The Shape of Things

The space between us is an anticipation for violence. I see it in her eyes. I feel it in my hands. Her skin above her temples pulse like the knuckles on a squeezed fist and I can see it from across the room. Every six months, for the last six years, she sits in a solitary chair away from the others, and waits her turn to speak. In the meantime, her eyes never leave my direction. Her stare is a haymaker.

 She hates me, and from the look of it, I deserve every inch of it.

The first time she came to my probation hearing, I smiled at her. She looked familiar. She looked like someone I had smiled at many times before. A favorite cashier, maybe. A neighbor I waved at every morning, perhaps. I didn’t know. I stopped wanting to remember things after the accident. After what they said I did. When I smiled at her then, she rushed across the arms of two men and spat in my face. She clawed at my neck and left a map of blood. The men laughed. She growled. I was then forced to sit and listen to what she had to say.

She said, “We argued and it was bad. He grabbed our son and drove off. He was drunk when he left. When the phone rang an hour later, when the cops told me what happened, I crumpled onto the floor like a wet rag.”

She said, “I want to die every time I pass that intersection.”

She said, “It should’ve been him instead of our beautiful boy.”

All the heads in the room turned to me like haunted statues when I was asked if I felt remorse for what I’d done. I said, “I don’t remember her, her son, or that night.”

Her scream after I said it was thick and loud and shaped like an axe. Her sadness had weight and velocity. It slammed into me like a collision of metal to bone. I was back at that intersection, holding the head of a dead child, trying everything to forget I ever existed. I repeated, “I don’t know anything,” until she was dragged out. The entire room went quiet and nobody wanted to look me in the eyes.

That was the first time, six years ago.

Today’s probation hearing ended like the first one. I said, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything. I don’t anything,” until her screams faded into the shape of smoke.

But I do know this—our shirts and pants are light blue with block numbers across the right side. I know they wake us at seven in the morning every day and we slowly shuffle like a calm lake towards food. I know this as well- after breakfast, I shower under water so hot my skin blisters. And by lunch, I am covered in sweat and sawdust. I know that if I work three days assembling chairs I will have enough on my books to afford soap for the week. I know that at 9pm when they shut off the lights, it is easier to sleep when you know the shape of a scream than to remember the reasons behind it.


Ten Point

Carlos and I find a dead buck in the hemlock grove behind my house, in the shadow of the stone wall that divides my slice of the American Dream from Phil Barlow’s McMansion. The corpse has been tasted. Belly is ripped and shredded, acorns litter the gutted ribcage, hind legs are nibbled to sinew and bone. The forest won’t go hungry. But is this hunter or mange? Coyote or bobcat? I vote hunter. The buck is a beauty of an eight pointer, ten if you count the nubs broken off on the inside of his rack. (Fight with another male) An elder who lived a long life, and might have grown into a mythic beast, if a hunter hadn’t spotted him and thought, ‘Trophy’.

It’s enough to make you a vegetarian, but never mind—if he was shot on our property, we’ve got trespassers.

It’s not Barlow. He’s on the dark side of eighty. Knees are shot, the Big C is swarming up his colon (fitting death for a true asshole), and there’s no way anyone is hunting on his land. Barlow’s a greedy bastard. If he can’t have the meat, nobody will. His old, homemade hunting stands haunt the forest canopy, rotten triangles of wood—the treehouse as death trap.

We bend down, pretend to be trackers, but there’s no blood trail, and no way to tell which direction the buck bolted from. North is the wetlands. South is Barlow. West is us. East is five-hundred acres of undeveloped woods and bird sanctuary. It’s a beauty patch down here, an oasis of green and wild nature in this tame world. Carlos and I are hunters too, but our game is easier. Chicken of the woods, oysters, morels, lion’s mane, puffballs—any mushroom we can sell or cultivate. My favorite is a species called Inky Cap. You nibble just a bit and it makes alcohol taste rancid. Helped me kick the sauce. I grind it into powder, too. Hella lot cheaper than popping Antabuse. Wish I could market it, but the FDA would cackle.

Carlos lifts the buck’s head. I take some phone pics. We mark the spot and walk back to my driveway, where I’ve hung game cameras—pointed at the road—to spy on the two-legged critters. I download footage. Hours of quiet macadam, a damn art film, until dusk—the buck enters a thicket of bittersweet right below the road.

Minutes later, a red pickup slides into the foreground. A muzzle pokes out the driver’s side. It pops, the buck shudders, bolts into our land. The gun retracts, door opens, out steps the barrel-chested shooter. He looks over his shoulder, waddles across the road, gazes into the woods, clearly says ‘Shit’, shrugs, retreats to his truck.

It’s Barlow’s son, Chad.

Phil Barlow, for all his faults, at least sat in the hunting chairs, waited for his prey in five-degree Artic blasts. Chad Barlow pretends to subsist off the land, but it’s all Costco and Netflix, and his hunting chair is behind a steering wheel, like he’s ordering fast food at the drive-in.

We check the time. High noon. The old man will be home. Sick men don’t travel.

Barlow’s lawn signs are an advertisement for right-wing geriatrics. Cancer research. Trump/Pence. Repeal the SAFE act. And in the driveway—Chad’s red pickup.

Barlow answers the door, a withered parsnip. He looks at Carlos, shakes my hand.

“Chad around?” I ask.

“He’s taking a nap.”

As if he’s a toddler. Just as well. We show Barlow the footage. He grunts, “Stupid kid.”

Carlos says, “It’s out of season.”

“No shit, Lopez. Where you from?”

“Barlow,” I say.

“Born and raised here,” Carlos snaps.

“Chad’s getting a divorce,” Barlow says. “And lost his job.”

“So?

“You’re not taking his gun, too.”

The Inky Cap powder glows in my pocket. If you ingest it without knowing and go on a bender? Heart attack. KGB used it. Long Siberian nights, plus vodka. Untraceable. Chad’s a drinker. I know his pub. I’d have to slip into his burger. Just an idea, all that separates man from beast, but it’ll keep me warm this winter.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll talk with your son.”


Transcendent Ramblin’ Railroad Blues

“Don’t look for me in glory,
don’t look for me below —
’cause I’ll be riding on that freight
where the souls of ramblers go.”

-Colter Wall

The rumbling of the train over uneven tracks jostled Ray awake.

The first thing he noticed was the headache pulsing behind his eyes. The second thing was the pool of blood spreading across the floor, soaking into the cardboard boxes stacked around the car.

Two of the other stowaways aboard were fighting, clawing and biting and hissing at each other. A third companion — an old-school rambler with whom Ray had crossed paths more than once, the kind of train-hopper with more tall tales than teeth in his head — lay slumped over, a switchblade sticking out of his gut.

“Holy shit.” Ray gripped the neck of his guitar beside him. “Which one of you fuckers killed Roadie?”

“He did!” they both exclaimed.

“So both of you.”
     “No, him!” they both insisted, continuing to scrap.

Both were dirty, desperate, drug-addled, and wild-eyed. Ray wasn’t passing judgement — so was he, after all. But he’d never stabbed an old man in the stomach. One of these fellers did.

“Uh-huh,” Ray drawled. “And why’d he kill him, then?”

“He’s crazy!” said the one, methamphetamine pockmarks dotting his face like craters.

“He wanted ‘is drugs!” said the other, most of his face obscured by a bushy beard that hadn’t seen shampoo in all its miserable life. “Roadie said no ‘n’ he fuckin’ stabbed ‘im!”

Only one of those seemed like a real motive to Ray. Roadie, for all his hospitality when it came to sharing meals and stories, was notoriously stingy on the railroad circuit when it came to the subject of substances. And hadn’t the pockmarked tramp been cleaning his nails with a switchblade before Ray passed out? That would make both motive, and means.

He picked up his guitar.

“Life’s a lot like hoppin’ trains,” Roadie had once remarked to Ray, years back. “Rich folks decided which way things was goin’ long before you or I got on.”

That had always made a lot of sense to Ray. He wondered what Roadie would’ve had to say if he knew how he was going to die.

Ray swung the guitar at the back of the pockmarked tramp’s head. The sound of discordant strings reverberated through the car as he collapsed, unconscious, to the floor.

“Thanks,” said the bearded man. “Thought I was next.”

Ray regarded his guitar, now splintered and shattered. He sighed heavily, then slid open the heavy door. The countryside whipped by at twenty-five outside.

“Come on,” Ray said, abandoning the broken instrument. “Let ‘em sort this out at the next stop.”

They both leapt from the train, tucking and rolling down the dandelion-dappled hillside. Ray watched the train disappear down the tracks, carrying Roadie’s body to the end of the line, that final train station in the sky where all ramblers are someday destined to make their eternal departure.

“See you there someday,” Ray muttered, more to himself than to Roadie. “Someday soon, seems more ‘n’ more like…” As the locomotive vanished into the wastelands, Ray turned to the highway, his thumb extended to the oncoming traffic, marching onward into the setting sun that glowed like dried blood smeared across the sky.


Veneida

Circle Bar SeaRanch, Echo Sector, Trimar, Salia  

The smell of fish woke him.

Fish for breakfast was nothing new, but Squatch’s nose detected a difference: Not the same old ranch-raised polkek but wild, free-swimming zoomy. 

It was Frank’s turn for frying and he had the battery lamps on max making the galley too bright for Squatch’s comfort. Still he’d trade that for the sickly, dim-green glow of algae lamps. Besides he was hungry.

Jonesey and Siddarth had made quick work of the zoomies and sat over empty plates shooting the shit with Frank.

“You heard that little bitch escaped again.”

“Ain’t that something?”

“Say she went out the APU… had a machinist’s key.”

“Stashed in that violin prolly.”

Only Frank acknowledged Squatch enter, giving a quick nod. Squatch drew a mug of poshtoon flower tea and took a far seat at the communal table. The tea’s damp-cellar earthiness was one of the few seastead flavors that’d grown on him.

“Two escapes in as many weeks? What in hell?” 

“They outta stick her in a maxi landside.”

“Fuck the Landers!” Frank spit into the sink. “Besides she’s just a kid.”

“Is she? Hard to tell when they’ve gone feral.”

Jonesy grunted. “Stealing seacattle’s a crime either way.”

“So is aiding and abetting, ain’t it, Squatch?”

“Huh?” he said and paused between bites from the plate Frank had set down. “I wasn’t listening.” He lied. He’d been listening so hard his balls ached.

“Squatch ain’t listened since day one.” Siddharth shook his head. “Two years on an’only qual’d for mucking algae scrubbers.”

Squatch shrugged and went on eating. He was a shitty steader. He’d go back landslide in a heartbeat if he could. Nothing good had happened at sea. Well, almost nothing. 

He’d found her holed up in the billet of FF33–the Circle-Bar’s remotest, least tended piscary. She sat cross-legged tuning a violin. She was tinier and prettier than in the news photos–sexy was the word that came to Squatch’s mind.

“Oh, my, I’ve been found out,” she’d said indifferently. “Caught trespassing and by a Lander no less”

“How’d you–“

“Your gait, heard you heavy-walking.”

Like a Squatch, he wondered? The nickname the wranglers had given him was derogatory, but he’d never learned why.

“Oh, don’t pout,” she said, “it’s terribly unbecoming.” She set the violin aside and patted her hand on the blanket. “C’mere.”

Her lips were sweet, the sweetest in all the worlds, and there was the deep languor of youthful bodies. They’d lean heads on each others shoulders until the fever overtook them and Squatch lifted her shirt and kissed her tawny girlish breasts with the points puffing up like unripened seaweed bubbles. Coming to, she’d warm tea and they’d drink it sensing the current swells rolling beneath, talking of everything and nothing at all.

“You smell good.”

She brought her lips close. “Like fish?” She whispered, her breath hot, wild.

“Like fog over wet sand,” he said, taking her earlobe between his teeth.

And they’d start over again…

He’d just finished the final checks on the scrubbers when the girl approached. She’d put her long auburn hair in a loose plait.

“I’m leaving,” she announced. Squatch keyed the system back to auto with a heavy click. “Tomorrow…,” she hesitated, backlit with setting sun and a still ocean, “you know, business and all…”

She didn’t ask him to come along. He couldn’t have anyway. Still it stung. So did her leaving during the night without saying goodbye. Later he reckoned it was better that way–a final, sweet gesture.

Squatch was washing up when the foreman appeared.

“Get plenty of zoomy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, you’ve got a long one ahead… back to 33.”

Squatch’s heart pounded up into his throat.

The foreman held up a hand. “Before you say anything, take this.” He handed Squatch a watertight parcel–wax sealed with the Circle Bar brand and addressed to VENEIDA.

“From the Patrón.” The foreman arched an eyebrow. “If you see her.”

Squatch flipped through jealousy to rage to bewilderment then settled on apprehension. “Am I in trouble?”             “Best get a move on,” the foreman said. “Already been too long.”


Flu Season

“If he’s sick,” O’Neal said, “maybe he’ll die on his own.”

Patty shook her head. “It’s just a cold. Sniffles and sneezes.”

They were crouching together in the woods, watching Tom Tennison practice. Even before Patty and Tom were married, he’d practiced two hours every day.

Tom Tennison threw knives for the circus.

“Colds can be dangerous, when you’re old—”

“No,” Patty whispered. “He’ll outlive us both, unless we do something.”

“Then what’s the plan?” O’Neal flexed his muscles as he spoke. At thirty-eight his strongman act was still a good draw. He was not, however, very strong in the brains department. Patty didn’t care. She was smart enough for both of them.

“The plan is, we hurry things up a little,” she answered, her gaze fixed on her husband’s back, there on the far side of the clearing. His assistant, a young blonde named Roxanne, stood beside him in the grass, handing him his knives like a surgical nurse. The blades thunked into a nearby oak. Behind it, the main tent loomed dark against a blue sky.

“What do you mean, hurry things up?”

Patty turned to O’Neal. “Nothing good happens in this world unless you make it happen.” She took a new bottle of decongestant from her pocket. FOR COLDS AND FLU, the label said. “He asked me to get this for him today. Tonight, after the show, I’ll lace it with rat poison.”

O’Neal’s eyes glittered. “Why not now?”

“Because I don’t have the poison now. I’ll sneak some from the supply truck tonight.”

“And if he needs a dose before the show?”

“He can wait. Everyone’s sniffling, it’s that time of year.”

O’Neal, still rippling his muscles, said, “Why don’t I just twist his neck?”

“Because I don’t want you—or me—to go to prison. We have to be cautious.”

He snorted. “If we were cautious, you wouldn’t still be part of his act. We been together six months now, and you still let him throw knives at you every night.”

“That’s how I know we’re safe. He knows I wouldn’t risk that, if I were fooling around.”

“Guess not,” O’Neal agreed. Sixty feet away, Tom Tennison’s knives flashed in the sun.

“Stop worrying. From this point on, we’re in control.” She pocketed the bottle. “He’ll take his first and only dose of cold remedy tomorrow morning. And then I’m free.”

O’Neal gave her a sly grin. “At least free of him.”

She giggled, folded herself into his arms. Together they moved deeper into the shadows.

• • •

That night the big top was full. Hundreds watched the performers fly through the air and gallop in circles and juggle fiery torches in the name of entertainment and money.

The highlight was Texas Tom Tennison.

Conversations and breathing were suspended as Tom and his pretty assistant took center stage. Tom’s eyes were puffy, but no one noticed. He blew his nose and beamed at the crowd. Within seconds his knives were dancing in the lights, spinning and whumping into a backboard twenty feet away. Balloons popped, candles were snuffed out. Roxanne stood at his elbow, holding his knives and trying not to look bored.

Finally Patty Tennison appeared, in a shiny leotard and boots. She bowed and blew Tom a kiss. He tipped his hat. The crowd loved it.

Amid cheers and whistles she took her place against the backboard. Everyone grew quiet. Patty stood with chin high and arms spread while drums began to roll. Balloons and bullseyes and candles were gone now. This was the real thing.

And then Tom went to work, tracing the outline of his wife’s body with perfectly thrown five-inch blades. Patty never blinked. It was a stunning display of skill and nerves. After every throw the crowd roared its approval.

But on the tenth throw, which was supposed to plant a knife an inch to the right of Patty’s slender white neck, something went wrong.

The tent fell silent. Time seemed to stand still. An instant later the whole crowd—except for those who had fainted—started screaming. In the center ring, Tom and his assistant stood and stared, eyes wide with shock.

“Gesundheit,” Roxanne said.


Book Release: Shotgun Honey Presents v4: RECOIL

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Stories by:

  • “Tell the Man About Love” by Rusty Barnes
  • “The Ghost Road” by Susan Benson
  • “Hotelin’” by Sarah M. Chen
  • “The Wrong Affair” by Kristie Claxton
  • “Victory in the Spring, 1987” by Jen Conley
  • “Avenues” by Brandon Daily
  • “Noise” by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
  • “After the Bombs” by Hector Duarte Jr.
  • “Missing Persons Day” by Danny Gardner
  • The Art of Negotiation” by Tia Ja’nae
  • “Dirty Devil Dance” by Carmen Jaramillo
  • “Beer Run” by Nick Kolakowski
  • “Turner’s Bar” by JJ Landry
  • “Johnny Still Goes to Atlantic City” by Bethany Maines
  • “Jericho” by Tess Makovesky
  • Detour” by Alexander Nachej
  • Toothpaste” by David Nemeth
  • “The Thing I found Along a Dirt Patch Road” by Cindy O’Quinn
  • “Three Fingers” by Brandon Sears
  • “Too Many Mullets” by Johnny Shaw
  • “The Last Mistake” by Kieran Shea
  • “The Walk Home at Night” by Gigi Vernon
  • “Kerouac’s Second Scroll” by Patrick Whitehurst

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Vengeance Come My Way

Fog and motion, like being dragged underwater by rough hands. I am consistently overwhelmed by dark dreams of pounding invasion. Occasionally, I break the surface and gasp for air only to find a stranger straining mere inches above me. The lone mercy comes when the blackness takes me again.

The pattern continues for eternities. Veins invaded. Mind, body, soul violated. Night’s evil is all I know. Sometimes a slap rips me back for brief, horrific experiences of pain and humiliation. I learn to yearn for the peace of chemical obscurity.

And then a thousand ice-cold needles assault me. I discover I am naked in a shower, a much smaller girl standing before me. With surprising strength she forces me to remain under the freezing water until she sees what she wants and kills the frigid deluge.

“Can you walk?”

I stagger a step or two before finding my balance, then nod. 

She tosses me a huge hoodie and a pair of high top Cons that squish my toes a bit. “We’re getting out of here,” she says like it’s actually possible. I realize this tiny thing is insane. She will end up drugged and on the bed next to me getting violated by an endless line of pervs—

I pause at the hall entrance, astounded.

“Watch your step,” says the pixie. 

That line of pervs I just mentioned? They fill the hallway, massacred, two and three deep in places. Stabbed, throats cut, two skewered on a lance of some kind. One had been maced, as in head caved in with an actual mace. Another was hanged using what looked like a bullwhip. Yet another lay with his jugular spraying blood where a throwing star had plunged deep, flooding the floor with crimson.

I recognize each of these bastards, their images burned into my soul from inches above despite all my dope-addled struggles. This hallway was the most inspiring sight of my horrid life.

“Your captor fancied himself a collector of weapons. Made the job so much easier.”

“And him? Them?”

“Clever bunch. They surrounded their office with motion sensors. Found that out after three nights of surveillance. But I know a guy who knows a guy who had what I needed. Perfect for the boss and his love of old weapons.”

“What gets past motion sensors?”

“Homemade, modernized mustard gas.”

“Can I see the bastard? Kick his teeth out maybe?”

“One, not in my Cons you can’t, and two, he’s wouldn’t feel a thing. Sorry, but they had to go first for this to work.”

“The other girls?”

“Got all thirty-four. They sent me back for you. My buddy Alafar is taking us all to his facility for medical treatment. No records. No bills. Relocation to safe havens are being arranged now.”

We reached the back door of the big suburban house. I could see a school bus waiting for us. But I couldn’t leave. Not yet.

The little avenger made a face at me. “Time’s wasting.”

“This place…”

“What more could you want?”

“Revenge.”

She smiled. “I’ve got what we need. It was going to be plan B.”

That girl and I poured gas in the halls, across each exit, and all around the outside. She even let me light the match. We stood by the bus until that house of horrors was engulfed in the hellish flames it deserved.

I thought I would feel good, or free, or safe. Instead, I broke down before we got to the highway. Everyone on the bus did. Except that girl.

“It is going to take you a long time to get past this, but I have people who will help,” she said in the first soothing voice I had heard since I was seven.

I could see now how petite she actually was. It didn’t make sense in terms of the wholesale slaughter we had just walked through. What name does Death go by?

“Thanks, um…”

“Call me Penelope.”

That fit the petite girl before me, not the specter of vengeance I knew her to be.

And I would never tell a soul what she truly was.


Where You Belong

My heart thumps louder than the Wrong Note’s jukebox when he ambles up to the bar. Who is that? He looks like a beat-up old rodeo cowboy that’s been kicked to hell and back, grinning all the way.

By 10 PM I know his name’s Jesse and he hauls furniture for a moving company. We’re yelling over the crowd, pressed together against the bar like two beers in a six-pack. I feel him gearing up to kiss me.

That’s when Mama’s favorite hymn pops into my head, that she chose for her funeral, which I pray will be soon. About that crossroads in life where you must choose the high or low road, no turning back.

Jesse’s warm sweet lips close over mine. I hear Mama’s voice sneer at me, You’re drunk, Rolene, and I sneer back, So what? I’ve been waiting forty-two years for this.

I can’t stop Jesse from walking me home, though I sure don’t want him to meet Mama. I explain how she hates me because our house will come to me when she dies, and seeing as she’s too fat, lame, and poisonous to live without me, she’s terrified I’ll shake her loose. I tell him about high-school graduation, how everybody else got money or an iPhone from their parents, and I got a pair of white gloves and a Bible with a note from Mama: Never forget where you belong.

Jesse laughs, bless his heart. “Don’t you worry, Rolene. I’ve been up against worse.”

He’s already told me he’s fresh out of rehab. Prescription painkillers for a back injury, he said. Some women hold that against a man. Not me, I said. When I get a dog, it’ll be a mutt from the pound, that hit bottom and can’t get over his change of luck.

Mama pretends she’s charmed. Meaning, whatever Rolene told you, it’s all lies. She sends Jesse to the kitchen for a glass of water. Then she says, “You’re a damn fool, girl. Only one thing a slick buckaroo like that wants from a frumpy dumpy spinster, and I promise you, he ain’t getting my house.”

And I’m looking at her, this mean old rattlesnake coiled up in Daddy’s armchair, and the plan just hatches itself like a baby chick. Jesse hands Mama the water, and she swallows her pain pills, and accidentally splashes herself so he’ll have to pat her dry. While she’s beaming at him, I shake four pills out of the bottle and put it back on her tray.

I knew I’d find a use for those white gloves someday. That night I spread the pills on Daddy’s workbench in the basement. The Rat-Bane’s still in the cupboard. The first pill falls apart when I soak it, so I go find an eye-dropper. I drip Rat-Bane on the second pill and let it dry. Same again the next day. When the pill’s dried hard I sneak it back into the bottle. Just one, so if it works, no busybody will find cause for suspicion.

Jesse wants to take me out for dinner Friday. To make sure I’ll miss him, he says, while he’s on the road next week. I can’t believe this is happening. Sure, I say. Pick me up at six.

Mama invites him to sit with her while I round up my coat and purse. I hear them laughing and flirting. Amazing! When I tiptoe in the door after midnight, she’s asleep in the armchair, smiling like a baby.

I think: This could be our life! I’m a little tipsy but not drunk. We could all be happy! Imagine!

Then, OMG, I remember that pill. I start searching for the yellow bottle.

Her eyes open. “Rolene?”

“Mama. Did you take your pain pills?”

“No. I been feeling so good, I rather keep my head clear.”

I send God a quick thank-you prayer for saving me from a terrible sin. “Did you put them someplace safe?” “No need.” She grins her yellow teeth at me. “I give ’em to your buckaroo buddy with the bad back. Jesse.”


Fragrant

“Eric Skor? May I have a moment of your time?”

     “I was just eating.” The large man at the door licked his thick fingers.

The fastidious door-bell ringer twitched his nose and sniffed. “Curry, if I’m not mistaken and I never am. Just what I wanted to speak with you about.”

Eric Skor shrugged his immense shoulders, opened the door wider and walked deeper into his house. “Still going to eat.”

“Certainly. I wouldn’t want to deprive a working man his supper.”

The man followed Eric into the kitchen where a round table for four had one steaming plate of wet yellow mash, one beer bottle, and a fork. Eric sat down and commenced to eating. The finicky stranger’s eyes inspected the kitchen. He walked meticulously along the stove, ran a gloved finger down the kitchen counter, paused at a block of steak knives and finally settled on the spice rack.

He slid spice bottles out checking the labels. One spot was empty. The stranger turned to the feeding homeowner.

“You haven’t asked my name.”

With a fork full of yellow mush in his mouth, Eric shrugged again and mumbled.

“I am Doyle Baker. I’m an unpaid consultant for the police. Gives me certain legal latitude which means I follow no master except justice.”

Baker walked over to the lidded trash can and stepped on the foot pedal to release the lid. He peered over the edge and reached inside pulling out not one but two empty glass spice bottles. He smiled holding up his two finds and brought them over to the table.

Eric kept watch but didn’t slow down eating. Doyle held the chair posturing for an invitation to sit. Eric nodded. Doyle sat as primly as he had entered and inspected. Eric chortled.

Doyle’s fancy smile vanished. “You were questioned about the Browning family murder this morning but not detained. Detectives routinely question service people. Landscapers, exterminators, commercial painters, and the ilk. You just painted their house a couple of weeks ago.”

Eric nodded at the strange man, finished his last forkful of yellow mush and belched.

“Quaint. Curried lentils, yes? I have IBS so nothing spicy for me.”

“You said you liked curry at the door.”

“I appreciate the scent. It tickles the nose. Very fragrant. I caught a whiff of it at the Browning crime scene but when I looked in their kitchen no spices except the pedestrian salt, pepper, and a BBQ rub.”

Eric wiped his mouth with his shirt collar. “So?”

“When I and my associate Boswell arrived at the police station, you passed us in the foyer. Your pungent aroma was unmistakably tinged with curry.” Doyle tented his fingers in front of his face. He stared over them at Eric.

Eric sucked at a lentil shell stuck in his tooth. He took a pull on his beer and swished it around in his mouth before swallowing.

“Where is your associate now?”

“Boswell? Should be here in a moment. Parking was dreadful. He dropped me off to find a spot.” Doyle picked at some lint on his tweed waistcoat.

Eric swiped the curry bottles off the table towards Doyle. He lunged across the table tackling the nebbish man chair and all. Eric pressed the other man to the floor capturing Doyle’s arms with his legs. Doyle cried for help but Eric covered his nose and mouth with the palm of his curry stained hand.

“Fragrant enough?”

Doyle bucked and attempted to roll the thick man off. Eric didn’t change expression just bore down making sure to seal off any chance of air. He sunk his weight harder onto Doyle’s chest collapsing any breath left in his lungs. Doyle made a few gulping gasps and lay still.

While getting up, Eric brushed his hands clean of snot and spittle on Doyle’s neat waistcoat. He grabbed the bottle of beer off the table and finished it off.

A knock at the door. Eric put the beer down, palmed a steak knife from the block on the counter and walked to the front door. “Coming, Boswell.”


Alberto’s

 “Dude, we always go to Alberto’s after.”

Alberto’s was south. Steve kept driving north.

Steve adjusted the rearview mirror so he could see Brandon in the back seat. Brandon was still holding his ear to the side of his head as if holding it in place long enough would re-attach it. He had his other hand over the hole in his stomach. Steve figured if he was dead his hands would drop. Other than the hands there was no indication Brandon was still among the living.

“You forget the part where Brandon got shot?”

Greg looked back, “How’re you doing buddy?”

Brandon made a noise somewhere between a whistle and a groan.

“I think he’ll make it.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? He needs a hospital.”

“I didn’t say he didn’t.”

“Then why do you want to go to Alberto’s?”

“Uh, Carne Asada burrito?”

“I know what you order asshole. I want to know why you want to go there instead of the hospital.”

“Instead? Who said anything about instead? We can hit the drive-through then take Brandon to the hospital.”

Steve shook his head and kept driving.

“Did we go to Swinging Dick’s Saloon? Like we always do?”

“You know we did.”

“Did we drink Abominable Ninja IPA by the pitcher? Like we always do?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Then we go to the Berts like we always do. It’s how we finish Friday night.”

“We don’t always decide to rob the Stop and Shop.”

“True but I don’t see how that negates my Carne Asada.”

“It doesn’t. It’s the part where the clerk decides to go all John Wick on us and shoots off Brandon’s ear.”

“Speaking of the clerk did you see that dudes head explode?”

“Uh, yeah I was the one who shot him while you were hiding by the slushie machine.”

“I get it.”

“Get what?”

“Why you don’t want to go to Berts.”

“Finally.”

“Blood makes you queasy, doesn’t it?”

“Just shut up. We’re almost there.”

“No, you shut up and turn this car around. I need my Carne Asada.”

Steve ignored him.

“I’m not kidding.”

Steve looked over to tell Greg to shut the fuck up and saw he was pointing the Colt .32 he stole from his uncle at him.

“You going to shoot me if I don’t take you to Alberto’s?”

“It’s how we finish Friday night.”

“You having a Carne Asada burrito is more important than Brandon bleeding out?”

“He’ll be fine. I bet he wants something too.”

Greg turned to Brandon who was still holding his ear to the side of his head so theoretically still alive, “Want some Berts?”

Brandon made the same whistle groan.

Greg turned back around, “That sounded like a yes to me.”

Steve pulled the car to the curb.

“Finally. I’m starving.”

“Give me your gun.”

Greg looked and saw Steve was pointing the Smith and Wesson .40 he used to blow the head off of the clerk at Stop and Shop at him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m taking the gun you threatened me with and then I’m taking Brandon to the hospital.”

“I didn’t threaten you with it…”

“You didn’t?”

“Okay, I did but you know I wouldn’t shoot you. I was just fucking with you.”

“I’m not fucking with you. Give me the gun.”

“Or what?”

“Or I fucking blow your fucking head off.”

“You’d do that to me?”

“Yeah?”

“Fuck that. I’ve got a gun too. You give me your gun.”

Steve shot Greg through the eye.

Even though Greg was dead he took the gun away.

He looked back. Brandon was no longer covering the hole in his chest or holding his ear in place.

There was no reason to go to the hospital now.

After he dumped the bodies Steve pulled into Alberto’s drive-through. He knew he should be getting rid of the guns and cleaning the car but Steve was right. Alberto’s was how they finish Friday night.


Revolver

They don’t tell you they’re gonna give it back.

The cruiser pulled in slowly, coming to a slanted stop at the top of the driveway. What were they here for? It had been over a month. They do welfare checks after these sorts of things? Guess so.

I watched him through the picture window. Pausing. His head drawn to his lap. Maybe just replying to a text. Maybe getting up the nerve for whatever he had to tell me. He couldn’t see me through the glare of both his glass and mine. Or maybe he could.

The deputy finally stepped out, tilting his head to mouth something into the shoulder mic. He circled to the back of the car, lifted the hatch, and pulled out a box. Square and white, like one of those gift packages full of overpriced steaks and a block of dry ice.

I opened the door before he had a chance to knock. Pleasant, not somber. Dad’s ashes were long scattered from the overlook he had mentioned that one time. Like an afterthought. Like it even mattered. I knew what was in this box, now.

As he opened it to show me, I could see it in his eyes. He admired it. Another “gun guy” like Dad. Like me—even though we never called them guns. They were rifles or shotguns or pistols: single-actions, double-actions, bolt-actions, lever-actions, pumps, semi-automatics, tube-fed, or magazine-fed tools, referred to by caliber. Each with its own purpose: deer, rabbit, skeet, ducks and pheasant. Or bowling-pins, tin cans, milk jugs, paper silhouettes.

The deputy didn’t wanna say it—out loud, anyway—so I did. “It’s a beautiful piece,” shaking my head the way I thought I was supposed to. A tool used only once. Dad’s revolver. The Colt. Pure craftsmanship from butt to barrel. Elegant symmetry. The dimples on the chrome cylinder still polished enough to see your warped reflection in it. The trigger pull was heavenly.

I shook my head again thinking about it. This collector’s piece. Its cylinder had held only one bullet. His. The spent brass of the single round had escaped its tissue wrapping and lolled in the bottom of the box. The deputy gauged my reaction with morose curiosity. Maybe I was the only one seeing the paradox in the etching scrawled into the barrel: Python .357. Some snakes strike fast and deadly. Others constrict, suffocating the victim. Can’t say I didn’t see it coming. But it was the cancer that had squeezed the life from him, not the snake in the box.

It replayed in my head on split-second loops. There wasn’t a muffled pop. There never is, no matter how the movies make it sound. The report boomed in the enclosed space, rattling the house, and me out of bed. I knew what had happened before I caught the lingering nose of nitro and graphite as I ran down the basement stairs. A thin line of it hung over him in wispy, drifting threads.

The blood didn’t bother me. Growing up, I had wallowed in it with him, elbow deep in the cavities of still-warm kills—the steaming gore converted to meat on the table. As a boy, I devoured every marksman’s lesson he gave as hungrily as the grilled tenderloins that those lessons rewarded. Dad wielded each of his tools like a master painter his brushes.

His final piece, though, was a two-tone emulsion. Part of it a wall-sized Pollock on a sheetrock palette. The rest of him creeping across the gray cement, vermillion to black cherry as it slowed.

The deputy unsnapped a clipboard from his hip pocket. He signed, I signed, and it was mine. I didn’t know they were gonna give it back. But now I don’t know if I want it. I don’t know if I can think about that smooth trigger pull the same way again.


We Take Care of Our Own

Chico jumps the curb and races the van over the sidewalk, his knuckles tight on the wheel. He hits the brakes at the front entrance, close enough to trigger the automatic double-doors. Benny, Lozano, and I stream out of the van, a typhoon of ski masks and Hefty bags. It’s 9:00am and the drug store is busier than any of us expected. Lines at both registers.

Lozano climbs the pharmacy counter and wags a janky .38 over the frightened customers. Some have their hands up and some are face-down on the floor like they’ve seen this movie before. The pharmacist stands at his terminal, fingers frozen over the keys. Benny gives him a knee to the thigh and he slowly folds to the floor.

We shake out our Hefty bags and hit the shelves.

Lorazepam.

Alprazolam.

Phenobarbital.

Anything with Oxy or Perco is golden.

Chico honks the horn and Benny cinches the bag.

“Let’s go,” says Lozano. He stuffs the .38 in his sweatshirt. “Get your asses in the van.”

I kneel over the pharmacist. He smells like hot piss. Tears running down both cheeks.

“Don’t hurt me,” he says.

“Where’s the Humalin,” I say. “Or Novolin.”

His hands shake, lips quivering. I give him a hard slap to help him focus. “All the insulin is in the cooler,” he says, “Under the counter.”

I sweep the cooler and dump it all in the bag, jump the counter and head for the door. Some of the customers are starting to get up. They’re recording me with their phones. Live-streaming for their social media cred.

Outside, the van is rolling down the parking lot and the door is sliding shut. I hit the asphalt running and catch up before Chico makes the corner.

It’s a close call.

• • •

I set the insulin on the kitchen table and crack a beer for the old man. He looks terrible. Unwashed hair. Eyes like dark bruises. But he’s happy to see me.

He always is.

“How much did they give me this time, mijo?”

“About fifteen vials,” I say. “They were generous.”

“I told you the VA would come through. This country always keeps its promises. We take care of our own.”

“I bet they remember everything you did, Pops.”

“Well, of course they do. I made sergeant in three years.”

I clean the back of his arm, load the shot.

He grits his teeth and swigs the beer when the pain comes.

• • •

Harbaugh’s Pharmacy. Saturday, 8:35AM.

Another tide of ski masks and Hefty bags.

We jump the counter like a sunrise war party.

Terrified children flee down aisles of endless hair dyes.

Lozano’s gun goes off accidentally. He turns it over suspiciously, as if it has a mind of its own. Nobody’s hurt, but it sends the customers into a wild panic. A mad rush for the door.

Chico honks the horn and everyone cuts their losses.

Everyone but me.

I find the cooler in the back of the pharmacy and swipe the shelves clean. The old man’s empty and the VA clinic has been closed all week. By the time I jump the counter and make it outside, the van’s already squealing onto Front Street, police cruisers howling through the intersection.

I’m five seconds too late.

I cross the parking lot toward River Street, ski mask hugging my sweaty face. I cut between the parked cars and careen through the landscaping. On the other side, there’s a young cop waiting for me. Maybe twenty-one. Glock in the air. He gets too close so I slap the gun from his hand and give him a hard jab to the chin. He goes down so quickly the radio pops off his shoulder. I cross the road and trudge into the San Lorenzo River, swim the shallow currents toward the Beach Flats.

• • •

“How much this time, mijo?”

“The clinic gave us even more today,” I say. I fish around the bag for the vials. I’m soaked through. River water draining from my tennis shoes. “All for free. You must have been one of their best men, Pops.” “No, mijo. But it’s like I told you — we take care of our own.”