FAR BETTER THINGS - MARK JOSEPH KIEWLAK
Originally published in Mysterical-E #35 (Summer 2006)
"Take the phone," she said. "Take it."
I had the accelerator to the floor. The rural landscape blurred past. We were approaching the city fast. But not fast enough. She was near hysterical, blubbering and waving her arms frantically.
"Take it," she said. "He has a gun and he's going to hurt her."
She shoved the phone again into my line of vision and I slapped it away. She kept on bawling and curled herself further into the corner away from me. The phone was dangling in her hand over the edge of the seat.
"Please," she said. "Help her. Help my baby girl."
I took the phone from her and lifted it to my ear.
"Kranson," I said. "Are you there?"
"Who the fuck is this?"
"Nobody," I said. "Put the girl on the line."
"Fuck you," he said. "Put my mother-in-law back on."
"Why the fuck not?"
"She's too upset," I said. "You've upset her badly."
"Good," he said, and I could hear the smirk on the other end. "That's fuckin' good."
I changed my grip on the wheel. "Why is it good?" I said.
"Because she upset me," Kranson said. "She always upset me with all of her fucking nonsense."
Outside, the snow was just beginning to fall. But a major storm was coming. In five minutes, the road would be covered.
"What sort of nonsense?" I said. There was no answer on the other end. "Kranson?" I heard a woman crying in the background. Kranson was shouting. Then he came back on the line.
"Fuckin' whiners," he said. "The whole family is a bunch of fuckin' whiners."
On the seat next to me, Olivia had grown still. She was sniffling a little and staring out the window as if in some faraway place.
"Don't appreciate nothin'," Kranson said.
"Who doesn't?" I said.
"None of 'em." He coughed once. A smoker's cough. "I gave 'em a home. Did the best I could. But they don't appreciate it."
"Kranson," I said. "Let me talk to the girl. Let me talk to Alice."
"Fuck Alice," he said. "I never had the things she had. The things she grew up with. Nice home. Nice family. I never had it. My mother's dead. My father's in prison. Think she cares? She don't give a fuck about one fucking thing except herself and her mother. Fuckin' windbag. Fuckin' busybody always nosin' in. Put her on the fucking phone."
"I can't," I said. "She's cried herself into a fit worrying about Alice."
He laughed a harsh laugh and I heard a gunshot. The wheel jumped in my hand and I had to swerve away from some farmhouse mailboxes.
"Kranson?" I said. "What the hell is going on?"
"Fuck you, Mr. Nobody," he said. "I'm not tellin'."
And then he hung up.
On the seat beside me, Olivia had no reaction.
"You've got to call him back," I said. "Get him back on the line."
She stared out at the snow, falling rapidly now, and it was dark enough so that I could see her reflection in the passenger window.
"She's lost to me," Olivia said. "My baby is lost to me."
Now I was the one shoving the phone in her face.
"Call him back," I said. "I don't know the number."
"He's going to kill her," she said. "We'll never get there in time. I knew this was a bad idea."
With my free hand, I reached over and slapped her hard across the face.
"This isn't about you," I said. "It's about your daughter and the rest of her family."
She was crying again, working back up to hysterical. "She shouldn't have married him," Olivia said.
I slapped her again, just as an oncoming tractor-trailer blinded us with its lights. "Call him back, you stupid selfish bitch," I said. "Before it's too late."
She wasn't scared of me. She was resigned now to whatever her fate. But she took the phone and dialed. After a moment she said, "Jackie, let me speak to my daughter, please. If you haven't killed her, that is."
I felt my stomach tighten at the wrongness of the situation. She was reacting like the lady of the manor dealing with some hired hand. She seesawed between fits of emotion and statements of cold calculation. I couldn't be sure that she understood the reality of anything anymore. If she ever had.
"Jackie, I'm trying to be reasonable," she said. I heard more cursing on the other end. "Give me back my daughter, you son of a bitch. You white trash gutter filth. Don't you dare hurt her, you hear me? Don't you dare."
I tore the phone away from her just as the city came into view over the rise.
"Kranson," I said. "What was that gunshot? Is Alice okay?"
"She's fine," he said. "But that damn ugly table lamp is history." He laughed to himself.
"What about the kids?" I said.
He laughed harder, then coughed for a moment. "Locked in their rooms," he said. "Tucked up in their beds waiting for Santa to come."
The son of a bitch.
"Is that what this is about?" I said. "Christmas? Olivia told me about the argument you had earlier."
"Goddamn kids want their goddamn Christmas at home," he said. "Not at that goddamn mansion in the woods. Fuckin' sleigh rides. She's got them spoiled rotten."
I let him talk for a moment. We were into the outskirts now and I had to slow down. The roads were covered but there wasn't much traffic yet. Everyone had listened to the advisory. The car was skidding a bit but I kept urging it forward, as if I could keep it on the road through concentration alone. The towers of the city were lost in the swirling white.
"I do the best I can," Kranson was saying. "I give those kids every penny I can. But what the fuck good is it when my fuckin' mother-in-law builds them a carousel on the South lawn? I can't compete with that shit. I'm losing them all. But I won't let 'em go. I won't let them turn into that. No fucking way."
I could hear Alice crying again in the background and Kranson's attention turn away. "Shut the fuck up, I said. Your mother's coming to rescue you. Just like she always says. Like I'm some loser. Some maniac who brainwashed her daughter."
There was a scuffle and the sound of more things breaking. I took the exit ramp into downtown.
"Kranson," I said.
"Yeah, I'm still here."
"You've made your point," I said. "Olivia realizes she was wrong. She's sorry for the way she's treated you."
On the seat beside me, Olivia frowned her disapproval.
"Goddamn witch thinks she can control the weather," Kranson said. "I told her they said a foot of snow's coming on Christmas Eve. I told her that maybe this year the kids should stay here in the city. We decorated the apartment nice. We gave them all tons of presents. The best I could, you know. But no, she says. Come out tonight. The roads'll be fine. 'That's what we pay these people for.' Fuckin' snob-ass snoot-nose bitch."
The street lamps were decorated with wreaths and candy canes and giant bells.
I ran two lights before I came upon an accident scene. The intersection was jammed with cars in every direction.
I fishtailed to a stop and tried to back up but I was already blocked in by cars behind me.
"We're gonna have our Christmas right here," Kranson said. "And fuck anybody who tries to get in the way."
Olivia was up and alert now and she leaned over and honked the horn.
"Do something," she said. "That's what I hired you for."
With the phone still in my hand, I bailed out of the car and ran through the intersection to the far sidewalk.
Here in the city it had been snowing a while longer and there was already four or five inches on the ground. I felt like I was on the moon trying to run through peanut butter.
"Kranson," I said. "It's Christmas Eve. Remember your kids. Remember all the good things. You don't want to mess that up forever."
There was no answer on the line. The air felt like icicles going into my lungs.
The streets were mostly empty and silent this deep into the city and I started to feel truly isolated, as if I was moving through my own world filled only with wind and snow and one foot in front of the other.
"Jackie, no, Jackie..."
I held the receiver back up to my ear. There was screaming and scuffling and another gunshot and more screaming. Then Kranson came back on the line, crying. "Mr. Nobody, you there?"
My voice was barely a rasp as I trudged forward.
"I'm here," I said.
"All I wanted was a simple Christmas," he said. "A simple happy Christmas with the family I love. Why couldn't she let me have that? Was that so much to ask?"
I was coming up on a church now and there was a glow from within. The window panes were frosted over and I heard singing. I kept going.
"You know," Kranson said, "this is really the most depressing night of the year. Everyone gathered together, spreading love and affection. I never had that when I was a kid. But Alice here, she gave it to me. She really tried. And every year, off we'd go to that ice palace and that cold witch and Alice just couldn't make it right. She really tried, though."
I was coming up on his block, a neighborhood of upscale brownstones that he could never in a million years afford on his own.
"She and the kids are better off this way," Kranson said. "I'm saving us all from a life of misery with that hen."
My legs were giving out and I was falling forward with each step. I could taste the blood in my throat.
At the brownstone's entrance, an elderly well-to-do couple was just moving inside out of the cold. I pushed past them and hit the stairs almost on my stomach and scrambled and clattered and kept the phone pasted to my ear as I reached with my other hand for my gun.
"I'm sorry, Alice, baby," Kranson said. "I'm sorry I let you down so badly. I'm sorry for all of it."
I hit the landing and barreled toward the apartment door and tripped and got up and dropped the phone and crashed into the door with my shoulder and the lock gave and I stumbled into the living room and saw Alice on her knees before him, the gun to her head.
I fired three times at Kranson and hit him in the chest, just as he turned, with all three and he spun around and crashed facefirst into the elegant Christmas tree and he went down and the tree went down and both stayed there and neither moved.
I collapsed to my knees and crawled toward Alice and kept my gun trained on Kranson, who was splayed among the branches and bloody and still not moving.
His eyes were open and looking up at the star, which was still in place atop the downed tree.
Alice was in shock and incoherent.
I shook her, but there was nothing going on inside at the moment.
I got to my feet and dragged her up and pulled her out of the room, down the hall to the other bedrooms.
I kicked in the first door and a little boy jumped off his bed and came running toward her. She hugged him without even realizing it and we moved on to the next door and I mustered the strength and kicked it in and a little girl came out of the shadows and wrapped herself around Alice's other leg.
The final door gave way to my shoulder and no one was inside.
I heard crying from the closet and the group of us moved toward it and found the last child huddled within, her nightgown pulled down over her knees, her face covered with tears.
I directed Alice to the tiny child's bed, where she sat down and embraced all three. Their affection and their need for comfort were bringing her back around. Her black velour evening gown had splatters of Kranson's blood all over the front of it.
I slid down with my back to the far wall and kept my gun on the doorway just in case.
Alice lifted her head over the kids' shoulders and nodded her thanks and held my eyes for a moment. "I know you won't believe me," she said, "but I really did love him."
I nodded slowly and listened to the snow blowing against the window pane and closed my eyes and dreamed of far better things.
BIO: In 2008, Mark Joseph Kiewlak's work appeared in more than two dozen magazines, including Hardboiled, Plots With Guns, Pulp Pusher, Thug Lit, Muzzle Flash, Powder Burn Flash, Clean Sheets, and many others. He was privileged to have served as judge of the 2007 Wild Violet Fiction Contest. He has also written for DC Comics (FLASH 80-PAGE GIANT #2).
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