Category Archives: Short Story

short story: Straight Arrows

Straight Arrows

by Joel Howard

Patrick purposely steered his thoughts to those unrelated to his second job, yet the thrill of the kill was so strong that he couldn’t help but have his mind wander back to his moonlighting, the one thing that brought him joy. Being an assassin, it was thrilling, energizing beyond anything he could describe. The feeling of the knife as it sliced into the heart, or on occasion, when he went for an artery, it was ecstasy and sex and euphoria, and all kinds of good shit piled high and decadent like a hot fudge sundae.  There was a certain blood lust found in being a hunter, of being in complete charge, and he loved it. Such thoughts got him instantly hard, so he knew killing was some good shit, like a secret stash of primo porn.

Calling it his second job was accurate only in that it wasn’t what he showed to the world. His job of record was being a manager at a convenience store. That’s what he told people, and it was mostly true. He was actually an assistant manager, one with poor prospects of anything further up the ladder.

But who the hell wants to claim to be an assistant or otherwise, especially when your manager is a drip who collects vintage calculators and tapes a ‘word of the day’ on the employee bulletin board? A real vintage douche bag, that one is. God help me, he thought. And oh, all his bullshit advice about adjusting my attitude and being open to taking direction.

Fuck you, Mr. Manager, sir, but with all due respect, let me give you some direction. Patrick couldn’t count the number of times he’d wanted to say those exact words to the pimple-faced shit.

However, if the main criteria for a job’s ranking as first or second  –  or even third or fourth  –  is renumeration, then hands down it was the assassin gig that held title to being Patrick’s main job. And renumeration is not just pay, which was all cash and greatly appreciated, but the boost to Patrick’s sense of worth, of being a man and a good provider for his family. That should not, cannot, be discounted in this situation. And the blood lust aspect of it is more than worthy of mention here as well, the smell of what he thought of as rusty iron, like an old wheelbarrow left outside to the elements. Blood, he’d also discovered, had a texture unlike any other mere liquid, something he couldn’t quantify but, with its very touch, imbued him with a sense of righteous power and superiority.

In killing Patrick found purpose for his life, in essence using the person assassinated as fuel for his own existence. As the vampire needs blood for sustenance, Patrick was finding that he must do these killings or cease to be. This realization helped him to stop any real examination of the situation, not that there was much of that anyway. He certainly wasn’t one to spend much time on self-recrimination, such forays being fleeting and shallow.

“Patrick? Where are you?” The voice was high-pitched, carrying a sharpness of tone that hit the ears like winter’s first heavy pelting of sleet, snapping Patrick with whiplash insistence from his daydreaming. He often marveled at how Pam knew just when to lower the curtain on his enjoyment. She possessed an uncanny ability to quickly reel him back to the drudgery of his life, a yank of the marital leash of which he so wished to rid himself. Lately he’d thought of her as a bitter and malevolent vacuum set upon his life, sucking up any bits of fun.

“In here!”

“Where the hell d’ya think I am?”, he muttered to himself. “Trying to hide from you and the kids and the screaming and the commitments and the, oh fuck, the every-damn-thing. Yeah, that’s what I’m hiding from  –  every fucking thing in my life.”

Except the killing gig. Not that. Hell, never hiding from the assassination fun. A guys gotta have his own sweet niche. That last thought elicited a radiant smile. His cock twitched, twerked, seemingly giggling with glee. His soul was abuzz.

The garage was Patrick’s mancave of sorts. His old Camry and his wife’s even older Dodge Caravan were banished from the space, it now being a workout room and crash pad for Patrick and his friends. If he had any friends. His dad didn’t figure into it, his being a man with the charisma of a sodden dishrag, and their past wasn’t any too good, nothing the Hallmark Channel would want, sorry bastard. And his father-in-law sure as hell didn’t count. Always smiling like a leering loon, that man. And chuckling like he had a couple of loose ball bearings in his throat. Insufferable ass.

Fuck, he thought again, why’d I marry my mother? Shrieking shrews, needy, yet in the end, when confronted, both compliant to a point of maddening frustration. Twenty-nine years old. Thirty lurking just around the corner. Two daughters, both rowdy, mostly undisciplined, not very attractive. Sweet Jesus, this family life shit could go on for another 50 or 60 years before finding freedom. And then what? Death. That’s what.

She forgot to knock, or maybe just blew it off, as she thought of it still being simply the door to the garage. It serving as the portal to her husband’s private sanctuary hadn’t yet cemented itself in her mind. This was a fact that left Patrick annoyed to the point of anger, her lack of respect gnawing at him as a jackal at a carcass.  Really, how many times had he told her to knock? No respect What. So. Ever.

Patrick took note of her droll smile, as if the whole concept of a garage serving any purpose other than a place to park cars or as a repository of life’s castoffs was amusing. He saw the upward tilt of her thin-set lips as merely one more example of disrespect, of her mocking his manhood, his rightful place as head of the household. She didn’t realize, or didn’t care, that it was there in the garage man-cave that Patrick felt he was slowly exchanging hostility for confidence and virility.

“Honey, are you almost done out here in the garage? The girls are ready to go to soccer and you know you promised to take them today.”

What he wanted to say but was, he loathed to admit, too chickenshit to get out: “Have you cleaned the snot from their noses and put moderately clean clothes on them? Huh? Have you at least made them presentable? And by the fucking way, I made that promise under the duress of your nag-nag-nag-nagging.”

He never said the things he most wanted to say. Rebellion for Patrick was to buy the name brand of a product rather than the cheaper store brand, something Pam found frivolous and maddening. For the moment though, he offered his smiling wife (God, just like her father!) a succinct, patronizing “yes, dear” and waited for her to leave before pushing out ten more reps on the bench press.

Patrick, you stupid ass, he mused, what are you doing with your sorry life?

He rose and stretched, grabbing a hand towel to wipe the sweat from his brow. With a gait of reluctant acquiescence, he made his way to the shower. Once he stepped inside and let the warm spray fall across his chest, he fell into self-recrimination, the thought of his life as one of urgent disquiet crowding his emotions. But in mere seconds, he’d rocketed above that quagmire, and as in his mind’s eye the water turned to blood, hot and pulsing, moving him to happiness. Proudful thoughts of his role as an unheralded warrior, of serving as a worthy assassin guarding America and her values, brought him some measure of peace, and even a bit of hope.

The text alerting him to a new job  –  or House Cleaning, as the killings were discretely called  –  came as he was pulling his wife’s mini-van into the driveway. He parked and hustled the giddy girls (they’d won their respective soccer matches, each by a last-minute score) in to dinner and, sequestering himself in the garage, scrolled quickly to the app on his phone. Upon opening it he was greeted by a blinking red cursor, a blood-tinged beacon of opportunity to Patrick’s way of thinking. Hovering over the cursor he learned what vehicle would be supplied for the assignment: white Ford Fiesta. Good, he mused, a non-descript car that wouldn’t cause a second look from a nosy neighbor or do-good cop, as ubiquitous as a merge sign on a highway ramp.

He hadn’t any idea how widely spread the program was, yet felt certain some cops were in on the whole killing game, as the assassinations he carried out always went to cold case status –  quickly. Surely, he reasoned, not all cops were keen on assassinating every queer in the city, but enough held key positions to make the plan work. Sure, he’d heard that even some cops are as gay as a fucking candelabra, but they had to be one out of every hundred or more. Still, he knew queers were liable to turn up anyway nowadays, likely having designs on some poor schmuck who hadn’t a clue as to how things were.

His original contact via the dark web had asked of Patrick’s ‘preference for elimination’. Beyond the homos, there were other categories offered as targets  –  homeless people and Muslims and the foreigner-born and some Patrick had forgotten. The death toll for these people had risen dramatically as well.  All of this carnage, the elimination of people “less than”, it all must dwell on the wink and a nod of those in positions of power. Patrick’s mood soared when he thought of such things.

And the media played along as well, with sly hints  –  dog whistles  –  as to the possible dark skin and foreign extraction of those responsible, insidious little plugs that planted seeds of turmoil. Patrick marveled at so-called witnesses that alluded to culprits and motives that, in regards to his own killings, held no truth.

Patrick was an equal opportunity hater, for sure. So many undesirable groups of people, so little time to slaughter. But the queers most piqued his darkest desires. Just the thought of their death at his hand caused in him an erection, a solid slab of granite pulsing with bloodlust. Killing quieted the darkness within, even for a day or week, ably serving its purpose. Patrick saw no need to look elsewhere to resolve any issues he might have, as the role of assassin served him so well. Certainly, he knew there were other approaches to life’s problems, but none promised the fun of murder.

He dropped to the garage floor, quickly doing fifty push ups in a flurry of sweat, grunts, and pleasure.

His wife Pam had only once asked Patrick about the influx of funds, the bundles of cash appearing at their doorstep as if dropped by an angel. A blessing for sure, but one that naturally piqued her curiosity.

“Don’t worry about where it comes from, just be damned glad I’ve found a way to keep us afloat financially. Why must you question my successes? Be happy we’re almost caught up on all our overdue payments and leave it alone. Jesus, the house isn’t subject to being repossessed.” He’d claimed he was moonlighting as a security guard. With that he dismissed the topic with such finality as to banish it from further review. Her ideas about illegal arms and sex trafficking of minors  –  amongst other heinous possibilities  –  were to remain unvoiced, even though she’d never seen a guard’s uniform or known one to make much more than minimum wage.

After satisfying Pam’s curiosity, Patrick had returned to the garage, where he laid down on the bench press and tackled 15 heavy lifts. Finished, he lay still, musing momentarily on the ‘why’ of his hatred of gay people. Unlike some people he knew, there was nothing of pastors and pews, no bible beliefs, that spurred his feelings. Rather, his palpable loathing sprang from a dark past, one in which he saw hands that he sought as protection serving instead to upend his childhood with depravity. And as raging rainwaters can devour a mountainside, he thus lost his innocence in the elapsing of a second. From this deep well sprang Patrick’s darkest desires.

In his moonlighting, Patrick held a firm belief that he was doing right by society, as the men he killed were seducers, men who preyed on straight men and boys, confusing them before corrupting their bodies and souls. He could like a gay person, and certainly he had in the past been fond of gay acquaintances. But such fondness was just for that one person, who would stand then as an exception rather than a rule, thereby granting him the freedom to loathe and marginalize the rest of that community, particularly those whom he hunted. With such a rationalization, he could kill with no regret.

~

He looked the part of his prey: tight jeans and a revealing, snug polo shirt. He found the Fiesta parked where the app had indicated, and he smiled at its being white and nondescript. The license plates, as always, were stolen. He stepped a bit to one side so as to read the bumper sticker he spotted on the car’s rear: In God We Trust. He laughed, thinking that while that was all fine and well, knives and guns kept food on the table.

Availing himself once more of the app, he unlocked the car, finding the ignition key tucked in the door pocket as promised. So simple and easy it all was. The crowning detail was the gun in the glove compartment. They were always loaded and minus a serial number, ready for the work at hand, to be placed back in the compartment after use. Everything in its place.

It was comforting, though, knowing the gun was there if needed. But I’ll stick with my knife, he thought with unbridled glee. I can get right in the fucker’s face, savoring that moment when the final breath leaves him. That’s the best part. Take that, faggot.

Sometimes Patrick would take the time to handle the gun, caressing it as one would a kitten, purring and mewling over it in loving sympathies. He’d never owned guns, but found he was adept at their use and respectful of their intrinsic power, their being a sort of muscle that flexed in final judgement. Patrick and the gun, each providing cause to tread cautiously and respectfully, lest their full fury be unleashed upon anyone foolish enough to question their might.

“I’ll see you later, baby,” he said softly, gently placing the pistol back in the glove compartment. This process of cooing admiration lasted only a few minutes, but invariably an excited Patrick had to take several deep breaths to collect himself, and as usual was forced to adjust his cock, the painful erection too much to bear otherwise.

As was his custom, he eyed his face in the rear-view mirror. Pleased with what he saw, he exited the car, locked it, and stepped to the sidewalk. He’d previously driven the almost three miles from where he’d retrieved the car, finding a small spot along a crowded street in which to maneuver the Ford. He then began the two-block walk to his destination, and what he hoped would be the blood thrill of a deadly, even exotic, night – and the ensuing payment for a job well done.

Whoa there, big fella, he chuckled, again adjusting his erection to a more comfortable –  and obvious  –  position. You’ll get to the fun soon enough. Oh my, yes, fun it’ll be, my friend.

As he walked at a leisurely pace, he whistled a tune, Red Sails, a favorite of his grandfather, before using the time alone to reflect upon the joy he’d found in his assignments. The photos he took for proof of a completed kill were originally just that – an integral part of the job. As a lawyer provides a legal brief and a doctor gives a diagnosis, an assassin is required to provide evidence of a project completed as promised. After every kill, the photos went to an email address, one that changed with each assignment. Then, within twenty-four hours, and as if by sorcery, the plain manila envelope would appear at the side door of Patrick and Pam’s house, tucked inside the screen by a person always unseen  –   $5,000 cash. Just payment for a just mission, Patrick thought.

He seized on the heady flight of the moment to relive his last assignment, the utter joy it brought to his life. Tony, tall and dark and brooding. Tony who chose him over all the other men in the bar that night. Upon Glen’s blood and last breathe it rocketed red within Patrick’s mind. That Patrick was able to so easily nab Tony when other men were ogling him with overt desire imbued Patrick with a sense of, if not belonging, then at least appreciation, reinforcing his confused and fragile take on reality.

It was Tony’s death which provided the biggest thrill so far. Patrick found himself deeply immersed in the project. It was the first time he’d ever ejaculated without touching himself, and it was a knee-bending, mind-flooding orgasm he’d been unable to forget. Propelled by a language of deep emotional release, it was the first stab ripping Tony’s heart that cemented his connection to that particular man. The gasp emitted by his beautiful prey’s body, Tony’s lips holding the word “why” before back-forth-up-down the knife seemed self-propelled, eviscerating Tony’s existence. And in the eyes of that man he saw as he fell silent to an irretrievable abyss, causing Patrick’s own heart to lurch in ecstasy. It was at that moment when their eyes were mere inches apart, and the smile on Patrick’s face was set to be the last image the man saw before succumbing to Patrick’s power, that Patrick felt invincible. The manic highs of that evening started the tradition of leaving the job with a memento beyond mere photographs. In Tony’s case, it was his driver’s license, a token whose edges were as defined as his recollections of that evening.

Afterward, just touching the license, or even having it on his person, would imbue Patrick with the power of a conquering hero. Often the minute details of the evening would come back in a rush of heady glory, cascading in rapturous detail, causing his cock to stand harder than he’d ever known, a granite obelisk of decency and rightfulness. Harking back to Tony’s pleading eyes and gasps of “why? why?” would ring a sweet melody in his ears, as did Patrick’s answer to Tony, hissed in a mix of anger and triumph.

“Because you are filthy.”

After his first kill, the thrill was so great that in his unchecked euphoria he deleted the beautiful murder images from his phone as soon as he got his payment. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that he regretted not having the pictures available. To relive the thrill, he realized, was its own reward, as satisfying as a cold beer on a hot day. He thought of the photos as a bonus for a job well done, a perk like free parking or casual Fridays’ at the office.  Sure as hell better than a ‘Word of the Day” posted on the employee bulletin board.

~

His venue that evening was Lucky’s, a gay bar he’d been to just twice, the last time being almost five months back. He rotated his appearance at the various clubs, mindful that the metropolis of over ten million people provided many killing fields while also aiding him in keeping as low a profile as possible. As a good hunter, he strived to remain camouflaged, his face unseen or at least unfamiliar.

Noise cascaded a greeting to Patrick upon his opening the bar’s door, swallowing him as much as the crowd itself. The thump-thump of music and the revelry of testosterone commanded his attention. Such a foreign place these bars were for him, even after having stalked seven men in Lucky’s or bars just like it. Each was a kaleidoscope of smells and noises and even sights (though he found many of the men to be interchangeable) that assaulted his emotions and his sense of right versus wrong. Tonight, for the first time, Patrick had a niggling sense of comfort in the bar, almost a feeling of belonging, a long-held breath finally set free. He assuaged any repellant feelings by reminding himself that yes, he belonged there in a gay bar, but merely as a man on a specified mission, a righteous hunter. His job was here. In his mind, he saw a listing of the job’s requirements, at the top, a heading: Killing the Fags.

He scanned the room as he made his way along the far wall, the outer perimeter offering the best vantage point for locating a suitable victim, like a deer blind helps the hunter bring down his prey. He’d over his time as a Lacer become much more comfortable in such bars as Lucky’s, yet he remained alert at all times, following his own established protocol for the task at hand. His face he kept mostly obscured in the dark recesses of the bar. With purpose he sought a loner, someone not of a crowd; less people to remember the man who may or may not have left with the man who later turned up dead. Finally, he’d chosen an alias. His name for the evening: Vic.

As was his custom, Patrick made his way to an area of the bar that appeared to have the shortest queue. He always started the evening with a tonic and lime, the appearance of what looked like a cocktail in his hand as much a prop as the tight clothing and his ogling eyes. Once he’d been served, he returned quickly to the darkness of the back wall, this time near the men’s room. Seeing someone teetering on his feet and getting them alone was the ideal situation, one that held the greatest promise of success. If he could be in and out in under an hour, then he could make it an early evening.

A blonde man, weaving as if he was careening down a mountain road, immediately captured Patrick’s attention. While he’d hardly had time to start nursing on his tonic, Patrick felt happy at the prospect of it being an early night, yet he also sensed with such brightness a small pain of loss, as if he’d be missing out on some unidentifiable something if the evening were to be cut short. The latter thought depressed him momentarily, robbing him of the vision of his being a conquering hero and reminding him of the drudgery of his other existence. Being out among life, even with queers, at least made for a diversion, transporting him for a short time from the realization his other life had devolved into a place mired in frustration, one where a sense of inadequacy kept him from being his best.

Blondie was now just a few feet from Patrick, almost to the men’s room door. Patrick often stood near the restrooms, using it as a prime location in which to evaluate potential prey. One second of their eyes’ meeting, followed by a fast smile, and Patrick knew he’d made the crucial inroad to possible conversation. The man reached out to the door just as it suddenly sprang open from the other side. He stumbled into the men’s room, and likely would have gone down to the floor but for the man exiting catching his arm and steadying him.

After he disappeared behind the closed door, Patrick chuckled aloud, and added softly. “Stupid faggot. But I think you’ll be my faggot for tonight. All mine.”

~

Upon exiting the restroom, Blondie seemed refreshed, and his steps suggested he’d regained some stability. As he glanced up, Patrick immediately coughed down into his hand while keeping his eyes aimed steadily at Blondie. It worked exactly as Patrick predicted; just for a second their eyes locked. That moment was all that was needed.

“I guess you saw that stumble earlier,” Blondie said. He’d cast his head slightly downward, sending his words directly to the floor where they were mostly swallowed by the club’s raucous beat.

“Yeah, but who hasn’t done the same thing, right? Least ways you didn’t fall flat, huh?”

Yeah, well, there is at least that.” Blondie offered his hand to Patrick. “I’m Glen.”

“Victor. Or just Vic. Nice to meet you.”  As always, the pseudonym fell with practiced ease from his lips. He’d been Troy and Marty and Mike before, along with other names, each chosen in advance. He’d then repeat them to himself over and over in his mind so as to be familiar with them.

Maybe, he thought, I shoulda been an actor, evoking a smile that served to further seduce Glen. Yes, everything is clicking right into place.

Glen’s hand was management smooth, his days no doubt spent shuffling papers or ordering people about. The man didn’t stock shelves and clean coolers at a convenience store, mused Patrick. It was off-putting to him, yet Glen’s smile and his deep blue eyes made for a warm presence, leading Patrick to be forgiving of something so simple, going so far as to silently chastise himself for such feeble bigotry.

“I’m new here. I mean, in every way, like the whole, well, gay life. I found myself drinking three stiff drinks in short order. Stupid, right?”

“I don’t much come around here myself.” Patrick offered as an answer, keeping his focus on Glen’s eyes rather than tuning into his prey’s words.

“And I’ve just moved to town,” Glen continued, as much unfazed as he was unaware of Patrick’s not hearing him. “Plus, I’ve only been going to these kinds of bars for a few months. Back in Denver I went out like four times, maybe five, total.

Glenn fumbled with his words as one does a recalcitrant zipper. “Okay, like seven or eight times. Still, it’s all new to me, like I said.”

Patrick’s attention then snapped into line, his confidence soaring at learning Glen was new to the area. An unfamiliar face meant the locals likely hadn’t any connection to him; an animal separated from his herd. And new to being out as gay, well, that, Patrick thought, is just gravy on the turkey.

Slipping from the bar unnoticed, they initially stood in silence near the curb, the awkwardness wrapped as a tight cocoon around each of them. This was as much a part of Patrick’s plan as his tight-fitting clothes, and was followed by conversation inconsequential in meaning but vital in closing the deal that Patrick had carefully cultivated. Patrick suggested he follow Glen to his place  –  temporary housing provided by his new employer  –  before Glen could propose Patrick’s place as a better choice.

Patrick eyed Glen. Up and down his gaze traveled. Reel the fucker in, right? “You were the best-looking man in there, Glen. I mean it, hands down the best-looking.”

Glen blushed, looking to the pavement in his second moment of embarrassment in under one hour.

“Hey, Glen, look at me. Yeah, there. Now smile!” Patrick snapped a picture of Glen, catching him just as his face came up even with Patrick. The result was a rather stunning photo of a man who was naturally photogenic. Patrick’s gaze lingered on the screen before turning it toward Glen. It had occurred to Patrick that a photo as he now stood would be the perfect souvenir to complement the death photo. A sort of before and after set, much like those weight-loss ads one sees, only Patrick’s comparison would show a loss of blood – and then life. And seeing Glen’s square jaw, his dimples, the searing blue of his liquid eyes, Patrick was glad they would be forever immortalized in these final photos of his life.

Glen looked momentarily perturbed, yet he couldn’t help melt as Patrick, his smile so well-steeped in faux sincerity, seemed so genuinely enamored with him. “But why’d you take that?”

“Don’t worry! Wouldn’t want that beautiful face to get wrinkles. I won’t post it online anywhere. I just want a memento, something to remind myself of how handsome you are, a way to be sure I wasn’t imagining this whole evening.” With those words Glen appeared both placated and flattered, which worked in tandem to send Patrick’s confidence further skyward. His first evening back on the hunt in several weeks could not have been going any better. It served as reassurance that he still had what it took to go on the prowl. Yet he also sensed a shift, a change in his position as being just a player in a deadly production and more of a participant in an alternate life. Was this, he wondered, more than just theater? Glen was acting as a segue in an experience that for Patrick seemed suddenly almost uncontrollable, as if the managing of his emotions had been violently torn from his sense of comfort and control.

“You’re too flattering, Vic.” As Glen spoke, it was Patrick who reached out to take Glen’s hand, a gesture as gentle as it was casual, even natural. The softness of Glen’s palm and fingers suddenly seemed far from repulsive, and Patrick let his fingers slightly curl to the shape of Glen’s hand. The evening, Patrick felt, mired as it was in an oddly intense sensuality, was nevertheless heading in the right direction, his prey tumbling into the lust-fueled web of his own demise.

When they reached Glen’s small apartment, he reminded Patrick of the place’s role as a temporary shelter, devoid of personal pieces and mostly utilitarian. He was keen on telling Patrick he’d already made an offer on a home in an older, eclectic part of town, and that it would be a different experience than what now awaited Patrick’s eyes. Patrick had never before even thought of there ever being a second meeting with one of his victims. A person only visits a corpse in the confines of a funeral home.

Once inside, it was Glen who greedily pushed himself against Patrick, forcing the latter against the wall. He willed his body to become one with this man he’d known not even two hours. Patrick did not rebuff Glen’s move, allowing his tongue to dance with Glen’s. Each could not ignore the hardness of the other, so rigid and ready were they both.

Glen was able to maneuver Patrick to the bedroom, the latter’s resistance having dissipated to a point of inconsequence. They were soon on the bed, their clothes flying in frenzied arcs across the room and onto the floor, creating a hopscotch pattern of cotton and lust across the neutrality of the beige carpet.

~

The unmistakable smell of blood greeted the two officers who first entered the apartment on a “wellness check” on behalf of a local company. Their employee had not shown up for work and was unreachable, which probably meant nothing much as mostly happened in such instances. But upon opening the door, the two men were greeted with the scent of blood-letting, of outrageous violence done to man. The younger cop coughed into his arm, while the older one set his face in a stern pose of duty. It was to him that fell the task of assessing and securing, and he was a man of no nonsense in such situations.

Well shit, he thought, we’ll not be going off duty anytime soon. He’d planned on dinner out with his girlfriend, one of three he was then juggling. With a heavy sigh, he accepted the reality that he’d simply have to juggle a little higher, a little faster.

As they neared the closed door of the apartment’s sole bedroom, the odor intensified, wafting in insistent waves of impending horror. As the senior officer opened the door, his nose twitched in a final act of futile defiance. A scene of brutality greeted them, forcing the rookie cop to turn back as his stomach heaved in distress. His partner took it all in: a naked man on the bed, the deep crimson of his blood soaking the bed linens to a point of saturation. Blood painted its story across the four walls. Looking up, he saw dark stains there as well, noting that not even the ceiling fan was spared the grotesque mark of death. Blood was the theme of the room, as if dabbled about by a decorator intent on tying the room’s elements together by the rich red of death in a chaotic theme of murder.

Multiple stab wounds were evident even at a distance, creating an abstract drawing of unspoken anger and seething hatred, a connect-the-dots diagram of destruction. The older cop radioed for a detective and crime scene technicians, describing the scene in clipped words that managed to convey the atrocity in bullet point efficiency.  Then, having retrieved his partner, they walked back to the bright pleasantries of the sun-soaked day.

~

Had it only been a few hours since he’d rocketed to a sexual high unlike anything he’d ever before experienced? Hell, a high like nothing he’d ever dreamt possible, that’s more to the heart of it. But once on the careening downside of such euphoria, when he landed in his own peculiar reality, Patrick found himself mired in a place so foreboding as to frighten him to his very core. This pendulum, having swung so far and tall in one direction, must  –  minus some intervention at man’s hand  –  then swing violently in reverse, demanding its due and attaining emotional elevations of an opposite nature. So dark was his existence in those few moments, that escape had seemed too fantastical a hope. He stood at such moments as a series of highly combustible nesting dolls, one hidden inside the next, each one the possible accelerant that would send man and emotions skyward.

Glancing down, he saw the caked blood, his and Glen’s, congealing as one rich palette. To the right, in the passenger seat, lay the knife. It too gave evidence of his recent handiwork. The Fiesta now sat behind a row of rundown shops, a strip mall of a low caste. To his left stood a dumpster, the lid yawning in a rightward tilt of nonchalance. He’d no memory of driving from Glen’s apartment, yet he could vividly see the bloodletting that had occurred there.

It was at the apartment where his knife had arced in a half circle, up and down, over and over, that he’d realized that at some recent point he’d ejaculated. Whether it occurred as he first plunged the blade into Glen, or seconds earlier when the handsome blond had wrapped his hand around his erection, he could not be certain. Such a distinction, in his mind, would not matter. He had had an orgasm, and it should never have happened, wouldn’t have happened, he knew, except for a faggot like Glenn plying such sickness, seeking to pervert good men like Patrick. All of it, the rage and the frenzied plunges of the knife, during those bloody seconds became like skiing on the steepest mogul, everything rocketing past in a lascivious blur of panic and desperation, anger and righteousness.

When the knife, slick with destruction, slipped, the resulting cut on Patrick’s hand was deep and to the bone. His blood then poured to mingle with that of Glenn’s, seemingly turning the pools an impossibly deep shade of red. Rather than retreat, the physical pain served as a catalyst to his wrath, stoking his voracious appetite for revenge of past wrongs.

From not being recognized as of higher intellect than most everyone else, to harms of a physical and emotional variety, he was awash in pain, finding release via the mutilation of flesh that lay below him.

How could so many memories come back at once, all in the seconds he spent butchering the beautiful man lying beneath him? Surely, they should all pile upon each other, only one visible at any given moment. Yet it seemed to Patrick they were all running upon parallel paths, emotional synapses like streaks of simultaneous lightning. It served to keep the memories in the moment with extreme clarity.

Never before  –  certainly not at his job with the convenience store  –  had he been in such a position to prove his worth as a man. In his role as an assassin, his latent talents were brought to the surface. He was an artist with death as his medium, splattering blood across a blank canvas. True, only the police and coroner would bear witness to these talents, yet he could think of no other persons more qualified to rate his work. It all served to give confidence and a deep sense of superiority to a man who’d always known he was better. He had always scoffed at others, laughed at their stupidity, and now he knew he was indeed above them on the ladder of evolution. Plus, he had purpose, and he thrilled at the thought of a new assignment landing on his phone at any time.

He’d found his calling, rejoicing at the realization that Life’s elixir resided on the honed edge of his hunting knife. The brutal efficiency of blood-letting had brought to the surface his latent proficiencies.

As to his immediate task, Patrick again plunged the knife into Glenn’s flesh, realizing that his skills had left the man’s torso thoroughly soaked in blood, a tidal basin in red. His senses inundated with death, more memories tumbled forward, even as he willed them to cease, causing his mind to reel further, tumbling backward with the ease of a seasoned gymnast. At that moment, as the red-dripped blade continued its arcing purpose, his thoughts froze in those years in his youth where hell visited him often.

It was his father’s boss that proved to be the cause of immense pain for Patrick. Once his mother had abandoned them, suddenly this large-eyed man of a thousand hands, the person who held sway over his father’s job, appeared in their home. And his interest was Patrick. In moments of clarity, when brutal honesty ruled his senses, he knew it was that man who served as the original catalyst for his hatred, the purveyor of guilt and its ensuing rage. Yet, as an adult, he’d shied away from too close an analysis of the situation, fearful that such an undertaking might lead him to some less thrilling means of dealing with the past. Besides, the very thought of seeing a therapist repulsed him. Instead, he relied on those years of abuse, of those hands forcing themselves on his body, of having a tongue forced deep into his young mouth, to serve as the lustful fuel that sent him out on his nights of murderous joy.

The next plunge of the knife severed Glen’s left ear, the force flinging it back where it landed on Patrick’s shoulder before quickly falling to the pools of red that surrounded Patrick’s life. In Glen’s death, he’d not yet managed to traverse the years into his past to where the hungry dragon lived and taunted, leaving him unfulfilled.

Sitting there in the Fiesta, he saw his reflection in the rearview mirror. Instead of admiring his handsome features, the deep blue of his eyes, he saw that dragon, mouth open, luring him to crawl upon the jagged red of its fangs. His home resided there. It was then, with the practiced ease of one who’s slain so many devils, that he retrieved the knife next to him and plunged it deep into the side of his neck.

~

Pam hadn’t worried at Patrick’s overnight absence. For several days previous she had been able to sleep through the night, awaken mostly refreshed in the morning, and other than a brief spate of concern, go about her normal routine without the pervasive sense of overwhelming sadness and dread. The kids kept her busy for sure, so worrying had become a luxury rather than a certainty, nevertheless, not working herself into frenzied knots of worry over Patrick’s recent oddities and changes was a milestone. In this she felt a sense of pride, of hope.

With uncommon energy she hustled the girls out through the side door, only to come across a familiar site: an unmarked envelope. Upon picking it up, she realized there were actually two separate envelopes, each identical down to the single strip of strapping tape that securely sealed their flaps. Beyond recognizing the color and size, the heft signaled to Pam that each held an identical sum of money. She quickly peeked into each one, counting out fifty, one-hundred dollar bills in each.

“Mom, come on! We’ll be late!” The girls were already securely buckled in the van’s middle seat, an eagerness to get out into the day etched upon their faces.

“Yes, yes, coming.”

As Pam climbed behind the steering wheel, she tucked the two envelops and the sense of freedom they conveyed into her purse.

~

Two days had passed since Pam had retrieved ten thousand dollars from the side door of her home, and having eventually become frantic at Patrick’s long absence, a shopkeeper had exited the rear door of his business to place two trash bags in the dumpster that served the small strip mall. Near the bin he took note of a small white car, parked awkwardly in the high grass. Curious as to why a car would be left in such a place for two days, he walked toward it. His nerves tightened as his imagination raced to the pages of one of the dark who-done-its he devoured one after another, his mind creating images his becoming embroiled in some horrendous crime. And upon seeing red splotches on the driver’s window, he faltered, realizing such musings may be coming to reality. Going just two steps further, he was able to peer just into the driver’s door. What he saw there sent running him back inside where he’d left his cell phone.

A body, a gun, and death greeted the lone officer who first arrived upon this scene. It looked to be just another suicide. There was, however, the driver’s license found in the passenger seat to be considered. Peering through the window, he saw it didn’t belong to the dead man, the responding officer called it in as well. Glen Edward Hansen was a name not yet hitting the airwaves, his bloody remains still sequestered alone in a small apartment decorated in redness. The photo on the license depicted a square-jawed blond with a cleft chin, blue eyes, and a beaming smile. A handsome man with confidence and aspirations, perhaps even privilege, that was the man the cop saw there.

Finally, a cell phone caught the officer’s eye as it peered at him from the passenger floorboard. Later, a detective would retrieve it, and in doing so the screen refreshed itself, life amongst the death of the car’s interior. A single sentence greeted his eyes.

“So many devils.”

Leverage

Leverage 

by Joel Howard

 

Hypoplastic. Left. Heart. Syndrome.

The words clung in some measure to Tim’s every thought, weighting life’s every turn with its dark aura. He held himself hostage, the angst fed by guilt and self-doubt serving as an implacable warden. The realization that he himself held the keys to his emotional freedom – or at least a one-day pass –  was itself another ill-fitting burden.

Born prematurely, each day for his daughter was a struggle, every elapsed second presenting itself as another opportunity for death to announce an end to six-month-old Faith’s life. As his emotions paced in feverish anguish, the young father sensed the world was openly mocking his ability to cope on any level  –  financially, emotionally, or physically. Worry and despair had settled into his existence as unwanted guests, both giving no indication of leaving anytime soon.

The heart transplant Faith had required had been completed, and she had so far not rejected the new organ. Yet every aspect of the disease  –  the surgeries, the tests, the uncertainty,  everything –  continued to wrestle ownership of his thoughts and emotions, as much a part of him as the sinew connecting bone to muscle. In time, he’d grown to feel that even the tiniest moment of joy  –  even emotional calm  –  on his part would be a betrayal of his daughter, that it could somehow cause her death. All things in his life stood on a dark, lonely precipice. He saw in that inky abyss below a future of certain doom, but for him or his daughter – even his entire family  –  he was not sure.

Upon his arrival to work one morning, Tim was handed a sealed envelope inscribed with the company logo, his manager having simply said ‘this is for you’. He’d been smiling as he handed it over, causing in Tim a rise of that turmoil that centered itself safely in his gut. Was this to be the day he was given the heave-ho, the company tired of his many absences from work? And yet, any ill feelings quickly abated when thoughts of freedom overcame him. No more drudgery under the filthy chassis of Buicks and Nissans. The pervasive stench of grease, belching mufflers, the hissing sounds of the machines at the oil change facility  –  all gone. And just like that, that glimmer of blue had him silently berating himself, ruing his brief release of pain.

He’d lately fallen into fits of self-recrimination, as countless people had reminded him that he should be thankful for having a job, especially one with such handsome benefits. Such comments had an ill effect on Tim, as it reflected back to him the scepter of himself as a cold, unfeeling bastard, a man so shallow as to be unable to give thanks for such things. The health insurance alone was generous in scope, and his co-workers and the company itself had been more than supportive. It left Tim filled with self-loathing. The support had become its own burden, as heavy as it was debilitating. None of it made Faith better. None of it released her or his family from the enormous weight of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

With his manager’s eyes following him, Tim carefully tore the envelope open, treating the whole exercise as one of delicate, exploratory surgery. His finesse in opening the flap and extracting the enclosed single page stood out of place amongst the garage’s ambience of petroleum and tires, fluids and batteries.

The letter, from the company’s human resources department, informed Tim he was being given an additional four weeks of paid vacation, adding that the additional time off was available due to the generosity of employees giving from their own accrued vacation time. These co-workers, it added, came from every division and location of the company, and all wished to remain anonymous.

Tim had, during times of distress, begun to have something akin to out-of-body experiences. At that moment, his entire field of vision was overwhelmed with a kaleidoscope of bright colors, almost neon in their intensity, each dazzling in luminous shards, as if a beam of a nearby sun stood off to the side. He shook his head, and the colors left, leaving him to imagine them lying all about the manager’s office.

Anonymous generosity, Tim had learned, can be its own form of bother. Certainly, he believed in charity, yet the overabundance he’d received had made him feel inadequacies he might otherwise never have been forced to confront. He saw himself as a grifter, a street corner bum with his hand constantly held out.

Tim could sense his bosses’ continued stare and for that reason did not look up. He refolded the letter and neatly placed it back in the envelope before repositioning the flap to its original place, suturing the surgical site with precision. It appeared as if the envelope remained unopened.

“Pretty nice of those people to give up their vacation days for you, huh Tim?”

Tim muttered a slight “yes” and then shuffled his life’s burden to his station, where he then hid the letter in a lower drawer beneath an array of adjustable wrenches. He concentrated on avoiding others, as he couldn’t know to whom he was indebted, who may have been a donor of their own vacation time. It seemed to him as if the whole of the world knew of his personal problems, forcing him to dwell in the long shadows cast by others’ uninvited benevolence.

Tim had once dreamt of a career as a graphic artist. Drawing and sketching had been his one salvation. He’d investigated various art schools, hoping to achieve a different life than he’d thus far known. Art was to be his means of escape, a way to step into a future rid of his small hometown and what he saw as pervasive mediocrity. Pencil and paper were to craft a magical transport that would whisk him to untold bliss, his wife Lauren at his side.

His recent drawings of Faith were taped to the brick wall along the side of his work bay, many of them depicting her in bed anchored with a myriad of spidery tubes and fierce illness. All were in black and white, seeming to pose a symbolic struggle between evil and good. These sketches, unlike his others, were done so that they depicted every item in sharp relief –  except for Faith. His daughter was drawn completely penciled in, with rounded shades of gray that undulated across the paper as if to imbue the tiny girl with a robust and permanent energy. In having the drawings close to him all day, Tim brought the reality of his family’s heartache to work with him, such normalcy in the darkness they depicted oddly comforting.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

 

Just before noon Tuesday, an employee from home office came in to replace the safety lever that operated the lift in Tim’s bay. The state mandated that the lever be replaced annually, as well as the electrical relay inside the control box. The system was then thoroughly checked and the process documented. The lever required constant pressure, either up or down, to operate the lift. Tim watched idly as the man did his job, a line of cars forming outside the adjoining bay.

“Name’s Jon Campbell,” the man said. The man’s idle chatter seemingly had no end. Tim had seen Jon’s name stitched on the breast pocket of his work shirt, and now just stared at the man’s hands as he deftly disassembled the control box and went about his work. At one point, Jon looked up at Tim and smiled, now taking notice of the name stitched on Tim’s work shirt.

“Tim? You by any chance the Tim who’s got the sick baby?” Before he received an answer, Jon averted his eyes back to his task at hand, the question he’d posed suddenly seeming to him as an invasion into a stranger’s heart. He didn’t see the look of irritation on Tim’s face. Silence enveloped them both before Jon again spoke.

“Guess not, huh? I just knew there was a Tim something-or-other that was having a tough go of it with his new baby. Brannigan or something like that.”

“Branford.”

“How’s that?” Jon stopped his work and looked up at Tim..

“Branford. The last name is Branford. And yeah, that’s me. I mean, it’s my little girl who’s been sick.”

Jon stood stiff and tall, as if the occasion deserved a measure of respect given a trial judge. Surprise was writ large in his wide, hazel eyes as he carefully put his test light aside. “Oh man, well, I’m sorry. I mean, it ain’t right a young kid being sick like that. Bad enough for anybody to be sick like that, but a little baby. No, it just ain’t right.”

Tim responded with a tepid smile.

“I know it’s tough. Must be,” Jon said, scratching at the thick stubble on his throat. “And I know them days off you’ve been getting from everyone’s gotta be a big help to you. I’d have given some but I got four kids and a wife who rides me close. If I’d of given my vacation time to you she’d have squawked to high heaven, not that she’s mean-hearted or nothing. It’s just, well, as it is, I ain’t got enough days to satisfy the kids softball and camps and going to see my damned in-laws half way across the country. If I coulda, I woulda give you a day or two. But I just…”

“Don’t apologize. I know it’s hard out there and all.” Both men stared at the cement floor, finding there a disinterested place from which the awkward moment could pass.

“Sure, sure.” Jon bent again to work on the safety lever.” I just wanted you to know and all, we’re all pulling for you. Sad thing your little girl is going through. All the way around, just terrible.”

Tim watched in silence as Jon finished his task. The man hurried, quickly replacing the last of the screws securing the cover to the panel. So fast was he that Tim was left wondering if he actually got everything inside the control box back to its proper place. Jon smiled toward Tim. “I’ll keep your family in my prayers.”

Silence again enveloped them, hanging about as a sad and desperate fixture.

“You know, my mom wanted to name me Jonathan.” Jon at last broke the quiet, fighting the awkward feelings that yet held him as he simultaneously packed his tools away. He stopped to wipe non-existent sweat from his brow. “My dad sad it was too hoity-toity, that John was more to their station in life, plus it was his dad’s middle name. So what’d mom do? She said okay, but made it ‘J-O-N’, leaving the ‘h’ out. Dad always sad it was a dig at his not wanting ‘Jonathan’, that she was mad and wanted to one-up him. Funny how things that’ll directly affect your life happen before you’re even born.”

To Tim’s ears Jon’s words then became mere babble, Jon’s goodbye and kind wishes lost to Tim. For a moment, Tim was awash in pain, despair lapping at his frayed edges, flooding his soul with recriminations. His thoughts had given completely over to Faith and Lauren, hoping that today was a day of positive progress for his daughter. The time apart was always excruciating, leaving him to worry about his daughter’s condition on a minute by minute basis.

 

>  >  >  >  >  >

 

Hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

They had been told it was genetic, and that the disease was most often passed down paternally. Surgery was vital to her survival. Little Faith, born five weeks early, was so tiny that Tim had thought it impossible for any operation to be performed. She’ll splinter into a million pieces, he’d told Lauren.

“We perform surgery on lab rats, and they’re smaller than your baby.” The doctor’s words of attempted comfort had not set well with Tim. True, the baby was tiny and wrinkled, wizened much as his and Lauren’s youthful dreams now appeared in the face of their daughter’s troubles. Yet the one thing Tim always noted above all else when looking at her was the valiant struggle she waged, unabated, unyielding.

Lauren had quit her job as a cashier at Food Giant, the demands of their daughter’s illness having necessitated it. Tim was their sole source of income, already spent years into the future from what Tim could figure. Yet it didn’t take a calculator to see that the family had fallen into an inky-red abyss, their future stained with crushing debt.

Just nineteen years old at Faith’s birth, Tim and Lauren had been ill-prepared for parenthood. They’d had a future planned: college, marriage, a house  –  and then a family, an orderly progression along well-placed stepping stones. The pregnancy had upended things, and with Faith’s birth, any plans they’d made were shattered, scattering bits of dreams as the fine hairs of a windblown dandelion.

“If only I could switch places with her.” This was Lauren’s constant lament. Tim never thought such a thing, sometimes thinking instead that it’d be nice if he were just gone, a blank space, his physicality disappearing like steam brushed aside from a boiling pot.  Such a wish was at least realistic, he thought, whereas his wife’s idea of trading one life for another was nothing but foolish dreaming.

Tim soon availed himself of two of the donated vacation days. Faith was to have a series of tests to be certain the transplanted heart was functioning properly. Through the ordeal of waiting for one test and then another, hoping for positive news, he felt continued pangs of guilt as regarded his coworkers’ generosity. There was scant space for these feelings, but that made them all the more powerful, sandwiched as they were between all of the other emotions swirling helter-skelter in and about him. These feelings of guilt stood ever tall, becoming the ominously dark cloud among whatever perilously frail pieces of blue sky that might be found. No matter how much he willed these sensations to leave, guilt demanded its due.

After this latest round of tests  –  which provided mostly positive results  –  Tim felt more lost, more ineffectual than he’d previously experienced. Joy had become a taunting mistress, always threatening her pendulumlike swing to the darkness of bad news and its inherent sadness . The costs of the tests and co-pays loomed ever larger as the number of procedures increased, and no amount of donated vacation days or medical benefits could scour away such a looming truth. Life’s ills slurred together as one diabolical albatross whose weight Tim could not offload, not even for one moment of tranquility.

 

  • >   >   >   >   >

The baby’s sputtered breathing set off the alarm that blared less than two feet from Lauren’s ear. It was just after 2 a.m., and the alarm sent she and Tim racing into Faith’s tiny, pink bedroom. Their blood coursed in throbbing anxiety as, in the overhead light, they saw Faith struggling. Her every breath was erratic, her tiny chest spasming in fits of up and down motion.

Having grabbed her mobile phone from her nightstand (she’d been presented with this emergency twice before), Faith dialed 9-1-1. Words stumbled fitfully from her mouth: baby, heart, God, breathing, hurry, alarms, hurry, help, fast, God. And more than once: hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The operator knew the address and the situation from history, and she dispatched help before Lauren had spoken but a few words.

As they awaited the paramedics, with time teasing and taunting them, Tim and Lauren each , two traced their fingers across their daughter’s brow, the baby’s labored breathing seeming to calm ever so slightly.

 

<  <  <  <  <  <  <  <

 

Faith had been stabilized, yet to Tim’s weary ears the doctor’s words hadn’t the same sense of hope as times past. Lauren, however, seemed to accept the doctors’ words of encouragement, but perhaps, Tim thought, she chose to believe because the alternative was simply too much to bear. For him, second guessing  – Faith’s condition, his abilities to provide, life’s purpose  – had become a sport, his own Russian roulette.

Tim had initially taken two additional days off. At Lauren’s pleading, he agreed to take a third day. Fatigue had wracked their minds and bodies, leaving them to lean heavily one upon the other to remain upright in facing the situation, two trees felled in a storm. It was midday into the third day that Tim stepped out to call the garage and update them on Faith’s condition. Lauren followed him, intertwining her hand with his as they went to the hospital’s central courtyard, resting in the open air, the sunlight scissoring through high branches of the potted trees.

The call was never to be placed. As they settled their weariness one against the other on a wooden bench, the door they’d just passed through again opened. Tim sensed someone having come up behind them, a shadow trespassing upon their agony.

“Sorry to bother you. How’s your daughter doing? Better, I hope.”

Tim and Lauren’s faces were awash in surprise, their eyebrows arched and their mouths agape. They’d never expected to see Tim’s boss’ boss, Mr. Jensen  –  the man who managed the state’s 29 locations. Unease quickly settled upon the parents, fearing this as the moment of Tim’s termination. They were mindless of the public relations nightmare such an action would create for the company.

“Is she holding her own?”

The first two times Tim opened his mouth, a tired, dry croak came from deep within. On the third try, coherency took a frail grasp on his words. “She’s, well, we’re waiting. We wait a lot. They said it’d be a bit later today before they knew if they’d caught things in time. An infection. She got an infection.”

“Well, we’re all praying for her, for all of you. Family is important. Most important.”

A tall man, Mr. Jensen towered over the two on the bench. He stooped, using his hands to steady himself, looking like a wind-whipped airplane landing in strong winds, tilting side to side. As he lowered himself, the young couple felt him pulling their lives down with him, a weight as unwieldy as it was determined in reaching its destination.

“I’ll only be a minute. I hate coming here and telling you this, but you’re going to hear it soon. And I wanted it to be from me, just so you know the truth of what we know, which isn’t a whole lot, actually. Of course, I wanted to check on little Faith as well. We all keep her close to our hearts.”

Lauren whimpered, a nestling’s cry for nourishment, for life. Her hand squeezed hard around her husband’s arm.

“Anyway, I have the sad task of telling you that we lost an employee today. His name was Teddy Anderson. I’m not sure if you knew him or not, Tim. Anyway, he works  –  rather worked  –  at one of our garages over in Springfield. He’d agreed – volunteered actually  – to come over and fill in for you while you’re out. And earlier today, well, right after opening, he had an accident.”

Tim couldn’t recall ever having met him. His head just kept shaking  –  left, right, left, right  –  a metronome of fatigue and incomprehension.

“He was at your station, Tim,” continued Mr. Jensen, “and something went wrong. He was sweeping up the area, keeping things nice and clean, that was Tim’s way. He must’ve bumped the safety lever on the lift switch, maybe with the broom’s handle. We’re just not sure. All we know is that he was under the lift and it came down. The safety switch, it must have somehow failed. It caught him underneath there while he was sweeping. And, well, he didn’t make it.”

Mr. Jensen didn’t tell them of the details, of how it knocked Teddy to the ground after hitting his head, likely rendering him unconscious. One of the four giant arms then compressed his chest, crushing it, squeezing it until the ribs and organs were huddled impossibly tight, finally giving way in an avalanche of life-ending insistence.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, here and now. It’s just I knew you’d get word of it, there’s no escaping that fact. None of us want you to be loaded down with any more pain than you already have. You two just take all the time you need, focus on your baby and her getting strong and back home. The garage is going be closed for a while anyway, inspections and lawyers and all.

“Tim, here’s my business card. Take it. I’ve put my cell number on the back. You call me anytime  –  anytime at all  –  if you need anything. I mean it.

“Oh, and they’ll have to interview you, it having been your station. Just asking about any problems you may have noticed. I’ll try to hold them off for a couple of days. They can interview Jon Campbell first, maybe find out what he might have seen before he gave that lift a clean bill of health just a few days back.”

Mr. Jensen disappeared, the scepter of the violent death lingering over Tim, hanging as an angry cloud portending a violent release. The two young parents again leaned into each other, their linked hands transmitting anguish one to the other like static electricity.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<

 

A fleeting image of Teddy Anderson skipped across Tim’s thoughts as he watched the speedometer inch past the midway point. Air poured through the open windows, buffeting him in a cool cascade of freedom. At seventy-three miles per hour, the Civic started to shimmy, quickly falling into the shakes, the tremors of an old car quickly protesting as it is pushed from its comfort zone.

Three days had passed since Mr. Jensen had visited the couple. Faith had been stabilized, but would remain in the hospital for an indefinite period of time. They had to be vigilant for infections.

Tim had found a picture of Teddy on a social media site. It showed a sandy haired man with a slightly darker beard, smiling into the camera. He was posed with a striking woman, her hair a thick auburn tangle that framed an angular face with blue eyes. Two small children  –  a boy and a girl  –  sat serenely at either side of the couple. The family looked happy, their smiles natural, the sparkle in their eyes a sign of deep satisfaction with life, the very life for which Tim had prayed – begged – of God.

His picture of Jon Campbell was imagined only, as he’d been unable to find a trace of the maintenance man online. He’d conjured up a hectic family, the four kids Jon had mentioned so active that they hadn’t the time to gather for a family photograph. Jon and his wife would be breathless from chasing their children, waging a constant battle against chaos, never certain what constituted normalcy under their roof.

Tim had left Lauren as she slept in Faith’s hospital room, taking the family car for a ride in hopes of clearing his head. However, he soon found himself deep in despair. His state inspector’s interview was scheduled for the next morning, a thought that elicited within him waves of paranoia. No doubt police and attorney interviews would populate his next several days.

He pushed the Civic to eighty-four miles per hour. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. “Why us, why Faith?”, Tim wondered aloud, the rush of wind placing it in an echo chamber about his ears.

Soon the rusted sedan reached eighty-seven miles per hour. He recalled the shriek of Faith’s home heart monitor. The pain of his inadequacy gripped him in cold shivers.

Ninety even on the speedometer. The bills piled high at home, familial red ink to infinity.

In death, Teddy had left behind fifty thousand dollars for his family. The life insurance was a company benefit, another perk for which Tim was to to be thankful. Tim had been told of it upon being hired, and it was his recollection of that knowledge, coupled with his other agonies, which led him to think about tampering with the up/down safety lever of the spidery car lift. If, he reasoned, he disabled the spring that forced the unattended lever to default to the OFF position, he could make the future brighter for his wife and daughter.

Ninety-two. A raucous noise of complaint from the front of the Civic. The dull vapor of the streetlamps whizzed past in an eerie fog of indifference. Poor Jon, almost Jonathan. Perhaps he’d be blamed for the tragedy, having just worked on the safety lever and blessed its fitness for daily use.

Tim couldn’t think his way through the situation. That Teddy had died due to the safety lever having been rendered inoperable was a weight so crushing to Tim that he’d been unable to take even one full breath since being told of his death. His mind reeled uncontrollably.

Ninety-five miles per hour. The gas pedal hitting the carpeted floorboard behind it. Lauren and Tim’s first illicit kiss behind the school, him pressing himself into her, pushing her back and shoulders into the brick wall, teenage urgency urging him onward. Her high laughter  –  a giggle really  –  so delicious to his senses.

A concrete abutment of an overpass fast approached, illuminated by the headlights which Tim flicked to high beam. He studied the grey buttress of impenetrable stoicism, unyielding to man’s foibles, unconcerned with any conflictions of mortals.

The car shook uncontrollably. Ninety-nine. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. A family curse, father to child. Flickering red light.

If he’d wanted to stop things, to undue things, to make things not what they were, it was not to be. Those things now in motion would not be denied their outcome. The world, Tim realized, was going to go on about its business  –  good and bad  –  no matter. Indifference enveloped him. Heavy inhale, powerful exhale. He relaxed his body, the finality of the situation allowing him to at last complete a full breath, an intoxicating breath. A howling laugh parted his lips as the cool air soothed the darkness, calming the uncertainty, allowing joy to settle within.

The implosion of faded metal, angry at being forced to make room for Tim’s desperation, the final crescendo of shattering noise so like the alarm of Faith’s heart monitor.  Without the aid of a seat belt, his body hurtled forward as the car itself jolted backwards from the impact, the two seemingly on opposing sides of a standoff. Catapulted through the windshield, then dancing with shards of glass, he stopped only when he was as one with the abutment that held his future in smug silence. In one transformational moment, Tim saw reflected his own image in fragmented, dazzling pieces, each one but a sliver of a future to which he’d once aspired.

He’d arrived where life dances with death, a place of familiarity if only through his daughter’s unending struggle. Blankness could now swallow his place on earth, for he’d happened upon the precise spot where the mind ceases to distinguish between hope and despair, where physicality has no standing.

Such were his thoughts as the faintest wails of the ambulance roared toward him. Then, on the way to the hospital, the clamor of the sirens remained so immense that it easily broke through his thoughts of death with an insistence that he remain in life. He was at that moment incredulous, having never thought that once dead a person could yet hear. Surely, he mused, to be gone from the world, this world, meant also to be deaf, as one must go with the other as sin with forgiveness.

 

 

Blue & Mrs. Throop

Blue and Mrs. Throop

by Joel Howard

 

She gave scant thought to how the police interpreted the scene before them. For one thing, she was in shock, and for another, she had piddling confidence in the police. If they were at all competent, they’d have had her in handcuffs already.

The hell with you imbeciles, she found herself thinking. Michael’s right, cops are as useless as tits on a nun.

“Mrs. Throop, shall I call you that, or do you prefer Nancy?” It was the cop who seemed to be in charge, a doughy man stuffed haphazardly into an ill-fitting suit. Detective Smith she recalled. He had bad breath. The breath of habitually bad habits.

“Mrs. Throop will do. I am Mrs. Michael Throop.” She adjusted the collar on her blouse as she spoke, her words conveying an imperious manner, delivered in a voice rarely used, but which gave her a sense of unexpected satisfaction, of superiority. It was reminiscent of the tone Michael so often employed when speaking to his wife, the delivery alone alerting her to his grievances toward some actions or words of hers. She shook at the recollection, twisting the gold cross draped loosely around her neck.

Smith peered, his eyes squinting across the upper rim of his dollar store reading glasses. Mrs. Throop avoided his glance and looked down at her shoes, where she noticed a scuff mark on the leather of the left one.

Clearing his throat, Smith failed to gain her eye. “Right, right. Well, then, please know that you call tell us anything. Anything at all.”

She found his manner overly ingratiating. Such kindness irked her, as if he was the teacher and she a pupil arriving at the first day of first grade, as if she were part of some remedial course for the slow-witted. Having raised her gaze, she focused on the detective. It was her norm to hold up every man – real or imaginary –  in comparison to Michael. And while she met few people outside of their home, those men she did meet invariably paled in comparison to her husband. Looks, intelligence, bearing – no matter, they all failed. Smith, she quickly surmised, doubly so.

The detective had earlier made the mistake of mentioning prior visits to the Throop home, putting her on alert, shrinking her already shallow well of trust. Sure, the police had been called out before, but that hadn’t happened in well over six months. Well, she thought, almost six months, a record absence of uniformed officers on their front steps.

It took me a while, she thought, but I learned not to call. And I tried to speak to Mrs. Baines, tried to tell her not to call the cops on us, but she’s a nasty neighbor. Telling me to ‘get help’ and ‘have some respect for yourself, Mrs. Throop’ just made me scream at her, to lose all control.

Involving the police invariably stoked her husband’s emotions at a time when he already stood as a tinder box of barely contained fury. Besides, in the end, she had always dropped any charges that might have been brought against her Michael. He’d return home from jail, his rage fast igniting into an inferno of berating fists.

No, nothing good comes of dialing 9-1-1. First responders are sent no matter how much one might try to dissuade the dispatcher. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call. Cancel it, please.” No such luck there. Begging was as futile as pleading with Michael about calming his mercurial temper. Once the call was connected, the law stated that help must be dispatched. They’d send cops and ambulances and maybe even a fire truck, leaving Nancy to surmise that firemen were either bored or nosey. They would all arrive quickly and remain insistent on knowing what exactly precipitated the call, demanding answers, logical ones. And if Nancy had even the smallest visible bruise or red mark, if her hair looked disheveled or her teary eyes gave pause to the cops, things would get uglier. It all served to further infuriate Michael.

You’re going to get me put in jail again, stupid cow. You’d probably like that, wouldn’t you? Yeah, I just bet you would, he’d wail at her as she vehemently shook her head, becoming dizzy from the effort.

Today’s events had been her fault, after all. She admitted as much to the police, telling Detective Smith exactly how it came to be that Michael lay dead on their kitchen floor, how his death stood firmly  –  and to her mind obviously  –  upon her shoulders. Oddly, when Smith asked her for details, it was as if his words came swimming to her consciousness from some unseen place, somewhere far below her, whereas when Michael spoke to her, it always, invariably, came from a place high up, some lofty heaven overhead.

As she explained to the detective, she’d frittered away too much time that afternoon in the bathroom mirror, fussing over a bruise on her left cheek, one which persisted in heralding its blue-black testimony to one of her recent failures. She’d managed to add concealer to both cheeks, layer upon layer, adding some rouge on top, trying to get them to appear even. In the end, she found her appearance to be that of a half-made clown. Michael had asked of her many times before that she simply be ‘half-ass presentable’ when he came home from making a living for them both. But she couldn’t even get that right, not today at least.

“That was but the first of my stupid, stupid mistakes. What could I have been thinking? I wasn’t thinking. Not thinking at all. That was the problem. And so my husband now lies dead on the kitchen floor. Murdered by his wife, by me.”

Couple her clownish appearance, she further explained, with the mess she’d made of dinner, and it was little wonder that her husband had been upset with her. If she’d gotten herself presentable faster, she could’ve focused more on dinner and having it properly presented on the table when her husband walked through the door from work. There was also the simple rule that Nancy have a double shot of whiskey to hand him when he came home, “to sooth my fucking nerves”, he’d tell her. This, too, she’d mucked up.

Why doesn’t this simple and odorous detective understand my fault in Michael’s death? His ineptitude is both amazing and exasperating. Tits on a nun, tits on a nun.

“I mismanaged my schedule, causing me to rush in the kitchen, sending the evening spiraling into a crushing chaos which I was too stupid to contain. The bowl of green beans we’re of course hot, but hotter than I’d expected, and I’d dropped it, shattering glass and sending green, watery rivers out across the tile floor. How inept can I be?”

Then, she went on, the garage door motor could be heard, sending her into a panic. Michael soon entered the kitchen, sighed in heavy grunts of displeasure, and come at her in anger. As the smooth soles of his dress shoes met the slippery tile, he was sent into a spin. The crack she’d heard as his skull met the unforgiving edge of the granite counter yet echoed in her mind, as did the thud of his weight falling upon the floor.

“Oh Nancy, you foolish woman! Now you’ve gone and done it worse than ever before.”, she’d chided herself. “Is it any wonder he grows impatient with you?”

Her husband lay akimbo on the tile floor, the image reminding Nancy of the ominous chalk outlines one sees in a noir detective movie. But she thought then that he was alive, death being an impossibility in her mind. Michael was her rock, her beacon. He would not falter, couldn’t leave her alone.

Unable to rouse him, she’d finally called for help, this time begging they come quickly, wailing,  “I’ve hurt my husband.” Upon the paramedic pronouncing him deceased, she’d screamed, launching herself at the man, hitting him, biting at his clothes, refusing to accept his determination of death.

Once calmed, she realized it was an unarguable case of murder. Why she hadn’t been arrested was unfathomable in her mind. The entire story leading to Michael’s death she’d relayed to the detective in run-on emotions, an avalanche of words more spewed than spoken. Perhaps her words had traveled too quickly for Smith to comprehend.

“Who’ll take care of Blue?”, she’d finally asked, having come up from the depths of despair for air. The detective had tilted his head, looking at her as if he didn’t understand. “I can’t just leave him here. He’s a real lap cat. He’ll need someone to be with him. Michael would be upset if Blue wasn’t being properly seen to. He adores Blue.”

Nancy had affection for Blue as well, but not as Michael had. The cat had served at times as a furry buffer between her and her husband’s anger.

Now, though, she’d hoped the detective wouldn’t say that Blue would be taken to a shelter. Perhaps he’d tell her to call a friend, but where’d that leave her, a woman of no friends? As for relatives, she had few, and the nearest one was her crazy sister in Topeka, some 300 miles away. Rather Blue be put down than go to her! Michael loved Blue as much as he hated “that meddling, busybody bitch of a sister of yours.”

It was just such family interference that had made Michael leave a better paying position and move them all this way. Her family had caused enough trouble. To stay in Topeka would have meant such a burden on their marriage, all at the hands of her intrusive sister and silly, now deceased, mother. That was eight years ago, and she’d found, much to her dismay, that the cops in Ridgedale were almost as bad as those back in their hometown  –  they could be as insistent on interfering in their private lives as the Topeka police.

Detective Smith didn’t say anything for the longest time, looking upon her as if he had, what, genuine concern for her? It brought to her mind the thinnest bit of kindness toward the man, only to dissipate when his utterance of a heavy sigh recalled to her nose the ugliness of his breath. Finally, realizing that Mrs. Throop was speaking under a false impression in regards to the cat  –  and the situation as a whole  –  he spoke to her in softness. “Mrs. Throop, you’re not going to jail, if that’s what you think. No, I see this as an accident. And from what you’ve told me, the DA will likely see it the same way. I mean, I can’t guarantee that, but still. I’ll just ask that you not leave town until I give you the okay.”

“Oh, what a foolish, silly man you are, detective.” The sentiment was so deeply sincere that she was but a breath away from having said it aloud. The detective still seemed not to understand: her ineptitude was the weapon of her husband’s demise.

“Might as well have plunged a steak knife through his heart!”, she’d wailed at last. Yet none of this amounted to her arrest.  The police just did not understand, or were being willfully obstinate, a trait Michael said his wife had in abundance. This would go far in explaining why they seemed not to understand her having cleaned up the kitchen before finally doing that one thing she most dreaded: dialing 9-1-1.

“Why,” she’d said incredulously, “did I clean the kitchen before calling you? If I hadn’t, how’d that make me look? You’d have thought I didn’t love my husband. I mean, coming in and seeing spilled green beans and blood and all, well, I couldn’t let that happen, could I? Michael would be so disappointed in me.” All of this she spoke as tears ran along her cheeks, the only time she’d cried during the interview. As she wiped at first one and then the other cheek, the bruise on the left side of her face, previously covered in rouge, emerged, as if seeking to have a say in the matter at hand.

Detective Smith tsk-tsked the story and offered her a tepid smile. “I see, Mrs. Throop. I surely do.”

^   ^   ^   ^   ^

She noticed the day – the one of Michael’s demise – was coming to a close. The earliest hour of a new day stood at the ready, a mere hour after the police and others had left her home, It would be, she realized heavily, the first minutes of the first day without her Michael. She rose from the living room floor where she’d been curled tight in a ball, laboring to get erect, the heavy load of grief and guilt working against her.

Wandering aimlessly about the house, she had the glimmer of realization that what she’d had for the past several years was an existence rather than a life. Michael had provided a measure of certainty, much as a crate can do for a dog. Shuddering at the thought, feeling guilty for such ideas, she went to the den, Michael’s place. At Michael’s recliner, she crawled onto the seat where he’d spent countless hours, remote in one hand, his whiskey in the other. The leather’s aroma, the whoosh of her body settling back, the pronounced clunk-thunk of the footrest being engaged, it all caused memories of her husband to crash down upon her. She lamented her loss perhaps as much as the uncertainty suddenly smothering her. Even having Detective Smith back would have been some odd form of solace. Heavy sobs took control of her body.

“Oh Blue, I’m so sorry I took him away from us.”

Clicking on the television, she found that it was on Michael’s favorite sports channel. Blue jumped to her chest, kneading her with his front paws, crying out with loud, broken mewling, seeking his master. Nancy reached out to extinguish the floor lamp, allowing the glow of the television to cast a pall across the two as their breathing fell into a steady rhythm. Rolling to her side, she pulled Blue against her. She felt isolated, as Michael had always enveloped her life within his own, serving as a belt cinched tight around her own emotions, tamping her desires. He’d choked out the very essence of Nancy’s personal being, leaving her dependent on him even for emotional direction. She hadn’t the center, or compass, that guides a person, being rather like a broken weathervane seeking direction, any direction. Life’s simplest undertakings hadn’t even the most rudimentary baseline from which she could launch herself.

She mumbled incoherently, trying desperately to address the emptiness, before sleep-tumbling for a moment into deep uncertainty. Suddenly, Blue swatted softly at her chin, as if to bring her to the present. Reaching her left hand to her face, she felt the warmth of her own blood. A small trickle was making its way from Blue’s scratch, seeking her jawline.

Her jump to a standing position sent the cat flying to the center of the room. As she took a step forward, Blue ran from the den, a flash of anxious fur and guttural meows. She ran after him, calling his name. As she came into the kitchen, her stockings slid on the tile floor, sending her reeling in a dance that had her bounce from one countertop to the one opposite. She managed to right herself, but not before slamming her left elbow into the counter and her left foot hard into the baseboard.

Panting, she screamed, “Blue! Damn you, Blue! Damn you, damn you, damn you!”

Stumbling, she found the cat backed into the small hallway which led to the garage. Keeping her distance, she leaned over the animal and opened the door. Blue darted into the garage. Nancy, fumbling in the darkness, press the automatic door opener. As the light came on, the rumble of the door echoed, and she caught just his tail as her husband’s pet ran from the tidy space into the thick dark of the early morning hour.