THUNDER - HOLLY DAY
Johnny was a streak of black paint on a blood-red canvas surface, all angles and white bone and a smile that could melt butter and sear flesh. His hair flopped back in a greasy oil slick from his carrion bird face, his beak of a nose jutting out against the smooth of his pale skin like the warning fin of an albino shark surfacing and closing in for the kill. He was a bad boy. He was a good lay and he walked like he knew it.
The Dragon Lady was a beautiful green and gold flower blooming sickly amongst the other dying junkies in her shooting gallery-slash-parlor. She somehow managed to still have firm, full breasts and shapely thighs, despite having been a pretty solid heroin addict for nearly a year. Her sisters and brothers in bone and blood sprawled around her in various states of recline and decline, pale scarecrows and skeletons with bright, unhurried worried eyes. The pizza from the night before sat opened and uneaten on the coffee table in the middle of the room, cold, the cheese coagulated, a thick layer of red grease pooling on its surface. “Could someone please close the pizza box?” the Dragon Lady murmured, closing her eyes and turning away. “It’s making me sick just looking at it.”
The little bus boy was a streak of brown grease on an old washcloth left up to dry without a decent rinsing. He loved the Dragon Lady with all his heart and head and soul, and told her so many, many times, although he wasn’t sure he had actually ever spoken to her in English or out loud. He lay on the floor, far across the room from the Dragon Lady, and could just make out her green bathrobe-clad form from where he lay. “I’ll get it,” he whispered, his own body barely strong enough to shape the words, much less walk over to the pizza box and close it. He stretched his arms out, over his head, and rolled over onto his stomach. He slithered along the puke-stained carpet slowly, each movement a tremendous, soul-sucking effort.
Johnny’s black stud-covered leather boot suddenly blocked off the little bus boy’s vision of the elusive pizza box. The little bus boy looked up to see Johnny lean down from an impossible height and carefully fold the box lid down, tucking the flap closed tightly. “I got it,” Johnny said, picking the pizza box up and leaving the room, heading towards the kitchen. The little bus boy collapsed when he lay, angry to the point of near tears. “I said I’d get it!” he shouted after the stronger man, not sure the words were leaving him loud enough to be heard.
The little bus boy started his new job the following Monday. He was to be the official guinea pig for the shipments of heroin that were coming through Mexico to the Dragon Lady and her friends. She had personally recommended him for the job, citing him as an excellent judge of quality to his face, citing him as not too much for her to lose behind his back. He showed up at the aluminum-sided phallic-shaped silo behind Farmer’s ancient hacienda a full half-hour early.
Two other men were waiting in the shadows as the little busboy entered the dark silo, motes of ancient dust from maize and wheat no longer stored caught in the sudden flash of sunlight.
“Hey,” said the first one, a short, dark troll with faded black hair and skin.
“Hey,” returned the little busboy, thrusting his chest out and swaggering into the room. “Is this the party?”
“Not yet,” answered the second. He was a lean, tan Indian with corn-straight hair and black-blue eyes. “You the one replacing Hector?”
“I’m not sure,” said the little busboy. “They gave me these shoes when they gave me the job. Were these Hector’s?” He held his right foot out for inspection, pointing the toe tip of his new purple suede creepers directly at the Indian.
The Indian snorted and nodded his head. “Those’re Hector’s shoes, all right. You’ll only have to wear them the first couple of times, just until they know you by sight. Then you can retire the poor ugly things and wear your own shoes.”
“I dunno,” said the little busboy, pulling his foot back. “I kind of like them. I might just keep on wearing them.”
“They’re a dead man’s shoes, boy,” said the first man, the Negro. “I think you’d better start wearing your own as soon as you’re allowed. Bad juju, soon-brother-in-blood.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said the Indian, waving his hand in dismissal. “Paulson sees ghosts in everything.”
The little busboy shrugged and sat down on the ground. He did not feel like talking to these two—he did not come here to talk. He leaned back against the hot aluminum lining that made up the silo wall and smiled affably, idiotically, at the two men, stilling whatever fresh conversations were forming in their minds. He closed his eyes and thought of the Dragon Lady, of her waist-length golden hair that she always wore loose and spread like a halo or a cape over her white shoulders, of her glazed blue eyes that glittered like ice whenever she was high, of the way her faded green bathrobe had fallen open the night before just before she passed out, revealing the sudden pink of one perfect nipple pasted onto a perfect ivory palm-sized breast. He thought about the way her slurred voice purred into his head like a subliminal drill bit, thought about how he would die happy if he could just cup one of those perfect breasts in his own palm someday.
Low voices outside the door of the silo rustled the little busboy out of his sweet dreams of she. Three men, all business-suit-clad Mexicans, pushed their way into the large, round room and poised no-nonsenselike in front of the three crash test junkies. They each carried briefcases the color and texture of sharkskin, each holding their briefcase in front of them as if it was some sort of shield against the common world, the commoners before them, and everything common and dirty and heart-wrenchingly depressing that they represented.
“You’re new,” said one of the men, glaring at the little busboy through the black panels of his sunglasses.
“I have Hector’s shoes,” answered the little busboy quickly, again lifting his leg and pointing the tip of his toe at the man to inspect. “I’m his replacement.”
“Ah yes, Lisa’s friend,” the first man nodded. “Good. I am glad you are here.”
The little busboy cringed at the sound of the Dragon Lady’s name. He had never heard anyone actually call her by her Christian name before, not even Johnny, who got to fuck her on occasion. It was always the Dragon Lady, both out loud and in his head.
“We don’t have a lot of time here,” said the second man, his voice and inflection nearly identical to the first. He glanced at his watch and frowned. “Shall we get to business?”
The Indian and the Negro immediately began to strip, as if on cue. The little busboy watched them for a second, curiously, then began to take his own clothes off as well. He relaxed a bit when he saw the two other men stopped short of taking their underwear off, leaving their briefs and boxers on as they waited for the suited men to assemble their paraphernalia.
The little busboy winced a bit as the thick needle of the syringe entered his body, just behind his elbow. He really preferred to shoot himself up, preferred to know exactly when to expect the pinch and the ensuing rush rather than let someone else control him, surprise him. He felt his legs give out beneath him as wave upon wave of white light engulfed him, felt his hand reach out instinctively and catch him from falling flat on the ground, felt his hand push his body up into a sitting position from somewhere far, far away. His skull buzzed loudly, vibrating as though a little tiny man with a little tiny jackhammer was perched on top of his head, breaking up the bone and cartilage to make room for future shopping malls and public parks.
“How does it feel?” asked a disembodied voice the little busboy barely recognized as being that of the first businessman.
“What?” he shouted back, confused. “Feel? What do you mean?”
“It’s a little too strong,” said the Negro’s voice from beyond the white mist. “I’d cut it down by about half. No one wants to rush this hard, ’specially vanilla junkies.”
“I concur with the gentleman,” said the Indian. The world was starting to come back into focus, black shadows reforming into the inside walls of the silo around the little busboy. He shook his head violently and stood up shakily, holding on to the wall behind him for support.
“Too strong, si,” he said, finally. “Cut it way down.”
“Are you okay, man?” the Negro asked the little busboy, concerned. “Can you pull out of it?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m already out. Just wasn’t expecting it to hit me so hard.” The little busboy could stand up straight without any help from the back wall now. The Negro grunted and nodded his head, satisfied.
“Get rid of the shoes as soon as you can,” he said. “They’ve got bad juju all over them.”
“That’s funny,” gasped the little busboy. “I could’ve swore it was puke.”
“So how was work, honey?” slurred the Dragon Lady, barely looking up as the little busboy dragged his emaciated carcass over the threshold of Starbucks, his nose spazing at the smell of fresh coffee, his stomach carefully and quickly filling with phlegm to protect itself from the anticipated onslaught of acid and caffeine. He hadn’t eaten in nearly a week—the only thing really keeping him alive was the spoonful of cream he dumped into the first cup of coffee of the day.
“There are no vitamins in junk,” he declared as he lowered himself into a chair across from the Dragon Lady, too tired to worry about the impropriety of speaking to her on such familiar terms.
“You got that right.” She actually smiled at him as she stubbed her cigarette out on the lip of the overflowing ashcan. “If there was, I’d be, uh, Jane-fucking-Fonda.”
“And I’d be Richard-fucking-Simmons,” finished the little busboy. It was starting to creep through the mud that he was actually having a conversation with the Dragon Lady, with Lisa—he hurriedly downed his coffee and concentrated instead on the blisters forming on his tongue. “So, uh, where’s Johnny?” he finally ventured painfully.
“Who the hell knows?” Another cigarette fluttered and bloomed red and orange between her fingers. “He’s a rat bastard, you know. You know that, don’t you?”
“If I was your girlfriend, would you fuck someone else?” She leaned forward and spread her free hand out on the table in front of the little busboy, almost touching his hand. “I’m very good, you know. There wouldn’t be any reason to.”
“No reason at all.” She pulled her hand back and turned it into a perch for her chin instead. “No reason at all.”
The little busboy looked up and saw her eyes were unusually bright. The brightness faded a bit from the right eye as the first and only tear fell and ran down her rouged and powdered cheek. “Are you all right?” he asked, quietly. “Are you okay?”
“You ever wish you were dead?” she whispered. “Or that you were someone else?”
“Of course I have,” he answered. “Why do you think I make all these little holes in my body?” He shook his head and bit his lip. “No, I guess I haven’t. I like being alive.”
“I wish I could go home and find a closet full of business suits and high heels, and Don Johnson watching TV in my living room,” whispered the Dragon Lady. “Or it wouldn’t even have to be Don Johnson. Just someone...clean.” She raked her nails up and down her arms and winced as she actually broke skin. “Baby, I’m just so dirty. I wish I could wake up and not be so dirty.”
“I think you’re beautiful.” The words slipped out before the little busboy could stop them. He dug himself in deeper: “I think you’re beautiful just the way you are.”
So the plan was, the little busboy would kill Johnny, and then he and the Dragon Lady would skip town and check themselves into rehab down in Tijuana. If they were fast enough, they could slip past the border guards and into Mexico before the cops found the junkie-boy’s corpse. Once they were in Mexico, it was bye-bye IDs, bye-bye former shit lives, and hello to a little one-acre organic farm by the ocean, hundreds of miles down the coast where no one would look for them or even know they existed. Then the children would come pouring out of the Dragon Lady’s womb, one after another, and they would all look as beautiful as her and she would be the perfect mother and she and the little busboy would be in love with each other until they died.
The Dragon Lady knew nothing about the children or the farm or even the love part, of course, but it was a natural progression in the fantasy, so far as the little busboy was concerned. He knew what their children would look like by the end of the first day, knew what the Dragon Lady smelled like in bed, imagined all the things they would say to each other the first time they kissed when they were finally free to do so. Because she, unlike Johnny, never cheated on her men, and if she kissed the little busboy before Johnny was dead, she’d be a nasty cheat, just like him.
The little busboy had managed to save several hundred dollars over the past few weeks—free drugs meant x one major bank account drain. He idly thought about hiring someone to knock off Johnny, but random queries at “work” brought the price tag for murder somewhere high above anything the little busboy could ever save up. He figured another couple of weeks at the barn and he would have just enough money to do everything he needed to, but not enough to pay someone else to kill Johnny.
Could he poison him? There was something poetic about poisoning a junkie, something nasty and gritty and poetic about slipping drain cleaner into the hypo meant for his former friend. The thought made him pause before slipping the dulling needle into his own receding veins, pause enough to make the Mexican dealers glare suspiciously at him.
“Wha’s wrong, José?” asked the straight-looking man who only wore suits. “We don’ got all day.”
“Nothin’s wrong, man,” answered the little busboy, digging the spike in deep. The world went 2D for a moment, then slid back into place with different hues and light. His eyes felt heavy, too heavy, but he shook them back open and sat the rush out. “Cut it down some more,” he called out to the men standing in shadow. “Too fuckin’ strong.”
“Yeah, okay. You don’t have to shout already. We can hear you just fine.” But the little busboy could barely hear them at all. His ears hurt with all the other noises, the ocean pounding in his head, and far away in his mind he realized that he couldn’t do this anymore, that this was going to have to be the last ride and if he and the Dragon Lady were going to ever go away, it’d have to be now.
The little busboy was still walking with gigantic feet and no peripheral vision when he made it back to his loft. His heart was singing and the sun had never seemed brighter when he stumbled through the hallway to his door and found it hanging wide open. And not just unlocked and politely opened, either—someone had kicked it off its hinges and splintered the door frame up good.
“Thank God for bank accounts,” he slurred aloud as he leaned against the wall outside his door. He couldn’t hear anything inside, but that didn’t mean shit. “Lisa?” he queried hopefully.
“Wrong answer, cocksuck,” snarled Johnny’s voice from far, far away. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
The little busboy peeked around the corner into his apartment and Johnny was coming for him, walking across the long expanse of concrete and dirty laundry and unpaid utility bills on legs that grew and shrank with each wobbly step. Halfway across the room, Johnny just stopped, stopped and stood and wobbled back and forth, arms spread out for balance.
“Man, are you fucked,” snorted the little busboy, just as unsteadily crossing the studio threshold. “Why don’t you sit down before you puke all over my bed.”
Johnny grinned weakly and fell face first onto the soiled mattress at his feet. The little busboy’s heart jumped a happy little jump, thinking maybe Johnny was dead already and he wouldn’t have to do anything at all, when Johnny’s voice came again, muffled through the thick wad of stained foam rubber.
“‘I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.’” Johnny rolled over onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. “Fucking Mozart.”
“What?” asked the little busboy, confused. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Mozart,” said Johnny. “Mo-zart,” he said again, dragging the words out. “That’s what he said about death, that being dead was the way to finding true happiness. What do you think? You think when we’re dead, we’ll find true happiness?”
“Are you unhappy?” stammered the little busboy, his heart racing, pounding in his chest. Was Johnny asking him to kill him? And, if so, how? His eyes flew around the room, inventorying Things To Kill Johnny With. The loose brick in the corner. The dull, dented butter knife in the sink. The lumpy gray pillow on his bed that always smelled like ass, no matter how many times it was run through the shitty industrial washer at the laundromat. His bare hands.
“I’m fucking ecstatic,” said Johnny, his voice barely audible over the roaring of blood in the little busboy’s ears. “I’m in heaven already. My life is a dream come true. My girlfriend wants me to kill you, you know,” he added, sitting up suddenly, dangerously fast. “My girlfriend was saying what a nice guy she thought you were, that you were her friend. That’s code for ‘kill the stupid fucking spic.’”
The little busboy lunged for the brick and the knife and the pillow, all at once. He reached the knife first, the brick second, ran out of hands. Johnny was up and lurching across the room towards the little busboy, his arms flailing like windmill blades, fingers curled like claws. Spit rolled out of the corner of his mouth and dribbled down his shirt. The little busboy swung out with the butter knife, once, twice, back, forth, in, out, in and out again.
“Ow!” screamed Johnny, holding his hands to his chest. Thin scratches, a tiny hole, from the dull butter knife trickled red. “You fuck!” He swung his fist at the little busboy, caught him on the side of the head. The little busboy fell to the ground. He closed his eye and saw the boot coming at him. He opened his eyes and saw the boot coming down.
Frozen in time, the little busboy saw the boot coming down at his face, stopped just short of impact. Was this, as Johnny/Wolfgang Amadeus said, the key to happiness? Was he about to find peace, comfort, Heaven, reincarnation, rebirth? Was he about to be an angel in Heaven, or a scum-sucking lamprey seeking enlightenment in the next life? Or would Johnny stop himself, not kill him, let him live?
“I promise...” the little busboy began. “I won’t...”
Johnny’s boot smashed through the little busboy’s head, smashed his face into putty, his skull into wet fragments. He stomped again and again, his eyes closed tight, not wanting to look down and see what his boot had done. He stomped and stomped until the woman who lived in the shithole downstairs starting yelling at him through the floor to stop making so much fucking noise. He did not look down at the little busboy, backed away with his eyes closed and found the splintered door with blind, outreached hands. He did not look down at his boots as he walked away, nor at the wake of brain and blood and bone and flesh that marked his path. The puddles outside would wash away any detritus on the soles of his boots. He would be clean by the time he got home.
BIO: Holly Day don’t need no stinkin’ bio.
The Irish Times’ Crime Fiction ‘Best Of’ 2018
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