OUT OF THE BOX - ERIC M. BOSARGE
Dunn staggered and fell into the wall, oblivious to my presence behind him. He kept walking, his shirt scratching at the brick wall of the alley. Somewhere in the distance, a siren wailed. From open windows above the voices of a man and woman arguing floated down.
I dumped the last of my coffee down the drain grate and followed Dunn. Little flecks of gravel stuck to the soles of my shoes crunched on the pavement with each step. I wasn’t being quiet. I wasn’t trying to be invisible. I didn’t have to. I could smell the whiskey on him, and I even knew the brand: Old Turkey. He’d mentioned it in our interviews. The ones I’d spent the last five years trying to forget.
We sat in a cell of an interrogation room. Whorls of smoke coiled in the air.
Dunn tilted his head every time he inhaled his cigarette, then sniffled. Every time. He’d sniff and pull some of smoke back in before he’d fully exhaled.
“I’m allergic to the smoke, you know. But these fucking cigarette companies. They won’t let you quit. You can buy Nicorette or the patch, some Welbutrin, but they won’t let you quit.
I picked up the pack of cigarettes, shook one free and lit it. I exhaled slowly, measuring how close I could get to blowing the smoke into Dunn’s face before it pissed him off. The stream of smoke reached his elbow and I ran out of breath.
“You see? You’re a smoker. My whole, fucking life is like this.” Dunn tapped the side of his head and little specks of cigarette ash floated down. “You think I don’t know what I do makes me sick? You think I don’t get it? No. No, I get it...I’m addicted.
“I know I’m sick. I’m fucking,” he sniffled. “I’m fucking addicted. It’s my whole life.” He took a drag and sniffled. “Some of them will be fine. Don’t think they won’t. Some of them will be just fine. They’ll grow up and be little, bankers and cocksuckers and lawyers. Maybe even garbage men, but they’ll be fine.” He took a slow drag. “Some of them won’t.” His head wobbled as if his train of thought was fighting to stay on track. “Some of them I’ve fucking ruined.”
The piece of shit started crying, exhaling smoke, sniffling and crying.
“I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to.” Sniffle. “This is a cry for help. I can’t help myself. I need, someone, to help me.”
It didn’t matter how he begged me to see. What he didn’t understand was that I had predicated my entire existence on justice. On retribution. Every law enforcement officer knows what the goal of enforcement is, even if they won’t say it. It’s punishment. When all the facts are in, when you know they are guilty, the only thing left is punishment. That’s our job. We catch you so the world can throw stones.
Dunn pushed off the wall and kept walking, stumbling. I dropped the Styrofoam coffee cup. It bounced and rolled down the little incline, making a hollow sound, until it settled at the edge of the curb. Those were comforting sounds, sounds I hoped to remember. I looked up at the streetlight Dunn was approaching, then down at the cone of light it cast on the pavement.
Over the last five years, the memories of Dunn had taken everything from me. He was all I could think of. The only thing that took the edge off was alcohol.
At first, my wife would gingerly step down the basement steps, ask me what I was doing down there, a glass of bourbon sweating beside me. Sometimes I’d only shrug. Sometimes I wouldn’t even respond. It got to the point she’d holler down, tell me what I was missing; the boys were playing soccer in a tournament, they were going to grandma’s, it was parent teacher conference time.
“Don’t you care? Don’t you see that you’re missing everything? A life that most men would die for?”
I looked at her through the bourbon fog and shrugged, dragged off my cigarette.
She came to me, kneeled beside the recliner. “Baby, is it the job?”
She touched my hair, ran her finger along the auricle of my ear. “You can’t keep doing this to yourself. You can’t keep drinking all the time. You get out of work, come home and crawl straight into a bottle. It’s not healthy—”
“Don’t you think I fucking know that!?” I threw the glass at the wall. It shattered. “Don’t you think I know being drunk all the time isn’t normal?”
Tears welled up in her eyes and she got to her feet, smoothed her dress and walked to the stairs.
“I’m going to Andrew’s eighth grade graduation,” she said. “It starts at six.”
She left me two years ago. Since then, I’ve been dreaming of this moment. I figure if I’m going to be haunted, I might as well choose the images.
They said Dunn would be in counseling when he got out, that he’d be on parole with strict oversight. I knew it wouldn’t be enough.
I quickened my stride as Dunn approached the edge of the cone of light at the street corner and his words came back to me:
“You know, I’ve never felt so alive as in that moment, when you realize that someone else is feeling so intensely, because of what you’re doing—sniffle—I’ve never felt so alive behind that mask when I was with the boys out in the woods. Because of the mask, I didn’t need to kill them. They couldn’t identify my face. But as I was, doing, you know,” he smiled at me, wrapped his lips around the cigarette and took a drag, exhaled and sniffled, “I got to wondering what it would be like to take off the mask. How they would respond when they looked over their shoulder and saw my face, my eyes, all squinty, moments away from orgasm. Reveling in their pain. It got so that each time, each time I was with them, I wasn’t sure if I’d keep the mask on. If I would have to kill them.” Dunn took a deep breath and sighed exaggeratedly, “Oh, God did that idea excite me.”
He tapped out his cigarette in the ashtray. A long cone of ash had grown on mine.
Dunn wiped at his eyes, as if he’d been crying, then laughed. “Someday I’m going to have to find out what that feels like.”
The chair squeaked as I stood and pushed it back with my legs. I grabbed the cigarettes off the table, put them in my pocket. Then I went a few rooms down and told the eight year old boy who was crying in his father’s arms that it was going to be okay. That Dunn could never hurt anyone again. I swore that he wouldn’t.
I glanced at the backward curving tip of my Bowie knife as I took a few quick steps to catch Dunn. I could see my dark reflection on the blade.
I wrapped my forearm over Dunn’s throat and stabbed him in the kidney. I pulled him back from the edge of the cone of light. His feet scuffled and a grunt escaped. His whole body went rigid in my arms. His feet shot straight. The weight of his torso fell back on me. I twisted my hips and threw him back into the alley. He became a shadow. He fell to the ground and didn’t move.
The blade was black. My heart pounded, and I stepped forward into the darkness.
Now, if I close my eyes, try to smoke a cigarette or silently chew my food, I can still hear the sound of my shoes, laced with sand, scratching at the pavement. I can see Dunn’s body sliding against the brick wall, hear the micro-ripping of his T-shirt as he grinds along it. And if I look, I can see my shadow on the blade of the Bowie knife.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago