Sunday, February 17, 2013

More Apologies

I'm sure you've all noticed a couple more stories have appeared in the last day.

My apologies go to Neliza Drew and O.M. Grey.

It wasn't planned but it's kind of fitting, once you move past the fact that I blew it, that O.M.'s story should go up last, considering it's called Final Word.

I hope I haven't forgotten any other stories and will be combing through my files to make certain that this is so.

Again, my apologies.

Final Word by O.M. Grey


A note on the pillow read: I warned you.

The sounds of the new day silenced, as if she had been sealed in a coffin. No birds, no traffic, nothing. Just silence. Then the pounding of her heart and her quickening breath invaded her ears from the inside. She sat up, and he trickled out of her, wetting the sheets.

Images from the previous night flooded her mind. Pleasure. Passion...and fear. She could feel his hands grasping her hair, holding her face close as he said, “If anyone finds out about this, it’s over.”

She had known him forever, it seemed, but in reality it had been less than a year. Theirs has been one of those connections, indescribable. Close. Fast friends. When it turned more, she fell hard. He had told her how he married after the army. But even with a wife and a three-year-old son, his need for her remained, and hers for him. Although she had tried to keep things platonic, she had been unable to resist when he had pushed toward seduction.

Life had damaged him, but then it hadn’t left her unscathed either. The scars on her arms and legs, self-inflicted, spoke to that. But she nor anyone but another soldier could grasp the depth of his internal injuries. As former sniper who had served in Iraq, he struggled with normal life. She could see the pain behind his eyes because it mirrored her own. Although she hadn’t known him before, she sensed the war had changed him. Still, they understood each other’s insanities. Both broken. Both scrambling to survive in a world they didn’t understand, and more importantly, one that didn’t understand them.

A buzzing pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked over at her phone vibrating on the night stand, a reminder of an unread text from her best friend.

He must have seen it.

That’s how he knew she had told. She must have slept through the first alert, dreaming. Content in her satisfaction. His senses, honed from his experience overseas, enabled him to hear the quiet vibration in the night.

Now he knew. Now it was over.

She collapsed to the floor, holding herself in a fetal position. The fear that consumed her wouldn’t even allow tears to come. Gasping for breath, she tried to grasp this new reality.

He was gone. It was over. Surely he couldn’t throw their love away so easily. But the fear of hurting his family mixed with the unstable nature of PTSD made him unpredictable. She had seen it, his personality change from charming and witty one moment to dark and brooding and harsh the next. She had often wondered if he was reliving something from the war, remembering things that he quickly pushed back down deep inside the darkness of his mind. Despite horrors of war, tragedy and loss and savagery beyond comprehension, his greatest fear now was losing his family. He would stop at nothing to protect his place with them. He would never talk of them. She had asked repeatedly to see a picture of his wife, hoping that seeing her as a person, instead of just a intangible concept, would help her resist him. She would not do anything to hurt him or his family, but he always made an excuse. Perhaps his fear of losing them, of being discovered, had turned dangerous and triggered something primal inside him.

A new horror came to mind.

What if he meant over over. Like, over for her. Completely, not just the relationship?

“Get up,” her subconscious screamed at her.

But she couldn’t move.

“Get up! Get up!” The words burst from her mouth and echoed against the walls in the silent apartment.

Forcing herself to her feet, her instinct took over. Naked and alone, she ran to the front door and turned the two deadbolts, locked the doorknob, and shoved a chair beneath the handle. She stepped back, pulling her hands to her mouth, and trembled. Listening. But the silence remained. The whole world quiet, save for the pounding of her heart and her ever-quickening breath.

Her mind drifted back to a few weeks ago. She could still see him watching her with admiration. No, adoration. The heat in his eyes had startled her. No one had looked at her like that in quite some time, and she had thought she imagined it. An artist, like her, they had gone to an opening together. An excuse to see each other, of course, in a professional setting without suspicion, although there had been nothing to suspect at the time. They had just been colleagues, friends, supporting each other in a tough business. Keeping each other’s spirits up so that they could continue to create. But his wife was the jealous type. Older than he, on her third marriage, a scientist with little interest in the visual arts.

That night everything had changed. She had felt him watching her, and she didn’t quite know what to think. They had embraced, as always, but this time he kissed her. Just on the cheek. Rather innocent, really; but she had felt something new in that moment. For her, anyway. The look on his face as they parted made it clear that he had been taken with her for some time, and that night he had made his move, subtle as it was.

A door slammed in the hall, making her jump then realize she stood alone, naked and scared. Lost in her memories. Had she been more aware, could she have seen the danger that lay just beneath his surface?

Voices drifted through her closed door. She stared at the chair forced beneath the handle and listened.

“Why are you so grumpy this morning?” It was Mr. White, her neighbor.

“As if you didn’t know. I hardly slept with all that screaming and pounding last night.”

They must be on their way to church.

“Ah, to be young again,” he responded, his voice fading as they moved down the hall.

Then again, silence. Deafening, the kind that muffles every sense. The kind that fills the entire room with dread.

She still trembled, but the goosebumps on her flesh awakened her to the cold.

“You’re overreacting.” Her voice broke the silence. “Get a grip.”

Leaving the chair propped under the door, she returned to the bedroom and began gathering her clothes strewn about the room. She picked up the purple panties and the matching bra, bought especially for him, his favorite color, and slid them on, remembering how he had coaxed them off last night. The soft fabric of her favorite sweatshirt dried her cheeks as she pulled it over her head, its folds warming her body and comforting her. She stepped into her PJ bottoms and slid her feet into her fuzzy slippers.

The phone on the nightstand buzzed again, causing the adrenaline to rush to her brain. She picked up the phone to turn it off, but dropped it. Its face cracked as it hit the side of the nightstand before crashing to the floor. Frantic, she looked around then ran toward the window. After she jerked the curtains closed, she pressed herself against the wall next to it. Her pounding heart filled her ears, and she could see it moving the material of her thick sweatshirt. Her breath came faster and more shallow. She slid down the wall and hugged her knees, trying to consciously slow her breath. Breath in, one-two-three-four, and out, one-two-three-four. In, one-two-three-four, and out, one-two-three-four.

It wasn’t helping.

She crawled along the floor, fighting to breathe, toward the bathroom. Grasping the edge of the sink, she pulled herself up and reached for her bottle of Xanax. After gulping one of the tiny pills down with a handful of water, she took comfort in the fact that the attack would soon pass. Her face in the mirror seemed old, tired. She turned the shower knob to hot, knowing the hot water would calm her until the pills kicked in. It always did, but as the room steamed up she saw it again. I warned you written on the glass shower door. Screaming, she wiped the words off then dashed around the apartment, jerking the curtains closed over the windows and ensuring all the lights were off. Although, that didn’t matter in the daylight. Her thoughts bounced around in her head, obsessive and frantic.

She rushed into the kitchen, opened the silverware drawer, and pulled out the biggest knife. Then she resumed her position on the floor, in a corner, with her knees pulled close. She kept her wide eyes trained on the front door and waited. It’s not enough, her brain screamed at her. You haven’t done enough. Pile boxes in front of the windows! Call the police, for Christ’s sake!

“The Police,” she said aloud. “Fuck!”

Clutching the knife in one hand and forcing herself to take deep, controlled breaths, she crawled back into the bedroom to her shattered phone. She pushed the home button and saw the familiar picture pop up. Thank God! It still worked! She slid the arrow to unlock it and pressed the green phone button. Dr. Ray’s name filled the top three slots of her recent call list.

She pressed the top one.

“Hello,” the tired voice on the other end said.

“Dr. Ray?”


“Sorry to wake you. It’s Marla.”

Following a heavy sigh, he said, “Yes, Marla. How can I help you?”

“I’m in danger!” she managed between rapid breaths.

“Calm down. Are you doing your breathing exercises?”

“Yes, but they’re not working! He’s coming! He’s coming for me!”

“You are having a panic attack again. Keep taking deep breaths. Try a hot shower until it passes. That always seems to help, right?”

“No! You don’t understand! On the shower--” But her pleas went unheard on the dropped call.

“Fucking AT&T!” she shrieked and hurled the phone across the room, hitting the far wall and denting the sheetrock. There goes the security deposit.

“Deep breaths. Deep breaths.” She rocked back and forth, covering her head with her arms. The knife rested against her back. God! The Xanax should kick in soon. I’ll be fine. I’ll be just fine. In, one-two-three-four, and out, one-two-three-four. In, one-two-three-four, and out one-two-three-four.

Dr. Ray was probably right; an anxiety attack had caused the paranoia because she already felt better. How ridiculous for her to be so freaked.

“I mean really, Marla? He’s just trying to scare you. Abusive SOB.”

She was definitely overreacting.

“Just do what you would normally do in the morning. No need to freak out.”

She laughed at herself as she made her coffee, and soon percolating sounds and delicious, fresh aroma of brewed java filled the room. Her eyelids drooped a little as she poured her first cup. The Xanax kicked into full gear. She felt relaxed and rather tired. It had been a long, exciting night after all. Was it really over? She couldn’t fathom never seeing him again, watching him smile, making her laugh, kissing those soft lips. But the comfortable chemical-induced calm allowed her momentary peace.

“Don’t jump to any conclusions, Marla.” Talking to herself often soothed her, allowing the thoughts to come out rather than bounce around in her brain driving her crazier. “I’m sure everything is fine. Just be glad he didn’t see that level of crazy. Don’t panic. Not yet. No need to panic yet.”

She sipped her coffee again and moved over to the large, living room window. At first, she just parted the curtains a sliver, peeking through them into the morning. It had snowed during the night, and a beautiful white blanket covered everything. It was Sunday, so many cars were still on the streets as all their owners slept in. Only a few tire treads marred the otherwise pristine white. It was a perfect morning.

“I love Xanax,” she sighed.

After sliding the curtains all the way open to let in the sunshine, she settled down on the sofa, pulled her lap blanket over her legs, and gazed out the window. Across the street some children were up playing in the snow. They had already formed the bottom of a snowman and were working together to roll the middle. A blue bird settled on a tree limb just outside. He held a worm in his beak. A car turned the corner and slid a little, but regained control before hitting the curb. On the top of the adjacent building, a glint caught her eye, like sun reflecting off glass.

Meat And Potatoes Man by Neliza Drew


He waddled. That was the only way she could think to describe Roger’s movements through the world. Like a giant, well-fattened penguin. He’d been like that ever since he’d pulled his back out at the Ford dealership, tossing tires around the parts warehouse. Two workman’s comp surgeries later, he seemed more messed up than he had the day they’d sent him to the first quack.

Now he’d put on another fifty-odd pounds, quit working at all – even quit lifting the axe to chop firewood for winter. First year, he’s spent some of his unemployment money on hiring the neighbor’s boy. This year, he didn’t have that or a job, so she’d done it.

Marge finished the stack with a throbbing in her back and shoulders. Even dragging around the baby, who was a butterball of a kid, was less work.

He came outside, caught her cooling off with one of his Miller Lites. “What the hell you doin’, bitch?”

She polished off the can, set it on the stump and whacked it flat with the back of the axe head. “Drinkin’ my beer.”

He looked like he wanted to hit her. He’d slapped a few times in the past few years, especially since he’d stopped working. Instead, he waddled back inside.

She heaved the axe handle up on her shoulder and cocked a hip. “Damn straight.”

The baby turned three in a week. All she’d ever wanted and the only thing she’d needed him for. When he’d been born, they’d lived in a nice apartment in town. Small, but one with heat. And a working stove. She’d found out five hours after the Csection that Roger’s insurance only covered fifteen percent of the surgery.

“It covered it all if you’d been able to do it on your own.” The nurse clucked her tongue. Same one who’d suggested she was too old to be a decent mother anyway, tried to scare her with birth defect stories while she was still heaving away in labor. That was how they’d ended up in the trailer just outside of town. The one with the wood stove in the yard and the drafts where the floor boards had rotted out.

He’d never hurt her while she was pregnant. Hadn’t much more than called her names, jerked her around some before. He’d been big and strong, but he hadn’t used it against her too much. Not like her exhusband, the one who’d never been able to give her a baby, even after fifteen years of trying.

She stayed for little Jack. Boys needed a father. And, after years of looking, she’d found one. Maybe not the best in the world, but probably the best she’d find in the county. And she’d run out of time.

Marge sat at the table she’d found by the road near the Kirby’s farm. Cheap vinyl top with cigarette burns, but it fit in the kitchen and held a couple of plates.

Roger’s butt stuck out of the fridge.

She munched her cheap cereal, bottom of the shelf corn flakes that came in a bag.

“Whatcho lookin’ for?”

“We outa beer?” He emerged, holding up a carton of orange juice. “We can’t be buying this expensive food, woman.”

“We’re eligible for aid, still. The baby”

“We ain’t a welfare family.” He slammed the fridge door shut. “We buy what we can afford. Like real Americans. Not them socialist scum.”

“You sound like Jimmy Ray.”

“You leave him outa this.”

“Sure, so we can’t afford juice, but we can buy beer, right?”

“Least the beer’s American. You don’t even know where this shit come from. Prob’ly Mexico or somewhere. You want fancy people food, you better get a fancy people job.” He left the OJ on the counter and stormed off, probably to sit around Jimmy Ray’s bar watching the TV until dark.

Marge finished her cereal and put the juice away. She had a job. Worked nights at the gas station at the edge of town. It came with a uniform so no one wondered why none of her clothes didn’t fit right after the baby. It was walking distance away since he’d gotten the car repossessed. And it was at night when he and the baby were sleeping so neither of them could aggravate or hurt the other one.

“Fancy people jobs” was what he called the ones people wore suits to, the ones that required fancy degrees and rich parents. Even then there weren’t that many of them in town.

About three lawyers to handle all the wills and taxes and DUIs at the county courthouse. And even then, one of them was half-dead.

Old guy had been stacking up paperwork in that home office of his since she was a baby. Bout two doctors not counting the dentist. One handled the old folks and one handled the kids. The insurance agent next to the diner and the pastor were the only others in town who owned a tie. Wasn’t even the kind of place people wore fancy clothes to church.

She fantasized about what it would be like, sitting at a desk with a computer and a phone. No shotgun under the counter. No video camera watching her like a common thief. She smiled at Jack. “One day maybe you’ll have a fancy job, huh, my little man?”

The grocery store sat a quarter mile from the gas station and opened an hour after she got off her shift. Small, with fixtures as old as she was, the prices weren’t much better than the gas station, but the selection was better and without a car to get out to the WalMart on the edge of the next town, it was the best she could do. Shopping days always left her exhausted and Roger cranky because he had to feed Jack.

Hamburger meat on sale. Dollar off a pound if she bought the stuff so marbled with fat it nearly started a grease fire to cook it. Bacon cheaper than eggs. She picked up a sack of potatoes and a loaf of white bread, the kind that looked like bleached paper, even after she’d toasted it. Roger’s favorite, of course. Last, but not least, a fridge pack of Miller Lites, that she cradled to her on the walk home, the half dozen plastic bags digging into her wrist and hand.

She worried about the healthiness of their food. Worried little Jack would get diabetes, that one of them wouldn’t live long enough to see him graduate high school. She’d seen all the various reports on the news that played on the small TV behind the counter at work. She’d heard Dr. Oz in the afternoons when folding laundry.

Roger always told her that was a bunch of sissyass bologna. That those people just wanted her money. His daddy had been a meat and potatoes man and his daddy before that.

‘Course, both Roger’s parents were dead as were her own.

“Now this is what I’m talking about!” He shoveled runny eggs and near-expired bacon in his mouth with a fork while mopping up the yolk with a greasy biscuit in his other hand.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” She sipped cold tomato soup from a glass. Cheaper than the vegetable drinks, which were cheaper still than actual produce.

“That veggie crap’s gonna kill you.” He waved a floppy piece of bacon at her, the thin line of meat barely noticeable for the thick vein of fat. Grease flew off the end of it and splattered the side of her glass.

She cut off a corner of egg white. “One of us has to be around long enough to raise Jack.”

“You gon’ raise him up to be a pussy with all that healthy eating junk. He gon’ be softer’n a pillow. A pillow biter.”

She got up to rinse her plate. “Or as soft as your midsection.”

“What’d you say, woman?” He jumped out of his seat, fork still in his fist as he brought it down on her shoulder, the rounded edge of the handle jabbing the muscle.

The plate jumped out of her hand and shattered on the scarred linoleum.

“Look what you made me do. Can’t even enjoy my breakfast without you breaking shit I worked hard to earn.” He shoveled the rest of his bread in his face and stormed out the door.

Snow fell. Drifts piled up around the sides of the trailer. Marge wrestled the frozen door open and stomped outside in her boots to build the morning fire. While it got going, she went inside to lay out the eggs and sausage, put everything on ceramic plates that wouldn’t stick to her gloves and got out the heavy cast iron pan she used on the open flames. She remembered her daddy having cast iron for camping when she was little, but she’d never known anyone her own age to cook with it. Heard tale of some trendy city types buying it up, but she’d never met one. Sounded like the same kind of fools who moved into buildings with old pipes and crumbling bricks so they could fix ‘em up.

It’d been nearly a month of his new man diet. He’d put on another seven pounds of beer gut and decided he no longer needed sleeves. Got too hot, he said. Marge figured she’d only be too lucky if he’d managed to kill himself in the cold and handed him another beer on her way out to cook.

He scratched himself on the couch and changed channels.

She felt the hatred burning in her heart, hotter than the old metal stove in the yard. She felt the cold of her remaining love, wound so tight and small it would fit in the tip of an icicle and have room to twirl around.

He belched. “Shut the door. You’ll get a draft goin’ in here. Damn, bitch.”

She sat down to mend the hem of her uniform pants and felt the weariness of three days running hard seep into her bones. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had more than a couple hours of sleep in any given day or night. If she wasn’t at work and little Jack didn’t need her, she was cooking or cleaning or running errands, hauling groceries the two miles back from town, chopping more firewood, or lugging bales of laundry up to the Laundromat near the Hardees.And speaking of Hardees, she could feel the burger she’d had for lunch coming back up on her.

She’d wanted the salad. Even with the fried chicken on it, it seemed healthier somehow than the fat slab of beef covered in orange cheese, but the salad had cost four times as much and she’d just spent her last five getting their clothes clean. In summer, she’d have just put them back in the garbage back and taken them home wet, saved a few bucks hanging them outside, but spring was still another week away, and that was by the calendar, not necessarily the weather.She took a deep breath and stretched. Sipped her V8. Whacked at her chest a few times like her daddy had done when he’d needed to cough up mucus or tried to get down another rack of ribs. Went back to sewing.

The indigestion got worse, an uncomfortable tightening sensation like the damn burger was growing arms and legs in there. She sat up straighter and coughed, thinking it just needed to be loosened.

Roger came back in at five. He’d been out in the woods. Said he’d gone hunting, and he’d taken his gun, but what he’d really needed to do was get away from her incessant whining about losing weight and eating better. What he’d really needed to do was get another sixpack in him so he didn’t have to hear that baby up babbling and whining for his momma at night.

He leaned his rifle against the side of the trailer and shook his head. Damn kid was already making a fuss. And weren’t they supposed to grow out of that eventually? Seemed it’d been too long as it was. Damn mother of his had turned the boy into a pussy. That’s all there was to it.

“Hey, ain’t you gon’ be late for work?” He nudged her foot with his. Damn woman sleeping at the table like she had no place to be. Hadn’t even made him no supper. No wonder the brat was yelling like a fool. Kid’s probably hungry.

Her head lolled to one side slightly, but stopped before it reached her shoulder.

“Hey! Bitch! You lazy good for nothing…” He reached down and grabbed her hand and stopped. The thing was cold, almost stiff. Normally, flinchy and hyper, she didn’t move.

He backed away from her. “What the—?” Then he smiled, realized he didn’t have to listen to her complaining no more. Realized he didn’t have to worry bout her turning his boy into one of them faggots no more. Didn’t have to worry about her wasting beer money on fancy shit.

“Told you that veggie shit would kill you.”

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Apology to Larry Strattner

I need to make yet another apology about the V-Day Stories.

I apparently misplaced Larry Strattner's story The Babysitter but have discovered it and it is now just below this apology.

I'm sorry, Larry, for not getting it up with the rest of the stories on Thursday.

The Babysitter by Larry Strattner


What a fat little kid. I could squeeze him all day. He sat in my lap with his tiny chubby feet crossed as I read him his books. He paid careful attention and knew when to turn the page. I’m glad I taught him to read. If they learn young, they enjoy it. A lot of reading makes you smart, and he is that.

We spent lots of time together when his father was away on business. I will always cherish those memories. Before he even really talked, he would raise his hand when he was dropped off and say, “Hi.” He called me Pa Pa, too, and later Pops.

These days I sit in the house with the shades pulled, reading under a floor lamp next to my recliner. I stick to poetry, William Blake, Rimbaud and Poe. I can’t read long stuff anymore but I like writing that cuts. Most poetry doesn’t interest me; it’s too sappy.

He’s out on my front porch right now. He isn’t chubby anymore, still crosses his feet when he reads. He tilts his chair back to stay in the shade. His eyes are startlingly blue. I still love to hug him if I can catch him off-guard. He says, “For crying out loud, Pops,” but I can tell he likes it. He’s always here in the daytime until the folks that watch me at night bring dinner. Mostly he reads and watches the sidewalk. I loved teaching him to read and enjoy the written word. If someone from the bad old days comes looking for me, he kills them.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

That's My Baby by Patricia Abbott


Lulu Stephanides, Manager of Flo’s Escapades on Eight Mile Road hired the Club’s top headliner when Johnny LeCroix walked through the door one October day. She’d taken over hiring the acts a few months earlier when her boss, Bill Steves, began a 3-5 year stint at Jackson for bribing city officials.

It was quickly apparent Lulu was better at spotting talent than Steves had been, and the weekend crowds more than doubled. Although most of the acts centered on erotic dancing, Lulu liked to vary the bill with magicians, singers, and standup comedians. Of course, no one appearing at Flo’s Escapades would pull double duty at a PTA fundraiser. That was a given for joints on Eight Mile.

Johnny LeCroix arrived at Flo’s well on the road to femaledom—a girl except for the final chop. A pushup bra displayed his best features, which he fingered self-consciously like a man does a new beard. Luckily Johnny’s wide shoulders helped him to carry it off. Someone needed to tell him though that the extreme hip swivel wasn’t necessary and lowering his voice an octave would make him less conspicuous.

Lulu looked him over, wondering why trannies all believed the essence of a woman lay in things like manicures and mascara. This Johnny, soon to be Joan, had every superficial attribute in place, but you only had to look at his jaw to know his sex. No woman ever had a set of teeth like his. And although his hands were small for a man, they lacked delicacy. His determination to highlight his expensive manicure (blue nails; glittery tips) by waving his mitts around only made things worse.

He saw the disinterest on her face and jumped in saying, “Look, my act ain’t really about the sex thing. That’s just my circumstances at the moment. I was born in a suitcase, you know.”

Lulu wondered just how his jaw had fit into one but waved him on.

“I think the saying goes, ‘I was born in a trunk,” Lulu said, stepping back as one of the blue balls he had removed from his case escaped. “And there’s no trick in juggling two balls, my friend. It’s torches and hatchets nowadays. Last week a fellow dressed like SpongeBob claimed he could juggle grenades. I declined an audition, of course.”

She was turning her back on Johnny when he added. “Wait, Miss, you haven’t even seen me feed the dog yet. You won’t want to miss that. It’s the grand finale.”

If Lulu remembered correctly “feeding the dog” was an old yoyo stunt. “Come back when you have something new to show me,” she said.  But before she reached the lobby door, a shrieking yip cut through the room as Johnny removed a black and white Chihuahua from his satchel.

“This is Baby,” he shouted over the barking. “Everyone loves my Baby.” Baby confirmed the sentiment by barking all the louder.

“Look, this ain’t Letterman, Johnny,” Lulu said. “We don’t put stupid pet tricks on our stage. Why don’t you come by tonight and get the lay of the land?”

But her exit had already slowed to a crawl.

Lulu liked dogs. Even yippers like Baby. Her disdain for human beings was turned on its head when she looked into a canine’s face. She’d never owned one though. First her parents, then her ex- husband claimed allergies. And although there was no reason not to have one now, a nightclub seemed like a poor place for a pet to spend its days and she was at the club fifteen hours a day, six days a week. A dog this size, in particular, would really be underfoot. She shook off this thought and looked away.

“I can dress her up if you want,” Johnny said, pulling a frilly doll dress from his bag, “but most people like to see Baby in action. Her legs go like little pistons. Wait till you see.” He grabbed Baby’s legs to demonstrate, and the yipping began again.

Feigning ennui, Lulu waved him back onto center stage and sank back into her chaise. Johnny was an eyeful all right, but it was Baby who grabbed her attention.

The act turned out to be pure gold, and within days people flooded the Club to see Johnny feed the dog. There wasn’t much fanfare—just the two of them bathed in a cool blue light with Johnny starting off by singing some dip-shitty song about Mexican moons and senoritas.  He considered himself an excellent singer, though most would disagree. But since it set the mood for what came next, she let it stand. He had an old record player from the fifties to play his background music—claiming it added more visual interest than a tape player would. Baby seemed mesmerized by the song and at various points would add her own soulful accompaniment. Which was a scream. And that might have been enough but…

When the last note faded, when their two voices died out, when Johnny had carefully lifted the needle off the album—the dog grabbed the elasticized neck of Johnny’s blouse, yanked it down, and proceeded to suckle Johnny’s left breast with such fervor her entire body shook like a bolt of electricity was passing through it. And, as promised, her legs pumped like mad. But the right breast turned out to be the brass ring of the act because once anchored there, Baby cooed with content for a few seconds and promptly fell asleep. The ending brought a roar of approval every night. Johnny, cradling Baby, took a final bow and then tucked Baby back into the bassinet on stage.

“I pepper the nipples with a little Ambien,” he explained to Lulu.  “The vet okayed it,” he added when he saw her face. “He prescribes it for hyper dogs like Baby all the time. I’ve used it myself more than once.”

“I gotta admit,” Lulu told Johnny, “it’s the best damned act on Eight Mile Road.” She gave him a raise after that first night and every month after. No one ever got tired of watching Johnny feed the dog. Especially Lulu.

She encouraged Johnny to hang around too, even leaving Baby with her when he had errands to run. Baby was a show biz dog and was content to spend her days listening with Lulu to the singers, standups and strippers trying out for the club. Since Johnny’s appearance, they were getting top-bill entertainers begging for a week rather than the typical night or two between more important gigs.  Flo’s Escapade had become a destination.

“Doc says it’s time for the chop,” Johnny told her a few months later. “So I guess I’ll be moving on. Once I’m all woman, I won’t be doing dumb-ass routines like this one. I got bigger plans. I’m thinking Vegas or New York. I’ve been taking dancing lessons, a little acting too.”

Johnny looked like he meant it and Lulu nodded mechanically.

“But I’ll have to keep the dog,” she told him as he turned to go. “You won’t need her cramping your style as you work your way up to the big time.” Ha, she thought to herself. “I’ll find another tranny to feed her. Shouldn’t take long.” She eyed him speculatively. “You newbie girls are like mold on a showerhead lately.”

“Hey, I got a big surgery coming up—you know what I mean.  I can’t go through it without that little dog in my corner rooting for me.” Johnny shook his head. “She’s all I got.”

“You’re not even planning to use her in the act, right? That’s what you said.”

He shook his head. “I’m planning on a classier act. But who says Baby can’t be a regular mutt. She’s earned her retirement.”

Lulu watched them perform for the last time a few nights later, weeping surreptitiously from her chaise. She hadn’t even had the heads-up to advertise the final show and the crowd was only fair on a Tuesday. She wasn’t that eager to alert their patrons of Baby’s goodbye.

Later that night, Lulu followed Johnny home to his flat. She trudged up the stairs and knocked softly on his door, shooting him in the neck the second he opened the door. The gun was the one kept in the Club’s wall safe. She hadn’t been sure it would fire.

As Lulu bundled the yipping dog into the satchel and prepared to leave, she reminded Johnny’s cooling body, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

Pizza Face And The Beauty Queen by Katherine Tomlinson

It was Valentine's Day and a teen was dead so instead of spending the day with her new man--who might possibly could be a keeper--Det. Diana Fitzgerald was walking around the very high school where she'd spent four miserable years.
There was no question it was a suicide.
"I'm not really surprised this happened," the dead student's honors English teacher said, "not after I saw the picture."
"What picture?" Diana had asked.
"The picture on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr," the teacher said, sucking her Marlboro Light down to the filter. "It's probably on YouTube by now, backed by a bouncy Justin Bieber song."
The only thing the teacher had been wrong about what the song playing behind the photo.
It was Britney Spears' "Lucky."
The picture was shot with a cell phone and was more than candid, it was clandestine. It showed a boy and a girl caught by the camera as they broke from an embrace. They were, Diana had to admit, an unlikely couple. The girl was beautiful, A-list celebrity beautiful, with auburn hair and big brown eyes. He was a geektastic disaster with the worst case of acne she'd ever seen.
He looked like he had kidney beans surgically implanted all over his face.
"Do you think she was kissing him on a dare?" Diana's partner John asked. "Kind of a reverse 'Dogfight' kind of thing?"
"I don't think so," Diana had said. She had learned the girl's name was Lauren and the boy's was Cicero. Cicero. How soon after he entered first grade did people start calling him "Sissy?" she wondered.
Diana's older brothers had all been given Gaelic names by their dreamy Irish dad and Eoghan had changed his name to Owen the day he turned 18. When she came along, her mother had put her foot down at the notion of calling her Aoife or Siobhan and she'd been named after her maternal grandmother instead. Diana was a safe name, it was a name that didn't stand out.
The last thing you wanted to do in high school was stand out.
The girls' gym teacher had found the body. Ms. Brody looked much the same as she had back when Diana had attended Harkham High.
Go Green Devils!
Ms. Brody had been a bully then and she hadn't changed much in ten years. Nor had she forgotten Diana.
"Fitzgerald. I see you finally lost that baby blubber."
John gave his partner a look of surprise. She had a runner's body, a lean 130 on a five-nine frame.
"Yep," Diana said, as some of the worst memories of her teenage years came back to her in a flood--the time she fell during the knotted rope climb, the time she passed out in the middle of a field hockey game after Ms. Brody made her play left wing so she'd be running the whole game. Then there was the time someone stole her humongous underpants from her locker while she showered after gym and ran them up the flagpole the next morning so that everyone could see them. She had always suspected the teacher had had a hand in that particular bit of meanness but had never been able to prove it.
"I understand you found the body?" John asked.
"Yep," the teacher said, mimicking Diana.
"Did you recognize the student?" she asked.
"Of course," she said. "You've seen the picture, right?"
Diana nodded.
"It was taken in the gym," the teacher said. "They were supposed to be working on scenery for the school play." Her voice took on an aggrieved tone. "They shouldn't even have been here but Mr. Wadleigh convinced the principal that he needed extra room for the construction."
Diana remembered the drama teacher as a sweet man whose marginal theater credits and unimpressive guest roles on television series all dated from the 80s.
"They were going to do The Robber Bridegroom," Ms. Brody said, "Lauren was going to play Rosamund."
She paused for emphasis.
Lauren's boyfriend is playing Jamie Lockhart." She saw they didn't understand. "The male lead."
"What's the boyfriend's name?" John asked.
His name was Josh Archuetta and Diana could tell he thought he was pretty hot shit but he was the kind of kid who peaks in high school and then spends the rest of his life chasing his youth like a refugee from a Bruce Springsteen song. "That little faggot," he said when Diana asked him if he knew Cicero.
"Faggot" and "whore" were just two of the epithets digitally scrawled in the comments beneath the picture of Cicero and Lauren posted on Facebook.
Diana had to wonder why no one realized the two terms sort of cancelled each other out if the two students were a couple.
"That fucking whore," he added.
That exact phrase had been spray-painted on Lauren's locker in bright orange paint. You could still see the words despite the school janitor's attempts to scrub them off.
"We were royalty in this school," he told Diana and John, "we were gods. And she threw it away for a nothing."
Josh was practically vibrating with anger and loathing Diana found herself wanting to punch him in the testicles just to hear him scream.
He leaned closer to the detectives.
"But she found out there are consequences for going out of bounds. They both did."
"Tell you what," John said after they'd dismissed Josh to return to his previously scheduled life. "I wouldn't go back to high school for a million dollars."
"Not this one anyway," Diana agreed thinking about Ben Lindsay, the good-looking football player who'd taken her friend Anna's virginity and then bragged about it. Anna had slit her wrists but her mother had found her in time. Diana's older brother had been in love with Anna and two weeks after graduation, he'd blown up Ben's beloved GTO. The only person Owen had told what he'd done had been Diana and she'd kept his secret for 15 years.
"Detective Fitzgerald?" a young uniform asked, breaking into Diana's reverie. "CSI's done if you want to take a look at the body."
"Thanks Teddy," she said and signaled for John to join her.
As they walked toward the gym doors, Diana realized there was one crucial question she hadn't asked.
She didn't know whether it was Lauren or Cicero waiting for her inside the gym.

The Not So Secret Secret by Jim Harrington

The waitress laid the check and two fortune cookies on the table. The candy hearts were an extra treat for Valentine's Day. Kali grinned at the slender woman—a thank you, not an invitation.
"What?" Kali asked, as Jeff's smile withered. He handed her the paper from the fortune cookie.
"Your life is in danger. Say nothing to anyone. You must leave the city immediately and never return. Repeat: say nothing. . ."
"This is a joke. Right?" Kali looked up and noticed Jeff scanning the room. "Jeff?" She touched his arm. "Jeff, you're scaring me."
He focused on Kali. "I. . .I don't know," he said, his words swathed in panic. "I hope so." He looked around the room again. "I received a similar note last week at work and laughed it off. Now I'm not so sure." He rose.
"Wait," Kali said.
"You read the note. It says my life is in danger."
"This has to be a practical joke. I mean you haven't done anything to cause someone to want to kill you." She read the note once more, then looked at Jeff. "Have you?"
He wiped his moist hands on his trousers and leaned forward. "I must have pissed someone off. At work maybe. I don't know. I can't think. I've got to get out of here." He tossed a twenty and a five on the table and dashed out the door. Kali snatched her purse and coat and followed.
"Jeff. Wait." She caught up to him and grabbed his arm. "You need to call the police."
"What part of 'say nothing' don't you understand?"
"Not so loud, Jeff. People are staring."
He pulled her into an alley.
"I shouldn't tell you."
"We've been dating for six months, and now I feel like I don't know you." Kali turned to leave. "Maybe this was a mistake."
"No, wait. I. . ."
Kali stood, legs apart, arms folded, her head cocked to one side.
"Okay, so maybe a few years ago I did something that got someone else thrown in jail. . .and maybe that someone got out of jail last week. . . and maybe he thinks I have something that belongs to him." He inhaled deeply and looked at Kali. "I'm sorry. I didn't think he'd find me."
"What are you talking about?"
"There are things about me you don't know—and it's better that way."
"I'm sorry. I have to leave town."
"I'll go with you," she said.
"No." He put his hands on her shoulder. "If he finds me, he. . .. Let's just say you might be in danger, too. God, I didn't mean for it to end like this. I do love you, Kali."
She thought about that. "Where will you go?"
"It's better if you don't know."
"But what if something happens? How will anyone find you? How will I find you?"
Jeff put his fingers together and placed them against his lips.
"Remember the cabin I took you to on our third date? The one near Grandfather Mountain?"
"Off Route 320."
"Yes. I never told him about that place. I should be safe there until I figure out what to do and where I can go."
"Okay, but I find it hard to believe you'd actually steal. That doesn't sound like the man I fell in love with." She reached for his hands. "Do you really have something this guy might want?"
Jeff paused. "Yes."
"At the cabin?"
He nodded.
Kali reached up and kissed him. "Will I ever see you again?"
"Probably not. Maybe. I don't know. I hope so once this is over." He pulled her to his chest and kissed her back. Finally, he let her go and dashed out of the alley, looking left and right when he reached the sidewalk.
Kali paused at the entrance to the alley, pulled her cellphone from her purse, and called her brother. She turned so her back was to the street.
"He's on his way to the cabin." She listened for a few seconds. "He said it's there." She listened some more. "Okay. Tomorrow at noon at the cabin. I'll see you then."

The Valentine's Day Tap Dance by Richard Godwin


I always tell the truth on forms. So when I filled in the dating service application I wrote under persona details:

“82 year old lesbian interested in group sex and bondage.”

It asked for my favourite song.

“She may be the face I can’t forget.”

Aznavour. Remember that? Truffaut, Les Quatre Cents Coups.  Mabel used to put it on after she phoned him. I also wrote:


Right at the bottom of the form. I guess whoever read my information ignored that bit, or didn’t understand what I was driving at. It was one of Mabel’s favourite words, ‘amend.’

‘I am amending things round here,’ she used to say when she spotted a speck of dust on the floor.

I hated the flat. All the cupboards full of cleaning products. Elvis’s face stared at me out of the sticker on the fridge.  Mabel put it there. She worked for the IR and told me never to lie to them, ‘Because,’ she used to say, wagging a bony finger at me, ‘if you lie, they find you and if they find you they...’

‘What Mabel?’

‘Say that word, the one I refuse to utter.’

‘What word?’

‘F-f-f-fuck you,’ she used to say, stamping a tiny pink foot. ‘You know I hate obscenities, clean kitchen, clean floors.’

Out came the finger again. I used to wonder what she did with it when she visited him smelling of bleach and heartache.

The last time she uttered that incomprehensible, nonsensical mantra I said, ‘LIKE YOU FUCK ELVIS?’

She counted out all her detergents right there. She got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed, a little foreplay before the tartare with Hound Dog.

‘Do you like to get dirty Mabel?’ I said. ‘Is that it, you need a bit of filth?’

She kept scrubbing, removing imaginary swear words from the highly polished floor. I could see her face staring down, maniacal, lost in the religious ecstasy of the sexually cleansed.

I pounded the wall with my hips. I pounded the brickwork.

She was the Queen of comedy with her act, and her pretend demureness. My frustration felt like boiling water. I tried laughing at her. I took pictures of her in her outfit, the one she wore when she went to see him between cleaning shifts. She always put it on in the bathroom and covered it with her overcoat. She dressed up as Shelley Fabares. I heard her on the phone to him.

‘I think smut and do dirt just for the King,’ she said.

She refused to touch my tap shoes. She would clean around them, considering them an object of such deep menace she sometimes screamed when she came near them.

‘Do you have a problem with Mr. Bojangles?’ I once said as she stood sweating, cloth in hand.

‘It’s obscene.’

‘And Elvis the pelvis isn’t?’

‘He is not, he is not! “He danced a lick across his cell. He grabbed his pants and spread his stance”. Filth, filth!’

She said I had ideas above my station.

‘You and those shoes,’ she used to say.

Still, a dancer’s life is one of drudgery.

I was chief icing controller at the factory, the place where Elvis worked. He made the fudge. He used to croon of how “it’s now or never” and squirt sugar at all the young women, chasing them with a cake syringe tucked into his flies. All the young women lined up for eternity in the waffle factory. He puckered his lips for the camera. He pumped his hips into their rears as he passed behind them. He ran his greasy hands through his thick black hair, one eye on the mirror, one eye on a piece of ass.

I knew his reputation, Mabel refused to listen to me. I knew where he operated. I’d seen the dating service form in his desk.

I see the donuts ride the belt to oblivion, all the young minds not destroyed by madness but diet. The sugar heaves and falls. There are no explicit revelations in monotony, only the bored yawn of a donut chewing guard.

I masqueraded as an aging voyeur to restore order. The factory belt was a bad trip, and I had to stop him singing anymore. I met him at the Toffee Bar, dressed in black leather and suede shoes.

He couldn’t dance. I took him to my flat, the one I rented at Cheapside. Elvis strutted and he waddled.

I said, ‘Love, Elvis, love is not a song.’

He said, ‘Love, do it to me granny.’

He removed his tie, his imitation Elvis shirt.

I said, ‘OK, honey, I may be some time, but I will never leave the building.’

‘I understand,’ he said, curling his lip.

He didn’t see my shoes on underneath the ridiculous dress I bought. I put them on and entered the room again as Doris Day.

‘Who the fuck are you?’ Elvis said.

‘I am a legendary actress and singer, I want to perform for you.’

He was unzipping his flies when I broke into my routine. I stole his eyelids. I stole his song, the cheap trick he played on the mornings when Mabel coughed blood. He’d ring her when I was out and sing down the line.

He sang for me that night.

He sang, ‘Please, please.’

‘Don’t know that one Elvis, try harder you tosser,’ I said skipping across his head and slamming him into the wall.

I removed my girdle and tap danced all over his fat face. He didn’t know the song I sang nor its precise relevance, I don’t think he even knew Aznavour.

I didn’t want Mabel’s flesh. I only wanted to remove the false idol in her never ending fall.

I asked him to recite the amendments.

He sang All Shook Up.

I said, ‘The right to Viagra among aging would be singers is not the eleventh amendment.’

I did it to him one more time.

And so there I was on Valentine’s Day with Elvis rotting in the deserted flat. What can a man do faced with such an impasse in his imponderable maze?

I ordered pizza and phoned Mabel.

She sobbed, or she tried. Elvis missing, no fudge, what can a girl do?

I found her signed transactions, I found all the statements recording how they tried to steal my life savings from me. I took her back and fed her fudge every day, spooning it into her dumb salivating mouth. She stared at me with grief stricken eyes pondering the hygiene of the flat.

Maybe she was my plan all along. Elvis liked her until I kicked his face across the wall.

‘Mabel I’m making an amendment,’ I said, putting on my tap shoes and handing her a bottle of detergent.

The next day I got promoted, now I hold the cake syringe.

That Fucking Bitch Will Pay by Chris Rhatigan

Ginny’s doorbell rang. She took a last look in the full-length mirror, admiring her tiny, red cocktail dress—the one with the little candy hearts on it that had sayings like “Be Mine” and “Do Me.”
Which guy had she invited out tonight? Was it Growler? Yardo?
Whatever, it was one of those dudes. Either way, she’d be smashed and screwed before the night was out.
Her stilettos click-clacked on the tile.
She opened the door.
Two dudes.
Growler and Yardo.
Both carried a bottle of champagne and a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
Both did not seem happy to see the other one there.
“Oh, shit,” she said. She went with her first instinct—play the adorable dumb blonde card—giggling and bobbing her head. “Well this is awkward!”
Yardo spoke first. “Who the fuck is he?”
“Hey,” Growler said, “who the fuck are you?”
“Hold on, hold on,” Ginny said. She closed her eyes, all two gears in her miniature mind working a double-shift to find a solution. She’d kept the two men away from each other for a month, but she should’ve known she’d royally fuck things up sooner or later.
“This is bullshit,” Yardo said.
“You’re bullshit!” Growler said.
Growler chucked his gifts into the bushes. Drew a handgun.
Yardo did the same.
Both men pointed barrels at the other’s head.
Ginny screamed because she was scared or thrilled or something.
Growler said, “How long you been seeing him?”
Ginny said, “What is wrong with you two? Put those guns away—someone could get hurt!”
Yardo said, “I’ll put my gun away as soon as he does.”
Growler said, “Sure you will.”
Ginny sighed. Why did she always date these morons? She couldn’t remember now. All she knew was that she did not want to get blood on her dress.
“How about this?” Ginny said, pleased that she had stumbled on what she deemed a perfectly simple solution. “Why don’t you both fuck me? How’s that sound?”
“At the same time?” Growler said. “I don’t know, sounds kinda gay.”
“Doesn’t have to be at the same time,” she said, trying to be flexible.
Yardo shook his head. “Nah, you don’t get it. This is about pride.”
Ginny rolled her eyes at their silly standoff. “You boys and your pride. Why don’t you just get it over with and see whose is bigger?”
“Ginny,” Yardo said, “first of all, I would win that contest. Second of all, you are one cold bitch. Once I deal with this asshole, you’re going to pay for this.”
Growler said, “You shut the fuck up you—”
Someone set off a firecracker down the street.
Both men thought the other had fired and responded in kind.
Ginny shrieked as blood sprayed all over her dress. Her fuck buddies dropped to the ground, their brains scattered across the pavement.
She turned circles like a confused puppy, then sat on the doorstep and shivered, trying not to look at the corpses. She thought she should call 911, but then they’d want to talk to her and ask her questions, blah blah blah—it would ruin the whole night.
After a couple of minutes, she went over to the bushes and collected her discarded gifts. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said under her breath. 
She went inside, dropped the gifts on the kitchen counter, and uncorked a bottle of champagne. Bubbles flowed over the top and tickled her hands. She drank straight from the bottle. Took the edge off. She ripped the shrink wrap off the box of chocolates, used the pictures on the inside to find the ones she liked.
Just as she was lamenting her bad fortune, she got an idea.
Picked up the cell on the counter and punched in a number she had scribbled on a napkin last Friday night.
“Heeeeyyyy Daggitt. It’s Ginny, from the club?” She bit into one of the chocolates—coconut, her favorite. “Yeah, of course you remember me. Sounds like you’re all alone. How about we go get a drink?”
She’d lost a new dress and two decent lays, but maybe this Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be so bad after all.
BIO: Chris Rhatigan is the editor of All Due Respect and that publication’s upcoming anthology, which will be released by Full Dark City Press. His novel, The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other, will be released in April by KUBOA Press. He blogs about short fiction at Death by Killing.

The Supposedly Philanthropist Zookeeper by Ahimaaz Rajesh


There’s virtually nothing that Manickam couldn’t do or get done. He very recently helped capture two corrupt undercover cops of his panchayat. Right at this moment, he is in the zoo un-teething a two-hour-old cadaver. He’d feed it to the lioness when this craft of his is complete. His accomplice comes and tells him. He’s rather cut short before he begins.

‘Why is it that, Rafeek, you’re good at nothing and why is that I end up doing everything you’re bad at?’

The accomplice scratches his cheek and tells.

‘This Youngness I couldn’t shoo off wants to see you right away. Highness, looks to me like we’re neck deep in thick soup.’

Highness rolls the diamond bracelet up his arm, blinks hard twice so as to feel his contacts. She’s already here clearing her throat. He knocks the molars out and pulls the dental speculum off.

‘Selvi’s not undercover, Brightness. Our clientele, insha Allah! First you collect the teeth, bury them in the pit, leave the pit be. Let the lion out and in its cage, then and only then the boars. Don’t you mess it up like last time!’

It’s past dusk and power out.  She stands offish leaning by a tree, takes a call and swears the first word. Highness comes to her.

‘Everything all right? Guy broke a heart, I broke his head. Nothing personal.’

She clears her throat.

‘Excuse me.’

He lights the Petromax lamp and hangs it up.

‘Oh! Matter is he opened her chest as she still breathed, cut her heart out, squeezed it with his foot, caught half way eating it, got out with influence.’

She clears throat again.

‘Didn’t work out. Thoma wouldn’t go down first thing on me much as he wants me to. Gave it ‘nother shot this evening. Same thing – Sweetness wouldn’t go down first thing much as he wants me to. We broke up. Why won’t I get what I wanted? Can’t blame you—it’s him.’

Sweetness Thoma is a good kid. That Highness knew. There’s no reason why Sweetness wouldn’t want to please Youngness like she wants him to. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t. There’s a reason he wouldn’t stay married long if he ever did marry. There’s a reason there should be turbulence if he did. Brightness, ever since he got married, hasn’t been his old self. It’s time to seek replacement while Highness is still unconsciously not given away. Brightness could shift to a sober job. Highness is thinking.

‘Can’t see why. Don’t know why not. Thought the kid’s good…kid’s good at everything else he does.’

She isn’t mad except a little upset. It’d happened before, might as well happen again. Highness might want to hook her up with ‘nother lad except he isn’t certain.

‘Leaving town. Can’t stand it here. Nice setup this, by the way, here—running the zoo and all.’

Highness will live to sixty-five, plus or minus five years behind bars, and mete out blind justice until fifty-five. He will face a handful of sour defeats in the time to come but this is one defeat and the only one he will remember fondly. Youngness sought after him—she wanted to find some love was all.
BIO: Ahimaaz Rajesh lives in India, works for bread, writes to breathe

Plan B by Albert Tucher

“So,” said the client. “What’s the boyfriend got planned for Valentine’s Day?”
Diana was sorry to see the quiet time end, but the client had bought conversation if he wanted it. He was one of the men who liked to pry into her private life. They also liked her to have a boyfriend who didn’t know what she did to pay the bills. Cuckolding an oblivious nice guy was better than Viagra.
So, for men like this one, she had invented a boyfriend.
“Nothing much,” she said. “We both think it’s pretty silly.”
The lie came easily. She knew that her job went beyond the mechanics of sex. Men hired her to be the “if only” woman, the low-maintenance one, the one who didn’t care about Valentine’s Day.
“We might hit the diner,” she said.
“Which one? I might see you there.”
That didn’t sound likely. From what he had told her about his wife, she wouldn’t settle for the early bird special.
“I wish. No, we’re going to Chez Thierry.”
Diana didn’t have to fake her sympathetic grimace. The ridiculously expensive restaurant in darkest Morris County catered to customers with an expensive point to make.
“I feel your pain,” she said.
She had been there more than once, and it usually led to a marriage proposal from a client who didn’t know how to respect boundaries. That kind of client also booked often and tipped well, which meant that she had to smile until her face hurt and come up with a tactful way to fend him off, all while eating food that she didn’t even like.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I totally forgot, but I know the owner. Now I’ll have to let him win on the golf course or something. God, I hate Valentine’s Day.”
He turned on his side to face her. The smile on his face told her that something was coming, and she wouldn’t like it.
“So let’s skip out. You and me.”
That was the penalty for being the “if only” woman. Guys thought life with her would be all good stuff.
She decided it was time to try distracting him. She stroked his abdomen, which was actually kind of fun. He kept in good shape for a balding middle-aged man. After a few moments of that, she sent her hand lower.
“My boyfriend doesn’t deliver the goods the way you do. Come on, show me again.”
He didn’t seem to notice what she was doing. That was a bad sign. Then his smile vanished, which was worse.
“I’m serious. You don’t love that guy. I can tell. And as for my wife, well, the last few years have been … Like, I’m in bed, and she comes out of the bathroom, and my first thought is, who are you? And why are you getting into bed with me?”
Diana withdrew her hand. It wasn’t doing any good.
“I know what’s she’s definitely not coming to bed for. I swear, one day she woke up and said, okay, I’ve caught my man, I’ve had my two kids, thank God that nonsense is over. And she put her knees together for the rest of her life.”
Diana sometimes wondered how she would behave in a long term relationship. She had no way to know.
He turned on his side to face her.
“So let’s do it. I’ll cash out of my business, and we’ll go. Anywhere you want. I can afford it. Or I will be able to, after we kill her.”
In almost ten years in the business, Diana had heard all kinds of nonsense. She had learned to keep quiet and let the man talk himself out of his own bad idea, but her hooker’s radar was telling her that this was different. And her radar was never wrong.
“We have a prenup. She’ll kill me in a divorce. Financially, I mean.”
She already sensed that if she said no, he wouldn’t even hear it. That left plan B.
“Okay,” she said, “Let’s do it. Leave it to me.”
He didn’t flinch.
“She doesn’t know about me, right?”
“Right,” he said eagerly.
“So you need to set up an alibi, while handle I business. We’ll work that out.”
He hoisted himself to his knees and looked down at her with a demented grin. Any moment, he would start jumping up and down on the mattress.
“Then we stay away from each other,” she said. “Completely. For at least six months.”
“What? Why?”
He reached out and gripped her bicep, too hard for comfort. Diana tapped his wrist and looked at him until he released her.
“If the cops connect us, they’ll be all over you. And me, too.”
“Six months?”
“At least. You’re grieving. Then you meet somebody who helps you get over it. It has to be believable, and that takes time.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Trust me. It’s crucial. Also, it won’t look suspicious when we kill my boyfriend.”
“When we what?”
“Kill my boyfriend. Fair’s fair.”
“Why do you want to kill him? You always talk like he’s this nice guy. Just kind of … dull.”
“He’s nice when he gets his way. When he doesn’t, look out. Which is why you better not miss. One chance is all you’ll get.”
“I gotta think about this.”
He was already thinking about it, so hard that it looked painful. She almost sympathized. Any guy could work up enough resentment to dream about killing his wife, but a stranger?
“Okay. Think about it tonight at dinner.”
“I’m not going. That’s the whole point. Not having to do this crap anymore.”
“Do you want to be smart, or do you want to do life in Rahway?”
The client subsided onto the mattress and came to rest on his back. He stared straight up, as if the ceiling held the answer to everything. There might be a ceiling like that somewhere, but not in this budget motel room.
“Maybe there’s a plan B.”
His tone said that plan B involved forgetting the whole thing. That worked for her.
Diana glanced at her watch. He had ten minutes left on the hour. It went against her principles to cut out early, but today he wouldn’t notice. And he might recover faster without her there to remind him that he had wussed.
She got out of bed and went to her clothes on the flimsy chair by the table in the corner.
Not a bad day’s work, she thought as she dressed.
A client in prison was money down the drain, and this client would come to realize that hating his life beat doing life. He might not call her for a few weeks, but when he did, he wouldn’t mention what had happened today.
It was almost a shame that the boyfriend wasn’t real. She could tell him how he owed her for saving his life. It might be fun to share a joke like that.
As long as it stayed a joke.

Water Signs by Chris Benton


We made love during Valentine’s Dawn.

I dreamt briefly of a great blue gator, tearing me to pieces. Later that morning I took her fishing in my canoe down The Cape Fear. On the way I bought two tins of Norwegian sardines, a bottle of Gin, and a single rose. Along the river’s long dark shiver, she spoke of the death wish of dolphins and the bowel movements of the Philistine god, Dagon. She told me she drowned her baby brother when she was fourteen. She told me they were both Scorpios. I caught a thirty pound flathead.  She embraced me proudly and told me she wished I had grown gills within her mother’s belly. Her breath smelled like a waterlogged Bible.

I wish I had grown gills within our mother’s belly.

BIO: Chris Benton was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he still resides. His stories have appeared in A TWIST OF NOIR, PLOTS WITH GUNS, THRILLERS, KILLERS ‘N’ CHILLER’S, BLACK HEART, CRIME FACTORY, and SHOTGUN HONEY. He can be found on FACEBOOK

February 14th - Girls' Night Out by Mary Ann Back


We call ourselves The Marion County Jezebel Society. Our membership consists of two divorced, semi-pickled cougars – Jilly, a tiny blonde, me - Roxy, a six-foot redhead, and my saucy little Shih Tzu named Alimony. Don’t be fooled by that over-processed hairball, she’s a haughty, gin-soaked pocket bitch who never met a man she wouldn’t bite. Did I mention we elected her president?

Each year on Valentine’s Day we meet at an exotic one-star restaurant serving food-like substances and fermented umbrella drinks aged in hundred-proof, incendiary pineapples. A token, beer-bellied male, sporting what appears to be road kill on his head, must be seated at the bar, close enough to provide wicked inspiration, yet distant enough to remain oblivious to our discreet insults. Silly rule really. After several cocktails, both our distance and discretion fade anyway.

This particular Valentine’s, I suggested Madame Tso’s Tea Room, an old haunt owned by an old friend, Ming Tso. After sharing a pu pu platter and a pitcher of Mai Tai’s, I took Jilly to the private VIP room for some excitement. It had a tiki-hut-turned-opium-den ambience with lighted plastic palm trees and vintage fishing nets suspended from the ceiling. Paper lanterns and oil lamps almost lit the room where ceramic dragons stood guard like terra cotta warriors. The air reeked of incense, tobacco, and old fish, courtesy of a murky lobster tank.

Members of the Triad, or “The Boys,” as Ming calls them, stopped by occasionally to play Pai Gow. They were there that night, crowded around a gaming table; their conversation cut short when we walked in. One of them stared a hole through me.

“Take a picture, it last slonger,” slurred Jilly, who’d had enough liquor to spontaneously combust. She tried to throw her drink at him but drowned my Jimmy Choo’s instead. Alimony made a dive for the spilled alcohol, tongue lapping wildly in mid-air. Undaunted, Jilly snarled and poked a finger in the guy’s face.

“What’s your problem, buddy?”

“Please excuse her, she’s a little tipsy.” I smiled, attempting to shove Alimony back inside my purse and drag Jilly to a distant table. “Bad dog! Bad Jilly! Crap on a cracker, are you trying to get us killed?”

We were settling in when Ming brought us another round. “We didn’t order those,” I said.

“No, but Leung Ciao did,” she glanced at the mobster. “He asked me to give this to ‘the Flaming Goddess’. Watch yourself, Roxy, he’s dangerous.”

“Oo, Flaming Goddess! It suits me, don’t you think?”

She handed me a fortune cookie. I broke it in half and silently read the message.

‘Woo Tang knows you’re testifying against him before the Grand Jury. Your life is in danger. Say nothing to anyone. You must leave the city immediately and never return. Repeat: say nothing.’

Being a flaming goddess was starting to lose its allure.

“What’s it say?” Jilly reached for the scrap of paper but I stuffed it in my pocket. No need to frighten her.

“I’m going to the lady’s room. Be right back.” I stood up to find Leung Ciao but froze when a 400 pound mountain wearing a black suit and a fortune in gold chains appeared in the doorway.
Jilly squealed, “Look, it’s a Sumo!”

“That’s Japanese.”

“What do you call a really big Chinese guy?”

“Woo Tang!” Leung spun around; his eyes darted from the mountain, to me, and back again.

One look at me and the mountain erupted. “You!” Chairs flew and tables toppled as Woo Tang tore across the room, stopping inches from my nose. “Have you no honor? Have you no shame, Flaming Goddess? Why do you bite the hand that once fed you?”

“Come any closer and see what else I’ll bite! I am not your Flaming Goddess, sir.”

“You insult me. Ten years is not so long. Have I changed so much, my consort?”

“Your what?”

Jilly’s forehead scrunched like it does when she thinks too hard. “I think he said you were his Geisha.”

“Again - Japanese. Please don’t help me. Mr Tang, is it? You’re obviously mistaken. Please excuse us, we were just leaving.” I grabbed Jilly and broke for the door.

“Not so fast, old lover. You cannot kiss and tell my secrets.”

Gunshots rang and a bullet whizzed past my head. The lobster tank exploded, spewing water and panicked lobsters onto the floor. Jilly slipped and fell, smacking her head on the linoleum, coming eye to eye with the tank’s alpha lobster.

She heaved. “Oh, Roxy, I don’t feel so good.”

I threw her feather-weight ass over my shoulder and hit the door on a dead run. A floor-shaking thud caused me to look back and find Woo Tang lying unconscious in the sludge. Between the lobsters and the mobsters the place was a death trap.

I carried Jilly outside and heard Leung ordering the goons. “Stay here with Woo. I’ll get the girl.”

He caught up to us in the parking lot, gun drawn.

I threw my purse at him. “It’s about freaking time! NOW you and your gun show up? Where the hell were you when I was getting shot at? And why the hell did you set the message drop for tonight if Woo Tang was going to be here?”

Alimony stuck her head out of my purse and growled at him.

“Sorry, Flaming Goddess, ah, Rox. He was supposed to be in Hong Kong. That was close.”

“You think? Get your ass back inside before you blow your cover. Tell them you saw us flag down a trucker and get away.”

“What about you, Rox? He’ll try again. If he finds out you’ve been FBI for the last ten years, it won’t be pretty.”

“Is it ever?”

Jilly, sprawled on the ground, opened one eye. “What happened?”

“Too many Mai Tai’s, party girl– you passed out and hit your head. You’ll live.”

“Next Valentine’s I’m picking the restaurant. This place sucks. Roxy?”

“Yeah, Jilly?”

“Who’s Flaming Goddess?”

I smiled, eyes wide, and answered, “Who?”

BIO: Ms. Back, of Mason, Ohio, was awarded the 2009 Bilbo Award for creative writing by Thomas More College. The characters she creates are often disreputable and are not to be trusted. She kicks them out of the house every chance she gets, when some unwitting publisher agrees to take them off her hands. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including: Short Story America, Every Day Fiction, Bete Noire, Apollo’s Lyre, Liquid Imagination, 50 to 1, Flashes in the Dark, A Twist of Noir, Flash Fiction Chronicles, and Screenwriters’ Daily.

Bird-Dogged by Stephen D. Rogers

As I stood staring out the kitchen window, Cindy came from behind to wrap her arms around me. "And how is the world treating Fran Rivers Investigations?"
"Badly." I reached up with both hands, pressing her arms against my breasts. "A client bird-dogged me."
"What's that mean?" Cindy nestled in between my right ear and my neck.
"She used me to locate someone."
"Well you're only the best private eye on the planet."
"She said they were old friends. That after years of not thinking about her, my client now couldn't get her out of her mind."
"Was that not true?"
"No, it was true. And with the information I provided, my client followed the woman to a municipal parking lot, ran her down, and left her for dead, which she was." I sighed. "The witnesses contradicted each other, but I'm certain the driver was my client."
Cindy nuzzled along the back of my neck to my left ear. "You couldn't have known she'd do that."
"But I did. Which didn't stop me from completing the job I love. My client hired me to find that woman, and find that woman I did."
"It's not your fault."
"I handed my client the report, I cashed the check, and then, when the news confirmed what I already knew, I called the police. Hold me."
Cindy squeezed. "I am holding you."
"No, like this." I turned, buried myself against her, and shut out the world, almost as if the problem were there.

The Devil's Elbow by Scott Dingley

The way it starts, the fragment of memory that forms the shadow of my rebirth, is hurt. I keep coming back to that; call it ground zero. A searing sort of pain, not the fleeting kind, the kind that puts unexpected tears in a grown man’s eyes and makes him smile quickly, embarrassed. Nor the kind that gets his blood up and sends a shock to his heart that he—that I—actually get a kick out of.
No—just a monotonous, quarter million-year-old pain with a sly little smirk on its red little face. When I hear the slurred words elbow their way through the hurt I see a dim movie show flickering in the shadows of my shaken skull. I’m watching an old Driver’s Ed film I last saw one time in High School, stomach dancing with squeamishness and adolescent nerves again: a buzz-cut Midwesterner in a plaid shirt, late 1950s, flip-flopping gently in the front seat of a crushed Edsel; jaw crushed in too, agonal respiration, nervous system on auto. Signal 30. The narrator, a State Highway Patrolman in mirror aviators I like to think, speaks with authority, each word coming with less echo distortion. Comforting in the absence of anything not slick with blood or oil:
‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
I’m reborn and the pain is all but gone. I’m dressed in a hospital gown and when my fingers reach up to explore the band of tightness around my head they find an eye patch over my right eye and, beneath it, the rough, inflamed tracks of scarring all down my cheek. If I pushed my finger against the soft fabric of the patch, the whole thing would sink inwards into the empty socket. I can’t get used to it. I think only how much I must look like a commandant in a war movie, and then my remaining eye darts back to the little glass sphere resting on the bedside table, watching me right back—a lonely glass eye with a sad, blue iris. I click my Zippo lighter open and shut in my other hand because the brassy coldness and the solid clicking are reassuring. The Highway Patrolman, who is actually a Doctor (I know he’s a doctor because there’s a stethoscope hanging over the collar of his white coat, see), says ‘You know you can’t smoke in here, Josh?’ and I snap back at him...
‘The sound ... Something about it helps me remember.’
I remember. I have my own two eyes, thank God, at the wheel of my lust red soft top roadster on the Campo Road stretch of State Route 94. Lucy is alongside me, wrestling with a road map, wearing red John Lennon glasses and behind her, luggage is crammed in with my Spanish guitar. My arm is rested on the door frame soaking up the sun and the radio hums gently. Blissful. My blue eyes (which Lucy adores) flick up to the rear-view mirror to study the road behind intensely, and it shimmers there in the glass, wide and sleepy. Lucy grows bored of the unwieldy map and its confusing circuitry of interwoven roads, and she holds it outside the car where the real road zooms past and lets the whole thing disappear, whisked back behind us to take flight then tumble along the empty asphalt. ‘To hell with it,’ she says with a giggle and instead puts her bare feet up onto the dash and lets the wind catch strands of her hair. We both break into laughter and the speedometer slowly creeps up as if in measure of my contentment. The Doctor speaks again and I’m back in the hospital, half-blind. Not contented.
‘Wake up Josh ... You’re alive.’
‘Lucy?’ I ask faintly, as I reach up and feel the rough gauze of the bandages which cover half of my face. A nurse dressed in white, a fleshy out of focus blob as she peers at me, steps to my side and gently eases my arm back down, whispering reassuring hush words, and all I can do is groan the word ‘Hurts,’ as the stale air escapes my lungs. I hear the Doctor say, ‘Give him another shot,’ as if he’s underwater. I settle. You’re alive?
The medical light box flickers on and reveals the blue-grey horror of my x-rays: skull, ribcage, leg bone. The Doc sits opposite me and I can tell my incessant clicking on the Zippo lighter bugs him more than ever. He hands me a photograph, black & white, and I struggle to judge the distance with one eye, missing my reach by inches. Adjusting, I seize the photograph and see that it—and the others like it on the little coffee table below—are of the scene of the road accident.
‘They’ve withheld the more graphic ones,’ he says, and it’s almost as if he’s trying to make me snap.
‘Can I see my fiancée?’
‘That won’t be possible.’
‘I don’t remember the ... impact. Just ... whiteness ... a blank—like I short-circuited.’
‘They moved what was left of the car from the pound to a junkyard. Sporty little thing,’ the Doc tells me. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Josh, try to remember that.’
‘I want to see her body,’ I say.
‘No you don’t, Josh.’
I look at the images of twisted metal and black stains on blacktop and I break down, bowing my head and blubbing like a tired kid.
I prefer to sit up, awake, do stuff. I get nightmares at night. When I lie in bed I stare up at the ceiling and I hear screeching brakes and tyres, shattering glass, twisting metal; the kind of sounds that cut me up.
I’m pleased when the Doc comes around, closer to getting out. My good eye is fixed to the TV mounted on the wall on which a Coup de Ville has just swerved, speeded up, through a barrier and off a San Fernando hillside. It rolls and explodes, disintegrating. I’m sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and the Doc, oblivious to the clumsy entertainment in the background, is cutting and peeling off my bandages with the kind of scissors that jut up at the ends so he doesn’t stab me in my already tattered face, which I guess is kind of thoughtful of him. ‘Apart from your eye, the physical injuries were minimal. Bruising mostly. The medication kept you under...’
Not content, I ask, ‘Did you really have to take my eye, doc?’
‘The accident did it for us,’ he tells me. ‘You’ll adapt to using just one, adjusting your sense of perspective.’
‘When can I speak to the police?’ I ask him.
I can see the Doc frowning. He ignores me. ‘Any flashbacks yet? Nightmares? Weird déjà vu feelings?’
I think back a little before I say, ‘I sold up and hit the open road with my future wife. We were driving cross country. There was an accident, now she’s dead. I’m just filling in gaps.’
‘Give it time,’ he reassures me.
‘I had a fifty-year marriage ahead of me.’
He removes the last of the bandaging and lets it drop to the floor, a tad too disgusted for my liking. He examines my face close-up—what I can only imagine to be the black, empty socket of my squished-by-blunt-trauma right eye.
‘We can give you an artificial eye, the glass kind. Match it right up to your real colouring.
Until then, you might like to wear this...’
I take the black eye patch he’s offered me but I don’t thank him.
I put on my dressing gown and the eye patch too, then I head out to the payphone and call the police. A bandaged, wheelchair-bound patient rolls past me, others ambling zombie-like along the corridor. I quickly get agitated as I try to make a case: ‘Just put me through to a detective. I was involved in a road accident... My wife ... my fiancée ... was killed three or four weeks ago. I’ve been out cold in a hospital bed. The wiring of my brain is out of whack.’
I plead with them but I get nowhere. Forget it. After I slam the receiver down I take out the bottle of pills the Doc gave me and swallow a few dry.
When I sleep I dream of the road and the sun is shining so brightly it makes my eyes water. Lucy is bored and looking through a cheap souvenir slide viewer—the kind shaped like a tiny TV set and which houses banal picture postcard images, faded and thirty years old. The clicking bugs me. She stops and notices a chip in the windscreen caused by a stone kicked up from the road. She touches the fine crack in the glass.
When I wake the Doc asks me, ‘Ready to try the new eye?’
I stall, nervous and more than a touch queasy at the thought. ‘What if it rolls around backwards and I don’t notice?’
‘Then you’ll scare little kids in the street and you won’t win any beauty pageants.’
Wise ass. ‘I think I’ll need a cigarette first.’
‘Twenty-a-day man, are you Josh?’ he asks me and, strangely, I can’t quite recall. I search for even the most fleeting of memory, but they don’t seem to be there. Not when I’m awake at least.
‘I have nightmares ... about Lucy,’ I tell him. ‘In the crash, her head is taken clean off.  Is that true, doc?’
He tilts his own head, firmly attached to his neck, and shrugs giving me a grim feeling that makes me glad I don’t remember more.
I do remember one thing, at least. ‘There was another car that night, tried to overtake but ran us off the road. It wasn’t my fault, Doc.’
‘There was no other vehicle, Josh. This is natural—you’re shifting feelings of guilt to a figment of your imagination, a phantom. Face the reality and heal.’
I shake my head. ‘No.’
‘The police report concluded that the glare of the sun had made you swerve off the road. Others have perished there too—it’s known as the Devil’s Elbow, damn dead man’s curve. The police won’t take it further.’
‘But they must...’
‘I mean they won’t charge you, Josh.’
I stare him down as best I can, outrage in my single wide eye. The Doc hands me a small cutting from a newspaper, which I take and read, holding it closer to my face to compensate for the lack of vision. The newspaper print headline reads, "BLINDED BY THE SUN: ROAD TRIP COUPLE IN WRECK, ONE DEAD"
‘Face the reality,’ he whispers.
I read their choice of words again bitterly: Blinded. I gather my thoughts, try to be practical. ‘When’s the funeral, Doc?’
‘You were unconscious.’
‘Why wasn’t it me?’ I wonder out loud.
‘It was her time.’
It’s not at all bad. Maybe a chilly stillness to it if you stared too long; a certain deadness, but ... Hell, what do you expect.
The reflection of my face stares back at me with two eyes and I tilt my head back and forth, up and down, to test the glass eye. I’m on the road to recovery, maybe off-road. Enough to get out of bed though, to pull my own trousers on and zip my jacket over a green hospital scrub top. Too cocky, I remove the eye and look at it in the palm of my hand as if it’s a weird sea urchin I’ve caught in a rock pool. I blink first. I glance momentarily up at the reflection again and when I see the empty blackness of my socket it disturbs the crap out of me and damned if I don’t drop the puppy dog eye on the floor. It rolls across the room and I have to chase it, thankful it’s harder to break than the original.
On the bed, I lay out the things they salvaged from the wreck. Holiday photographs, some burned around the edges. There’s a small old suitcase made of leather with stickers on it, the trendy kind, and Lucy’s glasses, their lenses shattered. I cradle the broken glasses in my hand gently and take care not to drop them like I did my stupid eyeball.
I checked myself out of the hospital and I’m heading south, thumbing a ride by the side of the road, flinching every time a truck roars past.
The suitcase feels heavy and impractical and I hope someone picks me up soon. When a guy stops I eyeball him apprehensively, then climb in and sit quietly, staring out of the passenger window and daydreaming while the guy watches the road, equally silent. He takes me only part of the way and the rest I walk. I get lost a few times, take a few wrong turns, but eventually I find the place. It’s a pretty little rural cemetery with rows of graves, patches of colour from floral tributes here and there. I walk slowly through the maze, plot serial numbers counting down as I search for one particular grave—Lucy’s. 145... 146... 147... I stop at 148. Lucy.
Beats me what I do now, I hadn’t planned that. I stare at it for a long moment, a simple wooden marker over a mound of fresh earth. I don’t have any words or thoughts so I light up a cigarette with the brass Zippo, cough violently, then open the suitcase and take out the holiday photographs. Leafing through the snapshots I see Lucy carefree, relaxed, young and beautiful; happy images of her in the sun, clowning around and posing with the guitar. One photograph of Lucy is burned, the emulsion melted and blistered.
When I look back to the grave I have some words. ‘I didn’t kill you.’
I leave the photograph propped on the grave and hitch-hike away from there; another vehicle, another reticent journey. I almost climb out as I lean through the side window, hair blowing in the breeze, face directed up at the vast pale blue sky. Spots of rain begin to patter on the bodywork of the car and that’s the only reason I don’t jump.
By the time I get to the junkyard the rain is lashing down, wet and warm, hitting the junked vehicles stacked six high in sharp white sheets. It splashes off twisted spare parts, cubed cars, bald tyres and flows down a wall covered with hubcaps. Along a miry aisle I pass twisted metal frames in rust brown and charred black. I see the wrecked sports car on my left, sandwiched between two other write-offs. I see the crushed bodywork, scorch marks and flaked red paintwork, jagged broken headlights, and spider web patterns on the windscreen.
I stare at the wreckage for a long time before stepping in closer to examine the damage. Without thought, my hand runs along the once-smooth fender and I peer in through the letter-boxed driver’s window. I see blood on the windscreen, a single blonde hair glued to it despite the best efforts of the rain.
I wave off the driver of my third ride and I’m left alone, the road winding along behind and ahead of me. A flat patch of red and grey fur lies at my feet, old roadkill. The sun is setting and the sky is a candyfloss mix of yellow, orange, pink and deep black. Beside me, flowers have been left under a rusting road sign and they’ve since died themselves and turned brown. The sign above reads: ‘LAST YEAR: 59 ACCIDENTS, 12 DEATHS.’
The surface of the crooked road carries thick black tyre skid marks cutting across from the middle of the lane and the yellow thermoplastic stripes, off the side of the road and continuing as double tracks of churned-up scrub and earth. I look over my shoulder nervously before following the tracks to the edge of a steep verge and, looking down, I see exactly where we came to rest. I struggle down to the foot of the bank and then look around me.
This is where she died: ground zero, off the Devil’s Elbow.
I slip the cigarette lighter from my pocket and begin clicking the lid, anxiously. Happy, I suppose, that the Doc isn’t here to bitch about it at least. Wandering around the scrubland below the road, searching the grass with my foot, I see a small patch of red hidden in the grass. Hesitant at first, I crouch and pick it up and see that it is Lucy’s little red TV-shaped slide viewer.
The light is fading and the rain has passed. I stumble farther from the main road, between tall trees, swing the suitcase and throw it into the undergrowth, thinking Screw it. I fall to my knees, get back up and walk a little more, steadying myself against a tree trunk which feels cold and damp. I have to hold my head in pain before taking out the pills the Doc gave me and swallowing several, spilling the rest to the forest floor. The fleshless lips on the little red face peel back into a wicked smile, mocking my torture.
‘That maniac took everything from me, stole my future...’ I mumble in despair.
I dream of hypnotic sunlight on the windscreen. Lucy speaks to me, ‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
When I look up at the rear-view mirror, the road behind me is empty, except for a bouncing blur which resembles a jelly fish under water, trailing tendrils of blonde and pink hair: a severed head tumbling across the hot road, splashing scarlet.
I wake up half-dead as well as half-blind, on the forest floor with my back against a tree. My glass eye has been open the whole time, keeping watch. Aching and groggy, I get to my feet. Minutes later I’m hitch-hiking again, not fancying my chances with my clothes and hair in such disarray, but a truck pulls up for me nevertheless. The driver leans across in his cab to look me up and down, then flips down the sun visor on his glasses, saying helpfully, ‘You look like you got hit by a car, buddy.’
We stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and I remember that we stopped there before. Lucy got out to stretch her legs and buy a soda from the vending machine, while I pumped the gas. She popped the cap with the machine’s bottle opener, drained it and spun the bottle in the gravel, watching it make four or five revolutions amid a little dust cloud. When the bottle had slowed to a halt and the dust had settled, she saw that the neck was pointing back where we’d come from. A disappointed look appeared on her face and she headed back to me.
The truck pulls into the gas station and we open its two doors simultaneously like flapping elephant ears. I climb down from one side, the trucker from the other, and just as Lucy had done, I stretch my stiff legs, kicking around at the ground as I wander over to the vending machine. When I look into the glass front I catch a brief, imaginary reflection of her face there, before I turn back to the truck, where the trucker is checking his rig.
Idly I watch a man fill the petrol tank of his car. I crouch down beside the front bumper and stroke my fingertips over chips of red paint scraped there after some prang. The owner at the pump looks at me, frowning, until I back away. I find Lucy’s glass bottle, still there in the dirt, pointing just where Lucy had left it. Back.
A kid on a bicycle is in front of me, staring. I stare right back, then lift my hand to my right eye, fumble with it for a second and hold out the fake to show the boy. He yelps and pedals away in terror.
‘Keep your eye on the road!’ I call out after him, and when he’s gone I put the glass eye back and look down at the bottle again.
The trucker mounts up and I hear the engine cough to life. Back on the road, I silently take out Lucy’s slide viewer, hold it up to the light and look through it, clicking the lever. My lips twitch into a faint, bitter smile and I lower the viewer and clench it in my fist as I did her glasses.
I remember looking over at her and smiling and I am wearing those John Lennon spectacles myself which give everything a vivid red tint. Lucy is bathed in lust red. She holds the viewer up for me to see before returning it to her own eye: a beautiful Mexican sunset over the ocean and a white sand beach. I smile some more. She lights up a cigarette with her brass Zippo lighter before she reaches across and takes the rose-tinted sunglasses from my eyes and puts them on herself. The dying, orange sun shines right into the windscreen, all dazzling bright white and flare.
The trucker holds a packet of cigarettes towards me, offering me one, and I think about it, even taking out the brass lighter. Eventually, I tell him, ‘I don’t smoke. She did.’
He shrugs, thinking maybe I am crazy after all.
In my hand, brought out from my pocket with the lighter, is the Doc’s newspaper cutting. As I read it, I think of his police photographs of mechanised death:
‘Blinded by the Sun: Road Trip Couple in Wreck, One Dead ... A police spokesman reported that the tourists’ vehicle left the road, ploughed down a steep bank and settled upside down, where the engine caught fire. The driver, who suffered facial injuries and has been hospitalised, crawled free of the wreckage, while the passenger—thought to be his fiancée—was killed instantly. Police refused to comment on suggestions that she had been found decapitated at the scene.’
I remember oil and blood dripping in the heat haze; Lucy’s blood-matted hair against a metal backdrop. I am in a Driver’s Ed film as I lie face down in the scrub, lifting my head slowly as it glistens with blood, my right eye gone. Its oozing, egg-like fluid gazes uselessly into the grass nearby and its unharmed twin sees Lucy’s TV-shaped slide viewer. My head drops back down and I am unconscious.
I hold the newspaper cutting out of a narrow opening in the passenger window. The paper flutters wildly in the wind, before I release it. The cutting vanishes immediately. The sun is low; the day’s time has come.
‘To hell with it...’