads the food into her car. On her way out of the parking lot she passes a red Impala. There’s a teenage boy behind the wheel, with a faint pink line on his cheek that was fresh about ten years before. He watches her as she turns onto Harris Road, and resists the urge to scratch the old scar. It only itches when he thinks about her.

Gracie unloads the groceries, yelling at the baby birds with every bag she brings in.

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” she screeches. The last bag contains the Tylenol she takes about ten times a day. She shoves one bottle in her purse, puts the other five behind the bathroom mirror, beside the old straight razor of Ed’s. She carried that razor for awhile after he and the kids left, but for the last decade it’s sat on the same dusty glass rack, the chrome blade stained an ugly spilled brown.

“It was only a dog,” she mutters. She shuts the mirror with a slam.

***

She puts crumpled flowers pulled from her backyard on Ed’s grave. Cancer’s convenient. All you have to do is pull away. There isn’t a simpler weapon in the world. Even the old razor was never that easy to use.

Bobby’s grave is next to Ed’s. The town keeps the marker shining like the day it was bought. Yellowing notes are staked to the ground. “You poor little lamb.” “God bless the blighted children.”

Her plot is marked beside Ed’s, her space on the stone still blank. The grass here is always dying, washed as it is in piss. Maybe she could bury the birds here.

When she gets home the baby birds are still crying. The carcasses of the parents are gone now, leaving only ruffled feathers and chewed bits of skin.

***

A dog is calling from down the road. Probably the mutt the Davisons keep for their screaming kids. Gracie has a steak in the freezer for the dog, one she’s never gotten around to preparing. The days are always so short.

It’s after nine and the baby birds in the old hickory tree won’t stop squealing. Something has to be done. Gracie stomps to the bathroom in her old pink slippers and fishes the straight razor out from behind the mirror. There’s a half-moon out, and it’s bright enough to see by. Gracie turns the bare porch light on anyways.

There’s a stump left over from an oak Ed cut down, back before he left. Gracie uses it to get a leg up, then steps onto the small, leaning trunk of the dehydrated hickory tree, using the knobby bark for footholds.

The razor glints in the moonlight. Bobby once told her there isn’t any moonlight, just sunlight reflected off the moon. Gracie must not think about that too long. Too much consideration and she’ll spin. Life must be a pliable thing.

The blade shines in the light despite the puppy’s brown blood. Ed had railed at her for that, grabbed her even. Then she’d put the razor to his shoulder and he’d let her go. He’d planned to take Bobby with him when he left the next day, but of course there was only Delia to take away afterward.

The Black-Eyed Susans still grow where they’d put the nipping puppy, though how much was left of it to grow on Gracie couldn’t imagine. Weren’t mummies made from hot, dry dust?

Gracie grips the razor like she did on that day ten years ago, when the ice cream truck had stopped by her car, and the children had been bumping against her. The razor had flashed like cold lightning against the boy’s cheek. Afterward, tenderness to women had delivered her back into her home, but the judge had warned her: “I think now we know the kind of woman you are.”

But that boy hadn’t even died. If he had they wouldn’t have let her keep the razor. People were so eager to condemn the meek. Angry tears come. The world is a creeping vine. All she left him with was a little pink line on the cheek. Was that worth so much?

She thinks of Bobby in the dust. In the sunlight afforded to us at night, incidents and accidents enjoy mixed company.

She’s looking down into the nest now, her old arms shaking as she fights to keep hold to the shaking branches. Her white hair hangs loose, and she tries to shake it over her shoulder. The motion throws her off-balance, but she finds a lump of bark and steps down on it.

Except it isn’t a lump of bark, just a sprig of leaves poking out from a budding new branch. They yield to her weight instantly. Gracie scrapes at the bark of the tree with the razor as she falls.

She hits her face against the oak stump, and lands on her side with a sound like a wet bag of rocks. Her hip actually does hit a rock, and there’s so much pain that for a second she panics, thinking she won’t be able to face it. But she lucks out. The pain disappears, replaced with a heavy feeling of icy cold.

The wires to the porch light aren’t great, and the bulb goes dark. The moon beholds her, but doesn’t care. That’s alright. The moonlight isn’t there. Its indifference doesn’t hurt.

The razor is stuck a little ways into the palm of her hand. It’s folded against the ground, the handle split down the middle from the impact. She’s surprised the cut isn’t bleeding much, so maybe it’s not too bad.

She gets sleepy, but never actually falls asleep. After a couple hours she feels cool, but she doesn’t shiver. The right side of her face is so puffy she practically has a pillow to rest her head upon.

Her phone begins to ring in the kitchen. Delia is back in Boston now.

The phone rings and rings, and then goes quiet. Half an hour later, it rings again. Gracie, feeling cool in the summer heat, is content to let it ring.

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Verse

old truck

 

The sign by the highway read: “HALLOWEEN IS THE ROAD DOWN WHICH SATAN WALKS.”

The sign a half-mile down added: “BY WHICH SIN WILL YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON GOD ALMIGHTY?”

Roadside Evangelical was little more than a white clapboard shack, too small now to hold the congregation it had grown. Most sermons these days were held in the field out back, beneath a blue tarp, in folding chairs that tested your faith. Today the chairs were replaced with plastic tables loaded with food. Children and their parents ran across the grass, alternately laughing and singing hymns. Short hayrides were punctuated with scripture quoted by those in the truck bed. Children bobbed for apples and were awarded pocket Bibles.

The door was open to Reverend Howell’s office, really just a trailer parked behind the church. The lights were off, and with the growing clouds it was hard to see inside. Scattered across the carpet were crudely scribbled Bible tracts, condemning the lust of homosexuals for God’s precious children and the urges of cross-dressers to peek into women’s toilets. In the far corner, the reverend’s chair was overturned.

They’d walked to the woods at such an angle that the church blocked them from the congregants’ view. Howell didn’t try to scream anymore for fear of choking on the torn shirt Lacey had jammed into his mouth. He could feel the fabric a hair away from creeping into his throat, and while the boys held his arms and legs he had no means of pulling the gag free.

They were strong, athletic kids, so they carried him a good ways through the pine trees. An old pickup, license plate removed, was parked about a couple miles in.

They threw Howell down, then picked him up on his feet and wrapped a heavy chrome chain tight around and between his wrists. Colt fastened one end to the truck bumper while Lacey and her brother pulled down his pants. Clint tore away at the reverend’s coat and shirt, utility knife in hand to sever the threads too thick and stubborn to yield to the tugs. Lacey pulled Howell’s pants so that his ankles were snatched from under him. He felt them pull his shoes away before finally pulling his pants loose. Someone snatched away his socks.

The rag had crept a little deeper down Howell’s mouth, and coughed as he fought his urge to gag. He was barely able to mumble “What are you all doing?”

Colt shrugged. “God’s work, I guess.”

“God’s work?” And Howell gagged again as the rag crept deeper down his throat. “How could this be God’s work?” he groaned, nearly unintelligible.

But Colt seemed to hear him. “You know about how my granddaddy was a code breaker after he got drafted? He always used to tell me that the secret of any code was figuring out what it was folks was trying not to say.”

Lacey propped herself up on the pickup’s tailgate. It was late October and cloudy, but the humidity was high and the temperature was in the low eighties. She was in small denim shorts, and she wore boots that hugged her calves. Howell looked away when he caught her catching him.

“Please!” he murmured. He tried to cough some of the rag clear, and felt bile rising in his throat. “There’s nothing Godly in this action!” Then he fell on back on the standby defense: “Look to His Word!”

“Codes always say one thing and mean another. And it’s not even so obvious as just sayin’ the opposite of what ya mean.” Colt flipped a pocket Bible through the air, one of a couple thousand Howell kept in boxes in his office. “You say He’s a God of love. If that’s the case, I ain’t so sure He’s the author.”

Howell’s blood was racing hot, and he tensed to keep from voiding his bladder. The pressure began to stiffen his prick. Lacey noticed and barked a little laugh, then reached out a leg and nudged it with the toe of her boot.

“Damn, reverend,” Clint said off to the side, “you sure have timing, don’t ya?”

A blond-headed boy Howell knew as Zach came out from behind him, stuffing Howell’s clothes into a nylon bag. He threw the torn suit into the truck bed before climbing into the cab and slamming the door shut. After a couple minutes Howell could hear the tinny sounds of country music from the radio.

“When you have us testify in town, you tell folks we’re witnessing before the Lord. I remember a lot of my granddaddy’s stories. That sounded a lot like code to me.”

“What…?” And Howell had to stop and fight back a convulsion in his stomach. He bit down on the shirt to keep from swallowing it. He felt his prick spasm and leap. Lacey watched it and laughed.

“My leg feels a lot better,” she told him then. “Nurse at school says I just strained it a little. Should be running track again in no time. I palmed one of them relaxers you said would help me and gave it to my sister. Put that little girl right to sleep.” She smirked and tossed her honey blond hair over one shoulder. “Just how relaxed were you wanting me to be that day, reverend?”

“They…they’re gonna find you!” Howell gagged.

“Maybe.” Colt shrugged. “Maybe not. If they do I guess that’s His will. Or, you know, somebody’s anyway.

Clint slapped the side of the truck. There was a clang from under the hood, and it lurched as Zach shifted gears. He opened the door and stuck a foot out, his boot digging into the dirt.

Colt clapped Howell’s shoulder. The sound of flesh smacking against flesh was intimate, violating.

“We’re just doing the best we can with what we can figure out.” He squeezed the pale skin of the man’s shoulder in an obscene gesture of comfort. “Plenty of snakes out here. You get a chance, let ’em tell ya a story.”

Zach stepped out, and the truck began to roll. It hit a sharp drop in the soil, and just as it began its descent its tires met an exposed oak root. The truck bucked and lurched, and Howell’s slow march turned to flight. He was slung through the air like the tip of a bullwhip. For a second the kids could hear his screams through the shirt, but he was quickly drowned out by the screeching of smashed steel and shattered glass.

When it was quiet they looked over the edge, and saw Howell lying fifty feet down. The truck he was still chained to stood on its nose, its roof propped against a pine sporting fresh scars. The old bald tires in back were still spinning.

Howell’s body jerked. None of them could tell if he was fighting to breathe or if it was just a muscle spasm. It wouldn’t matter soon.

“You all best get back to where you ought to be,” Colt told the others. “I’ll stick around to make sure it’s finished.”

They disappeared to the crunch of green twigs and the rustling of dry pine needles. Colt dipped some chew, and for good measure lit a cigarette. He sat on the edge of the drop-off, kicking down loose dirt with his boot heels. There was a faint pulse of light, and the distant growl of thunder. A few cool drops of water hit the back of Colt’s neck. He sat waiting until the rain came in force. Once he was cleansed, he would start the work again.

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New Halloween Twitter Serial: #theywontdie

About three years ago I began running serialized fiction on Twitter, telling my stories one tweet at a time. It was moderately popular, and for about a year I ran a new one each month, some with holiday themes, some without.

It’s been a minute since I was last on Twitter for any significant period of time. Life has been kinda hectic lately, but I’ve begun to realize that life is always kinda hectic. You can’t wait for calm to get creative. You have to get creative to spite the chaos.

So beginning today, I’ll be tweeting a new serial: #theywontdie, from my Twitter handle @TweetTheHorror. Graveyards are places for the dead, but that doesn’t mean the dead are there alone…

Keep them company here: #theywontdie.

Here I sit before my kingdom. Here I am the steward of this land and its decay.

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#DeadlyDecember – Cursed Already?

So #DeadlyDecember missed its premiere date, but not from lack of effort on my part. I composed the opening tweet around ten: “The stuffed bear and the wooden man stared into each others’ glass eyes.” Then I hit “SEND.” Standard Twitter stuff, right?

Except the tweet wouldn’t send. It went straight to drafts. The Luddite in me immediately assumed my technology was rebelling against me. (Because when Skynet finally becomes self-aware, the only thing it will give a shit about is Twitter, obviously.) Then I noticed my phone wasn’t connected to its network.

Aha! Even this dumbass knows that’s a simple fix. Kindly connect, yon sainted smartphone!

Except it wouldn’t. A dreadful message popped up: NETWORK UNAVAILABLE.

Cue…I swear to God…a crack of thunder.

Wifi connections were also a bust, as a thunderstorm that, I would learn, would eventually tear off my apartment’s porch light rolled through Middle Tennessee.

It was quite the doozy, folks. Sideways rain and everything. If anything could lay the internet low for the night, it would’ve been this thing.

So #DeadlyDecember will have two tweets by way of a makeup today, then the format reverts to that previously promised. I just needed you all to know I’d made the effort.

Fair reading, fellow Tweeters.

– The Awful Writer

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#DeadlyDecember

With #NovemberNightmares done, I’ve pretty much decided to dedicate my Twitter, @TweetTheHorror, predominantly to tweeting epistolary fiction.

So expect #DeadlyDecember to premiere Sunday, December 9th. A special catch with this serial, however, is that I’m only going to tell it one tweet per day.

That’s right. One. Tweet. Per. Day. If you feel like shooting me, too bad; Nashville’s a big place, good luck finding me. That’s not to say I won’t work on and present other fiction. I’m really just interested in seeing how effective a story told in such a limiting, restrictive manner can be.

In the meantime, be sure to catch up with my buddy @TweetTheHaunt, as he details his experiences working the night shift in a haunted Nashville hotel.

Now to go work on material I won’t show anyone unless I’m paid to do so. Hurrah!

– The Awful Writer

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